Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Kayaking in Virzhiniya

Jews of my parents' generation were obsessed with knowing which celebrities were Jewish. In an era before people flaunted their ethnic roots and when anti-Semitism was a real concern, they relished a quiet pride in those Jews who had "made it" in the greater world (the actor Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz!). My generation was clearly influenced by our parents' habit: Jewish celebrity name dropping is one of the main elements of Adam Sandler's execrable Hanukkah Song. I even have to admit I'm a little guilty of playing this game myself (Scarlett Johannson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and of course Natalie Portman - if you are reading this you are welcome to come over and study Talmud any time. And bring Mila Kunis too).

Which brings me to Boris. I bumped into Boris when I was launching from Columbia Island Marina with a couple of friends on a cool December morning. Our goal was to paddle up to Fletcher's Cove Marina and rendezvous with a Meetup Group outing being organized by our friend Deke. Boris was there indepedently and launched behind us, but he did wind up catching up with us once we met up with Deke's group. Initially all I knew about Boris was that he was paddling a gorgeous work of art - a strip-built baidarka style kayak. Museum quality stuff, and not a kit like my Shearwater.

Deke's group was composed of a bunch of fairly inexperienced paddlers and some stand-up paddle boarders. We paddled up river together past Chain Bridge, but when Deke took the group up into the squirrely currents at the base of Little Falls I decided to hang back and have a snack. Taking that group into challenging currents in the cold waters of December seemed foolhardy to me and I just didn't want to be in the middle of it. For the record, the group did wind up with someone in the water -it was Deke himself who fell off his SUP; fortunately he self-rescued without incident.

Meeting up with Deke's group at Fletcher's
Boris came back downriver past me as I was enjoying the sunshine and my Powerbar. He hadn't really been with either Deke's group or mine to begin with and so wasn't waiting around for them. I myself had little patience for sitting around waiting for the group to return from around the bend and so the two of us decided to break off and return together to Columbia Island.

As we paddled back I learned that he was a Soviet Jew who had been part of the major Soviet Jewish emigration wave which took place in the 70's through 90's (just like Mila Kunis!). He had lived in Israel until eventually work took him to the U.S. - to Brooklyn, and finally Silver Spring, Maryland. As we paddled and talked he figured out that I was Jewish too. He was thrilled and amazed to discover another Jew on the water, and one who shared Brooklyn and Litvak roots at that (my mother's family, if you trace it a few hundred years, is from Boris' home city of Vilna). He excitedly exclaimed, in his Lithuanian/Russian accent, how unusual it was and how rare it was in all his years of kayaking to run into another Jew on the water (I have found this to be true as well).

Having basked in ethnic bonding all the way down the river we exchanged numbers, promising to kayak together again. It being the last day of Chanukah* we wished each other a chag sameach (happy holiday) and went on our ways - two modern day Noahs, each with our own little personal wooden arks.
Boris' & my kayaks
 *Chanukah is the transliteration I prefer for the Hebrew word חֲנֻכָּה. When referencing Adam Sandler's song I use the spelling he used in the title. Actually, I'm kind of keen on YIVO's choice of Khanike because of its Yiddish flavor and the clever use of the less common "kh" to indicate the "חֲ" sound.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Milestones Along a Trail

How did I want to spend the day of my milestone birthday? Well, I happened to have the day off, and Ted was home from college for Thanksgiving break and so the question almost answered itself: out for a hike (with some geocaching, of course) with my favorite hiking partner followed by dinner with the whole family.

Before Thanksgiving break I had scoped out some new hikes between Arlington and JMU, figuring that I might actually drive down and pick Ted up and then go hiking on the way home. As it happened it didn't work out that way as I had to run to NY to help out my dad, whose house was significantly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. We decided to stick with one of the hikes we had researched, even though it meant driving about half way back to JMU - a little crazy given that Ted had just come from there.

Our destination was Signal Knob, an area at the very north end of the George Washington National Forest. This area is close to but distinct from Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive.That particular trail offers two possible loop hikes, but both were pretty long. I figured that we might give out and do a shorter out-and-back hike given that I'm recovering from a badly sprained ankle and that Ted's only exercise since leaving for school has been twelve ounce lifts.

The Signal Knob trails have a very rocky tread and so I was glad, with my weak ankle, that I had worn my hiking boots. At the trail head we passed a bench with a set of car keys on it, along with a note - someone else had found the keys along the trail and had brought them back to the lot. Given that the lot was nearly deserted, whoever's keys they were had clearly found another way home (of course the trail system is served by a number of parking areas, and so the good Samaritan may not have brought the keys to the right lot).

We continued up the mountain. It's a pretty trail with a number of good views along the way. I started out dressed for the cool morning. As we hiked I warmed up and shed some layers.

We took a break at Buzzard Point to look for a geocache. Unfortunately the GPS location was bouncing around something awful and so we eventually gave up despite logs saying it was an "easy find". We hiked through a few more switchbacks, each of which presented a nice view, until we finally reached a point where we had to make a decision. Hike any further and we were pretty much committed to doing the whole loop.

The last of this year's Fall foliage
I decided to try and get a picture of some of the last of the fall foliage. As I lay on my back on the trail pointing the camera up into some leaves the only other people we saw all day happened by - and amazingly, it was two geocachers we knew! One was there to make his 9500th geocache find (that's pretty extreme, even among committed cachers). We chatted for a bit then they continued down the mountain, back towards the parking lot. They did give us enough of a hint about the location of the Buzzard Point cache to allow us to find it on our way down.

We bumped into them again as we puzzled over the best route to the other geocache on our list. We had noticed on the way in that along the trail we had gotten within 250 feet of it, but that those final 250 feet appeared to be a pretty vertical rock scramble. Again, our cacher friends pointed in the general direction (yes, we had to take on the rock scramble) and Ted and I headed on up while they continued down the mountain.

After getting to the right location, finding the cache was easy; it was a large ammo can in plain sight. We took a break to catch our breath and enjoy the view, then headed back down.

On the way home we made our usual stop at the Gainesville WaWa market for soft pretzels and drinks (coffee in my case, a mammoth soda in his). It was a really nice day over all and it was really great to get a chance to spend some time with Ted.

