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.