Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Great (National) Seal - Bird Debate of 1784

The Great Seal was adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782 – with the bald eagle as its centerpiece:

Writing from France on January 26, 1784 to his daughter Sally (Mrs. Sarah Bache) in Philadelphia, Franklin casts doubt on the propriety of using the Bald Eagle to symbolize the (1) "brave and honest Cincinnati of America," a newly formed society of revolutionary war officers. 

Benjamin Franklin's Letter to His Daughter (excerpt)

"...For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

"With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country...

"I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on..."

While in the beautiful and serene north-woods this past Christmas season (to get married and visit relatives) Barbara and I had occasion to see a flock of roadside turkeys and nine separate bald eagles while driving along the various highways between Boulder Junction, Hayward, and Rhinelander, WI.  

Here are two wonderful pictures we were able to snap from the car window:

(1) The Society of the Cincinnati is an historical, hereditary lineage organization with branches in the United States and France, founded in 1783 to preserve the ideals and fellowship of the American Revolutionary War officers. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, then a small village, was named after the Society. Now in its third century, the Society promotes public interest in the American Revolution through its library and museum collections, exhibitions, programs, publications, and other activities.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Roadside Birding this Holiday Season

A person can go bird-watching anywhere, anytime...why not while driving in the car?

On a recent WPT trip to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul Minnesota to spend some pre-Christmas time with my two oldest children; I counted birds as I drove.  Counting helps the miles fly by and also assists in staying awake.  In order to do this, one must be traveling during the daytime.  Thankfully I was.  In addition, my trusty IPod was busily sending a nearly endless wireless signal to the WPT's stereo of over 125 different "For the Birds" (older) but informative and entertaining podcasts gleaned from the gentle and hugely talented, multi-book author and former staff science editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Laura Erickson.  (The Bird Lady) FYI: Her "newer" podcasts are located here.  

Living in Duluth Minnesota with her husband and three children, Laura has dedicated her professional life to the love, understanding, and protection of birds. She is author of five books about birds, including 101 Ways to Help Birds, The Bird Watching Answer Book, and National Outdoor Book Award winner Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids. Since 1986, she has written and produced “For the Birds,” a 3–5 minute radio program broadcast on several public and community stations mostly in the Upper Midwest from Powell, Wyoming, to Jamestown, New York; the program is also podcast on iTunes. Laura was science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a contributing editor for BirdWatching magazine, blogs for the American Birding Association and BirdWatching, and maintains her own birding blog at She writes regularly for a rural newspaper, The Country Today, and has contributed articles to Birding, BirdScope (which she edited for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology from 2008-2011), Audubon, Wisconsin Trails, The Passenger Pigeon, The Loon, the Wisconsin State Journal, Duluth News-Tribune, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. 

She serves as the “American Robin Expert” and the “Whooping Crane Expert” for the Webby-Award-winning website Journey North. She was Awarded the 2007 Bronze Passenger Pigeon Award “for significant contributions to Wisconsin ornithology,” and the Conservationist of the Year award by The Raptor Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Laura spent two decades as a licensed wildlife rehabber caring for injured and orphaned birds from her home. She rehabbed hundreds of birds of many species, from hummingbirds to owls and loons, specializing on Common Nighthawks. She’s served as a counter for raptors and songbirds at Hawk Ridge and along the Lake Superior shoreline in conjunction with Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, and was awarded the Frances F. Roberts Award at a joint meeting of the Wilson and Cooper Ornithological Societies for her paper, “Daytime Warbler Migration along Lake Superior.” She was also a winner in the American Ornithologists’ Union’s bird-calling contest in the repertoire category for her owl calls.

Chris Biddleman
Chris Biddleman - photo
Without a doubt the most common bird to see is the Canada goose. Large and small familiar "vee" flocks of flying geese move over the landscape along that particular route from Milwaukee to the NW. Stationary groups can also be seen moving amongst the corn stubble in fields on both sides of the freeways; their heads sometimes the only thing that juts above the roadside snowbanks. I believe I counted in the neighborhood of 140.  Ducks can be seen wading in shallow ponds and are a bit more difficult to identify at 65 MPH, and fellow drivers frown understandably if one hits their brakes suddenly in an attempt to make a positive species ID. My strong advice; Just call them "ducks" and call it a day. Small but fierce falcons called American kestrels are much easier to identify as they sit on wires and highway signs overlooking the roadside for small moving prey, and the much larger Red-tailed hawk, also sits watching an open field for it's next meal. I counted three kestrels, 19 Red-tails, and two Cooper's hawks in my 600 mile journey on both sides of the freeway.  I also spotted approximately 40 turkeys in lightly snow covered open areas (most likely old farm fields) and an assortment of Black-capped chickadees, Blue jays, and small flocks of American goldfinches as they roller-coastered past the windshield.
If possible; try it yourself the next car trip you take.  You might even invent a game of Avian Roadside Bingo for your children to play as they see certain birds that correspond to their game board; marking them with a sticker or some such identifier.  You know that would be a challenge right?  Just to get today's kids to shut off their cell phones, IPads, DVD players, etc. and actually look out the window at America...HA...who am I kidding?  LOL...

Anyway, one can hope...good luck! - B.Stud

Christmas Bird Count 2012

Counting birds (instead of shooting them) for 113 years and beyond...

