Saturday, December 02, 2017

A Destructive Trend

In recent months as I hike well-trod trails through the Ozarks, I have noticed an increase in the practice of rock stacking. Historically, this was likely done to blaze a trail or to mark water sources. Today, with increasing hiking pressure in our natural places, visible trails don't necessarily require rock stacking to lead the path. In wilderness, small stacks of rocks to create stream crossings may be necessary for the less hardy wilderness user. However, the repeated trend of creating large -sometimes 6 ft. tall- towers of rocks is resulting in much damage to our geologic sites and impacting public safety on trails.

I first encountered the destructive practice of rock flipping when I moved here; wildlife collectors routinely find glades in particular to flip rocks and remove snakes, tarantulas, collared lizards. In some glades on publicly owned land, every rock has been flipped which has led to local extirpation of collared lizards and coachwhips. So, that's clearly irresponsible and reckless. Once the seal between rock and soil is broken, habitat is altered, even if the rock is carefully replaced. In the outfit I engage with, this is called disturbing wildlife.

The repeated rock stacking-similar to rock flipping- in highly public and well-traveled places has resulted in injuries as the towers collapse; it has resulted in shattered ancient geologic features; it has morphed into serious vandalism. Have hikers become so far removed from the concepts of Leave No Trace that they feel compelled to "leave a mark?" Is the world not altered enough? Hiking a trail and discovering stacked rocks certainly removes the sense of remoteness and solitude that so many hikers seek in our natural places. While this human value set may not be important to some, it is to many. And that's aside from the destruction of habitat. In some publicly owned land, removing or disturbing rocks, minerals, soil, plants and wildlife violates state statutes. Our state's precious geology should rest where it exists so that future generations can witness the development of geologic time.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

November: Chambourcin Month!

Annually, the always-talented members of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board wisely choose November to celebrate and highlight Missouri's great Thanksgiving wine during the month of November. Chambourcin- light-bodied like a pinot noir, fruity like a Beaujolais Nouveau, pairs well with fall flavors, and a good gateway wine for white wine drinkers who want to venture into reds- is a versatile grape that is fantastic as a varietal, but is also a wonderful blending grape. Many in the Ozark Highlands are aware that Herr Heinrich at Heinrichhaus Winery in St. James is the official King of Chambourcin, but let that not diminish the incredible diversity and quality of so many other Ozark wineries' Chambourcins.

From Baltimore Bend Winery's newsletter, the background on the creation of Chambourcin:

Popular among Missouri winemakers, this versatile grape was developed by French biochemist Joannes Seyve to specifically withstand colder weather and to be more resistant to disease. Seyve often used Seibel hybrids produced in the 1860s, but Chambourcin's exact parentage is unknown. It is thought to be a crossing of native North American vines with a Siebel hybrid.

Unlike Norton and Cynthiana, I don't know about too much research into the origins of this fantastic grape. As a general rule, if I don't purchase a Norton at a winery, I'll normally default to the Chambourcin, a practice that has sometimes resulted in an entire rack of 30 bottles of Chambourcin or Chambourcin-Norton blends and super random bottles of the only palatable wine I could find-- apple, elderberry or otherwise. While Missouri wineries produce among the best examples of Norton in the United States, Illinois vintners are making great Chambourcin--it should serve as their state grape. Indiana wineries excel at Traminette, which is fantastic and so highly variable that it makes for an interesting tasting anytime it's on the menu. Nevertheless, Chambourcin grapes are a little bigger than Norton, a little more versatile than Norton, tastes great aged in steel or oak, and, these traits taken together, make this grape perhaps a little more popular to local winemakers. And it's perfect for the Thanksgiving table when you're tired of the light and fruity Nouveau.

