Sunday, March 26, 2017

MD Tuckahoe State Park

My sister Laura and I met at Tuckahoe State Park located mid-way up Maryland's Eastern Shore for a new-to-us loop hike of eight miles along a classic black-water creek. We live several hours apart so our hiking opportunities are not as frequent as we'd like but this was a great spot to meet half way between the Lower Shore and the Lower Susquehanna Valley. I was curious what we'd find on this very early spring day. Only the peepers and leopard frogs are calling in my neck of the woods north of Tuckahoe, so it was a preview (for me) of what will come next week to South-Central Pennsylvania.  

Blue blazes on the east side of the creek, orange blazes on the west side following Pee Wee Trail.

Tuckahoe is unique in that you can hike along hilly terrain for a good workout while enjoying wooded-over Pleistocene sand dunes. The glaciers were north by about a hundred or more miles and never reached this far south, but a cold wind would have been constant, pushing dunes inland with ice-generated weather systems. These dune relics are covered over by loblolly pine, holly, maple, oak, tulip poplar, and hickory. I like to imagine this landscape as Cape Henlopen looks today with its marching dune suffocating the forests along the ocean, but in this case the forest won out, stabilizing the dune system during the interglacial period. Though the Tuckahoe region was never ocean front, it did experience a long period of intergalacial back-flooding when sea levels rose and drowned the Choptank River and all its tributaries including Tuckahoe Creek. 

Quaternary deposits below the dune layer.

All along our hike there were frequent bridge, log, and board crossings over smaller streams. These are incised streams that, like Tuckahoe Creek, are actively down-cutting into the dune formations. At one minor stream crossing we were able to take a peak at an older formation underneath the sand. I'm more familiar with Tertiary formations from my fossil collecting forays on Maryland's Western Shore, so I was surprised to see a familiar face on this side of the Bay!

Cut-leaf toothwort - I usually don't see this blooming until mid-April in my neck of the woods.

Bloodroot

Tuckahoe Creek.

We walked through the Adkins Arboretum trails connected to the blue-blazed Tuckahoe Valley Trail to the east of the main creek and enjoyed stopping to examine the earliest spring tree blossoms including witch hazel and early red maple in the damp woods. The Adkins meadow clearing goat crew was relaxing in the bright and very warm sun. Goats are used to help maintain a system of sand-meadows that trees would otherwise overwhelm. We saw signs of past meadow burns and lots of goat munch as we threaded our way through the Arboretum property. It's a lot of work to keep the trees at bay! Long ago, Native Americans would have maintained the sand meadows with managed burns - just like we do today. But the reason for maintaining the meadows were different then. A healthy meadow produces an abundance of meat, berries, and herbs.  Wild herds of elk and deer would have done the job of goats today, while berries attracted not only people but bears, turkey, and other important animals species. Today we maintain meadows for native plant sanctuaries, pollinators, and bird habitat.

Meadow maintenance goat enjoying the warm sun.

The onset of spring always fascinates me, especially as I continue to investigate how we perceive of time's passing. Humans create structures around our perceptions of time like "four seasons" or phases of the moon. But if we can get out of our own (very limited) way, we can think about time passing differently. The creeks cutting their way down through the ages. The ebb and flow of forests over meadow clearings. These are vast processes that surpass the human-sized parade of seasons and that leave me in awe of Big Time as not just as just a linear trajectory, but as a complex interaction of thousands of small changes in the land. On the way down to meet Laura for today's hike,  I listened to Krista Tippet interview physicist Carlo Rovelli about his new book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. I actually pulled over to write this quote in the journal I carry in my backpack -

 Physics opens windows through which we see far into the distance. What we see does not cease to astound us. We realize that we are full of prejudices and that our intuitive image of the world is partial, parochial, inadequate.


Spotted turtle, Clemmys guttata

Rovelli and Tippet discussed how we think about time as being "used or wasted" and how utterly helpless we are to understand that "wasted" time in one person's eyes can be critically important creative space for another. A basking painted turtle, tiny and elegant on his sunny log in the woods, may not be thinking about how to solve the world's problems, but this unproductive time (to us) is super-critical to his survival even though he doesn't appear to be doing anything. Consider that for 220 million years turtles have basked in the early season's warming rays, light and heat powering up their metabolism. There are processes invisible to us that have ensured that turtles have been around a long time. 

Tree swallow defending a preferred nest site below his perch.

We enjoy watching the return of migratory birds to our area each spring. The osprey have returned as have the tree swallows. We watched several pair of blue iridescent tree swallows attempt to claim and guard nesting boxes in the meadow. The migration of birds has been going on a very long time and we are privileged to see it happening, marking spring and fall in our human minds. Scott Weidensaul, however, asks us to consider migration  not as distinct events that occur only during these two seasons, but as a continuous process through the year and that have spanned millennia. Tree swallows are pouring north from Central America and Mexico. No border fence or wall can stop them. Their flights are paused briefly by mating and rearing young. When all are able to fly, they gorge on late summer's insects, fattening up for the swing south again.
 

Muskrat digging up tasty new roots.

We visited the visitor center at Adkins Arboretum and watched a muskrat digging up deliciously tender new growth from the marshy pond out front of the building. Smaller than a beaver, the muskrat is considered a delicacy meat on the Eastern Shore and there are local festivals to eat it, though neither Laura or I would ever want to eat one. Their slender tails are more like vertical rudders compared to the flat, horizontal paddle of the beaver's tail. When a muskrat swims, its tail fans it along, side to side, gliding in arcs.

An outdoor classroom built over the muskrat's marsh makes a nice viewing platform - can you see him?

All along our hike we listened to frogs. Leopard frogs growled while spring peepers lit up the forest ponds in a boisterous announcement of spring's arrival. We spotted a wood frog, a young green frog, and later heard the deep bass call of bullfrogs as we crossed Tuckahoe Creek to return along the orange blazed Pee Wee Trail.
 
Young green frog.

There's an equestrian center on the Pee Wee Trail side of the creek, so we encountered horses and their riders a few times. We also met up with two fat-tire bike riders and a trail bike rider. Everyone was courteous on this section of multi-use trail. The west side of the creek is hillier than the east and it is not flat with abundant tree roots and steep climbs in and out of side creeks. I was looking recently at a friend's hiking blog where she hiked this loop with her wheelie-carted German shepherd and though we took a lot of the same pictures (!!) on our two different hikes, but the pictures of her dog negotiating this rugged section of the loop was sweet, if not ambitious! See Notes below for link to her picture-filled blog.


Over Tuckahoe Creek on the footbridge at the halfway point.

The trail undulates up and down near and above the main creek and as we went we saw more signs of previous land use. An old hedge row with a few sections of wire fencing. Some crockery pieces. A foundation with a well hole inside. The land that is now the park was once farmland. Tractor parts, a 1940s era pick-up truck wreck, and an old bike littered the woods.  People can change landscapes by simply changing ownership. Landscapes can change, too, according to natural land managers...

An ambitious beaver project with the lodge just meters away.
These beavers have plans.

Over time the area farms became conservation land and recreational space. Agricultural ground was once coastal plain forest where tree cutters and logging operations thrived. Cleared land could be stumped out and cultivated for crops. Much of that rich soil, however, has ended up in the creek over the last century. Tuckahoe Creek once ran very deep and clear. Now it is shallow and silted in and its flood plains are managed by beavers - nature's greatest engineers. We spotted a lodge but no dams. Maybe they'll come later. When they dam creeks, the back pond becomes a safe predator-free space for a lodge. When the dam breaks and the beaver are gone, a beautiful beaver meadow grows in its place. Trees will eventually fill the meadow. Beavers may return, as they have here. What comes around goes around.


