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February 2011 Story Winners

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

First Place

Tioughnioga

by Sonjia Turner, Genoa

When I entered my teens, my Dad moved from the dirt roads and forests of the Mariposa to Cuyler. This fifteen-minute drive cut through Chenango, Madison, and Cortland Counties. He lived in the north part of Cuyler near the Tioughnioga River on East Keeney Road. The Tioughnioga was just the right speed for a teenager, not too fast, and not too slow.

My sisters and I had to walk a small stretch of road to get to the swimming hole we had discovered. On either side of the road lay swaths of emerald cornfields whose growth marked summer's passing. We'd linger in the shade of a single towering tree, walk some more, turn off the road, duck under the barbed wire fence, and step into the pasture that the river traveled through. Carefully avoiding the cow pies, we weaved our way through the soft grass of the pasture with patches of buttercups, daisies, clover, and cornflowers. The swimming hole was set back a good distance from the road and had a tall dirt bank. From a running start, I'd leap from the bank and do a karate kick and a triumphant shout before I splashed into the river.

As my teen years came, so did turbulence, and I found great peace at the river. I sat on the shore, the water going by of its own accord, the stones on the river bottom, plentiful and varied beneath the slow changing pastels of the sky. I let this beauty find me. With my tranquility restored, I walked home in the evening light along the edge of the chopped cornfield, rows of short stalks looking like corduroy spread out in the distance. Left behind from the chopper lay the occasional naked ear of corn, the yellow kernels, hard and shiny, held tightly in the burgundy beds of the cob, tasty gems for a woodland animal.

In the wintertime there was ice-skating and snowmobiling. My Dad pushed the snow off the frozen river with a shovel. He played hockey as a boy and was like lightning on the ice. When he came to a quick stop from high speed, a spray of ice like the crest of a wave flew to the side as the metal skate blades scraped the ice. My sisters and I pretended we were practicing our moves for the Olympics. When snowmobiling, I'd tow my younger sisters and brother on a toboggan up and down and around the vast white of the cornfields. Their young faces framed by hats and scarves revealing the joy of the winter ride.

We also went fishing on the river. We picked night crawlers out of the front yard, shining a flashlight on the grass, surveying the ground, and putting the fat wiggly finds in a can. My Dad, cousin, sister Rach and I set out to the river with the stars above us in the indigo sky and the moist smell of the freshly plowed fields. I don't know if we caught anything that night, it was more about just being together. The feeling we had when we walked toward the shore of the river shining in the night was like a secret we were all sharing.

I am fortunate to have grown up in the country, and now that I am old enough to see those days passed, I see that my favorite ones were those with my Dad. There is something given when you are in the grandeur of nature, a healing medicine. No tickets, no rules, no lines, just wide-open beauty. Last Sunday's dinner at my sister's house with our children, Dad drew me a map of how to get to Tinker Falls, telling me, "Take the kids."

Second Place

Hunting Trophies

by Joseph R. Astalfa, Marcy

The sun was just a promise on the horizon as my father and I crept surreptitiously into that fog-shrouded, ethereal vale where his father had taken him so many years before. The woods were thick with May growth, and it took effort to force ourselves through the brush and into the small clearing. No words passed between us as we took our places, sitting back-to-back on either side of a stump that was soft with green lichen.

I set my shotgun across my lap. Dad had purchased the Remington .870 for me as a surprise. The day I finished my N.Y.S. hunter safety course, it had been waiting in the truck when he came to bring me home. I was so excited I could have cried...and maybe I did.

My father began to coax a turkey's voice from his little round slate call, and I tried to croak out passable "yelps" with an old box-call. We alternated periods of calling and silence, always watching the scrub for movement. Hours passed, the day grew hot, and the insects emerged seeking breakfast. Sitting on the ground, I became antsy as my legs fell asleep and the mosquitoes gorged themselves upon me, but I wasn't about to give up. I kept imagining Mom's praise when her boy brought dinner home. The woods remained quiet, however, and no birds found their way into my sights. Another hour passed, Dad put his slate call away, and I dwelled morosely over the idea that my first hunt would not end with me being a hero.

