Camping and Growing Oysters on the Chesapeake Bay

November 13, 2021: It looked like peak fall time in Virginia. The hardwoods were showering leaves and the nights were certainly approaching freezing temperatures. My son and my brother were convinced this was one of the last weekends for a good campout. We decided to go back to my father’s land on the Chesapeake Bay. It was also time for us to upsize the oyster bag on our small oyster farm project that we started back in June 2021, so we decided to make a fall campout trip out of it.

Looking out at Fishing Bay, in the Chesapeake Bay.
I’ve been packing a small water color painting kit in our camp gear and it’s been a fun activity for downtime on these trips.

We arrived late in the day around 5:30pm and it was already dark, we set up our tent and made a large fire to keep us warm. The winds were fierce and the gusts fueled the fire to roaring heights. It would dip to 34 degrees F that night but our spirits were high and we were dressed properly. My son was eager to sleep in the tent, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the morning, we trekked out on to the dock to check our oyster farm. We started with 1000 tiny oysters (spat) in mesh bags, and it has been approximately 1 year since we started raising them. Every 6 months, the oysters would need to have their bags upsized so they can grow properly. We were amazed to see how quickly they have grown. Most of them appeared to be larger than the 2.5 inches which is typical table size for serving.

The eventual goal is to hopefully repopulate the oyster population surrounding our waters. Oysters serve as filter feeders for the Chesapeake Bay and their ability to filter the water and promote growth for plants, fish and crabs, have made it one of the most important players in the restoration and maintenance of the bay. For now, it’s time for a feast, and time to up our oyster farm game! Happy Thanksgiving everyone, and get your boosters!

Frazier Discovery Trail – Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

  • Distance: 1.3 mile loop
  • Elevation: 2852 ft
  • Elevation gain: 462ft
  • Rating: Easy (although still some steep segments)

The Frazier Discovery trail is a 1.3 mile circuit hike on Loft Mountain in Shenandoah National Park, notable for several great overlooks. With an elevation gain of 462 ft, it is labeled as one of the easier trails in the park, we found it perfect for our small hikers (4 and 2 years old). Located at milepost 79.5, it is closest to enter from the Southern end of the park at Rockfish Gap (approx 20 miles). There are several overlooks on your way to the trail head, so take your time getting there.

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Make sure you take the time to pull on one of the beautiful overlooks as you make your way to Loft Mountain.
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View from one of the outlooks from Skyline Drive near the Rockfish Gap Entrance to Shenandoah National Park.
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The beginning of the trail. Cross Skyline Drive on foot to begin.
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Trekking poles are helpful but not mandatory. A hiking stick can be just as good.

We parked at the Loft Mountain Wayside Camp store and information center and crossed the road (skyline drive) to begin our hike. Hiking on a Tuesday, we were fortunate enough to have the mountain to ourselves. It appeared that the leaves were changing colors slightly later than normal. I find that peak fall color in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountain region is last week of October and early November.

The trail is well marked, and frequently traveled. There are plenty of rocks so hiking boots are definitely recommended. Unlike several other trails through Shenandoah National Park, there was no stream or river bed on this hike….But the views were killer. Have fun out there, and be safe.

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Overlook from Frazier Discovery Trail on Loft Mountain
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Don’t forget snacks!

Things to bring:

  • hiking boots (highly recommended)
  • water
  • map
  • compass
  • trekking poles (helpful)
  • dress appropriately
  • snacks
  • camera
  • helpful maps below

Pine Needle Tea

A cloudy and muggy, Saturday kept us mostly indoors. The kids were both with stuffy, and runny noses. A mild cold was here to stay for the next few days.

I told my son that during these times, the perfect remedy was something we could easily concoct in our backyard…pine needle tea.

Ingredients:

  • eastern white pine needles (about half a handful)
  • honey (optional)
  • milk (optional)

A very simple brew that can be made on virtually any canoe trip, pine needle tea has so much to offer. It is loaded with vitamin c and A as well as anti-oxidative properties. While it can be made with several different types of pine trees, I think the classic pine needle tea is usually with eastern white pine. This tree can be easily identified from yellow pine by the fact that the needle clusters grow in clumps of five. A good way to remember this is that the letter “W” for white, has 5 points in it. (A pretty useful mneumonic). *whenever you are consuming plants or trees outside, please make sure you know exactly how to identify the species you are dealing with. There are several types of conifers, such as yew that is not suitable for consumption. Also, pine needle tree should not be consumed that anyone bearing children.

Once you have identified the proper needles, you can wash them to get off any dirt or bugs. You can cut the needles into smaller pieces or leave them whole. I generally do not boil the needles. I heat the water to the point before boiling as to slow the steeping process and not to release too much bitter tannins. The younger pine needles (lighter in color) are generally a little sweeter, although with less ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The darker, older needles contain more vitamin C but are more bitter. I generally let the tea steep for about 15 minutes. You can mix in a little honey or milk if you wish. In no time at all, you’ve got a warm, healing drink from your backyard that should help you get over your cold.

While we are no longer worried about vitamin C deficiency and scurvy in this part of the world, this trusty and simple pine needle tea recipe will hopefully serve you well.

Have fun everyone!

*Be careful once again when identifying trees and plants of all kind!

Growing oysters in the Chesapeake Bay

In 1608, John Smith described the Chesapeake Bay as a bountiful body of water in his journals: “a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation“.  The water seemed full to the brim with white salmon (rockfish aka stripped bass), bluecrabs, porpoises, and of course the oyster. He described the large beds of “oysters that lay as thick as stones”.  The oyster population was so abundant that the oyster reefs neared surfaces and became navigable hazards.

In 2021, the state of the bay is certainly different. The oyster population has been decimated due to over-fishing, polution and diseases. It is estimated that in the year 2011, the oyster population in the upper Chesapeake Bay was 0.3% of the population levels of the early 1800s.

Of late, many conservation efforts have pushed towards oyster repopulation as one of the main ways to fight pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. As filter feeders, oysters are capable of filtering over 1 gallon of water an hour. As they purify the water, this allow sunlight to penetrate the water and to grow bay grasses, this in turns provide habitats for the blue crabs and fish. As such, the oyster plays a critical role in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

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I have always been interested in growing oysters and raising them. With the help of a friend of mine, we were able to get a small farm going. He has been doing this for several years and has several floats, with hundreds of oysters at different stages of life. It takes approximately 1.5 years to raise an oyster that is large enough for eating (approximately 2.5 inches). You can buy oysters as “spat”, this is the term used to call oysters larvae that are mature enough to latch onto another surface. You could typically buy 1000 of them for around 70 dollars.

There really is not much to tending to oysters. They just need water and room to grow. Every 6 months, they will need to be moved into a larger meshed bag, until eventually they are large enough to sit in an oyster cage. In the meantime, you can just hose them off occasionally and clean the cages of barnacles. My eventual goal will be to see if we re-establish a wild population once again, without cages. This is one small step though towards that direction. Long live the Chesapeake bay.

Bluebird’s Welcome

We recently settled into our new home in a part of town that we are really quite unfamiliar with. The new location certainly brings us closer to nature. Similar to our old neighborhood, there are plenty of trees and wildlife all around us. The bluebirds were the first to welcome us to the neighborhood, it appears that there may be two that nest in the wooded area behind us. There is much to explore, and the small forest has kept the kids occupied as they discover new birds, flora, lizards and mammals. A small herd of deer frequently pass through the back along the stream that meanders after a heavy rain storm. We’ve had one sighting of a red fox in our backyard, but he has yet to show himself since. As the last of the dogwood petals begin to fall, we know that the start of summer is just around the corner. We’ve been blessed with another consecutive year of a fair weathered Spring. There are many trees to plant, a workshop to set up and wood canvas canoe to restore. Hope everyone is safe and healthy.

Spring 2021

It’s hard to believe it’s been over one year since we initially went into lockdown to blunt the COVID-19 pandemic. This winter felt especially long, and with the temperatures warming up and flowers in bloom, the ushering of Spring was extra sweet this year. With the vaccine roll-out gaining momentum in the country, hope is in the air. Be safe out there everyone.

Victory Garden 2020

At the start of the lockdown in Virginia from the COVID 19 pandemic, we decided to grow a garden to get productive and hopefully have some vegetables to eat and share with our neighbors. I think this project was mostly started by our 2 year old son, who was insistent upon tilling the ground. At this point in time, we had no idea what the food produce situation was going to look like throughout the upcoming months. There were a lot of unknowns throughout the whole world and certainly still today. We didn’t want to ruminate….we wanted to get moving.

