Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cookies and Christmas and Snow, oh boy!

If you are looking for something different to bake for Christmas cookies this year, I'll post the recipes for my Cracker Jills and my grandmother's Spicicles. The Spicicles took my grandmother to the 15th Pillsbury Grand National Bake-Off in Los Angeles in autumn of 1963. And the Cracker Jills took me as a junior finalist to San Francisco's 17th Pillsbury Busy Lady Bake-Off in January, 1966. I was 15, so my mother came along too. What a grand time Pillsbury showed everyone, putting us up in the Fairmont Hotel and dining us all over town. We had Coq au Vin and Rhubarb Pie at the Mark Hopkins, and toured the city on buses--a wild ride up and down those hills after all those ladies had chicken with wine! My grandmother made several life-long friends at her Bake-Off, and I am still in contact with one, Edna, who is about 95 now. In fact, Edna was a finalist several other times also. They finally made a rule limiting the number of times that one person can win. Her youngest daughter and I were penpals for years, and actually relocated each other in the 90s and got together for a visit. Pat Boone was the host for the awards program, and wow, he was even better looking in person!

These two recipes are a bit more labor-intensive than those we are used to nowadays. Especially the Cracker Jills. You need a sturdy mixer for the dough, and to fold in the crackers and peanuts, use a stout wooden spoon and a lot of muscle. But the flavors are so good that they are worth the effort.

I hope you enjoy them! (Hint: you can tell the Cracker Jills are done by lifting one with a spatula to check the bottom--if it's just starting to brown, they're done. They will be very soft until they cool.)


(Stella Mergel, 1963 Pillsbury Bake-Off)

2 ½ cups all purpose flour

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. cinnamon

¼ tsp. ground cloves

¼ tsp. cardamom

1 cup powdered sugar

1 cup butter, softened

1 egg

1 cup raisins

¾ cup chopped walnuts

½ cup chopped dates

¼ cup finely chopped candied pineapple (or other candied fruit)

powdered sugar for rolling before baking

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

In large mixer bowl or food processor combine all ingredients except walnuts, raisins, dates and candied fruit. Blend well. Stir in remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Using about 1 rounded tsp. of dough, shape into finger shapes, place on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 12-15 minutes (till bottoms begin to brown), cool and roll in additional powdered sugar.

Or, instead of rolling in powdered sugar, cookies may be frosted with buttercream vanilla frosting and dipped in grated coconut after baking.

Cracker Jills

(Lee Ann Reiners 1966 Pillsbury Bake-Off)

1 3-oz. package cream cheese, softened

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 ¼ cups firmly packed brown sugar

½ cup butter

¼ cup molasses

½ tsp. baking soda

1 egg

1 cup salted Spanish peanuts

1-1 ½ cups coarsely crushed saltine crackers

about ½- ¾ cup sugar

Combine the 1st seven ingredients in a food processor or mixer until well blended.

Add the peanuts & crackers and fold into dough.

Cover and chill for about 2 hours.

Place sugar in a bowl. Shape dough into small balls using a rounded teaspoonful of dough for each. Roll in sugar and place on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake at 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent of Winter: wow, that came on fast!

Almost overnight this year, we went from nearly summer-like weather to ice, heavy snow and sub-freezing temperatures! Charlie has both the pellet and corn stoves going each day, and Maggie and Kali have been cuddling next to each other to catch those heat rays. Nighttime lows have often been into the teens. Surprisingly, the unheated greenhouse, although mostly empty, still has seedling petunias surviving in a pot. The midday sunshine is heating the black garbage bags that are filled with pine needles (used like straw in my little dog's tiny poop-pee yard), and in turn they seem to be providing enough night heat to keep those tiny petunias green. It is staying warm enough during the days to keep the Allegheny flowing freely past our house, and finally the ducks and geese are beginning to show their faces.

