Monday, June 27, 2016

Shakedown Cruise: A Short, 108 Mile Bike Tour

As part of our training for our upcoming bike tour, we went out on a shakedown cruise this weekend. This was a chance to test our physical condition - whether we could push the bikes plus gears up the mountain grades that we will encounter on our big trip - and to make sure we have the right combination of gear.

We started at our usual spot at the north entrance of Shenandoah National Park under overcast skies. At the entrance gate, we were warned about fog beyond mile 12. We knew that might be an issue, but the forecast called for it to burn off and it was going to take us quite a while to reach mile 12 (we also all had lights). Then the climbing began. The first hill is 6 miles long, 1500 of elevation gain, and only the beginning. It was hard, but it was doable. By the time we reached Hogback Mountain at milepost 21, I was starting to think that this just might be possible. We had lunch and milkshakes at Elkwallow Wayside. We also saw a yearling bear who wandered into the parking lot!

The least pleasant part of the trip was from Thornton Gap to Skyland Resort. It is the busiest part of the Skyline Drive and, while most people were patient, there were a few people for whom a few extra seconds waiting behind us for an oncoming car ruined their day. Even with the traffic, though, it was still a very nice ride. After Skyland (and and iced mocha), it got better and, soon enough, we were at Big Meadows campground, our destination for the night.

Sunday's ride back to the car was really nice. We had clear weather, if a little hot (it is June, after all) and the park wasn't nearly as busy as it had been on Saturday. We had two crazy wildlife incidents. I was descending off of Hogback Mountain, moving along pretty fast. All of a sudden, two Indigo Buntings flew right at me. One of them passed right in front of me. The other must have decided it couldn't make it because it executed a hairpin turn right beside me. Michael said he was sure it was going to end up in my spokes. A few miles later, we were grinding up a hill and I heard something along the lines of, "Holy crap!" from Michael and our friends behind me.  Apparently, as we were biking by, a frog, fleeing a black rat snake that was in hot pursuit, jumped through Michael's bike frame. At that point, the snake gave up and returned to the other side of the road. I didn't actually see it all happen, just the end result of a disappointed snake.

We rode 51 miles and climbed approximately 9400 feet on Saturday with all of our gear on the bikes. On Sunday, we got up and rode back to the car, for a total of 108 miles. The return trip only involved approximately 4,000 feet of climbing. It was an amazing ride. The official verdict of the group: We are ready for the two week tour and this bike touring thing is pretty awesome.
 Our friend pedaling at milepost 5 under cloudy skies.
 A butterfly on red clover.
Grass and Old Rag in the distance from Pinnacles Overlook.
Taking a hard earned break at Pinnacles overlook. The climb from Thornton Gap up to Pinnacles was the second longest of the trip. It was a lot more fun to ride down it on Sunday!
The clouds breaking up in the afternoon on Saturday.
My bike loaded down at the entrance to Skyland Resort.
Amianthemum muscitoxicum (Fly Poison) at Skyland.
Platanthera psycodes (Small Fringed Orchid). This is a new-to-me species of orchid.
An Indigo Bunting at Old Rag Overlook. This isn't a great picture, but it was a nice test of my zoom lens.
This sign was a welcome sight after 51 miles.
Michael sorting gear on the bear box at our campsite. My bike is doubling as a clothesline.
Sunset at Big Meadows was spectacular. Michael and I have camped at Big Meadows a number of times, but always for Old Rag Mountain Stewards Training. We had never really been out into the meadow, let alone at sunset (training always runs late). I'm so glad we got the chance to check it out on this trip.
The sun peeked out from behind the clouds for a few minutes as it was setting.
 A. muscitoxicum (Fly Poison) in the meadow at sunset.
 There was so much Fly Poison blooming that I took a number of photos of it.
Just before turning it, I went to the campground restroom to brush my teeth. On my way back, the bike tires caught the light from my headlamp, which made for a pretty neat picture.
On Sunday, the weather was clear and hot. No complaints, though. We had a nice ride back to the car.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Riding Skyline Drive: The Fully Loaded Edition

We've been doing a lot of mountain riding this year to prepare for an upcoming self-supported bike tour. This week's ride took us to the Skyilne Drive in the South District of Shenandoah National Park. We ride the North District all the time and we wanted to do something different. The extra challenge this week was that we rode with all of our gear to see how that felt in the mountains. We had a great day and we found that we could actually climb the big hills while pushing 30 extra pounds of weight. We did 51 miles total. This just might work!
Michael and two of our friends climbing near milepost 68 on Skyline Drive. We had great weather. It was nice and cool when we started. This is on the first climb south of Swift Run Gap.
 My bike all loaded up.
 We passed by the areas that burned this spring in the Rocky Mount Fire. In some places, where the fire burned right up to the road, it still smells smoky. In areas where the fire didn't burn as hot, the blackened ground it dotted with bright green regrowth.
 A closer view of some of the fire scars.
 All four bikes at our turnaround point.
Heracleum maximum (Cow Parsnip). This plant is enormous. The flower clusters are dinner-plate sized and are on stalks that are five to six feet tall.
Aquilegia canadensis (Wild Columbine) hiding in the underbrush.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Two Weekends on Old Rag

We volunteered on Old Rag with Old Rag Mountain Stewards each of the last two Sundays. The two days couldn't have been more different. Sunday on Memorial Day weekend was crowded, busy, and hot. There was severe weather forecast for this past weekend, which held the crowd down to fewer than 20. The weather never did materialize, although it certainly felt like it would out there.

Memorial Day weekend:
 Hiking up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road
 A Black Snake along the road.
 Viburnum acerifolium (Maple-Leaf Viburnum)
Houstonia cearulea (Bluets). These are one of my favorites in the spring
 A tiny little mantis assassin bug nymph (thanks, David!) on the back of a leaf.
Rhododendron prinophyllum (Hoary Azalea)
 Hazy view to the south from the Saddle Trail.
 The spot where I always take a picture.
Galium aparine (Cleavers). This isn't an amazing picture, but I threw it in because it reminds me that there are still things I haven't seen on this mountain that I've hiked over 50 times. This is a new species to me. It is possible that I've hiked by it before and just haven't noticed it before, but I did this time.
Two new volunteers near the beginning of the rock scramble.

Last Sunday: Flower, flowers, flowers!
 Aquilegia canadensis (Wild Columbine)
 The day started out damp and humid. We hiked up into the fog for a while.
 Looking towards Etlan, up above the clouds.
Michael with two friends
Kalmia latifolia (Mountain Laurel) on the rock scramble
More Mountain Laurel, which was going full blast this past weekend. As long as I don't have to bushwhack through it, it is one of my favorites.
 The same spot, with a little more undergrowth this week.
 Thalictrum dioicum (Early Meadow Rue) in the wind
Sysirinchium angustifolium (Blue Eyed Grass)
Penstemon canescens (Gray Beard Tongue)