Drawing Conclusions About Our Relationship with Animals

Every spring I host several local school groups at Black Kettle Nature Trail for a day-long field trip. We walk the trail and look for animal signs, learn tree names, talk about habitats, ecology and our relationship to wild places. We play predator-prey tag, learn about seed dispersal, life cycles and food webs. We learn to use our senses to appreciate the world around us.

 

Kids at Black Kettle

And every year I am once again reminded how much kids (and adults) like to see animals. If we’re lucky (and the kids aren’t too loud) we see frogs, newts, hawks, garter snakes, butterflies, dragonflies, praying mantis, and occasionally porcupines. Each discovery, no matter how small, is accompanied by squeals of joy and total absorption (and not just by me). Kids love animals.

They also love to draw animals. Even the most hesitant and insecure drawer, when given step by step directions, can draw surprisingly good animals. And they are so startled, proud and excited about their work, that you can’t help but feel like you have opened the door to some future potential career choice or beloved hobby at least.

Kids Drawing Animals

So I was pleased recently to discover that grown-ups love to draw animals too. Last week I received an email from a woman in California who has an animal drawing website where people go for inspiration to draw their favorite animals. Her drawings were quite good and so when she asked to link to my woodchuck drawing activity in her blog, I agreed. I was a little hesitant about the spiritual content on her site, but if people want to think they have an animal totem, who am I to rain on their parade? As long as I don’t have to be a platypus or a baboon or some other equally embarrassing animal, I can identify with an animal, I admire.

Later I received more emails from her followers thanking me for the lessons and showing me their resulting art – all quite good. It made me think that the World Wildlife Fund was missing the boat. If they want people to feel a connection to endangered animals around the world (and contribute funds to save them), they should be giving out animal drawing activities. Who could stand to see the white rhino disappear once they had drawn it and posted it on the fridge?

Drawing Tigers

Maybe I am biased because I love to draw and when I create a likeness that is particularly good (which doesn’t happen with every drawing), I get an endorphin rush akin to reaching the top of some difficult peak. Now I wonder if those elephants who draw elephants are happy with their results… Have you ever seen this? If not, you really should. It’s remarkable: Elephants Painting Elephants

But I digress. My point in today’s ramblings  is that, drawing animals (or anything) introduces a familiarity that makes one think about the subject and in the case of animals feel an affinity and even a connection to them. Is it any wonder that I am so fixated on animals having drawn a thousand of them? Or do I draw them because I love them you ask? Hmmm…. either way, I recommend giving it a try to see for yourself: How to Draw Animals

 

 

 

Spring is Busting Out All Over

Okay I won’t burst into song, but the sudden iridescently bright green of our fields is almost blinding. After weeks of dry, cool weather we had three days of rain which triggered such a glut of green growth, one could almost call it miraculous. Seemingly overnight the grass grew a foot, the dandelions popped and the maples unfurled into shade trees.

Our bluebirds were ousted by some nesting chickadees and I didn’t act quickly enough so the chickadees laid their tiny, speckled eggs in the box. The bluebird advisor told us to throw the nest and eggs out so the bluebirds will come in, but I can’t do it. How can I toss out those tiny, helpless chickadee eggs? So no bluebirds this year.

The wild turkeys meanwhile are gobbling like wild down in the swamp at dawn each morning. I can only imagine what bizarre poultry courtship dancing is going on down there. Our neighbor called to ask if he could hunt in our swamp, when turkey season starts next week and I had to say yes. One can’t deny the neighbors’ requests, but I feel like a traitor. It seems so unfair to use their boisterous love songs as a way to track them down and blast them into turkey pot pie. (Can we tell I am not a hunter?)

And spring keeps rolling through like a freight train – buds bursting, stalks climbing and the cacophony of fervent bird and frog love songs raising the proverbial racket – at night the peepers so loud you can feel their vibrating call bouncing through you like some strange ancestral amphibian tickle.

We are all compelled by this invisible force as the Earth finds its direct angle to the sun and the green things race into their life cycle supplying every food web on Earth with the good stuff it needs to grow, repair and reproduce. In truth, living things on Earth have little control. We are slaves to the Universe.

So how does this affect we big brain humans, who have already raised and fledged our chicks? It doesn’t I say. Nope not at all. Just because I feel compelled to order a plethora of seeds and stuff them in the ground and weed the flower bed and transplant the house plants and okay maybe buy a few new gardening tools, work gloves, rubber boots and a new green outfit with matching bug hat (kidding). Eeek. I cannot stop myself, must sow seeds, must dig soil, must, must, must grow things. I give over to the call. I am one with the Universe!

(Happy Spring!)

The Winter of My (Ankle’s) Discontent

Last weekend we took part in our last training to be wildlife monitors for Northeast Wilderness Trust and Keeping Tracks. It will be our job to monitor one transect in our region four times a year and record the animals that have walked through it. It is a volunteer project to help understand how wildlife move through the region with the goal of conserving a wildway for their safe movement. With shrinking wildlands this has become increasingly challenging, so knowing which focal species (bobcat, fisher, moose, black bear, fox, mountain lion, lynx, wolf, mink, otter) are passing through the area and maintaining their territories is important.

