Friday, June 20, 2014

Stirling, Scotland Walk-About

Time to finish up my posts about my walks and hikes in Scotland.  This walk took place on May 24.

After seeing the William Wallace Monument, we wanted to visit the famous Bannockburn Battlefield, but it turned out that there was a big parade on the way and traffic would be impossible.  So instead, the lassies decided to relax at the motel, and the laddies decided to walk about Stirling for a couple of hours.  It was mostly urban but we also found a nice park along the way, high up in this hilly city and near the Stirling Castle that we had spent the morning touring.

We parked at a car park near the train station, crossed the river on the tall pedestrian bridge, and started walking along the streets of Olde Stirling.

Here is another view of the Wallace Monument in the distance, several miles as the crow flies.

After walking through the city for a good ways, we came on a wild looking and inviting city park, and began hiking some of the trails.  There were a few people about, mostly young lovers - ah, is there anything like being young and in love in the spring time? - and one very friendly border collie.

We spied these cannon high up on a hill, and decided to walk up.  I thought that the beheading stone might be in that general area, and wanted to see it (but not try it out).

As we walked along the trail, my brother-in-law said "Do you smell that minty smell?"  The edges of the path were thick with the plant shown below, and I decided to rub it between my thumb and forefinger to release the minty odor.  Big mistake!  In a split second, my fingers felt as if I had touched a red-hot stove!  They hurt for a good 12 hours and didn't feel right for 24 hours.  This turns out to be stinging nettle.  My brother-in-law, who was reaching for the plant, was thankful that I was a little bit quicker than he was.

At the top of the hill, near the pair of cannon, was the beheading stone.  It is no longer in use.

Here is a panoramic view of Stirling - the new part to the left - from the top of the hill in the park.

The cannon stand silent guard on the hilltop.

As we looped back towards the old part of the city through the park, we caught a view of Stirling Castle.

Later that evening, we had dinner at this restaurant.  The courtyard looks so inviting, but it was raining later on.  I tried to convince my brother-in-law to have an ale at several places along our walk - with me buying - but he declined, saying that he would have a Guinness with dinner.

As we returned to the city and headed back towards the train station and the car park, we came along another pair of old cannon.

The next day, we would be leaving Bonnie Scotland to head home to the US of A.  It had been a great trip, but I wish we had had more time there.  Still, we packed a lot into our eight days in this lovely and friendly country.  I hope someday to return.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

William Wallace Memorial near Stirling

OK, back to bonny Scotland for just a wee bit more!  This walk happened Saturday, May 24.

Was walking to the top of the William Wallace Memorial at Stirling a hike?  Well, not really, although we did walk up the trail - about 10 minutes each way, uphill on the way up, then downhill on the way down - just to get to the monument, and then there were the 280 or so steps to the top.  So I did enough walking to at least write about this monument, which is near Wallace's signature victory against the English Army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.

Ever see the movie "Braveheart?"  Well, I hadn't, but I have since rectified this omission after returning from Scotland.  I know that Mel Gibson's epic was a movie, and that it took a lot of literary license, but it also had much factual material, and it made me glad I was never a Medieval soldier.

This is a view of the Wallace Monument from several miles away near Stirling Castle. It is very Gothic and can be seen from almost anywhere in the area.  You can see that it is built at the top of a tall hill.

Here is what the pathway looks like on the way up to the monument.  You can also ride a free bus up there. Would I do that?  Maybe in a few more decades.  Maybe....  There are several miles of additional trails that can be hiked if one chooses.  If it had not inconvenienced the others, I would have likely walked a few more miles exploring the woodlands here.  It is a beautiful spot.

Two thirds of the way up was this nice pastoral view.

Miles away, you can see Stirling Castle, which we had toured for several hours that morning.  It is fascinating.

Wallace is one of Scotland's most revered heroes.  Here is a likeness sculpted part way up his monument.

He must have been incredibly strong to have wielded a sword like this one, a replica of his Claymore.  I mean, you could have stood in upstate New York and stabbed someone in New Hampshire with this thing!

Here's a depiction of William Wallace in stained glass near the top of the monument, which has several rooms with exhibits as you climb the spiraling staircase.

From the very top is a large viewing platform.  Here is part of the mostly pastoral view.

And here is a panoramic view from the top.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge was fought right in that section of the river, back a bit from the foreground.

Wallace was a brave man, and he paid for his bravery and his convictions with an absolutely horrific and unimaginably cruel death at the hands of the English as their prisoner in 1305, eight years after his historic and still remembered victory at this place.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Cedar Run and White Oak Canyon Loop SNP

If it were a picture-perfect late spring day, which would you choose?  (a) Going into work, sitting in your little cube all day answering emails, trying to meet deadlines, and going to meetings, or (b) Taking a hike in the mountains along beautiful streams, seeing interesting wildlife, and getting your butt kicked on the steady, relentless, uphill hike out?  If (b) is not a no-brainer, then please review the choices again!

