Friday, November 9, 2012

Randolph Park, enjoy the fall colors, colder weather

Denise J Mathews
myself and spouse at Randolph Park, Dublin, VA

    Well, we've had some crazy weather in the last week or so, so it was really nice when the spouse and I got to go see the last of the fall colors at a nearby park. In the picture above we are standing next to some really colorful sassafras bushes. Did you know that the American Indians cooked the roots for a flavored tea? Or that people in the medical establishment now claim sassafras tea can be carcinogenic? What's a person in the woods to eat?
     I understand the inner bark of many trees is edible, along with dandelion leaves, violets and the inside of a cattail stem tastes a bit like celery with a little flavoring. You can also cook the inner stem and it is just like onion in a soup!
     But we walked around the murky pond at Randolph and didn't see any green frogs. They must be deep in the water or mud trying to stay warm and hibernating. But there were squirrels in the woods hop, hop, hopping here and there through all the downed, orangy leaves. A few chipmunks, their little tails held high as though to remind others to get out of the way, also ran across the path in front of us. We actually went along the back path for a change, not far from a chain link fence separating us from an old rail road. It must have been a spur or side line, as the other side of  the park that stood at a right angle to us  had the sounds of a chugging and and whistling train going by. It sounded a little eery in this very quiet woods. In the dark it could have been downright creepy!
     I do enjoy the colors of fall, but they fade and fall much too quickly! Then it means it will only get colder. I dont' mind it being a bit cool, but cold and damp weather is not for me!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Fall is on its way, missing Jr. Naturalists!

     I have to admit, I do not like hiking too much in cold weather. A little cool, okay. But when fall hits and things stay below 50 degrees, then I tend to not go for long walks. I was going to go on a hike this past Sunday near Wytheville, VA, but rain and very cool (49o) temperatures intervened! It was fairly comfortable on the canoe trip on the New River, but it is now October and fall is officially here. I really should get outside more, but it has rained every other day for the past week! I haven't even needed to water my plants out on the deck.
     The spouse already has our cherry tree festooned with Halloween decorations: a skeleton with the head detached, an ugly pumpkin being with wiggly arms, and a bat hanging off the skeleton. The neighbor told him that the kids don't go trick or treating in the neighborhood. What  a bummer. We have not had anyone come to our house to trick or treat in over 10 years. That is no fun. I need an excuse to get candy!
     And because I have to wait on a student for a "conference" this week I don't get to work with the Junior Naturalists. They are 5th graders actually interested in nature! I should have been there, but I emailed some ideas to Judy, one organizer, so maybe they will use them.

Monday, September 24, 2012

We did canoe the New! Relax with Nature Sometimes

    If you haven't done anything on the water in a while (or ever, depending on your bravery level), then traveling a river, even for an afternoon, might seem daunting. Thoreau and his brother canoed for two weeks on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in New England, and described the journey and ideas relating to the Industrial Revolution, how things were changing. Things in the present (2012) have certainly changed a bit over the last century and a half, and not all necessarily for the better. Our industrialization has given us air and water pollution, hormone disrupting chemicals many feel lead to cancer, and just an overbusy schedule. We run to meetings, work, ball games, the store. Yet we don't run to nature.
    I decided to take a trip with nature, and have a little adventure, John Muir style. A collections of his adventures in the book Wild Muir, recounts a multitude of neat and really crazy experiences. He walked a 1,000 miles to Florida, caught malaria and almost died, charged a bear in California, slid down a glacier in Alaska, and rode a tree (yes, a tree, not a car or other vehicle), in a windstorm. So I thought, gee, I 'm a Master Naturalist member, so let's do something a bit more adventuresome than identifying plants in the woods.
    So I looked up the New River Valley Outdoor Recreation meetup group and signed up to go ride a part of the New River! It is a river that can be treacherous with its rapids, but we went on a relatively mild section, starting below McCoy Falls and then through the Eggleston section to Pembroke, VA.
    But I wanted to be a bit bold. Our head organizer, Mike, who has over 10 years experience on the river, wondered if a few of us (there were 3 canoes, 2 kayaks and 8 people in all) wanted to go over McCoy Falls. From a distance they didn't look too big, but had a lot of "swirly" parts between several rocks, two or three standing tall in the water. Well, I volunteered. How hard could this small section be?
    Mike said I might lose my glasses if we flipped over. (He later told one of the kayakers in the group and he met an attractive girl at some meeting and invited her to go over the falls and said they definitely would not flip over in the water. Well, she probably knew nothing about what to do, so they flipped! She certainly did not flip over him and that dating experience was over fast.) Anyway, I gave my glasses to a couple not brave enough to go over and Mike put me in the front of the canoe. The front, really? I didn't know what to do! He said he would steer the canoe from the back and I could paddle on either side.
    Before I knew it we were right at the falls. He was going to veer to the left between two rocks not jutting out much. We did this and got in a swirl of water and it splashed up and I fell -- back into the boat! I was trying to get up but couldn't and, splash, we went over the falls and Mike kept the thing from flipping --- it was handy that we had this plastic looking "dry bags" with our lunch and my watch and pullover, so they didn't get wet. As we cleared the falls and started toward the shore where the rest of the group was some people near the sandy boat ramp cheered. Mike said after that  his end of the canoe almost filled up with water as I fell back, but he kept it together. Another place downstream the canoe got "hung up" on a rock, but he kept bouncing it up and down and we didn't tip over then either. But going over the falls and hitting some choppy water I did get my butt wet. My co-canoeists said I should have worn polyester instead of blue jeans, as they dry faster. I'll remember that next time.
    Paddling in the calm sections and against the wind a few times was actually a workout. We ate on a very mushy, wet area beneath these huge cliffs called "The Palisades" and rested a bit. Some of these white and gray cliffs (I think the gray area was dirt as some foliage was growing off of them) had black areas, caves. Mike felt they were so high only the vultures and bats would bother with them.
     A family was on the right side of this muddy beach area and a kid in a green shirt and black swim trunks kept tossing around this mud, then tossing himself in the water. Tossing the mud again,and again, tossing himself in the water. It was an amusing distraction as we ate. Later, it was also interesting watching the water striders running on the water in front of us and great blue herons seeking food on the banks across from us, a ways away. My tree guidebook got wet so I wasn't sure if I saw a type of birch or wet elm near our break spot. The sycamores near the water's edge were turning brownish yellowish, and I thought I saw reddening poison ivy creeping up some trees. We'd best stay away from them.
    All in all, it was a good workout, the weather cooperated and it didn't rain, the sun warming us up most times, and it was a bit of an interesting adventure. Perhaps Muir would have even approved.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hope to Kayak the New River

     I have tried to be careful about my heels and back -- I think I am going to ride the New! I can't believe it's been 30 years since we had a little adventure with friends Gary Phillips and his friends "Bondo" and went on a 3 day adventure up the New.
     We started out near a dam near the Mouth of Wilson on the Virginia and North Carolina border. It was cool and sunny, early April during public schools' Easter break, as Gary and my spouse were both teachers. Gary let us borrow his aluminum canoe (no, they weren't wooden, no birch bark lashed to them like the American Indians did). We weren't on the New River long before we hit a little section of rapids and Gary, who'd been on this section before (and NOW says he wouldn't do it) said we needed to "paddle real fast". Over the next 3 days we hit a number of interesting places in the New. In one place the water level dropped 3 feet!
     One memorable section had little water but jutting out rock. Our canoe tipped to the side and everything almost got wet, including the camera (don't know if I'll take a camera this time). But we righted the canoe and walked to the side of the rocks and got back to where there was some real water. I wonder if this section of the New I hope to canoe with the NRV Outdoor recreation group will be as challenging, and should I take a sandwich along? I will need to get a hold of someone before this weekend!
     Has anyone out there traveled the New River recently?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Adventures at Randolph Park, squirrel barking

    There she blows! Or there they went. When I reached the beginning of the trail just off the little gazebo picnic shelter across from the frog pond at Randolph Park (Dublin, VA) and the beginning of the trail wasn't much of a trail at all. The 'derecho', a Spanish term I'd only heard of recently, decided to blow through these little woods. The derecho or wind storm precedes a thunderstorm with high winds in the area of 80 mph. Some might question it, but "climate change" is making the weather more capricious and unpredictable.
    So the trail looked like a semi-cleared area, most of the trees and shrubs and tiny plants and the brown leaf litter in its place instead. Where was the trail? Who cared? This was a walk with adventure. Farther on there was a big leafless tree just to the side of the trail I did happen to find. It was oddly in front of a concrete engraving that read " Let Hope keep you joyful". A bit beyond that I almost got tangled on a blackberry bush, the sweet berries hanging close to the ground. There were also some young guys judging the distance to a frisbee target close by,but I walked beyond them. 
    Beyond that there looked to be a big, bricked in wishing well. It turned out to be a humongous fire pit and in back of it were ampitheater seats in four or five short rows. Not sure when it was last used -- the nymphs of nature, the inspiration of poetry and spring, probably held a concert of natural sounds there --- bird tweets, cricket chirps, and  the whistles of wind and whining, moving branches. (But there was no such concert happening as I walked by.)
    As I was  coming out of the woods a squirrel skirted across a picnic shelter table and jumped down and over to a young, not too tall tree, possibly a young tulip poplar. He eyed me suspiciously and seemed very unhappy I was crossing his path. As I got to the tree he started to make the oddest sound at me.
    Some people call it barking. I think it sounds more like low pitched quacking. He'd quack-bark and moved around the tree, then quack-bark some more and go higher in this 12 foot tree, then stop and bark again. He was annoyed with me; well, I was annoyed with him too!
    This last time son Zeb came with me. He decided to lie down on a picnic table in the gazebo as I scouted out the nearby frog pond. Delicate, lilac colored "monkey flowers" dotted the edge of one side of the pond and I heard whoosh, whoosh a few times. Then Zeb came by and there was another whoosh, whoosh. When I'd visited after the derecho I'd spied a big green frog, his ear circle prominent, and pointed it out to few kids who were happening by. This time there were no kids, no frogs I could actually see. Just the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
    Zeb decided on entering the far end of the little trail filled woods and came upon some fencing topped with barbed wire (he said they used 'razor' wire on the fence at the prison where he was librarian). There was a big hole in the fencing and he wanted to see what was beyond. So we trekked up a rather slippery, dirty hill to a woods which was, instead, fronted by old railroad tracks. There were nonnative species growing up in the tracks, including pepperweed, burning bush, and spotted knapweed. Zeb thought it was weird the train tracks seemed to be in the middle of the woods--- did they actually go anywhere? We didn't know but quickly forgot about it and went back toward the car.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Master Naturalists at Summer Solstice Festival

    The "Summer Solstice" festival in Blacksburg, Virginia, gives local folks a way to be outside, enjoy oddities like the flea circus, but also take in some local music, arts and crafts, food and organizations. Our Master naturalist group had a booth there and maybe, well, we were unique. We offered a few activities for little kids (like tossing bean bag frogs on paper lily pads to win animal magnets, and fish for paper fish you put together like a puzzle) and info for adults on our organization. And a number of people came by to ask about us.
    I personally came up with a nature sheet of fun questions and match up questions and connect the dots, all on one paper. Husband Frank said it was too much on one paper. Maybe, maybe not. So where does a squirrel like to live (near or in a tree with nuts, like walnut or oak trees -- did you know that acorns are edible for humans too).
    It didn't take long to get hot out there and our intrepid leader forgot about bringing any chairs. But we brought ours and "loaned" them out to a few people while we were there.
    A number of the little kids would see the lily pads and different colored bean bags and want to stop. The person coming up with that had a great idea. Parents don't realize they could create something simple like that for their kids at home to play with.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Commune with nature: Visit Glen Alton

    I've been to Glen Alton a few times now. No, it's not someone's name, though perhaps it is the family name of those who used to live there. It has two wood shingles homes, two stories high each, and several ponds, a sand pile and mini playground. And paths in the woods -- that's where I come in.
    As a Master naturalist member, I took several people with a fellow naturalist member through the trails in the woods. When I first arrived at this destination, I couldn't see anyone. Had they decided not to come?
    This was a big deal as I had to travel a distance to get there. Glen Alton  is in the middle of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia, a ways from "civilization". And I was trying to get volunteer hours by being there. And it is a nice place to walk, to think, though I can't say it's silent. There are a variety of birds calling this way and that and as I tried to identify a few different species of plants on the trail before the visitors arrived, the mosquitoes buzzed the back of my neck! Good thing I wore a shirt with a collar on it and they failed in their attempts to feast on me (which is unusual -- they seem to always get me somewhere, but I  had on long sleeves and jeans and sneakers, not sandals, so was covered up).
    Several visitors did show up and I took them, along with a fellow naturalist who was over by the "mud" pile with its dirt, hose and kitchen utensils when I arrived, down a few trails in the woods. The woods had a number of delicate looking pine -- probably white pine -- trees, as well as maple, oak, hemlock and even tulip poplar trees. Before the visitors came (an older couple and a mom with her 4 kids) I heard a commotion among those trees and saw a flash of brown through the trees some 15 yards away. It had to be a deer. At least it wasn't a grizzly (just kidding, they don't live back East).
    On our walk with the kids we pointed out different plant names, like Galax (fellow naturalist Barb says it is named for the town of Galax, VA, the first syllable a long a sound), New York fern and Christmas fern, the latter so-called because if you pull off one of its segmented leaves it looks like a Christmas stocking. I pointed out dinosaurs used to eat big, big ferns long ago and I think the kids were impressed. (Or was it the adults). Barb encouraged them to look for frogs in one the ponds that was covered with lily pads with tight little yellow flowers. We certainly heard several. Man, they were so fast! 
    I also pointed out skunk cabbage and one boy wanted to eat a sample. Its flower and they say crushing the leaves are stinky. And on the way back from the pond we showed them, in tall grass between  two tractor tracks, a little nest of 4 tiny hermit thrush babies. The baby birds were so cute and delicate looking, a dark gray so they seemed to have some covering, or maybe their skin was dark. Their eyes were closed and they had those immature beaks with the big yellow outline on them. We took the kids to see them one at a time. One girl asked if she could hold them and we said no! 
    There are a number of things to do at Glen Alton. At one big pond and child and his dad were trying to fish, there is shade and a few picnic tables near another little pond. And the beginnings of a beaver dam and a little falls. A peaceful place to be. I believe Glen Alton is open year round during the day.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Many People Keep Baby Birds

