Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Summer Flowers: Indian Pipe

Monotropa uniflora (Indian Pipe or Ghost Pipe) is truly a remarkable, strange plant.  Its appearance is striking enough:  It is a stark, ghostly white color, growing in clusters from 2-8 inches tall with a single nodding flower and tiny, white leaves that look like scales on the stems.  It is a member of the Heath Family (Ericaceae), which also includes plants such as blueberries and rhododendrons.  It is found throughout most of North America in the dark understory of rich, moist woods.

M. uniflora does not photosynthesize or produce chlorophyll, which is why it is not green like most other plants.  What distinguishes plants like this from fungi is, among other things, the fact that they reproduce through flowers, rather than through spores.  Before researching this post, based on older references, I was under the impression that M. uniflora was a saprophyte, meaning it feeds off of decaying matter to gain nutrients.  This turns out to be wrong.  According to Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains (Spira 2011), it is actually an epiparasite.  A parasite obtains nutrients from another living thing.  An epiparasite obtains nutrients from another parasite.  M. uniflora obtains nutrients from micorryzhal fungi, which are connected to and parasitic on the roots of nearby green plants.  Needless to say, it doesn't transplant well.  It is basically the plant that says, "everything you learned in science in school is a gross oversimplification." 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 M. uniflora on the Maryland Appalachian Trail near the (Maryland) Washington Monument (June 2010).
 A cluster of M. uniflora on the Ridge Trail of Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park (June 2010).
A cluster with some of the flowers showing.  This one was taken on Cedar Run Trail in Shenandoah National Park (June 2009).

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Garret County Gran Fondo: The Savage Century

A friend sent me the link to the Garret County Gran Fondo several months back.  A Gran Fondo is basically like other supported charity cycling events.  This one had four options for length of ride and our friend called thinking the metric century (100 km) sounded like fun.  I talked us into doing the full century, which was named the Savage Century.  It was listed as 102.5 miles and 12,700 feet of climbing (SSW Spouse insists that he was deceived, having assumed it was just titled after someone named Savage).  I'm not sure what possessed me to think that was a good idea, but we went ahead and started training, spending a lot of time climbing hills on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. 

The forecast was pretty good:  cool and cloudy in the morning, followed by sun and a high in the 60s in the afternoon.  When we arrived in the parking lot, it wasn't cool, it was downright cold (probably in the low 50s) and windy, especially when we are used to the heat and humidity of the DC area.  I bought arm warmers and threw in my tights and long-fingered gloves at the last minute.  I was glad I did.  I didn't want to spend energy being cold that I would need later in the ride.

We started at 7:30 a.m., pretty much assuming that it would take all day.  The only requirement was that we finished by sunset at 8:45.  The first leg had a few climbs, one of them fairly steep, but was mostly downhill.  The route wound through beautiful wooded valleys and pastureland on the hilltops.  It rained for a little while, but stopped by the time we reached the first checkpoint.  By that point, I had warmed up enough to drop off my tights and long-fingered gloves.  I kept my arm warmers just in case, which turned out to be a good decision.

The next leg was fairly brutal.  Our friend dropped us within the first few miles.  We wouldn't see him again until the next checkpoint.  This leg had 3,700 feet of climbing and basically regained all of the elevation that was lost on the first.  The first leg had taken us about 90 minutes.  The second took us almost 2 1/2 hours for 21.3 miles and we weren't the slowest riders on the course. The second checkpoint was at the top of a hill at a stockyards.  It was cold.  Our friend had waited for us, so he was freezing.  We grabbed some food and continued.

The first few miles of the third leg were a nice downhill, which brutally ended in a two-mile long steep hill.  Watching other riders, I decided to try zigzagging back and forth across the road.  It helped, even thought it looked ridiculous.  At mile 48, we had a decision to make.  We were all cold and tired and we reached the turnoff for the metric century.  It was very tempting to finish in just 14 more miles, instead of 54.  Most other riders were only doing the metric, which only made us think harder about bailing.  After much debate and looking at the elevation profiles, we finally decided to continue with the century.  We were rewarded with easy riding for a few miles followed by the steepest hill that I think I have ever climbed on a bike.  It is the only hill (labeled on the map as the "Killer Miller") that I've ever found myself thinking that I might just fall over backwards or stall out and tip over. Fortunately, the third checkpoint wasn't long after that hill.

