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Where to hike on Valentine’s Day – Great Falls Park

17 Feb Great Falls Park


Great Falls Park

My wife and I planned ahead that we would go hiking on Valentine’s Day. It was sunny after two days of steady rain. But it was also a cold day, near freezing. There are dozens of great places to hike in Northern Virginia or up in Maryland and Washington, DC. So… where to hike on Valentine’s Day? We decided to try Great Falls Park on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. It was only about 25 minutes away by car, it has 15 miles of hiking trails, and neither of us had hiked there before. Even better, if it really got cold, there are 3 or 4 loop trails of different lengths that we could explore.


Great Falls Park is part of the U.S National Park Service. There is usually an entrance fee, but this was no problem for us because we have an annual National Park Pass. We stopped in the visitor center to orient ourselves and determine what we might see. A volunteer Park Service Guide mapped out a great route with a view of the three overlooks, then following the River Trail about a mile and a half, then begin the loop back on the Ridge Trail, and finally following the Matildaville Trail back to the Visitor’s Center. There would be some rock scrambling, then hills, and of course, great views of the Great Falls waterfalls, cascades, and the Mather Gorge.

We filled our water bottles. I strapped on my day pack. We zipped up, adjusted our scarves and gloves, then off we went. Our first stop was Cascade # 1. It had been raining for a few days upstream, so the water was high. The water was both powerful and beautiful as it cascaded through more waterfalls than I could count.

Next, Cascade #2 was lower and downriver, but with an even more spectacular view. There were waterfalls on top of more waterfalls in every direction and at seemingly every angle as we looked back upstream.

Finally, we walked down to Cascade # 3, with a wider, and arguably, the most spectacular, view. You could see the river dropping over nine or ten shelves. Close up you could feel the power of the cascading water, millions of gallons rushing between, over, and though the rocky channels.

It was hard to take it all in at once. I took a few video clips so I could look at this marvel of nature again and again. However, it was cold standing above the falls. I put my gloves back on and we left the cascades behind and started our walk along the River Trail. A ridge of rock obscured our view of the Potomac River. We started walking across a high, flat plateau with pools of water which showed the reflections of rocks and trees.  Earlier, we had seen signs indicating that about every seven years, the river rises up 50 to 70 feet and sweeps over these high plateaus. This was hard for us to imagine, but then we saw another sign posted marking the record heights which were another 10 to 15 feet higher. Wow!

We walked through the woods along a lovely, well-maintained trail to Mather’s Gorge. The Gorge is dedicated to Stephen T. Mather, who served as the first director of the National Park Service.

The Great Falls Cascades narrow as they carve through the high rocks of Mather Gorge. On our side of the river, we crossed over many small creeks forging their own path through the high rocks, eventually cascading down about 90 feet to the raging river below.

The Potomac carries many species of plants down river. These accumulate and grow on the rocks, ridges, and high plateaus along the river’s edge. Meanwhile the river within the gorge just keeps rolling and raging along.

We left the river views from the outcrops and got back on the river trail.  We were glad to see the blue trail markers again on several trees and rocks. Sometimes it was easy to follow the path, and other times, we wished there had been one or two more markers interspersed along the trail.

Next we came to a unique feature, the well-preserved Lock #1, a remnant of George Washington’s Patowmack Canal and a national historic landmark. Excerpt from the Great Falls Park trail guide, “The Patowmack Company was organized in 1784 to construct a series of five canals to make the [Potomac] river navigable. George Washington presided over the effort, a dream of his since his youth when he surveyed the river and its tributaries.” This series of pictures illustrates how high the locks had to lift or lower boats and barges to bypass the Great Falls cascades.

After inspecting the lock, we continued along the River Trail. Sometimes we walked along narrow rocky edges by the river. At other times, we looked up at high rock faces. We also needed to scramble over roots, rocks, up and down hills and ledges on a few occasions.

We came to a long bridge spread across another large feeder stream which flows down to the river. We saw more reflecting pools nestled in among the rocks and trees.

We started climbing up the trail and continued to scramble over, around, and between the rocks.

