January 1, 2013 § 2 Comments
On Saturday, December 22, 2012 we went on a winter backpacking trip that was extremely cold but rewarded us with incredible conditions for photography: massive hoarfrost, remnants from a snowstorm, and true alpenglow lighting—a rare combination anywhere, but especially in the South.
As the evening sun set, the entire sky in the east (the direction opposite from the sun) began to glow pink with a purplish band at the horizon. The rime-encrusted trees and brush, which had their own bluish-white hue, looked otherworldly. The side of the mountain basked in the alpenglow. In the course of my life I have seen this phenomenon on occasion in the Rockies and in the Alps, but never so pronounced in our region as it was this evening.
For a comparison with the same phenomenon on the Matterhorn in Switzerland, see this photo. While the orange light from a sunset is itself beautiful, true alpenglow—when the entire sky is lit with light seemingly emanating from behind or even within the mountains, in the opposite direction from the sun—is amazing.
Looking towards where the sun was setting revealed another interesting effect—purple mountains with an orange sky.
As we continued to take pictures until almost all of the light was gone, we were reminded that part of the reason for the great conditions was the cold. And it was getting colder by the minute. Operating the cameras and standing still, the chill began to invade us. Toes and fingers burned. As the last good light disappeared, we continued onward to make camp somewhere near the top of the mountain.
Our planned out-and-back route was straightforward: A one-day hike from the Elk Garden area of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area up to the highest parts of the southern side of Mount Rogers near the famous Thomas Knob shelter; an overnight in the shelter or at a tent site somewhere in the vicinity; and a return back via the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. These trails roughly parallel the Grayson County-Smyth County line for about five miles along the mountain ridge.
As we approached the mountain, you could clearly see the delineation where the frost began to accent the freshly fallen snow. While you could see the snow between the trees on the bottom half of the mountain, on the top half of the mountain everything—literally every single thing—was covered with brilliant white frost.
Donning my 44-pound backpack full of winter camping gear and camera equipment, I crossed the road and started up the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. The hike started through trees, which glistened overhead. The skies were bright to the west, where the sun was already dropping, but were a dark cobalt blue in other directions.
The frost coated everything. Tree branches were twice or more their size due to the hoarfrost.
Once up in the balds, you could see great distances. The mountains to the south had snow but little frost; to the north across the valley, Clinch Mountain had frost on its largest southern-exposed face, known as the Bear Town area.
The contrast between blue and white was dramatic.
Hiking in this winter wonderland, you could easily imagine yourself in another part of the United States, or another part of the world, hiking in the Arctic or in true Alpine conditions.
The Frasier firs and other trees at the highest elevations looked almost fake with their limbs and branches so heavily laden with frost.
The moon rose dramatically in the East, signalling that this was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.
The entire hike, as awesome as it was, was merely the opening act for the light show we were about to watch.
As we rounded the first bend that allowed us a view to the eastern horizon, the whole mountain became aglow in amazing colors.
The photos we took do not adequately show the overwhelming color of the scene. The periphery as well as the main view to the east were bursting with palettes of pink and purple. In the photo below, I used my camera’s panorama feature to show a 180 degree view.
The entire episode of amazing light lasted less than one-half hour. Even the fading light was beautiful, as captured below.
The sunlight disappeared, and the moonlight began to illuminate the mountain. It was not a full moon, but it was sufficient such that you could walk without a headlamp once your eyes adjusted.
The light show over, we set out to make our camp. The temperature seemed to plummet by the minute. The winds, which were not insignificant while we were obsessed with photography, seemed to increase in strength and become more ominous. It was definitely getting colder.
There would be a price to pay to for the incredible optic conditions: suffering through a brutal night of cold and wind.
The Pain Factor
The next day, when we returned to our vehicle, an older gentleman walked into the parking lot from the other direction–coming down off of Whitetop Mountain. A large white beard, accompanied by a red union shirt, made the man appear as a slim Santa Clause coming from the snowy woods to inspect his winter kingdom. The man was none other than Damascus Dave, a well-known and experienced thru-hiker and outfitter in the region.
