Archive for August, 2008

Aug 28 2008

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Gap in the Old Stone Wall

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Is the environment currently undergoing revolutionary or evolutionary change? I sat down this morning to answer this rather provocative question but drew a blank. So I did what I usually do when thoughts and words don’t come easy to me. I stepped away from my desk and went for a walk.

A few miles outside town, I parked my car at an overgrown turnout and tramped into a stretch of woods I’d visited before. I followed a logging road until it turned sharply eastward, then bushwhacked north from there. That’s when I realized I had forgotten my compass. I continued bushwhacking north, anyway.

The occasional glimpse of a beaver pond on my right kept me oriented, but I was a little concerned about missing the trail that would eventually lead back to the logging road. I was navigating by memory and that’s always a dicey proposition. Just then I remembered a gap in the old stone wall running east-west through these woods. I could pick up the trail there. Finding that gap would be tricky, though. I didn’t know this area that well.

A few vaguely familiar landmarks cropped up along the way: a half-dead maple tree, a soggy crease in the earth, a huge boulder. None of these things had been on my mind when I stepped into the woods, yet somehow I recognized them. Together they led me to the gap in the old stone wall and then to the trail. Amazing. I couldn’t have done better with a map.

That is how evolution works, I think. Wild nature winds through the material world and, by virtue of trial and error, eventually gets to where it needs to be. Nature itself has memory, reaching beyond the memories of the countless individual plants and animals in it.

When great change occurs, it occurs suddenly, so we are tempted to think it is the result of some obvious set of circumstances rooted in the present. But we aren’t seeing the big picture. That is why humankind has a hard time grasping the causal relationship between, say, the burning of fossil fuels over the past two centuries and global warming. We expect things to develop in a time frame that we can readily comprehend – one corresponding to our lifespans. Yet sometimes it takes many, many years for things to reach fruition. What we perceive as a revolution in nature, a dramatic event, is but a snapshot in a long, drawn out evolutionary process.

The great changes we are seeing in the world around us these days were set in motion generations ago. Consequently, it’ll take a while to set them right. And to do so may require a significant change in our own way of thinking and doing things.

I picked up a game trail on the other side of the old stone wall and tagged the logging road shortly thereafter. The rest of the outing was an easy walk back to the car. Funny how some part of me knew the way through these woods even though I had no conscious memory of it. Still, I’ll make sure to carry a compass the next time I go for a hike.

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Aug 24 2008

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A Quick Jaunt up Aldis Hill

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I slipped into the forest shade at midday, getting away from abstract literary matters for a while. The smell of earth, lush vegetation, dried leaf matter and rotting wood worked its magic on me. It was the smell of wild happiness, reminding me of more remote places I would soon visit. The trees welcomed me with open arms.

To make the short hike last, I cut my pace. A spider’s web glistened in a shaft of light. Leaves rustled ever so quietly in a gentle breeze. A katydid sang its late summer song. The boulders and downed trees scattered about the forest floor seemed timeless and unchanged. I’d seen them all many times before.

The green infinity extending from me in every direction was an illusion to be sure. Aldis Hill is, after all, less than a square mile of forest located on the edge of town. A mere pocket of wildness.

Much to my dog’s disappointment, no squirrels stirred about the forest floor. No bird sang in the heat of the day either. I followed the well-beaten path underfoot all the way to the top of the hill, past the lookout, past secondary paths trailing away. I reveled in the sweaty pant uphill even though it went by all too quickly. My reward was a patch of white asters in bloom near the summit and a passing view of larger hills to the east. A two-note whistle to Matika, who had wandered off, put her back at my side without hesitation. Good dog.

Everyone should have a place like this – an arboreal sanctuary only a few minutes away from home where wild nature can be sampled, triggering memories of more adventurous outings. Some of my best ideas have come to me on this hill, along with a number of unexpected insights. The mind needs lots of space in which to expand if it is to reach beyond the commonplace. Fresh air feeds it. The surrounding forest encourages contemplation. Sometimes an hour is all it takes.

The easy ramble back to the car was one long daydream. I returned to the starting point and popped out of the woods faster than expected. A glimpse through the trees at Lake Champlain in the distance, then into the car I went for the drive home. Back to work. But I’d visited a familiar haunt and was better off for it. Not a deep woods experience, but good enough for the time being.

