Thursday, August 31, 2017

Rain, Kayaks and Ants

Although we’re a ways from Texas, we’ve been getting a lot of rain here, too.  Thankfully we’re not flooding and prayers for those in Texas and Louisiana who have lost so much.  Hopefully everyone will be generous and help them through this disaster. My only problem is that if the grass doesn’t stop growing and the rain doesn’t stop coming, I’m going to need a rice harvester to cut it.  That said, between the rains on Friday, I picked up another kayak from a friend who was clearing out his garage.  He made me a great deal on a Wilderness System 18 with a few scratches, but in very good condition.   I took it out Friday evening, hoping to be paddling between storms.  Well, another storm came up and I got wet, but I enjoyed paddling the boat.  I have never been a fan of rudders on kayaks and this one has a skew instead of a rudder.  It was windy and there were waves and whitecaps, but the skeg helped the boat to track beautifully as I tried it in various positions. This is a very fast boat.

my foot on Monday
But one bad thing happened.  As I was taking my boat off the car at a wildlife ramp along the Intracoastal Waterway, I received a call on my cell phone.  I laid the boat on a grassy medium and took the call.  It was from another paddler whom I’d left a message of going out paddling and since I thought he might want to join me.  As we were talking, I realized something was biting my foot.  I thought it was a mosquito or maybe a gnat.  When I looked down, I noticed that my feet were covered with dots.  At first I thought fleas, then realized it was red ants. I told my friend I had to go and ran out into the water to drown the buggers.  And then I went kayaking.  By the time I got home, my legs were beginning to burn.  I had 26 bites on my right foot and ankle and another eight on my right leg.  On my left leg and foot, I have another 20 bites.  I also received a few bites on my stomach and on my left hand!

Much of Saturday and Sunday was spent soaking my feet and putting baking soda on the bites.  The cool of the water helps a lot.  When I had to put on shoes and walk for a ways, my feet burned.  On Monday, I picked up some new “After Bite”® as I realized the bug cream I was using was over a year out of date.  That helped more.  I have now moved to calamine lotion and my feet are no longer burning as badly.

Last night, I went out for another evening paddle.  As I was putting the boat back in the garage, it began to rain again.
Last night's paddle

Monday, August 28, 2017

Trail Report from August 13: White Pine Nature Preserve

White Pines
I spent a week in the Sandhills of North Carolina planning my upcoming year.  Several evenings I took off for a little hiking.  One of these evenings was the White Pines Nature Preserve which sits at the confluence of the Rocky and Deep River, between Sanford and Pittsboro in Chatham County.  This is a unique 275 acres with a micro-climate that allows species of trees and plants that have long been extinct in other parts of the Piedmont of North Carolina to survive.  The merger of the two rivers and the northern slopes of the ridges provide a cooling effect which I immediately felt when I stepped out of my car.  It was around 5:30 pm, at the end of a hot and humid day.  Although it felt cooler, it was still hot.  Here’s my report.

I set off down the White Pines trail, which followed the ridge between the two rivers.  I was curious about seeing a white pine, a tree that I knew well in Michigan and are only seen in mountainous areas in the South. A few hundred yards into my hike, I spotted my first white pine.  The canopy along the top of the ridge is think, shading me for the sun and not allowing a lot of undergrowth.


In this land of long lead pines, the white pine stand out nicely.  Shortly after seeing the first white pine, I come upon two hikers heading out.  As there are two other cars in the parking lot, I assume I’ll soon be alone in the woods.   The trail loses elevation as the ridge dripped down toward the confluence. There’s a nice breeze but I still sweat from the humidity. I take the River Trail, which drops off the ridge to the south, toward the Deep River.  This is the lee side of the ridge and I no longer enjoy a cooling breeze. Coming alongside the river, the undergrowth is thick.  I slap at a mosquito on the back of my neck as I am serenaded by a choir of insects singing their evening vespers. The trail parallels the river, a good ten or so feet above the water.  There are a few places it would be easy to reach the water, which are probably used by fishermen, but most of the trail is separated from the water by a steep bank and a plenty of poison ivy. 
Deep River

Bench at Confluence
I pause at the confluence of the two rivers.  Someone had built a nice log bench to site and enjoy, but the mosquitoes are bad enough that I decide to keep walking, heading up the Rocky River.  In my youth, I paddled both of these rivers, but never had made it down this far, ending both trips at the 15-501 bridges.  The Rocky River, if I remember correctly, was only runnable at high water and we ran it when the Haw River was well above flood stage and too danger to paddle in an open canoe. 

Rocky River
The River Trail turns away from the Rocky and climbs the hill where I joins the White Pine Trail.  Climbing the north side of the ridge, I notice more white pines along with maples, oaks, beech, American holly, hackberry, popular and even a cherry.  The sun is dropping in the west and its rays come in at a low angle providing wonderful light.  I take the White Pine Trail to the cut-off for the Gilbert Yager Trail, which leaves the ridge and funs along the flank of the ridge, cutting in and out of hollows that drain down to the Deep River.  I spook up a couple of deer who run up the hills without pause.  The trail is about a mile in length and drops me back at the far end of the parking lot.  It’s almost 7:30.  Time to find some dinner and prepare for a good night’s rest.  Later that night, I would find two hitch-hikers from my travels (ticks) which I promptly dispatched down the drain.  Thankfully, they hadn't yet dug into my skin.  

Thursday, August 24, 2017

An Eclipse Odyssey

When I first look up at the sun through those funky glasses, it appears as if someone had taken just a nibble out of a cookie.

A door in Springvile
We’re in Springfield, South Carolina, a small town south of Columbia.  Savannah is only going to experience a partial (97% of the sun covered) eclipse.  The path of totality was passing by just 70 miles north of here, so it’s time for a road trip.  Since the weather forecast is calling for clouds and rain along the coast, and Interstate 95 is flooded with folks further south trying to make it north, we decide to forgo the interstate and take the backroads.  Leaving Savannah on Georgia 21, we follow the river northwest, driving among the tractors pulling containers in and out of the port.  At Springville (Georgia, not South Carolina), we turn north on Highway 119 and cross the Savannah River.  A few miles north of the river, 119 merges into US 321 and we head north.  Attempting to work our way both far enough north to be in the path of totality and far enough west to avoid the coastal clouds, we take US 278, driving through pine forest and the occasional field of beans, corn or cotton.  We stop in Barnwell, the gateway to the Savannah River Site (a Department of Energy Nuclear operation) and pick up a quick lunch at Burger King.  Then we continue heading north, taking State Road 37.  After Elko, which is in the path of totality, we look for a good place to watch the eclipse.  There are clouds, but also large clear areas in the sky.  We pull into the small town of Springfield. 

Southern Railroad used to run through Springfield, but the tracks were no longer there.  Somehow, a caboose had been left behind and the swath of land that once were tracks is now a long park.  The rail beds have been paved over as a walking and bike path and a pavilion was built next to the caboose. We find a shady spot to park, get out of the car and after putting on the solar glasses, take a peak and see that the moon was slowly doing its magic.  Totality is a little over an hour away.  A few others also stop and we all gather in the park in the center of town. 

An African American man is there with his wife and children.  We get to talking and I learn he’s from Springfield.  He tells me the train stopped running around fifteen years ago.  Then he points to another park and said we should come back the Saturday before Easter as the town holds a bull frog jumping contest.  I mention Mark Twain’s story, but I’m not sure he even knows whom I’m talking about as he goes on about how far some of the frogs can jump.  He then points west and tells me about a town with a Chitin festival and how the whole town stinks during the festival.  “I think I’ll skip that festival,” I confide. Then he starts telling about another town where there was a poetry festival.  “Really,” I say. “I might be interested in that,” while thinking that this doesn't look like a hotbed for literary activities.  He continues, describing how folks walk around gnawing on large drumsticks.  I realize he was saying “poultry” and not “poetry.”  “You got to come back,” the guy says.  “All these little towns have festivals.”  The man is proud of his place in the world!

I take another look at the sun and the bite into the cookie is larger.  The cookie monster is busy; or the moon is doing its magic. 

We decide to walk around the town, all three blocks, with a desire to see the sights and hopefully find relief from the gnats flying around us under the trees. They are annoying but thankfully are not the biting type.  Most of the businesses are closed.  The diner is only open Thursdays through Saturday.  The pharmacy closed for the eclipse and, in front of the store, had sat a skeleton in a lounge chair.  The bank is open but doesn’t look very busy.  Just off Main Street is a convenient store that seems to be doing a fair amount of business.

When we got back to where everyone is congregating, we join the group on the pavilion.  Looking back at the sun, it appears as if the cookie is half eaten.  The pavilion provides little relief from the gnats and even though the sun was slowly disappearing and it’s noticeably cooker, it’s still warm and when not looking at the sun, the shade helps.   A large cloud begins to make its way toward the sun and we wonder if we should relocate further west, but the cloud seems to vaporize as it got closer to the sun.  We meet some folks from Savannah, a guy who’d driven a motorcycle up this morning from Gainsville, Florida, another couple from Jacksonville.   
Just before totality 
The next time I look, the sun is about three quarter’s gone.  The family from Savannah’s dog is noticeable agitated and we discuss if it’s because of the eclipse or because he thinks it’s almost night and he hasn’t yet been fed.  Looking away from the sun, the sky is a darker blue.  The clouds are only seen on the horizon.  I walk down to where there are trees and see hundreds of crescents reflecting through the leaves on the ground.
reflections on the ground

Slowly, more and more of the sun disappears.  The cookie metaphor no longer applies.  Looking at it through the glasses, it no longer appears as a cookie about eaten for the rim is so thin it would crumble.  Folks begin to claim space on the ramp leading up to the pavilion.  Insects begin to sing.  Streetlights turn on.  Cars driving through town have their lights on. 

Then it happens.  Very quickly the rim of the sun seen through the glasses disappears.  A few specks appear for a moment and then it’s gone.  You can see nothing in the glasses, so I remove them and WOW.  The corona is visible, flashing out from behind the moon, in a metallic bluish color.  We hold our breath for it is incredibly beautiful.  I don’t even bother trying to take a photo. Looking around, a few stars and planets are visible, but there is not enough time to orient myself as to which is which.  I keep looking back at the dark block crowned with the corona.  Then, way too soon, the sun begins to reappear with just flecks at first.  We put back on our glasses and watch as the rim appears on the opposite side.  We began to clamp and cheer in acknowledgement that we did it, we witnessed the eclipse and it was incredible.

Reflections on the hood
We watch the sun through the glasses for a few minutes, but the excitement is over.  People began packing up and soon everyone is heading home.  As I walk back to the car that’s parked in the shade of trees, I notice the crescents covering the hood and take my last photo of the eclipse.  We decide to take what is quicker way back and head off east toward I-95.  A few minutes after leaving Springfield, clouds have covered the sky.  Twenty minutes later, we’re in a downpour.  When we get to 95, we realize that we made a mistake as the traffic heading south is at a standstill.  We opt for US 17.  We’re back home by 6:30 PM.  

Downpour on the drive home

Monday, August 14, 2017

My Paddle to the Sea

John Lane, My Paddle to the Sea: Eleven Days on the River of the Carolinas (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2011), 208 pages, no photos, one map.

Having grown up paddling what I considered the rivers of the Carolinas (the Cape Fear and Yadkin/Pee Dee watersheds), I have wanted for some time to take this trip (on paper) with John Lane down the Broad, Conagree and Santee Rivers.  This basin does drain both of the Carolinas, but only a part of the western part of the state.  When I lived in Hickory NC in the mid-80s, I had paddled a couple of rivers that flowed into the Santee basin through the Catawba River. Lane limits his trip to the lessor of the Carolinas (South Carolina) as he stars out on Larson Fork, a creek that flows by the back of his property in Spartanburg, and follows it downriver to the sea.  But he doesn’t begin with this trip, but with a fateful family vacation three months earlier in Costa Rica, where they paddled Whitewater Rivers.  It had been raining and on their last day, there were several fatalities.  Thankfully, the Lane family all survived, but it was a horrifying experience. 

Lane is not the first to paddle this river, nor even the first to write about it.  In his possession, he carried the writings of others who have paddled the river, including a group of students from the college where he teaches (Wofford College), who’d paddled the river in the late 60s.  Although today, much of the river goes unnoticed, in the 18th and 19th centuries, before the railroad, water was the easiest way to travel up country.

Lane is accompanied by two friends.  Venable, a lawyer from South Carolina who found a new and agreeable life in Alaska joins him for the first week.  He a large burly dude that looks like a bit like a John Brown and John Muir mix (139).  Although he sympathizes to environmental causes, he never joined the Sierra Club because he disliked their cup (73).  The man must have spent his time hiking in well watered locations and not had to scoop water from streams or springs that’s only an inch or so deep.  Lane and Venerable paddle through the upper part of the river.  Most of their days are rainy, but they make the best of it as they share stories of their lives and experiences outdoors.  At Lake Marion, Venable heads off to do some turkey hunting before heading back to Alaska.  Steve, a slender but strong paddler, joins Lane as they paddle through coastal plain on the way to the sea. 

