A few weeks ago, my friend Chris and I went to the river to set up game cameras, hoping to capture images of the beautiful wood ducks that have proven so skittish and difficult to photograph. On that same day Chris spotted where the owl had been hiding, so we decided to set up my camera trained at the owl. The camera Chris brought we would set up low on a tree in a little cove where I have spotted wood ducks before. It has a bracket that screws into a tree trunk, then the camera slips over the bracket and you’re ready to go.
Except we forgot one thing: To keep an eye on the river levels. An earlier rain was still having an impact downstream, and in no time the camera was underwater. Being airtight and buoyant, however, it simply lifted up off the bracket as the water got higher, and floated away.
We assumed it was lost forever. But tonight when I went to retrieve the bracket and scout another wood duck location I did some looking around. Low and behold, I spotted the camera in a debris pile less than fifty feet downstream of the tree on which it was mounted. Although it wasn’t above water for long before the water took it away, Chris and I were both anxious to see what was on the memory card! The camera, while it was on its little adventure, took 1,470 photos. Here are the highlights…
This is most likely a Great Blue Heron. I’ve seen them in this cove before, and while this neck is very white like that of an egret or something, some Great Blues have a mostly white neck. Regardless, pretty cool capture. But, cool as it is, I really wanted wood ducks.
And finally, the last creature to show up (not counting the spider on the cam in the first shot) is the one writing this story. I was as surprised as that rabbit to see this camera down there, and when the flash went off I knew it had continued working the entire time.
On several of my unsuccessful attempts to sneak up on our resident wood ducks with a camera, I reached a certain point in my sneakery when a large bird, presumably a hawk, flew from behind me directly over my head, fifteen feet off the ground. On one such occasion I raised my camera to my eye and snapped a single, blurry photo as my target quickly flew out of range. This is that image. Four times I received this fly-by, never seeing it coming and never able to identify where it came from. I had been walking for hundreds of yards, I never passed a hawk on a low branch and couldn’t figure out why one would come from higher up to dive bomb me.
Then my friend Chris joined me for one of my wood duck photo attempts and sure enough, I get the fly-by. But this time I had a witness. Chris saw where the bird came from: this giant hole in a dead sycamore.
But it still didn’t make sense. Hawks don’t live in tree cavities, or if they do, Google hasn’t learned of it yet. Still, we were positive it was a hawk, and Chris absolutely saw it come from that tree. So we set up a trail cam on the only available tree facing the sycamore and left it for a couple weeks. I checked it tonight and the first image on the card put everything into place. It wasn’t a hawk at all, it was an owl! And the nest in that hole is inhabited by at least one baby owl.
Excitedly scanning through over a hundred photos, I almost skipped right past this one. But there is a Mommy or Daddy owl hanging back in the shadow of the hole, keeping a close eye on the fuzzy little tyke.
I have 22 images showing owl activity, and they are all in the middle of the day for some reason. Between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. I don’t know why the sensor isn’t triggered when the adults go out hunting at night, maybe it’s too far away. Regardless, if the owl is making an appearance mid-day, I think it would be worth trying this idea: This shelter faces the river. The tree you see to the left of it is the Owl Tree. I think I will cut a hole in the back of the shelter big enough to watch through a telephoto lens, and see if maybe some patience can pay off with some baby owl photos.
In the meantime, do any of my bird experts out there want to hazard a guess on the type of owl this might be? I can tell you that the adult bird that flew over my head was large, close to red-tail hawk sized.
The Appalachian Trail reaches from Maine to Georgia and takes 2,200 miles to do it. Like most things that go from Maine to Georgia, the historic trail passes through Virginia. Anyone who thinks Virginia isn’t a large state has never had to walk it, as 550 miles — a full 25% of the trail — falls within the Commonwealth.
At the northernmost point of that 550 mile stretch, the trail leaves the rich history of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and crosses the beautiful Shenandoah River (shown above), then slips unassuming into the Virginia mountains. I have hiked bits and pieces of the Appalachian Trail here in Virginia, but I think it would be a worthy goal to accumulate all that mileage at some point. Or at least the not insignificant portion that passes through the Shenandoah National Park (101 miles). But that’s a bit ambitious with winter and all the extra weight gained therein so close behind us, so let’s table that discussion for the time being.
This first two miles of the AT in Virginia is the beginning of one of my favorite local hikes. I like and always photograph the iconic white blaze that tells you that you’re traveling the way of countless hikers before you. Mostly day hikers like myself but plenty of through hikers too, who have done the entire 2,200 miles. I’ve run into several in my travels and they tell stories of terrifying thunderstorms in thin, summer tents, encounters with snakes and bears, and losing forty pounds along the way.
So two miles up a hill and we let the AT go on to Georgia while we take the blue trail along the ridge to the east. This is a very well maintained but lightly traveled trail, with plenty of scenery changes along the way. Even a few spots for dog posing.
There are two overlooks along the ridge that are worth checking out if you do this hike for the first time, but I find that I pass them by in favor of spending more time at this spot at the end of the ridge overlooking the Potomac River. This is looking downstream, toward our house (six miles maybe?). See the black object in the middle of the frame? That’s a black vulture, who shared the spot with Team Orange and I until I got too close with the camera. I snapped this just as he took off.
This is the same spot from the other direction. You can see the Shenandoah River coming in from the left to the confluence with the Potomac, and beyond it is the town of Harpers Ferry, WV. That’s Maryland across the river from us, so three states all come together right here. For those who aren’t already familiar, that’s Team Orange, my Wirehaired Vizslas. Winnie in front, Finn in back.
Coming back on the blue trail, there is a different route you can take, the orange trail. I mentioned earlier how well maintained it is, but this intersection of trails is much better marked than last time I did this hike! I’ve missed it before, but I like what they did here.
The orange spur seems to be the least used of the trails I’m talking about here. Which may explain why this old, chewed up antler shed went unnoticed alongside the trail for so long! It’s actually the first antler shed I’ve ever found that wasn’t still attached to a skull, so it’s pretty special to me even if it is all chewed up.
If you’d like to try this hike, which ends up around 6.5 miles from the parking lot just across the river from the trailhead, this map will help. And if you see Team Orange out on the trail, please say hello!
Ed Clark, President and Founder of The Wildlife Center of Virginia, spoke this weekend at the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers Association Conference. His passion for wildlife is infectious, so when he invited attendees to stop by and tour the center after the conference, several of us jumped at the chance to see this state-of-the-art facility. Our tour was given by Director of Outreach Amanda Nicholson, who showed us many of the educational animals at the center. These animals were brought to the center for rehabilitation after an injury, and for either behavioral or medical reasons were deemed not releasable into the wild. As part of the education/outreach team, they were trained for participation in educational programs both at the center and beyond, at schools, fairs and other events. This Eastern Screech Owl is named Alex, and if she wasn’t tethered to Amanda, I would have smuggled her out in my coat! Click here or on the photo below for a brief video clip of the adorable Alex.
During our visit, a badly injured Red-shouldered Hawk found alongside a highway was being examined. The center is a veterinary teaching hospital, with veterinarians from all over the world spending time training in the care of ill or injured wildlife.
Outside we got to see the enclosures where the educational birds reside. The campus also has several different sized flight pens for the bird patients to fly and exercise as part of their rehabilitation.
The center’s mission is “teaching the world to care about and to care for wildlife and the environment.” And they rely on donations from people like us to do it. I encourage you to go to their web site, learn more about the important work being done here, make a donation if you can, or just spend some time watching animals real-time on one of their two Critter Cams!
Note and Lesson: Just bring your camera everywhere, even if you don’t think you need it. I did not have mine today and very much wished I did. All photos and video are taken on my iPhone 4S.
Today the dogs and I went for a nice hike at Sugarloaf Mountain. The hike is this one from Hiking Upward, about a seven mile loop. I love a loop hike, because it makes me do the whole thing. No shortcuts! Despite being the first car in the parking lot (almost a full hour after the gate opened at 8), by the time we got back to the car there were probably a hundred cars parked in the two lots and along the road. The trail started getting crowded toward the end, but if I had gotten there when the gates open (or on a weekday), I probably would have only seen a handful of fellow hikers.
It was extremely foggy early, and didn’t clear up much all day. But it was nice and unseasonably warm, and the diffused light helped me get a couple photos I’m really happy with. Even though I brought my little Olympus point and shoot, my go-to hiking/fishing/travel/whatever camera, these two shots were actually taken with my iPhone 4S. The photo above is one of my favorite pictures of ‘Team Orange.’ Boy do they love a hike! I predict all three of us will sleep well tonight.
REVISED…I wanted to get one of those canvas photo prints done of that top photo, but decided to Photoshop out the leashes first. Here is the updated photo…
My favorite photos from this year feature more birds than dogs, surprisingly, and more dogs than people, not surprisingly. The picture above, a wild brook trout being released into the cold, winter waters of Cedar Run in Shenandoah National Park early this year, is my favorite. Holding a slippery trout in one hand while operating a DSLR with the other is a low percentage proposition. But luck is a big part of photography. At least it is in my photography. The best of the rest of 2012 are below, in no particular order.
This misty photo of the so called Platform was one of the most popular images I shared on facebook this year. In fact, a few friends now have the print hanging in their homes, which is a great honor to me. This grownup tree fort is one of my very favorite places, a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word.
I chased this impossibly vibrant sunrise around for a half hour before work one morning, looking for an interesting foreground to silhouette against it. When I came across this tree with a group of black vultures perched in it, I hurried to get this shot as the fleeting, red was fading with each passing moment.
The blog post that featured photos from the falconry event I attended was featured on the WordPress ‘Freshly Pressed’ page, an incredible honor that brought many new viewers to this blog. Welcome and thank you to those who still follow from first seeing it there.
We are lucky enough to see bald eagles regularly where we live, but they are hard to get good pictures of without a zoom lens. I got lucky as I had borrowed a nice lens from a friend and had it when this eagle came around. Taken from our back yard in Virginia, that is the town of Brunswick, Maryland across the river in the background. I’m happy to report that my wife got me a 75-300 lens for Christmas! So look for more eagles and other wildlife pics in the future!
