Saturday, July 30, 2016

"Bearly" Missed!

Yesterday, I had the day off and I went for an eight mile hike in Shenandoah National Park, one of my favorites - the Jones Run - Doyle's River Falls circuit.  I'll do a more complete post about the hike later, but in this post, I am focused on the wildlife.  I had a troubling experience near the end of the hike that got my heart beating and adrenaline pumping for sure.

But earlier in the hike, as I climbed the trail towards Lower Doyle's River Falls, I head the sound of rocks being flipped and so I stopped.  Eventually, a young bear - probably out on its own this year for the first time - came into view about 100 feet away.  He was flipping rocks in the steam, looking for food.  I watched him for five minutes, and don't think he knew I was there.  He was too far for a good photo, and there was a lot of vegetation, but I got these shots with my camera on maximum digital zoom.

I moved on, and later, I heard what had to be another bear flipping rocks off in the woods but couldn't see him.  Later, I spotted a deer about 50 feet off the trail in thick cover, only because it stepped on a branch and snapped it, which made me stop and look for what animal it was.

So with about a mile and a half left in my hike, I was tired.  The trail was finally fairly easy after climbing 1,800 feet, and I was cruising along, deep in thought.  I was on the Appalachian Trail, about a tenth of mile from the Doyle's River overlook.  As I stepped past a tree, I became aware of a large animal next to the tree literally five feet away from me.  It was a bear!  I hadn't seen it because the tree screened it from my angle and because I was thinking, not looking as much.  But the bear had to have heard me coming, yet it didn't move.  It was less than 2 feet from the trail and about 3 feet ahead of the point of the trail I was at.

Luckily for me, it ran away, not towards me.  But it only ran about 15 feet and turned to look at me.  I yanked out my camera - having come to an immediate stop - and snapped this kind of fuzzy photo.  Either my hands were not steady or I rushed the focus.

So then, I was thinking "What next?"  The bear was not aggressive, nor was it afraid of me.  It was much too close.  I was well within its comfort zone of 100 - 200 feet.  I put the camera away, and backed slowly down the trail, following my original direction of travel.  I am sure that it could smell the apple core, empty peanut butter cracker package, and empty cupcake package in my pack, and the small amount of mixed nuts in my pocket.  A bear has a nose that makes a bloodhound look like a little kid with a head cold, and the only thing they think about 95% of the time is food.

The bear stared at me, and neither of us made a sound.  I didn't want to turn my back - it was still much too close, by now no more that 25 feet away.  But I was afraid I would trip if I kept walking backwards, so I partially turned and continued walking slowly while still having my eyes on the bear.  As soon as I partially turned my back, the bear immediately took two steps towards me.  Not the reaction I wanted at all!  So I turned and faced him head on.  We stared at each other for about 30 seconds, then he turned slightly and trotted down the slope and crossed the trail no more than 10 - 15 feet from me!  It continued into very thick brush, walking fast but not running.  A bear can out-sprint a race horse, by the way, in case you are wondering why one should never run.

At that point, I did something just on impulse.  I whacked a tree with my trekking pools, creating a loud sound.  I hoped it would scare the bear.  But he just stopped down in the brush, maybe 50 feet away now.  At that point, I turned and walked slowly away, checking now and again behind me.

There had been signs on the trail a couple of miles in each direction talking about problem bears in the area with reduced fear of humans, and how camping was banned on this part of the trail.  I guess this guy was one of them.  A bear with this little fear of a human is not good.  If I had panicked and run, I think it likely would have charged me.  Even staying calm does not guarantee a good outcome, but in this case I had some luck.

My guess is that bears in this area have been getting food from humans, either deliberately or stuff people threw away.  The former is a terrible idea, and so is the latter because the food will have the human scent on it.  In both cases, the bear will see humans as a source of food, and the outcome can never be good.

I was hyper-alert for the rest of my hike, let me tell you!  You would have been too, right?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hot as the Devil!

I did something today that I cannot remember doing.  Maybe it means that I really am getting old!  I aborted a hike after less than a mile and a half!

The trek was with a group of seven others, and we had driven a long, long way - nearly three hours.  The goal was an 8 mile loop to see the Devil's Marbleyard - a huge boulder field of large boulders up in the mountains.  I drove two people in my car, and the trip leader drove her van with the other five.

Here is the location (yellow square), near Natural Bridge (red arrow) in western Virginia.

I knew it would be warm but usually the mountains are cooler.  Not today - it was mid-80's F. when we started hiking.  It was steady uphill but not steep.  I stopped to take a photo and was quickly at the rear of the group.  After about 1.2 miles, I stopped to get a drink.  I was drenched in sweat.  I sat down on a rock, and things just started spinning.  I felt so hot and worn out.  The trip leader was hanging with me, and everyone else had disappeared behind the bend.  I told her I was not feeling really well, so hot.  She said we could go more slowly.  Or I could turn back.  I thought for about 30 seconds.  The group as a whole was faster than the pace today that felt comfortable for me.  I was already lagging behind.  I was not feeling good, and even drinking water didn't help.  I told her I would turn back and wait at the cars.  She said that she could take the seven of them in her van.  So we agreed that I would go home, and return to the meeting spot tonight when they got there to give the two people their things that they had left in my car.

I hated to bail but it seemed like the sensible thing to do.  It literally took me about 45 minutes to feel comfortable, temperature-wise, in my air-conditioned car!  During the drive home, temperatures were 90 - 99 F.

