Tuesday, February 28, 2012

winter reading

Recommended reading (and watching) to get you in mood for snow, ice and sub-zero temps:

  • Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places, by Bill Streever
  • Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival, by Berndt Heinrich
  • The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Two in the Far North, by Margaret Murie
  • Tracking and the Art of Seeing, by Paul Rezendes
  • The Stars, the Snow, the Fire, by John Haines
  • Wandering Through Winter, by Edwin Way Teale
  • Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
  • BBC's Planet Earth: Ice Worlds
  • BBC's Human Planet: the Arctic
  • Encounters at the End of the World, a Warner Herzog film
Addendum: I would be remiss not to include Farley Mowat, Robert Service,  Jack London or Barry Lopez. The list goes on and on.

Telescopes atop Mauna Kea, the highest point in Hawaii and one of the best star-watching sites in the world. About 13,800 feet of the mountain rises above the tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean, but measured from its base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea in its entirety stands more than 33,000 feet -- 4,000 feet higher than Mount Everest. Adam and I hitchhiked to the summit, slid down the volcanic slopes on our boogie boards, then spent the night camped on the beach, with the snowcapped peak in the distance. Ancient Hawaiians held contests in which men would race nearly 14,000 feet to the top of the mountain, grab a handful of snow, and try to make it back to sea level before the snow had melted. Altitude sickness? What altitude sickness?

Monday, February 27, 2012

I spent the weekend in the heart of the White Mountains, which, unlike the river valley where I live, were as white as their name implies. There was a big snowstorm on Friday night that dumped several feet of snow on the region, and driving over the pass on the Kancamangus Highway as the sun rose on Saturday morning was the best feeling I've experienced in a long time. I love mountains. It doesn't matter if they are Appalachian or Rocky: I love the cleansing air, the aura of majesty they impart, the sense of adventure and solitude. I lived in my snow gear for 48 hours, throwing myself into the snow, impervious to its cold, soaking up the season.

When I was growing up in western Massachusetts, winter was all slush and dirty piles of snow on the roadsides. Then I moved to Vermont and it became an adventure, a reason to carry extra clothes and a shovel and kitty litter in your trunk, a reason to chop wood in the fall, to hunker down by a fire while snow falls outside, to discover the tracks of weasels and hares, to get outside and play in a clean, hushed world of bright skies and glittering ice. The year I spent without winter in the Marshall Islands left me out of whack, imbalanced without the season of rest and contemplation. I realized how much I love this season, how breathtaking it is in its own stark, silent way. Even when I was in Hawaii, I couldn't wait to get back to a cold New England winter.

And now I'm back, and it's been miserable, all drab brown landscapes and unseasonably mild temperatures. Ski resorts and outdoor enthusiasts are suffering. I wondered what effect the lack of snow has been having on the natural world. Here's what I found out. Reprinted with permission from the Valley News.

'Warm Winter Has Wildlife, People Both Befuddled'

Farmer Chuck Wooster, picking a tick off his dog in February, worries about the insects he might find in his vegetable beds this spring. Tramping through the brown woods, Lyme bear expert Ben Kilham finds male black bears happily feeding on beechnuts long after they’ve usually settled into winter dens. And birders across the region sit at their windows and puzzle over their empty birdfeeders.

Despite yesterday's snowfall, this year’s mild winter has been perplexing humans and animals alike. Some species, like white-tailed deer, fare favorably in warm temperatures and minimal snow cover. For other species like voles and snowshoe hares, the unseasonable winter can be detrimental, or even fatal.

But biologists agree that though the weather has been weird, it’s not unheard of. Plants and animals evolve over the course of hundreds of winters — some brutally cold and snowy, others mild — and while there will be dips and spikes in populations, one warm winter isn’t enough to cause any long-term changes.

“There could be some short term effects … but it’s not a huge concern in the long term,” said Steve Faccio, a conservation biologist with the Norwich-based Vermont Center for EcoStudies.

Still, the strange weather brings with it changes in animal behavior and population growth.

One of the most widely publicized has been the effect on white-tailed deer. Normally, deer need to conserve energy during the winter to avoid starving to death, said Vermont State Wildlife Biologist Cedric Alexander. Deer must work hard to forage in the deep snow, and they’re vulnerable to predators: even pet dogs, who like to chase deer through the woods, can cause them to expend precious energy needed to survive.

This year, though, deer populations are thriving.

“Instead of being subjected to very harsh winter conditions which often cause some level of mortality, they’re really presented with the kind of conditions they might expect to find in a place like Pennsylvania,” Alexander said. “Their mobility is unrestricted so they can move around without expending a lot of energy.”

Moose, on the other hand, may be negatively impacted. Their legs are usually long enough that deep snows don’t hurt survival rates, and their layer of winter fat and heavy coat predisposes them to cold conditions. Even a 50-degree day in January is enough to make a moose overheat; they try to cool down by hiding in the shade of conifer trees, Alexander said.

But the real problem for moose isn’t the warmth: it’s ticks. Winter ticks, to be exact, which are a different species than the familiar summer ticks.

