It’s been a long time comin’

The old Sam Cook song trolls through my head. The surface meaning is appreciable, so avoid looking for anything deeper in the words to follow. I’ve always been more of an Otis Redding guy anyway. How’s that for a lede.

So here’s the post that I’ve owed myself (and the other two of you that might read this—hi mom) for a few months now. The irony in all of this is that I’ve actually spent more time writing, just not here. The blog has been relegated to the backseat of late. I recently completed a course through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, a sort of breakneck review of the western canon of nature writers and a workshop for our own forays in the field. It was wonderful and I’m sorry to have seen it end.

But there have been other excursions, adventures had. A few in service of a freelance piece I’m finishing up and hope to see in print soon. As with most things worth doing, creating this stuff takes time, and that’s a precious commodity these days. I’ve been out to George Washington National Forest, to the Blue Ridge, to the Shenandoah Valley. Solo and with the family. Returned to the Farm a few times. The backyard and running afield.

I’ve realized something in the midst of it all, and even in the act of writing it down it seems too obvious, too self-evident. It’s this notion that the line between nature writing—writing about nature—and writing in defense of nature isn’t always clear-cut. Depends on your definition I s’pose. But these days I often find myself questioning whether that line exists at all.

It can be an unsettling space to occupy, nonetheless, something like those huge rooms in elementary school with the linoleum tiles and the big, flimsy walls that would fold out like an accordion to split the space in two. You could play basketball on one side while lunch was served on the other, then wheel the big wall back, look around, and find yourself in one space, same floor, same hospital-teal, same thick edged murals of happy children and dancing vegetables.

The genre isn’t chocked with pure environmentalists—”greenies” as my former teacher calls them—but probably a good mix of the heady and hardy, an odd bunch, just as likely to be out in the woods with a gun or a fly rod as they are with a notebook.

I probably fall into both camps, so I’m open to my views being dismissed from either angle. I’d also like to think that, despite my master of nothing status, I might offer a unique perspective into all of this.


I never wanted to turn this site into a soapbox (otherwise I would have created a Facebook account). Most forms of social media have become too vitriolic lately, too partisan. I can’t say it’s good for anyone’s health, but a steady dose of echoes and insults results in one hell of a morning headache. The last several months have seemed especially crude, worse in hard-boiled opinion and with more fear-mongering than local news. Throw in a heart-palpitation while you’re at it.

So while I’m all worked up, here it is, a bit of the stuff I’ve got going through my veins, at a little higher than normal pressure. And I think the time has come, whether through guilt, activism, or an honest-to-god fear of the future, to talk openly about them.

Two recent issues come to mind. The first is the Dakota Access Pipeline. The second is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (where you may find me from time to time), you’re probably familiar with the first. Unless, you live in or near the central Appalachians, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of the second.

I honestly believe we’ll look back on Dakota Access, on what was accomplished out at Standing Rock, and see it as an inflection point, a change in the momentum, or the acceleration rather, of the dark forces that are re-shaping our future in the name of commerce or progress or even freedom. Even as many as of us tread here, bobbing in the wake of November’s election and wondering how the in the hell those checks and balances are supposed to perform as designed when the gap between government and corporate interests grows imperceptibly small. Things should have been getting easier for entities like Energy Transfer Partners; the skids should have been greased. And we’ve just thrown some sand in the way. Well, good for us. But it’s a big, damned machine and we’re gonna need a lot more sand.

I was continually frustrated at the lack of news coverage of DAPL. Not until the final standoff in those shortened days before Christmas did it really make national headlines, long after the temperatures out there had fallen below freezing, after the combined population of the camps exceeded 10,000. Unfortunately, the election and much of the fallout that followed, including the unceasing, inane tweets by our president-elect, kept to the top of the news cycle like a slick of oil floating on the surface of the ocean.

Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline is actually a complicated issue, one that may be difficult for non-natives (like myself) to fully grasp. What began as yet another trouncing on the sovereign rights of a people too used to getting kicked around by the powers that be became much more over time. You may assign the cause of your choice, most of them legitimate, but #noDAPL was and is far more than just another front in the ongoing environmental fight.

I ran across this article and wish it could be read by anyone with an opinion on Standing Rock, regardless of his or her stance.

For as much as we disparage the ecological implications of the Dakota Access Pipeline—and they are legion—we must not forget that the protest began as a gathering of American Indians in opposition to what they saw as another clear infringement of their rights. In the months that followed, their movement was joined by thousands, most rotating in and out as they were able. But the Dakota and Lakota people will remain on those hills long after all of the other protesters have gone home.

