Archive for March, 2010

Mar 30 2010

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Mist in the Birches

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With temps in the 30s and a 90% chance of rain, I wasn’t real excited about going for a hike today.  But it was either that or mope around the house all afternoon.  So I changed into wools and thermals, and went out the door.

The moment I stepped into the woods, I knew I’d made the right decision.  With the ground giving way underfoot and nothing but trees all around, I immediately felt my nerves uncoil.  Five or ten minutes later, as I was leaving the logging road and starting to bushwhack, I sensed an old, familiar self returning.  It’s like that sometimes.  After a long winter, I don’t even know who I am any more.  It takes a cool, wet forest to remind me.

I walked past patches of snow still on the ground – reminders that winter just ended, and that one last snowstorm is still quite possible.  Here in New England, spring is the least predictable of all the seasons.  And that’s why I was still dressed for the colder weather.

My dog, Matika, frolicked through the forest, hot on the tracks of wild animals, occasionally flushing a ruffed grouse.  I can only imagine what she was thinking as she sniffed the fresh piles of deer pellets.  Maybe she too was feeling a wilder self return.

Angry about the poor health of loved ones, the fallout of a bad economy and never having enough money, I hiked furiously at first.  I swept around a frozen beaver pond, hellbent upon moving forward like I had somewhere important to go.  Then I stopped in a nearly pure stand of white birches as if stopping the madness.  I looked around and saw only mist and stillness.  I listened and heard only forest silence, until a pileated woodpecker let out its manic cry in the distance.  And that’s when it started to drizzle.  But I didn’t care.

Sweating in so many layers, I shed my sweater and rolled up my sleeves.  Then I meandered aimlessly through the forest, sometimes following a trail, sometimes not, as the mist thickened around me.  Matika flashed a great big smile at me and I returned it – both of us in dog heaven.

Back on the logging road, I left deep boot prints next to moose tracks while walking out.  I didn’t even try to dodge the pools of meltwater.  I sloshed through them like an eight year old trusting his rubber boots.  Then I crossed a brook with a short, easy hop.  The open brook’s babble and bubble was music to my ears.

Returning home, I marveled at how dismal the day looked from inside the house, and how chilled I felt all of a sudden.  So it’s a good thing that I went out today.  Otherwise, I might still think that it’s still winter.

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Mar 25 2010

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Thinking about Hiking

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A reading group in Rindge, New Hampshire invited me down to talk about my Long Trail book, Forest under my Fingernails, so that’s what I did last weekend.  I read a few excerpts from the book then recounted my adventures on that trail – something I haven’t done in years.  That got me thinking again about long-distance hiking.  And while studying a New Hampshire road map on the drive back home, my eyes drifted to that section of the Appalachian Trail cutting through the White Mountains.  Talk about scratching an itch!

Last August, after the 100 Mile Wilderness beat me up, I told my wife that I was done with long-distance hiking.  But now, seven months later, I can see why she didn’t believe me.  This is a recurring theme in my life, I think.  The many small miseries of trail pounding shrink in importance, while memories of wild happiness loom large.  Each morning I get up and write about that trek, and each morning I wrestle with the long desire to get back into deep woods as soon as possible.

It’s spring, the beginning of a brand new warm season, and I can’t wait to really stretch my legs again.  The 2 and 3-mile walks I’ve been taking all winter long aren’t nearly enough.  I sneak furtive glances at topographical maps the same way other men look at beautiful women.  Snow-capped mountains taunt me every time I drive somewhere.  My boots are right next to the door, ready and waiting.  And my dog, Matika, looks at me each day, her eyes saying:  “Isn’t it time to head for the hills?”  Soon, very soon, I tell her.  Right after I finish this task and a few more.

No doubt about it, thinking about hiking leads to hiking.  The more I think about it, the more I want to get out there.  My body has been telling me as much for months now.  The desire is as physical as it is mental.  In fact, I can’t tell any more whether it’s my body or my mind egging me on.  All I know is that it’s time – it’s past time.  So soon I’ll grab my rucksack and go . . . right after I finish this very important task . . .

As an outdoor/nature writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about hiking.  I probably think about it more than I actually do it.  That is the terrible irony of my line of work.  But I suspect that many non-writers fall into this trap, as well.  Modern living encourages it.  We all live busy lives, which lends itself to more thinking than doing.

That said, I hope to drop everything soon and disappear into the woods for a day or two.  I’ll make it a point to take a longer hike this summer, and tackle yet another 100-mile stretch of trail before I grow much older.  Yeah, I’m a busy guy.  But whatever needs to be done, I’m sure it can wait.

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Mar 18 2010

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The Red-wing Returns

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When does spring begin?  Everyone has a different idea about that.  For some spring arrives when the crocuses pop up.  The more skeptical wait for lilacs.  Many look for robins feeding in their front yards.  For me it’s the return of the red-winged blackbirds.  Once they’re back, everything starts changing and changing fast.

I heard the red-wing’s unmistakable call the other day, while I was indoors reading.  I got up and went to the kitchen window and, sure enough, there it was on the ground right below the bird feeders.  The red and yellow markings on that bird are distinct.  The red-winged blackbirds are back.  The calendar on the wall tells me they shouldn’t be, but they are.

Judy and I spotted a tufted titmouse at the feeder nearly a week ago.  According to my bird book titmice don’t migrate, so seeing one doesn’t really count as sign of spring.  But we couldn’t help but take it as a good omen.  The red-winged blackbirds appeared shortly thereafter.

The grackles and cowbirds have also returned.  My wife doesn’t want me badmouthing those troublemakers like I did last year, so I won’t say anything more about them.  It’s clear, though, that the red-winged blackbirds are only the beginning of a great migration north.  The robins can’t be far behind.

We have twelve hours of daylight now.  The Vernal Equinox takes place the day after tomorrow.  While that doesn’t necessarily mark the end of winter this far north, there are several indications that spring has come early this year.  The first green shoots of day lilies have pushed up in my front yard.  The grass is greening.  Mud wasps have already appeared on my porch.  And while there’s still plenty of snow in the woods, the snow piles around town are almost gone.

Where are my binoculars?  I keep hearing an unfamiliar bird song and want to go out and identify it.  Yeah, I’ve got the fever already.  No, I’m not foolish enough to put away my snow shovels just yet, or peel the caulk from my windows.  But there’s no sense denying what I see, hear or feel . . .

Suddenly a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders.  Soon my hiking boots will be caked with mud.  Bring on the cold rain.  I’m ready to wander aimlessly through a misty awakening forest as polypody and evergreen woodferns slowly spring back to life.  Something deep within me is stirring.  You can wait for a 70-degree day if you want, but I’m calling it right now.  It’s spring!

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Mar 12 2010

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Celebrating the Long Trail

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Last night I went to the DoubleTree Hotel in South Burlington to join 300 other people celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Long Trail.  The evening was full of laughs, tales of incredible dedication, and deep reverence for the mountains that so many of us hold dear.  300 people in a single room – it was enough of a crowd to scratch the itch of my agoraphobia.  But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

On March 11, 1910 a fellow named James P. Taylor gathered together two dozen Vermonters at a hotel in downtown Burlington to charter the Green Mountain Club.  They created the club in order to build a long-distance trail that would “make the mountains play a larger part in the life of the people.”  A couple months later, Clarence Cowles and Craig O. Burt cut a three-mile section of trail from Mt. Mansfield to Nebraska Notch, and the Long Trail was born.  It took twenty years and hundreds of volunteers, but eventually the Long Trail spanned the entire length of Vermont, from Massachusetts to the Canadian border.  That was no mean feat.

I was fortunate enough to hike the Long Trail end-to-end back in 1995.  To this day that experience remains one of the highlights of my life.  As anyone who has thru-hiked will tell you, several weeks on the trail does something to you that all the day-to-day aggravations of modern living can’t touch.  It’s a life-changing experience to say the least.  I wrote at length about it in a book that I first published back in ’99, and I still stand by those words.

“Mountain saints” is what Taylor called those who built the Long Trail and I feel much the same way about them.  Even if there were no LT, I would still wander through the Green Mountains, making them my own.  But it’s so much easier to do that because of those who cut the trail, those who have maintained it, and those who have worked so tirelessly to preserve it.  Thank you mountain saints!

The Green Mountain Club, now almost 10,000 strong, is still hard at work building shelters, improving trail, and securing the corridor through which the trail passes.  I’m no joiner – far from it – but the GMC is one of the few organizations to which I proudly belong.  Maybe someday I’ll do something that will help perpetuate the LT.  In the meantime, I will hike that trail keeping in mind all those who have made it possible.