I had last Friday off, and I choose (b) - without hesitation!  I selected a hike that I had done about 18 years ago and not since, the Cedar Run - White Oak Canyon circuit hike in Shenandoah National Park.  It was an absolutely perfect day.  How perfect?  Well, the normal hazy conditions up in the Blue Ridge were not in evidence.  I took this photo from the Skyline Drive, because I knew I would not have many views on the hike, and you can see how clear it is - click the photo to see an enhanced view:
I remembered a couple of things from taking this hike back in the 1990's: the streams were beautiful, and the hike out is a bear!  And I remembered correctly.  I was very tired at the end, and came out with the realization that I need to work out more.  But I had a great day, hiking along cascade after cascade and seeing wildlife.  Before I even got to the trail head, I saw five deer and a pileated woodpecker flew across the road at practically windshield level.  But the best wildlife sighting of the entire day (and maybe for the entire year to come) was this on the Skyline Drive.  And the wildlife sightings continued on the hike - within the first mile, I got a great look at this creature.  And I had a baby snake - either a rattlesnake or a copperhead - strike at my foot before it squirmed under a rock before I could nab a photo.

You can tell that this is a tough hike by looking at the topographical map of the day, and at the elevation profile.  The track for the hike is the circular route on the left.  I hiked counter-clockwise (anti-clockwise as they say in Scotland).  The track to the upper right is from my Robertson Mountain hike last year, and Old Rag is also near by.  I descended on the Cedar Run Trail, climbed out on the White Oak Canyon Trail, and shortened my original plans by 1.5 miles by hiking back to the car on an old fire road.

Yeah, the elevation profile does not lie!  You will know that you have quads at the end of this hike.  And if you don't have quads, you will spend the night on the trail whimpering until you feel strong enough to finish hiking out.  In 8.8 miles of hiking, there were very few level sections.  Mile 4-5, where you connect from the Cedar Run Trail to the White Oak Canyon Trail, is fairly level.  And the last half mile is more or less level.  Total elevation loss and gain is about 3,300 feet, and from the low to the high point is a difference of about 2,200 feet.
The dominant colors on this hike are green (the forest) and blue (the water).  I was hiking along one stream or another for about five miles of the hike.  I loved the sounds the streams make as they dropped on their way to the Chesapeake Bay.  But I also liked the chance, when away from them, to listen to the calls of forest birds - wood thrush, Eastern wood peewee, and oven birds were much in evidence, along with many others.  This is near the start of the hike, quiet Appalachian woodlands before I reached the beginnings of Cedar Run.

It was very clear that a bear was grocery shopping here.  I didn't see any bears while hiking, but you might want to check out the wildlife sightings referenced earlier in this post!

I'd forgotten what a gorgeous stream Cedar Run is.  It does not have the dramatic falls that White Oak Canyon has.  But it has a seemingly infinite variety of small cascades.  Here are three examples: water flowing over a rock face,

a natural water slide into a refreshing pool,

and two small waterfalls, one above the other.  Because of all the water, I only carried a one liter bottle and used my filter twice to refill it.  This kept my day pack weight to 16 pounds, and I could easily have lightened that by leaving emergency gear, fleece, and rain jacket behind.  None of that was needed, but do you think I would have felt foolish (and cold) if I had sprained an ankle and ended up spending a night alone in the woods without any gear like that?

The Cedar Run Trail is mostly steep, rough, and rocky.  You can see a typical section here.  As tough as the hike up White Oak Canyon is, I think it would have been even tougher to hike out up this trail.  There are very few switchbacks.  It just picks it way up through the rocks.  My trekking poles were invaluable on the descent, saving wear and tear on my knees.  I swear by them!

After the rough and tumble descent, it felt really good to hike for nearly a mile along a quiet forest pathway.  I liked hearing all of the birds.  I saw a number of birds on the hike, but often could not hear them because of the stream.

Soon enough, I came to White Oak Run.  There is easy access to the lower part of this stream from another trail head, so I started seeing lots of people, including some fly fishermen.  It was near this spot that I had the little snake strike at me and vibrate his tail.  Because it was under a rock and quickly disappeared, I could not get a positive ID.  Initially I thought it was a rattlesnake, but now I am thinking copperhead.  Whichever, it was not worth losing a finger or hand to turn the rock over to find it and get a better view.

There were four major falls on the hike up the Canyon.  These next two photos are the two falls that make up Lower White Oak Falls.

After a lot of climbing, I had partial views over White Oak Canyon.

After this, with a lot more climbing, I came on the second big waterfall,

and above that, the water just rushed through chutes like this.

Next, after more climbing, was the third of the four large falls.

I thought I would throw in a close up of the trail track so you can see some of the many switchbacks!  What a work out!

Here is a section of one of the switchbacks, with some nice rock work by the Shenandoah National Park trail crews.  It was kind of like climbing a steep, seemingly endless set of stairs.