Good old Frank Chapman had it right back in 1900 when he suggested a bird "census" as an alternative to the annual "side hunt" that had routinely claimed the lives of many feathered animals.  I personally have been participating for a mere 10 years, and this particular count was the wettest one in my short association with citizen science contribution.  It rained and rained all day on December 15th, 2012 with a temperature of 47 degrees as the high of the day.  I stayed in "Area 20" as my one-mile "square" of the 15 mile count circle managed by Andrea Szymczak.  Carl Schroeder acts as Wisconsin's CBC Regional Editor for data.  I was on my own this year as Barbara needed to be at work on that particular Saturday and I'm almost certain that in the end, staying warm and dry was just fine by her; however I know that she would have if she could have gone along to be with me.

I began my search for random avian life along the south bank of the Menominee River Parkway just south of State Street in Wauwatosa on the easternmost "edge" of Area 20.  Despite the gray skies and miserable conditions I tallied some Dark-eyed juncos and Mallards, with a pair of Ring-billed gulls out in the drizzle and cool of that particular CBC morning.  On my way back out, I encountered three individuals walking towards me on the woodsy path.  They looked just like birders. In fact, they were when I asked them what they were "up to" on this wet morning.  Interestingly I did not expect to encounter anyone else on this stretch of the CBC, as one must first "register" with the count chairperson beforehand.  It turns out that this group was part of a larger group on the bluff-side of Doyne Park led by Urban Ecology's Timothy Vargo.  Somehow he had his small group of soggy bird-watchers walking through a combination of CBC areas, and claimed to have "told Andrea" this planned route in the week prior.  I pointed out that I had "done" Area 20 for the past three years and that (while I was glad to see company) that perhaps it might be problematic if his group just moseyed through several areas "counting" birds that may have already been accounted for by the area leaders.  Well, ultimately...that's for the "experts" to sort out; I just knew I was "official" in my area, and that all I could do was to continue my organized census in the constant rain. With a round of handshakes for his group of fellow well-intentioned birders I climbed into my trusty WPT, eventually leaving them as they walked northward towards who-knows-where - counting the birds they saw for who-knows-what eventual purpose.

A stop inside Calvary Cemetery next to the freeway that also abuts a strip-joint property called Monreal's Encore scored me another group of juncos, Northern cardinals and a half-dozen Black-capped chickadees.  I marveled at some of the elaborate graffiti scrawled against a retaining wall and listened to the disjointed echoes of a microphone-narrated ceremony to honor fallen war veterans that wafted through the rainy mist across four lanes of traffic on I-94 from the direction of the distant but impressively expansive, civil war era (36,738 gravesWood National Cemetery.  I mused that those patriotic umbrella-wielding folks with their uniformed attachment were also getting pretty soaked, but for an even grander cause than I was currently involved with.  I respectfully paused to attempt to glean the purpose of the solemn rainy-day gathering, but was unable to distinguish the exact meaning due to the distance, and the constant splashing of the cars and trucks on the rain-soaked freeway.  I moved on.

The remainder of the day's count went fairly routinely with one exception; a surprise encounter with a homeless person "living" in an encampment deep in the woods between (upper) Vliet Street and (lower) Juneau Ave.  In a small, grassy woods-clearing just below an Milwaukee Police vehicle facility (on approximately 48th and Vliet streets) there's a small City tot-lot with a swing set planted in a bed of wood chips. I walked past it as something deeper in the woods caught my eye. I began moving towards the color.  I almost blindly wandered right into a bright-blue, tarp-created, homeless domicile out of sheer careless curiosity. As I crunched on the wet branches and high-stepped through the leafless bramble; I saw sudden movement.  I froze. A black-jacketed figure wearing a fuzzy-rimmed hood, hunch-walked towards a pile of soaked newspapers piled on a stump and began riffling through them with some purpose unbeknownst to me.  I peered into my drippy and foggy binoculars and spied the sprawling homeless "spread" that had a lot of miscellaneous items scattered around that looked suspiciously as though they might have been "liberated" from the surrounding neighborhood. As I stood watching from a distance leaning against a large tree trunk, I saw a newer looking green ten-speed type bicycle wheeled out from the brush, and this unlikely bicyclist  proceed to actually "lock" it to a nearby tree.  (Apparently there's no honor among the homeless either.)  

Now perhaps this particular unfortunate situation is somehow known and tolerated, however if my home was located in that cozy Milwaukee neighborhood, it would majorly creep me out knowing that while my small children were at play on the tot lot swings in that clearing, that there was a disgustingly grubby human lurking nearby in the woods with some of my stuff possibly collected from my own back yard.  I debated stopping in to tell the police in person however I envisioned a hassle with that scenario, so I sent an anonymous email "tip" instead.

I drove the remainder of my route in a serpentine fashion, cutting up one street and down another with my window open as much as I could tolerate the wind and raindrops; listening.  I was rewarded in the Washington Highlands neighborhood with a random Red-bellied woodpecker call and four different groups of House sparrows, noisily cheeping deep within clumps of weather-protective shrubbery.  I called it quits just as daylight (gray as it was) began to fade into dusk.  I was wet and tired, ready to tally up my sightings for the day.  I later emailed my results to Andrea and skipped the post-count festivities at the Schlitz Audubon Center for the dryness and warmth of the apartment and the equally warm company of Barbara; the 2012 CBC was now only a memory with only the day's census results to view.  That was just fine with me...I did my part and felt glad to have assisted in even the smallest of ways.   The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years. 

