Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spring Flowers: Pennywort

I had either never noticed Obolaria virginica (Pennywort) on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road or had never been up there at the right time to see it before.  On our hike up to Robertson Mountain on Saturday, SSW Spouse noticed it and after that, we saw it everywhere along the road.  It blends in to the leaf litter a little bit and it isn't a very big plant.  Most of the ones we saw were less than six inches tall.  The flowers are white, have four petals, and are about the size of one's pinky fingernail.  O. virginica is found in the eastern U.S. from Pennsylvania south and west to Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas.  It is a member of the Gentian family. The common and scientific names reflect the coin-like appearance of its leaves (Obolus is Greek for coin).

 Obolaria virginica plants along the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.
Another plant along the fire road.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Robertson Mountain: Wildflowers Everywhere

We have hiked by the trailhead for Robertson Mountain countless times when we've been on Old Rag.  The trailhead is about a mile up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road from the old upper parking lot.  SSW Spouse hiked it last fall while I was visiting family, but I had never been up there.  We wanted a relatively low key hike yesterday.  I had heard that Robertson was pretty steep, but with lots of fire road walking, we figured this would fit the bill.

We started from the lower parking lot for Old Rag, so we had to walk the 0.8 miles to the upper lot before starting up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.  The flowers started immediately.  We made it just past the Hughes River bridges, less than a quarter of a mile, and I had to stop to take pictures.  Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium) were everywhere.  As we climbed, we found Trillium grandiflora (Giant Trillium) and a flower I've never seen before on Old Rag or anywhere else:  Obolaria virginica (Pennywort).  The road itself was lined with redbuds and dogwoods blooming against the bright green of the new leaves on the larger trees.

At the Robertson Mountain trailhead, we left the road and began following Corbin Run steadily uphill.  Soon we left the run and began slowly switchbacking up the east side of Robertson Mountain.  Some of the switchbacks were steep, but nothing too difficult.  We caught an occasional glimpse of Old Rag, whose lower slopes were green with new leaves.  Numerous false summits dot the Robertson Mountain trail.  At least four or five times it seems that the top is just around the next corner, until you see the next rise above it.  After 1.6 miles, we reached the summit and got a nice view of Old Rag and Weakley Hollow.  I wondered where the steep part was supposed to be since it just wasn't that difficult of a climb.  On checking the map, I was surprised to learn that Robertson Mountain is actually five feet higher than Old Rag.  I had always been under the impression that it was lower.

The hike down was primarily on fire roads, once we walked the 0.8 miles down from the summit to the Old Rag Fire Road.  We enjoyed a leisurely walk, pausing to take pictures of wildflowers.  It was a really nice hike.  We saw just a couple of other people on the summit.  If one wanted to hike it with less road walking, one could connect the Corbin Hollow trail with the Robertson Mountain trail to make a loop.  We will probably try that next time since we haven't done the Corbin Hollow trail.

Lots of pictures (click to enlarge):

 Walking up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.  Spring has arrived.
 Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium).
Podophyllum peltatum (Mayapple)
 Obolaria virginica (Pennywort).  I had never seen this flower before.  After SSW Spouse noticed it the first time, we saw it everywhere.
Spring slowly moving up the slopes of Old Rag.
 Silene caroliniana (Wild Pink)
The summit of Old Rag. 
 Bootshot over Weakley Hollow from the summit of Roberston.
 Corydalis flavula (Yellow Corydalis).  The flowers are quite small, less than 1/2" long.
 Uvularia perfoliata (Bellwort).  This is a member of the lily family.  Its species name comes from the way the leaves wrap around the stem (see the leaf above the flower). 
 Potentilla canadensis (Dwarf Cinquefoil).  These little plants look similar to strawberries, particularly once the flowers fade, but their leaves have five parts instead of three. 
 Redbuds and dogwoods blooming along the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.
Anemone quinquefolia (Wood Anemone).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Rare Mid-Week Hike: Cedar Run and White Oak Canyon

I had a rare day off during the week today and, since the weather was supposed to be nice, decided get outside.  Normally, Cedar Run and White Oak Canyon are mobbed on the weekends, so I thought it would be nice to visit them on a weekday for some solitude.  This was my first hike in a long time by myself.  I used to do some hiking alone, but I haven't in years, thanks to a very reliable hiking partner in SSW Spouse.  Although I only hiked eight miles, it was the longest trail I have ever hiked alone.

