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Rafting in the Smokies

Research has demonstrated the health benefits of time spent outdoors, for physical as well as mental well-being. Exercise outdoor even has greater benefits than the same activity indoors.

Since she was young, Active Woman Traveler Director Annie Tobey has been living that theory. She soaks up the summer, proclaiming her right to bare arms, but any time of year she finds rejuvenation and therapy outside. She especially enjoys being active, stretching her muscles and burning the calories--in preparation for hearty eating when the sun goes down.

 

Filthy, Fit and Fun in Richmond, Virginia

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"Combo of history and nature...all rolled into mud"

Running events in Richmond, Virginia take full advantage of the area's setting. The renowned Monument Avenue 10k takes nearly 40,000 runners and walkers up a beautiful road lined with stately homes and historic monuments, and with thousands of cheering spectators and energizing bands. History comes to life in the new spring event, Stride Through Time, and the James River plays a prominent role in Dominion Riverrock's more extreme sporting events. Even the annual November marathon utilizes the challenging hills and inspiring overlooks along the James.

 

Henricus_Dauber_Dash_mud_runThe Henricus Dauber Dash, an annual Richmond Sports Backers June run, takes advantage both of Central Virginia's history and of its natural beauty, set at historic Henricus Historical Park at the bend of the James River beside Dutch Gap Conservation area. The five-mile run utilizes the park's wooded trails and adds obstacles, finishing with a dash through the re-created historical buildings of the 17th century settlement. This year's event took place on June 23, 2012.

As a regular runner and racer, I enjoy trail running as a break from hard pavement beneath my feet and buildings as my visual distractions, running instead on soft trails, through shaded forests and beside the river. The obstacles of a mud run add variety, too. With about a dozen obstacles, the Dauber Dash sends runners clambering over hay bales and picnic tables, crawling through mud pits, scrambling over mounds of dirt, high-stepping through netting, and sloshing waist-deep in the James River. These obstacles are a break from the straight and narrow but not overly challenging. The shade along the trails is generous, mitigating the June heat and humidity that is typical to the area.

Since p.r.'s are generally impossible during such a race, runner intensity seems to be replaced by camaraderie. Couples and groups of friends run together, exchanging encouragement and friendly barbs along the way. The Mud Guppies event, starting at 11 a.m., is a one-mile race for kids ages 8-14, with smaller hay bales but the same ooey, gooey, messy mud pit.

As usual, the Sports Backers welcomes runners at the end of the run with bottled sports drink and water and healthy snacks. Given the nature of this race, they considerately add water hoses and changing tents to the post-race offerings. Participants also receive a complimentary soft drink or beer.

A few minor changes might make the event even better. Since runners are less likely to tote their own fuel belts, having a sports beverage or even gel at the three water stops would be welcome. I'd also appreciate an earlier start time, as by 9 a.m. the heat and humidity are quickly gathering steam. Instead of the ho-hum beer selection, I'd like to see a more flavorful craft beer offered.

Like other Central Virginia races, the Henricus Dauber Dash is not only a great event for local runners, it's a nice excuse for runners from elsewhere to visit Virginia, combining sight-seeing with an enjoyable race. If you come, don't be put off by the park's location near towering power plants--once you turn into the park, their influence fades. 

The Henricus Dauber Dash in Hopewell, Virginia, a few miles south of Richmond, is another well-run Sports Backers event, encouraging fun and fitness in Central Virginia. As the slogan of this Dirty Dash Through the Past goes, it's "a strangely awesome combo of history and nature...all rolled into mud."

 

How to Make the Most of Virginia's Fall Foliage

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Resources for Enjoying Autumn’s Beauty

sugarhollow_va_08Leaf changing and peeping in Virginia is at its peak in October through early November, when the shorter days and cooler temperatures of autumn create dazzling displays of bright reds, oranges, and yellows throughout the Commonwealth and surrounding states. From the mountains of Southwest Virginia to the Coastal Plain, changes will sweep eastward, from the tips of the mountains to the lower altitudes.

In Virginia, the Department of Forestry is taking the lead in keeping us up-to-date on the changing colors and the Tourism Corporation in steering us to seasonal festivals, getaways, apple picking, corn mazes, and more.

The experts in local trees, shrubs, and vines, the DOF has prepared a web page of fall foliage information and a weekly blog. The department also contributes to Virginia Tourism's toll-free fall foliage hotline, 1-800-424-LOVE. The DOF fall foliage web page includes a weekly update, a chart of native trees and their fall colors, information on why leaves change colors, and links to other foliage resources, like the Weather Channel's guide to fall colors.

The page also presents five VDOF-Recommended Fall Foliage Driving Tours, from Greene County near Charlottesville west. Prepared by local foresters, these off-the-beaten path drives will help you find the vibrant fall reds, yellows and oranges along forested roadways while avoiding the traffic and crowds of the more popular leaf-peeping routes.

From the DOF web site, you can also order a field guide to make your foliage tours more informative. Native Trees of Virginia is only $2 plus shipping and handling.

The Virginia Tourism Corporation web site, always a useful resource for exploring the Commonwealth, highlights fall activities such as the Eastern Shore Harvest Festival in Cape Charles, the Bland County Festival of Leaves, the Wilderness Road Heritage Festival in Ewing, the Jeter Farm Fall Festival and Country Store in Roanoke, and the Yorktown Market Days and Fall Festival. The Virginia Tourism blog highlights autumn railroad themed events, including excursion, festivals, and museums.

The Virginia travel web site also focuses on couples getaways, travel deals, family favorites, and wineries.

Autumn's changes are fleeting. Let these Virginia resources help you appreciate the beauty of the Commonwealth.

 

Bird Watching in Virginia

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Local resources for better birding

Bay_Creek egretBirders in Virginia can enjoy the state’s location on the Atlantic flyway, offering opportunities to view birds as they migrate or as they settle for the season in a Virginia nest.

Bird-watchers can enjoy seeing many birds from the comfort of their own backyard, especially with the assistance of well-stocked bird feeders or carefully planted nature gardens. To extend their sights and add more tick-marks to the birder’s diary, though, nature lovers will want to take advantage of the many resources found throughout the region: habitats and trails, educational programs, and birding festivals for novice bird watchers as well as for experienced birders.

Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries 

VA Birding Wildlife GuideThe most comprehensive resource for birding in Virginia is provided by the Commonwealth’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The VDGIF began Virginia’s Watchable Wildlife Program in 2001, developing the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail: three phases—Coastal Trail, Mountain Trail, and Piedmont Trail—of 65 loop trails further subdivided into smaller sections. The trails cover the wide biodiversity of Virginia, from the mountains in Southwest Virginia up the Appalachian chain through the forests and grasslands of the Piedmont to the swamps, marshes and barrier islands of the coast.

In addition to maps, the trails and their subsections are detailed with other helpful background information: location and directions, habitat, accessibility, common birds, resident trees, butterflies, and more.

To make finding and navigating the trails even easier, the VDGIF provides significant information on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail in several different media. First, the information is publicly available on their web site. Next, the VDGIF has loaded the data into Google Earth, for easier location view. Third, nature fans can order a hardcopy of Discover Our Wild Side trail guide, a 400-page, full-color book that details 670 of the best wildlife viewing spots in Virginia, including updated maps, driving directions, and contact information.

Through Habitat Partners and Habitat at Home programs, the VDGIF also helps birders improve their own backyards for wildlife viewing. The guides include information on selecting trees and shrubs for birds and on attracting, feeding, sheltering and watering birds.

Virginia State Parks

Another state resource for birders and other wildlife watchers are the Virginia State Parks. Celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2011, the Virginia State Park system provides 35 parks with over 500 miles of trails, plus lodging, special events, and educational programs. Upcoming park programs to explore birds and their habitats include The Beautiful Bluebird, Owl Wisdom, Night Owl Hike, Wild for Winter Waterfowl, The Majestic Eagle, and birdwalks.

Norfolk Botanical Garden & the Eagle Cam

Though the Norfolk Botanical Garden focuses on plants, such a well-tended variety of flora can’t help but attract the fauna. The 155-acre garden features 30 themed gardens, over 95 species of birds and 30 kinds of butterflies. They have recently added a 3-acre garden for children, the World of Wonders – A Children’s Adventure Garden.

Norfolk Botanical Gardens is presenting two programs for beginner and expert bird watchers in May, during the height of the migratory season, as warblers, waterfowl, wading birds and raptors travel along the Atlantic flyway. The first, on May 4, is a bird walk around the park led by David Hughes, field trip leader for Cape Henry Audubon Society. The second, on May 5, is a guided boat tour, led by birders Marilyn and Clark White.

Thanks to Norfolk Botanical Gardens’ eagle cam, nature lovers can watch one of America’s most majestic birds up close. The live-feed eagle cam is perched just feet from a bald eagle nest, giving a peep show into the life of an eagle family throughout the year, from eggs hatching through eaglets growing and leaving the nest. 

Dragon Run

Chickahominy SwampBirders who prefer their nature a little more natural will be thrilled by the guided paddles down the Dragon Run on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. This secluded stretch of wilderness is one of the northernmost cypress swamps in America. Though a handful of highway bridges cross the Dragon’s 35-mile stretch to the Piankatank River, much of the acreage is difficult to access, helping to protect the million-year-old swamp and its wildlife. The waterway winds its way lazily through the reeds, trees and cypress knees, past an eagle nest and in earshot of a multitude of birds.

