Sunday, October 26, 2014

Part 6 of 10: The Crown of Nature's Changing Year

Above me spreads the hot, blue mid-day sky,
Far down the hillside lies the sleeping lake
Lazily reflecting back the sun,
And scarcely ruffled by the little breeze
Which wanders idly through the nodding ferns.

The blue crest of the distant mountain, tops
The green crest of the hill on which I sit;
And it is summer, glorious, deep-toned summer,
The very crown of nature’s changing year
When all her surging life is at its full.

Amy Lowell, "Summer"

We celebrated the midpoint of our summer - "the crown of nature's changing year" - in the sleepy campgrounds of Hills Creek State Park.  This beautiful unassuming Pennsylvania park was opened in the early 1950's on land that was previously used as a pigment mine for the paint industry.  Truly a testament to the Pennsylvania Park Service, this park boasts pristine campgrounds nestled in towering Hemlocks and also miles of trails surrounding the still waters of Hills Creek Lake.

We arrived late to the park and had to set up camp in the dark, which most campers know is a frustrating endeavor that makes even the most beautiful forest campsite seem ominous and uninviting.  However, what we failed to see with our flashlights at night certainly made for an inspiring surprise the next day.  As we set out for an early morning hike we were greeted by a lily-pad covered lake,  fog transcending from its still waters as it "lazily reflected back the sun".  It was a beautiful moment.

Part 6 of 10: Hills Creek State Park

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Part 5 of 10: The Island of Wild Horses

The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.

- Rachel Carson, on being awarded the 1952 National Book Award for the Sea Around Us 

We started our journey in early March - having camped in forests, swamps and beaches - and now, upon reaching our halfway point, we celebrate this moment of our summer on the beautiful island of wild horses.

Assateague Island is a magical place. It is a long stretch of land surrounded by stormy seas, outlined by white sand, occupied by wild horses, and regarded with wide-eyed wonder. To borrow from author and environmentalist Rachel Carson, it is hard to describe this island without speaking in poetry.

Part 5 of 10: Assateague Island National Seashore

Assateague Island is a barrier island shaped by stormy seas and winds. It is a beautiful yet harsh salt marsh environment that is home to a variety of plants, animals and insects that have adapted to its fickle nature.  The island is a creature in itself - gradually moving and being reshaped by storms and rising sea levels.

There is an element of vulnerability in beach camping (at least on Assateague) that is hard to convey through photos. The stormy weather brings with it rain and winds that, without sand stakes and flood prevention, will knock over your tent in the middle of the night. Many a seasoned campers have taken shelter in their cars when the Assateague weather tried to share their tent for the night. We learned from the stories of our campmates and reinforced our tent. Fortunately, we survived the night, which was signaled by a beautiful fiery sunset and then sung us to sleep by the sounds of crashing waves.  

Park services have done an incredible job of offering the public clean and spacious campsites. As a camper you have the option of oceanside camping on the west side of the island, or bayside camping in the wetlands area facing the Sinepuxent Bay.  Both beautiful in their own way.

Assateague is best known for its wild horses who roam freely as the masters of this island.  Legend has it that they are descendants of horses who survived a shipwreck along the cost and made Assateague Island their home.  The more likely belief is that these are descendants of domestic horses that locals kept on the island to avoid taxes on the mainland.  In either case, the salty low-nutrient diet of the marshland is believed to be the reason why these horses have a smaller build.  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Part 4 of 10: The Mighty Shenandoah

The Mountains—grow unnoticed—
Their Purple figures rise
Without attempt—Exhaustion—
Assistance—or Applause—

In Their Eternal Faces
The Sun—with just delight
Looks long—and last—and golden—
For fellowship—at night— 

Emily Dickenson, "The Mountains —Grow Unnoticed"

The mighty Shenandoah Valley stretches 200 miles and is flanked by mountain ranges, the Blue Ridge Mountains on one side and the Allegheny Mountains on the other.  Nestled in this valley is the Shenandoah National Park - a nearly 200,000 acre park that is abound of forest and mountainous beauty. Upon entering the Park's boundary on Skyline Drive, you are hard pressed to find a moment without a view of the magnificent mountains. With five major campgrounds, lodges, and more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including part of the Appalachian Trail (the legendary 2,175-mile footpath that takes hikers through 14 states), the Park is set up for you to truly experience the beauty of the mountains.

Certainly this Park has made it its mission to not let these mountains grow unnoticed. But when you reach the top of a vista and look out at the mighty Shenandoah Valley there is something comforting in knowing that "without attempt, exhaustion, assistance or applause" these mountains are here, just rising and effortlessly glorious for as far as the eye can see.

Part 4 of 10:  Shenandoah National Park

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Big Meadows Lodge.

Big Meadows Lodge - known for it's rustic beauty and hospitality. A warm place to take a break, enjoy the view and some local flavors (if you're ever up there for breakfast, try their delicious Blackberry Syrup).

The start of our hike up to Black Rock.

About 70 years ago there were no deer in the neck of the Blue Ridge Mountains because they were hunted out of existence. However, 13 white-tailed deer were introduced to the Park when it was created in 1936 and since then the population has flourished.  Now, white-tailed deer are a common sighting all around the Park and along Skyline Drive.

 A beautiful view of the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains from a vista point on Black Rock.

Roughly 101 miles of the legendary Appalachian Trail winds its way through the Shenandoah National Park. Many thru-hikers claim that the section of the A.T. that runs through the Park is the most beautiful of the 2,100 mile-long footpath that runs from Georgia to Maine.  

Though we only hiked a couple miles of the A.T., it was easy to see what all the fuss was about - a well kept and well marked trail running through deep-seeming woods, and a special touch of spring-time greenery and wild flowers. 

Wild flowers along the trail.

We camped in Mathews Arm Campground. A little crowded but a very well-kept campground with nearly 650 sites to choose from.

 Shenandoah is believed to have the highest density of black bears in the world - slightly over one per square mile. Though we never saw one in person, black bears certainly seem to be a natural mascot for this park.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Part 3 of 10 - The Whims of Swamp Water

... a poor dry stick given
one more chance by the whims
of swamp water— a bough
that still, after all these years,
could take root,
sprout, branch out, bud—
make of its life a breathing
palace of leaves.

- Mary Oliver, "Crossing the Swamp"

For our third camping trip, we headed to Cederaville State Forest which is adjacent to the largest freshwater swamp in the state, Zekiah Swamp. The park contains the Cedarville Bog, which makes for very interesting and unique ecology that is uncharacteristic of this area.  Spring is a particularly beautiful time to head to this swampy forest because the wildflowers and wildlife really bring the forest to life and, as May Oliver would put it, "make of its life a breathing palace of leaves."

It's not easy hiking though.  The "whims of swamp water" can make it a pretty tough trek through mud and prickly plants. In the end however, it was a beautiful sight to reach Cedarville Pond and watch it glisten in the sun, all covered in lili pads and swamp-life mystery.

Part 3 of 10 - Cedarville State Park