Archive for December, 2012

A New Years Natural Resolution



A single swan, colored in the absence of pigment and white as snow is a beautiful thing. But when you add a handful of such regal birds and have them fly just overhead, towards a December sunset, they betray the workings of the alchemist. I am not embarrassed about my hushed sigh and accompanying smile as the gilded flock silently flew at treetop level heading down the mostly frozen river. The color of melted butter, the trumpeter swans were mute in their day’s end search for an overnight roost on open water.

I counted five and made a note to add them to my tally. It was the annual Christmas Bird Count Day and with sunset only an hour away I had decided to hike downriver along the frozen shoreline. The river was open well away from shore and it was there that I hoped to spy some winter hardy waterfowl. And perhaps I might spy a late day pileated woodpecker crossing the river or an impatient owl coming on the scene for the night shift.

For over 100 years, folks across North America and now even in Mexico and Central America head out in the countryside to count birds in an established count area of 177 square miles in the span of 24 hours.  The count is always over a three-week period in late December, hence the name the Christmas Bird Count.

Our local count has about 20 folks strategically spread out over the prescribed area. I had started the day with friend Steve, an avid birder.Teaming with at least one person is preferable since one person should keep focused on driving while the other can tabulate the species and numbers of individual birds. Through the morning we drove through the snow-covered countryside pausing near old, tall barns to count hoards of starlings, house sparrow and pigeons. We slowed going by homes with bird feeders. If they had a well-stocked feeder we stopped, turned on the car’s flashers and glassed the feeders and nearby thickets. It was always important to put the “official bird count” sign in the back window to assuage any fears that we might be casing out the house for potential holiday plundering.

For over 30 years, I have participated in the Wild River Christmas Bird Count and in that time I have made it a December axiom that all counters in my car would not be enjoying a hot lunch until we tallied at least 20 species of birds.  I’ve learned that a hungrier birder is a sharper birder. A full belly only leads to drowsiness.

With just over 20 species tallied, Steve had to say goodbye at noon and head off to a family obligation. With no cell phone, I had no way to recruit a counter from one of the other bird patrolling cars. I was alone; a dangerous situation given that I had to drive and look for  birds simultaneously. This is arguably no better than texting while driving.

After an hour of slowly driving the back roads, I got bored and sleepy so I knew it was time for a good hike. I headed down to Franconia and parked at the boat landing on the St. Croix River. I snugged my stocking cap over my head, made sure my wool scarf was wrapped snugly around my neck and headed downriver along the frozen shoreline.

After spying the swans, I managed to tally a pair of Canada geese flying in the same direction as the swans. I found a fine chair in a tangle of thick silver maple roots that were exposed in the riverbank. It was here that I settled in for ten minutes of blissful silence.  Real silence is an increasingly rare commodity.

We rarely take time to simply sit . . . . and . . . . . wait.

No season begs for introspection like winter. These are the slow days that  invite us to sit and  take stock of our riches and failings. Molasses flows slow and we often follow suit. The days are short and usually cold enough to ward off any casual hammocking or lawn chair sitting.  It’s difficult to find such inner solitude in a world that is intent on hurrying heartfelt  conersation via acronymical communications. We have become experts in delivering mundane messages about shopping for cheese for example. And even typed messages of “I’m happy”  lack sincerity.

While I listened to the faint tinkling and jostling of broken pieces of river ice flow under the sheet of shoreline ice, I declared a new year’s resolution. I am going to inspire a revolution to engage others to a live experience outdoors; to engage in new ways directly with the natural world.

The nip in my fingertips, combined with the setting sun, were clear signals that I had better start hiking back upriver to my car. Enroute, I passed the meanderings of fox and coyote tracks over the ice and then decided to leave my own mark. The blanket of snow over the ice was mostly smooth and unblemished. I paused and looked around to be sure no one was watching. It had been years since I had made a snow angel in the snow.  And I had never made one laying face down!

Like a frantic flying bird, my arms and legs stroked rapidly while my face burrowed a pocket into the snow. Carefully I got up and stepped precisely into my approaching tracks so as to leave a distinct angel print. I stepped away blinking flakes from my lashes while a silly smile crescented  my snow-plastered face.

With a reenergized gait, I hurried north. And five minutes later I did in fact flush a great horned owl from a riverside maple. That made twenty-six species and a hushed resolution for the day.

Outdoor Gifts

As much as I like to check out outdoor gear,  I refuse to be pulled into the vortex of consumption at this time of the year. Frankly, I wouldn’t show up at any Black Friday shopper’s orgy if they were to offer me a free flat screen television. We have enough stuff.

In fact we haven’t bought any Christmas wrapping paper in 20 years. We are not inflicted with Scroogitis; instead we reuse other paper. The Sunday paper comics section, picked up at recycling, makes for colorful paper as do old topographic maps plucked out of a dumpster years ago.  We tend to rely heavily on the gift of experiences. They require no batteries, no wrapping, and no extended warranties. Instead, they require an open and adventuresome spirit, time with each other, an openness to new cultural opportunities and an unbinding curiosity.

