Words and Images from Ed Felker

Hiking

Great Essays from Two Young Outdoor Writers

Since its inception, the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) has encouraged young writers from across the state through its collegiate and high school outdoor writing contests. At this year’s annual conference, I loved two of the entries so much I wanted to share them here.

Lynn Wormeli from Virginia Tech’s essay was the Runner-up for the VOWA Dominion Resources Overall Best Essay. She is a wonderful writer, and I look forward to following her path.

Countering Insanity

Hypothesis: lead girls on a hike for two summers and become bored by familiarity.
Independent variable: the way, the mountains, and the time.
Dependent variable: the hiker.

A strange thing happens when you walk the same path many times. Presumably it becomes familiar; with enough frequency, the leaves earn names. My trail held the Pine Tree Forest, the Hill of Doom, and the Lightning Tree, each a rite of passage on the 10-mile hike through Pennsylvania’s Laurel Mountains. But if you repeat the same trail of the same mountain at the same time over different days, you realize that nothing stays the same. In May, there are flowers. In June, there is green. In July, you fear the Lightning Tree will multiply. And in August, you notice that what was hot is now warm and what was green now glows with yellowed fringes.

The first time we forged our own way. The trail had gone unused from September to May and each passing season had left it less distinguishable from the untouched around it. That first time was a thick, forested march, rather than a confident, concrete hike. Machetes hacked, frustrations garnered sweat, and we often found ourselves rerouting. Curiosity propelled us, and the pauses reminded us of our purpose. “What have you noticed today?” one young man with us, Ryan, asked us all to share. The responses resembled the diversity of a swimmer speaking to a marathoner. So personally colored were each of our experiences that if you were not paying attention you may entirely miss the common ground. The ground was, of course, what we had in common.

Lynn (right) hiking with friends.

Lynn (right) hiking with friends.

We were workers of the enthusiastic and exhausted kind: camp counselors, preparing adventures for the joyful bundles awaiting their summer session to begin. A few weeks after that first time came another first for me. I led the hike, surrounded by backpack-slugging girls 12 years of age who appeared to be hiking not towards the campsite but in fact away from their own pinpointed Comfort Zones. I learned from them that even the Lightning Tree, scarred from its underdog victory against a lightning strike some years ago, could be seen without my same fascination. I tried to explain myself, and some joined my captivation. But this captivation was not for those girls whose heads travelled separately from their feet. Some girls were already in the middle of other monstrous mental climbs, and this hilly detour was an additional woe to complete. For those girls, it was the destination campfire that smoked them out of their heads and into community. I learned in the clouds of roasting branches that it is not only our eyes that provide us sight.

That summer I hiked the trail each month and took note of the mountain’s arboretum calendar. Any paper calendar would bow to the timekeeping of its natural source. The next summer I led other counselors on their novel hike. They wowed. That time the trail took me by surprise when the iconic field of flowers greeted me instead as plowed mounds for us to wade. Feeling embarrassed, as if I had forgotten the profession of a longtime friend while making their introduction, I clung to the path I remembered and mourned the petals and stems. My ears perked up after the discovery, and I questioned the year that had passed. Had a year really passed? I could not deny it. Finding myself in the same place at the same summertime beginning could not mask the differences evident in the forest and in me. Common ground builds and erodes. Familiar is not forever. And the newbies would not have known the difference.

Later that summer I took a man on the hike. He had big plans to convert my rites of passage into a paved bike trail. His company specialized in such demolition and creation. A bike path would be accessible to more, enjoyed by more, and appreciated by more. Perhaps the path could even evolve into an attraction, a desperately needed draw for a rural economy that runs on the fumes of summertime ice cream shops. Bike paths are safer for emergency rescues too, like a paved runway pointing to the injured instead of a maze of evergreens delaying aid. The path would pave through the wilderness, changing the category of the land. Camp was excited; now the girls 12 years of age could bike instead of walk! They would enjoy that. I knew I would enjoy that too.

I would like to counter the oft spoken idiom of physicist Albert Einstein who once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps this applies well to the scientific method. The outdoors, however, host a battle of entropy and equilibrium. I walked my path over and over again. The map never changed, and many of the same trees remained. But it was in fact my sanity that became defined, and I became a different result.

Natasha King attends the College of William & Mary, her essay won the VOWA Dominion Resources Overall Best Essay. I really connected with Natasha’s thoughts on the solitary pursuit of the wonders of nature.

Encountering Orcas

I am on a small boat bouncing on a choppy grey ocean, in the waters of the Puget Sound in Washington, searching for whales. The captain, who has obtained the location of a small orca pod from an earlier tour boat via radio, points out the tiny fins of the pod in the distance¬–two females, one male, and a calf. From this distance we can see only the small black points of their fins, like tiny blunt teeth appearing amid the waves.

The pod hugs the rocky shoreline of the nearest island, skirting the jagged shallows where water crashes and heaves against the stone and sand. As they recede towards the west, the captain turns the boat and we speed in a wide intercepting arc, easily overtaking the orcas. Wind rushes up the sleeves of my jacket, tears like cold fire through my thin pants. Too late, I realize that I am woefully underdressed for the occasion.

After a few minutes we stop and wait, the boat rocking on the waves. Regulation calls for us to maintain a minimum distance of two hundred yards, so we will have to let the orcas approach us. Currently, however, that seems unlikely to happen; they are continuing to make their way along the shore, ignoring us.

Natasha at Puget Sound.

Natasha at Puget Sound.

I am on this boat, shivering and alone, looking for killer whales, because of my deep-rooted and inexplicable need to experience nature face-to-face, in solitude.

Growing up, I loved hiking and exploring with my family. Together we walked the winding trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains and combed the shores of too many beaches to count. It was my father who taught me to search for secure footholds in the craggy surface of a steep rock face, my mother who caught dragonflies nimbly between her fingers and showed them to me and my siblings.

As I grew older, however, I found myself more frequently craving the peace and introspection of being alone with nature. I sought out the exhilaration and thrill of a one-on-one encounter, whether it be with a heron, a beetle, a vole by the side of the road, or a pod of orcas.

This particular endeavor, then, is one more in a long line of attempts. Here in Washington, far from my home, I am again seeking out contact, seeking out the sudden sense of wonder I achieve when the natural world confronts me. The tiny dark blips of those fins near the horizon are more thrilling than any high-resolution, close-up photograph. They are real, concrete, present; it is only a distance of a few hundred feet, only a metal rail and a short expanse of choppy water, which separate us.

I remember, as a small child at the zoo, trying to climb up the side of the chain link fence surrounding the snow leopard exhibit, in an attempt to get closer to the majestic silvery cats. I slipped and scraped my hand, but kept the injury to myself–it seemed private, a secret thing, a part and parcel of this quiet, personal encounter, this questing.

Suddenly the male orca breaks away from the pod. We see him heading in our direction, and in a flash everyone is at the rail, straining their eyes, searching. Someone calls out–they have caught a hint of his fin, cutting through the sea. We all rush to that side of the boat, scanning the water hungrily. So I am at the rail of the ship when the orca surfaces.

Only for an instant is he visible, moving in a slow, smooth slide through the boundary between sea and air, between the iron-grey water and the pale pewter sky. I am at the rail, sniffling, my hands chilled to the bone, my skin frigid. I am at the rail, standing, praying to see him, and yet when the orca surfaces, without warning or fanfare, pretext or reason, I am wholly unprepared.

I watch the water roll away from his body in opaque ripples. The black and white pattern, well-known from images I saw as a child, is as familiar as a bedtime story, but triggers some ancient reflex of fear and awe that causes me to grip the rail more tightly, lest I become unhinged at every joint, fall trembling in a heap of bones and sinew.

I hear the rasp of the orca’s exhale, a thick rush of sound which is accompanied by a burst of mist out of its blowhole. The rasp echoes and re-echoes in the chilled caverns of my skull, and I stand transfixed at the rail, blood pounding in my ears. The orca and the ocean are suspended in perception for one reverberating instant: the chiaroscuro patchwork of its lustrous skin, the blended water and wind, the elements all breached and fading together at their fraying seams. That rasp. That rush of breath. I might never need to breathe again. My lungs, I think, will pump forever on the infinite remembrance of that single exhale.

The orca is gone as quickly as he appeared. And I am still shivering and shaking at the rail, though not, any longer, with cold. I slip into the boat’s heated cabin, out of the wind, and huff warm bursts of air upon my chilled hands.

This, then, is the culmination of my efforts. The search, the quest, the morning spent freezing at the prow of the boat as it cut through wind and water–all for this, for one instant when I stared into the orca’s dark eye, heard the ancient whisper of its breath. Hours traded for one second, one encounter–it is worth it.

My nose is running; my skin stings with the cold. I am still breathless. I close my eyes and see again the black and white curves of the orca’s sinuous shape, hear the crash of the waves rolling off its back, taste the cold salt spray of the surrounding sea on my chapped lips.

I want to thank Lynn and Natasha for allowing me to publish their wonderful essays here. For any Virginia high school or college students interested in next year’s contests, please visit VOWA’s web site for more information.


One Dog Short on a Three Dog Night
and Other Adventures

Not since the first day I met each of my dogs when I drove them home to Virginia from Illinois — Winnie as a pup during Hurricane Ike, and Finn as a 3-year-old a few years later — have I asked them to join me on a longer journey. And they have never been away from home for an entire week. But months of planning, preparation and waiting were behind us, the truck was packed, and we were ready to go. The plan was two nights of roughing it, camping in a couple of Virginia’s state parks, then a few nights in a fantastic cabin in Bristol, Tennessee. Fall foliage, crisp air, fishing, exploring, relaxing, recharging. But it’s funny, you put two dogs in the back seat of the truck and they don’t know if they’re going to 7-11 or Montana. All road trips start exactly the same to them. So I felt the weight of the responsibility. Obviously they need me to take care of them, to provide for them, to not put them in danger and to not do anything stupid.

