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.