I may not be blogging about them, but we are continue to accrue Family Hikes (about one a week). This past Sunday, we ran across a lovely insect called the Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculate). In searching for photos, I stumbled across Sankax’s Photostream on Flickr and I found myself captivated. If you would like to see some stunning insect photos (that are Creative Commons to boot), check it out.
Popillia japonica (Photo by Sankax)
Tenodera sinensis (Photo by Sankax)
Grasshopper (Photo by Sankax)
We recently finished watching the documentary series “North America.” Holy crap. I LOVED it. I found myself laughing, laughing, laughing at the antics of prairie dogs and spider suitors. I also found myself emotionally vested in (and almost choked up by) the plights of mothers of all sorts trying to protect their babies– humpbacks and bisons and mountain goats.
But, there was one oddity about the series that stuck out to us. The narrator was Tom Selleck and a common theme of the early episodes (It did get toned down in subsequent episodes) is how strong or how tough you had to be to make it in “‘Murica.” Ryan and I weren’t the only ones who noticed. Some IMDB reviewers mentioned it as well.
And then there was little Sagan. After five episodes, he could mimic Tom Selleck (or more likely he was mimicking us mimicking Tom Selleck). It still makes me smile.
Sommas Having Fun at Tom Selleck’s Expense
We were having our fun, but I really don’t think the narration ruined the series. The cinematography is amazing and awe-inspiring. The stories are amazingly compelling. I very much enjoyed the series.
Oh and don’t judge Tom Selleck (or the writers) too harshly. One well-renowned founding father was also quite driven with proving how big and strong North American species were. : )
Earlier this week, NPR shared a link to an article called “My Baby’s Head Is Flat! Study: Expensive Helmet Likely Won’t Help.”
Ryan and I first heard about “Deformational Plagiocephaly” from our pediatrician when our oldest son was a newborn. Because babies are often put on their back to sleep to prevent SIDS and their little heads are still malleable, their heads can get flat if they always lay on the same side. Like the article, our pediatrician recommended positioning the baby’s head in different directions during sleep. The pediatrician talked about using rolled up towels and blankets to help hold the baby’s head in place…which if you tend to be an over-active worrier like me, you might suddenly have concerns about baby suffocating on said blankets. : )
It can be a little controversial, but we do co-sleep and bedshare. Everyone has to make the right choices for their family. If co-sleeping happens to be the choice for your family as well, then I have a little hack for you!
With our second son, I noticed he was ALWAYS facing my direction. It was his natural inclination. To prevent deformational plagiocephaly, we didn’t have to bother with rolled up blankets and towels. I didn’t have to fret about additional suffocation hazards. I just alternated what side of him I was on.
A couple of years ago, Ryan and I made an accidental discovery– The U.S. National Park Service does about a half dozen “Fee Free Weekends” a year. Score! The Fee Free Weekends are usually to celebrate national holidays like Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, etc. They do this every year and you can even check the schedule to see the Fee Free dates in the coming year.
This past November, I had forgotten a Fee Free Weekend was coming up for Veteran’s Day, so I was quite happy when Twitter reminded me.
The NPS honors America’s veterans with free entrance to all parks for all visitors this 3-day Veterans Day weekend http://t.co/1k6hXy9Y1B
— NationalParkService (@NatlParkService) November 4, 2013
Seems like an innocuous tweet, right? Who could complain about free access to National Parks? Free hiking! Free camping! Free picnicking! Free views! Free fresh air!
Well, a lot of people apparently! I was dumbfounded to read all the replies to the National Park Service’s tweet. It was full of vitriol and bitterness and snide remarks. People didn’t realize “Fee Free Weekends” was an established thing, planned well in advance. In the absence of that knowledge, they assumed it was a motivated event, a bribe. They thought the Fee Free Weekend was an attempt to make up for the government shutdown in October, the one that forced the National Parks (and the National Monuments, most famously the National World War II Memorial) to close.
All the negative-vibes didn’t stop the Sommas from having an awesome Fee Free Day at Prince William Forest National Park!
Fee Free Weekends Aren’t Sinister… They’re Fun!
So forward ahead to April. I was excited to recall another Fee Free Weekend was approaching. April 19th and April 20th were Fee Free to celebrate the beginning of National Park Week! This Fee Free Weekend was a lot less controversial on Twitter… but I realized it may pose a conflict in my family. Easter was April 20th. How could we do Easter AND take advantage of the Fee Free Weekend at the same time?
Well here’s a lesson for you. It never hurts to ask. I thought my mother would be vested in having Easter at the house. I thought she would have no interest in a picnic. But I asked anyway.
“What if… what if we did an Easter Picnic at Prince William Forest National Park instead?”
I found myself as surprised as I was about all those bitter tweets to the National Park Service. My mother LOVED the idea! Not only did she love the idea, she TACKLED the idea. She invited people, got all the paper plates and supplies organized, bought TONS of food for the event and handmade 40 hamburger patties the way my Dad used to make them– with delicious Lipton Onion Soup mix. I was just the idea person. My mother made the event happen.
And it was a great event! Everyone who joined us brought a potluck dish. In addition to our grilled meats, we had homemade taco dip, Watergate salad, broccoli salad (my contribution), homemade hummus, potato salad, stuffed olives. To celebrate Easter we had dyed Easter eggs. To celebrate National Park Weeks, we had s’mores! We had two visiting German high schoolers with us. They instagrammed their very first s’mores.
Best of all, when I was a child, Easter was a time to play with your cousins. Our kids are still young, but Sagan and Dyson are already getting to to visit with their cousin Lincoln– outside. In the beautiful, beautiful outside.
This is probably my most memorable Easter since I was a child and got baby ducks. It’s hard to top baby ducks. But Fee Free National Parks… that can come pretty darn close. : )
P.S. The next Fee-Free Day — August 25th for the National Park Service’s Birthday. : )
The National Park Service deemed the peak blooms for the District of Columbia’s cherry blossoms was Thursday April 10, 2014. The following weekend seemed to be a good time to go out and see them. Alas, we were quite busy and suddenly our groggy children were waking up from naps on Sunday afternoon. We really didn’t have the time to metro it out to the National Mall, so we decided to go a quick hike instead. I did some googling and found a Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority park in Vienna, Virginia that boasted more than twenty varieties of cherry trees. It was called Meadowlark Botanic Gardens.
Remember a few years ago visiting Washington State, when I sounded like an idiot speculating which mountain was Mount Rainier? Well guess what, I’m perfectly capable of sounding like an idiot back here at home as well. I had never heard of Meadowlark Botanic Gardens. You know what I thought? I thought Ryan and I were going to check out an undiscovered gem. “Oh I never heard of this, so no one has.”
If you go by the crowds at the Botanic Gardens that day, we were apparently one of the few people who had NOT heard of that park. It was packed! When we paid our entrance fee (kids under six are free!), the cashier even mentioned he had not had a chance to sit down all afternoon.
The gardens are 95 acres strong and have a series of paved paths and more rustic hiking trails through the property. We were able to walk most of the available mileage that day. All the flowering trees were gorgeous as you would expect. Sagan had fun playing at the Children’s Tea Garden. Sagan and Dyson both really enjoyed the Korean Bell Garden, particularly the nearby fountain. My favorite parts were the Young Forest Nature Trail and the Fred Packard Grove. Both of those trails were more like hiking trails… and we didn’t see a single other person on either one.
Near the end of our journey, we did spy a “Historic Tree Trail.”
My husband knows me well. Knowing how immersed I could get photographing and reading about historic trees and that it was dreadfully close to the park closing time, he asked, “Sweetie, do you mind if we come back and see the Historic Trees a different day?” : )
Meadlowlark Botanic Gardens is a popular destination for portrait photographers. We saw maybe a half dozen professional photographers congregated by scenic bridges, fountains, and blooming trees dangling diffusers and taking photographs of families and engaged couples. It’s easy to see why they picked this destination. It’s beautiful.
I’ll focus this section on the flowering trees. They were definitely lovely and worthy of the crowds.
Like Huntley Meadows, there is a lot of fauna to see. Nesting geese (some more aggressive than others) were prominent. We saw turtles, including two turtles fighting which Ryan and I never saw in all our years living in the swamps of North Carolina. For some reason I chose to take a shot of Sagan and Ryan watching the turtles fight. Once I got that shot done, the turtles had already resolved their differences. Lake Caroline also featured some large koi.
Although it wasn’t a hike-hike, we definitely enjoyed our visit to Meadowlark Botanic Gardens. I expect we’ll do return trips in the future, particularly to read up on some historic trees.
More pictures of our Meadowlark Botanic Gardens Outing can be found on my Flickr site.
