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.

Biking and Sunshine

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We took a trip up to Stowe yesterday. The last time I was there it was cold and snowy and we lugged our skis to the ski lift to enjoy some turns on the slopes. Yesterday we had bikes instead of skis. Our kids have new bikes. Children keep growing, apparently. The last time they had new bikes was years ago. Those bikes look silly now.

Stowe has a fantastic recreation path–five miles end to end. We rode from one end to the other. That ten miles seemed easy, even though we all were a bit rusty with the bike riding. The air smelled of grass and thawing dirt and manure and cold air slipping away. We wore shorts.

My kids, as one of them said to me, “kicked my butt” by zooming ahead. At the beginning of our ride I was advised by my son to slow down. I guess I slowed down too much. But we all ended up at the same place, and we all enjoyed a ride on a doozy of a fine day. Snow still graced the mountains but trout lilies and wild leeks graced the forest floor. I kept feeling my usual awe at the changing of the seasons. I wasn’t all that worried about getting my butt kicked.

Later, after we had gotten home and had dinner, we went out for another short ride. We rode up the hill and down and over the other way. It continued to be a stellar day. We watched the sun get low and the trees glow golden with their young leaves. We did not rush but we broke a sweat nonetheless. We all felt great when we got home. And we all slept well, ready to embrace another winner of day today. So far, we have not been disappointed.

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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

Another Owl

I spent the last couple of days with my family in Stowe. It is a great place for what you might call a “staycation” as it is less than an hour away. We stayed at Trapp Family Lodge, as they have a special rate for Vermonters if you make a reservation close enough to your stay. We swam in the indoor pool and skied up to the rustic cabin (hot chocolate and soup on offer if you bring some cash) and sat by the fire and played games. It was a fine time.

On the way up we stopped in Waterbury–pulled off at Gregg Hill Road. We were looking for the Northern Hawk Owl. My daughter and I had stopped at the same spot a couple of weeks ago, looking for the same bird. We were out of luck that first time. And we were out of luck the second time. Bummer.

The Northern Hawk Owl doesn’t usually hang out this far south. They are generally Canadians, hanging out in open spruce woods. Occasionally, however, one of them takes a southern vacation. The temperature has been right I suppose. It was three degrees when we woke up this morning. That has been pretty typical this year. This whole week will be cold so the hawk owl might stick around for a bit yet.

This owl has been around since December. WCAX reported on it in December and the Burlington Free Press just had an article on it. Lots of people have seen it as reported on eBird and elsewhere. I wanted to see it. There was a hawk owl hanging around Vermont, in Waterbury even, ten years ago. They are not common in these parts and the chance won’t likely come again soon. I really wanted my daughter to see it. It is something she would probably remember for a long time. It was too bad that didn’t work out.

We left this afternoon and headed home. Since we were passing by, we pulled into Gregg Hill Road one more time. Why not try again? We slowly drove down the hill and my wife asked “How big is this bird?”

“Not that big,” I told her. “Smaller than a Barred Owl but pretty good-sized.” She has seen Barred Owls often enough to have a sense of their size.

“Well there is something in a tree back there.”

I pointed my binoculars and excitedly said “I think that’s it!”

And it was. It was kind enough to hang out long enough for us to look through binoculars and then a more powerful scope to check it out. It is a cool creature. It has the head of an owl but the body of a hawk, hence the not-so-original name. Awesome to see, and we all got to see it well. It was great way to end our trip over the mountains.

I may get a chance to see it again but I won’t count on it. By the time I get around to heading back that way again it will likely have headed back north. But maybe. Tomorrow morning I will look for another rare bird. A Tufted Duck, over from Europe, has been spotted several times on Lake Champlain. I am hoping to spot that one. I won’t hold my breath, as they say, but I’m feeling lucky.

Northern Hawk Owl in Waterbury

Northern Hawk Owl in Waterbury