St Mary’s Wilderness – George Washington National Forest, VA

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The trail to the waterfalls follows St. Mary’s river as it meanders through the Blue Ridge. Follow the pink ribbons to reach the falls.
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A 2 hour drive to reach the well maintained St. Mary’s Road. Approach the trail from the Cold Springs Road.

When presented with free time and the opportunity to explore arises, it can be difficult to decide where to go. The number of destinations seem endless with each place offering something completely different: the Blue Ridge mountains to the west, the coastal tidewater to the east and the Appalachian plateau to the Southwest. I usually end up letting the season and conditions deciding for me. What better place to explore in early Spring than the St. Mary’s Wilderness Area in the Blue Ridge? I read numerous reviews about the area of its beauty and clear river beds. St. Mary’s is designated a wilderness area, and as such, the trails are poorly marked. It appeared that summer hikers frequently got lost on the poorly marked trails and overgrown brush. I hoped to avoid all of this by navigating in early spring, with bare trees and clearer paths.

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Spring flox

My cousin from Toronto accompanied me on this outing, marking his first proper hike in Virginia. When we arrived to the trail head, I was surprised to find that the earth was scorched and the trees charred. I later learned that a wildfire just two weeks prior had burned over 800 acres of the wilderness area. St Mary’s spans over 35,000 acres making it the largest Virgina Wilderness area on national forest land. The region was previously a mining ore for manganese and iron until it was abandoned in the mid 1900s. Today it serves as a beautiful hiking and fly fishing trail along the St Mary’s River, complete with a beautiful waterfall at the end.

There are numerous routes to get to the waterfall. The most popular route listed on Hikingupwards.com recommended starting out along the Blue Ridge Parkway. One reviewer discouraged this path, because it was poorly marked and he took numerous detours after getting lost. They recommended an easier way to get to the falls. Off of Cold Springs Rd (Route 608) is St Marys Road. This road is in excellent shape and leads you all the way down to a well kept parking area and the beginning of the trail that puts you right next to St Marys River. From there, you simply follow the river to the falls. Internet win.

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We tried our hand at some Tenkara, a form of Japanese fly fishing that does not require a reel.

The hike twists and turns through a beautiful gorge, providing a unique vista in Virginia. There was lots of rock hopping, and scaling as the trail crossed back and forth over the river five times. We tried our hand also at some Tenkara (traditional Japanese fly fishing). This style of fly fishing uses only a rod, line and fly – no reel. With flask in hand with some Nordic honey wine and packed lunches, we enjoyed the peace of spring time in the mountains.

Lake Moomaw in the Fall – George Washington National Forest, VA

A solid 3.5 hour drive from Richmond, Lake Moomaw is high in the mountains near the West Virginia border.

The leaves drifting from the trees in the Virginia mountains, signal the end to another canoe camping season. Min and I decided to go for one final run. It was unusually warm at Lake Moomaw up in the George Washington National Forest with temperatures in the 70s F during the day. It  was a quiet couple of days with very little activity on the lake, and as usual we were the only paddlers on the lake. We had our pick of many campsites and enjoyed the peace and quiet. The only the sounds were from of shedding foliage, owls and birds of all types.

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Start of the paddle out to our campsite

After setting up camp, we set out to gather firewood. One of the things I like most about Virginia camping is the abundance of firewood in these deciduous forests. There were countless fallen frees in the area that were nice and dry. The area also appears to be lightly camped and as such we did not have to look far to find what we needed. The Wetterlings Hunter’s axe with it’s wider wedge, made for light work of splitting in combination with my Ray Bears bucksaw. It was also a great opportunity to put my Finnish blade the “Enzo trapper” to use. It is a full tang work horse and can easily baton through wood to make kindling and is sharp enough to produce fine feathersticks.

We enjoyed some Japanese whiskey and took in the autumn beauty, Min even had some luck fishing off the coast. Of all the wildlife we heard, I was most surprised to hear the distinct cry of a couple of loons. Initially I thought my ears had deceived me – I didn’t think loons were this far south? However upon further research, it appears that many of them migrate south during this time of the year along the east coast and through Virginia.

Min was nice enough to prepare all of the meals for the trip. We ate some delicious chicken breasts with rice and beans for dinner. Min actually pre-cooked the chicken so all we had to do was heat it with the rice in the cooking pot. There’s nothing quite like a warm meal on a chilly night by the campfire. We ate under the stars with breathtaking visibility. The photos I took on this trip are from a sony a6000 that I’m still learning to use. In the morning for breakfast, we had egg white omelettes with green peppers and onions. Cooking with the Trangia alcohol stove is incredibly easy and has reduced preparation time drastically.

The stove weighs practically nothing and the fuel burns efficiently. We used to cook by campfire however soon learned that cleaning the soot off pots and pans took way too much time, not to mention the constant tending to the fire to assure a steady heat. The Svante Freden reflector oven from Sweden is also a must on canoe camping trips. It has been a trusty companion and we used it to to prepare some hot cornbread using a recipe courtesy of Ralph in Ottawa, Canada (much appreciated!).

To me, Lake Moomaw holds the title of a true Virginia gem. While there are several campsites in Virginia with lakes, only here can you get the backcountry experience of paddling to your site and setting up camp, far away from others. I can now say that I’ve camped here in 3 of the 4 seasons, spring, summer and now fall. Fall just might be my favorite. Great way to end the season.

