Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Spring Update: March Madness

Monday morning, I took a walk on the Western Waterfront Trail. The sky was blue and there wasn’t much wind, but temps had been in the teens overnight and it was still only 20 degrees, so the snow was frozen enough that I didn’t break through at all this time. People and deer walking along the trail over recent weeks on days when the snow was softer have broken through in many places, gouging out big and small holes as much as a foot deep. With the recent mild temperatures, the top layer of snow has melted and refrozen; stretches of glare ice added to the treacherous walking conditions.

Red-winged Blackbird

If Spring and Winter had been competing in a March Madness game Monday, those snow conditions would have given Winter an early lead, but Spring scored a big three-pointer down in the marsh, where 3 Red-winged Blackbirds persistently yelled out their O-ka-lee spring song.

The river was still entirely iced in, helping put Winter back ahead. The dozen Canada Geese flying overhead seemed confident that there was open water somewhere, their certainty boosting Spring, but the seven geese standing forlornly on the ice, looking at the bleak wintry landscape and wondering what happened to all the open water that had been right there, in that very spot, just last fall, sent the ball back to Winter’s court.

Canada Goose

Blood in the snow always makes my heart stop, and finding the dead cottontail rabbit off to the side made me sad—the poor thing had almost made it through the season.

Its head had been cleanly lopped off—evidence that a Great Horned Owl was still hanging in there and likely to make it to spring. But the carcass, frozen solid, showed that Winter was holding firmly onto its lead.



A coyote walking across the ice-covered river advanced winter’s lead even more. I took several pictures, and from some angles she looked rather bulgy and pregnant, but for the duration, any pups were in the future, the game remaining squarely in Winter’s court. A distant robin gave a few alarm calls—the fact that there was a robin there seemed springish, but he was not in the mood for song.

House Finch

A House Finch stole the ball and, facing the sun, started singing with an assist from a Mourning Dove—that put spring ahead again. The game was almost over, and I was almost back to my car, when I spotted a mink running across Fremont Street with that cool, undulating stride they have. I backtracked to where I’d seen it cross in hopes of getting a photo, but couldn’t pick it out. I stood still for a while, and then as I gave up and turned back, there it was, skulking near a fallen tree and trying to stay behind as many branches as it could.

Carnivores tend to be very curious, and this one kept looking straight at me, standing out starkly against the snow. I usually associate minks with open water, and this one seemed impatient for the snow to be gone, handing yet another two points to Winter.

Black-capped Chickadee

But one chickadee suddenly grabbed the ball, and with the persistence and gumption of Iowa’s Megan Gustafson (she's from Port Wing!) with all her double-doubles, this chickadee broke into a very long singing bout, producing a full 111 songs before he quieted down. Chickadees start singing in the dead of winter, but this kind of extended song is most un-winterlike. His persistence, like Megan Gustafson’s, gave Spring the critical edge.

Of course, with March Madness, you never know what’s going to happen next. Winter often stays in the game well into April, but unlike the basketball version of March Madness, you always do know who will eventually come out the winner between Winter and Spring. Some years the game just takes longer than others.


Full Interview with Caroline Van Hemert

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down at the KUMD studio for a phone conversation with Caroline Van Hemert. I excerpted from the conversation for four blog posts—here are the podcast episodes from that:  
Those are fairly short excerpts of a 35-minute conversation. So here's the full interview.

Monday, March 25, 2019

My TEDxBemidji Talk Is Up!!

Wolf photo credits to Melissa Groo (who also provided a baby ptarmigan they edited out), Lisa Johnson, and Lynne Casperson Schoenborn. I took the chickadee, warbler, Statue of Liberty, and Baby Katie shots.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Spring Update: Eagles, Hawks, Magpies, and a Most Cooperative Robin

Rough-legged Hawk

The winter of 2018–19 has been hard but hardly unique. I remember winters in the 1980s when snow lasted well into April and even May. When Russ and I went to Nevada and Arizona near the end of March 1982, at the end of our first winter here, we hired a neighborhood boy to keep my feeders going for the hundred or so redpolls in my yard right then. I told him he could stop when the snow or the redpolls were gone.  But he’d kept it up the whole three weeks; when we got home on April 19, the snow was deeper than when we’d left and the redpolls more plentiful. I went to the Sax-Zim Bog yesterday and even though there’s still a lot of snow on the ground, the redpolls are almost gone and there are patches along the edges of the roads where the snow has disappeared.

Northern Harrier

I was hoping to see owls and the last winter birds. No owls for me yesterday—Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, and Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks were the order of the day. Unbroken sun and temperatures reaching 50 degrees provided ideal conditions for them to circle on thermals. Once hawks clear Lake Superior, they scatter, so I didn’t see anything like the numbers Frank Nicoletti, John Richardson, and others have been counting in Duluth on West Skyline Road since March 1. (You can keep up with their counts at On March 21, they counted 1,076 Bald Eagles—a record for a single day—as well as 38 Golden Eagles. As of the 23rd, they’ve counted a total of 3,847 raptors this month, over 3,500 of them Bald Eagles.   

In summer, we start seeing eagles heading south in August at Hawk Ridge, and they appear throughout the season, well into December. Our biggest fall days are toward the end of the season, when birds from the north head south as ice forms. But single-day eagle migration in fall is not as big as in spring—hormones pressing birds northward to nesting territories and mates are way more powerful and urgent than weather conditions suggesting that they head south. On good flying days as March turns into April, migrating eagle numbers will dwindle as Red-tailed Hawk numbers rise. On Saturday, in Herbster, Wisconsin, Ryan Brady counted 267 Bald Eagles, almost as many as the 340 Frank counted that day in Duluth. And Ryan’s 23 Golden Eagles topped the 17 in Duluth that day. Clearly, this is a great time for all of us in the Northland to focus our eyes skyward, at least part of the time.

My own eyes were focused downward most of the time when I was in the bog Saturday. I caught a smattering of redpolls at a couple of feeding stations. They were my only winter finches all day, but I saw 7 or 8 magpies, which made my heart swell.  The bog and Floodwood are the farthest east these splendid corvids nest. 

Boreal Chickadee

I got short but fairly decent sound recordings of Boreal and Black-capped Chickadees calling, which I posted on my website. (Boreal Chickadee and Black-capped Chickadee.) I wanted to get sounds of the last redpolls, but my only chances for recordings were at feeding stations where people were talking.

American Robin

My happiest sighting of the day was on Stickney Road in late morning, when I saw a male robin rummaging in the exposed leaf litter in a narrow strip between the road and the snow. I spotted it just as I was passing by, and backed up a bit to stop directly across from it. 

American Robin

Robins are seldom cooperative photo subjects, but this bird stayed put, remaining as I opened the window and stuck my 300-mm lens out. The full frame shots I got were among the very best robin photos I’ve ever taken. 

American Robin

I usually see my first robin of spring in Wisconsin, West Duluth, or my neighborhood, and sure enough, on Sunday, a cold, cloudy, blustery day, I heard a robin muttering curse words in my yard while staying out of sight. But my very first robin of 2019, seen far north of where I usually see my first, was by far the most cooperative robin I’ve ever seen. There’s still lots of snow on the ground up here, but I’m suddenly feeling optimistic that spring may eventually arrive.

American Robin

Friday, March 22, 2019

Conversation with Caroline Van Hemert, Part IV: More Bird Stories

Pacific Wren

In her book, The Sun is a Compass, Caroline Van Hemert mentions just a fraction of the 160 species she noticed on her 4,000-mile journey in Alaska, but those birds come to life on her pages. She describes a Pacific Wren when it “launches into an enthusiastic outburst. These birds have lungs the size of lima beans but their voices are as large as their organs are small, filling the thick air with a waterfall of sound.” When I talked to her by phone last week, I asked her if she’d tell us about when she and her husband came upon a family of Brants, small saltwater geese, along the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
Ómar Runólfsson
We were hiking again along that narrow band between the ocean and the steep mud bluffs. Sometimes we’d have to go above and walk on the bluffs, but in certain areas we could walk along the beach more easily. We were doing that and we were making pretty good time. It was a pretty stormy day—it wasn’t too long before Pat capsized his raft in the Arctic Ocean and so we were happy to be on land.    
We came up and noticed this family of Brant geese—there were two adults and three young. They were running down the beach in front of us. Obviously the little ones were—I don’t know how old they were, but pretty fresh out of the nest, pretty gangly and awkward and doing their best to keep up with their parents. As we were walking, they were feeling pressure from us to keep running ahead. So we sat down and tried to figure out what we should do, because we didn’t want to push them but we also needed to get around them. It wasn’t a place we could camp that night and the bluffs there were far too steep for us to be able to climb up. And so we debated our options, and we thought if we could make it past, maybe that would be the safest for them and allow us to get away from them and let them do what they need to do.    
We started to walk, and as we did, we realized that wasn’t going to work, because one of the chicks and the parents had run ahead and the other two were already in the surf and swirling around. They washed up again, and I realized that our only option was going to be to try to grab them and reunite them with their parents, because at that point the rest of the family was long gone. They weren’t going to wait to see what happened to the other goslings. Pat and I were easily able to corner them, grab them, kind of tuck their heads under their wings, and run with them in our jackets and try to catch up with the rest of the family.    
At that point, we realized that the parents and the larger sibling had already gone into the water. At that point it seemed like maybe the best option was to reunite them with the rest of the family so we made our best guess and popped them into the water and watched them as they got pummeled by the waves.   
Eventually they got past that surf zone. The parents had taken off, and then flew back around to rejoin their young, which was a big relief. We got ourselves out of there and hopefully stopped bothering them as quickly as we could and hoped for the best, that they were able to stay together and get back on land and continue on their way. It was one of those moments where it wasn’t clear exactly what we should do. We had gotten ourselves into a situation where we knew we were harassing them and didn’t want to be, but there wasn’t a great way out either. I hope that we made the right choice. 
Caroline’s solid scientific knowledge melded with so much humility and heart was on display throughout The Sun Is a Compass. I spent just a week in Alaska, between Juneau and Haines, back in 2001, and I don’t know that I’ll ever get back again, but the stories in her book were so vivid that the vicarious journey was pure pleasure. The Sun Is a Compass is a book I’ll treasure. 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Conversation with Caroline Van Hemert, Part III: On Being a Birder, and Some Bird Stories

