Black Spruce Honey

Black Spruce Branch

If you hear someone say “Black Spruce Honey”, what would you think? When I said to my husband, “I want to go pick Black Spruce buds today so I can make some “Black Spruce Honey”, he didn’t even question me. He just said “Where? Up on the river or over at Bob’s old saw mill?” He is a good man, my years of exploring different stuff has trained him well.

It all started while reading one of my guide books, Canoe Country Flora, by Jeff Sonstegard. In it I saw the recipe for Black Spruce Honey, and just had to try it. As with most herbs and eatables in the wild there is a time for picking and for the Black Spruce buds that time is late spring to early summer when the spruce buds are soft and light green in color. It was mid June when I saw this article, as luck would have it, so it was perfectly timed.

As with all my picking in the wild, I do not pick everything off a bush or branch or in one harvest area. And with the Black Spruce, which is a slow growing tree to begin with, I made sure that I picked only a few on each branch and I made an effort not to pick off the leading bud so as to not stunt the growth of the tree. The area where we went had a lot of little seedlings, so it was easy to move from tree to tree to pick a few buds here and a few there. As luck would have it, Larry found a tree that had been blown over which had a lot of buds, so I picked it more heavily. It wasn’t long before I had pick about 2 cups, which is plenty for a first time trial run.

Back at our cabin that afternoon I took my buds and rinsed them well with cold water, then put them in a pan and covered them with about 2 ½ cups of water.  I simmered them slowly on the stove for about an hour. Next I poured the contents of the pan into a sieve lined with a coffee filter and captured the liquid in a bowl. After that I measured the remaining liquid, recovering a cup and a half. Then I returned the liquid to the pan and added ¾ cup of sugar as the recipe said to add half the amount of sugar as you have liquid. Finally I boiled the mixture down until it thickened. A jelly thermometer came in handy to determine the timing and I pulled it off the fire when it reached 210 degrees.

While the mixture was boiling down, I prepare a small jelly jar, washing it with hot soapy water and then boiled it in a water bath for 5 minutes.  When the honey  was done I poured it into the cleaned jelly jar. And finally I capped the jar. The final amount of “honey” was ¾ of a cup. After it cooled a bit, the jar went into the refrigerator.

The resulting “honey” had an amazing flavor. There was a hint of spruce that was pleasant and not overwhelming. I put a teaspoon into my water bottle and I added it to my cup of tea in the morning. Yum!! If you ever find yourself in the North Woods either in Minnesota, Maine or in Canada in late spring or early summer I highly recommend looking around for a black spruce stand and making your own Black Spruce Honey. It is a flavor you cannot buy anywhere!

Cotton Picking Plants

In the winter of 2019 Larry and I spent 10 weeks in the Great State of Texas. We traveled all across the state visiting State Parks and other interesting attractions. During the early part of our stay we were in eastern part of the State when we came across a flyer for a museum on cotton. We found it in a small Ag town. It consisted of a small building next to an old cotton processing plant. The whole exhibition was well done with show cases of the different aspects of the usage of cotton over the years in the front and in the back there was an old cotton gin with sign boards showing how it took raw cotton and cleaned it and made it ready for the spinning. Another area was dedicated to the plant itself which I found facinating, as a northerner or Yankee as they called us, I had never seen a cotton plant up close and did not realize that cotton comes in two colors. That’s right, two colors, white as we see nearly all the time in the fields as we drive by and green, which is rarely grown now. The guide who was showing us around allowed us to take a few cotton seeds if we wanted too, so I grabbed two of the green cotton seeds. Fast forward to now, we are back at our home near the coast of Maine and I am going through some of the stuff we collected during our nine month trip cruising across North America, when I come across the two cotton seeds. Green Cotton Seeds! Excited I immediately took them out to the greenhouse and planted them. Then I carefully set them on a shelf where I felt they would get the most light and heat that my little greenhouse could give. I knew I was a long shot to have two seeds that have been bounced around a motor home for nearly a year and then stashed in a closet for the winter to actually be viable but it was worth a try. A week later as I am working in the greenhouse, I realize the cotton seeds had sprouted into the prettiest little plants. I am so excited. My plan now is to keep them in the greenhouse during the entire season and see if I can come up with a little of my very own cotton. F2fThen I could show off the (most likely) the only cotton plants in the entire state.

Tracking as a Hobby

Are you bored yet? It’s February and the snow is on the ground and it’s cold outside. Many people like to stay warm and safe tucked inside all winter but after a while, cabin fever will set in. The cure is find something to do to get yourself outside. So here is an idea, have you ever thought about tracking?… What? You never heard of it, you say. Well, allow me to tell you about it.
Tracking is simple and fun, not to mention the health benefits being outside and breathing fresh air. All it takes is some warm clothes, snow boots with or without snowshoes or x-c skis and maybe a guide book. If you do not want to purchase a guide book you can take pictures of the tracks with a camera or your phone and look them up on one of your devices. There are some great animal track identification websites. Still interested, good read on and I will give you some tips on how to see and enjoy animal tracks.

Tracking or the art of identifying tracks and following them to find their story is a hobby of mine. This hobby all started in the 1990s after I read Paul Rezendes’s book “Tracking and the Art of Seeing”. After that, a few years later, I took a course from Jim Halfpenny of Gardner MT on wildlife tracking. It was a three day class packed full of information. From then on I have spent a lot more time in the winter tracking. Personally I enjoy it so much I look forward to snow.

Where to go? Living in Maine there are many places where a person can walk in search of animal tracks. But you don’t have to live in Maine to enjoy snow tracking. Any place that has snow there is the opportunity to look for tracks. The best places to go can be as simple as in your own backyard, or a local park. A state or national park is perfect if you have one nearby. There are dozens of conservation land dotted all across New England or one of my favorite places, a cemetery.

The best time is the second day after a snowstorm. This gives animals time to come out of their dens and move about looking for food or a mate. This is not to say you should not go out anytime but after a fresh snow tracks are fresh and clear and easier to identify. Fresh tracks have little or no age distortion. Older tracks lose their definition as their edges sluff off, and the sun melts and widens them making them look bigger than they actually are. Tracks, individually are usually measurements include length, width, stride and straddle. Length and width are basic, stride is the length between tracks and the straddle is the measurement from side to side; that is from outside of the left side to the outside of the right side. These measurements help to identify how large the animal is. The most common tracks in northern New England, New Brunswick and Quebec are as follows: snowshoe hare, cottontail rabbit, red and gray squirrel, white-footed mouse, common field mouse and vole tunnels. These tracks are easy to identify and are plentiful.

Then there are foxes, coyote, bobcat or further north Lynx. These are the larger carnivores. Tips for discerning the difference on Fox and Coyote: All “dog” tracks are oval, longer than wider. This includes the fox. Both the fox and coyote will have forward toes that are equal in length and parallel and the nails nearly always show. For the coyote, the pad is shaped like a triangle or piramid, for the fox, the pad is shaped like a chevron. (/\) And finally the coyote is larger and wider than the fox. Fox tracks are so narrow that the track line from a distance looks like a straight line. The difference from a canine track and a feline track is another challange. As stated above the canine track is oval, longer than wider but the cat track is exactly the opposite it is wider than longer. At a glance, cat tracks are nearly round. The two front toes are different, too. Only one toe leads. The whole track is slanted and turned slightly inward. The cat pad has two peaks near the toes and three lobes at the back. See my sketch below:

Then there is always the deer and moose, turkeys, grouse and assorted other birds, so searching for tracks never gets boring. Even now after years of tracking I am always surprised at the number of different animals out there. And following them to see where they or what they are up to makes me feel like an old fashioned pioneer, like Daniel Boone. Others not interested in following tracks have fun recording the number of different tracks found on any one excurrision.

The tools of the trade, so to speak, are a ruler or tape measure. What I use is a small tape that is attached to a key ring, notepad and a pencil. Pens tend to freeze but a pencil will always work outside. A field guide or a ring with flashcards are a big bonus as it keeps you from guessing and if you are like me, it is fun to do the research. As for the field guide simple is better as it is easier to identify tracks if you do not have too much information. But as I said earlier the book is not necessary as one can take a photo of the tracks and when back at home look it up on the web. Which brings me to the last thing and that is a camera. Extras items I bring with me if I am going out away from home is a small backpack with water and some munchies, a cell phone and a small first aid kit. That is my wilderness first responder training stepping in. It never goes away… Dress warm in layers, know where you are going. It’s harder to get lost in the winter because you can follow your own tracks back but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen so stay alert as to where you are. And it is more fun if you bring along a friend.And as always tell someone where you are going. So now you’re ready.

The coolest part of tracking is following a track and figuring out the story. You see, every track has a story to tell and if you know what to look for the story comes alive. For example; one day I came across a fox track and decided to follow it for a while. As I did I could see that it was looking off to the right side and then off to the left side. I know this by the way the front paws shift in one direction or the other. You see as the fox turns his head to look his front paws shift in that direction too. It is kind of like when you drive and you look to one side and you find that you steer in the direction as well if you are not careful. Same goes for some animal tracks. Back to the tracks… As I followed along I realized it was a male fox because he peed off to the side on to a bush. If it was a female she would have squatted and peed in between the back paws. As I followed along I noticed he slowed down,(the tracks were closer together) next he stopped. This is where I get creative liberties in the story. My guess is he saw a rabbit or a grouse or some other mammal. I concluded it must have been prey because he took off in a run and I lost his tracks in a swamp. The end. At least for that story, I just retraced my steps back to the start and started looking for another track of interest.
My favorite of all tracks is also the rarest, that of the lynx. I have had the good fortune to see a lynx in the wild and they are amazingly beautiful. But seeing them is rare, finding their tracks is a little more common. Cat tracks are like the opposite of canine tracks. Dog tracks are oval, egg shaped, longer the wider. The dogs two leading toes are the same length and parallel. Cat tracks are rounder, wider the long, their pad is wider and has two peaks where a canine is shaped like a triangle. The first time I came across a lynz track I thought it was a mountain lion track because they were so big. I called in the local wildlife biologist to take a look and he was the one to educate me on the difference. It was the stride that made the difference. A lynx is around half a long as a mountain lion therefore the distance from the front paw to the back paw is the give away. Lesson well learned.
There is so much more to track. Like the weasel family. They do not walk, they hop so their tracks in the snow are two by two. The way to tell the difference between a martin and an ermine is by measuring the stride and straddle as the ermine is so much smaller than the martin. But the Fisher is so much bigger that there is no mistaking its tracks. Then there is the grouse with three toes forward and one back. The largest of the mice is the white footed mouse. It too leaves a two by two track and usually you can see signs of their tail as well.

Another interesting tidbit is that the front paws are larger than the back ones. That is because the front feet carry the weight of the neck and head where the back carries only the tail. That doesn’t help in identifying but it is good to know.

The Whistling Trains

Bozeman Campsite

Here we are, in Bozeman Montana. A friend of ours offered us a place to park at a shop that belongs to a friend. Here we would have electricity, water and be able to set up on a concrete pad. We took him up on the offer. Last night we discovered that the railroad was just across the road when the whistle nearly blew us out of our bed. Four other trains came through last night, wailing on their whistles as they went by. It was a long night. I am not complaining because there was another time in my life that I spent a similar night.

It happened back in 1988 on a cross-country drive with my darling mother-in-law, Jean. We left Casper Wyoming headed for Chesuncook Lake, Maine with my three little kids in the back of our silver Grand Marquis. Almost immediately Lacey, my daughter, started to feel car sick. We pulled into Cheyenne so I could get her some Pepto Bismol, hoping it would ease her sour stomach.We were just a few miles out of town when Lace leaned over the front seat to tell me she was going to get sick, when all of the sudden she upchucked all over Jean’s beautiful white blouse. Poor Jean, her pretty blouse now had a bold pink streak down the front. Most people would be really upset, not Jean she was more worried about Lacey. We pulled over to comfort Lace and clean up Jean as best as possible.

Late that afternoon, exhausted, we took two rooms at a hotel in North Platte Nebraska. The rooms were on the back side of the building. We ordered pizza and settled the kids in front of the TV in one room. Meanwhile in the room next door Jean and I poured ourselves a cocktail. It was about then that a train raced thru town blowing it whistle. The tracks were next to the hotel. The sound was deafening and the whole building shook. Jean and I looked at each other, she smiled and we started to laugh. We both shook our heads and Jean said, “Hope the whole trip doesn’t continue on like today.”

At that point in time, I did not know my mother-in-law very well and was hoping to make a good impression. The truth be known it was her grace and patience she showed on that day, which ended up making the best impression on me. Since then, Jean has continued to show me how to take life’s problems with grace and loving patience. It is with her in mind that I smile at the roar of the train today and thank Joel for making the effort to find us a safe place to stay while visiting old friends, on our way to Alaska.

The Meadowlark

photo from

It is a beautiful sunny Wyoming morning. Pearl the border collie is staring at me with her ice blue eyes. She wants me to get up from the table and my cup of coffee, and take her for a walk. No longer able to take it and knowing that I need the walk even more than she does, I grab her leash and open up the door to our camper.

The bright sun makes me stop for a minute and let my eyes adjust. It is the middle of May and the grass has turned a vivid green from all the spring rain and snow showers of the past week or so. Pearl runs out and grabs her frisbee. She is ready to play. I tell her, “No, we are going for a walk”. She drops the disk and I grab her collar to hook on the leash.

We head out the driveway of our friends’ house, where we are staying and turn towards the mountains. The robins and meadowlarks are taking turns singing from the top of a row of pine trees that mark the boundary line between two homes. It has been a long time since I have had the pleasure of listening to the meadowlark sing. Their song has the strength of the ovenbird, bold and clear. He starts out with two or more rising, two-syllable notes then he adds a beautiful warble. Sometimes, I think I hear, “Peter, Peter, be my boyfriend”. The “boyfriend” part of the song descends in tone and rises for the last note. This is one of the techniques I use to help me remember the different songs of birds.

The Western Meadowlark is the state bird of Wyoming, maybe because it loves wide open spaces and Wyoming has lots of those. They are quite common in the grassy fields and open spaces all the way up to 10,000 feet. They are a chunky bird similar to the robin but a little larger. For my friend Colin, they are a little longer than an average man’s hand from the wrist to the top of the index finger. The male breeding Meadowlark has yellow belly and breast with its upperparts a mottled brown, buff and black. The most identifying part is the beautiful black deep V on its neck. Against the yellow neck and breast it is quite stunning. The top of his head is crowned with dark brown and buffy white stripes that run from the beak to the back of the head. When in flight the tail flashes white on the edges.
Growing up in Wyoming I took the Meadowlark for granted. If it weren’t for my father pointing it out, it would have been as obscure as all the other “Little Brown Birds”, that call the Wyoming prairie, home.

The last time I heard this beautiful little song was close to twenty years ago, so I am drinking it in like water on a hot afternoon. Allowing it to fill my soul with the essence of the land of my childhood. It is good to be home.

Alaska or BUST…Bust…bust

We left our home in Maine on December 1st with the motto of Alaska or Bust. My family reunion is scheduled for the first week of August in Palmer Alaska. But we did not want to spend the winter in Maine so we are combining what would normally be two vacations. That means we will be spending the winter cruising around the southern states and then head north along the Rocky Mountains as spring allows. It will be a trip of a lifetime.

Our caravan leaving Stockton Springs, Maine

We officially became snowbirds in 2016, when we headed south for the winter in our 36’ Monk trawler boat. That winter we cruised down the eastern seaboard as far south as Key West. We especially enjoyed the time in the warm waters around Florida.

The next winter we stayed at our place on the Maine coast. It was cold, snowy, icey and sloppy. After that we said never again. That is when we started the search for a RV. In the January of 2018, we purchased a class C Winnebago View. It is 25’ long with a slide-out for a little more space to make life easier on long voyages.

That February we put 9000 miles under our little motor coach. We traveled all the way to California and returned to Maine in late April. On this trip, we traveled almost every day with the exception of spending short periods of time with family and friends.

There was only one mechanical issue during that trip. It happened during a snowstorm in Oklahoma. The check engine light came on. Larry contacted the Mercedes Dealer in Oklahoma City and the next day slid into the Dealership on a sheet of ice. What a crazy morning that was.

After putting our coach on a scope, the mechanic said the code that he pulled indicated we have an exhaust valve problem (EGR valve for my mechanically inclined friends). They would have to order it in and it would take several days. We asked if there would be a problem if we drove it for a while. He said no, so long as it was short term. Then he emphasised that it should be taken care of soon.

With that in mind, we decided to contact the shop in Kingman Arizona. Larry let them know the problem we were having. The man behind the desk said to bring her on in and we will see what we can do. From that point on, the motto was Kingman or Bust. We were fortunate that the repair only took one day and we were never spent a night homeless. The rest of the trip that winter was uneventful as far as breakdowns or repairs go.

It is finally 2019. This is the Big Trip. Alaska or Bust! The plan is simple. We travel to the southern states for the winter and head north to Alaska as the spring weather allows. The timeline is quite basic with very few “have to, or need to be someplace” dates. All went as planned until early March when the check engine light came on while we were driving thru New Mexico. Larry checked the code with his scanner and it turned out to be the same one that we had last year with the EGR. Working with his Ipad Larry did some research and found an outfit in Tucson that handled motors like ours and made an appointment.

Our Motorcoach at the City of Rocks in New Mexico.

When we arrived in Tucson, we camped at the Fairgrounds just off of I10 with friends from Wyoming. The city of Tucson is enormous. We took the first morning driving around with the jeep to figure out where the garage we had the appointment with, was located. The next morning we arrived at the shop at 8 am sharp. The mechanic replaced a gas relay switch and then changed the transmission oil. We left there at 6 pm after signing another hefty check confident that we were all set.

We made it about 100 miles when the check engine light came on again. Disappointed we called the dealer we worked with last year in Kingman AZ, and they told us to call a couple of days before we would arrive in Kingman and they would set up a time.

When we arrived at the dealer in Kingman for repairs. They took the coach in and ran a scope on it. The technician told us that our rig had a voltage failure due to a bad battery. Since the battery in the coach was still under warranty and the NAPA store was just across the street. We took the coach over there and traded out the old battery for a new battery.

Larry did the installation in the parking lot since it was against policy for the employees to do so. Just as Larry was finishing up, the Napa clerk came out to tell us that the old battery checked out OK but due to the diagnosis they would still honored the warranty. “Now What?”, we thought, “Is this going to work?” With a big sigh, Larry turned the key to start the coach with the new battery installed, the check engine light was off and there wasn’t even a hesitation in the ignition sequence. So off we went again, wondering when the next time this ghost was going to appear. From that point on every time we had to start the coach, we worried it would act up again.

When we were in southwestern Utah a couple of weeks later it started to act up again. Frustrated we just went on with our travels. We talked about visiting Utah for a year now. It was to be one of the highlights of our winter. So we carried on. We spent three weeks traveling all over southern Utah and northern Arizona. The ignition issues kept coming up from time to time, and as time progressed the more frequently it happened. By the time we turned toward Colorado to visit my family we worried that one of these days soon it would not start for us at all.

Electronic issues can be a nightmare. One time, on a station wagon of mine, it took three days to find the problem. It turned out to be a short in the map light on the drivers’ side. It is crazy…pull your hair out…stuff.

First, when we arrived in Colorado, we stopped at my sisters in Littleton. While we were there Larry found an auto repair shop in Fort Collins, that he liked. After we celebrated Easter with my sister and dad, we headed to my brother’s home in Fort Collins.

We stayed with Eric for a couple of days before the scheduled appointment. The morning we arrived at the shop we had trouble getting started. Then when Larry drove the coach into the garage bay and turned it off, it would not start again! Can you believe it. How many times do you take a auto into a shop and you cannot duplicate the problem in front of the mechanic. This time we won. sort of…

Weston Auto Gallery

Our coach spent three nights in a strange place while we stayed with my brother Eric and his wife Rhonnie. Their little farm was the perfect haven to be at while waiting for repairs.

Step by step Larry, working with Joe, his newfound technician friend, determined that it is NOT the Y cable, NOT the ignition switch, and NOT the solenoid. Day three of garage prison, mid-afternoon, Joe and Larry replaced two ignition modular switches and TADA! our little motorhome started. Yeah! We were back on the road. It was a great shop to work with and they treated us fair. If anyone needs a mechanic on a european car or diesel engine, check out Weston Auto Gallery.

I am writing this story as I sit in my old adopted home of Casper Wyoming. We are here visiting old friends and waiting for the weather to warm a bit before we head north to Montana. So far we have had no further issues with our little coach. The mechanical problems we had have not dampened our enthusiasm. We are heading to Alaska. We will get there… Sooner or later!

The Lost Dogs of the San Juan River

photo by Shannon LeRoy

It is one of the saddest things when you see a dog chewing on an old carcass or digging in a trash can. Lost and homeless, this is not a way of life for man’s best friend.

We were staying at Sand Island Campground and decided that we would go exploring and to look for some campfire wood. The best place for firewood was along the San Juan River where the cottonwoods grow. We loaded into the Jeep and headed over the bridge looking for an old road that might take us towards the trees down river from where from where we were camped.

The two tracker road we found exited off the highway just past the bridge. It descended sharply to the river basin below and turned back toward the bridge. When the road leveled out we spotted a dog. It was chewing on the rib bones of a cow carcass near the underpass of the bridge. It was a medium sized dog, long, brown fur with a large dark brown blotch on its side. When it lifted its head there were porcupine quills sticking out of its nose. Poor thing. It looked afraid of us but not enough to give up its meal.

As we drove slowly by, we spotted another dog on the opposite side of the bridge. This dog was blond with shorter hair and skinny. It was about the same size as the first dog. This dog was chewing on the severed neck bones of carcass. It was a lot more skittish than the first dog because when it saw us it gave up its meal and ran for cover. The two dogs looked like siblings, being the same size, with the same terrier like faces. We guessed that they must have been abandoned here. Ill equipped to do anything for the poor pups, we moved on.

While we were collecting firewood we kept talking about the dogs. We could not get them out of our minds. As we were driving back to camp with firewood loaded in the back with Pearl our border collie, we both looked at each other and said; “Let’s at least get them some food!” We drove past the campground entrance and on into the little town of Bluff. There we purchased a small bag of dog food from the local convenience store.

Next we returned to the area by the bridge where we saw the dogs. There was no sign of the them so we stopped and climbed out of the Jeep, opened up the bag of dog food, folded down the paper at the top to expose the food and placed it in put in the open area under the bridge. Even though we did not see the dogs, we hoped they were watching us from undercover.

Back at camp, late that afternoon, the two dogs returned to the beach. Happy to see them, we settled into our chairs near the picnic table and used the field glasses to get a better look. The blond pup was a male and the brown one looked to be female. She was the one with the porcupine quills buried deep into her nose and chin. There weren’t a lot of quills, four or five, but nonetheless they had to be painful. As they laid down in the warm sand and napped, the noise of approaching rafters came down the river. The dogs rose immediately and moved behind a large driftwood log, out of sight. They stayed hidden there until the rafters were well past the bridge, then moved back out into the open to continue with their siesta. They were weary enough of humans to hide. We wondered how long they had been on their own.

Watching the dogs, we were excited because we assumed they had found the kibbles and were enjoying a nap on a full stomach. The girls, camped next to us, were watching the dogs too and we had quite a conversation on their possible fate. None of us were in a position to capture and take care of them. They obviously they were weary of humans. And us being in a foreign land we were not sure who to call. We all decided to sleep on it.

The next morning we were all on high alert to spot the dogs but they never showed. The girls, next doors packed up and left for parts unknown. It wasn’t long before new camper moved in. It was a woman and her dog in a little tiny camper that looked like a melon. After introductions, Her name was Michelle and her old dog was Shaggy. In our converstion we told Michelle about the lost dogs across the river. She immediately texted a rescue center that she knew about. She was from the Durango area and had worked with rescue groups over there. She told us that over 5000 dogs were rescued every year in this area. Then after they are rescued, they are cleaned up, neutered and given their shots. When they are ready, many are relocated to a no kill shelter in Denver. We were amazed that out in desert there would be so many abandonded dogs.

That morning we went back over to see if the dogs had finished the dog food and clean up any mess they might have left. (It really was to ease our curiosity as to whether the dogs had eaten the food.) To our surprise the food was untouched. So I stepped out of the Jeep with the intention of relocating the food further up the beach where we knew they hang out. Just as I picked up the bag of food, the female stepped out of the shrubs. She looked at me with her head cocked to one side. A little shocked that she was willing to approach me. Now I am weary, I smiled, tilted my head and spoke softly to her. I folded the paper opening of the bag down to better expose the food, set it back on the ground by my feet and slowly backed to the Jeep and climbed in. The pup started to slowly walk up to the bag and as soon as she realized it was food she started eating. As she chewed the kibbles she would lift her head and watched us cautiously. We watched her eat, it made us glad to know she will be well fed today. Slowly we backed up and drove away.

That afternoon both dogs came back out on the beach across the river and napped in the sun, and we watched and checked on them as the afternoon faded. At the campfire that night, Michelle, Shaggy her dog and our neighbor Gene, who camped on the other side of us, joined us. We were chatting when Gene told us that two men in a little pickup pulled up to him and asked about some lost dogs. You see, Gene had been out exploring the last two days and did not know about our dogs across the river. (Our dogs. See how easy it is to get attached.) We asked Michelle if she could find out if the men who spoke to Gene had actually captured the dogs. She said that the dog rescue groups in the area were a loosely connected and it would be really hard to out find any information. So all we can do is hope that our little pups were indeed caught and they will find a forever home.

The next morning we all packed up and left the campground. Not knowing for sure if the dogs were rescued I will always think of them and say a prayer for their safety.

sunrise photo by Gene Breindel

Sand Island Campground

photo by Shannon LeRoy

We are sitting on the banks of the San Juan River. Our campsite is at the Sand Island campground, run by the BLM. Only two sites in the entire facility are on the river and we have one of them. Our neighbor next door, Gene, whom we first ran into at Lee’s Ferry and then again at the Navajo National Monument, is from northwestern Pa. He is an x-sailor from the silent service. In other words the Submarine Corp. He fancies himself a photographer and spends his time shooting all the places he’s been. He tells us he has 2500 photographs and likes about 6. That is about right. He has a jolly laugh and is one of the nicest guys you ever want to meet.

Photo by Shannon LeRoy

It’s rafting season here and we enjoy watching the different groups float by as they prepare to maneuver around the upcoming bridge and it is peaceful here too, with the exception of the occational traffic from that bridge. This place is our refuge from the winter storm that has been slamming the lands to the north. Trying to head north has proved harder than expected. This years late spring has changed our schedule. It seems the same for the geese, who arrive here daily and are starting to congregate on the sandy beach across the river from us.

Photo by Shannon LeRoy

As for the location Sand Island Campground is ideal for those who like to explore. From here you can travel south a few miles and tour the Valley of the Gods, or Monument Valley, which were the location for many of old time westerns. Each location would be a days trip. If you drive north and west, there is the Natural Bridges National Monument and an amazing drive down the Moki Dugway, which is a breathtaking road that winds 1200 feet from top to bottom, off the face of a cliff, where one can see to the edge of the earth.

Our nearest town is Bluff Utah, population 250. Despite it small size it has a lot going for it. Fort Bluff visitor center has a real size replica of the original settlement. A settlement that would not be here except for a little hole in the rock. This story of Mormon expansion has got to be one of the best ever:

It started in April of 1880. A group of 250 pioneers left Salt Lake and traveled 250 miles, south and east, to finally settle on banks of the San Juan River. What was supposed to take 6 weeks took 6 months. The terrain was so rough and that the expedition averaged 1.7 miles a day. The hardest part of the trail was a 2000 foot descent to the Colorado River. (Yes, I got all the zeros right)

photo by NPS

After weeks of searching, their scouts found only one place that might work. The hole in the rock! This hole was not big enough to get a wagon through. (I am sure the people on the expedition were shaking their heads when they saw it.) Once agreeing to the route, these amazing, maybe even crazy people went to work. They blasted, chiseled and chipped a route down all 2000 feet of what most of would call a rock slide, to the river below. Then they made a raft big enough to fit a wagon and horses. After that they rigged up a ferry system to get themselves across the river to the other side. The determination of this hardy group of people is truly astonishing.

Painted by Lynn Griffin

The initial decent of the Hole in the Wall was a 45 degree grade but it leveled out towards the bottom. To move the wagons through the narrow passage they used horses and men behind the wagons as brakes. One by one they, in a fashion, worked each wagon to the bottom. There were 83 wagons, 1800 loose stock and 258 people who made the initial decent. The most amazing part was that no one was killed or injured badly during the whole expedition.

The visitor center has well produced 15 minute video that tells the story. There is a lot more of history around for those who love to explore.

The Alcove Dwellings of the Anasazi People

While staying at the Navajo National Monument, Larry and I planned to hike one of the walking trails called “The Sandal Trail“. This trail touts a spectacular cross-canyon view” of the alcove village called Betatakin. This village was built into the deep hollow of an alcove in a cliff wall by natives called Anasazi. Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning “the ancient ones”.

Alcoves are an interesting aspect of the southwest canyon lands. A video at the visitor center explains that the Alcoves are a product of running water. Water from rain is absorbed through the rocks at the top of the canyon and as it seeps through the cracks and veins along the cliff walls it takes with it grains of sand. Over time this water flowage wears a hole in cliff.  Ta Da! Alcove. What a perfect place for a village, protected from weather and enemies on three sides and it even has it own water source.

The history tell us that as the ancient ones started to grow corn and other food sources, around 1100 a.d. they estabilished more permanent places to live, like the alcove dwelling we were hiking to see that day. Not all the Anasazi lived in Alcove Dwellings, some lived in villages built along valleys near a water source. These villages, due to the fact that they were open to the elements are not as preserved as the Alcove Dwellings. There are literally hundreds of village ruins of the ancient people scattered across the southwest. Larry and I, with our friends Kevin and Missy, hiked up to a cliff dwelling in the Tonto National Forest near Roosevelt Reservoir, in Arizona. And I read that when they flooded the land behind the Glen Canyon Dam many ruins were covered by the waters of Lake Powell.

As I mentioned before the alcove dwelling on The Sandal Trail is called “Betatakin”. A cool word that means “ledge house” in the Navajo language. The trail itself is perfect for all ages. It is paved and fairly short, just 1.3 miles round trip. Even though it leads downward to the observation site, the slope is easy to maneuver.  There are strong wooden bridges with handrails spanning the more difficult parts of the landscape. And for your entertainment the National Park Service has included story boards along the way that explain how the plants and trees in the area were used by the natives. It was very educational.

The natives were crafty. Necessity is the mother of invention. The little sign boards added a nice spice, learning about the uses of the local flora while walking down the nice easy path. There were a dozen different signs that talked about using the Juniper tree for rope, pottery, diapers pads and brewed a tea as a laxative. Or the story board that tells how the Pinyon Pine’s pitch was used as a glue for mounting arrowheads to shafts and knives to handles. Plus they ate the nuts as food, both raw and roasted. They made their arrows out of a shrub called Cliffrose and used Yucca for rope and crushed the roots to make soap. They ate Prickly Pear, and used Buffalo berrys for food and dye. All this and more is part of the trail exerience.

The day we hiked was warm with just enough sun to stay confortable and yet enough clouds to keep it from becoming hot. We opted for an early morning walk when the tempertures are cooler and fewer people are out. (Mostly for the fewer people part.) As we walked along the paved trail the mountain chickadees were cheerfully chatting as they flew from tree to tree along the way. The air was scented with the smell of Juniper. There was some interesting scat to one side of the trail. It was full of Juniper berries and I wonder what creature left it and was it a territorial marker.  Around every bend there was another amazing view. Pearl would have loved this walk but as with all National Parks and Monuments dogs are not allowed on any trails. Sorry Pearl.

The trail ended at a large rocked covered viewing area, with safety fencing.  The viewing area has several places where a person can stand and look down on the dwelling, plus a set of viewing glasses for those who did not bring field glasses of their own. Here we could see an amazing large hole carved into the side of the canyon wall. It faced almost due south. Even with out field glasses a person can see the windows and doorways of the rooms in the dwelling. The courtyards are also visible. It is in these courtyards that the natives wove their rugs, baskets, blankets and ground their corn into flour.

Looking through the field glasses was like looking through a time portal. The dwelling is in such good shape that it is easy to imagine people living and working in the village. At its peak this village held 100-125 people. There are 135 rooms, some for living and others for storing food. It is not so hard to get into this dwelling as it was with the cliff dwelling. It was only elevated what looks like a few feet from the valley floor. The valley that layed before Betatakin was amazingly green with aspen and boxelder trees that were just starting to bud out. It was nothing like the land we are standing in up on top of the canyon. It is easy to see how they could plant their gardens near their home.

No one really knows why the Anasazi left this beautiful area. Drought, or enemies chased them away are two theories. It is believed by the archeologist that these people moved south to Mexico. But no one really knows for sure. All these remains tell us is how they lived, what they ate and what they used as building materials. They were amazing rugged people who left us an tribute to their existance.

There is a tour offered to go down into the valley floor with a guide to get up close and personal to the dwelling but our timing was off. The tours did not start until the end of April. Also the park offers another tour to a more remote dwelling called Keet Seel. It is 17 mile round trip to what they claim is one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the Southwest. But to go there you need to get a permit and go thru an orientation. This cliff dwelling is outside the park on Navajo Nation land so special rules go into effect. And again this tour does not start until the end of April.

All About Owls 

Photo from Wikipedia
My friends will tell you that I have a most annoying habit of walking around in the dark. It’s true. Many a night I will go outside for a walk just before going to bed. These walks are my owl prowls. It makes me happy when I hear an owl, coyote, whip-o-will, chucks-will-widow or some other creature of the night. The fresh night air also helps me sleep.

One of the best stories of my owl prowls this trip happened last Christmas while we were in South Carolina. Walking out my sister-in-laws driveway, I caught in my headlamp two glowing red eyes. The eyes never moved and the creature show no fear as I quietly approached it. It was a tiny screech-owl. The little bird was sitting on a small branch along the road just across from the driveway entrance. This was my first sighting of a screech owl and a memory I will hold dear. It is this type of experience makes all the night’s that I see or hear nothing all, worth it.

Now it’s early April and Larry and I are camping at The Navajo National Monument. We are in the canyon view campground. The camping sites are tucked in among a pinyon pine-juniper forest. The road to the campground is a dusty red dirt and so are the campsites. It’s a good thing our little coach is only 24’ because anything bigger wouldn’t fit in most of the sites.

On our first night here, I went outside after dark and sat at the picnic table. It was unusually quite for a campground. The campground itself is perched on a bluff high above the canyon land to the east and drops off to the prairie on the west. This, to my thinking, should give me a good chance to hear night creature sounds.

The night sky was clear and a sliver of the moon was setting in the west. The stars were brilliant and the Big Dipper was above my head. Quietly I sat for the longest time…there was not a sound. All I heard was my own breathing. Then, just as I was growing tired, I heard it, off to the west. An owl! At first I thought it was a Great Horned Owl but something was missing. The rhythm was wrong. It’s song went; hoot…hoot hoot…hoot. Maybe it was a Great Horned Owl with southwestern twang or a Long-eared owl in a hurry. Truly I had no idea what kind of owl it was, I was just thrilled to hear it.

The next morning we took a jeep ride over to the visitor center. It is a well run center with historical video on the ancient alcove dwellings that are the centerpiece of this National Monument. There is also an exhibit room with arrowheads, tools, pottery and other artifact from the ancient Puebloians We enjoyed checking out the exhibits, then on our way out we asked for a map of the trails in the area from a stunningly beautiful Navajo woman who was behind the counter.

In the jeep I opened the Monument’s brochure, there at the top of the page was a picture of a Mexican Spotted Owl. Wow! I thought, that may have been the type of owl I heard. I pulled up the iPad and looked it up. (What an amazing tool it is.) Looking at “All about Birds” link to Spotted Owls. I tapped on the map that showed where these birds have been sighted and there on the spot of where we are camped was a blue rectangle. This indicates that I am in the right area. Next I went to listen to the songs and vocalizations for the Mexican Spotted Owl. (They also have the California Spotted Owl songs as well.) Anyway, as I listened… a big smile came over my face. Yep! That’s what I heard. Another amazing bird to add to my life list.

That night the wind blew hard, so there was not an opportunity to listen for it. Last night I listened for about an hour. The only thing I heard were some coyotes off to the northeast. Tonight is my last night to get an opportunity to hear the song again. You can bet I will be outside long after dark.

* This photo came from Wikipedia