Jul 30 2021

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When Least Expected

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A few days ago Judy and I lingered in the Northeast Kingdom after visiting family at Lake Wallace, clear up in the northeast corner of Vermont. We drove past the small town of Island Pond to the Wenlock Wildlife Management Area. Then we walked the trail to Moose Bog Pond. We had encountered some interesting birds there during a visit last year and hoped to do so again.

The trail is a short, easy, nearly flat path winding through a spruce/fir forest that’s home to the ever-elusive spruce grouse. I caught a glimpse of that bird last year but it disappeared before Judy could get a photo. No matter. There were plenty of friendly red-breasted nuthatches and grey jays to entertain us at Moose Bog Pond back then.

But that was last year. This year the grey jays were nowhere to be seen, and the nuthatches were skittish. A great blue heron was feeding at the pond, but it was too far away for Judy to get a good shot. So she photographed northern pitcher plants as we hung out for a while on the boardwalk jutting into the bog surrounding the pond. It was a beautiful summer day in the woods so we were happy just being there. All the same, I could tell that Judy was a tad disappointed.

On the way out, Judy took pictures of some interesting mushrooms while I crept ahead. That’s when I caught a little movement out of the side of my eye. I looked over and, sure enough, there was a spruce grouse half-hidden in the dense understory. I froze in place then signaled to Judy. She was looking down at the time and didn’t see me at first, but I didn’t dare say a word. Remarkably, the grouse didn’t move away. Then Judy saw me gesturing wildly and slowly moved in to photograph the bird. Even more remarkably, the grouse turned around giving Judy an even better view. She took a bunch of pictures.

Isn’t that the way it goes when dealing with wildlife? How many times have I gone looking for a creature only to come up empty-handed? How many times have they popped up, taking me completely by surprise? It’s all very serendipitous.

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Jul 19 2021

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Deep Woods Solitude

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A few days ago I hiked five and a half miles into Five Ponds Wilderness, located in the western Adirondacks, and set up camp at Cat Mountain Pond. I got there early in the afternoon, hoping to be the first person there. I was. In fact, I was the only person there well into the next day.

After a quick swim to wash away sweat, I settled into a rather pensive frame of mind. This is normal for me. As a philosopher of wildness, I often contemplate existence and meaning while sojourned in the woods. The wild seems to me like the best place to do so. The wilder, the better.

With no one to talk to, all my elaborate philosophical arguments seem rather moot. The wild isn’t interested in my version of reality. It is reality. I can babble all sorts of logical theorems to myself, but that’s pointless. I can scribble down my thoughts in a journal, but my thoughts are dominated by the wild. That is, if I’m paying any attention to my surroundings, all I can do is take dictation.

Are my journals the gospel according to the wild? Hardly. There’s a big difference between experiencing the reality of the wild and being able to articulate it. After forty-odd years of scribbling I’ve come close perhaps, but deserve no cigar. There remains some aspect of the natural world that eludes me. There remains some aspect of it that is beyond words.

All interpretations of the Real are sadly lacking. The wild teaches me this time and time again. It teaches me this when the sun sets, a barred owl hoots and the hum of insects fills the forest. It teaches me this as a great wild silence settles over a still pond. All I can do is listen, and this listening borders upon being a mystical experience, for that’s all that we mere mortals can do.

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Jul 12 2021

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Backyard Wildlife

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Early this morning I spotted an turkey with its new brood in our back yard. Last year we had a bunch of them come through our yard on a daily basis. Judy and I are hoping that happens again this year.

We live in a grove of maple trees that used to be tapped for syrup but is now a cluster of homes. Only two miles out of town, our neighborhood hardly qualifies as being rural, but the wild animals living around here don’t know that. They visit us on a regular basis.

We’ve put up several bird feeders so we see the usual suspects during the day: woodpeckers, goldfinches, nuthatches, and other avian inhabitants. Crows and mourning doves scrounge around at the base of the feeders. Squirrels take advantage of the situation, of course. All our feeders have baffles on them because of the squirrels – circular metal obstructions halfway up the poles to the feeders that confound those rodents. A single chipmunk scurries about, as well. Yeah, our backyard is a busy place.

Recently field mice got into our garage and made a real mess of things. That probably explains why I found a garter snake in the garage once. But the snake didn’t keep the mice from damaging one of our cars. So the garage doors stay closed now, and eight highly effective mouse traps take care of the occasional mouse that gets in anyway.

