Jun 03 2021

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A Natural High

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“What are you doing today?” Judy asked me when I sat down to eat breakfast after doing some early morning work upstairs. I laughed. She obviously had a plan for the day that included me, so I heard her out. She had errands to run in Burlington and thought a walk at Woodside Natural Area during the process would be nice. Was I interested? Of course. She had me at “natural area.”

I sat in the car doing Sudoku puzzles while Judy ran in and out of stores during what remained of the morning. Afterward we drove down Woodside Drive in Colchester and parked at the end of it. Immediately after stepping out of the car I heard a veery calling from the dense understory.

We had ventured only a few minutes down the grassy path cutting through the woods when I lifted my binoculars to a songbird on a nearby branch. I spotted an American redstart that, like all the warblers around us, flitted off before Judy could raise her camera and get a good shot. Judy took a picture of a vireo, but the warblers were too fast for her and the foliage too thick. Not that it mattered. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day in early summer and the forest all around us was lush. Walking through it while listening to songbirds was reason enough to smile.

At first we followed a path veering off to the left, rising above a wetland. Eventually it dropped down to the flood plain, though, where we got a good look at the Winooski River. With trees thick along its banks, it was hard to believe that we were in the middle of Burlington’s suburbs. We crept along the path hugging the river, passing through a thicket of ferns and Dame’s Rockets in full bloom. That’s when I started feeling giddy – happy in a way that defies description.

I call this time of year “days of heaven,” reminiscent of a movie I saw long ago that celebrates the natural world. Here in Vermont, early June is when the wild struts its stuff, mesmerizing all those who are paying attention. It is enough to be alive in a world as magnificent as this one. Simply breathing on a day like this is all the meaning one needs. Nothing else really matters.

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May 23 2021

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On the Coast

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Once again Judy and I headed for the Maine coast, right before the busy summer tourist season began. This time we stayed in a quaint little cottage in Cape Porpoise only a few minutes from the ocean. We took the place for a week and were glad we did. Our leisurely days there slipped by fast.

Judy is still big into photographing birds so we spent much of our time on the coast tracking them down. First we went to Scarborough Marsh where we saw egrets, a lone sandpiper, and the surprisingly colorful glossy ibis busy feeding. A short walk in the Scarborough River Preserve later that day and another at Wells Reserve the following day educated us in the curious ways of catbirds. We encountered brown thrashers, an eastern towhee and a mockingbird, as well, along with numerous warblers flitting about. The forested spots along the coast are busy this time of year.

Judy and I visited Goose Rocks Beach a little past low tide in the middle of the week. That was the highlight of our visit, per usual. We had the place to ourselves for the most part – one of the advantages of going to Maine off season. I watched the tide roll in while Judy walked the beach, reflecting upon her first visit there 35 years ago. The place hasn’t changed much since then.

In Wells Harbor towards the end of the week, we got into the shorebirds. I found willets immensely entertaining while Judy worked hard to capture least terns dive bombing for small fish. She got a good shot of a male tern offering a minnow to a female along the shore’s edge. Ah, the mating ritual! Cormorants, eiders, and the ubiquitous gulls were hanging out there as well. The more one looks for shorebirds, it seems, the more one finds.

On the last day, I drove up to Portland and caught a ferry to Peaks Island to visit my old buddy Steve. He took a day off from his mapmaking business to walk and talk with me around the island. His wife Angela joined us for lunch, then the three of us lounged on the deck of their house for a while before I caught the ferry back to the mainland. Judy and I watched common terns feeding at Mother Beach at dusk later that day. It all happened so quickly.

I’m a woods wanderer at heart, most comfortable in mountainous wildlands far removed from the heavily developed coast. But I find the rocky coastline, sprawling beaches and the green spaces down east alluring all the same. And the ocean stretching to the distant horizon as it does certainly puts things in perspective. After all, we live on a water planet. Even as sunlight washes across the landscape for days on end, it’s good to remember that.