Next year; why not join me?  

Email me your interest for 2013 -

Friday, October 26, 2012

Drowsy birds

Drowsy birds

Drowsy birds at even gliding,
Round about their nests alight,
In among the branches hiding...
Dear, good night!

Lullaby the river sighs;
In the garden flowers sleeping...
Shut your eyes!

To its rest where moonlight gleams,
And the angels' whisper hushes...
Peaceful dreams!

On the earth a silver light;
All is harmony and slumber...
Dear, good night!

Silence through the forest creeping,
Glides the swan among the rushes
O'er the sky stars without number,

** Mihai Eminescu

Did you ever wonder what the birds did at “bedtime?”  I have.  I always wanted to believe that all of these tiny fragile creatures would find some solace at the end of their day in which to recharge; someplace safe.  How could they both get the rest all living things need, yet still be protected from harm in the deep darkness of night?

Yesterday I was birding after work in Jacobus Park.  I don’t go there often, however it’s near my home and it was time.  It was getting near dusk and I had a nice time watching various species over the last hour when a tiny bird caught my eye.  It was flitting about in a large Sugar maple about 15 feet over my head.  I recognized the bird as a kinglet as it zigged and zagged through the fall-colored leaves catching insects.  Suddenly it slipped in under one particularly large remaining leaf; landing on a series of twigs, and stopped.  I almost lost it in the canopy as the colors matched so well.  It quit moving and seemed to “snuggle” up under the overhanging leaf as if to say, “This is a great place for a nap.”  I continued watching and snapping photos of it for 10 more minutes, however when I decided to move on and not disturb it any longer; it remained as I walked away. 

Can you see the drowsy bird?  You will later in this piece...

Perhaps THIS is where the birdies go to rest for the night…someplace similar?

I guess logic would tell one that not all birds “slept” in the exact manner that my little kinglet friend was doing.  I decided to see what other information I could find about sleeping (drowsy) birds.  A general answer is that birds sleep anywhere they safely can stay warm. Some ducks sleep in icy water. Bobwhite sleep on the ground.  Crows and turkeys roost in trees. Screech-owls and many other cavity-nesters sleep in their favorite cavities and nestboxes. Tangles of briars, grape vines and brambles protect birds from all but the hardest driving rains.  Even greater protection is found in evergreen refuges such as conifers and ivy-covered walls. This is a good ecological reason for every bird-friendly backyard to include some evergreens.  

On cold nights, many bird species, most notably hummingbirds, can enter a state of torpor when they sleep. This lowers their body temperature and conserves energy for them to survive the lower temperatures at night. Birds tuck their bills into their shoulder or backs while sleeping. This puts their nostrils into their plumage where the air is heated by their bodies, giving them warmer air to breathe while they sleep.

Not all birds sleep during the night.  Most notable among them are the nightjars.  Whip-poor-wills are the most familiar night-singers so they need to sleep during the daytime.  Woodcocks will begin their “peenting” as most (diurnal) birds are finding their shelter for the evening.  Although not nocturnal in the least; Northern mockingbirds and Sedge wrens have also been known to sing throughout an entire night.  Nights with bright moonlight or in areas where there is a lot of artificial light are often filled with birdsong.  The American robin has been known to sing at a minimum of 10 foot-candles.

While daytime may be the best time to see most birds, understanding where birds go at night can help birders get a better appreciate of how birds survive, and can give everyone ideas for how to help even the smallest birds survive every night; like the tiny little kinglet in the Jacobus Park maple.

** Mihai Eminescu (his proper name was M. Eminovici - pron.: Eminovitch) is regarded as the national poet of Romania. Born in Botosani (pron.: Botoshan), he died at the age of 38 years in Bukarest, suffering from paralysis the last five years of his life. From 1869 to 1874 he studied philosophy in Vienna and Berlin, later on working as librarian, superintendent of elementary schools and newspaper editor. In his short life he could not realize so many of his literary drafts (poetries, stories, fairytales etc.). Only a small part of his work was published during his lifetime ("Poezii" 1883).

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Blue Moon Weekend

Sky and Telescope asks, "When is the Moon 'blue,' in a calendrical sense? According to the Maine almanac, a Blue Moon occurs when a season has four full Moons, rather than the usual three. This type of Blue Moon is found only in February, May, August, and November, one month before the next equinox or solstice. According to modern folklore, a Blue Moon is the second full Moon in a calendar month. This type of Blue Moon can occur in any month but February, which is always shorter than the time between successive full Moons.  

I ask; "When is a Blue Moon drinkable?" Regardless of the real reason for calling a moon "blue," modern marketing rules:  Just make sure to drink a Blue Moon beer, under a Blue Moon.  We did.

It was Labor Day weekend 2012 and time to head "up the 43" to the north, for a late-summer camping trip.   The destination was Kohler/Andrae State Park.  I had fortuitously somehow found an electric site (only about a month prior) on Reserve America that had been released by whomever had earlier planned to use it.  Barbara and I loaded up the WPT with all our various sundry camping items,  the Canoe-dle and our bicycles for a three-day (roughing-it) relaxation period.   Our site was high on a rolling pine needle-covered hill of pure Wisconsin sand.  Tall, straight, mature White pines were all lined up in rows throughout our site; making it handy to tie ropes with fiberglass tarps in various places.  There was a small threat of inclement weather that never happened, but the tarps overhead did provide some welcome shade for our Cabela's brand, Zero-gravity chairs.

