Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Virginians residing in the center of the state are fortunate to live within a short drive of the Shenandoah National Park and a wealth of maintained hiking trails.  So to gear up for National Trails Day on June 7, we’ve rounded up seven of our favorite local Virginia hikes--listed from shortest to longest--for the adventurous soul to tackle this summer.

The view from Humpback Rock.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

Humpback Rock

    At milepost 5.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, at the base of the Mountain Farm Trail, sits a 19th Century interpretive farm setup—this marks the trailhead for reaching Humpback Rock.  This is a short trail of modest difficulty, roughly a quarter-mile round-trip; but the view from the large rock outcropping at the trail’s end, looking west over the Shenandoah National Park, might tie you up for the entirety of the afternoon.  If you don’t mind rising early, make the ascent before sunrise and enjoy the sun’s appearance from on high.

Whiteoak Canyon

    If waterfalls are your thing, Whiteoak Canyon is for you.  This is easily one of the Park’s most popular hikes, and it has six gorgeous waterfalls to thank.  Access the trail from the lower end off route 600 in Syria, Va. or from the Skyline Drive at milepost 42.6.

    From the bottom, the climb is very steep, and a 6-mile round-trip hike.  From the Skyline Drive, the way in is easier, but the latter half of the 7.3-mile round-trip hike is much steeper.

Crabtree Falls

    Need more waterfalls?  Crabtree falls boasts the longest vertical-drop cascades east of the Mississippi River; and the first showing of five major falls starts just 100 yards away from the parking area.  The trail is moderate in difficulty and, like any other hike, should be tackled with the appropriate footwear.  The last overlook sits about 3.5 miles in, making this a 7-mile hike.

    Access the trailhead from Crabtree Falls Highway in Montebello, Va.  A $3.00 fee is required to use the parking area. 

Mount Rogers

    Seen enough waterfalls and white oaks?  Take a break and visit a unique Virginia ecosystem reminiscent of New England and southern Canada found in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.  Mount Rogers is Virginia’s highest peak (5,726 ft.); and the trail to its summit features grassy balds with breathtaking views of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  Begin your hike at Elk Garden Gap and hike 9 miles east along the white blazed Appalachian Trail to reach the summit.  Tackle the hike in June or July to enjoy a fantastic display of native flora.

Strickler Knob

    The Strickler Knob trail is not maintained and includes some sharp, rocky scrambles suitable only for those in good physical condition.  But the trail’s end rewards for its hardships with a stunning 360-degree panoramic of the Luray valley.

    This 9-mile hike is more appropriately called a “bushwhack” than a “trail.”  So consult a guide for directions.  It can be reached from the Massanutten trailhead on Crimson Hollow Road.

Old Rag Mountain

    This hike can’t be left out with its reputation as one of the Shenandoah National Park’s most popular hikes.  “Old Rag” is a strenuous, nearly 9-mile hike with a serious rock scramble near the summit.  No pets are allowed on the trail, a hiking partner is recommended, and ample water is a requirement.  Access the trail by parking in the parking area off SR 600, Nethers Road, and hiking the easy 1 mile to the trailhead.    

    Because of this trail’s popularity, it might be worth a little less sleep to arrive early before the summertime crowd.

Whitetop Mountain

    The Appalachian Trail runs through Elk Garden Gap in between Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.  Proceed west from Elk Garden Gap to reach the meadow summit of Whitetop (Virginia’s second highest peak).  Equal in length to the Mount Rogers hike, this nine-mile counterpart is a strong competitor in scenery and abundance of wildlife.
    With thousands of miles of trails veining the Old Dominion, including the longest chunk of the Appalachian Trail in a single state, it would be pretentious, and a lofty compliment, to name the aforementioned hikes as Virginia’s best.  That said, none of them lack in scenery or physical challenge.  So, lace up your boots, throw together a pack, and check these trips off your summer to-do list.  Then go find some favorites of your own!

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, May 22, 2014


To meet a growing interest, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries officials are set to stock the Rivanna River with southern strain walleye this spring.

    Walleye, a family member of the northern pike, pickerel, musky, and yellow perch, are naturally northern fish, native to Canada and the northern United States.  Their name is a result of their outward-facing eyes glazed with a reflective pigment that allows them to see well at night or in stained water.  Like its relatives, the walleye has a jaw full of sharp teeth used to pin baitfish.  In the north, walleye enjoy a strong, dedicated following, many of whom value the fish as excellent table fare, similar to pickerel (another tasty treat).

    In Virginia, walleye are native only to the New River and its tributaries; and Virginians wishing to pursue the feisty, cold-water creature have to take their efforts to the western part of the state to do so, for the most part.

    In the 80s and 90s, the DGIF experimentally stocked walleye in just about every body of water they managed.  But by spreading their stocks so thin, and doing so only one year, nothing much arose from it.  Still, certain fisheries (Lake Anna being one) still boast a miniscule population of the wall-eyed fish, but nothing much for fishermen to take advantage of.

    But with more determination and a more narrowed focus, DGIF biologists are now setting their sights on Central Virginia.  “We’ve been talking about stocking walleye in area rivers for a couple years, now,” said Johnathan Harris, District Fisheries Biologist overseeing the Rivanna River drainage.  “The main purpose of the program is to create a new recreational fishery and possibly even create brood stock for future stockings in the eastern part of the state.  We’re also looking at stocking in the Shenandoah River.”

