The bear went over the mountain

A bear crosses the ridge this morning 50 feet from the house, a black hole of primal energy surfing the woods for the huckleberries that are beginning to ripen. We watch from the safety of glass as it passes and keep a weather eye on the dog, who sniffs the grass at the end of her lead, unaware of the animal. The bear is alone, no trailing cubs to spark an angry outburst, yet with its massive shoulders and haunch she is a force to avoid, like a tropical storm that could strengthen at any moment.

It’s trash day in our neighborhood and we wonder if she’s  hunting for the garbage cans that line the road. We’ll know in a few minutes when we slide into cars for the trek to work. She lumbers down the slope toward the neighbor’s screened porch, unaware of the watchers at the edge of the woods, her legs like two humans moving under a blanket, her pace as easy as sleep.

Twilight time

We’ve taken to walking in the evening after dinner. The road rises steeply to meet us, you can feel it in your calves, as if gravity increases with altitude. Trees reach across to shake hands, congratulating each other on another fine day. Lilies start to spiral inward, their yellow throats glowing in faces of orange. Under the pines the darkness condenses from the air and settles like silt in a pond. It rounds the edges, turns trees into hills, gives them a solid shape you can feel a hundred yards away. Reminds me of “Evening” from the The Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed.”

It’s late, the dishes await.

In search of the perfect orange, part 1

Two days after New Year’s we flew from Allentown, Pa., to Orlando International for a tour of Central Florida’s lake district and a search for real orange juice. I carried a mangled nest of electronic devices and cords for coverage of the International Builders Show the following week. My wife had packed a half-dozen books and manuals so she could rewrite her school district’s curriculum while I worked the trade show.

One of our suitcases weighed 57 lbs., 7 lbs. over the limit. I’m not saying whose suitcase. The airline people wanted to charge us $49 in addition to the $20 fee per checked bag. We carried the books on board the plane. The flight took off at 5:43 p.m. and landed about two hours later. We got in earlier than expected but still later than we’re used to flying. Nearly another hour to take the shuttle to ground transportation, retrieve the luggage and rent the car (present your pink rental sheet to the guy in the booth on the way out). Then a nearly two-hour drive north on great black highways through low-lying country to Silver Springs, just east of Ocala.

Tuesday, Jan. 4. Explore the Ocala National Forest. Drive east on Route 314 looking for 314A and lakes but they’re harder to find than you’d think, and all of the land surrounding them is privately owned and virtually inaccessible. Drove past great stands of pine, their trunks blacked from controlled burns. Past trailers and junk yards and small houses—quite a contrast to Lido Key and St. Armand’s Circle, our destination last year. Spanish moss hung like scarves from live oak trees, palms cracking, dry leaves scudding across the pavement.

We drove down sand-covered roads with dust billowing, clouds wispy, the sun warm on our backs as we walked a pier on Lake Kerr and watched the powerboats bob at the makeshift marina next door, dogs howling in the background, a trio of orange trees dropping fat fruit on a green lawn.

We pulled off Highway 19 for lunch at the Square Meal, a small restaurant near the office for the Ocala National Forest. The Square Meal looks like a local hangout, sandwiched between a real estate office and a Laundromat. Big red Coke sign on the wall next to a rack of fish hooks. Many of the men and two girls were dressed in camo jackets and caps. Several women ordered the special—fried pork loin with white gravy. Pay at the counter on the way out, cash only.

Dinner was ordinary but good at the Outback franchise near our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express in Silver Springs, a new, clean and friendly place with complimentary breakfast. The only complaint: for the heart of the citrus industry, the orange juice was surprisingly bad, tasteless and watery. Florida supplies 40% of the world’s orange juice. Let’s hope they don’t get this stuff.

Lunch at the Square Meal

Lunch at the Square Meal

Dear John

Dear John Serrao,

It was great to finally meet you Saturday. Your walking tours of the Pocono Mountains are legend and the weekend hike around the rim of Big Pocono State Park was no exception. You identified every tree in sight, from leaves to bark to acorns. Fellow hikers pointed to shrubs and moss and ground cover and asked “What’s that?” and you answered them all. The stories of snakes and bears and getting lost in thickets lent a gentle levity to the walk. Viewing nature is a pleasure but having a knowledgeable person explain the sights makes the journey that much more enjoyable.

Your followers were as interesting as the talk. I hadn’t seen the painter Peter Salmon since I’d interviewed him for an article more than 20 years ago and yet he remembered the piece, and my grandfather, Arthur A. “Shorty” Widmer.

The view from Big Pocono State Park

The view from Big Pocono State Park

I’m sorry Saturday’s hike was the next-to-the-last walk you’ll conduct in your adopted home but glad to hear you’re relocating to a place of calm inspiration, near forests and springs in the interior of Florida. As a native of Queens you must have been thrilled to see the abundant plant and wildlife in the Poconos, to savor the quietness of unspoiled game lands, the grand vistas of the Delaware Water Gap, the stillness of Promised Land Lake. Like many transplants you learned to appreciate the land without the need to improve it.

Thanks for encouraging others to protect the open spaces many assume will always remain. This slice of Eastern Pennsylvania isn’t metro Jersey or even Dallas, both of which make every attempt to cover nature with a concrete shroud. But the influx of city-dwellers and their appetite for asphalt, fast food and nail salons is slowly choking the region, where cars and houses stretch to the horizon like Sherman’s march on Atlanta.

Thank you for your books and your weekly column and, most of all, your enthusiasm for a quieter, inquisitive life. In our market-based economy, nature needs all the friends it can get.

Above the frost line

I’ve always heard it’s another world in Tobyhanna, Pa. Now I know why.

It felt cold Saturday morning but the sun was shining for the first time in a while. It lit the snow in the woods, the trees like hands raised toward heaven for that life-sustaining glow. The house had started to feel small and airless, fairly typical after the holidays. We like to hike the state parks with our cameras, and since the plows had long since scraped the roads clean, we bundled up and drove the 40 minutes north to Tobyhanna State Park.

Tobyhanna State Park snowbank 72Route 611 was bare all the way through Mount Pocono. We crunched over an inch of cinders on Main Street in Tobyhanna, twisting past the Church of St. Ann on the corner with its white statues and turreted stone wall, but the roads were still clear. It was when we passed the entrance to the Tobyhanna Army Depot on Route 423 that we noticed the snow. Near the park entrance it had drifted across an otherwise barren road. Picnic benches straddled heaps of white that used to be green. The boat dock, the rental shack, the lake itself—all were deserted. Trails and roads, blocked by metal gates, were swollen with snow.

With hats and hoods in place, we got out of the car and walked to the lake. A hard wind, the kind you feel along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, blew ice crystals sideways in clouds so thick we couldn’t see clearly. The snow on the lake bore the waffled tracks of vehicles and, in places where the wind had cleared its surface, the ice glowed, its color plunging from frosty white to blue-gray the deeper it went.

After a few photos we headed back, watching the temperature gauge on the dashboard rise a degree for every mile we drove, amazed at the contrast in weather between the southern part of the county and the Pocono Plateau.

‘Ghost Waters’ captures spirit of river

More than 35 years ago the federal government threatened to dam the Delaware River and create a 37-mile-long lake and park. The Tocks Island Dam would provide flood control, electricity, recreation and drinking water to New York City.

The reasons for the project might have made sense but the tactics used to acquire the land didn’t. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bought homes at bargain prices and began bulldozing them. They rented others. Squatters soon took over the buildings, until they were forcibly evicted by armed U.S. Marshals in 1972. Residents whose families had lived near the river for generations were outraged. Environmentalists joined the protests, arguing the project would destroy the last free-flowing river in the East. They also questioned whether the soil beneath the river could withstand the weight of the earthen dam.

Ghost WatersThere, on a unpopulated island between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the environmental movement got its start. Decades later, the dam was finally deauthorized and the land transformed into the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. But homeowners had lost something they could never replace.

New Jersey cinematographer Nick Patrick considered that a crime and set out to tell the homeowners’ story in a full-length documentary. With the creation of an abbreviated version of “Ghost Waters,” he’s almost there. Judging by the version he sent to me, the project is worth the wait.

The story is compelling, how David went up against Goliath and won. The structure is spare and matches the material, a series of interviews without narration. In one scene we see a photo of one of the dam’s fiercest opponents, Mina Haefele, now Mina Hamilton, sitting in an overstuffed chair in her farmhouse by the river. When interviewing Hamilton for the film, Patrick places her in the same armchair, this time in a house that is dark with decay. It’s a brilliant move.

So is the use of archival images ala Ken Burns, an important element in helping place the struggle in historical context. The cinematography is striking as Patrick contrasts the rich color of fall with the barren landscape of winter. My only suggestion would be to interview Nancy Shukaitis, a former Monroe County, Pennsylvania, commissioner and one of the original and most credible opponents of the dam. Nick says he’d like to include her in the final cut.

You can view the trailer and make tax-deductible contributions to the International Documentary Association online, or by mailing them to: Nick Patrick, Ghost Waters, 8 Rubin Hill Rd., Montague, NJ 07827. You can also view the trailer and outtakes at YouTube.

— Jeff Widmer