Thursday, August 28, 2014

Summer Pelagic 2014

Aboard the Thelma Dale V for a summer pelagic.  Dennis chose to sit. I chose to fling myself across the deck.

This past weekend George, Anna, and I climbed aboard the Thelma Dale V in the middle of the night in Lewes, Delaware. We claimed our main deck bench-seat berths with about twenty others who bunked inside. Many folks climbed the ladder to the topdeck and spread out their sleeping bags  under the stars/spray/rain,/wind. My birding and PhD mentor Dr. Dennis Kirkwood was also along and I was so happy to share this trip with him! We've been friends since the 1980s and he was one of the people I blame credit for my going into doctoral research.

Sunrise over the Baltimore Canyon.

We launched for the open ocean at 11pm roaring out, bumping and pitching along for five hours to reach our destination somewhere off the MD/DE coast with  6000' of Atlantic Ocean below us. We ate graham crackers and pop tarts. A lot of graham crackers and pop tarts. And drank a lot of  ginger ale. Both son George and I have served aboard various craft during our lives (schooners/patrol boats) and we gave Anna all the advice she needed on how not to get sick. It worked! 

Looking for Leach's Storm Petrel at dawn.

As soon as the captain cut the engines at 0530 everyone jumped up out of their bunks and the men ran out the side hatches while the women ran to the head (toilet) out the back hatch.  Essential business complete, suited up in jackets, cameras, binocs, crackers,  we took up positions around the ship to watch for very early morning birds. I enjoyed the sunrise most of all. There is nothing - absolutely nothing - as beautiful as a sunrise on the open ocean. 

George and Anna enjoying the relative calm of dawn.

The spotters called Leach's  Storm Petrel very early and while I did see them, the light was so poor that I didn't feel confident counting them - even though they would have been the first life bird of the day. I'll give myself another trip before I can confidently call a Leach's on my own. One of the risks of birding with lots of folks calling out species is the temptation to count a bird because someone else called said it was so. I prefer to really know the identifying characteristics well enough so that I am confident to call the bird myself. I wasn't disappointed though since the Leach's is known for its early morning appearances only to disappear for the rest of the day just at sunrise, and - why - it's an excuse to come out again! I'll be ready next time. I did count quite a few Wilson's Storm Petrels, legs danging, feet pattering on the water.

Wilson's Storm Petrel - note legs hanging out beyond tail.

I noted  throughout the day that the sky was constantly changing. I love cloud photography and sometimes it was a challenge to stay focused on the birds when the sky was putting on such a show! The shift of light, the trains of clouds rolling westward on easterly winds, mist-then-sun-then-rain-then-sky shows overhead were so distracting! I think I may have missed the Great Shearwater because I was gawking at the clouds. Hurricane Cristobal was churning way out there somewhere, giving a steady pulse of easterly winds which meant some rain and cloudy weather for folks ashore. While we did get showered on, the cloud formations were dramatic as they always are in hurricane season, and I couldn't keep from watching them as much as for pelagic birds! 

Cloud photography is my secret passion.

Cory's Shearwater was the first life bird of the trip. The sun rose higher and the light improved and I was able to see clearly the size and colors of this beautiful big glider. I couldn't do Life Bird Dance I (like a Win-The-Lottery-Dance only better) in the narrow space I had along the covered starboard main deck. It would have looked like a series of graceful pirouettes with a little hop at the end in case you are curious. This is a big shearwater, the biggest in the Atlantic. Stocky and broad-winged, these birds appeared several times throughout the day, sometimes following the boat at chumming spots, sometimes gliding up into powerful upstrokes topping out in graceful wheels to return to the ship. I was very comfortable identifying this species on my own once I was able to study a few birds in flight in good light.

Cory's Shearwater flying through a mid-morning shower.

Cory's Shearwater wheeling by.

Cory's Shearwater in wing molt showing off it's slightly bent wings in glide mode.

