01/26/12 1:00am
01/26/2012 1:00 AM

One of my graduate school roommates had an obsession with snow. Even if the fall only amounted to a couple of inches, he got busy pushing and scaping sidewalks and driveways. Coming from Golden, Colo., as he did, this did seem peculiar to the rest of us, but he was adamant. Snow, left to settle and then stepped or driven on, became ice — layered, thick, and nasty, and he hated ice.

In later years, we’ve come to respect this attitude. Icy splats are no fun; sometimes they’re downright destructive. Unless you’re a ski racer or hockey player, you avoid the slick steeps or the frozen, glassy panes that gleam blue or green in reflected sunlight. Even the great racer Lindsey Vonn spoke with awe recently about the chance to occasionally take a break and ski on real powder in the Rockies while making a living on slopes deliberately iced for added speed. And what Rangers fan can ever forget how one of the stars took the team out of playoff contention years ago by slipping on ice and breaking an ankle while stepping out of a taxi in New York City!

In New York State nowadays, a ditty I learned long ago from a St. Louis veteran of many ice storms is absolutely appropriate:

Our weather in the winter,
How wonderful it is!
First it snew;
Then it thew.
Now, bigawd, it’s friz!

Swings in temperature are often responsible for frozen surfaces. For example, only last week in the North Country we endured a gray all-day fog that turned into a heavy downpour around sunset. The mercury climbed steadily, well into the mid-40s, but began to drop shortly before midnight. Next morning the thermometer stood at minus-five degrees below zero. Our driveway was a skating rink, covered by an inch of ice. Despite the light snowfall arriving on the back side of the front, surfaces were still treacherous underfoot.

Of course, this event couldn’t compare with the “Great Ice Storm” of January 1998, when three inches of icy rain fell over several days and took parts of the Northeast off the power grid for a month! For a week, major roads were closed except for emergency vehicles and the National Guard.

It’s one thing to hunker down temporarily and wait for a thaw, but it’s quite another to deal with the ice and get out and about, e.g. if you have dogs and livestock. One thing you cannot do is get angry and let the frustration get to you, as I did one winter on the prairies of Illinois when I got so tired of seeing my sedan caked in ice that I took a stick and shattered the ice off the sides, doors, and trunk. As soon as the weather warmed up, I took the car into a shop for a repaint job.

Faced with more ice than ever in recent years, I ordered a special family Christmas gift this year from “The Surfcaster” in Guilford, Conn., a pair of “his and hers” Korkers for me and Janet. Korkers, for the uninitiated, are heavy rubber sandals that strap onto boots or waders. They have some 50 sharp carbide spikes fastened securely to each sole, and the spikes are replaceable, too. They’re standard issue for surfcasters who walk moss-covered jetties or salmonid anglers who fish streams with algae-covered boulders.

Heavy? Yes, you know you’re wearing them. Clunky? Yes, you better be out on the porch rug, not the tile floor, when you put them on. Do they work? Yes, and how! For the first time in icy conditions, I could walk naturally and handle a couple of active field dogs on the ends of their leads, even when they surprised me with an occasional simultaneous lunge (“crack the whip”). In fact, my traction was so good the dogs flipped; carbide spikes trumped dog claws!

For those who find themselves walking on ice without hobnails or chains, the rules are simple but important. Proceed slowly the way you would walk the slippery deck of a party boat in a heaving sea. A wide stance works best for stability. Since you don’t have boat rails, use a walking stick or a “trekking pole” (or two, if you have them). Watch exactly where you step and try to find a grassy surface under the ice rather than Macadam.

Most “old-timers” on the East End won’t recall too many ice storms mixed among the major snow events, but all this has changed over recent decades, we think. Warming winter temperatures coupled with larger temperature swings and, often enough, increased moisture content in the snowfall — all these factors contribute to ice. No point in wailing or gnashing teeth. If you have to get out, think of those hardies who get out on winter trails and frozen lakes regularly, and gear up.

01/11/12 3:00am
01/11/2012 3:00 AM

December articles in The Suffolk Times about the Rivera beachfront case brought back lots of personal memories about similar conflicts over land and beach rights. Fishing along beaches and hunting in coverts through our lifetime almost always required access through or around someone’s private property. Exceptions were excursions or expeditions in parks with public access or on lands that we owned ourselves, like lakefront family property or our current “farm” in Clinton County.

That disputes should arise is only natural. That disputes cannot be resolved without bitterness and court battles is a sad consequence of our time and its culture.

It has long been a highlight of state law (the so-called Public Trust Doctrine) that, as Beth Young wrote on Dec. 15, “the beach below the high water mark is public property.” Reaching the beach may be difficult, of course, but every surf jockey rightfully assumes if he or she has access at some spot somewhere, he or she can follow that high water line all the way out to Orient, if desired.

In a bygone era when many beach rats operated in a more stealthy fashion, a few anglers here and there were the norm once the word got out that fish were “in.” Today in a twitter storm of hand-held devices, nothing seems to be “secret,” and mobs build on the very next tidal cycle, so it seems. Suddenly there are cars parked along every access road and there are always a few louts who “mess up” a beach with their leavings, plastics … or worse. (Lack of public rest areas is a subject best left for another column.) It’s little wonder some property owners get defensive, even belligerent, when any “outsider” comes to their doorstep.

Disputes over access to lands for any kind of hunting are worse than disputes over access to water. As rural areas get carved into “exurbs,” open land disappears and every scrap of land without a house or two (or 22) becomes precious for those who can hunt it. Everything everywhere is posted.

When we first hunted the Forks more than 30 years ago, you could walk certain rights of way and either access un-posted property or, better, you would find an adjacent house and ask permission to train dogs or chase quail and rabbits. More often than not, permission was granted. Often, the larger the tract of land, the more reasonable and generous the landowner. On one November opening day years ago, a friend and I found our way onto a big area of weeds and scrub adjacent to some large Calverton potato farms. We had come onto the property off the Long Island Rail Road tracks, so there were no signs facing the tracks; however, with a pair of woodcock and quail in our bags and our Brittanys by our side, we weren’t surprised when the owner of the farms rolled up in an old International Scout. He was annoyed at first, but, when we apologized for not having found his house to ask permission, then offered to leave, he warmed to the conversation. We wound up with permission to hunt that season (and for years afterwards), provided we stopped by to leave word that we were gunning the property. It turned into a wonderful and reliable place to hunt rabbits with beagles, too.

Most times, you’re best off introducing yourself and dressing “presentably” on a day when you’re not engaged in an outdoor activity. One surf sharpie who was a professor at New York Tech always cultivated Soundfront property owners during the off-season, and, through the years, wound up with permission to park in their driveways when he fished beaches, especially on the West End, during odd hours. It goes without saying that you show your gratitude for “property privileges” by sending Christmas cards and dropping off fresh fish or game from a successful outing.

Unfortunately we live at a time when pressure from the 20 million who use our coastal area leads to competition and bitterness over land and water use, especially along Long Island Sound. When it becomes virtually impossible to get permission to gain access to most areas you would like to fish or hunt or walk, much of the pleasure derived from the activities disappears. At that point you either give up the activities entirely or head for the few remote areas of the country (or the world) where you can still enjoy them.

Correction: In our Christmas column we gave the wrong angle for the noon sun during winter solstice. Around Long Island (roughly 41 degrees north), the noon sun is actually about 25.5 degrees above the horizon, not “less than 23 degrees” as we wrote. The latter is the angle for 44 north latitude. To calculate exactly, use: sun angle above the southern horizon at noon = (90 minus (23.5 degrees + Latitude)). The 23.5 degrees come from the tilt of the earth’s axis, of course.

12/22/11 3:00am
12/22/2011 3:00 AM

Just after midnight this morning at 12:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (Dec. 22), the sun dipped to its lowest point as seen from the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice. If we check the sun at noon today, our parent star will be less than 23 degrees above the horizon. When we worked years ago in Hamburg, a city whose latitude is that of Labrador, the sun just cleared the horizon after 10 a.m. and was only half the angle of our Long Island noonday sun at the solstice. No wonder folks further north, where the sun is even lower, complain about “the dark of winter”!

Low light angles create spectacular effects after sunrise and before sunset, and whenever you can enjoy the rays on sunny days, you really do appreciate them. Wildlife feels the same way about winter sunshine. Our favorite game birds, the bobwhite quail of the Eastern seaboard (yes, there are still a few coveys out on the East End), the ruffed grouse in forested coverts of the Appalachian states, and the ever adaptable pheasant love sunny, still winter days, emerging from roosting cover or protected screens by mid-morning to feed and loaf, and usually favoring south-facing slopes.

Winter trips on the water seem cold and forbidding, especially in a season when party packets leave the docks well before sunup to search for cod and tautog on wrecks and rubble piles tens of miles off Montauk or off the South Shore. But when the sky turns to gold and the sun rises from the water in the southeast, the day definitely starts to brighten up. Often the best fishing of the day occurs early and late when sun angles are lowest, and sunrise is generally a lot easier for anglers, simply because coastal winds tend to drop off overnight before rising during the day, a simple consequence of circulation. Afterwards, if you’ve had a successful day of offshore fishing, nothing beats watching the winter sun slip back into the ocean while you nurse a hot drink in a warm cabin. Sailor’s grog, hot toddys, and Irish coffee are highly recommended.

Ski hills have a real advantage when it comes to enjoying the winter sun because south-facing slopes catch the rays at a more direct angle throughout the day. If winds are light and you’re spending more time on trails than you are riding gondolas or chairs, you get warm relatively fast. In bygone eras when mid-century skiers rode “T-bars” or “Poma-lifts” and exertion was part of the game getting to the top of a hill, you shed layers continuously during a mild winter day. The flip side of the coin, naturally, is snow depth, which tends to be better on shaded north-facing trails because melting is much reduced.

Still, savvy skiers realize that, no matter how good your goggles are with green lenses giving way to grays, then yellows and reds, the light intensity drops dramatically everywhere by mid-afternoon. When the sides and backs of mountains fall into shadow, contrasts disappear, and it’s awfully hard to make out the wrinkles and bumps, especially on ungroomed surfaces. Choices are pretty simple a couple of hours into the p.m. On shaded trails you either throttle back sharply, restrict yourself to the few trails with waning sunlight, or head back to the lodge for hot coffee and pastry before packing up. Folks who feel they have to get in that last run, a quick run on a shaded black diamond trail, just before the lifts close in order to get their money’s worth are tempting the ski gods. But that’s what keeps the ski patrol busy.

If you like to gaze at the heavens during winter months and you have a telescope you can assemble quickly or even a good set of high-powered binoculars, the low daytime arc of the sun means just the opposite at night, a high arc for the planets as well as for the constellations that lie along that path, the ecliptic. You’ll never have better viewing of Jupiter (in the west before midnight), Mars (in the east well after midnight), Saturn (in the morning sky) and Orion’s glowing gas cloud. If you dress like a skier or a duck hunter and get onto the object you’re looking for quickly (sky charts have been superceded by computer software and even “Google Sky” to make life easier) you won’t mind the temperatures.

But back to the daytime now. It’s general knowledge that artists and photographers favor “northern light,” setting up studios whose windows provide uniform illumination lacking in shadows. (I was really impressed by this feature of Andrew Wyeth’s studio on a tour of the Chadd’s Ford Museum last summer.) Nevertheless, when it comes to winter, I’ll take a nice south-facing porch with sunlight flooding the room!

Enjoy the solstice, Christmas and the holidays! We’ll see you in 2012.

11/24/11 5:00am
11/24/2011 5:00 AM

During the gray, gloomy days of November, outdoors persons have forebodings about the passage of time. To paraphrase the well-known philosopher in pinstripes, Lawrence Berra, “it starts to get late early these days.”

Most of our fishing seasons are rapidly coming to an end, although many of us are reluctant to admit it. The striped bass runs dwindle down along the North Shore, well in advance of the Dec. 15 season closure. Late harbor activity occurs in some years, but this is rare. Unless masses of bait materialize late and water temperatures hold in the 50s, the last bluefish vanish about the same time. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the freshwater season for many species also ends as November draws to a close.

Anglers react in desperation to the turning pages of the calendar. We flock to South Shore beaches with hopes of intercepting one last blitz somewhere. We race the waning hours of daylight to set up one last afternoon on a favorite lake.

Most of the time our efforts are futile, but occasionally we’re surprised. Two years ago a run of bait, maybe herring, materialized along the sandy beaches west of the Fire Island National Seashore, and the week after Thanksgiving was reportedly outstanding for the hardies who never gave up. Montauk action that year kept right on going into December.

We’ve personally experienced some fine days on Long Island’s “kettle-hole lakes, getting out on afternoons when the sun had warmed the shallows and catching somewhat sluggish, but still cooperative bass. The trick is to fish very, very slowly moving lures, often near the surface, and to wait patiently for a bass to actually get the lure in its mouth before lifting the rod. You slow retrieves for the pikes as well, but they seem less lethargic as waters chill.

Some years back, I decided on a whim to spend a warm late November afternoon upstate chasing muskies although I suspected it was a fool’s errand. I had to wade because my canoe had been pulled for the season, and I had vivid memories of trying to fish the previous year, right after Thanksgiving, only to find that most of the river was already iced over. This year, however, I was in luck; only a thin rim of ice was present, so I waded into the 37-degree water and flogged some favorite pools. Just as the chill was getting to me and just before quitting, I thought I noticed a flash of color in back of the slowly retrieved swimming plug, an ancient wooden pikie minnow. As usual, I plunged the rod tip into the water before picking up the plug and made it execute a “figure eight” at my feet. The muskie nearly took off the rod tip when it struck in classic “pike” style. Indeed, this last fish on the last cast was an ideal way to end that freshwater season!

Reluctance to give up an activity is normal during an outdoor life. Back in the late 1970s, I fished a number of times with the Muellers, father and son, out of a 16-foot aluminum skiff. Bill and his father trailered the Crestliner from Mattituck out to Orient for launches on flounder or down to the bay for weakfish. In the 1980s, Bill sold me the boat and trailer, and I bought a 15-horsepower Evinrude with an extended lower unit so I could continue the tradition. Later we hauled the rig up to Lake Champlain where it did yeoman service on the bass and pike on that huge lake, too.

Now, however, my activities have shifted away from the big waters, and we’ve just cleaned up the rig, preparing to sell it in the spring. There’s one part of me that says, “hold on!” But another part knows that someone else can make better use of the sturdy, high-gunwaled skiff in coming years, especially now that it’s been sitting so many seasons, unused.

Seasons and interests in the outdoors change. Just like the beach anglers who must move on to offshore cod for the months ahead or the freshwater bass anglers who either go upstate for steelhead or (brrrr!) look at possibilities for ice fishing, I’ll reluctantly figure out ways to use a canoe in the years ahead. In the immediate future, it’s high time to sharpen up the skis and get out the dog sled upstate for the snows that will inevitably come soon. Gear changes and wardrobes change, but you have to know when the time comes to make the switch to new activities and give up, at least for the moment, on seasons past.

In the outdoors, just as in Omar Khayyam’s Rubiat, the cursor writes the script, and, having written, moves on. There are lots of good things to remember along with lots of mixed emotions, but, also, there are lots of new opportunities ahead.

10/26/11 10:00pm
10/26/2011 10:00 PM

A notice from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation appeared in my mail the other day and brought back fond memories. It seems that the state is giving Long Island youth hunters a new recreational opportunity by opening a special two-day pheasant season this weekend on the Rocky Point Natural Resources Area and on the Otis Pike Preserve. (The regular small game season opens two days later.)

Parents and legal guardians with appropriate hunting licenses can accompany a licensed junior hunter 12 to 15 years of age afield with a good chance of finding birds released prior to the hunt. According to the state release, the accompanying adult may assist the youth hunter but may not carry a firearm.

Incidentally, to hunt Rocky Point or Riverhead DEC properties, a seasonal access permit, found at http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/regions_pdf/accesspermit.pdf, is required, and a permission form for the licensed hunter (parent or guardian) is available in the current 2011-2012 Hunting Guide, or online at http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/37136.html. More information is available from Aphrodite Montalvo at Stony Brook, Region 1, (631) 444-0350 and (631) 444-0249.

Released pheasants have always been used for traditional early season hunts, and, when properly handled, released a day or more before the hunt, simulate “wild birds” in the field. To be sure, these birds won’t run as much, jump as quickly, or take to wing as fast as birds born in the wild. Still, pheasants adapt quicker to their surroundings than any other game bird, and, indeed, after a couple of weeks of freedom, the pheasants that survive local predators (dogs, cats, hawks, etc.) are hard to distinguish from naturally reproduced birds.

Because all first-time New York hunters must complete a Hunter Safety course taught by certified instructors (I taught in such a course for years as a former member of the Mattituck Gun Club), one assumes they will have some basic firearm handling instruction, including the critical mantra that gets drummed in: 1) You assume every gun is loaded, so you never point its muzzle at anything other than an intended target; 2) You keep the gun on “safe” and your finger off the trigger until ready to fire; 3) You must be absolutely sure of your target, its background, and the safe field of fire around it; and 4) You wear plenty of hunter orange to stand out in the field.

As we suggested at the beginning, the thought of a first pheasant hunt takes me back almost a half-century to the Iroquois Preserve south of Chicago where I had my first experience chasing roosters (we couldn’t shoot hens because natural propagation was part of the program) with Janet, who later became my wife, and her father, Roy Wendel. Roy had hunted with Janet for years, but I had to be inducted into the society.

There were then no courses required for beginners, but I had two months of rigid weekend instruction, learning to follow a pointing dog (yes, a Brittany) afield and learning to handle a Winchester Model 12 pump gun safely. Hitting clay targets, first thrown by hand, then on a trap range, was a formal requirement, and detailed instructions on how to prepare birds for the table was an important part of the drill as well. I can still remember the moment just after dawn when we walked in over the dog’s point after he had pinned down a running cock bird and the pheasant took to the air. I vaguely remember a long shot after I got a grip on things and the bird coming down solidly almost 50 yards out. For the first time I now had to reconcile the elation of a shot well executed with the sadness of viewing a dead creature brought to hand by the dog.

It was the completion of the tasks, the tortuous plucking of the bird (Roy Wendel held fast to American farm traditions; you dined on a whole bird after the hunt, skin intact to hold juices, so you wound up carefully dipping the pheasant in very hot water, softening the delicate skin while plucking) that brought the hunting lesson home. One kills to dine well, not for the sake of shooting “targets.”

I would go on from there to other game. There were wild pheasants, plenty of them, in the corn country around Champaign-Urbana, where Jan and I were at school, along with cottontails, easier marks for beginning hunters. Hunting skitterish, hard-to-bring-down wild roosters would challenge me early on, but “Old John Rooster” would prepare me for a long love affair with upland birds like bobwhites on Long Island and ruffed grouse upstate.

Learning to love the “upland life” is a worthwhile thing, though it has gotten harder and harder to do on the Forks. Open land now gone, too many folks and predators, etc., but the tradition persists nevertheless. Hopefully the DEC can continue it a while longer for a few lucky newcomers!

10/12/11 1:00am
10/12/2011 1:00 AM

Walk along the Long Island Sound beaches on any October day and you’ll come across lots of anglers. Some are outfitted so simply it’s hard to believe: one rod, one lure, that’s all. Others carry so much in backpacks, surf bags and surf tops, they seem to leave deep tracks in the gravel. The sharpest and the most versatile are somewhere in between, carrying what they need and no more.

Conditions on any given day dictate what you’ll need, but, until you get on the water, you’re never sure.

You start the day driving out along the North Fork, headed east as the tide goes out, then west as the tide comes in, unless you’re one of those rare folks who are patient enough to trust the schools of bait and predators out there in mid-Sound to come onto a particular beach sometime during the day. Until you actually look at wind and water and birds, you never quite know exactly what you would like to have in that bag or on that leader. Hard onshore winds and fish a long cast off the beach? You’ll need a heavy, streamlined lure to reach out. Dirty water? Better have dark or fluorescent colors the fish can spot. Tiny bait pursued by avid hunters? Hope you’ve got a fly rod, or at least some teasers ahead of those plugs. Dirty water and lots of floating weed? Go home and tune in the American League or National League playoffs!

Thus, although we guess what we’ll need and keep gear to a minimum before the trip starts, we always carry a larger tackle “box” with an array of alternate lures — just in case — so we can make a quick swap of terminal tackle before we march to the sand or gravel.

The really tough call concerns the rod we actually choose. Flat calm with bait in close — this presents the ideal conditions for a fly rod, but should winds pick up, you had better be a pro with stout gear to punch any casts for distance. For control of fish around rocky areas, we love conventional tackle, but throwing small lures on windy days can prove frustrating. Facing sand entrained in the water or even fishing sandy beaches in general, we bring spinning gear to avoid fine grains getting into and under reel spools.

Should conditions switch during the course of the day, we’re stuck, however, with that one rod, so it better be the right one! No one tries to “schlep” two rods on a beach unless he or she is a masochist. Where are you going to put that “reserve” rod, anyway?  In the bushes? On a tarp on the sand?

Choice of lures boils down to those artificials you have the most confidence in. We’ll write a future column about the confidence factor, but, suffice it to say, most of us have blind spots and preferences. Almost everyone breaks into the saltwater scene with “swimmers,” usually floating-diving lures with lips that allow them to wobble when retrieved. They’re simple enough to be cast and retrieved mindlessly and still catch fish. We always carry a couple, usually a heavy wooden plug and a long, but lighter plastic swimmer, along with a teaser rig that puts a fly or plastic tail ahead of the plug if necessary (when there’s small bait in the area).

A surface lure is the next choice, generally a “popper” that can be rattled, ripped, or swum right on top, creating a wake as it splashes along, or sometimes stopped and popped. Oh, how we do enjoy the explosion of a surface strike, and, again, this is pretty basic, as long as you remember not to rear back if there’s no weight on the rod. (The fish missed the lure, so you keep on retrieving, trying to induce another strike.) One popper in blue or white, another in chrome will do.

The last choice for the most basic lure is the ubiquitous bucktail, a lead head with a single hook, some hair or feathers, and, of course, a strip of white or white/red pork rind to add allure. Because bucktails are compact, anglers can carry a packet with three or four in various weights from three-quarters of an ounce to two ounces, depending on water depth and turbulence. Like swimmers, bucktails will catch on a simple slow, steady retrieve under many conditions.

If you’ve got eight or 10 lures in your bag, you have plenty of room for ancillary gear. A packet of spare leaders comes first for the bluefish that wear down the bitter ends of your terminal tackle; a tape measure is vital to see if the bass your caught was a keeper and to estimate fish weight (using length and girth). A cutting tool, pliers, sharpener and a flashlight round out the bag.

However you go, enjoy the fall run. See you out there!

09/20/11 2:49pm
09/20/2011 2:49 PM

Wherever you go in the outdoors, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) or “four-wheelers” are part of the landscape. Whether used properly on trails meant for them or illegally on state lands in the Adirondacks and Catskills, ATVs are both popular (according to one upstate publication, some 127,000 are registered in New York State alone) and controversial. They do make lots of noise, tear up soft trails, and sometimes seem at odds with the “outdoor experience” which many of us seek.

Still, like all of our small-engine-driven devices, they are remarkably useful in the right settings. On hardened trails to deep-woods camps or drop-off points for deer stands, they get us from here to there. For people training and exercising sporting dogs, they’re valuable tools. You can “road” dogs in harness or teach young dogs to track ground patterns along field edges by riding alongside — in areas where you cannot use horses. In fact, where we often train in southeastern Pennsylvania, the club has a fleet of old Polaris four-wheelers, most in what seems to be the 15-to-20-horsepower class. What one realizes, too, is that small-engine know-how is universal, applying not only to ATVs, but also to power mowers, weed whackers (brush-cutters), and, of course, outboards.

Small engines can baffle some outdoor folks. The prospect of going to the shed, filling the gas tank, and firing up the contraption fills some of our acquaintances with trepidation. If ever the adage “Don’t be in a hurry. The machine knows that and will confound you every time!” were true, it’s here, in the world of the little “stink pots.”

The spectre of the impatient operator cranking forever on an electric starter or pulling a starter cord until he or she is exhausted goes way back for this writer, back to the days when the “Simplex” starter with its automatic winding feature was the latest thing. Back in what seemed to be the dawn of time, you wrapped a stout rope with a knot at one end around a flywheel, wound it, then pulled.

Right up to the era after World War II, some of the outboards in the “big” horsepower classes, 20 up to 50, still had cranks. The early spring-wound starters were somewhat delicate; it was easy to break a spring, in which case, you had to pull off the starter assembly and revert to the old rope. Using the ATVs at the bird training facility, we were amused (and somewhat horrified) to learn that a number of them had inoperative electric starters. Either the starter motors were worn, giving you the occasional start, but most commonly spinning helplessly, or the ignition switches failed; nothing could be done unless you resorted to the spring-wound starter on the engine itself. We had a modicum of success with this, but there were times when the starter just about yanked our arm off. Here one of the experienced hands supplied the necessary advice — you needed to roll the ATV into position where you avoided pulling during the compression phase of the cycle so the tension was manageable.

One old-time mechanic gave us the best counsel we’ve ever heard about small engines. “They’re actually simple!” he said. “If you fill them up and they won’t start, there are only three things that can be wrong. Either the air intake is cut off or the fuel isn’t getting through — or has flooded the engine — or there’s no spark!”

This is barring unforeseen circumstances like sudden, unexpected encounters with granite in the field which bend shafts of cutting equipment and render the equipment inoperable. (Unlike snowblowers and outboards, there are neither shear pins nor slip-clutches in most cutters.) We’ve experienced all of the above. We’ve had field mice build nests in air filters, resulting in loud guffaws from mechanics who “solved” the problem when mouse families exited the filters during inspection. We’ve had gas hoses constantly “lose prime” while running outboards back to the dock in the Peconics, and we’ve had spark wires get damp or spark plugs foul when water came up suddenly against the transom while positioning an anchor.

The smaller the engine, the trickier the beast is to start. Early experience with outboard fuel lines and chokes taught us the art of choking without overdoing it. If an engine floods and you can’t clear the darned thing by cutting the choke and starting in an unchoked condition, take a deep breath and walk away while the excess gas evaporates. Easy to say; hard to do! Did you find water in the gas? Get that carburetor bowl off and empty it before priming again!

No primer on small engines is complete without admitting they are noisy, stinky and notoriously cranky polluters, especially the older ones. Unfortunately for us outdoor persons, they’re out there everywhere, waiting to torment us. Maybe it’s best, after all, to be stoic and learn to deal with them!

08/29/11 3:15pm
08/29/2011 3:15 PM

The rain outside is nothing new; after all, this is one of the wettest Augusts on record. The difference is the amount of rain and the accompanying wind from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene. As I sit at my desk this weekend, it’s easy to see that this storm promises to be messier and more disruptive than anything we’ve had for a while.

No, it isn’t “Key Largo” with Bogie and Edward G. Robinson squaring off during what was presumably the monster hurricane that wiped out Flagler’s railway and killed many aboard a train trying to flee the Florida Keys in the 1930s. Irene probably won’t be like the quickie storm in the 1980s (Donna?) that whipped over Long Island in a matter of a few hours, but left lots of big downed trees like those in our driveway in Mattituck. I recall driving upstate, away from the North Fork, to avoid Gloria in the 1970s, and digging ditches, cutting trees and clearing branches near the family summer home in Westchester County in the 1950s to divert water pouring off a mountain after Carol passed through. Best guess is for Irene to be similar to Carol. Right now, it’s early on a Sunday morning, and we’ll have to see.

Thanks to today’s technology and warning systems set up at government (NASA and NOAA) expense and paid for by us taxpayers, there’s no dearth of information about timing and path of coastal storms. Yes, there will be a few accidents and, sadly, some fatalities, but nothing like the hundreds who perished in the September storm of 1938, the “Long Island Express,” (look at those old photos of Greenport awash) and also during and after Katrina in New Orleans a few years ago. Incidentally, there have been even more terrible storms and storm tragedies dating back to colonial times, and the Galveston hurricane around the turn of the last century which cost in the order of thousands of lives was among the most destructive.

Putting aside historical perspectives, the basics of storms are pretty simple. Wind velocity is the first critical parameter because the magnitude of the force of wind on exposed surfaces varies as the cube of wind speed. Compare the winds from a weak force one storm (Irene at 75 miles per hour) with force three (Katrina at 150 miles per hour); you get eight times Irene’s force from Katrina and you get 19 times Irene’s force from the New England hurricane of 1938 (an estimated 200-mile-per-hour force five).

Rainfall amounts, especially to the west of the storm, provide the second critical parameter. If soils are saturated or where drainage is poor (think development and concrete) three inches is problematic while nine inches is a nightmare. On the other hand, in sandy, dry soil on undeveloped upland, the difference is dramatic. Years ago we ran Brittanys in the pine barrens around Brookhaven immediately after a seven-inch gullywasher, and easily got around the occasional large pool of water.

Duration is the third factor. With Irene moving so slowly, 18 miles per hour, and with the storm size so large (damaging winds were in an area roughly 200 miles across, centered around the eye) wind damage could persist for 10 to 11 hours. Because wind speeds vary so much with polar angle about the center, this estimate is somewhat high.

Last but not least is the timing of the storm. What makes Irene especially nasty is the so-called “storm surge,” the wall of water pushed by the storm, and the timing of tides. When we last looked, Irene was scheduled to arrive around high tides, new-moon tides, in fact, in much of the area. Six-foot waves atop nine-foot storm surges are bad news for seaside dwellers. Goodbye to beaches and bulkheads in the worst cases.

Wildlife and fisheries recover from such events although there will be some changes in patterns. Migrating birds that started down the coast early will certainly be affected, and we felt sorry for the migrating Monarchs we saw the other day. But the wildfowl riding the tailwinds will fly easily. Maybe there will be some new cuts and inlets along the South Shore oceanfront or along the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound. Surfcasters will adjust accordingly.

We’ll have to get used to storms, too, especially if they become more frequent or more intense in this “homocene” era of human-affected climate. There will undoubtedly be claims for declarations of areas as disaster zones and plenty of applications for compensation from the federal government. Most of the public will be grateful to see cleanup crews and first responders as well. Bills for cleanup will be considerable, running into the billions.  It will be interesting to see if those who are so critical of federal, state, and local governments (and deny these entities revenues) continue to insist that government is unnecessary. Perhaps these folks will free themselves of government entirely and pay for their own cleanup and damage.