Amazing Race–Our Style: The Grand Finale

At last–the day we’d anxiously anticipated for the past month. Actually, for the past year.

I was sure the post-it note we found attached to the door would instruct us to drive to Lincoln, New Hampshire for a visit to the ice castle. My guy thought we’d find ourselves on a dogsled journey.

But no . . . either of those would have been too easy I suppose. Instead, we had to end this race in the same manner we had begun. Aboard a snowmobile. Egads! My least favorite mode of transportation.

To top it off, my guy’s two-seater is headed to the shop for some engine work. But his brother came through and lent us a machine so we were able to stay in the race. Our task was five-fold. 1. Ride through Sweden, Waterford, Lovell, Fryeburg and Bridgton; 2. Identify an interesting natural wonder; 3. Frame a picture; 4. Conquer the moguls; and 5. Pull the entire Amazing Race–our style together in a coherent order.

We started in the frigid morning air and no one else was about so we had Highland Lake and Stearns Pond to ourselves. Our journey took us whizzing across lakes and ponds, along open trails such as ITS 80 and 89, and through some narrow connecting pathways–or so they seemed to this untrained eye. I’d brought along my Trackards and the tracks were many, but all remained a blur.

You have to realize by now that for the two of us riding a snowmobile is like the tortoise meeting the hare–my desire to move slowly through the world met his need for speed. In the end, I did OK, and he went as slow as was safely possible, and even slower than that when he felt my knees nudge his back. But really, my teeth did chatter. Oh, maybe that was because of the temperature.

In Lovell, we got in line to gas up.

Funny things can happen when you’re standing around waiting for your turn at the pump. A nature moment presented itself in the form of a willow gall. Now I can’t wait to return to look at the willow blossoms in the spring.

From there, we made our way across to the Kezar River Reserve for the roadway had been groomed. Alas, at the kiosk, for some unknown reason, the groomer had backed up and headed out to Route 5, so we had to do the same. That wasn’t our only roadblock. We found our way onto a road that had previously served as the trail for a short bit, only to discover where road should have rejoined trail a house had been built. Again, we had to backtrack. Yikes. How would these affect our time?

We also noted historic sites as we cruised along, including the old Evan Homestead in Sweden, the Brick Church in Lovell, and Hemlock Covered Bridge in Fryeburg, which served as our lunch stop at 2pm.

It was there that I found the photo to frame for challenge three–the mixed forest reflected in the Old Course of the Saco as taken through a bridge window.

And then, after the bridge, we meet our fourth challenge: the moguls. For at least two miles, maybe more, between Hemlock Bridge Road and Knights Hill Road, we bounced up and down as if we were riding a bucking Bronco. Truly, I spent more time in the air than on the seat and each time I landed, it was with a thump. I was certain I’d fall off or at least my body would be flying behind the sled while I’d still be attached–via the vice grip I had on the backseat handlebars. Talk about white knuckles. Oh wait, maybe that was from being cold.

Somehow, we survived . . . and so did our relationship.

As for the other contestants, we weren’t sure where they were because as it turned out there were many riders out there and they all looked the same! Well, maybe they had their idiosyncrasies and I wasn’t paying attention to the little details of jacket and helmet color and design, but I’d much rather look at tree bark, mammal tracks, and winter weeds this time of year than people apparel.

Soon after the moguls, it was time for the last task. We encountered a display of twelve photographs; each represented a moment of wonder we’d encountered during the race and one of us had to place them in order from start to finish.

My guy had done all the driving and maneuvered us successfully through the mogul course (I didn’t fall off, remember) so it was my turn to complete this final challenge.

Episode one: The elephant face we discovered along the Narrow Gauge Trail.

Episode two: A rainbow in the Harpswell sea mist.

Episode three: The exotic kissing pigeons with heart-shaped white cere on their bills.

Episode four: The gallery of midnight artists at the Battery on Peaks Island.

Episode five: A Crimson-ringed Whiteface Dragonfly beside Shingle Pond on the Weeks Brook Trail.

Episode six: A sand collar in Clinton, Connecticut. While it felt like sand paper above and was smooth below, it was actually a mass of snail eggs.

Episode seven: After climbing Table Rock, a couple paid for our pie at this roadside stand and so we did the same for the next vehicle that pulled up.

Episode eight: The 1930 122 ft. steel-hulled yacht Atlantide, that served in WWII and was featured in Dunkirk.

Episode nine: (possibly one of our favorites) The cribbage board in the two seater below Piazza Rock on Saddleback Mountain.

Episode ten: An alpaca at America’s Stonehedge in Salem, New Hampshire.

