Explore, Experience and Enjoy the Beautiful Smith River in Southern Virginia

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Never too Cold

December 13, 2008

Yea, its cold outside, but that’s no reason to hibernate. I can’t stand it, I have to get outside on a beautiful day with crisp, clear skies.

Not every weekend has to be adventure filled, sometimes its nice just to relax, but I can only sit still for so long. Saturday morning found us sleeping late, pigging out on a big breakfast, putting up the Christmas tree, cleaning the house and catching up on email… Now what ? Sitting at the computer, staring out the window at the morning doves and chicakdess stocking up on millet seed scattered across the backyard deck, cabin fever was starting to set in. Even the dogs were getting lethargic, but I knew they too needed to get out and play.

Perfect excuse ! We got to take the dogs for a walk. Dogs need a walk everyday…and people do too. We are lucky to live within 10 miles of the Gravely Nature Preserve and it is still one of our all time favorite local hikes. We throw on some warm layers, load up the dogs, and head for the woods. Stopping by to pick up our nephew and his dog now we had an outing, 3 dogs and 3 hikers.

We arrived at Gravely, leashed up the dogs and headed for the trail. Another hiker and dog were spotted heading out of the woods and back to the parking area. Gravely is always a pleasure to hike with its easy trails through hardwood forest, river views from the ridge and a variety of flora, each season brings a different experience. Our favorite trail in the Rhododendron trail as it winds down the spur heading toward the river. Curving around the toe of the ridge the river comes into view and beckons you down in to the rich bottom land, the path leading to the canopy-covered section of its namesake tree as it winds along the banks of the Smith.

The rain from the past few days had swelled the river to a perfect level for boating and we spotted Rich Elliot and Amy in kayaks, stopping briefly to say hello. As they paddled out of sight, I was a bit envious of them and wished I too had taken to the river that day, but I’m sure the dogs were happy that we had made the decision to hike instead.

After taking the Burgess loop trail, we spent some time visiting the graveyard on the top of the ridge. This is really a neat place to hang out for a while and think back on what it must have been like here back in the 1800's. Thankfully, we now have this piece of history preserved for future generations to have their own historical and natural experience.
We took a slow round trip down the trails and returned to the parking area, loaded up the dogs and headed out. I took the back way home so we could go across Mitchell Bridge and perhaps catch a glimpse of the kayakers coming down. With two other vehicles already at the pull-off, I squeezed in front of the line and thought about how nice it was going to be when we finally got a much needed access point opened here. Jenn is currently working on the design and funding and it can’t come soon enough.
Boaters are out there all seasons enjoying the river and if it was this crowed on a cold winter day, just think of the use when warmer weather arrives. I headed out on the bridge to take a look upstream. There were boats coming down the last rapid before the bridge. It was a kayak and a canoe, definitely not Rich and Amy who we had seen earlier in the day in kayaks. I waited as they got close to the bridge then hollered out a greeting. It was none other than our buddy J.B. Frith in the lead kayak. Bringing up the rear in the canoe was local river rat Grant Price who has moved away but had returned for the weekend and taken the opportunity t0 introduce his girlfriend to this beautiful section of the Smith.
It was getting dark as we dragged the boats up the hill to the truck and I was already thinking about a warm fire and a nice cup of hot chocolate. Driving back by Gravely we saw another family,with dog, just getting off the trail.
So when you think its too cold to get outside…remember…its not. Just in the short time we were out that day we saw 5 boaters and 5 other hikers.
So get off the couch, if they can do it, so can you !

Hey JB...get some shoes on ! Kids these days ......

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mushrooms, Turtles, and Snakes, Oh my!

Article and pictures by: Brian Williams
Edited and posted by: Vicky Thomas

The Virginia Environmental Educators Conference was held here in Martinsville back in September at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. The museum staff combined forces with area groups to provide a fantastic conference. The schedule of events included; great speakers, displays, presentations, a party with bluegrass music, and of course some neat field trips.

Our own Jennifer Doss led a group of 15 conference attendees to Gravely Nature Preserve for a guided hike and discussion on how this park was developed, and how it is currently being utilized as an interpretative preserve combining historical and natural wonders. Every season is different at Gravely, and no matter how many times you have been, the very nature of the forest provides a new experience each time. This hike proved to be notable not only for Jenn's outstanding interpretation of the local area history, but also for a few unexpected surprises that lay in store. We headed across the parking lot to our first stop at the old tobacco barns.
Just around the corner from the barns we enter the woods and stopped at the forest succession sign. A pungent smell was lingering in the air that I immediately recognized it as snake musk. Some of the group thought it was something dead but a few others recognized the smell too and we began searching the area. Soon enough one of the ladies had found the source...a nice little dark phase Hognose snake (heterodon platyrhinos) The hognose snake has a fascinating arrayof defense mechanisms and this "musking" is its first line of defense...but that didn't work on this group.

