Fresh Adventures Afoot

As we get ready to leave on our next set of adventures, I thought I’d post a few pix from home, to remind us of what we’re leaving behind in July. Among the things I think we’ll miss greatly (besides our dogs) is the elevation’s temperatures that have not matched the heat wave crushing the rest of the country. Our highs over the past few days have been in the high 80s. Like much of the country, we’ve had high humidity due to afternoon thunderstorms, but we’re certainly not suffering like we might be suffering in a couple of days.

So here’s a pictorial Ode to Home.

And some shots from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 •

Colder night (30 degrees) than expected, but all of us slept well. I was out on the boat launch dock by about 6:45A and the others came around 7:15 or so. There were lots of swans in more-or-less the same configurations as the day before, and as the sun came up, their noise levels increased. We noticed many, many more different kinds of birds today compared to yesterday AM. Gulls, many differing types of ducks, herons, and, far far away near the eastern shore, two bald eagles fighting—one stayed put and, noting by his body language and movements, was eating a catch I couldn’t see even through binoculars. The other came and went, harassing the lucky eater to no avail. I heard their cries at one another several times when the interloper would come calling and get rebuffed.

It was well past 8 with the sun shining brightly (and warming things on the dock) when the swans began moving off the water. After a while, we all decided to get warm at the campers, have breakfast or coffee/tea. It was colder in the parking lot closer to the still-deep snow than it had been out on the dock.

After breakfast, we readied ourselves to head to Mattamuskeet Lake Wildlife Refuge, and over Alligator sound to another refuge. Jack drove the gang today, and we left around 11.

The bridge over the Alligator sound/river is closed for repairs starting today through about January 19. The detour is not quite 100 miles—awfully glad I don’t live around here (or need to deliver packages to those who live around here) because that’s an enormous distance to add to a commute or delivery.

In our meanderings we took some side roads, and discovered a lovely small inlet called Frying Pan. Mike and Barbara got all excited about this find because it looks quite good for kayaking, and even has a parking area and a boat launch to access the bigger water. Oddly enough, the parking area is off Frying Pan Road.

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In our search for the road, we passed a juvenile bald eagle at the edge of a cultivated (but currently fallow) field. We missed our turn and by the time we passed the eagle again, an adult had landed next to it. We didn’t see any kill or other items of interest, but the two were just standing there, apparently in some sort of face-off. So that sighting amounted to 4 eagles for the day.

We got to Mattamuskeet and hopped out of the truck along the roads to see the small ponds/wetlands around the visitor center, and saw many and varied species of water birds, including tundra swans. We did not spot any snow geese but saw Canadas, and among the ducks and other waterbirds, we noted pintails, goldeneyes, teals, scaups, coots, and more. Not many mallards, no egrets, but many great blue herons.

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En route, we saw a mammal, long and slick, with a long-ish tail. We thought, before it disappeared into the water along the road, that it might be a river otter. We also postulated nutria, as we know they are here as invasives and pests. Jack suggested it was bigger than that, but smaller than a beaver.

As we drove closer toward the visitor center, we saw two nutria, which are significantly large, but not as big as what we’d seen earlier. One of the critters was right beside the road, nibbling on the stalks and roots of the water grasses that grew close to the edges of the water.

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Inside the VC, we confirmed that what we’d seen earlier was a river otter.

Outside the window of the VC, we also saw a woodcock, merrily foraging in the lawn! One of the rangers invited us to her office to see more clearly, and I took a couple of pix there, then went around to the front porch and had the opportunity to take an even better photo.

A group of elderly folks on an airport-style bus were there, too, and they crowded the poor woodcock (all the time calling it a wood duck) and finally chased it away. Stupid, ugly Americans.

There were a few picnic tables under the trees, but one was getting a bit of sun, so we had our lunch there. The average temp at the warmest part of the day was upper 50s, so we still needed a jacket, but it was a very nice picnic.

We spent a lot of time on the back side of the marshy area (called, oddly, Wildlife Drive) taking pictures of some great blues (one of which had caught a small snake, but carried it away into the wetland before we could capture a photo of it) and collections of diverse groups of species. The cacophony was higher-pitched, less volume, and more varied than we’ve heard with the masses of swans and geese we’ve encountered so far. Lots of small duck vocalizations.

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Nearly at the end of Wildlife Drive, we saw another adult bald eagle, sitting on a low snag. None of us had enough lens-power to photo it, but we all were able to see it through binocs. Without going back into the main drive to the VC, where there is hardly any passing space, let alone turn-around space, we would not be able to get closer to it.

Needing fuel, we mapped our way to a small burgh called Englehard, which (happily) was en route to our next destination: the enormous “void” on all our maps called the Alligator Wildlife Refuge, encircled by a “scenic drive.”

Refueled (they are very very proud of their fuel down here and price it accordingly) we found the scenic drive and it was long, flat, straight, and boring. Once we passed a couple of open fields that did not hold any snow geese or tundra swans, we were enclosed by pine forest, much of which had been burnt (intentional or accident?) and signs saying the area was a bombing range for a nearby military base.

Still hopeful to see something new or special on our drive, we did spot a gang of maybe 4 egrets sitting in a snag—big blobs of white in a drowned tree in the middle of a wetland. Passed by too fast to grab a photo, but it reminded me of the “hairy” egrets we saw while we were cycling around Assateague Wildlife Refuge last April.

Mike spotted another juvenile baldie sitting in one of the burnt snags near the road, sunning himself. So that made 6 bald eagles for the day. Later, Barbara spotted a mature redtailed hawk with a lovely white breast, just a little rust color up near its shoulders and throat, solemnly watching us stare at it.

Also along the way we saw many kestrels along roads with open fields beside them; and even a couple of merlins doing their hard-pumping thing over the fallow fields. I really lost count of the non-eagle raptors, because I was trying to see kestrels soon enough to point them out to Barbara, but we were in the back seat of the Honda (which is surprisingly roomy and comfortable) and I never saw them soon enough. We also saw a few red shouldered hawks, possibly 2 other redtails, and at least one Cooper’s hawk. Many, many great blue herons were spotted along the roads and near by in fields and along ditches.

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This great blue was captured at the Mattamuskeet Visitor’s Center, but it’s emblematic of all the many that we saw along ditches and in fields next to the road.

Disappointed at not being able to find all the “scenic” or the “wildlife” around the refuge’s scenic drive, we headed homeward about 4:30, and with only spotty cell service, tried to find a place to eat that was different from where we’d eaten last time, in Columbia.

We thought Englehard had a marina seafood place, but were unable to find it by the time we reached there (about 5:30) so headed on to Columbia to the place we’d eaten before, in the Columbia Crossings Center (at the intersection of 64 and another major road, 94). While the food is as good as we remembered, it is a bit grody and the people are not very friendly. They were offering a fried chicken and “country steak” buffet, and a couple of specials, but we ordered off the menu, getting a variety of seafood. Tasty, but a strange atmosphere. Barbara overheard a conversation when some young folks came in as we were headed out, obviously looking for a place to have a beer (there’s a “tavern” next door and affiliated with this “family” place). The waitress evidently asked her manager, “Can I tell them we’re closing at in a half hour?” When the hostess demurred, she said, “What if they stay here drinking and chatting until after closing?”

That was the extent of the overheard conversation, but we were not impressed with the staff’s capacity (or willingness) to serve their customers.

Finally got home about 8P, after a 250-mile day. Jack and I cracked out the whisky for a wee dram before bed, and we read until about 9:30. Set the thermostat again for 50 and hit the hay. Forecast has changed from rain all day tomorrow to rain only in the afternoon/evening. We called Lacey (housesitter) to let her know we’re planning to hit North Bend for Thursday night en route home, and not arrive back until Friday. All’s well with the world (and with the tundra swans).

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Birdwatching Bonanza

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

We got significant unexpected rain in the night, with colder than predicted temps. With our mummy sleeping bags and the propane furnace set on 50 we slept fine. When we got up, it was 32 and the dawn was red and fire-like, but the clouds rolled in, and then rolled away again.

We all walked down to our hoped-for boat launch camping spot, to watch the tundra swans get up off the ice and fly overhead, on their way to the feeding grounds. For the most part, these thousands of swans in a couple of groups were the only birds out there. Some were merely standing on the ice and others were floating in small patches of thawed water. There were also some small, short-necked, dark-colored ducks in patches of water.

Our plan was made while we watched and took pix—we’d use Mike and Barbara’s vehicle that had on-demand four-wheel drive, because we thought we’d be headed out into muddy tracks trying to get to Pungo Lake, and to a spot across Phelps Lake that was recommended to us by the ranger: Cypress Point.

After breakfast and unhitching, we all piled into their car and headed out for the day. Our first stop was Moccasin Point Overlook, which extends into Phelps Lake only a few miles away from Pettigrew. To access the dock, we took a lovely raised walkway through a cypress swamp—where Mike, Barbara, and I had hiked the last time we were here. We did not see the many, many ducks we’d seen last time, but we did see a pair of woodcock, a very bold squirrel, and just enjoyed the walk and the scenery, even though there was quite a lot of snow. In that snow we saw tracks of all sorts of critters, including the deer we later saw in the woods (but I was unable to capture on film).

Next, we drove to Cypress Point (another Phelps Lake overlook), which had a small boat (kayak, canoe) launch area beside the dock. It was a lovely overlook, with benches to enjoy the view—but contrary to what the ranger said, there wasn’t a migratory bird anywhere in sight. We did, however, see two bald eagles. That was special.

By this time, it was about 1PM and Mike was pretty hungry, so we fetched our lunches from the car and sat on the dock to eat. We were all pretty stiff by the time we’d finished, and several of us had sat too close to the melting snow on the step, and got our bums wet. It was a very nice temp, however—maybe in the high 40s—and with little wind we were quite comfortable and relaxed. It was also quite sunny, those AM clouds having dispersed, so by the end of the day, both Barbara and I felt a bit sunburned.

Next, we headed around to another overlook on Phelps Lake: Pocosin Overlook, in the Pocosin Natural Area. There was a strange elevated platform that you accessed via steep, narrow (icy) steps, and when we all climbed up there, far away across the pond, we saw an enormous cloud of white birds lift off and swirl around — it was similar to a murmuration of starlings, but low over the ice/water, no higher than what could be backed by the trees on the far side. It was truly extraordinary.

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Trying to get to Pungo Lake is a challenge—many roads are closed seasonally, and there’s simply no easy way to get there. We all though that if Phelps was mostly frozen, then for sure, Pungo would be a sheet of ice (it’s smaller than Phelps) but surrounding Pungo are many open fields, some left unharvested for the birds. So we drove around, trying to get to where we might see the sea of birds we’d captured last year.

One final turn that happened to be along Pat’s Road, where we had ventured last time, and LO! We saw millions and millions of birds, covering the partially-harvested corn fields on either side of a muddy road, out of which another vehicle full of bird watchers emerged as we arrived. So we turned right and met the mud.

Wow. We were breathless. The birds appeared to be in nearly-overlapping but separate groupings of tundra swans at one end and snow geese at the other. While they sometimes seemed to mingle (at least in the air) there seemed to be an agreement among them about whose end was whose. The geese had youngsters with them—we were able to distinguish them because they were gray.

Mike and I walked into the field (followed a bit later by Barbara) but our only photographic options to capture the snow geese were to the west as the sun was setting, and too bright for photos. We took a lot of pix of the swans. Far to the north, we heard hunters, presumably hunting geese or ducks.

We watched and listened for a long time. Jack stayed back by the vehicle, and at one point an enormous gaggle of snow geese flew right over his head, and settled near the road, in another partly-harvested cornfield toward the north (but not near the hunters, rather, still within walking distance of us).

As the sun set and our hopes for a mass fly-off dimmed, we re-gathered at the vehicle. Barbara’s feet were cold, Mike had stepped into a water-filled, snow-covered ditch and his feet were wet, and we were all getting tired and hungry. We had parked with the nose of the vehicle pointing north, along a small, muddy side road, along which lay the field where the geese had settled. So we thought we’d get closer by driving straight along. We were not actually able to see the geese better from that vantage, after all.

A couple of trucks met us, and there was absolutely no where to ease to the side without going into the cultivated field, frozen below with a skim of mud on top. So we backed nearly the whole way out, until a wide grass verge allowed us to pull off for the trucks to get by. The first one passed and waved, and the second one stopped and informed us that this and the other mud road were seasonally closed, even though there were no signs indicating such. So we apologized, wondering if he was a ranger or a hunter, and (since we were on our way out anyway) promised we’d exit post haste.

Then we stopped on the paved road (not closed seasonally) and took some more pix of the geese that were packed right next to the road, madly feeding. I was in the back and the photos I took of the snow geese and their gray youngsters came out blurry since I had to take them through a fixed window. Too bad, because we were very close.

Managed to work our way back toward Pettigrew by “going around our elbows to get to our thumbs” as Jack characterized our route, and since dinner was on our minds, we navigated into Edenton, where we were sure to find a restaurant. A place J&I had gone on one of our NC bicycle rides was the Waterman’s Grille, so we aimed for the downtown/waterfront section and parked. That place was closed for their winter break and clean, so we tried something called Bistro 309. Lovely little place, that it seemed everyone in town was patronizing that night (on a Tuesday?) but we didn’t wait long for a seat or service and had an excellent meal. Drum fish was one of the specials, and everyone got that except yours truly, and I got fried flounder. Everyone’s meals disappeared with a nice glass of wine (except Mike, who was driving) and then we endured the long drive home, tired and well-fed, satisfied, and imagining flocks and flocks of large, raucous, white birds.

Pettigrew State Park, NC

Monday, January 8, 2018

AM temp was 20 where we were expecting 10, so it’s good news. We thought to try the new ceramic heater overnight, taking advantage of the electric hookup, so we lowered the propane heater thermostat to 45. By the wee hours, the propane had kicked on a few times—we guess between 3 and 4 total overnight. So the ceramic heater is good for maintenance, but for bringing or keeping the temps up, it’s slightly anemic, at least when it’s really frigid outside.

Had cheesy grits with bacon crumbled in it for breakfast, and headed toward Pettigrew State Park (NC) around 11, after giving a tour of the Alto to one of the rangers.

As we drove east, more and more snow was visible—left over from the “bomb cyclone” that hammered the east, all the way down to FL around New Years this year (if you’re not sure what a bomb cyclone is, check this out: https://www.popsci.com/bomb-cyclone. Anyway, through some of the small towns (we routed via backroads, and it was a pleasant and pretty drive) there were significant lumps of packed ice/snow in the main streets. By the time we were taking our final approaches to Pettigrew State Park, we had to avoid lots and lots of unscraped, hardened, lumpy snow/ice in the roads. Along the NC Rt. 64 (4-lane but not interstate) we traveled quite a lot in the left lane because there were so many shady places where masses of snow were packed solid along the middle of the road.

During our lunch stop in Plymouth, our friend and fellow Alto camper Mike called, because we’d not found any firewood and warned him to look for some early. He had taken the step to call Pettigrew, and the folks said they had firewood available for sale, so we all figured we’d just buy it there. As it turns out, it was far too cold and we were out far too late to mess with any campfires during this trip.

When we pulled in to the park, the Mike and Barbara were already there, discussing options with the staff. One fellow had recently been on the tractor clearing the 4 inches of snow from the campground. Barbara thinks they didn’t really think we were coming until they conveyed the info about the firewood, then they stepped on it to clear our designated camp sites.

The supposition by staff was that it would be inadvisable for us to go to the campsites because the tractor clearing snow had nearly gotten stuck. So we suggested we camp at the boat ramp (the majority of Phelps Lake itself is frozen solid, so no boats would be launched there). The staff laughed, and since we thought that was a real possibility we walked down to check it out.

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The dock and frozen Lake Phelps.
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The walk to the lakefront where we’d hoped to set up.

Alas, it would certainly have been a perfect set up—beautiful and flat/paved/dry—but when we actually stated that we’d like to do that, they (after quite a lot of discussion and trying to find the “right” person to ask, which resulted in a delay in our campsite set-up procedures) decided they would not be able to allow us to do that.

Assuring us that by tomorrow we’d be able to get into the campsites proper, the head ranger encouraged us to set up right there in the parking lot, which we (eventually) did. What an excellent opportunity we had taken away from us. I wonder if he thought there would be some sort of precedent set if he let us camp down there.

All of us who were familiar with snow and cold nights knew we were not going anywhere next day.

Anyway, we quickly set up (mostly 2 bars of LTE near the ranger station) and again did not unhitch the cars because it was late and we were all tired. After we’d both cranked up the heat and fixed our respective dinners, Jack and I carried our food over to Mike and Barbara’s Alto—just like ours but newer, and called Moon Shadow—and shared stories and food. The best kind of camping in the world.

Mattamuskeet Journey v. 2018

Mattamuskeet Journey to see migrating waterfowl v. 2018

In January of 2016, we headed out with a newly-acquired Alto camper trailer (we named Roomba) to accompany tent-camping friends to Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge, camping at Pettigrew State Park in North Carolina, just on Lake Phelps.

That was so fun we decided on a reprise of that trip with the same friends, who are now also Alto trailer owners (they named theirs Moon Shadow). Last time, the temps were quite chill, and Mike and Barbara were tenting, although we shared our camper’s propane heat on a couple of occasions. But it was bitter cold.

This time was not as gray and frosty, but still cold overnights, and — well, I’ll let you read all about it in several posts.

Sunday, January 7

Left MoD when the temp was about 10 degrees. We began prep around 8:30 – 9:00 AM and had said goodbye to the doggies and were driving down Rt. 59 by about 11.

The weird thing about the whole stowing and prepping during this type of winter camping is that nothing that would be damaged by freezing could be out in Roomba nor in the back of the truck overnight. So we could not pre-pack as we so often do to assure an early departure. We removed our bathroom kits from our clothes bags, and put all the  food (including the ‘fridge food, as nothing was going in from our home freezer) and other things that would be damaged by freezing into the truck very last before hitting the road. We put the refrigerator food into the ‘fridge without turning it on, figuring that it would not freeze solid in the 3 hours it was going to take us to get to North Bend (halfway point overnight spot). Measuring by past experience, the interior of the camper gets really cold on cold traveling days, so we couldn’t even put the dishwashing liquid into Roomba where it usually stays.

So the whole packing up thing was a challenge. We’d left our bed topper rolled and in Roomba for the entirety of this deep freeze (started about New Year’s Eve and overnight temps were in the low single digits — one AM we had zero degrees F — steadily for the whole of 2018). So the topper was stiff as a board and we probably could not have unrolled it even if we’d wanted to. Our hope was that it could ride in the back seat of the truck and thaw a bit, but it was too wide/stiff to fit into the cab, so we had to leave it in Roomba.

Once we arrived at North Bend Federal Campground (around 3P, after a stop for lunch and another for fuel) we plugged up (site 51–with between 2 and 3 bars of LTE and/or 3G cell service) and cranked the propane heater which solved the problem of the frozen bed topper nicely.

North Bend was 28 degrees, and there was still significant amounts of snow along the roads, especially at the edges. The guard said that there had been about 5 campsites used last night, but everyone had left.

They had sites 51 – 77 open, with one heated bathhouse that has maybe 8 private toilet/bath rooms. Site 51 is far from the lakefront, but pretty close to the bathhouse.

We did not unhitch, only leveled and set up, again pondering what would go where when we take off for Pettigrew State Park in NC tomorrow. We’re about 3 hours away from our next stop and, happily—although tonight will be lows in the teens again—the temps will be trending upwards for our whole stay at Pettigrew.

We have brought yeast rolls rising in Omnia, plus a lovely (but untried) chicken stew in the Billy Boil. After set up and a quick walk down to the lake (water levels are waaaaaay low—the “beach” I walked along was really the lake bottom) we are now happily ensconced in the warmth, and getting ready to continue our listen to another of the “Department Q” crime/mystery series (by Jussi Adler-Olsen) with Carl Merk: The Hanging Girl.

Family Reflections

We checked my brother in for his flight back to Berlin, Germany on Saturday, September 24. We’d not seen him for a few years, and it had been 5 years since he’d seen our mom and been in Virginia. Jack, Page and I concocted a proper send-off the night before with grilled tuna steaks (from Indigo Farms Seafood), a beet, grapefruit, and arugula salad, and rice pilaf. Page had brought some Proseco and lovely Cusina Macoul Cabernet Sauvignon to accompany our celebratory dinner. And Jack resurrected an ancient bottle of vintage port we had acquired back in the 1980s, saved for a special occasion. We finished the night with some strong French cheese and that port, almost as old as Page (my brother is 1959 vintage, where the port was 1963).


He felt as though he’d accomplished a lot during his short stay, sorting through old items he’d left in Mom’s attic; helping her sort the good from the “ready to go” down in her basement; and touching base with a couple US friends. Mostly, he had to make some tough decisions about the remarkable catalogue of Kodachrome and Ektachrome slides from his photojournalist/nature photographer career that began before digital photography supplanted the more expensive films he cut his teeth on. I felt his pain and loss, but as he aptly pointed out, “If any publisher had wanted to use the original African elephant or American wolf images I took back in the 90s, he or she would have contacted me by now, I’d have thought.”

Among my fondest memories of time spent with my brother in our young adulthood was a January trip we took the the Florida Everglades, for him to photograph the wintering birds and wildlife for the magazine he worked for at the time. I acted as his “bearer” slinging cases and bags of lenses and film across my shoulders, freeing up his hands to actually take the photos. We saw many wonders during the trip, including a hawk stealing a water snake from the beak of an egret or a heron (I have forgotten which) just before the water bird swallowed its meal. We took a slough slog, or a walk into the chilly freshwater river with a group led by a wildlife biologist. We managed to get a speeding ticket as we arose from our tent later than we’d intended, and raced to the south to catch the sunrise. 

It was a wonderful trip and resulted in some truly spectacular photos. My shoulders were tired, but watching him work was a tutoring experience in itself.

Chatting with a friend at Dogtown Roadhouse.

If there had been more time available to him during this 2016 trip, my personal hope was that he’d have been able to sort those slides stored in Mom’s attic, not by which to pitch and which he just could not let go. Rather I wished he could determine which to have digitized and which to pitch, even if the digitizations had to await his next visit to the US, since I could hold them in my basement. But that, of course, is a much more involved decision-tree than what he actually had time for. So he ended up breaking his own heart by throwing away pounds and pounds worth of original images we can see in several of his books. 
I guess the saddest part is that the images represent a past life and many extraordinary journeys and have bits of memories attached to them. Of course, he’ll always have his memories, but those pieces of film carried with them slices of those memories. When we clear the items from our histories by tossing and sorting, I believe that we all fear those slices of memory might be gone forever.
Now we both have an idea what our mother is going through, emptying out her home in prep for a move to Assisted Living.

The family, including eldest Richard and in-law Jack.