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What's the Point?

Okay, so we know how I’ll benefit from this endeavor. I’ll gain experience in the great outdoors that will help me write a better book set in the Adirondacks. But you, my dear reader, may well be asking, “What’s in all this for me?” Hopefully you’ll gain a little knowledge, have a few laughs, and vicariously enjoy a sense of adventure. Think of it as a modern-day Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where you get to sit comfortably at your computer screen – much like Marlin Perkins watching from a safe distance behind some bushes. I, on the other hand, will go out into the wild, ala Jim Fowler, and do all the heavy lifting in an effort to entertain you.

            Well, on second thought…

Entries in Becoming an Outdoors Woman (6)


I Will Survive!

Recently a man became stranded on Mount Marcy and ended up having to spend the night alone in a shelter he dug out of the snow. Fortunately he was rescued the next morning. You can read about it by clicking here. The article discusses things you need to do to survive a winter’s night in the Adirondacks, such as staying with your group, staying calm and dressing properly. The article neglects to mention my cardinal rule for survival: staying home. Think about it – when was the last time you heard “Woman stuck at home with only a glass of wine and a good book. Film at 11.”

            Still, there is a possibility I could become stranded on a cold Adirondack night – like if my car breaks down on the way home from a Winter Clearance Sale at the Lake George outlets. The thought of having to rely on the heat generated by an over-swiped credit card chills me to the toes of my buy-a-pair-get-a-pair-half-off shoes. So I signed up for a winter survival skills workshop through Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW). I figured at the very least I’d learn how to make a shelter out of shopping bags.

Sonny & Sheila Young, certified Adirondack guides based in Saranac Lake, NY, were the instructors. We started the afternoon inside a warm classroom. Considering it was 0° F outside, I assumed we’d stay inside and talk about survival skills in theory. I was wrong.  We were told that after a discussion of necessary supplies and what to do if you unexpectedly have to spend the night in the woods (in the woods? What would I be doing there?), we would go outside and put what we learned into practice.

Sonny asked us what is the most important key to surviving in the winter. I fought the urge to say, “an adequate supply of cabernet.” Which was smart because an unofficial survival tip is don’t tick off the guy who knows how to get you back home. It turns out, the key to winter survival is preparation. We were given a list of the things you should take with you when going outside in the winter – a map, compass, something to help start a fire, extra clothes, and a first aid kit. There was not one mention of brownies, which made me question whether they really were experts. But according to Sonny, people can go quite a while without food. That was news to me because I was already planning what I was going to have for dinner.

            Then they took us out into the woods, gave us all flint strikers, and told us each to start a fire. Everyone took off through the trees to gather things they thought would burn. Unfortunately most things don’t look flammable when they’re covered with snow. Dying a cold and lonely death out there became a distinct possibility despite the fact that buildings were visible through the trees.

            Finally I’d collected enough bark, twigs and sticks to try lighting it with the flint striker. I got plenty of sparks, but none of them took. Then I remembered they’d also given us two matches. I looked around. Everyone was still using the macho striker method but no one had managed to get a fire started. I wondered if using the matches would be considered cheating. Since I was getting colder by the minute, I figured the only one I’d be cheating was Death.


I found a rock under a tree, took one of my matches and struck it against the rock. The match flickered and then went out. Not surprising since I was standing three feet away from my tinder pile at the time. (Note to BOW: consider offering a workshop entitled Survival Skills for People Too Stupid to Live) I would have cried, but my tears were frozen in their ducts.

            I tried the second match, this time leaning over my little pile of tinder, but for some reason it wouldn’t light. I went back to using the striker. All of this had to be done without gloves, so my fingers were turning numb. “It would be nice to warm them by a fire, “ I thought, and then I remembered, “Oh, yeah, I can’t start one!” The irony was as bitter as the wind chill.

Others in the group were getting their fires started. Soon I’d be the only fireless one. I’d seen enough nature shows to know what happens to the weakest in the herd. I took a deep breath, telling myself not to panic and to remain positive. Then I looked down at my pathetic pile of icy twigs and was positive I was going to die.

 There’s an old saying among outdoors people – actually I’m just making this up, but there should be – that you need to save your hide before your pride. So I took that to heart and lit a piece of birch bark in someone else’s fire and used it to start my own. Not exactly kosher, I know, but fortunately there wasn’t a rabbi around to issue a citation.


            I learned a lot of things in that class. First, don’t get stuck in the woods in the middle of winter. Second, if you do get stuck, bring lots of matches. Third, make sure you’re with someone who can start the fire for you. And finally, I don’t care what the experts say; I’m bringing brownies.


Here I am with the fire I (kind of) started.Please disregard all signs of civilization in the background.


It's A Trap!

