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.

Your Corner of the World

Yes, after way too long, I am back on the blog that started my career.  While my other works on religion have been important, I should have never lost sight of the fact that Baystride Images Journal is my original creation.  This is where I expressed my passion to photograph and write about the corner of the world that I love.  I have been re-inspired by a great speech from a wonderful conference.

I am in Hampton for the National Association of Interpretation National Workshop learning skills to become more proficient at my job.  This morning’s address was given by Ned Tillman.  Ned has been a leader in conservation projects along the Chesapeake Bay for years.  Hearing him speak about the beauty of the bay, the problems and threats to its health caused by us humans, and the reasons why we must restore this precious waterway back to health could not have been given by some mere academic who doesn’t know a “rockfish” from a rock lobster.  The man is a native of the Maryland stretch of the Chesapeake and speaks from the heart.  I will soon dig into my autographed copy of The Chesapeake Watershed:  A Sense of Place and a Call to Action. 

Ned Tillman (© John Gresham)

All of us who heard his address were reminded of the reason why we are park interpreters.  Part of our job is to encourage people to love our corner of the world.  I have met Alaskans, Pennsylvanians, and colleagues from places in between.  I am sure that when they return to their workplaces, a part of Tillman’s message will be shared with each one of their guest.

I believe with my blog articles in Virginia Outdoors, I have been effective in showing people how special of a place the York River State Park is.  But, my corner and love extends past Croaker and Riverview Roads.  I have seen snow geese take off from Hughlett’s Point, croaker get hooked on a lure near  the Parrot Islands, falling water near the Blue Ridge, and a beaver dam beside my parent’s house on Jacks Creek.  The Virginia State Parks will not pay me for this blog.  I have to make the sacrifice of time and effort to show how much I care about these and other places.

I apologize for taking so long to write here.  I’ll be back in two weeks.   New photos will be posted around Thanksgiving.


The Baystrider

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.

We Need To Return

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and other escaped slaves and underground railroad leaders knew something about the outdoors that we modern African-Americans are failing to realize.  Whatever hazards may be in the marshes and woods, there is a greater peril to our souls to stay where we are and a greater freedom if we are willing to go through them.  Too often I get fearful responses from my kind when I try to promote doing something as simple as going to a well furnished state park, not to mention roughing it somewhere like the Appalachian Trail.  “I don’t like bugs.  There are too many snakes.  I might fall in the water.  What about tigers (alas, I am not making that up)?”  Our ancestors who ran away from slavery may have had such fears.  But, they sought something better.

Please look at where we are in society.  Our rate of illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and others are among (if not) the highest of any ethnic group.  We frequently suffer from poor diets and lack of physical activity.  Multi-channel television, video games, and cell phones are too often our main sources of entertainment.  Perhaps our modern technology, trying to make ends meet, and racist society can be blamed for some things.  But, it is our responsibility to make up our minds to leave sedentary lifestyle plantations behind as there is something to be gained by making outdoor activity a part of our lives.

There is freedom on this trail

Obviously, we will gain better health. Working up a sweat in the gym is good.  But, a hike on a mountain or along a beach is far better since the mind can relax from competition and the body takes in fresh air.  Perhaps some university has done or will do a study to prove that exercise outdoors is superior to indoors.  But, I think it makes sense that as natural beings, we are better off in natural surroundings.

Outdoor activity gives us the knowledge to overcome fear.  Sure snakes exist.  But, most are non venomous and even those with venom avoid contact with people.  Paddling a canoe or kayak allows us to explore places where motorboats can’t.  Knowing proper techniques and being aware of water conditions make this an enjoyable pursuit.  As far as tigers are concerned, avoid hiking in their cages at the circus or the zoo.  The natural world has a lot to teach us.

With the right education, interest, and skills; outdoor activity may also lead to a career.  I came to York River State Park looking for a summer job to make a little money until substitute teaching picked up again.  But, I came armed with a degree in Agricultural Education, years of public speaking, a couple of photography awards, a love for flat water kayaking, and my own blog.  I still had to work my way up.  But, I did it.  Parks, wilderness areas, and other employers are looking for people with something to enhance their operation.  Adding knowledge about mountain bikes or even a few scouting badges may lead to an open door passed over by people who are “scared of drowning in all that water.”

Co-workers and Friends Maurice, Shirley, and Mary

The one instance of racism I have encountered came from people who watched me instead of participated with me (I got “N-bombed” by a couple of knuckleheads on a distant shore as I was kayaking in my own home town).  Other than that, It seems to me that shared interest means more than race among people who love the outdoors.  Organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Sierra Club or the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club open their membership and friendship to anyone willing to lace up boots and hike.  Even when I am alone and not in my ranger uniform, it has not been difficult for me to make a pleasurable acquaintance on a trail or in the water.  Be yourself and respect others.  The respect will be returned.  And if it isn’t, it’s their loss, not yours.

This month, (no this year) pay some respect to those who had to traverse woods and rivers to find freedom.  Excercise your freedom to enjoy those same woods and rivers.  Overcome your fears and learn what nature has to offer.  By doing so, you will make yourself a part of an interesting and fun-filled family of humans that enjoy the outdoors.  I am so happy to be here and you will be too.

Thanks to a warmer than normal winter, why not participate in bird watching this weekend?  http://www.virginiaoutdoors.com/article/more/3521

Know the rules of the road on the trails.  http://www.virginiaoutdoors.com/article/more/3508

Trails To Hike In 2012

Yes, it is “THE BEST OF …” season.  Everyone in every hobby and occupation is talking about the great stuff about 2011 and what to do in 2012.  I’m sorry that I couldn’t resist jumping on the bandwagon.  But, there are a few places I recommend to people who want to put their new outdoor gear to use.  The trails range from an easy walk on the beach to hind parts kicking adventures and offer some of the most interesting scenery in Virginia.  No, I haven’t hiked everywhere in the state.  I’m only suggesting based on my experience in 2011 (and feel free to suggest some other locations you like).  Print this post and keep it.  It may be useful when you plan your next road trip.