He greeted us. “Isn’t it beautiful? That hoarfrost, or rime ice, or whatever you want to call it—it’s whiter than snow.” Then he asked, “Did y’all overnight up there?”
We told him we had, and we began discussing the wind gusts and how cold it got last night. We talked about gear for a while, and how while we were prepared, it was still extremely cold.
“Well, it was pretty cold last night,” he said. “And, I reckon you can’t camp up there in this kind of weather and not experience some pain. No getting around it. That’s just part of it.”
As I stood there in the parking lot, tired but satisfied, I realized that he spoke the truth.
When it comes to hardcore winter camping, especially if you are seeking exposed ridgetops, vistas, and the coldest weather with the most snow, there will be some pain. Not insufferable pain. Certainly not the Beck Weathers’ level of pain. Not nearly the level of pain a depicted in Cold, the movie about climbing Gasherbrum II, a 26,000′ mountain, in the middle of winter. But there is unquestionably some serious discomfort—some pain—involved. It’s truly a case of “no pain, no gain.”
We weren’t cold while hiking. (In fact, while climbing it’s pretty easy to actually overheat.) We moderated our hike so that our pace kept us warm but didn’t cause us to overheat. But when we stopped, the whipping wind would quickly steal body heat. We had to put on our down jackets when we stopped. (You don’t want to overdress, risking sweating too much and the dreaded “wetting out” inside your jacket, but you have to dress sufficiently to keep warm.) It’s a balancing act to maintain warmth in these conditions. Preparation, proper clothing, and layering is key.
However, regardless of your dressing properly, setting up camp when it is really cold can be difficult. The cold seeps through your gloves, burning and then numbing your digits, making it increasingly difficult for you to manipulate them. For example, holding aluminum tent poles firmly while setting up a tent just saps the heat from your hands. Simple tasks require greater concentration and mental focus when it’s freezing and your hands are numb. Standing around while doing these kinds of tasks causes your feet to get cold, too.
By the time we had set up our tent, the water in our one-liter water bottles had almost completely frozen. The sandwich I brought for dinner had frozen. And the gas canister that would allow us to warm up some water for coffee and oatmeal was not functional.
That night, I slept in my 15 degree-rated sleeping bag on a sleeping pad, with polar fleece pants, two undershirts, a fleece jacket, wearing a down jacket, a hat, and gloves. My feet were covered with wool socks and insulated slippers. And yet, my feet and hands were still cold. My friend, who brought his 0 degree-rated “Never Summer” down sleeping bag, fared no better. Let’s just say, it was very cold.
We warmed our water by placing it in our sleeping bags, along with a host of other gear that was generally uncomfortable to have there: batteries from my camera; my headlamp; additional food; the gas canister; and various other items.
The wind was blowing interminably, with gusts that seemed Everest-like. In putting up our tent, we staked through the first inch of frozen ground down into the soft earth, and used some additional rocks to keep if from moving. Nonetheless, the tent flapped incessantly through the night, and the intermittent gusts seemed to have enough force to blow us off the mountain.
Despite the good weather window reported on the news and on the Internet the previous day, the temperatures plunged and the wind whipped with increasing intensity through the night. Using the heat inside our sleeping bags, we were able to thaw the iced-through water bottles.
Little did we know that although the weather was predicted to improve at the lower elevations, the recorded temperature (single digits) and wind chill (below zero) was the coldest in December 2012, and wind gusts were recorded at 65 miles per hour at the Grayson Highlands State Park Weather Station, almost 1500 vertical feet below where we were camping on the exposed ridge at over 5400′.
If we had not been adequately prepared that evening, an uncomfortable night could have been much worse. Instead, we awoke the next morning, broke camp, and went back to the Thomas Knob shelter to brew some coffee to warm up before the hike back to the trailhead. As expected, as we hiked back down the mountain, it got warmer and the winds subsided.
By the time we returned to the parking lot, it was comfortable enough wearing just our fleece sweaters to stand around and chat with Dave regarding harrowing experiences he had heard about in this area. (Many folks have actually been in some real danger up on the mountain). While not uniquely cold, the weather we had experienced was extreme, especially for this region. For us part-time adventurers, you might even call the weather conditions epic.