There have been many avenues to support the cause, however you see it; here is one that I chose. Even as the protests have all but fallen out of the news cycle, the legal battles waged as a result will be long and arduous. Hundreds of protestors were derided, arrested, and assaulted for exercising their first amendment rights. We’ve grown a lot since Selma, but we’ve still got a long way to go, it seems.

Only a few days ago, the new chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was sworn in, himself a North Dakota senator who was outspoken in his disdain for the protests. Coupled with the recent nominations for Secretary of State, Secretary of Energy, and head of the EPA, it seems we’ve found ourselves trapped in some strange paradox where facts are partisan, where hyperbole is literal, and where high-minded discourse is eclipsed by playground invective in 140-character segments.


But let me back up a bit and redirect to the second issue that I mentioned—the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In short, it’s a newly proposed natural gas pipeline slated to be built, owned, and operated by a partnership of energy companies led by Dominion Resources, and meant to connect gas reserves in West Virginia to destinations here in Virginia and North Carolina along a 600-mile route snaking through all three states. There are a lot of issues posed by this thing, and the way Dominion has gone about the planning, surveying, and multiple certificate applications seems to suggest they’re trying to do the least amount of work possible to make it happen.

Interstate pipelines are no small feat. And the process for getting them implemented is long and complicated – for a reason. Several federal and state agencies are required to provide input or sign off on the pipeline before the first tree is felled, namely the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Forest Service (if crossing National Forest land), the National Park Service (if crossing National Park land), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (if crossing major waterways), the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, state Departments of Environmental Quality, Protection, or Conservation, Divisions of Natural Resources, etc.

But let’s be clear, unlike Dakota Access or even Keystone XL, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is supposed to carry compressed natural gas. Fracked gas, actually. Drillers have been extracting this hard to reach methane in earnest, even while natural gas prices have fallen so low that the gas costs more to produce than it does to sell at current market rates. It seems silly but that’s the game being played right now, and projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline are just part of the long-ball strategy.

The problem, at least with the pipeline, is the collateral damage, much of it conspicuously missing from the cost-benefit analyses and spreadsheets used to justify the need for projects like these. Even the Environmental Impact Statements issued by the FERC are woefully inadequate in fully addressing the… wait for it… impact to the environment. But I’m not talking about this in some abstract sense. Here, the threat is as real as can be imagined, and those of us living in or near the pipeline’s path need not cast our imaginations far.


The mountains through which the pipeline’s path would cut are in our backyard, as are the rivers that run between them, the streams that connect the two, unbroken swaths of core forest, a number of endangered or threatened species, karst, limestone, sinkholes. All of it in the path of a 600-mile strip of bare earth, a 75 ft wide clearcut, 125 ft wide construction corridor, and several hundred acres of cleared land and access roads.

The pipeline’s route will bisect Monongahela and George Washington National Forests as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail, for which it will need the explicit permission of both the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. The remainder of the route, all but about 21 miles of it, would then pass through privately owned land, for which Dominion will need the permission of the land-owner. If refused, the land could then be seized through eminent domain. What’s worse, at least in Virginia, the company actually enjoys the “right” to enter private property to survey long before any permits are issued to begin construction.

Let me reiterate—it’s for fracked gas. Anything that encourages the continued use of that method of extraction, in my view, should be left to the annuls of the 20th century. It has no place in the future energy policy of this country. Even here in Virginia, where Governor McAuliffe insisted that the U.S. Forest Service ban drilling in the National Forest, he continues to voice his support for the ACP which, ironically, transports gas fracked outside of Virginia’s borders to power plants here in our state and in North Carolina.

The frustration is mounting, and it’s coming from multiple angles. There are clear environmental concerns, there are land rights concerns, and there are concerns that our government agencies are failing to regulate these massive pipeline projects in light of the obvious issues.


With regard to the ACP and the MVP, it is my sincere hope that both projects and others like them will garner some national attention in the coming months and undergo the level of scrutiny that each deserves, not just by the public at large, because in a lot of ways we’re already doing that, but by the agencies that are chartered by the public to protect the resources—the land, the water, the wildlife—and the rights of private citizens. Until now, so many of them have failed to do so.

If this curdles the blood even a little, I encourage you, humble reader, to check the following links for more information. Because if there’s anything that Standing Rock has taught us, it’s that our government and the corporations it colludes with can no longer ignore a frustrated and informed populace.

Hammocking in Hermine

I’m lying in the hammock as I write this. The rain has mostly abated but comes heavily in spurts every now and again. The wind out on the water is blowing upwards of 50 mph but here behind the house and trees it whips through in weaker gusts. I think the worst of the squall has passed but the storm surge is predicted to be two to four feet above normal levels, when it seems the entirety of the Chesapeake Bay arrives to fill the Elizabeth River basin. The water of the harbor, last I checked, was already over the seawall and halfway up the street. But it ought to be receding soon.

