Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mean High-Water Mark: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Early on in the discussion of public rights of passage, the term “mean high-water mark” was used as in being able to portage or carry around an obstruction as long as one stayed below this mark. This term was dropped in favor of carrying in the “least intrusive manner possible.” I think this was a good development. Why? Partly because of statistics.

The mean is one of several statistical measures of central tendency—add all the values of what you’re measuring and divide by the number of values and you get the mean. The other primary measures of central tendency are the mode (the value that occurs most frequently) and the median (the value that has half the items below it and half above it). When a distribution of values is “symmetrical” these three measures are close to each other. But, if your distribution is “skewed” (i.e., assymetrical), the mean is no longer accurate.

Say 20 families in a neighborhood have salaries between $60 K and $140 K, with most in the middle and some on the extremes. With a symmetrical distribution, the mean will be about $100 K and will be a valid measure of typical wealth. But if family A sells their house to someone earning a million dollars, the distribution will be skewed and the new mean (about $190 K) will not represent the typical neighborhood salary. If water levels for a river are symmetrically distributed, the mean is a valid measure. If not (as when rivers are flood-prone or dewatered due to dams), then the mean is not a good measure. The median or mode would be a better measure in such cases.

However, there are more pressing practical considerations suggest that any statistical measure is not very helpful for rights of passage. Until fairly recently, most paddlers would have a difficult time knowing a river’s mean flow. This information is more available now—the U. S. Geological Service has a Web site and you can get a pretty good idea of typical high water levels from scanning their databases. Still, there are problems. While a good number of rivers have gauges, many do not. Dedicated paddlers are fairly good at estimating water levels for a river by looking at the gauges for nearby rivers, but this is not an exact science. Another problem is that gauges are almost always located in fairly wide sections of a river with relatively milder current. Even if we do know a river’s mean high-water mark, it’s not clear how to extrapolate this information to the spot on the river where you need to carry.

A one-foot difference on a downstream gauge can easily translate to a several foot difference in a narrow part of the river, which is where most carries occur. And, the river at a gauge site may be rising, while a section far away is already dropping (or vice-versa). At low levels, lining may be an option and the issue of “mean high-water mark” isn’t too important. In flatwater and easier whitewater, paddlers can usually(!) carry around obstructions that block narrow passages without having to go inland very far. It is in more significant whitewater, with steep banks, ravines and gorges, where the mean high-water mark comes more into play. But how do you figure out where this is? Well, you can’t, unless you know a given river very well.

Debris lines can indicate the highest recent level and stains on ravine walls might do likewise, but these aren’t reliable measures and it is difficult to communicate this type of information to other paddlers or landowners. A lengthy whitewater run may require multiple carries in a variety of environments. Identifying the “mean high-water mark” for each is just not tenable, regardless of what we may know about USGS readings. While the phrase “least intrusive manner possible” is impossible to define, I still think it’s better than referring to a statistical concept that sounds precise but really isn’t.

Photograph: The Boquet River in late June


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Winter Wildays at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake

The Wild Center’s Winter Wildays return in every Saturday and Sunday from January 9th until March 28th 2010 with an entertaining and enlightening schedule for the whole family. Here is the announcement from a Wild Center press release:

Saturday events grow your skills. Learn more about easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint with Home Composting, Heating with Biomass or Small Windpower in the Adirondacks. Admire some of the wildlife, like Boreal Birds or the Timber Rattlesnake, that make their home in the Adirondacks. Improve your photography skills with leading photographer Carl Heilman or discover what it takes to raise chickens in your own backyard. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bruce Spudworm and the Evening Grospigs

With the recent arrival of a large flock of evening grosbeaks at our feeders, my mind has drifted to one of the main reasons these birds, which are native to the Pacific Northwest, are here in the East: the spruce budworm.

[And this, of course, sends my memory plunging down the rapids of my stream of consciousness to my days at forestry school, where a good friend from New Jersey, who was a huge Bruce Springsteen fan (it was the ‘80s, after all), referred to this forest pest as the Bruce Spudworm. The spoonerism has stuck with me ever since. I therefore dedicate this post to Cynthia.]

Evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus), often called grospigs around here because of their propensity for emptying birdfeeders at lightning speed, are striking birds. They are big and chunky, the males stunning in yellow, black and white. We see them mostly in the winter, when flocks descend upon birdfeeders and inhale all the seed in a matter of minutes. Once in a blue moon a few might hang around in the summer, but winter seems to be their season.

Even so, one cannot count on seeing evening grosbeaks every winter, for they are rather nomadic, showing up in great numbers one year, and then disappearing, sometimes for years at a time. This sporadic pattern has been documented for well over a century, and there seems to be a tie-in with the spruce budworm.

