One of the coldest occupied places in Alaska is Fairbanks. It sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. One of the basic rules of meteorology is that cold air sinks, and warm air rises. Thus the cold air from the surrounding mountains sinks into the Tanana Valley, settling in and around Fairbanks like a pool of cold water at the bottom of a lake. The results can be spectacular.
Notice that I didn’t say “horrible”. Yes, Fairbanks gets cold, very cold. But calm. There is very little wind, so warm clothes do a good job. The native peoples have the answer that every good Scout has learned: layers. A parka is sewn like two coats, one inside the other, joined only along the zipper, the top of the hood, and the cuffs. The warm air from your body is trapped not only close to your body, as in a normal coat, but also between the layers, adding an extra layer of protection. The hood can fold down onto your back, or can be brought up to encircle the face. The long guard hairs from the fur trim hold a pocket of relatively warm, moist air close to your face, keeping your lungs from freezing. Matching boots up to the knees and mittens over your gloves, and you’re set to explore the beauty of winter.
Alaska is known as the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” The locals also know it as the “Land of the Noon Moon.” Due to the low temperatures, there is very little humidity in the air. As a result, the stars and moon are as bright and spectacular as anywhere on Earth … well, anywhere I’ve ever been, anyway. Only the desert and the high mountains can compete, and for the same reason.
The sun no longer rises in the east and sets in the west in winter. It rises in the southeast, rolls along below the horizon while the sunrise paints the sky, then pops above the horizon in the south-southeast. It travels low along the southern horizon, just above the spectacular Alaska Range, then sinks again in the south-southwest. This is where Denali rises, at 20,310 feet the highest peak in North America. She stands alone, separated from the other peaks of the mighty Alaska Range, rising majestically into the cold air. Because of that low humidity, she is visible whenever the clouds do not hide her summit. It is entirely appropriate that she is the symbol of the University of Alaska, from whose campus she can usually be seen, even though her peak is 170 miles away.
Fairbanks, as stated earlier, lies in a valley where the cold air lies like a reverse blanket. Above it floats the warmer air, and between these two masses there is a sharp line that can reflect distant mountain peaks. As with any mirror, the reflection is upside down, producing bridges and disembodied upside down mountains.
The sun doesn’t get very high in the sky, but it makes up for this by its brilliance. That low humidity means the light isn’t refracted or absorbed as much as it is in warmer climes. So it pierces with cold brilliance across a snowy world, reflecting with such intensity that dark glasses become a necessity. At these low temperatures, the snowflakes from the last storm lie on the ground, their faces unaltered by melting. The sun hitting these flakes turns every yard into a mass of diamonds, glittering in the low angle of the sunlight. If the last storm was recent, the flakes may still be trying to settle when the sun comes out. On those days, the sunlight reflects off the tiny planes of the flakes, and the entire sky seems to scintillate.
In the afternoon this bright world gives way to a protracted sunset, then the world sinks deeper and deeper into a pure, dark blue. This is when the northern lights paint the sky in drifting curtains of pastel colors. The ever-changing display reflects on the snow at your feet, one color flowing endlessly into another, then the first starting over again. This is when the native people head out of Fairbanks to drive slowly along deserted roads, seeking a place where the forest opens up and the sky can be seen from horizon to horizon, just as it is back home in Barrow or Unalakleet or any of the other towns that are, to them, “back home.” To the residents of those Arctic towns, the happy times of their childhood are remembered against a backdrop of the spectacular Arctic sky. Southerners may think of those towns as barren, but their residents think of the southern towns as drab. If you have ever seen the Arctic in winter, you will understand.
January, 1819. John Keats wrote in one of his finest poems:
St. Agnes’ Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in wolly fold.
In all fairness to his era, January must have been pretty uncomfortable in the days before central heating, hot and cold running water, and indoor plumbing. Before there were antibiotics, a winter cold could prove fatal. Even today, a friend in the business has told me, the dark days of December through February are the busy season for the funeral industry. We look outside at the wind and the snow and cuddle up beside a cozy fire with a good book. Or move to the Sun Belt. How do the Eskimos even survive? Why do they stay up there where winter rules the year?
Winter in the Arctic is cold; there is no getting around that fact. But the Eskimo peoples are not stupid; you can’t get around that fact either. Their clothing designs are surprisingly light and warm, so they aren’t housebound all winter. They get outside even on the coldest days, to watch the lights dance overhead and to visit with friends and family.
The coldest temperature recorded in North America was at Snag, now a ghost town, in Yukon, Canada, on February 3, 1947. On that day, the temperature dropped to 81 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Snag was located just north of the Alaska-Canada Highway near the border on the Canadian side.
