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).
October 30, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This is the second article in my short series on the New River. This summer we canoed and fished several sections of the New River, first exploring the upper section in North Carolina, then the middle section that flows through Virginia, and finally the section that flows through the New River Valley and into West Virginia. In the first article, I reviewed the section of the New River below the confluence of the North and South forks of the river. This article is about our second trip where we fished and camped at Foster Falls in August 2011.
The New River leaves Ashe County and Alleghany County in North Carolina and crosses the state line and flows into Virginia at Mouth of Wilson in Grayson County. It then briefly crosses back into North Carolina and then back into Virginia again near Fries, Virginia. The river then flows through the eastern part of Grayson County and into Wythe County. As the river flows through the eastern part of the Appalachian Mountains in these counties it gains considerable volume and size as various tributaries add water to its flow.
Shortly after flowing under I-77, the New River has a series of step-like waterfalls that spand the entire width of the river and are collectively classified as a class 3 whitewater. This area is known as Foster Falls and is the site of Virginia’s New River Trail State Park.
The New River Trail State Park is a unique Virginia park: A 57-mile linear state park with various facilities located at different segments of the trail. The main facilities are located at Foster Falls, where there is a small “walk in” campground, river access for fishing and a boat ramp, picnic areas, horse stables, and a canoe livery with a small shop.
The New River Trail itself is a converted railroad bed. The trail is a packed dirt/ash trail that is excellent for mountain bikes or cross bikes. The trail has several trestles that cross the river and also has a tunnel or two that cyclists travel through. The trail is a level grade, with only a few minor hills, and generally follows the New River between Fries and Pulaski. Foster Falls is the approximate half-way mark on the trail, and makes a good base camp to cycle in either direction on the trail.
This trail is scenic with minimal traffic and road crossings. After the Virginia Creeper Trail, it’s probably the nicest off-road cycling trail in Southwest Virginia.
The New River is renowned as one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in Virginia. Actually, it’s one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in the United States. The river also has large populations of musky and other game fish. The New holds Virginia’s state records for largest smallmouth bass (8 pounds, 1 ounce) and largest musky (45 pounds, 8 ounces.)
There are several areas to fish right at Foster Falls. I believe the key to fishing any large river, but especially the New, is to spread your casts methodically over fairly large areas of water to reach the most fish as possible and then move on. Unless you are bait fishing and patient, covering a section of water and then moving on to another section is the best way to cover this river.
We therefore first bank fished the river, then waded parts of the river where it was shallow and fished across a large island adjacent to the campground. I fly fished with streamers and caught about 10 smallies with a size 8 olive wolly bugger. My sons Karl and Isaac used Mepps and Blue Fox spinners on light and ultra light spinning tackle. They caught about a dozen fish between them.
There are only 12 campsites at Foster Falls. Thus, although it is a group camping area, the sites are dispersed and there is a wonderful absence of what I sometimes call the “Camp Jellystone Effect”−hundreds of sites jammed together creating a permanently smoky area that from a distance resembles a foreign refugee encampment as sometimes seen on the evening news.
Also, because these are “walk in” sites, there are no RVs or trailers. You have to park in a designated parking area and carry your camp gear between 100-200 feet to the designated campsites. This is not that difficult, and, much to my surprise, the state park provides little wagons for campers to transport their gear from the car to the campsites.
Most of the campsites are either right on the river, or very close to the river (with river views). The camground also provides a sheltered area with dry wood for the campers. You simply have to pay a daily fee, and then you may transfer the firewood to your site for your own use. This was convenient and a reasonable way to provide firewood (if you run out, you simply go back to the covered area and get a few more logs).
Kayaking and Canoeing
Although we didn’t do any boating, there is the possibility of boating both up river and down river from Foster Falls. Running the falls looked a bit sketchy. When we were there in August, there did not appear to be sufficient water to successfully navigate the falls. We saw one kayaker dragging his kayak down the river; it didn’t look fun.