By the way, overall my birthday celebration included:
- A dinner party at our house with friends
- Hiking with Ted
- A kayaking outing at Mason Neck
- Dinner out at Mad Fox with Valerie and the boys
- This hike
- Dinner with Henry, Colleen and my dad at Picket Fence in Brooklyn
- I also sort of include a Thanksgiving weekend jam with Bob C.'s crew, Thanksgiving dinner out, and going to see the Klezmatics next weekend.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pre-Birthday Paddle

Yvonne, Tom, Cyndi, Me, Dave, and Rob (photo by Suzanne)

My half-century birthday is not being observed in one big bang party. Rather, it's being celebrated through a series of events: a dinner party at home, dinner out with my brother and dad, dinner with my family, and the subject kayaking outing with my kayaking friends. Mason Neck State Park has become the traditional location for my birthday paddles and so I invited a group of my friends out for a trip from Mason Neck to Leesylvia Park .

The group wound up being eleven people - quite a nice size, and at that was down a few at that from the original count due to some last minute drop-outs due to the weather (not everyone has full cold weather gear, and conditions were right on the edge in terms of needing it) and personal reasons. As always we got a punctual start despite some folks coming from as far away as Baltimore.

It's that time of year where it's impossible to dress properly: if you're dressed warmly enough for immersion you wind up sweating while you paddle. I tried my best to ride the line and still wound up working up quite a sweat inside my dry suit. A few people on the trip got cold; I can't fathom how that could be when we were exerting ourselves on a 50 degree day while all bundled up - and I'm almost always colder than everyone else. Admittedly, there was a bit of a wind blowing: more than forecast, and enough to turn Belmont Bay into an interesting mish-mash of chop.

I was pretty tired starting out, as I had driven back from Brooklyn the night before after spending a few days working with my brother to clean up my dad's house after it flooded during Hurricane Sandy. I had gotten up early and made a mad dash around the house gathering up and loading my gear. However, being on the water always invigorates me and I soon forgot my weariness as I watched the eagles and negotiated the choppy ride over to Leesylvania, where we took an early lunch break in one of the picnic pavilions. Dave and Cyndi shared a hummus platter, I brought a box of cookies from a fine Italian bakery in Brooklyn, others had other good stuff - there was plenty of food for all! Tom brought along his suggestive Banana Guard.

Ralph hops a freight train
We launched back into the surf and headed under a high railroad bridge into Neabsco Creek. A freight train rattled over the bridge just as we were passing under it, adding noise and drama as it clackity-clacked overhead. Soon, though, quiet returned and we enjoyed the calm waters of the creek. We even spied a few tundra swans as we did our exploring.

The ride back was into the wind, which meant a pounding ride as the boats smashed over the waves. My wooden kayak doesn't have a very buoyant bow and so it tends to slice through rather than go over waves. This makes for a smoother but slower and wetter ride as waves roll across the front deck. In any case, the ride back was an exhilarating workout and we all arrived back with smiles on our faces, even the few who had lost feeling in their feet.

About half the group stopped at Glory Days grill for a post-paddling warm-up snack. All-told, the tally was eleven people, twelve miles, four eagles, three tundra swans - and a partridge in a pear tree (oops, I shouldn't make that reference until after Thanksgiving - sorry!).

Track Map
For the record, my birthday celebration included:
- A dinner party at home with some close friends
- Dinner out with my dad & brother on fashionable Cortelyou Rd. in Brooklyn
- This kayaking trip
- Dinner outwith Valerie & the boys at Mad Fox
- Sad to say, a little extravagance in clothes shopping in preparation for my new job.
- Since my birthday was the day before Thanksgiving, our Thanksgiving dinner out was kinda sorta a birthday celebration too.

Friday, October 26, 2012

That's Why They Call It "Fall"

My outdoor activities were dealt a forced pause about three weeks ago when I took a tumble while out for a morning run. I had just started the return leg of a roughly 5K outing and decided to detour over to the Bluemont Park restroom (my habit of slugging down a cup of coffee just before heading out sometimes brings about a desire for such a pit stop). I tripped over something while jogging across the gravel area around the restroom and went flying into a skidding belly flop across the gravel, twisting the heck out of my foot along the way. I got up and examined myself as best I could in the dim light. Both palms were scraped up; one palm and one knee were bleeding and my foot felt like someone was attacking it with a branding iron. I was so shocked that I didn’t even think to check whether I had torn the brand new running shirt I was wearing; if you know me you know that means I was pretty distracted. I dragged myself over to a nearby park bench where I sat for a couple of minutes collecting myself.

My biggest immediate problem was that I was almost two miles from home. I didn’t have my phone or any money with me and so I had no way to contact anyone or get a ride home. It was six AM and so there was no one around to ask for help. I gritted my teeth and began a long, slow walk home, each step more painful than the preceding one. By the time I got home I was in a lot of pain. I iced my foot, put it up on some pillows and watched TV for a while.

I also emailed Valerie, who, when she heard about and saw the extent of my injuries, cajoled me into going to the emergency room, where they found that fortunately I hadn’t broken anything. They reiterated the Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (RICE) advice, told me to keep weight off it, gave me crutches and sent me on my way. Over the next couple of days my foot swelled enormously and turned all sorts of colors. I think I hurt my foot about as badly as someone could without breaking anything.

Well, three weeks later things are well on the path to mending. I can fit into shoes again. I’m walking without a limp. My right ankle is still swollen and a little bit tender and the whole area is tight (I have been stretching but I wouldn’t dare think of running!). I can kayak and row on the erg, and this weekend I may even try biking if the forecast Frankenstorm holds off.

Here’s the worst part … I took a fall in exactly the same spot in October of 2008, though with less serious consequences. I even memorialized it in the description of a geocache I placed nearby. I often snicker at the people running bedecked with headlamps and flashy lights in the morning – I mean really, who needs a headlamp to see where they’re going on the urban section of the W&OD trail? – but I’m beginning to think they have a point.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bog River Flow in the Adirondacks Sept 2012

The Adirondacks: a vacation destination from my youth and an iconic location not just for New Yorkers but for all Americans. The rustic architecture and furniture styles, cabins by a lake, and canoeing. It was with great excitement that I joined onto a trip my friends Steven and Jim were putting together to kayak camp in the Bog River Flow area of the Adirondacks. 

