Of Moose and Men (and Women)

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

~Henry David Thoreau

This is a post about the final leg of our journey last fall on our truck camping adventure. From the deserts of Utah, we herded into familiar territory of Kebler Pass in the Colorado Rockies. We had camped there the year before in peak color of the aspens and it had been glorious. This year, we were just past peak and a wind storm two days before our arrival had stripped the trees of most of their leaves. But, the scenery is still magical and the wildlife put on quite a show.

We wanted to camp at the same site as before, with a view into a beaver dam filled creek surrounded by high mountain peaks. As we were driving to our site, we saw some folks gathered down by the stream and Melissa soon spotted a large dark shape in the tall willows. We pulled in and got the scoop from the others that a bull was following a cow as she was browsing in the dense vegetation.

A bull keeping an eye on a cow as she feeds in the willows (click photos to enlarge)

She finally headed to the edge of the creek and broke out in the open in front of a beaver dam.

The cow walked out in the open in front of a beaver dam

We waited, and, sure enough, he followed.

Bull Moose following his female

The next morning we drove back down to the site and found her again, out in the willows. She bedded down and we waited, but did not see the bull anywhere.

She is almost impossible to see, but is bedded down along the shore in thick brush

We waked around to the other side of the creek for better light and sat for quite awhile as she lay in the sun, but almost invisible to our eyes. She finally got up, and, then, nearby, so did the bull, who had been there the whole time but hidden from our view.

She finally got up, started feeding, and then waded across the creek
The bull follows again

After crossing the creek, she began running in tight circles in the willows and snorting, and finally went into thicker vegetation and disappeared (maybe she had had enough of this young male?). The bull ended up crossing back across the creek and vanishing in the huge willow thicket upstream.

Having spent a couple of hours with these moose, we felt privileged and couldn’t imagine having that kind of luck again. But, when we found ourselves in a beautiful valley of the Taylor Park region, we picked a campsite along a meandering stream valley full of beaver dams with lots of moose and elk sign in the surrounding forest.

Sitting near our campsite looking out over the beaver marshes

That afternoon, we went out looking for wildlife and Melissa soon saw something and whispered, “I see a moose, no, two moose, wait, three, no four moose!”. Indeed, there was a group of four moose feeding in a beaver pond downstream of our campsite – a cow, two young ones, and a bull. The late day light flooded the area and we spent a long time basking in the sight of these magnificent animals doing what they do, wading in a beaver pond, feeding on vegetation, and looking regal.

Melissa spotted the Moose in a nearby beaver pond
The cow was ever alert as she dipped her huge snout into the water for vegetation
As soon as the cow and young ones moved off, the bull followed
After the moose departed, we sat next to a beaver dam and soaked in the scenery (what a vista these critters have)

After the phenomenal moose encounter, we relaxed by a large beaver pond just upstream. Soon, we were rewarded with an eye level view of one of the inhabitants.

A beaver swan out of the lodge and eyed us before deciding we weren’t bushes that sprang up during the day
The resounding slap of a beaver tail as it sounds the alarm

We decided to leave the beavers to their kingdom and retreated back to our chairs with a view of the incredible surroundings.

Sunset from our campsite in beaver and moose country

The next day, we headed out, bound for home, with three stops along the way at familiar types of campsites – a state fishing lake, a state conservation area, and the gorgeous Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

Another restful Kansas State Fishing Lake campsite
A Missouri campsite next to a vernal pool
A view of the unusual landscape of Red River Gorge
Our final two nights on the road in crowded Red River Gorge, but we managed to backpack in a short distance and find a secluded ridge-line

It’s always good to get back home after an adventure, but it definitely whet the appetite for more, especially in isolated-truck-camping-loving Melissa. So, stay tuned for more…

Dry, Dusty, Beautiful

There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation.

~Edward Abbey

Hard to believe it has taken me this long to finish posting about our second road trip way back last Fall, but it has been a busy several months since our return with a lot happening. It sort of slipped my mind after a month or so, but I figured I better write this up before things start to get too busy as the weather warms. So, here is a continuation of our last truck camping adventure (some of you may have thought we were still in Colorado!). I’m going to share this post and the next one (the last from our journey last Fall) without much commentary and will let the images speak for themselves.

From where we left off on our last western truck camping post, we drove from the mountain scenery to a very different landscape – the dry and starkly beautiful deserts of southwest Colorado and adjoining Utah. It was a sharp transition and the scenery seemed to grow more grandiose as we drove. We debated our options and then decided on a slight meander to visit Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. Evidence of fires over the past few decades were evident throughout our drive into the park. Due to Covid, most of the facilities were closed and there were no tours into the amazing structures. Mesa Verde was established in 1906 to preserve the truly remarkable cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Archeological site at Mesa Verde National Park (click photos to enlarge)
A large buck Mule Deer casually strolling alongside the park road.

Our next destination was the vast stretch of BLM lands outside Canyonlands National Park. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore! The land stretches on forever, the rocks now become the dominant feature of the landscape, with patches of green scattered to the horizon.

The Needles overlook on BLM land
Campsite on BLM land outside Canyonlands NP
Spectacular sunset at our campsite
There are lots of pokey things in the desert
One of the so-called Six-shooters just east of Canyonlands National Park
The Needles section of Canyonlands NP
Sandstone weathered into columns
Our second campsite at Mineral Canyon on BLM land outside the park

The public lands were being well-used while we were in the Canyonlands area. We tried to get into Arches National Park, but the extremely long wait line at the entrance, and the large numbers of unmasked people we encountered in Moab, caused me to turn around and head back to the BLM lands. We drove around to some more of the incredible sites in Canyonlands and did some short hikes, but then headed back to our campsite.

Vastness, another word for this landscape
Islands in the Sky in Canyonlands NP

And this is when we had our only mishap of the trip – a flat tire on a Saturday evening. Luckily, we noticed it as we were turning around on a large flat rock slab on the otherwise sandy back country road. After changing the tire, we knew we had to head out the next day to try to find a place where we could repair it or buy a new spare. Sunday is not the best day for such things, but in looking online (glad we had cell service) we found a place in Grand Junction, Colorado, and off we went. That meant staying in an Airbnb, and we were lucky to find one with good Covid protocols (and no recent guests) close to the tire place. We ended buying a totally new set of tires since these were the original tires on this 2003 truck (you my remember it was my dad’s truck and he had used it sparingly as a farm vehicle).

While the beauty and expansiveness of the desert landscape is appealing, I must confess I found myself wanting to head back into the forests and mountains. Our last leg of the journey took us through some familiar territory and some encounters with one of my favorite animals. More next time…

Spring Birds

The presence of a single bird can change everything for one who appreciates them.

~Julie Zickefoose

An annual highlight for us living in these woods is the arrival of the spring migrants. They all bring a touch of excitement and joy when you see or hear the first of their kind arriving at the breeding sites (our woods) or passing through to places higher up or farther north. Our woods have been alive with the sounds of Wood Thrushes, Ovenbirds, and a few warbler species these past few weeks, plus the calls of our local nesters, the bluebirds, wrens, and cardinals. Last weekend was the first screeching call of a Great Crested Flycatcher, and two nights ago, the booming sound of a Chuck-wills-widow, one that I have not heard here in over a decade. But certain birds carry a special excitement for me – the first hummingbird, the first melodious Wood Thrush, and the first tanager among them.

And so, this past week we heard the calls of Summer Tanagers, and two days ago, while I was loading some stuff into our truck, I heard the chip-burrrr call of a Scarlet Tanager just behind me. I turned, and there was a female, snagging a mulberry not 10 feet from me! No camera, of course, so I just watched as she ate one more berry, and then flew off. The mulberry has al lot of berries, but few are close to being ripe, so there is not a lot for them to feed on just yet. Plus, the squirrels have discovered the tree and, true to their nature, have decided to claim it by eating the unripe berries and cutting the tips of many branches off and letting them fall to the ground. I’m afraid the berry buffet will not be as large this year for the birds.

On my next walk by the tree, a male had flown in and sat for a minute while I watched. That was enough to prompt me to take a break from the chores, get the camera, and sit at the shop entrance to see what might happen. A few minutes later, he returned.

A male Scarlet Tanager snagged a fly in the mulberry tree (click photos to enlarge)
Their red color is so intense against the green background of leaves
A rare pose out in the open while he looks for ripe berries
There are only a few ripe berries right now so he had to come down close to me for this one
Stopping for a moment in full sun

The male put on a nice show as he searched the branches for ripening fruit. The tree usually makes for a busy background, but I’ll take that as long as I can watch these incredible beauties up close. A pair of Summer Tanagers flew in at one point, but were chased away by the male Scarlet Tanager. Just another day in the woods.

Oh, and the grosbeak show continues, now with the arrival of the migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. I’m amazed that there are still a few Evening Grosbeaks still making regular forays to the yard. The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks seem a bit intimidated by the noisy big beaks, so it is somewhat rare to see them both on the feeder at once. Of course, as I was writing this, a male of each species shared a few moments on one feeder, until I reached for the camera. But, I”m not going to complain. The Carolina Wren singing 3 feet from the kitchen door and the bluebirds sitting on the garden gate right now are telling me that it’s all good, that spring is here, and so are the birds.

And then there are the grosbeaks

Swarms

What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bees.

~Marcus Aurelius

Earlier this week I was walking down in our woods mid-day, switching out the memory cards in our trail cameras, when I came across a termite emergence near the opossum hole. What I noticed first was a group of large dragonflies, maybe 30 or more, swarming in a sunny patch down by the soon-to-be-dry creek. There were a couple of species of dragonflies, though the larger ones (probably some species of darner) were by far the most abundant. They were zooming back and forth snagging winged termites as they fluttered up from the ground in their nuptial flight. I sat mesmerized for several minutes watching the proficiency of these aerial hunters. I thought I should try to capture some video of this spectacle, but then walked on, figuring I couldn’t capture anything worthwhile with just a phone (boy, was I wrong about that, as you will see later).

I walked about 150 feet along the creek and encountered another, smaller, termite swarm, but with few dragonflies present.

The second termite emergence spot where alates (that’s the caste of winged, reproductive termites in a colony) gathered on a twig tip before taking flight with more on the log below (click photos to enlarge)

I wrote about termite swarms a few years back and pondered then about the triggering mechanism for such synchronous swarms. I found suggestions that temperature (air and/or soil), humidity, conditions before or after storms, etc. as the causes for nearby termite colonies all emerging around the same time. Well, this happened on Tuesday last week, with no significant change in weather before or after that day, so I am still baffled (and in awe) of this phenomenon. After taking a couple of pictures, I continued on up toward the house for lunch.

As I reached our little footbridge, there was another emergence (probably 300 feet from the last one). Interestingly, they were emerging on the same log that I had photographed them on when I wrote that last termite post. When I looked at the photos from that blog post, I saw the date they were taken was May 2, 2015.

Termites emerging on the same log I photographed some on in 2015

The alates followed the same path along the log as they had back then, working their way up toward the tip (the highest point) where most of them took flight.

Here’s a short video clip of the tip of that log and the emerging brood of termites (almost identical to the video clip from 2015).

Termite emergence in our woods last week

As I had found back in 2015, these emergence flights don’t last very long (15-30 minutes), and many predators, both terrestrial (ants, spiders, lizards, etc.) and aerial (dragonflies, birds, bats in the evening, etc.) gather to take advantage of this slowly flying buffet. As this swarm started to thin, I walked up the trail, only to encounter one more emergence. This one was smaller, in deep shade, and had only two dragonflies in attendance. Still, the number of dragonflies I had seen in our woods on this walk was way above any number we normally see, especially down by the creek.

I soon got to the top of the ridge and walked through our side gate to find Melissa out in the yard with her phone making video clips of a cluster (one of the proper collective nouns, although I prefer the more fanciful, dazzle) of dragonflies attacking yet another large termite swarm. There were at least 50 dragonflies (mostly large darners, and we both think they were probably Swamp Darners) swooping to and fro in our side yard out near one the water gardens (this area is basically a small, sunny hole in the forest canopy. I was impressed by the quick clip she showed me and we continued to watch and marvel at the aerial capabilities of the dragonflies as they turned on a dime and snatched a hapless alate out of the air. After a successful snag, a dragonfly would munch in the air (you could see termite wings drop from on occasion) before continuing the hunt, with success after success in grabbing an in-flight meal. Once inside, I was blown away by what Melissa captured on video (and her editing abilities).

So, we present this short video of the amazing airy antics we witnessed (too bad the Oscars are this evening). The first segment is actual speed, but she filmed the rest in slow-motion video. Watch the sharp turns the dragonflies make as they hunt. And keep your eyes on prominent termites as they fly through the screen…do they make it?

Melissa’s iPhone video of a dragonfly swarm feeding on emerging termites in our yard near one of the water gardens and campfire ring (the large stumps)

Once again, we have witnessed synchronous termite swarms in our woods – five swarms over a distance of about 1/4 mile and a time span of about 45 minutes from creek bottom to the top of the ridge. This probably helps with genetic diversity by allowing mates from different colonies to find each other during the short nuptial flights (they drop their wings shortly after landing). But what triggers this synchrony over unknown distances and seemingly varied micro-climates?

And now I have another big question…how the heck do all these dragonflies suddenly appear at these termite emergence sites? We are both amazed that so many dragonflies appeared seemingly out of nowhere (the greatest number of darners I have ever seen patrolling the yard is probably 3 or 4 at any one time). Our friend and researcher at the museum, Chris, has studied dragonfly swarms, and states that this type of swarm is probably a static swarm (feeding swarm), although she speculated these may also be related to migratory swarms (yes, many species of dragonflies migrate). One study showed that the number of dragonflies you see in a swarm is just the tip of the iceberg, with those you count representing fewer than 20% of the number in the vicinity. Where are all these dragonflies on a normal day? Are they cruising the treetops, out of our sight? Can they communicate with one another in some way to take advantage of a short-term food bonanza? I’m hoping Chris sees this and comments with any updates from dragonfly researchers that may shed additional light on how dragonflies can gather so quickly for such ephemeral feeding frenzies. However it happens, it is something special to behold, so be on the lookout for a swarm near you (and have your phone ready).

Almost Normal?

…It is always my place to come back and feel normal again.

~Alana Blanchard

That quote referred to a special place for its writer, one of the Hawaiian islands. For me, one of the special places I seek is Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern North Carolina. I had not been in many months, so, when our good friend Scott paid a visit (the first overnight guest we have had in over a year), he and I decided to make a road trip back to normal (we are vaccinated now).

Arriving at the refuge, we found a large section of the road system remains closed. which concentrated the many carloads of visitors even more. We soon managed to spot some birds along one of the canals and pulled over for a closer look. Sitting alongside a trio of large turtles was a oddly paired duo – a Blue-winged Teal and an American Coot. We sat with these birds for almost an hour, watching their feeding behaviors and reactions to what was happening around them.

Blue-winged Teal along a canal at the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

Blue-winged Teal are so named because of the blue visible in their wings when in flight. In the photo above, you can see a tiny hint of that baby blue color.

The teal was dabbling along the edge as it fed. Check out the sheen on its head feathers.
American Coot hanging out with the teal – those lobed toes are incredible!

Field guides almost always describe the American Coot as a plump, chicken-like bird (if the shoe fits…). It is North America’s largest rail and is found near wetlands throughout much of the country. They tend to be gregarious (I have seen hundreds together at Lake Mattamuskeet in winters past) but this one had decided to just hang with his buddy, the teal. Coot feed primarily on aquatic vegetation which they grab from the surface or dive to get. They don’t nest here in NC, but undergo nocturnal migrations to freshwater marshes in western and northern states.

These two hung out together and alternately fed, preened, and rested while we observed them

While we were watching the bird buddies from the car, I looked down the road and saw a Raccoon heading toward us. It swam across the canal and began foraging in the shallows fifty feet or so behind the birds, who seemed unconcerned. It was the first of four Raccoons we saw that morning, all searching for a meal at the edge of a canal.

A Raccoon pauses to check us out before continuing to search for food
This Raccoon, the second of four we saw at Pungo, was intent on finding a meal
Two of the Raccoons we watched used the same hunting technique – rapidly walking in shallow water and doing short lunges with both front paws out, flailing around for anything that moved or felt right

Though there were several cars at “Bear Road” each time we drove by, we finally decided to check out the fields, and, right away saw three bears out from the edge of the far woods. They soon went back in and we hiked a bit to see what we could see. As we rounded the edge of a tree-line we spotted a mother bear with three of her yearlings coming out into the field. Though she was a considerable distance away and the wind was in our favor, she apparently spotted us kneeling along the edge of a well-worn bear path, one she has no doubt walked many times in the past. I am guessing she recognized that there were two new bumps sticking out near her favorite trail and wasn’t quite sure what they were. She didn’t rush away, but did stop and stare at us and her cubs soon became a little nervous, so they all sauntered back into the woods.

A mother bear with three of last year’s young

That would be the first of a total of nine bears we saw, the others being on the stretch of pocosin on the south shore of Lake Phelps.

A Palamedes Swallowtail nectaring on a thistle

One of the highlights of any springtime trip to Pungo is the abundance of butterflies. Palamedes Swallowtails were everywhere last weekend, with most preferring to nectar on the scattered thistles instead of the large swaths of ragwort blooming along the roadsides (the yellow in the background in the photo above). I spent several minutes watching one thistle that was quite popular with the passing swallowtails (when I first saw it there were four of them fluttering on it).

Palamedes Swallowtails loading up with nectar on a thistle flower

We also saw some Black Swallowtails, a few Zebra Swallowtails, and my second Monarch Butterfly of this spring season.

My second monarch sighting of this spring, this male was feeding on the abundant ragwort flowers

Late in the day, we decided to head over to Mattamuskeet NWR via the long route through the other section of Pocosin Lakes NWR. It requires heading over to the south shore of Lake Phelps and driving for an hour or so on gravel roads through a landscape of thick pocosin and swamps. You never know what you might see but our main sightings on this day were a ton of turkeys, doves, and other birds (and the five bears we saw before we got back onto the refuge roads).

A great way to end a day, a spectacular sunset at Lake Mattamuskeet

Our quick drive around Mattamuskeet as the sun was getting low on the horizon yielded no wildlife, but it did provide a very nice sunset to cap off what was almost a normal day for two old friends that finally got to spend some time together doing what we love to do. Get your vaccine and you can get back to almost normal too.

Opossum Hole Happenings

The opossum hasn’t changed since the days when European explorers captured it and proudly sent it to their kings. We’ve just lost a bit of our wonder.

~T. Edward Nickens

NOTE: I think this has now been corrected to show thumbnails (I hope)

I admit to always having had a soft spot for these unusual mammals, North America’s only marsupial. I, as probably many of you, have encountered them in trash cans, had one in the crawl space of a house, and, unfortunately, one beneath the car I was driving when a wayward opossum ran (who knew they could move fast) out in front of me one night.

But I owe my newfound fascination to the work of our friend, Jerry, who has had trail cameras out on a opossum den for quite some time and has documented the goings on in his Possum Hole Chronicles Facebook posts and in a wonderful YouTube program that was originally presented as a Lunchtime Discovery Series talk with the NC Office of Environmental Education.

Because of Jerry, I now have three trail cameras and have been putting them out on our property since the start of this year. I move them around quite a bit and have been pleased with the variety of creatures they have recorded. A little over a month ago, I put one on a large fallen double-trunk tree that crosses our little creek. The usual Raccoons showed up and one Virginia Opossum, although they all took the trunk without the camera for their path. On my next memory card exchange, I moved the camera to the other trunk and faintly recorded something exciting off in the distance one night – the opossum gathering leaves. I figured this meant a den nearby, so I placed all three cameras around the root ball of the tree which had a couple of holes at its base.

That was the start of my version of a ‘possum’s life – Opossum Hole Happenings (I like Jerry’s title better). So, below is a series of short video clips of what has been happening in the vicinity of this one opossum hole in Chatham County for the past two months.

The fallen tree is a superhighway in this part of our woods. Most nights, the ‘possum does this – comes out of the hole on the left of the tree in the root ball, crawls up and walks across the log for a night of foraging.
This was an unusually late return to the hole since it was after daybreak. Most returns are while it is still dark.
I have lots of footage of at least two different Raccoons traversing the tree.
One night, a Coyote sneaked by the tree, obviously on the prowl.
I had not recorded the Red Fox in quite some time, but it spent a few minutes one night checking out the ‘possum log.
Three deer lounge around the ‘possum tree – I wonder if they are aware of the sleeping opossum nearby…
An opossum rubbing a stick near the den entrance. I assume it is scent marking by rubbing secretions from glands in the head and neck region. If so, this is probably a male. I think I have recorded at least two different opossums at the hole based on slight differences in tail shape.
One thing I was hoping to capture – the opossum carrying leaves into its burrow in its tail. Jerry had filmed them collecting leaves with the front paws, transferring the leaves under the body to the hind feet, which then gather them into a ball in the curved tail for carrying.

There have been many other critters around the ‘possum hole over these past few weeks. I have only one camera on the hole now (the view is that of the first few video clips in this blog). The most common day-time visitor are Gray Squirrels, followed by White-tailed Deer, Eastern Chipmunks, and various birds (especially the feathered equivalent of chipmunks, Carolina Wrens). At night, Raccoons, lots of deer, mice, moths, and a stray cat. I’ll leave this camera up for the next few months and will share anything new and interesting that happens at the ‘possum hole. Thanks, Jerry, for the inspiration.

Blending In

I’ve always preferred moths to butterflies. They aren’t flashy or cocky; they mind their own business and just try to blend in with their surroundings and live their lives.

~Kayla Krantz

Went for a walk in the woods yesterday and as I approached one of our woodland benches, my eye caught something on the large Tulip Poplar trunk next to it….do you see it?

The large Tulip Poplar on one of our trails below the house is hosting something special (click photos to enlarge)
A closer look….now you see it

It is one of my favorite moths, a Tulip-tree Beauty, Epimecis hortaria. It is very common here and a frequent visitor to our windows at night.

Tulip-tree Beauty Moth

Their gray-brown colors, wavy lines, and scalloped wing edges help them blend in perfectly with tree bark, which is where they usually can be found resting during the day. They also have a very flat profile which helps camouflage them. Caterpillars feed on the leaves of several tree species in our woods like Tulip Poplar, Pawpaw, and Sassafras.

Plants, People, Privilege?

footprint on wood boardssoft-soled sneakers step through
messy mud, slip on
stained stepping stones,
dealing death-blows to decades of
root work, rhizomes, winter rosettes of
limp leaves no longer lifelike, lingering
bereft, half-buried, burdened by
compaction
and lack of traction and
human tracks from

soft-soled sneakers, sealed over
brown feet, belonging to
bodies of brown men marching
mindless of my mental melancholy;
scaling steep slopes, not slipping
while gripping
rough ropes and roof ridges using
driver-drills, dawn to dusk
ratcheting roofing rivets while
saws shriek, cutting stick-straight seams in
patterned panels placed precisely under
expert eyes, as I
watch wanton waste from windows.

This is my privilege:
to prioritize plants over people,
woo wildlife without the weight of worry,
wander winding wooded paths protected
by my purchasing power bought
by my birthright as a
white-collar white woman.
Woke? but wallowing
while watching

soft-soled sneakers step through
messy mud

roof lines and trees

Truck Camping 101

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.

~Douglas Adams

Melissa and Mike’s top ten tips (plus) for camping in your truck…

  1. Don’t run your truck through a mud hole that tops the hood on the first day. And if you do, hope for really good luck and that there are no adverse effects on your truck. Go ahead and camp at the end of a paved road, rather than the end of a mudhole-ridden gravel road.
  2. Download and study the Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) available from pretty much all National Forests (find the website for the forest you’re looking at, then click the Maps and Publications link in the left bar and look for the MVUMs there; most can be downloaded as a PDF). For the most part (and especially in western states), they show where you’re allowed to dispersed camp on National Forest lands. Then, use Google or another satellite view option to look for likely spots to camp. If there’s too many RVs where you are, just drive further over the bumpy, rocky, muddy stretches (contradicting rule 1), and you’ll probably find a spot you can camp without a next-door RV!
  3. Find a water container that doesn’t leak. Good luck with that. If you find it, let us know.
  4. Jury-rig any and everything. This may include:
    • creating a gasket for your above-mentioned leaking Igloo water cooler made from window gasket material
    • using some tubing to direct the water from your leaky water cooler out the truck door so even though the area around your water cooler is already pretty wet, you don’t make it any wetter while actually using the water as intended (rather than as an unintentional interior car wash)
    • adding a shelf for under your tailgate (for wet shoes and extra gear) made from a $6 piece of closet shelving and a few bungees
    • installing a cargo net between the roof handles in the back seat/storage area of your truck cab to shove your jackets, hats, bug shirts, rain gear, paper towels, etc. Use zip ties if necessary.
    • bringing along leftover bits of decking boards to use for leveling your truck on uneven campsites. Also use said boards for holding your extra water jerrycan up so it doesn’t tip over when you move the leaky Igloo water cooler (we could carry about 12 gallons of water at a time between the two water containers and water bottles).
    • covering most of the bed liner of your truck with super sticky gorilla duct tape so that the rough surface doesn’t catch on your mattress, sheets, clothes. etc. Then, use Velcro on top of said duct tape to attach all sorts of things – mosquito netting, battery powered fans, storage containers for your glasses and phones, curtains, etc.
    • sealing your truck bed camper with any and every material including silicone caulk, RV waterproofing tape, and yes, duct tape. If you use black tape it blends in better…
  5. Get over your aversion to dirt and dust before you leave. You’re just going to have to live with it!
  6. Prepare for all sorts of weather. This includes ice and snow. In August. And if you didn’t, just wear all of your clothes at once, get your sleeping bag out of the car top carrier, and hunker down to keep warm. Warm beverages and whiskey are both effective for internal warming in cold and snow!
  7. Go to the west. There’s amazing mountains, and it’s dry (just avoid the parts that are on fire, please)! If your water cooler leaks all over your truck, it’ll dry. If you wash your really dirty jeans in a bucket with some Dr. Bronner’s, they’ll dry. If you take a bucket shower with frigid water, you’ll dry. When you breathe at night (which I hope you do, no vampires allowed please), it’ll dry… or turn to frost (see rule 6 for pointers on this problem).
  8. Get a bucket, a pool noodle, and some wag bags. Use some of that jury-rigging expertise already mentioned and make yourself a toilet. As Mike said, “The bucket changed my opinion about pooping in the woods.” You’re welcome.
  9. Make sure you don’t try to use your newly constructed toilet in a really flat area of Wyoming. You’ll have to get down in the dry stream bed to get out of sight of the road, and those really huge mud cracks created as the water evaporated from the clay soils that you thought looked really cool until you stepped into them and sank more than 6 inches into some of the stickiest mud you’ve ever experienced in your entire life — yeah, you should avoid them. Should you not heed this warning, note that it’ll take a lot of washing, including using sand and pebbles as an abrasive, to remove the mud from your shoes, socks, and pants. Even then, you may never remove all of the mud. You think I’m kidding. I’m not.
  10. Every single day you’re out there, thank the native peoples that lived on these lands and stewarded them for centuries. Recognize that most of the places you’re reveling in belonged to someone else and were stolen. At the same time, thank the people who fought to protect these lands from development — native peoples, local and non-local advocates, earlier (and perhaps more statesmanlike) politicians, and many others. And revel in the natural beauty and vastness that comprises the United States of America.
Truck with tarp set up. This is the 2 pole set-up for shade and easy viewing from back of truck – when rain (or snow) was likely, we set it up with one pole to better shed the water. (click photos to enlarge)
Rear view showing bed (6-inch tri-fold foam mattress) folded into couch, shelf underneath tailgate, PVC pipes to help hold up rear window, one of 4 tubs for organization of gear, and boards under tires for leveling (plus one of our favorite snacks). This was at Pebble Creek campground in Yellowstone prepping for snow.

