Sunday, October 26, 2014

Windy Foliage Paddle

The Honda Odyssey is not normally an inspiring vehicle. The utilitarian soccer mom minivan does not leave one longing for cruising the open road, or romance, or anything like that. But today I was following one up the twisty road out to Fountainhead Regional Park. As it drove along it kicked up a blizzard of leaves, which were then kept aloft by the wind. It was like being in a snowstorm of autumn. An almost magical feeling.

I'm a fall foliage junkie and one of my regular outings is to kayak at Fountainhead Park, which is one of the better local foliage spots. Jim Z,. had organized a CPA foliage paddle but I missed it because of the Tourette's walk, so the next morning I opted to launch on my own from Fountainhead.

The way the wind was blowing the leaves around should actually have been a tip-off to me. When I got out of my car at the park I realized it was WINDY. I later looked it up and the online reports showed the winds were gusting over 30 MPH when I went out. What I knew at the time was that it was pretty blowy - things like traffic cones were blowing down and I had to make sure I was in between gusts when I lifted my kayak off the car and carried it to the water.

I headed up into the wind (this is always a better idea than starting out downwind). The Occoquan is essentially a long, narrow lake and so even the heavy winds weren't kicking up very big waves. Still, every time it would gust I felt like the wind was trying to rip the paddle out of my hands, and I had to duck my head against the force of the wind. I tried to get out of the wind by heading up into various coves but even those were pretty breezy. The one good aspect of the weather was that the made it possible to sneak up on wildlife and get photos. I think the wind was hiding my sound and smell, and the cool weather was making the turtles sluggish. Still, I didn't pull out the camera very often since each time I did the wind would start taking me and my kayak off in all kinds of directions. I wished I could have gotten video of a heron I saw attempting to fly in the wind and looking for all the world like he was FUI (flying under the influence). The autumn blizzard effect continued out on the water as well and I tried unsuccessfully to get some pictures of it. It was just too hard, even when I grounded myself alongside the shore to capture a moment with all the leaves blowing around.

I only made it as far as Wolf Run, a much shorter distance than I'd expected to paddle. This wasn't turning out to be the contemplative leaf peeping paddle I had expected and so after beating upwind for a while I decided to turn back. The trip back was, of course, like lightening. I was back at the launch in no time.

It seems like I always run into someone at this park. As I loaded my boat Pastor Pete (Peter H3) and Deke showed up at the lead of a Meetup outing. They invited me to join them for lunch but it looked like it was going to take a long time for all of them to land and load their gear. I needed to get home so I took my leave of them and headed on my way.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Shenandoah Foliage Hike

On Saturday Valerie and I went for a strenuous hike in the woods.

Take a moment. Read that sentence again. And again. Now read this one:

On Saturday I went to a Bar Mitzvah celebration at the home of Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi, the leader of ISIS.

Which sentence surprised you more?

Well, the fact that this hike happened and was in fact a big a success proves that anyone can change, so maybe there's hope for ol' Abu yet.
The circumstances were a visit to Ted down at JMU. His college sits in the Shenandoah Valley and it was pretty close to peak foliage season so we decided that as our big activity Saturday we'd do some leaf peeping. To tell you the truth, I had set the bar low in terms of what we were going to do - stop at a couple of overlooks, do a short hike up a fire road and then turn back.

After an unexpectedly delicious breakfast at Ted's favorite breakfast place and a quick stroll through the Harrisonburg farmer's market we headed for the hills. There was a backup of cars at the entrance to the park (I thought it might not be bad since we were entering via the Swift Run Gap entrance - far from any cities - but I was wrong). We got a nice surprise, though, when we finally got to the gate - the ranger waved us through the gate without collecting the entrance fee. What's better than peak foliage? FREE peak foliage!

We parked at the South River picnic area lot (mile 63). I figured we'd stroll the South River Falls fire road with a stretch goal of reaching the falls. I didn't bother mentioning the "real" trail, which I figured would be too strenuous. As it happened, on our way out of the parking lot we passed the trail head for the "real" South River Falls Trail. As we looked at the map some people came out and assured us that it wasn't an overly difficult trail. And so off down the trail we went!

