Friday, June 20, 2008

Road Trip 2008 - Shenandoah River and Beyond

How does the song go: "Oh Shenando I long to see you...." With its forested and farmland shores, small islands dotted throughout her waters, small rapids, abundance of wildlife, decent fishing - I mean who that loves the outdoors would not love this river. So once again, for the third time over the past several years, Brendan and I have been smitten by the beauty of this famed Virginia river, at least the south fork of it.

We left home on Sunday June 15at about 0730 - pretty darned early to get the younger version up, at em, and on the road with all our gear - but somehow I managed it. I am not saying I like to be up before the birds or anything like that, but just that while I would have liked to have left earlier by an hour or so, it wasn't bad timing at all. We had sort of planned on driving to Harrisburg, PA the first day and then spend some time at Hershey Park. I figured the drive there would be a breeze at about 199 miles, and 3 hours 40 minutes driving time per MapQuest. While I was driving I was, as usual, also talking. Brendan usually tunes me out after a while but sometimes he catches what I am blabbering on about. So somewhere along the way, while we were I was talking about our past canoeing road trips to the Shenandoah River, Brendan asked: "That's Virginia?". I said it was, and was surprised to hear that Harrisburg was out, and a direct drive all the way to VA, all 361 miles of it was in. Being a bit leery of just how long Brendan would want to be in the car I decided not to cancel our reservations at Motel 6 near Harrisburg until we were well passed it. While in PA, and long before we reached Harrisburg, we made a stop of about an hour and a half at a Pizza Hut, and then Cabelas near Hamburg. We picked up some lures, and I got a fishing pole to replace one that had broken on me some time ago. While there we took the time to get a good look at all the fish they have in the huge aquariums they have - all native species of freshwater game fish. Impressive, to say the least. We had both seen it before, but Brendan and I got a real kick out of it this time around too.

We then drove on without stopping until we hit the Welcome Center in West Virginia, on Interstate 81. We took a short break, and Brendan snapped a quick pic of me. We took a look at the map in the welcome center - I had forgotten to did out our road atlas, just to make sure I remembered how to get there. Then we grabbed a bunch of WV pamphlets just in case we decided to change plans and spend more time in WV. Then off again, this time with Brendan at the wheel. It's nice to be able to share the driving with my son, almost like the luxury of having a chauffeur and best buddy all in one. Along the way we made a stop for gas somewhere, and one other stop at the Virginia Welcome Center on Interstate 81. Lie in WV we stocked up on pamphlets and info guides about the state. When we drove on I had to start thinking about finding another motel at least for our first night's stay in VA. We had a reservation at the Best Western in Winchester, VA for Monday and Tuesday, but we decided to get closer to where we would likely be canoeing and we eventually decided on a Days Inn in Luray, VA. It wound up being a good choice, close to the canoe outfitters, close to other attractions, clean rooms, wi-fi, free continental breakfast, and nice folks running it. We cancelled the other reservation and stayed at the Days Inn for 3 nights. All in all it took us just about 7 1/2 hours of driving to get there, all three stops included, not bad at all.

Once we checked in at the motel, the rest of our day was spent shopping for fishing gear, and for supplies. I wanted to stock up on enough food for 3 to 4 days worth of lunches since we would likely be either canoeing, fishing, or hiking at any given lunchtime during the trip. So off to Walmart we went. We picked up a fishing supplies, our nonresident 5 day fishing licenses with added national forest permits, and lunch supplies and drinks for the next few days (not a beer or ale among those drinks though). As we drove around the area a bit, I realized just how much Luray, the tow in which our motel was located, has going for it as a road trip destination, or as a great place to live. There is, of course, the Shenandoah River with all the outdoor activities one can enjoy on a river like fishing, swimming, canoeing, rafting, tubing and so on. Then just about 10 miles away to the east is the Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park for sightseeing, camping, hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing and so on. Maybe a bit further to the west is the George Washington National Forest another great spot for hiking, camping, fishing, and also for hunting. The area is also loaded with caverns that are open to the public for a fee. We figured if the weather got miserable enough we would go and explore some of them, but as it turned out we never got the chance.

