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Expensive Blog Post

>> Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Can you identify these tracks?

That's right, you guessed it, a full grown human in SNOWSHOES!

That's me standing in my back yard, looking like a dork.  I bought these on the way home from work and was walking around out there in my dress pants, which by this time weighed about 10 lbs per pant leg.  I was too excited to try them to bother putting on something more reasonable first.

My husband's comment was that this was going to be a very expensive blog post.  Let's just say I didn't get the cheapest snowshoes available because I wanted durability and some versatility to be able to do climbing in them.  They're MSRs, which I have had several people recommend (including some of my faithful blog followers - thanks!).  Based on the recommendations and a whole lot of reading of reviews, they seem to get consistently high ratings for all the categories I was most concerned about.  And so far, so good.

I did not pick up tails for them, but I'm clearly going to need some since I sank a lot into the fluffy stuff that's outside at the moment.  Looking at the weight ratings on them, I technically squeak into the range for walking in them without tails... so long as I'm naked and the snow isn't fluffy and over 30" deep.  If I ever plan on carrying a pack with them I'll likely need the extra length.  More than 30" of fluffy snow isn't terribly common around Syracuse, but perhaps up on Tug Hill I'll find some snow that's that delicious.

I also do not yet have proper snowshoeing boots.  I could barely bring myself to buy the shoes and poles, despite all the generous contributions toward the snowshoe fund.  I'll try a short trip this weekend in my heaviest duty hiking boots and warm wooly socks to see how it goes.  The insulated boots are still on the wish list, and will have to remain there for a few more pay periods, anyway.

Here are Wednesday and Lucy sniffing warily at my new toys:

Okay weather - do your worst.  I need some snow!!!


The Ghost of Bloggers Present

>> Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Last night I was haunted by some lack-of-Christmas-blogging ghosts.  I dreamed that my favorite jeweler was moving to a new location directly across the street from my home.  I asked her if I could write about her move in my blog.  She responded with disdain, informing me that blogging isn't likely to reach much of an audience - at least my blog isn't - and she would appreciate it if I refrained from posting about her.  I then went dejectedly back home, where my four foster children were hanging out.  (No idea where my subconscious mind came up with them.)  I then asked the oldest, who was a girl of about 16, if she minded if I blogged about her.  She gave me an eye-rolling, she's-so-unhip expression, and informed me that blogspot is so 2000, and if I wanted to write about her I'd have to find a more cool medium for expression.

Telling people one's dreams is the ultimate in egotism* - my apologies.  But I surmise that I am suffering some guilt pangs for not having posted anything lately.  Have I mentioned yet my recovering Catholic, overdeveloped sense of guilt?  That, and apparently I have some deep-seated feelings of blogger inadequacy, but nevermind.

Truth to tell, after the miserably frantic bustle of the first three weeks of December, I've been enjoying the holiday time more than usual.  I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the last few days doing this:

That is, rotting in front of the fireplace, reading good books, chatting with friends and family, and just plain hangin'.  I also spent a day painting, and even watched a couple of movies, which is practically unheard of for me.


It's back to work for me this week, though.  Spouse, on the other hand, is off this week.  How jealous am I?  Then again, it was 9 degrees, gray and blowing nastily when I left for work this morning.  There were massive snow devils twirling eerily in all the farm fields on my drive into work.  So, even if I weren't at work, I would not be engaging in any grand, bloggable outdoors adventures today.  Instead, I'd be inside looking out at this:


So, for lack of other, better writing material, I shall just provide a brief Christmas wrap up (forgive the pun):
  • I'm proud of my ability to make do in a pinch.  I forgot to purchase any kind of flower arrangement for the table, so had to create one out of my own gardens at the last minute.  Some holly clippings and a trim off the old pine tree, an antique cracked cheese crock, and a scrap of ribbon, and voila!  Rustic Christmas centerpiece, for free.  As an avid gardener, it pleases me no end when I can cut things from my own garden and put them in vases in the house.

  • I am absurdly pleased with my dogs, who spent the entirety of Christmas day sleeping.  I believe I've mentioned before that they seldom hold still, particularly when there's company.  They didn't even beg at the dinner table!  No, I did not sedate them with bendryl, although I have certainly considered doing that before.  Could it be that they are slowing down, now that they are approaching their 4th birthday?

