Saturday, August 18, 2018

Exploring Seneca Creek State Park by Kayak

The lake beckoned to us when we drove around the park for Winter Lights. Even as we were admiring the animated reindeer jumping across the road, we were thinking, "gotta come back during kayaking season."

The lake is Clopper Lake, at the Seneca Creek State Park. This state park -- all 6300 acres of it -- is a popular recreation area in Montgomery County, with 14 miles of Seneca Creek running through it to the Potomac River. The park features facilities for boating and fishing as well as trails for hiking, cycling, and horseback riding.

The day promised to be beastly hot, so we arrived as the park officially opened; a 5k race was just wrapping up. There was only one other kayaker out on the lake by the time we parked and unloaded; by the time we glided back in to the dock, there were almost a dozen -- still mostly fishing -- out on the water, but by then, the Boat Center had opened, and the kayak rentals were being arranged.

On a windless summer morning, the lake was smooth as glass, a mirror for the blue sky above and the tree-lined shore. We saw numerous great heron, majestically stalking fish and other consumable water creatures. And turtles, red sliders, mostly, but a few snapping turtles lurked in the depths.

In 1975, Clopper Lake was created for recreational use and flood control by damming Long Draught Creek, a tributary of Seneca Creek.

The park contains 50 miles of trails, some immediately surrounding the lake, and 12 miles in the Schaeffer Farm Trails Area. Trails aren't just for hikers though: keep an eye out for mountain bikers and horse riders, and cross-country skiers when there's enough snow on the ground. The popular Lake Shore Trail loops around Clopper Lake, offering changing views of the lake. The Seneca Creek Greenway Trail follows the entire length of Great Seneca Creek for 16.5 miles from Route 355 to the Potomac River.

The park offers some historical interest as well as recreational fun. The remains of Seneca Quarry, built in 1837, is off Tschiffely Mill Road just west of where Seneca Creek empties into the Potomac. The mill cut the red sandstone for the Smithsonian Castle. The restored quarry masters house stands above the quarry site. Both are now part of the state park.

The partially restored Black Rock Mill has interpretive exhibits featuring a history of area floods. The Seneca Schoolhouse is a restored 19th-century schoolhouse which was built for the children of local quarry laborers. Parts of the park were once part of an estate owned by the Clopper family. The Woodlands area near the Clopper Lake Day Use Area commemorates the Clopper family with a self-guided trail that offers a look into life in the 19th century.

And the park offers more recent history as well: if you're a fan of the Blair Witch Project, then you might be finding portions of the park familiar. The Blair Witch Project was partially filmed in the Seneca Creek State Park in 1999.

Know before you go: Clopper Lake has a boat center, where you can rent canoes, pedal boats, rowboats, or kayaks. Trail maps can be found here.

Hours: The park is open 8 a.m. to sunset, March through October; 10 a.m. to Sunset, November through February. The boat center is open weekends and holidays only May through mid-June; Wednesday through Sunday and holidays starting mid-June: opening 10 a.m. Last boat rental 1.5 hours before sunset: all boats must be docked 30 minutes before sunset.

Getting there: 11950 Clopper Rd, Gaithersburg, MD 20878


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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Ghost Hunting at Eastern State Penitentiary

Photo Courtesy Eastern State Penitentiary; photographerTom Bernard

By day, Eastern State Penitentiary is a museum dedicated to educating the public about the history of both the penitentiary itself and incarceration in America.

By night, it is a ghost hunter's dream: shadowy figures, mysterious laughter, and footsteps have all been reported. EVPs are not uncommon. (EVP stands for electronic voice phenomena -- the process of seeing or hearing a dead person or people through the use of modern electronic devices.)

For $110 a person, you and your group (six person minimum) can rent out Eastern State Penitentiary to conduct your own ghost hunt. Intrigued, that's exactly what we did recently: 10 friends and I spent an evening (from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.) exploring the facility -- essentially all the stabilized areas -- accompanied by three volunteer staff.

The fees are used to help support the restoration and stabilization of the prison. The fees are actually less expensive (if you can round up a group of at least six) than going through one of the ghost hunt organizations.

Orbs or dust? Or maybe both? Orbs (or dust) didn't show up in every photo.

Being strictly amateurs, we only had cameras, dowsing rods, an evp recorder, and EMF meters. (Okay, so two in the group actually knew what they were doing.) An EMF meter is a piece of hunter equipment that measures electromagnetic fields, thought to be given off by spirits.

My full spectrum camera caught some weird auras. Intrigued by
the mist looming over the man using the dowsing rods.

