Tag Archives: wildlife

October 28 – after the frost

I’m going to put this photo right on top, because I like it.Image

It’s been four days since Friday’s hard frost, and things around here are looking quite autumnal.  It’s the part of autumn where the echoes of summer have entirely faded away, and we’re first being brushed by the icy tentacles of winter, although the beast itself still feels far off.  Here’s some of what I’ve seen over the past few days:

Strangely, I’m seeing a lot of trees losing their leaves right after the frost without any change in color.  The ground underneath this tree is carpeted in bright green leaves.Image

the same is true of the ginkgo in the courtyard.  Normally, these are quite pretty in the fall, but this year it just dropped all of its leaves while they were still green.Image

Some houseplants made it inside in time, and some didn’t.Image

Saturday morning, here’s the public road just at the end of our driveway.  It was a foggy morning, so it was hard to see the fall colors, although they are quite nice at this time.Image

This morning, I set out for an hour to do some exploration around my house.  Here’s the maple tree just by the back door.Image

RIP tomato plants.Image


The recent frosts have also brought to an end the fig season.  It was a little bit underwhelming this year;  although we did eat a bunch of figs, there was never a time of year where they felt inexhaustibly prodigious, as they have in past years.Image

Walking through the woods, I came across a pair–maybe more– of pileated woodpeckers, which I attempted to stalk for a while.  It was kind of difficult to see how many there were– it seemed like 3 or 4, but I can’t imagine why that many would be together.  This was the best photo I was able to take, and it won’t win me any awards!  Image

The fall colors have really begun to light up the forest.Image


In many places, the trail itself is buried under a mosaic of red and orange leaves.Image

This field, at the edge of high south, has made for a lovely sight in all seasons.  This morning was certainly no exception.Image

Bright tree at the edge of the field.Image

Once again, I didn’t see many mushrooms.   I’m beginning to accept that this was a generally lousy fall for mushroom hunting.  September and the beginning of October were increasingly hot and dry, then once the weather broke it took a few days for mushrooms to start coming out again.  There were a couple of half-decent days last week, but the recent cold snap, with frost every night, put an end to that.  These mock oysters, although inedible, are fuzzy and quite pretty.Image

These mica cap are also pretty, although a bit too old to be worth picking.Image

Looking up the creek near the boundary of our property with our neighbor’s.  I was encouraged to find a lot of old dried oysters on fallen trees here.  Although there were none worth harvesting, it’s clear that it will be worth checking back here when it is warmer and damper.Image

I spent part of the hike thinking about jack-o-lantern mushrooms.  I know it’s silly to ascribe good or evil to a fungus, but I do think that the jack-o-lantern is a somewhat evil mushroom.  It is a beautiful mushroom when young, in an evil kind of way.  Then, as it ages, it deteriorates and becomes increasingly nasty-looking until it winds up as a puddle of truly foul-smelling black goo.  In its prime, it is sometimes mistaken for a chanterelle, one of the most benevolent, delicately tasty species of edible.  The jack-o-lantern reportedly even tastes good, but consuming them will result in several days of intensely painful stomach cramping.  This fall, it has been the most spectacularly abundant mushroom I’ve seen.  Even on days when there’s not much else growing out there, I’m always sure to see at least one enormous flush of these big orange mushrooms.Image

More jack-o-lanterns, growing in the graveyard.Image

Okay, I did increase the color saturation a bit in this photo, still it’s a very pretty field at this time of year.Image

As I got closer to home, I had a little more success in finding edibles– like this single blewit poking up through the leaves.Image

…and a bit further up, a pile of decomposing logs completely covered with dried old oysters.  Although none of them were currently edible, it is nice locating a spot conveniently close to my house that will be abundantly sprouting when conditions improve. Image

and here’s another photo of the back yard, the view as I emerge from the woods.  There’s still a bit of green in the trees, but we’re right at the peak of color now, and over the next couple weeks we’ll enjoy the remaining bright colors of mid-autumn.Image


October 22 – autumn’s adventures

Well, it’s once again been a full week since I was able to sit down and work on the journal, and what a week it’s been!  Over the past weekend, I didn’t get to do a whole lot of obervatin’, as I was in Hampton catching some Phish shows.  But before that, I had a chance to take in some outdoor exploring and adventuring, which I will now share.

