ADK 2021: Cobble Hill

Each evening in Lake Placid, after we wrapped up work/adventures for the day, Steve and I would wander out to dinner somewhere on Main Street and plan out the next day’s wandering. We’d compare work calendars and notes about fun ideas, and hash out a plan to tackle an adventure around conference calls. Because we were working, most of our adventures were bite-sized; that doesn’t mean they were lame. On Wednesday morning, with calendars clear of conference calls until 11:00, we woke to an early alarm and set out for Cobble Hill.

Cobble Hill rises 2,343 feet above downtown Lake Placid; it’s the local hike in a town full of local hikes. These days there isn’t even trailhead parking; you stride out of your hotel, walk up Main Street and partway around Mirror Lake, and you’re there. It’s a short-ish trail (just about 5 miles round trip counting the town portion) but with plenty of classic Adirondack granite and views.

There’s a pristine pond.

A decent amount of climbing – and you’re at the top, with a stellar view of a Lake Placid landmark – the ski jumps.

There’s Adirondack granite boulders to scramble over.

And lots of space for dorky summit selfies. What happened here? Steve looks creepy and I look terrified. I joked that he could be a serial killer.

Summit slayer, woman about to be murdered.

We were up and down this mountain before my West Coast colleagues had even woken up, and settled in for a day of lawyering – but feeling pretty smug about having climbed a mountain before the workday even started.

Next week: paddling another Adirondack lake!

DC Bike Ride 2021

You guys! I have a milestone to report: first start line since pre-pandemic. Look at me go!

Months ago, I signed up for the DC Bike Ride, billed as twenty car-free miles through DC. Apparently, this is the fifth year running for this event, although somehow I’d never heard of it before. I was stoked. My friend Zoya signed up as well, and we made plans to ride together, but at the last minute she decided to be in Boston that week (Zoya and her husband split their time between cities) so I was riding alone. No matter! I missed Zoya, but I was looking forward to a blissful ride around gorgeous DC scenery.

It had definitely been awhile, because I was not at all on my start line game. I used to have races and events down to a science, but apparently I’ve forgotten everything. I remembered to lay out my clothes the night before, but spent the early morning dashing around looking for my race dots, then realized halfway to DC that I’d forgotten a mask for the start line (but fortunately had a Buff in the glove box). I left my water bottle in the car (d’oh!) and spent the entire pre-race festivities worrying about whether I’d remembered to lock up. (I had a distinct memory of zipping my car keys into my bike saddle pack, but no memory of actually locking the car door. Figuring I didn’t have enough time to get back to the car and check before the ride started, I just trusted in my personal autopilot. Spoiler alert: I had locked the car.)

I also noticed, while riding from my parking spot to the starting line corrals, that both of my tires seemed to be lower on air than they were when I left the house. Very weird, considering I just had my bike tuned up for the race. And I don’t have a travel pump – another fail; I’ll be putting that on my Christmas list for sure. I found a volunteer who had a pump and got a quick top-off, hoping it would be enough to get me through the ride, and then I could figure out what the heck was going on with my tires.

From where I set up, in the middle of the intermediate riders’ corral, it took forty-five minutes from the starting gun to actually get across the start line – oof. I spent the entire time worrying about (1) whether I locked my car; (2) whether I would get back before my meter ran out; and (3) the air in my tires. Not the most restful start line experience – but pretty much all on me. The crowd had fantastic energy, and I was looking forward to a great ride if my tires held out.

8:45 a.m. – hey! The start line! Wahoo!

We set off through Potomac Park, bound for Haines Point – one of the most scenic spots in DC, so a lovely place to begin a race. The first few miles were quite bottlenecked, so I rode along slowly, looking for opportunities to thread through the crowd and find myself a bit more riding space. We rounded the corner and – look at that view!

What a place to ride! Normally there are cars whipping down this scenic street. It was very cool to share the road only with a few thousand of my best cycling friends. The last time I got to ride through cool car-free city scenery was 2014, when I did the Five Boro Bike Tour with my dad, brother, and sister-in-law. This ride had a similar feel (albeit much smaller crowds – not a bad thing) and it was fabulous. Would have been fun to ride with my family again – or with Zoya, as planned – but I had a grand time pedaling along by myself and enjoying the scenery.

