Wednesday, May 27, 2009

End of an Era

As some of you may know, while my entire upbringing was within a quarter mile of Virginia's lower Chesapeake Bay, my entire family is from New York. They are primarily Polish, Swiss, and German, and arrived in waves from the mid-1700s to the 1920s. My parents didn't get along very well with their parents (plenty of fault to go around), so we rarely travelled to New York to see any of them.....until I started travelling up there on my own - first at age 12, then 14, then 15, then 17, then all through college and up until the current time. My wife loves the City and jumps at every opportunity to visit...how could I say no?
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I've enjoyed making all of the visits to NYC (Brooklyn & Queens)...OK...most of the visits....for my grandparents' birthdays, anniversaries, Easter, and other holidays. I have suffered through boiled rabbit at Easter, as well as herring filets on New Year's Eve. Well, today a lot of that ended, as my grandmother Adele passed away from a heart attack at age 90. I am very sad to see her go - although in some ways she left us a while ago. She was also my last living grandparent - and last tie to "Old New York." She'll be laid to rest in our family's (multiple families') first neighborhood in the United States - Glendale, Brooklyn, NY. NYC's most German neighborhood. Read all about it from "Forgotten NY." In fact, the services for my grandmother will be held at the historic George Werst Funeral Home described in the above article.
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A lot of outdoors oriented folks hate New York City. Or rather, they hate the idea of New York City. The buildings! All those people! The crime! New York City is a place that displays the very best and the very worst of the United States. Nowhere else is the American Dream so easy to see taking place - the cabbie in med school, the traffic cop in law school, the new American citizens scraping together their own businesses. It's also very easy to see it taken for granted.
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Southerners never believe it, but it's hard to find more patriotic people than you will find in America's great northeastern cities - Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Providence, and Boston. These are amazing places full of people with amazing stories - and people who LOVE America. If you have any doubt about how American they are, here's a reminder.
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The walls DO talk and it's amazing what they'll tell you. Next time you have the opportunity to visit one of America's great cities - GO - enjoy it for what it is. Your family probably has a history there as well.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Surfing & Fishing the VA/NC line

Turn off the lip with just a little spray, Virginia Beach at dawn


Even with 56 degree water on a weekday, 2-4' clean surf brings out a circus at Virginia Beach's 1st Street Jetty
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Work took me back to my land of endless summers, Virginia Beach. Far from a perfect beach location, Virginia Beach aka "the 757" is a place notoriously unfriendly to the eco-traveller, and even the travelling sportsman. Police routinely harass surfers, kayakers are often buzzed by Donzi jet boats, and dueling gangs of suburban yuppies, rednecks, and military guys drink too much and get on the water with frightening regularity, just to cause conflicts with each other. Many of the waters are heavily polluted from years of industrial (chemical) production, electricity production, and shipbuilding - fish consumption advisories are in place for at least some species in almost all rivers. Deer hunting is challenging, as few landowners or hunters practice Quality Deer Management, and the bird hunting is more challenging, since non-hunting landowners can, and do, license "dummy blinds" on their shorelines to prevent other hunters from using that section of marsh or river.
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So why go back? The "tidewater" area is still a wonderful place to me because it holds the challenge of finding opportunities to recreate. The resources are still present to have a great time, if you have the right attitude.....and a back-up plan. Why else? Just like your hometown, there's no escaping the fact that these roads, marshes, beaches, and neighborhoods hold my personal history closely. The first wave I ever caught on a bodyboard (Sandbridge Beach). The first fish I remember catching (Harwoods Mill Reservoir) (a yellow perch), the first time I piloted a boat entirely under sail (Poquoson River Mouth), and the first time I danced in a meadow with a girl (Yorktown National Historical Park). So..home is home...and to be elaborated upon further in a future post...



