Monday, March 15, 2021

Trees are a vegetable

 A new resident in town expressed some dismay at the logging going on in the area, cutting down "hundred-year-old trees." After several of us explained together that you'd be hard pressed to find a tree that old around here, the logger in our group said, "Trees are a vegetable. They're just like anything else that you grow to use, they just take longer."

Immediately I imagined little hikers among the broccoli stalks, or awe-struck, staring up at the majesty of lofty corn, or whacking aside the ferns of carrot tops.

Particularly in the eastern half of the United States, most of the forest you see is many generations removed from the primordial glory that greeted the first Europeans who arrived at what they considered unoccupied land. Forest reasserts itself wherever humans are not currently clearing land and keeping it clear. National forests and private holdings support trees as an available resource. You want wood? You need to grow trees. As the logger asserted, they're a crop. They just grow on a longer time scale than your typical farmer's market fare. Most forest survives now as a working forest. In other words, its days are numbered by interested observers measuring it for harvest.

You get used to having the trees around. When I moved to my current location 32 years ago, the forest on the mountain out back was mature hardwood and pine, unbroken for miles. It was easy to move through, because the understory had been shaded out for years. That meant easy bushwhacking in any season, and a generous variety of skiable lines without having to trim anything. When cutting began, it started first on the farther end of the small mountain range that forms the center of town. Even when it finally hit nearby, the first operations just opened a few moderate swaths. Much more drastic cutting had already taken place on the far end of the range.

The ice storm of 1998 took out a lot of treetops at elevations a couple of hundred feet up from road level. That storm devastated hundreds of square miles of forest -- thousands, really, if you look at all of eastern North America. It dumped the tops of trees into the spaces between their still-standing lower sections, in addition to toppling whole trees where they had space to fall. The lower parts might still leaf out and live on. You can still see some of these survivors today.

Logging cuts deeper and can be tailored to achieve a desired outcome, as opposed to the losses from wildfire and wind events. There have been few -- if any -- major wind events in the east since the Hurricane of 1938. As for fire, the last really large scale event in these parts was the disastrous fires of 1947, which mostly impacted Maine. Here in the border towns, old timers will tell you about how the fires managed to come over the line in places before they were finally extinguished. With the droughts we've experienced in recent summers, a repeat is possible.

Not all loggers follow best practices. Some cuts are ugly and damaging. A liquidation cut might strip a parcel before it's cut into house lots and lost to us forever. A working forest remains a forest. For the most part, nature reasserts itself even after an ugly cut. And not every drastic-appearing cut is a bad job. It's not a hairstyle. It's a business decision. A wise business person won't ruin the future of a resource. Most loggers already view time from a tree's perspective. It's a renewable resource, unlike mining or oil and gas drilling. Loggers have an incentive to leave the forest functional, where those other industries don't. I'd much rather live next to timberland than a strip mine or a fracking operation.

Animals and birds need open spaces and edge environments in addition to mature forest. Natural processes only provide those in limited places. One reason humans suffer from "problem" wildlife is that the open spaces and edges are provided by the clearings around homes dropped into the the formerly wooded area. It's a thrill to see wild animals until the bears get into your garbage, the deer eat your garden, and the coyotes make alarming noises too close to your bedroom window at 3 a.m. Then all of a sudden "somebody needs to do something," and the animals usually pay the price. If you want to see a real problem animal, go look in a mirror. A nearby logged area provides the open area and edge along with a measure of privacy that the animals seem to prefer. I've seen less of the local deer herd since the cut uphill gave them more sunshine and encouraged low growth for easily accessible browsing. They'll still probably come eat that one peony I keep trying to coax to flowering maturity...

As much of a jolt as it may be to see a big logged area, it's much worse when that area is then invaded by problem animals operating unnecessary motor vehicles for no reason other than their own erosive enjoyment. I get to listen to that now, to poison the peace of my own back yard. Out of sight is not out of mind when it's not out of earshot. Engine noise carries a long way. It's a constant reminder that the environment will only become more driven by natural rhythms once humans have basically eradicated themselves.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Once all in blue

The temperature is 35 degrees. Mixed rain and snow fall steadily. Weather like this keeps a lot of people indoors.

"There's no bad weather, only bad clothing," says the proverb. The raunchy weather was a selling point for me when I came here to enjoy the way that the low summits simulate the conditions of higher peaks without the inconvenience of traveling far.

It was the outdoor industry's "Blue Period," and the rise of Gore-Tex. You could get parkas and shell pants that weren't blue, but they were probably red. A few of the cool kids sported the black Marmot parka, but blue really dominated the scene. Soft shells would not exist for decades.