Photo copyright by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
When I talked to ornithologist Caroline Van Hemert about her new book, The Sun Is a Compass, I asked her if she considers herself a birder.   
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. I think so, because I would like to think of the term “birder” as being inclusive rather than exclusive, in part because I think the more we all associate ourselves with birds in our lives, the better chance birds have of long-term conservation. I think the science is important, but ultimately the public as a whole decides the outcome for habitat and all the things that birds need to persist for hopefully a long time. So I’m a birder in the sense that I love to look at birds. I keep a working list of what I’m seeing, usually more in a regional sense so less of a life list and more “these are all the birds I’ve seen in this area or on this trip.” I had a working list from our big trip that’s described in the book, and really enjoyed seeing new species and keeping track of where I saw individual species along the way.   
That said, I’m not a hardcore birder in the sense that I will rarely take a trip just to see birds—I tend to be more generalist, so I’ll go out to places where birds also happen to live and I get to have a bit of an adventure as well as seeing a lot of cool birds along the way. I also get to do a lot of birding as part of my work—I’ve done a lot of bird surveys over the years in some really amazing places, mostly in Alaska. That’s been a real treat and a gift.  

On this trip, how many species of chickadees did you see?
I saw Black-capped Chickadee, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Boreal Chickadee, and Gray-headed Chickadee, so four species in total.  
No Mountain Chickadee?
No Mountains. We weren’t quite in the right area. We were coastal for most of British Columbia so as far as their northern range, we were outside of that.  
Gray-headed Chickadee photo by Estormiz, taken in Kittilä, Finland
But Gray-headed! Your first experience that you wrote about with the Gray-headed Chickadees was wonderful.
Thank you. That was an amazing gift after a fairly frightening and difficult experience in terms of coming across this river that was a lot bigger and swifter than we had anticipated. It was a pretty special thing to see a species that I don’t know that I’ll ever see again in North America.  
And it wasn’t just a Gray-headed Chickadee. You came upon a family!
Now I’ve been a former wildlife rehabber, and so I was especially moved by some of your experiences with the baby Rough-legged Hawk, that Pat took the picture of.

Photo copyright by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Yep. I can say briefly what happened there. We had gotten to Hershel Island, which is way up, a little island on the Arctic Ocean on the Canadian side of the border, and we had gotten to Hershel Island where we were getting a resupply that was flown in by a park ranger. We had a day to rest and recoup and gather all our supplies and pack up again before leaving, and so we decided to take a little hike around the island, which is in this amazing location. As we were coming around, there’s these mud bluffs that are a pretty characteristic feature along a lot of that part of the Arctic coastline and also on Hershel Island, and there are steep mud bluffs underlain with permafrost. I think naturally they erode over time, and that process is sped up quite a bit because of the warmer temperatures in the Arctic now and also increased storm surge, because there’s less sea ice protecting a lot of that coast.   
So anyway, we had seen along the way a lot of other places where Gyrfalcons and Rough-legged Hawks were nesting up on these cliffs. It’s a pretty cool thing because when you come from the tundra you can actually see the nests above or at least in line, and then walking down along the coastline, look up and see lots of raptors which is a really cool feature of that coast. On Hershel Island we were hiking along the edge of the water at the base of one of these collapsing mud bluffs and came across two downy Rough-legged Hawk chicks.    
Their nest had slid down from far up above, right above the water line. When we encountered them, they were alive but they were probably not in great shape for surviving into the future because of where their nest ended up. We didn’t see their parents around anywhere. There was a headless lemming lying nearby that indicated that they had been provisioned there at some point, but whether that was going to continue, I don’t know.   
But there was at least hope—the one still looked pretty sturdy.
Yes. I actually assumed they were both dead when we came upon them because they weren’t moving and we saw them in this really unlikely place. We came up closer and saw them looking back at me. It was a pretty moving experience for me as well, just in knowing these chicks were vulnerable, beautiful little birds that hopefully would survive. But without seeing their parents, it was hard to know what their outcome would be.  
But I was grateful that you saw that headless lemming.
Absolutely! Yeah—there was hope for sure.  
Tomorrow Caroline Van Hemert will tell us about another encounter with baby birds.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