Day 1 (Sat)
I arrived at Steven's house at 6:30 AM to meet my friend Yvonne, with whom I'm carpooling on the way up to the Adirondacks. Steven's house in Owings Mills, MD is being used as the meeting point because not everyone is coming and going at the same time and it's a central point for our Baltimore, DC and Virginia-based group to leave cars for pickup on the way home. I checked my phone and found a text from Suzanne saying that she, Steven and Jim headed out about 5:30. Yvonne pulled in immediately thereafter. I have heard that Yvonne is a light packer and sure enough, she hauled her stuff over to my car in what appeared to be a small gym bag (in comparison, I had filled the whole trunk of the car with my stuff). We had preloaded her kayak onto my car when we had paddled together a few days earlier and so by 6:40 we were rolling northward.

Our trip to New York was occupied with a diverse range of conversation topics. Yvonne is a career diplomat currently working on refugee issues and so I learned some things I never even knew I didn't know about repatriation agreements for "wet feet" refugees from Cuba. We talked kids and home repairs (Yvonne's fridge is on the fritz). I explained the difference between eBay and Craigslist. I kept ignoring the insistent beeps of my GPS as it kept recommending "shortcuts" which would have taken us onto odd little local roads. Fortunately I had looked up the route beforehand the old-fashioned way - using Google Maps - and as a result I knew to ignore the GPS's complaining.

As we got into the Adirondacks it started to rain, first lightly, then harder and harder. The views of the woods and the lakes in the mist were quite pretty, though I did begin to have some second thoughts about camping that night. My hope was that Jim, Steven and Suzanne would have arrived ahead of us and gotten a tarp set up which would have provided enough shelter for us to set up. This didn't turn out to be the case: about 10 miles short of our destination I spotted Jim's truck by the side of the road in the town of Blue Mountain Lake. Steve and Suzanne were also having second thoughts about camping (Jim and Yvonne were fearless stalwarts and were still all for camping) and had pulled over to contemplate getting a hotel for the night rather than trying to camp in the forecast torrential storm and high winds. We drove over to the Adirondack Museum to sort things out. We asked a woman behind the counter at the museum her opinion. She said, "I'm a camper and I wouldn't camp on a night like this." On the other hand, with an arts festival and a major canoe race going on in the vicinity, hotel rooms were going to be impossible to find. Finally we decided to risk camping. 

At Lake Eaton Campground

We drove on and found the campground nearly deserted - whether because of the severe forecast or just because things quiet down Labor Day we don't know. Only one other site was occupied. There wasn't even anyone at the front entrance, just a sign saying "Be back at 8 AM tomorrow. Severe weather forecast."  

While we had reserved three sites (the site's rules specify a maximum of two tents per site and we had five people, each with his or her own tent) with the rough weather we decided to cluster together in one site (the sites are quite large) and got our tents and a big tarp set up during a lull in the rain. Suzanne, Steven and Yvonne all clustered together, each with their tents partially under the tarp. This seemed like a great way to have 256 square feet of rain-catching surface area channeled down onto your tent all night and so I set up away from the tarp under the tree canopy. Jim also set up further away because, well, Jim just likes personal space. 

With a friend at the Adirondack Hotel

The good news is that the forecast storm never materialized. In fact, the storm moved out sooner than expected. The rain ended and after a quick toast by the cars we drove into the town of Long Lake where we had a lovely dinner in an 1850's hotel facing the lake - and which had the requisite big front porch and stuffed moose head and bear. I had a lovely bowl of Hungarian goulash, the beginning of an unusually carnivorous week for me. After that it was back to camp for an early bed-time. It had been a long day.

Night 1
At about 2 AM I awakened to the sound of a creature scratching (fortunately it did not sound like a large animal) then someone shouting and clapping. This pattern repeated several times.  A conversation among tents ensued. Finally I hear a couple of really nasty animal growls, which cause me to involuntarily yell, "What Was That?!"

In the morning we groggily all figured what had happened. A raccoon had come nosing around, first to Suzanne's tent, then Yvonne's. Yvonne had committed a camping no-no by keeping some food in her tent and the raccoon actually chewed a hole through her tent and made off with a package of pita bread. The growl had been when Suzanne had gotten out of her tent and shone a flashlight directly at the raccoon.

Day 2 (Sunday)
We had decided in advance not to bother with cooking at the campground so we had breakfast out at a local diner where we entertained the locals at the next table with our trip planning conversation. We then drove about 30 minutes up to the put-in at Low's Lower Dam on Hitchins Pond, where we launched into the familiar if tedious process of unloading all our stuff and pack our kayaks. It's always a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle to make everything fit into the boats, particularly at the beginning of a trip when you're loaded with food.

We also got to see a variety of other folks setting out into the Bog, many of whom looked very Adirondacky, that is to say they looked more L. L. Bean than Sea Kayaker. Hiking pants, big floppy hats, but not the neoprene fetish gear that sea kayakers favor. In fact, one Adirondacky looking fellow actually teased me about my neoprene pants - something about whether what I was wearing was the next big fashion trend. Ha Ha. These Adirondacky folks are so witty. Some other interesting People of the ADKs sightings: a solo canoeist with a mammoth revolver on his hip, another canoeist with so much gear that he was towing a recreational kayak behind him as a gear barge, and someone with a canoe piled so high it looked more like a container ship.


We shoved off and our first three miles were an easy trip across Hitchins Pond. From there it's about a 500 foot portage into the Bog River Flow. We dragged our boats out of the water, loaded them onto kayak carts we had brought with us, then schlepped the boats, with one person at each end, up a dirt path from one body of water to the other. Once relaunched we headed west across the Bog River Flow along the esker (a long winding ridge of stratified sand and gravel created by glacial activity). As we headed along we'd occasionally pass people going in the other direction. When we did we'd ask them which camp site they we're coming out of. Campsites are first come, first served and we wanted to get a feel for which ones were open.  Along the way we also saw our first loons, the famous bird of the Adirondack Lakes. Interestingly, other than the loons, we saw very little bird life. A few ducks here and there, a few herons, one flock of geese, but far fewer birds than you'd see on an equivalent body of water in the mid-Atlantic.
The loon!

It was a fairly long slog upwind as we headed westward across the Bog and into Low's Lake, named after Augustus Low, a native of Brooklyn (as is everyone important) and local 19th century industrialist who owned logging, maple syrup and other businesses in the area. A. A. Low's brother Seth served as mayor of Brooklyn in the late 19th century, which isn't germane to this narrative but is still interesting because it involves Brooklyn.

