Saturday, June 23, 2012

St Mary's Falls

St. Mary's Wilderness in Virginia's George Washington National Forest would not have qualified as a wilderness area when then Wilderness Act first passed in 1964.  Very few eastern areas could.  But a subsequent law about 10 years later permitted areas to be added to if they were being allowed to let mankind's evidence of disruption be overtaken by natural processes.  There is plenty of evidence of human activity here, especially where mining was done 50-60 years ago, but it is fading.  The trails are not marked, although there are a couple of weathered wooden signs.  There appears to be some trail maintenance, but plenty of fallen trees to clamber over as well.

I had Friday off from work, and decided to hike here for the day.  I had not been in St. Mary's Wilderness in well over 10 years, but had hiked to the falls twice before with other people, and one time, I had done the circuit hike - without taking the side trip to the falls.  I decided to hike to St. Mary's Falls yesterday, which is a moderately steep out and back hike of nearly 10 miles.  In my mind it was seven miles, but truth on the ground overruled my faulty memory.  I think I can sum this hike up in three words: solitude, streams, and mushrooms.  Solitude - except at the falls, I didn't see a single person out or back.  Streams - I probably made 10 stream crossings each way, was entertained by their pleasant gurgling for well more than half the trip, and was never thirsty.  Mushrooms - I saw many colorful mushrooms, several quite unusual, during my trip.  It was a fun day, and sure beat working, although once again, I was reminded that I am not totally in shape for hiking in the mountains.  I need to work on that.

I didn't see any spectacular wildlife, but did see many aquatic salamanders when I would turn over stones in the streams.  Most of them were too quick to get a photo of.  As with my hike through the forests to get to Bear Church Rock two weeks ago, birdsong was a near constant companion.  And I did see a large bird of prey, but could not get a good look through the thick forest canopy before he flew off for good.

There are two ways to the falls - the short, level easy way from the other side of the Blue Ridge, and the way I went.  The other people I saw at the falls, including a group of young men camping illegally by the river, had clearly some in the short and easy way.  One of the men told me they had beheaded a copperhead the night before.  That is possible, but it is more likely they beheaded a harmless water snake.

Here are some maps to orient yourself. My hike started and ended near the bottom of the map, where the Blue Ridge Parkway passes by.

 This map shows where I took a few of the photos:
 The elevation profile for the hike clearly shows the mirror image of an "out and back" hike, losing and gaining about 2,500 feet in elevation, according to my Topo North America software from DeLorme.
 On the drive in, I snapped this photo of the St. Mary's Wilderness from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
My Forest Gnome was happy to be hiking in the mountains again.  My hiking staff was of great value, especially on the downhills and many stream crossings.  It just helps give one a little more balance as one steps from often wobbly stone to stone.

Pleasant streams and little falls were visible and audible for much of my hike this day.

Most of the many aquatic salamanders that I saw were too quick to snap a photo of, but I did capture this little guy's image:

Some of the trail was quite rocky - lots of great "ankle turners" here:

I remember this shallow cave from my hike with five or six others many years ago.  In a cold and drenching rain, we huddled in here to eat our lunches on the hike out.  Today was warm and dry.

There is a long and tenuous crossing of the St. Mary's river here.  I am halfway across, hopping rock to rock, at the point in this photo.  Years ago, I remember seeing a queen snake here - the only one I have ever seen.
This section of the river is so beautiful.  The water is flowing through a cleft in the rock and comes shooting out into this gorgeous deep green pool.  It would be a great spot for a swim.
Finally, I reached the beautiful St. Mary's Falls.  I would have loved to take a cooling swim, but it had taken me longer than expected to get here, and I knew I still had a long and mostly uphill hike back out.  So I ate my PB and J sandwich, apple, and Hershey's bar while enjoying the scenery.  It is such a pretty and secluded spot, although there were a half dozen people here, some camping illegally.

