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.

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 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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Four Locks

We went up to the Four Locks area of the C&O canal last weekend. This is even further away from where we live than Williamsport, our other recent and distant destination. We were being more adventurous than usual. A visit by the young ones was an added incentive.

Since it was going to get hot and humid later in the day, we were resolved to leave early in the morning for our destination. We ended up departing a little later than planned, but not too late for it to become a matter of major concern.

The parking lot for the Four Locks area is located in the boondocks. You take the exit for Clear Spring from Interstate 70. It is in an area of Maryland called Prather’s Neck. Once you get off the highway, you have to travel over local roads for a little while. You have to go through a couple of long tunnels, one under the tracks of the former Western Maryland Railroad (now operated by CSX) out of Hagerstown, and the other under the canal itself. The location of the parking lot at Four Locks is a surprise for newcomers. It shows up unexpectedly with little advance warning.

This area is in the countryside. There are narrow roads that disappear into the woods around Prather’s Neck. They probably turn to dirt roads at some point. Who knows what exists at the end of the roads! I suspect that people used to live here once upon a time. I expect that there are some abandoned homes in the middle of the woods and at the ends of these roads.

The Potomac river meanders its way around Prather’s Neck, while the canal takes a shortcut through the “neck”. The canal changes levels quite significantly and quickly in this section using the four locks for which the area is named. The locks are close to each other. Once you climb out of the Four Locks area, the river reappears beside the trail at a much lower level than the trail itself.

The early start for the walk was a good thing. The morning sunshine was still diffused, and the air was still cool.

This is a picture of Lock 47, the lowest of the four locks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis lock house, caught in the weak morning light, is available for rent.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is lock 50.  There is a little shanty on the upstream side where the lock keeper could wait in times of inclement weather to greet boats headed downstream.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe headed out in the direction of Fort Frederick. The young ones ran past us on their way out.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe woods were nice and cool this time in the morning.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The river flowed next to us in this section.  The next landmark along the trail was McCoy’s Ferry.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe huge camping area next to river at McCoy’s Ferry was full, perhaps because it was the July 4th weekend.  The campsite looked much bigger than I remembered it to be. You could look down on all the activity from the elevated trail as you went by.  Just beyond the berm of the canal, on the other side of the trail from the campsite, you could make out the trestle bridge for the the railroad partially hidden behind the trees.

The woods were dark and deep beyond McCoy’s Ferry.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe encountered the kids on their way back to Four Locks soon after.   They had decided the shorten their run because of the conditions.

The river is far away from the canal for the section of the trail beyond McCoy’s Ferry. This is also not a very exciting section of the trail this time of year.  There was nothing particularly notable. There were very few flowers to be seen. There seemed to be a lot of rosa plants beside the trail, easily recognizable by the thorny stems, but no flowers. There were a few dying fleabane.  There was a small stand of plants with the flowers you see in the picture below.  I think they may be Basil Balm (Basil Bee Balm, White Bergamot). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are no historical artifacts that grab your attention here – other than the wide and well defined canal bed itself beside the trail.

We turned back just after we reached the park road to Fort Frederick, stopping at the edge of Big Pool,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto watch the antics of the little turtle that scooted into the water as soon as I brought up my camera. It tried to disappear under a rock.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The sun was up and making its impact felt over the trail as we returned to Four Locks. It was hot and humid. We were focused on reaching our destination. We picked up the pace as we got going. There was not much dilly-dallying, but I had to take this picture of one of the rabbits that crossed out path that morning.undefined
This one vanished into the bushes at our approach, but stayed close enough to the trail for me to take its picture through the foliage.

Christina and Jesse were waiting for us when we got back. They had spent most of the time in the picnic area next to the parking lot. It seems that this was not the right kind of weather for them to indulge in too much running.

And thus was spent another Sunday morning in the park!

Williamsport, MD, On Father’s Day

The first time I came to Williamsport was in 2006. It was a time when I was extending my travels along the canal further and further away from home. The last time I visited was during the bike ride in 2016, on the penultimate day of the ride. We stopped here for lunch. And then there was the visit last Sunday, on Father’s Day.

I woke up that morning thinking to myself that I wanted to explore some new place along the canal that day. With an early start, we could be back home at a reasonable time. The initial response was one of concern – this was going to be a busy day already because of phone calls that were going to take place on account of it being Fathers Day. We went anyway – to Williamsport, MD. We left home very early, and we were on the trail by 8:15am.

As you can see in the photograph that I took during the visit in 2006 (in this link), the aqueduct at Williamsport was in a state of disrepair at one point. One of the walls that used to line the waterway used by the canal boats was missing. That particular wall had been made of wood, and it had collapsed in 1920 as a boat was passing over the aqueduct. The boat fell into the creek. They managed to separate the mules pulling the boat from the boat itself in time to save them.

The reconstruction of the aqueduct was completed in 2019, and we saw the results for the first time on Sunday. This is how it looks from the parking lot that we used.undefined
The canal used to be watered all the way up to the aqueduct, but not over it. There was an earthen wall across the canal bed just before the aqueduct that held back the water from the aqueduct itself. The canal is now watered over the aqueduct also, to a point beyond it. They now have boats for tourists that can take you on the canal over the aqueduct (although it looked like they had not yet brought the boats out this year). It used to be that you could cross over from the parking lot to the towpath just next to the aqueduct. That has changed. The National Park Service has now fixed the railroad lift bridge that exists close by to provide access instead. The bridge can now move up and down. It has been lifted and set to the upper position (semi-permanently, it seems). You can cross the canal using this bridge, while the boats for tourists can go under it.undefined(The bridge used to be stuck in its lower position in the past as you can see in this picture.)

The watered section of the canal is lined with wild flowers this time of year, including chicory,undefined
thistle,
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and moth mullein.undefined
There are also plenty of small birds flying around in this section. To the right of this section of the towpath is the power plant at Williamsport. I did not take a picture this time, but here is a picture from the past.

Within a short distance, we passed Lock 44 with its lock house.undefined
undefinedI remember being able to go into this lock house when I made a visit a long time ago.

You enter the woods soon after passing the lock.undefined
The watered section of the canal also ends where the woods begin, near the gate seen in the picture above. The next landmark on the trail is the bridge for the highway Interstate 81 over the Potomac river. There is construction work underway on the highway as they increase the number of lanes on the bridge. The towpath is protected by a cover during this time.undefined
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Further along the trail, you pass a railroad bridge over the river that is still being used for freight traffic,undefinedand soon after that you see the remains of another bridge that used to exist in the past. Today, all you see of the second bridge are the remains of the piers running from one side of the Potomac river to the other.

This part of the trail has a different feel from the sections that we usually go to. The woods feel deeper. It could be so because the area is lightly populated compared to the places closer to Washington, DC. The trail is also very wide, and in good shape.undefined
Having started early, we also encountered very few people on the trail initially. But there were many more people on the trail when we were returning – including the bikers.undefined
On our way back, we crossed over the Conococheague Creek Aqueduct and continued our walk for a short distance to the other side of the creek. We proceeded to mile 100 of the towpath.undefined

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The entire trial is 184.5 miles in length.

We walked a little further on the towpath, and then started to make our way back to the parking lot.

The picture below was taken from the aqueduct on our way back.undefinedYou can see where the Conococheague creek and the Potomac river meet, and, if you expand the picture, you can see the difference in the color of the water of the river and the creek. The river was very muddy because of recent rains. The bridge in the picture carries US Route 11 across the Potomac river between Maryland and West Virginia.

This is a picture of Cushwa Basin at Williamsport taken from the trail. The parking lot that provided the closest access to the trail used to be on the left side of the picture. The closest access today is now from the parking lot on the right side of this picture. That parking area is new. The buildings in the picture are a part of the C&O Canal National Park. The building on the right is a museum. It was not open when we visited. The National Park Service is building a new park headquarters in Williamsport at this time. undefined
This is a picture of the Cushwa Basin during the days when it was operational. The basin had place for boats to load and unload without impeding canal traffic. It also allowed boats to turn around.

After returning to the car, we drove over to the parking lot that was closer to the aqueduct itself so that I could examine it more closely. It has an interesting look to it.undefinedThe newly reconstructed side of the aqueduct is actually made of concrete, and it is painted on its inner side to look like wood.

I suspect that the wooden supports on the outer side of the wall are just for show.undefined
Here is a clearer view of the inner section of the aqueduct.undefined
This was the last picture for the day!

Since we had started the walk early, we also finished it quite early in the morning. We still had a long drive to get back home. But we still got back well before noon.

