Sunday, November 30, 2008

Two Short Hikes Around Back Bay

I was back near Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and took a couple of short 3-4 mile hikes.

Hiking at Dusk
My first hike was Friday near dusk. Since the paths to False Cape are now closed until April, I could only hike a few miles - along some of the "boardwalk" paths through the marsh, then the mile out and mile back to the blind in the refuge. I didn't see any wildlife close up, except for the snout of a large turtle sticking out of a pond, but did see a rather nice sunset.

This boardwalk trail led to a pretty marsh view:

Pretty clouds over the marsh:

While hiking to a point with nice view of Back Bay that I like to visit, I could see that it wouldn't be too long until sunset:

After hiking a mile or so down to the wildlife observation blind, I got back to open vistas in time to see the last of the setting sun - so peaceful!

My second hike was Saturday afternoon, a cool and breezy gray day. I looped through part of the dike pathways, then walked out onto the beach and headed south for about a mile. I saw an American coot in one of the impoundments, and some sanderlings and gulls along the beach. That was about it for wildlife that was identifiable.
American coot:

Sanderlings making their living along the shore:

Gulls along the wave line:

Lonely beach on a gray day:

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hiking with Aja

The other day, I went for a hike with my grand-daughter, Aja. It was our first hike together, and I hope there will be many more between us in the years - dare I say decades? - ahead. She just turned two, and is full of wonder and interest in the world.

The hike was of course short - 0.8 kilometers out and back along a nature trail through a cedar swamp. She wanted to be carried at times, which was fine. She listened to chickadees calling, and tried to imitate them. She shook little trees, calling out "wiggle, wiggle, wiggle" as she did so. She tripped over a few roots, and looked at moss. She felt the needles of the northern white cedar, and looked into a small stream, fruitlessly, for animals. She looked at large holes drilled in dead trees by pileated woodpeckers.

Aja on the trail!

I wish we could all look at the natural world through the eyes of a child. If we did, I think that we would take a lot better care of the earth, our only home, and the only home of all of our fellow species.

"If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in." Rachel Carson

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Taskinas Creek Trail - York River State Park

Today we hiked in York River State Park, on a picture-perfect fall day. It is fairly flat and was a perfect way to get a little exercise on the day following my first running in a while for Team in Training yesterday, which resulted in slightly sore legs. Much of the hiking was along a natural area in the watershed of Taskinas Creek, which is part of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Reserve. We also hiked in the woods near Woodstock Pond. The fall colors are near peak, and although no wildlife was seen, it was an afternoon of beautiful and serene scenery. Here are some photos from the hike:

Overview of winding Taskinas Creek and marshes

Views of Taskinas Creek and foliage

Taskinas Creek flowing into the York River

Taskinas Creek Nature Trail

Carpet in Mother Nature's Living Room

Nature's Fall Glory

Pretty little butterfly

American Beautyberry (Team in Training colors!)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Thinking about Biodiversity

This is a hiking blog, not a political blog, but every now and then I am going to take a spot to talk about environmental issues. Tonight, I want to bring up the topic of biodiversity.

When I hike, I enjoy so many things about it. The scenery, natural beauty, and exercise are always a big part of it. If I am by myself, I enjoy having the chance to think about things and having the solitude. If I am with friends, I enjoy the comradeship of a shared interest. And then there is the hope to see interesting wildlife. Some of my most memorable moments in hikes come from seeing animals. In my hikes in the last couple of months, I’ve seen a cottonmouth, a river otter, and a black bear. There was the time in Glacier National Park when I practically walked into a mountain goat, and the time in Yellowstone when a large bull bison blocked the trail and was clearly not going to move. There was the hike in Glacier, all alone, when I froze in mid-step when a VERY large animal snapped a twig very close by. I figured it was a large gizzly bear, but it ended up being a huge bull moose with antlers that looked like those of the extinct Irish elk. Then there was the hike in Shenandoah when I was paying more attention to my new GPS than the trail and nearly stepped on a timber rattler. And even on hikes where I saw no animals of any kind, there was the anticipation of what I might see around the next bend in the path, behind the next tree.

What makes this possible is biodiversity, the abundance of different types of animals and plants in the ecosystem. Imagine a world with minimal biodiversity. It would be like living in and never leaving a room that is painted gray, eating three bowls of gruel a day – same old, same old each day. The services that animals and plants provide is immense, under appreciated, and under valued. Our food supply and many medicines, and so many other products, are made possible through biodiversity. Clean water and removing carbon and pollutants from the air are services provided by ecosystems. And then there is the spiritual value. Can you imagine a world with only a few types of food plants and animals, and maybe the few species wild animals that have adapted to mankind? I can’t! I have never seen, and may never see, a polar bear, Siberian tiger, mountain gorilla, giant panda, orangutan, wolverine, or blue whale in the wild. But if the day comes when the last of these disappears forever from this earth, I cannot imagine feeling anything but incredible sadness.

We are losing our biodiversity at an incredible rate, 1,000 times the typical species extinction rate. And for the most part, this loss is caused directly by humans – over exploitation, habitat destruction, climate change, and pollution. The loss is incalculable, and may eventually lead to our own demise if more people do not think about and care about this. While politicians and powerful self interests squabble, deny, and say “who cares, it is only a bug (or a frog, or a tree, or a minnow, or a bird)?”, species are becoming extinct at a rate of about one every 20 minutes!

To read more of my thinking on this topic, including my homage to the little plant that helped to save my life, as well as the lives of thousands of others, go to my Racing for a Cure blog, on the topic of thanking the Madagascar periwinkle.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Old Rag

There is one day of the year where all of these intersect, if one is lucky: crisp fall weather, gorgeous foliage, mountain hiking, and the chance to sleep in an hour before heading out. For me, that day was Sunday, November 2, although the weather was hazy – not quite crisp - and I took advantage of that extra hour to get an early start by heading for Old Rag in east-central Shenandoah National Park, instead of getting extra sleep.

Old Rag is an incredibly popular hike on weekends, and is a very unique hike for this part of the world as well. It is like nothing else I have hiked in Virginia, or anywhere else for that matter. There is a small 12 car parking lot at the trailhead, and a huge 200 car lot about 0.8 miles away. I figured by getting an early start – 5:30AM – I could get there early enough to get a spot in the 12 car lot and save myself 1.6 miles of round-trip walking along a road. When I passed by the 200 car lot about 7:40 and saw about 20 cars were already in it, I figured that I was too late. But I pressed on to the trailhead lot anyway, and was surprised and delighted to see 3 spaces left, one of which I grabbed! I put on my boots, got my gear together, and started hiking.

The first thing I saw, at the very start of the hike, was this sign warning of aggressive bears. I hadn’t seen a bear in the last 3 years of hiking.

I wasn’t ½ mile into the hike when I looked up and saw a large black bear right in the trail about 200 feet away! At that exact instant, my heavy beaver-wood hiking staff hit a rock in the trail with a loud report, and the bear dashed through the woods like an Olympic sprinter! I was sorry to have scared him inadvertently, but it was amazing to watch him sprinting through the open fall forest for a couple of hundred meters, his jet-black coat contrasting with the fall colors.

I was hiking on the ridge trail, which climbs for 3.2 miles to get to the summit. Old Rag is composed of billion year old granite formed from ancient magma, and the upper parts of it are a jumble of huge boulders and rock formations. The first 2 miles or so of the trail climb steeply at times, with many switchbacks, and is a good workout of about an hour’s exertion. The autumn woods were beautiful:

This part of the trail is typical Appalachian hiking, and gives no real hint of what is to come, until the first good view of the summit, looming still over 1,000 feet above finally came into view. The name Old Rag comes from the ragged appearance of the upper reaches from all of the boulders. Note not only the boulder covered summit but the huge boulder field to the upper left approaching the summit:

There were also very pretty views of the valley and mountains to the north at this point. At about a mile from the summit, the real work began. This last mile took two hours of very hard work, with only one 10 minute rest break to eat a power bar when I felt like I was hitting the wall. It mostly consisted of clambering over, between, around, and under boulders and slabs of rock. I had to remove my pack at least four times during this stretch because there was no way to fit through with the pack on. Plus for much of this section, carrying my heavy hiking stick was a hindrance, not a help. After a half hour or so of this, some more beautiful views appeared. Here is the south slope of the mountain, still hundreds of feet below the summit:

This set of photos shows one of the really neat features of the climb. One actually has to climb down into a rock slot, dropping in about 6 feet or so. The blue trail marker points down into the slot:

These next photos show a view back through the slot from inside it:

and moving through the slot to climb out of it and make a sharp left turn at the far end. This hiker I met passing through there gives a good perspective of the size of these rocks and the slot:

Here is another view of the summit, which looks so close, but it was still about 75 minutes (for me) away at this point:

At one point, the trail moved though two caves, for a total of about 40 feet:

Shortly after this point, it reached a spot that looked impassible. In fact another hiker came out of a steep and narrow chasm telling me that it was impassible and it must be the wrong way. After scouting around, we determined that the trail did have to go that way. Three young women came by us as we were debating about which way to go, and said “this trail weeds out the out-of-shape and over-weight people.” I was feeling kind of out-of-shape at that point, marathons and all. All five of us had a devil of a time climbing out of the chasm at that point, but we all figured a way to do it.

About an hour from the top was this beautiful set of stairs going through the rocks. They look man-made but are actually architected by Mother Nature – wind, ice, snow, rain, and broiling sun. The trail went right up the stairs – just remember to duck!

About a half hour from the summit was this huge boulder. This whole area reminded me of mountain tops in Northern New England, except it was even more rugged:

Finally, at about 11 AM, I emerged on to the summit, about 3 hours of hiking and climbing and 2,300 feet of elevation gain. This is one of four spots in Shenandoah National Park with 360 degree views, and despite the haze which muted the fall colors, the views were spectacular. Weakly Hollow far below, through which I would hike on the return, looked like a colorful carpet, even though the haze dulled the colors a bit:

Here is a view to the west of the “second summit”, which is slightly lower. In the distance almost directly over this summit is Hawksbill Mountain, the highest point in SNP:

I asked a young woman to snap a shot of me on top of Old Rag, my second time there and my first time as a cancer survivor and as a grandpa:

After spending 45 minutes on the summit enjoying the views, eating lunch, and stretching out on my back on a sun-drenched rock, I decided to head down. I could have returned the way I came, but decided to make a circuit hike of it by hiking down the Saddle Trail and the Old Rag Fire Road. For one thing, I was tired from the rough trip through the rocks and although it was fun, I didn’t think it would be as much fun going back. For another, I like a little variety in hikes, and returning by a different route would give me that. Maybe I would see another bear, or some other wildlife. This trail was about 4.2 miles, but was a typical mountain trail – no more rock hopping. Even though it gets tremendous use, it was well maintained and in good condition for the most part. The trail descended sharply through the alpine and wooded areas, and reached this interesting shelter after about 0.4 miles (Byrds Nest #1):

After about 2/3 of a mile of descending, there was a nice view back up at the second summit of Old Rag looming hundreds of feet above:

Shortly after this point, the views opened up one last time for a nice look across Weakly Hollow to Robertson Mountain and Corbin Mountain. On a future trip, I must hike up these mountains:

I was very impressed with the trail maintenance. A good example is this beautifully built set of stairs:

After about 2 miles of descending the trail and passing another shelter in the woods, the Saddle Trail ends, and the remaining two miles+ of the hike is along the Old Rag Fire Road. This felt like traveling along an interstate highway compared to the ascent, and went along through beautiful autumn woods:

During the hike out I passed dozens of people hiking up the fire road and the Saddle Trail. Even though this is a longer approach than the Ridge Trail, it is a much easier hike. A number of the hikers looked very worn out coming up, although I figured that they would decide that the views from the top are worth it. Other than a few juncos, I saw no other wildlife after seeing the bear at the start.

I got back to my car about 1:30 and headed for home. The 200 car parking lot looked totally full on my drive out!

This was my first mountain hiking since my trip to New Hampshire, and was a memorable day in a fascinating and unique spot. If you are ever in that area and want to try something a little different, give Old Rag a try. It is well worth it. But trust me, you are going to earn the great views!