Monday, July 4, 2011

West Virginia

Three days off.  In a row. Say it with me: R-o-a-d T-r-i-p! Road trip!  Camping gear, birding buddies, camera gear and GPS. That's all you need, right?

How about West Virginia? 

The commute from Detroit to Athens Ohio was pretty uneventful.  It would all go so much smoother if Ohio "drivers" (I used the word loosely) would simply not panic at the sign of the police on the side of the road. When they are already dealing with a speeder, they are not worried about you!  No, I was not speeding, but hard breaking at highway speeds for no damned reason is not good. Stop it. 

The simple rational of my travels normally goes something like this - get there and enjoy it. If you screw around too much on the way, you will never get there!  So, with no urge to camp anywhere near Columbus, we pressed on to Athens for a hotel and continental breakfast.  A simple over-nighter there went fine right up until I cut my cheek off on a razor-sharp spoon at breakfast.

Really. I did.  Gallons of blood and a need for thousands of stitches from the sharp edge of a plastic spoon. Damn those things. Next time, I'll just use my own utensils.  Okay. No stitches.  No blood even. But, dammit, I did cut myself. We have put people on the moon and flown faster than sound itself, but we can't mass produce safe spoons?

After cleaning up the bio-hazard (oh wait,.no blood), we rocketed off to south central West Virginia.  Now, being from southeast Michigan, where the largest hills are found on a highway exit ramp, any roadside hill larger than a pimple is a show stopper.  Add a waterfall and this flat-lander will do a u-turn in a moment.

Sadly, the quickly approaching shower prevented “linger time”. I don't have any gear to protect my camera from the rain, so I did what I could with the time I had.  Cathedral Falls is, I believe, the name.  Perhaps I could re-name them – Blood Falls or Spoon of Death Falls.  Naaah.  Lets stick with the original.

Winding roads can be quite fun, but one road, in particular, annoyed me.  Clifftop Road, not far from the New River Gorge, is a boondoggle if I ever saw one. Imagine a two-lane road.  Gravel. Fine. Now add one lane worth of asphalt down the middle. That's right. One road on a two-lane surface with huge gravel shoulders and two-way traffic.  As you drive, you had better hope the on-coming driver is driving wisely.  With the blind corners and hilltops, I have to believe people wreck on this road. Often.  Come on, West Virginia.  Pave your roads so they are safe.   Are you cheap?  In 2008, you were one of four states with a budget surplus. Pave your roads!

By the time we arrived at Babcock StatePark, rain showers were on-and-off, just enough to interfere with plans.  The fact that “no plan” was the plan is not the point. Options are limited when you want to hike, bird and take pictures.  After purchasing a fleece at the gift shop (it was THAT chilly and I forgot to pack one ), we set off to find one of North America's most elusive warblers.  

A few years back, I spied a Swainson'sWarbler in a swamp along the Virginia/ North Carolina border. The look was brief.  A better view had always been on my list. Interestingly enough, the Swainson's Warblers in West Viginia do not like swamps. They would much rather have rhododendron glades.  Using some info I snitched off the Internet, we simply started walking remote roads in the park. 

We had them singing in minutes.  Hearing vs. seeing are not the same (it is like dull vs razor-sharp spoons).  While we heard one at our first stop, it was not until stop #2 that we managed a look.  While it was only 50 feet off the road, it might as well have been 50 miles. Using my iPhone, I played a short loop of the Swainson's Warbler song.  Within seconds, he came rocketing down the hillside.  “Chipping” and grumpy, he sat there.  In plain view. For at least a minute (quite a long time, if you think about it),we gawked. And gawked. And gawked. Incredible. Finally, realizing that the dopey, tall, bald guy with the fancy gadget was not a problem, he moved back up the hillside no doubt ready to kick the crap out of the next intruder...

For the record, I actually felt bad for playing that audio loop.  We were just looking for a better look.  His efforts were wasted as there was no intruder who wanted his woman or his territory.  Playing songs and calls to get a bird's attention is becoming quite the subject in some parts of the country.  Some people say “Whatever.”  Some say “Do so with caution and sparingly.”  Some won't do it if is not a part of a survey. We got our look. Had we wanted to, we could have played it again and again and again. To what end?  We got our looks. Memorable.  Feeling glum, but memorable. 

Photos? None.  The consequence of birding Babcock in June is this: everything is so lush, lighting for pictures is quite challenging.  Add the clouds and we were basically in the dark.  I was ready to bust out the flashlights. It was incredible and ridiculous at the same time. 

Black-throated Green and Black-throatedBlue Warblers were pretty easy to come by.  Wood Thrushes and Veery were just about common place and often standing the middle of the road.  Hooded Warbler? Everywhere. Simply everywhere. 

The tent went up in no time.  A quick walk around the campground turned up Yellow-throated Warbler and Northern Parula.  That near-death moth by the bathroom light was really something.  A Giant Leopard Moth. Very cool. 

Sadly, plans for the evening dinner at camp were a bust.  Rain showers. Alpine Spaghetti with a Cheesecake dessert will have to wait.  Dammit.  Oh wait. How about some local West Virginia beer?

Yes, folks, the Swainson's Warbler was not the reason for the trip.  Well, okay it was “a” reason, but I considered it a bonus before I even left my driveway (it is considered that elusive). I wanted to visit New River Gorge National River and have a West Virginia beer.  My map from my 1000thbeer shows are pretty large gap that could easily be corrected.  So, I corrected it.

Pies and Pints is quite the place.  Basically, the main food items are the wacky pizzas that I am really growing fond of, and locally brewed beer by the BridgeBrew Works.  The brewers realized that the West Virginia microbrew scene sucked and they tried to fix it. They did. The India Pale Ale (#1014) and Lager (#1015) were pretty fair.  I made the mistake of having the Ale before the lager, so the already light-tasting lager was pretty much tasteless as the Pale Ale all but wrecked my taste buds (as they are prone to do).  Award winning? No. Worth a stop for a great pizza and beer? You bet. Do it.  The pizza, by the way, was mushrooms with Gorgonzola cheese, garlic, and caramelized onions. Damn good. 

With the exception of those obnoxious gaps were New Jersey and New Hampshire sit, this is lookin' pretty good. 

Sleeping was pleasant. Temps were perfect. Before the sleeping bags said “Hi”, it was nice to know that the biting insects were nowhere to be seen.  The Acadian Flycatcher, in the gully behind the campground was singing until nightfall. The “pit-SEE!” call, translated to English, means “good night” to the camper.  If they call at sunrise (and they do), it means “Good morning!”  If you are another Acadian Flycatcher, it means “Get the hell out of here!” regardless of the time of day....

Sunrise on Monday morning was all about “lazy” and bird-friendly coffee and cold cereal.  After the morning campground walk (coffee in hand), the GPS had us in Fayetteville again. The obligatory “antique mall coffee mill purchase” was met (perhaps more on that some other time).

By this point in the trip, the New River Gorge Bridge had been crossed four times (back-and-forth for dinner and back-and-forth for the mill and supplies).  What a piece of work.  My only experience building things involves little bricks so I can't even begin to appreciate this thing.

Finished in 1977, this is the one that is on the West Virginia state quarter.  The third largest of its kind (single span) in the world, you don’t really gather what you are driving across. Sure, it is a bridge, but you don’t realize the New River is 850 feet below you.  The towers of the Mackinac Bridge (both the above-water and below-water segments) would fit under this thing would room to spare. Way huge.  

By the way, yes, the bridge is very rusty despite the young age.  That is not paint.  Those crafty engineers opted to use a steel that would rust quickly, but just on the surface.  That would prevent a deeper rust from forming (a rust that would compromise the bridge itself) and prevent the need to paint it.  How smart is that?  (Now go build a good spoon.....)

With an abundance of trails to choose from and working from the standpoint that “Easy” trails are better than “Difficult”, a nice one-mile loop was perfect before lunch.  While not very birdy, the best thing was this – beech trees without graffiti.  So many beech trees in Michigan are scarred with lovers' initials and other non-sense that some field guides use the grafitti as a field mark!!! Here? Very few scars. Incredible. 

From there, it was back across the bridge and down the road to the old river town of Thurmond.  What a trip.

A bustling town during the coaling days, the place now is mostly gone. No more hotel. No more red-light district. No more gambling (the town is known for the 14-year poker game!). No hustle-bustle. It is all gone.  The 2010 census showed a population of five people.  The original train depot is now the National Park Service Visitor Center.  The Coal Tower still stands as does the bank. The Phoebe seemed okay with all that. The Cliff Swallows on the bridge could not care less, either. I asked them.

A short hike along an old rail bed was quite pleasant.  With a creek/river to the right and a steep rocky cliff-face to the left, it was a nice walk. More Hooded Warblers and a millipede that was rumored to have eaten a woman's dog.  Okay. No. But it was huge. It certainly seemed like it could have eaten a dog. Okay. Not.  But it was big.  

Not wanting to drive “The Road of Death to Out-of-Staters who don't understand Unwritten Rules on Roads with inadequate surfacing”” (ie: Clifftop Road), the roads south across the gorge was much more appealing.

Grandview is exactly that.  Grand.

After driving along and seeing some of what had to be some of the nicest homes in the state, Grandview was awesome. The New River opening up below you with Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures above you made for some awesome “quiet time”. After the viewing platforms clears of kids of who want to climb the rocks, everything stops. No phones. No planes. No cars. No human sounds. Nothing. It is you and Mom Earth.  Everyone should experience that.  Cool.

On the other hand, no one should wrack their head twice in the same tunnel.  A short, easy loop at Grandview involves a walk through a rock tunnel.  I'm not tall, but man, this tunnel is for hobbits.  Not once. Twice.  Concussion? Nah. A bit of swearing? Sure. I admit it. I'm glad kids were not around. 