My smooth ride was not to last, though. My front tire held up fine, but as I rounded the traffic circle near Arlington Cemetery, I noticed a sickening bump-bump-bump sound; it was my back tire, and it was completely flat. Woof. I thudded my way over Memorial Bridge, enjoying the stunning view of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, but wondering what I should do. I quickly dismissed the idea of pulling out of the race – my car was parked so far away that it wasn’t worth trying to ride back, and I’d be more likely to solve my problem by finding a race volunteer to help. Instead, I decided that my goal was just to get to the next rest stop, where hopefully a volunteer would have a pump (I had a patch kit in my saddle bag). I thumped over the bridge and under the overpass by the Kennedy Center, where several people helpfully informed me that they thought I might have a flat. I waved and agreed that I definitely had a flat, and hoped that no one else would talk to me or I may not be able to rely on my natural politeness to bite back a rude retort, and I might channel Phoebe Buffay and shout “THAT IS BRAND NEW INFORMATION!”

As I pedaled over Whitehurst Freeway towards Georgetown, scanning for a rest stop with the bumping getting worse all the while, I spotted two riders in yellow shirts pedaling slowly along the right side of the road. When I got close enough to read the back of their shirts (“Conte’s Bike Shop Mobile Mechanics”) my heart soared. I drew up next to them and called over, “Excuse me! You guys doing repairs?” They were. Hallelujah. They quickly diagnosed my flat tire as a valve problem – not a hole, thank goodness – and kindly (and efficiently) replaced my inner tube, pumped up the back tire and topped off the air in my front tire, before sending me on my way. HEROES, totally saved my ride. The last eight miles of the ride were as smooth as the first twelve were bumpy.

Finish festival! Thanks to the Conte’s Bike Shop Mobile Mechanics, or I would never have made it – I’d have had no choice but to peel off and ride back to the car at my first opportunity.

I’d have liked to stay and enjoy the finish festival, but I was still worried about whether I’d locked my car, and I had definitely exceeded my parking meter (because of the flat tire; even with the extra forty-five minutes to cross the start line I’d have finished well before my meter ran out if I hadn’t run into that trouble on the course). So I snapped a quick picture, collected my new water bottle, and rushed to the car. I was parked right across the street from the Washington Monument, and I did stop for a solemn moment with the white flags commemorating the American victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Please get vaccinated, my friends.

What a crazy ride that was! Hopefully, the next start line will lead to a smoother experience – but that’s all on me; this was a fabulous event and I’ll definitely be repeating the ride next year.

ADK 2021: Paddling Lake Placid

When I sat down to plan a week’s worth of Adirondack paddling, Lake Placid was the top of the list of lakes to hit. How could it not be? Just a five minute drive – or less – from our hotel, it doesn’t get more convenient. Or more beautiful! I’d paddled Lake Placid before, with my dad – we dropped our kayaks in at the Lake Placid boat launch, paddled four miles to the back slope of Whiteface Mountain, and floated around drinking wine. (An epic day.) I was eager to show Steve the same paddling route – minus the wine, because this was a quick late-lunchtime escape, and we were headed back to “work” afterwards.

Steve grew up in the Adirondack region – just “outside the blue line,” as locals say, in Glens Falls. But he wasn’t an outdoorsy guy, and he didn’t paddle growing up. So this was his first foray onto Lake Placid.

Obviously he loved it.

I was excited to show him the gorgeous Adirondack camps and boathouses. We’d love to own lakefront property in Virginia someday (longterm financial goal alert!) and I think the boathouses inspired him. He especially liked the Japanese-style one; I preferred the more traditional Adirondack architecture – but they are clearly all stunning.

As we checked out the classic architecture, another Adirondack symbol popped up a few dozen yards away – a common loon! I can’t get enough of them. Sorry for the blurry picture – iPhone zoom.

As we paddled up toward the back slope of Whiteface, we passed by a group on a pontoon boat, who had obviously started their happy hour early. (No shade!) One of the men on the boat shouted to us, “You guys look so beautiful, paddling with the sun behind you!” Blushing, we laughed as his friends reprimanded him: “You can’t say stuff like that to strangers!” (“What!?” he protested. “It was a compliment!”) We laughed and assured him that we were flattered and not at all weirded out.

Approaching Whiteface – this might be the most serene, pristine bay in all of the Adirondacks. Change my mind.

We bobbed around for a few minutes, drinking water from our Nalgene bottles (not wine, sadly – next time, maybe) before reluctantly turning back toward the boat launch. We had another four miles of paddling ahead, so that was something to look forward to, at least.

(I love my paddle.)

Heading back to the boat launch, we passed our pontoon boat friends – and the same garrulous gentleman called to me “You have the smoothest paddle stroke!” I shouted back that I’d been paddling for twenty-five years and he replied “It shows!” As we cruised off, I heard him protesting to his friends, “What, I can’t compliment people’s paddling strokes either?!” Steve and I paddled off, laughing to each other that our new buddy reminded us of our dear friend Seth, who lives up in the Adirondacks and makes friends everywhere he goes. But really – in a place like this, how can you not be so full of joy and life that you want to befriend absolutely everyone?

Next week: a classic LP village hike.

