Sunday, October 25, 2009

Leaf Peeping

Today, we took a drive along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, enjoyed the fall foliage, took a couple of short hikes, and ended the day with some wine tasting at one of Virginia's many excellent vineyards. The foliage was gorgeous on the 90 mile drive to the park, but had kind of gone past along the crest of the Blue Ridge. A young black bear about 50 feet up a tree just yards from the Skyline Drive caused massive traffic jams, and we saw a deer and many chipmunks on one of the hikes.

Here are some photos from the day.
Views from the Skyline Drive
The first hike went to Betty's Rock, with great views of the mountains and the Shenandoah Valley.
Our second hike went along the easy and scenic Limberlost Trail. The giant hemlocks that once dominated this area are all dead, killed by the wooly adelgid. It was sad to see these once vital giants lying dead on the forest floor. Huge populations of chipmunks were thriving in the mostly open woods, and we saw dozens of them along the trail.
The Limberlost Trail is pretty flat, and paved with crushed stone. It is actually considered wheelchair accessible, and there are nice benches placed along the way - perfect to have a snack, reflect for a while on nature, or even read a book on a nice day.
Mother Nature loves to dress up this time of year!
The giant hemlocks live no more in this area, and I find this quite sad.
Beautiful work was done on this bridge across a stream. I would love to quit work and spend much of my time volunteering at parks and for the defeating cancer cause.
I found the "heart-shaped" cavity in this stump unusual.
Back on the Skyline drive, we saw more beautiful scenery on the drive along the ridgeline.
Horton Vineyards seemed the perfect spot to end a nice day. Nothing like doing a little wine tasting on a beautiful October day. Of course, we bought several bottles to help the economy, including an intriguing red dessert wine that is infused with chocolate.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lunch Break Hike on Belle Isle

I really hope that in Heaven, everyone gets October off from work. It is too nice a month to be chained to a desk, going to meetings, having to report on projects, and having 8 hours of your life under someone else’s control each day. If I had unlimited money and didn’t have to work, I’d be tempted to hike every nice day in October. Of the seven weekend days this month (counting a holiday), only three of them have been nice. We had a week of chilly days and rain, but starting this Monday, the weather has been gorgeous for four straight days. But work beckons. In fact, it insists.

Today, I had another alcohol injection for the neuroma in my foot, which meant I had to miss my carpool to get to the doctors this morning. But that also meant I didn’t have to be restricted to a 45 minute lunch break. Belle Isle, in the James River, is almost a four mile round trip walk, not feasible for 45 minutes. But if one can take a hour and 15 minutes for lunch, and work late to make up the time, it is very feasible to not only do the walk, but spend about 20 minutes sitting on the rocks as the river roars by just feet away. It is my favorite spot in the City of Richmond. I am sure that the men imprisoned here during the Civil War in a horrible and brutal prisoner of war camp would be amazed that people voluntarily come over to the place of their torment and misery. But it is popular with the lunchtime running, walking, and biking crowd.

So I packed my running shoes, a tee-shirt, and spare socks, brought a little pack and my camera, and hit the streets and then the trails around Belle Isle for a little mid-day break from work madness. Sitting on the rocks eating my simple lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a banana, and a pear was like eating in a five star restaurant. It was so beautiful there, and with temperatures in the 70’s and a nice breeze, I had to force myself to return to work for my 1:00 meeting.

Here are some photos from my hike. Although great blue herons, osprey, and an occasional eagle can be seen along this hike, the only wildlife I saw today was a grey squirrel and some Canada geese.

Looking downriver, it is clear that you are near a big city. You can see the Robert E. Lee Bridge with the suspension bridge underneath for pedestrians.

But turn to the left, in the exact same spot, and look upriver, and you could mistakenly think that you are nowhere near civilization. I once brought a friend here, and he could not believe the remote feeling so close to the downtown.

My lunch spot was feet from this rapid, part of the Hollywood Rapids. Talk about a table with a view. Are you jealous?

Across the river is beautiful Hollywood cemetary, one of our traditional last training runs for Team in Training.

This inviting trail makes a loop around the island. Other than needing to get back to work, I could have stayed here all day.

Another view of the wild James River after hiking a little ways up the trail. I think that the James might be the longest river in the United States that is entirely within one state.

