Equipment

This one’s for the birds: Forays into birdwatching

I like learning new skills to bring with me when I’m out hiking – how to box a compass, how to recognize different kinds of plants, how to geocache.

And now, your blogger-in-chief is taking an interest in birdwatching.

Some bird watchers are experts; I am of the “I can recognize robins, cardinals and finches, but for anything else I have to go looking through the guidebook” level of birdwatching skill.

Why do so many people enjoy birdwatching?

Birds are beautiful (though some might beg to differ in the case of, say, a vulture), often entertaining, and most importantly, vital to a functioning ecosystem. Basically, if you don’t have birds, then you’ve got a serious problem. After all, that’s where Rachel Carson got the title for “Silent Spring;” she noticed, one day, that there weren’t any birds singing. And birdwatching gives you a sense of how many of what kinds of species there are.

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Categories: Ecology, Equipment, Other, Walking, Wildlife | Leave a comment

Watcher of the Skies: Stargazing in Pennsylvania (and elsewhere)

A view of Scorpius over Coudersport, Pa. in August 2015.

A view of Scorpius over Coudersport, Pa. in August 2015.

It was a good summer for stargazing, it seems like. We had a few conjunctions, with different planets (Venus, Jupiter, etc.) dancing fairly close to the moon. Back in July, I got to join the North Jersey Astronomical Group for a moon-viewing party in Verona. And there was a lot of excitement on the astronomy front about the Pluto flyby photos.

But let’s face it, being this close to New York, as I am, your chances at being able to stargaze are a bit limited.

Earlier in the year, I’d had a co-worker tell me about Cherry Springs State Park out in north-central Pennsylvania earlier in the year. Now, a lot of people come to this part of the Keystone State for one reason: stargazing. And we’re talking stargazing as an Olympic-level sport: this part of Pennsylvania has been designated as Dark Sky territory. What that means is, the levels of light pollution from nearby cities and towns are virtually nil.

So that’s what we did out in Pennsylvania in August, in addition to checking out rail trails and state parks. We’d timed the trip so that it would fall around the time of the Perseids meteor shower in early August.

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Big Boys, Swizzle Sticks and Swampers: Lessons in Trail Maintenance

The participants in the Intro to Trail Maintenance: Trail U 1000 workshop assemble in the parking area off East Shore Road as Peter Dolan (center, green shirt), gives start-of-day instructions.

The participants in the Intro to Trail Maintenance: Trail U 1000 workshop assemble in the parking area off East Shore Road as Peter Dolan (center, green shirt), gives start-of-day instructions.

One recent Saturday morning in northern New Jersey, a group of people went outside to do some yard work.

In this case, however, the “yard” was a loop trail going through the Long Pond Ironworks State Park in West Milford. And the group of people, yours truly included, was out to learn the basics of keeping a trail in hike-able condition.

This was one of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference’s series of Introduction to Trail Maintenance workshops. And it was a milestone, too: the 1,000th scheduled course. So there was a hint that the day could cap off with some sparkling cider.

Our target for the day was the Jennings Hollow loop trail (yellow-blazed). It looks kind of like an elongated lollipop on the map – on its southeastern edge, the long connector trail will take you over to the Highland Trail as it heads toward upstate New York.

The trail was in need of some serious TLC, having not had very much in the way of maintenance since Hurricane Irene.

So this is where we came in.

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Pine Creek Rail Trail: Darling Run to Tiadaghton, Tioga County, Pa.

A horse-drawn wagon tour comes down the Pine Creek Rail Trail at Darling Run.

A horse-drawn wagon tour comes down the Pine Creek Rail Trail at Darling Run.

Did you know that Pennsylvania’s got its own Grand Canyon? I wasn’t either, truth be told, before we came out there earlier in August. But this particular Grand Canyon runs north-south down Tioga County in the north-central part of the state, the result of glaciers having run roughshod over the area back during the Ice Age. The result is the Pine Creek Gorge.

Pine Creek was an important travel route in the area for a very long time; the Senecas had a well-traveled footpath along the creek banks. Starting in the nineteenth century, the Jersey Shore, Pine Creek and Buffalo Railroad (which connected to the New York and Central Railroad) ran down through this gorge along the banks of Pine Creek, as the region became home to a thriving lumber industry.

The train tracks, the stations and the rail towns are (mostly) gone now, but the rail bed still exists, repurposed as the Pine Creek Rail Trail starting in the 1990s. The trail and the two nearby state parks are all part of the Tioga State Forest.

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Stars (and moons and planets) in our eyes

The North Jersey Astronomical Group gets their telescopes set up.

The North Jersey Astronomical Group gets their telescopes set up.

Shifting gears tonight, trail heads. And I highly recommend reading this post while listening to Holst’s “The Planets.”

The family and I have an astronomy-related hike planned for later on this summer (expect a blog posting on that one, boys and girls), so we’ve all been brushing up on our star-watching skills.

A few weeks back, the North Jersey Astronomical Group had one of their monthly telescope nights out on the town green over in Verona for a glimpse of the moon and Saturn.

A co-worker told me about it beforehand, so a few of us from the office arranged to meet up there.

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Navigating on the trails, or, “I TOLD you we should have asked for directions!”

IMG_8115How do you get around in the woods?

No, I don’t mean walking, running or skiing.

What do you use for navigating when you’re out in the woods? Map? Compass? GPS?

This is a subject, I know, that we could devote more than one blog posting to. (And the more enthusiastic gearheads could write entire blogs devoted just to navigation and orienteering.)

In the last couple of decades or so, navigating or orienteering seems to have become a sport unto itself, where the entire object is to find your way through the woods (or other terrain) using navigation tools. And there are entire books dedicated just to GPS units alone.

So what do people prefer? I put the question to a couple of outdoors-related Facebook groups that I follow – one for hiking and one for backpacking. And I got quite a range of responses. Some people swore by having the latest GPS units with all the bells and whistles, while others were adamantly in favor of using compasses and paper maps. And some went the belt-and-braces route and used all three.

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Time to (geo)cache in

IMG_8077The GPS unit said I was about there. So I tucked it back into my pocket and started looking around.

I was on the Long Path on the top of the Palisades, near a kind-of-hidden rock ledge overlooking the Hudson River. It was a late summer-early fall morning, still kind of warm, and decent weather for a hike.

On this particular morning, though, I wasn’t on a full-length hike. I was there on a geocache run.

I’d keyed in the cache’s coordinates, and the clue that I was given said to look for a boulder, with your back facing the river.

Okay.

So I start scanning. There are some rocks that are certainly big enough to qualify as boulders, but none of them, as far as I can see, have any crevices or gaps big enough to stash a cache.

Hmm…

After a few minutes, I stepped out onto the ledge itself to get another look at the area.

Then I noticed that there’s a crevice in the rock at the back of the ledge, and… “hey, that piece of asphalt doesn’t look like it was here originally.”

I lay down, on my stomach, to get a better look and…bingo!

I used my hiking pole to pull the chunk of asphalt, and the cache container (a plastic box about six inches square) it was holding in place, toward me.

It had the usual contents – plastic jewelry, business cards, a Scout badge, a few coins, etc. I added a bookmark to the cache and poked it back into the crevice for another searcher to find.

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Give it the boot: Hiking and footwear

Today’s blog posting, boys and girls, is for all the gearheads out there.

I’m going to tell you how a pair of wet socks led to a few musings on the merits of different types of hiking footgear.

It was Thanksgiving, and the whole clan (or at least a substantial chunk of the clan, anyway) had gathered out at my grandmother’s place out in western New Jersey for the annual feed.

Around noontime, we decided to take a break from kitchen duty and go out for a walk down to the bridge crossing over a branch of the Raritan.

It had snowed during the night, so there were about four inches of snow on the ground.

We’d only just set out, about five minutes into the walk.

I was chagrined to discover that my favorite hiking boots, a pair of dayhikers that I’d had for about four years, and which had kept my feet dry on numerous romps through the Palisades and the Watchungs, had sprung a leak. And the toes on my right foot were starting to get uncomfortably cold and wet – we’re not talking slightly damp here.

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