We looked far down hill and saw the flat river in the distance, which continues with in a steady flow to the Chesapeake Bay, and then, to the Atlantic Ocean.

We continued climbing, up and further up a fairly steep ridge. We got over the steepest part and took a water break before starting up another, slightly less steep ridge. We certainly did not feel cold during all of this climbing.

We wondered where the top of the ridge was. We were looking for the junction with the Ridge Trail. Finally, we saw the trail junction with a very welcome sign post. This was the start of our loop back to the Visitor’s Center.

We did climb in elevation with a bit more, but then the trail leveled off and we saw the sign “To Matildaville Trail,” which had mostly a downhill trajectory for the rest of the way.

We stopped to watch a small herd of five deer cross our path, gaze across more reflecting pools, and enjoy the sun shining at our backs. We walked parallel to the River Trail going back, only about 75 feet higher up on the ridge.

In the distance through the trees, we could see how enormous the Great Falls cascades were. They looked like a broad expanse of fast moving white caps rushing to the beach. We could see all the way from about half a mile back through the woods. We passed many picnic tables scattered around the area surrounding the Great Falls Park Visitor’s Center. We smiled at each other as we completed our Valentine’s Day Hike. It was a great way to spend the day together.


Bruce Summers is a Person Historian/Life Story Professional with Summoose Tales, 

He helps clients record, preserve and share their life stories, photos, and archives

He is a founding member of the Life Story Professionals of the Great Washington, DC Area

Bruce enjoys hiking, photography, travel and trek’s with his family

See Also


My Darling Matey

People of Earth: The First Forty

People of Earth: The Second Passage


Life Story Writing

What’s in the basement? A train, a box of old letters, a mouse, family stories…?

Digging into my Family Roots

Thanksgiving – Show and Tell

Personal Historian

The Great Porcupine Canoe Trip

Can we be kids again?


A perfect winter walk – Lake Accotink

Stones on the beach

Great Hikes – Devil’s Bridge, Sedona, Arizona – March 1, 2018


Cactus League – then Cactus Hiking


Sedona Arizona Sunset

Uluru Adventure



A perfect winter walk – Lake Accotink

3 Feb
Map Lake Accotink Loop Trail
Lake Accotink Loop Trail

Where do you go for a perfect winter walk in the Washington, D.C. area? My family and I often alternate between four or five options. On February 1st, it was 50 degrees out and about mid-afternoon. My son and I wanted to go on a walk, but we did not want to travel far… there were only three or so hours left of sunshine in the day. We chose the Loop Trail around Lake Accotink, near Annandale and Springfield, VA. 

Feeder stream to Lake Accotink

We started in the parking lot of the Audrey Moore Recreation Center, just north of Braddock Road. You park on the left near the ball fields soon after you enter the recreation center grounds.

Stream widens and narrows, the reflections were beautiful

Then, you follow the trail over a small bridge across the creek, down through the woods and turn left onto the feeder trail heading towards the Lake Accotink Loop Trail. You will see the feeder stream on your right.

Panoramic view of the feeder stream under Braddock Road — the path is actually straight in-person.

The trail goes under Braddock Road. The dried mud on the trail had been mostly scraped off after a recent flood (the clearance over the river is at least 15 to 20 feet). There’s only been one time during which I have seen this space totally flooded. At that time, water flowed all the way over Braddock Road. My son and I paused to take in the view of the stream, thankfully at a non-flood stage.

As stated earlier, it was a great day for a perfect winter walk

We followed the trail along the stream for a good while and then turned right onto the Lake Accotink Loop Trail, decided to take the counter-clockwise direction. Above are a few views of the feeder stream from a bridge as we crossed over. We took a slight left, then up a fairly steep hill to a neighborhood. I took a quick picture of the trail map, pictured earlier. We walked a ways along the road, the turned left at the King’s Glen Elementary School. We waved at trail friends we saw walking in the other direction. Then we walked down hill to pick up the trail to the right of the playground.

The trail runs along the old Orange and Alexandria Railroad bed.

