Monday, December 31, 2012

Kearsarge North

The 3,268' Kearsarge North in Intervale, New Hampshire has become one of our favorite hikes. We first climbed it last February, then again in October, and for the third time today, the last day of 2012. Our friend Kevin joined is for the 3.2-mile climb to the peak, which involves a 2,574' elevation gain -- a slow steady rise through varied habitats and terrain, offering great views.

The round trip hike takes about 5 hours. Today we used snowshoes, although the lower one-third of the trail was easily passable in bare boots as the trail was well-packed. A large red pine tree -- more than 14 inches in diameter -- had recently fallen across the trail, some time after the latest snowfall Saturday night. This was evident from the fresh sandy, soil lying on top of the snow.
As we climbed over the trunk of the red pine, we wondered about the sounds created when the tree roots were ripped out of the ground and the thud of the great trunk falling to earth, although glad that we were not around when it happened.
The trail passes through a beautiful pine and hemlock forest about mid-slope above Kearsarge Brook.
On our previous treks up this mountain, I had not noticed that many of the red pines were dead or dying farther upslope. Many stand as dead snags (the trees with the whitish trunks in the next photo), some still have bark on their lower trunks.
The trail emerges into a pine-dominated ledgy area with the first good views of the Moats and Mt. Chocorua to the southwest.
The trail then circles around to the northwest of the peak and passes through a spruce-fir forest with lots of spruce regeneration. Here is where the snowshoe hare hang out, their tracks criss-crossing the trail from one spruce thicket to another. The northwest side is shaded and cooler, with more snow cover.
At last the trail curves back around to the south for the final climb to the peak - the old fire tower beckoning the hiker to take the final steps.
It was less windy and slightly warmer (about 25F) than we expected, so we hung around on top for a bit, enjoying Kodi's exuberance. He loves to roll on the icy snow and frolic in the cold wind.
Then there was the small ice formation -- a dancing bear perhaps?
As well as the rime ice on the tower and the east-facing tower windows.
During our ascent we had blue sky and moderate winds with occasional gusts. By the time we began our descent just past noon, the clouds started to thicken. This did nothing to dampen our spirits for ending 2012 with a fine hike. And thanks to my mother and father for giving Srini a box of penuche (brown sugar fudge) for Christmas that we carried and ate all the way up the mountain. I think it's now my favorite winter trail food - soft and smooth and full of quick energy.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

More Snow

Five more inches of snow fell during the night - pure white powder, adding to the nearly 10 inches of heavier snow that fell on Thursday. The snow is halfway up the garden gate, and my spinach, chard, arugula, and cilantro seedlings are now tucked under a thick blanket of snow. I look forward to uncovering them in March, when some fresh greens will be so welcome.
The fertile fronds of sensitive ferns, also half buried in snow, stand as miniature sentinels at the edge of our yard. 
Unlike some of the our other ferns, such as the wood ferns where the spores are found on the underside of the leafy frond, the sensitive fern produces its spores on a separate, fertile stalk. Each of the brownish bead-like structures on the stem contain many spores. Wild turkeys are known to feed on these fertile stalks, which are high in protein, but I think the turkeys rather prefer acorns and berries, as I've never seen them around the sensitive ferns. 

Speaking of wild turkeys, it's been several years since we've seen a flock around here. I'm not sure why their numbers seem down in our neck of the woods, as I think the statewide wild turkey population is still quite healthy. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department invites people to submit observations of winter flocks of turkeys from January 1st to March 31st. For more information on contributing to this inventory click here.

One new bird -- for the season -- did show up at the bird feeder today: a tree sparrow. I like their rust cap and gray face, black smudge on their breast, and longish tail. Mostly I like that they visit us in winter, while spending their summers in far northern Canada. Our wintery conditions must feel like home to them.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Winter Tales

The Thursday snowstorm left us with a nice snowpack of six plus inches, enough for some excellent snowshoeing and ideal conditions for seeing animal tracks. Fresh, powdery snow reveals the winter lives of the resident animals -- stories of their travels through the woods and wetlands that would otherwise go unnoticed on bare ground.

Yesterday, Kodi and I snowshoed in College Woods in Durham. I had to break trail, which is always a good workout. The low winter sun, under blue sky, painted long shadows in the woodland understory.
Snow fleas, in the thousands, appeared on top of the snow. Most remained in a thick pile, while others flung themselves up a snowbank against a pine tree. Only if you look close in the next photo can you see the tiny, black specs, each a snow flea.
Gray squirrels and a mink traversed the snowy woodland behind our house. The squirrel galloped between the safety of large trees,
while the mink bounded under low brush along the wetland edge, as revealed by their tracks.
Today the sky is solid gray and the wind is calm. As a few snowflakes began to fall, we strapped on our snowshoes and spent a couple hours on the trails at the Piscassic Greenway in Newfields, just down the road from our house. This area of conserved land covers nearly 400 acres, so wildlife is bountiful in this mix of woods, wetlands, and fields.
We crossed paths with the tracks of deer, coyote or fox or both, red squirrels, fishers, snowshoe hares, a long-tailed weasel, a deer mouse, and a few human tracks. The fishers (we think there were two) criss-crossed the woodland and were particularly interested in the red squirrels and snowshoe hares, as their tracks often intertwined. Here is the fisher on the left and the hare on the right. Both are traveling away from me. My iPhone camera is less than adequate for track pictures on a gray day.
The beaver lodge looked snug in its blanket of white snow. This beaver has a large cache of food that it can reach beneath the ice or from above as conditions allow.
We noted one grisly scene, where predator met prey, and the predator won. I thought for sure we'd see where a fisher took a red squirrel, but this fight was between a snowshoe hare (the prey) and a hawk or owl (the predator). There were no mammal tracks, just tracks of a bird. The hare was likely feeding beneath the relative safety of a small pine, earlier this morning. Perhaps its fur was not yet white, and it made for easy pickings. Here is the remnant of the hare, not much left.
Whether predator or prey, life in winter is harsh for both. If you want to follow their stories, strap on snowshoes after a fresh snow and head outside. The woods and fields are full of wintertime tales.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Full Moon, Fresh Snow

Kodi barked in the middle of the night, from his perch on the living room chair. From there he can look out the window into the front yard. The full moon, combined with a blanket of new snow, lit up the yard. I snuck downstairs to see what Kodi was excited about. Maybe he saw deer or a fox, or maybe just the neighbor's Christmas lights. If I was not so sleepy at the time, it would have been a great time to strap on snowshoes for a middle of the night hike. Alas, I went back to bed and Kodi snuggled back into his chair.
Nearly ten inches of snow fell yesterday. We were expecting less snow and more rain, but we got mostly snow. Yeah! Finally it feels like winter, after a very warm start to the season last Friday on the Solstice, when it reached 50 degrees with strong winds and heavy rain.

It looks like a good stretch of winter weather through New Year's day: some light snow, some sun, and temperatures at or below freezing. Kodi and I will head out today for a snowshoe hike, in search of animal tracks. The conditions should be ideal.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

First Good Snow, Then Rain

The first good snow of the season fell overnight and into Monday morning, about four inches in total. Then it changed to rain, and our hopes for a white Christmas were dashed. We're entering the third day of rain and dull gray skies, which may continue on and off for another few days. It is these damp days, perhaps even more than bitter cold days in deep winter, that the wood stove radiates the most warmth and cheer.

On these wet days it takes time to pull on rain pants, boots, raincoat, hat, and mitts, while Kodi, dressed in his daily black, waits impatiently by the door. Once I'm outside and dressed for the weather, it feels less bleak. Kodi and I wander about in the back woods, sloshing through the underbrush. Before the four inches of snow was washed away by the rain, I walked through the woods to a favorite fallen pine, one that Kodi and I had visited just four days ago.
If I were a chipmunk, this is where I would live. The still majestic, but fallen, white pine has many secret cavities and crevices to snuggle in when it is cold or wet and places to hide from a fisher or a coyote. And during warm, sunny periods, it offers a perfect perch to rest and groom.

A nice mix of birds visited the feeders Monday morning in the midst of the snow. The suet attracted a male red-bellied woodpecker--perhaps our prettiest woodpecker when seen up close through binoculars, a pair of downy woodpeckers, and a hairy woodpecker. Nearby on the sunflower and Najar seed feeders and on the ground below where 6 male purple finches, along with handfuls of juncos and goldfinches, and ones and twos of white-breasted nuthatches, sweet little chickadees, and common redpolls. I keep an eye out for pine grosbeaks, a more northerly species that is appearing farther south in New Hampshire this season.
The rain and warmer temperatures have chased the birds from the feeders. Whether they are hold up in nearby trees waiting for the rain to stop or finding wild foods more easily, I do not know. All I wish for is more cold, snow and less soggy rain, then the birds will return and our stacks of wood will stay dry.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Feeding the Fire

Before we installed a wood stove in our own house, we enjoyed making and sitting by fires -- at campsites and in homes or cabins with fireplaces or wood stoves that we visited. At one friend's cabin, where the inside temperature is colder than outside, feeding the wood stove is essential to staying warm. Sometimes a fire simply added ambiance to a setting. Now that we have a wood stove in our own home, and using it to heat the entire house, our relationship with fire has changed.

We rise early -- at 5:00 am -- as we've done for many years. Instead of heading to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, we now stop at the wood stove to check for coals and to re-start the fire. One of us takes charge, crumbing up some newspaper, laying kindling on top, lighting the match, and tending the fire until it catches. We both enjoy the fire-making, so now it is a bit of a coin toss as to who makes the coffee and who gets to make the fire. About twice a week we empty the ash tray in the bottom of the stove before starting a new fire.
Moving split and seasoned wood from the yard, to the basement, and then to the box behind the stove is now a daily or twice daily ritual. Humans have used fire for tens of thousands of years or longer. Heating our house with wood, with all the associated tasks, feels ancient and earthy and makes us more intimate with nature. We now depend on the growth of local trees - hardwoods specifically -- and the harvest of those trees to feed our fires. This feels better than heating our house with non-renewal oil, a source that nature cannot renew in many lifetimes.

The most unexpected outcome of the new wood stove is the warmth. That may seem surprising. We knew that the stove would warm the house, we just didn't know how much and how effectively. When the fire is burning hot - about 400F -- the heat radiating from the stove seeps into nearly every corner of the house (the first and second floors). The tile hearth serves as a mini heat sink, a nice spot to warm our toes. The entire house feels cozy, whereas with oil heat we often felt cold and wore several layers of clothing inside the house. Now, sometimes we strip to a t-shirt.

Keeping the fire burning is now part of our daily lives and we are enjoying the work and the warmth.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Wood Stove

The thermostats are turned down low. A cheery, hot fire burns in the wood stove. We've made the switch from oil heat to wood heat. It feels wonderful. The house is warm, much warmer than the hot water/radiator heat fueled by oil that we've used for the past 19 years. The furnace still comes on, but only to heat the hot water, and therefore much less frequently.

The wood stove installation last Tuesday went smoothly. We bought the stove from The Stove Shoppe (Windham and Epping, NH). John Carroll at the Epping store has been extremely helpful and their stove installer, Mario, was also good. Srini took the day off and together we worked with Mario to set the stove in the middle of the hearth just where we wanted it. We talked through where the chimney would pass through the first and second floor ceilings and the attic, and where it would emerge on the roof.

One unknown during such an installation is how the floor joists line up between floors. Just our luck that the attic floor joists were off by an inch so we needed one off-set (a 30 degree elbow) in the second floor. That one jog cost over $300, but we had planned for at least one angle in the chimney so we were still within budget. Here are a few photos of the installation. In the bottom left photo you can see the jog in the chimney.
Ours is a Jotul (500) Oslo in green majolica porcelain enamel, weighing 450 pounds. The enamel cost more than the matte black. We opted for something a little more stylish (the enamel) since the stove sits in the center of our first floor. It really is a center piece of the house now. The chimney is a Class A system with 6 inch double-wall pipe, which is one of the best and safest systems, which we wanted since it is a stand-alone chimney that runs through the interior of the house. 

Scott Kemp, our carpenter, returned today to close in the section of chimney that runs through our bedroom on the second floor. That section of chimney -- even with the double wall pipe -- gives off some heat. A little too much if left exposed, so we had Scott box it in with vents at the base and top to let some heat back into the room.
Back down on the first floor, Scott finished repairing the sheet rock in the ceiling and behind the stove. In this photo you can see the full length of the pipe.
Several friends have the same Jotul Oslo, while other friends have the one size smaller--the Castine. All suggested that we get the Oslo for several reasons. First, it would better heat our entire house. Second, and perhaps most importantly, it has two doors, including one on the left side. It turns out that building and feeding the fire is much easier from the side door. No smoke or ash escapes when we open the side door, whereas our friends with the Castine (with just a front door) complain about a puff of smoke when they open the front door. Here's a look at our stove with the front and side doors.
Our chimney is nearly straight from stove to roof top -- just the one, one-inch offset! With such a straight shot and with the chimney inside the house, the draft is great. Starting and tending the fires has been easy. 

