Category Archives: Nature Log

Acadia National Park community Listening to the Dew: Nature Log Nature Log Otter Creek

Seeking sunlight, we went looking for caves.

Pitch Pine grove in Otter Creek, Maine

It is the time of year when days are short. During the week it is barely light when I head to work, and usually dark when I head home. Weekends are the chance to get some sun and soak in those warm vitamin D filled rays. There are plenty of reasons to be outside—hunting down and cutting the Christmas tree, stringing lights, gathering mussels, bringing in wood for the stove—but these only give a few hours, if that, of outdoor time.

There are only sixteen short hours of daylight each weekend, weekends that include commitments like family gatherings, indoor construction projects, laundry and other household tasks. This weekend we celebrated Christmas with cousins, aunts, siblings, and in-laws. Otter Creek, where we live, and many at the gathering grew up, was of course a topic. The Tarn, a small pond where people used to skate, fish and iceboat, is filling in. Coyotes, unheard of thirty years ago, boldly sit by the road munching on their kill. Someone mentioned playing in caves were they were little, and wondered if anyone had been there lately. Caves? As we drove home I begged for more information.

 

I knew these would not be caves as most people think of caves—deep, extensive, a place to get lost in or explore. But I have lived in Otter Creek close to half my life, and had not heard about these caves. Sunday, I had already begged, we would get outside for some sun. Now we had a purpose, we were going to find caves.

The modest mountains of Acadia National Park have several caves. Day Mountain is a two-mile walk from our house, and the caves there are deep enough to reach a point where no daylight enters. I would crawl in, and squeeze into the little corner where light did not reach, and crouch with my eyes wide open. I played with touching my nose, and moving my hands towards each other, index fingers pointing, and seeing if I could get them to meet. This is a place I love to share with visitors.

One friend, huddled next to me, said turn on the flashlight. We gazed horrified at the dozens of large black spiders on the roof of our cranny, inches above our hair.

I was ready for some new caves. “How big?” I asked. My husband said he couldn’t really remember, but that they were big enough to fit inside. He said when he was young his grandfather told him he used to go up there with the girls. His grandfather was not specific about what they did, but the implication was they were big enough to get in out of the rain.

Sunday, chores were done or shrugged off. There was sun, glorious sun. It was twenty-one degrees. We got directions from neighbor Clyde, who has spent all his life in the Creek and knows every inch of it.

We headed up the steep hill behind the Otter Creek Hall (formerly the Congregational Church). I had walked back there a few times, and we tap trees in that area for maple syrup. We went beyond that. We followed deer trails to an old  property road, which marked a boundary of David Bracy’s land. David was one of the village settlers. The day was crisp and fine, and I was so happy to have the sun on my face that the search became secondary, as we knew it would.

After a short climb we reached an open ledge, a rocky stretch with twisted pitch pines and Dorr Mountain in the distance. There is a pitch pine grove behind my house, and these small growths are suggestive of Chinese watercolors. There is little underbrush, and the short stunted pines seem to rise out of the granite ledges. Silver grey deer moss covers the rocks. Frost edged a the opening of chipmunk hole, and we saw three more entrances to this little chipmunk community.  A large aspen had extensive beaver teeth marks along the bottom. It was a big tree, and I am not surprised he gave up.

Chipmunk hole surrounded by bits of pine cone

We continued to follow the old road, and there, plunk in the middle of the woods, was a fish shack. “That belonged to Mike Bracy,” my husband said. Around 1970 Acadia National Park employees were instructed to go to Otter Creek and destroy all the villager’s fish shacks. Later, they rebuilt Mike’s shack, and he moved it up into the woods. He was getting old, and no one really understands the logic behind the move, but there it is, a sturdy little building with newspaper insulation. Someone has sprayed a peace symbol on it, and some plastic toys lie abandoned inside the door.

Mike Bracy’s fish shack, moved from the shore to the woods.

Under a hemlock tree we saw the scrapings a buck had made with his hoof, and I was told they almost always marked their territory under an evergreen. I asked why, but did not get an answer.

After an open trail and sloping woodland floor we came upon a tumble of boulders  and ledges. There were overhangs, and some dark crevices, but nothing I would call a cave unless I was ten inches tall. Someone had been up there cutting brush, about two years ago judging by the ages of the cut marks. Several tall spruce were splattered with sap. Something, wasps, parasites, I do not know but welcome a scientist to explain, had wounded the trees and they were producing sap and making spruce gum. Otter Creek spruce gum was once sold in New York markets as chewing gum.

Spruce sap spatters on spruce tree.

The sun was already heading for the mountain that would soon hide it. We passed another hoof pattern in the earth, and sure enough it was under another hemlock. Could it be buck’s mark elsewhere, but it is only in the clear, needle covered space that we notice it?

I have had some sun, and while I did not get to crawl into a spider infested cave, I have learned a little more about the people who came before me in this village of mine, and explored a few hills and ledges I had never seen before.

 

Granite rocks in Otter Creek

A young cave

 

 

Listening to the Dew: Nature Log Nature Log Otter Creek

Mushroom fever


The start of our large autumn harvest

Death by mushroom happens every year, as it has for hundreds of years, but it does not deter me from gathering my favorite edible fungus, Grifola frondosa, sometimes called hen of the woods. Death in mushroom is a newer concept, and one I first heard of at a recent mushroom party. As a gatherer and eater of wild mushrooms, and someone who loves wandering old cemeteries but never wants to be in one, being buried in a mushroom shroud has a purity and simplicity that appeals.