Two riders split a thigh-high mushburger...typical east coast windswell
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So..back to my original story. A 3-day trip sent me back home (well, close) with a full plate of work tasks, but a flexible schedule. Arrived at Nutty's house (not linking him until he updates his page!) around 8pm on thursday and settled in. A very shifty wind forecast had me leave my saltwater fishing gear at home, and instead bring a surfboard, wetsuits, and my ultralight freshwater gear with me. Checked the forecast for friday morning: SW 10 at 6am, switching to NE 10-20 by 10am. Possibilities? I went to bed and set my alarm for about an hour before sunrise. Woke up, checked the wind forecast....SSW 6kt! Jumped in the truck and hit the oceanfront.

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Buoy had showed 4.9' SE @ 7 seconds but the surf was clean and consistent 2-3' with 4' sets about every 20 minutes. Buoy also showed 67 degree water, so I suited up in a long-sleeve / short bottom 2mm suit. Hit the water and wished I had thought about that a little longer - water on the outside was clearly in the mid-60s, but the shallows were much colder, between 53 and 56, I'd guess. Had a dry paddle out, and a nice first wave, so only got wet (and flushed) on the return paddle to the lineup. As anyone could have predicted, there were consistently 15-20 guys in the water from 1st street to 6th street, but everyone was in good spirits.

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Had a good mix of waves, despite my rusty style (hadn't been to the gym in a month, or surfed "real waves" in 2 years). Take-offs were steep by southeastern US standards, but "playful" by Northeast or west coast standards. Lots of guys were wiping out on takeoff but, after 12 years of surfing Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey, I'm proud to say I didn't miss a single take-off. Had it been a little warmer, or had I been surfing with friends, I probably would have thought a little more about my style, making sweeping turns off the lip and other moves that were definitely possible with these little lines, but I was rusty, cold....and just having fun. Around 730am, the wind switched hard, sending the lineup into a tailspin - what had been a consistent south longshore current turned into a series of gyres that were sending some surfers north, and other surfers south. After battling the current for about 15 minutes, I called it quits. Best surf in 2 years and it wasn't even 8am! I cleaned myself off and headed out for my day's work.

Dismal Swamp Canal, present day
After work, Nutty and I decided to hit an area up for fishing that we had not tried before - the Dismal Swamp Canal that "flows" north to south across the NC/VA border. The Canal, and the Swamp, will be the feature of a few upcoming posts, so if you're curious for now, here's a great resource. Depending on your opinion, it is either a pristine or a God-Forsaken place, holding one of Virginia's two (TWO) natural lakes, covering 110,000 acres of swamp, and potential created by a meteor impact. Anyhow....Weather was tough: 85 degrees, 100% humidity, and thunderstorms in the area. Of course, we forgot the camera also. Supposedly, there is small craft access to said Canal, and we wanted to scope that out, more than we intended to actually catch fish. In Virginia, the Canal is newly accessible via the Canal Trail, which is actually the abandoned alignment of US Route 17.
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Nutty and I tried a whole slew of artificial lures in the black, acidic water, including a ton of half-hearted nibbles on white 1" mister twister grubs, finally getting lucky with a 1/16oz white rooster tail vibric (silver) spinner. The unlucky quarry? Black crappie. We started catching them with a vengeance...had ourselves a nice little time, and released them all when we were done (fish consumption warning). Felt great to work a full day's work, go surfing, AND catch fish in the same day. Had an excellent Mexican dinner with Nutty and his wife, and was thrilled to be fast asleep by 11pm. Sometimes happiness really IS that simple.
Eastern half of the Great Dismal Swamp, showing the VA/NC border





Sunday, May 10, 2009

So You Think You Can Garden, Part I

Sure, you can grow Black Barlow Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris 'black barlow') in your yard!



But can you grow it 5' tall.....from seed?
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As a trained wetland geographer & wildlife manager, a practicing habitat ecologist, a former Maryland Master Gardener, and the proud owner of an NWF Certified Backyard Habitat (send in a photo and a check, ha ha), I enjoy April and May each year, when friends and family call me relentlessly with their lawn and garden questions. Usually, it's about a specific site, or a specific plant. Most of them are very basic, or deal with an issue I've dealt with in the past, so it's pretty easy. But the hardest questions are the most basic: "Where do I start?" "What should I plant in my first garden?" Those types of things. I'll address the former question, but the latter question, to me, is like someone asking me to pick out their wedding dress, or choose the color of their baby's room. Not gonnna do it. So where does that leave us? How do you start gardening, and stop worrying about failing at gardening?
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The first-time gardener has so many important questions , and many seem so critical to success (because this all costs money!) .......but....none as much as "why the hell am I doing this?" You need a plan! I don't mean a landscape plan, or a garden layout. We're talking much more basic - why do you want to grow plants? If you had the time and money to plant everything "just so," what would it look like in 3 months? 1 year? 5 years? If you're a first time gardener/landscaper, you must answer these questions, or I promise that you will fail. How can I say this? You can't reach your expectations without verbalizing them or writing them down.
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If you're not sure about why you want to grow, you aren't ready to select what you want to grow. Take some time...be willing to learn - it's one thing that very successful gardeners, and really, all highly successful "outdoor" professionals have in common. Visit historic homes and gardens, and visit native plantings and wildlife plantings at parks and wildlife refuges. Concentrate on "what you like," without regard for the logistics of "can I afford that?" or "is it possible?" Get a firm idea of what you'd like to see on your land, whether it's a working ranch with no plantings, or a 10' x 10' cold box on the cement slab that is your urban back yard. You now have a "vision" of sorts..
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Another quick and critical exercise is to determine which Hardiness Zone your land is in. Why is this important? Most plants, whether you purchase them at Wally-World, or the Ag. Co-Op or the internet, are freeze-tolerant to only a certain extent. That extent is ranked by USDA zones. Knowing your USDA hardiness zone (a very easy exercise thanks to GardenWeb - search by zip code) will automatically rule out the purchase of many plants (including many stocked at your local Home Supply Super Store) as complete wastes of time and money (unless you have a greenhouse or want to buy the same plant again next year).
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Now let's set up an important set of "sideboards" - honestly think about your potential garden space and prioritize the following in the order that's right for you:
*human use (consumption - food, cut flowers, etc)
*human use (aesthetic value)
*wildlife use (hunting, fishing, or viewing)
*land stewardship / soil conservation
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That's right - the order in which you rank these will significantly affect the outcome of your garden project. I want you to remember those, because the next thing you need to do is call your local Extension Agent and discuss your vision and your priorities. This step is just as valuable, and much cheaper (free) than consulting a landscape architect or a wildlife consultant. Do NOT be afraid to call because your project is too small, or because you think your priorities are unusual. No matter how strange your vision & priorities, the agent has heard stranger, and he/she is paid a decent state salary to help you. Now, to save you a few steps, the extension agent is going to ask you some questions before you ask him/her any questions - so know the answers to these questions:
*how big of an area do you want to plant?
*what type of soil do you have (clay, sand, etc)?
*how steep is it?
*is there a water source (pond, spring, well, etc)?
*how do you feel about the use of fertilizer, pesticides, etc?
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This is where it just barely starts to get fun! If you dreamt of huge patches of sunflowers along the woods edge, the extension agent will likely tell you what variety is popular in your county, when to plant it, and how much the deer will eat. If you are interested in vegetable gardening, the extension agent will be able to tell you what types of vegetables are likely to work on your site. If you are interested in only planting purple flowers, he/she may have some suggestions.
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If this fails (which can happen if your land/planting area is far above/below the scale of "average" in your county, your local chapter of Master Gardeners is there to help you. In fact, that's the only reason they exist - to help non-commercial gardeners.
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After these conversations, and some good internet searches, you should have a pretty good idea of why you want to grow plants, and what you'd like to grow. Sadly, this puts you in the top 25% or so of gardeners and landowners. Let's make something clear - this doesn't mean you'll be successful, and (as my experience will show in a future post), your priorities can change. But by following this exercise to this point, any failures (or just mediocrity) you encounter in your first year of planting will turn into very valuable lessons. Those lessons pay very large dividends in future years....if you stick with it.
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An example, perhaps? I grow sunflowers for birds, specifically, goldfinches. In 3 years I have planted the seeds at least 5 different ways to prevent them from being gobbled up by rabbits and squirrels. This year, I was finally successful. I found a way - partly because I was not distracted by other goals or priorities.
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How do I remember? I keep a record - and you should too. I remember every lousy wildflower seed mix that didn't work, and the nursery source of the amazing habaneros I had "one year," and what month the squirrels stop burying peanuts in my yard (accidentally finding and eating seeds I have planted).
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Again, you will fail - you must fail. Maybe only one plant, or one part of your garden or wildlife plot. I can't stress enough how important it is to be adaptive and go with what works. This will often mean finding out what works, and planting the same thing every year as your staple. Continuing to experiment is very important - but not at the risk of total failure, year after year. If you love fresh squash, and you plant 6 varieties this year, 5 of which become infested with beetles and don't produce good squash, you might want to focus next year's planting efforts on the type that seemed resistant (while perhaps trying some new varieties).
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In some cases, you will learn (from someone else or from your experience) that your primary goal may not be achievable, given outside constraints like the site itself, your budget, or the 3,000 deer that live in the woods just beyond your yard. Again - be adaptable. Change your objective, change your budget, or if possible, select a new site that meets your original goal.
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Most importantly, don't turn your back on meager successes - build on them. That happens every year, almost everywhere I plant or manage habitat: "Why did THAT work? Of all things?" Tickseed (a native wildflower) first sprouted in one of my beds because my duck hunting gear was covered in the seeds. I let it grow, and loved the flowers, and the birds loved the seeds. Why tickseed? It wasn't as showy as the asters I was trying to grow. But it worked.....now I use it every year in my seed mixes and look forward to those 5' tall bushes of yellow flowers every September.
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Your "tickseed" may be a dwarf watermelon, an organic eggplant, an oat, a radish, or a sunflower. It will not be where you were looking for it, but you will be successful with it - and by doing so, you will become a real gardener. So go find it.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Outdoor Rec Round-Up - South Carolina Low Country



Now that I've been to southeastern South Carolina several times (1997-2009) in every season but the fall, perhaps I'm qualified to give a little bit of a roundup of the area's natural resources and recreational opportunities. Let's give it a shot.
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The South Carolina low country is an area that prides itself on its natural resources. People exist outdoors to a very large extent, and outdoor recreation is very important to the perceived "lifestyle" of the low country. There are more runners and cyclists than I've seen in any other coastal area in the east (not counting islands like Nantucket)....it's nearly Californian. An amazing array of outdoor opportunities exist there, so let's take a look at them:
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1) General Outdoor Rec / Lifestyle: Very high marks for the southeast! Numerous county parks with extensive walking/cycling paths, reasonable sidewalk systems in all but the newest neighborhoods, and most importantly - total immersion in groups of people who also love the outdoors - even in "traditional" rural towns in the South, this is hard to come by - we're in the second generation of "video game players" and satellite cable TV. To quote Black Flag, "Why go into the Outside world at all?" But if you want the outdoor lifestyle for yourself and your family, the South Carolina beaches and coastal towns are not a bad place to be. The Ashley-Cooper Bridge Run is quite an event over an amazing bridge.....and people run the bridge the other 364 days of the year too!
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2) Golf: I despise golf. I am horrible at golf. But if you want high quality golf, coastal SC is a great place to be. Closer to Myrtle Beach, there are entire interstate exits devoted (seemingly) only to golf course access. The courses are high quality and there are probably only 50 or so days a year when it's too cold or rainy to play. Whether it's too hot to play is dependent on your level of tolerance of all things mosquitos, heat stroke, and alligators! But there are golf courses everywhere throughout the entire state. One gets the sense that a great amount of business actually gets done on these courses.
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3) The Beach: This is a mixed bag. In the summer, beach access roads are jammed and beach access can be really tough, especially if you plan to visit the beach during the "inlander" times of 11am to 4pm on a weekend day. If you are used to going "off'the grid" to places like Ocracoke, NC, then don't bother. If you're used to the trials and tribulations of beach access from Nags Head NC up to Long Island, NY, then you'll be pleased - it's not that bad. The rest of the year, beach access is a breeze, even during spring break. The beaches are generally in great shape, are very clean, and are very gently sloped (see surfing section below), making for a very family-friendly landscape. This is kind of the northern end of "tropical" marine life, so expect to find seashells like coral, starfish, and sand dollars. Dogs are allowed on most beaches between October and May.
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4) Fishing: Freshwater fishing is very limited, based upon your access to reservoirs and the upper limits of the Ashley, Cooper, and Edisto Rivers where they are really more brackish than fresh. Saltwater fishing, however, is all the rage. Hundreds of thousands of acres of healthy, well-flushed marsh (helped by a 6' tidal range) provide easy access during higher tides to some great fishing grounds for flounder, redfish, and speckled trout, among many other species. Public boat ramps are plentiful with very large parking lots, and typically 3 slips per ramp, but are crowded to capacity on sunny weekend days (from April to November). Typical boats include extra-wide skiffs and jonboats, often with fishing platforms, to the more adventurous 18-22' parkers and sailfish - able to handle ocean chop on fair weather days, and target jack crevalle immediately offshore. Farther north, you would never take a boat that size into the ocean, but the conditions in South Carolina favor this tactic (generally). The Charleston Angler is a great source of information.
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5) Hunting: I haven't hunted in South Carolina but I've kept it in mind throughout all of our adventures there. Typical of the southeast, duck hunting is limited to a relative few addicts, concentrating on mallards and wood ducks, and praying for cold winters to bring more ducks south. Hunting leases are available on many old rice plantations, providing an excellent opportunity (if any ducks are local). Leases are in-line with Mid-Atlantic prices, ranging from $1000 - $2500 per hunter annually. Many hunters sit in the (public) marsh outside the rice levees, preferring to pass shoot low-flying ducks for free. Teal, sea ducks, and some diving ducks also seem fairly common. Turkey and deer hunting are extremely popular, and many local hunters head to large areas of public land like Francis Marion National Forest to target game. Most hunters in SC do not pursue quality deer management, so harvests are often meager numbers of deer, of meager size and measure. Quail hunting is faily popular.
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6) Surfing: If you go to South Carolina to surf, make sure you have a flexible schedule, a tide table, and hourly weather (wind) updates. While some ground swell undoubtedly hits the SC coast during the spring and fall months, the extended shallows offshore really bang up the surf. Taking its place in reality is small-scale windswell. Most of the coastal islands are positioned ESE or SE, so the continual summer seabreeze (SE to SSW) pushes weak swell right up onto the beach. Unfortunately it's so weak that the waves march right on past the beach unless the wind either stops blowing, or cuts offshore (WNW to NNW), which it seems to do frequently, but unpredictably. I've also experienced this at Tybee Island, GA. I felt like I was standing next to a raging river, as the wind carried the surf right up the shoreline - nary a ridable wave in 6' swell. Only other issue I've seen with surfing is that, typical of many areas, the density of surfers in the lineup depends on whether high school has let out for the day. Surfers in South Carolina are disproportionately young, likely 75% under age 18, and another 20% age 18-25. Perhaps given the old social mores, older guys and gals are expected to participate in more "respectable" outdoor activities like golf and fishing.

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So there you have it - my first Outdoor Rec Round-Up. Hope you enjoyed it.

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Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...