On Monday, day 2 of the trip, and our first full day in the Shenandoah Valley, we took off for Downriver Canoe Company in Benton. That was a drive of about 15 miles from the motel. We really didn't set off for that outfitter, but were headed to Front Royal Canoe about 10 miles further north. The thing that made us check out Downriver Canoe Company was that I was pretty sure it was down the same road as a canoe outfitter we had used on our 2 previous trips to the area. I could not remember the name of that one, but I wanted to use them again, and figured why not see if that was the right road. Well when we got to the river, there was Downriver Canoe Company on our right, and there was the building complex for the other canoe outfitter on our left just as I had remembered except for the fact that there were no canoes or signs of an outfitter at the place we previously had used. We stopped in at Downriver canoe Company and we were greeted by an pleasant gentleman with white hair but a youthful sparkle in his eyes. When I inquired about the other place, he told me that it had closed down after the owner, a heavily accented German lady whom I recall fondly, had retired in the last year or two. What a shame, we liked her and her outfit; and I talked to her each time about the old country - my wife having been born in Germany. Oh well, we figured what the heck we would give Downriver Canoe Company a try.

I am guessing we were in our canoe and on the river by about 11:00 AM. None to early, but they only open at 9 on weekdays; and it was more than early enough for sleeping beauty who really seemed to be comfortable in that Days Inn bed despite the alarm having gone off 15 minutes earlier with some truly irritating and loud preacher ranting about the wrath of God. As it was he finally woke up and we set off to enjoy the beauty of nature, which I guess you could see as God's greatest gift to us, too bad that radio preacher did not gear his sermon that way - then I might have listened for awhile.

I digress, so let me get back to the canoe, the river, and the good time we were about to have. We picked a trip of ten miles, and soon were in the transport van with two young ladies , one from Scotland the other from Ireland, who were traveling together, and with a man and woman I assumed to be hubby and wife obviously from the USA. The other two couples were dropped off first, then us. We opted to be dropped off above the rapids, or at least what there was of them since the water levels were on the low side. I guess VA had been spared the rain we had been getting in NY and surely were spared the rains that were pelting Iowa. We wasted no time once we were dropped off and we were in the river in about 10 minutes after having secured all our gear to the cross members in the canoe with bungee cords. We fished a while above the rapids, maybe a half hour or so; and Brendan caught a small mouth or spotted bass almost immediately. Nothing big, maybe a pound or pound and a half; but certainly the first fish of the trip. After a bit, and maybe a sunfish or two, and another but tiny bass, we headed downriver and through the rapids. They were fun but none too exhilarating since the water level was down. Still though it beat working, driving, and just sitting around. As I said it was fun.

Once over them we paddled a bit then started to fish again. We were constantly watching the skies as the weatherman, and the guy who helped us at the canoe rental, both promised severe weather. It was overcast, with lots of low dark clouds, but luckily each time we heard thunder booming, it was further downriver than were we and we stayed dry, at least early on. We had been told if we got in the thick of it to make for shore and wait it out. As it was we just fished and hoped we would not get rained on. A couple more tiny bass were brought in and some more fat sunfish. Brendan caught everything, I'd say about 8 or 9 fish - except that is for two bass about 3 or 4 inches long each. Oh joy, I caught them.

After stopping and fishing, then paddling, then stopping and fishing, then paddling, I started to wonder what time it was since I had forgotten my watch. We had time but it seemed later than it was to me. We continued on that way for awhile. Once or twice we got stuck right atop submerged rocks only and inch or two under the water in some of the other rapids we ran as we went along. Sadly when I get frustrated, I sometimes get not so nice and mouth off orders. None too fun for Brendan especially since I blamed getting stuck on him when it was as much my fault as his, maybe more mine for me being a lard butt who weighs too much. I apologized, shut my mouth and we pushed off, literally by both half climbing out of the canoe to give those rocks a shove. Then more fishing, and looking for turtles. Did I forget to mention that every now and then the sun came out. Once it was shining, it would not be more than 5 or 10 minutes and the turtles were climbing up on any downfall sticking up out of the water. We tried to catch some of them but they were just too alert and quick for us. You might be surprised at how quick they make a dive into the water when they think danger is approaching, it is no wonder that their cousin the tortoise was able to beat the hare.