Episode eleven: Finding an H to represent us while looking for decorated trees in the Maine Christmas Tree Scavenger Hunt.

Episode twelve: The final episode and another framed photo of the Old Course of the Saco from Hemlock Bridge.

Phew. I was pretty certain I had them all correct. And so on to the mat we drove, arriving at 3:36pm. And then as we stepped off the sled we discovered that we’d lost our backpack somewhere on the trail. The only item of any value in it was my cell phone.

We were concerned about that, but also found out that without the pack we couldn’t cross the finish line. So, we made a quick decision because we needed to be done by 5pm. I hopped off the sled and my guy took off in a spray of snow to search. We were sure it had fallen off near the moguls. Apparently, along the way he questioned people and learned that someone (thank you whomever you are) had hung the pack on a tree. Over the moguls he went, but to no avail. He was in a dip on his way back to the covered bridge when he spied it. Wowza.

At 4:41pm he pulled up to the mat.

And we crossed it together–As. The. Winners. YES, we WON!

But, of course, we won. For if you have followed us from the start then you’ll remember that in episode one I wrote: I created a Valentine’s gift for my guy–our very own Amazing Race. My rationale was that we enjoy the show, but know that while there are certain stunts one or both of us could handle with ease, there are others that would certainly cause us to be last to the mat–and lose. So, why not create an Amazing Race that we have a 99.9% chance of winning. If we lose, we’re in big trouble.

I do feel bad that I fibbed to some of you, but you got caught up in the challenge and I didn’t want to let you down. Some of you asked me about it and I have a terrible poker face so I was sure you’d figure it out. In the spirit of it all, I was glad that you didn’t. That added to our fun.

And all of the characters–they were real people we met along the way. Team Budz in episode six was my sister and brother-in-law. Team Purple was a hearing-impaired woman full of moxie we met during episode eight in Camden. She hiked in sandals and had spent the previous month camping solo. The others we named for their attitudes, hometowns or some other attribute. I don’t know if you noticed, but we began the journey as Team Wonder, which I probably only mentioned once, but by episode eleven I’d forgotten that and called us Team Hazy–thus the H to represent us. Ahhhh.

Of course, my mom always washed my mouth out with soap when I fibbed, so if you want to do the same, I can’t say I blame you.

Thank you all for following us on this adventure. We’ve had fun looking forward to and participating in a variety of adventures. Though I’d given my guy a list of locales for each month, I didn’t know what the various additional challenges would be until they presented themselves.

Today’s activity was supposed to be a dogsled ride in January. But, the weather gods and price gods weren’t on our side and when the weather didn’t cooperate on his days off we chose not to spend the money. An alternative was the ice castle, but we’ve done that before and were too late in trying to purchase tickets this year, so . . . why not end as we began. On a snowmobile journey. The third of my lifetime and longest one yet. We spent over five hours on the sled. Well, my guy spent even one more hour. And now we’re snug at home and sipping some Bailey’s Irish Creme before we tune in to British comedies and fall asleep on the couch.

The Amazing Race–Our Style has come to an end. Thanks for tuning in. We had fun and hope you did too.

Book of January: Trackards

Three years ago I featured Naturalist David Brown’s Trackards as the Book of February. It seems apropos that I bring attention to them again as they are my “go to” guide for tracking. Oh, I have the works of Miller, Rezendes, Elbroch, Stokes and the like on my bookshelf as you can see from the titles below. And I do refer to them frequently, but they don’t all agree on everything.

What I’ve learned is that David’s cards are accurate, easy to carry, show up well in a photograph, and provide me with enough information to make a determination about a print, track pattern, or scat. And then I can go home and check to see what the rest have to say. At the end of the day, though, it’s my observations, aided by David’s Trackards, that tell the real story.

Tracking and the Art of Seeing, Paul Rezendes
Mammal Tracks and Sign, Mark Elbroch
Field Guide to Tracking Animals in Snow, Louise R. Forrest
Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior, Donald and Lillian Stokes
Peterson Field Guides: Animal Tracks, Olaus J. Murie and Mark Elbroch
Peterson Field Guides: Mammals, William H. Burt and Richard P. Grossenheider
Trackards and Companion Guide to the TrackardsDavid Brown
Track FinderDorcas S. Miller
Scat and Tracks of the Northeast, James C. Halfpenny
Tracking and Reading Sign, Len McDougall
Critters of Maine, Ann McCarthy
The Tracker’s Field Guide, James C. Lowery
The SAS Guide to Tracking, Bob Carss
Lonesome Bears, Linda Jo Hunter
Bear Aware, Bill Schneider
The Hidden Life of Deer, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
The Science and Art of Tracking, Tom Brown, Jr.
National Geographic Guide: Great Mammals, Carolinda Hill
Golden Nature Guide: Mammals, Herbert S. Zim and Donald F. Hoffmeister Golden Science Guide: Zoology, R. Will  Burnett, Harvey I. Fisher and Herbert S. Zim
The Raccoon Book, Katharyn Machan Aal
Raccoons  (for kids), Jeff Fair
Foxes (for kids), Judy Schuler
Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer, Mary Holland
Stories in Tracks & Sign, Diane K. Gibbons

I’ve had the good fortune to spend time tracking with and learning from David and continue to do so each time I use his cards.

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The prints and scat are hand drawn and life size so I can place them beside the sign to help make a determination about which mammal was on the move.

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No print or scat is too small! You’ll notice that measurements are on the side–helping to determine the size of the print and the straddle (width from outside of one print to outside of other)..

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David has also included the mammal’s preferred method or pattern of locomotion, which is also useful in correct identification. In this case, the fisher, a member of the weasel family, moved from a slanted bound to an alternate walking pattern.

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Another handy thing–he’s made it easy to locate the particular cards by adding the mammal’s name on the edge.

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These two photos are from David’s Web site.

David has found a publisher so the Trackards you purchase may look a wee bit different than mine, but the information is still there. And where I have thirteen cards because he made use of the front and back of each, the new decks contain 26 cards.

While you’re at it, take a look at his books. I have the older version of The Companion Guide to the Trackards and plan to order his newest book, The Next Step.

Trackards by David Brown: Don’t leave home without them.

Mallards, Beavers, and NOT Squawroot, Oh My!

Yesterday, I made an ID error. Reread to find out more.

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Since posting this blog yesterday, my Maine Master Naturalist mentor, Susan Hayward chimed in and corrected me. If you’ve read this previously, please be sure to scroll down to the Squawroot discovery. (Or not Squawroot). Thank you, Susan, for sharing your knowledge once again and setting me on the right track.

Our intention today when Connie Cross and I visited the wetland at Sebago Lake State Park’s Campground was to . . . well . . . walk with intention. There were several miles of trails to explore during the offseason, but we decided, or rather I did, that we should circle the beaver pond to see what we might see.

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It was raining as we drove to our meet-up point. And so we piled on extra layers to ward off the damp chill, and thought about snowshoes–to wear or not to wear? Connie chose to throw hers into a…

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Secret Giver of Gifts

Though I posted this almost one year ago, I keep returning to it. Thought you might want to as well. Peace and joy be with you.

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Snow quietly drifted earthward as baking scents wafted through the house and Christmas lights sparkled from the living room. The spirit of the season has settled upon me at last. And today I was reminded of a time when our youngest asked, “Mom, are you Santa?”

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He’d held onto the belief for far longer than any of his classmates. And for that reason, I too, couldn’t let go. And so that day long ago, as we drove along I reminded him that though the shopping mall Santas were not real, we’d had several encounters that made believers out of all of us.

The first occurred over thirty years ago when I taught English in Franklin, New Hampshire. Across the hall from my classroom was a special education class. And fourteen-year-old Mikey, a student in that class, LOVED Santa.

Each year the bread deliveryman dressed in the famous red costume when he…

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Reflection of Grace

My heart was broken when I headed out the door this afternoon. I’d just learned that the husband of my spritely little German friend, Ursula, had died. And though they hadn’t been able to tramp through the woods together these past few years, theirs was a relationship sustained by a love for the natural world and many, many journeys into places I’ll never know. In these evening years of their lives, she’d told me that even though they could no longer follow the path together, they still remembered and reminisced often about their adventures and discoveries. And I trust that it is those memories that will enwrap her now.

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As the hydrangea in the garden I passed proclaimed, there is beauty . . . even in death. My hope is that Ursula will find that beauty as time evolves.

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I knew that I wanted to lift her and their shared life up as I walked along, but I wasn’t really sure where I was going or what I was looking for. And then, as the cowpath opened to the power line, I saw a couple approaching. A few more steps and we waved to each other. And with the wave came recognition–my friends Linda and Dick, who are two of the few people who explore these woods the way I do, approached. We shared   questions and observations, and decided to travel a short distance together.

The trail we followed emerged into an open area where what was once a floral display that Ursula would have relished was equally delightful in its winter fashion. Linda and I struggled to recall the name of the yellow-rocket, but knew that it was a member of the legume family by its pod structure.

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Thistles and evening primroses added more texture to the picture, yet again proving that in death there is life.

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We reached a stonewall where I thought my companions might turn toward home, but was thrilled that they wanted to continue on, despite the fact that the trail conditions were ever changing. And I think that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned from Ursula as she’d tell me about things she and Wolfgang used to do and what their more recent limitations were, yet despite the latter they still had stimulating conversations as they remembered the fun of past expeditions.

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So it was that today the three of us found many moments of joy, including the sight of cinnabar polypores that reminded us of creamsicle ice cream, fresh moose scat and tracks, and lots of flowers to check on come spring.

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It was getting dark as we followed the trail out and decided to walk along the road on our way home rather than return the way we’d come. It hadn’t been our intention to meet today, but as grace would have it, we did. And I was thankful for the fellowship as we traveled together while I honored Ursula and Wolfgang.

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Our time with each other was a reflection of grace and it is that same grace that I pray embraces Ursula as she reflects upon a life well shared with her beloved Wolfgang.

Rest in peace, Wolfgang. And blessings of memories to you, Ursula.

Book of November: Half Acre

I am so tickled for my friend and fellow naturalist, Sarah Frankel, who recently published her first book.

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Half Acre is a children’s book both written and illustrated by this talented young lady.

In rhyming fashion, she takes the younger set outdoors to explore her yard, which is a half acre in size. The size, however, is not important because Sarah knows how to look and to wonder. Or maybe in this case, it is important, because she wants others to realize that there are great things to find on their own small plot of land.

And now she and her husband are teaching their young daughter to do the same. Her hope is that the book will encourage others to step outside and notice as well.

In thirty-four pages, Half Acre explores the yard in all seasons and at different times of day. As much as I enjoyed the rhymes, I especially loved the paintings–of birds and leaves, flowers and bees, butterflies and trees, moss and ferns, night sky and nocturnal visitors, and so much more. Can you find the frozen tree frog? You’ll have to buy the book and look for it.

My favorite painting is the last one–with her house in middle, surrounded by snippets from each of the other paintings, like a sugar maple leaf floating in midair. There’s more to this painting though, for Sarah takes the reader through the four seasons at the house–in 8 x 6-inches, she begins with winter on the left and every two inches the season changes,  ending with autumn on the right. I wish I could share that with you, but you’ll just have to trust me and purchase the book. Of course, she used the same scene to introduce her half acre of land, but it really stands out in the final mural framed by small portions of all the other paintings.

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Since I’m on the topic of Sarah, though this isn’t a book, I was the recipient of one of her paintings. For the past four years, it has leaned against the wall on a counter in the butler’s pantry and makes me think of both Sarah and Mom.

Of Sarah because she knows winter is my favorite time of year and she included tracks in the snow, a starry night, full moon and a shooting star. When I was a Maine Master  Naturalist student, Sarah was a mentor. At that time, though she lived in Conway, NH, she worked at Lakes Environmental Association as the Education Director. And so, we’d drive to and from class at Bates College in Lewiston together. On our way home one night, we saw a shooting star. And many times we tramped together on snowshoes, following mammal tracks. I have to share one more fond memory–the spring night that it rained and we tried to dodge the frogs and salamanders as we drove home. Finally, we got out a few times and helped the sallies cross the road. We were tired from class, and it was a long drive home that night, but by helping a few, we forgave ourselves for the ones we’d smooshed.

Of Mom, because Sarah gave me the painting after my mother died at the end of January during the year I was taking the course–I’m forever honored by Sarah’s thoughtfulness.

Interested in purchasing the book and meeting Sarah? She’s got some book events coming up in the North Conway, New Hampshire area:

November 11th from 11am-3pm – A book signing at The Met Coffee House and Gallery during the Bring A Friend Shopping weekend.

December 2nd at 3pm – A book signing event at White Birch Books, the best book store around!

December 7th from 6-8pm – A book signing at the Adults Only Shopping Night at The Toy Chest. Shop for the holidays, get a copy of Half Acre signed for your little ones and pick your own discount on the way out.

December 9th at 10am – Read aloud, book signing and outdoor exploration at the Conway Public Library. What creatures can we find in the gardens and lawn of the Conway Public Library? Come and see for yourself!

I can’t wait to attend one of these, give her a hug, and ask her to sign my copy. And I may have to steal a kid to attend the outdoor exploration at the Conway Public Library.

Is there a young’un in your life? Then I think Half Acre should finds its way onto their book shelf.

Half Acre, written and illustrated by Sarah Frankel, LifeRich Publishing, 2017. And available at www.liferichpublishing.com, or a local independent bookstore.