Just then, something rustled in the brush. Dad stopped moving, then reached backward around the stump and gestured to assure me he'd heard the noise as well. I lifted my box-call again, and yelped out an invitation. Anything could have rustled those leaves, but I ignored this thought for fear of jinxing the hunt. I called again, and my pulse quickened as the foliage skirting the clearing parted to reveal a grizzled old tom...but it was my father who had the best shot at it, and I deflated when I realized this. Dad's hand emerged from behind the stump once more. He mimed pulling a trigger, and I realized his gun hadn't moved. He wanted me to take the shot, even though it would risk our losing the bird. This wasn't about success or failure to him. Today was all about me.

I swiveled and hoisted my Remington, but the tom lurched ahead...out of my range of motion. To get a shot now, I would have to stand and turn in plain view of this keen-eyed creature without spooking it. I knew I couldn't succeed, but Dad's hand motioned for me to spin. He knew how much pulling the trigger meant to me, and I was about to attempt that impossible maneuver when something occurred to my adolescent mind.

My lips parted in a low whisper, and I said: "Dad. Take the shot..."

On the way home, I could tell my father was proud. It wasn't because I'd set pride aside, but rather because I had found pride in what we had accomplished together. I understood now that it wasn't just pulling a trigger that brought us success, it was the looking, and the waiting, and even my stuttered yelps from the box call. I understood at last that individual triumph was not the most valuable kind. The trophy we brought home that day belonged to me and my father. A victory made all the more precious because we shared it. In this sharing, we possessed something which would bind us together always.

When my mind drifts to that inevitable time when I will no longer have my father's physical companionship, I know that memories like this one ensure we will never truly be apart.

Thanks for everything, Dad.

Third Place

Our Adirondack Park

by Gary Klena, Queensbury

Unless you believe you have an exceptional memory, grab a little note pad and pencil. In the park you will have experiences with nature that you will want to recount again and again. Old or young, you will need some type of diary of the places you go, the friends at your side, the wildlife, the streams, ponds, lakes and rivers and the trails you took. You may even note the foods cooked or perhaps the weather. Get pictures or even some video. Here is why. As time moves on everything changes. For me I have lived with multiple sclerosis since 1989 having the more disabling situations within the last 4 years.

During the early 60's, I was fortunate to have parents with interests in camping, fishing, hiking and all those good things that stir a child's mind. Maybe it was the kid in them too, but all I know is how thankful I am to have explored in the Adirondack Park. My journey continued on and on after that with so many more stories and experiences. Now I even have my two-year old step son Lex from the Philippines who is already exploring in the back yard.

So, I am not a kid anymore. But what is gnawing at me is the desire to pass down enjoyment of what is out there - the funny, sad, rewarding, beautiful, even magical experiences. It's important to me to keep stories and traditions alive so that those not as fortunate as I can begin building their diary of park stories too. I may be physically disabled but my yearning to enjoy the outdoors is as strong as ever. So, this summer I will enjoy some fishing and camping at the John Dillon Park in Long Lake and at Scaroon Manor on Schroon Lake, both designed with the disabled in mind.

One summer, we went camping with our neighbor and family at Rollins Pond Campground. I miss those good times we had around the water and campfires. Today I can say I even miss that leaky old army pup tent I toughed it out in with one of my brothers while my parents enjoyed the benefits of the dry roof of their camper. We were flooded with any heavy rain no matter how well we thought we prepared. When morning came we were eager to hang up our soaked sleeping bags and hover near the fire or gas cook stove. Breakfast of eggs and bacon on a cold damp morning never tasted so good. I remember some misty mornings hearing the call of a loon family as they were diving up and down or floating along quietly.

