Backyard Squirrel Wars!

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One of two feeding stations in the back yard.

Kensington, Maryland.  January 30, 2018 — It seems like our backyard is a battlefield and we didn’t even know it.  Our bird feeders are key terrain and ground zero where the action begins.

The feeders form a miniature ecosystem of their own. In addition to bird feeding, the tube feeders allow squirrels to regularly clean up the banquet our feathered friends spill as they withdraw seeds like cash from an ATM.

Our yard is excellent bird habitat by design.  The space is surrounded by evergreen holly trees and hedges.  The yard also features a large patch of perennial flowers which were planted to attract the succulent insects found on a bird’s aspirational five-star menu.

The holly provides year-round cover from predators.  The leaves and branches protect our customers while they flight-plan their next feeder run.

The flyers perch under cover, then zoom down to the feeder, grab a sunflower seed in a quick go-around, and return to their perches to nosh away.

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On short final.

Nature, being what it is, birds occasionally die and crash at the foot of the feeders only to be policed up by the feral cats, raccoons, gray foxes or coyotes that patrol the neighborhood in search of easy pickings.

These efficient scavengers take care of business under the cover of darkness. Seldom do we find the fallen the morning after.  Instead, the go Missing in Action (MIA).

In all, 32 bird species have flown in to sample our feeder fare over time.  Some, like the great blue heron, have been seen only once.  Since it didn’t refuel, maybe it was a simple flight layover.

Other species, including colonies of house finches and three kinds of sparrows, live rent-free, year around in the 11 hollow gourdes that serve as bird houses.  They are scattered around the front and back yards.  This subsidized room and board arrangement suits them fine.

In addition to the bird herds, as many as 10 cardinals at a time, along with flocks of dark-eyed junkos and mourning doves, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, Jays, and four kinds of woodpeckers have been tallied making a living off this space.

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Red-bellied woodpecker

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Male house finch and a male downy woodpecker 

I’m not surprised that you don’t see nearly as many squirrels in the back country in comparison to urban environments.

In the wild, there are just too many predators including squadrons of hawks and owls, reinforced by armies of ground-dwelling coyotes, raccoons, foxes, snakes, weasels and wild cats.  It seems squirrels are a universal delicacy.

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One day a cooper’s hawk didn’t make any pretense.

The same dynamic applies to rabbits.  One year we had dozens in the neighborhood.  Each day they happily munched away on our expensive flowers.  Then, a nesting pair of red tail hawks moved in and nearly wiped them out in a single summer.

In spite of living in an ecosystem where they are low down the food chain, squirrels have a hierarchy of their own.  See: Why squirrels chase each other

We have two kinds of squirrels in the neighborhood, the common gray squirrel and a black variation.  They don’t like each other very much as witnessed by their constant skirmishing while foraging under the feeders.

“The black squirrel and the gray squirrel are the same species of squirrel: Sciurus carolinensis, a.k.a. the Eastern gray squirrel, the only difference being a color variation. The black squirrels evince a “melanistic color phase,” the recessive gene for black coloration coming to the fore,” according to the Washington Post.  The Washington Post story.

Birds are messy eaters and drop a lot of seed.  Encouraging the squirrels and ground-feeding birds to clean up under the feeders helps keeps unwanted plants from sprouting.  This is not a DMZ, but the place where battles for dominance and territory begin.

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The two tribes.

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The first victim we noticed.

One day a black squirrel appeared with a nasty raw wound on its side.  No doubt he’d tangled with something, but we had no idea what.

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Old one ear.

A couple of days later we noticed a gray squirrel missing his ear and a chunk of his face.  The wound was healing, but still very raw and painful in appearance.  It was about the same age as the injury to the black squirrel and we wondered, but still no definitive evidence to go on.

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Purple Heart number three.

Today a second previously injured gray squirrel showed up with a bite-size divot.   It was followed in short time by a fourth wounded squirrel.

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This wound is in the center of the back, not the side as with the other black squirrel.

There are four wounded squirrels that appear to have been injured at about the same time.  At first, we imagined the first two may have encountered a predator.  Now it appears that all four squirrels were hurt at approximately the same time.