Winter ticks latch onto moose in the early fall and begin months of feeding. A typical moose has 30,000 ticks on its body; sometimes, they can have up to 150,000, Alexander said. Usually, the female ticks will get their fill of blood and drop off the moose’s body. If they land in the snow, they cannot lay their eggs and will eventually die. But without snow on the ground, the ticks are able to reproduce, and Alexander fears that a bumper crop of winter ticks this year could mean trouble for moose calves next year.

“The problem is, the moose didn’t evolve with this tick, so they aren’t really adept at grooming them (off),” Alexander explained. Ticks, carried by deer, were brought north to moose territory as deer expanded their range north with human development. While agile deer can reach just about any body part to nip an irritating tick off, moose are less mobile, and the tens of thousands of ticks that cling to them grow engorged with blood, reaching the size of a grape.

“It actually causes anemia through loss of blood proteins,” Alexander said. “Just as important is the irritation, and the amount of time a moose spends rubbing against trees to alleviate the itching. 
They’re not feeding, they’re not resting, they’re constantly stressed, and instead of conserving energy they lose body weight.”

What’s more, the animals often rub their insulating guard hairs right off, leaving them vulnerable to hypothermia during a cold spring rain. For calves, tick infestations can prove fatal.

Other mammals hurt by a mild winter include snowshoe hares, which are visible to predators when there’s no snow to match their white winter coats, and small rodents like meadow voles, shrews and mice.

With a couple of feet of snow on the ground, such burrowing animals can still reach their food sources — roots, seeds and grasses — but they’re protected from predators like foxes and owls, Alexander said.

Of course, the rodents’ bad luck helps their predators pass the winter months fat and happy. 

 'An ecological cascade'

Other predators that inhabit Upper Valley forests, like fishers and weasel,s could also benefit from the mild winter, though for different reasons, according to Faccio of the Center for EcoStudies. 

Such animals employ an evolutionary tactic called delayed implantation, which allows them to halt the development of a fertilized embryo from fall until mid-winter.

If the weather is harsh and food is low, females can abort an embryo. But in mild winters, more fisher and weasel embryos will develop until birth, perhaps causing a slight surge in populations, Faccio said.

Predators also impact bird populations. Squirrels and chipmunks, which prey on song bird nests, may be thriving with the abundance of available food this year, said bird biologist Pamela Hunt of New Hampshire Audubon.

“I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if there was a high predation (on birds eggs and chicks) this summer because of the mild winter,” Hunt said. “It’s one of those interesting ecological cascades.”

Most birds, though, benefit from mild weather. Though species like black-capped chickadees that normally overwinter in the Upper Valley are well adapted to freezing temperatures, warmer weather only increases their chances for survival. And given the lack of snow, finding food in the woods and fields has been easier for birds, so there have been fewer at feeders, Hunt said.

But for birders who venture further afield, this winter has produced some interesting surprises.

“The famous story right now is there’s a bird called the Cape May warbler that normally spends its winters in the Caribbean that’s been hanging out on the New Hampshire coast,” Hunt said. Further inland, birds like the yellow rumped warbler have been sighted in the White Mountains, orioles have been frequenting feeders in Concord, and the American redstart, another Caribbean winterer, was seen in Brattleboro as late as mid-December.

It’s not that the birds have intentionally stuck around due to the warm weather, Hunt said. Every year, a handful of migrant songbirds have “messed up migration systems” and get stuck in cold climates. Usually, they die. But this year, a lack of nasty weather has enabled many of the birds to stay alive.

Unlike songbirds, water fowl like ducks and geese aren’t programmed to head to a specific overwintering site. Instead, they partake in “short distance hopping,” going only as far south as they need to find open water and food sources.

“They only migrate until they get to a place that’s suitable, then they stop,” Hunt said. With the Connecticut River largely unfrozen this year, ducks have stuck around, and even Canadian geese have been spotted flying north. 

Fish and frogs

The unusually sparse ice cover has implications for fish as well, said Rich Kirn, a Vermont State Fisheries Biologist.

Typically, a type of ice called “anchor ice” builds up in the bottom of stream beds. During spring break-up, hunks of ice scraping through the stream channel can kill the eggs of spring spawning fish like rainbow trout. With trout populations still reeling from Tropical Storm Irene, this year’s lack of anchor ice could help aid in the species’ recovery.

On the other hand, Kirn said, spring flooding is important in opening up spawning sites for rainbow trout. And given the lack of snowpack and precipitation in general, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Northeast River Forecast Center predicts below average spring flooding across Vermont and New Hampshire.

Of course, said NOAA meteorologist Hayden Frank, that could all change with a few days of heavy spring rains.

“This is just a general outlook,” he noted. “It doesn’t mean to say there won’t be spring flooding.”
But even with lots of rain in the forecast, it will be difficult to make up the flooding effects of a heavy snowpack, and flooding will likely be less severe then last year, Frank said.

Amphibians like wood frogs, peepers and salamanders also depend on spring rains to create the ephemeral spring ponds, or vernal pools, that provide vital breeding habitat. But such animals are also affected by winter conditions. 

Wood frogs and peepers overwinter by burrowing just beneath the leaf litter and employing a natural anti-freeze that allows their bodies to drop well below freezing while still staying alive. If the frogs come out too early due to warm weather, they might not be able to revive their antifreeze capabilities if a hard frost were to follow, said Faccio of the Center of EcoStudies.

