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Chesapeake Bay Profiles: Favorite Wintertime Activities

Are you going stir crazy? Need to get out of the house and shake your bones? Out of ideas for where to go or what to do? The National Park Service in the Chesapeake Bay region has many friends connected to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail and the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network. We asked three friends to share their ideas about favorite things to do in the winter.

Finding winter’s hidden treasures

When the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay staff wanted to expand their Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail GeoTour on Virginia’s lower Eastern Shore, they looked to geocaching volunteers with ties to the area. The first volunteer was Blair Chick, a family practice physician for Eastern Shore Rural Health since 2009 and a relative newcomer to Onancock, VA.

Though new to this waterside town and the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Chick knows about more interesting places to see and explore than many lifelong residents. How? Geocaching offers new places to go, and often combines discovery of place with discovery of history. “You go to places you wouldn’t have found any other way.”

Geocaching has become a part of Chick’s vacations and weekend getaways. Geocaching reveals places and history that lifelong residents don’t even know. For instance, the present site of the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge — also on the Captain John Smith Geotrail — was once a fort, and still has bunkers dating to World War II. Chick discovered this interesting piece of history about this refuge for migrating songbirds and butterflies through geocaching.

“Winter is a great time for geocaching,” Chick said, “and many people even prefer it.” He pointed out that the off-season for tourists coincides with the off-season for pesky bugs, poison ivy and dense brush that can interfere with a geocacher’s enjoyment. While some geocache containers are hidden indoors at visitor centers and other public places, most are placed outdoors, some off the beaten path. Winter allows geocachers bother-free access to containers holding prizes, logbooks and trackable items called “path tags.”

Other favorite wintertime activities? Chick’s favorite place is exploring Onancock, an NPS Gateways and Watertrails Network special place that is also located on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. He loves Onancock’s small-town charm, outdoor beauty and healthy mix of restaurants, shops and cultural activities. And it doesn’t hurt that cold weather seafood includes fresh oysters harvested by local watermen close to home.

Blair Chick recommends these resources for geocaching adventures in Virginia’s Eastern Shore region:

Snow reason not to hit the trail in winter

Situated on the Susquehanna River separating York and Lancaster counties in southern Pennsylvania, Shank’s Mare Outfitters in Wrightsville, PA, has a long wooden porch that just begs visitors to sit down and watch the river flow by. In cold weather, one might be tempted to pass on that. Instead, step into the store, hear the wood floor creak under your feet, check out the kayaks and warm yourself by the fire in the wood-burning stove.

In the winter, proprietor Liz Winand prays for snow and explores the abundance of great trails in the area on snowshoes or cross-country skis. Shank’s Mare sits on the Mason Dixon Trail, with plenty of parks nearby. The Native Lands Trail, significant for the number of American Indian archeological sites, is close. In 2012, the Susquehanna River was added to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail because of its significance in American Indian history.

These natural bed trails and adjoining meadowlands are perfect for cross-country skiing. As soon as the snow falls, Winand and her staff send an e-mail blast to their customers and friends and gather together for snowy excursions.

Sometimes there’s a run to Klines Run Park with a return to the store’s cafe for a big pot of soup, a fire in the fireplace and a bonfire outside.

With no snow, the trails are just as exciting with a good pair of hiking shoes. Winand advises that hikers dress appropriately for the weather in multiple layers: something close to the skin, a loose fitting thermal layer over that and a windproof outer layer. And don’t forget the hat.

After dark, try the Learning and Dining program. This year’s theme, River Rogues, explores various profiles of the wild and innovative pioneers of the Susquehanna River valley: lumbermen, canal builders, Underground Railroad operators and more. Participants enjoy a delicious dinner (by Chef Liz) and listen to a guest speaker while enjoying dessert and coffee.

Here are trails in the Lower Susquehanna Region that Liz Winand recommends:

Dress warmly, then paddle, saddle up!

Winter weather does nothing to slow down Whit Overstreet, program director for Potomac RiverKeeper in Washington, DC. In fact, he calls whitewater paddling in the winter “very pleasant.” Just be sure to wear a drysuit. And for flatwater paddling in the winter, one should take a change of clothes in a dry bag. Just in case.

Overstreet, who grew up on a farm, was always outside. He began paddling canoes on the James and Shenandoah rivers with his family. With Potomac Riverkeeper, he has paddled the Potomac from Washington, DC, to the mouth of the river, building partnerships and awareness on the way. A nine-day excursion may be out of reach for some people, but Overstreet wants to inspire families to take a weekend paddling and camping trip on their own.

Winter brings a little less activity on the water and more attention on the trails close to home. Overstreet is lucky to live near the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. On a winter morning, a favorite activity of his is to bundle up in a down coat then take his morning coffee outside to the canal’s towpath, where he can watch the birds. With the leaves down, he can more easily spot the red-shouldered hawks nesting in the sycamore trees.

Overstreet appreciates that everything is less crowded in the winter – fewer people on the trails and in the parks. Plus, there’s no poison ivy and no ticks. And, “You can see a lot more in the winter,” he said. Overstreet recommends any of the three Billy Goat trails at C&O Canal, the Gold Mine Trail and the Ridge Trail. Plus, he said, Great Falls Park in winter offers amazing views of Mather Gorge.

Fewer people touring in the winter makes for great bike riding on the C&O Canal towpath. Overstreet noted that “you warm up in no time” when riding a bike. Appropriate bicycling or hiking clothes are key: a thin base close to the skin, a midlevel insulating layer,and a windproof outer shell. Don’t forget a good pair of lobster mitts, wool socks for the feet and a full-face balaclava or headband to cover the ears.

“See you on the trail!”

Whit Overstreet recommends checking out these sites or organizations in the Washington, DC, region:

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Staff and Wire Reports

Various sources contributed to this story

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