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Our first stop was a lakefront campsite in Virginia’s Douthat State Park. The forecast was for a very cold night, and I’m not a very experienced camper. I got plenty of firewood, warm clothes for me, Winnie’s winter coat and two warm sleeping bags zipped together. We set up camp, fished a little in the stocked lake there, went for a hike, took pictures, lit a fire, cooked, ate, opened a beer and relaxed. But as soon as the sun set, the cold pushed down from the cloudless sky, and I wanted to get settled while we were all still warm from the fire. We all got in the sleeping bag and I just waited for the temperature to drop. I did not have to wait long, and only slept in fits and starts. I kept checking Winnie, who is more sensitive to cold than Finn. She wore her coat in the sleeping bag at my feet and seemed plenty warm. During the night, however, Finn hooked a leg outside the sleeping bag and as he moved, the bag unzipped. His restlessness woke me up and when I figured out what happened, I could feel cold air just pouring in on him. I got him zipped back up and we slept a little bit, but by 5 a.m., we had all had enough. The inside of the tent was covered in ice, and all the warmth saved in the sleeping bag was gone the instant I unzipped it. After a quick and cold bathroom break (it was 20 degrees), I turned on the truck, put the dogs in the back seat and turned on the heat. After a while we ate some breakfast to warm us up. I sat there between them as they ate and their tails wagged as I talked to them. We had made it through a pretty uncomfortable night, but we were all fine. I felt the temperature dip a bit, as it always seems to before dawn, and I looked up to see more stars than I can ever remember seeing in my entire life.

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The plan for the next night was to camp at an even higher elevation with a similar forecast, setting up a tent that is now lined with ice, over a wet sleeping bag and air mattress. We held a team meeting and decided we would not do that. Instead, we would push farther southwest, go for an afternoon hike, and find a warm place to stay that night. We hiked to the Great Channels of Virginia, a vigorous, 6 mile out-and-back with a big elevation gain, beautiful and well maintained trails through steep and rugged terrain, and a hand written sign on a kiosk at the entrance announcing bears had been seen in the area. Every blind curve in the trail had the potential of surprising a bear, so I talked to the dogs the whole time to make some extra noise in the wind. They must have been thinking, “has he lost his mind? Yeah, we get it, we’re good dogs. We heard you the first four hundred times.” It’s also archery season there, so my deer colored dogs tried out the Ruffwear Track Jackets I ordered especially for this trip. I am really impressed with them. Walking, climbing, running, shaking, leash, no leash…these vests never budged from their intended position.

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After that first frigid night, somewhere between two and four hours of sleep and a strenuous hike, all three of us were pretty happy to cancel our camping reservation near Mt. Rogers and camp at the Days Inn Bristol, VA instead.

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The next day we stopped and talked to the fine folks at Mountain Sports Ltd. I wanted to see some beautiful scenery but none of us were in the mood for a big hike that day. The staff there recommended a pretty stretch of the Virginia Creeper Trail near Damascus, VA. What a gem this trail is, 35 miles of former railroad bed transformed into a trail for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

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There are definitely trout in the beautiful Whitetop Laurel River that parallels the Creeper Trail, but I had my hands full with the dogs, camera and tripod so I didn’t bother trying to fish.

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With the exception of the first night being twenty degrees colder than I was really prepared for, the weather the entire week was simply spectacular. Fall foliage was stunning everywhere I went.

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Speaking of the Days Inn Bristol and Mountain Sports, Ltd., where the dogs were welcomed, I want to acknowledge the other establishments along the way and in Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee that welcomed the three of us. Starting on the top left, Shenandoah Valley Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Queen City Brewing, Staunton, VA; Redbeard Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Burger Bar, Bristol, VA; Holston River Brewing Co., Bristol, TN; Bristol Brewery, Bristol, VA; State Line Bar & Grill, Bristol, TN; and the brand new Cabelas, Bristol, VA. I am always very appreciative of businesses that allow and welcome dogs.

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Walking around Bristol was fun. It’s a cool town best known as the birthplace of country music. I stopped to admire one of the many murals on the sides of buildings there and the dogs sidled up close to me as they do on city sidewalks. Then Winnie stood on my foot. I include this photo here because I love moments like this, even though I can’t really explain why.

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It was time to check in to the cabin where we would be staying for the rest of the week. And oh my, what a cabin it is. I unloaded the truck, spread the tent and sleeping bag out to dry and then we just relaxed. More perfect weather, a few tasty local beers, a great local pizza and an early night made for a perfect evening.

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The next day we met Orvis fishing guide Patrick Fulkrod who took us out on the beautiful Watauga River. This was an amazing day that I chronicled in more detail in my previous blog post, Brown Trout, Orange Dogs.

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I love my dogs, obviously, but one of the main reasons I genuinely enjoy their company in all sorts of situations is that they are well behaved and under control. We don’t do any formal training anymore, but every day is filled with “teachable moments,” and spending the time required to have dogs that listen and respond to commands is absolutely one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Reflecting on the trip so far, it has been neat to watch how differently they each respond to new situations. Sometimes predictably, sometimes not, but always differently. Finn typically wants to know what is on my mind, what I expect of him, what we are going to do together next, while Winnie is usually off dancing to the beat of a drum only she can hear.

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The cabin at dusk. Shortly before this photo, I was leaning on the tailgate messing with the timer on my camera when the dogs barked. I had been seeing deer all day so I didn’t give it much thought, and just told them to stay. When I looked up, just off to the right of the chairs in this photo was a Momma black bear and two cubs. The dogs had never seen bears before, and even I was impressed that they stayed. But, safety first, if you haven’t gathered yet by now, so I put them in the back seat of the truck, quickly went back to the camera and tried to get a photo. But it was too late. Literally every setting on the camera was wrong — manual focus, timer, long exposure, low ISO — so I just watched as the mother turned back toward the woods and left, cubs scampering quickly behind. It was exhilerating to see them so close, and another proud moment of dog ownership.

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I didn’t get to fish the South Holston on this trip, but before we hit the road home I walked down to take a photo in the morning mist. Next time, SoHo.

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We had all day to get home, so when I saw a sign for Hungry Mother State Park, a park I’ve heard a lot about, I decided to swing through and check it out. It. Is. Stunning. What a beautiful, serene lake. I really want to come back here with the kayak and camp for a few nights.

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Still feeling like we were approaching the end of the vacation too quickly, I detoured off the mundane, terrible Rt. 81 and enjoyed a stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway from about Roanoke to Lexington. My God, the foliage was astounding. The best I have ever seen in Virginia, in fact.

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But it’s a good life, I think, when home calls as strongly as the beautiful new places we discover, and we were all anxious to get there. Back on the highway, I put the windows up and the hammer down. I turned music on for the first time in over 300 miles, never having noticed its absence. And from the back seat, dogs smelling of wood smoke snored, and dreamt their very different dreams together.

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Reflection

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I won’t pretend that my 24 hours off the grid this weekend even remotely resembled a backcountry excursion into peril. No, this was camping in comfort with my two best friends, Wirehaired Vizslas Winnie and Finn. It was fly fishing for pond bass, a roaring campfire and ice cold beer. It was a wood fire grilled New York Strip steak at dusk cooked to perfection and big enough to share with the dogs. It was perfect weather, a star filled night and a steady breeze. This was glamping, plain and simple. But even setting up my truck tent on the familiar grounds of my friend’s Rose River Farm puts me far enough away from civilization that I was able to (okay, forced to) disconnect from my phone for a day. And as I get more and more dependent on that connectivity — from constant texts, emails and calls to Googling questions the moment they pop into my head instead of taking the time to sit and ponder a thing — the more value there is in unplugging for a bit.

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Speaking of pondering, Winnie immediately took to the pond not to swim and hunt toads and do whatever it is normal dogs do, but to simply stand there. It’s her thing, her zen. She stood here the entire time it took me to set up camp and then for a good hour beyond that. She’ll turn her head toward a rising fish, but has no interest in further investigation. I do not know what’s on her mind, but I figure it can’t be all that different than what’s on mine when I step into a cool stream with a fly rod.

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Fly fishing for bass with poppers is a blast when the topwater action is on. And in the evening, it was on. Nothing too big, but lots of splashy fun all around the pond edges. Finn and Winnie watched with great interest. I actually have to keep Finn in a ‘Stay’ a fair distance away from me as he can not be trusted with a fish on the line. If he’s too close, the splashing fish sends him into a crazybananafrenzy and he can not help but dive in after it. (Pro Tip: Make sure you do not have a dog like this before you try kayak fishing with him.)

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But the pond will be there all night. It was time to lighten the beer cooler a bit and get the fire started. I don’t think I would have any interest in camping if I couldn’t have a fire. It was through the first wafts of wood smoke that the initial oddness and that dull, background anxiety of not having a cell signal started to feel more like a benefit than an inconvenience. And from that point on I was no longer interested in who was trying to contact me, what was trending on facebook or even what time it was. It was simply time to start a fire and open a beer.

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Dogs, like people I suppose, are very routine animals. The whens and wheres of eating and sleeping are a big part of their lives, so I wondered how they would react to a complete changeup on this, their first camping adventure. Turns out they literally could not care less. They ate their dinner around the fire while I grilled my steak, then they shared some of mine. They were comfortable and utterly relaxed the entire evening. After dinner, Winnie fit in some more pond standing time, I did a little night fishing and the beer cooler got lighter still. We watched the stars for a bit, all silently agreed this was a fine way to spend a weekend, and we called it a night.

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I mentioned this Napier Outdoors truck tent and Airbedz air mattress in an earlier review and I stand by what I said. Both these products perform extremely well, and it’s just an extraordinarily comfortable setup. The dogs loved stretching out but still being next to me, and we all slept like logs. Until, in the middle of the night, we were awakened by what I would describe as a Blood Curdling Cacophony Of Odd And Terrible Animal Noises. Before I even realized I was awake, the dogs and I were kneeling in front of the side window of the tent, staring into darkness. In the hazy, jittery half sleep that comes with abrupt awakenings, my brain could not make sense of the sounds. Later, in the light of day my brain told me they were coyotes, but the cackling, crying and screaming was definitely not what I thought a pack of coyotes would sound like. The dogs never barked, and I was glad for the low tech brand of radio silence not to give away our location. We went back to sleep easily and awoke at dawn, happy, rested and not surrounded by coyotes.

