Words and Images from Ed Felker

Archive for July, 2014

Good Friends, Bad Maps and Sandwich Thieves

There are ten mile hikes over rocky terrain with severe elevation gains, and there are inadvertent ten mile hikes over rocky terrain with severe elevation gains. This weekend featured the latter.

Last month when I did this hike in Shenandoah National Park and saw some great wildlife, there was a sign near the trailhead that pointed to some waterfalls that didn’t seem too far. So I planned on returning, this time with Team Orange and joined by my friend Monica, to hike a bit farther up the trail to find the falls. From the looks of the map it seemed we had just a few miles ahead of us, so we weighed ourselves down with camera gear and water and set out along the beautiful Rose River.

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I liked the nice wide trail — actually a fire road — and the fact that it frequently intersected with the river so the dogs could cool off and get a drink along the way, without me having to get water and a bowl out of my pack. Here Monica photographs the beautiful scenery.

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Okay so we walked and walked and walked, and made a wrong turn and walked some more. The wrong turn was an educated guess, reached by referring to the photo I took of the map at the trail head, and the fact that we were looking for Dark Hollow Falls, and the trail was marked Upper Dark Hollow Falls Trail. This is, I believe, a typo on the map, as I think the actual name is the Absolutely Unrelated To Dark Hollow Falls In Any Way Trail. But we corrected that mistake and set off again for miles and miles of walking without intersecting the trail we were looking for. Here we stopped for a little break, because of all the miles of walking, every bit of which has been uphill to this point. You know who loves pretzels? Team Orange loves pretzels.

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At one point we passed a woman hiker coming the other way. We asked how far to Dark Hollow Falls and she said make a right after a half mile or so. My map was showing a left turn, not a right. So I didn’t trust her answer. A couple minutes later a second hiker came through and we posed the same question. “Dark Hollow Falls? It’s maybe four miles or so.” Um, what? I finally got a cell signal and checked Google Maps. We were on the right trail, but just weren’t making any real progress. Confused and weary, we decided to head back. The good news was, it was all downhill. The bad news was, we never saw the waterfalls and it was a long way back to the car. But we finally ended up at the parking lot, where we eased our aching feet and rewarded ourselves with an icy cold beer. Finn thought that after ten miles, even cool gravel seemed a great spot to rest.

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Monica and Finn really connected on this hike. I don’t know how much of this was the pretzels.

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Some brook trout fishermen showed up at the parking lot and we got to talking about our endless hike to nowhere. They explained that, inexplicably, the posted map at the trailhead shows an area starting about four miles up the fire road we hiked. This explains our confusion, the wrong turn, the endless walking and still not reaching our destination. It seems another mile (two miles round trip) would have brought us to the Falls, but ten miles was more than enough for me. Next time we’ll take a different route. The anglers snapped a photo of our weary crew. I had picked up some subs on the way, planning on a late picnic lunch. But we were much later than I planned, so we decided to call it a day and head home. I took Monica’s sub out of the cooler and brought it to her car, then walked back to my car and got in. Finn had moved from the back compartment up to the back seat, which was unusual but Winnie rode in the back seat on the way down so I gathered they had discussed the matter and decided it would be Finn’s turn on the way home. Fine.

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I put all the windows down and was enjoying the refreshing breeze. As I accelerated, I noticed some bright green paper blowing around the interior. I turned and looked at the back seat. Finn was standing on the seat, head out the window, happy as a clam, and standing on torn bits of weird green paper and…what is that? Oh. It’s a mayonnaise packet. Well the mayo packet put the green paper into context. It’s the paper wrapping that used to contain my delicious and hard earned Sheetz club sub on pretzel bread. Bastard. I replayed the last few minutes and figured he had about a minute to jump into the back seat, grab the sub and snarf it before I returned to the car. At one point Monica and I both heard Winnie bark once from the back, which is odd. Now I think she was probably reacting to Finn’s decision to help himself to lunch. Nobody likes a narc, Winnie.