I realized on the drive to the trailhead that I would not have to be burdened by carrying the good camera.  It was sitting safely beside the computer at home.  After a few minutes of frustration, I decided it would be a good opportunity to test the long-ignored camera on my phone.  I wasn't driving back to get the camera anyway, so I might as well see what the phone can do.

When I arrived at the trailhead, there was only one other car in the parking lot, which is a rare, rare sight at White Oak Canyon.  I headed up the trail, crossed the bridge over Cedar Run and took a left on the Cedar Run Trail.  The wildflowers are out in full force in the valley.  Trillium grandiflora (Giant Trillium), Cardamine concatenata (Cut-Leaf Toothwort), and Claytonia virginica (Spring Beauty), among others, lined the trail on both sides.  I found I could take pictures of larger flowers with some success as long as I zoomed in enough to fill most of the frame.  With smaller flowers, there was no way to convince the camera to focus on what I wanted (the flowers), rather than what it wanted (the dead leaves behind the flowers). 

I've never seen Cedar Run (or White Oak or any of the other small streams) as full as it was today.  I actually had to take my boots off for the first crossing, which I've never had to do before.  Above the crossing, there were sections of the trail where water poured down the trail for some distance before finally diverting off to join the creek.  I can't imagine what the streams must have looked like last Sunday, after Saturday's record rainfall. There was flood damage everywhere, from piled up leaves and debris, to badly damaged sections of trail.

Shortly before reaching Skyline Drive, I started running into people. To my surprise, the Hawksbill parking lot was full.  I paused on a rock there to eat lunch and to consider whether or not to hike up to the top of Hawksbill.  It was windy and cold where I ate, and I wasn't really interested in interacting with people, so I chose to go down.  I ran into groups of people every few minutes on the fire road between the Cedar Run trail and the White Oak Canyon Trail.  Once on the White Oak Trail, there were lots of people.  It wasn't as crowded as a weekend, but it certainly wasn't solitude.  I finally realized that most schools systems are on spring break this week.

Like Cedar Run, White Oak Creek was running high and fast and the waterfalls were going gangbusters.  It was a good hike, but I was glad to be done.  My expectations for lack of people set me up to be a bit disappointed, although the wildflowers more than made up for it.  I'm also not used to hiking by myself.  If I did it more, I would probably enjoy it more, but I like hiking with at least one other person.  It isn't a safety issue for me, it is more that I like to share the experience with someone.

Unfortunately, my phone's camera was not as impressive as the flowers.  It randomly chose different resolutions at which to shoot the pictures.  It also corrupted about half of the files (this is a documented issue with my phone, sadly), so I only have a few to include here (and they are all different sizes):

Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman's Breeches) on Cedar Run.
Trillium grandiflora (Giant Trillium) on Cedar Run.
 A bleached snail shell near the fire road.
 White Oak Creek.
Silene caroliniana (Wild Pink) on the White Oak Canyon Trail.
Looking east down White Oak Canyon.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spring Flowers: Virginia Bluebells

Mertensia virginica (Virginia Bluebells) is one of the prettiest of the early spring flowers.  The nodding flowers are generally pale blue, but I've seen white, pale purple, and pink as well.  The leaves are large and oval-shaped.  The flower shape makes butterflies the most common pollinator, since they can perch on the flowers while eating the nectar.  The plants can form large colonies and are widely distributed in rich woods in the eastern U.S. and Canada. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 M. virginica at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia in 2011.
 A colony of M. virginica in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC in 2010.
The white variant of M. virginica in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC in 2010.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Skyline Drive Sufferfest (In a Good Way)

We, in a fit of insanity, have signed up for an event called the Savage Century, a 100 mile bike ride in western Maryland with over 11,000 feet of climbing.  We have been doing long bike rides since the beginning of the year, but we decided we had better start riding some serious hills to prepare.  The weather on Saturday was terrible, so on Sunday, we headed out to Front Royal to ride as much of Skyline Drive as we could.  The weather was bright and sunny and promised to be very, very windy.  I really didn't know what to expect.  Skyline Drive has no shoulder and can be a hotspot of distracted driving ("Honey, look at the bear over there...and the pretty view over there.").  I also didn't know how we would handle serious climbing since we hadn't really done any.