Gary Snyder once said that the wilderness isn’t all berries and sunshine. The same could be said about our backyard, even though there there are plenty of berries to be had, as the deer passing through know all too well. They like to munch on the flowers in our garden, as well. Hmm…

When a mouse dies in one of the traps, I lay its body on an open patch of ground near the edge of the woods. I hear a barred owl back there around daybreak, thinking that she gets the treat. Or maybe one of the wandering skunks or raccoons does. Or maybe the red fox that showed up once knows about that snack bar. Hard to say.

With the help of Judy’s nephew Rick, we’ve just put up a game camera in the backyard to find out exactly who’s getting what. A bobcat showed up on a neighbor’s game camera earlier this year. We’re hoping to see that, or some other big surprise. After all, there are plenty of critters out there. I see more wildlife here than I do while wandering around in deep woods. Go figure.

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Jun 25 2021

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A Good Day in the Mountains

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After a steep, one-mile hike, I arrive at Sterling Pond just as the sun is cresting Madonna Peak. I’ve come here early to fly fish the pond before the crowd arrives. Situated between two ski resorts and a well-beaten path out of Smuggler’s Notch, this is a popular place. But I haven’t been here in years so thought I’d check it out. I’ve done well fishing this pond for brook trout in the past.

Water laps to shore as a gentle breeze rocks the conifers surrounding the pond. Chickadees and veerys call out, otherwise it’s very quiet here. I cast a dry fly repeatedly upon the pond’s surface then switch to a wet one. No result either way. The trout aren’t rising. But with temps in the 60s, a blue sky overhead and no mosquitoes or black flies, I don’t really care.

I hike to the far end of the pond and try my luck again. Day hikers show up back where I was fishing before but I can barely hear them. I cast for a half an hour or so, then make an entry in my field journal while eating a mid-morning snack. Again, no trout rising.

While hiking the trail around the pond, I try my luck again at a couple other places. Still no action so I pack up my rod and hike towards Spruce Peak. Atop that mountain, I eat lunch while gazing across Smuggler’s Notch to Mount Mansfield. No one else is here. And the summer breeze, still blowing steadily, keeps the black flies at bay. I lounge near the edge of a cliff thinking about nothing, nothing at all. I’m happy just being in the moment.

Eventually I leave Spruce Peak then hike down the beaten path to the notch. Dozens of hikers pass me – most of them on their way up to the pond. I step aside, letting them pass. It’s early afternoon and I’m in no rush. I’ve already enjoyed a good day in the mountains, even though I caught no fish.

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Jun 14 2021

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Up the Mountain Brook

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Last week I had such a good time fishing a mountain brook that yesterday I decided to do it again. With temps in the 70s and under the cover of trees most of the time, I hardly broke a sweat. And the biting bugs weren’t too bad. But to my surprise, I learned something about myself that I’ve somehow missed during brook fishing trips in previous years. It suddenly occurred to me, as I was scrambling over some of the rockier sections of the brook, that I’m not as light on my feet as I used to be. Not even close.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I’m in my 60s now and time takes its toll on the body. All the same, in my minds eye I am still a young man and expecting to rock-hop up the brook with all the agility I had in my 30s. So what a wake-up call it was to jump down a few feet from a large rock and feel the hard landing shoot all the way up my spine. My worn out knees didn’t absorb the shock.

Judy says I should be glad that I can even do it. Scrambling up a mountain brook full of boulders and blowdown and cascading water is no mean feat. She’s right, of course, and I am thankful for being in good enough shape to ascend a mountain brook. And only once did I fall down – during the initial descent into the steep ravine. So I can’t complain. Still there are only two occasions these days when I really feel my age: when getting up to pee in the middle of the night, and when negotiating the rugged terrain of the backcountry.

The exuberance that I felt as a younger man while immersed in the wild has given way to reflection in my advanced years. I think more about life and death as I walk a brook these days, accompanied by the ghosts of old friends and canine companions who have passed away. I am more grateful for simply being in the woods, and take none of it for granted. Consequently, I treat the fish I catch with greater reverence. Their lives are nearly as precious to me as my own, so I make it a point to put them back to the water unharmed. Rarely do I take them home for dinner any more.

Oh yeah, I caught a few brook trout yesterday, but nothing to brag about. And the ones that got away were bigger, of course. All that is beside the point. Nowadays I work my way up the mountain brook in deep forest solitude angling for something much more important – a sense of belonging in the natural world and delighting in it. In that regard, I am never disappointed. In that regard, I always return home with my creel full.

 

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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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