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Flycasting with Lefty

At the end of this summer I was schooled by a scrappy, short-statured octogenarian on flycasting technique.  It was none other than the man, the myth, the legend—Bernard “Lefty” Kreh.  In a field on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Holston River in Southwestern Virginia, Lefty Kreh demonstrated flycasting techniques to a group of about 20 fishermen and women.

Lefty Supervising Casting
Lefty supervising flycasting technique to an experienced fly fisherman.
Tight loops can lead to what all fishermen desire – “tight lines”

If you are or have been seriously into freshwater or saltwater fishing of any kind in the last 45 years, you probably have heard of or run across Lefty Kreh.  He has written a dozen books, written innumerable articles on all types of fishing in most every outdoor magazine, has his own fly, “Lefty’s Deceiver,” a famous saltwater fly, and even has his own line of fly rods.  He is best known for his wealth of knowledge regarding saltwater fishing and fly fishing, especially flycasting.

Lefty Supervising Proper Roll Cast Technique
Lefty Supervising Proper Roll Cast Technique

Lefty may have more knowledge about the dynamics of flycasting than anyone else alive.  The man can cast a fly line 50 feet without a rod (with his bare hands), and he can cast a 5-weight fly line about 100 feet with just the top section (just about 1 foot) of a fly rod.  His casting with a rod appears effortless, although he can explain the physics principles behind what he is able to demonstrate.

Lefty Demonstrating Stress Application to Fly Rod and line based upon rod angles
Lefty demonstrating stress application to fly rod and line based upon rod angles

Lefty taught us both roll-casting and traditional back-casting techniques.

Demonstrating Tying Techniques
Lefty demonstrating leader knots

Lefty also showed us leader-tying knots, knots he has personally tested on his stress-testing machinery.  “The machine doesn’t lie,” Lefty said.   For example, the key to a good clinch knot or improved clinch knot? Six turns.  Not five; not seven—six.

True to form, while demonstrating how to cast a streamer with a sinking flyline, Lefty “accidentally” caught a 12-13 inch smallmouth bass while stripping the line back to demonstrate another cast.

If you ever have the opportunity to meet this man, or get some lessons from him, or just hear some of his stories and be inspired that you can still enjoy the great outdoors with exhuberance after the age of 80 years, I highly recommend participating in one of his clinics or presentations.

Howard and Lefty
Another photo of Lefty and a fly fisherman executing prefect technique

Special thanks to Chris Walters, fellow outdoorsman and fly fisherman, for inviting me to attend this special event.

To the North Pole

This night I did an evening mountain bike ride on the Virginia Creeper Trail.  The sky was clear and the air was cold.

November Moon and Jupiter over Norfolk Southern Railroad, Abingdon, Virginia

Crossing the railroad tracks on Pecan Street, a gigantic November moon appeared to rise directly over the tracks.  By the time I got home and got my camera, the moon had moved slightly and was not quite as dramatic, but still impressive.

In the photo above, Jupiter appears as the largest star in the sky and is to the right over the moon.  Airline contrails reflect the moonlight in both the foreground and background on a northeastern axis, while railroad tracks glisten from the street lamps in town on a northeastern axis.

The scene is reminiscent of The Polar Express, in which children take the train through the night to the North Pole.

Beaverdam Creek

Beaverdam Creek in Virginia, October 20, 2012

This weekend I snuck in a few hours of afternoon fly fishing at Beaverdam Creek.  This creek flows out of Shady Valley, Tennessee and through a wildlife management area within the Cherokee National Forest and into Virginia.  The Virginia portion runs for just a few miles until it enters Damascus, where it crosses right through the main town park.

After catching a couple of rainbow trout, I exchanged my rod for a camera.  Wearing waders, I was able to capture some interesting colors from the middle of the creek.  Note the orange and yellow reflections in ripples in the center of the creek.  The 2012 fall colors have been the best and brightest in years in Southwest Virginia.

Climbing in Downtown Boone, NC

The Footsloggers outdoor store in Boone, NC has a 40′ tall, 4000 square foot climbing tower.  My son Isaac, age 9, enjoys climbing.  Yesterday he did some climbing at the climbing tower. The tower is operated by Rock Dimensions, a climbing service in Boone.

Second Climb at the Tower

The second climb involved a couple of inverted wall sections, where there were angled overhangs.