Things started out a little rough, but rapidly got better.  We parked outside of the north entrance to the park, where it seemed like most of Northern Virginia had also decided to park.  We got ready, started up the hill and, not twenty feet from the car, I got a flat (due to a flaw in the tube, it turns out).  We had a mini pump with us, but it is hard and time-consuming to get a road bike tire pumped up to the right pressure with one.  They are good for getting you home from a ride, but it was a little disheartening to start a ride looking at twenty minutes of pumping to attempt to get the tire up what would hopefully be the right pressure.  Too little and you get pinch flats.  Too much and, well, I've never been able to get too much pressure in a tire with a mini pump.  While we were changing the flat, a van full of another group of road cyclists pulled up.  One of their group got out and asked a question about the park fees.  When he noticed we were changing a flat, he asked if we wanted to borrow their full-size floor pump with a gauge.  Thanks to them, we were back on the road much more quickly.

The first six miles of the ride climbs 1500 feet, past flowering redbuds and dogwoods.  The creeks and waterfalls were full from Saturday's storms.  After a relatively short descent, the next climb began: 1160 feet over 8 miles past Mount Marshall and back into late winter/early spring.  The trees have barely begun to leaf out at that elevation.  That was followed by a descent of about a mile and another climb:  this time 650 feet over a little over a mile past Hogback Mountain and the highest point on the Drive in the North District.  From there, we descended three miles to Elkwallow Wayside, for a total of 24 miles from the car.  The ride south was anything but fast.  We averaged about 11 miles an hour.  On most of the long climbs, I would hover between seven and nine miles an hour.  We took a break at the wayside, not looking forward to the three mile climb back towards Hogback Mountain. 

The climb back up from Elkwallow Wayside took almost half an hour.  As I said, we were slow.  From there, however, there were only two steep, but relatively short (less than two miles) climbs left.  Most of the return to the car was downhill.  Those two climbs were still hard, but we were rewarded with long descents after them.  We finished with a total of 48 miles and almost 5500 feet of climbing.  It was an incredible ride.  The weather was great, although the wind was pretty crazy.  The crosswind could be rather startling when it hit suddenly, particularly when we would come around corners on descents.  Traffic actually wasn't too bad.  Most people gave us plenty of room and were considerate.  It was one of the toughest rides I've done and now the only thing to do is get out and do it again.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Dogwoods on Skyline Drive.
Pulled off at an overlook taking a short break.
Looking north towards Front Royal from one of the overlooks.
Looking south from Hogback Mountain overlook (I think).
Redbuds on the Drive.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spring Flowers: Wild Ginger

Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger) is an odd little flower.  The flower itself is the burgundy color and is found at the base of the plant, resting on the ground.  The flowers are positioned to draw insects that crawl along the ground and the color particularly attracts those that feed on dead things.  The plants emerge and bloom relatively early in the spring and the blooms persist for several weeks.  The plants usually grow in dense clusters in rich forests. They are found throughout eastern Canada and the United States, except Florida. 

Although the flower is quite distinctive, it is typically hidden by the leaves.  The leaves can be confused with both Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot) and members of the Violet family.  A. canadense is distinguished from both of these by the hair that covers the leaves and flowers and that the leaves and roots smell like ginger when broken. 

