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Monday, November 28, 2011

mountaintop

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Coldest I've ever been...

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I decided to make the short jaunt up the Blue Ridge Parkway from Ashville to see Mount Mitchell while I was in the area. After all the Parkway itself was splendid and worth the trip even if the mountain was fogged in. The Parkway runs for about 470miles connecting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. I guess I've seen roughly half and intend to do the whole thing one day. One of those things laying around on the list in the bucket. (every time I read about one of those lottery winners who say "oh I'll just keep working" I have to choke back the urge to find them and punch them.) It was in the upper forties in Ashville and I had a heavy winter coat for the mountain so I figured I'd be fine. Halfway there and the views were stunning and the temps had dropped into the low thirties. Just like on the Foothills Parkway, grouse were everywhere. They are the ubiquitous as well as iconic animal of these high mountain roads and I think I saw at least a half dozen that morning.


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By the time I'd made Mount Mitchell State Park the temperature readings on the car's dash had dropped into the upper teens when I pointedly decided not to look at it anymore. A thin coat of snow covered the ground or at least I thought it was snow but when I parked the car and got out I found it was a thin white ice like the kind that used to build up in old refrigerators forcing you to defrost them. I jumped back in the car pulling on the jacket and rummaging around for the toboggan under the seats. For the wind was blowing. I don't know a better way to put that, tempest?, gusting?, tumult?. Hmm I need a colder word there... All I know is that the wind was a steady twenty or thirty and gusting to somewhere over forty. Which I understand is just par for the course on Mount Mitchell in winter for it a place of extremes. There is a little weather station here close to the summit that from what I gather holds the records for everything nasty weather wise in the state. The coldest temperature ever recorded in the state occurred there on January 21, 1985 when it fell to −34 °F. It is also the coldest average reporting station in the state at 43.8 °F which is way below any other station. Heavy snows can fall anytime from December to March, with 50 inches accumulating in the Great Blizzard of 1993 with an average annual snowfall of 178 inches. The highest straightline wind speed in the state was recorded here at 178 miles per hour! Well you get the picture. I bundled up and headed up the short pathway to the summit. Even with the heavy jacket and hat I was freezing. Not just cold but bone jarring frost bite inducing, hypothermic kind of cold. A few photos and I was running back downhill towards the car.
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I ended up taking a bit longer to hit I-40 as the Parkway was now closed back the way I had come. You could see snow pouring over low spots on the ridgeline as I now turned north to take 80 back southward.

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Two waterfalls in one morning....

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Right off Rt 276, Looking Glass falls is as easy to get to waterfall as I have ever been to. If your ever in western North Carolina and need a quickie waterfall fix this waterfall is for you. Looking Glass Creek is a decent trout stream and as a side note the falls is infamous to the whitewater croud as where noted kayaker Corran Addison ran the falls in the early 90's sustaining a major back injury. Supposedly he was wearing a batman costume while running the drop. Addison is a former olympic kayaker, world champion and nut from everything I've read about him.



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Mingo Falls is located in the Qualla Indian Reservation in Cherokee, NC. It's only probably a quarter mile tops to the falls but it is steeep, so be prepared to climb.
At somewhere around 150 feet tall this is a very very impressive waterfall and worth driving thru the gauntlet of hillbilly golf/bingo/rubber tomahawks in Cherokee to see.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cataloochie, North Carolina

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Cataloochee Valley is nestled among some of the most rugged mountains in the southeastern United States. Surrounded by 6000-foot peaks, this isolated valley was one of the most prosperous settlements in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some 1,200 people lived in this valley in 1910. Most made their living by farming but an early tourism industry developed in Cataloochee with some families boarding fishermen and other tourists who wished to vacation in the mountains. A variety of historic buildings have been preserved in the valley.

Reintroduced in 2001 the elk herd is thriving. Last spring 20 elk calves were born in the Smokies, and out of that 17 survived. It was the park's second good calving season in a row. In 2010, 25 calves were born in Cataloochee, and all survived.
Biologists say the fact that more than half of the calves born this season were females is more good news because it should help the herd's growth in the future. The survival rate among this year's newborn calves was high. Biologists say the mother elk have learned to defend their young against black bears which was a huge problem and are selecting more protective areas to have their calves. Morning and evenings are the best time for wildlife veiwing. As someone raised on whitetailed deer it takes a bit to get used to the sheer size of these awesome animals.