  • I appear thus far to have avoided gaining weight this Christmas.  This, despite my having consumed nearly an entire plum pudding in the past 5 days.  That pudding, by the way, is my single greatest Christmas triumph.  It was my first attempt at such a dessert.  Desserts are particularly complicated in my household because they need to be gluten, dairy, corn and soy free, among other things.  I also refused to use suet in making the plum pudding simply because it sort of grosses me out even to feed it to the birds.  I managed to find a recipe that called for butter instead of suet, and then substituted ghee for the butter.  But dang, even with all the substitutions, I nailed the plum pudding.  I even got it to light on fire without also lighting the table cloth.  I think my father and husband did not appreciate it as much as I did taste-wise, but my appreciation was partly inspired by nostalgia - plum pudding was my favorite dessert at Oxford during my junior year abroad.  If it didn't require about 3 hours of prep and 6 hours of boiling, I'd make it far more often.
  • Finally, Santa was good to me and made a significant contribution toward my snowshoe/boots fund.  Yippee!  I shall start shopping soon... perhaps even tonight.  For any of my readers who have snowshoes, please tell me what you do and don't like about yours.  I'm fumbling completely in the dark here, and hate purchasing outdoors gear when I feel as though I am at the mercy of the sales people.   
I hope everyone else has been enjoying a little R&R, too, and is someplace warm out of the wind today.

*That's a paraphrase of something said by Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy L. Sayers Busman's Honeymoon.


Alpaca deliciousness

>> Wednesday, December 23, 2009

One of my birthday gifts:


I have already mentioned my perpetually freezing Raynaud's fingers, and my not infrequent use of my dogs' armpits as hand warmers (see #4 here).  My Dad decided this might mean I could use a good pair of mittens.  He was right.  He usually is.

He picked these fuzzies up from friends who run an alpaca farm somewhere near Lowville.  They are incredibly soft.  The coolest thing about them, though?  Check out the guts:

The one on the right is inside out.  All those little nubbinses of lovely soft alpaca fluff make them so cozy I actually hate to take them off.  I'm not sure how one knits mittens with all those little loops inside.  Okay, frankly, I'm not quite sure how one knits anything.  I can do a lot of crafty things, but knitting and crocheting are most definitely not among my talents.  But to whomever it is who figured out how to make these, well done!

And Dad, thanks.  They shall be much worn and much loved.


The next one is going to be a REAL dog

>> Tuesday, December 22, 2009

We don't take the Basset hounds on very many walks in the winter because they are complete and utter wusses.

To put this in context, I should explain that our last dog was a Bernese Mountain dog and Border Collie mix.  Among his many nicknames was "Snow Thing."  This is Clancy in his element, playing in a snow fort we built him in the back yard:

We'd let him outside in the snow so he could just sit in a snow bank for an hour or so, watching the world go by and absentmindedly licking the snow every so often.  No matter how much coaxing we did, he would only come in when he'd had enough of the snow.  Every year the first snow fall would elicit massive happy dances, and he'd frolic through the yard and chase falling snowflakes or try to catch snowballs we'd throw for him.

Not so much with the Basset hounds.  They spend the entire winter shivering.  After 5 minutes outside, at most, they are barking at the back door to come back in.

To be fair to them, the hounds just don't have the kind of fur coat Clancy had.  Every spring it would take us a good 6 hours to bathe Clancy, remove his undercoat, and give him a haircut.  His feet were so hairy he had toe sprouts: 

Clancy was built for snow.  All his built-in cold weather gear was great for us outdoorsy folks - we could just snap on a leash and go.

In contrast, taking the hounds for a walk in winter involves a ridiculous amount of work and preparation.  They need their fleece jackets.  If it's really cold they need fleece jackets and their heavy denim and fleece overcoats.  They also need boots.

I've already mentioned our difficulties finding stump covers for Lucy-fur.  On Sunday, we could only find three of the Ruffwear boots for her, so she had one mismatched boot.  Slimy had another brand of boots on.  Have you ever put boots on a dog?  It's hilarious.  This is Simon goose stepping while trying to adjust to walking in them:

And this is Lucy bucking like a bronco as she tries to adjust to hers.

Here's how we started off down the trail:

We came back with Simon wearing one boot on his back left foot, and Lucy wearing her stump cover on the right front.  Our pockets were stuffed with cast off boots.  Some fell off, others we removed because they were bothering the dogs for who knows what reason, and at least one built up ice inside it.

