Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: The Year in Books

This has been a busy year, as evidenced by the lack of activity around here. We took a fabulous two week vacation over the summer and had a really amazing time in Ireland. In my mind, that sort of represents the end of my blogging: after two weeks away, it was hard to get back to the computer.

Photo by SodaBoy

However, looking at my archives, that's not entirely true -- I have been more or less absent all year. One benefit of blogging less is reading more, at least compared to some years. Without further ado, I present the list of books I read in 2009:

  • Hoot [fiction] by Carl Hiassen
  • Fieldwork [fiction] by Mischa Berlinski
  • Scarlet Feather [fiction] by Maeve Binchy
  • The Hour I First Believed [fiction] by Wally Lamb
  • The Islandman [memoir] by Tomas O’Crohan
  • Baby Proof [fiction] by Emily Giffin
  • The Watchmen [graphic novel] by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  • Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood [non-fiction] by Taras Grescoe
  • McCarthy’s Bar [travel] by Pete McCarthy
  • The Way That I Went [non-fiction] by Robert Lloyd Praeger
  • Catherine, Called Birdy [fiction] by Karen Cushman
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life [non-fiction] by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Terror on the Burren [fiction] by Re O Laighleis
  • Frog Haven [fiction manuscript] by Mary Stebbins Taitt
  • Digging to America [fiction] by Anne Tyler
  • Budding Prospects [fiction] by T.C. Boyle
  • How the Irish Saved Civilization [non-fiction] by Thomas Cahill
  • Jaywalking with the Irish [travel] by David Monagan
  • Good Omens [fiction] by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
  • Adirondack Peak Experiences: Mountaineering Adventures, Misadventures, and the Pursuit of “The 46” [essays] edited by Carol Stone White
  • Cannery Row [fiction] by John Steinback
  • Mt. Everest: Confessions of an Amateur Peak Bagger [travel] by Kevin Flynn
  • Northanger Abbey [fiction] by Jane Austen
  • To See Every Bird on Earth [non-fiction] by Dan Koeppel
  • Handle with Care [fiction] by Jodi Picoult
  • Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve [non-fiction] by Alan Rabinowitz
  • Parable of the Sower [fiction] by Octavia Butler
  • Storkbites [memoir] by Marie Etienne
Happy New Year!! And happy reading in 2010...

Friday, October 02, 2009


Carl Sagan - 'A Glorious Dawn' featuring Stephen Hawking (Cosmos Remixed). Many thanks to melodysheep for the amazing tribute.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Summiting Whiteface

Whiteface and Esther are the northern-most of the Adirondack high peaks, set well apart from the rest. Due to that separation, Whiteface is easy to identify from a distance, especially given the distinctive slides, ski slopes, and castle-like structure perched up top. On the Saturday morning of our climb, we picked it out on the drive to the trailhead without those giveaway landmarks: it was the one entirely ensconced in clouds.

We parked at the ASRC just after 8 am, and after a few minutes of last minute gear shuffling, we set off. SodaBoy has long been adamant in his refusal to climb a mountain that can be driven up, so I enlisted Nadine as my hiking partner for the day. With a few high peaks under her belt already, I thought she might be susceptible to gentle persuasion, and she took the bait hook, line, and sinker.

Having climbed Esther in 2007 from the same trailhead, I knew the trail starts rising very steeply just past White Brook, and continues straight up for nearly a mile, the type of steady ascent that results in much profuse sweating. With that knowledge, I didn’t layer up much at the start, just a short sleeve wicking shirt with it’s long sleeve mate on top. Still, the air temperatures had not yet reached 40°F, and the first few minutes of the hike are downhill. It was cold!

A shivering Nadine may have been re-considering her decision to join me at that point, but I gave her a fleece-lined wool hat from my pack, and that helped a bit. Plus the ascent of Marble Mountain was just as I remembered, and once we’d been at that for a few minutes, all sensations of coldness quickly faded. The hat went back in the pack, along with my long sleeve wicker.

We reached the waypoint of Marble Mountain around 9 am, and found some new cairns leading to the junction with the Wilmington Trail. But before moving onward and upward, we took a break to soak in the views from Marble Mountain. The clouds hadn’t burned off yet and were still socking in some distant peaks, but we were low enough to be under them and could see sun shining down in the valley. Although the views were lovely, we didn’t stay long, as the wind was whipping fiercely, making our backs contract in painfully icy horror whenever the sweat-soaked shirts made contact with skin. [Wicking fabric is great, but it has limited powers when squished under a backpack; there‘s just no place for the moisture to go.]

View from Marble Mountain

Happy to have the most grueling part of the hike behind us, we continued the ascent. After reaching the plateau of Lookout Mountain, we started to see little bits of ice littering the mossy forest floor adjacent to the trail. By this time the clouds had burned off to a beautiful clear blue sky. Nadine spied a balsam spire coated with ice, and we deduced that the sunshine was melting the ice enough to drop it off the trees. Oddly, this made us giddy with joy, and we scooped up handfuls of the stuff and took lots of silly pictures. Little did we know the icy splendor that awaited further up.

Balsam Spire, Covered with Ice

We soon got our next taste of the development that makes Whiteface so different from the other high peaks, encountering a freshly cut downhill ski slope. The Olympic Regional Development Authority recently expanded the existing multitude of ski slopes onto Lookout Mountain, and the red-marked Wilmington hiking trail crosses over the intermediate level Wilmington ski trail. Let me just say that downhill ski trails are not particularly attractive without a forgiving layer of snow, and leave it at that.

Further along the trail, a large clearcut was visible to the east, so we picked our way over to have a look. It was the triple chairlift providing access to the trail we’d crossed, along with the expert level Hoyt's High trail. We basked in the sun briefly, and even found a thermometer hung on the snow-making equipment that showed the temperature to have finally reached exactly 40°F (albeit in the sun).

Map of the Whiteface Ski Trails, Highlighting the New Lookout Mountain Trails
Image from the official Whiteface website

Moving along, we soon came to the next sign of development: the huge rock embankment holding up the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway. A quick scramble over loose boulders put us over the wall, and we found ourselves in the incongruous position of standing on the side of the road, with an interpretive sign and a tidily painted crosswalk to safely usher automotive visitors across from a small parking area. Whiteface is so bizarre.

Spying the red blaze of the Wilmington Trail tacked to a balsam sapling on a looming boulder high above us, we scrambled up, happy to turn away from the highway and begin the final ascent. At this point, even though it was nearly 11:30 am, everything was covered with a thick layer of rime ice. We were high on the mountain, mostly just scrambling over bare rock, with tiny krummholz balsams the only remaining trees. We took several successive breaks, to add layers against the wind and to snap photos. It was spectacularly beautiful, and we were in solid agreement that this was out favorite part of the hike.

View of the Final Ascent

View Down, with Esther to the Left

Detail of Ice on Balsam

The summit of Whiteface is a very strange place. The highway goes nearly to the top, with a short 0.2 mile “nature trail” to the summit with concrete steps and hand rails, and for those who find that too rigorous, there is an elevator built into the core of the mountain. The Wilmington trail deposits the sweaty hiker right on the summit, surrounded by milling motorists dressed in a gamut of inappropriate clothing (flip flops and high heels were among the most egregious offenders). One nice feature is an interpretive sign labeling the distant summits in the heart of the high peaks. After snapping the requisite photos, we went inside the building to look at the displays, which seemed to be equally focused on the many types of ice found above treeline, and old black & white photographs of dignitaries on skis.

Then we decided to walk down the “nature trail” to check out the concession stand, which was replete with modern plumbing, kitschy gifts, and cafeteria style food. [Full disclosure: we had cups of broccoli cheddar soup along with some of the food we’d carried up, meaning of course we had to haul some of our supplies to back down again uneaten.] Then, for the experience of being inside the core of the mountain, we waited in line to ride the elevator back up to the top with the spiffy tourists. Looking at our watches before beginning our descent, we were shocked to realize it was 2 pm and we’d been on the summit for nearly two hours.

View from the Whiteface Summit

An hour later, we were back down to the junction with the unmaintained trail to Esther. Since I’d already bagged Esther, I had told Nadine the decision about whether to add Esther to the hike was entirely up to her. It is only 1.2 easy miles from the Wilmington Trail out to the Esther summit, and given that we had plenty of daylight left, Nadine didn’t hesitate to push on to Esther. So out we went, making good time, arriving at the summit at 3:30 pm. We spent 30 minutes taking photos, lolling in the sun, and snacking before heading out, arriving back at the Wilmington Trail junction at 4:30 pm. One nice thing about Esther is the solitude. Despite the busy nature of Whiteface and the Wilmington Trail, we didn’t see any other humans the whole way out to Esther or back.

For the Sheer Joy of Climbing (Esther Summit Marker)

The rest of the descent was uneventful, and we were back to the vehicle by 6 pm. We’d forgotten to bring spare shoes for a quick change of footwear, but did have a cooler with cans of V8, which always tastes great after sweating like crazy for hours on end. Even though Whiteface would rank low on the list of repeatable hikes due to all the development, it was a gorgeous day, and we had a blast. The rime ice was a special and unexpected joy. Total hike: 10.4 miles, 10 hours, 9/19/2009.

Whiteface - Elevation: 4867 feet, Order of Height: 5, Order of Ascension: 12; Esther - Elevation: 4240 feet, Order of Height: 28, Order of Ascension: 9.

Monday, September 14, 2009


SodaBoy got carded today... while attempting to purchase cream soda. Snerk.

That is all.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Summiting Wolf Jaws

It was 8:30 on the Friday morning of Labor Day weekend when we set out from the parking lot. The beginning of the hike from the AuSable Road trailhead is utterly incongruous with virtually any ultimate destination that can be reached from there, as private lands belonging to the Adirondack Mountain Reserve/AuSable Club must be crossed to reach state land. We powered through the first 0.7 mile along the dirt road, through a golf course, past the tennis courts and clubhouse, and finally, past the beautiful “camps” of super-privileged club members.

Approaching the gatehouse, where non-members such as ourselves (i.e., hiker trash) must normally check in with the club ranger, I heard distinctive laughter. That is J, I announced to SodaBoy. J&S are friends from the Granite State, who were to be joining us at our campsite that evening, but whom we hadn‘t expected to see until after our big hike. We knew their plans for the day involved hiking with their friend Mountain Man, whom they’d stayed with the night before. We spied J in the back of a pick-up truck parked by the gatehouse. When they saw us waving, he and S jumped out, and we all exchanged hugs.

Mountain Man, whose family belongs to the club, told us to hop in the back of the truck, and they’d drop us off down the Lake Road. So our hike started with a 0.7 mile walk along one road, and then a 0.7 mile ride along another. We hopped back out of the truck along the Lake Road at the footbridge that leads to the 0.45 mile connector track, which crosses the East River Trail before terminating at the Canyon Bridge. After crossing the AuSable River, we got on the West River Trail, and followed that until the intersection with the Wedge Brook Trail at a small, but lovely cascade. By now it was 9:30 am.

The next 1.6 miles up to the first junction between Upper and Lower Wolf Jaws took 2 hours. It didn’t help that SodaBoy and I were both recovering from bad colds that had afflicted us the week before. I felt virtually normal in every regard except a lingering cough, which continued to plague me throughout the weekend and made breathing a bit more difficult than normal. But I was not to be deterred. We headed left to tackle Upper Wolf Jaw first, since it was further away, both from our location at the trail junction, and from civilization in general, meaning that it would be easier to summit Lower Wolf Jaw another day if we couldn’t make both as planned.

We quickly reached the Wolf Jaws col and the junction with the Range Trail, with official DEC signs indicating that it was 0.9 miles to the summit of UWJ, and 0.5 miles to the summit of LWJ. It was on that section of the popular Range Trail where we met our first other hikers since leaving the West River Trail, passing two parties headed out after several days in the backcountry.

the Wolf's Tooth false summit, photo by SodaBoy

Moving forward, we gained the height of the false summit (a tooth in the Wolf’s Jaw). I was fully expecting this extra bump from reading trail guides and trip reports in advance, but even so, was a bit surprised by the size. Climbing up, it looked almost as big as either Wolf Jaw. Past that, the trail dipped down 100 feet or so, and then made the final summit approach.

Upon arrival, we had the summit to ourselves. We dropped our packs, and peeled off our sodden wicking shirts and damp socks, draping them on balsam to dry in the sun. We then enjoyed our picnic lunch, sandwiches made en plein aire from whole wheat bread and slices carved from a block of extra sharp cheddar, with sides of nuts and a bit of dark chocolate. During our meal we were joined by another friendly hiker, who was traveling alone and had a fun ritual of photographing a little toy pig on each of his summits. We were also joined briefly by a man hiking with his teenaged daughter and her friend, but that group also moved along fairly quickly. We would later see both parties again on the trail to/from LWJ.

lunching atop Upper Wolf Jaw, with view of Armstrong, photo by SodaBoy

We had to pull our clothes on practically immediately due to some oppressive and unfamiliar relation of the no-see-um. It was black with a pale spot, bigger than a no-see-um (although smearing easily in the same manner) but significantly smaller than a black fly, and lacking the striking hump-backed profile of the latter. Due to my 15 years of fieldwork, I am well acquainted with many a biting insect, but these little tyrants were new to me. And the summit was the last spot I expected to be bled, as mountain breezes often keep bugs down at high elevations, even if they are bad along the trail or back at camp. Neither was true in this case: the only biting insects we encountered all weekend were on the UWJ summit. Odd.

view from UWJ, looking back over the Tooth towards LWJ, photo by SodaBoy

After finishing our trail lunch, we got out the cameras and thoroughly documented the lovely views in both directions along the range, and across the valley towards Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge. Then we packed up and headed back down the trail towards the col and the Lower Wolf Jaw ascent. The tooth of the false summit was barely noticeable on the descent (funny how that works). We were slowed only by a few rock scrambles made slippery by wetness. The trail from the col to the LWJ summit was steep, gaining virtually the same elevation in 0.5 mile that UWJ had spread over 0.9 mile, but I was powerless to resist summiting another peak for the mere additional mile of hiking.

Ascending LWJ, we passed both the Hula Pig Hiker and another solo hiker on their way back down. Both stopped for friendly chats and shared assurances that we were almost there. Hikers are just the nicest people! We didn’t stay long on the summit of LWJ, as we’d already lunched and the views are less expansive, although one ledge provided panoramic vistas including Marcy, Algonquin, and Whiteface. After shooting my full complement of desired images, I discovered that my CF card had corrupted somehow, a crushing blow since all the photos I’d taken up to the point were lost. Luckily, SodaBoy has a wonderful collection of images I can enjoy, so that tempered my loss somewhat, and I had a spare card in my pack, so quickly swapped them out and frantically re-shot my lost views.

view from Lower Wolf Jaw, note the sharp peaks of Marcy and Algonquin

The descent was uneventful, which is always good. Of course we had to walk the full return trip back, including the short Lake Road portion we’d rode through on the way in. And of course the members bus barreled past as we trudged along, belching diesel fumes and smugness into our weary faces. Back on the road through the golf course, I realized I hadn’t sat down since the summit of UWJ, and plopped down briefly on a bench to polish of the last of my water. By 6 pm, we were back to the vehicle, which was stocked with welcome fluids and sandals, thrilled with the day and our accomplishments. Total hike: 9.9 miles, 9.5 hours, 9/4/2009.

Upper Wolf Jaw - Elevation: 4185 feet, Order of Height: 29, Order of Ascension: 10; Lower Wolf Jaw - Elevation: 4175 feet, Order of Height: 30, Order of Ascension: 11.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Walking to Winslow Homer

This afternoon SodaBoy and I walked over to the art building at Hometown University to see the Winslow Homer exhibit. The art is one of the great things about living in a college town; last year there was a Michelangelo exhibit to enjoy. I can't wait to see what the feature is next year.

On the Fence

The exhibit was very interesting and well-thought out. There was a large assortment of framed pages from newspapers showcasing his illustrations, a few tiles, and a small collection of of original drawings and paintings. The exhibit was arranged chronologically, providing an overview of Homer's influences and focusing on major inspirations like Houghton Farm.

Warm Afternoon

While I enjoyed the exhibit overall, I will confess a wee bit of disappointment not to see more of his Adirondack work. This is undoubtedly my own personal bias, influenced by my love of the Adirondacks, and perhaps felt even more strongly than normal, as I am still basking in the glory of being up there last weekend.

If you are in the Hometown University area, or will be here before October 11, definitely stop by to see the Winslow Homer exhibit. It's well worth the visit.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Photos courtesy of the Hometown University website, on the "press" page for the exhibit.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Silly Sign Saturday: The Tree ID Edition

SodaBoy and I were hiking a few weeks ago when I spied this sign ahead down the trail. I'm always excited to see signs labeling plants.

However, closer inspection revealed this particular sign to be an exception to my rule. This tree is decidedly not an American beech (Fagus grandifolia); rather it is a red maple (Acer rubrum). It's true that young trees of both species can exhibit smooth grey bark, but any resemblance ends there. The two have many easily distinguishable features. For example, beeches have alternate ovate leaves, while maples have opposite palmate leaves. What makes this especially sad is that we were hiking in a state park. Oops.

Click here to see my earlier foray into silly signs, inspired by Murray over at Signs of the Times.