This photo was from last Tuesday AM, as I was making my way into C’ville for tofu delivery.  Although it eventually turned into a pleasant sunny fall day, it sure started out eerie and foggy. Image

Delivery was nothing special, but I was able to finish in time to take a walk in the Monticello woodlands, on some forest trails that I hadn’t hiked in several months.  As you can see from the photo below, the overall aspect of the woods is still pretty green– it’s actually interesting, sitting and writing almost exactly a week after taking this photo, to see just how much things have changed in one week.  Hopefully I will get a chance to take and post some more recent shots in the next few days.Image


For the most part, the walk wasn’t all that amazing– the most interesting part of it was that I kept coming across deer in the woods; I probably saw at least three of them.  This one kept still long enough for me to get a decent photograph.Image

For most of the walk, I was again pretty disappointed in the total lack of mushrooms, despite what I thought to be pretty perfect growing conditions– a warm dry day after a week of drizzle.  I was starting to think that I was going to see more deer than ‘shrooms, but towards the end of the walk, I came across a few, including a couple of logs that were absolutely covered with tiny puffballs.Image

A little further on, I came across a large downed oak tree covered with the dried-up remains of what would have been a whole bunch of oysters a few days back… Image

…and even closer to the car, I finally found a small flush of half-decent oyster mushrooms.  Not quite the motherlode, but it was nice to leave not entirely empty-handed.Image

When I got home, I checked on the cute little oysters growing out of the log I inoculated this spring, and saw that they had indeed grown just a little bit.  I’ll check it out tomorrow to see how it’s grown in the past week.Image

So, that was Tuesday.  Then, on Wednesday, I went with my family to Mutton Top cabin, a PATC cabin on the edge of Shenandoah National Park, a comfy “camping” spot that we’ve gone to for the past few years.  The main attraction of Mutton Top is the view from the cabin itself, which is really quite lovely.Image

There’s a large, roomy covered porch all across the front of the cabin, and a happy spider making sure to keep the insect population in check.Image

Here’s another shot, with the edge of the porch and part of the lovely Mutton Top view.Image

crazy-looking earthball mushroom that I spotted on that first afternoon as I was exploring the area around the cabin.  One of a very small number of mushrooms I saw– they just don’t seem to be out these days.Image

Spent the night in the cabin with two other couples and their young children.  Tried to get to bed early, as it was sure to be an early morning what with all the kids in the cabin.  And indeed we were up pretty much right at dawn, which was OK because it was a pretty sunrise.Image

Mist in the valley at sunrise…Image

Early in the morning, I walked down to the spring to fill some water jugs.  The ground all around the spring was covered with delicate green vegetation that made me think of springtime.  I guess that’s why they call it spring!Image

Random photo of fall forest in the vicinity of Mutton Top cabin.  Once we were all awake and breakfasted we set out to explore the area with all the kids in tow.  Image

I thought the pattern of clouds and sky here was quite pretty.Image

shelf mushroom, with secret message!Image

I liked the contrast here of yellow leaf and blue sky.  Image

More fall foliage.  At this point (last Thursday) it wasn’t quite at the peak of color, but getting closer every day.Image

On a previous trip to Mutton Top at this time of year, we feasted on wild persimmons.  We found the persimmon tree, but the fruit was not yet ripe (and if you’ve ever tasted an underripe persimmon, you know how foul it is!).  Nearby, I also found a large wild grape vine, and the grapes were quite ripe.  They’re small and seedy, but also very sweet.Image

close-up of wild grape cluster.  If you don’t mind spitting out a bunch of seeds (or just chewing them up and eating ’em), they can be quite a treat.Image

Another spider I encountered in the woods, with a very pretty pattern on its back.Image

Here were some enormous fleshy shelf mushrooms.  I think they might be some sort of Dryad’s Saddle, which can be edible when young.  These definitely did not look appetizing. Image

The trail wound back and forth through the woods, without any real destination, other than pretty autumn forest and views of Shenandoah through the trees.  It was a scenic time of year, so I didn’t mind, but I think the kids would have liked more of a destination for the hike.Image

My partner Mala with our younger son, coming down a steep rocky trail.Image

When we were still about a mile from the cabin, it began to rain.  Then it stopped.  Then it started again, then stopped again.  When we got back to the cabin and got under cover, we were treated to a cool view of rain clouds scooting through the valley.Image

We took advantage of a break in the rain to head back to the car for our journey home.  The half mile between the cabin and the parking lot was as pretty a walk as any of the hiking trails we took.  Here’s another picture of our younger son making his way down the mountain.Image

The next morning, I was headed off to Hampton Coliseum, where I spent the next few days in an entirely different setting.  Lots of music and good times, but not too much observatin’ of nature.  Over the next couple of days, I’ll try to take some more photos showing how things have changed, since the season has noticeably advanced since I took the photos posted here.


