Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Birthday Outing

As a birthday present Valerie surprised me with a night at the lovely Ashby Inn in Paris, Virginia. Lovely and historic, I should say, since legend has it that Confederate Generals Johnston and Jackson napped on the porch of the inn on their way to glorious victory over the Yankee invader at First Manassas. Jackson must have gotten a good rest since it was at this battle that he earned his eternal nickname, “Stonewall”. But this was not the town’s first brush with history. It is said that the town was renamed to Paris by a local bigwig in the revolutionary era in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette. While this name change did not entice Lafayette to settle there (which had been part of the plan), it was still a positive change for the town, which had previously been known as Pumpkinville.

Anyway, as part of the adventure Valerie offered to go hiking with me at nearby Sky Meadows State Park. This was pretty historic in itself, for usually when I suggest any outdoorsy activity Valerie, well, stonewalls. Valerie had offered wine-tasting as an option as well, but neither of us is particularly into wine. We have enjoyed trips to vineyards in Virginia and California in the past, but I was more interested in shoving my hiking boot clad foot in the slightly opened door of an outdoor adventure.

On a crisp but quite pleasant November day we started out by hiking in the main part of Sky Meadows, which involves a steep vertical climb through a cow pasture to the Appalachian Trail. We navigated our way around the cow pies as far as the first overlook then decided that this was not the right trail for us (Ted and I have done extensive hiking in this park in the past - it's lovely, but it is very hilly). When we got back to the car Valerie was ready to quit but I, having the birthday thing going for me, wasn’t quite ready to let her off the hook. Instead we went over to the other side of the park (I had never been there before) and hiked a lovely and largely flat loop trail alongside a brook. The east side of the park was deserted and we had a very pleasant and peaceful walk before repairing to the inn to nap and change for dinner.
At Sky Meadows State Park
I’m not much of a meat eater, but special occasions call for flexitarian flexibility and so for dinner I ordered the venison – and Valerie did too. Having suffered a tick borne illness in the past I am no friend of deer and was much happier to see one on my plate than spreading its havoc in the woods. I guess I got the last laugh, didn’t I, Bambi?! The presentation of the meat was a little surprising – a large tenderloin of venison sparsely surrounded by the most miniscule of vegetables. Valerie had asked to substitute another vegetable for the brussels sprouts, but in fact the two baby carrots she got in place of the two pea-sized brussel sprouts that came on my plate didn’t make much of a difference. The food was quite tasty, but the presentation perhaps a little too nouvelle for me. Still, accompanied by a glass of red wine it was delicious. The company was good, the setting romantic – all and all a great birthday dinner. 

In the morning, after a very nice breakfast at the inn, we headed to the car. In the parking lot we bumped into the restaurant’s head chef, who was very friendly and chatty. Young guy, previously on staff at The Inn at Little Washington. I told him how much I had enjoyed the venison, but chickened out about saying anything about the odd presentation. 

We spent the day in Middleburg, browsing the quaint shops and mingling with the old money horsey set. I bought a wool cap and we bought some small kitchen items and our favorite Ahava moisturizer as well. Interestingly, even though Middleburg is an hour from home we always seem to bump into people we know there. This time it was my former colleague Tim.

Then it was time for the slog home on Rt. 50. It’s amazing how far out into western Loudon County the Washington suburbs extend these days and every time I’m out that way I feel happy that I live in “shabby chic” Arlington rather than McMansion exurbia.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Chickahominy Kayak Trip

It always seems to start with traffic, even at 6:30 AM on a Saturday. I was out the door at 5:30 in order to rendezvous with Ralph's group in time for the day's kayak outing. For several years now Ralph has taken on organizing the November Chickahominy trip, which was started by Bill Dodge and is now in something like its 13th year. Most of the group camped at Chickahominy Riverfront Park Friday night, but being the world's worst cold weather wimp I opted to sleep indoors and drive down Saturday morning. While I inched along I had time to snap a picture of the brake lights in front of me for Jen's benefit. Jen and I had a long history of getting stuck in traffic together on the way to kayaking. I emailed her the photo with a note saying that I guess the bad karma causing our past traffic delays had been mine. Fortunately the traffic backup was fairly brief and I made it down to Jamestown in plenty of time to meet up with the group - in fact, I was the first one at the launch (I knew I was getting close to my destination when I noticed that the Mazda next to me at a traffic light was being driven by a woman dressed in colonial era clothes).

The group rolled in shortly after I did, all a little grumpy from lack of sleep. It turns out that despite having gotten a 4 AM start to the day I was probably the best rested of the group since I hadn't had to put up with noise from redneck yahoo campers partying late into the night or the sounds of late arrivers setting up their tents well after midnight.

Bald eagle in a bald cypress on the James River
 Saturday's plan was for our group of eighteen (Ralph, Rich and Sue, Jim Z, Jim A, Suzanne, Sophie, Bear, Steve, Suzanne, Dick, Paula, Charles, Lois, Aht, Bob, Pete and me, to circumnavigate Jamestown Island. Most of the group had done this trip before and so knew the route; for me it was all new. We launched from the Jamestown Yacht Basin (now apparently called the Jamestown Eco Discovery Park) and headed out into the James River. Our first destination was to go visit the replicas of the Godspeed, Susan Constant and Discovery (the three ships sent by the English Virginia Company in 1606 to settle Jamestown) at Jamestown Harbor. The original fleet was captained by Christopher Newport, who today has a university named after him in nearby Newport News. We paddled around the ships like native Paspahegh tribespeople, and I exchanged "pretty boat" compliments with one of the costumed interpreters on board the Susan Constant (my wooden Shearwater kayak always draws comments). After that we headed off past the Jamestown ferry and around the island, stopping for lunch about 2/3 of the way around. During the lunch break I "swam" my suit - floating around in the water to make sure it was properly watertight. 

Checking out the ships at Jamestown
When we were done kayaking I headed to my hotel to check in and get cleaned up. Fatigue from my long day got the better of me and I wound up napping for about half and hour. Then I showered and headed over to the campground to meet the group. I got a little bit of a hassle from the campers about my luxe accommodations, and of course I laid it on by telling them I was late because room service took forever and how relaxing my massage at the spa had been.

Saturday night was the famous Chickahominy Camper pot-luck feast. London broil (formerly Brad's tradition, but this year supplied by Ralph since Brad has moved away), two kinds of chili, baked potatoes both white and sweet cooked in the campfire courtesy of "potato man" Jim Z, and much, much more. I wasn't doing meat so I had Paula's delicious salmon and spaghetti squash dish, Aht's cream of mushroom soup (with mushrooms soaked in madeira wine), and a ton of sides (salad, roasted root veggies, asian salad, ...). There were plenty of desserts too, and beverages.

After hanging around the camp fire for the evening the wimpy hotel folk bid our adieus. Aht and Talbot headed back to their hotel and I to mine. I slept blissfully until 5:30 AM when I awoke with a start - something was wrong. It was a noise. What was that noise? As I gathered my wits I recognized it as the sound of dripping water. I peeked into the bathroom to find water dripping out of the ceiling. The air vent was dripping water and so was the ceiling light. The globe of the light was filled with water. I called the front desk several times but no one answered. Finally I threw on some clothes and went down to the desk. No one was there so I left a note. At about 6 AM a staff member called my room but said there wasn't really anything he could do - it was too early to wake the guests in the room upstairs (!) and besides, the maintenance guy didn't  get in until 7. Since I was already awake I went back downstairs and had a leisurely breakfast, and by the time I went back up to my room the dripping had mostly stopped and I managed to soak the water up with three bath towels plus the bath mat. When I checked out someone with much better customer service skills apologized profusely and they wound up comping me the room.

One thing that's a given about Ralph's trips is that the group always agrees on a schedule and never follows it. If in the evening the group agrees to leave for kayaking at 9 AM, then the one time you know the group isn't going to leave is 9 AM; most likely Ralph will be rolling early. On more than one occasion (before I knew this pattern) I was taken by surprise, puttering around my campsite thinking I had 30 minutes or more to spare only to see a parade of cars with kayaks go by heading for the exit. [It is left as a discussion point for the reader as to whether this is a good trip-leading behavior]. So, I knew it would be in my best interest to get to the campground as soon as possible after breakfast. After finishing my complaints to management about my bathroom waterfall adventure I headed straight to the campground. At the campfire the night before the clearly stated plan was to gather at the park entrance at 9 AM and caravan to the put-in, which was a half hour away. I got to the campground about 8:20. Since at that time everyone was busy finishing breakfast and breaking camp I sat down at one of the campsite picnic tables and exchanged Words with Friends moves with Valerie until 8:40 when I got a text message from Suzanne (who didn't realize I was at the campground) with the address of the put-in (which I had already successfully Googled from my hotel room). I walked over to her just as she was getting into her car. "We're rolling!" she said, and pulled out. I made a quick bathroom stop then dashed to my car. As I drove out I noticed that while some cars were heading out, some of the group hadn't even taken their tents down yet. The planned caravan at the campground entrance was nowhere to be found and I wound up driving by myself to Eagle's Landing.

Paddling through duckweed on the Chickahominy (Suzanne's photo)
After this chaotic start (which no one else seemed to find chaotic), things got better. Because the forecast was for significant winds we had chosen a protected paddle on the upper Chickahominy River. This turned out to be a pleasant, winding excursion with various options to paddle around islands and cut through little inlets. We paddled about as far up the Chick as you can go. In fact, the last bit involved navigating around and over quite a few dead fall trees in the current of the river - a good test of boat-handling skills. The barely submerged trees were the most challenging: the technique is paddle as hard as you can and use your momentum to get you most of the way over the trunk then just as your boat starts to run aground on the tree amidships you grab the trunk and push yourself the rest of the way over, or wiggle your way over. Perhaps not the best treatment for a glossy wooden boat, but I don't mind a scratch here and there (the other guy on the trip with a wooden boat hung back and did not attempt the dead fall navigation).

We found a spot for a lunch break, which we also used as a turn-around point. On the trip up we had all stayed together but on the return trip the group got pretty spread out. There was a lot of VHF radio traffic as we all figured out who was where and made sure the whole group was accounted for. We only kayaked 10 miles or so, but the trip into the wind and against the current had been hard work and I definitely felt I had had a good day of kayaking.

Lunch break, Sunday
I had planned to eat dinner with Jim A., Steven, and Suzanne and then drive home; however, Eagle's Landing is almost all the way back to Richmond and so rather than drive 30 minutes east to eat dinner then drive the same 30 minutes back west, I bid my farewells and hit the road (the rest of the group was staying into Monday). The trip home was uneventful and I soon found myself back at home, happy to have had a November paddle. I haven't arranged my traditional birthday paddle this year and so it was good to have something I could call a quasi-birthday paddle, even if no one but me knew that's what it was.