Tag Archives: Shenandoah National Park

Learning to be thankful for life itself

Lewis Falls, Shenandoah NP, hiking

Cascades above Lewis Falls.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The holiday season is here. Thanksgiving Day has come and gone. Christmas, Hanukah, and New Years will be here in the twinkling of an eye.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the excitement, hoopla, and glitz of the extended festivities. After all, the big box stores, TV, radio, online ads, and printed fliers have been pushing their holiday wares for weeks now.

I try not to pay too much attention to all that holiday hype. In my retirement, I have, instead, come to enjoy each moment, anticipate the day at hand, and celebrate the unfolding daily events.

I have also learned that that is much easier said than done, given the state of the world, the conniving of greedy people and corporations, the unsettling of Earthly events, natural and otherwise. Still, we must carry on. So I did, and I do.

This particular day I joined a senior citizens’ hiking group led by a retired banker, a most trustworthy man. Our destination was Lewis Falls in Shenandoah National Park.

Our group of nine wound its way down the trail through the shedding deciduous trees, brushing against mountain laurel whose berries the forest birds and bears had not yet devoured. We crisscrossed several small streams, all of them rushing to plummet the 83 feet of Lewis Falls.

These cascading ribbons join just as they tumble into the Shenandoah Valley. We stepped gingerly across the last of the wetted stones and finally made it to the shaded overlook of the falls themselves. We refueled at that lovely sight on the snacks we each had brought along.

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I climbed over the protective stonewall to get a slightly better view of the falls. It nearly cost me my life. I pitched the last handful of peanut butter cracker crumbs into my mouth and tried to swallow. I couldn’t.

I tried to breathe in. No air made it to my lungs. I didn’t want to die this way.

My EMT training kicked into gear. I got the attention of the nearest person and pointed to my throat. She asked me if I was choking and I nodded my head frantically. She hollered for the others and started to jump the wall to help me.

In these 20 seconds or so, I continued to try to swallow. I couldn’t speak. I thumped my chest with my fist twice, made a growling sound, and attempted to swallow again. Just as this courageous woman was about to apply the Heimlich maneuver, I felt the mountain air tickle my lungs. I took a swig of water, waved off my would-be rescuer, and spoke a few raspy words of thanks.

The woman was heartily relieved, but not nearly as much as me. As we backtracked up the zigzag trail, everything looked brighter, the colors more vibrant, the air sweeter. The trek back to the cars seemed much shorter, easier even until someone noticed that Herb was missing.

The tallest member of our pack, Herb had headed back ahead of the rest of the group. But he wasn’t at the parking lot. The retired banker quickly formed a plan, and once again my firefighter/EMT training instinctively activated, only this time for a search and rescue effort.

Though frustrated for nearly two and a half hours, the search ended happily. Herb was found safe and sound. We all headed for home in thanksgiving and wonderment of creation and life itself.

In the midst of all the mundane marketing and holiday cheer, I have a suggestion. Let’s remember to be thankful for life itself.

The view of the Shenandoah Valley seemed even more pristine than usual despite the muted colors.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Divergence

Massanutten Mt., Shenandoah NP, stratocumulus clouds,

Divergency.


When I left home shortly after 8 a.m., the sky was cloudy. The forecast was sunny. I wondered how “they” could get it so wrong. I was heading to Shenandoah National Park at the easternmost section of Rockingham Co., Virginia. By the time I got to the east side of Harrisonburg, skies to the northwest were crystal clear. I had hope that the day wouldn’t be gloomy after all.

By the time I arrived on Skyline Drive, the road that winds its way along the park’s spine, I could see that it was just a matter of time that the sky would clear. When I reached the critical point of the layer of stratocumulus clouds on the left and clear sky on the right, I had to take a picture. I felt fortunate to capture the meteorological phenomenon that scientists call divergence. That is, the air mass with the clouds was moving away in a horizontal direction from the air mass without clouds.

I used the Southern Pine as the marker of this weather DMZ. Massanutten Mountain is just to the right of the pine tree.

“Divergence” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Facing unfounded fears brings unexpected rewards

Compton Gap Trail, Shenandoah NP

Our lunchtime view.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I love to hike. Planting myself in a hiker’s paradise has afforded me unlimited opportunities to satisfy my love for hiking. In reality, it hasn’t worked out quite the way I anticipated.

First of all, I have too many interests and too little time to fulfill all of them. Family responsibilities top my priority list, especially in the fall when our grandchildren seem to be their busiest. Hiking takes a backseat so I can help with the grandkids.

When I do get a chance to head to the many trails of Shenandoah National Park, I usually go alone. I enjoy the oneness with nature and the precious personal time to think and explore at my own pace.

However, that lone ranger approach to hiking changed when I discovered a peer-hiking group. When an outing on a trail I had not yet tackled was offered, I wanted to go. However, I hesitated for somewhat personal reasons.

I wasn’t sure just how fast the group would walk. Neither did I know if they would take as many breaks as I was sure to need. At my age, any hike that begins early morning can be problematic. In the words of Forest Gump, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”

Despite my doubts, I sent the confirmation email that I would join the group. I was greatly relieved when I got the reply.

The leader welcomed me into the hiking circle. He volunteered that the trek would accommodate all the hikers’ needs. In other words, the group would stop as often as necessary. I was glad about that news, but now a new set of insecurities surfaced.

I didn’t know how many people would be in the group. I didn’t know their level of hiking expertise. Nevertheless, I didn’t let my petty, irrational fears deter me, and prepared for the hike.

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I loaded my hiking gear, the hiking poles I had purchased but never used, my camera, binoculars, and a light lunch. I dressed in several layers of clothing to peel off as the day warmed.

Our group was small, only five, all of us retired with various levels of hiking proficiency. The other four hikers were as pleasant as could be.

We each enjoyed the camaraderie that ensued along the way. Our revered leader knew all aspects of the park, its botany, geology, and history. His genial personality served him well.

The day was crisp, the forest quiet except for an occasional gusty wind that rustled the still green leaves. I was surprised at how very few birds I saw or heard.

We followed the Appalachian Trail up the ridge on sometimes rocky, steep terrain, sometimes mostly flat, well-worn earth. Short grasses and fallen leaves bordered the trail.

We ate our lunch standing and sitting on ancient igneous outcroppings overlooking the sweeping valley below. Signal Knob, the northern-most point of the Massanutten Range, stood across the way overlooking the old-aged Shenandoah River.

After lunch, we crossed back over the AT, scrambled around and down another rocky point to view a rare exposure of basalt columnar jointing. Seeing the hexagonal formation dispelled once and for all any remnants of my silly fears.

It had been a glorious day hiking with newfound friends. Naturally, all of my fears proved to be unfounded.

In this age of fear-mongering and extreme reactionary phobias, it was a timely reminder for me. Trivial or not, tell your fears to take a hike before they walk all over you.

South Fork Shenandoah River, Shenandoah NP

Overlook at Shenandoah River State Park.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Brown on Yellow and Green

Confused Cloudywing, Golden Ragwort

Brown on Yellow and Green.

Butterflies and flowers are made for one another. On a recent hike in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, many wildflowers were in full bloom, and from their joyous, creative aerial dances the butterflies couldn’t have been happier.

Little skipper butterflies were most abundant. I found this one, which I believe to be a Confused Cloudywing, flitting from bloom to bloom on this patch of Golden Ragwort, a daisy-like flower.

The afternoon sun nicely illuminated this invigorating scene. “Brown on Yellow and Green” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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When is a chimney more than a chimney?

memorial chimney, Shenandoah NP

The memorial chimney at Elkton, VA.

By Bruce Stambaugh

When is a chimney more than a chimney? I know that sounds like a strange question. The answer, however, might even be more so.

A chimney is more than a chimney when it no longer serves as a chimney. Now, I know you must be really confused. I can gladly explain.

When the Shenandoah National Park was first being conceived decades ago, hundreds of folks lived and farmed the land along the mountain ridges where the park was to be formed. They would have to move to make the park a reality. That became an issue.

In most cases, the government compensated landowners within the designated park boundaries for their property and buildings according to market value in the 1930s. Others received less than they thought they should. However, tenants operated many of the farms and received no reimbursement.

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Some of the displaced were resettled in nearby towns. Most were on their own, leaving behind fond, treasured memories and subsistent livelihoods.

Adding insult to injury, many of the abandoned homes, having been condemned, were either burned or demolished in developing the new national park. For those displaced folks, more than walls went up in smoke.

Year after year, families returned to where they used to live if only to view the ruins and pay their respects at nearby family cemeteries. In many cases, only the chimney of their former dwelling remained.

fireplace, Virginia

Where memories were made.

Memories of sitting by a warm fire in the dead of winter, of a mother preparing a family meal using the fireplace, and of looking up from working in the nearby garden and seeing smoke curling out of the chimney were all recalled. Together, the fireplace and the chimney served as the sources of survival.

Knowing that resentment still lingered in local families after all these years, grassroots efforts were begun to help quell that ire. Local non- profit organizations, community volunteers, college students, descendants of those who were displaced, city, and county officials worked collaboratively on a memorial project. They decided to establish monuments in honor of those removed from the parkland.

The chimney was chosen as the most logical symbol to memorialize those on the harsher side of the history of creating the park. To date, six memorials have been built. Two more are planned, which will complete the circuit of all eight counties that have land within the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park.

For its part, the National Park Service created an informative, inclusive and accurate exhibit of the history of Shenandoah National Park at the Byrd Visitors Center at Big Meadows. Chimneys play a prominent role in retelling that story.

The latest of the chimney memorials was just dedicated in Rockingham County’s town of Elkton at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains where the Skyline Drive snakes through the park. Volunteers built these chimney memorials using native limestone and granite rocks. I imagine a little blood, a lot of sweat, and tears of both sadness and joy flowed in the process.

With the remaining people who were displaced now in the 90s, the memorials were built to keep the story alive through education about the park’s history, including its dark side. In truth, these chimney memorials serve a more significant, more admirable purpose. These chimneys also help heal those long-held hurts of personal injustices.

When is a chimney more than a chimney? When it serves as both an emotional symbol of history’s good and evil that can’t be changed, only remembered and respected, and one that reconciles.

Ironically, this cabin, complete with a local stone chimney, was built by the National Park in 1936, after many of the original homes were destroyed.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Patterned Path

Shenandoah National Park, hiking, Virginia

Patterned Path.

When I happened upon this scene yesterday, I had to stop for practical and aesthetic reasons. Crews were working on the Limberlost Trail in Shenandoah National Park. Recent heavy rains had washed out and badly rutted sections of the handicapped accessible trail. To avoid some of the construction at the trailhead, I walked the trail loop backward.

As I rounded a curve near the trail’s end, I stopped. Because this spot was where the repair was being done, I wasn’t sure if I should proceed. No signs indicated that the trail was closed, however. The rolled, finely crushed limestone looked more like freshly-poured cement. Once my eyes adjusted to the canopy-filtered light, I realized that the speckles were nothing more than leaf shadows created by the intense afternoon sun.

I thought the dappled effect stunningly artsy. “Patterned Path” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Russet Rainbow

Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park

Russet Rainbow.

The scene just blew me away. The afternoon sun highlighted every hue and tone of russet that Big Meadows had to offer. Grasses, leaves of wild blueberries, reeds, scrub oaks, and even the red oak trees all glowed some shade of reddish-brown. The subtle differences all blended together made an impressive sight.

Big Meadows is a large mostly open bowl-shaped area along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Surrounded by thousands of acres of hardwood forests, why this fantastic meadow is there is a mystery even to the park guides and scientists. I’m just glad it is.

“Russet Rainbow” is my Photo of the Week. Click on the photo to get the full effect.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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In hiking, easy is a relative term

Hawksbill Mountain, Shenandoah NP

Hawksbill Mountain summit.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The official National Park Service website listed the Lower Hawksbill Trail as an easy walk. I would soon discover that “easy” was a relative term.

To be honest, I’m not sure what I thought the hike to the highest peak on the Skyline Drive would entail. I followed the preparation instructions as best I could. I packed bottles of water, snacks, camera and accompanying batteries, binoculars, wore hiking shoes and a hat. I thought I was all set.

Before reaching the trailhead, I had already stopped at nearly every turnout along the Skyline Drive after I entered Shenandoah National Park at the Swift Run Gap entrance. As usual, I took too many photos.

As I approached the trailhead’s parking area, I could see that I wouldn’t be hiking alone. Parking spaces on both sides of the roadway were at a premium. After all, it was a beautiful fall day for being outdoors.

I stuffed my supplies in the multiple pockets of my hiking vest and headed up the trail. The path’s incline seemed a bit steep for a trail identified as “easy.” I soldiered on, stopping every so often to catch my breath. Unfortunately, the way got steeper and steeper.

I met a few other hikers coming and going along the rocky trail that wound its way nearly two miles to the highest summit in Shenandoah National Park. Hawksbill peak logged in at 4,049 feet above sea level, a mere foothill for the Rocky Mountains. The trail climbed up and through a tinder-dry forest of mixed hardwoods and occasional evergreens. Finally, the trail flattened out, and the vegetation became more brushy and dense. I was near the top.

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Once I saw the stone shelter, I knew I had made it. I scrambled the last 50 yards to the ragged Hawksbill summit and started snapping photos. A man with walking sticks teetered on the precipice while his friend took his picture.