ADK 2021: Hiking Phelps Mountain, Adirondack High Peak #5

As we planned our week of mostly-working-but-also-some-fun in the Adirondacks, Steve suggested that we bang out another high peak; I was skeptical that we’d be able to fit it in around work, but still willing to listen. As we looked over our list of “peaks to get to, soon,” Phelps stuck out to both of us; the hike up was relatively short, we could knock it out in a morning if we skipped Tabletop (the neighboring high peak, often paired with Phelps), and the views were supposed to be great. Looking over the weather for the week, Steve suggested that we go for it on Monday, which looked to be the best weather day. Having nothing urgently pressing until Monday afternoon, I agreed, and we set our alarms for zero dark thirty.

We arrived at the Loj with plenty of parking spaces still available – a good omen. After a few minutes of chatting with one of the local park stewards, we set off on the first – flat! – portion of the hike, through the woods to Marcy Dam.

I hiked along at a fast clip (about the same speed as a neighborhood walk, which is lightning for an Adirondack hike) and marveled at how easy it felt so far. Figuring it wouldn’t last, I made up my mind to enjoy the gently rolling groomed trails while I could.

The first (easy!) portion of the hike flew by, and before I knew it we were standing in the middle of a stunning vista at Marcy Dam. I couldn’t get enough of this view.

After Marcy Dam, the trail begins both to climb and to look more like an Adirondack trail. Saw that coming a mile away – no, I mean literally.

Stream crossing? Let’s do it.

A little more than a mile from the summit, the trail began to really climb – as we knew was coming. The intel on Phelps was that it’s a relatively moderate, gentle hike until you get to the last mile, and then it wallops you. Well, no stopping now.

Still all smiles, though!

The last mile was an Adirondack mile, to be sure – scrambling up creekbeds, grasping at tree branches, heaving over boulders, and gaining about a thousand feet of elevation in the final third of a mile. No pictures, because my mind was completely focused on the job. But eventually, we pushed over the final boulder and found ourselves on a windswept summit ledge.

High peak summit number 5, in the books!

And even more beautiful than I’d expected.

We kicked back and enjoyed the view for awhile.

And posed for summit selfies, because we’re nerds.

It was just so hard to even think about saying goodbye to this view.

We did stop to find the spot where the summit marker was once planted – no longer.

Eventually, reluctantly, we turned our backs on the summit and started the descent; work and conference calls beckoned.

We did stop at Marcy Dam so that Steve could try out his Grayl filter bottle (a very generous Christmas gift from his Mom). The water was delicious.

I wished we’d had time for Tabletop – not only to tick off another high peak, but because I didn’t want to leave the woods. But Steve was dealing with a hiking boot problem (his ankle boots were nowhere near as grippy as the sneaker-style boot of the same model, go figure) and he was sliding perilously across the Adirondack granite; he even broke a hiking pole. And we did each have several hours worth of work to do. So it was back to reality for us – but with the memory of a beautiful day in the woods and on another windswept peak. As we drove back to Lake Placid, we started planning our next peaks – for the next trip.

Next week: a perfectly Placid paddle.

ADK 2021: Kayaking Schroon Lake

As I’ve mentioned a few times, Steve and I didn’t plan a real vacation for summer 2021. I’m still getting my feet under me in a new job, and it didn’t seem like a good idea – plus I’m saving vacation time again for the first time since my days in the federal government. (Law firms don’t do “vacation time” – you just take your vacations when you can, if you can.) But my parents wanted a week with the kids, to ply them with soft serve ice cream and trips to the dollar store, so Steve and I were told to make ourselves scarce. We shrugged, booked a hotel room on Mirror Lake in the Village of Lake Placid, and drove north for a week of working in a different location and squeezing adventures in around business hours.

As we mapped out our week, I tossed out the idea of stopping somewhere on the way up to Lake Placid and getting our new kayaks wet. We could drive straight to LP and drop in there, I suggested, but we’d definitely be paddling there at least once over the course of the week and wouldn’t it be fun to pop off somewhere else and explore a different lake? Consulting a map, I noted that Schroon Lake was right on the way, with a boat launch conveniently just off the highway – and neither of us had ever paddled there before, so it’d be a new adventure. Steve was down.

We rolled into the Schroon Lake boat launch and tackled the intimidating task of getting 17-foot touring kayaks off our car for the first time; they’d been hanging out on the roof since we rolled out of Lake George, but it was time. It was a bit of a comedy of errors, and we were both drenched in sweat by the time we got them off the car and onto the grass – but we did it! (Insert strong-arm emoji here.) A once-over from the Schroon Lake boat steward, and we were on our way.