We gathered at the penitentiary just before 9 p.m., when staff came out to unlock the gates and let us in. In the old warden's office, they went over a few house rules: no alcohol, must stay together in one or two groups, be careful when leaning against the walls as the facility itself is still quite fragile, etc. We signed waivers that indicated that if anything bad happens to us, we'll give up our respective first born children, etc. This room is also air conditioned -- probably the only room in the facility that is air conditioned -- and had water and charging outlets for us if needed.

Using the dowsing rods in Death Row. Photo courtesy Adam Shefts

Before beginning the ghost hunt, we held a protection ceremony -- nondenominational -- that had us envisioning protective bubbles around us.

In the women's cell block. The dowsing rods were indicating
that the conversant had murdered her husband and that
the man holding the rods reminded her.. of her husband.
(Yeah, that's my husband.) Photo courtesy Adam Shefts

We didn't have a plan -- it helps if you have a plan -- but since we had taken a tour of the penitentiary earlier that day, we knew we wanted to hit a few key spots: the hospital wing, death row, the women's cell block. Beyond that, we figured we'd try a few places and go where it was most active.

The blue orb seemed to follow Ed around;
it showed up in several photos. Photo courtesy Adam Shefts

We started in the hospital wing and in the surgery. The facility was dark, except for the lights of our flash lights. At first, we didn't get much response. We ensured everyone in our group had opportunities to ask questions in the hopes of garnering an EVP. We also tried the dowsing rods. Much of a ghost hunt is passive. You ask questions, wait a few seconds for a spirit to respond on your recorder, which you'll listen to much later; you take photographs, which you go over long after the ghost hunt is over. Dowsing rods are more interactive: you ask a question, indicating to the spirit to respond by crossing or straightening the rods. They can use the rods to point.

It's been my experience on the several ghost hunts I've been on, that the dowsing rods will respond to a particular person. That person has often been me, but not this time! So I handed over the rods to other members of the group. The art of dowsing has been around for centuries, perhaps even thousands of years. It is the oldest form of divination known and has been used for a variety of different reasons, including searches for underground water, discovering the location of unmarked graves, and even locating and communicating with ghosts. From my childhood, I remember that the guys who drilled the well for our house employed a dowser to locate a likely spot.

How dowsing actually works remains a mystery. Even the American Society of Dowsers admits that “the reasons the procedures work are entirely unknown.”

Jody, the individual with the dowsing rods,
was surprised by how they responded to her.
Photo courtesy Adam Shefts

We captured some photos with orbs in them -- several of those are with this article. The EMF meters lit up quite a few times during the evening. The dowsing rods indicated presences, including of a female inmate who may have murdered her husband, and an inmate who had served in WW I. It was pretty random and often surprising.

What should you expect during a ghost hunt? Those ghost hunting shows are NOT what you can expect. Ghosts aren't performing seals or trained dogs. There's no tricks on command. There's a lot of nothing, to be honest -- we didn't see any full-body apparitions or caped shadow figures chasing us down the cell blocks. Unlike our experiences at the Moundsville Penitentiary, we didn't hear miscellaneous knocks and bangs. There was, however, a lot of waiting for something to happen. It was even a bit boring at times (I'm not known for my patience.) But, when something DOES happen, then it's really amazing. Afterward, there's a lot more waiting.

You'll also get dirty. Ghost hunting tends to take you into buildings that have long been abandoned, like Eastern State. You'll see bugs. I was sitting on the floor in the hallway of one of the cell blocks until we saw a huge cockroach, the size of our fists (size may have been exaggerated by my proximity to the beast). If you're ghost hunting in the summer, bug spray is a must. That won't dissuade the cockroaches, but it will deter the flying biters.

A photo taken about 10 years ago looking down
the hospital cellblock. Interesting swirl on the front left.

But for all that, exploring the unknown and unknowable is exciting and fun, especially when you're with a great group of like-minded friends.

Although it goes quickly, four hours is long enough to conduct a ghost hunt. By 1 a.m. we were tired and beat, and I think the ghosts were too. It was time for all of us to slumber in our beds.


The end of a ghost hunt is actually the beginning of the work. Photos need be scanned and analyzed. Recordings, if you took them (as we did), need to be listened to and re-listened to. We caught various orbs (or bugs or dust), and some unusual things on the photos. We also caught some interesting EVPs. When the dowsing rods led us out of the operating room and down the cellblock where sick inmates were held, we stopped by a cell the rods had indicated to stop at. This is when we asked for a spirit to touch the green light to let us know they’re done talking. What sounds like “mother****er” is said after one member of the group speaks. We also caught a screeching EVP as we were heading outside on our way to Death Row.

