Thursday, January 2, 2014

Five Years of Woods and Waterways

As I sat to compose an entry to start this new year, 2014, I realized I've been keeping this blog for five years now, having posted well over a thousand entries.  I went back to see how I started out on January 1, 2009, and what I wrote then rings as true to me now as the day I first posted it.  Let me share it again.

A Snowy Day on the River

New Year's Day 2009, new snow, blue sky, and cold, cold, cold -- cold enough to keep that new snow fluffy and dry, perfect for a walk in the woods at my favorite place on earth:  the forested banks of the Hudson River at Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County, New York.

I've been exploring this stretch of the river for over ten years, by canoe and on foot, in all seasons and weathers, keeping a journal of all the plants I could name and animals I have seen (or found signs of by their tracks and scats and calls), and I've learned that there's always the chance I will find something new each time I visit. 
For one thing, the terrain is always changing.  This section of river lies between two dams,  Spier Falls upstream and Sherman Island downstream ( a stretch of about three miles), and the water level changes several times a day, creating a shoreline that is sometimes a mud flat, sometimes completely immersed up to steep rocky banks or flooded back into the woods.  Both banks of the river are forested mountains that come straight down to the shore, the trees overhanging the water. 
Approaching the Sherman Island dam, the shoreline grows ever more interesting, as the river runs around islands and past rocky promontories and into quiet coves and occasional marshes watered by tiny rills that trickle down from surrounding hills.  
It's that stretch of the river I'm visiting today on snowshoes, to start this record of a year in the woods and on the water.

We enter the woods at the  end of Potter Road in Moreau,  taking a path down to the river and a rocky point I have named Bear's Bathtub for its large depression about ten feet across and more than six feet deep that fills up with water from time to time.  No water today with the temperature around 15 degrees (F) and the river here completely frozen over.  But it's not safe to walk on today.  With the rising and falling of the water levels, the ice breaks at the edge and water comes over the top.  Also, ice is formed at varying water levels so the shoreline is a jumble of broken shards and  plates -- not a pleasant place for a walk on the ice.

But many creatures have walked on the ice today or last night when the snow was new-laid -- mostly coyotes I'm guessing, leaving prints like those of large dogs.  There are places in the woods where many prints all lead in the same direction,  and we follow those to a large hole in a pile of rocks that appears to be a den.  [I later learned that this was an otter den.] More prints lead through the woods to a promontory I call Rippled Rocks Point that juts out into the river, a sun-washed spot where Lowbush Blueberry and Black Chokeberry thrive in the summer.  Today the rocks are covered with snow, revealing the path of the creatures who apparently congregated here today or last night, on this high open platform of ice and stone, exposed to the sky and the profile of mountains rising above the far shore.  Do coyotes howl at the moon?  There was a beautiful crescent moon last night, sharing the early evening sky with a brilliant Venus.

Other prints we found were those of a mouse, like trapunto stitching across the snow as it wandered about a bit before scurrying to safety beneath a fallen log.  Also, Red Squirrel prints.   I had hoped to find signs of otter here, near open areas of water near the shore.  I had seen their scat on rocks out in the water last summer and their tobogganing trails through the snow in winters past,  but today I didn't.  We did see a hunter, though, hoping to bag a coyote.  Why? He said he wanted to make himself a coyote suit to wear while hunting.  I didn't tell  him where we had found the den.
[A few days later I added another post about this same section of the river: ]

Across a bay from Rippled Rocks Point on the Hudson River at Moreau stands this lovely little rocky mound of an island, crowned by three tall white pines.  I call it Three Pine Island although it is also forested with smaller pines, hemlocks, Chestnut Oaks, Black Tupelo, Paper Birch, and one small, very crooked White Ash growing out of a crack in a boulder.  It is surrounded by a marshy area that runs a hundred yards or so back into the woods.  Both the bay and the marsh are frozen solid today, allowing me to explore on snowshoes an area I can barely creep into by canoe in the summer.