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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dad

My father once said, I think after the passing of his brother Roger, that we should write eulogies while the person is still alive. Who cares if cousin It from Boise thought you were a great guy if he never told you while you were alive. Well this evening's deer hunt was a rain out and with a warm fire built in the cabin's barrel stove I'm settling in try and do just that.
The problem with anything like that is the starting. With my father that problem's compounded even futher. For you see my dad did more things than anyone I've ever known. And not normal things either. Did you know he once raised mink? Or built a wooden boat? You see he's the kind of guy who when he wanted a goldfish pond for his patio he didn't go out and buy a kit. Instead he built a concrete one complete with a waterfall made from stones he gathered at the river. For the patio he built, next to the house he built. Just business as usual.
Of course not everything was a success, I'll never forget the summer he and I spent on the Ohio river commercial fishing. During the worst commercial fishing year anyone could ever remember. But those were the exceptions. Even with things he bought Dad was never one to stand pat and leave well enough alone. Every treestand he ever owned had the straps replaced with ones of his own design. They are of course a marked improvement and I set mine up the same way now. Always thinking, tinkering, everything could use a little tweeking in Dad's eyes. I'd love to see a formal resume for Dad. Can you imagine it?
Railroad Worker
Expert gardener
Commercial fisherman
Fur dealer
Tank Driver in the army
Ginseng farmer
Carpenter
Brick mason
Fishing tackle store owner
Worker at an aircraft engine plant
World class taxidermist
The list goes on and on. And somehow doing all this and raising us kids so we never wanted for anything. By the way next time you go down that escalator in the middle of Bass Pro Shop that mount of a big tom turkey strutting on a limb over your head is one of his. All the different Bass Pro Shops of some of Dad's work in them. When he retired from taxidermy they bought out his entire shop, he was that good. My Dad had a natural curiosity about the world around him that led to him knowing more about his world than most naturalists ever do. He wouldn't just tell you the names of the plants on a walk but how they were used medicinally, how the pioneers used then for dye or for fiber, what the different indian tribes used them for. And then follow that up with come over here and look at this bat house I built, some have just moved in...
This love of the outdoors leads to the subject of the brothers and their deer hunting. Roger and Virgil started first. I think Virgil just wanted out of the house. He would just camp and tell stories. hunting was more of an afterthought.
Then one day Dad did the unthinkable. He actually killed a deer. Back in the day when there just weren't very many deer. Nothing like nowadays. With an old wooden Bear recurve bow no less. He was as good of a shot with a primitive bow as anyone I've ever seen. Well pretty soon Roger too got a deer and it was on. I guess between them over the next few decades they must have harvested 60 or 70 deer and became master bowhunters. My favorite memories though were of setting around a campfire listening to Dad and Roger telling the samo storis over again we had all heard a dozen times before. No one minded one bit.
I'm constantly told how much I look like my Dad. Frankly that terrifies me, I just hope I can be half the man he was as well. He was generous and kind and funny and talented. And he just happened to look like just like his father. Which is also even more terrifying since the only person I've ever held in as high esteem as my father was his father. Whatever you do please don't ever judge me in comparison to those two men, no one could ever stand up.
Even in old age Dad never quit building, tinkering. Be built a series of steps and small decks down the steep hillside in front of his house down to the creek. Then bridged the small creek there with a deck so in the summer he could set there in the shade and listen to the water run underneath. Why? I think because he could imagine it, could see it in his mind so he had to build it. He also planted thousands of flowers and plants and became the Highland County Senior Centers resident pool hustler dominating all their local tournaments. I remember we were driving to West Union early one morning to sell some ginseng and out of the blue Dad said I can't complain I've had good health and a good life. I remember thinking no you've had a great life and there will never be another like you. I don't know why I just didn't tell him that at the time...

