Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hike to the Devil's Marbleyard

Natural Bridge, VA
May 15-17, 2009

On May 15, 2009, I left Virginia Beach with my friend Chris to accompany a group of Boy Scouts on an outing to the Devil’s Marbleyard in the Jefferson National Forest around Natural Bridge,Virginia. With a nod to the safari zoo, the defunct looking 10 commandments park, and “Foamhenge” up on the hill, we finally arrived at the trailhead parking lot at around 11:00 pm. The guides were not kidding, parking was limited and nearly full, but we managed to wedge our car in so we were parking legal.

Headlamps blazing, we made our way across the Elk Creek Bridge, up the blue-blazed Belfast Trail, past the stone pillars of the old Powhatan BSA summer camp, and joined our troop in the camping area next to the old camp building foundations.

Here's the bridge as seen in the daylight.

Luckily, we had a car-camp tent erected and waiting for us so all we had to do is let the pads self inflate and roll out the sleeping bags and hit the hay.

Saturday morning, we awoke to survey the kid chaos and make some breakfast. Standard fare – oatmeal, granola bars, and black coffee from Chris’ Jetboil French press. We packed up the car-camp tent, made a short foray to the country store back down the road for the comfort of a porcelain seat, and then we were ready to head out.

Because the weather was threatening to get worse as the weekend progressed we had decided to do the circuit hike in reverse, do most of the hiking on the first day, get the most out of the scenic views while the weather was good, and hit the oddity of the Devil’s Marbleyard on the shorter second hiking day.

We crossed a small creek and made our way to the Glenwood Horse Trail – marked with orange diamonds.

If you look at the Hiking Upward website’s topo map of the trial, you’ll see that the trail undulates up and down on a very easy grade between about 1,040’ and 1,200’. From the GHT trailhead we crossed a small stream and hiked about 2 miles on an old Forest Service road until we reached the junction with the Gunter Ridge Trail (GRT). We took a short break here and rejoined the “Alpha” team of fast assault scouts (we were in the “Beta” team), and waited for the “Omega” group to show so we could stay in communication.

The GRT is not blazed, but was easy to follow. We crossed Little Hellgate Creek, went through a wooden horse gate and then began a climb through about 20 switchbacks (the website says 14) to take us from about 1,000’ to 2000’ in about a straight line mile (probably twice that distance in total miles hiked). I didn’t find the switchback section too difficult, but we stopped at the top of this section to reconvene with the Alphas again and have lunch.

The next section I thought was more strenuous – going form about 2,000’ to 2400’ in 2/3 of a mile with no switchbacks. Once we got up on Gunter Ridge, we hiked along a section where a lightening fire in 2002 burned the mature trees and opened up some spectacular views to the south.

We continued on to the campsite at the intersection of the GRT and the Belfast Trail at 2517’ – about 6.5 miles to that point.

It was hot on the march up to the top of the Gunter Ridge and we quickly pitched tents and hammocks spurred on by the boom of thunder and the threat of a late afternoon thunderstorm. This was the maiden voyage for my new Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 tent and it set up in no time. Even without instructions, the color-coded stakeouts made attaching the footprint, and fly a snap. The hubbed pole design was new to me, but easy to understand and install. The BA Copper Spur UL2 was compact for sure, Chris is 6’4”, but we fit nicely and could get the packs squared away under the dual vestibules.

After a brief respite, we decided to capitalize on the nice weather and make the 3 mile RT hike to the lookout along the un-maintained Sulpher Spring Trail, aka the “Helicopter Pad” – a 30 yard offshoot of the Appalachian Trial. To get there, it took us about 40 minutes without packs to hike 1.5 miles through a saddle, up and down between 2,600’ and 2,400’. The views, however, were well worth the effort.

We made quick work getting back to camp, had dinner and retired right around dusk. Just as we got settled, the first drops of rain began to fall. Lightening lit up the tent, and the crack of thunder immediately flowed. No dead trees around us right? And then the skies opened up! We had a torrential downpour!

Sure enough, the next morning, there were some casualties among those without flies, those with bargain tents and half flies, etc. I’m continually amazed at the nonchalance of the Scouts regarding getting wet. However, as an adult, with a Montbell down bag, I’m very glad the Big Agnes tent (with full fly and vestibules) kept us and our packs bone dry. When it got light out, I was slightly disturbed to note water and flotsam between the footprint and the bottom of the tent well. How did the water get there? It was even more distressing when, helping the Scouts break camp, the undersides of their tents were dry. It dawned on me when I helped take down the hammock pitched next to our tent. The Scout erected his hammock fly so that it directed all his rain directly at my tent’s sidewall creating a gulley washer under my tent! The BA still stayed dry! However, next time I won’t pitch anywhere near those ditzy kids.

I helped pack up the Scouts, got my own tent down, and we made a hasty breakfast to get back on the trail and home. A sign at our campsite pointed us back down the ~ 1 mile of unblazed Belfast Trail towards the Devil’s Marbleyard. The descent was easy with only a few rocky and steep sections that caused me to slow down and watch my step. The Devil’s Marbleyard was cool, and the views to the west across the valley were very nice.

With the previous night’s rain, the Belfast Creek that parallels the trial was swollen and the rushing water and numerous waterfalls made for many a picturesque scene. The Hiking Upward website rates the steams on this circuit hike as a 1 out of 5. Maybe this would be true in summer when flows are down, but on our hike, I would say that Belfast Creek rated a 4 out of 5 minimum!

From the Marbleyard, it was an easy mile with a couple of stream crossings back to the campsite, across Elk Creek Bridge and to the cars. This time, although the weather report was dicey, I managed to avoid hiking in the rain, our views were not blocked by clouds and stormy weather, and we ended up the hike relatively pain-free – all pluses! In all, including the 3 mile hike to the Sulpher Springs lookout, we covered about 11.5 miles in two days – a thoroughly enjoyable trip and distance.

Note: All pictures posted were taken with a Cannon Power Shot SD880 IS digital elph carried in a 1010 Micro Pelican Case Series latched with some cord and S-biners to my shoulder straps and across my chest for easy access. This system worked great!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Key West - April 2009

We just returned from a wonderful time in Cayo Hueso (Key West, FL), staying with friends at the Trumbo Point Coast Guard facility.  We drove from our home in Virginia Beach and, after a 7am start, made it as far as Fort Pierce by 10 pm. We would have made Miami I’m convinced it we hadn’t had to make an emergency pit stop at a Jacksonville Honda dealer to discuss a pesky flashing transmission warning light. FREAK OUT! Seemed like a computer glitch but it lost us valuable time. Day 2 had us driving the length of the keys in all its glorious shades of turquoise and blue. We stopped at Bud and Mary’s to ogle at the “pet” tarpon and was disappointed that the sandwich shack was closed due to some plumbing problems.

We pressed on and opted for fishwiches at McDonalds instead to keep our standing with the Catholic Church intact on Good Friday.  

We pulled into Cayo Hueso at about 1 pm, got our base passes, and took off our socks! Our first evening hanging out with our hosts, we were treated to a visit by a very large manatee. We LOVE seeing them and we’re told visitors from Virginia Beach lure them to our friends’ dock. Me, I think they flock to an abundance of love and camaraderie.

Saturday, my friend Tom and I went our early for a little fly fishing. Tom’s just learning to cast the long wand and I was stoked to help him land his first fish. We headed north to wade the flats on Geiger Key. Heard reports of lots of barracuda, but no bonefish.  We were undaunted. Tom did a lot of casting and I’d keep a running dialog of coaching – “Watch the backcast” “A little less wrist” “Point your tip down to take out the slack” and the like. At the beginning, it’s always a slow learning process and Tom had the patience of Job. We found some small ‘cudas and when all the aspects of the cast came together for Tom, like magic he hooked up, but the fish got off. Nevertheless, Tom was hooked and I was exhilarated!

We returned to the house around noon, had lunch and then worked on dying eggs for Easter.

Afterwards, we all headed to the base pool where the kids had fun jumping on the floating “lily pads” in the shallow end and sliding down the water slides. We ate hot dogs and hamburgers and chips and sodas until there weren’t any more and just relaxed and enjoyed company.

Back at our host’s house, Hailey and Dana took full advantage of the dockside digs and got used to their new snorkeling gear.

Swimming, snorkeling, cocktails, tossing the toy and watching Trumbo the dog endlessly and without fear launch off the dock in full retrieve mode, Dana busting open coconuts, cocktails, and cocktails, this is how we whiled away the afternoon and evening.

Sunday, we accompanied our host and other families from Virginia Beach to Easter mass. It was a lovely service and again, special to spend together with good friends.

We were rewarded for our fishwich sandwiches and church-going by being visited by not one, not two, but a herd of five manatees. There’s no other way to explain that encounter other than magical! 

Monday 4/13, Tom and I headed back to the flats for another shot at el macabi. This time, we fished a beautiful flat just outside of town. It was windy and there was very little lee, but I saw bones as soon as we entered the water – a good sign. We waded around and I got one take, but did not set the hook. I saw Tom’s line go tight and he pulled in his first fly-caught fish. Size of the fish didn’t matter as much as the size of the grin on his face!

Even though we had been to Key West several times before, we had never taken the Conch Train tour of the city. This time we bit. It was a wonderful tour of all the sections of the city, taught us about the history, architecture, and movers and shakers of Key West. I loved the way Key West, purposefully or not, has preserved so much vegetation around the City. All the palms, flowering bougainvillea and other trees, and greenery. It looked as if each house was shoehorned into all the vegetation. What a great contrast to most American cities where most of the vegetation is obliterated except for a few token specimens.

We had lunch at Fogerty’s (with foreshadowing of the “Howlers” to come) and planned our afternoon. Our group of friends decided it was beach time, so we headed to Bahia Honda State Park near Big Pine Key. After a 45 minute drive, we got to the park. The wind was blowing hard SE and the parking lot at Calusa Beach (in the lee) was already full when we arrived so we settled for a spot along Sandspur Beach. The water was roiled so snorkeling was unfruitful and we settled for some chicken fights and general tomfoolery. After the drive home, we had a lovely dinner of pork tenderloin rice, and mango salsa – of course with cocktails. It was a wonder that too many cooks in the kitchen didn’t make a mess of it.

Later that night, we made our way to Mallory Square just as the sun set and caught the last round of street performers before it got dark. We returned to the condo for a round of spades.

Tuesday, we went back to Bahia Honda because we had a campsite reservation for the evening. Even though we made the reservation 8-9 months in advance, we got the last available campsite and only for one night! At check-in, I got some intel about a flat to wade the next morning. We headed to our site in the Bayside camping area, tent site #74. I had camped in FL as a kid and had forgotten about “soil” The site had a smooth but hard packed area the size of a tent footprint and the rest was hard and gravel strewn. I was worried about rips in the tent, and was glad I had a footprint and mattresses with me. We got the tent up and headed to the beach for some snorkeling. The wind had died down from significantly from the day before and the snorkeling at Logger Head beach was really good. Hailey and I saw lots of fish, a lobster, urchins under every rock, and brittle stars. The waist-deep water went on for hundreds of yards. Dana, a little less adventurous than her sister, was content to stay in the white sandy areas with her mask, and shell collect along the shore.

We returned to the campsite and as dusk fell, the gnats were fierce.  There something about coating yourself with bug spray and then preparing dinner that’s more than a little unappetizing. I snapped a few pictures as the sun set over the Bayside cove – probably the best part of the day. Hot dogs and EZ-mac all around and we retreated from the gnats into the tent.

We had kept the tent fly off because of the heat, and I have to say I was very disappointed by the amount of road noise that permeated our campsite. We backed up to US1 and it was horrible. IF you go to Bahia Honda AND you reserve enough in advance to get your picks of sites, chose the ones furthest from the highway to avoid the noise.

Just as we started to drift off to sleep, the rumble of thunder sent Kathi and me scrambling to put up the fly and put more stakes in the ground. I BIG Thunderstorm was bearing down on us FAST. We got the fly up and once more, the Kelty Mantra 7 proved its weight in GOLD! That tent is spacious and the full fly keeps it bone dry – well worth the extra clams!

Wednesday morning we got up and had breakfast. Kathi dropped me off on Ohio Key so I could wade a flat that was less trammeled than the flats on Bahia Honda. The flat was beautiful and expansive. The tide was low so I waded out to about knee deep and waded south to the channel between Ohio and Bahia Honda Keys. Saw a school of smallish barracudas I think. Could not get them to eat. I hung around that area for a while figuring that bones, if they were there, would come up onto the flat from the deeper protective water of the channel. After a while I did spot a fish and cast to it, but think my fly was too light to get into the strike zone. I followed the fish around a bit, but finally lost contact. I started wading back to the pickup spot again staying in knee deep water and targeting pockets of open sand where I’d be able to see fish better, especially with the wind chop. At one point I believe I saw a permit splash in front of me as it attacked some prey. It drifted towards me momentarily, but then disappeared. As I scanned the surrounding water, I became aware of a number of sharks also patrolling the flat! I waded into slightly shallower water and just kept them in my hyper-sensitized peripheral vision. Didn’t see any more fish until, I got back to the channel that went under the bridge separating Ohio Key and Money Key. Saw one fish, and only got one shot at him before he fled. Beautiful flat, fun to wade. Lots to see, but FISH 1- Kevin 0.

Kathi picked me up at noon and we headed back to Bahia Honda to pack up the tent and head back to Key West. The fly had dried in the interim and we made quick work of the tear down. I wanted to see the trail and old Bridge that leads to the Spanish Harbor Keys, so Kathi dropped me off as I made my way up the short trail.  I was treated to some beautiful views.

We gassed up in Big Pine where we found the best fuel prices, made a quick stop at Baby’s Coffee shop (oceanside, Sugerloaf Key?), and beat feet back into Key West where party plans were brewing.

Our host had been telling us about a great restaurant on the base on Boca Chica Key and they were charged to have us do karaoke. I think our party of about 30 descended overwhelmed to kitchen staff trying to prepare all our meals at once, so we had an enjoyable but frenetic meal, interspersed with championships of the universe competitions in darts and pool, watching paratroopers floating down into the water to be scooped up by waiting boats, and another sunset that was to die for.

Dana and a newfound friend signed up to do karaoke and brought the house down with a rendition of “My Country Tis Of Thee”. Our patriotic bosoms swelled with pride and delight.

Of all things, our host Tom had to fly into Virginia Beach the following morning to take care of some business so we decided on a men’s night out. We hit all the touristy spots – starting at Fogarty's for a Howler Monkey (in the travel cup of course), and we made a short crawl to Irish Kevin’s, saw a great band at Sloppy Joe’s where one of our friends ended up on the webcam (What happens in Kew West…..), and ended up hearing another great Philly band and getting deadly Ross-a-ritas at Hog’s Breath. Our crawl wasn’t that creative, but it was more about good times with good friends than making a statement. We made our way home along the waterfront (not the best idea perhaps) and walked home to the base. We hit the pillow while Tom, bless his heart, got home, ironed his uniform, and drove to Miami to catch his 6 am flight. That man is a rock!

Thursday, the girls decided to go shopping so I took the advantage to go fishing. A guy in the Saltwater Angler had mentioned a flat along the Newfound Harbor Keys so I thought I’d give it a try. A little recon on Google Earth showed a parking spot and I found it on the ground easy enough – another National Wildlife Park site. Unfortunately, the bottom was very soft and after an hour or two of mucking around I saw nary a fish. I headed north back to Ohio Key and spent a short time looking around the channel flat between Ohio Key and Money Key again. I spotted one bonefish patrolling the flat/deep water edge, but there were swimmers in the water nearby and I think that made the fish spooky. That’s my excuse for not catching him anyway.

Made our way back to Key West to meet up with our friends from Australia who were just arriving in Key West from Orlando and the festivities took on a second wind. More snorkeling from shore showing them Trumbo’s fetching prowess, horseshoes, and cocktails on the dock.

Now it was the Ladies night to go out. The Ladies did their own version of the crawl making stops at Capt Tony’s where the girls “sprayed the sidewalk with silver” trying to get a quarter in the hanging fish’s mouth, Irish Kevin’s, the Garden of Eden, and “getting a Kyle” at the Flying Monkeys Saloon. Did they have fun? This picture tells the story!

Back at the dock, we hung the chum bag, turned on the light and waited to see what was drawn in. We had been getting baby tarpon on the outgoing tide, and this night was no different. They were feeding aggressively and I watched several crabs swimming through the water so I tied on an orange and brown crabby looking fly and I got a tarpon to eat on one the first few casts. He jumped twice and made a short run, tried to run under the dock and wrap me around the mooring piles, but with the 12 wt, I quickly got home beached. While a friend went for the camera, the fish flipped and flopped until the hook got loose and he made his way back into the water. Not wanting to hurt the fish, I didn’t work that hard to keep him and he swam off unharmed. A legal catch nonetheless and my first tarpon. An hour or more of fishing with no interested fish at all. I think the first catch had spooked em.

Friday, we made our Duval Street pilgrimage and went into any shop that drew our eye. I saw a very good copy of the painting Starry Stary Night that I wanted to take home straight away, but decided to save our limited clams for Yellowstone adventure to come this summer. After a long afternoon of window shopping, we ended up at a Mexican restaurant (El Taco Loco?), where we relaxed and met up with our friends.

Our Australian friends were Key West newbies so after dinner we took them to Mallory Square for the street performers and the sunset. Afterwards, we took our Australian mate out on the down and repeated our earlier craw with an added stop at the Lazy Gecko, home to the “Southernmost Reds Sox Nation”. Wade Boggs was hanging out and singing with the band at Sloppy Joes and the raunchy singer/comedian at Irish Kevin’s was entertaining.  Again, good bands, and a fun time was had by all.

Saturday, our trip was winding down and all of our friends were making plans to leave so we spent the morning lingering over breakfast in town (looking at pictures on the wall of the restaurant under water at various flood stages in different storms), second and third cups of coffee and fishing on the dock with Anders and Jack. Using squid for bait, these two were hauling in one beautiful fish after another.

With our Australian friends we checked off some tourist must-dos. We got our picture taken at the southernmost point monument and got a margarita at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. We had a nice dinner with our hosts and I took one last shot at the tarpon. They showed up on cue and I got a take early on, but the fish jumped and the hook came unbuttoned. Like before, the agitated fish created lockjaw among his buddies.

Sunday, after another long breakfast, we hit the road for the return drive home. We made it into SC by 11:00 pm and the next day was uneventful. In no hurry to return to the rat race, we had longer than normal meals, none involved a bag or free toy, and finally made it home by about 4 pm. It only started to rain after we’d unpacked the car and delivered all the week’s stray items to our friends and co-Key Westers.

We are ever grateful to our friends in Key West that host us and for all the love and fellowship of our friends that made the trip with us. Hope to do it again soon.