Signs of Spring

As a naturalist, I feel that I should love all parts of nature.

Mostly, I do.

There are two things I struggle with:

  1. Fear of animals that can kill me, and
  2. February.

I’m trying, I really am, but February is just the coldest, grayest, darkest, most desolate of months.  I think somebody put Valentine’s Day in February in an effort to cheer people up with fat little cupids and chocolate (epic fail).

But, joy to the world, this February hasn’t been so bad!  I even started seeing early signs of spring a week ago.  Here are a few to get your hopes up before the NRV gets pounded by it’s standard end-of-season, first weekend of March snow storm:

  • Robins!  A robin in a tree is a winter sighting, my mom says, but a robin on the lawn is a spring sighting.  I saw one in a tree yesterday, but one on my lawn several days ago.  Go figure.  I’m counting it as one in the early spring column.
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An American robin (Turdus migratorius) that I photographed last year in Heritage Park.

  • Grackles!  The 40-foot yellow birch tree across the street was filled with a flock of at least 50 common grackles three days ago.  They’re one of the first songbirds to return in the springtime.  This flock may still be on its way further north, but I’m counting it!
Common Grackle

A common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) photographed by Jacopo Werther and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  • Crocuses blooming!  Okay, I know these aren’t wildflowers, but they are one of spring’s earliest bloomers, and they’re just so pretty!
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Hello, crocuses! These brave little blossoms are peaking up out of my messy-for-the-wildlife winter garden. Ain’t they grand???

Heart In Two Places

Well, it’s really happening.

I’m moving.

My husband met with his future colleagues last Monday at Patuxent River Naval Air Station (“PAX” to the larger world, “NavAir” or “the base” to the locals) in southern Maryland and it was a mutual admiration fest.

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A view of the Patuxent River through the car window from the Thomas Johnson bridge on a cold and rainy February afternoon.  Look how big!

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we went house hunting and found not one, but two homes we love, both with woods in the back yard.

Our daughter has picked out her room in either home; one of them has a dormer window and we’ve promised to build her a little window seat so she can have her own special reading nook there.

The most amazing part?  I’m actually excited.

I have been dreading this move for four years.  NavAir paid for my husband’s advanced degree, allowing us to move back to Blacksburg for four years – a dream come true for me.  I’m a Hokie, my husband’s a Hokie and a townie, my sister and brother-in-law are Hokies, as are my brother and sister-in-law.  We know why the trees turn orange and maroon in the fall, because Virginia Tech is heaven on earth and God’s a big fan, too.

These mountains, this old New River, this small, smart, bustling town – here is the home of my heart.

I knew when we moved here that our allotted four years would fly too fast, but I never imagined that these next four (or hopefully, 10) years might be seriously lovely, too.  And it turns out they really might.

On our short, rainy, cold visit to southern Maryland, the natural world reached out and pulled me right in.

There are woods – real woods! – complete with sturdy old white oaks, maples in early bud, and countless sweet gum trees and loblolly pines.

There are hills!  I had expected only flat marshland, which would be fine, but I love hills – I think it’s the surprise of not knowing what comes next.

There are jetties and breaks made of chair-sized boulders.  There are sandy beaches strewn with clam shells and claret colored seaweed.

There are three rivers all coming to meet the Chesapeake Bay:  the Patuxent, the St. Mary’s, and the Potomac, all big and wide and deep and powerful.

And the place is just as truly alive as my mountains are.  I can feel it pulsing just below the limits of my hearing, keeping time with my heart.

On our short visit, I saw and heard:

  • A juvenile bald eagle buzz less than 20 feet over the roof of the car at Point Lookout State Park.
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A bald eagle (Haliaeeatus leucocepphalus) must wait four years for its brilliant white head feathers, but identifying a juvenile isn’t so hard; the size of the bird is one thing and the size of that schnoz is another! Photo taken by KetaDesign and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

  • A flock of at least 100 bufflehead ducks, who, by the way, look exactly like duckie stuffed animals dressed in white-on-black tuxedos by a five-year-old putting on an imaginary gala.

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    A bufflehead duck (Bucephola albeola) captured by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren and provided via Wikimedia Commons. Now imagine a hundred of them floating on little bay waves, chattering. Quite the fancy dress party!

  • A loon and a grebe and innumerable ring-billed gulls.
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Ring billed gulls (Laurus delawarensis) are the Goldilocks of gulls; not too big and not too small. Easy to spot by their black wingtips and the black “ring” around their bright yellow beak. Photo taken by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  • A jellyfish with a peachy-pink center, likely a moon jelly, but I haven’t positively identified it yet, slowly bouncing through crystal clear waters.

 

Redhead, Laguna Madre Nature Trail, South Padre Island, Texas

Redhead (Aythya americana) duck photographed by www.naturespicsonline.com and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

The challenge for the next few months will be making enough room in my head and heart to be fully present in mountain spring while imaging a bright, bayside summer.

First Day Hike

Happy New Year to me – today I won at hiking.

I know what you’re saying – hiking is not a competitive sport.  Read on and find out – today I got the win in a big way.

My daughter, Abbey, and I drove thirty minutes down to Hiwassee, Virginia to participate in the annual Virginia State Parks First Day Hike along a section of the New River Trail State Park.

The day was gray and colder than it’s been in weeks.  I was a little surprised that the nine-year-old wanted to go, but she hopped in the car with me enthusiastically.

This was a tough hike to sell to a kid – three miles round trip without a mountaintop view at the end, in weather far too cold to play in any trailside streams, and there was no guaranteed (or even promised) wildlife.  Not much incentive.

Still, we arrived happily (if unusually, for me, anyway) on time, though most of the other 70ish hikers had raced ahead while we were parking.  Abbey and I met our hosts at the end of the parking lot and were advised that we could walk down the New River Trail for a mile or so to the head of the new side trail the group would hike, or wait in the parking lot for the van to come back and take its next load of passengers.

It was 32 degrees and windy.  I chose walking to warm us both up.

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This beautiful little stream only has another 100 yards to go before it will join the New River.

It really was a full mile.  She was bored after the first half mile and the “how much longer” question was posed in a variety of ways.  I answered noncommittally, buying time.

Finally we found the state-vehicle-white-with-blue-license-plate van and a private property gate open allowing us access to an uphill gravel trail.  Obviously the last load of van riders beat us to the trailhead.  I had no idea how far behind we were, but catching up meant keeping a steady pace uphill while also keeping Abbey engaged looking for tracks in the wet, red clay at the sides of the gravel road.

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Deer track! There were plenty of these scattered all along the length of the trail.

And so we went, spotting deer tracks and dog tracks, and deer, coyote, and raccoon scat.

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Based on my Internet research, I feel fairly sure in my identification of this scat as coyote scat. Check out all the fur in it! If you want to argue for bobcat or fox, though, let me know in the comments.

We were maybe five minutes past the gate when we heard a loud rustling in the woods between us and a meadow we were passing.  We both stopped.

“What was that,” Abbey asked incredulously.

“Probably just some deer” I replied, having gotten my hopes up for spotting other large mammals one too many times.

“Sounds bigger than a deer,” she said, confident.  “I think it’s a bear.”

“No, I bet it’s just several deer,” I said, as if seeing a herd of white-tailed deer up close weren’t particularly cool.  (For the record, a close encounter with a herd from inside our cabin in the Grayson Highlands sent me over the moon a couple of weeks ago.)

And the the rustling crash came again, about 50 feet behind us.  We turned around just in time to see a full-grown black bear (Ursus americanus) sow run across the wide trail.  We were frozen with our mouths hanging open, staring at the empty space where the bear just been, when what came to fill that space but a little bear cub running to catch up with mama!

Oh!  My brain was reeling.  “I just saw mama bear and baby bear in the wild!” I was completely exhilarated.

And that’s when cub number two followed the family across the road.

Two cubs!  Lucky us, I thought, we actually got to see a mama with her twins!

Then cub number three and, seconds later, cub number four ran by.

Four cubs.

Five bears.

Holy crap!!!

We waited silently to be sure the fourth cub was the last, then we calmly resumed hiking uphill . . . smiling like birthday kids with cake and letting our thoroughly blown minds settle back into working order.

Holeeeeeee crap!!!

I had only ever seen a black bear in the wild once before.  It was from inside a state vehicle the summer I worked for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, seventeen years ago.

These bears were no more than 20 yards away from us.  The big group of hikers must have scared the bears out of crossing, and when we last two, fairly non-threatening humans passed, Mama Bear felt safe enough to gather the cubs and run.

Did I mention holy crap?!

(This is where a picture of the black bears would go if I’d had the time or brain to take my camera out.  I did not.)

We caught up with the main group about 15 minutes later, spurred to finish the end of the (very, very uphill) hike just so we could share our amazing bear experience.

When we reached the end of the trail, we learned all about the Hoover Color Corporation, whose recently donated former mining site we had been hiking.  We stared across a man made canyon and over at a wall of Virginia clay in every shade of yellow, orange, and red.

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Check out those reds, oranges, and yellows! Clay colored by the iron particles within it. Also, for perspective, those are full sized (40+ feet) trees that have fallen down the hill on the right side of the photo.

Hoover Color took the site over in the early 20th century from an iron ore mining company, and made its money selling pigments straight from that ferrous clay.

Hoover Color is, to this day, the largest provider of pigments such as ocher, umber, and sienna.  Only now they don’t need to mine the clay; they can extract their pigments while simultaneously cleaning up acid mine tailing and waste.  That’s why they’ve donated the old mining land.  Now that’s a company doing right by Mother Nature.

Yes, that company is excellent, but they didn’t win the hike.

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A gorgeous, gray view of Draper Mountain in the distance, seen from the farthest point of the hike.

Abbey and I won that hike.  We may have been last up the hill, but we were the only ones who saw bears!

We finally caught up to the Department of Conservation and Recreation ranger as the hike ended, and immediately shared the joy of our sighting.  He was pleased, but not surprised (which is exactly how you want a ranger to react).

It’s been so warm these past few months that the black bears haven’t begun to den up and sleep for the winter.

“But four cubs?” I asked.  I thought bears could only have single cubs or twins.

The ranger replied that sow bears will adopt cubs who’ve lost their family, so this sow was likely caring for her own twins as well as somebear else’s.  Wow.  Maybe she wins.

Still I don’t mind taking second place to that mama bear, because if the first day of January was this incredible, 2016 is gonna be a helluva year!

 

 

Grayson Highlands State Park in Pictures

GHSP - Sugarland Overlook

The view east-northeast from the Sugarland Overlook just off of the main park road.  The overlook gets its name from the many sugar maple (Acer saccharum) trees found on the slope, which can be tapped for sweet sap that’s boiled down to make pure maple syrup.  The mountains in the far distance on the right are part of the Blue Ridge.

GHSP - ice columns

A huge section of needle ice found at the beginning of the Rhododendron Trail and enthusiastically flipped over by my husband and daughter.  These are actually ice columns (“needles”) that have pushed up a layer of soil.  My family was inspired to turn them over to get a better look at these hundreds of miniature ice stalagmites.  Needle ice forms when the ground temperature is above freezing, but the air at the ground surface is below freezing.  Capillary action in the soil pulls water to the surface (or within a centimeter or so of the surface, in this case) where it freezes.  As the process continues, more and more water is pulled up and frozen, growing upward until it either lifts soil particles or raises a section of soil altogether, as it’s done here.