The evening sunlight, true alpenglow, and whole experience made this a fitting winter solstice backpacking trip, a perfect prelude for Christmas and the New Year. The suffering part? Yes, it was definitely worth it. Meaningful achievement, even something as relatively inconsequential as a winter overnighter, requires some striving and involves a little or more discomfort. It’s in part the difficulty that makes it rewarding. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, and the solitude sought after in these kinds of trips would not exist.
And for the record, yes, I actually did carry with me and wear insulated slippers.
September 8, 2012 § Leave a Comment
On Saturday, August 22, 2012 our whole family went to Hungry Mother State Park to enjoy a day on the lake and to try out our newest toy—a 2012 Dagger Zydeco 9.0 Kayak.
Back in April I saw the new edition of the Zydeco at an outdoor store over in Boone, really liked it, and so I ordered one. I purchased it to be used with my 10-year-old, 12′ Perception Antigua Kayak for group trips or for quick “throw the ‘yak on the roof and go” short trips. In mid-June we picked it up, and we have been waiting for a several months to test it out.
So we packed up the Jeep for a picnic, put the two ‘yaks on the roof, and brought along some spinning rods for good measure. It was a beautiful day in the mid-70s with low humidity. The sky was mostly sunny, and the lake was really busy.
The beach was open, and my two boys were suddenly more interested in swimming and going off the diving boards than kayaking, so I took the new Zydeco for a solo trip all around the lake.
Circumnavigating the entire lake takes over an hour, as it’s about a 100 acre lake and there are approximately 3 or so miles of shoreline. I’ve kayaked from one end to the other and back in under 35 minutes while racing in the Mountain Do Triathlon multiple times, but it had been a while since I had just gotten out and kayaked for fun on a summer day. Consciously trying to stay close to the shore, in order to truly go around the whole lake, it took about 1 hour, 20 minutes of consistent paddling.
As I have written previously, Hungry Mother State Park also has trails that circle the lake, as well those that climb to the top of Molly’s Knob. With all that this park has to offer, it is still probably a bit underutilized except for some of the busier summer weekends. From my own personal use perspective, this suits me (and, I suspect, most of the other park patrons who live around here) just fine.
So, how did the Zydeco handle? Overall, pretty well. It’s very manageable at 36.5 pounds (a lot easier to get on the roof than the 49 pound Perception) and very easy to turn. The lighter weight suits it well for smaller folks, which is one of the main reasons I got it (for my boys and wife).
The shorter length does make the Zydeco track a bit less well than the Antigua (meaning it doesn’t hold a straight line without correction as well. Better tracking generally allows for more powerful paddling).
Both the Antigua and the Zydeco are “Adventure Recreation” kayaks, meaning they’re designed for light touring or class I or II+ whitewater, not for sea kayaking or hardcore whitewater rafting.
The Zydeco fits the bill for what we’ll need for the next several years when we go on family, mild whitewater, and fishing trips in the region. I think the two kayaks will pair up well for our future adventures.
June 9, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Today my son and I had the rare trout trifecta: We caught rainbow, brown and brook trout in one outing in the same stream in Southwest Virginia. Here are the photos taken with our point-and-shoot camera to prove it:
A wild rainbow trout:
A 15″ brown trout:
A 12″ brook trout:
April 27, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This article reviews the newest federally protected area in Southwest Virginia, the Seng Mountain National Scenic Area.
In 2009 the United States enacted the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act of 2008. Sponsored by Senator John Warner (R-VA) and Rick Boucher (D-VA), the Act preserved over 50,000 acres of wilderness areas in the western part of Virginia. Part of the Act created the Seng Mountain National Scenic Area, a 6,500 acre tract, and the Bear Creek National Scenic Area, a 5,500 acre tract (I will review the Bear Creek National Scenic Area in a future article). See 16 U.S.C. § 546b. The designation of these tracts as “scenic areas,” as opposed to “wilderness,” was a compromise to allow continued non-motorized recreational use by cyclists (mostly single track mountain biking).