Meadowlark Botanic Gardens
Elevation Gain: Negligible
Entrance Fee: $5 for adults, $2.50 for children 7-17
For my 39th Birthday Hike, we made a special family trip out to Shenandoah National Park. We decided to hike the Whiteoak Canyon Falls Trail. We learned about it from Bob Canton’s Northern Virginia Day Hike page. We noticed he ranked Whiteoak Canyon Falls a 5– the same rating he gave Old Rag. We knew Old Rag is spectacular, even when you are hiking in Vibrams, so that was instantly an excellent endorsement for Whiteoak Canyon!
Spring is a good time* to see waterfalls because there is usually a lot of ammunition. Whiteoak Canyon Falls Trail sports multiple waterfalls, including the second largest falls in Shenandoah National Park. From the parking lot next to Sky Land, the trail to the Upper Falls is pretty wide. You are hiking downhill, but it’s not especially steep. The trail does get rockier as you get closer to the falls, but my toddler saw that as a perk. :)
The trail to the Upper Falls skirts along the creek, so you get plenty of water views.
And the Upper Falls themselves are gorgeous. There is a well marked viewing area.
Once you pass the Upper Falls, the trail gets rockier and steeper. You are still heading downhill to get to the Lower Falls, but if you’re doing a round trip like we were doing, you’re gonna have to hike back up. As luck would have it, Sagan was pretty tired at that point, so he moved to the Ergo Baby where he stayed most of the rest of the hike.
We actually thought the Lower Falls were a little more scenic than the Upper Falls. We found a nice flat rock to sit and have some lunch. On the menu– Avocado, Cashews, Red Peppers and for little Dyson– pureed carrots.
Our favorite part of the hike was not either waterfall. On the trail between the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls, we passed a rock wall that was almost a waterfall in of itself. All the spring’s thaw above was raining down the rock. The afternoon sun was positioned perfectly to give us our own little personal rainbow… or as Sagan called it, a “Rainbow Dash” (We watch My Little Pony – Friendship is Magic at home).
*Spring is good time, but it is not the best time to see waterfalls. The best time would be the coldest, most frigid part of winter… when you can see Frozen Waterfalls. : )
If you are ever feeling small and helpless and need to see how even the little creatures of this Earth can have an impact, hike this trail and see the “accomplishments” of the tiny Woolly Adelgid. By just feeding themselves on the sap of the hemlock trees, they have dramatically changed the landscape. In short– they’re killing the hemlocks. In large numbers. Really large numbers.
Part of the trail to the upper falls winds through what was once a vibrant hemlock forest. Although I had seen ailing hemlocks here and there on my hikes, I had not witnessed so much tree carnage in one spot. And it’s amazing to me how different this section of the forest felt. The deciduous trees hadn’t yet woken up for the spring. I would have thought naked hemlock trees would just blend in with slumbering oaks and maples, but they didn’t. Their skeletal trunks and the snags of broken branches announced their presence. I was reminded of a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”
But this section of forest was eerily silent. No birds to say what there is to say after a massacre. Even our two year old chatterbox, stopped talking and just stared from his Baby Ergo, as if something instinctual, something deep in his brain adopted from our tree-dwelling ancestors told him, “This forest is different.”
On a more lively subject, the trail was crossed by a small herd of deer on our way back to the car. It made for an excellent end to our journey.
Sappy Closing on Birthday Hikes
When I started celebrating my birthday with a hike nine years ago, I hiked alone. Well, with my dogs. I took selfies before I knew they were selfies. : ) I would have great days and I would cherish my annual birthday hike, but then in 2009, suddenly I had a boyfriend to hike with me and that was quite nice. Birthday Hike 2010, that boyfriend and I practiced our first wedding dance surrounded by Long-Leaf Pines. Birthday Hike 2011, I hiked with our first son squirming in my belly. Birthday Hike 2012, that son took his first assisted steps on the Appalachian Trail. Birthday Hike 2013, I was pregnant with my second son while I watched my first one run around the boardwalk in front of Maryland’s largest cascading falls (denying me a nice photo-op). And this year, that second son hiked with us.
I used to hike alone on my birthday. Now I hike with my family. Birthday hikes just keep getting better and better! : )
More photos of our Whiteoak Canyon Falls hike can be found on my Flickr site.
Whiteoak Canyon Falls (Round Trip to from Skyline Drive to Lower Falls)
Length: 7.3 miles
Elevation Gain:1100 Feet
Lake Ridge, Virginia has an epic playground. It’s aptly named “Fantasy Playground.” We’ve only been there a couple of times, but it turns out two of those visits were almost exactly a year apart. So I present, the Tire Tunnel Compare: