Hidden Valley Reflections

Thanksgiving is tomorrow.  During this time we often reminisce and reflect on what’s happened in the past year and give thanks for the good things we have in our lives.  Along the themes of reminiscence and reflection, here are some tranquil, reflective photos from a trip my son Karl and I took to Hidden Valley Lake one evening in this November.

Reflections on Hidden Valley Lake

We approached the eastern side of the lake just as a series of interesting cloud formations developed in the otherwise clear evening sky.  The lake was very still—there was no wind—and the reflections looking back toward the sun were magnificent.  (Click on any of these photos to enlarge them.)

Shoreline Reflections

The leaves had already mostly fallen, but as can be seen in the above photo, there were still oaks on the far side of the lake that clung to some of their dark auburn foliage. 

Surrounded by Clouds

We were the only two people in the valley.  There was absolute quiet except for the sound of the rushing water in the distance at the dam. 

The air was crisp and had a unique, slightly sweet scent.  I have since come to learn that Hidden Valley at one time may have been a high elevation bog.  There are some unusual plants in the valley that give off the unique scent in the late fall.  I have discussed with Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries that it may be Possum Haw aka Shawnee Haw or Nanny Berry, or it may even be the bark from some of the trees after the leaves have fallen and they are more exposed to the air and sun.

Karl and I went for a hike to explore upper Brumley Creek.  The creek’s headwaters are formed from the lake’s drainage, high elevation springs, and smaller creeks in the valley.

Upon our return, most of the clouds had rolled away.  In the stillness of evening, the lake made an almost perfect reflecting pool.  Faint light and muted features caused the scene to look like an impressionist painting:

Reflecting back on this year, I’ve spent a lot of time in the outdoors with my family.  That’s one thing, among many other things, for which I am thankful.

 

Winter Cometh: The First Snow

Yesterday morning, November 17, we had the first snowfall in Abingdon.  It started after I was already at work, so I didn’t get any pictures of it.  It only snowed for a couple of hours; it was not a particularly heavy snow, and the ground was too warm for any of it to accumulate. 

Unlike many folks, I always enjoy the first snowfall in town, as it means we’re in the season where we’ll see more of it in the mountains as winter approaches.

Snowy Whitetop on October 29, 2011

However, the snow yesterday wasn’t the first this fall in Southwest Virginia.  In the eastern end of Washington County we had noticeable accumlation twice in October.

The first heavy dusting occurred on Saturday, October 1, 2011.  When we were camping at Grindstone last month (see my previous article), the campground host told me that it snowed all Saturday that first weekend of October, and there was significant accumulation all over the north side of Mount Rogers.

Mount Rogers and Whitetop, Late Afternoon, October 2, 2011

By the time I took the photo above, the weekend storm cleared out, the sun warmed the day back into the upper 50s°, and most of the snow had melted off of the mountains. You can still see some remnants on the summit of Mount Rogers (on the left side of the photo).  The scene earlier in the day was more dramatic; it is a strange contrast to see snow on the mountains behind the green, deciduous trees in the valley before they’ve changed into their fall colors.

The last accumulation of snow in the Virginia High Country this past Spring was May 5, 2011 (see photo here).  Therefore, even with the relatively mild fall, those who love snow only had to go four months this year–June, July, August and September–before the sight for sore eyes of a white-encrusted mountain top reappeared in Southwest Virginia.
 
 

Autumn Sun

As the sun reflects the autumnal hues of falling foliage, we no longer take the endless days of summer for granted.  Our appreciation of the sunlight grows as each day becomes shorter. 

The sun bursts through golden foliage in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

Like most natural resources, our conscious awareness of the sun increases in proportion to its scarcity.  A whole sunny week is a nice thing.  On the other hand, a bright, sunny day following a gloomy, rainy week−now that, my friend, is absolutely glorious!

The warmth of the autumn sun is more palpable in some way, too, and parallels the warm colors of the season.  I find myself consciously glancing up to catch the sun’s rays more often in autumn, sometimes as they are cast through the trees. 

Grindstone Campground

This past October 15-17 we camped at Grindstone Campground in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.  This is one of our favorite campsites, and it is somewhat of a tradition that we come here at least once almost every fall. 

The elevation, about 3300′, and the climate here usher in a change in the foliage that is usually a few weeks ahead of the change in the towns and cities of the region. 

We enjoyed fine fall colors, with the brilliant early reds and yellows across the mountains giving way to the finer and more subtle burgundies and golds of late fall.  These are the archetypical colors of Southwest Virginia in autumn. 

Our campsite was flooded with color each morning and afternoon.  The long shadows added texture to the imagery.

Colorful Campsite

One tall oak, larger than all the others, stood sentinel over our tent, leaves and branches rustling as the wind blew through the campsite all weekend.