For example, two winters ago I put in quite a few hours on a unique and admittedly ephemeral gift for my soon-to-be son-in-law, Ben. It was his first experience with a Minnesota winter so I built him a custom, pimped out snow cave, complete with a sign that said, “Ben’s Den.”  The crystalline cave was carpeted with a large tanned buffalo robe, Christmas lights draped the walls, flickering candles were tucked into carved alcoves and a gravity fed beer dispenser prevented dehydration. Seriously.

Ben was like a Christmas morning child. I could hardly dislodge him for three days. He chose to sleep in their two nights out of three and he even retreated in there to do some med school studying.

Today I was sorting out camping gear for an upcoming January winter camping trip up in northern Minnesota with Ben and his younger brother Dan. Dan, a Clemson University student, has never been to Minnesota. I’m crossing my fingers for at least two feet of snow and some below zero temperatures for these two Pennsylvanians. Wolves howling and a display of northern lights might be too much to hope for.

I’ve been lucky to have had a lifetime of camping in some pretty remote places that include the Canadian and Scandinavian Arctic, the Mojave desert in Mexico, the Grand Canyon and the barrier islands off Georgia. And I’ve been fortunate to have shared many campfires with highly experienced outdoors enthusiasts. Consequently I’ve seen and used alot of different gear.

Today I smiled when I pulled out smoke-tainted packs, dented cooking pots and partially melted gear. Each piece of gear carries a story.  I cherish my gear, new and old.  Admittedly two of my most favorite camping gear items would make great holiday or birthday gifts if you are inclined to buy stuff for the lover of the wild in your family.

First, and most favorite, is my Whelen Tarp purchased from Cooke Custom Sewing.  This versatile tarp is sewn by Minnesota outdoor enthusiast Dan Cooke.  All of his products are top shelf and very well designed and stoutly constructed. I see the tarp is no longer labeled a Whelen tarp but is now called Lean Plus tarp. Don’t scrimp; get the lightweight 1.1 oz. silicone tarp.

This is the same design that Colonel Townsend Whelen , longtime outdoors writer  at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. He was both a highly skilled marksman and woodsman. He preferred using this design tarp to any other tent. It can be set up in a multitude of positions with its side wings and a front awning help keep the weather off you.

The only time I sleep inside the spacious tarp is during the bug-free season. It’s perfect in winter camping as it can be pitched with it’s sloping back protecting you from prevailing cold winds while allowing your breath from ending up condensing the walls of the tent.

 The tarp  is absolutely indispensible when used as an additional shelter at any time of the year. It easily holds packs, gear and four adults.  Rather than holing up in a tent all day, the tarp allows you to comfortably sit, cook, read, play music, spin yarns or putz with equipment during long rain spells. I can’t imagine any sort of camping trip without a tarp. Once our sleeping tent is erected, rain or shine, we always put up the tarp. There is nothing more miserable than trying to put up a tent or tarp in a driving rain.

Our Whelen tarp even fended off a big adult grizzly bear. The silver-backed bruin was ambling downhill directly towards our camp during a remote river trip in the northern Yukon Territory. The bear was totally unafraid of us and had likely never seen a human before. As it snuffled for berries, slowly making its way towards us, it approached within 35 yards of our camp.  Suddenly a strong gust of wind pulled a stake out of the ground and snapped the corner of the tarp. It sounded like a snapping towel and it was enough to unnerve the curious bear and send it on its way elsewhere. We decided not to reanchor the tarp corner.

The second favored item is another Minnesota product built and created by another craftsman who believes in quality. Don Kevalis  owns Four Dog Stove  . His wood lightweight wood burning stoves are in service all across North America. Once while at his house, I heard him take a phone call from a native hunter in Barrow, Alaska. Barrow, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean  is the most northern community in the United States,

While I absolutely love my Four Dog Stove  titanium wood burning stove and my Shackleton canvas tent for winter camping, I am completely smitten by my”BushcookerLtII Bush Camp Stove. This is a single burner, super lightweight  titanium twig burning stove. The best part of this battery free stove is that it requires no white gas, butane, propane or any gas fuel. Instead you only need dry twigs, pine cones and other found fuels to boil up a pot of water in six-eight minutes.

This is a great stove for backpacking as I don’t have to carry additional weight in fuel. And on a canoe trip, you can stop for a needed quick pot of hot tea without leaving any fire scar on the land.  In wet conditions, I always keep a back-up zip lock bag full of twigs and a scrap of birch bark tucked in my pack. This is a stove that is very kid-friendly and the responsibilities of fire building and cooking can be made easier with cooperation of fellow campers.

