Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Help Me Choose

The building where I work has an employee art and photography exhibit for which they periodically call for submissions.  The theme this time is landscapes and I thought I would enter one or two photos.  I'd love any opinions on the photos below (click to enlarge).

This one was taken from one of the smaller climbing walls just off of the summit of Old Rag.  It is at sunset looking south towards Fork Mountain (November 2010).
 A storm over one of the false summits on Old Rag (May 2011).
Looking towards Skyline Drive and Hawksbill Mountain from the summit of Old Rag (November 2010).
Sunset on the summit of Old Rag (October 2010).

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lancaster Covered Bridges Metric Century

We rode the Covered Bridges Metric Century in Lancaster, Pennsylvania yesterday.  This was our third year participating in this ride, and once again, we had a great time.  The ride organizers put on a great event that is well-staffed by volunteers, includes a real lunch during the ride, and ice cream afterwards. It isn't the longest or hardest organized ride out there, although it does have some hill, but it is very pretty and one of the nicest.

This year, the forecast was terrible.  I think it said something like, "Hopefully, your bike doubles as a canoe or flotation device and you'll be lucky if you don't get struck by lightning at least once.  At least you'll have a helmet to protect you from hail."  With that in mind, we set off at 7:30 from the Lancaster campus of Harrisburg Community College under overcast skies.  It was a little crowded at first, but not like RAGBRAI and pretty soon, I found myself wondering where all of the other cyclists went.  There were 2,500 people registered for Covered Bridges, but it is amazing what an event like RAGBRAI with 10,000 riders will do for perspective.

Every year that we've participated, the route has been roughly the same:  a beautiful winding ride through the farms surrounding Lancaster, crossing six covered bridges in the process.  The only change this year was the starting point, which added two miles to the ride for a total of 64 miles.  It is truly a great route, passing through miles of corn, tobacco, and bean fields.  Almost every farm has signs out advertising what they are selling, from eggs and vegetables to border collie puppies and furniture. 

In addition to the normal traffic one sees on rural roads, the area around Lancaster has a high volume of Amish horse and buggy traffic.  Since it was Sunday morning, lots of people were in buggies, headed to church.  Generally, cyclists are faster than horse-drawn buggies and we passed a lot of them.  We even got caught in a "buggy jam" as we were passing a church where services were about to start.  We also passed a lot of Amish or Mennonite (I'm not sure which) folks bicycling to church.  One of the funniest sights was a very serious spandex clad roadie (I say that as a card carrying member of the spandex-clad group, well maybe not the serious part) on an expensive bike getting dropped by two local Amish or Mennonite men going up a hill on not nearly as expensive bikes.  I wouldn't have noticed it except the roadie expressed surprise that they were passing him on the uphill (he had passed them on the downhill).

All of the riding we've done this summer has paid off in a big way.  We were almost to the lunch stop at mile 36 before I even thought about taking much of a break and it was just 10 a.m.  We didn't spend too long there, because we were still worried about the weather.  Before lunch, there were some very wet roads, but it didn't actually rain as we passed through.  As we left the lunch stop, the wind picked up and we were pretty convinced that a deluge was imminent.  We rode in somewhat strong headwinds for a while, but we got lucky, and the rain held off until around mile 55.  By the time we finished, it had stopped, giving us time to eat our ice cream.   We finished at 1 p.m., an hour earlier than last year (partly attributable to spending less time at the rest stops).  The other thing we noticed:  the hills seem to have gotten smaller since the first time we did this ride.  Training is a funny thing.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 One of the six covered bridges along the route.
 A cyclist descending the last hill before the lunch stop.
 Oxalis stricta (Yellow Wood Sorrel) at the lunch stop.
Cyclists ascending one of the hills. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Summer Flowers: Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not

Impatiens capensis (and its closely-related sibling, Impatiens pallida, or Pale Touch-Me-Not) has a split personality.  According to Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Moutnains and Piedmont (Spira 2011), I. capensis plants produce two types of flowers:  1) a showy bright orange flower about one inch long, which requires pollination by insects or hummingbirds and 2) a much smaller, inconspicuous flower that self-pollinates.  Plants in drier areas tend to produce more of the second type of flower, particularly later in the season.  The first kind of  flowers can be spotted or not and vary in their shade of orange. 

Once the flowers fade, I. capensis produces seed pods that fling seeds up to nine feet away when touched - the reason for the name, "Touch-Me-Not."  The plants can grow up to 5 feet tall and are found in moist places like ditches and near streams.  In spite of their size, the plants are actually annuals, growing from seed each year.  It is found throughout North America, except for the desert Southwest. 

