Philpott Lake – Bassett, VA

For those that are interested in canoe camping, Philpott Lake in southwest Virginia just may be the best place to learn. This massive 3000 acre reservoir spans across three counties (Henry, Franklin and Patrick counties) and was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (from 1948-1952)  in order to help control flooding from the Smith River as well as generate hydroelectric energy and serve as a place for recreational activities.

We took to the road on a Thursday morning with clear, blue skies. It was an easy, and flat 3.5 hour drive from Richmond to the town of Bassett, Virginia. Upon arrival to the lake, we were impressed with how clean and organized the park seemed to be. We stopped by the visitor’s center to ask for some maps and it reminded of very much of a welcoming center you would see at an Ontario Provincial Park. There were stuffed animals on display, with fish species charts that covered the walls. From the visitor center, we were at a great vantage point and had a beautiful view of the Philpott Dam and Lake, sparkling blue in the sunlight. We were eager to paddle these waters.

We would be camping on Deer Island, a spot where visitors can visit if they wished to do some primitive camping. In order to get there, we got back in the car and drove to the Salthouse Branch Launch Point. Here we met a friendly ranger and paid our $20 per night camping fee. We reassured us, that if we would need anything at all throughout the night, that there would be a ranger on call 24/7. We parked the car right next to the beach and launch site and began unloading our gear. Once again, this is a very well kept lake, and the launch site had every facility we could have asked for, clean bathrooms and showers, picnic tables, and water fountains. We loaded our gear off a small dock next to the public beach and set out for the quick paddle to Deer Island (less than 0.5 miles). There wasn’t a single soul camping on Deer Island so we took our time circling the land until we found a suitable campsite…..#20. The campsite was immaculate without any signs of garbage. Once our camp was set up and the firewood had been cut, I went in for a refreshing dip.

While we were camping in Virginia, my brother Brian had been on a week long road trip up north in Manitoba, Canada. He was driving home to Virginia and would be joining us at Philpott Lake before we all head back to Richmond together. He was exhausted from spending days on the road. At midnight, we paddled back out under a full moon and cut through the fog on the water back to the Salt House Branch Landing. We helped him load his gear and we brought him back to the campsite. The orange glow of our campfire guiding us home.

He was tired and covered in camping scars, after run ins with poison ivy, black flies and mosquitos. He was certainly happy to be back in Virginia, where they were literally no mosquitoes at our campsite. We were not complaining but we were wondering why there were no bugs. I wonder if this is due to the fact that Philpott is a man-made lake. The elements that make a natural ecosystem where mosquitoes would thrive are not there. I have no idea, but we are not complaining. No need for a bug shelter or even bug spray for that matter.As we cooked him some dinner, he shared tales of his adventures up north, we listened intently by the fire and our group once again reunited. The last time the three of us were together was one year ago, when we paddled our way through La Verendrye Wilderness Reserve, in Quebec.

Brian solo camping at Kwasitchewan falls, Manitoba.

In the morning, we paddled out to the access point for a luxury shower at the Salt House Branch beach. This was truly glamping. The washrooms at Philpott Lake, just like everything else was very clean. This was something I could get use to on canoe camping trips. It turned out to be a very lazy day for us. Brian was exhausted from his road trip, so we took it easy and explored the surrounding forest. We made fires from pine sap, cooked and relaxed. No ambitious goals, just us and the lake. Before we knew it, the sun was coming down, and the forest was cooling off. We went on more night canoe paddles and explored the other launch sites. We met a friendly ranger and a police officer and spent some time talking to them. The ranger was clearly interested in our canoe camping ensemble and asked where we were from. Turns, out that he had been to Ontario…. many times. He hunted and fished in the backwoods of Ontario near and was very familiar with Algonquin Park. Small world.

In summary, Philpott Lake is a clean, beautiful, and fun place for anyone interested in primitive canoe camping. It is the perfect place to learn all of the motions involved in canoe camping. The short paddles to the campsites make it very feasible for all ages, and the access to clean facilities make it seem like clamping. There are rangers and campers around so there is also plenty of support. The rangers patrol throughout the night at the access points to keep everyone safe. On a scale of intensity, this experience fits in between car camping, and canoe back country camping… although much closer to car camping. I would love to come back to try our hand at fishing the famous Walleye populations in this lake, perhaps in the spring time.