On Writing: How I Put My First Book Together

In the fall of 1992, I got a request from Don and Nancy Tubesing, owners of Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers, a small Duluth company, to write a book based on my radio program. It would be their second book in a series they were calling “Appointment with Nature”; this one would be titled For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide. What they wanted was very specific—365 short essays, each with a sidebar, one for each day of the year. And they wanted it fast—I signed the contract in November and they wanted the completed manuscript by the first day of spring.

It wasn’t quite as rushed as it sounds. I’d been doing my radio program, “For the Birds,” for more than six years by then, which is why they knew of me and knew I had the kind of material they wanted. 

About a third of the book was drawn directly from whittled down program transcripts, another third involved significantly revised scripts, and a third was written from scratch. I had to stay focused and on task every single day for four months, averaging slightly more than 3 polished entries a day, in order to finish in time.

But before I could even start writing, I had a lot of organizational tasks. Every page was going to have a small drawing by the late Jeff Sonstegard, who needed to know what every page topic was going to be early on.

Fred the Common Nighthawk
Of all the drawings Jeff Sonstegard did for the book, this was my favorite of all: Fred, my education nighthawk. 
Jeff also would be producing a dozen larger drawings to go on the opening page for each month.

Those drawings would also be printed in paler form at the bottom of each daily entry.

Jeff needed to finish the large format drawings by January, and all the rest of them by early April, which was a major endeavor. So I needed first to settle on appropriate themes and species for each month, and then plotted out the topics of all 365 essays so he had them early on. 

To accomplish this, I got a loose-leaf notebook and drew into each two-page spread a generic month calendar, each day’s square sized to fit a post-it note. I put in some obvious date-related topics first. I wanted to start the year with the Black-capped Chickadee. For Russ’s and my children’s birthday entries, I wrote about their favorite birds. I didn't write the book in order, but could mark each of the 365 post-it notes as I finished each essay/sidebar, so I never lost track of what still needed to be done.

Of all the essays I wrote for "For the Birds," this one about the Snowy Owl, placed on Russ's birthday, was the one I was most asked for at readings.

Oddly enough, even though I'd specifically put Russ's and my kids' favorite birds on their birthdays, it never occurred to me that a great many people looking it over in bookstores would immediately turn to their birthdays. I once received an email from a man with a February 18 birthday who was delighted that his birthday entry was about plastic lawn flamingos.

I can't remember anyone with a November 3 birthday telling me about their reaction to the topic on that day--tapeworms!

I wrote about the Passenger Pigeon on September 1, the anniversary date of the death of Martha, which marked the species’ extinction. I wrote the April Fools Day entry as if Big Bird were a real species. I wrote about starlings on Shakespeare’s birthday, because their introduction to America was inspired by a club trying to honor Shakespeare by releasing in America every bird mentioned in one of his plays. Here and there were a few other date-related topics.

I also had to keep all the essays properly seasonal. I needed each one to stand alone, but I figured most people would read it in order, so I also wanted the book to build on what had come before rather than be static or random. The January entries included basic information about bird feeding, I put tips about birdhouses in early spring, and wove in lots of conservation information throughout, trying not to be heavy handed, and building up so my largest messages about the perils birds face would be near the end, trusting that by then readers would care more about their plight.

I also set as a task to end the book with the word “love,” but also with my best one liner joke—the essay/sidebar format was perfect for that.

The sidebar ends with my best one-liner, the main essay with the word "love." 
It took a while to plot out all 365 topics, and as I got writing, I got new ideas, or had a sudden reason to move a topic to a different date. So I kept in close communication with both my editor and Jeff, and gave Jeff the high-priority drawing topics first—the ones I was absolutely certain would be in the book. I researched out most of the reference photos he used, too.

The book ended up selling great guns thanks to how beautifully it was produced by Pfeifer-Hamilton and how effective their marketing team was. And they were effective. They managed to get wonderful blurbs from such luminaries as Chandler Robbins, Frank Gill (who'd written the ornithology textbook that was then and, in updated editions, is currently still in use in university ornithology classes), Joe T. Marshall of the Smithsonian, and even Pulitzer-Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry.

Postcard from Dave Barry
This is the endorsement Dave Barry wrote: "This book is invaluable. For example, it states that as many as 1,600 tapeworms have been found in a single duck. This is the kind of information I use every day."
Thanks to that great marketing, For the Birds, released in September 1993, sold out the first week. (I am not making that up.) A rushed second printing sold out before Christmas. Those two printings had been for 5,000 books each, so the third printing was for 10,000, and by 1995 it went into a fourth printing, again of 10,000. The Tubesings retired just a few years later, and the University of Minnesota Press picked up both For the Birds and my second book, Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award). Both titles are still available. Unfortunately, Sharing the Wonder is badly out of date, and some information in For the Birds isn't accurate, either.

Two editorial changes made by Pfeifer-Hamilton's out-of-house copy editor still rankle. On the page about gynandromorphs, she researched some inaccurate information about sex chromosomes, and changed what I'd correctly written as the W and Z chromosomes to X and O chromosomes; my publishers accepted her change. Now that whole essay is out-of-date anyway, because it's been discovered that bilateral gynandromorphic birds are actually chimeras--two embryos fused together into one single individual.

Another change was even more irritating, for different reasons. After explaining that the skeletons of "bird-hipped dinosaurs" were more similar to birds than to other reptiles, I ended the essay about birds and dinosaurs with this:
It's hard to explain extinction to a small child. Even if dinosaurs were true reptiles rather than birds, it's appealing to look at a tiny chickadee and imagine that it embodies the spirit, and maybe something of the physical presence, of a lumbering Brontosaurus. 
Annoyingly, the copy editor had read somewhere that Brontosaurus was no longer considered a valid dinosaur, and she changed the final phrase to the woefully unalliterative "lumbering Apatosaurus." Pfeifer-Hamilton would not allow me to change it back--the best I could do was change the species to Brachiosaurus. It wasn't too long afterward that Stephen Jay Gould published his Bully for Brontosaurus. I still get mad thinking about this one even though—I know I know I know—Brontosaurus was not a bird-hipped dinosaur, anyway.

As big an ego trip as it was for me when For the Birds became a regional best seller and won some awards, it was exhausting to write. Because of the design constraints, I had no flexibility at all regarding how long each essay could be. Some topics deserved more in-depth treatment than a single page could offer, so one of the most time-consuming elements in the writing was paring those down to essentials. I became a master of conciseness. In a few cases, I could give a storyline the space it deserved by stretching it over two or even three days. In those few cases, I worked very hard to have each stand on its own even as I knew that group of essays would be best read in a single reading, or at least consecutively. I certainly didn’t want to waste words and space telling the reader the story would be continued in the next essay, and also didn’t want to waste space referring people to related essays on other pages—that’s what indexes are for. I made sure my terminology was self-explanatory even when I covered a concept in more depth elsewhere. This was a fun challenge, and the heavy editing it required for me to keep each page to the exact size needs made me see firsthand that most of the time, cutting away words makes writing better.

Nevertheless, even as I developed more skills at being concise, and even as I appreciated that this format was exactly right for a calendar book, I was drained by the time it was finished, and decided I’d rather have more breathing room to treat topics with as many or as few words as the topic deserved rather than as the page format dictated. My 101 Ways to Help Birds included, essentially, 101 essays, but was laid out so it worked even with some essays less than a page while one runs almost 20 pages.

I’ve been even more constrained by page design in a few other books I did, most notably my National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America and my American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Minnesota. As in a calendar book, page design in a field guide is critical, with space constraints baked into the recipe. Fortunately, the formats of most of my other books have been flexible.

I’m writing about this right now because I’ve been reading a book with as tight a design model as For the Birds, but without any compelling reason for it. And on most pages, that book refers the reader to at least one and as many as five or six different pages—on one single page, there are eleven!—breaking up sentences and paragraphs that otherwise would read beautifully, and it’s been driving me crazy. I’m not naming names—I doubt anyone else will even notice that about the book. But I find it irritating and even hurtful that that writer’s agent rejected out-of-hand a book proposal I sent him a few months ago about a collection of my “close encounters” essays. Without reading a single one, he said no one is interested in books of essays anymore. I guess my reaction to this new book he himself represented supports his decision.

Meanwhile, For the Birds continues to sell a few copies each year, and I still hear from people who love it. In 2011 when I was at a booksigning event in the Twin Cities with my then-new book Twelve Owls, a couple asked me to re-sign their first edition copy of For the Birds.

Vintage copy of For the Birds!

Conversation with Caroline Van Hemert, Part II: Planning and Packing for an Adventure

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
When I go on a birding road trip, I like to have the flexibility to check into an inexpensive motel or quiet campground as needed. I hardly rough it—I grind my coffee ahead of time and use a pour-over funnel and a washable, reusable filter, so all I need is 2 cups of boiled water to make a superb cup of bird-friendly coffee each morning. I keep an air mattress, sleeping bag, and pillows in my car, and sometimes a small tent. I fill two gallon jugs with fresh water before each trip, refilling as needed, and keep a supply of Fig Newtons handy. There were two or three days of my Big Year when I ate nothing else. I pack for whatever the weather may bring, and of course add my binoculars, cameras and bird recording equipment. In other words, I try to be prepared, but always figure I can get help and supplies as needed on the road. 