The record temperature for the United States was recorded at Prospect Creek on January 23, 1971. The temperature that day dipped to -80°F. It is located on the pipeline 180 miles north of Fairbanks and 25 miles southeast of Bettles, a native town with a population of 12. Prospect Creek is now a ghost town. Do I sense a pattern here?
There are probably a number of places that could challenge these low temperature readings. Unfortunately, most of interior Alaska and northern Canada are not occupied by people maintaining standardized thermometers. As a result, there is a lot of research that could be done into the low temperatures, their geographic causes, and their effects on both the living and the inert. So grab your notebooks and your official weather station, and head north! Or is that cozy fire too inviting?
Antarctica holds the record for the coldest documented day on Earth. The Soviet research site, Vostok Station in the interior of Antarctica, using ground measurements by calibrated equipment, recorded negative 128.6°F on July 21, 1893. Remember that in the southern hemisphere, July is as January is in the northern hemisphere. LandSat satellite data indicated a probable tempersture of minus 135.8 degrees Fahrenheit on August 10, 2010, also from the interior of Antarctica. Since this temperature was not confirmed by ground measurements, it is not accepted as the record low. Studies do indicate that a temperature of 139 Fahrenheit below may be possible. Are you ready to go do some basic research yet?
Verkhoyansk, a Siberian town of about 1,300 people, recorded a low of −93.6 °F for three days in a row in February of 1892. Oymyakon, also a Siberian town sheltering 500 people, saw -96°F in 1924. On February 6, 1933 Oymyakon’s weather station recorded an official low of -90°F, the lowest official record on Earth for a place that is inhabited year-round by residents (as opposed to scientists).
Now, what did you say your temperature is today? Pretty balmy, compared to places like Oymyakon or Bettles. So put down your book, bank your cozy fire for a few hours, and take a page from the popular song, “Winter Wonderland”, sung by Dean Martin: “We’ll frolic and play, the Eskimo way, walking in the winter wonderland.”
A new gun is not an uncommon Christmas gift, even today. Kids are eager to be considered mature enough to handle a gun. Hunters want the next best thing. Subsistence hunters eventually wore out Grandpa’s hand-me-down. New guns naturally need to be tried out, so the family would traipse into the winter woods to find a target to shoot. Even today, that can often result in a bad day for birds. Yes, it’s strictly illegal to shoot small birds, or even big ones without the proper training, licenses and permits. But as the saying goes, “It’s only illegal if you get caught.” Yes, that still goes on today in the backyards of country folk who aren’t likely to get caught. Hard to believe but true.
Over a century ago, many people participated in the Christmas “side hunt”. New guns and old, the family and neighbors would choose sides and head out into the woods. At the end of the day, the side with the biggest pile of furs and feathers won the competition.
One hundred and fifteen years ago, Frank Chapman, an officer with a new organization called the Audubon Society, had an idea. How about counting the birds instead of killing them? It could be just as much fun, you’d still get people out into the winter woods and fields, but the birds would survive to breed again in the spring.
That first count, in 1900, had twenty-seven birders on twenty-five separate counts. They weren’t all neighbors. The locations included Toronto in Ontario and Pacific Grove in California. Most counts were in the northeast. On the 25 counts, a total 90 different species were sighted.
It’s grown just a tad since then. In 2013 there were 71,500 participants in 2,400 locations in 17 countries. The data collected by these counts is available online, and provides a tremendous source of information for scientists studying species population changes, winter range response to climate change, weather impacts, and many similar questions and concerns. The value of this large volume of data extended over such a large part of the Earth and for so many years can’t be overemphasized.
But that’s not the reason for the counts. It’s fun. It was founded on the idea of people getting outside together and enjoying the beauty of the season. That ideal remains unchanged. No matter where you are, there is likely to be a count nearby. The nature of that count depends entirely on your location.
The spirit of competition remains very much alive on some of the counts. Southern California and Texas compete actively for the largest number of species. They send veritable armies into the field. Days before the actual count, people survey the ‘battlefield’ to see what is there, and which bush it is likely to be in. Count day arrives well before dawn with the owl patrols, then groups are sent to small areas and told what to watch for, though surprises are always welcome. The field day lasts until midnight with more owl patrols, then the data is accumulated and entered in the national database.
Rural counts are far less organized. Folks head out in the early dawn, usually covering relatively large areas to see what is there. With dusk, the groups meet at some convenient location, often the home of a participant. Stories are told, dinner is shared hopefully beside a roaring fireplace, and data are collected informally so everyone knows how the day went. The numbers are entered in the national database after all the surveys have been submitted.
Each count has its glories. In Alaska, you can sleep in and still start the count at the crack of dawn. No one is likely to beat your numbers for ptarmigan. In the southwest, the cool dawn brings a welter of song from birds that winter further north; the variety of species seen is higher than the northern areas could hope to see. In the mid-Atlantic, the snow geese will probably outnumber the human population. In all areas, there is always that chance to see something special, rare, precious.