October 4 – dry ’round here

And October continues onward, hot and dry.  As the month progresses, the temperatures have actually been increasing.  Last night, I went to play music with my band in Richmond, and at midnight it was still 75 degrees.   The weather forecast for today (Saturday) has us getting up to 88 degrees.  And still no rain.  When I first started this journal, I promised myself that I wouldn’t spend the whole summer complaining “it’s so hot, it’s so hot, complain complain blah blah blah,” and for the most part I’ve stuck to that promise.  But I didn’t promise anything about October, so here goes: “It’s so hot! Damn, it’s hot!  What’s up with all this heat, isn’t it supposed to be fall now?!?  Why was September hotter than August?  Why has October been hotter than September?  Did they change it all around when I wasn’t looking?  And when is it going to rain?!?”  OK rant over, moving right along…

On Friday afternoon, I put my work aside to spend an hour walking through the woods to see what I would see on this hot dry afternoon.  And here’s some of what I saw:

The changing foliage of fall has definitely begun at Twin Oaks, earlier than usual it seems, probably because of the heat and dryness.  There is still less color than I saw earlier this week in Charlottesville, and the trees in the forest always seem to stay green longer than trees in a park or yard, but it’s defnitely beginning.Image

Given the current weather conditions, I didn’t expect to find any mushrooms at all, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were around, although not overwhelmingly plentiful.  With one exception– early in my walk, I came across a one-acre or so patch of forest where the ground was literally covered with one species of mushroom, which I think is the edible honey mushroom, a species which is quite tasty for some people and mildly poisonous for others.  I have eaten it in the past, and will probably go out later to collect some from this patch.  From these photos, you can get an idea of just how plentiful they were over one small patch of forest:




and here’s a photo of a close-up of one of them, showing the scaly, hairy pattern on top that identifies it as a honey mushroom


While I was walking around the patch, taking pictures of all the mushrooms, I came pretty close to stepping on this snake.  I’m not sure what it is, don’t think it’s a copperhead, but I’m still glad I didn’t step on it.


As it has been so dry, I decided to walk along the damp areas near the streambed, to see if there is any moisture left in the ground and to see if Tupelo spring is still flowing, even in these conditions.  As you can see below, there is still water coming out, although not so much as there was before when we were having more rain.


Exploring around the surprisingly damp, soggy ground near the spring, I encountered many spider webs, as is usual in the woods this time of year.  I usually walk with a ‘spider stick,’ waving it in my path in front of me so that I’m not walking through webs with every step, pulling spiders off of my face.  Usually, the webs belong to one of a few familiar species of small spider, but I also saw one large web with this big unusual spider right in the middle of it:


I also encountered many many frogs taking refuge in the damp part of the woods, leaping out of my way as I bashed through the woods, and also this turtle, one of three (!) that I saw today.


I walked through a patch of woods where I remember finding a lot of puffball mushrooms about a year ago; I was curious to see if they would come back in the same place on the same log, and they most certainly did.


These puffballs are one of the most easily identifiable edible mushrooms, and a great place for people to start if they only want to try out one wild species; they’re nearly impossible to confuse with anything poisonous, and they’re good when white on the inside and not good when they’re not.Image

passing through an unusually pretty part of the forest, you can see that the general aspect of the woods is still quite green and summery.Image

There is a little bit of fall color high up on some of the trees, but not so much down below the canopy.Image

Another odd thing I encountered; masses of Beech Blight Aphids, all stuck to the small branches of beech trees.  They cover the branch in a dense mat, and wave their white cottony strands so that it looks like the whole branch is white and dancing.  I remember early this year finding black fungus that grew on the ground underneath last years’ infestations, and on this day I saw several ‘colonies’ of this odd-looking bug.Image


When I crossed the creek, I didn’t know if there would be much, if any, water in it.  Although the water level is quite low, it is still flowing.Image

here are a few more random pictures of mushrooms I found on the walk.  As you can see, although I found far fewer than you would normally expect to find at this time of year, there were some out there.

like this attractive purple russula, which, like so many Russulas I encounter, I can’t figure out exactly which species it is.Image

This little brown mushroom was pretty nondescript, but was the most widespread type I saw today, probably saw a few dozen, 2 or 3 at a time.Image

Here are another couple honey mushrooms growing from a fallen branch.  They were part of another stand, much smaller than the first one I encountered, but still about 20 or 30 in a small area.Image

not sure what this one is, but it was the only bright yellow mushroom I saw on my walk.Image

and, most exciting of all, the first blewits of the year!  Last year, I started finding them in September, but hadn’t seen any so far this year.  I’m hoping that if (when) we finally get a good rain, I’ll find lots of these, because they’re one of my favorite edibles. Image

September 5-6 – home again, again

We arrived back at Twin Oaks on Wednesday night.  Over the past few days, in between unpacking, getting back into the work scene, and spending time with some old friends who are visiting the community, I’ve had a bit of time here and there to get out and do some obervating.  Here’s some of what I’ve seen, in no particular order:

In the West Virginia Allegheny highlands, summer had already begun to turn into fall, with touches of yellow and orange in the trees.  Back here in central Virginia, it is still very much summer, and aside from the odd withered leaf here and there, the trees are still quite green.  On my first morning back, I took this shot of the thriving rows of corn and sweet potato in our garden, against a decidedly summer-y background. Image

That first Thursday, like all the days since, was sunny and dry, not at all humid, and pleasantly warm.  In a way, it’s ideal weather, just hot enough to splash around in the pond, and only uncomfortable if you’re in direct sun during the middle of the day.  At night, it’s been cool enough that I’ve slept with the windows closed and, just last night, I even broke out a comforter to drape over the bed!  But, back to Thursday afternoon….

