Lord Delaware North End: Pleasant Surprise & Fearful Uncertianties

I didn’t have to be at work until 11 this morning.  So, I took advantage of  the time on my hands and crept to see how my favorite three birds were doing.  Lo and behold, Joachim and Anna have two chicks!  I must have overlooked the second one on my previous observation.  It must have been well hunkered down.  But, I saw both adult birds bring fish to the nest.  I was confused at first to note four Osprey at the same nest.  On cue, Joachim went to a familiar post on the nearby private dock as Anna stayed on the nest with the chicks.  I watched her feed and feed with them.  Aside from having to choose a name for the other bird, this was a nice surprise.

Feeding the Family (C) John Gresham

Feeding the Family (C) John Gresham

Back to the post (C) John Gresham

Back to the post (C) John Gresham

The pleasantries of this morning’s discovery were a bit tempered with the crab pot floats I saw upriver from the private dock.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against an honest man making an honest living.  And I love crab meat as much as the next local.  But, I can’t help but to hope that the waterman (watermen) have by-catch reduction devices (BRDs) on their pots.  I was excited to see Diamondback Terrapins swimming on either side of the river.  It would be a shame to see them drown to death in crab pots.

Crab pot floats on the Mattaponi (C) John Gresham

Crab pot floats on the Mattaponi (C) John Gresham

Unfortunately, a recreational fisherman had proven himself to be foul.  This site is not that far away from fast food restaurants with public restrooms.  It is bad enough that too many of them leave ungodly amounts of litter, including pieces of squid to ferment in the hot sun.  But, today’s sight was absolutely wrong.

Anna with the babies (C) John Gresham

Anna with the babies (C) John Gresham


To end on a more pleasant note, the Osprey chicks are very mature looking.  Chances are they will be ready to take their first flight soon.  Also, the fact that there are two chicks at this site is a better result than we have had at work with only one in the nest at the Visitor’s Center and none seen on the nest on Taskinas Creek.  Perhaps I can get a photo of one of them making their first flight.


Love the Bay by Learning

The more you learn about something you care about, the more you love it.  Chefs who understand the alchemy of food and flavor combinations tend to be far more passionate about their craft than a burger flipper who is only seeking a few dollars to buy some electronic gizmo.  Musicians who study various genres to add to their depth of creativity make far better compositions than those who just want to make a hit or two to sell units. 

The same holds true for those who live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Sure, people love to eat succulent crabcakes and go swimming at the beach.  But, from the Susquehanna Flats to Fisherman’s Island, there are a wide variety of museums, visitor’s centers, research facilities, and other places where the general public can learn more about the bay through the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.  Most of these places cost about as much as the parking fee at an amusement park.  Yet the information and interpreters in there can give an informal education that is far more valuable than a roller-coaster.

Dawn from Tangier Sound © John Gresham

Dawn from Tangier Sound © John Gresham

For example, the Tangier Island Museum is a fascinating place to learn about (and meet) some of the most unique people in the region.  How does an isolated community maintain a heritage and dialect in a modern world that threatens their way of life?  Browse through the displays and talk to the locals and you will find Tangier to be a place where people are very concerned and also very friendly.

Next door to Tangier is Port Isobel.  This island is a research facility of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and is open for hikers as well as those who participate in CBF led field trips.  I was fortunate to be a part of the Watershed Educators Institute training on Port Isobel and explored the marshes and shoreline.  Our interpreters also gave crab and oyster dredging demonstrations so that we could identify the various creatures in aquatic environments. 

Crab from the eel grass © John Gresham

Crab from the eel grass © John Gresham

For those who don’t fancy a trip over the open waters of the Chesapeake, there are other places in the region that are more than worth a road trip for education, scenic beauty, wonderful people, (and good food).  Among my recommendations are:

  • Virginia Institute of Marine Science (Gloucester Point) – The premiere research facility on the bay has aquariums, a touch tank, and holds public seminars year round.
  • Gwynn’s Island (Mathews) – Home to a quaint museum and fine sunsets on the Piankitank River.  There is plenty of lodging as well.
  •  Tappahannock – The historic center of town leads right down to a public access waterfront.  Visit the museum and do some antique shopping too.
  • Virginia State Parks – The parks in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have unique displays and interpretive programs led by staff who friendly and knowledgeable

I hope you take the time this summer to visit one or two of the many points of interest along the bay in Maryland and Virginia.  Escape for a day, or plan a family vacation to learn and love the Chesapeake.

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).

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.

The Burning of the Socks: Birth of a Tradition

So if you sail into the Harbor on the 21st of March,
And you smell a smell like Limburger sautéed with laundry starch,
You’ll know you’re downwind of the Eastport docks
Where they’re burning their socks for the Equinox.

from “Ode to the Sock Burners” By Jefferson Holland, Poet Laureate of Eastport, 1995

Brad and John burning their socks (John Gresham/Va State Parks)

We took a bit of a chance at York River State Park this past Saturday.  We decided to use the Annapolis, Maryland tradition to kick-off our canoe and kayaking season.  The very idea of adults burning their socks seemed a bit silly.  But, I convinced my bosses that getting people to play with fire and water on the same day would bring people to the park. 

At Taskinas Point on the York River ( John Gresham/Va State Parks)

And did it work?  We had 39 paddlers on a day that started partly cloudy, became light rainy, and ended in downpours.  Of the guest, 24 of them were from the Hampton Roads Outdoor Adventure Meet-Up group.  Some of the others were from states as varied as Arizona and Vermont.  Had the weather been better, who knows how many would have turned out.  But my Chief Ranger, Brad Thomas, was well pleased with the attendance and told me, “There is no way we are not doing this again next year.” 

As with anything, there were some things we need to improve on.  But, a new tradition has been born at York River State Park.  The first Saturday of Spring we will celebrate the Equinox.  At Taskinas Point, we will burn our socks.

Check out Craig Leggette’s album of the event here!  Don’t wait until next year to come to the park and paddle.  Check out our paddling programs here!

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