1) Maritime/Vir-Mar Trail (False Cape State Park)Getting into False Cape is an adventure on its own (no private vehicles).  But, for a truly wild beach trek, this trail is hard to beat with its untouched sand dunes to the Atlantic and sunsets on Back Bay.  Call the park office to plan your trip around a ranger guided program and you may be able to crash at the Wash Woods Overnight Education Center.

2) Crabtree Falls (George Washington National Forrest)Yeah, it can get crowded on warm weekends, and for good reason.  It is the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi and has gorgeous views.  The trail has a challenging combination of stairs and switchbacks.  I prefer starting from the bottom (plenty of parking off of Rt 58) and hiking to the top and back.  Resist the temptation to play in the rushing water.  Too many hikers had fallen to death here.

Sanderlings blitz at the Bayshore Trail

3) Bay Shore/Winter Water Trail (Hughlett’s Point Natural Area Preserve)This Northern Neck jewel has one of the largest panoramic views of the Chesapeake Bay.  When permitted (some very rare bird and insect species are protected here), you can make a complete loop from the beach to the lower end of bayshore.  Nearby Dameron Marsh Natural Area Preserve has no trails.  But, has some interesting observation points and a kayak launch.

4) Wahrani Nature Trail (New Kent Co. Parks & Recreation)Forget your stairmaster.  This frequently overlooked spot on the side of the road to the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula playgrounds (Rt 33) packs plenty of elevation changes.  Use caution here because you may have to share some real estate with mountain bikers.  It is a great place to warm up for mountain hikes.

5) Cold Mountain (Appalachian Trail)/Hotel Trail (George Washington National Forest)Take the AT in and out from the parking lot for the marvelous panoramic views.  Take the Hotel Trail for views of Mt. Pleasant and cool running creeks.  Make a day of an almost 6 mile loop.  Camp overnight.  Do whatever you can.  But, this place is fantastic!

6)  Mattaponi/Woodstock Pond Trail (York River State Park)Taskinas Creek Trail will reopen in 2012.  But, don’t let that be an excuse to ignore fossil beach, the observation deck, and the spillway view between the pond and river.  You can make it a double loop hike, or connect to Backbone to reach the trails deeper in the park.

Humpback Rock rewards the hiker

7)  Humpback Rock (Blue Ridge Parkway)If you have never hiked a mountain, this is a good one to start with.  If you have done it before, this is a good one to visit.  The unique rock formation is almost like a window on the Shenandoah Valley below.  There is a connection to the AT for more advanced hikers.

8)  Herring Creek/Mattaponi Bluffs Loop (Zoar State Forest)Aylett, Virginia may be the best kept secret for adventure east of I-95.  This hike allows you to explore and play in cool, refreshing waters.  There are trails at the main section of the state forest and you can launch a canoe or kayak down to the Aylett boat launch (or further) for a great float trip.

Thanks to all of you for visiting Baystride Images in 2011.  I pray that you and your families will have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


John R. Gresham, Jr.

Safety First!

For Your Protection

On my two trips to Crabtree Falls (one I didn’t complete), I was warned by a country store owner and my mother-in-law not to leave the trail and climb on the rocks by the waterfall.  Of course, they were preaching to the choir.  One of my pet peeves is when people don’t follow trail warnings and ranger instructions when visiting York River.  The Golden Rule of doing to others as you would have them do unto you applies to me as an outdoors professional as well (which is why I didn’t hike Crabtree the first time, I didn’t have exact change for the honor parking).  Thus, I had no intentions of straying from the trail.

More than an annoyance, not following trails damages the natural landscape and causes more work for those who have to maintain them.  Mountain trails sometimes have switchbacks to protect the natural slope and prevent erosion.  Cutting across them loosens rock and allows water to wash portions of the trail away.  Plant life is also negatively affected by these “short cuts.”  Trails on hillsides east of the Blue Ridge suffer the same fate.  To restore them, employees and volunteers have to put in hours of  labor that could have been used to make other trails for more people to enjoy.   So, instead of saving time, these self-appointed trailblazers cheat themselves and others of adventure opportunities.

Falls to Mountain View

The possibility of bodily harm and/or death is another good reason to say on the designated trails and overlooks.  Loose rock on a mountain side or clear algae along a waterfall is (at best) an invitation to a fall that will result in a sprain or fracture.  Indeed, people have died at Crabtree Falls because they wanted to feel the water rushing on them or had to get closer for the perfect photograph.  I find showers and telephoto lenses a better antidote than risking my life to fulfill such desires.  Tidewater hikers take risk as well when they fail to stay on the trail.  Unstable ground and venomous snakes (False Cape State Park’s cottonmouths are the worst!) are more likely found in the possible “short cuts” than the tried and true paths.  In any case, rangers and rescue workers are most likely to search for the lost and injured in places where visitors should be before they go to places where they have no business being.  When suffering perhaps to the point of dying, this is not a comforting thought.

Safe Viewing

For those who are bored with following marked trails, Google “bushwhacking clubs” and learn how and where to do it right.  Other than that, visit different trails at other parks.  Visit trails at different times of the year.  Chronicle your journeys with pen & paper or modern technology.  My trip to Crabtree was highlighted by creating lovely images of the waterfalls and meeting a variety of people along the way.  There were a few other photographers, a family from Westmoreland, and dog owners enjoying the day.  I treated myself to a barbecue sandwich and conversation at the little cafe in Montebello.  Letting cool mountain water rush over my feet may have felt good.  But, not needing crutches feels much better.