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Friday, November 28, 2008

Three generations enjoying the snow

For more pictures, see the PicasaWeb album for this hike.

Dylan had been raring to get back to his beloved Link Trail, so Grace and I made sure to take him for a hike while we were in town for Thanksgiving. We were lucky enough to have Nathan available to join us. We parked at the Freber/Hodge Road trailhead and walked south onto the trail. Dylan, being four years old, is highly distractable, especially in the snow. Grace did an excellent job of keeping him on task; here is her description of her technique.

It was a mix of 3 things: context (what to expect from the outside world and feelings inside himself), locus of control (I gave him 2 choices, both acceptable, over and over.) and distraction (hero of his own sports story, sense of humor, silliness.)

A) I told him what to expect: how long it was before the end ("see that bend there, it's just beyond there" "we're more than halfway back to the car; can you look for the car?"), that it might feel difficult but that was normal and all the sports stars knew that the very end is harder work, that a little rest would give him alot more energy to run again (kids work in bursts - run, rest, run, rest).

B) I gave him 2 choices:
rest for 1 minute now or keep walking/rest later;
walk or run;
run now and shoulder ride later or walk and no shoulder ride

C) I did sports play by play narration of his running, which was apparently very inspiring and silly.

All this I learned from

Thanks to Grace's efforts, Nathan and I had the opportunity to walk and talk amid the quietude of the stark winter day. The bare trees allowed us an open view down into the valley and the ravines. We all did our best to keep Dylan out of the wet spots. With Grace's coaching and coaxing, he did an impressive bit of running toward the end of the hike; he and Grace were one or two hundred yards ahead of me and Nathan by the time we reached the car!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A short hike on a bright autumn day

For more pictures, see the PicasaWeb album for this hike.

It was a pleasant, brightly sunny and cool day - perfect for a hike. Dylan was, as usual, very eager to go. We didn't have much time, so we opted for a quick walk along the section just west of the Cottons Road crossing. This allowed us to revisit the log that Dylan and I found during our hike in September. The tiny creatures burrowing into it had kept busy; sawdust was still raining out of the holes, of which I think none were more than a millimeter in diameter.

As usual, Grace and I were gratified to tell Dylan stories about the natural world. I showed him some hops and told him about how lots of people around here used to work picking them for the brewing of beer. The teasel gave me the opportunity to tell him the story of how people once used them to raise the nap on wool. And he showed me a particularly interesting rock.

It seemed that the season had conspired to create a palette that was bittersweet and intimate: curlicued teasel towered stolidly against the vibrant blue sky; the umber and russet of the maples and the rioting reds, yellows and greens of the sumac stood out against the fields, striped with austere yellow bands of crisped sweet corn and still-green bands of grass and clover; brilliant ruby apples hung from their green island in a spuming grey-brown sea of spent goldenrod.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Blaze of Glory

I assumed that this work hike would involve trail-clearing so I loaded my trunk with axes and machetes. I left Oneida at 8:30, driving west through Clockville and south on Nelson Road. Other than the guy in the Saturn who passed me and the car ahead on a double line, it was a gorgeous, crisp, sunny morning. The valley was filling with more yellows and reds than I've seen around Oneida in years.

Just before 9:00 I pulled into the designated meeting spot: the parking area at the southwest tip of Cazenovia Lake. Then I found out that Kathy Eisele had sent me an e-mail telling me that all we'd be doing was marking trail. It turned out that Yahoo had put her message in my spam folder, so here I was with a trunk full of blades instead of the one thing I needed: a hammer. Thankfully Kathy had at least one extra.

Once everyone was gathered we formed a caravan and drove to the Dugway Road trailhead. Coordinator Kathy Eisele handed out the new blazes to the group: me, Margaret Maloney, George Zacharek, Kiley Barr, Ron and Linda Wallace, Patrick Dermody, Bill Zimmerman, Jonathan Bienes, Kurt Wheeler and his three young daughters, Chanda Vincent, and Al Larmann. The youngsters went ahead to clear some brush near the far end of the trail while the rest of us who weren't supervising them paired off. Each pair got a stack of yellow plastic rectangles with two holes for nails. Our job was to replace the old blue blazes with these new yellow ones.

Kathy instructed us to skip about a dozen markers ahead of the foremost pair and begin blazing from there. This leapfrog pattern would allow us to efficiently cover the whole trail. My partner Margaret and I started working on our section and I soon learned that there's more to trail marking than I'd expected. The basic rules turned out to be as follows.

  • Blaze on the right side of the trail.

  • Leave the nails sticking out so the tree has room to grow before it swallows the marker.

  • To indicate direction change use two blazes, the one on top offset in the direction of the turn.

  • Don't overblaze; if the old marker was unnecessary, don't replace it.

  • Don't blaze cherry trees; the wood is valuable.

It seemed to me that many of the previously marked trees were so young that a nail might kill them within a few years. I tried finding larger trees, but in many cases the bark was so spongy and thick that I would have had to bury the nail. Sometimes there were no suitable trees on the right side of the trail, so we had to use a cherry or a tree on the left. All the rules seemed made to be broken.