*As always, for all visitors and campers, please remember to pack out whatever you bring in. Please keep this beautiful lake clean for all to enjoy and for future generations to come.

Tanyard Landing Trail, Gloucester (blueways), VA

Tanyard Landing Trail map. Dolphins can be spotted as you head out closer to Morris Bay and towards the larger York River, although these bigger waters are more suitable for kayaks.

On an unseasonably mild summer, August day, we headed east to the coastal plains (tidewater) region of Virginia. With the predicted forecast of highs of 82F with some overcast, we knew this was the perfect time to further explore the beautiful blueways in gloucester county. We had previously completed two of the blueways (Warehouse Landing & John’s Point) and decided to take on our third – Tanyard Landing Trail in Gloucester, Virginia. 

Located just an hour away from richmond, this trail follows the gentle poropotank river, a small tributary of the York River. As a blueway, this trail is designed for non-motorized boats, such as canoes and kayaks. It is a great place to experience a small piece of the huge Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. The wildlife is abundant, with blue herons, bald eagles, kingfishers, crabs, and even dolphins have been spotted in the poropotank river. It was a perfect day to flow through the arteries that make up the Chesapeake Bay. The occasional clouds, helped shade us from the summer sun and welcoming breeze, flowed through us. The air was fresh, with just a hint of salt. The bay grasses were healthy and plentiful. These are the buffer zones that are so important in keeping the bay clean. We meandered down the peaceful river in complete silence. The occasional fish would jump from the water, but otherwise, the only other sound was the wind through the grasses.

Checking out the healthy bay grasses
3 person canoe

When you first arrive at the Tanyard Landing Boat Ramp,  you will have the option of either going west down the trail or east to explore the river upstream. We actually did not stay on the trail, but headed east to explore the inner wetland areas. We spotted one other group kayaking but no one else was on the water. After the day of paddling, we headed to the nearby Gloucester village, a peaceful and quiet town with a population of 2951. The busiest section of town is the main street  where most of the shops and restaurants are located. We returned to Olivia’s, our favorite restaurant in town, for crab cakes. For anyone looking for the complete, Virginia tidewater region experience: find a canoe/kayak, pick a blueway to explore, and then stop for food in Gloucester village. It’s what summer is Virginia is all about.

Gloucester village

Help save the Chesapeake Bay here: Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Return to White Oak Canyon – Shenandoah National Park, VA

TRAIL MAP OF THE WHITE OAK CANYON AREA

During the hot, summer months in Virginia, the watering holes of Shenandoah National Park are natural sanctuaries for those looking to escape the heat. No trail is better for this than the popular White Oak Canyon Trail. It is the second busiest trail in the park and for good reason – this hike is packed with picturesque pools, natural water slides and waterfalls flowing with pristine, mountain water.

The entire circuit, however, is no easy, feat. For those looking to complete the entire Cedar Run / White Oak Trail circuit, be prepared for a strenuous 8.2 mile hike that covers a steep elevation climb of over 2000ft in rocky terrain.

At the beginning of the circuit, is the Whiteout Canyon parking lot (which can fill up quickly during peak seasons). From here, as you start the trail, you will come to a fork in the road. On the left, will be the Cedar Run trail, and to the right is the White Oak Canyon trail. The entire circuit can be completed in any direction, however it is strongly recommended, to start up the cedar run trail. Completing the circuit in this direction has many advantages. The ascent up cedar run trail is a much more gradual climb with softer terrain. Once you reach the top, the horse trail and white oak fire road will connect you to the top of the white oak canyon trail where you can begin your descent towards the parking lot. Now you can relax and take in the numerous beautiful falls on this side of the trail (you will also have breath to enjoy them).

scouting the falls

Obviously, one does not have to hike the entire circuit to enjoy a good swim. From the parking lot, it is a short 2 mile hike to get to the white oak lower falls. This is probably the most spectacular of all of them. If you’re looking for natural water slides, head to the cedar run falls on the east part of the circuit, where you can check out two awesome water slides. There are also several areas here where you can jump into the pools. Please be careful as this can be dangerous if you have not established the depth of the pools. I bring along a pair of swimming goggles to scout the water for depth and debris before jumping.

Lower White Oak Canyon Falls, the biggest swimming pool on the circuit

There are many other surprises on this circuit. The pools have healthy populations of native brook trout so bring your fly fishing rod. Consider a tenkara rod for these tight spaces up in the mountains. Wildlife here is also abundant and black bear sightings are common, but don’t worry, they tend to keep to themselves. The trail is so busy that the human voices will keep them away. But as always, just be smart and don’t agitate the wildlife, we are visiting their home after all.