Prominent across the snowy ice are these tracks (see photo above),  which at first, all excited, I thought must be otter, this bound-and-slide so typical of that animal's track.  But no, the slides are too narrow, barely three inches across, and the pawprints as small as those of a cat.   Must be mink.  A couple of them, it seems, making a beeline across the bay, into the marsh all the way to an open stream that forms this marsh's boundary, where they disappear into the water.

On days like this and in places like this, I feel like a 12-year-old kid, like a kid in a candy store with a hundred bucks in my pocket.  Most people I know love to travel to foreign places and visit exotic sights.  I've done some of that.  But all  the time I was passing through it felt like I was only looking at places through glass.  I didn't know how to truly inhabit them.  But here . . .  here on this river . . .   I've  been here at least fifty, sixty, maybe more than a hundred times, in all seasons, weathers, times of day;  I know the names of just about everything that grows and lives here, flora and fauna;  I know what plants are good to eat and where the orchids grow; and yet,  every time I visit, it all seems terra incognita

I never know what I  might find.  One spring morning I nearly stepped on a tiny brand-new fawn curled in the grass at my feet, so close I could sense its breath pass in and out of its nostrils.  One autumn evening I watched a young beaver drag a twig to the water's edge and heard him gnaw on it. One cold but brilliant January afternoon I saw a pair of bluebirds high in a tree,  their rosy breasts the only color in the winter landscape.   And one day . . . .  Some day . . . .   Just one of these days I know I will see an otter.  
* * * 
January 1, 2014: Indeed, I HAVE seen an otter, or at least a few glimpses of one, and so many, many other amazements, too, in the five years since I started this blog.  Also, as a direct result of keeping this blog, I have made the most wonderful friends, folks who share my love for the woods and waterways and who happily share their knowledge of plants and animals and introduce me to the marvelous places where they may be found.

First mention has to go to my friend Ellen Rathbone, once the nature educator at the Adirondack Visitors' Interpretive Center in Newcomb whose own blog, Adirondack Naturalist, inspired me to consider starting my own. After some months communicating through each other's blogs, we finally got together in the woods and on the waters for many fun adventures.

Sad to say, the VIC in Newcomb eventually closed, and Ellen had to leave her beloved Adirondacks to move to my own home state of Michigan, where she now serves to educate Michiganders about the wonders of their own woods and waterways.  I miss her companionship dearly, but I also enjoy following her adventures in Michigan, both through her continued personal blog (now called An Adirondack Naturalist in Michigan) and also through the informative blog she maintains for the Dahlem Nature Center where she now works.

I had never in all my life experienced a genuine sphagnum bog until I was taken to one -- and then to many more -- by Evelyn Greene, a fellow Hornbeck canoe enthusiast who knows all the lost ponds and secret bogs of the Adirondacks as if they were in her own backyard,  Which, in many ways, they are.  To get some sense of the many adventures this intrepid lady has led me on, just type her name into my blog's search bar, and prepare to be amazed.

Evelyn is also an expert in the formation of frazil ice, a particular kind of fluid, snow-like ice that forms in the turbulent river and is deposited in huge heaps along the shore, creating a distinctive habitat that supports the growth of many rare species of plants.  Before I met Evelyn I had never experienced this remarkable phenomenon, nor visited such a rare-plant habitat as the stretch of Hudson River called the Ice Meadows, upstream from Warrensburg.

Evelyn also introduced me to her good friend Bob Duncan, another nature enthusiast and font of knowledge about all kinds of plants, including knowledge about where to find the rarest of the rare.  Bob's knowledge is matched by his genial willingness to escort me to lay my own eyes on these rare plants, including the almost extirpated Hooker's Orchid Bob is photographing here.

Another habitat I had never experienced before I started this blog was the alpine habitat above the treeline of the high peaks of the Adirondacks.  Because of my blog, I came to know Steve Young, chief botanist with the New York Natural Heritage Program, who led botanical excursions to the summit of Whiteface Mountain and invited me to join them.

Each time I went, I was able to add many species of rare plants to my life list.  These trips also helped to cement my friendship with Steve, who has granted me permission to collect specimens of plants that have not been recorded for Saratoga County, thus updating the botanical record.  Steve is also my go-to guy when I find a plant I can't identify.  Just this past year,  he confirmed that an unusual Mountain Mint I had found on the shore at Moreau Lake was indeed one of New York's most endangered plants, Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. verticillatum (Whorled Mountain Mint), with only four other populations currently known to exist in all of New York State.  Quite an exciting find for me, an amateur wildflower hobbyist!

I have gained quite a number of botanical go-to guys and gals during the course of my keeping this blog, and the ones topping that list would be my friends in the Thursday Naturalists, especially Ed Miller and Ruth Schottman, both of them walking encyclopedias of botanical information.  Not to mention, darn good company on a nature walk.

This photo shows Ruth and Ed on the Ice Meadows along the Hudson River during a field meeting of the American Botanical Society (Northeast Section) organized by Ed last summer.  I would have to write a book to explain the wealth of knowledge Ed and Ruth have shared with me on our many excursions together, all of that knowledge imparted with generosity and delight.  Any amateur wildflower lover would be blessed to have either of these two as a teacher, and I can't believe how lucky I am that they have invited me to join them on their weekly explorations of nature preserves throughout the region.

Also topping that list of gracious botanical experts I can always call on is Nancy Slack, ecologist, professor, and author of several books on plant-related subjects.  She is also a member of the Thursday Naturalists, and we can always count on her to answer any questions about mosses, lichens, and liverworts, an area of special interest to her.  But she knows a lot about a lot of things, including how to tell one aster from another, as she is demonstrating during a nature walk last fall.

When I started this blog, I thought I might gain a few readers among the nature lovers of Saratoga County, since this was the area I planned to focus on.  I was absolutely astounded then, when, a month or two later, I discovered my blog had attracted readers from all over the world.  I soon found myself connecting with other nature writers through their own blogs, and before long, we started communicating through comments and emails, and friendships began to grow.   One of the strongest of these friendships occurred with a young botanist from Ohio, Andrew Gibson, whose own blog, The Natural Treasures of Ohio, showcases his home state through splendid photography and enthusiastic, deeply informed writing.

I soon learned of Andrew's passion for orchids when I posted an entry about finding large numbers of White Fringed Orchids in a bog I had visited.  Andrew's excitement about that find was so intense (this orchid is very, very rare in Ohio), I just had to invite him to come out the following year to go orchid-hunting with me in person.  Well, we had such a wonderful time, finding every single orchid on his wanted list plus many other flowers, that we agreed he would have to come back the next spring, to look for some earlier blooming species.  What amazing, marathon sessions of botanizing we had both times!  I've recorded some of our adventures in blogs I wrote about Andrew's visits, one in 2012 and again in 2013.  I revisit these posts often, not only to recall the great time we had together, but also to remind myself once again of the amazing variety of botanical treasures that surround us here in northeastern New York.

Although most of my new friends have been wildflower enthusiasts like myself,  I also count myself truly blessed to have come to know Vince Walsh, wilderness guide, expert animal tracker, and all-round nature guru.  Proprietor of the nature education center Kawing Crow, Vince has enhanced the winter woods for me forever by teaching me how to identify the tracks of many of our forest inhabitants.  And not just to know their names, but also to read of their fascinating dramas in the snow.  (Vince also led me on a pilgrimage to Black Tupelo trees that have been dated to 800 years old!)

If I've saved this final tribute for last, it's because I'm afraid that once I start talking about my almost constant nature companion, Sue Pierce, I won't be able to stop.  Every nature lover should have such a friend to walk with, one who can really SEE all the wonders that surround us, who knows how to really look, and most importantly, how to linger and pay close attention.  I can't count all the treasures I would have missed if Sue had not pointed them out to me.  In this photo she is holding that rare Mountain Mint I mentioned above, a treasure I just had to share with her.  When I first found it, I counted about 15 plants, but with Sue and her gift for discovery along, we located more than 50!