For some reason, at Twin Oaks, you tend to see lots of snakes, mostly black snakes and copperheads, in the late spring/early summer– May and June– and not so many the rest of the year.  This year was no different, so it was a bit of a pleasant surprise to come across this little green guy slithering across the path right in the middle of the Twin Oaks courtyard. Image

Here’s a close-up.  Such a handsome fellow!Image

I called the boys over to check out the snake, and they were suitably impressed.  I like the idea of raising country kids who aren’t fearful of snakes/bugs/bats/etc., and aren’t filled with the desire to shoot them on sight, but basically appreciative and empathetic to the various critters who share our home.Image

Thursday wound up being a very pond-y afternoon, with most of the community kids– and many of the parents– enjoying a long afternoon jumping in in the water.  I didn’t take any photos while I was down there (too many nekkid folks), but got this shot as I was heading back up the hill, which captures well the pleasures of late summer.Image

Friday morning, and I was up very early in the morning to let out the chickens.  The early morning light was quite lovely, as this photo attests.  Every year, one of our older members grows a banana tree, which gets larger and more impressive all through the spring and summer.  Then, every year before it can actually set fruit, it gets killed by frost sometime in October.  At this time of year, it gives a cool tropical look to our Virginia farm.Image

The fig trees in our backyard started to produce copious amounts of ripe figs while I was off in Louisville.  I was hoping to come home to a crazy overload of figs, but it seems like voracious packs of kids and other communards have been keeping up with the ripening, watching the trees closely, and picking each fruit as it turns big and purple.  It seems like this year the fig season won’t come to a glorious climax, as it has in the past; rather we’ll just keep on eating them as they come ripe, and everyone will get some.Image

Next to our fig trees is the kiwi arbor, which is also laden with fruit.  I’ve been keeping an eye on the kiwi fruits, ready to pounce as soon as they ripen, which is just now beginning to happen.  Here are some beautiful little kiwis, right on the edge of edibility:


…and here is one which was ripe enough to eat.  Just this morning, I found two of them, so it looks like kiwi season is going to officially begin any day now.


On Friday afternoon, and again this morning, I was able to take a couple short walks through the woods to see how things have progressed in the ol’ fungal kingdom.  It seems like it hasn’t rained much if at all while I was gone, and the forest floor is dry and crunchy.  Although there seems to be a little bit of new mushroom growth, mostly I am seeing the same ‘shrooms that were around a week ago, but kind of dried out and looking the worse for wear:


I didn’t see any fresh, new chanterelles, but did see many of these little red ones, looking as though they’ve seen better days.


And, in several places in the woods, I saw (and smelled!) nasty black mushy piles of rot where large numbers of mushrooms had grown, died, and decomposed.  I’m guessing it all happened while I was gone, as it seems like I would have noticed the clumps of mushrooms when they were growing.  This is just one photo– I saw at least five clumps like this just in the woods immediately beyond my yard.Image

As far as fresh new fungal growth, I encountered many large boletes, which were for the most part foul-smelling and did not seem likely to be edible…


Also, this beautiful red aminita growing out of its volva like a baby bird hatching from an egg– also inedible but quite pretty:


..some sort of tongue-like fungal growth sprouting from one of the tree stumps that I innoculated with oyster spawn earlier this year.  I’m not sure what this is, but I’ll be keeping en eye on it as it grows…


…and a choice clump of what I’m almost entirely sure is Amanita rubescens (the Blusher mushroom) .  This is one of the few edible Amanitas, and I’ve been seeing them all over the community this spring and summer.  I’ve been avoiding eating them, due to being extremely wary of eating any form of Amanita, but the more I read about this species, the more sure I am about my identification, and they are considered quite a choice edible.Image

So I went ahead and harvested a couple of the best-looking caps.  I’m going to make a spore print so as to help me be 100% certain of my identification, then when I’m satisfied I know exactly what I have, I’m going to try cooking ’em up.  Wish me luck!


Outside of the many types of mushroom I encountered, I’m definitely noticing that the vegetation on the trees is starting to look pretty beat-up.  Most of the leaves, which came out in mid-late April, have done their photosynthetic job, and it’s increasingly looking like the the trees are ready to let them go.  From the looks of this tree (and many like it), it won’t be long before we start getting some fall colors here in central Virginia. Image

but for now, I’ll sign off with this purty photo of the pond, clear, cool and refreshing on a picture perfect early September day… Image

August 20 -21 – canoodling!