We kept gliding along, fishing, looking at turtles, seeing cows cooling off in the shallows, watching birds, spotting some big fish swim under the canoe, and catching small ones. Then there was a sudden real darkening of the sky over us, and some loud boomers and lightning, and the water started to be whipped by the wind. In no time it was pouring, and we made for shore along with three other guys in two other canoes. We chatted with them a bit and they said they were catching fish all day long nonstop. When I asked what they were using, one guy said lures. What a helpful piece of info was that you cannot imagine. Heck we tried spinners, plugs both sinking and floating, artificial worms, other rubber like critter lures, live earthworms and meal worms; and we were not catching fish as they claimed they were doing. We must have been using the wrong lures, but no more information was forthcoming from the tight lipped fisherman with who we shared a bit of landing in the downpour. I had to wonder if they had caught anything. After about 10 or 15 minutes of getting soaked, we were off again. Luckily we had found out both the time and the distance to the canoe base, and realized we had enough time to get back if we paddled steadily with one or two stops for fishing. As it turned out, I guess the guy's watch was fast, or his guess at the distance was off, because we got back to the base at 4:30 PM, about an hour and a half before we had to be there. That was okay because in between we again got into the middle of a real bad one. We paddled ashore, this time just he two of us since the others had pulled way ahead since the last stop. I was kind of concerned because we had to have spent about 1/2 hour on the shore waiting for this one to pass. When it slowed down some, we were in the canoe and off toward the outfitter's base. We were both drenched, Brendan more so than I because he was wearing cotton shirt and shorts; and I was wearing a cotton shirt, and nylon swim suit with the addition of a poncho. Brendan was too manly for that, and he got drenched and stayed that way until we reached the outfitter's landing. Once there and not paddling he started to get cold fast and off came the wet shirt. The outfitter's helpers were there to meet us, or actually had come down to the landing to pick up the canoes of the other two parties who had arrived before us. Just lucky they were there to take ours just as we showed up. We put our gear together, and I gave Brendan the car keys and he went and got the car from across the river. We left and hit the hotel. I guess we were back at the hotel when I realized we were short a Camel Back day pack with a lot of our gar in it. Back down to the car, and nope it was not there; so into the car and off at speed to the canoe landing. Of course we got stuck behind a knucklehead who was driving erratically, slow then fast, then over the lines, then crawling, then fast - all when I was stressed out about losing my gear. When we got to the landing, there was my pack where I had left it. I guess the camo was pretty good since no one had driven by and spotted it. Lucky thing for me that it as still there.

After that we went into Luray to eat dinner. We stopped at Uncle Buck's restaurant. I had a burger. It was not cooked medium rare how I like it since they have to cook em medium or more in VA by state Law. Can you imagine the audacity of the politicians to tell you how you have to cook a burger - outrageous. Brendan had a bowl of vegetable soup and we also shared an appetizer called Texas Toast. It was toast smothered with crab meat and cheese, and toasted to perfection. I have to admit the bacon and cheese on my burger made up for it being cooked medium or medium well, and the food and service were outstanding. If you ever go to Luray, stop by this place. One side is a family style restaurant, the other is a bar. Not a bad set up. By the way, I had a couple of ales at this pit stop, one New castle that was on the flat side, and a Yeungling that was delicious. My first and only alcohol of the trip, but since Brendan could drive, a couple of pints were okay.

Later on we took a drive up toward Sky Line Drive in Shenandoah National Park. We headed up to it and turned around because the toll booth was shut down, and because it cost $15 bucks to enter if open. Now had it been the daytime that would have been okay, but I was not about to pay $15 for a short nighttime drive; and the sign said to pay upon exiting at whatever booth through which we would have exited. We were lucky though because along the way we saw a couple of deer feeding at roadside, and we saw a black bear sauntering along the road side a few miles later. The it was back to the motel to hit the sack.

The next day, Tuesday and day 3 of the trip, dawned sunny and much cooler. It was absolutely a perfect day. We decided not to hit the canoes again, I was still aching from the day before, and I think so too was Brendan at least a bit. My shoulders, back, knees and butt all were sore. So what to do. We decided to go fishing again, this time in a lake in the George Washington national Forest. It took us about an hour to find the road out of town to get across the river and to the lake. That was even after stopping at the COC to get directions and a local map. Even the locals had a hard time figuring out where that road started in town, and there were few access points to it out of town, and none within miles of it. Well we finally got onto the right road, and after a spell we were at Skidmore Forks. That turned out to be a stream, and we decided to stop there for lunch, and do some fishing. Lunch was delicious, fishing was not productive though we did see some small trout in the stream. We also saw a mess left by partiers or campers around a large fire ring. What a shame that people haul it in, then get drunk (as was obvious from the amount of beer cans) and then don't haul it out. If I had had a large garbage bag I would have cleaned it up.

