Bald Eagle Spotted in Wythe County

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.

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Maiden Creek Loop

Distance:  17 miles

Time:  Approximately 1 hour, 10 minutes @ 15 mph

Difficulty Notes:  Moderate climbing on hills

This will be the first installment of numerous cycling route reports from Abingdon, Virginia and the surrounding areas.   Maiden Creek Loop is one of the shorter loop road bike rides available from Abingdon.   It is approximately 17 miles in length over rolling roads with a few small climbs.  It generally has low vehicular traffic.   

Most of the routes I shall describe in the following installments are loop rides, that is, rides where the route is a circular or square loop trip of some sort with minimal doubling back on the same roads.  I prefer loop rides because the scenery during the ride is fresh during the entire ride.  In addition, there is a certain sense of satisfaction in completing a journey (or approaching the completion of a journey) with a loop trip that is different than in doing an out-and-back trip, regardless of the distance.

The Maiden Creek loop starts in downtown Abingdon.   For reference, most the rides I will report start in downtown Abingdon.  Perhaps the best reference spot is the so-called Washington County Courthouse “Jockey Lot,” the parking area immediately behind the courthouse at the intersection of Court Street and Valley Street.  This has traditionally been a meeting spot and point of reference in Abingdon going back well over 100 years.

The ride begins on Valley Street going east.  The first left down Valley Street is Whites Mill Road.  Take this left onto Whites Mill Road.  This road is flat and then gently ascends until the intersection with Chip Ridge Road.  Stay on Whites Mill Road.  From here, Whites Mill descends rapidly, all the way to Whites Mill, an historic mill about three miles from Abingdon.  The initial descent on Whites Mill from Chip Ridge is significant.  I have accelerated to almost 50 mph on this descent, and speeds in excess of 42 mph are easily obtainable without pedaling.  You will pass farmland and pasture on your left.  As you descend Whites Mill there are also excellent views through the hills of Clinch Mountain in the distance directly in front of you.

At the mill the road veers to the right and intersects with Rich Valley Road.  Take a right on Rich Valley Road.  This is a rolling road that generally travels east along the valley floor between two ridges.  Note that to your left (looking north) you can catch additional glimpses of Clinch Mountain in the distance.  After approximately 5 miles, you will intersect with Maiden Creek Road. 

Take a right onto Maiden Creek Road, which ascends following Maiden Creek to the right as you go uphill.  The road here is not in the best condition but is fine for a road bike.  Note there are numerous little riffles and small waterfalls to your right as you ascend.  The creek’s flow varies and is sensitive to rainfall as it mostly runoff from the hills at the top of the road, yet at times the little falls are quite pretty.  At the top of the initial climb, about two-third the way up the road, there is a little descent and then a false flat that gradually ascends to end at the intersection with Old Saltworks Road. 

Make a right at Old Saltworks Road.  Old Saltworks continues to ascend for about a half mile, and then mostly descends until the intersection with Walden Road.  Make a right on Walden Road, this road ascends for about two miles and then descends until it rolls back into the town limits of Abingdon.  Continue on this road, which eventually turns into Valley Street.  Continue on Valley Street until you are back at the courthouse.

Maiden Creek loop can be completed in approximately 1 hour, ten minutes at a pace of about 15 miles per hour.  At 15 mph the workout should be a moderate one, but is not “noodling” by any standard.  The rolling nature of this course, like many in Southwest Virginia, will result is slightly slower times than what you would expect in flatter sections of the country.  This route as set forth above has the advantage of all right turns, so there are no turns crossing traffic.  Traffic on this route is usually low, with the most traffic within a mile or two of town and on the section of Old Saltworks Road.  There are times you may encounter less than a half-dozen vehicles on this loop (excluding traffic in the town limits of Abingdon).  There are occasionally farm tractors on this loop, particularly on Rich Valley Road.

