Shirtless and Happy

The title of this blog is not meant to be some kind of a deep philosophical statement about the state of human affairs. Rather, it is a simple and straightforward reference to a short encounter that we had on the towpath while hiking last weekend. The encounter was over in a matter of seconds, but this was the thought stayed with me, a hopelessly hokey phrase – shirtless and happy. It happened towards the end of the walk, when the traffic on the trail was beginning to increase in volume. A group of bikers went by. The last two people in this group were not wearing shirts. This was a somewhat unusual sight on the trail. My eyes locked with the last person in the group. He was a little pudgy in the middle, and the paleness of his skin was notable. And he had a huge smile on his face. He was definitely in a happy frame of mind. Being on the trail on your bike with your friends can do that to you.

We visited Taylor’s Landing last weekend. It is a fair distance away from home, but not as far as some of the other places we have been to recently. Once you get off the main roads, you have to pass through a few residential areas to get to the trail head. You feel like you are in a different world when you see the Trump 2020 signs on the lawns. We are doomed!

There is nothing particularly significant about this section of the trail. It is a few miles south of Dam 4, which we could have walked to if we had wanted. Rather, we walked in the direction of Sharpsburg, MD. Antietam, the site of the bloodiest one-day battle in the Civil War, is also close by. I had thoughts of making it half way to Sharpsburg, to a place called Snyder’s Landing. But I had not looked at my guide book before leaving home. It turned out that Snyder’s Landing was just beyond our reach. We had to turn back before we got there. It was a peaceful enough walk and we got our exercise – under the trees next to a meandering river.

Here are some pictures. The trail head at Taylor’s Landing is in a residential area. The houses here are old. The area used to be known as Mercerville – named after Charles F. Mercer, the first president of the C&O Canal Company.

There is a road that runs for a short distance along the berm of the canal, on the other side of the canal from the towpath, at Taylor’s Landing. The area around the trail itself feels relatively open here because the canal bed is completely free of trees for the short distance that the road runs next to it. There were a few flowering plants to be seen on the other side of the trail, facing the river. I think this one is called a Tall Coneflower.

Beyond the area of the local roads, the trail disappears into the familiar woods. The only flowers that remained in these woods were the Touch Me Nots.

There is only one lock in this section, lock 40,

and one campsite called Horseshoe Bend.

There were not many photo opportunities. Hopefully, the pictures below will suffice.

You had to catch the early morning light at just the right angle to be able to see this spider’s web.These mushrooms on a log of wood next to the trail caught my eye. They look like Trametes versicolor to this untrained eye.

We saw this little fellow sitting on the trail as we were getting closer to the end of the walk. I do not know the difference between frogs and toads, but I did try to investigate. This might be a toad. It did not move even as I came close to it to take its picture.We left it on the trail to continue on its way – wherever it was going. Hopefully it avoided being stepped on or ridden over by a bike.

We stopped at the boat ramp at Taylor’s Landing at the end of our walk for a few minutes.

And that was the end of the day on the canal.

Trying To Focus

Outdoor activity seems to bring out the ability in me to focus, especially when it comes to putting my thoughts together, and also when expressing these thoughts in letters or blogs. Considering that factor, this particular blog might be heading right down the toilet (sorry, I have had the toilet on my mind for a few days!). A stubborn stomach ailment of some kind (I am still assuming that it was not related to the coronavirus) had me grounded for the last several days. I usually recover from such ailments quickly, and I usually have a good sense about the state of the recovery of my digestive system, but this time I was off. Every time I thought I was out of the woods, I had a relapse. But there was a slow and gradual progress through it all. There was a learning process into what worked and what did not in the recovery process. Different kinds of household remedies that were suggested by concerned citizens were also tried. I think I am finally done with all of this. I am keeping my fingers crossed. I feel stronger and hope to resume my outdoor activities within the next day or two.