This sign reminds us that things were not always so peaceful and beautiful here. This six acre spot on the south end of Belle Isle was once hell on earth for thousands of Federal prisoners during the Civil War. Many hundreds of them never saw home again. The sign says that both sides in the war deliberately mistreated and underfed prisoners to break their will to want to serve in the army again if they were released.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Hike That Wasn’t

Oh, the best laid plans! Last June, my friend Doug called and said “Hey, want to go to the James Madison – Villanova game on October 17?” Doug’s son is a freshman and JMU and I am a Villanova grad, so we both thought that it was a great idea. Since October is the best month of the year in Virginia – warm days, cool nights, beautiful colors, I suggested staying over somewhere in a motel and spending Sunday hiking.

My job was to plan the hike and set up the motel. Since it was homecoming for JMU, we decided that a hotel in Harrisonburg made no sense. So I found a place in New Market, about 20 or so miles north. That would put us close to the northern part of Shenandoah National Park, a part of the park I rarely get to hike in. This was really something to look forward to. I read up on hikes in that section of the park, picking several good ones out as possibilities. The leading contender, I thought, was the Little Devil’s Stairs circuit hike, which is supposed to be rigorous and very scenic. It was one I have wanted to do for a long time but never had.

Then, this week arrived, and with it nothing but cold and rain. It has been raining continually since Wednesday night, and the forecast was for rain at least through the weekend. I am not against hiking in the rain if you are already out there, although Little Devil’s Stairs with its rocky climb would be a poor and dangerous choice in the rain. But I am opposed to spending $75 for a motel to hike in the rain. So Thursday, we reluctantly decided to just make it a day trip for the game, and I cancelled the motel.

It was still a fun day. We tail-gated with Doug’s son and a friend of his for a couple of hours, and went to the game, which started at 3:30. The rain started about 4:00 and kept up all through the rest of the game. With a temperature in the low 40's, we were all feeling chilled by the end of the game. The half-time score was Villanova 20 – JMU 0, and most of the big enthusiastic homecoming crowd disappeared at halftime. That was too bad, because they missed the great JMU marching band, and also I felt that their team deserved their support. After all, they played the whole game, and didn’t give up, even though they lost.

I am definitely getting old. The college kids all look so young! That time of my life seems like another person’s lifetime sometimes.

I guess the Little Devil Stairs will have to wait. When I hike it, I wonder if I will run into my old pal, the little red devil?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sudden Death from the Sky!

I stopped and scrutinized the brown object on the ground about 100 meters from me, using my just naked eyes. Well, technically speaking, I used my optically corrected eyes. I am pretty sure that if a 40 foot tall giant tossed a three ton boulder that landed at my feet, I might not see any of it with my naked eyes. “Must be an animal,” I thought to myself, as I pulled my field glasses from my pack. “Maybe even an otter if I’m really lucky.” I “glassed” the brown object – definitely an animal. Not an otter. It seemed hunched over like it was eating something. Maybe a raccoon? I turned on my camera and walked slowly towards in, trying to walk quietly on the gravel road along the east dike of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Without warning, the brown object took off flying, immediately ruling out otters, raccoons, or nutria. It was a large hawk, and it was carrying part of an unfortunate creature in its talons. It landed nearby on a telephone pole, and started eating again. I reversed direction to go get my pack, and then went back towards the hawk. Along the way, I stopped at the site of the kill, which was a good sized bird. Only its beautifully marked wings and a chuck of flesh was left. I watched the hawk for a good 10 minutes, and then continued hiking.

I was out at sunrise to hike in Back Bay for the first time since late May. Unlike the last few times I hiked here, there was no need for bug repellent, as a stiff 15-20 knot breeze was blowing in the cool morning air. I hiked about 5 miles – 2.5 miles out and back – and although I didn’t see a ton of wildlife, the hawk was a spectacular sighting. In addition, I saw a rabbit, several American egrets, two great blue herons, and a couple of kingfishers.

I am thinking that the hawk’s prey may have been a kingfisher. I reflected on what it must be like to live in constant fear that if you let your vigilance down for a few seconds, then a larger, more powerful animal is going to come out of nowhere to kill you. It has got to be very stressful, but it is the cycle of life. The hawk has to eat, and it isn’t going to eat fruits and leaves. I am just glad to not be way down in the food chain, which I am sure early humans were. At one point, we were essentially cat food. Now, large cats are the endangered ones and will only survive if we humans can give them some space and stop killing them.