Finally, my efforts got me a partial view of the biggest falls of them all, the Upper White Oak Falls.  It is about 90 feet tall and in a very inaccessible part of the canyon.  Vegetation obscured the view somewhat, but it would have been dangerous to try for a clearer view.

It was at this point that I decided to save some time and distance by hiking out on the fire road.  It was still steadily uphill most of the way out, but not as steep and not nearly as uneven as the trails.

I had a great time, but was very tired, and very happy to reach my car!  I still had a 2.5 hour drive home, and that is not easy when you are tired.  This hike was another wake-up call that I need to improve my conditioning, which is decent, but not up to snuff for doing this kind of hike without feeling whipped at the end.  But it is a great hike if you are relatively fit - you can't beat the cascades and falls!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

What Am I?

On my Friday hike through White Oak Canyon, a large bird swooped along Cedar Run.  What I initially thought it was, I was wrong about, as I saw when it eventually landed on a branch over the stream.  I have heard these calling many times, including on my last backpacking trip, but I am not sure if I ever saw one before.  See if you can guess....

You think of me as bird of night
Patrolling when the sun's not bright

But sometimes when its broad daylight,
Think you will see me, you just might

Plumage of brown with streaks of white
I think that I'm a handsome sight

Whether or not you think I'm cute
I really just don't give a hoot

Keep your veggies and keep your fruit
It's mice and such I'm in pursuit

Mice and rats may tremble with fear
If they hear me, and know I'm near

Did all these clues my name reveal?
This final one should seal the deal:

At dusk and dawn, you'll hear my call:
"Who cooks for you?  Who cooks for you-all?"

Got a clue?
Give a hoot?
Is the answer
barred from
your mind?
and all
will be

The proper guess this time?  Barred owl -
If you guessed right, shout, hoot, and howl!

My first thought as the large bird swooped by from behind, flying down the stream, was that it a hawk.  But it seemed too large and wide for a forest hawk.  Fortunately, it landed on a branch.  As I approached, it dove for the stream, like it was hunting, and at that point, I could see that it was a barred owl.  It flew back to the branch, then took off down the stream.  I followed and got a photo.  Then it took off again.
I thought that was my last sighting, but it landed, somewhere in the dense woods above the stream ahead of me, and in a moment, I found the owl again.  This time, it stayed on the branch, just 15-20 feet from me, for a good 10 minutes.  Most of the time, it was turned away, but now and then, it turned its head, owl fashion, towards me.
I didn't know that this type of owl was so active in daylight - it was past 10AM.  It was amazing to see one so close, and it is something that I will remember for a long time.  Eventually, the owl flew as silently as a wraith down the stream one last time, and I didn't see it again.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

What Am I?

I'll take a bit of a break from my Scotland posts, lassies and laddies, to post about Friday's (June 6) hike in Shenandoah National Park.  And I am going to do this a little differently, first posting about a couple of critters that I saw, then later about the hike itself, which you can read about here.

I saw three animals that were worthy of posting about, but only got photos of two of them.  This first one should be very easy.  Follow the clues and make your guess....

What I can find is what I'll eat:
Insects and plants, sweet fruits, and meat

I search all day to find these goods
While wondering through the deep woods

I need to eat all that I can
For winter's sleep is my grand plan

It's in the winter, cold and deep,
That you would find me fast asleep

There cubs are born, helpless and small
They'll stay with me til second fall

And by that time, like me they're large
But while they're small, watch out - I'll charge!

I have thick fur, both front and back
To keep me warm - it's deepest black

My fur makes hats for Coldsteam Guards
Who stand their watch near Scootland Yards

That should be enough clues.
your guess!

I'm sure that you guessed a black bear
When I'm with cubs, you must beware!

I saw these bears along the road before I got to my hiking point.  While I've seen them while hiking a number of times, I've only gotten photos once, in Grand Tetons National Park.  So I decided to post these photos, even though it was before the hike.

First, I spied what looked like an animal from the distance as I drove north on the Skyline Drive.  I slowed and got close and was thrilled to see a black bear!  The bear began crossing the road, then stopped right in front of me ....

.... and looked back.

And here's why - a tiny cub came out of the brush and joined her.  They crossed to the other side, and the cub disappeared into the dense vegetation.  But a moment later, the bear turned and started to cross back to my left.

Imagine my delight when not one, but two, little cubs joined her.  Clearly, she had gone to get her other cub after seeing me as a potential threat coming between them.

They reached the other side....

Then, one by one, the cubs scampered up the tree that was behind her, I suppose on some signal from their mother.  She began munching on big mouthfuls of this plant.  I watched for a moment, then left them in peace to live their lives.

What a wonderful and fortunate wildlife sighting.  I was annoyed with myself that I had left my house about 30 minutes later than planned.  But had I left on time, I would not have seen these bears, nor would I have seen the other incredible animal after starting my hike.  So I guess that there was a reason that I left late.  We need to be patient and accepting of things, as one never knows where they might lead.