The Trees in Winter

The spirit is often moved while walking along the towpath among the leafless trees of winter on a sunny morning. There is so much character to behold, especially in the upper reaches of the towering sycamores. They are magnificent, and it is beneficial to the soul to take a moment to pause and contemplate this magnificent beauty. The woods can be a place of both mystery and healing.

Out In The Cold

The temperatures have been dropping even further as winter steadily takes hold. It was quite cold outside when we got to Violettes Lock for our walk last Sunday. The thermometer in the car read 24° F. We were determined to walk in spite of the cold.

It had rained earlier in the week. The river was fuller than usual. It is not unusual to see the water flowing freely even at these temperatures. It takes a while for a river to freeze.There is an inlet lock to the canal at this point. There used to be a dam on the river (Dam 2) at this spot on the river that was meant to direct water to the canal. All that remains of the dam is rubble. The water in the river flows as if through rapids in this section. You can barely make out the nature of this flow in the picture above.

Here are some pictures from the walk. There was ice on the trail in places because of the cold. I was surprised to see a few groups of bicyclists out at these temperatures. It can be brutal on the face even at temperatures much higher than this. At least one person was at least wearing googles as an acknowledgement of how cold it was!

This heron was sighted early in the walk.These are the sights of winter.













It had warmed up to just above freezing by the time we were done with the walk. We had also covered a significant enough distance on the trail that our bodies had warmed up sufficiently. That had not been the case the previous weekend – when we had slowed down significantly to do some birding. As you can see from some of the pictures above, there were still opportunities for birding to be had in spite of the distance covered.

Happy New Year to all readers!

The Beginning and End of A Day in December

I found both the sunrise and sunset at our house interesting on this particular December day. It was a pure coincidence that the conditions and timing were right for this to happen.

This was the sunrise from the front of the house. For a moment it seemed as if the sky was going to catch fire. This scene lasted for just an instant. Timing was all!

The sky began to turn purple at sunset. Gone were the blues of the day!This shot of the sunset was taken from the back of the house, barely a minute after the picture above, as the light faded from the sky.

A Morning for the Birds and Planes

We started seeing them soon after we started our walk from Sycamore Landing. They were everywhere. There were so many of them! This was the morning for the birds. And their presence was easily revealed because of the bare branches of the trees and bushes this time of year. There are other Sunday mornings, when we start the walk with my hope of seeing the birds in the woods before they become active and fly away from their nests, and we end up seeing very few of them. This was not that kind of a morning.

The first sets of birds we saw were at the parking lot even before we got on the trail, high up on a tree.In my mind, limited as it is in its capability to understand such things, the birds had nested close to each other on the tree for the night, had just woken up, and were getting ready for the activities of the day. You could see the early morning light hit the upper branches of the trees – to light up the birds, and to perhaps warm them up. I could not identify these birds. They looked like doves from this distance, but I could not confirm this in spite of some research.

We were happy to see that the work on upgrading the trail had already reached Sycamore Landing. They had even filled in the massive potholes that used to exist in the parking lot. We had noticed the previous week that progress on the upgraded trail had reached just north of Rileys Lock, which is the entrance to the towpath just before Sycamore Landing. The work is now complete to a point beyond Sycamore Landing, closer to Edwards Ferry. At this rate they should be able to get the work done by the end of the year. This is great! I can now start my bike rides heading north from Rileys Lock without having to fear the potholes and the puddles of mud. But back to he birds….

The whole area close to Sycamore Landing appeared to have a large concentration of birds. It was noisy. It looked busy. You could hear a lot of movement in some of the bushes beside the trail. They were full of sparrows, but very few of them were clearly visible. The brown branches provided a good camouflage.

A hawk hung around on the upper branches of a tree, most likely keeping an eye out for prey.

We saw this bluejay in the canal bed.

This was a woodpecker that popped up for a short viewing. It might have been a female Downy woodpecker.

This Pileated Woodpecker was high up on a tree. These woodpeckers are much bigger than the others that we usually come across.

I found this female Northern Cardinal in a bush by the trail. There were a few other cardinals that were flying around.

This Eastern Bluebird landed on the pathway in front of us in the later part of the walk towards Edwards Ferry.

I am posting this picture of this sparrow just because I like the way the picture came out!

And then there were the many aircraft that we saw crossing the river. They were flying at a low altitude and heading towards Dulles airport. They were coming in one after another at a very high frequency, to the extent that the noise that they were creating in the background was nearly constant. They seemed to be lining up for landing one after another. This level of air traffic felt unusual, especially for that time of day, and for that day of the week. Most of the aircraft were small to medium size, and seemed to be on domestic flights. I could recognize the United tails. I did recognize a flight from South Korea,and I thought I had seen an Emirates aircraft earlier on when we were driving in. Based on what I noticed that morning, I get the impression that the international carriers have reduced the size of the aircraft that they are deploying for their flights.

The volume of air traffic over our heads had reduced quite significantly by the time we started heading back from Edwards Ferry to Sycamore Landing.

We were thinking to ourselves that any story about a multitude of birds being sighted along the towpath would be incomplete without a picture of our signature bird, the Great Blue Heron. We had seen one in the distance as we were approaching Edwards Ferry. We had tried to keep our eyes on it through the bare branches of the trees as it flew away in front of us – in the distance over the bed of the canal. We had not been able to see it in the location where we thought it had landed. It turned out that it had landed high on a tree top, and we had missed it because we had been looking for it on the canal bed. We had walked past it without noticing it. Fortunately, the birds do not move around too much, and we found it on our way back to Sycamore Landing – high up on a tree!We had seen a Great Blue Heron in the same area during previous walks. This led us to consider the possibility that this was the same heron that we had seen before, and that the bird had somehow claimed this area as its territory. Fact of the matter is that we do not even know if herons are territorial and behave like this.

We saw some other birds during our return to Sycamore Landing. This is a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

I could be wrong, but my searches lead me to believe that the bird in the picture below is a Female Golden-crowned Kinglet. This is a bird I am not very familiar with.

Even though I had considered that possibility earlier in the year that 2020 could be the year of the owls, we did not sight one this Sunday!

I will leave readers with a picture that I took at Edward Ferry that gives you a sense to the wonderful morning we experienced on the trail. The picture is best viewed in its full resolution.

The Old Stones

The thermometer in the car indicated that it was 37° F outside. We had just arrived at the park,at Rileys Lock, and were stepping out of the car for our first Sunday walk along the towpath after returning from Massachusetts. This was the first time we were going to be experiencing these kinds of temperatures along the canal this season. Although we are likely to face colder mornings going forward, I was expecting that this one was going to be a particular mental challenge for me.

This was also the first outing after the return from Massachusetts a week ago. It was an attempt to try to return to some kind of an exercise routine once again after another long break.

I was bundled up more cautiously that usual – with several layers of clothing, two layers of gloves, and extra warm pair of thick fleece socks (donated by Philip). The cold hit me initially when we stepped out of the car, but I got past the “shock” of it very quickly. It did not feel too bad since there was little wind. The only extremity that took extra time to warm up was one of my fingers. Raynaud syndrome made its presence felt selectively!The morning sun was struggling to escape from behind the early morning clouds during the initial part of the walk, creating scenes like this.

One moment it would look like this,and the next moment our surroundings would be lit up brightly.

The brand new surface of the trail was a welcome change from the potholed, and often muddy, dirt track that used to cover this section of the towpath for all of the years that I have been visiting. (I had even complained directly to the NPS a few years ago and received no response!) The towpath is being upgraded in sections. We reached a point during our walk where the new trail came to an end. We saw some work vehicles beside the trail, and saw signs that the trail work was continuing further north in the direction of Edwards Ferry. The trail north of Edwards Ferry has already been repaved.

By the time we finished our walk it was only 39° F, but we felt warm and very, very, comfortable. There were others out in the park who did not seem to have any issue with the cold weather.

I might have even attempted to run in this kind of weather in the kind of attire the person in the picture below was wearing when I was younger!

The title of the blog refers to the stones in the picture below.For some reason, they caught my attention as we were walking by. These stones are part of the canal wall that used to exist just beyond the pond near Seneca Creek. There was more water in this section of the canal than usual that day, probably due to recent rains.

My thoughts drifted towards what these stones represented – the work of human beings from more than a century and a half before. The rocks probably came from the nearby quarry, and were most likely cut at the nearby Seneca Stone Mill. Rocks from this quarry were used in many places, including for locks and lock houses along the canal, and in the construction of buildings in Washington, DC, including the Smithsonian Castle.

The human beings who lived in these parts, the ones who dug up the stones and shaped them, and who built all of these things, including the canal wall we were looking at, had their own lives and stories even if they might not have been famous and well-known. They were probably categorized as “simple” people. They probably had their own daily routines, their struggles, their successes, their good and bad times, and their happy and sad days. They lived and died quietly, and they were hopefully content with their life experiences. They were probably remembered only by their immediate families, and even that, for perhaps only a generation or two. They were people like us.

Transitions

We are in a seasonal transition in our neck of the woods. It is a truth – as true as anything and everything else that is real and factual. There is no way that somebody can refute my statement, right? Winter is around the corner in Maryland.

Unfortunately, facts seem to be more and more difficult for people to accept in today’s world. It is the belief that counts, and a lot of our actions will be based on these beliefs. I could have edited those pictures I am showing you, or even picked pictures out from my collection from a different year, to state something that is untrue. You believe that I will not do that. There is an element of trust involved. You believe that I will not lie to you.

It is a sad thing that active efforts are being made to destroy the trust that people in the US have in their electoral system. When this happens, the truth, and the facts, do not matter. The lies are considered credible. And the lies can become a matter of faith. Living in a virtual world of computers and social media makes this process even easier. Facebook’s algorithms have no means to separate out truth from lies. AI technology is also not necessarily based on starting from truths. Scientific truths have no basis in a virtual world, facts have no foundations there. These days you can argue that the world is flat, that man did not land on the moon, and that a conman won this election – and the algorithms in the computers will say, fine, we do not care if this is true or not, and we will proceed as if this is fact.

All real facts point to the successful and honest conclusion of the election process in the US, a process that was as fair as it could be. Unfortunately, apparently 70% of Republicans, at this time, believe that the election was really won by the candidate who actually lost it – the two-bit huckster, the conman. Unfortunately, this fantasy is also not explicitly repudiated by the people in power who are in a position to state the facts. They are afraid. They are hypocrites who look out only for themselves. People lie, these lies are amplified, and these lies are believed because of the kind of world we live in. The facts have no place here. There is more chaos, uncertainty, and anxiety, in the transition that is taking place in our country because of all of this. This is nuts!

A Sigh of Relief on Another Beautiful Sunday

We went back to Williamsport last Sunday. It was a beautiful morning – somewhat cold when we started our walk, but above 70° by the time we finished. We walked in the general direction of north and west, towards Dam 5. The river meanders a lot in this section. To be certain of the direction you are facing at any particular moment in time, you have to be paying attention to the direction of the rising sun and/or the shadows being cast across the trail. Beautiful morning!

We finally got to breathe a sigh of relief on Saturday. Four years of complete political chaos, and complete dysfunction in governance, will hopefully come to an end soon. I was going to add that four years of division will also come to an end, but that remains to be seen, given the attitude of the current resident of the White House towards the handling of his loss, and his approach towards the transition that needs to happen. This particular con game of his has finally reached its limit, even as he spews out absurd lies about widespread fraud in the election process. Even while some of us breath a sigh of relief, many are very unhappy. Even as some of us breath this sigh of relief, the cases of coronavirus rise in record numbers. People are also dying in large numbers. There is a lot of work that needs to be done at a national level to save ourselves.

Will end the blog on a happy note with the pictures from our walk.

The first few pictures were taken at the beginning of the walk. A faint mist was visible in the distance over the canal as we crossed the bridge on to the trail.

The skies were clear. The air was still. The reflections on the water were perfect. These are pictures of the Cushwa Basin,and of the Route 11 bridge over the Potomac river,taken as we departed the area of Williamsport.

Further along the trail, we found a place where there were steps that went down to the river.The majesty of the winding river was easy to appreciate from down beside it.

The clear and crisp morning light enhanced our experience of the trail, and our view of all that remains of the Fall foliage in these parts.

We turned to return back to Williamsport at a point where a dirt road led to a parking lot next to canal. Earlier on, I had considered driving to this parking lot, and walking along the towpath from this point onward. Seeing the condition of the road, I am not sure I would use this lot any time soon for that purpose.

I decided to swap lenses on my camera at about this point in the walk, and use the zoom lens for the rest of the trip. As I raised my head from the camera bag which was lying on the ground (over which I was changing the lens), I saw a deer standing on a rocky ledge on the other side of the canal. Why don’t you take my picture to make sure that you have attached the lens to the camera properly?, it seemed to be asking. That is exactly what I did.It is a magical place, this canal of mine!

Towards the end of the walk, we came upon our old reliable friend, the great blue heron. I had to take its picture.

We had to depart Williamsport quickly at the end of the walk because of another appointment that we had closer to home. I did not have time to take the picture of the Conococheague Aqueduct from the level of the creek as I had originally hoped to do. Now I have an excuse for making another visit to Williamsport sooner rather than later!

Getting Outdoors During a Time of High Anxiety

It is a time of reckoning for some of us as Americans. It is safe to say that there has never been a situation like this in the USA in the past. It is also tempting to say that there has never been an election like this in the USA in the past, but I do not know enough about American history to be sure about that. It is definitely true though that we as a country have been sinking into a dark hole the last few years, now accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, and that we might have a chance during the next few days to grab on to something on the side, even as we fall further into the hole, to try to at least stabilize the situation for some period of time. Perhaps we could even attempt to climb out of the hole, but that might be too much to ask for in the short run considering how far we have fallen. There is always hope!

