Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cherry Blossoms!

I usually run on the Mall in DC since I work less than a block away from it.  Monday, I detoured from my usual route towards the Capitol so I could run down to the Tidal Basin.  The cherry blossoms are in full bloom right now, in spite of the snow over the weekend and the continued cold temperatures.  I think early morning is the best time to see them. The light is great in the morning and almost no one else is down there.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Cherry blossoms on one of the original trees.
 The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
Cherry trees lining the Tidal Basin.
Mallards on the Tidal Basin
More cherry blossoms in front of the Jefferson Memorial.
Blossoms on one of the original trees.
Blossoms on a tree near the Washington Monument.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Old Rag Mountain Stewards Wilderness First Aid Training

We spent the weekend at the annual Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS) training weekend.  It is the one time a year where all of the volunteers gather in one place, so in addition to the training topics, we got to catch up with old friends (I guess we have been with the program that long) and meet soon-to-be old friends.  This year the topic was Wilderness First Aid, otherwise known as "all of the terrible things someone can do to themselves in the woods and how to take care of them."  Seriously, it is a great class.  We had a great instructor and learned an amazing amount.  We had the class two years ago and this one was completely different, but just as good.  It shows how much there is to learn about first aid in remote environments.  We have only begun to scratch the surface.

We arrived at Big Meadows Campground Friday night and it was cold.  The temperature in one volunteer's car said 24 degrees:  perfect for a good fire.  Saturday morning, we got started bright and early and worked through the day.  We were rewarded with a fantastic potluck that night.  Everyone brought fantastic food to share.  By the time we got back to the campsite Saturday night, the snow was falling hard.  The snow was a little bit icy, so we fell asleep to the sound of it falling on the rainfly.  We had another full day of training on Sunday, including a scenario in very real difficult, snowy, cold conditions.

Thanks to the hard work of the National Park Service, who plowed Skyline Drive, we were able to drive home on Sunday evening. The sky had cleared and there was a beautiful sunset over the mountains to the west. Snow covered the summits of Old Rag and all of the other peaks along the Blue Ridge.  We are definitely looking forward to another season on Old Rag.

A few snow pictures (click to enlarge):
Frost on an oak leaf.
Frost on blades of grass.
Up in the clouds at Big Meadows.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring Flowers: Bloodroot

Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot) has started to bloom in Rock Creek Park.  It is one of the first showy flowers of spring.  It emerges and blooms before nearly everything else.  The flowers only last a few days, but since there is little competition from other flowers, that is enough time for insects to pollinate the flowers.  While in bloom, the leaves clasp the stem of the flower.  Both the common and scientific names stem from the bright orange-red color of the sap in its roots.  Native Americans and early American colonists once used the root to produce dye. 

S. canadensis is the only member of its genus in the world.  It is a member of the Poppy Family (Papaveraceae) and its closest living relative is the Eomecon chionantha (snow poppy) in eastern China.  It is found throughout the eastern United States from Nova Scotia to Florida.

Some pictures from yesterday's walk in the park (click to enlarge):
S. canadensis
A cluster of four S. canadensis
Trillium sessile that's not quite ready to bloom.
Some hyacinths in the woods
Two mallards in an area fenced to protect breeding amphibians.  Although we stayed behind the fence, the drake was pretty concerned about our approach.  He turned and watched us intently while the hen continued to feed.
A forsythia bush on the way back.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Annapolis Rocks Along with Everyone Else in Maryland

We opted for a shorter hike yesterday:  just nine miles on the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail which passes Annapolis Rocks.  We met a friend at the southern end of the section, along I-40.  The large parking lot was nearly full when we arrived and more people were arriving by the minute.  There were large groups of backpackers getting their gear together and families headed out for dayhikes.  We kind of expected it.  That trailhead is just minutes from Frederick and only an hour from Washington, DC.  In addition to that, this was really the first nice weekend of the spring, even if it was still a little cool.

We left our car at that trailhead and drove north with our friend to the Wolfsville Road trailhead.  We arrived to a much quieter parking lot with only a half dozen cars in it.  From the parking lot, we headed south, beginning with a climb up to the top of the ridge.  As we got higher, the trail got rockier and we climbed a couple of stone staircases.  In the sun and out of the wind, it was quite warm, but each time we crossed to the west side of the ridge, the wind reminded us that it is most definitely still March.  We paused for lunch at the top of the ridge.  Another hiker's dog tried to talk us out of our lunches before continuing on with his owner. 