When I camp, I also bring along some bird seed.  I have seen some of the greatest birds right in the campsite - so I always want to put out a small offering, just in case.  This time it was a blend of seed that I found on clearance at Puhl's hardware in Wauwatosa for $ 2.99.  It wasn't my first choice, but I've been under a bit of a tight budget for obvious reasons.  Cheaper seed blends like this one contain far more milo (grain sorghum) fillers, cracked corn and far less sunflower seed than more expensive brands but what the heck; it was all I had.  I sprinkled a small pile at the base of several of the pines.  I thought that the millet and milo might attract sparrows and juncos (which it did) but never did I expect the absolute flurry of "other" activity that the small amount of black-oil sunflower seeds delivered.

Barbara and I sat drinking our vintage (E bay) Coleman stove-perked coffee and were treated to the most Red-breasted nuthatches I had ever seen in one place, at one time!  In one would fly, and land on a tree trunk near the ground.  It would chatter some kind of greeting, or warning, or whatever and then drop to the pile of seed below it.  The small reddish brown, black and white bird would stir its longish beak in the pile and come up with a sunflower seed and take off to a nearby tree.  The tiny birds would not even eat the seeds they took; instead, they found some crevice or fold in the pine bark and (with amazing speed and accuracy) pounded in the seed - leaving it behind as they flew in for another.  This cycle was repeated over and over again as the two of us sat watching, and listening to the chittering.  Occasionally a Black-capped chickadee would get too near this shuttling activity and be scolded soundly for its proximity, but these little dynamos were equal opportunity complainers - they would dive-bomb the larger White-breasted nuthatches too with equanimity.

With their strong toes and claws and unique ability to "run" over tree bark in any direction; they would even first deftly pound a small divot into the bark, before depositing their seed.  Red-breasted nuthatches form monogamous pairs. They usually excavate their own nest-cavities in a rotten snag, often aspen, and require fairly soft wood to excavate. They will occasionally use a natural cavity, old woodpecker hole, or artificial nest box. Both members of the nuthatch pair create the nest hole, and the female actually builds the nest inside. Their nest is a soft cup of grass, needles, bark fibers, moss, feathers, and hair. Both sexes coat the inside and outside of the nest hole entrance with pine pitch that may help keep predators and competitors away. They sometimes use a piece of bark as a tool to transport the pitch to the nest, and then smear it on the entrance hole. They avoid the pitch by flying straight into the hole. The female incubates 5 to 8 eggs for 12 to 13 days. Both parents feed the young for 18 to 21 days on the nest, and for about two more weeks after they have fledged.

The entertaining feathered activity around the campsite continued off and on throughout the entire glorious day.  A crazy looking Northern cardinal with most of its head feathers missing would show up and take a few seeds, along with a (quite normal-looking) female.  Barbara and I speculated aloud as to that peculiar relationship.  Perhaps it was some sort of Phantom of the Avian Opera attraction?  A thirteen-lined ground squirrel ran in fast and low to the ground filling up its cheek pouch several times; taking the moist oral stash back to its burrow about 15 yards away.  Chipping sparrows and the occasional junco would join the others, but weren't interested in the sunflower seed like the nuthatches were.  The sun continued to shine through the pines and kept the air at a perfect temperature as we sat and relaxed; watching the free nature show.  An Eastern towhee crept out of the leaf litter it had been foraging through to investigate the seed piles, but didn't stay long before retreating once more to the security of the underbrush.

Later that evening as our (Emerald ash borer-free) fire crackled and cast its warmth in the direction of our chairs; we both unscrewed icy-cold bottles of Blue Moon as we watched the uniquely glowing orb rising above Lake Michigan, peeking through the dark pines.  Lifting them to our lips, we thanked God for the chance to be there in the first place, and for the glory of His creation that surrounded us.  

Yes, life is good....VERY good indeed.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Unintentional Bird Species Cooperation

Sometimes it just works out that way...

On a warm and sunny afternoon, while walking back to the parking lot along the grassy approach to Lake Michigan the other day; Barbara noticed something interesting.  "Look what's going on there," she said.  I looked at the scores of swooping and diving Barn swallows zipping through the air in a particular section of the lush lawn.  Thankfully Milwaukee's lakefront had been finally getting some needed rainfall in the past several weeks, and the grass had returned nearly to its usual late summer luster.  "Yes, I see the swallows catching bugs," I replied and continued walking the concrete sidewalk back to our car.  We had just spent the better part of an hour leisurely walking the breezy lakefront from McKinley Marina all the way to the south side of the Milwaukee Art Museum.  She then said excitedly, "Yes, but look at the birds IN the grass...look what THEY are doing!"

I stopped and watched for a minute or two and noticed the dozen or so immature Brown-headed cowbirds hopping in the grass below the soaring, diving swallows.  "Cowbirds catching bugs," I said, and stood in wonder watching the activity on the ground.  "Uh-huh, but the little birds on the ground are causing the (barely noticeable) bugs to fly up into the air as they try to catch them!" she exclaimed.  Sure enough, the swallows overhead were definitely benefiting from the actions of the  cowbirds on the ground.  If you paid attention, you could see the swallows following the slow hopping progress below of their light brown kin, as they provided the same service as a typical whitetail deer-drive hunting technique might.  I stood there marveling at the unwitting cooperation between species and congratulated Barbara for picking up on this too easily-missed illustration of the glory of the natural world created by God.

