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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Sep 05 2020

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Landslide

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It’s just about the right time of year for an early afternoon mayfly hatch on the Cotton Brook, so I hiked a mile beyond the access road gate then bushwhacked to the mouth of the stream. When I crossed a heavily silted stream cutting through the woods, I knew something was terribly wrong. Upon reaching the mouth, all I found was a pile of dead trees that had been washed downstream and a carpet of silt and loose rock where the brook had been.

With this much silt and debris, I figured a landslide had to be nearby. I walked upstream expecting to see it just ahead. I walked twenty minutes before catching the first light filtering through the forest.

Upon reaching the landslide, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’ve seen plenty of landslides on mountain streams during the past 35 years, but nothing like this. Half the hillside was denuded and nearly every living thing on both sides of the brook had been swept away. So much for a mayfly hatch. So much for rainbow trout.

Once I was above the landslide and back into the cover of trees, the stream cleared out. I casted my fly into pools for an hour or so, getting a few rises from small brook trout, but my heart wasn’t into it. I couldn’t help but think about the frequency of landslides during the past decade or so, and wonder how big the next one would be.

I could rant on about how we need to act now before things get really bad, but everyone with any sense already knows this. Core samples from ice caps make it clear what’s happening. Anyone who denies climate change is delusional. To understand what exactly climate change means, one should look at the Geologic record. During the history of this planet, the climate has taken some severe turns. What we call the balance of nature is a tenuous thing, indeed. Survivability is questionable, and billionaires talking about colonizing Mars does not console me at all.

This morning I read online about the Cotton Brook landslide. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation website tells the whole story and warns about another slope failure there. Their message is clear: stay away. As a fisherman, I had already decided to go elsewhere. Again. This is becoming a common refrain. I imagine that my great, great grandchildren won’t be able to go trout fishing at all.

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Aug 29 2020

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Big Water or Small?

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Several times during the past month, I have gone into the mountains to fish small streams for wild trout. That’s what I usually do whenever I pull out my fly rod. But yesterday I did something different – something I haven’t done in years. I stayed in the lowlands and plied the relatively big water of the Missisquoi River instead, up near the Canadian border.

Shortly after leaving the muddy bank and wet wading into the murky waters of the slow-moving river, I hooked into a brown trout. An Adams fly did the trick. Then I tangled with the trout’s wily kin, missing most of them. Caught and landed another brown before too long, then watched daylight give way to twilight while being outsmarted by the rest. Good fun. But I must admit that I felt a little out of my element.

Yeah, yeah, I know how to read the river, match the hatch, and do that 10/2 cast made famous by A River Runs Through It. But that’s not my style. Not really. I’m more of a crawl-through-the-rocks kind of guy, more accustomed to crouching low and side-casting, usually on my knees, into a pool of clear, cold water only ten or fifteen feet away. Pagan fishing, I call it, because fishing for brookies in mountain streams is all about stalking the trout, immersing oneself in the surrounding forest and going a little wild in the process.

Unlike most fishermen, I prefer small water to big water. I prefer the diminutive brook trout to the larger brown or rainbow trout. That said, it sure is a lot of fun to work a foot-long fighter to the riverbank. A brookie will fight like hell, but they are usually not more than 8 or 9 inches, so my rod never bends over much.

So there it is. Soon I’ll go a-fishing again, returning to my natural habitat up in the heavily forested mountains, scrambling over rocks on a clear, fast-moving stream. But when the urge to play with the big guys strikes, I’ll be back on the wide river. It’s all a matter of priorities, I suppose.

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Aug 16 2020

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Backcountry Excursions Reprinted

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In 1990, I published a slender, olive green paperback called Tracks across the Forest Floor. It was my first attempt to write a nonfiction narrative about one of my ventures into the woods. Tracks went out of print a long time ago, but I included it in a set of six hiking narratives called Backcountry Excursions, released in 2005. That book has been nearly out of print for several years now. Well, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Tracks, I have reprinted Backcountry with a new cover and preface. And a few fixed typos to boot.

Three of the narratives in this collection appear in other collections of mine, namely Loon Wisdom and The Great Wild Silence. Tracks and the remaining two can be found nowhere else. Just as important as Tracks, I think, is the 25-page narrative about a trip into northern Maine that I took in ’96 with my buddy Charlie, following Thoreau to Mt. Katahdin by water and land. We used a two-man sea kayak instead of a bateau and ended up hiking a different path up the mountain, but it was great fun all the same. And it gave me a reason to recount one of Thoreau’s excursions into the Maine Woods.

The real reason for reprinting this book is simply to keep it in print. Backcountry Excursions is now available at Amazon.com as well as the Wood Thrush Books website. Most of my readers are already familiar with this book, but now it’s out there for everyone to see how I got started, and what kind of critter I really am.

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Aug 01 2020

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Breadloaf Wilderness Revisted

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The news is all bad, especially now with the pandemic raging. Judy and I felt it was high time for us to spend a couple days in the woods away from it all. So we packed up our gear and headed for the Breadloaf Wilderness when finally there came a break in the weather, between heat waves and t-storms.

A few weeks ago I scouted the headwaters of the New Haven River, looking for a good place to camp. I found the spot just inside the Breadloaf Wilderness boundary where Judy and I had camped once with our granddaughter Kaylee. That’s where we landed.

Kaylee was 6 the last time we camped here. Now she’s 23. Time flies.

Judy sat on a large rock, taking in the sights and sounds of the wild forest. I sat nearby, writing in my journal. The stream flowed incessantly before us. A squirrel ran across a fallen tree bridging the stream. The sun sank behind the trees before we started dinner. Soon we were staring into a campfire, surrounded by darkness. Where did the day go?

We went to sleep to the sound of rushing water. A little later I awoke to that and the song of a waterthrush. While sitting on the big rock in predawn light, I watched another squirrel run across the fallen tree bridging the stream. I recalled camping farther upstream with my brother Greg back in the 90s, and remembered a dozen other outings in this wilderness area since then, by myself or with others. Time flies.

When Judy arose, I fixed her a cup of hot tea. She had a rough night. Sleeping on the ground is a lot harder for us 60-somethings than it used to be. So late morning we packed up and hiked out instead of staying another day.

On the way out, I recognized a patch of ground beneath a copse of full-grown maples that had been a clearing when I first hiked through here. That was back in the 80s. Seems like a lifetime ago. Yes indeed, time flies.

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