We started paddling tentatively, then picked up speed as we cruised past beaches, boathouses, and swimmers cannon-balling off floating docks. As I pulled up next to Steve, he looked at me, grinned, and suggested: “Should we do a blue water crossing?” Obviously.

We turned our bows away from shore and paddled to the opposite side of the bay, pausing to navigate speedboat and pontoon boat wakes and to surf a few small breakers along the way.

A very special island, indeed!

We were absolutely giddy to be out cruising the Adirondack waters in the touring kayaks we’d dreamed of for over a year. And something else occurred to me – “Do you realize,” I called to Steve, “that every time we leave the kids with my parents, it’s to go kayaking?” The San Juan Islands in 2019; cruising the Potomac in 2020; now we were planning a week of Adirondack lakes (and a big kayaking adventure in 2022, pandemic permitting).

Look, we just really love kayaking!

All in all – a successful first outing for the ‘yaks (the demo day didn’t count!) and the beginning of a gorgeous week of paddling and hiking in one of our favorite places in the world. What’s not to love? We had big plans for the kayaks, and big plans for our hiking boots too – stay tuned.

Next week: an epic Adirondack hiking day!

Hiking Thacher State Park, August 2021

Although we didn’t plan a “real” vacation for 2021 – I’m too new to my job, and saving vacation time for a big adventure this winter (hopefully it happens…) – Steve and I still looked forward to our trip to upstate New York for months. We headed up at the end of July for my cousin Jocelyn’s wedding, and planned to stick around for a few weeks, mostly working and letting the kiddos enjoy grandparent time, but also folding in adventures here and there. On the Sunday after the wedding, we found ourselves unexpectedly free (we’d planned to drive out to Old Forge, in the western Adirondacks, to try to get a kayak for Steve – but he serendipitously found exactly what he’d wanted in Lake George the day before). We thought we’d go up to the Sacandaga, the Adirondack lake where my parents, aunts and uncles all have camps – but the weather was looking iffy. So instead, we stuck closer to Albany and hiked one of our favorite spots: John Boyd Thacher State Park.

When we pulled up in the parking lot, fat raindrops were splashing down on our windshields. The hike we had in mind had some exposure and some slick spots, so we reluctantly decided we’d just check out the overlook and then go on home. But as we gazed out over the hills and valleys around Albany, the rain stopped and the cloud cover lifted, a little, just enough for us to decide to hike after all.

The whole family hit the trail together! Parents, kids, grandparents.

With all the rain that upstate New York has had this summer, my parents haven’t been able to get out for many adventures. The upshot is that Thacher State Park had waterfalls. Entire rivers were tumbling down over the limestone escarpments.

When I was a kid, my parents went off to Hawaii and left my brother and me with our grandparents. (They did this several times – sometimes just the two of them, sometimes with friends. I was always openly jealous.) Their pictures snapped from behind a waterfall captured my imagination when they came home. I wanted to see what the world looked like from behind a waterfall, too. Turns out I didn’t have to travel too far…

So cool! We’ve done this hike a few times now and never saw waterfalls. It opened up a completely different experience of a well-worn path.

We saw evidence of the wet summer everywhere – in the bright green lichens, moss, and tiny plants growing on the rocks, and in the small rivulets pouring over the limestone and trickling through the little caves dotted all along the trail. I knew my parents hadn’t especially enjoyed all the rain – but this new lease on the park sure was pretty.

The waterfalls were the star of the show, though. Oh! And we also counted twelve little orange newts along the trail. Sharp-eyed Nugget spotted most of them.

It wasn’t the longest hike ever, but it was a feast for the eyes and senses and a new view of an old favorite. How can you go wrong?

Next week: getting our new kayaks out for the first time! Stay tuned.

In Which We Buy Touring Kayaks For Our Fifteenth Anniversary, One Year Late

Sometime around the spring of 2020, Steve tossed out an idea: we should buy kayaks as a fifteenth anniversary gift to each other. (This conversation probably took place while hiking, since that’s where we do most of our crazy talk.) That milestone was approaching in August 2020, and we were on the lookout for something special to do – something a little outlandish, but that would feel very “us.” Kayaking is something that we both love to do; I’ve been paddling since I was fifteen and Steve picked the sport up as an adult but quickly grew to love it. Our kayak ecotour adventure to the San Juan Islands had been less than a year ago and was still fresh in our minds. Buying our own kayaks – kayaks that we could use for another fifteen years, exploring the bays and waterways around our area – felt right.

In the San Juans, we had paddled a double touring kayak – a beast of a boat. We’d loved the way it sliced through the water, and how confident we felt in the cockpits. Storage space was a nice premium, too – we agreed that it would be cool to have a couple of holds to store gear, so we could go out on some longer paddles and overnight trips.

