The Morning’s First Ferry

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I was hoping for a decent sunrise when I walked onto the dock at Lakeside, Ohio recently. Turns out, my timing and the sunrise couldn’t have been better.

Just as the sun broke the horizon on Lake Erie, the first ferry of the morning slid into view. Sailing north from Marblehead, Ohio, to popular Kelleys Island, the ferry provided an additional center of focus for this shot.

You can see passengers on the upper deck enjoying the gorgeous show. The sunrise alone probably made the price of their tickets more than worthwhile.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Back Out on the Trail

Crossing the Mill Prong on the Mill Prong Trail, Shenandoah National Park.

It had been too long. I missed hiking regularly.

I had several excuses as to why I hadn’t hiked: I was traveling; the weather was too hot and humid; it was too rainy; I had family obligations. I could list more, but you likely don’t want to hear them.

So, I gladly agreed to lead a group when an opportunity to hike came along. A friend and several of her female friends hike local trails weekly. The Mill Prong Trail in Shenandoah National Park was on their radar, but they were unfamiliar with it. My friend knew I had hiked it.

I chauvinistically asked if men were allowed in their hiking entourage, and I was quickly admonished. They wanted to hike and wanted me to lead the way.

The Mill Prong is a side trail that juts off the Appalachian Trail (AT) at mile marker 53 on Skyline Drive in the park. The trail leads to the Rapidan Camp, the summer home of President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.

My trail app on my iPhone listed it as a moderately strenuous 3.7-mile hike round trip. We wouldn’t be going that far. Since all in our group were in their 70s, our goal was to hike to the intersection with the Mill Prong Horse Trail. That is exactly one mile.

This day was much cooler than the previous weeks of hot, sticky, and sometimes wet days in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. When we arrived at the parking lot where the AT crosses Skyline Drive, my van’s thermometer read 60 degrees. It was perfect hiking weather.

To access Mill Prong Trail, you must walk across the roadway and then a short distance on the AT. Soon you’re at the Mill Prong Trailhead.

I had told the ladies that this wasn’t the most scenic hike. They were more concerned with the trail’s difficulty and elevation gains. Having hiked it previously, I knew that the Mill Prong was a comparatively gradual decline to the horse trail. We had no intention of going to Rapidan Camp. A two-mile roundtrip hike down and back would suffice.

The Mill Prong Trail has two stream crossings. Trail-keepers conveniently placed large rocks for hikers to successfully cross both without getting wet. That is, as long as you don’t slip and fall. I was the only one who did.

The trek down the Mill Prong trail was similar to my earlier experience. The walk was eerily quiet. I only heard a lone Downy Woodpecker along the mostly dirt path down and back. We saw no other hikers until a young woman passed us as we were nearly finished, and she was just starting.

We took our time, enjoying nature’s stillness, the verdant forest floor carpeted with ferns, grasses, and wildflowers. We respectfully observed the colorful fungus and the four-foot northern water snake soaking in the morning sun on a large moss-covered rock in the middle of the trickling stream.

We took a break just after passing the horse trail, precisely one mile from the trailhead. We ate our snacks, inspected the snake, kept our distance, and hydrated.

Then it was time to head back up the gradual incline. The trail effortlessly wound its way past outcroppings, back across the two forks of the Mill Prong, shaded all the way by a mixed hardwood forest. It was already shedding some of its leaves.

Just before we reached the intersection with the AT, birds and pollinators began to appear. Jewelweed bloomed everywhere, especially in a triangle between the AT and Skyline Drive. Hummingbirds zipped left and right, and a few Monarchs and Tiger Swallowtails flitted here and there.

Despite our tired old bones, smiles dominated. It was a perfect ending to just the kind of hike the ladies like to take. Me, too.

Stepping stones.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

September’s 1st Sunset

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I was out watering plants and trees last evening since we haven’t had any rain for several days. Suddenly, the western sky turned bright golden.

I quickly wrapped up my watering, grabbed my camera and iPhone, and headed to a close location with an open view to the west. The golden glow had faded. The sun disappeared behind the Allegheny Mountains, but dramatic color remained.

The farmer had already cut the enormous cornfield and had turned loose steers to forage for spilled corn cobs. With Mole Hill to the left and the sunset’s remnants still lingering above the mountains, it looked like a scene out of the old west, not the Shenandoah Valley.

The vista was a beautiful way to close out the first day of September.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Sunset Grazing

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I searched for a decent location to photograph the latest lovely sunset in the Shenandoah Valley. I stopped when I came upon this scene of young steers grazing.

The Black Angus scattered in the rolling pasture filled the foreground, while the local landmark of Mole Hill, an extinct volcanic core, dominated the background. The sunset orange-tinted cloud hovered over the Allegheny Mountains in the distance. I imagined old Mole Hill had exploded out of eons of dormancy.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

A Morning Walk of Gratitude

A Tiger Swallowtail on a thistle flower.

I couldn’t help but feel wide-ranging gratitude as I walked with a dozen other nature lovers. Billed as a bird walk, it was so much more than that. I wasn’t surprised by that realization.

Most in the group who took the tour, including the property owners, were in our third third of life. That is to say, most of us had more days behind us than we had ahead of us. That fact only made the pleasant August morning sweeter.

The landowners invited a noted local birder who tried his best to keep us corralled and informed. But Baby Boomers being who they are, we often overlooked our leader, and most of the group had moved on. Guilty as charged.

I attribute that to being enraptured with our surroundings. We walked the mown paths amid meadows of wildflowers, stands of woodlots, and the buzz of bees, the distraction of beautiful butterflies and plenty of avian species. There were too many times when I simply wanted to stay in place and absorb all that surrounded me. Believe me, there was lots to take in.

But we didn’t want to overstay our welcome. So, like it or not, this grateful group of nature enthusiasts kept moving. There was so much to see in such a short time.

Near the end, I lingered to identify a solitary sparrow that perched in a tree many yards away. My binoculars didn’t help much given the distance. While I waited for the expert birder to verify my find, a Belted Kingfisher zoomed over the rushing creek below me. Just then, an Eastern Meadowlark took flight overhead, and a gang of Barn Swallows abandoned their perches on the big round hale bales in search for breakfast.

The sparrow sat dutifully on the tree limb while the walk’s leader edged closer. Finally, it turned its head, revealing its pinkish bill. Field Sparrow, it was.

We saw 44 species of birds in our limited time. We got some excellent looks at songbirds and others. I was torn between birdwatching, snapping photos of butterflies, and enjoying the many summer wildflowers.

I was grateful for this kind couple to invite us onto their property and allow us to enjoy the fruits of their labor. After all, that’s how gratitude works. Blessings upon blessings create overflowing gratitude that begs to be shared.

Wildflowers.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Capturing the Moment

Have you ever intended to photograph one subject and instead captured something entirely different?

That’s what happened to me last evening. I wanted to shoot the full super moon rising over the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. As soon as I left home, I could see there might be a problem. A large rain cloud hovered over the park, right where the moon was calculated to appear.

Hoping the cloud might move on or dissipate, I kept driving. I am so glad I did.

A full moon always rises as the sun sets. In the Shenandoah Valley, the sun sinks below the Allegheny Mountains that mark Virginia/West Virginia state lines to the west. It rises over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east.

As I drove east, the last of the day’s sun rays illuminated the clouds over the national park. The closer I got, the more the clouds transitioned from white to peach to orange.

I arrived at my photo destination in time to capture the moment’s beauty. For me, this easily made up for missing the moonrise.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

On the Fence

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The group I was with Saturday morning was nearing the end of our fruitful bird walk. We had seen 44 species in about three hours as we strolled around this lovely acreage of rolling wildflower meadows dotted with woodlots.

As we neared the end of our bird walk, this regal-looking Red-headed Woodpecker flew in front of us. It landed on this fence post at least 50-yards away. I was game for a shot anyway.

My hand-held camera captured this compressed scene with my 1,200 mm lens fully extended. The fence posts were actually several feet apart. Clearly, this photo was a long shot in more ways than one.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Leaves

My wife and I recently visited some friends in eastern Pennsylvania. Since we all love flowers, they took us to a local greenhouse that was more like an arboretum.

The wide variety of leaves attracted my attention. The Rising Sun Redbud leaves, however, are from a tree in our backyard.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

The pastor led in a final prayer of the private ceremony.

I stood at the back of the small group of relatives and friends of the deceased man I was about to help bury. It was my first experience covering the ashes of a person laid to rest in our church’s Memory Garden.

The day was hot and sticky, as many have been here in the Shenandoah Valley this summer. Earlier, I had helped the pastor set up the canopy to provide shade for the mourners. The giant pin oak tree in the center of this solemn place also helped scatter the sun’s blistering rays.

After setting up the canopy, I turned to dig the hole that would contain the cremated remains of this distinguished and much-loved man.

The summer heat and humidity spawned frequent scattered afternoon thunderstorms. This made the digging easy compared to the only other cremation hole I had dug before the rains came.

The small garden shovel easily sliced into the dirt. The top layers came out in clumps. When I switched to a hand trowel a foot below the surface, the moist earth crumbled as I tried to make the temporary incursion as close to round as possible.

I placed the clumpy clods on a sheet of transparent plastic between my excavation and the limestone wall that served as a solid privacy barrier to the memorial sanctuary. The garden is meant to be a place of rest and solitude for the living and the dead.

The man’s widow, three sons, and other family members arrived before either the pastor or me, and we were both early. They sat on padded chairs beneath the canopy as the pastor said a brief homily that clearly moved the small group of mourners.

I stood behind them, respectfully observing. After the final prayer, the pastor opened the urn and carefully poured the ashes into the hole.

I walked to the front and stepped onto the raised garden covered with newly planted myrtle sprigs. A few violet blossoms already appeared on the young plants.

I had never done this before and wanted to be as inconspicuous and respectful as possible. Though I didn’t look up, I sensed all eyes were on me.

I took the hand trowel and carefully scattered dirt to cover the powdery remains of this honorable man. I dutifully and diligently refilled the hole as compassionately as possible. I wanted my simple efforts to mirror their love for the husband, father, and grandfather.

When I reached the bigger clods of dirt that had been the first to be removed, I switched to the garden shovel. The hole was soon refilled. Without looking up, I used the hand trowel to softly scrape the remaining marbles of soil onto the top of this man’s resting place. I shook the finite remnants from the plastic as a final ceremonial blessing and quietly returned to my designated spot behind the mourners, tools and plastic in hand.

The pastor dismissed the mourners to the church for a light meal, but no one moved except to wipe away tears. The love for their husband, father, and grandfather hung heavy in the air, though sweetly, silently.

After the family finally retreated to the coolness of the church, I broke up the bigger clods of dirt, hoping they would settle more quickly over this learned man’s final resting place. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

The Memory Garden.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Tassels at Sunset

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I am always looking for new locations to capture sunsets. I accidentally found this spot on a dead end road.

While the sunset wasn’t spectacular, something else caught my attention. The sweet fragrance of growing corn filled my senses. Then I noticed how the soft evening light highlighted the emerging tassels of the cornstalks. The flow of the large cornfield took my eye right back to the Allegheny Mountains and the setting sun.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

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