    We weren't exactly sure what to do. After several hours glued to the "boob tube," I thought we should go out and get some fresh air. The nearest open area to walk was the college campus. My husband suspected that the wildest thing we would see in the neighborhood would be the dogs the students had carelessly not put on a leash-- yes, dogs can be "wild" too if they aren't properly trained!
    So we were headed toward the middle of campus, probably to see the fountain, when I spied something odd in a campus parking lot-- a tiny bird! And when I say tiny, I mean tiny, probably a little bigger than a helpless baby bird, but this one seemed to have most of  its feathers, which looked brown and black, a brown spot on its crown with some dark gray fuzziness around it, and a beak that was immature, with the outwardly yellow outline on it. It was difficult to know how old the baby bird was either.
    "We shouldn't leave it here," I reasoned, in the middle of the parking lot. But my husband suggested we look around first. We tried to find a nest in the nearby trees --- no nest in the redbud trees, no nest in the young maple, and we couldn't find one in the very high eaves of the apartment building across from the parking lot. Where the heck did it come from?
     Frank took out a handkerchief. It did a little hopping (I found out that is a sign of maturity) and he tried to handle it gently. Then it hopped right into a hole next to the telephone pole! He somehow got it out without mangling it but it looked so darn delicate. It is wonder some things in nature manage to survive, they seem so fragile. And so we took it home.
    My thought was that we would feed it and get the name of a game warden to take it to a wildlife "rehabilitator", so we cleaned out an old cat carrier and put it in that. And put a towel over the front to keep our ol' cat out of it!
    Then I did some research online and found out that maybe, we should have just left the baby bird there. After all, if it had fallen out of a nest the parents would be nearby, and according to , the mother bird can hear the baby bird if it is within a two block radius of the nest. But since it had mostly "real "feathers, I assumed it could also be a fledging. Either way, I decided, with some misgivings, to take the little bugger back to the the area by the parking lot, and let it out in some bushes. I hope it does okay. I think I will go back in a few days and see if it is still there. Hopefully it will reunite with its family.
   But there are a number of  people and even a Yahoo group of  people who raise baby birds. They say you can use puppy chow soaked in warm water an hour so it is soggy, and in a Youtube video of a baby sparrow, which mine looked like,  they used a water dropper to feed the baby bird.
   I've seen a few websites where people have raised "house sparrows" that were injured. One rehabilitator said that if they took the sparrow to one of those centers they might just feed it to a predator like a hawk! Now  THAT wouldn't be fair at all!
    They say house sparrows, which were introduced to the U. S. in the 1850s, may be a type of Weaver finch instead. There definitely are a lot of sparrow species and so similar if you only catch a quick glimpse of them they are hard to tell apart. Maybe I should join a birding club.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Saw Mary Ingles Farm, of "Follow the River" fame

    She had her work cut out for her, traveling hundreds of miles on foot to get away from the Shawnee Indians who captured her, her sons and her sister-in-law. Mary Ingles' trials as she walked and "followed" the Ohio and New Rivers, has been memorialized in a book and movies, and the homestead she eventually came back to was actually pretty darn close to the New River. And her descendants like to show off this farm to the public.
    On May 27 we visited the Ingles Farm (west Radford, VA) and saw what it was like to live in colonial times. Visiting a tourist attraction that informs one of the good ol' days makes one realize it wasn't always that good -- it could be hard work. But then, there was no TV in colonial times, no radio, Internet or movies. They amused themselves with handmade toys, like something with wood and cloth that turned back and forth called "Jacob's ladder," and carved tops and cloth little dolls. The mothers actually showed the very little ones, male and female alike, how to start sewing just a few stitches at a time, and things got more complicated as time wore on. I think they stressed patience more in the good ol' days.
    It certainly took patience to see one of the Ingles descendants using these big shears and cutting off sheep wool by hand. He needed an assistant to keep this one sheep down -- guess he was young and impatient himself! I took a piece of wool; it's very wavy and even a bit wiry, probably healthier than all this dang polyester (manmade) material we depend on now.
    What was really interesting was this business of flax. I didn't know flax, grown as a crop, took a long time to dry out and thin out and then be made into thread for linen. The demonstrator pointed out that "now," we eat the flaxseed and the hemp they used so much of back then for different items (like rope) we now like to smoke! But there is an industrial kind of hemp, which is not marijuana, they should allow to be used in different processes today. Oil doesn't need to be used in everything!
    In the cabin the real tale of Mary Ingles was told while sitting in the cabin which has been recreated from the original foundation. All in all, a very scenic and sunny experience good for young and old alike.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Starting "The Naturalist"

    I am working on creating a blog that will be helpful and interesting. You know, nature can teach us many things, if we stop and listen. Doctors feel they have all the answers, and electronic gadgets consume many of our children's time, to the detriment of their bodies AND the environment. I am also "figuring out" the  formatting of this new blog about natural adventures and interaction with nature. Did you know my husband almost hooked a turtle on a big pond the other day?