Thursday, July 28, 2016

Big Meadows

Sunday our travels took us to mile marker 51 on Skyline Drive, Big Meadows, where we walked the meadow and then made a big 8.5-mile clockwise loop visiting Lewis Falls, Rose River Falls, Hogcamp Branch, and Dark Hollow Falls before returning to Skyline Drive and the car.

Even though we went to Big Meadows to visit the three waterfalls in the area, I was very interested to wander the big meadow on the east side of Skyline Drive. I am sure that Ann thought I was crazy, but at least she puts up with me most of the time. Given that the trip there was nearly two hours, I figured we would not be back any time soon and so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see birds and flora that we wouldn't have seen once in the forest. The meadow, that NPS burns off each year to keep it renewed, is full of spectacular wildflowers and quite a lot of birds, including meadowlarks that I heard singing. I wish we could have spent more time there, but under the broiling end-of-July sun, it's not possible now. The 20 minutes we spent walking the meadow will have to do.

The Big Meadow at Big Meadows

More of Same, Unusual Habitat at This Elevation
I noticed on the long drive on Skyline Drive that the margins of the road are covered in more wildflowers than I have seen at any other time of year. As soon as we got out of the car at the Lewis Falls trailhead just south of the entrance to the Big Meadows complex, I could see that same vast array of wildflowers right next to me including a really large stand of Black Cohosh, some with bloom spikes reaching 8 feet in height. Down near the ground, looking from a distance like Crown Vetch, were gorgeous Nodding Onions. As we walked east across Skyline Drive, the meadow proved to be jammed wall-to-wall with them. They certainly are spectacular flowers and not one that I have ever noticed before.

The Meadow is Full of Nodding Onion, Allium cernuum

Black Cohosh
About halfway into our trek of the meadow, as we reached the treeline, a hen turkey scared Ann half to death, launching up out of the 3-foot high grass right at her feet! From my vantage about ten feet behind Ann, the turkey's wingspan appeared to be as wide as Ann is tall. Ann said she could feel the air from the wings on her face. No doubt! The turkey lumbered about twenty yards into the nearby thicket, hopped up in a tree, and clucked at us for several minutes. I don't think she was nesting and I didn't see any sign of poults in the grass; that seems to be an early spring thing.

Columbine at Big Meadows
Turk's Cap lilies were not all that common in the meadow, but we saw several small ones, and what gorgeous flowers they are! I generally think of Fly Poison, another lily, as an open woodland flower, but they were blooming in profusion in the sun of the meadow. I still have much to learn.

Turk's Cap Lily, Lilium superbum

Fly Poison

Yellow Star Grass, Hypoxis hirsuta
The more I learn about identifying wildflowers, the less certain I am of anything. The following three photos are perfect examples of specimens of wildflower families that are represented by dozens of species, sometimes very confusing ones at that, in our area. Take the St. John's Wort below for example. There are something like 28 species here in Virginia alone. This one was notable for being very tall and having very large (3cm) blooms, larger than I have ever seen before.

A Mystery Aster
I think that's an aster above; in any case, I've given up on trying to ID asters as an amateur; it's damn near impossible. Same for the wide, wide variety of sunflowers which were the predominant flower at Big Meadows which was resplendently carpeted in sunflower gold with an underlayer of pink and purple nodding onions.

A Handsome Sunflower

A Very Tall, Very Large-Flowered Hypericum
As we exited the meadow on the Rapidan Fire Road, at the intersection of the fire road with Skyline Drive, we came across this cute sign. If you have ever dealt with having your dog sprayed by a skunk, you will most certainly appreciate this. Over the years, I think just about all my dogs have been anointed by skunks. Terrible, terrible stench.

Cute Sign at Rapidan Fire Road Car Park
Slightly diagonally across Skyline Drive, on the Lewis Falls trail, we started down the gravel road that seems to be the access road for Lewis Spring which is apparently the water source for Big Meadows. This road left a bit of opening in the canopy and let in enough light to photograph some nice flowers, including this very unusual milkweed below which I think is Tall Milkweed, Asclepias exaltata. There are at least 16 milkweeds listed in the Virginia Plant Atlas. I'm starting to come to grips with only being able to identify wildflowers to the genus level.

An Unusual Milkweed, Likely Asclepias exaltata

White Bergamot, Monarda clinopodia

One of the Harebells, Probably Campanula divaricata

A Different Harebell, Also Probably Campanula divaricata

Yellow False Foxglove, Aureolaria spp.

