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December 2010 Story Winners

If you like these stories, you'll love the Conservationist magazine, with its beautiful photos and captivating articles.

First Place

Fly Fishing with My Father

by Emily Selleck, Keene

My father always wore a fedora and a bow tie when he fished the Ausable River - or any river, for that matter. He carried a wicker creel and a wooden net; and his bamboo rods - a Payne, a Hardy, and a Leonard - had been handed down to him by his father.

When I was ten, he took me to Beaver Meadow Pond on the East Branch of the Ausable River to teach me how to fish for browns. I watched him cast, counting out loud on the back cast "One..." and holding it for "two, three..." and "four" on the forecast. I swear nothing moved but his forearm from the elbow, back and forward, from 10 o'clock to 2 o'clock. The fly landed perfectly, exactly where he wanted it, without a ripple, then sunk slowly to where a brown trout was waiting. A swirl of gin-clear water, a brief tussle, and the trout was artfully scooped out. Now, it was my turn. "Think like a trout," was my father's only advice. I took the rod and looked out over the still water.

"Think like a trout. Count One, Two, Three, and Four," ran through my mind as I tried to emulate the man standing by my side. On the count of "Four", I cast forward with such vigor my feet slipped out from under me, and, to my great chagrin, I found myself underwater.

"Well, that's the right idea," my father said as he pulled me up on shore. "Try again." On my next attempt, I kept my feet, but my line landed in a heap, causing the water to break apart in noisy riffles. There were many more attempts that day, and almost all had their inglorious moments. I was sure the fish were laughing, but I was as certain as my father was patient that I would finally land one.

Long shadows of late afternoon had spread across the pond when at last I hooked a brown. My heart was pounding. I was so afraid it would get off the hook that I waded in to try to net it, forgetting that I must "Keep the tip up" as my father was calling out to me. With me waist deep in water, and the rod being all of nine feet long, that was no easy matter but I did it! And soon the fish was in my net.

"Were you thinking like a trout?" my father asked as we walked back to the cottage.
"I was thinking I want dinner," I answered.
"Well, that's the right idea," he replied.

Second Place

Sitting Silent

By Heidi Fuge, Galway

When I first started hunting, my Dad stressed the need for me to sit in the woods very, very still and quiet. He told me that if a deer came by, I was not even to blink. So, I practiced sitting still and would hold my eyes wide and unblinking until they ran with tears. I eventually realized that I didn't need to practice an unblinking stare because how was I to shoot with tears streaming down my face? However, sitting still became very easy for me and I was rewarded for this in a variety of wonderful ways.

One time, while sitting on a log on the edge of field, I felt something strange at my feet and glancing down, noticed a little brown mouse chewing on the edge of my leather boot. Since I was in a fairly exposed position, I knew that I shouldn't move, however I was not pleased to have the mouse chewing on me. So..... V E R Y slowly I raised my foot and shook him off. He was, however, a persistent little guy and kept coming back to chew on my boot. I wouldn't have minded too much, except that I kept picturing him tiring of my boot and deciding to run up my leg. I just KNEW that at the same moment he ran up my leg, a huge buck would appear in the field and I would have to decide whether to jump up and shake off the mouse, who by then would probably be chewing on my face, or shoot the buck. Deciding that movement now was better than movement later, I raised my foot and giving it a very hard flick managed to send the little mouse flying over into a patch of leaves. He sat up, considered his situation, and decided (thank heavens!) that my boot was just not worth it and scampered off. Of course, the monster buck never appeared but I had a good story to tell at the end of the day.

Another time, while comfortably ensconced behind a down log, I had an encounter with a squirrel. Again there I was... still and unblinking... and there was a little red squirrel hip-hopping it's way down the log right toward me. I had the barrel of my gun resting on the log and the squirrel found that to be an interesting perch. Have you ever tried sighting down your gun with a squirrel perched on it? It's pretty impossible. And I couldn't move because I know those squirrels.... Once you disturb them, they let the WHOLE WOODS know exactly where you are and you don't have a moments peace after that. Again the quandary... what was I going to do when that monster buck came charging by? Should I try and get rid of the squirrel now and live with the chattering that would ensue, or should I just sit there and hope that he would go away before the buck arrived? Choices. Choices. Then, the squirrel happened to turn around and look at me. We were almost nose to nose. I swear I was unblinking, but the squirrel saw enough to send it off in a screaming frenzy. It tore up the tree next to me and made so much noise... and for so long... that my Dad even heard it as he came through the woods to get me. No monster buck that day either. But another good story.

