Jun 12 2019

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A Glorious Time of Year

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After an unusually cool rainy spring, the past few days have come as a welcome reprieve. Finally we’re getting into sunshine with temps shooting into the 80s. That’s high summer by Vermont standards, but who’s knocking it? Put those flannel shirts away!

Green vegetation wherever you look, and a dreamy breeze. Add to that wildflowers blooming in fallow fields along with lilies, irises and other showy flowers in cultivated places and, well, it’s a glorious time of year. “Days of heaven,” I like to call it, when just walking around the neighborhood, lounging on the porch, or sitting at an open-window cafe is enough to make a person feel good about the world.

At this latitude, roughly 45 degrees, the days are delightfully long this time of year. Factor in the lingering twilight and it’s hard to stay awake for it all. People like me, who suffer through the dark days around the Winter Solstice, are energized by the approaching Summer Solstice. I become absurdly upbeat as a consequence of it. Every day, it seems, is a good day.

Soon I’ll be on the trail again, hiking for days on end as if nothing else matters. Oh sure, the bloodsucking bugs are out but I don’t care. Their bites are a small price to pay for the wonder and beauty of The Northern Forest in June. Like I said, I’m absurdly upbeat this time of year. And these long, magnificent days are too precious to waste.


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Jun 02 2019

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Coastal Forest

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Once again my wife felt the need to visit the seashore so we headed for the Maine coast early last week. With temps in the 50s, a chilling breeze and rain every day, it wasn’t weather for lounging on the beach. All the same, Judy got her ocean fix during a few shoreline walks, and I had plenty of opportunity to hike early in the morning while she was still sleeping. My best hike took place on the last day.

I drove over to Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve and meandered through forest and meadow just as a thick morning fog was burning off. I got there early enough to have the place all to myself – just me and the mosquitoes, I should say. With all the rain we’ve had lately, it’s been a banner year for them. No matter. As long as I kept moving, they didn’t bother me much.

Bunchberry, starflower and several other wildflowers were in bloom despite the closing of the canopy overhead. The many ferns in the surrounding understory were that vibrant vernal green that also brightens the leaves of the birches, maples and other trees. Coast, mountain or anything between, I love that green. And I love this time of year because of it.

I hiked the perimeter trail as it ran along the estuary then veered back into the woods. I particularly enjoyed the rather lengthy boardwalk cutting across a wooded wetland covered in sphagnum moss and other wet-loving vegetation. I’m not a big one for elaborate trail work, but in particularly damp places like this it minimizes impact and makes walking nearly effortless.

I feel more at home in the mountains, really, but anywhere a forest grows is a good place to be by my way of reckoning. With all the development along the southern Maine coast, I’m glad that some of its natural beauty has been preserved – estuary, wetland and forest as well as shoreline. All this complements the magnificent ocean view. We are enriched by it. We are enriched by all things that we are able to appreciate.

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May 21 2019

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Springtime Bushwhack

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After taking care of business this morning, I drove to French Hill for a much needed bushwhack. During the first two weeks of May, I was down with a flu bug that developed into bronchitis. It took another week after that for me to get my strength back. So I was eager early this afternoon to go for a walk in the woods again.

A passing squall anointed me with a few raindrops as I started down the overgrown skidder trail. No matter. A painted trillium and other spring wildflowers urged me along. Soon I left the trail to bushwhack up and over a small rise covered in unfurling ferns. My eyes soaked in the vernal green all around me. On the other side of the rise, I caught a glimpse of the familiar old beaver pond though the trees. I used that to keep my bearings as I stumbled over rocks, downed branches and trees, and soggy ground. Soon I cut my pace, thus finding my woods wandering legs.

I searched for the stone wall that I remembered from a previous hike in these parts, but found a brand new beaver pond instead. It’s engineer scurried out of the understory, quickly making for the water. I gave him plenty of room to do so, then crossed his rather tenuous dam. I got my new boots wet and muddy in the process. Good. They needed to be broken in properly.

To my surprise I came back out to the skidder road much sooner than expected, then finished my circumnavigation of the old beaver pond. I crossed plenty of deer tracks along the way. I listened to songbirds rejoicing in the season. I watched as the treetops swayed in the vigorous breeze. When my car came into view, I vowed to get back into the woods again as soon as possible. After all, springtime happens fast in northern Vermont. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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May 09 2019

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The Solace of Waterfalls

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I snuck out of the rustic room at daybreak, refusing the flashlight that Judy sleepily offered. Not necessary. There was ample twilight for me to get around.

The Middle Falls roared nearby. I followed the well-groomed path though its spray on my way to the Upper Falls. A solitary robin called out – its song barely audible above the cascade. A thin drizzle fell from the dark, blue-gray sky.

My mother died while Judy and I were on our way back to Ohio. After a slow deterioration spanning several years, her actual death seemed to come fast. She was 89 years old but had rebounded so many times that the whole family began to think she would live forever. Seeing her remains at the funeral home convinced us otherwise.

