Saturday, December 31, 2011

Crusty Finish to 2011

"Periods of rain and freezing rain... winds light and variable" - that's the forecast for us this last day of 2011. I can see crusty slush covering the roof outside my window even as water drips from the slush melting off the roof above. The stone walkway and hard surfaces in the perennial garden are coated with a thin and uninviting film of slipperiness.
The hemlocks, firs, and pines droop their boughs toward the russet and brown stalks of fern and dried leaf litter poking up through patches of snow and slush below. The ice on the vernal pool - just visible through the barren oak, ash, and red maple trunks - is degrading to slush itself, taking on a smoky gray hue with a sheen of olive green.
Along the trails through the property are ice droplets hanging delicately from the tips of paper thin beech leaves. When the sun breaks through the overcast layer of clouds, the ice drops will shine in brilliance for a few moments before the warmth melts them into a steady stream of drip drip drip to mark the end of this crusty, slushy, sometimes slippery but gloriously wonderful old year.

Friday, December 30, 2011

My worst nightmare...

It's no fun seeing someone you love sustain an injury. It's even less fun when it's your own child, no matter how old they are. The worst nightmare, however, is being responsible for your grandchild getting hurt while you're in charge of their welfare. We got through it with little more than a short bout of profuse bleeding, a nasty gash, and hurt feelings - and I couldn't help but be thankful it hadn't turned out any worse. Still, I wasn't prepared for the sleepless night that followed during which I kept waking up from nightmares of falls, toxic foods, and uncontrolled events involving people I love. I was happy (and tired) when the next morning brought smiles and sunshine to replace the tears and ice packs of the previous evening. Outside in the fresh air we walked through the wooded paths, climbed on stone walls, and crunched through thin ice to create happier memories of a visit to grammah's house.

It's easy to forget how quickly accidents can happen, and hard to accept that no matter how many precautions you take, they can still occur. It's also difficult to "let go" and not be over-protective, and to balance safety with having fun. I was wrong when I thought life would be easier when I got older, or that being a grandparent would be easier than parenting.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Ladies

I'm so thankful for the ladies in my life who inspire me, encourage me, and allow me to be part of their support system. Those pictured here are at the top of my list - my daughter, my sisters, 'adopted' sister, and my mom along with my niece and her daughter. Equally important, but not pictured are my mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Other special women include my step daughter, sisters-in-law, nieces, and granddaughters as well as former in-laws who I still consider to be my family. It's a cold and lonely road traveling through life without someone to talk with and bounce ideas off, and I appreciate them all - they help me be a better person.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Winter Bouquets

In keeping with the festive mood of the season, this afternoon I went walking through the woods and roadsides in search of all things green and red. Luckily, I'd scoped out a good supply of bright red winterberries because there's not much else with color this time of year. We're fortunate to have a variety of conifers on the property so it was easy to get lots of greens in the form of hemlock, balsam fir, and spruce boughs. Clubmoss and firmoss are also plentiful and pretty. While walking around, I collected dried seed pods of blue flags, green horsetails, red twigs, brown once-fertile-blades of sensitive fern, and golden stalks of grass to add color and texture to our holiday arrangements.

Friday, December 16, 2011

O' Christmas Tree...

'Tis the season to rock the house for the holidays! My holiday season got kicked off last week with a Colorado visit with Bryan, Erin, and the pups - watching Bryan run the train beneath the lit tree, walking through the garden of lights, shopping in downtown Fort Collins, and listening to holiday music really put me in the mood - leaving them poked a little hole in my bubble of holiday spirit though. Luckily I bounce back quickly, especially when I have a purposeful agenda centered on family and friends!

