Sunday, April 25, 2010

Simple things

It's been lovely in DC lately: sunny, warm, dry, but full of pollen - an outdoorsy girl's worst nightmare. I've been itching to play outside for weeks now, but between my allergic reactions to all the tree sex and the side effects of my allergy medication, I've been miserable. And then, a mixed blessing: the weather forecast has called for a rainy weekend, which would wash away the pollen (yay!) but be, alas, rainy. I decided to brave it anyway and headed down to Prince William Forest Park in Virginia. It's National Parks Week, so I didn't even have to pay the $3 to get into the park. The last time I hiked through the park was last July - I was training for my first backpacking trip and couldn't find anyone to come with me, so it was also my first time hiking alone. And by alone, I mean alone. Judging by all the spider webs strung across the trail, no one had been there for a while. Aside from being constantly worried about getting spiders all over me (although I like to look at spiders, I'm not a big fan of them crawling on me), it was a ton of fun, and so gorgeous.

That time, I hiked a good portion of the South Valley Trail, so yesterday I headed out on the North Valley Trail. The only problem with the park is that very few of the trails are loops, so you have to think strategically about where you park so you can hike out and back. Other than that, I love this park, mostly for its simplicity. On a damp spring day, everything smells like wood, which there's lots of. It reminded me of being in the woods at Camp Windego in Wisconsin, the overnight girl scout camp I attended for two weeks each summer from ages eight to thirteen. There aren't any mountains to hike up, no challenging rock scrambles, no tricky creek or river crossings, and no fancy valley overlooks. The South Valley Trail has some steeper hills because most of it is a little more upland, but the North Valley Trail mostly just meanders through the woods alongside Quantico Creek. About midway through on the North Valley Trail, a steep drop draws the boundary between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain, and below the boundary, the simple and undramatic Quantico Falls is little more than a shallow creek running over some hard volcanic boulders.

The great vistas of Shenandoah and the Smokies are breathtaking, it's fun to challenge yourself on steep hills and serious switchbacks, and the parks in Virginia and Maryland are hotbeds of unique geologic formations, but sometimes, it's just nice to wander through the forest. I didn't see any deer or beavers, or even any amphibians (too cool out) or birds (they were mostly high up in the tree canopy, though a woodpecker's rat-a-tat echoed across the creek), and the vegetation was mostly deciduous trees, and that was fine. The rain held off and the air was fresh, and after being trapped in a windowless office for days on end, a simple hike felt like the best thing ever.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Save Our Animals, Save Our Tails

There's definitely some truth to the saying that once you start paying attention to something, suddenly you see it everywhere. Following my ten-day, life-changing vacation out West, I made a promise to myself to build my knowledge of plants and animals. For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by nature, but when I got to be a teenager, I thought it was nerdy and I did NOT want to be nerdy. It's always been with me though, and it turns out that the cheesiest thing inspired me to fully embrace nature once again: I flew Frontier Airlines home from that vacation last August. The tail of each plane in the fleet features an animal commonly found in the West. That vacation changed me for good, and my sadness at leaving the West was tempered by the thought that I was being ushered home by one of these animals. (As it turns out, Republic Airways bought Frontier and wants to rebrand the airline without the animals. Frontier workers rallied in Denver last week with the call of "Save our Animals, Save our Tails!" to help save the brand.)

Anyway, after that trip, my passion for wildlife conservation was renewed and I realized that I needed to take a more hands-on approach. It started with volunteering at the zoo, where I have had a chance to learn a great deal already from the dedicated keepers and wildlife specialists. Last weekend I got my new binoculars and went birding in Rock Creek Park, where I saw a northern flicker, a red-bellied woodpecker, a bunch of chickadees (Carolina?), two tufted titmice, and a bunch of gray birds I haven't been able to identify. Without the binoculars, I would have just seen a whole bunch of robins and lots of birds I couldn't identify because they were too far away, and I would have walked on without much thought. It's amazing how being able to see high up into the trees or hundreds of yards away changes how you think about the world around you. Who knew that the little nature preserve in the center of a big city could be so diverse?! I think about that diversity every time I see a different species of bird for the first time, just because I'm now paying attention. The melodious little bird by the bus stop: northern mockingbird. The colorful pair of ducks in the creek: wood ducks. The bird swimming in the tidal basin with its body submerged and long neck gliding through the water: an anhinga. The black ducks swimming in the bay near Old Town Alexandria: scoters (I think). With the help of my bird guide and the website, I've been able to marvel at how many different kinds of birds live in this concrete jungle.

All of this wildlife lives in and depends on the Chesapeake Bay watershed, one of the most polluted watersheds in the country due to agricultural runoff and urban pollution. If more people paid more attention to how many different animals live in our neighborhoods and were more aware of how our cars and plastic bags and chemicals affect those animals, perhaps they'd be more inclined to support activities and policies that reduce our impact on the watershed. That would mean fewer chemicals in our food, cleaner air and water, even more wildlife. Now that it's spring, there are plenty of opportunities to help, including the Potomac River Watershed Cleanup on April 10th and the Earth Day river cleanup and celebration hosted by the Anacostia Watershed Society on April 24th. It's important work, and saving our animals by cleaning up our city will indeed save our tails as well.

Speaking of diversity, go check out the Life series on the Discovery Channel, which airs new episodes on Sunday nights and shows reruns throughout the week. (Warning: the linked website starts to play a video as soon as it opens.) Today's nature programs are far superior to the ones I watched as a kid. I thought I had seen it all, but this show has featured some of the kookiest, coolest, cutest, most amazing animals that we would probably never see otherwise. If this doesn't make you appreciate the wonders of nature, nothing will.