We have had a lot of Mallards these past few weeks. Mixed in with one flock was a Northern Pintail which stayed for only a day or two before likely moving on. The Canada Geese are back in numbers, and I am trying to learn how to distinguish them from the new Cackling Geese. The Cackling Goose was considered to be a subspecies of the Canada Goose, but in 2004, the American Ornithologist's Union's Committee on Classification and Nomenclature split them into two species: the small-bodied Branta hutchinsii is now the Cackling Goose, while the large-bodied Canada Goose is still Branta canadensis. Although they are referred to by body size, this is a most unreliable means of identification. To further complicate matters, both species are divided into subspecies. Several of the more prominent features are head shape, bill size and the form of the white chin-strap. For comprehensive discussion and photos, you can find detailed information at these websites:

Several Cackling Geese have been reported in Pennsylvania this fall, as listed on the PaBirds email list. So when you see a flock of Canadas, don't just shrug them off as I have been doing--check every individual.

Back to the snow: I was hoping to go skiing or snowshoeing today, but over the past few days our 15 inches of snow has receded to a few inches and bare patches. That tends to make for rather poor glide on skis and renders snowshoes unnecessary. With the prediction of freezing rain today, it seems like a good one to sit in the sunroom with binoculars on my lap, watching for waterfowl. Maybe our resident Greylag goose will come 'round for a handout of corn. (I just looked and yes, he's back and guarding his cache of cracked corn from the Canada Geese and Mallards!) And it's a good day to mull some thoughts and post them.

Did everyone get the gardens put to bed for winter? I was in the process, but the sudden turn in the weather stalled activities till spring. I still have carrots and cabbage in the vegetable beds, blanketed under the snow and ready for me to harvest when I am ready for them. I may let the carrots remain all winter and see how sweet they are by spring. An old farmer once told me that the frozen ground sweetens them, so now I should find out if he was right.

In keeping with the holiday season, the winterberry hollies are festooned with their bright orange-red berries. It is probably a good time to hike the Muddy Creek Holly Trail near Cambridge Springs, PA, on the Erie National Wildlife Refuge. This trail is a delight year-round, full of surprises each time I visit. (Although the next few weeks are not good times except on Sundays, when the hunters and their prey have a day of rest.)

I have some suggestions for your Christmas shopping list. In our family, we used to go all out, spending lots of cash on big-ticket items and going broke. We have cut back tremendously in recent years, and I like to include donations in my giving in place of some of the wasteful spending. A few of the organizations I've donated to in the past and currently include:

+Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center
+Presque Isle Audubon Society
+any of a number of animal rescue organizations such as Because You Care, your local Humane Society, and the national animal welfare groups
And of course the veterans' organizations who support both local and national causes, including the scouting programs, Angel Trees in the local community, gift packages for service personnel overseas, and local support for veterans' homes and rides to and from doctors' appointments.

The birds are congregating outside. It's time to wrap this up and clutch the binoculars (by the way, a great gift for the nature lovers on your list are binocs, cameras, field guides and memberships in wildlife, botanical and conservation groups), and sit by the window and watch the best show of the season.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Autumn Along the Allegheny

It has been awhile since I worked on this blog--a lot has been happening around here. In addition to my sore toe and knee, we have had out of town visitors and are working on more remodeling in our home. Or rather, Charlie is working on the remodeling and I am trying to stay out of his way!

The autumn leaves, while not as spectacular as in years when we had colder autumn nights, are still rather beautiful. They are waning a bit as rain and wind take their toll, but I was able to fit in several autumn leaf tours in the last few weeks. The most spectacular displays were in Kinzua Dam country, with golds, yellows, maroons and reds sparkling in the sunshine. I drove to Jake's Rocks high above the reservoir and caught some photos of the rocks, plants and even a chipmunk. The brilliant blue sky set off the details of the scenery and it created photo opportunities for shutterbugs from all over. As time has passed, the brilliant colors have transformed into muted shades of earth tones such as the rich browns of the oaks, which will retain their leaves well into the fall and winter months. The papery wheat-colored beech leaves quiver in the breeze as they still cling for dear life to their mother tree. The feathery rubicund sumac leaves camouflage the fuzzy crimson berries.

Below the overcoat of the autumn woodland lie the smaller, less apparent plants, like the Indian Cucumber Root with its shiny black berries carried above flaxen leaves that are painted with dabs of cranberry. Various types of ferns, shrubs, vines and mushrooms flaunt stages of growth and hibernation--Christmas fern and its leathery green leaves provide a spot of green against the winter's icy white; red wintergreen and partridgeberries show a hint of Christmas season colors; sassafras sheds its yellow-green mittens contrary to the coming cold blast. And everywhere I strolled I found broken acorns left behind by foraging squirrels and chipmunks, crunching underfoot with snaps as crisp as the chilly autumn day.

This is a time of year to play in the woods with your camera. Yes, I am advocating cameras in place of the guns of autumn! Take pictures and memories, leave only a trace of tracks. (Wear blaze orange during hunting season though--we don't want your lifeless carcass dragged out because you blended in with nature too well....

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bloomingdale Bog Trail in the Adirondacks: an afternoon of beauty (plus a bit about canoes!)

On our first full day in the Adirondacks, we drove over to Lake Placid to visit Charlie Wilson and Joe Moore at Placid Boatworks. For those of you unfamiliar with canoes, Charlie and Joe build high-end top-quality canoes from David Yost designs. David Yost, known as DY in the paddling world, is probably the most prolific designer of human-powered water craft alive today. Owning a DY canoe is akin to owning a Harley Davidson bike, without the pollution. His interest in canoe design began in the sixties when he built his own solo marathon racers. He designed canoes for Sawyer in the seventies and has designed tandem and solo canoes for Curtis, Bell, Loon Work and Swift, and touring kayaks and sit-on-tops for Perception. I have owned several DY designed canoes over the years, each one perfect for its intended use. The man knows his boats!

Charlie and I each own a Placid Boatworks Spitfire: his is a black recycled model and mine is a garnet gem that slips through the water like a knife through soft butter. It is reminiscent of the Sawyer Summersong I owned in the mid eighties, only it’s half the weight of that Goldenglass boat. We were interested in seeing what Joe and Charlie are up to these days in their quest for building the perfect canoe. They now offer a light-tech version of their models, using carbon instead of wooden trim…trimming several pounds from the finished version.

Now, I know my Charlie, and I could see the flecks of foam forming, drool build-up, as Charlie Wilson talked and demonstrated their manufacturing techniques. I checked my watch. By the time he turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of their lot, only seconds passed till he began planning the sale of his Spitfire to make room in the wallet and on the wall of the garage for a new Rapidfire XLT.

We are a match made in heaven. When I buy something new, he gets bitten by the spending bug too. And when he buys something new…well, you know how that goes. But I just bought my Spitfire in May, so I’ll keep it for several years before upgrading to a Spitfire XLT! By that time, Charlie and Joe will have made more advances in their product line and I’ll be able to get one up on my Charlie!

With visions of pretty new boats dancing in our heads, we sought out the trailhead for the Bloomingdale Bog Trail. This straight and level trail is a former D & H railroad grade, four miles long. A birder’s paradise, we saw Boreal and Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, White-throated Sparrow, Blue-headed Vireo, American Redstart, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Cedar Waxwing and others along this trail. That is, while we actually birded. I was so busy stuffing my mouth with the wild blueberries that I’m sure I missed many birds.

Mushrooms. Everywhere. August is mushroom month, and the Adirondacks area is no exception. Of course, true to form, I left my mushroom field guide (Orson K. Miller’s Mushrooms of North America) at home. I took tons of photos, but without being able to actually collect and study each specimen, making spore prints, it’s difficult to ID mushrooms by pictures alone. But that’s where my other hobby kicks in and makes it all worthwhile—photography. Now I need to find a contest to enter all these great photos! Maybe someday I’ll win enough money to pay for all the equipment I bought over the years.

Some of the wildflowers in bloom along the Bloomingdale Bog Trail included bottle gentian, pearly everlasting, bunchberry, dalibarda, St. Johnswort, Joe-pye weed, various goldenrods and asters. There were a few mushrooms I can ID without the guide: Amanita muscaria and puffballs! Mosses, lichens, clubmosses, shrubs with berries (dogwoods, choke berries and choke cherries), all added to the mystical charm of the trail. I am eager to revisit the Adirondacks in May, when the spring wildflowers are in bloom instead of just in berry and seed.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dead Creek in the Adirondacks is full of life

It has been a few weeks since I have added to my musings. We spent a week in the Adirondacks, camping at Rollins Pond Campground and hiking, canoeing and botanizing from that base of operations. It never fails: as a vacation approaches, I do frantic research to eke out the best of the best places to see so we can make the most of the limited time we’ll have.

After all the studying and note-taking, it often turns out that you don’t know what’s best till you get there. After seeking out a birding area I had read of, we discovered it was closed, not to open until the day after we left the Adirondacks. After turning back and heading the way we had come, we whipped over into a parking area that caught my eye along Rt. 3. It was an access to Dead Creek (one of several “Dead Creeks” in the Adirondacks!), a quiet meander through a swampland. We put on and started upstream.

Around the first bend I found our first cardinal flowers in bloom. I snagged a few shots of them, then headed toward the groan I heard from Charlie. As I rounded the next bend, he sat forlornly looking at a downed hemlock tree blocking the stream in front of his canoe. We mulled it over for a moment, then pouring on the paddle power, I rammed onto the spit of land beside it. The momentum carried me far enough that I could step out, pull my little 12-pound Sairy Gamp over, and step back in to continue upstream.

But around a few more bends and it was Charlie’s turn to respond to my groan. A beaver dam. Not being the sort to destroy something so intricate and complex, we discussed it briefly before turning back the way we’d just come. Ram back up on the spit, pull the canoes over, step back in and paddle back toward the put-in.

I had our waterproof map of the region and after poring over it, we continued downstream under the Rt. 3 bridge and headed to the Raquette River. Although the sound of the highway traffic stayed with us for awhile, the chirps and whistles in the swamp soon caught all of our attention. Along here we saw Great Blue Herons, Waxwings, Swamp Sparrows and signs of beavers and muskrats. I explored several side channels that were cut by beavers en route to the stream. On the bank of one channel I found a muskrat scent mound, and two large beaver lodges were cleverly placed behind shrubs so that they were very well camouflaged. Several dead snags provided hunting grounds for woodpeckers.

We paddled along for 50 minutes, crossing a few shoddy beaver dams built as if the beavers were of a lazy tribe. They yielded to the canoes and sprang back into shape afterward as if we hadn’t been there at all. Eventually we floated out onto the Raquette River itself and paddled a few hundred yards upstream. But signs of human occupation—cottages, campsites—urged us to turn back the way we’d just come. Although it felt like we’d paddled a few miles, in reality it was only 9/10 of a mile from the Rt. 3 access to the Raquette. The return trip, minus the side channels and long looks at birdlife, only took about 15 minutes.

As we relaxed that evening at our campsite on Rollins Pond, a grand sunset lit the sky and led us into twilight. The perfect end to a perfect day.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Lazy August Saturday on French Creek

Seven of us (Sawyer George, Laura, Ed, Rick, Tom, Charlie and I, plus Maggie ) gathered yesterday to paddle from Cochranton to Utica on French Creek. Six of us put in on private property (with permission) a few hundred yards upstream of the access area. That allowed us to run the chute and standing waves before we picked up our new kayaker, Tom, at the access.

Immediately below the bridge in Cochranton, we saw an Osprey flying upstream. We speculated on how few of these birds we've seen this summer, and our expert birder Tom suggested that it might be because of all the rain and the muddiness of the water, which makes sighting the fish difficult.

