Saturday, January 21, 2017

Winter? WHAT Winter?

Where the heck did our winter go?  I sure got my hopes up a few weeks back, when we had some nice snow, and a cold snap froze the lakes good and hard and rendered some fabulous crystal creations along the creeks.  But jeez, we've now had a whole string of days above freezing, with more just as warm forecast for the week ahead.  When I headed over to Moreau today to walk along the Hudson, the river was wide open below the Spier Falls Dam, and so calm and lovely I could imagine slipping through that dark still water in my canoe.

When I walked in the woods along the river, the forest floor was virtually free of snow.  No animal tracking today!

At least the back coves of the river were still frozen solid.

Carefully avoiding the thin ice where creeks emptied into the river, I ventured out onto the ice and back into the swamp.  The warm sun caused a misty fog to rise from the ice and cast long shadows across the frozen surface.

Among the sun-warmed boulders that make up the islands and promontories here in this part of the river, I found pretty patches of colorful plants.  Here, the leathery green leaves of Trailing Arbutus are punctuated with the smaller, redder leaves of Wintergreen and the starry puffs of Haircap Moss.

Heading home, I stopped where the river takes a sharp bend above the dam.  The scene was so lovely,  with mountains rising against the horizon and pretty pink clouds in the sky and rafts of mist floating above the water, and -- oh my gosh!  Is that a kayaker I see out there?

Yes indeed.  It WAS a kayaker!  His name was Jarod, he told me after he'd pushed his boat across the thin ice to where he could safely climb ashore.  And he didn't even have gloves on!

Let's Hear It For the Squirrels!

This poor pitiful rain-soaked mama squirrel is begging us not to forget that today, January 21, is National Squirrel Appreciation Day.  You didn't know that?  Neither did I, until a friend's Facebook post reminded me.  I confess I do have a soft spot in my heart for these clever little critters, despite their maurauding habits.  I even wrote a blog post in praise of them a couple of years ago.  You can read that post again (and see some pretty amazing photos of these furry rascals) by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Calling All Creators!

It's time once again for the Spring Street Gallery's annual open-call themed art and performance exhibition to benefit Code Blue, the shelter that helps folks without a warm home make it through the winter. I've participated in this show before, and it's just a wonderful way for artists, musicians, and all kinds of performers (both pros and amateurs) to celebrate each others' creative gifts, and enjoy a great party, too, while helping those less fortunate than ourselves. The theme this year is Winter, a season I always celebrate through my photography. I haven't yet decided what to submit, but here are three of my photos I do like, each one displaying some quality of winter in our northern climes. 

This first one, "Ice Fog on Saratoga Lake," demonstrates that even in the middle of winter while the lakes are still solidly frozen, we will occasionally get a warm rain that creates this kind of fog. All that mist transforms the far shoreline into what looks like a wonderland rising out of a cloud. Or a Japanese ink painting.  This photo measures 24"X6".

"Frost Flower" is an 8X10 photo of the spectacular frost crystals that can sometimes be found on the surface of clear black lake ice. Rarely do I find them as nearly symmetrical as this.

"Crabapple in Snow," is an 8X10 photo of one of those rare and amazing times when the newly fallen snow clings to every branch and twig.

The gallery welcomes contributions from artists and performers throughout Saratoga Springs and surrounding communities, so if any of my readers from this area wish to submit work for the show that will open with a reception on February 10, go to the Spring Street Gallery's website to register and to learn more information.  Hope to see you there!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Slowing Down, But Still Getting Out

Maybe it's my age (I'll be 75 this year), or my painful knee (it still hurts from last year's fracture), or this inconsistent winter weather (zero one day, raining the next). I just keep thinking of reasons not to go out for the winter walks I used to love. Or when I do, I'd rather nap afterwards than write a blogpost about it. But I have been out since my last post of January 5, so let me try to catch up.

By January 8, Moreau Lake State Park staff members told me that Lake Bonita was frozen solid, at least 8 inches thick on this lovely little pristine lake.  So I ventured over to the new (and plowed!) parking area off of Corinth Mountain Road and made my way down the steep and rocky trail to the lake.  Despite a cold wind sweeping across the lake, its vast expanse of white under a bright blue sky beckoned me out to explore the little islands well offshore.