The short hike to the overlook was cool, literally and figuratively.  Just off the parking lot, a crack in the rock wall is perhaps 12” wide.  As the breezes blow across the Gorge, air that passes through this little chasm gets cooled.  It was like a little air conditioner. Pretty neat. Sadly, the gap is at the beginning of the trail!  It would be much more rewarding if it was at the top as the humidity was increasing quite a bit. It made for a warm day. I asked the National Park Service to see what they could do about moving the crack closer to the top of the trail. We’ll see what they do….

The Alpine Spaghetti (a camp version of spaghetti with pesto) was great as was the Cheesecake with graham cracker crust. Sure it was more like cheesecake pudding, but who cares.  The night serenade was peculiar. GrayTreefrogs were cool, but deep woods “hoo-ing” could have been anything. Maybe Great Horned Owl? Hard to say.  There was just too much going on it was just too far away. 

The late thunderstorm more or less wrecked any chance of a solid night sleep. Oh well.  After camp was dismantled, it was back to the Glade Creek Grist Mill for more photos. (Swainson’s Warblers were on the road into the park.)

Built from the better parts of three mills (one as old as 1890), this is a beauty. With the waterfalls and all, this has to be on the most photographed sites in the entire State of West Virginia. Add mine to the total. The lighting was cloudy, which was actually nice from a photography standpoint.  No complaints here.

A quick stop at Hawks Nest State Park was certainly worth it. More overlooks (you can’t have too many of those).  But the coolest part of the short hike (better than the fledgling Ovenbirds) was the singing Cerulean Warbler.  Their population is dropping faster than any other warbler in the United States.  Between 1966 and 1999, it declined an average of 4% per year throughout its eastern US breeding range for a total population loss of 70%. Current estimates are at around 560,000 birds. No, it was not seen, but it was there. That is consolation enough for me.  You can read more about the plight of the Cerulean Warbler here.  In short, quit drinking crappy coffee.

After securing my locally purchased, hand-made ceramic coffee mug, it was on to visit a key battle field. 

Yes, a battlefield.  A Civil War battlefield, in fact.

The Battle of Carnifex Ferry gets glossed over in the history books. That is for sure.  But, maybe it shouldn’t.  Basically, in the closing hours of September 10, 1861, Union troops attacked entrenched Rebels on the Patterson Farm near (are you ready?) Carnifex Ferry.   As the sun set and the impact of the day was felt (including Ohio soldiers tending to other Ohio soldiers they had just shot (suggesting that they couldn’t shoot any better than their descendants can drive…), the Confederates packed up and left in the middle night. Yup. That was it.  7,000 men fought.  No more than 30 were killed.  Pretty short, really. Gettysburg, it was not. 

As is so often the case, the dead from combat pale in numbers compared to the dead from disease. Right there, in the middle of the park, sits a grave.  Granville Blevens is his name. No bullet. No sabre.  Not artillery.  It was disease. We don’t know which one. It could have been just about anything we would take for granted today. Dysentery.  Infection from a simple cut.  ConsumptionTyphoid Fever.  Who knows.  We do know his brother, Haywood, buried him.

After the Rebs left, the path was clear for the western part of Virginia to succeed. Yeah, I should tell you that part. West Virginia did not exist in 1861. It was still a part of Virginia.  Fighting for the right to own slaves makes no sense when your geography largely prevents agriculture (and therefore, the need for slaves).  By 1863, the region was a state unto itself and joined the Union. 

Obviously, without West Virginia, our nation’s history would have been much different. Congress would be different (fewer seats), the writer of the Brady Bunch theme may have been born someplace else, and John Denver would have nothing to sing about.  Tragic, that last one.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about the Eastern Bluebirds nesting in the cannon.  I’ve seen that before. I need to keep that mind for my future birding. If I need bluebird for a state list, head to local Civil War battlefield!

With 400 miles to drive, it was time to think about heading home.  Oh, but not straight home. What fun is that?

The North End Tavern and Brewery in Parkersburg, West Virginia, was the dinner destination.  Sad as it is, I suspect we could have just kept going.  I’m not trying to dis the place, but I am not going to lie either.  It is a bar that brews beer. Forget upscale establishments like Fort Street Brewery or Jolly Pumpkin. It was leagues behind these places.  The menu was limited to fried foods of the most basic variety (burgers and fries).  Dimly lit and a bit rough around the edges, I just wasn’t impressed.  Serving the beer samples in plastic cups on a nicely crafted wooden paddle was an exercise in weirdness.  The 5-Way IPA was the best of the four (4 out of 5). Roedy’s Red, Northwest Wheat, and Northwest Light (#1,016-1,019) were fair at best (3, 3, and 2 respectively).  As you might expect, the “Light” was so light, I could have just had a glass of water. No taste. None. 

With that, a course was set for home. Uneventful.

Here is a run down…

Total Bird Species (West Virginia) – 62
Total Bird Species Lifetime (West Virginia) – 65
Total Beer Species (West Virginia) – 6
Total Beer Species Lifetime – 1,019
Miles driven – no clue really. Maybe a thousand?

Next trip?  Oh, that is coming in about a month........ 

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