Sunday, July 26, 2009

A New Bird Species for Me

This morning, while doing my four mile walk along my favorite local training route, I heard a strange bird call while coming out of the woods. It sounded close by and up in a tree. I almost ignored it, but stopped and looked up. And there was a most beautiful bird, one that I have never seen before - a red headed woodpecker!

They are so striking, and it made a nice little extra-credit for getting up early and working out. It is not exactly like seeing a cougar or something quite that exotic, but I was still pretty thrilled. I get thrilled easily, I guess, by nature. I think most people would say "it's a bird" and walk away. Me, I watched that little guy for a minute or two until it flew off, and felt the richer for it.

Can We Bear It?

It would have been a nice, albeit hot, weekend for a hike, but I had other things I wanted to do, including resuming some basic working out. Another thing I wanted to do was some writing. I am unhappy in my job and would like to try to start selling some writing and see where that might lead. So I resolved that I would update both of my blogs today, plus start an article I hope to get published in Backpacker about my first real backpacking trip. That misadventure to Isle Royale in Lake Superior was generated by a triumvirate of an ex-girlfriend, a car magazine, and a football, so as you might guess it is a little whacky and will be fun to write about.

Updating “Racing for a Cure” is always easy, but what to write in a hiking blog when I haven’t done a hike since Sleeping Bear Dunes on July 15? I thought about some people I met on my hike to President Hoover’s Retreat a few weeks ago, and decided on the topic of bears. As a bonus, I’ll throw in a few photos at the end.

To me, seeing a black bear in the wild is a thrill. But I guess that to many people, it must be terrifying. On that hike in the Shenandoah, I didn’t see a bear. But I did hear a one horse open sleigh coming through the woods – at least that is what is sounded like. I could hear them for five minute before we passed – a couple hiking along, the woman festooned in large “bear bells.” I was tempted to break into a rousing chorus of “Jingle Bells” as we passed.

A few hours later, I heard an old sort of rhythmic chanting punctuated by what sounded like claps. Minutes later, we passed in opposite directions – three young men chanting in unison and clapping to the beat in order to scare away the bears.

Now I know that in grizzly country, this is a good idea – you don’t want to surprise a griz on the trail. I have made about 8 hikes in grizzly terrain when I went out west, and in each one, we were on full alert and constantly trying to make noise. Black bears can sometimes be aggressive but rarely attack humans. They can, if habituated to humans and having encountered people that will throw their food away to get a bear to leave them alone, sometime approach people assertively looking for food. But normally, from my experience, a black bear is going to run when you encounter them.

I’ve been lucky enough to encounter black bears on about a half dozen hikes in my life, and with one exception, the bears ran with a speed that would have made a world class sprinter weep, or climbed a tree with amazing dexterity. I once encountered two young cubs on a hike – one sprinted up the hill through the woods, and the other shot 40 feet straight up a tree literally in seconds. It was incredible to watch. I made sure that I wasn’t going to blunder into their mom, then left well enough alone and quietly hiked off.

The one exception to fleeing bears was in Grand Teton National Park in 2005. I was returning alone from a short hike into an area where the wildlife was supposed to be great. I had seen nothing on the mile and a half in, and other than an elk, nothing on the way back. Suddenly, less than ¼ mile from the trail head, there was a sow black bear and two cubs. They were 100 feet or less from the trail, calmly eating berries. Sensing that they knew I was not a danger, I stopped and watched them for about five minutes. I didn’t move towards them and just stood still. Of course, they very much knew that I was there, but they calmly kept eating. It was a thrill that I will always remember and expect rarely to see again.

So in black bear country, use common sense. Certainly don’t approach a bear. Don’t bring food into your tent, and hang your food at least 100 yards from camp in a bear-proof container if you are camping out. But if you are lucky enough to see a bear in the wild, enjoy the experience without fear. It is a privilege few people have.

Here are some photos of the mother bear and her cubs in the Tetons:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pyramid Point on Lake Michigan

The sign at the trailhead said to be on the alert for cougars, which are on the prowl in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan. But not to worry. There was no way we would be seeing a cougar on this hike. Or a deer. Or a raccoon or fox. Or a chipmunk. Not with the shrieks emanating from my two year old granddaughter, who was in the middle of a tempestuously terrible temper tantrum on the trail. She had been excited about going on a hike with her grandpa and her mom, but for some reason, once we started hiking, within seconds she pitched the mother of all tantrums. My daughter-in-law Sarah and I just looked at each other in frustration and wonder. The only solution seemed to be to carry her, which we ultimately did.

My granddaughter has a happy moment near the start of the hike while making a wish

The hike up went through beautiful northern forests, including these iconic trees of the north, white birches

Sarah told me that Pyramid Point is one of her favorite spots on earth, and she wanted to show it to me and to her daughter. Despite the tantrum, it is a beautiful spot with stunning views of Lake Michigan. We hiked about a kilometer uphill to the point, and decided – for obvious reasons – to not do the 2 mile loop.
The lake was 280 feet below us down a very steep sand cliff. Views were somewhat overcast, as weather was moving in, but we could still see North (pictured below in the distance) and South Manitou Islands.According to a Chippewa legend, a mother bear and her cubs leapt into Lake Michigan long ago to escape a raging forest fire in what we now call Wisconsin. They swam continually eastward, the twin cubs lagging behind until exhaustion overcame them and they drowned. The mother bear dragged herself on shore and climbed a bluff to wait in vain for her offspring. The spot where the mother bear waited was transformed into massive sand dunes and cliffs, and is called Sleeping Bear Dunes, and her cubs were turned into the two Manitou Islands. It is a strikingly beautiful place.