I have kayaked the section of the river above the falls previously (my brother-in-law once took me down this section when a summer lightning and thunderstorm developed in which I feared for my life−getting caught on the water under these conditions can be scary). During higher flows, this can be a moderately challenging kayak with lots of riffles and fast water, but there are not too many obstacles. Downriver from the falls the river slows considerably as it approaches and eventually forms the upper part of Claytor Lake.
We will definitely return to Foster Falls, probably with a bike focus on our next trip. However, I will also have to bring more marshmellows, Hersheys chocolate, and graham crackers next time. Because this time, these ingredients seemed to mysteriously disappear each night.
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.
September 3, 2011 § Leave a Comment
June 24, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Big Walker Mountain is one of the most prominent mountains in Southwestern Virginia’s valley and ridge province. From its rise as mere hill in Washington County (see my description of it in the Saltville Loop article), Big Walker rises to 3500’ above sea level, and all the way from Saltville to the New River beyond Pulaski it is the main dividing ridge between the great valley that contains Route 11 and Interstate 81 and the valleys to the north. In fact, it is so prominent and without any significant gap that the engineers who built I-77 created a tunnel to go through it.
The Southwest Virginia Cyclists use the primary and secondary highways that cross Big Walker Mountain for many of their training climbs. They also sponsor two organized rides over the mountain each year, the Mother of a Metric and the Big Walker Mountain Century Ride.
This past weekend, Saturday, June 18, 2011, was the 8th Big Walker Century Ride. The Big Walker Century has four ride options, including a metric century (100 kilometers) and an English century (100 miles). This was the second year I did the metric century with a buddy from Abingdon. There were about 100 riders who toed the start line in the morning.
The conditions turned out to be good for a long distance ride. The morning started out cloudy, a bit chilly, and threatening rain. As the ride progressed the skies cleared somewhat, and we had partly sunny weather for the tail end of the ride. The ride starts and finishes in Wytheville. The beginning of the ride this year began with a typical peloton mass start in downtown Wytheville at 7:30 AM. There was a police escort for at least the first 15 miles. This ride usually starts out at a pretty hard pace. The local pack of Southwest Virginia Cyclists leads the peloton, and they are usually hammering pretty hard following the police car. This year there were about 100 cyclists in the peloton.
This year involved an inauspicious start as I was cut off in the peloton by an errant rider within the first five miles. I was driven off the pavement. Like the famous decision of Lance Armstrong to take a short cut in stage 9 of the Tour de France in 2003 in order to avoid the crash with Joseba Beloki, or the quick decision of many professional riders to go off the pavé in Paris Roubaix to avoid crashes, I had to make a split second decision to avoid a crash and went off Route 11 at 30 mph. I drove into the gravel shoulder and feathered my brakes to slow, standing on the pedals and leaning back so as not to endo.
While I was fortunate the incident occurred where there was a shoulder that allowed me to decelerate without flipping or crashing, I was unfortunate in that it occurred on a stretch of road just before the beginning of a long hill. With adrenaline pumping and my heart pounding, I came to a stop, looked up, and saw the back peloton receding towards the distant top of the hill. Having lost contact with the peloton and with no forward momentum, I then realized I would have no draft for next 15 or so miles to the base of the climb; the lead pack was gone, not be seen again for the rest of the ride. I eventually caught up with my buddy James, and we rode the rest of the ride more or less together.
The climb up Big Walker Mountain on Rt. 52 is a moderately difficult climb of 1000 vertical feet at a 5% gradient (from 2400’ to 3400’). The climb takes 30-45 minutes. The gradient is consistent—there are no very sharp spikes in the gradient, thus allowing a cyclist to get into a good rhythm.
Coming from Wytheville, when you reach the top of the mountain on the metric century ride you go left (west) down Old Mountain Road, aka County Road 621, which is a narrow single lane road with great views down the valley. County Road 621 actually resembles many of the mountain roads in Europe with its solid white lines on both sides and proximity to the side of the mountain, sometimes without any guard rail to prevent going off the side. (Last year the organized ride went right at the top of the mountain continued down Route 52.)
The most scenic part of the ride is definitely on the north side of the mountain in Rich Valley. The valley is fairly narrow with mountain scenery on both sides.
The climb up the backside (north side) of the mountain on Route 52 is about 700 vertical feet at a 5.2% gradient (from 2700’ to 3400’). The gradient on this climb is also consistent. This is just a bit steeper climb with tighter switchbacks than the climb up the south side.
We finished the ride in 3 hours, fifty minutes at an average speed of 16.4 mph. We also spent about 20 minutes out on the course stopped at aid stations; they were well-stocked and had lots of goodies for re-fueling.
Training on Big Walker
I have done the Big Walker Mountain climb many times on my own without any organized ride. This is one of the best training rides in Southwest Virginia. Route 52 has a good, steady gradient and is generally wide for a mountain road in this region. The climb is similar to the climb over Route 421 near South Holston Lake in Bristol, Tennessee.
One way to approach this climb without riding on Route 11 (the busiest stretch of the organized century ride) is to start in Rural Retreat, Virginia (Rural Retreat is ½ mile to the south of Exit 60 on I-81). Park in one of the municipal parking areas or church parking lots in downtown Rural Retreat.
From your starting location, take Main Street north back towards the Interstate. You ride under the I-81 at Exit 60 and will be on Black Lick Road, aka County Road 680. Continue north on Black Lick Road. Black Lick Road eventually junctions with Route 52. Make a left on Route 52 and you will approach the Big Walker Climb. Once you reach the top of the mountain you can go down the backside, or simply return back to Rural Retreat. From this point you can follow the directions from the cue sheet from the organized ride, which is set forth below.
At the top of the mountain there is the Big Walker Country Store. This is good place to refuel. There is also a lookout on the north side of the mountain and some scenic vistas from the store itself.
Cue Sheet for Big Walker Mountain Metric Century Ride
Start Head southwest on S Main St toward N 4th St
0.43mi Turn right onto N 12th St
0.43mi Head northwest on US-11 S/N 12th St toward W Monroe St Continue to follow US-11 S
1.1mi Slight left onto US-11 N/W Lee Hwy
13.19mi Turn right onto Kimberlin Rd/State Route 682
13.2mi Head north on Kimberlin Rd/State Route 682 toward Mt Airy Rd/State Route F-015
14.2mi Head northeast on Kimberlin Rd/State Route 682 toward Ridge Top Dr
Continue to follow Kimberlin Rd
16.41mi Turn left onto Blacklick Rd/State Route 680
16.42mi Head north on Blacklick Rd/State Route 680
18.53mi Turn left to stay on Blacklick Rd/State Route 680
19.18mi Turn left to stay on Blacklick Rd/State Route 680
Continue to follow State Route 680
23.51mi Turn left onto U.S. 52 N/Stony Fork Rd (Note this is the junction I describe in the alternative trip from Rural Retreat)
23.52mi Head northwest on U.S. 52 N/Stony Fork Rd
Continue to follow U.S. 52 N
30.81mi Head southeast on U.S. 52 S/S Scenic Hwy W toward Old Mountain Rd/State Route 621
30.82mi Turn left onto Old Mountain Rd/State Route 621
33.66mi Head west on Old Mountain Rd/State Route 621 toward VA-42 E/W Blue Grass Trail
33.76mi Sharp right onto VA-42 E/W Blue Grass Trail
38.69mi Head east on VA-42 E/W Blue Grass Trail toward U.S. 52 S/S Scenic Hwy
38.7mi Turn right onto U.S. 52 S/S Scenic Hwy
39.41mi Turn left onto State Route 617/Waddletown Rd
39.42mi Head west on State Route 617/Waddletown Rd toward U.S. 52 N/S Scenic Hwy
39.43mi Turn left onto U.S. 52 S/S Scenic Hwy
Continue to follow U.S. 52 S
42.87mi Head east on U.S. 52 S/Stony Fork Rd
Continue to follow U.S. 52 S (Note that if you are going back to Rural Retreat, you need to watch for Black Lick Road, aka County Road 680, after coming off of the mountain, you would make a right onto Black Lick Road and follow it back into Rural Retreat)
53.04mi Head east on N 4th St toward W Ridge Rd
53.04mi Turn right onto W Ridge Rd
53.92mi Head southeast on W Ridge Rd toward N Petunia Rd
55.97mi Turn left onto N 4th St
55.97mi Head southeast on N 4th St toward W Ridge Rd
55.98mi Turn left onto W Ridge Rd
56.09mi Head northeast on W Ridge Rd toward Tazewell St
56.1mi Turn right onto Tazewell St
56.44mi Turn right onto W Spiller St
56.44mi Head southwest on W Spiller St toward N 4th St (you are in downtown Wytheville)
May 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Have you ever been to a brush burnin’ and rat-stompin’ party? Have you ever even heard of such a thing?
