Saturday, March 3, 2018

Real Cool Guy

To everything
There is a season
And a time to every purpose, under heaven...
- from Turn, Turn, Turn by Pete Seeger

     When the season is winter it's my time to revisit the books of Peter J. Marchand. I spend most afternoons working in the woods. Opening trails, doing timber stand improvement, cutting next years firewood. Some days I don't feel like working. Can anyone relate to that? But on those days I'm often still in the woods - skiing, snowshoeing or just poking around. And when evening darkness sends me inside, I use what little energy I've got left to pull North Woods or Life in the Cold off the shelf. Time to settle into the chair by the stove and read up on the snowy world I've spent the day in.

Peter Marchand

     Peter Marchand grew up in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. Hard wood country that he loved to explore. Then he had a chance to climb nearby Mt. Greylock. At 3491 feet it was high enough to have some spruce-fir forest up top. He was struck by the difference and it became his new obsession. So obsessed that he spent fifteen years at the University of New Hampshire culminating in a botany doctorate, specializing in northern forest ecology.

Mt. Greylock Spruce-Fir Forest - Web image

     For many years he lived in Vermont where he continued to research, teach and write. While there he was associated with the Center for Northern Studies and Johnson State College. Then he went over to the west side. Colorado to be exact. As far as I know he's still there, still writing and still a skillful observer of all things natural. But it's some of his early works that I find particularly relevant to this time of year, to our Northeastern ecosystems.


       North Woods was published by the Appalachian Mountain Club in 1987. Its focus is the ecology of the northern forest and mountain environments. This is a book on natural processes and the landscapes they produce. It is not a field guide for identification of individual plants and animals. North Woods has taught me a great deal and I refer to it often but I don't recommend that you buy it. That's because it was updated in 2010 and retitled Nature Guide to the Northeastern Forest. New and improved! with expanded text and color photos - this is the one you'll want in your library and your daypack.

     Also by Marchand is Life in the Cold - An Introduction to Winter Ecology. Originally published in 1987, I believe it is currently in a 4th edition. It's about both season and place, focusing on higher elevations and latitudes where cold and snow define a substantial part of the year. That certainly applies to Washington County, the Adirondacks and Vermont - all my favorite haunts. That's why I often refer to this book to understand what I've seen after a day of winter exploring. It's a little heavier on the science with charts, graphs and equations, while still being accessible to those of us without multiple Ph.D.'s. Chapters cover the changing snowpack, the ecology of iced over lakes and ponds and plant, animal and human adaptations to the cold.

Lake George from Black Mountain with a human adapted to the cold (aka my wife)

     You might also look for Autumn, A Season of Change. I haven't read it but it would seem to compliment the previously mentioned titles. For more on Marchand and his more recent work here is a link to his website.


     A few other snow season books that you might enjoy:

Bernd Heinrich - Web image

     - It's hard not to be envious of Bernd Heinrich. Biologist and naturalist, record breaking endurance athlete, lyrically gifted writer who illustrates his own books. Lives in a remote cabin in the Maine woods. Shares it with Lynn Jennings, the great middle-distance and cross country champion, where they spend their days observing nature, homesteading, trail running and enjoying an evening beer and each other. His Winter World - the ingenuity of animal survival is one of my favorites for this time of year. It will leave you in awe of golden crowned kinglets. And of Bernd Heinrich.

     - A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes is an eclectic book that covers everything from snow crystals to birds nests to animal tracks. It's filled with simple line drawings and natural history descriptions. Not glitzy but highly useful.

     - Another book that brings me back for a chapter or two every year is Wintering by Diana Kappel-Smith. It falls in the personal relationship with nature genre. Reminds me of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Set in '70's era Vermont, it's beautifully written and a source of inspiration to get out there and see what our wild friends are up to. 

     - Adirondack Ice - a cultural and natural history by Caperton Tissot is a local/seasonal book that's full of stories about all things icy and cold. Fun and informative.

     The black flies of spring will be biting before you know it. Till then might as well embrace winter and its literature. Also a good time to listen to the Byrds singing Turn, Turn, Turn. Pete Seeger set verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes to music and the Byrds rendition was a hit in 1965. People have cherished its timeless wisdom ever since.

Pete Seeger - An American treasure


Saturday, February 24, 2018

The X-C Files: Before the Flood

     I've never been on a roller coaster. Never will be. It's just not my thing. If I want a thrill, I'll kiss my wife. But this winter is beginning to feel like a roller coaster. It's been a wild ride between low temperatures and high, between deep snow and none. Take the other morning. Got up and checked the thermometer. A typical February morning at 15 degrees. Then I clicked on the NOAA forecast. Whoa! They predicted a high of 70 by the middle of the week. If my rusty math skills serve me, that's almost a 100 degree swing from January lows a little over a month ago. We're on a weather roller coaster, like it or not.
     Last Sunday there was still nice snow on the ground, but you wouldn't want to sell it life insurance. With summer like temperatures and rain on the way its future didn't look bright. Time to get in a few last ski trips before the flood and the mud that lie ahead.

