Wednesday, May 13, 2015

My Baltimore

A lot of unfortunate news about Baltimore lately, huh?  As I've written before, the City is held together by a veritable fountain of state and federal matching funds, as well as by tens (or hundreds) of thousands of citizens who really, really care about the fate of the City.

There has always been a poor Baltimore.  The Port of Baltimore was actually established before the City, meaning that very few people with means ever inhabited the waterfront (until the 1990s, that is).  Maryland was a confederate state, which made that whole "DC to our south" thing pretty complicated.   Through the 1950s, significant amounts of reasonable skilled labor existed in and around Baltimore.  Bethlehem Steel had an enormous facility less than a dozen miles from downtown.  Numerous mills cranked out everything that mills can produce.  Ship sails were a highly prized Baltimore commodity.  So was Domino Sugar.  Working at creating either was back-breaking work that paid fairly enough and delivered a pension.  Chevy maintained an assembly plant in the city, near the port, for quite a while.  But then it all went away.  Most whites who could leave, left.  Then most blacks who could leave, left.  And Baltimore has really never been the same, despite the significant promise of de-segregation and a well-funded government (for a time).

I moved to Maryland from North Carolina in the final days of 1998, and I lived 17 miles outside of downtown (7 miles outside the City line) for less than a year before deciding to move into Baltimore City in 1999.   Rent was cheap in our beautiful rehabilitated stone and hardwood rowhouse, located in a poor (but gentrifying) mostly-white community near several of the defunct mills.  Our neighbor to the west was a fiery Catholic Irish grandmother, age 34, who lived in a rowhouse with her 4 children and 2 grandchildren.  Her name, predictably, was Mary.  No one had finished high school.  One grandchild went by the nickname, "Nugget," because he was fat.  Occasionally the children (age 14-18) would accidentally set my garden on fire by throwing lit cigarettes out of their upstairs bathroom window, as they heard Mary come up the steps.   Our other neighbor was George, another Irish Catholic who had retired from the steel mill, and lived in the house he'd bought with his wife in the 1960s.   George's son Wayne, a single dad, was around a bit.  Wayne was constantly shuttling his kid to activities outside of the neighborhood, trying to avoid having the child associate with Nugget And Friends.

It was a mostly peaceful existence.  Occasionally, an alcoholic lesbian couple would physically assault each other in the street.   Once, there was a drug bust across the street, as I studied for a graduate class at nearby Towson University.   Physically capable, working age white men would sit on their front porch and complain about "freeloading blacks," as they (the white guys) collected long-term disability payments for injuries that had healed years or decades ago.   If black kids co-mingled with the red-haired, pale-skinned Irish kids, the black kids would be arrested and wouldn't re-appear for 4-5 days.  Where they went, and what they were submitted to, I have no idea, but I'm sure it wasn't a good time.  It sounds like 1955, and on some days, it felt that way.

Things would get squirrely when suddenly a large heroin delivery was made to Baltimore.  Tiny ziplock bags and broken syringes would line the curbs and stormwater drains for a few days afterwards, with a real uptick in the number of people sleeping in alleyways and on park benches.  After four or five days, the heroin mania would subside, which I suppose means the addicts dispersed to other parts of the city.  The saddest thing that happened while we lived there was that a 14-year old had a heroin party at his mother's house.   He overdosed on the first night, and no one checked on him until the next afternoon, continuing to party instead.  But it was a fun place to live and be young.  We would see John Waters in a nearby deli.  We'd attend punk rock karaoke at a bar two blocks from home.  It was a lot of fun, with a few scary moments.

The neighborhood teens thought I was a cop, because I had a shaved head, owned camo, and walked around with a big black labrador retriever.  They didn't know anyone who hunted, or anyone who owned a labrador retriever.  They thought my wife was a doctor, because she had a state issued ID, and (as they told me) the only time they encounter a state employee is in the public hospital.

In 2004, we decided that maybe we'd have a kid, and if so, maybe we needed a more stable living environment.  We moved into a tree-lined outer-city neighborhood, less than 200 yards from the County line (where real estate costs 300% more).   The neighborhood is about 50% black, of which most seem to be college-educated, professional single men in their 30s, and married 50-year olds who normally have at least one full time job and fourteen side hustles, which I appreciate (and live that way myself).  Major complaints in this neighborhood are things like, "I wish Robby would't park so far from the curb," and "When is Lisa going to trim that azalea.  It looks horrible!", and "James, you need to get that crabgrass under control, STAT."  I know this isn't the narrative about Baltimore citizens, especially African-Americans, you've heard on the national news.  But it's just as real.

It's a neighborhood where kids have advocates, even if it's their grandmother instead of their mother.  Our son plays with children who are excelling at the wealthiest private schools (some of them on academic scholarships), and children who can't pass the second grade in Baltimore's atrocious public school system.  The average kid is in a community Catholic school (there are many here), and gets sent to summer camp at the YMCA.  Adults are around, and the only tales of "Hood Baltimore" are about cousins, "no good son in law" types, and the like.   I had my truck broken into recently - I accidentally left it unlocked, with a few dollars on the passenger seat (yes, I'm an idiot).  The thief found and left my $300 camera and took the $8 of cash instead.  Note to thieves: I no longer leave the camera in the truck.

