Saturday, July 8, 2017

Birdseye View

     "Want to climb it?"
     Silly question. Back then we wanted to climb everything. That was some 30 years ago. Gwenne and I were on our way to visit family, driving east into Vermont on Rt. 4. We were running a little early with plenty of time to bolt up a small mountain. 
     But this wasn't just any small mountain. It was called Birdseye and it was pretty good at dishing up humility. Its roller coaster profile is a familiar landmark in these parts.  The mountain is oriented north-south, perpendicular to east-west Rt. 4.
It rises steeply from the road to a mile long ridge-line with several humps and dips before reaching a 2216 foot summit surrounded on three sides by imposing cliffs. It's reminiscent of a western butte - an isolated chunk of rock precipitous on all sides. Therein lies the challenge of climbing it.

Birdseye Mountain  - web image

     I can't recall the details of our ascent but I think we went for the direct approach. Parked along Rt. 4A and headed up the slopes of a defunct ski area that were still somewhat open. Then we wandered along the ridge gaining elevation till we found the summit and a vantage point atop the south facing cliff. Easier said than done. This is rough country and I don't remember any marked trails. But that's the charm of this tough little peak. From our perch it felt like we had discovered a lost world as we gazed out over unbroken forest draping a rugged mountain landscape.

web image

     Recently, most of the vista we enjoyed became public land. It's now part of Bird Mountain Wildlife Management Area. The WMA originated with a 770 acre purchase in 1976. This included the summit, cliffs and talus slope. Nearly 3000 acres were added this year, enlarging the parcel to the south towards Herrick Mountain and Spruce Knob. I have yet to see a map of the new holdings but I'm guessing Vermont Fish and Wildlife will update their website soon. 

This is a map of the Bird Mountain WMA before the recent addition

     These lands were slated for wind turbine development but that project met stiff headwinds in the form of citizen opposition. Vermonters cherish their mountains and don't want to see them scarred by ugly industrial-scale structures. It took many organizations and individuals working together over a number of years but eventually their efforts came to fruition with the new acquisition.

     Want to explore here? Better bring a sense of adventure and some navigation skills. There are roads that head south from Rt. 4A on both the east and west sides of the mountain. Drive east from Castleton for 3 to 4 miles and look for right hand turns. Just to confuse you, they are both referred to as Birdseye Road.  Supposedly there is a hiking trail on the eastern side (towards Rutland) that is mentioned in the Green Mountain Club guidebook. I haven't seen the guidebook or the trail, so you're on your own.

     The western Birdseye Road does lead to an entrance to the WMA. I've been there but didn't have time to hike. You could conceivably reach the summit from here but it would be a very steep, perhaps dangerous, bushwhack. You can also access nearby Gully Brook - a pretty mountain stream that runs thru the WMA. Presumably this will be the starting point for trips into the newly acquired lands as well.

     There's no doubt that people love to poke around these woods. A little research turned up references to geocaches, hang-gliding (from the old ski trails?), various hikes gone wrong and sundry other adventures. Castleton University has used the area for a winter mountaineering course and there are even reports of a haunted cemetery nearby. The Castleton River, which carved out the gap that Rt. 4 winds thru, can be canoed when conditions are right.

Web image

     Peregrine Falcons were part of the impetus for creating the WMA. These amazing birds of prey dive at speeds approaching 200 mph. They nest on the Birdseye cliffs (and shouldn't be disturbed). Bobcat, turkey, deer and maybe even moose can also be seen here. There are vernal pools and wetlands in the headwaters of the Poultney River, a tributary of Lake Champlain. Geologically, most of the rock is a phyllite. The Bird Mountain slice of the High Taconics takes its name from this peak. The mountains shape reminds me somewhat of Camels Hump. Both have a smoothly sculpted north slope with abrupt south facing cliffs. This could be the work of glacial scouring and plucking as the ice flowed over them. For a deeper understanding of the areas bedrock and landforms Castleton University's Helen Mango and Tim Grover are great resources.



       Web images of Camels Hump (left) and Birdseye (right).   