Near the west end of the lake we turned north into Grassy Pond. On the car ride up Yvonne had been looking at the map without her reading glasses and had misread the name of this area as "Greasy Pond". In reality, it wasn't greasy it all; rather, it was pristine, beautiful and deserted.  We had our choice of campsites and settled on #X1, which had a nice beach for our kayaks, plenty of room for five tents, and a nice view of the cliffs overlooking the pond. I had read on a web site that #(X1-1) and X1 were primo camp sites and so we were fortunate to have our choice of them. The rest of the afternoon was spent making camp and preparing dinner. Yvonne, Suzanne, Steven and I had planned in advance to take turns making dinner (Jim was managing his food separately). That first night, Yvonne made penne with meatballs. 

Pardon the non sequitor, but I should also mention the rest room facilities at the camp site (this has nothing to do with our pasta dinner, which did not induce any rush for the facilities!). Each site has a vault toilet – basically an outhouse without the house. Let me tell you that there’s all the difference in the world between a vault toilet setup and Leave No Trace camping. Camp sites with any sort of toilet facilities are, well, commodious. 

The facilities
It gets dark early in September and so after a brief camp fire we all headed to bed. I simply can't go to sleep at 9 PM and so I dragged out the iPad I had hidden among my gear and started writing this trip report. I did not let on to my traveling companions that I had the iPad along, fearing they might find it too, too geeky. Of course, given how much time we spent during our Bog Lake outing comparing the merits of the different Star Treks (including a surprisingly positive vote for Enterprise), maybe my geekiness level wouldn’t have been in issue.

(14.4 mi kayaking)

Night #3
Sometimes staying in a tent freaks me out a little. Having grown up in an environment of solid walls, locked doors (2 locks minimum, three is better) and a baseball bat or better by the bedside, being in a tent in the wild leaves me feeling very vulnerable. The place we were in was more remote than my usual trips and so I guess it got to me a little more than usual. For me, insomnia and feelings of panic go hand in hand and so I spent a good part of the night lying in my sleeping bed irrationally freaked out about the possibility of animal attack. You would think that I would be used to the feeling of ravenous, hairy beasts roaming around me in the middle of the night – I am, after all, the parent of two teenage boys – but somehow this was different.

I tried reading for a bit but the book I had with me (on the iPad, of course) was about psychopaths and the mental health industry, which it turned out was not a very calming book to read in the middle of the night while feeling freaked out with arktophobia. I also kept hearing Suzanne, one tent over, tossing and turning. She just couldn't get comfortable and was cold. Neither of us slept very well and in the morning we compared notes ("I heard you messing with your tent zippers at 3 AM - what was that about?").

Day 3 (Monday)
Monday broke quite cooler and cloudier than forecast so after a leisurely breakfast we decided to go for a hike rather than hit the water. We headed out a trail up to some cliffs which were visible from out campsite. We spent the morning hiking (including crossing a beaver dam) and bouldering up the cliffs, coming back to the camp site for lunch. Along the way we spotted a canoe carry to Cranberry Lake - this area is chock-a-block with lakes and trails to carry canoes between them.
Crossing a beaver dam

As we walked I discovered that Steven is a professional horticulturist, which I deduced from the fact that he knows an awful lot about plants and gets excited when spotting interesting ones. Along our first day of paddling he had pointed out pitcher plants (little carnivorous plants) on the Bog and along our hike he pointed out a lot of different species of plants - viburnum, various varieties of birch, and even one plant which needs two flowers to produce one fruit. Plant identification is a place where my Brooklyn upbringing fails me. To me, plants are plants. It's fascinating to take a walk in the woods with someone who really knows the different species.
Steven and Suzanne at the cliffs

Monday afternoon it was still chilly and so we rounded out lunch with a cup of tea and some Digestive biscuits - the UK kayakers from my 2011 Scotland trip would have approved. We then did a fairly short paddling outing, just four miles or so around Grassy Pond. It really was pretty chilly. For the most part I was dressed warmly enough but found myself wishing for my heavier paddling gloves. Along the way we eyeballed all the other campsites on the pond and decided we really had chosen the best one. We also spotted a beaver dam and a number of loons.

It was Steven's turn to make dinner, which was salmon, pasta and vegetables - quite tasty and we all ate quite a bit, even after having had appetizers of chile dusted mangos, hummock, and cheese - and drinks.

Yvonne, Steven and Suzanne at the cliffs
After dinner we took a brief dusk hike over to camp site #(X1+1) which we had realized while paddling was within easy walking distance of our site (for the most part the sites are quite spread out). It was another cool evening and returning to a camp fire at camp felt good. We sat, talked, watched the stars and the lights of the campers who had moved into a site visible from ours - some other people in our neighborhood. Throughout the rest of our stay we turned a jaundiced eye on the other campers - it seemed almost an affront that they were out there. What nerve they had making camp fires and using their flashlights within clear sight of us, and at a distance of only maybe 2/3 of a mile!

I should mention a a major pain in the neck while camping: bear-bagging. As we had already experienced, food attracts animals and so we kept all of our food and toiletries in bags which we hung from trees. This is particularly important since the area has a significant bear population. That meant that every meal started and ended with dealing with the bear bags. Since toothpaste and toiletries smell food-like, brushing your teeth also had to be factored into when you were going to raise your bear bag each night. The first day I got some rope burns raising the heavy bags but with each day the food bags grew lighter and we go better at managing them (for example, I figured out I should wear my gloves while pulling up the rope - duh) and so it was soon not too big a deal.

Bed time was once again early; people retired to their tents around nine. I can't go to sleep that early but evidently other people can. As I wrote the first draft of this entry at 9:50 I heard the usual rhythmic snoring from other tents.

Day #4 (Tues)
Our goal for the day was paddling down into Bog Lake. This involved kayaking out of Grassy Pond, across Low's Lake into Moose Bay, then following a narrow, twisty channel into the lake. I was feeling pretty good, having slept better than the prior nights. I still woke up during the night as I always do while camping, and this time I got to hear the ethereal calls of the Loons and barred owls echo over the lake in the amazing quiet of the night (unlike the swampy mid-Atlantic, there's almost no bug noise at night in September in the Adirondacks).