The autumn sun and its accoutrements−the colors, the shadows, the warm daylight and accompanying cool, crisp nights−these things make fall my favorite season for camping.

There’s a Squatch in These Virginia Woods

Bigfoot has been sighted in Southwest Virginia.  Apparently often.  Usually associated with the mountains in the Pacific Northwest, there have been encounters with bigfoot, or sasquatch, all across this country. 

Huge Bigfoot Carving in Mt. Shasta, Northern California

Earlier last month, I was finishing a hike with a client when we saw an 8′ tall, fur-covered, man-like creature stop on the trail about 100′ in front of us.  Standing but slightly hunched, it turned its head slowly and looked back at us, barred its teeth, and then quickly lumbered away down the hill out of sight. 

Neither of us had our cameras ready.  It happened so fast we were not able to get a photograph of the creature.  Dumbfounded, shocked, and in fear, we just stared down the trail and then back at one another.

Our Encounter

Actually, that’s not what really happened.

Earlier last month, I was finishing a hike with a client when we learned that Animal Planet was getting ready to film a new episode for the second season of the TV show Finding Bigfoot in Southwest Virginia.  This is what really happened:

As we were arriving at the gravel parking lot, a large, white SUV drove up to us.  The blonde driver stated,  “Hi, I’m a TV producer from Los Angeles, and I’m  trying to find out some areas to shoot footage for our television show.”

He pointed to where we were hiking.  He asked, “Do you know who owns this property?”

My client stepped forward.  She said, “I do.”  

Then, gesturing towards me, she said, “And he’s my lawyer.” 

So our conversation began.  We talked for a while, and we learned he was one of the producers of Finding Bigfoot.  

Last week, the local newspaper reported that the TV show had a “casting call” of sorts, where they interviewed individuals who believe they have encountered bigfoot in our region.  According to the Washington County News:

After a short introduction by the show’s cast, the floor was open for local residents to tell their best Bigfoot stories on camera. Most of the witnesses’ stories had the common theme of spotting an extremely tall, broad-shouldered figure while hunting in the woods. One of the hunters was a man from Piney Flats, Tenn., who told a detailed story about how a large, dark figure with long, matted hair walked up to him, looked at him for a moment, then walked away in a zigzag motion.
“With my hand up to heaven I know what I saw,” the man said after he told his story.
A teenager from Saltville told a story about how she saw the familiar dark figure at the top of a hill outside her home, and soon after she made eye contact with it she was hit by a rock that left a sizeable bruise on her right leg. She even brought in a drawing of the creature to show to the cast.

The Bigfoot Phenomenon

The phenomenon of the fascination with bigfoot is itself fascinating.  Like other paranormal phenomenons, such as UFOs, opinions on the existence of bigfoot are polarized.  Either you believe they exist, or you think those who do are freaks. 

Those who believe in bigfoot argue that bigfoot’s existence without definitive human knowledge is not that far-fetched:   There are other phenomena−far larger phenomena−that have existed without human knowledge through the ages.  For example, until the last 10-15 years, many of the world’s tallest waterfalls remained unknown to humankind (the 3rd, 5th, and 16th tallest waterfalls were only recently discovered).  If such large geographical formations could remain hidden, is it not possible that an intelligent humanoid could covertly exist in remote areas of the country?

Huge Yowie Carving, Queensland, Australia

The phenomenon of bigfoot sightings is world-wide.  Individuals around the world swear they have seen the humanoid cryptid.  In Europe the creature has been known through the ages as the “Wildman”; in Asia it is known as the “Yeti” or the “Abominable Snowman”; in Oceania it is known as the “Yowie.”

The great climber, Reinhold Messner, spent several seasons in the Himalaya and had an encounter with the Yeti.  Messner wrote a book about it, My Quest for the Yeti.  Messner ultimately concluded that the Himalyan Yeti was most likely a bear. 

Perhaps most, if not all, human encounters with bigfoot could be explained in some similar fashion−misconceptions about what people saw or thought they saw. 

Bigfoot Sightings in Virginia

In Virginia, there are several organizations dedicated to bigfoot research.  The Virginia Bigfoot Research Organization  boasts of “combining scientific methodology with shamanistic awareness in the hopes of establishing peaceful contact.”  Based in Northern Virginia, VBRO has a large list of encounters with bigfoot in the Commonwealth organized by region.  There are numerous sightings in Southwest Virginia.  Sasquatch Watch of Virginia, another organization, “conducts initial field investigations and field research within areas of reported encounters or habitual recurring encounters.” 

One website purports to map all of the confirmed bigfoot encounters in the United States.  From my review of the maps, there are more bigfoot sightings in the Eastern United States than in the West.  There are numerous encounters near New York City. 