I was actually dreading our last tracking training day. They are long days, sometimes brutally cold without the benefit of brisk hiking to warm you up. Tracking is a meticulous and mindful work that requires a lot of stopping and studying, measuring and recording. It’s a long day for anyone, but because of my… umm… delicate ankle (recall the 2009 car crash that smushed me) I start to feel sore and weary standing around even after just a single hour. Then there is our now infamous ice of 2012. The trails on Sue Morse’s Wolf Run Tract were looking more like little frozen rivers (or in some places small frozen waterfalls). Even for totally buff hikers this would be impossible in hiking boots or even yak-trax, so I purchased a pair of…. micro-spikes.

I tested them out the week before the training day on one of my daily hikes – a walk through the Blueberry Hill hiking trails. The spikes are a ring of tough rubber that you pull onto your boots with chains and sharp spikes set across the bottom. They grip the ice so firmly that you literally can walk up frozen hillsides (without the normal terror one ought to feel about falling to your death). I was pretty excited about this until about halfway into my hike when my ankle started to hurt. It wasn’t the mild throbbing I have grown accustomed to after my daily hikes (since the smushing). It was a sharp, stop walking now you idiot, kind of pain that stopped me in my tracks. I was still at least a mile from my car, so I sat on a frozen stump and looked at my foot. We had a short conversation.
“Why is this hurting you more than the usual?” I asked.
Stubborn silence punctuated by sharp pain.
“You usually tolerate a couple miles before you start to complain,” I whined.
More silence (though seemingly sullen and still throbbing).
“The spikes move around and don’t provide a flat walking surface,” I suggested.
Still nothing, but the pain was growing less acute with rest.
I sighed and gingerly got to my feel. The pain was now tolerable enough to put weight on the foot. I walked back to the car (with more sighing and occasional wincing along the way). That night the ankle was so sore and I could barely get off the couch. We call this the post-hike angry ankle syndrome as I have experienced this quite regularly since the smushing.

This was not good. How could I spend a day walking and standing on the evil micro-spikes? My ankle would not allow it. The day before the tracking hike I emailed the program organizer (Elizabeth Lee) and told her of my worries. She said she had something better. When we arrived at Wolf Run she handed me…. stable-icers. A nifty new gadget that looks like stiff insoles that you strap on with velcro straps. On the bottom are are series of evenly places bolts, pointed ends out. They didn’t look as sharp and grippy as the micro-spikes, but they looked stable. I strapped them on my boots. Then I gingerly stepped out onto an icy sheet over the road. I stayed upright. I walked. There was no spastic wheeling of arms or collapsing into a tangled heap. I looked at an icy hill next to the road. Better to find out now than out on the trail with the whole group watching. I walked up the hill. I didn’t slip – not one bit. This was amazing.

We headed up the trail toward a motion detection camera site near a rocky overhang where Sue Morse had been catching bobcats on film. Everyone wore stable-icers or microspikes. The trail was one frozen ice flow. I chinked along timidly. Still I stayed upright. The stable-icers seemed an even walking surface. We looked at raccoon tracks, bear scratches and bites on trees, coyote and deer tracks, moose bark peelings and still I could hike safely. Then Sue led us up a very steep and icy slope to look at some cliffs where bobcats den. We were to scramble through a rocky notch to get up above the cliffs. It was treacherous and one slip would have sent me careening down a long rocky slope. The stable-icers held. Everyone made it through the notch alive and unbruised. On top we looked at more bear sign and Sue showed us where she had seen a bobcat escape a pack of coyotes by literally running down a cliff. Pretty cool.

Then we started down. This proved to be much harder than going up. Gravity was driving us forward and the footing was still icy, but also uneven and bumpy. On the way up we were moving more slowly, placing our feet right where the person in front of us stepped. On the way down, we were moving fast, pelting pell-mell through rocky, mossy, prickly forest. About halfway down, I felt a twinge from the ankle. “No, please,” I pleaded. “In three hours you’ll be in a hot bath, I swear.” A half-mile later the twinge turned to a persistent jolt with each step. I was sweating by then and trying not to hyperventilate. We still had a half hour of hard hiking to go to get back to Wolf Run and the cars. There was no bus. No helicopter rescue. No magic carpet. I had to do this myself. I stopped and took a few deep breaths. I wiggled the ankle. I smiled at my husband, who had that worried look he got when he noticed I was limping. I could do this.

I planted each foot slowly and deliberately and kept moving. We got lower and lower off the mountain and finally reached a muddy, boggy, hummocky area right above Wolf Run. I skirted around the side through the trees to avoid the uneven ground. I was almost there and so far had not caused any scenes that required stretchers, living wills or even just being peeled off the forest floor. Using the trees like hand rails I walked around the wet area. I glanced out at the rest of the group. Some had navigated the wet area and had already disappeared down into Wolf Run, but a few were struggling. I paused. Something strange was happening. There were a couple of people leaning against trees (and they weren’t me). Things were hanging off their feet. For a split second it looked like their boots were shredding right off their feet as I watched. It took my brain a minute to put it together. The mud was sucking the stable-icers right off their boots. These life-saving devices, so vital in icy conditions were no match for wet, sticky mud. The conditions had changed.

Back at Wolf Run, we all collapsed into our cars. I’d made it. This odd winter of no snow was almost over and I’d made it through another challenging day, thanks to stable-icers (and Elizabeth Lee who’s lent them out). On to tracking… be careful out there!