From here, it was 4.9 miles back out, covering the exact same ground.  All the way in and back, I saw many beautiful mushrooms, some of which are pictured below.  There were tiny mushrooms the size of a button:

 And mushrooms as big as dinner plates:
 There were yellow ones:

 And red ones,
 Including these spectacular bracket fungi:

 This peach colored one was shaped kind of like an ice cream cone or drinking cup:

 When I left my little red car this morning, it was the only one in the parking lot.  It was still the only one when I returned.  I had been the only person hiking this trail all day.  My clothing was soaked from sweat from the effort of hiking out, so I changed into clean and dry clothing and headed for home.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What Am I?

Hmmm, yesterday's "What Am I?" was pretty easy.  Today's is a lot tougher.  I found three of these creatures, hiding under logs, during Sunday's hike to Bear Church Rock.  I am pretty sure that I had never seen one before.  I needed my herpetology field guide back at home to identify them.  You may need the same.

You know already, with no guile
That I'm a type of shy herptile

My body form is lean and long
If you think "lizard," you are wrong.

And I am not a type of snake
I have four legs, make no mistake!

Invertebrates make a fine meal
Beetles or worms will seal the deal

My skin is rather smooth and damp
In cool places I make my camp

My color's black like night, not day
With pattern like the Milky Way

With many silver colored spots
And how many? Let's just say lots!

My skin is coated with a slime
And that, pray tell's, my final rhyme!

Take your
Guess and



for the answer....

I tell you now, with all candor
I'm a slimy salamander!
Based on my photos and my field guide, I am pretty sure that this species is a slimy salamander.  They were about 5-6 inches long.  I am almost certain that this was a new species for me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What Am I?

This creature was not as spectacular to see as were the two black bears on my Sunday hike to Bear Church Rock, nor was it as scared of me as the bears were - despite me being several hundred times its size.  See if you can guess what it is...

Translate from Latin my class name
And "Double life" will start this game

I hatch in water from an egg
I have a tail but not one leg

But as I grow my tail will shrink
And legs will sprout.  "What's this?" you think.

Then suddenly, I live on land
And make my home in forest grand

I breath the air with each new lung
And catch a meal with sticky tongue

My skin is rough, but call them warts
And the true facts this claim distorts

What seems a wart is useful gland
That stops a foe from meal he planned

For they release a most foul taste
The wish to eat me is displaced

You might think I'm a frog, my kin -
But frogs have smooth, not bumpy, skin

Okay, then.
Take your
Guess and





For the

No doubt the answer from you flowed,
And you guessed American toad!

This was a pretty big toad.  I am pretty sure it is an American toad.  He let me get quite close as you can see.

Monday, June 11, 2012

More Photos from my Bear Church Rock Hike

You can see an overview and maps of Sunday's hike to Bear Church Rock in Shenandoah National Park here.  It was a great hike, but left me quite worn out.  So I am taking a little time tonight, feeling rested, to write more about the hike, with photos.  Most of the photos were taken on the outbound leg of the out and back hike.

For a change, I took along my turtle hiking staff that my sister Ann gave me for my birthday a couple of July's ago. Definitely having a hiking stick helps a lot in the steeper sections.

 Isn't this plant the perfect Valentine?
 I saw some pretty spring flowers on the hike, in addition to lots of mountain laurel, which is one of my favorites.  Bumblebees loved the white ones.

Lush hardwood forest for almost all of the hike was the order of the day.  Bird song kept me company the whole way, although I didn't actually see many birds - other than a junco and a ruffed grouse.

