Monday, October 29, 2012

What Am I?

I saw this creature - one I very rarely see - on last Friday's hike to the Doyles River Falls.  It was thrilling.  Can you guess what it is? (Or get very close, because actually, from the clues, there are two answers.)

Just like you have, I have a spine
But as to legs? Those are not mine!

Although you’ll think I’m telling fibs
I “walk” quite well with just my ribs

No hands or feet, but trees I climb
I’ll reach that bird’s nest in no time!

I “taste” the air with my forked tongue
And breath it with a single lung!

I haven’t got a single ear
I sense vibrations so I’ll “hear”

I’ll reach about five feet in length
I’m slender, but have lots of strength

My skin is black as blackest night
Most folks who see me will take fright

Oh, please fear not, but rat or mouse
Should fear my visit to their house

And baby birds, snug in their nest
Will find me far worse than a pest

Enough clues! Scroll





for the answer:

Although there could be some mistake
I think this is a black rat snake!

I saw this snake just off the path, near the Doyle's River well above the falls.  It was still cool temperatures, and the snake was slow.  He was over 4.5 feet long, or about 1.5 meters: too long to fit completely in the photo frame with any clarity.
I slowly approached so as not to scare him, and got another photo.
And then, closer still for another photo.  Then he slowly slithered away and down a steep embankment.  I didn't attempt to catch him.  I didn't want to stress him or accidentally cause him harm.  It was thrilling enough to see this rarely seen creature, and to get his photo.  What a beautiful animal!
This could have been a black racer or a black rat snake.  I am going for the latter.  My herpetology field guide says that black rat snakes are sometimes called "mountain black snakes" because they range all the way high up in the rugged Appalachian Mountains.  What do you think?  The differences are subtle and you pretty much need the field guide with you and the snake in hand to tell the two species apart.

Less than thirty minutes later, I saw another - about as long as the snake but much bigger - creature that was jet black.  That was also thrilling!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Poll - What Couldn't You Bear to Leave Behind?

I'll try another poll.  This works whether you backpack or not.  If you don't just visualize what you could not do without for a three day hike, and also visualize your pack getting heavier with each thing you add.

So, you are preparing for a three day backpacking trip.  Let's assume there is plenty of water on your route.  You have the 10 essentials* in your pack.  You would never hit the trail without these, right?  You have a tent and a sleeping bag, your little stove, cooking gear, and a comfortable sleeping pad.  You have meals for three days, and an extra shirt and clean socks.  You have a little kit with sanitary items.

So consider this list of items.  If you had room for just three of these, which three would you take?  What could you not bear to leave behind for three days.  In the poll, vote for no more than three items.

hot chocolate, coffee, or tea
changes of underwear
lightweight binoculars
field guide
small gas-fired bake oven
iPod or other music device
paperback novel

* The 10 essentials, even for a day hike, are:
headlamp (with batteries)
first aid kit
emergency trail food
two sources of fire
knife (or multi-tool)
water bottle and purification method
insulation (jacket)
topographical map and compass
raingear (not a reindeer - RAIN GEAR!)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Foggy Fall Friday for Fetching Falls

I had Friday (yesterday) as my bi-weekly day off and decided to go back to the mountains for a hike.  But where should I go?  I am only one hike away from completing my goal of 10 new hikes this year, so I could complete that goal.  But after debate, I went to Doyles River Falls, one of my favorite Shenandoah hikes.  And am I glad that I did, because of the wildllife sightings.  I have not been on this trail for at least five years, but it has been much less than 10 years, so I can't count it on my "new hikes" list.

