Sunday, February 24, 2013

One "Last" Hike at Back Bay

In the 4.5 years I have been blogging about my hikes, I have posted frequently about hiking in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, nestled between Little Island City Park and False Cape State Park.  I've come to love hiking in this area, and always look forward to April 1, when they reopen the dike trails all the way to False Cape.  But all things come to an end, and  - for reasons I don't think that I will share with the whole wide world, or the whole world wide web - I recently took what will be the last of my frequent hikes there.

Saturday a week ago, I walked on the beach at Sandbridge to watch a lovely sunrise.  Then, before packing up and heading home, I decided to take this final walk in Back Bay, so I drove the two mile to the wildlife refuge, hoping to see some wildlife in the next hour or so.  I've seen plenty there over the years, including:

  • Mammals - white-tailed deer, gray fox, red fox, river otter, raccoon, bobcat, nutria, cottontail rabbit, swamp rabbit, feral horses (that came over from Corolla, North Carolina), bottle-nosed dolphin
  • Birds - among others: osprey, great blue heron, harrier, clapper rail, American bittern, great egret, cattle egret, belted kingfisher, green heron, tundra swan, snow goose, Canadian goose, green-winged teal, mallard, red-winged blackbird, sanderling, great black-backed gull, herring gull, laughing gull, brown pelican, royal tern, common tern, kestrel, cardinal, king bird, glossy ibis, double-crested cormorant, American coot
  • Reptiles - black rat snake (or black racer), eastern hog-nosed snake, water moccasin, smooth green snake, brown water snake, eastern garter snake, brown snake, eastern box turtle, red-bellied slider, loggerhead turtle (dead on the beach).
 On my hike of a few miles on February 16, I did see some wildlife, and will share a few photos of this as well of views of the marsh and trail.  I also will discuss a "mystery guest" in a later post.

I started my walk by gazing across these cattails and the marsh at Back Bay:
Soon, I was headed down the nature trail that ends at the views of Back Bay near the memorial to Richard Hodge:
There is a little deck at the end of that trail with great views over the marsh and the bay.  The marsh vegetation looked a bit golden in the dawn's early light:
After leaving that park of the refuge, I headed down the path to the wildlife observation blind.  Along the way, I spotted this fellow, a great blue heron, trying his luck for breakfast. Near him was another animal that I will feature on a future post.
At this point, the west dike trail - closed for the winter - heads along this impoundment.
At the wildlife observation blind at the point where the east dike trail is closed for the winter, I spotted some Canadian geese and a dozen or so tundra swans.  The latter need to be headed north soon on their long and dangerous journey to the Arctic tundra soon.

As I walked past so many familiar sights, I felt a bit wistful, and I found it hard to leave when it came time to.  But I was cheered by thought that I will likely be back here at some point for another hike, if not nearly as frequently as before.  And, of course, I plan on lots of hikes to come in other areas.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sunrise at Sandbridge

After the great day on Friday hiking in the Great Dismal Swamp, I drove over to Sandbridge Beach for the night.  Although this is politically part of Virginia Beach, it is about 12 miles away as the pelican flies but worlds away in real terms.  Here is a view north to the Virginia Beach high rise hotels, miles away from Sandbridge:

I enjoyed a night walk on the beach, marveling at the stars and how few I recognized.

In the morning, I arose about 6 and got a mug of tea going, which hit the spot.  Then it was time to see what the sunrise was going to be like, and I went on the beach.  A lot of times if I am on the beach at dawn, I am by myself, but on Saturday morning, there were already 4-5 other people on the beach with fancy looking cameras.  As a reward for getting up early, we all saw the birth of a new day marked by a spectacular sunrise.  You weren't there, so I'm sharing some photos.  After a half hour on the beach, I drove to the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge for some morning hiking in the cold air.  More about that tomorrow...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Great? You Bet! Dismal? No Way!

Suppose you set yourself a goal of hiking to every natural lake in the State of Virginia?  How many hikes would that take?  Well, here is a clue - I hiked to 50% of the natural lakes in Virginia on Friday with my hike to Lake Drummond in the Great Dismal Swamp.  Paradoxically, Virginia's only other natural lake - Mountain Lake - is several hundred miles to the west and about 4,000 feet higher in elevation than Lake Dummond, which is not much above sea level.  I had a great day for my hike, and also took a hike to a place I'd never hiked to before.  My goal is to do at least nine other such trips this year.

The Great Dismal Swamp used to cover about a half million acres in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.  Three fourths of that has been drained and cultivated, and almost all of the virgin timber has been logged out.  But 126,000 acres is maintained and protected by federal and state agencies - your tax dollars at work.  The part I hiked in is run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  It's a place I've wanted to visit since moving to Virginia, and I finally made it.

