Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bodega Bay California

Well, we spent the last week in Bodega Bay California on an Elderhostel trip. Elderhostel is a travel company that puts together trips all over the world.

One nice thing about Elderhostel trips is that the published price is all inclusive. There are absolutely no hidden fees for activities, meals, tips, or anything. The trips are rated 1-6, with 1 meaning able to get out of bed unassisted, and 6 meaning able to hike 10 miles a day. Our trip was a 4 and included 3 days of hiking up to about 4 miles a day, and 1 day of kayaking approximately 4-5 miles.

Bodega Bay is the location where Alfred Hitchcock filmed "The Birds". One evening we watched the movie and recognized every scene in the movie.

We participated in different activities each day. We hiked near the bay the first day, and then hiked and visited Point Reyes National Seashore the next day. On Wednesday we hiked among the giant Coastal Redwoods and then visited the Korbel Winery in the afternoon. Thursday we kayaked on the Russian River to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, among the Harbor Seals, and then visited the small town of Occidental for lunch and shopping.

Some mornings and every evening there were programs by Anthropologists, Marine Biologists, wine experts, and entertainment by a singer songwriter who was a former singer with the New Christy Minstrels. We were a little apprehensive about the "educational programs" going in, but all were excellent and we enjoyed them very much.

Breakfast was at the hotel every morning. We packed sandwiches, fruit, and cookies for lunch while hiking, and dinner was catered at the hotel. The food was good.

There was a great group of 16 people on the trip and they came from all over the country. You have to be 50 or older to go on an Elderhostel trip and our group was all around 60 or so, and all were active outdoor enthusiasts. We had a lot of fun together.

The endorsement of Elderhostel came from the couples in our group. All had done multiple Elderhostel trips and some were on more than 10. That is a pretty good indication of how well they like Elderhostel. By the way, even though our group was all couples, they said that usually there is a fair percentage of singles on these trips. This was our first trip, but you can bet that we will do more.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Red Eft

This is just a short blog entry to show a picture of a cute little guy that I found while hiking this week.

This is an Eastern Newt. The Newt has three forms or stages of their life.

When the eggs hatch in the water the first state is a larval aquatic form with gills. After 3 or 4 months in the water the larval form transforms into the little guy pictured at left...a Red Eft.

The Red Eft lives on land for from 1 to 7 years and then transforms into an aquatic adult form that is olive colored with red spots.

The red spots of the adult and the bright orange-red of the Red Eft gives you an indication that for some reason these salamanders don't need to hide for protection. That is because they have toxins in their skin that makes them undesirable for predators to eat them.

The Red Eft is slow moving and looks like a little rubber toy on the forest floor.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Hiking in the mountains again

Man, it sure has been hot in Tennessee this summer. I remember few, if any, 90 degrees days last year. In fact, I don't remember using the air conditioning more than about 10 days last summer. This year has been a different story. We have been running the air conditioning for almost a month straight recently.

So again last Thursday Nancy and I decided to beat the heat by heading to the Smoky Mountains for a day of hiking. When it is 100 in Knoxville, it is only in the 80's in the higher elevations and shade of the mountains.

We went near Tremont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Middle Prong trail. This trail parallels Lynn Camp Prong for several miles. (a "prong" is another name for creek or stream in these parts) The picture above is not a waterfall with a name, it is just the normal look of Lynn Camp Prong as it tumbles along. We saw trout in many of the pools as we hiked along.

The trail that we walked on was the bed of an old railway that was used for the lumber industry before the area became a national park. It was very wide, compared to most trails in the park, and it is also used by horses. On any trail that hikers must share with horses, the hikers must watch where they step due to the piles of horse manure on the trail.

The reason I mention all of this relates to the beautiful butterfly in the picture. You probably think of butterflies as those delicate creatures that sip nectar from flowers. Well, we saw many of these "Red-spotted Purple" (official name) butterflies and they were all sitting on the horse deposits sipping that kind of nectar. You sure would think that flowers would be tastier than horse poop.

We hiked a total of about 8 miles round trip. At the 4 mile point we followed a narrow trail through the Rhododendron and Laurel 100 yards to a great 4 tiered waterfall called Indian Flats Falls. We decided to put this hike on the Fall schedule of the hiking group.

We have another 10 mile hike scheduled for this coming Friday. However it is south of here towards Soddy Daisy Tennessee and not in the mountains . We are hoping for the weather to cool off before Friday.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Appalachain Trail Hike

A couple of days ago, Nancy and I decided to get out of the 90-100 degree heat and head to the Smoky Mountains. That was the day that Knoxville hit a record of 100 degrees. In the mountains it was only in the 80's and we were in the shade most of the time. We were at an elevation of between 5000 and 6200 all day where it is cooler.

We decided to hike on the Appalachian Trail to a famous destination in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park called Charlie's Bunion. It was named by Charlie's hiking partner who said that the exposed rock reminded him of Charlie's foot ailment. Charlie claimed that his feet were fine, just red and sore from a long hike. The hike is 4 miles one way or 8 miles round trip, but we hiked 9.5 miles that day due to some side trips for great views.

The large pile of berries next to my GPS was on the trail just before we got to the Charlie's Bunion overlook. These aren't just a normal pile of berries....they were processed through a bear before being deposited on the trail....if you know what I mean. There were National Park Service signs on the trail warning of recent "bear activity" in the area. We did talk to a couple of backpackers who saw two bears on the trail, but we were not lucky enough to see one on our hike. Bears normally skedaddle in the opposite direction when they encounter humans.

On the trail we encountered 12 people in two different groups that were backpacking and planned to spend the night at Icewater Springs shelter on the Appalachian Trail. It was a great looking shelter with two levels of sleeping platforms capable of easily accommodating 20 or more people. This shelter like others in the Smokys used to have chain link fences to shut at night to protect campers from bears. But it was determined that the safety of the fences caused goofballs to feed the bears through the fence. The fences were removed and the open shelters now cause campers to hang their food out of the reach of bears. Amazingly, bears are no longer a problem at the shelters because they no longer associate campers with easy food.