A. canadense was used by Native Americans as both a flavoring, as a remedy for a number of ailments, and in dressing wounds.  According to Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants (Erichsen-Brown, 1989) it was also used as a birth control agent.  It also hosts the larval Pipeline Swallowtail Butterfly. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 A. canadense in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC in 2010.  The flower is about an inch across.
 A. canadense on Old Rag last weekend.  Note the hair on the stems of the leaves and on the back of the flower.
 The flower always grows between two heart-shaped leaves.
A. canadense is often found in colonies.  This one is on the flat top of a large boulder on Old Rag.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Old Rag Mountain Stewards: More Signs of Spring

Sunday was our first day volunteering with Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS) this year.  The weather started out cold and gray.  When we arrived, Old Rag was shrouded in fog.  The forecast was for 70 degrees, but at 10 a.m., it was not apparent that it would ever get even close to that warm.  We decided hike up the fire road since there were several large groups going up the Ridge Trail.  Shortly after we began, the clouds lifted and the sun came out.  It quickly warmed up enough that we were able to hike in short sleeves.

The flowers have just started to bloom along the lower fire road and the trees in the lowest part of the valley have just begun to leaf out.  We paused for lunch at Post Office Junction, enjoying the break in the warm sun.  As we hiked higher, those signs of spring diminished.  Above Old Rag Shelter, we had basically hiked back into winter, at least as far as vegetation goes. 

At Byrd's Nest Shelter, we did some training on traction-in-line splinting for broken femurs, which raised a few eyebrows among visitors stopping by the shelter.  Old Rag Patrols has a picture of the splint being set up.  After we were done with training, we headed up to the summit, where it was quite windy.  In spite of the sun, we needed jackets on the summit.  Clouds still filled the valleys east of Old Rag.  The crowd on the summit was pleasantly small, especially given the number of people out hiking.

We hiked down the Ridge Trail.  At the Chute, which is where the worst backups occur on busy days, I checked out an off-trail bypass that impatient people use to avoid the line.  The bypass crosses a fairly steep slope, which is now badly eroded due to the foot traffic that has crossed it.  It has been trampled enough that it appears to be part of the Ridge Trail, except that it is not blazed.  Next time we are up there, I will take some pictures and post them.  Later on, we also saw evidence of more damage caused by off trail travel.  This time it was switchback-cutting, which is also leading to erosion. 

Below the rock scramble, we hiked back into early spring.  The wildflowers reappeared and the trees has tiny green leaves which are beginning to grow.  It is wonderful to see the forest wake up after the long, cold winter.  All in all, it was a quiet, beautiful spring day on the mountain. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot) along the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.
Viola papilionacae (Common Blue Violet) along the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.
Antennaria neglecta (Field Pussy Toes) along the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.
Looking towards Hot Short Mountain from the Summit.
The spot where I always take a picture.  There isn't much green up here yet, other than the evergreen Mountain Laurel bushes.
S. canadensis along the Ridge Trail.
Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger) along the Ridge Trail.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cardamine concatenata (Cut-Leaf Toothwort)

In my last post, I labeled a flower as Dentaria laciniata (Cut-Leaf Toothwort).  In researching it for this post, I discovered that the scientific name had entirely changed to Cardamine concatenata.  Scientific names do not change that often, but it can happen.  Usually, the first person to describe a species gets to name it.  Sometimes, it will be discovered that a species was described earlier than anyone thought, so the name will change to the earlier one.  Other times, scientists realize that the species actually belongs in different genus or family than where it was originally placed.  That can result in a name change, too.  Only one of my books has caught up with this name change. 

C. concatenata blooms early in the spring, before most other plants have begun to flower.  It is found in rich woods in the eastern North America and is a member of the Brassicaceae family, more commonly known as the Mustard family. Like other members of the Mustard Family, the flowers have four petals.  The leaves are deeply divided and opposite on the plant's stem.  According to Peterson's Guide to Edible Wild Plants, C. concatenata both the leaves and roots are edible and make a rather peppery addition to salads (I haven't tried this). 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 C. concatenata in Rock Creek Park in 2009.
Blooming in Harper's Ferry last weekend.
Blooms in Rock Creek Park in 2008.l  Although this isn't the sharpest picture, I included it because it shows the deeply divided leaves. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Three States in Thirteen Miles on the Appalachian Trail and Flowers

We've been slowly picking up sections of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the area.  Mostly, we've been doing end-to-end dayhikes with friends when we can set up a car shuttle.  Yesterday, we didn't have a car shuttle, so we did an out-and-back to pick up the section from Keys Gap in Virginia to the Maryland border, just past Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.  We also had a friend's dog with us, who helped lead the way.

