Friday, August 8, 2014

Picking Berries

"Can I eat them all?” my 5-year-old asked, staring at a large bowl of wild blueberries we’d plucked from low bushes along the side of a local road. When it comes to berries, this little girl is insatiable, and I
can’t blame her. After all, wild berries picked fresh from the vine or the bush are one of the great joys of summer.

Over the past few years, my family has a built a respectable list of secret and not-so-secret berry stashes: a thick patch of blueberries hidden amid the tangled brush of the southeast field, swaths of thorny blackberry bushes growing through the old apple orchard, and clusters of wild raspberries woven along the tumbledown, fern-ensconced stone wall at the far edge of the front yard.

If one berry spot is lacking, we move on hopefully to the next – the roadside pick where we found the blueberries my youngest was ready to devour last week, or the patch of raspberry bushes at the corner of our road, or the blackberry brambles at the edge of the woods in the front field. So far, our best crop this summer has been the raspberries growing through the thick hedge of rosa rugosa along the curve of our driveway.

“Berries!” called the littlest one (again) as we drove out one morning. I brushed off her claim at first, figuring she must have seen the rusty swell of rosehips within the prickly foliage. But she was persistent (as she often is), so I threw the minivan into reverse to check it out. Sure enough, the first pinky-red raspberries of the summer hung there amid the thorny rosebushes like tiny treasures. I picked the few I could reach and divvied them up between us.

That was weeks ago, and my daughter continues to visit that spot several times each day, reaching through the double thorns of  rose bushes and raspberry canes for each sweet prize, and beseeching the taller members of the family to pluck the berries that hang tantalizingly just beyond her reach.

I spent many a girlhood afternoon myself, once upon a time, scrambling through brambles to reach the berries that grew along the road near home. The scratches along bare arms and legs were a small price for the simple pleasure of wild berries eaten on the spot or saved for breakfast the next morning.

During college, I spent a summer in Ireland, studying history and literature and traveling around. While musing and wandering one day along a quiet lane just outside the village that had been home to my great-grandparents, I made the happy discovery of big, juicy blackberries growing in the roadside hedge. Their sun-warmed sweetness and the casual waves of passing strangers reminded me of home.

This summer, too, we have managed to find wild berries in our travels. During a visit with friends in Maine, we picked our way through some of that state’s famous wild blueberry bushes, located conveniently off the back porch. What the littlest one did not eat by the handful, we saved for breakfast the next morning. On our annual trek to Cape Cod, we discovered a small patch of blackberries just down the road from where we were staying. My children exclaimed at the find and spent 10 happy minutes plucking a colander full of plump berries, enough to last the week.

Closer to home, my children and husband and I keep watch on the berries each summer, looking first for the blossoms, then the bumpy green of unripe berries, and finally the succulence of the tiny, tasty treasures we’ve waited for. Then we set to picking.

While the kids prefer to grab blackberries and raspberries on the fly, before moving on to one of summer’s other distractions, my favorite to pick are the blueberries, tiny and low to the ground – and thornless. It is something like meditative therapy to crouch down in a quiet field and mindlessly plop small berries into a pail until it is full.

Each summer we bake our cache of wild berries into crumbles and muffins, blend them into smoothies, condense them into jam, pour them over pancakes, and package the leftovers neatly into the freezer for later. By far the best way to eat a wild berry, though, is fresh off the bush or the vine, juicy with sunshine, brimming with the sweetness of summer and good memories of past berry picking adventures.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears in the August 8, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Shaw-Doran Mt. Wash climb

Paralympian and all-around bad ass athlete Tyler Walker (and teammate Laurie Stephens) climbed the Mt. Washington Auto Road in wheelchairs yesterday as part of the Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country's annual Sunrise Ascent fundraiser. In honor of the event, here's a story of the first wheelchair ascent, from the August 13, 2005 Caledonian-Record.


Staff Writer
Cam Shaw-Doran climbs hills mainly for the pure thrill of a speedy descent.
When he pushed to the top of the northeast’s highest peak last week, however, it was not for the glory of the downhill ride, but to become the first person in a wheelchair ever to summit 6,288-foot Mount Washington.
“We didn’t train at all. We just went over and did it,” Shaw-Doran said of the hike suggested by his friend Geoff Krill, who is also in a wheelchair.
The two set off up the Mount Washington Auto Road early Aug. 1 with a few friends and a video camera to document the trek. While Krill, exhausted, gave up the effort around the six mile mark – the road is 7.6 miles long – Shaw-Doran pushed on, reaching the summit at dusk.
Natives of the North Country, Krill and Shaw-Doran were both avid athletes and adventure-seekers prior to being paralyzed by separate accidents in the 1990s. Their Mount Washington hike is just one in a string of activities both men continue to pursue.
“Geoff totally lied to me,” Shaw-Doran, 26, said of the Washington climb. “He said, ‘Oh, yeah, the first mile’s the worst part.’ It just kind of got steeper and steeper.”
The feat took about 14 and a half hours and included pushing through some serious pain, as well as a hearty dose of the mountain’s infamous weather – chilling fog, squalling winds, and a succession of rain storms.
“I never felt like I wanted to stop, but I felt like I might not make it,” Shaw-Doran said this week, recalling severe muscle cramps and debilitating pain in his elbow. “Everything hurt.”
The climb was especially rough on his hands, which eventually became numb. To keep them from slipping off his rain-slicked, mountain bike-style tires, Shaw-Doran wedged his hands between spokes to turn the wheels of his chair.
The toughest stretch was a two-mile section of gravel. While Shaw-Doran pushed with all of his might on his chair’s large back wheels, the smaller front wheels would sink and spin. For much of the climb, his torso was pressed flat against his legs as he struggled to continue moving upwards without slipping back, especially near the end of the climb, where the grade is 22 percent – about a 45 degree angle.
“It’s brutal on your body,” Krill said. “It’s a great experience, but it’s not something that you’d want to do all the time.”
Krill, who has climbed other mountains on hiking trails in what he described as a team effort, said Washington was not on his peak-bagging to-do list, mainly because much of the route is paved. The motivation for the climb came at the end of June with a newspaper report that a man from Pennsylvania had tried unsuccessfully to reach the top of the mountain in a wheelchair.
When he realized no one in a wheelchair had ever summited Washington, Krill asked Shaw-Doran if he was up to the challenge.
“It’s our home state, and that’s the kind of thing we do around here,” Krill said. “It just made sense.”
While Krill did not reach the summit last week – he was bogged down by a 45-pound chair he said sapped his strength – he encouraged Shaw-Doran to keep pushing to get there.
“One of us had to make it up there,” Krill said. “You don’t go through this much effort and not make it.”

Against the grain
Shaw-Doran lives in Easton with world ski champion and lifelong friend Bode Miller in a house tucked behind the Tamarack Tennis Camp run by Miller’s family. The house has been dubbed “Cam-Bode-a” (pronounced: Cambodia) by some friends.
Before the car accident seven years ago that left Shaw-Doran’s legs paralyzed, he was an avid snowboarder. While the accident robbed Shaw-Doran of the use of his lower limbs, however, it has done little to diminish his playfully rebellious side.
In the first big air snowboarding contest Shaw-Doran entered as a kid, he was disqualified for doing a backwards inversion. Despite the disqualification, his jump – which he said he landed cleanly – was a big hit with spectators.
Shaw-Doran said it took him a year after the accident – six months of which were spent in the hospital – to be able to get around on his own. Gradually, he started hand-cycling, then skiing with a mono-ski – a bucket chair that rides on a single ski.
Now, he said, he can rip turns on any mountain in the winter and puts in 1,000 miles or more on his bike every summer. He’s a common sight along Easton Valley Road, arms pumping, chest heaving, as he works to spin the wheels and propel his bike along the pavement.
He’s also a student at Plymouth State University, where he’s working toward a degree in business.
Krill, who taught him how to ski with the mono-ski, said it took a little while to convince Shaw-Doran to get active again. Now the two spend a lot of time skiing and biking together.
“Life’s pretty cool in a wheelchair, and he’s figured that out,” said Krill, who was paralyzed in a snowmobile accident 10 years ago.
Krill is now the winter sports coordinator at the Loon Mountain adaptive ski program, where he teaches others who are wheelchair-bound that there’s plenty of fun to be had in the arena of the White Mountains.
Krill is also the first person to mono-ski Mount Washington’s legendary Tuckerman Ravine, a feat he accomplished this March.
Shaw-Doran has also figured out how to get going really fast on his bike. That love of speed – and his tendency to go confidently a little bit against the grain – is something he shares with Miller, who may be the fastest guy on the mountain on any given day, but is unlikely to show too much semblance of traditional form.
Shaw-Doran said the fastest he’s ever gone on his bike – about 60 miles-per-hour – was coming down Three Mile Hill in Franconia.
“I was kind of cheating,” he admitted. “Because I was drafting Bode in his Porsche.”

Inspiring others
Krill and Shaw-Doran both said they don’t have much desire to climb Mount Washington again. Krill would rather hike in his modified mountain chair, which has two long poles at the front – instead of the standard small front wheels – in what he described as a rickshaw style that allows other hikers to help pull him through river crossings and over boulders.
“There’s a lot of other things I would do before [hiking Washington],” Krill said. “I would rather go to places that are a little bit more pristine – I guess paths less traveled.”
Shaw-Doran would rather be out on the road with his hand-cycle or on a snowy mountain with his ski.
“I think I’ll bike across the United States,” Shaw-Doran said when asked what his next adventure would be. “That’s just an idea. I’ve always wanted to do it.”
Krill is game, and the two may embark on that long journey next summer, he said, if they can find the time and the sponsorship money to do it.
If they go, Krill said, he’d like the expedition to include visiting rehabilitation hospitals along the way. He hopes to carry a variety of sports gear to demonstrate to others in wheelchairs the vast possibilities for athletic and recreational activities.
“They just don’t realize what’s out there,” he said. “They need to see people doing it, who are active in it, to understand.”
While Krill said he and Shaw-Doran didn’t want any media attention prior to the Washington hike, because it would have taken away from their enjoyment of it, he said rousing others into action was one of his prime motivating factors.
“It’s great for the attention afterwards, because maybe it’ll inspire someone else in a chair,” Krill said.
Inspiration seems to be all in a day’s work – or a day’s play – for Krill.
“I would have never, ever gone or tried or made it without Geoff. I wish he could have been there with me,” Shaw-Doran said of his successful summit of the mountain. Then, with a grin, Shaw-Doran remembered that Krill has already achieved his own first on Washington: the mono-ski run down Tuck’s.
“He owns the other side of the mountain,” Shaw-Doran said.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Flamboyant Summer

It is probably because a full one-half of the northern New England year is devoid of most color that I crave the flamboyance of summer.

From the time the last leaf blows away in mid-October until the first brave blooms poke through the cold ground in April, the landscape’s palette is constrained to dull browns, gold grays, and stark white. I love winter and snow. But by the time I turn the calendar to April’s page, when I’ve had my fill of skiing and every roar of the furnace coming to life causes me to groan inwardly, it seems impossible that the world beyond the windows will ever move from cold, bleak hues to the fullness and heat of summer colors.

I am not the only one who misses the color and rejoices at its return. Before the snow has entirely disappeared from every shady crevice in the yard, many of us are potting hardy pansies to place by the door, selecting the season’s seeds, and plotting the colors we will bring to our porches and gardens, just as soon as the sun is warm enough and the days long enough.

Several years ago, on my way to work each day, I passed a somewhat shabby house. The clapboards could have used a fresh coat of paint, and even the surrounding neighborhood seemed tired. Come summer, though, the little house came alive, its porch bursting with countless hues as flowers spilled from hanging baskets and planters on the steps, any blemishes camouflaged now by the myriad of blossoms.

So many houses, from the grandest to the humblest, are transformed by flowers in the warmest months. So many of us spend a good bit of cash and countless hours planting and weeding and looking after the plants. We tend perennial beds and marvel as the dull, tired, stick-like stalks cut down last autumn swell into voluptuous vegetation and bright blooms. We fill window boxes and porch planters and hanging baskets with color and foliage and fullness. We cut back the smiling pansies when they get too leggy and deadhead the petunias, hoping to coax them into blooming well past midsummer and toward fall.

Downtown planters cascade from light posts, overflowing with buoyant blossoms. Bridge railings are draped in flower boxes, with spikes of color reaching upward and sprays of ivy flowing down. Businesses brighten windows with lively geraniums and cheerful impatiens and trailing vines imbued with color.

At my home, the crocuses come first, then the daffodils, their bright pastels in the still-chilly air heralding the return of color. Antique lilac bushes bloom purple and sweet-smelling along the driveway in late May, preceding the pink-tinged white of apple blossoms humming with bees. The lupines arrive in June to fill the fields with purple and indigo and the occasional pink. Through the rest of the summer, wildflowers pop up among the fields’ tall grasses, some familiar, others surprising us with their blooms. Big, orange lilies grow tall outside the kitchen window, where small jars of flowers – wild and cultivated – stand through the summer above the kitchen sink.

Our front porch holds a small pot of pansies and a large planter of mixed blooms. Last year I added window boxes to the upstairs railing, filling them with vining petunias and bright snapdragons, adding a bit of color higher than any ground-dwelling plant can reach.

The perennial garden out front opens with purple, as the flag irises unfold in the early days of summer. The garden marches on to orange-yellow day lilies, wispy pink astilbes, and subtle green lady’s mantle. Later there will be gold-and-brown rudbeckia, pink sedum, and the tall, yellow, late-blooming stalks my mother calls outhouse flowers (because they grow high enough to obscure a privy).

In the heat of summer, I try to appreciate each bloom, every peony pop and burst of bee balm, the brightness of begonias and zestiness of zinnias, lacy-full globes of hydrangea and nodding sunflowers heavy with sunshine. I store some of that happy glow of color in the summer-loving corner of my soul, saving a bit of the brightness for those cold days to come, so that I can remember in the absence of color that winter’s severity will – eventually – blossom into summer’s welcome flamboyance.  

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul,posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the July 25, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.