Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Enjoy Nature More: Tree Identification

Hiking is one of the best ways to relax and reconnect with nature.  Going outdoors has been found to help manage everything from diabetes to heart disease to depression.  Doctors in Scotland are literally Prescribing Nature to Their Patients. One of the best ways to enhance your experience in nature is to be able to understand natures signs or identify things around you.  One of my favorite ways to elevate my hiking experience is by identifying trees.

Tree identification is fun and easy once you know some basic principles.  There are some great field guide books to assist you when you are “stumped”.  You will quickly be astounding your friends and family when you say “Hey look at that mighty Sycamore” or “Shag Bark Hickory is my favorite tree" while on the trail.

My two favorite field guides are Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Trees and The Sibley Guide to Trees.  They both have their strengths and weaknesses. Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Trees guide is best to identify an unknown tree via a dichotomous key.  The Sibley Guide to Trees strength lies in its detailed illustration of every species’ leaves, seeds, twigs, buds and bark.

What is a Tree?

What is a Tree? This seems like a no brainer, right? However, it is important to distinguish between a tree and a large bush.  A tree is a perennial plant with a single woody stem at least a few inches thick at about four feet above the ground, branching into a well-formed crown of foliage, and reaching a height of 12-20 feet (Sibley). Sure, there are saplings (i.e. baby trees) that are smaller than this, but when young, they may not display the distinguishing characteristics described in field guides.

Now that we know we have a tree, the next step in identifying its species is to categorize its morphology or physical characteristics.  Understanding these categories is essential to quickly identifying known trees. Being able to distinguish these field markers will aid you when using your field guide's dichotomous key to discover a species unknown to you.

Softwood or Hardwood?

The first categorization is to figure out if the tree is a softwood or hardwood.  Many people think this is synonymous with “evergreen” and “deciduous”, respectively.  This is a misnomer.  There are trees with needles that are deciduous like the bald cypress and trees with leaves that are evergreen such as the holly.  To properly classify softwood and hardwood it is as simple as asking “Does this tree have needlelike or scalelike leaves OR does it have broad leaves?”  Softwood trees have needlelike or scalelike leaves and are considered gymnosperms meaning “naked seed”.  A pinecone is an example of a naked seed.  Hardwoods are the broad leaf trees and are angiosperms which means “fleshy seeds”, think apples.

Arrangement: Opposite or Alternate or Whorl?

The next level of categorization is the leaf and twig arrangement.  There are three ways the leaves and twigs are typically arranged: opposite, alternate or whorl.  Opposite arrangement means the leaves and twigs oppose each other.  It is a good idea to look at the whole tree because there can be some variation.  However, once you find one leaf or twig that is opposite, chances are good the tree has an opposite arrangement.  If you found an opposite arrangement (in the northeast), you can be assured that you have a tree of the maple, ash or dogwood family.  Remember the acronym “MAD”.
In an alternate arrangement, the leaf does not have another leaf opposing it.  The leaves and twig alternate from side to side.  Again, it is a good idea to look at multiple leaves and twigs on the tree to eliminate error due variation.  

Whorled arrangement is not common, but it can be found in some Northeastern species.  The whorled arrangement has more than two leaves or twigs around the circumference of the same location on a branch.  

Composition: Simple or Compound

A simple leaf is undivided whereas a compound leaf is divided into several leaflets.  To figure out if you have a simple or compound leaf, the trick is to locate the lateral bud.  Each leaf, no matter its composition, will have a bud at its base on the twig. Leaflets do not have buds at their base.  If you see a bud, and there is a single leaf, the composition is simple.  If you found a bud, and the leaf stem (petiole) has multiple leaflets, then you are looking at a compound leaf.  Compound leaves are more complex and can be in different arrangements such as palmately (hand-shaped) or pinnately (feather-shaped) compound.

              Image Source: https://www.uwgb.edu/biodiversity/herbarium/

Evergreen or Deciduous?

It is fairly easy to determine if a tree is evergreen or deciduous (i.e. lose their leaves in Fall and grow new ones in Spring).  The key is to look at this years growth and go up the twig.  For deciduous trees, you will see evidence of past year’s growth.  You will see “scars” on the twig from past years leaf growth.  For an evergreen, you will see this years growth along with years past along the twig.  In general, trees with needles are evergreen and trees with broad leaves are deciduous.  But be careful, there are exceptions. Holly, as mentioned earlier, has broad leaves, but is considered evergreen.  In contrast, the bald cypress has needles, but is a deciduous conifer tree.