The trail stays on the top of the ridge for several miles, which makes for easy hiking since the ridge is nearly level.  We quickly made the four and half miles to Pogo Campground and the Blackrock Hotel Historic site.    The hotel was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  It burned around 1920 (source:  Appalachian Trail NamesOrigin of Place Names Along the AT).  A sign marking the spot and the foundation are the only things that remain of it today.  We took another short break at Pogo Campground, which is just around the corner from the hotel site and that is when the first Boy Scout Troop appeared. 

In spite of the crowded parking lot, up to this point, we had only seen four or five people.  The first boy scout troop had about 20 kids and adults.  Then we passed a group of college kids out backpacking.  Then we passed another Boy Scout Troop of about 15.  All were going to be camping.  I am rarely glad that I am just out for a dayhike rather than an overnight, but this was one of those times.  We would continue to pass groups of backpackers for the rest of the hike.

We paused at Black Rocks, where there is a nice view to the west.  A few miles later, we made the short hike down to Annapolis Rocks.  At both places, we were quickly driven off the rocks by the cold wind.  Below Annapolis Rocks, we began meeting families with small children, which meant the parking lot was not far.  The last part of the hike is a quarter of a mile along Interstate 70.  Not the most charming finish to a hike, but overall, it was a good day.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
One of the staircases leading up to the top of the ridge.
The sign at the Blackrock Hotel site
A small waterfall near the Pogo Campsite. 
From the same waterfall
Bootshot from Black Rocks looking west.
The last part of the hike along scenic Interstate 70.
The Appalachian Trail footbridge crossing Interstate 70.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

More Signs of Spring - Skunk Cabbage

I'm giving the ankle another week to rest, but we took a walk down to Rock Creek Park today.  The warm sun was a nice change from the cold rain of the past few days.  The park is so much greener than it was just a few weeks ago.

The first, if not the most attractive, wildflowers of the spring, Simplocarpus feotidus (Skunk Cabbage) were out in full force in the boggy area that the Valley Trail passes through near 17th street.  Some of the flowers had already faded.  Once the large leaves begin to emerge, the flowers quickly die off.  The skunk cabbage flower is typical of many burgundy flowers:  It is a carrion flower.  Carrion flowers emit an odor of decaying matter to attract insects for pollination.  The plants also warm the soil around them through a chemical reaction to both thaw the soil so they can emerge earlier than competing plants and to attract insects.  Pretty remarkable for such an odd looking little flower.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

S. foetidus (Skunk cabbage) along the Valley Trail in Rock Creek Park.

S. foetidus in its favorite habitat:  a mucky bog.

An interesting fungus

Crocuses growing along Beach Drive.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Sidelined: A Shortened Hike on the Appalachian Trail

The original plan was to hike 13.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Gravel Springs Gap in the North District of Shenandoah National Park to Highway 522.  That would take us right through the area where the Smith Run Fire burned a few weeks ago and we could check out the damage.  The weather forecast on Saturday wasn't great, but it was supposed to be dry until the evening, which was much better than the forecast for Sunday, so we figured we'd give it a shot.

Five of us arrived at the park gate to find a truck in front of us chatting with the ranger.  Then the occupants of the truck took the ranger's picture.  Twice.  We figured, "well, whatever floats their boat," showed our pass and continued to the trailhead.  By the time we got to the trailhead, we were up in the clouds and the temperature was about 15 degrees below what it was in Front Royal.  The climb up to Mt. Marshall wasn't too bad.  We stopped briefly at what would have been a nice overlook if we hadn't been in a cloud.  The clouds and fog actually make for an interesting hike.  It is just a completely different feeling than hiking when it is clear.

Unfortunately, the mist also made the rocks wet.  I slipped off of one of them and turned my ankle rather badly.  After about ten minutes, I decided to try to continue, but it was clear that our hike was over.  SSW Spouse went back for the car with one friend and the rest of us continued to Skyline Drive, about a quarter mile further along.  Since we were just two miles in, we didn't have to wait very long to be picked up.  While we were waiting, it started sleeting occasionally, which added to the charm of the situation.  It did reinforce the usefulness of carrying extra clothes this time of year.  Once you stop moving, it gets cold quickly. 

Hopefully, I'll be back out there in a week or two.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

The Appalachian Trail socked in.

Bootshot into a cloud.

Waiting to be picked up on Skyline Drive.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Signs of Spring

I took a walk on the National Mall this morning before work and found signs of spring.  There will be much more of these to come.

The first Cherry Blossoms on the National Mall near the Hirshorn Museum

Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel) growing near the Hirshorn Gallery

H. virginiana

 Daffodils in a particularly warm spot near the American History Museum.