Monday, June 28, 2010

Butterflies and Flowers on Old Rag

I first have to say that I was wrong last weekend about the heat.  In restrospect, it was practically chilly compared to this weekend.  We camped out Saturday night and I think the low was around 90 degrees.  The mosquitoes, no see-ums, gnats, and chiggers seemed pretty happy with it.  So did the summer flowers and the butterflies.

We hiked up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road and the Saddle Trail on Saturday with no breeze.  The Hughes River still has water in it, but almost all of the small side streams are now dry.  Along the way, I realized that, while spring flowers are often brightly colored, many summer flowers are white.  I'm not sure why that is, but I would guess it has to do with white standing out from the green undergrowth in the forest.  After reaching the summit, we returned to Byrd's Nest Shelter for training.

At the end of the day, we camped near the Hughes River, not too far from the old upper parking lot.  It was nice to sit by the river and not to have to drive home at the end of the day.  We saw a few late hikers coming down the fire road, but otherwise, it was nice and quiet.  We spent most of Sunday at Post Office junction for training.  As we were leaving the mountain, a thunderstorm blew in, cooling it off a bit. 

Next weekend is our last weekend with ORMS until the fall.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
A snail on a Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas Tree Fern) on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.

Geum canadense (White Avens) on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.

Impatiens capensis (Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not) growing in a creekbed on the Fire Road.

Monarda clinopodia (Basil Balm).

Satureja vulgaris (Wild Basil).  Both this plant and M. clinopodia above are members of the Mint Family.  One nice characteristic of Mint Family is that all of its members have square stems, making them easier to identify.  Another interesting thing about S. vulgaris is that, according to my Peterson's guide to edible plants, it can be used in lieu of commercial basil, although it is somewhat milder. 

A caterpillar eating a leaf along the Saddle Trail.

Agrimonia striata (Woodland Agrimony) near Post Office Junction.

The summit of Old Rag taken from an outcrop near Byrd's Nest Shelter.

An interesting big-eyed click beetle (thanks to Old Rag Patrols for the identification) near Old Rag Shelter.

Hemerocallis fulva (Day Lily).

Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)

A butterfly (not sure what kind) resting on a leaf.

Old Rag as seen from the east on Champe Plain road.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Hanging Out on Old Rag (or More Training with ORMS)

You know it is going to be a hot day when it is 80 degrees Fahrenheit when you leave the house at 7 a.m.  By the time we got to the Old Rag parking lot, it was already sizzling hot.  The water we had thoughtfully remembered to chill in our camelbacks the night before was already warming up from the drive down.  The forecast for DC was 96 degrees.  The parking lot was only about a quarter full, though, so it looked like it might be a quiet day.

We went up the Ridge Trail, stopping to take pictures of a few flowers.  The Ridge Trail is actually pretty sheltered from the prevailing direction of wind.  That is pretty nice in the winter, but it was a bit stifling yesterday.  We stopped at Bartender Spring, dipped a bandana into the cold water and squeezed it out over our heads.  Instant morale boost.  The next big boost came when we arrived at the rock scramble to discover a cool breeze blowing.  We hair plus a cool breeze is perfect on a hot day.

We made our way to the summit where we met up with the rest of the Mountain Stewards on duty.  The training for the day was safely rappelling down the summit wall.  We spent the afternoon practicing using different equipment and learning how to slow or stop our descents.

By the time we were finished, no one else was left on the summit.  On the way down the Weakley Hollow Fire Road we encountered only two other people. The solitude and quiet are a rare treasure on Old Rag.   

Pictures (click to enlarge):
An interesting fungus on the Ridge Trail.

Cimicifuga racemosa (Black Cohosh).  This plant is almost six feet tall.

The S-curve near the summit.

Our lead Mountain Steward taught me how to use an autoblock (sp?) to stop my descent on a rappel.  This allowed me to take my camera down with me and stop to take pictures.  This picture is taken from about one-third of the way down the wall.

My shadow on the wall.

A different kind of bootshot - my boots on the summit wall.

While waiting for my turn to rappel, I got out the telephoto lens and tried to catch the ravens as they soared on thermals.

A large patch of Amianthium muscaetoxicum (Fly Poison) below the summit wall.

One of the rarest sights on Old Rag on a sunny day:  no one on the summit, but us.

Anemone quinquefolia (Wood Anemone) along the Fire Road.

I haven't been able to figure this flower out yet.  If I identify it, I'll post a correction.  Geum canadense (White avens).  The leaves are alternate and toothed and the plant is about 2 1/2 feet tall. 

On our way home, we noticed Old Rag in the rear-view mirror, just north of Sperryville.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hot and Stormy on Old Rag

We had the weekend off from Old Rag Mountain Stewards, but we went out to Old Rag anyway.  Just like this winter, we just can't stay away.  This time, it was to take to friends up who had never been up there.  It was hot.  By 10:30 a.m. in the parking lot, it was already close to 90 degrees.  We ran into the group of ORMS volunteers starting their day.  The hike up the Ridge Trail was uneventful, hot, and sticky, but worth it when we broke out onto the first false summit and into the breeze.

We made our way through the Rock Scramble to the summit. The summit was a bit crowded and one large church group had a devotional while we were up there, but we found a spot mostly to ourselves to relax for a while.  Once again, we could see storms building over Hawksbill and Stony Man, so we decided to make our way down.  We began hearing thunder just above the Byrd's Nest Shelter, which grew louder and louder as we continued down the Saddle Trail. About 15 minutes above Old Rag Shelter, the heavens opened, lightning flashed, followed immediately by thunder, which meant the storm was directly over us.  We were very happy to be off of the summit (which is the last place anyone should be in a thunderstorm).  The rain continued for about half an hour and then the sun returned, but we heard thunder for the rest of the walk down the mountain.

Yesterday was a good day for wildflowers:  The summer wildflowers are starting to bloom in earnest and I saw a couple of flowers I have not noticed on Old Rag in the past.  The Kalmia latifolia is still blooming on the summit, but it is past its peak at this point.  The lower Ridge Trail is lined with Chimaphila maculata (Striped Wintergreen) and Houstonia purpurea (Large Houstonia).  Near the summit, the Saxifraga michauxii (Michaux's Saxifrage) is still blooming, along with Houstonia tenuifolia (Narrow Leaved Houstonia) and Penstemon canescens (Gray Beardtongue).

Pictures (click to enlarge):

Chimaphila maculata (Striped Wintergreen) on the Ridge Trail.  As the name implies, the leaves stay green all year long.

Coreopsis verticillata (Whorled Coreopsis) on the Ridge Trail. 

Talinum teretifolium (Fameflower) in the Rock Scramble.  I have never seen this flower before.  If we had not stopped for a break where we did, I likely would not have seen it this time.

The brush is growing in more at the curve in the trail.

Penstemon canescens (Gray Beardtongue)

Kalmia latifolia (Mountain Laurel) on the summit.

Storm clouds rolling in over Hawksbill.

Descending on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road after the storm.

Scutellaria elliptica (Hairy Skullcap) on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.

Monotropa uniflora (Indian Pipe).  This plant is another saprophyte, or one that gets its nutrients from decaying matter on the forest floor.  It does not photosynthesize.

Old Rag from Virginia 600 after the storm.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Old Rag Mountain Stewards - Quiet and a Little Stormy

We spent Sunday volunteering on Old Rag with Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS).  The parking lot was only about one-quarter full when we arrived.  Often the weekends before and after major holiday weekends are pretty quiet in the park. Those hikers who did come out were pleasantly surprised to discover that the entrance fee was waived in honor of National Trails Day.  It was already in the mid-80s at 9:30 in the morning and thunderstorms were forecast in the afternoon.  Water is usually the biggest issue on really hot days, but most people seemed to be carrying a reasonable amount. 

We went up the Ridge Trail first and chatted with a few people along the way.  The summer wildflowers are starting to bloom, including Lysimachia quadrifolia (Whorled Loosestrife) and Penstemon hirsutus (Hairy Beardtongue).  The Kalmia latifolia (Mountain Laurel) have peaked at the summit.  The understory of the forest has grown in much thicker since we were last out there, two weeks ago.  At the first false summit, we found a box turtle.  We took a quick picture and then left him to do his thing.

As we continued up the rock scramble, we could see the weather getting worse over Skyline Drive.  By the time we reached the summit, it was raining over Stony Man and Hawksbill.  We watched the storm make its way across Weakley Hollow.  All of a sudden, it started raining on the summit and then, thirty seconds later, we were being pelted by sideways rain.  We quickly put on rain gear and headed for the Saddle Trail, thankful that no lightning or thunder accomanied the rain.  Then it started thundering.  We picked up the pace, happy to be under the forest canopy again on the Saddle Trail.  We spent some time in Byrd's Nest Shelter doing some training.  The storm did not last long and we had a sunny hike down to the road.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

Lysimachia quadrifolia (Whorled Loosestrife)

 Asclepias exaltata (Poke Milkweed) - This is a favorite with butterflies.

Rubus odoratus (Purple Flowering Raspberry).  Raspberries (cherries, and blackberries, among other fruiting plants) are members of the Rose family (Rosaceae).

The box turtle we spotted near the first false summit.

Diervilla lonicera (Bush Honeysuckle)

The spot where the trail curves near the summit.  Note how much the understory has grown since I last posted a photo of this spot.