Over the next few months, we discussed what we wanted in our hypothetical kayaks. We quickly agreed that we didn’t want recreational kayaks. We both wanted to stretch our paddling skills and pick up new techniques, and we wanted more efficient paddling machines that would be our allies in our goal to paddle bigger water and make distance. (No shade to recreational kayaks, which are a great option – just not for us.) I dove into the research and sent Steve a long email detailing what I thought we were looking for in the kayaks we wanted; a few brands and models that I thought would suit each of us particularly well; and a list of places to paddle nearby when we finally did make the purchase. He took my list as a starting point for his own research, and he started forming his opinions about what boats he was interested in trying out, as soon as the weather warmed up a bit.

And then we ran headlong into a brick wall: COVID-19. With indoor activities off the menu and the water starting to warm up, it seemed like everyone and their mom had discovered outdoor sports. The rush of new demand, coupled with ramped-down production as outdoor gear companies (like everyone else) grappled with social distancing in the workplace, meant that there wasn’t a kayak to be had for love or money. (It wasn’t just kayaks. It took me over a year of looking to replace my old mountain bike before I found something.) We swallowed our disappointment, rented a pair of heavy sit-on-top recreational kayaks, and tooled around the Potomac.

Our anniversary came and went without new kayaks. Instead, we promised each other we’d make it happen – next year. As summer turned to fall we tabled the kayak conversations, since even if we could find a boat to demo it was getting too cold, and the boathouses were closing up shop for the winter. 2021 rolled around, and as soon as the weather started to improve, I began calling around to boathouses, asking if they had demo models available. Struck out everywhere – and one boathouse, in Annapolis, told me gloomily that Current Designs (the manufacturer that made the model Steve was most interested in, and a couple of other models I thought might work for me) was completely sold out and wouldn’t have anything until 2022. Sad trombone.

We hiked a lot, and I got my prodigious paddling energies out via my paddleboard – a Christmas gift from Steve. When we decided to spend a few weeks hanging out and working in upstate New York over the summer, I half-heartedly researched boathouses in the Adirondacks – but I figured if I was striking out all around the Chesapeake, the Adirondacks would be more of the same. Until… I called over to a boathouse with locations in Saratoga and Old Forge, and learned that they had Current Designs models – including the Solstice GT, which Steve was pretty sure he wanted, and the Solstice GTS (the low-volume version) and Equinox (a slightly shorter Solstice) – that I was interested in trying out. We knew we couldn’t ask them to hold the models, so we crossed our fingers extra-tightly that they would still have what we were already thinking of as “our” boats in stock by the time we were able to get to the boathouse.

It wasn’t to be. On July 30, I called the boathouse during downtime in the middle of my cousin’s wedding rehearsal, to confirm the boats were still in stock and available for demo. They still had the Solstice (the model Steve wanted), they assured me – but the Solstice GTS and the Equinox? Both gone. Womp, womp. With literally nothing going my way, I called over to one other boathouse I knew – the Lake George Kayak Company – and asked them what they had available. The owner’s wife, who answered the phone, dropped a bombshell on me: they had P&H Cetus LVs. Two of them. A blue/yellow model, and an orange/yellow model. Yes, I was welcome to demo either or both.

When I was researching kayaks, the P&H Cetus LV was my dream model – efficient, a little edgy, and built for petite paddlers. (It didn’t hurt that P&H, which names all of its boats after constellations, had named this one after my favorite – Cetus, the Whale. Not that I made my decision based on that. But it did rather feel like an omen.) Basically, it had my name written all over it. The problem was that P&H is a British boatbuilder, and their kayaks aren’t all that easy to find in the United States. I had pretty much given up on finding one and turned my attention to the low volume options from Current Designs (a Canadian brand that’s much easier to come by here – usually). But here was the Lake George Kayak Company telling me they had two of my dream kayaks in stock.

Steve and I quickly reshuffled our plans, deciding to drive up to Lake George super early on Saturday morning, with enough time for me to demo the Cetus and get back for my cousin’s wedding. And then on Sunday we would head to Old Forge and – hopefully – pick up the Solstice for Steve. But when we got to Lake George, another surprise was waiting for us – a Solstice GT, used but pristine, on the showroom floor. We were glad Steve wore his bathing suit, just in case.

I had a decision to make. While the boathouse staff carried the Solstice to the dock for Steve, I was mulling over blue or orange. (Either would have been fine, really. But I was so shocked to see the Cetus at all, I wasn’t really prepared to decide on a color.) I really wanted an orange kayak and had no interest in blue. Since I first started looking at touring kayaks, I pictured myself in an orange boat. But when it came down to it, I didn’t love the look of the yellow trim against the orange. The blue and yellow, meanwhile, looked sharp next to the red Solstice Steve was eyeing, and it had a newer, redesigned seat. Hesitantly, I asked to demo the blue kayak.

It was a bit choppy and windy on the lake, which the boathouse staff assured us was good – it would give us a feel for how our boats handled in a bit of rough water. (Not too rough. This was Lake George, after all.) We each slipped in and paddled into the small cove in which the boathouse had its dock.

Steve loved the Solstice immediately. He compared it to the kayak version of a racecar. It sliced through the water and continued to coast even after he stopped paddling.

As for me, I was getting used to the Cetus. Although I’d paddled my share of touring kayaks, the Cetus was the edgiest boat I’d ever tried. (Steve’s Aunt Susan had wished me good kayak hunting with the admonition “Don’t fall out in front of everybody,” and that was starting to feel alarmingly prescient.) I consider myself a strong paddler, and I have a lot of experience… but the Cetus was a very different boat, and it took me a few turns around the bay to start feeling comfortable.

Ultimately, I decided that the Cetus was what I had been looking for – a boat that would stretch my paddling skills and open up new opportunities for exploring the water. Back on shore, I told the boathouse employees that I was definitely settled on the Cetus, but still waffling between blue and orange.

Ultimately…

I went with blue. Just really liked that cool new seat. And the blue looked pretty next to Steve’s red Solstice. Even the yellow keyhole was starting to grow on me; Steve’s Solstice had one too, serendipitously, so it looked intentional. Meant to be 🙂

We drove our new darlings home very carefully and showed them off to my skeptical parents. Happy fifteenth anniversary, fifty weeks late, to us! The boats have already hit the water and had some adventures, so do stay tuned because there’s more paddling shenanigans to come.

Have you ever made a big purchase that your family thought was completely bonkers?

Gifts from Grandmother

A few weeks ago now, we decided on a whim to go for a short hike at one of our favorite local spots – Rust Nature Preserve in Leesburg, Virginia. We’ve hiked here in all seasons at this point; I love looking for feathered friends (it’s a bird sanctuary) and resting my eyes on the serene meadow. It’s always a special place, but our most recent hike was something more.

As we started out for our regular meadow loop, I spotted something I’d never seen before, at least, not at Rust – trail berries! Early-season black raspberries, specifically.

At first, I thought they were blackberries; I only later realized that they were black raspberries. Either way, though, edible. Blackberries have no poisonous lookalikes – they do have similar-looking cousins (like loganberries and marionberries – or Mayor Berries, as I like to call them, sorry fam I’ll see myself out) but all are fine to eat. So the rule in our house is, trail blackberries and the like are fair game. The kids chowed down accordingly.

As we meandered down the trail, stopping every five feet to pick and eat more black raspberries, I had the strong feeling that my grandmother put these raspberry bushes in this meadow for us.

She loved a good wildflower meadow, and berry-picking; we used to gather bowls of red raspberries from a thicket in the yard at my family’s Adirondack camp and then take them inside, still warm from the sun, douse them in heavy cream and feast.

She also loved Queen Anne’s lace – it might have been her favorite flower; certainly I always associate it with her – and the meadow was dotted with the delicate white blossoms, too. Coincidence? Hardly.

I made the kids thank Great-Grandmother for the gifts. (“Well, of course you did,” said my aunt when I told her this story, “you’ve always been polite.”)

A short 0.6 mile loop took over an hour, but it was worth it. We picked and ate berries (oh, this probably goes without saying, but guys, please don’t eat anything you find in nature unless you’re sure it’s safe, okay?) and walked along talking about how nice it was that Grandmother thought to put all these treasures in our path.

On The Road Again

For years, I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with cycling. I love the sport – when you’re spinning along or sailing down a hill, there’s nothing like it. But sometimes it seems like a lot of added complexity (all that equipment – easier to just go for a run, when you really get down to it) or danger (car doors, angry motorists, bike path loiterers, the ever-present fear of a crash). I can go for long stretches in which it seems like just a little bit too much. But when cycling and I are on, we’re really on.

Like in May 2014, when I rode in the Five Boro Bike Tour (forty miles through all five boroughs of New York City) with my dad, brother, and sister-in-law (at the time, she was my brother’s girlfriend). Don’t mind my backwards helmet cover. Why didn’t someone tell me?

That was an epic day! Made even better by the cuteness of our cheering squad:

I can’t even remember Peanut being that small.

A year ago now – at the beginning of the pandemic – I started really encouraging the kids to ride their bikes. Both were on training wheels and we had some good rides on the bike path near our old house in Old Town Alexandria – although I foresaw difficulties ahead with their different natural speeds. Nugget would zoom on ahead while Peanut inched along, talking about cartoons and getting dramatic about every small incline or decline in the trail. There was no way she was moving fast enough to stay upright if she lost the training wheels – hmmmmm.