The water level was as close to perfect as possible: high enough to move along at a good current but not so high as to be too pushy and dangerous in a strainer situation. Many of us love to paddle the back channels, which is where the strainers might be encountered on this section of the creek. At one point, several of our group took a rather shallow back channel and the rest of us went past it because we saw them out of their boats in the shallows. When we arrived at the bottom of the channel, there was no sign of the others. We paddled up the channel till we found them on the other side of a snag, loafing. Suddenly we heard a loud splash: Sawyer George took a swim! I knew he would stand up in his canoe one time too many! Once he was back in his boat, they headed down the other back channel and avoided the snag, meeting us at the convergence.

Among the birds we saw in addition to the Osprey were Rough-winged and Tree Swallows, Red-tail Hawks, Green (juvenile) and Great Blue Herons, many Cedar Waxwings, geese and others. Ed lives near the take-out and gave us an update on all the eagle nests in the area, including one that came down this year after the young fledged.
August wildflowers were in full bloom and included ironweed, Joe-pye weed, wild dodder, boneset, goldenrod, various milkweeds, phlox, jewelweed--both orange(Spotted) and yellow (Pale), sunflowers and coneflowers, virgin's bower clematis, stinging nettle, enchanter's nightshade and many more.

We stopped for lunch at Deer Creek at the scout camp. Ed led us on a short walk to see Guyasutha's grave, and I snapped a few photos of the wildflowers.

As we paddled along after lunch, listening to the silence....kersplash! Yes, Sawyer George was back in the water. I think this time it was on purpose because he mumbled something about its being so hot.

All too soon the take-out appeared. Laura voiced what we were all thinking: Will someone pick me up in Franklin so I don't have to take out yet?

postscript: Ed told us that the access area in Utica is no longer owned by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. They turned it over to the PA Fish and Boat Commission. So now you need a boat sticker to use this access area. Yet another good access falls victim to the sticker people.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Anders Run Trail and Natural Area

My friends Bob & Jean from Florida came over today and we hiked the Anders Run Trail near Warren, PA. This is a beautiful wooded area with white pines and hemlocks that are 200 years old. The trail was a little tricky in places, but we took it slowly and didn't push too hard. We paused at one point to listen to the Wood Thrush singing in springlike rapture. It was a mushroomer's delight with at least 30 different mushrooms and fungi poking up through the duff. One area sported a bright golden coral fungus type, and we had numerous shelf fungi and varying sizes of cap mushrooms, some so tiny we almost needed a hand lens to see them.

It wasn't a long hike, just 1 1/2 leisurely hours and about 2 miles. But the vividly blue sky and filtered sunlight presented a mosaic of azure and amber amid the dark green of the pines. Several bridges cross the streams, and a few short but steep climbs challenge your stamina a bit.

Anders Run Natural Area is part of Cornplanter State Forest. It is 96 acres and was logged 200 years ago. The old growth trees are there now are the result of no further logging in the narrow Anders Run valley. Some of them are 200-225 years old. Wildflowers and other plants include trilliums, pink lady's slippers, several species of violets, Canada Mayflower, foamflower, partridgeberry, Mayapple, maidenhair ferns, many mushrooms and other plantlife. Big Trees of Pennsylvania lists a Nordmann fir found there as the largest of its kind in the state. It is 96 feet tall and 84 inches in circumference as of 2006. Click on the title of this article for a photo of this tree.

When you go to Anders Run, don't make the same mistake that I did by leaving the camera in the car. I am going to hike it again tomorrow, this time WITH the camera along, as well as the mushroom field guide.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wildflowers Along the River

Although the primary purpose of our overnight canoe trip on the Allegheny River was to get into nature and camp, I quickly discovered that my personal primary purpose became botanizing. The summer wildflowers are in full glory now. And as the water slipped by quietly under my canoe, the changing scenery on shore frequently drew me for a closer look.

