Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fourth Annual Hike Off the Pie: Lewis Mountain

For the fourth year in a row, I went for an epic hike with a friend on Black Friday. For this year's Hike Off the Pie, we decided to bushwhack up Lewis Mountain in Shenandoah National Park. Normally, we have a group, but due to various circumstances, there were just two of us this year. We picked this bushwhack because the topographic map of the area that we had shows an old trail leading up the mountain, connecting to Lewis Mountain campground. I was curious to see if we could find it. 

We started at the Pocosin Hollow Trailhead on the east boundary of the park. The old Lewis Mountain trail, theoretically connects with the Pocosin Hollow Trail just west of the trailhead. We didn't try to find it, however, because the Pocosin Hollow Trail crosses private land for about half a mile. Hiking through that land on the Pocosin Hollow Trail is ok, but venturing off of it to find an old trail is definitely not. Once at the park boundary, the trail almost immediately re-enters private land for about another half mile. Eventually, we crossed the creek and were firmly on national park land. 

From that point, we started working our way up the side of Lewis Mountain, looking for the old trail. The plan was to climb until we reached the top of the ridge and follow the ridgeline generally west, eventually reaching the Appalachian Trail at Lewis Mountain Campground. As we climbed, we started encountering snowy patches. By the time we reached the crest of the ridge, we were hiking in three or four inches of snow.  We paused for lunch in a relatively flat spot near the top of one of the knobs of Lewis Mountain. The snow was two days old, so there were tracks everywhere in it, including bear and bobcat tracks. 

From the top of the knob, we could see the higher peak on Lewis Mountain a short distance ahead of us. It should have been a quick walk across the saddle to get to the base of it and then we needed to climb up and over it. Up to that point, we had successfully avoided the dreaded mountain laurel thickets by going around them. At the bottom of the saddle, we reached one that we couldn't go around. We had to go through it, fighting our way through the tangle of dense branches, crawling under them in the snow where we couldn't get through on our feet. We followed bear tracks (they were at least a day old) because we knew that we could get through whatever they had. The thicket never seemed to end, although in reality, we were only in there for twenty or thirty minutes. It couldn't have been more than a few hundred yards long. We were able to look up and see the peak we were aiming for ahead of us, so navigating wasn't a problem, it was just figuring out how to get through the tangled morass of branches.

Once through it, we pushed up a very steep climb to the summit of Lewis Mountain. I popped out on top and found a blue blaze! There is a very short section of trail that is still maintained from that little summit I was standing on to the campground. I looked at the map, we turned right and headed for the Appalachian Trail half a mile away. The approximately four mile climb had taken us 3.5 hours - pretty standard for bushwhacking and not bad at all for route-finding in the snow. Now that we were back on established trails, we needed to move quite a bit faster if we wanted to make it back to the car by sunset. We hiked north on the Appalachian Trail to the Slaughter Trail, where we turned east back towards the boundary of the park. Eventually, the snow thinned out and we were able to take off our microspikes. A mile before the car, the trail meets the road at the Conway River, which was knee deep and running fairly fast. It does not have a bridge, so, given the distance to the car, we rolled up our pant legs and walked right through it (air and water temperature right at freezing). We made it to the car just as the last light drained from the sky.

It was a great hike and definitely met the criteria for the annual Hike Off the Pie. It was truly epic. The snow and the views through the trees were beautiful. We didn't see anyone else out hiking. We never did find the abandoned Lewis Mountain Trail. It would probably be easier to find it from the top (west) and when there isn't snow on the ground. That being said, I don't think I ever need to fight my way through that mountain laurel thicket again, so I doubt I will ever find out. 

 A waterfall on Pocosin Creek.
Moss on a rock in Pocosin Hollow
Aplectrum hyemale (Putty-Root Orchid) leaf. The plant puts out leaves in the fall and they stay out all winter. They don't have to compete with all of the other underbrush in the winter. In late spring, the leaves fade away and the plant will send up a stalk of flowers.
 The view through the trees on the way up Lewis Mountain.
 Snow near where we had lunch
A bear track in the snow. Lewis mountain is a popular spot for bears, based on the number of tracks we saw.
 Looking south from the very top of Lewis Mountain.
The Appalachian Trail between Lewis Mountain Campground and Bearfence Hut.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

New Orleans: All You Can Eat

I had to go to New Orleans for work last week. Since Michael had never been there, we figured it was a chance to get away for a few days and introduce him to a new city. And a chance to eat. Did I mention the food?  I don't think I've eaten so much in a single week in a long, long time.

