Before You Go To OBX: Sandbridge

Sandbridge is that little space between the Oceana Naval Air Station and the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge that people tend to overlook.  Aside from the rental condos, there aren’t any options for cheap, creature-comfort lodging on the beach.  Many people prefer the nightlife and people watching on the main strip of Virginia Beach.  Others head south to the under-developed shores of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  While getting a Euro-style OBX on your car may be something of a status symbol, I recommend making Sandbridge a day trip, if not vacation destination. 

A Moment at Sandbridge

A Moment at Sandbridge

Little Island Park is the kind of small town beach that you thought was paved over completely.  The rest rooms are well taken care of and life guards are ready for rescues and suggestions of where to stay and what to do in town.  The park boast a massive fishing pier where almost anything can be caught (I saw a guy come off the pier with pompano, a more southern species, in his bucket).  Surfers and kite boarders have plenty of room to play.  Kayakers can launch into Back Bay across the road.  Visit during the off-season (before Memorial and after Labor Day Weekends) and there is no parking fee.

Flight in Refuge (© John Gresham/DCR)

Flight in Refuge (© John Gresham/DCR)

Cameras were invented for places like Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  The abundance of wildlife and scenery is breathtaking.  Walk along a nearly deserted Atlantic Ocean Beach and see everything from humpback whales to ghost crabs.  Hike the trails and dirt roads (you can’t drive your private vehicle beyond the parking lot) for a glimpse of great and snowy egrets.  Wild horses can be found occasionally and do keep an eye out for the cottonmouths.  The Visitor’s Center is a great place to learn about all that can be found in the refuge.

Viewing a Back Bay Sunset (© John Gresham/DCR)

Viewing a Back Bay Sunset (© John Gresham/DCR)

Now, if you really want to stay on the beach in the most remote way possible, False Cape State Park is the answer to your prayers.  You must hike, bike, or paddle in.  Needless to say, your camping gear had better be lightweight.  Your efforts are greatly rewarded with perhaps the most secluded stretch of public waterfront in the entire commonwealth.  Back Bay is on the other side of this narrow strip of land for more aquatic adventures.  Be sure to stop at the Visitor’s Center for info on guided programs and kayak rentals.   

Dawn on a Dune (© John Gresham?DCR)

Dawn on a Dune (© John Gresham/DCR)

If you can’t scrape up enough money to rent one of those beach condos and lack the nerve to camp at False Cape, don’t feel forsaken.  Sandbridge is less than eight miles from the resort area of Virginia Beach.  Secure an affordable hotel in town and drive down to the pier for some fishing and fun on the beach away from the crowds.  Call the NWR or State Park and reserve a tram or terra-gator ride for an adventurous day trip.  All of the great eateries on the strip await you at the end of the day.  That is, unless you choose to dine at the iconic Margie & Ray’s Crab House instead (and I think you should).

What’s In Your Backyard?

Some years ago, I remember telling someone who my wife and I were going to Norfolk for our vacation.  She turned up her nose, as if the city was not a worthwhile destination.  undeterred by my critic and spurred on by a good deal I got on the hotel room, Brenda and I had a ball in Norfolk.  We enjoyed sunrises and sunsets at Ocean View, visited Nauticus and the Chrysler Museum, and ate at one of the best restaurants in the commonwealth, Freemason Abbey.  No, it was not the Bahamas or some other luxurious place people take cruises to.  But, we found a great little spot to get away and didn’t have to go far to get there.

Dunes on the Ocean (John Gresham/DCR)

Dunes on the Ocean (John Gresham/DCR)

For those who can afford to travel out-of-state and overseas, go for it.  We should all experience life away from our normal circles.  But, it is not unusual to find something different in a 60 mile radius of one’s home.  To save up for years for a “dream vacation” and not burn a tank of gas on a weekend road trip is a bit shameful. 

Within an hour or two from my town are a charming set of watermen communities on the Northern Neck.  I can visit the Eastern Shore or Back Bay and Sandbridge from metropolitan Hampton Roads.  On the other side of the James River is the land of peanuts and pigs.  Making my home base in Charlottesville, the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge are at my fingertips.  Each region has its own local flavor from the great seafood of Willis Wharf to a tasty little sandwich shop in Nellysford.  The Hampton Coliseum is a popular venue for major recording artist.  Or, a little bluegrass performance can be heard for pocket change in a Northumberland County church yard.  The same things that we are willing to spend hours en route to experience can be had by checking print and online weekend guides. 