We put in Saturday at our house and set forth downstream. Of course the first wildflowers to catch my attention were in my own backyard. On the riverbank I found developing brown-eyed Susan, bedstraw, several varieties of wild sunflowers, lupine that I planted this spring, wild dodder and the horrid invasive, Lythrum--purple loosestrife. There are many others that I have yet to ID, but I'll get out there sometime soon with my Newcomb's guide and check on those.

As we moved down the river, we noticed many stands of smartweed. The white flower spikes tipping over at the tops, weaving in the wind, reminded me of a drunkard leaning wobbly against a light pole. Spots of black snakeroot dotted the banks. Water stargrass sent their leaves to the surface, floating and holding up the buds, soon to bloom. Monkey flower bloomed on the islands, their funny faces dancing on the breezes. And small groups of the ubiquitous purple loosestrife in various bays and inlets were insidiously weaving their roots into the quagmire. When I saw more wild dodder near some loosestrife, I began to wonder if the dodder would take a hold of Lythum and parasitize it, causing a decline in the robustness of this invasive. I'm going to experiment by placing some of my own dodder on my Lythrum and see what happens.

I was surprised to see goldenrods already in bloom, rather early this year--although they may have been a species that blooms earlier than the typical August and September varieties. Next time I will take my field guide along!

We also saw many birds on this trip, as is usual on the Allegheny River. Several eagles put in an appearance, many cedar waxwings danced out from the treetops chasing insects, red-tail hawks circling on the updrafts as were the turkey vultures, redwing blackbirds bringing life to the shoreweeds, common yellowthroats calling "witchity witchity withchity," great-horned and barred owls hooting at night. While investigating a rock formation on the riverside, Charlie saw two juvenile wood ducks who swam into a rock cave upon his approach. Although the photo is rather grainy because I had to push the speed to ISO 1600 to compensate for such darkness, we were able to get enough details to ID them using the Sibley Guide to Birds.

On Sunday as we moved on down the river, distant thunder quickly became an imminent threat. As we passed the Hunter's Station Golf Course, their horn blew, calling all golfers off the course. We headed to shore as the rain pelted us and took shelter under a deadfall tree. Unfortunately, the rain in our eyes blinded us to the stinging nettle we were rushing through. But, fortunately, there was an abundance of jewelweed under the deadfall and we were able to stanch the pain with the crushed stems of Mother Nature's first aid plant. It really does work!

The pelting rain put an end to my botanizing. I took out at the golf course and waited for Charlie to paddle the rest of the way to the car, parked in President, PA. He found me a couple of hours later, holding my saturated little dog and swatting biting flies in the parking lot (where were those cedar waxwings). Another good canoeing story to tell around a future campfire!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

French Creek in the Summer

I simply cannot say enough to praise our wonderful French Creek. As a result of hard work by the French Creek Project and French Creek Conservancy, this treasure of a waterway is home to 27 different species of freshwater mussels and provides habitat for a myriad number of fish and wildlife.

We paddled a section of the creek again last Friday. A small group of us put in at Rt. 97 near Union City, PA, and paddled 9 1/2 miles to Rt. 6 near Mill Village. Along the way we caught a glimpse of a Northern Harrier, some deer and as usual, an eagle or two. I can never get enough of this creek, especially this particular section.

I first paddled a portion of this stretch back in the early 80s when my friend and canoe mentor, Jim Gardner, introduced me to it. With very few houses or cottages along the way, the creek meanders through woodlands and farm fields. The birdsong never fails to delight us, with warblers, cedar waxwings, various hawks and many redwings all contributing their various squeaks, squawks and trills. The cedar waxwing: what a great bird this is! They perch in the tops of the trees along the banks and flit out to chase down and grab a mouthful of insects, landing back in the trees to devour their catches. We usually see hundreds of them along the stream. Kingfishers often fly out and rattle their presence as they head along above the water, watching for a careless fish to swoop down upon. Merganser mamas swim along with their little broods trailing behind, trying their best to climb aboard mama's back to hitch a ride.