An old bike.

The Pee Wee Trail comes out at a paved road that has the orange blazes along the shoulders. A quick mile took us past the equestrian center then on to the dam and the parking areas. I think next time we'll explore the lakeside trail above where we parked. We were pretty hungry and wanted to get to late lunch before rain started falling. It was very humid as we got back to our cars and rain clouds were building in the west. We drove into beautiful Denton on the Choptank River and listed our sightings for the day as we munched on salad and pizza!

Yellow warbler
Tree Swallow
Robin
Cardinal
Bald Eagle
Osprey
Turkey Vultrure
Downy Woodpecker
Mourning Dove
White-breasted Nuthatch
Great Blue Heron
Spring Peepers
Leopard Frog
Green Frog
Wood Frog
Bullfrog
Beaver (sign)
Muskrat


Sisters on a hike!

Notes:

Here's the transcript of Krista Tippet's interview with Carlo Rovelli that I listened to on the way down to Tuckahoe State Park. From the On Being website: https://onbeing.org/programs/carlo-rovelli-all-reality-is-interaction/

Gone Hikin' Blog post about Tuckahoe State Park hiking with an old pup in a wheelie cart.  http://gonehikin.blogspot.com/search/label/MD%20Tuckahoe%20State%20Park

One of my favorite books, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, by Scott Weidensaul (1999).

Saturday, February 25, 2017

MD/DE - C&D Canal Path End-to-End Hike

Maryland's section of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Path

The full length and fully paved Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Recreational Path is now officially open. It starts in Chesapeake City, Maryland, and ends in Delaware City, Delaware, and is mostly very flat, making this a great place to ride bikes or stroll. I walked the full length of 16 miles (some say 17, others say 14, but my GPS said 16) on President's Day in sixty degree weather. We haven't had winter yet. Though wide and deep nowadays to accommodate modern barges and sea-going vessels, it got its start during the golden age of canal building in the 1820s. 

Rt 213 bridge over Chesapeake City.

The canal was put into private service in 1829 to shorten the distance between maritime industries in the Chesapeake Bay with Wilmington and its busy industrial seaport areas.  Built originally for shallow draft barges and sailing ships at ten feet deep with four locks, horses and mules were employed to tow the vessels from one end to other. By 1927 the canal was deepened to 12 feet , widened to 90 feet, and ownership transferred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Several expansions have occurred since, and today the canal is 27 feet deep and over 450 feet wide to accommodate sea-going vessels to shorten by 300 miles the distance from Baltimore to the Atlantic via the Delaware River. 

Tug pushing a barge.

The expansions of the 1930s triggered studies by U.S. Army Corps of Engineer hydrologists who were interested in how water dynamics had been affected between the Delaware and Chesapeake. They discovered that there was a net flow of water from the Chesapeake to the Delaware, and that even with the daily oscillation of tides, there was always more water flowing east than west. My walk took about five hours (including a snack break) and I watched the canal flowing reliably eastward even with an incoming high tide that raised the level of the canal but did not affect its flow. When I returned home, I checked my observations against a 1971 paper by Pritchard and Cronin, University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Lab, that used the original 1938 report to compare how hydrology had been affected by the most recent expansions.

The iconic Army Corps of Engineers trestle lift bridge.

Cronin, the hydrologist, measured an increased volume rate of flow from the Chesapeake to the Delaware at 2.70 times the rate measured by the 1938 study. In addition he noted increased velocities of water moving east. Averaging against the annual tidal variations and seasonal adjustments, he estimated that the current had increased 1.7 times faster with the canal at twenty-seven feet deep compared to twelve feet in 1938. Pritchard, the biologist, wondered how these changes affected the estuarine ecologies of the Delaware and Chesapeake. He measured salinity gradients, turbulence, and conducted biological surveys of the canal at both ends and in its mid-section. Would the canal serve as a barrier or a boon to fish species and populations? 

Ocean-going ship passes under the Rt 301 bridge.

They discovered large numbers of striped bass eggs and larvae in the canal as well as an increased number of spring spawning fish including perch, shad, and spot that swam "upstream" against the new currents from the Delaware. The canal had become an attraction to migratory fish, benefiting the Upper Chesapeake.  Pritchard and Cronin noted that the canal had become a rather dramatic example of an engineering activity which has created a new biological environment as well as an improved shipping route."  In the years since this paper, a thriving striped bass fishery has developed as a result. The canal expansion, which had initially worried local environmentalists, had resulted in an increase in fish species and numbers at both ends of the canal, while providing a new migratory route connecting the two bodies of water.

The Ridge, a natural hill structure about two miles in width is bisected by the canal.

The C&D is a dynamic system both for estuarine life and for management. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must constantly assess the canal for shoaling, the accumulation of bottom mud and sand that form ship-stopping banks. This requires periodic maintenance dredging which happens every few years, and the spoils can be a lot of fun to pick through for fossils. Though the canal path does not cross through any of the dredge dump areas, it is an easy side trip by car to reach them. Keep in mind that between dredging, these piles are picked over by fellow fossil enthusiasts but word of fresh material travels quickly. We've found come impressive Cretaceous oyster shells, belemnites, and small shark teeth. During the time these deposits were forming hadrosaurs and mosasaurs were common.

Map courtesy of The Fossil Guy, http://www.fossilguy.com/sites/canal/
 
Though the canal path for most of its length is flat, there is one two-mile stretch of hilly terrain that bears some mention - and some time to explore. "The Ridge" as a local hiker pointed out to me, is a low set of hills made of unconsolidated Cretaceous sands and gravels where vegetation is critical to the maintenance of the canal. These hills, once high sand dunes and wind-driven features, still retain their open coastal profiles for anyone wanting to imagine the period of opening oceans and rising sea levels. Covered in a beautiful forest of pitch pine and coastal plain hardwoods, the ridge area proved the biggest challenge to canal builders as time when forest cover was scant and tons of loose material would cascade in dangerous "sand-falls" into the work area. Known as the Deep Cut where canal builders encountered The Ridge, three and half million cubic yards of material was removed from the sand hills. As they worked to remove the sand from what would be the canal basin, tons of the material slid in from the sides. It was dangerous and frustrating work.

Aerial crossing for natural gas pipelines.

Today the area around Lums Pond State Park is preserved and open for the public to explore as well as areas west of Rt 1 bridge. Various dirt roads lead from the main roads in to the sand hills with parking areas, sometimes trashed, that lead to trails and open areas to go birding and plant gazing. It's a tough area to make home as the ground is loose and shifting. "Be prepared for lots of mud and the possibility of getting your car stuck," said my hiking friend, Sarah. Best to check this out during a dry period, eh? Meanwhile along the path, a steady bank of locust trees provided a large local black vulture population with plenty of places to soak up the warm afternoon sun. I happen to love vultures (sometimes to the point of distraction) so as I stood admiring them, my hiking friend decided to turn around and head back to Chesapeake City. Soon I was at the boundary with Lums Pond that has a beautiful new parking area, picnic benches, and a (locked!) bathroom.

Lots of black vultures in trees along the path.
Bridge gazing! Wow! Rt. 1 and St. Georges Bridges.

I was bridge-gazing all along the path. These big bridges soar high over the canal to give room to the huge ocean-going ships. They really are works of art in engineering and design, each one a little different with its own unique profile and character. High level traffic bridges have their own followers and I met two men on bikes who were photographing the bridges as they went. I learned way more than I ever though possible about high level engineering. Some people chase trains. These guys find high bridges and are really excited with them. They were really about adding the Summit Bridge, the U.S.A.C.E. trestle bridge, and Reedy Point Bridge to their photo-list. "Being able to bike under them is a thrill!" one biker told me. My only stop of the hike came at the Summit North Marina where I watched the University of Delaware Research Vessel, Joanne Daiber, undergo an inspection before returning her t the water for the new season.

University of Delaware R/V Joanne Daiber.
Marina store and picnic area rest stop.

I stopped in at the just-opened marina store for a snack and drink. The counter clerk was busy restocking a shelf of gum and candy bars. I asked her about the new canal path and what it might mean for business. She grinned ear-to-ear. "It's been great already - even before they completed the whole tract - but now it will be even better." She told me about how many bike riders make this their halfway stop on the end-to-end ride. I told her I was walking end-to-end and she looked at me incredulously. "You are walking it? The whole thing? Wow. I guess we need to think about hikers too!"  This is an important point - the economic benefit of paths and trails is often overlooked when our "so-called" political and policy leadership debates the merit of funding and protecting outdoor recreation sites, conservation lands, and open space. A six-billion dollar recreational/outdoor industry that continues to grow in this country is not to be ignored. The canal path alone, according to the store clerk, a University of Delaware graduate student, will generate interests in new businesses in canal path towns. Given its proximity to large areas of the Mid-Atlantic's population, she said, it's really an opportunity for new lodging, eateries, bike rentals, and parks. 

Welcome to Delaware City!

Another hour and I was entering Delaware City where my daughter and her family were meeting me for dinner and a ride back to Chesapeake City where I left my car.  The newly restored promenade path blended perfectly with the canal path and I walked along a remnant of the old canal that splits from the main C&D. The old town was beautiful in the low February sun and soon I was facing the broad Delaware River facing New Jersey with Pea Patch Island and its impressive fort in between. 

Delaware City - a beautiful and active old canal town.
The town has invested seriously in its waterfront park and main street. The American Birding Association has moved its national headquarters here. Fort Delaware State Park maintains a scenic ferry tour to the island in season at the end of the old canal and the south side of the old canal is left to bird-filled marshes. My family arrived and we decided to have dinner at the Delaware City Hotel where we sat in an 1820s hotel pub for seafood and hush puppies. Perfect ending to a long day on the canal path.
 
 
Notes:

The canal path goes by several names along its length: The Ben Cardin Trail in Chesapeake City, Maryland, C&D Recreational Trail between the terminus towns, and the Michael Castle Trail in Delaware City. Large parts of the canal area are protected as the C&D Canal Wildlife Area, under the management of the Delaware Department of Fish and Wildlife. http://www.dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/Hunting/Documents/WMA%20Maps%202016/CD%20Canal%20-%20Castle%20Trail.pdf

 Donald Pritchard and L. Eugene Cronin presented their paper "Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Affects Environment," at the American Society of Civil Engineers Conference for National Water Resources in 1971.  http://aquaticcommons.org/4513/1/447.pdf

The Fossil Guy web page gives the local fossil hunter plenty leads for where and how to search for C&D Canal dredge spoil fossils. http://www.fossilguy.com/sites/canal/

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

PA - Oakland Run Hike on the Mason-Dixon Trail

Now that I'm recovering after almost seven weeks of colds, allergies, and more colds, I took to the President's Day Weekend with more energy than I've had since New Year's Day. This year's hiking theme is "Bridges not Barriers" and I decided to find trails that would offer some insight and inspiration. My first hike of the weekend was local, a section of the Mason-Dixon Trail known for it's steep creek climbs. The second hike was a seventeen-mile crossing from Maryland into Delaware along the newly completed C&D Canal trail (it goes by three different names depending on where you are) from Chesapeake City, MD, to Delaware City, DE - from the bay to the river. 

Mason-Dixon Trail Out and Back:  Lock 12 to (almost) Posey Road, York County, PA - 8 miles

Mason-Dixon Trail climbs the Mill Run valley on a very old wagon path.

The two hundred mile-long Mason-Dixon Trail starts in the west near Whiskey Springs on Appalachian Trail or, in the east, from the Brandywine Museum at Chadds Ford, both in Pennsylvania, but it makes a big loop into Maryland in between. The section I did today, I've detailed before on this blog. I started at Lock 12 on the Susquehanna River in York County, PA, with my goal to top out at Posey Road near the PA Game Commission parking area about five miles north. An up and back would give me ten miles, but by four miles in I was feeling weary - partly due to the many weeks of being sick and partly do to being out of shape for this rigorous adventure up and out of the deep ravines of the River Hills. 

Looking north along the Susquehanna, a major river barrier to westward settlement.

The first steep climb begins with a beautiful walk into the Mill Run Valley along an old mill road. A steep section of switchbacks leads up, up, up out of the scenic stream ravine on to a sharp ridge of folded gneiss where I looked out to the north and east over the Susquehanna River. This was an unreachable wilderness in the late 1600s and early 1700s as the river crossing was dangerous, wide, and often guarded by local native people who challenged settlers to come no further. For those who eventually made the crossing the greatest challenge was how to climb the river hill cliffs and bluffs. Few wagons could make the rocky, steep passage to the plateau above. By the 1720s intrepid road builders had carved wagon paths along some stream ravines. 

Folded and metamorphosed banded gneiss.

The trail continues along narrow ledges cut more recently by trail crews and drops back down to the McCalls Ferry Road (dirt). Just above the 1920s-hydro dam at Holtwood marks the ferry crossing, a cable and pole raft that carried wagons and horses across a shallows. This was how folks crossed the river for nearly 100 years until the first log and timber bridges were built. Few of these structures, however, survived the violent spring floods. Once the bridges at Columbia-Wrightsville and Rock Run were constructed high atop  sturdy stone footings and abutments in the 1850s, would cross-river traffic become dependable. 

Empty fish passage at Holtwood Dam.

I followed the blue blazes along the McCalls Ferry Road past Holtwood Dam. The water was high and starting to seep over the flash-panel gates. The sirens blew twice to alert everyone downstream that the water would be rising soon. The spring high water marked the start of fish migrations. There are a series of dams on the Susquehanna that block passage of migratory fish now. Once famously  known for the magnificent Atlantic shad runs, the dams make it nearly impossible for these fish to make it up the first twenty miles of river past Harrisburg. Conowingo, Holtwood, Safe Harbor, and York Haven dams all pose significant barriers to fish passage. It's a problem we've struggled with for a century. Needless to say, the great shad runs don't happen this far north any more. By the time I came back this way two hours later, water was roaring over the entire dam, but the fish passage remains closed. 

Ice-damaged trunk.

About a mile further along the road the trail dips down at a Mason-Dixon marker to the bank of the river and the last summer cottage that remains standing along an old road that was once lined with fishing cabins and summer homes. I wandered around old foundations and pilings and wondered about the last holdout. The energy company wants these places gone and when the life leases run out on them, they are demolished, burned, and hauled away. I came to the McCall's Ferry site where cable rafts connected York County to Lancaster County. The old trees at the landing all show significant ice damage, though we haven't had a winter this year. 

Ice wrappings.

Some of these old trees, their wide trunks at the water's edge, are still wrapped in ice from colder days and nights. They won't see the sun here until well into March. I remember playing on the ice fields here as a child, when the ice jams were so high and jagged! We haven't had that kind of freeze in decades. 

Common merganser and Canada geese.

Rhododendron tunnels.

The trail leaves the old ferry landing road and veers up the hill to the overlook at Oakland Run. Still in winter shade, this rugged valley can be cold on a warm day, so I found myself pulling down my sleeves and zipping up my jacket to shuffle through the tunnels of north-facing slopes of rhododendron. 

Looking out to the river from the Oakland Run section of the Mason Dixon Trail.
No old road to follow - just narrow trail.