The easier way to do this hike is to start in Harper's Ferry and hike south.  One gets the climbing out of the way early in the hike.  We wanted to have Harper's Ferry at the mid-point of the hike, though.  We could hike across the Potomac and on our take a break at a coffee shop in town.

At Key's Gap, there was a moderately-sized Boy Scout Troop getting ready for a backpacking trip in the parking lot when we arrived.  We headed north in sprinkling rain and cold wind.  It was definitely still winter on top of the ridge.  There were just a few plants poking up through the leaves.  The trail stays on top of the ridge for four miles.  The only views are at a power line cut about 1.5 miles north of Key's Gap.  After a couple of miles, it started raining hard enough that we had to put on rain gear, but it didn't last long.  We passed another Scout Troop along the way, but other than them, we really didn't see anyone else. At the junction with the Loudon Heights Trail, the AT turns downhill towards the Shenandoah River.  The descent was relatively easy and nicely switchbacked.  On the way down, we saw a few more plants, some with buds on them, but the woods were still mostly dormant.  We crossed a road and descended the rest of the way to the river. 

We had a nice view of the river, the bluffs on the other side, and the ominous oncoming storm clouds from the bridge over US Highway 340.  The pedestrian walkway on one side of the bridge makes it safe to walk across it, but that doesn't mean it is pleasant.  Constant traffic whizzing by isn't the most charming part of the AT, but it is the only way to cross into West Virginia.

We were rewarded on the other side by spring.  Early spring flowers were blooming and the entire bluff was green.  I stopped to take pictures of Dentaria lacinata (Cut-Leaf Toothwort) when the sleet started.  There was definitely rain mixed in, but the quarter-inch pieces of ice got most of our attention.  We got our rain jackets back out and ten minutes later it was sunny again.  We walked through town and crossed the bridge over the Potomac into Maryland so we could say we hiked in three states in one day.  The steps from the bridge down to the trail on the Maryland side are see-through metal grating.  The dog was having none of it.  She tried a few steps, but was terrified by them.  We decided that since we were physically over land in Maryland, that was good enough.  She did a little better on the way back up, but was visibly relieved when we were back on wooden slats.

Back in Harper's Ferry, we stopped for a break and for coffee.  The section of the trail in town from Jefferson Rock to Maryland was the only part of our hike that we could say was crowded. Considering that Harper's Ferry is a tourist town, it wasn't bad at all. The weather held for the rest of the hike.  We made good time on the way, finishing 13.5 miles in just under seven hours.  It was a really nice hike and the weather did not turn out nearly as bad as it was forecast to be. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
The Appalachian Trail on the top of the ridge north of Keys Gap.  It is definitely still winter on the ridge.  It will be at least a couple of more weeks before much is growing up there.
Moss on a log.
The Shenandoah River from the Virginia side.  The highway 340 bridge is to the left.  Note the storm clouds.
Spring has arrived on the Harper's Ferry section of the AT.

Edited:  Cardamine concatenata (formerly: Dentaria lacinata) (Cut-Leaf Toothwort)
Sleet on Sammie's back.
Mertensia virginica (Virginia Bluebells)
The G. Byron Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River from the Maryland side.
A sign for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in Harper's Ferry, a less well-known long distance trail that passes through Harper's Ferry.  The trail is over 3,700 miles long and passes through 11 states.
Corydalis flavula (Yellow Corydalis)
 Saxifraga virginiensis (Early Saxifrage).  The leaves are still their winter color on this plant.
Barbarea vulgaris (Winter Cress).  This is an alien, and can be invasive in some places.  In spite of that, it was very pretty against the early green grass.