So far, with less than a week with the wood stove, everything is working well. Our hearts and hearth are warm. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Moles and First Fire

Mario, our wood stove installer, was drilling perfectly round holes in our ceilings and roof for the stove pipe. A human-made tunnel for the smoke to escape into the sky above. While he was working away on the holes and tunnels, I took Kodi for a walk down the road to our favorite conservation area. There I found a different set of holes and tunnels and several mounds -- made by moles.
I think the moles are digging their deeper underground tunnels now, getting ready for winter. And we too were creating holes and tunnels for the wood stove, in preparation for winter.

Here it is December 4th and the ground is as soft as mid-summer. This mole turned up some beautiful loam.
I could use one of these diggers to cultivate my garden in spring. It's a pity that most people want to get rid of them any way they can. Like beavers, moles are so beneficial, eating grubs and aerating the soil. Their mounds, which are just a by-product of the tunneling, can be easily smoothed out.

When we got back to the house, Mario and his helper were still working on our stove tunnel. By mid-afternoon they finished and the four of us watched the first fire burn in the new stove! Like the moles, we are now ready for winter.




Monday, December 3, 2012

Wood Stove Phase II -- Firewood

If neatly stacked, a cord of wood measures 8 feet long by 4 feet wide by 4 feet high, or 128 cubic feet. If it is a loose pile of wood, the area will be 150 cubic or more. And half a cord fits in the back of a full-sized pick-up. We are rapidly coming up to speed on such measurements as well as what species are best to include in a cord, now that we are on the hunt for firewood.

The new stove gets installed tomorrow. We anticipate it like the arrival of a newborn or a new puppy. We've talked with friends about how to best operate the stove, tools needed, and much more. Mostly though, we've been obsessed with firewood.

Months before we decided to buy a wood stove, we started gathering wood from our own small 1.5 acres. A few years ago we had the big pines removed to allow more sunlight to the house and driveway, to guard against a tree falling on the house, and to allow the remaining hardwoods to grow bigger. We continue to thin the woods here and there, as trees are damaged by storms (which seem to occur quite regularly). In all, we've scraped together about one-half cord.

As we approached the installation date, we needed to buy-in much more wood and now have two more cords of seasoned hardwood stacked in various places. We've paid $300 to $325 for each cord of seasoned and delivered wood, and likely we'll need at least one more cord to get us through the cold season.

A loose pile of firewood - one cord waiting to be stacked
Here are our various stacks of firewood using different methods: 2x4 end frame, metal end frame, and tying string around the end logs to hold the pile together. I like the metal end frames with 10-foot pressure-treated 2x4s (the top photo). It is the most sturdy and least amount of work.
Some day we'll build a woodshed to store wood that we can season ourselves, which saves a lot of money (except for the cost of building the woodshed!). Srini has already built an indoor wood box for the basement--a staging area for a week's worth (or so) of dry wood.
As a wildlife biologist I look at trees and forests as habitat. Big gnarly trees, standing dead trees ("snags"), fallen trees, stumps, trees with cavities--all have extraordinary value for wildlife as nest sites, denning areas, and as feeding or resting areas. Dead and dying trees are a boon to wildlife--full of insects that birds and mammals and other creatures feed on. As a biologist I work with landowners on managing their lands for wildlife and other ecological values. I extoll the virtues of big trees, trees with cavities, dead trees, dying trees, fallen trees, messy tangles of trees.

Now that we will have our own wood stove, I am looking twice at all the trees. I eye them for firewood, but also think about the wildlife. We need to ask our firewood supplier where he gets his wood - is it from lands being managed sustainably? We want to be good stewards of our own little woodland as well as of the lands where most of our wood comes from.

One of many reasons we opted for a wood stove, was to reduce our reliance on non-renewal sources to heat the house. Local wood--a renewal resource--is ideal, as long as we aren't diminishing the productivity or ecological values of the land where it comes from.

The excitement builds as the new wood stove will arrive tomorrow. Stay tuned!