The disruption of the digestive system only added to the chaos and turmoil caused by all of the other disruptions going on around us. The earliest possible date by which some of these other disturbances could begin to dissipate is probably the time of the elections in November. The only hope is that enough people see and understand the man-made destruction and chaos going on in our country and vote appropriately. Until then we just have to wait and endure – as we descend further and further into the national crapper – the country getting sicker by the day – while the unqualified conman twiddles his thumbs and declares that all is well. Did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Did he add fuel to the flames? Was there a Senate in ancient Rome that joined in the orchestra? I know that this is all myth, but it does fit into my theme nicely.

I am slowly reaching a conclusion that we may have reached a possible inflection point in the political and structural health of the country. The person in power has actively challenged all norms, and has destroyed a lot of the governmental structures created for the benefit of our country and society. The question is whether we have let the genie out of the bottle, or if there is a possibility of returning to the way things were earlier. Truth of the matter is that we are what we are as a country largely because of the well defined structures and the norms of our society, including both the good and the bad, and including the bureaucracy and government. Structures work if they are fair, if the people involved are doing their jobs, and if people are not abusing their power. They support a way of life. Unfortunately, the foundations of our infrastructure are now being eroded and chipped at actively and deliberately. Sticks of dynamite have already been lit at the base of the structure. Anything can happen. Damn the consequences!

Life Can Be A Hoot (1/12/2014)

I had sent this as an email to my high school classmates in 2014. The fact that we have been seeing an extraordinary number of owls this year has inspired me to post it to my blog.

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It has warmed up to temperatures around freezing in our part of the world this weekend.  I had just gotten back to Edwards Ferry on the towpath during my run and was considering whether to ditch the camera in the car before continuing on. I was thinking that the cloudy weather would limit the chances of getting good pictures.  I happened upon another photographer hidden in a photographer’s blind trying to take a picture of a yellow bellied sapsucker.  (He was actually trying to attract the bird by using a device sitting on the branch of a tree. The device was playing out the sound that the bird makes.)  This inspired me to continue to carry the camera onward.  Further along on the trail, in the distance, I noticed that a hawk had settled on a branch over the trail.  I pulled my camera with its long lens out of the backpack and started walking towards the bird.  The bird took off as I approached.  The sun broke out from behind the clouds while this was happening, and as I turned my head to the left, in the direction that the hawk had flown off in, the barred owl popped its head out of a hole in the branch of a tree next to the trail and stared at me in an inquiring manner.  The lighting and the distance was perfect.  Since the camera was already in my hand, I managed to pop off a few shots before the bird flew off.

And this is how I got my cheap thrill this morning.  I could not help marveling at the fact that things came together this perfectly for me to have this moment, and it was such a coincidence that this happened not much after I mentioned owls in a previous posting to the group.

The Red Leaf

The leaf dropped out of the sky as we were walking through the green woods. It floated lazily about in the air, carried by the air currents, while steadily making its way down to the floor of the forest. It drifted past my eyes. It was a red leaf, completely out of place in the green woods. I am not sure if this fact even registered in my mind at that moment.

The presence of the dry leaves in the middle of the normally ultra-green summer is not a real surprise. I have seen such leaves in the past. In spite of the humidity in the air, some trees are beginning to lose their leaves. The heat, and the lack of water in the ground, take their toll. If you saw the cherry tree in our backyard at this time, you might even suspect that it was sick.

Instinctively, I reached out for the leaf that was floating past me. It was a whimsical thing that I was doing, without thinking. It was an act of the subconsciousness. I was surprised to find that I had actually made contact with the leaf.

And the leaf had actually also landed in my hand! Some may say that it was meant to be. I was astonished by how red the leaf appeared – redder than I am used to seeing in summer. It was a unique sample. For some reason or the other, I did not feel like letting go of the leaf. It began to occupy my thoughts as we kept walking. The red leaf in the hand actually led to some contemplation. Was it going to come home with me as a reminder of sorts of some obscure encounter with nature – an encounter that was somehow profound in my mind in that moment?

Towards the end of the walk, we decided to take a detour on to a narrow path that led to the river. It seemed a little ridiculous for me to be carrying the leaf over the detour. I was going to be coming back that way. I left the leaf on a bush at the entrance to the detour thinking that I would pick it up on the way back.

