Monday, February 27, 2012

Cloak and Dagger Trout on the Patuxent

The Patuxent in February

Sometimes, I imagine what my life would be like if I took my own advice with any regularity.  One pertinent example: the places where I catch fish consistently are not in any guide book or fishing map.  I advise folks of the same - after all, I share a 60-mile "easy to fish" radius with about 2.5 million people, of which about 250,000 have Maryland fishing licenses in any given year.  So there's a bit of fishing pressure.  But recently I picked up a copy of "Maryland Trout Fishing: The Catch and Release Waters," a well written book full of all kinds of useful information from typical flow levels to most effective lures (the book's focus is on fly fishing).

I read up on several areas, and took note of the Patuxent (I'll leave the branch ambiguous).  I have fished the sections of the Patuxent below the fall line for years, mainly for bass, perch, and shad, but I have never fished the river or its tributaries for trout (up into the piedmont).   I guess I thought it would be relatively untraveled and unfished (or hardly fished) in late February.  The area is also designated "delayed harvest" which normally keeps away both the catch and release crowd (too many stocked / too few wild fish) and the bait fishermen, at least until the harvest period opens in June.

Welcome to the path most traveled!
And so I went.  And as you can see, so did a bunch of other people.  I was flabbergasted at how worn the trail was in late February - more on that in a bit.  Still, it was amazing to be in such a remote spot, just 10 miles north of the DC Beltway and 10 miles south of the Baltimore Beltway.  One of the tributaries (the Little Patuxent) runs right through NSA headquarters at Fort yeah... everybody already knows this spot. Don't know why I'd assumed any different.

I made my way down to a washed out stone bridge and got to work.  With a mix of snow and rain in the air, conditions definitely weren't ideal.  I'd seen grubs, woolly worms, and bees moving earlier in the week, so I threw woolly bugger and bee patterns rigged up to inline spinners/spoons, and had several bites by suckers.  None swallowed the hook, which was fine by me.

The river is a lot different than the tributaries of the Gunpowder I started fishing last year for trout, and certainly different from the nearby Patapsco, where I caught my last February trout in 2005.  The Patuxent's banks are sandy and eroding, and the river is wide and surprisingly shallow, even in February.  There's a fair amount of woody debris, but less than I expected. The layout of pools, runs, and riffles is a bit unique too.  In the spring, I'd expect to see a good spread of trout across nice wide cobble beds about 3' deep.  The river's greatest problem is that local groundwaters recede in summer, guaranteeing that most trout will die from warm water and low oxygen levels.

Finally, I drifted a red and chartreuse hackle on a gold spoon (don't hate!) past a dark pool against a boulder.  Two brown trout around 10-12" long darted downstream after it, then reconsidered the merits of their competition, and then darted back into darkness.  4,752 subsequent casts above, through, across, and below the pool did not generate any fish movement.  Dammit. Around that time I ran into another angler, fishing a pink trout magnet worm (don't hate!).  He reported a catch of approximately 9,000 suckers and did not see a trout.  The best/worst news of the day immediately followed.

a little birdy told me...
"Ya know, they stocked 500 browns downstream the other day?"  Oh, lovely.  Suddenly, the two identical, eager fish, the worn-down trail, the bootprints all over the sandbars, and the reality of the site's geography all became clear.  I calmly answered, "there's two in this pool, but obviously most haven't moved up here yet - this water's almost empty of 'em."

I don't know if I was more upset that I got blanked on a stream that had just been stocked a mile or three below, or that I was wasting my time fishing a reach of stream that everybody knows about, everybody fishes, and where DNR dumps a thousand or more trout every year, who almost all die by July 4th.

There are probably some lessons here, but I don't really care.  I'm unhappy that I'm still fishless for 2012.  For today, I'm happy that I got to go out.  I tried a new river.   And while I'll probably never come back to this exact spot, I'll have an idea of what to expect when I sneak into an unpublished and unnoticed Patuxent tributary several weeks from now, looking for leftovers...

And for the World's Greatest and Most Pure Trout Fisherman who lamented my lure choice in the comments below, suggesting that, for use of this lure, I may as well seine net wild trout, here's the unsportsmanlike, end-of-the-trout-fishing-lure-as-we-know-it lure you were so concerned about:

.........."Huh?" is right.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Up In the Gym Just Workin' On My Fitness

Yeah, I don't know why you clicked the link, either.  But you're here.  I have all kinds of thoughts and stories about being overweight, but that's for another day.

I made the decision last week to forfeit what little free time I have over the next six months to spend hour after hour in a gym full of strangers.  I am sacrificing time with our son, currently two and a half years old, to go get this done.  On its surface, it certainly appears to be a selfish effort, and honestly on some levels, it feels that way (and not a good, self-indulgent type of "selfish").  But on so many levels, I'm afraid of dying, and continuing to eat the way I do, and not exercise will lead me there.  Talk about selfish.  Hank the Tank needs and deserves a daddy - and one who can keep up with his crazy self!