Another Woodland Aster

Another, More Purple Aster
Although our goldenrods aren't blooming at home yet, it's just about time. The sides of Skyline Drive were carpeted in big yellow masses of blooms. How fortunate to come across this one in front of a rock coated in black lichen for an awesome backdrop.

First Goldenrod of the Season, Solidago spp.
After an easy walk down the road, we picked up a trail and after descending for a few minutes, crossed over Hawksbill Creek which rises at Lewis Spring and then after a few switchbacks, ended up where the creek tumbles over the a cliff at Lewis Falls. Though the view looking out over the Shenandoah Valley is pretty decent sitting on top of the falls, the falls themselves are not visible below your feet. The trail continues back across the creek and around the hillside a few yards until it opens in a semicircular clearing edged in rock wall where you can see the falls clearly.

Annie Looking at Lewis Falls

Lewis Falls
Of the three waterfalls we visited on the day, this first one, Lewis Falls was the most rewarding for us. Most people think Dark Hollow falls on the east side of the mountain across Skyline Drive is the best of the three, but there were so damned many people there, it was more like a circus exhibit and definitely not our cup of tea. By contrast, we were almost all alone at Lewis Falls, though we were never all alone anywhere on this circuit hike save for a short stretch of the AT, so popular is the Big Meadows area.

After visiting Lewis Falls, we headed north uphill on the blue-blazed trail to Big Meadows Lodge. This trail had a decent grade and was fairly steep in places, with some excellent patches of wildflowers. Given the heat and humidity of the day, this was not the easiest of hikes. It intersects the AT just at the ampitheatre on the north side of the lodge. We continued north on the AT to Fisher's Gap.  By contrast, the AT along the ridge was nice and flat and we were thankful for it after the long climb up from the falls.

White Snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum

Longleaf Summer Bluet

Starry Campion, Silene stellata
The section of the AT from the campground to Fisher's Gap has some nice open woodlands perfect for deer grazing and we certainly saw our share of deer there and elsewhere on our hike. We came upon a threesome of deer quite close to the trail: a small 6- or 8-point velvet buck with a doe and a fawn of the year. The fawn proved to be very curious and came really near to me, ten feet or less. Nearby we saw other does, one laying down on the job in a bed of dry leaves not twenty yards off the trail. Chipmunks scurried here and there.

Small Buck Grazing in the Ferns

The Doe and Her Fawn

Junior was Quite Curious About Us

On the AT, Looking NNW in the Vicinity of Fisher's Gap

Wild Basil at Fisher's Gap

Annie and a Common Mullein
We walked the ridgeline on the AT to Fisher's Gap where we crossed Skyline Drive on the Red Gate/Rose River Fire Road and then turned off the fire road onto the Skyland/Big Meadows Horse Trail and then down the hill on the Rose River Loop Trail. Along the way down to the creek, each person or group coming up the hill told us about a bear on the uphill side of the trail, said bear for which we looked in vain for a long way.

Suddenly we saw a bit of black fur sticking up from behind a log not ten yards off the trail. About the time Ann said, "Is that a bear?" it got up off the ground where it was grubbing for food, put its front paws up on the log, puffed itself up, and gave us a good chuffing growl. Now I realize that park regulations require us to be 50 yards away from the bears, but it's not like we had a choice in the matter. After the bear got over its little startle and its grandstanding display, it went back to doing what bears do and rather nonchalantly at that: turning over rocks and downed logs looking for food, even laying down to eat at times. As we moved down the hill, it moved with us for a good five minutes before the trail turned away towards the creek.

Bear Busy Foraging on the Rose River Loop Trail
As soon as we hit the Rose River (actually a little creek at this point) we stopped briefly for lunch and then continued on downhill. The falls shown below were not much to look at but there were a few decent swimming holes, most of them populated with kids.

Rose River Falls: Underwhelming
We continued down the hill along the Rose River until the intersection with Hogcamp Branch where we turned right uphill and continued our hike up that creek to Dark Hollow Falls. By this time, it was midafternoon and Dark Hollow Falls was jammed with tourists, many wearing the most inappropriate shoes and almost none with water. Meanwhile, it was humid and very hot, a recipe for someone passing out on the hike back up the steep trail to Skyline Drive.

Hogcamp Branch

Minor Fall Below Dark Hollow Falls

Dark Hollow Falls
I even ran out of water on the hike back to the top and I was carrying 2.5 liters. I was drinking constantly because I was sweating buckets all day. Annie was really losing steam coming back up the hill and by the time we reached the Dark Hollow parking area, she was done. She stayed in the shade while I sprinted the 3/4 mile to the Lewis Fall trailhead where we left the car. That run back to the car in the blazing 3pm sun was no fun at all.

But all in all, I really enjoyed the day, especially the morning, the meadow, Lewis Falls, the deer, and the bear. I didn't really enjoy all the people at the Rose River or Dark Hollow falls and I wasn't crazy about the hike back up to and the jog along Skyline Drive to the car in the high heat and miserable humidity. I cannot wait for fall hiking. In the late fall or winter, this hike would have been nothing.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Nachos

Ever had a craving for something? Of course you have. Yesterday, for me it was black beans and nopalitos. I was headed home early afternoon after a morning of deskwork and wanted some lunch. I knew I had some roasted salmon and a some black beans in the refrigerator. The black beans were left from the other night with roasted rockfish. I was going to make a salad with chunks of salmon, black beans, and I wanted something pickled with that, nopalitos to be precise.

I texted Ann to inquire if we had nopalitos in the fridge and she replied, "Yes. Nachos?!?!!" I wasn't in the mood for nachos, but didn't want to disappoint her either.

I grabbed a chunk of queso chihuahua out of the cooler on the way home. And on the way home, I grabbed some green onions, chips, and cilantro at the market. At home, I shredded the queso, thinly sliced a couple of fresh jalapeños from the fridge, sliced the green onions, and pulled the leaves off the cilantro.

Fully Loaded Nachos
I turned Ann loose on decorating the nachos and this is what she came up with; these just out of the oven, before being topped with fresh cilantro. They were so not healthy, but they were so good!

Food Porn Version of Same

Andy Guest State Park/PaveMint/Glen Manor

For our walk this week, Ann chose Andy Guest State Park in Bentonville for the ability to take a swim in the river mid-hike. She certainly didn't plan on an almost 3-mile traverse of open ground in the blazing 97-degree heat, nor could she predict that my hip would go south on this particular walk. In the picture below, you can see the open ground to the left of the river for the entire frame of the photo: yeah, we walked that in the blazing mid-day sun, me with a gimpy hip. Bad plan. Suffice it to say that although it was a beautiful walk, there were parts of it that we hated.

Our day started about 8:30am as we entered the park off of US340 and proceeded to the Visitor's Center a couple of miles into the park to use the restrooms. Once parked there, we looked at the map and saw that the hike we planned to take started just slightly more than a mile upriver but that there was a connecting trail from the Visitor's Center to where we wanted to be. Given that our hike was only about 8.5 miles, we decided to just hoof it the extra mile for a total of about 10.7 miles on the day.

This view of the park was taken on the Overlook Trail perhaps a hundred yards north and 30 feet below the actual wood-deck overlook for which the trail is named. This view is actually prettier because it is framed by the surrounding trees. The trees have been cleared around the overlook but otherwise the view is pretty much the same. The Massanutten Mountains to the west are in the background.

South Fork Shenandoah River, Andy Guest State Park

Looking Down on Brown-Eyed Susans

Backlit Moth Mullein
Although I have been expecting to see Hoary Mountain Mint during our hikes this spring and summer, I haven't seen any until this hike. I found a huge patch of it and another of what looked to be escaped Spearmint.

Hoary Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum incanum
These American Bellflowers were so beautiful but there was no way really to photograph them in the very dim light of the forest understory. Just to get this, I opened my lens as far as possible and backed off to the minimum focal length. Unfortunately, with this setting, there is no depth of field and getting a decent view of a gorgeous flower was nearly impossible.

Pretty American Bellflower, Campanula americana
I've been keeping an eye out for all the lobelias, but this Pale-Spike Lobelia is the first lobelia that I have seen in bloom this year.

Pale-Spike Lobelia, Lobelia spicata
There are miles and miles and miles of trails at Andy Guest State Park, more formally known as Shenandoah River State Park, some winding along the cliffs and bluffs fronting the river, some in the floodplain along the river, and some running in and out of the glens and creek ravines of the surrounding woods. We worked our way south along the river through the woods for about three and a half miles and then worked our way back along the riverbank. We stopped for lunch at an observation point, a slight tree-covered promontory in the line of bluffs a few hundred yards off the river, on the northern end of the Redtail Ridge trail.

The network of trails is well-marked on the ground, but at times, relating what we were seeing on the ground with our map and with the written description of the hike was confusing. Still, with the river as an unmistakable landmark, it was easy enough to get where we knew we had to go, despite the slight confusion.

River and Floodplain from Redtail Ridge Trail

Enjoying Lunch at the Observation Point
I got a brisket in last week and so I corned it and used it in making our lunch for the trip. As Ann said, "This would be really good with a beer."

Corned Beef and Slaw Wraps
While we were stopped for lunch, Ann spied this prickly pear just down the dry slope from us. We missed the gorgeous yellow blooms (ours at home bloomed 4-6 weeks ago), but the fruits are starting to whiten. Later on this fall, the fruits, the tunas, will go red and will be good eating for something or someone.

Eastern Prickly Pear, Opuntia humifusa, Fruits Starting to Ripen

Beat up Spicebush Swallowtail with Spoon-Like Tail
Down along the river, the long walk in the sun commenced. Although it was a great opportunity to see wildflowers and critters, we kept moving as fast as we could, given my crappy hip, to get out of the sun. At times, Ann would be thirty or forty yards ahead of me in the span of time that it took me to go ten yards.

Common Soapwort, Saponaria officinalis
Despite the oppressive heat, I confess to taking a minute to watch a group of Red-Headed Woodpeckers hawking bugs from the top of a large Sycamore and the top of another immense Cottonwood tree. Though we think of woodpeckers getting their food by pecking insects out from dead snags (or the ground in the case of Flickers), Red-Heads are unique in that they act like large flycatchers, sallying forth and taking bugs mid-air on the wing. It is very impressive to watch. I wish I could have stayed longer.

Red-Headed Woodpecker, Click to Enlarge

Successful Mission; Enlarge to See Insect in Bill

Skittish Doe; Wild Parsnip in Foreground
About a mile along the river, we came upon an opening down to the river and Ann was off, trying to cool off from the long march in the sun. She was surprised at the current in the north-flowing river. After saddling back up with another mile to go in the sun, we saw a lot more wildflowers from here on out as we veered slightly more inland from the river, but we really didn't stop to admire them as the sun was so fierce.

Cooling Off!

Butter and Eggs

A Sunflower, Jerusalem Artichoke?

Common Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum

Cutleaf Teasel, Dipsacus laciniatus

Tickseed, Coreopsis verticillata
Back at the Visitor's Center, after getting off the trail, we were brutally hot and Ann was at the point of heat exhaustion. We sat in the car with the AC blasting on full for a long time before setting off home. Ann had wanted to stop by Glen Manor on the way back, but after the hike, she just wanted to go home and who could blame her? So you can imagine my surprise when as we were pulling in to Front Royal she asked if we could go to PaveMint for a beer and lunch. Well, all right then!

Ann Liked This Dogfish Head Namaste

Wings

Fish and Chips for Ann

Duck Tacos for Ed
About a half an hour after we arrived at PaveMint, about the end of beer number one, Mike texted me that he was on his way to Glen Manor, asking if we wanted to join. Ann wanted to head home after lunch, so I demurred. Meanwhile, Kelly texted Ann asking if we would come later for a mystery tasting. Methinks Mike and Kelly were working in cahoots. And so after we finished our lunch, we headed off to Glen Manor.

Look Who We Found!
Although the tasting room closes at 5:00, the staff couldn't shoo everyone away until about 5:30 at which point we set up tables on the back patio and Kelly brought out another of her huge ("impromptu") spreads.

Pimento Cheese

Cookies; BLT Dip

Miraculously Recovered!
There were three brown-bagged mystery wines on this occasion. The first had a nose of sulfurous stone fruit and white flowers with medium gold color, good body, and OK acidity. It could have been Chenin or Viognier or a bunch of other things. It turned out to be Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. I've tasted all kinds of fruit profiles on SB except this: live and learn. The next wine had a bit of oak to the nose but wasn't very aromatic otherwise. It had plenty of body, light melon fruit, and was lacking acid. It could have been manipulated (oak/malo) Chardonnay. It turned out to be a local Roussanne. The final wine was a very aromatic red that was dull ruby going brick around the edges. The nose reminded me of cool climate Nebbiolo, but the alcohol was very high. The palate reminded me of Nebbiolo too except for the fruit was a bit too briary and extracted. I was stumped. It turned out to be 2012 Cabernet Franc from next door at Chester Gap Cellars.

Mystery Bottle: Local Roussanne

The Home Team

Jeff and His Domain, Skyline Drive in Background

The Huckster, Late Arrival to the Party
For those who know the vineyard, this photo will appear reversed; the new vines being on the north side and not the south. This is actually a picture of the vineyard reflected from the winery window.

Mirror Image of Vineyard
About dusk, the Barn Swallows made a raucous appearance, coming in to roost for the night and we knew it was time to leave. We helped Kelly clean up the mess and then made our way back home, having bitten off a bit too much today. Ann was unconscious by hiker midnight. I was soon to follow.

Barn Swallows Coming in to Roost