It is mid October, leaf peeper season, and the leaves of the trees are burnt orange with an occasional blast of bright red. Storms have not yet stripped the branches, and photographers gather at choice locations to capture the glory of the Maine autumn. It has been a spectacular and long-lasting fall. This is also maitake season. My husband has joined me foraging, and our first outing yielded a half dozen rosettes of these earthy and flavorful mushrooms. More than once we filled the trunk of the car, and gladly gave them to fellow mushroom lovers. This fall we harvested about a hundred pounds. Other gatherers are collecting massive amounts as well. An abundance of color has coincided with an abundance of maitake several times. Years with few mushrooms have been paired with less than glorious foliage. Coincidence, or do the same weather conditions and temperatures that stimulate vibrant fall leaf colors also promote maitake growth? If there is a scientific connection I would like to know, but not knowing doesn’t dampen my mushroom fever at seeing so many giant fungi, and I cannot stop gathering them.

The color of old oak leaves and dead pine needles maitake often blend into the forest floor. It is their height and rose blossom shape that I spot.

In late September we drove along a dirt road though an old forest. ”Stop,’” I called. It was the first spotting of the season. Three large clumps of maitake rose above the ground cover of damp oak leaves, but they were blackened and gelatinous. They would grace no one’s table. Maitake have a firm slightly toothy texture when cooked, and retain their shape and size, not diminishing the way commercial white mushrooms do. Their flavor is deep and full, earthy and buttery. We have found them in other months, but it is late September and early October when we hunt them seriously. Fall is also prime time for many other mushrooms in Maine—hedgehogs, black trumpets, or a second fruiting of chanterelles. It is also the season for Laeitoporus sulphureus, or chicken of the woods, and we have harvested a good year’s supply from the stump of a two hundred year old ash tree just cut down at my husband’s family camp. These bright orange mushrooms are meaty, do not have much water content and when cooked are very like chicken in texture. Delicious, but it is maitake that capture my soul.

 

Varying shades of brown, the maitake mushroom resembles a giant dried rose with velvety petals curving away from a hidden center.

There are a few locations we check annually, and some produce year after year. Harvests vary widely, though. Last year we had perhaps five pounds, all were eaten or shared, and none saved for the winter. Next year may be equally slim. And so it was that this year’s bounty was greedily collected. We ate maitake in omelets and we added it to soup and stews. We sautéed it with bacon and added cream and rosemary for a pasta sauce. We had maitake and Swiss cheese quesadillas. My husband went off on a fishing trip, and I looked at the close to hundred pounds of fresh maitake on the table in the backyard. It was the first time I ever gazed at these delicious monsters with dismay. They might still be fine in a few days when he returned to help process them, but they might not, and to pick them and not use them was not an option.

A few phone calls and the mushroom party was on. The model is as old as community. I had mushrooms, and I needed help. The friends who came took away half of what they bagged, we had plenty for our winter supply, and in a few hours the table buried in mushrooms was bare. It is a simple formula to share a harvest, and share an evening. We covered the dining room table in paper and everyone took a pile of mushroom, a soft brush to clean off dirt, and a knife to cut away any spongy or questionable areas. Wine was poured; local feta, seedy crackers, and red pepper quiche were consumed.

Alexandra, Tammy and Marilyn clean mushrooms, there was plenty for everyone.

This was a hen gathering, quite appropriate for hen of the woods. There is freedom in a gathering of all women, laughter flows and hands never stop working. We exchanged information. “Where does one find all these mushrooms?” Tammy asked. While it was indeed a shame I had to pretend I had forgotten exactly where we found them, I could at least offer advice–they are most commonly found at the base of older oaks, usually trees with signs of damage such as a dead limb or lightening strike.

Maitake still life by Tammy Packie

We all had suggestions for preparing them, but conversation rambled down many other roads. I had passed a four-foot tall houseplant in a garish plastic Italianate urn to Marilyn, one of my mushroom-cleaning friends. I had been slowly killing the plant, but the urn was un-killable, and I could not just throw them out. “Flourishing,” she reassured me, “The dead leaves are all gone, and it is healthy and thriving.” “Still in that baroque pot? I asked. “Er, no,” she replied. “Does anyone want it?” she asked all us around the table. There were no takers, and suggestions of gold spray paint, theatre groups, Halloween décor, and anonymously gifting to a problematic landlord were offered. The conversation veered to cremation urns, which this unfortunate plastic pot resembled, and right back to mushrooms. We were, after all, sitting with one hundred dwindling pounds of mushrooms in front of us.

mushroom

Maitake rose, by Tammy Packie

Forget urns or coffins–be buried in a corpse-consuming mushroom suit. Mushroom shrouds–I had never heard of them, but am right on board. Marilyn’s daughter told us about them, and it is a simply brilliant idea.

Jae Rhim Lee, visual artist and human-environment researcher, has founded the Infinity Death Project. The project includes a fungi-laced shroud as well as exploring cultural aspects of death denial.