How about this curious observation of bird behavior?  Earlier, we were noticing Cedar waxwings flying from the trees along the public walk next to the corrugated steel sea-wall.  The birds would disappear over the wall and be gone for about 30-45 seconds before popping back over and returning to the tree.  We watched this happen several times until we got close enough to see what the bird was doing near the water's edge.  We stared in awe as a waxwing flew over the steel barrier and hovered in front of a large spider web that had been strung in the inward section of the steel.  The bird would pluck a stuck insect from the spider's web for itself and fly off with its treat to devour it in the safety of a nearby tree.  "Wow!" was all I could say, as I pondered the accidental brilliance of this avian piracy.  Perhaps even the owner of the web itself was at risk of being a meal, but we didn't see that happen before we moved on down the lakefront.

Isn't that simply amazing?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Enjoying a Rising Son Along the Appalachian Trail - P5 (and the end of an amazing journey)

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it…and the nine upcoming "strenuous" miles and 1500 feet of altitude gain.

My pants were still damp as I pulled them on over my socks. Sitting on a tattered log drinking a cup of instant coffee granules, my thoughts turned to contemplating the sheer desolation of the trail.  It was easy to understand how some people get themselves into trouble out here, in a quick hurry.  One misstep and one fractured ankle later; all bets are off.  Rescue is extremely problematic.  No cell service ensures that one of you (provided there were two of you in the first place) go for help – and help is a mere 5-6 hours away minimum.  Then there’s the marshaling of emergency personnel and the 5-6 hour trip back to find you.  You better hope you have enough water while you waited, or were fortunate to have crash-landed next to a stream - with the Katadyn filter; and that’s the rosier picture.  What if you were alone?  Think someone could land a helicopter; think again.  Maybe, just maybe a skilled pilot could winch a rescue basket down to the narrow trail below, but the trees are enormously tall, and dense.  Your best bet is to be prepared to go it alone in every possible way.  My sincere advice: watch LOTS of Bear Grylls and take careful notes.

Breakfast turned out better.  I didn’t scorch the milky granola this time.  That made clean-up much more pleasant. The air felt close and low in this area as we began packing up the campsite.  Thankfully the rain had not restarted overnight, so the items on the line were no wetter.  They weren’t much drier either.  Placing a damp, cool bandana against my forehead, I tied it in a loose knot as per usual.  The temperature was already going up and it was only 8:30 EST.  We lowered our packs from the stainless steel cabling and added our various other wet items to their contents.  I gingerly made my way down in my socks and filled the water bottles at the creek while Nelson packed the tent.  The last thing left to do, was to get my feet ready for the day's journey.  

Nelson had already created his own make-shift version of footwear by slipping his bare feet into the gallon-sized reclosable bags, into dry socks and then into his wet boots.  My strategy had my feet in the socks first and then into the bags; but first I had to apply fresh blister medicated bandages and some moleskin for good measure.  These alternative arrangements were not preferable; but necessary – we had to get back somehow.  In the shape I was in, I had earlier opined that I was more than fine with hanging out for an entire day before attempting a return; however Nelson thought he might go stir-crazy.  Possible stir-crazy had won out. Packed and moving by 9:00 AM, we passed back through the two women’s (not as “cute”) campsite. They were both sitting on their log eating something.  I couldn't help myself so I asked, “I thought I heard a dog barking last night, do you guys have one here?”  They looked at each other and one quizzically replied, “No, we don’t have a dog.”  “Huh...I could swear I heard high-pitched barking…” I muttered as we headed for the trail-head.  Whatever; to each her own.

Nelson checks the "freshness"
of some bear sign with his staff.
Nelson had this interesting habit of pulling out his harmonica and blowing once across the entire board when he saw bear spoor on the trail.  I can almost hear that familiar “dwidddddllllll-oot! as I recount this tale, and it causes me to smile.  It was both amusing and dear at once.  He later told me that it was his way of announcing his/our presence to the surrounding woods. In case the animal was still in earshot.  It was curious how the only bear ‘sign” we saw, were the occasional piles of soft, blackened, seed-laden, dung; and they were always smack dab in the center of the trail.   Nelson’s enduring stamina and pleasant attitude were a pleasure to behold as I plodded up the grade behind him.  For many miles (and a few of my falls) he insisted on walking behind me in case of; well, in case of anything.  He was worried about me and that was nice.  After a while though I began to feel like a bit of an anchor to his steady progress with all the mini-breaks I took to slow my racing heart, so I insisted that he go ahead and set his own pace.  He begrudgingly did so, but was always waiting at some point on the path to see my huffing and puffing frame coming, before he’d start out again.  

As I moved uphill, I concentrated on my feet.  Not because they hurt all that much; they were pretty much numb, but because I didn’t want to become that ill-fated casualty I described earlier. For some strange reason I was amazingly “urpy” as I walked along.  You know that feeling where your guts feel kinda bubbly and angry?  My assumption was that it was “something I ate” but the tiniest nagging feeling came over me about water quality.  More than once I stopped to gag and cough.  Nelson looked alarmed, but the feeling passed and I continued walking once more.  I told him that I was “OK” but he looked dubious.  I wondered if it was the “fruity” taste of the MIO (electrolyte and caffeine) product that I had squirted into my Nalgene.  One thing I know about myself at age 50, is that “fruity” drinks and tastes sometimes raise hell with my guts.  I switched to “regular” water and began to slowly recover as I walked; that sick feeling blessedly passing with the miles.

A picture of exhaustion
We stopped at the approximately five-mile mark to rest.  Nelson pulled out one of his Powerbars.  I took out a peanut butter Cliff and started to nibble.  My stomach just didn’t like that taste, so I switched to a handful of Jack Link’s jerky and tried to eat that.  I was extremely tired and sweaty.  Nelson looked great.  Funny how 28 years difference (and a predominantly desk job) takes the starch out of a person.  I wasn’t all that disappointed in myself considering that I was still here on mile 26, but one always wonders what their children think of their parents, and whether your star is tarnishing in their eyes.  All I knew for sure was that I was thoroughly enjoying this special time with my son, and that I was more than ready to get the refrigerator off my aching back.

The metal tower in the distance looked broken.  It was.  Uprooted trees had been blown onto the structure at some point in the past; rendering it unusable.  Perhaps it was a communications tower but the pink "caution" tape that surrounded it, along with the sections of sawn logs, made it clear that it was now junk.  I mention this because it was at this point that the strenuous Noland Divide “trail” we had chosen to follow to the north; had basically disappeared.  We knew we were “close” to the road because we could occasionally hear traffic noise, but we couldn’t see a clear direction of travel.  Nelson took the lead and in about 15 minutes, I could hear a “Whooop!” from his direction.  I had fallen quite some distance behind and could not see him, however his shout made it clear that he had reached the road.  Hallelujah!

At Nelson’s excellent suggestion, we “hid” our packs just off the road so that we could walk the next one-half mile upward on the road, sans weight.  Why not drive back down the roadway and fetch the gear on the way back?  We walked along the twisty asphalt’s narrow shoulder in extremely low-hanging cloud cover.  It looked like it could begin raining at any moment.  I guess that’s why they call them the Smoky Mountains, as they looked as though they were covered in smoke.  Cars and trucks would pass by us and some drivers would wave at the “real hikers.”  We made a half-hearted attempt at thumbing a ride to a few “likely” vehicles, but debated whether we “needed” to finish our trek on foot.  Finally, a large, white, late-model, extended pick-up with Florida plates, diesel-rumbled its approach as Nelson stuck out his thumb.  It actually passed us by.  Nelson made that pleading “what the heck?” gesture with his both palms up, and the driver spotted him.  He stopped100 yards ahead and we ran to climb into the open back; nestling between the guy’s many large coolers.  I admit that that short 1000 yard ride to the top was welcome and a perfect way to arrive at the parking lot where the WPT quietly awaited our triumphant return.

We DID it!
Happy that the truck had not been towed, and that I could actually locate the key to the driver's door; we celebrated.  I stuck the camera on the hood and the two of us posed for a quick (post-hike) victory shot.  Nelson had already peeled off his plastic-bagged boots and gone barefoot.  I had to drive, so I kept them on for the time being.  The area was now bustling.  Many tourists had driven up to Clingmans Dome that afternoon, despite the threat of inclement weather.  Everyone’s face looked happy and smiling as they milled around the parking lot on their way back and forth from their vehicles.  I distinctly remember having that feeling you sometimes get when you know that you have just completed something major in your life; that “ahhhhh…” feeling.  That, “it’s good to be alive” feeling.  That, “I did something extraordinary that most of you folks would never consider” feeling.  Life was indeed good!

The rest of our time together (about 2 days) was different than originally planned.  We were going to take most of our time together hiking, but (as chronicled) circumstances dictated that we re-think that plan. I’m not sorry in the least that it turned out differently.  There were a few more unscheduled hotel-stays, some awesome Pigeon Forge Mellow Mushroom Pizza, plus the newest Spiderman film seen outside Louisville, KY, and of course: the magnificent Kentucky Bourbon Trail (more on that in a future blog).  We talked and drove, and drove and sat quietly; comfortable in each other’s company.  It was truly a remarkable time together.  The miles flew by.  The memories piled up.  THEN: I eventually dropped my son and his gear off at his mother's, but not before a big hug and the promise to "do it again."

Even a birthday party has to end sometime.

Back at my house; all that was really left to do was to sort out the pile of camping gear.  I had some already in the apartment and some was left in the truck.  Some was this person's and some was that; some was even mine purchased expressly for the trip.  This reverse-process was cathartic in a way; a chance to reflect on the planning and the incredible journey.  Incredible because I had the precious chance to be with my son doing "guy-stuff" for five-whole days.  The sun was shining but the temperature was still below 80 degrees as I stood leaning into the open door of the truck.  I picked up the loose change from the many toll-booth exchanges, the unused ketchup packages from the console, the half-drunk Nalgene bottle with the water from Deep Creek flavored with the fruity electrolytes of MIO that my son had squirted in. Wistfully I lingered over the one spent Krystal hamburger box I found under the back seat, thinking about how irresponsible but cool it was to have a dozen to stuff into our faces as we drove.  I wrapped up the cord from the I-Pod where we had listened to an audio book of James Patterson as the miles flew by and thought blissfully about the amazing five days we had shared.  Too damn few, too far between.