I'm going to cut this short...I suddenly have the urge to get out a canoe and go paddling!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Wet Day on the Allegheny River

I don't know if we had more water under us or above us today...but the "above us" water quickly became "under us" water!

Dave, Bev, Grace, Charlie and I met at Buckaloons Monday morning at 10:30. After unloading the boats and packing in our gear, we set off on our adventure on the Allegheny. It didn't take long for the darkening skies to spit at us. But the current was swift and that helped to offset the "gale force" headwind we encountered during one of the early rainfalls. We hugged the shore along Thompson Island to block the wind a bit. But after awhile, the rain died down along with the headwind and we made some real progress. We found a nice little boat access in Althom where we were able to set foot on land to enjoy our lunch and share a bottle of Straub beer, which is brewed nearby in St. Mary's, PA. After we headed back downstream, we were treated to close views of eagles and mergansers. One female merganser had 19 babies with her! I suppose mergs are like Canada geese in that they steal each other's babies! We also watched a deer running along the RR grade for a few hundred yards, and paddled beneath a mature bald eagle when it lit back in a tree overhead after flying up initially at our approach.

We had gone about 2/3 of the way when the sky blackened and finally burst. No more spitting, these clouds meant business and they really peed on us bigtime! We headed for shore and knocked on a cottage door, but no one was home. So we sheltered under their carport, while Dave stood for awhile under his Tupper. We thought he was being brave and strong and showing us what a Real Man does in a storm...but when he finally joined us under the carport, he let it be known that he had ulterior motives involving the lack of an available outhouse and a privacy issue!

After about 45 minutes, the rain dropped off to spits again. I left my remaining bottle of Straub in the carport in thanks to the cottage owner and we pushed on. Before long we saw a sign stating that Tidioute was still 4 miles away. I marked the time, and we finished those 4 miles in about 45 minutes. The bright blue of our launch at the Tidhouse was a welcome site to 5 weary paddlers.

After 15 miles of dampness and wind, we all agreed that we had a great time! Bev and Grace handled a section of rollicking standing waves admirably in their tandem kayak, with a few odd noises of...delight? trepidation?

Charlie and I enjoyed meeting and paddling with Bev, Grace and Dave. What a marvelous day!

Friday, June 27, 2008

North Park Hikers--38 years and growing

Yesterday I had the wonderful pleasure of returning to my roots: walking with the Thursday morning nature group at North Park in Allegheny County, near Pittsburgh, PA. I used to hike with them back in the '70s when I still lived in that area. It was like turning back the clock. My wildflower email friend Dianne brought my old buddy Esther from those early days and, along with about a dozen other "newbies," we walked the old Braille Trail. We saw many wildflowers, some of which are accompanying this article.

Indian Cucumber-root, dead man's fingers, Indian pipe, rose moss, as
well as too many to mention (some in bloom, some not). Esther, who is now 90, still trots along the trail like a 40-year-old! Her vast knowledge of wildflowers, mosses, fungi and general nature bubbles forth as she points out various stages of plant life along the roadside and trail. Rose moss has a rather straight and boring growth habit until the rain hits it, when the tips fluff open into rose-like "blossoms." Dead man's fingers, a fungus that appears like blackened fingers reaching up from the grave, start out as little white threads.

Our walk was highlighted by the birdsong: the melodious Wood Thrush, the pan flute-like song of the Veery, Bobwhites whistling, and the twittering of many swallows.

What a great day it was!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Magical, Mystical Bog

