150711_PA Nockamixon Cliffs_1277acs“Grandfather, look what I found!” said the young boy. “It’s a dragon egg!”

“No, my grandson,” said the old man as he stood along the river shore.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9511acs“It is indeed an egg, but not of a dragon, for they left our land many ages ago. This is the egg of an Osprey, the masked hawk that fishes in the River Delaware. But where did you find it?”

“In the grass at the base of the red rock cliffs.”

“You must return it to the nest. Mother Osprey will be looking for it. The cliffs are high and dangerous, but you are young and strong. I have confidence in you.”

“I will try,” replied the boy somberly. “But first, Grandfather, tell me again of how these cliffs came to be?”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9523acs“Very well, my grandson, I will tell you. Rest here amongst the flowers while I weave my tale…”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9545acs“The Nockamixon Cliffs tower 300 feet above the River Delaware. They are made of red shale, siltstone and sandstone.

“200 million years ago in the Triassic Era, hot molten diabase boiled out of the earth. Its heat baked the shale and siltstone to an unusual hardness.

“See how the rocks tilt to the northwest? Over time tremendous pressure twisted the stone just so, and weathering has left them exposed for us to view from below.

“These palisades host an arctic-alpine plant community that is rare in this land, as well as more than 90 bird species, including peregrine falcons and the Ospreys who are even now looking for their egg.”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9606acsThe boy looked up at the towering cliffs, swallowed hard, and nodded. “I will do my best, Grandfather.”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9707acs“Do you see the Indian carved in the stone?

“If you lose courage, look to him; he will give you strength.”

The boy nodded again, tucked the egg carefully into his clothes, and began to climb. 150711_PA Nockamixon Cliffs_1243acsIt seemed easy at first, as he pushed his way through the leafy branches at the base of the cliffs.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9603acsHe came upon a small waterfall spilling in sinuous braids down the ledges. How slippery the footing was here! “I shall be as supple as this water,” the boy said to himself.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9589acsAlong the way, he marveled at the perseverance of the plants. Ferns, bushes and even trees seemed found no difficulty in rooting themselves in face of the stone. “I shall be as tenacious as these trees,” he said to himself.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9554aAs he neared the top, the boy found the climbing difficult. So high up he was! He tried not to look down. Slowly he moved, clinging to the rocks, wedging his fingers and toes into any crack he could find. “I shall be as strong as these cliffs,” he thought to himself.

At last the boy reached the top. Gingerly he took the egg from his clothes; tenderly he placed it in the Osprey nest. Mother Osprey watched him intently, fierce emotion hidden behind her glittering golden eyes. “I shall be as fearless as this Osprey,” the boy thought to himself.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9590aThen he looked over the edge of the cliff, down to the riverbed and the old man far below. The boy gulped.

Now what?

Frigid Fossil Hunt

After such a mild winter, why, oh why, did we choose the only truly FRIGID weekend to go fossil hunting along the Chesapeake Bay?

160214_MD Flag Ponds Nature Park_0252aCalvert Cliffs on the western shore of Maryland is well-known for fossils, in particular fossilized sharks’ teeth. Dreaming of returning with fists full of teeth, Robb, Don and I spent a cold weekend on the Chesapeake Bay exploring Calvert Cliffs and other nearby sites.

Take a little trip back in time, 15 million years ago. It’s the Miocene Epoch, and southern Maryland is covered by a warm shallow sea. In the sea swim ancient species of whales, porpoises, turtles, sea cows, and rays. Several species of shark, including the giant White Shark Carcharocles megalodon, feed on the vertebrate population. Ancient invertebrates inhabiting the seas include clams, oysters, crabs and corals.

As each sea critter died, its carcass sank to the sea floor, to be covered with sand and silt. Generation after generation, the layers of bones accrued and fossilized.

Fast forward to the present. What was once sea floor is now a formation of clay, sandstone and shale cliffs known as the Calvert Cliffs stretching for miles along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Imbedded in those cliffs are the fossilized remains of over 600 species of extinct Miocene animals.

