Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Pony Pasture

If you do Team in Training with the Richmond team, one of the rights of passage for the marathon runners and power walkers is the route to the Pony Pasture and back.  That's because it is five miles out and five miles back for a total of 10 miles.  For many of us, it is our first time doing double digit miles as a foot racer.  So I have been to here a number of times during marathon and half-marathon training over the past seven years.  But I had never before hiked the trails here - until today.

The Pony Pasture is part of Richmond's James River Park.  It is also in an area that almost became a freeway, which would have been tragic, frankly.  I saw in the paper today that three of the people who formed the group that helped fight this died in 2012.  So during my walk today, I reflected on their hard work and determination to keep this area scenic.  There are several miles of trails.  I hiked about three miles on this blustery and cool day.  It was a great opportunity to check out my new Nikon binoculars that I got for Christmas.  I think I will really like them.

I saw a number of birds on the hike, must notably large numbers of buffleheads - I saw dozens of these striking ducks - in the river, and also some Canadian geese and herring gulls.  I also saw several cardinals, a red bellied woodpecker, and some other birds, one of which I will feature in a "What Am I?" post in the near future.  I enjoyed my leisurely hike, watching for birds as I went, and listening to the rapids in the James River.  Here are some photos to share of what is likely my last hike of 2012.

The mild rapids here are popular with urban white water enthusiasts.

You'd never know you were so close to a large city here.
Much of my hike was in view of the river, and other parts went through deciduous forests, with some pine.
Being on foot is not the only way to enjoy the outdoors and to get around here.
Returning to the parking lot was a tribute to volunteers and all that they made possible.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Thinking Ahead to 2013

I have today off from work, and had hoped to go for a short hike.  But it has rained steadily since the wee hours of the morning.  Hiking is not a lot of fun in a cold and steady rain.  So instead, I am thinking about the new year ahead and what some of my goals, hiking-wise, should be.  I'll write this out, and then head to the gym, where I can get at least some kind of a workout in.

In less than a week, it will be 2013.  That is kind of hard to believe, for me, but it is the truth.  I have been trying to come up with some things I would like to do in the coming year, and here is my list:

I hope to hike 10 "new" places - including hikes I have not done in the past 10 years - in the upcoming year.  I enjoyed trying that this current year, and making it successful.

I'll make it a goal to hike in two states in 2013 that I didn't hike in during the past year.  That means hikes in two states besides Michigan and Virginia.  My next goal complements this one.

I have a goal of hiking in another state next year that I have never hiked in.  Some leading candidates would be Maryland, West Virginia, and South Carolina.

I want to go backpacking at least twice in 2013.  I've managed to go one time in each of the last three years, and I'd like to step that up.

I will have a goal of keeping this blog, Oh, To Be Hiking, going.

I'll explore a goal of having another writing outlet besides the blog.  I've set up goals like this in the past and never accomplished them.  So I am unsure what this will be - but I want to set that goal and see if I can make it happen this time.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday's Weather Forecast

I thought this was pretty funny:

So will the world still exist tomorrow?  Or does the fact that the Mayan calendar ends on 12/21/2012 mean the end of the world?  It seems pretty clear to me that the world will continue, so be nice, not naughty!

I wonder sometimes how people would react if we knew beyond a doubt that the end was coming, for example, if an asteroid the size of Texas was going to hit the earth in three weeks.  Would people stay calm and be kind to one another?  Or would we go crazy with violence and debauchery, knowing that the end was coming?  Would society fall apart because no one would go to work?  Or would people dutifully keep on doing their jobs until the very end?  Hopefully we will never find out, because civilization seems like a very thin veneer at times.

Well, however today turns out for you, I hope that you enjoy the Winter Solstice.  I have a strong feeling that there are more days to come, and more hikes.

Monday, December 17, 2012

What Am I?

I saw this animal in the little pond near the Hodge Memorial on Saturday's hike to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  I know you can figure this one out.

Are you all set to start this game?
Three words in all make up my name

My name comes from my feathers hue -
And from my height - I think that's true

To never meet me is the wish
Of any self-preserving fish

As fish and frogs my sight should fear
With my sharp bill I can them spear

With my long legs with ease I wade
With wings the water I can shade

So that I can thus spot my prey
And have fish dinner this fine day

My color is a blueish-grey
I'm four feet tall I think I'd say

Okay, then
enough clues!
to see

How with guessing are you fairin'?
For I am a great blue heron

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Marsh and Beach Hike

Yesterday, I had time to take an hour and a half hike in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  It was a cool and cloudy day, but the effort of walking was such that I stripped off my fleece after a while.  It was also still warm enough that I saw the noses of a few turtles poking from the water's surface like a submarine's periscope.