The health of Dragon Run can be attributed to concerned individuals and organizations. A group of local citizens organized the nonprofit, Friends of Dragon Run, and donated funds to purchase and preserve a 203-acre tract of Dragon swampland, with assistance from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. The nonprofit also thanks local landowners who have managed the surrounding land wisely. Other organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy and the Virginia Department of Forestry, have worked to ensure the health of the land.

Friends of Dragon Run now owns and manages the area. Each spring, the group hosts guided kayak trips daily from April 9 through May 8—until the spring growth of the swamp reeds make paddling down the Dragon impossible. The trips are free, but since they are a source of fundraising for the Friends of Dragon Run, suggested donation is $25/person.

The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy is one of the nation’s great conservation groups, inspiring individuals and organizations to protect our land’s natural resources. The land, flora and fauna that they protect are often open to the public, in the knowledge that what people know and love is what they will be motivated to protect. To see more information on The Nature Conservancy’s 300,000 acres of protected land in Virginia, visit their web site. 

Events

Mountain LakeFor a more complete immersion experience, both novice and experienced birders can enjoy birding festivals, which include guided tours led by knowledgeable guides, bird tallies, and social events.

2011 events in Virginia or easily accessible within the region include the Delmarva Birding Weekend, the Great Dismal Swamp Birding Festival, and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding and Wildlife Festival.

Delmarva Birding Weekend 

The Delmarva Birding Weekend on the Eastern Shore, April 28-May 1, offers dozens of tours throughout the Maryland and Delaware sections of the Delmarva peninsula, from the Chesapeake Bay on the west to the Atlantic Ocean in the east.

Guided tours are available each day as well as at night. Programs are divided into four categories: Canoe and kayak trips, boat excursions, and day treks. The Eastern Shore is a significant spot on the Atlantic flyway, so participants will be able to spot migrating birds as well as residents. In 2010, birders spotted a total of 174 species.

The weekend’s socials and “tally rallies,” in Ocean City, MD and Rehoboth Beach, DE, provide opportunities to mingle with non-feathered friends, swapping birding stories and learning from local guides. At the tally rallies, participating birders can add to the master checklist by reporting the birds they saw. That Friday in Ocean City is the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving and Art Festival, featuring over 150 varieties of bird carvings, from works of art to functional hunting decoys for display and sale, as well as competitions between carvers of all levels and ages. 

Though most of the activities are set in Maryland and Delaware, the event is supported by the Eastern Shore Virginia Tourism Commission and the Chincoteague, Virginia Tourism Office as well. Since there’s no central location for the event, accommodations are available throughout the Eastern Shore. A list of resources for local accommodations is available at the event web site.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge Birding Festival 

The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Suffolk, VA hosts its annual Birding Festival on May 12-14, 2011 during the height of the spring neotropical songbird migration. Birds sometimes spotted here include the Swainson’s warbler and the Wayne’s warbler, two secretive American birds, as well as the wood duck, barred owl, pileated woodpecker, egret, and prothonotary warbler.

This event on U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service property is open to the public and includes family activities, guided bird walks, owl prowls, and bus tours.

A helpful new offering at the Great Dismal Swamp Birding Festival is the loaner backpack, for novice birders who aren’t ready to invest in birding tools. The backpacks include two pairs of binoculars, species lists, a field guide, and a magnifying glass. 

Eastern Shore of VA Birding & Wildlife Festival

Mathews Kayak tripIn the fall, birders can catch the Neotropical songbirds heading back down south at the Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding and Wildlife Festival in Cape Charles, Virginia, October 7-9, 2011. In addition to the songbirds, birders can spot eagles, hawks, and falcons. Guided boat and land tours will be available.

Birding Organizations 

Those who are bitten bad by the birding bug can join local organizations, where they can visit often with like-minded spirits, support common causes, and participate in educational events.

The Richmond chapter of the Audubon Society has field trips and meetings, volunteer workdays, newsletters, and birding information.

The Richmond Audubon Society is also a participating member of the Virginia Society of Ornithology, which aims to “encourage the systematic study of birds in Virginia, to stimulate interest in birds, and to assist the conservation of wildlife and other natural resources.” As part of its mission, the VSO presents birding events throughout the state.

June 17-19, VSO partners with the New River Valley Bird Club to visit birding areas in the New River Valley and Southern Appalachians, encompassing the flatlands of the river valley as well as the slopes and streams of the mountains, in hopes of viewing a wide variety of bird species. Birding experts Jerry Via and Bill Akers worked with the New River Valley Bird Club to plan the tours.