Once I scraped together the coin, I got a blue ensemble: a Kelty shell oversized to fit over a duvet in case I had to spend a night out, and some affordable North by Northeast shell sidezips. The parka came first, paired with some basic LL Bean ripstop wind pants with a reinforced seat and knees custom sewn by a friend with more experience in the gear business. The Gore-Tex sidezips were part of upgrades I made when I started ice climbing as part of my brief career as an outdoor writer. I had moved to the mountains to spend as much time as possible on them.

A day like today would have inspired me to suit up and go out, to enjoy the effectiveness of my clothing and the utter indifference of the mountain environment. Love of the mountains is entirely one way. The mountains don't know you're there. They just do their mountain thing.

Late winter and early spring are the most inconvenient time to get around in the higher elevations around here. The winter snow leaves slowly, augmented by spring additions that are always heavy and wet. All that white stuff has to turn into water and soak in or flow down. I would try to find a place that had already melted clear, if I couldn't negotiate a passable route to higher elevations where winter was hanging on with firmer snow. Sooner or later it all turns to deep applesauce.

Due to the Covid-19 crisis, the Forest Service has closed most major trailheads, and even quite a few I would consider minor. I have a perfectly good mountain range out my back door, and I don't have to burn gas to get to it.

Blue clothing stands out against the browns and grays of the landscape during most of the year up here. That never bothered me. But now I have replaced as much as possible with gray and brown clothing so that I don't stand out. On my home mountain, I'm on other people's land whenever I climb very high. The land isn't posted; New Hampshire's tradition is that we all use the land. I just don't want to test anyone's tolerance by letting them see me doing it.

The early tick season has been bad, particularly with deer ticks. They're the small ones that are harder to see and feel. I've already had one attach to me. I am not showing any symptoms of the several nasty diseases they can carry, but I never  assume that my luck will hold. Even though nothing has leafed out, the little bloodsuckers are apparently hanging out there, reaching with their front legs for any creature that brushes their perch. A nasty wet day when I can wear shell clothing provides a nice bit of body armor.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Social distance was the whole point

The people who introduced me to backpacking in 1980 were avid bushwhackers. They had spent their high school years going to the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, particularly the Dolly Sods. On a pleasant and mild October weekend in Alexandria, Virginia, they enlisted my buddy Jim and me to join them for a trip to the Sods, which they described as weird, remote, and worth visiting.

Lingering summer in the Tidewater gave way to early winter on the heights. The Sods lived up to their description. Artificially treeless over much of its area because of logging, fires, and topsoil loss, much of the plateau is grassland and peat bog. Stunted spruce are flagged by the prevailing wind into a distinctive shape. On that trip, gray skies released occasional showers of snow pellets. Our guides were well dressed and properly equipped. I was cold, poorly fed, and fascinated.

Our guides led us away from the dirt road on a compass heading. Jim and I had no idea where they thought they were headed. It didn't really matter. We wandered through the complete variety of terrain and vegetation, following the two leaders who argued about their compass headings and which way we should go next. I don't know if they ever really knew where we were, but we completed a meandering loop over several hours and returned to the road about a mile from the cars.

The idea that map and compass matter more than a dotted line on a map and a blaze on every other tree stuck with me. Map and compass make you independent. The trail often does follow the most sensible line through a given set of topographical features, but the ability to interpret a map and read a compass gives a hiker a more complete understanding of the area, and the ability to improvise. As time went on, most of my hiking took place on marked routes, but I would look to the sides for interesting possibilities.

Bushwhacking is a great way to disappear. This can be true in a very final sense, but also in answer to a temporary need, whether it's a simple need for a minute or two of privacy behind a tree, or a broader need to stay apart from your fellow humans. It's not available to people in more densely populated areas where open space is rationed. Dense population also increases the chances of running into someone whether you are on the trail or off. I have enjoyed hiking with a close friend, when such companionship was available. Other than that I'd rather go unnoticed.

Our guides on that 1980 trip liked the Sods because it was too far for most people to bother driving all the way to it from the population centers around DC. It got discovered during the 1980s, though. As the population inexorably climbed, the small percentage who would make the trip swelled to an appreciable number. And the ATV craze struck the locals out there, desecrating the nearby Roaring Plains. I moved to a place that was relatively undeveloped, but now I have to skirt the dwellings of various neighbors as I climb the slope behind my house. The peace of a natural environment has given way to massive logging and its attendant threat of development to follow, and to the intrusive habits of "normal" people who like to drive around in circles on ATVs, shredding the land and the quiet of a pleasant evening. There isn't social distance enough. It could be worse, I guess. There could be tar sands or natural gas deposits underground, attracting even noisier and more destructive human activity.