The day turned out to be tiring – as predicted! We actually spent three hours talking to the kids! This was followed by another session talking to some of our friends. For some reason, I had a craving for food from Checkers that evening. (Yeah, my cravings do not necessarily lean towards fine dining!) We drove over to the local franchise after the last chat session and picked up some sandwiches to bring home. They had a sale – two sandwiches for four dollars! It was the cheapest father’s day treat. We watched some TV and went to bed early, quite exhausted. Enjoyed the day!

From Spring into Summer

I am resolved to get this blog out expeditiously. If not, my current state of mind, which has to do with the weekly visit to the C&O Canal towpath yesterday, will begin to dissipate quickly. If that happens, the resulting blog could take a darker and perhaps more negative turn. The balance will be lost!

The thermostat indicated that it was 63° F outside when we woke up on Sunday morning.  It felt very nice for a change.  This being the tail end of the Spring season, the temperatures outside are trending towards the hotter side. We have even had some days when the use of the air-conditioner was needed. I was even forced to run indoors on the treadmill instead of outside last week because it was too hot.  This Sunday was not one of those days. We opened up the windows early in the morning to let some cool air in. We left home early for our weekly walk on the canal, to try to get there before the crowds descended, and to also hopefully get to walk under cooler conditions.  It turned into a very nice morning on the trail.

The flowers of Spring are mostly gone. There is thick green vegetation all around, including lots of tall grasses. Some mowing and clearing-out of the spaces next to the trail would be useful, but nobody knows when that can happen. Normal park services have not yet resumed completely.undefined

There were plenty of wild strawberries beside the trail! We talked about whether these could be poisonous. Wild strawberries and mock strawberries look very much alike, and can be distinguished by the color of their flowers. There were no flowers to be seen!undefined

There were different kinds of butterflies flying around. Here are a couple of pictures. A few of these butterflies would hang around you for a little while while you were walking.undefinedundefined

The dragonflies and damselflies have also reappeared.undefinedundefined

There were other, less-familiar, insects around. I suspect that if we had come later in day, we might have even been attacked by the gnats that are plentiful in these parts in summer. And after all, summer is officially only a couple of weeks away.

There were a lot of birds making a lot of noise. We thought we encountered call-and-response situations on at least one or two occasions. But I could not get a single picture of the birds, probably because of the dense foliage. Even the egret whose picture we thought we had gotten a few weeks earlier flew away from us.

The parking lot at Edwards Ferry was full. So was the one at Sycamore Landing when we returned after our walk. According to the C&O Canal Trust, there has been an about 50 percent increase in the number of people coming to the park in recent times. We saw both walkers and runners, bikers, a few dogs (running free), and a couple of horses (with people on them).undefined

There were also people in their boats on the river. Some of them were talking quite loudly. We could hear them all the way from the trail, and you could have clearly made out the details of their conversation if you were so inclined.undefined

All in all, we had a good day out in the park.

There has been a lot going on on the political front in our neck of the woods recently. The news from Washington, DC, is even worse than before. The president has finally built his wall, not on the border, but around his fortress (or bunker), a fortress whose boundaries seem to be ever expanding. We have a tinpot dictator doing his worst. Other, cowardly, politicians have willingly abandoned their responsibilities. The protests taking place in the streets of Washington, DC, and in other cities, still continue. It seems like the youth are not going away. We need to find a way to show solidarity, and to help make positive changes happen.

My Time along the C&O Canal Thus Far

I started out this blog simply wishing to show some pictures from our last outing on the towpath.  The effort morphed into something else.  I am OK with that.  These days I find that I am more easy-going about such things.  It makes for a less agitated general state of mind, and fits in with the current tagline for the blog – Anything Goes!

I have been making visits to the C&O canal and the towpath regularly since 2005. I try to get there every free weekend, even when the weather is not very cooperative.  The nature of my experience on the canal has changed with time. The initial and middle phases of my travels were periods of discovery of new sections of the canal not too far from home, and then of gradually extending the scope of my coverage of the 184.5 miles of this park space. Reaching Harpers Ferry was a first big milestone for me.   Reaching the town of Hancock further to the northwest was the next major step.  I finally ended up running along the canal just beyond the remains of a town that was called Orleans, west of Hancock.  The further away the location from home, the more time the Sunday morning visit took.  At its extreme, I would drive over an hour to get to a parking lot for the start of a run.  The last stretch of the C&O canal, including the town of Cumberland and the Paw Paw tunnel, were finally conquered only during my bike ride in 2016 from Pittsburgh.

I used cover very short distances along the canal during my initial visits.  I was still learning about the possibilities for exploration along the towpath.  I was also just learning to run on a regular basis.  I actually ran in hiking boots the first few times because I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to run instead of walk.  I did not even have proper running shoes. The effort level and time spent outdoors increased with time.  At its peak, I did a steady 12 miles of running on the towpath every Sunday.   The park became the place where I regained my sanity from the weekday madness. It also became the place of my exploration with the camera.

These travels have become a family affair in recent times. They are joint explorations. We do not run.  Rather, we try to walk briskly. We currently cover between 7 and 8 miles on a regular basis on Sundays. While walking, I try to remember things I saw and experienced in past years, and now it is also about sharing what I have been enjoying for years. That is part of the joy of the experience.  I do miss running, but life is about trade-offs.  The first priority is the joint outing.  I try to run during the week.  During the summer weekdays, I might also take the bike to the towpath.

There is a seasonal pattern to the experience of our visits to the canal. This time of year is mainly about the Spring flowers – which was what I wanted to talk about when I first started writing this blog.  These Spring flowers will all be gone in a short while. Every year, my focus is on capturing the beauty of the flowers while they last. I take the pictures of the same flowers year after year, but the novelty of the experience still remains. The result is perhaps a repetitiveness in the pictures of the flowers that I post in albums and in blogs every year.  That is the way in goes.  Keeping that in mind, today, I will try to only post pictures of flowers that I believe I have not shared in this forum so far this year.

The picture below is of honeysuckle flowers.  These plants are quite widespread along the length of the canal, and the flowers visible everywhere this time of year.  These might more specifically be called Japanese Honeysuckle.This flower below is called Dames Rocket. I used to mistake it for wild Phlox.  It is not as widespread as phlox.This is the time of year for the Rosa Multiflora plants.  They flower late in Spring.  These thorny plants are massively invasive.These are wild phlox.This is most likely Queen Anne Lace. Some time later in the year, all the extensions on which these flowers grow today will come together around a big seed ball in the middle of each cluster. You would not associate the seed ball with this flower if you saw it.The flower below is called Miami Mist. Finding out the names of some of these flowers is sometimes an adventure. I usually try to find a direct reference somewhere on the Internet to the presence of the flower on the canal itself.  In this case, there was none. I had to search further because of this – a more difficult task!  Sometimes I look at pictures of flowers I have taken in past years to try to jog my memory.  I was fortunate to find the flower this time.  The last time I took a picture of it was in 2011.I am almost sure that the flowers in the picture below are Ragworts.  I see them regularly during this season, but I tend to forget the name every year since there are so many flowers in this general shape and color.  These include the sunflower, and the state flower of Maryland, the Black-eyed Susan.  We also have yellow goldenrods this time of year.  Fortunately, they have a very different shape.  But I do tend to mess things up initially!The Buttercups are everywhere at this time.I could not resist this final picture of a buttercup and a rosa multiflora flower next to each other.It is an interesting exercise to think about where flowers of a particular kind are to be seen in greater quantity along the canal.  Some are widespread over the length of the canal, probably because the plants are more invasive than others.  Others are found only in certain places, and in bunches.   Consider the natural processes that carry the seeds of these wild plants from place to place – the wind, water, birds, animals, humans, etc…  Consider the rate at which invasive species of plants spread.   Consider the patterns of spread. Nature is fascinating!

I will end the blog with just the pictures of these flowers.  As usual, there were other things we saw, and other encounters we had, which are also interesting.  I will leave those for another time, and perhaps even another forum – or perhaps it will all remain unsaid.  How is that for saying something about nothing, or is it nothing about something.  Never mind!

 

Escape to the Canal

It was very cold when we awoke Sunday morning.  Who would have imagined temperatures like 38° F during the middle of the month of May.  It seems like the weather has also gone mad! Thankfully, it warmed up as the morning went by.

We drove to Sycamore Landing for our walk along the canal.  It seems that the parks have been getting more crowded in recent days, as people try to find a place to go to get away from being cooped up inside the house.  The parking lots for the canal that are closer to the city have been closed because of the crowds that have emerged, crowds that do not practice safe distancing in this time of the COVID-19.  Sycamore Landing is off the beaten path, and it is also relatively close to home.  Hence this choice of destination.

Our wish for a less crowded destination was fulfilled.  We pulled into an empty parking lot shortly before 9:00am.

It had been two weeks since our previous walk on the towpath.  It felt nice to be back.  I let the tensions of everyday life slowly depart as we walked north towards Edwards Ferry.

The green has taken over the browns of winter in the woods.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was not long into the walk before we spotted a bright blue bird flying across the trail in front of us.  This was a bird that we do not normally see on the towpath.  The color stood out amidst the green of the forest. The vibrance of its color was similar to the vibrance of the color of the cardinal, a bird that is more common in these parts.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne was curious as to the nature of the bird.  I guessed that this was a male bluebird during its mating season.  I was wrong!   Later that day, we had a phone call with the kids on account of Mothers’ Day.  I shared this picture with them.  Jesse was quick to research this, even while we were talking.  The bird in the picture above is called an Indigo Bunting.  I do not recall having seen one of these before.

About a mile into our walk, we came across this fallen tree blocking the trail.  It was quite massive.  It was quite tricky for the bikers to carry their bikes across.  We sneaked across between the two branches of the tree without hurting ourselves!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFurther along the trail, we came across some deer that were hanging out.  These two appear to be having a conversation about the approaching humans.  If you look carefully at the picture, you might also notice the cardinal (out of focus) on the trail in front of the deer.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe woods along the C&O canal are infested with a plant called garlic mustard.  They are massively invasive, and show up once in two years.  We have been seeing these plants during all our walks along the canal this year.  Three or four years ago, I even took part in a cleanup effort along the towpath at a place called Carderock.  I think controlling the spread of these plants is a losing effort.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is shot of the flowers of garlic mustard.  This was part of my experimentation with the zoom lens to see if I could capture a picture which looked like one taken with a macro lens, i.e, taken with a lens that allowed you to take a picture from very close to the subject matter.  At the time that I was taking this picture, I did not realize that there was an insect nectaring on the flowers.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFurther along, we came across this Great Egret that took off at our approach.  We saw it flying over the trees further along the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe finally came across a real Eastern Bluebird.  It kept flying ahead of us for some time.  It would land on a tree, wait for me to get closer with the camera, and then take off once again.  It think it got tired of playing games after a while.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs usual, the air was filled with the sounds of the birds, occasionally mixed with those from the scurrying squirrels.  There are certain sections of the trail where the birds are more plentiful.  The woodpeckers, in general, make a very guttural sound.  The trees can vibrate quite loudly when some of the woodpeckers hammer on their trunks.  The woodpecker in the picture below is most likely a red bellied woodpecker.  It was escaping into the upper branches.  In general, these birds have a tendency to go to the other side of the branch or tree trunk when I approach with my camera.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were many flowers beside the trail as we approached Edwards Ferry.

These are buttercups.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese are fleabanes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI myself did not walk all the way up to the river since I was busy changing the lens on the camera.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe parking lot at Edwards Ferry was quite full.

On our way back I stopped to take pictures of these turtles sitting out in the sun.  This was the only place where we saw turtles.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis green heron was fishing in the canal further along the trail.  We managed to distract it from what it was doing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rest of the walk was completed with a renewed sense of purpose.  We picked up speed in spite of the distractions of the park.  We completed the walk in a reasonable amount of time.  There were only a couple of cars in the parking lot by the time we got back shortly after 11am.

We did some shopping on our way home.  Then it was time to recuperate and rejuvenate.  I usually try to do that by taking a good nap!

The Mountains Are Calling

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Canyonlands National Park, Utah

There is something about the nature of the hills and the mountains that has drawn me to them over the years.  I am not sure how this happened.  My first remembrance of such feelings was when I would visit my aunt and her family in the hills of the Western Ghats in Kerala.  From the front porch of their house, in what was then the little village of Dhoni, one could see a hilltop that was untouched by development.  We, the children that we were, made one or two explorations into the hills, trying to follow the informal trails that other like-minded people had created over time.

Years later, I still feel like reliving that feeling, and that moment in time, but the world has probably changed in the meantime for the people of Dhoni and Palakkad.  Also near my aunt’s house was another forested hilltop which was a part of the forest reserve lands of the State of Kerala.  I never made it there, but it has always been a part of my imagination.  I am not sure exactly what lay there, and what remains now.

It was only as a graduate student that I was finally able to actually respond to the call of the hills.  We were able to drive from the university to the Bear Mountain area in New York State for day hikes.  About four or five miles of hiking and we would be completely exhausted because we were completely out of shape.  But it felt really great, especially relaxing with a bottle or two of beer after the whole effort.

And then there was the downhill skiing that I discovered when in graduate school.  When you are standing on top of the mountain – with the wide open snow-covered slopes lined with evergreens in front of you, with a panoramic view of the landscape all around, with the little chalet that is your destination way, way, down below you, you are in a kind of heaven on earth.  As you prepare to launch yourself off the flat top and on to the slope, you take a measure of the nature of the challenge, and the slope that you are about the conquer. As you start your way down the hill, the exhilaration  increases to the next level.  You have a smile on your face and you are whooping with happiness as you speed downhill (carefully!) – even as the icy cold wind blows across your face and freezes the tears that flow from your eyes.

I ski very rarely these years – there is a chance that the joints will not take the pounding.  But I am absolutely certain that if I were to get to the top of that hill on my skis the feeling of happiness will be renewed instantly, even if it is for a short while.  It would be as if I was experiencing all of the thrill of skiing, and of the mountaintop, once again for the first time.

I was diagnosed with CAD many years ago, and at that time I had to undergo a couple of procedures to address the problem.  A good friend from childhood called me then to chat and cheer me up.  We were talking about possible restrictions on my lifestyle in the future, and he mentioned, somewhat jokingly, that perhaps I would not be able to climb  mountains like the Himalayas in the future.  My response was – why not?!  My response was not based on reality, but even if I do not make it to the Himalayas themselves, there are plenty of other doable challenges all over the world.

Meanwhile, the mountains continue to call.  Every time I see a picture of a mountain, I wonder if there is a way to get to the top.  (And I mean get to the top on foot!  Driving a car to the top of a mountain, however high the mountain may be, is not as much fun!)  And every single time I go to a national park, I get the urge to see and experience that trail in the park that can lead to the top of its highest peak.  Of course, that does not happen most of the time these days due to many reasons.  And even I know the risks of trying to tackle a trail like the Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park.  (I do have a natural fear (perhaps healthy) of narrow open spaces at great heights.  My knees get weak even looking at the pictures!)

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Bright Angel Trail, North Rim, Grand Canyon

But the good thing is that I am still able to hike today. And I can walk a trail, and climb the hills, for miles and miles – to get to the highest destination, that mountain top where my expansive view of the world awaits.

I have to continue to answer the call of the mountaintop until I am physically unable.

Colorado and Utah by Car – Day 10 (Zion NP)

The visit to Zion National Park today was one of the great experiences that I hope to never forget.   It was an amazing day!

We have a general tendency to avoid the obviously touristy places and their crowds, but Zion was the place that showed me that it is possible to have a great experience even when the place is packed with tourists.  In this case, the park has set itself up to serve the tourists in a very effective way, dealing with the bottlenecks of crowds arriving in large numbers at peak times, and also having most of these tourists passing through a couple of points of entry and through a single visitor center.  There is a shuttle bus service which ensures that you do not have to rush through the park in your car causing unnecessary pollution and also frustration in finding places to park during the day.  Furthermore, the type of people who come to these places tend to be outdoorsy types, respectful of the space that they are in, and respectful of other people who are visiting.   They all also seemed to be well prepared for their outdoor activities with what they were wearing and what they were carrying. Once people get dispersed to the various spaces in the park and take to the longer and more challenging trails the crowds dissipate, and except for the popular trails, all is good.  The system seems to work in spite of the volumes of traffic.

The day started out with very cold temperatures.  We had packed warmly for the outing.  We need not have been concerned about the weather.  Once we got to the park and got moving everything turned out well.