I love to search these little sphagnum-carpeted islands, inaccessible by boat during the warmer months, for the fascinating variety of bog-loving plants that populate them.  Although most of the smaller plants' remnants were buried under snow, the flower stalks of Pitcher Plants and the seed heads of Sheep Laurel could still be found.

January 11 was a much warmer day, so when my friend Nancy Slack called to urge me outdoors, I told her "Sure! Let's go climb that waterfall's course across from the Spier Falls Dam.  We should find lots of mosses on the streamside boulders." Since Nancy's a bryologist, mosses are always a special lure to tempt her to a location.

Well, it turned out most of the mosses were well hidden under crusty snow, but we still enjoyed clambering up the mountainside, accompanied by the rush and splash of the waterfall, which was mostly covered by thick ice.

We did find some pretty mosses and ferns, though, when we descended the mountainside and examined the spring-watered boulders that line Spier Falls Road near the dam.

It was pretty cold on Sunday, January 15, but the sun was shining out of a clear blue sky on dozens of ice fishermen out on the thick ice of Moreau Lake.  My destination was a brook tumbling down the far mountainside, but I was happy to dally along the way to see what kind of luck these brave guys were having out on this frigid expanse.

These two young fellows, Adam (left) and Andrew,  were very happy to describe the beautiful Pickerels they had caught today (but didn't keep to eat, since their flesh contains many small bones). I was struck by their charming enthusiasm and the delight they took in spending hours walking around on the frozen lake, checking their trip lines.  Andrew told me his grandpa had been bringing them here since they were little, and they just loved it!  Grandpa, they said, was taking a break in the warming hut on shore.

I love it when the lake is frozen and I can scoot directly across its expanse to the brook I was hoping to visit, expecting this day for its course to be filled with water from recent heavy rains.  And I was not disappointed.  After the rains came plunging temperatures, which transformed the streamside rocks and shrubbery into exquisite crystalline ice formations.

And where the water slowed and the streambed widened where it approached the lake, the quieter water was frozen into the most delicate of crystal plates, decorated with gossamer striping and frost-ringed bubbles.

 Today, January 16, was the best day of all!  Not only did I have a new trail to explore in Moreau Lake State Park, but my great pal Sue had the day of from work, so she could explore it with me.  This newly groomed and marked trail starts near the dam at the end of Lake Bonita and terminates at a section of the long-existing Western Ridge Trail at a point quite near its Spring Trailhead along Spier Falls Road.  Since we didn't know how difficult the trail would be or how long it would take us to walk it, we parked one car at the Spring Trailhead and drove a second car up Mt. McGregor to start our hike at Lake Bonita.  Here's Sue standing on Bonita's shore just before we enter the trail.

The trail starts by following the stream that falls from Bonita's dam, and the stream's watercourse was decorated today with beautiful ice formations.

Very soon, though, the trail angles away from the stream and heads off into the woods.  It was obvious that many folks had followed this trail already, packing the snow on the path.  We were very glad we had worn ice grippers on our boots.  It turned out that we would not have been able to continue along certain sections without such stabilizing footgear.  Readers, do not attempt this trail without such gear, at least while the ice persists.

A beautiful feature of this trail is a series of rocky ledges, many of them thickly covered with many different kinds of mosses.

On one of those mossy ledges, I found this small hole, its entrance festooned with hoarfrost, probably formed by the warm breath of some small furry creature living within.

At one point, we caught a glimpse through the trees of the Hudson River in the valley far below.

Here was a truly magnificent ledge, its steep face made even more dramatic by cascading sheets of ice.

The trail is crossed by several streams, most of them tiny rills that are easily hopped across.   But this was a rushing torrent crashing noisily down the bouldered mountainside.