I sat down near them to rest and admire the view. Instantly, the three of us began conversing. The beauty of wilderness tends to meld human hearts. I learned that the man with the walking sticks was named Jim. He had taken on this hike as a mental and physical challenge. In late March, Jim had been hit from behind by a vehicle as he walked along the highway near his home in eastern Pennsylvania. Jim was hurdled through the air like a struck deer and landed on the payment unconscious and severely injured. Both of his arms and legs had compound fractures, and Jim’s abdomen was split open.

First responders didn’t expect Jim to live. A month in the hospital and several operations later followed by another month in rehab, Jim beat the odds. He had had lots of time to think. Jim fondly recalled the year he graduated high school when he had walked the entire 2,184-mile length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

Jim.

He decided that climbing to Hawksbill’s summit would be the perfect way to help heal emotionally from his recent traumatic accident. So with plates and screws in his arms and legs, Jim did just that with only the aid of two walking sticks and his friend Josh. Jim’s broad smile alone evidenced his courage, humility, and accomplishment as he posed for a photo.

It was then that I realized that despite all my huffing and puffing up the mountain, I really had taken the easy trail.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Lessons learned from an 11-year-old

Bearfence Mountain, Shenandoah NP

Atop Bearfence Mountain.

By Bruce Stambaugh

We got the last space in the parking lot. My 11-year-old grandson and I were beginning a hike in nearby Shenandoah National Park.

We had trudged this trail with his entire family a couple of years ago. This time the two of us would do the trek on our own terms and in our own time. Clearly, though, we wouldn’t be alone. The warm sunshine and cool temperatures drew many others to hike in the perfect weather.

I carried snacks and water in my multi-pocketed vest I mostly used for birding and photography. I packed extra batteries for my camera given my history of digitally documenting every step of the way. Davis carried the binoculars.

Our ascent began as soon as we crossed the roadway. Soon we joined the Appalachian Trail that winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains. A stone marker with a metal band identified where our loop trail and the main trail split.

We indeed encountered other hikers, some early birds who were on their way down, and others like ourselves who were ready for the rocky trail ahead. As we climbed, we always had to watch our step. The trail consisted of dirt, stones, terraced steps formed by exposed tree roots, and huge rocks.

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Ascending the summit of Bearfence Mountain is more of a rock scramble than it is a climb. For an 11-year-old, it was child’s play. For a creaky-boned, gimpy-kneed grandfather, it felt like survival.

I struggled to pull myself up the jagged boulders that served as the ridge-top trail. Undulating, rocky outcroppings intermittently protruded above the surrounding forest of oaks, maples, sassafras, wild cherry, and dogwoods.

Davis, on the other hand, bounded catlike up, down, and around the biggest boulders. Rectangular dabs of baby blue paint clearly pointed the way over the exposed bedrock and through narrow crevasses and the many trees. When I dallied, either to catch my breath or to take a photograph, Davis retreated to make sure I was keeping up.

During an easier section of the trail, Davis surprised me with a hiking theory he had developed. He said a team of hikers required five different people.

“You need a photographer,” he said, “who is last in the group because he or she is always taking pictures to document the trip.” I appreciated both his astute observation and his subtle hint at picking up the pace.

A hiking team also needed an explorer to guide the group and who usually took the lead, he continued. I think he had found his calling. The other skilled positions included a writer to record and report about the trip once it is completed, a carrier to tote the equipment, and a collector who gathers samples to research after the expedition.

I thought his comments both profound and practical. However, I quizzed him about the obvious. Weren’t the two of us already doing all of those tasks?

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I guess you’re right. But it’s still easier if you have five.”

As we enjoyed the expansive views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and ate our snacks, other hikers joined us. Butterflies danced in the forest openings and sunbathed on lichen-covered rocks bordered by wildflowers and bright berries. Davis, of course, kept practicing his hiking team concept by being the explorer. He disappeared and reappeared at will.

I didn’t need to ask my grandson what he thought of the day. Davis’ enthusiasm spoke more ardently than any words could. He had enjoyed the outing as much as his pooped Poppy.

Bearfence Mt., Shenandoah NP

The explorer and the photographer.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Summer Colors

Tiger Swallowtail, Silver-spotted Skipper

Summer Colors.

The Big Meadows area of Shenandoah National Park is a big, wide-open prairie-like saddle tucked between the park’s hardwood forests. It’s about midway along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah N.P. According to a park ranger, no one is certain why the meadow is even there. No matter. It is, and the wildlife loves it.

In the summer, Big Meadows is especially a haven for songbirds and insects. Bright and fragrant wildflowers serve as food and habitat for the beautiful butterflies. These thistle blooms were a magnet for this pair of Silver-spotted Skippers and this female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

“Summer Colors” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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