Saturday, June 27, 2009

Don't cry for me Pasadena


After saying goodbye to Ted this morning - he's off to Boy Scout camp - I headed out to Ft. Smallwood Park in Pasadena, MD to do some kayaking on the Bay. I carpoooled up there with my friend Tom. That always adds to the experience, both because Tom's a nice guy and because he literally strokes the dashboard of his well-worn Saturn station wagon to coax it to keep going for one ... more ... trip.

The launch site for this trip is a new one - well, at least kayak access is. Our trip organizer, Gina, lives nearby and wanted to introduce folks to this new launch. Sixteen of us in total, from all directions, showed up, and no one but Gina had been there before. I'd say Ft. Smallwood's kayak launch coming out party was a success.

The conditions were choppier than predicted. 1-2 foot waves, and quite confused in places, making it hard at times to maintain direction. I guess this was a result of a combination of wind, boat wakes and tidal currents, as the wind wasn't strong enough to have caused this much chop. Whatever the source, it was a good opportunity for me to get some practice in slightly heavier waters.

We started out juct about at the confluence of the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay, paddled up the Patapsco a bit and then into some creeks. This isn't a pristine rural area - the shorelines are developed (with neat little cottages!), and you're never out of site of the smokestacks from an electrical plant and a steel mill - plus Baltimore. There was plenty of boat traffic, including a steady stream of cigarrette boats. Still, it's always great to be out on the Bay. Perhaps my favorite part was poking up some creeks and discovering some marinas stocked with old boats - some being restored, some simply decaying in place, some scuttled.

12.1 miles total.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sunday Morning Loop

Sunday morning I woke up early as usual. It was a beautiful day and I knew it would be several hours before the rest of the family woke up. Kayak? Boy, I wished I had loaded the boat on top of the car the night before, as I was feeling just a little too lazy to deal with it right at the moment. Besides, the overhead of a paddling trip - loading, driving to the river, driving home, unloading - would take more time than I felt like investing in the morning's outing. I decided to have breakfast, read the paper and think up an alternate plan.

How about biking? Well, that would have a lot of the same overhead -- but wait, there's a bike trail two blocks from my house! And I've heard that the county has built a new connector trail from the terminus of my local trail to the Mt. Vernon trail. I decide that the W&OD / Mt. Vernon / Custis Trail loop is exactly what I the doctor ordered and in a few minutes I'm out the door. It's 7:10 AM.

The first 4.5 miles of the ride are familiar ground, as this is my usual running / biking / walking turf, and pleasantly downhill ground to boot. When I get to the bottom of the W&OD trail in Shirlington, sure enough, there's a sign for the new connector trail. Let me tell you, this new trail is a great thing. Connecting between the W&OD and Mt. Vernon trails used to mean riding through the streets in a somewhat ugly neighborhood and for me, inevitably getting lost. Now it's smooth sailing. Exit the W&OD, turn right, turn left at the Weenie Beanie, go around the Exxon and you're golden.

The Mt. Vernon trail has always been my favorite section of this loop. It takes you right along the river, alongside National Airport (that's Reagan National for all you friends of Ronnie, or DCA for you ATC types) and past some of my local kayaking put-ins. I took a break at Graveley Point Park, which has the dually cool location of being on the Potomac in sight of all the monuments and unbelievably close to the north end of the main runway at National. The spot is a popular local attraction just because of the experience of hearing/feeling/seeing the planes take off. It's really loud, they're really low, and it's great fun. I had the foresight to bring a small thermos of coffee. So I plop down at a picnic table by the water's edge (a little off the flight line) and relax with my coffee.

Much as I hate to leave that spot, I get going again after a bit and face the icky part of the ride - the undulating hills along the Custis Trail from the river back up to my house. Up and down. Up and Down. Up and Down. Up over Lee Highway and down. Up over I66 and down. Up for no apparent reason and down. The granny gears become my friends.