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Mar 08 2010

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Rail Trail

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It’s mundane, really, this crushed gravel trail passing through farmer’s fields and woodlots, following the ghosts of past trains.  With its absurdly gradual grade and perfectly manicured surface, it doesn’t seem right to even call it a trail.  This is more like a sidewalk devoid of concrete, cutting through the countryside.  This trail couldn’t be any less wild unless it went right through a city.  But there’s nowhere else I’d rather walk today.  After all, it’s completely exposed to late-winter sunlight so it has been stripped of snow for the most part.  And until the next snowstorm comes along, I can press my boots into its soft, gray mud and pretend that spring has already arrived.  The Rail Trail won’t tell me otherwise.

The Rail Trail is one of my guilty pleasures – an easy alternative to woods wandering, when I haven’t the time or the inclination to drive half an hour to the mountains.  My dog, Matika, doesn’t care.  Rail trail, park trail, or deep forest bushwhack, it’s all the same to her.  All she wants to do is stretch her legs and sniff around a bit.  And yes, I have days when that’s all I want to do, as well, assuming that sniffing and daydreaming are pretty much the same thing.

Remarkably enough, I often feel a sense of desolation on the Rail Trail – something similar to what I feel in deep woods.  Not all the time, mind you, but on days when no one else is around, when it is possible to look half a mile in any direction and see nothing but empty landscape.  Empty of other walkers, that is.  That’s room enough for my mind to wander about wildly even though the furrowed fields all around me are shouting cultivation.  This is prove positive, I suppose, that wildness is more a state of mind than anything else.

While walking, I hear the caw-caw of nearby crows.  I stop and look for them, looking around as if I’ve never been here before, or as if I’m about to see something I’ve never seen.  But everything in view is very familiar after years of walking this trail, and the only surprise is the feeling bubbling up from within:  everything’s going to be all right.  As long as I can keep walking, with the wind or against it, everything is all right.

Everyone should have a place like this, minutes from home, to stretch one’s legs without having to think about property rights or passing cars.  My dog appreciates it and so do I.  Truth be told, my sanity is more dependent upon the Rail Trail than it is the wildest landscape, especially during this in-between season when the forested hills aren’t quite as accessible as they’ll be in another month.  No, not wild by the strictest definition of the word, but wild enough.  This’ll do for now.

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Mar 03 2010

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Too Early for Spring

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A cardinal sings its heart out from a nearby tree.  The ground out my back door is barren, muddy and soft.  The first light arrives before breakfast and lasts until dinnertime.  Something wild is stirring within me now, but it’s way too early for spring.  Here in the North Country, we know better.  We know there’s at least one more deep freeze in store for us, along with several more winter storms.  This is March, after all, not April.

Oh sure, this freeze-and-thaw routine is good sugarin’ weather, but the sap can run for well over a month before the first bud on a maple tree opens.  You might find the first purple fingers of skunk cabbage punching through the snow along the edges of wetlands, ponds and waterways, but don’t go looking for any other wildflowers just yet.  You might see a robin on an exposed patch of grass, but it’s wintering over – not a migrant.  No, don’t start thinking spring just yet.  We’re still on the frosty side of the vernal equinox.

There are lots of tracks in the snow now.  The wild animals are stirring.  Won’t be long before they’re prowling around our trashcans.  Thought I smelled a skunk the other day, but maybe that was just wishful thinking.  Yeah, you know you’re in a bad place when you start longing for skunks.  What can I say?  Not everyone living this far north is into winter.  I’m tired of pretending that I like cold and snow just because I live in Vermont.

The wild stirs deep within.  I’m trying to ignore it.  I have a lot of work to do and can’t go gallivanting into the woods just yet.  All the same, a trail is calling my name.  My dog stares at me.  “Do you hear it?” she asks with her eyes.  Damned dog.  If I listened to her, I’d never get any work done.

I’ve been productive lately.  My head is full of ideas.  Oh sure, I’m getting soft and fat sitting here in front of this computer screen typing away, but I’m getting things done!  So forget those wild urges.  There are still piles of dirty snow out my window and the sky is endlessly overcast.  March is an excellent month for finishing projects started last fall.  Besides, it’s way too early for spring.

“Do you hear it?” my dog asks again.  I tell her that I’m trying to ignore it.  But something tells me I’ll be walking a trail later on today.  The sun blazing through a crack in the clouds will change everything.  Then I’ll pull on my boots and slip out the door.  Better get some work done this morning while I can.

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