The Audubon's Shearwater was the second life bird of the trip, but the top deck pitched and rolled so much that I couldn't do my Life Bird Dance II (similar to a Backpacking Summit Dance) without crashing into people. It would have looked like a leaping cheer for a field goal in case you are curious. Audubon's Shearwater is often observed feeding in the mats of Sargassum that drift along in the warm Gulf Stream waters, so I was careful to watch for the streamers of seaweed that drifted past on the swells. This bird was bathing, nosing about in the weed, and pretty much giving us a show. It took off and wheeled elegantly overhead. It nests on rocky islands in the Caribbean and is almost never seen from shore. In a hurry to bobble across the deck to see it closer as the ship turned to starboard, I crashed into a nice guy taking its picture. That was not meant to be a Life Bird Dance!

Audubon's Shearwater bathing in the swells.

During the slow periods I caught up on Dennis' life and he with mine. He was pretty glad (as am I!) that I'm in the final phase of my PhD work. I was pretty glad (as was he) that he is retired from his long career in an administrative education position. He has been traveling the world leading birding trips and spending more time on his beloved farm. It's funny how when we run into old friends we just pick up where we left off.

Dr. Dennis Kirkwood and George, both fine naturalists on sea and land!

I did a lot of people watching too. Some folks were (like us) totally absorbed in the watch - searching for elusive birds that are found only out here in the open ocean. Pelagic birding is pretty intense. Try maintaining your balance on a rocking deck while taking pictures or looking through binoculars at a shearwater flying loop-de-loops like a jet fighter or a storm petrel disappearing behind a swell to just vanish - forever. Then there were the poor souls who were a little queezy (not eating their crackers obviously) head between knees, but still on the top deck, peeping out from their misery to catch a glimpse of a bird. There were the determined ones who were somewhat sick but who didn't want to miss anything, wedged into the benches below, looking out across the rails, maybe standing over the rails to...well, you know why.  And the spotters and guides  doing the Stance-Dance - a skill I need to practice.

The Stance-Dance.

Our guides and spotters never let up - always scanning and checking ID's.

My people watching instantly ended when someone hollered "Jaeger! Jaeger!" and almost without thinking I started taking pictures at a muscled, striped rocket that blew past the ship. The guide did his best lemming-in-distress squeal and the arctic bird stalled midair to listen. It turned its head and began to drift backwards to check out the sound of food, then thought better of it. I caught it in my binoculars and nailed the grey striped flanks and underwings, a powerful chest, and tern-like acrobatics. Another life bird! This time I did Life Bird Dance III which looked like a drunken sailor trying to do the twist. It worked. Three's the charm. I got a small round of applause.  

Long-tailed Jaeger! Life Bird Three for the trip!

The beauty of pelagic birding is the solitude of the open ocean and the sheer vastness of space in which open sea birds roam. The hunt for food is constant and directs every flap of wing. The crew provided chum (diced fish and fish oil) to try to entice birds to feed near the ship. Tubenosed birds, like petrels and shearwaters have an excellent sense of smell. Predicting where and when the large streamers of food-rich Sargassum may be is made a little easier by understanding how the ocean contains rivers that contain streams that course around upwellings. Knowing where the continental shelf slopes into the canyon is key.  The edge is always a good place to be whether on sea or land. The ecotone between deep waters, the slope, and the shelf is much like a transition area that borders forest and meadow. That's where the food is -  great clouds of plankton and schools of small fish. We stayed on the edge for most of the day.

Portuguese Man-O-War under sail.

I was once on a half-day pelagic trip out of Nova Scotia to see puffins and skuas with a wonderful birder Susan, who I will never forget (she was a nun at a nearby Buddhist monastery)  mentioned how much more she saw on the ocean than on land. I stuck close to her and that day we saw so many things, but no birds! The food sources were far away, and so were the birds. While some hard-core birders were disappointed (even asking for their money back!) Susan and I, however, were over-the-moon about having seen humpback whales, a school of flying fish, an enormous ray, and a Greenland shark (!!!). Oh - and the clouds!  I think that's where I learned to appreciate the spiritual quality of clouds at sea.

The back and dorsal fin of a large fin whale can be seen just as she spouted near her calf.

On today's trip George, Anna, and I saw  a fin whale calf burst from her ocean world to explore the sky three times, while her very large Mom spouted reassuringly nearby. It was Anna's first whale sighting - she did The Dance! George saw flying fish. Then there was the Portuguese Man-O-War off the stern that cruised alongside and through chum slick and hoisted his sail for distant seas. A Life Jellyfish! Is there a dance for that?  Then there was this... Hmm. Aren't Great Whites migrating south about now?

An unidentified swimmer - sporting an impressive dorsal fin!

We roared home for most of the afternoon. I looked forward to seeing birds that hang close to shore and by four p.m. there were a few gulls following the boat. Cape Henlopen came into sight as I noticed a family group of cormorants winging inland. Laughing gulls escorted us into the mouth of the Delaware. Ospreys stood guard on every channel marker. Thelma Dale swung slowly into the Lewes Canal and we were home.  What a great trip this was - I can't wait to do a winter pelagic!

Home by 5 after 18 hours at seas - Lewes Canal.


More on Sargassum communities of the Gulf Stream from NOAA:

Link to See Life Paulagics, offering Mid-Atlantic trips as well as trips beyond our region -

Here's the ship we took out of Lewes, Thelma Dale V. (Thanks Anita for the pic!)

There are different boats for different trips depending on where the trip launches from. Thanks again to Paul and Anita for a great time!

Friday, August 22, 2014

An Eastern Prairie Meadow Returns!

The Longwood Gardens meadow restoration project has finally opened to the public! I was privileged to join fellow horticulture and agriculture educators on a tour of the 88 acre Eastern shortgrass prairie and meadow site on Thursday in Pennsylvania to discuss K-12 curriculum and undergrad research ideas and, most importantly,  how to transfer this as a long-term project model to school campuses. I don't think we got through the agenda because the Wow Factor was just too Wow! I walked through this incredible ecological restoration and couldn't think of anything to say. None of us could. There were no words!

Joe Pye was over our heads!

The eastern meadow habitat type is an endangered community in the Mid-Atlantic. Viewed as waste places and quick to be developed, the eastern prairie meadow has all but disappeared from our semi-wild agro-ecological landscapes. Hundreds of years ago Native Americans managed meadows with regular burning of forested glades and grasslands. These human-managed landscapes provided grazing habitat for elk, eastern wood bison, and white tailed deer, animals important to Susquehannock and Lenni Lenape people. Plants from the meadows provided an abundance of berries, tubers, buds, herbs, and flowers for food and medicinal purposes. In terms of Native American pharmacology, eastern meadow / short grass prairies served as the medicine chest of native people for thousands of years.
Landscape paintings everywhere I turned! Wyeth is close...

Ecological restoration involves a team of biologists and landscape engineers, and Longwood spared no expense in re-creating what would have been a lush and welcomed sight to early settlers and native people long on the land. But what we see today did not undergo a 'natural' process at all!  The severe erosion from the past was addressed with landscape engineering. Propagation of common as well as rare meadow plants and grasses was undertaken by students, horticulturalists, and plant biologists in dedicated greenhouse space - some species taking years of careful management.

Bryan and Tony discuss student research project sites for undergrads at UDel.

Soils, damaged and weakened by centuries of moldboard plowing and erosion, were restored at the surface and sub-surface creating an unseen tapestry of interrelated bio-geo-chemical functions. Agronomists and landscape architects worked together to restore the integrity this prairie meadow's foundation. After hearing about all the STEM folks who worked together to make this long-term restoration happen, a group member pulled this from his pocket and read it aloud as we stood at the peak of a hill looking down through the breeze-swept valley:

I leave the formal garden of schedules
where hours hedge me, clip the errant sprigs
of thought, and day after day, a boxwood
topiary hunt chases a green fox
never caught. No voice calls me to order
as I enter a dream of meadow, kneel
to earth and, moving east to west, second
the motion only of the sun. I plant
frail seedlings in the unplowed field, trusting
the wildness hidden in their hearts. Spring light
sprawls across false indigo and hyssop,
daisies, flax. Clouds form, dissolve, withhold
or promise rain. In time, outside of time,
the unkempt afternoons fill up with flowers.
- Mary Makofske

Wolf tree is evidence of this place having been meadow in the past.

After the poem, we stood for some time under the shade of an old oak. Known as 'wolf trees', tree elders are protected in this project. These are trees that grew open to the sun without competition from other trees or shrubs at a time when cattle grazed and sheep roamed the valley. Farmers left certain trees to grow for they provided shade for animals as well as protection from wind and rain. Their limbs reach out and up as if embracing the whole valley. There are several wolf trees to visit, some with benches or low limbs to sit upon. 

A warm and cool season grass mix carpets the meadow.

We learned about the unique mix of Mid-Atlantic warm and cool season grasses that combine their growing seasons to make the meadow a growing year-round habitat for birds, rodents, insects, and grazing animals. Cool names like Canada bluejoint, redtop, crinkled hairgrass, purpletop, gamagrass, sideoat, deer tongue, and bluestem made a poem all their own as a botanist read off the species found here. I can't wait to come back to sketch and photograph the architecture of native grasses in winter. 

Green heron scratches an itch!

The important thing to remember about a prairie meadow is that it must be maintained with fire. Fire-adapted species abound in our eastern woodlands and glades, but we've been so long suppressing fire and thinking of it as 'bad' for the environment, we've lost sight of the fact that many grassland species have evolved with cyclical burning either from human-managed burns of hundreds and thousands of years, or lightening-caused blazes over millions of years. Ecological preservationists have come a long way in changing the public mind about the use of fire as a management tool and it will be interesting to see how this translates to large scale burns in this area. I thought too about how maintenance burns could be used on small scale projects and what kind of professional education would be needed to enlighten campus maintenance and landscape managers.   

Grass-leaved goldenrod

And then the goldenrod. Oh the goldenrods! Where do I start? Such a tangled web they weave. Even the native plant expert had to check her key and books several times. Add to that, she said, they love to hybridize. I was thinking what a great taxonomy activity this would make for students of all ages! And it seemed every species had its own spider, which to me made it more fun. Again, I need to come back and just look for goldenrod spiders. Some snaps that I took while walking with the group:

Evening Primrose

Cardinal Flower

Black-eyed Susan

Assassin Bug.

Bryan assured us there were over fifteen species of native warm season grasses in this view.

It's now mid-August and the meadow and woods are starting to yellow.

The paths through the meadow connect with spurs that lead to listening areas where the full experience of a living prairie can be heard. Sitting on a bench with the woods or a single tree to your back funnels sound and even, I thought, amplifies it. Eighty-eight acres of singing, rasping, chirping, buzzing tapestry brings to the fore the fact that these are not waste places in the least: meadows are entirely alive as one organism, a living landscape that uses sound and color to communicate "We're All In This Together!"


The Meadow Garden is now open to the public at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA:

Specifically on an agroecological approach to restored landscapes:

Eastern shortgrass prairie and prairie meadows are not recognized in this book, favoring instead the much larger landscape scale prairies of the Northern Plains, Mid-West, and Southern Plains, but as a Peterson Guide this gives you an idea of the diversity of life found in open land:

Stephen Jones and Ruth Carol Cushman (2004) Peterson Field Guide to The North American Prairie.
Houghton Mifflin Co

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

MD Mason Dixon Trail - Map 7: Northeast to Perryville, MD

Saturday August 9, 2014:  Northeast MD to Perryville MD, 11 miles

Kim and I continued on our Mason Dixon Trail this past Saturday to complete the MDT  from Chadd's Ford PA to Northeast, Maryland, a trek we started Memorial Day Weekend and will continue until we finish all 200 miles of this National Heritage Trail. Today's section completes the last reach of MDT east of the Susquehanna.  Map # 7 shows a fairly straight trek of 11 miles, a nice mix of road walking (oh, how we've gotten used to this!) and what was described as a well-marked path through sandy pine woods, grasslands, and barrens. Think bobwhite, woodcock, turkey, wildflowers!  By 5 o'clock in the afternoon the map was crunched into a ball and stuffed into my cargo pocket. We called it the Stupid Map, Joke Map, Map of Lies, the Map of No Use. Kim and I ate our end-of-the-trail celebratory ice cream and snowball in exhausted silence. Then we started laughing. What else could we do? 

MDT does not pass by the most scenic views.

 "When the situation is hopeless, there's nothing to worry about." 
Edward Abbey, 
The Monkey Wrench Gang, 1975.

Now I'll say this up front: Cecil County has some mighty fine natural areas. I've been to a few, I've seen them myself. But DO NOT HIKE this MDT section if you want to see any of those. The trail crosses behind an iffy-at-best trailer park after walking a road mile in search of the sandy path into a mixed deciduous and pine woods. Here is where I had my first sad. The trail is used as one long unending community dump. Throw in a couple of mean dogs and a lot of squalor.  Note to MDT Club:  Relocate the trail!

Blue blazes look more like lichen.

Leaving mean dogs, trash, trailer park behind we followed what we thought was the MDT through a set of confusing loops and connectors courtesy of said trailer park's four-wheeler riders, leading to an array of bigger junk, mostly burned furniture and disemboweled vehicles. We stopped the first time. Kim pulled out her GPS. I pulled out The Map. Where was the straight line path? I squinted at a tree. Kim squinted at a tree. "Is that lichen or is that a blaze?" We decided it was a blaze and followed the four-wheeler trail. Note to MDT Club: After relocating trail, add fresh bright blue blazes.

Flood debris bridge over raging torrent - not.

The Stupid Map then said something about crossing a stream on some wet rocks and something else about a parallel trail should the ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING and BEWARE OF MEAN DOG signs bother us.  We added a few more loops through a very new condo development while trying to avoid the nasty neighbors who made it very clear they had nastier dogs than those in the trailer park. We wandered up a flood-battered stream trying to find anything that would pass as a blue blaze on the other side. No such luck. The GPS gave our location as being somewhere in Cecil County. That was helpful. All we needed to do was to find a cable right-of-way and happily re-enter the woods.  Note to MDT Club:  Revise the map. It is now a joke.

Look! Nature in tire ruts! Broad Leaf Arrowhead in bloom. 

We blundered across driveways and sneaked  through weirdly inviting poison ivy-covered fences - it gave me a warm Santa Claus kind of feeling to just drop in on people having breakfast on their back decks. And then, like a sign from above, there was a blue blaze - quick, follow it! Through a patch of woods we skipped! The Trail! We Found the Trail! Until we came to a road crossing and saw the best of the most clearly marked blazes of the day (the second one) on the other side of a chain-link fence clearly placed to discourage hikers. We followed the fence all the way around this property and house in hopes of intersecting the trail beyond the backyard. The Map of Deception gave me a paper cut. Note to MDT Club:  Talk to the guy who closed the trail with a brand new chain link fence.

Nature's barbed wire.  Greenbrier vine.

We snagged spider webs like nobody's business. When our spider web stick ran out of batteries, my face collected them.  Yellow jackets? No problem. The pain and swelling goes away eventually.  Nature's version of barbed wire - greenbrier - seemed to utterly enjoy itself reaching out to slice our legs with needle straight thorns. There was blood. So isn't this story fulfilling some definition of heroism? "Pain? What pain? I can take it!" We found the trail again (see faded blaze picture above) and cheered "It's straight to the Restoration Hardware Industrial Park!" And it was straight - straight into a twenty foot high bank of thorny thicket with a twelve foot high fence adorned with razor wire at the top. The trail was nowhere to be found. "Let's just walk around the outside of the fence until we come to the trail on the other side!" I said cheerfully. HA HA HA HA HA HA! Right. Note to MDT Club: Please send a thank-you note to Restoration Hardware security for being off-duty today.

There was no way around. I forgot my machete.

We tried to bushwack our way around the complex. We went up and down the twenty foot embankment twice trying to find the path The Joke Map said was surely there. More thorns. More blood. We made it as far as the first corner and LO! The fence was a little loose at the bottom. Kim pulled and tugged and Oh-Tro-Lo-Lo! It seemed to be just enough room for us to squirm under. "Do you think we'll get in trouble?"  "Oh! I hope so! Let's get arrested so we get a free ride out of this place!" "PLEASE SOMEONE ARREST US! LOOK TRESPASSING! HERE WE ARE!"

