Wednesday, October 29, 2008

When Rain Isn’t

I knew what was approaching as soon as I heard the sound. People who spend time in the woods are more in tune with rain than those who do not. We outsiders more often hear it coming; insiders see it coming. In a good forest you can hear rain approach from a mile away. You can hear it sneaking by you, hidden by the canopy. Like the bears, deer and other creatures. You know it’s there. It’s part of the experience.
Depending on whether you’re a casual walker or a serious hiker, you respond differently to the threat of rain. If you’re just out for a stroll in the woods, your reaction might be to stop, look, then high-tail it for the car. Backpackers, meanwhile, never break their stride. Their minds are active reviewing options. Like, stop and put on the pack cover like you should have done earlier, get wet ‘cause you know you won’t shrink (and could use a bit of cleaning), or mentally calculating how long until you reach the next shelter.
I glanced up and noticed the early morning sky was that hard-to-believe shade of blue. Sun was streaming through the branches ahead like the beams of thousands of flashlights. Yet, there was that unmistakable sound of rain slowly coming up behind me. I turned to see if I’d be getting wet—well not “if” so much as to what degree I’d be getting wet.
Fooled again! Leaves were cascading from the sky in a red, orange and gold shower. It was the wind loosing dry droplets of beech, oak, maple and hickory. All around me the leaves were falling, not in that floaty, helter-skelter way they usually do, but in a quiet, ordered manner. A perfect, uninterrupted flow from branch to bed. Orderly lines of color against a blue background.
The breeze passed over me just as a shower would have. I held my mouth open trying to catch one of the golden beech leaves like I do with snow flakes. No luck. My body seemed to emit some invisible force that shunted the leaves past and to their designated spot on the forest floor.
It rained for 15 or 20 minutes. I picked up my daypack, now with its icing of leaves, and headed on in the direction of the wind.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wait Until this Year

Writer John Gierach noted that anyone who starts a fish story by telling you how beautiful the scenery was, probably didn’t catch any fish. Well, let me tell you how gorgeous the Cuyahoga Valley is at this time of year. Our first day of steelheading was more about driving and occasionally waving a stick at the water, than about catching fish.
Maybe I should back up and offer a few definitions and some backgrounder. In this neck of the woods, as temperatures drop and rain comes in sheets rather than droplets, some people hunker down and darn near hibernate for the next six or seven months. There is a small percentage who embrace the evil weather—wish for worse, even. We call ourselves steelheaders. It has nothing to do with the structure of our heads. It’s about the species of trout we do battle with. These fish, with their 2K brains, and us with enough money invested in tackle to bale out the Bush administration, will try to out wit each other for the next four or five months.
Steelhead (a form of rainbow trout) relax for a few years, swimming around in Lake Erie, trying not to be eaten or caught. When conditions are just right, meaning fresh, cold water in the streams, in they come with reproduction on their minds. They go at it like teenagers; lots of thrashing about without accomplishing much other than bragging rights. Our stream bottoms are not suited for the egg-laying process. The steelies don’t know that. With steelhead, reproduction is more about attitude than actuality.
And although it was a bit early in the season, cool weather and a flurry of emails between fishing buddy Tom and myself, filled us both with false hope. I volunteered to scout river conditions after last week’s rain. Looked good. The local fishing Web sites weren’t encouraging. We rationalized that away with the notion that these guys were not being forthcoming. They had hopes of keeping those first big fish all to themselves. Our steelhead fishery has improved so much that even catching a 30-inch-fish won’t get your picture in the papers.
Following the email came phone calls. Eventually, we settled on a time and meeting place. The fishing trip was taking on the trappings of a small invasion. We were discussing strategies and tactics like a couple of politicians.
Morning of Fish Day, while taking care of the things I should have taken care of the night before, my cell phone started chirping. It was Tom. Slight wrinkle, but nothing major. We were adding another troop to the invasion force. He’d swing by John’s house and still be at the appointed spot on time. Fifteen minutes later my cell phone started to make my leg vibrate, which only induces panic with me. Tom again. Another wrinkle. This one more serious.
He’d been busted going through a school zone by the slowest-ticket-writing cop in three counties. He used a lot of words I’d rather not repeat. Tom’s discomfort provided about all the material John and I would need for a day of cracking wise, as misfortune to one in the party tends to do with fly fishers.
After what seemed like an endless search for the right spot on the river to start, we settled on a spot that had a couple other fishers already in place. I also noted that we had about run out of river since I could see the mouth and the lake beyond if I leaned out far enough.
Well, suffice to say, we spent a pleasant day, driving around to a couple of rivers and fishing in some really scenic spots. We ended the day with virtually every cliché we could muster: That’s why they call it fishing and not catching, it’s not always about catching fish, a great day to just stand in the water …
Unlike our hapless baseball team that every year, usually on opening day, says, “Wait’ll next year,” we can at least look forward to November and say, “Wait’ll this year.”