From DEAF Expo, Rotterdam 2012: The Mushroom Death Suit consists of a base layer of cotton and a top layer of netting embedded with mushroom spores and mycelium, which allows the fungi to grow and spread across the body. The ‘Alternative Embalming Fluid’, liquid spore slurry that allows spores to develop and grow inside the body, accompanies the suit. Lee is training fungi to consume her own body tissue and excretions (skin, hair, nails, blood, bone, fat, tears, urine, feces and sweat) as part of her Infinity Burial Project.

Lee was asked in an interview, “How does one train a mushroom?”
Her answer: “Although the mushrooms I’m using prefer wood-based food sources, mushrooms will pretty much eat anything. The training process involves introducing different food sources to the mushrooms and then slowly depriving the mushrooms of wood-based substances. One mycologist has even trained mushrooms to eat plastics like Bakelite. “

The stylish mushroom suit

Before learning about the mushroom suit I had requested my family donate my body to science to have eyes, heart, kidney, every usable organ used, and then let some pre-med student practice on the rest. I have held firm to this for decades. My mind was changed at the mushroom party. My organs will still be donated, but the premed student loses out. A consumer of mushrooms, being consumed by them has a sense of circular completion. I will eat maitake, chanterelles, morels, trumpets, whatever fungi is in season, with even more relish, knowing that as they sustain and give me pleasure now, I will be one day feeding them.

Mushroom party is over, but we took away an evening full of laughter, boxes full of maitake, and a plans for a new wardrobe addition–the mushroom death suit.


Note:
If you gather from private property, please ask permission first. Lucky us, one of our sources is a neighbor who shudders at the thought of eating fungus. Oaks are frequently found near cemeteries, but my advice is to not gather in an area that systemic pesticides just might, maybe have been used. I would also never harvest from a tree close to a golf course. Those greens are pristine and beautifully maintained but mycelia draw from a fairly large area. It is possible that maitake do not pull nutrients beyond their host tree, but I am not taking that chance. Scientists, please tell me if you know, I have seen some lovely specimens at the edge of a golf course I just walked away from. (And lived to tell).

 

Acadia National Park community Day to day Nature Log Otter Creek

Just squidding around

Sydney’s dad shows the soft skin and colors of a squid.

Pale and luminous, the squid drift in a group towards our lures, and then scatter. Their movement is smooth, so different from fish that swim with tail flicks and fins. They slide. Propelled by sucking water and then forcing it out of their body cavity their path is straight and direct, not curving and swaying like a fish. Standing on the pier watching them in the bright lights that shine on the water their silence seems deeper, larger, and more palpable than that of the mackerel that swim nearby.

Catching squid is supposedly easy, but we are not getting any. The lures we bought are heavy, and when we shine our flashlights on them they cast a soft luminous green glow, not unlike the squid itself. The squid come near them, check them out, but are not fooled. We are just so fascinated to see these tentacled creatures stealthily pulsing through the water, always in a pack, that we do not care. We have a picnic: bread and olive oil, sliced cucumbers, molten goat cheese and warm sweet tomatoes from the garden sprinkled with our own sea salt. It is a family outing, and the kids are squid fishing, eating, and chasing each other, while we squid fish and eat. And plot the next squid expedition.

Setting up the picnic to squid by.

A week later we try again, this time going to Northeast Harbor, two inlets over from Otter Creek. We are surprised to see the dock filled with people, and then astounded at the number of milky squid sliding back and forth in the water below. One young boy is pulling a spinning squid through the air, and his dad gently strokes it and unhooks it, then adds it to their bucket.

We have just encountered Sidney, perhaps thirteen years old, a squid whisperer for sure. One family is just leaving, and say they have caught two squid, but that they watched Sydney, who they call Squidney, pull them in as quickly as he can throw his lure back into the water.

We toss out our heavy lures, and again the squid scatter. Sydney casts his small blue lure and draws it across the surface. He snags a squid, the tentacles spin, spraying water, and he pulls it through the air. Again his dad unhooks, and this time shows us the speckled pattern on the squid’s skin. He remarks that some have a deep red color, while others are pale. As he holds it the color changes. The squid is dying, but he is held with reverence, and it does not seem a cruel passage.

Sydney pulls in another squid

Sydney is happy to share his skills, and shows us his lure, much lighter than ours. I toss mine in, and Sydney gives advice on jigging and how to create movement that will attract the squid. He then he tosses his line back in and thirty seconds later pulls up a squid. Young Sydney is unknowingly modest. He believes I, too, could catch buckets of squid if I had that lure. I am skeptical. I will order some, but I think it is more than the lure, it is Sydney’s skill and dexterity.

His dad agrees. He generously tells us where to get that lure, and then says, “We were both fishing, but Sydney kept catching them, not me, so I just help him.“ It is a lovely father-son partnership. They share a respect and love for squid. Sydney sees a baby squid, and begs his dad to let him catch it and keep it in an aquarium so he can study it. But they do not have an aquarium, and so the baby squid is left alone. They both tell us squid habits, and that squid are smart. “After a while in one spot, the squid tell each other to stay away from our lure, it is taking their brothers away.” I believe. Sydney tells me how they swim in one way when content, and another when looking for food. He has observed them and paid attention.