Hudson River near Fort Miller

     Decided to head up to the Fort Edward Grasslands. Ski a little, maybe see some owls. On the way I was treated to an open Hudson River dotted with clusters of waterfowl. In early spring the river vies with the grasslands as a birding hotspot. Soon I was out in the open fields of Fort Edward and happy to find the parking lot at the DEC Wildlife Management Area on Blackhouse Road plowed and easily accessible.


     While I was getting ready to ski, another gentleman was finishing up his snowshoe hike. It was a quick glide down the trodden and slightly icy path that leads towards the observation platform. Here the snowshoer and others had kept going straight along the edge of the property rather than angling over to the platform. In what may have been a case of the blind following the sightless, I went with their tracks. Not until later did I see signs warning you to stay on the trail, which presumably means going only to the platform and back. Since I didn't see any birds during my off trail ramble, I think it's safe to say that no wildlife were harmed in the creation of this blog.

Trail to viewing platform

     I shuffled down to the banks of Dead Creek - partly open, partly ice. Then along the edge of its thicketed course. The field had been bush-hogged making for easy going. I haven't seen a unit management plan for this parcel but apparently it calls for mowing different quadrants on a rotating schedule. I saw scattered brush piles and a few saplings left standing, perhaps to grow into perch trees. Other sections hadn't been mowed and showed a typical one year growth of grass, weeds and small shrubs. 

Dead Creek

Varied Habitat - Weedy growth, mowed and brush piles

Nest boxes

     Back at the viewing platform I spoke with a couple from downstate who had come up to Saratoga for the Dance Flurry weekend. They wanted to do a little birding before returning home and Google had sent them here. While in the parking area they had been excited to have a Rough-legged hawk fly directly overhead.  Now they were tracking a Northern Harrier in the distance. As the day faded we decided to go over to the blind on Co. 42 with the hopes of spotting Short-eared owls. 

Northern Harrier - from Cornell Ornithology site

     On the way we encountered a small group who had just seen a northern shrike and a snowy owl. A little farther on we spoke with a woman who had her camera focused on a partially hidden Short-ear waiting for a good shot. At the blind we could see a flock of turkeys foraging at the far end of the field. There was also a large hawk that flew from an elm. Other people arrived and there was a lively exchange of sightings and info but the owls were a no-show. Finally, with dusk settling, I bade my new friends a safe trip as they prepared to head back down the Hudson Valley towards home.

Northern Shrike - from Cornell Ornithology site

     I've heard tell of some friction between residents and birders, of some harassment of the owls. That's sad, but what I experienced was a sociable gathering of folks with a shared enthusiasm for birds and the environment. It left me thinking that a small eatery/coffee shop where locals and visitors could mingle over a snack and hot drink might be a good thing. How about  'The Birder Feeder Cafe'! Even something mobile that swung by on weekends - 'The Migratory Food Truck'! Just a feeling that the IBA could benefit from a communal spot, making it more of a destination.

     Monday dawned warm and overcast with afternoon showers possible. A short tour close by seemed in order. Denton Preserve on Rt. 4 between Northumberland and Fort Miller fit the bill. The snow had been plowed back enough to park well off the busy road. I could see where others had snowshoed and walked but no one else had skied. There are orange, blue and yellow marked trails which I followed in a free form sort of way.

Denton Preserve outlined - the red line is Rt. 4

     Denton has an amazing topography of sharp shale ridges and intervening deep ravines. The trails sometimes climb and descend a little more steeply than I'm comfortable with so I often pick my own line thru the trees. With soft, forgiving snow this works well and before long I found the old trolley line, alternately traversing it and frozen wetlands off to the side. Eventually I came to Van Antwerp Creek and thickening undergrowth - "A pox on you, Honeysuckle!". Fortunately, the blue trail was nearby and made for a pleasant loop back towards the entrance. With my truck in sight a light rain began to fall.

     It's sad to see the trolley line being slowly choked by brush and deadfall. I can remember when it was much more open and easy to follow. I've always thought its level, firm bed would make a nice trail for the disabled. With minimal maintenance it could give those in wheel chairs or with other mobility issues a path into a natural area with lots of wildlife viewing opportunities. Furthermore, its historical significance makes preserving at least a small segment seem worthwhile. You can still see a few of the pedestals and the occasional insulator that carried the electric line. A small quarry where they mined fill material and the stone abutments of the creek crossing are also interesting.

Overgrown trolley line

Small shale quarry

     At both Denton and the Grasslands I saw no other ski tracks. Snowshoeing has become much more popular in recent years and, in truth, it's probably a better way to visit these places in winter. It's just that skis offer a playfulness that can be addictive, that the kid in me still craves. But it doesn't really matter what's strapped to your feet. The important thing is to get those feet out there. The landscape, wildlife and fellow explorers will be your reward.