Amianthium muscaetoxicum (Fly Poison) - a member of the Lily Family (Liliceae).  It is highly toxic to both people and animals.  According to the Shenandoah National Park page on it, the Cherokee Indians used the bulb to poison crows.  My Peterson's guide to edible plants states one should wash one's hands after handling the plant.

Looking south from the summit towards Fork Mountain.  K. latifolia (Mountain Laurel) blooming in the foreground.

K. latifolia blooming on the summit.  The storm is approaching in the background.

The storm arriving.  I took this just as the rain started coming down.

After the storm.

 A juvenile garter snake just below the Old Rag Shelter.

Chrysanthemum leucanthemum (Oxeye Daisy) along the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cranberry Wilderness - Four Days' Escape from the City

We decided to escape the city for the long weekend and head for the Cranberry Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.  The Cranberry Wilderness is a pretty amazing place.  We spent five days backpacking there a few years ago and I was excited to get the chance to go back.  The forest is dominated by birch and red cedars, which are usually found much farther north.  Although some of the trails are relatively heavily used, the visitation is nothing like that in Shenandoah National Park.  Many of the trails see very little use at all. This also means that the trails are not as well maintained, which is not a criticism.  It just means that there are fewer signs and a lot more blowdowns to be negotiated than in a more heavily visited place.

Four of us headed out early on Friday morning for the long drive to West Virginia.  Another was joining us on Saturday as he was not able to take the day off.  We saw flame azaleas along the highway in the mountains as we drove into West Virginia.  In spite of the good weather forecast (which, to be fair, included a chance of thunderstorms), we arrived at the trailhead in the middle of a lightning show and downpour.  By the time we were ready to go, however, the storm had moved on.

We set off on the North Fork Trail and almost immediately encountered a blowdown.  Beyond that, the mud started, which is all part of the fun of the Cranberry. We walked the 1.5 miles to the Middle Fork Trail, where we turned west to follow the Middle Fork of the Williams River.  The Middle Fork Trail follows an old roadbed which is gently graded downhill all the way to the Williams River.  It is easy walking and the trail is lined with rhododendrons.  They were just starting to produce buds and will likely be in bloom around the end of June.  Another thunderstorms rolled through, but did not last long.  We saw a few wildflowers, including Sculletaria sp. (Skullcap), Hydrophyllum viginianum (Virginia Waterleaf), and Potentilla simplex (Common Cinquefoil).

When we were here three years ago, the two stream crossings of the Middle Fork of the Williams were rockhops.  Friday evening, they were fords.  The Middle Fork was running high, cold, and fast from the rain over the previous few days.  The second crossing was just over my knees and the water was cold enough to make my eyes water by the time I made it across.  

We camped at Hell-For-Certain Branch, about 5.8 miles down the Middle Fork.  There is a spectacular waterfall and a very nice established campsite there.  Getting to the campsite required one last crossing of the Middle Fork.  We set up camp and made dinner, which was bean burritos, complete with packets of guacamole.  Just as we were ready to eat, another thunderstorm rolled in, so we wound up eating under a tarp.  As an aside:  the names in the Cranberry are interesting.  In addition to Hell-for-Certain Branch, there is a Hateful Branch.  One gets the idea that the people naming the streams did not much like the area, which would have been a forbidding forest then.

The next morning, the plan was to do a 13 mile loop dayhike, down the Middle Fork Trail to the Little Fork, up to the North South Trail, down the Laurelly Branch Trail, and back up the Middle Fork Trail to our campsite on Hell-For-Certain Branch.  I was a little concerned about the crossing of the Middle Fork since we would have to cross it just above where it joins with the Williams River.  Even if we were turned back by the ford, there, though, we would still hike a respectable 9.5 miles.

After a leisurely breakfast and coffee, we crossed the Middle Fork to get to the trail and set off.  We took a quick break at Beechy Run, where a nice waterfall cascades just below the stream crossing.  The trail was plenty muddy, but we made good time and soon arrived at the parking lot at the west side of the Wilderness Area.  Our map showed the County Line Trail splitting off to the northeast and then the junction of the Little Fork Trail heading south, just to the west of that.  We looked, in vain, for the Little Fork Trail for almost 45 minutes.  After eating lunch, we took another look at the map and decided, given the landmarks, we could safely bushwhack to find the trail.  I do not recommend that everyone try this, but we had a good map, compass, and lots of prior practice in navigation.  We knew that the Middle Fork was just south of us, the Williams River was to the west and the Little Fork had to be south and east of us.

