Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Rough Ride on the Shenandoah

I was up early on Saturday to meet with friends for a kayaking trip down the Shenandoah. I had done this trip last year and enjoyed it so much that I jumped at the opportunity to do it again. Even though I was there early, others had arrived before me, so we managed to spend some time chatting and catching up with each other before we had to hop on to our bus. The weather was dull but very warm, perfect for water activities. All we had to do was grab a paddle and life jacket and the rest of the day was organized for us. We had nothing to think about or plan.
We all clambered off the buses and walked around the kayaks laid out, looking for one that we'd want to spend the day in. This was done quickly and without fuss and soon we were all in the river waiting for our command from leader Bob to 'push off!'
The river looked so inviting and we all casually paddled downriver, some of us chatting while others enjoyed the beauty of the river while paddling alone. We would all take turns at this as we covered the 12 miles and sometimes folks would just be sitting in their boats with feet dangling over the edge in the water and just letting the current take them.
Bob passing by and we both attempted to take a photo of a lone turtle, the only one we saw on the trip. We also swept over a lot more rocks than I remembered from last year. I was used to these and so when I got stuck was fine with rocking off or pushing away from the boulders, but some of the newer members were a little concerned. They had to learn fast! A few had to climb out of their boats, holding on firmly as they worked their way free.
I got very stuck on a large rock at these rapids so pulled out my camera to quickly grab a couple of shots, but folks were ramming into me as they shot past with no control over their boats so I had to thrust my camera back into its waterproof container and concentrate on getting off my perch.
My boat of choice, albeit a very bad choice. Once I had been in the river for a few minutes I realized the thing didn't steer well. As soon as I stopped paddling it would suddenly veer off to either the left or the right. I had to resign myself to having to paddle constantly, no idle cruising with the current for me.
We stopped for lunch which once again was being cooked on a mill saw blade over an open fire. The food was superb, as good as last years, with burgers, homemade pasta and potato salad, with heaps of green salad and tomatoes. The trick was to not eat too much as I knew the evening meal would be well worth the wait.
But then once we were back on the river the capsizing started. This couple had problems and it must have soured their day as much later when we were only a mile and a half from the end we saw them standing on a small beach by their boats, and they were wanting to know if they could walk the rest of the way because their arms were tired. What? And drag their boats behind them, or were they just wanting to leave them? We had to assure them that the rest of the way was still water and they could simply float.
After a few more rills with folks getting stuck on rocks we hit a quieter part of the river and we just lazily paddled, enjoying the bald eagles who were circling above us.
But the peace didn't last for long. We rounded a bend and saw hundreds ofrowdy tubers in front of us. I had a friend who was celebrating her birthday here today and although I love tubing, being in a hoard like this isn't my idea of fun, so I was glad we could get past them and leave them to their noisy partying.
We soon came upon the Compton Rapids which were class II and seemed to be flowing pretty quickly today. The tubers were going through and screaming as they tumbled over the waves. As soon as I saw a gap I paddled fast and tried to steer as best as I could. It was exhilarating and I loved every second of it. I had some huge waves tumble over me and knew my boat would fill up. I just hoped I wouldn't be tipped over.
As I came into calmer water I steered over to the bank, I would need to emptyt the water before I carried on. I pulled my boat to the side and came across Jen who was in the process of               pumping water out of her kayak. We saw another couple who were tipped out of their boats and one guy lost his kayak and could only watch it tumble over the rocks as he stood up using his paddle for support. But Jen and I caught it and emptied it for him, then Bob towed it over to the other side of the river where the guy waited. Another guy smashed his knee but luckily his girlfriend had some Bandaids and Neosporin which she applied while Jen and I emptied his kayak. We ended up rescuing 4 kayaks, a few of our crew hadn't fared too well.
We were getting pissed with the tubers though. Many of them had not packed their litter away before negotiating the rapids, so much of it fell out and bobbed down the river. Jen and I tried to catch as much as possible which did result in me collecting a couple of unopened beer cans that would accompany my steak nicely that evening.
Once all of our group were through we climbed back into our boats and paddled down the final stretch of river leaving the noisy party kids behind. We got a mile from our take out point an hour early so we dumped the boats on a bank and swam in the river for a while. It was a lovely way to relax at the end of an eventful and tiring journey. I had been having issues with my knee for the past few days and could feel it getting tight and more painful as I negotiated the slippery rocky river bottom. I think I could have twisted it while pulling some of the boats out of the rapids but I was not going to let it stop me from enjoying myself. We all splashed and fooled around, and soothed our sunburn with the cool water.
It was a very bumpy bus ride back to camp and I was glad to grab dry clothes from the car and get changed for dinner. We sat and impatiently waited for the steaks and chicken to cook. I was glad of the beer I'd caught in the river! The two plates above show a boy steak and a girl steak. Mine was plenty big enough and I had a small piece of chicken underneath that. Bob gobbled his steak down then proceeded to consume another two that were just as large. I really don't know where he put it.
We all chatted for a while after dinner but were soon feeling tired. We left the site with full bellies and a few bruises. I was grateful that I hadn't sustained any flesh woulds like some of the group and felt fortunate that I didn't have too long of a drive home. I was exhausted. I barely remember getting home and flopping into bed.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Paddle and a Quack

After the cloying and energy sapping humidity of Saturday I decided on Sunday that I would go for a paddle locally. I put in on the Shenandoah only about 20 minutes from my house but as I trundled Big Red down the steep ramp I seriously wondered if I'd made a bad decision. There was a large Latino family gathering on the water's edge, with a large BBQ set up and chairs wobbling on the rocks, Coolers were dotted around and a pile of huge water melons sat in a large triangle formation waiting to be chopped up. I was rather impressed with the amount of planning this must have all involved and actually a little envious as I have no family to do this with but what really annoyed me was seeing a couple of women squatting down on the ramp by the water, who had about 6 dogs and 2 large bottles of shampoo. They were giving their pets baths in the river, frothy bubbles floated downstream and I fervently wished I had friends with me so I could say something about their pollution of the water. But there were too many of them for just me so I walked past them tight lipped and pushed off, hurrying to get as far away from them as possible.
 I paddled fast downstream until I could no longer hear their chatter and then as I rounded a corner I felt myself relax and sat back to enjoy the peaceful solitude. It was beautiful here with crystal clear water, vibrant greenery, a cool breeze and calming silence.
Until I heard a quack. and then another louder quack.
I looked back and saw a pretty little female duck paddling down by the bank. I called out a greeting and she quacked back. I carried on talking to her, complimenting her on her fine feathers, and wanting to hear more she came closer. It wasn't long before we were firm friends and I named her Samantha. We both glided down the river slowly, and she kept close by, either by my side or paddling in front. If I wasn't keeping up, she would quack loudly and showed obvious approval once I had paddled to get alongside her again.
We must have traveled thus for a good 20 minutes with both of us chatting away. When I spoke she would come close and tilt her head to one side as though very interested in my words.
I was actually quite disappointed when eventually she quacked a few times and hung back. Despite my pleas she wouldn't paddle with me any further but continued to quack her good byes as she watched me carry on down the river. We'd likely journeyed together for about 1.5 miles so maybe she wanted to stay in her territory. I wished her a good day and carried on.
The air was thick and heavy with the sun occasionally busting though the clouds with fierce rays, so I kept to the sides of the banks where it was more shady. There were thousands of dragonflies, bright streaks of blue, green gold and red danced around me, many of them landing on the boat and even my arms. There were skimmers too but mainly beautiful fluorescent dragonflies. Any branches that poked out from the water, tips of rocks, even floating leaves had dragonflies perched on them in pairs, singly or just flitting around in circles.
I floated down a little further until i came to some fast moving water over rocks. I'd already been over some smaller rills but didn't fancy having to deal with these ones on the return trip. I would be paddling upstream now so had to work harder, which was fine, but I wanted to travel further up river from the point I put in, so now was a good time to turn around. Plus I was also rather curious to know if I would see Samantha again.
I was paddling towards the ramp when I caught sight of some little ducklings scrabbling along the bank and then disappearing into some reeds. Immediately I heard an adult quack and wondered if it was Samantha, and maybe that's why she didn't travel further with me, because she was out on a food hunt for her chicks. I wished the little family well and paddled on.
I followed this heron all the way up river, I think he was very fed up with me. I'd get close, and then he'd lift heavily into the air with his legs dangling, croaking at me furiously, push his legs back as he flattened his body, and then slowly flap just a few yards upstream. As I approached a few minutes later, the whole drama was reenacted again. We did this about 5 or 6 times before he finally realized that I wasn't changing direction and this time it might be better for him if he flew in the opposite direction that I was traveling in. A right proper bird brain. but it had been amusing.
I eventually got as far as I could go upriver. I'd had to paddle like crazy to get past some rocks that created a strong current but now I had reached a point where there was an island in the middle of the river and the water cascaded down towards me from each side, fast and loudly over piles of rocks. I couldn't paddle past here. I sat and watched the water for a while and noticed the clouds were getting heavier, darker and lower. Time to head back. When I reached the ramp, the family had left but to their credit had left no signs of their event. There wasn't a scrap of litter anywhere. 2 guys were loading boats on to trucks and both offered to help me with mine, which was great as I was feeling tired. I drove home wondering if Samantha was OK and whether ducks have memories. I couldn't find any information about that but did find this interesting little article about their behavior, along with gooses.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hovering and Hiking in Humidity

Saturday was an unstable weather kind of day, one minute the sky seemed to be clear blue, and then the clouds appeared, dark and thundery. The air was thick with heavy moisture causing me to reconsider my hike, but it was a local venue and since I was alone I could always cut it short if the weather became too oppressive. I was heading to a local wildlife management area and so grabbed my bright orange baseball cap on the way out, so hunters wouldn't mistake me for a deer in the bushes.
I was very relieved to arrive at the park and find only 1 truck parked there, so a maximum of 4 guns were out in the area somewhere. I decided the odds were OK and started out on one of the paths which was supposed to lead to a lake. Almost immediately the going was tough, the trail was extremely overgrown, making it pretty difficult to push through. I came to a little creek and this would be the only open area I'd come across while on the trail.
Despite my heavy use of repellant spray before I set off, bugs and midges swarmed around my head and i was positive I could feel little nips on my arms and legs. Because the trail was so overgrown I often found myself walking into spiders' webs and having to negotiate long brambles that stretched across in front of me, as though deliberately trying to impede my progress. and whenever I saw bugs on the leaves, they were in couples. This wildlife area must be the Sandals resort for bugs. I was getting pretty fed up. The trail was almost disappearing and I wondered if it was a proper trail I was following or a track of a deer or hunter busting through the vegetation. Then suddenly a little area opened up, brightly lit with hot sunshine, colored with clumps of pretty purple, the Virginia Waterleaf flowers. Skimmers and dragonflies hovered and whisked around the plants, with butterflies and bees greedily flitting quickly from one pollen laden stamen to the next.
 But then something bigger caught my eye, and I quickly turned to look at a creature which I thought was a hummingbird. But it was too small and as I slowly crept closer, I suddenly realized I was watching a hummingbird moth. I gazed in wonder. It didn't seem too bothered about my presence, but then I thought, with it almost impossible to follow a trail, there was likely few people who came here. It's wings sounded just like a hummingbird and moved equally as fast, its wings beating 30 times a second. It darted from one flower to the next with the same sudden movements and I struggled to take a photo. As soon as I had focused, it had moved on again. Then, amazingly, it stopped, and for a couple of seconds I was able to focus and quickly snap a picture. I had no time to study the little creature itself, it had no intention of staying still. And then it was gone. I stood there, waiting, willing it to come back, but I waited in vain. I felt like I'd seen a fantasy creature, or a fairy, Then slowly I became aware again of those damn little nits buzzing around my head, and where I'd stood still for a while, they were getting more daring and were now around my eyes. I had to get moving.
I carried on up the 'path', pushing branches, webs and huge briars out of my way but eventually it just got to be too much. The trail was almost disappearing and the vegetation was taller than me. I couldn't handle pushing my way through all that with bugs being on leaves at eye level. I'd tried to look for photos of things that would keep me going but even my interest in taking photos diminished to the point that all I could think about were bugs, bugs and bugs. I'd picked a couple of ticks from my capris and my poor shins were feeling sore from the brambles scratching me. I had to admit defeat, and I had not even seen the lake.
I turned around and started walking back the way I'd come. I'd only covered about three miles but it felt like seven because of my battle through the undergrowth. The heat and bugs had really sapped my strength. And then as soon as I emerged into the little open area with the beautiful purple blooms, I saw the same little hummingbird moth flit across in front of me, its wings buzzing loudly.
And this time I managed to get photos that were a little better than my first attempt. I had to wonder how it managed to keep so active in this humidity while wearing that big furry coat. I even succeeded in taking a short video to show how fast it moved:
I uploaded a video of the little chat here.
A detailed explanation and video footage here.
Seeing this wondrous little creature totally made my day worthwhile and I was happy to swat the mosquitoes and tiny black flies from my face as I walked back to the car. I may not have hiked the miles or seen the landscape I was hoping to see today but this magical little creature more than made up for it.