Friday, June 29, 2012

Surviving the heat

A strong thunderstorm blew across Roundtop Mtn. around 4 a.m. this morning, disturbing my sleep. The dogs cowered under the bed, and once I was half-blinded when I was looking out the window at the moment of a lightning flash. Instead of cooling things down, the air turned steamy and warmer within moments of the storm’s passing.

Last night the fireflies were out by the dozens. Earlier in the summer I worried there were fewer of them than usual but no longer. Until the storm was overhead and forced them into hiding, the fireflies created their own tiny versions of lightning in the forest.

So now the heat wave is here and the forest life is slowing down to deal with it. My chickens retreat under the cabin during the day, where it is cooler. Birds are quiet earlier in the day. The deer are also in hiding, emerging only at night; I see their tracks along the bank of the nearest pond. It might not just be the heat that keeps the deer from appearing either; the dreaded deer flies have arrived, too, harassing deer and humans alike. Deer flies have a nasty bite, but they spend more time circling the target of their attention than biting. Still, the constant buzzing noise and the anticipation that at any second the deer fly might land and bite is enough to drive deer and humans half-crazy.

For the next few days until the heat breaks sometime next week, my own forays into the woods will be limited. Like the deer l am likely to emerge outside only at night, or in the faded light of early dawn.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Heat wave's a coming

Are you ready for the heat wave? I’m not. Heat waves are why I don’t like summer. Even as I type, one is building up, planning on settling in for a few or several days. It was only a few years ago that I discovered different regions have different definitions of what constitutes a heat wave. In this area, a heat wave is at least three days with temperatures at 90°F or above. Usually, this is accompanied by high humidity, too.

California and other drier areas say a heat wave (or a heat storm as it’s called in their parlance) is when the temperatures reach 100°F for three or more days over a wide area. Other countries also have their own definitions. In the Netherlands, for example, a heat wave means five consecutive days above 77°F, with at least three of those days above 86°F, though they use the Celsius scale, so it’s 25°C and 30°C for them. Australia’s version is that a heat wave is five consecutive days over 95°F or three consecutive days over 104°F.

Anyway you look at it and anywhere you live, a heat wave isn’t going to be a lot of fun. Here at the cabin I am somewhat sheltered from a “minor” heat wave. The leaves of the forest canopy take the worst of the sun, but that helps me down at ground level, at least until the humidity gets bad. Nothing shelters me from the humidity.

Heat waves are a good time to take Dog swimming. Even though he is old now, he still swims a bit and walks through the pond a lot. Baby Dog, since she is a dark brown color, which is akin to me wearing dark clothes in the summer, would benefit from a cool swim but she refuses. Every summer I try to get her in the water, even to wade, to no avail. She will have none of that wet stuff no matter how much she sees Dog (or me) enjoying it. Maybe this year I’ll get her into that pond.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Thoughts on kids and camp

Roundtop peeking over the neighboring hill
Ah, another Tuesday, another day of adventure camp. For once the weather held no threat of anything—neither thunder nor heat nor anything nasty. In fact, the weather was perfect—clear and cool. The kids had a good session, too. One group caught the mother of all crayfish. Really, the thing was like a small lobster. And it was finally caught in a net, after what seemed like hours of kids screaming directions and advice to the kid who was holding the net. When it was finally landed, they all cheered. I know the kids are having fun. I just hope that translates into spending more time in the outdoors.

My general impression of the kids is that they don’t have nearly as much knowledge of the outdoors as the kids I worked with even four or five years ago. By the time I was their ages, I had caught countless crayfish, knew the names of lots of birds, knew what poison ivy looked like and didn’t scream every time I saw an insect. These kids can’t tell a robin from a goose, don’t know enough to look in puddles for frogs or interesting animal tracks and don’t even try to be quiet when they are walking through the woods. With the kids I see, very basic knowledge of the outdoors is missing. What’s perhaps even scarier is that these are the kids who are interested enough to come to an adventure camp in the first place. What the kids are like who don’t want to come to adventure camp, I can’t even guess. And remember, these aren’t kids who’ve spent their lives in a city for the most part either. They are kids from small and medium-sized towns and the suburbs.