I have a problem with wild life. Correction: make that wildlife, because my actual life is pretty dull. My most pressing wildlife problem at the moment involves otters that visit my dock every night. I’ve never actually seen one of them, but I’m aware of their presence because they leave what my mother would refer to as their “calling card.” And if that’s their calling card, I assume that they like to call each other “stinky fish poop.”

That’s right – those cute little aquatic animals everyone loves to watch at the aquarium are actually sleek vessels of foul-smelling doom. Nearly every evening they torpedo my dock with droppings that smell like the scrap heap from Satan’s All-Night Sushi Restaurant and Chum Bucket Emporium. Any horizontal surface is fair game for their deposits: dock posts, kayaks, even flip-flops. And what they don’t poop on they drag into the water to play with and leave on the bottom of the lake. Thoughtless bastards.

I’ve tried various things to dissuade them from visiting my dock, including dried coyote urine, which resulted in giving the entire area a festive, unattended restroom vibe. I eventually called a guy who advertised the humane removal and relocation of nuisance animals. He told me, “Lady, it’s outside. There are going to be wild animals. Get used to it.” But I didn’t want to get used to it. I wanted to get even.

So naturally when I learned that the Becoming an Outdoors Woman program (BOW) was offering a course called “Beginning Trapping,” I was eager to sign up. At last, I thought, I’d find a way to be rid of my otter problem. And while I was as it, I might also learn how to keep chipmunks from digging in my garden.

The instructors were knowledgeable and experienced trappers. The first thing they stressed was the importance of responsible trapping and knowing the laws. Then we were told that a responsible trapper must kill a trapped animal quickly and humanely, either by shooting it or by asphyxiation. That’s when I realized that the proper use of Have-a-heart traps would not be on the syllabus. (Fun fact: otters and other aquatic mammals are biologically incapable of taking water into their lungs, so they asphyxiate rather than drown. Now you’re a shoo-in to win the next Grizzly Adams Memorial Trivia Bowl. You’re welcome.)

Once we’d covered the basics in the classroom, we hiked into the woods to observe actual trapping in action. We stopped at a place where the instructors said there were lots of signs that animals had been passing through. I looked around for one of those cute little Bunny X-ing signs, but there’s nothing except trees and rocks. I was going to raise my hand and point out it was impossible to see any animal signs with all this nature in the way. Then I remembered I couldn’t find my way back out of the woods following my own footsteps in the snow, so I decided to keep my mouth shut.


The instructors took out a trap and placed it in what they said was an ideal location. Again, I chose to defer to the experts, because at this point I couldn’t tell a rock from a hard place. Then it was time to bait the trap. My mistake was in thinking that by baiting a trap you would want to use something enticing to lure an animal to the trap. But there’s not a jar of Jif peanut butter or empty tuna fish can to be seen. Which was a good thing because all that hiking had made me hungry and I may have been tempted to go for the bait – trap or no trap.

Instead, one of the instructors whipped out a small vial containing a dark yellowish-green substance that looked like the reason penicillin was invented. She removed the cap, told us to smell it, and like a lemming with a craving for Kool-Aid, I blindly obeyed. An action I immediately regretted.

“What does it smell like?” she asked. I really didn’t know, because – on the plus side – I’d never smelled anything like it before. On the minus side – it was hard to think because I was too busy trying to find a way to reach inside my skull and rip out my own olfactory nerve so I’d never have to smell anything else. Ever again.

The instructor informs us that it’s beaver castor, made from the anal scent glands of beavers. You can buy it over the Internet, or you can also make it yourself. It can get expensive though because first you need a beaver. Then you have to buy it dinner. Otherwise it probably won’t let you anywhere near its anal scent glands. The effort might be worth it, though, because beaver castor glands are also used in perfumes (Axe body spray, anyone?) and is approved by the FDA as a “natural flavoring” (our government hard at work – bon appétit).

  It’s hard to imagine any animal being attracted to this scent. But maybe the idea is that once an animal gets a whiff it loses its will to live and willingly crawls into the trap to die.

Turns out, there’s a lot more to this whole trapping thing than Wile E. Coyote and the Acme Trap Supply Company would lead you to believe. So I guess my dock otters will live to see another day. I’m just going to have to get used to watching where I step.



Pistol Packin' Mama

A while back I posted about my experiences learning to field dress a deer during a Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) weekend. (See Oh, Deer!) Not being a hunter, I’m not sure when I thought I’d ever have a chance to use these newly acquired skills. The only way I was going to come across a dead deer in need of skinning and gutting is if one had a heart attack and keeled over on his way to eating my hostas.

So I was delighted to learn that BOW was also offering classes in beginning shotgun and beginning rifle. Since the closest I’ve ever been to a gun is sitting in the front row of a Quentin Tarantino movie, I decided I’d better ask an expert for advice on which class to take. But not knowing any gun experts and being too lazy to track one down, I asked my husband instead. I took his advice to take the shotgun class because it would “be easier,” never stopping to consider that my husband’s sole experience with firearms is the occasional handling of a water pistol on a hot summer day. Sure, it was a super soaker, but still.

Imagine my surprise when I got there and found out shotgun was the hardest class because we’d be shooting at moving targets. I was relieved to learn that the moving targets were pigeons because first of all, everyone hates pigeons because they make a mess of everything and second, although none of the other women in the class looked to be particularly fast, they all seemed too nice to be considered target-worthy.

We started with a brief lecture on the different types of shotguns and gauges. All I remember about this part is “oh my god they’re going to hand me a loaded gun, oh my god they’re going to hand me a loaded gun” kept running through my head, drowning out any useful information. Then we had the all-important instructions on how to handle guns safely. I was sure they were going to say that the safest way to handle a gun is to keep your hands off of them, but no such luck.


At the range I looked around for the pigeons but all I could see were these orange discs flying through the air. Which was really annoying because they were probably scaring away all the pigeons. I let my classmates go first and watched in amazement as they shattered those discs and then congratulated each other. It was like they were aiming for them, or something.

Finally it was my turn to handle a 12 gauge. With the butt of the gun firmly wedged between my shoulder and cheek to minimize what they euphemistically call “the kick,” I took a deep breath and then said, “pull.” In theory, I would then see one of those orange discs fly in front of my field of vision, I’d follow it with my gun, pull the trigger and blow it out of the sky. In practice, panic caused everything to become a blur, I fired at random, and the disc sailed intact into the woods, free to live another day. The only thing I was in danger of wounding was my pride.

The instructor, baffled by my lack of aim, asked me what I saw when I looked down the barrel. I resisted the urge to say “my own mortality” because I hadn’t come all this way to get carted off the range for a psych eval. So I just said “I’m not sure.” The look on his face confirmed my worst suspicions: my panicked demeanor when pulling the trigger made those people who fire guns into the air at Arab celebrations look like precision sharpshooters. He suggested I take a breather. Away from the guns.

Eventually I decided to try my luck with a 20-gauge shotgun and a different instructor. Al, the 20-gauge instructor, told me to relax and go with the flow, like Tai Chi. I thought of the pajama-clad people I’d seen practicing their Tai Chi in the early morning in a park or on a beach. I had a hard time imagining any of them packing heat. But I followed Al’s advice anyway, and after several attempts I managed to hit one of those discs – while it was in the air, no less. I knew my family would be so proud. “Good news, kids. We’re having pigeon for dinner!”

I moseyed on back to the 12-guage station with more than a hint of swagger in my step and before long I’d bagged me another pigeon. Not wanting to press my luck, I decided to retire. I doubt I’ll be picking up a shotgun anytime soon (cue sound of wildlife around the world breathing a collective sigh of relief), but on the next really hot day, I just might reach for a super soaker.

I've been told this picture of me looks very "Thelma and Louise." I suppose if you squint, I do look a little like a young Brad Pitt.


The clay pigeons. I was excited to use my new-found field dressing skills on them, but they were a little dry and there was not that much meat.



Oh, Deer!

Readers take note: if the story Bambi gives you nightmares, you might want to skip this post, but if Silence of the Lambs is one of your favorite movies then the following should be your cup of venison tea (or chianti).


The carnivorous side of me was getting cranky after sampling nothing but green leafy vegetables in the Essential Edibles class at Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) on Friday afternoon. So I figured the Field Dressing Game class on Saturday morning would balance things out.

Word on the street (or trail, in this case) was that the Silver Bay staffers were snickering because they thought Field Dressing Game was an actual game where one person was “It” and the rest of us raced to come up with the best combination of L.L. Bean boots and Smartwool socks or Patagonia hiking shorts and Northface vests. But I knew we’d be dealing with deer in this class so I prepared by bringing the proper clothing. I just wondered how I’d get a deer to stand still while I put the clothes on him.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the deer would be offering no resistance during class because they were dead. You read that right: dead. Which got me to wondering exactly what the rules of this game were. But I figured that either the stakes were a lot higher than I realized or else someone was a really bad loser.

The instructors, Lou and Angie Berchielli, both outdoors people extraordinaire, batted nary an eyelash as they hauled out what we affectionately referred to as “the bucket o’ deer.”


Bucket o' Deer: It comes with an order of fries and a small drink.


Come to think of it, the deer weren’t batting any eyelashes either. What the deer were doing was giving off an odor that was very attractive to flies. I was able to take my mind off both the odor and the fact that the flies landing on the deer were the same ones I was swatting away from my face with this one overwhelming thought: “what the hell did I get myself into?”

Okay, so I've never gone hunting and have no plans to do so in the future. So taking this particular class was a little like putting the cart before the horse. Or, in this case, the knife before the deer carcass.

