Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Where History Runs Deep -- Exploring Grand Caverns

Grand Caverns, formerly known as Weyer's Cave, is located in the central Shenandoah Valley in the town of Grottoes, VA and is America's oldest "show cave."

Open to the public since 1806, there's a lot of history in the cave, as former presidents and Confederate and Union soldiers have visited it over the years.

Today, the cavern tour consists of approximately one mile of walking at a leisurely pace, up and down a few stairs. To go into the caverns is to visit another world completely. Sense of space, relative to other landmarks, is lost. Shadows cloak the walls and far off distances, and the lighting throws off its own unique shadow shapes that meld into the darkness of the walls. It is its own world, dark, mysterious, and forbidding.

You go past rooms called the Rainbow Room, Dante's Inferno, the Ball Room (so called because balls were once held there), and Martha Washington's Dressing Room (no explanation why that's called that); there are formations labeled Jackson's Horse, George Washington's Ghost, and the Bridal Veil.

The most stately room, "Cathedral Hall," is 280 feet long and more than 70 feet high -- one of the largest rooms of any cavern in the eastern United States. The cave is also known for its unique formations: shields. Only a handful of caves worldwide have these formations, and this is the only one in the region. In one "room," there were over 30 of these unique and beautiful formations.

I'm gonna go technical on you for a minute: A cave shield forms as calcite-rich seep water under hydrostatic pressure is forced through tiny cracks in a cave wall, ceiling or occasionally, floor. As this seep water loses carbon dioxide to the cave air, calcite is deposited as parallel extensions to the cracked walls.

Shields can form at all angles. This one is roughly parallel the ceiling, but is attached at only one segment.

There were the usual formations pointed out, and the tour guide walks you through the difference between a stalagmite (coming up from the floor) and a stalactite (dripping down). There's cave bacon and draperies and flow stone, all beautiful and awe-inspiring.

A tiny New York City reflected

The tour takes you past a little reflecting pool -- man made but filled with cave water and reflecting some stalactites on the ceiling above that look like New York City in the reflection.

The aptly named Rainbow Room

They make it fun for kids by pointing out different animals that the rock formations create. It takes some imagination, but it's kinda cool.

Dante's Inferno -- do you see a skull too?

Grand Caverns was discovered in 1804 by Bernard Weyer, who'd lost one of his traps and investigated a small cave to look for it. Two years later, the land owner -- not Bernard, by the way -- opened the cave to the public. Reportedly, Thomas Jefferson himself toured the caverns.

The stalagmite growing from the center of Cathedral Hall has earned the name "George Washington's Ghost"
because when the lights are dimmed, as they would have been in the first 100 years
of the cave's history as a show cave, the formation would have stood out as rather ghostly.

Over the years, the caverns had multiple owners, getting renamed several times and finally becoming Grand Caverns in the early 1900s. In the 1970s, it became a regional, and then a city park.

At one point, our tour guide, Daniel, turned off all the lights, to let us see how
dark it truly is within a cave. Then he lit a single candle, to demonstrate how tours
might have looked before electricity was installed.

Both confederates and union soldiers entered the cave during the war and there are more than 200 signatures of these soldiers, the most famous of which is the signature of Union officer Captain W. W. Miles, of the 14th Pennsylvania Calvary. Only one of these signatures is pointed out -- Miles' of course -- the others aren't in an effort to preserve these ever so fragile historical "documents."

We know, from their signatures, that on May 19, 1864 General Duvall, a Virginian of the 5th New York Volunteer Calvary, visited Grand Caverns with some of his officers and privates. Captain Kirkpatrick and others visited the caverns on September 26, 1864 on their way to support an engagement in Waynesboro on the 28th. Miles visited and signed his name deep in the caverns on September 26, 1864.

