The other day, for the first time, I noticed grey hair around Winnie’s eyes. It’s not that I never imagined her old, on the contrary in many ways she has always seemed old. But Winnie has seemed more youthful and has played more in the last year with Baby P and Monkey than she probably has her whole life. Our vet, who has known her since she was eight weeks old, recently told me she was the absolute picture of health and fitness, and at a perfect weight. So while the years are starting to stack up (she’ll turn eight this summer), it’s not that I’m worried about her. I guess I just never really expected the age of her body to ever catch up to that of her soul.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The overlooks (there are four) along the way are spectacular. And photos are a must at the highest point in Shenandoah National Park.
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.
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.
We drove hundreds of miles through the torrential rains of Hurricane Ike to an otherwise quiet corner of Western Illinois. Our destination: Seraphim Kennels, and an eight week old female Hungarian Wirehaired Vizsla with a yellow ribbon around her neck. On our return trip we joined the storm for a few more stops on its Ransack the Midwest Tour, dodging flooded highways and searching for hotels in towns with no electricity before we were finally able to put Ike in our rear view mirror somewhere in southern Ohio. Seraphim My Ride’s Here, or “Winnie,” was calm and quiet throughout the fairly tense ordeal of getting home. She didn’t want to pee in the rain — a preference she retains to this day. So I carried her to a grassy spot and held the umbrella over her until she did. Sandy snapped this photo of us returning from a flooded patch of lawn behind a gas station, and it remains one of my favorite photos of her.
Like a lot of photos, it has special meaning not just because of the image, but because it makes me remember how I felt at the time. I was nervous and excited, trying to process the huge responsibility I was undertaking while not entirely convinced I could even safely get back to Virginia through the storm. But as I held her close under an umbrella battered with rain that seemed to come down in streams rather than drops, I could feel her warmth and it calmed my nerves. She had just been taken away from the only people and dogs she ever knew, and was already far away with strange people in a strange car traveling through violent conditions, yet I sensed her trust in me. I don’t know if you have ever had anything trust you more than you trust yourself, but let me tell you, it’s a motivator.
Sixteen hundred nerve wracking miles later, we were home with our new addition. And every day since I have tried to earn the trust she gave me when she had no reason to. She was a good puppy and took to obedience training extremely well. Why, in a matter of just a couple weeks we took her to her first of our town’s Octoberfest celebrations. She might not remember them all, but she hasn’t missed one yet!
She spent some time in the field and has pointed, fetched and returned birds for me. But she does this because I ask her to, not because she likes it. She hates the gun, actually, so she is not a bird dog.
She earned her UKC championship at six months of age, but she only did it because I asked her to. She didn’t like being around a lot of other dogs, so she doesn’t have to do that anymore either.
No, from a very early age, and without a conscious decision, it just came to be that there was a separate set of rules for Winnie. Somehow, seemingly at birth, she had already earned the special treatment that is usually reserved for either that older dog who has proven himself in the field, or a dog who once saved your life. If all the dogs are sent outside on a hot summer day, Winnie stays in the air conditioning.
She hates the cold but loves the snow. She loves beer, lying on her side in cool grass, and toys with ropes attached.
She loves being around water but isn’t crazy about swimming. This makes her a wonderful kayaking companion, as she is quite content getting paddled around while she watches fish and birds and leaves floating in the river.
She’s content being alone. She’s always been an observer of things, and I’ve caught her doing it for long spans of time. I used to think she was just staring at nothing. But then I realized she’s doing what I do, she’s not looking at nothing. She’s looking at everything.
Which is one of many reasons she is my once in a lifetime dog. Neither of us minds being alone, but we genuinely enjoy each other’s company. And she’s easy to be around. She seems to sense when I need to sit in still silence, or to lean on her a bit, and she’s always there for playful, happy times too. If these things sound familiar, well, you’ve probably described your best friend too.
Happy 6th Birthday to Winnie. Whatever it is that made me deserve this dog, I haven’t done yet. But I’ll keep trying.
The moment the camera shutter closed on this image from the banks of the Rose River might just be when it all started.
My friend Douglas casts for trout as the sun sinks low in the November sky. A warm day. A cold beer. An azure blue sky reflected in water interrupted only by a series of circles reaching out to Douglas from its source: A dog.
