Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fountainhead Foliage Paddle

My plans to paddle last Sunday with a Meetup outing were foiled when the trip got cancelled at the last minute due to high winds. The guy who was leading the trip says in his Meetup profile that he loves waves. I guess the kind of monster waves that get kicked up by light 9-10 knot winds are too much for him though.

OK, I'm being snarky. It had indeed been quite windy overnight but the forecast for the day was for the winds to drop -- and indeed the data from the sensor at Thomas Point Lighthouse showed quite benign conditions. But better safe than sorry, I guess, particularly once the water starts getting cold.

Bald Eagle over the Occoquan Reservoir

 The Meetup group's backup plan was to head to one of the reservoirs in Maryland where they planned to paddle with another (slow!!) Meetup group, so I decided I'd just head out on my own to Fountainhead Regional Park. I arrived at Fountainhead expecting to paddle solo, but to my pleasant surprise found my friend David L. on the ramp preparing to launch with another paddler (who was paddling a nice wooden boat). The three of us wound up kayaking together, covering about 9 somewhat meandering miles. The colors were not as nice as I'd seen in prior years (I think we were a little off from peak) but still quite beautiful.

It turns out there was another Meetup outing at Fountainhead that day - I recognized some of the cars in the parking lot - but we never saw them. They must have gone the other direction.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sugarloaf Furlough Hike

On what turned out to be the final day of the 2013 Federal government shutdown I headed to Sugarloaf Mountain for a hike. The national parks were still closed by the shutdown; I figured that Sugarloaf, being private, would be safe. There was something ironic about driving up I270 - basically my regular commute - during the furlough. I waved to the building as I passed Shady Grove and continued on up to the mountain.
Bessbug Beetle on the Trail

As I pulled into the parking lot at 8:30 a group of Asian ladies was just getting started on their hike. They reminded me of my days of traveling to Korea. I used to deploy technology to South Korea's equivalent of Cheyenne Mountain: a national command center inside a mountain. The funny thing is that the mountain itself seemed to be a popular hiking spot. Every day, our bus would stop at the first of several checkpoints so the heavily armed guards could check our IDs row by row.While I sat and waited I'd see hordes of hikers passing by just outside the fence.

I wanted to allow some space between the ladies and me and so I lingered a bit in the parking lot. However, once I started hiking I quickly caught up with them and realized that they were just the rear guard of a very chatty battalion sized group of Asian hiking ladies. I like peace and quiet in woods and so I picked up my pace, power-walking past the group. I figured that by walking quickly for a while I would put them behind me for good, but it seems like once they got going they must have picked up their pace as well. Any time I stopped to take a picture or admire the scenery I'd start to hear their voices behind me. A few times they even came into view. Each time I'd feel compelled to do another sprint to open up the distance again. It got to be like the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where they're being chased by the law and no matter what they do - galloping at top speed, traveling across rocky terrain to throw off the tracking - the pursuers stay on their trail. "Who are those guys?" Finally the ladies must have taken a break since I lost them.

Oh, I should mention some part of my hike other than the ladies. It was a somewhat overcast day, but still pretty for hiking. Some fall color was in evidence, though the gray day meant nothing was really "popping". I primarily hiked the Blue Trail, but since I started at the East View rather than West View I had to do a little trail hopping to get onto the Blue Trail: Orange to White to Blue, and again at the end I had to do Blue to White to Orange.The trail system is very well blazed, which is nice.

White Rocks Panorama
The Blue Trail has a couple of nice vistas, the best of which is White Rocks. I stopped there and took in the valley view, but not long after I arrived my lady friends caught up with me. They parked themselves in a circle just below the overlook (why visit an overlook and sit where you can't see the view?) and picked up their conversation. This motivated me to get on my way again. I didn't see the ladies again after that, but to pay them back for the stress they added to my hike I did slash their tires when I got back to the parking lot. Just kidding! In truth I arrived back at the parking lot relaxed from a very nice hike. I spent a little time looking at the east view (one of the odd things about Sugarloaf is that some of the nicest views are actually from the parking lots) and then headed on my way.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Mattawoman Furlough Day

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If you wind up furloughed because the Federal government is shut down, GO PADDLING!

I worked the first week of the current government shut down, then the second week was almost unrelentingly rainy and dismal, so when Monday of week three dawned warm and sunny I had no choice but to throw my boat onto the car and head for the water. One consequence of the shutdown is that the urban Potomac marinas, being National Park Service concessions, are all closed and so I had an incentive (a requirement really) to go further afield. I had scoped out Allen's Fresh Run at the head of the Wicomico River but the description of the access was that it was down a rutted, unpaved road and given all the rain we've had I was a little concerned with making it down that road. Instead I went with Plan B instead: a trip up Mattawoman Creek from General Smallwood Park (named after Maryland's fourth governor and the highest ranking Marylander in the Continental Army - not to digress into Virginia/Maryland rivalries but we Virginians can lay claim to a somewhat higher ranking revolutionary officer, one George Washington).

Smallwood Park was pretty well deserted when I arrived at 9 AM. Other than a few fishermen there didn't seem to be soul there. The front gate was unmanned and open, leaving me to puzzle how much to pay. Was I "Out of State" ($5) or "Boat Launch" ($10)? Most places don't charge the boat launch fee for car-top boats and so I decided to go with the five bucks, which I placed in the little envelope provided and deposited into the slot.

It was so empty that I got a parking spot right at the boat launch (of which there were four). I loaded my gear and launched and it was only after paddling a bit that I realized that I had left behind the chart I had downloaded, printed and carefully sealed in a Ziploc bag. Well, no matter. It's pretty hard to get lost in a creek and I had a GPS receiver and, with my phone, a backup GPS. Still, I paid careful attention to landmarks to as I headed out.

I could tell it was autumn by the behavior of the birds. They're starting to cluster together and fly in formation, preparing to migrate. The birds on the creek are not as blasé about humans as the ones in the city and I flushed quite a few as I paddled, particularly when I detoured into a field of lotus plants which I discovered the birds use as a resting/hiding place. Each type of bird has its own personality. Canada geese make a lot of noise honking and beating the water with their wings as they take off en masse. Ducks pop up almost vertically like "jump jets", beating their wings madly to gain altitude and speed before flying away in clusters. Herons and egrets are more solitary and their flight seems to take almost no effort at all. Their low cry is more of a grumble at being disturbed than any sign of real agitation of distress. The creek had a huge heron and egret population - I don't think I've ever seen so many. Seagulls are just whiners, though their flight is natural and relaxed. I didn't see any ospreys, which is just as well - even the seagulls think ospreys are whiners. I did see one mature bald eagle circling overhead.
Into the lotus field
  I hadn't launched from Smallwood State Park before and so somehow I had it in my head that I hadn't paddled Mattawoman Creek. I realized I was wrong when I got to the Mattingly Avenue Park landing at Indian Head and instantly recognized as a place we had stopped on a Meetup paddle out of Leesylvania Park in 2012. On that trip we had turned around at that point and so the upper part of the creek really was new to me (to the best of my recollection). Past the landing the creek narrows down. This is really the prettiest part of the trip. My original goal had been to follow the winding creek all the way to the Rt. 224 bridge, but about 6 miles in I decided that it was time to turn around, in part because I figured 12 miles was going to be enough for me for the day and because I didn't want to disturb some fisherman a little further up. These guys had been really considerate as they passed me on their way into the creek, slowing down to a crawl to avoid a wake and so I was kindly disposed towards them. On my drive home I noticed a "Kayak Launch" sign at the intersection of Livingston and Hawthorne Roads (Rts. 224 and 225), which would be the very end of the waterway. I'll have to try paddling from that end some time.

On the way back down the creek I made a quick stop at the Mattingly Avenue landing for a bathroom break and a snack (I ate some almonds and half the Powerbar I had received as swag from supporting the Nation's Triathlon). I sat on the dock for a bit and watched a school of minnows swim, refilled my water bottle from my reserve supply then continued on my way. The day had started cloudy - the remnants of the prior week's bad weather - but over the day the clouds were breaking up. It was sunny as I headed out and pleasantly warm with just a touch of a cool breeze. When a dragonfly landed on my foredeck I scrambled for my camera to get a picture, but it turned out I didn't have to rush. This guy loved the attention and obligingly posed for quite a few photos. He rode with me for fifteen minutes or so before taking off.

My camera-loving dragonfly friend

The last bit of a kayak outing is always in my mind a bit of drudgery, as I usually get impatient to be back once I start to get near the put-in. As I got within a mile or so of the end of my trip I spiced things up a little by sprinting back to the park. As I approached the boat ramp I noticed that the same fishermen were there as when I set out. I guess fishing is a patience game - I had been gone 3 1/2 hours.

