Sunday, December 31, 2017

Our 52-Hike Challenge 2017

On January 1, 2017 as Ann and I were headed to Harper's Ferry WV for our first hike of 2017, Ann told me of something she read about on a hiking site, a 52-Hike Challenge in which participants strive to make 52 hikes in a 52-week period. She asked if I might be up for it. Why not?

Our real challenge is that I work 6 days a week and 7 days some weeks. That leaves fewer than 52 days a year for hiking especially if you factor in days off for sickness and really bad weather. In any case, challenge accepted for the calendar year 2017 and this is our saga.

Hike (click through)
Apr 16, 2017
Apr 9, 2017
Apr 2, 2017
Mar 19, 2017
Mar 3, 2017
Feb 26, 2017
Feb 19, 2017
Feb 12, 2017
Feb 5, 2017
Jan 29, 2017
Jan 1, 2017

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Cacapon State Park, Berkeley Springs WV

Ever have a day that just doesn't turn out as planned? For us, Easter Sunday, April 16th and the day of our 11th hike of 2017 was just such a day: very little went according to plan. The plan started to fall apart immediately and just kept falling apart during the day. That doesn't mean it wasn't a successful day; it just means that we were executing plan B a lot during the day.

Our main plan for the day was to drive from Winchester the short 26 miles to Cacapon State Park just over the VA-WV border in Morgan County WV, with the closest town being Berkeley Springs WV another 10 miles up US-522. First things first. I had to ask when I first arrived in this area 25 years ago. It is kuh-KAY-pun. We did arrive at the park, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the mid-1930s, without incident, but after having executed plan B for breakfast.

This is a Gem of a State Park
Saturday, as are all spring Saturdays, was busy at the restaurant and found me hopping from task to task all day, without time to consider food for Sunday. I usually make us something for breakfast and/or lunch, but that just wasn't in the cards this weekend. So I thought on Sunday that we could hit Steamy's Café on the way out of town, have a cup of coffee, a breakfast bagel, and get Lenny to make us a couple of bagels for lunch. The only concern was that it was Easter Sunday, so I checked his web site and Facebook page to see if he mentioned being closed for the holiday. No mention.

Sunday morning, we got the dogs walked (the brown dog hopped in the bed at 6:30 just to make sure we were going to get up and feed her) and packed up in short order and arrived in downtown Winchester about 8:15. Sure enough, Steamy's was dark with a small CLOSED note on the front door. No worries: I had actually formulated a plan B in advance for just this case. We walked two blocks down Piccadilly Street to Lloyd's Tropical Island Coffee where Lloyd was just opening up and welcomed us with his trademark warm smile.

Hanging at Lloyd's Tropical Island

Jamaican-Owned Business Much?
Ann got the full treatment for her coffee, both maple syrup and sweetened condensed milk. As a black coffee drinker, I cannot abide any sweetener in my coffee, but clearly she enjoyed hers. We decided to grab some patties for lunch and for breakfast. What else to do in a Jamaican joint? After a couple cups of coffee waiting for the patties to cook, we bought two vegetable patties and two beef ones and took our leave. I ate my vegetable patty in the car on the way; Ann took a couple of bites and I could tell she didn't really like it. To be fair, it wasn't fully baked (I suspect they rushed them for us) and the filling was really gloppy. We both ate our beef patties, with the trademark saffron yellow crust and a much tastier beef filling, for lunch on top of Cacapon Mountain.

Not Fully Baked Jamaican Veggie Patty
Clearly, luck smiled on us and we hit peak Redbud bloom for our hike and the drive up to Morgan County. For miles, the sides of the road were swathed in a flaming pink hedge, a glorious sight to behold. This is one of the things we are going to miss when we relocate to the West Coast. As we turned off 522 onto the park entrance road, we changed from rolling valley to shady woods and lichen-covered boulders. This park, with its Robert Trent Jones golf course, swimming lake with white sand beach, rental cabins, and 20+ miles of hiking trails, is a gem.