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The agenda for the next morning was to explore Skyline Drive and find a new spot to hike. As we entered Skyline Drive I purchased an annual pass. Shenandoah National Park is one of my favorite places and I happily support it.

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Hawksbill Mountain is the highest peak in the entire park. The hike to it, even when taking the longer loop, is only about three miles, with a moderate elevation gain enough to get your heart pumping. With a long drive back home still ahead of us, this looked like a great way to get a little exercise and not keep us out all day.

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The overlooks (there are four) along the way are spectacular. And photos are a must at the highest point in Shenandoah National Park.

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Coming home from camping trips with my Dad as a kid, we always stopped at Whitey’s, a North Arlington, VA mainstay with a big sign out front that read: EAT. It was just a few miles from home, but my Dad always stopped there no matter the time of day or night. He would have a Budweiser in one of those thick, heavy, frosted mugs, and I’d have an identical mug of A&W root beer. We would order burgers. Back in the day, Whitey himself was sometimes there in the last booth along the wall, under the deer mount with Christmas lights on the antlers. My Dad would pretend to calculate how much grief my Mom would give him for keeping me out late on a school night, then order us another round. We would, each in our own way, embrace those little extensions of our weekend. Done with fishing and camping and canoeing and sunburn and mosquito bites, done with cleaning and loading and securing and double checking it all, but not quite ready to be home. It’s there, it’s close. But not yet. On this camping trip, the role of Whitey’s was played by Shawn’s Smokehouse BBQ in Culpeper. This time my mug was filled with Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager, and while I ate every bite of my pulled pork sandwich, the mac and cheese was split three ways.

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But delaying the trip home doesn’t mean you don’t like home. It just means you found something special while you were away, even for just a day. And if you take the time to reflect on it a little more, maybe you’ll remember it better. Or bring a bit of what you found home with you. So we ate slowly, savoring the last morsels of our first camping trip together. And when the time was right we headed north, with full bellies, full hearts, and all the windows down.

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Virginia’s Threatened Wood Turtle

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I had never seen a wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) before. Which is not all that surprising, even given my time spent in the woods. In Virginia, the wood turtle is a threatened species. It has been assigned the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan rating of Tier 1 — Critical Conservation Need, which means it faces “an extremely high risk of extinction or extirpation. Populations of these species are at critically low levels, facing immediate threat(s), or occur within an extremely limited range. Intense and immediate management action is needed.

My friend, naturalist Brian Balik has seen a few over the years, and knew of their decline in Virginia. So when he recently happened across two wood turtles in the same location in Northern Virginia, at first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Spotting a threatened wood turtle ranks as a top experience in my life as a naturalist,” Brian said. “It’s something I am definitely not taking for granted, especially living in an area where there are very few of them.”

He took some photos of that first wood turtle and kept hiking, only to find another less than 100 yards away. So knowing there were at least two in the area, we set out a couple weeks later to hopefully re-find them so I could get some photographs. I was less confident than Balik, as I have a history of not being able to find things, but lo and behold, after hiking a few miles adjacent to a creek bed, Brian called out. “Turtle!” I couldn’t believe he had found one again! It was an extremely special sighting.

Just how rare is the wood turtle in Virginia? I contacted J.D. Kleopfer, a Herpetologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who was excited about the find. “Not too many woodies left in that part of the world,” he said. “So any observations are critical.”

The turtle measured around eight inches long, was gentle and even a little curious. We spent a little time observing and photographing this affable little creature who cooperated for quite a while before deciding to wander off in search of lunch, privacy or both. But we were happy with the encounter and the photos we captured, so we left her and continued exploring, spotting some toads, a beautiful skink and even a yellow jacket nest along the way. (Balik is also better at finding yellow jackets than I am.)

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I shared my photos with Ellery Ruther, Lead Field Technician of Virginia Working Landscapes for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who graciously provided some information about the turtle we encountered. “At first glance, I thought this animal was a small female,” she said. “But after counting the annuli (rings on the shell) to estimate age, it looks like the turtle is a juvenile around 8 years old. Wood turtles don’t reach maturity until around 10-15 years of age.” They can live up to 60 years.

We did not closely examine our sample turtle (nor would I have known what to look for), but Ruther explains that the best way to tell sex would be to look at the bottom of the shell. “Males have concavity, and females are flat,” Ruther said. “Otherwise, females generally have smaller heads, smaller front claws, and smaller tails than males do.”

As with many threatened species, urban and agricultural development have been among the biggest contributors to wood turtle decline. “Wood turtles are semi-aquatic, so they rely on both terrestrial and aquatic environments, can occupy relatively large home ranges, and often move between watersheds,” Ruther said. “All of which makes them very sensitive to development.” In addition, these factors lead to increased predator encounters, mortality crossing roads and, perhaps most disturbingly, accessibility for poachers.

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Kory Steele, President of the Virginia Herpetological Society, warns the public about removing animals from the wild. Once he was brought a wood turtle that was picked up on the road by someone vacationing in their range and brought home. He discovered it was a gravid female. “One of the important individuals in that population had been removed,” Steele said. “It emphasizes that turtles should NOT be picked out of the wild for pets.”

And it’s not just rare and threatened turtles that are put at risk by poaching. “Box turtles in particular are taking a big hit because of removal for pets,” Steele said. “Most box turtles at rescues are unwanted pets that were originally wild.”

If you happen to come across a rare or threatened specimen like Virginia’s wood turtle, Balik recommends taking a few photos and reporting the sighting to VDGIF. “Or if you are in a park land, report the sighting to park staff,” he said. “Keep in mind exactly where you are, nearby water bodies, road intersections, date, time and a photo.”

So please just enjoy Virginia’s precious wildlife where you find it. As the old maxim goes, “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”

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For a list of Virginia’s special legal status species click here.
To learn about all the turtles native to Virginia, visit the Virginia Herpetological Society web site here.
To check out Brian Balik’s blog, A Case of Wildlife Fever, click here.
For the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, click here.


Shenandoah Brookies: Cracking the Code

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Fly fishing for brook trout in the Shenandoah National Park is unlike any other type of fishing I have ever attempted. Throwing small flies at small fish in small water with a small rod can be frustrating. Casting is a challenge when the pool you’re fishing is so small you don’t have enough fly line out to adequately load the rod. And whipping a leader with a dry fly at the end of it back and forth trying to propel it forward is like pushing a rope. I’ve had a good day fishing SNP before, although really just the one. But I love the park, and wanted to figure out how to fish this water. I needed professional help.

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As luck would have it, I am friends with a lot of great professional fly fishing guides, among them Kiki Galvin of Ms. Guided Flyfishing. Kiki enjoys great success fishing the waters of SNP, so I asked her for help. I also ran into my friend Tom Sadler who guides with Mossy Creek Fly Fishing. Tom is extremely familiar with the streams I like to fish inside the park, and he echoed a lot of the things Kiki had shared. My good friend Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters advised me on fly selection too. But fly fishing instruction is a lot like any other type of learning — at some point you have to actually do it, and do it with some success, before it registers.

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For instance, Tom and I sat together at an outdoor writers event, at a round table that seats eight. He told me he throws flies in pools the size of that table. Now, people can tell you this till they’re blue in the face, but trust me: Until you start pulling fish out of table-sized pools, you simply can’t believe those pools are worth fishing. And once things start clicking, all of a sudden you look at a mile long stretch of the Rapidan, or the Upper Rose, or Cedar Run, and you realize there are literally hundreds of pools and pockets that can and do hold fish.

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I spent the weekend at Rose River Farm. The luxury rental cabins there are just minutes away from all three of the rivers I mentioned above. It is the perfect ‘home base’ to hit several streams in a weekend or even a single day. So, armed with new knowledge of reading water, fly selection and fishing techniques, I hit the park with high hopes. Kiki told me to throw a dry fly even if I don’t see them rising. It was early morning, the water was still cold, I saw no rises. I tied on a dry fly — a size 16 parachute adams — but still didn’t fully trust any of this, so I tied a pheasant tail nymph dropper below the adams. I assumed if there were any takers that morning, they would hit the nymph. But on my third cast, in a pool I swore I could see every inch of and seemed to hold no fish, out of nowhere a brilliant flash of gold and orange swirled on that adams. A gentle tug on my Scott 3-weight and the hook was set in the corner of his mouth. After briefly exchanging pleasantries he returned my fly and I slipped the fish back into the cool, clear water, where he promptly disappeared. How such a flamboyantly colored fish can be so well camouflaged, I do not know.

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And that’s how it went. Brook trout kept coming after my fly. Standing alongside a pool, high sticking and reaching to the far side of the current, keeping the fly line and even the leader out of the water to reduce drag, they ate that adams. Standing at the bottom of the pool and fishing up to tiny pockets alongside the water rushing in at the head of the pool, with a “drift” lasting only a second or two before the fly gets sucked under, they ate that adams. Fishing nymph droppers in bigger, deeper pools where I still didn’t trust that the little tykes would come all the way up from the bottom, they came all the way up to eat that adams.

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I mentioned I’ve had a good day before fishing the park. But this was different. I will have bad days again, that is certain. But as I hiked along these waters, tossing flies in pockets of water I would have walked right by a week ago, my trust in what I was doing grew with each catch. The formula for success with fly fishing is a moving target. The flies will change with the seasons, maybe terrestrials in the summer, stone flies in the winter. They may change day to day, or hour to hour. Maybe smaller flies, maybe larger, maybe 6X tippet instead of 5, maybe evening instead of morning. As I continued to catch fish, tending to find them in similar environments within the pool, I could readily recognize those conditions in the next pool, and the next. Every pool is unique, with different dynamics in the current, depth, shape and size. But I began fishing with something I had never fished with before on these mountain streams: Confidence. And that’s what made this weekend’s success more meaningful than a single, right place right time banner day at a single pool.

