Sunday, December 29, 2013

Exploring Local Lands Via Snowmobile Trails

Within a few miles of our house there are more than 3,000 acres of conserved land and most of it has trails that are open to the public for year-round outdoor recreation. It is not all contiguous, but a lot of it is and much of it feels remote and wild even though we are in a heavily developed region of New Hampshire. The Southeast Land Trust of NH, the NH Fish and Game Department, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, local towns, and other partners have worked with private landowners to conserve these lands in perpetuity.

Winter offers one of the best times to explore this land, in part because much of it is wet or soggy and hard to traverse (or is too buggy) when the ground is not frozen. With all the snow so far this year (total to date is two feet), the woodland trails have enticed snowmobilers early and often. In New Hampshire, local snowmobile clubs are well-organized and respectful of public and private lands. They groom trails, maintain trail signs (such as "stay on trail or stay home"), build bridges across wet areas, and their registration fees pay to create, maintain, and patrol the trails.
We've discovered a network of such trails on the NH Fish and Game Department's Piscassic River Wildlife Management Area. Snowmobilers have created well-packed trails that are easy for us and the dogs to walk and run on and to explore remote areas where hare and fisher and deer are abundant (as evidenced by their tracks).
We are out on the trails in the morning (this is the second walk of the day, after the pre-dawn walk). I find that most snowmobilers don't emerge until after lunch. And although I like the trails that they create, I'm not too fond of their sound and smell. On two one-hour walk/runs this weekend on the Piscassic River WMA snowmobile trails, we encountered only one person on a snowmobile and he worked for the State of NH, as a patrol, to ensure no excess speeds.
The only way that I can enjoy winter (and not long for white sand beaches and warm turquoise-colored water) is to get outside for a snowshoe or walk/run with the dogs on winding trails through snowy woods. And I thank the snowmobilers for making our trek easier.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

To Sanborn and Back

From our house to Sanborn Drive is one mile. Lately we've been taking the dogs that far on our pre-dawn walk. Usually we only go as far as the Homestead Woodworking School or the Mitchell fields on Bald Hill Road--about 1/2 mile one-way. We've extended the walk, in part because we need more exercise as do Kodi and Henna, and because the fields where we sometimes roam are deep with snow, so we stay on the road and walk farther.

We try to leave the house early, by 5:30 am, before the commuter traffic starts to build on Bald Hill Road, not that it ever gets too busy. But we like the road to ourselves, to gaze at the stars and planets, or note the animal tracks that crossed the road during the night, or watch the eastern horizon change colors just before sunrise.

Sometimes we chat as we walk, other times we each get lost in our own thoughts. The early morning darkness feels different to me than the black of night. Pre-dawn is usually quiet (except for the somewhat annoying dogs that bark from their yards, constrained by invisible fences) and peaceful, with a new day emerging just over the horizon. It marks the beginning of a day, when I am feeling fresh and energetic and full of ideas. By nightfall, like the flocks of turkeys that visit our yard, I am ready to fly up into my roost for the night.

Kodi especially is attached to this stretch of road that we walk from home. Whenever we are away for more than a day, the first thing he wants to do is go for a walk down Bald Hill Road. He checks for new smells, notes any new visual cues, marks each mailbox and snowbank, and returns home satisfied that he has successfully perambulated his territory.

A mid-morning view from Bald Hill Road, on the way to Sanborn Drive

Friday, December 27, 2013

Winter's Beauty

As recently as this morning I was still debating in my mind why live here in the wintry temperate zone versus the much warmer tropics. We drove home from Vermont yesterday in the midst of a modest snowstorm; a few accidents (none that involved us) and slippery roads slowed our progress. This morning we had another four inches of fresh powder to clear from the driveway. It took a long time for the wood stove to warm up the house this morning. Before taking the dogs for a walk, we spent time putting on layers of winter clothing, boots, hat, gloves.

Whereas, on Havelock Island (my most recent favorite place), we rolled out of bed at sunrise and strolled down to the beach in flip flops.

To shake myself out of the snow versus sand debate, I took Kodi and Henna for a walk in the fresh snow. Under blue sky, warm sun, but crisp air, I was reminded of winter's beauty, and the draw of New England's seasonal changes.