Despite the wind, it’s strangely peaceful under here. The hammock is at a comfortable angle, I’m dry, and am watching streams of rainwater flow off the edge of the tarp where my guy-line is tied, marking the perfect place for an open bottle if I was in need. I’ve eyed the peak of the tarp and wished that I had let the hood’s drawstring fall down underneath rather than letting it lay loosely on the topside where it’s of no use to me. I’ve eschewed the usual ridgeline cord and so that drawstring would have been a convenient place to hang something.

What I’m calling a tarp is actually a poncho – one of the heavy, army-surplus types with snaps on the sides and grommets in the corners. Having a large hole in the middle of an adapted rain shelter might at first seem like a disadvantage until you consider that it 1) offers a central tie-off point to raise the eve a few inches as I’m doing now, and 2) presents a open place for the smoke to escape from a small fire underneath, should I choose to have one. That, and it’s a poncho, so I can stay dry while I’m hiking and while I’m sleeping.

Earlier this morning, we awoke cagey and sleepy-eyed after a full night of gusting winds and the repeated clapping of an outside crape myrtle against our window. Tropical storm Hermine approached from the southwest and was upon us by late morning, its cyclic drafts pounding us from the north as the eye passed somewhere out to sea. I spent those hours leaning into the wind with a couple of my neighbors, fighting to prevent a sailboat from careening into an adjacent dock, as it dragged its 240-lb mooring along the bottom of the Elizabeth.

We leaned on the edge of the Isabella, a Norwegian-built 30 footer, all wood and pointed stern, shoving the errant sailboat away from the hull with boathooks. The owner jumped into the bowsprit to loosen the mooring line so I could quickly tie it to one of the docks pylons. After another hour spent retying lines, hanging bumpers, and inspecting loose cleats, we retired to the porch to peel off wet cloths, sip coffee, and watch the passing gale. Dried out and caffeined up, I thought it a perfect time to stress test my hammock and tarp system in the usual proving ground—my backyard.

I’ve hammock camped maybe a dozen times before in varying conditions and find that it suits me best in the warmer seasons, especially in wet weather. The setup is simple and all in all weighs roughly two-and-a-half pounds, including the hammock, tarp, straps/ropes, and guy-lines. Unlike a tent, it doesn’t require a sleeping pad, unless of course the extra insulation is needed underneath. This is the first time I’ve used the poncho/tarp like this, diagonally, a common setup among modern bushcrafters. Clipping the corners to my hammock ends was a lucky discovery given the coincidental lengths of my hammock and my tarp. I haven’t seen an example of this, but I’m sure it’s been done before.

Another, arguably more critical, concern is how to secure the hammock ends to the tree. Ongoing debates on the merit of ropes and straps, cord material, and types of knots proliferate, as seen here, here, and here. Most agree that thin rope under load can damage a tree by cutting into the bark and, sometimes, the wood underneath. Straps composed of layered webbing or weave, nylon being the most ubiquitous, are readily available, but even a single experience with nylon straps will prove to the novice just how much stretch that material has (if you wonder why, just ask a rock climber). Many times in my own experimentation I’ve found my butt dragging the ground when only minutes previous I’d been a foot-and-a-half above it.

In my search for something dependable but light, I’ve broken my share of rope, secured stuff far too thick and heavy to take backpacking, and even used a dog leash in a pinch. Having done my research about straps, I had to try out the nylon anyway; of course, it performed true to form. Kevlar seems to be a popular material, though notably more expensive. Rather than bear any additional cost, what I’ve done instead is cannibalized an old baby car seat for seat belt straps, each measuring about four feet long, two inches wide, and already looped at one end. Constructed of a tight polyester weave, the straps are purportedly capable of withstanding over 3000 lb, will not shrink, stretch, rot, mold, mildew, or melt, and are even UV inhibited—possibly over-engineered for my application but, hey, the price was right. I had a loop sewn into each free end so that each end had a loop large enough to pass rope through and … voila! – custom “tree huggers.”

The next day offered a chance to try them out while I was spending some time up on a remote patch of Virginia’s eastern shore. I’ve shown them in the photo with a simple “U” around the trunk of a foot-thick Virginia Pine which, depending on angle, load, and type of bark is liable to slipping downward. A single wraparound solved that issue (I forgot to take another photo), though I had to modify my tie-off method a bit. In the future, such things will be dependent on the thickness of the trunk, but it’s nice to know the system can accommodate either.