The first step was to remove all of last years tomato vines and to till the earth. We have a compost bin that we have been faithfully using to replenish the nutrients to the soil. It also helped that the previous owners, apparently had heaping loads of manure dumped into the garden.

By the first week of April we were already planting the first of the seeds. Strawberry, kale, etc. We also reseeded the lawn for spring time is probably the best season for our grass. The brutal Virginia summers pretty much just scorch the earth by July.

April 21, 2020

We spent the day reseeding the front lawn, there are stubborn sections of the front lawn that gets sun damaged every year and allows for the crab grass and bermuda grass to take root. Our plants are developing nicely indoors, it will soon be time to transplant them to the garden.

May 16, 2020

The garden has been coming along nicely. I do believe that this in large part due to a wonderful “normal” spring in Virginia. We’ve been hanging on to cooler weather and we’ve been loving it. It has still been in the 60s in mid May! We transplanted several of the seed bags to see what would happen. We put up some netting around the strawberries but it didn’t seem to do the trick. I think next year we will have to get a metal cage if we plan strawberries

May 23, 2020

We harvested our first carrots from the garden. Once again, the weather still remains pleasant. Our lawn is surviving and so far the temps are still just getting to the upper 70s. Today was a rare 82 F but it still felt very pleasant.

We have been picking from our rosemary and cilantro, some have already bolted. Bolting by definition is when the plant begins forming flowering stems in order to reproduce. Cilantro grows best in cool climates and moist areas. When it gets too hot, the plant anticipates that it will get too hot and dry and if therefore begins flowering and producing leafy stems that are no longer desirable as they lose their taste. It is a survival mechanism for the plant to reproduce as much as possible before it dies, but from a gardening standpoint, this is something that you want to avoid if possible. Plan to grow cilantro in early spring or fall when it is cooler.

May 30, 2020

June 6, 2020

We harvest our first beets along with another round of carrots. We’ve been working hard to diligently weed and water the garden. We still have yet to fix our irrigation system from the two cracked hoses. the hardest part is finding the right parts. Up until now, the weather has been excellent. We are starting to see some hot days. The lawn is beginning to show signs of yellowing.

June 9, 2020

Several of our carrots have fully developed and were eagerly picked by visiting cousins.

June 10, 2020

Spring showers cool off a hot June day. temps today in the high 80s. We got about 30 min of solid spring showers. the state of the lawn is as such, yellowing can be seen throughout. it’s trying to hang on. The maple tree in front is actually growing pretty fast. I think by next year it will be able to provide some pretty decent shade. sometimes I wonder if there are any treatments that can help the grass survive the brutal heat. This season has still been fantastic. Much cooler than averages in the past. This next week we are even expecting several consecutive days in the highs of 70s. awesome.

June 17 , 2020

We are getting one week of rain! We’ve got jalapenos coming in and green peppers and tomatoes.

June 27, 2020

July 3-5

July 10, 2020

July 15, 2020

The garden has been yielding a lot of veggies lately. It has been a lot of work to keep weeding them and watering them in this scorching heat. It has been in the mid 90s all week. Our son has been loving the garden and eating all veggies. The delayed gratification is something he is wrapping his head around. He also has a lot of pride in his garden. In a world of immediate gratitude and digital screens, a garden is the perfect way to fight all that.

August 1, 2020

This has been a brutally hot summer. Fortunately we are through July.

August 4, 2020

Summer showers have left our yard pretty flooded! It’s hot and the mosquito situation is bad.

September 19, 2020

September 27, 2020

October 4, 2020

Temperatures are consistently nice and cool. We do some lawn repair to try to grow some new grass.

October 20, 2020

With temperatures in the 60s, it is just glorious outside. the garden is still yielding eggplants, bell peppers, tomatoes, jalapenos, and kale. We did some light maintenance and trimming to keep the tomato plants at bay. We are heading to the end of the season.

By November we officially declared it the end of the garden season. Although even in the first week of December, I saw some green peppers and strawberries trying to grow. It was certainly alot of work and maintenance, but taking care of this garden has been a lot of fun, especially for our 3 year old boy. I can clearly see his new appreciation of plants and how food is grown, and how it eventually gets to the dinner table. Growing a garden is also a great way to get your child into eating vegetables. Even if the garden does not yield much, you’ll build great memories and hopefully learn something. We sure did. Stay safe and healthy out there.