First, I hiked along the bay, spying on a little group of American coots as they swam away in formation.

Back Bay was very calm this day, and the marsh vegetation looked kind of golden.

Then, I continued on a trail through the marsh.  I wanted to visit the memorial to Richard McCormick Hodge.  It is nice to know something about this young man, who died way too young.  Here is a view of his memorial from a little distance so that you can see the pond behind it.

And here is a close-up of the tree frog on the memorial - so cool!

From this point - where I had spotted two animals that I will write about later for one of my "What Am I?" (here is one of them) features - I hiked back to the access road and along the marsh to the observatory blind.  Like is often so, there were no animals to see this time.  Other times, I can hit the jackpot!  So I decided to head to the beach with the short amount of time before dusk.  It is a beautiful beach, backed by nice dunes,

and is fairly pristine all of the way to the North Carolina border.  The recent Super-storm Sandy, which kissed our coastline, had rearranged some of the dunes and also made the beach more level and wide.

It was a very nice walk, and in the next few days to come, I will be posting more about some of the wildlife that I saw.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Bookstore

I know that this blog is about hiking, not books, but every now and then, I decide to stray off topic - writers prerogative, I guess.  Today is one of those days.

The other day, I made an impulse buy while browsing a little downtown bookstore on my lunch hour.  I was looking for a Christmas gift, and found a great cookbook in the Fountain Bookstore.  It was $35, and I knew it might be a little less on-line, but it was right there in front of me, and I like supporting local businesses.  The lady even gift wrapped it for me.  I am a terrible wrapper.  Sometimes for Team in Training, we do fundraisers where we wrap purchases at stores.  I joke that the stores donate to my fundraising with the agreement that I stay away from them.

A few days later, I decided to get the same book as a gift for someone else, and found that it was $22, plus shipping, on Amazon.  On a whim, I went back to the bookstore the next day and asked if they could cut a deal, take a few bucks off.  The lady seemed a little frustrated.  She told me that she simply could not, that she was barely making it (she was the owner).  I told her that the same book was $13 less on Amazon.  She said "I hear that every day.  You have to decide what to do."  She told me how frustrating it is when people come in, browse the books to see what they like, and then order it on line.  After thinking for a few minutes, I bought the book, plus another book for myself about odd animal friendships.

It's not that I want to hand someone $13 more of my hard earned money.  But I think it is sad to contemplate a world without little local bookstores, and that is very possible.  First it was the big bookstores that were putting them out of business, then it was the big on-line eBusiness organizations that started putting the big bookstores, like Borders, out of business.  It's clear that without customers, places like the Fountain Bookstore are endangered.  And it is clear that customers will have to pay more for merchandise at small bookstores, which just don't have the volume to compete on price.

So, given the choice, this time I choose to spend more for the exact same product, but keep some money in the local economy.  What would you have done?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Hiking the Dutch Gap Oxbow

An oxbow is formed when a river seeks a new channel and its older, curved channel is cut off.  The Dutch Gap Conservation Area on the James River is a good example of such a feature, and with me having the day off yesterday, I went hiking there.

I am liking my job a lot better for the last 7 months or so.  Before that, it was not a very fun day being at work for a long time.  I am very grateful that things are improving, and generally enjoy my time at work now.  But even the best day at work cannot compete with a day outside, hiking in an interesting place.  The Dutch Gap area always has interesting wildlife sightings.  I saw a kingfisher, cormorants, an unknown hawk, an osprey, Canada geese, mallards, bluebirds, cardinals, chickadees, an unknown woodpecker, great blue herons, gray squirrels, and a deer. I came up on at least six of the great blues just as they spotted me and flew away, croaking in alarm at my intrusion.  Even though I took my bigger camera with the 10 power zoom lens, I couldn't get any wildlife photos.

It was a cool day, and I wore my new Icebreaker 200 Merino wool shirt.  At the start, I wore a fleece and light gloves, but shed all that after about a mile.  I was plenty warm enough in just the shirt.  The hike is interesting - one is never far from water as you can see from the map:

My route started and ended at the orange star.  I hiked the loop counter clockwise, as the orange arrows show, and I had lunch at the tip of a little peninsula, as marked by the purple circle.  The main hike is about 4.4 miles, but all my little side trips, I hiked about 6.3 miles.  A nice bridge (that I have marked with a bridge symbol) makes it possible to do this as a loop rather than as a long out and back.

The trail is very level, and there is plenty of evidence of human activity here, including a huge coal-fired power plant that is visible at times.  As I neared the end of my hike, it started raining, a few drops at first and then a steady, moderate rain that unexpectedly lasted until sometime during the wee hours of the night.

Here are a few photos from my interesting hike at Dutch Gap, starting with a large flock of double-crested cormorants out in the old river channel.  I need a new pair of binoculars.  Santa, I've been good this year!

Woodpeckers have really worked this tree over, haven't they?
After walking down this trail, looking back from whence I came, along this peninsula, I came.....
.... to a perfect spot to have lunch, complete with a bench to sit on, and a lovely tree.
Mother Nature hasn't put away all of her autumn decorations just yet.
Another side trail led to this nice river view.  As I got almost this point, yet one more great blue heron, croaking an alarm to its pals, took off from this point.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

North Georgia Hikes? Really?

No, I am not hiking in Georgia right now.  I've never hiked in Georgia.  Not yet!  So, let me explain....

At work, we are having our annual Charitable Virginia Campaign to raise lots of money for all kinds of worthy causes.  I always donate by payroll deduction, but there are also many fundraisers, and my division often does a used book sale.  I need more books like I need 10 more pairs of used running shoes, but in the afternoon yesterday, I finally had a break from a very busy week at work to check it out.  And lo and behold, prices were slashed in half - just 50 cents for paperbacks and a buck for a hardback!  The first thing I saw was a paperback entitled "50 Hikes in the North Georgia Mountains" by noted outdoor author Johnny Molloy.  I read an article about him over the weekend that said he spent more than 200 nights outdoors so far this year.  Oh, and his girlfriend just broke up with him!  Coincidence?

Anyhow, I live hundreds of miles from the mountains of North Georgia, but for 50 cents - just a penny a hike - how could I not buy this book?  After all, I could win the lottery and quit working.  Or maybe I will retire some day (year, decade, century) and have a lot more time to hike.  So I bought it!  I'd like to hike in Georgia someday, and I bet after reading this book, I'll really want to.

It got me wondering: how many of the 50 states have I hiked in?  So I added them up.  I only counted states where I have done at least one real hike - not a stroll in a city or a footrace - of at least a few miles.  Here is what I came up with:

New Hampshire
New York
North Carolina

16 states: almost one third of them - not too bad.  I was tempted to count California, because I hiked once in Muir Woods, but it was only a mile or so.  And with all the great places to hike in the Golden State, that can't really seem to count.  It would be cool to hike in all 50.  I think I need to set a goal to hike in at least one new state next year.

In the meantime, now I can read all about hiking in the Georgia Mountains.  If I win that lottery or get that retirement check, I'll have to head down that way and take a hike.  After all, I don't want to waste my 50 cents!

How many states have you hiked in? Take my poll!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Mystery Resolved

You may remember my very first post about a hike at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, in September, 2008. (Okay, of course you don't remember it - it was over four years ago, but you can visit it here.)

One of the things I talked about in that post was a simple yet beautiful memorial to Captain Richard McCormick Hodge.  I am posting the photograph again of this memorial to a young man who's untimely death came at the age of just 30:

For years now, I have wondered who Richard McCormick Hodge was, and how he died.  Was he a captain in the Army or Marine Corps (he was too young to be a Navy Captain)?  Was he a police or fire captain?  Did he die in the line of duty?  Was he a sea captain?  He obviously had parents, siblings, and friends who loved him deeply to erect this memorial in such a pacific and lovely spot - near a little fresh water pond and just a dozen or so meters from the shores of Back Bay.

Every time I hike this trail, I stop at this monument and reflect about Captain Hodge - sometimes for just a few seconds, other times for a few minutes.  I have taken family and friends there, and they are always moved.  I Googled his name, but at the time of his death in 1994, the commercial internet was in its infancy, and I found nothing.

Then yesterday, I got this email from a friend of his, and the mystery was resolved:

"Hello. I just read your blog from 2008 from Back Bay Wildlife Refuge about the memorial to our dear friend Richard Hodge! Saturday would have been his 49th birthday, so for kicks, we googled his name and your blog turned up. We grew up with Richard, aka Chard, in Fredericksburg VA and several of us moved to Virginia Beach in the mid eighties. Richard became a boat captain and spent time in VA Beach, Florida, Outer Banks, and the Virgin Islands. He died in 1994 in a boating accident. He loved the water so much, so we spread his ashes at sea off the coast of Back Bay and placed the memorial along the trails. It was so nice to read your post, as it is a special place for us too. Happy trails to you!"

I really appreciated this kind note, and I know that the next time that I hike this trail - and every time thereafter - I will think a little more than usual about this young man who died so tragically and so prematurely, even though it was doing something he loved.  I bet that he lived life to the fullest and had many adventures along the way.  But his run of adventures, his sunrises and sunsets, was done way too soon.

May you rest well in eternal peace, Captain Richard Hodge!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Steps Update

As I mentioned earlier, I started counting my steps on July 20, a few days after my 61st birthday.  I want to see how many steps I take in a full year.  Since then, my pedometer wore out and I got a new one.  I thought it would be fun to give a little progress report one third of a year in.

After four months, I've taken over 1,707,000 steps, an average of 13,880 a day.  My days vary quite a bit, some being lower and some much higher.  I had 24 days when I took less than 10,000 steps, and 12 days when I took more than 20,000 steps.

My five biggest days:

October 13 - 32,604 steps (hiking in the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness)
October 20 - 31,255 steps (hiking up Rocky Mount in SNP)
October 11 - 29,955 steps (hikes to Cabin Creek, up through the Virginia Highlands, and to Mount Rogers)
September 27 - 28,761 steps (hiking up Mount Robertson in SNP)
October 12 - 28,601 steps (hiking in the Lewis Fork Wilderness)

I think I am on track to cross five million steps this year of my life!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My Ten Hike Goal

Earlier this year, I set a goal of hiking 10 new places this year, to celebrate being a 10 year cancer survivor.  By new, it could be a place I had never been, or at the least not been for 10 years.  Each hike had to be a minimum of four miles long, and could not be an urban walk.  Last week, I accomplished that goal.  Here is a summary of my 10 new hikes for 2012.  Unless I mention a prior visit, I had never been on the hike before.

Bear Church Rock (June) - A nice out and back hike in Shenandoah National Park, the reward was great views from the rock itself, plus I did see two young bears, the first I have seen in several years of hiking in black bear country. 

Saint Mary's Falls (June) - This was like visiting an old friend.  I'd been to these lovely falls twice before in the 1990's, once in a steady cold rain where the group of us huddled under a ledge to eat lunch.  This was a steep out and back in Saint Mary's Wilderness in the George Washington National Forest.

Sky Meadows State Park (July) - I had wanted to hike in this beautiful park for a long times, and finally did with a Meet-Up group.  It is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near the Shenandoah River, and was a great day.

James River State Park (July) - Another place I'd wanted to see for some time, my loop hike here was a lot of fun with views of the river, forests, and open areas.

Leelanau State Park (August) - On the northern tip of Michigan's Lower Peninsula is Leelanau State Park.  I enjoyed my quiet solo walk in the northern hardwoods for the Wolverine State, with a view of Cathead Bay on Lake Michigan as a bonus.

Robertson Mountain (September) - The two times I had been up Old Rag, I had noticed the trail up this mountain and wondered what it would be like.  Then answer - steep, scenic, and fun.  This was a loop in Shenandoah National Park, and at one point, I gained 1,700 feet in 1.5 miles, so bring your lungs.

The High Country of Virginia and Mount Rogers (October) - On the first day of my four day backpacking trip, I covered the very scenic and open high country of Southwest Virginia, and hiked to the top of our highest peak.  It was my third time up Mount Rogers and I had hiked some of the rest of this route before, but not for nearly 20 years.  What can you say - spruce-fir forest in Virginia?  And wild ponies as a bonus!

Lewis Fork Wilderness and Little Wilson Creek Wilderness (October) - I am counting the second and third days of my pack trip last month as one long hike for the purposes of meeting my goal.  The wonderful autumn forests and open mountain views made this hike a joy, and as a bonus, we had a tremendous camp site the second night of this part of the hike, and I heard a barred owl call.

Rocky Mount (October) - Back in Shenandoah National Park, this hike was almost 100% uphill or downhill, and a real aerobic workout.  The bonus was the incredible views from the summit of Rocky Mount.  Just amazing, with the fall foliage at peak!

Petersburg National Battlefield (November) - This circuit hike combined a lot of forest views with some open fields, and a lot of history, as this was the siege where Grant faced Lee for nine months, eventually wearing down Lee's army and winning the Civil War.  At many points along the hike, one can see old trench works and salients, along with some monuments to the brave men who fought here.  I'd been here before but not in the last 10 years, and never on this particular walk.

I enjoyed setting a hiking goal for myself this year, am grateful to have lived these last ten years, and am already thinking about a goal for 2013.

Poll Results

A few weeks ago, I did a poll asking what things you could not bear to leave behind if you were going on a backpacking trip.  You could choose up to three things.  Here is what people picked, with seven people responding:

Changes of underwear - 6
Camera - 6
Hot chocolate, coffee, or tea -4
Hatchet - 2
Lightweight binoculars - 1
Field guide - 1
iPod or other music device - 1
Paperback novel - 1
Small gas fired backpacking stove - 0

On the second day of my Mount Rogers pack trip last month, I actually saw a guy with one of the stoves.  It seemed like a lot of extra weight, but they were sure enjoying the little pizzas he baked, and the cinnamon buns he was planning for two mornings later sounded very tempting.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What Am I?

I found this shy reptile in the middle of the path on my reptile-rich hike Sunday in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  See if you can figure out what it is, although I needed my field guide and the photos I took, so it won't be an easy one.  You will see photos at the end, but you will be trying to figure it out just from words (and maybe a field guide).

I have two means for my defense
To protect from foes quite intense

The first is wearing armor plate
So that dinner won't be my fate

And I can dive like submarine
If danger comes, I'll split the scene

For from water I'm never far
To dive and swim I am a star

Like periscope my head pokes out
All you will see is tip of snout

But I can see and breath quite fine
Security's my bottom line

I'm rather large, like dinner plate
My bright red markings are ornate

For on my shell are lines of red
(A color in my name, it's said)

And underneath, orangey-yellow
Smudged with gray, a handsome fellow

I love to bask at water's edge
To warm my blood up, I allege

Well, that is it
for my clues
take your guess
and scroll
to see what this animal is.

Red bellied turtle is correct
Hard to guess me, I do suspect

This animal may be confused for a painted turtle but it is much larger.  This is a female, and the males are marked differently.  Like many reptiles, there is a lot of color variation, and they can be quite dark.  She was very shy, and would not poke her head out far. 

I flipped her on her back for a couple of seconds to get a photo of her belly, then righted her and moved her off the path in the direction she had been heading - which was towards a body of water.  I don't know what she was doing out of water this time of year - maybe moving to a better spot to hibernate?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What Am I?

Just seconds into my second Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge hike last weekend, I came across this large snake lying across the pathway.  I bet you can figure out what it is, at least the major category of it.  Identifying the exact species will be more difficult.  I had to use a field guide back home to figure that out.  But I will attempt to rhyme in clues that will help you figure this out - if you really know your snakes (better than I do) or have a good field guide handy.

I'm never far from H2O
Most likely just a short stone's throw

Where I was in Virginia Beach
My northern limit is in reach

If you see me down in the south
You might think I'm a cottonmouth

But despite what you may suspect
Venom in prey I don't inject

If you grab me and give me fright
I'll give you a painful bite

I swim quite well, go where I please
And can climb very high in trees

You need more clues?  Oh, please don't frown
My background color is quite brown

I've dark blotches on side and back
But bands I do distinctly lack

All the clues are there (with a field guide).  C'mon, you got this one!  Just
for the

Curiosity I now slake,
Declaring I'm brown water snake

These snakes usually flee but this one allowed me to take a number of photos and was never aggressive.  On my part, I moved slowly and did not attempt to grab it.  After a few moments, it slowly moved away into some rocks by the bay.  My field guide says they will climb up to 20 feet in a tree, which surprised me.  I assume they are going after baby birds while doing so.  They are often confused with cottonmouths, especially at a distance.  I confused it with the northern water snake, but my field guide by Roger Conant got me straight.  It was a great way to start a hike!  And I saw a cottonmouth (water moccasin) just a few minutes later!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What Am I?

I saw this creature Sunday during my second short weekend hike in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  Unlike some of the other animals that I have featured in my "What Am I?" series, this one should be pretty easy to figure out.

Your first clue in this piece of cake -
I'll tell you upfront - I'm a snake!

And here is one more clue for you:
I have not just one name but two

Far from water, I'll rarely be
(but fresh water, not in the sea)

I live in marsh, lake, or river
Seeing me might make you shiver

Despite my name, I'm not a shoe
You wear to get to your canoe

I'll eat turtles, frogs, birds, and fish,
And small mammals, as I might wish

Injecting venom with fangs hollow
The prey's mine with one big swallow

In my mouth you'll find no cotton
But should I bite, you'll feel rotten

You got this one, right?
for the

I am an eastern cottonmouth
Residing only in the south

I would not have seen this guy off the trail had not a sharp-eyed naturalist pointed him out to me.  The snake was about 12 to 15 feet away and floating in water.  This photo was taken with my camera's maximum optical zoom - about five power.  I wish I had my Sony with me.  See him?  He is dead center.
I zoomed in digitally for this shot.  You can see his pattern pretty well.  I'd forgotten that cottonmouths, also known as water moccasins, have a wide variability in their color and patterns.  The very large cottonmouth that I saw just meters from this same spot a few years ago was darker (and also about as big around as a large man's arm).

It was a thrill to see this snake, which would be very dangerous to pick up.  Best to leave them alone.

Monday, November 12, 2012

By the Beach and the Marsh

Over the weekend, I combined two short marsh hikes in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge with a short beach walk, over two days.  I would guess I covered maybe 7-8 miles in all.  So these photos are from all three little hikes.  The first was Saturday afternoon near sunset, the beach walk was Sunday morning just after sunrise, and the second marsh walk was Sunday afternoon.  I saw wildlife - typical beach birds, two kingfishers, three species of snake, a turtle, and a leaping white-tail deer - it's "flag" high in the air as it made a spectacular jump.  I also saw a "V" of snow geese in the distance.

I'm putting some photos out here, and will have more later - these hikes were good for at least two or three of my "what am I?" series.  Oh, what the heck - let's make it three!  Here is one.  Here is two.  And here is three!

There is such a wide variety of habitats in this wildlife refuge.  You can see several of these in this one photo.

Mother Nature is already putting our her Christmas decorations:

I've seen a number of nice sunsets, some spectacular, over Back Bay in the past few years of hiking here.
The next morning, I watched these sanderlings work hard for breakfast in the waves.  I wish I could move my legs as fast as these little birds do.
I don't know much about the life of a razor clam, but they have a really interesting shell.
Black backed gulls are about twice as large as the more common herring gull.  While they are scavengers, they can also be predators.  I once saw one in Maine swoop down and grab a eider duckling from the surface of the sea with its bill.  It flew off with the unlucky duckling without even missing a wing beat.
On my second hike in the refuge, I hit the jackpot with reptiles.  Several of these will be "What am I?" posts later, but I will show a photo of this little snake.  I think it is a red-bellied snake, although its belly was a pale yellow.  According to my field guide, there can be a lot of color variation in the belly.  All of the other markings suggest a red bellied snake, so that is what I am going with.  You can also check out this recent post of mine.
Notice the dark spots on the back of its head.  This is one of red bellied snake's field marks, although it could be another species.  If so, I am not sure what - any takers?  (note by Art on 11/13/2012: after thinking this over, I think this is a northern brown snake - formerly known as DeKay's snake.  That fits the animal I saw better than a red-bellied snake with a pale yellow belly.  The northern brown snake also has a black mark on the back of its head.)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What Am I?

I saw this animal on last Friday's hike in the Petersburg National Battlefield.  Although some may be terrified of this little creature, I thought it was beautiful.  I have seen it before, but less than a dozen times in my life.  Can you figure out what it is?

I'll quickly make the first clue known:
I have a long and fine backbone

And here's the next clue you've been told:
Unlike your blood, my blood runs cold

I have no legs, but move with ease
And cross the ground just as I please

My ribs and scales are what I use
To move around.  Does that amuse?

If you should grab me, I'll feel fright
But you'll fear not: I shall not bite

But should a foe bite me in haste
My musk will give him great distaste

A brownish stripe runs down my back
I may look drab, and beauty lack

But think no beauty? Don't be quick
For underneath, I'm red as brick

for the

If you have guessed red bellied snake
Then this, the right choice, you did make

I saw this beautiful little snake right in the middle of the path.  This is an adult, believe it or not, as they are a very small animal.  Unlike many snakes, even small ones, this species will not bite you.  But I could smell the foul smelling musk he sprayed on my hand when I picked him up.  He was quite cool to the touch, as he was not in a sunny spot.  I am sure he was scared, so I just held him for a few seconds so I could snap a photo of his beautifully colored belly.  The first photo was as I saw him in the path.

 After I put him down, he very slowly moved off the path and amoung the leaves.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Petersburg National Battlefield

I had the day off today, and decided to take a hike.  Originally, I was going to head to a state park about 2.5 hours away, and then I just thought how nice it would be to not drive that far.  I also was thinking about Veterans' Day this weekend, and decided to honor our veterans in my own way by hiking around Petersburg National Battlefield.  To all of you veterans out there (I am not a vet but my older brother is) - Happy Veterans' Day, and thank you for your service to the US of A!

Petersburg, Virginia was the longest siege in American history, lasting about nine and half months from June, 1864 to April 2, 1865.  I cannot even imagine the suffering involved in this siege warfare, which was critical to bringing our great Civil War to an end.  Petersburg was crucial to Richmond's few remaining supply routes because it was a major southern railway junction.  Grant knew that if he could take Petersburg, Richmond would fall and Lee's army would be unsupported and without supplies.  It took a long time, with several major battles and 10's of thousands of casualties, but eventually the inevitable happened and Lee had to abandon his lines and flee towards his army's surrender one week later at Appomattox Courthouse.  As I walked the now peaceful and even beautiful grounds, I thought of the veterans - now long gone - of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia that faced each other here in deadly earnest 148 years ago.  I honor the vets of both armies, because although I do not agree with their cause, the Confederate soldiers were also Americans who fought and suffered for what they believe in.  May they all rest in peace.

My walk was about 7.5 miles long, and was pretty easy - no major uphills or downhills, and the path was smooth and level for the most part.  I really enjoyed myself, with my little hike through mostly beautiful forests with a historical twist.  Here is a map of where I walked, starting and ending at the star, and heading in the direction of the arrows - counter clockwise.

I saw a little wildlife on the hike - plenty of gray squirrels, a red-bellied woodpecker, a turkey vulture, and a rarely seen animal that I will blog separately later about in my "What am I?" series.  I've indicated four historic sites with little American flags.

Is this the railway to nowhere?  No, it is the only surviving portion of the railway line from City Point to the Union lines at Petersburg.  Ships would steam up the James River to the huge Federal supply depot and trains would deliver the supplies to the troops.  50,000 tons of supplies were so delivered.  By contrast, the Confederate soldiers were extremely under supplied and malnourished.
At the time of the battle, this would have looked like moonscape, with fortifications, trenches, and artillery everywhere.  Very few trees would have stood here.  Now, most of where I walked was lovely forest.

Here is a monument to the Maine First Heavy Artillery.  On June 18, 1864, they made an ill-advised attack on strong Confederate lines and were slaughtered.  In 10 minutes, 600 men from Maine fell here - an average of one per second!
Thank God, there is peace and union between Maine and Virginia now!  As a former Maine resident, and a current Virginia resident, and as an American, I am very grateful for that.
The seal of the Great State of Maine has a farmer (left) and a sailor, a moose and a pine tree, the Latin word "Dirigo" ("I Lead"), and a star - maybe the North Star?
The guns at Fort Stedman are silent now.  This was the site of Robert E. Lee's last offensive engagement, as Confederate troops attacked and briefly captured this fort in late March, 1865.  Two weeks later, Lee's once great army no longer existed.
These peaceful woods are in the 300 meters between Fort Stedman (a Union position) and Colquitt's Salient (a Confederate fortification that is behind my position here).  It was this fortification that the First Maine attacked on June in 1864.
This is Gracie's Salient, another Confederate fortification of the day.
Unlike the 20th and 21st century wars, in the Civil War, civilians were rarely targeted.  But if one was unlucky enough to have one's home in the midst of two warring armies, the results were predictable.  The Taylor family lost their home and farm buildings near the start of the Petersburg siege.  It must have been devastating for them.

From time to time, the path through the woods passed by old trenches and other fortifications, still preserved despite 150 years of weather and erosion (and forest growth).  This is a good example of a trench line.  The siege at Petersburg was a harbinger of the awful trench warfare in World War I, just 50 years in the future.