Sunday, October 30, 2011

Snow! Gathland State Park to Alternate Route 40 on the Maryland Appalachian Trail

We were supposed to be on duty with Old Rag Mountain Stewards yesterday, but the weather canceled those plans, so we opted for something closer.  We only had one section left of the Maryland Appalachian Trail:  the seven miles from Gathland State Park to Alternate Route 40.  Finishing that section means that we have completed an entire state on the Appalachian Trail!  Granted, Maryland is only 41 miles of more than 2,000 and it is technically our second complete state.  We completed West Virginia's grueling 6 or so miles on this hike in April of this year. 

Driving to the trailhead was a bit demoralizing yesterday.  It pretty much poured the entire way, making us feel that our chances of getting to hike in snow were pretty small.  In the valley just to the east of the trail, there was no sign of the white stuff on the ground or falling from the sky.  Luckily, just before we reached the top of the ridge and the parking area, the rain turned to snow and a couple of inches appeared on the ground.  After setting up the car shuttle, we set off from Gathland State Park, heading north.  We passed the picnic shelter at the parking lot where some very, very determined people were firing up the grill.  From there, the trail heads gently uphill.  As we climbed, the snow gradually got deeper.  The strange thing was seeing bright red and yellow leaves, still on the trees, covered in snow.  Many trees were bent completely over under the weight of the wet, heavy snow.  Throughout the hike, we heard branches falling from trees, some a little too close for comfort.

By the time we reached the top of the ridge, the snow was several inches deep.  We made slow, but steady progress, eventually reaching the White Rocks overlook.  It was socked in by clouds, but we had a pretty view of the snow-covered trees.  From there, we climbed up Lamb's knoll.  At that elevation, there was almost enough snow for snowshoes, but we hadn't brought them.  From Lamb's Knoll, it is an easy descent towards the highway where we parked.  The snow provided an extra, slippery challenge on the rocks, but we were thrilled to be out in it.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Snow on maple leaves.
 The first chance this season to break out the microspikes.
 Snow on the Appalachian Trail
 The view from the White Rocks Overlook on the Appalachian Trail
 Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel) in the snow.
Yellow leaves in the snow.

Monday, October 24, 2011

How to Make a Hike Last All Day: Three Ridges and the Mau-Har Trail

I hiked the Mau-Har Trail in Central Virginia in 2002 as part of a five day backpacking trip.  The friend I was with and I decided to skip what looked like a more difficult section of the Appalachian Trail in favor a pretty waterfalls and a little less climbing.  Since then, I have wanted to go back there and hike the Three Ridges section of the Appalachian Trail, which we missed.  Starting at Reed's Gap, the Appalachian Trail and the Mau-Har Trail make a 14.4 mile loop that is considered to be one of the more difficult dayhikes in Virginia, with nearly 3,900 feet of climbing.

We spent the night before the hike in a condo at Wintergreen Resort thanks to a friend who rented it for the weekend for another event.  The hike had been on her list for a while, too, so it was the perfect opportunity to get it done.  Reed's Gap is just about 15 minutes from Wintergreen.  It felt a bit strange not to drive two hours before a hike, but I think I could adjust to it if I had to.  It was chilly enough for hats and gloves when the four of us started hiking at 8 a.m.  The early morning sunlight streamed through the changing leaves as we began climbing out of the gap.

We made pretty good time, at first.  We quickly reached Maupin Field Shelter and continued up Bee Mountain, the first serious climb of the day.  As we continued walking, however, we kept noticing more and more interesting things to photograph.  All four of us enjoy photography, so the pauses were frequent.  At Hanging Rock, we had a great view of The Priest to the south and all of the fall colors at their peak.  The sun warmed us up after a chilly hike in the shade to get there.  We must have spent 45 minutes taking pictures and enjoying the view. 

From Hanging Rock, the trail crosses the Three Ridges, which give the hike its name.  We reached the top thinking that for a hike that is reputed to be so difficult, the climbing wasn't difficult at all.  We would pay for our smugness later.  The descent off of the ridge was relatively well-switchbacked and the leaves were just amazing colors.  We stopped for lunch on a rock outcrop with a good view.  We also stopped at Chimney Rock and took more pictures.  For a few minutes, we had a good view of two turkey vultures sunning themselves on a rock.  Then they tired of the attention and flew off.  As we descended, the leaves became brighter and late asters bloomed along the trail. 

We took another long break at Harper's Creek Shelter.  At that point, it was 2:30.  We had hiked about 8 miles.  In 6.5 hours.  We still had 6.5 to go and about four hours of daylight.  We resolved to stop only twice more to take pictures.  When we reached the first spot, where the trail crossed the main part of Harper's Creek, it didn't turn out that the waterfall was quickly accessible.