Second Climb Inverted Section

The final climb was the most difficult.  It required him to reach out and around from a three foot overhang.  As this is one of the most difficult climbs there, a small crowd gathered to cheer him on.  The video below is about 4 minutes. 

Interlude in Bluff, Utah

After the July 20, 2012 visit to Mesa Verde and a surprising, nice find of the Dolores Brewery, Dolores, Colorado, we crossed the Colorado-Utah state line and traveled to the small town of Bluff, Utah.  From here until the end of our ten-day trip across the Colorado Plateau, we would not see a four-lane road.

Orange Sunset Across the Desert in Far Southeast Utah, Photo by Karl Thiessen

This is remote country.  Our destination this evening, Bluff, is about the largest town in the far southeastern part of Utah.  Bluff has about 200 residents.

Joanne, my wife, drove this part of the trip, and actually began to get nervous at how apparently far we were “off the grid.”  We crossed part of the Ute Indian Reservation and crossed over into Utah.  We were driving after the sun went down.  The winding two-lane road crossed small mesas and went down into arroyos (shallow gulches with dry riverbeds) with cut banks taller than grown men.  Everything except the road itself became mostly red dirt.  Joanne was beginning to doubt my claim there was a nice river town called Bluff “just ahead.”

It did not help that we almost ran into a cow.  Yes, a cow—in the middle of the desert.  You see, this country is all open range, meaning there are no (or very few) fences.  Cattle just roam wherever they want, including on the road.  In the late civil twilight, approaching a cow that meanders halfway onto the road at 55 mph can freak you out.  There are “cow signs”, similar to deer crossing signs common in the East, at periodic intervals on the road.  These are not that great of help in avoiding a particular cow however.

We arrived safely though in Bluff, and stopped at the Desert Rose Inn, a nice motel.  Having dropped in elevation from Durango and Mesa Verde, it was definitely warmer in Bluff.  You could still feel the heat at 9:30 PM, about 80F.

Waking the next morning, I took some photos of the desert country.

Desert Dawn: Early Morning Sun Lights Clouds in Cornflower Blue Sky, Bluff, Utah

The quiet in the morning here was wonderful.  I almost thought I could hear the bunny rabbit that greeted me in the morning behind the motel when I was taking pictures.

Cliffs at Bluff, Utah, Reflect Morning Sunlight July 21, 2012

This was just a short interlude before our next adventure, an all-day rafting trip on the San Juan River.

Onto the Green Table: Exploring Mesa Verde National Park

Located in far Southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde is one of the largest and best preserved ancestral Puebloan ruins in the world.  This was the first leg of our trip to the Southwestern United States  in 2012.  After so much planning and driving, we were excited and full of anticipation to finally be visiting our first national park on the itinerary.

Mesa Verde, the “Green Table”, on the right

The park is located about one-half hour west of Durango, Colorado, where we stayed the previous night.  Leaving Durango and heading to Mesa Verde, you travel across the foothills of the San Juan Mountains and down into the high desert.  This was our first taste of the high desert on this trip; indeed,  this was the first time ever that my children had been to a desert of any kind.

The aridity; the dusty, sandy soil; the impressive rock formations; strange trees and plants—the conditions were all so different from back East.  Above all, what set this place apart was the sheer immensity of the landscape.    Having been to Mesa Verde as a child with my parents and brother, I was especially excited to be here now, again, finally able to share this place with my own family.

Mesa Verde – Entrance

From the park entrance, you climb up onto the mesa, the flat-topped mountain.  The two-lane road to the top twists and skirts the edge of the mesa, switchbacking and steadily climbing up onto the top.  It’s a steep and scenic ascent, with some sections of the road wedged into the ramparts of the mesa, with signs prohibiting stopping due to the danger of rockfall.

The San Juans Rise to the North of the Mesa

Atop the mesa are expansive views in all directions.  To the north the San Juan Mountains rise up from the desert.

San Juan Mountains Viewed from Mesa Verde – Close Up

Beyond the mesa to the south, the high semi-desert country is composed of hills and more mesas covered with small shrub like trees.  I was surprised how green the landscape was; it was late July in the desert after all.

Panorama Looking South from Mesa Verde into New Mexico

The park visitor center is a circular shaped building with a deck looking out from the top of the mesa into the canyons below.  Past the visitor center, there is a single road that travels for about 15 miles to two loops in the southern section of the park.  It is here, at the southern end, where the famous ancient cliff dwellings are located.  Archeologists believe the dwellings were inhabited between 600 and 1300 A.D.  It is believed that at some point during this period the population at Mesa Verde may have exceeded 2000 people.  However, archeologists are confident that some time after 1300, perhaps around 1400, the entire population here abandoned Mesa Verde and the cliff dwellings, traveling south or southwest to join with other Native Americans.  Why they left when they did remains a mystery today.

The Puebloan people shifted from a hunter-gatherer people to a predominantly agricultural people, raising corn and beans and domesticating dogs and turkeys.  They continued to hunt larger game, including deer.  They were skillful at basket weaving and, later, at pottery.

The dwellings remained undiscovered until the late 1890s, when some cowboys or prospectors came upon them by accident.  In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Park to preserve the works of mankind.

According to the National Park service, today there are 5000 known archeological sites in the park, although most visitors, like us, come to see one or more of the four famous cliff dwellings:  Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Long House, and Spruce House.

We first visited Cliff Palace, which is probably the most impressive of the cliff dwellings.  We visited an overlook that provided some great views of the Cliff Palace.

Cliff Palace – The Tour

Cliff Palace has 150 rooms, including 15 Kivas, which are circular-shaped rooms that these Puebloan people used for special ceremonial and perhaps religious occasions.

Cliff Palace – Close Up, Showing Kivas

The Puebloan people lived here between 600 and 1400 A.D.  Archeological records show they first lived on top of the mesa, eventually developing significant masonry skills and building stone living quarters.  At some point, probably about 1100 A.D., they moved down into the cliff dwellings and built stone living areas there.  It is theorized they moved because of increased security and temperature regulation in the cliff dwellings.

In the photo below, you can appreciate that the cliff dwellings are toward the top of the mesa, yet about 100 feet below the upper ridge.

Cliff Palace and Cliff Canyon below

In the photo below, you can see the other side of the canyon viewed from Cliff Palace.  Smaller cliff dwellings, perhaps granaries, can be seen on the other side of the canyon above the large boulder-outcropping in the foreground.

Small Dwellings or Grainaries across Cliff Canyon

During the busy summer tourist season, park visitors must obtain tickets at the visitor center to visit the cliff dwellings.  Visitors must be accompanied at all times by Park Rangers on tours; individuals are not allowed to wander about the cliff dwellings by themselves.

We allowed our boys to choose which cliff dwelling they wanted to visit, and they chose the Balcony House because it is supposed to be the most adventurous tour, with several climbing ladders.  With 40 rooms, the Balcony House is smaller than the Cliff Palace, with 150 rooms.

Balcony House Dwelling – On Right

Balcony house is constructed into the sheer cliff on the opposite side of the mesa from Cliff Palace.  Entry to Balcony House by park visitors requires climbing down a set of stairs to an area below the dwellings, then a climb up a series of steps and a very tall, nearly vertical ladder.

Balcony House – Close Up

The ladder is shown in the photos below.  The Puebloan people would have accessed the Balcony House via small indented steps chiseled directly into the cliff face from the top of the mesa.

Balcony House – Highlighted Ladder

The Balcony House was also built with some narrow passages.  It is speculated that the whole Balcony House structure was designed with features like these as fortifications, which would assist in defending it from outside attacks.

The 32′ Balcony House Ladder

Our youngest child was a bit too small to climb up to Balcony House, so she and I went for a two-mile, out-and-back hike to some vista points that looked out to Balcony House; this is how I was able to get the photos like the one above and below, showing the Balcony House dwelling in the context of the massive mesa.  (In the photo below, the cliff dwelling is on the upper right.)

Balcony House, Mesa, and Eastern Canyon, aka Soda Canyon

My daughter enjoyed our little hike,  though her flushed cheeks show the dry heat had an effect on us.  Nothing a couple of Nalgene bottles filled with ice-cold water couldn’t neutralize.  This hike, unlike some others that we did later on this trip, did not require me to carry her.

The interior of the cliff dwellings shows remarkable architecture and masonry, especially considering that these structures were designed and built about 1000 years ago.  It is likely they were the paragon of architecture and construction in North America at this time.  Some of these design elements are still used in modern adobe construction in the Southwest.

Balcony House Interior

The kivas held a special place for the Puebloan people.  Below is one of the better preserved kivas at Balcony House.  The center of the kiva was used to build a fire, while the sides are believed to be benches.


Because of Mesa Verde’s special historical significance, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  By this designation, it is generally considered to be one of most import archeological and historical sites in the world.

If you plan on visiting Mesa Verde, my suggestion would be to give yourself at least one whole day.  The trip to the visitor center and the cliff dwellings will consume the better part of the day.  You could easily spend more than a day here if you have a special interest in the archeology of the Anasazi or Puebloan people.  Fitting in multiple tours within a day can be done; however, it would be almost impossible to visit all four of the major sites in a single day.

What we left with—at least what I hope my children left with, and what I think is a major purpose of the park to inculcate—is not so much a memorization of specific details of the visit, but an overall impression of these impressive structures and their reflection of a relatively advanced civilization of Native Americans that existed long ago, long before Europeans set foot in this continent.  That, and the strange, unsolved mystery of why these people apparently left this amazing place.


Happy 75th Birthday, Appalachian Trail

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.  (To be precise, it was finished on August 14, 1937.)  The trail is 2,180 miles long, has over 250 three-sided “shelters,” and links innumerable other trails through 14 states.

180 Degree View as the A.T. Approaches Thomas Knob Shelter, Mount Rogers, Virginia

For three-quarters of a century people from all over the United States–indeed, from all over the world–have been trekking up and down the Appalachian Trail, or A.T., as most folks in the know refer to it.  In commemoration of this milestone, this weekend I hiked a section of the A.T. between Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.

View from A.T. approaching Mount Rogers’ Spur Trail, at 5500′

Founded by a small group of hikers, particularly one forester named Benton Mckaye, who envisioned an East Coast “super trail”, the Appalachian Trail Conference started work on the A.T. in the 1920s.  By 1930 the trail began to take form as small groups of volunteers worked up and down the mountains of the East.  According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, this was not a government project but the accomplishment of private, local clubs who mapped and routed sections of the trail, negotiated with private landowners and governmental agencies, and did the physical labor to build it in their respective areas.

To this day, although the A.T. is now owned by the governnment, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the many volunteer organizations are critical to the maintenance of the trail. 

View from A.T. into North Carolina it approaches the Mount Rogers’ summit

After World War II, volunteers renewed development of the A.T.  In 1948, Earl V. Shaffer, an Army veteran who served in the Pacific Theater, completed the first “thru hike,” or continuous hike of the entire A.T., reportedly in order to “walk off” the stress of the war.  In the years since, the A.T. has become a cultural phenomenon in addition to being an outdoor experience.  Every year hundreds of individuals from all walks of life attempt to thru hike or section hike part of the A.T., seeking solace, self-exploration, or temporary escape from urbanity on the trail.

Balds on Mount Rogers – Whitetop Mountain Looms to the South

In 1968, the United States Congress passed the National Trails System Act, and the A.T. was the first completed national trail designated a National Scenic Trail.  This added the A.T. to the system of national parks.  The A.T. links two national parks (the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Shenandoah National Park), and includes Abingdon Outdoors’ own Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.  While the A.T. has always crossed the MRNA, the trail used to traverse the Iron Mountains to the north of Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.  It was re-routed over Mount Rogers and Whitetop due to scenic beauty of these highest mountains in Virginia.  The old shelters on Iron Mountain are still maintained as part of the Iron Mountain Trail.

Cabin Creek Bald Panorama in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area

Most folks—like myself—have no intention (at least no immediate intention) of hiking the entire length of the A.T.  Most folks hike part of the trail in a day, or at most over the course of a weekend or for a week or two.  The trail is also frequently utilized by the Boy Scouts and by church and civic groups for hiking and camping trips.

Southbound on the A.T. on Mount Rogers

The trail is designed not to be easy:  It randomly meanders and seldom takes the easiest path from point “A” to point “B”.  At points it certainly appears as if the A.T.’s designers purposely placed obstacles such as rocks and roots in the way.  This keeps the trail challenging.

Root Strewn Section of the A.T.

The A.T. is different things for different people:  A place for solitude and meditation; a place for a communal outdoor experience; a training ground for other pursuits; a naturalist’s place to study flora and fauna.  Perhaps Benton MacKaye best answered the question, “What’s the ultimate purpose of the Appalachian Trail?” 

He said, “To walk.  To see.  And to see what you see.”

Happy Birthday, A.T.  . . . See you on the trail.

View from the Appalachian Trail on Mount Rogers