Thursday, September 23, 2010

Autumnal Equinox

We've just passed out of summer and into fall. It doesn't feel particularly different this morning but I guess my internal magnetism ought to be telling me it's time to move south. We've had a light shore-bird migration this fall at Rankin Bottoms and it's too early for geese. I have had only one time, when over near Greeneville, Tenn., seeing a long vee of geese and they were against the late sun. It was quite a sight. The hawk migration through Mendota, Va., continues. Why this isn't some kind of exodus for bird watchers, I don't know. The fall migration for warblers is just beginning. I suspect us humans will start migrating to the sales for fall and winter clothes and attic insulation.

In our Astronomy class, last night, the evening of equinox, we used the celestial sphere to map out a few stars and use Right Ascension and Declination coordinates. (And one fantastic full moon over campus.) No doubt migrant birds and winter-hibernating mammals already know their RA and Dec-degrees. When we visited Cahokia Mounds State Park in Illinois many years ago I was surprised to learn they had uncovered a sun-calendar of their own. I think since then I've tried to notice where the sun location at the beginning of the four seasons.

When I went to put up the flag at just about eight o'clock the sun was just peeking over the Walls' house across the street. The sun comes through my front door, in through the bathroom, and out the bathroom window in a line. The summer solstice sun pours in the north bedroom window and out the west window in the bedroom. Quite a change. It's six months until the sun comes back up at eight o'clock over the Walls roof again.

The local weather has been extra warm but not record setting. That'll change overnight almost and then the windows come down and short-sleeve shirts trade closet space with the long-sleeved shirts.

The astronomy of the picture website ( --a must for all sky watchers-- explains that equinox translates into "equal night. "

Sunday, September 19, 2010

On the Trail, again, northbound from Watauga Dam Road

One of the nicest things about the southbound hike is it becomes a morning or afternoon getaway into the woods. Any time of the year, just about, I can drive up to the trail head (half-hour's drive from my house) hike out to the shelter (one to one-and-a-half hours at the most--one way), then back. Maybe on the outside three hours of the day. I (and you) can do this in the evenings after work. And reach a specific terminal. And, the trail doesn't change elevation (much. Mostly from the road to the top of the dam is the hard part.). From the top the dam to lake shore if you go the entire three or four miles to the other side of the lake. This is one of those rare places where the trail is road level.

The northbound route from Watauga Dam road to the Vandeventer shelter is the norm. It starts straight up from the road, keeps going straight up, and doesn't level off until 4.5 to 5.0 miles. I have started this hike five times in my life and completed it only twice. I have walked south from Vendeventer having done the 13-mile leg from where Tenn. 91 crosses the trail at the head of Stoney Creek, where the Johnson County and Carter County lines meet.

This stretch is one of those places where you learn just how much fun hiking is!

And this section seems to go on forever. It's a slow trudge up hill without much change in the scenery. It's all trees and trail and it's not like you can stop and take sweeping panoramic view of the landscape. There is no landscape. It used to be the trail went along the ridge which really did feel like straight up. Now, it has switch backs which is a bit easier on the wind but adds to the length and drudgery.

But, you do get this beautiful filtered sunlight. In the fall and spring, warm air, air with smell of heat to it, runs up the southern slope. This time of year the butterflies come out in droves seeking that last plant to live from and this same warm updraft brings them right to you. It's easy to work of up a sweat on this section and not go far but just stopping gets you to a different looking spot than the last break (which is why it takes me so long to do this section) and something new to photograph.

Where the southbound stretch is very smooth, the northbound (all the way to Iron Mountain shelter yet another 5 miles up) is a slow foot-at-a-time elevator. It will teach you the value of packing light and wearing the right-weight boots.

But, also I found this time a place maybe only half mile in that would be a great stop in the fall to put up the hammock and just enjoy the afternoon. Might even want to think about spending the night. (Gets cell reception, too.) 

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

September is Here

This is football weather. When I hike across campus, the air smells like it can only smell in the fall. I keep wanting to hear the Bucs marching band out practicing. The air is getting chrisp. The daily highs are not quite as brutal as in early August. The overnight lows are in the upper 50s. I'm having to close the window over the bed now, because it's too chilly by morning. I have to take in my orchids when the overnights reach 55 degrees or so. The alamnac says that should happen about mid-September. Sadly, I feel like I barely got my orchids out!

Douglas Lake, a prime fall shore bird stop over, is now below 985-feet pool elevation. So, by a few inches, the mud flats at Rankin Bottom ought to be visible. Migratory shore-birds should arrive soon if they are not already here as I write this. The migrations may have started and we might have missed some visitors already. The web has not yet lit up with sightings from there. Go to google maps and enter "rankin bottoms tennessee." The route into Rankin Bottoms from the interstate is part of the challenge but the reward is worth the ride. (In an earlier post I used "leadvale tennessee" which will work but you have to know Rankin Bottoms is southeasterly across the bridge from there.)

The best point of reference is the coal tipple which you'll see about the same time as you run into a bunch of other bird watchers. The mud flats are across the lake to the east from the coal tipple and then also to the south back the way you came. The rivers are actually on the other side beyond the flats. The bottoms are mostly back water for the lake. And quite shallow, of course.

By this time of year the rivers are down to a trickle but we've had some crazy rains that refill the lake. It took forever to drop the critical foot-and-a-half to expose the mud flats. There must not have been enough for power (despite a lot heat two or three weeks ago) so the level just didn't want to drop. One or two feet of water over the side of Douglas Lake dam is a lot of water.