On a hot summer day, there’s not a better place to be in Virginia. Be safe, and have fun.

Bring your tenkara rod, to fish for native rookies
resting at the top of white oak canyon

What to bring:

  1. hiking boots
  2. lunch
  3. water shoes (for swimming)
  4. swimsuit and towel
  5. swimming goggles (optional)
  6. plenty of water
  7. water filter (optional)
  8. map
  9. bug spray (especially around the ankles)
  10. fly fishing rod (optional)

 

*As always, please help keep our parks clean. Take nothing but photos, and leave only footprints!

Marmot Limelight 3P Tent – Review after 4 years, 24 nights

Once in a while, you come across camping gear that is so good, you can’t imagine tripping without it. This has been my experience with the Marmot Limelight 3 person tent. I bought this tent at REI for a trip out to the Grayson Highlands in the spring of 2013. Over the past 4 years, it has been with me on several canoe and backcountry trips; from torrential downpour in the boreal forests of Ontario, to the alpine snow of West Virginia, this tent has held up to the elements and more.

Design: For the amount of space and durability that this tent provides, the limelight is fairly light, weighing in at a packed weight of 6lbs, 11 oz.  There are certainly lighter tents out there for backpacking, but the ruggedness of this tent makes it ideal for canoe tripping. It is designed as a three person tent, although I would say it comfortable fits two adults. It provides 42.6 square feet of space with dual doors for easy access. The vestibules on the rainfly add another 10 square feet of covered space at both entrance points. Mesh panels, allow for good air circulation to prevent condensation. A footprint is included to protect the tent against, rocks, sticks, etc.  The aluminum poles are light and durable and snap together with no fuss. Over the years, they have taken on a slightly different shape, but this does not hinder its performance.

Setup: One of my main draws to this tent was the set up. It can be set up in less than 5 minutes. Enough said.

Maintenance: As with any piece of camp gear, taking care of your equipment will allow it to last for much longer and serve you when you need it most. As with most synthetics, your enemies are moisture and UV light. Airing out your tent to completely dry before storing it back into its bag will add years to its life by preventing mold which can rapidly break down the tent’s fibers. Many campers will actually keep their tents and sleeping bags outside of their storage bags when they are not using it in order to prevent moisture accumulation.

SPECS

Best Use Backpacking, Camping
Average Min Weight 5 lbs 15 oz; 2692 g
Average Packed Weight 6 lbs 11 oz; 3032 g
Warranty Lifetime
Vestibule Area 10 sq ft
Sleeping Capacity 3
Seasons 3
Seam Sealed Taped Seams
Pole Type DAC Press-Fit
Packed Size 22″ x 8″
Number of Poles 3
Other Stuff Sack, Gear Loft and Footprint Included
Material Walls: 68D 100% Polyester Ripstop
Floor:70D 100% Nylon PU 3000mm
Fly:68D 100% Polyester Ripstop 1800mm
Interior Storage Gear Loft and Interior Pockets
Interior Height 46″ (at highest point)
Freestanding Yes
Floor Dimension 93″ x 66″
Floor Area 42.6 sq ft
Doors 2
Clips or Sleeves Clips

Excursions with the limelight.

Algonquin Park (2014) – 6 nights

The limelight on an island in Big Trout Lake, Algonquin Park 2014

 

Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada. (2015) – 2 nights

Setting up camp, on an island in O.S.A Lake, in Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario (2015)

 

Temagami, Ontario 2015 (2015) – 3 nights

We encountered lots of rain on our trip to the Temagami wilderness area in Ontario. The limelight kept us dry during 3 days of rain.

 

La Verendrye – Quebec, Canada (2016) – 4 nights

Our camp, atop La Verendrye wilderness area in Quebec, Canada (2016)

 

Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, West Virginia –  (2015) – 2 nights

The unpredictable weather at high altitudes brought us snow in the Spring time in Dolly Sods, West Virginia.