Nelson was at his mother's now and gearing up for the rest of his other (real) life beyond "home."  I was left waxing memories of the times that were.  In the apartment alone, my eyes were misty and my throat was choked up as I also realized that my son had grown up and just how fortunate I had been to be able to "hang" with him; even for a time. Yes, the unique mirror I had been privileged to be looking in showed me an incredibly solid human being and all around wonderful young man...and that's a beautiful reflection to behold indeed.

Yes dear reader; take the time and spend it with the ones you'll never regret saying "yes."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Enjoying a Rising Son Along the Appalachian Trail - P4

► MY 100th BLOG ENTRY!!!

After a simple freeze-dried meal of some sort of (boiling-water-prepared) Italian concoction, the two of us began to relax.  Boy, would a cold beer have tasted amazing.  Exhaustion is a beautiful thing sometimes.  It has a way of blissfully descending into place to relieve one of extemporaneous and cluttered is insistent.  I gave way to the feeling once the tent was in place and the gear was safely hanging from a nearby bear-proof, cable device. The smell of smoldering wood and the sound of the rushing creek blended with muffled laughter from the other nearby campfire scene; yet I faded fast into sweet unawareness.

The next morning, I rolled out of the tent first; up and over Nelson, who was lying at the zippered flap.  I quietly pulled on some clothes, and fetched the plastic cat-hole trowel and necessary bio-paperwork for some "light reading" in the woods.  Early dappled sunlight filtered into the valley where Deep Creek rippled and meandered.  It was going to be another scorcher. Insects were busily buzzing as I chose my likely spot for some personal business.  I won't go into the details, but suffice it to say that things "worked out" well as I carefully "left no footprint" or scar upon the pristine landscape.  I even felt like kicking and scuffing my feet backward just like any self-respecting hound dog, but stifled that crazy urge.  Fiber tablets are a beautiful thing indeed.

I wandered about the other sleeping campers trying to stay quiet as I went to the creek bed for a better look at the surroundings.  I felt much more alive this morning and that was a good thing considering the trek of the coming day.  We had about eight miles to traverse today before the next campsite stop.  Nelson was up within the hour and the two of us gingerly ate the scorched powdered-milk, strawberry granola I screwed up in my brand new backpack cookware.  I did my best to scrape out the blackened oat-crud from the bottom, but there's a permanent burn-mark to remind me how fast the damn thing heats up.  Good thing I hadn't borrowed that gizmo and decided to purchase one myself; I would have hated doing that to someone else's gear.  I gave Nelson the choice of dishes and filling up the water bottles from the creek, or packing up the tent; he chose the tent.  The Katadyn Hiker Pro did the job once again in short order.  I didn't know how anyone could survive in these mountains without one.

There continued to be high humidity as we packed up the camp into our two backpacks.  Sweat was already dripping from my brow as Nelson and I started down the trail.  I felt physically neutral for the first few miles, as the going was predominantly flat along the creek bank.  The terrain was fairly rocky and zigzagged in and out of the brush; crossing smaller tributaries that fed Deep Creek.  Those sections were treacherously moss-covered and slippery, so the going was slow and careful.  

White flower petals from the beautiful and plentiful Rosebay rhododendron littered the ground as we walked.  Pipevine Swallowtail and Question Mark butterflies could be seen congregating on rocky islands that poked out of the creek bed.

About 175 species have reportedly been logged in North Carolina as of 2011.  Small rushing waterfalls appeared from the uphill side of the barely existent trail to join the main flow of the creek.  I stopped every once in a while to wring out the kerchief I had around my forehead, and to take a few pictures.

Around 11:00 we came to another designated campsite.  Unfortunately it was not OUR designated campsite.  It was site 54 and was deserted.  A little further down the trail came site 55.  It came complete with a rough-hewn and battered picnic table and thoroughly decrepit horse stall arrangement.  We poked around it for a few minutes and discovered even more butterflies amassed on the rubber mats that were lying between each horse/wooden division.  

I could see that there were even more Pipevine, and even a few Spicebush, Black, and Appalachian Tiger Swallowtails also milling around together.  Something had attracted them to that spot; regardless it was a wonder to behold.  Plus anything that took my mind off my aching feet and knee was welcome respite.  We had traversed 3.4 miles to that point and had many more to go before nightfall, but not before a swim in the icy cold, rushing waters of Deep Creek and a "cracker and cheese" lunch from my pack.

This point in the trail featured a bridge over the creek.  The bridge was made of a giant peeled log that was flattened on one-third to fashion a footbridge.  A peeled-log railing ran along the top for supporting hikers.  When we had taken a nice one-half hour break (I could have used much more) we crossed the creek.  Since this portion of the "strenuous" (Pole Road Creek Trail) was shared with equestrian hikers, I imagined that the horses must cross the creek IN the water, and not balance on the log.  I think I'm safe with that assumption.  Nelson and I finished the crossing and headed UP the trail, and away from Deep Creek.  We had another 4.3 miles to walk.  

The trail began to get steeper and more rocky with stones, etc. having been dislodged by horse hooves.  Places along the extremely narrow ledges, hoof-prints had nearly slid off the edge, into the green beyond.  Then the going got rough(er).  It started to rain.  Then it started to really rain.  Finally, it began to really, really rain!  We stopped long enough to secure our packs from the rain with the pack covers we had smartly brought, however the rest of us was wide open to the elements.  As the heavy rain continued; thunder and lightning accompanied the deluge.  Nelson asked me, "what do we do if the lighting gets closer?"  I responded, "die."  When you think about it, where WOULD one go where it was "safe"?