I get home a bit after 9. As expected the rest of the family is just getting going. In summary: 18 miles, exploration of a new trail, and a good cup of coffee in a striking spot.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Long Overdue Asheville Report


Sometimes you just have to do something that doesn’t make sense. So when my friend Zgrav suggested driving nine hours to Asheville, North Carolina to go geocaching, I said, “heck, yeah!” Before I continue, a little background on the sport. Geocaching is a GPS-assisted treasure hunting game. You use your GPS to guide you to a spots where people have hidden little “caches” – containers ranging in size from pinky-tip up to briefcase size. The real point of the game is in the hunting rather than the finding – sort of like catch-and-release fishing. Geocaches each carry a two dimensional rating –difficulty and terrain – as to how hard they are to find. The easiest ones you can drive right up to. At the opposite extreme, there are geocaches that require solving hard puzzles, use of a specialized gear (helicopters, free-climbing, SCUBA) and a host of other challenges. The most challenging cache level is 5/5. Asheville is overall something of a caching mecca, and is home to a couple of 5/5 caches that were reputed to be outstanding. These 5/5’s were Zgrav’s targets. Ted and I had never done a 5/5 before, and we were eager to join in.

I picked Ted up early from school on Thursday and we got right on the road. The drive down seemed very long and somewhere along I81 I started to question the wisdom of the trip. My spirits sank even further when we stopped to take a break at Harrisonburg. I chose this spot to take a break because James Madison University is there and I want to slowly begin introducing Ted to colleges. It was a beautiful afternoon, and we took a nice stroll around the JMU campus. The only problem is that we, of course, wanted to pick up a few quick geocache finds while we were there. Unfortunately, the location of the first cache we tried was mobbed with people going on tours of the campus (that’ll be us soon enough). The second one stumped us, and we were chased away from the third one by campus police when we were just 40 feet away from grabbing it. Dejected, we grabbed a Frappucino at the campus Starbucks and hit the highway to finish our drive.

We had arranged to meet Zgrav and 4EverYoungs (I should explain that I’m using people’s geocaching names rather than their real names here) for breakfast the next morning at the local IHOP. Ted and I strolled in pretty well rested. The two of them had left later Thursday and had driven through the night to get to Asheville and so were pretty tired. We were also joined by Bubba Q Jack, who had made the trip as well and Asheville caching legend Ozguff. We lingered too long over breakfast before (after picking up a quick cache right in the IHOP parking lot) heading out to start our first 5/5, called “Toobe TTorcher II”. [Note that throughout this log I have intentionally misspelled the cache names so that future seekers of these caches cannot easily find the information I have provided here – which might spoil some of the fun for them]

Geocaches are listed online at site called, naturally, Geocaching.com. The cache hider provides some description of the cache, and each person who logs it can add information as well. From reading the cache description and logs we figured we’d be spending time in water tunnels and that it would be a tough slog. Here’s the list of items recommended for folks attempting the cache: “FIRST AID KIT, Good detailed topo/road map of area or maps on GPS, At least two good flashlights with extra batteries (hands-free headlights are best), Climbing harness with a short length of GOOD safety rope/webbing and at least one carabineer. (If you are in good shape, or an experienced climber and not afraid of heights you may not need this item—but we recommend it for safety.), Old, warm clothes and shoes/boots that you don’t mind getting dirty/wet/torn, A GOOD pair of gloves, rubber boots – Optional, Kneepads HIGHLY recommended, Notepad and pen, and a camera (you’ll wish you had it!).” Ooof.

I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say we saw a lot of the inside of Asheville’s stormwater management system. We quickly figured out that each stage of the cache (and there were many) contained clues to finding later stages. Ozguff accompanied us to the first stage of the cache, where we picked up a multi-page packet that you used to fill in information from each stage as you went along. Actually, since we took the last packet, we made a quick detour to a Staples and made some more copies to restock Stage 1 before attacking the next stage – cachers are generally pretty good about maintaining each other’s caches. The first “real” stage found us crawling through some pretty tight corrugated metal pipes looking for the next clue. Each stage got progressively harder and more interesting. There were tiny tunnels to crawl through and big tunnels you could have driven through. There was darkness. And, of course, water. I had my neoprene boots on, which kept my feet dry. The others, in hiking boots, resigned themselves to wet feet.

After 7-8 hours of this, we realized we needed to quit for the day, since we had another 5/5 to take on that night. So we did a quick scoping of the next stage, then headed back to our hotels for a quick break before heading to “Athena’s KKurse.” Ted and I got lost trying to find our way back to a Panera we had passed earlier (yes, we had a GPS receiver) and settled for dinner at Burger King for the second night in a row, then headed further south.

There are certain geocaches that can only be done at night. Athena’s KKurse is one of these, and it’s another 5/5 to boot. The cache is located in rural southern North Carolina (not far from northern South Carolina) on, and this is unusual, the expansive private property of the cache owner, Shymntmn. You have to get his permission before taking on the cache, and he keeps a sharp eye out as you roam his property. A bunch of us (not just Zgrav, 4EverYoungs, Ted and me, but also Bubba Q, Reedkickball and a few other caching friends) met up at the listed coordinates at about 8:30. By 9 PM it was dark and we started our search. Some other local North Carolina cachers who had previously done this cache turned out to see us off – mostly they were just heckling us as we looked for the first stage, and happily they left us soon thereafter. Shymntmn was also there to get us started. He was a really nice guy, and turned up spookily throughout the night to help keep us on the right track. Whenever our group seemed stumped, we’d suddenly smell cigar smoke and Shymntmn would appear out of nowhere, cigar in hand to give us little hints in his clipped German accent. After a while we realized he was using an ATV and a different set of trails to get from stage to stage.

We couldn’t have picked a better night. It was perfectly clear and the stars were out in force. The night hike would have been worth it even without the cache, and the cache would have been worth it even in the worst weather. But to do this cache on a nice night – perfect. Again, I will not spoil the cache by describing any of its many stages. I will only say that Shymntmn invested considerable time and money in this cache. Going way up in the air, using multiple wavelengths of light, codes aplenty, hidden items, and more. Each stage would have been a memorable experience on its own. As with Toobe TTorcher, you had to gather information as you went along, and once again I took on the job of scribe, to make sure we got everything recorded correctly. The entire experience took about six hours. Six incredible hours doing the weirdest things in the woods in the middle of the night. We staggered back to our cars some time after 3 AM, exhausted and happy, having successfully completed the cache. How I made the 45 minute drive back to Asheville I don’t know. Ted and I plopped into bed about 4 AM.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t sleep in the next morning, for we had arranged to meet up with Zgrav and 4EverYoungs to continue our pursuit of Toobe TTorcher. When the four of us met up again, Ted and I looked a little haggard. The other guys, now operating on two nights of virtually no sleep, looked even worse. Undaunted, we picked up where we left off. We had figured out that we could save some crawling if we managed to pull up a storm drain grate on the entry road to a local big box store and drop into the middle of a storm drain rather than crawling up all the way from the end. Zgrav and I took advantage of a break in the flow of traffic and managed to yank up the grate (they’re heavy!). We dropped 4EverYoungs down the hole, then quickly put the grate back. Zgrav, Ted and I then positioned ourselves at various storm drain grating along the way so we could keep track of our teammate. What people must have thought of us as we talked into the storm drains I don’t know, but fortunately, Asheville is a pretty offbeat place – I guess they had all seen oddball behavior before.

Once again, we spent all day crawling through the Asheville underground, finding strange glyphs on the tunnel walls, doing more “duck-walking” than I care to think about, missing some clues but using our smarts to figure them out, finding new accesses to stages because new construction had changed the old one, until the final clue led us to … the middle of the street at a new suburban-urban center?! We were flummoxed. This locale didn’t fit anything else we had seen along the way, and certainly didn’t seem like the right final location for a 5/5 cache. We searched every square inch of the place – again, we must have looked a sight, all grubby from a day of subterranean exploration – but couldn’t find anything. We retreated back to our cars, where we reviewed our data. Still nothing. We were starting to lose our light as well. Finally we broke down and called Ozguff. By coincidence, we were in his neighborhood. He said he’d come down and meet us and was there in a flash. Taking a look at our data, he surmised we had transposed two digits in one of the latitude/longitude numbers. Something had actually seemed strange to us about this earlier, but again, there was new construction in a spot such that we had become convinced we were heading the wrong way when in fact we were close to the final stage. Ozguff accompanied us to the final stage, where we happily logged our triumph of having completed our second 5/5 cache of the weekend. Ironically, on the way back to the car I slipped while crossing some deep water and got my feet wet – after two days of keeping them totally dry while slogging endlessly through water.

Again, Zgrav, 4EverYoungs, Ted and I retreated to our hotels and cleaned up. Zgrav used to live in Asheville and we met up and went out for dinner at a funky pizza place near the university. We were all feeling a combination of exhilaration, exhaustion, and hunger. We wolfed down a couple of excellent pizzas and some beer (well, not Ted) in celebration.

I have always wanted to visit Asheville, but on this trip so far I had seen mostly the insides of the public works, so I vowed that on Sunday Ted and I were going to do some sight-seeing before heading out. Unfortunately, we awoke to a steady rain on Sunday so our sightseeing was cut short. We drove around downtown a bit (yes, we found a few easy geocaches), visited the botanical gardens (again, to log a cache), had lunch at a surprisingly good Mexican restaurant, then headed for home.

Some day I must get back to Asheville and see the normal sights.

Note: This trip took place in mid-April. Two months later, no one else has logged Toobe TTorcher. It's a tough one.

Outrunning the Quiet Storm

It's been a rainy week. Not just the usual Washington summer afternoon thunderstorms, but heavy downpours 5 AM thunderstorms, flash flood warnings, the works. So it was with a severe weather watch in place and some trepidation that I headed down to Columbia Island last night. The consoling factor was that I had checked the weather report right before heading out from work, and the skies looked like they would be largely clear until about 9 PM.

My friend Dave has a new fixation with doing yoga warmups before paddling. I think he has been influenced by both Dubside and our friend Gina, who is a yoga instructor in addition to being a paddler. Interestingly, I had been thinking just the day before, when doing my 20 minutes of stretching before my 40 minute run, that it's funny that I stretch so much for running and erg-ing, but not at all for kayaking. So, when Dave suggested yoga, I was happy to take part. We must have been quite a sight, about half a dozen of us going through various asanas on the grass at the marina, while getting dampened by a light sprinkle of rain.

The weather held and the trip was spectacular. The birds were out (kingfishers, wood ducks, night and blue herons). When we got up to Georgetown the water was filled with crew shells practicing. It was just a wonderful feeling - all the hustle and bustle on the river. Six-person shells, singles, racing canoes, our group of eight. It felt like a secret society of the river, with all of us out enjoying the evening in our people-powered boats, with nary a powerboat in sight. The water is still a little cool and the rain had washed all sorts of chunky stuff into it, so I held off from rolling (the brown chunkiness of the water didn't stop Dave and Nelson, though).

As we started to head back the wind picked up. Leery that this meant the forecast severe thunderstorms were imminenty, I picked up my pace and pushed back to the marina at a more rapid clip. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. The weather was still fine when we got back, which gave us a chance to spread out and have our potluck as planned - a fine spread of cheeses, dolma, veggies, hummus, bulgar salad, fruit tart, chocolate babka, and more. Being National Park Service property, I am certain that we did not drink wine. Just a rather large juicebox of grape juice.

I arrived home stuffed and happy.