Even if you don’t know your birds, as most people don’t, you are still welcome to come along as a recorder, writing down the birds others see. So find out when your local count is being held (it’s on the Audubon homepage), pull on your hiking boots, your jacket, and your binoculars (or pen and clipboard), and head out into the winter. You never know what adventures await you out there, but you do know the memories will last a lifetime.
Have you ever thought about the plant’s perspective? Where your seed lands, you grow. If you don’t like it there, you die. You can’t pack up and move in search of a better future. The seeds can move, but they cannot direct where they will land. If it’s too bad, they won’t even sprout. Our species has always had itchy feet, so a small group of apes spread from a restricted habitat in Africa to cover the entire globe. It’s hard to imagine being stuck wherever your parents and fate happened to dump you!
The ape is now armed with a shovel and a backyard, so plants are suddenly moving all over the globe in unprecedented fashion. Some of those are working out very well. Can you imagine the South without the crepe myrtle? It’s not a native! It came originally from China to England in 1759. England’s climate didn’t appeal, so it refused to bloom. The botanist to King Louis XVI, André Michaux, for unknown reasons decided to introduce the myrtle into Charleston, South Carolina around 1786. There, it bloomed profusely and is now beloved throughout the southern part of the United States and into the West, if it gets enough water. Though not a native, it is locally hardy and usually not too invasive.
There are many species whose immigration has been much less fortunate. To cover that subject would require a book, so let’s just say that you need to be careful what you plant. Try to find a place where your prospective plant is growing, and see if you like it when it’s mature. Make sure it isn’t taking over the area unless it’s intended to (ground covers are intended to take over, for instance).
I have noticed that plants I dug out of the ground and moved did a lot better than the same species I bought at the nursery. You’d think it would be the other way around; digging necessarily disturbs the roots more than moving a pot does. Perhaps the plants we dig up are better adapted to the local soil and weather, and are hardier. The ones that needed to be babied didn’t survive!
That said, we can’t always find what we want in a place we’re free to dig. The nursery can probably get almost anything for you, if you allow them time to order it. A good nursery can also provide considerable advice on which plants will do well in your particular yard. You aren’t likely to understand a plant’s needs for soil type, water volume and timing, shading, and nutrients as well as the nursery personnel do. Ask them what will do well in the spot you have vacant, and what plants meet your requirements for flower color or timing, watering schedule, size, etc. Choose a plant that looks healthy; you may want to ask for help in determining what that means for the plant you want. Just before you plant it, use a knife to cut from the soil level to the bottom of the root ball. This prevents the roots from circling around the root ball, eventually strangling the plant.
Another place to get good plants is your state forestry or extension service. They often sell local natives for very little cost. Understand, the plants are also very little. They’ll probably be bare root, which means they need extra love the first three years.
It’s fun to find a plant you want in a place where you can dig it up. Look in planting beds and flower gardens. Many fine trees are removed from such places because they are nuisance weeds. You have to be able to recognize that a given tiny weed will someday be a graceful tree. You won’t be able to take much soil with it, since it’s a landscaped area. So pull it out, put a soaking wet paper towel around its roots, and wrap it in a plastic bag until you can plant it. If that’s a day or more, you may want to plant it in a pot for the first year or two, so you can easily keep it watered, weeded, fed, and generally loved.
Plan to baby your new nursery plant for about a year, or your forestry or ‘weed’ plant for about three years, until they’re well established. This means different things for different plants. It probably needs extra water and nutrients until its roots are well established. It may need to be pruned to encourage growth in the proper shape. You’ll need to keep the drip line weeded so nothing competes with your plant. The drip line is the circle around the center of the plant (usually the trunk) where water hitting the leaves would drip onto the ground. This is usually the extent of the roots, so it needs protection from competing plants at least at first.
Winter is a time of low stress for plants. They aren’t trying to grow new leaves, so the roots aren’t required to collect as much water or nutrients. Below ground, the roots are slowly expanding, preparing for the spring growth spurt. That means that this is the best time to be planting. No matter where you got your plant, be sure to dig a hole as big as the drip line, remove any competing roots or plants, add a bit of fertilizer (not too much!), then fill the hole with water. Let it soak into the ground, then place your plant in the wet hole. Add some of the soil you removed, then some water. Let the water soak in, then press the soil carefully around the plant. Continue until the soil around the plant is almost to the level of the surrounding soil.
Mulch should be added in a donut shape. Do not put it against the trunk; this can cause disease. You want to protect the roots, so keep the mulch about an inch away from the trunk. Spread it out to the drip line.