Happy hammocking!


From the Archives: Jefferson National Forest, Fall 2006

It was a late autumn Saturday and the football team was away. As things settled into the weekend forays of a typical college town, I set out alone on the Blue Ridge Parkway, an hour or more on that endlessly winding road into the reaches of Jefferson National Forest somewhere west of Roanoke.

I’d woken up that morning feeling unsatisfied and itching to get out of the apartment, another strange little instance where inspiration struck only as the opposite force to boredom. And I was again victim to my own last minute planning. But the weekend and fair weather were at stake, and an opportunity to get out into the mountains, companions be damned, was not to be squandered. I unfolded the plastic topo map across my bed and picked a section of the AT with a shelter – I didn’t yet own a tent – that I had passed through a year before.

Scan 1

It was cold, the sky cloudless, autumn blue and gray forest and green pine. I parked at one of the many pull-offs and disappeared down the tangent trail, walking below the road’s embankment, eyeing the saplings cut short to maintain the view from the road. The AT shelter was only a few miles away, mostly downhill.

I had worn my synthetic down jacket and jeans, and cheap hiking boots I would later jettison after purchasing a pair of Vasques using Christmas money from my grandfather, which was fitting as he had always extolled the virtues of quality footwear in his own unpolished way. I had’t acquired much in the way of kit then, an external frame Janson, a cooking pot from the thrift store, a cheap sleeping bag, but for single-nighters in less than extreme conditions, it was usually enough.

The trail followed an easy, downtick grade, and I quickened my pace in the failing light. I had gotten my start late in the day and wanted to reach the site early enough to prep dinner and make a fire before nightfall, the azure darkness already creeping over the hollow like a blanket.

I sat on the edge of the shelter after posing for the camera some feet away, perched on the rock pile surrounding the fire pit. It was something I had always done, selfie before the selfie. Analog camera, decent little Canon, beat to hell from sand and dirt, balanced on some rough surface and aim askew. I wanted it to paint my own portrait alongside those in my head, Jack London at a makeshift desk below the trees, Nessmuk sketched in 19th century garb, Chris McCandless leaning against that bus. I’d read Into the Wild sometime the previous spring and it had struck an identifiable chord. I bought it on a whim at the campus bookstore – the cover caught my eye – in a section where some professor had assigned it to a class, though I don’t remember who or which one.

I still had the book, earmarked and torn, stuffed down in the violet nylon next to Robert Service and a ziplock with my toothbrush, bandaids, deck of cards, and iodine tabs. I read by the firelight, the smell of Ramen still in the air. I couldn’t seem to get comfortable and the evening breeze was pushing up the valley in cold wisps. I cursed out loud and stomped out the dull glow of the remaining coals, rolled out my thin, foam sleeping pad on the floor of the shelter and lay flat with my balled sweatshirt under my head. It was marginally more comfortable, but at least I was out of the wind. The room smelled of must, as they all did, and was sparsely ornamented with epithets scratched or written into the walls about the smell, the cold, the rain, the trail.

With my LED headlamp on, I caught the iridescence of a spider’s web in the corner. He sat prone surveying the room. Like a landlord, I thought, waiting to collect rent.

I drifted back to my book and soon fell into fitful sleep.

Discovering the Forgotten Wilderness

Living in a somewhat urbanized environment, I find it difficult to stave off the feelings of being suffocated by too much that is manmade, stark, grey, ugly. I daydream about time spent elsewhere, in more rural and wild places. But such as things are, I’m here now and as my children guide me through the day, I find ways to discover natural wonder in the wilds already surrounding us. To borrow the phrase from Tom Brown’s Field Guide to the Forgotten Wilderness, it is easy to forget that there are things of value to learn and observe just outside of the door. We crossed the street this morning to sit and watch a cicada slowly vibrating out from its nymph skin, clinging to the brick, stretching legs and wings like unfolding origami. Where it could find no tree or stone for its ecdysis, it chose the first vertical surface nearby, the side of the house.

We walked the dogs down to the end of the street sometime after breakfast, skirting the long, low fence to the dog park as we have a hundred times previous. The smell of freshly cut grass still hung in the air, clearing the ground for a fresh sprout of mushrooms, likely to be washed away in the rain of the afternoon. I’m no mycologist, but they look to be Chlorophyllum Molybdites, commonly known as False Parasol or, more aptly, Vomiteraptly the most frequently ingested poisonous mushroom in North America (no, I didn’t try them).

The day went by slowly and not without its sense of crossing things off the list. The sky had cleared and much of the humidity brought in by last Friday’s storms disappeared by early afternoon. The sun was out and breeze blowing and I’d strung the hammock between the corner post of a fence and one of the Lobolly Pine standing, outstretched, over the back yard. I often think of it as the ugliest of the three trees that separate my yard from my neighbor’s; the other two stand taller, their branches more like arms drawn in close to the body. The tree closest to the northern eave is crowned with a (literal) crow’s nest, its inhabitants calling out from time to time. I imagine them complaining of encroaching squirrels or mockingbirds. But the middle tree is short, curved, with irregular branches that jut far into the yard to rain needles and cones down into the lawn below. It is to this trunk that my hammock was tied, and I noticed something—two-needle clusters, each growing out in pairs, tufted along the low branches. A rare quality, an exception to the telltale three-needle cluster of the ubiquitous Loblolly. This one sapheaded tree was unique in a small but unexpected way.

Lobolly pine is actually one of the most common species of tree in the United States. In the thousands, they compose a forest. In triplet, they demarcate my property. And like any other, my meager woods provides food and shelter to crow, mockingbird, woodpecker, squirrel, and insects. It’s where I “camp,” if only for a lazy afternoon in the hammock. It’s where I collect kindling for the fire, stock for pine-needle tea, find shade from the sun, wall to the wind, and the arched spine of a root peeking from the surface of my lawn every few feet or so. The trees are different. The trees are the same. Each bears its sentence, its confinement to the world of hedgerows and stunted grass; each bears its own sense of wild.



Night at Featherfin

I had my druthers and took the rare opportunity this weekend to camp and explore someplace new, take a break, try some fly fishing, be in the woods, etc, etc. I mapped out my radius of travel, an imaginary string pinned to Portsmouth and fanning out some 200 miles by land, where all viable paths run west and south. I’d been dreaming of cold mountain streams and native trout, but transit time at rush hour squashed any hopes of getting to National Forest land before dark. So after some erratic web searching and mulling over my notes from previous trips, I quickly planned an excursion into the Featherfin Wildlife Management Area for the freedom of dispersed camping (with a valid fishing, hunting license, etc.) and its inclusion of several miles of the Appomattox river, near which I could set up a central camp of sorts and hit several sections of water on foot.

The day was extremely hot and the night all but promised to be as oppressive. After a bit of trial an error and many a wary look at overgrown service roads, I found my spot not far from my pull-off, just near the river bank. I strung up the hammock, unpacked the fly rod, and set at it in the failing light. When it was too dark to see the tippet in my hands, I set the gear on the bank, poured some Ramen in the pot and helped myself to the salted broth and thin pasta. The heat was on, the stickiness, and in the dark with the slight breeze and gurgle of the river, shallow enough for only a pair of boots in most places. I hooked a few green sunfish, most with mouths no bigger than the flies they’d tried to swallow, turquoise and gold iridescent stripes narrowed just in front of the gills. They stared back at me resigned and wide-eyed.

The week prior had been especially difficult, mostly for reasons I won’t expand on here, but I’d thought that a night out on my own may have been just the thing, and in some ways it was. I tried to stop and listen, take in the night, then the day, sit beside myself and watch the river flow down along the gouged tree and tall grass, strip of sky above not quite cut by the sun’s rays. I waded up and down, never quite finding the section I was hoping for, someplace with cover in the water and none overhead. In the heat and undergrowth it felt more of a jungle-scape than hill-country river basin, but such things are what they are. I was less than thirty miles from Sailor’s Creek battlefield and of course, not far from Lee’s surrender at that fateful courthouse just over 150 years ago. I couldn’t help but think of the soldiers out, uniformed, traipsing and camping in this same Virginia heat. What might their thoughts have been, their gripes? Would they have had the time or the notion to appreciate the landscape they’d found themselves to occupy? I imagined that nearly every field and forest and river on which they’d marched, camped, died looked like the places I now seek out for my own escape, far cries from the urban sprawl and industrial rivet of Hampton Roads.

Sometime late in the morning I set out to Farmville for a coffee and a second breakfast (the stove-heated can of kidney beans lasted only so long), before shooting up to Richmond for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) rally and subsequent march on the governor’s mansion. The day heralded other events in other places, but I’ll be sure to remember Featherfin as sure as I’ll be to return.




