Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Summer of a Hundred Bears

The transition has officially come to pass. I write to you this morning from my new home in McLean, VA having departed from Shenandoah National Park for the last time. I am once again officially unemployed, and am scheduled to depart for Thanksgiving in Arizona later today. When I return to Virginia on November 30 I return in hope that congress will have done something about the budget and that progress will have been made to bring me back into the folds of the park service. I also return to enter into the final 45 day countdown before the wedding. The pieces continue to fall into place to bring that day into reality and now that I am back in civilization it will make it significantly easier to finish the puzzle of wedding preparation.

I am certainly in quite a different place now than I was a year ago as I prepared to finish the last few weeks on the National Mall. Life can change pretty fast.

The eight months I spent in Shenandoah were filled with adventure, exploration, disturbingly stupid and odd questions from visitors, and quite a lot of hiking and American Black Bears.

I learned a great deal about Black Bears this summer as they were one of the most common subjects of questions from visitors as well as the centerpoint of one of the terrace talks I developed. But I did more than simply learn about them. I also had the wonderful opportunity to observe them in the wild in a myriad of different situations. I saw young bears, old bears, male bears, baby bears, mother bears, and Smokey Bear (okay, that was in a video, but I did see him in the park!) All told it was a rather productive bear summer.

Prior to this year I had never had a confirmed bear sighting in the wild. In the eight months that I spent in Shenandoah National Park I spotted a total of 102 bears in all sorts of different situations. Amongst my favorite sightings was the mother bear descending a tree holding her four cubs to chase away a juvenile bear, a bear flipping rocks to search for food in a stream, a bear up in a giant oak tree out on tiny limbs in pursuit of acorns, and the bear I saw traipsing through my "backyard" out my bathroom window. I'd say I improved my bear average a bit this summer!

I also did a great deal of hiking. My most notable accomplishment was completing the 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail that lie within Shenandoah National Park. It was in a lot of sections, but I officially traversed every inch of those 101 miles. I added to that an additional 241 miles of different trails within the park for a total of 342 of the 516 miles of hiking trails that lie within the park. I also doubled up on a lot of the trails and hiked several of them several times. The total mileage that I hiked in Shenandoah this summer comes out at greater than 485 miles.

It was a wonderful opportunity to see and experience the backcountry of the park in a manner unprecedented in my life up to this point. I backpacked in for an overnight trip three different times and spent countless hours on the trails, sometimes in an official ranger capacity, but much more often in my off hours. Considering that nearly every weekend was spent traveling to DC or elsewhere with Alison I feel pretty good about my final tally for the summer!

It is amazing how much things change in a relatively short distance. Last Saturday I made the final trip from Shenandoah back to the DC area and the very next morning I drove from our new home in McLean in to Alison's house in order to go to church. In a matter of a couple of hours I had traveled from a wilderness park to our nation's capitol.
It takes about 25 minutes to drive from McLean to Alison's house on Capitol Hill in DC. That journey takes me along the Potomac River on the George Washington Memorial Parkway (itself a national park unit) and passes within sight of memorials to seven US presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson),  Robert E. Lee, and (now) Martin Luther King Jr. Also viewable
(amongst others) are Arlington National Cemetery, the National Cathedral (still being repaired after the August earthquake), memorials to the Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Air force, the Pentagon, the Supreme Court building, the Library of Congress, and the United States Capitol. Those are some rather significant sights along the route to church!

We know not what the days ahead will hold, but we know that we are living our lives to the full, in humble thanksgiving for the many blessings that the Lord has lavished upon us.

Celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday in dangerous wonder!

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Final Countdown

The final countdown has begun. We have officially moved into the closing chapter of my time here in Shenandoah. I have exactly two weeks left, ten days of work, and then I am finished. My official housing checkout and inspection is tomorrow morning so we have been doing a lot of cleaning (stove, oven, fridge, windows, bathroom, etc) in order to get things up to scratch.

Nearly eight months have passed since I first arrived here, having little idea what to expect and uncertain what life would be like here in Shenandoah. It has turned out to be quite the adventure and I am sad to see it coming to an end. It has been hard to say goodbye to the many people who have already left, especially since  I still don’t know what comes next, but I have been striving to enjoy these last weeks as much as possible.

There has certainly been no shortage of unique experiences, both within the park, and without, since last I wrote. There is much in the area surrounding the park that I have not been able to explore since I have gone into DC nearly every weekend. A week and half ago Alison and I decided to help change that and joined family friends from her church in California in a grand adventure into the southern Shenandoah Valley.

Much of the trip was spent in Lexington, a charming community at the southern terminus of the valley that features two universities and significant connections to some of the most famous officers who served in Confederate forces during the Civil War. We visited the home where Stonewall Jackson and his wife lived when the war began, and from whence Jackson set off for war in 1861, never to return except for his funeral. We also visited the cemetery where he is interred and ate lunch along the cemetery wall before exploring the history lying inside its gates. We saw his horse, Little Sorrel, as well as the raincoat he was wearing the night he was mortally wounded. Both of these items were on display at the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson taught natural philosophy and artillery prior to the war. Also in Lexington is Washington and Lee University where Robert E. Lee served as president from shortly after the war until his death a few years later. We saw his tomb in the university chapel, as well as that of his beloved warhorse Traveler.  Also housed in that chapel is the Charles Wilson Peale portrait of Washington as a young colonel in the Virginia Militia during the French and Indian War, the first portrait of Washington ever to be painted, and the only rendition we have of him prior to his role as commander of the Continental Army.

It was a region I have long wished to visit and I was certainly enraptured by all the history surrounding us and could have spent much more time in the area, but we had one more stop to make, this one concerning history of a different century. Our final historical site of the day was the Woodrow Wilson birthplace and Library, thus taking us from civil war to war on an international scale. This destination also marked the third (along with Truman in May and Hoover in June) presidential library/birthplace that Alison and I have visited this year.

Two days later (on Friday) I left the visitor center at 4:00 to walk over to the campgrounds to talk to the rangers there because they were not answering their phone and discovered that it had begun to snow. It didn’t stop until about 2:00 the following afternoon, blanketing the mountain for nearly 24 hours and depositing 10 inches of the fluffy white stuff upon us. That made for quite an interesting weekend!  The three of us who are still living here in Big Meadows  walked over to the visitor center on Saturday morning and ran it for the day since no one else could get in. Both lodges and the campgrounds were quite full Friday night so there were a lot of people trying to leave on Saturday after having that much snow dumped on them. That created all sorts of problems, since many of these people were not used to driving in the snow and quite a few of them did not listen and follow instructions which resulted in cars stuck all over the place due to people trying to get out before roads had been properly cleared. They ultimately evacuated everyone in the lodges and escorted them out of the park in a convoy following snowplows off the mountain. It was quite a day to be listening to the radio!

The drive fortuitously reopened just in time for me to depart for Washington on Monday, allowing me to both visit Alison and to see our new home for the first time. We officially took possession of the place and received keys on Tuesday evening and began moving stuff in right away. It had already begun to take shape as uniquely ours and will continue to do so over the next few weeks as I move the rest of my stuff from here in the park and we craft it into our new home. In addition to moving things in we christened the house by eating chinese food and playing skip bo and battleship on the dining room table that we resurfaced earlier this summer.

The excitement of the new home was marred a bit by the fact that brakes in my truck gave out Wednesday night, creating a rather expensive hassle that we will have to continue to deal with this week. But we certainly still enjoyed meeting the family that lives above us as well as their big fat black lab Buddy and one of the two cats.

My animal encounters this week were not limited only to house pets either. The deer are just moving into the rut, which means the bucks are displaying in the meadow. Then today as I was hiking on the AT I came around a corner and spotted a mother bear and her cub searching for acorns. They were not concerned about me being there so I was able to watch them forage for about ten minutes. Just as I was leaving I became aware of the presence of a third bear which had just come out of a nearby grove of trees and was moving toward the other two. This one was a male, so I am reasonably certain I had stumbled across the famous trio of mama, papa, and baby bear with whom Goldilocks has such a troubling relationship.

So as I enter into the final days here in Shenandoah and begin to transition to a new chapter living in McLean, VA I am reminded of the diversity of opportunities available to us in life and of the importance of training your eyes to recognize them. You never know what might be waiting for you around the next bend in the trail.