Saturday, December 9, 2017

Urushiol, Scourge of the Forests

But first, a public service announcement about a certain substance found on three-leafed plants throughout North America--urushiol.

If you've done much in the way of hiking, camping, bushwhacking, orienteering, or any other activity that involves tromping around wooded areas, you've probably come across this plant:

If you're one of the 80% of humans who react on contact with it, it has made your life a living hell for weeks after the fact. And if not, then just you wait--one of these days, you will be.

This three-leafed, hairy vine causes millions of rashes and blisters each year. It grows in an impressive range of climates and soil types: from the Caribbean to the Arctic, and from flood-prone bayous to thin-soiled mountainsides up to 5000' in altitude. It and its sister species account for 10% of all lost-time injuries in the United States Forest Service. And as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase, it's only growing larger and more potent.

I speak, of course, of Toxicodendron radicans, known to most folks as poison ivy.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

VA County Highpoint: Comers Rock, Wythe County (4080')

A couple of weeks after that, I found myself in Wytheville for the weekend with a friend. We had some time to kill, so I suggested we hike the high point of the county, Comers Rock.

I'd tagged a couple of Virginia county highpoints while chasing other goals (Mt. Rogers, naturally, is the high point of Grayson and Smyth Counties, and Hawksbill Mountain tops off Page and Madison), but this was the first one I'd done intentionally.

We took US-21 south into the easternmost arm of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and pulled off at the forest road to the summit:

Not suitable for passenger cars, but we saw several ATV'ers on our way up.

The road took us up through a valley, around a peak:

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Signal Knob, VA (2106')

In the early autumn, I headed out to the Massanutten Mountains for a bit of weekend backpacking.

If you've never heard of them, the Massanuttens are a fifty-mile-long range (or a single fifty-mile-long mountain, depending on who you ask) smack-dab in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley. They're the easternmost in Virginia's slice of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians, a family of long, steep-sided, flat-topped ridges that pop up between the Blue Ridge and the Appalachian Plateau from southeastern New York to Alabama. Their shape is quite distinctive, as you'll see in this aerial photo (not my work):

...which contrasts them with the Blue Ridge to the east (right).

But I grew up attending a summer camp in the Massanuttens, so until I was much older than I'd care to admit, I thought all mountains looked like that.

The range tops out at 2922', a thousand feet lower than its eastern neighbors. That altitude disparity, and the lack of roads and developed campgrounds atop the ridges, spare them the crowds that flock to Shenandoah National Park. But there's still plenty to see in the Massanuttens: the range is full of trails and gullies and scrambles and weird little microbiomes that range from quasi-krummholz to cacti.

After considering a couple of spots, I settled on Signal Knob, the northernmost tip of the range and a five-mile, ~1000' hike from the valley floor. I'd driven past the peak dozens of times (it's clearly visible from the single-digit miles of I-66), but I'd never stood on top of it.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Waterfalls at Ocoee, TN (~900')

Later that week, my friends and I drove out to a little trail not far from the shores of Ocoee Lake, a hydroelectric reservoir on the western edge of Cherokee National Forest. My friend from Chattanooga had taken me up this way before; he recommended it again as a short, gentle hike that would fall within our joint athletic ability (there's a reason I only took one of these friends up Roan Mountain).

As you can see from the sign, the Clemmer Trail's main attraction is a pair of waterfalls along Rock Creek, one of the many mountain streams that feeds the lake. The area is also frequented by mountain bikers, though we were fortunate enough to not run into any of them while traveling uphill.

The trail started off with a fairly steep ascent, but soon leveled off into a wide, flat creek valley. It continued thus for a bit under two miles:

then, as the mountain walls closed in, it switched us back and forth across the creek until we came to the first waterfall:

Friday, September 8, 2017

Huckleberry Knob, NC (5560') ...and the Great American Eclipse

Chattanooga--and my friend there--proved quite hospitable. My hiking buddy and I arrived at his place in the late afternoon; later that evening, another pair of friends from Northern Virginia joined us. We spent the next day resting from our various drives and lives, then turned in early that night.