At the next trail junction, we paused a moment before turning onto the much less well-traveled Mau-Har Trail.  I remembered the trail being difficult because I was carrying a heavy pack in 2002 and because I was not in terribly good shape then.  Well, it turned out that the trail was difficult because it is pretty steep, both going up and down. Going down was more challenging this time because fallen leaves covered the trail, hiding rocks and making the trail slippery.  We reached Campbell Creek and spent a little while exploring the waterfalls.  The climb out of Campbell Creek is steep, rocky, and spectacular.  The rhododendron-lined trail follows the creek for about a mile and passes countless cascades.  At this point, though, we were running out of daylight and tired, so we pressed on to the top of the ridge.  We took a break at the Maupin Field Shelter and made it back to the car at 6 p.m., just before sunset.

This is one of the toughest hikes I've done in the Mid-Atlantic (part of it was self-induced with the slow pace).  It is also one of the most spectacular.  Between the fall colors, beautiful waterfalls, and great views, it is in a class by itself.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Sunrise from Wintergreen Resort
 A turning maple leaf
 A fern along the trail.
 Bootshot from Hanging Rock with the Priest in the distance.
 Turning leaves from Hanging Rock
 Turning maple leaves
 Lunch.  We do like to "rough" it on trail with good cheese, salami, and chocolate.
 Club moss.
 A small cascade on Campbell Creek.
 Golden leaves.
 A turning sassafras leaf.
 The view from Harper's Creek Shelter
 Campbell Creek Falls
Sunset at Reed's Gap.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Seagull Century

We headed out to Salisbury, Maryland for our last cycling event of the year, the Seagull Century.  The ride winds 100 miles through eastern Maryland with a stop at Assateague Island.  It is a pretty big event, drawing around 3,000 riders for all three routes, but after RAGBRAI, it didn't seem nearly as crowded.  We arrived in Salisbury on Friday night to pick up our t-shirts and stayed in a nice little cabin in Pocomoke River State Park a few miles south of Salisbury.  The cabin was really basic:  just a few beds and a table, but it held three of us comfortably.  It was nice to sleep in a bed the night before the ride and not to have to take down a tent in the morning.

The ride started off a little rough for me because something I ate at dinner the night before disagreed with me, leaving my stomach a little jumpy for the first leg.  It passed, though, and the weather was beautiful, if a little windy.  For the first and second legs of the ride, we had it mostly to our backs.  We made it to the second stop in good time, took a short break, and continued to Assateague Island.  That is when things started to get tough.  The wind had picked up, so crossing the bridge to Assateague Island was an adventure in holding the bike steady in a very stiff crosswind.  My legs started cramping shortly before the second rest stop.  By the time we reached the rest stop on Assateague, they were screaming.  We took a long, pleasant break on the beach and I drank water and ate bananas to try to calm my muscles down. The last 35 miles of the ride were pretty much straight into the wind and my leg cramps never did settle down.  I finished the ride, but it was a slow, painful struggle.  This was the first time I've ever had problems with leg cramps and hopefully, it is the last.

This morning, I woke up and my legs felt better, which was good as we had another 43 miles ride planned with a crab feast at the mid-point.  I drank a lot of water last night, hoping to correct whatever hydration problem I had the day before and it seemed to work.  Today's ride was much better.  We had headwind all the way to the restaurant, but it wasn't horrible.  On the way back, it was mostly tailwind, so the ride flew by.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Sunrise on the Pocomoke River.
The bikes at the third rest stop.
Assateague Island.
Two of the Assateague Ponies.
Toes in the sand.
Cyclists crossing the bridge leaving Assateague Island.
A pile of crabs on our table.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fall Flowers: White Snakeroot, Boneset, and Hyssop Leaf Boneset

The most obvious way to identify a flower is by color and flower shape and, in many cases, that is enough to make a positive identification.  I generally take pictures of flowers while I am hiking and identify them based on the pictures once I get home so I don't have to carry a heavy field guide with me.  I struggled for a long time to identify flowers of similar shape and color because I wasn't taking a picture of the leaves as well.  The leaves can be just as important as the flower itself in identification. 

Fall brings three great examples of the importance of looking beyond the flower itself and considering the whole plant.  The flowers of Ageratina altissima (White Snakeroot), Eupatorium perfoliatum (Boneset), and Eupatorium hyssopifolium (Hyssop-leaf Boneset) look almost identical.  They all bloom in late summer or early fall, so season is not a good indicator of their identity, either.  Here are pictures of the flowers for each plant (click to enlarge): 
 Old Rag Mountain, Saddle Trail.  September 2011.
 Appalachian Trail on Little Antietam Creek, MD.  September 2011.
Sand Flat, Frederick Municipal Watershed, MD.  October 2011.