Monday, October 13, 2008

Coyote and Roadrunner—Not exactly

Beep, beep! Maybe it was because we had just spent a weekend with the grandkids, however, the whole scene had a cartoon ambience about it. I was hiking along an unnamed trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park that we call the Ridge Walk. It’s a great hike, off the beaten path except for the occasional dog walker.
I was standing in an open, small meadow-like area examining the sparrows working over the various seed pods. At this time of the year you have to check every little brown bird you see, just in case one will be something special, like a LaConte’s Sparrow, or maybe a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow.
I noticed a dark, roundish blob moving through the high grass and waited until I could determine it was a Wild Turkey. I don’t know what else it could have been, but you never know. It worked it’s way toward me as I stood as still as possible. In that wild animal way, it somehow sensed my presence and jerked its head up with a surprised look that only a wild turkey can produce.
Off it raced in the direction of the nearest safety of trees. I don’t take offense at this when wild critters dash off as soon as they spot me. Their goal in life is not to be eaten so they err on the side of safety. If we humans adopted that same philosophy, not to be eaten, we’d probably never speak with investment bankers.
Anyway, I watch Tom turkey high-tail it into the woods. Just as I was about to go back to studying the sparrows, I see the turkey coming back at me at a high rate of speed. Only now, close on his heels was a Coyote! About 50 feet into the clearing the Coyote spotted me, screeched to a halt and turned back toward the woods. The turkey, figuring I was less likely to have him for dinner, dashed past within 25 feet, making a beeline for the trees on the other side of the meadow.
All the activity scared up a lot of sparrows and a lot of laughs, for me at least.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Bird in the Hand …

It was one of those fine, crisp mornings in late September. The kind of day that reminds us of why we live in northeast Ohio. I was hiking along the Hike & Bike Trail in northern Summit County.
An impressive array of birds kept my walking pace to a minimum. I counted eight Eastern Towhees on the move south, chipping as they went as if only one guy had the road map and they needed to stay in contact with him. I saw my first White-crowned Sparrow of the fall season. The first surprise bird of the day, a juvenile Northern Mocking Bird, popped onto a nearby snag. Great spot in this part of the county. I’ve seen the occasional adult in the area, but never a juvenile. Does this mean they’re nesting here about?
The second surprise bird was at the other end of the life spectrum. Lying in the middle of the bike path, toes pointing at the cloudless sky, was what I first took to be a warbler species. Well, at least it’s something to add to my Dead List, I thought. I picked it up and realized I had an identification challenge to deal with. Hmmm. Confusing fall warbler, for sure. After a few minutes of contemplation I bagged the bird for further examination at home.
As I was heading back, I ran into Ann and Dwight Chasar, birders extraordinaire. After a brief chat I pulled out my specimen for an expert opinion. Hmmm, was the consensus. I suggested I back off 25 feet and they look at it through binoculars. This close-up examination was creating confused fall birders. Too much information when you can examine them in the hand, I thought.
We three more-or-less agreed that it’s probably a Red-eyed Vireo. Since Susan volunteers with Andy Jones at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, preparing the museum’s bird-study collection, I’ve turned the bird over to her to give to Andy for the final identification. Dr. Andy goes beyond examining a bird in the hand. He gets into the DNA of the matter.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Buck Stops …

Actually, the buck stops any place he damn well chooses in October. For example, I was hiking down the northeastern loop of the Carriage Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park this morning, just minding my business and that of any other creature I happened to see.
So this morning I stopped to watch a Pileated Woodpecker destroying a fallen tree. He had the chips flying like he was getting paid for the job. I heard the leaves rustle behind me and over my shoulder saw two does walking, cautiously, in my direction. Around here, whitetail deer are as plentiful as, well, as whitetail deer. It’s not uncommon in a four-mile hike to see a dozen or more deer, grazing or doing whatever deer do when they think no one is watching.
Since no one was listening I said to these two, “’Morning ladies.” They halted, looked at each other, then looked back and to their right.
There stood a huge buck, looking at me. Through my binoculars I counted eight points on each antler. I’m not sure how they count the points when hunters talk about an X-point buck, however, this dude had a rack! I don’t want to get too deeply into personification here, however, I had the distinct feeling this guy was looking at me as if I was looking at his lady friends with something other than a naturalist’s curiosity.
My 2k brain was running the options available to me in case this guy wanted to make a point—or two. Climbing a tree seemed the only thing available. I opted for a stare-down. I may have read somewhere that staring at a wild animal is not the best plan of attack. But, heck, it had worked with squirrels and chipmunks, why not this big guy?
He snorted a couple times and the does changed their trajectory to pass by further to the left. He watched them move on up into the trees, frequently turning to see what I was going to do. Since he looked away first I declared myself the winner of the stare-down and wished him a tolerable day as I walked on down the path.
It’s that time of the year when bucks stop here and there and everywhere.