The Winter of Stalagmites

I have never been one to shy away from the short, cold, dark days of winter. It’s the longest season up here, so there is some motivation to embrace it… or else. Besides for it being the obviously best time to bake cookies, it can also be a great time to explore the outdoors. Admittedly there is not a lot of summer green about, but there is a lot to admire outside after the leaves fall. For one thing the forest opens up and you can see a different view through leafless trees. It’s quiet and peaceful and lacks the annoyance of bugs and a lot of other people. Armed with the right gear, the cold is no deterrent. You can crunch along looking for animal signs and listening to winter birdsong and sighing branches and  get lost in the hum of your thoughts.

When the snow comes, it changes the landscape yet again and offers a new alien landscape softened by cryptic whiteness. Distinct tracks appear bringing to life the unknown hidden lives (and deaths) of wildlife. Who hasn’t seen a squirrel or mouse track end abruptly at a feather light impression of a hawk’s wing? Or marveled at the perfect heel to toe pattern of a ruffed grouse. Hard, rocky ground is softened by layers of snow underfoot. Wet, muddy trails are covered over. It may well be the best time of year to hike the rockier, muddier places in the Adirondacks.

Plus winter is a long season, constantly changing with new snow and occasional thaws. It is a time when writing and drawing projects get completed in record time, when the low afternoon sun shining in on the livingroom couch is an obvious invitation to sit with a hot cup of tea (and previously mentioned cookies) and finish your book. It is when you write in your blog, catch up on emails, finally balance your checkbook, do your taxes and clean out your closet. But I digress. It is simply too long of a season to waste time wishing it were over. There’s too much to do inside and out.

Then there is this winter. A winter where on February 7th, there is yet to be a real snow storm. Other than an occasional dusting, the Champlain Valley is completely snowless. Though I did just rave about the pre-snow forest, there is one defining difference – ice. This is a winter of stalagmites. In some places water has flowed over the trails in sheets so slick that nothing short of crampons will allow safe passage. In other places the ground has frozen and thawed so much that it collapses beneath your feet unexpectedly in ankle wrenching treachery. A dusting of snow can hide a slick patch that will send you sprawling onto hard, frozen ground. But the worst thing I have ever seen are these stalagmites. They form in places on the trails where dripping branches create tiny spires of ice that build up over time into little, icy citadels. They are impossible to negotiate on foot and are bruising tiger traps to slip and land on.

At a recent CATS (Champlain Area Trails) board meeting, I heard the story of the unfortunate hiker who fell victim to one of these hidden ice patches (literally) and sustained a compound ankle fracture. She had to crawl out to her car and I can’t even imagine how she got to help from there.

There are some natural features that can help. Watch for areas where acorns, pine needles and other vegetation have frozen into the ice forming a natural kind of skid-stopper. Or go around slick spots onto the crunchy leaf litter off-trail and use the trees when necessary to stay upright. In general we are told to stay on the trails, but this winter we can be forgiven for a little strategic scrambling to stay safe.

Still I don’t recommend giving up on daily hikes. I just suggest adopting a sense of caution that I heretofore thought would be unnecessary until I turned, say, 80. This is a winter for wearing micro-spikes every day. For hiking with ski poles, with friends and yes, maybe even for carrying a cell phone (if you can find a signal). Bring an extra layer of warm clothes in case you get hurt and need to rest or wait for help (that’s where those cookies come in handy too). A dog is also good, if it’s big enough to carry you out or smart enough to get help (Lassie, go get the snowmobile…).

It is a winter where you need to pay attention. And a winter when no one can fault you for whining about the conditions… just a little bit.

Outdoor Fun, Learning (and Freezing to Death…)

We spent Saturday walking in the woods with Alcott Smith, a renown NH naturalist and retired veterinarian, who was to speak on how animals prepare for winter. It was an educational hike sponsored by Northeast Wilderness Trust in a forest we know and love, so we were pleased to support both (we also love to learn new stuff and hike around aimlessly). It seemed like a perfect way to spend a Saturday.

As usual, it didn’t quite turn out the way we expected, but for all that it was a true learning experience. Alcott Smith was a brilliant scientist, his range of knowledge vast and unending and his wry sense of humor a real pleasure. He also took such pleasure in his discussions of all things wild, that he could talk for more than an hour without moving or seeming to notice the passage of time at all.

This would have been wonderful if we were all sprawled in the tall grass soaking up sunshine, but standing on the frozen ground on shivering legs, blue lips frozen into a pitiful grin, it was an exercise in mind over matter (e.g. I will not give in to becoming a human popsicle, I will not…). This was made more imperative by the fact that Alcott didn’t even wear a hat, scarf or even a coat, but made due with a wool shirt. At one point I had pulled on a pair of old, torn rain pants out of the bottom of my husband’s pack (they had probably been there since 1975) and yanked them up over my pants, gaiter and boots, then found a small patch of sunshine and perched on my pack pulling my knees up into a heat saving hug and trying to fit my entire body into that small patch of solar radiation.

Alcott talked on, totally oblivious, about beavers, plants, trees, invasive species, forest pathology, the digestive tracts of bears, the protein value of grubs and just about anything else that related to wildlife. I swear he covered about a month’s worth of my undergraduate mammology classes in just a few hours. Latin names were flying, as were physiological descriptions (from delayed implantation to a very detailed description of the beavers’ castor glands). We even fit in a discussion of the changing taxonomic nomenclature due to the genome project. He wasn’t all about five syllable words (though there were a lot of those), but also spoke of really paying attention and feeling the wilds with all your senses. I especially liked his suggestion that we experience the woods more tactilely by walking through it naked (though the thought of it made me lapse into an episode of uncontrolled teeth chatting).