I hiked along the Washington Ditch, which is a straight-as-an-arrow 4.5 mile hike each way to Lake Drummond.  But first, at the parking lot, I walked along a 3/4 mile boardwalk that goes through the swamp.  I didn't turn on my GPS for tracking until I was mostly done walking this part and realized that it looped to the pathway.  Here is the one-way track for my hike:

And here is an aerial view.  I started at the red circle and ended up at the purple arrow.  You can see the canal that runs to the lake, and you can see the cultivated land on the east and west edges of the photo.
This is a great place for wildlife.  There is a sizeable population of black bear here, about 300 individuals.  I didn't see any, although they were clearly out and about in the warm weather.  However, I did see an animal that I have only seen once before on a hike, which because I have so rarely seen them was more exciting than seeing a bear would have been.  More about that on another post.  I saw lots of gray squirrels, and some birds: rufus sided towhee, a great blue heron, and a red-tailed hawk for starters.  In the part of the hike on the boardwalk, I heard pileated woodpeckers calling and drumming, but didn't see any.  As I walked towards Lake Drummond, groups of ducks would get scared ahead of me and "jump" up, flying down the waterway and into the flooded woodlands.  I think that they were wood ducks.

As I said, I started my hike along this beautifully built boardwalk, which threaded its way through very wet woodlands.  Most of the woodlands are seasonally flooded, and the construction of 150 miles of logging road have disrupted the swamp's natural hydrology.  As a result, trees like bald cypress and Atlantic white cedar are less common now, and red maples are the dominant tree over much of the area.
This old log was covered with fungus and moss.
Here are a couple of views of the boardwalk.
You can see that in places, you would get very wet feet without this here.  Imagine what it must have been like lumbering in here 200 years ago, and digging the canals, which was largely done with slave labor.
Once I left the boardwalk, I turned east and started walking toward Lake Drummond, over four miles away.  It was easy walking on the old woods road.  The Washington Ditch to my right made water my constant companion.  Beyond that was the flooded woodlands. The land to the north - to my left as I headed towards the lake - seemed drier.

Although I didn't see a black bear, they were much in evidence along the way.  For all I know, one of them saw me or smelled me.

Although my hike seemed perfectly flat, the water in the Washington Ditch clearly was moving towards Lake Drummond, and in a few areas, created little riffles.
Most of the time, the old woods road was two to four feet above the grade of the waterway and very dry, but at a few points, it was quite wet.  It was an easy walk, and one can easily maintain an 17-20 minute mile pace along here.  Of course, with frequent stops to check things out, my overall pace was slower than that.
Most of the path was as straight as an arrow, but one spot had a right-way bend to it.  It was very near here that I saw my mystery animal - four of them, actually.
After 4.5 miles of walking, I reached Lake Drummond, "discovered" in 1755 by the first colonial governor of North Carolina, William Drummond.  It looks today very much the same as it did then.  There are two theories about how the lake was formed.  The first is by a meteorite collision.  The more likely theory is a vast peat fire that burned several feet down into the peat.

Lake Drummond is 3,100 acres in size, and had nine miles of shoreline.  It would be a tough slog to circumnavigate it.  It's average depth is only about three feet, and its deepest points are only six to seven feet.  I did see some kind of animals roiling its surface, probably some type of large fish.
I think this is a bald cypress, standing about 100 feet from the shoreline of the lake.
After I ate my lunch, I collected some water in my sandwich bag.  You can see that it naturally has an amber color, like very weak tea.  This is from the organic material that leaches into the water.  Supposedly the water has antibacterial properties and was valued in days of old to put on sailing ships for drinking water.  I did not test this theory.
After having lunch at the lake and exploring a bit, I walked the 4.5 miles back to my car in less than an hour and a half.  I thorougly enjoyed my day of hiking in Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp, and hope to return.

From there, I drove to Sandbridge, Virginia for the night.  Although I was tired from the long walking, I walked nearly two miles on the beach that night, marvelling at the stars.  It was a beautiful and clear night.  I could not quite make out the Milky Way, but seemingly millions of stars were visible.  At the end of the day, I was worn out, having walked over 29,000 steps that day, and hit the sack by 9:15!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Riddle Me This!

So, I have today off, and all week, I've been planning a hike near Chesapeake, Virginia.  And for several days, I've been checking the weather forecast there for Friday.  And every time I check it, it gets a little more dismal.  But when I check the weather nearby - north, south, east, and west - it looks great.