Some groups and individuals have known about this part of the northern ramparts and mountainsides of Iron Mountain for a long time. The Seng Mountain area has been part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area for 25+ years. The scenic area designation simply gives it more protection and makes permanent the designation of the area as one for the limited recreational uses enumerated in the statute. Ok—enough with the legal mumbo jumbo—let’s talk about the area itself:
The area is located in the southern section of Smyth County and is about 30 miles as the crow flies from Abingdon. Its boundaries are roughly Route 600 (Skulls Gap) on the west, Hurricane Campground on the east (off of Route 16), Forest Road 84 near the top of Iron Mountain on the south, and private land near the Stony Battery community on the north.
There are two major single track trails that cross the scenic area, Jerrys Creek Trail on the west side, and Rowland Creek Trail on the east side. Each of the trails follows a small creek that runs down the mountainside. The high point in the scenic area is Round Top Mountain, 4626′.
In mid-April my family and I drove to the upper trail head of Rowland Creek Trail. Our starting point was at 3850′. You reach this trailhead by traveling on FR 84, which is a gravel forest road. Getting to the trailhead from Route 600 takes about 20-25 minutes.
This is an unusual mountain hike, in that the hike starts the top, so you start hiking downhill, and return going back uphill. Rowland Creek trail starts out wide as it descends around Seng Mountain, down towards the headwaters of the creek below. The area forms a mini-gorge, as the mountainsides are steep and drop quickly down into Rowland Creek.
Where we started, on FR 84, there were no leaves. However, within a half mile of going down the trail, we descended into the foliage of springtime. The protection of the gorge-like formation protects the trees below from the elements, creating a micro-climate that is much milder than at the top.
After several switchbacks, you arrive at the headwaters of Rowland Creek. There are some nice potential campsites at the upper end of the trail, within easy walking distance of the creek.
One thing we noticed is that the trail was quite moist and rutted out from horses near the creek. It is probably extremely muddy after rains. The trail roughly parallels the creek the rest of the way down the mini-gorge.
The area along the creek is lush. We spotted numerous flowers. A bit of research shows that the trilliums we saw are native to the Southeastern United States, particularly in mountainous, gorge-like hollows such as that on this trail. They bloom in April or May at the earliest, while sunlight reaches the forest floor before the trees are fully leafed out.
One thing we were not anticipating, but had some fun with, were the creek crossings.
While none of the creek crossings were too difficult, we were hiking after several dry days. The trail could likely become completely washed out, and the creek crossings more difficult (at least to get across without getting soaked) under wetter conditions.
Even our dog, Magnus, was enjoying the creek crossings (here is creek crossing 3):
The highlight of this trip is most definitely Rowland Creek Falls, a 50′ cascade-type waterfall that drops down a series of stairs for about 80-100′.
The falls are not directly on the trail, so we needed to go down a hill in order to get some clean shots of the cascades.
My son Karl made it all the way to the bottom and took some nice shots of the lower end of the falls, including this photo:
Below is a map of the entire scenic area. Rowland Creek Trail and Jerrys Creek Trail can be connected by either FR 84, or an older, no longer used forest road that parallels FR 84 about 100′ downslope of it. This loop is about 12 miles in length. It is also used by mountain bikers, although there are sections that are very difficult due to the grade and the wetness near the creek beds.
February 10, 2012 § Leave a Comment
There have been more bald eagle sightings in Southwest Virginia this fall and winter. The sightings are becoming more widespread. I have heard first-hand accounts of bald eagle spottings at Hidden Valley Lake and at Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area, as well as on private land in Washington County between Abingdon and Damascus. Here is a photo my brother-in-law James Bear took of two eagles in December:
The increase in bald eagle sitings was also recently profiled in a local article:
Sightings of bald eagles are still rare enough that people like Osborne and his neighbor are excited to spot one. However, Boynton, a bird watcher himself, says if individuals know where to look, it’s not difficult to see a bald eagle in Southwest Virginia or Smyth County.People regularly spot bald eagles, Boynton said, at Laurel Bed, Claytor and South Holston lakes as well as along the New River. In Smyth County, the wildlife biologist said, eagles can be seen along the Middle Fork and at DGIF’s trout hatchery on Rt. 16 and some private trout farms.