The dogs and I both took note of the mammal tracks crisscrossing our path: deer, snowshoe hare, fox, coyote, fisher. The dogs could smell and I could see the animal movements--whether they were in a hurry or moving slowly, who was following who, and where they most like to hang out. The snowshoe hares never ventured far from low hanging pine and hemlock boughs.

Clouds of powdery snow drifted off overhead limbs as a gentle breeze nudged the trees. Ice crystals glittered underfoot as the bright sun reflected off tiny snowflakes.

Back at the house I cheerfully filled the wood box, while Kodi and Henna frolicked in the snow. The winter wonderland (in reality and in my mind) has arrived. Although, I am still reluctant to change my blog header photo.....

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Going Back in Time

Going back in time is always the hardest for me. A week ago Saturday we left my in-laws flat in Bangalore, India at 5am. After two long British Airways flights we landed in Boston around 7:30 pm the same day. It took 1 1/2 hours to get our baggage because the luggage carousels broke twice. The C&J Trailways bus was late and then took two hours to reach Portsmouth because of a snowstorm. We finally reached home at midnight Saturday night--the same calendar day that we left India (because the East Coast is 10.5 hours behind Bangalore), but in real time it was nearly thirty hours later. I know, it takes awhile to grasp, and certainly awhile for my body to re-adjust.

Then, within three days of arriving home, two snowstorms dumped 1.5 feet of powdery snow and the temperature was well below freezing for several days. The snow is beautiful (or was as it is now rainy), but I am still dreaming of white sand beaches, turquoise waters, and hermit crabs on Havelock Island in the Andamans.

Today is the Winter Solstice--our shortest day and longest night. Even though this is just the start of winter, the days will start getting longer. And that is something that my body will embrace.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Arriving Home from India in a Snowstorm

We landed back in the U.S. last night--a very smooth landing into Logan despite blowing snow and icy runways. On the descent the captain said another option was to go to Bangor instead, but much to our relief we were able to touch down without problem in Boston. Getting our luggage was another issue as the baggage carousel broke down twice; finally after more than 1 1/2 hours we got our last bag. This after 24 hours of flying and layovers. We took a C&J Trailways bus to Portsmouth. But by then the snowstorm was picking up steam so the bus driver drove carefully and slowly, taking nearly two hours to reach, when it normally takes just over an hour. Then we cleared our car of snow and drove slowly home, reaching a few minutes past midnight.

This morning we woke to 12 inches of snow and cold air
This was a shock to my system after two weeks of fairly constant 80F days while in India. I do wonder sometimes why humans settled in these cold climes when another option was this:
Even with the woodstove cranking, I'm feeling cold. It will take time to adjust back to our weather and climate, the day length, and the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables....

A fruit and vegetable store in Pondicherry, India
After clearing the driveway this morning, we ventured out to pick up Kodi and Henna who spent the past two weeks at a kennel (Saddleback Pet Services in Northwood). The roads were in good condition, although we were glad to be driving the all-wheel drive Subaru Outback, the car that was built for New England winters. The driveway to the kennel was not plowed so we shuffled our way uphill to get them (and flew back downhill with them leading the way on leash). They had a great time at "camp" but we think they were equally happy to see us based on the hugs and kisses and tail wags.

I'm fairly certain Kodi and Henna have no idea how fortunate they are to live here in the U.S. with us. We don't pamper them too much, but compared to the street dogs of India, they live in a palace and are treated like royalty.

There are several things that stand out to me each time I visit India: the pervasive trash, absurd traffic and driving patterns, and the over population of street (and beach) dogs. Free-ranging dogs live on every street corner and stretch of beach in India. They have territories and seem to live in loosely organized packs, nearly all are unfixed, which leads to many litters and millions of dogs. Some efforts are underway in some cities to neuter dogs, but so far it seems like a drop in the bucket.

Many of these free-roaming dogs are friendly, but apparently bites are not uncommon and rabies rates are high. Everywhere we traveled in India we encountered free-roaming dogs, including the beaches on Havelock Island in the Andamans. These dogs trotted out at low tide, maybe eating small crabs and other sea creatures.
A few of the free-roaming beach dogs on Havelock Island
Many of the street dogs roamed in groups and at night, between 1-3 am, there was usually a gathering or a meeting at a street corner--maybe a standoff between two rival dog gangs--that resulted in lots of barking and some howling. On the beach one male tended to follow a female closely, while keeping other males in check. It was heartbreaking to see some of the dogs, especially the mothers with large litters of famished puppies.
A few of the free-roaming dogs in India
I wanted to rescue all of the dogs. Although, some of the dogs looked prosperous. As is the human population in this country of 1+ billion, Indian dogs are entrepreneurial and have a great capacity to endure hardship. The dogs, along with free-roaming cows and goats, feed on the garbage that people toss out in vacant lots, on every sidewalk, and other open spaces. Occasionally disease wipes out chunks of the dog population, only to be re-populated by new litters.