The BOW brochure had described the class as “hands on” – I just didn’t think they meant my hands. But it wasn’t long before I was handed a knife and began reenacting a scene from Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman.


That's Dr. Quinn, I mean me, making the first cut. Despite my best

efforts, the patient remained dead.


I’ve got news for you. The smell of the deer on the outside was nothing compared to the smell of the deer on the inside. Lou gave us a mini anatomy lesson as we removed various organs and discussed whether you leave them for the animals in the woods or take them to either eat yourself or give to other people (presumably to friends who don’t rate high enough on your gift list for fruitcake).

Once we’d divvied up the innards, we hung the deer by its hind leg, skinned it, and learned how to butcher and store various cuts of meat – now given a deceptively quaint name that sounds like something you might actually order off a restaurant menu: venison.



AFTER: Yes, the maniacal grin on my face is a little disturbing, but if there's any justice, this is the deer that just ate my hosta.

Lou and Angie also showed us how to dress goose, fish and rabbit (none of them offered any resistance, either). By then it was time to get out of the pouring rain and head to the dining hall for lunch. I had no idea what was on the menu, but I was pretty sure I’d stick with a salad.


Angie shows us how to cut and wrap a venison roast. That's me on the left, deep in thought. Remembering what I learned in the Essential Edibles class the day before, I ponder whether to serve the roast with a wood sorrel reduction or just go with my old standby - burdock root concasse.



Leaf: It's What's For Dinner

I’ve written before about Becoming an Outdoors Woman – the program offered through the New York State DEC that teaches women outdoor skills (see: Fish Tales). As someone who can’t find my way out of a paper bag even when I’m holding a compass that reads “This way out of the paper bag,” I look for any available opportunity to fill the considerable gaps in my knowledge of all things outdoors. So when the program affectionately known as BOW rolled around again, I eagerly jumped in my car and headed off to beautiful Silver Bay on Lake George.

First up on Friday afternoon: a class called Essential Edibles, which promised to teach me about the five essential edibles I’d need to know if I ever became lost in the woods. The five categories are root, stem, bark, flower/berry, and leaf, so you can imagine how my mouth was watering before the class even got started.

This class seemed tailor-made for me because if there’s one thing I hate, it’s being hungry. And since fending off bear can work up quite an appetite, I was anxious to know what I could eat in the woods once my supply of Luna bars ran out. Following a brief introduction, during which we were assured there was enough food outdoors feed us forever, the instructor asked us to go around the room and share with our classmates all the things we already knew we could eat in the wild. Women began rattling off long lists of twiggy and leafy-sounding things that would make only Euell Gibbons drool. When it was my turn, I didn’t have much to share (apparently Hershey Kisses aren’t considered “wild,” even if you find one in the bag that doesn’t have foil on it) so it got pretty quiet in the classroom. Well, there was the sound of crickets chirping (I’m not sure if they’re edible).


Then we went outside to rustle up some grub (Mmmm, grubs – are they edible?). After about 30 minutes of being shown various leaves, grasses, flowers and roots, I came to the realization that “edible” doesn’t necessarily mean things you’d want to eat. It simply means anything that won’t actually kill you. I decided to go out on a limb (get it?) and sample many of these verdant delicacies while I was under the supervision of an expert in the field (get it?).




 What do these things taste like, you ask? Well, you know how when people describe what different meats taste like they always say it tastes like chicken? (rabbit tastes like chicken, frog legs taste like chicken, roadkill tastes like chicken, you get the idea). It’s the same way with green stuff – only instead of tasting like chicken, they all taste like leaves. A maple leaf tastes remarkably like a leaf, plantain tastes like an incredibly bitter leaf. Milkweed – you guessed it – just like a leaf. Ditto for a yellow birch leaf. Some people claimed they had a wintergreen taste, but I swear they were eating TicTacs. Since I hadn’t keeled over yet, all these leaves, while not exactly tasty, did fit the class’s definition of “edible.”



By now I’d worked up a real craving for something that was not green. Since this was a class called Essential Edibles, I knew we’d eventually come around to talking about the most essential edible of all and began searching for a chocolate tree. I didn’t find a tree with chocolate but I did find a lovely pile of Raisinets on the ground.  Someone stopped me before I could see if they were edible, saying they’d been left there by a deer. (I wonder if he knows he has a hole in his backpack?)



Although I learned a lot in this class (I have a new-found respect for weeds) the most important thing I learned is that if you’re planning on hiking into the woods remember to bring along plenty of actual food and be sure to stay within walking distance of a grocery store. When the class ended, it was time to head to the dining hall. I didn’t care what was for dinner, as long as it tasted like chicken.




Don't think of this as a gardening eyesore, think of it as a salad bar.








That's me, on the far right, wondering if I'm standing on my dinner.