Would I go on another ghost hunt? Heck yeah. I'm addicted to the excitement, the mystery of the unknown, the potential for experiencing the paranormal.

Getting there: 2027 Fairmont Avenue, Philadelphia, PA

Hours: For information how to reserve Eastern State for your own ghost hunt, please check the website.


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Saturday, August 11, 2018

Fort Wool

Located at the entrance to the Hampton Roads Harbor, Fort Wool, originally named Fort Calhoun, was built to maintain a crossfire with Fort Monroe, located directly across the channel, thereby protecting the entrance to the harbor.

Along with Fort Monroe, Fort Wool was constructed following the War of 1812 to protect Hampton Roads from the British and other would-be invaders of the era. Its position also denied access to the James River -- a vital Union advantage during the Civil War. Fort Wool is both a state and national historic landmark.

Presidents Andrew Jackson -- who visited the island to inspect the defenses and was so taken with the space he ordered a house built -- and John Tyler both used Fort Wool as a summer retreat during their presidencies.

Fort Wool was one of more than 40 forts started after the War of 1812 when British forces sailed the Chesapeake Bay to burn the Capital. Like Fort Monroe across the harbor, Fort Wool was designed by Brigadier General of Engineers Simon Bernard, a Frenchman who had served as Napoleon's chief engineer.

Fort Wool was constructed on a shoal of ballast stones dumped as sailing ships entered Hampton's harbor — and was originally intended to have three tiers of casemates and a parapet with 232 muzzle-loading cannons, although it never reached this size. 

Know before you go: Unfortunately, Fort Wool has fallen into disrepair since it was closed by the Army and transferred to local government ownership in the 1970s. When you go to visit it, ensure you wear sensible foot wear -- sneakers or hiking boots -- and generously spray yourself with bug deterrent spray. When you arrive at Fort Wool, you're struck by the sounds -- the hum of the nearby ventilation for the Hampton Roads Tunnel and the cacophony of the birds who now make the island their home.

Getting there: Only by boat (either an organized tour or on your own). Rip Raps Island, Norfolk, VA 23503

Hours: Daylight only.


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Accommodations during our stay in Hampton, VA were provided by Embassy Suites by Hilton Hampton Roads Hotel, Spa, and Convention Center.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Eastern State Penitentiary Update

I first visited Eastern State Penitentiary about 10 years ago, and wrote about it in MidAtanticDayTrips in 2014, several years after the actual visit. It haunted me then, and still does. Even as the cell blocks high arched ceilings evoke a cathedral-like reverence, the cells still hold their secrets, and they're not giving them up.

The cathedral imagery isn't an accident. The British architect of the penitentiary, John Haviland, chose the hub and spoke design based on prisons and asylums being built in England at the time. Eastern State originally featured an octagonal center connected by corridors to seven radiating single-story cell blocks, with a central corridor lined with single cells, which were meant to promote "watching, convenience, economy, and ventilation."

Each cell was lit only by a single lighting source -- either skylights or windows -- which were supposed to represent the "Window of God" or "Eye of God," promulgating the view of imprisonment, usually in isolation, as an instrument to modify sinful (criminal) behavior. The isolation was complete. They were alone in their cells. Food was dispersed to them via a small square door in the cellblock. The only door they could actually go into and out of was the door leading to their exercise yard. If they had to go elsewhere, they were hooded. The time spent in in their cells was intended to help inmates reflect on their crimes, eventually leading them to contrition (redemption). Instead, many inmates went insane.

A restored cell, with tools for shoemaking.

Later on, as the facility became over crowded and the isolation and contemplation philosophy was abandoned, additional diagonal corridors were built, several with two levels of cell blocks. Inmates began to be housed two to a cell.

Tree roots and vines still creep into the ruined cells.

Haviland also gave the prison a neo-Gothic look to instill fear into those who thought of committing a crime. It's still imposing today. From the outside, it looks like an American's prototypical castle. From the inside, the 30-foot walls look impossibly tall. They block out everything but the sounds of the city outside.

There have been some changes since that last visit. The hospital cell block has been cleaned up and is opened for guided tours. The cat art installation that was in place when we were there last has been removed and replaced with others. I don't remember the specifics of the audio tour, other that there was one, but I really don't remember hearing former inmates' memories of the place, which is part of the tour now.

There're are now specialized guided tours offered by staff at the penitentiary, including tours through the cafeteria and kitchens and the former operating room and hospital cell block.

Guided tours are offered during the winter, and during the warmer months, self-guided, self-paced recorded tours with headphones guide you through the cell blocks. The audio tour is narrated mainly by Steve Buscemi, with former guards, wardens and prisoners also contributing.