After a short stopover, we were off again to look for Skidmore lake. I figured and hoped it would not be far from a stream called Skidmore Forks, and I was right. In a mile or two we hit the intersection of Switzer Lake Road. We figured that any lake was better than no lake, and if not Skidmore Lake, well Switzer Lake would do just fine so we decided to take it. Where did we wind up, well at Skidmore Lake of course! At least that is what the sign said near the lake. Why the road was named Switzer Lake Road and not named Skidmore Lake Road was beyond me, but I would guess there is a story in that somewhere. We fished there for a couple of hours. While hiking along the shore I lifted several flat rocks and spotted about 8 or 9 water snakes underneath them. I caught three of them to show Brendan. As I was headed back to where he was fishing (I figured some solo time would be god for both of us) he came walking toward me looking under some of the same rocks I had checked. I showed him the 3 snakes I had in my zippered vest pocket, and after a few minutes we released them. Brendan made on toward where I had been fishing, and as he did he looked for snakes too. He spotted one about three feet long, and very fat - probably gravid. he told me it had a stub tail. That was one of the same I had seen earlier on.

As for the fishing, we caught a bass or two, or I should say Brendan caught them, and he also caught a few sunnies. (Yes if you look closely in the pic, you can see a small sunfish at the end of his line.) After a couple of hours or so we moved to the other end of the lake to fish there. When we got there, a couple of other guys were jsut leaving, and we took their spot. We were the only ones there at that time, on the whole 118 acre lake. As we walked down to where they others had been fishing, brendan said that they had a fire, and had left it burining. Sure enough, there was a fire ring with hot ashes and embers in it. It was not more than 5 feet from the water, and those 2 other guys had been too lazy to fetch some water to assure it was out. Since it was also only about 25 feet from the woods, I think it would have been wise to have put it out. As it turned out, Brendan and I (mostly I) decided to gather some wood and start a new blaze. We fished, and enjoyed the campfire.

Again Brendan caught most of the fish, just a couple or few, but more than me with maybe one, if any at that area. When we tired of fishing, we sat around the fire and talked and Brendan and I each enjoyed half a sandwhich each, all we had left to eat, well besides a bass he had caught at the lake. I guess brendan was still hungry because he asked me to cook that up for him. I cooked it whole over the glowing embers. Pretty delicious if I say so myself, and Brendan agreed with me on that.

It was starting to turn to the hours of the long shadows as the sun got lower in the sky behind us; and and some other folks arrived to fish. A family of three, mom, dad and young sone - maybe 2 - shopwed up and fished for 20 minutes or so without luck. Then a couple of guys showed up and put a boat with a small motor in the water, and they were off to fish.I also spotted a canoe with fishermaen, and brendan spotted another small rowbaot with fishermen. Remarkable how the fishermen show up near dusk when the fish should be biting the best, but the fish did not cooperate. One other thing also started to show up when those shadows started to get long, and more of them came on as the sahdows lengthened. Dracula said: "Listen to them sing, the children of the night, what music they make." in reference to wolves howling outside at dusk. While these guys did not howl, they sure did have a buzzing, whining, drone, and also were children of the night, and bloodsuckers at that. Yes the mosquitoes had arrived, but luckily for us not in great numbers as on a pst trip we made to the Evergaldes a coupl,e of years back. Maybe it was the chill air, or maybe the smoke from the fire, but we only got a couple of bites each. Soon after they arrived we decided to make our getaway - fire or no fire they get pretty bold as it gets darker, and even the machete that Brendan was carrying would have been poor defense against a horde of hungry mosquitoes (we just had to buy it when we saw it at Wally World). We took off at about 8:15 or 8:30, and I was pretty surprised it was so late since it was still somewhat light out. We got back to the hotel pretty bushed and hit the hay shortly after our arrival.

I figure if you have read this through until now, you must be almost as tired of reading it as I am of writing it; and hopefully there were not too many typos. So for now dear readers I will pull the plug, and go watch something on the Sci-Fi channel. I'll finish up with the last day of the trip tomorrow or Sunday.

All the best,
Glenn B
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