Margaret and I alternated friendly chatting with scratching our heads over which blazes not to replace (the trail was seriously overblazed) and which rules to break when there was no satisfactory tree to the right of the trail. Per our instructions we turned around when we ran into the group of youngsters and started working on the other side. I didn't count how many blazes we replaced but when I got back to the
trailhead at about 1:10 I was amazed at the enormous stack of blue markers filling my cargo pocket. We'd done more work than I'd realized.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

My first Link Trail goup hike

I've been wanting to join in a group hike since I discovered the Link Trail in May, but each time I was out of town or had other commitments. Today, though, I finally had the opportunity to meet some of the folks from the North Country Trail Association and the Adirondack Mountain Club who helped build - and who hike on - the Link Trail.

I met Jerry, Kathy, Kathy, Dawn, Janet and Amy at the Canastota Thruway exit at 9:00 AM. We drove to the trailhead next to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, left the cars there, and rode in Kathy's van to Cazenovia. We parked at the Cazenovia Highway Department and hit the trail just before 10:00 AM.

The sky was overcast but the rain held off for a while, so our first few miles of hiking along Chittenango Creek were full of pleasant chatting, greeting other hikers and runners, and wondering what the structure near the trail - collapsed except for an arch and the low remnants of its stone walls - might have been. Long before we reached Bingley the rain began falling in earnest and the jackets and ponchos came out. We admired the NCTA-built wooden staircase at Bingley Road, made our way along Emhoff Road, and reentered the woods.

The day seemed close, intimate: our world extended from the wooded slope on our right to the silver curtain of mist one or two hundred yards to our left. The grey sky hung low, and the dull pewter gleam of rain on every surface imparted a bittersweet beauty to the first bursts of fall colors amid the greenery of the overgrown orchards leading down into the valley. Here brilliant red berries nestled within slate-grey bracken, and there a small cluster of sumac leaves exploded with yellow and red. Fallen leaves - some speckled red and yellow, some a brilliant pink - had begun blanketing the trail. The mist-shrouded far side of the valley existed only in our imaginations.

As we passed the filled-in ravine I had the opportunity to show the group the collapsed remnants of the tallest mullein I've ever seen, and an example of the folding that spiders love to do with blackberry leaves in order to shelter their egg sacs. I enjoyed talking with my companions about travel, language, and history as we passed on toward Carrys Hill Road.

Walking over the old railroad bed toward Hodge Road, I noticed a white fuzzy caterpillar of a species that I don't think I've seen before. This may be the best way to describe what a good time I had today: I was so immersed in the hiking and the conversations with these engaging new people that, although I remembered to ask Kathy to take a picture of the caterpillar, I never thought to ask her to take one of us! Ah, well. Just picture a drizzle of rain falling from a grey sky through sparse tree cover and onto the heads of seven soggy people having lunch around a wooden vehicle barrier that separates the trail from the road. That's us.

We finished our lunch at around noon and walked the section of the Link Trail that follows roadsides down into Perryville and northward to the hedgerow at the end of Ingalls Corners Road. By this time the conversation had turned to politics, so I was glad when the trail - and we - plunged back into the trees. Somehow walking single-file through a hedgerow lends itself more to focusing on the hike than on our national three-ring circus.

We wound our way down the stone staircase that the NCTA volunteers worked so hard on this summer, rejoined the old railroad bed, and passed the quarry. By the time we crossed Quarry Road our pace had flagged but, knowing we had only a few miles to go, we soon perked up.

On the thirty mile hike in June my legs felt like they were on fire for a little while after I, wearing shorts, walked through a patch of stinging nettles near Cottons Road. After that hike I looked up the plant so that I could identify and avoid it, and today it paid off: I noticed a patch covering the trail and warned the group about it.

While Jerry and I were waiting in front of the car restoration shop on Cottons Road I noticed a link to Madison County history: a hop vine growing up the tree near the road. That vine was probably a direct descendant of those that formed a significant part of Madison County's economy during the nineteenth century, when itinerant workers picked the hop blossoms that were then dried and sent west to feed the beer industry. I picked some of those little cones to show the group, and spent the next mile or so pleasantly sniffing one of them while thinking of how I've come not only to love hoppy beers, but to have pleasant associations with the smell of raw hops!

We crossed Cottons Road and Nelson Road and then, during the last leg of the journey, Jerry and I decided to kick it up a notch. We maintained a very fast walking pace - well, very fast for me, but pretty normal for Jerry - for the last two miles. Jerry left and I, having gotten the power-walking out of my system, went back to keep the rest of the group company for the last stretch. I didn't get far, though - obviously they'd barely gone any slower than us, because I ran into them within three minutes. I think we were all grateful to reach the cars and rest our feet.

I'm excited to have met such a great group of people, and have already made plans with Jerry and Amy to do Adirondack snowshoeing and more Link Trail hiking. Yeah!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Biological Buzzsaw

While hiking with Dylan along the section south of Cottons Road, I noticed some sort of powder beneath a dead tree trunk next to the trail. The trunk was bare, about eight inches in diameter, and suspended two or three feet off the ground. The closer I looked, the curiouser I got: it looked as though someone had sprinkled powder not only along the entire underside of the log, but all along its edge. I finally looked very closely, and saw that those clumps were small mounds of sawdust surrounding tiny holes less than one millimeter in diameter. So many tiny worms had been burrowing into the wood that they had created a trail of sawdust beneath the entire log!