The two sections of the river are very different.  The upper part of the river is fast as the water rush off the mountains and foothills.  Along the way, they pass places of history, where water powered industry.  Some of these dams are still present and present challenges for them as they canoe downriver.  This section of the river drains a large amount of the upcountry and even parts of Western North Carolina (through the Warteree/Catawba River system that joins the Congaree to form the Santee. Lane mixes into his narrative history from the region.  This area saw Revolutionary War battles.  In the early 18th Century, they attempted to tame the river for transportation and power.  The river proved especially difficult for transportation and most of the canals were soon abandoned.   However, “the rivers, like the Scots-Irish who settled the upcountry, had proved stubborn and resistant to authority” (117).

In addition to historical insights, Lane shares stories of authors who lived along the river.   Two of the more prominent ones are Julia Peterkin and Archibald Ruthledge.  I’ve not read Peterkin (but she’s now on my list) but I have found the writings of Ruthledge to be soulful.  Although I have a problem with his paternalistic views of African-Americans (but then he was writing in the 30s and 40s), I am moved by the way he describes the land and appreciates the wilderness of the Santee River.  Lane also offers a bit of advice on the art of canoeing and canoe-camping, including a nice description of the “J-Stroke” which the paddler in the stern uses to keep the canoe straight.

The book ends, unsurprisingly, at the sea!  Reading My Paddle to the Seas is an easy and enjoyable float without ever getting muddy or having a sore back from a day of paddling.


It would probably be a toss-up as to whether I've written more about rivers or trains...  Here are are the books I've reviewed in this blog that deal with flowing water (and I may have missed some):  

The River Home (Waccamaw River)
The River of Doubt (Rio Roosevelt)
Drifting into Darin  (Altamaha River)
The Mekong  (Mekong River)
Goodbye to a River (Brazos River)
My Green Manifesto (Charles River)
Indochina Chronicles (Mekong River)
Rock Me on the Water (Green River)
River Time (Essay on World's Rivers)
The Founding Fish (about Shad and East Coast Rivers)
Trembling Earth (Okefenokee Swamp)
The Cape Fear (Cape Fear River)
Old Man River  (Mississippi)
Porcher's Creek (A coastal creek in SC)
Down the Wild Cape Fear  (Cape Fear River)
Water and Sky (Athabasca & Kazan Rivers, Canada)

Monday, August 07, 2017

A boat trip to Staffa

In my last post about Iona, I suggested that Staffa needed a post on it's on.  Here it is.  
For more about my week in Iona, see my previous post.

On Monday of my week on Iona, the weather had calmed.  I’d signed up for an optional trip that afternoon to the island of Staffa, about ten kilometers from the dock on Iona.  After lunch, about forty of us gathered at the dock and crammed into a small but very seaworthy boat for the trip to the island.  We sailed across the sound to Fionnphort, where we picked up more passengers.  Although the boat appeared able to handle rough seas, I was glad it was calm.  With so many people on board, I’m sure more than a few would have been seasick in rough seas and there wasn’t enough railing for everyone to hang over the side.  

The ride over

It was a smooth and pleasant ride, so smooth that the captain was able to maneuver the ship into one of the more notable features on the island, Fingal’s Cave.  He said that this was something he could only rarely do as the waves often made it impossible.  The jagged rocks that lined each side of the approach into the cave would have done a number on the hull if he had struck them.  If I was at the helm, I wouldn’t have attempted this maneuver even on a calm day, but he slipped the boat into the cave and then backed it out without a problem.

Sailboats at mooring

Inside Fingal's Cave
Staffa is one of the smallest islands in the Inner Hebrides.  It’s just a little over a kilometer long and half a kilometer wide, with a land mast of 82 acres.  The island sits upon large columns of basalt, having been formed by volcanic activity 50-some million years ago.  While there is a layer of soil on the top allowing for grass and wildflowers to grow, the black rock is very visible.  These columns are mostly hexagonal in shape, and stand up straight.  They were formed by the cooling of the lava and have created several large caves in addition to Fingal’s Cave.  The island was named by the Vikings, who were reminded of their log homes by the basalt columns on the island. 

