Potomac Eagle

About a month ago, I went for a ride on the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad. The train follows a gorgeous path through the West Virginia country side, the highlight of which is through a gorge of the South Branch of the Potomac River known as the Trough. The train is called the Potomac Eagle because you are almost guaranteed to see bald eagles while in the Trough. I think we saw almost ten. I got photographs of about five. Truthfully even if I hadn’t seen the eagles, the scenery was worth the trip.

West Virginia countryside

Farmland

Entering the Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

Bald eagles

Bald eagle and its nest

Northern Massachusetts Shore

While in Boston for a few days, my friend Kristen said I need to get out the city and see Massachusetts’s northern shore. I think she was hunting lighthouses, but I was just looking for pretty views and classic New England. We found all of that visiting Gloucester and Rockport.

Stage Fort Park

Stage Fort Park

Stage Fort Park

Stage Fort Park

Gloucester Fisherman's Memorial

Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial

Lobster pots

Lobster pots

"Motif Number 1" on Bradley Wharf in Rockport

“Motif Number 1” on Bradley Wharf in Rockport

Rockport

Rockport

Thacher Island Twin Lights

Thacher Island Twin Lights

Quechee Gorge

I’m in White River Junction, Vermont for a very short work trip. My waiter at dinner last night tells me if I have any free time, I need to make the 10 minute drive to see the Quechee Gorge. He was right. I didn’t have time to go hiking down to the bottom, which I would have loved to do. I only had time to walk along a little to see the dam. I do love to see dams and bridges.

Looking north from the Quiche Gorge Bridge

Looking north from the Quiche Gorge Bridge

Looking south from the Quiche Gorge Bridge

Looking south from the Quiche Gorge Bridge

Quiche Gorge Bridge

Quiche Gorge Bridge

Dam in the Ottauquechee River

Dam in the Ottauquechee River

Snorkeling Belize

I went snorkeling today off the coast of Belize on part of its barrier reef. I have no true idea where I was, other than they said the boat ride was going to be about 14 miles. So that clears that up. Anyway, I saw several lobsters, a couple of rays, and a couple of nurse sharks. I was super excited by the rays and sharks. The coral was lovely, but somewhat sparse in that area. Also, there seemed to be a bit of what I can only assume was coral bleaching, which was rather depressing.

Nurse shark

Nurse shark

Eagle ray

Eagle ray

Coral

Coral

Ray

Ray

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

Nurse shark

Nurse shark

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Seaweed?

Seaweed?

On the Monkey River

I took a cruise up the Monkey River today. Getting there was an adventure into itself. An hour drive to Placencia, then at least a half hour boat ride to Monkey River Town, to finally then cruise up the Monkey River. The journey ended at a spot in the jungle which is completely overrun by mosquitoes, but there are also some howler monkeys. The howler monkeys are about as loud as you can imagine an animal that gets the name howler would be. The Monkey River flows through a grassy and mangrove area that is quite pretty. There were numerous birds just sitting along the edge waiting to be spotted. Our guide also spotted a crocodile on the way back that nicely ignored us.

Dramatic storm clouds on the boat ride to Monkey River. These would later drench us on the boat ride back.

Dramatic storm clouds on the boat ride to Monkey River. These would later drench us on the boat ride back.

Monkey River

Monkey River

Little blue heron

Little blue heron

Yellow-crowned night heron

Yellow-crowned night heron

Bat

Bat

Focus tree strangling another tree

Focus tree strangling another tree

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Mushrooms growing on a tree

Mushrooms growing on a tree

Palm forest

Palm forest

Making chocolate

I took a tour of Che’il Mayan Chocolate, which included an organic cacao farm and a tiny factory where they make chocolate. I am not sure it qualifies as a factory, but they make do make a small amount of chocolate there as well as some chocolate products like nibs, cocoa powder, and cacao tea. The tour was fascinating, and the following is a brief synopsis. It all starts off with a cacao tree.

Cacao tree

Cacao tree

The beginning of the deliciousness that is chocolate starts with a tiny, little flower.

Cacao flower

Cacao flower

When the flower is fertilized, a giant fruit or seed pod forms. The flowers bloom for months, and hence seed pods form and grow at different times.

Unripe cacao fruit or seed pod

Unripe cacao fruit or seed pod

The seed pods ripen to a yellow or red color depending on the specific cacao tree species.

Ripe cacao fruit or seed pods

Ripe cacao fruit or seed pods

Inside the seed pods are cacao beans covered in a white pulp. We got to take a bean and suck the pulp. The pulp was quite tasty with sort of a creamy, light fruit taste.

Cacao seed pod with seeds covered in white pulp

Cacao seed pod with beans covered in white pulp

The beans have a dark brown interior.