Bannock in the Backyard

We thought we’d practice making the traditional wilderness trip staple – bannock, which is essentially unleavened bread cooked by an open fire. The variations in recipe are legion, but we kept it pretty simple. Simplicity is good and, as this was a decidedly impulsive midday activity begun while my youngest napped upstairs, it needed accomplishment with only the ingredients on hand. I’d found an American-made, 8-inch cast-iron skillet at the thrift store the previous day with intentions on use of this very nature. A hasty seasoning earlier that morning did the trick, cleaned, greased, and ready to go. We mixed about 2 cups of flour  (more was added later) with roughly 2.5 tablespoons of baking powder, a few shakes of salt, 1 cup of water, and a handful of raisins. Mixed, rolled, and patted into a ball. I quickly discovered the need to grease my hands and powder the table with flour or the dough will stick like hell. Knowing cooks refrain from grimacing – this was a freshman attempt.

While H putzed, I got the fire going and set all other accouterments, ingredients, and whatnot on the plicker table, fumbled with a tarp in anticipation of the rain, and then gave up as soon as the clouds parted and C woke from her nap. I’d had a two salmon steaks thawed and a couple handfuls of raw spinach thrown in a steel skillet with some water and olive oil. When the wood had burned down to coals, I propped the cast iron skillet with the doughball against a stick about a foot from the coal bed and watched as the hunk of bread mix slid down to the bottom of the pan. There’s no such thing as greased too well but this would never do. I’d already had a grate set aside, intended for the salmon and spinach, and set it straddling the stones in the fire ring with the skillet on top.

After five minutes I rotated the pan 180 degrees. After ten I flipped the bannock and looked with satisfaction at the crisp, cooked surface, brown and gold, steaming. The salmon steaks went straight on the grate and I shoved one more hunk of wood underneath for good measure. No flames but the coalbed was already cooling. The bannock came off after another ten, hard on the outside soft within, boiling hot but slid right off the pan without a trace. On went the spinach skillet, also on the grate. Both spinach and salmon finished at about the same time. All portioned out on plates for three, two-and-a-half more accurately. Coupled with some pine needle tea and all’s served for a lovely meal on summer’s afternoon.

Fishing and other Thoughts

I never intended to pick up another hobby. But I suppose anyone that knows me well enough could easily concede it’s one of my more or less endearing qualities, depending on your point of view. Makes Christmas and birthdays easier, though it also means I’ve accumulated a lot of crap over the course of my life.

Most of these interests come and go, victims of life circumstance, while some just wax and wane with my changing tastes, dwindling free time, and aptness for inspiration from unexpected sources. They’re often chosen pursuits, a clear decision, an opportunistic purchase. But the angling thing crept in, slowly, steadily.

It probably began with the canoe – a willful grasping at the outdoor life I often wished I had – that became something I practiced without remorse or loss of interest. It was an endeavor I could share with my son, and often, something that helped to clear space in my mind, to lose myself in my environment, out on the open water literally a block from my front door.

The Elizabeth River became my wilderness, its squared shoreline tracing either side of the thoughtful, urban aesthetic of Norfolk, the stark steel and gunmetal gray of the Portsmouth shipyards, the rows of colonial Old Towne houses, the Naval Hospital complex. For a time, a cheap fishing rod with a push-button reel from the thrift store just seemed to do the trick. A couple of successful night escapades with a seasoned fishing friend, and little by little it became something on which I can spend a few guiltless hours, when it was conducive, and sometimes when it was not.

As with the luck that usually finds me in some form during another Craigslist perusal and then thirty-some dollars later, I’ve now found myself in possession of a dozen and a half old rods, nine castoffs from the dark corner of a storage unit, all but one with the open bail-type reels. I’ve matched reels to rods in the way that seemed most functional to my amateur sensibilities and swapped the handles to my preferential right side, disassembling only one and oiling them all. Not a bad haul – three shorter fresh/saltwater rods (as best I can classify them) including an old fiberglass Sears & Roebuck 535, two surf rods, and the real gem – a vintage Garcia 2637-A fly rod.

The “fly” niche of the fishing world once evoked for me images of old men in hip waders and wicker baskets, thigh deep in forest streams casting off thick line as if with a bull whip. The unexpected coupling with distance trail running had tugged at my fascination not all that long ago and sparked an interest in the sport too weak to justify the investment in all of the requisite gear. A few months and a not-so-serendipitous purchase later, I’m staring at this beat-up little piece that I hope will offer a fitting introduction to it. I marvel in its simplicity – the fiberglass rod, two-piece aluminum Martin reel, faded green fly line. I’m still intimidated by all the components I don’t yet have, but all in time. At least for now, opportunities for fly fishing will be scarce relative to the ease with which I can cast into the brackish water of the Elizabeth.

Hopefully I’ll be headed out early tomorrow morning to try out a few of the smaller rods. I’ve already set them up with some simple bottom rigs, and with my modest tackle and some experimental bait, decent weather and a little luck, my hopes are high.

Report from the next day:

I caught the changing of the tides sometime just after twilight, paddling in the cool stillness of early morning as the mist collected over the Norfolk skyline. For nearly four hours I sat in near silence. H joined me for the last two, deftly casting his simple float rig from a 30″ pole, reeling it all back in as soon as the bobber hit the water, over and over, a strange discipline borne of the natural impatience of a three-year-old.

I used the old fiberglass Sears & Roebuck rod with cork grips, quickly noticing the marked difference in responsiveness, the flex and give of the rod as compared to any of newer, cheaper setups I’d used previously. For something that was surely consumer-grade, it was still manufactured in the USA, and is just as functional to me now as the day it was made (not unlike my Harmony H-62).

By the end of the morning jaunt, I’d caught nine or ten Croaker, all throwbacks, and paddled home as the sun climbed from the South-East, beating now from a cloudless sky.  It was nearing lunchtime and both H and I were longing for ice water and a sandwich, midday respite following a morning that was itself a reset from a more frenetic life.

First Landing State Park hike & Spanish Moss Tinder Experiment

Despite its proximity to greater Virginia Beach civilization (Shore Drive is the nerve center of summer revelry during tourist beach season), the park has the feel of someplace far more remote. Composed mostly of rolling trails, swamp, and gum, pine, magnolia, and cypress trees, dirt and gravel single track, First Landing offers a generous helping of outdoor relief smack in the middle of one of Virginia’s most populated areas.

With the kids and dogs in tow, and equipped with little more than a daypack, a baby carrier, and snack lunch, we set out on what was a little less than two hours in the woods – time well spent pointing out red-bellied woodpeckers, identifying trees, and making polite conversation with the many others out for similar ends and similar means.

Later that afternoon, at home (no starting fires in within the confines of the park), H and I set about attempting to summon a few qualifying flames from the handful of Spanish moss I’d stuffed in my pocket. The conditions outside, even within the relative safety of our backyard, were poor. We were on the verge of a rainstorm and the wind was already gusting enough to blow some of the tinder and kindling materials out of the fire pit. Strike One.

The moss itself was still green; it felt dry to the touch, though the color hinted that it still retained a fair bit of moisture (for what it’s worth, I never found anything but green moss, even the stuff that had already fallen off of the trees). So I suppose that’s Strike Two.

Upon close inspection, I had estimated that the fiber distribution wouldn’t be dense enough for a given “volume” of moss (as opposed to a bundle of dry grass) to light easily, so in the end I surmised it would likely come down to how dry it was and how long it could retain a flame. Of course, these are the two primary jobs of the humble tinder: turn a spark into a flame and hold that flame long enough to light your kindling.

Known (and from my limited experience) good tinder materials:
– birch bark
– dry grass
– fine wood shavings

First things first, I tried to light the Spanish moss bundle with the ferro rod, resulting in short-lived embers or single flames, but nothing that would catch for any longer than a second or two. After about five minutes, I moved on to the regular lighter. Still no go. I couldn’t get it to light even when subjected to direct flame. So, for the sake of comparison, I whipped up a few quick feather stick shavings which lit up almost right away.

Long story short, Spanish moss would not be my first choice in tinder material while out in this type of environment, at least not until I improve my ability to locate drier, more suitable fiber or perhaps better construct my tinder bundle. As always, practice and/or experience may simply be what is lacking. I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there has had more success.

Winter Camping with H

The addition of our second child to the family had certainly slowed the pace of my getting out into the woods, even for an overnight. Fall and winter have always been my favorite seasons to camp, each bringing their own special pleasures, their own challenges. The beauty of the mountains during autumn goes without saying (though I just did) and there’s always been something restorative about the crisp air in winter. But the extra gear and clothing needed to deal with the elements when camping becomes a serious consideration, more so when adding a child to the equation.

Some might call it irresponsible. Taking my three year old son out into the national forest in sub-freezing temperatures is not something I take lightly. Preparation is everything, as is expectation management. But the key is always balancing our collective enjoyment of the experience with the probability of discomfort or hardship at the hands of the elements. We stand on the precipice of Type II fun.

Anyone who knows my son should also know that, even at his age, he’d self-identify as an “outside kid” who nearly always jumps at the chance to go camping and understands the difference between pitching a tent in the living room and sleeping in the woods. His favorite YouTube channel is Ray Mears and, as a result, his preferred campfire fare are a gutted fish, pine needle tea, and “marsh-mars” (marsh mellows).

The plan was simple but subject to change. I wanted to return to the National Forest (George Washington) perched just on the eastern edge of the Appalachians, camp off-trail, practice a few bushcraft skills, gauge my son’s enjoyment of any or all of these things. Some light snow was in the forecast for the following morning, an added bonus for both of us. We hiked in from a spot just off the Blue Ridge Parkway a few miles south of I-64 and stumbled on what I later learned was Humpback Rocks trail. The pace was slow, our gait increasing slightly when I obliged to carry H on my shoulders.

I chose a campsite in the fading light some 200 yards off-trail, having crossed a stone wall and the parallel Appalachian Trail, on the windward side of flat-faced boulder perfect for reflecting the heat of a small campfire. With the tent erected I set about splitting the driest wood available, starting the fire, and heating our dinner. I’d elected to forego the camping stove and its associated accoutrements for this specific trip, choosing instead the simplicity and admittedly more difficult method of “cooking” over an open fire.

With our bellies full and warm, we cocooned ourselves in the warmth of my sleeping bag layered on the inside with a surplus, German-Army wool blanket. I read him a few children’s books and we both drifted off to restless sleep sometime before 8pm.

When we awoke just before 7, the condensation inside the tent had frozen, so had most of the water in our bottles. But it hadn’t yet started snowing outside, much to H’s disappointment. I set about rekindling the fire for breakfast and immediately wished I had processed a little extra firewood the previous day (note to self). The snow finally began to fall, lightly at first, just as we started eating sometime between 8 and 9. I hurriedly packed away the tent and sleeping bag already dusted in snow as they hung loosely from nearby branches.

My first steps back toward the trail were met with an unexpected sadness on H’s part. As a few tears streaked down his face he told me that he didn’t want to “leave our good camping spot.” I reasoned as best I could, in the way that parents with toddlers often attempt to straddle that blurry line between adult logic and an unapologetic coloring of the truth. “It’s OK, bud. We’ll find another good spot later [whenever ‘later’ was, it was anybody’s guess]. But that’s part of the fun of going camping  – you get to pick out a new good spot each time.”

After repeating some version of that argument a few times over, he acquiesced and followed me back toward the small cairn I’d stacked on the Appalachian Trail so I’d know where to cross back over to the Humbpack Rocks Trail, toward home.

By the time we’d made it the car, the snow was falling more heavily and, after some careful thought, a few unexpected slides on the road, and a three minutes back out in the cold, we (I) decided to forego the morning hike up to Humpback Mountain we had planned. Another time, maybe in better conditions, maybe with the rest of the family. And with that, we headed home.


PRACTICAL NOTES BELOW (for the few of you who might be interested.)

Items that didn’t make the cut:

  1. Second sleeping bag – I considered it, but for nearly equal bulk and weight I chose to take my surplus wool blanket instead. Scroll down for that rationale.+
  2. Thermal sleeping pad – I kept this at home mostly because of the added weight and bulk and I wanted to achieve the same effect (warmth and padding) with leaves or pine boughs.
  3. Camp stove with fuel, stand – The stove weighs almost nothing, but the weight of the and bulk of the fuel bottle and aluminum stand are non-trivial. I was planning on cooking over the fire anyway.

Items I’m glad I brought:

  1. Wool blanket – It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s a pain to pack. It’s also extremely warm, durable, and perfect as a makeshift outer shell while sitting near the fire (it won’t melt or burn from stray embers).
  2. Wetterlings Camp Axe – This 19″ small axe/hatchet is becoming one of my favorite all-around woodcraft tools. Those of you familiar with hand-forged Swedish axes already know the Wetterlings brand, but it’s versatility and effectiveness in the field make it well worth the added weight in certain circumstances.



  1. Tent (2-man, dome, Mountain Hardwear)
  2. Sleeping bag (20-deg, Mountain Hardwear)
  3. Wool blanket (100% wool, German army surplus)
  4. Wetterlings Camp Axe
  5. Mora knife
  6. Swiss Army knife (I needed the can-opener)
  7. Topo map
  8. few paper towels
  9. few baby wipes
  10. grocery bag, trashbag
  11. Water filter (Sawyer)
  12. assorted cordage
  13. Trekking poles
  14. Skillet/pot w/ the following packed inside:
    1. small roll duct tape
    2. first aid kit
    3. contact solution
    4. 2x spoons
    5. backup lighter
    6. detachable handle for pot
  15. 20+ oz aluminum cup
  16. rainfly for backpack
  17. 2x flashlights and one headlamp
  18. 1L water

The dog carried:

  1. 2x 1L bottles of water
  2. 2x bags dogfood

H carried:

  1. Small osprey  backpack with filled water bladder ~1L
  2. small blanket