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Aug 19 2008

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Backyard Campout

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This is where it begins: two tents pitched in the back yard on a warm, dry, late-summer afternoon. Immediately following dinner, five kids carry a bunch of stuff outside and fill the tents. Pillows, sleeping bags, extra blankets, flashlights, stuffed animals, playing cards, books and games – the sheer mass of it all is quite formidable. No matter. This is no backpacking trip.

Judy stays in the house to harbor anyone who’s too afraid to stay out there. The bigger kids have camped out before but this is the first time for John and Mason, the two 4-year-olds. We expect at least one of them to cut and run. I kiss my wife, take a deep breath then slip out the door. It could be a long night.

Everyone’s too excited to sleep, naturally. They marvel at the full moon just now rising into the night sky, then chatter excitedly while filing into the tents. “Zip up the screen door!” I yell to the other kids as I usher the youngest camper, John, into my tent. The mosquitoes are bad this year and the repellent they’re all wearing is only marginally effective.

Through the screen of my tent, I can see everyone in the other tent three feet away. They giggle, jump around and shine their flashlights everywhere. I settle them down a bit then read one bedtime story. My “no talking” rule goes into effect at 9 p.m. and “lights out” at 9:30. The giggling continues a while longer, until I threaten to send people in the house. By ten, all is quiet. A train rumbles past. A muscle car roars down a nearby street. A dog barks in the distance, but the incessant creak-creak of crickets gradually lulls my tired crew to sleep.

Potty runs into the house occur every couple hours or so. I remain ever vigilant, grabbing a few winks as I can. Shortly after sunrise, I’m the first to awaken. I quietly do a Sudoku puzzle while a warm breeze wafts through the tent and leaves rustle. A cardinal calls out, then blue jays, then robins.

One by one, my grandkids pop up like wild lilies opening in the spring. They awaken to the wild ever so slowly – all but the eldest one completely unaware what is happening to them. They’ve been exposed. In due time, my little campers will beg me to take them into the woods for a night or two. And someday I will.

It begins on a Sunday morning, with all six of us crowded into one tent, laughing and talking. Judy is up and fixing breakfast before anyone can drag snacks into the tent and make a mess. She and I are surprised that both of the two younger ones have taken to camping as well as they have. We see lots of camping trips in our future. All we need is another tent for her, the dog, and more stuff.

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Aug 13 2008

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A Blank Spot on the Map

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It’s time to seek out a blank spot on the map and lose myself in it. I’ve reached a point where short excursions into the woods aren’t working for me anymore. This happens every year or two. I get up, go about my daily affairs as cheerfully as I can and pretend that I’m just like everyone else. But down deep I’m fighting back the urge to rip off my clothes, howl at the moon, then disappear into the forest.

This thing called civilization, with all its written and unwritten rules, is a prison to me now. I’m just counting the days until I can escape. Soon I hope to venture deep into the Adirondacks by myself. Just me and my dog, that is, who understands my urges. Already I can hear the loons.

One never breaks completely free of civilization, but it’s possible to go deep enough into wild country where other people become largely irrelevant. A brief encounter with another backwoods traveler; a few minutes of polite conversation with a pair of backpackers; perhaps even an exchange of information about weather or trail conditions with some solitary soul. Nothing more than that. Society is precisely what needs to be left behind.

Not a day goes by now that I don’t think about West Canada Lakes Wilderness. I first visited it in 2002. I wandered through it while hiking the Northville-Placid Trail a couple years ago. It’s the biggest wilderness area in the Adirondacks and one of the largest roadless areas east of the Mississippi. I miss it the way most people miss home when they’ve been away from it for a long time. I’ve blocked out a week next month to go there, so all I have to do is hang tight until then. Easier said than done.

Once the wild has gotten under your skin, there’s no going back to who you were before. Not really. I’ve been dealing with this ever since I left the Alaskan bush sixteen summers ago. In a sense, a part of me never left the bush. Now I need the wild as much as I need human contact. Can’t imagine going without it indefinitely, and there are times like these when it trumps every other need but food and water. So I’m counting the days…

I’m fortunate enough to be married to someone who understands this need. In fact, Judy’s been on me for months to break away. She usually sees it in me before I do. Not quite sure what she sees, but she’s learned over the years to recognize it. Maybe it’s the faraway look in my eyes; maybe it’s the sharpness of my words or the darkness of my thoughts. Hard to say. She just knows.