Charlie's Bunion is comprised of rare (for this part of the country) of Anakeesta rock formations. There are 1000 foot drops and supposedly a number of people have fallen while climbing around the rocks. The rocks here are bare because long ago dead trees from timber operations caused a forest fire which left the slopes bare of vegetation. Then, heavy rains washed away the soil to expose the rocks. The rock slopes look more like the Rocky Mountains than the Appalachians. If you click on the picture to enlarge it you can see a person out on Charlie's Bunion.

It was not a very clear day due to the heat and haze. Guidebooks say that the best time to hike Charlie's Bunion is in the winter when the leaves are off the trees and the air is clearer. Even so, we had some great vistas. "Jumpoff" is a side trail a couple of miles from Charlie's that has a great long range view. The picture to the left was taken on the trip back down to our starting point at Newfound Gap. It is looking east into North Carolina.

We wanted to hike this trail to evaluate it for a possible Fairfield Glade hiking club hike. It might be a little long and rocky for the group. A group of hikers is only as fast as the slowest hiker and the nature of this trail might make it a long day for a group, even though the guidebooks rate it as "moderate".

But, if you think you have at least 8 miles in you, we highly recommend the beautiful hike to Charlie's Bunion on the Appalachian Trail.

Save the Brookies

My fishing buddy Ray and I went to the Cherokee National Forest in far Eastern Tennessee, near the North Carolina border, on Saturday to work with Trout Unlimited, Inc. and the National Forest Service.

The purpose was to record the number of Brook Trout in a specific stream and to capture any Rainbow or Brown Trout found and move them downstream below natural barriers. Brook Trout are the only native trout to the Eastern United States and their original habitat is dwindling. Introduced Rainbow and Brown trout displace Brook Trout. The idea is to try to keep certain prime Brook Trout streams exclusive so the Brook Trout can continue to survive.
The method used is to temporarily shock or stun the fish in a stream so they can be identified and counted. The fish float to the surface but quickly recover.

The current to shock the stream is done with generators or battery packs strapped to your back. The person with the electrodes wears rubber gloves and waders so that only the fish are shocked and not the people. The National Forest Service has the equipment and they use volunteers to do the work. Once you strap the 45 pound battery pack to your back and put two 6 foot electrodes in your hands you immediately understand why they use volunteers. It is very strenuous, and after about 1/2 hour you are ready to give the battery pack to the next volunteer.

But it is very rewarding and even fun. You get to see how many and what size fish are in a stream. We counted 57 Brookies in about 1/2 miles of the stream. Brook Trout streams are usually very small, as in small enough to jump over. Also, Brookies like cold, clean water. And, like the streams, Brook Trout are small, especially in the Southeastern U.S. An 8" Brook Trout is a pretty good sized one. Many were between 4 and 8 inches. But, I think that many would agree that there is no more beautiful fish than a Brook Trout, especially when they are in their fall spawning colors.

Like I often say, "Having fun is hard work" and Saturday's adventure was both hard and fun.

Monday, July 30, 2007

New Orleans

We had an interesting and different adventure last week. Nancy and I went to New Orleans with Nancy's sister Jane and her church group from Johnstown Pennsylvania. This was the church's yearly mission trip. Jane goes nearly every year. The group goes to various places such as inter-city Chicago, Philadelphia, or a Cherokee Indian reservation in North Carolina.

Last year and this year they went to New Orleans to do construction (or demolition) work for the people affected by hurricane Katrina.

The house in the picture above is one of the better ones the group worked on. It just needed scraping and cleaning the inside. Other houses needed to be completely gutted down to the studding and the entire contents hauled away.

Our group consisted of 7 adults and 28 kids from 8th grade through seniors in college. The kids were all good kids, however kids will be kids and the 7 adults were kept busy keeping everyone working hard and having fun. The fact that New Orleans has the highest murder rate of any city in the country caused us to extra cautious.

We never got to see Bourbon Street or the French Quarter but we did see several different sections of the city. Some areas are beautiful with very large beautifully landscaped houses and were completely unaffected by the flooding and damage. Other areas have nice looking streets with good looking houses , but uninhabited, boarded up, and overgrown houses are next door or a block away.

Stacks of debris like that in this picture are sitting along the streets in many neighborhoods.

While we were there the newspaper had just listed about 1500 addresses that were going to be demolished within 30 days because the previous occupants had not returned or made any effort to repair the house for 2 years since Katrina.

We met the 3 van caravan in Chattanooga and they dropped us off there on the way back. It was a 2 day trip each way for the Johnstown people and a long day each way for us. Trust me, 15 people plus luggage in a 15 person van is tight for 10 hours at a time.

We all survived and felt good about what we were able to accomplish in New Orleans, but getting home never felt better.

Friday, July 06, 2007

50 Miler patch

Here it is! My 50 miler award for hiking at least 50 miles on separate segments of the Cumberland Trail through Tennessee.

Gary Ruetenik and I were trying to be the 1st and 2nd people to achieve this patch but someone from Memphis beat us by 2 days, so we were the 2nd and 3rd.

We hiked 12.2 miles last Tuesday for Gary to go over the 50 mile mark. I was 1.3 miles short so I did another section of the trail on Wednesday by myself to get to the goal.

We have recommended to the Cumberland Trail Conference folks to establish a 100 mile award so we can shoot for that next.

Happy hiking!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Measuring Trails

I got a call a couple of weeks ago from Tony Hook, the man in charge of building the Cumberland Trail from Kentucky to Georgia. Approximately 170 miles of the proposed 300 mile trail are already complete.