Salamanders, lacking such antifreeze capabilities, generally burrow in the warm earth below the frost line. In typical winters, a layer of snow acts as an insulator, keeping the ground from freezing too deeply. This year, the lack of snow could mean that some salamanders who didn’t bury themselves deep enough might be susceptible to freezing to death.

Bulbs and bugs

Wooster, who owns Sunrise Farms in White River Junction, is keeping his fingers crossed that the lack of snow cover has been tempered by mild temperatures. In addition to insulating salamanders, snow also prevents fall bulbs like garlic from being damaged by frost. Wooster has measured six inches of frost in the ground this year. Last year, he said, there was hardly any.

He hopes the extra mulch he’s put over his garlic beds will protect them until spring, and he doesn’t anticipate any delay in spring planting. What he’s really worried about are insects.

“I subscribe to listservs from southern New England vegetable growers, and they have certain insects down there that we don’t have,” Wooster said, noting that northern New England’s cold winters generally keep such insect populations  in check. “Whenever we have a mild winter like this, I have a general panic over all these (pests) I haven’t had to know about.”

Vermont State Zoologist Mark Ferguson said that Wooster’s fears aren’t unfounded, though it would likely take several mild winters in a row to really facilitate the spread of new insects north. This year’s winter and last fall’s rains could result in an increased number of ticks and mosquitoes, Ferguson said, but there could be other, more pleasant consequences as well.

The giant swallowtail butterfly, for example, usually lives in warmer climates. On rare occassions, it’s been spotted in Vermont, but there are no recorded instances of it breeding here. Last summer, several were spotted in Vermont, and entomologists have found their eggs on plants. Ferguson is hopeful the mild winter might help the eggs survive.

“In some situations, southern species live just on the edge (up here),” he said. “If they can survive on that edge during a winter that’s not too harsh, maybe that gives it an opportunity to move north.”

And then there are the bears. 

Kilham, who’s been studying black bears for 14 years, said winters like this don’t necessarily have positive or negative impacts on bears, but it does make for some curious situations. Female bears with cubs den up no matter what, but thanks to a bumper crop of beech nuts and mountain ash berries last fall, many male bears didn’t go into hibernation at all.

“The male bear’s strategy is to get big enough to mate, because only the largest 10 or 15 percent of males do all the mating,” Kilham said. Eating all winter leads to more weight gain than sleeping in a den, “and the goal of any male is to gain weight.”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Deep forests in decline

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News.