As we pulled into the parking lot at the Lodge, just shy of the golf clubhouse, the day was turning warm in a hurry and we had all the windows in the Jeep down. We were wearing just shorts and t-shirts, a big departure from what we have been wearing this spring. I made sure to put on sun block before I left, but I got distracted and failed to do my arms. I would come to regret that later. We were both really warm standing around in the sunshine getting geared up, a harbinger of things to come.

The Day That the Redbuds Were in Full Bloom

Redbud Close Up, Cercis canadensis
A quick walk down the paved road found us at the Laurel Trail trailhead between two of the rental cabins. We quickly entered fairly sterile woods with nothing in bloom except for random red buds and cherry trees. On the ground were just a few purple violets and a few random bluets. Other than that, it was just brown leaves, still dormant trees, and blazing sun.

This Was our Hike: Brown Woods and No Views
It was an easy walk to the Central Trail and then south to Ziler Loop trail, the trail that climbs up and along the ridge of Cacapon Mountain before descending and coming back down by the reservoir. Even before we started to truly climb, I could tell that Annie was not doing well in the heat. Even though it was only about 80 degrees (with very high humidity from the thunderstorms the night before), you have to put that in perspective. The very hottest day this year that we have hiked has had highs almost 20 degrees cooler; to say that we have not yet had time to become habituated to higher temperatures would be an understatement.

First Dogwood, Cornus florida, of the Spring!

Beautiful Cherries in Full Bloom

Baby Cherries
I could feel the heat of the sun scorching me as we walked through the largely leafless canopy. Once we had climbed a few hundred feet, there were no leaves at all. This did make for some good opportunities to watch birds, including this little chickadee that flew right up and started giving us what for.

Chatty Cathy Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis
In a surprise, as we started to really climb (and the Ziler Trail is pretty steep in parts), we started hearing the first Eastern Towhees of the year (dinosaur that I am, I still call them Rufous-sided Towhees, though scientists have moved on from that nomenclature). They are the bird that we most frequently encounter on our hikes, but which we never see. I went all last year without being able to get a usable photo of these colorful birds who love to skulk in the leaves on the ground. I finally was able to get two males to hold still for me long enough to snap a few frames. I had help with this first guy though: his interest was firmly held by a nearby female to whom he was singing.

Eastern Towhee, Pipilo erythrophthalmus

Another Male Towhee
Thankfully, part of the time there was stiff breeze blowing that helped cool us off. It was hellish warm when that breeze stopped though. But the breeze was just right for a lot of Turkey Vultures that were cruising the hillside.

Lots of Vultures Cruising Cacapon Mountain
On our way back down from the top, a little Chipping Sparrow was busy proclaiming his turf. This was the first one of the year for me, so I guess they're starting to migrate back through. Each year, we seem to have a pair that nests in the crape myrtle in our front yard. I was lucky enough to get a frame of this tiny sparrow singing away.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

Chipper in Full Voice
The views from the trail were scant and not very good as a rule and when the leaves get on the trees, there really won't be any views at all, so it is hard for me to recommend anyone going out of their way to come hike this trail. If you're in the area, of course, by all means hike it. But honestly, I'd rather walk the golf course: it's a lot more beautiful and you have a chance to see red and flying squirrels along the course. Alas, you'd need clubs in hand and have paid greens fees to do that.

Sleepy Creek Mountain from Trail
From time to time, we got glimpses of the wonderful Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course in the valley below. About fifteen years ago, this was my quasi-home course and I have played many a round here. It's a thoughtfully designed course with its share of quirks, including the vast double green shared by holes 4 and 8, the par 3 number 15 that is two clubs downhill and the site of my best par rescue ever, and the long par 5 number 18 that often plays straight into the wind, necessitating hitting a 2-iron off the tee rather than driver. Geese are a problem here and I actually hit one once with a drive on number 18.

Fifteenth Green?
Enough reminiscing and back to the hike. Climbing the steep hill in the heat really got to Annie. The heat really plays havoc with her health and I could see that her finishing the hike was seriously in question. By the time I pushed on ahead of her to see how far we were from a bailout trail back to the Lodge, I was pretty certain she couldn't climb any further and she even posted such to Facebook while I was gone. It turned out that we were only about 500 yards from the bailout trail with only 200 yards of climb left.