After loading the kayak onto the car I relaxed for a bit by the water, eating the other half of my Powerbar and a banana, then headed for home.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Leesburg to Purcellville

 I'm doing my best to use my involuntary furlough days to do some fun things. Today I biked the W&OD trail from Leesburg to Purcellville, about 25 miles round trip. This westernmost segment of the W&OD offers a range of scenery: horse farms, preposterous McMansions, and a long, tree-lined ride through the country (with just a hint of fall colors). And bountiful porta-potties!

The ride out went by pretty quickly. Almost before I knew it I found myself at the western terminus of the trail. I had planned to do some geocaching along the way (there are a number of caches along this segment of the trail) but once I got going I really didn't feel like stopping.

The W&OD Trail in Loudon County

I spent some time wandering the antique shops of Purcellville, checking out a couple of nice Eastlake chairs including a pedestal rocker similar to my living room chairs (which were a find at a country auction in New York years ago). After a cup of coffee and a granola bar I started the ride back to Leesburg.

Boy, I'm really not a cyclist - least of all a road biker. Cycling is a quadriceps exercise and my quads are wimps. About half way back my legs were feeling a little rubbery and my illiotibial band was aching a little. A quick stretching break helped, as did the fact that from that point onward I was into the long downhill ride into Leesburg.

Stretching Out Near a Horse Farm

Back in Leesburg I strolled through the historic heart of the 1758 town. I stopped and had lunch - surprisingly, a vegan plate at a Jamaican restaurant (not something I would have expected in Leesburg!) - and browsed a couple more antique shops. Finally, I stopped into what had been The Coffee Bean. Unfortunately the place has changed hands and they no longer roast coffee on the premises. The 1930's coffee roaster and its accompanying rich coffee smells are gone from the front room. I bought some coffee beans anyway - roasted locally in Winchester. We'll see how they hold up against the old stuff.

The Long Goodbye

August is the Month of the Immaculate Heart (what, you didn't know this?). Seinfeld had the "Summer of George". Around these parts, we just came to the sad conclusion of the month-ish-plus of Farewell to Jen. From the moment in August that Jen announced that she was leaving us until the truck pulled out this morning every event involving Jen became a farewell event. All well deserved - don't get me wrong.

This past Thursday night was our final finale for Jen, as it was her last opportunity to paddle with the Pirates of Georgetown, the Thursday night paddling group which served as the gateway into many Jen-friendships. The paddle almost didn't happen: the Federal government had shut down days before, forcing closure of our usual launch point (which is a National Park Service concession) as well as just about every other nearby water access point. Fortunately, due to its uncertain title and relationship with the NPS, the Washington Canoe Club remained open. The Pirates of Georgetown outing was cancelled but Cyndi, who is a WCC member, got a select group of FOJs (friends of Jen) into the canoe club to launch. This was in fact a nice accidental piece of nostalgia. The WCC is very close to the site of Jack's Boathouse, which was for many years the home of our Thursday night group and so for our final outing together we got to paddle our traditional section of the river, plus make our traditional post-paddle pilgrimage to the M Street Chipotle.
Jen, Suzanne, and Peter get ready to launch

As the only open boathouse on the river the WCC was buzzing with activity and so we worked quickly to unload our boats and launch. Our group, which included Dave and Cyndi, Nelson and Caroline, Jen, Suzanne, Peter H1 and me headed northward on the nearly empty Potomac. The weather was good and the sun was just beginning to set as we launched, allowing Jen to literally paddle off into the sunset. The river gauge was low, meaning little current, and the tide was high. Combined, these two factors allowed us to paddle well past Chain Bridge all the way to the base of Little Falls - as far up the Potomac as you can get in a sea kayak.

It was dark as we headed back down river, allowing us to appreciate the quiet beauty of the river in a different way. As is always the case on that route, as you paddle back downriver civilization slowly pokes its way back into your consciousness: first the Washington monument appears, then the tops of a few buildings. You notice it getting brighter from urban light pollution. Finally, you come around a bend and the city comes into view.
The Potomac at Night

Tall Tom was waiting for us on the dock as we returned from our trip and Susan G met us up at Chipotle. Finally, we all said a final M St. farewell and we all headed into our individual futures.