Monday, May 25, 2009

(Finally) Smoky Scout Sees a Snake

BRP Trip – 5/16/09 - Day Two

Beginning at MP 45.7, Jim had a little trouble getting oriented onto the road, but was finally on his way for Day Two. My first stop today was the Visitor Center at the James River Water Gap where the BRP crosses the mighty James. The VC was closed – very disappointing, since it was a Saturday in mid-May – but both of my hiking guides had info on the Trail of Trees, so I took a stroll along the half-mile loop. I am responsible for the homelessness of thousands of spiders, as I was the first person on this trail today and had to constantly remove spiderwebs from my face. The Trail of Trees is a real treat, cool views right beside the river and dozens of tree identification signs. I’m not too well versed in trees so it was fun to learn something new. I might be able to distinguish an American bladdernut from a mockernut hickory now, but don’t even ask me about the royal paulownia.

In this photo you can see the BRP as it crosses the James and the footbridge suspended underneath it. There is another interpretive trail that crosses here to see the Battery Creek Lock, built in 1848. I didn’t take time for this one, but all in all I’d say the James River Water Gap VC is a great stop for families with kids.

My reason for excitement today was a 4.4-mile out-and-back hike on the AT beginning where we dropped off the thru-hikers last night, about four miles off of the BRP on Highway 501 West. This section begins on a footbridge across the James River completed in 2000 and dedicated to William T. Foot. (Click on the photo of the dedication sign to read the whole story.) This section is a re-route to follow Matts Creek and the James. What an exhilerating way to start an AT section hike!

On the other side there are signs designating no camping for the first mile (basically as the trail paralleled the James) and right there was a campsite with a little trash in it. My guess is that locals are responsible for this, because after a mile there were a couple of primitive sites recently used, hopefully by conscientious thru-hikers. I cleaned out this fire ring on my way back to my car. Brownie points! Rhodies were blooming all along the way so I added photos to my collection.

The walk beside the James River was awesome. There were tulip tree blooms everywhere. As the trail turned left to walk up Matts Creek, camping was allowed, as evidenced by the sign and the creative hikers’ cairn on top of it. I noticed a real difference here from the Smokies creeks. The water in the Smokies has a greenish caste to it, I’m sure for some biological reason, while the water in Matts Creek had a lighter, tan color, almost sandy. Even the deep pools seemed brown as opposed to the green of the Smokies. And as I was making these observa- tions, I prepared to cross a side seep and…look closely...I nearly stepped on this fellow. Imagine, I hiked 1,075 miles in the Smokies and never saw a snake, and he was here on the AT in Virginia the whole time! He was about 18 inches long and did not slink away, just posed for photos. I finally got tired of watching him and walked on.

 I soon arrived at Matts Creek Shelter, a dismal place by Smokies standards. My experience with shelters is limited to the Smokies, so now I know that they are not the norm (yes, some are even nicer, but most are smaller). I took a lunch break and was nearly ready to turn back when a couple of northbound section hikers rolled in, self-described “young seniors.” After a short chat, I retraced my steps, crossed that awesome bridge one more time and headed back to the BRP.

 My next stop was the Thunder Ridge Overlook , which was fantastic. I turned onto what I thought was the .2-mile loop around the ridge and immediately became entranced by the sea of mayapple and nearly-spent trilliums at mid-calf height as far as I could see. After a few minutes of walking I realized that I was going straight, not in a loop, and there were those familiar-looking white rectangle blazes – well, here I was on another AT section. I backtracked to the car and turned south again.

I passed Jim on my way to my next hike at Fallingwater Cascades. This is a nice little 1.6-mile loop in the Peaks of Otter Recreation Area. Since I had an idea of where Jim was, I had time for this hike. The hike was moderate to strenuous (takes some effort to get to a waterfall) and the cascades reminded me of the unnamed waterfall along Meigs Creek Trail in the Smokies.

On the way to the waterfall I got behind a family that included Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma was doing great, but Grandpa seemed frail and unsteady on his feet, yet he was last in line, so I followed him for a while since his family seemed to be paying no attention. Eventually I passed them, though, or I would be there still...

From here I drove the short distance to the Peaks of Otter Lodge, our home for the night, and found that Jim had passed me and was now in a rocking chair outside the main office, chugging a soda and talking with other guests. Jim is no longer self-conscious in those tight black cycling shorts! It was barely 1:00 p.m., but we were allowed to check in and we quickly moved our stuff inside, then took snacks and sodas out onto our little balcony to unwind.

A little background: Peaks of Otter Recreation Area is a great area to visit. It’s a valley between two peaks (duh) called Sharp Top and Flat Top. There are several theories of the origin of the name – feel free to make one up on your own. (Hint: it’s close to the Otter River). Peaks of Otter Lodge is one of four concessionaire-operated accommodations on the BRP, open year-round, and very popular. We were on a waiting list for several weeks to get a room. The rooms are simple (no TV, no internet, no cell phone service) and their dining room is very, very good. There are camping facilities open May through October and other amenities. Check it out here and here. One bit of advice: it is extremely popular with motorcyclists, so if that’s not your thing, be aware. On our overnight stay, we were the only car parked in front of our building – the rest were motorcycles. They were a large group and they partied out in the breezeway until at least 2:00 a.m., not obnoxious but audible. We just turned on the air conditioner, put in the earplugs and snoozed away.

 Back to the story: We had the afternoon to goof off and the weather was beautiful, but upon looking at Sharp Top from our balcony (see photo right) we decided against hiking it that day. I would give it a run the next morning after Jim took off on his bike. We walked to the camp store and VC (great exhibits) and walked the little trail around Abbot Lake. (Here is a photo of Flat Top with the Lodge in front of it). Then I brought my little traveling blanket outside, spread it under the tree by the lake, and face-planted for a nap. When was the last time you just laid on a blanket outside and went to sleep? It needs to be a more regular occurrence.

A little blonde-haired boy (appeared to be about 3 years old but we learned that he is 5) walked up and laid his face beside Jim’s on the blanket. We saw a woman in the distance and asked him if that was his mom, but he did not reply, and the woman walked off in another direction. After a couple more questions with no response, a man jogged up and explained that his son had “lost his words” after an MMR vaccination at age 2 and that they had worked hard to get him to the level of sociability that he currently displayed. As the dad gave us a little more information than we were looking for, Andrew put his nose to mine, mimicked head movements with me, and stared with great intensity as if he were a mind-reader – but no words. After a few minutes his interest waned and he continued on around the lake’s path, with his dad following and waving cheerfully. The word autism was not mentioned, but I’ve read a bit about vaccinations as a possible connection to it and will look into it some more.

After a wonderful meal in the Lodge’s restaurant, we went back to our room to prepare for the next day. The weather forecast was not looking good and Jim had an 80-mile ride planned. We sketched out a plan for me to meet him halfway for lunch and water resupply. As part of my nightly routine now I wrote out two copies of my day’s plan, the hikes and the mileposts where the trailheads were, and gave one to Jim and put one in the front seat of the car. Then we re-packed as much as we could and snoozed.

Jim’s Day Two –  

A little bit more about day 1 first. Smoky Scout and I had a really great time in Lexington after my ride. It’s a nice small town with a vibrant main street. Going back to Big Island brought back a flood of memories. Truthfully while I lived and worked there as a co-op student I was still more of a city slicker. I did not appreciate being in such a beautiful location. My mindset has changed a lot in 30 years. Smoky was a great sport for eating at the little restaurant. Like many folks I enjoy a restaurant with a lot of local color. I have eaten in many hole-in-the-wall type places including little grills in out of the way gas stations and country grocery stores. The people are down to earth and the food is much better than you would expect (most of the time). The catfish here was very good. The only regret I had for the day was not seeing the south’s largest rattlesnake.  

Day 2 dawned nice and clear with just a few wispy clouds floating around the mountains as I pulled out of the Buena Vista Overlook. The ride started with over 10 miles of downhill to the James River at elevation 650 ft or so. I stopped at Otter Lake to take a few pictures. Sometimes I have been putting my bike in the picture to add some sense of perspective to the view but here I met a father and his young son. They were happy to take my picture and I returned the favor. All (and I mean all) of the people I met on the trip were very friendly. The fact that I was riding a bike was a good conversation starter. 

After a brief visit to the James River Visitor Center (very brief because it was not open yet) I started one of the famous climbs on the BRP. You go from the lowest point on the BRP (elev 650 ft) to the highest in VA atop Apple Orchard Mountain (elev 3950 ft). About a 3300 ft climb in a little under 14 miles. I felt pretty good about it. For the past 6 months I had been not just riding but “training”…..lots of intervals on the trainer in the garage at night and hanging with the fast group (or trying to on some days) during group rides. Still my plan was to bust the climb up into a few segments (3 or 4) and take a quick break after each one. Shortly after I started the climb I saw another rider in the distance. I thought it sure would be good to have some company so I upped my pace a little and caught up with him in about 10 – 15 minutes. Any longer than that and I was going to have to back off. Like I said before, it’s all about energy management. I did not want to empty my tank. 

The rider was a nice guy, Mark Becht, and he does this climb 3 times a week. He is a strong rider…..stays at a steady pace in the middle ring all the way to the top. He graciously accepted my company. We talked on the way up and this took my mind off the climb. I simply followed his pace of about 8 – 9 mph (me in the small chain ring as opposed to him in the middle). I like to alternate sitting and standing during long climbs and that helped also. At about 10 miles into the climb I needed a break and took a quick one while Mark forged ahead. I rejoined him at an overlook where he was waiting just a little below the summit. We rode to the summit together. My plan of 3 or 4 segments was not needed which boosted my confidence a little. I got a quick picture at the summit sign and then went on a little side trip and Mark headed back down to the James River. 

There is a radar installation atop the true summit of Apple Orchard Mountain. The road itself is not quite at the true summit. There is a side road off the BRP that leads to the radar site. It has “KEEP OUT” signs and gates and I heard that it was quite a bit steeper than the BRP. I tried it anyway. Yes, it was steep and covered with fine loose gravel that made for sketchy traction on such a steep climb but it was less than a mile long. I made it and quickly snapped a picture to prove it and headed back down before I got in trouble. Actually I think hikers head by here often so it is probably not a big deal. 

Before I headed down to the Peaks of Otter Lodge it was interesting to note that the leaves were just coming out up here as opposed to the valley where they were fully out. 

The ride was either downhill or close to level from here to the Peaks of Otter Lodge. I got there a little ahead of Smoky Scout. It felt great resting in a rocking chair in the shade of the front porch until she arrived. We quickly checked in and headed to our room that had a great back porch with a perfect view of Sharp Top. I had my customary post ride Mountain Dew (diet) and enjoyed the rest of the day with a walk on the grounds and a great meal.

Stats for day:
Mile marker start: 45.7 
Mile marker finish: 85.6
 Total day miles: 43.0 
Total day climbing: 3750 
ft Avg speed: 12.3 mph 
Max speed: 36.3 mph  

I thought of that while riding my bicycle. ~ Albert Einstein on the theory of relativity


Old Dan said...

Great updates, keep 'em coming. I think Peaks of Otter has to be the most peaceful place on the planet. Looking forward to the rest of the story.

Megan said...

dad - did you earn a cycling name on your trip?? i have been thinking and i think i would really like to join you on one of your future big trips. i will need some adequate advance notice to get into good enough shape but would definitely be in for the adventure.