Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ice storm in the Blue Ridge

When the temperature dropped to 32 Friday night on Belcher Mountain, it iced up fast.  We have more than 1/2 inch of ice on some limbs and a lot of trees are bowed over nearly to the ground.   Reminds me of that early December ice storm in Raleigh in 2002, but with fewer limbs on the trees, we don't have anywhere near the damage.
Thing is, it's only Oct. 29 -- and winter's almost two months away. Yikes!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

When Northern Lights come South

It was about this time of year in that fall of 1960. I was 14, and Troop 2004 from Greensboro's First Presbyterian Church was taking its second camping trip that October.  A lot of troops in my hometown took maybe one trip a month; we went every other week, fulfilling our Scoutmaster's vision of seeing one end of North Carolina to the other -- and a lot of South Carolina and Virginia as well.

We had left after school that Friday afternoon and it was pitch black by the time we got up to the area where we could camp for the weekend somewhere near Table Rock in western North Carolina. I think we were in a state forest, though it might have been federal land. It was so dark we barely found our way in. There was no moon, and we had to hike in near total dark to find a campsite for a dozen tents. We had already had dinner along the way, so at least we didn't have to cook. That night the wind came up howling, and more than one of us found ourselves waking up in collapsed tents.  We were on a steep slope, and a few found it hard to stay in place.

That next day was absolutely gorgeous. We hiked around the forest, found places where we imagined we might be able to see foxfire or maybe even the Brown Mountain Light -- probably way too far, but we had no clue -- and worked up huge appetites.  That evening the winds did not drop, and Broadus Troxler, our scoutmaster, worried  that the wind would carry sparks and set the woods on fire. It had been a dry fall, and the last thing anyone needed was a forest fire.

That afternoon we had hiked along a short stub of an old logging road, flat enough and wide enough and just protected enough that we could make cookfires. So we hiked back to that site in the dark to collect firewood and cook a hot meal . It was good to be out of the full force of the wind, a relief, actually, and we enjoyed the heat from the fires as we had the usual deep conversations carried on by 12 13 and 14-year-old boys.

Until, that is, someone looked up the mountainside that was blocking the wind and saw an awful sight.  The sky above the mountain was red and orange and pulsing, and we knew what it was right way. "Good Lord," someone hollered, "the mountain is on fire. We've got to get out of here."

There ensued a mad scramble to collect food and frying pans and coats and backpacks and make a mad dash for the cars, parked way down at the bottom of the mountain, so we could get out of the forest before the winds blew the fire down on top of us.  The Scoutmasters wanted to make sure we didn't panic, so he had us fall in by patrols, dress right and cover down in the dark and set off on route step. We would make an orderly, if hurried withdrawal.

Halfway down the mountain we ran into a lone figure, a forest ranger who knew we were camping in that area and who knew we'd be anxious. No, it wasn't a forest fire, he said, but it was an unusual event. What we were seeing, he told us,was the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights,  that on some rare occasions could be seen in the South.  We hiked back up the mountain and spent the rest of the evening gazing at that nearly incredible phenomenon.

The other day Jorge Valencia's story in The Roanoke Times brought back that half-century old memory in his lead paragraph -- referring to skywatchers "who may have mistaken it for a mountain fire in the Alleghany Highlands."

I can vouch for any skywatchers who thought it might herald a fire. Indeed it was a fire, but in the sky, a solar storm that Monday night was seen as far south as Arkansas, the paper reported.   I have been told that on some occasions the Northern Lights have been seen as far south as Florida.  Maybe so. But I can tell you for a certainty that seeing the Northern Lights on a cold windy night on the side of a dark mountain is enough to make your jaw drop -- and make you want to run for safety.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bringing back the American Chestnut

For those who still mourn the loss of the American Chestnut and who hope researchers can come up with a way to revive that lovely tree, Hanna Miller's story in the News & Observer and Charlotte Observer Monday was good news indeed. Here's a link. The good news is there's lots of promise and early signs of progress. The bad news is that we won't know, perhaps for half a century, according to one researcher, if they've really succeeded.

As Miller reported, "You can only declare continued optimism rather than victory at least for another 50 years or so," says Dr. Fred Hebard, staff pathologist for The American Chestnut Foundation's research station in Meadowview, Va. "When those things are 100 feet tall, you can definitely declare victory."

It's important in so many ways, particularly to the mountain economy.  Life in the Blue Ridge was made especially hard when the blight struck in the late 1920s and began killing off a noble three that provided so much for mountain families: food for the family, mast for animals of the forest, a cash income, lovely wood that was easy to work yet made strong furniture, and as one book once described it, was so light that even "porch babies" could move it around.

When the blight struck, the government advised land owners to cut down their chestnuts and salvage the wood before the blight ruined it. That turned out to be a terrible mistake, because the blight would not have killed every tree. In fact there are many hundreds of survivors spread over the Mid-Atlantic states. I know of one not too far from where I write, and have read of many others. Scientists have taken samples of these trees in their efforts to figure out why some trees are resistant to the blight -- and how those samples can be used to develop hardier trees.

Some years ago I discovered that the old outbuildings on our farm were made of chestnut and cherry planks. Outside they are weathered silver and gray from decades of exposure to the winds and sleet and snow and rain. But if you can get the nails out and run those board through a planer, a gorgeous rich tan board emerges that looks good and takes well to woodworking. I've got a few of those planks set by. When when time allows I'll harvest a few more off old sheds and small barns that, as I watch out the morning window, seem to lean away from the prevailing winds more each day. It won't be long before they lie down again in the soil that nourished and gave them life in the early part of the 20th century.

Friday, October 14, 2011

And then the clouds parted....

We were spoiled by a long run of good weather and spectacular mountain scenery, and what I'm convinced was the prettiest fall foliage in memory, when the clouds closed in Tuesday and brought heavy rains to the Virginia mountaintop.   We rarely saw the other side of the hayfield while the heavens were going forth and multiplying -- over 4 inches, according to my $4.95 Farmer's Hardware rain gauge on the deck.  We thought the weather was clearing late Thursday, but more rain came in the night -- and then the northwest winds started blowing. With them came the sun, slowing drying out sodden fields and puddled roads and revealing some lovely sights we were afraid had blown away with the gale.

What a difference.  The winds keep blowing and the leaves are falling -- or rather scooting sideways, coming from the direction of Blacksburg and by now landing, I'm pretty sure, in Winston-Salem and stations south.

But by golly it's still gorgeous out there on Belcher Mountain Road, and that part of Black Ridge Road between the Blue Ridge Parkway and Canning Factory Road is one eye-popper after another. I hate to see those lovely leaves blow away, but the end of the leaves also means that things are clearer. We can see further into the woods, and well beyond. From our front-porch rockers in summer we see lush maples and oaks and chestnut oaks and thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron. But when the leaves retire for the season, we see the highest peak in Patrick County, where once our friend Judy Burnett Davis once thought of building a home, and which we still call Judy's knob.   We can just begin to see the profile of that noble hill as the leaves come down.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Had to sail north to get warm

We're back from a 12-day trip up the East Coast and on Maine's Penobscot Bay for a week of sailing on the Schooner Heritage ( and found the dadgummedest thing: warm weather. It's howling here in the Blue Ridge with temps in the low 40s; the week before we left for the Frigid North the daytime highs were in the 50s, so we loaded up all our heavy clothes because we knew if it was chilly in the South, it would be frozen in the north.

 Wrong.  It was warm in Maryland, where we stopped off to see old friends, and warmer yet in Boston, where we took in the last Red Sox home game of the year during its late-season collapse and ultimate failure to make the American League playoffs.  The Sox pulled off one miracle in an otherwise lovely evening at Fenway: they made the Baltimore Orioles look really good.

Then two days later we were standing on the wharf at Rockland, Maine's North End Shipyard, getting ready to board the Heritage, a lovely topsail schooner built and commissioned in 1984 by Capts. Doug and Linda Lee, who figured out how to make a living by taking people sailing on a genuine replica of a 19th century sailing vessel.  They did it right: There's no engine to propel the ship, but there is a yawl boat with a Ford six-cylinder engine, hung on stern davist, that can be lowered into the water to push the ship along when the wind has died. And there's an elderly make-and-break donkey engine (named Joe, of course) to raise the anchor as well as to raise the sails.   Meals are cooked on a big cast iron woodstove, fired by billets of oak and hardwood that have aged three seasons, and the ship's cooks rise before dawn each day to put on the coffee and begin baking the day's fresh breads, pies and cobblers before the anchor comes up and the day's wind draws the 5,000 square feet of sail over to port or starboard.

We've made this trip three times now and it's among the most fun things we've done on vacation. Doug Lee is not only a ship's captain but also a marine architect, a cabinetmaker, an author, a blacksmith, an expert mechanic and a pretty fair businessman, but also a crackerjack teller of tales -- all of them true stories, of course, including hilarious tales of his father's best friend Archie and his various deeds along the Maine coast.

And, of course, it was hot up yonder. We were down to tee shirts and flip flops in the middle of the bay, and shedding jackets every day after the cool morning fogs burned off.

There's a fleet of these coasting schooners, as they're called, up in Maine, and Doug and Linda Lee like to sail at every opportunity. Watching them handle the ship as they ghost along under the Deer Isle Bridge spanning Eggemoggin Reach is fascinating. The ship's mast, jutting 102 feet up, is higher than the bridge's superstructure, and to pass underneath requires lowering the ship's topmast a few feet. That mast is on a track built especially for the purpose, and seeing the crew scamper up the ratlines to let the topmast down is quite a show. It looks like you're going to hit the bridge, but there's just room to slide along beneath and go on to other sailing grounds in Blue Hill Bay, Fox Thoroughfare and other old waters that have been home to sailors and lobstermen for years.

Memorable -- and toasty.  The thought of that Maine sun warms me on a raw early fall day in the Blue Ridge.