The bite-size evidence suggests that the wounds may have been been suffered in an all-squirrel battle over territory, or for dominance.  What ever it was, nobody was intimidated.  All four battle-scarred, and several others were digging in proximity for seeds today.

Who knew that these seemingly happy little tree rats would do as much damage to each other as they can do to human property.

Karma?

Maybe Moose and Squirrel were tougher than we thought.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

Hiking the AT via Virtual Reality.

This is a rewrite of a blog I wrote in 2013 while preparing to hike the AT.  It appears today on the AT Expert Advice Facebook page.

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At this time of year, some hikers are counting down the days, dying to get started.  The question is, How are you not gonna go crazy in the time you have left? Wouldn’t you rather have something to do to stay busy?

Then there’s those people would love to thru hike the AT, but just can’t find the time or the money to do it when they want. There has to be an alternative to a 30-year section hike or having to wait until retirement.

Well there is an alternative, at least an imaginary one.

Maybe it’s time to think outside the hiker box and solve the dilemma for those waiting patiently or impatiently to thru hike the AT.

Here’s a tongue-in-cheek look at one possibility.

If you can’t hike the AT for real, how about doing it on line? You could make it legit with reading assignments, quizzes and simulated practical exercises right in your own backyard.

Let’s envision what the AT hiking course on line might be like. Cue the dream sequence music….

Imagine it’s late winter. You’ve registered, and are ready to begin. You log into the website: www. noRain-noPain-noMaine .com It tells you to come back, but you must use your smart phone.

Lesson One: Communications:

Find a cell phone provider that radiates one bar in your area. That will simulate the reception you’ll get on the trail.

On that phone, read a dozen blogs every day and check Facebook as often as possible. Fill out the quiz you will receive via email by typing long answers with your phat thumbs. You get bonus points for doing it while standing in the rain or snow.

Lesson Two: Terrain.

Later, the doorbell rings. You look out side.
Looming in your driveway is a ginormous Terex MT6300 dump truck. It carries 400 tons in a single load!  This is a man’s truck.  Bet your sissy Ford F-150 can’t do this.

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Just your luck. Today that truck is brimming with specially sharpened and polished number 4, Pennsylvania-grade, extra-slick, hiking stones.

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This is where Pennsylvania stores its extra rocks until they are needed.

The MT6300 dumps a mountain right there on your driveway. Leave most of it be. It’s for practicing PUDs. But, do spread some of the extra stones over half of your yard. You’ll need those rocks to sleep and trip on for the next six months.

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Spread the extra rocks like this.

Dig up the other half of your yard and turn it into a swamp. Don’t forget to wet the rocks frequently and scatter the rubber snakes found in the miscellaneous parts package.

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Turn half of your yard into a swamp.

Lesson Three: Drinking water.

Find a nice mud puddle. That’s your water source.

Just a little later, a muddy brown UPS food truck delivers cases of dehydrated oatmeal, spaghetti and jars of peanut butter, tortillas, pop tarts, Snickers, and Knorr noodles with tuna. Yummy! You’re not going to starve.

Lesson Four: Environmental simulation.

This is the one time you’re allowed inside.

Put on your rain gear. Prepare a meal and go into your bathroom shower and turn on the cold water. Eat the meal while standing under the full spray. It’s also the last shower you’re ever going to get.

Lesson Five: Blogging.

Write a blog about how great the meal tasted and how much fun it was to eat it in the shower. Note how great your hike has been so far. In this lesson you get a field trip to the scenic overlook nearest you.

Obviously, the course is just warming up. With each passing weekend you sign into the next lesson with your phone and single bar of connectivity, then you hike or hitch to the post office for new training materials. Why mail? We need to simulate as much realism as possible and you need practice hoping your mail drops arrive on time.

Let’s fast forward. Weeks pass. You hike up, down and all around your rock pile for hours every day. Your feet blister. Toe nails turn black and fall off.

Best of all, other students in your area come over and together you form a trail family, make a friendly campfire every night, share your secrets, and build friendships that last forever.

Finally spring arrives.

Lesson 19: Flora and fauna.

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Plant your yard full of the poison ivy you received by mail. Set out pots of stagnant water in which to grow the mosquitos and ticks.  When nature calls, dig a hole.

And so it goes on endlessly, each night after work, every weekend, and through your two-week vacation. Month in and month out, in circles you march while your potty towel edges grow dull and the music on your iPod becomes monotonous.

Those special, high-quality Pennsylvania-grade rocks shred your boots. You fall and receive extra points for bending your trekking poles. Ankles and knees twist, yet you persevere endlessly onward in the rain, sleet, snow, humidity and burning summer sun. You even have to climb an extension ladder and hike over your roof a few times.

Each night you file a blog post about your wonderful experiences. Once a week, on the way to or from the post office, you stop at Mickey D’s to pig out on burgers and fries just like a hiker on the trail.

Last Lesson:

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Climb to the top of your rock pile. Take a stereotypical photo with the fake cardboard Katahdin sign that came in last week’s mail. Declare victory and send in the photo for a special certificate of completion!

If you enjoyed the shower sequence and making friends, you’re qualified. Sign right up. It’s time to hike.

Sisu

Boredom on Long Distance Hikes

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Entering Virginia Blues territory.

There’s no set distance or time on the trail when the boredom switch flips. The lucky ones don’t experience boredom, but they are few in number. The rest of us are normal and it happens.

That switch flip may come sooner for hikers not used to being away from home. It comes much later for others such as former military or business types who are used to deploying overseas or taking lengthy business trips. Nevertheless it comes.

On the Appalachian Trail the “Virginia Blues” seem to be the most common malady related to boredom. It makes sense.  Virginia is the state with the most trail miles.  Somewhere, in what can become a vast wasteland, the tedium, monotony and the repetitious plodding along, can strip your soul like solitary confinement.

The endless weeks of staring at the ground, vigilant for trip hazards, eats your mind. The green tunnel is endless, the views are rubber-stamped, and the goal posts seem always to be moving the wrong way. Progress is slower than the watched pot that never boils. Your brain screams, Enough already!

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A trail family.

There are several coping strategies. One is to hike with compatible friends. Trail families offer distractions, both positive and negative. Above all they can serve as support groups where everyone keeps each other’s spirits up and copes together.

Virginia also is a basket full of what one might call trail candy, and hikers can hike from one delicious place to another marking their progress place by place.

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Damascus, Virginia.

The super hiker-friendly town of Damascus is the first sweet out of the wrapper. It’s just a hop from the Tennessee border and a half-day hike from the nearest shelter. The AT marches straight down a Main St. trimmed with restaurants, an outstanding outfitter and legendary hostels. Being the home of Trail Days adds to its ambiance.

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Wild ponies, Grayson Highland State Park.

A few days north of Damascus is Grayson Highlands State Park where the wild ponies gallop followed quickly by Partnership Shelter where you can shower and order pizza.

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Lindamood School.

You can go inside and write on the blackboard if you’re old enough to know what one is.

Almost before your body can absorb the pizza comes the Virginia Frontier Museum’s Lindamood School and the Barn restaurant, both right on the trail.

How can this be monotonous?

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Woods Hole Hostel.

The next layer includes Pearisburg home of the unique Woods Hole hostel and where the rule of thumb says you can safely send your winter gear home.

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It’s a bit of a stretch to the Audie Murphy memorial, the next delight. The memorial marks the spot where Murphy, WWII’s most decorated soldier, died in a plane crash.

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McAfee Knob.

Not long after that, in close order, you unwrap the Dragon’s Tooth followed by the photogenic McAfee Knob and the iconic Tinker Cliffs.

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The Guillotine.

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James River Bridge.

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Post crossing view of the James River.

Next up is a rock formation known as the Guillotine on Apple Orchard Mountain followed by the James River crossing. Then comes the Priest Mountain shelter where it’s traditional to confess your sins in the shelter register – salacious reading if you’re lucky.

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The confessional.

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Yummy.  Three hundred feet from the park entrance.

From the Priest it’s a short haul to Rockfish Gap/Waynesboro and Shenandoah National Park with its delicious waysides and handy campgrounds. Unlike in the Smokies, the AT touches most of the front country amenities in Shenandoah. The blackberry milkshakes are yummy.

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You know you’re in the park.

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The AT passes through front country in Shenandoah National Park.  Skyland Resort.

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The Roller Coaster hills begin.

.After Shenandoah comes the Roller Coaster hills with the $30 hiker special at Bear’s Den Hostel and from there, on to the psychological halfway point in Harpers Ferry.

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Bear’s Den Hostel.

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End of Virginia Blues territory

Chewing on Virginia’s trail candy  breaks it up a bit and beats singing the blues for more than 500 miles.

Blogging or journaling offers another creative distraction and a way to tell the story of your hike to family and friends.

Observation suggests thru hiker blogs come in two themes. One is the daily/frequent chronicle of mundane events – Here I come, there I go. Pitched my tent and dug a hole.

The other is the descriptive adventure story in which each day/time period becomes a unique story fueled by imagination and observation of the people and of the nature the writer finds along the way.

The three most common blogging platforms seem to be Trail Journals, WordPress and Blogspot. All of them are free.

Any thru hike requires a lot of mental stamina and it helps finding a way to disassociate your mind from the daily mind-numbing grind.

On the AT, the mental challenges don’t end in Virginia. They continue until the end.  Think about it this way, paraphrasing the late, great Yogi Berra: “(Hiking) is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.”

Sisu

Planning Your On-trail Budget

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Where the budget starts for most hikers.

From and article I prepared for the Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook page, January 5, 2018.

Running out of money is one of the primary reasons hikers do not finish their thru hikes. A realistic budget, understanding where the money goes, and a little self-discipline can help ensure your hike goes all the way.

What a previous hike may have cost any single individual is relevant to your planning, but not definitive because everybody is unique. But, if you know what drives costs, you can develop a budget that will help you succeed at a price you can afford.

So, this post isn’t going to tell you now much money you need. Instead, it seeks to help you think through how to develop your budget by looking at where costs come from and offering a sense of what average hikers spend.

The irony is that while you’re actually hiking, you aren’t spending money. You may be eating, wearing or carrying what money bought, but unless you’re shopping on line from mountaintops, you’re not actually burning cash while you are on the trail itself.

Being that we’re discussing on-trail expenses, we will not include the cost of gear or equipment purchased prior departure or your transportation home.

Towns are money sumps. Some expenses are undeniably necessary while others are optional, but for the most part, how much you spend is purely up to you.

At this point human nature is worth noting. By the time a thru hiker gets to town, s/he has been on the trail for approximately five days. In addition to the big four: groceries, laundry, fuel, and a shower, most hikers want to sleep in a bed. Those five usually cost less than number six.

Number six. Being people, we’re hungry for restaurant food and maybe a beer or two. You guessed right. That’s where the real money goes. A restaurant/bar stop can cost more than the big five all together. Stay for a zero and a second night and you can easily double that.

So let’s talk about town stops.

First, how do you get to town?

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Some hostels shuttle for free and some do not.

With the exception of the few times the trail actually runs down Main Street, you’ll need to hitch or shuttle. Hitching is free, but sometimes difficult or sketchy. It’s also against the law in New York, New Jersey, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, in and around Harpers Ferry, and possibly more places. Weather and time of year also can be factors in this decision.

Shuttles usually cost around $2 per mile. Be sure you understand the cost before asking the driver to meet you at the trailhead. Shuttle drivers also expect cash payment.

With a growing number of hikers attempting to duck payment, some drivers are asking for payment up front, so be prepared.

Some hostels shuttle for free; some don’t. Sometimes you can spit costs with other hikers or get a group discount. If the guidebook doesn’t say, be sure and ask up front.

The average one-way shuttle cost is around $10 – $20 or $20 – $40 per town stop.

Once in town, expect to walk where you need to go. Hostels located outside a nearby town generally will offer free daily shuttles to town at designated times.

The big five:

Grocery costs depend on menu. The menu includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Also, most hikers change tastes over the course of their hike. So, that energy bar you love today may be the one you gag on three months in.