On Tuesday afternoon, as I wrote in the previous post, it took most of the day to get free of the FDA, finish packing the car, and get to the river.  We had to re-plan the trip, since instead of a full two days, we had more like a few hours in the afternoon and another full day.  So we decided to canoe the Rivanna river instead, which is closer and meant we would be on the river a full hour sooner than the Rappahannock.  It was about 5 by the time we finally were at the boat launch with the canoes fully packed, ready for some paddling.  Despite the delays, spirits were definitely high as we hit the river.Image

Setting off down the Rivanna, looking downstream…Image

…and back upstream to the boat launch. Image

The Rivanna river flows along the edge of Charlottesville, underneath a couple of major highways, and close to shopping malls and neighborhoods.  However, from the river, you can’t see many buildings or roads, just a couple of bridges, and a few places where you can see houses through the trees.  We did see lots of water birds that first day, including several great blue herons, one of which I managed to get a decent photo of.Image

Before long, the river passed underneath the Highway 64 bridge, covered with booming semi trucks and stop and to traffic (oh how thankful I was to be on the river in a canoe and not in a car on the highway!) and we were out of the city.   Along the way, I was able to spot a few mushrooms growing on the waterlogged trunks strewn along the bank; the oysters below were the best of the lot, and they made a tasty addition to dinner that night.Image

I’ve done a fair amount of canoeing in my time, although the vast majority of it has either been in Maine, on lakes and ponds, or in Florida, on swampy flatwater rivers.  I hadn’t done a lot of paddling on rivers that actually had rocks and rapids, and during that first day, I had to do some fast learning.  The rapids on the Rivanna aren’t anything too terrible, mostly class I and II, with one drop that was rated class III (although my more experienced friend in the other canoe was skeptical of that rating).  Whatever the rating, there were definitely some thrilling moments, as I tried–sometimes successfully– to navigate our canoe between and over the rocks and through the frothy bits.  The rapids in the picture below weren’t the most impressive ones we encountered, just the ones I managed to take a picture of (mostly, I was far too focused on not sinking the canoe to take pictures). Image

And as the afternoon wore on into late afternoon, we started looking for a decent sandbar or bank to pull up on and camp, only we weren’t finding anything but steep, muddy banks, covered with thick vegetation.  As the sun started to set, we began looking for anything that would serve as a camp, even an uncomfortable gravelly one.  Fortunately, just as I was starting to worry that we would have to spend a wet night in the canoes, we came across a perfect campsite, a bar of soft dry sand with plenty of driftwood for a fire.  It was clear that we weren’t the first people to have camped there, and we were very thankful to find it.  Fortunately, there was a full moon, so we had no problem making camp and cooking dinner at night.

The next morning, after a sandy night of drifting in and out of sleep, I got up soon after dawn to the sight of mist rising off of the river, and the delightful knowledge that we had a full day of paddling ahead of us.  Image

With a bit more light, I took a few photos of our fortuitous campsite.Image

The tent wasn’t entirely necessary, as it didn’t rain, but it kept the bugs out while we slept.Image

The sandbar provided plenty of space for sleeping and morning meditation.  I’m not sure what the ground cover plant was– it looked like cucumber plants, and had scratchy stems that would catch at your skin or clothes, but wasn’t actually thorny.Image

This is my preferred morning meditation– delicious sausages roasting over an open fire, could any breakfast be better?!?Image

And then we were back on the river.  Most of the time, both banks were forested, with occasional fields and even more occasional houses, ridiculous mansions spread out over acres of lawn.  For most of the way, the banks were pretty low on both sides, but occasionally (as in the photo below) one side or the other would rise in wooded hillsides.Image

Along those sections, the banks of the river were often steep, with rocky, ivy-covered bluffs.Image


I think this is the most massive chunk of white quartz I’ve ever seen.Image

The day passed as through in a dream, lovely and warm.  During the middle of the day, it was hot enough to enjoy frequent dips in the river, but never so hot that paddling was uncomfortable.  Puffy clouds alternated sun and shade, and a gentle breeze stirred the air, making for near-perfect canoeing conditions.  By the middle of the day we had all achieved a state of complete relaxation and contentment.Image

We saw plenty of critters, mostly birds.  There were a surprising lot of raptors along the river, hawks, eagles, and what I believe to be osprey.  Several times we saw the flash of white feathers that made me think we were seeing bald eagles.  Then we came across this individual in a treetop, its unmistakable profile confirming that we were indeed seeing bald eagles.  It was hard to tell when we were seeing different individuals, or the same one flying up and down the river, but it seemed like we were seeing lots of different hawks and eagles; for much of the trip we were coming across one or more of them at nearly every bend of the river.   Image

On several occasions, we saw birds diving from the trees to catch fish, and came upon one successful hunter with a large fish in its talons.  As we drifted closer, I tried to take a photo, only the zoom on my camera could only do so much.  This bird looked like an osprey to me, it definitely wasn’t a bald eagle (wrong profile, too small), and it was quite pleased with itself.Image

Here’s another picture, which I took from almost directly underneath the bird.Image

Other animal encounters on the river included many many dozen turtles, sunning themselves on logs.  Some of them were quite big, and we also saw a number of cute baby turtles, no bigger than a silver dollar, sometimes perched on the backs of the bigger ones.Image

And a family of geese, which for the better part of the day stayed just downstream from us.  They would float on the river until we had almost caught up, then loudly fly away for a half mile or so, then start floating again until we were nearby.   They repeated this for most of the day, then just before our pull-out point, they gave up on the game and calmly let us pass them.Image

The pull-out point at Palmyra came all too soon, and I was sad to see the boat ramp.  In total, it was about 25 miles on the river, from Darden Towe park to Palmyra.  There’s already talk about doing a day trip this fall on the remaining 17 miles of the Rivanna to where it empties into the James river.  Hopefully, I’ll be part of that trip.  I’m pretty convinced that observations of Virginia nature and wildlife, when done from a canoe floating gently down the river, are the most pleasant observations of all!Image

July 28-30 – stayin’ cool and headin’ south

Back at home now, after my week long trip up to the big city and back.  Before going up to NY, I wasn’t quite sure if I there would be much in the way of nature observing opportunities.  It’s true that “nature” is everywhere, even in the city there are birds, bugs, atmospheric conditions.  But New York is certainly a place where the built, human, environment so overwhelms the natural one that it’s hard, outside of the changes in weather, to get a sense of “nature.”  In the winter it’s cold and bleak, in the summer it’s hot; the parks are green and the trees have leaves.  But, even in the parks, any greenery you see is tended and landscaped, only in the vacant lots and wastelands is “nature” (mostly in the form of non-native weeds) allowed to do its thing.  I did have some nice outdoor experiences while up there, primarily a Saturday trip to Governor’s Island, an awesome new park in the middle of New York Harbor, at the confluence of the Hudson and East rivers.  Beautiful views of the city, and a spectacular pleasant summer day.


I was excited about our trip home, as we had been planning on taking our time, meandering through the mountains a bit, and camping along the way.  It didn’t take long to feel like I was back in a more natural environment.  In Clinton, NJ, just about an hour out of the city, we stopped for lunch, and discovered a lovely picnic area just behind the parking lot of a deli.  There was a surprisingly clean-looking creek flowing nearby, with a sign saying that it had been stocked with trout.  What a difference a few miles makes!



Another hour’s drive into Pennsylvania, and we decided to call it a day at Blue Rocks Family Campground.  The primary natural feature of this location is the blue rocks boulder field, a mile-long stretch of rocks and rubble, upon which the boys and I had an excellent time climbing and exploring.


Later, I was able to get some kid-free time and set off hiking for a couple of hours.  The campground was just a mile off of the Appalachian Trail (one of the reasons we chose it), and there was a spur trail that left the camp heading uphill.  The region had received some rain recently (indeed, it was storming just an hour before we pulled into the campground), so the ground was pretty wet and squishy, with numerous streams crossing over.  I was so glad to be free of the city that I walked barefoot, although I was aware of Pennsylvania’s AT reputation as an endless rockfield.  Muddy bits like this on the trail made me glad of my decision.Image

It only took a short while to climb up to the white-blazed Appalachian trail.  By the looks of the wide, heavily traveled treadway, this section gets plenty of use.


On my way up, I saw the same unusual sight that I’ve seen in Virginia– there were lots of chanterelles growing in the compacted soil right in the middle of the trail, and not so many growing in the soft forest litter to the side.  Many of them had been trampled by unconscious hikers, and the ones that hadn’t been stepped on were all muddy and unappealing.


Stone staircase near the top of the ridge.  This section of trail was in fact pretty rocky, but nothing my farm-toughened feet couldn’t handle!


The hike to the Pulpit Rock lookout was about one and a half miles, and the view, while not spectacular by AT standards, was enjoyable enough.  The blue rocks boulder field is prominent on the right side of this photo.  Although I didn’t see anyone on the way up, there were a handful of folks at the lookout, some of whom had brought up several glass bottles of hard cider, which they generously passed around.Image

As I was exploring the immediate area around the lookout, I came across this copperhead curled up in a little crack in the rocks.  I’m so glad I saw it before stepping on it, for otherwise you would be reading a very different post right now!


Just another random AT photo, taken on the way down.  The grassy plant along the edge of the trail is similar to the one growing along the logging trails at Twin Oaks Community.  It looks almost like some sort of tiny bamboo, and I’m guessing it’s some sort of invasive exotic.


Not many mushrooms today.  Aside from the muddy chanterelles, I saw some overgrown platterfuls and a couple of withered flushes of oysters, long past edibility.  By far, the choice find of the day was this gorgeous chicken of the woods, which I discovered along the trail just a quarter mile or so from our campsite.


It tasted as good as it looked– fried up in some butter, then simmered in tomato sauce for a while and served over noodles.  A treat for kids and adults alike!


After dinner, further explorations in the boulder field with my son Sami.  I think the boys could have spent days just climbing around on the rocks.


From where we were camped, the sunset was blocked by mountains, but the sky to the east, reflecting the colors of the sunset, was equally dramatic.  One of my favorite things about camping out is the opportunity to be outdoors in the mountains in the late afternoon and early morning, magical times that you always miss when only going out for day trips.  When you’re camping, you can just have your dinner, then sit out on a rock enjoying the slow transition from day to night…



Day 2

My oh my what a night!  To start with, just before it got dark, we decided to change campsites in order to pitch our tent on a platform right at the edge of the boulder field (our designated campsite was kind of muddy and gravelly).  Although our tent was a little bit bigger than the platform, we figured it wouldn’t be a problem if it hung over a couple inches on each side.  Unfortunately, it was impossible to stake down the tent when it was set like this.  And during the night, when a sudden drenching thunderstorm blew in, the walls of the tent sagged down onto our faces, seriously compromising the “waterproof” nature of the tent.  The rainstorm was followed by a steadily increasing wind, blowing down across the boulder field, which had increased to gale force by dawn.  I couldn’t possibly sleep with a moist tent alternately flapping around all around me and slapping me in the face, so I got up in the pre-dawn light to explore the boulder field and surrounding forests.Image

Somehow, amazingly, the rest of the family was able to sleep in, even with gusts of wind that nearly lifted the tent clean off of the platform!Image

After breaking camp, we took a winding drive through the mountains of central Pennsylvania, making our way by early afternoon to Hancock, Maryland, a spot where just about two miles separates the Potomac River from the Mason/Dixon line.  After a picnic lunch along the river, I rented bikes for an hour and set off with the boys to explore the nearby rail trail.  Although the ground was dry (I don’t think they got any of the past couple days storms), the forests surrounding the old C&O Canal towpath were bright green. Image

In other places, the forest opened up, revealing views of the surrounding hills and mountains, also thickly forested.Image

A couple of miles up the trail, we came to this odd round brick building, which looked like it may have once been the chimney of a larger structure, most of which is now gone.  Image

unsurprisingly, we saw lots of deer in PA and MD.  Along the bike route, we saw several little fawns with their momma, and later on, this one fawn all alone.  So cute!Image

We ended the day camping at a little campground between the canal trail and the Potomac river itself.  Although it wasn’t an especially hot afternoon, it still felt nice to take a dip in the river, far enough upstream from the city so that the water looked and felt clean, and I didn’t have to worry too much about poisoning myself.Image

Here’s a spot where a side stream, flowing into the Potomac, crosses under the railroad line, through a small tunnel that must be at least 100 years old, or older.  I thought the twin reflections of the tunnel entrance and exit were especially interesting.Image

Day 3

The next morning, we made our way to Harper’s Ferry, where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers join forces.  I’m not sure why the joined river bears the name Potomac, as the Shenandoah definitely seems like the more voluminous of the two tributaries, and appears to be the primary upstream route.  But that’s history, I guess.


The center of this little town, as anyone who’s been there knows, is quite scenic and historic.  I took some photos, mostly of the boys, that don’t seem quite appropriate for this journal, although I do like this view of the Virginia Mountains across the river, through the window of the old stone church.Image

We took a short hike along the AT as it heads out of town, on a trail that was quite dry and dusty, with a surprising lot of broken glass underfoot.  The glass looked kind of old, as though the trail was passing through an old dumping area from years ago.  We looped back along the canal, much of which was bright green with algae, and filled with wading birds and turtles.Image

I especially liked the color contrast between the green of the canal and the blue-gray plumage of this egret.Image

After spending an afternoon at Harper’s Ferry, we loaded back in the car and drove the final few hours back to Twin Oaks.  But that’s a story for a different post.

July 2- tropic of Virginia

While I was in town delivering tofu on Tuesday, I was, as always, listening to NPR all day.  Every few minutes, they would give some dire weather report– “showers and thunderstorms throughout the entire listening area, some of them may contain heavy rain and damaging hail…flash flood warning throughout the listening area…” and the like.  I wasn’t sure if I should stick with my initial plan of visiting Mint Springs park after finishing the last delivery, but I figured what the hell if I get soaked I’ll just get soaked.