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May 14 2021

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Ridge Gambling

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I was in the mood for a big hike yesterday so I drove to Lake George to explore the Tongue Mountain Range. That range runs parallel to the lake, with the second half of it on a peninsula jutting southward. There’s a trail along the top of the range – nine miles over half a dozen summits. I couldn’t possibly do all that and retrace my steps in one day, so I started at Clay Meadows Trailhead near the middle. I climbed a thousand feet over two miles to reach the top of the ridge. Then I headed south towards Fifth Peak.

Half a mile along the ridge, a side trail goes up to a lean-to atop Fifth Peak. I took that. Upon reaching the lean-to, I encountered a nice couple from Buffalo, Matt and Carmen, who had spent the night. I chatted with them a short while before snapping a few pictures of the lake from a lookout. Then I returned to the main trail and continued south along the ridge towards French Point Mountain. I had read online that there was a great view from the top of it.

Headed south, I gradually lost a hundred and fifty feet of elevation along the ridge as expected, then went up a slight rise before the trail dropped sharply down into a col another several hundred feet. Hmm… I would have to climb up this on my way back to the trailhead. Oh well. That’s the way ridge running goes. Up and down.

After reaching the col I began an ascent up what I thought was French Point Peak. It turned out to be just a bump on the ridge. Nice views from lookouts there, as well, so I thought about stopping. But no, the day was young and I still had plenty of strength. The third descent was almost as steep as the second one. The ridge upped the ante another hundred feet or so. I kept going. After another short ascent, the trail dropped again. Now I was concerned about all the climbing I would have to do on the way out. Ridge gambling. Would the view be worth it? I matched the ridge’s ante and kept going.

One last climb before reaching the top of French Point Mountain, a good two miles south of Fifth Peak. Then I walked out to the edge of a cliff for a spectacular view. Lake George sprawled fifteen miles south before me, and another ten miles or so north towards Ticonderoga. The sun shined brightly from a partly cloudy sky. A few black flies came out as temps rose into the 60s. I enjoyed the view while eating lunch. Then I turned around and faced the long, arduous hike back to the car.

Four ascents over two miles, back to Fifth Peak. Then another two and a half miles down to the trailhead parking lot. I climbed 2,500 feet total, hiking nine miles. During the last mile, the muscles around my partially worn-out right knee began to cramp. By then I was out of water and the black flies were swarming. Was it worth it? Absolutely! The gamble had paid off, but I couldn’t have gone another mile.

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Apr 30 2021

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Going a Little Wild

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April is a bit early to go backpacking in the Adirondacks. I expected to see snow. So imagine my relief when I parked my car at the trailhead to the Hudson Gorge Wilderness, looked around, and saw no white stuff. With temps in the 50s and a partly cloudy sky overhead, it was a good way to start the outing.

I traveled fast and light along the OK Slip Falls Trail with only a 30-pound pack on my back and 20 pounds less flab on my body. My trekking poles clicked against the roots and rocks along the trail, flushing a ruffed grouse. Not much in the way of wildflowers in bloom, and evergreen wood ferns were still pressed flat against the ground. Evidently, the snow cover had just recently melted away.

Three miles back, I caught a glimpse of the impressive OK Slip Falls through the trees – one of the highest falls in the Adirondacks, tucked away in the woods. After that I hiked another mile to the Hudson Gorge, where the Hudson River cuts through the mountains. Backtracking past the falls, I made camp along a feeder stream to OK Slip Brook. There I fired up my stove and fixed dinner. No campfire this time out. The forest was too dry. Too dry, that is, until a steady rain commenced, which lasted all night long.

Arising the next morning, I felt the strange calm that usually follows a night spent alone in deep woods. Mist gathered in the trees as I fixed breakfast. Stream rushing along, otherwise silence. My joints ached as I arose from my seat along the brook, reminding me of the passage of time – decades doing this. I looked around, marveling at the growth and decay all around me, wondering as I have so many times before how it all came to be. Nature is inscrutable.

I took my sweet time hiking out, stopping frequently to scan wetlands for wildlife, admire hundred-year old hemlocks, and listen to chickadees, nuthatches and other songbirds. I tramped the muddy trail – mostly dry the day before – and left boot prints on the banks of ephemeral streams. Not much else to report. I went a little wild for a short while, and that’s all that mattered.

