- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2001

And so my friends, I now take great pleasure in dedicating Shenandoah National Park: of dedicating it to this and to succeeding generations of Americans for the recreation and the re-creation that we find here.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936

The serenity of the mountaintop morning is broken, suddenly, as the yellow bus disgorges its cargo of excitable elementary school children. Herded by a few adults, they rush into the Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center at Big Meadows on the Skyline Drive. Inside are video presentations and displays concerning Shenandoah National Park, and a gift shop filled with maps and books about hiking and the wonders of nature.
At the opposite end of the parking lot four adults, led by a smiling, brown-clad park ranger, stand ready to plunge into the woods along one of the mountain's many well-marked paths.
"I just wanted to show you this little chrysalis right here: we've been watching it all week," says 46-year-old Ranger Mara Meisel, pointing to an inch-long transparent-green sac precariously hanging from the bottom of a sign marking the entrance to the "Story of the Forest" trail.
"It should be ready to hatch out in another three or four days," she says. "It's a monarch butterfly."
Through the delicate chrysalis, tiny folded wings are visible as well as several strings of minuscule golden beads, like a tiny necklace.
And the people ooh and aah as they bend over to get a glimpse and snap their photos.
Running down the center of Shenandoah National Park, the Skyline Drive is a 105-mile-long ribbon of parkway along the wooded spine of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The scenic highway, with its awe-inspiring overlooks, is a great place to visit any time of the year, but especially in the early fall when the leaves change color.
The amazing transformation is brought about by chemical changes in the leaves. In spring and summer, the leaf cells containing the green-colored pigment chlorophyll produce nourishment for the tree. Leaves also contain carotenoids, yellow pigments that are masked through most of the year by the dominant chlorophyll. In the fall, temperature changes trigger a halt to food production by the leaf cells and the green chlorophyll breaks down. The bright shades of underlying yellow come to the forefront.
Another set of pigments known as anthocyanins produce the gorgeous red and purple hues that decorate autumn foliage. Present only in trees containing particular sugars such as black gum or dogwood anthocyanins develop in the sap during late summer. Direct sunlight and the fall's cool nights bring about the most brilliant reds.
During the dazzling fall change, Shenandoah National Park becomes a veritable Crayola box of colors. Dogwoods, sumacs, and Virginia creepers cloak themselves in purple and red. Maples don explosive reds and oranges. Even within a specific species, leaves may change color in different ways. Direct sunlight and moist soil tend to bring about the deeper shades. Some leaves become uniform in their color while others are multi-toned.
The forest here is changing. Once this was all a meadow, a grazing field for cows. Now it's evolving into a mature hardwood forest and in the Shenandoah that means oak and hickory. Oaks turn scarlet and yellow, while hickory trees take on a burnished gold.
"The foliage in the park usually peaks between the 5th and 25th of October," says park spokewoman Lyn Rothgeb, who has worked for the National Park Service for 33 years. "Certain kinds of trees turn earlier than others, creating a parade of color all month long."
And a welcomed parade of visitors. Of the park's annual 1.7 million guests, in fact, Mrs. Rothgeb says she expects fully one-fifth to arrive in October. But, she says, with the park's 300 square miles, 516 miles of trails and numerous campgrounds, lodges, and places to eat, "the people seem to spread out."

Big Meadows with its Byrd Visitor Center, Big Meadows Lodge and Campground, and wayside coffee shop, camp store and service station offers a number of daytime activities right in the middle of the Skyline Drive. It's the perfect base for a visit to Shenandoah National Park.
Ranger-led hikes, radiating from the visitor center, teach visitors about the surrounding flora and fauna and the ways of the mountain folks who once lived here. Several of Big Meadows' ranger hikes focus on the meadow itself, a 130-acre mountaintop field surrounded by woods of oak. The meadow's tall grass sprinkled with thistle, Queen Anne's lace, yarrow, and clover is crisscrossed with deer and human footpaths. Near the center, clustered stands of 8-foot-high dogwoods give it the look of a subtropical savannah.
Other hikes encourage visitors to browse the surroundings for a spot in which they can feel especially at home. Ranger Meisel, for example, frequently presides over a 10 a.m. trek through the forest entitled "Your Place Naturally."
Central to feeling at home is water, and Ms. Meisel takes pains to point out and name the available sources of water all of it from Lewis Spring, an underwater source. The spring flows down on the western side of the ridge and forms Hawksbill Creek.
"Everything on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains flows into the Chesapeake Bay," she continues, showing off a large map of the bay-area watershed. "On the opposite side of the mountain the springs feed the Shenandoah River, which runs into the Potomac."
Two-tenths of a mile along the way at a charming little stone bridge over Hogcamp Branch Ms. Meisel halts the group to pose a few questions. Bordered by dark green, moss-speckled boulders, the mountain stream rushes underneath and off to the east.
"Any guesses on the water temperature?" she asks. One of the visitors quickly answers 58 degrees, but Ms. Meisel's thermometer held in the cool creek by 48-year-old Suzanne O'Meara of Damascus, Md. proves it to be 53 degrees, just the right temperature for trout and, fortunately, the creatures trout like to eat.
Next the water's pH balance is tested by comparing the color of a vial's worth against other, marked vials with pH ratings from 1 to 14, 7 being neutral. The pH is found to lie somewhere between 5.5 to 6.0, on the acidic side of the scale.
The water at the site is acidic right now because leaves are falling into it and decomposing, adding to it their tannic acid. During the summer, because there's more water, pH levels in the area are closer to 6.5.
"Every time I go out on a trail, or in the meadow," Ms. Meisel says at the end of the two-hour trek, "it may be a place I've seen a hundred times before, but I'm going to see something new, something different. There's so much happening in this park that if you just stop and look and listen for a couple of minutes, you can see incredible things. The variety, diversity, of life here is just tremendous."