Window of the Blue Ridge (John Gresham)

Window of the Blue Ridge (John Gresham)

Here is a New Year’s Resolution that may help you appreciate what you have here before going off to elsewhere.  Find five places in Virginia that you have never been to (or haven’t visited in a while) and go there for either a day, weekend, or longer.  If you prefer mountains or seashore, big cities or small towns.  Whatever floats your boat.  Make at least 3 of those visits before taking that major trip and compare the experiences.  Even if that dream vacation was all that you ever desired, at least you will know that there adventures and memories to be had right in your own backyard.

Antithesis of Consumerism and Cynicism

This life has been given to you for repentance.  Do not waste it on vain pursuits.

St. Isaac the Syrian

The Christmas shopping season is upon us.  It used to be that merchants would, at least, wait until our Thanksgiving meals have been well digested and football fans had plenty of time to cheer or curse the results of the big game.  Alas, the infamous “black Friday” begins Thursday night.  It was one thing when a local restaurant or tavern would offer a holiday meal to weary travelers who were delayed from reaching their intended destination.  I suppose mall food courts will offer turkey steak and cheese hoagies to shoppers awaiting “door buster specials.”

Yet, it is not enough to bemoan how Christmas has become an overly commercial farce.  Cynicism is also a toxic mentality which destroys the joy and hope that we should have during this (and any other) time of the year.  Unmet expectations of special gifts under the tree, losing beloved relatives and friends, employment and finances taking turns for the worse; such things can easily lead people into a slippery slope of depression as real life does not always mirror the seasonal Hallmark Channel specials.

View from Humpback Rock (© John Gresham)

The words of St. Isaac the Syrian have become my mantra for these days leading into Christmas.  While I have done nothing to justify arrest and imprisonment, I am mindful of my imperfect actions, words, and (the source of these things) thoughts.  The fact that the Lord has not destroyed me in my wickedness is proof of his love and desire that I should change my ways.  Thus, repentance should be a part of everything I do from eating breakfast, performing task at home and work, even enjoying a quick game of mahjong.  One need not live in sackcloth and ashes.  But, to be careful of the thoughts harbored has a positive effect on words spoken and things done.

It is more difficult to shop until you drop knowing that one’s highest aim is a change of self.  Nor can one wallow in self-pity if they focus on developing a greater spiritual self.  We seek out greater principles of life instead.  This is where things are created and discoveries are made.  New bonds of interaction are forged and hope continues in spite of disappointments and disasters.  It is this higher awareness that cannot be found in fat men sliding down chimneys or washing away one’s misery in spirits.  It is found only when one pursues a life of spirit.

Give thoughtful gifts to the people you love.  Refuse to be swept up in the excesses of commercial marketing.  Seeking the higher point of our existence keeps us safe from this seasons toxicity and allows us a fullness of life that goes beyond January first.

Escaped to Mathews!

It used to be a bi-weekly thing.  I’d throw my kayak on top of the car, grab my fishing and camera gear, put a few bucks in my wallet and hit Route 14 until I couldn’t go any further east.  For years, Mathews County has been my summer hang out.  The public beaches attract wild birds more than sunbathers.  Kayak anglers can find almost anything swimming in the marshes.  The Saturday farmer’s market offers a variety of food and crafts.  How could anyone hate a mostly rural county surrounded by water and possessing no traffic lights?

At Low Tide (© John Gresham)

I barely stepped foot in Mathews in about a year.  Work caught up with me.  Being a ranger and pastor doesn’t lend me to much free time.  Oddly enough, I have been a bit more interested in hiking in the mountains rather than hunting for Oystercatchers.  Constantly shooting and blogging for the park and my recent pursuit of Orthodox Christianity has made my passion for pleasure photography dwindle.

Untitled (© John Gresham)

I couldn’t let the summer pass by without reigniting my love for the place (and the blog) that led me out of a basement in Richmond.  With the Pamunkey Baptist Association Annual Session out-of-the-way and having to lead a canoe trip on Thursday, I made sure the lawn and other chores were taken care of Friday.  Even though my time was limited by other responsibilities, I had to make an escape to Mathews Saturday morning.

Marsh Master (© John Gresham)

I was expecting higher winds.  But the Chesapeake Bay was rather calm at Bethel Beach.  I probably could have launched my kayak in it.  The colors at sunrise were fine for a couple of good images.  Returning to my car to switch lenses, an Osprey was kind enough to pose perfectly with the sunlight at it’s back.  I was a bit frustrated with myself for letting my skills wane a bit as  a couple of Dunlin and Wilson’s Plovers fed along the gently crashing waves.  Even at low tide, I couldn’t cross the narrow channel that cut an island from the rest of the beach.  But, I thought the sand flat would be a great area to create a panorama or two.

After a couple of hours, I pulled into Winter Harbor Haven and saw that a few kayakers had already hit the water.  If it weren’t for a sermon and eulogy I had to develop, my Pungo 14o would be in Horn Harbor hunting for croakers, red drum, and speckled trout.  Driving back through town, I had to make two stops.  A couple of guys were selling fresh Carolina shrimp from the back of a truck.  Eating the farm-raised variety for over a year, it was refreshing to taste the real McCoy again.  A little sugar baby watermelon from the farmer’s market made a good desert with grilled shrimp.

BBQ Shrimp (© John Gresham)

My Saturdays in August and September will be booked at work.  So, I will take a couple of days off during the week those months and make more escapes to the land and waters of my ancestry.  I hope some fish will be there to greet me as well.

Taskinas Creek Trail: In The Heart Of The Marsh

Yes, it is open again!  The Taskinas Creek Trail at York River State Park was renown as one of the best hikes east of I-95.  Due to storm damage, it was closed to the public for two years.  Park staff and volunteers worked hard to re-route and restore the trail.  Despite some significant changes, Taskinas Creek is a hike that is winning praise in the region for it’s physical challenge, views of wildlife, and unique beauty.

Taskinas Creek at Sunset (© John Gresham)

The long bridges across the freshwater streams at the beginning of the trail are gone.  Yet, hiking along the smaller crossings still provides guest with an idea of how estuarine creeks and rivers begin as mere trickles of water at the bottom of a hill.  As they flow, these streams get broader turning the surrounding lowland into bogs.  A variety of frogs, turtles, and other creatures can be found here.

The freshwater bogs give way to an open canopy marsh and cord grass as hikers reach the first Marsh Overlook.  The stream meets the larger Taskinas Creek at the Heron Overlook.  This is a great place to spot both the Great Blue Heron and the smaller Green Heron.  At low tide, Fiddler Crabs can be seen scurrying around for hiding places.  High tides bring Muskrat and Killifish swimming right underneath the overlook.

Flying Lesson (John Gresham/DCR)

After an elevation change, hikers are rewarded with the Osprey Overlook.  An Osprey nesting platform stands between  two bends in the creek.  These expert anglers reside here from March until September to raise their young.  This year, we have two chicks on the nest in the creek.  The platform was installed by a local Boy Scout working on his Eagle Badge.  An overlook named for our national bird can be found on a small spur trail before ascending on another hill.  Bald Eagles can be seen at the park year round, perhaps more frequently when the Osprey are back in Latin America for the winter.

Along the Creek (John Gresham/DCR)

A challenging ravine follows lined with Mountain Laurels.  In May, this is one of the most beautiful parts of the hike.  Ascending to the final hill is the spur leading to the Kingfisher Overlook.  Fans of the original trail will remember how the long bridge used to cross a section of the marsh.  A portion of the bridge was removed due to constant erosion damage.  But, a substantial section remains as an overlook that is perfect for wildlife viewing, photography, and waving to the canoeist and kayakers as they explore the creek.  Returning from the spur, the final leg of the hike is relatively broad with only slight elevation changes until completing the loop to the first two ravines.

New Trail Map (John Gresham/DCR)

As unbiased as I can be, this is the best hiking trail on the  peninsula.  I doubt if there is anything quite like it along the Chesapeake Bay.  The elevation changes will impress the most avid outdoors adventurers.  Birders and photographers can enjoy the diversity of nature’s beauty.  Environmental educators will find it a great learning lab for geology as well as ecology.  Make plans to visit the Taskinas Creek Trail at York River State Park.  Parking at the park is only $2 per vehicle on weekdays, $3 on weekends.  Visit the Virginia State Parks blog for stories about the trail and other items of interest at York River and around the state.