This coming Saturday I'll be stomping through the waist-deep moat into a northwest Pennsylvania bog near Corry, PA, with the Botanical Society of Western PA. Although I've been in the bog a number of times over the years, each new incursion brings new wonderments to behold.
This particular bog is a specialized area, acid, wet and spongy, and with characteristic flora such as sphagnum. It was a glacial pothole lake up to the late 1800's. Then the sphagnum began to fill in the lake so that now it is a floating mat on the lake, surrounded by a "moat" formed by the remains of the old lake. The floating mat varies in thickness from only a few feet up to maybe 10 or more feet. It is a very special and sensitive area, and once you visit a bog such as this, you'll never use true sphagnum again in your gardens. On the mat, cranberries, sundews, orchids, blueberries and stunted trees grow, and in the thin spots, water lilies are established. When you are in the bog, you can barely hear a plane flying over because the sound is absorbed. A magical place to visit. Like a line of explorers on a safari, we enter the bog along an obscure trail that brings you through buttonbush and serviceberry, where you can snatch handsful of wild blueberries along the way. All you can see of your co-botanizers as you fight your way through the moat shrubs are the tops of our hats bobbing above the greenery. After about 20 minutes you finally step onto the floating peat bog, amidst a small stand of White-fringed orchis (Habenaria blephariglottis.) The cotton grass, when past bloom, shows brown fuzz, enabling us to see that they are everywhere, along with the sundews and bog cranberries. Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) and Grass Pinks (Calopogon pulchellus) might be in bloom, as they usually bloom in June. And there are a lot of baby orchid plants sprouting across the bog. Several Fragrant Waterlilies are also seen blooming (Nymphaea odorata). Other neat plants to see include Skullcap, Marsh St. Johnswort, Marsh Cinquefoil, Swamp Milkweed and Indian Pipe. There is a mighty red oak: 100 years ago, the oak was a struggling seedling growing on a peat hummock in the bog, and now it is a huge oak that, along with other large trees in that section, drew enough water out of the bog to convert it to a spit of dry land jutting into the moat. It is owned by the Presque Isle Audubon Society and Botanical Society of Western PA, jointly, and is designated a National Natural Landmark. We do not mark its presence in any way, by signs nor by advertising its existence. It is too sensitive to allow people onto except for two limited groups per year, and/or a researcher each year. It is protected and registered as a National Natural Landmark. No peat miners can touch it. The rare bog plants won't be scraped off, it won't be drained, and the peat won't be mined.
UPDATE: June 28, 2008
Today was the day we visited the bog and it surpassed my expectations. Those baby orchid plants from the last visit have matured and are now in bloom. Masses of pink dots all around us! The Calopogon and Pogonia were in full bloom, with even a hybrid of the two discovered and cataloged. Butterflies, dragonflies, baby spring peepers and signs of beavers and other wildlife all added to the mystique of the bog. In a few weeks the white Habenaria will be in bloom also. We spent over three hours on the bog and not a minute was boring!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Canoe trips this summer

For those of you who live in western Pennsylvania, I'm listing a few canoe/kayak trips that are scheduled for this summer. Contact me for further information.

Saturday, July 12, Allegheny Canoe Club's Annual Paddle Day on the Allegheny River
This trip is usually from Tionesta to President (about 7 miles), but may be changed this year due to road construction along the shuttle route. The alternate is West Hickory to Tionesta, about 6 miles. (West Hickory access is PFBC, stickers required) In any case, we will meet at 11:00 at the public access area by the hunting museum/lighthouse/Cooperative Extension Office a few blocks downstream of the bridge in Tionesta. (note: NOT the PFBC access which is upstream)
Sat. & Sun., July 19-20, Allegheny River from Warren to Tidioute, camping/paddling
Tentative plans: Put in at Betts Park, at the west end of Warren; have our lunch stop at Buckaloons and walk their mile-long "Seneca Interpretive Trail;" then paddle to an island downstream to camp, perhaps historic Thompson's Island. Second day, paddle to Tidioute where we will take out. Distance will be approximately 10 miles each day. This will allow for a leisurely paddle and hopefully a little more time enjoying the camping itself . We will take out at the "Tidhouse" in Tidioute, leaving most vehicles there. Total distance is 20 miles or so. Dogs are welcome as long as they aren't attack dogs!
Saturday, September 13, Allegheny River from Tidioute to West Hickory--Allegheny Canoe Club
Meet at 10:00 at the West Hickory Access area (on the east side of the river just below the bridge, behind the Penndot lot.)