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Shopping at Ingles in Hiawassee, GA.  Taken from the in-store Starbucks.

As for entrées, on the high end is freeze dried food. You can save a little by buying freeze dry food in bulk, and use resupply boxes, but your tastes may change. On trail, freeze dry meals are available at Walmart and at most outfitters. Depending where they’re bought and the specific meal, freeze dry food costs, on average, between $6 and $10 per meal, bending toward the higher number.

Among the more affordable prepared foods are Knorr sides and Ramen which can be supplemented with tuna or chicken packets and much more. Hikers also favor instant oatmeal, granola bars, energy bars, candy bars, jerky, instant coffee, cured sausage, cream and block cheese, hardboiled eggs, crackers of all kinds, olive oil, peanut butter, tortillas, snack cakes, sticky buns, and cookies just to mention a few. Consider taking a multivitamin if you eat too much of your diet in refined sugar and salt.

Of course there are vegan diets and those who love fresh food. Also, some cook and some don’t. Choosing not to cook can save $3 – $8 per week in fuel costs depending on fuel type.

Your menu choices will determine food costs.

Don’t forget you’ll not be very hungry but will transition to eating much more after hiker hunger kicks in.

Your grocery bill will depend on what you eat. Between $30 – $50 per resupply stop seems to be around average.

Your trip to town subtotal is now $50 – $90 and you still have to shower and do laundry. There’s also a place to stay.

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No two hostels are the same.  Costs can vary dramatically.

Let’s say you’re sleeping in town. Hostels are cheaper than motels. The cost of hostels can vary widely depending on amenities – platform bunks vs. mattresses and pillows, tenting, private rooms, etc. Some hostels include laundry in their total price while others offer a la carte pricing for laundry, showers, snacks, meals or offer use of a kitchen to cook your own meals and save money.

Laundry and showers, without stay, at most hostels average around $5 each.

The cost of a hostel stay can vary a lot. The prices have been recently increasing due to supply and demand, the short season, and growing overhead costs. While one may be as low as $25, another can be more than $50, with some considerably more. An up to date guidebook will have the details.

At this point your plan may be to stay only at the least expensive hostels, and at that tent whenever possible to save money. Unfortunately no plan ever survives contact with reality.

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Severe weather can change your plans.  Photo by Warren Fewtrell

Your spreadsheet may say so many miles per day and specify town stops. However, weather, illness, frame of mind, trail family companions, injury, fatigue and a host of other issues may alter that planning and add considerable unexpected expense.

For planning purposes, it’s generally safer to round up. So let’s average $50 per hostel stay even though that may be slightly on the high side.

Your bare bones town stop is now up to $100 – $140 and you haven’t even had a hamburger yet.

Remember the reference to human nature. It takes a strong will to forego at least one restaurant stop while you’re in town.

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Some restaurants are part of the trail tradition and are difficult to avoid.

Run into some trail friends you haven’t seen in awhile, here’s betting you can’t avoid the temptation to find a place to eat, grab at least one beer and catch up. What about if you’re hiking out of town after a zero and just happen to run into these same friends you haven’t seen in awhile? Bet you take a second zero. Kerching! It’s like lighting twenty dollar bills on fire.

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Trail families form and dissolve.  You’ll want to catch up with people you haven’t seen in awhile.

Beer and burgers/pizza cost more or less depending on where you are. Realistially, you probably won’t get out of most restaurant/bars, with the exception of fast food, for under $40 – $50. The cost of alcohol is expensive and most hikers don’t drink just one beer or eat one hamburger.

Restaurant food and alcohol can cost as much or more than the big five.

If you eat breakfast and lunch in restaurants, add more. The good news is that AT towns are so rural that there are only a couple of Starbucks on the trail, so your coffee habit won’t beak the bank!

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There are excellent and not inexpensive coffee shops/restaurants along the way.  Dalton, MA.

Subtotal: $140 – $190 per town stop. If you use resupply boxes, add around $15 for a medium size flat rate box, two-day delivery. A medium size Express Mail box will hold four days food.

Since town stops are so expensive, how many should you expect?