     Intact forestland -- large tracts of woods unbroken by roads and houses -- is decreasing in Vermont as new housing developments spring up, and the Connecticut River watershed is one of the areas most at risk.
     Those are the messages from the U.S. Forest Service, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, all of which are involved in an effort to help Upper Valley towns prepare for future growth while still maintaining forest integrity. The first-ever report studying the subdivision of private woodlands in Vermont showed a 4 percent decrease in large wooded parcels between 2003 and 2009, and the trend is expected to continue as the housing market and the economy begin to rebound, especially along the river corridor, according to conservationists and planners.
     “This is not about stopping growth,” said Jamey Fidel, Forest and Biodiversity Program Director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council and one of the authors of the study. “It's about where you put it and how you do it. It is important for towns to be aware of detrimental parcelization, and to be proactive in planning to maintain the integrity of forests while still allowing for economic growth.”
     “Parcelization” -- which occurs when large tracts of woodland are subdivided into parcels -- and “fragmentation,” which occurs when forest is broken up by roads or new development, are buzzwords among those who study and conserve forests. Together, the two are considered the most critical issue facing northern New England forests. Left unaddressed, planners and conservationists warn that they threaten to undermine one of region's most crucial resources.
     “It's one of the greatest identified threats,” Fidel said. “It affects wildlife habitat, recreational access, working forests and water quality.”
     Emma Zavez, a planner for Two Rivers, a Woodstock-based planning commission that includes 30 Vermont towns, said that large swaths of forest don't just protect wildlife, they also benefit human activity, including commercial businesses. The minimum lot size for a productive working forest -- one that can support large-scale sugaring or logging -- is considered to be 50 acres. Such large tracts of woodlands are also a boon for tourism, and they absorb both carbon dioxide and floodwaters.
     Though a 4 percent loss large wooded parcels may not sound like much, the study, published in 2010, has prompted a string of reactions in the Upper Valley and beyond. The Two Rivers commission recently created a forest stewardship committee to explore how zoning policies and town plans can help mitigate forest fragmentation. An initiative called the Linking Lands Alliance is under way to help conserve key wildlife corridors among 14 Upper Valley towns. And the Natural Resources Council just launched a second study to resolve some of the questions that the 2010 report left unanswered.
     The initial report provided a breakdown of subdivision in every town in Vermont, measured by the number of lots that were subdivided into parcels of less than 50 acres. Fairlee, Hartland, Pomfret, Woodstock and others had hardly any loss of large parcels, while Hartford, Royalton, Tunbridge and Vershire saw a loss of 3 percent or more.
     Did the towns with little loss in intact parcels protect forestland through policies and regulations, or did they just not experience much growth? What steps can individuals and towns take to prevent fragmentation? And given that population is stagnant or even declining, why are housing developments on the rise?
     To begin to answer some of these questions, the Natural Resources Council analyzed eight towns spread out across the state, including Norwich, which it called a “new growth town.” The new study will look at 15 more towns, including Hartford and West Windsor.
     Between 2003 and 2009, Norwich saw just a 1 percent loss in large parcels, due in part to the work of town planner Phil Dechert, who has introduced novel subdivision regulations that may be positively influencing wildlife habitat and working forests, according to Brian Shupe, director of the Natural Resources Council.
     “Unlike most communities in the Upper Valley -- and elsewhere in Vermont -- Norwich has a maximum density that is different from a minimum lot size,” Shupe said.
     On Main Street, for example, zoning regulations allow for a density as low as one house per acre, but depending on proximity to the village, the type of road it's on and proximity to public lands such as the Appalachian Trail, the allowed density can drop to as low as one house per 20 acres. In most towns, “rural residential” zoning is defined by lot size, not density.
     Norwich's model offers a creative approach to the issue of subdivision. A large parcel can be broken up and sold off, but development may be allowed on only a small portion of the resulting subdivisions, thus clustering development and maintaining contiguous tracts of undeveloped land.
     “Over the last 10 to 15 years, Norwich has definitely been focusing on trying to change the development patterns from the '80s, when there were a lot of 10-acre lots spread out,” Dechert said. “What we're looking at a lot more now is the issue of habitat and wildlife corridors.”
     But while the focus of many town planners has shifted, what works for Norwich may not work for Hartford. There's no magic number when it comes to striking a balance between developed and undeveloped land, planners explain.
     “It's really a question that's up to towns,” said Fidel of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “They're the ones that grapple with the balance or the right amount of growth.”
     Deciding where growth should be clustered is especially challenging in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene: forest conservationists want to protect hilly woodlands, while river specialists say that development should be kept out of floodplains. Where's a town to build?
     The Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission received a Forest Service grant to help town officials and private landowners deal with such issues. It's putting together recommendations for zoning and planning boards and resources for landowners to better understand forest fragmentation, “because a piece of land doesn't come with a set of instructions,” Zavez said.
     Two Rivers is especially interested in looking at how towns with low levels of fragmentation correlate with involvement in the Current Use Program, which offers tax breaks for landowners who agree to use their land for agricultural or forestry production rather than development.
     By promoting large parcels of woodlands, the planning commission is also hoping to promote local forest products like lumber and furniture as a parallel movement to local agriculture, and convince people of the value of Vermont's forests.
     “As we increasingly develop (land) and have smaller and smaller parcels, and more interruptions with power lines and roads and sewer pipes, the less intact the classic Vermont scenery is,” Zavez said. “We see (that) as a definite problem.”

Thursday, February 9, 2012

notes from maine

Directions to Andover, ME: 91N to ex 9. 93S to ex 40. Merge onto NH10. Left onto Rt 3N. Right on 115N. Right on 2E. Left on ME-5/Ellis River Road.


3 Sept

I expected this solo wilderness paddle to release floodgates of writing, but in fact I don't feel much compelled to write. I feel almost... ambivalent. It is lovely here. Not jaw-dropping or show-stopping, but still plenty pretty, sky the soft ombre of dusk: pink fading into orange into purple-blue. Darkly silhouetted shorelines, silver water reflecting the sky, a loon calling. My tent is perched on a soft carpet of pine needles on a wooded point that juts out into Richardson Lake. From inside it, I watch the water darken through a frame of hemlock boughs. It's all very nice. The weather is nice. I am warm and comfortable and relaxed.

I am also cynical, dissatisfied with the wild places of the east after spending time out west. This is supposed to be a “primitive wilderness tent site.” This 17-mile lake is supposed to be remote and untouched. But at this hour of the evening, a steady parade of motor boats zips back and forth across my little picture window. Across the channel, someone is building something. Earlier, he was hammering and drilling, now, he's calling his dog – “come, Molly! Molly, come!” – again and again. He might be a good mile away, but with the way sound carries over water, he could be sitting outside my tent. I turn on my headlamp with a great, self-important huff. I hope that once it gets completely dark everything will go still and quiet.

I don't know when I became such a wilderness snob, or why I feel the need to be somewhere free of motors or structures or other people. Why is it so dang hard to just find a place like that around here? I am getting frustrated. I want to be alone and not hear anything except the wind through the trees and the lake slapping against the rocks.

When I imagined my solo wilderness adventure, this was not the place I imagined. This is a place for happy summertime pleasures – Vacationland! – and it would be a great place to bring a group of friends. But it's not exactly what I had in mind for my solo trip. I wanted to go somewhere raw and wild that would challenge me.

Nonetheless, I feel confident, and confidence is what I need right now, with the rest of my life full of such uncertainty. The drive here was long: mostly backroads, low, heavy skies, interesting towns, windows down and music on, feeling pretty good about myself: 27 years old and doing ok. I've worked hard to nail down all these skills, to gain the self-assuredness to come out here alone on Labor Day weekend. If I'd have packed just a few more things in the car, I could have lived out of it for months. I daydream of loading it down with my bike, kayak, camping gear, books, maps and camera and driving away, away from my job and the stuff I own and all my obligations.