Judy and I left four days after arriving in Ohio, then drove to Letchworth State Park in western New York to seek solace in nature. The Glen Iris Inn was full but Judy was able to secure us a room in an outbuilding called Pinewood Lodge. Following dinner at the inn, we enjoyed Middle Falls all lit up after dusk before returning to our room. I had a fitful night all the same.

No one else stirred in early morning as I meandered to Upper Falls. Soon I caught a glimpse of white water tumbling beneath a railroad bridge. I knelt down before the waterfall, accepting its spray along with the drizzle. I thought about how much my mother would have loved it, then cried. No more scenic views for her. She was gone. Yet the water still falls…

After breakfast, Judy and I checked out of the Inn. We took our time driving through Letchworth State Park, admiring the Genesee River snaking through a deep canyon on its way to more gentle terrain. We made our way home via the Finger Lakes, getting on with our lives. But there’s a hole in me now that can’t be filled. So it goes.

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Apr 18 2019

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A Familiar Place

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At long last the snow is melting in the mountains, exposing bare ground. I drove to the base of a favorite valley, parked my car then hiked up the narrow dirt road still closed for the season. About a mile back, I left the road, bushwhacking down to the brook. It felt good to have soft earth underfoot, and to see the heavily silted stream shooting downhill, full of snowmelt.

I tramped through the forest with ease despite downed trees and a few remnant patches of snow, following the brook to places where I’d camped in the past. Then came the two mudslides. Usually I would cross the brook, thus avoiding the mudslides, but the brook had too much water in it. So instead I scrambled on all fours across one slide then the other, until I was deep in the valley. That’s when I stumbled upon a familiar place – a place I’d forgotten about, a place where I caught a sizable brook trout a long time ago.

I settled into an inviting niche along the edge of the pool, just below a huge slab of moss-covered rock. The sun shined brightly through the clear blue sky. The brook roared as it raced past. With temps in the 50s the gentle wind caressing me felt downright balmy. I drank some water, ate a granola bar, and jotted a few lines in my field journal while soaking in the beauty of the forest in early spring.

There are places, wild places, so familiar to me that they feel like home. Most of these places are located in Vermont’s Green Mountains. Some are in the Adirondacks. Upon reaching them, I suddenly get the feeling that everything is right with the world. And whatever was troubling me in the developed places doesn’t matter so much. Go figure.

While tramping out of the woods, I reveled in the great wild silence, happy enough just breathing in the clear mountain air. Once again I felt comfortable in my skin. A good hike is like that. A good hike is nothing more than getting back in touch with one’s animal self. That is enough.

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Apr 10 2019

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Bare Ground

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Awoke to snow this morning. Just a dusting of it that would melt off before the end of the day, but snow all the same.

Snow or no, I had to get outdoors. So after dealing with the IRS and other sources of infinite frustration for most of the day, I slipped on my boots and headed for French Hill.

The plan was to do a little bushwhacking across a mix of snow and bare ground. But not more than five minutes into the hike, I was slogging through several inches of old, crusty snow left over from winter. Not what I had in mind, so I aborted.

Shortly thereafter, I was walking the mostly bare ground of the Rail Trail on the Champlain Valley floor. Much better. I flushed half a dozen robins from the trail as I hiked at a good clip. That assured me that it is spring despite the white stuff lingering like a tiresome drunk at the end of a party. The steady breeze out of the north had a chill to it. Temps hovered around 40. All the same, I was able to take off my hat half a mile into the walk.

When I reached the half-frozen wetlands, I was hoping to catch the high-pitched chirp of a spring peeper, but it’s too early for that. Patience. Another week or two. Instead I enjoyed the steady rush of meltwater in the cut running parallel to the trail. This time of year, we need to take our simple pleasures wherever we can find them.

Before returning to the car, a shy sun peaked from the gray clouds overhead, offering a ray of hope. The warm season is running a little late this year but it’ll get here. And my next outing, if I stay out of the hills and mountains a while longer, will be nothing but bare ground.

 

 

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Mar 28 2019

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Between Winter and Spring

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Yesterday I went for a hike despite the foot of snow dumped by last weekend’s storm. I’m sick of winter, but with the sun shining through an azure sky and temps in the 40s by afternoon, I simply had to go out.

I went to Milton Pond, assuming that the trail around it had been packed down by other restless souls. That was, if fact, the case. All the same, it’s a good thing I had Microspikes on my boots. The trail was icy in places and the snow punky in other places. Without the ‘spikes, I would have done a lot of sliding around.

I hiked at a good clip, soon breaking a sweat. I was smart enough to leave my sweater in the car, but had to strip off my jacket halfway around the pond and carry it. It’s always a strange feeling being in shirtsleeves while traveling over snow. That’s the smart thing to do sometimes, between winter and spring. Still it felt strange…

Looked like winter but felt like spring. The pond was iced over, of course, and there was snow everywhere. Yet a springtime sun shined brightly, meltwater ran fast through runoff streams, and the buds on maple trees were swollen. Definitely between seasons.

I thought about my recently deceased dog Matika during the hike, and how she would have enjoyed the outing a couple years ago, back when she could handle it. We enjoyed a lot of good hikes together through the years. But when I saw a yellow spot along the side of the trail, I was glad I didn’t have to stop and wait for her to sniff it. Slowly adjusting to hiking alone again. There are certain advantages to it, no doubt.

 

 

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Mar 18 2019

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Matika Passes Away

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A couple days ago, Judy and I said goodbye to our long-haired German shepherd, Matika, as we put her down. The paralysis in her hind legs, due to a disease called degenerative myelopathy, started causing all kinds of problems. We decided against taking it to the bitter end, which would only make her suffer.

Matika had accompanied me on nearly all of my excursions into the woods during the past 12 years. I nicknamed her Wilderness Dog back in 2009 during our arduous trek through the 100 Mile Wilderness in northern Maine. She impressed me with her endurance on that hike.

Matika loved the woods almost as much as I do. She would start dancing about excitedly whenever I pulled out my hiking boots. Towards the end I occasionally snuck out for a rigorous hike alone, but it wasn’t easy leaving her behind.

She got into trouble a few times – with raccoons, skunks, porcupines, etc. – and on many occasions I had to sleep under my tarp with her soaking wet and caked with mud. Swamp dog. But she was a great hiking companion overall. It’ll be a big adjustment hiking without her.

Truth is, I won’t be hiking without Matika for a long while. Her ghost will accompany me, I’m sure. It’s like that once you’ve bonded in the wild with another creature. Matika wasn’t my pet, she was my canine companion. A companion in wildness. A free spirit. A happy dog. Yeah, she’ll be with me in spirit for many more hikes to come.

 

 

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Mar 09 2019

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A Taste of the Wild

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All week long I worked on my book about wildness and being human, effectively scratching the itch of wildness. Come Friday, with temps reaching into the 20s and the sun shining, I dropped everything and headed for the woods.

The big question these days is whether or not to take my old dog, Matika. She can barely get around now so any walk with her is bound to be a short one. But she’s been cooped up for days as I have. I decided take her. No need for a big outing, I told myself. Just a taste of the wild would do.

I headed for a favorite mountain brook that runs parallel to an unimproved dirt road that’s closed for the season. A beaten path made walking on the snow-covered road easy, especially with Microspikes on my feet. Matika crept along – her legs, weakened by a debilitating disease, giving out every once in a while. I stopped and waited for her every fifty yards or so.

While Matika was catching up to me, I left the path just long enough to post-hole down to the brook for a look. The stream was covered over. There were a few open leads of water but mostly snow piled on ice. All the same, I grooved on the sound of water gurgling softly over the rocks below.

Back on the beaten path, I continued forging uphill, past a beautiful gorge nestled in hemlocks. Then the tracks of previous walkers came to an end. I went a bit farther but Matika was having a hard time of it so I turned around. No matter. The blue sky, mild temps and fresh air lifted my spirits. It was good to get out, if only for a little while.

 

 

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Feb 25 2019

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Owl Fest at the VINS Nature Center

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Although freezing rain made us hesitate, Judy and I drove down to the VINS Nature Center in Quechee, Vermont yesterday to attend the Owl Fest. Since Judy relates to the spirit of owls in general, it seemed like the thing to do. Besides, we were both suffering from cabin fever – a late-winter affliction common among those of us who live this far north.

The Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) does a great job educating both children and adults alike about the wonder and beauty of the natural world. They also maintain a Raptor Center where nearly twenty eagles, hawks, owls and other birds of prey are kept on year-round display in somewhat roomy, outdoor enclosures. It’s worth visiting any time, but on this particular weekend the Owl Fest was on, with plenty of activities for kids and several owls perched on the thick leather gloves of their handlers for viewing up close and personal.

We marveled at how well the screech owl blended into the background when the bark of a tree was put behind it, and how small it is along with the saw-whet owl. A barred owl was on display, of course – a common sight the Vermont woods. I’ve seen it more often then all the other owls put together, anyhow. Judy had her picture taken with Frederick, a Eurasian eagle-owl that’s related to our native great horned owl but runs much bigger. I got the attention of a snowy owl comfortably sitting on the ground in its enclosure and tried to psyche him out, but he was unruffled by my antics. All the same, it was great seeing a snowy owl in the flesh. I’ve never seen one in the wild. What a beautiful creature!

Despite being pummeled for hours by freezing rain and catching a chill, Judy and I both agree the trip was worth it. I think I’ll be better at spotting owls and other raptors in the wild as a consequence. And we’ll certainly be going back to the VINS Nature Center during the warmer months. I highly recommend a visit. Go to the VINS website to learn more.

 

 

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