But seriously, if you think you might want to start camping in a truck, here’s a few of our best hacks and favorite pieces of gear that made our truck camping experience more fun and comfortable (note that we are not sponsored by or getting anything from any of these links below – we just liked the gear!):

  • Take a test run. My sister and I spent one night in a torrential rainstorm in the truck a few weeks before the big trip. This helped us realize a few things that really helped us out on the long trip, including the need for the jury-rigged under-tailgate shelf and having a small collapsible table that we could cook on under the tarp.
  • Speaking of tarps, our Slumberjack tarp provided a place to get out of the sun or rain (and to keep the rain from coming in the back window while sleeping with the tailgate open).
  • Though we didn’t use it until our return to the east, something like the Dac Inc. Truck Tent can help keep mosquitoes out (unless you’re camping in the western US, which you should be, in which case you won’t need this because you can sleep with the back completely open and not worry a bit about insects! This is what we did for most of the trip.)
  • If your truck has an extended cab, remove the backseat to provide you with more storage area. We added some plywood platforms to level things out and give us space to shove stuff like shoes and tools underneath.
  • Organize your stuff in tubs so you don’t have to dig too far to find what you need. We had a big food tub sorted into brown bags for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; but then had our daily food tub on top for easy access to the things we planned to eat over the next couple days inside. (Jerry, you would approve of this system! We didn’t quite reach your standard of organization, but it was MUCH better than our normal approach of throwing everything into a huge pile!)
  • Along the lines of the previous tip — don’t let you stuff pile up! Put it back where it belongs or you’ll make yourself miserable!
  • Limit the items that need to stay cool. That way, if you forget to get ice one day and then can’t for a couple days, nothing will spoil because, really, things like cheese, jelly, and pre-cooked bacon are pretty much shelf-stable. I also dehydrated lots of things before departing, and packaged meals (especially dinner) for easy preparation. A little experimenting with quantities of water and cooking times led to some pretty decent homemade dehydrated meals!
  • Think about how you want to try to stay clean. We swam a few times in the southeast, but we also enjoyed using a portable shower with a 5 gallon bucket and some biodegradable soap. We didn’t heat the water (honestly, we just couldn’t heat enough to make a difference), so showering was definitely a warm-day only phenomenon (though we did shower near the Tetons with snow on the ground – but back to that thing about weather in the west: if the sun is out, it can be REALLY warm in the sun even when the air temp is in the 50s!).
  • Research how you can power the gadgets you need. We purchased a sine wave inverter that had enough power to charge my laptop so I could reference the aforementioned Motor Vehicle Use Maps as well as search for places to camp and hikes to take on the internet (using my cell phone as a mobile hot spot). It was also perfect for charging our phones, the small rechargeable fan, and the portable shower.
  • Be prepared for trouble. We had a full size spare tire with us (though we realized we hadn’t checked it in a while, so thankfully we didn’t need to use it) and a portable jump starter in case we accidentally killed the truck battery with all of our recharging (which we fortunately also didn’t need).
  • Even if it’s cold, keep the windows and tailgate open, if at all possible (I refer you back to rule 6…). Condensation is a real thing while camping in a truck.
  • Get off the interstate when you can! Some of our favorite spots were along back roads across the plains and into the Rockies.
Okay, we know this is what you really want to see…our battery-powered shower on the left and the private privy bucket on the right using a large pool noodle for a seat and wag bags for the business part of it. We rigged up a secondary tarp off the main truck tarp when we needed privacy.
Truck tent. We only used it once, on the last night, but now realize we like the extra room it gives us (compared to a roll of mosquito netting that comes down at rear of truck bed with tailgate outside of it) and will use in combination with tarp as needed in the future. You also see our folding table and step stool, along with camp chairs.
One of the many delicious dehydrated meals Melissa had prepared before our departure – this one is lentil and dumpling soup.

