Saturday, December 19, 2020

Big Weather

        As if pandemic mayhem was not enough, the weather in 2020 has played pile on as well.

        In California and elsewhere in the West, wildfires destroyed everything in their path. They killed people and burned up critical habitat for endangered species.

The fires torpedoed air quality with massive amounts of smoke and ash. In California, after hard-working, often heroic fire crews fought the flames to a standstill, Santa Ana winds added insult to injury. They not only dried out more vegetation and made it ready for more fires, the winds picked up ash on the ground from the fires, further messing up the air. 

        The Monday December 21, 2020 LA Times brought the further bad news that the Los Angeles area and big parts of Arizona and Nevada are in a severe drought.

On October 7th, a derecho clobbered eastern New York. According to the National Weather Service’s website, “derechos are fast-moving bands of thunderstorms with destructive winds.” “Instead of spinning like a tornado or hurricane,” the website continues, derecho winds “move in straight lines; the word derecho means ‘straight ahead’ in Spanish.”

We did not know any of this when, standing in the living room, we watched the sky darken and heard the wind roaring. Looking out the side window, I saw a white pine limb sailing through the air, like those witches in the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. When I found the limb some days later, it was three inches in diameter and nearly 10 feet long.

Despite the storm's fury, the sun came out within minutes. When we went to the back of the house, we saw the wind had snapped a red spruce, about 80 feet high, in two.

            Although the storm was so loud we did not hear the tree fall, I got a sense of the sound and vibration the fall made after felling the remaining half of the tree several days later.

During the clean up, I broke the chain brake on the chain saw. My friend John Debottis set up a Zoom call and coached me through removing the old brake and installing the new one. At one point, it was such slow going that John got his guitar and played a short concert to fill in the time.

During wind storms, electrical utilities, transportation agencies and their staff face a massive job.  The work is dangerous, physically demanding and requires much coordination.  In an e-mail, Patrick Stella, the Public Information spokesman for National Grid, the utility in our area, offered more detail on the storm.   "We had 250,000 customers out in eastern New York alone on October 7," Stella said. "This event," he continued, "qualified as the most severe weather event for National Grid in all of upstate New York in the past 20 years; the event occurred almost exclusively in greater Capital Region."  

With over 2,700 people mobilized and working long hours, the utility restored power to over 90 percent of its customers in three to four days.  For some reason we waited five days for our lights to come on, even though a contract tree service got the tree off the wire the first day and even though in the end it took two utility workers just minutes  to reactivate service it by poking a piece of electrical hardware with a long pole.

Along with the red spruce, many other trees came down. A black walnut by our back field snapped and hung up in another tree. At the Guilderland Community Garden, the wind snapped off a row of trees.

Many people - - property owners, government workers and utility crews - - have fixed much of the storm’s considerable damage.

But the storm’s fury remains evident, in gaps in the treeline, and in places where downed trees have not yet been cleaned up.

At the end of Wednesday night, December 16th, we saw a gentle snowfall out the window. It was the kind of designer snow that would have been to die for, for the directors of over 100 holiday movies being released this year.

When we awoke on Thursday morning, the view was beyond winter wonderland. Two outdoor tables and the car were hidden under big drifts. Overnight and into the morning, over two feet of snow had fallen.

Our neighbor Dave kindly cleared our driveway. With an hour’s worth of work, the front and back paths got cleared. The snow had different layers: closely packed and slightly wet at the bottom, ski slope-like powder at the top.

This storm had a curious pattern. It dumped snow on eastern and southern New York. But it hardly made it to the coldest part of the State. My friend who lives on the edge of the Lake Ontario snow belt got only three inches of snow. On Long Island, my mother got rain and sleet; an hour away as the crow flies, my sister got a lot of snow.

I put as much of the snow as possible in a pile in the front yard. With some hollowing out, this would make a great igloo!

        But with temperatures forecasted to reach the 50's by week's end, I better get going on making that igloo - - before it melts.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Halloween and Harvest

 How was your Halloween?

In New York’s Capital Region, Halloween was the coldest since 2008. We live on a rural street; that, the pandemic and cold made it even more unlikely that any trick or treaters would come a-calling.

Just in case, we had a bowl of Milky Ways. After we turned out the lights at 8 PM, I took one piece of candy each time I walked past the bowl. The bowl is about a quarter full. Who knew that mooching fat and sugar could be the occasion for so much walking?

Our only live Halloween event was a turkey vulture deciding to sit on a high branch in one of our trees. But the cold weather even knocked the spookiness out of this bird. Instead of circling, as vultures do when they find a meal, it sat forlornly. While I was looking away, it slunk off; no soaring, it just disappeared.

The saving grace for our Halloween were two beautiful pumpkins from our backyard garden. Dorothy advised me to pick them before they ripened completely. We have assorted creatures that like to eat pumpkins. By last week, both pumpkins were ripe and ready for carving.

(photograph by D. Holt)

One of the pumpkins was 25 pounds. This was the biggest pumpkin I ever grew. We saved some seeds to roast and some for gardening in 2021.

No, it's not Ed O'Neill; it's just a giant pumpkin
(photograph by D. Holt)

Pumpkins were a gift that gave three times. The pumpkins themselves were great. The long vines with many large yellow flowers formed a border on two sides of the area where we sat in the yard. On one of the other sides was a stand of tall, colorful zinnias. The third gift will appear at the end of this post.

Pumpkin vines bordering yard
(photograph by D. Holt)

Pumpkin flowers
(photograph by D. Holt)

(photographs by D. Holt)

Giant swallowtail and zinnia
(photograph by J. Rowen)

My 2020 gardening reminds me of the line in that Dolly Parton song, “looking better than a body has a right to . . . “ I got a late start and only got one sunflower that grew as a volunteer in the backyard. The sunflowers that usually grow in my spot in the community garden, and can be transplanted, never showed.

The single sunflower and zinnias
(photograph by D. Holt)

But the harvest was amazing. I started with a few plum tomato plants that soon looked as if they were dying from blight. It turned out they just needed fertilizer. With an insecurity about the plants dying off, I kept buying plants as back ups. I went from 18 to 24 and ended up with 47.

Ailing tomato plants
(photographs by J. Rowen)

We may have had over 300 tomatoes from these plants. Some ended up on sandwiches and in salads. Lots ended up in pasta sauce, in the freezer. All of them were ripe and juicy, unlike the pulpy versions now on offer in the produce section.

Even more compelling than the taste and texture was the smell of a large bowl of tomatoes. Some people who shake hands with a celebrity will not wash their hands for days after. I was tempted not to wash up after picking tomatoes, to prolong enjoying the experience. But there were so many tomatoes, I washed up and knew I could smell the tomatoes the next day.

Each garden visit had ups, downs and surprises. In July, I was mad when I saw that an animal chewed up the cauliflower plants. But on the same visit, I was happy to see the sweet corn thriving. In fact, we planted two waves of sweet corn. In the first, some ears of corn were as big as professionally planted sweet corn; in the second the ears were small, but still tasty.

On another visit, the carrots were not growing, unlike previous years. But pepper plants next to the carrots were flowering and then heavy with peppers. These peppers were great for salads, pizza toppings and stuffed peppers.

When I visited the garden last Thursday, it was sad to see the frost had leveled the tomatoes and peppers. But surprise and happiness came from finding a head of cauliflower that was almost as big as the ones in the supermarket - - and seeing Brussels sprouts stalks almost three feet high.

In the paragraphs above is an obsession with replicating commercial agriculture. On one level that is foolish. When we get carrots, they are smaller than the ones in the supermarket but tastier. Homegrown tomatoes are always better. Many vegetables that do not get large can be sliced to be baked and no one is the wiser about their source.

But with ears of corn, cauliflower heads, Brussels sprouts stalks or eggplant, the vegetable needs to be larger, otherwise it is hard to cook or eat.