Here was my final check yesterday - essentially sunny and low 60's everywhere around I plan on going, but mid-40's and showers where I will be.

What in the world is up with that?  Not that 45, overcast, and showery would make for a horrible February hike, but who wouldn't prefer sunny and low 60's?  It was like I had picked the one area of southeast Virginia where for some inexplicable reason, it was going to be 20 degrees colder than everywhere else.  And every day that I checked, the readings were consistent.  If anything, the forecast was actually warming up in the surrounding areas compared to the start of the week.

Then yesterday, I figured it out - I was checking Chesapeake, West Virginia - not Chesapeake, Virginia - on  What a difference a few hundred miles makes!  Well, regardless of the weather, I hope to have a great hike today to a place I have never hiked in before.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Acts of Kindness

I was reminded this week of an act of kindness that I had done long ago and totally forgotten about.  Since it involved a hike of sorts, I decided to write about it here.

Last week, I caught up with my friend Bill for a beer after work.  He and I worked together 15 years ago when I was a contractor for his company.  Also working there was a lady who I will call "Robin."  She was legally blind.  I forget what had caused her problem, but she wore glasses like Coke bottles and needed a special magnification device to see a tiny area of her computer screen at any one time.  Her husband would give her a ride to and from work.  He was older than she and was retired, even 15 years ago.  At times, on nice days, she would walk the three miles to work, which I always thought was pretty courageous of her.  I would see her on occasion after I no longer worked there.  She was a huge fan of opera, and now and then, after her husband got too ill (he has since passed away) to go to things like that, I would take her to an opera - something she much appreciated and enjoyed.  Robin was about my age, maybe a year or two older, which would make her coming up on retirement now.

So last week, while we sipped our delicious Legend Brewing Company brews and caught up, Bill said, "So, did you hear about Robin?" It turns out that she was diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer and was given four months to live.  That was three months ago.  She had retired immediately - good move.  I got her phone number and called her a couple of days later.  We chatted about how she was doing - pretty well, given the circumstances - and a cruise she hopes to live long enough to take in April.  I encouraged her to buy the tickets, set that stake in the ground.  She asked if I would be interested in going to the Richmond Symphony concert this coming weekend to hear Mozart's Requiem.  I told her that I would likely get tickets and take her, and would email her.

So I emailed her later about getting the tickets, and she sent me a nice reply - how she was looking forward to the concert, would probably register for the cruise, and how she had enjoyed the operas that I had taken her to a few times.  Then she said this: "I still remember your taking me out on the rocks off Belle Island one warm January day, on our extended lunch break."

I searched my memories.  At first, I had no recollection of this, but gradually, the faintest of images came to me of guiding Robin down there to this beautiful spot so she could see the rapids.  I had left my assignment with her company in January 1998, 15 years ago, and had taken her there before I left.  It would have been difficult for her even with a arm to hold on to, but she had expressed an interest in getting close to the river, and we had gone that one day.  I had totally forgotten about this, but she hadn't, and clearly it was a great memory for her even after all of these years for her to mention that specifically in her note.

So here is the moral to my story: when you perform an act of kindness for someone, even a tiny act of kindness, you very well might forget about it later.  But they won't.  And the same is true if instead you perform an act of meanness.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Lunch Time by the James

This week has swung wildly between mid-winter and late spring: an ice storm one day; mid-70's the next day and the day after; back into a deep freeze today.  But on one of those mid-70's days, I took advantage of the weather to take a four mile walk at lunch time.  I had to go over an hour to have time to walk, explore a bit on Belle Isle in the James River, and eat lunch on the rocks as the mighty James roared by a few feet away.  Did I want to go back to work?  Hell, no!  But I did.  And since Blogger has fixed the problem with photo uploads, I shall share a few photos of my all too short lunch break.

Looking this way (to the south) there is no doubt one is near a big city with the view of the Robert E. Lee Bridge and downtown Richmond.  Turn 180 degrees, and the view suggests you are nowhere near an urban area.
This guy and a pal were running the Hollywood Rapids.  It looked like fun if you know what you are doing.
Shortly after where the photo above was taken, they got to go through this.  Yikes!  While I ate my lunch on the rocks, one of them was scouting this rapid.
A pleasant one mile walking trail circumnavigates Belle Isle.  Along the way, I watched a young woman, egged on by friends, scale a steep rocky area, climbing about 40 feet nearly straight up.  We all cheered for her when she got to the top.
Off Belle Isle and on the way back to work, there is a nice overlook of the Tredegar Iron Works Historic Site, which now hosts the cities Civil War Battlefield Visitors' Center.