And I guarantee camp community-building helps create a positive lifetime emotional bookmark for all ages.

Happy Holidays. . .now get outside!


“Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons. It is to grow in the open air, and to eat and sleep with the earth.”

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Say No to Oil and Coal Kool Aid


“Cause hell is boiling over

And heaven is full

We’re chained to the world

And we all gotta pull”

– Tom Waits, Dirt in the Ground.



Today was kind of a downer day.

I could care less that the Packers beat the Vikings.  The  real bummer is that it is December 2nd and the world outside looks and feels like September. With temps in the mid-40s, my wood shed is still bulging with oak reserves as there has been little need to feed either of our two wood burning stoves.

I am frustrated. No actually I am  outraged and saddened at the recent news, that the Arctic and Antarctic ice is melting at a much faster rate than scientists had predicted. With Greenland’s ice disappearing five times faster than it was in 1990, we now learn that at current rates the sea levels will rise nearly four feet in less than 100 years.  That means that entire coastlines and cities found there will be totally flooded. Refugees will head inland in need of diminishing resources. And with the global population increasing by 200,000 humans every day the potential for conflict is very real.

I’m glad that Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon, admitted last June to climate change. But I’m not glad that he thinks it’s blown out of proportion and that we humans will simply “adapt.” Oh really? Why is it that the folks at the Pentagon, in charge of national security, are not so secure about the ability of nations and citizens to adapt?  The Pentagon has openly stated that they see global warming as a destabilizing force that will likely add fuel to conflicts over resources and therefore put US troops at risk around the world.

An October Huffington Post article reported that retired USAF General Charles F. Wald testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee, reiterating the CNA finding, saying that “we must… now prepare to respond to the consequences of dramatic population migrations, pandemic health issues and significant food and water shortages due to the possibility of significant climate change” and that “Energy security and a sound response to climate change cannot be achieved by an increased use of fossil fuels.”

Closer to home, Minnesota is experiencing some very real and very freaky weather related incidents. These include  two 1,000 year floods in SE Minnesota, a wildfire that nearly burned the northern town of Ely, a record setting number of tornadoes in 2011 and an extended drought.

I’m mad as hell at news that the United States oil production is among the tops in the world. Not patriotic you say? I’m not a short-term, fair weather patriot. I’m looking for the long haul and that means an energy that is sustainable for my grandchildren and their grandchildren. Extraction, whether it’s oil or minerals, is always a boom and bust. There is only so much of it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am for a strong economy but I fear that news of more oil and a growing population in the US  will only slow down our need to reduce fossil fuel consumption. In essence, with oil up, climate change discussion is down.

I am equally frustrated that climate change was practically a non-existent talking point during the recent elections. I can hardly believe there isn’t more outrage on the subject.

I’m not releasing my outrage based on looking out the window. We have felt and witnessed the subtle and not-so-subtle changes. No, I am basing my frustration on science. The overwhelming majority of scientists of the world are confident in pointing the finger at human consumption of fossil fuels as to the primary contributor of carbon in the atmosphere, and consequently climate change.

While spending time in the Yukon Territory in Canada, I picked up a  2009 Yukon Government Document: Yukon Government Climate Action Plan. It stated “It is the belief of the Yukon Government that climate change is happening, that human behavior is a major contributor, and that a coordinated response is needed.” Wow! A North American government jurisdiction, with a Conservative Premier no less, stating a bold fact that is contentious and usually promotes ostrich-like behavior in the United States and much of Canada as they bury their collective set of denying heads. And yet, both the US and Canada are major carbon emitters.

As an optimist I prefer to  reframe the issue as a positive. While we are experiencing the ill effects of rising carbon levels in the atmosphere and the negative impacts it has on weather (more storms, droughts, etc.), rising seas, national security, food security, biological integrity and so on, we have an incredible opportunity to  reduce those threats while creating more jobs and and building a stronger economy. The U.S. has always been known for its unbridled innovation. I say let’s release the creativity and take what we already know and move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Some would argue we can’t afford to make that change. I say we can’t  afford not to break the oil and coal habit.

So what can we do?  Practice critical thinking. Speak up! Don’t whisper timidly about climate change. Speak out with family, friends and most important with your legislators.

I often go to the Rocky Mountain Institute for positive  and hopeful information on ways to avoid our dependence on fossil fuels. Their book, Reinventing Fire is an excllent blueprint for breaking the fossil fuel habit while growing an economy.  Even the former national security advisor to President Reagan feels this book “deserves a permanent place  on the desk of whoever holds the chair in the Oval Office.”

Ultimately it will come down to political will and leadership. But as we often witness, power is often sought through the games of politics. John Adams, one of our Founding Fathers, wrote, “Religion, superstition, oaths, education, laws, all give way before passions, interest and power.”

It seems that until real science can supersede myth and superstition we will fail to realize the genuine power of the sun.

Speak up.