Nugget did not have the same issues.

Biking buddies!

After a year’s worth of pandemic biking, my parents decided it was time for both kids to drop their training wheels. They were right. I just didn’t have the time or energy to deal with those first two-wheeler lessons. Between working at my old job, interviewing for my new job, administering virtual school, and trying to keep the whole family upright and healthy – I was tapped out. Over Easter weekend, while my parents were visiting, my dad went into the garage and unscrewed the training wheels, then took both kids to a local school parking lot for their first lessons. As I predicted, one kid was a total drama llama, and the other took to it immediately. Three guesses who.

We even had to bring Nugget’s bike to Albany when we visited over the break between my jobs. He can’t be separated from it.

Needless to say, I’m excited to have a biking buddy – but it also occurred to me that I need to get back on the roads, for real, myself. Since we moved out to western Fairfax County, I’ve been paralyzed in the biking department. I was excited to ride out here – when we were looking at houses, I saw plenty of cyclists on the roads and figured that one day soon, that would be me! When it came down to it, though, the narrow lanes and blind curves scared me. I’ve seen how cars fly around corners here, even on my residential street (that’s another story…) and the long stretches of vehicle-free country roads turned out to be a figment of my imagination. The local bike trail wasn’t really convenient to get to, meanwhile, and my neighborhood is made up of a bunch of culs-de-sac (and a few thru roads, including mine, woof) – not great for biking.

People do make road biking happen out here, obviously – like those gaggles of cyclists I saw while house-hunting. But I learned that the bigger bike culture in my town revolves around mountain biking. It makes sense; we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to trails. Everything from straight, flat, easy trails to winding, hilly technical courses is within a few minutes drive. And I also thought that a heavier, slower mountain bike would be a better choice for biking with Nugget (at least for now; he wants a “kids’ road bike” so look out). The problem? I’d gotten rid of my outdated, beat-up twenty-five year old mountain bike – intending to buy an updated model. But with the pandemic, there wasn’t a mountain bike to be had for love or money… until Nugget and I happened to stumble across the very model I’d been researching online.

I think Nugget might have been even more excited than I was – heh. We’ve made good use of our new purchase, heading out for rides on all variety of terrain a few times a week. Together we’ve explored trails at the parks in our town, shred the little hiking trail in our neighborhood, ridden the culs-de-sac near the house, and taken our bikes down to the bike path after I found an access point that was basically a straight shot from our house (much easier!).

I love mountain biking – especially with the little shredder. We can happily explore trails together every weekend – and we are doing that. But somewhere in there, I started getting the itch to make road biking happen too. It may have been discovering that the bike path is more convenient than I originally thought. It might have been three weeks of watching the Tour de France. (Steve now says he wants a road bike, and to recommit to teaching Peanut to ride. YAY! Thanks Tadej Pogacar! Thanks Mark Cavendish! Thanks Team Jumbo-Visma!)

Somewhere in there, I discovered that the local bike club hosts multiple weekly rides – including a few that are women-only and very supportive. Figuring that my fear of riding on the roads out here might be mitigated if I was with a big group, I pulled out my road bike and signed up for one of the Monday evening rides – one that left from one of the (several!) local bike shops, and promised no drops and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. It turned out to be just what I needed. Women of all ages gathered at the bike shop – I was probably the youngest, or no more than the second youngest, in the group; everyone brought their own excitement and their own hopes. The ride leader, Kelley, shouted safety tips and road-sharing instructions; sang aloud while riding; left no one behind; and called out encouragement to both the women in the group and the little girls we saw out on their bikes and scooters as we went screaming down the hills in the local neighborhoods. I rode next to another woman, Erin, who spent the whole time telling me that she hosts a women’s ride out of another bike shop on Saturdays and she could really use me “to help show the newbies how to shift gears.” Color me flattered!

Actually, color me beet-red (and disheveled) after fifteen hilly miles through the local streets, bike path sections, and a couple of major thoroughfares. I have Monday night commitments for the next few weeks, but I’ll definitely be back. With clipless pedals next time. I’m ready to ditch the fear.

Do you bike on the roads? Any tips for dealing with the (healthy) fear of cars and blind curves?

Pony-Watching on Assateague Island

Planning our weekend trip to Chincoteague, I spent an hour or so tooling around on TripAdvisor, looking for activities to do that would take us out of the campground. I knew that we would want to get in a good few hours at the Assateague Island National Seashore beach, and beyond that I wasn’t really sure but I was hoping to see the famous wild ponies. (Which are actually ponies – not horses.) So Saltwater Pony Tours, with it’s 750+ rave reviews on TripAdvisor, caught my attention right away.

Saltwater Pony Tours is just one of several pony-viewing boat tour companies operating out of Chincoteague, but was by far the highest rated. As a concession to COVID-19, they’ve implemented a new policy – at least temporarily – of one family/group (plus the guide) per boat, meaning you automatically get a private tour for your family. Between that policy, the reasonable price, and the piles of outstanding reviews, I was sold. Luckily, there were several available time slots, and I booked us in for a two hour tour starting at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday. We rolled into Chincoteague around lunchtime, grabbed some snacks at a waterfront restaurant, got the kids ice cream, and then headed to the marina. Our guide/captain, Casey, met us at the dock and escorted us onto the boat – a large, beautiful pontoon that we had all to ourselves. Steaming out of the harbor, Casey oriented us to the geography of the islands and pointed out wildlife, including pelicans diving for their happy hour.

Our attitude whenever we are out for a wildlife-viewing adventure is: nature gonna nature. We know wildlife is wild (that’s the appeal, right?) and that there’s no guarantee of any sightings. Worst case scenario, we spend two hours on a boat on a beautiful day. Can’t really beat that, even if we don’t see any animals.

As luck would have it, though, within a few minutes of pushing off the dock, Captain Casey got a radio call – ponies! One of his colleagues from the tour company was reporting that there was a group congregating in an area called Black Duck Gut, which is pretty much inaccessible (thanks to tides, wind, and shifting sands) unless you really know what you’re doing. Fortunately for us, we seemed to have the best and most skillful navigator in the islands driving our boat.

Casey expertly steered us through the channels and within minutes – there they were, the famous wild ponies of Chincoteague (actually Assateague)!

My small horse fangirl was entranced. She has read Misty of Chincoteague (I haven’t – must correct that) and she and Captain Casey spent the ride over discussing the book (he’s a teacher in his regular, non-summer life) – at least until we got to the ponies, and then she just stared starry-eyed.

In fairness, though, we were all doing that.

Thanks to Casey’s expert navigation, we were able to get up close to the ponies – within 50 yards! – and bob around watching them for over an hour from the boat. (He explained that they consider the boats as just “part of nature” but if they were ever approached on foot, it would be a different story.) Between the excellent viewing spot and my sick zoom lens, I was in wildlife photography heaven.

The highlight was seeing all the adorable foals – especially this wee one, who Casey told us was only four or five days old!

We actually got to see it nursing! Totally unforgettable.

After the baby had been nursing for awhile, Casey predicted: “He’s gonna lay down in a milk coma soon.” Sure enough…

Down he flopped.

Casey explained that ponies and horses only lay down when they are feeling really comfortable and safe. Our pontoon (and one other that made it into the channel) clearly was not bothering them at all.

The new baby was adorable, but he or she wasn’t the only foal in the group. This one was born in the spring sometime.

And still enough of a baby to need Mama’s milk.

We watched the ponies graze on the short salt grass for over an hour, completely transfixed, and then reluctantly turned away and headed back to civilization.

On the way back to the dock, Casey showed us the spot where the famous annual pony swim takes place, and regaled us with an insider’s view of the action. Then – because over an hour of close-up pony watching in Black Duck Gut wasn’t enough and we had more treats in store – we spotted another band of ponies on the other side of the island.

Casey explained that the ponies tend to congregate in bands of mostly females with one dominant male. The group we had been watching on the other side of the island was led by a male named Riptide, who had been king of the islands for years. This band was following a much younger – three years old – male named Norm. Riptide would never let Norm near his ladies, so Norm has to make his own destiny.

Seems like Norm is doing just fine.

It was an absolutely magical two hours, and we couldn’t have asked for a better experience! Casey’s knowledge of the waters around the islands and the ponies themselves made for the perfect pony-viewing tour. We felt incredibly lucky to have gotten to see these beautiful creatures wild and free in their natural habitat.

After the pony tour, we were all walking on air – but Assateague wasn’t done with us yet! The next day, driving back to camp from the beach, we got lucky enough to see ponies for a third time – grazing on salt grass right by the side of the main road! Steve pulled over and I darted out with my big camera.

Hey, look, it’s our old buddy Riptide! (He’s the brown pony with the blond mane – an unusual combination, making him easy to spot.) Riptide and his ladies were accompanied by a gaggle of cattle egrets.

Totally amazing to see this majesty right off the side of the road!

Throughout the pony tour, I kept using the word “magical” – which is what this experience was. Seeing the famous ponies up close was definitely one of the wildlife-viewing highlights of my life. We were very conscious of how lucky we were to be sharing space with them. I hope we return to Chincoteague and Assateague and see the ponies again someday (soon), and I hope that this experience stays with Peanut and Nugget forever.

Have you ever been to Assateague?