Saturday, April 29, 2006

Put Your Trust In …

I've been fishing for more years than I can remember. Never in all that time have I been asked for my license. This incredible run of luck has never encouraged me to not buy a license. It’s a small price to pay, I think, for all the good it does. So I had my non-resident license in my pocket this time, as usual.
I was in the middle of the Batten Kill, on the New York state side, west of the border with Vermont, working the four miles of catch and release water, dazzled by the scenery and beginning to wonder if my toes had fallen off since my feet no longer seemed attached to my legs. I had not seen another human for hours. I had that creepy feeling on the back of my neck, however, like someone was about to criticize my backcast. I looked over my shoulder and there stood a guy from, I think, U.S. Fish and Wildlife!
He asked how the fishing was going, that sort of stuff. Then we exchanged small talk about the weather and how gorgeous this place was. The usual stuff guys do, but less obvious than dogs. Then he says, “Ya know, I have to ask you about your license, but first I'd like to ask you to do a favor for me.”
Hmmm. “Sure,” says I. Then he says, “I really don't want to climb into my waders and walk out there, so would you take this thermometer and hold it about a foot below the surface and tell me the temperature?”
“Sure,” says I. It was 47 degrees! No wonder my feet were so cold. And no wonder the trout weren't moving. They're too smart to expend much energy below 50 degrees.
So the guy records the temperature then says, “You do have a license, right?”
“Sure,” says I. And before I could remember which of the 27 pockets on my fishing vest it was in, he says thanks and was gone.
Now, given that fishermen have an undeserved reputation for stretching the truth on occasion, this guy was either quite trusting or he was a fly fisher.

Friday, April 28, 2006

A Day on the Stream

The first gift my granddaughter, Ruby, gave me was the opportunity to fish the Batten Kill. (The second was a gift card to Starbucks. At 10-days-old, this kid really has my number.) She had the good sense and good fortune to be born in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Her grandmother and I headed north with the spring migrants as soon as time and vacation arrangements allowed. Rain and unseasonably chilly temperatures for mid April kept me inside the first couple days, doing all the things a grandpa is supposed to do—like staying out of the way doing home repair chores.
The weather broke by midweek and I was off to the Holy water of the famed Batten Kill, or Battenkill, take your pick on the spelling.
The beautiful river has its start in the Green Mountains of Vermont and follows a winding course of about 50 miles in its rush to get to the Hudson River. About half that distance is in New York state.
I opted to fish the sections around Eagleville and Battenville—early home of Susan B. Anthony—in the shadow of covered bridges and freshly budding maple, willow and sycamore trees.
As writer John Gierach has said, any guy who starts a fishing story by telling you how beautiful the place is, probably didn’t catch any fish. And so it was. The Batten Kill is a dry-fly fisher’s dream. Incredibly clear water. Long, smooth runs. Pools so deep they appear bottomless. Riffles that go for a quarter mile. Not another human in sight—which should have been a clue.
Late in the afternoons the blue-wing olives and Hendricksons started hatching. Swarms of insects that created a frenzy of activity among the tree swallows, Eastern phoebes and some empidonax fly catchers I could not identify.
One afternoon I was treated to some music by a nearby barred owl. It sounded close but I could not find it. I watched a pileated woodpecker hammer out its nesting cavity and happened upon a half dozen common megansers sunning themselves on a gravel bar.
All-in-all a successful day or two on the stream. Anyone who thinks fly fishing is about catching fish misses the point. It’s about not doing what others expect of you.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Off the Beaten Path