In the end it wasn’t the tremendous quantity of information that did me in though, it was just the creeping cold in the face of our still bodies. I can stay warm in almost any temperature with the right clothes and if I can keep my body moving, but there is almost no way to dress for standing for hours in damp, cold air without moving. It gives me greater respect for ice fisherman and those hunters who sit in tree stands for hours on end. Do they have better cold coping skills? More body fat? Are they just more stubborn? Are they crazy?

At about 2 o’clock Alcott stopped to chat about the antler abscission layer in moose and then went on stream of conscious style to tell us about about bears consuming whole orchards of fruit and the their digestive abilities and reproductive habits and the cubs’ growth curves and a myriad of other truly interesting facts that went on for quite a while.

Suddenly I bolted awake, having dozed off and wilted down onto my pack, leaning up against a tree, probably looking like a drunken sailor. I was shivering, my limbs aching (especially the evil ankle), and I had a strong urge to just lie down in the snow and take a nice restful doze (probably until spring). Sheepishly when the group moved on, I bowed out to make my way back through the woods to find the trail and then vigorously walk (and yes limp a bit) back to the car (I will not become a popsicle, I will NOT become a popsicle…) and home to a hot bath.

I tried hard not be embarrassed about the fact that everyone else on the hike lasted another two hours (I thought about this while I lay in a very hot tub reading my book). Everyone makes clothing errors occasionally and as long as you make it home afterward you can redeem yourself on the next hike (and smirk knowingly at the other poor suckers shivering and sniffling).

But beyond that I couldn’t help feeling encouraged by so many people coming on the hike (and all with enough outdoor gear) and everyone’s willingness to just experience the woods — see the shapes and colors of plants and animal signs, smell the ever changing stages of flower to fruit to decay and feel the sun and wind (and icy cold) on our skin.

We move through a world of stress, and noise and deadlines with an ever shrinking supply of quiet, reflective moments in the woods from which to draw strength. Sometimes we just have to be reminded to stop and smell the skunk cabbage. Thank you Alcott Smith.

And now to find those long underwear…

Paying Attention to Animal Signs

As I may have mentioned, we have been taking a year long tracking class from the famous tracker Sue Morse (of Keeping Track http://www.keepingtrack.org) in preparation for doing some wildlife monitoring. Monitoring by citizen naturalists helps track wildlife patterns and populations and, in theory, potentially protects the more vital habitats that wildlife are using as corridors (Predators don’t stay in one place but travel to where the food is throughout the year).

So now, whenever we are out hiking around, even for reasons other than tracking, we find ourselves looking for animal sign and noting that we are not alone in the woods. In the winter, with snow on the ground, it is always fun to stop and examine tracks — which are everywhere, note the shape, the pattern and other signs (scats, etc.) and identify the animal. As Sue has pounded into us, all tracks tell a story of daily life. Animals are not out taking in the sights. They are hunting and foraging and will go where the food is.

Last winter, we followed a fisher track pattern for a while to see where it had been. Fishers are a relatively rare and precious predators in these parts and finding a fresh track is exciting. We saw where it had crossed the tracks of a porcupine (another cool find) and stopped to sniff them out.

That same day we came across a recent deer kill and read the sign of where the deer had been traveling and saw where it had bedded down before meeting its cold end. A mass of coyote tracks told the rest of the story and other predators and scavengers had been sustained by that one life — the fisher, a weasel, crows. Nothing is wasted in the forest in winter.

Another day we tracked a porcupine back to its den in a rocky crevasse and then followed it out to the hemlocks on which is had been feeding. We never saw the porcupine that day but reading its tracks that told its story almost as well as watching it go about its prickly business. In that way tracking broadens our understanding of the wilds around us. The woods are alive with animal life. Just because we don’t see them, does not mean they are not there. We see mink tracks everywhere in the snow now that we know their familiar shape and pattern — yet we rarely see one in person. Animal signs are everywhere if you become trained to see them. Suddenly the forest feels alive with possibility.

Translating that skill into summer tracking is a different matter. Snow is a great tracking substrate. Without it, you have to depend on different and more subtle signs; skunks nosing under leaf litter, turkeys scratching for grubs, deer rubbing velvet (and bark) off their antlers, scats, nibbled tree buds, etc. So when I began to notice bear sign on a forest hike I have been doing daily for years, I took notice. How had I not seen it before?

 

I love beech trees and had been making a point of hiking through this beech forest for years and never once noticed that bears were using the forest to forage for beechnuts until I knew what to look for.  Suddenly the forest took on a much richer, more interesting and  admittedly more intimidating awareness. I was not alone out there among the trees. Not that I expected black bears to suddenly start bounding out from the trees with teeth bared, but I could stumble on one accidentally as I was zoning out looking at lichens. It’s just good to be aware and pay attention.

And when you start to pay attention, you notice a lot of other things too….

Like raccoon tracks on the windshield in summer.

Bunnies blending into the underbrush.

And weasels in the winter garden.

There is something to see year round if you take the time to look for it.

Exploring Without Maps (or Apparentally Any Sense of Direction)

Going South to Find Birds

After a long winter, we decided to drive down the coast in mid-April to look for birds, explore refuges and enjoy some warmer temperatures. We packed up our bikes, binoculars and maps and on April 13, in the pouring rain, glanced at the dingy snow banks in our driveway and hit the road.

Our first stop was in Cape May, NJ, where we hoped to camp at one of the many campgrounds and look for birds in the coastal wetlands. We arrived late in the afternoon and discovered that none of the campgrounds were open and the gray skies were still spitting rain, so we checked into a hotel. We are nothing if not adaptable. Still, we were determined to walk the beach. The wind was blowing hard and cold along the coast, but we persisted down the beach admiring the salt air and sounds of the gulls and waves and getting totally and completely drenched. Later, snug in dry clothes and a warm hotel room, we decided to move further south.
Thursday, April 14th, dawned bright and clear, with temperatures in the high 50s. It felt very warm! We biked around the Cape looking for birds (there weren’t many) and checked out the interesting shapes and sizes of the houses (there were many, many). We had tea and warm cinnamon buns at Uncle Pete’s Diner on the ocean (highly recommended) and then took the ferry to Lewes, Delaware to continue south. Gannets, laughing gulls, ring-bills followed the boat and dove for fish in its wake. There ability to hover and dive was pretty impressive and  kept us mesmerized for the 90-minute crossing.

 birds1

Camping with Cowboys

The temperatures rose and as we drove down into Maryland. We suddenly noticed that the tree buds were popping and the grass was no longer dull brown, but a brilliant green. We found an open  campground near Assateague, called Frontiertown, that had sites near the water. It was clean and spacious though we were one of the few intrepid souls in a tent. Though we didn’t take advantage of the campground’s wild west show, water slides or horseback riding, we were vastly entertained by the main office’s décor. Done up like an old west brothel, it was complete with paper cut outs in the upstairs windows of ladies of the night and their customers. We chose a tent spot all alone at the edge of the coastal wetland. Osprey called and great egrets landed in the tall sea grass. A warm breeze blew off the ocean and there was not a mosquito anywhere. It was heaven.

birds2

We rode our bikes out to the middle of the bridge to Assateague and surveyed the island. It was too late in the day to make the trip out there, but we would be back in the morning to explore. That night the temperatures dipped into the low 40s and I shivered all night, annoyed that I had not brought our winter sleeping bags.

Wild Horses and Other Wild Things

Then Friday morning came, clear and warm and all thoughts of frozen toes fled as we rode down the deserted road on Assateague Island. A myriad of songbirds darted and called among the thick coastal shrubberies. Wild ponies grazed here and there and ignored us as we stopped to take pictures. We explored the island and identified birds in the wetlands – tri-colored herons, egrets, red-winged blackbirds, royal terns, sandpipers, killdeer, and on and on. Then we dropped the bikes and made our way up to the beach, which had soft, white sand. Richard looked at tracks (seabird, fox and mink) and I picked up small shells, skate casings and pieces of horseshoe crabs — taxonomy treasures. The sand, with its give, was a little tricky with my bad ankle, but we kept the walks short and spent most of our time on the bikes. Later, as we biked back off the island, we passed people feeding the wild ponies and taking pictures way too close for safety. They were not far from the signs that warned against this with pictures of the wild horses kicking and biting. We didn’t stop, hoping to avoid seeing the impending confrontation.

horses

 

The Camping Lifestyle

Later, back at camp, we sat in the sun listening to the birds call in the wetlands. Suddenly I heard a familiar call and sat up scanning the sky. Then I saw them — two bald eagles flying low over us and calling to each other in what I liked to imagine were terms of endearment. That night, as the temperatures dropped, I broke down and went to the “camp store” and bought another blanket (not the one with bucking broncos on it). It was worth it for a warm night’s sleep.

We had explored the campground thoroughly in the afternoon and were curious about the different lifestyles that brought people to places like this. There were motor homes of all shapes and sizes, some looking more or less permanently parked with little flower gardens. Then there was the “wilderness” tenting section in a thick, dark, forested area where there were also some permanent looking sites with piles of disheveled gear under rain tarps and bands or barefoot, wide-eyed children. It was a human experience that I didn’t want to examine too closely as I made my way back over to our quiet, pristine campsite by the bay.

Saturday morning, April 16th, the clouds came in and the weather report called for rain and wind. We packed up and drove down to Virginia Beach. Crossing the Bay Bridge was impressive as we came upon the giant cargo ships anchored off the coast in a long line. They were huge — like skyscrapers on their sides. Along the bridge, flocks of pelicans dove for fish. Twice the bridge dove underwater into tunnels that allowed those large boats to make their way across the bay to Norfolk and up into Chesapeake Bay. I could hardly watch as my husband navigated these narrow tunnels.

 

Impending Tornadoes

Finally we came out into Virginia and made our way down to Virginia Beach to join the small pre-season throng of tourists. We checked into a small motel on the beach and rode the bikes the length of the boardwalk in the growing, fierce wind. Dark clouds thickened and the smell of a storm churned the ocean into a frenzy. From the safety of our hotel room we watched with fascination as the news reported tornadoes tearing up the coast toward us. The wind was howling and rain came down in sheets. Lightning flashed and cracked every few seconds. We heard screaming from out on the boardwalk and ran to the balcony in time to see some crazy kids on spring break running around in the storm soaked to the skin (some wore mostly skin). We wondered vaguely if the second floor would be high enough in a tsunami.