I have been going to gyms all of my life.  Except for the last three years, since my wife got pregnant. What a difference that lack of activity has made.  And in our case, it was necessary.  We don't have local family, so there's none of this "Hey we'll watch the kids, 10 miles from your house, for 3 days," or "Sure, we'll provide free day care until your kid's 4 years old!"  Nope.  No such luck.  But back to the story.

I walked into a gym for the first time in over three years yesterday.  I actually had a mini-anxiety attack during the walk from the parking lot! Me! Over going to the gym! What's next, being scared of beaches and swamps?  As I worked out - ever so steadily (ever so slowly) - it came into focus again.  I'm only 35-45lbs over my peak weight (age 24 beach bum), but I was one of the fattest people in the gym yesterday.

Yup.  I'm officially a fattie, by Annapolis standards at least (which are akin to Charleston SC or Nantucket standards).

And instead of being ashamed, or sad, or upset about it, I was motivated.  I saw older guys in better shape.  Moms working their tails off.  Super attractive young people (the young and the pretty) having to absolutely go militant on gym equipment to keep up their physique.  I don't want or expect what they have.  But I do respect it.

The workout was awesome.  Such an adrenaline rush.  My knees and my feet are a bit sore, but it'll fade.  It's exciting to be making this investment again.  I look forward to working outside without huffing and puffing up a steep hill. To not having to take a break while paddling against the wind.  To not be sore after simply an "average" fishing day or hike. To being able to *almost* catch up with Hank, as he streaks past.

He can kick the ball up and down a field now.  He's trying to teach himself to roller skate (hint: disaster).  He wants to see skateboarding and motocross.  He ain't gonna be going any slower over the next 15 years.  It's time to work up my game.  I hope that losing some time together now means that he and I can explore a whole lot more together in future years.  Stayed tuned this outdoors dad's fitness journey - we'll see where it leads!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ghosts of My Own Construction

There certainly is something special about going home.  Not something that is inherently "this" or "that."  But something significant.  Something that sticks - less like pine sap, and more like a mouthful of sweet, sweet honeycomb with a few bee stingers still left in it.  Depending on how and where you grew up, it may be more stingers than honey.  Not in my case, though.  And I feel comfortable with that metaphor because I'm confident that most people who read my ramblings have, in fact, eaten honeycomb. Right?
Sunrise highway drive through the gum and canebrake....flat, straight, and homeward bound

I'll spare you the emotive tales of a childhood at the beach, descriptions of how close I was with all my friends, and lamentations of how we're not all that close anymore.  We were a group of kids who experienced a lot together - an understatement capable of bearing some amazing, fun and very sad stories.  But that's not what this is about.  This is about what happened when I last moved away from the beach, intending to return (permanently) three months later.  It didn't happen. I never came back, except to visit.  I never really said goodbye, either, to anyone or anything there.

Queens Creek.  A special place.
I won't call it regret, but maybe that's because I didn't stick around to let some of these ethereal thoughts turn into solid regrets.  But ghosts they are.  250 miles from home and 15 years separated from many of these memories, I've found a new life, a full life, and there's plenty of external input to keep 20+ years of ghosts at bay - particularly those those of lost, special places and lost, special people. Even when I've come back home, it's almost always been with my wife and now my son - not enough time or energy to pay attention to what lurks in the shadows.  This trip, on my own, was different, though.

They set upon me as soon as I drove across the James River and south of Richmond, starting as cues of lost memories - her grandparents lived on a farm here - they had beef cattle.  We stopped at a bar one night there - that band was amazing.  He finally picked a fight he couldn't win HERE.  As I drew further and further south, the cues turned to thoughts, bred like infections.  Why didn't I ever tell him I found out about what he did?  How did I forget to apologize to her? Why haven't I been back there? Of course, at one in the morning, there are no good answers to these questions, and so I did what I always do.....I kept going.  But it's so much harder when you can see things stacking up in the rearview.

The third harbor crossing. I remember the first time
I drove it,  what I was driving, and who was with me in the car.
The car's been crushed and I haven't spoken to her in 17 years.
Don't hold your breath for some kind of zen storybook ending to this depressing tale, because it doesn't have one.  I don't know what the way forward is.  Sure enough, the "to do/to see/to say goodbye" list that I should have written for myself 15 years ago still remains unwritten, although many people and places on the list  hover just in the margins of the places I go in southern Virginia.

I saw them - I saw you - there.  There are so many people and places that I miss. I could list all of them - the people and places - but they'd look no different than your list, if you have one.  And if you ever left your home and didn't return, I bet you do. Even if you never wrote it down.

One day, I'll allow myself the mental clarity to write down what I need to say, do, hear, and see to close out these old chapters, which I already know includes some ghosts that must be left alone.  The other ghosts, be they places, events, or people (living or dead), can all be assessed on their merits.  That's how important I think they are.  So who can really tell what it all will look like, or sound like?

Until then, I can't say that I'll change.  It's kind of funny - I'm a person who thrives on accepting challenges and taking the difficult path.  I overcome challenges. It's what I do.  But I am not ready for this kind of introspection.  Un/fortunately, my most recent trip to southern Virginia resulted in a bombardment of imagery, personal history, and places that I once knew, and I'm now having trouble ignoring it all.  Perhaps it was just a wakeup call to let me know that part of my history still wants something from me.