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Apr 17 2021

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The Unfurling

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It’s too soon for this, or is it? This morning I spotted wild oats emerging from the forest duff – one of the first wild lilies to unfurl in the spring. This is only the middle of April. Usually I don’t see this flower until the end of the month. But all bets are off this year.

Yesterday it snowed. Before that temps soared into the 60s. I knelt down and sniffed spring beauty in bloom a couple days ago. Before that, round-lobed hepatica bloomed. Right before that we got half a foot of snow. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen from one day to the next.

We like to think of seasonal change as a steady progression: temps consistently getting colder as we approach mid-winter, then consistently warming up through mid-summer. But that’s not how nature works. Overall nature is predicable. Here in New England, for example, we can expect four distinct seasons each year. That said, temps can fluctuate wildly over the course of any three or four days picked at random. This is normal.

Flowering plants anticipate what we humans cannot accept. The unfurling is a long, slow process. The first wild lilies press upward and, if temps suddenly plummet, they die back only to be replaced by a second wave. Some wildflowers take forever to bloom. I’ve seen purple trilliums on the verge of opening for weeks on end before they finally strut their stuff. Wildflowers, like most life forms, hedge their bets one way or another. When I stop and think about what’s really happening all around me in the spring, I am astounded.

“False spring,” I heard someone say when it snowed yesterday, unwilling to call it spring until snow is impossible. Yet we get, on average, two snowfalls every April here in northern Vermont. It’s all part of the unfurling, and that’s a beautiful thing to behold. Unpredictable on the short term, yet inevitable in the long run. That’s nature for you.

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Apr 06 2021

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Springtime Illumination

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Deep in the woods, I return to a familiar a place along a mountain brook that I’ve visited many times before. This has become an annual ritual for me. Early in the spring, I come here to celebrate the unfolding of yet another growing season, well before the first lilies arise.

There’s a boulder twice as tall as I am and much wider, not far from the stream. Half of it is covered with moss coming back to life after a long, cold season. The sun illuminates the moss, along with evergreen ferns sprawled across the top. Icicles still dangle from the rock. Beyond it, patches of snow still lurk in the forest shadows.

This is the very beginning of it – a mere hint of what’s to come. Nearby rivulets full of snowmelt rush towards the brook, which is now a silted green torrent. The leafless trees creak in a faint breeze. The sun beats down upon the forest floor, turning the frozen earth into mud. Soon this forest will be teeming with fresh verdure.

I put my hand to the moss while giving thanks for simply being alive, for still being able to reach this place. Days away from turning 65, I no longer take anything for granted. I squint into the sun, feeling its heat. And the spirit of the wild washes over me while I do so.

Whether God exists or not I leave to others to contemplate. When I am alone in a wild forest, such matters seem moot. In springtime I know that Nature is unfolding in all its glory, and I am a part of it. That is enough.

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Mar 26 2021

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Glorious Springtime

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Spring has come early here in northern New England, and what a glorious unfolding it is! Temps have shot into the 60s during the past week, reaching into the 70s twice. Needless to say, the snow cover has melted away. Only a few snow piles remain, like the one at the top of my driveway, to remind us that we were still in the grip of winter a mere ten days ago.

Judy and I have taken full advantage of the sudden seasonal change. We have ventured out three times this week in search of migrating birds, and haven’t been disappointed. In fact, we have seen so many Canada geese in so many different places that Judy stopped taking photos of them. Wherever there is a patch of open water between the retreating ice and the shores of Lake Champlain, there they are.

Along with geese, we’ve seen plenty of other waterfowl: mallards, goldeneyes, common mergansers, and the small, very energetic buffleheads. The latter skip across the surface of the water before diving for mollusks and other tasty treats on the lake bottom close to shore. We have found them particularly entertaining.

On land we spotted red-winged blackbirds and bluebirds, along with robins. A good number of the latter have wintered over here, but their numbers are way up now as their migrating kin have joined them. Woodpeckers are drumming and cardinals are singing from the tops of trees in efforts to secure mates for the season. In a well-established nest near Otter Creek we saw only the head of a bald eagle, most likely incubating new eggs. Regeneration is in the air.

