“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Bucket List

There is an epidemic among baby boomers. As we age and come face to face with our mortality we are starting to reflect on what we have—or haven’t--done with our lives. The result is often a commitment to do those things we always wanted to do “someday”. Now we realize we may not have too many “somedays” left.

So we come up with a list of things we want to still accomplish. This has recently become a big deal as witnessed by the popularity of the recent movie The Bucket List. There are Facebook sites where people compare their lists and websites where you can maintain an online list. The bestselling book 1000 Places to Visit Before You Die has spawned dozens of similar books and lists. Google “bucket list” and you’ll get 221,000 returns. Everybody is suddenly putting a bucket list together. I suspect most people will tuck them away in a drawer and never look at them again, but some will actually start checking off items on their lists.

Well, I beat the crowd on this one. I started my list years ago during my college days. Of course, I didn’t call it a bucket list. My mortality was only a vague thought on the far distant horizon in those days. It became my “gonna do” list (I wasn’t the most articulate student) and I remember the night I sat down in my dorm room and listed the things that I wanted to do in my life.

The original list has grown considerably since then. I never considered it a static list and I have added things over the years but I’ve never taken anything off--that is my only rule and it has turned the list into an intriguing glimpse into how my hopes and dreams have changed over the years. The original list has items on it that were probably not going to happen from the get go, like breaking the sound barrier or standing on the North and South Poles and it reveals the limitless world of a college student.

Others I’ll never do simply because I no longer share the same interests I did thirty years ago. I don’t care to learn to juggle anymore and I have no desire to rollerblade a 10K. And I saw Mt. Fuji but didn’t feel the need to climb it. And there are items on there that I now wonder why I ever wanted to do (Milk a cow? Why?). But all four are still on the list (see rule above).

As I look at the list, it has grown considerably over the years. My college scratchings have grown from an initial 78 items to the current 377 on three typed pages. Many of the items I have added are things I wasn’t even remotely interested in in college but of course your interests change as you age.

Everybody’s list is different, mine is no exception. I have two intense interests: river running and wildlife. I have 29 rivers I want to either raft, canoe or kayak. I’ve done 19 so far. And I have 68 wild animals that I want to see in their natural habitat. So far I’ve spotted 49, including a bull elephant that charged us in the Serengeti, grizzly bears that kept us on edge on a Denali backpacking trip, and a leopard that was crouched less than ten feet over our head in a tree in Tanzania. I still think I will see all 68 before I go, although mountain gorillas could be problematic.

I have basically given up on some things either because of lack of money (climbing Mt. Everest) or age (running that marathon ain’t gonna happen). But I have climbed Mt. Shasta and I still have hopes of climbing Kilimanjaro--not Everest, but on the list. And I have run 10Ks. Then there is the ability thing. I have no musical ability so I’ll never be able to play the guitar or harmonica or saxophone.

What is interesting is that some things that are easy to attain, like learning to play bridge or parasailing or taking karate classes or going to Mardi Gras or the opera remain unchecked but I’ve checked off writing a novel, flying a glider plane, trekking through New Zealand, playing golf at St. Andrews and buying a round in an English pub, things I once thought were just dreams.

So far I have checked off 223 of the 377 items. I’m close on a few more—I have visited 47 of 50 states and five of seven continents, not even close on others—I’ve climbed the high points in only 10 states, and I have only about 400 birds towards my 600 bird life list.

I don’t know how many more I will check off, I don’t really care. I just like having something to look forward to. Will I ever check off all 377? No, but so what? The list doesn’t dominate my life and I rarely talk about. No one has ever seen it. I keep it in my dresser drawer and pull it out periodically to reminisce or make plans. That’s it. But it is nice to have; it gets me off the couch and out doing things. For that reason, I love my “gonna do” list.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mighty Mouse

If you travel along the precious few miles of Alabama’s Gulf Coast you will encounter an almost unending string of development. Condos, beach houses, restaurants, T-shirt shacks, golf courses, and motels dominate practically every foot of beachfront property.

This is not news of course; every state that has coastline is watching relentless development eat up its beaches and stretches of undeveloped shoreline are increasingly uncommon. One of these remnant jewels of wild coast still remains in Alabama. Drive west along Alabama Highway 180 out of the gaudy chaos of haphazard growth that stains the town of Gulf Shores and the character of the land changes immediately. Barely two miles down this small two-lane road the condos disappear, restaurants are hard to find, and spreading Southern Oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss form a shady arch over the hot asphalt.

Welcome to Fort Morgan Peninsula, a thin finger of land that thrusts westward for some eighteen miles, separating Mobile Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. With relatively untouched coastal land becoming a rarity, the peninsula is an anachronism; a beautiful, sleepy vestige of natural dunes and beaches. Unassuming private beach homes, fishing shacks, scrub land, and wild dunes are about all that there is. Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge sits halfway down the peninsula, protecting 6000 acres of land.

