More than Food for Thought


Nothing makes the news with greater frequency these days then food. The stuff we ingest to motor through life is controversial and daily we are faced with reports of food recalls, the unknowns and dangers of eating genetically modified foods (GMOs) and the obesity epidemic.
Just yesterday, while listening to a report on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), I learned that during our specie’s history on the planet,  the human brain likely grew larger with greater capacity when access to food became easier and easier.  In other words our success in growing crops, domesticating animals and creating tools supported good nutrition. The report went on to say that 1/3 of the 2,500 or so calories that the average North American male needs each day is utilized by that big calorie burner, the brain.

Two weeks ago I burned more than that many calories in a single event.  My brain seemed like it was on a timeout as it  diverted needed calories to my legs, lungs and heart that pleaded for more calories. The physical event was the annual Chilkat Kluane International Bike Relay. The race starts in the community of Haines Junction, Yukon and ends 149 miles away up and over the Coastal Mountains dropping into Haines, Alaska. The setting is stunning with snow-capped mountains in view during the whole ride. And there is a good chance of seeing a moose or bear as you pedal through their homescape.

I have participated on two previous Chilkat races but in each case I was on four-person teams where each of the riders must ride two consecutive legs of the race. This year I was riding it solo and was able to complete it because the weather cooperated, I was ready for it and mostly because of my awesome “support team.” The team was wife Nancy, daughter Maren and her college buddy, Karen. They kept my water bottles filled, varied my food and then made the delicate hand-offs as I cycled by.

The trick on such a long ride is proper hydration and consuming calories that can quickly go to work in fueling your effort.  My success was highly attributed to the following:

1) huge drafts of mountain air with hints of sub-alpine fir melded with balsam poplar oils

2) Lots and lots of water. .  . about half of it was fortified with Nuun supplements.

3) Plenty of Save Your Ass Bars. These are homemade and have been known to work wonders in North America and high in the Andes in South America.

4) Two Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls.  Frank Lundeen, co-owner at CyclovaXC, highly recommended these.

4) Organic bananas, cut and peeled into chunks.

5) Clif Shot Blocks during the second half of the race. (About one per hour)

6) Sportsleggs supplements. Another Cyclova recommendation.

7) Cooked boiled potatoes rolled in olive oil and Parmesan cheese. I had these wrapped in foil but my support team quickly learned it was easier to simply hand one off as I pedaled by them. I really liked these and would even put leftover fragments in my bike jersey pocket. The key is not to overcook them.

And finally. .  .drum roll please. . . .

8) Nah, I can’t tell you. A photo is far better. And this ain’t no joke. . .this really staved off the bonking and fueled me with renewed energy! Plenty of fat, salts and carbs. And yes, it was another tip from Frank at Cyclova.

Race Food

And a superlative and creative support team is the top secret. They cranked up the music in the truck as they leap frogged me, stopping several miles ahead of me to supply me with water and food. Eminem’s classic hip hop hit  “Lose Yourself” was truly inspiring

Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted. one moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?

Each time I approached the truck pulled off the side of the highway, I was witness to sheer enthusiasm as they danced, sang and cheered. And they had an abundance of props like inflatable palm trees, wigs, crazy skirts and so on. Smiling helped me forget the task at hand.

When I pedaled across the finish line 8 hours 33 minutes and 55 seconds later, I was a happy boy. And there was my lovely support team cheering louder than ever with a full quart of organic chocolate milk for my recovery drink.






















My wife and I practice “Yukonasia.”

Perfectly legal, Yukonasia is the practice of terminating a sedentary life by intentionally living large in a land north of normal.

Even the controversial Jack Kevorkian, also known as Dr. Death for assisting over one hundred terminal patients in assisted suicide, would have approved at our boreal play on the word “euthanasia.”

“Normal” for the bulk of humans living in North America means living in urban environments where asphalt and concrete are the dominant groundcover.

“Normal” is being connected to Wi-Fi or broadband to computers, phones and various pads rather than connected to the natural world.

“Normal” is having multiple bathrooms with multiple showers and televisions are generally twins,  triplets or amazingly even larger litters.

“Normal” is pursuing comfort between walls and a roof overhead rather the potential discomfort of being caught outdoors in rain or snow.

For the past five years we have spent much of our time living in the Yukon Territory in northern Canada. Some call us renegades or even brave. I would call it paying attention to our hearts. Not surprisingly we have become hopelessly smitten with a land that is rough around the edges.

This is a destination where wild lands abound and large mammals like moose, Dall sheep, wolves, caribou, grizzly and black bears far outnumber humans. Somehow, living in a land where I can get lost, become bear food or lose my breathe while hiking high in the mountains makes me more alive.

Approximately one-quarter of the Yukon’s 36,000 human residents are native aborigines, or First Nation members. For thousands of years they have lived and thrived in this vast, mostly untrammeled land that we would call “wilderness.” Ironically, none of the First Nation native languages have a word that means “wilderness.” The closest description is simply “home.” Imagine moving through such a diverse landscape with the same familiarity that you maneuver through your own home . . . in the dark.

If we each followed our lineage lines, we would find we all have evolved from a past where wild places were normal rather than something that is now threatened and disappearing.

Yukonasia has nothing to do with death; it has everything to do with living.

Bird Song Dawning

As a naturalist, I’ve always wanted to instill the need to pay attention. As mentioned in earlier blog, I’ve always had a keen interest in bird song. As noted, hearing loss, has hampered my ability to identify the number of birds by songs and calls. According to one recent federal survey, bird watching is the fastest growing outdoor recreational activity in the U.S. With the surge in interest comes a corresponding interest in learning bird songs and learning why birds sing.

A trick in learning some bird songs is to use mnemonics.  According to the Oxford Dictionary, mnemonics is a device such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations that assists in remembering something. One of the most popular mnemonic devices has been used by generations of school kids to recall when Columbus sailed to the new world : “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Bird enthusiasts often use words and phrases to help them remember bird calls/songs. For example, the spring song of a cardinal sounds like it is repeating “Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!

Through the years, I had collected various bird song mnemonics from various bird field guides and birders. Some of the phrases are downright silly and others are simply proper nouns. One day, back in 2005, I put together a sheet of the phrases as learning aids to use in a class on birding. My right brain hijacked the moment and as I looked the phrases over, I started arranging them together to create a sort-of-conversation between the bird species.

The first stanza refers to the advent of summer, going to Canada and taking it easy with some favorite brews. The second stanza is all about an enthusiastic greeting and introductions to a hard-of-hearing friend. The third section clearly addresses school bullying and the following not-so- politically-correct disciplinary actions meted out by the teacher. Each line of the poem is the mnemonic phrase of a different species of bird. And the final stanza offers a treat and a taste of tea followed by a query about the chef.

I shared the poem with some colleagues and they encouraged me to propose airing it on Minnesota Public Radio. So in the early days of spring I managed to navigate my way to the public radio Program Manager and he thought it was a fun idea.    I suggested that after each line was read that they air an actual recording of the bird. Knowing Public Radio likely did not have a collection of bird songs, I suggested they contact the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology to obtain the necessary recordings.  The library is the world’s largest and oldest scientific archive of biodiversity audio and video recordings.

So in honor of a most tardy spring I am going to resurrect the poem.  Accompanying each line is the identification of the songster or caller. Now get outside and bend your ear towards something really meaningful. Sit down and listen to the poem, preferably in the early morning when birds are most boisterous.

Note: When you click on A Dawn Chorus, a box will appear that says, “No Preview Available.” Click on “Download Anyway.” That will direct you to a box where you have the option of hitting”Download Anyway.” That’s your call. . . but there were no bugs when I posted it.

If you want me to send you the aired recording you will have to contact me at Tom <at> AligningwithNature [dot] com

A Dawn Chorus

Sweet, sweet, summer sweet. (Yellow Warbler)

Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada  (White-throated Sparrow)

I am so lazy. (Black-throated Blue Warbler)

Quick-three-beers! (Olive-sided Flycatcher)

Lazy daisey. (Golden-cheeked Warbler)


Please, please to meet you! (Chestnut sided Warbler)

Who? Who? Who?  (Great Horned Owl)

Old Man MULDOON, MULDOON, MULDOON  (Prairie Chicken)

Who? who? who?  (Great Horned Owl)

JAY! JAY! JAY!  (Blue Jay)

Who? Who? Who?  (Great Horned Owl)

PETER!, PETER!, PETER! (Tufted Titmouse)

Here I am, way up here, see me? (Red-eyed Vireo)

Here sweety!  (Black-capped Chickadee)


Creeep! Creeep! Creeep!   (Least Sandpiper)

I’ll grab you and I’ll hold you and I’ll squeeze you til you squirt!  (Warbling Vireo)

Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!   (Ovenbird)

Sweet, sweet, I’ll switch you!  (Chestnut-sided Warbler)

Whip-Poor-Will! Whip-Poor-Will!  (Whippoorwill)

Weep, Weep, Weep!  (Great Crested Flycatcher)


Plum puddin, plum puddin, plum puddin!  (American Bittern)

Potato chips……potato chips……potato chips.  (American Goldfinch)

Tea kettle, Tea kettle, Tea kettle!  (Carolina Wren)

Tea-for-two, Tea-for -two! (Ash-throated Flycatcher)

Drink-your tea!  (Rufous-sided Towhee)


Who-cooks-for-you-all?  (Barred Owl)


(Copyright 2005 Tom Anderson)














Let’s Go a Little Higher

Nan and Claire

Humans have an affinity to climb. Irresistibly we are pulled, like iron filings to a magnet, by perches, multi-branched trees, hilltops, mountain peaks, observation towers and even through the hierarchy of a job career to “reach the top.”  Many biologists and evolutionary scientists would argue that gaining elevation offered early savanna-dwelling humans a vista to watch for game or approaching threats. Such an advantage, science argues, was so desired for survival that it remains inexorably locked in our conscious. In the past castles and forts were built with commanding views. Today, prime house building sites are often sited high with grand views. Architects continue to defy limits in designing skyscrapers that stretch towards the stratosphere.

Higher and higher. . . . let’s just go a little higher.

Those six words, “Let’s just go a little higher” are powerfully seductive. Over the past few years, when Nancy and I have returned to the Yukon Territory and it’s seemingly infinite crop of peaks, we have often had our day hikes stretched into more hours than planned.   Oftentimes the beckoning siren call of an adjacent higher vista, next to the one we have just climbed, commands our attention. We confer our maps, watches, energy levels and then, more often than not, go for it. More than once we have raced darkness back to our vehicle. That means in the land of the midnight sun, we have wearily come off a hike close to midnight.

In my last blog entry, Tough Efforts, I addressed a recent trekking trip in the Peruvian Andes and the challenges of high elevations. Someone was asking me for more detail about what happens when you climb to elevations that tax the body. So here is my attempt.

First, some basic atmospheric science. In the lower realm of the atmosphere, where we live, there are roughly a dozen gases that mingle together like an invisible, but critical gaseous soup. But two, nitrogen and oxygen, make up approximately 99 percent of the mix.(Note that carbon dioxide is not in the top two, but it has been increasing at rather astonishing rates in the past two centuries, hitting 400 parts per million, for the first time in likely 2 million years. Stay tuned for  some gnarly climate change that is changing the biosphere.)

The atmosphere is an ultra-thin layer of gases that surround the earth. If the earth were the size of a basketball, the atmosphere would be the equivalent of a thin piece of tissue paper. But that thin layer of gases make life possible for us. And as that is not amazing enough, the very mix of gases is what is really critical for us. Most important for our survival is oxygen and that is possible only because of the gift of photosynthesis, the production of oxygen from green plants.

An important property of air is that it has weight. It’s weight can be measured with a barometer and is referred to as barometric pressure. Basically, as one climbs higher,  there is less air, consequently less air pressure.  Our lungs depend on that air pressure to function properly. During periods of very low air pressure, the vacuum that is normally experienced to force the breath to the lungs, barely exists and consequently the air barely seeps in. And if it doesn’t get to our lungs, it fails to get picked up by red blood cells and there is ultimately less oxygen reaching the brain. In a sense, the oxygen-starved brain sends out an alarm to the lungs and heart to work harder. So you start to breathe deeper and your heart begins to race to get oxygen to the brain. (For further, more detailed reading on the subject, I highly recommend you read Surviving the Extremes: A Doctor’s Journey to the Limits of Human Endurance by Kenneth Kamler, M.D.)

You can experience the same phenomenon of oxygen deprivation simply by exerting yourself to the max. There is no need to climb above 14,000 feet, simply try running up several flights of stairs as fast as you can and witness the heaving of your lungs as they work hard to bring oxygen comfort to your brain.

Amazingly we can climb to extremely high elevations if we do it very slowly and acclimatize ourselves gradually to low oxygen concentrations. That is why climbers who tackle Mt. Everest, must do so over a period of time that allows a slow ascent. To do otherwise will kill them.

Perhaps the euphoria, the ecstatic giddiness, I feel when I reach the top of a hilltop or peak is simply because of my oxygen depleted brain. And here I thought it was something more divine than simply biology.

Tough Efforts

Andes Mountain Glacier 


Like the local native Peruvian porters, I emulated their daily ritual of tucking coca leaves with small alkaline shavings of burnt quinoa root into my cheek. I wiped the sweat from my brow and looked ahead at the intimidating pitch to the Inca trail as it climbed even higher into the thinning Andean air.

Our local guide highly endorsed chewing coca to help assuage the pain of the climb. This is the same coca plant that has been given the evil status as it can be rendered into cocaine. For centuries the Andean people have chewed and brewed coca leaves to retard thirst, hunger, pain and fatigue. Like a cup of strong coffee, it also helps as a stimulant.

It is also the same plant that not only shares a title with one of the world’s most popular beverages, Coca Cola, but was an important ingredient to the original “real thing.” Incidentally the original brew, first produced in 1886, was described  as a ”brain tonic and intellectual beverage.” The original recipe included coca with cocaine, but the narcotic was removed just after the turn of the century.

While visiting the Museum of Sacred, Magical and Medicinal Plants in the old Inca capita of  Cusco, Peru, I learned that the uniquely familiar shape of a Coke bottle was in intentional design and was inspired by the similar shape of the coca plant seed. Peruvians will tell you  it was no accident that Coca Cola chose red and white as their brand colors.  These are the national colors of the Peruvian flag and Peru provides the bulk of coca leaves for the popular beverage.

I digress. Chewing a quid of coca leaves at least psychologically made me believe that it helps deal with exertion oneself at high elevations. Surrounded by high Andean mountains we slowly plodded in a rhythm of shuffle, rest, shuffle rest. Approximately 50 Andean peaks rise over 20,000 feet. Imagine trying to breathe while hiking up a steep gradient while breathing through a half inch diameter water line. They claim that when you climb Mt. Everest it’s like trying to breath through a drinking straw. No thanks.

The porters, with their large bulky  loads, always passed us, often with a smiling greeting. On the descent sections, some of them nearly vertical,the porters amazingly trotted down the irregular stone steps. Oh, did I mention that most of the natives wore rubber sandals or tennis shoes rather than vibram-soled hiking boots? As I trudged I attempted to sidetrack the nearly constant light hammering of a high-altitude headache with thoughts of becoming a porter when I grow up.

After four days of hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, someone in our group asked if the trek was the toughest hike they had ever done. Most of us agreed it was right up there at the top of the list of “most rigorous.”

But it got me to thinking of other outdoor efforts that have rendered me to a state of quivering jelly. So during our bus ride back to Cusco, I mentally came up with my “Top Five” list of arduous outdoor recreational efforts. Certainly running Grandma’s marathon to Duluth, skiing the infamous Birkie cross country ski race to Hayward, Wisconsin or cycling in a race in the Coastal Mountains of Alaska would easily make my  list of physical challenges. But to qualify for this list I had to consider only human-powered recreational travel that included camping.  This would include canoeing, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing or backpacking.And to really make the list, the effort had to include multiple pains or discomforts.

1)   Canoeing the Caribou River

This northern Manitoba three week trip provided days of lining canoes down shallow rapids, running leaping rapids with heavily loaded canoes and then, most tiring, unloading the canoes and bypassing major rapids by striking off across through stunted spruce and muskeg with canoes and packs on our back and no trails to follow. At times we were knee deep in muck with clouds of blood-seeking mosquitoes and black flies accompanying us in the summer heat. I have had the good fortune to paddle several Canadian sub-arctic and arctic rivers but none had more days of relentless, exceedingly hungry insects. One of our party members fractured part of his foot and we had to come up with an innovative cast constructed of tupperware and. . . you guessed it. . . duct tape. With no other options but to continue downriver, this was no trip for whiners.

2)   Backpacking the Lake Superior Hiking Trail

This outing would not make most lists, but one day I will never forget was a hot fall day two years ago when we foolishly put in nearly 20 miles on the very first day. This is not a good strategy when your packs are at their heaviest. Besides the burdens on our backs, the October day was unseasonably warm and a drought had rendered many small creeks stoney dry. Sweating profusely resulted in our quickly depleting our water. The preceding months had been dry. Consequently,  the many small creeks we crossed were stoney dry. We were foreced to go further than planned so we could find a flow of water in which to filter water. Feet, backs and muscles all protested as we stumbled to the twilight campsite.

3) Winter camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW): Trip 1

It was early March, my preferred date to head on a winter outing in the boreal wilds. For several days, Nancy and I had enjoyed an enchanting and very quiet time on a remote lake. The daytime temperatures were pleasantly tolerable in the mid-20sF. Fishing for lake trout provided ample food and we dined for two days on a big rich pot of cheesy trout chowder. On the day we pulled out to begin the trek back to our truck, the weather had changed. The temperature dropped and we had to pull our gear into a stout headwind out of the northwest. It was a painful slog. Even with neoprene masks and scarves wrapped around our faces, we were constantly tearing up in the frigid cold. Luckily we had heated up the remaining trout chowder before breaking camp that morning and poured it into a thermos. When possible we would tuck behind a lake point or sit on the lake screened by  our “conestoga” sleds and sip the life-giving buttery chowder. For two days after finishing the trip we ached and dealt with peeling skin on our faces.

4) Winter camping in the BWCAW: Trip 2

Before I give details of this testy trip, I need to provide a disclaimer. I love winter camping in the BWCAW and have done so nearly every year for the past 20 years. As a naked ape, we are not designed to engage so fully with winter as Sasquatch or a polar bear. On this particular trip it wasn’t the cold that created problems. Instead it was a run of  unseasonable warm temperatures, in early March,  that created miles of slogging and pulling our sleds through deep slush and water that poured into our boots. The sleds plowed, rather than slide over the frozen lake surfaces. We could not consider stopping to rest for the night so we simply kept going with our wet and wrinkled feet sloshing in our boots.


5) Descending the North Branch of the Sunrise River

This was meant to be an educational, fact-finding outing. I was leading a group of local high school biology students on a three day  spring trip down a small river that is the namesake for their home community. The dozen or so students were divided into working teams. Some attended to water sampling and analysis, others helped with bird banding and others made wildlife inventory and observations. Part of the appeal of the trip was the fact that nobody paddles this stretch of river. It was to be a real adventure right in their home county. It soon became clear why no one paddles this sinuous creek.  For much of the trip we were wading and pulling the canoes over and around fallen trees that stretched across the river. In other sections, where tangles of alders grabbed at our progress, we pulled out bow saws and cut a channel through the maze. Oh and to make matters really testy was the first really gnarly mosquito hatch of the year. After a winter of dormancy, the nymphs emerged as ferociously hungry adults!  Cooking supper was an effort and no one wanted to sit around a campfire. In fact no one built a campfire. Wet and aching, we all sullenly crawled into our tents.

It’s funny how the passage of time has a way of lessening the ache of suffering. In fact you can almost count on a livelier increase of embellishments that make the trip sound worse and worse over the course of years. Consequently, I’m confident that the recent trek on the Inca trail will grow in stature and pain and will shoulder its way into my top five list.



Winter Wasps Idle Along

I stumbled groggily down the stairs in the early morning light  As I walked across the kitchen on my way to start a fire in the wood burning stove, I spied a piece of debris on the maple floor. Thinking it was a piece of firewood scrap, I bent down to pick it up. I stopped in mid bend when the piece of scrap showed life by moving a half inch on its own power. This was no skittering cockroach or shy millipede.  A closer look revealed a thin-waisted wasp, plodding  lethargically across the floor. It moved like it had had a hard Friday night of partying and was now trying to stagger to the coffee pot.

I wondered how this unseasonable wasp could have survived the winter. Obviously it had found refuge from last fall’s killing frost by crawling into some cranny of this century old house. And now, it’s biological clock or the March temperatures had beckoned its slow-moving resurrection. Unlike my constant internal furnace which runs at about 98.6°F, the inner fires of insects are roughly the same as the air temperature surrounding them. So on this late winter morning the kitchen and the wasp share a temperature of roughly 54° F. If my fire building skills prevail, the kitchen will quickly warm up much faster than the wasp’s own fires.