The Jones Run - Doyles River Falls circuit hike passes by three nice waterfalls - the water was low yesterday, but they were still very nice - and a number of smaller "mini-falls."  It is mostly downhill or uphill, with total elevation gain and loss of over 1,900 feet, and an average grade of 10% - so it is a good workout but not nearly as hard as last Saturday's hike to Rocky Mount.  The first 4-5 miles of the hike pass through a steep and rugged ravine, with lovely forests and some huge trees.  After leaving the ravine, one can extend the hike by continuing to hike north for a mile or so, or one can take the "inner loop" and pick up the Brown's Gap Fire Road through the woods, which is what I did.  That choice made it a seven mile hike instead of a nine miler.  And it led to a spectacular wildlife sighting, one I rarely see.  In fact, I saw two great animals on the hike that I rarely see.

Here is the topo map, tracked by my DeLorme PN-60w GPS, so you can get oriented.  The hike is in the southern third of Shenandoah National Park, near milepost 84.  The star (lower left corner) marks my start and end, and the two arrows show my travel direction - counter clockwise.  I was on four trails, roughly corresponding to the sides of the map: Jones Run Trail (bottom); Doyles River Falls Trail (right); Brown's Gap Fireroad (top); and the Appalachian Trail (left).

You can see a few other trails that I marked from prior hikes in this area.  Most notably, the red trail mark coming in at the bottom left (and continuing up the Appalachian Trail to Brown's Gap but covered by yesterday's blue track) was the third day of my Austin-Furnace-Trayfoot Mountains backpacking trip of almost a year ago.  The magenta colored track leaving Brown's Gap was the start of the first day of that trip, over the mountains and into the gap for a very, very cold night.

Here is the elevation profile of my hike.  In the first 2.5 miles, you lose over 1,300 feet in elevation, and you make it up in the remainder of the hike, with some ups and downs for that total gain and loss of 1,900+ feet.

Now, I was not expecting fog on this fall Friday, but that is what I got.  It was so foggy on the Skyline Drive that at times, visibility was less than 100 feet.  So it took me much longer to get there than I expected, but eventually, I was at the trail head, laced up my boots, and hit the trail, dropping down the steep trail towards Jones Run Falls.  The trail loses 900 feet just to get to that point as one drops into that steep and rugged ravine.  The fog made the forest look ghostly:

But Mother Nature is clearly in a redecorating mood.  She is trying out two new carpets.  I like both of them.

I looked under a number of rocks and logs, always replacing them after I look, but this is the only salamander I found.  The camera made him look a little lighter than it actually is.  I am not sure of the species.

This view, just above Jones Run Falls, will give you an idea of the steepness and ruggedness of the ravine that the streams run through.
Jones Run Falls is about 25 feet high, and can be spectacular in the spring.  On this hike, it was more of a trickle.
This is a view of the forest in the ravine from the base of Jones Run Falls.  What a difference six days make!  On my hike up Rocky Mount last Saturday, the colors were near peak.  Six days later, the leaves are falling fast.
I call these "The Twins."  Two huge tulip poplars guard the trail.  They are each nearly four feet DBH (diameter breast height).
As I moved along the trail, something jumped near my feet.  I jumped just a bit.  It turned out to be this large American toad, as big as the palm of my hand.  Also on this hike, I saw many gray squirrels, a chipmunk, many chickadees, a small unidentified woodpecker, and a number of other birds flitting in the foliage.  On the road in the fog, I saw a pileated woodpecker fly by, and I saw a deer vanish into the woods.  Plus on the trail, I saw two other really cool animals - still to come.
The Doyles River Trail ascends as the river itself trickles down the ravine to the right.
I thought that this rock was really cool because it had at least three types of lichen on it, including the one that looks a little like a scraggly beard.
The Lower Doyles River Falls falls in three distinct steps.  Even at low water, it is still fetching.
I've zoomed in a bit on the higher two drops of the Lower Doyles River Falls.
The Upper Doyles River Falls was my lunch spot.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches taste so good in a beautiful place!
Many miles of this hike are along running water.  I love the sound the streams make as they fall thousands of feet through the wild forest, racing towards the Chesapeake Bay.  This is one of very many "mini-falls" along the way.
Not far from the spot above, I saw the first spectacular animal species of the hike.  I am going to leave that as a mystery for now, and will have photos later in one of my "What am I?" posts.  I'll need to think about the verse for this animal.  Suffice to say, it was thrilling.