Cacao seed pods with seeds covered in pulp in upper half and seeds we sucked pulp off of in lower half

Cacao seed pods with beans covered in pulp in upper half and seeds we sucked pulp off of in lower half

The beans are first fermented in a box for several days. They are then roasted over low heat. In the photo below, the light beans (on the traditional Mayan grinding stone) are the beans that have not been roasted. The dark ones in the middle front bowl have been roasted. Cocoa butter is in the white bowl, and the bowl right in front of it are the shells from de-shelled beans. The shells are removed from the beans before roasting. After roasting the beans, they are ground into nibs, which can be seen in the bowl to the left of the cocoa butter.

Cacao seeds

Cacao beans

The nibs are placed on the stone and crushed.

Crushing cacao nibs

Crushing cacao nibs

Crushing cacao nibs

Crushing cacao nibs

The grinding motion with the stone pulverizes the nibs, and the pressure causes heat, which starts to melt the oils in the nibs. We got to taste it at this point, and the chocolate is rather bitter.

Crushing cacao nibs with liquid starting to form

Crushing cacao nibs with liquid starting to form

After quite a bit of grinding of the nibs, only liquid remains. Sugar and cocoa butter is added.

Adding sugar and cocoa butter

Adding sugar and cocoa butter

The mixture is ground more to mix everything. We got to taste the finished chocolate at this point again. It definitely was sweeter with the sugar, but to me, it still had a bitter after taste.

Finished dark chocolate blend

Finished dark chocolate blend

The liquid is then poured into forms and allowed to harden. These were put into a fridge to harden quickly.

Pouring chocolate into forms

Pouring chocolate into forms

The finished product. The mixture made was 70% cacao. It tasted a bit different from the dark chocolate I have had before. It also melted very quickly in my hands compared to store bought chocolate, which must have stabilizers or something. Interestingly, even though this was the same mixture as what I tasted before it was poured into the forms, after cooling and hardening, it had lost most if not all of the bitter after taste that I tasted with the liquid.

Finished chocolate bars

Finished chocolate bars

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

I visited Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary yesterday. I did not get to see any jaguars, which is the reason the sanctuary was created. However, thanks to the rain the day before, I did get to see some of their tracks, which made me happy. It appears to me the sanctuary actually belongs to leaf cutter ants though. They are everywhere. They have created ant highways across all the paths, and their mounds are everywhere. I am rather in awe of what these tiny insects can do in transforming their environment. Numerous places of the hiking paths have the weeds completely mowed clear by the ants, so they can walk unhindered. The sanctuary is quite pretty, and I admit, one of my favorite things about it was the moss and fungus growing on trees that I became quite obsessed with photographing.

South Stann Creek

South Stann Creek

Huge palms create tunnels with the paths

Huge palms create tunnels with the paths

Shelf fungus on a fallen tree

Shelf fungus on a fallen tree

Jaguar paw print

Jaguar paw print

Moss growing on a living tree

Moss growing on a living tree

Small wetland area

Small wetland area

Leaf cutter ants, including a large soldier ant

Leaf cutter ants, including a large soldier ant

Leaf cutter ants

Leaf cutter ants

Leaf cutter ant highway, the mound can be seen in the far right underneath the dead palm frond

Leaf cutter ant highway, the mound can be seen in the far right underneath the dead palm frond

Fern

Fern

Freshkills Landfill Turned Park

This past weekend, I got to check an item off my bucket list when I got a tour of Freshkills, the former landfill that is being turned into a park. This is probably not an item on most people’s bucket list, but I have heard so much about the landfill that when I found out New York City Parks Department gives tours, I jumped to sign up. The vast majority of the landfill has been fully capped and vegetated. The mounds are dotted by the landfill gas collection system with gas wells popping up from the high grass at regular intervals. The wildlife has already moved in. There were butterflies flying everywhere in the grass, and birds were everywhere. We also saw a family of deer. The wetlands are lovely and evidently filled with wildlife. Also, the view from the top of the mounds is spectacular. It will be a while before the area will be completely converted to a park and open to the public, but the transformation already is incredible. As an environmental engineer, I am incredibly happy to see it and proud of my profession that did it.

View of the last mound that has not been fully vegetated

View of the last mound that has not been fully vegetated

Amazing views with landfill gas well in foreground

Amazing views with landfill gas well in foreground

Landfill gas well

Landfill gas well

Bad photo of a family of deer

Bad photo of a family of deer

Osprey family

Osprey family

View of Manhattan

View of Manhattan

Landfill gas wells popping up in grass

Landfill gas wells popping up in grass

Wetlands in between mounds

Wetlands in between mounds

Cheat Mountain Salamander Train

I went on a ride on the Cheat Mountain Salamander train this morning. Most of the route was along the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. We stopped along the way at High Falls of the Cheat. The train was vintage, and the car we rode in was lovely and vintage with classic fabric seats.

Wetlands

Wetlands

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River

High Falls of the Cheat

High Falls of the Cheat

Shaver Fork of Cheat River, taken at High Falls

Shavers Fork of Cheat River, taken at High Falls

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River, end of train can be seen on right

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River, in background are two fishermen and their dog

Shaver Fork of Cheat River

Shavers Fork of Cheat River

Wetlands

Wetlands

Cheat Mountain Salamander locomotive

Cheat Mountain Salamander locomotive