GHSP - frost formations

Here we see another batch of ice needles, but these have either penetrated through the soil or been rearranged by other hikers.  Note the interesting curves; to see even more amazing ice formations, search the Internet for images of “hoarfrost” and “frost flowers.”

Seven Layer Mountains

I count seven “layers” of ridges fading into the distance.  This kind of vista is one of my favorite things about the Virginia Appalachians.  This shot was taken looking southwest from the Rhododendron Trail; somewhere out there is the Virginia/Tennessee/North Carolina border.

GHSP - our first pony

This is the first pony we saw, resting in the sunshine about 50 yards off of and not even a quarter mile up the trail.  We were lucky to find several ponies; there are no guarantees that you’ll see part of the 100+ member herd.

GHSP - three ponies

Can you see all three ponies?  There’s a black coffee colored pony with a platinum blonde mane on the left, a milk chocolate and cream pony in the middle, and a dark chocolate pony on the right.  They stand about 4 feet tall at the shoulder, though we did see one or two who were a bit larger.

GHSP Pony 1

The ponies didn’t seem to mind us getting up close and personal, though park signs warn that they will bite and/or kick if “harassed.”  We followed general rules for safe behavior around horses:  don’t stand behind them or approach quickly from behind, keep hands and fingers away from their faces, don’t touch them in any way that you wouldn’t want to be touched.

GHSP - rockstar pony

I was incredibly reluctant to let our daughter touch them at all, but in the end, the ponies paid no attention to her careful, gentle petting.  This rockstar pony was the first she touched and the only one I touched.  Her coat was incredibly thick and furry, good for the formidable winters atop the highest mountains in Virginia.  (In fact, Virginia’s two highest peaks, Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, are visible from the park.)

GHSP - big pinnacle and ponies

Here are two more ponies we watched, captured with the “Big Pinnacle” peak in the background.  The herd is managed by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association, who sees to necessary veterinary care for the animals and keeps the herd size steady with annual pony auctions in the fall.

GHSP - waterfall

We hiked only one other trail in the park on this visit, but it was the perfect one:  the Cabin Creek Trail.  The trail is a 1.8 mile spur and loop that leads down to (what else?) Cabin Creek and upstream where a series of small falls leads up to this 25 foot cascade.  We sat happily on huge boulders in the middle of the stream watching this falls and dreaming about coming back to the park in summer, when we might dare to wade and even (gasp!) swim in these frigid, crystalline mountain waters.

 

Hanging Out at Hanging Rock

If you want to see golden eagles, bald eagles, broad-winged and red-tailed hawks practically at eye level, soaring on mountain winds to their southern, winter roosts, Hanging Rock Observatory in West Virginia is the place to go.

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The view from the western side of the observatory tower, looking north.

Birders from all over the region make pilgrimages there every fall (migratory bird numbers peak in late September and October) to get their fill of raptors (birds of prey).  The bird spotters who volunteer at the tower identifying and counting birds record huge numbers; check out their season totals and maximum daily counts for 2015:

I’m kicking myself for not making it out to Hanging Rock before this last weekend.  Migration peak has definitely passed.

Then again, migrating raptors may be the headliner, but they aren’t the only story in this clear, crisp autumn day.

The Drive

It takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to get from Blacksburg, VA to the trail head.  The directions consist of three roads:

  1. Take Route 460 past Pembroke.
  2. Turn right onto Route 635 (Big Stony Creek Road), enjoy excellent winding country drive for almost an hour, when you’ll reach Waiteville, WV.
  3. Turn left onto Limestone Hill Road and drive four switchback miles up the mountain till you reach the gravel parking lot with the Hanging Rock sign.

The scenery on the drive is heaven for a mountain-lover like me, and the curves on the road are pure exhilaration.  (This is why there are no pictures of the journey; I was having too much fun driving.)

Fair warning, though, there aren’t places to stop for liquid intake or, um, output, so take provisions and make sure everybody hits the head before you leave.

Second fair warning:  as you may have guessed from the name of Rt. 635, it follows Big Stony Creek for miles and miles.  There are places to pull off and park, and any kid (or middle aged nature nerd, come to think of it) will want to climb down and play in the creek for a while.  Plan some extra time for it; that’s easier than finding child-sized blinders.

The Mountain

Once you’ve arrived in the parking lot, you’re a little more than half way there.

No, seriously.

The .9 mile hike is no joke.  Remember how I described the Gateway Trail in Blacksburg as “a lot of up“?  Yeah, this one may be worse.  The website claims that the hike takes 20 to 40 minutes depending on ability.  Let me translate:  20 minutes for extremely fit mountain goats, at least 40 minutes for the rest of us, who end up feeling like mountain cows.

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You can see that someone has scratched out the .9 distance to the lookout.  I have no doubt that this was done by a bitter, exhausted hiker who wanted the signpost to reflect the “feels like” miles trail, which would be more in the neighborhood of 2.5.

This trail is actually a section of the Allegheny Trail.  It rises about 350 feet to the ridge where the tower sits at 3,800 feet.  Unfortunately, it’s not a steady climb like the Gateway trail.  The first 100 yards are straight-up murder.  Then they throw a fairly flat stretch in.

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A chipmunk I spotted on the trail is sitting smack dab in the center of this photo.  Can you see it?  Try blowing the photo up to full size by clicking on it.  The chipmunk’s brown fur with black stripes provides excellent camouflage in the dead leaves on the forest floor.

Then some more murder.  Then a flat stretch to give you hope.  At the end of that stretch you see the sign “Hanging Rock Observatory .5 miles” and your hope dies like an ingenue in a soap opera.

 

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This is a huge sandstone outcrop that you’ll pass on the trail.  Taking a photo of it is a great excuse to stop for a minute and catch your breath.

Then the trail gets really rocky, so you can use the (completely valid) excuse of watching your step in order to survive the next murderous incline, which seems to go on forever.  Finally, oh, joy, you see the sign that says turn left for the observatory.  And then you look left and see one last insane incline.  You stifle tears, really creative curses, and maniacal laughter and head up.

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Joy of joys, I’m almost there!  Just one more quadricep-killing uphill.

 

You reach the sandstone ridge of massive, overhanging boulders, for which Hanging Rock was named (but, more importantly, which are excellent for leaning against as you attempt to catch the breath that left you a quarter mile ago) then walk the last 30 flat-ish yards to the clearing.  You can see promising blue sky and the observatory building and they inspire you to pick up your pace.  You reach the building, and see at last:  you have another two flights of steps to climb to get to the observation platform.  You briefly consider burning the whole damn thing down, but you’ve come this far, so you make the climb.

And it is so, so, so worth it!

The View

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The view from the observatory building facing northeast.  The setting November sun cast the shadow of the tower over the ridge line. Pictures can’t do it justice.

You are now standing atop Peters Mountain, the longest continuous mountain in the Appalachians, stretching over 50 miles between river gaps.

Facing northeast, you have Spring Creek valley on your left and Potts Mill Creek valley on your right.

 

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Potts Mill Creek Valley and the valley and ridge stretching out to the east/southeast into Virginia.

This is the geographic and geologic transition point from the Valley and Ridge area of Virginia to the Appalachian Plateau of West Virginia.  The roller coaster of ridge and valley stretches out past Potts Mill valley to the east and the high peaks of the plateau make the land to the west look like the bumpy skin of a mountainous gourd.

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Spring Creek Valley and the bumpy Appalachian plateau stretching out to the north and west.

It looks exactly like one of those plastic raised relief maps come to life.  Which it exactly what it is, of course, but seeing it in person sooooo cool.

The Birds

And then, once the little lights stop swimming in front of your eyes from the hike, you see them:  the raptors are soaring on mountain updrafts, headed south, and coming straight toward you!

In my short time in the tower (about an hour, I think), I saw four red-tailed hawks making the trip south.  One of the volunteer birders (and Allegheny Highlands Chapter Virginia Master Naturalist) loaned me his binoculars (I’ve stopped taking my set hiking; they’re old and really heavy) so that I could witness the hawks “kiting” for the first time.

I’m used to seeing hawks waiting patiently on a tree branch or fence post next to an open field, as still as statues until they spot prey, then making a quick swoop in for the kill.  Kiting is very different.

Migrating hawks don’t have the leisure of landing and waiting for the chance of a meal.  It takes too much energy, which they’re trying to conserve.  They hunt on the wing by acting like a kite.  When kiting, a hawk faces into the wind (in this case, the wind moving up the mountain) and makes tiny adjustments in its wing posture to keep its position steady while the wind holds it up – no energetic wing flapping required.  Holding still in mid-air, like a kite tethered to the ground, the hawk is able to get a good view of the open valley and spot prey from the air .  (Their vision is 8 times better than ours – think 20/160; they can see something 160 feet away as well as we see it at 20 feet away.)  It only swoops down, then, when the meal is guaranteed, and the energy from the food in its belly will pay for the energy it takes to flap back up and into the steady winds aloft that will allow it to soar south.

Between red-winged hawk sightings, the ravens kept my eyes and brain plenty busy.  They flitted and frisked all over the mountaintop, seemingly playing in the turbulent winds at the top of the ridge.  I got to watch one making its low, gravelly babble call while it flewTwice.

Though next year I’ll try to get to one of these migration funnel points – places where the geography tends to gather migrating birds in big numbers, such as long mountain ridges they can soar or bits of land between open waters – earlier in the season to see more birds, I’m delighted with what I saw from Hanging Rock even this late in November.  And, had I been able to stay longer, I might have seen even more.  The total counts my birder/Master Naturalist friend made that day were:

  • 1 Bald Eagle
  • 5 Golden Eagles
  • 29 Red-tailed Hawks
  • 2 Sharp-shinned Hawks

My bird count for the day may have been just 4 red-taileds, but I also count 70 minutes of good hiking exercise (yes, the trail back took me 30 minutes – my legs felt like leaden rubber bands), innumerable lungfuls of fresh, cold mountain air, two pretty pink cheeks from the brisk wind, and one mind as empty of stress as the bright blue autumn sky.

 

 

PS – I also spotted a cairn on the trail.  Another stop-for-breath photo opportunity.

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These stacked rocks are called a cairn;  a bit of nature art/architecture left by a previous hiker.  They’re cool to look at and fun to build, but naturalists will tell you that they’re not so good for wildlife.  Animals need those rocks to hide under to escape predators in the summer and escape killing cold winds in the winter.  There’s nowhere to hide in a cairn.  If  you feel inspired to build one, do, but then put the rocks back where you found them before you leave.  Take only pictures, leave only footprints.

 

 

Gooooooing Up – The Gateway Trail

“So, Mom, when are we leaving for our hike?”

This is an underrated advantage of having children:  they remind you that weekends aren’t just for house and garden chores, but for doing those things you want to do “if you have time”.

And we had time.  But just barely.  It was already 5:30 p.m. on Sunday and it’s getting dark around 8:00 p.m. now (Hallelujah!  I love long days!) and I knew the Gateway Trail was at least a mile long.  Well, I thought, even if we walk as slow as two miles per hour, a snail’s pace compared to our flatland clip of 3.5 to 4 mph, we’d be up and back in less than two hours.

Excitement and hope are often enablers of temporary amnesia and wishful thinking.

Still, we had to move quick if we were going to make it, so I (self-sacrificing mother that I am) skipped the shower that I badly needed and settled for an extra couple of swipes of deodorant.  Clinical strength deodorant.

We kissed the hubby/daddy goodbye, grabbed our shoes and my hiking pack and were out the door in under ten minutes.  We arrived at the trail head in another ten. (Or less – have I  mentioned that there are trails everywhere near Blacksburg and that it is the best place on Earth?)

