Jan 16 2021

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Midwinter Sunshine

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We waited several days for it. When finally the sky broke open as promised by the weather forecasters, Judy and I went to Colchester Pond. Judy is still passionate about photographing birds, and a few interesting ones had been spotted there recently. But the main thing was to get out and enjoy the sunshine. That’s not an easy thing to do in the middle of winter – not this year, anyhow.

The parking lot was nearly full when we arrived. Evidently, we weren’t the only ones looking to get out of the house. Half a dozen ice fishermen were camped out on the pond. Mostly gray-haired folks like us were walking the trail around it – on a Friday at noon, of course.

I glassed a few cardinals and blue jays with my binoculars but Judy didn’t even raise her camera. She can see those at home. No matter. We soaked in the relative warmth as we meandered slowly along the beaten path. With temps above freezing, Judy actually broke a sweat. I was quite comfortable.

After the walk, we sat on a bench along the edge of the pond, not far from the parking lot. That’s when Judy’s cousin Rick hailed us. We met him halfway between the bench and the parking lot and chatted with him for half an hour or so, keeping our distance because of the pandemic. Then Judy spotted a bird landing in a tree not far away. I glassed it, telling Judy she’d better get a shot because it was a raptor of some sort – one I couldn’t identify. It turned out to be a merlin. A rare sighting. What a fluke! A nice finish to a very pleasant day.

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Jan 04 2021

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The Predawn Light of Winter

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Now we are in the thick of it. The holidays have passed and a winter storm has recently dropped half a foot of snow. It still clings to the bows of trees as I get out of bed and start my day. After an hour and a half of work in my study, I gaze out the window to catch the cool, blue light of predawn. My study is warm and well lit by comparison. I slip downstairs and poke my nose out the door for a whiff of the clean, cold air. For several weeks the ground has been naked, or barely covered by a thin film of powder. Now it looks the way it should look here in northern Vermont in January: blanketed by the white stuff.

The Winter Solstice is well behind us and already the days are noticeably longer to a light-sensitive fellow like me. The deep cold still lies ahead, though, as it takes the planet a while to warm up and cool down. No matter. It’s a brand new year, a new day, and life is good.

The days are getting longer, and I have plenty of work to keep me busy until the big thaw comes. That’s still months away. Occasionally I’ll get out and tramp around in the snow, but for the most part mine is an indoor life until mid-March. I’ll shovel the snow regularly, as I did yesterday, and sometimes that’s all the outdoor activity I need. As a writer I have learned to make the most of these colder months so that I don’t feel bad about being outdoors and unproductive during the warmer ones. It’s a good arrangement, actually. A good balance.

But now I revel in the blue light of predawn. I feel the exhilaration of simply being alive and well. The Earth circles the Sun and the seasons change. I relish the days ahead, as well as this day. It feels good to be stirring about on a day like this, on any day above ground.

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Dec 22 2020

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Mac’s Bend

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Judy found out from her online birding group that bald eagles have been seen recently at Mac’s Bend near the mouth of the Missisquoi River, so we went there yesterday afternoon. Sure enough, we spotted a pair of them perched atop a tree on the other side of the river, not more than ten minutes into our walk. Unfortunately, they were too far away for Judy to get a good photo of them. So it goes with birding during the winter, more often than not.

We kept walking, following the gated, gravel access road to the Jeep trail ahead. We kept our eyes peeled for whatever else might come along. A woodpecker and a few nuthatches appeared. That’s all. Still it was good getting out of the house, getting some fresh air and stretching our legs. With the pandemic raging these days, we’ve been homebound for the most part.

The river was iced over and covered with a thin layer of fresh snow that also covered the access road. With temps above freezing and no wind, we were comfortable enough as we walked. Sunlight seeped through fissures in the grey clouds overhead. Animal tracks crisscrossed the river. All was quiet as the landscape settled into its winter dormancy.

After checking the time on my cell phone, I realized that there was only another hour and a half of daylight left. No surprise there, this being the shortest day of the year. Winter Solstice. The official beginning of winter. The good news is that the days will be getting longer from here on out.

Judy and I linked arms as we strolled back to the car. We chatted a bit but kept things light. There is enough darkness this time of year – especially this year. Upon reaching the car, we decided to drive around a bit on back roads and continue looking for eagles and other raptors. We spotted a hawk perched on a pole in the middle of a field and saw another one devouring a field mouse she had just caught. We enjoyed seeing houses adorned with colorful lights during our drive back home – Christmas being only four days away. Oh yeah, it’s that time of year.

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Dec 08 2020

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Eagles at Lake Carmi

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Judy is going deeper into birding. She has recently picked up several books on bird behavior and has spent the better part of the past few days reading about them. So I wasn’t surprised when she told me that she wanted to go to Lake Carmi because people from an online birding group had spotted bald eagles there. But a light snow was falling yesterday as we were getting ready to leave the house. I thought for sure she’d change her mind.