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That’s not to say I have it all figured out and that these fish are easy. They are equal parts finicky and aggressive. They are lightning fast and don’t like to sit still when they’re caught. They are slippery as hell and can spin around in a net so fast they’ll make a bird’s nest out of your leader in the time it takes you to wet your hands to handle them. And once the hook is free, they don’t much care for sticking around to have their picture taken. They will make you drive on roads so bad your fitbit will register a thousand steps just from having your hand on the steering wheel. They will make you hike for miles through thorns in waders and boots. They will make you buy a new fly rod just for them. But then one day you will find yourself in the woods. You will push through the curtain of trees and the muffled, distant sound of rushing water that has accompanied you on your hike will become suddenly crisp and loud. You will step into the water and know that you are sharing that space with one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. As your fly dances in the current, you will stare at it with all your might. And when that thing of beauty darts up from the bottom, breaks the surface and takes that fly — that fly you brought so far to place exactly there exactly then — thoughts of effort and past frustrations and the ones that got away will all be washed downstream.

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Wildlife Capture, Restraint, Handling, and Transport: An Online Course from the Wildlife Center of Virginia

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The Wildlife Center of Virginia is offering an opportunity to learn about wildlife capture, restraint, handling and transport through an online course. Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors may some day encounter wildlife in need of assistance. The two-hour course will include photos and video of appropriate capture and restraint techniques of species that are commonly seen in wildlife rehabilitation, and will provide valuable information for those wishing to become permitted wildlife rehabilitators, or those (like me) who simply want to be prepared to help an injured wild animal in need.

“The Wildlife Center always needs rescue and transport volunteers,” says Amanda Nicholson, the Center’s Director of Outreach. “This course will lay the foundation of capture and restraint basics to keep both rescuer and animal safe.”

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE OR TO REGISTER. Please share this with your outdoor friends and facebook groups!

Date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Location: Online!
Time: 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Eastern
Cost: $20

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Photos courtesy of The Wildlife Center of Virginia.


Antlers, Birds and Exercise

It was a fantastic day to get out and enjoy a sunny day romping in the woods with Team Orange. We all needed the exercise, and I figured maybe we’d get lucky and find an antler along the way. Exercise was the main goal, though, as I’ve become increasingly skeptical that I will ever find another antler. So we headed to a friend’s property and hit the trail.

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We weren’t ten minutes into our hike when my “bird dogs” kicked up what I thought at first was a ruffed grouse along the trail. The thing made a huge racket and startled all of us. This happened a few more times, and when they kicked up one in tight cover and the bird had nowhere to go but straight at my face, I realized it was a woodcock. I was sure because I could very clearly see the distinctive beak as it nearly speared me in the forehead. Later we came across a scene where something had enjoyed a meal of a bird. There were a lot of these striped feathers in the debris field. I don’t know if these belong to a woodcock or not, but the only other birds I saw in those woods today were little songbirds and pileated woodpeckers. You can see a couple of the feathers at Winnie’s feet below.

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Here’s a better look, but when the sun hit these the white parts were brilliant white…

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We got through the woods and started following deer trails and bed areas in tall grass. Both my dogs walked over this little antler before it came into view, and I couldn’t even get them excited about it once I found it. But I was plenty excited! This is actually the first fresh shed I’ve ever found. My few previous finds have been at least a year old. So this little guy is special. I love picking up an antler, knowing I’m the first human to ever touch it.

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So let me get you up to speed: My dogs are as worthless at finding antlers as they are at finding birds. It’s a good thing they are extraordinarily fine company. Finn did find this feather, which I think came from a wild turkey.

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While it was a very windy day, the sun was warm and we were covering a lot of ground. So the dogs were psyched to take a swim break in the pond.

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I happened upon another, larger antler, one that my dogs actually stepped on as they passed it. A really cool find.

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You may have noticed from the turkey feather photo that I’ve been working on perfecting the technique of focusing the camera so the background is crystal clear, but the central object in the foreground has a nice, soft, blurred focus applied to it. It’s tricky to get right, but I’ve gotten very good at it.

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So two nice antler finds, lots of exercise and fresh air, and we all had a great time.

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The fitbit showed why I was draggin’ ass up the last few hills back to the truck. Total distance for the day was eight hilly miles.

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And so it was a day filled with life’s simple pleasures. A place to run. An antler here and there. Good company. That burn in the legs, that signal from your body that it appreciates the effort you put in today. And a sunny day warm enough to roll down the windows, turn up the music, and just breathe it all in.

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My Typical Antler Shed Hunting Experience

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Stupid branchlers.


Bear Tracks

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My friend, naturalist and outdoorsman Brian Balik, called me today to come along as he had a lead on some bear activity. It was fun to track this bear, to see how he meandered through the woods which were, at times, dense with brush. We were a day behind him, so I don’t think there was a real chance we’d encounter him, but it was fun. I’m no expert, but this seemed like not a small bear. Hind print measured almost nine inches from heel to the tip of the claws. The snow was perfect for capturing detailed impressions. The last several weeks of this godforsaken winter have ranged from irritating to downright dangerous. But today’s outing made me think I should make the effort to get out into the woods after a snow. There are so many tracks, each just waiting to tell a little part of a big story.

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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.


Big Bears, Small Snakes, Dumb Luck

The rain slowed to a stop as I waited in the car at the entrance to Shenandoah National Park. With dense humidity hanging in the air, I put my camera and tripod on my shoulder and started walking. Just minutes later, it appeared on the trail about thirty yards ahead of me. A black bear, massive, silent as a shadow on the freshly drenched path, crossed the trail quickly and without looking toward me. My heart quickened as he slipped through the brush and down a bank. I had seen one in the wild only once before, in western Montana, from the cab of a pickup truck. That was exciting, but being alone, sharing the trail, the woods with this animal was absolutely exhilarating. I had to get a closer look. I heard branches snap well away from the trail so I hurried to the spot where he entered the woods.

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I could barely make out his shadowy black form below, blocked by the rich, green canopy. With a wide angle lens set up on my Nikon in anticipation of some waterfalls I was hoping to photograph, I reached for my iPhone 5S instead. As he walked along, I stepped sideways along the ridge, hoping for an opening in the foliage. I snapped a few photos of nothing, afraid to go home empty handed from the encounter, then I saw him. And I saw that he had been watching me. I held the phone out in the general direction of the bear, but the moment already felt fleeting, I didn’t want to take my eyes off him so I just sort of blindly recorded. We watched each other for a second, then he turned and ambled across the stream. I apologize for the poor video, but click on the photo below to see the last few seconds of a moment I’ll never forget. The photo is a capture of the first frame of video. You might be able to make out the shape of the bear’s head as he looks at me.

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It was several minutes before I moved from that spot. I just wanted to soak it all in, make sure I remembered everything I could about the encounter. But the falls were calling me, so I continued down the path toward the sound of the rushing water. The woods were beautiful after the rain, and the mossy rocks glowed a rich green.

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Not too far off the trail, a hundred yards or so at the point I went in, is the Upper Rose River. My recent photography workshop with Martin Radigan, Randall Sanger and Todd Williams had me thinking of ways and places to practice some of the techniques I learned. I spent a lot of time here trying different angles and vantage points, but I think this is my favorite.

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Having captured what I wanted from that spot, I moved upstream in search of interesting scenes to photograph.

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While looking for a view on which to train my camera lens, I kind of forgot that climbing over slick rocks with an expensive camera is not the only danger in the woods. I foolishly let my guard down, which is easy to do in any beautiful location. By the time I saw this Timber Rattler, my ankle was already tauntingly close to his head. I backed away and sat down on a rock (after inspecting it first!) and watched him for a while until my heart rate returned to normal. Can you spot him in this wide angle shot? Look left center. For a couple seconds, we shared that rock he’s resting on. I am most appreciative that he allowed me to change my mind without penalty.

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Have you ever almost been in a bad car accident? You might have experienced that post-event adrenaline rush when you’re thinking, “Man, I almost did something really stupid and costly right there.” That’s how I felt about almost kicking a rattlesnake, not watching my feet because I’m obsessing about photographing something. I was really quite lucky. Here is a closer look at the beautiful Crotalus horridus. I enjoyed observing him for a while, though he didn’t do much. If he rattled I never heard it, but we were right next to that rushing water.

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So in two really exciting experiences in one short visit to the park, I learned a few things. First, while I was there to shoot landscapes, I don’t think I’ll ever enter the woods with my camera again without a longer lens attached just in case I have the opportunity to photograph something interesting. Or venomous. Second, look down. Not just for safety, but it never occurred to me to look down after the bear sighting and take photos of his tracks in the fresh mud. Opportunity missed. And third, I realized that I don’t really know what to do when I encounter a bear or a venomous snake. So, let’s talk to some experts!

Ed Clark, President and Founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, knows more about bears than I know about anything. He recommends not freaking out. “When encountering a bear in the wild, the first thing to do is to remain calm,” he says. “In the overwhelming majority of such encounters, as soon as the bear sees you, it will flee. Some may move a bit closer to get a sniff of your scent, or simply out of curiosity, but unless you are presenting an overt threat to the bear or to its young, there is little to fear.”

In my vast experience with bears in the wild, consisting of about four minutes, it always did seem that my bear was moving away, that it was going to be harder to keep him close enough for a photo than to keep him away. But if they don’t retreat immediately, “Clapping your hands, making noise, shouting, banging a pot, or even throwing sticks or rocks in the direction of the bear will typically cause it to flee,” Ed continues. “In the event that you have food or some other item of great interest to the bear, the bear may not leave the area entirely. Reduce such attraction by storing food properly, cleaning up campsites, and disposing of food waste in appropriate ways.”

I extend my thanks to Ed Clark, a very busy man, for contributing to this post. For more information on Virginia’s black bears, check out the VDGIF web page, Living with Black Bears in Virginia, and the video of the same name on Youtube here.

Kory Steele, President of the Virginia Herpetological Society, generously answered my questions about venomous snakes in the wild. First, know your snakes. “We routinely see animals that don’t even resemble copperheads being labeled as such. Also, a lot of our native snakes will shake their tail when in fear for their life, and people tend to solely use this trait for saying they found a rattlesnake. People also claim they see cottonmouths in the Northern Va area when it is actually a Northern Watersnake. Cottonmouths are not found any further north than Hopewell.” I have personally seen non venomous snakes shake their tail, and I have seem them mistaken for venomous snakes. There is lots of good information on the VHS web site, please go there to learn more if you spend a lot of time in the Virginia outdoors.

As for avoiding dangerous snakes, common sense goes a long way. “If one were in the range of rattlesnakes the only practical advice for avoiding them is to not put your hands or feet where you can see what is there first. Stepping over a log? Look on the backside first. Rolling some riprap to weed-eat around it? Don’t even think about it unless you look,” Kory said. “Having sufficient illumination is a requirement,” he added. “Most people bitten by copperheads seem to be bitten when they are walking around at night.”

If as in my case, common sense is not available, and you aren’t as lucky as I was and are bitten, the best course of action is to get to a hospital. “Do not not cut, suck, or shock the bite,” Kory said. “Stay calm and try to immobilize the limb if possible.” He adds that dogs seem to have a degree of natural resistance to snakes, but I might add that a great way to avoid your dog getting bitten is to keep them on a leash while hiking, and keep your eyes open for hazards of all kinds.

“Regardless,” Kory concludes, “A fear of snakes is generally irrational. Eight to fifteen people die every year in the US from snakebites, and most of those are in the southwest US. I am not aware of any unprovoked snakebite fatalities in Va in the last hundred years. Provoked would be like the man in Chesapeake that was envenomated while actually trying to kill the snake. You don’t get bitten by leaving the snake alone.”

Thanks to Kory Steele for illuminating a topic that will be on my mind a little bit more as I continue to explore and enjoy the woods and parks that the great state of Virginia has to offer.

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Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia

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I have been looking forward to spending some time in the highlands of West Virginia, a place I know and love from a long time ago. Photographers Martin Radigan and Randall Sangar gave a landscape photography workshop there, and it was the perfect place to learn how to better capture some of the incredibly beautiful scenery in the area. I had a great time, learned much and made some new friends in the process. I can’t wait to practice what I learned, trying out new techniques on some special places close to home. But, late nights and early sunrise shoots have made for both a rewarding and exhausting weekend. So forgive the lack of commentary, I am hoping for the most part the photos speak for themselves. My shutter snapped over a thousand times between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. The image above is my favorite of the weekend, and is in the running for my all time favorite. Thank you Martin, Randall and Todd Williams who was there helping out and offering his expertise as well.

From Friday night, Lindy Point. Cool, foggy sky, but the fog built until sunset was obscured. Great spot, though.

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The next set of images are all from a sunrise shoot at the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in the Monongahela National Forest. I have visited this place before, decades ago, in foul weather and in the middle of the day. As is the case with most experiences of my youth, it was underappreciated at the time.

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While we were shooting at Elakala Falls, pictured in the first image, a young couple waded over to pose in front of the falls. I snapped a few shots, hurrying to change from the long exposures I was just shooting to try to get a decent shot. I rarely include people in my photos, but this image of Frank and Olivia is among my very favorite people photos. Although it might be impossible to take a bad photo of Elakala Falls or Olivia, so math was on my side here.

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Another shot of these beautiful falls from farther downstream. What an amazing place.

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I don’t recall the name of these falls. But shooting waterfalls is a lot of fun!

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This is Blackwater Falls, over sixty feet high and quite a sight to behold!

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Our night photo session was interrupted by some heavy fog, but it was a blast experimenting as a group with different shots. I’m fond of this one, the twilight sky reflecting in a patch of lake before the fog rolled in.

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My new friend Risha carries her camera and tripod through the fog.

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I hope you enjoyed the photos from this great weekend workshop. I have a LOT to practice and work on, but I’m as enthused and excited about my photography as I’ve been in a long time, so stay tuned!


Sweet Sixteen

My wife Sandy and I don’t go away together very often. We tend to take trips separately so one of us can stay home to tend to the zoo. So she goes to Rolex, and I go fishing. But for our sixteenth anniversary this past weekend, I arranged a short getaway to Solomons Island, MD, a great place I’ve gotten to know from a couple recent trips. Just a bit over two hours from home, it’s a perfect spot for an overnight trip. I’ll get to the rest of the photo tour in a bit, but first I want to say a little bit about this first photograph.

I love this portrait of my wife. Yes it just shows her hand, but it shows so much about her. We hiked along the trail at Calvert Cliffs State Park. The path was riddled with inchworms hanging down from branches high above the trail. From a distance we must have looked comical, dodging invisible obstacles as we walked. Some of the little guys, though, inevitably ended up as passengers. Sandy found this one on her shirt and observed him for a while. Then she felt bad that she had broken his silk line to the tree above, and wanted to replace him somewhere out of harm’s way. I almost missed the moment, but got the camera up just in time to capture this act of tenderness. This is the essence of the woman I love, I thought as she waited for the inchworm to move to that leaf like it was his idea. I hope you enjoy the rest of my favorite photos from our special weekend.

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We didn’t see any beavers, but they certainly live here!

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We both think this is a Northern Water Snake.

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Skink, I think.

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Okay there is a lot going on here. First and foremost, that sewer cap with goo dripping off it is an enormous snapping turtle. Follow that same log to the left and you’ll see another turtle, maybe a painted turtle? And then there’s the one in the foreground, can you see his back legs? He is actually moving so fast his legs are flying out behind him!

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I didn’t have a long enough lens to capture many of the great birds we saw, but this trail is a birdwatcher’s paradise! We must have seen dozens of species, including a few we had never seen before.

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I love these red headed woodpeckers! This isn’t the first time I’ve seen them, but we definitely do not get these at home. Very cool sighting, and I loved capturing two together on this log, despite the technical problems with this photo.

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Calvert Cliffs. We walked this beach looking for sharks teeth. No luck, although we did find some cool little fossils. But even though fossil hunting is the focal point of the park, we were both anxious to hit the trail back up and find more live critters!

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These two fly catching birds were having a pretty serious discussion.

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Trail closed. Shutter open. Oddly I only took one photo of this scene, but I like it.

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An example of the well maintained trails at Calvert Cliffs State Park.

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This is the view from my favorite hotel room in the east. The Holiday Inn Solomons Conference Center and Marina is a great property, conveniently located near anything you want to see at Solomons.

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And being a marina, you can have a boat pick you up right at your hotel and take you fishing! This is Captain Robbie, who showed us a great time on the water.

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Early on we spotted this very unusual nesting spot for a Canada Goose. Robbie said in 50 years on that water he had never seen a goose nest up high like that.

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Lots of beautiful Osprey around. This one seems to only have one foot.

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Salt Life.

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I absolutely love being on a boat. The fishing was slow but we didn’t care. I find it extremely relaxing to just watch the water go by.

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Speaking of relaxing, Sandy got comfortable while she was waiting for a fish to hit one of the trolling lines Robbie put out.

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It was pretty exciting to hear that reel screaming after a few hours of settling into the hypnotic drone of the motor. And if you’re only going to catch one fish on your sixteenth anniversary, let it be this one. This striper (they all call ’em rockfish down there) weighed in at sixteen pounds. Pretty cool.

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After a day on the water we were in the mood for a big seafood dinner and a few cold adult beverages. Kingfishers delivered exactly what we came for. I love this restaurant. Really great food, fun and friendly staff. I will eat here every time I visit.

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All our friends who love Solomons told us, “You have to go to the Tiki Bar!” And they were all right. This place is amazing. It’s more of a compound than a bar, just a great place to hang out on a beautiful night.

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We fit a lot into the 36 hours or so we were away. And while we found a great getaway destination, we are always glad to get back home. Special thanks to our friends Chris and Anna, who allowed us not only to get away but to do so without worrying about our animals. And a huge thanks to Joyce Baki, Tourism Specialist for Calvert County, who helped with all our arrangements. Captain Robbie, Lilly the funny waitress at Kingfishers, the guy who bought us anniversary shots at the Tiki Bar, the friendly hotel staff, everyone was great. I do also want to mention if you visit the Calvert Cliffs State Park, say hello to Charlie or Pat of the Friends of Calvert Cliffs. They might be the two nicest people you’ll ever meet.

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Nose to Nose

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Hiking on a cold, blustery day, I kept my eyes to the ground, half to look for antler sheds, half to shield my eyes from a sustained, 30mph wind. I listened more than looked for my two dogs, who were running off leash ahead and behind me in about a twenty-yard radius. Not that I could hear much over the howling winds whipping the tall grass all around me.

But I did hear this. All day I’ve tried to replay it in my mind, but it’s hard to describe. A snort, maybe. Kind of a huff. An unquestionably animal, nasal sound. I stopped.

When I looked up, about fifteen yards up the slope from where I was standing, I saw Finn. He was absolutely motionless, broadside to me, and he was nose to nose with a large coyote.

They faced each other, statues. No more than a baseball’s diameter apart. In my mind I ran through my options. I’ll call him, and hope he comes and the yote doesn’t. Beyond that, I’m kind of out of ideas.

“Finn,” I called. They both turned their heads and looked straight at me. I somehow took a moment to compare them. The coyote seemed a bit taller than Finn, but he was on the uphill side, so truthfully they were probably the same height. Finn is a tall, lean 75 pounds. The coyote had thick fur around his head and neck, giving him at least the impression of being larger than Finn. I could read Finn’s body language, even though much of both their bodies, including the ever-important tails, were concealed by the tall grass. But Finn’s neck was erect, and his ears were up and slightly back. He seemed fine, maybe even playful, but just a bit apprehensive.

The coyote I couldn’t read at all. Ears fixed atop his head, body concealed, blank slate. Like reading a painting of a coyote. Not to mention my lack of experience with the animal – my previous closest coyote encounter was from about 200 yards away, at Yellowstone. This was new territory.

I just wanted to get some space between the two canines.

“Here,” I called, not overly forcefully. Without hesitation, and a bit to my surprise, Finn turned away from his new friend and trotted the fifteen yards back to me, ears up, tail wagging. The coyote watched him.

Eyes still on Wile E., I called for Winnie. Luckily, she was unaware of this entire transaction, and came when called from another direction. I watched the coyote.

He took a single step toward me and I felt utterly unprepared. I don’t know enough about these animals and their behavior. I don’t know the right thing to do if they show aggression, nor do I really know what their aggression necessarily looks like. My dogs were milling around my immediate area but I wanted them still and close. “Finn! Winnie! Heel! Now!

The firm commands, I presume, stopped the coyote in his tracks. He thought better of advancing, and turned around. A step into the grass and he was gone. Far too late I fumbled for my phone, held it up high and snapped a few photos, knowing there would be no sign of him in them. I praised my dogs, thankful this encounter was diffused without incident, and that it was Finn who encountered him, rather than Winnie. I’m not sure things would have gone as well if the roles were reversed.

Hiking back to the car (reducing that 20 yard dog radius to something closer to 10), I thought about the encounter. The noise of the wind likely resulted in Finn and the coyote surprising each other in the grass. I don’t think he knew we were there until he was snoot to snoot with what to him was probably the ugliest coyote he had ever seen. Finn likely viewed him as just a funny smelling dog who doesn’t wear a collar, but I really don’t know. He was absolutely disinterested in the coyote once he recalled to me. He never even glanced back over his shoulder as we left.

I, however, did.


The Allure of Antlers

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I am drawn to the aesthetics of deer antlers. To me they are beautiful, organic shapes that please the eye. But the bizarre biological mechanics behind them are fascinating, growing anew each year covered in blood-rich velvet that feeds them nutrients. Then the bone dies, the velvet is shed and the antlers remain. Status, attraction, competition are all a part of the purpose and function of those extensions of the skull of a whitetail buck. And then, in late winter, testosterone levels drop and the antlers are cast off.

And when they fall, there they sit. In corn fields, hedgerows, creek beds and lawns, in dense woods, briar patches and snow drifts. There they sit until critters, attracted to the minerals within, gnaw them away. Or until they rot. Or until a person, wandering through the woods with their eyes to the ground, finds it and picks it up.

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Searching for shed antlers is a fun way to get exercise. I have tried to train my dogs to seek them out, and they love running off leash for miles and miles, even if they aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for. But shed hunting can also be frustrating. The three of us have spent a lot of hours and miles and, until yesterday, had yet to find a single shed. But I’ll get back to that.

Wandering around the woods looking for food sources, buck rubs, trails, beds and other signs is a good way to learn about deer behavior. But logging a lot of miles with your eyes trained to the ground, you’d be surprised how many other little things you notice. First of all, anything bone colored gets your attention, no matter how small. During yesterday’s outing on a friend’s farm I spotted this jawbone from about ten yards away. My guess is raccoon, but I’m not positive.

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Some friends identified these feathers as coming from a Yellow-shafted Flicker. This beautiful bird became dinner for a fox or other predator.

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Winnie decided if she couldn’t find any antlers, she was going to commit to being the very best collector of burrs she could be. Here Finn admires her handiwork. He tried to help by pulling a few off her, but then he abandoned his efforts, mumbling something about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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After a few hours with no luck, this little four point skull caught my eye, half buried under some thorny briars. So I asked one of the more nimble members of Team Orange to fetch it for me. Winnie volunteered. Nothing special, the skull looks to be at least a year old and one side is discolored from being in the ground. But since it was starting to look like I might be walking out of the woods empty handed yet again, I brushed it off and took it with me.

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A while later, we were following a deer trail parallel to a tree line. I looked down and saw two antler points sticking up through some grass. I studied it from where I was, about five feet away, careful not to let myself get too excited about what might end up being another of the million curved corn stalks or antler-shaped sticks that had already faked me out. But there it was, finally. I brought the dogs over in hopes that they would see or smell it and catch on that this is what we were looking for. They did not.

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I picked it up, the first human hands to ever touch it. I examined it. Not fresh, probably from last year. Three points, one of the three chipped at the end, and a fourth brow tine that had broken off as well. It was neither large nor perfect, but it was beautiful. This year alone I had hiked probably twenty miles to get to this one antler shed. It was a huge relief. I wish I could say it was enough to just be outside even if I don’t find any, but it was starting to get to me that I couldn’t find at least one shed.

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I tried to get the dogs excited about it, hoping that knowing what they’re looking for would help them find more. Winnie posed with this long enough for a quick photo, but then went on her way, adding to her burr collection.

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So the final tally on the day: 1 skull, 1 shed, 5 miles, 5 hours, 90 burrs and 2 tired dogs.

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Those burrs, by the way? Winnie’s coat is an absolute magnet for them. If I didn’t have some of this Showsheen, I would have had to resort to clippers to get them out. It’s an equine product and I always keep a little bit in a spray bottle with my grooming supplies. Spray it on and the burrs comb right out. Stubborn clumps need a bit more attention, but it really works great.

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As for shed hunting, maybe I broke the ice with this one. Maybe I will get better with practice, learn where to look and how to see. Maybe Team Orange will catch on. But even if none of those things happen, the pursuit of antlers has gotten me out hiking, observing nature and exercising the dogs, in the midst of a brutal winter that is slow to relinquish its icy grip. And that is a very good thing.

Addendum: After I wrote this post, my friend Monica, whose great blog Shedding Suburbia should be added to your browser bookmarks, published this great post about a very special antler find and the lengths she had to go to just to get it home. I wanted to link it here for my readers. Enjoy!


2013, My Year in Photos

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From Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay to the hills of southwest Virginia, I logged a lot of miles in 2013, saw places I’ve never seen before and met many great people. I had my camera with me most of the time, and when I didn’t, my iPhone stepped in to capture the moment. Above is a shot of the sunrise over the Chesapeake aboard the Renegade. Below are the rest of my favorite shots of the year, starting with elk prints in Buchanan County, Virginia. Meeting the people involved in the elk reintroduction program in this part of the state was one of my highlights of the year.

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An eerie fog blocked the normally outstanding vistas on Sugarloaf Mountain, but the resulting mood was equally beautiful. Team Orange helped by posing cooperatively, as they usually do.

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One of several neat iPhone panoramas I took this year. This was at Rose River Farm, awash in golden morning sun. Team Orange, far left, enjoying a romp before a hike nearby.

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Speaking of iPhones, this may be my favorite iPhone photo I’ve ever taken. Hiking with a friend on the Loudoun Heights trail near Harpers Ferry, WV, the light gave us scenes like this all morning.

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We have a lot of deer around our property. But, common as they are, when they come close enough I can never resist getting the camera out and snapping a few photos. I liked the background in deep shadow here.

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A fun action shot of Finn chasing a chukar during a training session with my friend Anna.

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Petey is unlike any dog I’ve ever known, and is full of surprises. Here, when any of our other dogs would have run and barked and chased this young deer away, Petey decided to simply make friends.

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Friend and fishing guide Gary Burwell at Rose River Farm with the mist hanging heavy in the air.

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They do indeed. Old guys — and tractors — ruled at the antique tractor pull and show at Gladhill Tractor near Frederick, Maryland.

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The Wildlife Center of Virginia‘s Ed Clark released this stunning eagle along the banks of the Rappahannock River in front of a crowd of volunteers and spectators. It was a day I will not soon forget. I am holding back a special photo from this day for which I hope to find a print venue for publication. But I love this and many other shots from the event.

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A visit to our friends Mike and Carole Pivarnik of Tulip Hill Farm resulted in this heartwarming shot of two unlikely friends.

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Another shot from my trip to southwest Virginia, here Josie watches intently as her human partner, Conservation Police Officer Wes Billings, drives.

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Volunteer guide Kiki Galvin nets a nice trout caught by Aaron Greene Morse at the 7th Annual Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament at Rose River Farm.

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It’s hard to grow tired of catching these hard fighting, colorful sunfish, even when you are targeting bigger and stronger smallmouth. You will never hear me complain about a day with no smallies, but with dozens of these enthusiastic little fish.

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I spent a lot of time on the Potomac this year. On this occasion we were towing an extra kayak to a takeout ramp downstream. We made it just in time as a big storm was closing in. This is another iPhone photo.

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This photo warms my hear because of how I felt when I took it. I love spending time with my dogs, but to hike in a beautiful park and fly fish for native brook trout in their company was a wonderful experience. I had to capture it with a rare if unconventional selfie.

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Team Orange loves the snow, and we had a couple good ones in late 2013. Here Finn sports a snout full, a result of chasing snowballs as they disappear under the surface.

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This is not our friend August’s first appearance in my Photos of the Year. Two years ago this pic made the cut. It’s fun to watch him grow up so fast, here he entertains a lady friend.

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My special girl Winnie absolutely loves riding in the kayak. Here we are taking a break because she does not do much paddling. Propped against a rock in the middle of the Potomac River, I shot this iPhone panorama upstream (left) and down. The Native Watercraft Slayer pictured was a new addition this year, of course in Team Orange orange.

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I’ll be honest, I wish this photo was more in focus. But I’m including it because, while technically flawed, it is likely to hold up as the best photo I will ever take of a baby wild turkey running full speed away from a pursuing moth.

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Another technically flawed, blurry and grainy image, there’s still a lot to like about this hawk image. I took this through my windshield after chasing this bird off a deer carcass nearby.

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The native brook trout is so beautiful, it’s just about as fun to see one as to catch one. On this day in the Shenandoah National Park, I saw plenty. But none would be fooled by my fly.