On the way here earlier today, I drove for three and a half hours before I realized I'd forgotten my sleeping bag. I'd been wanting a summer-weight bag anyway, but the one I bought at the tiny outdoor store that was thankfully only 5 miles off-route is probably not that one I would've picked out had I more than five choices. Then upon arriving at the lake I realized I forgot my paddle as well, and borrowed a heavy plastic one from Dottie, the woman at the South Arm office who issued my permits. I also had to borrow $3 from a stranger to pay for my “remote wilderness site:” cash only. Dottie and the stranger seemed to think I was nuts to be heading out paddling by myself. The weekend forecast called for thundershowers every day.

8:40 p.m. Sky a deep purple, almost black. I have never before in my life heard an entire chorus of loons, but I am hearing it now. Some are long and haunting, like train whistles in the fog. Others are chattering, loony, hysteric. One overlaps the other, layers of sound echoing over the still water, bouncing off the shores. Then at once they are all silent, and I notice there are bugs singing in the treetops and the air itself smells like a sharp, dank lake.

8:52 p.m. The loons are back. I think I can pick out six distinct voices, each coming from a different point in the half-circle of lake that hugs my little ridge. I sit upright and peer into the near-dark but can't see anything except the stars and the bright half-moon and its double, reflected on the water. Two halves of a moon – does that make it a full moon? Tomorrow I'm supposed to camp at Half Moon Cove. With the rainfly off my tent, I feel like I'm sleeping on a veranda in a lakeside cabin. I feel protected and yet exposed. I can feel the breeze. Summer is nearly over. 


4 Sept.

At 3 a.m., the sky was starry and clear. At 6 a.m., a thick fog has closed in my little piney point. I think about Alaska. Yesterday, when the motorboats paused and the only sound was my paddle dipping into the gray water, again and again, I thought of the rhythm of a canoe paddle in the ocean, of my canoe sliding through glassy coves alongside rock walls dripping with salt water and starfish. I thought of how often I've done that; and how much I miss it now, stuck driving to an office every day. The loons last night reminded me of camping on the Alaskan coast and falling asleep to the haunting sounds of whalesong reverberating through the ancient forest.

Maine is not dissimilar from Alaska, though of course it is not the same either. Instead of raven, it is crow talking in the big pine above me. When they fly off, I hear the beat of air beneath their wing feathers. The loons still call through the pea-soup air; occasionally there's the splash of a fish. I like the fog. It shuts me into my own permeable world; encloses me in an airy sphere that moves with me as I push across the water. Last night, I dream that half a canoe, sawed right down the middle, washed up on the beach and I took it out into roiling waves and whirlpools. I saw another canoe get sucked into a wave. My mom appeared and I wanted her to leave so I could prove things, but I was glad she was there and couldn't send her away.

9:39 a.m. The on-and-off drone of motors is back. It's not that I'm opposed to motors, but surely a human being needs to escape them once in a while.

I've never thought before about the significance of the term “human being.” BEING is in our very nomenclature. A being is not simply something that's alive. A plant is alive; it is not a being. Only animals. Being is somehow related to consciousness of experience. To be. I am you. Are. He is. Je suis, tu es, il est. And on and on. We are.

I do not have the words to explain why I need, on occasion, to go to a wild, unforgiving place where no one else is around. It is something inherent in me that, if suppressed for too long, causes me to forget who I am, to become cranky, unaware, overburdened. A pretty park won't do it. I need someplace raw and untamed, someplace that claws at me and leaves me to emerge wild-eyed and awed.

Is this something that everyone needs, only some people just don't know it? Or do some people simply love being around other people, all the time? I like to think that solitude is an inherent part of being human, but perhaps it is only a handful of us who are driven to seek out the lonely places of the world, the places where we can feel the weight of the sky pressing down on us, stripping us of our vanities, revealing our barest selves.

11:17 a.m. Utter perfection. Paddling in the sunshine with the wind at my back, exploring silent, calm coves, feet up, dragonflies landing on my knee. The further north along the lake I find myself, the quieter it gets. The motor boats are gone. Thank you, Vacationland.

In some places, rocks and boulders seem to have fallen down the steep slope of the forest, landing in a jumble at the water's edge. There are pocket beaches and sandy points around every turn. Elsewhere, the woods taper to meadows flecked with delicate waving flowers that stretch to the lake. I stop in a cove to float and lay on my back with my face to the sun and listen to the birds. To see what comes out when I stay still long enough.

12:26 p.m. The sandy beaches and fascinating coves and wetlands are never ending. I couldn't be paddling at a more relaxed pace or in a more content state of mind. This has become a very pleasant retreat indeed.

Lunch and yoga on yet another sandy point, picture perfect. Read an Edward Abbey piece with my crackers and fruit. “It ain't wilderness unless there's something out there bigger than you that can kill and eat you.” I know what he's getting at, but literally speaking, that makes any place wilderness. A storm can come up anywhere: wind is bigger than me. And if it killed me, the earth would surely eat my dead body right up.


