She swallowed a last forkful of French toast, oozing with maple syrup, and leafed through the paper without seeing the words. He flipped channels on the television and, finding the sportscaster's drone, settled back into the pillows. A ray of sunlight slipped in through the venetian blinds. Like a knife, it cut through the torpor. "God, it must be nearly noon," she said and peered out the window. Outside sunshine glinted off melting ice, the sky was blue and children played in the streets. Suddenly they both wnated to be out there, awake and alive in the crisp winter day; doing something. But what? Where?
OK, Washington's not exactly a winter wonderland, but the possibilities are there. Be it a cold-weather version of your favorite sport, like fishing, or something as uniquely seasonal as cross-country skiing, there's a winter outing for you. Outdoor action may lie as close as Rock Creek Park or entail a two-hour jaunt into the country. Here are a dozen ideas with tips from experts on where to go, what you'll need and how to get there.
ICE-CLIMBING. One must truly relish raw, biting cold to appreciate ice-climbing's glacial splendors. Barry Nelson, president of Geneva Spur Ltd. mountaineering school, is such a one. Nelson is so into it that he journeys to the Arctic in midsummer to climb ice. During the winter, fortunately for the curious and slightly crazy, he teaches ice-climbing in all-day sessions at George Washington National Park in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Ice-climbing incorporates most rock-climbing techniques, but in ice-climbing you have to hack your way into the frozen vertical surface with a small axe in each hand and crampons, sharp metal spikes, on your boots. The object is to go straight up.
"Since we don't have anything like the Alps, we use great big ice floes. There are sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway that are nine to 10 feet thick. Some are 10 feet high, some are 50. We also use waterfalls. Although we haven't had much snow, it's been cold enough for waterfalls to freeze nicely. Major parts of the Shenandoah and Appalachian waterfalls are all frozen," Nelson said.
"Every time I go to climb ice, even if I've climbed that place a hundred times, there are new formations. You can see all kinds of shapes and forms, even faces, in the ice. The ice almost takes on a personality of its own. It becomes wicked, testing you to the utmost. And it changes by the hour, sometimes by the minute," he added.
If this sounds intriguing, you can call Nelson at 281-3316. Groups no larger than six generally meet at Tysons Corner to make the two-hour trek to Harrisonburg. For $35 a day, Geneva Spur provides everything but your clothes and crampons (these run about $25, according to Nelson). Ice-climbing is also taught by the Potomac Valley Climbing School, 333-3398.
BIRDING -- "If you're going to be a winter birder, you have to be tough," says Claudia Wilds of the Audubon Naturalist Society. But if it's not too cold, winter is ideal birding time for beginners. Now that trees are bare, novices can glimpse feathered habitu,es usually hidden by foliage. You'll need a pair of binoculars, a field guide (Wilds recommends "Golden Guide to Birds of North America") and warm socks. Watertight boots might be handy, too, if the ground's thawed.
A prime place to start is the C&O towpath at Pennyfield Lock (out River Road and left onto Pennyfield Lock Road). Here you can see resident woodland birds like woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, white-throated sparrows and Carolina wrens. Head out to the river and you might spot ducks or even a great blue heron.
Farther out River Road, you'll come to Hughes Road. Turn left and follow the road around as it parallels River. You'll reach a parking lot and a marsh. This is McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area, known to birders as Hughes Hollow. If there's no ice, you'll see ducks and coots swimming in ponds as you cross the dike. Keep going and you'll reach fields planted especially to attract wildlife. There'll be bluebirds, bob-whites and occasionally a wild turkey.
Another tip from Wilds: keep your back to the sun. Otherwise you'll be squinting and the birds will be mere silhouettes.
If you thought a titmouse was a rodent and a chickadee a baby hen, perhaps you ought to check out Birding for Beginners at Rock Creek Nature Center. Every Sunday at 10:15, rangers show how to identify winter birds as they feed behind the Nature Center. Free. Military and Glover Roads NW. 426-6829.
PHOTOGRAPHY -- There's a stark beauty to winter photography. Like Oriental watercolors, the sparse understatement gives dramatic play to the senses, especially if the sky is that chalky about-to-snow gray. Eastern Shore photographer Steve Budman says this time of year he photographs Canada and snow geese at the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, 12 miles south of Cambridge. He drives till he sees a field of geese, then walks toward them. "All of a sudden they sense me and the sky in filled with thousands of geese. It's one of those things that makes your jaw drop."
Continuing east on U.S. 50, you'll come to Ocean City, another winter photographic haunt of Budman's. "The boardwalk looks like a combination of a Hollywood back lot and a ghost town, so different from the summer. You have to have a sense of the wierd to apprreciate it," says Budman.