Experiences like this happen to all good hunters at some time or other; it's what makes it so easy to sit in the woods for hours on end. There are so many little epics going on around you all the time. If you are sitting silent, you can become a part of them.

Third Place

Anniversary

by William Kowalewski, Hamburg

November 2010 marks my 10-year anniversary as a New York State hunter. I'm no young buck. I'm 43 years old and was quite clearly the old man among the fresh-faced students at my hunter safety course back in the summer of 2000. I write, early on this Sunday morning after the close of another deer season, humbled, humored and eager to share a few of the key observations I've collected in my pack along the wooded trails of Western New York. Perhaps some other "seasoned" New Yorker will be inspired to log-off from the digital world and reconnect with the natural one. There's no password required.

First off, you can do it. You can learn to hunt and become an outdoorsman anywhere at any age. The seeds of my outdoor pursuits were sown by my Boy Scout troop and cultivated through freelance exploration of the woods which once stood behind the ranch homes of my parent's 1960s-era subdivision. While my love of the outdoors sprouted quickly and flourished through summer camp, canoe trips, and hiking the Adirondacks, there was no hunt to harvest as it simply was not in my family tradition. Gradually, college, a career in the military, and the raising of a family took me on other journeys all rewarding but far from afield. Fortunately, in 1999, at the ripe old age of 33, I resettled in my hometown of Hamburg, New York and restarted my journey to hunt. Point of embarkation - the hunter safety course. Thank you to the volunteers who teach it. Without them I would not be writing this today.

Second, be disciplined about keeping a journal of your observations and experiences. While I'll never forget the thunderous crack-boom blue smoke cloud of my first deer harvest (with a 19th century style muzzleloader); my first bowhunting success which yielded a wall-mounter 8-point buck; or the magic of a morning goose hunt shattered by the events of 9/11, I'm amazed at the wealth of subtle details which can fade from memory. I'm also reminded that every day outdoors reaps rewards without bagging, or even seeing, the game you pursue. A quick flip through mine reveals the jaw-dropping beauty of a starlit pre-dawn landscape blanketed by a foot of fresh snow, the regal white owl gliding up the old logging trail and taking his perch a few yards away to study me in my tree-stand, how similar the movement of a turkey and deer can sound in dry leaves, and the snap-crackle-pop of wind driven hardwood limbs in December. There's the sobering onset of panic while lost in darkened woods and the confidence gained by using your training and your compass to find your way out. Oh, and of course, there's the chickadee that sat on the brim of my hat, the racket from squad of woodpeckers, and the turkeys, hawks, eagle, salamanders, toads, frogs, chipmunks, squirrels, possums, raccoons, porcupines, fox, coyote, black bear, and deer who have found their way onto the pages of my logbook.

Finally, share your time and spread the wealth of the outdoors with others. Long, cold, and sometimes lonely days in the woods are now warm with the companionship of my son and my brother-in-law. It's given us the experiences which bridge generational gaps and spark excitement every time we venture out. My son first hunted with me at the age of eight and now at 18, is an accomplished hunter and woodsman. And while he may have scored the first deer on opening morning this past season, the old man held out to last light of the second-to-last day and connected with the biggest buck any of us had ever seen! I'm pretty sure we've created from scratch those classic family hunting traditions I was so desperate for in my youth.

Winner - Young Writers

The Fair Haven Challenge

By Nicholas Calabrese, Camden Middle School, Grade 6

Have you ever won a fishing challenge? I have.

It started out on a cool summer morning when I went fishing on Lake Ontario with my Dad, Dad's friend Paul, and my Uncle. We motored out to the middle of the lake and set the lines. Then we waited about an hour. Bang! The 500 feet of copper fishing line released. The drag on the reel screamed like a supersonic jet taking off. It took me about half an hour to reel in the salmon at the other end. After that my arms felt like noodles. When we got the fish in we weighed it. It was 21 pounds 15 ounces. We put it in the box [cooler]. Soon after that the center downrigger released and my Dad mastered the fishing pole and reeled in a more modest fish. It was 7 pounds 8 ounces. Then we waited for what seemed like an eternity. Bang! We caught another one. It was 16 pounds 11 ounces.

After we caught our fish we brought them by car to Fair Haven. My Dad and Uncle in the front seat and me in the backseat, tired but happy because I had a good day fishing. When we got there I saw the people and the shiny gold awards. I smelled the food being cooked and the smell of fish. We waited for about an hour to weigh-in our fish. I entered my fish in the youth division. I felt the slime of the fish and the scales on the gills as I put it on the scale. We had to wait ten minutes, which seemed like hours, and then the host started to raffle the door prizes off. We didn't get lucky winning any of the door prizes...little did I know how lucky I was going to become.

Then he started to give out the awards. It was getting boring so I went to the bathroom, which was a long ways away. When I returned my uncle told me that I had won the youth division. At first I hesitated, then I walked up to the host and said " I'm Nicholas Calabrese". He said, "Good, how big was your fish?" I said in a confused voice," 21 pounds 15 ounces." Then he said "Here is your award for the biggest salmon in the youth division." He handed me my plaque. I felt the smoothness of the coal black plaque. I heard the applause of the people and the voice of the host. I felt like I was going to cry. Then the host said "and that's not all, you also get your fish mounted for free. So go and get your fish." Then I said "cool." I was so excited I ran as fast as I could and got my fish. I felt like I was going to trip and fall on my face. I brought it back and laid it in the grass for all to see.

After dinner at a BBQ restaurant in Oswego we went home and I told my mom about my action packed day and the winning fish. She was not too happy because now she had to find a place on the wall to hang the mounted fish. Winning the Fair Haven challenge is an outdoor moment I will never forget.

Honorable Mentions

A Good Time Hunting

By Don Mauer, Piercefield

I enjoy bowhunting, as much for the opportunity to observe nature as for the venison. I might not hunt otherwise, because the time I spend in the woods can add up to many hours, sometimes in inclement weather, without ever taking game. The whole outdoor experience is what provides fulfillment for me.

On one occasion, I had spent yet another afternoon in my tree stand watching a transition area between evergreen forest and scrub brush, a good spot for deer that might wander through. The tree itself was straight, but barely strong enough for my perch a mere 12 feet off the ground, so I was glad there was not much wind. The air was moderately cool, and the sky was overcast with high clouds, forecasting rain, but basically a pleasant day to be out regardless of wildlife activity. This was a good thing, because on this particular day there was precious little wildlife activity. Of course there were the inevitable chickadees, whose cheerful whistles and tendency to flit about in close proximity provided welcome entertainment.

The day wore on, however, and with sunset drawing near, I decided it was time to pack it in. After removing the arrow from my bowstring and replacing it in the quiver, I stood up and began to prepare my duffel and bow for lowering to the ground via a clothesline I kept attached to my stand.

Just then I heard the faint snap of a twig, which could signal an approaching deer. I noiselessly replaced the arrow on my bowstring, heart pounding, eyes and ears straining for any further sign. My eye caught movement down through the branches, but the creature that came into view was too small to be a deer, and it was black. Fisher? No. Porcupine? No. It was a bear! A cub, weighing perhaps 30 pounds paused, sniffed the air, and continued his deliberate, but alert progress toward the tree where I waited. "This bear is not alone," I thought to myself, "It's too young." Hardly daring to breathe as I watched, a second cub materialized, and then a third. Triplets! "OK, now Mama Bear can't be far off. Dear God, please don't let the wind blow my scent their way!" Fortunately, my prayer-thought was answered, and I was able to observe the activity of four bears a scant fifteen yards away, all oblivious to my presence. Young as the cubs were, I was amazed that they would be so cautious. Every few steps, one would stop. When it did, the others would test the air with their sensitive noses and look all around. Good thing they didn't look up, or Mama Bear might have paid me a visit in the tree and this story might have had an unhappy ending.

To my relief, but also regret, the family of bruins began to wander off into the gathering darkness, when suddenly Mama decided to bed down at the base of a white pine, not 30 yards from me! I thought, "Now I'm in trouble. Here it is getting dark, no moon, no stars, dark. Dark means black, here in the north woods. Bears are black, here in the north woods. I'm stuck in this tree with a bear and cubs within spitting distance, and right about now my future also looks black, here in the north woods."

But there's one thing that's true about bears. They are almost always hungry. The little ones were craving dinner on this night, and they continued making their way through the forest. After a few tense moments, I was just able to perceive the form of the sow rousing herself and following after. I gave them another half hour before I made my exit. Then I crept out of the woods as quietly as possible, grateful for another lifetime memory-gift from the outdoors.

The Apple Trees of Our Lives

By Susan Debruijn, Cobleskill

Recently, my husband and I were taking our dog, Cooper, for a walk when we came upon an old, craggy, apple tree. As I stood by the trunk and looked upward into its gnarled branches, I was instantly transformed back to my childhood and the apple tree that was my refuge.

After my sisters and I had grown up and moved away, our childhood home in suburban Buffalo had been sold and, therefore, I hadn't thought about the apple tree in a very long time. It had been my secret place. The place I ran to when my sisters were teasing me, or where I huddled in shame when I had done something to disappoint my mother. I would climb the tree and hide when neighborhood kids taunted me for being puny.

That apple tree was my first true friend. It always welcomed me into its majestic branches, which felt like arms that cradled me. I shared all my secrets with my friend the tree, and it never questioned the insignificance of them. It embraced me and held me safely above the world.

That is my memory. But, as always, the reality was somewhat different. Truthfully, I shared the apple tree with my five sisters and various other kids on the block. We each had our special place within its magnificence of branches that we claimed as our own. At times it would be raucous with giggling and calling out to each other to ask if we could come visiting to their part of the tree. At other times the crowd in the tree was perfectly silent while we spied on the world around us, assuming that no one knew we were there. How many little girls can one old apple tree hold simultaneously? An infinite number.

However, the occasions when I was alone in my tree were the most special. During those times, I might sit in a place that belonged to one of my sisters; just to flex the invisible muscle of my independence. I would dream of moving from the bedroom I shared in the house, to my very own room in that special tree. I could imagine setting up house and never coming down again. And, of course, it would be up to me, and only me, to allow others in when I chose to.

But invariably I would hear my sisters having fun without me, or smell the chocolate chip cookies that my mother was making from scratch. My father might pull in the driveway, home from a long day at work, and then I would be drawn from that secret place, leaving the comfort of my tree friend to rejoin my family.

It occurred to me that day as I stood beneath the beautifully ugly old tree whose limbs were tangled with vines, that as adults we no longer have that type of temporary sanctuary. Nor that safe haven we share with those we love, but also have all to ourselves when we need it. But then, the need isn't the same anymore either. The lessons we learned in the apple trees of our childhood have carried us through our lives and molded us into the adults we've become. Perhaps with limbs a bit gnarled and looking somewhat craggy; but still tender, caring, people who embrace those in need.

Camping With Zac

by Carol Creswell, East Bloomfield

Life by the pond in the summer is sweet. The heron greets us every morning as we wake to birdsong by the gentle hills of the Bristol Valley. Spring blossoms give way to lush greenery, and frogs sing their song in the dusk. Ducks and occasional geese find their way to a smooth landing on the water, and sometimes they stay until autumn paints the leaves. The best days, though, are when Zac and his brothers come to stay for a day.

The little boys run and laugh and roll down the hill till they're dizzy. We push our Zac in his wheelchair over to the water and let him watch the fishes jump in the pond. We bait a hook for him and help him hold a pole with its wiggly worm. There's always a tug on the line, and Zac's smile would warm up the world. He gets very excited to see the almost-immediate 'catch of the day'...a little bluegill is wriggling on the line!

Zac is one joyful kid, and his face is wreathed in smiles. Although his cerebral palsy prevents him from verbalizing his happiness, he squirms and giggles and smiles in abject joy.

His dad Claude loves to come to the camp and play ball with his boys, or pull Zac on his back through the water of the pool. Zac really likes the motion of being whirled on the little merry go round at the campsite, which is no mean trick in a wheelchair. Fishing, however, is the best fun. Every one goes home at twilight, wreathed in smiles after the outdoor romps of the day.

Lesson Plan

by Katie Fox, West Nyack

I walked around the room with a bobcat wrapped around my arm and wondered if anyone knew what I was talking about. As an intern at the D.E.C.'s Rogers Environmental Education Center, I'd had my share of challenges in communicating with the ever-changing variety of people who participated in our programs. However, I'd never had the challenge of presenting the Mammals lesson to a group of kids who had disabilities that prevented them from being able to speak, or perhaps to even understand what I was saying. My boss, Mr. Fred von Mechow, was sitting in on the lesson, which was making me distinctly nervous. How, I thought, could I make this program successful if I couldn't impart the lesson's significance to these kids?

I'd hidden the head portion of the bobcat pelt (all of the pelts had been donated to the Center for educational purposes) because I knew that it might frighten some of the kids, so I looked like I was wearing a muff as I walked around the circled group. Some of the children were in wheelchairs, their eyes not seeming to notice me at all. Some were sitting cross-legged on the floor, their aides close by. Some were making sporadic sounds, some were still as though frozen and some were watching me and (thankfully!) answering some of the questions I was asking. But I fought the instinct to direct my presentation to the latter alone and visited each child in turn, giving each the choice to pet the bobcat fur or not.

How much were these kids actually learning? I asked myself a dozen times during that lesson. I'd worked my way up from ermine fur all the way to the coyote and was just about done. Typically, I saved the bobcat fur for the end because it was everyone's favorite. It was exceedingly soft, and the markings were striking. I made my rounds with it and, somewhere in the middle of the group, found myself holding it out to a little boy. He looked terribly delicate, his skin almost translucent. I asked him, "What might a bobcat like this one eat?" He reached out, touched the fur. And then he encircled the fur-and my arm-in a massive hug and buried his face in the soft fur. "Uh," I said, my nerves imploding. My presentation, such as it was, had just come to an absolute, stuttering halt, and my boss was right there, watching how horrible a job I was doing. Meanwhile, there was a kid latched onto my arm with no sign of loosening his surprisingly strong grip.

When my panic receded a little, I noticed that he was smiling as his fingers stroked the fur, his cheek pressed into the pelt. He looked up at me.

I suddenly understood, in one of those brilliant flashes of insight that you always read about but only rarely experience.

He, a child with disabilities in the middle of Syracuse, who might as well be worlds away from true wilderness, had the opportunity to touch the fur of some of New York's most elusive and beautiful creatures. It was that moment in which I understood that my role as an outdoor educator had to surpass the carefully planned lesson and the script I'd developed over the previous two and a half months. For this child, the amount of information I could impart might be limited. Sometimes, I realized, the lesson was as simple as touch and texture. And sometimes, the lesson is meant for the educator, delivered in the form of a no-holds-barred hug and a genuine smile. I'd brought him a portion of the outdoor world, and while he might not have understood the science behind the animal, he appreciated the bobcat's fur no less than I. He even gave me one last gift as he released my arm at last and I moved to the next child.

"Maybe mice?" he guessed.

Trek

By Christopher John Pelosi, Syracuse

It was a few years ago now; mid-May. The air was filled with the crispness of spring. The waves were lapping as we put in our canoes and loaded them with gear. The serenity was almost enough to put the black flies out of our minds for a moment, almost. This was a particularly fine afternoon, the perfect day to begin the voyage.

The waves of Long Lake rolled slowly as we paddled up and down, up and down. With the wind at our backs we moved quickly, and the Adirondacks opened up to us on the horizon; a blue-grey background of majestic peaks, with a vivid green foreground, dark in patches where puffy white clouds were overhead. We made good time that first day, considering the amount of time we spent swatting flies. We set up camp at the north end and prepared dinner.

I can remember the fresh smell of the breaded perch, the aromas of our cedar-fueled fire, the relief as I kicked up my feet, and pondered the surroundings. We slept soundly that night; there is no sweeter lullaby than the stillness of nature, the gentle hymn of the Adirondacks.

We awoke at dawn and prepared for the day, ate breakfast and threw our gear back into the canoes and paddled down to the Raquette River. As the sun baked the fog off of the water we were reintroduced to our black fly nemesis, and our head nets were quickly reapplied. Paddling, swatting black flies, exchanging jokes over our walkie-talkies, soaking in the surroundings; there is little in life that can replace an experience in such an astounding place as this.

We passed a few beaver, a small dam, and even saw a juvenile bald eagle perched up on a branch. The birch and pine hung over the water and we were fully immersed in the moment as we made it to the portage. We were packed a bit heavy, so it took some muscle and a lot of extra time to ship our gear down the mile and a quarter trail around the falls, but we made it. We passed a Ranger who warned us it was getting just a bit too late to be back on the water, but the campsite on the portage was occupied so we had no other choice.

We were sore and tired and had quite a time finding a site open on the other side of the portage. We paddled for a while and finally reached a site with a lean-to. We pulled up, tied off, and no sooner did we pull out our sleeping bags then did we fall into a deep sleep.

Morning came, and with it rain; not a welcome sight on the voyage of a lifetime, but something to add to the adventure, and relieve us of the black flies. We pulled out our rain-gear, ate a hearty breakfast and set back out towards Tupper Lake. It was a rough paddle, compounded by the rain, the sore muscles from the portage, and the sneaking way the river seemed to turn in complete circles. Lunchtime called for a roaring fire to dry ourselves, and we roasted hot dogs. Despite the rain our spirits were high, and we still managed to crack a joke or two. We set back out and continued on our way, reaching the Tupper Lake boat launch by dinner.

Loading up our gear, no one spoke much. We got our stuff back in order, and drove back to Long Lake and got some gas and ice cream at Stewart's and decompressed. We each realized we had lived through something; done something a lot of people don't get to do anymore. I thought about the perch, the bald eagle, the jokes, the black flies; it was the trip of a lifetime, an experience in the Adirondacks that I won't soon forget.