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.
This past weekend I spent a day wandering around central Virginia, not far from a town called Undisclosed Location. I was taking pictures, fly fishing and just enjoying the beautiful early autumn weather. I did not have much success fishing, but took a few photos I liked and did very well in the enjoying the beautiful day department.
It’s hard not to feel good on the water when you’re carrying a wonderfully crafted bamboo rod made by Jerry Nonnemacher, and a beautiful new net from Brodin Nets. Early on when the fish weren’t biting, I set up a little product shoot.
I don’t mind when the fish aren’t biting, I really don’t. So I decided to leave the area and find another activity. As I was leaving, however, I stopped at one more spot and had a look in. Brown trout, just what I was after. I hiked down the embankment and set up to fish for a bit. Remember when I said I don’t mind when the fish aren’t biting? I may have meant that I don’t mind as long as I don’t see a monster trout just sitting there! The smaller trout here are probably 8-10 inchers. The one bruiser had to be pushing 20 inches. I wanted him. Bad. So I fished to him. Over the next couple hours I tried countless variations of flies and tactics. I justified hammering him with everything but the kitchen sink because it takes me so damn long to tie a new fly on, I figured I had given him ample time to rest. But here’s the thing. You can’t fish one pool for two hours. You can’t throw your fly box at one fish who has no interest in feeding. I was just about to give up, when I tried dead drifting a San Juan worm right in front of him. I’ll be damned if he didn’t take that San Juan and shoot downstream with it. He broke me off after less than three fun-filled seconds. I was proud to have gotten him to bite, though … until I saw him a minute later with my fly stuck in his pectoral fin. I had foul hooked the beast. So with his fin and my pride stinging a bit, I called it a day. I had hooked two or three small ones earlier but lost them all before I could get them in my still virgin net.
I wish I knew my trees better. I look forward to the orange and red maples of Virginia’s fall palette. But the early yellows, poplar I think, made for stunning reflections. And, fish or not, this time of year just makes me feel more alive. October in Virginia simply can not be beat.
The entire Dispatches from the Potomac staff took the three-day weekend off to celebrate this cherished American holiday by enjoying time surrounded by friends, nature and, of course, dogs. Here’s a quick photo tour of the weekend…
I’ll admit it, I’ve been pretty slack about getting these dogs out on hikes. They forgive me, but could not hide their excitement early Friday morning when they realized we were going somewhere fun. Seeing these mugs in my rear view mirror makes my heart smile.
We did an easy five or six miles on the C&O Canal Towpath, from Knoxville, MD to Harpers Ferry, WV and back. This is about a mile downstream of Harpers Ferry on the Potomac River.
(Scene Missing: Insert a blurry montage of grilling meat, lighting fireworks, viewing fireworks and perhaps enjoying a beer or two from Friday night to Sunday morning.)
The alarm was set early on Sunday, as my friend Chris and I were ready to catch some Smallmouth from kayaks before dawn. I brought my Nikon, but light conditions were challenging. Some neat fog was rising off the water for quite a while when we started, but I struggled capturing enough light to really show it. Anyway, a few turned out well, this is Chris with the great state of Virginia behind him.
Chris just got this Wilderness Systems Ride 115X, this float was the maiden voyage! This kayak seems just perfectly suited for river fishing, and Chris said it’s super comfortable too. He added a nice new Werner paddle to complete the package!
As a photographic outing, not much was going well. I had recorded a dozen or so blurry Great Blue Heron images on the memory card, and the bright sun was ruining all the river shots. But when I came across this scene I took a lot of photos, hoping I was able to capture even a fraction of the subtle shades and colors I was enjoying. This is my favorite of those shots, and a clear candidate for my Photos of the Year post at the end of 2014.
The fishing was slow. I hooked a nice smallie early, we both saw it jump and it looked like it was gonna be fun, but he spit the hook out in mid-air, and that was the last big fish I saw. This was the only fish I got in the boat, and he damn near escaped before I could take a picture.
I’ve been meaning to take this detour up Catoctin Creek off the Potomac, so we explored it a bit. The water is much colder back here, but we saw very little evidence of active fish.
After a little break, and some sad looks from Team Orange, I decided to head back out Sunday afternoon to go for a spin. My new Dead Drift Flies sticker looks great on my Native Watercraft Slayer 14.5!
Finn watching our six, and looking great in his Ruffwear Float Coat.
I had a wonderful weekend and got lots of exercise in perfect weather. I hope you all had a great and safe holiday! It’s back to reality. For now.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Having captured what I wanted from that spot, I moved upstream in search of interesting scenes to photograph.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
I’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.
But 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.