This is Baltimore, a city of nearly 700,000 people.  What I've described above is no more or less real than the nation's poorest citizens, 7 miles to our south, looting toilet paper (toilet paper!) from a CVS.  I don't know all the rich white and black people, though I know that some of them are nice.  I don't know all the poor black, white, hispanic, and asian people, though I know that some of them are nice.  But after a week of absolutely pathetic national media coverage, and absolutely sloppy articles damning both Baltimore's rich and poor, I wanted to present some more angles for your consideration.

There's a lot to Baltimore.  It is a tough town with complicated problems.  But it's not all burning.  It's not all filled with violent cops or racist black and white elites or uneducated looting criminals. It's a big place full of lots of pretty regular people.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Boy and the Beach

I've been a dad for almost six years.  All kids are different, but mine is a pretty adventurous guy.  One of his favorite things to do is swim in open water, which is nerve wracking, but great to see.   It's also great to see that he's now at the age where I don't have to worry about him running (or drifting) miles and miles down the beach, so I can take my eyes off of him for 30 seconds at a time.  We recently spent a few days trying to burn the winter off in Charleston, specifically Isle of Palms, SC.  The boy was at his usual antics.

Not sure whether this will lead to bigger waves, but I think it's setting the stage for some big adventures - the boy is drawn to big water.  Sure will be interesting to see!

Friday, May 8, 2015

8 Years, 800 Posts, 800,000 Visitors

Well, let's speak accurately.  It's really 7 years and 9 months, 801 posts, and 792,000 readers. But you know, horseshoes and hand grenades....

I started this blog almost 8 years ago because I was starting to forget all the blessed days afield - they were all starting to run together.  I can't imagine what I'd think of the last several years of fishing and hunting (and my evolving thoughts on conservation policy and science) if I hadn't started writing it down.

This blog enjoyed great success between roughly 2009 and 2012, which was great.  I was being paid to write, being provided great outdoor gear to review at little or no cost, it was just great.   But it really didn't pay ENOUGH, and gear reviews can be brutal to write.  "Underwear....yaaaaaaay."

In 2012-2013, a few things happened.  One, the market was flooded with outdoor bloggers, which was cool, then annoying, then cool, then annoying.  I found out that a lot of people take better pictures than me, write better than I do, and get to have funner adventures because they are rich, or they are driving themselves into massive debt (Easter Island fly fishing for sharks, bro!).

Second, Google adjusted its search algorithm to de-prioritize free URLs like blogspot, the platform on which runs.  The "blogging for money" thing, which was always a losing proposition, became nearly impossible, as my monthly readership went from roughly 17,000 to 2,500.   Sporting goods manufacturers also moved away from the "gear review" model because many writers would accept items and never write about them, and also because they noted the lower traffic on blogs.  

Now, I occasionally write on this domain, but generally write for (very small) fee, which I find to be fun and full of challenges.   What would I do differently with this blog, if I could start over?

  • Would have started this site sooner (2004 instead of 2007)
  • I would seriously consider some other platforms
  • I would remind myself to de-emphasize quantity for quality

Very few outdoor bloggers from 2007 are still active, which is a shame.  Some were only looking for easy income, which is a shame, but a lot of others moved on, either to more serious writing jobs, or to more rewarding and challenging things in life.

But I'll stay here.  Thanks for your 792,000 visits.  Let's get a few more miles out of this old jalopy.

-Kirk @ River Mud

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Why Stream Protection Laws Don't Save Stream Ecosystems

Streams have been in the news quite a bit over the last several months.  Just today, I saw an article about additional trout stream designations in Pennsylvania - a legal change for many small waters that would "protect" them from "impacts."   In the details of the article is the reality though - the designation provides for greater mitigation - not prevention - of impacts to these streams.  The US EPA's much-embattled "Clean Water Rule," currently under attack by at least four Congressional bills, opines that by designating more ephemeral/dry streams as "Protected Federal Waters," that clean water will be protected.  It's impossible to ignore that without protecting the footprint of streams, that eventually those streams might be obliterated with changing land use.  That much is true. The footprint of streams should be Federally Protected.  It makes common sense, until one realizes that the US EPA approves between 96-99% of all landowner requests to destroy Protected Federal Waters.   And that EPA has never, once, achieved a "no net loss" of American streams, if they are even calculating the rate of loss.  No one would argue with the fact that we have fewer miles of Federally Protected Streams every year.  But most of this loss occurs under the EPA's guidance.