Just below Ocean City there's Assateague Island and Chincoteague, where the wild ponies roam. While you're waiting for wild ponies to trot across your viewfinder, point your lens at the water. "When it freezes, there is no solid ice," Budman says. "Just this massive slush of ice crystals undulating at half the speed of summer waves."
For successful cold-weather snapping, Budman suggests advancing and rewinding film very slowly to avoid static build-up. Stow film in a styrofoam ice bucket to keep it from becoming brittle. And if it's very cold, keep your camera inside your jacket until the decisive moment. "I always look pregnant during the winter," he says, "but it keeps the camera warm."
BLACKWATER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE -- 301/228-2671. Take U.S. 50 through Cambridge. About 12 miles south of Cambridge, turn right on Route 16, then left on Route 335 and follow signs to the refuge.
CHINCOTEAGUE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE -- 804/336-6122. Take U.S. 50 east to Salisbury. Take Route 13 south into Virginia and turn left at Route 175. In about 11 miles, there'll be signs for Chincoteague.
CANOEING/KAYAKING --It's mighty cold to take a swim, but if you're willing to risk it, there's some good canoeing to be done this time of year, according to Appalachian Outfitters canoeing adviser Harriet Melloney. Streams and creeks that are dry trickles in summer are up now and offer picturesque scenery as well as adventure. Just be sure to wear a wet suit.
Melloney also urges that you pack a change of clothing in a waterproof bag as well as flares and emergency food and firestarting implements. And never, never go without a life jacket. "Winter or summer, always have a guide book so you'll konw how to get back. That's very important," Melloney says.
Smaller waterways are good in winter because there's more manuevering and it's easier to get ashore if you have to. Melloney recommends the following Shenandoah tributaries for beginners:
CEDAR CREEK, near Strasburg; GOOSE CREEK, near Leesburg; OCCOQUAN CREEK, between Manassas and Woodbridge; THORNTON RIVER, near Sperryville; HAZEL RIVER, between Front Royal and Culpeper and the Cacapon River by U.S. 50 and the Cacapon Bridge.
BICYCLING -- Cycling was such a big part of Barry Konig's life that for years he was known around College Park as Barry Bicycle. Although he's now exploring other channels, Konig is still an avid year-round cyclist. "Winter cycling is fun because the air is so crispy and there's no humidity. I feel as if I have more energy," he said.
But whizzing around in freezing winds can really chill you to the bone, and bronchitis, Konig says, is one of the hazards of winter cycling. To counteract the chill factor he tops several layers of wool, including a turtleneck, with a sturdy windbreaker. He also wears a wool hat under his cycling helmet.
"You should wear a helmet -- and look out for ice. If your bike tire hits ice, you're out. I've taken many a spill that way," he said ruefully. "And if there's a lot of salt on the roads, you should check your bike's bearings and lubricant more frequently than you would in summer."
For weekend winter cycling, Konig favors the Mall because the streets are diligently kept clear, tourists are scarce and the stately architecture is not obscured by crowds and shrubs. A good bike path here Konig recommends is the stretch that runs along the Potomac River from Memorial Bridge to Alexandria. Another good place to pedal is Rock Creek Park. On Sundays Beash Drive is closed off to automobiles between Joyce and Broad Branch Roads from 8 to 6. Konig also recommends the National Arboretum trails, open 10 to 5 on weekends. 24th and R Streets NE.
WINTER HIKING -- No skills, no equipment necessary here, just the willingness to get up and get moving out there. But if you're sharp-eyed you can return home with more than rosy cheeks: Wintercress, watercress, blossoming buds and even gold are to be had for the finding, says Robert Shosteck. Shosteck should know. A sort of Washington Euell Gibbons, Shosteck can tell you about every trail, bird and berry for miles around.
"The paulownia tree is a tree that grows everywhere around here and is very conspicuous because of its pods. If you bring a branch indoors and put it in water, the buds formed last fall produce violet flowers," Shosteck said. Or take a twig of red maple home. The warmth and water will cause it to open up. Same goes for the spice bush, which produces yellow flowers.
Shosteck reports that the spice bush grows aplenty in Rock Creek Park. A good trail to take is one that runs along the creek, parallel to Beach Drive. It begins near East-West Highway and ends at Weymouth Road, Kensington. About half a mile upstream from East-West Highway, near the B&O bridge, is Clean Drinking Manor Spring, a stone structure from the early 1700s. The stream here, Shosteck reports, is choked with watercress that makes for tasty salads.
Another potentially rewarding trail runs along Rock Run. Descend to the run from Navy Truck Road and MacArthur Boulevard. In about three miles you'll reach Persimmon Tree Road. When you see quartz veins crossing the valley, you're at the site of the 1880s gold rush. There are still mining trenches everywhere, and perhaps gold for the patient prospector. This trail crosses a stream seven times, so wear boots. For more trails to trek, look for Shosteck's "Potomac Trail Book," published by Appalachian Outfitters, $3,95.
