Camp Morning

DSCN3540 (800x600)I stir restlessly in my sleeping bag. A faint streak of light begins to glow on the eastern horizon and slightly brightens the cabin interior.  I do not need an alarm clock to tell me it is time  to get up.  At other times in other places I would sleep until the sun is high in the sky, but here at camp I seem almost compelled to get out of bed and revel in the early morning.

I quietly dress and step out the door.  The pre-dawn air smells of the forest, damp and earthy.  All in the forest is quiet.  It is the time between the creatures of the night and those of the day.  It is the crack of dawn. I stop and listen a bit before I go back into the camp.  An occasional snore from my companions or their restlessness at hearing me get up is the only sound in the camp. I splash a little cold water on my face from the wash basin in the sink and towel dry with the towel hanging on rod beside the sink.

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The coffee pot had been prepared the night before so all it needs this morning is fire.  The propane stove comes to life when the knob is turned and the blue flame caresses the bottom of the pot.  From the cooler I grab the orange juice and pour a small glass. We develop our own habits and idiosyncrasies and orange juice first thing in the morning is one of mine.  I gulp it down.  The acid and sugar make a curious mixture and suddenly I am fully awake; ready to start the day.

In the woodstove last night’s fire has burned down to embers. I add a few sheets of newspaper to the stove and throw in some kindling.    I rustle about for some matches and after finding one, strike the long red tipped kitchen match to the box.  It makes a raspy sound and sparks fly in every direction.  The sparks are noticeable as the camp is lit only by the dim morning light from the eastern sky.  Lighting the propane lights will disturb everyone, and besides there is no need for that much light.  The match comes to life and is touched to the paper in the stove.  The paper catches fire and begins to burn.  The door is closed with a metallic clank.  The air in the camp bears the pungent smells of burning newsprint, and coffee.

I finish what little orange juice is left in my glass and lay the glass on the counter.  From the cupboard I grab my coffee mug.  It is distinguished from all the rest by the green emblems stenciled on it.  The rest of the mugs are brown but this one was created for a special event and I have claimed it as mine.  The coffee pot on the stove begins to perk.  I turn down the flame.  I look out the window and notice that the slim band of light has now begun to expand almost exponentially.

The coffee is ready.  I turn off the stove and carry the pot to the sink.  I remove the basket and let it stand in the sink.  The last few drops splat noisily on the stainless steel sink.  I pour the strong black liquid into my cup.  Its aroma fills the air.  From the bunk room I hear more restless stirring.  The coffee smells good but they don’t want to leave their warm sleeping bags, not yet.

I step back out onto the porch.  The morning birds have come to life and the insects of the day are beginning to stir.  I sit in a chair on the porch and savor the coffee and the sounds and smells of the forest.  I sip the hot contents of the mug.  The sky continues to brighten.

An airplane intrudes into the quietness of the mountain. Down in the valley along the river there are muffled sounds of civilization.  A diesel locomotive pulling a unit train loaded with coal, blows its air horn at a crossing.  People and things are being moved for the economic good of all.  An old anthem from the 60’s begins to run through my head.

And Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg county, Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay. “Well I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in askin’.” “Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

From where those airplane passengers or train conductors sit they have no perspective of how quite it was here before their machines intruded into this quiet mountain morning. Then, they are gone.  It is quiet again.  The sun becomes a big orange ball on the horizon.  Shafts of sunlight streak between the trees.  The old weather axiom may come to pass.  If the sun comes up full and bright, there will be rain before the night.  It seems truer here than anywhere else.  Blue jays hop about on the oak trees at the edge of the cabin yard.  They squawk and chatter at my intrusion.

I finish my first cup of coffee and go inside to pour another.  The fire in the stove is now crackling as the dry kindling has caught fire, and I add some more wood to the stove.   The camp will be warm when the rest of the gang gets up.  There is restless stirring from the bunkroom.  Soon the others are about to join me.  It is the start of another day.

Early Season Fire

The sounds of the alert tones echo off the polished concrete floor and the Butler Building steel walls in the engine bay of the fire station.

“Beeeeeeeeep! Booop! Beep! Beep!