We debated, but ultimately, it was three-quarters of a mile shorter back to the car by finishing the climb rather than turning around. So, yeah, her day was definitely not going as planned and we were planning to execute the plan B bailout trail. Fortunately, clouds were starting to form in the sky and she got about 15 minutes of cloud cover that let her sit, rest, eat a little, get hydrated, and then push on with me to the top. I left my gear at the top and slack-packed it back to her and back to the top again.

A Great Place to Rest
Up at elevation, we saw a few more flowers than down below, but still, not many. My favorite of the day had to be the all blue Birdfoot Violet that reminded me of a Dwarf Crested Iris.

Dwarf Cinquefoil, Potentilla canadensis

Trailing Arbutus, Epigaea repens

Birdfoot Violet, Viola pedata

A Crested Iris-Like Birdfoot Violet, Viola pedata

Common Violets (Viola sororia)

Rue Anemone, Thalictrum thalictroides

Pussytoes in Pine Straw, Antennaria spp.
There is a bench at the intersection of the Ziler Loop Trail (the one we were hiking) and the Ziler Trail that bails out straight down the mountain. Our original plan was to finish the loop but with the overheating, we were looking at bailing down the Ziler Trail. But, sitting on the bench and looking at the topo map, bailing out would mean giving up 8-900 feet of elevation in a half a mile or so and that is wicked steep. Continuing on would mean a little longer walk, but more a more gentle descent (though it would prove to be steep in some sections). Having rested, eaten lunch, and cooled off, we decided not to bail out and to finish the loop as planned. My knees are thankful.

Down the hill, we started to lose the breeze and it was starting to get warm again. We needed to find water for Annie to cool off in and we quickly came to the reservoir and the creeks feeding into it.

The Reservoir at Cacapon
While I was shooting this photo, Ann asked, "Isn't that a goose over there?" meaning the very far right of the frame below. And sure enough, it was a goose sitting on her nest. The gander seemed uncharacteristically far away at the far end of the reservoir, but I imagine he could still get to the nest in a hurry if she were threatened in any way. If you have never had the pleasure of encountering a pissed off goose/gander protecting goslings, may you never have that particular pleasure.

Cattails and Pines

Eagle Eye Annie Spotted This Goose

Ecstatic to Have Found Water
Once our hike was over, I wanted to drive to the top of Cacapon Mountain to the overlook from which you can see Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and of course, West Virginia. The road is gated in the winter, keeping vehicles from making the nearly 5-mile drive to the top. However, we found out from a couple in the parking lot that the gate had been unlocked since the first of April and we were in luck. This is one part of our day that didn't involve plan B (driving up to Panorama Peak would have been plan B). The view, by mid-afternoon with it mostly cloudy and spitting rain drops, wasn't as fabulous as it could have been, but how many other times and places can you stand in a single location and view four states?

Sleepy Creek Mountain

Sign Shows the Four States in View
From the park, we drove north to Berkeley Springs to have a post-hike beer at Berkeley Springs Brewing, but we found them dark, in spite of wording on their web site that lead us to believe that they were indeed open on Easter Sunday. Plan B, once again. We headed back to Winchester to have nachos, share a burger, and try some beers at 50/50 Taphouse. The nachos sucked so never again for us, but the Gouda burger was one of the best we've had there.

Ann is still branching out trying to discover what she likes in beer. I had two pints of Blue Mountain (Afton, VA) A Hopwork Orange, an orange-infused IPA. Ann had two different beers: Derrig the Giant, an Irish red ale from Chaos Mountain Brewing in Callaway, VA, and a Scotch ale from Brothers Brewing in Harrisonburg, VA. I'm not a fan of big malty beers, but Annie sure seems to like them.

Annie Goofing with the Nachos
And there you have the tale of our Easter Sunday that didn't go as planned but was still a great day. Any day on the trail is a great day!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

C & O Canal Towpath/Paw Paw Tunnel

Warning: this is a really long post. I just don't come across days where the opportunity to photograph wildflowers is as good as it was this past weekend. You have been warned.

Ann is kind of banged up these days with a couple different injuries to her feet. This hiking thing is tough on us old folks. To let her feet rest a bit, for our tenth hike of our 52-Hike Challenge we needed a more or less flat hike and so I started thinking mid-last week where we could go that was both interesting and flat. When I think of flat, the C&O Canal always comes to mind. But the canal and solitude don't always go together. I've walked a lot of the canal from Harper's Ferry to Washington DC and in many spots, it is super-crowded on the weekends.

To avoid the crowds, I started by googling "most remote parts" of the canal and quickly found a bunch of references to the area around the Paw Paw Tunnel. The tunnel was built over many years from 1836 to about 1850, nearly bankrupting the canal company, as a bypass for what are known as the Paw Paw bends in the Potomac. It was and remains a spectacular feat of engineering and is a great reminder of the early history of our country.

We made the quick drive from Winchester north up US 522 cutting northwest over through Bloomery to Paw Paw WV. Crossing the Potomac, which at this point runs almost due north, we found ourselves in Allegany County MD where we parked at the Paw Paw Tunnel campground. Although the postal address for this area is Oldtown MD some 12 miles distant, it is a stone's throw from Paw Paw WV.

Boy Scouts were packing up their camping gear as we arrived at 9:30 in the morning on what would prove to be one of the very nicest days imaginable with cool morning temps morphing into a 75-degree day under brilliant cloudless blue skies. There were already a lot of cars in the parking lot, but as I surmised, they were all there to visit the tunnel, turn around, and go on their way, whereas we planned to walk, hopefully in solitude, first over the tunnel on the hill trail and about five miles down the tow path before returning to the car via the tunnel.

Annie Signs "Hike Number 10"
From the parking lot, we turned right (north) and walked along the canal, downstream, with the Potomac river about 100 yards on our right. It's about a half a mile to the tunnel entrance from the parking lot and we covered that quickly because when we started walking, it was about 50 degrees and we were wearing shorts for the first time this spring. It was really nice to don the trail runners and leave the Oboz boots at home along with the trekking poles. We found that the day quickly warmed up as the sun got above the hills.

Tiny Squirrel Drinking From the Canal

Looking Through the Tunnel
The tunnel is 6/10s of a mile long and you can see straight through to the other side. As we approached the entrance, it started to become apparent just how much stone had to be moved to punch this hole through the mountain. You can see in the photo below, using me for scale, just how big the cut is, despite the fact that the camera flattens out the perspective.

Photographing the Southern Entrance
We opted to climb the Tunnel Hill Trail up and over Sorrel Ridge, saving the tunnel for the return trip. I'm glad we did. The morning light on the eastern side of the hill was spectacular for photography and in the afternoon when we returned, the cool tunnel was a welcome respite from the heat of the day. On the far side of the trail where it rejoined the tow path, the sign said that it was a strenuous climb up and over. We laughed at that, finding it a beautiful and easy walk.

Moreover, all the tourists stayed below and had a gander at the tunnel, leaving us to negotiate the trail by ourselves. We would see a handful of people when we returned to the tow path on the far side of the tunnel, but those folks were all destined to turn back around and return to their cars, leaving us with another three miles of quiet trail, punctuated every 45 minutes by a passing bicyclist.

Wild Pink, Silene caroliniana, Above Tunnel Entrance

Tunnel Hill Trail Looking South, Upstream

Neat Blazes, Most Have Been Disappeared
As we climbed the trail to the ridgeline, we got some pretty nice views of the Potomac and West Virginia. The hillsides were blazing with both redbuds and cherries, while none of the deciduous trees had any leaves yet, giving us really great vistas.

North Upstream, WV on Right Bank

Redbuds, Cercis canadensis, Were Phenomenal

Ditto the Cherry Blossoms
Starting up the hillside over the tunnel, the margins of the trails were littered with spectacular wildflowers taking advantage of the sunlight before the hardwoods leaf out in a couple of weeks.

Eastern Shooting Star, Dodecatheon meadia

Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria

One of the Railroad Trestles in the Bends
I have heretofore only seen a few Birdfoot Violets here and there as individual specimens, but up on the Tunnel Hill Trail, once we had climbed sufficiently high, we found huge clusters of the strikingly beautiful plants. Here and there among the clusters were other violets such as Cream Violets, but no Canada Violets yet.