We started the day with a somewhat chaotic pancake breakfast. Yvonne had brought pancake mix to which we added Trader Joe's dried bananas which reconstituted nicely. We then did our best to cook the pancakes in the little pans we had available over camp stoves. This was not entirely successful as camp stoves tent to have very uneven heat, so overall the pancakes were a little burned in the middle but underdone at the edges - and too big for the pans in which we were cooking them. Still, they were tasty and made a good breakfast. I had mine with peanut butter.

The early morning was foggy to the point where the lake and cliffs had disappeared but by the time we finished breakfast and got ready to launch the fog had lifted to reveal a warm, sunny day and as a result the kayak trip was beautiful. Any random photo from the route would have been ready for a tourism brochure or web site. This great sunny, dry weather held for the rest of the trip. Along the way in the twisty channel there was a beaver dam which we portaged on the way up and ran in our kayaks on the way back. We also stopped at what had been an old road where we saw what we think were moose tracks. 
On the way to Bog Lake

After lunch we headed back. Suzanne and Steven broke off when we reached the mouth of Greasy Pond to head back and get dinner started. Jim, Yvonne and I continued on and did a little additional exploration of the west end of Low's Lake before heading back. Upon our return Yvonne declared the lily pad-filled area near where we landed our boats "off limits" and plunged into the pond for a bath. Ever cheery, she returned to camp and reported that it was the second best bath she'd ever had. I asked, and asked again when she repeated this statement around the campfire, but never got information about best bath #1. For reasons which will soon become apparent, this was the last bath taken on the trip. 

Here I am (Suzanne's photo)

 The night's dinner was chicken curry with lentils and mango over rice. It was Suzanne's recipe, prepared with some input from Steven. Once again, a tasty meal. Jim, on his own as usual (we did offer him food and he did accept – sometimes) ate this scary self-heating "heater meal" - a civilian version of the military's MREs (meals, ready to eat). Astronaut ice cream was proffered for dessert, but I abstained. After dinner we went though the ritual of doing dishes, then we filtered a number of gallons of water. At one point we had three people pumping at once with a fourth running to refill the intake bucket. Then, once again it was time for a camp fire and bed time. We suffered another minor critter attack - while we were at the fire I heard a sound to our right. I pointed my flashlight over and saw mice digging into our garbage bag, which had not yet been hung up got the night. The mice were brazen and kept at it even as we went over and shined flashlights at them. Fortunately, we caught them before much damage was done.

(17.3 mil kayaking)

Day #5 (Weds)
After (for once) an uneventful night we broke camp with the goal of moving our encampment to Site #X2. The camp sites on the lake have a limit of three nights and so we needed to move on. Also, we wanted to move to a site closer to the take-out for Thursday when Suzanne and I needed to head out. It was a warm day and by 10 AM I had to pull over and take off the neoprene shirt which had been the perfect weight the previous two days. 
Jim and Yvonne at Site #12

Amazingly, site #X2 was open - it's another gorgeous site - and we set to work unpacking the boats and making camp again: setting up tents, hanging bear bags, and such. I ducked into my tent to pull off my neoprene pants (it was even warmer). When I pulled off my paddling shoe I discovered a fresh water leech attached to my ankle. This was pretty amazingly gross. I wish I had the presence of mind to have taken a picture, but a big voice inside my head was too busy screaming "Get The !%*(%@ Thing OFF!!!!!" We have seen a much smaller leech earlier on a beer bottle we had been cooling in the lake and leeches had become a running comment. So, I did saunter over to the group, already gathered for lunch, to show off my new annelid fashion accessory. They thought (confusing slugs with leeches?) that salt might get it off and so we dumped salt on it. When that had no effect (other than no doubt making the leech more tasty) I pulled the damn thing off with my hand (in a plastic bag). Prior to departing I had thought that the primary Katherine Hepburn movie reference for this trip would be On Golden Pond ("The loons! The loons!") but I wound up re-enacting a scene from The African Queen. To quote Bogart's character, "If there's anything in the world I hate it's leeches. Filthy little devils."  I understand that Bogie wouldn't work with real leeches; they had to use rubber ones. Nice going, tough guy.
Group photo
After lunch we paddled 30 minutes or so back to the Low's Lower Dam portage, which is also the trailhead for a great hike up to a beautiful view of the area. It's also the only point in the whole trip where we had cell coverage and I took the opportunity to call home. After our hike it was back to the camp site for dinner. My turn: pasta primavera with salmon, enhanced with Steven's leftover fresh vegetables (carrots, a pepper, shitake mushrooms) and with crunchy Trader Joe's green beans on top. I even got to have an after dinner cup of coffee - ahhh!
View from the hike

Day turned into evening and into night as we sat around the fire. Just before bed time we heard the thump of a bear bag hitting the ground. This was momentarily a freak-out (we were picturing a bear nearby) but it turned out that a knot had just come loose and the bag had come down on its own. Whew.

As usual it was lights out around nine and went back to my tent to type away until 10.

(13 mi. kayaking)

Day 6 (Thurs)
It was time for Suzanne and me to head towards home. The group broke camp and we retraced our steps back to the put-in: back across the rest of the bog, portage and then the 3 miles or so through Hitchins Pond. At the portage we chatted with a group of guys from Bethpage, Long Island. They had spent the night in site #10 and said they were sure a bear had been in the site trying to get at their bear bags. But they're from Long Island - what do they know.

Back at the portage

Then we divvied up our stuff - Suzanne's stuff and mine in my car, Steven, Jim's and Yvonne's into Jim's truck. The latter three were moving on to a different site in the Adirondacks for a few more days of exploring. 

Suzanne and I had discussed many variants to our trip home, mostly focused on whether to do the trip home in one day or two, and how to get showers as soon as possible after we got off the Bog. The latter turned out to be easy. We went back to Lake Eaton Campground where Suzanne sweet-talked them into letting us use the showers for free, being recent customers and everything. That's better than I probably could have negotiated; however if Valerie had been there she probably would have gotten us both free use of the showers and a coupon for a free night's stay on our next visit. After very satisfying (and completely separate, I must add for the record) showers we got on the road.

Again, an uneventful trip. We reached Steven's at midnight and transferred Suzanne's stuff (well, most of it, anyway – a few lost and found items currently sit in my basement) and kayak to her car. For me it was then another hour’s drive home. 

I expected to arrive home and plop right into bed, but I had downed a Starbucks Doubleshot at about 8 PM to help keep me perky for driving and at 1 AM I was still wide awake. I slid into bed, luxuriating in the comfort of the mattress and the coolness of the sheets, but tossed and turned for quite a while. At 2 AM I considered going down and unloading the rest of my stuff from the car but fell asleep not long thereafter, lost to dreams of birch bark decor, the call of the loons and paddles gliding through the water.  

The rest of my photos are at: 

Suzanne's pictures are at the following two links:
[Link removed at the request of the owner]

Note: The original version of this blog entry listed the actual site numbers but some of my fellow travelers have bought into some kind of Adirondack secret society voodoo mentality where people don't talk about particular sites for fear of giving away the identities of the best camping locations. Apparently, similar to Fight Club, the first rule of camping in the Adirondacks is that you don't talk about camping in the Adirondacks. However, since (as you may have guessed from my tone) I don't completely buy into this selfish approach, I have provided the actual site numbers anyway - just in a manner which requires a little figuring. They are written as a third order polynomial, with the coefficients expressed in hexadecimal. Solving this will give you the actual numbers of the sites (the third root is obviously not a valid campsite number):

x^3 + (3BC)X^2 - (AA60)X + 5DC00

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Backpacking in Dolly Sods

Sometimes the easy things are hard and the hards things are easy. Imagine a group of 9 people converging from almost as many different cities over two days all hoping to meet up with each other in a wilderness area based only on the knowledge that the first arrivals had plans to make camp somewhere near the intersection of two particular trails. Finding each other turned out to be easy. Now, imagine a backpacker picking up a pack and hiking down a trail. Or, imagine experienced campers making sure they had the basic gear that they needed with them for the trip. Those turned out to be harder than one would have thought.

Here's the story: My kayaking friend Peter H1 (there are two Peter H's in this story) raised the idea of a backpacking trip into Dolly Sods and got a very positive response. Personally, I was a little hesitant because it had been many years and several orthopedic injuries since I had been backpacking, but after some hemming and hawing I decided to join in. The challenge was that not everyone could get there at the same time, so we planned for a staggered arrival. Peter H1 and our new friend Susan would drive up Thursday, make camp at the Red Creek campground Thursday night. They'd get an early start into the backwoods Friday morning to stake out a spot for the group. Nelson and Caroline planned to drive up crazy early on Friday and head straight for the backwoods site. Peter H2 and Gina would follow at some point on Friday. Suzanne wouldn't able to get away until mid-day on Friday and was hesitant about heading into the woods on her own, so Jen and I arranged to stay at the Red Creek campground Friday night and wait for Suzanne, who would join us Friday afternoon whenever she could get there. The three of us would backpack in Saturday morning and meet up with the rest of the group. This clever scheme had me backpacking only one night, which lessened my weight load and therefore my anxieties a little bit.

Jen and I set out early (but not as crazy early as Nelson and Carolyn) on Friday. While it was a little early for much conversation, I did ask her how the ongoing mid-West drought was affecting the part of Iowa where she's from, to which she replied, "it's so dry they might as well get out the silage chopper now." Boy, that said it all - or at least would have to someone with the slightest clue what she was talking about. This city mouse doesn't know much about farm equipment (didn't Silage Chopper teach motorcycle repair at Hogwarts?) but being a Mensa member was able to discern her meaning from the context.

The backwoods site
We arrived at Red Creek campground around 10:30 AM and snagged one of the last two available campsites. After setting up camp (including a plastic pink flamingo as a marker for Suzanne) and marveling at the cool, dry weather we day-hiked to where the rest of the group was supposed to be and - miracle of miracles - found them with no problem. Susan, Peter H1, Nelson and Caroline were already there with their tents pitched on a gorgeous plain along a mountain stream. Caroline pointed out the monarch butterflies flitting around the fire ring. A liturgical phrase from Numbers 24:5 came to mind. The pagan prophet Balaam, who was apparently a mercenary (a for-profit prophet?) was sent by King Balak to curse the Israelites, but when he came upon Jacob's encampment was so taken with the beauty and holiness of the place he instead blessed the place, exclaiming, "How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! Like valleys they spread out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the waters." At some level I may have started out intending to curse Peter H1 for getting me involved with schlepping a backpack, but it was hard to feel anything but Balaam-like joy and awe at the beauty of the campsite.

After hanging around a bit (and enduring a brief spell of rain) Jen and I hiked the 2.5 miles back to the campground in expectation of Suzanne's arrival. Along the way we bumped into Gina and Peter H2 (who was carrying such camping essentials as a four foot long saw and a sextant). They were heading for the backwoods site. We also took good advantage of the ripening wild blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries along the trail and ate our way back to camp. Suzanne arrived in the late afternoon, frazzled from an even more hectic than anticipated morning and a traffic-choked drive out. The three of us had a nice dinner (provided by Suzanne, courtesy of Wegman's) then spent the evening in our camp chairs looking skyward to catch the peaking Perseid meteor shower.

In the morning we fastened on our packs and set off down the trail. We made it maybe a few hundred yards when I realized something was amiss. My pack was hanging really low and felt uneven. I took it off and realized that my 23 year old backpack had suffered a critical failure - the top mounting point for the straps, a triangular plastic piece, had completely disintegrated. There was no way I was going to be able to hike with that thing. My first thought was to head back to the campground (we had paid for a second night at our campsite strictly as a place to leave the cars - all the other parking at the trailhead was full!) and send the two of them on backpacking. I'd turn around and meet up with them in the morning - or just spend the weekend on my own day-hiking. I also came up with some less useful options (e.g., hailing a taxi home on the forest road). My companions, however, would not abandon me. The three of us returned to camp to McGuyver a solution. We jettisoned whatever equipment we could, including one tent. They agreed to share Suzanne's two person tent and have me use Jen's one-person tent (this was judged to have fewer long-term negatives than either of the other possible permutations). I wound up carrying as much of my stuff as possible in a combination of Suzanne's daypack on my back, my daypack worn on my front like a baby in a Snuggli, and Jen's fanny pack. I also carried one item of group gear (the flask of single malt scotch). Jen took my sleeping bag and Suzanne added my sleeping pad to her already humongous pack. The two of them got in touch with their inner Amazons and carried the remainder of the group gear as well (cooking, water filter). Nobody had to worry about carrying the stove, which I had conveniently forgotten at home. And off we went ...
Pack Man

I suffered a lot of ribbing from Jen and Suzanne along the way about how they were carrying all my gear, but I held my head high as we passed other groups on the trail. In case anyone had asked about my odd combination of little packs I had a story prepared about how in our religion it was customary for my wives to carry the burdens, and another one about how I couldn't carry much weight because of a motorcycle racing accident, but no one questioned us so I never had to spin my yarns of high adventure and outdoorsy polygamy.