That was the last I saw of the leaf. That was the last time I thought about the leaf – until I looked at the pictures I had taken that day on the computer at home late in the evening. I had forgotten the red leaf by then. The red leaf was no longer significant. All that remains in a picture in a blog.

McMahon’s Mill

The last time I came through this section of the trail was during the bike ride of 2016. Here, the towpath runs along a section of the river known as Big Slackwater. The slackwater is a buildup of water formed behind Dam 4, which is just a couple of miles downstream from the mill. It was too difficult to cut a canal through the rocks/cliffs beside the river in this area. Boats used to be transferred from the canal on to the slackwater for a short distance to get past it. The boats were pulled along the river by the mules from a towpath beside the river itself. Because of its location, the trail is highly prone to damage whenever the river floods. This happens with some regularity.

This is a picture of McMahon’s Mill in the morning. The parking lot is next to the mill, behind it.

This is a picture of the section of Big Slackwater just downstream of McMahon’s Mill. West Virginia lies on the right side of the river in the picture, and Maryland to the left. In the distance, you can barely make out the new trail made of concrete that runs on the river bank today on the Maryland side of the river. This section of the trail had been destroyed for a long time because of the actions of the river. It was finally reconstructed in 2012 using modern techniques to withstand damage due to flooding.You can read more about this section of the trail here.

We walked in the upstream direction from McMahon’s Mill. The trail here still runs on the original towpath. You could see that the trail was quite rough in parts because it is regularly impacted by flooding from the river. The authorities have actually marked a detour over the local roads in this area to let you avoid the trail when it is flooded. In the past, before the completion of the reconstructed trail between McMahon’s Mill and Dam 4 in 2012, you also had to take a second detour to continue downstream on the towpath. I rode the narrow roads of this detour during one of my early visits to this area. The detour was not recommended for walkers.

Shortly into our walk, we arrived at a point where the boats used to leave the river and get back on to the canal. Lock 41 was used to transfer the boats into and out of the canal itself. Today, the trail dips just a little bit where the opening from the canal to the river must have been.

Beyond lock 41, the trail began to take a more familiar form.

We saw a lot of pawpaw trees. A few even had fruits on them.

The walk itself was not very remarkable. There was a small amount of traffic on the trail, not as bad as in some other places. There was not much else that was new and noteworthy other than the fact that the entire West Virginia side of the river was completely developed. There were houses and boat ramps everywhere. The width of the slackwater, and probably its depth, made this a good place for water sports.

We did walk a longer distance than usual, hoping to reach the area of a camper/mobile home community near a place called Falling Water. We gave up the attempt with less than a couple of miles to go. Perhaps this can be a challenge for another day.

Could this be the Year of the Owls

I am not sure what is going on, but, for some reason or the other, we are seeing owls more frequently than ever before on the towpath this year. It had been many years since my last good sighting before we saw the owls last week. And then it happened once again this week. What are the chances!

This time the owl was even closer to us, just next to the trail. We saw it as we were hiking from Dickerson Conservation Center towards Whites Ferry, and then we saw it again, still seated on the same tree, when we were returning. At least, I think it was the same owl. I cannot be sure because there were other owls also present in that neighborhood.

The pictures below are from the first viewing of the owl. It had flown up on to the tree from a fallen branch on the canal bed.If you look carefully, you will notice that the owl’s body was actually facing away from us. You can see the extent to which it was able to turn its head.

These are pictures of the owl taken as we were walking back towards the Dickerson Conservation Center. The owl ended up facing us directly this time. It was making some screeching sounds, and was getting a response from somewhere across the canal.We had reason to believe that their might have been three of the owls hanging around the place. We saw a second one. We guessed the presence of a third one based on the direction from which we were hearing the response to the owl in the picture above.

I hope that the happenings of the last two weekends are an indication of more good things to come as we continue our explorations, both big and small, of the towpath.

How to Measure the Speed of Light in your Kitchen- Ask a Spaceman! – YouTube

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_of_light
There are other interesting articles that can be found on the Internet that describe methods that have been used to measure and establish the speed of light.