An alternative end of this route is instead of taking a right onto Walden Road, continue on Old Saltworks Road until it ends at Hillman Highway.  Make a right at the junction.  There is a steep little climb up on Hillman Highway immediately after you make the right.  Be careful here as vehicles coming in the opposite direction cannot see you ascending, and drivers behind you may be impatient and illegally attempt to pass you without being able to see oncoming traffic.  Once you climb this little rise, Hillman Highway will take you back into Abingdon in about the same time as Walden Road version of this route.  Hillman Highway ends at the junction with Main Street.  You can ride Main Street back into town towards the courthouse.

This route may also begin and end at the Coomes Center, Abingdon’s recreation center.  To begin the route from the Coomes Center, make a right leaving the Coomes Center past E.B. Stanley Middle School.  At the junction with Walden Road make a left.  Ride Back through to Valley Street and make a right onto White’s Mill.  From here the directions are the same as described above.

Mountain Film Festival in the Appalachian Mountains

This weekend two good friends, my wife, and I drove over to Boone, North Carolina for the evening to attend the local screening of the Banff Mountain Film Festival at the Farthing Auditorium at Appalachian State University.   The Banff Mountain Film Festival is the largest and oldest film festival for celebrating mountain sports and culture.  The festival takes place in Banff, Alberta, and then a shorter version travels around North America (and the world) for screenings of the best films.  The Boone screening, a two night affair, is supposed to be one of the largest outside of the actual festival in Banff. 

Our road trip was about an hour and ten minutes via Route 91 through Mountain City, Tennessee and up Route 421.  As we went through Trade, Tennessee, we were treated to a setting sun shining directly on snow-capped mountains on the North Carolina side of the state line.  The upper half of the mountains had a nice dusting of fresh snow that looked like someone had dumped powder sugar on them.  Apparently it had been snowing all day in the higher elevations, setting the mood nicely.

Arriving at Farthing Auditorium, the crowds were raucous, and there was a lot of energy anticipating the screening.  We watched five films.  WildWater, Eastern Rises, and The Swiss Machine were the most memorable.  WildWater is about the spiritual aspects of paddling in wild places and the devotion of those who paddle.  The film contained incredible footage, including creek boating in Colorado, rafting in the Grand Canyon, and the massive rapids of the North Fork of the Payette River in Idaho during high water. 

Eastern Rises seemed to be the best liked film of the night.  It documented a bunch of guys who took an incredible fly fishing trip to Kamchatka, Russia.  Kamchatka is one of the most remote areas of the world:  A vast, basically unpopulated peninsula across the Bearing Sea from Alaska and to the north of Japan and China.  In the film these guys fished super remote rivers and streams, many without names.  The trout were huge, and they were rising to go after gigantic custom-tied flies.  The guys’ reverence for trout fishing and the pristine waters they fished came through, and their irreverence towards one another was hilarious.  This is one entertaining movie regardless of whether you are personally into fly fishing. 

The Swiss Machine was an adventure biography of Ueli Steck, an alpinist who is a speed climber.   The film shows Steck climbing in the Himalaya, Yosemite, and in the Alps.  The film leads up to his speed ascent of the north face of the Eiger.  Viewing the steepness of the Eiger face on the big screen almost made me queasy.  The filming shows how dangerous speed climbing can be.  Yet the film is quite inspirational.  Steck’s athleticism and determination are well conveyed for such a shorter film.  The cinematography in the final scene is superb. 

Coming back from the screening, appropriately enough it began to thunder snow on the drive home.  This is in April in Virginia, mind you.  There are additional screenings of the Banff Film Festival in other places this year.  This was the first year I was able to attend the annual festival; if you have a chance to see it sometime, I highly recommend it.  It’s inspirational and definitely makes you want to go get into the outdoors in the mountains.

Time in the Outdoors

Recently my minister gave a sermon that explained the concepts of chronos time and kairos time.  Chronos time is that time measured by the clock.  Kairos time, on the other hand, is the concept of the Lord’s time, which does not correspond to chronos time and may not be measured.  Kairos time is metaphysical and beyond human comprehension.  This concept goes back at least to Greek times, when it was understood that time could be more than a measured unit.