Lucy whined so much about her feet being cold that my husband wound up carrying her the last 3/4 of a mile.  You have never met stubborn until you've had a Basset hound.  That damn dog is notorious for sitting down in the trail while holding up the cold foot/feet, and refusing to budge another inch further.  There's no choice but to carry her if you ever want to get back home.  Please remember this is a dog who fearlessly scales Adirondack high peaks on 7+ mile long walks so long as the temperature is above 32 degrees.  Add snow, and she sulks.

After our pathetic 2 mile walk on Sunday, they rocketed into the house and collapsed in front of the still warm fire.




Low bridge, everybody down

>> Monday, December 21, 2009

(If the title of the blog doesn't ring a bell, try here and make sure the sound is up on your computer).

One of the biggest attractions of our house before we bought it was that it is only about a block from the Erie Canal path.   It seemed like such an appealing idea to have a path through the woods so close to home.  And it is an appealing idea.  Unfortunately it isn't always quite so great in practice.

I must admit first of all that the canal path can be lovely.

Lots of stretches of it make for excellent bird watching, and I've spotted ducks, herons, deer, rabbits, muskrat, beavers, turtles, coyotes, ermine and other cool critters along its banks over the years.  It's easy walking, has great history, is good for low-impact mountain biking and other activities that can rip up more natural trails, and generally brings people closer to nature.

Sadly, however, our stretch of the canal path is not one of the most desirable.  We got the swampy bit.  The path itself is always dry as it's a fine gravel:

Along the other side of the path, however, is a massive swamp that breeds gargantuan swarms of mosquitoes.  That means the path is pretty much off limits during mosquito season.  It also sports the healthiest crop of poison ivy I have ever even conceived of.  Those two things combined make me itch whenever I even think of the trail.

The winter, of course, eliminates the mosquito problem and reduces the poison ivy problem (at least visually).  It also brings with it snowmobiles, some of which are driven by incredibly inconsiderate and even dangerous riders, and all of which stink to high heaven.  Thus, it's less than ideal for skiing or snowshoeing (not that I have snowshoes... yet).  Other drawbacks to our stretch of the canal are the garbage along the trail:

Although honestly some of that stuff has apparently been there so long it has practically become a collection of historic artifacts.

There is also, however, a landfill at the one mile mark.

Thankfully it's not a stinky one.

Sunday it also sported hunters, which freaked me out.  I support hunting, like eating venison, and want people to help control the deer population that gets out of control because humans have decimated their natural predators.  I just wish that hunting were always done legally by people with a modicum of intelligence and no alcohol in their blood streams.

Anywho, the proximity of the canal path still does have some perks, and we make use of it on occasion.  If nothing else, when there simply isn't time to drive to a more wild spot at least it's a stroll in the woods.  It's actually great for a jog that is lower impact on one's joints, and is easy to measure distances along, too.

Here are some of the highlights of our short stroll on Sunday:

The ice makes for great critter tracks, although I'm abysmal at making identifications from tracks.  There must be someone who reads this who can recommend a good field book for IDing tracks in snow?


This set of tracks I can identify - it's been made by a rare wild Basset hound sporting the latest in boot fashions with Vibram soles:

I noticed this debris in the snow, and paused to point out the sawdust to my husband.

Looking up, he replied that it isn't technically saw dust, it's more like jaw dust... from really small munchy jaws.

I kind of have to agree.

We also happened upon a massive pile of frozen apples that someone had apparently dumped along the trail, and which was being enjoyed by the wildlife.

Unfortunately none of the munchers were working on the pile when we were there, but to me those look like they might have been made by squirrel-sized teeth.

Finally, I like the sun shining off the wings of the geese flying overhead - as with most of the photos in my blog, you can click on this to enlarge it.

At least our canal path gave us a brief breath of fresh air and delicious hush of winter forest.


Smell that Freshness

>> Saturday, December 19, 2009

The air freshener in the ladies' room at work describes its scent as follows:

And yet, if you turn the can just a titch, this is the list of ingredients.  I admit they're not that bad compared with a lot of other chemicals out there (e.g., toxicity for the second chemical on the list with all those % signs and the dimethyl benzyl ammonium saccharinate is "slight"), but they're still not something I want to breathe deeply.

I'm particularly partial to the "CAUTION" and "KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN" warnings it bears.