The first order of business was to do some shopping (no, you can't see) and do some baking (is your mouth watering?). Here are a few examples of my efforts in the kitchen: two variations of date balls - one regular and one soaked in rum; sugar cookies dressed as trees; peanut butter cup cookies that have been a recent hit; and gingerbread houses in cookie-size portions rather than the large display that gets stale unless eaten immediately.
Next came the choosing of the Christmas tree. This beauty is probably the best tree ever cut off this property. It's full, healthy, and almost 15' tall - reaching to the ceiling in front of the two-story wall of south-facing windows. Stringing lights and placing ornaments necessitates an assemblage of ladders including an extension ladder and three stepladders - an 8', a 6', and a little two-stepper.
Here's our tree decorated with over 1000 lights and a box of ornaments collected over the years. The holiday season is off to a good start!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lory State Park

Sunday brought another day of clear skies and, though the morning started out quite cold the afternoon was warm enough to shed our jackets as we hiked the valley trail loop at Lory State Park. The brilliant blue overhead contrasted sharply with the russet uplifted bedrock formations that gave way to subtle gray and brown tones on hillsides and then the snow covered valley below.
Dried remnants of grasses and wildflowers poked up around patches of shrubs and occasional pines in the open area that extends all the way to Horsetooth Rock.
The warm sun and dry air worked their magic on cold snowpack to leave textured crystals that caught the light.

Fences and barbed wire are common sights along the trails.

In addition to the traditional fence posts and barbed wire, there are occasional sections of old-fashioned wooden fences - these seem to be randomly placed.
The trails we used were easy to navigate, covering gently rolling slopes with well marked paths. Sturdy footbridges have been constructed, one by a Boy Scout troop, to cross over drainages. The trickiest part of the trails was the slick mud where snow has melted and the cold ground hasn't allowed water to drain very deep. One of the many nice things about this natural area is that it's so close to Fort Collins.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Garden of Lights

There's nothing quite as special during the Christmas holiday season as driving around looking at lights. We thought about driving down south of Denver to an arboretum to see a light display, but decided instead to check out a local display at the Gardens on Spring Creek here in Fort Collins. We were not disappointed! Trees, fences, and buildings were strung with brightly colored lights and multiple free-standing light sculptures filled in the gaps.There were stalks of corn, a patch of pumpkins, a row of grape vines, and gardens of flowers - all cleverly crafted and lit up with hundreds of lights.

Jiminy Cricket even made an appearance!

After walking around the garden, we went to a little shop for hot chocolate. As if the lights and cocoa weren't enough treats for one evening, Bryan reached into his back pocket and presented us with a flask of Yukon Jack! Great fun close to home.

Comfort Food

This morning while drinking coffee I noticed three acorn squash in the hanging basket. I asked Bryan, "What are you going to do with those squash?" After a short discussion we decided to make squash soup. Bryan prepared them for roasting and when they came out of the oven 45 minutes later it was my turn in the kitchen.
I scooped out all the flesh, sauteed onions, melted butter and put it all into the crock pot with veggie stock, pepper, and cinnamon. We let it slow cook all afternoon while we hit the streets in downtown Fort Collins for a little holiday shopping. When we got home, I added some cream cheese to the squash mixture and then put it through the food processor.

The final result was a lovely, creamy squash soup that we garnished with bacon crumbles. While we admitted the cream cheese and bacon didn't add any health value, we decided they were probably okay for us since the bulk of the meal was made up of vegetables.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Gold Hill, Colorado

The mailboxes, eleven of them, sat side by side, perched atop a crudely constructed frame. Several street corners had similar setups while others had no mailboxes at all, giving a cozy feel to this hamlet overlooking the front range. Gold Hill, a small town on a ridge above Left Hand Canyon, is home to just over 200 residents - 228 in 2007 to be exact. Though located only ten miles northwest of Boulder, Colorado and accessible by four routes (one each from the north, south, east, and west), Gold Hill seems remote and isolated. The steep grades and switchbacks connecting the mountaintop to the plains and valleys below are not for the faint of heart, and this may be part of the reason for the small population.

We reached Gold Hill from the north, driving up Lick Skillet Road, the steepest county road in the United States. There were several moments when, sliding and spinning on ice and snow pack, we considered putting the chains on the tires but a slow, steady pace and an experienced driver made the ascent successful and we breathed a sigh of relief when we reached Main Street and parked the vehicle. Our first stop was just a short walk away - the Gold Hill Store. Here we enjoyed hot beverages (I can personally vouch for the creamy chai) and shared a piece of moist and hearty carrot cake (honestly, I only had one bite) while perusing the eclectic displays of local handcrafts, books and calendars with historical photographs, and a collection of vintage model cars.
In spite of our being at 8,300' elevation, the warm sun and still air made for a pleasant walk around town. Earlier in the morning, we'd read that Gold Hill started as a gold mining town but when the gold business petered out, someone had the foresight to think the town could make it in the tourist business. Unlike other gold mining communities that became ghost towns, Gold Hill survived. Most of the small homes are original structures dating back to the 1800s, according to placards posted on fences in the front yards.

We departed Gold Hill by way of the Sunshine Canyon Road. Not far from town, we stopped at a roadside turnout where we could look northwestward toward the mountains. The moderately steep descent took many hairpin turns past charred trees, rebuilding sites, and stands of starkly barren, black snags - all the result of recent forest fires in that area. For stunning photographs of the fire scarred hillsides, check out Erin's blog site. The breathtaking contrasts between cozy community, mountain grandeur, and the destructive forces of nature are, like the steep roads and rough terrain, not for the faint of heart. They might be however, just about right for a few hardy souls who choose to set their mailbox with those of their neighbors on the street corner just down the road.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Horsetooth Mountain Open Space

Thursday arrived with blue skies and warm sunshine and, after doing errands with Bryan and the pups, we decided to spend the afternoon at Horsetooth Mountain Open Space hiking up to Horsetooth Rock, just a few miles from downtown Fort Collins. The trails were mostly snow covered, especially on north-facing slopes, with a few sun-drenched areas melted down to bare gravel.

Bryan packed chicken salad & gorgonzola wraps for lunch. There's not much that beats eating trailside in good company. The pups were happy to finish off the last few bites before we resumed our hike to the base of Horsetooth Rock.

Bryan took the day off from work, but the wonders of technology allowed him to check his email and receive a few calls from his office. Years ago it would be impossible to hike up into the mountains and be connected to the rest of the world. I have to admit that given the choice of having him at work or hiking with me, I'd opt for this very acceptable compromise. Erin wasn't as fortunate and had to work all day - we missed her!

Oscar's feet got cold so he got a short ride through the icy, shadowed areas ...

... and Anna got tired so she got her turn at seeing the world from a higher vantage point ..
We had a great day together.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mt. Abraham

The expansive view from the summit of Mt. Abraham in western Maine was breathtaking, and well worth the climb. From the trailhead, the first part of the hike entailed a pleasant hike up moderate slopes through mixed forest canopy, but the last section got tougher. The grade became steeper as the trail passed through spruce woodlands, open granite faces, patches of krummholz, and finally a talus peak! When I reached the talus field, both calves seized in cramps which made the climb all the more interesting. Standing atop the piles of rock, I turned around and the strain and pain was forgotten, replaced by awe and wonder.

The purpose of the climb was to access areas off-trail and record botanical species in different natural communities - the canopy and understory trees, shrubs, and plants in the herbaceous layer - as well as terrain features, soil conditions, and any signs of human disturbance. This was one of my first experiences as a conservation aide in the summer of 2011, and one against which subsequent hikes were compared... "Was it as strenuous or take as long as Mt. Abraham?"

Sunday, November 06, 2011

White Wake Up Call

Last weekend, while it was still officially October, we were treated to a heavy, wet blanket of fresh snow. In preparation, and not knowing how long the first dumping of white stuff might last, I raked the yard with furious intention so that, in case the snow never melted again until spring, the yard would at least be tidy and easier to deal with in April. Note in the photo above that the oaks STILL HAD A LOT OF LEAVES!
Under no false assumptions that my labors wouldn't need repeating, I simply enjoyed the task - even as more leaves drifted downward on gentle breezes, even as the cleared green lawn became sprinkled with gold and russet, even as the snow clouds and dark of night approached. It took all of Friday afternoon and the entire day on Saturday but I managed to rake the entire lawn. And then it snowed.