2:17 p.m. Well this is crazy. I was paddling under an untouchable blue sky, dilly dallying along, and started hearing rumbles in the distance. Far away, muffled. The sky got darker, and then – bam, out of nowhere, what meteorologists would probably call a “severe thunderstorm” rolled in just as I was filling my water bottle at a stream. Fortunately, I wasn't far from a small island ringed with sandy beaches. I pulled up, grabbed stuff from my kayak and rushed to set up my tarp, made out of a parachute-like material, in a stand of low pines unlikely to be struck by lightning. There is a strong wind and nonstop thunder but the spitting rain seems to have stopped. My tarp is low, and from where I crouch under it I can see through the scratchy underbrush to the beach and the water, now a choppy gray. Hopefully this is just a passing storm and I can continue to Half Moon Cove this evening, although if I have to hunker down here I won't mind too tremendously. It's a beautiful spot, but there is someone else staying in a cabin on the other side of the island.

OH SHIT. All light was just sucked out of the sky. It's dark as a witch's pocket. Rain is pelting my tarp. Thunder is cracking super loud, making me literally jump. I like storms, but this is a little intense.

Ok, officially nervous now. Challenge of a solo trip accepted. OH MY GOD. Lightning touched down on the island. Can't see very far beyond my tarp. A moose spooked by the storm is probably going to come crashing through my impromptu camp at any second. The woods are VERY DARK. THIS IS TERRIFYING. So glad I pulled over immediately at first sign of storm, and so glad I packed my tarp. No metal rods on it.

5:34 p.m. The storm passed, and I emerged dazed from under my tarp and walked out to the beach, looking at the swiftly clearing sky and the lighting still crackling in the east. I looked around some more and decided to stay the night. But no sooner had I taken down my tarp and dried it out on a bush, moved all my stuff a few hundred yards down the beach to a more appealing spot and sat down on a wide swath of sand to read and smoke a joint but it started again. Same as before: unmarred blue sky and distant rumbles, then the black, deep clouds seeping out of the western mountains, thick and malevolent, with thunder lurking within. They're moving this way again. Goddamn it. Why did I have to complain that I wasn't challenged enough?

The storm holds off, and good thing, because it took me an hour to drag my tent off the exposed beach and to the edge of the woods and put the rain fly on and set up my tarp again. There's no good place to set it up here; had to settle for tying the high points to taller pines at the edge of the forest, and the low points to logs I dragged across the sand. It's about 15 feet from my tent, and feels less safe than my earlier spot.

6:21. The storm is still hanging threateningly in the distance. Just went over and said hi to my neighbors; they came in on a motor boat and are staying in a little cabin that was once part of a steamship that trolled up and down this lake. They were sitting in lawn chairs on the beach drinking beer. Had a nice chat. I haven't worn shoes since I got out of my car yesterday.

I feel like a moose could appear any minute. But you rarely see animals when you're looking for them. In Vermont, I tracked three moose all winter long through the snow, over a frozen beaver meadow crisscrossed with winding streams, choked with willow and alder; through a bog dotted with pine snags and dead timber. I'd heard that most of being a wildlife photographer is simply being still and waiting, so come spring, I set up a hunting blind on a hill above the beaver pond and got up at 5 a.m. and crept through the woods with my camera and a headlamp and sat still. Morning after morning, there was nothing. No moose. Then in the high desert in Idaho, in the last place in the world I'd expect to see a moose – I was on the lookout for rattlesnakes instead – a big bull came crashing out of the narrow band of cottonwoods and willows and scared me half to death.

It looks like the storm may have fizzled. The western mountaintops are visible again, the sky quiet but tie-dyed like a silk scarf in shades of gray. The lake is rough and whitecapped. Weather changes quickly here.

This part of the lake feels more wild, like you have to glance back over your shoulder into the woods once in a while to make sure nothing has snuck up on you. I like it, but it makes me slightly uneasy too. Uprooted trees are scattered along the shore, some gray and weather-beaten, others freshly decaying, bits of earth still clinging to the maze of fibers. You can tell the weather gets rough here. Nature has not been kind.

6:45 p.m. and getting chilly. The woods are thick, hard to penetrate, full of broken limbs and scratchy brush. This forest has become young again, unruly, keeping its secrets in the dark, wet understory. A cold, slow creek, rich in tannin, carves a path out of the forest, curls around the bog, cuts through the sandbar and joins the lake.

There is a tree here that catches my attention, a small dead spruce lying on a mossy shelf. It looks as if, when it was still standing, someone took a paint bucket full of white-gray, curling lichen and threw it at the tree, knocking it over and splattering the ground around it with lichen too.

It is soothing to walk unimpeded along a shore, mindlessly following that silver line where water meets land.

The light just turned suddenly so beautiful.Wisps and shreds of clouds hang low in the seamless spaces between mountains. 

There is a pile of scat on the beach that looks like nothing more so than a big ol' pile of horse manure, which it cannot possibly be. It's too big for a black bear. Must have come from a moose, but it looks like no moose poop I've ever seen. Sasquatch?

7:30 p.m. In my tent, in my sleeping bag. Lighting on three sides, but not here. Storm coming from the south this time. Haven't heard a single loon since the first storm. Crickets are at it now, though. Thunder getting closer.