Finding solutions to garbage disposal in India might lead to improvements in other areas including a smaller and healthier dog population and cleaner water and better environmental stewardship. Currently there is not a suitable system for waste collection and disposal and the culture has not nurtured an understanding of good waste management. Littering is commonplace.

If you can take your focus away from the gaunt dogs and pervasive garbage and the life-threatening traffic, you'll find great beauty and diversity in India, be it food, handicrafts, textiles, languages, politics, religion. My eye was drawn to the natural beauty and diversity--the birds, the plants, the habitats.
A common, but beautiful butterfly seen in Pondicherry, India
A fan palm
A strangler fig (right) and a huge tree with buttress roots (left)
that flare out from the base of the tree
I will cling to my images of India for awhile, until I am able to fall in love again with a New England winter.
If the cold temperatures continue for awhile, I will stay focused on that beautiful Beach 3, where I learned to scuba dive and where I could spend days walking the intertidal zone and watching hermit crabs and other sea creatures.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Coral Reefs and Mangrove Swamps

The 2004 tsunami and an El Nino event in summer 2010 resulting in warming of the ocean temperature caused loss of coral reefs due to uprooting, bleaching from the warmer waters, and sedimentation. This included impacts to the rich coral reef ecosystems around the Andaman Islands. The entire Andaman-Nicobar Island archipelago is home to 6,540 documented species of animals and 2,500 species of plants--this provides a sense of the biological significance of the region. Although all wildlife are protected in India, natural disturbances, poaching, mining, development, irresponsible and rising tourism, and resulting sedimentation and pollution are contributing to the loss of biodiversity.
Dead coral exposed at low tide--the coral is dead,
but other sea life still lives on and in coral crevasses.
Despite human encroachment and impacts, the natural ecosystems in the Andaman Islands, are still relatively intact. DIVEIndia, where we stayed on Havelock Island, offers courses and fun dives to explore the coral reefs. My impression was that they are ecological conscience and practice techniques that protect these diverse and sensitive coral habitats. Only people there to dive can stay in one of the nine or so tent cabins.
The entrance to DIVEIndia
The scuba gear, rinsed and drying after a dive
A couple of the DIVEIndia Boats, moored off-shore from the dive shop
I had planned to snorkel instead of dive, as I experience some claustrophobia and wasn't sure how I'd handle being underwater with a mask over my eyes and nose and an oxygen regulator in my mouth. Srini's nephew Sidharth talked us through the use of the equipment and the proper techniques. We practiced in the boat on the way to the dive site, then in shallow water, then he took us under. I was amazed and surprised at how comfortable I was once under water and swimming around among the coral and colorful fishes and other sea life. When my head was above water I couldn't tolerate the mask and regulator very long. But underwater the sense of claustrophobia mostly dissipated.

The day we dived the surface was a little rough and therefore undersea was also a bit turbid. Still, we saw plenty of amazing creatures and I enjoyed my first scuba dive. I found the hardest part of diving to be equalizing my ear pressure. As you dive deeper you must relieve the pressure, closing mouth, pinching nose, and blowing nose softly. This is one of the most important steps to do every few feet on the descent. According to Sidharth, my guide, we went down 9 meters, about 25 feet--wow!

One morning on Havelock we took a two-hour kayak tour of mangrove-lined creeks not far from the main jetty. Our energetic and instructive tour guide Tanaz, seems to line up clients through word of mouth via a handful of the local resorts.

The dense stands of mangrove provide a buffer to the mainland--preventing erosion, filtering sediment, releasing nutrients, providing nursery sites for fish and crustaceans. The most common species was red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). The seeds or propagules grow into mature plants before dropping into the water and eventually take root. The fully grown plants rise above the water on prop roots.
Once we got into the narrow mangrove-lined channels, we heard few sounds except for the slap of water as we dipped our paddles.

We had too little time to explore the rest of Havelock Island--either in the water or on land. A few interesting creatures crossed our paths on our walkabouts including a small house gecko hiding on in a lamp.
A common lizard hung out on one of the trees next to our tent.
And of course all the hermit crabs that I just could not get enough of.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Havelock Beaches and Tidal Flats

On our first morning on Havelock Island I woke early to watch the sunrise as the tide was just coming in around 5:30 am. The DIVEIndia crew was already starting to load scuba gear into their boats.
I could have spent many days exploring the white sand beaches, turquoise waters, and tidal flats at Beach 3. At low tide we walked way out to the edge of the tide on soft, moist sand. It was easy to be mesmerized by the blue waters and expansive horizon, but there was so much to see at our feet. 

The tidal flats are home to thousands of worms, and likely hundreds of species. I was fascinated by their castings--some looked like coiled rope and others like chimneys.
The feather duster worms were stunning. They are mostly hidden under the sand, only extending their feathery feeding appendages above the water. They pull them quickly and completely back under the sand when disturbed. When I stood still they re-emerged. 
I saw a small gobi fish, a sea anemone, a sand dollar (the bleached skeleton of a sea urchin), and holes lined with small shells (I don't know who was living there).
In one area we discovered many black sea cucumbers--these sausage-shape, 8-inch long creatures were much more beautiful than their name suggests.
Here is a hand-sized cushion star and gooseneck barnacles that were attached to a slender bamboo that had washed up on shore.
And then there were the hermit crabs--these are the life of the beach along the high tide line. They spend a lot of time among the wrack, feeding, looking for new shells. Since they have soft bodies (no shell of their own) they seek out other vacant shells, occupying different sizes and shapes depending on their own size. Large shells (we're talking about 1 inch in size) are uncommon so there is great competition. Several hermit crabs will crowd around a newly vacant shell and trade shells depending on their size. Sometimes they fight over them. The smallest hermit crab was smaller than the fingernail on my little finger.
The 2004 tsunami and recent cyclones have caused some damage to the coastline and to the trees. Remnants of these effects are seen in the large tree trunks lying on the beach.
We spent 2 1/2 days on Havelock--not nearly enough time
to absorb all the beauty and explore all the natural places.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Andaman Islands

Yesterday evening we returned from a 4-day trip to the Andaman Islands-- a group of 300+ islands located 600 miles (1000 km) east of the India mainland. This tropical island archipelago is much closer to Myanmar (Burma), but it is part of India.

This map shows the physical features of India, the Bay of Bengal,
and the Indochina Peninsula--note the location of the Andaman Islands
on the eastern side of the Bay of Bengal
Last Thursday we flew from Bangalore to Chennai (Madras) then caught a 2-hour flight on SpiceJet to Port Blair on South Andaman. As we approached the Andamans we flew over one, uninhabited, tree-covered island, ringed with white sand, coral reefs, and turquoise-colored waters.
Many of the Andaman Islands are either uninhabited or home to tribal peoples, where foreigners are not permitted. Large portions of the Andamans are also in forest reserve so the biologically diverse, multi-layered forests are still intact.
In Port Blair all foreigners are required to obtain a permit to visit the islands. This is provided at no charge and relatively quickly at the airport upon landing. From there we got a taxi ride to the ferry, which took us to the Island of Havelock.
The ride takes 2 1/2 hours. On the way over we took the Katchal and on the return the North Passage. The Katchal was smaller and quite stifling hot in the hold, but we climbed up to the deck to catch the sea breeze. Twice we sat near the bow and once we saw a school of bottlenose dolphins.
We arrived at the Havelock jetty at 4:30 pm, as the sun was setting.
Our Havelock destination was DIVEIndia, where Srini's nephew, Sidharth (Sid) works as a scuba instructor. There are numerous resorts on Havelock that offer scuba, but DIVEIndia is considered one of the best. DIVEIndia is located at "Beach 3" on Havelock Island.
Here is a peek at our accommodations at DIVEIndia: a large tent with tiled floor and separate bathroom, electricity, fan, and hot water; rustic but very comfortable. The best thing is that there is no internet or cell phone coverage.
I'll have more on our stay there in my next post, including our kayak paddle, first scuba dive, walking the beach and tidal flats, and more.