Sunday, July 27, 2014

13.Help a Salamander Cross the Road

One of the best things that happens when you open yourself up to new experiences is that you discover little worlds populated with events and creatures (human and otherwise) and customs that have been operating all around you, but you just never noticed.  Such is the case with New Thing #13. Although I never knew it till this year, every spring there is a migration that takes places over a couple of nights that is secretly assisted by a tiny army of volunteers.  Although it will happen every year, the exact date is determined by the weather, and so these volunteers must be at the ready, waiting for the onset of warmer weather and then the first warm(ish) night of rain.  For that is the night that many of Vermont's frogs and newts and salamanders go on the move, making their way to the vernal pools where they will mate and lay eggs for the year.  The catch is that there are lots of human-created obstacles -- roads especially -- in their way.  And this is where the volunteers come in. Unbeknownst to me, for years there have been folks who know some of the key places where amphibians are most vulnerable in their crossing, and they return, like the little critters, to those spots to patrol.  This year, I got to join them.

In case you were wondering, this is what a spotted salamander looks like.  How could you not want to help a little guy like this get to his hot date at the vernal pool?

Of course, in Vermont, the weather is always tricky, so in fact, I joined them twice.  The first night, April 22, started out as significantly warmer than the days that had preceded it, and the forecast was for rain.  Jon and I joined our friend Caitlin (and a host of people ranging from parents with little children excited to be staying up past their bed time to a group of three older women with walkers who told us they come every year) on Pond Road near Shelburne Pond and began our patrolling. Alas, very quickly the cold rain turned into hail and snow.  Some amphibians had made the same mistake we had, though, and put their bet on the wrong night, so we spent an hour or so walking up and down our stretch of road and moving some little guys across the road and out of harm's way.

Jon and Caitlin braving the cold and hail and snow to hang out with our amphibian friends.

The next night, though was the real thing.  A much warmer rain was following, and so we returned to our crossing, this time with our friends Amanda and Julia in tow.  Jon was able to increase the rest of our amphibian knowledge and vocabulary, pointing out various types of salamanders and toads and their egg sacks, and increasing our vocabulary with words like "amplexus" (basically, foreplay for salamanders). We relocated teeny spring peepers, and larger (but still small) wood and leopard frogs, as well as spotted salamanders and red spotted newts.

The tree frogs we gave escorts to were as cute as a button -- and not much bigger.

Next year, the plan is to assemble a Salamander-Team-in-Waiting that will be on call for the big night so we can have dinner together and then head out for a few hours of crossing guard duty.  Until then, I'm always on the lookout for my favorite amphibian, the adolescent version of the eastern newt, the red eft.  Red efts live on land during their young adulthood, until they head back to the water and change to their adult form.  They also have a charming habit of showing up during hikes and on approaches to rock climbing cliffs in Vermont, and I think a great day becomes a perfect one if it includes a red eft spotting. 

Our lone red eft encounter during the two nights. As you can see, this little guy was starting to darken up and assume his adult form.  I guess he had decided to put away his childish things and come sit at the adult table (or vernal pond in this case).

The takeaway is this: if your age was in single digits the last time you hung out with frogs and salamanders, it's time to get outdoors.  There's a whole hidden-in-plain-sight world of creatures (and people who know tons about them) all around us, and it's a really worthwhile endeavor to get plugged back into it. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

12. Volunteer with an Environmental Group


It’s pretty hard to live in Vermont and not notice what a spectacular natural setting we enjoy.  I live in the biggest city, Burlington (with its whopping population of about 60,000 people).  From my home I can walk directly down to the waterfront of Lake Champlain, the country’s 6th biggest lake, in about 10 minutes.  I can see the Adirondack Mountains across the lake in New York to the west, and the Green Mountains of Vermont, including the iconic Camel’s Hump and our tallest peak, Mount Mansfield, to the east. While it’s impossible to miss the beauty all around me, it’s only been in the last five years, and particularly the last 18 months, that I’ve started to go a little deeper and see the environment of Vermont up close and personal, and for that I mainly have two sources to thank, the Saint Michael’s College Wilderness Program and my enthusiastic naturalist boyfriend, Jon.  Both have been instrumental in getting me outside, in all kinds of weather, exploring all kinds of activities, landscapes, flora and fauna.  One of the things I’ve noticed is that, when your focus changes in terms of the ways you spend your time and the places you go, your friendship circles shift as well.  Mine has widened to include many outdoor enthusiasts who know much more about the world outside my door than I do.  The two new things in this post and the next one both came about because of this newfound desire to learn much more about the world outside.

When I made my list of new things to do in 2014, volunteering in several forms was on it, including volunteering with a conservation or environmental group.  That turned out to be easy, because one of the coolest people I know, Lynn, is a land steward for The Vermont Nature Conservancy (TNC).  When she learned that I wanted to volunteer she suggested that I take advantage of one of TNC’s day-long volunteer opportunities, boundary marking.  One of TNC’s primary activities is acquiring and preserving pieces of land that are home to unique or essential species or ecosystems, and Lynn has in her care dozens of areas.  She has created a rotating a schedule so that every year during the winter and early spring she and other TNC staff and volunteers walk their perimeter, monitoring and renewing the boundaries that set them off. 

Lynn, refreshing a blue blaze on a tree.  She also had the fun job of lugging around both cans of non-washable paint all day.
 
The property that I wound up helping to boundary mark, Chickering Bog, is especially near and dear to me because Jon had done an earlier volunteer stint there supervising the building of one of the signs that marks the property.  Because of the particularly harsh winter of 2014 our boundary marking stint was delayed from its originally scheduled date during the winter (when we would have walked it in snow shoes) to the spring, when we slogged through the mud and occasional patch of stubborn snow.  For our mission we carried a bunch of tools: a can of bright blue (nonwashable) paint to renew the blazes on trees marking the trail and boundary lines; metal TNC signs to replace worn ones;  colored plastic tape, a compass and a GPS unit.  The usual plan is to divide into two groups, go around the perimeter from opposite sides, and meet in the middle. But when the day came for the marking, the other volunteers backed out so it was just Lynn, me and her assistant, Becky.  As a single team, we’d need to go around the entire area instead of just half. But that was no obstacle for pros like Lynn and Becky, who are out in the field every week, in all kinds of weather lugging around everything from chain saws to lumber for trail-making. 

Becky getting ready to replace a Nature Conservancy sign on a tree

...and me doing the same thing after she showed me how a few minutes later.
The period known to other English-speakers as “spring” is in Vermont called “mud season” and Chickering Bog was doing its best to embody the meaning of both the terms “mud season” and “bog”.  Along our boundary march we crashed through piles of snow that refused to melt in shaded areas, sank in mud and slid down steep embankments.  But we also saw birds and plants and crazy fungi making early appearances, and cool ice structures existing in the in-between of streams that couldn’t decide whether they were frozen or flowing.
Nothing like running into a bit of bright red fungi bigger than your head.  Note Lynn's booted foot provides a bit of scale.

A natural chandelier of ice formations suspended from a fallen log over a stream.

When we finally completed the entire circumference of the property, we were tired and muddy and splotched with blue paint.  But it was the good kind of tired where you feel like you accomplished something and got to see something that not everyone does – in this case, that elusive moment when one season is sliding into another, and leaving traces of that evolution on a natural environment.   If you get the chance, volunteer for a day with The Nature Conservancy.  Maybe we’ll slide through some mud and search for faded blazes together, since I know for sure that I'll be back.

Lynn and I posing in our muddy, paint-spotted clothes at the end of the day in front of one of the Chickering Bog signs. Everyone can now breath happy knowing that the boundary has been checked and re-posted and all is in good order
 

Friday, July 4, 2014

11. Climb Outdoors in Colorado

So, like a fair number of other New Things on various lists, this one didn't go exactly to plan.  The plan was for Jon and I to do some outdoor climbing with our outstanding friend Leah, veteran and co-inventor of the original Year of 52. We did go climbing with Leah, and we did go outside with Leah and we did go climbing outside, but we didn't actually do all three of those things in combination at the same time.  Life is like that sometimes.
Since participating heavily in the first Year of 52 Leah left her New Bedford home and relocated to Boulder, Colorado, where she can and does rock climb and snow board to her heart's content. When I put together this year's list, Leah suggested I come out to her new adopted home and try my first trad climb. 
Our gracious host, Leah.
So for this year's spring break, we headed west for some exploration of the city of Boulder, and the canyons and mountains surrounding it. And though bad weather and Leah's work schedule cruelly conspired to prevent us from doing the trad climb outside together, they could not keep us from having a fabulous time.  For, nimble adjusters that we are, we substituted new plans for old ones.  The only full days Leah had were on the weekend, so during the week at night we went climbing in Leah's palatial local climbing gym (and working on lead climbing, something I had only done once and Jon had never done).  One night Leah took us up a local canyon and showed us a very easy place to set some anchors on our own so that the next day we did our first ever-climbing with just the two of us. 
First time Jon and I set a route all by ourselves -- Jon at the top...



...and then my turn.  I think this one was called Dirty Dave's Dumpster Dive.

And while Leah was at work during the week we explored some of the local attractions and hiking spots.
Nederland is a funky town -- half hippie, half Western, all fun.

Visiting the grand hotel that was the inspiration for The Shining (note creepy light in mirror behind us)

When the weekend came, we got stymied once again.  After a week of clear outdoor weather, it snowed and our outdoor climb was sadly cancelled yet again.  But we made the most of it and did a hike through the snow instead.
Brunch at a Persian teahouse while waiting out a very wet storm

Jon, Leah and Pumpkin on the way up Mount Sanitas
When the end of the trip came, my aspirations to try trad climbing had been deferred for a future climbing adventure, but it didn't matter.  We had hiked and explored and rock climbed and met many of Leahy's equally adventurous friends. It was a most excellent reminder of why a week with Leah cannot ever be dull, but just might be different than the original plan.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

10. Try Acro Yoga

I've found that one of the best things about trying new things is that it's an infectious habit.  Once I start listing the new things I want to try, I've found those near and dear to me start doing the same. A case in point is acro yoga, which got put on the list not by me, but by Jon, who decided it was something he really must try, and invited a number of us to try with him.  Unfortunately, currently the only weekly acro yoga class in the state of Vermont is in Montpelier, which is very convenient for Jon, but not so much for me.  So, Jon embarked on his acro journey with our friend Lynn, who found that she loved it as much as he does.  Most Wednesdays they are regular fixtures of at Lori's class at Yoga Mountain Center, and have been steadily increasing their skills and balance in all kinds of challenging poses.
A winter practice session at Lynn (upside down) and husband Ed's (spotting to ensure no traumatic falls) home in Montpelier, with Jon serving as base.



A recent picture of Lynn "flying" with our friend Kate (on the right) acting as spotter during an acro jam session on the lawn of the state capital building in Montpelier.
 
 
Anyone who wants to add some challenge to their planking can try copying Jon on this one, and base two other people planking at the same time.
 
Although the Burlington scene does not have a regular acro yoga class, there are regular acro "jams" at Sangha Studio on Friday nights, and as Jon and Lynn enthused about the wonderful qualities of acro, the temptation to try it got stronger.

So one night my good friend and rock climbing partner, Amanda, and I decided to forego our regular rock climbing evening and try an "acrojam" instead.  This could have been very daunting, since we were walking in as total beginners on a whole community of people who already know all kinds of poses.  But some of the veterans very kindly interrupted their regular practices to spend most of the session tutoring Amanda and I on the basics and giving us our first opportunities to try out "basing" and "flying".  We learned two things.  First, acro is hard!  It takes a combination of strength and flexibility and balance, and the work of "basing" on the bottom is very different than what it takes to "fly" above. Luckily, second, it's also fun! 
After we learned two other basic "flyer" positions, Amanda had her first chance to fly upside down...

...and then I did as well.

 Although we've only been back once, for a special once-a-month class run by Jon and Lynn's Montpelier teacher Lori, there are rumors that a regular class may be coming our way later this summer.  If that happens, we'll be there.  Until then, it's fun to dabble a teeny bit, and to appreciate the pictures that flow out from Montpelier and contemplate all the fun new things that are out there to try!

Monday, June 23, 2014

9. Take a Hike ON Lake Champlain

This is the very late last of the posts commemorating the good and the bad of the Winter That Went On and On and On, as the winter of 2014 will always be remembered in my heart.  As I'm writing it, I'm thinking of another upcoming New Thing in the same place.  This post is about walking on the lake to Knight Island; with any luck in the next few weeks I'll have another that's about canoeing on the lake, also to Knight Island.

The original hope had been to walk all the way across Lake Champlain from one state (Vermont) to another (New York).  It was the perfect winter for it: the coldest we'd had in years.  But the weekend we'd slated for our walkover we were peppered with warnings that the ice was beginning to crack. So, we adjusted accordingly. Even in warmer years when the Lake doesn't freeze over as it did in 2014 it almost always freezes in the area of the Champlain Islands, so we headed north to the venerable Hero's Welcome, a Vermont institution that is part deli, part general store, part sports equipment rental and one hundred percent local landmark.  It stands directly across the road from Lake Champlain and Knight Island.
Looking back at Hero's Welcome and the town of North Hero from the skating oval

We parked our car there, and got ready to try out the newest addition to our winter sport collection: Microspikes.  In case anyone has been on the fence on buying these guys, I'd say do it.  They are fantastic!  Walking on ice-- whether it's flat as it was that day, or alarmingly steep as it was when we put them to use on some rock climbing approaches a few weeks later in Boulder, Colorado -- is a million times easier when wearing Microspikes.
Trusty Microspikes!  Throw these babies on and your feet will stick to the iciest surface you can imagine. They may look strange but they sure do work.
The town of North Hero maintains an outdoor oval skating track across the street from Hero's Welcome, and we started our two-mile trek over the island there. Once we were past the cleared ice of the track, things got a little rougher, though we were by no means the only people out to get their last fix of the ice.  We passed people ice fishing as well as a few other walkers (with the usual dogs that accompany most Vermonters on ventures of an outdoor nature).
Jon, ready to embark on our two mile walk on (frozen) water.  Note both walking poles (which were not used) and yoga mat (which was).

People who've known me for a long time know that I have a tendency to pack light (for many years I had a personal rule of limiting myself to a single carry-on bag as luggage for any trip -- international or otherwise -- of three weeks or less).  But I have to admit that Jon has had an influence on me in that regard, and now I do see the value of preparing for more eventualities.

Me. looking rather rotund and happy in the lean-to, after eating some soup that Jon had just cooked on our campstove.
 
Balancing postures are appropriate for all occasions, right?
 
Starting the two mile trek back
 

On this particular jaunt across the lake, we weren't sure what mood might hit us, so we brought cooking equipment, frozen food (that part was easy!) and yoga mats, all of which got pressed into use when we set up in one of the lean-tos on Knight Island for lunch, some stretching and one last chance to appreciate the glorious cold sunshine that was one of the better aspects of the harsh winter that was 2014.   I am going predict (and hope) that the winter of 2015 won't be as cold, nor as long as the winter of 2014 was.  But even if it's not, the odds are good that the lake between North Hero and Knight Island will freeze. When it does, you could do worse than spending an afternoon walking on water between the two.  I might even lend you my Microspikes.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

8. Give Up Diet Coke

One of the best things about the original year of 52 was the momentum I had -- in doing new things and in writing about them.  For a combination of reasons, it's been much harder this time around on both fronts.  But today I resolved to redouble my efforts.  There are a bunch of New Things I've done since March that I want to record, and then I want to really embark on a major push to catch up to where I'll need to be in order to hit 52 by the end of 2014.

Since that feels like a very tall order, I thought I'd start my "catch-up" exercise by writing about something was very definitely not on my original list, but was added by my students -- Give Up Diet Coke. I think only a fellow Diet Coke addict can know what a big deal this one is.  I've had a 1-2 liter a day habit since high school. That's about 30 years of daily diet soda drinking, beginning with one as my breakfast beverage instead of coffee.  I drank it with meals, and while I was working in my office. I always had a supply of coins so that anywhere I went I knew I could get one from a vending machine if I wanted to. I used to make sure I had some for road trips, and during my grad school days, it was the first thing I'd have in the morning when I got up and the last thing I drank at night before I went to bed  And then on February 26, 2014, I just quit, and haven't had one since.  Simple as that.

I had "given up" Diet Coke a few times before.  It is hard to get in sub-Saharan Africa (though regular Coke is literally more accessible than water in many places there), and there have been a few trips to Tanzania where I had to go without for a week or two, until I got back to an urban area or the airport. I also made a major switch back in 2002 when we founded the Saint Michael's College of the Student Global AIDS Campaign, and the inaugural campaign of the group was called "kick Coke off campus" (part of a successful effort to force Coca Cola to make good on a hitherto empty promise to provide HIV treatment for all the sub-Saharan employees of the "Coke family"). In that case, "giving up" Diet Coke simply meant switching the same level of consumption to Diet Pepsi, and when the campaign was over, I was equally addicted to both, and not interested in giving up either.

I think I had pretty much decided that I was okay with this as my Big Vice, and might have stayed with that decision indefinitely, until some of the students of SGAC inadvertently made an intervention.  We were having a brainstorm about future campaigns, and began discussing the reasons we still found Coke's presence on campus (and its products globally) highly problematic for a group that supports global health and human rights,  As we began discussing the possibility of another Coke Campaign, the students turned to me and pointed out that this time I would have to really give up Diet Coke. Something clicked, and I agreed.  Lent was a week away, so I decided to think of it as something I was giving up for Lent, but starting a week early. I decided to start right then and there, and I haven't had one since.

The first couple weeks were tough, but actually I had thought they'd be much harder. I applied a few of the lessons I'd learned elsewhere including the original year of the 52.  They were:
1. accountability:  telling everyone you know you're going to do something may be a little self-involved, but it sure does work.
2. support: soliciting advice works, too.  I wasn't the first person to ever try to give up this habit, and lots of people had great advice, and support.  My friend Lilly even sent me a tea set and teas to substitute for my DC habit in my office.
3. one day at a time.  The cliché is true.  It's much easier to do things for a day than to imagine doing them for an entire lifetime. To my amazement, the one time I attempted to cheat, during Finals Week when I was sitting in my office grading and feeling sorry for myself, I went down to the vending machine and bought a diet soda (Diet Dr. Pepper, I think).  It tasted like a bunch of chemicals and after drinking about half if it I poured the rest down the sink.
4. if you think you can or you think you can't, you're right.  For 30 years, I thought I needed Diet Coke. It was a huge part of my daily habits and rituals.  Turns out I was wrong.  All I needed to do was figure that out.  Before that it seemed impossible.  After that it seemed straightforward.  It really is all in our heads. Really.

So, that's the report on New Thing #9.  Now to catch up on the other 43! 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

7. Go Cross Country Skiing under a Full Moon

One of my favorite things about the original year of 52 New Things was taking the opportunity to do things I'd done before in new ways.  The quintessential Vermont hike -- Camel's Hump -- became a New Thing when I did it, with various friends and family, in all four seasons.  A place I'd been to before, New York City, looked very different when it became the setting for 24 hours without sleeping there. So I was excited when Jon suggested the idea of doing something that had been on my original list - cross country skiing -- and add a new twist of doing it under a full moon.  Then friend and former student Michelle suggested that her current home would be a great spot.  It took a while for it to happen, but some things are so very worth the wait.

Jon and I on our first night-time cross country ski outing in Montpelier.

 The first chance to take advantage of some night-time cross country skiing (albeit not by the full moon) happened, ironically, because another New Thing we'd been planning got cancelled.  Jon and I and four friends -- Lynn, Ed, Sharon and Mark-- were signed up to learn how to cook with bugs.  Shockingly, though the six of us thought this would be a great way to spend an evening, our enthusiasm was not shared by the rest of Central Vermont and the bug cookout did not happen.  (We did manage to get a bug dinner in a few weeks later, though, and it is described here).

But since no bugs were in the offing, Lynn suggested we go to Plan B, a ski that took off from their backyard and went through nearby Hubbard Park.  Sharon and Mark bowed out, and our friend Kate joined in, but the real stars of the show were the two canine participants, Willow and Frank.  In fact, Frank was quite the hero, kindly swapping his awesome headlamp attached to his collar with the one with weak batteries I was wearing.  The swap occurred about 10 minutes into the ski, and suddenly things got a lot easier when I could actually see where I was going.
Kate, trying in vain to make Frank look at the camera for his spotlight moment.  Willow is rocking my all-time favorite dog fashion accessory -- her orange winter boots.

The family McNamara -- Willow, Ed and Lynn -- pause for a photo op.

A few weeks later, we got the chance to do the full-fledged full moon ski when Jon and I visited my friend and former student, Michelle, who now lives near the Sleepy Hollow Inn, Ski and Bike Center.  She had originally invited us out for the full moon on February 14, and when that hadn't worked out, I'd been worried whether there'd be good snow for the next one in March.  Of course, had I but realized that this was to be The (Almost) Neverending Winter, I'd have had no worries.  As it turned out, there was still plenty of snow when the next full moon came around on March 16.

Michelle had us over for a great chicken soup dinner, and an opportunity to ski straight out to a beautifully-groomed trail through the woods.  We skied the first half of it with our head lamps on, but then turned them off and navigated by the light of the moon.
Michelle and Jon about to hit the trail again, this time minus head lamp light.


Michelle and I first became friends when she was participated in a class trip to Tanzania that I co-led.  I am happy to see that the enthusiasm that endeared her to our Tanzanian hosts has only grown in the years since she graduated from Saint Mike's.

It was a pretty cold night, so we wore lots of layers, but it was amazing how fast you can warm up when skiing. I don't anticipate ever being a multimillionaire, but I definitely came to the conclusion that night that a personal, private cross country ski trail through the woods of Vermont wouldn't be such a bad thing.  Assuming that never happens, Michelle's invitation is probably as close as I'll get.  But it was awesome, and highlighted everything I love about my adopted state: the people who live here (and were skating beside me); the spectacular mountains and forests around us; the sparse population that allows for such unique experiences; and even the winter (though I don't often feel that in March and April), which blankets the state in a layer of snow that is both beautiful and fun to play in.  I think this year I've come to appreciate cross country skiing a lot more than I used to.  Compared to downhill it's much cheaper, can be done in many more places, and is more environmentally friendly.  But if you've never tried it under a full moon, do yourself a favor and put it on next winter's to-do list.  I promise, you won't regret it.