The third gift of the pumpkins was that they inspired Dorothy to bake a pumpkin for Halloween. The pie offered an appealing, delicious way to ease the transition from early fall to the impending deep freeze.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Fat Bear Week

Brown Bears fishing at Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park and Preserve

Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service (NPS)/N. Boak

Just when you think you have seen and heard it all . . .

In the online October 3, 2020 New York Times, reporter Johnny Diaz described Fat Bear Week at the Katmai National Park and Preserve, in southwestern Alaska. This event showcases the biggest of the Park’s brown bears; it began in 2014 as Fat Bear Tuesday. Was this a clever play on Mardi Gras, perhaps?

In past years this competition was hosted on the park’s Facebook page. In an effort to enable those without a Facebook account to participate, this year the voting platform moved to a website hosted by park partner,, to help reach a broader audience who can vote. Along with the contest, this website offers many bear cams and still photographs of bears and the other wonders in the Park.

Before discussing the contest, here is some background about Katmai National Park and Preserve. It is southwest of Anchorage and encompasses 4.1 million acres.

What is so noteworthy about this place is that it is large in absolute size - - but small in comparison to the rest of Alaska. If you look at the following map, it contains millions of acres, But this vast landscape is only a tiny sliver of the state!

Katmai National Park and Preserve

The Park has an estimated population of 2,200 brown bears. According to Amber Kraft, the Park’s Interpretation and Education Program Manager, all grizzly bears are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzly bears. Grizzly bears and brown bears are the same species (Ursus (U.) arctos), but grizzly bears are currently considered to be a separate subspecies (U. a. horribilis).

Even though grizzlies are considered to be a subspecies of brown bear, the difference between a grizzly bear and a brown bear is fairly arbitrary. In North America, brown bears are generally considered to be those of the species that have access to coastal food resources such as salmon. Grizzly bears live further inland and typically do not have access to marine-derived food resources.

Besides habitat and diet, there are physical and (arguably) temperamental differences between brown and grizzly bears. Large male brown bears in Katmai can routinely weigh over 1000 pounds (454 kg) in the fall. In contrast, grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park weigh far less on average. There have been no documented cases of grizzly bears in Yellowstone weighing over 900 pounds (408 kg). Additionally, grizzly bears seem to react to humans at greater distances than brown bears.

From a visit to the Park’s website and reading Diaz’s article, it is evident that Fat Bear Week has many fans. In fact, Kraft said, “Going into Fat Bear Tuesday some 406,056 votes have been cast in 2020!” According to the Times’ article, Kimberly Daggerhart of Asheville, North Carolina so loves the bears and the contest that she dresses up for Halloween as her favorite bear.

And speaking of Mr. Diaz’s writing . . . Before coming to the Times, he wrote for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. There must be something in the water in Florida newsrooms. The following observation by Diaz, that the bears that do not advance to the finals, “can, well, go back to eating,” is a comment that reminded me of his former colleagues Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry.

The Katmai staff use all of this congenial hoopla and fun to make important points about the brown bear’s life cycle - - and the value of the park itself. According to Kraft, the contest, “engages the public in learning about the phenomenon of hyperphagia, where brown bears gorge themselves from summer into the fall to prepare for winter hibernation.” Bears must consume enough calories so they can survive winter while hibernating. Bears getting ready to hibernate can eat at such a pace that they put on four pounds per day.

The Park’s website states, “Adult males need to grow large to dominate the best fishing spots and secure mating opportunities. Female bears need to gain weight for their own survival as well as to support the birth and growth of cubs.”

Bears are opportunistic, omnivorous eaters. They seek rich, easily obtainable foods. The Park’s website goes on to say that, “In Katmai National Park, that most often means salmon. Dozens of bears gather at Brooks River to feast on salmon from late June until mid-October. Perhaps no other river on Earth offers bears the chance to feed on salmon for so long.”

An unnamed brown bear catches a salmon; human anglers are jealous - - but are staying far away.