Meanwhile the buds of red maples and other trees are swelling, and the first green shoots of fresh vegetation are breaking ground. The landscape will remain mostly brown during the next month – what we call mud season here in Vermont – but first wildflowers will be up soon enough. I love this long, slow reawakening of the natural world. Already I’m experiencing that euphoric, dreamy feeling commonly known as spring fever. Already I’m an April fool. And the more mud I get on my boots, the better. Bring it on!

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Mar 15 2021

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A Preview of Spring

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For four days last week temps spiked well above freezing here in northern Vermont, once getting into the 50s. I went out every day, and that severely cut into my literary productivity. Not that it matters. This time of year, it’s best to get out and enjoy balmy weather while it lasts.

Judy and I went birding one of those days, driving down to Addison County to see what we could see. A couple hawks, some starlings, and lots of crows were all that appeared. Still just a little too early for all the migrating birds to arrive from the south. Or at least it was last week.

On the warmest of those days, I slogged through half a foot of melting snow while exploring Silver Lake Woods, about fifteen miles to the south of where I live. Without snowshoes, that was a real workout. Didn’t mind it too much, though. That backcountry lake is a pretty one, even when iced over. I look forward to going back there when the ice is out.

Cold mud. That’s what I got into on the last day. With the snow melting off fast, the top layer of soil was exposed and thawed in places. It felt good to leave my boot prints in it. Messy but good.

Today we’re back into the deep freeze, with temps in the single digits at daybreak. But I’ve got a feeling this is the end of winter. The Spring Equinox is only 5 days away, and there are above-freezing temps in the forecast. Spring is the season of hope and rebirth, when the flowering plants come out of their deep, months-long slumber. I never tire of it. The cycle is complete, once again, and it all begins anew. Eternal nature. For a pantheist like me, early spring is a religious experience.

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Mar 05 2021

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Now Available at Medium.com

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A new day is dawning for yours truly. While I will continue blogging, publishing my books, and occasionally writing short pieces for printed periodicals, I have discovered a new outlet for my work.  Giving credit where credit is due, my wife Judy is the one who brought it to my attention. Anyway, I am now making some of my essays and short narratives available via an online publishing platform called Medium.com.

So far I’ve uploaded half a dozen pieces, both old and new, about my backcountry excursions, pantheism, wildness and being human, and related subjects.  More are on the way.  Check it out.  The first three articles you read at Medium.com are free.  After that, subscription is $5 a month.  You might find other interesting articles there, as well. I’ve done so, along with millions of other people.  It’s a whole new way to connect readers and writers.    

     

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Feb 24 2021

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Cutting Tracks in Deep Snow

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Late winter. I tramp the hard-packed trail leading into Honey Hollow wearing crampons until they clog up with snow. Then I take them off. Easier walking without them. With temps above freezing, it’s a pleasant hike in shirtsleeves and thermals. The sun peeks through the clouds as I pass the gorge.

Upon reaching a gate blocking the side trail, I affix snowshoes to my boots. From this point forward, the hike gets harder. I follow the snowshoe tracks of someone else who came this way a week or two ago – after the last big snowstorm. This takes some doing but it’s easier than breaking trail.

The older tracks go beyond the apple tree clearing. They turn around shortly after crossing a feeder stream tumbling down to Preston Brook. Then I’m on my own, cutting tracks in two feet of undisturbed snow. I work up a sweat in no time. I stop frequently to catch my breath. While doing so, I catch glimpses of open leads of water in the brook fifty yards to my left. That gets me thinking spring isn’t too far away.

It takes the better part of an hour to break half a mile of trail. Then I reach the tree along the brook where I pressed a fishing fly into bark last summer. That makes me smile. Not too far beyond that tree, I tamp down a spot to rollout my foam pad. Then I sit down for a while. It’s a lovely day in the snow-covered mountains. I eat a handful of nuts and an energy bar, and drink nearly a liter of water while listening to the deep forest quiet. The brook murmurs beneath the snowpack.

After lunch I retrace my steps, improving the trail I’ve cut. I had intended to do a loop, but backtracking is a lot easier than cutting tracks. I stop frequently just to look around, grooving on the wild beauty of the Green Mountains in winter. So glad I came out for the day.

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