Monday, May 31, 2010

Camp Hoover

After last weeks very successful, allergy free, kayak trip I decided to go for gold and go hiking! 
Saturday morning was very cloudy and dreary looking, and there was a chance of thunderstorms late in the day.  The sun kept poking out though so I decided to go for it – I’d headed out in worse weather and ended up having a great day. 
Last week I’d noticed that the Mt. Laurel was in bloom at Mason Neck, so I was thinking, and hoping, that it would be in bloom in Shenandoah as well.   That hope was what lead to me decide to hike to Camp Hoover, near the Big Meadows area.   Camp Hoover was President Hoover’s summer retreat and several buildings have been preserved.  Beyond Camp Hoover is the Laurel Prong trail that runs along the Laurel Prong of the Rapidan River – the last time I’d hiked this trail was in the early spring and I remember crashing through the laurel thinking how spectacular it would be when it was in bloom.  In addition the area was once home to a magnificent stand of old growth hemlock trees.  These hemlock trees have all been killed by the woolly adgelid.  When I was here last it was about 10 years ago and the hemlocks had just recently been killed off, I was curious to see how the forest was recovering from the loss of the great trees. 
As I drove up 211 toward Skyline Dr I noticed that the tops of the mountains were fully ensconced in a cloud.  As I drove down Skyline Drive the fog was so thick in places that I couldn’t see 2 car lengths ahead of me.  The temps were in the low 60s as well.   I decided that it might be a good day to explore Big Meadows.  This main feature of the park is not something that I have ever wanted to explore before because it’s usually hot and buggy and generally not appealing.  Today though, the cooler temps and the fog made the meadow appealing.
I parked the car at the Rapidan Fire road parking area and was getting ready to hit the trail when the clouds parted and the sun came out! I headed out down the fire road in full sun! The walk across the meadow was nice, but not something I need to do again. 
About a mile from Big Meadows I came to a speed limit sign?!?!  I was wondering what a speed limit sign was doing way out there, but then I remembered that the park service uses that road to bring van loads of tourists down to Camp Hoover for tours!  A little while later I turned off the fire road and onto a trail. As I was walking down the trail I started hearing “road noise” and I couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten so close to Skyline Drive! I glanced back over my shoulder and saw the tour bus heading down the fire road.  ugh.  I would be sharing the camp with a tour group. 
The trip down to the camp was right about 3 miles.   I got there in just about an hour!  Pretty good I think! 
When I arrived at the camp I noticed that there were little paths between the buildings that I didn’t remember from the last visit!  I’d planned to spend a few minutes checking out the buildings and then head up Laurel Prong a little ways.  
I spotted a Mt. Laurel bush and wandered over to take some pictures and was walking back to the buildings when I encountered the tour group.  The ranger who was leading the tour invited me to join them, I kinda didn’t want to, but he said that they were heading into the Prime Minister’s Cabin – I had no idea you could go into the buildings so I took the ranger up on his invitation.  They had put some exhibits in the cabin but it was pretty true to what it looked like in Hoover’s day.  It was neat to glimpse into what the camp was like back then!
After I finished in the cabin I tried to leave, but the ranger said that next they were going to Hoover’s cabin and I wouldn’t want to miss that.  Oh, well, I guess I was in the tour for the duration. 
I was standing on the porch of the cabin waiting for everyone to come out so we could move on and I noticed the guy leaning on the rail.  I knew I recognized him and it took me a minute to place him, but I finally did – I was pretty sure it was Sean our Graduate Assistant from Summer Clinic at UVA.  I almost snapped a picture to show the folks from UVA but I didn’t.  As we were walking to the next stop he struck up a conversation with me (I’d mentioned to the ranger that I was a teacher, I was asking about SNP’s teacher ranger program) and that’s when I knew it was him!  It was pretty fun running into him!
Next we went into the “Brown House”.  Not only was it actually a brown building, but it was a bit of a joke considering that Hoover’s other residence was the “White House”!  HA!
It was interesting to see the insides of the cabins and see how the were built and how many amenities they had! All the cabins had electricity & running water!  Part of the reason Hoover picked the location he did was because of the great stands of hemlock trees.  The hemlock trees that are now gone.  It was hard to visualize what the area had looked like back then.
As I was heading back to the trail I saw Sean taking a picture of his family so I offered to get all 3 of them and we chatted for a minute or two about what he’s doing these days, then he says with amazement “You walked all the way down here?” I said “Yep, and I’m walking all the way back”.  He was pretty amazed. 
In the tour group there was a couple about my parents age and they were dressed for hiking and had daypacks and hiking sticks.  They clearly stuck out in a group of folks who were clearly on a bus trip.  At first I’d assumed they were simply overdressed.  But as the ranger went on and on they kept glance at their watches and a few times voiced that they were concerned about the trip back up the hill.  The sky was getting cloudy again and we were anxious about rain. 
The three of us ended up heading back up the trail together.  I wasn’t sure about this at 1st, I generally hate hiking as a part of a group as I tend to just go with the group and not listen to my body, but I went with it!  Somehow I ended up in front and set the pace and they seemed happy with it so it worked!  Turns out they were RVers!  They were camping at Loft Mt in their 37 ft Winnebago! They were from Vancouver and were in the middle of big tour of the states.  This trip they were doing the perimeter! They’d visited most of our national parks and we headed to DC.  We had a great time chatting the whole way up! 
It was 2 miles from the camp to Skyline Drive – we did it in just under an hour!  WOW! 
Their car was parked right there, but mine was still about a mile away so we said good bye and I headed off down the AT. 
I’d only gone a few feet from the parking area when I encountered a little boy and his mom.  The little boy, prob about 3, started talking to me very animatedly about something, I felt bad because I couldn’t understand a single word.  His mom translated for me, turns out the child was speaking in German!
The portion of the AT I was walking on was entirely flat!  There were tall trees, but they were thinly spaced and there were lots of ferns growing and I was just walking in my own little world.  Then, all of a sudden, I saw a large black animal cross the trail in front of me! It was a bear!!!!!  Holy cow! A Bear!  He was a good distance from me and not a threat to me.  I was pretty sure he’d clearly seen/heard/smelled me and was trying to get away.  I froze right where I was – scanning the forest to see if there were more, but there weren’t.  Then I went for the camera!  I had a great view of him from where I was so I started taking pictures – they looked great in the view finder, but when I snapped them they were horrible.  The reason? I’d been playing with the shutter speed taking pictures of the waterfall and left it on “slow”.  ugh.  By the time I fixed everything, the bear was gone. 
As I walked down the trail, kicking myself for not getting good shots of the bear, I was thinking it would be great if the camera had a special mode you could put it in that would override any other settings you’d put it in and take a great picture without having to take the time to reset everything, especially when you need to shoot something quick – like a bear.  Then I remembered that the camera did in fact have a mode like that – simple mode.  Dope Slap.
The rest of the hike was uneventful!  I made it back to my car and made a quick pit stop at Big Meadows, then headed home. 
The sun had been shining all afternoon on Skyline Dr, however there were thick clouds just beyond the mountains and there were no views driving down Skyline Dr – quite bizarre!

Camp Hoover 5.29.10

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Going on an Eagle Hunt

I’d been wanting to go kayaking for awhile, but the spring pollen season was making me think it would  be a bad idea. I’d been taking the kids out for recess and hadn’t had any issues, and the pollen all seemed to burst out about 3 weeks early so it made sense that it was done already so, I decided that some outdoor fun would be in order.
I’d decided that my next kayaking adventure would be at Mason Neck State Park, a small state park right on Belmont Bay.  The big pull of Mason Neck is that they have several mated pairs of bald eagles and there’s a good chance you’ll see one while you are there! 
It was cloudy and humid as I headed out to the park, with rain and thunderstorms predicted later in the day.  I rented a kayak and was quickly on my way up Kane’s Creek in search of eagles. 
While I was out in the kayak the sun came out and it turned into a beautiful morning!  On the shore the Mt. Laurel and other flowers were in bloom and on the water there were many types of marsh grasses to navigate through. 
I saw a Great Blue Heron and paddled into a little cove to see if I could get his picture, the heron flew off before I could get the camera out, but I spied a HUGE black snake sunning himself on a log so I paddled over there.  I actually bumped the log with the kayak trying to get a picture of the snake, and that’s when it occurred to me that the snake was really long – I could see most of him all curled up – and if he got mad at me he could be in the boat with me pretty easily!  I enjoyed looking at the snake, but I didn’t feel the need to get any closer, so I slowly backed the kayak away!
As I paddled further up Kane’s creek I started seeing more and more Great Blue Heron’s.  I couldn’t decide if I was seeing lots of different herons or the same 3 or 4.  When I got back the ranger told me that I’d probably seen lots of different herons because there is a heron rookery not far from Kane’s Creek.  
I paddled as far as I could up Kane’s creek.  The combination of low tide and the "no trespassing” signs put an end to m explorations!  As I paddled back I took my time and enjoyed the beautiful morning! 
As I paddled back across Belmont Bay I saw another snake, this one was swimming! He stopped swimming as I crossed his path and looked at me like: “what are you doing here?”
Back at the Visitor Center I found out that I’d paddled about 3 miles!  In under 2 hours too!  It was a great way to enjoy the morning and didn’t take all day!  As I left the park I was seriously considering purchasing my own kayak. 
I have done some research into buying a kayak.  It’s about a $1000 investment and you have to jump in with both feet – you have to buy the whole package – kayak, paddles, life jackets and car top carriers, so that’s slowing me down.   I don’t want to buy one and then not use it. 

Kayaking @ Mason Neck