To tell them apart, one has to look at the leaves (shown in the same order as the flowers):
Ageratina altissima (White Snakeroot).  These are the leaves associated with the first flower picture above.  The leaves are toothed, meaning the edges are jagged; there is a stalk, or petiole, between the leaf and the stem of the plant; and they are about half as wide as they are long.  It is found in woods and thickets. 
Eupatorium perfoliatum (Boneset).  These are the leaves associated with the the second flower picture.  The leaves are toothed, like the A. altissima, but they have a different shape.  They are much longer than wide and they do not have a petiole.  They are also opposite of each other on the stem of the plant.  It is found in moist areas such as swamps and low ground.
Eupatorium hyssopifolium (Hyssop-leaf Boneset).  These are the leaves associated with the third flower picture above.  The leaves are entire, meaning the edges are smooth.  They are whorled around the stem and they are much narrower than they are long.  The petiole is also absent on this plant.  It is found in fields and open places with dry, sandy soil.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Old Rag Mountain Stewards: The Crowds Have Arrived

The Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS) schedule showed just three of us working on Saturday.  My thought when I saw that was, "hmm, it is going to be the first sunny weekend day in several weeks, the forecast calls for 75 degrees, and the leaves are just starting to turn...what could possibly go wrong?"  We arrived sort of expecting most of the city of DC and half of Charlottesville to be there.  We were not far off.  The parking lot was more than 3/4 full at 9:30 a.m. The bonus:  It turned out that we had one more volunteer for a total of four.

Two of us headed up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.  The leaves are just starting to change and nearly all of the flowers have faded except for the asters.  It was a pleasant, quiet walk up to Post Office Junction.  We met a handful of groups who had gotten an early start and were finishing before noon.  We stopped for a quick lunch at Old Rag Shelter, before continuing up the Saddle Trail.  From the shelter to the summit was almost a  constant stream of people coming down from the summit. 

At the summit, we took a break, chatted with the crowd, and waited for the rest of our group to come up the Ridge Trail.  The summit is beautiful in all seasons, but in the fall it puts on its best show.  The blueberry bushes and maples turn bright, blazing red.  Yellow Witch Hazel holds on as the very last flower of the year to bloom.  The air is clear and ravens loop back and forth, riding thermals over the rocks.  In spite of the crowd, the weather was perfect and the day was going very well.

The other two volunteers joined us and we headed back to Byrd's Nest Shelter for some training on knots.  While we were there, I heard someone mention a snake.  A little juvenile black snake was climbing up the outside of the shelter.  Adult black snakes are, of course, black, but juveniles have a pattern that mimics that of timber rattlesnakes.  This one still had that pattern.  It was about a foot long and as big around as my index finger, so it probably hatched in the spring.  Hopefully, as it grows, it will eat lots of shelter mice.  We also had a rather frustrating encounter with a camper who seemed to be rather startled by the idea that he shouldn't cut down live trees. 

It was a beautiful day and, although, it was crowded, most of the crowd was friendly.  In answer to the, "what could go wrong?" question...not a thing on this Saturday.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 A view of the summit from the Saddle Trail
An Aster that I haven't successfully identified yet. 
This little spider was actively encasing her prey in silk. 
Looking down the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.
Bright red leaves near the Old Rag Shelter.
Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel) on the Old Rag Summit.
The Saddle Trail.  The bright red shrubs are blueberries.
More blueberries.
The little black snake on Byrd's Nest Shelter.
An interesting caterpillar on the Saddle Trail
 The spot where I always take a picture.
 A raven floating on thermals at sunset.
Glowing trees on the Ridge Trail at sunset.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Frigid Temperatures and Flowers in the Frederick Watershed

When we arrived at the trailhead on Gambrill Park Road northwest of Frederick, MD, it was 37 degrees, windy, and sort of misting.  It wasn't enough precipitation to really call it rain, but it wasn't really dry, either.  In spite of that, we were going to look for flowers that our friend had seen a couple of days before.  When it wasn't 37 degrees.  I did not have much hope that there would be any flowers left, but with the weather calling for rain most of the day, I didn't want to drive very far to hike either. 

We were accompanied by our friend's dog, who made an excellent hiking guide for the area.  She made a point of keeping the group together and usually chose the right trail when we came to an intersection.  When she wasn't chasing sticks into the water, she was a rather impatient hiker.  If we stopped to take pictures, she would start whining to urge us on. 

We ended up hiking a total of 13 miles on the Catoctin Trail, the trails around Sand Flat, and a few roads.  It turned out to be a fairly decent day.  The rain held off until late afternoon, although the sun never came out.  The leaves on most trees are just starting to turn, but a few species, like blueberries are already bright red.  In spite of the cold, we saw a lot of flowers, including several I had never seen before.  Best of all, very few other people were out hiking or mountain biking in what is normally a very busy area. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Our canine guide.  She is very motivated by Clif bars.
A small waterfall near the Catoctin Trail.
One of the many ponds along the route.
Eupatorium hyssopifolium (Hyssop-Leaved Boneset). 
Two tiny red mushrooms on a bed of moss.
 Headed towards Fishing Creek Road.
Symphyotrichum laterifolium (Calico Aster). 
Hiking north towards the Catoctin Trail.  One of the challenges of the Frederick Watershed is that there are so many social trails, it can be difficult to determine if an intersection is really the one you are seeking.  Good practice navigating.
 An overlook on the east side of the Frederick Watershed.
Conoclinium coelestrum (Mist Flower)
Symphyotrichum racemosum (Small White Wood Aster) on Gambrill Park Road.
Rudbeckia hirta (Black-Eyed Susan).
Asclepias syriaca (Milkweed) pods on the Gambrill Park Road.