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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.