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!

 

Shoreside, Crystal Pond

IMG_3457Shoreside, Crystal Pond 

(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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Ten Tips For Hiking Like a Pro

Hi friends!

Let me tell you, it’s spring at long last here in the Last Green Valley, and hikers are out in droves. (Which, in hiking, means meeting two people on a typical hike instead of one.) As usual, I’m seeing the usual mix of seasoned trail explorers and neophytes, and remembering my first forays into the forests some years ago. When you’re just getting starting with hiking, it’s common to make choices that seem smart from a ‘common sense’ view, but are actually harmful to your hiking efforts. Today, I’m going to cover some of the mistakes that newbie hikers make, and highlight some quick and easy tips that will help you hike better – and enjoy your time on the trails much more.

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A natural marsh along the Nipmuck Trail, May 2016. (c) Jace Paul

For this post, I’ll be joined by my amazing friend Haley, who is a dietary aid and nutrition major at the University of Connecticut. Haley knows her stuff when it comes to health and diet, and she’s a great cook too – check out her blog for diet tips, recipes, and more. It’s right here.

 

Tip One: Take Care of Your Feet

Wearing running or training sneakers on the trails is a rookie mistake I observe all too often. These types of shoes are best suited for level to moderately-sloped surfaces, and they don’t offer the type of arch and ankle support you need on rocky trails or steep ascents. If you’re waking up the day after a good hike complaining of sore feet, chances are you’ve got the wrong footwear for the job. Be smart and get some hiking boots, paying special attention to ankle support. Distressing the muscles around your ankle can lead to sore feet and even knees and serious injuries down the line.

Tip Two: Stagger Your Fluid Intake

Keeping hydrated during exercise is obvious. But don’t guzzle twelve ounces of water at the start of your hike, and then down another twelve or more at the end. You want to ration your H20, sipping 2-4 ounces about every 10-15 minutes. Chugging a bottle of water is going to place extra strain on your already hard-working heart, because the sudden influx of fluids will raise your blood pressure (which is partially a function of fluid/blood volume). Your kidneys will also work extra hard balancing the alternating states of hydration and dehydration. Keep your metabolism running efficiently with a consistent fluid intake. Oh, and don’t forget the electrolytes – these are critical to proper fluid balance in your body. Just don’t grab Gatorade or any of the sugary beverages…

Tip Three: Throw Away the Refined Sugars

Your pack should always have a few snacks in it for extended hikes. Exercise of less than sixty minutes’ duration won’t place enough of a demand on your body for extra calories, so if you’re just out for a quick hike, you can consume some lean protein about 20 minutes before and after for muscle recovery. But while it’s tempting to grab a trail mix with M&Ms or sugar-coated raisins, these processed sugars are used least efficiently by your body, and can actually slow you down when your glucose levels drop. “Most people know this as the ‘sugar crash’or ‘crashing,'” Haley explains, “and it happens when your insulin levels are too high.”

Your best snacks contain natural sugars. Bring some strawberries, cherries, blueberries or another low-glycemic load fruit with you. Nuts like pecans, cashews, pistachios, and almonds are another great source of energy that also contain healthy fats and a good dose of protein, too. Granola bars and oat-based products are fine, but check labels – refined sugars are often found in excessive amounts in many of these foods.

For sustained activity, Haley recommends complex carbs. “Complex carbs, like oats or whole grains, are important for hiking and sustaining the body for a long period of time,” she says. A bag of potato chips, on the other hand, will kill your energy levels, and the high sodium content will make you thirsty even when your body is adequately hydrated.

Tip Four: Be a Smart Packer

Bringing a lightly packed day pack on any hike is a great idea. However, don’t overdo it. Many new hikers are giddy with the prospect of taking photos, reading a book, or trying out new hobbies like rock-collecting when they hit the trails. Just remember how much harder your body (and back) have to work with a heavy load. If you must bring a book, pick a slim, softcover one – but to be honest, most people find the forest itself stimulating enough, and never crack a book to begin with. Photography equipment is great, but plan ahead and select just the lenses and tools you know you’ll likely need. With equipment, don’t fall into the trap of buying tons of gadgets and gizmos in the outdoor section of the store. You won’t need a portable shovel on a hike. Really. A compass, a whistle, a map (all of which, to be honest, you have on your smart phone), a poncho, a little food, and water and extra clothes (see below) are really your only necessities. If you’re going out in the evening, add a headlamp and bug spray to that list. Cooking equipment or utensils are only necessary for extended hikes, and if you need to cook, get a “pocket rocket” collapsible stove – they typically weight just a few ounces.

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Pro photographers may balk, but a light, plastic 18-35mm lens (which I used to take this photo) is adequate for most of what you’ll want to shoot on a hike – unless you’re aiming for wildlife from a distance, where lenses with at least a 300mm focal length are required.

Extended hikes require even more frugal packing, especially if you’re trying to make good time. Liz Thomas, an exceptional distance hiker who recently completed the Pacific Crest Trail, carried a pack with her that weighed just seven pounds for the 80-day journey. (She hiked into nearby towns for food and water.) That’s on the low end, but certainly a day hiker can carry everything he or she needs in 15 pounds or less.

Tip Five: Be Prepared for Weather Changes

Checking the weather before you go out to hike is smart, but weather conditions can change unexpectedly and accidents do happen. Many a new hiker has gone out in shorts and a tee shirt in the morning, only to find themselves shivering in cold, wet weather later on. Get a cheap plastic poncho for rain, and keep some extra layers of clothing in your pack. An extra pair of socks, a light jacket or sweatshirt, and a hat and gloves in the spring are strongly advised. (By the way, those extra socks will come in handy if you should be crossing a river or stream and slip, too.) A savvy hiker dresses in easy to remove layers. As weather conditions change, or as your body’s internal temperature rises, you’ll want to be able to remove outer clothing as needed. And even in sub-zero temperatures, avoid absorbent fabrics like wool. They may feel toasty and dry at first, but after you’ve started sweating, you’ll be drenched and uncomfortable. Choose fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin instead.

Tip Six: Let Someone Know Where You Are

The standard wisdom for hiking is “Never hike alone.” I routinely flaunt that convention, and to be honest it’s just not realistic for many of us, anyway. So instead, just give someone advance notice about your plans in the event something should happen. Let them know where you’re going, and about what time you expect to be back. It’s extremely unlikely that any catastrophe will befall you on the trails, especially if you plan ahead. But just in case you should experience an injury, it’s wise to have someone in the know about your location.

Tip Seven: Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude

We all want to reap the physical and spiritual rewards of a good hike, but remember: this hike isn’t just about you. Be mindful of the forest and its inhabitants by adhering to the rules of the park. Stay on the trails, pack out your trash. Most professional hikers cultivate a sense of respect and gratitude for the earth, reminding themselves that they are guests in the woods. As your time spent hiking increases, your sense of connection and respect for nature is sure to increase. Notice that feeling and cultivate it.

Tip Eight: Take a Break (But Not For Too Long)

If you’re trying to lose weight or build muscle mass, you probably want to push yourself to the limit. While you definitely want to keep your heart rate high and keep burning calories, your body will manage both more efficiently with brief breaks to rebound. Break every thirty to sixty minutes, but only for three to five minutes at a time. Resist the urge to punish yourself; your body knows what it can do and when it needs a break. Haley explains that resting is “about listening to your body and taking a break when you need to. If you get fatigued, you may not be able to work a, hard or continue going as strong as you would if you took a short rest.”

Tip Nine: Hiking is the Best Training for Hiking

If you’re planning to hike for a weekend, or thru hike a major trail, consider working hiking into your daily routine beforehand. Many pro hikers carry their gear with them any time they leave their house in order to adjust their bodies to constantly carrying a load. Wear your hiking boots to the grocery store, and use stairs to mimic steep ascents and declines. Getting your body used to the strains of hiking will decrease the adjustment time once you’re on the trails. And, it’s helpful to take a hiking “mentality” too – focus on your steps and where you plant your feet, be mindful of balance and posture, and practice moving at a pace that works for you. One way of looking at hiking is “mindful walking.”

Tip Ten: Show Courtesy to Your Fellow Hikers

Hiking is a pretty lonely sport, to be sure. Most days I don’t encounter any other people when I hike. But when you do run into someone else, be friendly and say hello. If someone hiking behind you catches up and wants to pass, step to the right so they can pass on your left. Offer some trail mix or a little water if you can spare it. You’ll find hikers are a special type of people, with great stories to tell and knowledge to give to anyone who’ll listen. Most of them are there for the same reasons that you are: to test themselves and their limits, to find a deeper connection with the world, to uncover new truths or wrestle with hard questions. Hikers are wanderers and seekers, and they will welcome kindred spirits.

Oh, and many hikers have “trail names” that serve as shorthand in the same way that CB radio call signs do. Mine, you may have guessed, is “Factotum!”

See you on the trails!

Last Child in the Woods

A few years ago, my ex-wife bought me a copy of Last Child in the Woods for my birthday. I read the introduction to my then-baby girl under a pignut hickory tree on a bank of Crystal Pond in Eastford, even though she was just six months old at the time. The book makes a compelling case for getting our children back outside and reaping the benefits – physical and psychological – of contact with nature. It also presents the sobering picture of the present generation’s apathetic disposition toward being outside.

A longtime hiker and amateur naturalist, I didn’t really need to be convinced to spend more time in the woods. But I hadn’t considered the implications for River, who I know would spend a lot of time “naming nature” as I do.

Last week, we were at Mansfield Hollow counting needles to sort the different types of pines. We found a Norway maple growing around an ironwood tree. River, as always, was enthralled by the details of nature. I always keep a tree identification guide and one of the Audubon Society’s field guides (usually the guide to New England) in River’s baby bag. For me, the intimacy of encountering a forest demands identification. For a rare, incurious few, I suppose it’s possible to simply face and appreciate the state of being in nature, but I find it’s more common that we want to get to know the names and stories of the things we see outside. River kept the pages of our guide turning with her queries, and even offered a hypothesis or two when the book or my knowledge fell short (she supposed that the maple’s sturdy branches were keeping the ironwood tree warm).

When we finished our survey of the plant life, we played hide and seek in a meadow flooded with sunshine. She casually identified black-eyed susans and yarrow, to the exceeding edification of her proud father, and I introduced her to the joy of breaking milkweed leaves from the stem. She explained, in her own words, the importance of conservation and humankind’s kinship with the kingdoms of life – all of which, at her age, is just parroting what she’s heard before, but of this are the seeds of more abstract reasoning made.

In all that we did, however, we were alone. As always, the trails were empty, the groves and fields uncluttered with human voices. I was refreshed from the momentary flight from social media, e-mail, and my cell phone, and in the escape experiencing what seems to me an authentic humanity.

Don’t worry, I’m not aiming for a Luddite-like treatise against industry here. There is no halting the march of technology. River, at merely three, can already operate a smart phone and a tablets. But I’m hopeful that she will know when to put her phone down and grab her field guide or a hiking stick. And above all, I long for her to have companions in the parks and on the trails as she grows, that she will not be one of the last children in the woods, singularly adoring her cousins the trees and brother dragonflies.

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Free Photo of the Day 7/13/14

owl-1Hi friends!

River and I went camping this past week down in Voluntown, CT. The Voluntown/Griswold area is home to Connecticut’s largest state forest, Pachaug. We took a ride over to the forest proper on Thursday, and less than 100 feet into the woods I saw a beautiful barred owl (strix varia) take flight into a maple tree. It was unusual to see the nocturnal bird active in the middle of the day, but I grabbed my camera to get a few photos while I could!

The T3i did a decent job of capturing the owl at a significant distance. I had the kit lens zoomed to 250mm and shot at an ISO of 500 (f7.1; 1/400). The resulting image – which is cropped to about 40% of its original size – is not bad at all. I wish I could have stepped down to a larger aperture – but I’d need a better lens for that.

Enjoy this free image, and as always if you use my images please consider helping me climb out of poverty and take River and I to a safer and more secure future – donate to my nursing school campaign here.

Have a great day!

Free Photo of the Day 6/13/14

Canon T3i: 65mm; 1/60 sec;   f/4.0;   ISO 400.
Canon T3i: 65mm; 1/60 sec; f/4.0; ISO 400.

Another free photo, taken just yesterday. By the way, if you like these (or don’t) please feel free to comment – I’d appreciate the feedback.

This very narrow focus shot of a fairy ring I came across on a hike is visually interesting even if it’s not a good commercial image. The ring itself was unfortunately growing in what was essentially mulch, so there was no way to shoot it as a whole that would have artistic merit. But this ground-level view directs the eye to the beautiful caps, gills, and stalks of the this native fungus. I’m not sure of the species – mycology is not my strong suit – but here’s a nice tutorial on fungi and mushrooms.

Enjoy – link to my blog if you use this photo, please.