Switzer Lake – George Washington National Forest, VA

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A closer drive than Lake Moomaw, but less secluded

On the border of Virginia and West Virginia, at 2362 ft above sea level, lies the beautiful, Switzer Lake (aka Skidmore Dam, Skidmore Lake). The 118 acre lake serves as a water supply reservoir to the town of Harrisonburg, Virginia and watershed for the George Washington National Forest. When I heard that the lake did not allow gas motorboats, I wanted to go to check it out. We had actually planned for an overnighter but decided against it when the temperatures dropped.

It was significantly cooler in the mountains at approx 45F. We also forgot to load our food cooler in the car….. a small detail. Nevertheless we made the most of the situation. We met some nice folks from Louisiana who gave us their stack of fire wood after exchanging camping stories and canoe trips. We made a huge fire and heated some naan on the stones. It was a windy but beautiful day with the leaves at near-peak colors and the clear lake, sparkled in the sun.

For those who plan to camp here, Switzer Dam appears to be a much more popular camping location than Lake Moomaw (located in Bath County) due to the ease of access to the campsites, most of which are drive-in camp spots. The lake is also only 30 minutes away from James Madison University, and is a popular place to hang out. The lake is stocked with brook trout and the surrounding rivers and streams in the area also have healthy populations to fish.

I have heard conflicting stories about whether camping is allowed immediately next to the lake. I think the best way to find out is to call ahead and ask which areas are permitted. There are several campsites situated in the forest, just a tad farther from the lake that appear to be safe spots to camp.

Since this is not an official camp ground, Lake Switzer doesn’t have the benefits of regular site maintenance. So it’s up to us to keep this place clean. It kills me when I find beer cans, tin foil, fishing line etc at campsites. Remember to pack out whatever you bring in!

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White Oak Canyon – Shenandoah National Park, VA

The morning air is crisp, and the leaves are beginning their color change, the first day of autumn is officially here. Min and I set out to our familiar backyard, Shenandoah National Park. Instead of scaling the mountains and searching for high altitude vistas. We sought out watering holes, cascades and native brook trout that lived in these crystal clear, mountain streams.

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The route: From the parking area, we took a left up the Cedar Run trail and crossed the fire road to descend down White Oak Canyon Trail.

Our trip took us past Madison, VA close to Old Rag Mountain, however this time through the Weakly Hollow Road. From there we parked our cars, and headed to the intersection between Cedar Run and White Oak Canyon trail. Instead of going the traditional route straight up White Oak Canyon, I’ve found out from many reviewers of this hike, that the best way to go, is up the Cedar Run trail. It eventually connects with a fire road to close the loop with a descent down the White Oak Canyon Trail. The total circuit would be 8 miles. I definitely recommend this method of approaching the trail for anyone thinking of doing this hike, the climb up Cedar Run is gradual as opposed to the vertical climb up White Oak Canyon. This route also allows you to descend down the fire road instead of climbing it where there really is not much to see.

DSC_0078It was a perfect day for a hike, a cool 65 degrees F in the morning and sunny. The water level was relatively low and some of the of the creek beds were completely dry. Nonetheless, there was still plenty of water to enjoy the beautiful falls. We saw plenty of brook trout in the these streams as well.

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Salvelinus fontinalis (brook trout) are a native fish to the Shenandoah Mountains.

Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are part of the Salmonidae family and more specifically, a type of char. Other members of this group include arctic char and lake trout. As such, brook trout require water temperatures less than 20 degrees celsius to flourish due to the higher oxygen content. In the mountains, the native fish live relatively short spans of about 3 years, although some may live up to 6 years. Typically, brookies found in the streams grow to around 6-12 inches, larger sizes can be reached if they make it to a lake where food is abundant. They spawn during mid to late fall. Brook trout are amazing fish. I am always in awe at how they are able to survive in such low waters and through times of drought and flooding. Year and year again, they return and swim in the streams of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

DSC_0097The loop took us a solid 5 hours with a swimming break in a pool in a small canyon. The water was absolutely freezing but we knew that this was probably the last chance we would have this year before it gets too cold. As cold as it was, the water felt amazing, to swim with the brookies was also an awesome experience. Some of the watering holes even have natural water slides to enjoy during the hotter months.

Overall, an enjoyable hike and highly recommended as a place to cool off in the summers. If I were to return, it would be in the spring or early summer months with higher water levels and with my tenkara rod in hand.

Watch a video of the falls above

Bear Church Rock – Shenandoah National Park, VA

I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to make it out to the mountains before spring ended. We got our chance on May 16, 2015 when our cousin from Toronto came to visit. It was his first time to Virginia and this would be his   his first hike through the Shenandoah mountains. It was a perfect day for the Bear Church Rock loop (8.5 miles) which initially starts on the Graves Mill trail before steeply climbing the mountain along the Staunton river trail. We included a detour to check out the Jones Mountain Cabin owned by the PATC (Potomac Appalachian trail Club). It was a hot day with some overcast mixed with bursts of sunshine and spring rain. The showers peaked as we reached the top of the mountain to cool us off. Heaven.