We made it to the backwoods campsite just in time to see the group heading out on a trail for a hike. We called out, they turned around and set to work helping us make camp. Our tents were set up in a jiffy (and I once again chose not to curse the encampment). Suzanne and Jen, tired from carrying All My Gear chose to limit their Saturday afternoon hiking to a short walk to a spot with a view (and lots more blueberries), while I joined Peter H1, Susan, Nelson and Carolyn on a longer day hike up to Harmon Knob where we were treated to a fantastic view. Peter H1 was ready to keep going, and going, and going in his Energizer bunny fashion, but at the peak of Harmon Knob Susan staged a sit-down, plopping down to soak in the view. Caroline and I soon joined her (Nelson had turned back earlier). Peter, characteristically unable to sit still, ran around taking pictures.
Harmon Knob Panorama

Saturday night we made dinner (for our part, Jen's awesome rice curry dish - other dinners ranged from pre-fab pouches to gourmet trail food), hung around a campfire, and once again watched the meteor shower and the gorgeous stars. A couple of the meteors were quite spectacular, shooting a wide trail across the night sky. Spotting the meteors triggered plenty of group "ooohs!" and "aahs!" There was a general giddiness at sitting around a campfire bundled up in fleece in August. When you live in the hot humid muck of the mid-Atlantic, a cool summer evening is something to be truly savored.

Around 2 AM I bolted awake to the sound of footsteps outside my tent: there was an animal walking around the camp, making huffing noises as it went. Given that we were in bear country (and that Gina had mentioned earlier that bears "huff") I jumped to the conclusion that it was a bear and spent the next half hour in an adrenaline panic figuring what to do when the inevitable bear attack came. Interestingly, I never for a moment considered that it might be a smaller, less lethal animal and I had trouble convincing myself that even if it was a bear it might not attack. Finally, after a while of quiet I managed to convince myself that the giant rabid grizzly had left us and was able to get back to sleep. In the morning I found out that other people had heard the animal too, though no one poked their heads out and took see what it actually was. Jen guessed our visitor had been a fox. After returning home I listened to animal sounds online and my conclusion is that it was a bobcat. Or a sasquatch.

Sunday we gathered for breakfast and then broke camp. Peter H1 and Susan headed out to hike a long, circuitous route back. Peter H2, Gina, Nelson, Caroline, Jen, Suzanne and I headed more directly back towards the campground. At camp I sorted out my gear and we ate lunch as a group before heading out.

It turned out that none of us was quite ready to give up the beauty of the Sods. Suzanne's feet were chewed up from her hiking boots and so she declared she was done with hiking and got into her car to head home. Jen and I headed up to Bear Rocks to do a short day hike where we immediately ran into none other than Suzanne - she had pulled over to take a quick look at the scenery. Up the trail a bit we ran into Gina, Peter H2, Nelson and Caroline.
Bear Rocks Panorama

Finally, we all tore ourselves away from the view and the cool, fresh air and headed back to muggy DC, vowing to visit this wonderful place again soon.

My pictures are here.
Susan's pictures are here.
Nelson's pictures are here.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Another New York Run

As is usually the case when I stay at my mother-in-law's in NY, I took the opportunity to go for a run in Central Park. As I walked over to the park I noticed a pair of crutches abandoned against a tree. Had there been a miraculous healing on 79th Street? Like the single abandoned shoes one sees on the streets of NY, it is a mystery.

The streets of New York were quiet at 7 AM on a weekend day. I have lived so long in Washington's early morning culture (it's the military/government influence) that I'm no longer used to the late-to-bed, late-to-rise schedule of NY.

My run was uneventful. I started out heading downtown, keeping my eyes open for signs of an outdoor Zumba class that was scheduled to be held in the park that day and that I knew my friend Alison would be attending. As I expected, since it was two hours before the start of the class and it's a big park, I didn't spot anything. The park's main roads are reserved for pedestrians on weekends, so when I hit a road I joined the flow of runners back uptown, finishing with a loop around the Onassis reservoir, past the Metropolitan Museum and back out of the park. I gave the doorman a friendly hello and tried not to drip too much sweat on the lobby floor, then Valerie and I went out for a little post-run carbo-loading at a wonderful local bagel place. A nice start to the day.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Leesylvania to Mattawoman

Last Sunday I participated in another kayaking trip with the NoVa Kayak Meetup. This trip was led by two of the organizers of the group, Randi and James, who it turns out are husband and wife. Both seem like competent kayakers, however the group as usual contained a range of paddlers from someone in a Tsunami 12 (one step above a rec boat) on up.

The first part of the trip involved a roughly two mile crossing of the Potomac in somewhat choppy conditions - nothing dangerous, but enough to keep you on your toes. The woman in the short boat had a slightly hard time of it but perservered and made it across. Once on the Maryland side we headed into Mattawoman Creek where we met up with another trip from the same Meetup. This group, headed by Andy (the Meetup's other organizer) had taken a shorter route starting on the Maryland side. The two groups stopped and chatted for a while then parted ways. We continued on to a park where we took a lunch break; Andy's group headed towards the river. 

Our group of six took a leisurely lunch break, ending when we saw the sky start to darken a little bit. We passed Andy's group again then headed back across the river. Fortunately it was calmer as we were all a little more tired. Still, one paddler wound up with a very achy shoulder. He made it back under his own power, but barely. 

It was nice to revisit this route, which had been the maiden voyage of my CLC wooden kayak a few years ago (that time was with Kingsley and Jen under much rougher conditions). The stated goal of the trip, to see lotus blossoms, was a bust - we were way past bloom - but it was a nice outing nonetheless. 

