Life Lessons from the Appalachian Trail

Three days into the AT, around Lime Rock springs in a crushing 92F heat, I sat down on a rock while my companion went to filter water and wrote these words: “There are places that scrape against the sky, where cold, clear water trickles from the earth, and the spirits of forbearing history reveal their timeless secrets in rustling needles, slow grumbles of thunder, and speechless boulders. It’s hard, hard work to reach these places. But they are necessary, and worth every aching step, bruised tendon, and startling challenge to our egos and self-assumptions that come with getting to them.”

All told, I spent an incredible four days on the Appalachian Trail. The goal was to complete the 51 miles of the Connecticut portion, but ultimately we managed 32 – slowed, alas, by the soaring temperatures. Heat dents the reserves of even a seasoned hiker, and with the thermometer cruising well toward triple digits we lost much time to stopping to rest and filter water.

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At the Great Overlook along the Housatonic River. 

We spent our first night at Sages Ravine, then made our way up the formidable north side of Bear Mountain. From there, we made our way to Lion’s Head and another spectacular summit. Our second night was spent at Limestone Spring, an isolated AT campsite that involved descending a sheer rock wall to reach! From there, we returned to the AT and made our way up Prospect Mountain, then along the Housatonic River and through the fields and farms of Falls Village as the solar eclipse peaked, and at last reached the summit of Mount Sharon, where we made camp. Just as darkness fell, a massive thunder storm rolled in – we covered the tent quickly and mostly stayed dry, thanks to my partner’s ingenuity with her backpack’s rain fly. (The group of Yale students nearby weren’t as clever.) From Mount Sharon, we descended into the environs of West Cornwall and then ascended Mount Easter, then traveled along the ridge line, then up again to the lofty and breathtaking Pine Knob. At the edge of the Housatonic State Forest, we hooked up with a very kind Ranger who drove us back to Kent. (Thanks, Judy.)

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I was sorely tired and yet even now I miss it dearly. I find myself longing for my feet on the trails again, a feeling that’s with me daily. Since then I’ve only had time to summit Mount Greylock in Massachusetts – the final peak of New England’s tallest in each state, save Katahdin which I will ascend next year.

Highlights – drinking from cold mountain springs, the strange and varied sounds of wildlife at night, the breeze along the back of the mountains, making do where cell phones don’t work, mystical and glorious stone stairways that summon Tolkien, and even – just a very little – outdoor privies. Also, there’s a real spirit among AT hikers, an easy friendliness and willingness to share food and stories, and – with through hikers – an almost solemn focus to their work. As for the remaining 20 miles, I intend to finish those up in October.

Six peaks and some 32 miles in three days. Hard, hard work – and the best work ever.

 

Report from the Trails: Summer 2016

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The yellow-blazed Brown Marsh trail in Goodwin State Forest, September 2016. (c) Jace Paul.

Hello friends, 

Another New England summer has passed into history, and with it the prime hiking season for observing the full diversity of our region’s flora and fauna. This year, the state of the forests is all about water – or the lack of it. Droughts have become typical for Connecticut, as in many other states, and as of September 9, 2016 Connecticut remains in a state of Drought Alert, with most of the state in a moderate drought condition and some areas (the northeast region from Windsor Locks to Putnam) in extreme drought conditions. The combination of high temperatures and very low precipitation has both immediate and long-term effects on our ecosystem.

Tree health is compromised when dry conditions weaken or destroy the newer, non-woody roots, and water circulation to the higher parts of the tree is diminished. Poorly watered trees are more susceptible to infectious fungi, root rot, and insect invaders. The ash-borer, an invasive species that kills tens of millions of trees each year, thrives when trees are already compromised by drought. Of course, the big (bad) insect of 2016 was surely the ubiquitous gypsy moth caterpillar (Lymantria dispar), which devoured hundreds of acres of forest canopy across New England. Gypsy moth outbreaks are not uncommon in our region, but this year’s was the worst in some three decades because the species thrives when – you guessed it – precipitation is abnormally low. Trees already compromised by drought, then, experienced additional hardship when their canopy disappeared into the mandibles of thousands of hungry caterpillars. The outbreak was finally brought under control by the fungus Entomophagia maimagia, which normally controls gypsy moth populations but requires a wetter spring season to do so.

With this array of environmental concerns for trees, we should expect a “blink and you’ll miss it” autumn foliage event this year. The good news is that trees are hardy by and large, and it takes more than a year or two of drought conditions to cause lasting damage on forest health. However, given the reality of climate change and the expectation that drought conditions will occur more frequently in the coming years, tree health and forest mortality is a serious concern going forward. 

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Dusk on Pine Acres Pond, February 2016. (c) Jace Paul.

The drought also affected river, stream, and wetland health. If you’ve been out at all this summer, you’ve no doubt noticed the very low waterlines of many of our streams and rivers. Connecticut was forced to ban fishing in several areas due to the very low water levels of rivers and streams, where salmon and trout numbers are reduced. Diminished flow not only affects fish and other aquatic life, but also causes concentration of environmental pollutants like heavy metals and agricultural runoff, leading to decreased water quality. Algal blooms (particularly of cyanobacteria) can deposit toxins in the water, increase surface acidity, and choke out competing plants and fish in the surrounding environments.  Waterfowl and aquatic insects have fewer options for nesting and feeding, and plants that thrive in standing water or along river banks die off.

Mosquitoes, however, are more complicated: some species, like the Culex variety, thrive in drought conditions because they lay eggs in stagnant, warm water and in the muddy areas that remain when streams and rivers dry up. Across much of New England, however, the overall mosquito population was reduced this year.

Mammals and reptiles have been forced to venture farther afield for hunting and nesting, and bear sightings are on the rise across the state. Vernal pools, a critical component of our ecosystem where turtles home, dried up very early this year, and there was a rise in the number of turtles killed on roads as they attempted to find water.

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An old trail sign in Natchaug State Forest, April 2016. (c) Jace Paul.

Agriculture in Connecticut has also been impacted by the drought. The peach crop was already decimated by an unusual cold snap in February, but extreme heat and dryness became the nail in the coffin for peaches, pears, and plums across the state. This year’s apple crop will fare slightly better, with only a modest fifteen-percent reduction in volume due to the drought.

Given the many challenges to our natural landscape, the need for strong leadership in environmental justice is clear – but, unfortunately, the news from the political ecosystem is just as dire in Connecticut this year. Governor Dan Malloy, already under fire for gutting the state’s funding to hospitals, schools, and arts programs, announced a 14% reduction in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection budget, forcing the agency to close three state campgrounds and drastically reduce services to other state parks and beaches. The DEEP outlined how this severe cut would impact the programs and staff that monitor environmental quality and oversee conservation efforts. Incidentally, governor Malloy also slashed the DEEP budget in 2015. In short, environmental concerns continue to grow, with the DEEP sounding an alarm on many issues, while the political establishment in Connecticut drains the resources available to combat them. 

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A marsh in Gay City State Park, June 2016. (c) Jace Paul

Thankfully, Connecticut has a number of private organizations picking up the slack. The Connecticut Forest and Park Association continues to play a vital role in protecting and supporting our woodlands. Without them, we simply would not have many of the trails that we do, nor would they be as well cared-for as they are. The Last Green Valley also helps protect the woods and wildlife of Eastern Connecticut, with programs like their RBV stream monitoring program doing what the DEEP no longer has the personnel to do. Finally, smaller organizations like the Friends of the Goodwin forest provide a tremendous service engaging the public with free educational programs and forest/park maintenance. If you can, support these organizations by donating or volunteering.  

If all this seems like a glut of bad news, the hiking season this year was nevertheless a wonderful one. Of course, nature is a web of relationship, and often a curse for one species is a boon for another. As a hiker, I observed fewer mosquitoes and deer ticks and more of certain species – the shore at Black Spruce Pond, for example, was rife with frogs, which drew magnificent herons and cormorants to observe, too. Snakes traveling afar afforded me the opportunity to see four of Connecticut’s fourteen species in the wild, including the eastern black racer whose numbers have been drastically reduced in recent years. As of today, I have done 67 hikes totaling 345.7 miles, including all of the Natchaug and Nipmuck trails.

Our forests and parks continue to be a jewel to our state, and if you haven’t been hiking this year, I urge you to do so while the weather is still accommodating. Above all, take action to protect the future of our wild lands and the species that inhabit them. 

See you on the trails.

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The Natchaug River, August 2016. (c) Jace Paul.

An Orange Chicken, a Quirky Quercus, and a Scenic View of Scotland (AND a Free Photo)

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The Chapin trail snakes through a magnificent understory of ferns and saplings.

Hello friends,

It often pays to take a detour on to unmarked or previously unexplored trails (but not into the forest itself, please). Yesterday, I discovered an entire new wilderness preserve purely by chance. I was heading north on the Nipmuck trail, planning to go just past Gurleyville road and turn around. Right around the site of the old Chaffeeville Silk Mill, I noticed a white-blazed trail exiting on the road, and through trees I spied a Town of Mansfield sign announcing the “Coney Rock Preserve.” The sign warned of a “steep” ascent leading to a grand view of the Fenton River. I calculated the total distance of the trails (I wanted at least six miles of hiking that day) and headed up the hill.

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The very old white oak (quercus alba) found in the Coney Rock preserve.

The choice to deviate from my planned hike was well rewarded, as I found myself at first in an extensive hemlock grove and then breezy, silent deciduous forest appointed with a gorgeous understory. Along the hike, I laid eyes on two barred owls in the canopy and discovered one of the oldest white oak trees I’ve ever seen (see photo at left). From about 1830-1850, deforestation for agriculture was at its peak in New England, with some 60-80% of all native forests obliterated by human activity. Connecticut forest, thus, are fairly young, and it’s a wonderful thing to find a tree as old as this grand old lady, who clearly predates the most frenetic period of deforestation. (A sad note: after a dramatic falling off in the early to mid twentieth century, deforestation in New England has been steadily rising in recent decades.)

 

I took the most circuitous route possible and made my way along the Olsen, Woodland Road, and Mullane trails to eventually return to the Chapin trail, where the park’s eponymous rock is located. The parks and rec information kiosk hadn’t exaggerated the view; it really is quite a magnificent west/southwest view of Scotland Connecticut. Unfortunately, the remnants of tropical storm Hermine have been cluttering our skies with low, grey clouds these last few days; I’m sure the view would be even better on a sunnier day.

As I left Coney Rock I took a photo of this gaudy mushroom – the Laetiporus sulphureus, also known as the “sulfur shelf” and “chicken of the woods.” August and September are great months for mycologists as many of our native species appear during this period; the Laetiporus is one such example. They grow in large fan-like clusters called rosettes at the base of oak and beech trees (but typically not conifers) and have a pleasant aroma. As you can see from the photo (below), they also have a shocking salmon hue, very bright and hard to miss if you see one. I don’t generally eat mushrooms, but those who do report that the edible Laetiporus has a lemony flavor and tastes a lot like, well, chicken. (N.b., while that links to a recipe for cooking the chicken of the woods, always consult an EXPERT mycologist on the proper identification of mushrooms you find in the wild. Many species are toxic and possibly fatal if ingested!)

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The shocking, orange/salmon colored “chicken of the woods” growing at the base of an oak tree.

 The free photo of the day is found as the featured photo for this article. That’s Chaffeeville road passing over the Fenton River, just at the ruins of the silk mill site.

Have a great day, friends!

 

Getting It All By Giving It Away (Free Photo!)

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Free photo of day! (Attribution: “Photo by Jace Paul, 2016.”)

Hello friends,

Whenever we lose a patient on my unit, I try to take a second to whisper, “Thank you.” No, not “thank you that it wasn’t me,” but rather for that person’s life, witness, gifts, and all they gave to the ones they loved.

Maybe it was the sun shower that hit just as I left work, maybe it was the date I went on last night with a girl that made my heart sing, but today, as I came to a field bursting with black-eyed-susies on my hike, I decided to shout my gratitude out loud. I spread my hands wide, let the wind and butterflies twist around me, and just let my voice speak for the mass of my soul: “Thank you!”

Working in healthcare, I see death often enough that it’s honed my sense of urgency about the whole “carpe diem” thing. Perhaps it’s a shuffling of priorities. So much of my life has been spent in the pursuit of Truth that I have often forgot that other aims are more important. Life presents opportunities for us to be right and kind – but sometimes it gives us a choice to only one or the other. Insecure, unhappy, and overly-educated, I have all too often chosen to be Right and not kind. I’m glad that, in recent years, I have learned to be kind more often.

At an in-service for work today, we took the new hires on a tour of the building. Our wonderful Infection Control/Safety Compliance Officer, Jane, stopped to talk about responding to a combative patient. The question was when it’s right to argue with an angry patient, and when it’s better to avoid an argument. When safety or health is at risk, she said, it’s important to be right. But if these concerns aren’t present, it’s better to be kind. If a dementia patient thinks it’s 1945, let them think it. What good will come of trying to convince otherwise?

“As often as possible, choose to be kind over right,” Jane said to cap the conversation.

A patient in a wheelchair, on leave from long-term care (the unit for people who won’t, most likely, ever be going home) suddenly spoke up.

“That’s very good advice,” she said. “I’ve seen people who spent their lives trying to be right and not kind, and let me tell you…they don’t get many visitors.”

We touch down on this earth and barely find our feet before the ground disappears below us. The sliver of time we occupy in the greater lifetime of our cosmos is such a small space within which to move, to learn, to create. How do we want to use that time?

It’s a question that is never fully answered; or one that dips below the horizon of our awareness as we become focused on the immediate, the logistical, and the mundane. I try to bring it forward each day and use it to stay focused on the things that really matter – those virtues and choices that will mean more meaning, more love, and – yes – more friends and loved ones at our side when time runs out. 

My friends, don’t listen to the pragmatists or cynics. Give away the “stuff” you think you need and become rich with freedom and peace. Love wildly and impulsively. Believe in gods or good people or fields stuffed with flowers.

Say it with me: “Thank you.” 

Free Photos of the Day 4/28/16

Hello, friends!

I think it’s about time I shared a few new photos with you all! I’ve been busy keeping up with my exercise and staying fit since surgery, I’ve completed a CNA course to keep busy in the medical field while I wait for nursing school at UCONN to start, and – of course – spending as much time as possible with my precious daughter. I’ve also kept up with my hiking and photography; in fact I’ve hiked well over 100 miles since the beginning of this year!

My hike today was at the beautiful Salmon River trail in Colchester, CT. The weather went from warm and sunny in the morning to cold and grey, but I managed to get some decent shots of the Comstock covered bridge, the Salmon River itself, and Day Pond falls. Also, a flower that I must confess I’d never encountered before – a beautiful royal purple specimen with broad, pungent petals and three distinct broad leaves. The Connecticut Botanical Society and some hunting around identified it as the Trillium erectum, also known as the wake-robin, purple trillium, and stinking Benjamin. The leaves, in maturation, are said to give off the scent of rotting flesh, and the flower, leaves, and stem contain calcium oxylate (CaC2O4), a poisonous compound that can cause skin sores, general numbness, and even death. It’s the same compound found in rhubarb leaves. A beautiful plant with deadly potential!

The shot I captured of the trillium is included as a Photo of the Day which means, as you know if you’ve been following this blog, it’s yours free under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. In plain terms, you are free to use it for any creative or commercial purpose provided you include prominently the words  “Photo by Jace Paul” and a link to this blog.

As a bonus, I’m also including a photo of Day Pond Falls below, also free for your download and use!

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Hope you had a good day, friends, and enjoy the photos. Stay positive!

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The Demons in Devil’s Hopyard

IMG_1462Sometimes, the trails take you where you’d rather not go. The solitude of the forest, a timelessness arranged by ancient oaks and granite erratics, puts the contemplative hiker face-to-face with history, the moment, the unknown to come. Cut off from technology, compelled by the rhythm of footsteps on living soil, hiking can become a pilgrimage or an unlikely form of time travel. Sometimes, turning a corner on the trail startles us with an insight into where we’ve come from, or where we’re going. It can be exhilarating. And unsettling.

Today, I put myself on a path that I knew would be fraught with demons. The aptly named “Devil’s Hopyard” State Park in Salem, Connecticut is the last hike I ever made with my ex-wife. It was August 2010, and my first time in the park. We set out on a picture-perfect day, accompanied by friends. I had just picked up the latest CD from Spock’s Beard, and I was singing the opening track (“At the Edge of the In-Between”) as we departed from the falls and headed south to the Tablet Rock vista.

We were mesmerized by the splendor of the forest – Devil’s Hopyard is perfectly Tolkienesque in its design. Among massive boulders are gnarled roots and abundant emerald mosses. The high canopy casts light and shadow with ethereal effect. It is a place that feels otherworldly and magical. We took many photos along the way: a sunlit glade, a friend upon a rock pointing westward like an erstwhile Lewis or Clark, goofy faces through the lifted roots of an old tree. At the vista, we set up my camera to snap a photo of my ex-wife, my friends, and I. We stood with our backs to the bright, blue sky. We were smiling and charged with the glow of the day.

This time, I was alone at each of the places where an inauspicious history had been made. At the lookout, I set up my camera to re-create the photo of five years ago. I’m not sure why; perhaps it was another maudlin gesture among many.  But I’d like to say it was a minor means of taking stock of things lost, an inventory of resources and assets squandered or spoiled in the five year span that had elapsed since that special day. I’d like that image to speak the words I need to hear: “Let this be another reason to keep improving.”

I was playing the Spock’s Beard CD again (on my phone, this time), and as I descended toward the trailhead the middle section of “Jaws of Heaven” stopped me stone dead in my tracks. Nick D’Virgilio sang:

I awoke this morning
A lifetime come and gone
The ending of a journey
My destiny at dawn

Yesterday behind me
There is only now
Every circle that was closing
Is opening somehow
And it’s clear to see the reasons
Are woven deep in the wondering.

I had counted on ghosts and demons, but wasn’t for prepared for the tears that came suddenly at that moment. I’d have looked quite a sight, a middle-aged man weeping in a little clearing in the woods, had anyone come across me. But I let the crying run its course, and resumed my journey when it felt right to walk again.

I’m not fond of collecting regrets or wallowing in the sadness of misused past – well, not anymore, anyway. The fact is, I’m at about the midpoint of my life. Acts One and Two have now come and gone, and Act Three is about to begin. I’m sure I will always mourn my possible pasts and rue the mistakes I have made. Depression made a perfect hell out of the first half of my life, and the devastation can’t be undone. The noonday demon, however, is gone – and that is a success that almost balances the ledger as I move forward.

Returning to this place to lay eyes on places I had been with the wife and friends who are now gone was the very essence of a catharsis. In the weeks to come leading to my fortieth birthday, I believe I’ll return to other places of significance to my past – both on the trails and off. Perhaps it’s helpful to make a ritual of our reflections. Maybe looking back is easier, or more fruitful, if it’s done with a reverence that affirms both the temporal immutability of the past and its capability to be an active, living catalyst for change in the present. In the static, immobility of days forever dead we hear the still small voice, urging us to make the next Act better.

Free Photo of the Day 1/19/15

Hi friends!

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a free picture, but it’s a new year and a good time to start it up again. And, I’ve got a new campaign going to try to get this nursing school project off the ground. I’m very hopeful that I can still afford classes this spring and be on track for the accelerated BSN program at UConn.

The image above was taken with the T3i and the Super Takumar M42 screw mount lens I raved about in December. It was shot at ISO 100, f1.8, and 1/3200, and was taken at Mansfield Hollow yesterday. The reservoir is frozen over and I thought this piece of ice in the sunlight made a nice subject. The resulting image, with the shallow depth of field and star contrast, makes a nice surrealistic statement on this very cold winter.

Feel free to use freely, with credit if you don’t mind. And, of course, feel free to help me make my dream of a better life for me and River come true by getting me to nursing school!

http://www.gofundme.com/nursejason2015