In our modern age, chronos time is what drives us both at work and home.   We constantly confront deadlines, whether imposed by a third-party, our boss, or ourselves.  In my profession, for example, the court sets deadlines in litigation for filing lawsuits, filing papers, scheduling these cases for hearings and trials, etc.  Clients set deadlines for projects and transactions.  My profession also measures my worth, or value, based upon chronos time.  For most legal work, the billing unit is tenths of an hour, or six-minute increments of time.  

Most jobs are similar in that meeting deadlines and time spent on the job wholly or to some extent measure performance.  Scheduling and time commitments are also ubiquitous aspects of personal life.  There is always so little time and so much to do.  Indeed, in an increasingly busy, complicated and technological world, even “finding time” to be outdoors can be difficult.

In most outdoor sports, chronos time determines victory or measures success.  Whether racing against a competitor or directly against the clock, we are competing in chronos time.  When we race, we are conscious—usually very conscious—of the passage of time.  We wear watches that can keep track of it down to the hundredth of a second, and we time ourselves even in training.

We also, however, can experience kairos-like time in the outdoors.  Upon reflection I believe this may be one of the most important reasons those of us who are attracted to the outdoors spend time there.  In the outdoors time can become metaphysical.  The beauty of outside and our exertion somehow converts ordinary chronos time to kairos-like time or at least may allow us to experience something akin to kairos time. 

Reinhold Messner, the great mountain climber who has spent as much time alone in the mountains as anybody, has stated that while climbing his perception of time could become altered.  Messner has reported that while climbing he has had conversations with his deceased brother, and that at times when at altitude his entire existence seemed to be reduced to nothing more than a single, breathing lung.  Reading through literature, it is apparent that mind-altering or other virtual out-of-body type experiences like this are not that uncommon among extreme outdoor athletes, especially when they are alone and in remote areas.  They also almost universally experience kairos-like time.

A friend of mine who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail once told me that his journey completely altered the way he experienced and viewed time.  “Time was meaningless for me on the trail,” he told me.  This was one of the most memorable and important experiences of his 2000+ mile journey.  When I run, time may become slower and faster—sometimes simultaneously.  Time can seem to palpably slow as my mind relaxes, clears and yet races through thought.  For example, I wrote this entire essay in my mind within a one mile section of the Virginia Creeper Trail while running. 

When we get in “the zone”—and all endurance athletes know what this means—time as we ordinarily experience it is altered or may even seem to stop altogether.  In “the zone” there is a zen-like state of mind, feelings of a sort of euphoria, and temporal freedom.  Our mind relaxes until there is only the pleasantly repetitive, meditative stride while hiking or running.  While cycling, there is only the trance-like pedaling cadence, legs “ticking like a metronome,” as the saying goes.  We don’t always achieve this state of mind on every outing, however when we do it is a truly transcendent experience.  It’s part what keeps us coming back to these activities.

“The zone” has been extensively studied by scientific experts, and its cause is not well understood.  One possible yet inconclusive theory is that it is somehow related to the endocannabinoid system.  Like “the zone,” the phenomenon of kairos-like time in the outdoors has not been scientifically explained.  Are these experiences merely a perception resulting from the mind-altering physiological effects of exercise in the outdoors, an endorphin-induced high no different from the effects of a drug?   Is our perception simply the calming effect of being in nature?  Or is the different kind of time experienced in the outdoors not just a perception, but a reality:  Perhaps the closest we can come to appreciating an actual ordered yet unmeasured kind of time like kairos?

I am thankful for time spent outdoors.  There usually is not any analysis of it, though.  When I come back later than planned from a bike ride, run or hike and my wife asks what happened, I don’t get into a religious, spiritual or philosophical discussion with her.  I just shrug my shoulders and tell her, quite honestly, “I guess I just lost track of time.”