People with time on their hands and a need to stretch their legs are rediscovering what's left of  natural environments wherever they live. Will it lead to a greater appreciation of them as we move on from this, or will it be dropped and forgotten like a plastic bag, once the trinkets within have been extracted?

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Beech Day

Early November sometimes brings unusually mild temperatures. On a break from yard work, I went for a short walk into the woods.

Lush growth of moss on this stump.
My nearest neighbor is always quiet.
Blue sky and sunshine.
This one is worth making bigger.
November's backhanded slap of sunshine is still welcome.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dear God...

Don't let me ever again be the annoying f*** in an outfitter store.

I'm sure they are my penance for having BEEN the annoying f*** in an outfitter store back when I was thrilled with myself and my outdoor activities. Soon after I started going backpacking and climbing I found myself working in an outfitter store. This amplified my annoying newbie qualities by adding the little knowledge that is a dangerous thing. I still shopped other outfitters when I went on trips to places like the Adirondacks or North Conway, NH. It gave me ample opportunities to annoy.

I would hope I had paid my karmic debt by now, but as long as one stays in the outfitter business one sits in the cross-hairs of know-it-alls and half-informed customers who want to make sure you're doing everything absolutely right when they have no real idea what that is.

When -- if -- I ever manage to get out of the outfitting business, if I still like to go out and I need gear, let me please always remember to shop quietly and not embroil the sales people in my spirals of indecision or other psychodramas.

Friday, October 19, 2012

I hate hunting season

I have many friends who hunt. While I don't share their enthusiasm for it, the activity itself isn't what bothers me. I just hate having to make myself visible in the woods.

As a courtesy to hunters, one should wear high-visibility clothing. I hate high-visibility clothing. I may not be a master of concealment in the wilderness, but I hate to draw attention. I would prefer to go unnoticed.

My mountaineering garb is brightly colored, partly because it was the fashion at the time and partly to make my body easier to find in case I don't return from the realm of bare rock, ice and snow. However, as I've gotten older I have been more attracted to the idea of disappearing without a trace than with being found. I'm just too cheap to invest in more subtly-colored shell garments. But in the woods and forested lower mountains I can wear my preferred darker hues because I have clothing good for those environments in earth tones. Just not when people are tromping around out there looking for large mammals to kill.

When I rode a mountain bike a lot on the trails around my area I had a blaze orange helmet cover and other brightly-colored clothing options. Biking isn't conducive to concealment anyway. It was no hardship to put on the clown suit for the sake of safety. And now I don't ride the mountain bike that way, so it's not an issue. The places I ride don't traverse particularly good hunting areas.

Hiking is a different matter. My house sits in some prime deer and bear habitat. If I go for my customary bushwhack straight out the back door I could run into a hunter within a hundred yards. I don't post my property, respecting its ancestral uses. I have seen hunters entering and leaving the woods along the stone wall at the far end of my domain. One time I even surprised a bowhunter on one of my trails who turned out to be a cycling friend I hadn't seen in years. He brought a near-record buck out of the woods later that year. When he showed up at my door on a chilly November evening, sweaty, out of breath and smeared with blood it was very similar to opening the door to find my proud cat with a dead rodent, only much, much bigger. I helped him load it onto the roof rack of his Subaru wagon.

The hunters deserve their time. I just have to wait it out or go to places I know would not attract them, like the steep and windswept higher summits. Or, more likely, I stay too busy with delayed preparations for winter to go into the woods at all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Gettin' Salty

Scarborough River spreads out in a broad, shallow bay behind Pine Point. It makes a great launching site with access to sheltered waters and the open water of Saco Bay.
The prudent mariner prepares for any reasonable contingency. It makes you look like a geek beside the happy-go-lucky casual boaters in a bathing suit and perhaps a PFD. I try to pack quickly and dwindle to a speck on the horizon before my preparations invite comment.

The sky looked strange. The forecast told us to watch for possible thunderstorms. This paddling venue gives us a good view of the sky. Clouds built and dissipated without reaching a critical point. The breeze seemed stiff when we started, but faded. We skirted the shore toward the channel at the river mouth. The wind carried the smell of salt air, diesel fumes and faint whiffs of marijuana.

We crossed the channel as the last of the flood tide swirled over rocks on the far shore. Large fish we could not identify leaped clear of the water as they fed on smaller fish they had corralled in the channel current. Terns circled above the choppy water.