A few days after the hike I had a conversation on the BugGuide forum about what the boring insects might have been. I'm writing this months later, and in the interim I've seen many trees like this one and at least one more example of the accumulation of sawdust from burrowing insects. This sort of biological breakdown of dead trees is, of course, going on all around me all the time; I just never noticed it before. It's one more example of my perceptions changing upon looking closely.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

My latest obsession:

A few weeks ago I began delving into Once I got used to navigating its pictorial taxonomic guide I was impressed with how easy it was to identify species I'd never seen before. Once I noticed its mapping tab - which shows geographic and seasonal distributions at any taxonomic level - and began uploading my own images, I was very impressed. It's quite a project, and I'm very thankful to all those who volunteer their time toward running the site and classifying submissions.

As far as the Link Trail is concerned, the neatest thing about is its search engine. Each uploaded photo has an associated Identifier field where you can type whatever information you like, and this field is included in the search. The upshot is that, since I put the text "CNYLinkTrail" in the Identifier for each of my photos from the Link Trail, all I have to do is enter that text in the search box to show only those photos. And since the search specifications are part of the web address, I can provide a link directly to a page with all Link Trail pictures! This is the first step in compiling an entomological guide to the Link Trail - a guide to which anyone could add by simply uploading photos with the text "CNYLinkTrail" in the Identifier.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

When one hike just isn't enough

See my Picasaweb album for many more pictures from this hike.

By late morning my four-year-old nephew Dylan had asked me at least five times when we were going on a walk. I thought he might melt down completely if he had to wait until the afternoon, so to tide him over I took him on one of our traditional walks along Fairview Avenue. If you want to know much traffic has increased on Fairview in the last thirty years, walk along it with a four-year-old. I made sure to get us both well away from the road whenever cars were coming in each direction, which amounted to every few minutes. When I walked that same half mile of road as a child in the seventies I doubt I ever saw one tenth of the traffic I saw on Saturday. It makes me that much more thankful for quiet, secluded foot paths like the Link Trail.

We'd barely started when Dylan made me glad I'd brought my Peterson's Guide to Wildflowers. He pointed to what he thought was a dandelion. I couldn't remember what it was, so I took it as a teaching opportunity. I opened my Peterson's, found out that it was a sow-thistle, and pointed out some distinguishing characteristics: the tough, rough stem that resisted his attempts to pick a flower head; height; and leaf shape. We walked a half mile before we found a dandelion to compare it to, which itself was another opportunity to show Dylan how the seasons change and nature's forms flow: where earlier in the summer dandelions flourished we saw new flowers; the daylilies still stood there, but their brilliant orange blossoms were nearly all gone; we saw deadly nightshade for the first time this summer; one animal dead by the roadside had decomposed into nothing but bones, skin and hair; and the vulture circling overhead may have been attracted to the fresher carcass that we smelled as we walked by what used to be my uncle's farm. On the way back I pointed at the hedgerow across the road from the old farm and told him about the hop kiln that stood there when I was a child, and how people in this area once worked picking the hops that were used to make beer.

As we walked I pointed out the constant companions on our walks over the last few years: chicory, buttercup, tyrol knapweed, burdock, poison ivy, field bindweed, milkweed, butter-and-eggs, bird's-foot trefoil, and plaintain. Once again I made a point that he should recognize and avoid poison ivy, and that rubbing crushed plaintain on skin exposed to poison ivy can reduce the rash. We watched cloud shadows inch their way along the road and I tried to help Dylan visualize how the clouds move over the earth. When I pointed out two ladybugs mating on a milkweed plant I got the "What's mating?" question again, and again I said "That's when a male and a female get together to make babies." I'm going to have to figure out what to say when he asks for more of an explanation.

None of that took place on the Link Trail but I love my walks with Dylan so much that I couldn't resist telling about it. There's a worthier reason for including, though: it puts his receptiveness into perspective. When we went on the afternoon hike I'm about to describe, I'd already barraged him with all that information - and he was still eager for more!

In the afternoon Grace and I walked with Dylan from Quarry Road west to the quarry. I got preoccupied with a fascinating subject: a harvestman with three mites on its back. When I caught up with Grace and Dylan they were enjoying the view out over the valley. I kept falling behind whenever I'd find something interesting to photograph - first a spider that posed nicely for me on a root in the sunlight, then some wildflowers that were growing in a large patch but that I don't think I've seen before. Dylan enjoyed letting a caterpillar crawl on him. I noticed a tiny grey spider - its body was no more than two millimeters long - and the harvestman that was ambling toward it in that creepy way that reminds me of a Roger Corman movie. During the rest of the hike I noticed more and more of those tiny grey spiders. I'm starting to wonder if almost invisibly tiny spiders make up the majority of the spider biomass in the area, because now that I'm looking closely they seem to be everywhere.

