Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Eclipse 2017

Sometime around the New Year, I read a small article about an eclipse this year. The map showed the path of totality passing right through an area in Missouri where many of my relatives live and just north of where I grew up. I think I bought plane tickets that day, figuring that they wouldn't get cheaper (I was right about that, for sure). We would have gone home to visit family during the summer, anyway, may as well do it when there is an eclipse!

Monday, my aunt and uncle hosted an eclipse part on their farm near the Missouri River. Everyone came in. I saw cousins that I haven't seen in more than 15 years. The day started out questionable, with a fair number of clouds. Totality was going to be at 1:09 p.m. and at 12:30, it was still cloudy at the farm. We could see blue sky just to the south, though, so a bunch of us jumped in cars and headed for clear skies. A couple of miles from the farm, we came over a hill and the sun was shining on some grain bins. Sunlight! We pulled off the road at the top of a hill in a spot that was big enough for everyone who left the party. I was able to get my camera set up, complete with a mylar solar filter sheet held on the lens with rubberbands (I really should have taken a picture of that with my phone). 

The light was already dimming and flat by the time we got there. Then, all of a sudden, it was dark and we could see stars, Venus, and the solar corona. The birds settled down into the trees and crickets started chirping. It wasn't totally pitch dark, more like late twilight. It looked like a 360 degree sunset.  It was pretty incredible. Michael and I talked about how crazy it must have been to experience a total eclipse in the days before one could predict them. All of a sudden, the sun just goes dark. That would be pretty unnerving. It seemed like the totality was over as soon as it started, but looking at my pictures, it actually lasted more than two minutes. 

My pictures are not super sharp, but given the setup, I'm reasonably happy with them. I'm even happier that we got to experience such a rare event.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Peaks of Otter: A weekend of Hiking and Riding

We spent last weekend at Peaks of Otter in Central Virginia. They have a lovely lodge that we stayed at last year when we did our epic Blue Ridge Parkway ride. This year, we were just out for a weekend getaway and some training in serious hills. That section of the Blue Ridge Parkway was my favorite in the Virginia portion of last year's ride.

We took Friday off and made the long drive south. After we arrived and got checked in, we decided to do the signature hike at Peaks of Otter: Sharp Top. There are signs warning that it takes 1.5 hours to hike the 1.5 miles. It is a little steep and I'm sure it does take many people that long, but we made it in 55 minutes. Mostly, it is just a steady uphill hike. There were lots of late-summer flowers blooming on the way up. The top was spectacular with a 360 degree view of the area. On the way down, we encountered a rattlesnake who really wanted to use the trail. Eventually, it figured out where to get away from us. We did get to do a little bit of interpretation about the snake with some visitors from Germany. It is a lovely little hike, which we finished just in time for dinner in the lodge. Overall, we saw just a handful of people, but the trail is six feet wide and the parking lot is large. Clearly, they get a lot of traffic, likely mostly on the weekends. We were pretty happy to have it mostly to ourselves.
 The Sharp Top Summit.
 A cool little caterpillar on some fern fronds.
 Monarda didyma (Wild Bergamot)
 Spirea latifolia (Meadowsweet) near the summit of Sharp Top.
 The view to the south of Sharp Top
 Looking down towards the Peaks of Otter Lodge. I was trying out a new wide-angle lens for my mirrorless camera.
 Michael on the summit
 Flat Top Mountain and the valley below (click to enlarge)
 A directional plate on the summit
 A large shelter just below the summit of Sharp Top.
 The rattlesnake we encountered on the way down (I have a good zoom lens)
 Another view of it as it was moving.

We spent Saturday and Sunday riding the Blue Ridge Parkway. On Saturday, we just rode north out of the lodge, up over Apple Orchard Mountain. The weather was actually chilly enough that I had to put on a windshirt for the twelve-mile descent off of the back of Apple Orchard.  The top third of that descent wound up being a challenge because they had very recently chip and sealed it. There was a lot of gravel, which meant we had to be really, really careful with turns. After about four miles of that, we hit normal pavement and were able to have fun with the downhill. After lunch, we had to pay it all back by riding back up the 12 mile climb. We ended up doing 60 miles by the time we were done. Unfortunately, I didn't take a ton of pictures.
 A couple of miles below the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain.
 My bike taking a break at the top of Apple Orchard.

On Sunday, we drove to our Saturday turnaround point and rode north from there. This is one of the best sections of the Parkway for riding in Virginia: Little traffic, amazing views, and good climbs.
Taking a break just north of US 60.

We had a great weekend, couldn't have asked for better weather, or better riding.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Bear Church Rock and Staunton River

A few weeks ago, we took a break from training for this year's bike vacation to get out for a hike. We did a loop in Shenandoah National Park that was mostly new to both of us. We started at Bootens Gap in the Central District of the park. We followed the Appalachian Trail uphill for about half a mile before turning east on the Laurel Prong Trail. We passed lots of late summer flowers. After a sharp climb up Cat Knob, the trail gently descends the the back of the mountain for a few miles to Bear Church Rock where there is a great view of the valley and Old Rag peeks out from behind a ridge.

After Bear Church Rock, the trail dives off of the mountain in a steep set of switchbacks. We took a short detour to see Jones Mountain Cabin, which was built in 1855 and is now maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. We then began to work our way back uphill towards the car on the Staunton River Trail. We passed a few pretty little waterfalls along the way. The Fork Mountain Fire Road was lined with more late summer flowers and butterflies. All said and done, we hiked 12 miles and saw exactly three other people on trail.

 Lillium michauxii (Turk's Cap Lily)
 The Jones Mountain Trail.
 Helianthus divaricatus (Woodland Sunflower)
 Impatiens pallida (Yellow Jewelweed)
 A snakeskin in Mountain Laurel on a rock where we stopped to have lunch
 The view from Bear Church Rock. Old Rag is just visible in the center of the photo.
 Tiny little fungi along the Jones Mountain Trail
 A tunnel through the Mountain Laurel near Jones Cabin
 Jones Cabin. You can actually rent this cabin from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.
 Campanulastrum americanum (Tall Bellflower)
 Small waterfalls along the Staunton River
 A tree that grew around a log which later rotted away. It isn't particularly common to see these in Shenandoah.
Helianthus annuus (Common sunflower)