A brown thrasher sits on her nest protected by the thorns of a lemon tree at Rose River Farm in Madison County, Virginia.
I wrote a blog post I’m pretty proud of about the space shuttle Discovery and what it meant to be present for this historic event. You can read that post here.
Oddly, my favorite photo from the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum shows neither water, nor a boat.
This is one of those technically flawed, lucky shots that turned out nicely. I was unaware as I was composing the photo in the viewfinder, that the balcony rail was aligned with the line in the background where the snowy foreground meets the woods. The result is an interesting effect, I think. I’m surprised at how many of my favorite shots came on less than pleasant weather days.
These amazing miniature donkeys are hard to photograph in the same way puppies are: They are affectionate and curious about the camera, so by the time you get down to their level, they’re in your face wondering what you’re doing and if you have any treats.
The Virginia State Police would surely be alarmed to know how many photos I have tried to take of my dogs in the rear view mirror. This is a challenge while parked, never mind while driving. But I love this one of Finn and remember exactly the day I took it because that’s my 3-weight Scott fly rod in the rack. We were on our way to the Rapidan.
I love this photo of Winnie, taken on a summer kayak outing. You’ve seen a cropped version of it before, it serves as the masthead image for this blog, but I thought the entire image warranted extra mention here.
My first, hopefully of many, trip to Yellowstone National Park was a life changing event. It is an extraordinary, magical place I will never forget, and a place I will long to return to more each day until I drive through its gates again.
2012 had a few amazing lightning shows. I was lucky enough to capture this strike from our deck. The rain had stopped but the lightning continued for more than an hour, the perfect opportunity to try to capture it.
My friend Anna and I stood in the bitter cold trying to capture a meteor from the Geminid shower in December. This was one of the brightest of the night.
Driving on a Montana highway, when we saw this amazing old car with a tree growing out of the roof, my friend Joel turned the car around so I could get some pictures of it.
Another accidental photo I ended up liking. While fishing for smallmouth, I wasn’t paying attention to my camera settings. I had it set on macro, so it kept trying to zoom in and focus closely. I couldn’t get a shot of the entire fish, but I love the textures of the fish and water here.
It was hard to choose one photo from Slough Creek in Yellowstone. Simply the most beautiful place I have ever had the honor of being. We hiked in about six miles to get there, and the moment we arrived, I was sad at the thought of having to leave it later.
When the peak of the Geminid Meteor Shower coincides with a new moon and absolutely clear skies, it’s worth making the effort to at least get out and see them even if it does fall on the coldest night of the year. But I also wanted to photograph them, so I recruited a friend, Anna of AKG Inspiration to attempt it with me. Anna is a great photographer, and we’ve been talking a lot about wanting to try more night photography. She invited a friend and fellow photographer Nicole, and the three of us set up in a wide open field near my house.
I was using a wide angle lens I borrowed from a friend, but beyond that my preparation consisted of making sure I had some Sam Adams Winter Lager on hand. I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried a lot of different settings, but always came back to about the same configuration: 400 ISO, 2.8 f-stop (wide open for this lens), and between 20 and 30 second exposures.
Over the course of three or four hours, this shower produced hundreds of meteors in all areas of the sky, ranging from very faint, fleeting streaks to extremely bright fireballs that spanned huge swaths of the night sky. But because they were all around us, it was difficult to capture them with the camera! Some of the ones I did catch were much brighter than they showed on the image, it was hard to balance the ISO sensitivity with the exposure time, and I’m still not sure what the best formula is.
While I was dressed very warmly (and never even broke out the hand warmers), it was so cold that my beer was freezing faster than I could drink it. And, um, I can drink fast. And toward the end, the cameras, tripods and lenses became covered with frost — that is ultimately why we had to pack it up still hours before the predicted ‘peak’ of the shower.
But on a night like that, even with a great celestial show going on, the key ingredient was to have friends there. It would have been too easy to half-ass it. But planning it with someone else forced me to dress for the long haul, to move to a wide open location to shoot, to really put in the effort to try to capture these little grains of space dust burning up in our atmosphere. And while one good thing to come out of it is the special image at the top of this post, the true reward was to have put myself in a position to stare at the sky in these perfect conditions for hours, and to be treated to the most amazing meteor show I’ve ever seen. I saw more meteors last night than I have my entire life combined, and I’ll never forget it.
I’ve been pressed for time since I got back, but wanted to get these photos up from my trip to New York. So I’m trying the slideshow feature. Let me know how you like it!
Hurricane/Superstorm/Frankenstorm Sandy has come and gone, but all that water has to go somewhere. The Potomac reached and surpassed flood stage yesterday. It’s already on its way down, but I snapped a few photos while it was still pretty high. The gauge at Point of Rocks, Maryland was at about 17 feet when these were taken. Flood stage is 16. For perspective, during the summer and fall when I wade fish or kayak, the river is between one and two feet at that gauge.
The parking lot and boat ramp at the C&O Canal in Brunswick, MD. The boat ramp goes downhill from those parking signs and normally hits the water well past that concrete bridge abutment.
Even the local news came down to see the high water.
The view from our yard on the Virginia side. When the rains come hard, the far bank of the river gets muddy first for some reason. Different sediment over there I guess. But before long the entire thing is the color of chocolate milk. And when it gets past about ten feet, when the water reaches the woods and pulls out debris, we start to see logs floating downstream.
The Platform survived without a scratch. And some ugly broken tree limbs that have been bugging me came the rest of the way down in the storm, improving a view that was already pretty great.
This is not really related, but heading down to the river I tried to get a picture of this weed. I don’t know what it is and I know it’s not in focus, but if I lived in rattlesnake country, these things would give me a heart attack! When you brush past them, the dried seed pods rattle like an angry rattlesnake!
Again, not a great photo, it was getting dark. But the water’s supposed to be on the far side of those trees. When things recede, it will be too muddy to explore probably until the ground freezes. Then I can go back down and find what the river has brought us. Usually nothing good. Broken coolers, plastic barrels, jugs and bottles. Once she brought me a safe, which got my hopes up briefly until I turned it over and found it was open and filled with mud.
A final note about Sandy. We were so lucky with this storm to escape with just a one day power outage. So many in New Jersey and New York are going to be struggling with the devastation for a long time to come. I have the luxury of beholding the wonder of nature’s Perfect Storm from a relative distance. But I do not take it lightly. I extend my sincere condolences to those in the storm’s path who have lost family, homes, pets and businesses. There but for the grace of God…
Finn, shown here earlier on the walk very curious about the critters inhabiting this hollow tree, was bounding ahead of me down a steep grade of thick brush. I was weaving my way through a thicket of thorns and vines when I heard him cry out ahead of me, maybe fifty feet. I know Finn, and I know he cries out for two reasons: pain, or fear. This was fear. I made my way clear enough to see his predicament — he had jumped down a steep embankment through a loop of vine about the diameter of a nickel and plenty strong. His back legs didn’t make it through and caught him at the hips, suspending his back legs off the ground. He tried to get away using his front feet, but this just twisted him around. He was powerless to get free and even more powerless to understand the nature of the pickle he had gotten himself into.
I called out to him, “Whoa…whoa…” Not yelling, but loud enough for him to hear over the racket he was making. He stopped struggling and watched me. I gently repeated the command over and over as I freed myself from my own nest of vines, reached him and lifted his rear legs through the vine loop. He was very happy to have all fours on the ground again, but I think I was even happier that in a situation where panic was beginning to set in, he trusted me to get him out of the jam, and obeyed the command I gave him from a distance.
“Whoa” is, I think, primarily a bird dog thing, but my dogs don’t even hunt and I find all sorts of useful applications for this command. Bath time, posing for photos, waiting at the door before walking through it or greeting guests, etc. But those are all conveniences for me. It was special to be able to use something he had learned like this to calm him and buy me some time to reach him, and I feel like this little episode put us at a new level of trust.
I am normally very content to remain in my beloved Virginia. But every now and then, something in my brain clicks and I need to go west. It’s as if some sort of internal GPS needs to be reset and I can only do it in Montana. I am happy to accommodate this particular quirk of my brain every couple years, and am blessed to have a loving wife who is happy to support my pilgrimage.
On this trip, I wanted to dip south into Wyoming and explore Yellowstone National Park for a couple days. I had heard about Slough Creek, a special creek that takes a good hike to reach and holds some beautiful Yellowstone Cutthroat trout. So I decided that’s where I was headed.
I recruited some company for the journey, my good friend and Missoula-based fishing guide extraordinaire Joel Thompson for three very good reasons: One, he knows western water and bugs and trout like nobody else; Two, I very much enjoy his company; and Three, Slough Creek is firmly located in an area where it’s not wise to hike alone, an area teeming with wildlife such as elk, moose, wolves, bison and there’s one more, what was it? Oh yeah. Grizzly bears.
I’ll be honest here, I consider myself relatively ‘outdoorsy.’ But I admit that my particular brand of outdoorsy is a far cry from Yellowstone bear country outdoorsy. Joel, on the other hand, has spent a lot of time backcountry hiking and camping in truly remote, potentially perilous locations and conditions. So when he gave me a lesson in bear encounter body language, I listened intently.
I also made the mistake of reading the booklet that came with the bear spray I bought for the hike. This ‘helpful’ guide is loaded with things like a list of ways to avoid a bear encounter, and then a disclaimer saying that might not work. Or a list of bear behaviors that may indicate aggression, and then, “or, a bear may not exhibit any of these signs and attack without notice.”
So while the pep talk at the trailhead was not a big confidence booster, I felt a little better with the bear spray on my belt and the knowledge that encounters are rare, even in areas thick with bears. Backpacks were packed, and I felt anxious and excited and ready to go. We toasted our adventure (and settled my nerves) with a Moose Drool Brown Ale, an excellent choice in a Montana breakfast beer, and hit the trail.
Within 300 yards of the truck we encountered our first sign of bear activity. A huge, steaming (okay, not actually steaming, but unmistakably fresh) pile of bear scat. Soon after that we saw tracks, thankfully headed in the opposite direction we were hiking. But Joel’s relaxed conversation put me at ease and soon I was focused on the hike and scenery.
It was beautiful, no question, and I could have easily spent the entire day there. But we were both looking forward to a longer hike, and had our sights set on the second meadow, about five miles from the trailhead.
These were, as it turned out, easy miles. As we encountered more open country, my bear anxiety lessened. And my fitness efforts over the summer paid off as I felt comfortable hiking at a quick pace with a considerable pack on my back.
When we arrived at the second meadow, the trail had taken us well wide of the creek. A smaller path led a half-mile or so north to the water, and we quickened our steps in anticipation. As we reached the creek and shed the backpacks we spotted a large trout holding in a huge, deep pool below us and our excitement grew. We assembled our fly rods while discussing strategy. Joel was going after the big cuttie in the pool we were watching, and I headed upstream to explore.
Here, a half mile from my friend, I had a clear view in every direction, thousands of acres of grassland spotted with sagebrush surrounded by rugged mountains along the entire horizon. I stopped walking, stopped looking for rising trout, stopped thinking about catching them, and said to myself, “Look at where I am.”
A lone bison grazed in the quiet across the creek from me, and I sat on the bank and watched him. On our drive to the trailhead we saw hundreds of Yellowstone’s bison, but this solitary beast, so peaceful in this spectacular setting, triggered something in me. I was overwhelmed with the grandeur of it all.
It was more than the beauty of the place. It was working hard all year to save for the trip. It was sweating all summer to shed 25 extra pounds so if I got to a place like this I wouldn’t be worried about the hike back out. It was that rewarding burn in the legs from the walk. It was the easy comfort of a good friend nearby and the pleasant mix of adrenaline and Moose Drool in my stomach. It was the sandhill cranes above, the bison in the meadow and the trout below the creek’s surface. It was the aroma of sage with a distant hint of wildfire smoke in the air. It was a landscape unchanged for thousands of years, yet somehow utterly American. It was everything I ever could have imagined in a place, and it was more. It was emotional, spiritual and physical. It was timeless.
I could have wept. And, truthfully, that bison across the way did go blurry for a moment or two.
But there was fishing to be done, and only two of us as far as the eye could see to do it. So I took a few photos of this powerful place, knowing full well that even if I could somehow capture the beauty of it, the images would only tell a fraction of the story. But if nothing else, the pictures would serve as a reminder to me that special places and moments are out there, and that the ones you work hard to reach are made more special by the effort.
He was, predictably, having more success than I was. He had found a tight series of turns in the creek, with gravelly little beaches and rock formations forming a stunningly beautiful collection of promising fishing spots where both of us could fish on our own but still be nearby if one of us needed a hand landing a fish or taking a photo.
Joel loves to fish, but he also loves to help others catch fish. He spotted a feeding trout in a pool and carefully waded across to climb the rock face on the other side so he could look down and direct me where to cast. It worked, and in a few casts I had my very first Yellowstone cutthroat on the line. Joel hurried back across to make sure we got a photo of me with my fish. This is special to me not just as my first fish of this species in the most special place I have ever stood, but because Joel worked hard to help me get it.
But we were five miles from the truck and wanted plenty of daylight to get there. Animals move at dusk and if bears were going to return to the path, it was my preference to be sitting safely somewhere enjoying dinner and a beer or nine by then.
The trail going back seemed different, partly because I was pointed in the opposite direction of course, but partly because I was more relaxed. I was still alert for big things, but able to look around and enjoy the little things we encountered along the way. A grouse tried to startle us from the trailside brush. We watched a Clark’s Nutcracker (named for explorer William Clark) hunt for grasshoppers just a few feet away. Odd insects caught our attention like the bizarre and repugnant Mormon Cricket. And conversations abut these encounters and everything else under the sun were not only enjoyable, but also served to make a little extra noise on the trail so we didn’t surprise any Grizzlies.
But the packs were getting heavy, and we were parched and hungry. We had plenty of water, but it was packed away so we decided to just push on. We got to the truck without incident, and as I shed my backpack I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I had traveled a greater distance on foot than on any other single day in my life. I had stood in a place I will never forget, with a fly rod in my hand, and fooled a new species of fish to my fly. And I had not been mauled by a Grizzly bear. Pretty good day. One of the very best days, in fact.
In the uniquely charming town of Gardiner, Montana, just outside the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, where elk walk the streets and graze on lawns between swing sets and recycle bins, there is a bar called the Iron Horse. We spotted it the previous day and declared when we returned from Slough Creek we would sit outside on their deck overlooking the mighty Yellowstone River, toast to our day with fine Montana brews, and shovel absurd quantities of food into our faces. It was another in a long list of excellent decisions we made all week long.
We refueled our depleted bodies with bison burgers topped with bacon, kielbasa sausage, caramelized onions and cheese. I washed mine down with several Bozone Amber Ales, Joel went with his beer of choice, an IPA.
And then it was over. Days just like it happen one after the other in this special place. The elk bugle, the bison graze and the cutthroat feed whether I’m there or not. But I am humbled, honored and privileged to have been able to stand in that meadow, to reach into that cool, clear water and touch those beautiful trout first described to science by Lewis and Clark, to be a part of this place for a day. And I’m not overstating it to say that all my days from now on will be a little bit different, a little bit better, for having been there.
If you are looking for a fly fishing guide in western Montana, look no further than Joel Thompson at Montana Troutaholics.
Note: All the above photos were taken with the Olympus Tough Series TG-1, many with the optional Olympus FCON-T01 Fish eye converter lens.
Earlier this summer, our area was hit with a colossal storm system called a derecho, a “widespread, long-lived, straight-line windstorm,” according to Wikipedia. Nobody knew the word until that night, or, more accurately, a week later when the power came back on and people started watching the news again.
The storm, which packed a punch of 90mph winds, knocked down, uprooted and broke so many large diameter trees on our property I was positive a tornado had come through. Most of them were deep in the woods way down the slope to the river, not even practical to haul as firewood up to the house. But one tree, a beautiful black walnut tree that was probably over 70 feet tall, broke in half tantalizingly close to level ground. If I could get the top half, which was still attached if only by a small sliver of bark, to separate completely, it seemed plausible to cut it down, cut it up and try to do something with the wood.
Well as luck would have it, Mother Nature took care of the first hurdle, blowing the top of the tree the rest of the way clear from the trunk in another summer storm.
My friend Ken, who has more experience at scary things like cutting down forty foot walnut trees without killing himself, cut the tree down without killing himself. While this was certainly a success, there was still a lot of hard work left to do. There was the task of getting five thousand pounds of log up a severe slope to get it to level ground where a sawyer with a portable mill could park and mill the logs.
So I cut it into manageable pieces and recruited another friend, Andrew, who has a big, powerful truck and eighty feet of chain, to help me get them up the hill. Here is the first one already at the top before I thought to take a picture.
By the time we got the fifth and last section up, the largest section measuring 10 feet long and just over 24″ in diameter, it finally occurred to me to take a video. This cool log weight calculator puts this log at about 1,750 pounds. The horn beep at the end of the video was Andrew getting jerked into the steering wheel when the log hit that last tree. we had to re-chain it from a different angle to pull it the rest of the way.
It was quite a sense of accomplishment to get a couple tons of wood up that steep hill and onto level ground. We celebrated with beer and barbecue.
The next day I sealed the ends of the logs with Anchorseal. This slows the rate of drying through the ends, and helps stabilize the log so it doesn’t split and crack in the ends from drying too quickly. I have a friend who turns wooden bowls, he is excited to work with some of this pretty wood. As for the rest, I’m going to have it milled. I might kiln dry enough to build a coffee table for the house, then the rest will go into the barn to dry slowly for some future projects!
The white blaze of the Appalachian Trail is more than a directional marker. It is an icon for an American resource steeped in history. I can’t say I’m one of those who feels the calling to hike the trail’s entire reach from Georgia to Maine, but every time I hike a short stretch of it, I gain a little more respect for those thru-hikers who make the entire trek. Today Team Orange and I did the 5.5 mile out and back Raven Rocks hike not far from where we live.
It had been a while since I hiked this stretch, and I had forgotten how strenuous it was. After a span of regular exercise and some notable weight loss I thought it would be a breeze compared to my last visit. So I think I started off with a brisk and unsustainable pace that tired me out early. But it was a beautiful day, and the dogs and I all needed the exercise, so we pressed on.
Unlike my regular hiking routes which typically are uphill at the beginning and downhill at the end, this hike goes up and down several times. This makes it a challenge to ration both water and energy. The trail itself is very rocky, which feels like a lot more exercise than a flat dirt path. The payoff, just across the West Virginia border, is a spectacular view of the Shenandoah Valley.
I brought a lot of water for the dogs and it’s a good thing. They worked hard. For much of the year this hike has two beautiful little stream crossings, but the current drought has dried both of them up. I love this new collapsible water bowl from REI, by the way.
I felt like I had used up 75% of my energy on the first half of an out and back hike. Which isn’t a problem if it’s all downhill on the way back, but it is most certainly not that. So after a little stalling and a few photos, we all had some more water and then we headed back.
About half way back to the car, Winnie came within inches of stepping on this snake with all four of her feet. For a dog who will lock up and point a stationary chipmunk at thirty paces, she was curiously oblivious to this snake. I could not immediately identify it. We have three poisonous snakes in Virginia: the Northern Copperhead, the Eastern Cottonmouth and the Timber Rattler. None of which I’ve ever seen in person. It didn’t have a rattle, but beyond that I had no idea what it was. It had markings I had never seen, and displayed some intimidating behavior when threatened by my camera. He flattened his head out like a hood and became very agitated. I sent a picture to my wife, waited for the family hiking behind me to arrive at the scene to warn them just in case, and continued on. Before long, Sandy had accurately identified it – behavior and all – as a harmless Eastern Hognose snake. But the incident made me think about a blind spot of sorts when I’m hiking a rocky trail. I had to watch where every foot landed on the uneven path, so my concentration didn’t extend more than four feet in front of me much of the time. And the dogs are on six foot leashes. I actually encountered a few people on the trail, noticing them for the first time when they were only 20 feet away. If this were a dangerous snake, Winnie could have gotten bitten and I would be right on it before I knew what happened. If it were a snake, as the saying goes, it would have bitten me.
Anyway, I recommend the hike. We pushed as hard as I could and made the round trip in exactly three hours. And with good visibility like we had today, you can see forever from the summit. I mean, if you bother to look up.
It was a fun morning, fly fishing the home waters of the Potomac with a friend. A few smallmouth were caught, but for me it was mostly these pretty little sunfish. They’re small, but they fight hard. The Jack Russell Terriers of the fish world, we decided today. The only interesting photo I took today was this macro of a sunfish eye. You can see my silhouette in the reflection.
It was almost dark
when I headed down the hill
in search of smallmouth
The river gave up
Five fish in twenty minutes
But light was fading
So I headed back
Up the steep hill to the house
Grinning all the way.
I’ve seen “Loudoun Heights” on hiking trail maps online before, but never could find a clear map that showed me enough to commit to trying it. For some reason, it is not on my favorite hiking web site, Hiking Upward. But part of the Loudoun Heights hike is on the Appalachian Trail, and I finally got this great map from the AT Trail Conservancy. Team Orange and I tried it today and it is an instant favorite. I hope you enjoy the images and memories of a fantastic day…(All photos were taken with the Olympus TG-1, with the exception of the very last one, which is an iPhone 4S photo.)
The best place to park for this hike is across the Shenandoah River on the West Virginia side. The sidewalk along the highway is entirely appropriate and safe, but I’ll be honest, it’s not very fun to be on it. The guardrail seems low, and the jersey wall between you and traffic even lower. It’s all more than a little unnerving to me. But it is a great view of a beautiful stretch of river.
The white blaze on the trees is known up and down the entire east coast: The Appalachian Trail.
Winnie stops and stares at nothing often when we’re hiking. But today she really locked onto something I couldn’t see, and wouldn’t move past it. As I finally noticed, it was a chipmunk.
Turns out Winnie wasn’t the only one watching ol’ Alvin. This black snake had been watching him too, and when he struck, I was reminded of one of the biggest reasons to keep dogs on leash on hiking trails. It’s not just for their safety, but for the safety of the wildlife too. Winnie very much wanted to be involved in the black snake/chipmunk discussion. But I snapped a quick picture and let him be to feed.
I was extremely impressed with the macro setting on this Olympus TG-1. This is not a large flower. That is a very small sweat bee!
One more macro shot, with Winnie’s coat in the background, before we get back to the action.
One of the things I love about this hike is that the hard work is done in about the first two miles. It’s very steep, but once you get to the top of the ridge, you leave the AT and take the blue trail in a comfortable walk along the ridge line. There are three overlooks, this is the first.
This second overlook is pretty uncomfortable, in my opinion. I don’t like looking down 600 feet, and for some reason the wires going all the way down and across the river make it worse. We did not linger at this spot, and I’ll happily skip it next time. But the overlooks are very near the trail.
This rock formation is a pretty imposing landmark, so we stopped for water and a photo here.
The blue trail ends at the last overlook, Split Rock. Between Maryland Heights, Weaverton Cliffs and this, this is my favorite view of the Potomac River and the town of Harpers Ferry. Spectacular, even on a very overcast morning.
Team Orange waiting for me. This photo was actually a mistake, I forgot to set the timer so I could go over and join them for this one. But I love it.
We had some water and snacks and then I was just messing around with the camera. I really love this setting. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s designed to make the photo look like it’s a miniature. And it does! This totally looks like a model for a train set or something. Weird.
On the way back, we took a little detour. What kind of Team Orange would we be if we didn’t take the Orange Trail?
Round trip back to the car was about seven miles, but we felt pretty good so we continued past the car and headed into the town of Harpers Ferry. Along the way, for some reason I felt like this photo had to be staged and taken.
A well earned cool down in the waters of the Shenandoah River.
A well earned cool down on the porch of the Secret Six Tavern! These dogs were so fantastic today, walking politely on leash for nearly nine total miles, passing scores of tourists in town and never once being nosey or rude, just walking in a polite heel. I really feel like I can take them anywhere.
By the time we got to the tavern they were pretty tired, but after a sip of beer and a few french fries each, they were toast. I think all three of us felt like the toughest mile of the day was that last one back to the car after sitting down and relaxing for a bit. But I’m real proud of them today.
This is my fiftieth post here on Dispatches from the Potomac. To date there have been 13,355 views from 67 different countries, and more of you choose to follow this blog every week. Thank you all for taking time out of your days and, from time to time, choosing this space to spend a few moments when your online options are virtually infinite. I appreciate it more than I can say, and I will continue to try hard to share the interesting, the beautiful and the funny aspects of my world.
