From 15th September to 5th October 2010


Shenandoah National Park (15th to 19th September 2010)


After a quick run through Maryland, we hit the West Virginia border for a short distance before driving into Virginia. At Front Royal we enter the Shenandoah National Park and find ourselves back in the wonderful world of the wilderness. The park basically is made up of the Skyline Drive, over 100 miles of road that clings to the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On both sides of the road are 500 miles of hiking and horse trails that drop down to waterfalls or clamber up to view points over the Shenandoah Valley. The road is winding and 35 mph all the way. There are hundreds of white-tailed deer here as there are no real predators apart from Black Bear. The park's history is somewhat controversial. It sounds like a big land grab went on in the 1930s and a lot of families were moved out of the area to create the park. There are still signs of their cabins, cemeteries and farmlands around the park .


Big Meadows Campsite


The campsite sits halfway along the Skyline Drive. It's pleasant and well maintained and we find a large pitch in the first come first served section. It's very quiet here as it's midweek but it soon gets full at the weekend. White Tailed Deer just wander around the pitches looking for food. They are very tame. It's warm and calm when we arrive, with lots of little flies trying to get in your ears, but at least they don't seem to bite. These insects called Katydids (because of their call) start up a very loud song at dusk and go on all night. They're a type of cricket but way louder! Evidently there are bear, skunk and raccoon here so we put everything away before going to bed.

There's a little campstore where we can pick up bits and pieces. Aramark have set up these concessions with $1 coin showers and washing machines. They also sell firewood. We can't understand why they don't do this in more national parks.

We have an extremely wet, wild and windy night halfway through our stay that results in a few leaks in the tent and our neighbour's gazebo flying in to the trees. Otherwise it's hot and sunny. We also manage to be on the receiving end of some skunk spray that comes flying out of nowhere. Those little guys stink!


Rose River Trail


We drive out to a nearby trailhead for the Rose River trail. We haven't done any hiking for weeks but this is only 4 miles so we should be okay. The trail heads off down a horse trail then joins a forested hiking trail that goes downhill quite steeply for about two miles. We join the Rose River and see the rather dried up cascades. A couple of hikers tell us that there is a young bear in the area but we don't see him. We stop for a picnic lunch in what would have been a lively waterfall in the summer and listen to the quiet sounds of the river. There are some beautiful butterflies around. Both of us have weak achy legs from walking downhill for so long and we really struggle with the 2 mile walk back uphill. I feel totally out of condition and disappointed that I've lost the fitness I had earlier in the year. As we rejoin the fire road that goes back to Skyline Drive it starts to spit with rain. We make a quick detour to a little old cemetery that is hidden in the woods then get back to the car.


Limberlost and Stony Man Trails


We both have colds now; probably due to the excesses of August. My legs feel really stiff from the Rose River walk. I must be so unfit. We plan a couple of more gentle walks around the Skyland area. We set off to the Limberlost Trail around Mile 43. It's a 1.3 mile accessible trail so nice and flat. We wander through the forest and spot a gorgeous chipmunk poking his nose out of a tree trunk. Rich gets some great shots of him as he peers out and runs off. Rich also sees a large hawk flying past his head.

Next we go back to Skyland and start on the 1.7 mile Stony Man Trail. The first part follows the Appalachian Trail, so at least we can say we've walked some of its 2000 miles! It's a gentle climb up to the 4000 feet viewpoint and it's all shaded. The view from the top is stunning. You can see the Skyline Drive going off both north and south on the ridge of the mountains below us. The Shenandoah Valley stretches out for miles. A couple of crows are fighting with a small hawk of some sort, perhaps a sharp-shinned or peregrine. On the walk down we get really close to a couple of white-tailed deer, who seem completely unphased by us.


