Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Adirondacks Had A Friend In John Washburn

John WashburnThe Adirondacks and hikers of the Northville-Placid Trail lost a friend when John Washburn passed away in September.

John and his wife, Jane, ran the Trailhead Lodge in Benson in the southern Adirondacks, near where the NP enters the Silver Lake Wilderness. Many a hiker spent the night there before embarking on the 120-mile trek to Lake Placid.

I used to speak with John fairly often as he wrote a number of articles for the Adirondack Explorer and sometimes provided us news tips. I also came to know his son, Michael, when he headed the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks.

I didn’t know much about John’s history other than that he used to teach. His obituary fills in some of the details. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War and was discharged in 1964 as a first lieutenant. He taught in the Gloversville School District from 1968 to 1987. After retirement, he founded the Search Team 5-1, took part in many searches for lost hikers, and wrote a manual for rescuers titled Point Last Seen. He also wrote a book on Irish history. He and his wife ran the Trailhead Lodge from 1989 to 2011.

John was one of the earliest contributors to the Explorer. From 1999, our first year of publication, until 2010, he wrote a dozen articles for us. Some were humorous, some were serious, but all reflected John’s keen mind and his humanity.

The best tribute I can give is to reprint one of his articles. It’s about his attempts to outsmart a red squirrel.

Fed Up With Little Red

By John Washburn

The red squirrel is probably the most visible wild creature in the Adirondacks. From spring to autumn he entertains us with his antics and scolds fiercely if he feels we are encroaching upon his turf. He is a watchdog, thief, clown, plunderer of nests, and a damned nuisance. But somehow, our woodlands would not be complete without him.

Unlike his cousin, the nut-eating gray squirrel, which prefers a hardwood environment, “Little Red” dwells chiefly in our coniferous woodlands. Not that he doesn’t eat nuts; he does. But his preferred cuisine is the seed from the balsam or spruce cone.

However, our friend does not have such a narrow diet at that. He also dines on buds, bark, sap and nuts, as well as on insects, young birds and bird eggs. Some ornithologists suggest that a single red squirrel may ingest as many as two hundred birds a year.

Available fruit does not escape his attention. One of the funniest stunts I’ve seen him pull is trying to climb a pine tree with a small apple in his mouth. It can be quite a struggle, depending upon the size of the apple, but sooner or later he reaches the branch he needs. He then exerts considerable energy trying to jam it into the crotch of the branch. In the end, he succeeds and leaves it there to dry for a future dessert course. If you see one of these, don’t be misled. It is not a “pineapple.”

Another delicacy favored by the red rodent is birdseed. Mrs. W. feeds a variety of birds in our back yard. The feeder will swarm with resident blue jays and chickadees, and an occasional flock of visiting evening grosbeaks. The larger birds are sloppy eaters, and much of the seed gets spilled on the ground. At first, this was adequate for the needs of the squirrels, but occasionally the birds would not spill it fast enough to suit Little Red. Then he decided to climb up to the feeder.

Now I, being a smart human, had mounted the bird feeder at the top of a galvanized pipe. I thought that would keep the squirrels on the ground. Then one day I saw the squirrel in the feeder, stuffing his cheeks and flinging birdseed every way but up. How did he do it? I felt certain that he couldn’t have climbed a galvanized pipe.

The next day I happened to look out the back window in time to see the culprit coming out for breakfast. He approached the feeder, looked carefully all about, and then ran so quickly up the pipe that I barely saw him do it. Smart human, eh? Well, I left him alone, figuring that he had earned a free meal. But by the next day I made some changes.

When Little Red showed up the next day, the galvanized pipe had been replaced by a white PVC (plastic) pipe of similar dimension and appearance. I watched as he approached the pipe, leaped a couple feet high to grasp it, only to slide, in total surprise, back to the ground. He tried a few more times and then gave up. I congratulated myself.

Later that day, as I passed through the yard, I was crestfallen to see a red squirrel contentedly munching away at birdseed, sitting on top of my feeder. I was totally stumped. I knew he couldn’t climb that pipe, but there he was. I felt like Elmer Fudd, trying to “twick that Kwazy Wabbit.” Anyway, my adversary had earned another free meal. In fact, he earned quite a few free meals, because I remained stumped for some time.

Several days later, I just happened to be in the yard, looking in the right direction, when I caught sight of a red furry critter flying through the air and landing on top of my bird feeder. I couldn’t believe it. The tree from which he had launched was at least 10 feet away from the feeder. It may have been a “Giant leap for mankind,” but apparently routine for a determined, pesky, red squirrel, who now has full dining privileges at our feeder.

Normally a red squirrel builds his nest among tree branches or in a natural tree cavity. Occasionally they might live in an underground burrow. However, when humans are dwelling nearby, a red squirrel may make his abode in a site provided by said human. This may be in barn, woodshed or even in the house if they can find a convenient opening. This can be a real nuisance, as they will make a nest of any convenient, shred-able material that humans might store in an attic.

I had a couple red squirrels take up residence in my woodshed. I had seen them several times last fall, running up and down the stack and crawling down between the pile and the wall. I didn’t mind this. I thought it would be a fine place for them. They squeeze in behind the wood stack and make a bark nest in some open space within the pile. I thought it would be a nice cozy place for them to spend the winter. What harm could they do?

I had spent considerable time and effort stacking the wood neatly on the left side of the shed. I’m rather proud of my wood stacking, as I’ve developed a technique of cross-stacking the ends that is both sturdy and neat. In fact people have even commented on how neat my woodshed looks.

One day last winter I looked out to see my wood stack completely collapsed, fallen outward and toward the center. I immediately blamed those pesky squirrels. Much of the pile had fallen outside of the shelter, and I recalled the effort it had taken to lay it up. I planned to restack but didn’t get to it right away. The next night it snowed, and much of the collapsed pile was buried.

No one ever said that living in a wilderness setting would be easy. But my squirrels are still here, along with all of the other wild creatures, who sometimes make living here a bit inconvenient, but it’s never dull. Besides, I simply cannot conceive of a better place to live than right here in the Adirondacks.

Photo: Jane and John Washburn on the porch of the Trailhead Lodge.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

3 Responses

  1. Terry says:

    Thanks for sharing your tribute to Mr. Washburn. My wife and I could tell you some similar critter stories too!!!

  2. Dave Gibson says:

    Thank you, Phil for this tribute to John Washburn, who along with his wife and family are an inspiration to so many Explorer readers and to lovers of wilderness, whether or not they ever began a trek on the Northville-Placid Trail just beyond the Washburn’s Trailhead Lodge. John and Jane are ambassadors who participated and shared fully in the debates and joys of preserving wild nature.

  3. Dave Winnie says:

    I was a honor to know John Washburn he had extensive knowledge of the Adirondack Mountains, I,m currently a crew boss on search team 51 which John started , John always had stories to tell we will all miss him dearly.