So okay.  Um, no.  In case you were still wondering, the scent of this stuff bears pretty much no relation to a lungful of fresh clean outdoors air. 

Who comes up with the names for these scents?  Do they take their jobs seriously?  Or do they name things with a little tongue in cheek, knowing the American public will buy the advertising, hook, line and sinker?  Mere idle curiosity.


No Room in the Inn

>> Thursday, December 17, 2009

There were three bears in the bed and the little one said:

"I'm crowded!  Roll over!"

No, I don't let them stay there all night because they kick like mules, drool and snore, but they sure do make nice bed warmers when one first gets into bed on these frigid winter nights!


Gone to Seed

>> Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The first seed catalog is here!

I actually did a little skipping dance back from the mailbox with it in my hand.  My neighbors must think I'm nuts.  I can't help myself, though.  We're going into the big deep freeze that is winter in Syracuse, New York, and my lovely, soft warm garden is but a distant memory.

I don't know how I ever got through winters before I gardened.  How does one survive December without seed catalogs to look at and dream over?  How does one tolerate January freeze or February gloom without neat little seed packets to flip lovingly through?  How does one get through March without buying little planters and dirt and getting tiny baby plants springing up indoors, in anticipation of warmer days to come?

The Baker Creek catalog is particularly lovely in its layout and display.  Just look at these pictures - how can you resist trying every darned variety?  I mean, honestly, I don't even like radishes and I want to try all of these:

And tell me truthfully, wouldn't you have a hard time resisting the urge to plant something called "nipple fruit" just to see what the heck it looks like?

The only way I can reign myself in is knowing I don't have enough garden space, although I already extracted a promise from my husband that he'll help me dig a new garden this spring.  I need room to expand, and so do the potatoes and peas!

Here, though, is where I really start to salivate.  My fingers shake just a little as I flip through the pages looking for it...


Rainbow chard, a.k.a. Five Color Silverbeet.  Honestly - and I'm not exaggerating here - I would do anything for chard.  And I'm not talking about that flimsy, pale simulacrum of chard that they sell in the grocery store, with the flaccid white and pink stems and withered leaves.  That stuff has no taste whatsoever.  I'm talking about lush, shiny dark green leaves, with white and fuchsia and crimson and orange and yellow stems, so bright they look like a circus.  They're sweet and tangy and earthy and crunchy.  If I had to survive off one and only one food for the rest of my life, I would be happy so long as it was organic, heirloom, five color silverbeet chard, and so long as I could have a pinch of salt and a little oil or ghee to fry it in.

Thinking of my chard just might be what gets me through the dark days of winter this year.  I can practically taste it already.  Where's that order form?


My "North Country"

>> Monday, December 14, 2009

Everyone who loves the "North Country" of New York has a different notion of what the "North Country" is geographically. 

I have colleagues who are from Pulaski, and to them that constitutes the North Country.  Pulaski doesn't seem far enough north to me - it's too close to a real airport to feel remote enough - although anyone who's been there during salmon run can attest that it's a completely different universe from Syracuse.

Watertown feels way too developed to constitute "North Country", but it certainly has its own personality, too. 

People who live in the Adirondacks surely think of the Adirondacks as the North Country, but while I deeply love the cool, green, rocky, woodsy, mountainousness of the Adirondacks, I don't know them well enough to feel like they're home.  (At least not yet).

So what's my North Country, then?  Not that you can read the map below, but it roughly shows it.  The red tag is in Canton, where I lived for a while.  It stretches northeast to Massena, south into the Adirondack foothills, southwest along Route 11 and over to the St. Lawrence River.

My husband grew up outside of Canton, in Rensselaer Falls (pronounced "Rensler" if you're from there), and his father's family goes back generations in the Ogdensburg area.  That area is so far north that, when my husband tells non-North Country people where he's from, the inevitable response is, "Wow.  That's practically in Canada, eh?"

Spouse and I were up in our North Country this past weekend.  We go annually for a fundraising event at the Remington Museum in Ogdensburg (more on that later).  The photos are from Sunday, which was leaden-skied and grim, pouring down cold, uninteresting rain.  And yet the landscape still made my heart ache.  I miss the area so much.

So what is it about our North Country that my husband and I love so much?  We contemplated on our way home whether our love for the North Country is just a golden glow effect created by time and distance and our missing simpler days, rather than an accurate reflection of reality.

