Sunday, September 27, 2009

Primitive Green

The great Overdog
That heavenly beast
With a star in one eye
Gives a leap in the east.
He dances upright
All the way to the west
And never once drops
On his forefeet to rest.
I'm a poor underdog,
But to-night I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.

- Canis Major by Robert Frost

The stars stopped me in my tracks. It was 3 a.m. and I was walking the mile from our campsite to Mary's car to retrieve allergy medication for one of the kids. Most of the walk was under the canopy of the trees of Vermont's southern Green Mountains. But now I had walked out into the open and I could see the sky, and oh what a sight. Far away from the glare of city lights, the night sky was deep indigo and filled with stars. Across the heavens stretched the white belt of the Milky Way. The sight was awe inspiring and the concept of infinity was made very real to me. As the cool air of this late August night filled my lungs and the heavens stretched off into infinity above, the struggles of the previous evening melted away and concerns about worrisome bears fled my thoughts. So how did I come to be on this southern Vermont trail in the Green Mountain National Forest at 3 a.m.?

Grout Pond with Mt. Snow in the distance. Green Mountain National Forest Vermont

It began with my friend Mary and I talking about getting her children and my daughter out camping before the new school year began. We threw plans together in a rush and after a frenzy of planning and last minute gear acquisition, we were off to Grout Pond Recreation Area. Grout Pond nestles in a sixteen hundred acre recreation area of the Green Mountain National Forest. No gas motors are allowed on the pond and only primitive camping is available. This serene and simple camping is exactly what Mary and I most enjoy and what we wanted the kids to experience. Mary's son Mark is a Boy Scout and familiar with this type of camping but her daughter Rachel and my daughter Janet had little to no camping experience. So this trip had the potential to be a wonderful new experience for them, or something altogether less good. The way the trip began was not good, and indeed made it seem that we were in for one of those trips that go into the disaster file that every parent keeps of family experiences that had gone horribly wrong.

We arrived at Grout Pond in early afternoon on August 26th. The campground is as I said primitive and the sites are first come first served. Each site has tent platforms and fire rings and the sites are strung out along the shore of the pond. Some of the sites are as much as a mile in along a trail from the designated parking area, which also is where the only available potable water is and where one of the areas two simple outhouses is maintained.

Black Bear warning signs were posted in many locations

The weather forecast had worsened the day we arrived and we faced the possibility of rain making the establishment of camp difficult. We also learned on arrival that two Black Bears had been active in the area and campers were being warned to keep their sites clean and as free of food odors as possible. But here is where we wanted to be so Mary and the girls waited with the vehicles while Mark and I hiked in to find an open site. As we passed occupied site after occupied site I started to be concerned about how far we would have to haul gear. If we could find a site right on the water I could use some of the kayaks (we had five with us) as barges and tow gear across the pond. Mark and I soon reached the last campsite and found that all the pond side sites were occupied and my spirits admittedly sank.

The beginning of the trail to the camp sites. This trail would turn in to a muddy rocky track further in.

The first wonderful moment of the trip occurred when the two ladies setting up camp at site #10 offered to share the site with us. Site #10 had two tent platforms and the two campers, Holly and Natalie, very graciously offered to give us the larger platform. So leaving Mark with these sweet souls I hiked back out to discuss with Mary whether we wanted to take them up on their generous offer. After a brief discussion, we agreed to stay with Natalie and Holly at site #10 and we began the process of getting the gear hauled in. It was at this point that the first rain drops started to fall. So as Mary and the kids took what gear that they could comfortably carry the mile to the site, I began to move kayaks to the water and load them with the first heavy items such as food supplies, cooking gear, and tents that needed to be transported in.

Looking north across Grout Pond

The rain soon began in earnest. I worked as fast as I could prepping the boats so I could quickly get to the site and help rig a canopy over the tent platform. But nature has a way of not giving a damn about the comfort and ease of the creatures scurrying about in the open and indeed the cold rain was soon joined by a strong wind which created not only waves across the pond but actual whitecaps. So the initial trip across the pond became a struggle to keep the towed boats from capsizing and the gear in the boats from being soaked. When I finally arrived at site #10 I was soaked, cold, and exhausted. The rain was steady and didn't look to stop anytime soon. With a sinking heart I had to ask Mary and the kids to make another hike out to get as much gear as they could carry while I rigged a canopy of tarps over the tent platform. So they set off along the wet muddy trail and I started rigging the canopy. After a struggle I managed to achieve a reasonable shelter with numerous ropes extending in many directions. Mary and the kids returned looking wet and tired with more gear. Mary had carried more than she should have and she had a brave face on but I could tell she was struggling with the way things were unfolding. So was I. But seeing the way Mary and the kids were working and keeping their spirits up renewed my determination to make everything ok. Looking at the camp site I christened it "Spider Camp" in honor of the web of lines holding everything up, then I started on firing up the camp stove and heating up the beef stew I had made back home and brought with us. It was wonderful to stand under that rain shelter and eat hot delicious stew while the forest emitted that wonderful aroma that a rainy forest can only create. We had weathered a difficult start to our trip. Things would soon get much better.

Spider camp. Ropes strung every which way but a successful rain guard!

As the daylight failed we settled into what were admittedly damp tents and sleeping bags. The rain had finally stopped and the sky began to clear as night fell. The kids were in good spirits and Mary and I started to really feel that the trip would be a success. It was during this first night that one of the kids had an allergy flare-up. After discussing with Mary how best to address the situation I had begun the walk out to the vehicles where much of our gear still remained, including the allergy medicine we now needed. This 3 a.m. trek had started as a task that a parent does as a matter of course. It soon turned into one of those wonderful moments in our lives, standing in the dark and staring at the starry heavens. No longer feeling a lack of sleep, I continued on with my task and we soon had the kids asleep in their sleeping bags. Mary and I spoke quietly about the day through our tent walls. Then we heard the Loons.

There is no magic in the world that can compare to the sound of Loon song in the night. Out of the darkness floated the wail of this bird of the northern ponds and lakes and I was transfixed. And as the Loon's voice flowed across the pond, Barred Owls also called on the far shore. Even coyotes joined this symphony of the night. Enveloped in darkness, haunting bird song echoing in the air, the sound of children slumbering, and quiet conversation with a friend, I felt as if there could be no place better than this. The struggles of the day faded into an easy price to pay for the joy of being here, in the dark, in the forest, happy.

The re-arrangement of camp took up much of the morning of day 2.

When morning came it brought bright sunshine and clean cool air. Mary started making coffee and breakfast while I began preparing to haul the rest of our gear into camp and to re-arrange the hasty camp of the night before into a more orderly and comfortable situation. I soon came to appreciate what amazing energy and determination resides in Mary. I am a hard worker in situations such as this, where the kids are depending on the adults to make everything happen smoothly. But Mary not only held her own and worked tirelessly, continuously, and with enthusiasm, she very nearly put me to shame, inspiring me to work even harder for the success of the trip and the enjoyment of the kids. The trip ultimately was a resounding success. Mary played an enormous role in making it so.

Mary cleans up after breakfast

Grout Pond, as any clean back country pond does, offers a great deal of vibrant nature for kids to explore. As Mary and I were taking care of the daily tasks of camping, Mark, Rachel, and Janet went in search of treasures. It wasn't long before they were wading into the pond and catching Red-spotted Newts.

Janet gently displays two Red-spotted Newts caught in Grout Pond.

Rachel displays a Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) for a close look

A newt is a specific type of salamander. In its adult stage it lives in the water, unlike its relatives which are partially or mostly terrestrial. The red spots are warnings of toxic secretions that act as a chemical defense against predation and allow the newts to coexist with fish which often eat other salamanders. The young stage of the newt is called a Red Eft. It is terrestrial and brilliantly red, also a brazen statement of "Don't dare eat me." After the newt hunt the kids started gathering algae from the pond. This is one of those things that kids love to do that parents don't. I contented myself to watch them and photograph them. This of course elicited threats of being "algae bombed" but thankfully restraint was maintained.

Mark, Janet, and Rachel threaten to throw algae bombs at me.

With everything in the camp now in order it was time to head out onto the pond in the kayaks. We had brought a kayak for each of us and it was wonderful exploring Grout Pond with Mary and the kids. That evening, after Mary once again made a wonderful dinner for all of us, we built a fire in the fire ring. Holly and Natalie had been gone all day hiking in the Green Mountains and when they returned they joined us around the fire on a lovely evening in the woods of southern Vermont.

Holly, Natalie, Mary, Rachel, and Janet enjoy the campfire

When it was time to get the kids in the tents for the night, Mary supervised while I made another kayak run across the pond to get more drinking water and to retrieve more firewood. The pond was still as black glass as I paddled under the moonlight. Once again I was flooded with serenity and happiness to be here doing these things for the kids. When I returned across the pond, loaded down with wood and water, I strayed a little too close to the western shore and I was showered with the calls and screams of Barred Owls who felt I was intruding into their space. Their vocalizations sounded like the screams of maniacs and were absolute music to my ears. When I returned to the camp Mary helped me unload and we then spent a few quiet minutes drinking very well deserved beers by the fire before returning to our tents for the night. During the night I was awakened by the sound of rustling in the trees nearby. Being concerned about the presence of bears, I grabbed a light and crawled out of my tent. After walking around the camp site and listening for movement, I thankfully could see no large carnivores to worry about. It is amazing how much noise small animals can make moving about the forest floor and I put it down to some small mammal's nightly foraging and crawled back into my sleeping bag.

Day 3 of a planned 5 day trip dawned beautifully. But the weather forecast rumors we had heard were troubling. There was talk of a major rain storm moving into the area, so at first light I hiked out to my truck to listen to forecasts on the radio. The result was that we were indeed in for heavy rain later that night into the next day. As I hiked back in along the trail to the camp site to discuss plans with Mary I ran into Holly and Natalie who had broken camp and started on their way back home to Pennsylvania. They managed to embarrass me with very kind words about how I behaved with the kids and how much the kids clearly enjoyed being with me and trusted me. As I said I was embarrassed, but I admit I was also immensely uplifted to have such things said to me. It was a real gift to meet these two travelers from PA, albeit ever so briefly.

Whorled Aster I believe (Oclemena acuminata). The path to the campsites was graced by this beauty as well as other wildflowers.

When I returned Mary and I discussed what to do. Regrettably we had to agree that it would be best to cut our trip short and leave before the rain. So we made the best of our last day and Mary started making coffee. She soon turned that honor over to me as she and the kids started to relight the campfire.

Rachel and Janet enjoy the campfire relighted by Mary

Another beautiful day on Grout Pond, the last of our trip.

After another one of Mary's great breakfasts, pancakes with M and M's for the kids, it was time to get back in the kayaks and enjoy another paddle about before packing up the camp.

Janet cruises among the lily pads in my kayak

Mary snaps a shot of Janet and me on Grout Pond

Mark, Mary, and Rachel.

Mary heads back to camp. The paddling done, we need to get moving on breaking camp.

When we had finished our last kayaking trip on Grout Pond we headed back to camp to begin the monumental task of packing up all the gear we had brought. Mary and I had overdone it a bit and we had expected to be here for two more days. So it was like moving a small village when it came time to haul out. John, A friend of ours, and his dog Bruin, had driven up from CT to join us with hopes of camping himself. But the weather put paid to that. Still we could get a hike in before heading home. John graciously lent a hand hauling gear and I was able to put the kayaks to use as towed barges now that the pond was calm. Mark and I made a run across each towing gear and I made another solo crossing afterward that finally saw all our belongings on the north shore by the boat access. I did leave one thing behind, a pair of sandals that bit my feet cruelly. I figured the next campers could have them or burn them. Either way worked fine for me. We loaded up the vehicles and finally, by late afternoon, headed out on a hike that John had made many times before.

John and Bruin awaited our return at the camp site.

The hike was northwest of Grout Pond. We would hike into the Lye Brook Wilderness and towards Bourn Pond. Unfortunately the excursion into this gem of the southern Green Mountains would have to be cut short as the kids were fast tiring and the rain had begun to encroach once again.

The crew heads into the Lye Brook Wilderness led by John and Bruin.

Janet and Rachel sit on rocks in the stream during a break on our hike into the wilderness

Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) Indian pipe has no chlorophyll and hence no green coloring. It cannot obtain energy from sunlight and gets nutrients from organic matter in the soil instead.

On the way out of the Lye Brook Wilderness. Tired but happy!

We returned to our vehicles tired, wet, and very happy. Our camping trip to Grout Pond in the Green Mountains of Vermont had been shorter than planned and somewhat soggier than expected. Yet it had been a wonderful end to the school vacation. It was a joy to do this with Mary and the kids and I hope we can return next year and spend a bit more time enjoying and exploring this corner of New England's primitive green.

1 comment:

  1. A dandy blog, indeed! I enjoyed the family photos which so perfectly captured a family camping trip and the loon video.