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!

Notes

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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.

Notes

  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.

Notes

  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.

http://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/58.1-609.1/

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Numismatics in a 3D future

2005-Krugerrand-NGCA recent article appearing in Coin World alerted readers to the appearance of a counterfeit 2005 Proof gold ¼ Krugerrand (KM# 160). A genuine 2005 Proof gold ¼ Kruggerand has a retail value of about $475,1 so the potential to spend that amount on a flashy piece of plastic is certainly something for coin collectors to keep an eye out for:

Fullerton, Calif., dealer Dwight Manley recently discovered a fake South African gold Krugerrand coin in a fake NGC holder.

Numismatic Guaranty Corp. has confirmed that the holder and coin are both counterfeit.

There is one distinct difference between the fake and genuine holders, Manley said.

Collectors should look at the left side of the front insert label.

“On the fake coin, the circle in the NGC logo (an encircled balance scale) goes almost entirely around the P in the grade PF 70. On the genuine coin’s label, the P is outside the logo circle,” Manley said.2

But beyond the concern over accidentally buying a fake, what does this mean? Will coin collectors now have to become experts on analyzing holograms on coin holder labels? Probably not:

You can get very basic 3D printers for just a few hundred dollars — about the price of a good inkjet printer or today’s laser printers. …

[The only remaining] barrier is the skills barrier, and that one still has some challenge. … [But by] combining the Internet (and 3D design marketplaces like Thingiverse), someone in one part of the world can design a physical object, and someone on the opposite side of the planet can make it appear.3

To put this into perspective, the price of a 3D printer is now about the price of a genuine Proof gold ¼ Krugerrand. We are at the point at which one skilled counterfeiter can create a 3D design for a fake coin holder (and even a fake coin!), and any unethical person with Internet access will be able to print as many as they like.

Given this, what seems likely is not that we will all have to start analyzing holograms on plastic coin holders, but that the burgeoning plastic coin certification holder industry will become obsolete.

Soon, numismatists may actually have to redirect their attention to the coins themselves, rather than the plastic holders the certification industry has pushed to the forefront, and that will probably be a good thing.

  1. World Coin Price Guide, Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, http://tinyurl.com/pzbm4w9
  2. Jeff Stark, “California coin dealer discovers fake Krugerrand in fake holder,” Coin World, 13 November 2015, http://tinyurl.com/qhy5rdx
  3. David Gerwitz, “3D printing will be huge, in the most boring and fascinating ways imaginable,” ZDNet, 11 November 2015, http://tinyurl.com/q6ufqzw
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Two Plantations

A hike I’m cooking up to be scheduled sometime during the next few weeks will be a twofer, visiting the sites of two historic plantations in southern Maryland: Mount Aventine and Habre de Venture. The two plantations are preserved today at Chapman State Park and Thomas Stone Historic Site, respectively. The two are pleasant enough during late summer as these photos illustrate, but should make a wonderful outing when the fall leaves arrive!

Mount Aventine

Mount Aventine was purchased in 1751 by Nathaniel Chapman, a wealthy Virginia planter, and was conveniently situated to the residences of George Mason and George Washington, close friends of the Chapman family, just across the Potomac River. In addition to maintaining a large plantation, the Chapman family ran a ferry landing and wharf that eventually serviced steamboats traveling between Alexandria, Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington, and a fishery at Chapman’s Point that was one of the largest in the area at the time. The main house is a 19th century Greek Revival-influenced brick house started during the 1840s, and enlarged about 1860 to its present appearance. The Chapman family owned the property until the early 1900s, when it changed hands several times until acquired by the state of Maryland in 1998.

Today, Chapman State Park has a nice network of trails, and an easy 3-mile hike will take you past many of the remaining plantation features.

Habre de Venture

Habre de Venture was the home of Thomas Stone, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He purchased the plantation in 1770, when the soil was already largely depleted due to the cultivation of tobacco, and the plantation only provided subsistence for its inhabitants. The main house is an irregular, 5-part Maryland manor that was built over several stages to accommodate the extended Stone family. Stone practiced law, was a member of the Continental Congress, helped form the provisional government of Maryland, and served in the Maryland State Senate. Stone’s wife Margaret contracted smallpox from an unsuccessful inoculation, and although she was successfully treated with mercury, the resultant mercury poisoning caused her lingering death in 1787. Stone retired from public life to care for her and died only 4 months after her death. Both are buried at Habre de Venture.

Habre de Venture has recently undergone significant restoration, and an easy 2-mile hike covers the grounds. Given that the site is rather isolated, ranger tours of the manor can be had on an impromptu basis and are very interesting.

Notes

  1. Chapman State Park, 3452 Ferry Pl, Indian Head, MD 20640, 301-743-7613: http://tinyurl.com/pqcfvsw
  2. Chapman State Park trail map (pdf): http://tinyurl.com/p2hzcvx
  3. Friends of Chapman State Park, http://tinyurl.com/ooowyez
  4. Mount Aventine at the Maryland National Register Properties: http://tinyurl.com/nm7mmsd
  5. Mount Aventine trail map: http://tinyurl.com/oawrxos
  6. Thomas Stone National Historic Site, 6655 Rose Hill Rd, Port Tobacco, MD 20677, 301-392-1776: http://tinyurl.com/plny6l8
  7. Thomas Stone at Wikipedia: http://tinyurl.com/q7twvcw
  8. Photos of Habre de Venture at the Library of Congress: http://tinyurl.com/q7brpgp
  9. Habre de Venture trail map: http://tinyurl.com/o59vxr9
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Piscataway Park

Piscataway ParkWednesday afternoon I was out snooping around Piscataway Park and the National Colonial Farm to prepare for a hike I scheduled for this coming Sunday. Piscataway Park is named for Piscataway Creek, which in turn is named for the Piscataway Indian Tribe. It is located in Accokeek, Maryland, and was founded to preserve the natural view of the Potomac River from Mount Vernon.