CAVING -- One neat thing about caving, once you're 300 feet below the ground, it doesn't matter what time of year it is. January or July, it's always about 52 degree F in the caves.
"In the summer, it's nice to go in and get cool, and in the winter, it's nice to go in and get warm," says Barry Chute, who heads the Potomac Speleological club.
The Potomac Speleological Club is one of several groups in the area that make weekend forays to Virginia and West Virginia to go down under. Cavers (an epithet preferred to spelunker, according to Chute) are rather secretive about the locations of their subterranean playgrounds because they prefer that novices tag along with them rather than go it alone.For their sake and yours. Caves are a delicate eco-system. Just one bungler can break a formation nature took 2 million years to build. Caving can also be dangerous -- remember what happened to Tom Sawyer -- But it's a chance to view an ancient primitive world virtually unaltered by life above ground.
To sample splendor amid the stalagmites and stalactites, call the following groups. You'll need a hardhat, carbide lamp, coveralls and a sturdy pair of boots.
BALTIMORE GROTTO -- Bob Gulden 301/242-8535. D.C. GROTTO -- Paul Stevens 820-5989, Dick McGill 894-3795.
POTOMAC SPELEOLOGICAL CLUB -- Barry Chute 412-9372, John Reich 379-2975.
SLIGO GROTTO -- John Powers 942-4083.
ICE FISHING -- "I do a lot of fly fishing, for bass and trout. But I like ice fishing. It's a completely different type of fishing, the equipment's inexpensive and the fish that come through the ice are fantastic eating!" The joy was audible in John Hoffman's voice. Even as he spoke, his wife was frying some yellow perch he'd pulled up through some 16 inches of Pennsylvania ice.
"This is pre-spawning time for many fish, and the females are heavy with roe. This makes them more aggressive about feeding," Hoffman explains. So even the most inexperienced fisher should get more than a nibble. First though, you have to make a hole in the ice. Hoffman suggests using either a spud bar, a crowbar-like digging iron, or a hand auger to make an "8 or 10" hole.
About $10 or $12 should take care of all the equipment you need -- tip-ups, a jigrod and bait. Pennsylvania allows four tipups. A tip-up is a gizmo you set on the ice. When a fish bites, a flag goes up and everyone flocks over to watch you pull it in. Putting live minnows on the line attracts game fish, like bass and pickerel. Although people make their own jig-rods, small hand-held rods, with an 18" dowel and fishline, you can buy them. Use a jig-rod and such bait as meal worms to attract smaller fish like yellow perch, crappies and sunfish.
A word of caution: If you fish on ice less than four inches thick, someone may have to fish for you. So it's a good idea to call for conditions before you ply your line. Should the ice you're on crack while you're fishing, inch your way to shore on your stomach. This distributes your weight.
Here are a few of Hoffman's ice fishing haunts, all in Pennsylvania, where the best ice is. The state requires a license, obtainable at sporting good stores. Call the Pennsylvania Fish Commission at 717/787-6237.
PINCHOT LAKE -- Gifford Pinchot State Park, Lewisberry. 717/432-5011. Take Route 15 through Frederick, past Gettysburg. At Dillsburg take Route 74 south to Rossville and 177 south to the park.
MARBURG LAKE -- Codorus State Park, Hanover. 717/637-2816. Take I-83 north over the state line to Route 851 west to Brodbecks. From Brodbecks head west on Route 216 to the park.
OPUSSUM LAKE -- Carlisle. 717/787-2579. Take I-70 to Route 15 past Gettysburg. From York Springs, take Routes 94 and 34 west to Carlisle.
SLEDDING -- At one time there were eight sleds in the Crilleys' garage, eight sleds for eight kids. That was a while ago. Now most everyone's grown up and moved out of the brick Western Avenue home. Only two sleds remain. Those two still get plenty of use when the weather complies but it's not like the old days. "The four oldest would go off together somewhere while the four younger ones had to stay in the neighborhood," recalls Mary Crilley, who's been sledding with her siblings most of her 25 years. "What an ordeal it was with all those kids and all those red rubber boots and snowsuits. My mom would cover the floor with newspaper. But it was worth it. Sledding didn't cost anything, and it was something we could do outdoors as a group. Since we couldn't sled all the time, we really looked forward to when we could."
After a good snow, the Crilleys would soap their sled runners or wax them with wax paper. Then they's head for the hills. Once they chose a spot, they'd spend hours racing or making trsins (to make a train, flop on your sled belly-first and hook your toes into the front of someone else's sled), with frequent pauses for snowball fights. When it got too dark or you got too cold, whichever came first, it was time to go home to melt marshmallows over the fire -- but only after the sleds were dried and hung up in the garage, to keep them from warping.