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I hope you have enjoyed Dispatches from the Potomac this year, and had fun looking through my favorite images of 2013. You can view my favorite photos of 2012 here, and of 2011 here. And if you haven’t already signed up to receive a notification of new posts, I’d love it if you added your email in the ‘Follow this blog’ link on the top right of this page. Thanks again for stopping by from time to time. I hope your 2014 is filled with fun encounters with nature and lots of opportunities to take your own favorite photos of the year!


Fall Foliage, Brook Trout and the Company of Dogs

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The sun was just peeking over the mountains, flooding Rose River Farm with golden morning light when Team Orange and I passed by on our way to the Shenandoah National Park, so I stopped to take some photos there. Fall in Madison County, Virginia is special, and I was looking forward to immersing myself in it for a day.

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But we had a lot of hiking ahead of us, up Cedar Run and down White Oak Canyon is almost a nine mile loop, so we didn’t linger too long. Winnie, taking advantage of the missing barrier that usually keeps them in the back of the car, indicates she’s ready to hit the trail by jumping in the back and up to the driver’s seat. And sitting backwards because she is odd.

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When we arrived at the park, the lot was more full than I’ve ever seen it in the morning. There was a large group of hikers gathering at the trail head, so I flashed my annual park pass to the ranger and slipped ahead of the group. The lower elevation parts of the park are at peak fall foliage. In fact the most spectacular colors I’ve seen this year are along the road that leads to the park entrance near Syria. But on the trail you don’t spend much time at the lower elevations, climbing starts right away and continues for almost four miles.

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Sometimes I’ll rig a fly rod and carry it with me, trying different pools along the way for the beautiful native brook trout that live here. But it’s a rugged trail at times, and managing both dogs and the fly rod seemed problematic, so I packed in a rod, assembling it once we arrived at my favorite spot. Here, isolated from the busy trail, we set up for a few hours of fishing, playing and relaxing. Winnie approves. (Note to self: Why do I always pack in drinking water for the dogs when I hike along fresh, clean water?)

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I have a 3-Weight Scott fly rod that is perfect for this kind of fishing, but being a 2-piece rod it comes in a very long tube that’s hard to hike with. So I brought my 5-weight Hardy rod which packs more comfortably. I sat on a fallen tree, dogs by my side, putting the Hardy together and watching the pool. Brook trout were rising. I couldn’t see what they were eating, but I’m actually not much of a ‘match-the-hatch’ fisherman. My fly progression for brook trout goes like this: Parachute Adams > smaller Parachute Adams > Stimulator > Stimulator with a dropper > Wooly Bugger > End. But none of those worked, and the fish kept rising. I finally caught a natural with my hat, looks like a pale yellow stone fly (I have included a grey hair in the hat for scale). I had a few variations of a Yellow Sally in my fly box, tried them all. I got a few strikes but no hook sets. I wondered later if the softer set of the 3-weight rod would have made a difference on these fish, some of which were pretty small. Maybe even a subtle set with the 5-weight was just pulling the hook right out of their mouths.

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But here’s the thing. I went through many, many fly changes, even going back to some I had already tried. I’d give the fish a rest while I changed flies or had a snack of futzed with the camera, then go back and cast some more. I watched a hundred rises, including a quite large brookie come out from beneath a boulder and roll on a surface fly in the same spot a dozen times. I got strikes, maybe ten or so (none from the big fella), but no hook ups. At one point I was changing flies and I looked up to find Finn swimming around in the pool. But moments later the trout were feeding again.

It occurred to me that I don’t think I have ever been as patient as I was at this pool. I had every reason to be frustrated and discouraged, but there was a tranquility surrounding me, and I honestly think it was the dogs. I loved having them there, and it’s fun to watch their different personalities at work. Finn mostly watches me. He wants to be near me but quickly got bored of the fishing and found a spot with a good vantage point to just lie down. Winnie, on the other hand, was fascinated. She followed the fly as I cast it, and then followed it on the water. When fish would rise she would perk her head up and focus on that spot. After a while she started whimpering every time the big one rolled on the surface. It seems she sensed there was a connection between what I was trying to do and what those rising fish were doing. She didn’t know what was gonna happen, but it was going to be fun!

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But alas, nothing happened. I eventually put the rod away, with fish rising all around and swimming right up to the shallows, and decided to try to get some photos. I took probably forty pictures of these wild brook trout in their natural habitat, which is a pretty special experience. It’s okay that I wasn’t able to catch any, at least I captured a few.

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I found a can of Virginia-brewed Full Nelson in the bottom of my backpack while I was looking for a second fly box. Since it is against the law to have alcohol in the park, to be in full compliance I disposed of the beer. But before I did, I let the cool waters of Cedar Run chill it to optimal disposal temperature.

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After that most enjoyable few hours fishing and enjoying the company of my two best friends, it was time to hit the trail again. We could have gone back the way we came and shorten the hike by several miles, but I decided to push myself and continue up to do the originally planned loop. This morning my back, my right hip, left knee and both feet are questioning my judgment, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s a beautiful hike, though, and Team Orange had a blast. Here they spot a squirrel along the trail.

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I was relieved to get to the top of White Oak falls and began our descent. Even though every step of the descent is a foot-pounding, bone-jarring reminder that I am old and I’m carrying too much weight around. This panorama shows the lower falls at White Oak. Trout don’t live in ugly places. (I encourage readers to click on the panoramas in this post for a better view.)

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It was a very long day, and these great dogs deserve the sleep they fell into about a minute after getting in the car. I hope they aren’t nearly as sore as I am today.

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Civil Disobedience…

12…the only kind of dog disobedience I approve of.

After four straight days of miserable (albeit much needed) rain, I wasn’t about to spend this gorgeous day, a holiday, inside. So I loaded Team Orange in the car and we headed across the river to the C&O Canal Towpath for a long walk. The Towpath is a National Park, which means the park service has closed it due to the government temper tantrum. I mean shutdown. This closing, as is the case at similar locations all across the country, requires more effort and manpower than simply leaving it be. There is a boat ramp here and a parking lot which are gated and locked. People have every right to be on the river, but because you have to cross this strip of National Park to launch your boat, you can’t. I don’t want to get into a political discussion here, but an observant reader might be able to discern where I fall on this issue. And to recognize that previous sentence as sarcasm.

10The parking lot was closed of course, but they can’t prevent people from parking along unmarked public roads, and I was pleased to see many other despicable types parked nearby and partaking in such criminal activity as bicycling, walking, jogging and just all around recreating. Mostly, though, traffic on the path was light. I was surprised after so much rain to find the path had drained very well, there were really just a few puddles to avoid.

6All the photos in this post were taking with my iPhone 5S. I love the panorama option, and had the idea to sit the dogs on either side of me and try this shot.

1The canopy of trees along the Towpath is very well established, so when little windows of light shine through, you really take notice. I had to stop the dogs here and take a photo, I just loved the light on them with the deep shadow all around. I am very impressed with this 5S camera.

4I’ve lived in this area for eighteen years or so and have used this place countless times. I have jogged, hiked and walked with the dogs. I happened across a 5K once and joined in. I’ve launched kayaks from here, shuttled vehicles, stopped by to observe flood levels or to let the dogs swim. I’ve been there before dawn, I’ve been there at night and I’ve been there every hour in between. And you know what I have never seen there in almost two decades? A park ranger. But today one essential staffmember made a special trip to make sure nobody was out there enjoying themselves.

16But enjoy myself is what I did. It’s really just been a few days but for some reason it felt like it had been raining for weeks. It was great to be outdoors again. The temperature was cool and pleasant. The leaves were colorful, though rain had brought many of them down until they formed a soft, damp carpet of muted color on the gravel path. The dogs had a blast crisscrossing the path, pointing squirrels and posing for my silly pictures. And as the sun warmed the path an aroma filled the air – hard to describe but I’ll remember it for a long time: Moist earth, decaying leaves, a hint of wet dog, distant wood smoke and the unmistakeable, sweet smell of freedom.


Fun with the iPhone 5S Camera

6I hiked Loudoun Heights this morning with a friend who is a devourer of Civil War history. We’ve been wanting to do this hike for a long time, and today seemed like a perfect day for it. The weather was wonderful, nice and cool, but there was a dense fog blanketing the area. I hoped that by the time we reached the summit things would have cleared to reveal that beautiful vista overlooking the historic town of Harpers Ferry, WV. Unfortunately this was not to be, the fog didn’t burn off until about the time we got back to the car.

However, the mist in the woods provided some very special scenes that just begged to be photographed. While I did not have the Olympus camera I usually take along on my hikes, luckily I had my new iPhone 5S with me. The 5S, which boasts a larger sensor, larger pixels and a larger aperture than its predecessor, I think did a great job capturing this amazing scenes.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this phone is the only camera I’ll ever need. But as something I have on my person 100% of the time anyway, it is a fantastic option that is highly capable of capturing any scene you encounter that you want to take home with you.

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Happy Father’s Day

fathersdayMy kids took me hiking for Father’s Day! Okay, so my kids are orange and furry and had no say in the matter, but still…

Our friend Jason joined us for the 8+ mile loop in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia’s beautiful Madison County. I’ve done this loop in the opposite direction before, but today, thinking White Oak Canyon would get more crowded as the day went on, we went up the Canyon trail first. Then at the top of the main falls took the horse trail/fire road a couple miles where it then meets the Cedar Run trail. This brings us down the mountain and back to where we started. I’m not sure I like this direction, the White Oak is moderately steep the entire way, then the horse trail is mildly uphill but the two together combine for five uphill miles without so much as a fifty yard stretch of level ground. Then the Cedar Run trail, about three miles, is extremely steep, giving back all the elevation it took five miles to gain. So it’s a knee-jarring, foot pounding adventure coming down that way. Jason and I both decided it’s better to climb the steeper Cedar Run, get all the elevation out of the way in the first three miles, then have a pleasant five mile return trip down the horse trail and White Oak. Next time.

