A hike in Patapsco Valley State Park

Last weekend we took a nice hike up in Maryland, at Patapsco Valley State Park, just south of Baltimore. For the first part, we crossed the river on a suspension bridge and hiked a 1.25 miles upstream on the Gristmill Trail (gray), recrossed the river again on another suspension bridge near Ilchester Road, and returned to our stating point on the right bank of the river, a total of 2.5 miles. For the second part, we hiked up Cascade Trail, crossing the stream several times before turning off to follow the Morning Choice (yellow), Old Track Loop (red), and Ridge (orange) Trails back to our stating point, for a total hike of around 5.5 miles.

The hike offered quite a variety of scenery. The Gristmill Trail is relatively flat and paved on the left bank and runs adjacent to the B&O Railroad track, while on the right bank it is mostly dirt and a bit more rugged. Historical markers provide information about construction of the railroad and the history of Patapsco Valley. Here and there a few princess trees were still blooming. The river is strewn with rocks and rapids below Bloede Dam, while in the calmer waters above the dam a pair of Canadian Geese were shepherding their goslings. The second part of the hike features rugged and wandering dirt paths through the forest, and the Cascade Trail passes Cascade Falls and several smaller rapids upstream, and one of the several stream crossings left me with wet sneakers.

Bloede Dam is an interesting piece of history. It was built in 1906, went into operation in 1907, and was the first submerged hydroelectric power plant: the machinery was underwater, inside the spillway. It also included a 200-foot wooden fish ladder, which tends to dispel the popular notion that wildlife conservation started only with the advent of Captain Planet and Earth Day celebrations. The power plant was finally taken offline in 1924, overcome by more efficient plants elsewhere and the ongoing problem of clogging due to river debris. The dam was severely damaged by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and in 1992 the Maryland Department of Resources spent $1.58 million to build an improved fish ladder. The dam is scheduled to be removed in the fall of 2016, leaving only rocky river rapids in its place, so there’s only a little time left to get a look at this piece of the past.

Patapsco Valley State Park is only about 30 minutes’ drive from the Washington DC Capital Beltway, or about an hour from Northern Virginia. It’s probably a good idea to check with the park ranger before planning your hike, since the Gristmill Trail will undoubtedly be closed during the demolition of Bloede Dam.


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Potomac Overlook

Last weekend we took an urban hike in Arlington County, Virginia, starting from Potomac Overlook Regional Park. The hike was basically a 5.1-mile counter-clockwise loop, boxed in by Donaldson Run, the Potomac River, Gulf Branch, and North Glebe Road. It took a little longer than I expected; about 2.75 hours, but would take less time with a smaller group. We’ve done several variations on the theme both from this park and nearby Ethan Allen Park, and sometimes using Windy Run, another tributary of the Potomac River, rather than Gulf Branch. Last weekend’s combination seemed to be about the best version we’ve done yet!

This stretch of the Potomac Heritage Trail is quite rugged, and the mouths of Donaldson Run and Gulf Branch feature steep inclines with pleasant little waterfalls and large boulders, making it a rough go descending into and climbing out of the Potomac River basin. (This stretch is maybe a bit more difficult than Billy Goat Trail B, across the Potomac in Maryland, but not nearly as tough as Billy Goat Trail A.)

Gulf Branch Nature Center, about halfway through the hike, provided a welcome and scenic break after all the boulder scrambles. We had a pretty big group of hikers, 60+, and the Nature Center naturalist came out to greet us!

The rest of the hike featured a long uphill ascent along back streets to the ridgeline along North Glebe Road, a shortcut through Marymount University campus, and a descent from there along Donaldson Run Trail back to our starting point. As a teaser, there was just one last water crossing over stepping stones. Throughout our hike I was pleased to see early signs of spring: the snowdrops and daffodils have popped up, and Virginia Bluebells won’t be far behind!

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Keep moving

IMG_1120One of the downsides to winter is that you just have to get out there and keep moving, but you often spend more time getting dressed for and getting to a hike than you do actually hiking. (Actually, this applies to distant hikes at any time of year. I’ve heard of something called a butt-to-trail ratio: the amount of time sitting on your butt in your car versus the actual time spent on the trail. But I digress.)

Anyway, early this month, after the snow cleared away, I saw something that gave me hope that the end of the really cold temperatures is already in sight: daffodils. They usually bloom by Saint David’s Day (March 1st), so we haven’t too much longer to wait.


Our first outing in February was in Reston, where we took a 5-mile hike along the paved paths winding through the woods around Lakes Audubon and Thoreau. I’m not overly thrilled with paved paths, but in a melting snow/slush situation they have their advantages. (See the bit about getting dressed for the hike above.) There were quite a few birds darting through the woods, and a couple of pileated woodpeckers made an appearance, but they were too wary of our large group to stop and pose. Towards the end of the hike, though, we were rewarded by encountering a small herd of deer. The few does who had been nervously nibbling on bushes showed us a clean pair of heels but the buck with them defiantly stood his ground while they escaped. Good for him!

The National Zoo

The next day we visited the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, and winter can be a good time to go if you don’t mind the cold. There’s no crowds and most the animals are still out, so you don’t have to elbow your way in to get a look. An added attraction just now is that Bei-Bei, the newest Panda, made its public debut on January 16. Of course, as a structured walk/hike, a group visit to the zoo falls apart almost before it gets started, because everyone wants to linger longer to check out their favorite animals. But regardless, it still winds up being a respectable hike: one circuit around the park is 3.5 miles, assuming you don’t double back much, and you have another mile to walk to and from the nearest Metro stop.

Last weekend we got in a short 4-mile hike around Old Town Alexandria, and the 21oF temperatures with 10-20 mph gusting winds made for a very fast morning. After that, another heavy snowfall forced cancellation of a planned outing to Mount Vernon to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, but at least we have another shot at it on February 22nd.

Coming up: Ox Hill Battlefield

I’ve been wanting to visit Ox Hill/Chantilly Battlefield for some time, but it’s very tiny — most of the battlefield was bulldozed down in the mid-1980s to make room for condominiums. The roughly five acres left doesn’t make for much of a trip, and there’s only room for four cars in the parking lot. (The regrettable loss did make it the poster child for future Civil War battlefield preservation efforts, though.) But during a hike at last July at Walney Farm and Big Rocky Run I drove by a good starting point at Greenbriar Park, with plenty of parking and a pleasant 5-mile hike to and from the battlefield along Rocky Run Stream Valley Trail. We’re doing the hike this Saturday, and you can read about the hike and the battle here, but I went there today to snoop around and see what’s cooking.

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Escape from the cabin

This past weekend I was getting really anxious to escape from the confines of my “cabin” after the blizzard of the weekend before. While the streets were cleared off fairly quickly, in Virginia at least, most of the sidewalks weren’t passable until about four days later. Folks living further north have to deal with heavy snow all the time, but around here it isn’t practical to maintain all the heavy equipment needed to move tons of snow.

20160123_090145aFinally, on the Saturday after the blizzard, we went hiking at Sky Meadows State Park, despite advertised treacherous hiking trails and the ranger’s warnings about ice and waist-deep snow. (The park wasn’t even opened until Thursday, four days after the snowfall ended.) As it turned out, the snow was pretty deep, especially in areas with tall grass.

From the Visitor Center, a dozen of us trudged almost a mile and 220 feet uphill through the open meadow along Piedmont Overlook Trail, with me in the lead breaking knee-deep snow.

At the overlook, I felt like a Tennessee Walking Horse after a show* or something. (Where are all those eager beavers that want to race ahead when you need them to blaze a trail?) But the effort was worth it: the view was spectacular!

IMG_1102We continued another quarter mile uphill along the North Ridge Trail, but by then I was completely shagged, so half the group, including me, turned back and returned along North Ridge Trail. We were breaking snow all the way downhill, too, but at least we got to enjoy the view while working out.

IMG_1115The total hike was probably no more than 2.5 miles altogether, but in heavy snow, it certainly felt like a lot more! I don’t know exactly how much further the other half went, but from the photos they posted later, it looked like they only went another quarter mile uphill to the firebreak, where the snow really was waist-deep!

 * Not a Good Thing

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Frozen fun

Billy Goat Trail Section A

IMG_0903There’s just nothing like a cold morning to bring out the determined hikers, and this Monday was no exception: the temperature never got about 21o F (-6o C ), and the 10-20 mph WNW winds made it seem a lot colder! But apart from that, it was a beautiful sunny day, with free entry to the C&O Canal National Historical Park, so a better day to hike the Billy Goat Trail Section A couldn’t be had!

Our hike along Section A from the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center was not quite 4 miles of smiles: 1.7 difficult miles along the trail, with large boulders and a scramble up a seam in a 50-foot cliff face, and the rest just easy walking back along the canal towpath.

Despite the difficulty, Billy Goat Section A is a popular hike, so you really need a cold day to thin out the herd. I think we saw no more than a dozen other hikers. The typical planning time is about 3-4 hours, but we finished much sooner.

IMG_1029Of course, while we were there, we took some extra time to walk the extra half mile or so to the Great Falls Overlook on Olmsted Island!