The audio tour talks about the design of the cells, the evolution of incarceration within Eastern State, and about the inmates themselves. Notorious criminals such as Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton were held at the penitentiary, but it was the stories of the inmates talking about what it was like to be incarcerated at Eastern State that resonated.

As you tour the facility, you may walk into several restored solitary confinement cells -- specially identified -- but most of them remain off limits and are filled with original rubble and debris from years of neglect. Some of the doors are still closed, but pinholes allow a glimpse of what's inside.

Refining the revolutionary system of separate incarceration first pioneered at the Walnut Street Jail, Eastern State Penitentiary emphasized principles of reform rather than punishment and was operational from 1829 to 1971. Eastern State finally closed its doors in 1971, after 142 years in use. While Philadelphia debated what to do with the facility, it lay virtually abandoned to cats and weeds, which became trees as nature began to reclaim her own.

The former penitentiary is now open to the public as a museum for tours 7 days a week, 12 months a year, and seeks to educate the public about the history of incarceration in America. Although it was significantly damaged during the two decades it lay abandoned, it now is being stabilized.

Getting there: 2027 Fairmont Avenue, Philadelphia, PA

Hours: For information how to reserve Eastern State for your own ghost hunt, please check the website.


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Saturday, August 4, 2018

York's Art Scene

York's art scene is as varied and diverse as its many artists, with a mix of private galleries, public displays, and outdoor murals and sculpture. If you're considering a visit to York -- and if you're not, you should -- then consider dipping your toes into the variety of York's artistic offerings!

These fun "retro-rustic" planters make exploring York fun
and exciting. There is a series of these practical sculptures --
benches, garbage bins and planters -- along Beaver Street.

Work it into your plans or spend an afternoon exploring the arts in York!

Royal Square Art Scene

From the King's Courtyard Artists' Collective

Located in the Royal Square District, the Parliament Gallery is just one part of Downtown York’s creative arts community. Right next door is the King's Courtyard Artists' Collective, an eclectic art gallery and studio space.

From the Hive Artspace

If none of the doors are open to the back (in any of the three galleries), ask to explore back there -- there's a sweet little courtyard and you'll be able to see another amazing mural. Go up the steps toward the parking lot, and you'll soon find a number of other murals -- so much fun!

Getting there: Parliament Gallery is located at 116 E King St, York, PA 17401; King's Courtyard is located at 124 E King Street, York, PA; and Hive Artspace is located at 126 E King Street, York, PA.
Websites:, and

I-ron-ic Art and Thrift Boutique and Coffee House

This coffee shop and art and thrift boutique is the perfect introduction to Downtown York. Start your day with coffee and breakfast as your browse the sculptures, paintings and other art found in this trendy shop in the city’s WeCo neighborhood. The atmosphere is eclectic and cozy in the best way.

photo courtesy of I-ron-ic Coffee Shop and Art Boutique

We made this our first stop, picking up a hot cup of joe -- but we could have had a hot chocolate, expresso or latte -- in a variety of flavors. In addition to providing a venue to local artists and artisans, the coffee shop offers a variety of breakfast pastries and lunchtime offers (sandwiches, soups, and salads).

I-ron-ic is also the home of York’s pedi-cabs. Visitors can book one to get around Downtown York in an unforgettable way!

Getting there: 256 W Philadelphia St, York, PA 17401

Handsome Cab 

Food and art -- that's singing my song. Art is an important part of The Handsome Cab's schtick, from its retro industrial hip decor on the main floor to its support of the art gallery and artists' studios on the second and third floors. Take a glass of wine, cocktail or beer to the Cab Art Gallery on the second floor, and explore the artists' studios on both the second and third floors of the building.

"Cairn, Stacking Stones," Barb Kling, acrylic on canvas

​The Cab boasts local artists and showcases amazing talent in the local community and around the world.

Variety of titles, Lisa Madenspacher, acrylic, oil, water color.

Getting there: 106 N George St, York, PA 17401

Art About Town

There are some 40 murals scattered around downtown York (mostly on the Market Street corridor) but there are some cool "retro rustic" metal sculptures that spoke "steam punk" to me and fascinated my husband, who is totally into steam punk.

On our way to I-ron-ic coffee shop, we passed by a cool little park -- Foundry Park on the Codorus -- next to Codorus Creek, with metal flowers and a yellow cat.

York in the 1800s mural

There's another yellow cat on North George Street too, as well as Tinker and a Curb Dragon rising out of the sidewalk. Crafted from components of equipment that defined York as an innovative and industrial manufacturing center, these whimsical sculptures tell York’s story and speak to the city’s heritage.

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