It was there, and it was then, that I first observed my friend and his dog Enzo, a lanky young Spinone Italiano. I watched Enzo explore that farm, chasing birds and sniffing trails and running and running and running. I saw the freedom given him by Douglas to roam, and the discipline given him to faithfully return with a simple command. “Here.”
Faithful. This, I thought, is what I want.
Although my wife and I had moved to a rural area, we still lived in a house on a main road with a yard. We were surrounded by country, but not yet immersed in it. So it was just a fantasy, to have a dog that roamed the property, never too far to hear my call. But my next dog, while not a Spinone, did have a beard and bird hunting in her veins like Enzo. Over time, Winnie’s beard grew, but the bird hunting in her veins faded, and that’s alright. We did get that place in the country where dogs can run free, though.
Enzo went on to be a fixture at the farm, and in the life of my friend. They hunted together, fished together and traveled together. I was privileged to take a few long road trips with Douglas and Enzo, to hunt grouse and woodcock in the dense woods of Michigan and Maine. Enzo earned the sleep he soaked in on those return trips.
But the farm is where Enzo was truly at home. When Winnie was a puppy, Enzo showed her how to run off leash for the first time. When I added Finn a couple years later, Enzo showed him how to find a chukar at a nearby preserve. Finn and Enzo were two peas in a pod. Tall, dorky, sweet as molasses and just smelly enough one could convincingly blame the other. They napped in front of that big, hot, stone fireplace after a day of running like there’s no tomorrow.
And once in every life, there really is no tomorrow. And sometimes you never see it coming. It’s almost impossible to believe that Enzo is gone. That he has pointed his last bird, lapped up his last cool drink from the gin clear Rose. And it feels like I owe him something. And it feels like I owe my friend something too. The two of them showed me what that relationship between man and dog could be. My pair roams the property now, never too far they can’t be called in. They explore scent trails, kick up birds, point rabbits and roll in God knows what. And when I’m out mowing or trimming or repairing a fence or walking in the woods or fishing in my home river, they are by my side. And when I say “Here,” there they are. Faithful. Having dogs that have earned the freedom to roam off leash has been, well, I simply can’t overstate the peace and enjoyment it has brought me.
My heart aches for my friend. To me, Enzo has always been a part of Douglas, a part of Rose River Farm. And in a way he always will be. But he will also be a part of me and the life I have built with my dogs. I can’t ever repay a gift like that.
Rest in peace, Enzo. I hope where you are there are countless wild birds, endless cool mornings and open fields that stretch forever. And at the end, a warm fire by which to rest. Hunt hard, sleep deeply. There are no more commands, you’re already here.
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.
We didn’t see any beavers, but they certainly live here!
We both think this is a Northern Water Snake.
Skink, I think.
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!
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.
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.
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!
These two fly catching birds were having a pretty serious discussion.
Trail closed. Shutter open. Oddly I only took one photo of this scene, but I like it.
An example of the well maintained trails at Calvert Cliffs State Park.
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.
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.
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.
Lots of beautiful Osprey around. This one seems to only have one foot.
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.
Speaking of relaxing, Sandy got comfortable while she was waiting for a fish to hit one of the trolling lines Robbie put out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When the snow blankets the fields and woods and lawns, shadows have a blank canvas on which to paint. I am drawn to the shadows…shadows make me love the light.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A fun action shot of Finn chasing a chukar during a training session with my friend Anna.
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.
Friend and fishing guide Gary Burwell at Rose River Farm with the mist hanging heavy in the air.
They do indeed. Old guys — and tractors — ruled at the antique tractor pull and show at Gladhill Tractor near Frederick, Maryland.
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.
A visit to our friends Mike and Carole Pivarnik of Tulip Hill Farm resulted in this heartwarming shot of two unlikely friends.
Another shot from my trip to southwest Virginia, here Josie watches intently as her human partner, Conservation Police Officer Wes Billings, drives.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The bonfire crackled with new burning logs,
When I thought, “I should photograph all of the dogs!”
“Now, Petey! Now, Winnie! Now, Monkey and Finn!
The snow is delightful, let the antics begin!”
I found a great backdrop for our Christmas greeting,
So camera in hand, I called a Team meeting.
I gathered them under a snow covered pine,
But two had gone missing (the ones that aren’t mine).
“This will not do, I need four in this pic,
Perhaps crispy bacon would be just the trick!”