We headed north out of town on US 89. We reached Zion taking Utah Highway9 from US 89.  At the entrance to the park the color of the road surface actually changed to a shade of brown. I do not remember seeing such a surface anywhere else.  The speed limit dropped as the road began to wind through the hills.  We began to see the mountains on the east side of the park.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe reached the 1.1 mile Mt. Carmel tunnel that takes you across the mountain to the western side of the park.  The tunnel was completed in 1930 and provided a way through the mountains in this section of the mountains for the first time.  The tunnel is quite narrow.  They were running one-way traffic when we arrived, probably because a bus and an RV were trying to get through.  They would take up both lanes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the picture below you can see one of the holes that was blasted in the side of the  mountain to provide a view point from the tunnel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs soon as the road crosses the tunnel, it switchbacks it way to the bottom of the canyon in a very dramatic way.  You can pull over to the side of the road in many places and you can get views like this.  These colorful mountains tower over the narrow canyon.  It is awe inspiring.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe went to the Visitor Center to get ourselves oriented and figure out where we were going.  We decided to take the shuttle bus to its last stop, The temple of Sinawava, to take the Riverside Walk.  You get a lot of information on the bus during this 40 minute ride, and you can enjoy fabulous views from the bottom of the canyon, including this picture of the mountains called the Patriarchs, including the three peaks, Jacob, Abraham, and Issac.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou also pass the a peak that is probably called Angels Landing.  It is the terminal point for the Angels Landing trail, a climb of 1488 feet over really challenging terrain that is not for the weak of heart.  A one point you will be climbing and walking on open rock high over this open space, completely exposed, with only a metal chain railing to grab on to.  Other younger people in the family have done this trail in the past.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAZion’s canyon was formed by the Virgin river that flows along its bottom.  Over millions of years the river has cut its way down through many layers of rock.  The place can become dangerous when the river floods.  The river was calm during our visit.  The riverside walk was very crowded, but there was always the opportunity to go off the trail and find a calm space beside the river itself.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end point of the trail, one can proceed further into the canyon by walking in the river itself.  You can go for miles, and many young people had come prepared to do this.  It sounded like fun, but not something we could indulge in today.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had something to eat as we sat by the river side.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter this hike we took the bus to the stop for the hike to Weeping rock.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe hike to Weeping Rock was short but it was quite challenging in parts.  At the end of the hike you find yourself in a rock alcove with dripping springs.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next hike started at the same place.  We climbed up the mountain you see in the picture below on the East Rim Trail to Echo Slot Canyon.  We had to climb up to the trees that you see in the picture below.  Basically, one is going up the face of the mountain that you are looking at using extended switchbacks.  You have a view of the valley below as you are climbing.  This proved to be a very challenging effort but quite rewarding. We took it slow and easy, with plenty of stops.  Lots of young people passed us on the way up, but speed was not the goal here.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a view of the valley as we started the climb.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a picture of Weeping rock, the place we had gone to earlier, as we climbed the East Rim Trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a view of the valley when we finally reached the top of this section of the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trail then continued on the other side, behind the open face of the mountain, in an opening between two cliffs.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou could see the slot canyon below you in places.  They looked difficult to navigate, but it apparently can be done.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter passing through the gap in the mountains, you arrive at an open space on the other side.  We declared success at this point and turned to head back to the trail head. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy GPS device was having all kinds of issues during this climb, either because of the terrain, or because of a bad software download.  So I do not know how much ground we covered.  The hike took a couple of hours. We probably walked only about three miles in all, but we might have climbed about a thousand feet.

We were exhausted after this hike, but it was quite exhilarating to have done it.  The rest of our stay in the park was just icing on the cake.

The next walk was on the Lower Emerald Pool Trail.  It was somewhat unremarkable.  The trail was crowded.

We took the shuttle bus back to the museum to watch the movie about the park, and then walked back to the Visitor Center on the Pa’rus trail that ran along the canyon floor close to the river.  These pictures are from the walk.  We walked amidst the mountains.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are plenty of camping sites at Zion National Park, and it looked like all of them were occupied.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe last stop was at the gift store to get a replacement light jacket for the one that I had left behind at the security check at Dulles Airport on the way in.

Then it was time to head back to Kanab for the night.  It took a long time to get out of the park because we were stuck in a long line of cars, slowed down because of a couple of drivers who did not seem to have the good sense to pull over when they got a chance to let the others through.

We walked over to Luo’s Cafe, close to the hotel that we were staying at, for our first dinner of Chinese food during this trip.  It all went down quickly because we were very hungry.  Back at the hotel, we took our baths and crashed out.  I, of course, spent some time processing some pictures for this blog.

We are heading north to Bryce National Park today.  It is going to be colder today than yesterday!