Tony asked if I would hike about 18 miles of newly completed trail to map it with my GPS. I had done this for the Black Mountain segment of the trail and volunteered to do it for other sections. Gary Ruetenik eagerly agreed to hike with me.

We headed for Stony Fork Tennessee on Sunday afternoon for 2 days of hiking on Monday and Tuesday. It is only about 70 miles to Stony Fork but it takes about 2 hours because of the very curvy road. Volunteers and a few paid workers had been working on the trail in that area since early spring. They were in the final stages of adding signage and blazing the trees along the entire section with a white mark to make the trail easy to follow. All the was needed was a GPS track of the trail on a topographical map and an exact measurement of the trail. My GPS provided the map as we hiked and we pushed a measurement wheel to get the exact distance.

The trail is far from level as it crossed a couple of mountains and several streams. Uphill you are gasping for air and downhill your knees are screaming for a rest. But the trail is beautiful. We had some great mountain top vistas and traveled through hemlock and hardwood forests, grain fields and river bottoms. The GPS part is just travels on my pack strap and electronically does its thing by satellite. The wheel requires a little more effort. It has to be pushed every inch of the way. We took turns pushing the wheel but Gary did most of it.

Early on the first day I came within 12 inches of stepping on a skunk. Gary must have walked right past him and when I almost stepped on him I jumped about 6 feet off the trail. Mr. Skunk had some devious thoughts as he balanced on his front legs to get ready to defend himself chemically, but he took pity on me and moved on down the trail without incident. The picture that I snapped is understandably a little out of focus.

About half way through the first day we began to hear some distant thunder. Before long we were in the middle of a tremendous downpour with lightning crashing all around . It lasted almost an hour and we had no place to find any shelter....we just kept hiking through it, since we really had no other choice. But we survived and it was kind of fun once we realized that we didn't get zapped. A few miles away hail shredded leaves all over the road. It looked like someone weedeated the trees. Lucky for us we only had rain.

We hiked 11.54 miles the first day and 5.84 the second. We are used to hiking 5 or 6 miles but the 11+ was a challenge, especially with the unplanned shower. The GPS told us that we averaged 2.5 miles per hour while moving and 1.7 overall including stops for pictures and water.

We met Tony at the end of the trail and downloaded my GPS information onto his laptop and turned in the wheel measurements.

We had good fun, good food and slept well for a couple of nights as we recovered from the outdoor exercise.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Neighborhood Bear

I knew that it was only a matter of time. Our neighbor Gloria called Sunday morning at 7am. She had been out for an early morning walk and spotted them....footprints. Another neighbor, Margaret saw them too. Margaret was wondering why someone was out walking in the mud in their bare feet. Gloria had it right. Gloria called to ask me to see if they possibly were bear tracks.

I knew without even looking that she was probably right. There are bears 80 miles to the east in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are bears even closer in the Big South Fork National Recreation Area, 50 miles to the north. It was only a matter of time before one or more found their way to our area. The Catoosa Wildlife Management area is within 2 miles to the east and the north and it consists of 80,000 acres of nearly pure wilderness. If bears could re-populate the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park from Mexico, 50 miles across the desert, then 50 miles across sparsely populated mountains and trees should be a cake walk.

Nancy and I headed about a block away to where Gloria saw the muddy tracks crossing our street. There was no question, they were bear tracks. Conditions were exactly right for the bear to leave very clear tracks. It had rained hard for about an hour the evening before and several new homes had just had topsoil spread a few days before. The bear left deep tracks in the muddy yards and muddy prints every time it crossed the street. We tracked it the whole length of the street, about 1/2 mile in total. We could clearly see where it came out of the woods out by the main road and then wandered through almost every yard, crossing the street 5 or 6 times and then headed back down the main road away from the homes.

Surprisingly it didn't seem to get into any bird feeders but it did turn over one barbecue grill. It went up on at least two front porches, right to the front door and on at least two back decks.

There was only one set of tracks so it was alone. Based on the size of the tracks and according to one of my animal track books, it was a large bear. The front prints measured about 5 inches by 5 inches.
It is going to be a hard year for bears because of the late and severe frost that killed all the cultivated blueberries and many of the apples and peaches and also damaged some of the wild berries and much of the mast crop (acorns). Bears are expected to be roaming far and wide to find food this year. The good news is that the wild blackberry crop appears to be pretty good so far (we have had one pie already). I was over in east Tennessee the last two days and the blackberries are not ripe there yet, but they started to ripen about a week ago around here.

Hopefully most people will not put their garbage out to the street until the morning of trash pickup and they will keep pet food and birdseed out of reach. If the humans can keep their food and trash away from the bears, then the bears should not be a problem. The old saying "a fed bear is a dead bear" means that bears that learn to get food from humans often become troublesome and have to be relocated, dead or alive.

Here's wishing Mr. or Mrs. Bear lots of non-human food and a long life.

Monday, June 18, 2007

More venom

Here is a continuation on the venom theme about the rattlesnake in the last blog posting.

The Black Widow Spider in this picture has venom many time more toxic than the rattlesnake. The good news is that they don't inject as much if they bite you. If you live south of Oregon to New York you may have Black Widows in your yard.

The one in these photos was in my backyard.

The Black Widow is a beautiful spider. The female is usually patent leather shiny black with the red or orange “hourglass” marking on her abdomen. The ones that I have seen have a body about the size of a blueberry and with their legs extended they cover a quarter or larger.

They get their name from the belief that the female always kills and eats the male after mating. This sometimes happens but usually the male escapes to mate again. Thank goodness the kill and eat idea didn’t catch on.

Black Widows are most often found outside in old logs, rock piles, wood piles, and in crawlspaces. Some types of Black Widows will build their web in trees. All have a very messy looking web, not the beautiful symmetric webs that some spiders weave. The females rarely leave their web. The one in the pictures here had a web under some loose bark on a dead log in the woods behind my house. They are in some of your yards also.

Fortunately, Black Widows usually retreat when they encounter humans and don’t bite. Unfortunately, if they do bite, their venom is 15 times as powerful as rattlesnake venom; but they can only inject a small amount. A very small percentage of Black Widow bites do cause human fatalities, so if you are bitten, go to a hospital and if possible take the critter (dead, preferably) with you.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Friends in Low Places

I went hiking yesterday with the Wednesday hiking group. We had decided to try to find some natural arches in southern Kentucky. It only took us a little over an hour to get to the Daniel Boone National Forest just over the border from Tennessee. Our leader, Jim, had a list of 7 arches. Except for 1, these were not on any trails or roads. The only way to find them was through their GPS coordinates. It would involve bushwhacking.

Bushwhacking is a term that means going through the woods without benefit of a trail. In this part of the country it entails crashing through Laurel thickets and briers, going over and under downed trees, and climbing up and down rock faces. When the GPS indicated that our destination was 300 yards to the southeast, then we headed in that direction. That was the day's modus operandi for about 12 of us searching for obscure natural arches.

In contrast to bushwhacking, when you are hiking on trails, you can see where you are going and where you are going to step. Chiggers, ticks, and snakes are less of a problem on trails because you are not crashing through vegetation or climbing on rocks. Because we knew that we would be hiking off trail, this was the first time that I decided to wear my snake proof gaiters. About half of our group had similar gaiters. Now you can understand why.

After finding the first two arches we were spread out across the forest trying to find our way back to the cars. That is when we met Mr. (or Mrs.) Timber Rattlesnake pictured above. One of the hikers spotted him stretched out on the forest floor. Several of us had already passed by that area but since we were not walking in a line it is not clear how close anyone came to stepping on him. We estimated the length at a little over 3 feet long maybe 3 1/2 feet. That is the average size of males, although they may reach a maximum size of 5 feet or more. Females are slightly smaller. Without counting scales under the tail (we couldn't find a volunteer) you can't tell the sex of Timber Rattlesnakes just by looking at them.

Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads are the only venomous snakes in this part of the Cumberland Plateau. There are Cottonmouths and Pygmy Rattlesnakes in western Tennessee, but not here. Copperheads are less of a threat because of their smaller size, smaller amount of venom, less toxic venom and smaller fangs. Timber Rattlesnakes, however, can be somewhat dangerous because of their larger everything.

But the good news is that Timber Rattlesnakes are generally very non-aggressive and this guy seemed to verify that. The snake was calm and he just lay stretched out without moving until we surrounded him for picture taking. He then slowly moved toward a log, probably for better protection. I finally had to gently touch him with a stick to get him to coil for some different pictures. He only ever rattled very softly and only for a few seconds.

You can see the 8 rattles on his tail. Rattlesnakes get another rattle every time they shed their skin...about every year or two. With 8 rattles, we could guess that this guy is between 8 and 16 years old. But since rattles often break off, he could be up to 30 which is about their normal life span. Females aren't sexually mature until they are at least 7 and then they only have young every 3 years on average. Rattlesnakes are eaten by raptors, skunks, raccoons, other snakes, and yes, even humans.

We spent about 10 minutes photographing him from every angle. (Click on any picture for a bigger view) Then we moved on so he could get back to his priorities.

In addition to the rattlesnake we did find 5 out of the 7 arches that we set out to look for. We could have checked off the other 2, but we decided to call it a day and go for ice cream instead.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Festivals, food, and fun with Ramps!

You are looking at a bundle of Ramps. We attended a Ramp Festival in Cosby, Tennessee on Sunday. More on this later.

We had a busy 2 days Saturday and Sunday. We went on a 2 day adventure with friends Gary and Doris. First, on Saturday afternoon we went to the Shrimp Dock seafood store in Knoxville. This is a well known store that sells only fresh seafood. The seafood is flown in daily. You can order virtually any kind of fresh fish you want to and they will get it for you....flown in fresh. Well, once a year, the Shrimp Dock blocks off the parking lot and serves fresh seafood....for free. What a feast! They had raw oysters, grilled tuna, swordfish, salmon, shrimp, crawfish, crab legs, plus rice, potatoes, etc., etc. You could go back through the line as often as you wanted to. Plus, there was a good band playing in the parking lot. Excellent food, and the price was right.

Then, we weren't done with Knoxville yet. Downtown Knoxville had their once a year Rossini Festival. This is a street fair with 4 or more stages with free entertainment, numerous craft and food vendors and lots of wine and beer. Rossini was a famous Italian opera composer who wrote the opera "The Barber of Seville", and the "William Tell Overture", better known as the Lone Ranger theme. I have no idea why they celebrate Mr. Rossini in Knoxville, but the beer, food and entertainment were great.

Next, we headed on to the Creekwalk Inn Bed and Breakfast at Whisperwood Farm Retreat near Cosby, Tennessee, near the North Carolina border. Doris stumbled upon this bed and breakfast on the Internet, and what a find it was. When we arrived at 6:30pm the owner, Janice, upon checking us in said that she had just opened an excellent bottle of wine and wanted to know if we wanted to help her finish it. She is in a wine club and she had a bottle of a Santa Barbara Pinot Noir. We helped her empty the bottle. We were glad that we could be of assistance.

Our rooms in the log inn were beautiful. At 9pm as we were sitting in the den of the inn working on another bottle of wine, the owner's daughter, Kelsey, brought us some cheesecake for an evening snack. The live pansies decorating the servings were also edible. Nice touch!

The next morning after a 2 hour multi-course unbelievable breakfast, we went with Janice and the 2 dogs for a personal tour of all of the buildings on the property and to meet and feed the 6 horses. Each horse had his or her own personality. Buster Brown was 30 years old and gentle as a puppy as he followed 3 feet behind us everywhere we went. The 1 1/2 year old Percheron cross had to be in a high fenced corral because he would jump over every other fence, including the one he was in. The quarter horse was the boss and all the other horses ate away from or after him. The Thoroughbred was spirited and feisty. The Paint had a temporarily infected foot and couldn't limp to the feeding area and had to be fed by hand. He is expected to recover soon. And the Arabian was white with red freckles....very beautiful. Horses sure are very large, dusty, slobbery, shedding, smelly, poopie animals. But, we loved every minute with them and especially the information that Janice told us about each individual.

We highly recommend this bed and breakfast. It was one of the best ones that we ever stayed at. Here is their website.

But we still weren't done yet. On Sunday after our B & B and horse feeding adventure we headed a few miles up the road to the 54th annual Cosby Ramp Festival. Ramps are a type of wild onion that grows in the mountains. It has a flavor of both onion and garlic. Ramps are more well known in West Virginia, and in fact Nancy and I attended a Ramp "Feed" in West Virginia while in college about 38 years ago.

Here is Doris, Gary, and Nancy at the The Ramp Festival in Cosby. There were numerous bands playing on 2 separate stages, art and craft vendors, and a whole series of beauty pageants including the crowning of the Maid of the Ramps. We labeled her the "Ramp Tramp" for the rhyming effect, even though she was a beautiful young lady.

And of course, there was food at the Ramp Festival. You could have scrambled eggs with ramps, beans with ramps, raw uncooked ramps, etc. The only major problem was that they ran out of ramps at the Ramp festival just before we got our unbelievable disappointment! However, we found a couple of good ole local boys selling ramps in the parking lot. They told us that they illegally dug them and sneaked them out of the woods. They had to be very careful, they told us, because they had been busted previously for digging ginseng as well as ramps. Ginseng is protected except for a certain season with a required permit and I think the illegal part of digging ramps had to do with where they got them. But they were nice good ole boys and they gave me a free bundle of ramps (worth $4) in exchange for my offer of a glass of wine. We told them we would look for them next year.

Gary ate one raw ramp at the festival and planned to eat more Sunday night. The significance of eating raw ramps is this: Thirty eight years ago several fraternity brothers in college ate raw ramps (instead of the cooked ones) and they cleared out the bathrooms in the fraternity house for 2 days. The odor from the bathroom (as well as from their breath) was pretty much unbearable to those of us who did not eat raw ramps. On the way into the Ramp Festival I mentioned this previous 2 day odor fest to one of the ticket takers. He said that I remembered correctly about raw ramps except for one was more like 2 weeks rather than 2 days.

We had a nice weekend of festivals, food and fun. We left Gary and Doris and headed home on Sunday afternoon. I can't wait to hear the outcome (pun intended) of Gary's raw ramp diet. I challenged him to eat lots in order to ensure the full effect.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Caving near Grassy Cove

What a beautiful day we had on Saturday!

One day earlier in the week, Gary called and said that he heard about a land dedication event on Saturday and wanted to know if I wanted to go. The event was to thank 2 landowners who donated a total of 350 acres on Brady Mountain for the Cumberland Trail. We wanted to attend because, after the speeches, a Tennessee Parks Ranger was going to lead a hike to, and into, a cave.

So Gary, Ray, and I headed off. We didn't know what to expect. Gary volunteers often on the Cumberland Trail and he is a member of the Tennessee Trails Association. We figured that there would be some TTA members and maybe some local government officials. We heard that there would be some food. We didn't know if there would be 6 or 60 people there.

The event was held in Grassy Cove. Grassy Cove is a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains. It is 3 miles by 8 miles in size and consists of beautiful green fields, horses, farms and a few scattered homes. The valley is and always has been owned by one extended family. The picture above is an example of what the whole valley looks like.

Believe it or not, the dedication event was fantastic. First of all, there were about 200 people there....not usually my kind of event. But, at one point, Gary, Ray and I looked at each other and said, "does it get any better than this?". There we were in a beautiful outdoor setting, surrounded by mountains, listening to a local mountain music band, eating freshly cooked and baked food from the local people, and drinking, wine, Guinness, and Sam Adams....all for free. We determined that no one in Grassy Cove ever had a problem with stress.

After about an hour of speeches, music, beer and food we followed a Ranger about a half mile through the woods to Saltpeter Cave. This cave was used during the Civil War to mine saltpeter which is a key component of gunpowder. I am not sure if it was used by the North or the South, since although Tennessee was part of the Confederate States, eastern Tennessee was mostly in support of the Union.

We had to squeeze through the very small opening to the cave. But once inside it opened up into several very large high rooms. We followed the Ranger a couple of hundred yards through several passages and rooms in the cave. Although it was 75 degrees outside, it was only about 55 inside.
The picture to the left is in the first big room looking back toward the opening. Above the heads you can see the light from the small opening. The flash from the camera lit up this scene, but without the flash it was obviously very dark with only flashlights lighting a small area in front of each person. Notice the unnamed person in the white hard hat (could that be Ray?) wearing sunglasses inside the cave. For 20 minutes he thought that his flashlight was about out of batteries until someone happened to shine their light on him and see the sunglasses. Dang, these caves are dark!

Well that was the Saturday entertainment in Grassy Cove and Saltpeter Cave. What started out as an unknown turned into a pretty darn nice time.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Beautiful Smoky Mountains

Anytime we head east, I can't wait until the Smoky Mountains come into view. It makes me smile the second I see them in the distance.

Nancy and I went to Gatlinburg last Saturday to stay overnight and then to go to an outdoor Easter Sunrise service at the top of Ober Gatlinburg, the ski mountain. There was a free Tram (cable car) ride from downtown to the ski area for the service which started at 6:30 am. It was dark and cold (about 25 degrees) but we wore our ski jackets and pants and were quite toasty. The sun came up behind the mountains as the service progressed. It was a very nice way to celebrate Easter, and I would guess we will do it again.

There is nothing more beautiful than being in the mountains and the Smoky Mountains are a real gem. After the Easter service we drove the Roaring Fork Motor Trail and then up to Newfound Gap and to Clingman's Dome. There was snow from Newfound Gap on up, but sunny and not too cold.

We continued on to Cades Cove for a 5 mile hike to Abrams Falls and back. Cades Cove is at a relatively low elevation and everything was green and snow free. We hiked with fleece vests but no jackets.

I have an interesting little story that happened on the hike. About an hour into the 2-3 hour hike I realized that I had left my $350 GPS on top on the car roof in the gravel parking lot with about 30 cars and many people around. After calmly saying "stupid, stupid, stupid" out loud I had nothing to do at that point but continue on the hike. A few minutes later we met a couple on the trail heading back toward the parking lot, an hour away. I asked the man that if my GPS was by any chance still on the roof top if he would place it under my car by the rear wheel to put it out of sight. When we returned to the car almost 2 hours after that there was a note on my windshield. It read "Check before driving off". Under my car was my GPS, still on. Believe it or not, I really had a positive feeling that it would be there. It is enough to restore your faith in human goodness.
If you haven't visited the Smoky Mountains recently, get there soon. Try to avoid July & August (prime vacation time), and October (leaf peepers) if you want to miss the most crowded times. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has no entrance fee and no commercialization. Gatlinburg is a tourist zoo, but the National Park is all natural. The park is great for hiking, fishing, wildlife spotting, or even just listening to the sounds. We just wish it was 30 minutes away instead of 90. That way we could visit more often and we could smile at those mountains every day.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Well hello there!

"Hello there!" That is what Mr. Black Rat Snake said to Nancy as she was leading a hike last Monday.

We were doing a pre-hike to scout an upcoming Fairfield Glade Hiking Club trip that Ray and Marion are leading. Nancy was in the lead with 3 of us behind her when I heard a gasp. Mr. Snake was lying beside the trail to greet us. Black Rat snakes (sometimes called Eastern Rat Snakes) can be up to 5 feet long. This one was about 4 feet long....approximately the same distance that Nancy jumped back.

These are good snakes. They eat mice and birds by constricting them first. They climb well and I suspect that it was one of these guys that got the bluebird eggs in our nest box last year. Well, generally they are good snakes.

We used to catch one from time to time in Pennsylvania when we were kids and let them wrap themselves all the way up our arms. It was a good trick for casually walking into the cottage and scaring the womenfolk.

Black Rat Snakes are sometimes (and easily) confused with Black Racers (often called Eastern Racers). Black Rat Snakes look all black at first, but as you can see in this photo, in the right light they have lighter scales that give them a pattern. It is usually not as evident as in this picture.

Black Racers, on the other hand, are completely satiny black on the top. Full sized Black Racers are slightly smaller at only about 4 feet long. Also, Black Racers hold their head high when moving rapidly across the ground. Neither snake is venomous but both will bite if handled, especially the Black Racers. Both snakes are found east of the Mississippi from New England to Florida.

So the next time a black snake says "hello" to you try to determine if it is a Black Rat Snake or a Black Racer. Then you will be able to give the proper greeting in response.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What a Week!

Wow, what a week! What hard work! What fun!

Gary Ruetenik (in the orange shirt) likes to build hiking trails. Gary is a volunteer crew leader or "Wagon Master" who asked if I wanted to help build a section of the Cumberland Trail which will eventually traverse Tennessee from Kentucky to Georgia. About 150 of the 300 miles of trail is finished...all by volunteers. I agreed to help but didn't know how hard the work was...or how much fun.

The fun part was working with 49 great college kids who gave up their spring break time to volunteer and help build the trail. Heck, they came to help Tennessee and they all came from other states. 10-15 students each came from 4 colleges....Longwood University in Virginia, Cazenovia college in NY, Hamilton College in NY, and the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. There were over 100 more students working on another part of the trail. There will be more next week.

I worked all week with the self named "Hard Core Crew" from Longwood University; 9 young women and one young man. They were all hard working, smart, and with the best positive attitudes that you could ask for.

Trust me, it was hard work. The first two days I could hardly get out of the car when I got home. I am not kidding. I either got in better shape or got numb as the week went on because I felt that I worked harder and was less tired each day. But here is an interesting piece of elbow tendonitis and Ray's sore back got better the more we worked.

And how did the trail work go? Well, the guys like Gary who do this regularly said that these were the best crews that they ever had. We completed far more trail than the target for the week and the technical aspects of the trail, such as proper slope, proper drainage, elimination of roots and rocks, safe stone steps, etc., were all perfect.
Here is the whole crew cleaned up and looking good (click on the picture for a larger view).

For more pictures from our week of trail building go to this Picasa Web Album.

There will be many more opportunities to volunteer for this hard work and fun time. Contact me and I will put you in touch with Gary Ruetenik. You can work one day or many, your choice. I can only guarantee that you will feel much better (in many ways) after building trail with a bunch of positive young college students like these.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

You outta see this animal

Slowly but steadily I have been checking off my list of local animals to see. I got another one in the last week....twice. The cute little furbearer in the photo here is a Northern River Otter. These guys once inhabited most of the continental U.S. But like others, they were hunted, trapped and squeezed out of available habitat by their main (including woman I'm sure).

In many parts of the U.S. they have been reintroduced, waterway by waterway....including Tennessee.