It is a good thing to be able to appreciate the outdoors. There is no better place to do that than in the Adirondack Park with all that it has to offer. The mountains, lakes, wilderness and wildlife are like no other place in this country.

Winner - Young Writers

Learning from Nature

Author's Name Withheld
Submitted by M.Rita Buckley RN, East Aurora

When I was 10 years old my compeer, (like a volunteer) Nathan, started to take me for visits in nature. We have, these past 5 years, gone on weekly hikes all around Western New York. We hiked in parks such as Emery, Knox, Tift, Hunter's Creek, Chestnut Ridge and Zoar Valley. We also went for walks at Nathan's friend's and his sister's property.

At first, I was afraid that wild animals might hurt me during our hikes. I used to need my hand held during my walks in the woods. In time, I walked without fear and grew to love nature.

My courage did not stop at hiking in nature. My compeer and I would watch the fisherman in the park by the Niagara river. Then I was able to fish myself. I even put a worm on a hook. I did not catch any fish but I loved being out near the water enjoying nature.

Each week we go some place outdoors. I love getting out into nature no matter what the weather is like. The winter we sled and make snow angels. I especially like Sprague Brook Park because it is so pretty. In the summer, we swim at Woodlawn Beach. I like creek walks and looking for salamanders and crayfish.

I learned that animals in nature are more afraid of me than I am of them. I am 15 now and I cannot imagine an animal in the wild hurting me. What I have learned going into nature has helped my self-confidence and that will stay with me for my entire life.

Winner - Young Writers

A Bear Encounter

by Elizabeth Breault, Ballston Lake

It was a calm, quiet weekday morning. At our camp on the lake, it was a little chilly. The lake was foggy and the mountain air was crisp. I woke up and decided I would go kayaking before breakfast. I put on my sweatshirt, sweatpants, shoes, and waterproof jacket, and then wandered down to the lake. No boats were on the water yet. Perfect! I got my gear (life jacket, paddle, etc) and left it in a heap on the dock. I dragged my ten-foot, bright green kayak down to the dock and tossed it into the lake.

Less than five minutes later I was paddling toward the state picnic area. But, before I got there, I turned and went into the cove behind the picnic area. I found the cove about three years ago and visit there almost every time I go kayaking. Once I saw an otter there. This morning I was hoping to see it again. I sat in my kayak, floating, enjoying the quiet and slowly drifted toward shore.

Suddenly, I heard leaves rustling. I ignored it because I had been scared this way before, by birds and chipmunks, but thinking it was a bear. Then I heard an immense pop, like a big dead tree being broken. I said under my breath, "oh shoot... I wonder what that is.?" A large, lumbering black shape came trotting out of the woods on the other side of the picnic area driveway.

WOW!!! I was amazed. I grabbed for my camera, but I had left it in the bedroom. Behind the big black bear came three little black bears. I got scared then and quietly paddled backward until I put a nice, respectful distance between us. The bear stood on her hind legs and looked at me, and apparently decided I was no threat. All the cubs copied her. The mother bear ignored me and headed back into the woods around the edge of the cove. I could hear them flipping over logs, looking for food. I turned around and paddled for home as quietly and quickly as I possibly could.

I told everyone about my encounter and relished those cute little innocent, cub faces and the way that their mother just ignored me. I was so impossibly happy. It was a perfect day.

Honorable Mentions

Chickadee Challenge

By Judyann Grant, Mannsville

With a flourish of wings and a scolding cry, the self-proclaimed king of upstate New York winters arrived at the bird feeder. The blue jay frightened away the other birds, then began flinging seeds left and right. He ate greedily and left abruptly. The blue jay was just one of the feathered acquaintances I made one winter while feeding the birds.

The bird feeder offered a respite for winter-weary flyers and a chance for me to get to know them. As I "visited" with my feathered friends, I became aware of their unique personalities. I was even convinced that - for better or worse - I possessed some of their attitudes!

Each morning, the blue jay burst on the scene and proceeded to sow chaos. While I'm not one to throw my weight around, I have been opinionated at times. I have dominated conversations to the point where I did twice as much talking as listening.

One day, a downy woodpecker circled the feeder. He was probably looking for suet, his favorite food. Finding none, he flew to a nearby tree and hammered out his frustration. Often I am guilty of that same behavior. When a situation hasn't turned out the way I hoped or someone hasn't lived up to my expectations, I am apt to spread a tale of woe to anyone who will listen.

Later, I made the acquaintance of a nuthatch. Nuthatches possess the ability of walking upside down, but this particular member was easily distracted. He flew off at the slightest sound or movement. He never got very far in his unique walk. This bird reminded me of how flighty I often am when asked to step out of my comfort zone and try something new.

The best acquaintances I made, however, were the chickadees. Native Americans called these birds, "Ch'geegee" meaning "Little Friend". The cheerfulness of a chickadee is contagious. They were never rude. They ate whatever was offered. They sat on the garden fence and sang while waiting their turn at the feeder. These merry little birds were calm, unassuming, friendly and helpful. They often spent their visits on the ground cleaning up dropped or discarded seeds.

The chickadees challenged me to daily do my best without fighting, fussing, fretting or worrying over who gets the credit for a job well done.

Opening Day

by Craig Raleigh, Brockport

Driving through the dark streets of a small town in the waning hours of the night affords a feeling of luxury-the warm sense of being gift wrapped; swathed in layers of affectionate, comfortable camouflage. Even the drained, drowsy, dead beat mind has the sagacity to know that there is something special about this day. Through tired, tepid eyes the black snake of the night road uncoils, one dotted line after another along this sleepy rustic route, until the final destination is reached... my sister's house in the country.

I ease into the driveway unnoticed; the sound of gravel crunching under the tires is the only thing that gives me away-headlights on the garage door announcing my arrival. My best friend now, a light, a blazing beacon of radiance-a veritable lighthouse mounted on my head that shines a beam of daylight wherever I look and guides me in the darkness through wood and water... the world as I know it ends and the earth begins.

The way changes now from smooth and quiet to an uneven playing field demanding a level foot and a careful step. In the dark of the forest under the canopy of trees, the sound of a stumbling, bumbling human reverberates in the silence: unnatural noise. Even with battery powered light and a well marked trail, the task seems unassailable. Every crunch of a leaf, every scrape of a branch on my clothing makes me wince. The thud of feet makes a resonance that cannot be denied; the ultimate felony being the snap of a large twig under foot.

I instantly stop, grind my teeth and look to the heavens for salvation. There is nothing within a mile of me that did not hear that... I am sure of it. Every living thing in creation is running from the echo of this monster, this beast, this brute. Suddenly, I feel like a herd of elephants. I accept the rejection of the wilderness and move on with a heightened sense of awareness. My mind is reaching out for my destination. Just a few more yards, just a few more minutes and I can stop and be QUIET.

The light will be in the eastern sky before long. The outdoors that surrounds me will begin to show in the early blush of the day. The distance between trees grows closer as they become easier to identify. The day-glow is simmering now; getting stronger. I see bare, dead trees. The forest floor is littered with the summer's lost leaves. Flooded timber guards the nearby woods. The breeze is rocking me back to sleep while the rising sun sprays the oaks with glamorous light. This is my stage; I wait...

It's an amazing feeling to leave the "world" and sit in the woods for the entire length of a day. It's a natural part of existence-song birds chasing each other around a tree, the sound of a woodpecker tearing up an old oak, squirrels running the ground under me-the last leaves falling around me. This is the look and feel and sound of November... the mad dash before the winter sleep and all between sunrise and sunset-dark to dark.

In time, I would see deer and harvest one. Success amplifies my craving to return. I can't wait to hear the voice of the woods again and feel the earth under my feet... smell the wind and the weather. How true this is to the hunter-the outdoorsman who scouts before the season, wakes early and spends his waking hours in a tree... if only for a day.


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