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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

TOTAL PACK WEIGHT: 20ish lb

FULL PACKING LIST:

  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

Photo Album: Camping near Humpback Mountain, VA with H

–A photo recap from a brief overnight in George Washington National Forest with my son, H. But first, a few thoughts on camping with a one-and-a-half year old:

EVERYTHING will go more slowly. He can only walk at a quarter of my speed and that’s when he’s focused enough to walk in one direction, or even walk at all. And when he doesn’t, I should prepare to carry him if I want to cover some distance on the trail.

MANAGE my expectations. It’s not going to be the kind of hiking and camping that I’m probably used to, and that’s OK. Move slowly, take notice of everything around us, use each opportunity to teach him something – about being in the woods, about treading carefully, about remaining conscious of our resources (those that we brought and those around us).

REMEMBER that this is still a foreign experience to him, as different from the comforts of home as dehydrated milk is from the real thing. Be patient, be reassuring, be empathetic. A good snuggle and warm blanket are better comfort than the thin veneer of nylon and a hung bearbag when night finally settles.

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