Friday, April 3, 2015

Sacred Rainbows - The Holy Grail of Spring

Wanna’ know what a real Vermonter does in April?

Most of us, with the exception of my 9th generation Vermonter wife, Katie Carleton, come here from somewhere else. When I first arrived in Vermont in 1975 I knew that my heart had found its home. I felt a sense of belonging like I had never felt before. I was a skier and had done a little hunting back in Pennsylvania. But once the snow melted, what comes next?

Two pronounced characteristics of a real Vermonter are that they celebrate sugaring season and the holy grail of spring, Opening Day of Trout Season.

Granted this year we are joking about having to use an auger to get through all the ice, but seriously, there are streams with open water that hold hungry rainbows and browns that have held over throughout the frigid months of winter.

It’s been a couple of years since my dear friend, Sara Blum, of Shelburne and I have had the opportunity to fish together. But this year I am making a public pledge to get her on the water. Sara started fly fishing just a few years ago, and like many who try this sport, she struggled with the amount of information and technique needed to actually land a trout. Sara is a tenacious business owner (she owns Acorn Marketing which stresses the competitive advantage of highly focused public relations) and as such, she is remarkably adept at learning new means to an end.

On a gorgeous spring day we ventured to the Winooski River to wet our lines and enjoy the dappled sun on the riffles of a feeder stream while throwing colorful iridescent flies into the tail outs of the rippling water.

Fly fishing is more Zen than any sport I know. Listening to the fly line swish by over your head and standing in the current makes one feel as though he or she is a part of a magnificent world. The water and the sky absorb your spirit and soon you find that your mind is at peace with the present.
I was watching Sara as she practiced her back cast and lay down finish. It was a moment of sheer joy to be watching someone learning. I drifted back 46 years to my first fly fishing expedition and recognized that the intense concentration for achieving the perfect four part cast had evolved into a lifelong passion. After numerous false casts, Sara released her forward cast and laid the 6 weight line down on the water in a straight line about 20 yards out and just in the end of the riffles.

I watched her breathe a sigh of relief having accomplished what she had been longing to do.

As she relaxed and reveled in her success, it happened.

Smack! A nice rainbow trout surfaced and hit the elk hair caddis with abandon.
The reel began to scream, ticking off the gears of the internal mechanics, and literally singing as the fish made a run downstream.

“Raise your rod!” I yelled. “And if he jumps bow down to him!”

And jump he did. The feisty rainbow threw himself a foot into the air, sparkling in the bright spring sun. His colors flashed pink and green in the sunlight.

“Did you see that?” I whooped as I walked over to her to coach her on bringing him in.

“Wow! That was fantastic!” Sara replied.

I watched as she played the fish until he was tired enough to bring in to the gravel bar we were standing on.

Sara knelt down, partly in reverence and partly in awe at the glorious being. A smile came over her face that shone brighter than the sun above her head. Together, we were experiencing the present as it is meant to be – a gift – a present - from the Great Spirit. She said goodbye to the piscatorial deity and released him back into the gurgling water.

If you have ever wanted to experience this kind of connection, please feel free to contact me and I will be glad to assist you in finding your own piece of Zen in the outdoors.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Connection Alone is Success

Glory and Wonder

As I sit in my treestand, 20 feet above the ground in a mature maple, I am in awe of the beauty around me. The light filters through the gold and red canopy above me spilling onto the musky forest floor. It feels like I am in a cathedral. I am sitting here practicing being still and mindful only of my surroundings, but I am overcome with gratitude and wonder.

I begin to think ancient thoughts. Thoughts about how mankind has connected to nature and how in the beginning man learned everything he needed to know from animals. He learned to make calls imitating birds, and studied the movements and patterns of four leggeds. He learned to hunt by watching larger carnivorous animals. And ultimately, he learned that he needed them to survive.

This need translated to a closer connection. In order to eat, he had to understand the animals or plants that he could use to nurture himself, and often times learned from experience which organisms could make him sick or kill him, either with tooth and fang, or simply through his stomach.
I hypothesize that primitive man was in some way “grateful” for his successful hunt, although he probably didn’t sit around and pray about it. He just felt it. Food is good. I need food to survive. Therefore I need animals and plants so they become important to me. I rely on them.

As I am pondering these possibilities I drift into my own analysis of why I hunt now, when it would be so much easier to go to the grocery store and purchase the vegetables and meat I need. But do I feel any connection to this food? Am I grateful for it? I may be grateful that I have enough money for the purchase, but am I grateful for the animal or plant? Have I studied its habitat and patterns? Do I honor and respect its life?

Why Do I Hunt?
When I hunt, I feel love. Love for the woods. Love for the breeze. Love for the sunset and the trees. Love for the sound of the geese flying high overhead. Love for the animal I am seeking.

I am filled with an appreciation of all that surrounds me and for who I am as a part of it. I am both insignificant and valuable at the same time. My value is no greater than and no lesser than the animals, the plants and the sun that warms my face. I am at one with my universe. It is then that the universe rewards me with what I need.

A doe steps into the open space beneath my stand. She looks over her shoulder with a maternal glance. Following her is a smallish fawn, no doubt delivered late in the spring. The fawn follows its mother directly under my tree. I watch in utter amazement as they work their way past my ladder. I am invisible.

They sense no threat from me and thus their sixth sense accepts my presence as something natural. 

They wander off behind my stand and I say a prayer of thanks to the Great Spirit for their visit.

At the edge of the field that abuts the woods, a gray squirrel squeals loudly at something I cannot see. 

A twig snaps. My heart races.

I practice breathing like I had never done it before. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Conscious of every breath. Through the tangles that envelop the ditch leading to the field, I catch a glimpse of motion.

Brown motion. 

Then suddenly a stomp and a loud blowing sound. The wind has switched direction and this animal, this deer, smells something that is unfamiliar in these woods. Behind an old oak, I see a head lift and the sun glints off of a set of gorgeous antlers.

Another stomp and blow. The buck is looking right at my tree. He is out of range for my bow. 

He lifts his head up into the pillar of light and scans up the tree until our eyes are locked on one another.

I wait. Measured breathing, Not blinking. We are joined in a primitive moment.

I can see his chest expanding and contracting with mine.

Suddenly, his tail swishes form side to side. He turns his head to the West and begins to slowly walk away from me toward the field.

The sun sets and the birds get quiet. I sit down in my seat and take a deep breath. I say out loud “Thank you Great Spirit for my brother’s visit.” I have received a gift of beauty and wonder this evening that will remain as a memory for the rest of my life. 

And I am grateful.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Summer's End - Fall's Beginning

Harvest Moon
For many waterfowlers that first brisk Northern breeze that sweeps the pungent fragrance of the lake depths through the valley, means it is time to prepare for resident Canada goose season. While the public basks in the last few days of summer and revels in the glory of Labor Day weekend, goose hunters are preparing for Opening Day. 

Field bags are packed; decoys are set out in out fields, their deceptive motion swaying with the slightest wisp of air. Layout blinds are prepared by picking wheat and clover off the ground and stuffing it into the stubble straps of the nylon blinds, which sit on the dewy ground. It takes more than an hour and a half to properly grass the blinds and crawl into the coffin-shaped boxes.

Dawn of Fall
As the first rays of sunlight melt over the mountains, the sky lights up in salmon and helio, outlined by soothing sage. There is not a cloud in the sky and the sweet smelling northwest wind bodes well for our crew of anxious fowlers. 

We are sharing our traditional cup of coffee and donuts when it happens. Far out on the bay, the echo careens off of the rocky beach. Her-onk! The breakfast flock is awakening.

First call
We return the call with a simple cluck and leave the rest to the imagination. Sometimes the best call is the one that leaves curiosity in the mind of the conversationalist. We wait.

Soon, another muffled, yet intriguing honk comes from the bay. We answer back with a curt hail call. 

That gets the ball rolling! Now we are in an aggressive dialogue about how wonderfully tasty the wheat is this morning. Within minutes we can hear the entire flock begin to debate about when to leave the roost. Juvenile voices say “now!” while the more guttural adult tones profess “patience.” It’s like listening to a family on Christmas morning.
All Set

Twenty minutes pass. We are all silent in the field, when one of our band of brothers calls out “Two from behind! Right over the trees! And Silent!” “Get down!” I counter. Blind doors snap shut and we all disappear in stalks of wheat and sheaths of clover.  

These are the scouts.

We let them circle the spread and do not call or move. They examine us closely, then slide gently back out over the water and land in the center of the bay, clucking to the flock of 300 birds.

The question comes up every year. Should we have shot when they were hanging over the decoys? My answer has always been “no.” Let them take the news to the flock that the field is full of geese and there do not appear to be any predators.

Ten long minutes pass. Our hearts are beating wildly, hoping that we made the right choice. And then it begins.

We hear the wing beats flapping against the water as the family pods begin to peel off of the flock. 

Within moments, the sky is alive with honking, as powerful wing pinions flail at the air. They are arriving in flocks of 10 – 20 birds at a time. 

The first flock to lower altitude swings from right to left across the spread then turns away to the South. 

A single bird back pedals and drops his dark black boots to land in the decoys. “Let ‘em land!” I whisper. When the second flock sees the single bird on the ground, he calls to them.

First Bird
They cup their mighty wings in an arc, the shape of which is emblazoned in waterfowlers’ memories for generations. 

As they glide in to finish their landing, feet outstretched, necks craning, I wish that I could freeze this moment in time and somehow convey to all those who do not hunt what a magnificent spectacle we get to witness.

Some call the Canada goose a nuisance because it fouls their lawns and golf courses. I prefer to think of them as majestic brethren seeking a connection to us.

Smile of Success

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Camp

July. The days are warm and full of activity. Gardens are beginning to show fruit and the black caps are growing juicy on the vine. The days are full of flowers and lying in the hammock between the two old trees. The chickens run happily around the yard chasing butterflies and scratching for worms in the dry dirt. The mountains seem to fade into a shimmering purple haze of heat. Streams are gurgling merrily along. Insects store their energy during the heat of the day and emerge in the cool evening. Rainbow trout rise lazily to the hatch beneath the riffles of the dams, breathing in the life-affirming oxygen. For humans, the heat begins to drive us to the shade of the woods. It’s going to be a long hot summer and the mountains are calling me. My wife, Katie, my sister, Callie from CT, and I pack a picnic lunch and load the truck with bottles of water and snacks. As so many Vermonters do, we are heading for
Nothing Fancy
the respite of camp. The nice thing about camps is that it really doesn’t matter whether your camp is a spacious monument on a stone wall overlooking the lake or if it’s something simple tucked off in the woods away from the maddening crowds. It’s a getaway. It’s a place where the mundane rules of everyday etiquette relax a bit. It’s okay to not make your bed. It’s okay to wake up a little later and eat a hearty breakfast at 10:00. The days are unrushed. Our little camp is humble – heck some people might think it’s a paragon of poverty – but to us and the people we invite, it’s a slice of heaven.

As the truck pitches from side to side going up the old logging road we sing along to the radio and it feels like we are in a time machine going backwards to a simpler period in human life.
The Old Defiant Stove
We pull up to the deck and check the water system, which is extracted from the bubbling brook. It fills an old bathtub with ice cold mountain spring water. Once hooked up, the same wonderful aqueous substance flows directly into the kitchen sink.Two large recliners and a fold down couch surround the old Defiant woodstove with a touch of rust on the surface.

After a cool drink of water, our friends begin to arrive. One by one, big wheeled trucks roll up into the parking area. Coolers of food and beverages are unloaded and bottles are placed in the bathtub where they will remain slightly above freezing.

After everyone unpacks, we collectively decide to hike to the top of Crow Hill for a view of the valley. The ascent is steep and full of loose rocks. Arriving at the top we are literally clinging to small pines to pull ourselves up to the next level. The short pines are thick and the ground is covered in spongy moss, its musky fragrance blending with the aromatic balsam and permeating the air around us. We are sweat soaked and our knees are shaking. Another 100 yards to the rock outcropping.

Sacred Beauty
We follow a deer trail right to the spot. Suddenly, the trees part and we are standing on a large shelf of rock, looking down on the Champlain Valley that seems to wave like a mirage in the heat. Beyond, we can see the lake shimmering in the mid day sun. The Adirondacks seem to reach up into the azure sky, blending in bluish-purple with the distant horizon. As far as the eye can see, there is beauty.

Sacred beauty that cannot be touched by development.  For this, we
can all give thanks. For this is solace for a world gone mad with busyness. As we stand on the precipice, time seems to stand still and we are all united in our mindfulness that this ground is sacred.