Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Headed Down South & Good Riddance to March


So, we'll be headed south pretty soon. After our winter of 80" of snow, we've "enjoyed" an early spring with about 20" of rain...and it's not even April yet. It's time to get out of town. I don't have any great outdoor activities planned, but I seriously need a change of venue (and don't have the money to do it properly). So we're just going to hit the road for a few days and depend on the grace of others. Although it's upsetting that I won't be staring at warm waves and palm trees, I'll take central NC's pines and red clay on sunny spring days as a small consolation. See y'all around soon!
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Enjoy some music by a few of NC's favorite sons and daughters while I'm gone:
Carolina Chocolate Drops - Hi Ho Fiddle I Day

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Have You Seen This Lure? (reward)

Show me where to buy this tiny mystery lure (that's about a size 10 hook), and I'll send you a $15 gift card to your favorite online gear retailer
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UPDATE....we have a "near" winner...as Tugboatdude correctly (apparently) remembered the manufacturer of the lure as Blue Fox. The lure is the Blue Fox Big Crappie Jig , and the reason that we "thought" we had found it before, and were wrong, is that it's sold in tiny sizes for a "big crappie" jig....1/64 (winner!), 1/32, and 1/16. So the lure is a 1/64oz Blue Fox Big Crappie Jig.
Lures come and lures go. Some are laughably bad, like the YUM Dancin' Eel, and others are just as bad, but we buy them anyway, and find out the hard way...the Berkley Blade Dancer immediately comes to mind.
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Then there are lures like the one above. About 5-6 years ago, a lot of my work involved urban streams and wetlands. Often, there would be an opportunity to target nice big pools of sunfish, bass, and crazy non-target fish, from goldfish to trophy-size (ha) suckers. I remember going to an urban Wal-Mart near Washington DC and they had the lure above, which was one of many tiny lures I bought for the task at hand. At barely over 1/4" long, it was a bear to tie it on with convential 6lb or even 4lb line. But man, did it ever catch fish. I bought the same lure again at other Wal-Marts - I bought pink, black, and white. Tug and I have been trying for 3 years to find these lures again, with no luck whatsoever.
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At the time, I recalled it being a Gitzit product. However, a visit to the Gitzit site, and every gear store on the eastern seaboard, has revealed that Gitzit does not make this product. And I'm not confident that they ever made this product. The closest thing they manufacture is the "Micro Little Tough Guy" which is also on a size 10 hook or so, but is about twice as long as this lure, and also features a rubber body instead of a tied rubber skirt. The jig head looks the same, so there's that, but the trail goes cold after that.
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Let me tell you about this lure. It's caught me some really fun fish. Like this one (scroll down), my first white catfish, at 13" or so. And this one, a near citation crappie on a day when nothing was biting. And a day when I caught about 40 panfish from 5? species in about 90 minutes...I think every single one of them, on this lure. No, it didn't catch any of these guys, which is why I haven't looked too hard for this lure......ultimately, it's a lure that produces a large number of sub-2lb fish in a very wide range of conditions, but ultimately, these are not trophy fish that would be more worthy of chasing a lure around like this. But since a lot of my fishing opportunities are based on "What county are we working in, today?" instead of, "What's the best day to go this week, based on the spawn and the barometer?", a lure like this is a very, very useful tool.
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The mystery lure is composed of this jighead, 1/16oz at most, with the giant eye. Behind the eye, a rubber skirt is tied on. Attached to the hook is a tiny rattle, which never seemed to make much difference.
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Let me know where I can get these, and when I place a successful order, I'll send you a small ($15) token of my appreciation. Please!

Friday, March 26, 2010

On 15 Years as Wetland Tech & Ecologist: Part III: Making an Impact


Equipment rests on a wetland restoration site after a day of pushing up small earthen berms
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So, after 12 years of doing everything that someone can do in a wetland, and making a few folks rich by doing it, I decided to jump to the non-profit sector. Biologists who get into non-profit work have a few things in common that are not necessarily shared by our brothers and sisters who work in the corporate world or for government agencies, and it was an interesting process for me to acknowledge that I fit the bill, too. Non-profit employees typically:
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*are driven by one main thing: to be able to see and feel the impact they have on the world.

*need to be "recharged" by working with other people who are driven & passionate about work.

*have no illusion that neither their job description or their job are stable (this is also true of many private sector folks).

*are happy to work overtime, nights, and weekends, for no pay whatsoever.

*can afford to live this lifestyle, and take these jobs with slightly lower pay
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When you add those things together, I can say from experience that you come up with some very, very interesting, motivated, and intelligent people. And, unfortunately, at least 10% mentally/emotionally unstable people whose entire lives are defined by their work.
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Working in the non-profit world, first as a field biologist and now as a program manager, has been an absolute blessing in my life. It's tested me, and challenged me in a lot of personal and professional ways. Instead of being in a horse race for money, the inter-employee competition surrounds dedication, "road hours," and "real things" accomplished. It's empowering, fun, and can absolutely obliterate everything else in your life, if you allow it to do so. Unlike government and private sector jobs, the nonprofit model really forces all employees into a certain level of "leadership" and "executive decision." I've never felt so alone professionally, as when I've been forced to say, "Yup. Let's do it. I am authorizing you to do it." Which is weekly, if not daily, in my work (and which I didn't see or experience as a consultant). The consequences of poor decisions at this level (where you are authorizing contractors and signing checks) usually involve a tarnished reputation.......and getting fired from your job.
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I want to do another post soon about "how conservation non-profits work," because I think y'all will enjoy it mightily. Here are a few snippits:
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*Non-profits walk a tight-rope between "achieving their vision" and acquiring the funding to do so. If someone overextends the organization's commitments to its mission, it means that people will lose their jobs. If they are underextended, then the group's mission is not getting accomplished effectively (and donors go elsewhere with their money). With money coming and going constantly, it's a very difficult balance.
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*Quid pro quo between non-profits (employees and board members) and their donors is highly illegal....and frighteningly common. The Nature Conservancy was the last major group to get popped, although similar allegations have popped up in the last 2 years concerning NWTF and QU (substantiated? You be the judge).
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*Less focus on efficiency like the private sector, or protocol and policy like the public sector; instead, a non-profit's overall focus is usually on constantly increasing the impact of the group's activities. This makes employee reviews pretty "interesting," let me tell you! Think about that for a minute - how differently an organization will work (on a daily basis) if the primary goal is "impact" instead of "efficiency" or "protocol/process/policy." Those are all very different things, and all could be used to drive a group focused on (for example): "advancing wetland conservation."
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For me, it's been great to be associated with other biologists, engineers, fundraising people, and even policy wonks who are highly dedicated to getting stuff done. Not for money - just to get it done. It's also produced a whole list of new "truths" that I haven't figured out well enough to actually call them lessons yet, because I don't know what I'm supposed to learn from them. Check back in another year or two - maybe I will have figured these out by then!
Some general truths from the non-profit world:
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*The Rules are not always "the rules." Something can often be "worked out" if you know who to ask, when to ask, and how to ask. If you don't ask, nothing will happen. That much I can promise.
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*Regular non-profit staff are not always given the "full story" about things that are going on politically or financially. Much of this information is highly guarded at the upper management level.
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*It seems that people in every level of a (medium to large) non-profit group have political talent. Many have political aspirations. All I know so far is that means that I have to keep my mouth shut, so my humorous anecdote doesn't get turned into someone's "give me a promotion, Swampy's an idiot" campaign.
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Thanks for tuning in for this drawn-out series! I hope somebody reads this and sees "what it's really like." It's been a blast - never a dull moment - and there's no sign of it slowing down.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Enter, Spring!

Crocus "Flower Record" showed up in a big way last week

Spring is fully in and we are working just like the bees and ants outside to make the most of these cool sunny days. Hardly anything's in bloom except crocus and a few early daffodils, but the buds on the redbud and spicebush are both in place. Won't be long, now!



These smaller rock walls are still "bombed out and depleted" from the snow storms, but I've already started rebuilding them since this picture was taken a week ago


Blue Crab claw in the marsh

And even though Spring is just starting to seep in, everyone's thoughts have turned to summer. In the Mid-Atlantic, summer historically meant a bounty of Atlantic Blue Crabs. The population bottomed out around 1980 (at 5% of 1950's population), and has not shown any signs of rebounding. Bushels of "#1 large" male crabs, $30 in 1985, now fetch about $280-320 at the peak of demand in July (about a month before the peak harvest). Last year, sweeping regulations were put in place, once again, to try to encourage a little higher survival by the tasty blue crabs. We'll see in 2010 and 2011 if it had any effect - last year we literally couldn't afford to buy crabs.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Exit, Winter

Canada Geese flying due north at sunset on March 18
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I have really enjoyed watching the clash of the seasons. For the moment, with 73 degree air temperatures and south winds, it appears that spring has won. But with a month left until growing season, anything can happen. Even if this is just a brief reprieve from snow, north winds, and icy roads, I'll take it.
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This year, we've been treated to a spectacular - and quite early - display of waterfowl staging and return migration. Early March showed us wave upon wave of northbound Canada Geese, Snow Geese, and even Tundra Swans. In the case of both species of geese, the return migration from Maryland's wintering grounds is often brief and urgent, typically after the first major storm in April. And suddenly, after a 6 month stay, they are gone. Instead, this year, the birds started staging - congregating in large numbers and feeding with a sense of urgency - as soon as our 48" snow pack began to receed from Maryland's wheat, barley, corn, and soybean fields, approximately February 20th or so. Around March 1st, hunting and birding bloggers began reporting "high flyers" in Maryland and Virginia. These reports grew in frequency and I believe we lost our last big flocks of geese last week. This is actually pretty important, because unlike the flight south, which can take weeks or months, the flight north lasts only a few weeks. A miscalculation on the part of the geese can result in their arriving at Canadian nesting grounds still covered with a foot or more of snow and ice. This was the case in 2009, which resulted in very poor reproduction for Atlantic Flyway Canada Geese. And I don't have to tell my hunting readers that fewer yearling geese means fewer geese harvested, if only because the geese who migrate south have already lived through one or more hunting seasons. If you review any of my goose hunting notes from last season, you'll note that I'm a believer of this theory.
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I've got some "swan notes" at the bottom of this note - the Tundra Swans' pattern this spring was highly unusual, and only received bottom billing because I could not get a good photograph.

Scaup feeding on the edge of a marsh in the Central Chesapeake Bay, early March
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We still appear to have our winter songbirds in the area - notably the northern chickadees and dark-eyed juncos - but the ducks appear to be headed out with the geese. My drive home from work is mainly up a peninsula that is south of the Patapsco River and north of the Patuxent River. My drive home, often at dusk or just afterward, has been peppered with flocks of wood ducks, mallards, and black ducks trying to build up their reserves before a fast push north. My only current construction management job is on the "open Bay," so I've been treated to some enormous rafts of Scaup who are also staging for their return trip to their nesting grounds in Alaska. You heard it right! These drakes (above) were feeding close to the marsh on what I hope was our last day of heavy north winds. They look pretty darn healthy, and are featuring their breeding plumage.



Nutrient-rich waters and a very high tide, pushed in by the season's first south wind,
March 18
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The spring rains have definitely begun in earnest, although it's been sunny for 5 days now. Rain is washing off a lot of raw soil, exposed by the freeze/thaw action of so much ice and snow. The tributaries look pretty disgusting, but to some extent (about 10% of the current nastiness), it's a natural process.
Flock of Tundra Swans headed north....over my neighbor's house. March 19.
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So now, the oddity of the Tundra Swan's migration this spring. Tundra Swans in the Atlantic Flyway generally winter from southeastern Virginia to northeastern South Carolina. A few flocks spend some time roosting and feeding on the eastern shore of Maryland and Delaware - that number has been increasing annually for at least 10 years. The dominant theory is that our current "warming climate pattern" is allowing them to stay farther north. This is consistent with a wider study of wintering birds conducted by Audubon which found that many bird species are wintering farther north every year. The link above points out the "outliers" or "we're trying to make a point here," showing an average of 300-400 miles of northward movement over the last 40 years.
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Maryland DNR biologists observed near-record numbers of Tundra Swans this past winter, and while the swans' return north is usually at night, over open water, I observed several flocks flying over the DC-Baltimore area earlier this month. Strange times are afoot!
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Whatever process is actually at work, I'm awful glad that it's masquerading as Springtime.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

They really do "Grow So Fast!"

I have completed my nap and would like to be removed from baby prison ASAP.
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In many ways, parenthood is just like I envisioned it. It's fun and it's a mess. It's all-consuming, although some days less than others. One thing that's been amazing is the speed at which it's all happening. The picture above is recent - Hank is about 5 and a half months old. Every day he's less of a "baby" and more of a "little dude." Two weeks ago, he learned to sit up, but only using his arms. Earlier this week, he was sitting with his hands propped up on his legs. Starting yesterday, he no longer needed his hands to sit up (freeing his hands up for all kinds of other fun tasks). His little brain actually works. If I say "milk," he opens his mouth like a baby bird. Granted, we will have to work on that one before he "goes public." But it's cool for now.
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On the other hand, I obviously had no idea what to expect from this experience. At the daily routine level, things are relatively predictable, i.e. his wake-up time, his bed time, and how often he eats and poops. Less predictable are the changes - the big ones - that happen when you are not looking. If you haven't experienced yourself, it will blow your mind. For instance, here he was, about 150 days ago.

Definitely not the same baby, right? But it is! And here's just another 100 or so days before that:


So as the Hankinator creeps up on his 6 month birthday, he is growing in fits and starts. One week, he could suddenly sit up, propping himself up on his hands. 10 days later - no hands at all. He's still not crawling, but I have a growing sense that the time between "starting to crawl" and "starting to walk" will be pretty short. It'll be an adventure, that's for sure.



Monday, March 8, 2010

Landforms of the Chesapeake - Freshwater Salt Marsh Ponds

Existing historic freshwater pond in the salt marsh near Ocean City, Maryland
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So I've been looking forward to writing about a very special natural resource on the coast that's suffered all types of indignities in the past, and is currently receiving some attention (and some band-aids) from those of us in the habitat business. Salt marshes exist where brackish estuaries, dry (eroding) land, and very salty water come together. Salt marshes can stretch for hundreds of miles, get flooded regularly, and are only inhabitated by the most salt-tolerant plants and animals on earth. In the salt marsh, salt is not only in the water, but in the soil, in the air, and covering everything above the ground, living or dead. Within the salt marsh, water is not a limiting resource, but fresh water certainly is.
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Scattered throughout salt marshes are features called "fresh ponds." These fresh ponds are "perched" wetlands, and unlike the rest of the marsh, whose hydrology is driven by the rising and falling tides (and salt water), these depressions (rarely more than 14" deep) are filled with water that is brackish to fresh - primarily rainwater. These shallow ponds are very important to wildlife, particularly insects, birds, and bats, as a source of fresh water in an otherwise extremely salty environment.
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You'll note that I mentioned "insects." Yet, 90% of the mosquito species that bite humans do not live anywhere in the salt marsh. In a healthy marsh, mosquitos are a favorite food item of birds and fish. A healthy salt marsh is not a great place to be a mosquito! However, starting in the early 1800s, a misconception grew among Americans that salt marshes - particularly "fresh ponds" in salt marshes, harbored disease and mosquitos (200 years later, we all know that the most dangerous place to encounter a mosquito is in a tire dump or your back yard....not a marsh).
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Efforts were undertaken at different scales to "drain" the marshes of the Northeastern United States, under the guise of public health. The most significant period of marsh draining (primarily through ditching) was under the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1933 to 1942.


CCC ditch digging crew, courtesy of the US Bureau of Land Management
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Arguably, ridding the Northeast of mosquitos, typhus, malaria, and the Plague was a great reason to put unemployed Americans back to work. Unfortunately, they were looking in the wrong place - the mosquitos happily continued to lay their eggs in the ditches, perhaps in even greater numbers than they had in the fresh ponds!
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And it's easy for us to judge - 60 years later. The CCC kept thousands of Americans employed during the Great Depression, and that's nothing to scoff at. And back to the story - ultimately, the CCC ditched hundreds of thousands of acres of marsh in the Northeastern United States. Here's what a salt marsh, fresh pond, and beach system in Delaware looks like 60 years after ditching:

Fresh ponds were ditched - allowing the fresh water to drain out, and the salt water to fill in during high tides
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As the decades have continued, biologists have started to understand the value of fresh ponds in the salt marsh, and the relative ease with which the fresh ponds can be restored. Engineers have been hesitant, since these ditched marshes (see below) show absolutely no sign of grade change - it's hard to understand what would be flooded or drained by taking these ditches "out of service."

Salt marsh ditch on Maryland's eastern shore - wide enough to run two boats through, side by side
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A debate has been underway for more than 30 years about how to remedy this damaged habitat. Regulatory agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers absolutely forbade, for many years, any type of "filling" in the salt marsh for any reason (fearing to set a precedent that could be used by developers elsewhere). Bringing in soil from somewhere else doesn't solve that problem, and would be expensive. Mosquito experts developed a system called "Open Marsh Water Management (OMWM)" that provides for mud to be moved around into a system of small ponds that hold fish that theoretically eat mosquito larvae. Experts agree that this very expensive habitat enhancement technique removes mosquitos (and provides some habitat value it provides for other wildlife, like waterfowl), OMWM's system of mimicking the historic fresh pond and tidal pond habitats has found favor in most states in the Northeast.
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But if we can all agree that it makes sense to create new tidal ponds and fresh ponds (where there were none before) to control mosquitos, wouldn't it make sense to also restore the fresh ponds that used to exist, but now have ditches running through them?
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That's what several agencies in Maryland are now pursuing in earnest.

Vinyl, timber, and mud "crib" installed to stop the ditch from draining freshwater, or bringing in saltwater. Eastern shore of Maryland - project by Maryland DNR and Ducks Unlimited.


Vinyl and mud "ditch plug" by Maryland DNR and Maryland State Highway Administration. Outside Ocean City, Maryland.

Several different approaches are being tried. The key goals are:
  1. allow freshwater to stay in the fresh pond so that plants and wildlife respond
  2. construction method should be a long-term fix
  3. construction method should be as cheap as possible, while achieving #2
  4. construction method should be as minimally invasive as possible, while achieving #2

    There are now a half-dozen or more agencies and non-profit organizations now involved in this work in Maryland, and each of them have additional goals that they'd "like" to see these restored fresh ponds achieve. Data has been collected for the last 2 years, and hopefully the results will show that we've found a few ways to restore this important part of the Chesapeake's natural heritage.
Restored fresh pond near Chincoteague, Virginia; project completed by Maryland DNR.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Landforms of the Chesapeake: 19th Century Corduroy Roads

We were doing some restoration work in an eroding marsh in southern Maryland...and looky looky! A 19th Century "Corduroy Road"
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Alright, so this isn't even a "landform," nor is it unique to the Chesapeake Bay, and I actually have "real landforms of the Chesapeake Bay" in the queue to tell you about, but this one is neat, and speaks to our history, so here we go (here's a link to the slowly growing list of "Landforms of the Chesapeake" I've started to describe). Since the peak of the last Ice Age around 18,000 years ago, the "climax vegetation" of the Mid-Atlantic (south of Pittsburgh or thereabouts) has been some variation of oak-chestnut, oak-pine, pine, or cedar/cypress forest. Native Americans utilized existing clearings (from fire, flood, ice, and wind damage), but also cleared some of their own. Since the last horse native to North America died some 15,000 years ago, the recent Native Americans (populating Maryland only in the last few thousand years) only moved on foot, and did not really need roads - prefering to use existing migratory and feeding routes of the bison and deer that lived in the area.
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When the English and Dutch came to trade in the 1600s, they immediately started clearing roads for horses and carriages. Since all trade came by ship, and most settlements were located far enough from water to avoid regular flooding, the soft muck and peat of coastal wetlands needed to be crossed in order to transport any significant amount of goods, or number of people. Since the forest surrounded them, they cut the timber and built what are known as corduroy roads-parallel logs laid down in the mud, to distribute pressure from horses, carts, and foot traffic.
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An interesting East Coast factoid is that these roads, often placed on Native American trading routes (which were based on large mammal travel routes), eventually became colonial roads, state roads, and in some cases, interstates. Yup. The wisdom of our interstates is derived from bison migration routes. Brilliant. But I digress.
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Occasionally, these roads are dug up by road crews who are wondering (let's be accurate - they probably know - it's their bosses who can't figure it out) why the 2-year old asphalt on top keeps sinking into the surrounding marsh. Of course, it's because no proper road base was ever poured - the heavy duty asphalt was poured on top of gravel, which had been placed on top of the old corduroy road. Case in point - this happened recently in Annapolis (Maryland's capital), which was a critical slave and tobacco trading port for the English. It's a great article.


These logs are probably from now-rare Atlantic White Cedar - historically common in Maryland's forested wetlands - and impossible to rot.

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So, yes, you'll be subjected to a future story about "AWC" swamps and their demise. But not just now. I guess you've noticed that the logs are now covered with 14 inches or so of material. This particular corduroy road was headed through the marsh, to the mouth of a small creek into the Chesapeake Bay proper. The road would have been used to haul out tobacco and furs to a ship's dingy, and haul in whatever supplies the colonists needed, in this area which is still fairly rural. What does that have to do with the dirt? As the forest upstream continued to be cleared for tobacco farming, 30,000 year old forest soils would have been exposed to rain and runoff for the first time. This mucky material is probably just topsoil that's washed from upstream since the road was abandoned (i.e. that small boat landing fell out of favor for some reason).
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And just in case you're thinking that this is an ancient technology that has no bearing on the 21st century, the US Army Field Manual would like you to see this:





In 2010, soldiers still need to know how to build corduroy roads for jungle and marsh transport situations.

But before you get an idea of how comfortable these roads were to travel on, here's a rare photo of a pre-automobile corduroy road in California, circa 1880. Think about this as your only access to the rest of the world. Living in a Conrad-like "Heart of Darkness" in 18th and 19th century Maryland. Hot, humid, disease-filled summers, and short but cold winters. That's it for the history lesson. Thanks for stopping by!

Courtesy of the California State Archives




Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Springtime that Never Came

Snowdrop....first flower of 2010, seen on March 1.
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It has been a challenging winter in the mid-Atlantic. Our 48" snow pack is slowly giving way
to the open ground, which looks like a war zone, frankly. Everything is soaked and rotten. The snow and ice have moved portions of rock walls around, depositing rocks randomly throughout our yard. The concrete pad that was our front porch was crushed under the weight of ice dams from our gutter. A few daffodils and crocus are coming up, but temperatures remain 10 degrees below normal, with new, small snow accumulations coming in about twice a week. Everybody's ready for spring, but spring appears to be in no big hurry to arrive. No robins, no meadowlarks, and very, very few spring flowers - wild or otherwise. On top of it, the Hankster gave me his cute little cold.
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It's also my 36th birthday today. I am thankful to God that I've had another year on this earth, to witness the birth of my son, by far the greatest joy in my life. I'm thankful to God and to my wife for the gift of Hank explicitly. I'm thankful that I'm one year wiser in most of my pursuits, and I'm thankful that unlike many Americans, I am making more money in 2010 than I did in 2009.
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I guess plenty of things are going wrong (as I take a hit from the Mucinex inhaler) but a lot of things are going right, too. Somehow, spring will be here soon. The huge planting effort I undertook last fall will soon show me some amazing (I hope) results, and ironically, their potential beauty was largely preserved by the snow, which prevented voles, mice, rabbits, and squirrels from digging up the bulbs and roots through most of the winter. The days are getting longer, and ever so slowly, the air and water are warming. It has been a very challenging winter, but in a few weeks we'll be able to say that we all survived, no worse for the wear.