Sunday, Susan and I took a hike into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to check an area we'd never visited—which is easy enough to do in this huge gem we call our backyard. Our hike took us straight into the arms of the park. It was one of those areas we drive by all the time and always say, "Someday we're going to have to climb that hill and ..."
Someday finally arrived. This was not a trail you'll find on the map. We just followed the path of least resistance. Everywhere it was evident that winter had marched out with its heavy boots on. Left behind were wounds that Nurse Spring was doing her best to heal and hide. Spring beauties, cut-leaf toothwort and coltsfoot blanketed the hillside. May apples poked up through last year's long-dead grasses and weed stalks. And garlic mustard. Everywhere was invasive garlic mustard.
Another invasive species was the amount of trash. Several balloons from some gala had drifted in. We resolved to bring a trash bag with us next time to haul out the trash mindless people left behind. How can people leave their trash in a spot that is preserved for its beauty?
We followed a deer track to the top of a hill. Along the way ruby-crowned kinglets oblivious to us humans busied themselves. More than a half dozen noisy red-breasted nuthatches gleaned what they could from the bark of walnut and conifer trees. Flitting all around us was a large flock of brown creepers.
We paused for lunch on top of another hill that offered a commanding view of the Cuyahoga River. A cooperative yellow-bellied sapsucker provided us with an excellent study opportunity. We noted how his legs seem to be set wider on his body than most birds so that he "hugs" the tree as he climbs. To compare and contrast, we had a steady stream of red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, a downy woodpecker and pileated woodpeckers to keep us entertained. We ended the day with 46 species and the warblers have yet to arrive.
That's the way to spend a Sunday morning.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Mysteries of Spring

Susan and I went for an early spring bird walk with our favorite naturalist, Wendy, to our favorite spot in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We call the spot Warbler Ridge. Don’t look at the map, you’ll not find the name. We gave it that designation years ago after a great day of birding there.
The real benefit of birding with a naturalist, as opposed to an ornithologist, is that she makes you look at things other than the birds—the ground for instance.
This spot is a bit off the trail and I suppose, if everyone strayed from the straight and narrow path, the place would begin to look like downtown Cleveland. However, we try to walk gentle on the land.
While watching where to put my feet and looking for wildflowers, I was stunned to see the corner of a $20 bill peaking out of the grass! On closer inspection we realized the bill was part of a field mouse’s nest. I gently removed the $20. One small nibble in the corner—not even as much deterioration as inflation—was the only damage.
How did a $20 bill get out here? We looked around for more. Nope, just the one and no sign of the mouse, either.
Who says birding doesn’t pay?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Early Bloggers

I’ve recently been reading "Saratoga," written by Richard L. Ketchum. The book is a fascinating, in-depth look at the Revolutionary War battle that changed American history.
In this age of instant communications, the fact that it took letters weeks and months to go from one place to another—assuming they arrived at all—is hard to believe. Even more interesting are the challenges faced by people who created those communications.
For example: Where did they get ink with which to write home? It was challenge enough to find paper and quill pens. The ink was a special situation in which nature played a major role—more so in those days than it does now.
Powdered ink was carried by most soldiers. With it they recorded the important and mundane moments of the life of a soldier in the field. From the letters they wrote and diaries they kept, we get a glimpse of what life must have been like. The terror of soldiering, however, rarely filters through.
Ketchum says the ink was known as gall ink, made of ferrous sulfate (or copperas) and galls from the bark of oak trees. Both contain tannic and gallic acid. The two substances were mixed with gum arabic from the Middle East to give body to the ink and keep it from flowing too fast. The ingredients were then reduced and sifted through cloth to make a fine powder.
When a soldier wanted to write a letter, he mixed the powder with rainwater (something all soldiers have always had an abundance of, except maybe our current crop of warriors), or he used white wine or beer—always in short supply.
And we complain about hard drives crashing and servers going down.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Time Machine

Someone turned on the time machine last night. Fortunately, I had drifted back just a month or so, into February, before the alarm propelled me into my day. A cool number on the calendar – 4/5/6.
A couple inches of snow surrounded the daffodils, which only a couple days ago had been struggling to make an appearance and had finally broken through the frozen earth. Now this – again. Some greeting for them after so long an absence.
I surveyed the tracks in the yard as my coffee maker finished its daily death rattle. The whiteness of the snow looked so melancholy. Here and there the daffodils and brave hyacinths looked like they had been planted in snow instead of soil. Crocuses, like the local baseball team, were saying, “wait ‘til next year.”

Monday, April 03, 2006

Endings and Beginnings

It was dark—again—while waiting for the bus this morning.
The first day back to work since we entered the Twilight Zone, a.k.a., Daylight Stupid Time.
Venus displayed her beauty in the eastern sky. Jupiter headed for some rest in the west, still bright after putting on a show all night.
An American robin competed with his brethren and three northern cardinals. Cardinals won on extra points, given for their bright-colored outfits.
The smell of worms pleasantly outdid the fumes of traffic at this early hour.
All of this, proof that there is life under the shroud of winter.