Trail groomers had helpfully placed boulders across the stream to form a bridge, but today those rocks were glassy with wet ice.   Even with grippers, our feet just slid across the icy rocks without catching, and we thought long and hard about what to do to get safely across.  Well, we did, obviously, thanks to a small patch of leaf mould and some crunchy snow.  But somehow Sue lost one of her ice grippers in the process.  Now we know what to call that creek:  the Gripper Grabber Creek.

 As it turned out, we were quite near the trail's terminus by then, and safely reached Spier Falls Road without incident.  Our hike took us about two hours, with many stops to photograph points of interest. We can't wait to get back on this trail in warmer weather to see what plants grow in those fabulous ledges and along those tumbling streams.  Beautiful!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Little Houses in the Backwoods

Moreau Lake State Park just keeps getting better and better! It was already a wonderful north-woodsy park, with thousands of acres offering lakes, ponds, river, waterfalls, miles of forested mountain trails, a swimming beach and commodious campground, and even a couple of seasonal cottages.  And now the park will offer a whole new camping experience, with the addition of six rustic cabins nestled back in the woods and available to campers year round.  And for a couple of these little cabins, campers can even bring their dogs.

Curious to see what these cabins looked like, yesterday I hiked the park's campground road all the way to where it ends in Loop G, quite a distance back in the woods from the park's main entrance. And there I found two of the charming little cabins, still under construction but far enough along to allow me a sense of what delightful shelters they will be.  There are two sizes of the six cabins, three of them sleeping four and the others sleeping six.

Here is the larger cabin:

And here is the smaller one:

All of the cabins will be furnished with electricity, refrigerators, wood stoves, and comfortable furniture including rustic arm chairs and beds with mattresses.  Each cabin will also have its own outdoor fireplace and grill, and the park will stock each cabin with firewood, visiting regularly to replenish the supply.  There is no plumbing in the cabins, but composting outhouses will be provided in winter, while during the warmer months when all of the camping facilities are open, occupants of these cabins will have access to nearby full-service bathhouses with flush toilets and hot showers, like the one pictured below. There are also drinking-water spigots located throughout the campground, although these will not be functional during the winter.

There is a second bathhouse, located closest to the park's main entrance, that eventually will remain heated and functional during the winter, once winter camping becomes established next year.  But winter campers will have to snowshoe or ski quite a distance to the new cabins along unplowed roads, adding to the back-country experience. The winter rates will be significantly lower than summer rates, with the 4-person cabins renting for $40 a night, and the 6-person cabins renting for $60.  Park Manager Peter Iskenderian told me that he's already receiving requests to reserve the cabins, which should be available to rent by Memorial Day, 2017.

I can just imagine what a pleasant camping experience these cabins will provide, even in winter. Being able to stand up and walk around, instead of climbing into a tent on hands and knees and dragging the snow in with you! Sleeping on a real bed with a mattress, instead of shifting about on an air mattress trying to avoid the rocks of the forest floor!  Keeping toasty-warm on a winter night with the woodstove blazing, instead of trying to breathe through a sleeping-bag hood pulled tight around your head!  Heck, I might even be tempted back to camping, myself!

Although the cabins will not offer lake views, they are nestled well back in the forest among tall hardwoods and pines, and a nearby trail leads promptly to the lake.  Here is a map of the lake and campgrounds, with a yellow triangle in the upper right corner showing the approximate location of the new cabins.

Returning from the campground, I took the trail down to the lake and walked the frozen surface back to the park's main entrance.  Although rain falling on snow yesterday had covered the ice with thick slush,  park staffers assured me the ice was plenty thick enough to bear my weight.  The day had been gray, but I could see the cloud cover moving away, revealing patches of blue sky.  The beautiful days of winter are just beginning!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Holiday Hiatus

Two weeks without posting a blog!  Where the heck have I been?  Well, there were holiday preparations, then holiday travel, then holiday house guests, and finally, the holiday head cold -- all conspiring to keep me out of the woods for the holiday duration.  And despite the family fun and festive frolics of the holiday season, there were days I really missed being out-of-doors.  For example, we had the most beautiful snowstorm of any I remember in years -- big puffy snowflakes that clung to the trees and piled up in pillowy mounds on the ground --  and all I could do was gaze at it out my window:

But today I was free to venture outdoors.  No more house guests or house work or head cold to keep me at home.
And guess what?  It rained!