When Caroline Van Hemert and her husband Pat Farrell left on their 6-month, 4,000-mile journey through the Alaskan wilderness by rowboat, skis, boots, pack rafts, and canoes, they not only couldn’t count on picking up supplies just anywhere—everything they brought, they had to be able to carry on their backs through vast parts of their journey. When I interviewed her about her new book, The Sun Is a Compass, I asked her how they made decisions about how to get about on each leg of the journey and how to manage having the supplies they needed throughout.
It was a combination of trying to come up with the best way to travel through a given area but then also minimizing the number of transitions. We were relying on the postal service for most of our food resupplies and any gear swaps that we needed to do, with just a couple of exceptions. My parents did a gear pick-up for us in Dawson when we needed to get rid of our skis and get more of our backpacking, hiking equipment. And, like I mentioned, we slept at the cabin to do another gear swap.   
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
And we had one air drop in the western Brooks Range that almost turned disastrous. In general we tried to choose modes of transport that works best for that particular landscape or body of water without requiring us to do crazy logistical things to get boats from one place to another.  
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Specifically, we chose the rowboats for coming up the Inside Passage because we really wanted to use our entire bodies, not just our upper bodies, because we were going to be transitioning to skiing and hiking. We knew that if we were sitting in kayaks for six or eight weeks with our legs just kind of atrophying it might be a really difficult transition. So that was one of the motivations for rowing. We were also interested in stable they would be, because we knew it would be a pretty stormy spring period. They’re pretty “beamy” boats; they have 10-foot-long oars so you have essentially these large outriggers. They ended up being very stable in even pretty big seas.  
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The big disadvantage, we discovered when we were planning, was the fact that expedition-style rowboats are just not commercially available. We had already mentally committed to the idea of rowing at that point, and the only thing we had come up with was the option of Pat building the boats. Fortunately, he is a builder by training. It wasn’t a job that he needed to take on at that moment, but he did, and the boats were pretty amazing assets to have on the trip, but they came at a bit of a time cost.    
The pack rafts were a pretty obvious decision because they allowed us to cross over so many different drainages and cover large swaths of Alaska that wouldn’t otherwise be possible if we were just hiking or just boating. 
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The canoeing—those were sections where we had the luxury of being able to get a boat available to us; between White Horse and Dawson City is a pretty popular canoeing route and so there was already a rental company in place that we could easily pick up a boat and drop it off, and it was logistically straightforward. That was nice, and it was a luxury to have all that space rather than being in our little pack rafts. The same thing for the Noatak River—a canoe was very preferable to the pack rafts, and we were able to get an airdrop there with a canoe in it.  

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Conversation with Caroline Van Hemert, Part I: Where she went on her wilderness journey

Photo copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Today is the day that Little, Brown Sparks publishers rolls out what I think is the greatest birding epic of all time, Caroline Van Hemert’s superb The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds. Caroline Van Hemert allowed me to interview her by phone last week. I wish my engineering and production skills were worthy of the wonderful conversation, so bear with me. Here Caroline reads a couple of paragraphs from the Prologue, when they were about three quarters done with their journey (Listen to today's conversation here):
It’s the fifth of August, 2012. Over the last 139 days, we have traversed nearly three thousand miles, most recently through places so lightly traveled our topographic maps have little to say about them. Only the highest peaks are labeled, and then solely by elevation. The Brooks Range is the northernmost major mountain range on earth and has retained its integrity in ways that few places have. Many of the creeks and valleys are nameless, their curves and riffles left unexplored. There are no soft edges here, no boardwalks or trails or park rangers. It’s wild, empty, and gritty.   
We’re here because we’re attempting to travel entirely under our own power from the Pacific Northwest to a remote corner of the Alaskan Arctic. We’re here because we need wilderness like we need water or air. Like we need each other. For me, this trip is also a journey back to trees and birdsong, to lichen and hoof prints. Before leaving, I had lost my way on the path that carried me from biology to natural wonder. I had forgotten what it meant, not only in my mind, but in my heart, to be a scientist.
Photo copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Caroline and her husband Pat did this entire trip without any motorized transportation, entirely on their own. This week she’ll be telling us about some of her encounters with wildlife and her wonderful chickadee research. But to start out, today she’ll explain exactly where they went.
We started in Bellingham, Washington, in the northwest corner of Washington State, and took rowboats up the Inside Passage to a remote cabin we had built several years before, in southeast Alaska near Haines. And from there we left our rowboats and swapped those out for skis and pack rafts. For any listeners who aren’t familiar with pack rafts, they’re these amazing little rubber rafts that you can roll up and put in your backpack—they’re very lightweight and allow you to be amphibious, which can be really handy in certain places in Alaska and the North in general.   
We took our pack rafts with our skis strapped on across the water to cross the Coast Mountain Range by skis, and then got into the headwaters of the Yukon River, where we picked up a canoe and canoed to Dawson City, and then continued from there by pack raft and on foot, east into the Wind River drainage and up into the Mackenzie River drainage and eventually made our way to the Arctic coast.  
From the Arctic coast we headed west to the Alaska border, hiking and pack rafting as we went until we hit a community called Kaktovik, which is essentially the gateway to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We crossed through the refuge and got into the Brooks Range Mountains and then traversed west across the Brooks Range until we hit the headwaters of the Noatak River, this amazing river that flows kind of northwest and comes out into the Chukchi Sea. Eventually we went to Kotzebue. The Noatak River was the other section we canoed, reaching Kotzebue just before freeze-up in September. 
Photo copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Caroline Van Hemert told me a lot more about the trip, including logistics of packing for such an adventure and planning and packing for anticipated and unanticipated dangers. I’ll share some of that part of our conversation next time. The Sun Is a Compass is being released today.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Book Review: The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000 Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds, by Caroline Van Hemert