While the cliffs themselves are mostly on private property, there are a few public beaches where fossils appear – usually shells and corals – and the public is encouraged to fossil hunt. The real stars of the fossil hunt are the shark’s teeth. The teeth of extinct species of tiger, hammerhead, sand, and best of all Megalodon sharks can frequently be found here.

FUN FACT: Sharks, both prehistoric and modern, have an unlimited supply of teeth, which they lose frequently and which are immediately replaced by already existing teeth. Over the course of millions of years, that’s a lot of sharks’ teeth falling to the sea floor.

Don promised there would be “trillions” of fossilized sharks’ teeth out there for us to find.

160213_MD Drum Point Lighthouse_9881acsOur first stop was the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland. This was a great waterfront museum with an emphasis on natural and maritime history. We enjoyed the aquarium and other displays, but it was the fossil collection that we came to see. It was well worth the trip! There was a prehistoric time line, a reproduction of the Calvert Cliffs, and fossils of Miocene shells, sharks, whales, fish and crocodiles. Looming over it all was a HUGE replica of the extinct giant shark fondly known as Megalodon.

160213_MD Drum Point Lighthouse_9911acsWe also toured the decommissioned Drum Point Lighthouse. Previously I have only seen tower lighthouses that stand on the shoreline. Drum Point is a screwpile lighthouse that once stood over the water off Drum Point. The octagonal structure encloses a two story cottage for the keeper and his family. Moored next to the lighthouse is the skipjack Dee of St. Mary’s. Skipjacks were used to dredge oysters from the Chesapeake Bay.

The next afternoon we went to the beach near a portion of the Calvert Cliffs, hoping to find fossils. The gatekeeper showed us some fossils he’d found recently, petrified wood and a shark’s tooth. He said he’d found them yards out in the water, where the Bay is very shallow. Oops! Mistake #1: we left our muck boots at home. With temperatures hovering around 22° and a stiff breeze, there was no way we were walking in the water.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0240acsThe beach was unlike anything we’d seen before. Hundreds of yards wide, peppered with large pools and stands of beach grasses.

We walked for a long way right at the edge of the water, looking for fossils and teeth. Trillions of sharks’ teeth? Nope.

160302_MD Fossil Hunting_1612acs copyWe did find a few of these fossilized corals, which I photographed at home later.

160302_MD Fossil Hunting_1613acsHere’s a close-up of the coral.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0193acsThe cliffs south of us were dramatic. Even from a distance, the striations were obvious. It was also obvious that I’d made a miscalculation in suggesting the afternoon for this trek. I’d hoped it would be warmer. But the afternoon sun left the cliffs in deep shade, and none of my photos do them justice. Mistake #2.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0246acsAn island of terraced sand looked enticing. Surely there are shark teeth in those layers? But it was out of reach across the water. We’ll never know.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0323acsWe found rocks with fossilized clam and scallop shells embedded in them. Pretty cool.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0262acsBeach sculpture. Again, humans’ need to create art wherever they are amazes me.

In our exploration of the beach did we find trillions of sharks’ teeth? Nope. Not one.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0310acsCoral, yes. Clam shells imbedded in rocks, yes.

Sharks’ teeth, no.

160214_MD Fossil Hunting_0157acsNo matter. We explored a beach unlike others we’ve seen, saw some honest-to-goodness fossils, and marveled at the massive Calvert Cliffs.

Frigid fossil fun!

On The Massanutten

150705_VA Massanutten_0708acsOn Skyline Drive, in all but the deepest fog, there is no missing the Massanutten. How can you overlook a 50 mile long mountain that runs through the heart of the Shenandoah Valley? It’s so big it has its own valley, for gosh sakes!

Signal Knob, Massanutten’s northern peak, has long held a fascination for my friends and me. So, naturally, we wanted to climb to the top of it.

5 miles each way? 2700 feet of elevation gain?

What could go wrong?

