Friday, December 5th, 2014 by Katherine Jackson
Nature Trail is an Outdoor Classroom
People visit the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center for a variety of reasons: to see the fish and animals, such as the sea turtles and river otters; to attend special programs, such as the stingray feedings and the harbor seal training; to watch 3D movies in the six-story theater; to entertain their children on a cool and cloudy day. I went to the Aquarium specifically to take a walk on the Nature Trail. Measuring a third of a mile long, the Nature Trail traverses the Owls Creek Salt Marsh Preserve, a broad area of wetlands and woodlands which stretch between the Aquarium’s two large exhibition halls. The best feature of this walk is that signboards on the trail describe the birds, animals, fish and plants that inhabit the woods and the marsh. That makes it easy to learn about the natural environment while strolling through the woods and along the banks of the creek. It’s like an outdoor classroom for the self-motivated learner. For example, one area is preserved as a wildflower meadow, and signage describes the flowers that thrive in the sun. At this time of year, most flowers have finished blooming, but the Tall Coreopsis and the Goldenrod refuse to give up. Their yellow flowers are bright spots in the waning landscape.
Although there aren’t many flowering plants right now, the woods are alive with the colors of fall. On one loop of the trail, signs identify white oak, holly, beech, loblolly pine and other trees, and provide information about their function in the ecosystem. At one exhibit, I learned that butterflies enjoy the daytime while moths prefer the nighttime. And according to one sign, marshes are a source of food and shelter for a large percentage of marine fish and shellfish. One of the most interesting exhibits is a man-made osprey nest. I see osprey nests all the time in the tops of trees and on poles around Virginia Beach, but I was surprised to see how large these nests are. Osprey return to the same nest each year and continue to expand and improve the roost with sticks, grass, and feathers.
Nearby, I climbed the thirty-foot Treetop Tower for an osprey’s-eye view of Owls Creek. Placards on the staircase landings identify the birds and animals that live in the vicinity. Like many of the exhibits inside the Aquarium, the exhibits on the trail are not just static signboards. For instance, in one area the signs have illustrations of animal or bird tracks and give clues so visitors can guess which they are. One sign says, “My tracks show four long toes…I build big nests…and I am a fan of the daytime.” Open a panel to find the answer: Great Blue Heron. Speaking of which, look over there: a Great Blue Heron is wading through the marsh.
In addition to stopping on benches along the way to listen to the songbirds and enjoy a few minutes of quiet contemplation, I strolled through the indoor exhibits as well. A Komodo Dragon roamed around its exhibit case, stingrays glided along the bottom of their pool, and Lookdown fish floated in their habitat. The humans seemed content in their environment as well, ambling along with smiles on their faces. Indeed, people go to the Virginia Aquarium for any number of reasons — a walk on the Nature Trail followed by a cup of hot chocolate in the café is among the best.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF KATHERINE JACKSON
The Virginia Aquarium is just one of the many exciting ways to experience Virginia Beach. To learn more, check out the official website for the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau: www.VisitVirginiaBeach.com.
Sunday, November 23rd, 2014 by Katherine Jackson
First Landing courtesy of Katherine Jackson
I’ve always enjoyed walking in the woods in any season, but I especially take pleasure in the fall when the sun electrifies the yellow and red and orange leaves. I always assumed the satisfaction that resulted from ambling in the forest was due to the natural beauty, the fresh air, and the musty-dusty smell of pine straw and crushed leaves. I was surprised to read an essay the other day that credited the euphoria I feel among the trees to the blanket of decaying leaves. According to Liza Field, a teacher and writer whose essay appeared in the Virginian-Pilot, “compost-dwelling bacteria…are one big reason that hours spent in a woodland or compost-rich garden profoundly elevates human mood.” She says that studies have linked the humus created by decaying leaves with elevated levels of serotonin, which is associated with emotional states, and “decreased depression, blood pressure, anxiety and stress hormones.” No wonder a few miles of hiking is so rewarding. Crackling down a leaf-strewn path in the woods is as much of a fall tradition for me as Thanksgiving and pumpkins and Winesap apples. It’s something I look forward to every autumn.