I. capensis leaves can be crushed and used to relieve the itching caused by poison ivy and athlete's foot (by rubbing them on the affected area).  The berries are toxic, if ingested. 

 I. capensis on the Appalachian Trail near Chester Gap, VA (2011).
 I. capensis on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road at Old Rag in 2010.  This photo shows the leaves and a flower with few spots.
 I. capensis on the Catoctin Trail in Maryland in July 2011.
I. pallida, a close relative of I. capensis on Nicholson Hollow Trail in June 2011.  The main distinguishing characteristic of I. pallida is the yellow color of the flower.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Summer Flowers: Tall Bellflower

Campanulastrum americanum (Tall Bellflower) is a relatively common flower, but its appearance is unusual because of  its large, curved style, which is the trunk of the pistil (a simple explanation of flower parts can be found here).  It does not, unlike other bell flowers, have a bell-shaped flower.  It can grow up to 6 feet tall and will usually have many flowers on a single stalk.  C. americanum is found throughout eastern North America except in New England, New Jersey, and Delaware. 

I only have a couple of pictures because I've only come across this one once:

 C. americanum on the upper Hannah Run Trail in August 2010.
A side view shows the style better. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Compton Gap to Manassas Gap on the Virginia Appalachian Trail

Back to hiking:  We got a late start on Sunday. By the time we were on trail, it was 11:30 a.m., but none of us had anywhere to be in the evening, so we decided to hike 13 miles anyway (we could have opted for an 8.2 mile section hike).  We met a friend at the parking lot at Manassas Gap, left her car there, and drove south, into Shenandoah National Park, to Compton Gap.

The trail climbs slightly from the parking area before a long descent out of the park.  The summer wildflowers were in full bloom along the trail here.  There had been a storm the night before, so the ground was damp and soft.  Not too long after we started, we were startled by a tree falling.  It wasn't very close, but it was loud.  We would see and hear branches falling all day.  By the end of the day, none of us wanted to stand under a tree with obvious widowmakers.  It was as if the forest was throwing a tantrum.

We quickly reached the park boundary and had lunch at the Tom Floyd Wayside, a pleasant shelter.  From there, we passed the 4-H Center, crossed a county road, climbed a short hill, and made it to Chester Gap.  We crossed Highway 522 and started to gradually climb towards High Knob, the only serious climb of the hike.  The first part of the climb passes along the fence of the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center.  Sadly, no baby red pandas or leopard cubs were seen on the hike (not that we actually expected to see them, but how cool would that have been!).  We did see some lovely butterflies on Eutrochium purpureum (Joe Pye Weed).  The climb up to High Knob starts out very gradually.  It gets steeper, but is never very difficult and the trail doesn't actually go to the top of the ridge, rather it skirts around it.  Just beyond the high point of the trail, we spotted a grouse crossing the trail.  We were surprised to actually see it.  Usually, you just jump out of your skin as they dramatically fly away, sounding like a helicopter taking off. 

The trail down the other side of High Knob is much steeper, but not too difficult.  We crossed another county road and began the last small climb of the hike.  At the top of that hill, there was a really nice open bald.  We met the PATC trail overseer for the section and chatted with him for a few minutes before hiking the last mile to the car. It was a good hike, but it was hot and humid.  Climbing the hills left us all soaked from sweat.  It rained once, but it only lasted a few minutes.  We ended the day with pizza in Front Royal. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on a large (~6 feet) Eutrochium purpureum (Joe Pye Weed)
 Lactuca floridana (Blue Lettuce)
 Silene stellata (Starry Campion)
 Clinopodium vulgare (Wild Basil)
 Lobelia inflata (Indian Tobacco)
 Verbesina occidentalis (Crown-beard)
 Solanum dulcamara (Bittersweet Nightshade).  This one is not native to Virginia.
 Rain clouds passing over an old pasture.
 Impatiens capensis (Jewelweed)
 Mimulus ringens (Monkey Flower)
A bench under an old apple tree right on the trail. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