If you want to try something like this, Mike and I would be happy to share more ideas, lessons learned, favorite places, and other tips. Just send us a note!

This is why you dispersed camp in a truck…look closely and you will see our truck in our beautiful (and isolated) campsite in the Bighorn Mountains. We loved it there and spent a couple of nights because of its scenery, quiet, and just the feeling of being in such a magnificent place with no one else around.

Woods Wandering

Forests are places where we can get back in touch with our inner selves, where we can walk on soft ground, breathe in natural cents, taste berries, listen to the leaves crackling – all the senses are awakened in the subdued light…

~Pierre Lieutaghi

I decided to wander away from the house one morning and stroll through the “back 14”. The bulk of our 14 acres of forest is on some steep terrain, with a ravine and an intermittent stream “valley” making up the lowlands. Earlier this spring I spent a lot of mornings down slope from the house cutting and painting Eleagnus shrubs to try to kill off some of this terrible invasive. I have let up on those pursuits with the onset of the sweltering heat and humidity of summer, but I thought it was time for a leisurely stroll to see what I might find. Spiders and snails dominated the scene and I found myself picking up a branch to wave in front as I walked (although I tried to step around any webs that I saw).

Arrowhead orbweaver, Verrucosa arenata
Arrowhead Orbweaver, Verrucosa arenata (click photos to enlarge)
Red-femured spotted orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum wrapping be
Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum, wrapping beetle in silk

Two spider species seemed to be the most abundant – the unusually-shaped (but accurately named) Arrowhead Orbweaver and various sizes of the more common Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver. The largest specimen I encountered was busy wrapping its overnight catch of a large May Beetle in silk.

Red-femured spotted orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum 1
The spider stopped spinning its prey and settled in for a meal

As I walked, I started paying more attention to tree leaves and what I might find on them. If I saw chewing, I flipped it over to see if I could discover the chewer. On one hickory tree, I found a cluster of neat little eggs underneath a leaf. I think these may be moth eggs of some sort, although a species of true bug eggs is also a possibility (stink bugs, etc.). But, they seem to lack the usual lid associated with eggs of the latter group.

eggs an parasitoid wasps
A cluster of insect eggs under a hickory leaf

I also noticed some other insects associated with this egg mass – tiny parasitoid wasps of some sort diligently laying their eggs. They were purposeful in their movements and spent some time with each egg they parasitized. I saw six of the wasps, so I wonder how many of these insect eggs will actually hatch out the species that originally laid the cluster.

eggs and parasitoid wasps
Parasitoid wasps laying eggs in the insect eggs

A Spicebush leaf yielded a member of one of my favorite groups of mini-creatures, a treehopper. These tiny jumpers are often adorned with strange appendages that help them mimic thorns or other features of their background, giving them both some armor-like protection and camouflage. As usual, I went to my go-to resource for this type of insect, Hoppers of North Carolina. There I learned that this is probably a female based on the long length of its horn (males have short horns). There are apparently several species in this group that look alike and may be separated primarily by host plant. Though Spicebush is not listed as a host plant, this one was next to a small Redbud tree, which is a known host plant. Right after I snapped this photo, this one leaped onto the Redbud. Another interesting tidbit is that these little hoppers can communicate by vibrating the substrate they are on. Research has shown that they communicate mating calls, food sources, and danger from predators using these vibrations (inaudible to the human ear).

Two-marked Treehopper, Enchenopa binotata complex
Two-marked Treehopper, Enchenopa binotata complex

Chewed leaves on a maple branch caused me to stop and look, leading to this discovery – one of the twig mimic caterpillars. This fairly large larva is distinguished by the dark stripes on the head capsule, the dark line on the slight hump near the far end, and the first two pair of prolegs that are noticeably reduced in size. It is the caterpillar of a really cool-looking moth, the Maple Looper.

Maple looper caterpillar 1
Caterpillar of the Maple Looper Moth, Parallelia bistriaris

As always, there were plenty of other macro surprises and delights along the way…

land snail
These small land snails were everywhere on my walk
maple seed embedded in pawpaw leaf
A maple seed has pierced a Pawpaw leaf

As I neared the house, I spotted something new to me in a patch of Microstegium – a dark-colored stink bug with prominent spines. I leaned in and saw it was missing most of one antenna. Online information said little is known about the life history of this species although it appears to eat both plants and other insects, but is not an agricultural pest like some of its relatives. What struck me most was the stark beauty of this species and its textured exoskeleton. Once again, a close look at our surroundings yields many surprises.

Black Stink Bug, Proxys punctulatus