This time of year was called “Taquitock” by the Algonquin people who lived in the area prior to the arrival of the British colonists. “Late fall” was one of five seasons on their calendar, a time for harvesting and feasting, as it still is today. After the hot and languid days of summer, the cooler temperatures and brilliant autumn sun energize me. Although the trails at First Landing State Park were carpeted with leaves on a recent Saturday morning, there’s still a beautiful red-gold canopy aloft. Colors sparkle through the maritime forest like a million jewels. The Algonquin people must have appreciated the fall festival at First Landing as much as I do.
In addition to First Landing State Park, Virginia Beach has a number of other places for walking in the woods. The Lake Smith / Lake Lawson Natural Area is awash in color, and with its new paths, benches and other facilities, is worth a visit. The Nimmo Trail and Greenway is also painted with color right now, as are the wooded areas around Stumpy Lake. Walkers and runners flock to these popular parks year-round, but especially in the fall. For a solitary walk in the woods, False Cape State Park is the best bet. It’s one of my favorite places in Virginia Beach, and no matter how many times I walk or bike there, I always find it to be fresh and fulfilling. Entry to False Cape is limited at this time of the year because Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which provides access to the park, closes its interior trails for the annual waterfowl migration. However, it’s still possible to get the park by walking south on the beach or by boat. I urge you to head for the woods. It’s not too late to get a fix of fall euphoria.
Monday, November 3rd, 2014 by Katherine Jackson
Virginia Beach just keeps on getting better for walkers and bicycle riders. According to the 2014 Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation Annual Report, citizens and visitors enjoy 254 miles of bikeways, trails and wide sidewalks in the city. Recently, two more miles were added to that total, due to the opening of an eight-foot wide asphalt path that parallels a new section of Nimmo Parkway. I recently walked the route, having parked at the Princess Anne Recreation Center near General Booth Boulevard and turning around at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on the corner of Nimmo Parkway and Princess Anne Road. It’s a good place to walk, flat and freshly paved. It’s flanked in some areas by woods filled with fragrant pine and hardwood trees. In other areas, it runs adjacent to neighborhoods. Pastureland abuts one stretch, and on the day I walked it, several horses grazed peacefully in the autumn sun. The path traverses a long bridge over the slow-moving West Neck Creek and the wetlands adjacent to it. A shorter bridge crosses Hunt Club Tributary. With the leaves on the trees changing colors and the fall wildflowers in bloom, it was a satisfying walk. I wasn’t the only walker who thought so.
In addition to being an easy place to take a stroll, this new section connects several bikeways, significantly increasing the number of miles that can be covered on two wheels. For example, the Nimmo segment makes it possible to bike from the Princess Anne Recreation Center to the Farmers Market. After completing the two miles on the Nimmo path, turn right on the bikepath adjacent to Princess Anne Road and it’s a straight shot to the Farmers Market. I described this route in a post last summer. The new Nimmo segment also connects with the Nimmo Trail and Greenway, which I wrote about last spring. The distance from the Nimmo Trail and Greenway to the Farmers Market is approximately eight miles, a challenging sixteen-mile workout on a safe and pleasant route.
Along with the multi-use path that is separated from the main road by a grassy strip, this part of Nimmo Parkway has what Virginia Beach Senior Planner Wayne Wilcox describes as “wide outside lanes…a type of bike facility for on-road riders. Cars can pass the bikes more safely and easily without changing lanes.” Facilities like this one are making it easier to walk and pedal as alternate means of transportation in Virginia Beach. In fact, more and more people are biking to work at the Municipal Center via pathways on Nimmo Parkway and Princess Anne Road. The Parks and Recreation annual report outlines a number of priorities, and I’m happy to report that trail development is at the top of the list. Walking and biking are year-round activities in Virginia Beach, thanks to our temperate climate and our ever-increasing inventory of trails.
Photo credits: Katherine Jackson
Thursday, October 23rd, 2014 by Katherine Jackson
In addition to cool temperatures and low humidity, October brings the fresh scent of blooming flowers to my running route. As soon as I walked out the door on a recent Sunday morning, I could smell the fragrance on the brisk air. The plant I always used to call Russian olive is more accurately called thorny elaeagnus, thorny olive, or silver thorn, and it was brought to the U.S. from China and Japan in the 1800s. By whatever name, it’s a large evergreen shrub with thick branches that twine into neighboring plants. New growth on the elaeagnus arches up into the air, and when mature, the tree-like form can reach more than twenty feet in height. Dense foliage makes the elaeagnus perfect for privacy hedges. In October and November, creamy white flowers hang like tiny pendants among dark green leaves that are covered with silvery scales.
I have a large elaeagnus shrub in my backyard, and when the wind is just right, it wafts the sweet fall perfume into the front yard and through the open windows. It reminds me of gardenia, jasmine and magnolia, only lighter and more ethereal. Across the street, my neighbors have a mature hedge of large elaeagnus plants running for fifty feet along their property line. At the peak of the blooming season, I can smell the flowers from down the block. As I hoof my way through the neighborhood, the sweet scent drifts out to meet me. The fragrance is so far-reaching that sometimes I can’t even see the shrub that’s scenting the air.
The elaeagnus is well-loved and often planted in Virginia Beach because it’s a hardy and aggressive grower that’s impervious to salt spray and useful as a windbreak. Years ago, when planning the landscaping for my new house, I said “absolutely nothing with stickers or thorns,” but fortunately, the thorns on the elaeagnus escaped my notice. In truth, the plant doesn’t require much maintenance and the thorns aren’t that bad. One thing I love about Virginia Beach is that there’s so much to look forward to when each season arrives. As the year rolls into autumn, pumpkins pop up everywhere, the leaves change to red and orange, and the blooming elaeagnus sweetens the air. Take a walk on Ocean Front Avenue at the North End of Virginia Beach and you’ll be sure to catch a whiff – or lots of whiffs — of this sign of autumn’s arrival.
Tuesday, September 30th, 2014 by Katherine Jackson
Walking on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk is always fun because there’s always so much to see. That’s doubly true during the annual Neptune Festival Art and Craft Show in September. This year, from 18th Street to 29th Street, in booth after booth, more than 270 exhibitors displayed the products of their imagination in every medium: watercolor, wood, oil, leather, gold, silver, shells and clay. The show is juried, and the selected artists and craftsmen mounted an outstanding and diverse display. There were large scale paintings, many with beachy themes, and small scale fused glass pendants. There were hand-built wooden rocking chairs and woven sweet grass baskets. There was a lion made of driftwood and a neon flamingo. There was art recycled from vintage china, and jewelry made from rocks. There was wearable art, such as dresses, scarves, and hats. There was even art for pets: wooden water bowl stands, and collars and leashes in a rainbow of colors and patterns.
I went to the show on Friday, thinking it would be a less popular choice than the weekend, but the place was alive with art lovers. The weather played a part: it was an ideal fall afternoon, with warm sun and a cool breeze. The artists, some locals and others from around the country, were eager to chat about their materials and methods, and to sell their wares, many of which were affordably priced, especially considering every piece was made by hand. One artist told me that the Neptune Festival is her favorite show because the location is so pleasant and the locals are so friendly. With the beach, the ocean and the bright blue sky as a backdrop, the art show was indeed a perfect place for a stroll.
Art is just one part of the Neptune Festival Boardwalk Weekend, which happens on the last weekend in September every year. There’s also live music on numerous stages, a sandsculpting contest, a parade, an 8K run, and fireworks to celebrate the end of summer and usher in the fall. Festival food vendors sell everything from crab cakes to kettle corn. And open-air cafes along the strand provide a comfortable place to relax and people watch. At the north end of the art show, King Neptune – god of the sea – presides over the Boardwalk in the form of a massive bronze sculpture, and he lends his name to the festival every year. However, perhaps it’s Apollo – god of the arts – who deserves credit for inspiring the creativity that turns the Boardwalk into a spectacular oceanside art gallery. But don’t tell Neptune I said that.
Monday, September 22nd, 2014 by Katherine Jackson
Located in the rural section of Virginia Beach, Munden Point Park is described by some people as a well-kept secret. Near the North Carolina state line, the one hundred-acre park features a picturesque tract on the North Landing River, which is part of the Intracoastal Waterway. In addition to a boat ramp, the park has an eighteen-hole disc golf course, ball fields, playgrounds, picnic shelters, and a tiny amphitheater for weddings and other events.
We recently took our canoe to Munden Point to explore Oakum Creek, a mile and a half waterway adjacent to the park. It was a beautiful morning as we launched the boat into the North Landing River, sunny and bright, with enough wind to whip up small waves. Boat traffic on the river was light – a few trawlers, runabouts and jet skis. After paddling about an eighth of a mile along the riverbank, we entered the mouth of Oakum Creek and began a leisurely, flat-water paddle. The creek winds and turns, its banks lined by cypress trees with their jutting-up-knees, evergreens, cat tails, flowering pickerel weed, and pink and white wildflowers. Dragonflies fluttered around us, fish jumped, songbirds chirped, and a hawk soared over a field adjacent to the creek. At times the surface of the water was a mirror; at other times, the wind gusted across and the sunlight flashed on the ripples.
The only other boater we saw on the creek was a bass fisherman who was drifting along without his engine. Occasionally we heard motorboats on the river in the distance or a hoot from a disk golf tournament that was happening at the park, but for the most part, we were alone with nature: no roads, no houses, no worries. It was a peaceful paddle, a respite from the clock-driven demands of daily life.
Munden Point Park has rental canoes and kayaks for use on Oakum Creek. Call 757-426-5296 to check availability. If you bring your own canoe, there is no fee for launching, and you can explore the river as well. The water level and the distance that can be paddled on the creek vary, depending on how much the wind is pushing water up into the creek. We spent about two hours paddling upstream and back. Although it takes a while to get to the park, it’s a pleasant drive through the countryside, past horse pastures and pumpkin patches and quaint crossroads. On the way home, we stopped at one of the many farm stands to stock up on local produce: tomatoes, corn, squash and potatoes. People associate Virginia Beach with ocean sports, but Munden Point Park offers a chance to float up a creek with a paddle.
Thursday, September 4th, 2014 by Katherine Jackson
Some people say Owl Creek; some call it Owls or Owl’s Creek. By whatever spelling, Owls Creek and its public boat ramp are vital resources for Virginia Beach residents and visitors. In the early days, this part of Virginia Beach was comprised of marshlands with a narrow channel that conveyed rain and tidal waters into the ocean. Attempts were made to drain the marsh for development, but it wasn’t until the 1950s, when the area was mined for sand to replenish the beach, that the linked water bodies of Owls Creek, Lake Rudee, Lake Wesley and Rudee Inlet were dredged. Neighborhoods sprang up along the waterways, but woods and wetlands here continue to provide habitat for birds and animals, including foxes, herons, pelicans and eagles. Depending on the season, speckled trout, flounder, striped bass and a host of other saltwater species cycle through the waters between the creek and the mouth of the inlet.
Since the public boat ramp was renovated in the 1990s, flocks of sportsmen and women have taken advantage of the access it provides to inland waters and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Motorized boats are launched from the ramp and head out for deep sea and inshore fishing. Kayakers and paddleboarders tour the basin or leave through the inlet to catch waves. The Rudee Inlet II, a small dredge that works to keep the inlet open, motors into and out of the creek, as do Navy vessels that are launched nearby. Some of the wooded property that lines the creek is privately owned, and some belongs to the Navy. Fortunately, approximately 100 acres are being preserved for recreation in the City’s new Marshview Park, where construction of trails and other facilities began in June.
On a recent Friday afternoon, I walked the mile from my house to Owls Creek to see what was going on. The boat ramp was hopping with activity. In one lane, a young man and woman were putting kayaks – tricked out with fishing poles – into the water. In another lane, a water sports outfitter was loading paddleboards into a van at the end of a group excursion. In the parking lot, a jet ski owner was securing his watercraft to its trailer. Out on the water, a fishing boat was returning from the ocean, and a small skiff was floating along the bank, its occupant casting a line. Before long, a kayak powered by pedals and adorned with a pirate flag slipped up to the dock. As the sun set across the water, two beautiful golden retrievers on leashes appeared to be enjoying the fresh air. Owls Creek is adjacent to General Booth Boulevard near the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, approximately half a mile from the resort area. It’s a worthwhile destination, with or without a boat.
Photo credits: Katherine Jackson