What I’m afraid that will eventually translate into are large numbers of adults with very limited or very shallow knowledge of the natural world. In the future, as we face ever more extreme weather, and our ever-growing population forces ever more choices about sharing the earth with its other inhabitants, I’m afraid the choices that will be made won’t be the best ones. Those kids don’t know it yet but their future, and those of their own children, will hinge on making the best choices humans can make, and to do that they need to know and understand a whole lot more about how the world works. I sure wish I could do more to help that happen.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A little gratuitous beauty

Farmer lily
Roundtop Mountain’s early-season mini-heat wave is past its prime, if not quite done with and out the door this morning. For that alone I am in a celebratory mood, so it’s a good time to post a photo of a bit of nature’s gratuitous beauty. This cloudy morning the farmer lilies are blooming. Some were still closed up after the night but most were open and ready for their close-up. I could not disappoint them.

Like black raspberries and new fawns, late June is also marked by farmer lilies. They line the roads leading up the mountain as thickly as crowds at a New Year’s Day parade. They are 6-10 blooms deep in the ditches and often run on for the length of a football field. If you can’t count at least 100 blooms while standing in one spot, you must be inside. With the curtains drawn.

It’s not only the farmer lilies that are appearing on the mountain either. Other midsummer blooms, like chicory, are also starting to add some color to the summer green. I haven’t yet seen any brown-eyed susans but they can’t be far from showing up either.

The Canada geese babies now resemble their parents and no longer look like featherless chickens. They still can’t fly, and the parent geese still shepherd them everywhere, but already they look a lot more like adults than goslings.

Fawns are beginning to appear on the mountain, too. They’ve been born for a little while now, but are only just starting to be big enough to accompany mama on her daily rounds. Many are still hidden, curled up during the day while mother grazes on the ski slopes.

Officially, summer has only just begun but here it looks and feels like midsummer. To me, the July 4 holiday has always marked the “middle” of summer—six weeks after Memorial Day (the unofficial start of summer) and just nine weeks before Labor Day (the unofficial end of summer). I suppose that thinking is left over from my school days when Memorial Day and Labor Day pretty much bracketed the end of one year and the start of a new term. So whatever the calendar says, my thinking has its own version of summer.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

3H's are here...and a small brag

View to the east on a hazy morning

The 3H’s are here, and the only thing good I can find to say about it is that the dreaded three will leave tomorrow. This morning the haze was already in evidence, and the humidity was cloying even as early as 7 a.m.
It’s a lot easier for me to put up with record-breaking heat and humidity when I know it won’t be here for days on end. Of course, anytime heat like this comes to an end that probably means thunderstorms and the dangers that often accompany them. Still, the heat will end and that’s the important thing for now.

So I am simply trying to bask in the idea that it’s only this afternoon to suffer through and the weather will be better tomorrow. Wrong as forecasts often are, I’m still glad I live in a time where people have some idea how long bad weather will last. I don’t even want to think about how anxious I would be about this weather if I didn’t know it would end tomorrow. Imagine living in a time where you had no idea if you’d have one day of record-breaking heat or 15 in a row. Or if you didn’t know the back edge of that winter blizzard was just one county to the west and would be over soon. All I can say is I’m glad I wasn’t living then.

On a side note: yesterday marked my 1500th post to Roundtop Ruminations. I started the blog way back in August 2005, so I’ll soon be coming up on my seventh anniversary with it. Back then it never occurred to me I’d still be posting in 2012.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A day at camp

Down along Beaver Creek
Yesterday was my first day of adventure camp for this season. For me, camp means spending a day with kids down on Beaver Creek at the bottom of Roundtop Mtn. I show them how to catch crayfish and frogs and salamanders and anything else they can find, and I get to spend the day outside.
The weather yesterday proved fine for the event. The early morning was cloudy, not always the best for crayfish catching, but the kids still found some. The groups that arrived after noon when the weather was sunny caught crayfish faster than I could keep up with how many they caught. I’m sure they found at least 30.
The kids caught the same poor pickerel frog three times. It had a damaged toe, so I know it was the same one. I kept releasing it after each group of kids left so it wouldn’t get stressed, and the next group of kids kept catching it. The crayfish ranged in size from nearly invisible to big enough to eat. The kids were also much impressed by the sheer ugliness of the hellgrammite, the aquatic larva of the dobsonfly.

The idea of the camp is to get kids outside and interested in something other than video games. I don’t have each group long enough to actually teach them very much. I consider it a good session if the kids have fun and get to see and catch a variety of stream denizens. My hope is that their fun will translate into wanting to do something outdoorsy another time and maybe another and then yet again.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mountain babies

Ah, for just another week of this lovely weather before the dreaded 3H’s take over. Alas, that is not to be. So I took advantage of the good weather this past weekend to wander around the mountain as much as I could. Once the hot weather kicks in, my walks are shorter and often less enjoyable. No one—and especially not me—likes hiking when covered in sweat.
What I saw on my forays were the first appearances of a whole variety of mountain babies, most of them as clueless as only babies can be. Everything from just-fledged barn swallows to goslings to fawns let me approach much closer than their parents were comfortable with. The youngsters are so clueless that even a dive-bombing or a snorting parent didn’t budge them. Kids! What are you going to do?
The antlers of the male deer are in velvet already. At one point this weekend I saw a nice buck calmly grazing in someone’s front yard (they weren’t home). It was the middle of the afternoon and the deer looked as calm as someone’s cow. He looked as though he did that every day and maybe he does. Sometimes it’s not just the babies that are clueless.
And speaking of babies—tomorrow marks the first session of adventure camp for me. I’ll spend the day down at a really nice stream with at least six groups of kids. We’ll catch crayfish and frogs, probably salamanders, too. I hope the wood tortoise that was such a hit last summer is still around. I’m going to have more kids at one time than I did last year. So this noon I ran out and bought more minnow nets—great for reaching across the stream to get at balky crayfish—and another bucket for temporarily holding our prisoners. As a result, I won’t be online tomorrow, but I will have a report on how things went on Wednesday.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Not hot, hazy or humid

I am enjoying these all too few, lovely days of June, those rarest days of almost summer, when the weather is neither hot, hazy nor humid. If the entire summer remained as nice as the weather was this week, I’d thoroughly enjoy summer. That won’t happen, of course, especially not in these days of a warming climate. In fact, by Tuesday of next week, the weather will be hot and humid and hazy—the dreaded 3H’s of summer.

The 3H’s typically last for at least good two months, now. A wait of two-and-a-half months before the weather breaks is not unlikely. Even mid-September can sometimes be sweltering, and by then even most of the summer aficionados are weary of it. Oh, we will have (I hope) a few days of rain and a few days of not-quite-so-terrible weather along the way, but they will seem few and far between to me. I know it will be more than two months before the year truly turns towards fall and nicer weather.

In the worst of the summer I tend to read books about Alaska, hoping the descriptions of unfathomable cold help me survive the worst of the heat. Around August, I begin to search web cams in the Yukon and northern Alaska, looking for that first bit of “termination dust” (new snow on the high peaks) that promises an eventual break in the heat down here.

But for today and for another few days, I don’t need to think about that. I can enjoy the bright, clear mornings and the crisp nights that call for a sweatshirt.  I can enjoy the deep green forest of midsummer. And I will start counting the days to when the weather will turn cooler and more pleasant again.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

After the rain

Ironweed or wild butterfly weed
Yesterday I was supposed to lead my first outdoor awareness session of the summer with kids from the neighboring adventure camp. Instead, it rained buckets all day long, and the camp director wisely decided the kids wouldn’t have a great experience hiking down to the stream. It rained so hard that I got soaked even in my tried-and-true backpacking rain jacket for just the few minutes I took the dogs outside. It wasn’t only the kids who wouldn’t have had a lot of fun in that kind of weather!

Each summer I take the kids down to a little stream and teach them how to catch crayfish, frogs and salamanders. Last year they also routinely found a lovely old wood tortoise who didn’t seem to mind one bit being handled by a lot of kids. That tortoise was a big hit. The whole point is for the kids to enjoy themselves outdoors and experience a little bit of what goes on beyond their video game consoles. It would be nice to think that the experience whets their little appetites for more such experiences. That’s probably wishful thinking on my part, but I do what I can in the short amount of time I have with them to broaden their horizons a bit.

Anyway, yesterday the hike and critter-catching session was cancelled. I’m sure the critters were hiding from the weather, too. This morning the sky was crystal clear. Except for the leftover puddles, I couldn’t have guessed that the day before was such a washout.

Ironweed, or wild butterfly weed, is just starting to bloom along the forest edges, I noticed. The leaves and tiny flowers on this one still carry the drops of yesterday’s rain. Do I call every flower I photograph my favorite? I think I do, and when I am photographing one that one is my favorite. I know I particularly appreciate the pink-purple shade of ironweed and its showy size. If I do have a flower preference it’s for anything of strong color and good size. I’m not a huge fan of teeny, tiny little flowers. I like something with a strong sense of its own importance. Ironweed is one of those.

Monday, June 11, 2012


Farmer lilies
It’s no secret to readers of Roundtop Ruminations that the wild and showy farmer lilies are one of my favorite flowers. And I am happy to report that they are almost ready to pop. The morning as I was leaving the mountain I checked a favorite spot to see how they were coming along. They are almost out. In fact, I expect they will be out by evening.

Farmer lilies love the sun, closing up at night and then opening spectacularly each morning. If it’s not sunny they will not deign to open their flowers and will stay closed until the sun strikes them again.

I am also happy to report that my half-grown chickens have figured out how to navigate the ramp up to and into their chicken house. After only a few days, they’ve already perfected the routine. At dusk they all troop up the ramp, one after another, to reach the safe and dry, straw-ladened roost. After they are all in, I close the door behind them, which keeps them out of sight of possible predators. In winter the closed door will keep them warmer, too. The little girls are growing up!

Friday, June 08, 2012

How they've grown!

First morning in their new coop!

I have been busy this week putting together a new chicken coop for my little chickens. The once tiny chicks are now feathered and ready to be outside, if still only half-grown.  I was more than ready to get them out of the cabin.  By the time they are this size they are already masters at kicking bedding out of their pen and creating a mess.

The Rhode Island Red girls look pretty much the same, though one has been the "bossy hen" since she was 2 days old.  The black sex-links are different enough to tell apart.  They are a cross between a Rhode Island Red and a barred rock hen. You can see that one has a reddish "bib." Another has a reddish "cape," and the third has almost no all.  The Rhode Island reds are a lot bigger than the black ones, and I'm sure that's not because the reds are a week older than the black chicks.  The black chickens are going to be medium-sized hens and the reds will be large.

So far, the young ones haven't figured out how to go up their ramp to reach the nice chicken house that is complete with nesting boxes and a roosting perch. They seem to love their extra space, and one has already found a worm this morning.  Worms are like treasures to chickens.  Whenever one finds a worm, the others all try to steal the precious worm from her.  This results in chicken mayhem, with five chicks racing after the chicken with the worm while that one is desperately trying to keep the worm for herself.  This morning the winner put herself into a corner to keep the others away while she gobbled the worm. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Appalachian Trail walk - part 2

Each year about 1500 people start hiking the Appalachian Trail in northern Georgia with the intention of walking the entire 2,175 miles of it. Generally, something over 300 finish it that year.
Most quit in the first week or so, deciding that life on the trail is not for them. Injuries or illness forces another large percentage off the walk, and that can happen at any point along the trail. Some of the rest do finish, just not in the year they start the hike.

The two most common groups of people who attempt and finish the hike are those recently out of school and recent retirees—the footloose and fancy-free. More than a few people quit their jobs to hike the trail and more than a few take advantage of being laid off from work to hike the trail.
Most begin the hike on their own, without a hiking partner. Often, this is because the logistics of two acquaintances having the time and means in the same year to make the hike is challenging. Still a sizeable minority do plan a hike and finish with a partner. Parent-child combinations are more common than you might expect, though friend-friend, both of the same and opposite sex, are the most common.

Typically, people who start the hike at about the same time continue to see each other throughout their long walk and often become friends, joining up to hike with each other for a day or a week, off and on throughout the hike. Through hikers sign trail registers along the way, and this is how they know where and when a compatriot passed the register. Cell phones are common, of course, but coverage can be spotty in the mountains. The trail register is used as much as the modern technology.

Shelters abound along the trail, notorious for their mice. Even people who hike together will likely not always walk together. Sometimes “together” simply means agreeing to camp at the same spot each night. Differences in partner height can make walking together uncomfortable. A tall person takes a lot fewer steps per mile than a short one. Trying to adjust your own pace to someone else’s slower or faster one is a lot more tiring than walking at the pace that’s comfortable for you.

It takes 4-5 months, on average, to hike the entire trail. Hikers typically cover 12-16 miles a day, once they get their trail legs underneath them. You will not be surprised to learn that the distance hikers cover at the beginning of the hike is much shorter at the start of the trail than by its end. For the first 2-3 weeks, hiking distances are often in the 8-10 mile range. The best way to train for the long hike is to walk long distances with the same pack you will carry during your walk, and virtually no one has the time to do that properly.

If a hiker makes it to the halfway point, as the two I met on Sunday already had, they will almost certainly finish the hike. After 1000 miles or so, the body is well-used to the daily physical stress of the walk, and a hiker has already proved they have the mental attitude they need to finish.

I rather envied the two I met--healthy and strong, able to put aside work or family life, unwilling to sit idly by while life races past--all to pursue a dream that called to them.  It's easy to stay in the  main stream of life, to follow the kind of life that "everyone" lives.  It takes a different sort of person to step away and do something different.  I take my hat off to you.  Good luck to both and safe travels.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Appalachian Trail Walk - Part 1

Stile along the Appalachian Trail across the Cumberland valley
After a stormy start to the weekend (tornado warning but no tornado!), Sunday morning dawned clear and perfect. I decided to do something I’ve wanted to do for some time—walk a section of the Appalachian Trail through the Cumberland valley. This part of the trail used to be—and still was the last time I walked it—the road-walking section of the AT, as it’s usually abbreviated.

Hikers walking the 2,175 mile trail need to cross the miles-wide valley to get from one mountain range to the next. The valley is rich with farmlands, and for many years the trail association couldn’t get permission for the trail to cross the privately-owned farms. Happily, those days are now in the past, the trail is finally routed off the roads. Today, this section is easy walking across fields and through woods.

I’ve passed the trail sign along the road I don’t know how many times, each time reminding myself that I want to hike this section and then promptly forgetting about it until the next time I drove past the trail sign. But this time, I didn’t forget and the weather was perfect.

After some deliberation, I brought along Baby Dog as my companion for the walk. I was tempted to bring the now-elderly Dog since I knew the walk was an easy one and that I wasn’t going to walk for but a few hours. In the end, Dog was sleeping and Baby Dog needed some exercise, so I brought her instead. I’m glad I did. Dog doesn’t do open stairs where he can see through them. He never has. If he’d encountered the stile that would have been the end of my walk, as I couldn’t lift him over and I know he would refuse.

I must also report that I’m incapable of walking 100 yards without taking a photograph. My walk on the trail was only about 2 miles long (with another 2 miles of road walking to return to my car). When I did the math, I discovered I’d taken a photo every 197 feet of my walk. No, I won’t force them all on readers of Roundtop Ruminations. However, you’ll see the better ones over today and tomorrow.

I started my walk along Rt. 74 near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and headed north. I soon came to the aforementioned stile, crossed the field and climbed over a second stile on the far side of the field. I saw barns and houses in the distance but the trail stayed well away from them. After the stiles, the trail entered a narrow band of woods and stayed there throughout my walk. The AT is marked with white blazes about every 100 yards. A double blaze means the hiker is nearing a turn.  Except in a few sections, this would be a tough trail to get lost on. The footpath is well-traveled, and the blazes are always freshly painted. 

The woods were teeming with birds—orioles, pewees, mockingbirds, robins and towhees—to name but a few. Baby Dog proved an eager companion, though couldn’t resist barking at another dog we encountered and two through hikers—those trying to finish the trail in a single season—we encountered.

Hikers most commonly head north along the trail.  It starts at Spring Mountain, Georgia, and ends on Mt. Katahdin in Maine.  Some hike in the southbound direction, but most prefer to follow the spring northward. A man local to my area was the first ever to hike the Appalachian Trail in a single season.  I met him several times before his death.  He re-hiked the trail a couple of times after the first trip, the last when he was 80.  He found the Maine section pretty tough going that last time.

From now through early July, the hikers who started their trips back in March or early April are reaching this point of the trail.  This area is the halfway point of the trail.  A marker not far away used to mark the spot, but the trail keeps getting rerouted, and the precise halfway point keeps changing, too.  Yesterday I met one NOBO (northbound) through hiker and one SOBO (southbound) through hiker.  They were both intent on keeping moving, so we said our "good mornings" and each of us went on our way. 

I’ll have more photos from this short walk tomorrow.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Please, not again!

Roundtop Mountain and several counties surrounding are now under a tornado watch. The weather looks threatening, if not particularly tornado-ish to me at the moment. I’m guessing the critical time will be in the 5-6-7 p.m. time when the day will be at its warmest and the air at its most unstable.

Tornado watches are somewhat common. I’m guessing we see 5-8 of them a year. Tornado warnings, the alert that’s posted when someone actually sees one, are a lot less frequent, fortunately. As uncommon as they are here—after all I’m not in Kansas—I’m hoping the one that chewed up a lot of trees on Roundtop last April is the closest I’ll ever have to be to one. After that one, the odds should be heavily in my favor. Or so I tell myself.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so cavalier about today’s watch. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. “Lightning” or a tornado won’t strike twice in the same place. Right? Right?