We walked up a hill and then took a left onto the loop trail that runs, mostly straight, along a former railroad bed. As you walk along, sometimes the bed is raised, with trees on the slopes down to the left and right. Other times, you pass hills — at one point, we saw a very steep hill on the right, upon which a mountain bike jump stretched down about a 30 feet slope, something which I would never try… At other places, the trail and the train track bed cut through a hillside rising on the right and the left. I believe this train bed, now long abandoned, was created around the time of the Civil War.

On left, the western end of the lake. On the right the dam at the eastern end of Lake Accotink.

The trail took us through the woods with a few peeks at the marshy western end of the lake where several streams come together to form Lake Accotink. We heard birds squawking, but we couldn’t see them from our place along the hill. We continued around through the trees along the south end of the lake and finally got to the steep part of the trail which leads down to the dam at the eastern end of Lake Accotink. We had passed lots of other walkers and bikers. The dam we saw was quite impressive. Though I had to wonder about its condition, as there were quite a few large trees that had floated part way over the top of the dam. Water rushed through other sections of the wooden barricade over the top of the dam. The water escaped through two concrete channels cut through the cement walkway of the trail. I have never seen this section at flood time, but there are warnings that at times the trail is impassable during and after heavy rains. On our left was a high train trestle. This is still one of the main train routes for commuter, freight and passenger trains heading north or south to/from Union Station in Washington, D.C.

Canopy over a wooden Merry-go-round, a view of marina, and a view across Lake Accotink.

I passed the dam, climbed up the 50 foot embankment and watched a pair of black ducks swim in parallel, and then dive under the water to fish. They pop up about 40 feet ahead, still travelling in parallel along the wide end of the lake. Across the lake I saw a canopy covering the Merry-go-round. My kids, my wife, and I rode on this when the kids were small. It is part of the marina area that rents canoes, paddle boats and row boats during warmer seasons. There are also great picnic grounds, pavilions, and water/restroom facilities. This was about the mid point of the loop trail. The reflections on the lake are always beautiful in the later afternoon. There is also a sandy beach and boat launching area near the marina.

We walked around the bottom of the lake and through the marina. We paused on a bridge looking over another large feeder stream and peer back at the reflection of the railroad bridge and the top of the dam in the water. The trail takes us up along the northern end of the lake. We kept to the left, again, seeing and passing, or being passed by, lots of walkers, runners, and bikers; all while hearing the squawking of birds returning to the lake for nestling and fellowship.

Hundreds of birds were gathering including a pair of Canadian Geese.

We walked a ways through the wood and then turned to the left off the trail, to walk down hill a-ways to see what all the the chatter was about. We heard hundreds of birds — large flocks were perched in the barren trees across the narrow end of the lake. We saw 40 or 50 Canadian Guess drifting in for a water landing. Some then took off in a V to do a couple of circle loops and then drift back down again. I saw a great blue heron fly majestically around our observation point. Then I paused, ignoring the chatter to watch what I thought was perhaps a pair of mating geese taking in a few relaxing, quiet moments at the end of the day. They floated, glanced over at each other, then waddled up on a slice of land to preen and stretch. I thought they were perhaps, whispered sweet nothings to each other, just enjoying a perfect winter float after a perfect winter dip in the lake, after a perfect winter afternoon flight on a pretty great, mild winter day.

We saw ducks swimming along the rushes on our way back up the feeder stream.

We saw a few ripple of rain on the lake, just a sprinkle, but we decided to head back to starting place since we still had a couple of miles to walk. We followed the same feeder stream we had started on upstream. There were several great stopping places along the final third of our hike. I always like to pause and see what’s happening on the stream. We saw eight mallard ducks enjoying a swim up past a section of rushes.

The rain had stopped, the light was perfect, and the stream provided perfect reflections of trees, sky and clouds. A picture-perfect end for a perfect winter hike. We had completed the Lake Accotink Loop Trail. We then followed the trail under the Braddock Road bridge and back up to the parking lot. My son and I each shared a few photos and smiled to ourselves as we drove back home.