So what does stream "protection" mean?  Generally, it means that government permits are required to alter the flow of the stream, place it in a pipe, conduct construction over top of it, or simply pave over it.  In some cases, a "mitigation" project is required to offset the damage to that particular stream.  In other cases, "exemptions" and "waivers" are provided, because in the United States, landowner rights must be balanced with public interest (protection of interstate waters).  These stream laws, though, only protect what is below the bank of the stream - the footprint of the stream.  Upland areas nearby the stream generally do not enjoy serious protection that can't be undone by waivers and exemptions.
What does that mean?  Below is a satellite image from Google Maps, showing a stream that is protected by federal, state, and county laws from being impacted.

Yes, other than two sets of pipes, this stream was protected from adjacent land uses.  Developers stopped their projects outside of the stream.  And BRAVO for that -honestly.  Since there are trees, and since the federal, state, and county government agencies have deemed it "protected," you're probably imagining that it looks like this:

But here's what that stream actually looks like:

The reason for this is that the stream protection laws (remember, this is a Federally Protected Stream) do not impact, and in most cases cannot legally impact private land development (or highway construction) that occurs uphill.  The commercial land uses uphill have used this kind of material to fill in the stream's valley over the last 100 years:

Piles like that contain garbage, metal pollution, plastics, and concrete, which of course can change the chemistry of nearby streams by itself.  And on farms, well, here's a Federally Protected Stream running through a farm (Photo Credit: :

Guess what's in that corn?  Pesticides that can travel a half mile to water and kill stream insects.  Sediment that chokes out valuable water plants that waterfowl depend upon. Roundup.  Literally tons of Roundup.  But hey, we have Federally Protected the stream - so all is well, right? How many high quality fish do you think live in that stream?

America's environmental protection mindset has a dirty secret that, like most dirty secrets, seemed like a good idea at the time.  Federally Protected Streams are tracked in linear feet, not quality, and not in sustainability.  Federally Protected Wetlands are tracked in square feet, not quality, not for the amount of wildlife they support, or the uniqueness of their plants.   The problem with this, and with many natural resource protection laws, is that they look at the protected resource as an independent part of the landscape, when in fact, it is not.

The fact is that simply protecting all of the water will not protect many, or any, streams.  The fact is that requiring a 10 foot - or 100 foot - tree buffer around streams (something that federal and state stream protection laws do NOT do, but County laws CAN) won't hide the impact that 100.5 feet upstream is a 90 acre shopping mall with few or no stormwater controls.  Don't mistake the basic fact that if we fail to protect our waterways where they exist, they simply will fail to exist. That in itself is a valid defense for stream protection laws.

But it's important to understand that just because we put a fence around a stream or wetland, we may not have "saved" a whole heck of a lot.  Maybe, one day, we'll start to understand landscape and ecosystem function, and start having more dialogue about what it means to save the integrity of a stream, and not just its footprint.  Here's another picture of the Federally Protected Stream shown in the satellite image.  I wish someone would tell the dead fish and amphibians not to despair - they are afforded every possible protection of the Clean Water Act.

Monday, May 4, 2015

First Surf in Six Years - Isle of Palms, SC

I'd be lying if I said I don't know how it came to this.  After surfing, for some periods daily, through the 1990s and early 2000s, I found a boss who didn't give a crap about my love of fishing, surfing, or hunting on weekdays.  Then, I moved into the nonprofit sector (more work for less money), which required me to teach night classes at community college for seven years, which didn't really add up to much spare time when we decided to, you know, have a baby.  The last time I surfed was five months before his birth.  And now it's five years later.

I finally got the raise and promotion I needed to quit my second job (and pay all my bills on time!) in early 2014.  It was a better 40th birthday present than you'd think.  But in arguably the busiest year of my 18 year career, I still didn't get to the beach to surf.   In June, 2014, we stayed two miles from my favorite wave in the Mid-Atlantic (a point break, no less!), but winds and toddlers didn't allow me the time to get away.  In December, 2014, Florida's west coast enjoyed two amazing days of waist-high surf while we were there.  I couldn't quite get it together.  

Finally, in April, 2015, I made it happen.  The buoy for Isle of Palms, SC was reading 2.3' @ 7.1sec, SE (straight onshore) on the incoming tide, with a 0kt building to 10kt  S wind (sideshore).   Low tide was right at dawn, giving me another hour of flex time to get my wife and son to the beach.  The ride over to the island was foggy and quite frankly, a bit sharky.

I paddled out through the fog and found a weird current, extremely shallow water, and closeout waves.  Sigh.   I somehow made the paddle, and the dropin, on the first wave I tried.  It wasn't attractive, I'm sure.  I made the next five waves, trying to find a shoulder to give me a fair ride.  My weight really bogged down my old board, ultimately resulting in a busted center fin and a nose ding - both from shallow bottom turns.  A few other surfers were out; I was definitely the oldest and fattest, and the only one not using a longboard.  Talk about "unforced error."

My son, who historically runs for miles up and down the beach, sat and played quietly while I surfed.  It was uncanny, and welcomed.  After awhile, I paddled in and he greeted me in his wetsuit, wanting to be pushed into a wave.  the current and the fog definitely scared him, but he did his best.

I'm glad I got to surf again.  I hope it's a matter of weeks (and warm water), and not years, before I get back out again.