Well, it's true it wasn't a killer trail, but it had a lot of elevation change for a non-hike who only recently took up walking - and only on flat, paved trails. Plus there were stream crossings, switchbacks, and rough tread in places. Valerie did really well!!! We wound up hiking the whole South River loop - out on the South River Falls trail, stopping at the falls overlook, then continuing on to where it hit the fire road. From there we took the fire road back. As it happens, this particular fire road isn't that much easier of a hike than the trail, so the way back wasn't a piece of cake either. We made the climb back at a slow pace and skipped the opportunity to do the last little bit on the Appalachian trail, opting instead to hike up to Skyline Drive and finish up on pavement.
Stream Crossing

Along the trail Ted made fun of us a lot for our slow pace, frequently skipping ahead down the trail. I don't let that sort of thing bother me - I can always write him out of the will :) Plus there have been plenty of warm days when he's collapsed into an exhausted lump at a point where I've barely broken a sweat (heat is the penguin's Kryptonite).

The scenery was as grand as expected. Brilliant hues, leaves of all colors all around us. The day was crisp and sunny. Everyone finished the hike happy and a little bit worn out - in a good way.

Perhaps my favorite foliage hike ever, because I did it with my family.
Ted, Out Ahead

Monday, October 13, 2014


After Henry left for home I headed out to catch up with a kayaking weekend already in progress. A group of my kayaking friends had rented a quirky old house (formerly owned by actress Linda Lavin!) in the sleepy seaside town of Chincoteague, VA. They had all arrived on Friday. By the time I got there on Saturday evening the group had finished paddling for the day and everyone was well into dinner preparation and tequila ingestion. I unloaded my stuff and carted it up to the room I was sharing with Rob P. Like any good old Victorian house this one had been cobbled together and expanded over the years, and so to get to our room you went through the laundry room, turned right, then climbed the curving back stairs to a room over what I think was at one time a garage. Nice view of the water, plenty of room. I came back downstairs and joined the party just in time for a dinner of fresh local flounder. 
Lavinder House
It had been a grey drizzly day and the evening too was cool and breezy. We hung out inside and socialized until it was time for bed. As usual, I was one of the last off to bed. When I got upstairs I discovered that Rob has started sleeping with a CPAP. While the use of the device resolves his notoriously loud snoring, I was surprised when I walked into our bedroom to find Rob asleep with his mask on and a machine whooshing away next to him.

Sunset from Rob's and My Room
  We awoke Sunday to find it blowing pretty hard outside and so we set to work poring over charts, books and web sites to find a sheltered place to paddle. Launch at Snow Hill onto the Pocomoke? That's been our bad weather bailout on many Assateague trips. We decided that we're all tired of Snow Hill. Instead we chose what looked to be a fairly narrow and protected area between Chincoteague and Assateague Islands. The paddling group was Paul and Carrie, Suzanne, Jim, Steven and me. Mike and Linda, Marilyn, and Rob opted out. After getting parking permits in town (I wouldn't have thought of this) we drove to a nearby boat ramp and got underway. We first paddled north up to a point where there was a bridge and the waterway turned to a more exposed angle. We could see that the wind was blowing pretty hard up on the other side of the bridge, with whitecaps forming on the water. Steven and Paul headed up that way to play in the rough water; the rest of us turned around and headed south.
Lighthouse Landing Party
 Carrie, Suzanne, Jim and I decided to see if we could visit the Assateague lighthouse from the water. A little poking around revealed a (technically off limits) boat ramp where we went ashore. The place was really buggy - even I got a mosquito bite (mosquitos generally ignore me). We walked up to the lighthouse but opted not to climb it as there was a line and maybe even a fee. Of course, we were all also decked out in kayaking gear - which got us some looks from the other visitors - and which was really the wrong wardrobe for lighthouse climbing. After using the (technically off limits) Porta-potty we headed back down the (technically off limits) trail back to our boats.

We knocked around for a bit more and, rejoined by Paul and Steven, landed at a park back on the Chincoteague side of the water for a lunch break. As we were landing Suzanne came too close to where some folks were fishing and wound up snagging someone's fishing line on her kayak, leading to lots of jokes about what a catch she was, how the fisherman had to throw her back, and threats of Photoshops of Suzanne hung upside down like a prized catch.

After lunch we decided to go out for "a little more" paddling. Carrie knew that "a little more" could mean hours more and so she dropped out. The park where we took our lunch break was pretty close to our original launch site and so she said she'd just paddle back and wait for us. The rest of us headed back out. The wind had dropped some but it was still pretty choppy. We followed along the shore (we saw some ponies in the distance at one point) and continued into the open crossing across Tom's Cove on the back side of Assateague - about a couple of miles across. The wind and the current made for a challenging crossing. Once we made it across we took a break at the southern end of Assateague where we strolled the wide, open beach. We didn't want to stay too long since we knew we had some significant conditions on the way home, with tide, wind and current. Just looking out from shore we could see there was a strong current out towards the ocean - easily noticed by observing boats sliding past the beach sideways, as they were pushed past us by the current.

Assateague Beach - Tom's Cove
The trip back across Tom's Cove was work. We had to set a significant ferry angle to counteract the wind and current (vector math: if you want to go straight across and the current is pushing you to the left, then you have to paddle aiming to the right of where you want to end up - this is called a ferry angle), but while it was harder work going back, I found it easier to maintain direction on the way back than on the way over. By the time we got back into the more protected water I was running low on steam and I was quite happy when we finally made it back to the launch.

Back at the house we rendezvoused with the non-paddling group. They had done a long walk on Assateague Island but had been back at the house for a while. Dinner soon got under way - chicken with winter squash and some rice. Another delicious meal. After dinner Paul and I serenaded the group on guitar and keyboard and then we all chilled out until bed time, when I once again drifted off to sleep to accompaniment of Rob's whooshing hyperbaric chamber.

On Monday the majority of the group woke up on shpilkes to get home. Suzanne had a case that was blowing up at work and so she and Marilyn hit the road. Paul and Carrie had been traveling a long time (they had been in North Carolina at a wedding before this weekend) and were eager to get home. Mike and Linda hit the road too. That left Rob, Steven, Jim and me. The four of us did a roughly five mile outing out of the park up the street from the house, exploring the downtown section of the town of Chincoteague from the water. We paddled into a little cove to check out the boats at the Coast Guard station and were promptly chased away by Coast Guardsmen (for the record, the area was not posted off limits in any way, though I guess it was technicall off limits). We got back to the cars at a good time as it started spattering rain soon thereafter. We loaded our boats and we too started the long ride home.

Spotted Near Town

Getting in Trouble with the Coast Guard

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Henry and Harpers Ferry

My brother came for an all too rare visit this past week. Thursday was a nice crisp fall day and so we headed out to Harpers Ferry, WV. I figured I'd give the Brooklyn boy a drive in the country, a glimpse at some early fall foliage, and a taste of the Civil War history that is so pervasive in our area.

Our first stop in town was the historic confectionery shop. It's not just a candy store; it's a candy museum! The place has candy arranged by historic era and was staffed by a VERY enthusiastic woman who was happy to (couldn't have been prevented from?) tell us the history of candy as class struggle, international trade force, etc. Henry bought some bourbon chocolates. I like a museum where you can eat the exhibits.

From there we wandered up through town, continuing uphill towards Bolivar. Beyond the historic park area it's a pretty little town with some nice old houses. But hilly. When we had had enough of strolling uphill we started back down, stopping at an overlook with a commanding view of the town and the confluence of the rivers. The overlook sits between two shuttered hotels, a decaying grand building and well maintained motel-like structure. I can understand that there isn't much business for such places (I think these days people would rather stay at the nearby chain hotels) but they sure would make cool destination hotels - a yoga retreat center overlooking the Potomac, or something like that. Another idea to file away for when I win the lottery ...

It was close to lunch time when we made it back into the commercial part of town, but we decided to soldier on with our hiking. We crossed the bridge over to Maryland and started up the C&O Canal towpath with the intention of hiking at least part of the Maryland Heights trail. As we hiked the towpath we saw a number of groundhogs scurrying about - they're kind of cute, and didn't seem to mind seeing their shadows.

We made up to the base of the Maryland Heights climb but decided that, having already hiked up and down some hills on the other side of the river, we were more in the mood for lunch than climbing another trail. I came up with the idea that to make up for not hiking, when we left we'd walk back to the car rather than taking the shuttle bus. Heh.

Back in town we had a nice lunch outside at a restaurant, then went a few doors up and had some amazing caramel pretzel ice cream. Then we began the walk back to the car. And we walked. And we walked. The trail back to the car was almost two miles, ending with a long climb up stone stairs. Coming on top of the walking we had already done it seemed like a very long trek, and we were happy to settle into the car for the drive home.