My hiking pal "Hawkeye" calls these logs "God logs."  He says that God puts them there for people who need to rest for a moment.  Who am I to argue with God?  I took a break here.
The red-back salamander was one of three Amphibian species I found on the hike (you will meet the other two later).  I kept a constant eye out for timber rattlers, but didn't see any snakes.
 This part of the trail came fully "fernished."
This would be a great campsite, except there was no water anywhere nearby.  Speaking of water, my original plan was to continue hiking along the Jones Mountain trail and return by a different route, eventually joining the Laurel Prong trail at a stream, where I would fill my water bottles.  But as I mentioned in the original post about the trip, there was a discrepancy between my guidebook and the GPS about how far to travel.  So I wasted an hour looking for the path to the rocks.  Because of this, I decided to do an out and back rather than adding two or three more miles, but with no water source to fill my bottles, I rationed water to my remaining half liter for the five mile hike out.  I was some thirsty at the end of the hike, and guzzled a bottle of Gator Aide and a can of ginger ale that I had on ice back at the car.  I regretted not carrying a third liter of water for the hike as a precaution on a warm day.  It would have been well worth the extra two pounds.  The best laid plans....
I passed this snail on my hike in to the rock.  We were both going in the same direction.  Had he been going the other way, I never would have caught him on the way out, I am pretty sure.
Here is a panoramic view from Bear Church Rock.  While there was not a church there, God did provide a magnificent cathedral to gaze upon, eh? (Click to see an enlarged view)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Bear Church Rock

This being a Sunday, I got up early to go to church - Bear Church Rock in Shenandoah National Park!  It was a five mile walk each way.  God Himself (or Herself?) conducted the service.  The sermon had to do with what an incredible world we have been given to live in, and how we might just want to take care of it.

Why do you hike?  I am guessing that whatever the reason, this hike has it:
  • Lovely forests?  Check!  The hardwood forests that I hiked through today were so pretty!
  • Solitude?  Check!  In 10+ miles of hiking, I saw seven people.  Five of them were at Bear Church Rock.  The other two were Appalachian Trail through-hikers that passed me heading north as I was 0.3 miles from reaching my car.  Other than that, I saw not a soul.
  • Vistas?  Check!  The rock has a gorgeous view.  You won't want to leave!
  • A cardio workout?  Check! You bet your quads, glutes, calves, hammies, lungs, and heart that you will get a workout!  2,800 feet of ascending round trip, and the same amount for descending.
  • Flowers? Check, at least this time of year!  In addition to lots of mountain laurel, the state flower of my native state of Pencil-Vane-Eye-Ay, I saw lots of other flowers on my trek.
  • Wildlife? Check!  How about two bears?  That was the highlight.  I also saw a ruffed grouse (the state bird of my native state), and three different amphibian species.  And for the entire hike, I was serenaded by oven birds ("teacher-teacher-teacher-teacher"), wood thrushes, veeries, Rufus-sided towhees ("Drink your tea-he-he-he-he-he"), and eastern wood peewees ("pee-a-wee").
Get the picture?  Great hike for my first trip back to the mountains since my Austin - Trayfoot backpacking trip last November.  Unlike that trip, staying warm was not a problem with today's hike.

I ran a half marathon less than three months ago, and I finished in the top third of my age group in a 10K two weeks later.  After resting my knee injury for a while, I have been walking a lot and running some, and doing a lot of exercises.  I thought I was in pretty good shape.  I thought wrong, because this hike today kicked my butt!  It was a real test, hiking in the mountains again.  It was a test that I passed, but barely, maybe with a C- at best.  It was a vivid reminder that no amount of running and walking in fairly flat areas can truly prepare you for a hike in the mountains along a rough trail that resembles a roller coaster route.

I'll admit it, I'm tired.  That is why this post will have minimal photos.  I will be posting more later this week about Bear Church Rock, including at least one or two of my "what am I series."  It won't be the bears - you already know that I saw those, plus they moved way too fast for me to even get my camera out.  They make an Olympic sprinter look slow - and that is in a forest!

To get started, here is a map of my route - it was an out and back - and the elevation profile (one way only, returning from the rock).  The hike instructions said 4.5 miles to the rock, but my GPS - which is very accurate - pegged it at nearly 5 miles.  So I wasted an hour and a lot of energy hiking back and forth between miles 4.2 and 4.8 trying to find the rock.  I literally got one tenth of a mile from it the first time and turned around, hiking all the way back to 4.2 before deciding to turn around again and hike back.  That ended up having a negative impact on my day.  More about that later.  On the plus side, I probably would not have seen the bears without that happening!

