Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Cathedral State Park: Majesty of the Trees

 The trails in Cathedral State Park are easy going and pleasant, perfect for little kids as well as my elderly parents.

Cathedral State Park is an ancient hemlock forest of majestic proportions, and one of the last living commemorations of the vast virgin hemlock forest which once flourished in the Appalachian highlands. Trees up to 90 feet in height and 21 feet in circumference form cloisters in the park. Throughout the woods, eastern hemlock is the dominant species.

By the way, the hemlocks are really hard to capture in photographs. I had to focus more on the smaller wonders of Cathedral State Park, its fungus!

Over 170 species of vascular flora have been cataloged in Cathedral State Park; to include 9 species of fern, 3 club moss, over 30 tree species (17 broad leaf) and over 50 species of wildflowers. I probably photographed four-fifths of these species!

Cathedral State Park consists of 133 acres, located on Route 50, in Preston County in northeastern, West Virginia. The region is hilly to mountainous, but the park is located on rather gently sloping ground with an elevation varying from 2460 to 2620 feet.

Cathedral State Park suffered extensive damages from Hurricane Sandy-resulting snowfall of October 29 and 30, 2012. According to Park Ranger, Eric Risinger, all of the buildings had trees fall on them and trails became blocked by the massive hemlocks, many of which fell onto and over the trails from the weight of the snowfall.

The damage to the park is sad, as this is one of my favorite places in West Virginia. The hemlocks create a sense of a lofty ceiling, so calling it "cathedral" made sense to me. The trees are so hard to photograph as you walk among them. Instead, my lens turned to the floor of the forest and the micro-beauty that awaited discovery there.

Map: http://www.cathedralstatepark.com/cathedral.pdf

Getting there: Cathedral State Park is located on Rt. 50 near Aurora, WV, approximately five miles west of Red House, MD.

Hours: dawn through dusk

Website: http://www.cathedralstatepark.com/

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

Another Wonderful Maryland Lake to Kayak!

Little Seneca Lake, anchoring Black Hill Regional Park, is a reservoir located in Montgomery County, MD. Don't be fooled by the name -- this more than 500-acre lake, which was man-made and completed in 1984, runs about 7 miles long and curls into numerous inlets and coves. Three creeks -- Little Seneca, Cabin Branch and Ten Mile -- come together to form Little Seneca Lake.

Black Hill Regional Park has more than 2,000 acres of land for outdoor recreation and family gatherings. With walking and biking trails, playgrounds, picnicking shelters, there's a lot to do on land. What drew us to the park, though, was the lake. With all the inlets and coves, there's a lot to explore.

The wooded slope where the boat rentals are currently located is called Black Hill. Local lore indicates the hill acquired its name from a railway fire. The early B&O Railroad trains threw off hot cinders, and one day these cinders started a fire that burned the hill black.

Another story claims Black Hill was named after the gold fields of Black Hills, SD when a few farmers who lived nearby discovered gold on their land in the late 1800s. The amount of gold in the ore was low, but not low enough to discourage enthusiastic locals, who excavated several open pits. Whether that's how the area acquired the name is up for debate, but the mining pits really exist. You can see one of these old mining pits if you walk past the Park Manager’s office along the Black Hill Trail.

Red-bellied cooters and the smaller painted turtles like to bask on logs and we noticed several logs crowded with turtles. On sunny days, hundreds of these solitary creatures come together, sometimes piled on top of each other, to warm their muscles and raise their body temperatures so that they can digest their food.

We paddled under the Clarksburg Road Bridge, not realizing that we also paddled over another older Clarksburg Road that lies beneath the lake, 40 feet down. This road, also known as the Seneca Path, followed the course of a trail used by Native Americans of the Seneca Nation in the 1600s.

There's even a forest of dead trees. When the stream valley was flooded to create the lake, many trees were left standing on purpose. These snags provide excellent habitat for creatures such as birds and fish. But keep an eye on the water as you kayak, as some stumps lurk pretty close to the surface and could snag your kayak.

Know before you go: You can rent a canoe, kayak, or rowboat from Black Hill Boats May through September (see the website for more details and specific times)For trails, including a water trail, click here. Finally, click here for specific information about the Black Hill Water Trail.