150705_VA Massanutten_0799aAt first, the narrow Signal Knob trail climbed gently along a small run through deep moist woods. Ferns, mosses and shrubs adorned the understory. We passed on old building and then a spring. Beyond that the trail turned sharply and began to climb steeply.

150705_VA Massanutten_0774acsJust past the spring I found a purple mushroom. Purple!

150705_VA Massanutten_0800acsThe forest became drier as we climbed higher, and we started seeing talus slopes to the left. Talus, or scree, is an accumulation of broken rock and boulders that have crumbled, and then tumbled, from cliffs higher on the mountain. The lichens that cover the rocks give them their greenish tint.

150705_VA Massanutten_1011acsThe trees thinned to the right and we began to get views across a valley to another slope. An argument ensued between Don, who was certain we were hiking on the west arm of the Massanutten and looking at the east arm, and Robb, who was certain he knew where north was and that Don had it backwards. This argument continued for most of the walk, and I am not certain it ever got cleared up satisfactorily.

Because they weren’t listening to me. I suggested that we were hiking on the east arm of the Massanutten, and looking across a small valley at another ridge on the same east arm, in the opposite direction of the other arm of the mountain. Guess who was right?

You got it. But does anyone ever listen to me? Nope, no one ever listens to me.

150705_VA Massanutten_0992acsArguments (temporarily) shelved, we continued up the trail. Soon the habitat got seriously weird.

150705_VA Massanutten_0853acsThe first hint was the presence of low-bush blueberry.

150705_VA Massanutten_0990aFollowed by black jack oak. Mountain laurel. Sand on the trail.

150705_VA Massanutten_0987acsPines with three needles, and – oh look! Needles growing out of the trunk. Pitch pines!

Wait, did we take a wrong turn? How did we end up in the New Jersey Pine Barrens?

We didn’t, of course. In this part of the Appalachians, dry southwest-facing slopes with poor sandy soil support many of the same trees and plants we see in the Pine Barrens.

The similarity in flora to the Pinelands fascinated us for the rest of the hike.

150705_VA Massanutten_0856acsHere’s one of the rare rocks that wasn’t covered in lichen and moss. The weathering of the quartz-rich stone here was the source of the sand under our feet.

150705_VA Massanutten_0893acsThere were lots of rock formations along the way, one of which Robb just had to climb…

150705_VA Massanutten_0931acs1Don just had to follow…

and then me too, because it was such a nice cool place to rest.

Then I just had to take their picture.

150705_VA Massanutten_1034acsA short time later we reached the Buzzard Rock Overlook. That’s “Overlook.” I thought we were standing on Buzzard Rock, and was unimpressed.

150705_VA Massanutten_1047acsThen I learned we were looking across the valley at Buzzard Rock, which was a dramatic rock formation on the other side of the Passage Creek valley.

At this point we had been hiking for 2½ hours but had covered only 1½ miles of the 5 miles to Signal Knob. The trail from there only gets steeper and rockier. By now, any thought Don had of getting to Signal Knob had vanished, and we all agreed Buzzard Rock Overlook was enough. Besides, it was time for lunch.

With that, we turned around and walked down the way we had come up. A 10 mile hike to Signal Knob turned into a 3 mile walk to Buzzard Rock Overlook. Don claimed that was the plan all along. Conquer the Massanutten?

150705_VA Massanutten_1004acsMaybe we gentled it a little.

No matter. We’d scrambled over rocks, argued over directions, puzzled over trees and shrubs, exclaimed over magic mushrooms, marveled over views. In the end, we’d gained something far more awesome than we’d bargained for, an intimate experience with a massive mountain.

All in a day on the Massanutten.

In the Cave

Crystal Cave_3390a Once upon a time, when I was a small child, my father and I shared a nighttime story ritual. He would sit by my bed and weave intricate tales of the adventures of two young explorers. Our heroes hiked the deep North Woods, climbed tall mountains, built and sailed wooden ships, braved fierce blizzards, and paddled their canoe through tumbling white water. I would drift off to sleep with the sound of the wind whispering in the pines and the scent of wood smoke wafting through my dreams.