“Company thirty-six, Engine one thirty-six, Truck thirty-six, Special Unit thirty-six,” the dispatcher begins in a calm business-like manner, “Wildfire impinging on a structure, box two-thirty-six oh one” the dispatcher continues giving the exact address of the fire following his first announcements. When he is through the first dispatch announcement, the dispatcher begins to repeat it again.

By the time he is halfway through the second announcement men and women are scurrying to their assigned lockers in the apparatus bay where their protective firefighting gear is hanging.

The deputy chief runs into the engine bay and shouts the order for the firefighters to “Bunker up!” meaning for the firefighters to don their normal firefighting turnout gear rather than forest fire fighting gear. The deputy knows the address, having grown up in the community and has made a decision. This fire can be fought using structure firefighting tactics rather than wildfire tactics.

The crew suits up stepping into their knee high boots which are nestled inside their bunker pants. They pull their pants up to be held in place by – what else? – red suspenders and don their forty inch long tan turnout coats. They grab their helmets and head for the rigs.

Jimmy, the driver on Engine 1 is already sitting in the driver’s seat and hits the starter button. The Detroit Diesel – all 475 horses roar to life at the push of the button and a black exhaust purges from the tailpipe as the crew boards the rig.

When the crew has boarded the rig, they pound on the window separating the driver from the crew signaling it is okay to go.

The 45,000 pound behemoth begins to roll through the open door and onto the apron in front of the station. The officer, riding next to the driver in the front seat taps the Federal Que siren button on the floor to make sure the apron and the street in front of the station are clear, The officer hits the rocker switches on the dash board to actuate the lights on the front top and sides of the engine and hits the switch to activate the electronic siren, while simultaneously stepping again on the switch to activate the Federal Que siren. The switch is much like a headlight dimmer switch found in cars in the 1960s. As he presses it with his foot the siren winds to a higher pitch and as he lets of the siren decreases in intensity. “Ahrrrrrrrrrrrrh! Arrrrrrrrh! Arrrrrrrrrrrrrh!” It screams as if waiting to be released from the chrome confines of the chrome siren housing mounted on the front bumper.

“Baaaap! Baaaaaaap!” sounds the air horn mounted on the top of the cab and controlled by a chain hanging from the ceiling next to the driver. The air horn is the bass section of the engine’s ensemble, the electronic siren is the ever-changing melody with accompaniment of the Federal Que harmonizing, and the staccato roar of the diesel is the percussion section. Flashing red and white lights provide the visual accompaniment to the red and white fire company orchestration. Behind the engine follows the 100 foot aerial ladder truck and the “Special Unit,” a heavy duty pickup truck designed for wild fire response. Each unit is running with their sirens and lights playing their part in the Company 36 orchestra – Opus to a fire.

As Engine 1 reaches the intersection a half a block from the station the officer grabs the radio’s microphone from its holder on the dashboard.

“Engine one thirty-six, truck thirty-six, special unit thirty-six responding,” responding he says into the mic.

“Engine one thirty-six, truck thirty-six, special unit thirty-six, responding on the two-thirty-six oh one box,” replies the dispatcher from the safe confines of the dispatch center ten miles away.

As the engine approaches the intersection, Jimmy takes his foot off the accelerator allowing the Jake Brake – the engine retarder common to diesel engines – to grab causing the engine to let out a low growling sound. The local police department having heard the dispatch is already in the intersection and the officer has traffic stopped. He waves the engine forward and Jimmy hits the accelerator as he rounds the corner.

As the accelerator pedal is pushed toward the floor the Detroit Diesel responds. The intensity of the motor increases and the engine surges onward.

“Chief Thirty-six responding,“ says a familiar voice over the radio.

”Chief Thirty-six,” echoes the dispatcher.

At the intersection ahead of the engine a familiar red and white van with red lights flashing makes a turn and pulls onto the street ahead of the engine.

As the units head out of town, led by the chief’s van, people on the sidewalk stop to watch. Some know the men and women on board and offer half-hearted waves. Some stand silently and motionless, perhaps offering a prayer for the men and women on board the rigs and the people who need their assistance. Young children, mostly boys, run along the sidewalk trying to keep pace with the engine but after a few steps realize it is futile and stand and watch as the fire apparatus speeds by.  If you look, you could see it in their eyes. They want to be on the engine or truck with the firefighters. Cars that had been moving on both sides of the street pull to the side to let the rigs pass. The rigs roll through the stop-lighted intersection and continue on to their destination. After the rigs pass the street quickly returns to normal.