Birdfoot Violet, Viola pedata

Cream Violet, Viola striata
I still encounter plants from time to time that I don't know or that I've never taken the time to identify. Such is the case with the Cut-leaved Toothworts which were literally everywhere up in the woods along the hill trail, blooming in every shade from stark white to blushing pink.

Cut-leaved Toothwort, Cardamine concatenata
We started seeing patches of Spring Beauty (Can you think of a more fitting name for this plant?) up on the hill and when we finally returned to the tow path below, there were stretches of the margins of the path that were carpeted in these gorgeous white to pink flowers.

Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica
Up on top of Sorrel Ridge, the trail quickly descended the north side of the hill and the wildflowers became noticeably fewer on the cold side of the hill. We descended from oak forest down much lower onto hillsides covered in pines. The rock changed from shale here to sandstone and we walked through huge patches of yellow-green lichen on our way down to the canal.

Descending to the Canal on the Hill Trail
Coming off Sorrel Ridge, we emerged on the canal running right through the middle of a giant cut through the rock. We followed the tow path north downstream for another four miles past a series of defunct locks.

Water Spilling into Lock 66

Lock 64 2/3

One of Several Well Pumps in the Park

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

Posing on Lock Ruins
Back down on the tow path, we started seeing some wildflowers in vast patches. Where we saw a few individual Early Saxifrage plants up on the Tunnel Trail, the rocks along the canal were covered with vast mats of these beautiful white flowers. Coming through the woods, we saw a few specimen Dutchmen's Breeches, whereas along the tow path there were stretches of 20 and 30 yards where the entire side of the path was covered in little white breeches.

Early Saxifrage, Micranthes virginiensis, on Lock Wall

Crazy Daffodil (Narcissus spp.) Along a Creek

Wild Blue Phlox, Phlox divaricata, Uncommon in This Location
As we drove from Winchester to the park, we crossed the Cacapon River on a little backroad just outside of Bloomery WV. I pointed out patches of Virginia Bluebells blooming alongside the road to Ann. I was disappointed that for the first 2.5 miles of our hike, we saw no bluebells alongside the tow path, but then the further we walked downstream, the more we started seeing a few individual plants, followed by small patches, followed by vast patches, all in full bloom. They are one of my favorite harbingers of springs. What a bonus to catch a swallowtail feeding on one patch of them!

Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica/Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus
This time of year and even earlier, the roadsides are carpeted with the sunny blossoms of Winter Cress. It is so common that I rarely stop to photograph it, but this particular plant was calling to me. You can see exactly how much the bloom looks like other Brassicas such as broccoli and yu choy. In an amusing coincidence, we had some guests at the restaurant for a tasting on Saturday night and they showed me a picture of a road median carpeted in cress and asked if I could identify it. No problem.

Winter Cress, Barbarea verna

Wood Vetch, Vicia sylvatica
Sycamores, Platanus occidentalis, are one of Ann's favorite trees, though she seems to have a mental block in recalling their name. Their white, peeling bark is quite a sight especially in winter when the trees have no leaves. They love wet feet and so if you are looking for water, find the nearest sycamore and you will no doubt find running water. I love the contrast of the white tree branches against the clear blue sky.

Contrast of Sycamore and Blue Sky
The turtles amused us greatly. We didn't see many in the early morning, but as the sun got up, they started hauling themselves out onto logs en masse to sun themselves. Unlike along more frequently trafficked parts of the canal, here in the wilder parts, the turtles are very skittish. 75 yards in the distance, I would see 40 to 50 piled up on a log, but as we would get just a little closer, poof! They all dove for the water at once.

Thousands of Turtles in the Canal

Yellow Violet, Viola pubescens
Canal side, there were several areas covered in Virginia Bluebells with bright golden stands of Golden Ragwort coming up through them. It's hard to imagine a prettier contrast of blue and gold.

Golden Ragwort, Packera aurea

Star Chickweed, Stellaria pubera
You probably recognize, if you garden at all, this little groundcover/weed that wants to take over your flower beds at home. Although it is a pain in the rear in the garden, this Bird's-eye Speedwell sure has beautiful, if tiny, blue blossoms.