They assembled together, our four-legged crew,
But the formation made was a little askew.
I’d get three in place when the fourth looked away,
“Oh come on you guys won’t you do a sit stay?”
Just when I thought we’d be out here all night,
I noticed my wife looking on with delight.
“Do you want me to help?” she called out with a laugh,
“Very much so, I can only get half!”
When Mommy tried bribing with bacon in hand,
We still could sit three when the fourth one would stand.
Right when we both reached the end of our rope,
A moment unfolded that gave us some hope.
The orange dogs sat so that’s two out of four,
Then Petey joined in leaving only one more!
Attention spans stretched out as thin as can be,
This was our last chance we both would agree.
If we can get Monkey to sit for a treat,
We can accomplish this dazzling feat.
I made sure the camera was ready to go.
And ever so slowly his butt met the snow,
“Honey you need to move out of the frame,
To not get this now would be more than a shame!”
But get it we did, and we got it just right,
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
After a brief test run a week ago to make sure Finn was open to the idea, we went out for his maiden point-to-point voyage Sunday afternoon. I’ve had Winnie in the kayak with me before, but she’s 50 lbs. and Finn is 70 and a lot taller when he sits up. But as long as he didn’t make any sudden moves, the whole arrangement proved pretty comfortable.
But, no question about it, the best possible position for him to be in is lying down. He got pretty comfortable, although I forgot to bring the plugs to put in the scupper holes. So between my fat ass and his, we were a little back heavy and he had to deal with some water back there. He doesn’t mind this, he loves to lie down in the water in fact. But next time I’ll bring those scupper plugs and keep the back seat a bit drier for him.
So we left the safe confines of the boat launch area on the C&O Canal at Brunswick, MD, and ventured out into the main stem of the Potomac. The first thing we see are geese. I wouldn’t say this was unexpected, I see thousands of geese on the Potomac. But I kind of forgot that Finn would be encountering new things on the water in addition to just the flowing river. He moaned about these geese, some of whom crossed right in front of the boat (I did not have the camera for that because, truthfully, I was preparing for a Finn-induced capsizing). But an easy, “staaaaayyyyyy,” and he kept calm.
Once we encountered a few obstacles, ran through a couple areas of riffles, and got a few miles under our belt, it was time to find a lazy stretch of river, hang my feet over the side and share a cold beer with my boy. I am so proud of him!
After the beer break, a storm started building behind us. We were in sight of the takeout ramp but still had some paddling to do. Finn doesn’t like thunderstorms one bit, so maybe he was keeping an eye on the storm here. But facing the back of the boat proved to be I think the most comfortable orientation for him, and he just rested his chin on the back there.
We beat the storm back to the ramp and of course Finn made fast friends. I’ve certainly never had a dog that makes friends so easily, but everybody loves this boy. And, as I noticed at the festival down in Richmond, people kind of just want to put their hand on him.
The gentleman on the left was talking to me about fishing and asked if I had fished my way downstream. I told him no, this being Finn’s first trip I didn’t want any extra distractions. We were watching his friend fish off the side of the ramp as he caught a little smallmouth. He brought it over to us while he was taking the hook out and Finn just FREAKED OUT! He wanted that fish! I was holding Finn’s collar and the fisherman walked back to the water’s edge and tossed the bass back in, about fifteen feet away. We continued talking for a few minutes and, with Finn in a sit, I didn’t think twice about letting go of his collar. The instant I did he took off at full speed into the river right to where the fish was thrown in! I called him back and he did his upright, front legs splashing, barely making forward progress swim back to the ramp. One of the men said, “He’s not a very good swimmer.”
No, no he isn’t. Although he’s pretty good at dog paddling. He just prefers the kind with a boat.
The conditions were right. The day was hot, river was low and relatively clear but still cool, and I hadn’t spent quality time with my dogs, Team Orange, in too long. I knew they would enjoy romping in the river this evening, the first such outing this summer.
What I sometimes forget about dogs — maybe my dogs, probably all dogs — is their almost limitless capacity for joy. I’m not sure I have ever seen them happier than they were tonight, with bright eyes, wagging tails, curious exploration, barks of joy and irrepressible affection. Here Winnie has a blast digging up a stick. Simple pleasures.
As great as those Adult Swim moments are, though, this trip to the river was about the kids. They seem to love this water level, shallow enough to bound through it after a toy, but with spots deep enough to swim, too. Here Finn shakes off after returning the bumper.
Sandy got them this great bumper toy from Chuckit! that they just love. It’s easy to spot, floats high in the water and is soft in their mouth. Finn is much stronger (and taller, which helps) in shallower water where he can bound through it. Once they are swimming, they are both about equal. But Finn will stay and wait if Winnie hasn’t gotten one in a while, and let me throw it just for her to retrieve.
God I love this dog. This is one of my favorite things, the watching. Something either touched her foot or caught her eye and she stared at it like this for a minute or more, fascinated. What a lovable dork.
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.
I met former Miss Virginia Tara Wheeler through her involvement in Project Healing Waters. Tara, a proud supporter of our servicemen and women, has generously donated her time at the last few 2-Fly Tournaments serving as emcee. So when she got engaged to her fiance Jared, who she met while fishing, she thought the perfect place for an engagement photo shoot would be the beautiful Rose River Farm, Home Waters to Project Healing Waters and site of the annual 2-Fly.
When Tara asked me if I would shoot the photos, I was at once honored and terrified. “We really love your photography,” she said. To which I replied, “Um…have you noticed there are no people in my photographs?” I was well outside my comfort zone with this project, to say the least. But I agreed, and scouted some fun spots around the farm to shoot. On the day of the shoot, they brought with them a lot of love, energy and fun ideas.
I have the utmost respect for all those who do this for a living, and I do not purport to be a professional portrait photographer. But here are my favorite images from the day. Thank you Tara and Jared for trusting me with this important project, and congratulations on your engagement!
Today the dogs and I went for a nice hike at Sugarloaf Mountain. The hike is this one from Hiking Upward, about a seven mile loop. I love a loop hike, because it makes me do the whole thing. No shortcuts! Despite being the first car in the parking lot (almost a full hour after the gate opened at 8), by the time we got back to the car there were probably a hundred cars parked in the two lots and along the road. The trail started getting crowded toward the end, but if I had gotten there when the gates open (or on a weekday), I probably would have only seen a handful of fellow hikers.
It was extremely foggy early, and didn’t clear up much all day. But it was nice and unseasonably warm, and the diffused light helped me get a couple photos I’m really happy with. Even though I brought my little Olympus point and shoot, my go-to hiking/fishing/travel/whatever camera, these two shots were actually taken with my iPhone 4S. The photo above is one of my favorite pictures of ‘Team Orange.’ Boy do they love a hike! I predict all three of us will sleep well tonight.
REVISED…I wanted to get one of those canvas photo prints done of that top photo, but decided to Photoshop out the leashes first. Here is the updated photo…
This is my favorite photograph of my Mother. In it, she is not looking at the camera. She is not even aware of the camera. Her face is almost entirely hidden, in fact. But those who knew her well would be able to see the smile in her cheek. I’ve given this some thought, the photographing of people not as they look toward me, toward the interruption of a moment that is my camera, my attention. But how much more meaningful it can be to capture a person as they look out into their world. In this image, we are lucky enough to see the source of the smile: my father.
It’s easy for me to imagine the moment captured here. A couple of friends in the back, open road ahead, his car freshly tuned and purring (of this I am certain), driving to a picnic and toward a bright but unknown future. Sure, I know how the story ends, and I know it ends far sooner than they could have imagined. But it seems a worthwhile exercise to look through their eyes and just enjoy this moment with them. Young people in love on a warm day with the top down. This was a good moment. Who knows, maybe in difficult times ahead this instant came to mind and brought a smile.
But it’s this smile in the picture that intrigues me. It’s not for the camera, or at a family gathering, or amid small talk at the office water cooler. It’s a smile, pure as can be, at the man she’s about to marry, at the man with whom she will soon have children, at the man who is now watching the road. The smile isn’t even for him. It just is. And I almost feel guilty for spying on it.
My mother, who outlived my father by nearly thirty years, died five years ago today. A few years earlier, I had written something for her as a Mother’s Day gift. She called me, crying, and said it was the best gift I had ever given her. By the next time I visited, she had gotten it framed and it was hanging in her bedroom. So it meant a lot to both of us, and with Mother’s Day nearly upon us, I want to share it with you. What started as a gift, is now a tribute. I call it, “Flying.”
I recently held a hummingbird in my hand. He had accidentally flown into a window and fallen, unconscious, on the ground in front of a busy doorway. He looked like nothing, upside down, his white belly close to the color of the concrete beneath. But something made me look closer, and when I picked him up he moved a bit.
I moved him away from the human traffic, and sat on a nearby bench. Alive. Stunned, but with no visible injuries. His eyes opened, and I gave him the opportunity to fly from my open hand. He politely declined, and with an invisible gesture asked for a little more time to gather his wits. I assured him – by holding my hands in a way that he was protected and secure, but could leave if he chose to – that this was now the most important thing in my day, and if he needed all day he could have it.
So we sat there. Him clearing cobwebs and me just thinking, how lucky for me to have the opportunity to hold a hummingbird in my hands. How lucky for him that I came along.
My thoughts drifted back many, many years. Back to the house I grew up in, back to an injured bird in the gutter in front of that house, and back to my Mother. A shoebox, some paper towels, a lamp. It was exciting, I thought, to have part of the natural world sitting here in a box on the dining room table. I asked her how long before the bird would be better. She was a nurse, after all. Clearly she knew how to fix a bird.
I wanted to name it.
When she told me that she wasn’t confident the bird would get better (it wouldn’t), I remember instantly distancing myself emotionally. I felt like I had dodged a bullet by being moments away from deciding on a name.
My Mother, of course, saw instantly what I was doing and we had what stands now as my Earliest Remembered Meaningful Conversation. She asked, as a nurse, what would happen if she stopped caring about patients who were not getting better? Patients who were going to die? They needed her more than ever during those times.
I was young, I don’t recall how young. And I don’t recall the words she used to express and make me understand compassion. And Lord only knows how she made it be a part of me. But that’s how it is with these things. You can’t identify how your Mother makes you who you are, exactly. But you know that she did.
And so now, on Mother’s Day, I think about how at many other moments in my life my Mother taught me. Showed me. Shaped me. Held me, protected me, and gave me room to fly away. And I hope she knows that I noticed. That I remember. That the only thing I really forget is to thank her, and for that I am sorry.
She will stop her chores to watch with fascination the comings and goings of a cicada wasp in the barn. Or a frog in the yard. Or a family of deer. And her excitement over these miracles, these brushes with nature that most people never take the time to notice, is infectious. I look forward to sharing things with her. An eagle sighting. A hummingbird nest found in the woods. A beautiful moth. An odd insect. A storm cloud.
She loves dogs. And those who are lucky enough to win the lottery that is being her dogs are blessed with a profound, unending outpouring of affection that begins the moment they meet, and does not end. Ever. The spirits of dogs past are still and forever bathed in the warmth of her love for them.
She has a way with horses. Once, in the middle of the night, we awoke to the sound of our horses in distress. We went out to find that five horses from the property a few lots over had gotten loose, and were rummaging through the woods adjacent to our paddocks. The sound of five confused horses snapping limbs, snorting and crying out was of course quite disturbing to our horses, who responded by freaking the hell out. What happened next was truly remarkable. In the dark, surrounded by nine very agitated beasts and one very nervous husband, she orchestrated a horse/space/time management plan. Our horses were carefully but quickly calmed and gathered and put in the barn in a sequence that would cause the least anxiety to those who remained out. Then, in the woods, the mare who she presumed the others would follow was corralled and led through dense woods around to a gate. The others frightfully followed. All the while she gave me things to do and told me where to stand to be safe. Everyone got in and separated safely, and it was one of the most impressive displays of natural horsemanship I’ve ever seen.
Long ago I read somewhere that you know you’re with the right person when you each want the others’ dreams for them more than you want yours for yourself. When I see her riding, or grooming or preparing for a show, or when I hear her enthusiastically talking to a friend about some riding problem she had worked out, or when I see the horses come in from the front field to meet her at the barn in the morning, I know it’s true.
As for me, these days I think a lot about my life and who I am. Maybe it’s the recent reconnecting with people from my past, maybe it’s just age, but I look back. I don’t dwell, or try not to anyway, but I look back. And when I do, the most amazing thing comes into focus: the only time I have ever really been comfortable, confident, truly happy with who I am, is the time I’ve been with her.
She didn’t change who I am. But she loves the best of me, and I like to think she brings it out. My parents made me who I am, but she is the one who made it possible to find myself. I’m lucky to have found her. I love you.