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Country Moon

Don't Touch Me: Plants to Avoid

Country MoonWeeds. Usually, they are just an annoying part of our summer life. Sometimes, like in the case of dandelions, they can rise above annoying and actually contribute to our well-being. Then, sometimes they can be the complete opposite and be downright dangerous to us and our pets, thus enter the world of noxious weeds.

Noxious weeds, by definition, are weeds that are considered harmful to the environment or animals, especially one that is the subject of regulations governing attempts to control it.

Most of them are spread by nature. Seeds are carried by the wind, water and wildlife. Humans and pets pick up seeds that stick in the tread of boots and shoes, on clothing and animal fur. Animals’ paws carry seeds near and far. Most noxious weeds have more than one method of propagation. Besides seeds, some send out rhizomes. Species such as knotweed can spread by seeds and fragmentation, just a piece of its root will grow a new plant.

Most noxious weeds were introduced to a region by humans for a certain purpose. Thus, what may be considered a noxious weed in one state or area may not be in another. The Department of Environmental Conservation or the local extension service can provide information on what plants are hazardous in your area.

There has been a lot of buzz lately about one certain plant that is particularly hazardous if people come into contact with it. The culprit is 14 feet tall, green, hairy, covered in toxic sap and is known as giant hogweed. This massive plant causes painful burns, scarring and possible blindness.

Hogweed is native to Asia but naturalists introduced the plant to this country in the 1900’s. Its size and enormous flowers made it desirable for ornamental planting. It remains small for 3 to 5 years and then gains enough energy from its roots to rocket in growth and produce early summer flowers that are one to two feet in diameter and 5-foot wide jagged leaves.

With no known disease or insect pests to control it, hogweed soon escaped to the wild and is becoming widespread. An average hogweed plant produces 20,000 seeds that can fall 30 feet from the plant and travel even further. As of date, it is found in Virginia, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, Washington and Oregon.

So, what makes this plant so bad? The danger is in the sap, which is literally all over the plant. Once a person comes into contact with it, it causes severe burns when exposed to the ultraviolet light from the sun. For some, this can happen within 15 minutes of contact and for others it may take up to two days.

When the painful blisters subside, permanent scarring can remain. The more sap you come into contact with, the greater the damage. Once in your system, it makes your skin unable to protect itself from the sun. This reaction is known as phytophotodermatitis, the same condition that occurs when certain antibiotics makes you more sensitive to the sun. This sensitivity can last for up to six years and in the more severe cases it can cause blindness.

A recent incident involving a giant hogweed sent a 17-year old boy to the emergency room with second and third degree burns after he chopped down one of these plants as part of his summer landscaping job. Alex Childress of Spotsylvania, Virginia, didn’t notice anything was wrong until he went to take a shower the night after he chopped it down. He told PEOPLE magazine that he started rubbing his skin and huge chunks started falling off. He must now avoid the sun for six months.

Hogweed likes lots of light and moist soil but it is also found in partially shaded areas, along streams, river banks, roads, forests, fields, yards and basically anywhere! Two similar looking plants are often mistaken for it, cow parsnip and angelica. However, the plants can be differentiated; cow parsnip only grows to about 6 feet in height and angelica has compound leaves and smooth stems. Hogweed has white hairs and purple blotches on its stems.

If you do happen to come into contact with it, wash with soap and water as soon as possible and get to a doctor ASAP.

Although giant hogweed is the big bad boy of noxious plants, there are others that can also make you sick or just downright uncomfortable. Depending on a person’s system, some may have severe reactions to certain plants while others have mild reactions. They are also divided into various categories on how they affect a person.


Irritant Sap

Noxious plants that contain irritant sap include buttercup, clematis, daffodils, marsh marigolds, euphorbias, among others. Avoid the sap coming into contact with your skin.

Phototoxic Plants

These include hogweed, angelica, Bishop’s weed, celery, chervil, fennel, fig, gas plant, lime, masterwort, parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace, rue and others.

Prickly Plants

These plants have tiny irritating bristles and/or sharp serrated leaves. Some are prickly bear, cactus, hops, Ravenna grass, redtwig dogwood, stinging nettle and thistles.

Allergi Dermititis

These cause rashes and blistering and usually occurs once a person becomes sensitized to the plant. This list includes poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, ragweed, aster, balsam fir, black-eyed Susans, bleeding heart, castor bean, daisies, English ivy, feverfew, garlic, ginkgo, marigold, primrose, tomato, trumpet vine and tulip.

Plants Not to Inhale

Airborne pollen can cause allergic reactions as with ragweed, various grasses and conifers.

Plants Not to Eat

The rule of thumb here is not to eat anything unless you know beyond a shadow of a doubt what it is. There is a long list here, but some more prominent ones are lily of the valley (even the water in the vase it is in is toxic), hydrangeas, mountain laurel, rhododendrons, azaleas, yew and many others.

Some of these plants listed lend color to our gardens, provide food and also medicine for us. Some parts of different plants are noxious such as stems, leaves, roots, etc. while other parts of the same plant are not. The key to staying safe is to know your plants and when in doubt…don’t touch it!

Image courtesy of Getty Images


Country MoonI love the idea of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the other “special” holidays that are set aside to honor those who mean so much to us. Yes, sometimes it gets a little crazy, we just get past one holiday and another one is upon us.

Commercialism is largely responsible for this. Merchants seize the opportunity to capitalize on our almighty dollar. They promote holidays almost to the point of making us feel guilty if we don’t buy a gift and, on top of that, the perfect gift to show those we love how much we care. They convince us that a material thing can do that.