Raptor Ranger Talk


At 10am there's a ranger talk at the Big Meadows Amphitheatre about the local raptors. Ranger Georgette is an entertaining speaker and the kids are enthralled. She has three live birds with her that are captive as they have injuries that mean they can't survive in the wild. The first is a Red Tailed Hawk that isn't too used to people and we all have to sit still and quiet. He is a large magnificent bird. The second bird is a large Barred Owl who looks like he has just been woken up. He snaps his beak in annoyance at being disturbed. The third is a tiny Screech Owl who has huge yellow eyes. The ranger stands next to me with him and he stares at me imperiously. He is really cute though with big ear feathers. As she bobs up and down so does the owl; it's really comical.


Skyland Apple Butter Festival


The old lodge at Skyland, around 20 miles north of us, is holding an Apple Butter Festival. There's a live band playing local music and some stalls selling crafts and food. There's a collection of classic cars. We try the hot cider which is tasty but non-alcoholic. There are two copper apple butter cauldrons on the go, with wood fires under them. The local men have been stirring them for about 5 hours. The cauldrons have been in their families for over 100 years. We have a go at stirring. They contain pulped apples, cinnamon and clove oils and sugar. The Apple Butter is eaten on biscuits or like a jam. It tastes nice though very sweet. Real winter fare.


Doyles River Trail


After a day of sitting in the hot sun and reading, we drive south around 4pm to cover the southern parts of the Skyline Drive. The trees seem to be changing colour quicker on this stretch. We see a few deer hanging around in the roadside. We get to the trail head for Doyles River Trail and park up. It's a 2.7 mile trail there and back and it supposedly should take 2.5 hours to complete. We haven't got that long so decide to walk downhill in to the forest for half an hour then come back. There are no sounds in the forest, not even birds, and I joke that it's because there are loads of bears here.

I feel really hot and tired as we turn round to head back up the hill. Rich points in to the bushes and there is a big black bear snuffling about crunching acorns. He's only about 20 feet away. Our first Appalachian Bear! It's a bit dark and overgrown to get a photograph of him. He looks at us and yawns in disgust before sauntering off. We're so excited at this spot. We stagger on up the hill and just as we near the car park, Rich hears more snuffling in the bushes, and there is another black bear, just as big, looking for food. He gets very near to us and we speak to him so he knows where we are. He snorts and snaps his jaw a bit so we back off down the path. Rich manages to get a photo of him, though it's not the best light. So, our little bit of exercise today turned into a great bear watch!



Virginia Beach (23rd & 24th September 2010)


Rehoboth Beach, Delaware


On our way from Washington DC to Virginia Beach we make a detour to an outlet mall in Delaware. For some reason Delaware doesn't have any sales tax so shopping here is even cheaper.

We get to the toll booth for the bridge at Annapolis and the car in front has for some reason paid our $2.50 toll charge and driven off. I don't know if he couldn't wait for change or what it was but we were grateful! The area over the water is a lot greener with farming areas and small towns. We pass into Delaware and eventually get to Rehoboth Beach where we go to the Tanger Outlets. We have a good wander round the three different shopping areas and pick up some bargains to replace our scabby looking clothing. It's another 3 hours drive through Delaware and into Virginia. We cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel which crosses a huge stretch of water for more than 20 miles. Sadly nobody pays the $12 toll for us this time!




We have just a day to see Norfolk and Virginia Beach and it is stinking hot. Supposedly a record breaking temperature of 96'f today. Rich drives us in to Norfolk which houses one of the largest naval bases in the world. He wants to take a look at the USS Wisconson; a huge WWII battleship that is docked at the Nauticus naval museum. After parking up, we take a walk around the waterfront park and round the outside of the battleship. There is an interesting war memorial on the waterfront. It is made up of bronze casts of letters from soldiers who fought in various conflicts. They are set up so it looks like they have been scattered by the wind across the pavement.

Virginia Beach Boardwalk

The beach is long and has soft golden sand. The Neptune Festival is in full swing on the Boardwalk. The first part of a sand sculpture competition is being judged as we turn up at 2pm. The sculptures are amazing. Some of them are over 6 feet tall and are really intricate. There is a “master solo” competition and a “master team” which is for pairs. Quite a lot of the contestants are from Holland for some reason. After taking a few photos we escape indoors to a bar on the seafront and have a few drinks and lunch. Feeling better we have a wander along the boardwalk where there are loads of stalls set up for local arts and craftsmen. There are some really nice things to look at; not the usual old tat. We walk for over 20 blocks. At 6pm various stages along the way kick off with live music. As people leave work the boardwalk fills with families and dog walkers. There's a great atmosphere. I get to fuss a 14 week old Weimeraner puppy that still has blue eyes and enormous feet. One of the guys is selling hanging chairs that are like wood framed deckchairs that you hang from the ceiling on a big spring. Rich is very taken with them and wants to make one. They even have a dangling foot rest and drink holder. Because we are so near the huge naval base in Norfolk there's a pretty steady stream of fighter planes going over our heads. They look like they are practising carrier landings.


Kiptopeke State Park (25th to 27th September 2010)

It's a little cooler as we drive back over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel from Virginia Beach. As we get on to the mainland at the north end we see about 6 ospreys sitting by the roadside watching the nearby marshes.

We drive in to Kiptopeke State Park and find the tent only area. It is a wooded campsite, just behind the beach dunes. While we are there it slowly empties until we spend the last night all alone!

Day One

After pitching the tent we drive down to the pier and look for the Hawk Observatory. We have been advised to come here by a guy in Acadia National Park at the Hawk Count station. They have a really high number of migrating raptors so we're hoping to spot some of them.

After a few wrong turns via the songbird banding station and the butterfly garden, we find the platform where the Hawk Count is going on. Zak is tracking the numbers and Bob and Harry are spotting. It's a quiet day for them as there is a south wind blowing and it is very hot. The birds are migrating south and understandably prefer a tail wind! The main birds that they see coming through are coopers hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, peregrine falcons, merlins, kestrels, northern harriers, bald eagles, ospreys and broad-winged hawks. These are accompanied by many gulls and vultures that serve to confuse our amateur eyes. We see a few of these through the afternoon but tomorrow promises to be a better day for hawk watching.


Day Two

It's an overcast day and the wind has shifted to the north east. We go over to the hawk observatory and catch up with Bob and Harry again. There are a lot of volunteers on the platform as this looks like it is going to be a busy day.

Rich and I are pretty good at spotting the raptors coming in from the north over the trees, but pretty rubbish at identifying what they are. Fortunately the guys are experts and have fantastic binoculars and spotting scopes to quickly identify and note down each bird. It's a record day for this season with 1376 raptors spotted. This included 400 sharp-shinned hawks and 370 american kestrels. Bob kindly lets us use his scope to view some of them, including a couple of bald eagles.

Next to the observation platform is a hawk banding station that is blocked off to the public behind some trees and bushes. One of the guys goes down there and brings back a Coopers Hawk and a Merlin that have been captured so we can see them close up. It's fascinating to see a real predator up close. Their expression is one of complete indignation and anger. You can see the power in their beak and talons. Calvin holds the birds up for us and gets a talon snagged in his thumb. I think I'd want gloves on! It's really nice that they want to share the birds with the public and educate us.

Caitlin, one of the naturalists, has been focussing on Monarch Butterflies and monitoring their migration to South America. While we watch, she catches and puts a sticker on one of these big beautiful insects. She repairs a small tear in its wing and lets it go.

It's a really long day to be standing still staring at fast flying objects. The observatory staff and volunteers put a lot of energy into this, often working 12 hour days. We've only been there around 6 hours and I feel pooped! Bob seems pleased with our input, so it's nice to think we helped in a small way with the count.


Day Three

It must have rained on and off all night. We have a few leaks appearing round the two tent doors and the bedroom window. It's not looking like a great day for migrating hawks!

After breakfast we walk over to the songbird banding station to see what they do. They have wide nets hanging horizontally through the trees that catch the small migrating birds. They then take a few statistics before banding the birds and releasing them. When we get there they're about to pack up for the day due to the rain. We get to see Calvin process a black and white warbler. They look so tiny and fragile.