You may need to add stabilizing wires if it’s a tree. Run the wires through old pieces of garden hose about a foot long; the hose protects the bark from the wires. I use tent pegs to hold the wires to the ground. Don’t make the wires so tight that the tree can’t move with the wind. It will add strength to its trunk as the wind bends it; without this it’ll break when you remove the wires. So allow about 6 inches of play so the tree can sway naturally but not fall over. If you leave the wires on, you should check each year to be sure they aren’t strangling the growing trunk.
Then, stand back and admire your new plant. Know that it can’t move if it doesn’t like where you placed it. Sometimes even with the best of care, plants just don’t thrive. That’s why gardening is an adventure, always seeking new plants and new groupings, always learning and growing with the plants. That fun need not end because winter is coming!
In the fall, the natural world undergoes major changes. Some species morph into winter condition; adding white pelts, turning into a pupa, dropping leaves, adding glycol to freeze-proof the cells of coniferous needles or insect bodies, fattening up for hibernation, changing the diet to survive the cold winter nights, changing the bright plumage of the breeding season for the more drab (and better camouflaged) plumage of winter. All of these changes are fascinating in their own right, but perhaps the first thing most people think of is the southward migration.
This migration can be spectacular, indeed. Radars show huge flocks of birds moving in the night, guiding by stars or magnetic fields or landmarks only they fully understand. The distances covered are no less spectacular. Some individual birds you could hold easily in your hand have been tracked flying thousands of miles before stopping to refuel. If we could figure out a fuel that efficient, what journeys might we take?
Most of us don’t realize that some insects also migrate. If we’ve heard of any six-legged migrants it’s the monarchs. To be fair, their journey is very amazing in its own right. From the Rocky Mountains west, the butterflies winter along the coast of California, spreading out in the spring to cover the West. East of the Rocky Mountains, most of the insects winter in the Mariposa Monarch Biosphere Reserve in the mountains of Mexico. The spring sends them north to Texas and Oklahoma, where they lay their eggs and die. The next generation spreads out as far as Canada, where they also lay their eggs and die. In the fall, the mature generation, whether third or fourth, heads south usually to Mexico along well-established routes. I have counted them in early October, heading along the coast in a light wind, passing by at the rate of one a minute. They don’t look hurried, drifting as butterflies do. The seaside goldenrod is blooming at that time; they love those flowers! Sometimes these robust goldenrods are bent almost double with their weight of monarchs feeding from the flowers. How do these tiny animals know how to navigate thousands of miles to a small area last seen by their grandparents or greatgrandparents? We have much to learn!
Surprisingly little is known about dragonfly migrations, but they are significant. They appear to use the same flyways that birds do, but migrate mostly by day. Like birds, they fatten up before the migration to fuel their flight. They also appear to stop off sometimes to rest and refuel. There is little known about how they orient, but topography seems to guide them, since they cluster along shorelines and mountain ridges. Dragonflies that drift out to sea appear to realize the problem and reorient to return to land.
The small size of the insects limits the ability of scientists to track them during their migrations. Until smaller radiotags can be developed (which will surely happen, if history is any indicator) the scientists are depending on citizens to report sightings of migrating dragonflies. If this is of interest to you, you can sign on to help at:
Meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled next fall. Early in October or late in September, you may be surprised by the number of dragonflies that suddenly appear in a field near you. It can be an awesome sight! I was returning home one evening just before dusk, when I noticed that a neighboring field was twinkling. When I got closer, I discovered that the phenomenon was caused by thousands of dragonfly wings. They were cruising back and forth over the field, just above the grasses, the setting sun reflecting off their wings. Even in this age of science, it remains possible to be transfixed by natural phenomena we do not fully understand.
There are a number of mosquitoes known as saltmarsh mosquitoes, but today we’re talking about Aedes sollicitans and Aedes taeniorhynchus. If you live anywhere near the coast, from Canada around Florida to the Gulf Coast, or even in the Bahamas or Greater Antilles, you are probably familiar with this insect. It nonetheless has some surprising secrets.
You probably haven’t looked closely, but these are pretty little monsters. Basically black, their hind end, the abdomen, is circled with white or silver rings. Their legs and even the proboscis, the biting mouth part, also are black with silver rings. Sollicitans tends to be larger, and is more heavily decorated than taeniorhynchus. Down the back of its abdomen is a silver stripe, while the thorax, the middle part, has silver on the sides. The back is a lovely golden color in fresh, healthy specimens. That’s pre-slap, of course. Because taeniorhynchus lacks these colors, it is known as the black salt-marsh mosquito. The two species are otherwise very similar.
In both, the numbers tend to build over the summer, peaking in early autumn. Thus they tend to be especially bothersome in fall. Sollicitans tends to be present throughout the summer, while taeniorhynchus can see huge spikes in fall but be mostly absent in spring.
Like all mosquitoes, the females have to have blood to develop their eggs. The males, without this nutritional burden, seek their calories from flowers, which are not known to slap a biting insect.
Both species lay their eggs on the marsh grasses just above mean high tide. They search for small ponds, usually fairly high on the marsh. The summer sun may even dry out the small pond, leaving the eggs perched above cracked mud. That means that there can be no fish surviving in the small pond; fish eat the wrigglers, or ‘baby’ mosquitoes. Because they’re above mean high tide, an average tide will not flood the eggs. They sit there, waiting for high water, while the adults add more and more eggs to the marsh grasses. They can wait all winter if they have to.
Then, it happens. There are several possibilities. A lunar tide may raise water levels. Perhaps a high wind blows the marsh water toward the mosquito nurseries. A heavy rain can flood the high marsh ponds. When any of these things happen, all the eggs that have been laid since the last high water, all across the marsh, hatch together.
The rate of growth of the larvae, or wrigglers, depends on the temperature, which is pretty consistent across the marsh. On hot summer days, the larval stages can be completed in as little as four days. They all go into their pupal stage together. Though the pupae can move and will respond to shadows or water movement, they do not eat.
On a warm afternoon, the adult mosquitoes emerge from the water. They rest on the marsh grasses, drying their wings and waiting for the evening breezes. They fly out the next morning to neighboring uplands, where they find the necessary blood and return to continue the cycle.
Once every few years, a summer drought allows the egg burden on the marsh grasses to reach astronomic numbers. When the eggs are flooded, the small ponds become dark and boiling with all the wrigglers. If conditions are good, the adults will all emerge together and sit there, the marsh grasses black from their numbers. This is an eerie time to be on the marsh. As far as the eye can see, the grass is black with their almost infinite numbers, yet none of them are biting. Yet.
That evening, they rise from the marsh together. When there is a large hatch like this, they make the marsh look like it’s on fire, the smoke rising from the grass actually composed of billions of mosquitoes. Most people won’t believe it isn’t smoke; until they get close enough to see its composition. They still aren’t biting, but you know very well that the ceasefire is temporary.
With the evening, they mass and fly off downwind. With the morning, they can be miles away from their natal marshes. There are reports of sudden invasions of saltmarsh mosquitoes as much as 100 miles away. With the dawn, the column of mosquitoes disburses into the new habitat to seek a blood meal. Now, they’re biting! Just walking from the house to the car can be torture. A simple hike in the woods invites exsanguination. Pesticides can dent their numbers, but not eliminate them. Even winter snow can’t entirely eliminate them; I have been bitten by a sollicitans on a hike in January when the marsh water was ice!
What good is a mosquito? They bite, they carry diseases, they torture anything carrying blood. Yet, they represent a huge source of protein right when birds are raising young, fish are laying eggs, and the migrants return from the south in search of abundant protein. I’m not suggesting that you admire their lovely colors and resilience instead of slapping. Needless to say, their population can stand the loss of however many mosquitoes are after you. The species is not endangered. The individual on your arm, however, should be!
You may be a lister yourself, or you probably know one. The variety of colors and patterns, interesting habits, and the varied habitats make a day in the field or forest an especially interesting one. To review a list of what we’ve seen brings back happy memories of loved ones with whom we shared the trail, bright days or rain, the adventures big and small that help define a lifetime of outdoor activity.
You probably assume I am talking about birds, and for the vast majority of people, that would be a safe assumption. I have to ask why? It’s easy to defend bird listing; it’s fun, you usually see some, you never know for sure when you’ll see something special, and many a happy memory is generated in the pursuit of the elusive feathered whatzit.
Let me suggest to you that there are other groups that are equally delightful. Have you never seen dragonflies cruising across a sunny meadow in search of mosquitoes? What kind were they? Have you ever seen that kind before? They lack the songs of the birds, but they can put many birds to shame with their bright coloring. If you watch, you might notice that they are not simple machines, but responsive organisms that adapt to their immediate circumstances.
So, too, are butterflies an interesting group. The variety of colors, shapes, and sizes is enough to keep anyone watching them. They, too, exhibit entirely different species in differing habitats, from the high Arctic to the (low?) equatorial jungles. Just to keep it interesting, don’t forget all the moths. They aren’t all drab, dark creatures of the night. Some are a rich russet with eye-like patterns on wings as big as your hand. Others look and act just like miniature hummingbirds. Some, like the ethereal luna moth, don’t even eat during their adult life. While you’re at it, have you learned how to tell one caterpillar from another?
Insects in general are just too varied to wrap your brain around, even for an expert. Entomologists generally specialize in one order or another, and don’t try to know all the insects even in one area. Worldwide there are nearly a million species, of which roughly 91,000 live in the United States. Now, there’s a lifelist challenge for you! Even concentrating on a single order just in the U.S. can be mind-boggling: Coleoptera (beetles) have roughly 23,700 species, Diptera (flies) have 19,600, Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps) have 17,500, and Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) have 11,500. Even these smaller numbers represent a huge life-list.
Another group that’s often overlooked is the plants. There can be no denying the beauty and variety of the flowering plants, but don’t overlook the graceful symmetry of the ferns, the wonderful smells of the evergreens, the incredible variety of the grasses. These, too, show unending variation from one habitat to another.
Today, field guides are readily available to all of these groups, and others such as beetles and bees. Each has its advantages. For instance, you can’t identify a plant by its song, but it isn’t going to fly away when you disturb it, either.
I’m not suggesting that you try to start a lifelist for all of these groups. That would quickly turn a pleasant outing into a documentation trip only an ecologist could enjoy. What I am suggesting is that there is much more out there than birds. People who rush from one thicket to another to identify as many birds as possible miss out on a lot of other lifeforms that are just as fascinating. Please understand that there is nothing wrong with that. Listing is for fun, and is therefore an end of its own. If rushing after birds is great fun, you certainly have plenty of company. Once in a while, though, you may wish to take a “wander” instead of a “hike”. Don’t have a goal. Just go see what’s there, and enjoy what you see. You don’t have to give it a name.
As you begin wandering, you may want to give things a name. You start out with a guide to the flowers, let’s say. Then you add a tree book, and a fern book. Oh, how about a butterfly book? Dragonfly book? Insect book? Let’s look at the rocks, and soils, too. About that point, your backpack will be way too heavy to enjoy the wander.
Eventually you’ll leave the reference books at home and just enjoy the wander. Dr. Erickson, my ecology professor from the University of California, used to say that through the years you add more and more books until at last you give up and leave them all at home. At that point, you have become an ecologist!
Till next week, Happy Wandering,
The outdoors won’t be scary if you take some simple precautions. Essentially, think ahead about what might go wrong, and prepare for it. Even if something unexpected goes wrong, your preparations will enable you to manage almost anything more easily.
In packing, be sure to bring a first aid kit, which is kept somewhere handy. We always carried two; the big one in the car and a pocket size for hikes. The vast majority of accidents can be addressed with a bit of soap and water and a bandaid (and a kiss if the victim is young). A box from something like Altoids® and a bit of soap from a motel, plus a small bottle of water work well in the car kit, and a hand wipe works for the hike kit. In each case, bring more bandaids than you think you’ll need. For the car kit, bring a triangular bandage, hand sanitizer, some tape, gauze pads of several sizes, scissors, tweezers, a small sewing kit (which includes safety pins, thread, a button, and several needles), matches (both to sterilize the needles for splinter removal and to start fires), a manual flashlight or one with fresh batteries, a small pad of paper and pencil (to record details of an accident for rescue workers), pictures of everyone in the party, ibuprofen, insect repellent, itch reliever, and sunscreen. A small bottle of saline water can be used to rinse eyes or wounds. Bring any medications your party may need (e.g. epinephrine pen, poison ivy preventive, etc.). For the hike kit, bring matches, a needle, hand wipe packets, bandaids, and any emergency medications. These all fit into a small candy or gum box, which fits nicely into a pocket.
Always make sure at least one person has a cell phone with them, and always assume you won’t get a signal. That sounds like a contradiction, but in an emergency you will keep trying until you do get a signal.
In all the confusion of unpacking and packing, keys are easy to lose. Find somewhere on your car that you can hide a spare key. It shouldn’t be obvious; mine involves lying down beside the tire and reaching up beneath the bumper to find a key tied with a wire to a non-moving part of the car.
Look at a good map of the area where you will be, and learn to use a compass. If you know you have walked south from your camp, you aren’t very likely to get lost or wander in circles. Keep track of the time and plan for the return hike to take longer than half the time. You’re more likely to be tired on the return and don’t want to get caught out after dark unless you have planned to do so. Remember my mother’s rule: the trip back up the trail is three times as long as the trip down the same trail.
I always bring gorp, divided into sandwich bags so each person has their own bag. This provides food and energy in case the hike takes longer than planned. What is gorp? A mixture of stuff, depending on your plans. Fruit (raisins, dried fruit of several varieties), protein (usually nuts), sugar (m&ms, kid cereal), and grains (adult cereal, pretzels). The pretzels also contribute salt. Each person should also carry a bottle or canteen of water.
When sleeping with children, always place the adult sleeping bags across the door of the tent so the child has to stumble over them to get outside the tent. Even teenage kids may need to visit the facilities (or the bushes) in the night, or may wander in their sleep. If they step on you to get outside, you are aware of their destination and can go get them if they don’t return promptly. This has actually prevented several disasters in my own experience.
Know the hazards at your tent site. Teach kids to recognize poison ivy/oak/sumac. The old rule “Leaves of three, leave it be” works well. The most common non-poisonous three-leaved plants are the berries, which bear nasty thorns. Wildlife should never be fed, both for your own safety and theirs. The most dangerous creature in the wild is mankind; don’t teach wildlife to trust those two-legged monsters! Treat all wildlife with respect; give them space, and watch them at their daily chores. From bears to snakes to chipmunks, they’ll usually leave you alone if you respect their personal space.
Dress for the activity. Comfortable, sturdy shoes are a must. I’ve actually seen people on mountain trails in spike heels or flip-flops! Use common sense to avoid a nasty fall. Stay on the trails both for your own safety and to prevent erosion. Know how to deal with heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and hypothermia. Dress in layers so you can adjust as the temperature changes during the day.
You are likely to be doing things you don’t usually do. Listen to your own body. If you are used to hiking at sea level and you’re camping in the mountains, give yourself extra time to catch your breath. When you’re tired, rest. Shaky legs cause sprained ankles! Remember you aren’t as young as you used to be, by definition. Don’t try to keep up with the kids to prove you’ve still “got it”.
One final rule: have fun! Relax, enjoy your time away, and find your own miracles. How can that ant carry so much? How does it know where to go? Which plants is the deer eating? Does it avoid poison oak? What is the bear finding to eat? How does she keep track of her cubs? The outdoors has so many wonderful things for us to see, if only we can learn to sit still and watch!
What good is a camping trip without a bit of stargazing?
Of course, some places are better than others. It’s hard to beat a desert night, but the higher elevations in the Rockies or Sierras can come close. Nothing beats an Arctic night, except in the summer, when there is no night. Other times of year the stars can be as beautiful as any you see in the desert. If you’re lucky, the northern lights will come out to play, dimming the stars with their pastel curtains dancing in the solar wind. I live near the ocean, where the sea fills the air with moisture and obscures the stars. Even here, the night sky has its glories. You should see the full moon rising above the sea, deep gold from the marine moisture!
Most people have heard of the North Star, also called Polaris, but most people think it’s the brightest star in the sky. Far from it. The North Star is a guide by which to orient, not a particularly beautiful star. Since it is located above Earth’s North Pole, the Earth appears to rotate beneath it. Latitude can be determined by its height above the horizon, and throughout the year, it is always in the north. Handy, but not necessarily gorgeous.
To find it, look first for the Big Dipper.
Yes, it’s in the north. Find the four stars that form the bowl of the dipper. The outermost two stars are in line with the North Star. Follow that line up until you come to a star in direct line. That’s the North Star.
Now, let’s find some other constellations. What you will see depends on your latitude and the month of the year. Orion, for instance, is a great constellation for beginners, but it isn’t usually visible in the summer. Orion is the Hunter ---
he wears a belt with a sword hanging from it and some sources include an arc of stars to the right as his bow. It’s fairly easy to find due to that belt and sword. The three stars in a row on an angle form his belt, the line of stars below that is his sword. The four other bright stars are his shoulders and knees. The one on the bottom right is Rigel, which is actually a cluster of three stars. The one on the top left is Betelgeuse, a red giant. It is one of the largest stars known. The brightest “star” in the sword is actually the Orion Nebula, the brightest nebula in the sky. A nebula is the shattered remnant of a star that exploded, leaving only a concentration of glowing gases behind.
Cassiopeia is a fairly easy summer constellation. She isn’t far from the North Star, and may be somewhat washed over by the Milky Way. She is formed by five stars in the form of a W. She is supposed to be a lady sitting and looking into her mirror. To me, she’s a W.
Cygnus, the swan, isn’t far from her, also in the wash of the Milky Way. This one is six stars; four in a line, and two forming the wings. This is also known as the Northern Cross.
In many campground visitor centers and bookstores, you can find guides to the stars. You can get a “planisphere”, which has a rotating cardboard wheel inside a holder. On the outside the holder lists the times. The wheel has the months on the outside circumference, and the stars on the inside. An oval opening on the holder shows the sky. You rotate the wheel within the holder until you line up the time and month. What shows through the hole in the holder is the night sky as you see it at the time you’ve chosen. Remember that it’s the whole sky, so what looks to be only inches apart is actually on the other horizon!
Darkness is an endangered species in our modern world. We light up parking lots, homes, everything. From space, our world twinkles with all the lights we use to protect ourselves both from the constraints of limiting our days to the daylight, and from the scary people and beasts who roam the nights. The price has been the loss of the night sky. If learning to value its wealth of science and mythology is the only thing you gain from your camping trip, then your trip has been well worthwhile!
First, teach your youngster to respect the outdoors. We are guests in someone else’s home. This is where birds and bees, bugs and plants live their lives. Try to leave the campsite a little better than you found it. Don’t kill anything you don’t have to (mosquitoes dining on your blood are fair game). Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
Second, everyone does their share. If you see something that needs to be done, do it! All are equal outdoors. And, by the way, everyone is responsible for their own stuff. If you’ve lost something, find it. If you’re through with the paper towel, throw it away yourself. Don’t leave it to blow into the bushes!
Teach the youngsters some basic first aid. Soap and water for scratches, how to recognize heat exhaustion or hypothermia, basic artificial respiration, how to call for help.
Teach the youngsters how to pack. Bring layers; the colder you are, the more layers you add. Two sweaters are warmer than one light jacket, a sweater and jacket warmer than a heavy jacket. Sweatshirts and pants are a great addition. They can be worn at night if it’s cold, or over jeans and T-shirts by day. Clean socks at night add surprising warmth. And another hint; tuck tomorrow’s clothes into the bottom of your sleeping bag or bedroll. They will be warm and dry when you put them on in the morning. PJ’s can also be left under the pillow inside the bag or roll. Again, keeps them dry.
Since the youngsters will be helping prepare meals, they need to know how to use a knife safely. First, the safety circle. When using a knife, the youngster should be able to swing their arms in any direction without touching anyone. Then, passing the knife. Hold the point of the blade toward you, with the sharp side pointed up, and the handle pointing toward the recipient. Look the recipient in the eyes and ask “Do you have the knife?” When the recipient replies that they do, you can release your hold. This prevents distracted people from dropping the knives onto toes. Show the youngster how to open and close a pocket knife, never letting the fingers cover the slit where the blade rests. Show them how to cut, always away from their face or hands, always while concentrating on their task, never hurrying. Watch them at first until you’re comfortable that they’re handling the knife safely. I’ve done this routinely with youngsters as young as 6.
Now, the fire. Explain that the fire circle is a safety circle. Only one person inside it at a time. No running, whether the fire is burning or not. No play of any kind near the fire circle. When using sticks (e.g. marshmallows) there should be one stick per ADULT. The youngster uses the stick, but the adult is within reach in case the safety rules are forgotten. A sharpened stick is a dangerous weapon!
Show the youngster how to lay the fire. The firestarter goes first. These can be made by using the fiber egg cartons. Stuff each egg hole with cotton lint, shredded paper, or wood shavings. Then pour melted wax or crayons over the stuffing. When cool, you have twelve fire starters!
Then place three sticks about the size of your wrist in an “A” shape with the firestarter in the hole at the top. Over the firestarter lay twigs that are dry and snap easily. Use plenty. Over these lay slightly bigger twigs, until you have a pile of increasing size. Now for the match. Show the youngster how to strike away from his/her body, and hold the match beneath the cross piece of the “A” to light the firestarter. Then let the youngster step into the firecircle and start the fire. It might take a book of matches before the youngster succeeds, but matches are cheap. Let them learn.
Let them help with the cooking, too. Start, not with hot dogs on that sharpened stick weapon, but with a one-pot meal. Coat your pot on the outside with shaving cream or hand soap. That makes all the soot come off easily in the dishpan. Brown hamburger, and add one can of tomato soup and one can of vegetable soup. We call it Brownie Stew, since even a 7-year-old can do this on their own. One word of warning; it has to be stirred all over the bottom of the pot. One year I forgot to mention that, and we ended up with a cone of charcoal in the center of the pot because they’d only stirred around the outside!
Oh, and don’t forget to let them help with the cleanup! That’s part of every meal.
As you get used to camping, your menu will vary significantly. Sometimes you’re exhausted from a long hike and a can of stew is the perfect meal. Sometimes you’re enjoying hanging out in camp and a gourmet meal is perfect. There is nothing that can’t be cooked in camp, from hot dogs to Thanksgiving dinner.
One last word of advice; bring too much for the youngsters to do. A bored youngster always finds something to get into. In addition to the books, bring a ball, jump ropes, games, badminton set, even bikes if you can. Not electronics. Those can be brought for the drive, but then they should be left in the car. They are too easily lost, dirtied with dust that interferes with function, dropped in the lake, or stepped on.
And, finally, just go! Don’t dread it, or you won’t enjoy it. These are the adventures the youngsters will remember all their lives. If everything goes wrong, the sky pours, the tent floods, the bugs invade, whatever, learn to laugh. Years from now, you’ll still be laughing. “Remember the time that …” pulls a family together like no other experience!