This blog is part of an ongoing series about where to go hike and explore in the Greater Washington, DC Area by Bruce Summers, Personal Historian, Summoose Tales, Bruce is a former director of regions/chapters of the Association of Personal Historians. He is a founding member of the Life Story Professionals of the Greater Washington Area

See also… Hikes, Photos, Travel, My Stories, Personal Historian, Life Story Writing


Stones on the beach

16 Dec

Have you ever stopped to ponder, pause, wonder, and then continue to wander among the stones on the beach?

The beaches on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula were amazing.

The stones on the beach were a surprise. As were the carcasses of huge trees, bleached and beached.

We only had a few hours on the beaches. They were magical. I found myself pausing, to watch the hundreds of pelicans, the thousands of beached trees, the beautiful mini islands carved off the mainland and to look at the stones on the beach.

The Olympic Peninsula in Washington State is a place of rare beauty. I hope you too get to one day look at the stones on the beach.

Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian with Summoose Tales who sometimes wanders off to explore with his family. Share a comment if you wish.

What’s in the basement? A train, a box of old letters, a mouse, family stories…?

25 Nov 1930's Lionel Train

By Bruce Summers, Personal Historian, Summoose Tales

HOC water glasses passed down through the family.
HOC Water Glasses

Thanksgiving is a few days away. On my checklist… Go down to the basement Wednesday night and bring up the large roasting pan for cooking the turkey. I may also need to take a few chairs downstairs or bring up a side-table. Our dining chairs, our dining table, our special occasion china, silver, serving bowls, and even our HOC water glasses have family stories attached. That roasting pan is too big for our kitchen. We only use it 2 or 3 times a year for special meals. Hmm… there may also be a special bottle of wine or two that need to come up from the basement.

Roasting pan lives in the basement
Turkey Roasting Pan

My Parent’s Basement

Around the holidays, I often pause to reflect – what’s in the basement. A few years ago, during the Thanksgiving weekend, my dad got out he old “O” Gauge Lionel train set, from the 1930’s, from its normal resting place on wooden shelves in his basement.

My dad's Lionel Train from late 1930s. Lives in his basement
O Gauge train with 40 years of dust

He spread out the cars on the covered pool table (wow that has memories too). There were several types of rail cars, passenger cars, a couple of engines, the power supply and the original boxes, (the Antique Road Show people would be impressed), and the instruction books. (Wow! I thought).

Trains and cars on a shelf waiting for their next adventure.
Model trains waiting for their next adventure

I took pictures of the trains, pictures of my dad with the trains and I turned on the voice recorder app. on my cell phone. (This is the important part of a journey of discovery to find what’s in the basement). Go with your dad, go with your mom, or… and capture the family stories… about the train… about the old belt sander… about your grandmother’s sewing basket… or that box of letters from the 1880’s from your great grandfather.

A box of 1880's land deeds and correspondence from my great grandfather.
Box of letters and land deeds from the 1880s.

There are so many stories in the basement, in the attic, in that old desk, in that old safe or in that file drawer. From my mom, before she died, I learned stories about the mice in the basement. She was deathly afraid of mice, but I eventually, when I was 55 years old, had to ask her why? See… There were two mice, different generations, two different houses, three hundred yards apart… and What’s in your basement? Personal Historians want to know, but you might also be curious…

Lloyd’s Basement

During my get-to-know-you interview with Lloyd, my first personal history client, he mentioned that there was a file drawer, full of family history “stuff”, in basement. I was immediately curious, (what’s in the basement). At the end of our interview, I asked whether I could go down into the basement to see what was there. (What’s in the basement, what’s in the drawer, I wondered). Lloyd said sure. I had already learned that at age 102 he was not allowed to go down the basement stairs, ever.

I went down the stairs and quickly found the specified drawer next to his desk. (This material looks great for research for our next interview, I thought). I was scanning through the material, but suddenly, I heard slow steps coming down the stairs. It was Lloyd, (I quickly reflected, I hope I don’t lose my client before we really get started with recording his life stories). He was just coming down to be helpful and kind, this was who he was his entire life. This despite the fact that he was not allowed to walk down those stairs.