Leaf Shape

The leaf shape will help you continue down the path of identifying a species of tree. Common shapes include ovate (egg shaped), lanceolate (long and narrow), deltoid (triangular), obicular (round) and cordate (heart shaped). There is also the palm-shaped maple leaf and the lobed oak leaf, two of our most recognizable leaf shapes.  The leaf edge is also an important characteristic.  Leaf edges or margin can be smooth, sharp or serrated like a steak knife.  Some toothed leaves, for example, have clearly defined serrations, while others have much finer serrations resembling a fringe or hair.

Dichotomous Keys

Using the characteristics above, you can use the dichotomous key of a field guide to narrow down the species of tree in question.  Using a dichotomous key is simple if you can clearly identify the field markers.  It is important to understand the “lingo”.
A dichotomous key is a tool that allows the user to determine the identity of items in the natural world, such as trees, wildflowers, mammals, reptiles, rocks, and fish. Keys consist of a series of choices that lead the user to the correct name of a given item. "Dichotomous" means "divided into two parts”.

        Image Source: Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Trees
My favorite field guide, Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Trees, has a straight forward approach to tree species identification.  Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Trees is broken up into 6 sections based on the leaf type (needlelike or scalelike, palms, or board leaves), arrangement (opposite or alternating) and composition (simple or compound).  I like to use the illustrations of the 6 sections as my starting point, but there is also a dichotomous key (page 11 in my edition) For example, you may have a tree with alternate simple leaves or section V.  This will direct you to page 255, Plates 23-46 in my edition.

      Image Source: Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Trees
You will then be presented with another dichotomous key.  We begin to drill down on other characteristics.  If you are unsure what each means, the Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Trees has explanations of each key feature in the front of the guide.
The final step is to thumb through the plates directed by the last dichotomous key.   Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Trees gives an explanation of the species, the distribution of the tree, a picture of the tree and/or bark as well as illustrations of the leaves and seeds.  The field guide may also give another chart with further characteristics with pluses (+) or minuses (-) if a given species displays those features.


Tree identification is fun and easy.  With a little practice and patience, you will be wowing your fellow hikers in no time.  I have included a few great reference videos below.  I highly suggest Peter Collin’s videos.  He is local to Western NY and his videos are set in Letchworth State Park.  
Another great resources is ForestConnect, an educational program of the forestry extension and applied research group at Cornell University and through Cornell Cooperative Extension. ForestConnect's intent is to connect people to the forest, with special attention to the 650,000 woodland owners in New York. ForestConnect’s has a great YouTube channel with many educational webinars on trees.
It's more fun to figure it out yourself.
And if the field guides fail you while on your hike, grab a leaf sample from your unknown tree, place it on a white sheet of paper and use the app LeafSnap to assist you with identification.  However, it's more fun to figure it out yourself.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Trail Trees: Fact or Fiction?

Ever been on a trail and seen a crooked tree that almost seems like it is marking the trail?  If you have, you might have noted they seem unnatural and out of place.  The tree is bent at sharp angles and often take on a weird shape.  The sharp angles and unique shape characterize a human design rather than the gentle curves that one would expect from natural forces like wind and weather.

I first learned about trail trees in the book How to Read Nature by Tristan Gooley.  He briefly mentioned trail trees, then I recall seeing one at Shenandoah National Park and then again at Allegany State Park and began to research more fully.


Trail Tree at Shenandoah National Park on the Stony Man Trail
Native Americans used these trees to mark a network of trails. The trees were also thought  to mark sacred areas, locations of water and food, warn travelers of danger or mark culturally significant landmarks.  The trees are known by several names such as trail tree, trail marker tree, signal trees, thong tree or prayer tree.

Parts of a Tail Tree
(Source: http://www.greatlakestrailtreesociety.org)

To be a  trail tree, first of all, it must be old enough to have been alive when Native American tribes still lived in the area. The bend is about four or five feet off the ground. The bend  bend is a sharp right angle.  The tree then runs parallel the earth for a measure, and turns sharply up again, towards the sky. They will indicate some sort of feature of the land, whether it’s a trail, a spring, or a place to ford a river.

Unsure if you are looking at a trail tree?  The Trail Tree Project has a page with typical and atypical trees.
How Trail Tree are formed 
(Source: https://maps.roadtrippers.com/stories/mysterious-bent-trees-are-actually-native-american-trail-markers)
The first record of trail marker trees appeared in a document called “Map of Ouilmette Reservation with its Indian Reminders dated 1828–1844”. This map shows actual drawings and locations of existing trail marker trees.  The first known research on trail trees is found in the February 1940 edition of Natural History Magazine, where Raymond E. Janssen mentions their distribution into the Great Lakes region. Jenssen wrote "The casual observer views them merely as deformed freaks; but careful observation and comparison of the nature of the deformities indicate that these trees did not acquire their strange shapes simply by accident."

Map of Ouilmette Reservation 
(Source: https://ottawarewind.com/2016/08/07/strange-things-old-native-trails-once-marked-by-bent-trees/)

Since then, a researcher Dennis Downes and president of President and Founder of the Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society, has taken a deep dive into the phenomena of bent trees. He has spent more than 30 years researching and educating people on bent trees.  Downes has compiled 100’s of photographs of the trees and has visited many trail tree sites.
Dennis Downes
(Source: http://www.greatlakestrailtreesociety.org)

Think you have found a trail tree?  Send it to the Trail Tree Project.  This registry, part of the MountainStewards.org, is attempting to document all known trail trees before time, disease and urbanization destroy them.  They will use this registry to better under the significance of trail trees.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Mountain Biking in WNY - My Story

By: Thomas Anderson
Crossing a creek on my Mountain Bike.
I have been Mountain Biking locally since 2007. I learned how to ride a bike without training wheels at age 3 but, when my Dad introduced me to Evil Knievel, my life drastically changed. Life was still about riding on two wheels, just now it was how I could get my hands on something with a motor on it and be able to jump over things. As I child my dad knew my intentions and made it very possible that I would not have anything like, as long as he was footing the bill. Anyways, at the age of 16 I got my first street bike, and for the next 32 years I lived a very extreme two-wheeled lifestyle until I found myself in the hospital for 9 days, and out of work for 90 days as the law of averages finally caught up to me. I was ejected off my motocross bike 30 feet in the air at 35 mph and crushed my T-12 vertebrae. Anyone who is familiar with this condition, probably knows just how lucky I was to not be in a wheelchair the rest of my life, not to mention even dead. I can count on two hands the number of near-death experiences I have lived through but, this one scared me the most. For sure someone much bigger than I watching over me, and I felt as this was the final warning, not to mention my Mother sitting there next to my hospital bed on Mother’s day, just shaking her head. I could see it in her eyes, that she was saying it is time to give this stuff up. Amen!!!

This trail in Chautauqua County is one of my favorite spots to ride.
So for the next 7 years, I indulged myself in other activities, and as a single man, I could do what I wanted. I competed on the National Level at 3D Archery, R/C Oval racing, and was even a Crew Chief on a Limited Late Model Dirt Car. These things were okay but, there is nothing like being on two wheels or having the wind hit you in the face. And finally, I had to do something different as I had also put on some extra weight that I never had before. As I began my quest to get thinner, a good friend of mine told me that he had been skiing. Wow, I thought. I can do that and I am pretty good at it too. So I began, I updated my equipment, away I went. I had a really good season; it was probably one of the snowiest seasons I can remember. Then Spring came, and I needed something else to do, especially something that would help me keep off the pounds I had put on.

After a few of my ski friends had already had Mountain Bikes, I thought this would be a great way to help shed some more pounds and have some fun along the way. So I purchased my new Mountain Bike. This was much different than anything I had previous, more gears, actual suspension,  and disc brakes. A Lot of things had changed since my previous Bike ( still in the corner of the same shed), which always took a back seat to my motorized toys, but now it was different. This all I had in the shed now. Needless to say though I was quickly doing all the stuff that I would do on the motorcycles, but it was different. I could hear myself think, I could hear birds chirping, I could even have a conversation with someone else while riding. Even during races!!!
Some trails are much bumpier than others!
So again, the cool thing about Mountain Biking is we make almost no noise at all. I have even snuck up on deer on the trail, they seem oblivious to rattles that may come from the bike. So this is the really cool thing about Mountain Biking. You can go places that you could only dream of going on a dirt bike, let alone the whole trail system of WNY. I can leave my garage at home and explore the back country of the Village of Alden, and even ride straight through town if that is where I end. It is also fun to go back and visit the place I rode on my old BMX bike as a child, only now you have new options. In Mountain Biking there is no destination, you only need a bike and a desire to ride and you can have fun riding in your own neighborhood, or enjoy all of the wonderful single track that is in beautiful WNY. Get yourself a bike and get out there!!! 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Passing the Time on the Trail with Kids

Passing The Miles

We enjoy hiking with our boys and dogs.  Most of our local hikes are under 5 miles and not super strenuous.  The boys usually talk about their video games, sometimes we have some deep science and life conversations, other times just pointing out interesting things on the hike does the trick. 