Crystal Cave_3405aNothing made as big an impression on my youthful mind as the time our young daredevils went spelunking. My father drew an image so detailed that I could see those caves as if I was there: a warren of rooms small and large filled with stalactites, stalagmites, weird rock faces, and glittering crystals. There were chimneys soaring toward the sky, deep drops into darkness, underground rivers, tiny tunnels that suddenly opened into cavernous spaces, and everywhere the drip-drip-drip of water.

I am quite sure that my love of nature was born from these nightly tales. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I should feel so at home on my first-ever visit to a cave last weekend.

Crystal Cave_3395acsThe cavern in question is Crystal Cave, a small limestone cave a little over an hour from my house. It was discovered in 1871, and became the first tourist cave in Pennsylvania. Today you can take a guided tour 125 feet underground to see the weird rock formations and sparkling crystals that adorn the maze of rooms in this cave.

Crystal Cave_3467aFUN FACT: Caves form when rainwater seeps through cracks and fissures in the sedimentary bedrock of the ground. If the rock has a high content of calcium carbonate, like limestone, the rainwater forms an acid which eats through the rock, creating tunnels and caves.  Dripping water leaves deposits of calcite behind. These are the “speleothem” or formations of the caves, such as stalactites and stalagmites, columns, flowstone, draperies, even “cave bacon”.

Many of the individual formations in Crystal Cave have their own names, like the Prairie Dogs, the Ear of Corn, the Giant’s Tooth, and the Indian Head. I don’t know the official name for this, but I call it The Michelin Man.

Crystal Cave_3384aThe cave giants made a cake one day, and spilled vanilla icing everywhere…

Crystal Cave_3387sDraperies.

Crystal Cave_3416a Fried Eggs on the floor of the cavern. They’re very small, just a few inches across.

Crystal Cave_3448a I’m sure this formation  inspired an alien on Dr. Who.

Or two or three.

It’s flowstone, more colorfully called a frozen waterfall.

Crystal Cave_3429aStalactites and draperies.

Many caves have extensive water features, underground pools and even rivers. Crystal Cave is a bit lacking in this department, with only one small pool a foot or two across.

They call it…Crystal Cave_3412aLake Inferior.

I’ve heard of a cave where the entire tour is by boat…

Sleeping Bear Dunes: The Scenic Drive

00 A LegendSleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwest Michigan’s Lower Peninsula encompasses 50,000 acres, including 65 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, and the Manitou Islands. There are 100 miles of hiking trails, winding through forests, lakes, beaches and those famous dunes. Within the Lakeshore are historic sites like the company town of Glen Haven, three former U.S. Life-Saving Service Stations, and the Port Oneida Rural Historic District.

00 Lake Mich Pan 2 ACWith only a day at Sleeping Bear Dunes, and so much to see and do, where do you start? That’s easy: with all the “touristy” things! Chief among them is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This 7.4 mile drive was built in the late 1960s by lumberman Pierce Stocking to show visitors the natural wonders of the area he loved. It became part of the Lakeshore after his death in 1976. The drive winds through the woods and along the dunes, offering spectacular views at 12 stops along the way.

01 MI Sleeping Bear Dunes_6493 aThe Covered Bridge. I’m a sucker for covered bridges anywhere, but this one is especially scenic. And topped with a National Park Service arrowhead, no less. It’s nestled in a forest of maple and beech trees which blankets the steep hills and valleys.

02 MI Sleeping Bear Dunes_6499 aGlen Lake Overlook. Glen Lake, like Lake Michigan and the other smaller lakes of the area, was carved out by glaciers long ago. As the ice melted, deposits of sand and gravel were left behind to form hills. The hill at the left is known as Alligator Hill because of its resemblance to an alligator’s snout, not because there are alligators on the hill!

03 MI Sleeping Bear Dunes_6526aDune Overlook. Here you can see some of the dunes that make up the Lakeshore. Most of the dunes have been around for ages, and the vegetation that covers their surfaces helps to stabilize them. Occasionally the wind scours a depression free of plants and creates an area known as a “blowout”.

