Monday, October 29, 2012

Old Rag: Hurricanes, Crowds, and Ravens

This weekend was both the best and worst that Old Rag can be:  crowded, beautiful, quiet, crazy, frustrating, time well spent with old friends, and relaxing.

Saturday, the lower parking lot filled by 10 a.m. and there must have been a memo for every large group in the tri-state area to get a hike in before the impending doom of Hurricane Sandy.  We were a bit early for our shift with Old Rag Mountain Stewards, so we had plenty of time to sit and watch the unfolding chaos:  Several groups arrived with dogs (not allowed on Old Rag), one woman mentioned not having any food as she walked away from the fee station and proceeded on her way up the road to the trail, another woman asked the rangers what time the weather would get better (sometime Wednesday).  It was a relief to leave the crowds climbing the Ridge Trail and begin walking up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.

We had a quiet walk up the road.  The leaves are still on the trees in the valley.  We stopped for lunch at Old Rag Shelter and had a great surprise when Shenandoah Mountain Guides walked up the trail.  None of us had seen him since August and none of us expected to see him there.  We spent about an hour catching up with him before he had to head back down and go to work.  Before he left, he said that he hoped nothing happened while he was there because he wasn't really prepared.  Not 15 minutes after he left, as we headed up the Saddle Trail, we got a call for an injured hiker.  We hurried up the trail.  Fortunately, the hiker was able to walk, so other than adjusting a splint, he just needed to be walked out so he could be transported to his car.

At the Byrd's Nest Shelter, we found that someone had left a gift of an entire bag of trash.  Someone else decided that one of the granite slabs below the summit was incomplete without their graffiti.  At the summit, there must have been 150 people crowded around the rocks.  Although outreach is part of our mission, I was in no mood to speak to anyone.  In spite of that, I found a little bit of solitude and watched the ravens riding thermals over the valley.  Since there were still crowds of people coming through the rock scramble, we decided to hike back down the Saddle Trail.  We had a very pleasant walk back down.

Sunday was as different from Saturday as possible.  We arrived to less than 30 cars in the parking lot.  We hiked up the Ridge Trail and saw just a handful of other hikers.  It was colder, windier, and cloudier than Saturday as the leading edge of the hurricane-disturbed weather approached.  We saw the improvements that the hardworking NPS trail crews have made in the last few months.  And absolutely nothing happened.

The wind screamed out on the summit and it was cold enough to need a stocking hat and gloves for the first time this fall.  While we were at the summit, we watched the ravens riding thermals again.  There were even more than on Saturday.  A couple of them carried something in their claws that they tossed into the air and then plummeted to catch.  It was fascinating.  Then a hawk appeared and they all scattered.  We could see them further down the valley harassing the hawk, but they didn't come back before we left.  We had a completely uneventful hike out.

It was a good weekend overall, but it is frustrating to see people trash a mountain that I love.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Hiking up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.  As of yesterday, the leaves were still on the trees in the valleys.  I would expect that, as of this evening, Hurricane Sandy has blown most of them off of the tress.
 Changing maple leaves.
 Ladybugs huddled inside Byrd's nest.
 Looking out over Weakley Hollow towards Hot Short Mountain from the summit on Saturday.
 A raven riding thermals.
 A pretty fern, possibly Woodwardia virginica (Virginia Chain Fern) along the Saddle Trail.  I'm happy to be corrected on that.
 Headed down the Saddle Trail on Saturday.
 Ageratina altissima (White Snakeroot) seeds.
Clouds rolling in over Fork Mountain on Sunday.  The weather slowly deteriorated as the day went on.  We managed to be off trail by the time the rain really started.
  A raven diving near the summit on Sunday.
The mess someone left in Byrd's Nest Shelter.  Unfortunately, the wet spot is, let's just say, not water.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Leaves: A Beautiful Hike of Kennedy Peak

Sunday was a perfect fall day for hiking:  crisp, dry, and clear.  We decided to try a new hike in the Massanutten area of the George Washington National Forest:  Kennedy Peak.  Massanutten is the overlooked little sister to Shenandoah National Park (which is just fine with me).  It is made up of the two steep ridges to the west of Shenandoah.  There are a few hikes close to Front Royal that see some traffic, particularly Signal Knob and the Elizabeth Furnace area is popular with both mountain bikers and climbers, but even those don't see a fraction of the number of people that somewhere like Old Rag does, let alone Skyline Drive.  The hikes are quiet and every bit as interesting and scenic as those in Mansanutten's better known neighbor to the east.

Kennedy Peak is no exception to that.  We started off at a parking lot just below Edith Gap.  The fall colors were definitely peaking.  Everywhere the sun hit, yellow and red leaves glowed against the sky.  The hike started on the Massanutten Trail, with a well-switchbacked climb up to the gap and then followed the ridgeline north a couple of miles to the Kennedy Peak Trail.  We didn't really make good time because there were so many pretty trees to look at and to photograph.  We did startle several several Pileated Woodpeckers along the way.  The little tower on top of Kennedy Peak made a perfect stop for lunch as turkey vultures soared above us, riding thermals over the mountains.  From there we returned to the Massanutten Trail and hiked another mile north to the Stanley Trail, where we began to work our way back to the car.  At one point we stopped briefly to take more pictures and a raptor began to fly back and forth shrieking.  Since it was pretty high above us, I don't know if it was because of us, but it was fascinating to watch.  

At the end of a fabulous day, we had walked 9.2 miles and seen a total of four other hikers.  