Laurie always doubts her skills and worries more than necessary. Then she performs any explained maneuver perfectly well. We planned our channel crossing to account for the current, wind and boat traffic. The channel is not a busy one, but the boats that use it are piloted by either commercial harvesters of fish and lobster or the typical oblivious doofus who has just spent hours churning his children on inner tubes in endless loops behind a powerful motor boat. The working watermen should not have to accommodate recreational paddlers, and the doofuses can't be relied on to notice us.

We paddled along the beach headed out toward Prout's Neck. Sails were going up on 420-class dinghies beside a float. A large powerboat trailing tubes loaded with children swept in from farther out in the bay and started to do laps around the area we were trying to cross. We aimed close to the beach, hoping the boat driver would avoid the land, even if we remained invisible.

Hugging the shore we also cut behind the junior program sailors in the 420s, and others in Optimist dinghies closer to the yacht club itself. The 420 float is actually many yards out into the anchorage, not connected to shore. The Opti float is also separate. It may ground at low tide on the pleasant sand of the bay floor.

The sailing instructors in their launches seemed no warmer toward kayakers than most other power boaters seem to be. Our course very briefly cut between them and their shore base, but that had seemed better to me than cutting between them and their charges in the dinghies. We pulled through quickly.

Just beyond the yacht club we crossed one more small indented cove before suddenly facing a more distinct swell. The warning sound of white water over rocks announced that we had reached more exposed coastline. Laurie said she did not want to go further out. She waited in the last cove while I took a look at what lay beyond.

The swell was barely more than a foot high, with a small wind-chop on top of it. I never dropped into a trough deep enough to block my view. Even so, the waves made a dangerous break over the barely submerged rocks at this particular corner. I went outside that before curving eastward to look down toward more dramatic rocks on the outer shore of the neck. After a few minutes holding position on the restless waves I turned back to rejoin Laurie.

Tubing Boat One had been joined by Tubing Boat Two. The junior program sailors had moved to their racing areas. We cut through the anchorage on a more direct course now that we would not interfere with them. That still left the tubing boats. They cycled on an irregular oval at varying intervals. We watched them for several minutes before making our dash toward the beach. They shifted closer to shore as we approached it, but that was probably coincidental. Their course was dumbbell-shaped, so it veered away from us as we moved further from its end.

Saco Bay shores are made of soft, white sand. We landed on the beach for a bite to eat and a bit of wading in the chilly water.

While we sat on shore, we watched a seagull walk up and investigate the untended belongings of some beachgoers who had walked away. We would have prevented any vandalism or larceny. The first gull, who was later joined by a second, peered into tote bags and pecked at shiny sunglasses, but found nothing to take and left nothing but webbed footprints.

We launched again at slack tide, to cross the channel for a cruise along the teeming shore of the extended environs of Old Orchard Beach. Human beings make an amazing amount of noise, playing at the sea side. From a hundred yards or more off shore it becomes a wordless chatter and screeching. A crowd of mammals lies on the sand. Some run up and down along the beach. Others leap and lumber into the breaking waves. One observes feeding, the preambles to mating, some play, some aggression, competition for territory and interaction with other species. Shore birds wheel above the noisy herd, hoping to swoop down on undefended food.

We paddled smoothly outside the zone of bobbing heads and reaching arms, beyond the sound of intelligible words and meaningful eye contact. It was a great way to cruise the beach.

Before the ebb could set in too strongly, we turned back toward the channel. We would not have to cross it, but people fishing from the jetty cast lines far out into the channel. We would not test their patience or risk their sense of humor by ripping along right under their noses. I eyeballed the lineup to spot the best arm and set a course just outside his longest cast.

Back inside, we aimed for our launching beach. We easily overcame the faint pressure of the early ebb tide.

I always have trouble ending a boat trip. Even if I'm tired, hungry and ready to rest, the difference between afloat and ashore lures me to stay afloat a little longer. We paddled a little beyond the beach and boat ramp to look at some grass flats.
It's fun to float
The day was full of classic shorescapes and water scenes. Artistic compositions invite the eye every minute in any direction.

After we took the boats out and put on some dry shorts we found a great little seafood shack on a side street. The fact that all the cars in the parking lot had local plates tipped us off that it was the good stuff. We had a couple of lobster rolls, fries and some iced tea. A very friendly black jumping spider kept climbing my leg until I gave it a lift on a plastic spoon to the table top. Jumping spiders always remind me of cats. This one was fairly large, with iridescent blue eyes and a red marking on the top of its abdomen (not a red hourglass underneath)

Our next objectives were corn and tomatoes, and soft-serve ice cream. The veggies were for supper and the ice cream was, well, ice cream. As it happened, we did not get tomatoes, but we got some excellent corn, which we roasted and ate along with Swiss chard and kale chopped and cooked with garlic and ginger for our supper when we got home.