Wild Ideas: Weather whiplash, hiking, and camping to improve sleep    

The continual whiplash this winter of record-breaking heat followed by plunging temperatures is confusing some plants and critters. But it’s also offering good opportunities for getting out and enjoying nature, and even resetting our biological clocks.

By Pam Owen
Mollie, in hiking harness, is on full alert during a break along Jeremy’s Run Trail in November 2015.

On Feb. 8, the day after we had record-breaking heat, I was walking my dog, Mollie, on a forested trail near my house. She suddenly stopped, then plunged her nose into the debris on the ground. In checking out the spot, I found a tiny red-backed salamander (about two inches long) struggling to hide in a curled-up brown leaf. That little guy should have been deep in dormancy, but the warm weather obviously roused him.

By Pam Owen
Pam Owen spotted a small red-backed salamander, similar to the one in this photo, that was brought out of its normal winter dormancy by recent unseasonably warm weather.

A couple of days before, my friend Robin Williams and I decided we, too, should take advantage of yet another warm spell this winter do a little hiking, so had headed for Jeremy’s Run Trail, on the west side of Shenandoah National Park, near Luray.

Ups and downs on Jeremy’s Run Trail

By Pam Owen
Past the gorge, Jeremy’s Run Trail runs along a serene stretch of the stream.

On a sunny November day a couple of years ago, Mollie and I had accessed the trail on the west side, from a short spur that starts on Rt. 611, where it crosses the run, and runs through private land. Just before the park boundary, the trail rises steeply and narrows. While it would have been a bit tricky at any time, I was tethered to a strong, impulsive young dog I was still getting to know. I’d also made the rare mistake of leaving my hiking pole in the car.

I was careful, and Mollie was, too, thankfully, but by the time we got off that hill and found a lovely spot where the trail meets the run, the sun had sunk behind a ridge and the day turned dark and chilly. Although we’d only gone about a half mile, the trail ahead looked promising for another day, so we headed back.

With Robin for company this time and with my hiking pole in hand — and leaving Mollie at home — I still found the steep part of the trail a bit daunting. But we soldiered on to where Mollie and I had quit, then went about a half mile more. We found the rest of the hike quite beautiful and manageable, even with our respective back and leg issues. At that spot, the stream enters a gorge, and the trail runs up the side of the mountain ridge above it.

After going over that hill and another moderate one, the trail flattened out, rejoining the stream for as far as we could see. At that point, we had gone about a mile and decided that was enough for the day, so after stopping to rest and have a snack along the stream, we headed back.

By Pam Owen
A pine tree seedling finds a nutritious, sheltered niche among rotting logs along Jeremy’s Run Trail.

We had been watching for mourning cloaks and other overwintering butterflies that emerge early, including during brief warm spells. They can do this because they feed on tree sap, scat, carrion and other nutrient-rich foods that are available year-round rather than nectar.

We also found no wildflowers blooming, which they shouldn’t be this early, but last Friday (Feb. 17), we did find one lone hepatica blooming along the lower portion of Whiteoak Canyon Trail (more about that in an upcoming column). And, figuring that, if hepatica were blooming there, they likely were blooming up the mountain behind my house. Sure enough, the next day, I went just a few yards up the slope from the upper pond and found two. I’m sure there were more, but after the hike the day before, I decided that was enough uphill climbing for me.

By Pam Owen
With sustained, unseasonably warm temperatures, some early native wildflowers are starting to bloom, including this hepatica along Whiteoak Canyon Trail.

For more-ambitious hikers, Jeremy’s Run Trail offers several options, including a 14.7-mile loop (one of the longest in the park). The trail can also be accessed from Elkwallow Picnic Grounds, on Skyline Drive. See a printable topo map, photos, trail notes and more at hikingupward.com/SNP/JeremysRun.

By Pam Owen
After this short stretch that is steep and narrow, Jeremy’s Run Trail offers a stretch of moderate hiking through beautiful mixed-hardwood forest.

Can’t sleep? Try winter camping

Another winter outdoor activity can help with insomnia, according to new research. In catching up on nature news that has landed recently in my inbox, I came across a study, published recently in Current Biology, that indicates people that have trouble sleeping can reset their biological clocks (circadian rhythms) by camping for a week in the winter. While this may appeal to only the heartiest of campers in many areas, it does offer a way to return to the sleep patterns humans developed back when we were hunter-gatherers. The key factor here is the amount of light we are exposed to at night.

A National Public Radio article on the study says that the researchers kept track of subjects’ circadian rhythms by measuring their levels of the hormone melatonin, which regulates wakefulness and sleep. Melatonin typically increases, making us tired, a few hours before we usually go to bed and then falls when we rise. However, modern life can interfere with that, giving us a form of jet lag.

“In the modern environment, those melatonin levels fall back down a couple of hours after we wake up,” the article quotes researcher Kenneth Wright as saying. “Our brains say we should be sleeping several hours after we wake up.”

The researchers found that, after subjects took a week-long camping trip in winter, the jet lag was gone. This change apparently occurred because the campers usually got up with the sun and went to bed at dark, instead of using modern technology to keep lights on and stay up at night.

Fortunately, my landlords and I enjoy relatively dark skies, helped by our turning off outside lights when we retire for the night. Dark nights definitely improve my circadian rhythms and are also important to wildlife for many reasons.

Five-week primer class on trees

Tree expert Carrie Blair, with the Piedmont chapter of the Virginian Native Plant Society (VNPS), will teach a five-week class on trees, “Meet your Trees! An Introduction to the Trees of Northern Virginia,” Mar. 9-Apr. 6, 6:30–8:30 p.m. The class covers tree identification, forest ecology, invasive species and other tree basics. Each session combines classroom and field work.

By Megan Sebasky
Carrie Blair, seen here in front of a cherrybark oak at Chapman State Park during a VNPS walk, will teach a class on trees in Marshall.

In learning about trees, students can “gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the incredible complexity of forest environments,” according to the class description. “It will be intense, local, in-depth practical tree identification for everybody, regardless of experience,” Blair adds. For 25 years, she has been a dedicated student and field trip leader in the VNPS Piedmont chapter and is also a Virginia master gardener, Virginia master naturalist, tree steward and docent at the State Arboretum of Virginia. Sponsored by Earth Village Education, the class is in Marshall and costs $100. For more information or to register, go to earthvillageeducation.org/event/trees-3-17.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 305 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”