We quickly crossed the Middle Fork and headed uphill.  We found a path that followed an old roadbed and checked the compass bearing.  It was headed in the right direction, so we followed it.  We came around a corner and there was the Little Fork trail, complete with bright blue blazes (we were on the edge of the Cranberry Backcountry - as opposed to Wilderness - where trails are blazed)!  Given the blazes, we were even more mystified as to how we missed the trailhead.  We followed the Little Fork Trail for a short distance until we reached the Little Fork of the Williams River.

At that point, we had spent over 90 minutes, including our initial search for the trailhead, to go half a mile. We decided that, given the time and how far we had yet to go on the loop, it made the most sense to turn back.  We were also curious to see where the Little Fork Trail joined the Middle Fork Trail.  We crossed the Middle Fork again and soon arrived at the Middle Fork Trail - east of the junction with the County Line Trail.  Our map had put the Little Fork Trail in the wrong place, which meant we were looking in the wrong place.  The Little Fork trailhead was also completely overgrown, making it harder to find.

In spite of having to change our plans, we still had a good hike and the navigation challenge was a fun puzzle to figure out.  We returned to our campsite and got to enjoy the late afternoon sun.  I spent some time taking pictures of the waterfalls around the campsite.  Just before dinner, the fifth member of our party came strolling into camp.  We made dinner - vegetable soup with rice noodles - and said around the empty fire ring talking.

One Sunday morning, we made breakfast and had coffee before breaking camp.  We hiked down the Middle Fork Trail again to Beechy Run.  This time, we turned north on the Big Beechy Trail.  The Middle Fork Trail sees a fair amount of use.  Although the Big Beechy Trail connects to the Middle Fork Trail, it might as well be in another county.  Away from the campsites and river, few people venture up it.  The Big Beechy Trail gets a fraction of the use that the Middle Fork Trail does.  Although they are missing a great trail, the selfish part of me is glad that we had the trail to ourselves.

The trail climbs quickly out of the Middle Fork valley.  It is only about six inches wide in most places until it reaches the top of the ridge and there are blowdowns every few hundred yards.  The slope fell steeply away towards Beechy Run, far below us in the valley.  In short, it is a pretty interesting trail.  On top of the ridge, the trail passes through groves of red cedar, birches, and hemlocks.  In places that were too rugged to log, there are actually some old growth trees that escaped the mass logging of the eastern U.S.  There are large flat boulders with trees growing on top of them, their roots wrapped around the sides as though they are holding on for dear life.  In other areas, knee-high ferns nearly covered the trail.  We ran into some late Clintonia borealis (Clintonia Lily) and one very late Trillium undulatum (Painted Trillium). 

At the end of the day, the trail connected back with the North Fork Trail.  We hiked past the parking area to the first campsite on the Middle Fork Trail (which we had passed on the first night).  We discussed simply hiking out that night, but decided that it was too long to drive after a long day of hiking.  In the morning, we would have a short hike out to the car.  We set up camp and had dinner, Indian vegetables and rice.  While we were eating, two helicopters flew over very low.  We might have been mistaken, but we are pretty sure one of them was Marine One, the President's Helicopter.  Just after everyone crawled into their tent or hammock, it started raining - a final thunderstorm to end the weekend.

We will definitely return to the Cranberry.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Day 1:  Crossing the Middle Fork of the Williams River

Medeola virginiana (Indian Cucumber Root)

Hydrophyllum viginianum (Virginia Waterleaf)

Sculletaria sp. (Skullcap)

Day 2:  The sun streaming through the trees in the morning near our campsite on Hell-For-Certain Branch.

The morning sun shining on the Middle Fork of the Williams River.

The waterfall on Beechy Run.

The overgrown Little Fork Trailhead.  The post should have been a tipoff, but the map threw us off, placing the trailhead several hundred yards west of where it actually is.

A newt along the Middle Fork Trail.

The Middle Fork Trail near the Laurelly Branch Trail.

The waterfall on Hell-for-Certain Branch near our campsite.

A small cascade near our campsite on Hell-for-Certain Branch.

A mound of moss near the campsite on Hell-for-Certain Branch

Day 3:  The Big Beechy Trail climbing away from the Middle Fork

Oxalis montana (Wood Sorrel)

Viola blanda (Sweet White Violet).  This is a tiny violet; the flower only measures about half an inch.

A neat example of a tree with its roots growing around a large rock.

Clintonia borealis (Clintonia Lily)

A grove of ferns along the trail.

A tiny Maianthemum canadense (Canada Mayflower or Wild Lily of the Valley).  These plants are two to three inches tall.

A very late, fading Trillium undulatum (Painted Trillium)

An old U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey marker at our final campsite.  This one was placed in 1962.  There are at least two of these along the Middle Fork Trail.  They mark points of known elevation and are reference points for the creation of maps.  The Coast and Geodetic Survey became the National Geodetic Survey, which is now part of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.