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!

 

The Incredible Shrinking Pie (and Free Photo of the Day 9/4/16)

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Mansfield Hollow, September 2014. Free to use with attribution to Jace Paul and link to this site. 

Hello friends,

Have you ever noticed that working in America is subject to the law of diminishing returns?

Yes, once upon a time you got a lot more for your, well, time. Forget about pensions, which long went the way of the Dodo. Raises are smaller, benefits leaner. We all know the one percent have been squeezing the lower- and middle-classes for every drop of sweat they can get, and the money flowing to the top means less of the pie for the rest of us.

I listen to the nursing staff at work, and they talk of halcyon days when every employee got a mandatory wage increase every six months. They speak of holiday bonuses that became a holiday turkey, then a holiday gift-card, then nothing at all. They remember when working Christmas meant double pay. These days it’s time and half – if you use your personal time and work the holiday at the same time.

The scarcity should unite us against the oligarchy, but instead it inevitably puts us at odds with each other. Morale has been low at work, and I wondered to the charge nurse why the aides and nurses were practically screaming at each other. “We’re always working short,” she said. “People are working eight, even nine days straight to cover the shifts. Every year we’re asked to do more with less.”

We’re all increasingly desperate. Wages are stagnant while cost of living rises. In Connecticut, taxes are raised repeatedly as services are cut – the local court that handles family and DSS matters is closing, the Department of Motor Vehicles is slicing hours yet again, the DEEP was forced to close three state campgrounds. Our local vocational school may close. The hospital lost 1/4th of its staff, and statewide health services are facing a nearly half-billion dollar budget cut.

All this to say the obvious – the working person’s share of the pie is getting smaller. Even the crumbs are running out.

When will we demand change?

Shoreside, Crystal Pond

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(c) 2015 Jace Paul

It’s dawn and the water is white and clean.

I pick up a pen and put my feet into the waves.

There are no boats to interrupt the trees in morning prayer;

Houses hunker down and hold the snoring bores within;

Still the lake takes my toes like

It has a fetish, its kindness knocks

Me over,

Supine, I, can wallow in the sky.
And it’s twilight and the water is right and clean.

I think too, you, see the cormorant, the snapping turtle,

And marvel at their potential.

We feel and see the grain of a good wood,

And with pinched fingers

Make a minor church.

I rest my pen and put my feet into the waves,

And minders mind their waterfront property,

Berth the boats, ignore the trees in prayer,

Hunker down in boring houses scored by sin,
And it’s dead of night, the stars give up their long dead light,

And the water is bright and clean.

This poem and many others is available in Where You Will Find Me by Jace Paul.

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An Ethics of Hiking (and a Free Photo of the Day)

Hello readers!

I’ve been working on a chapter in Eastern Connecticut from the Trails that considers some prolegomena (“first words”; the Greeks used it to mean “prologue” or “introduction”) for a new philosophy of hiking. In its formal presentation, it considers the big questions of philosophy but specifically geared toward hiking. For example, what is a hike? Is it the distance? The location? What makes a hike distinguishable from, say, a particularly long walk to the store? And, what do we learn from hiking (epistemology)?

One of the more, shall we say contentious, subjects with which I’m grappling is the question of why we hike. Unfortunately, my reflections have drawn me to the conclusion that almost all hikers are motivated by internal stimuli: the desire to be fit, the hope of finding solitude, inner peace, a great view. Some hike as amateur scientists: for bird watching, identifying rare or beautiful plants, collecting rocks. But the relationship with nature, too often, is one-sided. We benefit from hiking, but the natural world receives nothing from our presence. Indeed, as the seemingly endless parade of trash on the trails indicates, the forests and wildlife are worse for our interference.

There’s nothing wrong with going out for exercise, spiritual nourishment, or a glimpse of nature’s secret majesty. Every hike I’ve ever done has been compelled by some degree and combination of those aims. If there’s a philosophy of hiking, however, there’s also an ethics that entails from the truths that philosophy proffers. What ethical duty do we have as hikers to ourselves, do others, and to nature?

A full treatment of the ethical dimension of hiking is a bit much for a blog post. But here are some thoughts to get the ball rolling.

For a start, don’t litter the trails. I don’t wish to sound like priggish, so let me underscore that I make it a point to be very generous in my estimation of other people. We’re all human, we all make mistakes. To harp on the folly and ignorance of other people too often is a prescription for a miserable life. But I would gently suggest that, in the ethics of hiking, there’s an obligation to anyone who sets out on the trails to “do no harm,” as the Buddhists say. And I would encourage anyone thinking of hiking to conduct a little self-analysis and honestly assess if they can meet that minimal goal or not.

Let’s imagine a person who simply can’t get behind the wheel of a car and obey the laws that keep the roads safe. They run red lights. They drive at twice the posted speed limit – in a school zone. They frequently drive drunk. Would it be controversial to eventually say this person, who is unwilling to alter their errant ways for the good of the whole, “Perhaps you should just stay off the roads?” And, would it not be responsible and laudable if that person said, “Yes, indeed, I should stay off the roads until I can adhere to the standards that keep our roads safe?”

I think the same situational ethics apply to the trails. If a person cannot hike without casting beer bottles and soiled diapers into the dirt, if the woods are merely a convenient place to have sex and leave used condoms for the rest of us, if they simply must destroy a tree to declare their love “4 ever” for their partner, if they find leash laws and prohibitions against fires, motorized vehicles, and leaving pet excrement on beaches and foot paths too encumbering, then I think it’s quite fair to say: stay home. The trails are not for you quite yet, but we’d love to see you when you can engage in a symbiotic relationship with the outdoors.

This, I believe, points to the one axiom (a statement that is necessarily true, accepted as fact) I’ve discovered in hiking: nature itself has value beyond what it can do for us. The forests, the flora and fauna in their diversity, the ecosystems – all have an intrinsic worth that’s separate and immutable – unlike the value of meat, timber, ore, and other “products” we harvest from nature.

So beyond doing no harm, perhaps we can also aim to help. A small example – I carry a garbage bag, a mere 5 gallon one, in my pack when I hike. When I see a bit of rubbish on the trail, I pick it up and pack it out with me. It’s what I consider a basic courtesy to the natural world and to other hikers and our park systems, too. We can volunteer our time maintaining the trails. We can donate to our cash-strapped Forestry, Parks and Recreation, and Environmental Protection agencies (all of whom rely increasingly on volunteers and outside organizations with each round of budget cuts and layoffs).

But perhaps most importantly, seek out greater knowledge and peace in yourself and in your dealings with nature. Learn the names of the trees, rocks, and animals around you. I am convinced that intimate contact with the forest abolishes all delusions of a self apart from nature; that as our understanding of the intricacy and diversity of the Earth’s geology and biology increases, our feelings of emptiness and disunity decrease. Meditate on these bare but astonishing realities. Hike, but stop and sit in the sunlit field, close your eyes, and listen to the music that was once your home.


What is hiking to you? What does your ‘philosophy’ of hiking include? Comment below!

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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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