Sue is a longtime and dedicated student of Henry David Thoreau, and she brings a Thoreauovian sensibility to all she observes in nature,  a sensibility she also brings to her own beautiful blog, Water-Lily.

Such wonderful friends, so many amazing adventures, a burgeoning store of nature knowledge,  connections to nature lovers and gifted bloggers all over the world:  all these I would never have acquired if I had not started my blog five years ago.  I think I'll continue to keep it for another year.

To all my friends and loyal readers and fellow bloggers, I wish you health and happiness as we start the new year, and for many years to come.  Be sure to let nature contribute to your sense of wonder in life.


Elizabeth said...

Very big congratulations on a momentous anniversary! Your blog continues to be one of my favorite things to read, and I learn something new from every post. :) Here's to more exciting adventures in the years to come! Happy New Year!

Carolyn H said...

Congratulations on your five year anniverary. I passed the 8 year mark in August but didn't highlight it. I just keep writing away. Apparently I don't know how to stop!

Sandy L said...

Congratulations. I learn so much from you and your friends.
I first learned about your blog while on the West Virginia Wild Flower Pilgrimage in Davis, WV, I believe, May of 2011. Being from Fulton County, NY, I astounded participants because I didn't know of you. I read you when I can.

Jens Zorn said...

Jackie --- The totality of your blog is a wonderful achievement. And with commercial publishers undergoing difficulties that don't seem to end, your creation Saratoga Woods and Waterways is almost certain to be a principal archive of the flora in your region. The effort, thought, and care that you bring to this yields a resource for the next generations.
. Congratulations and warmest good wishes for the years to come!

Andrew Lane Gibson said...

Oh,'s us who take the real treat and pleasure of knowing you and holding you dearest to our hearts! Reading and enjoying your blog was a big reason for wanting to start mine and I can't thank you enough for the times we've been able to spend together in your home area of New York. It's been such a pleasure meeting so many of the others you mention like Sue, Evelyn, Bob, Ed and Ruth.

Even though blogging can feel like a thankless job sometimes, it's certainly led to more good times and better friendships than I could have ever imagined. Thank YOU for your friendship and being one of the most wonderful human beings I will ever have the pleasure to call my dearest friend :)

The Furry Gnome said...

What a wonderful posting, and congratulations on five years. How wonderful to have such great people to share the outdoor exploring with. Yours is perhaps my favourite blog to read; keep it up!

Raining Iguanas said...

I read blogs of all kinds: writing, poetry, photography, farm, nature, and anything else that catches my attention but I must say yours is far and away the most interesting, informative and enjoyable of them all. Congratulations on your accomplishment, I hope to follow your adventures for years to come.

suep said...

hello Jackie, words (or photos !) cannot express the gratitude I feel for existence of our friendship -- the walks in woods and on waters, new places, new friends - pushing me to start my own little blog - you are a constant source of inspiration. Your latest blog brings to mind the old poem
"Life is a garden,
Good friends are the flowers"
Looking forward to our next excursion!

The Cranky Crone, she lives alone! said...

Your beautiful blog has kept me going through some dreadful down times, it broadened my horizon, filled my head with visions of another life, and helped me wipe the fluff from eyes some days, so well done you for being so brilliant and informative at this blogging world.

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

How can I thank you, my dear friends, for such warm and encouraging comments? I keep returning to this post again and again, to re-read all your kind words that mean so much to me. My goal for keeping this blog was to share my delight in the nature that surrounds me, and knowing you participate in that delight sure keeps me dedicated to this task. Many, many thanks!

Virginia said...

Such a nice look back! And a great tribute to your many friends and colleagues. Congratulations on five years!