The route starts on the left hand side.  I hiked on these trails today to get to Bear Church Rock on the right: Appalachian, Laurel Prong, Cat Knob, and Jones Mountain.  The bear icon at about the half way point was where I saw the bears on my hike back.  They looked like two yearlings, almost certainly still with their mother.  I didn't see the sow.
You will have to click on the elevation profile (Bear Church Rock is on the left, the trail head on the right) to see the profile.
 Macro and Micro - the view from Beach Church Rock, and some mountain laurel in bloom along the trail.

Friday, June 1, 2012

False Cape Stroll

For Memorial Day, six of us got together for a mini-family reunion at Sandbridge.  We hung out, ate a little too much, told family stories, talked some politics and world affairs, enjoyed some crazy U-Tube videos, went to a Norfolk Tides game, and enjoyed lots of quality time in the refreshing Atlantic Ocean.  We also remembered our sister / sister-in-law / mother / mother-in-law Ann, gone way too soon a year ago May 30, and put some of her ashes in the Atlantic.

On Sunday (May 27), my brother, sister-in-law, and I took a stroll in the remote and wild False Cape State Park.  We rode the "Blue Goose" tram in and out, and had about 2.5 hours in the park to explore the beach, hunt for shells, and just enjoy being outdoors.  The tram ride costs $8 but saves nearly nine miles of walking, as one cannot drive to the park.  It is accessible by foot, bicycle, or canoe / kayak, and thus has to be one of the most remote beaches on the US Atlantic Coast.

On the tram ride in, there was a naturalist who explained something about the area and history.  We saw some wildlife on the way in, especially egrets and turtles out of the water to nest.  But the driver tended not to stop, so it was more transportation than interpretive activities.  We also got to see the fairly new visitor center at the park, which is really nice.  Some day, I would like to hike in here with a backpack and camp out, sleeping by the sea while hearing the surf.  So I scoped out a few campsites while we walked the 3/4 mile to the beach.  I'll save that for a time when the biting insects are less active.

We didn't see any wildlife - well, at least not anything that didn't want to drink our blood - on the walk in and back, but we did see some creatures on the beach as we walked about a mile or so south on the beach.  We picked up trash, and collected some shells.  There are a lot more shells here because so few people visit this place.  Here are some photos.

The Blue Goose continues on after dropping us off to explore on our own.
 The hike to the beach follows a gravel road for a while as shown here.  The last quarter mile or so is all sand.
 It is always exciting to see that first view of the ocean.
 Do you see groups of sunbathers, radios blasting, umbrellas, or crowds of people?  Neither do I.  This is a really remote beach because you cannot drive here.  The beach looks like this for five miles south of here and for 4.5 miles north.
 This little fellow was lying on his back, and I assumed that he was dead.  When I picked him up, he came to life.  I snapped his photo and left him be.
 I love watching the sanderlings as they forage for a meal by the surf.  I wish I could move my legs that fast.  We saw plenty of these little birds all along our walk.

 I found this dead blue crab and a piece of what must have been a large whelk.
 Pelicans are a really cool bird.  They are common here.
 We tried to be good citizens and collect trash as we walked.  It is amazing what one can find on a remote beach, and pretty sad, actually.  In addition to the three large items, the gray bag is packed full of junk.
 The men and women of the US Coast Guard are always out on patrol.  Semper Paratus!
 Who passed by?  I don't remember seeing these tracks on on walk in, so this raccoon must have left his perfectly preserved footprints in the mud since we passed by here.
 A little splash of color.
 Here are some of the shells that I collected.
 Mother Nature, artist supreme!  These two oyster shells were joined, almost as if an artist made this by using one for a base.  I thought it was really cool!