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This was reminiscent of the first full day Finn and I ever spent together. I had picked him up in Illinois and was bringing him to his new home back in Virginia when we stopped for a picnic lunch. Anxious to share a picture of my new companion to my friends, I thought it would be funny to pose him at the picnic table with a soda and a sandwich in front of him as if he were a spoiled dog who ate people food. He waited until my eye was in the viewfinder, altering my depth perception just enough that I was unable to react when he snagged the sammich and snarfed it in seconds, literally throwing it down his throat like a shark hammering a seal. Sandwich gone. But he had just started his new life with me. Maybe he wasn’t sure if I would ever feed him, and he was just securing nourishment whenever it was available. But by now he knows I feed him. Still, it’s hard to get mad at Finn, let alone stay mad. He had worked up quite an appetite too.

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And it’s hard to be upset at a stupid map whose misdirection led only to time spent in fun company getting a whole lot of exercise which I sorely need. Next time, though, I will do a bit more research before trying a new hike.


Happy Birthday, Winnie!

We drove hundreds of miles through the torrential rains of Hurricane Ike to an otherwise quiet corner of Western Illinois. Our destination: Seraphim Kennels, and an eight week old female Hungarian Wirehaired Vizsla with a yellow ribbon around her neck. On our return trip we joined the storm for a few more stops on its Ransack the Midwest Tour, dodging flooded highways and searching for hotels in towns with no electricity before we were finally able to put Ike in our rear view mirror somewhere in southern Ohio. Seraphim My Ride’s Here, or “Winnie,” was calm and quiet throughout the fairly tense ordeal of getting home. She didn’t want to pee in the rain — a preference she retains to this day. So I carried her to a grassy spot and held the umbrella over her until she did. Sandy snapped this photo of us returning from a flooded patch of lawn behind a gas station, and it remains one of my favorite photos of her.

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Like a lot of photos, it has special meaning not just because of the image, but because it makes me remember how I felt at the time. I was nervous and excited, trying to process the huge responsibility I was undertaking while not entirely convinced I could even safely get back to Virginia through the storm. But as I held her close under an umbrella battered with rain that seemed to come down in streams rather than drops, I could feel her warmth and it calmed my nerves. She had just been taken away from the only people and dogs she ever knew, and was already far away with strange people in a strange car traveling through violent conditions, yet I sensed her trust in me. I don’t know if you have ever had anything trust you more than you trust yourself, but let me tell you, it’s a motivator.

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Sixteen hundred nerve wracking miles later, we were home with our new addition. And every day since I have tried to earn the trust she gave me when she had no reason to. She was a good puppy and took to obedience training extremely well. Why, in a matter of just a couple weeks we took her to her first of our town’s Octoberfest celebrations. She might not remember them all, but she hasn’t missed one yet!

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She spent some time in the field and has pointed, fetched and returned birds for me. But she does this because I ask her to, not because she likes it. She hates the gun, actually, so she is not a bird dog.

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She earned her UKC championship at six months of age, but she only did it because I asked her to. She didn’t like being around a lot of other dogs, so she doesn’t have to do that anymore either.

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No, from a very early age, and without a conscious decision, it just came to be that there was a separate set of rules for Winnie. Somehow, seemingly at birth, she had already earned the special treatment that is usually reserved for either that older dog who has proven himself in the field, or a dog who once saved your life. If all the dogs are sent outside on a hot summer day, Winnie stays in the air conditioning.

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She hates the cold but loves the snow. She loves beer, lying on her side in cool grass, and toys with ropes attached.

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She loves being around water but isn’t crazy about swimming. This makes her a wonderful kayaking companion, as she is quite content getting paddled around while she watches fish and birds and leaves floating in the river.

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She’s content being alone. She’s always been an observer of things, and I’ve caught her doing it for long spans of time. I used to think she was just staring at nothing. But then I realized she’s doing what I do, she’s not looking at nothing. She’s looking at everything.

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Which is one of many reasons she is my once in a lifetime dog. Neither of us minds being alone, but we genuinely enjoy each other’s company. And she’s easy to be around. She seems to sense when I need to sit in still silence, or to lean on her a bit, and she’s always there for playful, happy times too. If these things sound familiar, well, you’ve probably described your best friend too.

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Happy 6th Birthday to Winnie. Whatever it is that made me deserve this dog, I haven’t done yet. But I’ll keep trying.


Upstream

I drove over the bridge that spans the Potomac River near our house this afternoon and thought the skies might just be perfect for a sunset. I had been wanting to paddle upstream and find a spot to photograph a great sunset from the middle of the river, and tonight was looking promising.

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I picked up a sub for dinner and a couple beers and packed my camera gear in a dry bag. I opted to keep things simple, leaving dogs and fly rods at home. I thought I’d have my hands full trying to set up a camera tripod while anchoring a kayak and trying not to slip and lose everything. So I set out upstream, first heading up the C&O Canal from the ramp. It felt great to be out on such a beautiful evening after about a week of humid, generally unpleasant weather. That shape ahead of me to the right is a raft containing being propelled by my friend William Heresniak of Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing.

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William and his clients had a long, fun day on the river and got into some fish too. It was cool running into William here on my home water.

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Then in the span of about forty minutes, every cloud in the sky vanished. I was not going to get that awesome sunset after all. So I decided to get some exercise, paddling upstream much farther than I ever had before. My new Werner paddle had a lot to do with that! It felt good to make so much upstream progress, and I found a great place to anchor in the middle of the river and chill out for a while. This is a beautiful place, but there just wasn’t anything happening in the sky. In fact, all the action was in the water. Remember the brilliant “I’m not gonna bring a fly rod because I’ll be busy taking pictures” thing? Well not only was I not busy taking pictures, fish were jumping all around me. There was a Great Blue Heron on the next rock outcropping over from me and at one point he looked over to me and said, “Can you believe this shit?”

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Here’s a nice view of my Native Watercraft Slayer 14.5, she was a joy to paddle tonight. I packed light, just the cooler, camera stuff, anchor and that’s it.

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I love the iPhone pano! Click on this image to get a better view, I think it really gives a sense of what it feels like to have this river all to myself. I will definitely be back for evening paddles again, and next time you can bet I will have a rod with me!

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I’m not often the last one at the boat ramp, but it’s kind of cool.

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Well, over the last month or so I’ve had times when I really wish I had my camera. Or when I had my camera with a wide angle lens and wished I had a zoom. Or when I had a zoom and wished I had a polarizing filter. I’ve had times when I brought a fly rod and wished I had brought a camera, and tonight when I could have done without the camera but damn did I wish I had a fly rod. I’ve had days when I got somewhere and really wish I had brought my dogs. Shit happens. But if it keeps happening, I may have to travel with a full camera bag, both dogs and a 5-weight at all times!


Paddle Upgrade – The Werner Shuna: Hooked

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I’ve been kayaking for quite a few years now and, as in any hobby, the more time I’ve spent doing it, the more my needs have changed. I have upgraded my kayak a couple of times to accommodate first the need to fish comfortably, then to accommodate a couple four legged passengers from time to time. I have a decent PFD for myself and very nice ones for the dogs. I’ve added GoPro attachments, non-slip decking material, fishing accessories and more. But my paddle hasn’t changed since the day a friend gave me a kayak and I went to the closest store that sold paddles and bought one. Paddles were more expensive than I thought they would be, so, having spent more than I wanted to on one, I assumed it was a good paddle.

Time passed, my paddle served me well in that it gave me all I asked of it: when I put it in the water and pulled back, my kayak went forward. But making new friends in the kayak fishing world and seeing more and more on social media got me thinking. So many anglers out there were intensely brand loyal not just about their kayaks, but about their paddles. What’s the deal? Don’t they all do the same thing?

While kayak fishing with my friend Cory Routh of Ruthless Outdoor Adventures recently in the Virginia Beach area, I asked him about his Werner paddle. I had seen the Werner brand a lot among kayak anglers, and was curious. So I asked him what the difference was between an “okay” paddle and a really good one. He started by trading with me. Then as we paddled, he explained some of the features of a well made paddle, and some of the shortcomings of mine, which he was now burdened with.

Cory is a member of the Werner Fishing Team, and uses the Werner Cyprus: Hooked paddle. I had in my hands the very best kayak fishing paddle Werner produces, and I could tell. In no more than ten paddle strokes I could see a world of difference. I expected it to be lighter, in fact weight was the only real difference I expected. And it is light, just over 23 ounces. But the carbon blades just have no flex at all. They really dig into the water and don’t give when you’re paddling, and they are incredibly buoyant too. The Cyprus feels like it’s spring-loaded, popping easily out of the water, eagerly awaiting the next stroke. Within fifty yards I knew I would soon own a Werner paddle.

But at $400, I also knew it would not be the Cyprus. I talked with Cory, as well as Werner Pro Staff angler Richie Bekolay about a good compromise — a substantial upgrade from my existing paddle without breaking the bank — and we came up with the Werner Shuna: Hooked. Like the Cyprus, the Shuna has a lightweight carbon shaft that is oval in the area where you grip it, making it extremely comfortable. The Shuna has fiberglass blades which add four ounces or so to the overall weight. And for $125 less than the Cyprus (MSRP $275), it’s a great combination of light weight, stiffness and durability. If I had made the decision down in Virginia Beach, I would have purchased it from Wild River Outfitters, where I bought my kayak. But Appomattox River Company had the paddle in stock, and free shipping sealed the deal. The paddle arrived in a couple days and I immediately took it out for a trial run.

I love the look of the Shuna, the pattern reminds me of a cross between fish scales and desert camo. But maybe that’s just me. I do not notice the extra four ounces at all, it’s still extremely light weight compared to my old one. And while the blades are not quite as ‘springy’ as I noticed the Cyprus blades to be, they are still very buoyant and feel efficient pushing water. I paddled upstream for quite a while on my test run, and the oval shaft is incredibly comfortable.

There are some other good reasons to love the Werner brand, by the way. All Werner paddles are handcrafted in the USA, and the company supports our Veterans through Heroes on the Water. Those things are important to me, but so is a great product, especially if it’s not exactly inexpensive. And I couldn’t be happier with this paddle. If you have been kayaking with a run of the mill paddle, do yourself a favor and see what a difference a great one can make. If every single stroke is noticeably more efficient, more powerful, imagine what that does for you over the course of a full day float. And if you’re going to spend the money on a nice paddle, I can’t recommend Werner highly enough. Cory puts it best: “If you want to convince someone that Werner is the best,” he says, “just put one in their hands.”

Thanks Cory, I’m glad you did!


4th of July Weekend Fun

The entire Dispatches from the Potomac staff took the three-day weekend off to celebrate this cherished American holiday by enjoying time surrounded by friends, nature and, of course, dogs. Here’s a quick photo tour of the weekend…

I’ll admit it, I’ve been pretty slack about getting these dogs out on hikes. They forgive me, but could not hide their excitement early Friday morning when they realized we were going somewhere fun. Seeing these mugs in my rear view mirror makes my heart smile.

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We did an easy five or six miles on the C&O Canal Towpath, from Knoxville, MD to Harpers Ferry, WV and back. This is about a mile downstream of Harpers Ferry on the Potomac River.

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(Scene Missing: Insert a blurry montage of grilling meat, lighting fireworks, viewing fireworks and perhaps enjoying a beer or two from Friday night to Sunday morning.)

The alarm was set early on Sunday, as my friend Chris and I were ready to catch some Smallmouth from kayaks before dawn. I brought my Nikon, but light conditions were challenging. Some neat fog was rising off the water for quite a while when we started, but I struggled capturing enough light to really show it. Anyway, a few turned out well, this is Chris with the great state of Virginia behind him.

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Chris just got this Wilderness Systems Ride 115X, this float was the maiden voyage! This kayak seems just perfectly suited for river fishing, and Chris said it’s super comfortable too. He added a nice new Werner paddle to complete the package!