To mark this special milestone I have updated my masthead banner to show my Wirehaired Vizsla, Winnie, on a recent kayak trip on the Potomac River.
Thanks again, and please tell your friends!
Regular Readers here will recall my saga with Pentax and their Optio WG-2 “waterproof camera.” After two failed cameras I went back to the Olympus brand from which I regret straying. My beautiful new TG-1 arrived late last week, just in time for a big Saturday on the water.
A friend and I chose a nice spot about four miles upstream from our place to put the kayaks in, and we chose first light because the river is never more beautiful or less populated than it is at dawn. But the spot requires a portage of kayaks and gear over four sets of railroad tracks, a couple of narrow, windy paths and a stretch of the C&O Canal Towpath.
But the sore shoulders and face full of spider webs (Note to self: Do not volunteer to be the first one down the path next time) are quickly forgotten as the sound of the rushing river nears and the spot is just as we had remembered, just as we had hoped.
Dawn came, not with a red skied bang, but rather with a breezy, blue whimper. Cooler than I expected but the breeze brought a promise of a warm day ahead.
In an hour the breeze and water had calmed and we settled into a steady downstream mosey. The smallmouth were biting but not enthusiastically and only little ones.
This bridge between Lovettsville, VA and Brunswick, MD marks the one mile point to home. I love the rippled reflections here.
It was still pretty early in the day when we got off the water and I hadn’t given the new Olympus much of a waterproof workout. So once the kayak was put away I brought Team Orange down to cool off. This is Finn, who I think would stand in this river all day in the summer.
Underwater pictures are fun, but you really don’t know what you have while you’re taking them. My method: Stick the camera underwater, snap away, then get them on to the computer later and throw out 99% of them.
I love the abstract, colorful images you can get by shooting up at a subject (Winnie, in this case) with the lens just barely submerged.
Water plays crazy tricks with light!
Finn doing his thing.
I hope you enjoyed these images from a fun day. I appreciate you all taking time to let me share it with you.
Every now and then I’m in the mood to do a long hike, which for me is anything over five miles. The Cedar Run/White Oak Canyon loop in the Shenandoah National Park has a few different configurations, but last year I did an eight mile loop which is plenty, considering half of that is steeply uphill. So I decided to repeat this very enjoyable and vigorous hike, with one addition: this time I brought a fly rod. Both Cedar Run and White Oak Canyon are home to some of the most beautiful brook trout you’ll find anywhere. And since during my last outing in search of brookies I got shut out, I had a score to settle.
The Cabins at Rose River Farm are an awesome place for any weekend getaway, and a Saturday night stay allowed me to get a nice early start Sunday morning as I was literally just minutes from the trail head.
The Hill Top Cabin offers great views and is an extremely relaxing place to put the work week behind you and focus on the outdoors!
This is the type of water found along both legs of this hike. Falls at the head of a pool, surrounded by great scenery.
In the early morning, I could see trout rising in almost all of those pools, so I just started fishing them and it wasn’t long before this beauty fell for my antics.
Not all that’s beautiful is under water along this hike!
Trout don’t live in ugly places.
I have to brag on this wonderful little 3-weight Scott fly rod of mine. It casts beautifully, and a lot of the casting in these confined places has to be pretty accurate. It’s only 6’6″ long which helps too.
Back you go, little fella!
Nice view of the beautiful White Oak Canyon.
This is, without a doubt, a very large Shenandoah National Park brook trout. My best brook trout by a wide margin.
Another look at the same fish.
This is the payoff for all that uphill hiking!
A three foot black snake sharing the trail.
This one escaped before he reached me, but I was able to get his picture before he got too far.
Life is good indeed. Bringing the fly rod along made for a longer, but much more enjoyable day!
Eight miles = Four Advil. I’ll feel it tomorrow, but the excitement of dry fly fishing for wild brook trout in stunning scenery will have me back very soon!
A gold watch. A Winchester Model 94. A trunk full of shooting trophies. A keen appreciation for the outdoors. A fierce sense of loyalty to good friends. A pretty good head of hair and a tendency to let too much beloved beer hang around the midsection.
These are the things I inherited from my Father.
Patrick Edwin Felker would be 76 years old today, but he died almost 35 years ago. Many of his gifts I see in me went unnoticed, regrettably, for decades. But I don’t think I’m alone in that regard. A typical kid of 15 knows hardly anything and appreciates even less. But I watched him live his life — or the portion I was present for — to the very fullest. It was almost as if he knew he had too little time here. Then I watched him fight like hell in an unimaginably long and horrific battle with cancer. One could hardly expect a man so full of passion for life to give it up easily, after all.
I used to think I would be driven by the desire to have made him proud as I navigated the challenges of a full life without him. And I think I said as much for years after I knew it was no longer true. I do of course wish it, but it’s not a force in my life decisions. I am my own man, and while he is part of me, so much time has passed that the lines between his influence and who I am have blurred. I do wish to have made him proud. But mostly I long to have known him as a man. To fish together, hunt together, joke together and add a little bit of girth to the midsection together.
Somewhere along the line, long ago and without really noticing, I think I stopped needing him, and started simply missing him.