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Bright red maple leaves.
 The Massanutten trailhead at Edith Gap
 A yellow maple leaf.
 A large spider on the Kennedy Peak Trail.  I think it is a Wolf Spider.  It was about 3 inches across.
 Michael taking a break after lunch on the tower on top of Kennedy Peak.
 Symphyotrichum sp. (Aster).
 Looking northeast towards Shenandoah and Front Royal
An interesting moth that appeared to be laying eggs.  If anyone knows the species, let me know and I'll post it.  Thanks to Old Rag Patrols for figuring out that this is a Buck Moth.
 Walking north on the Massanutten Trail.
 Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel) - the very last flower to bloom in the fall and a sure sign of the coming winter.
 Looking back toward Kennedy Peak on the Stanley Trail.
More beautiful foliage.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Few Days in Colorado: Good Friends and Mountain Biking

I had meetings in Boulder, Colorado on Monday and Tuesday of this week, so I took advantage of the trip and spent last weekend out there seeing friends.  I spent Saturday afternoon with the Sparkly Pia family.  I was honored to be their first visitor since moving to Colorado.  The weather cancelled our plans for a short hike, but I did get to see the outside of their new house.  Saturday night, I drove down to Denver and spent a great evening with Tangled Up in Denver and her family.  It had been more than two years since I had seen them and how the kids have grown!  Time passes so quickly.

Sunday, I was invited to give mountain biking a try for the first time by a friend I've worked with over the years.  When the invitation was issued, I assumed we would be doing some scenic road cycling in the mountains.  I accepted and said I would bring my shoes and pedals.  Then he said a friend of his would bring a mountain bike for me to use.  First time on a mountain bike, riding at 6000ish feet 24 hours after arriving from basically sea level...what could possibly go wrong?  Now, I love cycling.  I have spent untold hours on my bikes, but I can't say that, other than the random gravel road, I have ever biked off pavement.  I am used to the skinny tires, shoes that are hard to walk in, and the ridiculous clothing of road cycling.  I know nothing of riding off road.

I brought shoes and pedals anyway, since I use mountain bike shoes for commuting.  The guys got me set up on the generously loaned bike and we were off.  Well, they were off.  I struggled with the first small climb because I wasn't used to riding over rocks.  They waited for me at the top and reassured me that, yes, the bike will actually roll over almost everything (my road cyclist brain took some convincing).  I slowly got more comfortable riding over uneven terrain and wound up having a blast.  By the end of the ride, I was trying to figure out if there is room in the garage for another pair of bikes.

It was a great couple of days of fun, followed by a little bit of work.  I only wish I could have spent more time with everyone.  It seems like a vacation to Colorado might be in order.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 The Flatirons north of where we were riding.
 Taking a quick break.
 One of the easiest parts of our ride.
 A different kind of boot shot.
Another view of the Flatirons and the changing leaves in the valley.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Old Rag: Back on the Mountain

It has been a whole six months since our last hike on Old Rag and nearly a year since we've been out with Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS).  The leaves are just starting to turn on the mountain, meaning the busiest time on the mountain here, with thousands of people coming out to see the turning leaves.  Yesterday, however, the rainy, cloudy, chilly weather kept most people away.  When we arrived, there were just a few cars in the parking lot.  One of the local dogs was there, trying to convince the few hikers that he was starving (he didn't make a convincing case).

We started out the day by hiking up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.  Since there were few people on the mountain, we soon veered off trail* to explore some of the valley.  The valleys and hillsides in the park are filled with evidence of the farming settlements that existed before Shenandoah National Park was established.  Some of the evidence, including lots of stone fences, can be seen easily along the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.  We followed a couple of old road beds up, into the forest.  We tried to stick to the roadbeds where we could, but often the underbrush was too thick.  We climbed over blowdowns, pushed through thickets of mountain laurel, and got scratched up by thorny greenbrier vines.  We found a couple of old springs with stone walls built into the hillside around them and other evidence of the old farms that once existed in the hollows.

We probably wandered a mile or two before deciding we should return to the fire road and continue on our way up to the summit of Old Rag.  We had an uneventful walk up the fire road and the Saddle Trail, passing only a few people on their way down from the summit.  The summit itself was cold, a little windy and completely socked in.  On our way down, we stopped and made hot chocolate at Byrd's Nest Shelter.  It was a nice, warm treat after most of a day wandering in the cold.  We made it back to the car just as darkness fell.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Following an old road bed.  This was one of the clear spots.  A short ways uphill, it was covered in blowdowns.
A fallen maple leaf.
The beginnings of fall on a small creek.
Puffballs growing in the leaf litter.
Stereum ostrea (False Turkey Tail fungus) on a downed log.
Goodyera pubescens (Rattlesnake Plantain).
Part of a rusted old tub.
Symphyotrichum sp. (Asters).  I have found Asters difficult to tell apart.  Not only are there a lot of species in the mid-Atlantic, but some of them also hybridize, making it even more difficult to correctly identify them.
Sympyotrichum cordifolium (Heart Leaf Aster).
 A pretty little red mushroom.
 The view of Robertson Mountain and the clouds from the Saddle Trail.
The beginning of the Saddle Trail near Old Rag Shelter.
Can I be friends with your sandwich? (photo taken by Michael)

*It takes considerably longer to travel the same distance while hiking cross-country versus hiking on a trail.  Getting disoriented when meandering in an out of hollows is easier than it seems.  It is critical to have a map and compass and the skills to use them.