The entrance to Gateway Park (before you reach through the actual trailhead) is a gentle stroll through an idyllic country scene.

The entrance to Gateway Park (before you reach through the actual trailhead) is a gentle stroll through an idyllic country scene.

The trail begins across Meadowbrook Road from the lower parking lot of Heritage Park.  On nice flat ground.  It rolls through a deep green field and past a bucolic old barn.  A tiny stream that burbles along to the right of the trail feeds buttercups and sweet-smelling grass.  In this place, with the golden light of afternoon sun warming your cheeks, there could be nothing wrong with the world.

And then you reach the trailhead, and realize that this hike is about to get real.

After all, this trail leads up the side of Brush Mountain.  Mountain.  And that’s what we wanted, right – to see spring in reverse, to see how it climbs the mountain slowly?  Right!

And so we, too, climbed the mountain.  Slowly.

My daughter is actually a great hiking partner.  She has no trouble keeping up with me, largely due to the fact that she is 60ish pounds and maybe 5% body fat and I am . . . not.  She also has the tremendous grace to be interested in nature and stop often to look at something or another.  Not only does this save my heart and lungs from explosion, but it gives me a chance to hear one of my favorite sentences:

“Mom, come look at what I found!”

Between her stops, my photo ops, and our mutual stops to drain the large canteen we had brought, we were hiking at nowhere near two miles an hour.  And the trail is 1.4 miles long, not one mile.  Our slow speed didn’t bother me, though, except maybe when trail runners both younger and older than I passed us like white-tailed dear loping by errant, distracted turtles.

But we turtles saw great stuff:

As the incline starts to get steeper we see a little waterfall in the brook next to the trail.

As the incline starts to get steeper we see a little waterfall in the brook next to the trail.

Wild geranium

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) blooms here and there on the forest floor.

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Had we hiked just a little faster I might have missed this wild iris, called “blue flag” (Iris virginica L.).

And just a few inches from  the blue flag posed this pretty little smooth Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

And just a few inches from the blue flag posed this pretty little smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

The mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) are already in bud!  I'm mentally planning future hikes to make sure I see the blossoms.

The mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) are already in bud! I’m mentally planning future hikes to make sure I see the blossoms.  As for the tiny, green beetle, I don’t know its name yet, but I’m working on it!

Abbey called my attention to this pine that looks a little bit like a friendly monster.  Beyond its dead branch "arms" I can see the tiny, lacy new leaves of a deciduous tree.  The leaves at ground level are already as big as my palm.

Abbey called my attention to this pine that looks a little bit like a friendly monster. Beyond its dead branch “arms” I can see the tiny, lacy new leaves of a deciduous tree. The leaves at ground level are already as big as my palm.

This view from not-quite-the-top of the mountain shows that we've hiked high enough to be nearly level with surrounding ridges.

This view from not-quite-the-top of the mountain shows that we’ve hiked high enough to be nearly level with surrounding ridges.

We didn’t make it to the end of the trail, of course.  Abbey tuckered out after an hour of hiking, and I was A-OK with that!  Just after we turned back, we ran into a fellow Master Naturalist friend of mine who commented “Isn’t this trail great?  You can burn over 600 calories in an hour and a half!”

From that I made two mental notes:

  1. The next time I hike this trail, I’ll allot two hours for the journey up to cover climb time plus photo and rest time, and
  2. When I get home, I’m having dessert!

The hike back down went much more quickly, of course, we were back to the trail head in under 45 minutes.  There we had just enough sunlight left to count the lines on the topographic trail map to find that we hiked about a mile of trail and gained over 700 vertical feet.  We were quite pleased with ourselves.

I did achieve my hope from my previous post; I saw a few maple trees still in blossom and I watched the leaf sizes shrink down and the canopy open up.  More than that, though, I just had a great hike with my daughter, my favorite hiking buddy.