The attraction of Fort Morgan Peninsula is this isolation and raw splendor. For those whose idea of a great beach vacation is barhopping, dancing, golfing, and parasailing, Fort Morgan is not on the radar screen. Vacationers come here for the silence, the dark moonlit beaches. But with so little of Alabama’s beachfront left, there are many who have other ideas for Fort Morgan. Something on the order of Gulf Shores West. Developers have plans to build a number of high-density condos, practically nonexistent on the peninsula now.

This is where a tiny peninsula resident comes into the picture—perhaps the only one who can save Fort Morgan Peninsula. The Alabama Beach Mouse, an appealing little creature with large ears and huge protruding eyes, has become the center of a struggle between bulldozers and nature lovers. Thirty years ago this little mouse was living large among the beaches and dunes of Alabama. Then a combination of habitat destruction by development and tropical storms and the appearance of feral cats decimated the mouse population. Consequently, the mouse was declared an endangered species in 1985 and habitat critical to mouse survival was designated along parts of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, including parts of Fort Morgan Peninsula.

Which brings us to today. The planned condos will be built in areas that are designated as mouse habitat, but federal laws restrict many activities that may negatively affect habitat of an endangered species. In September the Sierra Club sued to suspend construction pending a determination of whether planned development would impact mouse habitat. A ruling in favor of the mouse could limit growth on much of the peninsula.

But, as with many environmental battles, this one will not end with one ruling and it will take time before a final decision is reached. In the meantime the developers, who view the peninsula as wasted land needing the golden touch of restaurants, malls, and bars that has already blighted the rest of Alabama’s coast, are waiting in the wings while peninsula residents and property owners who are opposed to further development are anxiously hoping for a favorable result.

What is certain is that the outcome of this battle will determine the future of Fort Morgan. Will it be much as it is now, its charm and beauty intact, or just another example of beachfront sprawl gone awry? For human residents, it could mean the end of an idyllic paradise. For the Alabama Beach Mouse it could mean, simply, the end.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Alabama Sea Turtle Nesting

In the dim twilight on a deserted stretch of coastline on Alabama’s Fort Morgan Peninsula, a lonely figure kneels and gently touches a stethoscope to the warm sand. With the boom of the crashing surf in the background, Debi Gholson, a volunteer with the Alabama Share the Beach program, strains to hear the telltale scratching of tiny sea turtles. She is listening to a loggerhead sea turtle nest, hoping to hear live hatchlings two feet underground breaking out of their shells and digging toward the surface.

“I hear movement!” she says. Tonight could be the night to witness the remarkable sight of dozens of energetic baby turtles frantically erupting from the sand and madly sprinting to the protective waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

This particular nest was laid 56 days ago by a female loggerhead turtle, a huge and increasingly rare marine turtle that plies the waters of the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Loggerheads weigh 150-400 pounds and measure 30-45 inches along the carapace, or back shell. They spend practically their entire lives in the ocean. Every summer the females emerge from the sea to nest. They plod across the beach, quickly dig a two-foot deep cavity with their hind flippers, and deposit 100 to 150 golf-ball-sized eggs, which they gently cover with sand. They then return to the ocean, never to see the results of their efforts, leaving distinctive crawl marks as the only sign of their presence.

If the sun warms the eggs to the right temperature, storms don't wash the nest away, coyotes or other predators don't dig up the eggs, and a dozen other conditions are just right, about two months later the eggs hatch and dozens of baby turtles miraculously bubble out of the sand and dash across the beach, dodging hungry sea gulls and ghost crabs, before reaching the relative safety of the ocean. This frantic and fragile scene is repeated dozens of times every summer on Alabama’s beaches. Fort Morgan is a particularly valuable turtle nesting area; as of the end of July, forty nests have been discovered on the peninsula, a very productive year.

The discoveries are made by a dedicated corps of volunteers and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge employees who patrol the beaches daily during the May through August nesting season. They search for evidence of nesting and then monitor and protect the nests until they successfully hatch.

One of these nests is the one we are standing over tonight. Fifteen minutes after Debi hears the subterranean scratching, we see the sand move and a black pinky-finger sized head pops out of the sand. The first baby turtle is struggling to the surface. A tiny flipper appears, then another and a cookie-sized turtle emerges and sprints toward the surf. Suddenly the sand comes alive with dozens of baby turtles emerging from the nest. This frenzy of hatching is called the “boil” and within minutes, more than sixty baby loggerheads scramble out of the sand.

