Peregrinate with Purpose My WordPress Blog

January 20, 2021

Minnows and Crossbills

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joe Brehm @ 1:52 am

After weeks of monotone gray, the sun shines a bright January shine. Hunting this morning, though I see or hear no sign of deer. Big Bailey Run, however, is alive with thrashing minnows beneath a thin sheet of ice. As the sun touches bottom

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, the benthic zone’s color blends perfectly with fish bodies. Looking with binoculars, all I can see of the western redside dace is their mottled red stripe. Two northern hognose suckers are among the shimmering dace, settling at the creek bottom with their long faces looking upstream to what may come. They are well-camoflaged, like half-erased pencil drawings. A frog even kicks beneath the paper-thin ice, to what end is not clear, but it seems satisfied to half-bury itself in the silt and drowned sycamore leaves. 

The creek is utterly perfect, a miracle considering past damage to the forest and geology within the watershed over the past century or more–mining, severe deforestation

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, etc in the first several decades of the 1900s. Yet the water is clear and the fish are alive. ODNR’s pocket guide says the northern hognose suckers need clean water, runs and riffles, with which this stretch of the creek is rich. The creek dribbles on over a riffle of small, flat stones, and sparkles like so many stars fallen to earth still aflame. 

A beaver dam on Big Bailey Run, a ways downstream from the fish encounters.

Yesterday, I went back to Old Waterloo State Forest (now part of Zaleski SF) in search of the red crossbills, and found them foraging in the afternoon sun. The birds eagerly tore through the bumper crop of shortleaf pines (Pinus echinata). There were more bird watchers than crossbills, and it was nice to bask in the distanced company of both. I almost turned back with one of the birders, driving past me along the road to the birds, told me there were a lot of people up there. I’m glad I didn’t. Everyone had the attitude and disposition as if they were in church, which in a way is true. We worshipped in the great pine cathedral where the basic elements were on full display: bright sunshine, cold wind, and so many shapes of the earth. As the crossbills foraged, the lucky amongst us held our heads high, not taking our eyes off the red and yellow birds. As they shucked seeds, clinging to pine branches and cones from every possible angle, the papery coatings drifted down, spinning like maple samaras. I chased one down to give to Juniper.

January 19, 2021

Cranberry River, West Virginia

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joe Brehm @ 3:13 am

November 13. The Cranberry River flows westward, roaring steadily as it goes. From our vantage point,  the river is flowing straight for the fading sunset, which cools to soft auburn barely discernible above the magnolias. Rhododendron walls off the forest across the river, which is perfectly strewn with large angular boulders. Junip is happy to be here, next to the clear rushing water and mossy forest. Mabel is restless and softly whining

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, her hind legs quivering, looking across the river. Perhaps she smells a bear and doesn’t know what it is. Scents from the valley descend with the cool air as it sinks; she could be smelling something roaming the woods high up on the ridge. She ran around with puppy zest when we first arrived. 

We stopped in Fenwick for firewood–a wheelbarrow full of wet cherry for $15 and they threw in some poplar kindling for free. The people were so friendly we didn’t care that the wood was wet. 

Camping in a steep alley like this always induces a greater sense of urgency and heightened survival instincts. The hours of sunlight are few

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, and the beautiful dark river obscures all sound. Junip and I have to practically shout even when right next to each other. Hearing a far-off threat just isn’t going to happen. It reminds me of my trip into the Rattlesnake, where that same urgency wouldn’t allow me to even take time to cook dinner and I subsisted on antelope salami and cheese the whole trip. inspired by Matterhorn, the novel I’m reading about the Vietnam War, I experiment with setting a sinew trip wire around our tent since we can’t hear jack shit. It turns out to be unnecessary but I do not trip over it when I get up to pee in the middle of the night

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, so it’s a wash. Smoke from the cooking fire ascends into the fraction of visible night sky, the giant burning stars singing as they tumble through the deep. Weather is fine–a one-dog night. 

November 14. Split cherry burns hot and blue, sending sparks swirling into the bare canopy. The embers cool and die out as they rise towards an infinite number of stars and vast spaces between. Junip gets ready for bed, waking Mabel up from her slumber in the driver’s seat (she is so tired from our big hike that she fell asleep in the car). We cook venison and potatoes in the dutch oven, and wonder about people cooking with clay pots. Four trucks pass by, loaded with whining hounds. I hope they aren’t running bears tonight. 

We hiked an 8-mile loop today, starting and ending at the Cranberry River. We ascended a large, rounded mountainside, walked the ridgetop, and circled back down. The dryer slopes grew cucumber magnolia, red oak, birch, black cherry, tulip tree, beech, and the occasional hickory–all deciduous. The tops of these old mountains are breathtaking. Clear streams crawl out of the ground, born straight from the old earth and flowing over mossy stones from time immemorial. I find one good sized crawdad and a ghoulish spring salamander larvae. Junip says, “it looks like a big worm,” and it’s difficult to argue; the big tadpole is pale pink and fleshy, but with a necklace of fire red gills and the noble eyes of a cold-blooded mountain creature. I stoop down and drink directly from the high salamander stream. 

Still high up

, on the cooler east-facing ridge, a quiet assemblage of red spruce, eastern hemlock and occasional huge sourwood stand high above dense thickets of rhododendron along riparian areas. In this forest, Junip spots a modest pile of bear scat lying on the dark humus.  We find several other fresh piles, and I wonder if the bears stay up here during hunting season, making the dogs and their humans climb to the top of this world for their quarry. The scats are full of cherry pits. The high mixed forests have huge cherry trees, and a lot of them, so the bear shit reveals no surprise there. “These leaves feel like Mabel’s ears, “ Junip says of the rhododendron, then she takes two magnolia leaves and holds them up to her head like dog ears and dances around. She lets the leaves go and they drift down, spinning gently to the forest floor through the bright afternoon sunlight. 

Bears had rubbed on one of the wooden sign posts showing hikers like us the way through the bears’ woods. Mabel sniffed the post intently but with apparent reverence. 

As we near FS Road 76 that follows the Cranberry River, I smell a black and mild but can’t spot the person who must be smoking it. We almost trip over the camouflaged man, whose camo is mostly jungle green and blends in perfectly with the shadowy rhododendrons. I wonder if that’s the type of camo they used in Vietnam

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, and whether this fellow was in that war. We arrive in the parking lot about the same time as he does and we get to talk with him and his son, perhaps, for a little while. They’re from a short ways away and have been hunting and fishing here for 17 years. The older guy with the jungle camo is amused and pleased that we almost tripped over him, judging by the way he laughs to himself after bringing up our first brief encounter. He also says he followed a nice-sized bear for “quite a while” this afternoon. Both men swoon over Mabel, saying she’s “about the best looking ‘walker I’ve ever seen.” The old hunter’s voice was like the high mountain stream, soft and clear, taking its time and not laboring. Junip says, “I could listen to that guy talk all day.” I asked him about the scratches we saw on the ridge–I was wondering if they could have been bear, but the old hunter saysbear scratches are usually a longer line compared with the round scratches of turkeys. 

The old hunter has a gray mustache and wears a floppy camo hat. His eyes are dark and sunken

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, but alert. I again wonder if he experienced anything I’m reading about in Matterhorn. We share observations about the big buck Mabel jumped, and they share some of their favorite places to hike and hunt and fish. The younger fellow, tall, bearded, with clear brown eyes, seems to acknowledge our competence when I say the bear scat was full of cherry pits. Mabel barked as they pulled away in their pickup, probably thinking it was full of deer legs. 

November 15. “I’ve seen more leaves in the air than birds,” Junip says, though at dawn she yelled crisply, “Joe!” I looked up to see an adult bald eagle flying upstream, navigating the wind that blew in last night. It cut through the open space above the water, brown wings as scythes and white tail a bold marker of its aerial passage. The river flows; we sit on a large boulder drinking coffee and watch the water. Observing the river does something good and mysterious to the soul. Leaves swirl and tumble in the cold water above smooth stones humming in the benthic zone. Perhaps a trout waits in the shadow of a boulder, hidden like a black bear in a rhododendron thicket. 

Though all around the Cranberry Glades area the weather is clear
, the sky down in this ancient rock bowl is cold and misty. We get out of the car and shiver, put on another coat before hitting the trail. We walk the boardwalk at Cranberry Glades. Junip says

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, “if I was a beaver living here…” and trails off with the thrill of this fantasy. The land is old and quiet. Red spruce and hemlocks stand wide and still; hardly a tree exists here without damage of some sort; half the branches here are dead and bleached gray.. Lichens cling happily to every branch
, shining lime greens and bright grays, dark olive greens. Usnea, crumpled rag lichen, and others I will look up in the lichen “bible” when we get back home. Chickadees call, and a lone woodpecker taps a nearby tree. The birds are calm yet alert in the fog. The air feels so good to breathe, and simply watching the small clear streams feels like an accomplishment. We search for the mountain redside dace, an endangered fish found here, and instead find a sparkling orange crawdad resting on the sandy creek bottom beneath bright sedge leaves waving in the current. Pitcher plant leaves are bright green and scarlet red, and a low-growing berry looks like a spider reaching across the peat.

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