As I drove west out of Crozet, it definitely looked like I was headin’ for a soakin’.Image

That’s Shenandoah NP somewhere up in the clouds.Image

Another view of the mountains, right at the edge of Mint Springs park.Image

I parked the truck, took off everything but my boxers and shoes, and headed out with a basket for mushrooms, my camera, and a plastic bag to put it in when the rain started.  All day it had rained off and on, never very hard, and I set off in a hard drizzle/light rain.  The air was warm and moist, the vegetation thick and overgrown–it felt so much like the times I’ve hiked in tropical rain forests.  All day I felt like I was walking through a jungle, it really was the most tropical-feeling hike I think I’ve ever done in Virginia.Image

In the field, about 20 steps from the truck, I came across this cute guy.  It seems like I see at least one box turtle (or maybe it’s the same one over and over) nearly every time I go for a walk.  They’re such beautiful animals, although not too terribly well camouflaged. Image

Soon after entering the woods, the trail climbed steadily up and up through dense Virginia jungle.Image

Look– the wild raspberries are starting to ripen!  Actually, these berries were kind of seedy and not too sweet, definitely not Maine wild berries.  Still, they were nice to snack on as I walked.Image

Here’s a fascinating/disgusting sight:  an egg-like mushroomy kind of thing with a slug slurping its way into it.  Serious wild kingdom stuff…Image

About half a mile up the trail, I started to encounter some enormous boletes.  When I saw this one, my initial thought was– “I’m gonna eat good tonight!,”  but when I picked it and broke it open…Image


There was another patch with three enormous boletes just about 25 feet further up the trail.  Man I wish I had reached these beauties about 24 hours earlier!Image

I followed the highest-elevation trail in the park, the one that came closest to its boundary with Shenandoah.  As I climbed up into the mist, I kept feeling more and more like I was in a tropical cloud forest.Image

Eventually, the trail topped out, and there was a side trail to a power line cut where you could get a view.  This is looking down into the valley that I had just hiked out of…Image

…and this is looking further up the mountain.Image

Along the edge of the power lines was this enormous-leaved plant, which only added to the tropical feel of the whole afternoon, alongside a mullein (toilet paper plant), that is just starting to flower. Image

Leaving the power line, the trail contoured around the mountain for a while.  Just a few steps back into the woods, I encountered this enormous polypore mushroom.  I think that it may be a maitake (hen of the woods), which is a prize choice edible.  The overlapping rosettes don’t look exactly like maitakes that I’ve seen before, but it also doesn’t really look like anything else in any of my guidebooks.  I was hoping that it would be good eating, but when I got it home and cooked it, it was too tough and stringy to be really palatable.   According to Wikipedia, “The fungus becomes inedible like all polypores when they are older, because it is too tough to eat.”  I guess I really should have taken this walk a couple days ago.Image

I’ve continued to see lots of Indian pipe plants growing here and there, and for the most part they are now common enough that I don’t bother photographing them.  But I’ve never seen as many coming up in one place as I saw here, and in a couple other locations, in Mint Springs park.Image

In this season, as I’ve discovered the delights of eating boletes and chanterelles, I have mostly been ignoring the “lowly” platterful mushroom.  I’m still seeing them here and there, although not as abundantly as earlier in the year.  Still, I had to take a photo of this large, well preserved specimen, lording over its little corner of the forest.Image

Eventually, the trail dropped back down down down into the valley.  I followed a route called the “Hollow Trail” back to the truck which dropped from a saddle down along the creek.  At the head of the creek was the hollow that I guess the trail was named after.  It was an especially pretty bit of woods, damp, fern-covered clearing at the head of a little valley, a very peaceful spot in the light rain and solitude.  This park is full of the remains of old homesteads; I could see wanting to build a little shack in this spot right here.Image

At higher elevations, I hadn’t seen any chanterelles, but as I got closer to the truck, I started to see some.  By far, the most abundant groups of them were growing in the compacted soil right in the middle of the trail, lots of little clusters growing in the moss and rocks.  Several others had been mashed to bits, trod upon by hikers who clearly need to be paying a bit more attention to their surroundings.Image

I saw several individuals of this majestic-looking mushroom.  I didn’t have my guide with me, but I picked some anyways, just in case they were a good edible.  They certainly looked marvelous, and they were in perfect shape.   When I got back to the truck, I learned that they are Velvet-footed Pax, and that they aren’t edible, although some people do insist on eating them, just because they look like they should be.Image

As I was almost all the way back at the truck, I came across an odd sight– two red and yellow boletes that looked as if they had been picked and discarded in the middle of the trail, or kicked over.  Strange…Image

I examined the smaller of the two, and found it to be a bi-color bolete in quite good shape; despite some scuffing on the outside, the inside was bug free, and as of this writing, it’s now inside of me! Image

The other one was huge, and would have made quite a meal, but it was riddled with insects.  It was quite a curious thing to find right in the middle of the trail on a day when I didn’t see another soul the entire time I was out of the parking lot.Image

By the time I got back, the rain had mostly stopped, although wisps of cloud cover continued to blow across the mountains.  It was actually pretty ideal conditions for a hike, and despite some fairly strenuous climbs, I hardly broke a sweat and got back to the truck feeling cool and refreshed.   Of course, it stormed like crazy as I was driving back to Twin Oaks, but I was glad that it held off until I was back under cover.Image