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Splashin’ around in Old Town

Over the past couple of months I’ve been sadly negligent in writing posts about our walking and hiking outings — the last post was last September, about plans for a hike to a pair of historic plantations in Maryland. But it’s not because we haven’t been busy: we’ve done over 30 hikes since then, including the visit to the plantations. It’s just that in the process of 1) planning, 2) executing, and 3) writing posts about hikes, if I’m running low on energy, it’s the last of those activities that gets curtailed. And I have been short on energy — a cold that jumped me in late November finally turned into pneumonia during the last week of December, so it was a struggle to get on the trail at all. But as of January 1st I’m back in stride again, so I’ll try to post about our hikes a little more often.

The weather forecast for Saturday, January 9, was looking pretty rainy, so I planned a mud-free 5-mile hike around the sidewalks of Old Town Alexandria. Our route took us all around town, past several familiar landmarks and along the Potomac waterfront. As it turned out, the rain held off and we enjoyed a nice walk around town.

In a pleasant surprise, we encountered a little history unfolding along the waterfront: the remnants of a centuries-old ship discovered during the excavation of the lot at 220 S. Union Street, for the eventual construction of the planned Hotel Indigo. That evening, NBC News published an interesting news story about the ship’s discovery and excavation.

The ship, of which only a partial hull remains, was once a heavy wooden cargo or military ship and was scuttled at the site sometime between 1775 and 1798 as part of the Alexandria waterfront development that has been going on for centuries. In fact, were it not for the hotly contested current development, this discovery would probably never have been made at all.

IndigoI suppose people are always resistant to change, but the five-story hotel planned is not a glitzy glass and steel skyscraper. If it turns out to be anything like the artist’s rendition posted on the hotel’s Facebook site, it will fit into the existing neighborhood architecture nicely and be quite an improvement over the long-dormant brick and corrugated steel  warehouses that were at the site.

As exciting as this find is, it prompts speculation about what may be uncovered during future development: the warehouses now occupying the adjacent block to the south stand on what was once the site of Alexandria’s first shipyard, Thomas Fleming’s, dating from the 1760s:

“Thomas Fleming was the most prominent shipbuilder here at the time, having established a yard at Point Lumley at the foot of Duke Street. More than once, George Washington visited Alexandria to witness the launching of new ships, including Capt. Isaac Littledale’s 1200-ton Hero in 1760 and the Jenny in 1768. Perhaps the largest ship built here was the 257-ton, London-registered Recovery.”1

IMG_0813By the time we arrived, most of the ship’s timbers had been removed and stacked on a flatbed, awaiting shipment to a water storage tank to stabilize the wood until its final disposition is determined.

Hopefully, and if funding can be found, the ship and some of the many other artifacts uncovered can someday go on display.


  1. Historic Alexandria, “Discovering the Decades: 1760s,” November 25, 2015. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/zltxyp7
  2. NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, January 9, 2016. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/jbnqpzb
  3. Patricia Sullivan, “The discovery of a 300-year-old ship at a construction site has archaeologists ecstatic,” Washington Post, January 4, 2016. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/jowaat9
  4. Tom Fitzgerald, “HISTORIC FIND: Centuries-old ship discovered at Old Town Alexandria hotel construction site,” Fox 5 DC, January 5, 2016. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/jegttqx
  5. Tom Fitzgerald, “Artifacts recovered providing clues about newly-discovered historic ship,” Fox 5 DC, January 7, 2016. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/z4snro9
  6. Historic Alexandria, “Maps of Historic Sites and Buildings on the Waterfront,” December 28, 2015. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/z9msu2o
  7. Photo, Hotel Indigo Old Town Alexandria, Progress Update – October 13, 2015. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://tinyurl.com/zj7skw9
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Unicorn futures

It’s almost that time again — 2016 $50 1-ounce US Gold Buffalo coins go on sale on January 20, 2016. Or at least, that’s when most precious metals dealers will start shipping them. The spot price of gold as I write is around $1072 per ounce, so uncirculated business strike buffaloes, 99.99% pure, will be cheaper than they were in 2008.

2016BuffaloWhat’s been happening in the world of gold lately? Just how hard is it to process an ounce of gold, and how much does it cost?

In a 2013 article from Business Insider, Barrick Gold’s richest mine, Turquoise Ridge, was noted as producing just 0.45 ounces of gold per ton of rock processed. And that was the richest mine cited.1

At that time, it cost Barrick an average of $919 to mine an ounce of gold, and the market price was somewhere around $1400-1600 per ounce, leaving around $500-700 profit. Other companies had higher average production costs, due to higher labor costs, poorer quality ore, deeper shafts, etc., meaning their profit margin was much less.2

That was 2013 — today, the market price is only $1072 per ounce, so Barrick’s profit margin has necessarily been reduced. Barrick has probably been forced to close its poorer mines, such as those that yield only a tenth of an ounce per ton or less. The cost of energy may now be cheaper, due to lower oil and gas prices, but I can’t imagine other overhead costs like labor have gone down much in 2 years’ time.

Is $1072 a good price for an ounce of gold? Who knows? I certainly don’t know the whole story, but even if I did, you can bet everyone plays with the numbers to fit their side of the story.

I saw an analytical article from Bloomberg the other day with this forecast: “The outlook for more interest rate increases in 2016 means bullion could drop to $950 by the end of next year. … The bank [Societe Generale SA in London] sees prices at $955 in next year’s fourth quarter. It’s a completely different era. Maybe it’s not the era of gold anymore. The last decade was a decade of gold. This decade, you’re going to look to something else.”3

All I can say about that is that it’s a good thing for the analyst that the interview ended before he was asked just what that “something else” might be. If market prices drop below current production costs, miners will simply close less productive mines in order to stay in production. I don’t believe any of this “peak gold” nonsense, since we haven’t even begun to mine the seabed, but that’s really beside the point: as of November 2015, there are already 293 ounces of paper gold (ETF shares) being traded on the market for every ounce of real, physical gold in existence:

ComexCoverRatioThe market is already, hundreds of times over, trading in shares that represent ounces of gold that are still in the ground someplace. In short, we’re trading in make believe.4

Trading in gold ETF shares seems akin to playing musical chairs, except that instead of being only one chair short for every 293 players, there’s 292 chairs short. I guess ETF traders are just hoping the music will never stop, or at least not while they’re playing the game. No thanks — it seems safer to dollar-cost average things and buy an ounce of real gold every year. The price of gold might fall some more, but the expectation that it will return to the $250-500/ounce range it traded at between 1983 and 2005, before some $7.66 trillion of US government stimulus spending between 2008 and 2012, is a little unrealistic.5

Physical gold has been a means of storing wealth since the days of the pharaohs. If we’re entering an era of “something else,” it must be an era of unicorn futures or something.


  1. Sam Ro, “Here’s How Many Tons Of Rock You Have To Mine Just For An Ounce Of Gold,” Business Insider, 24 April 2013. http://www.businessinsider.com/tons-of-rock-for-an-ounce-of-gold-2013-4
  2. Jeff Desjardins, “What is the Cost of Mining Gold?” Visual Capitalist, 21 May 2013. http://www.visualcapitalist.com/what-is-the-cost-of-mining-gold/
  3. Luzi Ann Javier, “Gold is on a wild ride,” Bloomberg, 21 December 2015. Via Mineweb.com at http://www.mineweb.com/news-fast-news/gold-is-on-a-wild-ride/
  4. Comex gold cover ratio histogram is from Tyler Durden, “There Are Now 293 Ounces Of Paper Gold For Every Ounce Of Physical As Comex Registered Gold Hits New Low,” Zero Hedge, 4 November 2015. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-11-04/there-are-now-293-ounces-paper-gold-every-ounce-physical-comex-registered-gold-hits-
  5. Sam Ro, “$7.66 Trillion Of Stimulus In America From 2008 To 2012, Itemized,” Business Insider, 21 January 2013. http://www.businessinsider.com/766t-of-fiscal-and-monetary-stimulus-2013-1
  6. Image of a 2016 1 ounce gold buffalo coin is from American Precious Metals Exchange (APMEX) at http://www.apmex.com/product/93752/2016-1-oz-gold-buffalo-bu

Incidentally, Virginia passed a law this April that exempts bullion purchases over $1000 from sales tax:

§ 58.1-609.1. Governmental and commodities exemptions. …

19. On or after July 1, 2015, but before January 1, 2019, gold, silver, or platinum bullion whose sales price exceeds $1,000. Each piece of gold, silver, or platinum need not exceed $1,000, provided that the sales price of one entire transaction of such pieces exceeds $1,000. “Gold, silver, or platinum bullion” means gold, silver, or platinum, and any combination thereof, that has gone through a refining process and is in a state or condition such that its value depends on its mass and purity and not on its form, numismatic value, or other value. Gold, silver, or platinum bullion may contain other metals or substances, provided that the other substances by themselves have minimal value compared with the value of the gold, silver, or platinum. “Gold, silver, or platinum bullion” does not include jewelry or works of art.


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