Benefits of Plan B

You would think that with “Gresham’s Law*” being a part of our lives that everyone would have some sort of back up plan for their outdoor adventures.  I used to be one of those poor souls.  I would come home in a foul mood if the fish weren’t biting, the weather turned bad, or if some other complication would arise just to ruin my day or weekend off.  Now, getting skunked or soaked no longer is something that I dread.  I look to my alternatives.

Water Meets Stone and Moss (© John Gresham)

My camera goes wherever I go.  I may not take it in the kayak while fishing.  But, if the day is especially bad, I can get some landscape and wildlife images in.  I have access to a couple of good point-and-shoot cameras when I backpack.  If I change my mind, “The Brick” (my Pentax K200D) is in the trunk for a shorter walk and better photos.  No matter what level photographer you are, a camera is a great thing to have.  Capturing a few good scenes can make a bad day better.

My appetite and taste buds are a part of me.  Having a few bucks while traveling can open one up to a culinary adventure when the waters and trails prove uncooperative.  Bypass the typical chain restaurants and fast food.  Local diners and dives have offerings that you just may not find at home.  You may even be inspired to buy the ingredients and try making the meal at home.

In this age of social media, we have forgotten what it is to have a good book on hand.  Yeah, Kindle and Nook may have their advantages.  But, there is something about the feel of hardbound or paperback that makes reading a holistic experience.  Some communities have neat local papers and magazines that beckon even the most discouraged adventurer to come back and try again next time.

A Friendly Local (© John Gresham)

This past Monday was to be my epic mountain adventure of the year.  I was going on a solo backpack of Crabtree Falls and The Priest.  I told everyone that I was going to make the climb on Monday, crash at the shelter, make my way down Tuesday, and use Wednesday to recuperate.  When I got to Massies Mill, I couldn’t even see the mountains due to the thick fog.  To make matters worse, the weatherman called for rain and thunderstorms all day and evening.  A 18 mile round trip solo hike in bad weather on some trail I wasn’t familiar with didn’t seem like a great idea to me.

So, I went to plan B.  I grabbed the “brick” and captured some waterfall images along Crabtree and the Tye River.  Unfortunately, the Country Store in Montebello didn’t take my ATM card.  The UVA Credit Union in Nellysford was available.  I found a great little Italian joint that had a used book exchange.  They didn’t have anything I was interested in.   But, I did pick up the “Appalachian Voice.”  Being discouraged about not being able to execute my original plan would have been self-defeating.  Enjoying the alternatives has given me an appreciation for Nelson County and a marinated beef and turkey sandwich with cheese.

*“Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.”  I wrote that on a post it note with no adhesive.  Some guy named Murphy picked it up, got the copyrights, and made millions.

Walkerton: Tidal Marsh Trip

Walkerton, Virginia is one of those little spots of real estate that barely show up on a map or GPS.  The King & Queen County town was once a busy little port on the Mattaponi River.  As with its upriver sister Aylett, Walkerton’s importance dwindled as more people relied on automobiles.  There is an attractive mill-pond, a couple of historic buildings, and a little gas station/country store to visit.  Civic organizations and the volunteer fire department hold different fundraisers serving delicious barbecue and Brunswick Stew.

Mattaponi Reflection (© John Gresham)

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, motorboats dominate the Mattaponi River here.  The river is tidal, but freshwater.  Water-skiing and jet-skiing are very popular with locals and those in the know.  But, things can get a bit congested here and there are a few shallow islands that one has to navigate.  This gets even trickier as the tidal current is said to be one of the swiftest in the state.  Canoeists and kayakers would do well to avoid the town on weekends.

 

Misty Foot Bridge (© John Gresham)

 

Weekdays before the Spring and Summer madness begins is a great time to paddle here.  The local fire dept. has a launch specifically for small craft (please leave a donation) and there is a kiosk of information about this stretch of the river provided by the Mattaponi/Pamunkey Rivers Association.  The freshwater tidal marsh is a fine place to admire the variety of plants growing along the shoreline.  Sunrise and sunset visits offer great opportunities for capturing a beautiful image or two with your camera.  Or, try your luck with a rod and reel.  Walkerton is known for catfish and yellow perch fishing.  But, the bass and bream provide action as well.

From Richmond, take Rt.360 East to Central Garage.  Turn Right on Rt. 30 and left on Rt. 629 (across from Hamilton-Holmes Middle School).