Let me introduce you to an Appalachian mountain tradition: Spring and fall land clearing and cleaning, gathering the debris into a huge pile over a period of weeks or months, and then torching the whole thing one evening. Some folks do this in conjunction with a neighborly get together—thus the party.
The allure of fire has attracted men and women for ages. In modern times, those who spend time in the outdoors know the enjoyment of a campfire in the woods or a bonfire on the beach. Most everyone enjoys a crackling fire in a fireplace. I always get nostalgic about my own youth when around a fire: Sharing a spot in front of the fireplace at my parents’ home with my brother when we came back inside after playing in the winter weather; drinking hot chocolate in front of a roaring fireplace at a lodge or cabin when our family vacationed during colder times of the year; or the old-fashioned campfires we had when car camping across the Midwest. Generations of Americans have enjoyed the huge fireplaces of the grand lodges in our national parks in the West or in famous hotels like the Grove Park Inn in the East.
Sitting around a fire makes us feel warm, relaxed and mellows our mood. We are softened and reminiscent when we stare into the fire, thinking about our lives and talking with friends and family. The so-called “fireside chat” is the informal discussion about serious issues in a relaxed manner, made famous by FDR’s radio addresses in the 1940s. During an evening meal, the simple lighting of a candle can transform the environment and make it warmer and romantic. There is something about socializing in front of the fire to which people are drawn.
In this day and age, there has been a renaissance of the outdoor fire, usually now burned in a fire pit, fire kettle or chiminaya in the backyard of someone’s house. Some could argue that the modern versions of the campfire have become too sanitized: Newer backyards have elaborately constructed fire pits with built-in seating such that they are virtual living rooms outside. Some patios even have fireplaces with chimneys, replete with outdoor kitchens and all other manner of niceties. Many don’t even use real wood. You can just push a button or use a remote control to start the ignition and crank up a gas fire that is supposed to mimic the real thing.
While such controlled and comfortable environments may be desired, there is something to be said for the old-fashioned campfire, just a bunch of brush and twigs on the ground inside of small, hand-arranged stone ring, with flickering coals, true ashes, and the smell of wood smoke. The primitive simplicity of it is what makes it aesthetically as enjoyable as the most expensive, fancy backyard patio.
This is the beauty of brush burning: It’s nothing more than a campfire on steroids. It’s the real deal, and it’s huger than huge.
This month we went to my wife’s parents’ brush burnin’ party. Built with their neighbors, the accumulated brush pile reaches over ten feet in height and about 20 feet in width before it is burned. When torched, the flames lick up high and the amount of heat thrown off is incredible. It’s a sight to see. As the flames grow, the lawn chairs are pulled back and the people retreat to a safe distance. The fire is watched as its flames reach their zenith and then shrink back to a manageable size. Embers form beneath the fire, and the coals are red hot.
The folks all bring their chairs in closer, and the meal begins. Long tables are set up, and prepared food—good country food and fixings—are all laid out. Everyone has brought something: casseroles, beans, cole slaw, chips, dips, buns, etc. (and of course, several desserts like pies and red velvet cake).
