Thursday, January 18, 2018

Waterfalls on Mount Weather

After visiting Blue Ridge Wildlife Center, I headed for the mountains to see if I could find another frozen waterfall. Every pond, river and creek was iced over or running with a thick layer of ice on top. It was another freezing cold day, the wind blowing hard, but inside Stanley, the day looked glorious, with the sun shining brightly and I drove on a steep unpaved road up to the clouds.
Even being in the middle of nowhere high up on Mount Weather, I was not surprised to see 2 cars parked near the trail. These days it gets harder and harder to really escape from society, but on these rarely used trails, I'm actually reassured to know someone else is near. Just in case.
After an uphill climb that ascended straight from the road, I crested the ridge, hanging on to my hat, and holding my scarf over my nose. It was so cold that it hurt my nostrils to breathe without protection. But a few minutes later the gales subsided as I went down and down on a narrow path, switching back and forth as I descended the hill while the winds roared above me, whipping the tree branches back and forth. It sounded a little scary but it was wonderful to be out here, walking briskly past mossy covered boulders, looking as though they were laid with emerald velvet table cloths. Bright green shards of wild onions poked up through the brown leaves that were dusted with a powdery white snow and the air was crisp and cold and deliciously earthy as I sucked it in.
I arrived down at the bottom and had to jump across a creek that was gushing with melted ice water. Across on the other bank was a huge rock, shrouded in shadows, and looking just like a huge toad walking down to the water. I leapt across the water and started climbing up to the waterfalls.
I actually preferred these falls to White Oak Canyon from last week. It was interesting that the middle falls were running yet on each side they were still frozen. I had this spectacular beauty all to myself so sat on a rock and watched for a while, as the sun dazzled through the trees on its way down to the horizon. The icicles sparkled and glittered, the rock faces shone with their thick ice coating of undulating smoothness. But I'd only sat for less than 10 minutes before I felt the frigid temperature drilling its way through my layers, and I had to stand again. Long shadows were being cast across the white ice, alternating between pale blue and pink. It was time to start back, I didn't want to be caught out here on my own and in the dark.
As I clambered back over some logs I looked up at the tall rock face in front of me, spotting a nest, high up, jutting out on an outcrop, possibly belonging to a red-tailed hawk, and wondered if it was for this year or left from last year. The rocks were slippery as I clambered back down, slipping more than a couple of times. I stopped to take a photo of these ice crystals that I kept passing or crunching on the path, marveling at their creation. They glittered and shone, looking like the glass from a broken windshield. I wished I had more time to examine them more thoroughly, there seemed to be an intricate pattern that nature had weaved across the dirt.
A panorama photo before I left. and then it was the climb back up to the summit, that wind had thankfully died down a little. It didn't take long to get back to the car, and I was grateful to sit inside with the heating on full blast, rubbing my hands and nose, before I set off for home.
Just a couple of minutes from my house and I came across this car crash. I sat patiently, glad it wasn't me in the mangled mess ahead, and sympathized with the poor persons involved, dealing with an accident situation in this freezing cold just before sunset. An emergency worker came up to me, advising me to turn back. Apparently the female driver had hit a utility pole, bringing down the line, but she was alive. I went back and around, along unpaved roads, and came across the gooses I'd seen a few weeks earlier, taking their routine waddle across to the field from their house. I sat and waited patiently for them too, counting my blessings, and very glad that I hadn't been in a rush to get home.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Benefaction at its Best at Blue Ridge

Not too far from home is the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center, a wonderful establishment that cares for injured wildlife and then sets them free, if possible. I've taken a few maimed critters here myself and watched this wonderfully supported center grow. When I first dropped off an animal they were running out of a 850 square foot old house, its tiny rooms crammed with cages, and even the reception area had small cages and boxes on shelves, tiny mews and wails emitting from patients who were being tended to. The new center only opened up a couple of years ago, just a few yards down from the old house, which will be now be restored and possibly rented out.
On Saturday, BRWC was having its first Open Day. The new building is light years from what the staff had to work in previously. Bright, open and large rooms, lots of rooms, the new cages and tanks now with more space, and the patients with more space to recuperate until they're given their freedom once more. There's even a cozy cage on the outside of the hospital that can be used as a drop off point when the center is closed.