Which brings us to the penultimate question in this article.  Hypothetically, if there are bigfoot in Southwest Virginia, where would they most likely be? 

My guess would be up on Clinch Mountain, in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area, or somewhere near the Virginia-Kentucky state line near Breaks Interstate Park.  These are the most rugged areas of this part of the state, where the squatch could reside with fairly large ranging areas and yet hide from humans.

So, is there a squatch in these Southwest Virginia woods?  I can’t wait to hear the testimonials on the TV show and find out.  And next time you are in the outdoors, be extra aware.  Oh yes, keep your cameras ready, too.

The New River, Part II: Camping and Fishing at Foster Falls

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 Cliff at Foster Falls
Shallow Water and Rocks Visible at the Falls

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

Great Biking

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.

Smallmouth Country

Low water allowed for great wet wading and fishing

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.) 

Isaac nabs a nice 14 inch smallie

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. 

Great Camping

Foster Falls campsite. The New River is seen right behind the campsite.

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.

The Falls Near the Camprground

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. 

"Walk In" 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.

Kayaker Down River from Foster Falls

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.

Someone was stealing the S'mores. Who Was It?

Twin Pinnacles

While the most spectacular hike in Virginia is, in my opinion, the ascent of Wilburn Ridge (as described in one of my previous articles), perhaps the best “bang for the buck” hike in Southwest Virginia is the short hike known as Twin Pinnacles.  This is a 1.6 mile hike in Grayson Highlands State Park.  On September 25, 2011 after visiting the Grayson Highlands Festival my family did this little hike.

View from the Little Pinnacle

The trail begins right behind the Visitor Center.   The trail is a loop that takes you out to two pinnacles, or rock outcroppings, that have great views of the surrounding mountains.  The first pinnacle can be reached in less than 300 yards from the trailhead.   The pinnacles afford 300 degree views.  The view in the above photograph is looking south towards the North Carolina/Tennessee state line.  The view below is toward the north.  The rounded, frasier fir-covered hump at the top of the photo is Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia.

Mount Rogers View
Notice anything unusual in the photo above?  My son Isaac noticed the hawk on one of the outcroppings.  I have circled it below.  You can click on the photo below to enlarge it and see the bird a bit closer.  After a few minutes, it flew away, taking advantage of the thermals that rise up the mountainside.
Large Hawk at the Pinnacles

Looking back towards the north, you can also make out Wilburn Ridge as it rises from Massie Gap and climbs towards Mount Rogers.  In the photo below, it is the rocky ridge on the right side of the photo’

 
Wilburn Ridge View
On the second part of the trail, which involves some up-and-down climbing through some forest, we came across a resident in the middle of the trail who would not move.  Eventually, I had to get a long stick and move it out of the path.  The snake was almost three feet in length.  It was an eastern gartner snake, although I had not seen one this large before.  My daughter was not scared of it, and it seems to have been the most memorable part of the hike for her!
Gartner Snake on the Pinnacles Trail

After the hike, on the way down the mountain in our vehicle we saw a whole group of gobblers crossing the road.  Seeing wildlife like this in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area is not unusual. 

Wild Turkeys

Overall, this was another nice day in the mountains.  The Twin Pinnacles Trail is a bit short in and of itself to justify a long trip to Grayson Highlands State Park.  It is, however, a perfect complement to a picnic or a nice side trip while visiting.  It is also a really good family hike:  Just the right distance for younger children or those looking for a less strenuous, shorter hike with great views.

Specimen Sugar Maple

The colors are starting to really show in the High Country.  This photo of a sugar maple in Grayson County was taken on September 25, 2011.  This weekend and next weekend (October 1-2 and 8-9) will probably be the peak times to view fall foliage in the Southern Appalachians at elevations above 4000′, with mid-October being the peak viewing times for lower elevations in Southwest Virginia.

Sugar Maple at 4500' in Grayson County

Autumn Arrives in Southwest Virginia

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.

View from Skulls Gap of the Valley
View from Skulls Gap of the Valley. Clinch Mountain is barely visible on the horizon.
Skulls Gap Parking Lot

September Rainbows

Rainbow over Whitetop Mountain from 15,000'+

On the evening of September 21, 2011, a series of beautiful rainbows appeared over the mountains.  From Abingdon, they appeared to rise from behind Holston Mountain and Whitetop Mountain.  I took some quick photos of them.  Somewhere 15,000′ or more above sea level in the sky, my friend took a photo of the same rainbows.  I thought it was unique to have these two different perspectives, thus this post.  Compare the photo on the right with the photos below.  It’s amazing that no matter where you were, the rainbows appeared to rise to the heavens. 

Rainbow over Holston Mountain
Rainbow over Holston Mountain. Note the fog in the valley near Tennessee.
 
Rainbow over Abingdon
 
Whitetop Rainbow from 15,000'+