We have seen strategies for winning an election that have never been used to this extent in this country in the past. The electronic media has made it easy for official campaigns to distribute manipulated audio/visual content, content that is designed to deceive, content that supporters of the president lap up. The president himself spews out lies and misinformation. As Steve Bannon once said – “flood the zone with sh*t”. And, sadly, we tend to not see the truth even if it is in front of our faces because we live in our own bubbles. The republican party apparatus has also gone into high gear to try to disenfranchise voters, and to prevent votes from being cast and/or counted. Lawsuits have been filed, and more have been promised. Armed vigilantes try to intimidate voters and people going about their daily business. The US Post office is failing to deliver mail-in votes in a timely fashion. (The person in charge of the post office is a recent political appointee. His actions could lead you to believe that what is happening is deliberate.)

One worries about the possible aftermath of these elections in ways that one never did before.

We had to find relief from our anxieties in other activities. Last week was a bad time for our usual outdoor pursuits. I am still adjusting to the fact that the weather is turning colder slowly but surely. The cloudy and damp conditions killed all of my motivation to try to get out. It was finally the weekend by the time we overcame our reluctance to face the seasonal forces of nature.

We went out to Edwards Ferry on Sunday in spite of the fact that rain was expected later that morning. The weather was still OK at the time we got on the trail. As you can see from this picture of the lock house for Lock 25, there were still patches of clear sky to be seen near Edwards Ferry.

As we started our walk, we could see the rising sun behind us struggling to pierce through the clouds that were coming our way. It was, ultimately, an unsuccessful effort! The skies continued to darken as we walked north towards Whites Ferry. We finished the last couple of miles of the walk in light rain. I had to put away the camera in my backpack at that point. I don’t mind walking in light rain even though it tends to impair my vision somewhat because of the water collecting on my glasses. For that matter, I am not sure that even heavy rain would necessarily stop me on the trail. My friends and I rode our bikes in the pouring rain during our ride last year. It was done deliberately, and it was also fun!

It was somewhat anticlimactic to be on the trail after the autumnal change in foliage. Whatever bright colors there might have been on the trees are almost all gone in these parts. Bare tree trunks are visible everywhere.

The only remaining color in this section of the trail was mostly due to the presence of the pawpaw trees.

There is a certain beauty in foliage that is primarily yellow in color, but I think I might be feeling this beauty more intensely because of its transient nature. After all, I do not talk about the green trees all summer long – or, do I?!

And we got to see some strange looking fruit on the trail for the first time. I would be curious to know if anybody can recognize these.

That’s it for this blog. Tomorrow is election day. I am keeping my fingers crossed!

Autumn In The Year 2020

After all our attempts of the previous weeks, we finally did get to see some decent autumn colors. During a walk to Clopper Lake, we came upon a stand of trees beside the lake where the color was at it peak, or close to it. The light was just right for pictures like this.

We also made a trip to the Catoctin Mountain Park, up north near the town of Thurmont in Maryland, on Saturday. The place was packed with people by the time we got there. We had to park along the main road just outside the park in order to try to get to the visitor center and the trails. (The line of cars parked along this road was even longer by the time we left the park that afternoon.) The trails were also packed with hordes of people, some of whom had come in large groups. That was surprising to see during these times of COVID-19.

Because of the conditions on the ground, we decided to drive into the park instead of taking one of the trails at the visitor center, but still had difficulty finding a place to park within the park itself. The parking lots in there were also full, and there were also a limited number of such lots. The added frustration was that you had to drive away from the road to enter these lots, and then you would find that there was not even one parking spot available! We tried most of the lots. It was frustrating to have to drive through the colorful roads where the colors had just peaked and not have a place to pull over to take pictures. The pictures taken directly from the car (I would stop on the road itself if there was no traffic behind me) were pathetic. Fortunately, we had some luck towards the western end of the park.

In any case, here are some pictures of the park and surrounding areas. It was quite cloudy, and the quality of the pictures are representative of the conditions.



The colors of autumn last only a short time. We will be seeing a lot more brown tree trunks by the end of the week. When looking back at the pictures I have taken recently, I am also reminded that it was still green all around us when I started looking for the autumnal colors just earlier this month. Changes happen quickly during this time of year, and before we know it we will be experiencing the full force of winter.

I saw an interesting episode of American Experience recently. It was called The Gilded Age. This episode is set during the late 19th century. This was the period of time when the USA was being transformed from an agrarian society to an industrial one. This was the period of time when “capitalism” began to be favored in government, and wealth inequality, and power inequality, came into place in a systematic way. It is a fascinating story. It has only gotten worse since then, and one wonders how much further this phenomenon can persist until all hell breaks loose. This is a good episode to watch if you want to understand our history, and where it is we come from as a country. These days, one could be led to believe that the maintenance and furtherance of the capitalist creed is the primary goal and functional requirement of the US government apparatus, and that one should accept this as gospel truth if you were a true citizen of the USA. Know that this is not what the founding fathers were thinking of, or necessarily had in mind, and that such thought process is only a more recent invention being pushed forward by the people in power in order to try to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, the inequalities only continue to get worse with time.