When we began overnight backpacking and longer, strenuous day hikes in the Adirondacks.  I found that increasing the stress of the hike, either by carrying a pack or by the length and elevation change, would cause the mood to drastically decline as the kids got tired. 

One trick I have learned from some of my longer treks is that when someone in the group is tired and on their last legs, begin distracting them with conversation about work, family, vacations, really anything positive to get them talking and not thinking about their fatigue.

I wanted to find a way to do the same with my kids on those longer, more strenuous hikes.  Holding a long conversation about their family is not really an option.  I remembered a riddle used on a Boy Scout trip when I was 12.  Someone told the riddle and everyone in the group could only ask “Yes” or “No” questions to arrive at the answer.  This particular riddle lasted several hours over the course of two days. 

           The boys completely forgot about the 15 lbs. they were carrying on their back.

Kids Loved Riddles

I tried the same riddle on my boys.  They immediately perked up and took turns asking questions.  C was rapid fire.  J was quiet, I could tell he was really thinking hard, trying to formulate questions.  Before we knew it, we were at camp.  The boys completely forgot about the 15lbs they were carrying on their back and never asked “How many more miles?”  Our first riddle was:
  • Riddle: A man is driving in his car.  The radio stops playing.  He gets out of the car and kills himself.  Why?
  • Answer: The man was a DJ at a radio station.  He pre-recorded his shift and then went home and killed his wife.  On his way back, the recording ran out and he knew his alibi was destroyed.
This is a pretty challenging riddle.  And if you do not cave or give hints, is pretty hard with just “Yes” and “No” questions, especially for 12 and 13 year olds.  They eventually got it!  On the trek home, I could only remember a few more riddles thanks to the Cosby Show.
  • Riddle: A plane crashes on the boarder of the US and Mexico, where do you bury the survivors?
  • Answer: You do not bury survivors.
  • Riddle: Two coins equal 30 cents, but one is not a nickel.
  • Answer: A quarter and a nickel, the quarter is not a nickel.
  • Riddle: A rooster lays an egg at the top of a house, which way does the egg fall?
  • Answer: Roosters don’t lay eggs!

I was on to something.  It passed the time and stopped the “Are we there yet?” questions.  And I actually think it made them hike faster.  On our next backpacking trip, the boys had a job.  They needed to find 3 riddles each.  The scoured the Internet.

If you don’t have them put the answer down, they WILL forget!

I had the kids copy the riddle on to index cards, low tech we will be in the middle of nowhere.  They put the riddle on one side and the answer on the other.  I want to emphasize: put the answer on the other side. If you don’t have them put the answer down, they WILL forget (lessoned learned).  I had Stephanie review the riddles to avoid duplicates.  We took turns asking the riddles.  It was a fun way to pass the time and now the boys look forward to riddles and work hard to find the one that stumps the group.

Favorite Riddles

Here is a list of our top riddles.
  • Riddle: A man is found murdered on a Sunday morning. His wife calls the police, who question the wife and the staff, and are given the following alibis: the wife says she was sleeping, the butler was cleaning the closet, the gardener was picking vegetables, the maid was getting the mail, and the cook was preparing breakfast. Immediately, the police arrest the murderer. Who did it and how did the police know?
  • Answer: The maid because the mail doesn’t come on Sunday
  • Riddle: You are in the intersection of two roads, there is a troll in the beginning of each road. One of them is liar (always lies), and one of them always tells the truth. One of the roads, ends to your destination and one of them ends to death.The trolls know which way is the right one and which one ends to death. How can you find the way if you can ask only one question? It’s your choice who to ask and you don’t know who tells the truth and who lies.
  • Answer: Ask one of the troll “Which road would the other troll tell me to go to for this destination?” Then take the opposite road.
  • Riddle: Two men walk into a bar.  They both order the same exact drink.  One man drinks it fast and one man drinks it slow.  The one that drinks it slow dies.  How did he die?
  • Answer: The poison is in the ice cubes.
  • Riddle: A man with a knapsack is found dead in a desert.  How did he die?
  • Answer: His knapsack was a parachute that malfunctioned.
Remember: Only yes or no questions can be asked.

