Martha on the Mountain

April 30, 2010
At Cornwall, Ct.
It was 51 degrees and windy when I arrived atop Mohawk Mountain about 9:45 yesterday morning. Sitting on a rock was an older woman, wearing warm clothes and gloves, whittling a hiking staff from a dead sapling that was something less than two inches in diameter at its thick end. We were the only people atop the mountain, elevation 1,677 feet, from which there are expansive views of the surrounding Litchfield Hills and into the Massachusetts Berkshires.
I approached, asking if in fact she was making a walking stick, and she said, pleasantly, that she was. She said she likes to take a cut or fallen sapling or branch, strip the bark with her knife and let the wood dry. Then she burns images into the stick. Perhaps images of wildflowers one day, images of leaves another. She said that she likely would decorate this stick with an image of the Berkshire peaks that spread before us on the horizon.
Her name is Martha, and she lives in Morris, a rural town not that far away. She has lots of interests that keep her busy, she said, and this was one of them. She also makes quilts. She is 82. I told her that one of the reasons she is 82 and headed for 102 is that she took the trouble, on this cool morning, to venture to the top of one of Connecticut’s higher peaks to whittle. moreover, to whittle with a summit view in a peaceful setting. She is not passing time, I thought, she is living richly.
April 30, 2010
At Cornwall, Ct.
It was 51 degrees and windy when I arrived atop Mohawk Mountain about 9:45 yesterday morning. Sitting on a rock was an older woman, wearing warm clothes and gloves,

Martha atop Mohawk Mountain, Cornwall, Ct., whittling

Martha atop Mohawk Mountain, Cornwall, Ct., whittling

whittling a hiking staff from a dead sapling that was something less than two inches in diameter at its thick end. We were the only people atop the mountain, elevation 1,677 feet, from which there are expansive views of the surrounding Litchfield Hills and into the Massachusetts Berkshires.

I approached, asking if in fact she was making a walking stick, and she said, pleasantly, that she was. She said she likes to take a cut or fallen sapling or branch, strip the bark with her knife and let the wood dry. Then she burns images into the stick. Perhaps images of wildflowers one day, images of leaves another. She said that she likely would decorate this stick with an image of the Berkshire peaks that spread before us on the horizon.
Her name is Martha, and she lives in Morris, a rural town not that far away. She has lots of interests that keep her busy, she said, and this was one of them. She also makes quilts. She is 82. I told her that one of the reasons she is 82 and headed for 102 is that she took the trouble, on this cool morning, to venture to the top of one of Connecticut’s higher peaks to whittle in a peaceful setting with a view. She is not passing time, I thought, she is living well.

A Farmer’s Manifesto

April 6, 2010
Visiting the Hartland Historical Society in Vermont, historian Bill Hosley of Enfield, Ct., came upon a paper written in 1907 by a prominent local farmer, Byron P. Ruggles.
It was a hand-typed, 10-page manuscript with the less-than-compelling title “Modern vs. Conservative Dairying.” Hosley began reading.
One of the joys of poking around in the archives of a local historical society is that almost invariably you come upon something – letters, old photos, documents, something – that amounts to a revealing window into long-ago life. Sometimes that window gives us perspective; sometimes it helps explain how we got where we got, for better or worse.
Hosley read on. The paper was a gem. He photocopied it.
In it, Ruggles (1838-1917) was skeptical of the advice farmers were getting from academia, government and commerce.
Farmers were told: “We must use a seed drill, a land roller, a corn-planter, a corn-weeder, a cultivator, a corn harvester, a corn husker, a potato planter, potato hoer, potato digger, a reaper, mowing machine, hay tender, horse rake, horse pitchfork, ensilage cutter, threshing machine, drag and circular saws, and an engine to run some of the machines. We must have a silo. It would not do to think of stock or dairy farming without it.” He goes on for two pages complaining of what he was supposed to be buying, doing and not doing.
Most notably, though, Ruggles was bothered by the advice “to own and run large farms; that small farms are not profitable.” That of course became the government mantra of the 20th century, and led to the industrial farming dominant today. Industrial farming may be good at producing lots of food comparatively inexpensively, but it is fair to say, I think, that we are still sorting out the hidden and not-so-hidden environmental, nutritional and societal costs of the bigger-is-necessarily-better philosophy of farming.
Ruggles was one of those independent, civic-minded old New Englanders, the kind of guy, Hosley learned, who also founded the Hartland Nature Club and assembled its impressive natural history collections. He was an influential local leader in a small town along the Connecticut River that remains to this day a community of only 3,223 people. He also was a photographer. But first, he was a farmer. Bigger is better? After decades of farming, he figured he could shuck nonsense as easily as an ear of corn. He offered his own advice.
“Do not be a farmer unless you like the business and prefer it to another trade or occupation.”
“Do not buy a farm larger than you can do all the work on yourself.”
“Do not have a great multiplicity of farming tools. A plow, a harrow, a roller, a cultivator and a hoe are all the tools you need for working the soil.”
“Do not use any commercial fertilizers. You can raise good crops and increase the fertility of the soil without them.”
“Do not buy any meal or grain feed for your cows. Feed them with what you raise on the farm; that is what your farm is for. They must have good pasturage in summer; plenty of nutritious grasses… They must have good water to drink, such as you would drink yourself.”
“Do not keep cows in the barn all of the time in winter, nor most of the time. You cannot raise good calves from cows so kept. Let them out in the yard at least five or six hours a day except in stormy or very cold weather for sun and air and water and salt and exercise and general enjoyment.”
The Ruggles message was fundamental: respect the land, treat farm animals humanely.
It all sounds a lot like the kind of small, sustainable agriculture emerging in Connecticut and many parts of the country in recent years. I think, for example, of Megan Haney growing vegetables and flowers on three acres of land along the Housatonic River in Kent, Ct.
She starts and ends a long hot day in the field with a sunbonnet and a smile.
Oh, when she was starting out the representative of one federal agency that if her farm store wasn’t open every day she could fail. But her Marble Valley Farm store is open to the general public only two days a week in the growing season After three years she has no plans to change; she is doing fine. Her Community Supported Agriculture program, in which families pay a farmer up-front for a season’s worth of vegetables provided weekly during the growing season, attracts more customers every year. Her farm store is a hit.
She uses a 60-year-old Allis Chalmers G tractor with 11- or 12-horsepower that looks, as she says, more like a Go-Kart than a serious farm tractor. It helps, for sure, but most work, all of the planting and much of the weeding is done by hand anyway. She farms organically. She does most of the work. She keeps it simple.
Her farm and her philosophy, it seems, are not unlike what Byron Ruggles was talking about all those years ago.
April 7, 2010
Visiting the Hartland Historical Society in Vermont, historian Bill Hosley of Enfield, Ct., came upon a paper written in 1907 by a prominent local farmer, Byron P. Ruggles.
It was a hand-typed, 10-page manuscript with the less-than-compelling title “Modern vs. Conservative Dairying.” Hosley began reading.
One of the joys of poking around in the archives of a local historical society is that almost invariably you come upon something – letters, old photos, documents, something – that amounts to a revealing window into long-ago life. Sometimes that window gives us perspective; sometimes it helps explain how we got where we got, for better or worse.
Vermont farmer Byron P. Ruggles. Photo courtesy Hartland Historical Society, Hartland, Vermont

Vermont farmer Byron P. Ruggles. Photo courtesy Hartland Historical Society, Hartland, Vermont

The Ruggles paper, Hosley discovered, was one of those windows. He photocopied it.

In it, Ruggles (1838-1917) was skeptical of the advice farmers were getting from academia, government and commerce.
Farmers were told: “We must use a seed drill, a land roller, a corn-planter, a corn-weeder, a cultivator, a corn harvester, a corn husker, a potato planter, potato hoer, potato digger, a reaper, mowing machine, hay tender, horse rake, horse pitchfork, ensilage cutter, threshing machine, drag and circular saws, and an engine to run some of the machines. We must have a silo. It would not do to think of stock or dairy farming without it.” He goes on for two pages complaining of what he was supposed to be buying, doing and not doing.
Most notably, though, Ruggles was bothered by the advice “to own and run large farms; that small farms are not profitable.” That of course became the government mantra of the 20th century, and led to the industrial farming dominant today. Industrial farming may be good at producing lots of food comparatively inexpensively, but it is fair to say, I think, that we are still sorting out the hidden and not-so-hidden environmental, nutritional and societal costs of the bigger-is-necessarily-better philosophy of farming.
Ruggles was one of those independent, civic-minded old New Englanders, the kind of guy, Hosley learned, who also founded the Hartland Nature Club and assembled its impressive natural history collections. He was an influential local leader in a small town along the Connecticut River that remains to this day a community of only 3,223 people. He also was a photographer. But first, he was a farmer. Bigger is better? After decades of farming, Ruggles figured he could shuck nonsense as easily as an ear of corn. He offered his own advice.
Megan Haney kneels in a cover crop of rye and vetch at Marble Valley Farm in Kent, Ct., where she raises vegetables and flowers on 3 acres of land beside the Housatonic River. Photo courtesy of Tom Lapham.

Megan Haney kneels in a cover crop of rye and vetch at Marble Valley Farm in Kent, Ct., where she raises vegetables and flowers on 3 acres of land beside the Housatonic River. Photo courtesy of Tom Lapham.

“Do not be a farmer unless you like the business and prefer it to another trade or occupation.”
“Do not buy a farm larger than you can do all the work on yourself.”
“Do not have a great multiplicity of farming tools. A plow, a harrow, a roller, a cultivator and a hoe are all the tools you need for working the soil.”
“Do not use any commercial fertilizers. You can raise good crops and increase the fertility of the soil without them.”
“Do not buy any meal or grain feed for your cows. Feed them with what you raise on the farm; that is what your farm is for. They must have good pasturage in summer; plenty of nutritious grasses… They must have good water to drink, such as you would drink yourself.”
“Do not keep cows in the barn all of the time in winter, nor most of the time. You cannot raise good calves from cows so kept. Let them out in the yard at least five or six hours a day except in stormy or very cold weather for sun and air and water and salt and exercise and general enjoyment.”
The Ruggles message was fundamental: respect the land, treat farm animals humanely.
It all sounds a lot like the kind of small, sustainable agriculture emerging in Connecticut and many parts of the country in recent years. I think, for example, of Megan Haney growing vegetables and flowers on three acres of land along the Housatonic River in Kent, Ct.
She starts and ends a long hot day in the field with a sunbonnet and a smile.
Oh, when she was starting out the representative of one federal agency told her that if her farm store wasn’t open every day she could fail. But her Marble Valley Farm store is open to the general public only two days a week in the growing season. After three years she has no plans to change; she is doing fine. Her Community Supported Agriculture program, in which families pay a farmer up-front for a season’s worth of vegetables provided weekly during the growing season, attracts more customers every year. Her farm store is a hit.
She uses a 60-year-old Allis Chalmers G tractor with 11- or 12-horsepower that looks, as she says, more like a Go-Kart than a serious farm tractor. It helps, for sure, but most work, all of the planting and much of the weeding is done by hand anyway. She farms organically. She does most of the work. She keeps it simple.
Her farm and her philosophy, it seems, are not unlike what Byron Ruggles was talking about all those years ago.

The Raw Material of Dreams

April 1, 2010
If it were possible to calculate an index of happiness, two numbers ought to be part of the formula – rivers explored, trails hiked.
I do not know exactly how many trail guides and river guides I own. Glance over my shoulder and I see seven shelves of them in my study. There are guides to rivers in Alaska, rivers in New England, guides to the lakes of the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and Ontario, hiking guides for the Rockies, the Appalachians, and Great Britain. (There are field guides to birds and wildflowers, mushrooms and sea creatures, too. I friend of mine claims to be astonished that not only do I own a guide to “The Weeds of the Northeast,” I also have a guide that tells me what these weeds look like in winter. Thank you Lauren Brown for “Weeds in Winter,” Houghton Mifflin. Boston, 1977).
These river and trail guides are mostly utilitarian books, with their just-the-facts prose. I love them. They are the raw material of dreams, and the essential first tool in making those dreams memories. Perhaps they should be counted in my happiness index as well.
So I welcome to my shelves “The Northern Forest Canoe Trail,” (The Mountainers Books, $24.95) the just-published guide to the comparatively new canoe trail that nicely ties together some of the most famous and historic rivers and lakes from New York’s Adirondacks through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, 740 miles in all, including a short, friendly incursion into Quebec province. With this new text – maps of the trail already are available – we now have what we need to get our feet wet, our psyches soothed.
The idea for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail was hatched in the late 1980s by three friends, Mike Krepner, Randy Mardres and Ron Canter, who first envisioned a trail through Maine utilizing Native American canoe trails. By the early 1990s, as big forest-products companies began selling off huge tracts of land in northern New England and upstate New York – opening them to development – the fate of what came to be known as the northern forest emerged as an issue. Krepner suggested the trail be extended from the Adirondacks through Maine, as a way to demonstrate the convergence of history and geography, to help draw attention to the value of the northern forest and its priceless waterways. Much or all of the route, which extends from Old Forge, N. Y. to Fort Kent in Maine, and includes all or parts of such famous waterways as the Allagash, Connecticut, Penobscot and Saranac rivers, as well as major water bodies like Lake Champlain and Rangeley Lake, was paddled by Native Americans.
In 2000, Kay Henry and Rob Center, former executives of the Mad River Canoe Co., formed the Northern Forest Canoe Trail organization to make the trail a reality. The organization, with a small staff and a large network of volunteers, has worked ever since developing primitive campsites, identifying access points, and promoting the trail as an ideal resource for sustainable, nature-based recreation and tourism.
You can, as a small number of people already have done, paddle the whole Northern Forest Canoe Trail in one big adventure. I tip my Tilley to these rugged people. I’ve done just enough long-distance paddling to know how hard it can be day after day, how grueling a long portage can be, no matter how soul-satisfying the overall expedition may be. I fall in with the father of the Appalachian Trail, Benton MacKaye, who never envisioned the AT as a speed hike or even something one might do in one grand adventure. The AT was to be a restorative place, he said, a place where you recovered from the stresses experienced in the commercial canyons. It was not a place to hurry; it was a place to see, hear and feel again, to be part of natural rhythms. That is how I feel about the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Whether you paddle the trail east to west or west to east, either involves paddling upstream at times, and involves some very difficult portages. Having spent considerable time in northern New York and New England over the past four decades, I’ve already done all or parts of many waterways that now are part of the trail. So I will paddle the rest of Northern Forest Canoe Trail in sections, in day trips or short camping trips of 2 or 3 days. I don’t want to rush, I want to savor each sunrise and sunset at water’s edge. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail guidebook in hand, I have identified the next water body to add to my happiness index: Flagstaff Lake, Maine.
April 1, 2010
If it were possible to calculate an index of happiness, two numbers ought to be part of the formula – rivers explored, trails hiked.

The newly published Northern Forest Canoe Trail guidebook

The newly published Northern Forest Canoe Trail guidebook

I do not know exactly how many trail guides and river guides I own, but I do know they are invaluable planning tools. Glance over my shoulder and I see seven shelves of them in my study. There are guides to rivers in Alaska, rivers in New England, guides to the lakes of the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and Ontario, hiking guides for the Rockies, the Appalachians, and Great Britain. (There are field guides to birds and wildflowers, mushrooms and sea creatures, too. A friend of mine claims to be astonished that not only do I own a guide to “The Weeds of the Northeast,” I also have a guide that tells me what these weeds look like in winter. Thank you Lauren Brown for “Weeds in Winter,” Houghton Mifflin. Boston, 1977).
These river and trail guides are mostly utilitarian books, with their just-the-facts prose. I love them. They are the raw material of dreams, and the essential first tool in making those dreams memories. Perhaps they should be counted in my happiness index as well.

Map courtesy Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Map courtesy Northern Forest Canoe Trail

So I welcome to my shelves “The Northern Forest Canoe Trail,” (The Mountainers Books, $24.95) the just-published guide to the comparatively new canoe trail that nicely ties together some of the most famous and historic rivers and lakes from New York’s Adirondacks through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, 740 miles in all, including a short, friendly incursion into Quebec province. With this new text – maps of the trail already are available – we now have what we need to get our feet wet, our psyches soothed.
The idea for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail was hatched in the late 1980s by three friends, Mike Krepner, Randy Mardres and Ron Canter, who first envisioned a trail through Maine utilizing Native American canoe trails. By the early 1990s, as big forest-products companies began selling off huge tracts of land in northern New England and upstate New York – opening them to development – the fate of what came to be known as the northern forest emerged as an issue. Krepner suggested the trail be extended from the Adirondacks through Maine, as a way to demonstrate the convergence of history and geography, to help draw attention to the value of the northern forest and its priceless waterways. Much or all of the route, which extends from Old Forge, N. Y. to Fort Kent in Maine, and includes all or parts of such famous waterways as the Allagash, Connecticut, Penobscot and Saranac rivers, as well as major water bodies like Lake Champlain and Rangeley Lake, was paddled by Native Americans.

Scott Grant camped along the Penobscot River in Maine, part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Scott Grant camped along the Penobscot River in Maine, part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

In 2000, Kay Henry and Rob Center, former executives of the Mad River Canoe Co., formed the Northern Forest Canoe Trail organization to make the trail a reality. The organization, with a small staff and a large network of volunteers, has worked ever since developing primitive campsites, identifying access points, and promoting the trail as an ideal resource for sustainable, nature-based recreation and tourism.
You can, as a small number of people already have done, paddle the whole Northern Forest Canoe Trail in one big adventure. I tip my Tilley to these rugged people. I’ve done just enough long-distance paddling to know how hard it can be day after day, how grueling a long portage can be, no matter how soul-satisfying the overall expedition may be. I fall in with the father of the Appalachian Trail, Benton MacKaye, who never envisioned the AT as a speed hike or even something one might do in one grand adventure. The AT was to be a restorative place, he said, a place where you recovered from the stresses experienced in the commercial canyons. It was not a place to hurry; it was a place to see, hear and feel again, to be part of natural rhythms. That is how I feel about the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Whether you paddle the trail east to west or west to east, either involves paddling upstream at times, and involves some very difficult portages. Having spent considerable time in northern New York and New England over the past four decades, I’ve already done all or parts of many waterways that now are part of the trail. So I will paddle the rest of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in sections, in day trips or short camping trips of 2 or 3 days. I don’t want to rush, I want to savor each sunrise and sunset at water’s edge. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail guidebook in hand, I have identified the next water body to add to my happiness index: Flagstaff Lake, Maine.

Fin Art or Fine Art?

At the suggestion of a friend, I stopped by the Pia Sjolin Design Gallery in Canton to look at a “Fabulous Fish for the Farmington” folk-art exhibit sponsored by the Farmington River Watershed Association, the environmental group that keeps its toe in the waters of the Farmington.
Working mostly from wooden blanks in the shape of fish, about 200 artists and craftspeople let their imaginations loose, producing a most eclectic school of fish to be auctioned off April 16 as a fund-raiser.
There is a “Van Gogh Fish” by Amy O’Meara, that, on one side, was painted with a likeness of Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night.” There is a pink fish adorned with flowers, another fish covered with holly leaves and berries. There are even some literal works – like Lee Ora’s rainbow trout, a likeness of a fish actually found in the Farmington, which, by the way, is the state’s premier trout stream. You won’t find Leslie Gordon’s fish in the Farmington, though. Her “Fancy Frannie the Funny Flying Fish,” is a wild and whimsical creation fashioned from materials like feathers, beads, wire and shreds of newspaper. Recycling as art.
More serious, was Sally Sargent Markey’s “Macroinvertibrates Are the Key (to Healthy Waterways,)” in which the torso of her fish is a vignette with rocky river flowing through woodland, a little frog assessing it all from a shoreline rock.
The gallery is off Route 44 in The Shoppes at Farmington Valley is you happen to be in the area. More information at www.frwa.org.
March 25, 2010
At the suggestion of a friend, I stopped by the Pia Sjolin Design Gallery in Canton to look at a “Fabulous Fish for the Farmington” folk-art exhibit sponsored by the Farmington River Watershed Association, the environmental group that keeps its toe in the waters of the Farmington.
Working mostly from wooden blanks in the shape of fish, about 200 artists and craftspeople let their imaginations loose, producing a most eclectic school of fish to be auctioned off April 16 as a fund-raiser.

The Van Gogh Fish. Art imitating art?

The Van Gogh Fish. Art imitating art?

There is a “Van Gogh Fish” by Amy O’Meara, that, on one side, was painted with a likeness of Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night.” There is a pink fish adorned with flowers, another fish covered with holly leaves and berries. There are even some literal works – like Lee Ora’s rainbow trout, a likeness of a fish actually found in the Farmington, which, by the way, is the state’s premier trout stream. You won’t find Leslie Gordon’s fish in the Farmington, though. Her “Fancy Frannie the Funny Flying Fish,” is a wild and whimsical creation fashioned from materials like feathers, beads, wire and shreds of newspaper. Recycling as art.
More serious, was Sally Sargent Markey’s “Macroinvertibrates Are the Key (to Healthy Waterways,)” in which the torso of her fish is a vignette with rocky river flowing through woodland, a little frog assessing it all from a shoreline rock.
The gallery is off Route 44 in The Shoppes at Farmington Valley if you happen to be in the area. More information at www.frwa.org.

Of Eve, Okee and the Okefenokee

March 1, 2010
At Folkston, Georgia
Arrived at the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge about 7:15 a.m., planning to hike some of the trails. In the refuge visitor’s center parking lot, which was all but empty, I ran into a woman who, noticing a kayak atop my SUV, asked if I was about to paddle the swamp. I told her that unfortunately my boat was damaged and needed repairs, so I planned to hike instead. I could tell she was disappointed. She wanted to paddle the swamp but worried she might get lost and, therefore, hoped to find others to paddle with. Understandable. The Okefenokee refuge is the largest refuge in the eastern U. S. at 700 square miles, 38 miles long by 25 miles wide. There are many trails to hike, but the Okefenokee Swamp is a watery, marshy and boggy kind of place that probably is best explored by kayak or canoe – which is what I planned to do until I damaged my kayak yesterday. I thought about this as we bought refuge passes and I oriented myself with a map. Ok, I decided, I’ll rent a kayak and paddle. So we exchanged names – she is Eve Capehart of Virginia – and off we went. We paddled Old Town Loon kayaks, stable and sturdy boats that were fine for our purpose, if not as quick and nimble as my own kayaks.
We paddled about 2 1/2 miles into the Swamp, first following the Suwanee Canal, a man-made, unfinished route dug in the late 19th Century in an attempt to drain the swamp for logging and, one day, farming. The Suwanee Canal looks man -made, a straight swath far more boring than anything nature would produce. Whatever its origins, it was lined with cypress trees hung with Spanish moss. Herons and egrets, warblers and woodpeckers were abundant. A red-shouldered hawk perched upon a branch overhanging the canal, just high enough above us that our presence didn’t alarm it. We dawdled with binoculars and camera as the sun and the temperature rose during a morning that began quite cool but quickly became comfortable.
From the canal we took a right onto the Cedar Hammock Trail, a real trail with twists and turns, which took us into a large, open and marshy section of the swamp. This was the real Okefenokee Swamp as far as I was concerned. Close by a platform campsite and shelter we spotted an alligator 5- or 6-feet long, sunning in the mud. We were told the alligators had only begun to be active again in recent days and were still comparatively lethargic with the cool nights. I shot a photo from about 15 feet away. A half dozen black vultures roosted in nearby trees.
There was no breeze, and almost no noise. Aside from an occasional and unobtrusive sign – “Entering National Wilderness Area” – and the platform campsite, there were no signs of civilization. It might have been 1850, or 1650. We had the place to ourselves, at least for a couple of hours.
As we paddled, Eve told me about stray cat that showed up at her campsite the night before. It seemed to want to be with her, so she fed it, and let it into her tent. It curled up beside her and slept through the night.
Should she take it home with her? she asked. Would the cat be happier, she wondered, living in her condo with plenty of food and water, free from the dangers of the wild? Or would this cat, given a choice, prefer taking its chances in the wilds of a refuge, totally free, but never sure of its next meal, always looking over its shoulder?
I told her that my children one day found a stray on our back porch, that they fed it, played with it, and pleaded with mom and dad to let them keep it as a pet. We kept it, and we came to have the sense that Daisy, as the kids named her, was grateful to have a home.
By now we had paddled back to the Suwanee Canal, and Eve knew that I needed to return to the visitor’s center parking lot to resume my journey from Florida back to Connecticut. She decided that she had a feel for the layout of the swamp now, and, with a map of the refuge trails in hand, she would have no problem navigating by herself. So she headed northwest to explore more of the swamp. I paddled east back to my car.
Eve left the refuge later with her feline friend in her car. She sent me a note saying she was inclined to name her Okee.
March 1, 2010
At Folkston, Georgia
Arrived at the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge about 7:15 a.m., planning to hike some of the trails. In the refuge visitor’s center parking lot, which was all but empty, I ran into a woman who, noticing a kayak atop my SUV, asked if I was about to paddle the swamp. I told her that unfortunately my boat was damaged and needed repairs, so I planned to hike instead. I could tell she was disappointed.

A cypress tree with Spanish moss in the Okefenokee Swamp

A cypress tree with Spanish moss in the Okefenokee Swamp

She wanted to paddle the swamp but worried she might get lost and, therefore, hoped to find others to paddle with. Understandable. The Okefenokee refuge is the largest refuge in the eastern U. S. at 700 square miles, 38 miles long by 25 miles wide. There are many trails to hike, but the Okefenokee Swamp is a watery, marshy and boggy kind of place that probably is best explored by kayak or canoe – which is what I planned to do until I damaged my kayak yesterday. I thought about this as we bought refuge passes and I oriented myself with a map. Ok, I decided, I’ll rent a kayak and paddle. So we exchanged names – she is Eve Capehart of Virginia – and off we went. We paddled Old Town Loon kayaks, stable and sturdy boats that were fine for our purpose, if not as quick and nimble as my own kayaks.

We paddled about 2 1/2 miles into the Swamp, first following the Suwanee Canal, a man-made, unfinished route dug in the late 19th Century in an attempt to drain the swamp for logging and, one day, farming. The Suwanee Canal looks man -made, a straight swath far more boring than anything nature would produce. Whatever its origins, it was lined with cypress trees hung with Spanish moss. Herons and egrets, warblers and woodpeckers were abundant. A red-shouldered hawk perched upon a branch overhanging the canal, just high enough above us that our presence didn’t alarm it. We dawdled with binoculars and camera as the sun and the temperature rose during a morning that began quite cool but quickly became comfortable.

Eve paddling the Okefenokee Swamp

Eve paddling the Okefenokee Swamp

From the canal we took a right onto the Cedar Hammock Trail, a real trail with twists and turns, which took us into a large, open and marshy section of the swamp. This was the real Okefenokee Swamp as far as I was concerned. Close by a platform campsite and shelter we spotted an alligator 5- or 6-feet long, sunning in the mud. We were told the alligators had only begun to be active again in recent days and were still comparatively lethargic with the cool nights. I shot a photo from about 15 feet away. A half dozen black vultures roosted in nearby trees.

There was no breeze, and almost no noise. Aside from an occasional and unobtrusive sign – “Entering National Wilderness Area” – and the platform campsite, there were no signs of civilization. It might have been 1850, or 1650. We had the place to ourselves, at least for a couple of hours.
As we paddled, Eve told me about a stray cat that showed up at her campsite the night before. It seemed to want to be with her, so she fed it, and let it into her tent. It curled up beside her and slept through the night.

An Okefenokee alligator

An Okefenokee alligator

Should she take it home with her? she asked. Would the cat be happier, she wondered, living in her condo with plenty of food and water, free from the dangers of the wild? Or would this cat, given a choice, prefer taking its chances in the wilds of a refuge, totally free, but never sure of its next meal, always looking over its shoulder?
I told her that my children one day found a stray on our back porch, that they fed it, played with it, and pleaded with mom and dad to let them keep it as a pet. We kept it, and we came to have the sense that Daisy, as the kids named her, was grateful to have a home.
By now we had paddled back to the Suwanee Canal, and Eve knew that I needed to return to the visitor’s center parking lot to resume my journey from Florida back to Connecticut. She decided that she had a feel for the layout of the swamp now, and, with a map of the refuge trails in hand, she would have no problem navigating by herself. So she headed northwest to explore more of the swamp. I paddled east back to my car.
Eve left the refuge later with her feline friend in her car. She was indeed a stray, and the campground manager was happy to see her leave. Eve named her new cat Okee.

In Search of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker

February 25, 2010
At Fellsmere, Florida
More than 10 years ago I devoted two mornings searching for the red-cockaded woodpecker in ideal pine forest habitat in north Florida. I don’t recall seeing a woodpecker either time, never mind the red-cockaded, which is an endangered species now found in only 11 states mostly in the southeastern U. S. The U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates there are perhaps 14,000 of the birds, a tiny fraction of what their numbers were centuries ago and a dangerously small number for a bird species.
I decided to give the red-cockaded another try on my latest Florida visit. While many birders would love to see every species in, say, the U. S. A. and Canada – there are more than 900 – most of us know it isn’t going to happen. We may over time see 400 or 500 species, but getting to 900 requires an extraordinary commitment of time and money. I won’t come close. But seeing every North American woodpecker species? Possible. A couple of years ago I set myself that modest goal, which is manageable. Why woodpeckers? Maybe because I’ve seen quite a few of them already, and seeing the rest of them might happen in just a few years, assuming I take a vacation or two or three in the West, where there are easily a half dozen species I’ve yet to see. After the woodpeckers? Maybe all the ducks or owls or sandpipers. For now, finding the endangered red-cockaded would be a great addition to my woodpecker list.
Searching the Internet, I learned of a state park where the red-cockaded might be seen. It was not much more than an hour from where I am staying. I arrived at the Saint Sebastian River Preserve State Park in Fellsmere late morning and stopped by the park office, where I was told the odds of seeing the birds were best along the trail blazed in yellow, one of four major hiking trails in the preserve. The woman I spoke with said the birds were most often seen very early in the day.
Never mind if I was a little late on the scene, if I had driven this far I was looking for the red-cockaded. Anyway, for a birder, part of the thrill in adding another bird to one’s Life List of species seen is the pursuit. If finding a new species involves some real effort, perhaps some research into habitat and habits, too, that just makes discovery that much more satisfying. I also think, from experience, that the birds that require time and concentration leave the most indelible memories. You learn the bird. You remember exactly where and when you saw it, somehow come away with a feel for the species. Travel with a group to some distant place where a guide takes you straight to this or that otherwise hard-to-find species and the experience isn’t as rewarding. You don’t truly learn the bird; it is figuratively put before you on a platter, no further thought required. I wanted to find the red-cockaded woodpecker on my own, on what now was my third day looking for the species. It was unusually cool for a late February day in south-central Florida, and windy as well. A wore a long-sleeve shirt with a chamois shirt over it. An advantage of the cool day was that I largely had this expansive park to myself. If there were red-cockaded woodpeckers along the trail, it was unlikely some other hiker would spook them before I came along.
Much of the preserve is a forest of longleaf pines, widely spaced, the habitat the red-cockaded needs and a habitat that, like the woodpecker itself, is but a fraction of what it once was in the southeast. The trail was sandy and wide, almost like a beach in places. I took the recommended yellow trail, and a spur that passes through a section of forest where the birds are known to nest in the spring.  I walked perhaps 2 1/4 miles with no sign of the birds before turning around to retrace my steps. I had the feeling this was to be another day without seeing the red-cockaded. I told myself I should be pleased that I had seen a crested caracara. But about 90 minutes into my hike several birds flew across the trail and into the pines. They were a good distance away, but I saw the undulating flight pattern common to so many woodpeckers. Off the trail I went, raising the binoculars. The field guides point out that the red-cockaded has distinctive white cheeks with a black and white ladder pattern on the back. I got a reasonably good look at one bird. White cheeks. Ladder back. No mistaking this bird. The red-cockaded is not a particularly colorful bird despite its name. It is a black-and-white bird, though the male has a very small red “cockade” that is not often seen, according to the field guides. I saw nothing but black and white. The red-cockaded in fact is not all that different from two other mostly black and white woodpeckers of the East, the downy and the hairy. But with its ladder back and white cheeks, the red-cockaded is just different enough, never mind its very specific habitat needs. So, I was not just seeing another monochrome woodpecker, I saw a species that over many centuries evolved in a habitat once dominant in the southeast.
I saw three of the birds, and, I think, another two or three nearby though I did not get a good look at those birds. All the birds were wary and moved anytime I approached closer than 40 feet or so. But, with a 500mm telephoto lens, I even got a photo.
And a real sense of the red-cockaded.
February 25, 2010
At Fellsmere, Florida
More than 10 years ago I devoted two mornings searching for the red-cockaded woodpecker in ideal pine forest habitat in north Florida. I don’t recall seeing a woodpecker either time, never mind the red-cockaded, which is an endangered species now found in only 11 states mostly in the southeastern U. S. The U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates there are perhaps 14,000 of the birds, a tiny fraction of what their numbers were centuries ago and a dangerously small number for a bird species.
I decided to give the red-cockaded another try on my latest Florida visit. While many birders would love to see every species in, say, the U. S. A. and Canada – there are more than 900 – most of us know it isn’t going to happen. We may over time see 400 or 500 species, but getting to 900 requires an extraordinary commitment of time and money. I won’t come close. But seeing every North American woodpecker species? Possible. A couple of years ago I set myself that modest goal, which is manageable. Why woodpeckers? Maybe because I’ve seen quite a few of them already, and seeing the rest of them might happen in just a few years, assuming I take a vacation or two or three in the West, where there are easily a half dozen species I’ve yet to see. After the woodpeckers? Maybe all the ducks or owls or sandpipers. For now, finding the endangered red-cockaded would be a great addition to my woodpecker list.
Searching the Internet, I learned of a state park where the red-cockaded might be seen. It was not much more than an hour from where I am staying. I arrived at the Saint Sebastian River Preserve State Park in Fellsmere late morning and stopped by the park office, where I was told the odds of seeing the birds were best along the trail blazed in yellow, one of four major hiking trails in the preserve. The woman I spoke with said the birds were most often seen very early in the day.

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker

Never mind if I was a little late on the scene; if I had driven this far I was looking for the red-cockaded. Anyway, for a birder, part of the thrill in adding another bird to one’s Life List of species seen is the pursuit. If finding a new species involves some real effort, perhaps some research into habitat and habits, too, that just makes discovery that much more satisfying. I also think, from experience, that the birds that require time and concentration leave the most indelible memories. You learn the bird. You remember exactly where and when you saw it, somehow come away with a feel for the species. Travel with a group to some distant place where a guide takes you straight to this or that otherwise hard-to-find species and the experience isn’t as rewarding. You don’t truly learn the bird; it is figuratively put before you on a platter, no further thought required. I wanted to find the red-cockaded woodpecker on my own, on what now was my third day looking for the species. It was unusually cool for a late February day in south-central Florida, and windy as well. A wore a long-sleeve shirt with a chamois shirt over it. An advantage of the cool day was that I largely had this expansive park to myself. If there were red-cockaded woodpeckers along the trail, it was unlikely some other hiker would spook them before I came along.
Much of the preserve is a forest of longleaf pines, widely spaced, the habitat the red-cockaded needs and a habitat that, like the woodpecker itself, is but a fraction of what it once was in the southeast. The trail was sandy and wide, almost like a beach in places. I took the recommended yellow trail, and a spur that passes through a section of forest where the birds are known to nest in the spring.  I walked perhaps 2 1/4 miles with no sign of the birds before turning around to retrace my steps. I had the feeling this was to be another day without seeing the red-cockaded. I told myself I should be pleased that I had seen a crested caracara. But about 90 minutes into my hike several birds flew across the trail and into the pines. They were a good distance away, but I saw the undulating flight pattern common to so many woodpeckers. Off the trail I went, raising the binoculars. The field guides point out that the red-cockaded has distinctive white cheeks with a black and white ladder pattern on the back. I got a reasonably good look at one bird. White cheeks. Ladder back. No mistaking this bird. The red-cockaded is not a particularly colorful bird despite its name. It is a black-and-white bird, though the male has a very small red “cockade” that is not often seen, according to the field guides. I saw nothing but black and white. The red-cockaded in fact is not all that different from two other mostly black and white woodpeckers of the East, the downy and the hairy. But with its ladder back and white cheeks, the red-cockaded is just different enough, never mind its very specific habitat needs. So, I was not just seeing another monochrome woodpecker, I saw a species that over many centuries evolved in a habitat once dominant in the southeast.
I saw three of the birds, and, I think, another two or three nearby though I did not get a good look at those birds. All the birds were wary and moved anytime I approached closer than 40 feet or so. But, with a 500mm telephoto lens, I even got a photo.
And a real sense of the red-cockaded.

A Harlequin on the Farmington

February 9, 2010
At Farmington, Ct.
About a month ago, a harlequin duck appeared in the Farmington River on a stretch of water that parallels Garden Street. It is a most unusual place for the harlequin, winter or summer, and the question now is, how long will it remain?
Harlequin ducks spend summers in the far north, often well above the Arctic Circle, and prefer rushing, broken water. I’ve seen them in whitewater on the North Klondike River in the Yukon Territory. In winter, they prefer rocky coastlines, where they can be seen bobbing among the rocks even as the surf crashes around them. They are, it appears, very hardy creatures. In southern New England, one fairly reliable place to spot a harlequin is Sachuest Point in Rhode Island, where a small flock can often be seen in winter.
A sighting in Connecticut is highly unusual, and especially on an inland river in winter. Hundreds of birders have come by to get a look at this single, male harlequin, which is easily identified. Male harlequins have a most distinctive pattern, with lyrical swooshes of white plumage and white dots.
Mergansers, mallard ducks, and Canada geese are abundant along the Farmington River in winter, and this solitary harlequin sometimes is among them. We are left to wonder where in the north it spent the summer, and where it was headed before it decided to stop on the Farmington. Did it somehow get separated from a migrating flock of harlequins? One assumes so, and the harlequin of Farmington most likely is one of nature’s little dramas.
February 9, 2010
About a month ago, a harlequin duck appeared in the Farmington River on a stretch of water that parallels Garden Street. It is a most unusual place for the harlequin, winter or summer, and the question now is, how long will it remain?
Harlequin ducks spend summers in the far north, often well above the Arctic Circle, and prefer rushing, broken water. I’ve seen them in whitewater on the North Klondike River in the Yukon Territory. In winter, they prefer rocky coastlines, where they can be seen bobbing among the rocks even as the surf crashes around them. They are, it appears, very hardy creatures. In southern New England, one fairly reliable place to spot a harlequin is Sachuest Point in Rhode Island, where a small flock can often be seen in winter.

The harlequin duck on the Farmington River

The harlequin duck on the Farmington River

A sighting in Connecticut is highly unusual, and especially on an inland river in winter. Hundreds of birders have come by to get a look at this single, male harlequin, which is easily identified. Male harlequins have a most distinctive pattern, with lyrical swooshes of white plumage and white dots.
Mergansers, mallard ducks, and Canada geese are abundant along the Farmington River in winter, and this single harlequin sometimes is among them. We are left to wonder where in the north it spent the summer, and where it was headed before it decided to stop on the Farmington. Did it somehow get separated from a migrating flock of harlequins? One assumes so, and this harlequin of Farmington most likely is one of nature’s little dramas.

The Lyrics of the Landscape

December 12, 2009
Paddling my kayak on Dunning Lake in Farmington, Ct., one day late last year I passed close to shore near an apartment complex and happened upon a middle-aged man crouched at the edge of the water. He was washing a paint tray and roller. In front of him was a milky-white plume easily 15-feet by 15-feet and expanding. I was outraged, and my face showed it I’m sure. We made eye contact. I stopped paddling and stared. He turned his head away, waited a few moments as I glided by, and plunged the roller back in the lake. I caught it out of the corner of my eye.
Lake Dunning is small body of water, perhaps three-quarters-of-a-mile long, maybe a half-mile wide at most, fed by springs, rainfall and a tiny inlet brook. Water from the lake flows west to the nearby Farmington River, then on to the Connecticut River and eventually the sea.
I thought of the incident as I read another new book on the Connecticut River, “Where the Great River Rises: An Atlas of the Connecticut River Watershed in Vermont and New Hampshire,” edited by Rebecca A. Brown and published by the University Press of New England. ($35.00) Its stated purpose is to heighten understanding of the Connecticut and its watershed, to increase awareness of “the whole interrelated fabric of the region.” After all these years, after the Clean Water Act, after so many Earth Days, after so much progress, we still need books like this atlas.
People still do stupid things.
Governments and businesses do stupid things, too, though far more subtly than the guy with the paint tray. Not always – as I said, there is progress, significant progress – but rivers like the Connecticut even now are too often abused, as the Atlas documents. True, factories and municipalities no longer flush untreated wastes through a pipe directly into the Connecticut, but at the same time there is little improvement in controlling the insidious runoff pollution from the ever growing volume of paved surfaces in the watershed, which drains parts of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Not to mention the other problems, like global warming, mercury deposition, and the degradation caused by dams, 14 of them on the Connecticut still functioning, another 3 slowly crumbling.
The Atlas is a project of the Connecticut River Joint Commissions, created by the legislatures of Vermont and New Hampshire to coordinate efforts to protect the Connecticut’s upper valley. Experts at Dartmouth College assisted with the book. The upper valley is a big area, nearly 7,000 square miles, draining places like Vermont’s rugged Northeast Kingdom and the westerly slopes of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, including part of Mount Washington. There are essays on the upper valley’s geology, forests, plant and animal life, agriculture, fisheries, and recreation. Other essays trace the impact of Native Americans, explore population trends, assess water quality, document the cultural history of the valley then and now. There are graphics galore – including one showing public access points in the upper valley. Handy.
There is graceful prose in places, but mostly this atlas is a kind of Upper Valley textbook with workmanlike, explanatory writing. Nothing wrong with that. There is an enormous amount of information about the river and its watershed between these covers, and it is the kind of vetted, reliable, factual matter that is valuable and needed. Connecticut River afficionados will snatch it up and add it to their increasingly sagging shelf of Connecticut River literature. We’ve been seeing a couple of Connecticut River books a year in recent years.
That is, I think, because there is something about the Connecticut River that rings an emotional bell with some people, I’ve met dozens of people over the past few decades who feel proprietary about the river, who can’t spend too much time on it, near it, reading about it. I’ll count myself among them. What we Connecticut River groupies have to hope is that others will discover the Connecticut – or discover and fuss over the brook nearby that feeds the stream that feeds the Connecticut.
Rivers are not just moving water, they are the lyrics of the landscape, singing a song that measures our stewardship better than anything else I know. A plume of paint-stained water draining to the Connecticut is, if we keep things in perspective, an example of the work still to be done.
December 15, 2009
Paddling my kayak on Dunning Lake in Farmington, Ct., one day late last year I passed close to shore near an apartment complex and happened upon a middle-aged man crouched at the edge of the water. He was washing a paint tray and a roller brush. In front of him was a milky-white plume easily 15-feet by 15-feet and expanding. I was outraged, and my face showed it I’m sure. We made eye contact. I stopped paddling and stared. He turned his head away, waited a few moments as I glided by, and plunged the roller back in the lake. I caught it out of the corner of my eye.

"Where the Great River Rises" is a newly published atlas of the upper Connecticut River valley. Jacket image courtesy of the University Press of New England.

"Where the Great River Rises" is a newly published atlas of the upper Connecticut River valley. Cover image courtesy of the University Press of New England.

Lake Dunning is small body of water, perhaps three-quarters-of-a-mile long, maybe a half-mile wide at most, fed by springs, rainfall and a tiny inlet brook. Water from the lake flows west to the nearby Farmington River, then on to the Connecticut River and eventually the sea.
I thought of the incident as I read another new book on the Connecticut River, “Where the Great River Rises: An Atlas of the Connecticut River Watershed in Vermont and New Hampshire,” edited by Rebecca A. Brown and published by the University Press of New England. ($35.00) Its stated purpose is to heighten understanding of the Connecticut and its watershed, to increase awareness of “the whole interrelated fabric of the region.” After all these years, after the Clean Water Act, after so many Earth Days, after so much progress, we still need books like this atlas.
People still do stupid things.
Governments and businesses do stupid things, too, though far more subtly than the guy with the paint tray. Not always – as I said, there is progress, significant progress – but rivers like the Connecticut even now are too often abused, as the Atlas documents. True, factories and municipalities no longer flush untreated wastes through a pipe directly into the Connecticut, but at the same time there is little improvement in controlling the insidious runoff pollution from the ever growing volume of paved surfaces in the watershed, which drains parts of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Not to mention the other problems, like global warming, mercury deposition, and the degradation caused by dams, 14 of them on the Connecticut still functioning, another 3 slowly crumbling.
The Atlas is a project of the Connecticut River Joint Commissions, created by the legislatures of Vermont and New Hampshire to coordinate efforts to protect the Connecticut’s upper valley. Experts at Dartmouth College assisted with the book. The upper valley is a big area, nearly 7,000 square miles, draining places like Vermont’s rugged Northeast Kingdom and the westerly slopes of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, including part of Mount Washington. There are essays on the upper valley’s geology, forests, plant and animal life, agriculture, fisheries, and recreation. Other essays trace the impact of Native Americans, explore population trends, assess water quality, document the cultural history of the valley then and now. Color photographs and graphics are plentiful in this large-format paperback  - including one showing public access points in the upper valley. Handy.
A canoe camper makes breakfast along the Connecticut River near Brattleboro, Vermont

A canoe camper makes breakfast along the Connecticut River near Brattleboro, Vermont

There is graceful prose in places, but mostly this atlas is a kind of Upper Valley textbook with workmanlike, explanatory writing. Nothing wrong with that. There is an enormous amount of information about the river and its watershed between these covers, and it is the kind of vetted, reliable, factual matter that is valuable and needed. Connecticut River afficionados will snatch it up and add it to their increasingly sagging shelf of Connecticut River literature. We’ve been seeing a couple of Connecticut River books a year in recent years.

That is, I think, because there is something about the Connecticut that rings an emotional bell with some people. I’ve met dozens of people over the past few decades who feel proprietary about the river, who can’t spend too much time on it, near it, reading about it. I’ll count myself among them. What we Connecticut River groupies have to hope is that others will discover the Connecticut – or discover and fuss over the brook nearby that feeds the stream that feeds the Connecticut.
Rivers are not just moving water, they are the lyrics of the landscape, and their songs assess our stewardship of this planet better than anything else I know. A plume of paint-stained water draining to the Connecticut is, if we keep things in perspective, a reminder of the work still to be done.

Maine’s Best Idea

November 14, 2009
Perhaps the closest thing we have to wilderness in New England is the vast forest overspreading much of inland central and northern Maine. It is rugged, mountainous land thick with spruce and fir, laced with clear streams and rivers and dotted with deep, cold lakes. Here you will find birds like the no-longer-common common loon and the spruce grouse, along with abundant moose. Much of this forest is five or more hours driving time from metropolitan New England, so you might assume it will stay what it is: trees, water and wildlife.
Unfortunately, no. Long drive or not, the appeal of pristine waterfront property is powerful. Meanwhile, the economics of the forest products industry changed over the past two decades. As demand for weekend homes accelerated, even in these remote areas, large timber products companies discovered that the waterfront properties within their vast holdings are worth far more as residential real estate than as a platform for growing trees for pulp. So the pressure is on, and it is an issue, at least in Maine. It ought to be an issue taken far more seriously in the rest of the region. This is in effect New England’s last frontier. Must every inch of waterfront be seen through a window?
Strange then, that an announcement a few days ago from the Appalachian Mountain Club received so little attention.
The AMC bought a 29,500-acre parcel of land – a genuine missing link – that creates a 63-mile corridor of conservation land stretching from a point near Greenville, a small town at the southern end of Moosehead Lake, all the way to Baxter State Park, itself a massive holding permanently set aside as wild land that includes mile-high Mount Katahdin.
This newly acquired parcel, known as the Roach Ponds Tract, is bounded to the north by state of Maine land, and to the south by another large AMC-owned property, the Katahdin Iron Works Tract, which is 37,000 acres. Those properties, along with others owned by The Nature Conservancy and the state are within an area known as the 100-Mile-Wilderness, a recreational playground for those who cherish nature as it wants to be. The new purchase provides a 20-mile buffer of deep forest for a section of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, which passes through the 100-Mile-Wilderness.
Central and northern Maine forests are regularly logged by the paper products companies, and much of the area has been working forest for the better part of two centuries. They were cutting trees in Maine’s north woods when Henry David Thoreau visited in the mid-19th Century. But even with the industrial cutting, these forests are about as close to pristine wilderness on any large scale as you will find in New England.
To give you an idea: In heavily developed southern New England, a day of heavy rain typically causes streams and rivers to rise rapidly with runoff from cultivated and paved surfaces. Streams that flow clear in dry weather are murky for days after. The Roach Ponds Tract includes the upper reaches of the West Branch of the Pleasant River, as unspoiled a stream as you can expect to find in New England. Its banks are forested, its waters clear. It holds wild, native brook trout and the native shiner, the fallfish, and that is about it. What happens after big rain? The West Branch of the Pleasant River might rise 6 inches overnight. But it won’t be raging. It will flow clear as it does every other day.  I’ve seen it. The West Branch is buffered – protected – by thousands of acres of forest, like streams were centuries ago.
The Roach Ponds Tract was purchased for $11.5 million from Plum Creek Timber Co. Inc., all from private sources, no public money involved. It is hard to imagine how this purchase will not be increasingly appreciated as the decades go on. It always seems to be that way with conservation lands. Look at the national parks.
Plum Creek, however, happens to be the same corporation behind a massive residential development project planned for the shores of Moosehead Lake, one of Maine’s biggest lakes with many miles of wild shoreline. It is a stone’s throw from the Roach Ponds Tract. Plum Creek plans three resorts and more than 2,000 residential units around Moosehead. Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission approved that development last month. The Natural Resources Council of Maine, long a critic of the Plum Creek development, already has appealed that decision to the Maine Superior Court.
November 14, 2009
Perhaps the closest thing we have to wilderness in New England is the vast forest overspreading much of inland central and northern Maine. It is rugged, mountainous land thick with spruce and fir, laced with clear streams and rivers and dotted with deep, cold lakes. Here you will find birds like the no-longer-common common loon and the spruce grouse, along with abundant moose. Much of this forest is five or more hours driving time from metropolitan New England, so you might assume it will stay what it is: trees, water and wildlife.

The Appalachian Mountain Club preserved a key piece of the 100-Mile-

The Appalachian Mountain Club preserved a key piece of the 100-Mile-Wilderness in Maine. Map courtesy of the AMC.

Unfortunately, no. Long drive or not, the appeal of pristine waterfront property is powerful. Meanwhile, the economics of the forest products industry changed over the past two decades. As demand for weekend homes accelerated, even in these remote areas, large timber products companies discovered that the waterfront properties within their vast holdings are worth far more as residential real estate than as a platform for growing trees for pulp. So the pressure is on, and it is an issue, at least in Maine. It ought to be an issue taken far more seriously in the rest of the region. This is in effect New England’s last frontier. Must every inch of waterfront be seen through a window?
Strange then, that an announcement a few days ago from the Appalachian Mountain Club received so little attention.
The AMC bought a 29,500-acre parcel of land – a genuine missing link – that creates a 63-mile corridor of conservation land stretching from a point near Greenville, a small town at the southern end of Moosehead Lake, all the way to Baxter State Park, itself a massive holding permanently set aside as wild land that includes mile-high Mount Katahdin.

The West Branch of the Pleasant River in Maine in Winter.

The West Branch of the Pleasant River in Maine in Winter.

This newly acquired parcel, known as the Roach Ponds Tract, is bounded to the north by state of Maine land, and to the south by another large AMC-owned property, the Katahdin Iron Works Tract, which is 37,000 acres. Those properties, along with others owned by The Nature Conservancy and the state are within an area known as the 100-Mile-Wilderness, a recreational playground for those who cherish nature as it wants to be. The new purchase provides a 20-mile buffer of deep forest for a section of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, which passes through the 100-Mile-Wilderness.
Central and northern Maine forests are regularly logged by the paper products companies, and much of the area has been working forest for the better part of two centuries. They were cutting trees in Maine’s north woods when Henry David Thoreau visited in the mid-19th Century. But even with the industrial cutting, these forests are about as close to pristine wilderness on any large scale as you will find in New England.
To give you an idea: In heavily developed southern New England, a day of heavy rain typically causes streams and rivers to rise rapidly with runoff from cultivated and paved surfaces. Streams that flow clear in dry weather are murky for days after. The Roach Ponds Tract includes the upper reaches of the West Branch of the Pleasant River, as unspoiled a stream as you can expect to find in New England. Its banks are forested, its waters clear. It holds wild, native brook trout and the native shiner, the fallfish, and that is about it. What happens after big rain? The West Branch of the Pleasant River might rise 6 inches overnight. But it won’t be raging. It will flow clear as it does every other day.  I’ve seen it. The West Branch is buffered – protected – by thousands of acres of forest, like streams were centuries ago.
The Roach Ponds Tract was purchased for $11.5 million from Plum Creek Timber Co. Inc., all from private sources, no public money involved. It is hard to imagine how this purchase will not be increasingly appreciated as the decades go on. It always seems to be that way with conservation lands. Look at the national parks.
Plum Creek, however, happens to be the same corporation behind a massive residential development project planned for the shores of Moosehead Lake, one of Maine’s biggest lakes with many miles of wild shoreline. It is a stone’s throw from the Roach Ponds Tract. Plum Creek plans three resorts and more than 2,000 residential units around Moosehead. Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission approved that development last month. The Natural Resources Council of Maine, long a critic of the Plum Creek development, already has appealed that decision to the Maine Superior Court.

The Two Connecticut Rivers

It is as if there are two Connecticut Rivers.
There is the beautiful Connecticut, picturesque, spanned by covered bridges, framed by mountains, rich with cultural history, with large and luxuriant marshes at its mouth.
There is, too, the Connecticut that is choked by 17 dams, still fouled at times by poorly treated sewage, its forested banks increasingly pocked with commercial and residential development.
Call it the contradiction of the Connecticut. Two new books illustrate this dichotomy nicely.
“Two Coots in a Canoe: An Unusual Story of Friendship,” by David E. Morine, (Glove Pequot Press, $22.95) is a sprightly and revealing account of a canoe trip Morine and his old college buddy, Ramsay Peard, took on the Connecticut in 2003 when they were 59 and 61 respectively.
“The Connecticut River: A Photographic Journey Through the Heart of New England,” (Wesleyan University Press, $35.00) is a visual tour of the river in 136 full-page color photos taken by Al Braden.
The Braden book is for the most part a celebration of the river, one that mostly gives us the scenic Connecticut, the one we all cherish. It does not, however, ignore the other Connecticut – Braden’s captions address thermal and sewage pollution head on, and an afterward by Chelsea Reiff Gwyther, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, an environmental group devoted to the protection of the Connecticut, is a plea to address the problems facing the river.
Having said that, if you want the Connecticut in all its sparkling glory, grab the Braden book. You’ll understand why people like Peard and Morine wanted to paddle the whole river. Whatever the issues, much of the Connecticut is still easy on the eyes.
Two Coots gets to the nitty-gritty of the Connecticut in an account that is at times funny, at times angry, at times poignant. When Peard called Morine and suggested they canoe the Connecticut, Morine agreed with one condition. No camping. They would rely on strangers along the river to welcome them into their homes. They would mooch their way down the river.
They pulled it off. The Watershed Council put out a news release and e-mailed its membership. Morine and Peard were inundated with offers of lodging for a night. Those nights with strangers along the 410-mile length of the Connecticut are literal and figurative windows into life along the river, and enrich Morine’s book.
For two decades Morine was the head of land acquistion for The Nature Conservancy, and he well knows the harm that dams do. “There are seventeen dams on the Connecticut River. All the dams are degrading, but the one at Holyoke is the worst by far: dirty and disgusting, like a ball of hair clogging up a drain.”
As for the marginal water quality in some sections of the Connecticut and many other American rivers, Morine says: “One of the great fears of Homeland Security is that terrorists will contaminate our water supply. If clean, potable water is so important to our homeland security, why aren’t we aggressively cleaning up our rivers?”
But Two Coots is no jeremiad. It is an honest, enjoyable, playful and ultimately insightful account of their trip, one in which the highs and lows of each day – and a long river trip will have many highs and lows – leave us with a real feel for the river – both rivers.
November 4, 2009
It is as if there are two Connecticut Rivers.
There is the beautiful Connecticut, picturesque, spanned by covered bridges, framed by mountains, rich with cultural history, with large and luxuriant marshes at its mouth.
There is, too, the Connecticut that is choked by 17 dams, still fouled at times by poorly treated sewage, its forested banks increasingly pocked with commercial and residential development.

The Connecticut River near Littleton, N. H.

The Connecticut River near Littleton, New Hampshire

Call it the contradiction of the Connecticut. Two new books illustrate this dichotomy nicely.
“Two Coots in a Canoe: An Unusual Story of Friendship,” by David E. Morine, (Globe Pequot Press, $22.95) is a sprightly and revealing account of a canoe trip Morine and his old college buddy, Ramsay Peard, took on the Connecticut in 2003 when they were 59 and 61 respectively.
“The Connecticut River: A Photographic Journey Through the Heart of New England,” (Wesleyan University Press, $35.00) is a visual tour of the river in 136 full-page color photos taken by Al Braden.
The Braden book is for the most part a celebration of the river, one that mostly gives us the scenic Connecticut, the one we all cherish. It does not, however, ignore the other Connecticut – Braden’s captions address thermal and sewage pollution head on, and an afterward by Chelsea Reiff Gwyther, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, an environmental group devoted to the protection of the Connecticut, is a plea to address the problems facing the river.
Having said that, if you want the Connecticut in all its sparkling glory, grab the Braden book. You’ll understand why people like Peard and Morine wanted to paddle the whole river. Whatever the issues, much of the Connecticut is still easy on the eyes.
Two Coots gets to the nitty-gritty of the Connecticut in an account that is at times funny, at times angry, at times poignant. When Peard called Morine and suggested they canoe the Connecticut, Morine agreed with one condition. No camping. They would rely on strangers along the river to welcome them into their homes. They would mooch their way down the river.
They pulled it off. The Watershed Council put out a news release and e-mailed its membership. Morine and Peard were inundated with offers of lodging for a night. Those nights with strangers along the 410-mile length of the Connecticut are literal and figurative windows into life along the river, and enrich Morine’s book.
For two decades Morine was the head of land acquistion for The Nature Conservancy, and he well knows the harm that dams do. “There are seventeen dams on the Connecticut River. All the dams are degrading, but the one at Holyoke is the worst by far: dirty and disgusting, like a ball of hair clogging up a drain.”
As for the marginal water quality in some sections of the Connecticut and many other American rivers, Morine says: “One of the great fears of Homeland Security is that terrorists will contaminate our water supply. If clean, potable water is so important to our homeland security, why aren’t we aggressively cleaning up our rivers?”
But Two Coots is no jeremiad. It is an honest, enjoyable, playful and ultimately insightful account of their trip, one in which the highs and lows of each day – and a long river trip will have many highs and lows – leave us with a real feel for the river. Both rivers.