Here is my pathetic 2.4 mile (round trip) track, in blue.  The Devil's Marbleyard, aptly named today because it felt as hot as hell, in the black circle.

Here is a satellite image of the area.  You can see that I was not too far from reaching the "marble yard."

Here are the other seven hikers at the start of the hike.

This hike goes into the James River Face Wilderness, which is in the Jefferson National Forest.

When I crossed this stream on the way back to the car, I just wanted to dive in.

The way to do this: go on a cooler day, and/or camp at one of the great sites near the trail head so you can hit the trail early before it gets too hot.

As bad as it felt to go back, I think it was the right decision for me today.  I need to do some hiking by myself for a few times to see how I do before I try group hiking again.  If I had kept going, I either would have slowed them down tremendously, or potentially put them in a situation of dealing with an ill hiker.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Birds and Dragons in the Low Country!

First, a little milestone - this is my 500th post on this blog!  Plus, my 6.4 miles at Pinkney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina last week put me over 100 trail miles for the year - halfway to my goal!

We were mainly in South Carolina for some beach time in the wonderful and warm ocean.  But one morning, I was out at daybreak to get in a little hiking and see some birds.

Here is my route, starting and ending at the blue arrow in the lower left.  The point on the right that I hiked to is Bull Point.  The small loop towards the right was my walk around Nini Chapin Pond.

This is a very level hike, walking along wetlands and through maritime forests and coastal zones, and going by several freshwater ponds that were put in for wildlife.  I saw many birds and land crabs, but no alligators - although a volunteer told me that a 13 foot gator lives in one of the ponds.  I did see a surprise animal on the hike back - a dragon!

The first pond I got to is Ibis Pond.  It has a fantastic amount of birds.  There are also alligators living in this green soup.  They discourage raccoons and opossums from crossing over to eat eggs and baby birds.  But they also require "protection money."  When a young heron or ibis falls in, they become a meal for the alligators.

Here are some of the white ibises and a young heron at this pond.

This refuge is only open to the public because of volunteers.  I talked to one of them.  Ten years ago, the US Fish and Wildlife Services did not have the resources to maintain the refuge to keep public access.  Nine local people volunteered to do work there, and this great area continues benefits humans as well as wildlife because of them.  Volunteer efforts created this butterfly garden at Ibis Pond.

This is a rare long leaf pine forest, once common throughout the Southeast.

Prescribed burning is used to keep the long leaf pine forests viable.  Their bark can protect the tree from fast-burning forest fires.

A wood duck nest box stands in one of the wildlife ponds.

This is Nini Chapin Pond, which I walked around, and saw much wildlife, such as
  this pair of white ibis, and

this young tri-colored heron.  I also saw several purple gallinules and many green herons, but could not get a good photo.

Much of my hike went through coastal maritime forest,

where Spanish moss, always picturesque, was much in evidence

I also saw dozens of these little land crabs in the paths while walking to Bull Point.  They were an inch or two in size and skittered across the path like big beetles.

Here is the view at Bull Point across the Inter-Coastal Waterway.

I saw a number of shy birds while hiking along the shore of Starr Pond on the way back, like this young egret, and

this green heron.  I saw at least a dozen green herons on this hike, but they are a very shy bird and usually fly before one gets close to them.

Returning by Ibis Pond, I saw these adult white ibises high in a tree,

As I got closed to my car, I spotted this dragon along the marsh.  I think the species is a Rebel Barker.  It didn't spot me, and I was able to avoid becoming its breakfast!  I think it was sleeping because it never moved a muscle.  ;^)

To me, the perfect hike combines exercise, wildlife, and scenery.  I'd have to say - although the views in the Low Country can't match mountain scenery - that this hike meets those requirements really well.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Foggy but Pleasant

My friend Doug suggested taking a hike together this weekend a few days ago, and I thought it was a good idea.  Saturday was his birthday so we picked Sunday.  As fate would have it, Saturday was a picture-perfect bluebird day, and Sunday was rainy and foggy.  I had selected a hike in Shenandoah NP, but the rain looked heavier up that way, so Doug suggested Mount Pleasant.  The rain looked a bit north of there, and it was.  Other than a few drops now and again, the weather was just intensely foggy and humid.  The spectacular views on top of 4,000 foot Mount Pleasant were obscured by fog.  This is a nice, moderate 6.2 mile circuit hike, and was my third time doing it.  I'll be back!  For one thing, I found a great campsite about a half mile from the summit, and maybe a 10 minute (steep) walk from water.

Here is the track, hiked counter-clockwise.  The purple star marks the west summit of Mount Pleasant.  We didn't bother hiking to the east summit, as there was no view in the fog.

I don't have an elevation profile, but I am guessing we had about 1,300 feet of elevation gain and loss, moderate but not extreme.

Here are some photos of our foggy day:

The first mile is level and very mellow!

My friend Doug takes a short break, surrounded by this plant which I didn't try to identify.

This big maple looks ghostly in the fog.

Summit at 4,000 feet!

What a view from the top of Mount Pleasant!

(I couldn't resist - here is the view when it is not foggy!)

This spider web looks bejeweled, doesn't it?

This would be a great campsite for a future trek, as long as one doesn't mind going a ways for water.

This was my fifth hike in this area, and I always seem to find at least one amazing mushroom.

We saw many beautiful wildflowers along the trail.

Yes, it was not the best weather for a hike (highs in the 60's F. in Virginia in July?  Really?) and we almost talked ourselves into staying home, but I am very glad we got out there and got in some trail miles in a beautiful area.