The baseline route I plotted pieced together the trails on the park map into a big counter-clockwise hike from the Visitor Center downstream along the Potomac past the Colonial Farm, inland around the adjacent fields, back upstream along the park road and a trail to the Ecosystem Farm, and then back to the shoreline for the final walk back to the Visitor Center. It was only about 3 miles as the crow flies, but by the time I got back in the car to drive over to explore the adjacent boardwalk trail, 5 miles and 2 hours had somehow slipped by! It think the constant side trips to look at Mount Vernon, directly across the Potomac River, or the reconstructed buildings and livestock in the Colonial and Ecosystem farms had something to do with it. Or it could have been the dozens of butterflies and the occasional rabbit that crossed my path along the way.

Anyway, it was getting towards evening before I made it to the boardwalk for the short walk over the marsh, and if the hundreds of swallows flitting overhead were too fast for me to catch a photo, it was because they were enjoying an hearty evening meal of mosquitoes and other flying insects, leaving less of them to bother me.

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Pimmit Run

IMG_6831Tomorrow we’re hiking the upstream section of Pimmit Run, a tributary of the Potomac that starts in Idylwood, near the I-66/I-495 interchange in Fairfax County, Virginia, and meanders its way north and east through the county before emptying into the Potomac River at Chain Bridge.

Unlike much of the Fairfax Cross County Trail system, this portion of the Pimmit Run Trail hasn’t been cleared, paved, and festooned with markers naming it for a local politician. As a result, some sections are very narrow and can get so overgrown that hikers might be tempted to wear a pith helmet and bring along a machete. But that’s a good thing: the native wildflowers and wildlife flourish.

While we won’t be that far downstream tomorrow, Chain Bridge is the site of the first bridge built over the Potomac in 1797, and is the spot where State Department clerk Stephen Pleasanton briefly secreted the Declaration of Independence and other vital documents during the British occupation of Washington DC in 1814. That event took place on August 23rd, so maybe another hike on the downstream section would be interesting in a couple of weeks, to celebrate the 201st anniversary of the event.

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Waterfront

Poking around Old Town Alexandria’s waterfront is always interesting, and I just don’t get down there enough. Maybe because it’s so close and easy to do, scheduling a walk there seems like a bit of a cop-out as opposed to snooping out something more unusual and out-of-the-way. But there were some events over the past couple of months that made it too hard to miss.

Hermione

In June a replica of the Hermione visited Alexandria on her tour of the eastern seaboard of the United States. The original Hermione was a French frigate that ferried ferried Lafayette to the United States in 1780 in support of the American Revolution. In contrast to the fanfare that accompanied her subsequent visit to New York, she crept into Alexandria during the dead of night and left the same way several days later. We went for an evening walk around Old Town during her visit, but the waterfront area was very crowded, and all the advance tickets for on-board tours were sold out long before the Hermione arrived. Fortunately I visited that morning and took a few photos shortly after dawn. There were wildfires raging Canada at the time, and smoke from them was carried 1,600 miles in the upper atmosphere through the jetstream to impart a yellow haze to the skies at dawn.

The side-by-side appearance of Hermione and Josephine in the last of these photos isn’t quite as interesting of a coincidence as it might first appear, because the original Hermione ran aground and wrecked in 1793. That was two years before Napoleon met Josephine in 1795; the same year he gave the Royalists in Paris the “whiff of grapeshot” that was to launch his career.

Blue moon

Last Friday was occasioned by a blue moon, so naturally we had to take a walk down to and around the waterfront to check it out. A blue moon can either be the second of two full moons in a single calendar month (what we saw), or the third of four full moons in a single season. In any case, the moon wasn’t blue, but red at moonrise, as seen in the wonderful photo at left taken by ML McMahon, and it gradually changed through yellow to its more typical silvery self.

Before the walk an alert member of our group posted the time and direction the space station would be passing overhead that evening, and sure enough it zoomed by, visible for only six minutes.

Guess we’ll have to get down to the Alexandria waterfront a little more often, especially considering all the plans they have for renovation down there over the next few years.

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Unpredictable

We’re at that time of year, around here anyway, when the weather is very unpredictable. There are thunderstorms in the forecast for just about every day, but half the time they don’t materialize, so you might as well schedule your hike and take a chance: you might wind up slogging through the mud in a downpour, or you might end up having a beautiful day. Last weekend we got a couple of those beautiful days, despite the forecast.

Saturday we went to Great Falls National Park, which is always a treat as long as you leave a little early in the morning to get ahead of the rush. (It’s a popular destination.) My favorite route leads south from the Visitor Center to the mouth of Difficult Run on the Potomac River, and then back along the cliffs of the Potomac River Gorge to the Great Falls themselves. This was the first time I remember seeing blue herons on the falls — it’s hard to imagine how they would catch any fish there!

Sunday was something more local: a hike along Accotink Creek, in Fairfax County, Virginia, with a side trip into Brookfield Park. Nothing spectacular; not quite 5 of miles of hiking, but I was surprised to see an osprey in Accotink Park just as we were getting started! They’re quite common farther east in Dyke Marsh or down the Potomac towards Occoquan, but maybe in this case, Lake Accotink afforded a quiet nesting spot.

I can’t complain too much about the uncertain forecasts, though, because in another couple of weeks the dog days of summer will arrive, and what those will be like is all too easy to predict.

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