Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Searching for spring

Daughter Chelsea came home for a visit and brought her friend Shannon. Friday night we discussed what we would do for fun that weekend. Naturally our thoughts went to one topic….adventure.

The weather had been unseasonably mild the week before and Chelsea thought that possibly spring was almost here. Shannon was so sure that it was close that we decided to go look for it. Maybe spring was already here… just hiding. It was settled… the following morning we would set out in search of spring.

The day broke gray and rainy, well… maybe not rainy, more of a heavy mist. Shannon was sure that spring was doing its best to hide from us. We would not be detoured or dissuaded we readied ourselves to search for spring.

Even though we were searching in our own backyard we prepared as though we were heading into the big wood. We had our compasses and our GPS. We checked the batteries and carefully folded our map. We packed matches and a hand crank flashlight. Shannon packed it all neatly into the adventure bag and we strapped on our hunting knives and a machete and we were ready to go. We decided to take Sydney in case we ran into danger. We learned the hard way along time ago that you cannot ever be too ready.

We headed out the back door and set our sights on the phone tower on Snyder hill. Our first stop was to pay our respects to a fallen friend. Just into the woods we stopped at Bear’s grave marker. We thought of good times and what a great dog he was. We dedicated this adventure to him and headed off.

Shannon soon found a tree with all the bark rubbed off. “Did spring do that?” She asked. "Not spring but a big whitetail buck" I told her. They rub the trees with their antlers to remove the velvet and to polish them for fighting. Being that the antlers grow over summer and they rub them clean for the fall Rut. I had to tell her this definitely was not a sign of spring.

Soon Sydney picked up a strong scent. “I think he smells spring!” Shannon exclaimed. Sydney pulled her to a trail where the leaves we all tore up and the ground was disturbed. Shannon was sure spring had come down the trail. We examined it carefully… we found acorn shells and beech husks. Shannon found a large feather. "Turkeys" I told her. They are looking for food. They can’t wait for spring to come either.

The trail led to a very wet and muddy area. Half buried in the side of the hill was a cement box. It was covered with moss and leaves. It looked quite old and had a square hole in the top. Water was pouring out of a pipe in the front side. “Is spring hiding in that box, paps?” Shannon asked. “Well (no pun) there is “a” spring in that box, but it is not the one we are looking for.” I explained. The box is an old cistern. The Lid was missing but it still held quite a bit of water. There are old horse shoes cemented in the top that helped secure the cover in place. We took a quick drink of the ice cold water coming out of the pipe and headed on our way.

At the summit of the hill we found the fence to the phone tower. The signs said no trespassing. “I never trespass” said Shannon. “Real adventurers never do” I assured her.

The top of the hill was thick with mist and fog. A light rain had begun to fall. We could not even see the lights on the phone tower. Shannon thought it was kind of scary. “I think spring is hiding up here” she said. We found shelter in a grove of hemlocks. The branches hung low and the ground was covered with “baby pinecones”. We rested in silence under the trees protected from the rain.

Out of the mist… there was a noise… once…twice then more and more, louder and louder. A clear “honk” ”honk” all around us but we couldn’t see a thing. “What are they paps?” Shannon whispered. “They are geese I” said. Heading north because… its spring. Shannon was so happy…finally we had found spring. It had tried its best to hide from us but we finally found it. We may not have seen it but we sure heard it!

We were ready to head back but our adventure was not over yet. We started down the hill and we found some peculiar trees. They were hollow on the inside and a lot of the bark was missing. Shannon thought somebody had spilled their jelly beans in the tree, but they smelled funny. I told Shannon that a porcupine lived in that tree and that they sleep all winter inside the tree. They come out in the spring and eat the bark on the trees for food. “They come out in the spring!”She exclaimed. I told her he was so hungry after his winter sleep he was eating his own house. We both thought he must not be very bright and he should leave the jelly bean making to the Easter bunny.

Farther down the hill we found some hairy scats. “What is that paps?” Shannon asked. “Owl pellets” I told her. Owls like to eat mice and other animals that come out at night, but they do not like the fur or the bones so they barf them out in pellets. I suggested we tear one apart so we could find the bones. Shannon thought that was something a porcupine might do, but not her. I also explained that owls have their babies early in the spring so they will already be hatched and hungry when all the other spring babies are vulnerable to be caught. The owl parents would then barf up food for the babies to eat. I suggested we look for the tree they were nested in. Shannon was positive that the owls were definitely rooming with the porcupine being they were on about the same intelligence level.

We returned to the back yard and headed down through Grandma Irons yard we noticed crocuses blooming around her house. Spring had come while we were gone. It was probably there all the time and we really did not have to look very far, but we were glad we did.

Monday, February 2, 2009


North central Pennsylvania… Winter… what else are you going to do? Can you have fun at 13°F and in a stiff wind?

The first non-fiction book I ever enjoyed reading was Jack London’s “Call of the Wild”. Probably the only good thing public school forced me to do was to read that book. It made me see fiction as possibly a legitimate form of reading material. Call of the Wild was quickly followed by White Fang.

These two books kindled my desire for adventure like no other. Pennsylvania in winter was as an exotic a destination as I could manage. And with a little imagination I could actually experience it in my own backyard, sans sled and dogs. This could be one of the reasons I like winter so much.

I saw and article on the upcoming race in the local paper three weeks prior. It was something I had wanted to see for a long time. Amazingly MJ and Danae were actually eager to accompany me. Danae loves dogs and I had agreed with MJ to keep the excursions brief, and to consolidate it with a shopping trip, her favorite kind of adventure.

We were in no hurry to get out the door Saturday morning. Medium distance races started at 8:30 am. MJ and Danae consider Saturday morning as somewhat sacred and I knew they would be hesitant to violate the sanctity of their sleep. They were good natured and consented to be up and ready by 10:30. That would give us travel time to get to the race area just before the Sprints started. The day broke over cast and cold just above 10° F. I encouraged the girls to bring plenty of warm clothing. They complied without hesitation.

Getting to the race area took over an hour the last few miles or so in the national forest was quite desolate especially at that time of the year. The directions listed in the paper were not as complete as I had hoped. I missed a road which turned into a half hour delay. The detour we took while beautiful just served to amplify the remoteness of a state park in the winter time and added to the overall feeling of adventure.

We reached Camp Turner in the Quaker run area of the forest at about 12:30. Fortunately things were running behind schedule and by the time we were geared up and had made a quick run through the area surrounding the course the sprints were just beginning.

Sleds… I was amazed by the wide variety of sleds we saw. Some were designed for single dog pulls up to the big sleds that are pulled by six or more dogs. All were of bentwood construction. I had kind of expected some made of more modern materials, every sled was totally traditional.

Dogs... Not so the dogs. Seemed to be a variety of mixed breeds. Husky cross Grey hounds German shepherd. Maybe some whippets. The only thing they seemed to need was a desire to pull.

Dogs just wanna have run!

The Mixed breeds were outrageous they were loud and could not wait to run. They seemed to run full bore start to finish. The huskies on the other hand were consistent and determined. They set a pace and maintained it.

We had considered taking our own dog to the race, just as a spectator of course. Danae thought with him being a wolf hybrid it could stimulate his primal pulling tendencies. I was concerned that those same primal urges could be dangerous to the other dogs and opted to leave him home. This is Sydney (aka "Syd Vicious") during his latest tonsorial adventure.

The races were lively and seemed to be well run. Not much of a spectator sport aside from the start and finish. There was a bit of a carnival atmosphere at the start and finish line. Kids enjoying the snow, families sharing food and hot cocoa.

Plenty of us musher wannabees sharing their thoughts on the teams and their strong and weak points. They dress the part very well but I got the idea this was as close as they ever got to driving a team. Lots of cameras and even a few reporters.

4 - 3 -2 - 1 ... HIKE!
The start is always the most exciting.

After a couple of hours MJ headed to the car. She was able to maneuver it to a prime position where she could view the race and warm her toes. The first team returned, he seemed pleased with his run but concerned because he lost track of the team behind him. He thought they would have been closer. After twenty minutes and no other teams showing up he headed back down the trail on foot. I notice a couple of snowmobiles heading down the course they seemed to be outfitted with first aid equipment.

Tired Huskies

All returned soon enough. Apparently one of the teams spooked some deer and the dogs decided they were much more interesting than the course. The sled flipped and the dogs ran off. Several of the teams stopped to help. So much for the sprint but good form by the competitors.

The teams returned in short order, we did not find out if they recovered the dogs. I imagine they did. Cold and wind began to take its toll. True to my word I relinquish my grip on this icy piece of the north and we packed it in and headed for warmth and Wal-Mart.

As the dog turns.

I wondered how the musher controlled his dogs. No whips like in the movies. I did hear them using voice commands which the dogs responded to quite well, but not normally on the first try. Here is a video clip of a musher using the commands “halt” (stop) and “Haw” (left). Some other basic commands “Gee” (right) and “hike” (go), not “mush” like you always hear.


My friend Bob speculated, that possibly, the mixed breeds were favored for the sprints and the more traditional malamutes and huskies for the distance events. I can’t confirm that, but experientially it seemed true.

This looks like it would be a fun sport to be involved in. Until you realize the time and money it takes to maintain a team. Most claim they run their dogs year round, four to six miles, three to five days a week. Figure in the food these pups would pack away after a run like that and you have some serious expense. Every owner I talked to claimed they do it because it is what the dogs love. I can believe it.