We ate our lunch in the car while parked at the Lake Carmi State Park day use area. That’s when we saw several bald eagles flying over the lake a good distance away. Shortly thereafter, while walking a nature trail around a nearby field, we spotted another one overhead, silhouetted against the grey sky. Judy wasn’t able to get a good shot of it, though. We wandered about the day use area a bit more, chilled by a steady wind out of the north before retreating to the car.

Now what? Judy suggested that we drive the road running along the northern edge of the lake. We did just that but spotted only a few songbirds in the process. Then I suggested that we drive the access roads to private camps along the west shore of the lake. It was a long shot, but we had the time so why not?

Most of the camps were closed for the season. A thin layer of snow covered the dirt road. Judy scanned the trees along the lake’s edge as we puttered along slowly. “There’s one,” she exclaimed, “Stop the car!” I did just that. Then Judy stepped out with her camera, shooting at a bald eagle resting on a branch. But the grand old bird was annoyed by my shutterbug wife so it flew away.

We sighted that eagle again a short while later. Judy stepped into the cold for a few more shots. That’s when I told her she was hardcore. Then I laughed. But I was right there with her, binoculars in hand. Such a funny pastime birding is. An endless hunt. So many different kinds of birds in all kinds of habitats. So much to learn.

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Nov 18 2020

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Walking It Off

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Once again I’ve found myself slipping into a funk – a Covid funk. The current surge of new cases means there will probably be another lockdown soon. Like the political bullshit and the shortness of the days isn’t enough to deal with. And then this morning I awaken to sub-freezing temps and a dusting of snow. Although previewed earlier this month, winter has arrived in force here in northern Vermont. Ug.

While my first thought was to stay indoors and continue stewing in my juices, I decided to go for a short hike in a local pocket of woods and embrace the season instead. Besides, the funk wasn’t going to go away on its own. I had to do something proactive.

After a round of writing and shipping out some books, I stepped onto the trail winding up and around Aldis Hill. Not much of a hike, really, but getting outside, stretching my legs and breathing fresh air for a short while was all I needed. It worked wonders, of course, as it always does. And it was nice being among trees again, even if they are in a city park. Nothing compared to that challenging Jay Mountain Ridge hike a few weeks ago, but not every outing has to be a rigorous one. Sometimes a 40-minute walk will do.

The funk had diminished considerably by the time I returned to my car. I know how this goes, though. I’ll have to get out again in another day or two to keep it at bay. Even then, the news will still be full of political bullshit and the days will keep getting shorter for another month or so. No matter. I do what I can to get through these dark days thinking: What a glorious year 2021 is going to be, once a mass vaccination has done a number on that nasty bug! Then we’ll all have a life again.

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Nov 06 2020

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A Wild Goose Chase

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Yesterday Judy and I drove down to the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison County, hoping to see some migrating snow geese and photograph them. Judy had been following reports of them showing up there by the thousands. We were excited about the prospect.

Upon arriving at the viewing area, we saw about fifty snow geese half a mile away. Moving over to Gage Road, just south of the Management Area, we spotted a couple dozen more half-hidden in a farmer’s field a quarter mile away. We saw some Canada geese, as well. Then we caught a rough-legged hawk flying overhead. That was a pleasant surprise. Still Judy had no good shots of geese.

Undaunted, we headed north along a country road running parallel to both Route 7 and Dead Creek. Nothing. No more geese. So we crossed Otter Creek in Vergennes and continued north to Kingsland Bay and the Little Otter Creek WMA. No geese there, either, though we watched a great blue heron catch fish for a while. Judy got some good shots of that.

Resigned to the fact that we were on a wild goose chase, we hopped back in the car and headed home. Yesterday was an unseasonably warm, pleasant day in November, and it was good just getting out of the house. But no sooner had we crossed over a bridge spanning the creek, I saw a huge nest in the trees right next to the road. Surprisingly enough, the nest was occupied. It was a bald eagle!

Judy got a good shot of the eagle right before it flew away. I followed that magnificent bird with my binoculars as long as I could. Until this sighting, I had seen plenty of bald eagles elsewhere but never in Vermont. What a treat! Nature is funny that way. You never know what it’s going to throw at you.

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Oct 24 2020

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On Jay Mountain Ridge

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At Judy’s urging, I stepped away from my literary work yesterday and headed for the Adirondacks to do a day hike. With sunny skies and temps ranging up towards 70 degrees, it would probably be the last nice day this year. Best to take full advantage of it.

I reached the Jay Mountain Wilderness trailhead by 8 a.m. and immediately shot up the trail. My walking stick clicked against the rocks as I kicked up fallen leaves. In my pack I carried everything necessary to spend a night in the woods if it came to that. At my age, you can’t be too cautious.

After an hour of steady uphill hiking, I finally caught a glimpse of my destination: the western lookout on the Jay Mountain Ridge. It looked to be another thousand feet up. A short water break and a deep breath later, I ventured forth.

My legs were just starting to cramp up as I mounted the 3000-foot ridge. I walked a couple hundred feet up a side trail to the lookout for a magnificent 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape. Then, after another short break, I headed east along the ridge, determined to go as far as I could before my legs actually did cramp up.

Remarkably enough, I made it all the way to an unnamed, craggy peak without any cramping. It was a hard traverse up and down lesser peaks along the ridge, but the great views kept me spellbound. Only half a mile short of the summit, I decided to break for lunch. Afterward I retraced my steps back to the trailhead. Seven miles and over 2,000 feet of elevation change was plenty for this 60-something.

Today I’m sore all over but much more relaxed than I was earlier in the week. All the bad news I read about this morning rolled right off me. Whatever. After spending a good day in the wild, the collective folly of humankind doesn’t have the sticking power that it usually has. That alone is reason enough to do a long, hard hike.

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Oct 14 2020

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The Smell of Autumn

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As I have grown older, I have learned to be more flexible. I had planned on driving over to the Adirondacks this week for a daylong hike, but the scratchiness in the back of my throat convinced me that it was better to go for a much shorter outing close to home. So this morning, after a round of writing, I went for a walk in the local town forest.

Immediately upon leaving the parking lot, I looked up to see hundreds of tricolored blackbirds passing through the canopy. How uncharacteristic, I thought, but they are probably migrating or getting ready to do so. It is, after all, that time of year.

While tramping along the trail, I noticed that the understory was mostly green even though the thinning foliage in the canopy had already turned and was past peak. Most of the color was on the ground: fading yellow, burnt orange, and brown leaves covering the forest floor. Earlier than expected. It has been an unusual year in that regard.

I inhaled deeply, taking in the tannic, leaf-rich smell of autumn as I walked. There is nothing else quite like it. In the spring, and even well into summer, the forest smells mostly of pollen and humus-rich soil – especially after a good rain. Pleasant enough but nothing like autumn. This leafy smell is the smell of the growing season coming to an end. It inspires reflection. To smell this, I mused, is reason enough to go for a walk this time of year.

I broke into a cold sweat during the last leg of my walk. This was a sure sign that I had made the wise choice by going out for only an hour or so. My body is just fighting off a head cold, I told myself, but there is a much greater threat afoot this year. So I drove home vowing to take it easy the rest of the day. No sense pressing my luck.


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Oct 03 2020

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Restless in Autumn

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For six days in a row, I have been all wrapped up in my philosophical speculations, writing about Nature spelled with a capital “N.” Haven’t gotten out for much more than the occasional walk around the neighborhood in the process. Well, this morning I finally put on my boots and headed for the hills – for nearby hills to be exact.

French Hill is a pocket of undeveloped woods only half a dozen miles from my home. After parking my car along the side of a road adjacent to it, I walked a track a quarter mile back. Then I started bushwhacking. Most of the time I hike well-established trails like most other hikers, but every once in a while, I need to get off the beaten path. Bushwhacking is the best way to do that.

With a large pond in sight, it was easy to keep my bearings. I have done this tramp many times before so I knew that all I had to do was circumnavigate the pond and I’d eventually hit the track leading me back out to my car. Simple.

With the sky overcast and temps in the 50s after a day of rain, the woods were cool and damp. Not that I minded that. I stopped once to ritually burn a copy of a book that I’ve recently published, but stayed on the move otherwise. The hike kept me warm.

Just north of the pond, I came to a smaller annex pond created by beavers a few years ago. Unattended and overgrown with grass, cattails and other vegetation, I couldn’t see the dam at first. But when I finally found it, I crossed over with little difficulty. I stopped on the dam long enough to enjoy the fiery orange, gold and rust foliage on the far side of the larger pond. Here in the Champlain Valley, the autumn colors are nearing peak. Stick season can’t be far away.

Finally returning to my car, I drove home feeling much better. Writing about nature is like scratching an itch. It’s rewarding to do this kind of writing, but there’s nothing like the real thing. Have to get out every once in a while.

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Sep 21 2020

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Hitchhiking Book Finally in Print

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In 1976, I hitchhiked from Ohio to British Columbia and back on something of an angst-ridden vision quest. Then I wrote about the experience as I usually do. Then I rewrote the story again and again until I thought I got it right. By then it was 1992 and I was a bit too mature to tell the tale of a 20-year-old’s adventure on the road. Still not sure the tale was really worth telling, I set the completed manuscript aside for a while.

Well, here it is 2020, over four decades since that trip and nearly three decades since I finished writing about it. With the pandemic going on these days, I’ve had a lot of extra time to think, write, reflect, dig up some of my old material and reread it. After considerable deliberation, I have decided to put this story in print.

I have only edited Seven Thousand Miles to Nowhere for grammar, spelling and typos. As an older man, now well into my 60s, I don’t think I could revise this story and do it justice. My 20-year-old self is strangely familiar but thought and acted much differently than I do today. So for the sake of young seekers everywhere, I’m letting this tale stand as it is, warts and all.

The book is for sale at Amazon.com, of course. It is also available at the Wood Thrush Books website for those of you who like to directly support small presses. Either way, I’m happy to sell it to you, and welcome all comments regarding this or any of my other work.

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