At the time of this writing, November 12, I'm in a race against time to accrue 50,000 points in the Missouri Wine and Grape Board's MVP program, a rewards program that has been extended until next year. I need the 50K points by December 31, 2017 to score tickets to the wine and food extravaganza where winemakers and customers mingle over great examples of Missouri wine. I'm over halfway there, but to finish out the points, I must make targeted trips. I've paid visits to wineries in far-flung reaches of the state only to find out they don't have the rewards tickets--they didn't meet the deadline to receive them or they were just "never sent." Granted, visiting any winery in Missouri on non-busy days is a great time, but in the throes of fall, many are only open on weekends which can sometimes be related to being at a Chuck E. Cheese for sorority girls. Not my vibe. I go to wineries off-the-beaten- path, avoiding festival weekends like Oktoberfests and beer-and-wine extravaganza weekends. The drunken festival crowd is not a desirable setting for me.

And so, yesterday we set out for the Sedalia area wineries, a landscape where the Ozarks meet the prairies. The first stop was Wildlife Ridge Winery, a nice rustic setting with cows and donkeys next door where we enjoyed a bottle of Paintbrush Red, a Chambourcin blend named after the lovely Paintbrush Prairie, a local natural area that erupts in red Indian Paintbrush wildflowers each spring. Three winery dogs (2 old beagles and a Great Pyrenees), friendly staff, supple Missouri dry wines while we shared the tasting room with a catered birthday party for a designated "Princess." Wildlife Ridge also offers a sweet wine called Sweet Pea that made my travel buddy exclaim loudly in surprise of the sample after we had enjoyed so many tastings of dry offerings. A little embarrassed she was when she realized the entire Princess party was drinking it. I don't recommend following the Google maps directions here. Just follow the road signs from Hwy. 50. We ended up seeing entire 20mph neighborhoods when we could have just taken Hwy. 65 to Hwy. 50. This is a fantastic winery that serves cheese, sausage and crackers as snacks. The wine, the winery dogs and nice staff definitely make Wildlife Ridge Winery a destination.

Just a short drive away is the charming German town of Cole Camp, my first introduction to cute German communities in Missouri. Lovely architecture, their own little town fair with jam judging and quilt shows, an Amish bakery restaurant and a winery! Eichenberg Winery is located in the heart of Cole Camp and serves wine to please a variety of palates. Their winery is decked out now in holiday flair, including dark red Christmas lights in the bathroom. They can't serve wine by the glass because they don't have a food serving license. I've bought fresh bottles of their Chambourcin before and was pleased, but yesterday I picked up an apple wine to serve when my dad visits for Thanksgiving. I'm thinking of it as a brunch wine to serve with a cheese plate and maybe a poached egg on toast with avocado. The setting at Eichenberg Winery is always charming, but they may keep their tasting bar wines open for too long before tossing them. With limited hours, they probably can't go through entire bottles in the proper timeframe. I do love Cole Camp, especially the town's proximity to all of the great prairie preserves in the local area.

Thanks to the folks at Wildlife Ridge Winery, we learned of a winery that was not on Google and not on the Missouri winery map! Dale Hollow Winery opened in 2017. Located in the heart of Stover, which was once the mailing address to the wonderful Grey Bear Winery, now closed, this new winery is making outstanding dry red wine. I must add Dale Hollow Winery to the Missouri list of Norton wine producers and need to send a bottle to the secretary, the keeper of records of the Norton Wine Society. Their Norton was fabulous, nice tannins, good legs in the glass and certainly able to be aged a while in the bottle. I wasn't expecting this winery on the route so it's a great surprise and I'll definitely be back there when they're not just about to close.

In one day I was able to accrue 1600 rewards points, what with the first stop at Les Bourgeois Winery's tasting room for my 100 point ticket. I must be targeted in my approach to areas to visit as many more wineries to make it to 50K by December 31. There are so many new wineries opening in Missouri with so many great wines to taste, it's hard to stomach that I can't retire for 20 years and just spend my time traipsing through this great state collecting Nortons and Chambourcins.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fall Float on the Courtois

Aluminum canoes are unforgiving on floats in shallow, gravel-choked streams. With the recent dry weather, the Courtois was barely floatable, which meant that every low water situation either resulted in bailing out of the canoe to drag it to deeper water or forcing through the shallows by digging paddles into gravel and scooting along. With six canoes in our group, the deep gravel and shallow water oftentimes did not allow for a peaceful fall float experience. But the water was clear, temperatures topped out at 69 degrees, and it was a beautiful day to be on the stream.

With recent changes to my schedule, I've found myself recently exploring the Dissected Till Plains region of North Missouri in between my regular forays into the Ozarks. Admittedly, I haven't spent too much time in the Meramec River Hills region around the Huzzah and Courtois, so taking a float and a short hike along the Ozark Trail in that area was certainly rewarding. Steep dry cliffs reminiscent of the Jack's Fork River line sections of the stream, and the area is rich with other karst features located (I think) in the Gasconade Formation. The woodlands surrounding the stream have not been managed with fire in many decades and therefore possess few traces of woodland flora--a spreading aster here and a stiff-leaved aster there, mostly restricted to the trail corridor where light can reach the woodland floor.

Due to the lack of fire, closed canopy, and the deep loessal soils prevalent in the area, the woodlands have taken on a forested condition: a massive Schumard oak perched high on a ridgetop stands sentry, a tree normally restricted to low lying, deep, true forest where fire doesn't travel. Historically, there was very little true forest, mostly restricted to steep ravines, sinkholes, areas existing in a fire shadow, but likely not on a high and dry ridgetop. The mesification of thousands of acres of our historic woodlands is largely due to the interruption of a fire regime following the era of significant logging operations and open range grazing. This is the condition that represents much of the Ozarks today. Historic records indicate a much more open landscape with prairie grasses and forbs, a fire-mediated system that may have been lost altogether. Similar landscapes in the Meramec River Hills that have witnessed a 30 year prescribed fire program are testament of what this landscape once looked like. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and other early explorers wouldn't recognize the area if they visited today.

Regardless, a hike and a float on a nice fall day are always welcome activities as the days march towards darkness.

Friday, October 13, 2017

As Fall as Texarkana

I grew up in the Deep South, a region that never saw real seasonal changes. Sure, the stores would roll out all of their Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations which were posted all over town, but the decorations were rather anomalous to the weather conditions. A new coat on Christmas morning? We'd wear them even when it was 80 degrees outside because Christmas is "supposed to be cold." Unlike my friends who grew up in colder climates, we never had to wear jackets over our Halloween costumes for trick-or-treating. In fact, I'm wondering if the whole awful trend of skimpy "sexy pirate," "sexy barmaid" and other icky Halloween costumes developed precisely because Halloween in the Deep South never witnessed cold weather in October .

I distinctly recall wearing a velour jogging suit to school in October, a nice teal suit that I received as a birthday present in mid-September. The morning temperatures, clammy and wet but cool, were long gone by noon when the ambient temperatures hit the lower 90s. The new velour suit's teal threads covered my bare skin thanks to all the sweating that occurred throughout the school day. I think about the desire to see fall color, the kind of fall color that we watched on the Charlie Brown's The Great Pumpkin, where leaves of yellow and red would gently fall to the ground and one could wear a turtleneck without sweating. It never happened in fall where I grew up. We routinely traveled day trips to Bard Springs, around Shady Lake in Arkansas in mid-October hoping to see fall color, which never happened. Fall color where I lived only occurred in early December, and only because of the proliferation of the exotic and horribly invasive tallow trees that painted the landscape in red and yellow leaves long after Thanksgiving. Each fall when I make that horrible drive home to Louisiana for Thanksgiving, I'm always shocked at the green leaves on the trees starting around Texarkana.

As early as five years ago, peak fall color in Missouri occurred the second week of October. Cabins were open for business, fall color tours were in full swing, rides along the KATY Trail were ridiculously popular--all to catch a glimpse of fall colors in Missouri. It was reliable: leaf drop happened the third week of October, so we could start putting in firelines by late October, units ready to burn by the end of trout season. This year in particular, the timeline is way off.

I've visited North Missouri and the Central Ozarks in recent weeks and the trees are still full of green leaves, maybe some browning from drought, but certainly not a 'fall color' brown. I admit that I haven't taken the scenic drive along Hwy. 100 or Hwy. 94 in the past few weeks, both drives full of maples that usually put on an explosive fall color show, so I can't report on those areas. However, on my daily walks around the block with my schnauzer, the maples in my neighborhood are still rocking green leaves. Lately, I am reminded of my childhood when we drove through Arkansas in October looking for fall color and turning around at Maumelle because we just weren't seeing it. Missouri is like that these days.

Community gardeners in my neighborhood planted spinach seeds a couple of weeks ago and expect a full harvest. My kale continues to produce big healthy leaves and the peppers are ripening on the bushes. The seed ticks are still out, though not as prolific as they were in August. Our USDA growing zone has shifted in recent years; the Missouri Botanical Gardens can now plant camellias outside in the ground, unheard of thirty years ago.

Tomorrow we set out on the KATY Trail for the Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival. Temperatures are scheduled to skyrocket to the low 90s and we must return before dark to avoid a tornado outbreak. I don't think this part of Missouri will have a great fall color display the way our weather patterns are behaving. My windows are still open and my daily attire consists of running shorts and a t-shirt. Last year's mild winter resulted in an explosion of Japanese beetles; entire trees and grapevines were completely denuded of leaves. If the growing zones are really moving northwards, I wonder how many years it will take before we can have year-round pepper plants like we had in New Orleans?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Late Summer in the Woodlands

Today marks the end of my birthday week full of celebrations and parties. The first day of autumn with the high temperature of 96 was reminiscent of that one week in August we witnessed this year--hot and dry, no rain in sight. But the shadows are growing long and the walnut leaves are all but gone from the trees. Cooler weather moves in this week, but not cold enough to knock out seed ticks. Cross country hiking requires a lot of duct tape and long pants.

Despite the dry weather, the floral display in woodlands and glades continues with the beginning of the asters, the desmodiums, the goldenrods. Monarch migration also marches on, with these charismatic and troubled butterflies swarming the woodlands in Dauphin Island and still in my backyard, feasting on the silphiums. With the lack of rain, some of our canopy trees are merely turning brown and dropping leaves, bypassing the nice fall color stage altogether. We're still about three weeks away from "peak color," and hopefully the cooler nights will usher in the good conditions for a nice display this October.

Katydids are still out in force and fall orchids are in peak bloom! Every fall I have to brush up the different ladies' tresses orchids, like this beauty, Spiranthes lacera, notable for the green lip on the inside of each flower.

And so, the natural cycle continues. It's time to dust off burn plans and start putting in firelines. The priority units are set, folks have been instructed to test all of their equipment as there's little worse than showing up to a fire having all of the driptorches malfunction from lack of maintenance, worn out wicks, clogged intakes. Well, leaking waterpacks are pretty bad, and dull chainsaw chains are also lousy. Warm season grasses continue to cure, painting glades and high quality woodlands in reds and yellows interspersed with all kinds of asters. I'm waiting for that first frost and the Indian summer days to move in so I can go backpacking without seed ticks on the horizon.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Streambanks in September

Ker-plunk! The walnut from high above fell swiftly and loudly into the water along the shoreline. Walnut and hickory leaves are all turning yellow and flying into the air, too, as Labor Day arrives. Last week, as the mild temperatures continued in the Ozarks because of the high pressure dome that tragically stalled out Hurricane Harvey in Texas, I started my streambank sampling. Cardinal flowers and ageratum were in full bloom, and the otters were out because there was no one else on the river that day. The morning cicadas hummed along while the temperatures escalated to a high of the low 80s. All of these things are signs that fall is near, though not officially until after my mid-September birthday. Shorter days, darker mornings, the slowing of the katydid chorus all mark this time of year. Seed ticks are, of course, still out and won't go away until the first frost. I welcome Indian summer.