What follows is both wondrous and comedic as a handful of volunteers scramble around in the dark trying to shepherd dozens of confused and speedy critters toward the Gulf of Mexico. Evolution has conditioned the hatchlings to head toward light—which for eons was moonlight reflecting off the surf. But today streetlights and lighting from condos and beach houses lures them inland, away from the surf. The volunteers have to continuously turn the babies toward the water and herd them away from the dunes. A safe distance away, hordes of ghost crabs watch our progress, waiting for an opportunity to dart in and snatch one of these tasty morsels. If we weren’t here, there would be a deadly feast on this beach. After more than three hours of babysitting and coaxing, the last hatchling finally wades into the surf and swims into the darkness. Sixty nine eggs hatched, all of them made it safely to the water.

All of this effort is an attempt to halt the decline of sea turtles. Six species of sea turtles are found in U.S. waters and all of them are threatened or endangered. Entanglement in fishing nets, pollution and litter (turtles ingest and choke on plastic bags, balloons, and other floating debris that resembles jellyfish, their favorite food) cause numerous turtle deaths each year. Development of beachfront habitat decreases nesting success and beachfront lighting disorients hatchlings.

Adult turtles return to their birth beach to nest so one day one of these creatures will lumber back onto this beach to lay the seed for yet another generation. The dedicated work of the volunteers and professionals patrolling Alabama’s beaches bring hope that we can continue to witness the return of sea turtles to Alabama beaches for decades to come.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve

Just south of Tuscumbia, a large swath of wild streams, box canyons, waterfalls, rock shelters and sandstone bluffs remains nearly as pristine and wild as it did centuries ago. The fact that this remarkable piece of natural beauty is still unspoiled is largely due to an equally remarkable couple.

Jim and Faye Lacefield, retired educators, bought a 40-acre tract of land in 1979 and have gradually added to that original purchase, keeping the land in its natural state, and today their Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve encompasses 700 acres. Their foresight has ensured the preservation of a good portion of Cane Creek Canyon, a rare environmental wonder amidst a sea of farms and houses that Jim says shows up on Google Earth “like a deep green ribbon surrounded by brown fields and roads”.

Even more remarkable, the Lacefields have chosen to share this natural wonder. Their land is open to the public, seven days a week, no charge. I asked the couple why they share this haven with others. “Land should not be hoarded by fortunate people who happen to own it,” Faye says. “This is our contribution to the community.” Their goals are for the land to be used for education and recreation, far different goals than many forest landowners, whose primary use is often for timber. Jim says that they are “modeling an alternative to the materialistic view” of land usage. The Lacefields have ensured the land’s permanent protection by signing a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy of Alabama.

This generous philosophy unlocks an area of incredible Alabama wilderness. The diversity of the Preserve is astounding: 60-foot waterfalls, wetlands, sparkling streams rushing through boulder-strewn notches, sunny glades, sheer canyon walls and towering cliffs overlooking seas of hardwood forests. The canyon itself is steep and deep, in some places as much as 350 feet from the rim to the clear blue-green waters of Cane Creek.

Jim says that the Preserve hosts a large variety of wildflowers, plants and ferns, including the rare French’s Shooting Star, a wildflower that grows only beneath sandstone overhangs and whose only known Alabama population is in the canyon. Even on our visit on a cold December day the lushness of the canyon is evident and we find ourselves hiking through thick patches of mosses, woodland ferns, Allegheny spurge and foamflowers. Beginning in March and through early summer, mountain laurel, trout lily, lady’s slippers, yellow-fringed orchids and other wildflowers bloom and carpet the canyon.

Jim takes us back into a narrow box canyon called Devil’s Hollow that features a huge amphitheater-sized half-circle rock shelter named Yellowwood Falls. It is beautiful. Cold water showers off the sandstone rim above, splashing into a tiny crystalline pool that is ringed with verdant moss and ferns. Research indicates that these rock shelters were occupied more than 10,000 years ago by Paleo-Indian hunters and it’s easy to see why they would have chosen to stay in this magical spot.

A quarter mile or so further the canyon dead ends at Karen’s Falls, yet another picturesque cascade. The water plunges thirty feet, splashing against a thin shelf and falls another ten feet into a narrow rocky stream.

Jim takes us down another trail and we stop in front of a large sandstone outcropping where he relates a very convincing story about sighting a mountain lion atop the boulder two years ago. Given the rugged isolation of the canyon we have no reason to doubt him. Deer abound here and bald eagles have been sighted.

Eleven miles of trails provide access to even the most remote areas of the Preserve. Many of the trails are former logging roads; some are narrow paths that Jim and Faye blazed, so your choices range from easy to moderate to strenuous. Although the terrain is steep and some trails are challenging in places, many of the logging trails have bridges and are relatively flat providing easy access for the elderly and disabled. The trail network allows you take a short jaunt or stitch together day-long multi-mile treks into the deep recesses of the canyon. Thankfully, the trails are clearly marked so it’s easy to find your way. There are several primitive camping sites and a picnic area with a covered day shelter.