Bird's-eye Speedwell, Veronica persica
Garlic Mustard is another common weed and one that is an invasive non-native. But it is ubiquitous and it is edible, if you ever find yourself looking for some garlicky greens. The four-petaled cruciate blossoms clearly mark it as a member of the Brassica family, along with desirable edibles such as arugula and broccoli. There is something about the radial symmetry of the leaves in this photo that is very attractive to me.

Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata
Frankly, I was expecting more bird life along the canal than we saw. We were serenaded by the usual cast of characters: chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, three species of woodpeckers, crows, and cardinals. We heard one Bald Eagle that turned out to be a Blue Jay doing a spot-on imitation. As usual along the tow path, we heard dozens of Indigo Buntings, but could never get one to come down out of the tree tops where we could see it. Warblers were scarce, not abundant like they will be in just a few weeks. I did hear several Northern Waterthrushes and with enough perserverance (and getting myself a long way behind Ann) I finally snapped a few frames of one, the best of which (crappy though it is) is below. I love this little bird that reminds me a bit of the Dippers out west with all their bobbing and weaving. The pinkish legs are unusual too.

Northern Waterthrush, Parkesia noveboracensis
Years ago when I was a lot more serious about birding than I am now, I could have told you instantly that the ducks we saw briefly along the canal and drifting on the swift river current were Common Mergansers. The black and white bodies of the males are quite diagnostic, yet they were far enough away that I couldn't say what they were until I could see the pictures full frame in Photoshop. Aside from hearing a few Canada Geese, we saw no other waterfowl or waders, most disappointing.

Common Merganser, Mergus merganser
We stopped for lunch at the five-mile mark, conveniently in the shade of a railroad trestle crossing both the Potomac and the canal. Sitting in the shade was a welcome respite from walking in the warm sun, which was now directly overhead and starting to beat down on us, easily the warmest day we have had since October. We're not quite ready for the heat yet.

I packed us small containers of farro salad, grilled pork tenderloin, and tzatziki. It always amazes me how stellar food tastes after you have been walking for several hours. It seems like whatever you are eating under those circumstances might possibly be the best thing you have ever eaten!

Our Lunch Spot in the Shade of the Trestle
We were constantly remarking on what a difficult task it must have been to cut the canal through rock and we kept coming upon spots like that in the picture below that were phenomenally beautiful. The photo cannot do this hillside justice. Besides losing the perspective of how high the hill actually is, the photo does not record the amazing texture of the cedars growing on and along these canted layers of stone, nor of how incredibly difficult it must have been to blast and remove the stone where the canal now runs.

Cedars on the Rocks are Beautiful
On our way back with the sun directly overhead, some of the flowers that were not fully open on the outward leg of our hike opened more fully, such as the Bloodroot and the Trout Lily below.

Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis

Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum
Retracing our steps for about four miles, we came to where we joined the tow path from the Tunnel Hill Trail. Rather than climbing back up the hill, we kept going on the tow path in the direction of the mouth of the tunnel. At this point, we were in the heart of the gigantic cleft that had been blasted into the rock and water was spilling off the cliffsides into the canal all along.

The photo below shows a creek cascading over the side of the cut onto the tow path. The water trickling down the moss was just fanastic. I would have enjoyed it more if I had on some waterproof boots instead of my trail runners. It was impossible to traverse a section of the path here without stepping into some serious mud. Mud. That's something new on a hike. Not!

Creek Cascading over Rock and Moss

Looking Back up the Cut

One of Many Waterfalls
It was getting hot in the blazing sun down in the breezeless rock canyon through which the canal passes despite the mist from several waterfalls. We reached the shade of the tunnel none too soon for a well-earned vacation from the sun.

Brick-Lined Tunnel
Ann and I both donned our headlamps and headed into the darkness. Although you could make the trip without a light, you should not. The trail is rough in places and full of holes that collect water from the incessantly dripping walls of the tunnel. And there is a place where a small creek several inches deep runs along the path for a few feet. It is much darker than this highly overexposed picture would lead you to believe.

A Survey Marker Inside the Tunnel

The End

Our 52-Hike Challenge 2017

On January 1, 2017 as Ann and I were headed to Harper's Ferry WV for our first hike of 2017, Ann told me of something she read about on ...