I want to lay in my sleeping bag and read, but it's hard not to watch the sky. It's hard to tell what the storm is doing. Is it passing to the east or is it just taking a really long time to get here? That last thought is disconcerting. There's no counting the seconds between thunder and lighting; the lighting is all around, pulsating high in the clouds. The thunder seems to come from the south, steadily, bearing no connection to the constant flashes of lighting. It is like the sound of a distant army thundering toward battle. Figuring this storm out is like trying to predict the movements of a bear. No rain yet.

8:00. Oh fuck me. Here it comes. Goodbye, warm sleeping back. Goodbye, tent. Please don't become a lightning rod or fly away. Hello, crouching barefoot in the sand under my tarp as the dark sky gets even darker, the loud thunder gets even louder, the bright lighting sharper, closer. Please let this be the last storm of the night.

When I've said in the past that I like storms, I guess I like them from a front porch in the summertime, when the worst that will happen is the street will temporarily flood and the neighbors will set up lawn chairs along it and sit there with umbrellas watching cars struggle through or get stuck in the giant puddle. I do not so much like storms after dark in a rather wild place when I am crouched alone barefoot under a tarp. I feel confident that I've done what I can to prepare for this and am relatively safe, but then again, I'm also on an island in the middle of a big lake – a storm magnet. I don't have a whole lot of options but to wait it out.

Oh god. This is worse than the last one because it's dark. Read to distract yourself. Read about surfing in Hawaii.

8:20 p.m. Whew. That one passed fairly quickly, but I don't think this is over. There are patches of stars directly overhead, now, and I am standing with my mouth in an actual O watching the storm travel north. Lightning bolts that seem miles long shoot from the sky down to the earth, bright, shocking, awesome. I cannot help but gasp, suck in air, and occasionally exclaim, 'holy shit!' This is an amazing thing to witness.

HOLY SHIT IS RIGHT. Storm #3 rolling in close on the heels of #2. This one is the mother. This is the big one. I'm back under the tarp. Rain is pelting from all directions, wind howling. The lightning is continuous, the sky pulsing with light, the thunder deafening when it cracks like a deep gunshot directly overhead. I can feel it in my bones, like a loud bass. I can see the lightning bolts behind my eyelids when I close them. A bolt flashes down and strikes nearby; I close my eyes and see its neon double, again and again. I remember thunder storms in Hermit Island when Dad would make us sit in the truck, our faces pressed to the windows, rubber tires safely beneath us.

It hit right near me. My legs are shaking. My heart pounding. My mouth won't close. I am hugging my knees in a face-down fetal position.

How many storms before I make a dash across the island to knock on the door of the cabin? I keep thinking each will be the last, but they keep coming, and of course I can't run across the island in the middle of one.

There was just a lull, and now it's starting again. It's as if the storms are swirling around the lake and coming to rest every time they find this island. This is utterly terrifying. Having another human being here with my wouldn't make it any safer, but it would be comforting at least.


11:10 p.m. During a lull in the storm I walked cautiously to the cabin and was very warmly welcomed. The people thought I was absolutely insane for having withstood the last five storms alone under a tarp. I accepted two beers, which were amazing, and sat indoors, where it felt a hundred times safer, though the thought of a massive pine getting struck by lightning and falling through the roof was in the back of our minds. The people have been coming to this island for 30 years, and got married here. We talked for two hours while the storm continued to ebb and flow around us.

Blame it on the beers, but leaving the cabin and walking back to my tent, I slid on a rock and sliced the outside of my foot wide open. A 5-inch-long gash that bled all the way back to the tent. Busted out the first aid kit, tried to wipe the sand away, winced, swabbed it with alcohol wipes, slathered on neosporin, slapped on a nonstick bandage, wrapped in an ace bandage and lay on my back with my foot up in the air above my hear. I wonder if I need stitches. It is throbbing.

5 Sept

9:17 a.m. What a difference the daylight makes. Woke this morning to a steady drizzle and packed up a soggy camp: it reminded me of all the mornings I woke up in the rain in Alaska, and reminded me too that Alaska was full of this wet, sloppy misery and that I shouldn't curse my comfortable day job so often. Got on the water by 8 a.m. and remembered too that with misery comes reward. In this case: a calm, glasslike lake reflecting the dripping pines and not a soul or a boat in sight. Paddled four quick miles without hearing anything but birds, then pulled over to boil myself some water for tea and watch the loons, who have reappeared, dip their shining black heads under the lake.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

In (reluctant) defense of Route 12A

Where I live, in Lyme, N.H., the occasion of a passing car is rare enough that my two dogs and I simultaneously lift our heads – me from writing, they from napping – and glance out the window at this intruder into our pastoral landscape of rolling fields, red barns and wooded hills. It's lovely here, though a little quiet – an authentic working landscape would have more children, more tractors, more sheepdogs barking and metal clanking and men cursing. But nonetheless, it's pretty, and an escape from the clamor that increasingly passes for our American landscape.

And then, five days a week, I drive half an hour south to work on Route 12A in West Lebanon, where our newspaper offices are located. A recent letter to the editor described Route 12A as a “scar on the face of the beautiful Upper Valley,” and our columnist noted that instead of incorporating the beauty of the adjacent Connecticut River into a walkable downtown shopping area, the great river is hidden to everyone but K-Mart employees on a cigarette break. Everyone loves to hate Route 12A. The stretch of mini-malls, chain stores and fast food joints has been blamed for everything from backed-up traffic to environmental depravity to the homogenization of regional differences and small-town culture.

I couldn't agree more. A year ago, psyched to return to peaceful, scenic northern New England – which I remembered fondly from my last stint in Chester, Vermont – I followed the directions to a job interview and found myself, quite bewildered, at a Dunkin Donuts in the midst of the faceless gridlock of Route 12A.

Now, instead of leisurely lunch-break strolls around a shaded village green lined with local bookstores and cafes, I risk getting hit by an angry driver while dashing across the street to Best Buy. My resolution to eat healthy lunches is continually challenged by the scent of McDonalds french fries wafting on the breeze. I hate it too – but in a way, I secretly, begrudgingly accept Route 12A.

For one thing, residents of the picturesque and slightly-pretentious towns upstream would be remiss to think that their communities would be as thriving as they are without the commercial properties downstream. Many people in the Upper Valley aren't from here: they move here from the metro-south because they want to escape just the kind of hectic, consumer-based lifestyle that 12A represents. But if that were truly the case, they'd move to the Northeast Kingdom or northern Maine. The fact is, those places are remote and rural in a way the Upper Valley is not; here, you can pay good money (or be lucky enough to inherit) land that looks and feels rural, but without the inconvenience of having to drive an hour just to buy groceries.

The high quality of living and relatively strong job market combined with a still-intact rural character is what attracts many people to this region. But such strengths require a degree of population, and our population is sustained in part by the corporations that line 12A. It would be wonderful if all the money poured into the national chains were instead diverted to community projects and local entrepreneurs, but the fact of the matter is that the Walmarts and Staples of the world sprung up to fill a need and they aren't going away. For every Upper Valley resident who never swears they'd never park their Prius in front of Walmart, a dozen others will tell you they couldn't live without it. And even the die-hard Co-op shoppers sneak into Shaws for deals on wine and beer or plastic cups and potato chips for a party. I know, I've interviewed them there.

When I think of Route 12A, I think about my trail building experience in the northern Rockies. I spent a summer doing conservation work and maintaining hiking trails in Idaho, and one of the things that stuck with me is the concept of a trail as a purposeful scar. It's a scar, sure. But it focuses the damage in a single, concentrated corridor instead of letting it spread out unhindered across the land. Imagine a broad, flat valley flanked by mountains. To cross the valley from one range to the next, people will take a multitude of routes, some wandering north, some south, some veering toward water sources, others meandering toward the prettiest views. The valley floor will become trampled; alpine flowers crushed into mud by a stampede of boots.

The process of building a trail is intrusive and violent. But it concentrates the inevitable human impact, sacrificing one narrow strip for the greater good. That's how I think of 12A and our northern New England culture. By condensing the inevitable big box stores into this one ugly place, we're saving the many rural towns, working farms and independent businesses elsewhere in the region. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

 From my Marshall Islands journal.

This is a time I love, when it's grown too dark to read but not to see, when the palms are feathery black silhouettes and the entire world is painted in watercolor shades of purple and blue. The wind carries away sound, its rushing like the muffled silence of a good snowfall. Behind me, I know, babies are crying and lives are bring lived, but here on the edge of the lagoon there is only clouds and sky and ocean and a lone white star. And the eternal wind. When evening sets like this I can feel it wash over me like the colors washing the sky. 

These are the rare moments when living on a tropical island is how I imagined it would be, clean and gently swaying in a hammock while trash fires burn in the jungle and wisps of smoke drift from cookhouses. I sit with my toes in the sand until it grows dark, until the river of stars in the night sky fuses seamlessly with the water and I find myself sitting in the middle of a giant glittering bowl, held in the center of a transparent globe of stars. The waves are lapping softly against the shore, just a whisper of sound, the air a warm caress against my skin. Then, in the distance, a flash, followed by a second. Dark clouds spread over the stars like inkspots seeping onto cloth. Lighting flashes again and again, pulsing from deep within the gathering masses of darkness, illuminating the cavernous clouds. Soon, the rain will come, pounding against the metal roof, running in rivulets down the walls, soaking the grateful earth. Sometimes I think I will wake up and this will all have been a dream.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Now, I wake up early and straightaway pick up poop off my living room floor, and then I make a mug of steaming tea or coffee (depending on how much sleep I've gotten) and walk out into the frozen morning. I wear my big rubber boots and Goretex shell and I walk up the big grassy field, then through the brushy, thorny field and into the pine woods, snow crunching underfoot. The dogs stay close by, looking up at me for direction, their eyebrows raised. Pilar is docile and timid, with eyes like liquid honey. She looks like a black, silky-coated retriever. Roxy, a sweet little hound mix, is unafraid. They trot by my heels, not wanting to let me out of their sight in this strange, snowy place where they've suddenly found themselves after a long trip from South Carolina. We rove over fields and woods that are ever more ravaged by some unseen saw. Grouse rise up flustered in front of us, chickadees chase each other in the low pines, and the sun, depending on the day, gradually lightens the gray sky or burns off the clouds and bursts through the trees, and the church bell in the distant village tolls eight times.

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