Archive for the ‘Vermont’ Category

Leaving Vermont

My name is Daniel Harrington. I’m 38 years old, and I just left a steady job, my family and friends, health insurance, and many belongings in order to pack up an old Toyota truck and drive West. Again. It is a recurring theme in my life, this migration. It first happened in 1995, when I had just graduated from college with a biology degree and narrowly escaped unemployment by being offered a job out west. In southern Utah, working with Mexican spotted owls.

And now I find myself looking at my own footprints, watching the lingering ghost of myself driving ahead of me. I drive west again, to work with spotted owls again.

This morning a 22 year-old Toyota pickup with 232K of experience carried me rattling over the dirt and potholes of Route 121. Headed west, out of Vermont, into New York and beyond.

Vermont is a conundrum. According to the experts, the Green Mountains once soared like the Himalayas, or maybe just the Rockies. But they were big, and sharp, and high. That was thousands of years ago, and now the rounded, worn ridges  we see are the eroded remains of those giants. So you would think, while wandering around Vermont, that one would get the sense of the land being old. And that might be true of the hills, but not of the landscape.

Those hills are old, but the trees cloaking them are young and naive. A little over a hundred years ago, Vermont was a hilly land of sheep pastures and stone walls, with only a few trees left for shade or aesthetics. So the forested landscape of Vermont is one that is young, wounded, and recovering. When Europeans first arrived in Vermont, they were greeted by giant pines. White pines over 200 feet tall that looked to them like perfect masts for sailing ships. And so they cut them down. And then they tried to farm, tried to raise sheep until better lands elsewhere pulled the people away and the trees started sprouting again.

This is what I was thinking about, this time, as I left Vermont driving west. I  couldn’t help but look through the skeleton fingers of the winter deciduous trees reaching up, but falling short, as around them the solid pines outgrew them. You see them all around, once you start looking… white pines clearing the canopy and getting taller again. Those pines, those someday giants, patiently reaching up through those young, naive trees, the orphans of an older forest.

I didn’t know it then, but that was what amazed me when I reached the carved canyons of Utah 16 years ago. The presence of that landscape, an ancient presence. Even the twisted junipers and fields of sage.


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Well, here in Vermont the fishing season opened yesterday, and with the temperature breaking sixty degrees and the sun shining, I took an over-ambitious trip to the upper end of the Saxtons River for some early season nymphing practice. As has been the case for me so far in Vermont, there was nary a fish. I’m new to fly fishing, and a late taker on fishing in general, so please don’t take this entry as anything like professional advice. But, if you’re fishing the area, it may still be helpful.

Where – the Saxtons River above Grafton, VT… Rt. 121 from the “swimming pool” to the next upstream bridge

The gear – 6 wt 9′ rod… tapered 5x leader with 5x tippet

The flies – bead head, rubber leg brown stone fly nymph with midge dropper

The good news is that, as I parked, there were a fair number of little brown stoneflies in the air (see picture above), so the April hatches have already started. I saw quite a few on a warm afternoon a week ago or so on the Connecticut River as well. The Saxtons was deceptively deep and flowing well, but no problem to wade. I fished without any weight on the line and without a strike indicator, which had the nymphs just about right, it seemed… touching bottom fairly regularly with occasional snags on rocks, but not enough that I thought they were too deep.  The river and branches required short casts. No fish. No bites. But a pretty stretch of river with some promising spots. With a little research, I realize that I am probably fishing too far from holdover locations (the Connecticut River, lakes, ponds) for this early in the season. This will be remedied soon.

One thing of note is the power of scraping ice on a river like this. Many trees along the banks had bark stripped from them on the upstream side – looking as though there had been an outbreak of hungry porcupines along the river’s edge. Remnants of the river ice still remained in many places, like a receding ice wall backing slowly from the river and shrinking. A fair amount of snow in the shaded places as well. And the water was cold. I don’t own a thermometer (yet), but retrieving rock-snagged flies left my hand tingling after less than a minute. So probably a bit cold still for fishing.

In sharing this, I am by no means complaining. The sun was shining, the river was singing, and all in all the world seemed like a pretty good place. And casting nymphs without split shots or an indicator was quite a pleasure. I’m just saying if you want to catch fish, this stretch of the Saxtons might not be the place to do it this week. Or maybe it was just me…

So, no fish for me yet here in New England. I’ve caught fish on a fly rod in Washington, New Mexico, and Colorado — soon I hope to add my home state.

Commentary is welcome – suggestions, insight, or even if you want to tell me I’m an idiot for picking this place at this time of year… have a go. I have a lot to learn about fishing, trout, and eastern rivers.

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It’s not every day that I see a spotted salamander. As a matter of fact, I spent a lot of time as a kid in the woods around here turning rocks over, poking sticks into holes, and generally looking everywhere I could for things that creeped and crawled. Plenty of red efts, plenty of newts, toads, and snakes. But never a spotted salamander like this one. And maybe for good reason. A quick google of Ambystoma maculatum tells me that the adults spend most of their time nearly underground, in moist, hidden places, eating earthworms and other such things. Only on warm, rainy nights do they venture above ground to go to a mating pond.

A careful study of the above picture though, might leave you wondering just what is going on here. Is that snow??!! Yep, that’s snow all right. This is a photo I took of a spotted salamander as he sauntered out on a fine day in late December, with plenty of snow on the ground. It was a sunny day, but not particularly warm, when I snowshoed up to a small, dark, moving mass in the snow. Stuck in a footprint, as a matter of fact.

There he was, on a groomed cross-country ski trail, stuck in a footprint. I was bemused, to say the least.

What in the world was a salamander doing out in December? I really have no idea. But I do know that due to my inquisitive nature and tireless tracking abilities, I could reconstruct part of the story. For on the uphill side of the ski trail, I picked up the track of the salamander.

How many people can say that they have followed the tracks of a salamander in the snow? Probably not too many. I found myself chuckling at the strangeness of it all while I carefully back tracked the footprints and tail drag of a spotted salamander in December snow. How far had he gone? How long had he been walking? Luckily, after only twenty yards or so, I had my answer. My quarry’s trail led back to a hemlock sapling that was just poking its head up through the snow. On the underside of the tiny trunk was a little tunnel where the tension of the bent twig had probably pushed against the snowpack just enough to create a little salamander highway. And that where the tracks came out of.

Intrigued by the strangeness of it all, I followed the tracks back down to the live specimen, still wriggling in the ski trail. He’d freed himself from the footprint and was now, very slowly, pushing himself forward one push of a leg at a time. The sun was soon to go down, he must have been getting colder and slower. I watched for a minute and he moved barely a foot.

These are the sort of times that can be a sort of test. I am a trained wildlife biologist, versed in the ways of data and statistics and study design. All of which train you to leave things be. To let things play out in a natural way without interference, for the good of impartial observing. And then there is also the school that believes that things happen for a reason, and that you should let nature take its course. That there is a sort of arrogance in thinking that we can change things for the better by sticking our nose into situations like this. I am partial to both of these schools, I will not lie.

But there is this, too. A kinship. I watched the salamander struggling, inch by inch, across the trail. It was now below freezing –  a dangerous time for an ectothermic being. The skies were clear, boding for a hard frost by morning. He was nowhere near shelter. Downhill, and in the direction he was traveling, were a string of beaver ponds that were probably his destination… a winter spent in a sheltering mudbath, I imagine. But I couldn’t imagine him making it that far before the frost crystals began rupturing living cells and putting a solitary end to his efforts.

I considered carrying him down to the pond. Too much? I am no reader of amphibian minds… maybe that wasn’t his destination at all. Besides, what about survival of the fittest and all that? Maybe this creature was not destined to breed again. Who was I to interfere? A leg reached out, the body serpentined and found meager purchase against the grains of snow. Well, I could at least get him off the trail. He stood some chance of being run over by a groomer during the night. My human interference might prevent human interference of another kind.

And so I picked him up and moved him off the trail, to the downhill side. And I hope he didn’t mind that I dug out the slightest of a hollow at the base of a tree for him, and finished by covering him with a handful of snow. Enough insulation, I thought, to help him survive the coming frost. I couldn’t help it.

Did he make it to the pond? Did he survive the night? I don’t know, but I hope so.

What I do know is that some day, years from now, I hope to be out in the winter with a friend, and come across a strange track in the snow. Not a beetle, not a mouse, but something different. I look forward to looking at it, smiling, and saying with confidence, “why, that’s a salamander track,” and then telling this story again.

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The view west from the Pinnacle

I can see my breath, barely feel my fingers, and it has been at least a half hour since the chilly waters of the Saxtons River have topped my Extratuffs  and soaked me to the thigh. But I’m happy. The sunlight reflects off the water, and fire colored leaves ripple in the breeze and make their final jump and flutter down into the river. I’ve been told there’s no fish here, and I mostly believe it, but I can’t help but try. The sun touches the trees on the western horizon and the day is fading. I’ll fish just up to that rock and then get out I think to myself. I get halfway there before fly hits line in midair and the ensuing chaos of silk-thin line, hooked flies, and rod sits before me. I breathe life into my fingers and spend the next ten minutes untangling line. It’s how fishing goes for me, and it is ok. No fish today. Water bubbles out of my boots as I find my way back to the truck.

My truck still has Washington plates. I haven’t had time to replace the windshield and get it registered in Vermont. Time is precious these days. I’m an embarrassingly new teacher at a private school, and it is quite an adjustment for me. When I can, I get outside.

My brother and I sit on “The Pinnacle”… a clearing with a restored cabin and a wide open view of southern Vermont. It would be the peak of foliage color, except that a dry summer and torrential fall rains have stripped the lovely leaves from most of the trees. But you can still see the hint of a torch on the landscape. And the blue-tinted mountains are topped with the first snow of the season. Summer fades.

I’ve been around a bit, and over the last twenty years or so have fallen in love with the wide open spaces and soaring peaks of the American West. But I find myself falling back in love with Vermont. Someone, Barry Lopez I think, once said that to truly know a place, you have to leave it and come back. I’m back in Vermont and seeing it in a new way. I see the cloaking forest that envelopes and hides the traces of civilization. I see the beauty of these old, old mountains that stand over these young, impertinent second-growth trees. I appreciate the pockets of wildness that linger so close to the towns, and the character of a people shaped by years of living through harsh winters.

This is Vermont, and I’m happy to be home.




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Students in Vermont

There are times when i forget that the way i grew up was different. There are times when i forget that time changes things and that the next generation has its own peculiarities, beliefs, and strengths. There are also times when i forget that the voices of those i now take for granted–Abbey, Lopez, Bass, Oliver, Berry, to name a few are, truly “Voices Crying Out in the Wilderness” (see Abbey) and voices that, unless we do something about it, are lost on the next generation of Americans.

I am teaching at a private school in Vermont. And, to relate you to place, and my place in the world, it is the same school, where , more than thirty years ago, I began a lifelong fascination with the outdoors. These woods are familiar to me in the strange way of a place that I knew as a kid and am now just returning to as an adult. And this is true of the school as well. It has been 20 years since I walked this campus as a student. For the last 15 or so I have been living outdoors and working seasonal jobs as a wildlife biologist. And what I see now, as I return to this place and this school, worries me a bit.

A fellow teacher passes me in the hall and mentions that his students were complaining that “Mr. Harrington made us sit in the woods for an hour…” And i did. And what i saw was disturbing–high school aged kids who are afraid to sit in the grass, afraid to step more than two feet off of a mowed trail, afraid to touch things, afraid of a caterpillar. Is this the next generation? One student followed me six feet through some saplings and ferns to the spot where i left him for 35 minutes. At the end of that time, i told him to come on out. He hesitated at the knee-deep ferns, looked at me, and said “what do i do, just barge through these?” Ferns! Soft, pliable ferns.

I have no doubt that these children will mature into strengths that are beyond me. And i have no doubt that the world they will encounter is not the same one that i encountered so many years ago. But i do worry about what grounds them. I worry about them not having a sense of how they fit into the natural world. I worry about store-bought and disguised foods that separate them from the soil and the sun.

And now, more than ever, I see the importance of the quiet, gentle adults–their humility honed by a lifelong relationship with the landscape–who beckon to these kids, make them barge through the ferns to see a caterpillar, a beetle, a cougar scat, and say “here, check this out…”

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Vermont is…

a blue-sky day with growing heat as morning gives way to afternoon, and finding still, in the grass seeped in morning shadow, the clinging droplets of last night’s dew.

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