Favorite Crilley sledding slopes include BATTERY KIMBLE PARK, off Chain Bridge Road; LAFAYETTE PLAYGROUND, 33rd and Patterson Streets NW, and ALICE DEAL JUNIOR HIGH, Fort Drive and Nebraska Avenue.
After a healthy snow, Fairfax County Park Authority will tell you where to go sledding; call 941-5008.
CURLING -- No. This is not what youdo with a hot iron to liik like Orphan Annie. This is what you do with a 42-pound piece of pure granite and a broom to look like an ancient Scotsman. Curling is a game that dates back to 16th-century Scotland, and it's played every Sunday at Cabin John Ice Rink.
"It's like shuffleboard on ice." explains Ordell Olson, who began curling about 30 years ago in his native North Dakota. "You don't wear skates and there's no age limit or physical ability required. Strength per se is not needed. You slide the stone, you don't lift it."
Curling is named for the arc made by the granite when you sweep in front of it. Originally players swept to get dirt and twigs out of the way but even on whistle-clean aftificial ice, sweeping can send a stone 15 feet farther. "No one knows exactly how it happens," Olson says.
Onson and about 55 men and women take pride in being the southernmost -- save for Houston, Texas -- curling club in the U.S.A. Although the club hopes to vie for the national championship in Superior, Wisconsin (world championship matches are in Berne, Switzerland), weekly matches are loose and newcomers welcome. Just be sure to wear longjohns and rubber-soled shoes.
They're at 8:30 at Cabin John Ice Rink, Westlake Road between Tuckerman Lane and Democracy Boulevard. $4. Call Ordell Olson, 370-6628.
SNOWMOBILING -- Imagine zooming across snow-covered fields on a snowmobile at 60... 70..100 miles an hour! "You get a roostertail behind you like a speedboat in the water," explains enthusiast Keith Carpenter. "It's a challenge to run trails and once you know'em, go as fast as you can."
For Carpenter, as for most folks in snowy Frederick County, snowmobies are part of the household. His father, at 62, owns two. For safety as well as pleasure, the Carpenters always ride in groups. If you break down, it can take hours to trek through snow a snowmobile glides over in minutes. "Even if you're riding slow, a snowmobile redes on top of the snow -- like a water ski. But if you stop to have a cigarette, you might sink and it's almost hopeless to try and dig a machine out by yourself," says Carpenter, speaking from experience.
Carpenter also cautions against riding on ice, across highways, railroad tracks or pastures unless you know where the electric fences are.
People put their snowmobiles on trailers, like boats, and take them to wherever the trails are groomed and level. Here's where the Carpenters like to go:
NEW GERMANY STATE PARK -- 301/895-5453 or 301/895-5940. Take I-270 to Frederick, I-70 west to Hancock, then U.S. 40 west to Cumberland. From Cumberland take 48 west to exit 24.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE PARKS -- Carpenter claims that any Pennsylvania state park has good snowmobiling. To get a brochure write the Dept. of Environment, Bureau of State Parks, P.O. Box 1467,3rd and Riley Streets, Harrisburg, Pa. 19120.
One place to rent one colonial lakeside -- deep creek drive, m/cHENRY, MD. 301/387-5523. Bob Fratz claims he's the only one in Maryland crazy enough to rent a snowmobile. If you're willing to take the drive, he's got one for hire with trailer: $20 an hour, $10 a half-hour.
CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING -- Cross-country skiing is big this year. Really big, sporting-goods dealers tell us. So never mind Vail or Aspen, with cross-country skiing you can be chic close to home -- which may be part of its appeal.
Hudson Bay Outfitter's Kristian Woyna, an avid cross-country skier, suggests firsttimers rent a waxable ski -- the better to grip the snow with. He also suggests you tote a Thermos and a first-aid kit. "If you're up in Shenandoah and you break a ski, you could be sutck for the night," Woyna cautions.
Woyna thinks New Germany State Park is the best place nearby for cross-country skiing. New Germany has 6 1/2 miles of cross-country ski trails that are diligently groomed and kept free from debris, and marked to indicate their relative difficulty. All this attracts plenty of people, but that can be a plus for beginners seeking pointers.
"Shenandoah is the other extreme. You're out in the wilds, completely away from people. You're skiing fresh snow. You can see your tracks. The trees are blanketed with whiteeness and glazed over with ice. It's very quiet. The snow dampens out sound," Woyna says.
Woyna finds Manassas National Battlefield Park a compromise between the other two: "It's not especially designated for skiing but the terrain is well suited for it."
NEW GERMANY STATE PARK -- See above.
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK -- 348-4747. 703/999-2243. 8 to 4:30. Take the Beltway to I-66 west to U.S. 211 and follow signs.
MANASSAS NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD PARK -- 703/754-7107. 9 to 5:30. Take the Beltway to I-66 west to the Manassas exit and follow signs.