The average hiker goes to town every fifth or sixth day. The reason is that food is the single heaviest item – and one of the bulkiest – in their pack. Think weight and space. Five days is about what fits (in a bear canister, food bag or pack) at a weight hikers feel comfortable carrying. There are exceptions, but again we’re talking averages.

Divide the average time it takes for a thru hike, 180 days, by five and you get 36 before zeros. Believe it. You’ll want to zero from time to time. Let’s say you plan for 15, but due to circumstances actually take 20 under the round up principle. That’s 40 five-day hikes and 40 town stops.

Estimated rounded-up cost on the trail ranges between $6,000 and $7,200. Add $15 for each resupply box you expect to use. The author used about 15 of them, all in the north.

Resupply by mail is common.  You can leave boxes open so the contents can be adjusted if necessary.

Can you thru hike for less? Absolutely.

Start with fewer zeros. If your body holds up, you may only need one zero per month. That’s six, not 15. Unfortunately, that’s not what most people need or do.

By increasing days between resupply you need fewer town stops at the price of a heavier pack. You can use the NERO (near zero) option to minimize your overnight stays in town. Above all, decrease eating in restaurants and alcohol consumption.

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Hitch more if you’re comfortable doing that.

Work for stay also can reduce hostel costs. But remember that you won’t be the only one who wants work for stay and the opportunities are limited. There just isn’t enough work for everyone.

Be aware that hostel owners complain that a lot of work-for-stay hikers aren’t willing to work hard and do a good job. They have a list serve and communicate with one another. All the other hostels up the trail will know about shirkers or problem hikers. Do a good job and you’ll stand out from your competition.

One successful hiker was very smart about work for stay. He was a decent handyman who was able to do very useful work for hostel owners. When he completed his assignment, he’d ask the hostel owner to refer him up the trail. His lodging budget was $0 and he was successful. He even earned real money from time to time. The keys were his willingness to work very hard, do an excellent job, his useful skills, and being savvy enough to ask for help landing a gig at his next stop.

Of note.

You’ll need a budget contingency for equipment you may have to replace. Whether a bear tears up your tent, you fall and bend your trekking poles, a boot fails, or you lose weight and need new pants, you may have to replace something along the way.

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Gear breaks and hasty repairs don’t always hold.

Bear Damage.

Be aware that the southern end of the trail is very good at separating hikers from their money. The trail towns are friendly, the festivals frequent, and the hikers really want to be social.

You really have to watch your spend rate on the first half of your hike. Too many hikers spend way too much money in the south and have to go home early because they are dead broke.

Hiker feeds are found primarily in the southern half of the trail.  Do not depend upon them to reduce costs.

Many hikers don’t realize how much more expensive the northern half of the trail is compared to the southern half. There also are far fewer hiker feeds that sometimes off set food costs in the south. Consider adding 15 percent to what you think the southern half will cost.

New England accounts for part of the northern cost increase. The area is unique with its fragile ecosystems that require management of very popular overnight sites. Trail/infrastructure costs are higher because human waste has to helicoptered out at the end of the season. The warm weather season is too short for it to compost. Caretakers must be paid. Campsite fees cover these extra expenses. They are listed in the trail guidebooks.

The huts in the White Mountains take only the first two thru hikers for work for stay requiring most hikers to either find a scarce place to stealth or go to a pay-for-stay campsite.

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The crowding in New England at popular sites requires expensive management.

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White Mountain Hut (Madison)

Hikers can avoid some of these sites by doing long (and hard) miles in tough terrain and unpredictable weather.

The Appalachian Mountain Club has tried to help hikers save money with this recently announced campsite deal: https://www.outdoors.org/articles/issues/2017/may-june-2017/amc-rolls-out-overnight-camping-deal-for-appalachian-trail-thru-hikers

Baxter

Once you reach Baxter, there’s a $10 fee to camp at the Birches. After you’ve summited, the hitch to Millinocket is easy. There’s only one road in and out of Baxter State Park and it goes straight to Millinocket. Millinocket is usually another town stay to celebrate and recover before you head for home.

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Last hostel in Millinocket, ME.

Your last budget item is off trail – the cost of transportation home.

Good luck. Sisu