Getting there: 20930 Lake Ridge Drive, Boyds, MD 20841

Dogs: Very welcomed!

Hours: Sunrise to sunset

Website: https://www.montgomeryparks.org/parks-and-trails/black-hill-regional-park/

For other great places to kayak in Maryland, check out the places below:
Blackwater River/Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge Kayaking
Centennial Lake / Preparing for Kayaking Adventures
C&O Canal at Swain's Lock
Daniels, MD
Lake Clopper / Seneca Creek State Park
Lake Elkhorn
Little Seneca Lake
Mallows Bay Shipwrecks
Patapsco River
Piney Run Park
Potomac River
Wetipquin Creek (Nanticoke River Water Trail)
Wicomico River

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

VA Air & Space Museum Brings Us to Space, and Beyond!

A number of children's drawings and paintings are hung in the museum.
The artist of this wonderful painting is a second grader from Argyle, TX.
(The artist's name is withheld to protect the child's privacy.)

Hampton, VA and the NASA Langley Research Center is the birthplace of America’s space program. It was here that the real life events depicted in the movie, "Hidden Figures," took place (although, more on that in another article soon).

One of NASA's 14 visitor centers is also located in downtown Hampton: the Virginia Air & Space Center (VASC) is the official visitor center for NASA Langley Research Center. Its mission is to educate, entertain and inspire explorers of all ages. And that's an important point. The VASC is great for kids -- but it's not just for kids. There's plenty of fun to be had for the adults as well!

The first thing you notice, of course, are the immense airplanes -- spanning 100 years of flight -- hanging in the main hall. From a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer to a full-size DC-9 passenger jet, the Center’s aircraft depict a number of aviation firsts and milestones.

It's both overwhelming and fascinating, and hard to take in all at once.

The Apollo 12 Command Module
Which is fine. You have time. Roam around the ground level, but keep focused on ... the space modules: one (the Apollo 12 Command Module) is real -- it actually went to the moon and back -- the other is a prototype of a future space module. There is also the Lunar Excursion Module Simulator (LEMS) used to train the first astronauts to land on the moon. As I said, it's overwhelming!

Then make your way through the exhibits and up to the second floor. Check out the cockpit of the DC-9 or learn how wind and air drag can help or hurt airplanes.

You'll eventually find your way up the third floor, where the Space Challenge exhibit is located. A new exhibit -- it only opened last year -- allows you to become a NASA rocket engineer. This interactive exhibit brings you on a journey through the world of space exploration by offering the opportunity to learn about the history and future of space flight.

Here, you can explore our solar system, and ultimately, learn what it takes to get from pen and paper to launching the Orion Capsule on the NASA Space Launch System – the NASA system that will take humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Most of the exhibits are interactive. So, if you like, you can pilot a space shuttle, program Mars rovers for a mission, become an air traffic controller, fly an airplane, experiment with wind drag, and climb aboard a WWII bomber.

This is a great museum, especially if you want to excite your kids' imaginations, perhaps even inspire them to find a career in one of the STEM fields critical to our future in space. But keep in mind: you don't have to have a child tagging along with you to enjoy this museum -- it's for adults too.

Getting there: 600 Settlers Landing Rd. Hampton, VA 23669

Hours: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Mondays - Saturdays; noon - 5 p.m. Sundays. Closed major holidays.

Website: https://www.vasc.org/

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The artist is a kindergartener from Los Angeles.

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

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

Website: http://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/central/seneca.aspx

For other great places to kayak in Maryland, check out the places below:
Blackwater River/Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge Kayaking
Centennial Lake / Preparing for Kayaking Adventures
C&O Canal at Swain's Lock
Daniels, MD
Lake Clopper / Seneca Creek State Park
Lake Elkhorn
Little Seneca Lake
Mallows Bay Shipwrecks
Patapsco River
Piney Run Park
Potomac River
Wetipquin Creek (Nanticoke River Water Trail)
Wicomico River

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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.

Website: https://www.easternstate.org/

Can't get enough ghost hunts? Check out the following ghost hunts and paranormal investigations we've participated in!


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