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.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fun and Frolicks on the River

Sunday was another hot and very humid day, perfect for tubing down the Shenandoah River with Emily, Elizabeth, Steve and Margie. We were dumped at the side of the river by our bus driver and took so long titivating and fiddling and discussing the best way to float along together that another bus had pulled up and was tipping out more tubers before we'd even got a toe in the water. We finally decided that it was best to all tie our personal tubes to our large cooler tube so that we became like a huge raft and were all able to reach over to the beer, of which we seemed to have rather a lot of, and snacks.
A quick pose on the bank and then were were off. The water seemed a little cool to start off but we soon forgot about that.
We had all manged to secure tubes with beer holders, a very important feature when you need hands free to nibble snacks, smoke cigars, take photos, or generally fool around.
Cheers from all as we merrily bobbed downriver. Elizabeth, for some reason, had the hardest time in determining which way we were going and often thought we were traveling upstream. I did sit and ponder over this for a few minutes but gave up, and chose to accept her just the way she was, and love her regardless.
Steve managed to lose an unopened beer can in the water and good ole Margie, bless her cotton socks, dove in and swam furiously after the errant drink, standing triumphant once she'd caught the can. Emily and I had failed to even lift a finger, we were too relaxed for that kind of commotion, and I think Elizabeth would have got lost if she'd gone...
We were also very fortunate in that the sun wasn't blazing down today. It sometimes peeked out from a cloud, just to assure us that it was still there and had every intention of keeping us warm, but it was lovely not to be blinded or burned by its blazing rays.
We had a few little ruckuses where we tumbled over rocks, poking up through small rills but for the most part it was a smooth and pleasantly slow ride, during which we had plenty of time for laughs as we shared out our beers and munchies.
But even though we were moving so slowly down the river, it seemed that we were approaching the finish line too fast, and so we stopped at a small bank, climbed out of our tubes and parked ourselves in the river instead.
Elizabeth looking for the widget in the bottom of her Boddingtons can.
It's rather apparent from the photos that we were having glorious fun. The water was crystal clear and the perfect temperature. We sat for a long time, drinking, munching, laughing, and watching other folks pass us by. We also noticed after a while, probably as our skin softened, that there were tiny leech like critters that clamped onto us and manged to give little nips. None of us liked this discovery too much so we decided to carry on, since they only seemed to latch onto us while we were keeping still.
Looking upriver, so peaceful and empty. I think we may have been the last ones left in the river.
The many changing landscapes of the river bottom on our journey.
We only had a hundred yards or so until we reached our finishing point and so we all laid back in our tubes, and closed our eyes, lapping up the sun and letting our big rubber raft slowly Float On. But I snuck open one eye and saw responsible Steve and Margie climb out and gradually tug us towards the bank. And then a voice boomed out, "Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey!" from one of the outfitter's staff, and our watery voyage ended
A funny sign in the Ladies back at the outfitters.
We soon got changed into dry clothes then headed into Front Royal to have dinner. Stopping at Joe's Steakhouse seemed like a good plan as they had lovely outside seating and the last time I'd been here the food had been great. And so we sat outside and ordered our drinks. And waited, and waited. It seemed that our lazy slow moving day was to extend into our evening, but finally our waiter brought them out and took our order.
We ordered mussels for starters and put in our main courses. And waited, and waited. Our previous lackadaisical attitude seemed to have rubbed off onto our waiter as he showed zero contrition when we commented on our delay of service. Whatever, the food at least was very good and we managed to gee him up a little when we wanted to leave. And as the day gave way to dusk, it was a car of tired pals that all looked forward to soft pillows at the end of our journey home.