After taking a longer break, we started the best, longest leg of the event.  After a short, easy climb, we had a nice, easy downhill, followed by mile after mile of level riding at 20 miles per hour.  The road, though New Germany State Park, followed, first, a stream lined with blooming rhododendrons and mountain laurel, and then wound along the shore of the Savage River Reservoir.  We blasted through 15 quick miles before finally reaching the longest hill of the ride.  Although it was an easier climb that some of the earlier ones, it was also miles 75-78, so my legs were tired.  I climbed pretty well, but took a few breaks along the way.  Our friend is a stronger climber than either SSW Spouse or me, so we saw the last of him until the finish line.  By the time we reached the top, I was pretty much out of gas.  The final leg of the ride was only 15 miles and most of the hills weren't terrible, but I was ready to be done.  I was not really prepared for how tough the final hill of the ride was.  It was the final two miles of the ride, ending at the top of Wisp Ski Resort.  It was as steep as the steepest hills on the rest of the ride, but because of traffic, I couldn't zigzag.  I had to ride straight up.  I was exhausted, tired of sitting on the bike and ready to be finished.  I had to take a couple of breaks along the way, but I didn't walk, although it was tempting.  In the final mile, people had set up tents and were cheering riders along, which was a nice morale boost.  We finally finished at 6:30 p.m., 11 hours of riding.  Seeing the finish line, and hearing the cheers of people I've never met were a great feeling.  I crossed the finish line with SSW Spouse.  We were relieved to be done and and proud that we had been able to complete the ride. 

All in all, it was a grueling, awesome ride.  It was one of the harder physical things I've ever done.  I discovered that when I can keep my pace above about 5.5 miles per hour (ridiculously slow), I can spin at a reasonable cadence and climb pretty much all day long.  We had trained well for that type of climbing on Skyline Drive, where the first hill is 6 miles long.  When the hills gets steep enough that my pace drops below about 4.5 miles per hour (painfully slow), I really struggle because I can't spin.  Each pedal stroke requires much more muscle strength.  On the really steep sections, my pace dropped down around 3.3-3.5 miles per hour (absurdly slow).  I can walk faster than that.  There were guys who passed me on the uphills like I was standing still, but there were riders who were slower than me as well.  I also discovered that I really can ride all day.

I am so glad we stuck with it and finished the full century.  

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 A great view on the first leg of the ride.
 An interesting stone country church on the third leg.
 A close up of the stonework on the church.
 The view from the top of the Killer Miller on the third leg.
 Hemerocallis fulva (Day Lily) along the roadside.
 A waterfall on the fourth leg.
Satureja vulgaris (Wild Basil), a member of the mint family, along the roadside.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Maryland Appalachian Trail - The Other Washington Monument

I crashed on my bicycle this week and am still working out some of the soreness, so we decided to stay close today and pick up a section of the Maryland Appalachian Trail.  We had some errands to run in the morning, so we didn't set off south from US Highway 40 until almost noon.  There wasn't really a plan.  If it went well, we would hike to Alternate Highway 40, about 5 miles and then return.  If it didn't go as well, we'd just turn around when we felt like it.  I didn't really expect there to be much to see on this section of trail.  We usually save the Appalachian Trail for winter hikes.  I was pleasantly surprised. 

From the parking lot, we headed south, crossing Interstate 70 on a footbridge, and hiking through the front yards of people who live just south of the interstate.  The trail then crosses a road and enters Greenbrier State Park.  There were few flowers; a few Mountain Laurel were still blooming, but most had faded.  We rounded a corner and our first pleasant surprise came in the form of a couple of ripe blueberries.  Soon after lunch, I noticed a few cherries on the ground.  I didn't think much of it, figuring some other hikers had dropped them.