Every time I spend a full day with my dogs like this, I’m just so proud of them. They are well behaved, polite on the trail, and I really do enjoy their company. This was a fun hike for them because there were pools of cool, clean water to drink from and cool off in. Finn did his trademark move, lying down in the water and drinking, at every pool we encountered. On a long hike it’s a huge bonus not to have to carry drinking water for the dogs, too.

Drinking water aside, for the last three miles or so, Jason and I were singularly focused on the prospect of an ice cold beer at the end of the hike. And as you can see by the look of affection on my face, that beer was everything I imagined it would be. We stopped here at my friend’s nearby farm to bask in the glow of accomplishment and good friends — both two- and four-legged.

Thanks to Jason Louderback for these nice photos.

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The Appalachian Trail in Virginia: Miles 1 through 2

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAComing 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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.

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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!


Antler Shed Hunting Adventures

Sandy and I and all the dogs met up with our friends Anna (of AKG Inspiration) and Chris and their two dogs to run around the woods, get some exercise and hunt for antler sheds. This is not the type of activity that Sandy and her dogs would normally join us for, and while it was nice to have them along, I did get the distinct feeling that things would get interesting. So come along on a photo tour of our day…

The recent snow and quick melt made for muddy conditions, but Finn and all the other dogs had a blast running around in the muck.

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Wyatt came up big early, finding this T-Rex thigh bone. He was very proud, as well he should be.

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Finn: “Is this an antler?? I think I found an antler!” (He found several deer parts portable enough to bring back to me in varying stages of decay. I praised him for this, as I felt it was a short leap from finding and fetching leg bones to finding and fetching antler sheds.)

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Winnie: “Dude. You are an idiot. Antlers don’t have joints, and they don’t reek like buzzard breath. Which you now have.”

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There were a few creek crossings that got pretty interesting. Here Sandy crosses with Monkey, but Petey is no fan of water, so he wouldn’t cross here.

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Speaking of Petey, I didn’t get a lot of still photos of him today as he was on a leash with Sandy. But here is a video dramatization of Petey when he timidly tried to venture out a bit off leash.

Okay this happened. Luna and Winnie are watching a scene unfold.

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Here is that scene: We were walking along the margin of a wooded area and a dead cornfield, and we stopped to watch many, many deer in an adjacent field. They were running back and forth and one of them darted into the field we were in. She was maybe 150 yards away when some of the dogs saw her and took off. Finn was in the lead with Wyatt and Monkey not far behind. I had the e-collar on Finn but a firm “Here!” caused him to break off his chase and circle back. Wyatt also broke off his chase and came back. While I was congratulating myself for what a good boy Finn was, we realized – if a little slowly – that Monkey was not coming back without a deer. He had visions of himself, like a lion dragging a gazelle into a tree, just hauling that deer back to us as everyone would cheer and hold him up in the air and celebrate his bravery and prowess.

Perhaps he was imagining the cheering as he ran through the dried corn and dimly heard people shouting his name. These “cheers” only propelled him faster. Two hundred yards. The deer spots him. Three hundred. The deer is hauling ass now. Four hundred. Yelling is fruitless at this point (even more fruitless than it was when he was within ear shot). At one point, the white dot moving in the distance changed course, and Sandy said, “he’s coming back.” But I knew better. He had taken a bad line on the deer, not realizing that when things are a thousand yards away moving at forty miles an hour, you can’t run to where they are, you have to run to where they’re going to be. A quick thirty degree course correction and he was off again. Easily half a mile away now, a small dot in an enormous plot of land, it was hard to get a perception of the speed involved. I once watched the International Space Station make an arc across the night sky. A dim, white spot lazily crossing from horizon to horizon in a couple of minutes. This was like that. It doesn’t look like it’s going 17,000 miles an hour, but you know in your heart there’s no way you can catch it.

Still, Mommies do what Mommies do, so Mommie dropped some extra baggage and took off in a jog after the International Monkey Station. As he neared the treeline maybe three quarters of a mile away, several other deer spooked at the frenzy of activity and took off after the lead deer. To us in the distance, it just played out in surreal slow motion. The other deer, five or six, were trampling through the corn in a panic, basically right where Monkey was. I thought, well if he doesn’t get killed right here, he’ll have to be scared enough to turn back. Nope. He now had a half dozen new targets ahead of him, and he slipped into the treeline and vanished.

By this time Sandy had reached the general area and, I presume, was calling him. I can only imagine what I would have been yelling at that point, but we couldn’t tell what she was yelling, what with the vast distance involved. When she stopped running, I knew she had spotted him and he was on his way to her, and we all could relax enough to really laugh quite hard at the entire incident. So we waited, oh I don’t know, a half hour or so for Sandy and Monkey to return. Perhaps this photo gives an idea of how far that distant treeline is. Actually the treeline here is the short way across the field. To the left, where Monkey ran, the edge of the field is probably four times as distant.

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When he returned from running the scale-adjusted equivalent of me sprinting from our house in Virginia to Dayton, Ohio, the other dogs were quite interested in what happened. “Did you catch it? How close did you get?? Were you just FREAKING when those other deer almost ran you over??? You’re so BRAVE!!”

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While Monkey had his sights set on live deer, we still hadn’t found an antler shed. Despite covering, depending on which of our party you were talking about, between six and forty-five miles. Sandy finally kept us from getting skunked when she found this nice little one! Being a great steward of the environment, she returned it to the earth to let nature take its natural course. And by “being a great steward of the environment,” I mean, “Having shallow pockets and not really paying attention to stuff falling out of them.” But at least we got this photo of today’s find.

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Here is our team of shed hunters: Luna, Wyatt, Winnie, Finn and Petey. On the end there, doing things his own way as he always does, is Monkey, the dog with the biggest heart of all. He’ll sleep for two days, and deserve every minute. And as I watch his feet twitching in his sleep, and his mouth quivering just a bit, I’d like to think that in his dream, he gets that gazelle all the way up the tree.

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Common Bonds

IMG_0087From left to right: I met Matt many years ago when he showed up at a party at my house with a mutual acquaintance. He spotted a picture on our fridge of me with a Steelhead and we got to talking fly fishing. A few weeks later we were on a road trip together to upstate New York to fish for salmon and we remain great friends and fishing buddies. Harold, who runs the guide service Spring Creek Outfitters out of Western Maryland, was the first guide I ever fished with when I started fly fishing. Since then we have become friends through his generous work with Project Healing Waters. I first met Joel when a mutual online friend introduced us because Joel needed a fly fishing related logo design. We became fast friends, and his Missoula, Montana-based guide business Montana Troutaholics is an absolute must if you are planning a trip to that area to fish.

IMG_0025So myself and three friends I met because of fly fishing but who have never met each other, came together because of that shared passion for fly fishing at one of the best places for it, Rose River Farm.

IMG_0001The morning was fairly cold, and the fish were sluggish early on.

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But I was fishing with two of the best trout guides I know, so I was positive it was just a matter of time.

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In the afternoon, with just a hint of sun to warm the water a couple of degrees, things turned on and the fish became a lot more active.

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There was a little beer drinking going on as well, of course.

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Matt and Joel warming up by the grill before lunch.

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A hot lunch hit the spot after spending the cold morning in the water.

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Here’s Harold putting the bamboo to the test on a nice rainbow.

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And back you go into the Rose River.

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My biggest fish of the day.

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I think it’s safe to say the Rose was pretty clear!

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Joel always looks like he’s in a Simm’s ad or catalog cover.

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A full day of fishing behind us and more weekend adventures ahead for Joel and I, we all headed back to the wonderful luxury yurt-style cabin at Rose River Farm. More beer and many laughs went great with a few thick rib-eye steaks on the grill. A perfect end to a great day.

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Hanging around the fire pit was so much fun. There was weather coming in, but luckily it held off long enough.

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We were surprised the next morning to find a couple inches of fresh, wet snow on the ground!

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An unhurried, hearty breakfast started our day off right.

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I don’t drink coffee, but on this morning I could have used a cup or two!

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After breakfast, Joel and I headed into the Shenandoah National Park for some brook trout fishing and a vigorous hike. We stopped at a few pools along the way, but the fishing was pretty tough, quite possibly the result of the weather front that had just moved through.

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But Joel would not be discouraged! We tried many different flies to get the attention of these stubborn fish.

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Finally patience and skill paid off as Joel brought this little beauty to hand. Joel’s first native brookie, and also by far his farthest easterly fish caught in the U.S. So while not big, it was memorable.

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When we let this little guy go, we told him to tell all his friends that he was treated with care and respect and that the fly was delicious. But they didn’t get the message, this was the only fish of the day. I was psyched Joel got it though, and the company and great hike made for a fantastic day despite the fishing.

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This is my favorite photo of the day, and I encourage you to click on it to see it larger. Joel stepped off the path to try one more spot on the hike back, and I captured this cool panorama with my iPhone. Winter has its own brand of beauty, and while at first glance it can look pretty brown and dull outside, nature reveals wonderful, subtle colors in the winter. Sometimes we have to just remember to open our eyes and maybe look a little harder.

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The next day brought another opportunity to share with Joel, who has never been out this way, something that’s very special to me: A hike with Team Orange (my two Wirehaired Vizslas). I chose the more difficult trail at Maryland Heights, which has some neat Civil War history along the way.

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Another iPhone panorama from the summit, showing the historic town of Harper’s Ferry, WV, and the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.

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A mellow evening after a fun filled weekend was in order, beginning with a final beverage on the Platform.

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The sun sets on the last day of Joel’s visit. I’m so grateful to have my friends together for some fishing down at Rose River Farm, and for the chance to spend some more time with Joel, he and his wife Debbie have been such gracious hosts to me when I’ve visited out west.

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Everyone was a bit tired after three days of fishing, hiking and drinking. So some couch time was what we were in the mood for, and Finn wasn’t going to let his new hiking buddy get too far away.


Sugarloaf Mountain

4 (2)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.

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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…

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