“Chief Thirty-six?” asks the dispatcher.

“Chief Thirty-six,” replies the chief as he leads the rapidly accelerating parade out of town.

“Chief, call back advises fire is in the leaves impinging on the house. The house has been evacuated and the landowner is trying to control it with a garden hose but the fire is gaining,” states the dispatcher in a calm voice.

“Okay headquarters,” replies the chief. He knows the address and he knows the development where it is located in the woods. It is classic suburban-woodland interface where houses have been built in the forest. Most of the residents in the development think ii is “kewl” to live in the woods and be close to nature.  They enjoy their closeness with nature and the calming shade of the forest.  They enjoy the changing colors of the leaves in the fall and often see no need to rake them and keep them away from their house or out of their gutters. Then as spring arrives and the fallen leaves of last autumn dry out they become tinder, available to any spark to set them ablaze.

“Headquarters, Chief Thirty-six,” says the chief speaking into the beige microphone of the fire radio mounted in his van.”

“Chief Thirty-six,” responds the dispatcher dutifully.

“Headquarters have forty-one’s tanker and brush unit respond along with company thirty-five.”

“Affirmative Chief. Tanker and brush from forty one and company thirty five,” replies the dispatcher repeating the chief’s instructions.

The chief puts the mic back into the holder on the dash and a new series of Plectron tones begin to emanate from the speaker as the headquarters dispatcher alerts the companies requested.

Plectron Corporation, formerly of Overton, Nebraska developed a squelch override system of radio tones that allowed for receivers set for specific tones to be activated in lieu of all other tones.  The series of high and low beeps would activate the receivers specifically tuned to those tones and became the standard for alerting fire departments, EMS, police and other  emergency services who shared a common frequency.

Within two minutes of responding to the alarm the chief turned into the development. Angry plumes of white smoke billow across the roadway, swirling away as thechief’s van and the fire apparatus behind him drove through. The wind was blowing from the north pushing the hungry flames into the dry leaves giving them fuel to gain strength and pushing relentlessly closer to the house.  The chief stopped his van alongside the driveway allowing the engine to pass.

The chief grabbed the mic and said, “Engine one pipe it if you can.”

“Roger Chief,” replied the officer from the engine.

It was a gutsy call. The master stream appliance mounted on top of the engine is usually used on large out of control structure fires. They are sometimes called deck guns, monitors or wagon pipes. The inch and a half tip can flow a solid stream of water at better than 1200 gallons per minute and the 1750 gallon per minute pump can drain the engine’s on-board water in less than thirty seconds. If the chief has made the right call the fire will go black in less time than that – but only if things go right,

The engine pulls past the chief and comes to an abrupt stop less than fifty feet from the four foot high flames. Jimmy jumps out of the driver’s seat and puts the pump in gear, while a firefighter from the jumpseat behind him climbs to the top of the engine and mans the wagon pipe. Jimmy pulls the levers to begin to flow water to the appliance as the firefighter trains the gun on the rapidly moving flames. A torrent of white water gushes from the tip on a solid stream directed at the flames.

As the water sweeps the flames they die to blackness. The fire is extinguished just that fast and the danger to the house subsides. The firefighters know their jobs and grab rakes and shovels from the special unit, now on the scene, and they pound the remaining flames into submission. A firefighter pulls the inch and a half “trash line” from the front of the engine and uses it to cool any remaining hot spots.

“I didn’t think it would get away,” says the landowner to the chief as they stand beside the van looking at the blackened yard. The chief gives the landowner a look of derision and turns away. He keys the mic of the handheld radio.

“Headquarters, Chief thirty-six.”

“Chief Thirty-six,” responds the dispatcher.

“Cancel all responding units on the two-thirty-six oh one box.”

“Affirmative chief,” responds the dispatcher.

As the dispatcher sets off the tones recalling the units from companies forty-one and thirty-five the chief looks around and says to nobody in particular, “Stupid isn’t illegal but it ought to be.”

This wasn’t the first wildfire on South Mountain and it won’t be the last. Because of carelessness, stupidity, or even intentional setting the woods here will burn again. It is almost a certainty.  On this day the firefighters were lucky. No lives were lost and no significant property damage occurred. The call to “pipe the fire” was an extreme move by the chief, but his experience and a well-trained engineer and crew saved the day. The next time they might not be so lucky in the ever-growing suburban-woodland interface in Penn’s woods.