Hot dogs are roasted just like they are over a campfire. The main difference here is the device used to roast the wieners. Two-pronged large forks that hold the wieners are attached to poles between 8 and 15 feet in length so that the hot dogs can be thrust into the fire without the holder of the roasting device getting burned. These contraptions are lined up against a nearby tree, ready for battle like knights’ jousting poles in a medieval stadium. Folks roast the wieners while one person minds the fire, making sure the embers stay within the designated area and redistributing the burning material to maintain the brush pile’s heat. As the hot dogs come off the fire, people eat, socialize, and enjoy the flickering flames.
Our brush burnin’ parties these days are just family affairs, but I have attended some in Southwest Virginia that are much larger and are major gatherings for people from all over the county where they’re held. These larger parties are a great time. In some rural communities lots of local “movers and shakers” from the area come out, and county and community business is discussed. It’s a social phenomenon that many people don’t realize occurs. If you are fortunate to get invited to a good old-fashioned brush burnin’ party, you definitely should attend and personally experience this regional outdoor activity.
If you want to start your own brush burnin’ party, remember there are rules in most areas regarding burning. Most of the radio and television news programs broadcast the ubiquitous burning regulations that the state forestry departments announce every spring and occasionally at other times of the year. In Virginia, for example, there is a burn ban in the spring until after 4 pm. There is also a requirement that burning is done carefully, i.e., in a big pile with a cleared area around it. Legally stated,
It shall be unlawful for any owner or lessee of land to set fire to, or to procure another to set fire to, any woods, brush, logs, leaves, grass, debris, or other inflammable material upon such land unless he previously has taken all reasonable care and precaution, by having cut and piled the same or carefully cleared around the same, to prevent the spread of such fire to lands other than those owned or leased by him.
Va. Code § 10.1-1142. Of course, if there is an outright burn ban due to dry conditions, don’t burn anything outside.
Oh yes, and what about the “rat stompin’” part of the party? Supposedly, when the brush pile starts burning, all the rats and other vermin come scrambling out from it. The idea is that you should stomp them as they come out. I have never actually seen vermin come scrambling out, and I certainly have never seen anyone actually successfully stomp on them as they did so.
I will keep looking out for them, though, as I plan to attend many more of these parties in the future. And next time you are driving on a country road or down the interstate and see a bunch of people all hanging out around a big brush fire, you’ll know what they’re doing.
April 24, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Easter brought a surprise for my brother-in-law and his wife in southern Wythe County. They spotted a bald eagle, and they were able to photograph it. This eagle was immediately distinguishable from an osprey or a hawk because of its size; the eagle was about 200 feet from the road on the creek and may have just caught a fish as it was looking down towards its talons. Here is one of the photographs taken with a point-and-shoot camera:
I was surprised that there were any eagles in the mountains of Virginia. I personally have not seen a single bald eagle in the last 20+ years I have been hiking in the region. As of the time of this writing there are no bald eagles officially reported in Wythe County per the Virginia Bald Eagle tracking program of the Center for Conservation Biology. In fact, it looks like the only reported nesting areas in Southwestern Virginia are in Tazewell County and Buchanan County. This would mean that this bald eagle was either migrating from another region or was a native resident that came here naturally and without human introduction. For this reason—and in the interest of protecting it and the landowners—I won’t specifically identify where in the county it was seen.
The mountainous areas of Wythe, Grayson, Smyth and Washington counties would seem to be logical areas of reintroduction for bald eagles since there are still remote, larger wilderness areas (by Eastern U.S. standards) and an abundance of creeks and streams with trout and other aquatic life for the eagle’s food supply. While I have read they usually prefer large open bodies of water, it may be possible there are enough larger streams and lakes in Southwest Virginia to accommodate some of these animals.
Apparently the bald eagle’s plumage was not completely white; there were still some grey flecks visible. As you can tell in the above photo, it does appear that it was not completely white. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries bald eagle fact page, a bald eagle does not fully obtain the characteristic white plumage until it is five years old, when it reaches maturity. It is possible it was still a youngster, or it was wet and looked somewhat off-white. In any event, it’s a remarkable thing that this grand bird of prey may be back in part of Southwestern Virginia.