And the oaks continued to drop their leaves onto the fresh snow. I have to admit this occurs to me like Mother Nature's had a great big party with leaf-confetti while I slumber away the night-time hours. It took a few days for the snow to start melting, but it finally did, leaving the lawn beautifully decorated and in need of another rake-up. Over the past few days I've gathered my rake and gloves, wheelbarrow and basket, and either a morning cup of coffee or an afternoon gin-n-tonic.

With the bulk of the leaves already removed, these rakings have been even more enjoyable: gentle winds dry out the leaves, making them fluffy and light and easily swept toward their respective dumping areas; a little more time is spent in the perennial bed where the leaves get hand-picked from stiff, dense thickets of stems and stalks; standing in warm sunshine while cool air brushes my cheeks provides momentary refreshment before continuing the task.

The October snowstorm was a wake-up call to get the outdoor chores completed - and raking the leaves wasn't the only thing on the list here. Richard cleaned the chimneys , the brought in the rest of the firewood , turned off the outside faucets to prevent freeze damage, and readied the snowblowers and shovels for what lies ahead. I've taken out the winter & holiday CD collection for the next snowstorm!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Carrot cake anyone?

Carrots! We still have quite a few carrots in the garden and, even though the deer have eaten off the lacy green tops, the veggies are storing themselves nicely beneath the soil so we just go pick them fresh whenever we want them. We've enjoyed them in chicken stew, coq au vin, and beef pot roast - and occasionally just on their own with a little bit of brown sugar and butter. Yesterday I got my mind (and taste buds) wrapped around the idea of fresh carrot cake. I found a recipe in my dog-eared food-stained much-loved-and used Fannie Farmer cookbook, but I didn't have exactly the called-for ingredients so, as I often do, I improvised. Oh, what a carrot cake!
The cake is very moist thanks to a good basic recipe, and to adding applesauce. I put the carrots through the food processor instead of grating them by hand which was a) much easier and b) created small chunks of orange to highlight the key ingredient. More color and texture was achieved by adding some dried cranberries, coconut, and finely chopped walnuts. Then, instead of topping the cake with a typical cream cheese frosting, the recipe suggested glazing the top of the warm loaf with honeyed butter - I definitely recommend this because the flavor and texture of the cake itself really shone through without the distraction of creamy sweetness. I know I'll be making this recipe again and again... if I can only remember how much of each "extra" ingredient I added!

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Field Notes

This is how I spent a good portion of the past five-month internship as a MNAP conservation aide: hiking into natural areas and recording things like plant species, soil conditions, terrain and topography, and any signs of animal use of the habitat. It was an amazing hands-on experience. There's another component to assessing natural areas, though - somehow it all has to be documented in some useful manner. So that's how I spent the rest of my work time - filling out field forms, creating maps with GIS, updating databases, and reviewing photographs. Once home at the end of the day, my backpack got emptied and the plant specimens pressed (most of them anyway), photos downloaded onto the computer, and GPS points transferred from the Garmin.
The internship is over now and I'm searching for the next great job, one that will pay enough to keep up with the school loan payments, purchase some fuel to see the grandkids & kids, buy a plane ticket to Colorado, and contribute to our regular household expenses. Just as important, a job that will challenge and further build my botany skills.
The job search began a month or so ago. Relatively few postitions and limited experience seems to be the biggest obstacles to finding an entry level job as a botanist, naturalist, or ecologist. Hopefully I'll hear back soon about one of the many applications I've submitted. Until then, I have a stack of dried pressed plants and a computer file of photographs on my desk and there are still a lot of trails and natural areas to explore!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Great Waas Island

It's been a great summer working as a conservation aide - from the St. John River to coastal saltmarshes, from downeast wetlands to the western Maine mountains. The field season has come to a close and the internship over, but there are lots of places I still haven't seen. Great Waas Island was one of those places until last weekend when Richard and I devoted an entire day to getting there including a 3 1/2 hour drive each way and another 3 1/2 hours to walk the 5.5 miles of trails maintained by the Nature Conservancy. The jack pine woodland, views of the heath, boardwalks through wet woodlands, and the rugged ledges along the shore were all the more beautiful under the pure blue sky of a lovely late October day.