Archive for the 'It’s Only Natural: Geology, Environment, Wildlife & More' Category

Mar 14 2017

A Primer on North Declination & Variation by Tamia Nelson

A magnetic compass is a simple instrument. Or so it appears. A needle or card, a graduated housing, maybe a lanyard ring… And that’s that. It doesn’t beep or chirp, it boasts no colorful map display, and it won’t tell you how far it is to your lunch stop. But twist and turn the compass as much as you like, and the needle (or card) continues to point toward the north. Magic? No. Magnetism. And before some physics Ph.D. takes me to task for playing fast and loose with the truth, I should add that the compass needle doesn’t really “point” north. Its orientation is determined by the north-south lines of force established by the earth’s local magnetic field. Still, the result is the same. The needle…er…points north.

What’s that? You’re not impressed? You say your GPS can do this, too, plus show you exactly where you are on the map? Right—though unless your GPS also incorporates a fluxgate (electronic) compass, it will lose track of north just as soon as you stop moving. Nonetheless, by comparison with the all-seeing, all-knowing GPS, the magnetic compass is a one-trick pony.

But what a trick! This simple, trembling needle—a Chinese invention, by the way—gave medieval Europe the key that eventually unlocked all the rooms in Gaia’s great house. That’s no small achievement. And the compass still has a place in paddlers’ packs—or better yet, on their decks and in their hands. A compass is self-powered and self-contained. It doesn’t depend on satellite coverage or batteries, and it’s not subject to sudden, inexplicable crashes. Every electronic device I’ve owned has failed me sooner or later, almost always without warning. No compass has ever let me down.

As simple and straightforward as a compass appears, however, it holds a dark secret. Its north is not the cartographer’s “true” north. Its needle doesn’t point the way to the soon-to-be open waters lapping around the North Pole. And therein lies a story: the story of the other north pole… Read more…

Two Norths

Originally published at on March 14, 2017

Dec 24 2016

The Last Chickadee by Tamia Nelson

The Old Ones were nervous. They took pains to hide their fear from the young birds now facing their first Winter, of course, but this well-meaning deception was always doomed to fail, and little Taiga felt more and more uneasy with every passing minute. Despite this, he made the most of the warm breeze that ruffled the feathers on his breast. He’d already survived one frigid night, after all, waiting patiently for the sun to transit the great unknown country between dusk and dawn, while clear ice formed right across the big lake. That night had seemed endless. He’d been wakened repeatedly by the penetrating cold, hoping each time to see the sun’s red orb inching above the horizon, but instead finding only the wan globe of an icy moon reflected in the frozen lake’s glassy surface. Not even dawn had brought warmth, and snow soon started to fall—big, lazy flakes that drifted down through the gelid air, flakes as light as down and as cheerless as the cry of a hunting hawk. It had snowed all day, blanketing the forest in a white shroud and turning the welcoming landscape into something alien and ominous.… Read more…

The Last Chickadee - Tamia Nelson

Published in incomplete and inaccurately portrayed form at on 23 December 2008

Nov 30 2016

Salmagundi: Of Portage Yokes and Little Lives
by Tamia Nelson & Farwell Forrest


a dish of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions, and seasoning.
• a general mixture; a miscellaneous collection.

    — Oxford American Dictionary

Ever Vigilant

Summer, which not so very long ago stretched before us, full of promise and seemingly endless, is no more. And autumn, that briefest and most poignant of seasons, has come and gone in the blinking of an eye. The wheel of the year spins ceaselessly round, and once again Canoe Country paddlers find themselves on the threshold of winter. All but the largest lakes have frozen over, the rushing waters are mostly stilled, and our boats sit idle under roof or tarp. When “Our Readers Write” last appeared, we were roasting in the record‑braking heat that is our New Model Climate’s new normal. But now it’s ice with everything, and paddling has given way to remembrance of seasons past and dreams of seasons yet to come.

Our fellow travelers in the northern latitudes — those whose “little lives of earth and form” pass largely unnoticed in our species’ near absolute self‑concern — are also preparing for the coming months of chill privation. Each goes about it in his or her own way. The swallows fly south to warmer climes, the bats (those that haven’t already succumbed to Pseudogymnoascus destructans) retreat to their winter roosts in caves, the jays cache seeds by the hundreds in the crevices and hollows of trees, and the chipmunks make final forays in search of stores to add to already well‑stocked subterranean larders.

We’ve long felt that these “little lives” get short shrift. Tweet that you’ve seen a grizzly in your backyard, and your post will be retweeted endlessly. Write that you’ve crossed paths with a chipmunk, however, and the Twittersphere will rival intersteller space in its frosty indifference. This seems unfair. Grizzlies are undoubtedly rarer than chipmunks — and likely to get even rarer in the years to come — but the ubiquitous chipmunk has no less claim on our attention. A commonplace wonder is a wonder still. Would we miss the sun if it failed to return in the spring? You bet we would!… Read more…

Further Reading

Originally published at on 29 November 2016

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Nov 22 2016

Hidden in Plain Sight: Raising a Ghost on the Way to Clinton’s Folly
by Tamia Nelson

No, this isn’t what you’re thinking. I haven’t lapsed into partisan political commentary. This column has nothing to do with the news of the day. My subject is a canal, and though there is a political subtext, it concerns events that were a century old before the current contenders for high office were born. My story begins, not in a boat, but on the highway. I was skirting the western margin of the Adirondacks, on my way to the Mohawk River Valley and an old port city on the Erie Canal, when I spied a ghost. More about the ghost in a minute. First, though, let’s set the scene. The highway I was following threads between the Tug Hill Plateau to the west and the Adirondack Mountains to the east, never straying far from the north‑flowing Black River. You don’t often see the river from the road, but every now and then you can catch a glimpse of it across a farm field, and there are a lot of farm fields. We’re in dairy country. That hasn’t always been the case, however. Two centuries ago, the seemingly endless fields of corn were unbroken woodland.