May 28, the VSO and the Center for Conservation Biology partner for a field trip to The Nature Conservancy’s protected Piney Grove Preserve, site of the northernmost population of the red-cockaded woodpecker, which was listed as endangered in 1970 and is the state’s rarest bird. The tour will be led by Mike Wilson of the CCB.

The Piney Grove Preserve is located in Sussex County, VA. The Nature Conservancy has opened an interpretive trail at the Piney Grove Preserve, open February through October.

Another worthwhile educational birding event in Virginia is the Bird Rambles class, led by the professionals at the Marine Science Consortium on the Eastern Shore, transporting students to bird-watching venues that are otherwise restricted to the public.

The half-day ramble on June 11, 2011 and the full-day ramble on November 12, 2011 take students onto the beautiful islands of the Eastern Shore, including the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge's restricted backcountry on Assateague Island, the shorebirds on the pristine beach of the Wallops Island, and a boat ride through marsh creeks. 

Bird watching provides a link to nature, to flashes of color and vibrant life flitting through trees, grasses, or reeds or soaring high above the ground and to the call of the bird songs, providing melodies unmatched by manufactured music. Virginia offers many resources for appreciating this natural resource, in habitats and trails, educational programs, and birding festivals for bird watchers of all levels.

 

 

Bike Trails on Maryland's Eastern Shore

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Scenic bike riding made easy

Maritime_Museum_dock_

Talbot County, Maryland, on the peninsula of the Eastern Shore between the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Chesapeake Bay on the west, has made scenic bike riding simple for both the casual and the serious biker, with tours that please bird watchers, too. The flat terrain is naturally easy. The dedicated trails and the purposefully wide roadway shoulders were designed to make biking safe. A sturdy and easy-to-follow bicycle map, “Bike Talbot County,” provides directions for six memorable bicycle touring trails—five of which are circuit trails—and contact information for rentals. The town of Easton, where four of the six Talbot County trails converge at the rails-to-trails lot, offers a shorter route for the more leisurely biker. One of the trails is even recognized as one of the top 25 cycling routes in the United States.

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Ski New Mexico | Ski Resorts for Snow Sports & Natural Beauty

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Ski Areas in Northern New Mexico: Natural Beauty & Skiing

Five Great Ski Resorts in the Land of Enchantment

Red_River_Backside“Skiing in New Mexico?” That was the common response when I told friends I was taking a ski trip to the Land of Enchantment. After a pause, the ski buffs recalled Taos Ski Valley, but none of them realized that the state’s elevation and rugged terrain compensate for its southern latitude to provide a setting for memorable snow sports.

What’s more, its Southwest setting provides a backdrop for a distinctive escape from the everyday, punctuated by fresh New Mexican cuisine, with the regional favorite, the green chile, front and center. Burritos lovers will be especially pleased with the abundance of breakfast burritos, a hefty meal to begin a day of physical activity. Beer aficionados will notice that many of the restaurants offer more than just the standard bland macrobrews, with bold microbrews common, frequently from nearby Santa Fe Brewery.

My recent trip to New Mexico featured five ski areas: Taos Ski Valley, Angel Fire Resort, Red River, Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area, and Ski Santa Fe. It had been a few years since my last ski trip, so I found myself sticking to—and thus reporting on—the beginner slopes.

Ski Santa Fe slope and viewThe first four of the five ski areas I visited—all but Ski Santa Fe—are clustered around the Enchanted Circle, an 80-mile road with the state’s tallest mountain, 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, at its center. It whirls deliriously through passes and alpine forests, overlooking valleys and mesas, with boulders and scrub and sage dotting the way.  

Unlike the impersonal commercial ski resorts, the northern New Mexico ski areas I visited were homier, in all the right ways. They were comfortable and unassuming but well tended—especially where it matters most, on the slopes. Many of the areas are family owned, supported by the history and pride that comes from knowing your name is tied to a business. In these family-run resorts, the passion for the sport is apparent, too—picture a kid whose first skis are bronzed instead of her baby shoes, who has snow in her blood, and who hears snow reports at dinner instead of stock reports and you’ll begin to picture the current owners and operators of Taos Ski Valley and Red River. Even the seasoned instructors here embody the passion of those who have made their sport their livelihood.

The entire state boasts more than 400 trails for Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowboarding. Distinctive New Mexico features create excellent conditions for winter sports: high temperatures in January reaching the 40s during the day, particularly in the “lower” elevations; plenty of sunshine and deep blue skies; high, rugged mountain ranges; 200 inches of snowfall a year; and low humidity. In addition, the slopes and lifts are less crowded than those at many of the better-known resorts, and lift ticket and rental prices are lower.

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