There has been an extraordinary amount of spectacular weather here this spring, but we have been cooped up here for a variety of medical and dental issues. I had an apparent heart episode that the docs still cannot diagnose and Chris fell off the treadmill badly smacking her head. Both of us were in the ER at Walter Reed for many hours. This was the backdrop for a decision made Monday to just take off for Shenadandoah National Park on Tuesday, June 3. We arose that morning and Chris’s eye still hurt from stiches removed from cataract surgery. The forecast was an 80% chance of showers and thunderstorms all day. We just decided to hell with it, we’re going!
We departed at 6:45 and easily made the entrance to the park in Front Royal in the usual non rush hour 90 minutes. As we were driving the first few miles, Chris reminded me that we had seen Pink Lady Slippers at the same time last year on a trail out of Matthews Arm. I had completely forgotten, but immediately knew we had to check this out this year. Pink Lady Slippers are a gorgeous wildflower that is very hard to find in the park and almost impossible elsewhere. It is so dramatic that for years collectors have dug it up to move to their gardens. This almost never works, but causes the plants to be exceedingly rare. It requires five or six years from a start for the Pinks to bloom and seeds will not germinate without a particular enzyme in the soil.
We easily found the trail and walked down a quarter mile to the lady slipper spot. There they were. Most were well past peak, but some were at peak and I made a number of images. Most were made lying down to get a good perspective. When I had finished, I counted the stalks, each one representing one plant. There were 19, most of which were essentially finished blooms. Next year we need to go a week sooner to catch all at peak!
Shortly thereafter, at MP 22, a medium sized bear crossed the road ahead of us and began foraging not far off the road. When we were adjacent, I grabbed my new Nikon D7100 with 80-400mm lens and pointed at the bear. The lens simply would not focus, try as I might. This is a setting that I have not figured out. Then a tiny bear crossed the road and disappeared into the woods. the mother bear took off following and that photo op was over. I decided quickly that I was not going to miss another bear and would attach the big lens to my old D300 and use the new camera on stationary things like wildflowers with my 16-85mm lens. Here is an image of Wild Geraniums:
Just a few miles south, we came around a bend to find what looked (to my bad eyes) like wrens in the road. I straddled one as I went by, did a quick Uy and came back. I then realized that the birds were actually Ruffed Grouse chicks. I made two quick shots when a car rapidly approached from the other direction, heading right for the chicks. I jumped out of the car and waved frantically for the car to stop. It did and then made its way slowly between me and the chicks. When it had passed the chicks were gone. In the meantime, Chris had noticed movement on her side of the car. I peered into the bushes and there was mother grouse hunkered down. She was probably calling to her chicks too. I made a couple of images and then we drove off, leaving the family to reassemble.
We drove on south and were surprised to see so few deer. It began to rain sporatically, as has been forecast, but nothing heavy. When we got adjacent to Skylands, where we wanted to stay, we drove in and got ourselves a room. It was an upper room with a view into the Shenandoah Valley for which we paid $131 including tax. It was then about lunch time, so we drove on down to Big Meadows and the picnic area there. We parked and ate a picnic lunch that Chris had made.
After lunch, we drove back north toward Skylands where we intended to take a nap. But lo and behold, Chris noticed a deer on her side of the road, munching green stuff out in a field. I made yet another Uy and we got to photograph a buck, with large horns growing. This is the first time I can remember when we have spotted a buck out in the open in the spring. Notice the size of those growing horns! Also note the varying colors of his coat: winter grey molting into summer rust.After this encounter, we did return to Skylands and take our things to our room. It was getting a little sleepy at that point, so we both lay down and took a nice nap for an hour or so. When we awoke, it was getting to be the magic hour of the late afternoon, so we drove on south, expecting to see deer or maybe even a bear. Our experience has been that we seldom see any big animals south of Big Meadows, for whatever reason. But not seeing anything by then, we continued on south to Lewis Mountain where there bears are often reported in the picnic area or the campground. Not this day, however. Disappointed we headed back north. Just a few miles north we were ecstatic to see a large mother bear with two young of the year right in the middle of the road! I stopped the car and was able to make only five images before the mother hustled the youngsters off the side, and down a steep bank. I got out of the car and went to the side and indeed the mother had had her cubs climb a tree. But they were only a few feet up and quickly climbed down and disappeared into the woods.
Following this encounter, we continued north hoping for more bear sightings in the fading light. We did not have long to wait. At one point, just north of Skylands, a car was stopped with blinkers going. I knew it had to be a bear sighting, but we saw nothing. I stopped and the guy pointed into the bushes and sure enough, there was a bear in there rooting around. He didn’t give us much of a photo op, however. We continued on north and soon found another bear. This guy was a little more cooperative and we were able to make multiple images of it. But the light was fading fast and I had to up the ISO on my camera to 2500. Even then the resulting images were a little fuzzy. This bear, like others that night, didn’t seem to be much fazed by the presence of people stopped watching him. He just slowly wandered back into the woods.
A little later, as we were at the turn for Skylands, another car was stopped and another small bear was there in the woods foraging. We parked and I made further images, but the light was so low that no much came out. The bear was also not impressive in any way, so not much was missed. We continued on to the restaurant and enjoyed a nice roast turkey dinner. We didn’t last long after dinner, turning in about 9PM. The TV was not turned on!
We intended to awake early, but did not pop eyes open until right at 6. If we were more experienced with our new smart phones we could have set them in the alarm mode. Alas, that is a skill that will wait until we master other capabilities. We were out of the room at 6:15, however, and Chris was a real sport to do so. We drove up to Big Meadows, hoping to find some very young fawns in the fields there like last year. Before we ever got there, we spotted a lump right by the road that both of us initially thought was a raccoon. Seconds later we realized it was a tiny bear. We stopped and as I tried to photograph the now moving critter, his/her mother appeared over the wall on the opposite side of the road. I never got one shot of her as she moved rapidly to cross the road and join her cub. She was so small that we didn’t see how she was really the mother and not a yearling, but she really was. Both bears were moving up into the woods and away from the road, so good photo ops were not apparent. When we realized that they were going away, we decided to continue up to Big Meadows.
When there, we scanned the huge meadow and saw….just two does, without fawns. Several photographers were there and were working one doe out in the field. The other doe was so far out it was not worth our while to try to get within photo range. We continued down to the south to the Lewis Mountain area again and struck out there again. Returning north, we were amazed to see the same mother and cub we had seen 50 minutes before still foraging at the same site. This time they were pretty sedentary and the sun was hitting them, so some decent images were made. After some work here, we returned to Skylands for breakfast and check out from our room.
The question then was what do we do with the rest of our time. The sun was out very brightly and the temp rising, so we expected that the bears were headed for their day beds and would not be in further evidence. The deer were without fawns, so pretty unexciting (we did spot 22 that day, however). One of my targets on all trips to Shenandoah is to see and photograph a Timber Rattlesnake. I know they are present, but hard to find. I have regularly asked rangers at the visitors centers where I might find one. Usually I am given vague directions or just an “I don’t know.” This time I encountered a female ranger who was really trying to help. She told me where she had seen one, but then stopped herself and said that sightings had been so regular on the Frazier Discovery Trail at MP 80 that the NPS had relocated several hikes with school children. She advised that this was an hour south, so maybe not worth our time. After some discussion with Chris, she agreed to go down there, notwithstanding that she hates snakes and had no interest in seeing a rattler. This was also a sacrifice of sorts, as we have seldom seen anything worth seeing south of Lewis Mountain for whatever reason. Not even the wildflowers seem to be down there.
In any case, off we went at about 10 AM, winding our way down towards Loft Mountain, where the trailhead was located. We saw….almost nothing except a snake dead on the road at about MP 82. I took the usual Uy and stopped adjacent to the snake and identified it as just a Black Rat Snake. I had been monitoring the temperature all the way down. It had started at 63, which was really desirable because rattlers will sun themselves when the temp is low. They retreat o the shade when the temps get warmer. The temp in fact did slowly rise as we went down in elevation and the sun got higher. At one point it reached 75 and I thought the “game was over.” But it dropped back down a bit at Loft Mountain. But the sun really was blazing, with almost no cloud cover.
We found the trail head and started climbing. The trail was a loop, supposedly no more than 1.3 miles. There were lots of birds around, including towees and vireos. I had my 400mm lens, but the birds were in the understory and impossible to photograph without a flash. I carefully watched both sides of the trail as we climbed. I could not walk very fast as it was a moderately steep trail and, well, I am not in the best of shape! The rattlers were supposed to be at the top of the trail, at its highest point, but we saw nothing. It was a pretty hike, however, with several nice rocky overlooks. On the way down the trail was adjacent to a huge rocky pile with a dead tree nearby. The bark on this tree was particularly interesting and indeed my photo of this bark is one of my favorites of the trip.
I was happy to see the end of the trail. I was hot, tired, thirsty and hungry. We went over to a small café inside the visitors center. It did not feature gourmet food, in fact catered to folks who do not partake of healthy food, many of whom were present. We satisfied ourselves with toasted cheese sandwiches before returning to the car and heading back north. We made a stop at a Bacon Hollow Overlook at MP 70 which turned out to be the highlight of our trip north. At this small overlook there was a small raised island covered with wildflowers and ancient Mountain Laurel. The laurel was in full bloom, at peak, and lovely to behold. There were other attractive wildflowers present, but I did not know the species.
Periodically Chris had been bemoaning the fact that she had not purchased some coasters she had seen at the Elk Wallow store. She had looked at each store we visited afterwards and had not found them and regretted not grabbing them when she first saw them. I told her that they would still be there when we got to Elk Wallow. She was sure that some other shopper would have grabbed them. They pictured a cute bunny, of course, that Chris was convinced had universal appeal. After considerable discussion we agreed on a bet. Chris would buy me ice cream if they were still present; I would pay if they were gone. She was in a win-win situation! When we finally got to Elk Wallow at about 2:45, Chris went in and ta da! there they were. The price had gone up (from what she remembered), however, and one of the bunnies had “disappeared.” But she bought them anyway. We then enjoyed a pint of Haagan Daz chocolate ice cream before heading out of the park.
It would be nice to report that the trip back was easy. Actually it was all the way back to the Beltway and through the express lanes. But from where we integrated with the regular lanes, it was pure hell. It took us well over an hour to make it home from this point and three hours from Elk Wallow. But it had been a very nice quick get away and well worth our time.