And a few miles later, along the Brown's Gap Fire Road shown below, I saw the second species.  As I hiked along, suddenly I heard a crashing just ahead and to the right, coming down the steep slope.  I paused, and as I did, a large, black animal dashed from the woods and across the wide path.  It stopped dead in its tracks on the left hand side of the fire road about 75 feet away, and stared at me.  I could clearly see its shaggy black fir, its tan colored muzzle, and its dark eyes.  Then, as quickly as it appeared, it dashed like a world-class sprinter into the forest and down into the ravine out of which I had been an hour earlier.  After years of hiking without seeing a black bear, I have seen three bears on two different hikes this summer, the other time months ago on my hike to Bear Church Rock.  Had I not been at this exact place at this exact time, I never would have seen this bear.  It vanished into the woods without a trace.  But the sight was very exciting.  I wish I could have gotten a photo, but it happened much too quickly.

Here is one little hint about the other amazing creature I saw a mile or so before seeing the bear: it has one very obvious thing in common with the bear.

After leaving the Brown's Gap Fire Road, it was back on the Appalachian Trail to complete a great hike.  All eastern hikers love the white blazes - it is like coming home!  A through-hiker, heading south, passed me by.  He had started at Mount Katahdin in Maine on July 18, and hoped to finish at Springer Mountain in Georgia before Christmas.  He told me that he had done 34 miles the day before!  Holy cow - 34 miles!  It would take me three days of hiking to go that far.  It is pretty cool to think that between March and October - and even later - there are several hundred men and women attempting a through-hike of over 2,000 miles.  Each has their own reason, and their own goal.
Back at the car, it felt good to put my running shoes back on and change into a dry shirt.  Even though it was a cool day, the exertion of hiking had led me to soak through my hiking shirt.  I'd had a great time going back to Doyles River Falls, kind of like seeing an old friend.  It is a great hike, and I very much recommend it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rocky Mount Hike

Friday was a really sad day, as I had to have our beloved cat, Nellie, euthanized.  It was the right thing to do, but it still felt terrible.  She was the sweetest and friendliest cat I think I've ever known, and also our third feline friend to die this year.  Only Goldie, my sister's cat who we adopted last year, remains.

When I am feeling sad, two things will help with the blues - beautiful music and good times in the lovely outdoors.  Saturday morning, I put my pack together, got in the car, slipped some Haydn (almost always cheerful) and Schumann (somewhat melancholy but heroic at the same time) symphonies into the CD player, and headed for Shenandoah National Park.  Destination: Rocky Mount.

One of my guidebooks said "Do not attempt the Rocky Mount hike unless you are in excellent shape."  Well, I don't think I am in excellent shape, but I am in decent shape.  Note that I am not qualifying that, for example, with "for a 61 year old man."  Because Mother Nature is indifferent.  She does not care about your age.  It is not like she will say, "Well, you are 61, and you are tired, and this trail is pretty steep.  You've done well for a man of your age, so I will cut you a break by giving you an escalator to ride up the slope."  Nope, it doesn't work that way.  You are either in shape or you are not.  The place I hiked Saturday was tough, and you can either do it or you cannot.  You can either keep going when you are tired or you can spend the night in the mountains, sans tent and sleeping bag.  I imagine there are 21 year olds that can't, and there are 81 year olds who can.  Someday, in 20 years, I hope to be one of the latter.  But let me tell you, the guide book was not far off, because this was a very strenuous hike.  Total elevation gain and loss was about 3,200 feet over nearly 10 miles.  Quad tiring, lung busting uphills, and knee straining long downhills.  I hiked with my trekking poles and was glad that I did.