My 45th birthday is in mid-September, a time to set new goals and objectives for the year ahead. This year I plan to spend my birthday with my childhood best friend who lives in Dauphin Island, Alabama (barring a tropical storm, depression or hurricane that week). She's the first of my friends to allow me to bring my motley crew of old dogs to stay in her mother-in-law cottage that rests behind her beachfront property. And so, in a couple of weeks we'll make the 12 hour drive with my 12 year old Bassett Hound, unknown-aged Phantom Schnauzer, and the perenially fussy 17 year old rat terrier, all three of whom were inherited after my mother's death in 2012. Three high maintenance dogs make travel quite the hassle, sometimes an impossibility, but paying for a full-time pet sitter is out of my financial reach. Unfortunately, they require a lot of maintenance, the exact opposite of my dart frogs. And so, we're packing up the pups, picking up some Pinckney Bend gin from New Haven and driving to Dauphin Island for four days of summer weather -beach weather- in mid-September.

With all of the blooming yellow composites ranging from Rudbeckia laciniata to Verbesina, the skippers and hummingbirds have a veritable feast. Glades are also awash in late summer wildflowers, especially Missouri coneflower and various species of blazing stars. But the streambanks, accessed by canoe via clean, fast-moving Ozark streams are hard to beat for botanical richness this time of year. The Niangua River from Bennett to Ho-Humm is particularly rich, a good 8 mile float trip that one can accomplish in a day quite easily, even if stopping to botanize and fish along the way. Kids are back in school, day lengths are shorter, the wood ducks are still swimming along the shorelines and kingfishers and bald eagles still feel like they're being chased downstream even if one isn't paddling their boat very hard.

Today is Labor Day and American Oystercatchers grace my Audubon calendar for the month of September. I haven't started thinking about the logistics of my Halloween costume which I feel certain, regardless of how great it is, will not win the work costume contest. I don't have any friends at work, and the green M&M wins every year. Same person, same costume, same lack of originality, same $50 gift card. Nevertheless, despite all of that I anticipate a trip towards St. James for Public House's Oktoberfest and the ability to pick up some Concords. Later in the month I retrieve my Norton juice so I can make my first batch of Norton wine!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Fall Migration

At 5:30 this morning, the sun had not begun to avail itself through the boughs of my front yard walnut. It seems like only a few weeks ago that the sun streaming through my open windows at 5:15 every morning brought on the morning cicada chorus and warm, sunny weather by 6:00. This morning at 5:30 I had to employ a flashlight to navigate to my hummingbird feeders for refilling; I made the sugar water overnight and wanted to make sure the popular backyard feeders were full at daybreak. The downy woodpeckers enjoy feasting on the ants that the sugar water attracts, and with four feeders scattered throughout the length of my deep lot, the hummingbirds are well fed. This time of year also corresponds to an entire backyard full of yellow blooming cup plant, a major attractant to not only hummingbirds but bumble bees and native sweat bees.

For the past few weeks, unable to spend much time outside, I've tracked fall bird migration through the nighttime radar maps. Migration is largely triggered by daylength, and birds travel mostly at night. Last night, Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel reported that the eye of Hurricane Harvey was filled with thousands of migrating birds, a phenomenon that also happened during Hurricane Matthew. My local Audubon chapter posted this interesting Citizen Science link that tracks the hummingbird migration. Evidently it's well underway in our area. As long as the hummingbirds continue to feed, keep your feeders up. If you have the great fortune to visit Portal, Arizona this fall, you'll be delighted to know that homeowners allow random birders into their yards to witness activity at their feeders. On a trip a couple of years ago, I saw 6 species of hummingbirds--many feeding on the red cactus flowers, but swarming around backyard feeders. Some homeowners ask for a small donation to help cover the cost of sugar water.

Even though there is abundant native food, mainly insects and berries, in the neighborhood, I started filling my seed feeders a couple of weeks ago. Most of my friends in my Audubon chapter feed seed all year; I don't have the budget for that. Nevertheless, goldfinches and chickadees, woodpeckers and gray catbirds, are all enjoying the country mix. To boot, the catbirds have stripped my enormous pokeweed of all of its dark purple berries, resulting in violet water in my birdbath.

I am not ready for the winter months ahead, days when I leave my house in the dark and come home from work in the dark. I never get enough exercise in the dark days and nights of winter. Thankfully, there are still plenty of blooming composites, great birding, warm afternoons and the coming of grape harvest.