While the bald eagle’s presence has been growing in the region for some time, Boynton did note a new observation that now some nests are being located in Southwest Virginia.
SWVA Today, November 30, 2012 (online).
February 5, 2012 § 2 Comments
Southwest Virginia, Upper East Tennessee, and Western North Carolina have lots of small creeks that are usually more fishable in winter. In winter the water levels may be higher than the summer or fall, there’s no foliage and less brush to block access to the water, and the creeks are no longer clogged with the fallen leaves. It’s a great time of year to hit these creeks, especially during breaks of mild weather.
You’re not likely to catch lunkers in these waters, but the trout are more likely to be wild and more beautiful than the stockers in the rivers and lakes. They may also be willing to hit dry flies even when there’s no hatch coming off the water. These small creek trout don’t have the luxury of waiting for a full-blown hatch. They’re often stuck within the confines of small pools; this requires them to be particularly opportunistic feeders; and insects on the surface are opportunities to them regardless of season.
There is something especially rewarding about the adventure of hiking where few fishermen have been, where the trout may not have seen men or their fishing gear for a long time before you, and where you have a genuine belief that you are exploring the natural world.
In the Eastern United States, there are not many places that instill these feelings anymore. It has been this way for almost a century:
Most of the truly secret streams were small. The larger streams had names, a public sort of character, commercial importance, perhaps. They were accessible: if they held trout it became known and they were visited regularly throughout the open season. Without restocking they became at last depleted of fish.
But the little back-country feeder brooks were nameless, and inaccessible save by long tramping over the ridges and upland meadows which lay deep beyond the infrequent roads. In such remote rills, known only to ourselves and our most intimate partners, the brook trout swam and lurked to meet his chilly destinies much as he had in the first days of the world. Some of these streams are still where they used to be. . . .
Howard T. Walden, II, Upstream & Down, at 171-72 (First Edition 1938).
In Upstream & Down, Mr. Walden explained that in the East, except for in the “remote semi-wilderness counties,” most small streams were under increasing pressure from development and anglers in the early Twentieth Century. He lamented “the loss of the virgin stream of olden time.”
These days, even in the “remote semi-wilderness counties” of the East (acknowledging that the definition of Eastern “remote semi-wilderness” is probably different today than in the 1930s), there are very few, if any, “nameless” small streams. Nonetheless, the essence of what Mr. Walden wrote back in the 1930s is still true: Remote small streams are still the most likely places to find unspoiled trout waters.
In the reality of our increased population and the informational resources of modern times, there is not just a geographical dimension to being adventurous in the outdoors—whether fishing for trout, or otherwise (hiking, backpacking, etc.). There is also a seasonal dimension. Most fishermen hang up their rods and reels come late fall, and many do not take the sport up again until the traditional opening days of April. Thus the ardent angler is far more likely to have a solitary and adventurous experience in winter than in spring, summer, or fall. This is not to say that small creek fishing is not rewarding in the fairer seasons, just to point out the undeniable fact that it is more likely to hold an excitement that comes from undisturbed exploration in the wintertime.
So I will continue to fly fish in wintertime, even if I catch less trout during this season. For while catching trout is the ”point of the whole exercise” (as fellow small stream enthusiast and Trout Underground author Tom Chandler has stated), it is not the sole—or perhaps even driving—reason that we engage in this sport.
P.S. — I will write more about Upstream & Down, a fascinating book, and Mr. Walden’s thoughts about trout fishing in subsequent articles.
February 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps began construction on the trails of Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, Virginia. In 2012, the trails still provide hikers, runners and mountain bikers great recreation opportunities.
Most of the trail is a steady climb along ridgelines that gradually ascends the mountain. The last half-mile of the trail is a spur that circles around to the backside of the top of the knob and is quite steep. If you are on a mountain bike, it is probably best to dismount and just hike-a-bike up to the top.