RAGBRAI: More Pictures and a Few Other Thoughts

This is my last post on RAGBRAI.  I had a few other random thoughts about the experience:
  1. The food was awesome.  We had more pie and ice cream than I can possibly count.  We also had great breakfast pizza, pork chops, church dinners, and cinnamon rolls.  We basically ate our way from town to town.
  2. Training for the Savage Century made the first two days of hills and Twister Hill on day 3 a piece of cake.  I arrived at the bottom of Twister Hill and thought, "oh, well, you can see the top, so it isn't that bad." Riding Skyline Drive was time and effort well spent. 
  3. It was hot, especially the first few days.  We did 100 miles on day 3.  We found out later that it was 97 degrees with a heat index of 109 while we were riding.  The first two days were at least as hot.  It cooled down marginally towards the end of the week.  I coped with the heat by making sure to drink at least a mouthful of water at the top of each hill, which seemed to keep dehydration at bay.  We took breaks in the shade and dumped water over our heads to help stay cool.
  4. You are never alone on RAGBRAI.  Every mile on the ride was filled with cyclists, who would all have to crowd together when there was an oncoming car.  It was most crowded in the mornings and would thin out some in the afternoons.  The quietest, least crowded section of the route was the Karras Loop - the extra miles to make a century on day 3.  Towns were crowded, too and there were lines everywhere.  I'm not complaining.  We weren't in a hurry and it was a chance to chat with people, both other cyclists and locals.   
  5. The creativity of some of the cyclists never ceased to surprise us.   We saw all kinds of helmet decorations, clever jerseys, and crazy bikes. 
  6. As I said yesterday, the hospitality and generosity of the people we rode with, the people who provided support vehicles, and the people who provided accommodations, food, and/or showers continually amazed us.  We wouldn't have had nearly as good a time without all of them. 
  7. Bike touring is fun and I think we might try more of it at some point.  
Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower).  These were all over the roadsides in western Iowa.
 Sign outside the Methodist Church in Glenwood, Iowa.
 Another sign in Glenwood outside the Methodist Church.
 A tandem bike dressed as a banana on day 1.
 A bike ferris wheel at a welding shop in Carson, Iowa.
 Most towns would use two tractors to stretch a cable or rope to create bike parking.  This one was in Carson, Iowa.
 A Penny Farthing in Griswold, Iowa.
 Beekman's homemade ice cream at a farm on day 1.
 Cyclists heading into Lewis, Iowa.  Click to enlarge to see all of the cyclists on the road.  This also shows the rolling hills in western Iowa.
 The windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa on day 2.
 Our bikes taking a break while we eat cinnamon rolls.
A funny team jersey on day 2.
 Cornfields along the way.
 The grain elevator in Lidderdale, Iowa (I think.  I'm actually not 100% sure that is the right town).
 A barn quilt block along the road.  We saw a few of these (with different blocks) along the way.  My impression is that there are more of these in northern Iowa. 
 Sunrise on day 3 outside of Carroll, Iowa.
 Wind turbines on the Karras Loop (the extra 30 mile loop) near Dana, Iowa on Day 3.
 An 1895 Fred Spaulding safety bike in Grinnell, Iowa.  This bike had wooden rims, weighed 14 pounds, and the original box is behind it, according to the sign.
 One of the more unique bikes on the ride in Grinnell, Iowa.
The tent city on the lawn at Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

RAGBRAI: Finishing and Pictures

We finished RAGBRAI on Saturday afternoon by dipping our wheels in the duck-weed covered, flood-stage Mississippi.  The last day's ride was much more business-like than the previous six days.  There were fewer places to stop and fewer people stopping at them.  People had finishing on their minds. 

Overall, we really enjoyed the ride.  We finished with a total of 494 miles, according to the odometer on my bike computer.  We ate ourselves silly with all the pie, homemade ice cream, church dinners, and Mr. Pork Chop.  Iowa, particularly western Iowa, was beautiful - and far from flat.  We were overwhelmed by the hospitality of those who hosted us and of the towns we visited. A big thank you to the organizers, support drivers, and hosts for our team.

I have a lot of pictures from RAGBRAI, so I thought I would just post some tonight and I'll post more over the next few days. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 At the finish on the Mississippi River in Davenport, IA
 494 miles on the bike odometer
 An antique fire truck in Oxford, IA on Day 6
 Sunrise on Day 6 on the lawn at Grinnell College
 Bikes rolling into Victor, IA on Day 6
 Brooklyn, IA on Day 6
The water tower in Mitchellville, IA on Day 5
 A "banana tree" in Mitchellville.  Apparently, this is the only "banana tree" in Iowa. 
 The high school pep band in Mitchellville.
 SSW Spouse (in white) helping another rider fix a flat on Day 5.
 Getting a chair massage on Day 5.
 Mr. Pork Chop's bus on Day 5.
 They burn corn cobs to grill the pork chops.
 Pork chops on the grill at our lunch stop on Day 5 at Mr. Pork Chop.  We liked them enough to eat there twice.
Loin Cloth Man proves that there are less modest outfits than the average road cycling outfit.  Yes, he rode in that (hopefully, he didn't park his bike in the sun when he stopped).