About 14 mi total distance

Monday, July 23, 2012

Upper Potomac Paddle

The 2012 Hippo Group
The day started early with the umpteenth check of Tom's car. Yeah, Volvos are super safe cars, but we're doing what we can to counter that aura of safety by overloading the roof rack with kayaks: one right-side up on the passenger side, one on its side in a stacker in the middle, and two more stacked on top of each other on the driver's side. We were on our way to Brunswick, Maryland to do a two day sojourn down the upper Potomac, covering the same ground as the previous year's "Hippo Paddle". The trip had acquired this name because the weather had been incredibly hot and as a result the participants had spent a lot of time just lounging in the water, like hippos.

This year's weather was totally different. It was an unseasonably cool day (seventeen degrees below normal, according to the robotic text-to-speech voice of the National Weather Service, delivered via our marine VHF radios). We were doing a one way trip down the river, which necessitated some car shuttle logistics to make get all the people and gear to the put-in and most of the cars pre-positioned down at the takeout. Jen and I had the job of guarding the boats at the Brunswick launch while the rest of the group shuttled cars around. In addition to being cool, the morning was drizzly and so the two of us spent most of the time hanging out under the highway bridge which passed high over the launch point. Suzanne, who had arrived first, had been wise enough to drop her kayak and gear under the shelter of the bridge and the rest of us had followed suit. We packed our kayaks in a leisurely fashion, then packed Tom's for him. I walked up into town and got coffee and a cupcake (50 cents and homemade, not the trendy Cake Love variety) at Mommer's luncheonette. But mostly we just hung out.

At the put-in

During our time at the put-in we had company in the form of a fat, really ugly but very friendly pug dog. The dog had a collar on - it wasn't a stray - but its owner was nowhere in sight. Frankly, I suspect that the owner wanted some peace and quiet to sleep in on a Saturday morning and so had kicked this grunting, slobbering little blob out the door for a while. I can't blame him. It was about 10:30 when the six of us (we left the pug behind) finally got on the water. The weather was deteriorating somewhat in that the rain was getting heavier, but we were all dressed for the water and so it really didn't matter. The conditions gave the river a pretty, misty, ethereal feel. My new pair of cheap sunglasses spent the day hanging unused around my neck.

The first section of the river had significant flow and some rocks - call it Class 0.5 whitewater. Yvonne got hung up on rocks a couple of times, which wasn't really her fault. She was paddling my Carolina 14.5, a very high volume boat for such a petite person. I don't think she had very good visibility of what was right in front of the boat. Tom, who had no such excuse, got hung up once as well, and most of the rest of us had close calls, scraping over or around rocky areas. There was a reason this was a plastic boat only trip! The wildlife on this section was pretty nice as well. We saw loons, a merganser, blue and green herons, cormorants, eagles, Canada geese, mallards, flycatchers, snowy egrets, and swallows. Along the shore we saw deer.

Misty Morning

Geese and flowers along the riverbank

With only 10 miles to cover and significant assistance from the current, we decided to paddle without a break down to our camping spot on an island in the river. Not being a formal camping area, it took a little scouting to find an appropriate spot to beach the boats and set up camp. It was still raining and so the first order of business was to set up the large tarp we had thankfully thought to bring with us. The tarp gave us sufficient shelter to (a) relax for lunch and (b) begin staging gear and setting up our tents. Over the next couple of hours lunch was eaten, boats were unloaded, and tents were erected. Soon thereafter, afternoon beverages and appetizers (chili dusted dried mangos, dolma with tzatziki) were served. At about 4 PM the rain let up, giving us a chance to change our clothes and get warm and dry. The weather held through the rest of the evening, so after dinner (curry, served with or without chicken, with rice, kale, brussel sprouts, etc., etc., and my contribution: strawberry shortcake) we had a small campfire down by the river. Tom had wisely brought a fake fire log to get the fire going; it would have been hard to make a fire with only the wet wood we had available to us. At about 10 we retired to our tents. I tend to fuss in my tent for a while before going to bed. In this case, I heard snoring from other tents long before I was even ready to get into my sleeping bag. My fussing time was extended by the discovery that I was able to get data connectivity on my phone. I wound up texting with Valerie for a while and making a move in our Words with Friends game before finally turning in.

Keeping the rain out while putting up the tarp

Sunday started as camping mornings usually do, with the group slowly rousing itself and checking conditions. Tents had made it through the night - even mine with its snapped pole (rescued via Jen's handy tent pole repair splint). Body parts all functioning and only slightly achy (I have a comfy new sleep mat). Gear all in place, though still as wet as when we had hung it up the night before. There was a slight panic (particularly on the part of Suzanne and me - evidently the biggest caffeine junkies of the bunch) over a possible shortage of morning coffee, but in fact we were all able to get our caffeine fixes. Breakfast was delicious: muffins from Firehook bakery, breakfast burritos with eggs and cheese, and for those who have a taste for it, salty country ham. In no hurry at all, we took time playing in the river's current, snapped pictures and slowly loaded our boats.

The White's Ferry ferry

Finally, we got under way for the short haul to White's Ferry. There were no mini-rapids on this section of the river, just pretty scenery and a bunch of other boaters. We took a break and pulled ashore at the Dickerson power plant to admire the artificial whitewater kayaking course they had created from the plant's discharge water. The U.S. Olympic Kayaking team has trained there! The last bit of river was uneventful. We spotted White's Ferry from far away. It's easy to spot as there is an actual operating cable ferry, The General Jubal Early, which shuttles cars back and forth across the river. I'm not sure I'd name my boat after a man who was both a Confederate General and a lawyer, but that's just a personal taste. After landing we loaded up the cars, changed clothes and all had lunch at the greasy spoon White's Ferry cafe. As we parted I was ambushed with a group hug, since I have reputation for being hug-averse (not quite accurate: I have nothing against hugs; I'm just not very good at them). Then we parted ways and headed for home. Jen, Tom and I kept our eyes and our prayers focused on the stack of boats on the roof as we traversed the Beltway. Fortunately everything stayed in place and we all made it home safe and sound. Three hours later I was in The Container Store with a frazzled Ted and an excited Valerie, buying dorm supplies at a hectic College Night event. The peace of the river seemed far away as the particulars of everyday life rolled back in - had it all been a dream?

My pix are at:

Suzanne's pix are at: