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Raptors, Bears, and a Fat Girl Camping in Shenandoah National Park

June 9, 2008

Shenandoah never disappoints. I’ve been to the park on day trips and longer, in spring, summer, and fall. I’ve encountered blankets of ice at high elevations and sweated through 90 degree hikes. I’ve camped there in a tent and in a motorhome. I’ve been from one end of Skyline Drive to the other. Each time, a different experience. Each time, the park touches a distinct piece of my soul. This trip was no different.

From the ranger at the Front Royal gate, who called me a biker, to the heavy rain, hail, and tornado warnings…well, I wouldn’t exactly call it a boring trip.

The ranger at the gate must have thought me simple when he called me a biker because I’m sure I had a dumbfounded look on my face. And when he said, “Well, you have a bike with you don’t you? That makes you a biker to me.” That made me feel like a prize idiot for just a minute. I brought my bike along with me to ride around the campground, but it was the first time I’d taken it anywhere with me before. It was a holiday present and I haven’t ridden it much (and as of this trip I know it still needs some adjustments to be comfortable for me), so to be called a biker stunned me a bit. If I hardly ride my bike at this point, am I a biker? I guess that’s what threw me.

As I drove away from the gate and started climbing up Skyline Drive the scenery changed almost immediately. The road was vacant for a long time and I was alone in the car. I started to reach the area where low stone walls are the only thing separating you from long drops down steep cliffs. When I neared the top of the first mountain a peregrine falcon flew over my car, caught the updraft at the edge of the cliff, and soared level with my car as I drove. It was awe inspiring.

That was especially significant to me as birds have been playing the auguries in my life lately. Each bird signifies something different and what the birds are doing is important as well. Having a lone raptor pacing me while soaring in the sky…yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about that one.

Raptors, in and of themselves, are fascinating creatures and I’ve seen my fair share of them in the wild. Most of my raptor memories are of bald eagles, especially those in the Kenai Fjords. I once saw a flock of seagulls trying to chase an eagle out of a cove in a fjord. The eagle, getting annoyed and refusing to give up prime hunting ground, grabbed a seagull in midair and tore it asunder. The painfully loud screeching and the image of falling feathers caught up in a williwaw are things I will never forget. My two most powerful raptor encounters…one reminded me of the power and awesome brutality of nature, and the other, well, the other reminded me of her grace and beauty. It’s amazing how grace and violence can live so well together in one type of creature. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me though. Grace and violence exist hand-in-hand in the human creature on an all-too-frequent basis.

Having heard from my camping companions that they were running about two hours behind me, I took my time driving the 50 or so miles to Big Meadows campground and I savored the scenery. After four hours in the car, I made a pit stop at Elkwallow Wayside and grabbed something to drink from the cooler. I had just gotten back on Skyline Drive again when a black bear appeared on the left side of the road. He looked to be stopping to make sure he could cross to the picnic grounds. My first reaction was, “Man, these bears are small.” And I really surprised myself with that thought.

I’m so used to seeing grizzlies, having lived in Alaska, that I completely forgot how small the East Coast black bears really are. Alaska has black bears too, of course, but I don’t think I ever encountered one in the wild. Grizzlies just seemed to be out and about more and if you didn’t see them, you knew when they’d been around. Often a campground dog would chase one off in the early morning hours and by breakfast everyone knew there’d been a brown bear mere feet from where they were sleeping.

What the bear brought to me on this trip was perspective. Some of the most dangerous creatures in the park became small in my mind. And while I’m certainly not stupid enough to fail to take the necessary precautions when camping around any kind of bear, having immediately perceived the bear I saw as small made me feel safe. And it reminded me that I can make the bears in the concrete jungle just as small in my mind as this wild bear seemed, and hence, no longer perceive them as a threat.

I stopped many times during that drive to take a few photos or just wonder at the puffy white clouds against the brilliant blue of the sky. There were lots of yellow flowers blooming as well as wild pink azaleas and they added a flush of color to the green and blue backdrop of trees and sky. Deer were everywhere in the park and since it was fawning season, little spotted creatures could easily be spied shakily sidling along beside their mommas.

I checked in at Big Meadows campground and listened to the requisite warnings about food and bears. Our campsite did not have a bear box for food. Because the site was the closest to the parking area, we were required to keep our food in our vehicles except, of course, when we were in the process of preparing it at our campsite. One of our campground neighbors who had a bear box directly next to their picnic table were not good with their food and with the twice daily ranger food inspections, we saw a ranger leave them a warning about storing their food. If she came around again the next day and they were not complying with food/bear safety measures, they would have been fined.

I tooled around the campground once just to get the layout before finding my way to our site. I set about erecting my tent. Now, my tent is a large dome big enough to stand up inside. It is much easier to put up with two people, instead of alone. I’ve done it by myself before, but there’s no denying how much easier it is with two–like most things in this world.

A strong wind was running laps around the campsite and when I finally got the tent set up and was turning around to grab my ground anchors, the tent lifted off the ground, and like the enlarged head of a 9mm bullet, flew sideways, completly intact, into a copse of trees. All I could do was stand there and laugh for a minute before grabbing it, along with the help of a nearby fellow camper, and pulling it back to the ground to be quickly anchored. I thanked the woman who rushed to help me and she said the exact thing had happened to her earlier in the day. I’m just glad those trees were there or my tent would have been enjoying it’s maiden flight over Big Meadows campground.

Our campsite wasn’t the most wooded in the area, and another set of campers essentially had to pass through our site to get to theirs, but we had a beautiful panoramic view.

After my camping companions arrived and I helped them to get set up, G started a fire. She’s our fire queen and despite the wind, she had a fire roaring in no time. Our next adventure was trying out the new pie iron to make a quick dinner of pizza pockets. Olive oil spray, bread, pizza sauce, cheese, a little onion and garlic powder, pepperoni, and fresh basil and Cuban oregano from my garden…yum. It took awhile to get the cast iron to heat up to cook the first sandwich, but by the time we started on the second, it took only minutes to get a crispy, gooey sandwich. The pie iron was a great success and it’ll happily join my cadre of camping cookware. By the time we finished eating, it was getting late and tamping down our fire, we turned in for the evening.

The wind howled, thrashed tree leaves, and violently shook the tent throughout the night. I woke repeatedly to stare at the nylon ceiling and hope my staking job would hold. I had a recurring dream. The wind would blow, and I’d dream the tent was shrinking…becoming a smaller and smaller dome with me inside. Then I’d wake, see the tent was still the same size and watch its domed top shift violently from side to side. I must have hit repeat on that at least 5 times that night.

When we woke the next morning, my tent was still intact and I decided that it’d probably be a good idea to stake down my fly in addition to the main tent. In the 12 years since I’ve owned this tent, I’d only done that once before during several days of soaking rain in a campground in Anchorage.

Breakfast was hash browns and scrambled eggs on the camp stove and, of course, coffee. Because camping isn’t really camping without coffee. We looked over our hiking options for the day and decided on a few that seemed plausible. I adamantly refused to hike to Dark Hallow Falls again. I’d done that 7 years previous carrying 40 lbs of camera equipment on my back. The falls are beautiful, but the trail is steep and there are so many other, less-crowded hikes to enjoy.

We did sort of take our time getting going that day as none of us had slept well that night. We were camped at the trail head of the Story of the Forest trail and decided we’d just check out that trail. It was close, didn’t have any serious elevation changes (an unusual thing for Shenandoah), and it took us out to the big meadow for which the campground was named. We doused ourselves in bug spray and sunscreen and headed off.

Trail markers in the wooded area held plaques that told a little history and talked about the plants and animals native to the area. The three of us stopped to read a marker and we were almost completely finished reading it before G noticed a very young fawn curled up amongst the bushes and leaves right near the base of the marker. We didn’t even see her and as G said, even though the fawn wasn’t the same color as her surroundings, her camouflage worked really well. We cautiously looked around for the momma deer because if you encounter a baby animal you can be sure that momma isn’t far away, but we didn’t see her on our way out of the trees.

I was grateful to my camping companions for taking the hike slowly–especially on the hills. After the last year, I carry this weakness in my muscles that I haven’t yet been able to shake and I tire easily. We saw many more deer on the trail and when we reached Big Meadow, the wind was whipping the grasses into an undulating ocean of waves. We walked across the meadow a bit and down a gravel ranger road. We encountered the most heavily armed ranger we’d ever seen. She was driving down the gravel road and she stopped to chat with us (seriously, a semi-automatic rifle strapped in the front seat, a pistol in her belt, and at least one other rifle-type gun that I couldn’t get a good look at).

The rangers had been receiving warnings from the National Weather Service that heavy rain, thunderstorms, hail, and tornadoes were predicted for the park late that afternoon and evening. As the ranger said, “Now, it’s unlikely that a tornado will touch down in Shenandoah because tornadoes like flat land, but don’t ever tell Mother Nature what she can’t do because she’ll be sure to prove you wrong.” We all couldn’t agree more.

One of our campground neighbors heard these warnings early in the day and immediately packed up and left after being there less than 24 hours. G, D & I, well, we’re a little more tenacious than that and we had a beautiful day despite the warnings.

We started our trek back to the campsite, stopped to examine some ants swarming over a dead and bisected worm, and saw the same fawn by the same trail marker upon our return.