Since the trail canted upward in front of us, small rivulets of water flowed directly at us.  These rivulets became minor torrents and loose soil was being washed along with the water.  The footing was more and more treacherous and slick.  Our "water-resistant" boots were in full failure mode, but still we kept plodding. Just after I had crossed a small confluence of two creeks dumping into "Pole Road Creek" I dumped.  I was just bearing down with my right foot on a small, greasy incline when it broke away, causing me and everything else to pitch forward.  The top of my pack frame cracked into the back of my skull and I couldn't brace my fall very well.  I went squoooosh...into the mud.  Nelson had been facing me and my attempted maneuver when the fall occurred.  I looked up at him; covered in mud, and he simply said, "you might wanna' wipe that off."

The rain continued to fall and fall for a total of 45 minutes before tapering off.  We had climbed about 800 feet before it had nearly stopped, followed by some bright sunlight.  My water bottles were almost empty and I began to fret a bit about the possibility of finding water.  We were now far from Deep Creek and hadn't even heard the slightest noise from moving water.  The trees were amazing at sucking up all surrounding nature sounds.  I was pretty much out of gas and had lagged a bit behind Nelson.  I stood on the slanted hillside trying to gather a bit of rest, when he came back to me.  His face looked alarmed and he spoke slowly and shakily saying, "we might, want, to wait a bit before we go up there," pointing from where he had just come.  The way he looked and the way he spoke made my tired mind jump to a strange place in that moment.  I immediately imagined that he had either come upon a bear, or some tragedy involving fellow hikers; I was alarmed.  I quietly asked him, "what's the matter honey?"  He looked at me strangely and almost as quietly said, "bees."  Nelson did not care for bees.  I truthfully didn't now that fact, but it wasn't all that odd; many people have trouble with bees.  We both walked the rest of the way up the incline and what turned out to be the trail crossroads.  Dozens of small bees were indeed drifting around the open area near the old wooden trail markers.  I could see many holes in the ground where reddish dirt has been removed in piles surrounding them.  "Ground bees, it's OK" I said.  Nelson kept his distance anyway.

The last leg of our journey for that day was still to come.  Site 61 our "reserved" site, was about one mile away from us. Our feet were water-logged and our clothing was completely sopping wet.  The humidity, heat and no breeze whatsoever made it impossible to dry out anything.    I hoped against hope that it was closer; but it wasn't, so off we trudged.  The new switchback path now led completely downward.  I remember thinking that I was saddened by giving up so much altitude at the end of the day.  We had steadily been climbing upward for hours and now, down we went again.  That meant that tomorrow (the day we had chosen to shorten our trip with) we would be climbing back up the way we had just came.  Hoo-Ray!  Down, down, down, switch, switch, switch we went.  My water was now completely gone and a wee bit of panic at the unknown drifted into my subconscious.  Would we find water any time soon?  If we didn't, would there at least be water at site 61?  Just about ten minutes later, I heard a small gurgling sound ahead and was delighted to see a smallish eruption of water from the side hill; crossing the path.  My heart lept with relief.  It wasn't long before I was plumbing filtered water gleefully into my bottles; thanking God for small things.
Another 30 minutes later and (having fallen behind Nelson again) I arrived at site 61.  Nelson was standing and talking to a pair of females that had just emerged from their tent in various stages of undress; hastily dressing and talking to him nervously.  Completely soggy, red-faced, dirty, and exhausted; I walked up just in time to hear the spokes-girl make a plea for the two of us to "...take the lower camp was really cute."  I made a quick judgement call that what we had just interrupted was of a personal nature between the two women, and didn't care if the site was indeed "cute," I just wanted to fall down somewhere.  We stepped through a narrow gap in the brush and discovered that there was an additional site in a clearing nearer to a raging creek.

This site even had its own bear cables and a rock-ringed fire-pit.  We dumped our gear on the ground.  I dumped myself on a log.  We each stripped off all our wet clothing and boots.  I strung a quick line near the fire ring and we hung the clothing there for what that was worth.  I didn't have any other pants whatsoever, so I simply wore fresh camo-underpants and new tee-shirt.  I sat on the log tending my poor abused feet.  They were white, wrinkly, and many toes were blistered.  I had no other shoes or boots, so I pulled on some dry socks and shuffled around the dirt trying to find some dry wood.  Nelson had better luck than I and hauled some moss-covered dead-falls to the pit area.  He jumped on the wood to break it into smaller pieces.  We lit a barely-burning, pitiful and smoky fire while we decided on freeze-dried "Mountain Chili" as our meal.  It was the best chili I had ever had.

While we rearranged the logs to keep them burning, we talked about our decision to cut the mountain adventure short, and felt good about it.  While I was in far worse shape than my young son; he admitted to some bodily discomfort as well.  Add that to the wet boots, blisters, and damp clothing, and I was eager to extricate myself from paradise.  This day had been a bit of a trial and we had both had not push our luck.  Tent set up and gear in the air; we crashed at 8:30 with the sun still awake, and the creek rushing over the rocks behind us.

(Stay tuned for the LAST part of the mountain adventure trip...number five in this series...)