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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.