High school journal recorded 1926-1929 in Clay County Minnesota
Lloyd’s High School Journal

In the file drawer I found Lloyd’s high school journal. I also found a family history report that Lloyd wrote during college. It included first person descriptions, that he got from his parents and grandparents, of characteristics, height, build, eye color and general dispositions of his ancestors, written in great detail, going back to the early 1800s. He noted what each ancestor died of, how long and where they lived. He also included a pedigree chart showing how they were related and where they lived in Norway, in Iowa, or in Minnesota. I also discovered a letter, that Lloyd did not remember, with his aunt’s account of Lloyd’s grandfather travelling up to Minnesota to help Lloyd’s father pick out land and to help him pay for his first farm. Lloyd had previously stated he did not know how his parent’s bought their farm.

100 years of family history and characteristics going back into the early 1800s.
Lloyd’s College Family History Report

As we walked back together to the stairs, I glanced around to see what else was in the basement. I saw bunk beds, boxes of books, Lloyd’s desk, more boxes, trunks (lots of potential stories were in these objects just waiting to be discovered.

Carl’s Basement

Family correspondence and family history files.
File drawers full of correspondence and family history

Then there was Carl. His office was his basement. There were five tables with five generations of Apple Computers each loaded with stories, essays, photos, music and memories. There were over 20 file drawers to explore. There was a paperweight. A flint ax head that I later learned was over 50,000-years-old. There were trunks with photo albums and materials from his father’s and his grandfather’s anthropology expeditions from the 1900’s, 1910’s, 1920’s, etc.

50,000-year-old knapped stone ax head.
50,000-year-old stone ax head

There were hundreds of yellow boxes of slides from Carl’s trips and treks around the globe for work and for pleasure. I worked with Carl for five years to capture his stories, helping him to write, edit, and illustrate his two-volume autobiography. We drew heavily from what was in the basement. We integrated the stories behind the objects, the photos, the correspondence, the trips, the treks, the music he had composed, and the essays he had written. His basement was a treasure trove.

Volume 2 of Carl's Autobiography
Carl’s Autobiography

Your Basement

The holidays are starting. What’s on your checklist? Is there an attic, an old desk, perhaps a shelf with your mother-in-law’s diaries, or maybe a stack of letters tied up with ribbon? Are you intrigued? What’s in the basement? Is there a list of names in that old family bible? Have you checked the bottom drawer of your grandmother’s desk to see if there are yellowed pages with family tree records.

My grandmother pulled a yellowed list with 10 generations of relatives out of the bottom drawer.
My grandmother’s desk

Have you asked your dad or your mom or your aunt… where do you keep grandfather’s old stamp collection… what was your favorite toy in your childhood… how did you celebrate Thanksgiving?

Remember to take your smart phone on that trip to visit family and friends. Turn on the voice recorder app and ask about or check out what’s in the basement. There likely are family stories to discover.

What did you find?

So, what’s in the basement, post a comment with what you find. I hope you have a great holiday season with lots of time to visit with family and friends. Hopefully you will also take a few hours to explore what’s in the basement and to share and record family stories.

Bruce Summers, Personal Historian and Basement Explorer – Summoose Tales, Summoose Tales Facebook Group,

Member: Life Story Professionals – of the Greater Washington Area. Former Regions and Chapters Director for the Association of Personal Historians

My Darling Matey

29 Jul
My Darling Matey(s) - Lloyd and Jean Mostrom
Lloyd and Jean

My Darling Matey – The Mostrom-Thompson Love Story… In Their Own Words was recently published on Amazon. This personal history was compiled by Susan Mostrom (Susan) and Bruce Summers (me).

This book holds a special place for me as it was my first professional Personal History project. Susan and I were sitting on the stands at the Wakefield Recreation Center watching our daughters play soccer. We were chatting and cheering. I was not coaching, though, at times I might have shouted a bit loudly to my daughter. In conversation, I started talking about my new Personal Historian business. Susan’s eyes lit up — she smiled and asked me if I would be interested in interviewing her parents. My smiled widened, and I said I would love to.

We discussed her goals — what questions and what stories would Susan and her five siblings want to have recorded. Susan shared some background. Her dad, Lloyd Mostrom (Lloyd), was 102 at the time. Her mum, Jean Thompson Mostrom (Jean), was 94. They still lived in the same home where they had raised Susan and her siblings since the 1950s.