The hike is a combination of an out and back and a loop.  You hike more than two miles to get to the loop, hike around the loop another five miles or so, and then it is back to the trail you started on, and you head back.  The total distance is just under 10 miles, but call it 10 by the time you walk to and from the parking area.  You can hike the loop clockwise as I did, and subject your knees to especially long downhill grades, or you can do it counter clockwise, and do a long, long climb.  Either way, you will lose and gain 3,200 feet so what difference does it really make?  Here is the topo map for the route, with arrows drawn in to show my direction (starting from the bottom of the map):

Note that I marked a potential campsite - only maybe 500-700 feet from a great stream - on the map.  On the way out, I ran into a young couple who were backpacking together.  I had seen no other possible good campsites and told them about this one.  I hope they enjoyed it and kept it neat and clean.

And here is the elevation profile - remind you of a roller coaster?  The car on the Skyline Drive is at about 2,700 feet, the same as the peak at Rocky Mount, so on the way back, you know you have a long way to climb to get there - as you can see:

Now for some photos.  Here is a view of Rocky Mount from the parking area.  It looks a bit intimidating, and the day was much cooler up there than I expected.  I forgot to bring a fleece for emergencies, although I did have my rain jacket.  So I hiked carefully.  I didn't want to turn an ankle and spend a night in the cool mountains without warm enough clothing - bad oversight on my part!
Here is the trail, near the start.  Note the blue blaze on the trail.  The well marked and easy to follow trails were a true pleasure after a couple of days in the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness a week ago.
Is there anything like the hardwood forests in autumn?

Shortly before arriving at the loop part of the hike, Rocky Mount looms above me.
At the trail junction, someone had stuck a blue jay feather.  I saw a jay later, along with a vulture, some chickadees, a chipmunk, three different kinds of salamander, and a woodpecker that would not stay close enough to identify, other than I know it wasn't one I commonly see in the suburbs.
The trail up Rocky Mount had numerous switchbacks, and one of them enabled a partial view to the north.  Note the farm in the distance.  It looks like a chicken farm, judging from the long buildings.
There is no view from the top of Rocky Mount, but shortly before you reach the top and maybe 30 vertical feet below it, a short path leads to a ledge with spectacular views.  This one is of the Shenandoah Valley, one of Virginia's "breadbaskets."
There are two parts to the ledge that you can (carefully) climb on.  Here is one part - it is a long way down!
From one of the ledges, I took this panorama.
Here are several of the views from my little ledge, where I sat like a king and ate my Swiss cheese sandwich, apple, and (a special treat) Mounds candy bar.  I burned every calorie in that thing, and then some!

Does it look like I am levitating?  No, I did not attend the Hogwarts  Academy of Wizards and Witches!  I am seated on the ledge with my back against a straight chunk of rock.  Believe me when I moved very, very carefully up there, slowly measuring each step and planting each foot.  One does not want to trip over one's hiking boots in this particular place.
On the steep trail down, there was a view of two huge talus slopes on a distant mountain.
This is close up of a much smaller talus field on my continued descent.
I found three salamander species: two aquatic and this terrestrial one.  I am not sure what species any of them are, but I think one of the aquatic ones could have been a spring salamander, as it was pink.
Once I got back to the car at 4:30, I changed shoes and my shirt and headed from home, pretty worn out.  At home, I fed Goldie, opened a bottle of wine, made a tomato sauce using the wine (among other things), poured myself a big glass of wine, ate spaghetti and big salad for dinner, updated my Mount Rogers posts, and hit the sack by 10:15.  I slept like a log.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dolce - Hiking Back to Grayson Highlands State Park

October 14, 2012

Just as a good multi-course ends with dolce - desert, like a cannoli - so our four day hike ended on Sunday with a "desert course."  My day started in wonderful fashion.  As I lay snug in my sleeping bag in predawn darkness, I was serenaded by a barred owl: "Who cooks for you?  Who cooks for you all?"  I loved hearing him and wished he would go on for a half hour or so - but it was only for a few minutes.

