K9 Trailblazers Dog Hiking Club
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Oh, what a beautiful morning! When we met National Park Service Ranger Jay Johnstone at Ft. Marcy the weather was cool, the sky was slightly overcast and the wildflowers were blooming. Welcoming several new hikers and their dogs, we introduced ourselves and shared chocolate and dog biscuits while waiting for one no-show. We left with 11 people and 7 dogs, glad to have Jenifer with us but sorry Tigger, who is recovering from knee surgery, couldn’t join her. As we hiked along the river on the Potomac Heritage Trail Jay showed us how to recognize a healthy forest. Hint: it’s NOT a place with trees sticking up out of pristine ground from which all leaves and rotting debris have been removed! A healthy forest has cycles of life. Leaves and rotting wood which fall to the ground serve as mulch and provide food and habitat for insects, which provide food for birds and also help decompose the fallen branches to make the earth in which new seeds will grow into trees again.
Jay told us how tall dead tree trunks feed and shelter forest dwellers including insects and flying squirrels and many varieties of birds, such as owls, woodpeckers and even ducks! The wood duck likes to lay eggs in cavities of trees on the riverbank overhanging the water. Up in the tree the newly hatched babies are safer from predators than they would be on the ground, and when the young are ready to fledge they just fall out into the water and start swimming.
As we continued along the trail, the clouds cleared and we saw several breathtaking displays of "Virginia bluebells" whose bright green leaves and brilliant blue flowers glowed like stained glass with the sun on them. Jay pointed out emerging trillium and skunk cabbage and explained that early settlers often named plants after the organs of the body for which they were used medicinally, such as "tooth wart" and "hepatica," and everyday items they resembled, such as "Dutchman’s breeches" and "crane orchids." He also showed us "blood root," from which dye was obtained for painting bodies and dying clothing, and "spice bush" whose berries were used for cooking meat when peppercorns were not available.
At Turkey Run Park, we hiked past an old stone fireplace, the ruins of a fishing cabin belonging to the Leighter family who settled the area at the turn of the 19th Century, putting in roads and quarrying stone and mining for gold. Jay showed us the damage caused by non-native species of vegetation, especially honeysuckle and wisteria. These vigorous climbing vines choke out native plants and damage trees by wrapping themselves around the trunks and constricting them. Some trees looked like twisted licorice sticks where they had been strangled by the vines.
At Dead Run we enjoyed lunch on the rocks before heading back along the Potomac Heritage Trail. We saw several varieties of rocks, and Jay explained how they were used. Metagreywackie (which everyone who participated in last year’s hike remembered!) was quarried here and used to build many of the federal buildings in Washington, DC. Quartz was mined for the veins of gold running through it. We also saw soapstone, a much softer rock used by native people for carving figures of animals and people as well as lamps to hold oil.
By the time we reached out cars, the folks with energy to spare toured the Ft. Marcy area stopping to look at the cannon and to read about the importance of Ft. Marcy in the defense of Washington during the Civil War. Then, we called it a day—a very GOOD day!