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Bad Year...a short story

The first morning a forked horned buck walked right under the tree. Materialised actually. He just looked up and there he was, standing there in the middle of his shooting lane. And there the buck stayed for the better part of an hour before walking off. Then ten minutes later a twig snaps and there he is again. It was one of the few times he could ever remember when a deer overstayed his welcome. By the time the young buck walked off he was stiff and exhausted from not moving.
Then finally off to the cabin for four days. The first morning rain was forcasted so he brought out an umbrella contraption his father had given him. He climbed the tree fine with the rain shelter bungee corded to his stands frame. Fifteen minutes later he was still struggling to mount it solidly to the tree. In theory a u shaped hanger strapped to the tree and below this hung a camo umbrella hung with a small bolt and wing nut. The problem was the umbrella wouldn't open completely and still hang off it's bracket. He was still trying to mount it into it's bracket when on the ridgeline a deer began to blow. It's only fifty yards or so to the ridgeline so the deer must have been very close. Later climbing down he walked up there and found a rub on a pine tree five inches thru. Right then down over the bank a grouse began to drum. The guidebooks all say that grouse drum in the spring to attract a mate. But he heard their odd drumming here every fall. At a distance it sounds like someone trying to start a small lawn mower but not quite getting the job done. Vvvrummp. Vvvrummp. Then a pause and then vvvrummp. A few times he had actually been lucky enough to see a grouse drum. Each time the bird would hop up on a log lying on the forest floor and just stand there looking things over. Then finally puff up and drum stiff bowed wings against it's body, vvvrummmp. Then the bird stands there a bit looking over his little piece of woodland before repeating the whole thing over again.
That evening he left for the tree right after lunch planning to hunt till the rains came. Well the rain never came and six hours later he climbed down stiffer and even more exhausted than the forkie had left him. A beautifull doe ghosted out of shadow looking like she was coming his way then just disappeared like smoke back into the woods. Just that way right at the end of his vision in the woods ran a staggard line of small pines thru the thicket. This created a line of green and shadow that drew his eye waiting for the deer to appear. Over the last few years he had taken several nice deer from this tree and every one had stepped out of that line of green and velvety shadow. His tree was perfect easily the best stand on his property. A maple just the right size to climb that he felt safe climbing to the end of his pull up rope in. Right in front of his tree close enough that he could lean way out and touch was an oak. A perfect oak that reliably produced lots of acorns to draw deer. Plus like many oaks it had small branches, twigs really growing up the length of its trunk from allmost right at ground level up to the first big branches. High up in the maple he was hidden behind the oak to any approaching deer. The next morning found him up the same tree again. About eight thirty a limb popped out towards the pine thicket and here came a buck. The wind swirled wildly about but the deer was coming fast and he thought it should be under his scent. But then the buck froze. Two steps from where he could shoot it. It stood there then raised it's head sniffing the wind. Up and down twice went the bucks head like a horse snorting at the reins. Then the buck just turned and began to sneak away. It slowly, slowly raised it's tail and snuck back the way it had came. Then just squirrels and chipmunks to pass the time till it was time to climb down. It was warm, too warm for november really and the chipmunks and squirrels were everywhere taking advantage of indian summer. After lunch he headed back up the ridge towards the stand. Long ago, before he had bought the place a decade ago, a large pine had fallen and it's wreckege lay beside the trail. Over the years he had tried several times to capture the essence of the strength and drama of this grand old wreck of a tree in a photo but the pictures never could create that feeling in him the old tree did. Today the old tree rustled and made scratching noises. He froze and a fence lizard scrambled out into a sunny patch. No doubt wondering what was wrong with the calendar that it should be out in mid november. Far away he could hear dogs running, baying on a track. Every day he heard them somewhere chasing the deer.
Soon after climbing the tree a flicker flew into an oak twenty feet away. Unlike most species of woodpeckers, Flickers forage mostly on the ground. though no one had bothered to tell this gut that as he spent ten minutes combing over the bark of the oak giving him the best look he'd ever had at one. This was also the same tree he had gotten his best look at a barred owl from. Seeing the bird land out thru the woods at dusk, he made a sucking kissing noise on the back of his hand squeeking like some small creature in trouble. The owl flew closer. He squeeked again and it flew unto a limb fifteen feet away. Decked out in full camo from head to foot he was a mystery to the owl. The owl bobbed its head up and down in that way peculiar to only owls trying for a better look. Finally it just sat there. Looking out over the woods. The owl turned it's head 180 degrees looking directly behind it. He squeeked again, more head bobbing and staring. This went on for twenty minutes. Often, most nights really, he would hear the owl hoot on the hillside behind the cabin. Who cooks for you...who cooks for you all... He had come to think of the owl as an old friend. A silent and deadly hunter watching over his woods at night. But why then announce to the whole woods you were there every few minutes? Maybe that was the point, for the benefit of the nervous deermice, the meek voles hidden in the leaves. Who cooks for you... Where did that come from? nowhere, everywhere. Who cooks for you all... maybe I should be over there, yes that looks safer. Scurry, rustle, and death sweeps in on silent wings. He often found the feathers of wild turkeys in the woods, once he found a wonderfully marked feather from his owl. What a difference, you waved the the turkey feather fast like beating wings and you could hear it. A soft whoosh whoosh whoosh. Wave the owl feather and nothing, just silence.
About an hour after the flicker he caught movement thru the trees. It was a deer coming his way. Slowly relaxed it took seemingly forever to get there. This made him nervous. More nervous than he had been on a doe in a long time. Finally she stopped about twenty yards out and nosed around for acorns in the leaves. There was just one little branch in the way hanging down right over the does chest. Take it easy he told himself, She's not going anywhere. Slow down. Her head came up and she took a step forward standing there alert. Then relaxing and nosing around in the leaves again. For once he could follow the flight of the arrow thru the air. Most of the time allmost all of the time you let the arrow go and the deer exploded away and you can't really tell what happened. You have a feel for what happened but you can't really know for sure. This time the light was just right, the deer was just far enough out or something, something, and he could follow the arrow. Watch it bury right behind the deers shoulder leaving a dark spot on its side. A messed up spot in it's sleek hide. The doe turned in a motion to quick to follow then bounded away. Right as it was swallowed by the woods it stumbled, more missed a step really, and then was gone. He sat there for a long time reliving the experience before climbing down. There was the arrow, seemingly perfect, except for a thin covering of blood from end to end. The deer didn't go far. But he tracked it out, painstakingly going slow trying to learn more, something that might be a big help some other time. What he didn't know, sometimes you never know till something clicks and helps you.
He used his nylon safety strap to drag the doe further away from the tree before gutting her. No matter how many times he did this it didn't help. It was nasty business much worse than butchering the carcass later. The lungs, the heart, the enternal organs were fine, enteresting even. It was the stomach, especially if you ever accidently slit it open that was foul. He knew that when he came back in a week all traces of the gut pile would be gone, turned into possum, fox, and coyote.
Not far from the cabin a man processes deer. It was a run down sloppy place, a mix of prefab sheds and old plywood. But the tables, the equipment was clean and thats what counted. Plus he was cheap and would save him the long drive home so he could hunt some more. That night was cooler and he built a big fire. He'd brought a sandwhich toaster. A fancy version of the ridiculous metal hot dog sticks sold at walmarts everywhere. But this had a box on the end just the size of two pieces of bread. Two pieces of buttered bread with turkey and cheese inside. It is probably the best thing he'd ever had cooked out camping. In the distance he could hear the dogs chasing another deer thru the darkness.
And then there was nothing. Two days passed. Then three with no deer seen from his stands. Maybe now just turn your monitor off and just stare at the blank screen for a while, a long while, a hour or two possibly to get across something of the feeling of three days of four hours in the morning and four and sometimes five hours in the evening and nothing. The only interesting thing that happened was one evening right at dark a tufted titmouse flitted around his tree fussing. A titmouse is a tiny bird that travels the winter woods in mixed flocks with chickadees and downy woodpeckers. The woods will be silent one minute then full of life the next as these flocks move thru the winter woods. But this titmouse was different he hung around fussing. Then finally as darkness edged ever closer the tiny bird flew to a snag. A tree six or seven inches in diameter broken off ten or twelve feet up. There the titmouse disappeared right into to the broken end of the snag. There must have been a hollow spot here. Probably the reason the tree broke off in the first place. Now just the right size for a tiny bird to wedge itself into, fluff up and survive another cold winter night.
The next week he was back for five more days. That morning a heavy frost covered the ground. He was hunting in the bowl. A large bowl a couple hundred yards across. Here last year he had watched a nice buck work a scrape. Pawing it out, then rubbing the pre-orbital gland on its forehead against the overhanging branch before walking right under his stand. The first light of day lit up the trees all along the rim of the bowl while the rest of the bowl remained dark. Here oaks held tightly onto their leaves after all others but the beech leaves had fallen. The oaks shone like polished brass in the first magical light of day. Slowly the line of brightness crept down the bowl waking the squirrels and chipmunks. Small scurries and rustles as the woods came to life. One big oak in particular held the squirrels attention. Up and down it's trunk they ran, it's topmost branches shimmered and shook with their movement. Every momment or two acorns rained down out of it's branches. Then across the bowl, crashing in the bushes. Here they came. The deer chasers. A big mutt, half german shepard and half something shaggy and a big mixed hound. Neither wore a collar. They hit his trail and froze. He marveled at their noses, after all, he had worn rubber boots as to not scare the deer. The mutt sniffed down his trail a bit going away from the tree while the hound came towards him. Carefully and silently. It trailed him right to the base of the tree and stood there sniffing where he had put the stand togethor. At twenty feet straight down the arrow sounded like a 22 as it hit in the spine. The hound dropped instantly and kicked for twenty seconds or so. Unlike deer, dogs have not learned to look up and the mutt cautiously approached sniffing at the dead hound. The arrow missed its spine but solidly got at least one lung. The big dog spun in a cirle growling and biting at the arrow before taking off the way it had come. It entered the high weeds and brush at the bottom of the bowl but never came out the other side.
He felt nothing at the killing. Certainly no elation but no guilt either, it was simply an unpleasant thing that had to be done. He wondered how many fawns they had killed that spring. That evening he walked up to where the gravel lane that ran past his cabin crested a big ridge before dropping over the other side down to a little valley with some houses. Here at the crest an old logging road crossed the gravel lane at a right angle then wending off both directiones thru the woods. He turned right following the logging road for a couple hundred yards then turning right again down a spur ridge running back towards his cabin. This was off his property but belonged to a land company that was holding it for timber and open to all the locals to hunt. He saw the first rub fifty yards away. On a small tree eight inches thru. As he approached he saw more. Lots more. In a ragged line seventy five yards long there was at least fifty rubs all on stuff five to eight inches thru. The rub line line into a patch of impenetrable cover. He was very excited. This was probably his best chance at a big trophy buck in several years. But he was worried too. No trails or doe sign. This was this one deer's bedding area. It's core area and trying to hunt just one deer, a single deer, on public land was also the road to madness. And so began the big sit. He was oh so carefull not to touch anything or brush against anything coming or going. The tree was good, he could go all the way to the end of his rope and there was clear shooting lanes. The first day he thought he might have heard a grunt back in the cover. Or maybe not. The next morning it was still. One of those mornings where sound carried and you could hear the train pass seven miles away just like it was right at the end of the lane. He could plainly hear the scrape scrape of the bucks antlers on a tree down in the cover. Over and over. He was very excited expecting any minute to see the deer. He kept mentally telling himself, now don't rush the shot, take your time. But the deer never came. That evening at dark he could hear the buck in the leaves but never saw him. But it would only take one mistake. It was the height of the rut and for all he knew the big buck was a mile away chasing does. But it would only take one slip up and he would be there waiting. Just one morning staying out too late chasing does and coming in after daylight to bed.
Two days later he heard the crunch crunch of leaves at dusk. The steady walking of a buck. He got ready. Crunch. Crunch. But darkness was coming fast. Finally the deer passed at thirty yards. Just a general shape in the twilight, too dark to shoot. And so it went. November, it's own season, the best season, was frittered away and now he knew what was coming. The cold. The bad time hunting in the cold of December, the snow of January just to get something, anything for the freezer. He had gambled on the big buck and lost. As he knew going in he would. But when the chance comes you have to try it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The End...

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I couldn't decide whether to take one last ginseng hunt or go bowhunting. After debating it in my mind all week when friday rolled around I decided on one last ginseng dig. Well mostly an exploratory trip thru some unknown woods to an area I knew where I intended to plant some seed. What a difference between now and the start of season. Friday was forcasted to have a high in the low 50's with some spitting showers while the first day of season had been 99.

As soon as I hit the woods I started seeing deer. The incoming front had them up and moving as much as I've ever seen them. Before the day was over I'd see 4 bucks and 15 does. With the woods being wet, several times I'd top a small rise in the woods and be right on top of one before he knew it. One buck I walked up on at twenty feet. He must have jumped five feet straight up and actually fell down tripping over some brush running away, I'd scared him so badly. And I was finding no ginseng and seriously questioning my decision to not bowhunt today.

Midday I worked my way down to a dry creekbed about twenty feet across. It was one of those creeks with a head high bank that you had to work to find a place to climb down and then the creek was flat like a little road up the bottom of the steep gorge.
I rummaged around under a big sycamore log and found a couple handfulls of dry twigs.
Inside my pack I kept a zip lock baggie filled with cotton balls smeared with vaseline. I pulled out a few and ripped them apart, making a fuzzy ball the size of an egg. On top of this went the smallest twigs with bigger ones on top of that. On my keychain I have a bit of striker from one of those firestarter kits and striking this with a knife produces a small spark, plenty to light the cotton balls. The cotton balls and vaseline weigh almost nothing and make me feel safer about the prospects of twisting an ankle or breaking something and having to spend a night in the woods. As well as making lunch on days like today much more pleasant. Tucked back against the big sycamore log out of the wind, I sat for a long time eating lunch and just admiring the fall woods. A few maples were just starting to turn while big sycamore leaves were everywhere in the creek bed.