    If Harris can get his hands on the full number of fingerlings requested from hatcheries in the western part of the state, they will stock 30,000 fingerlings at four points along the River’s course between the Rivanna Reservoir dam in Charlottesville and the town of Palmyra on the River’s lower stretches.

    A catchable population of fish is the desired outcome of the project; but as walleye have never been monitored or seriously supported in the Rivanna River, Harris notes, it’s hard to predict the outcome.  “We plan to stock on a five year program.  If it’s doing well we’ll continue the process.  Walleye do not reproduce naturally with the added fishing pressure, even in the New River where they are native, so annual stockings will keep populations strong,” said Harris.

    If the program is indeed a success, typical growth rates will have fish measuring up to the recently-implemented statewide slot limit of 18 inches in three to five years.

    The Rivanna River has been known foremost as a smallmouth bass fishery since the fish’s accidental diffusion east of the Ohio River in the mid-1800s, and gives up trophy-sized fish every year, especially in its lower reaches.  But the addition of another predatory fish is not expected to be too big of an issue.  “There will be a bit of a squeeze,” Harris projects.  “Both are predatory fish, and will have to compete a little for food.”  However, Harris notes that they will not be stocking in large densities (roughly 1,000 fingerlings per river mile); and critical competition and any consequences are not likely.

    What is likely in the success of this project is the addition of a relative novelty to the Rivanna.  “Walleye, especially in the New River, are very river-running fish,” Harris reported.  “In the summer and winter, they hang out in deeper water areas, but starting in February, they will begin running up river until they hit nice rocky shoals where they can spawn.”  While Rivanna’s shad runs aren’t what they used to be, this project’s success could grant the Rivanna River a new claim to fame.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian


    April 30, 2014--a chain of 13 railcars derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Six toppled into the adjacent James River, and nearly 25,000 gallons of crude oil poured into Virginia’s founding river in a disastrous display of billowing black smoke and fire.  \ photo
    A pessimist might mourn the loss of a great American river.  An optimist cringes, and turns a calloused eye to the blaze, hoping that those on the forefront will help Virginia awake from the nightmare.  But what does this really mean for Virginia’s River?  And how can such accidents be prevented elsewhere?

    The good news is that the oil being transported from the Bakken shale oil deposit in North Dakota is extremely flammable (not usually a plus), and sparked upon derailment, burning some of the contaminant into the atmosphere.

    What’s more, at the time of the spill the river was swollen from heavy rains in the James River Basin, hopefully dispersing the oil in the otherwise less-voluminous upper portion of the river.
In response to the accident, the Virginia Department of Health has issued a “recreational advisory” against such activities as swimming, wading, kayaking, and paddling in the river, from the origin of the spill in Lynchburg, to the oxbows and tidal reaches of Richmond.

    Due to the high flow of water, oil coursed the more than 100 miles to Richmond as early as May 1.  The state’s capital city is currently relying on a backup supply of drinking water; and Lynchburg’s supply was left unadulterated.

    No one was injured in the derailment, and clean water can still be attained; but the effect of the spill on the river’s diverse fish and wildlife populations will only be told through time.
A number of birds—eagles, osprey, seagulls, herons—count on the James River for sustenance.  Otters, muskrat, and beaver all construct family abodes in the clay banks.  Fish fin its waters, with no place to go.

    Ecologically, the timing of the spill is less-than-ideal.  Spring beckons waves of spawning shad and herring into the freshwater river to spawn and the birds of the riverine ecosystem are feeding chicks in nests.  This coincidence poses a multi-generational threat to the river’s inhabitants.

    Luckily, the James River Association, the James River’s premier confidant and safe keeper, led by Upper James Riverkeeper, Pat Calvert, is taking recovery measures.  Currently, the team is working with herpetologists who will assess the effect of the spill in amphibians of the river, which are effected by even the slightest amount of oil contaminant.

    This local tragedy has directed significant criticism towards the methods of transporting domestic oil.  The CSX line that the derailed train was traveling through Lynchburg follows the James River from its headwaters to its final destination in Yorktown, Virginia.

    Train routes have historically followed riverbeds for their relatively little grade and consequently-easy navigation.  In fact, many of the nation’s largest and most valuable rivers are paralleled by tracks that transport crude oil from the hydraulic fracturing site in North Dakota.  Thus the potential exists for oil spills in rivers across the country. 

    This has stirred the pot on transportation-related issues with conservation groups across the country, who hope to learn from the accident in Lynchburg, and prevent it from occurring on their river.  For as the transportation of crude oil increases in the United States, safety measures and regulations have lagged behind significantly.

    Following the spill in Lynchburg, the United States Department of Transportation presented the White House with a set of stricter guidelines for tank cars for review, to get the ball rolling. 

    Hudson Riverkeeper, Phillip Musegaas, prompted the government to ban all use of puncture prone tanks; and days later the Canadian government instituted a three-year phase-out plan for the DOT-111s that have derailed, caused pollution, and even killed people in Alabama, Quebec, North Dakota, and New Brunswick over the past year.

     Though it is a strong blow to the James River’s ecology, the river system should recover from the spill; for toxic spills are no strangers to its waters.  Still, there will be consequences, and we can only hope that this incident is looked upon as an example and a warning for what can happen as a result of poor transportation regulations.  Those with the time, means, and inspiration, I urge you to care and get involved.  Here’s how: