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Our family’s best and favorite summer vacation route

When our kids were younger, say from ages seven and up, we would take them on an annual vacation through Upstate New York. The trip was devoted mostly to Revolutionary War history, but also to American frontier history, American Indian history, and natural history. All kinds of historic forts dot  the Mohawk Valley, and in between these places are all kinds of incredible natural history places, like the Herkimer diamond mines in Middleville, Moss Island, and the Canajoharie River carved pool. Lots of places to fish at every stop and everywhere in between.

We always started at Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY, and working east we would end at Fort Ticonderoga on the New York/Vermont border. Since we started this trip the forts have all gotten better and better. Fort Ontario refurbished all of their cannons a few years ago. Fort Stanwix has been majorly upgraded and has regular re-enactments. And Fort Ticonderoga now has the biggest private cannon collection in America, so get your tickets to the night time cannon shoot.

The Mohawk River is now largely a canal, and from Oswego to Moss Island you can watch small pleasure boats that started in Florida being raised from lock to lock as they make their way to Lake Ontario, and then to the Ohio River and back down to New Orleans, where they will circle back through the Gulf of Mexico to Florida. Many of the boat owners will stand on the deck to make sure their boat does not bang into the walls of the locks, and they are happy to tell you all about their trip so far. A few years ago one guy told us how his wife had just left the boat and him, and had rented a car to drive home. By the time he expected to arrive back in Florida in the Fall, her things would be gone from their home and the divorce papers would be waiting for him on the dining room table. He actually seemed pretty cheerful about it and said he was still excited to complete the trip, even by himself. By the time he was done telling us this short story, his boat had gone from one end of the lock to the other and was about to start sailing up river.

Our kids had never heard such a thing in their lives, and it gave us plenty to talk about the rest of the trip.

So here is the Revolutionary War route that our family has taken many times over the years, often summer after summer. As our children gained age, they gained new abilities to comprehend and appreciate what they were seeing. Definitely start at Oswego, and do not miss Fort Stanwix. There are all kinds of places to stay each night as you make your way east. Most of them are inexpensive, and many are historic, the the old hotel in Rome, NY, which is actually pretty nice. We usually spend at least one night camping at the Herkimer KOA in Middleville, NY, where we will spend one day mining Herkimer diamonds and another day exploring Moss Island and the historic General Herkimer homestead, which has real cannons and lots of history.

The Oriskany Battlefield monument is one of those places you can’t believe no one talks about, and when you get there and learn and see what took place, you realize how the entire Revolutionary War’s outcome hinged on this one fierce battle between Mohawk Valley patriots and British Regulars, with Indians on both sides.

Moss Island is incredible; I won’t spill the beans and you have to go see for your self, but you absolutely have to go, wearing hiking boots or good trail sneakers. The little town there has a great ice cream store, and my kids always liked fishing under the bridge as well as at Moss Island.

The Canajoharie River has the carved rock pools you can wade in, which I do not identify on the map because I ran out of label room.

Saratoga Battlefield is where a certain famous and then infamous American general made his name. Fort Ticonderoga is AMAZING, and if you are able to get tickets to the night time cannon shoot from the ramparts, you will not be left unimpressed. Trip home to Central or eastern PA, or NYC/New Jersey, is via the NY Throughway south to any number of state routes and highways, depending on how much time you have. We usually do this trip in seven days, though it can be done in ten or even five. The Remington factory tour tickets should be secured beforehand. It is an incredible tour, or at least it was. I think we took it before OSHA stepped in and limited it. The museum there is excellent in and of itself.

I think most teenage kids will enjoy researching each of these sites ahead of time, and you parents can research where you want to stay each night.

On Being a Dinosaur

I am a dinosaur.

In so many ways, my beliefs, ideals, values, education, outlook, hobbies, lifestyle, and behavior seem as outdated and as uncommon as the dinosaurs that died out long ago.

Put another way, I am one of the Last of the Mohicans, certainly not THE last, but one of a dwindling group that sees the world differently than the corrosive pop culture fed daily to Americans by Hollywood.

And I am proud to be this way, to be a patriot, to exalt individual citizen rights and liberties above government intervention, to take risks and make sacrifices in a free market capitalist society that rewards hard work and penalizes laziness.  American Sniper, Act of Valor, and Lone Survivor are the only movies that moved me in many years because I believe in military heroes, although the Lord of the Rings productions are highly entertaining.

Meanwhile, pop culture would have every American equally unhappy, equally deprived of their rights and liberties, equally planted on a couch eating junk food and watching mindless TV shows that are at war with the underpinnings of Western Civilization.

(A short, hard-hitting article about Hollywood’s destructiveness by one of its most famous writers is here.)

