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Sunday, August 29, 2010

sang hunting


"The Cherokee speak of the plant as being a sentient being...
able to make itself invisible to those unworthy to gather it."
William Bartram, 1791

Walking the woods and hollows looking for ginseng or "sang" has been a tradition among the country folk all up and down the length of Appalachia. From the hill country of southern Ohio over into West Virginia down thru Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, heading into the woods to dig a little Christmas money or maybe shoe money has been around as long as people have walked these woods. One story that is never told is the fact that Daniel Boone spent a year digging ginseng and buying it from white explorers and natives, eventualy filling an entire flatboat with 12 tons of seng, worth a small fortune at the time. Unfortunately a boat wreck on the Ohio got most of his collection wet and he lost money on the deal, otherwise the regions history might have been written quite differently. While searching thru my own family tree I found several references to digging sang. I found a story told by Mrs. Fannie Coomer, born in 1833,in which she spoke of spinning cloth from their own sheep, of making their own clothing, quilts,raising livestock, and growing their own food. And if something extra was needed, of digging ginseng for some spending money. My own grandfather took me sang hunting when I was young and my father filled the woods behind our home with beds of ginseng. Now every fall I head into the woods to follow in this tradition. Some years digging just a bit for something to do, and in lean years, digging harder for that elusive Christmas cash.
Ginseng itself thrives in what is called the Appalachian mixed mesophytic forest. But what makes ginseng so hard to find is while you may find the occasional plant here and there thruout this vast forest type, to find a sackfull (or even a pocketfull for that matter)you must hunt out little subtypes of forest, little pockets of just the right habitat. All the books say look on a north facing slope but it's a bit more complicated than that. While a north facing slope may be a good place to start, any slope will hold ginseng if it's like the words of that old bluegrass song,"where the sun comes up about ten in the morning, and the sun goes down about 3 in the day". What ginseng likes best are deep cool rich coves and hollows in already rich cool woods. The best ginseng woods are dominated by maples with poplar mixed in. Woods predominated by oaks and hickories are in my experience poor places to find alot of ginseng. A better and easier way to find the right places to hunt tho is to look for the right companion plants. Any type of cohosh, goldenseal, ramps, and maidenhair fern are good indicators of guality ginseng habitat. Of these maidenhair fern may be the best, but around here at least, ginseng is almost more of an indicator of maidenhair fern as it is rare. The best, most sure fire, companion plant though is baneberry or "dolleyes". A good way to scout a big block of new woods is to cruise thru fairly fast looking for baneberry and then when you find some stop and look for the harder to find ginseng plants. You may find a little ginseng without baneberry or a little baneberry without ginseng but the only reason you will find alot of baneberry without ginseng is that someone has dug the ginseng already.
Ginseng has been used by the Chinese for over 5000 years as a general cure all and also specifically by herbalists to treat problems with a person's "Yin" and "Yang" and bring them into balance. Lately several studies have shown ginseng may indeed have health benifits but these still ignore the big picture of restoring general well being and balance that the Chinese actually use the root for. The Cherokee used ginseng for colic, dysentry, and headache, and described it as "the little man", amazingly similar to "man root" which is how the Chinese described the root.
In 1702 a Father Jartoux was in china and observed the valuable trade in and uses of ginseng there, later in 1716 while working with Iroquois in the North America he discovered the plant growing here. Fur traders began gathering the valuable root and buying it from the Native Americans and a tradition in North America was born. John Jacob Astor sent a ship loaded with fur and ginseng and reportably made $55,000, the equivalent of millions today. Most ginseng today is still bought by a network of small fur buyers which in turn sell to larger traveling dealers which then sell to the relatively few exporters. By the time the root finds the consumer in China it sells for many times the $300 to $500 dollars a pound a digger here may receive.
Ginseng is considered rare and the harvest is regulated in the different states by a confining the harvest to a short season of just a few short weeks prior to the top turning yellow and dying in the fall. It's my experience that ginseng seems just about as plentiful now as when I was a boy, that the level of hard work combined with itimate knowledge of the forest required to harvest it serves even better than a season to limit overharvesting. The next time your out for a hike in early autumn and meet an oldtimer in bib overalls with a homemade knapsack and a long digger for a walking stick strike up a conversation, you might just connect with a bit of Appalachia's grand old past.
A young two prong ginseng plant, each set of leaflets on a plant is called a prong. Only plants that have large three or four prongs should be harvested.

Ginseng turning yellow in the fall. The week or two when the tops turn yellow before dying is "prime time" for digging, making the plants easier to spot in the dense undergrowth.
Some ramps. A prime indicator of good woods in the springtime, though they die down by ginseng digging time they are a great scouting tool.
Jack in the Pulpit
Squaw Root is usually a sign of a hillside not really suitable for ginseng greatness though the odd plant may be found there.
Good ginseng territory is allmost always good terrapin territory as well.
A morning's hunt layed out on a log at lunchtime.
A giant with two big four prong tops growing off the same root.
A mature plant with red berries. Ginseng should not be harvested before the berries mature.
A very old ginseng root
Another mid thigh-high giant
Maidenhair fern
Baneberry. Don't eat those pretty berries by the way, they will stop your heart and kill you!
Three and a half pounds of dried ginseng. A entire years collection for me from last year.
$1400 at todays price
A ginseng top thats been browsed by deer. Allmost every hunt I'll find several of these mangled tops. I've also been digging one root and rolled out another that I didn't know was there because the top was browsed off or the plant was simply dormant that year. There is alot more of this kind of ginseng out there than one might think. I've also been digging one plant and dug another too close to leave undisturbed that I thought was a seedling that I would replant only to find a big root but tiny set of root scars on top, like the top of the root had been broken off or eaten by an animal and was regrowing. I think these types of ginseng also help keep the plant from being dug out.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Falling stars and falling rain

This weekend I spent a night peacefully outside and then the next night almost spent the night out again even though I hadn't planned to.

Thursday night was supposed to be the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. This night was extra special because at sundown Venus, Saturn, Mars and the crescent Moon shone in the west in tight conjunction. I was still at work then but snuck outside for a quick view, then after work headed out for the show. The darkest spot I know within reasonable driving distance of my house is the gorge of Ceasers Creek below the dam and about three miles upstream of it's mouth on the Little Miami. A road winds steeply down to a parking area below the dam. The creek provides a big break in the dense forest canopy with a nice view of the sky and equally important, there is not a single light visable in any direction. I arrived about three am and waited less than a minute before a big bright meteor streaked accross the night sky. By then the sliver of moon was long gone and it was a pleasure to stand out in the pitch black night and stare upward at the broad band of the Milky Way crossing the sky.

The Perseid meteor shower is actually the debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Every 133 years the 17 mile wide comet passes by the sun and leaves behind a trail of dust and debris. When Earth passes through the debris cloud, tiny bits of cometstuffs hit the atmosphere at 140,000 mph and burn up in flashes of light. These meteors are called Perseids because they fly mostly out of the constellation Perseus.

Swift-Tuttle's debris zone is wide and the Earth spends weeks inside it so even though Thursday the 12th was the peak, meteors are common for several days to come. A close encounter with Earth is predicted for the comet's return to the inner solar system in the year 4479, Im awfull at math but the probability I read was one in some number way too big to pronounce. But after that predictions sorta break down and since the comet would strike the earth 27 times harder than the one that killed the dinosaurs, Comet Swift-Tuttle has been described as "the single most dangerous object known to humanity". Though my guess is we will have killed ourselves off long before then anyways.

I spend alot of time every winter looking at the night sky from another dark sky spot, my cabin in eastern Ohio. What struck me most about the Perseids was that I must have seen 7 or 8 meteors that would have each by themselves been the highlight of my typical winter skywatching. I once caught the Leonids in November just right and saw literally hundreds and hundreds of meteors but none as bright as these.

I know your supposed to find some meaning in these bits of thousand year old space dust falling to Earth and I've read wonderful pieces conveying just that, but I have to admit that on this night at least it was just a peacefull way to spend a night outdoors. There is a wooden deck built out over a broad pool in the creek and standing there looking down I saw the reflection of a bright meteor flash across the inky blackness of the pool. I read everthing I can on space and am always impressed by the vast distances and the stories of trillions and trillions of stars. But somehow when I'm out there the night sky is just a part of the whole, like the wind in the treetops or the lonesome cry of an owl. I've always bought into the Native American notion that we along with everything else in the woods and in the river are just a tiny piece of the whole and the idea of the Earth itself as a tiny tiny bit of the universe just comes natural to me.

The next evening I set out with about five hours of daylight left for the woods. My plan was to scout out a promising woods for ginseng season which starts in a few weeks. It threatened rain but that seemed welcome as we have been stuck in a heat wave. As I locked the truck and shouldered my daypack a few big sprinkles fell and the wind began to pick up. I walked down a steep wooded hillside halfheartedly looking for ginseng and mostly just poking around. In the bottom was a dry creekbed about ten yards across and I meandered up the dry rock strewn bottom a bit looking for fossils before going up the opposite bank. It was raining much harder now and i heard lightning in the distance. I remember thinking I'll just climb the top and then turn around. By the time I topped out lightning was crashing all around and it was raining so hard it was hard to see. A big oak leaned over a bit and I backed up under it a bit for some shelter. I wasn't afraid of the lightining as this was just one big tree in a whole woods of big trees. It then began to rain even harder as the storm unleashed its full fury. It was becoming clear that this was one of those storms where rain wasn't measured by tenths of an inch but by whole inches and I was squarely on the wrong side of the creek unless I wanted to spend a very wet night outdoors. All the way down the hillside it continued to rain buckets and by the time I hit the creek there was a few inches of water now running over the rocks. I'd hit it a few hundred yards upstream of where I'd crossed earlier and the bank I needed to climb was a small cliff here so I began to wade downstream. By the time I got down to where I could cross where I wanted the water was midcalf and you could actually watch it get deeper steadily every few seconds. I was very glad to be across. I began the climb out to the truck. The sound of water running was now noticeable above the sound of the hard rain. Looking back down the steep hillside the creek that had been bone dry two hours later was roaring along five feet deep.
The road home crossed the stream again several miles downstream and I pulled off to check the creek. Here there was maybe three inches of water flowing. If it wasn't fast becoming dark I would have loved to have stayed and watch the oncoming flood that had almost caught me upstream come rushing by.


^ that line going straight up is the hours of my mini flood. Of course my little creek rose faster and more sudden than the river but all the weather service shows are the river levels.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The big one that got away



A whole day free. The wife had to work, no babysitting chores, I knew exactly where I wanted to spend it. There's this hole you see where the river makes a sharp turn digging a nice hole then a riffle and a long slow hole. It's one of the most consistent fish producing spots I know. You can allmost count on catching at least a half dozen bass every time you go there, I'd even caught a couple big catfish there on lures while bass fishing. The hole has one more thing going for it, it's really not that easy to get to. You have to walk a hundred fifty yards down a dry creek bed and then the hole fishes best from the far side so you have to wade the river above to do it right. I've never seen someone else fishing there during the day much less at night, so that's where I headed.


I got there early afternoon and took my time, gathered enough firewood for a nice fire and set up a nice little basecamp. I'd packed in a few special things too. A couple empty 2 liter pop bottles, some strong nylon rope, and a handfull of big 5/0 hooks. The makings of a trot line. Plus the two big baitcasting rods. You know the ones with the clickers and star drags, big enough to handle the fish you dream of catching , not the ones you actually do catch.


I then went to work, fishing worms on my light spinning rod and soon had a couple drum and a pumpkinseed for bait. I tied each two liter to heavy rocks with enough slack to let them float about chest deep and sunk them about 40 yards apart just below the rock bar where the hole first gets deep. Then I stretched nylon cord between the two bottles with a half dozen of the big 5/0 hooks on droppers spaced out evenly. I baited these with cut pieces of drum and the punpkinseed and as a finishing touch blew up and tied two balloons as floats along the main line. It was beautiful. I was sure would catch a giant. With a couple hours left till dark I then hid the two baitcasters up in the bushes and began lure fishing upstream thru the faster water with my spinning rod.





The bass fishing was fabulous, by dark I'd probably landed a dozen bass along with a couple more drum on a smoke metalflake grub. I then built a fire, changed into dry shoes, put on a flannel shirt and threw out the baitcasting rods to wait on a big catfish. The word wait should probably be followed by a couple lines that are just blank to convey more of the meaning of the word as the wait for a big catfish to bite can sometimes be epic. Every half hour or so another drum would hit just to keep things interesting. Plus two softshell turtles, one small and cute and one big enough to make me be extra carefull not to get withing range of that beaklike mouth. Sometime in the middle of the night I heard a tremendous splashing in the direction of the trot line. Grabbing the flashlight I got there just in time to see a very big fish roll once on the dropper baited with the pumpkinseed. Then before I could wade in to land it, the line went quiet. Two quiet, the big cat had come loose and gotten off. I had two nice runs on the rods but came up empty with the bait gone so I put on a nightcrawler trying to catch some smaller drum for bait. After a few minutes the line tore off in a rush and I was fast into a nice carp.



But no catfish, at dawn the score was 10 drum, 1 carp, 1 small gar, and a grand total of zero catfish. On both sides of me owls cried during the night. First the eerie unworldy cries of a screech owl then the familiar cry of a barred owl. I hooted back at the barred owl and he flew closer calling out off and on all during the night. At dawn I moved up above the riffle to the smaller hole above. Instantly a drum was on and they bit as fast as could rebait for about an hour. I even managed to catch a decent smallmouth on a nightcrawler fished on the bottom. I think I was even more surprised than he was.


Finally I went back downriver, took up the trot line, gathered my things and waded the river and headed up to the creek that was my way out. Just then a great fish broke water above me. Not in that way that big carp breech but in a huge tail slapping roll. It looked gigantic. Sneaking slowly up the bank, I crept up behind a weed bed and peeked over the bank. In the shallows were eight or ten big fish. Carp I thought, but they didn't look just right. Carp in the river are a gracefull streamlined fish and these were stockier rounder fish. I watched for a bit then it hit me. Buffalo! The world record is 88 pounds though much larger ones have been caught by comercial fishermen. I think the state record is a bit under fifty pounds. In this pod of fish there were two that were very big. I'd never caught a big one and am no person to judge their size but the largest looked a bit shorter than the 37lb carp I'd caught earlier in the year and at least as broad across the back. Since buffalo are a rounder, deeper bellied fish this was a very big fish. The water here was shallow and clear. The fish would spook if I made much commotion at all, so I hooked on a nightcrawler on an unweighted hook and crept forward behind the tall weeds. After a minute or two one of the big fish and a smaller one swam my way. I cast the worm out ahead of them and waited. They both swam right over the bait and the line twitched and began to move. I set the hook and was fast into a fish...the smaller one of course. Not that he was small, I guess around ten pounds but by the time I landed him in the shallow water every fish had left the pool. All in all a very fine fishing trip.