The Legislature and Money

Bob Schott is a retired DEP biologist and a friend and colleague. He wrote a letter to the editor about an interaction he had with a legislator. You can read it at:

A couple of years ago I wrote an op-ed piece for the Harrisburg Patriot News and actually received pushback.  I include it here in case you missed it the first time around.

We routinely watch the Penguins play at Consol Energy Center, the Pirates play at PNC Park and the Phillies play baseball at Citizens Bank Park.  The Steelers are at Heinz Field and the Eagles are at Lincoln Financial Field.  Even our own Harrisburg Senators, play at Metro Bank Park.  There are stadiums and arenas scattered across Pennsylvania that bear corporate names.   Many of these venues have been paid for, at least in part, with public money. And so with tongue planted firmly in cheek I offer the following suggestions to alleviate the Pennsylvania budget deficit.

The idea is to sell the naming rights to streams, lakes, rivers and ponds.  Virtually all public surface waters would be up for bid.  There could be a two-fold effect here.  The state would receive a much needed boost in revenue and the companies who pasted their name on the body of water might actually take some ownership and protect it a little bit more than if it just had some Native American name with a lot of mis-arranged vowels and consonants.

There are 124,183 stream segments in Pennsylvania according to the PSU, PASDA geographic information system (GIS) data. Even if all the unnamed tributaries are removed from consideration that still leaves 52,567 stream segments that could have their naming rights sold to the highest bidder.  The cost could be based on the length and flow of the segment.  Considering today’s GIS technology that’s a relatively simple thing to do.

Let’s start with the most obvious name first.  The Chesapeake Bay could be renamed the Chesapeake Energy Bay.  Of course the naming fee – hopefully in the billions- would have to be divvied up between Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, and I suppose the feds would want their chunk of change too but it could provide funds to clean up the bay.

Next the Susquehanna River could be changed to Range River and the Monongahela River to Consol River.  This has huge benefits not only to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania but also to students all across Pennsylvania, who no longer have to learn to spell those difficult, tongue twisting words.  The Youghiogheny and Kiskiminetas would no longer confuse computer spell checkers after they become the Exxon and the Shell rivers.  The often mispronounced and frequently misspelled Schuylkill River could become the Sunoco River.  With these simple changes students could spend less time studying giving them more time for jobs (and paying taxes on the money they earn).  Teachers could spend less time doing lesson plans and correcting papers, thereby allowing more time for more students thus increasing class size, meaning less teachers are needed and school budgets get reduced.  See there are spinoff benefits everywhere.

Lakes are great for this plan and fit right into the scheme.  Lake Wallenpaupack, already owned by PPL could very simply become PPL Lake.  Just think of all the ink that would save when vacationers send home postcards.  Okay, so nobody does that anymore, but imagine how much easier that is to text and tweet?  The Fish and Boat Commission’s Leaser Lake would truly become Leased Lake, hardly a name change at all.

But why stop with bodies of water? State Forests and State Parks could be up for grabs as well.  How about Promised Land State Park becoming the Smart Balance, Promise Spread State Park?  Both the buttery-like spread and the park promote healthy living so it fits.  Poe Paddy State Park could become Peppermint Paddy State Park where the dew drops off the cool green leaves, and Prince Gallitzin State Park could become Princess Cruises State Park, an alternative for potential customers who might get seasick on a boat.

We’re on a roll now.  How about Sproul State Forest becoming Chief Resources State Forest?  Bald Eagle State Forest could become Coots and Boots State Forest and Tiadaghton State Forest could change its name to the easier to pronounce Halliburton State Forest.  Who would object?

And let’s not forget the transportation. The Pennsylvania Turnpike could become the Chrysler Turnpike, the Schuylkill Expressway could become the Mopar Expressway and why not I-Chevy instead of I-80?

With these few simple changes the Commonwealth of (insert name of highest bidder here) could be reaping millions, nay billions of badly needed dollars.

This was written a few years ago when the gas boom was going strong but it is still a viable option.