Next we were treated to it's second defense plan and this one did not hesitate to show us first why it is also nicknamed the "spreading adder."

Once again, this had no effect and it quickly realized that this crowd wasn't buying the whole "Hey, look at this triangle shaped head....I'm really a deadly snake ...really," so it turned to its final trick....the dramatic "death" sequence, complete with mouth agape and tongue hanging out.

"They'll leave me alone now...I'm dead...no one wants a dead snake! They should be running away any minute now...I'll just lift up here and take a quick peak."

"Man, this is a tough crowd, they are just not falling for it...Uh oh, here comes the hand....that's ok, I'll really prove to ‘em that I'm dead now..."

(Engage limp body sequence.)

"Ok, this ain't working either. Just play it cool...keep that mouth open..maybe they'll think I'm a cottonmouth now !"

We really didn't harass the little guy too long, and eventually we all moved on up the trail. (I imagined the hognose meeting another snake later that day and saying..."you won't believe what happened to me. I really got to get a new act.")

Another surprise of the hike was the incredible display of a wide variety of mushrooms.

I won't even attempt to identify all the varieties represented but there was a wonderful article in the Martinsville Bulletin on the mushrooms at Gravely by Holly Kozelsky with great photos by Mike Wray and some mushroom ID's by Richard Hoffman of the VMNH.

Our group couldn't get enough of the fabulous fungi. We stopped for lots of ‘shroom photo op's.

Further up the trail we encountered one of the many resident box turtles (Terrapene carolina) that call Gravely home.

While not as exciting as the "death display" of the hognose snake, the turtles own defense of "I'll just be in my shell" technique was just as effective.

We hiked through the sun-dappled forest over the Jones Cliff Trail and Burgess Loop then back to the cemetery where Jenn shared the history of the Burgess Plantation.

Monday, September 22, 2008

After The Fall

Part 2:

Now if you really want to cool off after a long day, just plan to be on the river right after they shut down the generators and the water begins to fall. The cool evaporation is incredible and in no time at all you will be pulling on that jacket you brought along with you.

Monday afternoon (Sept 8) the generation was scheduled to stop at 6 p.m. I headed up to the base of the dam to time the actual flow stoppage and the water drop downstream. They turned the spigot off at 6 p.m. sharp and the water dropped 1 foot in less than 5 minutes.

The fog banks began to arrive in ghostly striated patterns above the receding waters. After 30 minutes of timing water level decrease near the dam, I headed back down the river about a mile to check on the falling waters at the next waypoint.

Watching a couple of trout rise through the mist below, I had to go back to the truck and grab my waders and flyrod. As the sun touched the ridge and the air chilled even more, I coaxed a few browns into feeding. They were not real aggressive on the bite, just sort of stopped the nymph and held on and it was sometimes difficult to tell whether it was a fish or the DIDYMO algae that had your nymph.

The Green headed Coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) seemed to be the predominant yellow wildflower on this section although there were some goldenrod and wingstem as well.

A bumblebee greedily digs into the nectar of the bloom on a White Turtle-head flower (Chelone glabra).
Soon my indicator was disappearing again and another fat brown was on the line.

A smaller brown took the fly and after a releasing him, he hung out around my boots for a couple of shots (below photo), then I nudged him and he darted off back into the shadows of the overhanging trees along the bank.

One more nice brown and I was heading home.

As I released the last trout of the evening back into the river, I once again marveled at how this place seems so remote yet is less than 15 minutes from our office. Dusk arrived and was quickly followed by darkness as the days grow shorter. I pulled out my headlamp and picked my way back upstream, back to the truck, back to the "other" world.

Photo and article by: Brian Williams
Edited by: Vicky Thomas

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

After The Fall

Part 1

The days are growing shorter and dusk now brings a hint of cooler air each evening. Its late summer on the Smith and a good time to experience a final showy display of color before the wildflowers return to dormancy and the forest is speckled with falls parade. It's also a good time to get out on the river and enjoy some afternoon wading and fly-fishing, hoping for a possible "showy" display of color from the local trout population.

At this time of year the bright yellows petals of the Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) are standouts along the banks of the Smith.

The deep purples of the Closed Gentian (Gentianaceae Gentiana andrewsii) ....

.....compete for attention with the brilliant reds of the Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Sunday morning arrived warm with still summertime temps, perfect for cooling off in the river. The cool water evaporating into blankets of mist keeps you comfortable, even during the hottest part of the day. I headed out to the special regulation trout section around noon, even though I knew the trout probably would not be hitting till latter in the day, I enjoy just walking up the river and spotting trout as they slink back into the shadows or dart under a rock.

A smaller brown "camoflauged" against a backdrop of DIDYMO algae.
Heading quietly upstream I began to make a few cast and soon encountered perhaps the smallest brown trout I had ever caught on a fly rod. It had to be from the wild population on the Smith because it was even smaller than most of the ones we released from the Trout in the Classroom Program during June. He took a # 18 bead head nymph.

A few more small browns fell to my nymph and I convinced them to hang around just long enough for a few quick photos before I released them, perhaps a little wiser.

Continuing my trek upstream, my eyes were drawn to a vibrant contrast of the black and yellow hanging out in the greens and orange of a stand of Jewelweed (Balsaminaceae Impatiens capensis). A silky trap, beautifully crafted by a writing spider (Argiope aurantia) was attracting its share of the afternoon hatch.

As evening approached, the larger trout were coming out to feed and it wasn't long before I had hooked up with several more "Smith River beauties."

Each one was a little larger than the previous.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Thursday Evening on the River

Photo essay by Brian Williams

On Thursday afternoon, several dramatic thunderstorms moved through the area producing rain and heavy winds. Our plans for a river trip from Philpott to Bassett, riding the water release, were canceled due to the unpredictable weather. So after work I headed over to the take-out point at the Smith River Trails, North Bassett ramp, just to take a few pictures and enjoy the evening and maybe a short hike down by the river.

The access point is part of the Smith River Trail system and is located in North Bassett just downstream of the Trenthill bridge. This is also home to the old J.D.Bassett Chair factory which sits silent as idle testament to the death of the furniture industry that created this town.

The air was humid but the rain had cooled the area down just enough river was at full force from the water release during power generation at the dam and the surface was obscured from view by the mist. As usual on these late summer days, the chilly water from the bottom of the lake surges downstream and collides with the warmer air it creating quite a fog bank that hovers above the surface as the river surges beneath.

Although the local mallards are quite capable of handling the force of the river, they had decided to sit this one out at the bottom of the canoe ramp.

Just about an hour before last light, a bright flash of yellow came screaming in from upstream and then a flash of blue and I saw that two kayakers had made it into the eddy at the base of ramp. They had smiles on their faces but you could sense a bit of relief as well. I asked how the trip had been. "Cold" came the reply. Seems one had had a little trouble on the fish camp rapids and went for a swim. They were new to the sport and had made the run before in low water conditions. This time they wanted to try it at full water release. Well, they made it. They could have used skirts on their kayaks which probably would have prevented the unscheduled swim, but they did have their PFD's and helmets. After a few introductions and talk about the run they had just made, I learned they they were new boaters and had just purchased equipment 3 months ago. Ben Long of Henry had one of Pelican's new recreational kayaks and Scott Cowen of Ferrum was in the bright yellow Old Town Loon that had caught my eye on the river.
I was surprised to see them as there were no other vehicles at the ramp. They informed me that they had called their wives to come pick them up. That's one way to do a shuttle if there are only two of you ! We talked for a while and I learned they had decided to try recreational kayaks and had recently purchased equipment and practiced on Fairystone Lake before venturing out on the river. I provided them with some information on the Smith River, The Dan River Basin Association, other access ramps and paddling tips and offered to ride the river with them some day. It's always a pleasure to see new folks out there enjoying the river. Hope to see you out there again soon Ben and Scott!
The power generation cycle was stopped at 7 pm and 2 hours later the river began to slowly return to normal. I entered the steady current with waders, fly rod in hand for a few quick cast before heading home. Sometimes the bigger ones like to feed on the declining water and after severalcast into some likely eddies fat little brown took my nymph and made for quiet a fight in the still receding waters.

Releasing him back into the stream, I packed it up and waded back to the truck. As the sun dropped out of sight, the clouds made a dramatic backdrop for the old Bassett chair factory. I headed home dreaming on the next adventure on the Smith!