These are the ghosts of my own construction, and I owe it to them to either set them free, or let them come home....back to me.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Horny Blacktips on the Rise - An Old Tall Tale

Blacktip Shark by Dr. James McVey, NOAA Sea Grant

I once said, in a drunken stupor, that I did not need anyone to build a monument to my stupidity, because I intended to build it myself. 

It's in that vein that I bring you "idiotic encounters with horny sharks."  Not from the internet.  Oh, no.  Mine.  My idiotic encounters (plural) with sharks.  With the haze of time, each case's example of my inability to assess the situation  each seems equally ignorant, so instead of bringing you the whole list (about 10), here's my favorite, and it's a great story.

Virginia Beach, 1998.  My buddy Dave and I were making arrangements for the next morning's typical weekday surf.  It was a great time in my life.  Dave mentioned that an old...err...friend... - Nicole - wanted to come with us so Dave could "teach her to surf" (groan).   Now, Nicole was a legitimate college athlete,  and she was an absolutely smokin' hot 23 years old, so I didn't actually see any downside to spending 6am-9am with her in the water on a warm summer morning.  I mean, there was actually a decent chance she might learn to surf.  And gas money don't care about gender. REAL TALK.

Dave and Nicole showed up at my little beach apartment around 5am - on time!!!  Go Nicole!  As Dave and I both predicted, the surf was up.  It was a great morning of fun, clean, punchy waves.  As we also predicted, Nicole picked up surfing immediately.  She was super stoked, and absolutely did not give up (unlike most guys I've ever tried to teach to surf).  And as I also predicted, Nicole's bikini was totally ridiculous. Yeah, it was pretty much the best Friday morning ever.

Who spoils the party?
This guy!
Suddenly, there were little black and white fins.  Lots of them. Slashing through the calm water. Splashing straight up out of the surf.  Why today, of all days? I mean, really.

Blacktip reef sharks had moved into the warm shallow water to mate.  It was for real.  Easily 40 or 50 sharks set up right where we were surfing.  Luckily, at that exact moment, Nicole had paddled in to the beach to grab a quick swig of gatorade.  Dave and I looked at each other and calmly paddled in, agreeing that it'd be a great time to nonchalantly move south to another submerged rock groin.

Nicole took a casual look out to the surf, as we gave her a nonsense reason for our sudden migration down the beach.  She said, "Hey, those aren't sharks, are they?" To which we replied, "OH No of course not, it's just stingrays in the surf.  They are harmless (how many lies can I pack into one sentence?)."  Honestly, it wasn't so much that we didn't want "bikini time" to be over, as we didn't want our possible new surf buddy (remember: gas money) to totally freak out and want to go home (a normal person's reaction after hearing they have been swimming with sharks all morning without knowing it). All three of us had another 90 minutes before we needed to be at work, and there was no way I was calling it quits on such a fun little surf session.

A pretty famous image of a Blacktip
jumping in Florida surf.
And so we paddled back out at the other sunken groin and had another 90 minutes of fun.  Did at least one blacktip shark try to make sweet love to my leg, as I straddled my surfboard? Yup.  That happened.  Dave got some shark lovin' too.  We finally called it a morning, with all three of us having to get to work.  Nicole never knew about the sharks, and that's okay.   I never surfed with her again, which is okay too.  Hopefully she had a great day and decided that it'd be a good sport for her, or now, given our age, maybe for her kids as well.

And thank God we didn't get bitten.
Photo: National Geographic

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Marmot PreCip - One Bombproof Rain Shell (Gear Review)

It was bound to happen.  On a ridiculously wet and warm day last October, I was out planting grasses in a newly restored wetland with a bunch of volunteers.  That rain would not quit.

It was also about 75 degrees outside, so despite the deluge, I had to keep unzipping my Patagonia shell to let some of the steam out.  Ahhhh.  That shell.  It traveled with me for 8 years across the Carribean and Central America.  To about two dozen states, up mountains, and through swamps.   It was solidly waterproof, totally packable, and had pit zips.  Winner!

But suddenly, the zipper disintegrated.  Totally fell apart.   Fabric, zipper line, and the zipper itself.  And I got wet.  Really wet.  Ultralight rainshells are one of the gear items that I demand the most out of, so I knew that a suitable replacement was going to cost me between $110 - $220 for sure.  And suddenly, it was time to act.  I looked at several choices for a replacement, and ultimately had to go to an expert, my former DU intern Nate.

Nate goes outdoors occasionally
Now, you need to understand a few things about Nate.  He loves the outdoors more than I do (a high bar to reach), is crazier than I am, and is just as dumb.  Yeah I think that sums it up. Oh yeah, he also has a keen understanding for what gear works and doesn't work in the outdoors, especially in poor field conditions.  He is also from Pennsylvania, so right off the bat you know there is something fundamentally wrong with him.

I gave him a list of rain shells I was considering, and he had a lot to say about all of them, but the overall ruling was "Bro, you got to get the PreCip." So, lacking a sponsorship from Marmot, I saved my duckets and some gift cards and was able to purchase a new Marmot PreCip for about $129, only two months or so after the failure of my Patagonia shell.  So how'd it do?

Ridiculously well.

I've hunted, fished, paddled, hiked, and worked in the PreCip - in some of the most intense rains you could put a coat through.  There are a few things I'd change about the jacket, but it's pretty much bombproof.

Solid construction 
In sleet and snow, the jacket holds up perfectly.  While it's uninsulated, you actually get a little bump of insulation from the heavy dousing of proprietary PreCip waterproofing that Marmot gives the jacket.  And the pit zips make it possible to actually keep moving in the snow, without baking in the jacket. With normal wicking clothing underneath, I'd say the PreCip is comfortable down to about 30 degrees for brief trips outside and down to about 42 degrees for a long walk, hike, or site visit.

Surprisingly, it's very breathable.  And before going any further, I have to say this: if you want a high quality rain jacket that you won't roast or freeze in, you are going to pay over $100 (MSRP on the PreCip is about $129). If you want it to last, and you plan to actually use it with regularity, it is going to cost money.  Sorry.

I am a moderately sweaty dude.  Not extremely, but moderately. That being the case, I require my warm weather gear to be well ventilated.  Again, you're probably not going to find a well-ventilated shell for under $100, and certainly not one with well-constructed pit zips.  In fact, it seems like many outdoor wear companies are moving away from pit zips because it's hard to design and stitch them well.  I was really impressed by the PreCipon this count - the pit zips are 15 inches long!  I leave those babies open when I'm paddling in the rain, working outside in the rain, or doing anything that would have been steaming in my own heat if I were wearing a cheaper jacket.    Unlike some competitors (Kelty for one), the pit zips are constructed really fabulously on the PreCip.  I have no doubt that they'll hang in there for many years of sweaty abuse.

One minor issue that I've found with the PreCip is that while it's amazingly lightweight, the waterproof construction lends it to being a tiny bit stiff (not much), which makes it a bit less "packable" than my old Patagonia.  Make no mistake, you can easily cram it into any crevice in your pack.  But it might not fit into one of those 3" x 8" tiny compression sacks for rain shells.

A big test for me was determining whether the PreCip would hold up in "real" outdoors conditions here in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States - I'm talking eight foot tall blackberry briars, ten foot tall reeds in the marsh, and 200 year old barbed wire fences that were seemingly strewn up by the gods through what is now mature, dark forest.  While the PreCip is not a briarproof coat, the material has done an amazing job of shedding potential tears.  I'm constantly amazed that it hasn't torn.  And that's my kind of coat.

With all of this great stuff, you'd think that the PreCip has no flaws.  Well, aside from the fact that it's just a rain shell and it simply can't handle 110 degree rainy temperatures or 30 degree blowing snow (a limitation of the gear type, not this specific make or model), I've found just one thing I don't like about it - the generous pockets.

Now, the pockets are well constructed.  Zippered and taped, they are going to keep your gear dry.  Or rather, they would, except that the pockets are so generously sized, that when loaded down with contents, the webbed pocket liner hangs down below the bottom of the PreCip, which is no bueno in a heavy rain.  Basically, the pocket liner is only attached to the PreCip at the zipper, and is otherwise just loose and dangling.  Of course, the adjustment is simple - I don't put anything heavy in the pocket.  Most annoyingly, though, that excludes knives and truck keys.  But honestly, in several months of hard wear, that's the only flaw I've found in the coat.

In preparing for this review, I've also talked to many other folks who have owned the PreCip.  Everyone loves it and wouldn't trade it.  Three different people asked to inspect my hood, because apparently the older models (pre-2011) would pool water up around the neck, where the ultra lightweight hood is stored. Then, apparently, when they went to put the hood on, they'd get 5 oz of cold rain water dumped down their back.  All three exclaimed, "Great, they fixed it!" Which of course, was a relief to me.

The bottom line is that if you have $300 to spend on a rain shell, you have lots of options, and almost all of them are outstanding.  But if you have $100 to spend on a rainshell, you have a lot of mediocre options available that might get you wet, cold, or steaming in your own sweat after just an hour outside in the rain.  The Marmot PreCip is definitely an exception to that rule - it's bombproof, and dollar per dollar, the nicest rainshell, windshell, or even parka I've ever owned.

Gear Grade:
Recommended: Yes, Highly
Price: $129, $89-109 on sale
Ideal Conditions: 55 degrees, heavy rain, highly active outdoors
Limitations: 75-80 degrees/rain/humidity; 30 degrees/light snow

Saturday, February 11, 2012

El Estero de la Noche - an OBN Writing Prompt on "Scary Outdoors"

Don't even bother with the "sunsets in my town are this awesome" comments

To partially describe the scene would be to say that it was a picture perfect evening in an endless history of such evenings in northwestern Costa Rica.   Hot air, cool water. That freaking orange sky. Perfect, wind-groomed 6 to 8 foot surf just a quarter mile offshore, and a friendly little beach town full of surfers, anglers and beach bums happy to split fresh shrimp and dollar beers with a total stranger. Paradise.  Seriously.

I had trained for this trip for four months.  Lost 25 pounds. Spent night after night in the gym. The pool.  Trying out my new big wave shortboards in the 33 degree North Atlantic in January.  So I knew something had gone wrong when my back tightened, only a few hours into the year's first surf session in tropical waters.  The critical point of the wave - the wave I was interested in, anyway - was right on the edge of a tough current.  I was in a wolfpack full of capable surfers from around the world.  I'd met none of them.  We paddled.  We surfed.  We hooted and hollered.  Brothers and sisters.  It was awesome.  Most got tired, had visions of cheap Imperial and rode a thumping wave into shore.  I stayed. Let 'em go in.  I came here to surf.  I paddled against the current, unaware that it was a riptide (from the huge rivermouth), and that it might get stronger and wider.  And boy, did it.

Does EPA Have a Beach Warning
Code for this?
My travel partners were splitting the two breaks to the south - one a mild but fun beachbreak, and the other a more critical lava reef.  I wanted el Estero.   The rivermouth bleeds out fast and wide into the ocean here, in 12 foot vertical breaths (tides).  A quick, steep takeoff but in deep, safe water, over sand, not reef.  Looooooooooong rides, even at low tide, which was approaching.  Only potential hazard: caimans (and rarely crocodiles) that accidentally washed out from the marsh, into the ocean, with the dropping tide.  I was so busy paddling against the current that while I noticed the lineup thinning, I didn't notice that my friends were already on the beach.  Concerned.  Minding the setting sun, the tide, and the growing size of the waves.

Not for the "I Can Swim Okay" Crowd

Finally, there were only two of us left in the ocean - myself and a local Costa Rican.  The dropping tide, the hideous current, and my fatigue made me ambivalent to the fact that I was now nearly a half mile out to sea, under a setting sun, in 8 foot crushing waves.  The rides were amazing - but shorter - requiring a surgical pull-out and a military-speed scurry back out to safe, deep water.   Oh -  I should mention that at that point, I was only about 6 hours off the plane to Liberia, Northern Costa Rica.  I was jetlagged and didn't know it.  

Click on the picture - you can see the half-mile long
riptide on a small (3-4') surf day
As that amazing orange creamsicle Pacific sunset started to melt into the sea, I had my first moment of clarity, and realized that I'd been surfing on the edge of a world class riptide for the previous three hours. I was totally dehydrated, exhausted, and jetlagged, and I was nearly a half mile out to sea with only one person, who I didn't know, and who I doubted spoke any English (and who, at that very moment, took his last wave into the foamy shorebreak maelstrom on the way to the beach).  Whoa. This just got serious.

Right then, it got dark.  On the Atlantic Ocean side of the Americas, you can surf after sunset, because the sun's escaping light stares you in the face, from the beach, for another 30-45 minutes. On the Pacific side, not so much.  At this point in our broadcast, I'll remind you that I was in Costa Rica, which, while being a very beautiful country, is still in Central America.  And a rolling blackout was in effect.  There were no lights on the beach. Or in town.   Meanwhile, the Costa Rican guy was still flailing around in the shorebreak, maybe 500' out to sea or so, getting ripped up and down the beach by the pounding 6-8 foot walls of surf - waves that had come about 10,000 miles from New Zealand, and were not interested in "letting up."  He looked like he was going to drown, but I was in no position to save him - hell, I could barely even see him. I then realized that I was in no position to save myself. 

Belly on up to this beach in the dark - I dare ya!
I finally panicked.   I knew that the current was pulling me north, away from generous sand beaches and toward a large area of rocky lava islands and very, very tough shorelines.  No sand.  Just black lava.  I'd never even set foot on them before.  Great places to drown or crack my skull, especially in the dark.  Worse yet, much of it was unpatrolled National Park and Marine Reserve.   I tried to calm myself down by admitting, out loud, "I just have to get onto shore.  I can sleep on the shore." Yeah, that didn't help. I kept paddling to stop moving away from the darkening shoreline.  Exhausted. Dehydrated. Confused.  Hungry. Scared. Despondent over how my friends could have "left me."

A strong but small seaward rip.  Photo: NOAA
Finally, another brief moment of clarity.  A lifetime of boating, surfing and swimming reminded me (a little late - blame the jet lag) that the rip current must have a seaward limit, even if I didn't like or understand where it might spit me out.  With just a few minutes of passable gray-orange light left in the sky, I let go.  The riptide pulled me - fast - another several hundred feet.  I don't really know how far.  And suddenly my only landmark - one set of truck headlights and lamps on the beach - stopped getting farther away.  That same moment, I saw the outline of the Costa Rican surfer....still in the water.  He'd arrived at the same spot - poor bastard.

I yelled, "Amigo! No Vayas!!!"  Who knows, I might have said, "No Vatos," or "No Vatas" in my excitement.  He waved me toward him and seemed annoyed as he yelled "Aqui, aqui."  Thank you, 6 months of studying "Handbook of Costa Rican Spanish."  And Gracias, Amigo.

It was dark now.  I could see the white foam from his hands striking the surface of the water, and the white tail of his board, between his knees as he paddled (invisible).  I paddled just 10 feet behind and 10 feet to the left.  We soon entered the shorebreak from the trench.  I knew it was about to happen because suddenly, his board accelerated and disappeared into the dark.  My turn was next. Vertical drops of 5, 6, 8 feet while laying on my board.  Praying the board wouldn't break, because I would drown.   All I could see was dark and foam, and that was somehow OK because it meant that we were headed  toward the beach or the rivermouth, and not out to sea.

After a brutal set of 6 big waves in a row, the Costa Rican was gone, and I didn't even have a moment to consider what that meant, except of course, the worst - shark attack.   My mind was slipping yet again.  I came up for breath, spit out a mouthful and noseful of sand,  and I saw the headlights and lamps of our rental truck pointed at the surf about 200 feet in front of me, and 500 feet to my right.

My friends, of course, had not forgotten about me, and when they saw the Costa Rican wash up (healthy, alive, and disoriented) a few hundred feet south and two minutes ahead of me, they hoped that I'd be nearby.  Yes, of course, they were drinking beer.  A final crunching wave spat my board and I up on the beach.  I sat there, exhausted. I'd been surfing for almost six hours in pretty serious conditions.  The sun had been down for 90 minutes. 

The rest of the trip was a dream come true.  I surfed. I fished.  I drank. We met Costa Ricans, Americans, Canadians, and Italians. I saw my first wild macaws, a Costa Rican rodeo, and Costa Rican girls with tan skin and bright green eyes.  During a big surf session offshore, I even "grabbed the reef when all duck diving fails," as the Sublime song goes.  But it was also the first time in my life that my failure to take my time (or basic safety precautions) almost cost me a whole lot.  I don't know what would have happened if another half hour had slipped away with me, sitting on that board, confused in the dark.  I don't spend much time at all thinking about it, and this is the first time I've ever written about it, though it happened a decade ago.  I guess I've tried to absorb the life lesson and leave the memory behind.

For this particular writing prompt ("My Outdoor Scary") from the Outdoor Blogger Network, I'm sure some fascinating stories will come in about run-ins with lions, tigers, bears, and  poisonous snakes.  And it's easy - not to mention smart -  to be scared of those things.  But I'm living proof - or at least this story is living proof - that the most dangerous and scary thing out there in the wild is the kind of situation you put yourself in, and the lack of preparation and planning you afford yourself.  Be careful out there! 

What the rest of the trip was like...

Me (50 pounds ago) with two of the boys....those are 10' waves about 1/3 mile offshore.
That was another long swim - strict buddy system! 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Chugging Along

It's February - my perennial complaining season!  And I've actually been a little too busy to complain, which is a great thing.  I could complain about my sinus infection - my third one in four months - but I believe that's par for the course for daddydom.

At my day job, though, I learned how to install parabolic boulder and cobble weirs for wetland restoration.  All the single ladies love grade control structures!

And due to the ridiculously mild weather, I got to see some plants that are normally covered up by snow and ice this time of year.   You probably love club mosses as much as I do.  Right?

Hank is coming up on two and a half years old, and while he is a happy little dude, two years old is still pretty intense.  He has a lot to say, he has a lot of questions, and he generally just needs a big ol' support team everywhere he goes.  He is kind of a disaster.

I have also started up teaching again, and I have a nice small class for a change.  It's a little tough teaching college-level Environmental Science to kids who maybe haven't had a biology class since 9th grade, but we try to have a good time with it.

I also just got offered a neat trial membership at a local gym, so I'm kind of inclined to see how that goes.  For the first time, I'd be tying my gym time to where work is, instead of where home is.  Hey, it's worth a shot.

And somehow in the middle of all of that, I actually found myself a new fishing spot.   Not sure how productive it'll be, but I hope that once I get 1/4 mile or so into the woods, the fishing pressure will mostly disappear (that's how it usually works around here).   Hope you all are getting outside.  It's February.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Winner of the Petzl Headlamp! And a Mantis

Thanks for the feedback, both on this site and the RM facebook page, on this little quiz, we ended up with five potential contestants for this neat, new headlamp.  Using the random number generator on, I caught a 4.....translating to the fourth entry in the contest, Georgia's New Hand Wingshooter Files.  I'll be in touch to get your shipping information!

This quail hunter and daddy of two's answer was:

Man, tidious work requiring us to name the species. I was watching a less than interesting sporting show about hunting

stag in England. I stopped for a

momant to follow your blog when my wife asked me who NC State plays next.

tis carolina I exclaimed. Anyway, back to the hunting show.

The answer? Stagmomantis carolina, the Carolina Mantis.  Unlike the (Chinese) Praying Mantis, who lays a teardrop shaped egg case, the Carolina Mantis lays a long, cylindrical egg case.  I found it swaying on top of a broadleaf cattail in a beaver wetland along the North Carolina - Virginia border.  

I've mentioned the Carolina Mantis on this blog a few times before, once in a detailed article on the critter about four years ago (after finding it on the eastern shore of Virginia), and once in a quick photo update from West Virginia about 15 months ago.  I still haven't found one in Maryland (not counting the egg cases I brought north and put out in my yard). 

Thanks for playing along, everybody! 

Monday, February 6, 2012

The New Adventures of Old Garden Plot

The garden's not a sexy place in February.
You can see the few oats that the rats and rabbits didn't eat.
The rest is smothered in an emergency soil cover (hay).
And so it begins.  The first batch of seeds have been ordered from Seed Savers Exchange. The early season "to do" list for the garden has been written.  I'm looking forward to a good, but perhaps very different year of gardening.

2011 was a crap year for gardening.  There, I said it.  And yes, I know I won another "most beautiful garden" award in spite of it all, but it was an unsatisfying season in many ways.  Which leads me to the big question, "What do we do differently this year?"  I guess I'll start with the problems.

1. Rabbits and Rats - the garden plot next to mine was abandoned, but not before the gardener planted a full crop of tomatoes, bell peppers, and squash - all perfect rat food.  The rats got a bit of my crop, but more frustrating was the fact that they and the rabbits ruined two attempts at planting winter cover (oats and field peas).  Just literally ate them all up.   Due to a lack of available time, I didn't trap them or poison them like I should have.  If they mess with my plot this year, I will have bloody vengeance.  This from the guy who allowed a nest of bunnies to live, unharassed, in my lettuce bed last spring.

2. Harvest failure.  Yeah, I know this is about the same as "poor crop," but it bears a further look.  Some species we planted resulted in no crop whatsoever.  Okra. Bergamot. Carrots, Spinach. This was certainly a symptom of the strange summer weather, but more so a symptom of the fact that I spent much less time in the garden in 2011 than I did in 2010.  I wasn't there every other day to tweak and adjust this or that.  More like once a week.  And so there were failures.

So, looking forward into 2012, I'm going to do things a little bit differently.   I spent too little time in the garden in 2011, partially because Hank (at age 1.5) wasn't ready to "hang out" there while I worked.  That changed for the better around his second birthday, and might get even better this year - but I can't count on it.  Also because of Hank and his "typical two year old diet" (pizza, cookies, crackers, milk, lemonade), we aren't cooking or even barbequing much these days.  Home Skillet doesn't even like hamburgers (although choking hazard hot dogs are a big hit).   But forget vegetables or potato products.  As a result, we're holding a lot of produce from 2011 still in the freezer and down in the basement (sweet potatoes).   I don't want to waste food, and I don't want to garden for "no good reason."  So....what to do?  I think here's how I'll lay it out, by season:

Seed tape is a legit product!

Lettuce Cover Crops - 2 beds
Carrots (sequenced), Onions, Garlic - 1 bed
Various Lettuce/Spinach - 1 bed (under hoops if needed)
Nothing (hay cover) - 2 beds

Going to try a Millet cover crop!

Tomatoes + Borage - 1 bed
Experimental Cover Crops - 1 bed
Peppers/Wildflowers / Sunflowers - 2 beds
Sweet Potatoes / Wildflowers / Sunflowers - 1 bed
Cover Crop / Herbs - 1 bed

My awesome cover crop, May 2011!

Oat and Pea Cover Crop - 3 beds
Other winter cover - 1 bed
Lettuce - 1 bed
Sweet Potatoes - 1 bed

Also new for 2012, I'll be trying some garden plants that Hank can enjoy a little bit.   Most of them are standard plants, but Hank-sized.   He enjoyed messing around with the purple millet last year, and we'll add in several other toddler-sized grasses this year, including pearl or white millet and "bunny tail" grass.   Also picked up 100 seeds of "Teddy Bear" sunflower, which only grows to 24" tall.  Hank should get a kick out of that.   I already have a dozen species of mints and wildflowers, so he'll get into those too.

All said, it should be an interesting year.  I'm going into it with different, if not lower expectations and I hope that I can get back into the mindset that gardening is something fun that Hank and I can go do, not something I have to go do, and then run home to watch Hank.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why Local Outdoor Gear Shops Fail. Now with Retailer Tips!

I left the office tonight and drove uphill, away from the River.  At the top of the hill is a locally-owned surf/wakeboard shop that has been there for awhile, and that I've tried to patronize for several years.  Tried? I'll get to that!  But tonight, it's gone.  No sign. No storefront decorations. No lights on at 6:00pm.  It's gone.  It was definitely surprising and I felt the pangs that most of us outdoorsfolk get when a local gear shop closes.  I felt horrible, just bad.   I started thinking about all of the times I'd been there, all the little conversations I'd had with the retail clerks and "pro staff," and's all gone.  I thought about all the great blog posts I've read over the last few years about why it's noble, and I believe patriotic, to support these independent merchants.  Here's a good one from Southern Culture on the Fly to get you started, if the "buy local" thing is new to you.

But then I started thinking about the fact that I almost never bought anything there.  Despite the fact that it's miles closer than the nearest Dick's, Bass Pro, Orvis, or even West Marine (also recently out of business locally).   Despite the fact that I have less free time on my hands than those murderers who were "accidentally" released from Mississippi prisons the other day.   (Oops!).

I also thought about how I hated their t-shirts with their awful logo, how they never had a good selection of boards in stock, how, over the course of 3+ years, I had never received any actual technical advice on any products from a shop employee, and how and their wakeboard instructors' boat was consistently "in the shop for repairs." Since 2/3 of their floor space was dedicated to "active lifestyle clothing," and not real gear, I stopped by the store just a month ago to see if I could get something for the wife or Hank.  You know - to support my local gear shop. But......nothing.  No help from staff, who just hung out in the back of the store or listened to their iPods the whole time I was there.  Nothing.  Nada.  And now it's gone.

So what would I change about this shop, and other failing local outdoor gear shops that are locally owned and nobly run?

Undependable hours =
why bother?
1.  Crappy Hours!  If your shop opens at 11, and closes at 5, and you routinely close on the weekends to guide fishing/hunting/paddling trips, most people with the means to support your shop cannot do so, and won't.  On the other hand, the local gear shop near the farm where I hunt opens at 4:00am during goose season.   4am!  Do you think they sell a few $300 Columbia parkas to hunters who left theirs at home? I know they do.  $20 boxes of ammo priced at $35? Yup, those too.
My business tip: Find a way to be open when your demographic tends to be shopping.

Not too interested in
assisting customers
2. Crappy Service!   While the "buy local" crowd continue to push the meme of "local businesses provide better service," that statement just isn't true enough of the time.  Look,  just "being local" doesn't automatically mean you are providing good service, folks. Frankly, the 20 year old kid in the fishing reel booth at the Bass Pro Shop may know every bit as much about a $150 reel as your (you: the owner of a small shop) 17-year old kid, who is most likely to be staffing the shop when I show up and I want to learn more about an expensive product. The difference is that if the kid at BPS takes a nap on the clock, he'll get fired.  Your kid won't - as long as he's working for Dad and Mom.

My business tip: Only staff your store with people (whether they be 15, 35, or 75 years old) who care about customer service (read: their job) and are willing to say, "I can't answer that, but if you give me 30 seconds I'll call the shop owner/guide/gear tester and I bet s/he knows."  If you have retail-side employees who won't do that, and you want to stay in business, you need to fire them. Sorry.

Every online and big box retailer sells this fly reel,
probably for cheaper than you can.
So how many do you really need to stock at one time?
3. Offering only the same gear as big-box and online stores.  This one is specific to outdoor gear (I think).  If I know I want a Shimano Stradic 1000, and I know it's more expensive at your store, and your store is not open late/early to fit my schedule, why would I buy it at your store? On the other hand, if I don't know which $200 fishing reel I want, and your shop is open at reasonable hours, and your staff are helpful, and your store actually has some combination of gear that's sold at big-box stores (you can claim "these work the best on our waters" - what a sales pitch!), well then, you're probably gonna sell some gear.  Too many local shops seem to be selling a portion of what the big box stores do - nothing different, but now with less selection and worse hours!  Doesn't sound like a good plan to me.

My business tip: Choose carefully when ordering gear for your shop.   Use your expertise in the woods or water to tell you "here's a good range of cheap to expensive (insert type of gear) that will work out here.  This is a good choice for customers."  Maybe don't focus totally on which products are moving the most units in the entire market - your customers can buy those items anywhere.

I want to punch this logo in the mouth!
It's horrible!
4. Your Branding.  If you think your logo is good, it probably sucks.  If you think it's amazing, it's probably passable.  Local shops don't have a huge marketing budget (or any marketing budget), and sometimes it shows.  The store I described early in this article (a surf/wake shop) always had huge piles of stickers with their dumb logo on them, and I'm sure the owner wondered "why don't I see these stickers on anybody's car, truck, or boat? Your shirts and hats are not going to move any faster if your key demographic doesn't think they are awesome.  Unlike the big retailers, you can't call it "signature gear" and sell it for less than it costs (part of the advertising budget). But ask yourself, which of these logos are more effective, more recognizable, and likely to be sold on more revenue-generating shirts, hats, stickers, etc?

If your business name includes the word "creative,"
the logo should probably not look like a librarian designed it.

I bet a lot of graphics folks would say this logo sucks, but it screams "outdoors!"
And that might be enough for the logo - and shop - to catch on. 

Love this logo, but then again, I'm 38.  Maybe or maybe not the target demographic.

My business tip:  I'm not a graphic designer.  And neither are you.  And neither is your kid's friend, despite all assurances that s/he is a prodigy in her/his freshman art class at your nearby state college.  Tens of thousands of talented, experienced graphic artists are out of work.  They can be found on facebook, google+ or anywhere else.  Hold a design contest.  Plan to pay them a few hundred dollars.  Get a great logo.  Please!

Overall, keep doing what you're doing.  Just do it better.  Smarter. You may not have to do it cheaper.  Take advantage of small business resources within your county to help educate yourself on actually running your business.  Check out websites like Advice for Small Business Owners, which contain tons of articles about individual issues you face on a weekly basis, like "When to turn down a sale," and "motivating employees." Good luck out there........and help your customers help you!!!

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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...