Monday, February 22, 2010

Dreaming of Warm Water and Past Trips

Somewhere in Central America....???....
Somewhere in Central America, 2003 - 2006.

Surfer in the slot at reef Playa Negra, Costa Rica; 2003. Air: 102 degrees, Water: 69 degrees
Our crazy winter and snow have taken a toll us, both financially and mentally, and I'd really like to dream about future trips to beautiful warm places, but for now, I'll reflect on some recent scanned photos from older trips to the tropics. Central Maryland still looks like a war zone from our recent snow-a-thon, and I'm just very ready for the spring - gardening and fishing in another month; and then surfing and turkey hunting another 3-6 weeks after that.
We don't have any spare money to take a fun trip to a warm, sunny place, so I'll concentrate on some memories for now, and perhaps some "dream trips" for my next post.

Blue crab and fish with glowing eyes - Avellanas Estuary, Costa Rica.

The water in this estuary was insanely warm and full of wildlife. It flowed through the mangroves, into a small salt marsh, and emptied into the ocean near Avellanas, Costa Rica's "Little Hawaii." Avellanas is also the Spanish word for hazelnut.

Me, taking a serious drop on a serious wave near the Costa Rica / Nicaraugua border. Wave = 6 feet. Water depth = 1.5 feet. Bottom = sharp lava rock and deadly sea snakes.

Me again, one of my favorite surfing sessions of my entire life. Northwestern Costa Rica.
The waves weren't big but they were a lot of fun.

I don't believe I was that thin - 7 years and 50 lbs ago. One of my goals for 2010 is to start dropping weight (again) and spend more time surfing and kayaking. Note - we didn't have shirts or shoes on because the previous time we surfed in this area, our flip flops, shirts, and sunglasses were all stolen. Gotta love Central America! Second note - I was pale as a ghost because it was early April, and the sun was generally too strong to stay uncovered. This was a late afternoon surf, right before sunset.

Hope everybody else is managing through this tough late winter. Here's to warm weather, birds, bees, and flowers.......and tight lines, loud turkeys, and sunny days at the beach.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Baltimore, Snow Capitol of the Lower 48 States

48 inches of snow in 5 days. Just awesome. That's my truck, across the street to the left, after the second storm dumped 20" on us. And Sadie's Honda, across the street under 4 feet of freakin' snow, because I didn't dig it out after the first 28" storm.
Now, you all know that I am an outdoors maniac. But nothing will take the wind out of my sails like the TeeVee Man throwing around words like, "State of Emergency," and "Citizens are Not Authorized to Drive on City Streets." That's right, Baltimore is up to 79.5" of snow (with locally higher amounts), making the "Gem of I-95" the Snowiest Place in the Lower 48. That's right, more than Denver (56"), Boston (22") or Buffalo, NY (60").
It's a lot of freaking snow and it's completely paralyzed our infrastructure. Whether you're in the city, suburbs, or country, it doesn't matter when you have 7 foot tall snow drifts that were not there the day before. I am ready for Spring. I just heard that I got a "City Farm" urban farm plot this year, so I'm looking forward to doing some more traditional gardening than I usually do in our shady, clay-laden yard. But I'm not doing anything until the snow melts.
Want to know who's got the worst cabin fever of all? The Hankinator.

The Dude is not amused with the lack of stimulation or activities. Parents = Lame

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On 15 Years as a Wetland Technician & Biologist: Part 2

The first wetland I ever designed was a bioretention (stormwater) wetland at this interstate rest stop in Delaware. You gotta start somewhere.
About a month ago, I started a write-up that focused a little on how I got through high school, college, and my first job as a habitat ecologist. I learned a lot of "life lessons" between age 18 and 23, and many of them weren't fun to learn. What I didn't know is that the "lessons" from that point forward would be (thankfully) less frequent but with much higher consequences.
In case you're too busy to check out Part I, I came into my first "grad school required" job with the following lessons already learned:
*Land management goals are rarely forged in ideal political, fiscal, or ecological conditions, or with the necessary amount of scientific data to support one decision or another.
*The most successful land managers are those who can communicate their goals to those in power, the general public, AND those with a working technical knowledge of the land/objectives.
*The happiest biologist is the one who is allowed to make his or her own mistakes, and is allowed the opportunity to compensate for those mistakes
*Be prepared to be gracious in sharing credit for success; be prepared to be rock-solid in taking all the blame for any failures.
*We are each our own best advocate - never become lazy and expect someone to do it for you.
*Patience, patience, patience.
As I wrote the text below, keeping in mind "what other lessons have I learned?" I realized that I had already learned most of them. I think you'd be better entertained by finding them in my story below.

In 1998, I went to work as a senior technician for the Nature Conservancy & Old Dominion University on the Barrier Islands of Virginia. Now, I'm "from the beach," but I wasn't prepared for this. The Virginia barrier islands were populated from the 1670s until 1938, when they were abandoned, basically, because they are horrible places for human beings to live. Most of the islands have become property of the state of Virginia, the Nature Conservancy, or other similar conservation groups. My job was a good one - we were closely monitoring groundwater and vegetation changes across different parts of different islands. I got lost on the islands a few times, and had some amazing days out there as well. It was really hard work, and it re-enforced some of the lessons I had learned in my first year of grad school at Appalachian State U.
I returned to grad school in late August relaxed, in shape, tan, and very cynical. As the bills continued to add up, and my professors continued to be non-commital about my thesis work, it became pretty clear that "The Department" had no intention of letting me go after just 2 years, and that the cost - my debt - would get out of control (into six figures) if they had their way. I had really found my wings as announced my intention to leave Appalachian State - 1 credit and 1 incomplete thesis short of the requirements of the Masters degree. I interviewed for several jobs, ranging from the comical (Code Compliance Officer for Lincolnton, NC; $8.00/hour) to the overwhelming (Satellite Imagery Analyst for Erdas Software in Atlanta, GA for about three times that). I settled on an offer inbetween - working for Potomac Crossing Consultants and two of their associated engineering firms in the Baltimore-DC area.
I never thought I'd live in "the northeast" (which is what Baltimore was to me) and I certainly never thought I'd go to work for an engineering consortium, but there I was - living in a suburban apartment, wearing a tie to work, and going to meetings where we talked about how much money could be made from processing wetland permits, mapping wetlands, and overseeing construction to make sure that no violations occurred. About 15 months later, I changed jobs (really, just a change of supervisors and business cards) within the consortium to get directly into the field of wetland delineation and mitigation - basically - the law requires any project using Federal funds to identify where wetlands are, and if they are going to be paved over, they need to be replaced somewhere else, at some pre-determined ratio. This is an actual career field. I did those two things - identify the location of wetlands that might be filled or drained to accomodate a new road or some new condos or what-have-you, and identify the possible location of wetlands we could build to offset their destruction - for about 8 years. I worked for the military, highway departments, developers, anybody who had a need to fill in wetlands. I became very cynical, and I became very good at what I did-so good that government regulators would not even check my work or go visit the site of the proposed wetland filling. And often, I couldn't sleep at night.
By all accounts, I had really taken my career seriously, and had developed a pretty positive reputation for my skill and dedication. I had also started to become a businessman who sold wetland ecology - not a wetland ecologist. And so I left it - I left a whole lot of good money on the table - and went to work as a wetland ecologist for Ducks Unlimited. In my estimation, I had only one life to live - and didn't want to live it primarily making money for someone else and enabling the destruction of perfectly good wild places....even in the name of faster highways or safer railroads. The decision I made wasn't for everybody. But it was the right one for me.
And that's really my main lesson for this moment - to never again lose sight of my personal goals while chasing another goal, whether it be money or professional acclaim. The corporate environment is about one thing - WINNING. If "winning" and competition are very important to your sense of self (nothing wrong with that!), and you happen to love the outdoors and have a decent mind for science - corporate life will be a great fit for you. In a lot of cases, "doing the right thing" actually PAYS - and you'll get paid. But for me, just often enough, I got paid to march in the opposite direction.

More thoughts soon on my 5 years and counting in the environmental non-profit world. For all of you who contribute, as I do, to outdoors and environmental non-profits, you'll be simultaneously re-affirmed, proud, and maybe a little pissed off at what I have to say.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Brewing Ginger Beer 2.0

Fully brewed and ready to drink! Looks a little more convincing than last summer's batch.

Some of you may remember my first attempt to brew real ginger beer last summer. Heck, some of you were unfortunate enough to taste it! Actually, it wasn't that just wasn't quite right. In fact, mixed with a dark rum, it tasted just fine. But I felt like I could improve a few things about it. It's hard to find a "real" recipe for the stuff, because for hundreds of years, ginger beer has been one of those things that people just "throw together" based on family recipes, or more often, whatever they have laying around the house. I'm sticking with the recipe I used last time, from master bartender Jeffrey Morganthaler. The changes I've made this time are simple: I'm switching from powdered Jamaican ginger (the traditional choice) to shredded Chinese ginger (the spicier choice), and adding in some vanilla to get a more complex flavor out of this stuff. Another key change has been to follow the recipe very closely, to make sure that neither sugar or alcohol content get out of whack. The tale was in the taste - vastly improved over Batch #1. Success!
Ginger mash! This was hard but fun work - the recipe calls for ginger juice, and I don't have a juicer.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Growing the Next Outdoors Generation

A recent question was posed over on the Outdoor Bloggers Summit - "How can we get everyone to play outdoors?" It's an issue that's very central to my life, my career, and my outdoor obsessions. Indeed, I actually make a living wage trying to figure out the answer to this question. So from what angle, exactly, should I tackle this question?
I've started - and stopped - writing the response to that question 5 times now. Each attempt devolves into a bitching and moaning session about the current state of things. Americans have enjoyed some of the most spectacular natural places on earth for over 100 years (in some cases, 400 years) at a very low cost. This low cost, which is still largely enjoyed and not appreciated in 2010, is partly a blessing of geography, and partly a legal knee-jerk protest of our feudal society heritage in Europe - where the rich own all of the land. Literally.