Photograph courtesy of NPS/N. Boak

The Park’s bears can get so fat because of the richness of Katmai National Park and Bristol Bay, Alaska. Learning about the fat bears on the Park’s website will pull readers into the appealing and unique character of the park and bay; Bristol Bay, for example, is home to the largest, healthiest runs of sockeye salmon remaining on the planet.

This photograph of a back country ranger patrol shows the bounty of salmon runs in the park.
Photograph courtesy of NPS

Fat Bear Week is possible through a partnership between Katmai National Park and Preserve, and the Katmai Conservancy.

Since 2012 audiences around the world have been able to enjoy the bears of Brooks River live streamed on’s Bear Cams. This experience is available at

The Katmai Conservancy is the official nonprofit fundraising partner of Katmai National Park and Preserve. The conservancy supports Katmai's unique ecosystems, scenic character, and associated natural and cultural resources by promoting greater public interest, appreciation, and support through education, interpretation, and research. Membership, donations, or online purchases directly support Katmai's research, education, and visitor service priorities.

The contest website includes before and after bear photographs, showing the 12 bears Park staff consider the largest in the spring and then in September. The bears are grouped in brackets, an ursine version of the NCAA’s basketball “March Madness.

Unlike March Madness where teams advance after winning a game, bears advance based on people voting. Mike Fitz, the Park’s Resident Naturalist, offers contest participants the following voting advice:

Overall fatness and body size are only two of many factors you can use to determine who you vote for. You can consider a bear’s annual overall growth like that experienced by cubs and subadult bears. Both subadult bears and cubs grow proportionally more each year then even the biggest adults. Perhaps you want to weigh your vote toward bears with extenuating circumstances such as a mother’s cost of raising cubs or the additional challenges older bears face as they age. A mother bear's ability to gain weight is made more difficult because she must provide for herself and the welfare of her cubs. In short Fat Bear Week is a subjective competition and there is no one correct set of criteria your vote should be based on.

The finalists in this year’s contest are Bear 32, nicknamed “Chunk,” and Bear 747, who has no nickname but, as the following photos show, is the bear equivalent of a Boeing 747.

The top photograph shows Chunk on July 5, 2020.  The bottom photograph shows Chunk in September.

Top photograph courtesy of NPS/T. Carmack; Bottom photograph courtesy of NPS/N. Boak

Park staff first identified Chunk, a male bear in 2007 as an independent, and chunky-looking, two and half year-old. He has become one of the largest adults at Brooks River, where bears gather to hunt salmon, with an estimated weight of over 1,100 pounds.

With his size and strength, Chunk is in the top tier of the bear hierarchy. This allows him greater access to mating opportunities and fishing spots. Like most large bears, Chunk is not hesitant to displace others from the resources he wants.

However, his behavior can also be enigmatic. In recent years he’s shown a tendency to wait patiently to scavenge leftover salmon and even play with other bears. These are two uncommon behaviors for a dominant bear to display.


The top photograph shows Bear 747 on June 30, 2020.  The bottom shows him in September, 2020

Top photograph courtesy of NPS/N. Boak.  Bottom photograph courtesy of NPS.

When 747 was first identified in 2004, he was relatively young, only a few years old and unable to compete with larger bears for the most preferred fishing locations. Since then, he has grown to become one of the most dominant bears during salmon runs - - - and a skilled and efficient angler. Only rival males of comparable size, of which there are very few, can challenge him for the best fishing spots.

Although dominant bears can maintain their rank in the hierarchy through aggression, 747 typically keeps his status by sheer size alone. Most bears recognize they cannot compete with him physically and they back away when he approaches. He was estimated to weigh more than 1,400 pounds in September 2019. He looks to be at least that big this year.

By the time you read this, it may be too late to vote. But you can still visit Katmai’s website and see if Chunk or “747” won. Perhaps more importantly, you can go on to tour the park via website, photo galleries and the bear cams - - to see an amazing place on the West Coast.

Lower Brooks River, Katmai National Park and Preserve
Photograph courtesy of NPS/N. Boak

Author's note: For more bear stories, check out my post on Bear Day, which appeared in February, 2016