Lloyd grew up speaking Norwegian on a farm in Minnesota. He was a second generation American. Jean grew up on the West Coast of Australia. Her family were early immigrants to Western Australia in the 1840’s. They met, fell in love, and married in Australia during World War II. Well, I was very intrigued.

Before I met them in-person, I began my research. What was it like to be the son of a first generation Norwegian-American farmer, born in 1908, before there were cars and tractors? What was it like to have a father who was University professor in Australian, a grandfather who was a gold-miner, and a great-grandfather who was a ship’s captain and died at sea?

Further questions flowed into my head and onto my note pad during our first meeting. And yes, I did turn my digital voice recorder on. Susan and I had her parents cover some biographical information, I have standard bio-background sheets for each clients. Jean disappeared for a bit and brought back a secret (to Susan) stash of vital records with births, deaths, and marriages of several generations of Australian family members and poster listing six or seven generations of “Tuckey’s,” her mum’s father’s side. Lloyd revealed that he had a whole file drawer of family history “records” in the file cabinet in the basement, third drawer down, to the left of his desk. I smiled as several light bulbs flashed in my head. This is going to be great fun, I thought.

I asked Jean if I could borrow and scan her records. “Yes, yes”, she responded with her lovely Australian accent. I asked Lloyd if I could walk down to his basement to take a quick look through his family history file drawer, “yes, yes”, he said. Susan reiterated that Daddy is not allowed to go down stairs into the basement. He said, “yes, yes,” I could go down and take a look, which I did. I had opened the file drawer and started looking through the treasures when I heard someone walking down the steps. Lloyd was coming down to join me, and I thought oh no! I am going to lose my first client on my first day!!!!!

Well, Lloyd survived, and we looked through the drawer together and I pulled a few resources to review. Lloyd had typed up an account of his first 50 years. There were a few genealogy worksheets, a reunion booklet call Mostrom Memories… And then, two real gems, a family history paper he wrote during college and his high school journal. I felt as if I had struck gold. This was before I even started looking though the half-dozen or so curated family albums. These included two volumes of a scrap book documenting Lloyd’s first 100 years in photos with captions. Most of these with Jean and family members from five different generations.

I learned later, that Lloyd and Jean each called each other “Matey” and started each letter to the other with “My Darling Matey.” By then, Susan and I knew their personal history was going to be a love story.

My Darling Matey includes mostly Lloyd and Jean’s own words from voice recordings of my interviews with Lloyd and Jean. It integrates a wealth of other source materials. Some of the key ones are listed above. I scanned and integrated hundreds of photographs into this love story. Susan and I added the context to tie these source materials and photos together.

My Darling Matey… is the story of a man and a woman, half a world apart, and the barn that brought them together. It includes four “books”. Book One is Lloyd’s story (before meeting Jean). Book Two is Jean’s story (before meeting Lloyd). Each is fascinating on its own. Book Three is Their Story, “The Meet,” etc. This is interesting since I alternated recording Lloyd, then Jean separately. That way I could get each story, of the other, and unique memories of events, and then I recorded them together getting “his”story followed by “her”story together. This was great fun to watch and record. Book Four includes their Reflections of two lives well-lived.

I have just re-read the first 110 pages of the printed book, mostly Lloyd’s story. I can hardly wait to get to Jean’s story and Their story. Though some time has passed since I listened to the original stories seven years ago, then transcribed them, and integrated Lloyd and Jean’s stories and memories into three different drafts of the narrative, My Darling Matey is very readable and still fresh for me just like I heard their stories the first time.

I highly recommend My Darling Matey. Susan and I hope you, too, will be entranced by their early fascinating early lives and their love story. Lloyd and Jean died in 2013 within a month of each other.


Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian and Life Story Professional. He is the Founder of Summoose Tales,

My Darling Matey is the third personal history book he has collaborated on. He also worked with Carl Coon and Sam A. Gaskill on Carl’s two volume Autobiography: People of Earth – the First 40 – Volume 1 and People of Earth – The Second Passage – Volume 2

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