Let's start off with the bottom line - for decades, many of us have been very generous with our time and money to support the protection and restoration of wildlife habitat and wild places. Sadly, our greatest goals may not be achieved within our lifetimes. Things like the sustainable restoration of the elk population in the eastern Ohio River Valley, and the permanent protection of the prairie pothole region for migration ducks, geese, and shorebirds, and the preservation of classic American views (and access) at our beaches, mountains, deserts, and forests . It's high time for each of us to stop praying for a fix from our government agencies, our educational system, and our favorite non-profit organizations, and make the changes in our life that will engage the next generation of hunters, anglers, surfers, rock-climbers, mountaineers, etc.

Here are some things that I'm doing in my own life to ensure that there's another generation of Americans who love the outdoors. I won't be so bold as to suggest you should do the same - but here are some ideas:

1. Getting rid of gear I don't need. I don't mean throwing it away. I don't mean selling it on for 80% of its retail value. I mean - give it away to someone who doesn't have access to gear. I recently sold some fishing tackle on craigslist - I was willing to part with it for $100 to anybody - or free to anyone under the age of 18. If you absolutely want the tax write-off, see if a local watershed group, your state waterfowl organization, or somebody else would take it as a donation. You're not ever going to hunt over those cheap mallard decoys. Give them away to somebody who needs "somewhere to start."

2. Taking people outdoors with me. There's no need for me to fish, hunt, surf, or kayak alone. In all cases, I have enough gear for at least one other person. Go to your "basic spot." Conditions or harvests that are boring to you may make a life's memory for your guest....that bluegill, that merganser, or that horrible looking 18" tall wave. You might make somebody's year. More importantly - you might make them think, the next time they go into the voting booth, or when their child's school, church, temple, etc are looking for volunteers for their "outdoor trip."

3. Join - and become active in - my local watershed group. I have been meaning to do this for 3 years, and instead, I've done what all of us do....make excuses. My excuses are that "I work every day to save wetlands" and "my employer gives money to my watershed group." I think you'll agree that this attitude is not going to carry conservation and the American outdoors ethic into the late 21st century and beyond. I promise to become more active in 2010.

4. Take somebody else's kids outdoors too. When my boy is old enough to boat, fish, surf, and hunt; obviously I'll commit to making sure he gets out there....a lot. I've seen some good examples in hunters and anglers who I know, who make a point to take out their own kids, and at least one of their kid's friends. Kids love to hang out together and they love new experiences (sometimes, ha ha), so I'm looking forward to learning how to do this correctly over the next 10 years....should be interesting.

These are all simple changes that don't cost much money. I think they'll work for me - and I hope you'll think of some similar efforts and changes that will help you help you leave a legacy to another generation that will love the outdoors as much as you have.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Out With a Whimper, and The Nerve of Some People

In 5 days, Tug left Maryland, had an "all time great" hunt in southern VA, got skunked on another hunt in southern VA, and sat out the final day of duck season..snowed in.
With 4 days left before the end of waterfowl season, I was hard at work at my office. I was pretty proud of myself for lining up not just one, but two, private property hunts for the last day of the season, which was a saturday. A small noreaster was on the way with the guarantee of "a dusting" of snow. It was gonna be great!
And then I suddenly found myself "uninvited" to one of the local hunts, which was a local one. As it turns out, one of the other hunting guests on the property had built a blind in the field (after telling us that the landowner said "no blinds, no pits"), and in the midst of not returning our phone calls throughout the entire season (he established himself as the sole contact with the landowner - I'll never let that happen again on a standing invite), we learned that he was hunting the property with his business clients, and "oh by the way" was using our decoys to do it. Same guy had the balls to call us and say, "you can't hunt there on the last day, we have too many guys already." Too many guys? From what I remember, there were only four people allowed to hunt that property, and I was one of them. Hmmmm. When asked by my buddy Rich (another one of the four) where (Rich's) decoys were, we learned that the "too many guys already" planned to use our decoys....on a hunt to which we were un-invited. Looks like Rich and I (and our 8 dozen decoys) are in the market for a local goose lease! See ya, loser!
That left one last option - driving 90 miles to the duck club on the eastern shore. Thank God for backup plans! And then, the night before, I took a closer look at the forecast. I thought, "that doesn't look like a dusting of snow....that looks like a pretty big storm," and I made the painful decision to sit it out, rather than get stuck on the river/island/boat ramp/highway coming back from a hunt. And 10" of snow later in white-out conditions, I was proven to have good judgment. And the folks who hunted, did pretty poorly in the heavy snow.
It was a complete disappointment for the end of the season, but as I indicated a few posts back, this was a season of lessons, and I feel like I was fortunate to have some good days afield and kill some geese along the way. As the 09-10 waterfowl season grows a little more distant, I'm sure I'll reflect on it in a little more depth, but for now, I'm partially satisfied. I got some hunts in, I learned a lot, and (other than the a-hole referenced above at our local goose field) I've done everything "right" to allow me to hunt in the same places next year.
Nothing wrong with that.

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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...