We started the weekend with a culinary bike tour run by Confederacy of Cruisers. The tour took us to one restaurant on the east side of the French Quarter and then into the Treme and Mid-City neighborhoods. Not only was the tour great, thanks to Victor (our guide), but we got to see parts of the city that we wouldn't have seen otherwise. The tour was absolutely worth it and I definitely do it again (and we paid for the tour).

Michael and I wandered around on Sunday before his flight left, just exploring and visiting a few museums. Most of the rest of the week, I had to work at a conference, but I did get out to wander a little bit.
Saint Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square.
 A gaslamp in the French Quarter
 Ferns growing on a building in the Warehouse District
 Michael on his tour bike. The bikes they supplied were cruisers with coaster brakes (the kind where you pedal backwards to stop). I'm used to hand brakes and clipless pedals. When you stop with clipless pedals, you unclip your foot from the pedal and put it on the ground as you stop moving. It is a pretty deeply ingrained habit at this point for me. Coaster brakes are much, much less effective if one of your feet is off of the pedals! Frantically grasping for the hand brake levers is also an ineffective stopping strategy! I got used to it pretty quickly, though and we had a lot of fun.
One of the stops along the bike tour.
A building in the Warehouse District.
A sign on an old building in the Warehouse District.
 Jesus takes an interest in broken cell phones in New Orleans.
A classic French Quarter balcony.
 Houses along the east side of the French Quarter.
A restaurant boiling boudin outside overnight.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Crusher Ridge: A Quick Hike Up To Skyline Drive

Sunday, I actually got a second hike in for the weekend. A number of members of Old Rag Mountain Stewards stayed in Lambert Cabin, which is owned by the PATC, for an end of the year celebration. After working Old Rag on Saturday, we basically had a free day on Sunday, since check-out time was 3 p.m. Four of us climbed the Crusher Ridge Trail from the cabin in Shaver Hollow up to Skyline Drive. Along the way, we only met one other person: The PATC trail maintainer for Crusher Ridge. He had walked almost all the way down from the drive to clear a blowdown blocking the trail (we had to crawl under it on our way up).

The trail zigzags up the ridge. At first, there were a few trees with leaves on the, but by the time we were halfway up, all of the leaves had dropped. Winter has come to the mountains.
Lambert Cabin.
 A few remaining yellow leaves on the lower section of the Crusher Ridge Trail.
 Yellow leaves glowing in the morning sun.
 A milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seedpod on Skyline Drive.
Looking north from the Stony Man overlook on Skyline Drive.
Another view from the Stony Man overlook on Skyline Drive.
A fern along the trail.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Old Rag Season Wrap Up

We were out on Old Rag with Old Rag Mountain Stewards each of the last two weekends. November 1 was cold, cloudy, and really windy. Plenty of people hiked that day, but no one, including us, lingered on the summit. The original plan was to do some training at Byrd's Nest Shelter, high on the mountain. Everyone agreed that Old Rag Shelter, which was lower down, would be a better idea.
 The view of Weakley Hollow from the beginning of the rock scramble. The only places with any leaves left on the trees were those areas somewhat sheltered from the wind.
Looking up the mountain from the first false summit.
The spot where I always take a pictures. It will look like this until April.
A fungus on a downed tree near the summit.
The summit was completely socked in. Once in a while, the clouds would lift just a little bit and I got a misty view of the trees below.
Looking down the saddle trail to Old Rag Shelter. Even down here, it was brutally cold.
Maple leaves blowing in the wind.

This past weekend, we were out again on Saturday. The weather was much nicer, which meant the crowds were out in force. By the time we pulled into the parking lot, just after 10 a.m., it was full and the neighbor's pasture was half full. Not to mention the flying monkeys hovering over everything. Definitely a fall Saturday at its best on Old Rag. This time, training was a photographic scavenger hunt, which, I have to say, was a lot of fun. Thanks to ORMS leadership for putting it together.
 Hiking up the fire road. Very few trees have any leaves left.
A bit of rappelling training.
The view from the summit.
Looking down the Ridge Trail and the rock scramble near dusk.
A raven perched on a boulder in the rock scramble.