After a morning fire and breakfast (oatmeal with apples, pecans, cinnamon, and nutmeg), we broke camp about 10:15 - what a great camping spot it was - crossed Little Wilson Creek easily, and hit the trail.  For a while it was smooth going through the wilderness area, then we hit a spot where the only trail seemed to continue straight ahead. 

To the right, was a wide and rocky stream / wet area.  I walked across and didn't see any trail there to pick up.  At around this point, our map showed our trail taking a short jog to the right.  We forged ahead - there was clearly a trail there, including definite use by horses.  But after a while, it became easier to walk through the thick woods than on the "trail."  Clearly, we were wrong again, and we turned back.  There was a trail across that wide wet area after all, and we decided that has to be right, so we followed it.  Remember, there are no blazes and few if any trail signs in wilderness areas, and as we found on all three days, it can get very confusing.

Here is the map of our route on Sunday.  Note the little stop sign: that is where it became difficult to pick out the trail, and you can see a short track where we went the wrong way. The purple arrow marks our camping area on Little Wilson Creek, and the track out is in lavender and generally heads southwest.

Here is the elevation profile of our trek out and back to civilization.  It was mostly downhill but with a marked incline at the end:

We reached this trail sign at Wilson Creek.  It was not very helpful because it pointed only back the way we had come from, but was clear from our map that we had to cross the creek, and it seemed like this had to be the spot.

Wilson Creek is beautiful.  And from this photo, doesn't it look like a piece of cake to cross it with dry feet?  Guess again.  I think it was the hardest stream I've ever crossed and managed to stay dry.
Hawkeye explores a way across Wilson Creek to see if he can find the trail on the other side.  He left his pack on this side.  He managed to cross but it was so hard even without his pack that he took off his boots to wade back and retrieve his pack.
Here is a view of Wilson Creek as it races through the woods.  When it was my turn to cross, it took me five minutes of exploring to find a potential route.  Then it probably took another five minutes to cross.  I have moderately long and very strong legs, and pretty good balance, but without my treking poles, I never would have made it across without dry boots.  Hawkeye applauded when I took that final step on to the bank.
Please enjoy these next three photos, because the effort to get them was extreme.  From the trail, I could hear Wilson Creek roaring along down through the woods.  So I took off my pack and went down the 40 foot near vertical distance - probably a 60 degree slope - to reach the stream and shoot these photos.

We reached Grayson Highlands State Park, and there was a sign to a picnic area.  It was still a two mile walk, but we made a snap decision to abandon the back country trail at this point.  It was later than we had hoped already, and we had a long drive back.  We figured it would be easier to walk to the car along the road when we got back.  The trail along the way was beautiful hardwoods.
We finally reached the picnic area, and there was the true "dolce:" beautiful trees and views in autumnal regalia.  I think this is a display of what a pioneer's cabin would have been like back when this area was raw wilderness and was being settled by the Scotch-Irish.  I remember an excellent museum here at the park from my last time her 19 years ago.  It explored the natural history and human culture of the region, including, of course, bluegrass music.
 Here are two more views of "desert."  From here, we had a two mile walk, mostly uphill, to the car.  With the still heavy packs and Hawkeye's blistered feet, I volunteered to do the walk and he could stay and watch the packs.  I was only a quarter mile into the walk back when a pickup truck drove by.  I did what any self-respecting and tired hiker would do: I stuck out my thumb.  It was a couple and their teen aged daughter.  She did not look exactly thrilled when this unwashed and unshaven guy climbed into the back seat with her, but it only took a few minutes of driving and I was at my car.  I had deodorant in my bag in the car, and a clean cotton shirt, so that made me feel better, as did fresh socks and my running shoes.  Our great four day back country trip, a true multi-course feast for the eyes and the spirit, had come to an end.  All that remained was a tough 7.5 hour drive home to Richmond, snarled in three major traffic jams - one 12 miles long on I-81 - along the way.