Was this the sole  survivor  of last summer’s extended  wasp family where scores, or more likely, hundreds of brothers and sister wasps share a colony? Normally, the only one to survive a winter is a fertilized female (queen)  who finds shelter before winter and then shuts down her bodily functions and hibernates through the long winter. When she emerges in the spring, she alone makes a small paper nest and begins the job of egg laying. These first eggs and ensuing large and wasps will be her first workers to help her expand her nest and family.

So was this glacially moving wasp a pregnant female? I will confess for a split second I considered a perfunctory stomping on the wasp. Like most humans, I have been conditioned since I was a wee larvae to step on bugs. . . especially out-of-place bugs that roam inside our dwellings.  And usually judgement is quickly dispatched if those critters have eight legs (spiders) or  wear alternating bands of yellow and black and are thin-waisted, like wasps and hornets. From an early age we are mistakenly taught that these are the enemy. When in fact they provide far more benefits than threats.

Sure a wasp sting burns painfully and for roughly two percent of the population, such a sting can initiate anaphylactic shock which is a sometimes fatal allergic reaction. What folks fail to realize that stinging insects like hornets and wasps do not go around looking for some beast to sting. They sting only when they feel threatened or when their colony is threatened. And spiders are no different. Rarely do they ever bite and when they do it is only as a defensive act.

Squishing bugs is so acceptable among our judging species, that we even use the action as a teaching tool. Just yesterday I was out cross country skiing with a chiropractor friend . It’s never a bad idea to ski with a good chiropractor; particularly when you’re over fifty years old. He had taken a lesson in trying to refine and improve his classic skiing technique. One of the tricks in climbing hills more efficiently to reduce the likelihood of slipping back is  deliver a dramatic weight shift from  one foot to the other, is to pretend you are “squishing a bug.” Yep, there it is a lesson learned that legitimizes the universal act of murdering  innocent arthropods with no questions asked.

In researching my book, Things that Bite: The Truth about Critters that Scare People, I learned, in my unofficial sampling, that over 98% of respondents never hesitated to stomp on a spider or wasp found crawling in the house. One friend, a WWII Marine vet who saw horrific close combat throughout the South Pacific has quietly shared grisly tales of close combat. Yet, he proudly  told me that for over fifty years he has never intentionally stepped on a wasp. He catches and frees all of them.

I recall many episodes of teaching kids when all attention was shaken when an autumn  hornet or wasp flew overhead, bumping into fluorescent lights. Looks of horror, escape movements, like leaning low in their chairs and scared utterances always followed the initial spotting of the frantic wasp. I always took the moment to try and calmly tell the kids that this wasp had no intention of flying down and stinging them. It was only trying to find a way out. If possible I would catch it in front of the kids and let it go outside.

Twenty minutes had passed after successfully getting a lively fire built and a cup of stout coffee in front of me.  I was sitting in a chair in front of the stove with the good company of a book and coffee, when I suddenly remembered the shapely-waisted insect company. I got up, looked around and found that even in her tortoiselike speed she had obviously left me alone. She was nowhere in sight. I looked under the table and chairs and scanned the rest of the kitchen field. No luck.

My hope is that she will find refuge in some corner of the kitchen, far away from foot traffic so there will be inadvertent defensive stings or accidental squishings.  In a few weeks, when the march of Earth’s  orbit takes us past the spring equinox and the world is clearly blooming into spring, I’ll carefully slide a piece of paper under the wasp and carry her outside and watch her crawl onto the lilac bush that is on the south side of the house so she can be witness to the swelling of green lilac buds while feeling the direct warmth of the sun.

Finding my Senses

It was the kind of May morning that inspires sonnets and songs. Blue defined by a cloudless sky and green so tender it unfurled in leaves like flags on a Sunday afternoon parade.

I remember feeling a bit nervous in the early morning hours. It was far too early for an exam. But there was no better time for the Ornithology class instructor to lead a class of yawning college students on a walk through the verdant forest.  It was by the best setting I had ever had an exam. On this morning we quietly stepped single file on a winding trail keeping our eye on the instructor. When he raised his hand and pointed towards a nearby or not-so-nearby bird singing it was our job to write down the identity of the bird on our numbered page. Twenty times he paused and we craned our necks and listened for any sign of a familiar solo. With each refrain, the instructor would raise his hand. That way we knew which bird out of the dawn chorus he wanted us to identify.