Approach to Fingal's Cave
We were not the only group on Staffa.  Tour boats come from Ulva, Oban as well as Iona and Fionnphort.  Hordes of people were on mulling around the island.  There were also a number of private boats including a couple of sailboats that had moored off the island and taken tenders over to the docks.  Staffa has been a stopping area for those touring the islands since the 18th Century.  This is a small dockage area on the east side of the island.  With only an hour, I took off south along the basaltic columns in a return to Fingal’s Cave, which was named from a mythological Irish warrior.  

The echo of the waves inside the cave, which was best heard without the drone of the boat’s engine, supposedly inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose Die Hebriden, or “The Hebrides Overture.” 

Photographing Puffins
After a few minutes, I headed to the north cliffs off the island, where puffins nest along the cliffs.  We had been told to sit still on the edge of the cliff, as the puffins will come to check us out.  Supposedly, they don’t go on top of the landmass during the day, as the seagulls will often attack and kill them.  But the gulls don’t like people, so when we’re present, the Puffins have learned it is safe to come up above the cliff.  These birds mostly spend their day flying back and forth from the sea below to the cliffs, where they tend their young.  In early August, the young begin their flight and soon all the birds fly off into the North Atlantic where they spend the winter. It appears to me that these beautiful birds led the most miserable life, but I was glad to be able to see them so close (a couple came up within a few feet of me). 
Aren't they cute!

West side of Staffa
A seal sunning

There was not enough time to fully explore the island.  Soon, I was rushing back to the boat (and the next to last to board).  On our way back, we were able to see seals sunning off the west side of Mull.  We arrived back in Iona in time for a late afternoon tea.
Looking back at Iona

Friday, August 04, 2017

A Week on Iona

Sunset from Dun I
 Life on Iona, as a part of the community, consists of a rhythm.  There’s a bell at 7:15 to wake you up but I was up long before then as the sun was up around 4 AM.  My assigned chores was to light the fire in the hearth in the dining room (as it was often cold and wet in the mornings), then help set the table for breakfast.  We ate at eight.  After the tables were cleared, we headed over to the Abbey for morning prayers, followed by chores.  I was back in the kitchen, chopping up vegetables and fruits for lunch and dinner.  Most meals were vegetarian and quite good.  Roasted cauliflower or root vegetables, hearty soups and such. They tried to use local produce.  After chores, there were group meetings. I was in a poetry group that was led by two British professors, both poets.  During the year, one taught English at her university and the other taught theology.  We met for an hour and a half to two hours. 
Abbey in the evening
Larger view of Abbey in Evening

The Nunnery on Iona
At 1 PM, there was lunch.  It was amazing to see what our cook had prepared with the chopped vegetables.  The afternoons were generally free.  One afternoon, I took a boat trip to the Isle of Straffa (it deserves its own post). One day, we took a long walk (maybe seven miles) around the island, stopping for contemplation and to learn about the island.  While I appreciated the history, I wish the guides were a little more prepared to also discuss geology and plant-life, as much of this was foreign to me.  On the day, a group of us had a very short swim in one of the bays.  It was cold, colder than a summer dip in Lake Superior between the United States and Canada, or Lake Baikal in Russia (Or maybe I’m just getting older).  Some afternoons I took a nap or read.

Chapel to left is a burial ground for islanders and kings

North End of Iona
At 4 PM, we’d gather for tea.  If it was rainy, as it often was, we’d take our tea by the hearth in the dining room, where we’d dry out and enjoy a “biscuit” (cookie for Americans) and some tea or coffee.  At six was dinner, followed by evening prayers in the chapel.  These services were special as the sun coming in from behind gave a warm light to the chapel (I posted a photo of the inside of the chapel a few weeks ago). Some nights were free, others there were events such as dancing in the town hall.  On the last evening, there was a talent show, with stories and songs from various parts of the world where we’d all come.  A couple of evenings, I’d take a walk down to one of the hotels or the bar for internet access and a drink of some of Scotland’s finest.  Afterwards, I’d walk, often up to the top of Dun I, the high point on the island (about 330 feet above sea level).  As it was late June, the sun was setting around 10:30 PM and it never really turned totally dark.  Several evenings, I sat on Dun I till nearly midnight and had no problem making it down in the twilight without a flashlight (or torch, as the British call it).  One night, it got dark enough and there was enough break in the clouds that I was able to see two stars.  It was after midnight!
Twilight, looking north 

That's me on the South End of Iona
It was a delightful and restful week.  
South end of Iona (notice golf course in sheep's pasture)