Some of it is "tremendous" in the literal sense. During a 30-minute afternoon talk in the Byrd Visitor Center Auditorium, Ranger Meisel describes the life cycle of Shenandoah National Park's largest animals: black bears.
A large adult black bear can be 3 feet high at the shoulder and weigh 300 pounds, she says, patting a large stand-up plywood cutout painted to resemble the animal. Ms. Meisel says park authorities estimate that the park contains about 300 black bears, or one per square mile of park.
Cubs are born in the wintertime in the dens. Mating season is mid-June to mid-July, but the eggs don't implant themselves until much later. If the mother is not getting enough nutrition they simply do not implant. The cubs, maybe as many as four, stay with their mother one year and den up with her for the winter. The following spring it's mating season again so she kicks her teenagers out.
By July and August, the displaced adolescents can mean trouble for the unwary. "Those younger bears aren't quite sure of what's going on. They're on their own and they sort of know what's good to eat but lots of times they go for the easy food," Ms. Meisel says.
"Here's what a bear can do," she says, holding up a cooler that's been clawed and chewed. The lid is missing and part of the inside wall has been scraped out.
"Don't leave your cooler out on the picnic table," she cautions hikers.

Shenandoah National Park was authorized by an act of Congress in 1926 and established 10 years later. Using the legal power of eminent domain the right of a government to take private property from its owners at rock-bottom prices for public use the State of Virginia appropriated 180,000 ridge-top acres, between Front Royal and Waynesboro, and handed it over to the federal government. Four hundred and eighty-five families were forced to move.
People had been living up here about 150 years, Ranger John Manka, 51, tells a group of 20 visitors. They used Big Meadows as a pasture and kept orchards and cornfields nearby.
Not that life was easy. Trips down the mountain for supplies and back again could take an entire day fine during the long days of summer but more complicated in winter: The mountain dwellers scheduled winter reprovisioning trips to coincide with the full moon, so they could see the path on their way home.
The result: a group of people so in touch with nature that they developed unusual ways to mark the seasons of the year and even the time of day.
"When would you come to see the mountain laurel bloom?" Ranger Manka asks the group. Only in mid-June, he says, does spring reaches the ridge tops and the pink and white flowers burst open at the same time as fawns are born.
"So the old timers up here would have told you that when the mountain laurel blooms the deer are having their babies," he says.
"A lot of the people that used to live up here didn't even have watches," Mr. Manka continues, "but they had tricks to help them tell the time. If you go out to one of the overlooks tonight and the sun is setting, stick out your hand as far as it can reach. Line up your bottom finger on the horizon and then count the number of fingers between it and the sun. Each one of those fingers is going to indicate about 15 minutes."
Paul O'Meara from Damascus, Md., and his wife, Suzanne, look ready to try these old ways.
"We came down to get away from the rush of work and relax," says Mr. O'Meara, 49, who works for the public school system in Howard County.
"We needed some place quiet to really slow down for a while," chimes in his wife, who is employed by Westat in Rockville. "We heard that this was a place where we could really get replenished. It's our first time here, but we'll be back. I learned a lot today."

When you go:
Skyline Drive
WHERE: Shenandoah National Park, with entrances I-66 and Route 340.
WHEN: The park is always open, but parts of Skyline Drive are closed from dusk to early morning during hunting season. The entire road may be closed during bad weather.
FEE: $10 per car for seven days
INFORMATION: Call 540/999-3500 or see www.nps.gov/shen

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