Both the quarry and the snails that live nearby fascinate Dylan. He showed me the old machinery that he thought came from mowers, and I showed him the fragments of snail shell that I thought came from an animal eating the snail. As we started back I saw another harvestman with only five legs, so apparently it's not so uncommon a sight as I thought when I first noticed it a few weeks ago.

As we walked back past the quarry my eye locked onto a whitish piece of fuzz drifting on the air, and in a moment I knew it wasn't fuzz - it was an insect I'd seen only once before, on the Finger Lakes Trail in Ithaca around 1991. At the time I would have sworn it was a bit of fluff from a dandelion or a milkweed pod or somesuch, but after watching it "float" for a while I realized that it wasn't floating - it was flying in a way that mimicked floating. Obviously it made an impression, because here on the Link Trail seventeen years later it took me only a second to recognize another of the same species. Excited, I called Grace over to see. I didn't know I was about to get even more of a treat.

The insect seemed to be incredibly unlucky, because it happened to land on a plant about an inch from a small spider that immediately pounced. As I snapped away I figured I was getting shots of the insect's final moments, but I was wrong - after a few seconds of wrangling the spider disengaged and backed off, and the insect righted itself and flew away! I've since identified it as a woolly aphid. That "fuzz" is a waxy substance that, among other things, supposedly protects the aphid from predators. I'm not sure if that explains why the spider backed off, though, because I get the sense that the wax only hinders recognition; it's not clear to me whether it could have done anything to deter a predator that already had the aphid in its grasp.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Music to my Ears

I got another dose of audio ambrosia from my four-year-old nephew today. I was talking to my sister on the phone and she asked if I wanted to say "Hi" to Dylan. She put him on and he said
"I can't wait for our next hike".
How cool is that?!

Two days ago Grace's father sent me this article about how children are growing up disconnected from the natural world. After reading it I feel even more blessed with my nephew's enthusiasm for our hikes: he's one kid who will grow up connected to the natural world. I'm really looking forward to introducing him to more of the trail and its inhabitants on Saturday.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Harvestmen Harvested

See the Picasaweb album for more pictures from this hike.

I love this time of year. Orange daylilies, blue chicory, and hot pink sweet peas shout from the roadside like some exuberant shapenote choir transposed from sound to color, and occasionally a patch of black-eyed susans bursts into a bravura solo. The only combination I like better happens in late summer when the fields fill with yellow and purple as the New England asters and the goldenrod blossom side by side.

I parked at the Freber (aka Hodge) Road trailhead and spent a few minutes enjoying the profusion of wildflowers. The mullein blossoms weren't what you'd call showy, but the way the spikes towered over the other plants made them seem like the natural leaders of the yellow contingent. Of course St John's wort, with its blasts of saturated yellow, kept drawing my eye back down near the ground. Looking upward again, I finally picked out the lemon-yellow stigmas of a few evening primrose that, as usual, I'd mistaken for mullein at first glance.

The teasels kept drawing my eye, and again I thought how particularly evocative they are. In the winter, when the rest of the dead flowers are laid low under a blanket of snow, the teasels stand there, alone and just as dead, with only a light dusting of snow to show for their stolidness. They have an aching sadness: all the life - all that was green and white and wet - has fallen away from their stems and pods, and what's left seems to embody the funereal dryness that Poe called "crisped and sere". On this summer day, though, they told a different story, catching my eye with their contrasting textures and colors. Each flash of delicate lavender was a band of tiny flowers around the middle of a pincushion-like head, which sat inside a phalanx of thorny bracts. After reading the Wikipedia article I know that that lavender band was poised to split; as a matter of fact, if you click on the picture above you'll see what Grace just noticed: on one of the teasels in the background the ring of blossoms had already split in two.

The Queen Anne's lace were in full flush, forming a sparse web over the lower greenery like a pearled snood. The good old Tyrol knapweed formed a vibrant purplish backdrop within the shadows of the lower greenery, while burnt umber froths of curled dock made the roadside look like it had been singed by a selective fire. Just before I headed onto the trail I noticed a yellow cinquefoil that I don't think I'd seen before. I've since identified it as rough cinquefoil.

One of the first interesting things I saw was a harvestman with only five legs. I've seen plenty with one or two legs missing, but this is the first one I've noticed who'd lost three - and it had lost them all from one side! It seemed to be getting around perfectly well anyway.

Moving on, I saw a harvestman of a species I didn't think I'd seen before - it's always hard to say because the details are too small to see with the naked eye. That's one of the reasons I love macro photography - the closeup shot of this guy revealed a beautiful Rorschach pattern dappling its body.

Within a few hundred yards I'd reached the blackberry patches that cover both sides of the trail. Two weeks earlier, back in Millburn, I'd noticed that the harvestmen seem to love wineberry bushes, so I inspected these blackberry bushes very closely. Not only did I find that each plant was practically covered with harvestmen, but I discovered the unexpected theme of the hike: I was walking through a hidden harvestman graveyard.

I'd seen plenty of spiders lurking within leaves that they'd curled up with their own webs, so when I noticed a downward-curled blackberry leaf on an otherwise thriving plant I turned it over to see what was underneath. The few small black filaments I saw looked surprisingly familiar: I was almost sure they were harvestman legs. At first I thought I might have been mistaken, and anyway the harvestmen might not have been eaten - they could have simply tugged free of those trapped legs and continued on. But I kept seeing similar bundles, so I started to think that some local spider favors harvestmen. Then I saw the flaw in my logic. This summer I've trained my eye to see harvestmen, and now it's clear that they are bloody well everywhere! And since they seem to be constantly crawling along every surface they may represent 99% of the species that ever touch those spider webs. Of course the spiders are eating harvestmen - they're the only game in town! And I did eventually find proof that the spiders were eating them: the biggest clump of remains contained not just legs, but the dried husk of a harvestman's body. See the straw-colored blob in the closeup above?

I saw more and more of those down-curled blackberry leaves - once my eye got the hang of it I couldn't stop seeing them - and although concealed webbing was responsible for all of them, I hardly found spiders under any of them. I began to think that I was seeing an arachnid behavior that was analagous to that of a human trapper: he sets a bunch of traps throughout his territory and then, as time allows, he comes along and checks them. Again I quickly saw a flaw in my logic: there could have been a spider beneath each one of those curled leaves five seconds before I came along, and the spider could have dropped off when it felt the vibrations from my footsteps. I think I was also wrong about a single species doing all the leaf-curling.

Of the few spiders I found under those curled leaves, almost all of them looked the same to me, and there was something pleasing to me about the thought of a single species of spider harvesting from this whole trail. Again, though, the macro shots tell a very different story. See the spider with the small black spots? I thought that was the same species as the one with the red racing stripes! If you look at the Picasaweb album you'll see other spiders - some with greenish colors, some with fawn-colored stripes - that I also thought were the same! It's amazing how our brains, given insufficient detail, will fill in the gaps in a way that's convenient for what we want to believe. I suspect that when I read up on spider behavior I'll find that this leaf-curling (and perhaps trapping?) behavior is as common as dirt.

While I was in minutiae mode I got to see a lot of the trail's tinier residents: as you can see from the size reference of my dirty fingernail, the inchworm would have fit inside the mouth of the wee frog from the previous day's hike; then there was the little pinkish spider that I almost didn't see because its body was just a few millimeters long. On the other hand, I ran across what I think is the tallest mullein I've ever seen; as you can see from the picture, it's about nine feet tall.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A short hike with the young'uns

For more shots from this hike see the Picasaweb album.

Thrilled that my four-year-old nephew Dylan was anxious for more hiking with me, and that my sixteen-(going on thirty)-year old daughter Morgan was happy to join us, I hiked in with them from Ingalls Corners Road. They were both in shorts and sandals, so we were quite careful about identifying the plants growing over the trail throughout the hedgerow. To the best of my knowledge there was no poison ivy.

With a little help from me the sandalled youngsters enjoyed the climb down the stone stairs. Then the real fun began. A flash of motion drew my eye to the tiniest frog I've ever seen, but I lost it. While searching for it my eye caught a moving speck of white. It turned out to be an egg sac on the back of a spider that was smaller than a peppercorn. I lost her while utterly failing to find the frog. But then we saw a snail, and after that we couldn't stop seeing snails. They were vigorously foraging about in the rain-dampened leaf clutter. Dylan enjoyed allowing a few of them to explore his hand while I told him about the snail's foot and the way it uses its protective slime to move around safely.

My goal was to show Dylan the quarry because, like most four-year-olds, he's almost terminally fascinated with construction equipment and anything associated with them. I held Dylan on my shoulders so that he could get a better view of the quarry, while Morgan took some pictures with my camera. She favors black and white photography, and she thought the tree and the old concrete structure made a good composition. I have to admit that it wasn't until I saw the shot in black and white that I saw exactly what she meant.

On the way back I once again saw movement, and this time I didn't take my eyes off the wee frog. It was quite energetic in its sincere desire to be nowhere near us, and I fear we upset it quite a bit trying to corral it for a good shot. You be the judge of whether it was worth it.

On the way back along the hedgerow I got several more chances to explain things to my delightfully receptive nephew. I told him about the woodchucks that made the holes he was so curious about, and told Morgan about what good eatin' those woodchucks are. The raindrops highlighting the contours of funneled spider web gave me the perfect chance to tell my nephew how the spider hides in the tunnel until a bug lands in the web, and then jumps out, paralyzes it, and wraps it up in its web so that it can eat it later. And when we walked through the bloodroot patch I told how native Americans used the red sap of the roots for dyeing - and how I wasn't showing it to them because the plant is rare and protected.

I count myself blessed to have such opportunities to share the wonders of the natural world - a phrase that shouldn't sound like such a cliché - with two generations.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

You want the short version or the long one?

Oh, this is just ridiculous. It's been two weeks since my latest hike and I've spent at least twice as long trying to write about it than I spent on the hike itself. So here goes.

Short version:
I walked from Nelson Road to Cottons Road and had a great time taking lots of closeup pictures of plants and insects and arachnids and such. I put my favorite shots in a Picasaweb album here.

Long version:
On my previous hike I covered thirty miles partly because I wasn't encumbered with a camera. On this hike I took over nine hundred digital photos but never got more than a mile from my car. Apparently I need to get the extremes out of the way before I can find a happy medium. I fall into the first extreme easily enough, losing myself in the ryhthm of pumping legs and heart as I strive for distance. It's harder for me to remember my need for hikes like this that are short on walking and long on looking - where I lose myself in tiny things. The camera helps.

I parked at the Nelson Road trailhead and walked west. The trail was full of bittersweet signs of seasonal change, reminding me that summer is old news and fall is around the corner. Late blossoms bloomed. Seed pods swelled where earlier blossoms had withered and fallen. Riots of vines twined around every standing plant, many giving up their strength to their reddening berries.

I'd intended to get five or ten miles of brisk hiking in, only stopping occasionally for some quick photos. Within ten minutes that plan had already gotten shaky. After failing to get a good shot of the dragonflies flitting about, I found a much more willing subject: a ladybug poised on a sumac leaf. Ten minutes later I got entranced by a weevil gathering nectar from a daisy fleabane blossom, and it was clear that the plan was in serious danger. Ten minutes after that the wheels came off the plan entirely. I'd already worked up a sweat trying to keep the camera steady while chasing and snapping away at the bees pollinating the white sweet clover. When my eye caught the snails climbing up those same plants - apparently to get to the choice leaves - I gave up on the idea of a long hike. I didn't mind too much. To explain why, I have to go back about fifteen years.

After college I spent lots of time walking along roadsides and through fields with my Peterson's Guide to Wildflowers. At first I just wanted to see some pretty flowers, increase my knowledge, and have a full journal to show for it. To identify a flower, though, I had to focus all my attention on it, and with that shift in focus came a shift in perception. One oxeye daisy stopped being one more white splotch among ten thousand other white splotches and became something singularly complex and beautiful. One moth mullein became a breathtaking dance of color, texture and form. One more periwinkle blossom became the first first periwinkle blossom I'd ever seen; after all, how could I say I'd seen it if I hadn't noticed that graceful spiral in the petals? In bringing my senses to bear totally on something outside myself I was bringing me outside myself: for a moment not everything was about me. I was seeing, and it was changing me.

Sometimes when I go on a walk I get lost in the act of finding and photographing subjects. After this last one I realized that it brings me the same sense of peace that wildflower identification brought me fifteen years ago. To take decent pictures I first have to slow down and look around for a good subject, so right off the bat I'm seeing my surroundings in a way I usually don't. Then in order to make the shot anything more than decent I have to figure out from what angle I want to view the subject, how I want to frame it, how the light falls on it and whether the lens barrel is shading it. Finally I have to hold my breath and pay extremely close attention to a detail on the subject as I turn the focus ring so that I can get the focus I want right down to the millimeter. Just like the act of identifying something, taking a good picture of something forces you to give it your complete attention. And I've come to understand that complete attention is not separable from love.

I moved on past the surprisingly acrobatic snails and came to another sign of the changing season. Two weeks earlier the small cluster of mullein had not begun to blossom, and the moth mullein right next to it were in late bloom. Now the yellow mullein blossoms were popping out of the stems and attracting ants, and the moth mullein blossoms had withered and all but fallen off while their seed pods had swelled and begun to split.

By this point I was beginning to think that good photo subjects were everywhere - if I looked closely enough at most any interesting plant I'd probably find some sort of interesting creature on it. I don't know whether I was right or I just got very lucky, but within moments I looked at some photogenically ripening berries and saw a daddy longlegs on the leaves right next to them. I'm afraid I aggravated it quite a bit, trying to coax it into position with my hand. Once I got my shots I left it in peace.

I moved on between the shrubs and vines, getting some nice shots of a fetching little bee I've not identified yet. Then I got the big payoff. If I hadn't spent the entire hike soaking up the tiny details of the trail I never would have spotted the fantastically well camouflaged moth that I just identified as a Virginia creeper sphinx.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to remember the joys of taking a long time for a short hike. I won't always have the chance to look so closely, but the next time I go on a thirty mile hike I'll have a better sense of the wonders filling every inch of those thirty miles.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Well, it looked like a bird's foot to me.

Yesterday I called my sister and she told me about the conversation she'd had with my four year old nephew about "butter and eggs". That's what people around Oneida call the brilliant yellow wildflower that runs rampant in the hills where we grew up. He had told her "I think it's got another name," but what he said next seemed highly unlikely to her. She put him on the phone to repeat it and - in his adorable, hushed, four-year-old phone voice - said "birdfoot trefoil". I practically shouted "That's exactly right!" I was so proud to have taught him that during our hike on Saturday. It makes me happy that he's enjoying our hikes together enough to absorb information such as the story of how birdfoot trefoil got its name.