When The Old Becomes New Once Again

Some folks know that I have biked literally a few thousand miles in the last few years. While I have done it as a pastime, the primary driver, the primary motivator if you will, has been the occurrence of certain events, certain planned bike rides with my friends, that I needed to train for. Or it has been a case of where I needed to prove something to myself – like the ability to get back on the bike after a major fall during one of the aforementioned rides. Lacking any such motivating forces this year, it has taken me a long time to get back on my bicycle this year. But it did happen finally in spite of all the regular excuses. And I am hoping that this is not the last time I ride a bike this year.

The process of getting back on the bicycle for the first time each year poses its own challenges. Things that you take for granted as a part of a regular schedule can become challenges once again. Where did I leave my bicycling gear last year? Do I have enough shorts, tops, or even gloves, stored away? Where did I put these things? What happened to my favorite gloves? What are the things that I want to carry during a ride, and how will I carry them – a bottle of water, a Clif bar, my keys, my smart phone, etc.. Do I really need my wallet during the ride? Do I carry stuff in the pockets on the back of my shirt, or in the pockets of my shorts, or in the pockets of my camera bag, during the ride? Will I remember to close the zippers for the pockets of my shorts so that stuff does not fall out at some random place while I am riding?  None of this is a habit any more.

What is the state of the bike after all this time? The tires are flat after many months of sitting in the garage. Will they hold the air in once I pump them up? Where did I leave the bicycle pump? Should I not oil the bicycle chain?  I need to find the instructions for doing that.

Is my bicycle helmet alright? Is it where I think I left it last year? Should I have gotten a new helmet? (I already know the answer to that last question, but I am not good at planning ahead.)

How do I get the bike to the trail? I used to throw it into the back of the Prius in the past (as talked about in a paragraph here), but we have now switched the use of the family cars. Is the old bike rack still functional? What adjustments need to be made to attach it to the back of the Honda Civic? Have I attached the rack securely?  Have I attached the bike to the rack securely? As I drive to the trail head, my eyes are shifting to the rear-view mirror more often than usual, to make sure the bike has not disappeared from view somewhere along the way. How the heck did I have the nerve to drive long distances on the highways with a bike tied to the back of the car when I was young? Was I young and stupid? (Don’t answer that last question!)

And then one arrives at the trail head. You take the bike off the rack and check that everything is in order. There are days in the past when I have ridden off without my helmet or gloves. That did not happen on Thursday at Pennyfield Lock.

And then you are biking. It all feels quite effortless. The bike feels too small. But that is the same way I feel every year when I start biking for the first time. But then you get used to it very quickly. It is all coming back. You ease into the routine. There is no reason to hurry. You can see how the muscles feel after many months of disuse. I have no worries. I have done this so many times that it is all going to come back – the rhythm, the zen of the bicycle trail.

And then I am off, and it is hard to stop. If I do, I will lose the magical feeling. I do not even stop for the flowers by the trail. The air is cool, you encounter the occasional human being. At this point, there are some people who are zipping past me with a sense of purpose. There are others making their way at a more leisurely pace. I know that I will eventually join the first group. That is how my mind works.

After a while, you begin to feel the effort of the biking in the muscles. It is time to slow down, perhaps stop for a drink of water, and/or a pee.

The trail transforms itself in different sections – mud and potholes in the first part (smooth), the roughness and unevenness of the differently sized pebbles on the trail in the second part (bumpy), and, finally, the new crushed gravel for the last section of the ride (cushioned) all the way up to Whites Ferry.  The sounds of the wheels change as the surfaces change.  The rhythm becomes new once again – and then you get used to the new rhythm.

I stopped for the turtle I found on the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It had obviously emerged from the waters of the canal.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI did not slow down for the green heron that was flying by me, but the still great blue heron caught my attention.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI stopped and walked back to where it was standing on a branch over the canal. So engrossed was it in looking for fish in the water that it did not move an inch during the whole time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was relaxation time at Whites Ferry before I started biking back to Pennyfield Lock.