We wander back and sit with Zak for a while with our waterproofs on at the observatory. It's a grim day and there isn't much hawk activity. He asks if we'd like to see what the guys do in the “hidden” hawk banding station. As it's a quiet day Bob and Adam agree to let us sit in their hide with them and observe. They have a number of different sized lure birds harnessed on to ropes that they can control the bird's movements with. They use pigeons, starlings and sparrows mostly. The type of hawk flying in will determine which lure bird they will move around to simulate an injured bird. They then catch the hawk in various different styles of nets, again depending on the bird. It's a bit of a tough life for the lure bird but it's a very effective trap. The rain is really heavy now and the poor guys are sitting in the hide trying to avoid the trickles and leaks.
We watch as Adam processes a young female merlin that they caught earlier. They are wonderful to see up close and you can really see the vicious talons. Bob explains that they have a blue inner mouth as a way of attracting the mother at feeding time. While processing they keep the bird in a tin, the size of a Pringles can. Adam lets Rich take the merlin out of the can and hold on to her very carefully, so she can't scratch, bite or fly away. Her heart races as he pulls her out, but slows so quickly as she assesses the situation. He releases her out of the front window of the hide but she manages to get caught up in one of the nets again so Bob has to go out in the rain and try and untangle a fighting, screeching ball of talons and beak!

While we're chatting and the rain is absolutely torrential, a random Cooper's Hawk manages to fly in to the low nets near the hide. No one spots her come in. Adam untangles her and brings her in to process. He measures various things and checks out her tail feathers. They have marks on them that show times of poorer nutrition as a young bird (a bit like we get marks in our fingernails) They have two very long rounded talons and two shorter ones. These are designed to puncture and kill; pretty scary. The Coopers is bigger than the Merlin and looks at us like we are aliens. She is beautiful but also comical as she is soaking wet and her feathers are all ruffled.

The rain just gets heavier and heavier so we leave the hide as the guys pack up. We walk back to the car and realise that the park is flooded in a few inches of water. We rush back to the tent through a campsite that is running like a river. The tent is floating in two inches of water and it's still coming down. All the pitches are under water and we are the only people left in the campsite. We carefully step in to the tent, which wallows under our feet, and pull out all our bags and coolers. Rich unpegs it and we drag the tent about 20 feet over to some slightly higher ground. Thank goodness we came back when we did.


Richmond (4th & 5th October 2010)

On our way out of North Carolina we visit Richmond city for a few nights. Our first stop is the Richmond National Battlefield Park Civil War Visitor Centre at the Tredegar Iron Works.

From the first shots of the civil war, Richmond was a focal point in the conflict. The town was the capital city for the Confederate government. It was also strategically placed on the James River, with an active commercial, manufacturing and transportation infrastructure. The Tredegar Iron Works formed a prominent part of the city's industrial capability. During the Civil War, Tredegar operated day and night to meet the demands of the Confederacy for artillery, ammunition and other war related materials. It produced almost 1,100 field and siege cannons. It's rolling mills provided the armour plating that protected the warships, including the CSS Virginia. The city also had railroad links with every part of the state and the Deep South.

We wander around the original buildings and look at the exhibits before watching the film about the battles that ensued around Richmond in 1862 and 1864.

After a quick drive around the city centre to see the State Capitol building and Old City Hall we drive down to Fort Harrison on the Battlefield Tour. The fort is predominantly made up of earthworks to provide the fortifications. The fort was taken by Union troops during Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign in 1864. You can still see the hills and trenches that were cut to hold back the attacking forces.

We then move on to Drewry's Bluff or Fort Darling as it was known by Union troops. During the 1862 Peninsular Campaign five Federal vessels, including the famous ironclad USS Monitor, attacked the fort but were driven off. The successful defence prevented Richmond from being shelled early in the war, and the presence of the fort was a deterrent to other Union naval forays up the James River. You can still stand at the same spot in the fort where the cannons fired the boats as they came round a bend in the river.