But here's the thing. It turns out that I didn't actually know how birdfoot trefoil got its name! I remember going on my wildflower walks in 1993, carrying my Peterson's Guide to Wildflowers along roadsides and through fields, and could have sworn that it said the name came from the angles of the leaf branching. When I Googled it just now, though, I found out that the name came from the appearance of the seed pods. Heck, I've never even looked at the seed pods - at least not that I remember. Now that I have, I can see the resemblance. But those leaf stalks still look like birds' feet to me! If you don't believe me, hold one up in your hand, look at the angle where the stalk divides into three, and think of the crook in a bird's leg.


No? Ah well. In any event, I'm teaching my nephew good stuff on our hikes.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


I consider myself to be near the low end of the squeamishness spectrum. I grew up on a farm, and spent a few years in the nineties working in homes for developmentally disabled adults. Not only can I deal with the host of fluids that people and other creatures discharge, but in most cases I could do so with one hand while spooning Swiss Miss vanilla pudding into my mouth with the other. So when something makes me say "Ewwwwwwww!" it's noteworthy. Now you're probably thinking that this already sounds like a disgusting topic for a blog post, but I figure it's worth warning folks about the importance of adequately preparing one's feet for a very long hike. Hey, be thankful I'm not enough of a freak to include a photo.

My toenails had gotten longish by Saturday, and I suspected that was one of the main reasons for the pain in the big toe of my left foot after the hike. The farther the nail sticks out, the more of a moment arm it presents to any upward forces exerted on it, and that means more torque at the nail/cuticle boundary. I had made a mental note not only to cut my nails before I do any more hiking this weekend, but to always check their length - and, if necessary, trim them - before a hike.

So this morning I had a few minutes to spare, and I looked down and said "Hey, gotta trim those." I grabbed the clippers, grasped the toe in question, and started wondering again whether I might lose the nail. The pain had subsided since Saturday night, but it was still tender. There was a slight reddishness to the flesh beneath, like it was bruised. I began trimming. I nicked the cuticle and... there were fluids. No pain, just... fluids. Let's just leave it at that.

Again, this is not an self-indulgent exercise in being disgusting. Maybe this warning will keep you from losing a nail on a long hike. Or maybe you have much more experience than I, and can give me suggestions for preventing wear and tear on the toes. I didn't mind the full-body ache or the burning from the stinging nettles or the blisters, because I knew they'd fade in a few days. I'm going to lose at least part of this toenail, though, and that presents a more long-term inconvenience.

So, what can I do next time to treat my toes better? As I mentioned in the entry for that hike, I made the huge mistake of wearing only one pair of socks. Two or three pairs would have certainly mitigated the problem, but would they have solved it? I doubt it because I didn't have a problem with the big toe on my right foot. That means there's an asymmetry to my gait, because it stands to reason that my left foot is doing something that my right foot isn't. I need to correct that asymmetry if I'm to hike without damaging myself further. Luckily my fiancée, she gots th' mad physical therapy skillz, so she'll be able to set me straight - literally.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

There and Back Again - Canastota to Cazenovia and Back!

This image comes from my Google Map of the fifteen miles of trail between Canastota and Cazenovia. I hiked back and forth along that red line yesterday. But first, a word about why I was foolish enough not to get a good night's sleep before a thirty mile hike.

A dear friend of mine who joined the Air Force in December arrived back home in Oneida on Friday. This was his first leave, so I made a point to be there for the homecoming. I drove from New Jersey after work, so I didn't reach Oneida until around 11:30. I sat and talked with my friend and his family until a suspicious illumination spread on the horizon. I checked the time. It was nearly 5:00 AM - which is when I had intended to get up for my hike. I drove home, got two hours of sleep, got up, filled the water pouch of my new backpack, threw a few other things into it, grabbed a takeout breakfast at the Knotty Pine, and hit the trail at 8:40 AM.

The first interesting thing I saw that made me wish I'd brought my camera was a small carcass I found near the trail. There was nothing left but the head and the rear skin, as though the predator had intended to make a muskrat skin rug. The strange thing, though, was the webwork of glistening strands1 that covered the carcass and radiated outward onto the dirt for several inches. If my head was more easily turned by the horror movies I've seen recently I would have thought that a giant spider had spun a web over it before devouring it.

Focused on maintaining a brisk pace, I crossed Nelson Road at 9:19, Cottons Road at 9:35, and Quarry Road at 10:10. By then my legs were burning and red - presumably I'd walked through some stinging nettles and/or poison ivy. Note to self: wear long pants next time.

I reached Ingalls Corners Road at 10:33, the Freber/Hodge Road trailhead at 11:28, and Carrys Hill Road at 11:54. Before reaching Emhoff Road at 12:09 I had further cause to rue my decision not to burden myself with a camera: as I reached the fence just past the ravine with the staircase, I saw a doe and her small fawn a hundred yards to the west. The fawn was circling and nuzzling the mother, exploring its small world in a way that Samuel Pepys would surely have called "...the prettiest thing that ever I saw." I snapped away with my substandard phone camera, but even the best shots yielded little more than a blur. Oh, for that 12X zoom lens...

Between Bingley Road and Cazenovia I saw two peculiar insect mating rituals I'd never encountered before: the first pair, some species unkown to me2, were "face-to-face" but only touching by the tips of their abdomens. Then I noticed a pair of bumblebees, facing away from each other on a leaf, but also touching the tips of their abdomens.

I reached Route 20 in Cazenovia at 1:06. I had worked up quite an appetite, and was wondering where I should eat. Like an answer to my prayers, I saw signs advertising the chicken barbecue at the Methodist church. I made a beeline - well, the line a bee who has to ask directions makes, at any rate - and chowed down on a half chicken, a roll, salt potatoes, baked beans with just about the right amount of too much brown sugar, a brownie, and a cup of tea. Thoroughly refreshed, I hit the trail again at 2:03.

I had arranged with my sister to take my four year old nephew on part of my hike, so she dropped him off on Emhoff. He made it all the way to the Hodge Road trailhead under his own steam, although by then I'd gotten quite irritable, and I feel a little bad about that. See, I was already exhausted, and having to walk very slowly made it much worse. Under normal circumstances I'd enjoy his desire to stop, ask questions about everything he sees, and poke at things with sticks. Nearly falling asleep on my feet, though, I was not quite the patient teacher I wish to be. Still, I controlled myself well enough to tell him a bit about erosion and railroads, and begin inculcating him with the names of flowers such as oxeye daisy, birdfoot trefoil, musk mallow, and cow vetch. The slow pace added about an hour to my overall time.

On Hodge Road while pointing out musk mallow to my nephew I saw yet another pair of insects - another species we hadn't seen before - mating abdomen-to-abdomen on a leaf. Of course I had to go and tell him that they were mating, and of course he asked "What's 'mating'?". I hemmed and hawed and wondered what I might tell him that his mother might approve of, and settled on "They get together and make babies." That seemed to satisfy him. Whew.

By the time my sister met us on Hodge Road I had already done some serious thinking about cutting the hike short; my feet were aching, my back was stiff, and my head was reeling from exhaustion. But still, when she offered to give me a ride, I said "No, I want to finish this on my own steam." Thus began the struggle between my stubborn desire to follow through with my plan of making the whole hike from Canastota to Cazenovia and back, and my desire to rest the blistering stumps at the ends of my legs.

On Seibenbaum Road I experienced the most bitter missed photo opportunity of all. I saw a flash of color in the tall grass at the roadside, walked over, and saw one of the most fantastic compositions I've ever witnessed. Lurking beneath and behind a brilliant purple raceme of cow vetch was a striking white spider3. Hanging from the spider's jaws was an orange moth like so many I'd seen throughout the hike. The dramatic vignette, coupled with the purple-on-white-on-orange color scheme, made me nearly gnash my teeth in an impotent wish to have my camera in my hands.

By the time I reached Cottons Road the battle between that part of me that wanted to call my sister back for a pickup, and the part that would be damned if it gave up this close to the end, grew more and more furious. The two went back and forth, but the latter came out on top slightly more often. I had also realized that I'd forgotten one of my old cardinal rules: for long hikes, never wear less than two pairs of socks. For a thirty mile hike it should have been no less than three - the more planes of slippage between foot and shoe, the less friction between innermost sock and foot, yes? Or at least that's how I've always explained to myself the indisputably glad results of wearing multiple pairs. Unfortunately it had been so long since I'd taken such a long hike that I utterly forgot the rule this morning. Oh, will I be paying for that in the days to come. At one point I jumped up onto a log and felt such pain that I thought I'd torn a blister open. I took a look and discovered that I hadn't, so I doggedly continued.

By the time I plodded back over the well-known route between Nelson Road and the cemetery I was so stiff, and my feet were so sore, that I came to assume a gait that was positively arthritic. I reached my car at about 8:20. Nearly delirious with joy, I creaked my way slowly down into the driver's seat and got ready to exercise my newfound bragging rights.

The first thing I did when I got home - after inhaling a few slices of the pizza my sister thankfully had left over - was to wash all exposed skin with rubbing alcohol to remove any poison ivy oils. Until then I hadn't considered the possibility that one could get a high - and an unpleasant one at that - from rubbing alcohol fumes.

That night I rejoined my friend and his family, but it was difficult to relax amidst my personal constellation of discomfort. Of all the stiff joints, complaining muscles and throbbing pains the most worrisome was the big toe on my left foot - I began to wonder if I might lose the nail. Today it feels better, so I'm no longer worried. Also, the redness on my legs has not developed into a rash or blisters, so apparently the itching and burning was more from stinging nettles than poison ivy. I'm very satisfied with how the hike turned out, and eager to do it again. After my blisters heal and my muscles stop yelling at me. With long pants. And oh, so very many pairs of socks.

1This morning I told my sister about the glistening "web" covering the muskrat carcass and she brought up the possibility that it might have been made by slugs. I think she was right, because the strands did have the look of slime trails. I did a bit of Googling and found out that some snails feed on animal carcasses as well as plant material. Evidently there's a species in the Canastota area that loves carcasses.

2I didn't get a shot of them, but going from memory I think they may have been parasitic flat bark beetles.

3I identified it later as a female goldenrod spider.