Friday, July 24, 2009

No Girls Allowed (Part 1 of 2)

A movie that mirrors my childhood is Sandlot. It recalls a time when boys spent their days riding bikes and playing baseball with the other kids in the neighborhood. Well, not “other kids” exactly. Other boys. Girls weren’t invited.

Maybe you remember the scene where the main kid (a boy, of course) is frustrated because “it was like salt in an open wound; even my own mom, a grown-up girl, knew who Babe Ruth was.” Or the scene in which the ultimate insult was hurled by one of the boys: “You throw like a girl.” This was followed by a moment of stunned silence; a line had been drawn in the sand, a gauntlet thrown down.

When Greg Harrell told me about his hike on Woodchuck Ridge, I told him that we ought to hike it tomorrow, and he agreed. He’s a firm believer that if a hike is worth doing once, it’s worth doing again – even two days in a row. An hour later when I called to confirm the details, he broke the news to me: Keith and his wife, Pam, would be going, too. There was a moment of silence, just like in Sandlot. “Pam? A girl?” This was unprecedented. We had never considered bringing a grown-up girl along with us on one of these rough, off-trail trips. It was the notorious good ol’ boy network writ small. We didn’t intentionally leave our women out of the equation; we just never thought of it as a realistic possibility.

Knowing what I was thinking, Greg broke the silence by saying, “It’ll be okay. If Pam gets…whatever… she can wait for us at the heath bald while we go on ahead to Sharp Top.” In this case, we both knew that “whatever” could include injury or illness, but “getting whatever” really meant “if she can’t handle it because she’s a girl.” Of course, we didn’t say that out loud. We didn’t have to. That’s how the good ol’ boy network works. It’s mostly unspoken.

So a little after noon we four – three boys and a girl – piled in Pam and Keith’s car and drove to the Smoky Mountains. Greg directed us to the obscure parking spot where the old trail began. This is a trail that appears as a small, dotted line on an old map of the Smokies, and it shows up on the ground today as an overgrown, half-visible trail. It’s yet another example of an old, abandoned trail that is maintained not by national park work crews, but by the feet of the few people who know about it.

How do people learn about old paths like this? It must be either by word of mouth or by studying the old maps, as Greg had done. Since Greg first mentioned this path several months ago, we had heard of several people who had, in their own words, “gone to Sharp Top the hard way.” We weren’t sure if this was the route they had taken, but it seemed highly likely. There are no other obvious routes to the top except the popular, well-maintained trails.

It was a cold day in January with patches of snow and ice on the ground as we hopped out of the car and shouldered our daypacks, so we wore hats and jackets. I watched in horror as Pam donned a pink bandana. Yes, pink. She seemed to sense that she had broken through the glass ceiling and was rubbing our noses in it.

This route to Sharp Top would be a mere two miles, but it would climb about 2,500 feet in those two miles. It would travel steadily along tiny Woodchuck Creek for less than a mile, then would ascend to the crest of Woodchuck Ridge for the second mile. So this hike was serious work from the very first step. Greg and Keith maintained a quick pace and pulled away from Pam and me. We hiked more or less together, talking occasionally about the trail, the views, the sweat and dirt, families. It was all fine. Although there was a moment when Pam mentioned something she had bought at TJ Maxx. I had to stop her at that point to tell her that shopping trips were unacceptable topics of conversation. In her defense, I think she was going to tell me about a fleece jacket or gloves that could keep you warm while hiking in January. Nevertheless, I couldn’t take the chance that Greg and Keith might hear us talking about a shopping trip. Pam was treading on thin ice, and I couldn’t let her pull me down with her. [To be continued.]

Monday, July 20, 2009

Going Nocturnal

If I were going to make an evening hike for a mountain-top sunset and then hike back soon after dark, I’d plan my trip on a night of a waxing half-moon.

A waxing half-moon?

If you are like most of us, you might need a little help here because you studied this stuff in your seventh grade science class, but haven’t had to think about it since that final exam. It’s ironic that we have been able to conquer the darkness with fossil fuels and electricity, but we have become alienated from the things that happen at night – the animals, the stars, and the phases of the moon. We just aren’t outside much after sundown, and when we are, we are usually surrounded by the blinding glare of halogen and neon. So, we’ve lost touch not only with the night sky but with thousands of years of human knowledge. I can’t say that I frequently feel the urge to get in touch with the thousands of generations of humans that have preceded us, but it is nice to know that whenever I look up in the sky and think about the stars or moon, I’m doing exactly that.

Back to our seventh grade science lesson…the moon takes four weeks to go through its entire cycle. It takes one week to go from the tiny sliver of the new moon to a half-moon and another week to go from this “first” half-moon to a full moon. This is its waxing (growing) phase. The third week is spent shrinking (waning) from full to half (the “second” half-moon). The final week sees the moon wane further from half to gone, followed immediately by new again. You probably knew all that.

But here’s the part that is probably a bit fuzzy to you. The various phases of the moon will light up different segments of the night. A full moon will rise in the east at the same time that the sun sets in the west. This full moon will spend the entire night moving across the night sky and will set in the west just as the sun once again rises in the east at the beginning of the following morning. The full moon has enlightened the full night.

You might think that a night hike should take place under a full moon rather than a half moon. Not necessarily. While a full moon will be bright, it will also be low in the sky for the first few hours (and the last few hours) of the night. Depending on when you intend to hike, it may be better to night hike under a three-quarter or half-moon because it will be higher in the sky. Here’s how that works.

The moon rises about an hour later each night as it goes through its month-long cycle. This means that some weeks the moon lights up the first part of the night and other weeks the latter part of the night. A quick and easy way to remember this is to remember that the “early” (waxing) moon lights up the early part of the night, the full moon lights up the full night, and the “late” (waning) moon lights up the late part of the night. So, at the end of the moon’s first week, the moon is half full and is going to light up half the night. Because this half-moon is its first or early half, it lights up the first half of the night – from sunset to midnight. One week later the full moon will light the entire night. Yet another week brings another half-moon – the second or late half-moon. This half-moon will light up the second or late half of the night – from midnight to sunrise.

So, if I will be night hiking in the early part of the night, maybe the first hour or two after sunset, I prefer an early (waxing) half-moon. The fact that it is an “early” moon means that it will light the early part of the night, starting at sunset and disappearing over the western horizon around midnight. The fact that it is half rather than full means that it will be high in the sky when the sun sets.

On the other hand, if I will start hiking at 4 or 5 am, I’ll be hiking at the very end of the night, so I want to hike under the moon in the late weeks of its cycle. I’ll time my hike for a waning half-moon, ensuring that this bright moon will be high in the sky during those couple of hours preceding sunrise.

Or, just write this down in your trail guide: for a pre-dawn hike, it’s best to go 4 to 7 days after the full moon; for a hike soon after sunset, go 4 to 7 days before the full moon. Of course, take a flashlight, just in case.

Good night (hiking).

Snorts and Hoots

I have a few CDs that are a mixture of nature’s sounds and instrumental music. They’re called things like “Loon Summer” or “Yellowstone Nights” and have the usual sounds: rivers, rain, thunder, wind, bird songs, plus a few snorts, cackles, and howls thrown in. I don’t listen to them a lot, but I do go through phases when that’s my background noise of choice. I get some strange looks when someone walks into my office just as an elk is bellowing out his mating call. I used to try to explain to my visitor what the CD was all about. Now I just say, “What? Never heard an elk mating call before?” I’ve found that bluffing my way through life works pretty well, and this situation is no different. I just act like elk snorts are normal office music and anyone who doesn’t recognize that fact is obviously an environmentally-insensitive barbarian. It’s a strategy that works only occasionally, but it’s quicker than giving the full explanation. And if people walk away with the impression that I’m a bit eccentric, I consider that one of the privileges of aging.

Of course, we get many of those sounds for free during those mild days of spring and fall when we can sleep with our windows open at night. That’s one of the many joys of living in a rural area. The owls, coyotes, and whip-poor-wills let us know that they are out there, doing whatever it is they do until the sun rises again.

I’ve heard stories about people from the city who visit their country relatives and can’t sleep at night because it’s either too quiet or the night-time noises are unfamiliar. Their primary contact with nature during a typical week is scurrying across the parking lot from their car to the office, so their idea of “the sounds of nature” is a bit different from us small town folks. I wonder if there’s a market for CDs featuring loud music overlaid with the sounds of traffic, police sirens, domestic disturbances, public drunkenness, and gunshots. We could keep a copy on hand for when our friends from Atlanta or Nashville come to visit; you know, just to make them feel at home and to help them get a good night’s sleep.

Every summer my buddies and I do a little night fishing, so we have to fish by sound. We spend a lot of time standing quietly, listening for a trout to make a noise as he feeds on insects floating on the surface of the river. We are usually listening so intently that we don’t hear much else. All our energy is focused on distinguishing the river turbulence from a fish’s splash, but at times when there’s no fish activity, the other night sounds become noticeable.

For the most part, the outdoors is quiet at night, but during these moments of stillness we begin to notice a few background noises: the croaks of frogs (big ones at the water’s edge, small ones in the trees), the splashes of beavers and muskrats, the whir of mayflies fluttering by, the conversations of owls. To me, there’s something about the calls of the owls that is haunting. Of course, lots of things seem haunting at night, but the owls are like disembodied woodland spirits, forest dwellers who are comfortable in the dark, unlike me who never quite gets his bearings in the black of night.

One very common owl in the eastern US, from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, is the Barred Owl. This owl gives a classic owl hoot but with a very distinctive, non-hooting, closing note of “awl.” Peterson describes it as, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” The words “who cooks for you” are the hoots. The “you all” at the end is a non-hooting moan. But this is one that Peterson doesn’t get quite right, and it’s something that is obvious to a Southerner. The Barred Owl doesn’t end his call with “you all.” He ends it, very distinctly, with “ya’ll.” He says, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for ya’ll?” The ya’ll at the end is very clearly (at least to my ears) a one syllable ya’ll, not a two syllable you all. I’m sorry, but as a Southerner I just had to set the record straight.

I once asked a girl from Massachusetts to listen to a recording of the Barred Owl. She thought the call was “you all,” not “ya’ll.” Personally, I think she was just being stubborn; that, or maybe them Yankees just don’t hear too good.

Ya’ll have a good night, full of snorts and hoots.