     The former ski area that Bill Jenkins built in 1961 has all but faded away. Look at the slope facing Rt. 4. See any trails? For lots of photos and history check out Jeremy Davis's New England Lost Ski Area Project.
     Castleton lies just a few miles west of the old ski hill. This is a classic New England college town with tree lined streets, stately architecture and the Birdseye Diner for refreshments and nostalgia. 

             An iconic mountain, a charming village. Want to visit it? Silly question!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Self Serve

          "The nose knows when it has found a member of the 
                 onion tribe."
                                                      - Euell Gibbons

     That line from Stalking the Wild Asparagus came to mind as we pulled into the woods. Even before getting out of the truck we knew it was going to be a productive day. Our noses told us.  Gwenne and I were on our annual ramping outing near the Battenkill. Actually she dug the ramps while I mostly poked around, providing sport and sustenance to the local tick population. We both endured a few hit or miss snow squalls. Ah, spring in the north country.

     That was several months ago and the greens of wild leeks (aka ramps) have now withered. The white bulbs are still there, just below the surface, but much harder to find. It's the end of June or early July before the flowers appear. Look for a bursting cluster of small (quarter to half inch) white blossoms at the end of a bare stalk 8 or 9 inches high. Other Alliums you might find in our area (Meadow Garlic, Field Garlic and Wild Chives) have pink  or lavender flowers in somewhat similar stalk borne arrangements. All waft a strong garlic/onion odor. 

     Wild leeks seem to be having a "moment". That's not necessarily a good thing. They're turning up in trendy restaurants like Vermont's Misery Loves Co. You can buy them in stores and at farmers markets. There are even Ramp Festivals. The problem, of course, is over-harvesting. On our land we dig sparingly and Gwenne cuts off the rootlets from the bulbs, replanting them to develop into new plants. She has also started new patches by transplanting. 

     Collecting wild plants for food or medicine is called foraging. Many find it a very gratifying outdoor activity. We are all descended from hunter/gathers and foraging feels like a return to our roots. It satisfies some deep urge in a way that shopping at Walmart doesn't. 
     Humans have only been practicing agriculture for maybe 10,000 years. Here in the Northeast it wasn't until the Late Woodland Period, about 1000 years ago, that Native Americans began planting the Three Sisters: beans, corn and squash. Before that hunting, fishing and gathering provided everything. Wild animals are still hunter/gathers although domesticated species have trained people like me to provide for them.

     The rebirth of interest in foraging is often traced to Euell Gibbon's Stalking the Wild Asparagus. First published in 1962, it was part of the whole "back to the land" vibe of the 60's. Asparagus is a folksy collection of recipes, identification info, natural history and homespun philosophy. Many other useful volumes are now available (check The Forager Press). They help preserve our accumulated 'living off the land' wisdom. If all we know is 'store bought' what would happen if there weren't any stores?

     In Washington County self-reliance is holding its own. You see pick-ups loaded with firewood all the time - a gathering of warmth for the coming cold. Many people have gardens and a variety of locally grown food is available at farmers markets and roadside stands. Sue Van Hook teaches how to identify edible mushrooms and Barbara Price has a website called Greenwich Meal Time with recipes and foraging advice.
     Not surprisingly, there are even professional foragers. Evan Strusinski is a Vermont native who has become something of a celebrity by providing the best restaurants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia with exotic wild fare for their tables. Take a look at his Instagram page and goggle him for a peek at a culinary world somewhat removed from your local McDonalds.

Photo of Strusinski from the Web

     Few of us will ever 'go native' and meet all our needs as hunter/gathers. But here's a memory I cherish. When I was younger, Dad and I would do the morning milking while Mom walked up the lane gathering wild strawberries. When we came in for breakfast we may have had cereal out of a box but there was fresh milk and just picked strawberries to go on it. 

Web image

     Perhaps it's just the healthy connection to place that is foraging's biggest benefit. There is an older gentleman who has come to my farm for many years to gather hickory nuts. He no longer drives but his granddaughter still brings him each fall for an activity he obviously enjoys. I like talking to him and last time he was here I asked "How do you shell and eat so many nuts? Aren't they bitter?" He laughed. "Oh, I don't eat them. I feed them to the squirrels." 

Foragers (and squirrels) are welcome