Oakland Run is a beautiful but steep and rocky valley. It takes some effort to maneuver around the outcrops and ledges. Waterfalls and drops are all along this section, so I took some time to dawdle and investigate the cold water for trout. The climb up out of the creek is slippery and high-stepping from ledge to ledge. By the time I was two miles up into the valley I was beat! I decided to stop and have lunch on a sunny outcrop high above the stream. After eating I didn't have the energy to go on. Seven weeks of non-stop colds and allergies have done me in. I started back the way I came, enjoying how the slanting sun had changed the color of the water and the shadows on opposite ridge.

Winter sun and shadows on Oakland Run.

I met one birder coming up the valley who had never been here before. He was entranced and eager to explore the higher reaches. When I got to the old ferry road, a hiker with three dogs was happily making his way up. "This is a tough section of the trail," he said. I agreed - still huffing and puffing from my descent. Back on main road, I decided to walk the two miles back to Lock 12 along the river. Through the trees I could see the old Tidewater Canal built in the 1830s that floated canal boats from far upriver with their cargoes all the way to Havre de Grace, MD, forty miles south. 

Old canal bed now serves as an amphibian paradise.

The canal was active until the 1850s but storms, ice, and railroads put most of the Susquehanna canal system out of business. For those sections that still hold water, wood ducks and frogs claim the ponds in spring. As I finished my road hike to the car, I heard the first spring peepers calling from the canal in the low, February sun. I pulled out my journal and wrote -

Yesterday's barriers overcome, roads, bridges, canals, and someday the dams, will return to the migrations of shad. Tomorrow's barriers are unknown, but even so, today the spring peeper sings at sundown while tonight the tundra swans will bugle, winging north along the river path.

 


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

VA: Theodore Roosevelt Island and Words of a Great President

TR, twenty feet tall.

It's been calculated that Teddy Roosevelt conserved, on average, 84,000 acres per day while serving as U.S. president from 1901 through 1908. It seemed kind of strange then, at least to me, that this small island in the middle of the Potomac River in the heart of Washington, D.C. with a two mile circular loop trail around a few hundred acres is the best that we could do to honor him. It was a cold, miserable day to hike. I had a bad cold and was miserable but needed the hike. So maybe my disappointment at the start was me feeling low. The rest of me was tired from having tried (and failed) to follow and understand the first chaotic week of an inexperienced and bombastic new president. We're in for a long few years, I worried as I began my walk around the island.

Along the Virginia side of the Potomac River, park at the small, free lot on the George Washington Parkway.


The grayness of the morning played against the muted tones of winter. The river moved swiftly around the upstream point of the island as the trail threaded through a jumble of sharp gneiss boulders. A great blue heron rested in a copse of trees cut from the island by cross-currents. A north wind bore down on the point of the island forcing ducks and geese to shelter behind exposed roots. I was shivering from the inside out with a low grade fever. Press on. That's what Teddy would've done!


Clean and sharp - gneiss outcrop marks the Fall Line.

A moment in gray - Great Blue Heron.


The island reads like a book of American history. Archeological evidence shows the island occupied by Native Peoples who fished and encamped here up until the 1600s. Planters and farmers eventually laid claim to the rich soils and built their homes here. John Mason, son of the Virginia Bill of Rights author George Mason, turned the island into a plantation where enslaved people managed crops, manicured gardens, and a Revival-style mansion house - all gone. During the Civil War the island was appropriated by the Union Army and quartered the 1st United Stated Colored Troops, freemen and escaped slaves who served the northern cause. The cold mist of the morning made it easy to imagine ghosts and long-ago conversations mingled with sounds of the river caressing rocks and roots.


Trail running race thundered across the swamp boardwalk.


Crayfish chimney.

Like many of the river islands I explore closer to home on the Susquehanna, Teddy Roosevelt Island is cut across by the Fall Line that marks the division between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain on the Potomac. The perimeter trail weaves through an impressive ledge of schist that drives into the river in one direction and climbs into the woods of the island in the other. Everything below this ledge is composed of soft river sediments and swampy ground. It made me giggle to think of the President dragging his many visitors and staff out to the river for his famous nature hikes through swamps and creek ravines. Near here is where Teddy took his customary mile out-and-back swim in the river each morning - in any weather and season. I looked over at the bustling Washington City with its traffic and Capitol buildings while a red-bellied woodpecker chattered and hammered away overhead, raining bits of bark and debris down on my head. 


Cypress and "knees" - adapted root structures.
Waterfowl sheltering in the swamp.

While Teddy is best known as our first conservation president, I've always been interested in what he did after he served in office. Sometimes what former presidents do in "retirement" speaks more to their character than while in service, their lives unclouded by political storm. He never slowed down, and this is no surprise. A life-long naturalist and outdoorsman, he traveled (and almost died) while exploring the mysterious River of Doubt in South America. He hunted in Africa and botanized on the savannas.  He wrote scores of papers on ornithology, natural history, and political science. He remained the people's president and became quite a thorn in the side of Woodrow Wilson who was determined to keep the U.S. neutral during WWI. He was a Progressive through-and-through and, run out of the Republican Party, and served as a candidate for the Bull Moose Party to give Wilson a run for his money. The idea of moose seemed possible to me as the trail moved into the swampy interior of the island. Though evidence of Alces alces americana have never been found in Northern Virginia, there is evidence that shows Paleoindians hunted caribou, moose, elk, and mastodon in other parts of the state at a time when high mountain tundra and cold grasslands were common.


A back swamp basin of the island interior.

Foraging flocks of robins noisily worked their way along the boardwalk.

My cold was dragging me down so I slowed my pace and loitered on the long boardwalk that cut through the swamp. An early morning trail race thundered by - it wasn't even 8am yet! I pulled another fleece out of my backpack and pulled it over my other two layers. I sat and watched a sharp-shinned hawk harass a flock of robins. Gold finches whispered by. A pileated woodpecker went to serious work on the base of a gum tree. Another group of runners bounded past and scared the big woodpecker away. Teddy would have loved observing this amount of early morning physical activity among people of all ages competing in the cold!

Pileated woodpecker work.

I took a side path to the center height of the island where Teddy, twenty feet tall in bronze, is giving one of his inspirational oratories. I sat a long while on a cold stone bench and read some of Teddy's letters to the Kansas City Star, a popular paper with whom he had landed a nice post-presidential writing gig. He had been hard at President Wilson's heels, angry to the point of distraction that America stood by while her allies in France, Belgium, and the UK fought desperately to push back German aggressors. Our country was unprepared for war, either to defend our own shores or to assist friends in need. By the time the U.S. entered the war near its end in 1917, Teddy was ready to lead a battalion into battle (but Wilson's Secretary of War refused him the opportunity). All four of Teddy's sons joined American Forces and one, Quentin, made the ultimate sacrifice in an air battle over France. The loss of his son, said many family friends and admirers, aged Roosevelt by twenty years. Gone was his vitality and youthful enthusiasm for adventure and determined sense of civic service. I tucked the book back into my backpack and walked slowly around the memorial, reading carefully each of the tall stone blocks inscribed with iconic quotes.

Youth.


Nature.


Manhood.


The State.

I thought as I walked that it might behoove our present administration and newly appointed officials to make a similar pilgrimage through this island memorial and take in, carefully and thoughtfully, the words of TR. I'll leave these words here, too, from the letters I was reading on that cold stone bench...


The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.  

- TR, Kansas City Star, May 18, 1918


Notes: 

My reading for the day is from the excellent book Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War by J. Lee Thompson (2013). There are a few interpretive signs scattered around the island to learn about its history, but birding here is excellent. Bring binocs and a guidebook!