 

Lake Moomaw – George Washington National Forest, Virginia (2014, 2015, 2016) – 3 nights

Morning autumn mist at lake moomaw

 

Grayson Highlands, Virginia (2013) – 1 night

The maiden voyage with the limelight in 2013

Dan River, North Carolina (2014) – 1 night

Beach camping on the Dan River in North Carolina

 

Switzer Lake, George Washington National Forest – Virginia (2017) – 1 night

The morning after the rain on switzer lake, george washington national forest

 

St. Mary’s Wilderness Area, George Washington National Forest – Virginia (2016) – 1 night

Drying the dishes after dinner in St. Mary’s Wilderness Area, George Washington National Forest.

CONCLUSION: Overall, this tent simply works. It has survived rough, canoe trips in Ontario, the scorching heat of Virginia summers and snow in West Virginia. It does what a tent is suppose to do – allow you to spend as much time outdoors without worrying about your gear. It provides me with reliable shelter and a place to sleep so that I can focus my energy elsewhere.  It is light, sturdy, rainproof, and easy to assemble. Over the past four years, the limelight 3p has undergone some updates but until this one fails me, I’ll be tripping with it for years to come.

Happy 150th Birthday Canada

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and safe Canada Day! To celebrate, Trail guide pictures decided to provide free streaming of their documentary “Canoe – Icon of the North” on youtube. Check it out above.

(Feature photo above was taken by myself at Killarney Provincial Park at sunrise on O.S.A. Lake during the summer of 2015)

Return to Switzer Lake – George Washington National Forest, VA

Switzer (Skidmore) lake is one of my favorite places in Virginia. This sparkling, blue lake is located high up in the Virginia mountains of George Washington National Forest at over 2000 ft. The reservoir serves as the water supply for the city of Harrisonburg and is also stocked with brook trout. It is the perfect place to paddle in some of the clearest waters in Virginia.

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My friend Min and I have not canoe camped since Quebec in the summer of 2016 and we were itching to get out there. We planned a simple overnighter, despite the impending rain that was forecast to hit hard on our second day. No matter. Rain does little to keep us indoors these days. My brother and I have survived torrential downpours in the backcountry of Ontario in Temagami and Algonquin Park. From these experiences, I’ve learned that the rain can actually bring many positives experiences to a camping trip. For one, there is always an awesome cloud display in the mountains afterwards.  You are also presented with the opportunity to test the quality of your tarp setup in a situation that counts. Ray Mears once said if you wait for good weather to camp, you end up missing half the opportunities to get outside.

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Our last trip to Switzer Lake was in the fall of 2015, where we spent a day exploring the lake and surrounding areas by foot and canoe. Two years later, I can say that the region has changed very little. The roads have received a marked upgrade. They have been flattened and well paved, even now very suitable for a sedan to navigate comfortably.

We head out on a weekday morning when we knew the campsites would be empty. This lake can be particularly busy during the weekend, so don’t expect peace and quiet. The area is frequented by numerous outdoor enthusiasts, mostly students from the nearby James Madison University campus.

Upon our arrival, we spent some time searching for a place to camp and settled in after an hour of searching. We got to work collecting dry, dead wood, setting up the tarp for impending rain, and fishing and exploring the area. One of the most useful pieces of cooking gear up north is the simple grill grate which can be easily rested between rocks so you can have steaks anywhere you go. Once our fires were hot enough and we created a large enough ember pile, we put on some steaks and corn and listened to the sounds of the forest as we ate. Perfect. The rain eventually did come at around 8:30pm, however it came in intermittent showers and we were more than prepared with our tarp and tent. The rain scared away the last kayaker on the lake so we had the whole area to ourselves.

While you might not get the true, backcountry canoe camping experience in Virginia, Switzer Lake comes pretty darn close. There are also many advantages to camping here versus the Canadian backcountry. First and foremost, the bug situation is infinitely better at this time of year. May and June are peak black fly and mosquito seasons in Ontario and make canoe camping pretty much unbearable without bug jackets. High up in these mountains, the bugs were scarce and we came out with hardly a scratch. We saw numerous frogs, butterflies, caterpillars and hawks. I also sleep a little easier in the Virginia woods knowing that the black bears are generally much smaller. Overall, this place offers a canoe camping experience that can certainly hold it’s own.

*A word of caution, to those interested in camping, I have heard of several who have received fines for camping immediately next to the lake. Apparently it is not allowed, however there are numerous campsites just a short walk deeper into the woods away from the lake. I would call the local forest office before planning a trip here to find out which camping sites are open to use. 

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*As always, for all visitors and campers, please remember to pack out whatever you bring in. Please keep this beautiful lake clean for all to enjoy and for future generations to come.