Don’t Ask….

Cypress and Copperheads

On Sunday morning we watched the sunrise over the ocean, the sky washed clear and bright blue. There was not a hint of the storm, except for some puddles and debris washes ashore. We took the bikes inland to First Landing State Park and rode through miles of cypress swamp. It was lovely, with the cypress and swamp oaks cloaked in thick sheaths of Spanish moss. All the deciduous trees had young leaves unfurling bathing the forest with shining green light. We saw a large copperhead on the trail and turtles sunning on logs in the swamp. Osprey nested on snags in the pines. At the north end of the trail we came out on First Landing Beach (that was literally the first landing spot of European explorers). Kite surfers set up their giant kites and surfed the waves (in wetsuits). The wind was cold and we sat bundled on the beach eating a picnic, staring out at the giant ships, seabirds and surfers feeling pretty contented. By the time we finished the 15-mile ride at 3 pm it was 80° with a cool wind off the ocean – perfect.

ride

 

Later that night we ate seafood at an outdoor cafe on the ocean and watched the full moon rise red over the ocean. It was pretty amazing and we toasted the perfection of that moment. Then, just as I’d taken a large sip of wine, the man at the table next to us announced loudly to his family – “Look, there’s the sun setting over the ocean!” and he pointed (to the rising full moon). I almost choked, my eyes watering as all those young faces looked east over the Atlantic at the “setting sun.”

The Outer Limits… um… I mean… Outer Banks

Monday, April 18th, we were ready to leave the city and drive down the coast toward the Outer Banks. The trees in North Carolina were in full leaf and there were fields knee high deep in lush, green grass. We passed an area hit by Saturday’s tornadoes and marveled at a roof blown into the farm field next door and a large couch perched on its side on their front lawn. These were dangerous storms and we hoped those folks we’d left in Frontiertown Campground had sought cover.
It was a long drive to Cape Hatteras with just one, traffic-packed road running the length of the barrier island. We rented a room in a beach side motel and for the first time it was actually hot – 85° and not too windy. We stayed in the shade with our books (being pale-skinned redheads from the far north) until late afternoon and then rode our bikes around the island exploring the beaches and wetlands.
The coastal shrub habitat was home to whitetail deer, cottontails, fox, Canada geese, blackbirds, snakes and seabirds, but, in general, I was not impressed with the houses crowded together, traffic and lack of hiking or biking trails on the Island. The whole Outer Banks was one long strip of hotels, motels and housing developments crammed together on a tiny spit of land. It was a suntan-on-the-beach-with-a-crowd-of-people kind of place. We decided to get off the Outer Banks and head over to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge the next day.

Fog and Dolphins
Tuesday, April 19th, we got up early and walked the beach shrouded in fog. Dolphins swan along the coastline as we walked down the beach watching the sunrise — the mist swirling around us. Sunrise just never gets old. Richard went on as I walked back, my foot sore. Still not 100% since breaking the ankle two years back, I wanted to save my ankle for the climb up the Cape Hatteras lighthouse when it opened later that morning.

 

 

At 9 we biked out to the site and climbed the 12-stories to the top of the spotlessly maintained lighthouse. The view was, of course, amazing, but more significantly we chatted with the ranger and another couple about our disappointment with Cape Hatteras. They all recommended that we try Ocracoke Island before giving up on the Outer Banks. So we packed up and drove down to catch the ferry over to the tiny island. This proved a challenge as about 1,000 other people had had the same idea. We waited for almost 2 hours and finally got on one of the ferries to the island. We wondered how that small island could hold all these people. The ferry ride was entertaining, with dolphins swimming off one side of the boat and kids feeding the gulls off the back raising a cacophony of screams and acrobatics (by both the gulls and people).
Once on Ocracoke we drove to the National Seashore campground and picked out a spot to tent for later, then drove downtown for lunch. We parked and biked around the cute little downtown, exploring the whole area — which seemed to be an artists colony of sorts with every third house advertising a “gallery” open to the public. We ate lunch at an outdoor cafe on the pier which, when the wind died, smelled a bit like dying horseshoe crabs, but had a pretty view of the bay. We looked at the maps while we waited and made the decision to take the 3-hour ferry to the mainland the next day rather than drive all the way back up the traffic jammed Outer Banks highway. That decided, we made reservations for the 6:30 am ferry and drove back to the campground.
As we set up the tent that afternoon, we suddenly met the most unpleasant Ocracoke natives, black clouds of large, aggressive, mosquitoes. Scrambling for the bug dope, we moved the tent into a windier spot and quickly sorted through what we would need before dodging the campsite for the beach where a stiff wind was blowing.

My New Career

We walked the beach, now at low tide, an expanse of hard, wet sand. I had brought my umbrella to protect myself from the sun and was lazily etching lines in the sand with its tip as we walked along. Suddenly I stopped, staring at the squiggle I had just drawn. The sand was a perfect moisture level between low and high tide for etchings. I ditched my shoes and with my umbrella as a quill, went to work with fervor. I drew whales, dolphins, sharks, octopus, squid, stingrays, tuna and jellyfish. It was amazing. Richard took pictures and suggested I try more performance art — drawing them right above the wave line and trying to finish each one before the waves erased them. I drew a great blue heron, loon and eagle before a particularly large wave came in and obliterated them.

whale

“I have a new career,” I shouted, holding up the umbrella, like a sword. I pictured us moving to the coast and drawing on the beach for crowds of cheering tourists. Then I thought about being around crowds of tourists and the fantasy melted. I sat down next to my husband in the soft sand of the dunes above the deserted beach and sighed. Careers come and go, but a lonely moment on the beach with someone you like is a gift.

 tiger

 

The sun was setting and we worked up our courage to hike back up the beach and face the buggy campground. My foot was throbbing from walking barefoot on the hard sand and I once again had to swallow down my frustration and regret for that fateful moment almost two years ago when a silly teenager crossed the center line and hit my car head on, wrecking my hiking adventures forever. Then I let the moment of pity pass. Back in the campground we had bigger things to worry about.
The mosquitoes were mean and persistent and as luck would have it, our camp stove suddenly stopped working. Richard worked on it, between slapping at flying insects. Finally he gave up and I quickly (think flight of the bumble bee) threw together a cold dinner that we ate in double time before jumping back on the bikes and riding around too fast for mosquito wings until dark. Then we packed the car for our 5:30 am departure, put our sleeping gear in the tent, jumped in and quickly zipped up tight. We scanned the tent with flashlights for mosquitoes and killed the dozen or so that had followed us in. One had to admire these amazingly well-adapted little creatures — once you were safe behind a bug screen and could think objectively. (As a postscript to this, when Richard opened the tent several days later in Virginia, more than 20 Ocracoke mosquitoes came buzzing out and we silently hoped this would not have some horrible ecological effect.)

The Wild Women of Ocracoke

A few campsites away the loud country music finally stopped and we silently thanked the National Seashore campground rules posted at the front gate, which asked for camp silence at 9 pm. We had been amused by this pair of women, though, who had been drinking beer, dancing and hooting to their loud country music all afternoon with admirable energy. We speculated that they must be part of some wild campground party crowd that we – given our tendency toward isolationist camping – had never run across before. We kept glancing over whenever one of them howled. It was hard not to smile, as they wore flannel pajamas all afternoon and popped open beer after beer while singing along at the top of their lungs. I mean the women had style. Just before bed, my curiosity piqued, I went over and offered them the eggs we couldn’t cook (due to the dead stove) and struck up a conversation to get their story. It was with a great deal of amusement that I later told Richard that these wild women were simply middle school teachers on spring break.

Alligator River and Heat Stroke

Wednesday, April 20th, we rose before dawn and rode the ferry for 3 hours across the expanse of Pamlico Sound to the North Carolina mainland. I sketched for a while and then lulled by the rocking boat and short night, I slept the last 2 hours until we docked. Now we were in true rural NC. We drove by miles of agricultural fields intermixed with swamp and brushy coastal bog. There were few houses and no towns.

Away from the coastline the temperature rose and by the time we reached Alligator River Wildlife Refuge it was noon and 90°. We stopped at the ranger headquarters and got a map, but I could already see that this would not be an easy exploration for us. The refuge had no trails – just gravel roads that ran along a thick, swampy forest and a man-made waterway. The actual river was only accessible by kayak or canoe (neither of which we had with us) and there was no shade on the roads at all, making biking difficult for us (still the pale-skinned redheads from the far north).

We drove along the waterway as giant turtles plopped into the water off logs and black swallowtails fluttered by. We saw a huge copperhead sunning in the road. Finally Richard decided to try the gravel road on his mountain bike. I was happy to play support team in case he collapsed with heat stroke, but passed on biking. (Besides for being a wimp about blazing sun, my little hybrid bike struggles with big gravel.) By the time we’d traversed the refuge, my husband was tired, sweaty, and happy, but we still had no place to camp.

turtle

We decided to make our way north a bit and head up the coast to the ferry at Currituck. We hoped to ferry across the bay to Knots Island where we could camp and explore MacKay Island National Wildlife Refuge where the breeze off the ocean would cool things down some.

Many Mini-Disasters

Then several fateful things happened. First, we missed the ferry. The next one was not for two hours. So we drove around to try to reach the refuges from the mainland down the Marsh Causeway. Then we got lost (having rejected GSP or mapquesting I suppose we were asking for it). By then it was late afternoon. Hot and weary of driving, we pulled off to ride the bikes for a while and recharge. That’s when Richard slammed the van door on our air mattress and ripped a big hole in it. So we were now without an air mattress or a working stove and still had no place to spend the night.

Then, probably feeling sorry for us, the gods sent us something good – we’d inadvertently pulled over into the Northwest River Park – a campground and wildlife preserve on the Northwest River off Tull Bay. And it was absolutely beautiful. We rode our bikes through a cool mixed forest and cypress swamp that rang with bird song and smelled like early summer. We decided it was where we needed to be. We rented a cabin for the night and proceeded to have a wonderful night’s sleep.

canoe 

Thursday morning, April 21st, we woke to a myriad of birdsong. We rented a canoe and paddled the swamp. It was lovely and cool (aka no bugs). The trees were in full leaf and there were turtles and snakes, birds and giant moths everywhere. We talked about what life might be like if we ditched our jobs and became Wildlife Refuge travel writers (hey, we can dream). This place was a find for April – though in summer might well be too crowded for us. It was with some regret that we head east determined to find Knots Island.

 Getting Lost… Again

We were soon lost again but drove on letting the fates guide us and soon found ourselves near Back Bay Wildlife Refuge south of Virginia Beach. It was an acceptable alternative. We biked through the Back Bay Refuge through miles of coastal wetlands and a small cypress swamp spotting coots, glossy ibis, egrets, thrashers and red-winged blackbirds. When we reached the beach at False Cape State Seashore, we dropped the bikes and walked another gorgeous beach. The clouds had come in by then and we explored the tide line and found giant oysters, sand dollars, and a big, yellow rubber ball that was blowing down the coast. Richard carried the ball back to the bikes and we tied it to his bike rack. (It traveled with us for the rest of the trip and all the way back to upstate NY.) At the visitor’s center on the Cape we heard a backpacker saying that in the summer it was almost impossible to get one of the campsites there and we could see why – they were all nestled in the shade of coastal trees, right below the dunes with the sound of the surf nearby.

By the time we got back to the cars we had ridden 14 miles and still had no place to spend the night. We found a store and bought a new stove and air mattress, but by then it was raining and almost dark and we were exhausted. We ended up staying in a hotel in Virginia Beach (again) which was a little bit of a let down as staying in hotels had lost some of its charm and we longed for more solitude.

We packed up in Friday morning and after a last, quick bike ride down the boardwalk, drove north back across the Bay Bridge up to Chincoteague Island. It was raining on and off as biked around the refuge. We saw flocks of glossy ibis, nesting bald eagles, teals, yellowlegs, egrets and many other birds. It was cool to see the eagles, but I was frankly a bit cranky about the rain by then. We rode the trails, walked the seashore and visited the Assateague lighthouse (not sure how that was on Chincoteague, but hey we had been lost before). By late afternoon it was raining in earnest and we packed up and drove up to Lewes to catch the ferry back to Cape May in the morning. We were both a bit grumpy about the rain by then (and about our adventure ending), so we ordered in Chinese and watched TV, too crabby to venture out again.

On Saturday, April 23rd, we ferried on very rough seas (not fun) to Cape May and drove, in the pouring rain, 7 hours to upstate NY. We were pretty solemn heading north, silently listened to a book on CD the whole way. About 90-minutes from home Richard directed us into Saratoga Springs State Park. We got out and rode around the park for an hour or so (about 8 miles) looking at the sulfur springs and exploring the trails. There were no green trees yet and dirty snow banks were here and there but the forest was beautiful with a hint of bird song and reminded us why we live in the far north. Refreshed, we got back in the car and the last leg of the trip went quickly. At home it was 50° (not bad) and the spring peepers were singing in the wetlands as we unpacked the car. It was quiet and peaceful and we’d gotten all the way home without getting lost.

Shooting Tigers

It’s feeling distinctly like the end of summer. The birds have stopped calling in the woods. The fireflies have stopped blinking at night in the field. The crickets have started their continuous chirping and once in a while find their way into my kitchen to make a loud complaint and then go silent just when I get close enough to shut them up with my shoe. (No, I wouldn’t, I swear.) And I have started to think about how to get the returning schools to start using the website.

The only way to have a site rise in the search engines is through links and site traffic. It’s the catch 22 of internet commerce. You have to get them on the site to rise in the search engines so they can find you to get on the site. I have gone to library conferences, visited schools, sent hundreds of invites to schools all over the world and slowly the traffic is increasing… slowly (the retreat of glaciers comes to mind). I decided to vastly increase the content this summer to attract a wider age range.

I added biomes, latin names, dozens of more animals, search programs, anatomy, animal sounds, how to draw activities, glossaries and all the things that kids and educators wrote in to tell me would improve the site (I asked them, so I have no one to blame but myself when they actually told me).

The biggest project was the addition of wildlife movies. With the loan of my brother’s digital video, I started shooting small 2-minute movies for the website. This started when a friend, who works for Discovery, assured me that all the wildlife sites were doing it and if I didn’t start pod-casting the world would just pass me by. (And no one wants that!)

It has turned out to be a revelation. For one thing, who knew there was so much darn wildlife around to film. We have made 25 films so far and counting. Everywhere I look there was a newt, a bat, a turtle, birds, bugs or hippos. Okay, so there are no hippos usually, but when your brother is a zoo vet, you do get film like that and you might as well use it.

Suddenly the family wedding in Colorado was a chance to film quaking aspen and ground squirrels, the weekend at the lake a chance to film nesting osprey, a hike with the dog turned him into the narrator (dogs rarely get humiliated even when you dress them). I almost got stung by wasps while trying to film baby birds in their nest. And the only reason I lay down in the road to film a newt crossing was because I knew there would be little or no traffic. (I swear officer, ask my dog). All in all it’s been a great experience in learning how to look for interesting things around you. There is always something happening.

So when I got a call from Scott last week that he wanted my help in Florida with some tiger surgeries, visions of tiger movies danced in my head. I don’t help with the surgery, mind you, I just fetch things for him and in this case he wanted me to document the surgery with his digital camera. So this weekend, I will fly to the tiger compound, video in tow and shoot movies.

Now I am just hoping someone will call to invite me to do something this weekend so I can tell them, “Sorry, I’ll be in Florida shooting tigers.” I mean, how could I resist that?