My dog, Matika, just groaned. She’s lying on the floor, relaxed but ready. If I grabbed my pack and started gathering up my gear, she’d be bouncing off the walls in a matter of minutes. She’s waiting for the command: “Let’s go!” I hope to bark it at her in a few weeks. Then together we’ll go deep into the woods and rediscover our wilder selves. But for now patience, patience.

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Aug 08 2008

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Backpacking with Kaylee

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Although Kaylee had camped in the woods in years past, she had never climbed a major mountain or backpacked any significant distance. A few days ago, we changed that. With walking stick in hand and an adult pack tugging at her shoulders, my 11-year-old granddaughter followed me and my dog up the Emily Proctor Trail, deep into the Breadloaf Wilderness.

While the trail ran flat in places, it was a steady uphill climb for the most part – three and a half miles to the Emily Proctor Shelter. Halfway up the trail, we forded the headwaters of the New Haven River. Usually an ankle-deep stream, it was a torrent thanks to all the rain that had fallen in previous weeks. We crossed barefoot to keep our footwear dry. Kaylee’s pants were wet to mid-thigh by the time we reached the other side.

About a mile shy of the shelter, the wet, muddy trail steepened considerably. I started huffing and puffing; Kaylee bore it all stoically even though her sneakers were soaked. “The shelter can’t be that far ahead,” I kept saying, but secretly I feared that we’d taken on too much of a hike and my young woodswoman’s spirit would be broken by it.

The two fiftyish women hanging out at the Emily Proctor Shelter were surprised when Kaylee popped into the clearing with girlish buoyancy. They had hiked up the trail earlier so they knew how hard it was. Kaylee and I chatted with them briefly, then found a tent platform not too far away where we set up camp for the night. I cooked dinner on my stove. Kaylee wanted a campfire but I pointed out that the surrounding woods were so wet that it would be more trouble than it was worth.

Kaylee noticed how fast the clouds were moving overhead. I explained how they gain speed as they cross over the mountains and how quickly the weather can change as a consequence. She soon found out for herself. When she left the tent to pee around midnight, the sky was full of stars – more than she’d ever seen before. Her second time out, she was in a dense, boreal fog. At daybreak the sky was partly blue, then dark clouds appeared out of nowhere and it drizzled.

Ours was an easy ascent to the summit of Mt. Wilson only a few hundred feet higher than our camp. We perched at the lookout around mid-morning. There we watched some clouds roll over the ridge then drop into the valley below. “Amazing,” was all Kaylee could say. That’s when I knew that the difficult climb the day before had not been in vain.

I patched Kaylee’s blisters as we descended the Emily Proctor Trail and tried to lighten her pack when it started digging into her shoulders. I made a mental note to get her real hike boots and other appropriate gear in the near future. It was now clear to me that she was into backpacking.

After recrossing the stream, we fished for trout without success. That, fatigue, and the threat of rain made us change our plans. We had intended to camp a second night along the river, but hiking out and having dinner at Friendly’s suddenly seemed like a better idea. The flash floods that struck the area the next day assured me that we had made the wiser choice.

“You’re lucky,” the two women at the shelter had said to me. I had agreed. You can’t beat the company of an open-eyed child on the trail. The sense of wonder that one feels in the wild erodes over time, but the fire burning strong in young hearts can rekindle it. I only hope that my creaky, old knees hold up as I backpack with Kaylee in the years ahead. After all, she is just beginning to explore the world and I want to be there for as much of it as possible.

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Aug 04 2008

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Wet-wading a Mountain Stream

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Sometimes I get into such a funk that I have to grab my fly rod and head for the hills in the middle of the day even though I know that summer afternoons are a lousy time to fish. While driving out of town, I make a short list in my head of the reasons why I’m in a funk. Fact is, though, I often reach a point where I just can’t handle the layers of bullshit that pass for daily life in these modern times. In the middle of winter, I use a strong cup of coffee and thoughtful essay by some dead philosopher to keep the funk at bay.  But in the summer, it makes more sense to simply get away.

Above a series of deep pools just east of Montgomery Center, the headwaters of the Trout River flow out of a forest that’s surprisingly wild for being so close to a major ski area. I prefer fishing other places when I’m serious about catching trout, but this is a good place to lose the funk. The sheer volume of water passing through this rugged terrain makes it nearly impossible to walk this stream without crossing it and getting wet, and that’s a good reason to come here. It isn’t easy to dwell upon the sorry state of human affairs while cold mountain water is rushing hard against your thighs.

Wet-wading a mountain stream, fly rod in hand, is an exercise in humility. This isn’t the idyllic fly-fishing experience painted by Maclean in A River Runs Through It, where skill, knowledge and grace induce a communion with nature reminiscent of simpler times. This is wet, sloppy, pointless fishing where the trout run small, your backcast often catches in the overhanging branches of trees, and you slip on the rocks and fall down. Perfect! Now I’m getting somewhere. Now I’m learning, once again, that the bullshit of the world is rooted within.

I curse the tree when my fly is caught in it. I curse the stones underfoot when I fall down. I curse the river when I can’t entice the big fish to rise to my offerings. But eventually I stop cursing. Once I’m wet to the waist, after I’ve stumbled up the stream long enough and lost enough flies, I stop cursing. And the whimsical catch-and-release game that I’m playing with 6-inch brookies seems pleasant enough.

I don’t know how other people do it, how they manage to keep their wits when the world around them is going crazy. My wife works for the State and deals with more bullshit in a week than I do in a year. A friend of mine seems to thrive on the kind of bureaucratic madness that would make me go postal. My stepson is doing well for himself in Washington D. C. – an environment that seems utterly toxic to me. Different people have different coping mechanisms, no doubt. Mine is an afternoon on a mountain stream when I can’t disappear into deep woods for a longer period of time.

The hike back to the car is often the best part. This is especially true when I’ve followed the stream so far back that I’m not quite sure where I am, or when retracing my steps seems like too much work. Then I climb away from the water and tag some kind of trail. With soaked boots squishing and my rod pointing the way, I tramp out of the woods with a stupid grin fixed on my face. The brush along the trail whips against me but I don’t care. An ovenbird is singing, spotted touch-me-not is blooming in the wet places, and smell of the forest is intoxicating. Yessir, life is good when you can shed the bullshit. I unload mine whenever I can.

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Aug 01 2008

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Thunderstorms have been ravaging the area for days, making it hard to get out. So when a window of fair weather emerged this morning, I took advantage of it. I loaded my dog, Matika, into the car and headed for the Rail Trail just a few miles north of town.

The well-groomed gravel path underfoot made it easy to stretch my legs. I worked up a sweat in no time. Yeah, I was making tracks and loving it, but just couldn’t stay on the trail. The cool, shady forest on either side of the path was calling my name. So I trespassed. I ignored the signs telling me to stay away and then, when no one was looking, followed a game trail into the dense woods.

Matika kept charging ahead of me and I kept calling her back. That made it hard to be quiet – my preferred mode of travel whenever I trespass. I spotted someone’s homestead through the trees and changed course. I heard the buzz of a chainsaw, then I veered away. When I saw light breaking through the forest directly ahead, I turned back towards the Rail Trail. I’d had enough. Sometimes a bushwhack is full of pleasant surprises. Other times it’s a bust.

There are a lot more “No Trespassing” signs in the countryside today than there were twenty-five years ago when I moved to Vermont. As more and more people flock here from the crowded cities along the Eastern Seaboard, more land gets posted. This is only natural, I suppose. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. Soon a guy like me won’t be able to legally wander anywhere except on town, state or federal land. In other words, the freedom of the hills is in heavy retreat before precious property rights. Hunters have known this for years, but now even woodswalkers are starting to feel the pinch. It’s a turn of events that would greatly trouble Thoreau if he were alive today.

Up the Rail Trail a short way, I came to a large wetland and watched for wildlife for a while. A few bullfrogs croaked from the cattails and thrushes sang from the woods behind me. Otherwise the place was quiet. Matika plunged into a pool of muddy water just for the hell of it. I enjoyed the evening primrose, bladder campion, St. Johnswort and other wildflowers growing along the path as I walked back to the car. The sky filled with clouds. We reached the car before they opened up. It was good getting out, but the unwelcoming signs put a damper on things. Oh well. Next time I’ll go someplace wilder.

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