The father cups Sydney’s most recent catch in his hand and shows us how to clean a squid. The entire time he speaks to us he is stroking the squid, and I reach out and run my fingers along the firm smooth flesh. Yes, I feel love.

Squid have ornate patterns on their flesh.

We talk recipes. I am making paella the next night, which is one of the reasons we came to catch squid, and Sydney asks us to please take some of his. We do, and he and his dad know they will be respected. But we are not done. The night is fine, the air calm, and we continue to optimistically toss our clunky lures among the cruising squid, as we watch Sydney pull one after another high through the air.

Then–fast, large, and dark–a wide, fat, seal races into the group of squid. We yank our lures out of the water and a hundred squid explode, shooting two feet above the surface of the water and sending water spray in all directions as they make desperate leaps away from their predator. The light on the erupting water droplets, the shimmer of the colorful skin of the squid–it is finer than Bar Harbor’s Fourth of July fireworks. The seal circles two more times before heading out of the narrow area between the dock and the floats. And the squid return to their calm silent cruising.

We also leave. Sydney’s dad has been suggesting they go home for about half an hour. But the squid are still thick, and as we walk up the ramp to the car we hear Sydney say, “Just one more, please dad?”

Squid tentacles

A squid’s tentacles with a golden glow.

Acadia National Park Bar Harbor Destinations Nature Log

A Walk with Mrs. Peel


Baittrap_Lakewood

Bait trap, Lakewood, Maine

It is a clear January morning, and the temperature outside is three degrees. The ground is white with snow that has crusted over and looks as hard and cold as ice. I feel chill off the windowpane when my hand is still inches from touching it, and the lack of wind and motion makes the world seem frozen into stillness. It is a Sunday, and the winter world beckons me outside to play. It is a day for Mrs. Peel.

Fans of the 1960s television series The Avengers will remember Mrs. Peel, played by Diana Rigg, who was fit and formidable, quick-witted, and always stylish. She was a role model, and a few years ago when I acquired a one-piece Descente snowsuit to take me comfortably into subzero weather I named the suit Mrs. Peel. Metallic gray with silver slashes on the sleeves and back, a red satin lining and space age padded shoulders, it, too, is very sixties. Add a fur hat and fur boots, sure-footed ice creepers, silk underclothing and I become invincible, as ready-for-anything and gutsy as Mrs. Peel herself.

catpawprints_Lakewood

Snow patterns on Lakewood

This was to be just a short adventure, as there were tasks and chores to do before the day was done. A small, sheltered lake a few miles from home has frequently offered tracks and animal sign and I felt like tracking, so I headed to Lakewood, easily reached down an unplowed stretch of road.

Mrs. Peel and I headed out onto the ice. It groaned and snapped, booming as it expanded, making ice as some call it. Most liquids contract as they freeze, but water, forming intricate crystals with space between the branches and spikes of each exquisite structure, expands. When it has nowhere to go it cracks and booms. There is one loud explosive bellow, then, a gentle reply. The sound bounces off the surrounding hills repeating itself more and more softly until silence returns. Lakewood is a small lake, and the booms were modest, not heart-stopping as they can be on bigger waters.

icefrond_Lakewood

Leaf-like ice crystal, Lakewood

The surface of the lake, so perfectly flat and level, was puckered with the imprints of what seemed to be a thousand small cat paws. Kneeling and tracing the outline of one imprint, I could imagine the party of prancing, leaping cats that might have left such patterns in the ice. Standing and looking across the lake I saw the focused unwavering trail of a coyote. I had passed human and dog track on the road in, and the erratic roam and sniff and run back to master trail of the domestic dog is strikingly different from an animal in the wild, for whom conserving energy is a matter of survival.

A frozen tadpole lay on the surface of the ice, apparently tossed out of a bait trap and left as an offering for some fortunate diner. Over an inch wide, the snakelike head would have become a bullfrog’s head in the spring. Life is full of hazards out on the ice.

An even smaller pond is connected to Lakewood, called Fawn Pond. Here a skim of black ice lay over a stream feeding the larger pond below. Black ice. The name is fearsome, implacable, but the underwater scene it reveals is beautiful in its otherworldliness. I lie on my belly and peer through the ice. I can see thin grasses waft slowly in the current. The sunlight pierces through to the bottom, illuminating a few gray and gold speckled rocks, but they are as far away as the moon. I cannot touch them; they are on the other side of that invisible ice wall. The untouchableness makes this world even more compelling. I am on the outside, looking in, and I want to dive down and explore. I run my gloved hand over the ice and it feels astonishing that it has no effect, that a barrier prevents my hand from simply sliding below the surface. Ice crystals form intricate leaf-like shapes and lie on the surface of the ice. A large twig shifts and dips. A caddisfly larva had changed its center of balance and clung, bouncing gently, to the branch. It wore a case it had made of bits of rock and twig and weed, and until it moved seemed part of debris on the stream’s bottom. Confined behind a wall of glass this larva, creeping, barely moving as it goes about its business, seems to have no relation to the swarms of long-antennaed shadflies, or caddisflies, that will be in my face and hair a few months from now.

deadmilksnakeFawnPond_Lakewood

weaselprints_Lakewood

Delicate tracks of a weasel or mink

At the edge of the stream something had dug a hole through the snow to the leaves and earth below. Whatever hunter this was found the prey it had sensed, and the curled remains of the slim milk snake rudely pulled from his winter’s sleep lay discarded nearby. There is no safety even buried in the dirt, below several inches of snow, and a crust of ice.

Fawn Pond was larger than last time I was here. The beavers had been busy, and a long dam kept the water from flowing to the lake. A mound of branches and tree limbs with the tiny teeth marks of the beavers was piled over their underwater retreat. Crystals, formed when the warmth from beavers’ exhalations mingled with the colder air outside, rimmed a few twigs at the top, sure sign there were beaver below. Skirting the edge of the beaver lodge were pairs of small dimpled prints, the bounding gait of either a mink or a weasel. I followed these along the edge of the pond, as they led to Lakewood and the woods road to my car. At the stream where the two ponds joined an otter had left sliding marks on the ice, and a hole where he went below the surface. Clear otter prints and chutes went over the dam, along the stream, and down the ledges back towards Lakewood. It was a steep descent, and the water fell in a series of short falls, framed by long clear cliffs of ice. The otter had cruised around saplings, bounded over small rills, and shot down steep slopes, seemingly having fun, and heading towards home. Mrs. Peel slid and wriggled right behind, leaving larger slide marks and prints for the next tracker to examine.

It was a short adventure, perhaps only two and a half miles, but there was life, and there was death. There were remote worlds and minute details. There were deer, dogs, humans, coyotes, chickadees, a tadpole, snake, caddisfly larva, otter, weasel or mink, mouse, and beaver.

Let me know what tracks you may have seen!

OtterslideFawnPond_Lakewood

Otter slide and hole, Fawn Pond near Lakewood


Otterprint_Lakewood

Otterprint along stream between Fawn Pond and Lakewood

Mrs.Peel and author

Mrs. Peel and author at Lakewood, Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park community Day trips Destinations Maine Maine destinations Nature Log

Winter in Winter Harbor

Dogs watching Wonsqueak Harbor

It's a dog's view, and I wish it was mine.

Black Friday, and we were up and out early. Our destination was not the sales and bargains the day after Thanksgiving is known for, but Schoodic Peninsula, an odd disconnected portion of Acadia National Park. Our goal was a walk with ocean views, designer breakfasts prepared by someone else, and then back home to split wood and get ready for winter.

Snow came early this year, and we were ready for snowshoes and piles of white around our ankles. We had spun though eleven unplowed inches to get to my sister-in-law’s for Thanksgiving Day where it sparkled out the windows, but now we wanted to be in it, not looking at it. We tossed our gear in the car and headed off island. It was not long before we blew off the hike, breakfast, split wood agenda and just took it as it came. We saw a road we had not been on, and took it. Unplowed and snowy we came around a curve and disturbed a small group of turkeys. They stretched their necks and single file strutted off through a path in the woods. Turkeys are a common sight, but we had not seen any in about six weeks and had commented on their absence. “Guess they feel safe now,” I said. It was Black Friday, after all. Thanksgiving was over.

Back on track, we arrived in Winter Harbor, the town just before Schoodic and our hike. Tourism may be part of its economy, but the feel of this village is that of a simple coastal Maine community. There is a bank, a few restaurants, a grocery store, a five and dime that has everything you could ever need, and not a t-shirt shop in sight.

The Five and Ten has it all.

We wandered about town before our walk, getting the winter feel of Winter Harbor. Summer folk are gone, but there is no sense of the forlornness that pervades nearby Bar Harbor with plywood coverings nailed over shop windows and the fountains in the parks covered with stark plank pyramids. The cashier at the market gave us directions to a friend’s house, and it felt good that she of course knew where he lived. We stopped at Chase’s Restaurant for a coffee refill, and left with the waitress saying they would have stopped serving breakfast when we finished our hike. She said she has lived in Winter Harbor all her life, gladly suggested places to eat in nearby towns, called us dear in typical Downeast fashion, and we parted with smiles. We did not take the time to drive to Grindstone Neck, a stretch of summer homes and awesome hills we bike in the summer, but headed straight to Schoodic. In a field off to our left we saw three turkeys grazing. After weeks with no sightings, we had two in one day. Wild turkeys know their calendar.

Spruce Point, Maine

We had no clear idea where the trail we wanted started, and didn’t really care. We turned left onto a road with no street sign, because neither of us knew it, and found, to our surprise, it led to our path. Had we been looking for the trail, we’d never have found it. The only sign indicating the trail was over fifty feet after we turned onto this unmarked road. It was steep and winding, and took us to the top of the hill we had expected to be climbing. There were no tire tracks before ours as we made the ascent. When we left hours later, ours were still the only tracks. I doubt in July we would be the only ones on the trails.

Our hike started high, and was an easy ramble with views of our home, Mount Desert Island. There were ravens, squirrels, signs of coyotes, and at one lookout, an interpretive panel with moose tracks on it. We found this a bit perplexing, as it implies this might be a moose habitat, and it is not. There are several easy trails here, we wandered them all. The snow was only a few inches deep and so we did not get to use our snowshoes, but we were the first to walk the paths since the snow had fallen, and making the first footprints is always a sense of privilege and delight.

Wonsqueak Harbor, Maine

Wonsqueak Harbor, Schoodic Peninsula


Leaving Schoodic we pass through Wonsqueak Harbor, which not only has the best harbor name I know of, but is also a classic picturesque harbor that demands you take its photo whatever the season or weather. The local dogs enjoy the view too; a half dozen were hanging out on the roof of a porch overlooking the water.

The sun was now high, gleaming on the water droplets at the tip of every branch and twig. It was time to split that wood, and so we headed home. As we neared our island we saw half a dozen turkeys along the road. I suspect they are not as stupid as their reputation suggests.

community Day to day gardening Nature Log Otter Creek

The Rain in Maine

Spring rain can be so constant and so gentle that it becomes a background companion to the day, rather than a threat. A few might be driven inside by the wet, but most go about their business. We do, too. Finishing an after-breakfast stroll along a favorite stream to do some trout-spotting, we encounter another walker. Hair damp we greet each other, and he mops off his glasses to see us better. “Just misting,” he says as we pass, and we share perhaps just a hint of self-satisfaction that we, at least, have not been deterred by the rain.

The rain does not prevent activity, but it does direct it. We leave our bikes in the shed and finally tackle a long-avoided list of chores, recycling the computer, buying cleaning supplies, selecting annuals for hanging baskets and pots, and hauling unwanted clothes to a collection box. These only take a few hours, though, and there is a long afternoon ahead.

The uniform gray of the sky is not only unvarying from horizon to horizon, but seems the same at five pm as it did at noon. The day has a peculiar sense of timelessness. Inside the house the steady beat of rain on the roof calms and the occasional louder ping of a drop against the metal rim of the birdbath proclaims breaks the monotony. Donning rain gear, I go out and pull weeds. They slide out easily from the wet soil. I have this day to myself, and dart from flower bed to flower bed, giddy with the gift of these endless hours. It is too wet to scrape the peeling windowsills, certainly can’t paint the outdoor tables, though they need it, and it would be silly to think of building that grape arbor.

I sing and skip, and belt out a hackneyed version of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” from Lerner and Lowe’s 1958 musical Gigi. “Thank heaven, for rai-neee days,” I shout in a heavy French accent, safe in the knowledge that I am the only one home.

Bags of pine needles that were raked last fall refresh the short path that goes by the Pieris japonica and through the Solomon’s seal. Witch grass is gently coaxed to give up its roots, newly discovered invasions of garlic mustard are eradicated, and plants that are trying to take over other plants are reminded of their place. A twelve-inch circle of Lily of the Valley gets taken out of the lawn and put into a glass planter for the house. It is a day without focus, without time, bouncing from weeding to picking oregano and mint for dinner, to weeding and picking flowers for arrangements in the house. It is a rainy day.

The sound of drops rhythmically hitting the windows, roofs, trees and plants that get in the way of their descent is soft and hushed. This is no storm, there is no wind. The sway of the flowering cherry and the nodding of the forsythia are caused by the rain. Colors are intense. When buying annuals this morning a woman said, “This is my favorite kind of day for getting plants. The true colors of things can be seen.” I had agreed with her.

After hours of gardening in the midst of vibrant green grass, laying neon orange pine needles, and picking luminous creamy Viburnum the truth of that resonates.

Acadia National Park Day to day Nature Log Otter Creek

Invasion of the garlic mustard

The down side of not taking a weekend away is that all those projects and chores which are conveniently out of sight when we go road tripping stare at us and say “now.” The list for this weekend included framing the new raised beds, raking the leaves under the lilacs, rebuilding the grape arbor, and hopefully tending the two sections of hay-scented fern sod I put in last spring.

This fern sod was ordered and planted before I was prepared to give the sod the moisture it needed to get established. I was sharing a delivery with a friend who wanted them right away, but my outdoor faucet had frozen and split and needed to be soldered. I need to learn to solder. Instead, I spent over a week filling the watering can in the kitchen sink, and sprinkling the two long stretches of sod, one in the front of the house, and one in the back. It required multiple trips, while the newly purchased soaker hoses lay flat and empty. Finally, the faucet was fixed.

A few ferns appeared, but my friend had a tall dense strip of fern along the walkway to her house. My ferns were sparse, and barely survived. I hoped that after a winter of rest they would come forth the following spring healthy and forgetful of my poor nurturing.

This weekend I went to look for signs of life, and there they were—soft green tendrils and delicate miniature fronds. But a towering forest of garlic mustard had invaded their space and appeared ready to overwhelm and obliterate them. The item on my list called tending the ferns turned into eradicating the mustard.

We are so cognizant of rare species and protecting animal and plant populations that the idea of deliberately wiping something out seems wrong. It did feel wrong, but it also felt intensely satisfying. Trowel in hand I created piles of limp garlic mustard. Hours, about four without a rest, left the ferns exposed and a large area cleared around them. After a few backstretches, I let my focus widen. I wish I hadn’t. The lovely but nasty shoots were along the path to the well, and formed a border around the compost pile. I sighed, and using a favorite phrase of my dad’s, girded my loins and tackled them.

The day was devoured by garlic mustard. Black flies were ignored in my weeding frenzy. I was oblivious to everything except plant-by-plant removing the mustard. My watchstrap unsnapped and I unconsciously snapped it back. I felt a sharp sting and acknowledged a red ant bite. The pain did not subside, and I figured he was in the cuff of my garden glove stinging away. I could not be bothered to flick him out. I had mustard to remove. Finally the pain worked its way through my mustard killing mind, and I pulled back the glove to look. I had snapped a piece of my flesh in the watch band, and a white pustule and blood blister were the source of my discomfort, not a red ant. Watch stuffed in pocket, I went on. The towering piles of mustard were shoveled onto a trailer and hauled to our burn pile, as I would not give them the chance to grow in the compost. I then when back for more.

Dinner had been planned; chicken thighs with five-spice powder, jasmine rice, warm arugula salad with cashews and caramelized onions. Around eight thirty pm, when I was beginning to squint to see the mustard shoots, I got dragged away and taken out to dinner. I went to sleep feeling pretty satisfied. I knew I had missed many smaller ones, but would tackle them as they grew.

Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata

The next morning, Mother’s Day, we visited my mother-in-law and planned our day–a bike ride of course, and perhaps brunch at the Bar Harbor Inn.

I wanted to try moving some cranesbill geranium from the woodland garden to the area I had cleared of mustard. Cranesbills are one of my favorite plants. It has a sweet scent, is a lovely swath of pink in the spring, covers the ground and does not need weeding, and spreads, but gently. If it spreads too far, it is easy to pull it up, as its root system is shallow. It is a very civilized plant, unlike that mustard. I grabbed my trug, and feeling happy with a hard day’s work behind me went to the other side of the yard to move those cranesbills before biking or brunch.

I rounded the corner humming, approached the garden, and came to a halt. There they were. Not so many, but there they were. Growing in clusters by the Solomon’s Seal, and under the Piers Andromeda, garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, was stretching towards the sun. I asked my husband to go play golf or something, and rolled up my sleeves.

I will not admit they have won, but know that I have not. I will continue to pick them off, but accept they may be part of my life. A friend first identified this plant for me two years ago, shortly after it appeared in our yard. She was the one who warned me how invasive it was. She also mentioned that it is edible. There are recipes for pesto, soup and salad with garlic mustard. Stir-fried garlic mustard with roasted sesame seeds and ginger could be a sweet revenge.

Alliaria petiolata is not going to go away. There is far too much to eliminate. I see it smiling at me from behind the summer bedroom and boldly nodding along the edges of the wood shed. Garlic mustard is an enticing name, however, and the leaves are pungent and tasty.

Perhaps a roadside sign:
U Pick, Garlic mustard, $2.00 per pint. We pay you.

Acadia National Park Day to day Maine Nature Log Otter Creek

Nesting, Nesting 1-2-3-4

Snowshoeing several weeks ago I startled a downy woodpecker. She flew from a perfect round hole in the decapitated, shoulder height trunk of a white birch I was passing. She flew into my arm, and then, all a fluster, (we both were) landed on the branch of a tree ahead of me. She was building a nest.

Several years ago a woodpecker nested very close to that white birch, near the top of a dead tree in our yard. While I do not love trees dying, if they do, I am not inclined to grab the chain saw and turn them into firewood. Deadwood provides food for birds, home for insects, and composts on the ground. If I had removed them, I would have missed the nesting, hatching, and fledging of a family of baby woodpeckers.

After watching the parents take turns sitting on the eggs, both they and I were delighted when a small brood of babies was hatched. These babies buzzed. I would drive into the yard after work, and roll down the window and listen. The soft droning noise was unmistakable, even though almost 200 feet away. The parents were very attentive, flying in and out, presumably with food. I could not see the newly hatched birds, although I could hear them. A neighbor’s cat also heard them. I came home one evening, smiling in anticipation of my private bird vespers. Arlo, a muscular cat with dense black fur, was three-quarters of the way up the tree. I leapt out and raced up, sending him home. This was not a cat who took no for an answer, and I was not happy he had discovered the nest.
We battled the next few days. I made chicken wire cages, and hung sharp objects around the base of the tree. Arlo persisted, he was a very persistent beast. Between tossing him back home, barricades and sharp obstacles, he was finally confined to mewling at the base of the tree, unable to get up the trunk to the nest.

The vibrant baby pecker noise increased in volume, and listening became an evening ritual. Watching morning and night, I still almost missed it. The first flights of those downy babies, fuzzy little intrepid balls of feathers, demanded a cheering squad. I rah-rahhed as each tumbled out, righted itself, and shot straight for the nearest branch. Acrobatics could wait for later.

That was a few years ago, and I am excited by the possibility of once again watching Downie’s feed and raise their young. Winter has given way. It let go reluctantly, and we shift from ice fishing to archery in the backyard in short sleeves. And nesting. Yep, the birds are at it. I watch crows out the window as I sit at my desk. They are dismantling an old squirrel nest, efficiently recycling. They fly off with twigs in their mouths to some unseen home. Ravens may have nested by now, but are still singing their courting song and doing belly flips as they fly, soaring. Almost touching, maybe they do touch, but their flight is seamless. An eagle has been flying nearby by with nesting material, and my husband, curious, snow shoed when there was still snow. He made note of the towering white pine, and we now watch the nest from a distance with binoculars.

Birds are in the mood. Every evening I hear a woodcock in the back yard, a male, making his beep-beep noise, then flying up and spiraling down, the air a rhythmic sigh in his feathers.


Biking Acadia National Park’s loop road, we pause near the Otter Cove causeway. Three immaculate white male mergansers swim and show off to three drab females. The water is so clear we can see a nearby eider as he flaps his wings and swims to the bottom of the cove for a mussel snack.

Winter was stubborn this year, but is has finally happened, the shift from frozen beauty to procreation. One moment I rhapsodize about the sun on ice, and before I can lament its loss, I am reveling in nest building and airborne mating dances.

Happy spring. At last.

Maine Nature Log recipes

Roe, roe, roe we gloat

Winter roe is never found on the menus of local restaurants. Never is a word to be treated with great respect and caution, and so it is a rare pleasure to use it. Roe probably does not appear on too many dinner tables, either, since it is also not generally found at the local market. In fact, I think I can say with confidence it is never found there.

You need a fisherman to get roe this time of year. Preferably, a fisherman who can also clean the roe sack out intact, as a punctured roe is a mess to cook. But a mess of roe is a wonderful thing. This is confusing, but blame our dynamic English language. The phrase “a mess of “ is something I learned from my mother-in-law, and thought it was one of her colorful Maineisms, like sprill ( fir needles) and oughts (compost), but a mess of goes as far back as the Old French, mes, a portion of food, and perhaps is even older. It then shifted from a large portion of smaller things, to an untidy pile of things, to a mess.

Raw yellow perch roe

Roe from certain fish is also called caviar, but that is not the kind of egg sac that comes from below the ice on our Maine ponds and lakes. Cod roe is commonplace in Iceland, served with a dab of mayonnaise on crackers. The roe from the American Shad is sought after, connoisseurs have been known to pay exorbitant prices to have it flown to their kitchens. I grew up eating shad as one of our rites of spring. The eating came after fishing with my father on the Connecticut River, but more often than not the shad and shad roes we ate came from the nearby Shad Shack, a seasonal booth selling fresh deboned shad and roe. I still seek shad roe out when the Amelanchier, also called the shad bush, serviceberry, shad blow and a few other names, displays its soft white blossoms. But that is a while a way.

I prefer not to compare shad roe to two of our winter roes, from white perch and yellow perch. Perch roes are delicious now. Shad roe will be delicious then. I also will not debate the issue of invasive species. I wish the yellow perch were not in the ponds we found them in, but will not turn down their roe for political reasons.

White perch roe is about the size of my pinky finger, pale whitish grey, and very finely grained. The sac covering is very delicate, and needs to be handled with care. A tiny pinprick or two, a gentle rinse, and slide the roes ( you will need quite a few) into a cast iron pan with a shimmer of olive oil. After the heat firms them, add white wine, turn gently and very softly let them cook. Serve just like that or cool them, mince some garlic, add yogurt or mayonnaise and a hint of oyster sauce. Spread on toast.

Yellow perch are a bit sturdier, quite a bit thicker, as thick as a sausage. They are a lovely golden color, and can be cooked just like the white perch. They have many more eggs in the case, and are closer to the shad’s roe. Instead of olive oil, use ghee or butter. Three or four can make a meal, with a salad.

Yellow perch roe, not piglets

Many fisherman toss out the roe, or feed the entire yellow perch to the eagles that generally hang out where ice fisherman fish. They are looked at as trash food, just as mussels were not so many years ago. When I moved to Maine, mussels were not sold in the seafood market in Bar Harbor, and were not on the menu at any restaurant. I am not predicting yellow and white perch will become restaurant fare as they are not so easy to get, nor are they as plentiful as mussels, but perhaps fisherman will bring them home to enjoy with the rest of their catch.

Even if they don’t I will continue eat them, each bite a succulent, rich, o mi gosh moment. I will also continue to thank my fisherman who brings them, beautifully cleaned and glistening, to our kitchen. “Aren’t they complicated to clean?“ I ask.

“Slit the belly, give a push with your finger, and out they pop,” was the reply.

There are not many things about Maine winter’s that are that easy.


A fine mess of white perch

Acadia National Park Nature Log Otter Creek

A Different Picture.

Storm waves changed the calming early morning scene of daily yoga and lattes to a turbulent confirmation of the power and unpredictability of the ocean, and our world. Hurricane Bill, while kindly passing us by, left a hint of the terrible destruction it could have wrought.

hurricane-bill

mvi_6057

The Seal Harbor float was lifted into the air by waves again and again, pulling against the heavy rope attaching it to its mooring. The relentless action finally snapped the tether, and the float went free. The 30-foot waves were dramatic, and drew crowds to the coast to watch the spectacular display. Spray reached the tops of Otter Cliffs, which protrude a hundred feet above the sea, and waves soaked the mesmerized and unwary spectators. Large continuous waves and swells randomly exploded into powerful blasts of ocean high over the rocks. Terrifying and beautiful.

Sadly, the hurricane’s brush included the death of a young child, and a number of broken bones and other damage that will leave scars in many lives. Our hearts go out to them, and our respect goes to the Coast Guard, Park Service, and volunteers who worked so hard in the rescue effort.