I walked quickly to the center from my car and was impressed to find the building was almost overflowing with visitors. The staff and volunteers who were showing their guests the premises and how it operated were swarmed with eager faces from children and adults alike. It was wonderful to see the support the hospital had, I hope the donations reflected that.
There were only a few Ambassadors on show. I learned today that it's actually illegal to display live wild animals, hence all the featured demonstrations were done with stuffed toys as their subjects. The animals are handled and spoken to as little as possible, and are not given names, referred to instead by their reference numbers. Only ambassadors, animals who are retained as they're unable to survive back in the wild, are used to teach visitors.
Slim, the Black Rat Snake, is one of the ambassadors, and was very obliging when it came to me wanting a photo. I was interested to see that he had a white underside. I'd never been aware of that during the times I've encountered my resident black snake at Meadow House.
The intricacy of the snake skeleton is amazing, it looked like a piece of art on display in a gallery. They also had a snake skin on show, but I've seen plenty of those, delicately hung from outside door frames, at home.
This was Rufio, the Grey Squirrel, who didn't stop stuffing the whole time I watched him. He was completely unperturbed by so many people around and would often stick his little nose through his cage, as though expecting to be hand fed more treats.
They had a wing of a Great Blue Heron on display. Having never been able to get close to these birds on any of my kayaking or hiking trips, it was a little sad, but still wonderful, to see this beautiful display of feathers so close. Dopey, the Eastern Screech Owl, sat in his cage, another fine ambassador who was unfazed by people like me sticking their faces close to him. What a dear little chap; I'd never seen one of these owls before.
There were demonstrations and explanations in the exam rooms as we made our way around the center. I was particularly keen to hear what happened to the turtles when they were brought in as I've driven a couple here myself, even having to pick one little guy up and release him where I found him. This particular turtle was malnourished as it had been kept as a pet and fed junk food, not the foods that turtles require but what its 'owners' had thought were correct. Thankfully they realized the error of their ways and brought the little chap here here where he is hopefully now on the road to recovery. These turtles are very territorial and stay within a 2 acre range, so if they are freed far from their home, they will roam to try and find it. Nearly all of the animals brought in are given fluids and pain medications on arrival and treatment follows soon after. We were also shown the foods that the patients are given, they eat very well, and I was pleased to see that squirrels will each fruits and vegetables, as I throw all my peelings out of the back door. In front of the lady is a tray of squirrel food and in the foreground is a platter for a ground hog.
There were a couple of rooms that were out of bounds, housing cages filled with patients who were recuperating. Despite the large crowds of people in the hospital, most were very quiet and respectful as they passed by these doors, peering in to see if they could catch any movement. I thought I saw a black vulture in one of the cages but couldn't be sure. The center performs about 100 surgeries a year. The animals are always stressed and when in care they are kept isolated and only in a room with their own kind, never with animals who would be their predators in the wild.
As I worked my way back to the reception area, there were still large crowds of people coming in through the doors to visit, and I wondered if the center had considered that so many folks would be arriving. It was amazing to see the support that the hospital was receiving and I noticed many hands were pushing notes into collection pots. This new hospital was a huge improvement on the little house up the road, and I'm sure the staff now wonder how on earth they ever coped in such cramped quarters. I squeezed my way out of the door back into the biting cold, and smiled as I watched a long line of cars waiting patiently to find a parking space. How amazingly awesome that this little area of the world loves its wildlife!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Icebound Cascades at Whitoak Canyon

New Year's Day was another day with the temperatures well below freezing. I wanted to see frozen waterfalls on a hike but decided to leave the house a little later than last Saturday, hoping a couple of hours later would mean a few degrees warmer. I left about 10:30, wrapped in layers, but still feeling the biting cold trying to inch its way in between the folds of fabric.
With the car heater on fall blast and my hand warmers activated in my gloves I drove out towards White Oak Canyon. It was a beautiful day, the sun was making a valiant effort to warm things up but the winds ensured that the low temperatures remained victorious. As I drove I was buffeted from side to side by the gales as they swept across Rte 211 and was glad to finally turn off on to the more sheltered country roads. For a few miles I crossed creeks and twisted around corners, spotting a house called 'Chateau Debris' that lived up to its name and therefore wasn't photoworthy. I was amazed to arrive at the parking lot and find it almost full. So there were plenty of other foolhardy folks like me, determined to climb some altitude to check out some ice. Wrapping my scarf over my nose and mouth, pulling my hat down over my ears and tugging on my gloves I started off on my hike.
 Soon I was walking alongside the Robinson River which weaved among the trees silently under its mantle of white ice. I passed 6 solitary men hikers who all stopped to talk about the trail and were all equally enthusiastic about its beauty. I then came to a fork and stood, unsure which way to go. After a few moments a couple came down the slope, grinning ruefully and exclaiming that they'd gone the wrong way. We took the right path and chatted but soon they lamented that I was hiking too fast for them, so we wished each other Happy New Year and I continued on ahead, wanting to fist bump the air as I was the only solitary girlie hiker and I was too fast! I actually felt hardcore, despite puffing like a locomotive! I kept listening for the sound of the waterfalls and it took a while for the penny to drop as I finally realized that there would be no gushing water sounds since the falls were frozen! And then as I was berating myself, I turned a bend and there they were.
 Rivulets and waves of water were frozen solid, stilled as they tumbled down to the pool below, and reminding me of Gandalf's long white hair. Pure white and pristine, they shone in the sunlight, twinkling and glittering, and completely silent. A couple of climbers stood on the crest, throwing down ropes, abseiling to the bottom, then climbing back up to the top again using hammers and picks.
 I decided to see how the falls looked from the top before I took more photos.
 The trail started an immediate steep ascent, switching back and forth and becoming rockier. The wind picked up as I ascended but I was really enjoying the climb. It was becoming more of a rock scramble than just a hike, this was much more fun. But then I slipped. There were many pockets between the rocks that were filled with leaves, making it difficult or impossible to judge where your foot would land. I made a wrong decision and my foot went down in a pile of leaves, past my ankle, and I skidded on the hidden rock underneath. I was OK but changed my mind about hiking to the very top on my own in this weather. I'll be back when it's warmer and if I break a leg then, at least it will be warm, and I won't freeze while waiting for help to arrive. I reluctantly turned around and started back down. I was well above the falls and took each step carefully as I climbed back down the rocky path.
At the bottom I met a group of 3 guys who wanted to chat. The usual tiring questions of 'What part of the UK are you from?' started, and I answered mechanically. But then one of the guys actually knew a road in my home town, and from that moment I responded eagerly and it was non stop nattering. I learned from him of how this forest looked 20 years ago, when there were hemlocks and blackberry bushes, and we discussed my beloved monarch and hometown in depth. I was almost sad to leave the group, but we were all frozen after standing still for our chat, so we wanted to get moving again. "Happy New Year!" was bellowed out and punches on arms were given and we went our separate ways.
I learned from the guys that they'd also been standing on the ice. One of them said that 2" thick would support a man and 4" would support a horse. I decided to research this and found mathematical equations could be used to determine the ice safety. This is like speaking a foreign language to me so I also found this, which made a lot more sense.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers breaks it down this way:
·        Less than 1.75 inches: Keep off
·        1.75 inches: One person on skis
·        2 inches: One person on foot or skates
·        3 inches: One snowmobile or a group of people walking single file
·        7 inches: Automobile
·        8 inches: 2.5-ton truck
·        9 inches: 3.5-ton truck
·        10 inches: 7- to 8-ton truck.
So I did venture out on to the ice, quite tentatively at first, and was pretty excited about the experience. I don't recall ever having walked on an iced pond or river before so really enjoyed skidding and slipping across the top of the water. I had spotted some large cracks on parts where others had walked and kept away from those areas. I stayed on the ice which was clear so I could see its thickness and had a lot of fun sliding back and forth. The different formations of ice were amazing and I scoured the creek's surface for new patterns.
 Many of the smaller pools looked like this, bringing to my mind an image of a bath filled with Milk of Magnesia, as though the river was soaking and healing itself from the winter's erosive abrasions.
I spotted these unusual ice formations as I neared the end of my hike. I clambered down the bank and immediately went down up to my knees into a hollow that had filled with leaves. I didn't step on to the ice but crouched down to get a better shot of these upside down ice toadstools. I'd never seen anything like them before and was climbing back up to the trail when a hiker I'd spoken to earlier stopped and smiled, saying, "You just can't keep off the ice, can you?" as I climbed up the last rocks to meet him. But when I pointed out what I'd been looking at, his curiosity was piqued, and with no more comments, he too clambered down to get a better look. Grinning hugely I took one last look back at him crouching down at the river's edge, and then continued following the icy milky way back to the car.