The hardest part is not caving in or giving hints

Monday, April 8, 2019

Journal of a Rookie Raft Guide

Applying to ACO

A new season of rafting is now upon us.  As I prepare for the 2019 season, I wanted to take an opportunity to reflect on my first year as a raft guide for Adventure Calls Outfitters at Letchworth State Park. 
Becoming a guide, was a spur of the moment decision for me.  I wanted to become a NYS Licensed Guide to begin a path to a second career; a story for another time.  The requirements to become a licensed guide are certifications in First Aid, CPR and Water Safety.  The easiest way for me to get all three was to become certified as a Lifeguard.  So I looked up courses and got in touch with Tim Reed from Adventures in Fitness.  I really liked Tim’s business model of personal training, American Red Cross training and wilderness guide services, so I “stalked” him on the Internet and found he was also a Raft Guide at Adventure Calls Outfitters (ACO). 
I vaguely knew about ACO.  I looked them up and it looks like they were hiring with no experience necessary.   I had kayaked through the Letchworth gorge with friends and figured how hard can rafting be? I thought this would be a great opportunity to see if outdoor guiding was a good fit for my “second career”.  I filled out the application and updated my professional resume, probably a bit overkill, but I wanted to make a good impression. 
Adventure Calls Raft Guide Application
Kevin, the owner, responded to my application:
Thank you for your interest in joining the ACO staff. We’re about two weeks into training the new hires for this year but, if you’d like to come down to the rafting office at Letchworth State Park this coming Sunday, 04/08 at 9:00 am we could probably get you up to speed fairly quickly, or at the very least each find out if we’re a good fit for each other.  Bring river gear, we’ll be paddling the river in the afternoon.  
Have a Blessed Day,
Kevin – ACO
I confirmed the location and required gear like a responsible adult. I was told
We’ll have a wetsuit and top for you.  Bring old sneakers or water shoes or secure sandals, wool or polar fleece socks, gloves and a ski hat might be good too.
I proceeded to stalk all of the raft guides on Facebook and the ACO website, just to “get to know” them.

New Guide Training

I showed up for the guide training thinking I was immensely unprepared.  I was a total noob and was already a couple weeks behind on the training.  I was instantly greeted by the ACO guides giving the training and got acquainted with the other trainees.  I immediately felt relaxed and could tell that this was a great place to work.
Posing with a great crew at Wolf Creek
Some of the tenured guides were getting First Aid/CPR training while us trainees took a bus tour of the park.  Ella and her husband Brian gave us the complete history of Letchworth State Park.  We learned plenty of facts about the park that I did not know, Ella went over several stories about Mary Jamison and William Pryor Letchworth.  We stopped at several spots and overlooks.  During the tour, I got to know the other trainees; Sam, Anna, Daniel, and Kenny. 
We finished the day rafting. We geared up, I brought the right stuff, I think. We put on “farmer johns”, a blue splash top and a helmet.  I was such a noob. The guides had all the gear, knives, PFDs, dry suits, etc.  We went over to the east side of the park, blew up a boat and zip lined it down into the gorge.  Pretty cool and overwhelming.  We then launched the rafts. Ella took us through the gorge, giving us even more history of all of the points of interest.  She named all of the rapids and instructed us on how to run them. 
The only thing going through my mind was: "I am never going to remember all of this......"  
Rafting was pretty cool. It did not look like something out of my league.  I was excited to learn more and to actually command a raft.  I could not wait until the next week of training.
Luckily, I was invited to continue with training the following weeks.  I guess I did not totally suck! I found out that we needed to complete 5 trips before we were official guides.   The trip with Ella counted as number 1. 
1 of 5 trips were complete.   
My next trip down the river was with Todd.  He was very knowledgeable and seemed like a neat ex-military guy.  Thanks for your service Todd!  He explained how to handle the boat and how to take rapids.  He guided on the first couple of rapids and then turned the stick over to me. It was nerve wracking.  After a few maneuvers, I was able to steer the boat fairly well.  Reading the rapids is totally another story.  They all have names and some you need to approach from the left, some for the right, some turn halfway through. No way I am going to remember all of this.......... Thank goodness, new guides are middle guides, so we get to follow the more experienced guides through the lines.  
          2 of 5 trips in the bag!

GoPro and new gear in full effect.
The following week, two trips were scheduled. They were short guides so they asked if I was comfortable guiding my own boat.  Why NOT? Heck Yeah!  I also decided to take my GoPro, thinking I could cobble some footage for the ACO Facebook page.
Danica and Ted were the lead guides.  Small world, I knew Ted from the Dande Farms Golf League.  The trip went well.  I did not flip the raft and none of my passengers went for an unexpected swim.
3 of 5 trips DONE!