Now here's where I have to use some discretion. We took pictures of what happened next, which was basically illegal and funnier than all get-out. But we don't want to demonstrate on this blog what it took to peel back the fence and trespass inside the industrial park for fear someone may try to duplicate it or implicate us in this, our  crime of desperation. So just imagine those pictures HERE:

We waved at the security cameras. We walked a half mile across the back of the asphalt lot. We watched longingly for a security truck. We stopped and took pictures of the multihued truck trailers parked artistically in a storage lot. We waited for a loudspeaker, an alarm, a deep voice annoucning us as trespassers. None came. We found our way out by rolling commando-style under the back gate at the far end of the park. Then we ate lunch. It was good.  We made some notes, like "Remember to pack bolt cutters, hacksaw, and wire snips" for our next hike.  Hayduke lives.

Note to MDT Club:  Please make a MDT commando patch available for those who successfully break into and escape the industrial park.

The Map of Lies shows not this large object ahead.
Foy's Hill is a large dome of unconsolidated gravel, sand, and clay leftover from the great ice age melt-off when the interbraided Susquehanna and the Delaware Rivers dumped huge loads of sediment here. It's a beautiful barrens forest of pitch pine and grasses that will soon however be bulldozed for a sand and gravel quarry expansion. I had another sad after seeing all the survey stakes. The Map of Jokes and Deception described thrilling views from the top of Foys Hill. We would see the Bay! But no. We weren't anywhere near the trail.  But we did have a beautiful view of a Horton Waterspheroid.

Sand barren grassland habitat - soon to be a sand quarry expansion.

Sixty-four foot high Horton Waterspheroid - we used to call these water towers back in the day.

To save the loss of any more blood, and what was left of our energy, we decided to follow the service road down to Rt. 40 and hoof it west to the intersection with Rt. 7, where we easily found the blue blaze again - on the sign post in the middle of the median strip between cars and trucks roaring by at 70 miles per hour. We crossed, collapsed at the quarry gate, and had some more lunch.

Road walking down Rt. 7 - The Old Post Road.

Past the 1836 office of the Principio Furnace, destroyed by the British in 1813. Our second iron works of the MDT.

James Run Formation marking the Fall Line on Principio Creek
There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who’s always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. 
You have time to observe the details.- Ed Abbey

Passing by the historic iron furnace, mansion, its associated graded school, built by and named for the 1800s iron master George P. Whitaker , I was reminded of how important the geology of this area was to early industry and settlement. It kept my mind off the long hilly walk and the increasingly humid air. Hiking across the bridge at Principio Creek we stopped to admire the ultra-mafic, metamorphosed, weathered, and strikingly beautiful chutes and ledges of the James Run Formation. This formation surfaces in a few Piedmont creeks from here to west of Baltimore and south to the Potomac. We stood on wedges of a terrane one belonging to a volcanic island arc that formed over a subduction zone during the continental collisions of the Pre-Cambrian. These are some incredibly old rocks. Think Aleutian Islands or Hawaiian Islands caught and crunched up like the Map of Doom and Deception in my pocket.

Nearing the end of the Cecil County trek.

We turned into the community park at Ikea Way just coming in to Perryville, then dog-legged a turn on to an old carriage road, now grassed over and part of a greenway that follows along behind the VA hospital. We saw a picnic table and had some more lunch. I put my head down on my backpack and moaned softly into it "Omphimumphitaaabummpledo."  "Yes," Kim confirmed, "Only a mile to go." Regaining our pace and stride (more like a limping stumble) we topped a hill and looked across to Havre de Grace at the far shore of the Susquehanna River! The Chesapeake to the south! The Boxcar Ice Cream Shop to the north!  Map #7 completed at 11 miles in 8 hours. Note to MDT Club: We did this despite the Map of Horrors!

We ate our end-of-trail ice cream and snowball in exhausted silence in Perryville.

To celebrate, we drove down to the beach near Kim's place, toasted  Teddy Roosevelt with a Coors (he once stayed in the small hunting lodge here to hunt geese and ducks on the Susquehanna Flats), and played with Stanley the Welcoming Committee. Stanley's smile made it all worth it. We made it to the Bay and will soon cross the Susquehanna! Onward!

Stanley welcomes us to the Chesapeake!

The Chesapeake!

We're really not mad at the MDT hiking club. We understand that some areas are developing quickly and that maps become outdated almost as soon as they are printed. Be sure to check the club's website for updates, but in our case, there were no mentions of trail conditions. What if each county's hiking clubs organized clean-up days, or brush-clearing weekends, or re-routing meetings? I worry that for someone coming a distance to do this section - not from around here as Kim and I are - they could get very lost and even more discouraged than we were. Re-routing must happen to avoid the trailer park. I hate to say it, but no amount of clean-up days will address the apathy and disrespect people have for the trail here. 

Check for updates to the trail here. The chain link fence is mentioned on Red Toad Road. It might have saved us some time and wandering to follow their suggestion but where's the adventure in meandering through another development?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Torrey Brown/ North Central Railroad Rail-Trail: What Are You Going To Do?

After I finished some agricultural history research nearby, I decided to bike the lower half of the Torrey Brown/ North Central Railroad Hike and Bike Trail in Baltimore County, Maryland, north of Baltimore City. Full disclosure: I was once a seasonal ranger in this area, working for Gunpowder Fall State Park, which administers and maintains the NCR. Back then in the mid-80s the trail was still under construction and no one really knew about it. That was then. This now. Crowded!

The southern terminus of the trail is at Ashland.

I started at the mid-point in White Hall, Mile Marker 11, and rode south, dodging wobbly people in bathing suits walking bare foot on the crushed gravel surface  carrying humongous inner tubes for float rides along the Gunpowder River that parallels the trail. The North Central Railroad was laid through the Gunpowder River Valley for this entire section south to Ashland, my turn-around point. Not much in terms of nature observation even though I was surrounded by deep forest and cool mist rising from the very cold river. I was too busy dodging wobbly people.

A beneficiary of the trail traffic: Hunt Valley Bike Rentals, near the southern terminus on Paper Mill Road.

Now, I apologize for this post. It might sound a little grumpy from my first mile to my 11th. But I promise that coming back to White Hall, I got a little happier. I actually heard a wood thrush so everything was right with the world later. There were so many people that for the stretch to Monkton Station, a very popular starting point for walkers and families with children and leisure bikers, that I was getting not a little annoyed. I'm not a speed racer (though there were a few club teams on the trail whizzing by in full team garb), and I did announce myself every time I approached someone from behind, which was all the time. But when a person hears "Passing on your left," or "Bike passing," or "HEY, STAY TO THE RIGHT!" do you think maybe they should maybe not jump to the left, stick their foot out to scare the biker, 'pretend' to push their kid into the path of the bike, or simply ignore?  So I took the hint of an another biker ahead of me, who was patiently walking her bike behind a large group that refused to move over. I dismounted and walked with her for over a mile. "What are you gonna do?" she asked calmly.

The Gunpowder River enters the Loch Raven Reservoir, spreads out, slows down, is flat.

Note that these pictures are not in any particular order, so back to my story. We both walked up to the Monkton Station, where I once worked as a seasonal to help ready the interior for renovation (read: tear out dusty, moldy, gross stuff so the renovation crew could work without hazardous materials to bother them). Now it is a busy place with exhibits, an information desk, the meeting point for many activities and programs. We slid our bikes into the racks and sat on a nearby bench to do some people watching. My new friend Hilda (from Germany) has lived in the States for the past ten years and works for NSA. If you don't know what that means then I can't tell you because it is a top secret.  A nice but very serious biker walked up and asked about my bike (a Novara 'Buzz' Expedition Touring Bike). I asked him about his bike and though he never told me what make or model he did mention the price. $15,000. Hilda gasped. I gasped. He said "Have a nice day!" We got up and walked through the parking lot (which you are supposed to do anyway) and almost got run over by said biker and his whiz-bang racing team. "What are you going to do?" said Hilda, calmly.

Snow balls by Kathy are highly recommended.

Onward we walked until safely across the busy Monkton Road. Hilda described how on Monday mornings no one is out here. She lives in Phoenix and prefers early morning rides or jogs. Alas, I realized my mistake! It was a Saturday afternoon on a day forecast to be rainy but instead it was sunny and people were out like flies, which weren't out, thank goodness. As the crowd thinned I was able to say goodbye to Hilda and get up to speed so that I was puff-puff-gasp-gasping along, a good speed for cardio. A nice man with a dog let his pooch off leash just as I was about to announce my passing. Pooch crosses trail in front of me and, well, what are you going to do?  Just a little scrape. No real blood to speak of.

Hilda sits on the bench at Monkton Station.

Biking for me, like hiking, is a sort of zen-ish activity and therefore anything that happens along the way is part of the path, part of the journey. Approaching my turn-around at Mile 1 (actually my 11th mile) I decided to climb the hill at the bike and organic produce stand and visit with a few goats, the owners, a turtle in a pond, and Kathy the snow ball maker. I sat for over an hour nursing a cherry snowball with marshmallow topping and considered my impatience with the crowds.  The light was getting low - I'd been out since mid-afternoon. Maybe, I hoped the crowds are gone and I could enjoy my return ride back to White Hall without flipping over somebody's dog.

Across from Monkton Station, the source of the giant tubes and wobbly people.

Ahhhhh. The ride to White Hall was as delicious as a cherry snowball with marshmallow!  The crowds were gone, the river was casting a cold mist across the trail, a few joggers, and mostly nothing else but me and the trail. I quickly found my cadence and cruised past my boss's house in Lower Glencoe, past the Spark's Nature Center and big steel span bridge, and on to Monkton. I stopped again at Monkton Station, sat, and admired the empty trail, empty parking lot, quiet road, and locked station. Just ahhhhh.

An exposure of basaltic dome.

Now for that nature stuff. Probably not noticed (due to the flat trail) is the geology that one passes over as you traverse the trail from White Hall to Ashland. Baltimore County contains several basaltic domes that are the remains of volcanic terranes (broken bits of ancient continental crust) overthrust and tumbled into the Piedmont region by an earlier mountain-building event. One of the largest domes is the area from Sparks to Whitehall, though you really can't see or feel it for the flatness of the trail. In one area however, between Whitehall and Monkton the slick rock face of an exposed surface of basalt is seen along the trail. These domes represent volcanic activity caused by friction and thus igneous intrusion of magma, as continental plates subducted.

Once a bank, the massive stone structure now houses Sparks Nature Center.

Many of the buildings constructed along the railway were built of massive stone: limestone from the valleys, marbles and dolomites from the quarries, basalts from the domes. Stone laying is all but a lost art now, but as these small railroad communities replaced the tiny crossroad towns along the river, good stonemasons and their apprentices were in demand. As the North Central grew in freight-carrying capacity, all manner of agricultural produce, timber, stone, and other goods flowed south into the city. If buildings downtown along the former NCR track resemble the buildings of the rural north country area, that's no accident!

Steel bridge over the Gunpowder River on Sparks Road.

The railroad was critical to the economic life of the north county up until the mid-1950s. The NCR 'Locals' - short commuter hops between small villages ended in the 1959. Little by little, cars and trucks replaced the trains. And then in 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes hit hard wiping out bridges and track along the river. It was a storm that ended it all for the struggling NCR. It was a storm that is still remembered with a humble stories by folks around here, including me!  Our family lived in the Deer Creek Valley about ten miles west of White Hall in northern Harford County. It was a terrifying experience that lasted a week and required the National Guard help to deliver food, medical supplies, clean water, and mail to our stranded farm communities. Our bridges and railroad were gone, but thankfully no lives were lost.

Signal Post near Lower Glencoe.

My ride ended back at White Hall after a blissful five miles of wood thrushes, tree frogs calling, the sound of tire on crushed gravel, and the river gurgling alongside. The parking lot at the old maintenance shop was empty save for my car. I'll pick up the northern half of the NCR, White Hall to the Maryland Line, some autumn day. Preferably a Monday morning, otherwise, what are you going to do?


More information about the trail can be found here:

This is a good place to start to learn more about North Central Railroad history: