Some Time in the Trees

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For a bunch of years I worked on challenge courses. I was an instructor, I managed a program and I helped to build and design courses. It was great stuff. One spring day a colleague and I were hanging from cables, adjusting an element high off the ground and she shouted over to me “Hey, we’re at work right now!” Not a bad office.

I still miss that work. I gave it up to have more time in the summer. My wife was a teacher so had summers free. I had winters free. That was tough, so I found other interesting work. Today, however, I got a taste of that outdoor world. I headed to Stowe Mountain Resort and tried out their TreeTop Adventure challenge.

I was there with my children and a friend of my daughter’s. We had experienced courses like this before so it was not totally new to them. After checking in at the lodge, and taking the short gondola ride across the road, we found the place to get an orientation. With harnesses strapped on and our primer completed, we headed to the woods.

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The course includes four smaller courses with increasing difficulty levels: yellow (small people only), green, blue and black. After each course climbers have the option to head to the ground and to be done. Smart. We did green through black. The elements were indeed increasingly challenging. It was a lot of fun.

While the kids were focused on the physical aspects of what they had to do, I paid some attention to the course itself. I was curious about how the platforms were constructed, the specifics of each element, the safety systems. I asked myself more than once “Why didn’t I think of that?” New ideas have clearly come about since my days out there.

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The other thing I enjoyed was simply being up in the trees. It was a perfect day, the sun dappling the forest floor, a light breeze. We moved about at the level of the leaves. I felt at ease up there. Years ago I spent hours on platforms like that, helping others through their own physical and mental challenges. Even today, I felt like I could stay up there all day.

After a couple of hours we all zipped down the last cable to end our adventure. We walked back to drop off our harnesses (harni?), feeling a little more tired than when we started, feeling good about challenging ourselves and succeeding. I was a tad envious of those folks in the red STAFF shirts on the ground, but only a tad. I had a good run with that work. Today I was happy to walk back to the car with three happy teens, lunch around the corner, plus a stop at the Ben and Jerry’s factory. Challenge courses have changed, and apparently I have too.

Summer Hike

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A couple days ago, my daughter off at camp, my son and my spouse and I hiked up Camel’s Hump. It was a warm day, though cloudy, when we left the house. At the trailhead it felt cool, however. I was chilly when we started off. Of course, that is the perfect hiking weather. To start off a little cold means hitting the perfect temperature once one gets moving.

I have hiked Camel’s Hump too many times to count. I have come from every direction and hiked on every trail up there. The Long Trail crosses the summit and I have gone up and down that both ways. Back in the days when I ran much more I used to run a long loop up one side and down the other and back along the road by the river. That is still one of my favorite experiences. Point is, I have been up there a lot, and I still love it.

We saw only a few people. One hiker was going up the same way as us and a couple others were heading down. At the summit there was one man. His hiking poles (I won’t get into those here but hiking poles seem like an unnecessary accouterment for most people–I mean, do you really need them?) were tossed next to his pack. He was smoking, upwind on the sheltered side, so we either had to hang out in the wind or the nastiness. He was on the phone. The view was great but, given the circumstances, we did not linger.

We heard Bicknell’s Thrushes, three of them, which is always a rare treat, plus many other birds. There are lots of cones this year. The fir and spruce were laden. Looks like a good year to be a squirrel. The purple cones stood out against the blue of the clouds and the green of the new tree growth. The view up close was just as notable as the view off the summit.

Gravity helped us back down to the parking lot and we headed home for a late lunch, a little muddier, a little more tired and filled up with the wonder of a mountain I know well. You can’t hate a summer day like that.

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Stuck at Home

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I love being home. I mean, we live in a pretty sweet place. Have you seen this state? If you are from around here, you know what I’m talking about (I hope). If you are not, look it up. Spring time in Vermont? Hard to beat.

Right now, however, we are stuck here. We had planned to head to Utah for a wedding. We went to the airport and planned to get on a plane. But at the desk the bad news was that our flight was delayed. We had just looked and it was on time, but in those intervening moments, things got pushed back.

Low cloud ceilings slow things down. At a busy airport like JFK, where we would catch our connecting flight, delays can cascade. Our 2:30 flight was pushed back to 4:30 while we spoke to agent at the desk. While we tried to decide what to do it got pushed back to 6:30. Then 8:00. Now it is scheduled to leave close to 9:00, still a half hour away. Good thing we decided to just wait until tomorrow.

We came home from the airport and ordered sandwiches in town. We have been relaxing and rescheduling at home while the rain comes down. It is pouring now, as the light fades. We don’t have to leave right away tomorrow but we will have a long layover in New York nonetheless–seven hours or so. There is only one flight on our airline per day from JFK to Salt Lake City. Whatever time we get there we have to take that flight.

We did have to deal with some logistics. Rental car is not available a day later but we figured that out (different rental car agency for not too much more money). We had to cancel our hotel less than 24 hours out (they let us do it without a fee) and we had to book the next night instead (room available!). We had to cancel what would have been our second night at a different place but they let us do so without a penalty as well. And we will get better seats on the new flight. So it all works out, as usual, even if we do have to miss a family hike. We won’t miss the wedding.

We are going from one beautiful place to another for a few days. These are all first world problems. Inconvenient for us? Yes. Disappointing? Sure. But we will be fine of course. For now we can enjoy the sound of the rain on the porch roof. Sounds pretty soothing if you ask me. A good night’s sleep and we’ll try again tomorrow.

Alone on Top of Mount Mansfield

Afternoon view for near the summit

Afternoon view from near the summit

Some years in the past I have done more than one Mountain Birdwatch route, rather than just one, making the effort to get up early to try to find birds at (relatively) high elevation, in the name of science. I have done the Mount Worcester route for four years now and I agreed to take on a second route this year. I agreed to this because I had hoped I could simply get up early at home, hike to the survey route and then do the survey. This would mean I would not have to spend the night out and therefore would not need to take most of the weekend to get it done. Several years ago, before the protocol for the survey changed to make it take longer, I could rise at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, drive, hike, do the survey, and be back in town in time for breakfast. So I had hoped I could do that again this year. It did not, of course, quite work out that way.

Vermont Center for Ecostudies, who manages the Mountain Birdwatch survey in the United States, has the benefit of the use of the Stowe Mountain ski patrol hut to aid in its science projects on Mount Mansfield. This means I got to stay there so I could get up early to do the survey. At first I was going to decline this offer and try to drive up super early. But, I thought, what the heck? Why not make things easier? I mean, I am supposed to start the survey at 4:00 in the morning.

So last Saturday afternoon I drove to Stowe. I stopped at the base of the toll road and checked in. I had to sign a couple of release forms. One was for use of the hut and one was for use of the toll road. The toll road snakes its way up and ends close to the summit of the mountain. It provides access for the buildings and towers up there. The towers mean access to television and radio and cell phone signals for all of us. The road means those towers get serviced. It also meant I could drive up rather than hike, saving myself several hours.

In the winter the road is a long and easy ski trail. I had skied it for the first time just this past season. It looked a little bit different without snow. Since it was so late in the day, I only met a few cars coming down and soon arrived at Parking Lot B.  I unloaded my pack and prepared to scout the route. I had never been there so I wanted to make sure I could find each of the survey points. I also wanted to do the cone count.

The survey requires counting fir and spruce cones at each point. This is because of squirrels. Squirrels eat the seeds in the cones. They love those things. So when there are lots of cones (a mast year), the squirrel population grows. The year after a mast year there usually are not so many cones, but there are still a lot of squirrels. So what do they do? They eat the eggs in bird nests. Counting cones can help determine how much of a relationship exists between cones and bird populations. I wanted to get that part done the day before.

I am so glad I scouted the route. The points for this route are all in a straight line but they are not along the same trail.  I had to hike up the access road, down the Long Trail, back up the Long Trail, down the road again, down a side trail, back up the side trail, back down the road, down another side trail, then back to the Long Trail for the last three points. It took some problem-solving and some serious effort as the trails were not all marked well and some were dang rugged.

Boulder suspended over the trail

Boulder suspended over the trail

I couldn’t find one of the side trails and so couldn’t find one of the points. I figured out a way to go the opposite way down the trail and assumed I could follow it all the way through to find the access point on the other end. This was the Canyon Trail, well-named. At one point I came to a canyon. The trail ended in a cliff. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said aloud. More than once. There was just no simple way down. I could see trail markers painted on rocks far below, and I could see a ladder down there as well, I supposed to aid in getting up a steep section. But there was no ladder for me at the top. I envisioned how it might be possible to scale the rocks to get down, but it was 7:00 p.m. by that point, and I was alone, and I was feeling a little tired, and I had not eaten dinner. “Ain’t happening I said aloud.” More than once.

Eventually I did find the point from the other end, and I did count cones, and I got back to the hut to eat and sleep, much later than I wanted. I slept on the couch, fitfully, alarm set to wake me at 3:30 a.m. At 2:30 a.m., however, loud country music started playing. I was confused. I hoped it would stop. I thought I might be able to sleep through it. Then I got up. It turns out there was a huge old boom box in the basement, with giant speakers and double tape deck. It was playing the loud country music. I found the power button and pushed it. The loud country music stopped. I still have no idea what the heck that was about. Timer? Ghost? Mouse?

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On the trail at 4:30 a.m

Ultimately, I did get up. I did hike back up to do the survey. I found all the points easily this time. I heard the birds I had come to find. It could not have been a more perfect morning–no clouds, no wind, a little cool at 45 degrees. When I was finished I sat on the ridge and looked out at this beautiful place on that beautiful day. No one else was around. After enjoying the stillness and the view for a bit, I starting hiking back down, trying hard not to hum a country tune.

White-Throated Sparrow on the ridge

White-Throated Sparrow on the ridge, not singing a country tune

A Great Day to Get Up at 4:00 A.M.

IMG_3957The hike up is not that long but it is a bit brutal. After taking one route up a couple of times I realized there is a shorter and easier route, at least for the first bit of the hike. That shorter route cuts off about a half mile of hiking but still, it ain’t easy. This isn’t one of the highest peaks in Vermont and I don’t even end up on a summit, but I tell you it is a tough one.

I hiked up to the Skyline Trail that connects Mount Worcester and Mount Hunger in the Worcester Range, which parallels the Green Mountains. This was my fourth year doing it and each time I think it won’t be so tough. Each time I am humbled. I hike up there so I can camp out and then get up at 4:00 in the morning to find birds. Most of the birds I don’t even see but simply hear. I know, it sounds silly–take a tough hike to rise super early to find birds you can’t see? But it is pretty great.

This is my 15th year volunteering for the Mountain Birdwatch program, which surveys high elevation birds in the Northeast. You know, Bicknell’s Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Winter Wren, those birds most people have never heard of. That is part of why I do it, I guess. To hear a Bicknells’s Thrush sing, which only happens in early summer and only and higher elevations in northeastern North America, is a treat. Most people simply are not going to hear that song. It is a rare sound and something I cherish. It gives me hope each year that things are not as bad in the world as they might be.

The survey protocols require listening and looking early in the morning. The birds sing the most just as it is getting light and a little while after the sun rises. Being high on a mountain as the world awakens, the smell of firs floating over the trail, bird song ringing out–seriously, it is life lived at its most divine. Of course, I also have to take care to mark down all the birds I detect of specific target species, how far away they are, if I saw or heard them, how many, that science-type stuff, but it feels then like I am doing something that maybe matters, that maybe will help to keep these places and moments around just a little longer.

I agreed to take this route after the one I had been doing for a decade had been discontinued. So it goes when scientific rigor comes into play. The old route just didn’t make the cut when the protocols got changed a few years ago. It was a bummer to let that route go but it gave me a chance to see someplace new. I had heard the new route was tough and it was. It is steep and rugged and not often used. It is slippery and sometimes hard to follow. And it is a just a little more challenging with a pack full of a tent and binoculars and warm clothes and a notebook and so on. I have given up on bringing a stove to cook dinner–too much extra weight; I just bring food I can eat straight up.

This year was particularly nice. It was clear and sunny and just a gem of a June day on both the hike in and the day of the survey. There were no clouds and there was no wind. The birds were out. Last year I hiked in and had to abort because it was too windy in the morning. I had to go back and try again the next weekend. This year the weather could not have been more perfect. OK, it was 35 degrees when I started at 4:00, and I did keep my sleeping bag wrapped around me for the first hour, but it warmed up soon enough. I heard all the birds I expected to hear plus another rare one for that area (a Boreal Chickadee) and called it good after collecting some data.

The hike out was tough but not as tough with the gravity assist. Back at the car I changed into clean shorts and shirt, opened the car windows and headed into Waterbury for a slice of pizza. I was tired–not enough sleep and some solid hiking–but I watched the sky turn pink at the beginning of day, and I heard rare birds sing, and for a full cycle of the sun I was immersed in a beautiful place. If my wife could have been there it would have been perfect. I guess perfection will have to wait, for now at least.

Bluebird day on the hike down

Bluebird day on the hike down

A Little Evening Adventure

Last night was a full moon. I got invited to go along on a moonlight paddle in Burlington. Lots of people have taken moonlight paddles, myself among them. Being on the water at night when the moon shines is a treat not to be missed. I’d say it’s a must do experience. Last night, however, I was a novice. I went stand up paddleboarding.

Stand up paddleboarding is basically taking a surf board out with a tall paddle. You stand up and move around by, well, paddling. I had done plenty of canoeing and felt comfortable with that. I can balance. I felt pretty much good to go. And I was. I got the hang of it quickly. I went with a group led by Rachael Miller of Stormboarding. Here is a photo of hers, to give you an idea what it looks like:

Copyright Stormboarding

Copyright Stormboarding

The problem was, although I had seen photos and had talked to Rachael about it, I had never done it. And since we would be heading out after dark, I wasn’t going to see it last night either, at least not all that well. There was a full moon and I did wear a headlamp, but still, it was dark. Anyway, it was a blast, and an experience, all told, that most people probably won’t have. Here is why: we combined stand up paddleboarding, a full moon, a still summer Vermont evening, and an exuberant and confident punk rock band.

I was the first to greet Rachael, and the punk band was already getting started, playing at a pavilion right on the waterfront. I signed the three page waiver and then tied glow sticks to the shoulders of my life vest. Since we were out at night we needed lights, being watercraft, to be legal and, more importantly, to be visible to anyone else on the water. Red glow stick on the left, green glow stick on the right. The headlamp served as the white light which should be visible from any direction, but was close enough. As the others arrived we all tied on lights, carried boards to the dock and, after some instruction and a couple of photos, started paddling.

The band was really hammering it out by the time we curved around past the Coast Guard station, yelling and, seemingly, having a fun time of it. The moon was climbing, with Mars along to keep it company. The water shone. We moved together stealthily. It wasn’t the peaceful paddle that some had expected but it was a good time nonetheless. We moved pretty quickly without any wind or waves and paddled right into a cloud of skunk spray. If we had had anything tasty to snack on it would have been a true five senses experience. We turned around at what Rachael identified as, showing off her knowledge of nautical terminology, the “can thingees,” drums of some kind, in the water for a purpose I could not discern (to tell the truth, I couldn’t really see them). We hugged the shore and cruised back to the dock.

We were out for about an hour and, as we drifted in and pulled the boards out of the water, the band packed it up for the evening. I had fun and would surely do that again, even if it were regular old daytime. I doubt I again will get to experience paddling standing up and a full moon and Mars and a warm September night and perfect calm on Lake Champlain and the inspired lyric of “Weapons Factory!” pelted out over the odor of skunk. If you find yourself experiencing such a mix, do let me know. We’ll compare notes.

Another Summer Adventure

Now that we cleaned up and unpacked from our week away, we are repacked and ready to head off for the night.  We are planning to stay at Ricker Pond State Park for some swimming and canoeing and s’mores and the usual summer fun.  We should get in plenty.  It will be another fine day in the Green Mountain State.  We need to stop three times:

1. At the bank to cash a check and to get cash for firewood (can’t bring your own these days to avoid transporting pests)

2. At the post office to mail some rubber gloves to a friend

3. At the market to purchase eggs, crackers, chocolate (for the s’mores) and one lime (for the gin and tonics).

It ought to be fun.  We need to take advantage of these last days of summer.  Work and school will kick in for all of us way too soon.

On the Lake for a Week

Leaving the Island, Heading Home, Looking Back

Leaving the Island, Heading Home, Looking Back

When I was in high school I read an essay called Return to the Lake.  I remember that it was a good read, although I couldn’t tell you who wrote it, and I remember that I, along with some other folks, visited Lake Winnepesaukee soon after reading it.  The essay was essentially about visiting, as an adult, a lake that had had meaning when the writer was younger.  I returned to my own lake this past week.

We all went, this nuclear family of mine.  We swam and swam and ate and swam some more.  My children love the place, that place being Three Mile Island Camp.  It is an Appalachian Mountain Club camp where I worked twenty years ago.  I loved it then.  It had a huge impact on my life.  It still is pretty good.

We stayed in a couple of tiny adjacent rustic cabins right on the lake.  I got up every morning, looked out at the still water for ten minutes or so, laid my glasses on the dock, and slipped into the water.  I felt cool and calm.  Some mornings I swam with loons.  One morning I swam in the rain.  Then I climbed back to the small porch and waited for my wife and my children to waken.

We had little to do all day.  Meals are prepared by the staff and they do the clean-up.  The cabins have no electricity, although the main house where family style meals are served does.  We played and swam and rested and spent time with friends.  We ate at the appropriate times.  When it rained we hung out on the porch and drank tea and chatted while the children played games inside.  Life is pretty good like that.

Home today we cranked out laundry and mowed the lawn and picked the abundant vegetables from out garden.  Check this out:

A Few Veggies Ripe After a Week

A Few Veggies Ripe After a Week

We ate salad and corn on the cob (local but not ours) and blueberries (we even had some of those ripe!) and veggy burgers for dinner.  We looked out over the field and decided it is as good as looking out over a lake.  It was hot.  If we were still on the lake we would have just jumped in the drink to cool off.

The air has cooled now.  The children are off to bed early.  I am happy to be home.  I could have stayed longer but, like Christmas, experiencing it only once every year increases its appeal and its value.  If we lived there year round we couldn’t have this amazing garden.  We will return next year to swim and to play and to rest.  We have some of that to do around here in the remaining days of summer.  And a little work to do as well.

Once we get enough work done, we can return to the lake once again.  And we will love being there all over again.

Bouncy Castle

A couple of years ago, Santa brought this big inflatable bouncy toy thing. The kids ended up calling it the bouncy castle. We tried to set it up maybe a year ago, after a decent hiatus, but it had too many holes. Last week, however, my wife motivated to patch the holes and blow the thing up. It has gotten lots of use since. My daughter the photographer took a series of photographs yesterday from an insider’s perspective. This short photo essay is the result:

Rushing at it from outside

Rushing at it from outside

Leaping in

Leaping in

Working to avoid co-bouncers

Working to avoid co-bouncers

Inside

Inside

Outside

Outside

Isn't this fun?

Isn't this fun?

Mountain Birdwatch 2009 Take Two

View from Burnt Rock Mountain

View from Burnt Rock Mountain

Looking South-ish

Looking South-ish

A couple of weeks ago I went up Ricker Peak for my annual volunteer effort to help the Mountain Birdwatch high elevation bird survey.  After I had completed that survey route I noticed that several routes were available still.  So I signed up to do another one, on Burnt Rock Mountain.  I had been up there a couple times before, the first time when hiking the Long Trail from Massachusetts.  I love that mountain, so I figured it was time to volunteer for a second route.

Last week I took a day off and did a scouting trip.  Since the survey requires observing at specific points, I wanted to make sure I found those points during the day.  The survey requires observing birds before the sun rises, so I wouldn’t be able to find them the day I hiked for the real deal.  That scouting mission was mostly successful.  I found four out of five points, although it took me a while.  The first point was “just south of the summit.”  I had a description and a photo.  The point description sheet noted “all photos looking north,” so busted out the compass to make sure I was looking the right way and tried to match the photo.  It was a fine clear day so it should have been no problem.  But I couldn’t figure it out.

I hiked all over the top of that mountain looking for point one.  I finally gave up and headed down the trail to find point two.  Couldn’t find that one either.  Point three was an obvious one, with definite landmarks–steep rocky slope, big fat root hanging over it, tall leaning dead tree–and I thought at first that the photo was backwards.  No wonder I was having trouble.  Then I realized the photo wasn’t looking north.  It was looking south.  It turns out they all were looking south.  After that I found all but point two.  That one would have to wait to be found in the wee hours of survey day.  I ran out of time that day.

I did a repeat hike this morning, but instead of heading down the trail just behind a group of a dozen women in their sixties, all with hiking poles and long pants and sleeves, I was alone.  It was dark, and it was 2:30 AM when I started hiking, so that wasn’t a big surprise or anything.  I walked slowly with my headlamp showing me the way.  No moonlight hiking on this trip.  Aside from the idea that I might meet a sleepy and therefore grumpy bear, I was afraid only of slipping and hurting myself.  It would be a long wait before someone might come to help.

And it was slippery.  It had rained more since my first hike so the streams were higher, the trail had more water on it, the rocks were wetter.  I slipped more than once, drawing blood on my hand in almost the same spot I had on the scouting hike.  I got to the top of the mountain about 4:00.  Right on time.  The survey needs to happen between 4:00 and 6:00 so I sat down, drank some water, pulled out my notebook, and waited.

I had to wait a while.  It was foggy, socked in in fact, so the birds rose later than they might have on a clear morning.  I lay back on my pack, looking into the wet dark air, feeling the drops on my face and reaching out into the morning for any sound.  It was peaceful.  I was afraid I might fall asleep.   And then hermit thrushes started to sing.  Lots of hermit thrushes.

I started my ten-minute observation at that first point at 4:30.  I was lucky.  I heard a Bicknell’s thrush, which is one of the major reasons for the survey.  No matter how many times I hear it, it fills me with joy and gives me hope that the world still is filled with wonders.  It is.  We humans are working hard, it sometimes seems, to trash the place.  But the world is resilient and powerful and beautiful and downright amazing.  I felt that deeply again this morning.

I did find point two, and the rest of them, and I completed the survey on time.  I got to spend a good chunk of time up on a mountain by myself.  That was a treat.  Back at the summit, after my notebook was stowed in my pack, I sat and looked and listened for what I might discover.  There was nothing new, and that was what I sought.  Back at the car, after a slidey hike down, I donned some dry clothes.  I stopped for gas (the low fuel light was on and I was afraid I might not make it; not only did I get gas but free coffee with a fill up) and headed up the twisting road through the gap on Route 17.  I was home by 9:00.

I did take a short nap this afternoon, but I will need to retire early this evening.  It was great experience and I hope to do it again next year.  At the moment, however, I am a bit tuckered.  That is fine with me.  I know that up high, Bicknell’s thrushes still sing.