Ah, but what matter?  When I live in such a beautiful part of the world, a little rain only adds to the beauty.  So I donned my rubber boots and my raincoat and ventured out along the river, where water droplets shone like tiny Christmas lights in the trees,  the ice crystals lining the banks were glistening like tinsel, and the mist that shrouded the mountains only magnified their majesty,

I look forward now to what the new year will bring.  And I also look back to recall some great times in the year just past.  One of the greatest times was when five botanist friends from far-flung states came to visit for several days and joined my friend Sue and me in exploring some favorite northern New York woodlands and waterways.  Did we have fun?  Well, what do you think? Here's my blogpost recounting our many adventures, and here's a photo of us delighting in one of our botanical finds.

Speaking of botanical finds, who would think of a Dandelion as a plant to be sought-after and collected?  It's true, no self-respecting professional botanist would deign to collect and mount this ubiquitous weed, which is why there has been no record of its presence in Saratoga County.  But there will be in the future, since this amateur wildflower nerd (me!) volunteered this past summer to help fill in those plants still missing from from the New York Flora Association Plant Atlas for my home county.  I'll never find them all -- the state botanist sent me a list of ONE THOUSAND, ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-SIX unrecorded plants! -- but I did manage to collect about a hundred of them this past year.  And I hope to collect about that many again when the spring flowers come into bloom.  Here's a blogpost recounting the start of my search last July, a search that added delightful purpose to my wildflower hunts all summer and into the fall.

Not all of my floral finds this year were ubiquitous weeds.  In fact, this pretty white violet  -- the Primrose-leaved Violet (Viola primulifolia var. primulifolia) -- is one of the rarest plants in all of New York, and I found it growing along the Hudson River in Warren County, far distant from any other place this native violet has been found in New York State.  I was actually a bit annoyed when I first found it, since it wasn't the violet I had been searching for and didn't find.  But luckily I took a picture of it and asked some experts what it might be, since I didn't recognize it.  Another fabulous floral find!  My fellow wildflower nerds will know how much this means to me, and why I recount its finding as one of the highlights of my year.  Here's my blogpost recounting the day I found it.

When I look back over my nature adventures of the past year, it's hard to choose just a few highlights, since I live among so many splendors, and every day of the year offers a multitude of delights to the naturalist. But I would have to say that one of the crowning events of my nature year was receiving permission from New York State Parks to explore the tiny boggy islands of Lake Bonita in order to survey the special plants that grow there, including some beautiful orchids.  This lovely unspoiled lake was only recently acquired by Moreau Lake State Park, and the park has forbidden boating in order to maintain the lake's pristine quality.  So it was an incredible privilege to be granted a special "scientific research permit" to paddle there, and to be able to enlist the assistance of Sue Pierce and Nancy Slack  (shown here in their canoes) to conduct the plant surveys. To see some of the remarkable plants we found, you can visit two blog posts:  one when I first paddled the lake with state park natural-resource steward Casey Holzworth and another when Sue and Nancy came along as research assistants.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Sun Returns As Winter Begins

 Today, Winter Solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year, the sun begins its journey back to warm us. Moment by moment, day by day, its light will shine brighter, its rays grow stronger, its presence last measurable minutes longer.  And yet, each day, as the winter goes on, the cold will grow deeper, along (so I hope) with the snow.

I do love winter.  Especially ones with deep cold and deeper snow.  I want the lakes and the river bays to freeze thick and hard, so that I can safely cross their frozen expanses and make my way back into the swamps and marshes and bogs too muddy for exploring in summer.  I want the snow deep and soft in the woods, so that I can marvel at how many creatures pass there, coyotes and minks and foxes and fishers and bobcats and more, animals I would never know lived in these woods, if not for their tracks and trails.  I want nights so cold and clear I can see all the way to heaven, with stars so bright they pierce the eye, and sub-zero days with deep-blue skies and frost-spangled air that glitters with sequined snowflakes.

So yes, I do celebrate the return of the light and the promise it holds of warmer seasons to come.  But I also delight in all of the beauties of winter.  Without that cold, I could never find hoarfrost stars exploding from the surface of clear black ice.

Splashing creeks are lovely in every season, but only in the coldest winters can I find crystal chandeliers overhanging the banks.

The warmer seasons gift us with a riot of colors, from the earliest spring flowers through midsummer's multicolored meadows to autumn's glorious foliage. By contrast, winter offers mostly a monotone palette of blacks, grays, and whites.  All the more powerful, then, is the brilliant red of Winterberries, glowing through the snow.  What a jolt of joy to behold!

Wishing all my readers comparable jolts of joy as we celebrate this holiday season, whether you spend it cozy and warm by an indoor fire, or warmed by the effort of huffing and puffing through snowbanks.  Happy Solstice to All!  And a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year, too.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Beautiful Ice

A beautiful day, at last!  The weather has not been conducive to outdoor adventures this past week, what with snowstorms and subzero temps and wind and then rain to ruin what had been a lovely heap of snow.  But today was just perfect for winter walking: sunshine, blue sky, no wind, and temps well into the 20s. Time to head up to Moreau Lake and see what was up with the ice.

Well, the first thing I learned was that the ice was still too thin to venture out on.

But at least the lake appeared frozen from shore to shore.  I pulled on my Yaktrax and set out to walk around the lake, keeping to where the ice appeared thick enough to bear my weight and the water no more than ankle deep should my foot plunge through.

Judging from what I could see of the cracks, most of the ice close to shore was plenty thick enough to walk on.  And most of it was spotted with these odd pockmarks, formed, no doubt, by rain falling on slushy snow-covered ice.  It all froze solid, then, when the temperature fell once more.  Today, all the snowed-on ice had smoothed to a hard slick surface.  If I hadn't worn grippers on my feet, I surely would have slipped and fallen.

Here and there it was evident that the ice-cover had opened up and refrozen with absolutely glass-clear ice, allowing me to clearly see the sandy lake bottom.

This looked like open water, but it was actually crystal-clear ice, allowing the sunlight to pass through its rippled structure.

Where the ice was opaque, it was frequently marked with clear black-ice "spiders," or in this case, black-ice "eyes."

Along the north shore, where the sun warmed the sand all day long, the ice had retreated from shore and then refrozen with much thinner, clearer ice.  I left the ice in these sections to make my way along the snow-covered shore.

I was careful to stay off the ice as I approached where I knew a stream emptied into the lake.  And today there was actually water rippling and splashing along the stream bed.  Since the stream had been dry for most of the autumn, this was quite a surprise.

Stream beds are wonderful places to look for beautiful ice formations, such as these sturdy crystalline pillars that formed from droplets splashing up onto an overhanging bank.  The feather was an added embellishment!

These delicate swirls in the thinnest plates of ice would shatter at a touch, they were so fragile. I've never figured out exactly how they form.  They are so exquisitely thin, it's almost as if they formed from vapor, rather than liquid water.

And here were some frozen bubbles! Such a marvel to behold!  Such beautiful treasures sure make it worth venturing out in the cold to see.

Yes, I was glad I ventured out into the cold, but I was also glad to step inside the warming hut and comfort my freezing face for a few moments.  This hut with its blazing fireplace is such a welcome addition to Moreau Lake State Park, offering a cozy retreat for chilled skiers, snowshoers, and winter hikers.  On weekends, I believe there is hot cocoa offered here, as well.

A big table and chairs provide a relaxing place for eating a lunch or a snack, as well as offering gorgeous views of the ice-covered lake.

This was my gorgeous view as I rounded the last bend of the shore toward home. Late afternoon light has touched the lakeshore trees with gold, and the mirroring ice reflects an abstract image of winter's beauty. Imagine how sweet it would be to glide across that smooth ice on skates.  Let's hope it stays this smooth as it thickens and hardens to depths safe enough to skate on.