After lunch I worked my way out of the woods having found only one big three prong on a little point high above the creek. Walking down the little two lane road I came to a small woods I did know and started up the steep creek I planned to plant seed at. Only a hundred yards or so from the road the creek pinches together into a steep ravine dotted here and there with cliffs and almost impossible to get around on. Just the sort of place to hide a nice sang patch. From the creekbed I could see a tiny flat spot or bench forty feet or so above me but no way to get there. I went back down the creek a bit then climbed up out of the creek. Here I could work along the top of the ravine above the flat. Holding on to small trees I worked my way down to the flat. From about twenty feet away I could see the golden yellow of ginseng. Sure enough the flat held about twenty plants, five or six old mature plants and the rest two prongs and seedlings. I felt much better about my choice of a spot now. Using my digger I raked up the soil and planted three hundred or so ginseng seeds.
Now all that was needed was patience, lots and lots of patience as it takes at least seven years for ginseng to reach harvestable size. At the end of my little bench I found a big four prong growing higher up on the steep bank, undoubtedly the grandfather of the little patch that was growing on the bench. This was the only plant I dug, leaving the others to grow along with my seed. The old four prong had a neck around three inches long with at least thirty scars on it from each years bud. So hopefully this means my little patch should be safe for a long time.
I worked my way carefully back up out of the ravine and down the hill towards the road, turning the page on ginseng hunting for the year and thinking about bow season and what tree to climb in the morning's hunt.

Monday, September 26, 2011

This and that ginseng

I'm constantly asked what does ginseng look like so I thought I'd post a little photo gallery of sang images

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Some mature ginseng plants

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Small ginseng too little to harvest

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Ginseng thats turned yellow in the fall just before the top dies down. This is when ginseng is the easiest to find as you can sometimes spot it twenty feet away or in weeds where you would miss it green.

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A small three prong starting to turn

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A giant root that had two four prong tops


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Some really old "trophy" ginseng plants

The thousand dollar woods

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Lakes have names. Right there on the map for everyone to read. But woods almost never have names. So I end up giving names to the ones that mean something to me. Usually a woods gets named after a tree stand or a deer or something simple like that. A case of "you know I'm hunting out by the gas line" eventually morphs into just "the gas line" and the place has a name. A few might have that name stick for two or three people but that's about it. Most have names known only to me. There are another dozen or so woods that are an even closer kept secret, those "I'd tell ya but then I'd have to kill ya" woods because those are the ones that hold ginseng. Not tiny bits that you can find anywhere if you look hard enough in the right kind of places but real ginseng measured in half pounds or sometimes pounds dug in a day. With my terrible memory I keep them written in a notebook, not because I might forget them, but so I'll know when I've been there last. I try to stay out of each for several years so that I won't hurt the population too much. And the last few years I've ordered a pound of seed every year so soon I'll have more little ginseng coming on than I'll ever dig. That way my ginseng digging actually means there will be more sang in the woods in the long run.
I try to harvest enough every year to pay for christmas, usually about a pound of dried ginseng. Which at least in my neck of the woods is alot to dig year after year. I also try to add at least one decent woods every year to make up for those that are sold, logged off, or any of a dozen other things that can ruin a good woods. So every year while out fishing or mushroom hunting or picture taking I'll keep my eye out for a likely place. Then sometime in late summer I'll pack a lunch and give the place a good looking over. Down in the hollows or up in the liitle necks of woods that run up into cornfields. What usually happens is I'll find a big creek out fishing that runs away from the road, up into farm country and I'll start to wonder. Then I'll go home and go online to The Digital Map Store and check it out. They have this great feature where you can look at a satellite photo like on google maps but then click and turn the photo into a topo map and back again. In my part of the world, where the land has been bulldosed in some places by the glaciers but not in others, your looking for those contour lines. Where the lines run close togethor is good, where they almost touch is even better. Let that creek bend so the contour lines face north and the sat photos show a woods and it will start to bother me. I'll catch myself thinking about it, looking it up again in a few days. Trying to find out who it belongs to, who I need permission from, where I need to park, whats the best route in. If I get enough answers I'll pack a lunch, throw it in the daypack with the camera and take a walk. Most of these don't pan out. I've gotten good enough at it, developed enough of a feeling for the business, that most of these woods have at least some ginseng. Just not enough to dig in, not enough that I could do so and feel good about it. But just often enough, sometimes not even every year, you get lucky. That's how I found the thousand dollar woods. By the road it looks like crap. But upstream those lines bent and bent and ran togethor in a cliff then opened up into a little steep valley, what in the smokies they call a cove, before running back into cliffs again. And that bowl, that cove, faced dead north. It bothered me for a long time, maybe a month, before I found the time for what looked like a long bad walk. Going up the creek, I finally decided wet feet were better that fighting the thick brush that lined the creekside. Sure enough those contour lines turned out to be cliffs. Straight up and down. So steep swallows nested in holes safe from any predators. There was a tiny rill, a staircase of rock that ran wet only in the rain cut into the cliff. Grabbing ahold of a tree root I hoisted myself up and into the tiny cut and worked my way climbing up to the trees. Right there was just a bit of woods along the rim and then fields beyond. But to my left I could see the big trees of the bowl and and I walked around and down into the bowl. Right away I saw a liitle two prong, a baby ginseng plant, and a big baneberry plant. I love baneberry, the deadly poisonous plant loves just the same kind of soil as ginseng. When prospecting a woods I'll look for baneberry as much as ginseng. There are other indicator plants but none as good around here as baneberry. Well maybe maidenhair fern but it's as rare as ginseng in my woods. I walked over the rim into the bowl. The creek was one of those we have around here where melting ice from the glaciers cut steep ravines into otherwise mostly flat country. The bowl was maybe only a couple hundred yards across and half that down to the creek and I walked thru it without stopping. With, I'm sure, my mouth hanging wide open in wonder. For here in the bowl there was not a single spot where you could stand and not see a ginseng plant, in most places you could see alot of ginseng plants. This was the kind of place that ginseng grew as it must have when Daniel Boone dug sang. My first thought was someone had planted it but if they did they must have died a long time ago for many of the plants were older than me. No, instead the cliffs, the thickets, the corn fields and just plain luck had protected it for all those years. I sat down next to a patch of twenty or so big plants and had my lunch. And began to think, right then and there I decided I'd order an extra pound of seed this year. I was replanting this patch back when I was done digging it this fall. Being poor and having an old truck in need of repair I'd dig it but I wouldn't be the cause of the great patch to go away. There's about four thousand seeds in a pound of seed. Sitting there looking around I decided that's probably a good number. The cliffs and creek that protected this place for so long should be good for another few decades ar least before someone else besides me finally wanders in again. While sitting there I noticed a bit of old barbed wire sticking up out of the leaves. Pulling it out I found I had a piece of wire about two feet long like none I'd ever seen before. It must be the year of old wire, just a few weeks before on a nature preserve on the Little Miami I'd found a piece of wire called buckthorn that was from the 1880's. Looking this new old wire up later at the house I found the wire is called "Hallner's Greenbriar" by collectors with a patent date of 1878. I guess I'm now a barbed wire collector.
I suffered badly the two weeks till the opening of ginseng season. That's when I gave the place the name, the thousand dollar woods, because I thought I should get that much out of just that little hollow. I must have looked at the woods twenty times online, following contour lines in my mind, trying to tell how big the trees were. And then as time drew near came the forcast. The forcast from hell. Ninety eight the first day, ninety nine to a hundred the second, ninety six the third. I packed all the water I could carry in the daypack and started at dawn. The first day at the patch all I did was dig, I never got out of sight of where I started till the heat was too much. The second day I dug for four hours and then walked. I probably dug about a half pound outside the patch but wasted several hour floundering around in cut over woods. Which after looking at again online that night it was obvious what I should have done and where I should have gone. Way up the creek from the patch the contour lines bend and face north again, and it looked like big trees on the satellite photos. Now this bothered me alot. So at daylight the third day I walked past the ginseng, past at least a couple more pounds and up the creek. As soon as I passed the mess I'd wasted half of the day before on things opened up nicely. And it was steep, cliffs interspersed with steep hillsides that had me holding on to small trees to climb them. No giant patches, just a ginseng plant, then ten feet on another and seven feet on another. And I began to melt, I'd probably packed in close to a gallon of water but it was gone by one, by three I knew it was no longer safe and I decided to leave cutting across a couple big cornfields towards the truck. I should have left at least a couple hours before but everytime I thought of leaving there was another ginseng plant. So I paid the price. I ended up laying flat out on the ground in the middle of the second corn field puking back up the last of my water unable to go any further. After about an hour I wallowed out to the road. (note to self..3 trips with temps in the upper nineties might be too much in my old age)
So after three trips I still hadn't made it to the back of the woods yet, I'd walked over and left another pound or two of ginseng in the patch, and I'd managed to dig around eight pounds of ginseng. After the first weekend I'd say it's shaping up to be the kind of season I've always dreamed of.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Something old, something new