We were all hungry at that point and figured we’d better get the fire going again and get cooking if it was going to rain later. G cranked up the fire again, and we set about an ambitious new campfire recipe, carne asada steak and corn on the cob. About half way through cooking the steak, dark clouds started whizzing by overhead. The already-heavy wind picked up and we felt drops here and there, but still the sky seemed light enough not to worry yet. Then all of a sudden a cool breeze blew through, the sky opened up, and thick sheets of gumball-sized rain were falling in an instant.

D ran for cover in his tent as he had accidentally only brought one pair of pants on the trip–the jeans he was wearing (we all know how long it takes jeans to dry and how badly they can chafe when wet). G and I ran to stash anything that could be damaged. I ran to the car for my raincoat and umbrella, and the next thing we knew G & I were completely soaked, standing around a still-roaring fire (go G!) cooking the steaks and corn, aided only by some aluminum foil and an umbrella. We were already soaked so the umbrella was really for the steaks.

The storm was intense, but lasted only about 5 minutes. Directly after that the sun came back out, D emerged from the tent, and G & I were glad to be wet because the sun was drying off all of the moisture from the storm. I mean, our picnic table was actually steaming when the sun came out again.

The steaks were absolutely yummy and with our bellies full we decided a nap was in order. We were all completely out for almost two hours. I’m sure our interrupted sleep the night before had something to do with that. Upon waking G&D hiked back down to the meadow and I met them there in my car. The meadow is a popular place in the evening and parking spaces fill up quickly so if you drive, go early.

A couple of hours later we were back at the campsite and G was building up the fire again to make a late supper of marinated chicken and vegetable kabobs with baked potatoes. I was having some painful spasms from accidentally napping on my hands so D&G did the chopping and cooking. Our Christian neighbor (the kind who advertise their faith on their t-shirts and name their 5-year old boy Dubya–seriously Dubya) walked through our campsite salivating while mumbling that he had eaten canned soup for dinner.

The kabobs were yummy and were followed by all-chocolate s’mores–chocolate graham crackers, chocolate marshmallows, and chocolate bars…mmm…. Next time we add peanut butter for sure. G & I took turns trying to remember songs from when we were camp counselors and discussed why A Boy and a Girl in a Little Canoe had been banned by the Girl Scouts for being sexist.

The sky was dark and mostly clear that night. We did lose the stars at some point, but for most of the evening we had a near-dark moon and a canopy of sparkly lights. D thought he spotted the space station. It just looked like a moving star, not like a satellite at all (we spotted several of those that night as well). I saw a shooting star and made a wish. Shooting stars are incredibly special to me, partly because I didn’t see my first one until I was well into my 20s, and partly because I was driving high in the Sierra Nevada mountains when I spied that first one. It felt so close that I wanted to reach out and catch it.

Being able to see the stars is one of the main reasons I like going camping. City lights, street lights, and neighbors with motion censor lights, don’t leave much darkness where the stars can twinkle and moonlight doesn’t disappear. Hence, I’m a huge supporter of the dark sky movement.

Sleep that night came much easier than the previous night with no recurring dreams of shrinking tents. We had to be out of our site by noon and G worked on getting our fire going again so that we could make breakfast. For some reason, despite the fact that the wood had been sheltered from rain and dew, and despite G’s fire-building genius, the wood didn’t do much more than smoke. We tried a new campfire recipe called Yummy Breakfast Bags that turned out to be a resounding failure, feeding the fire our breakfast instead of our bellies. That one’s getting a negative note in the new campfire cookbook. We did end up doing bacon on a stick over the fire and that gave us enough energy to get us through ’til lunch.

We broke down our campsite and were back on Skyline Drive heading toward the exit for Lurray, Virginia. G & I had been to Lurray Caverns as children, and thought another visit as adults would be fun. It had not been something we planned before we left for the trip, and even though I had planned to bring my large flash, I had neglected to put it on my mega list so it was left behind. So after a few test shots while waiting for the rest of our tour group to descend into the caverns, I knew how I was going to shoot. I vacillated between the little pop-up flash on my camera, and a high-speed manual setting with adjustments to my shutter speed depending on how steady I could hold the camera. I tended to prefer using the lighting provided in the caverns and the high speed (what would usually be called ‘film’, but what exactly do you call that when it is just a digital setting?) to using a flash. Flash just deadened the image to me, while using the existing lighting created all kinds of interesting shadows.

For example, the photo on the left was taken with existing lighting and a high speed setting, while the photo on the right was taken using my little pop-up flash. Which one do you prefer?

While I like both images, I tend to prefer the one on the left because the shadows are more interesting.

I’ve been having a tough time getting into the groove lately when it comes to my photography, but I was as close to the groove as I’d been in a long time while shooting the caverns.

Despite the relative coolness of the caverns, the humidity is very high and by the time we walked the mile and a quarter trail and climbed those last 70 or so stairs out, I was covered in perspiration. But for images like this, it was all worth it.

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