Our plan for the following day was to drive up the Cherohala Skyway to the bald summit of Huckleberry Knob, the high point of the Unicoi Mountains. Though a thousand feet lower and much less prominent (both topologically and in terms of renown) than its northern cousins, the Smokies, that peak was smack-dab in the middle of the Great American Eclipse's path of totality. On any other day, it'd be a gentle 1.2-mile stroll from the Skyway--pleasant, no doubt, but hardly worth a ten-hour drive--but for two minutes and thirty-eight seconds, starting at 2:35 pm on Monday, August 21, 2017, the sun above that mountain was going to disappear. And we planned to be under it.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Southern Sixers: Roan Mountain, NC/TN (6267', 6286', and 6189')

The Friday before the 21st, a friend and I headed south from Northern Virginia, hoping by our early departure to beat the worst of the eclipse-weekend traffic. As far as I know, we did, but there were still about twice as many accidents as usual along I-81 southbound through the Valley. Things cleared up somewhat once we hit the plateau west of Blacksburg, and they stayed that way until Bristol...

...where our route happened to take us past the Speedway on a race day. The two-mile stretch of US-11 running past it was lined with parking lots, carnival tents, and streams of pedestrians homing in on the racetrack. Even if that 162,000-seat stadium was only half full (which it might well have been; the night's race was only a minor one), it held a crowd one-sixth the size of the population of the Bristol-Kingsport-Johnson City region, all of whom had turned out in their best on that drizzly summer evening to watch a bunch of cars drive loops around a half-mile track. I guess you have to grow up out there, in NASCAR country, to get it.

My friend and I, however, drove on by. Our reason for detouring off the interstate lay further down the road, up US-19E among the western slopes of the Blue Ridge--which, after a summer wasted in the flatlands, looked so rugged and green and beautiful that I could barely keep my eyes on the road. But I did, and shortly before dusk we arrived at the base of Roan Mountain, a twenty-mile ridge along the TN-NC border home to three peaks above 6000 feet and the longest grassy bald in the southern Appalachians--and conveniently located two-thirds of the way to Chattanooga, our base of operations for the eclipse.

The campsite I'd reserved in Roan Mountain State Park, one of only three available when I'd picked it out two days before, turned out to be an RV site:

Note the utter lack of soft, flat ground suitable for pitching tents.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Heads Up!

Tomorrow morning, the Lars and I are heading south to catch a glimpse of the Great American Solar Eclipse (August 21--this Monday!).

Along the way, we're hoping to take in a few of the Southern Sixers and some other points of geologic interest in east Tennessee. Polish up your reading glasses for more Larvitour!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Whiteoak Canyon and Hawksbill Mountain, VA (4011')

Back in April, I decided to treat myself to a backpacking trip in Shenandoah National Park for my birthday. The plan was to hike in from the east via Whiteoak Canyon, swing around to tag the high point of the park, 4011-foot Hawksbill Mountain, and then continue down the Appalachian Trail to Big Meadows Campground, where I'd camp for the night. I'd spend the next day making my way back to my car however I felt like it, perhaps by way of the deliciously sinister-sounding Dark Hollow Falls?

I rearranged my work schedule, cleared my social calendar, packed my bags, and waited...

...until the day of, when I checked the weather and saw it was scheduled to thunderstorm every night that weekend. Discretion is the better part of valor; I stayed in town. Work kept me homebound through the next two weekends, and more thunderstorms through a third... would I ever get to take this trip?

I finally set out on the 19th, nearly a month later than intended. Despite the delays, I was excited: it would be my first proper backpacking trip, my first chance to use the Osprey overnight pack that had spent four years holding hats in my closet. Whatever happened out there, it would be an adventure.

To get there, I retraced the route I'd taken to Old Rag Mountain that winter; the Whiteoak trailhead was just a few miles south from there off VA-231. The drive was uneventful except for a tense moment when a family of geese waddled onto US-211 right in front of my car. I braked hard and managed to stop just in time. The poor gander wound up three feet from my bumper, honking his head off as if he'd had the right of way. (Maybe he thought he had?)

As I approached the mountains, I noticed that their upper ridges still looked brown compared to their lower slopes. The leaves had come in weeks ago back home; had they not yet up there?

Soon after, I pulled into the Whiteoak Canyon parking lot, which was tucked into a narrow stream valley at the end of Weakley Hollow Rd.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Old Rag Mountain, VA (3291')

Arceus, that last post was long. I'm never going to post a 4000-worder again... and, honestly, I could say the same for crossing a continent by car in six days. But the trail goes on, and the hikes continue.

For a while now, whenever I've told people either that I'm from Virginia (while climbing a mountain) or that I climb mountains (while in Virginia), they've always asked if I've climbed Old Rag Mountain. I'd heard of it, of course: that it was one of the most-hiked trails in Shenandoah National Park, so popular that lines formed on the way to the summit on clear summer days, and that it ended in a mile-long rock scramble (over what, little crumbly rocks? How tough could it be if it was below treeline in Virginia?). But until recently, I'd never felt the urge to climb it, mostly due to those notorious crowds. What made that mountain any better than the several dozen other peaks in SNP? All that praise had to be hype, and all those hikers just a bunch of trend-following, day-tripping yuppies too lazy to look up other hikes in the area.

But when I finally pushed myself out to see Old Rag this (unseasonably warm) January, I learned I was wrong... oh, boy, was I wrong.

(New readers: that's kind of a theme of this blog, me being wrong about things.)

The trail up Old Rag begins at the mountain's dedicated trailhead/parking lot, three quarters of the way up VA-600 on the east side of SNP, just south of Sperryville. My middle brother (still on break from college) and I arrived around noon to find it nearly empty:

Note the huge capacity.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Driving Across the Continent in December (~100-6329')

After all that fuss over the mold in my car, I knew I couldn't make it through another five months of Redmond rain. It was time to head home to the East Coast, where I could cuss my way through horrible traffic underneath blue skies again.

So I packed my stuff and plotted my eastward route. This being December, I figured I'd stick to the interstates--no sense detouring to parks when everything's closed for the season--and take I-90 to I-25 to I-80 to I-29 to I-70 to I-64 to I-81 to I-66 to home. Quite the simple trip, compared to how I'd gotten there.

And then I called my parents to tell them my plans. "Are you going to need tire chains for that?" my dad asked. "And what about the weather?" my mom added. "Is it safe to drive? What if you get caught in a snowstorm?"

Snow? Tire chains? I hadn't even thought of those. Nothing had frozen down in Redmond... but the Cascades were a completely different story. I looked into it and learned that Snoqualmie Pass (I-90's route through the range) had already received dozens of feet of snow that fall. East of there, I'd need to cross three major passes through the Rockies: Lookout Pass on the Montana-Idaho border, Homestake Pass over the Continental Divide, and Bozeman Pass east of Bozeman, MT. And, as I'd learned on my westward trip, the Great Plains were prone to blizzards and ice storms as far south as Kansas. Snow and sub-freezing temperatures were a certainty; the only question was how much I'd get... and whether my little front-wheel-drive sedan could make it through.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Rattlesnake Ledge, WA (~2040')

My friend and I did eventually make it out to Rattlesnake Ledge, and it was exactly what you'd expect of the North Cascades in late autumn: foggy, wet, and covered in moss.

The trail began in Rattlesnake Lake State Park, 45 minutes southwest of Redmond and just off I-90. There was no obvious hiker parking, so we followed the loop road through the park and wound up in a boat trailer spot. It was cool, though; the place was practically deserted, despite it being a Saturday.

From there we moseyed down to the lakeshore to get our bearings:

and got our first look at the Ledge.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Adventures in Moisture Management, or How Not to Store Your Gear

So the friend I stayed with up in Redmond has a nifty little place by the shores of Lake Sammamish:

It's in a pretty nice neighborhood (if a bit crowded for my tastes), and there's a huge park a mile or so up the road with just about everything one could ask for: playgrounds, sports fields, historic buildings, a birdwatching trail, a leash-free area for dogs (they briefly coincide, which leads to some interesting interactions), a velodrome, and even a climbing wall:

Which I... erm... can't quite get up in my sneakers. Yeah. That's it. Totally the shoes' fault.

All in all, the place was quite lovely for my first month and a half there:

But as September drew to a close, the days grew overcast. To the east, the Cascade Range hid itself in a heavy haze. Clouds rolled in from the Pacific, clustering above us like schoolchildren after a summer apart.

And then, at the stroke of midnight on October 1, the rain began.