The spruce budworm (a type of moth, actually) comes in a couple different flavors: the western worm (Choristoneura occidentalis) and the eastern worm (Choristoneura fumiferana). The western spruce budworm is, as you may have guessed, native to the western part of North America. It didn’t turn up in the United States (from Canada) until 1914, when it was first reported in Oregon. Since then, it has spread across much of the Pacific Northwest towards the Rockies, its larvae devouring the foliage, staminate flowers and developing cones of conifers throughout the region.

Here in the Adirondacks, we are blessed with the eastern spruce budworm. Also a native insect, the first major outbreak recorded in the U.S. was in Maine in 1807. The next major outbreak was in 1878, and since 1909 there have been several waves of devastation. In the east, balsam fir is the insect’s tree of choice, so you can imagine the impact this would have on the Adirondack forest. Spruces are also consumed (hence the name), and even hemlocks on occasion, but nothing is hit quite like the firs.

Like many forest insect pests, the spruce budworm’s havoc is wreaked in a cyclic pattern: it’s always out there, eating away at the trees, but the infestation only becomes problematic when the population suddenly swells and takes over the forest. With the spruce budworm, the cycle is about every 40 to 60 years.

Enter the evening grosbeak. Way back when, evening grosbeaks were only seen on occasion in the Pacific Northwest (there were much fewer people in the woods back then). Slowly, they started moving eastward, and by 1854 they had come as far east as Toronto. In the winter of 1889-90, huge flocks were seen in New England. Then they disappeared again for another twenty years. In the winter of 1960-1, evening grosbeaks appeared as far south as Georgia, with huge flocks taking over feeders and forests across the eastern U.S. I bet a lot of birders were thrilled to add them to their lifelists!

It is believed that these irruptions (a sudden sharp increase in the relative numbers of a population) were in large part due to the birds’ fondness for spruce budworm larvae. Although primarily seed eaters, specializing in extracting seeds from the cones of spruce and fir trees, grosbeaks supplement their diets with tasty insect snacks, and spruce budworm seems to be a favorite. Scientists believe that these birds followed the western spruce budworm eastward, and then started snacking on the eastern spruce budworm. When pest populations irrupted, the birds followed close behind.

The sudden increase in spruce budworm larvae can result in a catastrophic loss of spruce and fir trees, adversely affecting the timber industry and forest ecosystems. In order to deal with this, chemicals were employed to combat the insect pests. Unfortunately, birds that eat the larvae (including Tennessee, bay-breasted and Cape May warblers) were also negatively impacted. In fact, studies have shown that evening grosbeaks will not return to areas that have been sprayed for spruce budworm, even if the larvae population increases.

In an effort to try to cut down on the use of toxic chemicals, research has been done to determine if biological controls can be used instead. Science has discovered both a virus and a fungus that infect spruce budworms, but unfortunately neither is particularly deadly – at least not at a level that would benefit the forest. The bacteria B.t. (Bacillus thuringiensis) has been proven effective for small infestations (fewer than 50 larvae on an 18” branch), but major infestations (more than 8000 eggs per 100 square feet of foliage) are barely touched.

Maybe we should try breeding warblers and grosbeaks and have them in stock to release when infestations occur.

Since the last major outbreak of the eastern spruce budworm was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we should be about due for one. Some birders are speculating that this might explain the great numbers of grosbeaks at the feeders, and the reports of more warblers downstate. Whatever the reason, it’s nice to see the grosbeaks, even if their presence means more trips to the feed store for seeds.


Friday, January 1, 2010

Weekly Adirondack Web Highlights


Friday, January 1, 2010

Lake George Counts itself a Zebra Mussel Survivor

In December 1999, researchers discovered that Lake George was not immune to Zebra mussels after all.

During an annual dive to retrieve litter from the lake bottom in Lake George Village, volunteers discovered what appeared to them to be the exotic mollusk that had already wreaked havoc in Lake Champlain and in nearby rivers, competing with native animal species for food and clogging water systems.

Diver Joe Zarzynski contacted the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, whose scientists confirmed that the brown and cream striped shell attached to a beer bottle was indeed a Zebra mussel. » Continue Reading.


Friday, January 1, 2010

This Week’s Top Adirondack News Stories


Thursday, December 31, 2009

Adirondack Music Scene: New Year’s Eve

It’s all happening tonight on New Year’s Eve. I hope everyone has a blast, listening, moving your bodies and celebrating. This is a great week to remember the amazing events of this past year and put a little thought into what you’d like to see happen in the new one. A toast to supporting and creating fantastic music in 2010.