We crossed a power line cut and climbed the short hill up to the first Washington Monument ever built.  It is an odd building, but there was a nice view.  We met a couple of guys in the process of hiking the entire Maryland Appalachian Trail in one day (41 miles).  They were more than half done and looked like they wouldn't have too much trouble finishing.  There is a little museum at the base of the hill, so we stopped in and had a look around.  It has a small, but well-kept collection of Civil War artifacts. 

We continued towards Alternate Highway 40.  At the highway, there is a little stone church, the Dahlgren Chapel, which had white wreaths made of roses on the doors, likely indicating a wedding this afternoon or evening.  We turned around at the highway and began the climb back up the hill.  Once we were back in the woods, I noticed cherries on the ground again.  It turns out that cherry trees grow in several places along this section of trail.  They were good sour cherries, too.  In another place, we found a bunch of ripe black raspberries.  Summer berries picked beside the trail are the sweetest.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 A bumblebee on Asclepias syriaca (Milkweed).
 The first blueberries of the summer.
 Some interesting insects on a member of the Rose Family
 Scutellaria incana (Downy Skullcap)
 Monotropa uniflora (Indian pipe or Ghost Pipe)
 A white butterfly on Echium vulgare (Viper's Bugloss), an invasive.
 The first Washington Monument built in the United States.  It was originally built in 1827
 The view from the top of the monument to the west.
 Triodanis pefoliata (Venus's Looking Glass)
A Promethea (>3 inches) moth on a tree (if anyone knows what kind it is, let me know and I'll post it).  Thanks to dhcox for the tip on this moth and the one below.
 Another interesting moth, likely Leconte's Haploa.
 Solanum carolinense (Horse Nettle).  This is a member of the Nightshade Family, which also includes the tomato, potato, and eggplant.
 Wild cherries on the trail.
 I could use some help on this one.  It looks like a Cranesbill, but I'm not sure.
Anemonella thalictroides (Rue Anemone)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Summer Flowers: Eastern Red Columbine

There is only one species of Columbine native to the eastern United States:  Aquilegia candensis (Eastern Red Columbine).  It is a fascinating flower and no other flower, except other Columbine species, looks like it.  The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's page on it has a great description of the flower itself, "A nodding, red and yellow flower with upward spurred petals alternating with spreading, colored speals and numerous yellow stamens hanging below the petals."  A. canadensis is a perennial, but will also spread through self-seeding.  It is a member of the Buttercup family.  It is found in rich, rocky woods.  According to Wildflowers and Plant Communities (Spira 2011), A. canadensis prefers soils that are high in calcium.

A. canadensis is a favorite of hummingbirds and bumblebees, both of which have tongues long enough to reach the nectar within the red spurs, which makes it a great addition to gardens.  It is easy to grow from seed and will flower its second year.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 A. canadensis on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road on Old Rag.  This shows the three-lobed leaves of the plant (2011).
 Another example from Little Devil's Staircase in the North District of Shenandoah National Park in 2007.
 Old Rag Ridge Trail in 2010.
An odd picture that was the result of me playing with the camera.  This does show the inner structure of the flower, though.  This one was taken in June 2007 on Little Devil's Staircase in Shenandoah.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Rescue on Old Rag and a Race

The hiking scheduler (me) and the cycling event scheduler (also me) failed to coordinate when it was time to fill out the spring Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS) schedule for this year.  Early in the year, we signed up for the Air Force Cycling Classic Crystal Ride (more on that later) on June 12.  Somehow, I completely ignored that when I put us on the schedule for ORMS on June 11.  We talked about trying to reschedule ORMS, but we were someone's ride and we didn't want to leave them shorthanded on Saturday.

We figured we could hike up the Saddle Trail and take it relatively easy.  After all, rescues are rare and we had already had a few this spring, so it didn't seem likely that we would have another.  The fact that we needed to haul the rescue gear back to the cache after last Sunday's rescue didn't seem like it deviated too much from that plan.  We got a ride up to the top of the fire road.  We had to carry the litter and several packs from Old Rag Shelter (the lower one) up to the first aid cache.  Since there were four of us and it is only a mile-and-a-half, it wasn't going to be a difficult carry.