Either way, a short jaunt into the woods or an overnight backpack, Cane Creek Canyon is a wonderful taste of one of Alabama’s most unique and unknown natural areas.

Directions to Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve:  From. U.S. 72 in Tuscumbia: At the Colbert County Farmers' Co-Op, turn south onto the access road and go down the hill to Frankfort Road. Turn left, go 7.25 miles. After passing Piney Grove Church of Christ on the right, go ¼ mile and turn right on Loop Road (Colbert 41). Go one-tenth of a mile and veer left onto a gravel road. Follow the gravel road past the chicken houses to the Lacefields' Spanish-style house.  The preserve is open daily, sunrise to sunset.  For details, call 256-381-6301
(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Bartram Canoe Trail

I’m well into my second day of exploring the wilderness of Alabama’s delta country and I’ve not heard one automobile, seen one condo, or caught so much as a whiff of exhaust fumes. Although I have run into a handful of fellow canoeists paddling along the meandering watery paths of the Bartram Canoe Trail, the feeling of isolation and wildness is overwhelming. I never imagined that in this age of sprawling subdivisions and pervasive second homes there was such a large chunk of Alabama land that still remains natural and untouched.

The Bartram Canoe Trail is actually a network of multiple sinuous passageways that snake through the 250,000 acre Mobile-Tensaw delta, a huge area of swampy bayous and bottomland full of towering cypress and tupelo trees garlanded with wispy necklaces of Spanish moss. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has developed twelve trails that offer a wide variety of human-powered boating trips. Six of the trails accommodate short 4-8 hour day trips. Six more offer longer overnight trips of up to 3 days.

Hiking through the tangled undergrowth of the delta would be a miserable experience so paddling the open waterways weaving through the delta’s heart is about the only way to explore the area. Canoeing or kayaking through this labyrinth is not as daunting as it may sound. A slight current moves the dark, tea-colored water through mazes of flaring 70-foot high cypress trees, thick fields of skillet-sized lilypads, and head-high palmetto and sawgrass. The paddling is leisurely, much of the time you are cocooned by a cathedral-like ceiling of arching trees, and the trails maps are easy to follow so no worries about getting lost and starving deep in the bowels of the delta.

While the day trips are an excellent way to get a taste of the Mobile-Tensaw, an overnight trip really gives you time to immerse yourself in the beauty of the area and slow your body clock down. For overnight trekkers, campsites are strategically placed along the trails. Given the wet and swampy nature of the land, these designated sites are the only dry options for campers so be sure to time your paddling to make it to your designated stop before dark. Some of the campsites are land-based but the best campsites are covered, raised platforms that accommodate up to six persons and are anchored along the trails.

To literally get your feet wet on the Bartram Canoe Trail, try your hand a Dead Lake Island Trail, the shortest of the overnight trails. It is only 3.5 miles from the launch point to the platform where you will spend the night, allowing plenty of time for exploration. It takes about three hours of easy boating—with frequent stops to gawk at beavers, mink and other critters scampering through the snarl of vegetation along the trail—to reach the platform. Set up your tent before paddling out into the surrounding sloughs and swamps to check out the hordes of herons, bitterns, egrets and other birds that can be seen wading through the shallows for their supper. Enjoy a pleasant evening meal back at the platform and watch the sunset over the trees Camping on one of these raised structures is a unique experience. Take a balmy night, a black sky milky with a gazillion stars, a full moon silhouetting spooky cypress and tupelo trees, boisterous frogs croaking and splashing in the shadows, and maybe an alligator or two lurking just out of sight. In the middle of all this is your tiny, ten-by-twenty-foot piece of dry refuge--a lonely outpost in the vastness of wild Alabama. Your morning alarm clock will likely be the squawking of wading birds near your platform. The second day will find you backtracking to your original launch point. This trail snakes through one of the heavier utilized areas of the delta so you may so you may encounter some motorized boat traffic but it’s still a pleasant trek.

The best times to go are spring or fall (only fools and Yankees dare spend a summer night in the heat and mosquitoes of the southern delta). Spring is my favorite time to go--the lilypads are alive with bright yellow and white flowers, the birds are nesting and the gators haul out to sun themselves on muddy banks, trying to stir from their winter torpor. Come to think of it, the Bartram Canoe Trail is a good way for humans to shake off winter.

Details: The trails are accessible from various put-in points around the town of Stockton, Alabama, which is north of Bay Minette on Highway 59. Information on the trail is available online at http://www.outdooralabama.com/. Aside from the occasional alligator (which inhibits any urges you may have to swim or wade), watch for poisonous snakes and the usual stinging and biting insects.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)