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Sep 10 2022

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Wildness or a View?

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This week I did two day hikes in the Adirondacks on two completely different trails. One took me deep into the wild. The other provided great views.

First I went to Pigeon Lake Wilderness on the western side of Adirondack Park. I hiked a narrow, mostly earthen path in a 7-mile loop through the woods. The trail was wet and muddy in places as I skirted beaver ponds and wetlands. I stopped at Queer Lake for lunch. It was so quiet there that I could hear water lapping to shore and leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. After lunch I sat against a fallen log and let my mind wander. I closed my eyes and napped for a short while. Then I slowly packed up and hiked out. Even though I took my time leaving the forest, I still worked up a good sweat. And I never saw anyone the entire time I was out there.

The next day I drove to the trailhead for Blue Mountain –– one of the most prominent features in the central Adirondacks. I got there early. There were no other cars in the parking lot when I arrived. I set forth up the mountain, following a heavily eroded, rock-strewn path about five feet wide. It was uphill all the way for about two miles. Even though I took lots of breaks, I managed to do the 1,800 feet ascent in less than 2 hours. The view from the fire tower on the summit was phenomenal. The Adirondack Park spread before me in all its glory, making me truly appreciate the sheer size of it. Two young hikers appeared just as I was descending the fire tower. While sitting below the fire tower, I listened to them chatter excitedly as they pointed out the summits and lakes in the distance. On my way back down the trail, I passed nine or ten more parties of hikers. There were over a dozen cars in the parking lot when I reached it, with more arriving.

Without a doubt, the view from the fire tower on top of Blue Mountain was well worth the climb. And I enjoyed the endorphin rush that came with the physical effort necessary to get up there. But hiking up that mountain wasn’t a wilderness experience by any stretch of the imagination. For that I would recommend a venture into Pigeon Lake Wilderness, or something like it. There is something about being alone in an undeveloped, rarely visited place that completely changes the way one looks at the world. Doing both was great, of course. But if I had to choose between the two, well, I’d choose the latter.

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Aug 27 2022

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Tending a Campfire

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Earlier this week, I went into the woods overnight just to get away from my work and chill out. I walked up a logging road winding into the Green Mountains, cut across an overgrown meadow, then bushwhacked along a crystal clear stream until I found a beautiful spot to camp.

Setting up my tent and making myself right at home didn’t take long, but the woods were wet from rain the day before, so it took a while to strip off the bark on the wood I gathered. Wood without its bark dries out fast and burns well. After gathering plenty of it, I ate lunch, did a little naturalizing, and wrote in my field journal before taking a long nap. Backwoods adventure? No, more like seriously goofing off.

That evening I placed some birch bark in the middle of the campfire ring I had created, built a small tipi of tiny sticks over it, then struck a match. Ten minutes later I had a good fire going. Another ten minutes after that I had water boiled up in my handy little one-quart pot. I kept the fire going as I drank hot tea with my dinner. I continued tending the fire long after its usefulness.

The sun disappeared behind a nearby ridge. Daylight faded away. The campfire slowly became the center of my universe. I fed sticks into it, carefully placing them to maximize the burn. My thoughts wandered. The water in the nearby stream rushed over rocks incessantly. The fire snapped and crackled, occasionally kicking out a blue flame. It mesmerized me as darkness closed in. I lost track of time.

Late in the evening I let the campfire slowly die out, becoming embers. Then I hit it hard with several pots of water from the brook before going to bed. In the morning I fired it up again, letting it die out quickly after breakfast. Then I dismantled the campfire, tossing the stones in the brook and burying a couple handfuls of cold ashes. No trace of it remained when I hiked away.

Pity the poor souls in the distant or perhaps not-too-distant future who will be unable to build a campfire anywhere. You can’t buy the kind of solace a campfire provides. It is a good reason to go in the woods, venturing off-trail, if you ask me.

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Aug 11 2022

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The Shock of Late Summer

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Yesterday I noticed the white wood asters in bloom in my back yard and felt the shock of late summer. Is it really that time of year already? I have just gotten used to running around barefoot, in a t-shirt and shorts. It seems like the warm season idle just began.

Judy and I sat in Taylor Park yesterday, listening to a concert as the sun sank slowly in the west. The air temperature was a perfect 70 degrees and flowers bloomed in the small garden before us while children scurried about. A few hours before that I had lounged in the shade on my patio, feeding a resident chipmunk and watching hummingbirds at the feeders while I read a book. At the start of each day, I open up the house, allowing a gentle summer breeze to waft through our living room. And every day is a good day – even when temps shoot into the 90s, even when it rains. Summertime is a prolonged dream.

Strawberries, a long hike through the shady forest, a dip in a mountain stream, corn on the cob and fresh tomatoes, birdsongs all day long, cotton ball clouds in a blue sky, wildflowers and a leafy green everywhere –– the simple joys of this season just keep coming. Then suddenly there are wood asters, goldenrod, and the shelves of stores are stocked with back-to-school supplies.

Yes, I have noticed the subtle shortening of daylight hours but have chosen to ignore it. Yes, I’m well aware that autumn has its own delights, but I’m not ready to let go of summer just yet. I am still in a summertime frame of mind. And the remaining month of it always feels more precious than the previous two.

The days slip by, the months, the years… I’m at that point in my life where life itself feels precious. I am shocked by the passage of time. Was the last summer camp with our grandkids really five years ago? Has it actually been over a decade since my hike through the 100-Mile Wilderness? Have 40 years gone by since my arrival in Vermont? This all comes as a surprise to me.

Even the long days of summer aren’t long enough. Life is short. There’s no time to lose.

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Jul 28 2022

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High Summer Hike

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Sometimes I just have to drop everything and go. Yesterday I worked in my study from dawn until mid-afternoon, building up my online bookselling biz and putting together yet another WTB anthology of nature writing. But enough is enough. I shut down the desktop computer, pulled on my boots, and slipped out the door. Less than an hour later, I was tramping through the forest following a dusty, rock-strewn trail winding through the trees.

It felt good to stretch my legs, breathing heavily again. I hadn’t planned on a vigorous hike but my body wanted it. With no wind, high humidity and temps in the 80s, I was sweating in no time despite the shade provided by the canopy overhead.

My eyes feasted on the endless green. The smell of midsummer vegetation and the soothing forest silence convinced me that I’d made the right call. A pileated woodpecker sang in the distance. A nearby hermit thrush serenaded me. Frogs croaked from the wetland I easily traversed, thanks to a boardwalk. And my highly organized morning thoughts gave way to afternoon daydreams.

When the trail started climbing steadily, I felt an overwhelming urge to hike as hard and fast as I could. There was no one around to hear my grunts and groans or to see me soaking my t-shirt. That had a lot to do with it. Sometimes I like to meander through the woods simply grooving on the wild. Other times I like to charge along a trail as if my life depended upon getting somewhere. It has nothing to do with any given destination and everything to do with wanting to feel fully alive and completely in the moment.

Late July already. Amazing. Summertime doesn’t last long, especially in northern Vermont. As I returned to my parked car, I wondered what else I could do to make the most of these halcyon days. Winter is a good time of year for think work, no doubt. But in high summer, it’s better to go outside and get physical.

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Jul 08 2022

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Two Completely Different Landscapes

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Last month, towards the end of a big trip out West, I hiked in the Mojave Desert with my friend Bill Weiss. We went into Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California to be specific. We left his Jeep at the end of a dirt road and hiked to Queen Mountain before sunrise – before the sun had a chance to really heat things up. We wore jackets to protect ourselves from a strong, dry wind that threatened to strip the moisture from our bodies. The air temperature was in the 70s when we started, and in the 80s when we finished our hike a few hours later.

A fine dust covered the ground, along with rocks of all sizes. There was no sign of water anywhere. Yucca, creosote and cactus plants arose from the arid landscape. They sported all kinds of needles and other hard, sharp edges. As Bill pointed out, desert plants have attitude.

When the sun rose, I was awestruck by the beauty of this wide-open country. The mountains in the distance were awash in pastel colors, and the folds in the ground closer to us cast long shadows as did the vegetation. Oh, but that blinding orb shined relentlessly once it finally showed itself. We stripped off our jackets and tipped the bills of our hats down over our eyes as we hiked out. We sucked down precious water from our bottles. Dust mixed with the sweat and sunscreen on my exposed forearms. In the desert there is no place to hide from that blazing sun. We were glad to be back indoors later on that day, when temps spiked over 100 degrees.

Yesterday I hiked up Mount Abraham in central Vermont. Temps were in the 60s when I started and in the low 70s when I finished. Nice and cool, especially under the cover of trees, but I sweated the entire time anyway. The forest was damp, very damp, after weeks of considerable rain. There was water running everywhere, and the trail was all roots and rocks and mud puddles. From the top of the mountain, I marveled at the Green Mountains rolling away to the south beneath billowing clouds. A thick haze covered the Champlain Valley to the west, due to high humidity. The sun peaked occasionally from the clouds. The wind blew but it was more comforting than threatening as it usually is this time of year. The wind in the middle of winter, well, that’s another story.

The desert has its charms, but I’m a creature of the forest. I like having that canopy overhead and feel quite comfortable in the endlessly green understory. Granted, it’s a lot easier to get lost in the woods than it is in the open desert, but I always manage to find my way home. And I don’t like being very far away from water. Others don’t mind it, though. To each his/her own, I suppose.

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Jun 20 2022

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On the Road

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I just returned home from 5 weeks on the road. A writer friend died suddenly last year so I decided it was time to see as many others as possible before anyone else slipped away forever. Some of them are roughly my age; others are in their 70s and 80s. Some of them I hadn’t seen in decades; others I had not yet met. It was time to stop saying “maybe someday.”

As I planned the trip, the list grew. I added family and a few non-literary friends to my itinerary – those I hadn’t seen since before Covid, who lived at least 500 miles away. There were 20 people on the list by the time I departed. So I knew from the outset that it was going to be a whirlwind tour.

I rented a nearly new car and drove it from Vermont to Florida, then to Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Missouri, then to Colorado, New Mexico and all the way to California. I turned in the rental at the LA airport then flew home completely exhausted. I put 7,600 miles on the car’s odometer. I saw a good part of America – its land and its people. It’s going to take me a while to process it all.

There are two things I can say for certain, though: everyone is living life the best they can, despite the pandemic and everything else, and this country of ours is a remarkable place. It has changed since the last time I traveled into the deep south or far west 40 years ago. The cities are bigger, the climate is more severe (especially out west), and the people are more diverse. Yet the landscape is as beautiful as it has ever been, and most people are surprisingly friendly.

There were challenges, of course. Constant Covid testing and mask wearing, skyrocketing gas prices, a shortage of workers causing all sorts of problems, homicidal drivers on the highways, intense heat, and wildfires out west – the trip was not a cheap or easy one. But it was well worth it.

It was worth it just to hug those I hadn’t seen in years and to meet longstanding literary friends for the very first time. People are important, and that’s something that a solitary, woods-wandering guy like me needs to remember. All the same, it feels good be back on home turf with my life partner Judy. Being away from her was the only real hardship. The rest was an adventure.

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May 08 2022

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Predatory Nature

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A couple years ago, we got serious about attracting songbirds to our feeders. Judy did some research, found out what certain birds like, and purchased the good stuff. As a consequence we are visited daily by woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, mourning doves, and scores of goldfinches. Hummingbirds come around during the summer. Other birds stop by, as well. Grey squirrels scurry about beneath the feeders, eating what the birds drop. It’s busy out there.

The local sharp-shinned hawk has taken notice. He stops by occasionally to see if he can grab a winged meal. The songbirds scatter when he shows up, of course. Judy has taken some good photos of that beautiful raptor. We’ve seen him make several attempts to catch a songbird, but without success. Then one day, from the kitchen window, I saw him make off with a goldfinch in his talons. I must admit, I was a little horrified by it. Hawks have to eat, too, but my sympathy was with the finch.

Twice now I have found a patch of mourning dove feathers on the ground near the feeders. I’ve seen this during walks in the woods many times and know exactly what happened. Someone caught and ate those birds on the spot, or started to anyhow. Maybe the doves, so commonly associated with peace, put up a fight. It’s hard to say. But as I gathered up those feathers, it became clear to me that those two doves don’t exist any more.

Several weeks ago a red fox suddenly appeared, chasing a terrified squirrel up a tree. Judy and I cheered a few days later when that same fox hunted down a field mouse. The mice have gotten into our garage and have done some costly damage to one of our cars. We now keep the garage closed up and a dozen mouse traps in there. Still one gets in occasionally.

Last week I shouted to Judy to grab her camera when I saw the fox in our backyard again, chasing a squirrel. This time he caught it. We aren’t particularly keen on squirrels, that like to poop and pee all over our patio furniture, but there was something tragic about seeing that rodent meet such a violent end. It took a while for the fox to subdue the squirrel and haul it off. Sustenance for hungry kits waiting in a nearby den perhaps? That’s what we’d like to think. But the fact is, everyone has to eat and not all living things are herbivores. That’s nature for you. And it’s on full display right in our backyard.

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Apr 27 2022

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Small Springtime Joys

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The flowers are coming up in the small gardens surrounding my house. None of them have bloomed yet, but that hardly matters. Just seeing the first green push up through the soil and leaf out is enough to bring a smile to my face. This time of year is chock full of small joys, both in wild places and close to home.

While working in my yard, I spot a tiny flower in bloom in the forest duff beneath the trees: spring beauty. I kneel down and sniff it with giddy pleasure. Its perfume is intoxicating. Nearby a patch of round-lobed hepatica is also in bloom. I have to touch the petals to make sure they are real, to banish any remnant of winter still lurking in my heart.

My hands are scratched, bleeding and dry from working the soil and putting down mulch with my bare hands. Judy asks me why I don’t wear gloves. I know that would be the smart thing to do, but I just can’t help myself. I want to feel the earth.

A woodpecker drums loudly. Robins sing, crows caw, and the goldfinches gathering at the feeders chatter incessantly. In the distance, frogs peep from a vernal pool. The world is reawakening.

Overhead grey clouds threaten rain. There is still a chill in the air and my flannel shirt is dampened with cold sweat. I keep moving to stay warm, putting certain muscles to work that haven’t been used since last fall. I’ll be sore tomorrow, no doubt, but I don’t care.

As soon as I get things under control in my yard, I’ll go for a long hike in the mountains. Either that or I’ll grab my fly rod and work a favorite trout stream not too far away. But for now it’s enough to putter about the yard doing domestic chores. Even while I do so, an eternal wildness stirs within. What is commonly called Nature is actually home. And it thrives everywhere, all around me, in early spring.

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Apr 09 2022

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A Humble Pleasure

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This time of year, when the trails are wet and so easily damaged, I like to walk a brook. The one that first comes to mind winds through a valley in the Green Mountains shadowed by Camel’s Hump. I’ve been walking it for decades. It’s like an old friend to me.

You could call this a hike, but the way I do it these days it’s really more of a walk. I take my time, traveling half the speed I did when I was half my current age. I want to bushwhack into my 70s and 80s, you see, so I’m setting the right pace to do that now. Slow but sure.

After leaving a nearby dirt road, I follow a rough track a quarter mile to the brook. Then I start bushwhacking. I have a compass tucked into my shirt pocket, but it’s not necessary. The brook guides me through the woods and every feeder stream is a way home that I’ve taken before. So my mind is free to wander, or to groove on the wildness all around me.

Evergreen woodfern and Christmas ferns are still pressed firmly to the ground. It’s early spring and the snow cover has just melted off. Polypody ferns rise from moss-covered boulders, though. That, the clubmoss, and hemlocks green up the otherwise bleached, brown landscape. A few icy patches still lurk in the hollows of rocks, but this is a springtime world not a winter one. The spongy, half-thawed earth underfoot is proof of that.

Because the stream is running lower than usual this time of year, I ford it several times to avoid large mudslides. My boots get wet and my feet get cold in the process, but I don’t care. That too is part of this springtime ritual.

A couple miles back, I bask in sunlight while stretched across a flat boulder next to a deep pool that harbors brook trout. Here I eat lunch. A moth flutters before my eyes. A chickadee sings in the distance. The leafless trees all around me reach toward the deep blue sky. Meltwater rushes past incessantly. I have daydreamed about this place for months. Now here I am. And the walk out that follows is a moving meditation.

Soon the world will green up and the warm season will unfold to everyone’s delight. But it’s enough, for me at least, to tramp through snow-free woods when there’s still a chill in the air and the first wildflowers haven’t risen yet. It’s a different kind of beauty and happiness – subtle and anticipatory. It’s a humble pleasure.

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Mar 26 2022

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Birding with a Passion

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Despite the fact that most of the lakes and ponds here in northern Vermont are still full of ice, Judy and I have done a lot of birding lately. We took a trip down to Dead Creek in Addison County ten days ago and have gone out locally three times during the past week. Judy has bird fever, and I’m reveling in early spring.

At Dead Creek we celebrated the return of the Canada geese. They were there by the hundreds, filling up narrow leads of open water. Before heading home, we stopped by South Slang Creek to see if we could catch the bald eagle nesting there. We did. Judy took some good pictures of it, but what we really wanted was to catch the migrating birds. We got into more of them earlier this week. We found common and hooded mergansers floating in slender patches of open water along the shores of Lake Champlain. We also spotted on land robins, grackles and red-winged blackbirds that have arrived recently, along with the cardinals that have wintered over. The cardinals are calling out loudly from the treetops now. Ah, yes… it’s that time of year.

All this is great, but biggest surprise so far this year happened right in our back yard. A sharp-shinned hawk swooped down on the many goldfinches at our feeders, scattering them everywhere. We’re pretty sure we’ve seen this same bird before. It showed up here last fall, and I spotted it in the neighborhood once before that. Judy got some excellent shots of it right through the sliding glass door leading out to the patio. It wasn’t more than twenty feet away! She called up the stairs, so I was able to see the hawk out the window of my study before it bolted. I was writing at the time and usually don’t want to be disturbed while I’m doing so. But this was an exception to that rule.

Judy is on a roll. She has taken some great photos of all the birds mentioned. She has taken bird photography to the next level after learning the best settings for her camera. She has a passion for it that is a delight for me to witness. I assist her however I can. Mostly I drive the car, spot the birds with my binoculars, and identify them whenever possible. We’re a good team, I think.

All this said, my passion for birding doesn’t match Judy’s. I’m into wild nature in all its manifestations, and thoroughly enjoy a raw, early spring day even if there are no birds around. I got all excited the other day when I saw a red fox out the kitchen window, chasing a squirrel up a tree. Judy managed to photograph that fox, but I would have been just as happy if she hadn’t. Judy’s an artist with her camera, while I simply enjoy the moment. It’s all good.

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