There were several engagements that took place near Cave Hill, including the battle of Cross Keys on June 8, 1862, in which the Confederate forces, commanded by Maj. Gen Stonewall Jackson, defeated Union forces led by Gen. John Freemont. It was a Confederate victory and from June 11-17, 1862, Stonewall's troops camped along the South River and often visited the caverns, leaving their names behind either signed in pencil or carved into the stone. Over the years, other visitors have also vandalized the cave by signing it -- although when the signatures are more than 50 years old, it becomes "historic."

Know before you go: The temperature inside the cavern is consistently 54 degrees; bring a jacket or sweater. You'll also want to wear shoes with treads because although most of the pathways are lightly graveled, the stairs are concrete and sometimes wet and slippery.

Getting there: 5 Grand Cavern Rd, Grottoes, VA 24441

Hours: Open Sunday - Saturday, year round. Closed New Year's Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving Day. April 1 - October 31 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.; November 1 - March 31 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Website: https://www.grandcaverns.com/

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Saturday, December 7, 2019

Holiday Lights at Annmarie Sculpture Garden

Just one month of every year the Annmarie Sculpture Garden transforms into a Garden of Lights.

As you stroll the quarter-mile, wheel-chair accessible (and stroller accessible) walk, you get to discover a cool light show...

wild animals...

a magical ocean...

wintery wonderlands...


and dragons.

In addition, some of the sculptures are incorporated into the holiday lights display.

Know before you go: Although most of the path is paved, there are sections that are not, although they're still flat and accessible. Dress warmly on windy or colder evenings. Also, although dogs are welcome at the sculpture garden during normal operating hours, they are not welcome for the holiday lights display.

For a previous article about Annmarie Sculpture Garden, click here.

Getting there: 13480 Dowell Road, Dowell, Maryland 20629

Hours: Check the website for nights and times.

Website: http://www.annmariegarden.org/annmarie2/content/garden-lights-magical-light-show

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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Simple Joy of a Christmas Train Garden

Trains and Christmas seem to go together. The first model trains appeared in 1891 and 13 years later, a group of English hobbyists began building little worlds to go along with these wonderful trains. Electric model trains appeared just before WWI, and the 1920s saw an explosion of these as toys for the wealthy. By the 1950s, model trains were the most common Christmas gift for little boys.

There are numerous model train displays throughout the year, but the holiday season brings out even more, usually holiday themed displays -- often referred to as Christmas Gardens or Christmas Train Gardens. This year, we went to the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Company #2 to see its Christmas Train Garden.

Christmas train gardens are a Baltimore tradition. "The custom is known only to Baltimore and many of the smaller towns of Pennsylvania," according to a 1936 article in The (Baltimore) Sun, "particularly those settled originally by people of German origin." According to the B&O Railroad Museum, in the late 1800s, German immigrants would set up scenes as they had done in Europe, and of course, because Baltimore itself is the home to the oldest railroad in the United States (the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad), it was natural that model trains would be integrated into these scenes.

In homes, often model trains and the accompanying villages were built around Christmas trees. In the 1930s and into the 1950s, the B&O Railroad itself often displayed model train layouts at stations or cities along its routes.

Although you can find holiday model train displays elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region, in the Baltimore metro region, it's a tradition, especially within volunteer fire departments. And good news -- there are numerous Christmas train gardens to enjoy.

I didn't know all this until I started doing some background research for this article. I only knew that I brought my children to the local fire department's Christmas train garden every year, every year delighting in the creative displays, which were built every year from scratch, from the plywood platform to the imaginative miniature world we see.

See below for an admittedly incomplete list of Maryland Christmas train gardens in Maryland.

Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, 5200 Southwestern Boulevard Baltimore, MD; www.arbutusvfd.org

Baltimore City Fire Department, Engine Company 45 and Medic 14, 2700 Glen Avenue, Baltimore, MD; www.facebook.com

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum, 901 West Pratt Street, Baltimore, MD; www.borail.org

Cambridge Rescue Fire Company, 307 Gay Street, Cambridge, MD; https://www.rescuefirecompany.org/

Easton Volunteer Fire Department, 315 Aurora Park Drive, Easton, MD; https://www.facebook.com/eastonvfdmd/

Ellicott City Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Station Museum, 2711 Maryland Avenue, Ellicott City, MD

Ellicott City Fire Company #2, 4150 Montgomery Road, Ellicott City, MD; www.ellicottcityvfa.com

Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum, 300 South Burhan’s Boulevard (US 11), Hagerstown, MD; http://www.roundhouse.org/christmas-at-the-roundhouse.html

Jarrettsville Volunteer Fire Company, 3825 Federal Hill Road, Jarrettsville, MD; www.jarrettsvillevfc.com

Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company, 702 North Main Street, Mount Airy, MD; www.mavfc.org

Pleasant Valley Community Fire Company, 2030 South Pleasant Valley Road, Westminster, MD; www.pleasantvalleyfire.org

Upperco Volunteer Fire Company, 16020 Carnival Avenue, Upperco, MD; www.uppercovfc.org

Wise Avenue Volunteer Fire Department, 214 Wise Avenue, Dundalk, MD; www.wavfc.org

White Marsh Volunteer Fire Company, 10331 Philadelphia Road, White Marsh, MD; https://www.wmvfc.org/

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Saturday, November 30, 2019

Kayaking in the Great Marsh Preserve

Just north of Lewes is an amazing place, where bird song and tranquility dominate your senses. I'm talking about the Great Marsh Preserve -- 17 thousand acres of coastal wetland near the mouth of the Delaware Bay at Broadkill River. The preserve is adjacent to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. We visited in mid-October, after the summer migratory fowl had left for the season, but before most of the winter migratory fowl had arrived.

Still, the marsh was noisy with birdsong and activity. We saw numerous red-wing black birds and king fishers, several heron and egrets, and on our last day, we spotted two eagles.

One of Delaware’s few remaining wetlands, the Great Marsh Preserve offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy a variety of unique local fauna and wildlife. From towering pines, oaks, tulip poplars to a variety of long grasses, all home to a variety of bird such as red-wing blackbirds, wading birds such as egrets and heron, hawks, falcons, jays and kingfishers, and bald eagles.

Its vast natural network of waterways and inlets provide excellent fishing, bird watching, kayaking, and even hiking. It's really close to Lewes Beach and Cape Henlopen State Park, and well worth its own exploration -- it's a wonderful place to visit if you’re planning a daytrip to Lewes or if you’re staying close by.

We spent three days paddling around the Great Marsh Preserve in mid-October, experiencing its moody and surreal landscape at water level in late afternoon and at sunrise. Due to a nor'easter making its way north, the water level was about four feet higher than normal, but as the weekend progressed, the water levels lowered to normal levels.

Although we launched directly from the Lazy L Bed and Breakfast Inn, which is located on the shores of the Great Marsh Preserve, there are other access points. Visitors staying at the bed and breakfast are able to rent kayaks from Quest Kayaks directly from the inn.

I've got to say, kayaking in the Great Marsh Preserve reveals another world – a fascinating and complex ecology governed by the ancient forces of its tides. To experience this marsh is to experience a disappearing landscape -- less than half of Delaware’s original wetlands still exist.

We noticed several kingfishers, all nattering at us with annoyance for invading their space. We also saw numerous great blue heron, all keeping their distance and occasionally squawking at as they flew gracefully away. As we explored various inlets, we started several groups of ducks of one sort or another.

On our final paddle, early Sunday morning, we were startled by two majestic bald eagle, flying from a tree so close to us we could hear the air against their immense wings. I'd never seen a bald eagle in the wild so close, and the size of their wing span was impressive.

As we returned to the Lazy L at Willow Creek, we saw the two eagles again, perched high up above the bed and breakfast.

Getting there: 1 Great Marsh Cir, Lewes, DE 19958

Website: http://paddlecoastaldelaware.com/

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