This is where the ghost comes in. I had just negotiated a gentle bend when the roadway divided to go round what I first thought was a grassy median. As I got closer, however, I realized that the “median” was an old canal cut. I soon passed it by — traveling at 55 mph, it didn’t take long — but then, a short distance to the south, I saw what appeared to be a lock. Now my curiosity was piqued, and since there was a parking area next to the lock, I pulled off the road to take a closer look.

After all, how often do you get to see a ghost close‑up? And this was no ordinary ghost: This ghost had a tale to tell… Read more…

Originally published in incomplete form at on November 8, 2016

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Oct 29 2015

Hanging Out With Chipmunks, or Adventures Among the Dryodytes

Working Without a Net

Paddlesport cries out for its Thorstein Veblen — a modern‑day counterpart to that acerbic chronicler of the iconography of human foibles, whose Theory of the Leisure Class added the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to the English language. Don’t get me wrong, though. Canoeing and kayaking are among the most democratic of recreational activities. Though he grew up in an urban tenement, Farwell was navigating sewage‑flooded streets and fetid river backwaters while he was still learning his multiplication tables, in canoes he’d hammered together from discarded orange crates, years before he could afford to buy a horse‑collar life vest, let alone a “proper” boat. And it’s still possible for would‑be canoeists to kit themselves out for no more than the price of an iPad knockoff — if they’re willing to spend time combing the classifieds and sorting through the miscellaneous dejecta in yard sales, that is.

But conspicuous consumption plays an important part in our sport, nonetheless. Whether consciously or not, we compete to outdo each other in acquiring the symbols of status: trophy trips to the most distant destinations, the newest and shiniest boats in the showroom, the coolest clothing, the most gossamer gear… And nowhere is the competition for standing and status fiercer than in the matter of animal encounters. Who among us boasts of having communed with a common — the name tells you all you need to know — toad? But a fleeting encounter with a barren‑ground grizzly is something altogether different. You’ll have bragging rights on that one for years, particularly if you’ve captured your prey in pixels.

I’m not suggesting this is bad, by the way. The pursuit of trophy trips and gorgeous gear fuels an industry that provides jobs for hundreds of thousands (millions?) of good folks around the world, including a few impecunious hacks like me. And to my mind, that’s a Very Good Thing, indeed. Yet something important is lost in the relentless pursuit of the biggest and the best. Call it innocence, if you like. Or wonder. Or even reverence.


In any event, I try to keep my sense of wonder alive, even when I’m distracted by the temptations of the latest new big thing. And how do I do it? By taking time to look closely and carefully at what I see around me every day. You could call this a celebration of the commonplace, I suppose. Which brings me, after much hemming and hawing, to my subject: the eastern chipmunk… Read more…

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Oct 08 2015

Putting Potholes in the Picture

Of Time and the River

Who has a good word for potholes? Certainly not urban commuters, whose drive to work often resembles a gymkhana, with the only prize on offer being a chance to keep the car out of the tire and alignment shop for one more day. And what about cyclist commuters, those hardy iconoclasts whom you sometimes glimpse though a rain‑streaked windshield, darting among the phalanx of creeping cars like nervous herring swimming through a pod of killer whales? They play the game for even higher stakes, since dropping a wheel into a pothole often means a sudden, violent flip over the ‘bars, with mild concussion perhaps the happiest outcome.

In short, potholes don’t have much of a fan club. But there’s one exception: paddlers. Of course, hitting a pothole at speed when shuttling cars is never a good idea, particularly if your boat isn’t securely tied down. But river potholes are a whole ‘nother story. They’re scenery, not traps for the unwary. (Well, most aren’t, at any rate. Some are big enough to capture a boater, however. Read on.) I have fond memories of long days spent exploring the potholed cliffs along the river that ran past my grandad’s camp. I can still recall my wonder at finding water and pebbles — not to mention an occasional listless trout — in sculpted hollows many feet above the river’s surface. The sense of wonder even survived my disappointment in learning that flash floods had deposited the trout and pebbles in these cliff‑face aquaria, and not some mischievous river sprite. In fact, it was the realization that natural processes were responsible for the apparent miracle that engendered my nascent scientific curiosity.

And, in due course, this same curiosity gave birth to an article for Which, in turn, gave rise to an influx of reader mail, much of which drew my attention to the paucity of illustrations. “Why didn’t you have more pictures?” my interlocutors demanded. The answer was simple: I wrote the column before I’d got my hands on a digital camera, and my stock of slides simply came up short on potholes.

That was then. Nowadays, I’m a digital girl through and through. Farwell is of a different mind. He keeps threatening to unearth his father’s old Smith Corona Sterling portable typewriter, leaving his computer to gather dust on a shelf. (No worry about power outages. No broadband fees. No helpful reminders that he’s using an obsolete browser whenever he checks a reference. Only words on paper. Hmm… There might be something in it.) Still, I’m not ready to go back to the future just yet. So let’s head down to The River for a virtual field trip. But first, we’ll pause on the riverbank for a short, illustrated course in pothole formation… Read more…

Potholes Like You've Never Seen Them Before

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Older Articles »