From Pyramid Point, we watched some kids clamber down to the lake, sliding and walking down the steep (close to 60 degrees) sand cliff. “They are nuts!” I said to Sarah. She said “I went down there when I was 18. You should do it! I’ll wait.” I looked at the lake so far below with its tiny beach, and thought, why not? How tough can it be? Hell, it will be a good way to remember my last day at my current age. So I stepped off the edge and was at the lake minutes later, snapping this shot just before reaching the beach.

I explored briefly on the small beach, grimaced as I stared back up the steep slope to where I had to go,
then started back up.

That is when I learned how tough it could be. I was on all fours coming back up, and with each step slid 6-12 inches back down the slope’s soft sand as I pushed off. It was literally two steps forward and one backwards. After 5 minutes, my legs felt like mush, and my lungs were heaving, so I stopped to rest. After that point, it was climb for 1 or 2 minutes, then stop and sit, lungs working like bellows, quads and calves burning, for 5 to 10 minutes. It took me a full 45 minutes to climb back up, and it was one of the most tiring things I ever did. When I got back Sarah said “I was worried you were going to have a heart attack the day before your birthday! I was wondering how I would explain that.” I told her, “Believe me, the thought occurred to me as well. My heart was beating so fast I am sure that it exceeded the maximum heart rate for my age. I can’t believe how tiring that was.”

Several kids who started back up after I did passed me on the climb. But there is no substitution for young legs, plus none of them weighed over 70-80 pounds so that is a lot less foot pounds of energy to burn. There were lots of adults at the top when I got back up, but I was the only one brave, or stupid, enough to go down to the lake. It was a great way to mark the last day of my 57th year! On the hike out, my granddaughter walked cheerfully and without shrieking, her tantrum in the dustbin of terrible-twos temper tantrums. But we still didn’t see a mountain lion, or any other wildlife.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hiking to a Presidential Retreat

Today being the Fourth of July, I decided to combine nature, exercise, and American History by hiking to the presidential retreat in the mountains. Camp David? No, Camp Rapidan, also known as “Camp Hoover”.

When Herbert Hoover was president, he felt the need to get out of the city. His rest home had to be close enough to Washington, DC to make it possible to travel there for weekends. It had to be above 2,500 feet elevation to make it cooler in the summer and with fewer mosquitoes. And it had to be near a trout stream, as the president loved to fish. This beautiful spot, later donated to Shenandoah National Park by Herbert and Lou Hoover, fit the bill.

My hike was nearly nine miles, my first chance to test out my foot that was still hurting from the cortisone shot of the other day. It was a loop, comprised of sections of these trails: Appalachian (I didn’t run into SC Governor Sanford), Laurel Prong, Cat Knob, The Sag, Fork Mountain, Laurel Prong again, and Mill Prong. The magenta line on the map below shows the route, running counter clockwise from the start at the upper left of the image. The green arrow and magenta circle shows the location of Camp Hoover:

Most of the route was either uphill or downhill, gaining and losing about 1,800 - 2,000 feet. There were three major uphill sections, the first being right out of the gate from the parking lot to the top of Hazeltop Mountain along the Appalachian Trail. The next was a moderately steep but short hike up Cat Knob, and the last was the hike from the camp back to the parking lot along the Mill Prong Trail. During the hike up to Hazeltop, a group of about 50 Japanese hikers went by while I was looking at my map and getting a drink. It was the largest group I have ever seen hiking together.

Most of the buildings at Camp Hoover are now gone, but the president’s large cabin and an historic cabin where the Prime Minister of England once stayed during negotiations on a treaty to limit naval power are still there. One could barely imagine a prettier site for a cabin, surrounded by mountains and with a stream on each side of the site. The two streams, Mill Prong and Laurel Prong, converge just below the cabin to form the Rapidan River, which eventually flows to the Rappahannock River, and to the Chesapeake Bay.

There are not a lot of stunning mountain vistas on this hike. The beauty is in the southern Appalachian forests and the streams. I saw lots of chipmunks while hiking, and many birds. A large and varied group of woodpeckers were visible at the start of the hike, and partway along the Laurel Prong Trail, I ran into a group of tufted titmice and chickadees. At various times, I heard towhee, wood peewee, vireos, veeries, and oven birds calling.

The weather was perfect for summer hiking, with a nice breeze most of the time. It was warm but not oppressive, and the heavy forest cover for most of the route kept me cool most of the time. The rest of my post will show some photos from the day’s hike. It sure felt great to be back in the mountains!

The fabled Appalachian Trail is the first 2.4 miles of this loop hike.

A little seen but very common vertebrate in the mountains is the red-backed salamander.

Not sure what this berry is but something must enjoy eating it. It was quite common.

Hazeltop Mountain is the third highest mountain in Shenandoah National Park, but there is virtually no view from the summit in summertime.

This partial view of mountains along the Laurel Prong Trail was one of the few distant views on the entire hike. Most of the miles were in heavy timber.

This sign at Camp Rapidan shows the layout of the original site. Only the buildings keyed in yellow still remain. The site can be reached by an "out and back" hike of about 1.8 miles each way, but it is more fun to do the loop.

President and First Lady Hoover's cabin. I'd live here in the spring, summer, and fall!

The "Prime Minister's Cabin"

When the cabin was built, the deck was built around a large tree to avoid cutting it down. The tree has since died, but you can still see the stump protruding through the deck.

The camp sits at the source of the Rapidan River, and in the shadow of some really pretty mountains. It is a gorgeous site!

Big Rock Falls on the hike out along Mill Prong Trail.

I saw no major wildlife on the hike, but I did see a total of five fawns and two does while driving. This doe and her two fawns were near the visitor center.

"Iron Mike" is a statue at the Big Meadows Visitor Center that pays tribute to the Civilian Conservation Corps. I often wonder if the time is here to try something like this again in our country, but this time for young men and women.