Thursday, December 31st:

First Night in Saranac Lake! There are a bunch of great shows to check out. My advice; get to the venue early and buy your buttons now. Check out the website for the complete listing. I’m particularly fond of Big Slyde, Frankenpine and my band, The Dust Bunnies. I hope to see you out and about!

Also in Saranac Lake: at the Waterhole, Pie Boys Flat and Hot Day at The Zoo will be playing. These fun bands should get started around 9:30 pm, Pie Boys are first up.

In North Creek at barVino, The Tony Jenkins Jazz Trip starts at 9 pm.

In Lake Clear at Charlies Inn, Rock-n-Rob starts at 9 pm. It’s party, there will be hors d’oeuvres and champagne.

In Wilmington at Steinhoff’s, Big Boss Sausage will be playing starting at 9 pm. Steinhoff’s is also lucky enough to have chef Bill Bentz reigning over their kitchen.

In Saranac Lake at Captain Cook’s; Road Kill Dog starting at 10 pm until 2 am.

Photo: Pie Boys Flat


Thursday, December 31, 2009

Birding Along The St. Lawrence River

To the north and west of the Adirondacks lies a beautiful natural resource that often gets overlooked. It’s a massive river that carries all the water from every one of the five Great Lakes. It’s home to nesting bald eagles, migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, and hawks and falcons patrol its shoreline. Although the St. Lawrence River does not fall within the Adirondack Park “Blueline Boundary,” it is a birdwatching mecca that should not be missed by our Adirondack birders.

The following is a press release I received that announces the publishing of a new birding guide to the St. Lawrence Seaway Trail (The route parallels 518 miles of shoreline along the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, Niagara River and Lake Erie in New York and Pennsylvania):

Great Lakes Seaway Trail Publishes Guide to America’s Next Birding Travel Hot Spot

Sackets Harbor, NY – Birders interested in finding the best birding spots year-round for all manner of migratory & resident raptors, songbirds, and waterfowl along the big waters of the Great Lakes Seaway Trail in New York and Pennsylvania now have new resources to enjoy.

The Seaway Trail Foundation has developed a new birding theme guidebook, audio tour CD, notecards and outdoor storytellers to help birders find their favorite flyers along the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, the Niagara River and Lake Erie.

The Birding the Great Lakes Seaway Trail by ornithologist Gerald A. Smith is a soft cover, full color traveler’s field guide to birding hot spots along the 518-mile shoreline byway that is one of America’s Byways and a National Recreation Trail.

Funding for the book was provided by the Great Lakes Seaway Trail in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byways Program, the New York State Department of Transportation’s Scenic Byways Program in the Office of Environment’s Landscape Architecture Bureau, and the John Ben Snow Foundation, Pulaski, NY.

New York State Department of Transportation Acting Commissioner Stanley Gee said, “The Great Lakes Seaway Trail National Scenic Byway provides a magnificent trip through the landscapes of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and New York State’s northern and western borders. I know Governor Paterson is proud that we support this trail and other scenic byways across the state so that travelers can enjoy the history, natural beauty, and recreational opportunities that alternative routes provide. Congratulations to the Seaway Trail Foundation for publishing their new birding guidebook, which is sure to delight generations of bird watchers and other visitors.”

Noted regional birders Willie D’Anna, an Eaton Birding Society Award winner in Western NY; Jerry McWilliams of the Presque Isle (PA) Audubon Society; and Bird Coalition of Rochester Executive Director David Semple wrote chapters for the book. Wildlife artist Robert McNamara of Art of the Wilderness, Cleveland, NY, designed and illustrated the guide edited by Julie Covey. The book retails for $19.95.

A companion audio CD, Birding the Great Lakes Seaway Trail Audio Tour,” features the voices of wildlife biologist Kimberly Corwin and Adirondack Kids® co-author and television show host Gary Allen VanRiper. The 80-minute CD retails for $9.95.

The nonprofit Seaway Trail Foundation, based in Sackets Harbor, NY, has also developed birding notecards and a series of bird-themed Great Lakes Seaway Trail outdoor storyteller interpretive panels – all designed by McNamara – to enhance birders’ travel along the coastal byway.

Great Lakes Seaway Trail birding maps are online at www.seawaytrail.com. This new guidebook book is the latest in the “Best of the Byways” (American Recreation Coalition) series published by the Great Lakes Seaway Trail, Sackets Harbor, NY, 315-646-1000.

It is also worth mentioning that our local chapter of the National Audubon Society: Northern New York Audubon features field trips each year that may include some of the St Lawrence Seaway Trail within St Lawrence County.

Photo of Bonaparte’s gulls and Ring-billed gulls-Brian McAllister


Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 2009 Adirondack Year in Cartoons (Part 2)

Isolation was a recurring theme in this quadricentennial year of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival in the valley that now bears his name. In October, in synchrony with the crumbling fortunes and impending collapse of the North Country GOP, the Crown Point Bridge spanning Lake Champlain was condemned by state inspectors. Before the year ended, the bridge was brought down by explosives, the direct descendant of the black powder Champlain first introduced to the Crown Point shore in 1609. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 2009 Adirondack Year in Cartoons (Part 1)

After eight years of wars, terror warnings, environmental destruction, corporate and political corruption, and general cultural excess ending in a systematic collapse of the country’s financial system, 2009 opened on more than a few notes of remorse, albeit with unmistakable chords of optimism and hope for new beginnings and a new president. His list was long. (click the cartoons for larger images.)


The first order of business for the Obama administration was to continue flooding the wrecked economy with massive stimulus programs courtesy of generations yet unborn.
Some of the stimulus money eventually trickled to the north country via Albany.

Politically, it was a year of cascading dominoes, initiated in Washington and winding up inside the blue line. After Hillary Clinton upgraded her senate seat for first class in the State Department, Governor Paterson chose Kirsten Gillibrand from the 20th congressional district as New York’s junior senator. That move set off a battle for the once-reliable GOP house seat in a race between a conservative Democrat from Glens Falls, New York’s Assembly Minority Leader (visiting from a neighboring district), and a third party candidate. On April Fools’ Day—the morning after the election—the narrowest of margins for Democrat Scott Murphy triggered a recount battle that carried through Tax Day, past Passover, beyond Easter to the end of April when Republican James Tedisco finally conceded.

By the time Murphy took the oath of office, much of the stimulus pork was gone, replaced by swine flu.

Following the special election in the 20th, A similar chain reaction was prompted in NY’s 23rd CD after moderate Republican Congressman John McHugh was promoted to Army Secretary.

GOP leaders, eager to avoid a repeat of mistakes which led to defeat in the 20th, opted against importing a high-profile male candidate from a neighboring district, in favor of a home-grown moderate female candidate. Conservatives in the party (and Glenn Beck) had other plans, ultimately replacing Republican Dede Scozzafava with a high-profile male candidate from a neighboring district. With predictable results.

Still, for a region at the receiving end of impending federal and state budget cuts, the warmth of the national media spotlight was a memory to cherish.

Check back at 10:00 AM today for the second half of the 2009 Adirondack year in cartoons.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

14th Annual Adirondack International Mountainfest

If you still want to take courses at the 14th Annual Adirondack International Mountainfest in Keene, you’d better act now.

The festival, which takes place January 15–17 (Martin Luther King Jr. weekend), is nearly sold out. The only seminars still open are an ice-climbing and slide-climbing course on Sunday and courses on avalanche safety.

However, those who love the mountains and are happy to appreciate them from a heated room should consider two events that weekend. At 8 p.m. Friday, January 15, world-famous mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer will give a slide show and lecture. Weihenmayer is the only blind climber to not only have summited Mt. Everest but also the highest peaks of all seven continents. Weihenmayer recently climbed The Naked Edge, a rock-climbing testpiece in Colorado’s Eldorado Canyon, rated a stiff 5.11.

At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 16, extreme mountaineer Steve House will also do a presentation. Considered one of the best alpinists in the world, the climber and author has made dozens of dicy ascents up high-altitude snow, ice and rock routes all over the world. He is known for free-soloing (no ropes or partners) massive faces with little gear. In 2005, in one of his greatest accomplishments, he and a partner completed a new route on the deadly, 13,500-foot-high Rupal Face, the most technical of the many dangerous faces of Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat (26,600).

House is also leading an ice-climbing seminar on Saturday but—sorry, kids—that one’s sold out.

The slide shows, $10 each, will be at the Keene Central School on Market Street in Keene Valley, off Route 73 (just follow the cars if you can’t find it). There’s also an all-you-can-eat pasta dinner at the nearby firehouse from 5 to 7 p.m. on Saturday. And you can demo climbing gear for no charge at Rock and River’s manmade ice wall, located at the end of Alstead Hill Lane, located on Route 73 just west of Keene. All events benefit local charities.

For more information, click here.

 


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Early Film of an Adirondack Log Drive

In the early 1900s the Ford Company sent an early film camera crew to the Adirondacks to record the life and work of the region’s loggers. The footage they shot shows the logging camps, the icing of roadways for skidding, the interior of a sawmill, loading and hauling logs, and more.

The original footage is held in the National Archives, but I’ve posted a short clip of a group of river drivers working a small log jam at our YouTube page along with a clip form the PBS documentary The Adirondacks that shows similar color footage. Check it out here.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Holiday Lights: Wanakena’s Star of Wonder

A star rises above the black spruce flats of the northwestern Adirondacks during the darkest time of year. It’s one of the simplest yet most startling holiday displays in the Adirondack Park for the utter lack of any other light.

Wanakena residents Ron Caton and Ken Maxwell first strung Christmas lights on a fire tower belonging to the SUNY-ESF Ranger School there eight years ago as a joke. “We weren’t sure how it would go over,” Ron says. He remembers Army helicopters from Fort Drum circling the first night the tower was lit and wondering if he was going to get in trouble. But the beacon over Route 3 was a hit, and he and Maxwell have decorated the 43-foot-tall structure every year since. The lights go on in early December and are turned off New Year’s Day. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2010 Adirondack Donegal Beard Contest

It’s that time of year again, where all the world becomes, as Jack London would say, bald face. It’s time to shave down for this year’s Adirondack Donegal Beard Contest.

A Donegal Beard (also called a chin-curtain or Lincoln) is a particular style of Irish hirsute appendage (facial hair) that grows along the jaw line and covers the chin — no soul patch, no mustache.

In order to take part in the contest (and all are welcome) contestants must be clean shaven January 1st and grow a Donegal Beard by St. Patrick’s Day. On the day of the contest — which will be held at Black Mountain Inn at the corner of Peaceful Valley Road and Route 8 in Johnsburg (North Creek), 4 to 7 pm — all beards must conform to the Donegal standard.

Contestants are judged on the following criteria:

1. Length
2. Fullness
3. Style and Sophistication
4. General Manliness

To see pictures from last year’s contest, and to join the Facebook group, go here.

Photo: 2009 Adirondack Donegal Beard Contestants.


Monday, December 28, 2009

When Things Go Wrong: Building Emergency Snow Shelters

I do a fair amount of skiing in the backcountry, often solo, and I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if something went wrong and I had to bivouac overnight. What would I do for shelter?

Snow shelters commonly covered in outdoors books include the igloo, quinzee hut, and snow cave. But all of these take considerable time and effort to build. I figure if I can build an igloo, I probably can get out of the woods—in which case I don’t need an igloo.

Moreover, the snow conditions in the Adirondacks are not ideal for building igloos and snow caves. For igloos, you want wind-packed snow that can be cut into blocks. For snow caves, you want drifts that are at least six feet deep. You might be able to find appropriate snow in some places in the Adirondacks, but the chances are slim that one of them will be the place where you break an ankle.

A quinzee hut, in contrast, can be built just about anywhere there’s snow. Basically, you shovel snow into a large mound, wait a few hours for the snow to set, and then dig a room inside the mound. In an emergency, though, you want something that’s quicker and easier to construct.

Like a snow trench.

“In the Adirondacks, if you’re in an emergency situation, most of the time a trench is the most practical shelter,” says Jack Drury, an outdoors author who founded the Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake.

For a trench, you’d like the snow to be at least three feet deep. If it’s not, however, you can use excavated snow to build up the walls.

A one-person trench should be dug three or four feet wide and six or seven feet long. Drury recommends leaving at least five or six inches of snow at the bottom as insulation against the cold ground.

Given enough time, you can create an A-frame roof from slabs of snow, but in an emergency, you can just lay branches and evergreen boughs across the trench and then place snow over the boughs for insulation. If you have a tarp or a waterproof shell, lay it over the boughs before piling on snow. Once inside, stop up the entrance with your pack to keep warm air from escaping.

Drury recommends that winter travelers keep a piece of closed-cell foam in their packs to use as a sleeping pad. It should be long enough to stretch from your shoulders to your butt. If it’s an emergency and you don’t have a pad, place evergreen boughs on the bottom of the trench for insulation. He also recommends carrying a lightweight sleeping bag or heavily insulated pants and jacket for emergencies.

“You might not be comfortable, but you’ll survive the night,” he said.

Drury said the temperature in a properly constructed snow trench should stay in the twenties even if it’s colder outside.

Drury is the author of The Backcountry Classroom and Camper’s Guide to Outdoor Pursuits.

You can read more about building snow shelters in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, published by The Mountaineers Books, and How to Build an Igloo And Other Snow Shelters, by Norbert E. Yankielun.

Photo: A quinzee hut, courtesy Wikipedia.



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