04 Cottonwood CollageThe Cottonwood Trail. One and a half miles through the dunes, up and down hills of soft sand in a blazing sun. Not usually my idea of a good time, but I really enjoyed this walk. There were great views to be had at the top of those sand hills: the “Dune Climb”, the D. H. Day Farm, Glen Lake and Lake Michigan.  The trail gets its name from the stands of Cottonwood trees that provide welcome shade as well as beauty. Lots of interesting wildflowers and shrubs can be found here, including buffaloberry, dune grass, the threatened Pitcher’s Thistle, and bearberry. I recognized not a single one, not being smart enough to pick up a trail map until I got back from the hike.  I wished more than once that my Weed Warrior friends were along; they would have had a blast identifying plants.

07 Beech Maple Collage aThe Maple/ Beech Forest. Coming down the backside of the dunes, you plunge into a cool, leafy green forest. The predominant trees here are Sugar Maple and American Beech, with Hemlock, Basswood and Black Cherry trees scattered throughout. This is a climax forest, the last stage in the transition of ecosystems from dunes to woods.

09  A MI Sleeping Bear Dunes_6718 a Lake Michigan Overlook. Lake Michigan was carved out by glaciers, and filled when the ice melted nearly 12,000 years ago. The water shimmers through crystalline shades of blue and aqua, varying with the lake depth. The bluffs that line the shore are 450 feet high, and precariously steep. The NPS warns people not to run down the dunes, both to protect the fragile ecology of the dunes and prevent further erosion, and to protect visitors.

Sure, it’s easy to go DOWN the dune, and there’s an inviting swim at the bottom. But then you have to climb back UP, a chore that can take up to two hours as you crawl upwards over gravel and loose sand.  Occasionally people need to be rescued, and the nearby town of Glen Arbor has a four wheel drive vehicle for just that purpose.

09 Lake Mich Overlook CollageAll the warnings don’t stop people from trying it. You can see how steep it is, and how hard it is to get back up. Better to take in the view from the observation platform, but hold onto your hat! It’s windy out there.

10 MI Sleeping Bear Dunes_6746a Sleeping Bear Dune. Here is the dune of legend. At one time it did look like a sleeping black bear. It was also inland from the edge of the bluff, and stood 234′ high. Over the years the front of the bluff has eroded away, as has part of the dune itself. It is now at the edge of the bluff and only 132′ high. In time it will disappear altogether. Across the water at the left is one of the Manitou Islands.

11 MI Sleeping Bear Dunes_6834aNorth Bar Lake. North Bar Lake was once a bay. Over time wave action has worked to carry sand across the mouth of the bay and close it off nearly completely. Only a small channel remains to connect it to the Big Lake. The warm waters make the lake a popular swimming destination and children can’t resist playing in the channel.

12 MI Sleeping Bear Dunes_6488aPine Plantation. A few posts back we talked about the stands of pines planted to replace the forests that had been logged a century ago. These are red pines, and you can see how they are planted close together in uniform rows. When trees grow like this, it is difficult for other vegetation and other types of trees to get the space, light and nutrients they need. In Sleeping Bear Dunes, the National Park Service is gradually and selectively cutting pines to encourage a more natural mixed forest. That’s the kind of logging I can get behind.

 FUN FACT: Sleeping Bear Dune, like many of the high dunes along the Lake Michigan coast, is a “perched dune”. What is a perched dune, you ask? No, it doesn’t perch on a tree branch like a bird. What it perches on is a glacial moraine bluff. Okay, what’s a “moraine”? It’s any accumulation of debris left behind by glaciers, in this case gravel and sand. Much of the geology of this area was formed by glaciers, from the deep depressions that became lakes, to the bluffs and hills deposited by retreating ice.

13 Lake Mich Bar Lake Pan ACSSleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was established in 1973, and is run by the National Park Service; in 2011, a “Good Morning America” viewer poll named it the “Most Beautiful Place in America”. Who am I to argue with that?

Coming up: Dune Culture