I took great pride in the fact that I identified all twenty of the birds correctly. In fact, I think I might have been the only one in the class to ID 100 percent of the birds by their songs.

Luckily for me I eventually landed a job where I could practice and hone my skills at identifying birds by their song. As a professional naturalist, I often lead bird hikes or taught some aspect of ornithology.

Then one day my world was rocked. A volunteer at the nature center paused, held up her hand, looked at me in an inquiring manner. “Tom,” she asked, “is that a blue gray gnatcatcher?”

I stopped to listen. . . and listen. . . .and listen.  I whispered, “Raise your hand when you hear it sing.” Every few seconds she raised her hand like a vertical metronome. I could not pick out the squeaky high-pitched notes of the gnatcatcher. Looking puzzled, I softly inquired, “Where?” She gave me an incredulous look and pointed directly overhead. Only then, by cupping my hand around my right ear, to create a mini-parabola to better gather the song, did I hear the whispering song. I nodded an affirmation that only felt partly satisfying. At that moment I knew I was losing some of my hearing.

The years passed and sadly the forests became quieter.  About 8 years ago I had my hearing checked by an audiologist. Sitting in the tiny, dark soundproof room with headphones on, I was instructed to click a button every time I heard any sound.

I remember the horrifying feeling when I experienced spans of silence that seemed far too long.

When I stepped out, the audiologist asked me, “Do you hunt?”

I nodded but added that I rarely shot a box or two shells during an entire hunting season. “And let me guess.” she added, “You shoot right handed.”  She was spot on. It turns out that my left ear, the one that is not tucked in tight to my right shoulder, but instead is out in the open receiving the full retort of the explosive blast. A steady diet of audio abuse has whittled away my ability to hear high frequency sounds, like the songs of a gnatcatcher or a blackpoll warbler.

The damage had likely been done when as a teen my buddies and I would numerous boxes of shotgun shells as we shot clay pigeons every weekend. To add to the breakdown, I worked ten-hour days during summers worked at a manufacturing plant. Standing between a bevy of gigantic presses that crashed and shook the building likely did not help my hearing. Sadly in those days, no hearing protection was even offered to the workers.

I asked her if I need hearing aids. She held up her hand and wobbled it, telling me that I was on the edge. I could go either way.

Eight years have passed and it should be no surprise that my hearing has not improved.  I’m overdue on catching the annual bird symphonies and I look forward to hearing the love songs of blue-gray gnatcatchers, blackpoll warblers, brown creepers and vesper sparrows.

Soon my wife, Nancy, and I will be joining my daughter and her husband in Peru. After trekking a few days to Machu Picchu, we will board a plane for a two-hour flight; take a half-day boat trip to a Peruvian research center in the Amazonian rainforest. We will be there for about a week in which I hope to reacquaint myself with a few of Peru’s roughly 1800 species of birds. It’s been about twenty years ago when I had the opportunity to spy on scarlet macaws, big beaked toucans, outrageously colored tanagers and catch the song of the musician wren.  However, if I am to discern the various bird songs, I need a hearing boost.

I can honestly say that it is the long, haunting song of the musician wren that is prodding me to bite the bullet and purchase my first pair of hearing aids.

So this past week, I had my hearing test again.  The young lady who tested me looked over the information sheets I filled out in the reception room. Upon reading of my career, she perked up. “Oh I see you were a naturist at a nature center.”

“Yes,” I responded with a smile, “and I still practice it often in the privacy of my home.” She looked a bit puzzled and I covered her by apologizing for my penmanship and informed her that I was a professional naturalist rather than a professional naturist. “Naturist is just another way to describe a nudist.”

She laughed into her hand and apologized. No problem. I’m also a naturist in the privacy of my home but I don’t get paid for it.” At any rate it was a good icebreaker for my hearing test.

Tomorrow morning I pick up the hearing aids that will be programmed for my hearing deficiencies. Vanity be damned! Who cares?  I eased into my current Baby Boomer chapter with a pair of cheater magnifying eyeglasses about half a dozen years ago so this is simply another faze of my life were cheating is totally expected.

I can’t wait to wander under giant Ceiba trees tethered by braided climbing vines. It will be Christmas morning all over again when I spy sensual orchids  and  smile at the swooping, lazy flight of a giant blue morpho butterfly. And I will find heaven on earth when I dial my hearing aids into “musician wren.”












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.

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