Part I: Why I don't normally enjoy reading books about epic adventures. You can cut to the chase and go straight to the review by clicking here.

I’ve often said that if I were to start a rock group, I’d probably be the only member, and I'd call myself the Pathological Moseyer. I’ve always been a plodding, lackadaisical sort of person, not the least bit inclined toward athletics or tests of physical prowess and endurance. Surprisingly, I was on a sports team once—as an undergrad, I was on Michigan State’s women’s fencing team. I loved fencing's precision and strategizing, and I could muster the necessary physical grace for foil fencing that I didn’t have for dance or anything else. I was skinny back then, providing a smaller target than most competitors, but my height was a handicap—being shorter than every woman on our college team and every woman I faced in competition meant I had to be quicker mentally to lure them close enough for me to touch before they realized they should have already touched me. 

The only photographic evidence of my short-lived fencing career
The only photographic evidence of my fencing days, though this was from high school. I'm not one of the fencers here. I'm the scorekeeper standing closest but with my back to the camera. 
That was before the Big Ten had women’s fencing, but the men’s coach found that horrifying, so he started up a women’s team on his own time and let us work out and practice with the guys. Because this wasn’t sanctioned or official, he didn’t require us to do the entire men’s workout routine, but we wanted to. I took pride in running five miles with them each day and keeping up with them on pushups, too. I could have done without the pushups, but I loved running, at least I did back before I was a birder. I tried a couple of times to get back into running after I started noticing bird songs, but the urge to stop and look at birds was far, far stronger in me than the urge to press on, so that was that.

Since becoming a birder, the most physically taxing thing I’ve ever done was to ride my Schwinn 3-speed bicycle 60 miles from home to my in-laws’ place in Port Wing, Wisconsin one June day. I love biking, but again, it didn’t work as well as I expected. The soft purring of the gears when I coasted interfered with hearing Le Conte’s Sparrows, Sedge Wrens, and several warblers, meaning I kept coming to a complete stop to hear birds whether I was going past pastures or woods along Highway 13. It took over 6 hours to make it the 60 miles. 

I’m a good if poky walker, but no one in my family likes to walk with me because I'm so slow. On family hikes, if the trail forms a loop, they invariably lap me, and even when they go around twice, they’re all done well before I get back from my first loop. I always see a lot more birds than they do, but even going faster, they notice plenty of things I miss. Their eyes and ears may not be as quickly receptive to the movements and sounds of birds, but unlike mine, their eyes and ears don’t filter out everything else

So except when leading a bird hike in Duluth or on a birding festival, or hiking on a birding tour, I usually hike by myself. The riskiest hike I ever did entirely alone was a 12-mile loop trail in Big Bend National Park in July 2013 to see a Colima Warbler. That hike took 10 1/2 hours, was entirely out of cell phone range, and was the only time in my entire life that I've come upon a mountain lion. When I had my heart attack two years later, a cardiologist told me about my congenital aneurism in a coronary artery and said that the heart attack could have happened at any time in my life, adding that if it had happened on this hike, "That would have been one happy mountain lion."

I have cross-country skis, but the shish-shish drives me crazy. I much prefer moving about on slow, quiet snowshoes. Even then, I’m a moseyer—If I’m snowshoeing with anyone else, I always bring up the rear.

Photon in the Wichita Mountains

Despite being poky and non-athletic, I do engage in some adventures that friends, including other birders, consider too risky, not even counting mountain lions. I’ve camped in a small tent or in my car, all alone or with a small, friendly dog, in lots of places over the years.