There's no question that the North Country can be an unforgiving place to live.  For farmers, trying to scrape a living out of the thin soils and short growing season must be brutally hard.  There is an incredible amount of poverty, and few good employers (hence our reason for not being where we really want to be).  Abandoned homes pepper the landscape, and the houses with good siding tend to be the exception rather than the norm.  Tyvek and plywood are more common exteriors than vinyl siding.

Some of the most sound homes are Amish, and they pepper the countryside with horses and buggies, and dark, all solid colored clothing drying on the line.

The landscape is breathtaking, and the sky is huge.  I have never seen stars like I've seen in the North Country. 

People are more in touch with life cycles and weather and land and growing seasons in the North Country.  As Barbara Kingsolver observed in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about her farming community in Virginia, kids in the North Country grow up knowing vegetables come from dirt.  The woods and fields and hills are so close that it's just natural to go for walks or cross-country skiing when there's spare time.

Winters are long, hard and cold.  But those long, hard winters draw people together in remarkable ways.  People have something to commiserate about, for one thing.  But for another, people seem to look out for each other more up there.

By way of example, back when I lived there, on a particularly blizzardy winter day I hit black ice and slid gracefully off the road into a ditch.  By the time I'd gotten my car door open and stepped out into the hip high snow, a rather rough young man, perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s, had already stopped to help.  He emerged from his big, beat up, diesel all-wheel-drive pick-up truck with a snow shovel in hand, and helped me dig out.  He then hooked up chains to my car, winched me from the ditch, and I was ready to be on my way again in less than 1/2 hour's time.

As this kind gentleman was getting back into his truck, I thanked him and told him I hoped I hadn't made him late for anything.  He just chuckled and shook his head.  "Nah.  I'm lucky enough to have this great big truck, and the way I figure, it's least I can do to drive around in storms and pull people out of where they're stuck.  I'm just on my way to the next person that's got stuck." 

Huh.  A North Country version of noblesse oblige.

That kind of neighborliness highlights what I found in the North Country.  Oh, sure, the North Country has snotty people and rich people and uppity people and rude people.  It's got broken homes and just plain mean people, too. 

But I found overall that I knew who my neighbors were, and I liked it.  I knew who was going for cancer treatments for the second time, and who just lost his job and needed coats for the kids but couldn't afford them.  I knew who had raspberries they'd be happy to let me pick so long as I picked them some while I was at it.  I knew all the teenaged boys in the neighborhood, and which ones needed a little extra guidance and an occasional breakfast because they didn't get it at home.  I had neighbors who snow blowed out my driveway for me, and strangers who brought our cat home when he got lost (everybody recognized that cat  - he was so big he was unmistakable).  Going to the grocery store was a mighty long affair, because I would run into at least 15 people I knew, and had to have a long chat with the cashier about her straying boyfriend while she was checking me out. 

We rooted for each other.  We wanted the local businesses to succeed and did our best to help them.

The pace of life in the North Country was just plain slower.  Life in Syracuse, in contrast, seems harder, and sharper.  I know a lot of people here, too, and like some of them more than I can express, but the overall atmosphere is more harsh.  Drivers are more aggressive, and the strangers are less friendly on the street. 

I love my little village outside of Syracuse, and it's a bit closer to North Country living just because it's a small town, but it isn't the same.  No place else can quite capture that North Country feeling, and I never manage to achieve that slower pace of life here.  I like having to stop on my way home for wild turkeys and even free-range chickens and pet ducks to cross the road in front of me.

As my husband and I were driving back to our current home discussing all this, we reached the conclusion that there is something different and special about life in the North Country.  It's not for everyone, but we'll keep working to pay off law school debts in the hopes of one day returning to the spot that feels so much like home.  Every time we have to leave it feels like a slow wrenching away, and we're sad that we can't snap our fingers and be back there.  We reaffirmed that we'll keep hoping and trying to move back, some day.

Then, after discussing all we love about the North Country, we stopped along the side of the icy road to snap a few last pictures on our way back.  A pick-up truck pulled over in front of us, and backed up to where we were parked.  In Syracuse I might have been suspicious, but not in Oxbow.  It was just a nice North Country man on his way back home, stopping to check on us and make sure we didn't need any help.

Nope.  We aren't imagining it.  The North Country really is a more neighborly sort of place, and it sure was nice to be home, for however short a visit.


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