Thursday, January 10, 2019

Shenandoah National Park

One of the more scary drives I have done in some time.
Slept inside the car Friday night. Woke up to a cold, wet, foggy, windy morning.

Back on the good 'ol AT.

Camo standing in front of a 300 year old Bur Oak in Elkton VA. Its the largest of its kind in Virginia.

Cold morning at the Bearfence Shelter.

Big Meadows

Old Rag Mountain

My old AT friend Camo wanted to come up from Texas and do some hiking last weekend. We decided to meet at Shenandoah National Park. The government shut down was still in place so we didn't know what to expect. When Camo and I hiked through Shenandoah National Park on the AT in 2015, we experienced 9 straight days of fog and rain, and basically didn't see anything the 100 miles or so through the park. We always wanted to come back and see it better.

For me, I tend to forget that the park is relatively close to where I live. I can get there in probably three hours or so. It's a place I want to visit more in the coming years.

I left after work on Friday to drive to the park. Camo had left Texas on Thursday. Our plan was to meet at Big Meadows. A wind/rain storm entered the mountains Friday night. The rain started falling just before I entered the park. Due to the government shutdown, there was no one there collecting entrance fees. There was a sign warning visitors of the risks of entering the park. "How bad could it be?" I thought to myself. "It's only the Shenandoah's after all." Thirty minutes into the drive I cursed myself for not respecting the mountains. The fog and rain made driving extremely dangerous. I could barely see, deer were regularly darting across the road. There were many fallen branches on the road. I could only drive about 20 mph for fear of hitting something. There were no other cars anywhere to be found Friday night. It felt creepy. If a tree happened to fall across the road, I had no saws or anything to clear the path. There were several scenarios playing through my head where I could find myself in trouble.

After creeping along Skyline Drive for a couple hours, I finally reached Big Meadows. The campground was fenced off and closed. Due to the thickness in fog, I really couldn't see much and had a hard time getting my bearings. I found a small parking lot and decided to sleep in my car for the night and hopefully get a better picture in the morning of where I was at. The rain was splashing against my car throughout the night and my car rocked from strong wind gusts. I slept OK for the most part.

Saturday morning I woke up to more fog. I was trying to conserve my phone battery. Camo was still in route and I wasn't sure where he was. I ate breakfast in the parking lot, but the fog was still persistent. An occasional car drove past on Skyline Drive. It started to snow a little. Camo finally arrived around 11:00am. He had his own driving trials and tribulations. I jumped in his car and after catching up, we made a quick plan for the day. Both of us were eager to do some hiking.

We picked a small loop trail called the South River Falls Trail after our original plan was foiled. We had hoped to do some hiking in the southern portion of the park but discovered that a gate had been closed and locked, shutting down the park on the south side. By the time we settled on the South River Falls Trail, the fog and rain suddenly dissipated, and bright blue skies and sun appeared. The day was looking promising.

The trail was pretty easy, we were somewhat surprised to see several other hikers on the trail. It was nice to reconnect to the AT for a short time as well. The loop was only about three miles, sadly that was about all my body could handle for the day. By the time we finished the trail, it was late afternoon and we had to find a spot to camp. We rediscovered an Appalachian Trail shelter that was a memorable stop back in 2015. It was located just off the road. It was called the Bearfence Shelter. No one else was there. Camo and I decided to quickly head into the town of Elkton to buy some firewood since we knew it was going to be a cold night. After buying our firewood and returning to the AT shelter, it was dark and cold and bright stars were twinkling though the treetops. Camo and I made trail dinner and started a nice fire. We both set up tents in the tenting area, remembering how many mice used to live in the shelter back in 2015. After calling it a night, I slept pretty good, wrapped myself in a Mexican blanket before getting in my sleeping bag. This kept me pretty toasty all night.

The next day, Sunday, Camo and I decided to do a hike in the Big Meadows area. Sun was still shining, although it was a little windy in the Big Meadows area. We did another loop. This one a little longer. I would guess it was a 4 to 5 mile loop down a couple of fire roads and trails and past a waterfall called Dark Hallow Falls. We saw a few hikers on the trail, mostly near the falls. Otherwise it was a peaceful walk. Camo and I tried to get some bird photos later in the afternoon when the wind finally died down. 

Before we knew it, it was time to part ways again. It's always good to see my old hiking buddy. Camo had to head back to work in Texas and I needed to head back home and get ready for work Monday morning. I was treated to some nice views of the mountains at sunset as I left the park. It felt good to feel a little sore from the hiking and smell like camp smoke again...

Monday, December 31, 2018

Antietam Battle Field

Majestic oak tree near Sharpsburg, MD.


Mumma Cemetery

Bloody Lane

Bloody Lane

Antietam Cemetery. Burial ground of union soldiers. Also a cemetery with some fantastic pines, spruce, and fir trees.

I was visiting a friend near Harpers Ferry over the weekend and afterward I decided to check out a new place I'd never been before: Antietam National Battlefield.

It's hard to believe so much carnage occurred in such a peaceful setting. Here over 23,000 Americans were killed, wounded, or went missing during a 13 hour battle that occurred here during the Civil War on September 17, 1862. The battle ended the Confederate's first invasion into the North.

Today, you can visit many of the monuments that dot the landscape, and walk around or through many areas of the battlefield.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Conowingo Dam and Bald Eagles


Towers were a gathering spot for birds

Plenty of parking yesterday

Susquehanna River running high

Peregrine Falcon

Only two bald eagles I saw all afternoon

I recently saw a TV special on Maryland public television about photographing bald eagles at the Conowingo Dam in Maryland. I was intrigued and decided to drive a couple of hours to the dam and see it for myself. Unfortunately, I picked the wrong day for action. After speaking to one photographer who comes regularly, he said the river was running too high and turbulent for the eagles to see any fish. Therefore, the eagles were simply not there.

Conowingo Dam is a hydro electric dam built over the Susquehanna River in the north east corner of the sate of Maryland. The bald eagles are attracted to the fishing opportunities that occur when fish pass through the dam and get dumped back into the river in a state of shock. From what I could gather, it's not uncommon to see hundreds of eagles on a winter day between November and February, as they battle for fish. Its also common to see dozens and dozens of nature photographers trying to capture the best shots of the eagles.

I arrived to the dam around 1:00pm and found plenty of parking and only a handful of photographers on the scene. If it was a busier day, parking could be problematic I would imagine. I waited around for a few hours until near sunset. I have to admit, it was hard to stand around and be patient. I watched wave after wave of vultures flying overhead but no eagles. I saw some geese and a peregrine falcon near the dam. I had to remind myself that it was nice to not be preoccupied with a phone or computer screen, and just let the time pass. The only two eagles I saw occurred just before calling it a day. They were perched in the tower, and I only saw them because other photographers were taking their pictures.

That being said, I learned a few things for the next time.

1. On an ideal day, it would be wise to get there early. There was plenty of parking when I arrived, but on a good day, spots might get filled quickly.

2. It was cold!!! Standing around for hours made it colder. I thought I had on plenty of layers, but I would dress even warmer next time. I would probably bring a generous amount of a warm beverage.

3. There were port a potties on the spot. Therefore, I would have no misgivings about consuming that warm beverage next time.

4. Ideally a camera with a significant zoom is needed. Most photographers I saw had telescope lenses attached to their cameras. My 50x zoom may not be enough to get good images.

5. I also did not know what to look for. Another photographer pointed out the falcon for me. I also could not distinguish juvenile bald eagles with vultures.

6. It might be a good idea to bring binoculars. The river is wider than I imagined.