And I am also an old-fashioned “Hook-and-Bullet” conservationist, a hunter, life-long gun owner and fisherman, an NRA member and even more so, a FOAC member who means it when I say “You can have my guns when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.”

But did I mention that conservation is a huge part of my identity? You know, farmland preservation, wildlife habitat protection, forest land acquisition for public ownership, and wilderness areas where I can hunt, fish, camp, and hike without seeing or hearing another human being for as long as I am out there.

And why is it so hard for so many traditionalists to see that traditional American values are directly tied to, and derive from, rural landscapes? And that our remaining rural landscapes are precious fragments of the great American frontier, on which our national identity and Constitution were forged?

So why wouldn’t a conservative want to conserve those rural landscapes that gave birth to his identity and values, that enshrine Constitutional rights and self-reliance?

For some strange reason, an increasing number of gun owners are not hunters, and do not really show that they care about wildlife populations or wildlife habitat, or about land and water conservation.  When I attend meetings at different sportsmen’s clubs, like Duncannon Sportsmen, and I hear the Conservationist’s Pledge, my heart wells up and I nearly get as teary-eyed as when I hear the national anthem, or the Pledge of Allegiance.  It doesn’t help that most of us in the room are sporting lots of white in our beards and on our heads.  The next generation seems to have taken a lot for granted, because all of the battles we fought decades ago bore such abundant fruit.

All this makes me a dinosaur, and although I recognize it, I am not happy about it.  I feel like I am watching the greatest nation on Planet Earth disintegrate under my feet, and it scares me, makes me sad, and makes me want to do what I can to try to prevent it from happening.

I do not want traditional American values to go extinct, like the dinosaurs, because although those values may not be in vogue right now, America was founded on them and the nation cannot successfully continue on without them.

Fifty years of designated wilderness

Two weeks ago marked the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act.

It applies to federal designation of remote areas, not to states. States can create their own wild areas, and some do. States closest to human populations and land development seem to also be most assertive about setting aside large areas for people and animals to enjoy.

I enjoy wilderness a lot. Hunting, camping, hiking, fishing, and exploring are all activities I do in designated wilderness.

Every year I hunt Upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains, in a large designated wilderness area. Pitching a tent miles in from the trail head, the only person I see is a hunting partner. Serenity like that is tough to find unless you already live in northern Vermont, Maine, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming or Alaska. It’s a valuable thing, that tranquility.

This summer my young son sat in my lap late at night, watching shooting stars against an already unbelievably starry sky. Loons cried out all around us. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves on the birch trees above us and caused the lake to lap against our rocky shore.

Only by driving a long way north, and then canoeing on a designated wilderness lake, and camping on a designated wilderness island in that lake, were we able to find such peace and quiet. No one else was anywhere around us. We were totally alone, with our camp fires, firewood chores, fishing rods, and deep sleeps in the cold tent.

These are memories likely to make my son smile even as he ages and grapples with responsibilities and challenges of adulthood. We couldn’t do it without wilderness.

Wilderness is a touchstone for a frontier nation like America. Wilderness equals freedom of movement, freedom of action. The same sort of freedoms that instigated insurrection against the British monarchy. American frontiersmen became accustomed to individual liberty unlike anything seen in Western Civilization. They enshrined those liberties in our Constitution.

Sure, there are some frustrations associated with managing wilderness.

Out West, wilderness designation has become a politicized fight over access to valuable minerals under the ground. Access usually involves roads, and roads are the antithesis of a wild experience.

Given the large amount of publicly owned land in the West, I cannot help but wonder if there isn’t some bartering that could go on to resolve these fights. Take multiple use public land and designate it as wilderness, so other areas can responsibly yield their valuable minerals. Plenty of present day public land was once heavily logged, farmed, ranched, and mined, but those scars are long gone.

You can hike all day in a Gold Mine Creek basin and find one tiny miner’s shack from 1902. All other signs have washed away, been covered up by new layers of soil, etc. So there is precedent for taking once-used land and letting it heal to the point where we visitors would swear it is pristine.

Out East, where we have large hardwood forests, occasionally, huge valuable timber falls over in wilderness areas, and the financially hard-pressed locals could surely use the income from retrieving, milling, and selling lumber from those trees. But wilderness rules usually require such behemoths to stay where they lay, symbols of an old forest rarely seen anywhere today. They can be seen as profligate waste, I understand that. I also understand that some now-rare salamanders might only make their homes under these rotting giant logs, and nowhere else.

Seeing the yellow-on-black body of the salamander makes me think of the starry night sky filled with shooting stars. A rare thing of beauty in a world full of bustle, noise, voices, and concrete. For me, I’ll take the salamander.