Just as we were about to set off, we received a call that there was an injured hiker on the upper Saddle Trail.  That changed things a bit.  Now we were a mile-and-a-half below the first aid cache with some of the gear we would need above the first aid cache.  We were also slower because of the extra gear.  That being said, the injuries didn't sound too serious, so we figured that we wouldn't need to do a carryout.  We split up the gear between three of us, the lead Steward went ahead, and we moved as fast as possible up the mountain.  We dropped the extra gear in the cache and then continued up to the patient. 

Soon after arriving at the patient, it became clear that they weren't going to be able to walk out.  The lead Steward made the call that we would carry the patient.  SSW Spouse and I headed back down to the cache to get the litter and the other gear we would need to transport the patient safely.  When we returned to the patient, the two Stewards who had come up the Ridge Trail had made it there as well.  About the time we were ready to move the patient, the rest of the carryout team began showing up.  I think we wound up with a total of 15 people or so, which was a good number since there were several spots where the litter needed to be passed down, rather than carried by one team.  Halfway down, a thunderstorm rolled in, soaking everyone but the patient (we used a tarp to keep the litter dry).

We actually finished pretty early.  We received the call around 11 a.m. and the patient was loaded into a vehicle at around 3:45 p.m. and then into an ambulance a little while later.  That sounds like a crazy long time for someone who needs medical treatment, but five hours is a really fast carryout on Old Rag.  There just isn't any easy way to get someone down off the mountain.  Every time I am involved in something like this, I am reminded what a great team ORMS and the Park Service are.  Everyone pitches in to make a big job safer and go more quickly.

We arrived home fairly tired, but not too worn out.  The alarm clock went off bright and early Sunday morning and I woke up a little stiff from the carryout, mostly in the arms.  We had to pick up another friend for the Air Force Cycling Classic Crystal Ride, which is a great event.  They close a 12 km loop from Crystal City up to the Air Force Memorial.  It is an opportunity to ride on roads that are never otherwise open to cyclists.  Riders get different colored medals based on how many laps they complete in 3.5 hours.  Last year, I completed six laps and I was hoping to do better this year.  I actually felt pretty good on the bike and wound up doing six again, but quite a bit faster than last year.  Sometime during lap 5, though, my arms started aching.  Carrying a litter and then holding the bike was a lot for one weekend.  All in all, it was a great ride.  One of the things I like about big cycling events is the variety of bikes that people ride.  The majority of people ride standard road bikes, but one guy did the ride on a penny farthing, making him much stronger than I will ever be.  Another rode an elliptical bike, which looked like it would be awkward and weird, but he didn't seem to be having any trouble with it.  We stuck around to watch the pro races in the afternoon, making for a good end to a tiring, but rewarding weekend. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Hydrangea arborescens (Wild Hydrangea).  This is one of the most common shrubs in the park).
 Tadpoles in a small stream.  Click to enlarge for a better view.
 An old spring on Old Rag.
Sculletaria sp.  (Skullcap).  I don't have time this morning to determine which Skullcap this is.  I'll take another look at it tonight.

 The men's professional race at the Air Force Cycling Classic.  This and the next picture were taken with my phone.
Another shot of the men's pro race.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Spring Flowers: Dolls' Eyes or White Baneberry

Actaea pachypoda (Dolls' Eyes, White Baneberry, White Cohosh) is a tall plant with pretty, white flowers.  It reaches 1-2 feet in height, has sharply toothed, compound leaves, and produces white berries with a black dot in them (thus, one of its common names).  A member of the Buttercup Family, it is found throughout the eastern United States and Canada. 

The entire plant is poisonous, but the berries are most poisonous.  Consumption can lead to cardiac arrest.  Like many plants that are poisonous to consume, A. pachypoda was once used medicinally (just like many modern medicines are toxic if used incorrectly).  Native Americans used extracts from the plants to aid in childbirth, according to The Secrets of Wildflowers (Sanders 2003).  The toxins do not affect birds, however, which consume the berries and disperse the seeds. 

A. pachypoda on the Lower Hawksbill Trail in Shenandoah National Park.