"I've dug it in places where the sun hardly ever hit it. You'll really find more of it in dark coves and dark ground than anywhere's else"
...Lake Stiles, an old sang hunter in the 1973 edition of Foxfire



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This year I've dug alot of really old ginseng. These three roots from this picture are from todays walk in the woods. You see every year the bud that produced that years top leaves a scar till you eventually end up with the long "necks" as ginseng hunters call them that you see here. After a while these seem to smooth out and become hard to count on the really really old ones and I'm never sure enough to say "well this ones 25 or this ones 50" like some guys do. I once found an ancient root with a neck over six inches long but half of it was just sorta bumpy and impossible to count. Though I could count 50 at least on the half I could count. If I ever dug a hundred year old root that was it. It was growing about halfway up a cliff I had no business being on and nobody else had ever been dumb enough to ginseng hunt there I guess. It seems every trip has produced a few old timers like these in this photo. Not really giant roots this year just old ones. Old enough to make me have a twinge of guilt in the digging. But not real "lose sleep over" guilt though, because for every plant I've dug this year I've planted a dozen seeds. Some in patches tucked away in out of the way places to return to someday, but some just scattered throughout my ginseng haunts to insure ginseng for the future. For a while there in the eighties I thought ginseng might end up extinct someday but play stations and world of warcraft changed all that. I'm a youngster at fortyfive around here in the ginseng hunting world. All the others are getting too old to get out or are already gone. Give it another decade or two and at least here in Ohio wild ginseng will be coming back strong. A long line, a tradition dating back to the 1700's is fading out, replaced by MP3's and WEI games. In the last two years I've planted around 8000 ginseng seeds in the wild or, at 200 to 300 mature plants to the pound, maybe 25 or 30 pounds of ginseng if it were all dug and dried. As much or more than I've dug in my lifetime. I like the idea that there is more ginseng growing in the wild because I dig it rather than less. I've often wondered if the great patch in the thousand dollar woods didn't start out this way, some old ginseng hunter planting a few dozen seeds in the fifties or sixties and then forgetting about it, or dying even.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

River mist


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Sometimes the river is so lovely, the light falling softly on the water or the mist creating an air of mystery, that I forget why I'm there. The fishing lost in birdsong and the sound of the water in the riffle. Last night was one of those nights. Oh I caught fish, for a few minutes smallmouth came almost every cast, right at dark stacked up in an eddy below a fast run. But what I'll take away most from tonight was a basswood leaf looking like nothing more than a broken heart drowning in the water. And walking down to the water, the buck that walked out into the field and then jumped when he saw me, reminding me of how when you walk right up on someone and they turn and jump out of their skin when they see you. It's hard for even a buck to keep his dignity when frightened that badly.

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I looked around at the last minute and couldn't find anything I wanted to take with me to eat so I stuffed a half empty bag of marshmallows in the pack and feasted, feeling like a little kid roasting them over a twig fire on the riverbank. A beautiful fog came with the night slowly covering the river in a soft blanket for the night.

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I fished live bait on the big baitcaster. A small drum about the size of my hand, hoping for a big shovelhead. Sometime in the middle of the night a fish took it but then let it go. On the other rod I fished nightcrawlers and fared much better. A sauger, three drum, and two small catfish. And a big carp, not a giant, but big enough that his tail flopped over out of the landing net.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Photo exhibit !

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I'm pretty excited about my photo exhibit at Porky Capones on West Main in Lebanon. If your in the area please check it out. I've also had enough people wanting to buy some photos that live out of town that Ive set up a website that features some of my better photos Ive taken on my adventures outside please check it out at www.stevenoutside.com

Trail camera photos...

Some trail cam photos from a camera trap set up just out of sight of the Little Miami River in Oregonia. Id put in some cheap batteries to test them out and when I came back they were already dead. I guess I'll have to spring for the everreadys next time. I did manage to get a few cool pics before the camera went dead...

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