Tag Archive | nature

Camping in the Catskills: Chipmunks, Trout and Bear

Two years ago my wife and I packed our small children into our van and drove to the Catskills for a camping adventure. Based on the success of that year, we chose to head to the mountains again for another vacation spent in the wild.

We chose the Beaverkill Campground, which is outside Roscoe, New York, about two hours’ drive north of New York City. It runs along the Beaverkill River, which is known as one of the country’s greatest trout streams. After turning off the highway, it’s maybe a twenty minute drive through some winding one-lane roads before you reach the Beaverkill campground.

One of the principal attractions of the campground is a one-lane wooden covered bridge that dates to 1865. It sits over the Beaverkill River at one of the most prime fishing spots, and the calm pools beneath the bridge are occupied during the day by fly fishers looking to hook a trout.

Because the bridge is one lane but serves cars in both directions, the proper etiquette is to honk your horn as you head into the bridge. A car coming the opposite direction should honk back to avoid a head-on collision.

Although rain was expected, we managed to arrive at the campsite when it was sunny, and owning to my wife’s expert organizational and general DIY skills, we had our tent up pretty quickly. That night we had our first s’mores of the season.

With small children, we are not in the market for deep-woods camping and gravitate towards campsites with bathrooms and access to showers. That doesn’t mean this was not a wildlife-filled week for us and the kids though. Our campsite had two chipmunks that were bold enough to jump up on our picnic table when we were a safe distance away and got closer to us than chipmunks are normally wont to do. They know campers can be messy and bring a lot of food and these cute rodents were well fed.

The restrooms had lots of bugs, and large beetles found themselves trapped in the sinks and urinals of the men’s room. I took pity on one beetle in the sink and scooped him out before thoroughly washing my hands, but did not attempt to rescue any of the insects trapped in the porcelain hell of the urinal, preferring to let the murderous indifference of nature take its course there.

Because there are bears in the area, there are strict rules regarding leaving food or garbage out overnight. The campgrounds has a garbage bin that it locks up after 8:30 p.m. and any food or garbage you have after that point has to be locked in your vehicle (tough luck if you backpacked in there I guess).

On our third night, I was making my evening journey to the designated garbage/recycling area when I saw a large animal coming down the road that runs between the check-in office and the campgrounds. At first I thought it was a large dog—we met several campers who had large dogs with them—but soon realized that this was in fact A BEAR!!!! It was walking at a slow pace with the mundane expression of easy existence in its (pun intended) bearing.

I thought maybe my eyes deceived me and I quickly deposited my garbage and recycling and started back towards our campsite.

The bear was still walking in my direction.

For a moment it looked as if it was two bears close together, in which case I may between a mother and her cubs, and that is bad news.

I remember reading somewhere that if you come across a mother and her cubs, you are to remain facing them and walk backwards calmly. I did that.

The bear—it was only one after all—saw me and our eyes met for a moment. It turned off the road and headed down a wooded hill. I moved quickly back to our campsite. “I don’t mean to be alarmist,” I told my wife, “but I am pretty sure I just saw a B-E-A-R.”

I sped packing up our campsite for the night, getting all of our food in the van and shut tight. There was no sight of the bear beyond that. I reported the sighting the next day to campground officials. We continued our camping as planned.

We were completely unplugged when we were camping. We had no mobile phone reception and no computers or laptops available. No television, no video games on tablets or anything else. It was good for a change like that, to spend time with family and nothing else. Our kids found adventure in going to the river’s edge and creating their own secret hideout on glacial rocks.

We had mobile phone reception on the few visits to the town or Roscoe, which consists of a few blocks of buildings with only one main street. The dichotomy of the Catskills is evident there. We bought fishing equipment across the street from a guns and ammo store before going to a farmer’s market to buy local honey. There is a railroad museum and several bed and breakfasts there, as well as a grocery store that was our lifeline for ice, batteries, and other necessities.

The real attraction in the Catskills is nature and the abundance of greenery. Being a city dweller, we become accustomed to concrete and glass as our natural environment, and there’s something inherently unhealthy in that. We should be spending more time close to grass and trees, or the green ferns that sprout ubiquitously in the country. I understand why New Yorkers escape to the Catskills and I am not ashamed to be among their number.

We plan to be back north as soon and as often as possible. See you there.

Back in the deer woods

My plans to take time off from work were squelched by too many year-end goings on at work. So I drove up to Connecticut last Friday night to get one full day of hunting in this past Saturday.

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the highways were regularly quiet. I-95 in Connecticut is normally a slow-lurching snake of chrome and misery, so to breeze north was a rare treat. I made good time in getting to my friend Steve’s house. Steve is an accomplished hunter and he is generous enough to let me stay at his house when I go hunting.

I was up before 5:30 a.m. the next day. Hunting or running the Tunnel to Towers 5k are the only reasons a anyone should be willingly awake before 6 a.m. on a weekend. I was ready and out the door without too much problem. Unfortunately I accidentally set off my car’s car alarm in the driveway of my friend’s house, waking him and at least one member of his family.

I was the only one pulling into the small area for cars at the unmarked entrance to the Cockaponset State Forest on Little City Road in Killingworth, Connecticut. I didn’t see any other human beings for the next 10 hours and that was a good thing. I saw and heard evidence of people, but all the time outside in the daylight it was just me and my quest to take a deer home.

Spending time in and around the natural world is a basic human need. The science is in, and there are significant health benefits to spending time around more trees and fewer people. Human beings are not meant to live without experiencing some part of the natural world on a regular basis.

I made my way into the woods. It was still dark, but a bright moon provided good light. Once it was past the legal hunting time I loaded up and kept making my way quietly to my chosen hunting spot.

I got very lucky the first time I staked out this area and it and it has the natural attributes that would make it a good location to begin with. It is a natural overlook with greenery for deer to eat and water for them to drink.

But nothing doing. While I heard gunshots going off in the distance frequently and thought maybe some deer would get chased my way, nothing doing. At midday, I decided to search out someplace different. I started by making my way to my old spot, at another overlook that is an even higher perch. It was there where I took my first deer several years ago.

The area has improved, in that the stream that was dried up a few years ago is back and flowing nicely. But it has attracted other, less ethical hunters. Someone left a camping chair and their garbage on this natural overlook, a major faux pas in the hunting world. I thought it would be justified to take this chair out of the woods, as punishment to whatever entitled rube left it there along with their refuse. Instead I moved on, making my way deeper into the forest.

And as I marched through an overgrown passage between trees, I finally saw a deer. He or she was not far away, but had seen or heard me first and was on the move, picking up the pace and getting out of good range before I could even raise my shotgun and get in my sights.

I paused, hoping some other deer may come along on its heels, but no luck. I hiked a bit more and found a new spot that looked over the growth where the deer I saw would have exited into a more open area, and if any deer had some along I would be in a good position.

The last two hours of the day passed by slowly. Someone in the distance fired off a lot of rounds; they were either target shooting or had come upon some prehistoric giant mega deer that took ten shotgun slugs to bring down.

I started to make my way out of the woods towards the end of the day, hoping to maybe get lucky on the way. When legal hunting ended, I unloaded and found my way back to my car.

Another hunting trip without some game to take home, but time in the woods is always time well spent.

Dispatch from the Jersey Shore

A family tradition that began soon after we started our own family was to vacation with our in-laws on Long Beach Island. Traditionally we have gone after Labor Day when the crowds were smaller, but our kids starting pre-K in early September meant we had to brave the more crowded island during the height of the summer season.

Human beings have a need to feel the power of nature around them. Living in a big city has many advantages that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and I don’t regret making New York City my home for a minute. Where else in the world can you see Renoir’s By the Seashore, the New York Yankees, and No Redeeming Social Value all in the same day?

But a large city requires the conquest of nature on a large scale. Skyscrapers are their own majestic entity, they cannot compete for space with California Redwoods or the cresting waves of the Atlantic Ocean—my friends in the Rockaways do manage to surf in the Atlantic Ocean, miles away from these skyscrapers.

We lose something when we commit to living in a city, our awe is taken up by what mankind has achieved, and we lost the much-needed perspective of the power of the Earth itself. I believe that human beings need regular contact with nature in order to keep our minds right and in the general order of things. Being close to nature is the way human beings are supposed to be. We did not evolve from glass towers or produced in a sterile, state-of-the-art lab. We were born from the savages that evolved from organisms born of mud, shaped by our ancestors need to know and respect the murderously indifferent natural world around them. If we do not keep in contact with this primal truth in some consistent way, we lose our bearings and don’t function well. Though I have worked in Manhattan consistently for nearly two decades, I have always tried to walk through a park at least once a day in order to enjoy some greenery.

Long Beach Island is a tourist destination that does not put on airs of being otherwise. There are people who live there all year, but most of the people you seen between late May and mid-September aren’t from here. The island understands that it is a great destination that attracts people for its natural beauty and the accessibility of its beaches. There is a respectability that locals and tourists alike embrace their roles. There is a goodness and truth in that honesty. While you are here you can enjoy the arts at the Surflight Theatre and then enjoy singing waiters and waitresses at the Show Place Ice Cream Parlor.

But the miles of beach are what bring people here, and a trip here is not a success unless you spend some time on the beach.

While I try to stay out of the sun, I have learned to appreciate sitting on Long Beach Island and doing as little as possible. A few walks into the ocean though will give you an appreciation of the greatness and vastness of the ocean in front of you. An expanse of blue (that appears green when you’re up close) that stretches to the horizon.

Going deeper into the ocean, the current was more powerful and the water cooler. The power of this ocean, even at this calm period, was immense. You can’t help but be pushed and tossed around by the waves. A sting ray darted into my sight, close to a young boy on a body board but turned and was just as quickly out of sight. A tidal pool left behind dozens of tiny fish, numerous shells, and even a small live crab for children to marvel at.

Even when the heat is at its most punishing, the breeze from the ocean offers a cooling respite. Time moves quickly when you are away from the churning world of commerce and asphalt, and I must soon return to that savage expanse. I am grateful for the time I have here where the ocean calls the shots and people are united in their efforts to get away for a little while.

Time in the Woods

I look forward to going hunting every year. Last year, after two years of getting nothing, I got a small button buck in the Connecticut woods. It gave me a great feeling of accomplishment and I returned to the woods this year with a much-bolstered sense of confidence.

But a deer was not in the cards this year. This was the first season I’ve gone hunting when I didn’t even SEE a single deer in the two whole days I was in the woods. Even in the previous hunts when I came home empty-handed, I had at least seen deer in the woods.

I saw deer while I was driving to Connecticut and back. There is no shortage of deer in the world. The woods of the suburbs and country are still sick with the beautiful beasts. And I have a good spot as well. My favorite hunting spot is a bluff that overlooks a healthy slice of woods. I’m elevated and out sight. It has given me many chances to get deer.

My friend Steve, a very experienced hunter who has taught me a lot about hunting, said the deer were moving differently this year. It was windy on one day we were out and deer don’t like to move around when it’s windy—the wind carries their scent to potential predators. Steve said that some years that’s just what happens. You can sit for hours and days not see nothing. That’s hunting.

Hunting is a noble venture, and it requires a lot of patience and discipline. And that’s actually one of the best things about it. Hunting means you have to be silent and quietly observe nature for many hours at a time.

The first day I went out this year things were cold and windy. Leaves falling from the trees and swaying branches will sometimes catch your eye. Your mind can play tricks on you and you’ll see deer in every movement of the trees or leaves. You’ll hear a sound in the distance and think it may be the sound of some game approaching. It will turn out to be nothing but the wind.

Every clump of brush in the distance could be a missed chance at a shot. I found myself scoping in on things just to maintain my aiming acuity and in case these shaded areas of the woods turned out to be a delicious venison.

The second day I went out was about a week later and it was the last day of the hunting season. Snow had fallen and the woods were blanketed with a layer of white. There were fresh deer tracks not far from my regular spot. I got there plenty early and stayed quiet. I still saw nothing. It was beautiful to see the woods covered in snow, even seeing different animal tracks in the snow made the trip worthwhile.

Steve tells me that hunting is all about time in the woods. The more time you spend in the woods, the better hunter you become.

I’ll add that more time in the woods makes you a better person as well. Everyone needs some quiet time to contemplate nature. Everyone needs hours at a time in the outdoors where you don’t speak at all. You are quiet and watching and waiting. The peaceful quiet is its own reward, and may be your only reward that day. Sometimes that’s enough.

Alice and Dave’s Wonderful Adventure

The roads and parks this spring and summer are filled with tourists and our highways are busy with people driving through our great land. Among them are my aunt Alice and her husband Dave Siewert.

Dave and Alice are going on a giant road trip and are seeing some of the great beauty of the Western United States. There are no people more worthy of experiencing all of the natural beauty of America than Alice and Dave. And this road trip is special for them because it will be their last together.

Bad news came fast for them at the end of last year. Dave was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and has not been given long to live. Alice is a cancer survivor and Dave had heart surgery years ago. They have more than paid their dues to the trials of medicine; they have endured enough health hardships to last two lifetimes already. This just isn’t fair.

If you look up the definition of “balls of steel” in a proper dictionary, the entry will have Dave’s picture next to it. Dave is facing certain death and has doubled down on embracing life.

No one would blame Dave if he holed himself up in a dark room and gorged on cheese curds like some kind of Midwestern Howard Hughes. Not a soul would find fault with him if he numbed himself from the specter of his own approaching death.

But that’s not how he does things.

Alice and Dave acquired a camper and set their sights westward, making the journey from their home in Wisconsin to Yellowstone National Park. Early on they had an accident due to a blown tire that delayed their journey. But what is a little traffic accident when you’re spitting in death’s face every day?

Dave has to return to Wisconsin every six weeks so his esophagus can be dilated to prolong his life. Yet he’s out there, rolling down America’s highways with no regrets and no apologies. He is boldness personified and the baddest badass cruising America right now because I guarantee you the toughest trucker or biker on the road today is not staring death in the face like Dave is.

At a time when it would be easy to voice bitterness or rage at life’s unfairness, they have remained a moving example of grace and love. The way they insist on living life to the fullest and refusing to be beaten down is itself like a great work of art. Like all great artists, they make it look easy.

But no one who knows them is surprised. Alice and Dave were married outside on what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year. It somehow didn’t feel that way though. The breeze was just right and no one seemed to notice the temperature. Alice’s vows included a promise to support the Green Bay Packers. After the ceremony, Alice and Dave enjoyed their first dance together as a married couple. Before their song was over, Alice beckoned everyone to join them on the dance floor. She would tolerate no slackers. Even those guests who normally do not like to dance at weddings happily obliged.

Alice created a Facebook page to document her and Dave’s travels. She is a gifted writer and has posted comments and photos. “We can feel the petty retreating by the hour,” Alice wrote in a post. “This has not so far been a year too full of laughs. Yet we have been laughing and crying and learning things about ourselves and each other that the world of cubicles and chemo bays muffles somehow.”

“We are witnessing natural things that were previously beyond my imagination,” Alice wrote me in an email. “Talking stops and all one does is stare dumbly at a magnificence that renders your life, worries, ego all meaningless. It is fun to be on the road. But some day we come home for good. And that is a principle to wrestle with the starry night through.”

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