The statue of a confederate soldier that used to stand on this pedestal (on private land) at Whites Ferry has been torn down by vandals.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe statue formerly used to stand at the Montgomery County government offices in Rockville. It was donated to the owners of the ferry a few years ago after the political environment in the county shifted. The owners of the ferry did not know what they were getting themselves into. They now want to have nothing to do with the controversy regarding confederate monuments. The even renamed their ferry boat almost immediately.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt used to be called the General Jubal A. EarlyJubal Early was a Confederate General during the civil war.

It was nice to see that the operations at Whites Ferry seemed to be in decent shape despite all of our recent troubles.   The local store at the ferry site looked like it was getting decent foot traffic from the summer visitors who are flocking to the outdoors more than usual during this time of COVID-19. I was completely in the zone by the time I started riding back.  As I expected, I was picking up the pace as I rode.  It seems to be a natural tendency on my part. It was a different state of mind from when I started the ride.  This time, I took a break for a snack and water at Sycamore Landing. I also stopped to take a picture of the flowers I had ignored on the way out. I initially thought these flowers were Dames Rocket, but they have the wrong number of petals. I think these are Wild Sweet William, a kind of phlox.

There was the frog that hopped on to the trail in front of me as I was biking, and then, as I slowed down hoping that it would stop so that I could take its picture, decided that it was going to take a circular route back to the side of the trail that it had come from.  It all happened in an instant.

There were the opportunities for further examination when the butterflies flew past me, and I considered whether to stop and turn my head to see if they had landed somewhere.  The only time I really stopped, the butterfly kept going in the opposite direction that I was biking in, following another bike rider who was headed that way.  It seemed to be able to keep pace with the rider easily.  One other time, the image of a black butterfly with red stripes on both wings imprinted itself in my brain the moment it flew past me, and then the moment was gone.  Someone could tell me that I only imagined that moment, and I would not have anything concrete to offer to counter that assertion.

I got a surprise as I got closer to the end of the ride. I found this snake across the trail.  Although it was much smaller than the version of the snake I had found the previous year on the Capital Crescent Trail, it was not very difficult to recognize the Northern Copperhead, one of only two venomous snakes in Maryland.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe eyes on this snake give me the creeps even now, many days later.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy the time I was done with the ride, I was back in the swing of things.  My overall confidence level was back to normal.  I stopped the GPS device when I got to the car.  I had done over 32 miles in over three hours.  I loaded my bike on the bike rack once again, and drove home the recuperate and recover.

I hope this is not the last ride this year.

The Two Barred Owls

We rarely get a good look at owls on the towpath even though we know that they are around. They are hidden in the trees, and often fly away when they sense our approach. Even if they remain stationary, most of the time they are in a position where you cannot get a clear view of them – either partially hidden behind some branches on a tree, or obscured by the dark foliage. The last time I got a good picture of the barred owl was in 2014.

We came across a pair of barred owls on the towpath last weekend that actually cooperated with us. It is usually very easy to disturb these birds when you pass by. You typically are not aware of their presence until they make a move. But this time, although they had been disturbed, they only moved on to a tree a little further along the trail. I was able to track their flight approximately, and then slowly and quietly walk up to the tree on which they were perched. Fortunately it was close to the trail. What a delightful sight to see – not just one bird, but two of them!





The pictures that I took literally do not present the owls in their best light. The greenery around them has tended to create a greenish tinge for the owls themselves, and I am reluctant to compensate using post-processing. Also, the lighting conditions were not ideal, and my attempt to get a good exposure setting were not the most successful.

Here is a little bit of trivia about owls. Since they cannot move their eyeballs, the only way they can achieve peripheral vision is by turning their heads. A human being can turn its head around only 90° in either direction. An owl can do much better. It can turn its head around 270° in either direction! (This means that if an owl wants to show-off, it can rotate its head 540° from one extreme to the other!) The interesting question to ask it about how the owl achieves this capability. Their vertebrae can manage to support the extreme rotation, and the arteries still function without getting severed. The structure of the neck of an owl happens to be very different from a human’s. There is apparently plenty of spare space within the vertebrae of the owls for the arteries to move in and to be cushioned in. This is not true for humans. Owls also have the ability to pool blood in a reservoir below the head in order to provide a supply when the arteries are twisted. Also, the carotid and vertebral arteries can exchange blood in the worst case when one or the other is blocked. I understand that the features of the owl’s physiology that allows it to move ts head in such a flexible manner are still being studied. Meanwhile, you can find plenty of articles and videos on the subject on the Internet.

