Thursday, December 29, 2011

Batona Trail hike, Pine Barrens - 12/28/11

The Batsto River
Dave and I had discussed the possibility of getting out for a hike at some point over the holiday week, and I was pleased to get an email several days ago to the effect that he and Leo were looking at a few dates. We settled on yesterday as a day that would work for everyone, and a day on which the weather was supposed to be pretty good. It was forecast for cold but clear, with a high in the low 40's. Leo's friend Tim would be joining us.

Dave's initial suggestion was for a Pine Barrens hike, which suited me fine. The scenery would be very different from what we would have seen last time out on the Pennsylvania appalachian ridges, and wasn't very far from home. The final plan was for four of us to meet in Springfield near the Blue Route exit at 9am. I had to drop Grace at a one-day gymnastics camp, so I would be closer to 9:15.

Everyone was on time, I grabbed a few juice bottles and a couple of bagels at the bagel place where we met, and then we all piled into Tim's car for the drive to historic Batsto Village, near Hammonton. The drive was uneventful, other than finding our way around a "bridge out" detour. We parked a little after 10:30am, and were ready to hike shortly before 11.

Trail sign at Quaker Bridge
The hike Dave had selected for us was to start in the parking lot of the historic site on the east side of the Batsto River, follow the Batona Trail up the east side of the river, cross over at Quaker Bridge, and then return to the car on the yellow trail down the west bank of the river (between the Batsto and Mullica rivers). It was an estimated 12 miles in total distance, but over easy flat ground. Depending on our pace and stop time, it would take 4-5 hours to complete. Another nice thing about hiking in the Pine Barrens is that there are many geocaches, and I had my gps loaded and ready to get a few. If I could find some close to the trail that wouldn't take too much time for stops and detours, I might be able to have a decent day at that too. As much as I like to take the time to mix geocaching and hiking, I realize that those who are not at all interested (half our group in this case) will soon find it tedious to have me making a 5 minute stop every few tenths of a mile to try to find a cache. Hopefully some of the ones I see on the map will be right off the trail (and not too hard to find).

The weather was as promised, clear and cool. There was a cold breeze pretty much all of the time, kicking up to a real wind in places. Fortunately, we were somewhat protected in the pine woods. The hissing sound of the wind through the tops of the pines would be a constant companion throughout the day though. As Leo noted at one point, the wind through winter pines and bare trees sounds different than wind through leafy trees, and I would agree with him.

The hiking was easy, with the ground being level as expected. A slight up or down slope here or there was the extent of the exertion, other than the pure miles we would cover. I did want to make sure I got a few geocache finds out of the way before I lost track of that, and managed to make three easy finds within the first couple of miles. It's a good thing that I wasn't planning on making too many caching stops though, because after the third cache I needed to replace a drained set of rechargeable batteries. I did so, only to find that the replacement set I had brought were also drained and had not been recharged. Oops. I had downloaded the Groundspeak iPhone geocaching app onto my Christmas present, but the reception was so spotty out in the woods that my geocaching day was effectively over almost before it began.

Batsto Lake, behind the dam
The 6 miles up the east bank of the Batsto to Quaker Bridge took us about two and a half hours at a leisurely pace, and with stops. The scenery was nice for winter, with bare oaks interspersed with scrubby pines and large stands of taller cedars. There was enough variety to keep things interesting, and the few places where the trail paralleled the banks of the little river were especially nice. We saw the same kind of "cedar water" here that we saw in the summer of 2010 on the Pinchot Trail hike in upstate PA. It made me wish for a warm day and a canoe or kayak.

We had a chuckle when we got to the road at the Quaker Bridge crossing and realized what the map referred to as a named road was a dirt and sand road that was little better than some of the fire access roads the trail had crossed back in the woods. These "roads" were on maps and if you didn't know the area, you could very easily show up in a car and expect to be able to drive on them. Depending on the weather and depending on the vehicle, I wouldn't try it. My car would sink to the axles in the soft sand patches.

Batona trail section had been. On the east bank, we were generally on a hiking trail, crossing a number of fire access roads, but usually not following them. On the return loop on the west bank, we spent too much time on these dirt and sand roads, or right next to them. The scenery was still nice, but there is something about a trail vs a dirt road that makes a big difference in my mind.

Batsto Lake, with clouds
Pretty much on schedule, after a slight detour for the last mile or so due to a washed out trail section, we arrived in historic Batsto Village from the west. The village is a collection of shabby old wooden buildings that were cool nonetheless. There were some beautiful views of the lake behind the dam, and I got a few very nice pictures of clouds reflected in the waters. A short walk over the dam itself had us back in the parking lot having covered 12.9 miles in about 5 hours. I am pretty sure that is the longest day I have had hiking as an adult, but I didn't feel too bad when all was said and done. I was footsore, and had some stiffness once we sat down, but my joints all felt good, which I am sure would not have been the case if there had been more elevation changes mixed in. This was a fun hike, a nice day out in the woods with a good bunch of guys, and something I would gladly do again in a different season. I can't wait to come back to this area.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Longwood Christmas - 2011

As always, one of the highlights of the Christmas season is the visit (or in most years several visits) to Longwood Gardens. This year we were here for Brunch with Santa, as well as a nice walk around the grounds. I've written about Longwood before, so I will just post a few pictures this time around.
Santa and the girls

Santa and the whole gang

Ridiculously fancy gingerbread house

Julia and Amparo


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Philly Pops Holiday Concert 2011

Over the last bunch of years, it has become a tradition that Amparo has gone to the Philly Pops holiday concert with my Mom and brother Chris. Dad went in some years before it became too difficult for him to get around, and I believe Lori went to one or two of these as well. Last year, with Grace being older and Julia being able to sit still for extended periods, the whole gang went for the first time. I thought it was very nice, and the girls enjoyed it enough that they wanted to go again (see last year's post here). We continued this new tradition (new for me, anyway) by going to the matinee show this afternoon.

Like last year, the show was very entertaining. The holiday music program is cheerful, up tempo, and always has some interesting arrangements. Between the Pops Festival Chorus, the Philadelphia Boys Choir and the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas Gospel Choir, there is a good amount of variety, and the program is delivered with subtle humor by Peter Nero, who is also a tremendously gifted pianist.

The program itself was very similar to that of last year, as you might expect from a holiday show, and was a mix of jazzy and big band arrangements of the well-known holiday classics as well as a liberal dose of choral music. Each of the choral groups had chances to be featured individually, and also contributed throughout the show as the vocal component of a lot of the Pops' numbers.

Highlights of the show for me included the gospel choir, the full assemblage performing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah, the bits where Peter Nero soloed on the piano, and everything involving the guest soloist, Ashley Brown. Ms. Brown is a 29-year old award winning Broadway performer best known for spending parts of 4 years in the title role in the Broadway production of Mary Poppins. She has an amazing voice, and contributed the funniest part of the show, which was a variation of Jingle Bells performed as an opera aria (it was intended to be funny...). Hilarious stuff.

At two and a half hours (with a twenty minute intermission), we got our money's worth, and everyone had a great time. I asked the girls afterward if they would like to do this again next year and they both said "yes", although Grace did ask if the show could be a little shorter next year...

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Remember Pearl Harbor

As a history buff and wargamer, it is all too easy to think of battles, campaigns and wars as abstract events; things to enjoy reading about, painting figures for, and playing games about. But a day like today reminds us that war is indeed terrible. It was terrible before we had the written words to record it, it was terrible 69 years ago, and it is still terrible today.

Rest in peace all those who have fallen throughout our long and violent history.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Geocaching Update - Fall 2011

It has been a very quiet second half of the year from a geocaching perspective. Since beginning in April 2010, I had managed to maintain a pace of around 50 to 60 finds a month, and while this slacked off somewhat earlier this year, things didn't take a nose dive until this fall. July and August were decent months mainly on the strength of the caching day with Ellen in Lancaster around the 4th of July holiday, and the finds made with Dave while on the Dakotas trip. After the end of August though, a strange thing happened - not a single find between then and the middle of November. Seventy-nine days without a find.

I still have a strong interest in this, and have every intention of making more of an effort to get back to it. But I don't realistically expect to get back to the pace that I was on for the first year or so. There are too many other things going on, and I just don't have the quantity of caches around home to get numbers of finds without making at least a several hour trip somewhere. I expect that I will find the time to grab a few local caches around home as new ones pop up, day hikes and family trips will continue to be opportunities to grab a few caches in other areas, and I will manage to find a chunk of a day here and there to get some numbers. Beyond that, we will have to wait and see.

My favorite part of geocaching continues to be the fact that it takes me to places that I wouldn't ordinarily go, and makes me stop and take the time to see little things I would never have noticed otherwise. I like the idea of filling in maps with finds in new counties and new states (and new Delorme map book pages), filling in calendar dates (working toward a find in all 366 dates), filling in difficulty/terrain combos and the like. Pure numbers don't hold the same appeal that they used to, at least at the moment, but knowing myself, I suspect that feeling will go in cycles. I still would like to get to 1,000 finds in the not-too-distant future. I am currently sitting at 882.

With all that in mind, what little recent activity there has been has bagged me two new PA counties; Dauphin on the way back from Sunset Rocks hiking on 11/26, and Lebanon on the way to the day in Hershey with the family on 12/4. One of three finds on the way to Hershey was a virtual cache, which are not all that common and are worth going out of the way to get. A find on December 3rd filled in my only empty calendar date between August 26 and January 26, completing a nice sized chunk of the year in a solid block. And a grand total of 9 caches since September 1st. Oh well.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Hershey Christmas

We tend to do many of the same things each Christmas season, and while it is nice to have family traditions, it is also nice to seek out and do some different things. Amparo had been looking for something new this year, and we decided that we should make the drive out to Hershey take a day to do a chocolate Christmas. The weather for this weekend was supposed to be unseasonably warm, and with today forecast for a high around 60, we decided to head out for the day.

Hershey Park itself doesn't open until noon on a Sunday at this time of year, so we had a leisurely morning at home before leaving at around 10:30am. It would be almost a 2 hour drive, and I wanted to take the opportunity to grab a cache (or two or three) in Lebanon county, which is a new one for me that we would have to drive through to get where we were going. We didn't really have a plan, but we knew that one of the highlights at this time of year is a car ride through an extensively decorated area of lights. The light show started at 5pm and ran through 10 or 11pm, so we knew that would be the last thing we did before heading home.

Victorian Candy House
After an easy traffic free hour or so on the Turnpike, we got off the same exit we did last year for the Renaissance Faire, and headed north to a slight detour through the little town of Quentin. We made quick work of a virtual cache and two others and were back on the road west to Hershey in short order.

We arrived in Hershey shortly after noon, and made our way to the combined parking lot for Chocolate World (the indoor museum/store) and Hershey Park. Everything was decorated for the holidays and looking very festive. Everybody was hungry, so we had a quick (and pretty bad) lunch in Chocolate World before heading to the Park for the afternoon. The weather was nice for December, and we thought it would be nice to spend as much time outdoors as possible.

On the Monorail
The Park had a good number of people wandering about, but was not crowded by any means. Everything seemed to be open with the exception of all the large roller coasters. That would be disappointing to many people, but I have never been overly fond of amusement park rides for whatever reason. It's not that I dislike them, they just don't excite me. Except for any ride that spins; those I absolutely dislike and cannot ride because they play havoc with my stomach. Julia tends to find rides that move quickly to be unsettling, whereas Grace is fearless for her age.

Over the course of the next few hours, we rode some of the smaller rides, played a bunch of carnival games, won a bunch of stuffed animal toys (which will soon be making an appearance in a Goodwill store...), and just generally having a great time. It was nice to be doing something that everyone seemed to be enjoying, because these days it is often difficult to get the girls to agree on anything. Today they couldn't agree on what they wanted to do next, but at least they were both getting some of what they wanted.

Visting Santa's Reindeer
One of the highlights of the afternoon for the girls was the visit to the stables to see Santa's reindeer. There were nine reindeer, and I have to admit that they were pretty cool. They aren't very large animals, appearing to be smaller than the adult white-tailed deer we see around home, but some of them had very large antlers.

Grace also especially liked a Pirate Ship ride that was a boat shaped thing that swung back and forth like a pendulum. She loved it and rode it more than once.

At a few minutes before 4:00pm, we lined up at the theater to watch a Christmas themed song and dance show. It was an entertaining enough 35 or 40 minutes. The singing was pretty good. The dancing was... less so. Lots of repetitive moves and lots of arm waving. But the girls liked it.

After three hours or so at the Park we were all starting to get chilly, so we decided to head back to Chocolate World for a snack and to do some candy shopping. I am a dark chocolate fan, not milk chocolate, and it was amazing all the different items that Hershey makes in dark chocolate that don't appear in stores. As a matter of fact, they seem to make a dark chocolate version of just about everything, from Kit Kat bars to Peanut Butter Cups. Yum. We got out of the store with a nice bagful of things, but I thought we showed remarkable restraint. I would have bought as much dark chocolate as the girls could carry, loading them down like little pack mules... Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

By the time we were done our snack and shopping, it was almost 6:00pm, so we got in the car and followed the directions to the "Sweet Lights" drive through. It turns out that how they rig this display is to close a road in the woods back behind the Hotel Hershey to public traffic, hang a million lights on 600 displays, put a tool booth at the start of the road, and charge $20 per car to enter. After you pay your way in, you spend the next half hour or so driving slowly along the road, looking at the lights from your car as you drive by, and listening to holiday music on the local radio station. It was impressive in its own way, but I think we were all getting a little numbed by the time we were most of the way through, and were definitely impatient with the guy a few cars ahead of us who kept coming to a complete stop. What should have been 20-30 minutes turned into 45 minutes. It was an awful lot of lights, an awful lot of the same thing, and the extra slow pace didn't help. It was nice to have seen once, but having seen it, I wouldn't be in any hurry to see it again. But worth seeing once, for sure.

When we finished creeping through the light display, it was 6:45pm, we were still in Hershey, and everybody was getting pretty hungry. Rather than finding a place to eat in Hershey, the consensus was that we should get most of the way home before stopping for dinner at Buca di Beppo in Exton. We got to the restaurant at 8:10pm and ordered quickly. The place was mostly empty and would be closing at 9pm. Grace was falling asleep on the bench of the booth we were sitting in, but we had a good dinner and headed for home.

We were home and the kids were in bed by 10pm. That was a little later than we had wanted to get home on a school night, but it was well worth it. We all had a good time at the Park, Chocolate World was fun (what we saw of it), and the lights were great. For anyone who hasn't spent a day in Hershey during the holiday season, it is worth the trip.