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.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

How Did My New Gear Do?

On my four day pack trip to Mount Rogers last month, I took along or wore several new items.  I wanted to write an account of how they performed for me.  In a word - okay, two words - very well.

I'd been having a problem with my toes feeling a little crammed during long hikes, and reasoned that part of the problem was that I was wearing a heavy pair of socks with an inner sock as well.  Just before my trip, I went to REI and talked to them about what I could use.  They suggested Smartwool PhD Outdoor Light Crew socks.  These are made in the USA from imported Merino.  They are much lighter than my other hiking socks and I worried that my feet might blister, but I bought two pairs along and wore them - without any inner sock - on my two longest days of hiking, through the Lewis Fork Wilderness and the next day's very long hike through the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness.  I was very pleased with them.  They were comfortable and my feet didn't feel crowded into the boot.  Plus - not a single blister!  I've worn them on both my hikes since: to Rocky Mount and to the Doyles River Falls, both in Shenandoah National Park, and they have felt fine.  The Rocky Mount hike in particular had very long steep downhills, and my toes didn't "cram forward" into the boot as much as with fuller socks.  I recommend these socks.

One problem I had with my prior two backpacking trips (to the Priest and to Austin, Furnace, and Trayfoot Mountains) was my air mattress.  It was very thin, and the mercury on these trips got down to 15F and 18F respectively.  I shivered a bit, even in my thick sleeping bag.  So last summer, I resolved to buy a new air mattress, and I did: the REI Stratus insulated air pad.  It is only 20 ounces, and it packs easily into a small bundle, shown here in my hand:

It inflates in about a minute, using lung power, to 72 inches long by 20 inches wide by 2.5 inches thick.  The air mattress was very comfortable and kept me warm, even on our first night at 5,400 feet despite the fact that I brought along a lighter sleeping bag this time.  I didn't slide around on the pad, and it didn't lose any air.  When it came time to pack up, it easily fit back into the original sack - always a plus!

Ticks are a big problem in most of the east coast (and a lot of the rest of the country).  This summer for my birthday, I got a pair of trousers treated to repel (and kill if they hang around too long) ticks.  These are Columbia Sportswear Company Insect Blocker cargo pants, treated with permethrin.  They are good for 70 washings.  I wore them on a number of hikes this summer, and of course, took them along for my big backpacking trip.  I wore them all four days, believe it or not!  They got dirty and maybe permanently stained at the cuffs.  But they are comfortable, and held up well, and I didn't see a single tick on me.  My only wish is that they had a second zippered pocket - there is just one and it is small.  Zippered pockets are a good way to avoid losing small things in the great outdoors.  I'll probably wear these pants on every hike in tick season (which lasts a long time in Virginia) from now on.

I'd bought a long-sleeved Merino wool "Icebreaker" shirt a couple of years ago, and liked it so much that I looked for a short-sleeved version.  REI didn't carry the Icebreaker for some reason (I remembered later that I bought that shirt at Blue Ridge Mountain Sports), but they had a Smartwool Merino wool tee-shirt, and I bought that.  I think the shirt in the link is the one that I got.  It was extremely comfortable.  I wore it on the trip any time it was warm enough to have a tee-shirt on, and I wore it under my Icebreaker shirt as a base layer when it was colder.  I am very pleased with the shirt.  It is more comfortable than my polyester shirts and doesn't itch despite being wool. A bonus is that Merino wool does not smell even after wearing it for a number of days.  There is a scientific reason for this, which I will have to look up, because I can't remember the exact science behind it.

All my new (and pre-existing) gear performed very well on my four day backpacking trip.