What’s next? How about the PGC having hunters pay a harvest fee when the get a deer? Considering the deer herd in Pennsylvania (where I hunt) they can expect it to generate $42.56, 3 cases of mis-matched returnable pop bottles and a set of partly worn re-caps.




Boxing A Compass

Boxing a compass does not involve the pugilistic arts, nor does it involve sending a broken instrument back to the manufacturer. Boxing a compass is a way to tell directions.

There are four principal directions. They are North, East, South and West. These are the cardinal directions, cardinal meaning most important. Considering that a compass is a circle and there are 360o in a circle; the cardinal directions are 90o from each other. Hence North is either 360o or 0o. Then the degrees are measured in a clockwise direction. East is 90o, South is 180o and West is 270o

Halfway between each of these points are the ordinal directions 45o from each cardinal direction. Northeast (45o), Southeast (135o), Southwest (225o) and Northwest (315o). This seems simple enough. But wait there is more. Halfway between the cardinal and ordinal directions are still more divisions 22.5o between each point. This leads to 16 points on a compass. Sometimes these are called inter ordinals or sub-ordinals and have names like North Northeast and West Southwest. To further refine these points an additional point was added 11.25o between the previous points. These are sometimes referred to as “By” points. By points are seldom used today. This makes for 32 points around the compass, each point being 11.25o from the points on either side of it.

If one can name in order all thirty-two points starting from any given point on the compass this is called “boxing the compass.” The 32 points are from north in clockwise direction:

Direction Notation Degrees
North N 0 (360)
North by east N by E 11.25
North-northeast NNE 22.50
Northeast by north NE by N 33.75
Northeast NE 45.00
Northeast by east NE by E 56.25
East-northeast ENE 67.50
East by north E by N 78.75
East E 90.00
East by south E by S 101.25
East-southeast ESE 112.50
Southeast by east SE by E 123.75
Southeast SE 135.00
Southeast by south SE by S 146.25
South-southeast SSE 157.50
South by east S by E 168.75
South S 180.00
South by west S by W 191.25
South-southwest SSW 202.50
Southwest by south SW by S 213.75
Southwest SW 225.00
Southwest by west SW by W 236.25
West-southwest WSW 247.50
West by south W by S 258.75
West W 270.00
West by north W by N 281.25
West-northwest WNW 292.50
Northwest by west NW by W 303.75
Northwest NW 315.00
Northwest by north NW by N 326.25
North-northwest NNW 337.50
North by west N by W 348.75
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With these implements of math instruction it is possible to accurately draw a 32 point compass rose but it is much more convenient to just use degrees.

It is just about impossible to measure quarter degrees with common small protractors such as those found in today’s math classes. With a good drawing compass, a straightedge, and a protractor that can measure a 90 degree angle it is possible to construct a 32 point compass rose but you better have a lot of patience.

So why use all those points and not just use degrees? Well there are a couple of reasons. The cardinal directions were based on the four directions of the winds. Most sailors were illiterate. They couldn’t read and their math was rudimentary at best. They knew enough to know they would get one piece of silver for each finger on their hands at the end of the voyage. Counting much beyond that was out of the question. They couldn’t read but they could understand symbols. A ship’s compass had a lot of symbols and if they wanted to go in a certain direction they would point the bow of the ship toward that symbol on the compass. The captain would give the order, “Head Northwest by North” and the guy steering the ship – the helmsman – would turn the wheel or rudder until the bow was in line with the “NW by N” on the compass.

And besides that sounded more nautical than saying, “Bring it around dere just a scosh,” or “Okay just a teensy bit more thattaway.”

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A modern compass showing the cardinal and ordinal directions with degrees around the outside ring.

Degrees really didn’t come into widespread use until the 20th Century.  There are 360 of them, with 0 or 360 always at north. Everybody understands that East is 90 degrees and South is 180 degrees. Learning that West by North is followed by West Northwest is no longer necessary. All that is really necessary is to be able to count from 1 to 360.

In today’s electronic world with GPS and satellite mapping it really isn’t necessary for a person to understand compasses and bearings and the like. You can select a location and the GPS will guide you, even telling you in a soothing voice which way to go. Whether you are trekking through the woods to a deer stand or driving to a new location to fish, satellites can guide the way. But what happens if your GPS’ batteries die or for some reason the satellite signals go down? Can you get out there and back?