Woot a hoot!

The Curious Tale of Rocky Rooster

We began to hear the sounds shortly after we set out on the trail, as we headed north from Sycamore Landing. It was coming from the large farm just next to the berm of the canal. It was a sod farm (whose entrance on River Road one passes if you were to drive on towards Edwards Ferry). As we got closer, we noticed that a massive sprinkler system was in operation, watering a wide swath of the farmland. A massive contraption on wheels lay across the field with the sprinklers connected to its framework.

Further along the trail, shortly after the sounds of the sprinkler system began to fade away behind us, we began to hear a steady and repetitive mechanical sound coming from somewhere beyond the berm of the canal. We were approaching some kind of an engine/motor operating on the farm. It sounded like one of those old tractors. What we were hearing turned out to be a water pump. I also noticed that there was a culvert under the canal at that location. The light bulb went off in my head! The farm was probably drawing water from the river through the culvert, and using the pump to drive the water to the sprinklers. I noticed a little trail leading off from the towpath towards the river just beyond the culvert. I resolved to check out this trail later, to look for a water pipe, on our way back.

We continued our walk towards Edwards Ferry, continuing our explorations and adventures.

We were now heading back towards Sycamore Landing. We had reached the sod farm that we had passed on our way out. I was now listening for the sound of the water pump. We began to hear it in the distance. As we approached the site of the culvert, we were surprised to hear a cock crowing in the woods next to the river. Cock-a-doodle-doo!! It was unexpected. I was quite sure there were no domestic animals or birds in this section. Not knowing any better, I wondered if this could be a wild turkey.

I took the little side trail just before the culvert where the pump was located and walked down to the river. I then started walking along the riverside towards the culvert itself. The others who were following on the side trail behind me informed me that that there was now a rooster following them on the trail. A little alarmed, a went back towards them. Could this blog turn into a tale about the attack of a rabid rooster?!

Yes, indeed, it was a common rooster that had followed us on to the trail.undefinedBut the colorful specimen, although excited, seemed to be quite harmless. It was not frothing at the beak. It seemed to be following us with some purpose, and fortunately that purpose did not seem to include attacking human beings. I could tell by the look in its eye! Maybe it was expecting some food.undefined

Reassured about its intentions, I went back to the task of looking for the water pipe in the culvert. And indeed, there was a pipe running through the culvert.undefinedNot only that, there also seemed to be a different pipe leading out of the river towards the canal not too far from the pipe running through the culvert.undefinedI was left to wonder about the kinds of permits that were required in these parts to draw water from the river for use on a farm. And that was the extent of my curiosity!

Having gotten my pictures, I walked back to where the others were dealing with the rooster. We thought it had escaped from the farm on the other side of the canal. Convinced that the rooster was not going to attack me, I tried to persuade it back on to the side trail, and then back across the towpath.undefinedWith some effort, and using a certain amount of skill that was newfound (and ultimately useless, may I add!), I managed to get the rooster back to the main trail. I could not have done it without the encouragement of the cheering squad.

But that is how far we got in this remarkable rooster rescue effort. We could not convince the rooster to cross the towpath on to the canal bed. We could not convince the rooster to head towards the farm on the other side of the canal. The rooster viewed my efforts to encourage it to move in that direction with extreme suspicion. Or maybe it thought it was just a game, and was mightily amused. In the end, we had to let it be. It went back into the woods it had just appeared from.undefined

We departed the place having failed in this particular project. We could hear the rooster cock-a-doodle-doing at the next person who happened to pass us by, going in the other direction on a bike. That person did not stop. I suspect that the cock-a-doodle-doing did not even register in the person’s brain. I suspect that there are not many other people who get as distracted as we were by strange goings-on in the woods while they are on the towpath! We left the rooster to whatever fate awaited it in the woods. Meanwhile, I am sure that the farmer is missing at least one of his (or her) roosters. And I wonder if the missing rooster will even be noticed!

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