Right Next to Vermont

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The old joke goes like this: the best thing about Burlington is that it’s right next to Vermont. Funny, right? Well maybe not so much any more. Burlington is as much Vermont as Newport and Rutland, as Chelsea and Rupert. But here is something that isn’t a joke: New York is right next to Vermont, and it has some pretty sweet spots.

More than once on a summer evening we have taken a boat ride over to Essex, New York. Some dinner at the Old Dock, right on the water, and some ice cream at the scoop shop up the hill made for a fine end to a summer day. Since the ferry goes right to Essex, it is easy enough to walk on and ride it back to get home. No personal boat required.

I have taken that ferry many times to access the wonders of the Adirondacks. A couple of days ago a few of us took that ferry to take a hike. We took a car across and drove south from Essex. We arrived shortly at the trailhead to Split Rock. This preserved land has 11 miles of trails. We explored a few of those miles.

The woods are full of history. Wide spreading white pines tell of open fields. Thick, sturdy maples tell of houses that were shaded. We found cellar holes and rusted wheel wells from old cars. There is a wide diversity of trees, from sugar maples to red pine to hickory. The few birches, while and yellow, told us that the forest was old enough to have shaded those species mostly out. We saw garter snakes and the quills of a long dead porcupine. There was lots to see.

Most of what we saw was on the way out. This is because we had to hike fast when we started. There were so many mosquitoes that stopping for a minute or more was just not pleasant at all. We slapped and waved and brushed our way up to the first vista spot on our route. It was breezy there, with a nice enough view down to and across the lake. We watched sailboats and listened to Ospreys.

Our way down started along the ridge and we had another fine vista, this one more exposed with an even better view. The hike down was easy and gradual, and the mosquitoes had abated. We got back to the car for a late lunch and headed back into town. And that scoop shop? Still there. Went to it. Had delicious ice cream.

And we rode the ferry back. Riding the ferry on a perfect summer day, waves rolling across to Vermont, the sun shining on the islands and the mountains, the lake stretching north to Canada, really is hard to beat. We soaked in the beauty of it all as we stood on the deck, happy in the afternoon to be back home after a day spent next door.

Afternoon, Stick Season

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The river runs not high but not low. A sand bank toward the far side pushes the water away, causing the current to run faster. Across the river the banks drop steeply. In spring, Bank Swallows nest here, burrowing into the sand, flying low over the water to catch flies. Today it is not spring. Fall’s glory has passed. The brilliance of turning leaves is over. Those leaves lie in wilted piles among the bare shrubs.

But it is not yet winter. The current flows smoothly over rocks and sand and mud. A few moths still flit among the maples. There is no ice under which the water must crawl, no ice to scrape at the log lodged in the river’s bend. Snow does not yet fall. Today there are no clouds and the air is warm enough for scattered green leaves in the under-story to spread to catch the sun. But the sun is low, and will not last much longer today.

Upstream, at the mouth of the stream that melts into the river, a beaver just stirs in its lodge. It has been waiting for the light to dim, for shadows to grow long. It dips into the water, swims, waits again. Soon it will climb the bank to work at the silver maple it plans to fell. Already it has cleared smaller trees. It will chew away the bark, working steadily, wary of predators. Perhaps this tree will fall before winter sets in. Perhaps spring winds will send it tumbling. Perhaps it may prove more stubborn, standing for years before its top branches dip into the water. The beaver, however, does not concern itself with such possibilities. It simply works.

Two Blue Jays call across the bare trunks. A woodpecker knocks. A second calls to it and sends the first flapping away. A small breeze taps branches together, but mostly it is quiet. Crickets, cicadas, birds do not sing. Squirrels stay still. The woods here rest, exposed, not waiting exactly, not sure or unsure, just knitting the past into the present so the future can be only an imagined thing that does not matter to this day.

Soon the sun will drop below the hills. The day’s heat will drift off, like milkweed seeds across a field. In the dark, the river will seem louder. No bats will dot the skies but owls will call. Already owls are planning for spring, finding mates, starting nests. They plan for the future, like the beaver, doing today what must be done for tomorrow. Mice will crawl under dry leaves, finding seeds that won’t become flowers, feeding the owls, thinking only of right now, this November day next to the river that will not stop flowing, even when the ice comes.

Barred Owl on a Cloudy Day

Barred Owl

On the way home from work this afternoon I stopped by Shelburne Pond to take a quick walk. I trudged through the snow on the trail, looking and listening for birds. I didn’t find much–a couple of distant crows, a few chickadees hiding in the thick evergreens. I figured it would just be a contemplative walk without much in terms of avian fauna. And then an owl took off right next to me.

I heard it. This may not sound like much but owls are quiet. Their feathers are designed for silence. That is how they can sneak up on their prey at night. They make almost no noise when they fly, but I was close enough that I really heard the whoosh of its wings as it passed me. It flew up into a tree above me and I got to watch it for a while.

It flew off again and then again, back the way I needed to go. I walked back and had another great look at it. “You are an amazing creature,” I told it, and I was not fibbing a bit. After a few minutes I left it in peace, in the silent gray woods.

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Wild Leeks

Not far from our house there is a spot where the wild leeks grow like gangbusters.  This time of year they fill the woods, not only with their bright green leaves but with their fragrance.  Running past I can smell the odor of onions.

Yesterday I ran past and, inhaling one of the sweet smells of spring, said aloud, “Look at all that food.”  The green stretched across the floor of the woods as far as I could see.  It really was a lot of food, and almost no one would eat it.

I thought about this as I ran.  I also thought about the bash we would be hosting later in the day.  Then the two thoughts merged.  I was planning to make potato salad once I got back.  The recipe I had found called for onions and garlic.  The merged thought consisted of substituting some wild leeks for that onion and garlic.

And so on the way back past that spot in the woods I veered into the trees.  I brushed away the dry leaves, dug my bare fingers into the cold earth, and dug up some food.  They are small, not at all the supermarket version of leeks.  They are more the size of scallions.  I carried them lightly in my left hand as I ran slowly home.

The potato salad came out great.  It was one element of a fine pot luck dinner.  The problem, as I discovered/realized when evening came and we got to the business of cleaning up the final bits, was that it never got put out.  We simply forgot about it.  It sits in the fridge still, waiting for a diner.  I was going to have it for lunch but we still had some guests who spent the night.  I forgot again.

I need to head back over to the leek patch before long to harvest some more of the tasty little plants.  Spring doesn’t last long and soon they will be swallowed by the rest of the undergrowth.  They aren’t as tasty later in the spring or in the summer.

I will grow my own leeks in the summer but they don’t offer quite the same feeling as picking food straight from the woods.  Of course, that doesn’t matter much if I leave whatever I make sitting around uneaten, now does it?

A Little Skiing

It’s not like I get out there that much these days.  My spouse and I used to get out at least once a week to ski, often long days in the backcountry.  Of course, we lived in the mountains.  We could walk out the door and access hundreds of acres of wilderness.  We also could walk out the door and ride the lift to ski or snowboard.  We used to sled on the groomed ski trails.

I’m not saying “Oh those were the days” or anything.  I’m no sentimental sap.  Living there was amazing but it also was pretty much impossible to walk out the door in the winter and safely go for a run.  A five mile steep road, covered in snow and hemmed in by snow banks is the place to run if you want to get back home.  But we did get in lots of skiing.

Yesterday I had one day at least of the kind of adventure we used to have.  I went with a handful of other gentlemen, poking around for some slides in the Adirondacks.  We found the snowmobile trail, skied up that, the puttered about looking for some access in the woods.  It was thick, filled in with hobblebush and birch saplings that had sprung up from the ice storm ten years ago.  Eventually, however, we found the slopes.

There were a couple of steep slopes, covered in powerdery snow.  There was a little ice underneath, but hardly much.  We were in there, we sweated, and we earned out turns.  It was great fun.  We sat for lunch at the top of an open slice of moutain, snow falling like crazy, with our backs a frozen waterfall and ate lunch before dropping down.  It was pretty dang good.

In the past week five feet of snow has fallen in the mountains.  Tomorrow, school on break, my wife and I both off, we will get into those mountains and, hopefully, link some turns.  I got in a little skiing.  I hope to get in much more this week.