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As a photographic outing, not much was going well. I had recorded a dozen or so blurry Great Blue Heron images on the memory card, and the bright sun was ruining all the river shots. But when I came across this scene I took a lot of photos, hoping I was able to capture even a fraction of the subtle shades and colors I was enjoying. This is my favorite of those shots, and a clear candidate for my Photos of the Year post at the end of 2014.

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The fishing was slow. I hooked a nice smallie early, we both saw it jump and it looked like it was gonna be fun, but he spit the hook out in mid-air, and that was the last big fish I saw. This was the only fish I got in the boat, and he damn near escaped before I could take a picture.

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I’ve been meaning to take this detour up Catoctin Creek off the Potomac, so we explored it a bit. The water is much colder back here, but we saw very little evidence of active fish.

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After a little break, and some sad looks from Team Orange, I decided to head back out Sunday afternoon to go for a spin. My new Dead Drift Flies sticker looks great on my Native Watercraft Slayer 14.5!

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Finn watching our six, and looking great in his Ruffwear Float Coat.

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I had a wonderful weekend and got lots of exercise in perfect weather. I hope you all had a great and safe holiday! It’s back to reality. For now.


Dead Drifting on the Potomac

Meet Josh Williams. Back in 2004, as an infantry automatic rifleman with the Army, Josh was deployed to Iraq and returned home safely after 13 months. Then he was stationed in Ft. Hood, TX, a squad leader in 1-12 CAV, 1st Cavalry Division. One morning in April, 2006, a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle and changed everything. Josh lost his right arm in the accident.

While recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, during what Josh admits was a dark time, he was introduced to fly fishing through a fairly new program called Project Healing Waters. PHW founder Ed Nicholson, a former Navy Captain and Vietnam veteran, was recovering from surgery at Walter Reed a year earlier. He found himself surrounded by young, athletic men and women back from tours cut short by devastating, life-alterning injuries and disabilities, and he knew he could help. Like Josh, Ed is a passionate outdoorsman. He knew from his own experience that time spent outdoors connecting with nature can have the very real power to heal. And on the fishless, manicured lawn at Walter Reed, Project Healing Waters was born. As Josh learned to cast a fly rod on that grass, he knew that the door to the activities he loved so much was not closed. So with the help of a strong and loving family and his girlfriend, Lisa, Josh used his love of the outdoors to find his way — to fight his way — out of the darkness.

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Married since 2008, Josh and Lisa have been blessed with two beautiful children. Josh is studying mechanical engineering, is active in his church, continues his involvement with Project Healing Waters and stays busy with his growing fly tying and outfitter business, Dead Drift Flies. Oh did I mention he juggles all this while working full time as a designer for an engineering firm? So I was honored and excited when he took some free time he does not have, to come up to fish with me for a couple days.

Day One was an evening float on my home stretch of the Potomac. Josh, for whom the concept of not being able to do something is utterly disdainful, took to a pedal style kayak which gives him the freedom to fish bodies of water previously unaccessable on his own. The folks at Appomattox River Company recently set him up with this Hobie Pro Angler 12, and he is already very comfortable on it. And when you see him walking around on it like he’s on a bass boat, it’s important to remember how much your arms aid in your balance, particularly on something unstable.

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I’ve spent some time trout fishing with Josh, he is a very good trout fisherman. On small water, the expert deployment of the roll cast gets his line across the stream and his fly to land gently. But watching him fish from greater distances, while standing in a kayak, using his foot to move the rudder and his teeth to strip in a bass, was a thing of beauty.

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But while Josh was showing off, I was fishing too. As you can see, I had to get a good forty feet of fly line out there to fool this several-week-old smallmouth.

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I actually did catch a decent fish that day. Much to my surprise, a largemouth slammed this “6th Man” fly tied by William Heresniak of Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing (more on William in a minute). I’ve fished that stretch of water countless times and never caught a largemouth there before. I will be happy to catch this fellow again any time, he made a big jump and put up two good fights — one in the water and another at my feet loose in the boat.

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We caught a few more, but the fishing was pretty slow. No matter, though, we enjoyed catching up, floating in absolutely perfect weather with the backdrop of a beautiful setting sun. It is fun to watch Josh catch fish, though. He is genuinely grateful, and treats all his catches with care and respect. Here’s a little smallie that came up for a popper in the fading light.

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Day Two had us in William Heresniak’s driftboat about thirty river miles downstream on the same Potomac River, wielding bigger rods, throwing bigger flies and hopefully catching bigger fish. William has given generously of his time and expertise to Project Healing Waters since the program’s inception, and invited Josh to come up to fish with him. I’m thrilled to have been asked to come along. This post makes me realize how many great friendships have formed from that great organization.

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We were blessed yet again with great weather all day. This stretch of river, which I had never floated before, contained stretches with beautiful outcroppings of rock and vegetation everywhere. When the fishing started, right away I knew the one-armed fishing clinic Josh gave the day before was now an Advanced Placement course. Imagine casting huge, weighted flies, one-handed, from a boat, in a stiff breeze. I’m no expert, of course, but I have to use my left hand on the line to haul the line, pulling it through the eyelets on the backcast and forward cast to generate the speed necessary to try and keep the hooked, weighted barbell from smacking me in the skull on its way by. If my left hand slips off the line, all is lost for that cast. Line puddles in front of me and I start from scratch. Josh has developed almost a spey cast style to generate that speed required, and he gets that fly moving. He was hitting little pockets and pools probably sixty feet from the boat with a 6-weight rod he had never fished before. Meanwhile, I was not unhappy with casts ten feet shorter with my favorite Sage 7-weight. There is no shame in getting outfished by Josh Williams.

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I would say William looks pretty relaxed here, confident that Josh will be able to land the monster smallmouth he has on the line.

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Well, so the bigger fish thing wasn’t happening for us right away, but we stuck with it, switching from Clawdads to poppers trying to get some surface fish.

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Wildlife abounds in this stretch, which, incredibly, is only about five miles away from Tysons Corner, VA, one of the most densely populated and annoying places on the entire eastern seaboard. Hard to imagine. Great Blue Herons were particularly prolific. Any moment you looked up you would see one flying over, we probably saw a hundred herons. We also ducks, a swan, black vultures, an egret and a couple bald eagles.

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Josh hooked into what he described at the time as “the biggest bass I’ve ever caught.” It turns out it was a bass/catfish hybrid, which explains the size. Also the hybrid ratio was about 100% on the catfish side and something less than that on the bass side. But big fish are fun, no matter how ugly they are. And that big smile on Josh’s face came back about ten minutes later with yet another nice catfish. I caught a big one soon after that but, what with it being ugly and all, I decided to voluntarily let it leave my hook before it reached the boat. Three catfish in about a half hour on fly rods is, I would say, pretty unusual.

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Big flies don’t always mean big fish. Bluegill and sunfish are so aggressive they go after flies with hooks that barely fit in their mouths. This beautiful little fish went for one of William’s famous Clawdads.

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And speaking of William’s fly tying, he tied up a couple of these poppers for me the night before our float, using a cork body and deer hair from a deer I shot this past season. The fly is beautiful, and it was a real treat to catch fish with it. While I don’t tie my own flies, I plan on preserving more deer hide this season for my friends that do.

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William worked very hard for us all day long. That man loves to fish, and to have happy people on his boat. Here’s a fun fact about William: He can free a fly no matter where you have snagged it. For a while, Josh and I had fun wedging Clawdads in between boulders, getting them to spin around tree branches 25 feet up and putting Bassmaster caliber hook sets into sunken logs just to see if we could stump him. Nope. He can get that fly back.

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In the end, we made the most of pretty slow conditions, caught a good number of fish, missed a bunch of opportunities on some others, laughed from dawn till dusk and got pretty sunburned. And almost no one lost their wallet. Pretty good day.

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To connect with Josh, visit Dead Drift Flies online here. Be sure to sign up for his blog, you’ll be glad you did.

You’ll also want to bookmark William’s site, Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing, and book a trip or purchase some of the great flies he ties.

To learn more about Project Healing Waters, to make a donation or find out how you can volunteer, visit their site here.

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