On the second trip, I was disappointed that I would have to go with a guide, Paul.  He was really great.  He gave me the helm right away and really took the time to explain every rapid and the gorge.  He was really constructive about giving pointers.  
This trip started bumpy with one of my guests falling in the cold water at put-in.  She was kind of a small girl and could not get her foot over the gunwale.  This foreshadowed an "OOPS" I had at Mystery Rock.  I did not get far enough left and hit the rock on the right.  The girl was thrown from the boat, but I caught her and only her feet went in.  The boat spun and yanked her back in the boat.  I was mortified, but Paul was really encouraging saying I acted quick and did everything right.  People get tossed and it is our job to keep them safe and back in the boat.
4 of 5 trips COMPLETE!
The following week I took my final training runs under the guidance of Tim.  The weather was warmer and the activities at Wolf Creek were in full effect.  People were jumping into the “Leap of Faith” and sliding down the waterfall.  It was a blast pulling people out of the hole and seeing everyone enjoying themselves.  I knew I made the right decision to become a guide, even after having to take a cold swim across the river from put-in to Lee’s Landing as part of “new guide training”.
5 of 5 trips done, I think I passed!

It's Official!

The following week I was presented with an ACO Raft Guide hat, it was official.  I was a raft guide!  I was on the schedule.  
I worked mostly weekends which was good because there were typically two trips per day, more rafting opportunities.  For some reason, I could not time my drive to Letchworth correctly. I was always the first one to arrive for the day.  Maybe I was just excited to raft or it is my obsessive personality.  I would unlock the office and start bringing out the PFDs. Other guides would arrive and lend a hand.  This provided a good time to shoot the breeze and get to know everyone.  Then Kevin, the owner, would arrive and I would typically be assigned to blowing up rafts.  I think it is because it is a “brawn over brains” assignment.

14 people in the "Leap of Faith", not even close to the record.
I quickly learned to enjoy blowing up the rafts.  There is typically a crew of 4 or 5.  You get in a good workout, you get a nice tan, you hear some good stories and you get to enjoy the peacefulness of the gorge.  Not a bad way to start any day.  Then the guests would arrive from the bus and you get to find out your assignment.
We see a wide range of people rafting with us. I have taken Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, High School Students, College Students, foreign visitors from China, Europe and Canada, families with small children, couples, and bachelorette / bachelor (oh the bachelor parties, keep reading) parties.  You name the type of person, we have taken them rafting.
I love taking people on the river.  It is such a rewarding experience.  On one trip, there was a couple where the woman was apprehensive about rafting.  I could tell she was terrified.  I talked with her, reassured her and made sure they were in my raft.  After the first couple of rapids, she had a grin from ear to ear and had a blast. Awesome!
These cool sunglasses make me look like a professional Raft Guide, right?
I enjoy meeting new people and taking them on a memorable experience.  Between the rafting and gorgeous views of the gorge, it is nearly impossible for someone to have a bad time.  However, I try to enhance their experience by naming the rapids and educating the guests on the history of the park and various points of interest.  I actually retained like 25% of what I learned from Ella and Brian during training.  And what I did not know, “fake it, till you make it”.  You know how you know a raft guide is lying?  His lips are moving. It also helps to have some bad dad jokes in your back pocket.  “Do you know the difference between a beer nut and a deer nut?”

Don’t Splash a Raft Guide

Sometimes you have no choice but to drench a guest on a nice warm day.  We have several methods to get our guests wet; from a gentle nudge (with permission) into the Leap of Faith, splashing with a guide stick (they are bigger than guest paddles), a yank with the T-Grip or the nuclear option of pulling them in which usually means we both get wet.  With the right group of guests (teenage boys, bachelor parties, etc), the nuclear option can make for a fun and memorable time for all.
Instigating splashing is my favorite pastime.  It is funny how many people are surprised by it. You are whitewater rafting, you will get wet.  Most of the time, once the splashing is instigated, it turns into a full out battles among boats.  The guests like to play “Lets get the raft guide wet.” You will always lose. 
Paddle "High Five"
There are two “nuclear events” that come to mind from my first year.  The first was a trip with Boy Scouts. I had two of the troop leaders in my raft with their two sons.  There was one “misguided” boat with the more senior scouts, high school boys. This trip was early in the season and I had yet to buy my ultra-cool raft gear.  I was using a standard PDF that did not have any pockets, so I wore a “sport belt” to keep my snacks, straps and carabiners. The senior scouts started ribbing me saying I was wearing a fanny pack or a man purse.  I ignored it until near the end of the trip where we were in deep water.  I then got close enough to their boat and caught one of the boys off guard. He got wet. It was called a sport belt for the rest of the trip.
The other “nuclear event” was during a bachelor party.  The party was split between two boats, both with guides.  The other guide, Rolf, and I conspired and pit both boats against each other.  It started with friendly jests and escalated with splashing and races.  About at the same deep point in the river as the previous nuclear event, Rolf and I bought the boats together.  I targeted the groom and made sure we both got wet.  After that, it was chaos.  Both boats were in the water.  Somehow Rolf was the only dry one of the bunch.  He is a very savvy raft guide. 

Most Memorable Trips

Every trip is unique, every trip is fun, and every trip you learn something new.  But, there are two that stand out in my first year.  I was selected to guide the Salmon River which is a Class III dam release run.  When rafting the Salmon River, we setup a satellite operation at a local camp ground and spend two days on the river, each guide does two trips in total. I drove around with a couple of other guides to scout the river.  They showed me the final string of rapids called Twister, Lusitania and Titanic, all class III rapids.  They instructed me to make sure I square up at Twister. And then reiterated, square up at Twister. 
We Salute You
My first trip went well, I was able to navigate all of the rapids up to Twister.  I entered Twister and thought I squared up.  Before I knew it it, I was in the water along with the whole right side of the boat.  I felt terrible, but that quickly subsided after I saw my two guest swimmers were OK and laughing hysterically.  I was consoled when I learned one of the senior guides also went swimming at twister and a couple of more swam the following week.  As one of the guides told me “We are all in between swims.”  I nailed Twister the next day, BTW. 

Shark Suit Groom
The second memorable trip was a wedding party.  We were getting some of the wedding party and parents fitted with PDFs when the groom came walking from the parking lot in a full body shark suit.  I seriously can’t make this stuff up.  Of course, my boss encouraged him to wear the outfit for the trip which he was happy to oblige and we had great fun.  It will be the only time you will see a shark swimming in the Genesee River. 

Good hit on the final trip of the year in my rookie season.


  • ACO is a great company to work for.
  • ACO’s owner, Kevin, is a very laid back and generous guy. 
  • Wedding parties are a good time.
  • Letchworth has bears.
  • You really need to square up at Twister.
  • People will do most anything for the camera.
  • Never underestimate your guests.  Everyone wants to have fun.
  • You really need to square up at Twister.
  • You never get bored of seeing the gorge and its wildlife.
  • Bad jokes are still funny on the water (I think?).
  • Going rafting never feels like work.
  • It’s a sport belt and if you call it anything else you will get wet.
  • You really need to square up at Twister.
  • Male raft guides look good in woman’s sunglasses.
  • Paddle salutes and paddle high five’s are the best.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Hiking in the Lower Niagara Gorge

By: Nikki Andrews
When the water is low you can adventure out onto the flats!

Living in Western New York can be trying sometimes with our constant changing weather. But one of the things that I love the most about living in the north towns is being so close to such a beautiful place, the lower Niagara Gorge. Made up of multiple parks, there is Whirlpool State Park, Devils hole State Park, Art Park, and the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center. There are miles of trails, stunning views, cotton candy sunsets, and places to hang my hammock.

This is a great spot for relaxing! 
My favorite "chill" spot, right between "Devil's Hole" and "Whirlpool"
Most people would probably think that you could only hike here in the Summer, but I am here to tell you that I hike it almost weekly, all year round. There are so many trails and mysteries, that I am finding new things every time I go. I am never disappointed.

Cement steps leading down to the river by the old water intake.

The most common questions I get are; "Isn’t it dangerous?" and; "Don’t you get worried about hiking down there alone?". To be completely honest, I have never once felt afraid or concerned going down there. Sometimes I take my dogs, or a friend, or I just go alone with my hammock. No matter the case, I enjoy every minute of this place. For some reason people seem to think that the Lower Gorge or Devils hole specifically is overrun with degenerates who want to rob and rape you, but I can tell you, as a young woman, I have never witnessed nor felt fear of any kind down here. Not to say you shouldn’t be wary, because you should anywhere you go, but I think this place just has a bad rep and more people should experience the beauty that it has to offer.

A view of the American Falls from the bottom of the stairs by the old water intake.

My dogs are happy when they hike all the stairs at Whirlpool, even in the winter!

I find coming here feeds my soul and brings me peace. Most people probably don’t know all the hidden gems back here, from car ruins, abandon buildings, minerals and even remnants of the old power station, even some cool artifacts I've been able to turn into museums. There are caves and tunnels, giant boulders, fire pits, lunch hang outs, cool stairways and old observations decks. And when the water is low, there are exposed flats of rock beds that you can wander out on to. I wouldn’t recommend doing that with small children though.

Remnants of old cars can be found along the trail.

I named this "Turtle Rock". It's behind the Discover Center and is one of my favorite spots to hang out on s Sunday afternoon.

I learned recently is that you can actually hike from Art Park all the way to Whirlpool State Park. It takes about 5-6 hours to round trip it, for an average hiker. There is everything from waterfalls, to bridges and caves. Its about 20 miles round trip but an easy hike for someone who hikes regularly. Pack a lunch and make a day of it! You wont be disappointed. Just a note though, they still haven't connected the Whirlpool Trails to the Discovery center trails, but I have heard rumors that there are plans to do so. So if you are feeling extremely motivated, you could walk the Robert Moses to get to the Discovery center Trails to continue your adventure. But my recommendation is to go to each section separately so you can spend time exploring. 

Start here in Art Park by this lovely little waterfall and finish at the observation deck at Whirlpool.

A view upriver from the old ruin of the observation deck at the end of the Whirlpool Trail. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Waterfalls of Letchworth State Park

by: Mike Radomski

Letchworth Middle Falls
Photo Credit: Keith Walters Photography
Letchworth State Park is commonly referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the East.”  The park is more than 14,000 acres and is bisected by a 22 mile long segment of the Genesee River.  The river is at the base of the canyon that is over 550 feet deep in some sections.  This unique topography offers visitors spectacular vistas and several waterfalls.

"The Grand Canyon of the East"
Photo Credit: Mike Radomski
The river gorge cuts through the valley allowing the Genesee River to roar over three major waterfalls and several whitewater rapids. The Seneca Indians called the area Sehgahunda, meaning the “Vale of Three Falls”.  The Upper, Middle and Lower Falls are by far the most popular and most photographed waterfalls in the park.

The sheer cliffs of the gorge and size of the Genesee River watershed  gives way to the more than 30 additional waterfalls throughout the park. Many of the waterfalls are created by creeks flowing over the gorge walls with some of these cascade over 300 feet high.  However, many are considered  ephemeral (only exist after a rainfall) or seasonal.

The Letchworth Middle Falls
Photo Credit: Keith Walters Photography
Deh-ga-ya-soh Falls, located between the Middle Falls and Inspiration Point, is the most dependable of these “minor, ephemeral" falls.  Deh-ga-ya-soh Falls is a complex ribbon falls that cascades over 150 ft.  Deh-ga-ya-soh Falls in the Seneca language means “Nameless Spirits”.

Inspiration Falls
Photo Credit: Keith Walters Photography
Located nearby Deh-ga-ya-soh Falls, is the 350 ft. tall Inspiration Falls.  Although Inspiration Falls only flows during periods of heavy rain or snow melt off, it becomes NYS’s tallest waterfall.
Another dependable waterfall is located at Wolf Creek.  The Wolf Creek Falls is a long cascade made up of 4 waterfalls plunging 225 feet.  Three of the waterfalls can been seen from the upper trail, but the final and most spectacular cascade can only be seen from the river.  
Shower Curtain Falls (final drop as Wolf Creek enters the Genesee River).
Photo Credit: Mike Radomski
Adventure Calls Outfitter’s rafting trips hike up to the final cascade when conditions permit.  At the base of the falls, is “the leap of faith”, a 6-7 foot deep hole inside the fall’s grotto where guests leap through the waterfall into the pool that is often above their heads.

NYS is blessed with many spectacular waterfalls from Niagara Falls to Taughannock Falls to Kaaterskill Falls, over 3200 have been documented.  The abundance of waterfalls has created opportunities for people to document them.  There are a several great websites and books that document the falls.  DigTheFalls is the best place to start.  They have an interactive map of the known NYS falls.  DigTheFalls also sponsors the NYS Waterfalls Challenge.

One of the best resources for Letchworth State Park Falls is FalzGuy.com.  Much of his work is referenced in this article as well as the previously mention websites. FalzGuy.com has a wealth of the information on Letchworth State Park waterfalls. He has documented GPS locations, best places to view each falls, maps and descriptions. I have summarized his waterfalls listings in the table below. FalzGuy.com also offers book called A Waterfall Guide To Letchworth State Park.

If you are into maps like I am, you can create your own custom Letchworth State Park waterfall map using this custom Caltopo map I created for this article. You can import the GPX file of the Letchworth Falls into your GPS device and create your own custom adventure.   Maps of the park can be found at NYS Parks online.

Although you can see most of Letchworth’s “minor” falls from trails in the park, one of the best ways to see the Three Sisters Falls and Wolf Creek Falls is from the gorge on whitewater rafting trips with Adventure Calls Outfitters

Adventure Calls Rafting Trip
Photo Credit: Mike Radomski
A special thanks to Keith Walters Photography.

Keith provided amazing photos for this article. He is extremely talented and has captured many spectacular photos of Letchworth State Park and other landscapes. All are available for print on his website. You can follow his work at:

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