This hike was toward the end of October, and while the brightest fall colors had already peaked and passed, there was still some wonderful auburn and golden foliage on the mountainsides.
November 6, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This was a good year for viewing the fall foliage in Southern Appalachia. Here are some photos from the Buller Fish Hatchery in Smyth County, Virginia in early October.
September 23, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This past Sunday afternoon my sons Isaac, Karl and I went for a five mile loop hike on the Iron Mountain Trail / Forest Road 84 off of State Route 600 in Smyth County. These photos were taken at the Skulls Gap scenic parking lot, which is about 3500′. The colors are starting to change at higher elevations and all foliage is taking on that golden hue in the evening that signals autumn has arrived. Click on any of the photos to enlarge to appreciate the panoramic views.
September 5, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Driving south along I-81 in Wythe County, you cannot help but notice that there is one aesthetically appealing mountain on your left that notably rises from the valley floor much closer to the interstate than the surrounding mountains. This is Glade Mountain.
The mountain becomes visible to the south of the interstate just past Rural Retreat (Exit 60). Glade Mountain parallels the interstate for almost 10 miles, receding only as you approach Atkins (Exit 50).
Glade Mountain is part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and lies entirely in the Jefferson National Forest. It is distinctive in that it is separated from the main part of the recreation area, yet is one of the largest mountains in terms of mass within the area. Despite its proximity to I-81, it is seldom visited other than by local Wythe and Smyth County residents and Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. Thru-hikers get their first view of Virginia’s valley and ridge mountains when they cross the mountain. Glade Mountain affords views of Big Walker Mountain, Clinch Mountain, and even part of East River Mountain (the West Virginia state line) to the north.
Most out-of-the-area hikers pass up Glade Mountain for other more written about and better known mountains further down the interstate. This leaves Glade Mountain to those of us who appreciate its solitude. I have hiked this mountain on several Saturday afternoons, and the only other hikers I have ever met on the mountain are a handful of thru-hikers in spring and early summer on their way north. I also once met a single thru-hiker on his way south in the fall.
The AT crosses Glade Mountain on a north-south axis. The base of the trail leaves the Settlers Museum of Southwest Virginia in Groseclose, and after about ½ mile through the forest heads up the mountain in a due south direction. Once climbing the mountain, the trail parallels a very small creek (about 1-2 feet in width). In June the mountain laurel on the north side of the mountain bloom profusely.
The northern section of the trail (the side closest to the Settlers Museum) has huge rhododendron thickets and mountain laurel thickets. At some points you travel through a tunnel of rhododendron that barely allows room for a backpack.
The trail travels uphill for about 3 or 4 miles, crossing Forest Road 86 (identified on some maps as Forest Road 644). The trail continues south and higher up the mountain to the Louise Chatfield Shelter, a fairly nice shelter on the mountainside close to a year-round creek.
The trail then continues for another approximately 1 ½ to 2 miles to the top of the mountain. There are a few places on the trail where the trees open up enough for a brief view of the valley and to the north. The views are much better in winter, when the canopy does not obscure the view. Towards the summit there are expanses of ferns over four feet in height under the trees. There is no designated spot or clearing that identifies the location of the summit.
The trail then descends the south side of the mountain until it crosses Forest Road 86 again, eventually crossing Route 16 approximately 4 miles further.
Forest Road 86 forms a band around the entire mountain about ½ way up from the base. Forest Road 86 is open to mountain bikes (and even off-road vehicles), and can be combined with the AT to form a large loop run (approximately 12 miles).
Access to the trailhead of this mountain is easy. Simply take Exit 54 off of I-81 and follow the signs to the Settlers Museum. The trailhead is about 6 miles from the interstate. More detailed directions are here:
From I-81 South (follow signs to the Museum):
1. At bottom of exit ramp at Exit 54 on I-81, turn left
2. Continue about 0.1 mile to Rt 11
3. Turn left on Rt 11, travel 1.3 miles to Rt 679
4. Turn right on Rt 679, travel 0.8 mile to Rocky Hollow Road
5. Turn right on Rocky Hollow Road, continue 1.2 miles to Museum
6. The Settlers Museum is on your left.