My campsite in the Wichita Mountains

During my Big Year, I camped alone at Lake Umbagog State Park in Maine, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, and Water Canyon Campground near Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, as well as camping with my friend Eric Bowman at Yosemite that year.

On long road trips during my Big Year, I didn’t bring camping gear except my sleeping bag, an air mattress, and my pillow, depending on a supply of Fig Newtons when I didn't have a chance to shop for food, and I often slept in my car. People said they hoped that I at least kept the car locked all night and brought a gun, but no, I did the opposite. When I was a teenager, I was almost killed by a family member suffering from PTSD, and after talking him down with that gun pointed straight at me, there is no way I’ll ever own or travel with one, or allow one in my home. When camping, I always slept with my car windows open except when it rained—you can’t hear birds in a locked up car. The night I spent at Water Canyon I kept the hatchback of my Prius open all night. That’s where my head was, and all night long I dozed to the wonderful music of a Flammulated Owl.

Camping in my Prius in Water Canyon

Maybe because I’m not athletic and not particularly willing to take most kinds of physical risks, and am perfectly happy moseying through life, I’m not particularly drawn to fictional or true-life adventure tales. And I do very few book reviews on For the Birds—as much as I read and love books, I seldom go bonkers over them, and have never fallen in love with an adventure tale. So some people may find it strange that I’m devoting this entire week to a book about one adventure of the kind I'd never consider doing.

Part II: The Review.

Caroline Van Hemert’s The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000 Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds is ever so much more than one woman's beautifully written account of a thrilling, dangerous, triumphant wilderness journey that she and her husband made in 2012, traveling from Bellingham, Washington, all the way up to the Arctic Ocean and across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, just the two of them, with a few pre-planned drop-offs of food and supplies via the US Postal Service and Van Hemert’s parents.

The Prologue pulls us right into the story. She writes:
When we committed to this project—to travel from rainforest to ice-filled sea, from the edge of the continental United States to the edge of the earth—we decided it would be completely on our terms. No roads, no trails, and no motors. We would travel by foot, on skis, in rowboats, rafts, and canoes. We would use only our own muscles to carry us through some of the wildest places left on earth. This wasn’t a mandate borne purely of stubbornness, though Pat and I each possess a healthy dose of that trait, but because it would allow us to know the landscape as intimately as we knew each other. Just getting to remote places wasn’t the point. We could have hired a plane to drop us off at any number of locations that would qualify as the middle of nowhere. But we wanted something different. We wanted to hear the crunch of lichen beneath our feet, to smell the tundra after a rainstorm, to understand how it felt to walk in a caribou’s tracks or paddle alongside a beluga whale.
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The details of their trip preparation and logistics were fascinating. I related to their decision not to bring a gun—they'd factored in the weight of a gun with all their other supplies and the low probability that they'd actually need it, and stuck with bear repellant. They did have frighteningly dangerous encounters with three species of bears, and may well have used a gun during one particularly scary encounter had they brought one. They got into several other dangerous scrapes involving capsizes in treacherous water and near starvation, but—SPOILER ALERT—they made it through the trip alive and well, as did the bears they encountered. About two thirds of the way through, I was so invested in these two young people and Van Hemert's riveting retelling of their adventure that I simply could not put the book down to go to sleep. I stayed up that entire night, finishing it just before dawn. I spent that day a little sleepy but very happy and satisfied.

Caroline Van Hemert is a prominent ornithologist doing important work—I knew her name from her seminal research on deformed bills in Alaska’s chickadees—and so her weaving in birds throughout, especially chickadees, was certain to please my sensibilities. She has spent a lot of time in the laboratory, and a lot of time writing scientific papers, but despite providing plenty of enlightening information, her conversational yet lyrical, elegant prose would make all her references to birds and other wildlife enjoyable for even the most determinedly non-birding reader. Her encounters with two baby Rough-legged Hawks and a family of Brant geese were especially moving and lovely.

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Beyond the adventure, the wild splendor, stories about the wildlife, and the chickadees, woven throughout every page is a wonderful love story about two entirely different people—one a laboratory scientist and writer, the other a dyslexic artist and carpenter who has difficulty writing a postcard—who are so similar in essential ways that their fundamental differences combine in a genuine synergy that carries the two of them through their epic adventure.

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The Sun Is a Compass is graced by beautiful line drawings at the start of every section done by Patrick Farrell, Van Hemert’s husband, who also took many of the photographs in the book.

Caroline Van Hemert was kind enough to give me a nice long phone interview yesterday. I’ll be excerpting from it all week on For the Birds, and making the whole conversation available on a bonus podcast as soon as I can. The Sun Is a Compass will be released on March 19.