June 12 – mountain chicken of the woods

It was going to be a hot day (not extreme hot, just regular mid-June hot), and due to a childcare breakdown, I had the boys for the entire day.  So I figured we’d get a picnic lunch and drive up to Shenandoah National Park (about an hour west of here) for a hike and a swim.   We went to the same trailhead as our last hike a few weeks back, but took a different trail.

Along the way, we stopped at one of my favorite swimming holes along the Moorman River in Sugar Hollow.  This spot loses a couple of points for being right off of the road, so you can’t skinny dip and there was some litter (which we cleaned up), but it’s a pretty sweet spot to have a picnic and cool off.  You can see from this photo that the water was running quite high after all the recent rains (which I guess were even more severe in the mountains than they were here).Image

At the base of this sycamore tree, the creek is about 8 or 9 feet deep.  There’s even a rope swing, but the end of it had been cut off so it wasn’t usable today.Image

The boys and I had fun sliding down the rock and into the current, which would carry us a little ways downstream, then swimming out of the current and climbing back up to the rock, then doing it again and again.Image

Eventually, we got in the car and drove the couple miles up to the trailhead, where we set out for the “blue hole,” another swimming hole 1 1/2 miles up the trail.  The older boys had no problem with the hike, but I wound up having to carry my younger son most of the way, which got a little grueling.

As I’ve written in an earlier post, the whole Sugar Hollow area is some sort of a butterfly mecca; I’ve seen more butterflies around here than anywhere outside of the Amazon basin, and today was no exception.  Just a few steps up the trail, we came across this little patch of ground that the butterflies just loved– there were clouds of them in the air, and they were all mashed together to get at this one spot.  I wonder why?Image

The trail crossed several creeks that I imagine normally are no big deal, but on this day it was a bit of a production getting four children (ages 9, 7, 5, and 4) across each one.  The water was only just a bit higher than my knees, but it’s a different matter when you only weigh 30 pounds and the water is chest deep!Image

There were lots of springs and seeps along the side of the trail, and for much of the hike, the trail itself was underwater.  This was after an entire day without rain, so I can only imagine what it looked like a day or two earlier.Image

The destination of our hike: the “Blue Hole.”  The water was a bit cloudy since the creek was running so high.  I tried touching the bottom in the middle, but couldn’t– it’s at least 20 feet deep.  There were all sorts of rocks you could jump off of into the pool; in my reckless youth, I’d always go straight for the highest, most dangerous one.  But now that I’ve grown a bit older and wiser (not to mention responsible for several children in a national park more than a mile from the road), I had to satisfy myself with the lower jumps.  Most of the kids decided not to swim, as it was already getting cloudy and cool, but Izzy, a 5-year old who I only met a couple days ago, was pretty amazing.  He plunged himself right into the current over and over, not freaking out even when he got briefly tumbled underwater a couple of times.  Image

When I was here before, about 6 years ago, the water was low enough that you could jump off of the rocks into this upper pool.  Today, it seemed like a bad idea, as you definitely wouldn’t want to get swept over the edge and tumbled down the falls.Image

To the kids’ delight, there were all sorts of dangerous rocks to climb on.  It’s always a challenge for me to allow the kids to develop confidence in their bodies and abilities and not instill fear in them while at the same time keeping themselves from breaking their little necks.  At the top of this rock climb, my younger son called out “poppa, come look, I think I see a mushroom up here!”Image

So I climbed up to join him and, whaddaya know?!?, he really had spotted something!Image

It was a gorgeous, tender, chicken of the woods!  It’s been quite rewarding teaching the boys how to find and identify mushrooms, as it means I have three sets of eyes looking out for ’em when we’re walking around in the woods.Image

Sami with his catch of the day.Image

As we were hiking back to the car, my older son called me back, as he too had found something interesting.  It turned out to be this little crayfish, scuttling through the woods next to the creek.  At first the boys were afraid of it, but after trying to get it to pinch me, I finally convinced them that it wasn’t actually all that fierce, just another fun creature to encounter in the forest.Image

Not five minutes after finding the crawfish, I stepped off of the trail to answer nature’s call, and-great googly moogly!- I encountered the single largest chicken-of-the-woods mushroom I’ve ever seen.  This thing was so big and old that I wound up only slicing off the outer edge of each “leaf,” as the inside was all tough and woody.  In this photo, it looks like an enormous pink rose, which I guess it did somewhat resemble. Image

Here’s another photo, with my hand and Swiss army knife, to give some perspective on just how big this ‘shroom was.  I think that if I had harvested the whole thing, it would have been over 50 pounds (although 2/3 probably would have been inedible).Image

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