I saw this guy (or girl) while fishing on the Caney Fork River a week ago, but I didn't have my camera. I went fishing again a couple of days ago and specifically took my camera just in case I saw him again. I didn't take my big camera with the telephoto lens because I was afraid that if I slipped in the stream that the camera would be drowned. So I put my smaller camera in a double zip lock bag in my fishing vest. I might survive a dunking in 40 degree water, but I am sure that a camera wouldn't. Sure enough I saw him again in just about the same spot along the shore. I had to blow up the picture quite a bit so it isn't crystal clear, but it is about as good as I expected to get of a wild otter.

Otters are about 3-4 feet long including their tail which is about one third of that, so they are much larger than their cousins, weasels, mink, and skunks. They are generally solitary animals except for mothers with young. They primarily eat fish and crayfish. Sources that I have read say they eat mostly non-game fish like suckers, but I am sure that trout are also on their menu.

River otter...check mark. Now if I can only get a picture of red and grey foxes, bobcats, and wild boar.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


I recently was able to get some close-up pictures of 3 of our common local woodpeckers. The beautiful bird in this picture is a Hairy Woodpecker. We see these less frequently than the others pictured below. They look almost exactly like a Downy Woodpecker but they are bigger (about 9" versus 6") and they have a much longer bill than the Downys.
This bird and the others below are all on the new suet logs that I made. The logs are hanging right off of my deck and they have attracted so far, 3 kinds of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and bluebirds. There is usually very few 15 minute intervals during the day when one of these birds is not on the suet log.

Now here, on the left, is a little female Downy Woodpecker. These are the most common woodpeckers that we see around here. They are somewhere in the backyard or in the woods visible from the house almost all day long. There is one out the window eating suet right now as I am typing this. The Downys and the Bluebirds are often both on the same feeder at the same time. Downys are the smallest woodpecker and they have a short little bill for a woodpecker.

This one is a Red-Bellied Woodpecker. You may be asking, like my neighbor Ed, where is the red belly. Well, it is often very hard to spot. But you can sometimes see the faint red if they are sitting just right. You can't see it in this picture. Red-Bellied woodpeckers are about the same size as the Hairy Woodpeckers...about 9".

There are 2 other kinds of woodpeckers that we see quite often (once a week or so) but that I haven't been able to get a close picture yet. One is the Red-Headed Woodpecker whose whole head is red. The other is the Pileated Woodpecker. The Pileated is the giant woodpecker about 18" high, or double the size of any of the others.
This guy on the wooden suet feeder to the left is a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. Although we supposedly have them around here, I haven't seen one yet. This picture was taken by our friend and famous wildlife photographer, Joe Burkett of Pottsboro Texas. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is about 8" tall, bigger than a Downy but smaller than a Hairy or Red-Bellied.

Put a suet log or suet feeder out your back window and you too will soon have woodpeckers visiting your yard.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Cumberland Trail

Looks like just a ribbon on a tree, right? Well what you are looking at is a future section of the Cumberland Trail that when finished will traverse Tennessee from Kentucky to Georgia.

On Saturday I was fortunate to get to go with 4 other folks responsible for the completion of the Cumberland Trail. The trail will eventually be about 300 miles long. Currently it is about half finished.

Most of the actual work on the trail is by volunteers. In March several hundred college students will give up their Panama spring break (or wherever they go these days) to volunteer for manual labor on the Cumberland Trail.

Cumberland Trail Program Coordinator Tony Hook led the 4 of us to the Royal Blue Wildlife Management area to flag about 1 1/2 miles of trail. Flagging involves figuring out exactly where the trail will be built and marking the trees with ribbons. Sometimes the decision is easy. Sometimes it involves walking and re-walking an area to try to determine the best route for the trail to follow. We had to take into consideration steepness, erosion potential, possible wet areas after rain, switchback locations, ease of construction, etc., etc.
In the picture to the left are my 4 companions for the day....Tony Hook, Gary Ruetenik, Carolyn Miller and Jim McCullough.

Tony is the expert. He is responsible for the trail from Kentucky to Georgia, but Gary, Carolyn and Jim know quite a bit about trail work also. I was the rookie.

The ribbons that we put on the trees will be followed by the volunteers in March with picks, shovels, McClouds, (a trail building tool) and chain saws to build the trail. Nancy and I plan to volunteer the week of March 12 to work on the trail on Black Mountain, a little closer to home.

If you go to the web site for the Cumberland Trail you can learn more, as well as see a previous photo (near the bottom of the page) that I took when the Fairfield Glade hiking club worked on Black Mountain. Nancy is in the middle of the photo with the white name badge and a McCloud in each hand.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Suet Log

My little article in the Fairfield Glade Vista newspaper generated several email comments. Several people had specific questions about bluebirds ... some of their questions I knew the answer to, and some I had to research before responding.

Two comments were especially helpful. The first was from someone who said in addition to mealworms, raisins and cranberries, that their bluebirds regularly came to a suet log that they made. They took a piece of a tree branch a couple of feet long and drilled 1 inch holes in it which they then filled with suet. I tried it and the bluebirds were on it within an hour. The picture above shows a male bluebird on my suet log with a goldfinch looking on. The goldfinch doesn't eat from the suet feeder, it is just visiting. I think that it is important to use a branch with some type of rough bark so the birds can get a good grip. Maple or beech might be too smooth to work.

Another suggestion came from a woman who said that she makes her own suet rather than buying the commercial kind and the bluebirds seem to like it better. Well, we tried her recipe and she is right. The bluebirds preferred the home made suet. Here is the recipe in case you want to try it.
All season suet recipe.
1 cup regular or crunchy peanut butter.
2 cups of quick cook oatmeal.
2 cups of cornmeal.
1 cup of lard (no substitutes here).
1 cup of white flour.
1/3 cup of sugar.

Melt peanut butter and lard together. (use very low heat).
Stir remaining ingredients together very well.
Then mix thoroughly with peanut butter and lard.
Pour into freezer containers and refrigerate until solid.

Woodpeckers come to these suet logs also. Above is a picture of a cute little Downy Woodpecker. He had just stepped off of the suet log to sit on the deck railing for a few seconds.

The cost of a piece of tree branch - zero
The cost of a screw-in eye-hook to hang the feeder - 33 cents
The fun of watching birds 3 feet outside your window - priceless.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Coyotes in your backyard

As everyone knows from watching those old Westerns on TV, coyotes live in the southwestern United States. That is pretty much where they lived back in 1492 when Columbus arrived. But a crazy thing happened over the last 500 years….we humans wreaked havoc with nature.

One of the things we did was kill all of our competition such as Mountain Lions, Wolves, Bears, etc. These animals were the top of the food chain until firearms, traps and poison wiped out or greatly reduced them from their original range. Especially with the wolves gone from the lower 48 states, a void was left that coyotes were all too happy to fill. Wolves have since been reintroduced in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana and there is a population in Minnesota. But in most of the eastern U.S. coyotes rushed in to fill the space where wolves once roamed.

One web site says that it was 1985 when coyotes were first confirmed in the Smoky Mountains. That is probably about the same time that they found Fairfield Glade.

Coyotes look very much like small German Shepherds. They usually weigh between 20 and 40 pounds. Supposedly, one way to tell is that coyotes travel with their tail down (not between their legs, just down) while dogs usually carry their tail up. But don’t worry too much about trying to identify them. Coyotes are rarely seen. Even living in the southwest for 15 years, I only ever saw a handful of coyotes, even though I heard them many times. However, another way to know that coyotes were in your neighborhood in Dallas was that your night roaming cat suddenly turned up missing. Coyotes love cat snacks.

Coyotes are rarely a threat to humans unless they become conditioned getting food through either garbage left out overnight or pet food left outside. Even then, they usually skedaddle at the sight of a person. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website says that in “recorded history there have only been 30 cases of coyote attacks on humans, while 30 million children are bitten by dogs each year.”

My wife Nancy and I were lucky to see two in Fairfield Glade last winter. We were walking along a back road near our house one morning about 10am when two deer ran across the road in front of us. I was curious why the deer were in such a high gear. I knew the answer when 2 coyotes appeared on the road a few minutes behind the deer. They stopped and looked at Nancy and me for 5 or 10 seconds, and then they were off. Coyotes probably don’t often catch healthy adult deer, but like all predators they will always look for a weakness. These two either knew something about the deer they were chasing or they were hoping to get lucky.

We hear a pack near us several times a week in the summer when we have our windows open at night. Sometimes we hear them twice a night, sometimes just once a week. They yip and yap more than they howl, but there is no mistake when a whole pack sounds off.

Coyotes! They are here in Fairfield Glade and just about everywhere in the U.S. even though you may never see them. Step outside at night and listen or better yet, sleep with you windows open in the summer and you just might be lucky enough to hear one of the great sounds of nature.

By the way, my chances of getting a picture of one of these elusive canids is pretty darn slim. Most of the pictures in my blog are ones that I have taken. But in this case, these pictures are ones that I found on the internet.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Identify this animal

If you guessed a cute dog or an ugly girl, you are way off. If you thought that this is a llama, you are wrong, but very close.

This is an alpaca. Alpacas are related to llamas, vicunas and guanacos....all camelids from South America.

Why am I writing about alpacas from South America? Well, we visited an alpaca farm in Ohio over the holidays and I found out some very interesting information about these animals.

Alpacas live naturally in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile at elevations of 10,000 to 15,000 feet above sea level. They have been imported to raise in the United States and other countries primarily as an investment. Their wool (or fiber, as it is called) can be sold and it is supposedly lighter and warmer and less itchy than sheep's wool. But the bigger market is to sell alpacas to other people hoping to raise alpacas to sell them to other people, etc., etc. It sounds a little like a pyramid scheme to me. At some point won't there be more alpacas than people wanting to buy them? And is the market for the fiber big enough to cover your costs? However, alpaca web sites claim that the market for alpacas has remained steady for 20 years.

And what is the price of a nice alpaca these days? The owner of the farm in Ohio said that males go for about $3000 and females for $9000. But on the alpaca farms websites that I found it looks like good females (good meaning having won some ribbons at an alpaca show and having nice soft fiber) go for $14,000 to $20,000. Since alpacas have babies (a baby alpaca is called a cria) once every year you could conceivably recoup your investment in a female in a year or two if her crias were female or in 5 years or so if they were all males. The guy in Ohio said that taking care of 30 alpacas is easier and less expensive than the 3 horses he used to have. He will board your alpaca for $90 per month if you don't want to shovel alpaca poop yourself.

And speaking of alpaca poop, these tidy animals all go in the same spot in the barnyard....making cleanup easier than for other large animals. Websites claim that alpacas can actually be housebroken. Although they are smaller than llamas they would still be a little big for sitting on your lap on the couch.

Male alpacas, although usually gentle with humans, have "fighting teeth" that must be trimmed to prevent damage to important male alpaca parts necessary for breeding. Ouch!

In the picture to the left is my grandson, Justin in the barnyard among about 20 alpacas. This young female named Cinnamon took a liking to Justin.

We were told that alpacas are smaller and gentler than llamas and they are much less likely to spit or regurgitate their stomach contents on you like an agitated llama has been known to do. They are too small to be used as pack animals like llamas. As you may recall from an earlier posting, llamas are used in the Smokey Mountains to deliver supplies to Mount LeConte three times a week.

We stopped at the alpaca farm because Justin had done a school report on llamas earlier. The alpaca farm visit was the highlight of his day....week....month! You too could visit an alpaca farm if it sounds interesting. There are farms all over the U.S. and several in Tennessee. These farms generally welcome your visit because you could be the next investor in a nice $20,000 bundle of fur.