When I hiked through on the return hike, the remains of the unlucky bird remained on the ground near the dike. The hawk had moved its perch to another telephone pole nearby, and surveyed its domain. For one bird, sudden death from the sky. For another, a full stomach. It is the way of nature.
Here are some photos from the first of my three hikes today.
Although I rarely see wildlife from it, this nice observation building was added a couple of years ago right beside some impoundments.
Remains of bird - maybe a kingfisher? - killed and eaten by a hawk.
The hawk perches on a telephone pole. Despite what I thought would be positive identification features - black bars on its face, white cheeks, and a solid brown back - I could not identify him later using my bird books.
The dikes in the refuge impound fresh water, an important resource for the marshes wildlife.
Two different views across the marshes
I saw two egrets and a kingfisher in this impoundment. But other times, I've seen so much wildlife at this spot that it looks like something out of "Wild Kingdom!"
This friendly bunny let me get within a few feet and just kept on munching his breakfast.

The Nature Trail at Back Bay

My second hike of the day was a very short one mile walk on a couple of nature trails in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. These trails involve a mixture of packed soil and “boardwalk” surface, and go through the zone between the marsh, wetland forest, and fresh and salt water. I don’t always see wildlife on these trails but do more often than not. I’ve blogged about this path several times in past hikes. Just search on “coastal” or "wetlands."

Here are some photos from this hike.

A good portion of the two nature trails I walked on go through very wet areas and have nice board walks to allow one to keep their feet dry.

Beautiful garter snake on the boardwalk path. I saw another garter snake a few minutes later. In this refuge, I have also seen cottonmouth, black rat snakes, a water snake, and a hognose snake.

Doesn't this make you want to take a hike?

Mother Nature sure knows how to dress up!


Today, I did three separate short hikes in Back Bay National Wildlife refuge, for a total of about 10 miles of hiking. I will write about them in reverse order. The hikes were a hike along the east dike trail (“Sudden Death from the Sky”), the nature trail, and this hike – beachcombing.

My last hike of this beautiful October day was a two mile down and two mile back hike along the beach at high tide. The fact that the tide was high made walking a little more difficult, because I didn’t have that hard-packed sand to hike on. Unlike my dawn hike of a week ago near here, I wore shoes this time, and so had to be careful to stay out of the surf.

It is such a beautiful wild beach there. There are literally 10 miles of undeveloped beach here that ends abruptly at the North Carolina border, where a series of “McMansions” dominate the area. Thank God for wild state parks and wildlife refuges. But I was saddened by all of the trash washed up on the beach, mostly plastic. I would guess that most of it comes from the sea rather than people hiking on the beach.

Here are some photos from my beach hike today.

Beautiful, wild beach for miles and miles - no condos, hotels, or miniture golf courses here!

Unfortunate fish. To me, he doesn't look too appetizing, but he probably will to some other creature.

I think that this is called a comb jelly.

I sat and watched the surf for a while, and could have for hours, I think.

There are miles and miles of tall dunes , heading south to the Tarheel State about 7 miles from here.

Small horseshoe crab and pretty shell.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Alone on a Beach at Dawn am I

Alone on a beach at dawn am I
With the splendor of Mother Earth
While many in their beds still lie
I watch the new day’s birth

Alone on a beach at dawn am I
This morning is so grand
To look out where the sea greets sky;
Where the ocean kisses land

Alone on a beach at dawn am I
O’er the sea there’s pastel blush
Of orange and pink low in the sky
Painted by the Master’s brush

Alone on a beach at dawn am I
My footprints in the sand
Are erased by tide that’s flowing high
And that washes where I stand

Alone on a beach at dawn am I
To dawn’s glow the full moon
Surrenders with a final sigh
As it slips behind a dune

Alone on a beach at dawn am I
Dolphins seen in morning light
I listen to a gull’s wild cry
And watch pelicans in flight

Alone on a beach at dawn am I
My feet wet and unshod
As the end of my walk draws quickly nigh
I’m in awe of the works of God

Photos from dawn today at Little Island City Park, Virginia Beach