Especially for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, there is the added stress of what to buy. By the time they have raised their kids, parents pretty much have everything they need or want. Of course, there are always new gadgets on the market that they probably shouldn’t live without. But then, in retrospect, why do you think parents of young adults have so many yard sales? It’s to recycle all the new gadgets that they just can’t live without so they can make room for new gadgets!


There is a better way and it doesn’t cost a dime. It is the gift of time, a gift that, ironically, is harder to give than a material thing. How many times have you thought of stopping to spend some time with Mom, Dad, Grandma or some other special person in your life but you didn’t do it because you had to go to the store (to buy the gift), pick up the kids, take junior to baseball practice or some other errand. Oh, the intentions were good, you didn’t have time today but you would tomorrow is how you rationalize it. But tomorrow never seems to come. I am so guilty of this too. The blame goes to the modern world we live in and the demands it puts upon us.

It does take some effort to give this most precious gift of time. A case in point happened this week. Ron received the best Father’s Day gift a few days early this year from his son Rodney Scruggs. As everyone knows, this year the weather has been every farmer’s enemy instead of friend. Too much rain and at the wrong time has delayed getting crops in the ground. Here in central Indiana, farmers are still struggling.

On top of not getting the planting done, they can’t even get into the fields to work the ground to prepare for the crops. The old adage of “the hurrieder I go, the behinder I get” certainly rings true here. Even the few dry days that were sprinkled amidst the wet ones were not enough for farmers to get on their ground.

Consequently, when the weather did get near-right for a couple days, Ron was working a little ground, then planting it and then working more. I cannot (will not) either work ground nor plant because, as any farmer will tell you, even worse than not doing something in the field is not doing it right. So, I fill the role as gopher…go for this, go for that.


Rodney, who works full-time in a demanding job, has a wife and three kids and lives an hour and a half away, decided to drive up on two different days to help his Dad. This meant that ground was being worked ahead so the planter could follow right behind and twice as much work could be done in the same amount of time. In the narrow window of time that farmers get this year to get crops in, this was huge, especially since it was already the middle of June. When the last of the seed was in the ground, Rodney turned to his Dad and said “Happy Father’s Day.” Kudos to him.

Like all of us, he is busy beyond measure. Did he have the time to do this? Nope. Did he miss valuable weekend time with his wife and kids? Probably. Yet, he gave the best gift of all, the gift of time.

There is an irony to this. Rodney also got a gift in return. So many times, when families do get together, you never get to have that one-on-one time. Rodney got to spend time with his Dad…priceless for both of them. This is what the gift of time does.

Ron has an Aunt Betty who is in assisted living. We see her as often as we can, yet not nearly enough. She always brightens my day because she always has a smile, regardless of whether she is in pain or not. Whenever we leave we always ask if there is anything she wants and her answer is standard, ”Come back and see me soon.” All she wants is our time.

Over 30 years ago I learned this lesson about the gift of time and it still serves as a gentle reminder whenever I think that I am too busy for someone. I had always been close to my oldest uncle, a bachelor. One year in particular, I was young and had a full life and it was Christmas. I had decided that I would not see my uncle on that particular Christmas like I usually did because there was just too much going on. I’d see him in a day or so.


That year on Christmas Day, my whole day was planned. However, after church services on Christmas morning, something nudged me to turn the car the opposite way and go down and see my Uncle Harold. As I drove along, with the sun sparkling on the pristine snow, right in front of me was the brightest rainbow I had ever seen! It confirmed that I was doing the right thing and, how true it was, for it was the last Christmas I was to be with my uncle.

I hope that as long as I live, I never forget this lesson. I do treasure any gift that someone gives me, but most of all I treasure time spent with those I love and I hope I am never too busy to give that special gift to someone else.

The gift of time is the only gift in the world that gives two ways, to both the recipient and the giver. I know Ron and Rodney will both remember this special Father’s Day gift for years to come.

Images courtesy of Lois Hoffman


Country MoonWinter gives us its reprieve with warmer temperatures, the scent of spring flowers in the air and the return of critters, uninvited critters at that.

I understand that all creatures want to come out after the long winter and soak up some rays too. What I don’t understand is why they have to be in my home, in my garden, in my vehicles and, literally, everywhere I am. If it were just one species that had chosen to get on my nerves, I could probably cope. However, I have been invaded from so many different angles, I am not sure where to begin getting them under control.


Let’s start with the big problem…the deer. Last year in spite of putting up motion lights, using deer deterrent and scaring them off, they ate as many vegetables from my garden as I did. I am not willing to share so much this year. I am going to have to resort to the last method on my list, putting up a fence…sort of.

I really didn’t want to put up a permanent fence, so I am going to start with the middle-of-the-road fence solution. Many folks have claimed that if you drive stakes and string multiple strands of 30-pound weight fishing line taut between the posts it will do the trick. The line is fine enough that they can’t see it, thus it surprises them when they run into it…for a while until they get wise to it. So, I am going one step further and tying aluminum pie tins at strategic points so that they will make noise when the wind blows them into the metal stakes.

I have been assured that this is the best thing out there. Last year the deer wondered through my yard over to the soybeans across the road and had supper and then stopped at my garden for dessert on the way back to their shelter. I am sure this year will be even worse and that they may make my place the main course since I am getting kale across the road. I have never heard that deer have a keen yearning for kale.

As for my yard, like most everyone else, I have pretty much resolved myself that the moles will outlast me and will cause havoc wherever they please. So be it. I have a bigger problem with the squirrels. I used to have a few brown ones that would gather the black walnuts and hazelnuts. I guess it was too easy for them because now they have invited their cousins, the black squirrels who only used to live in town. Of course, the ground squirrels, or piney jacks, have always thought this place belonged to them. So much for my tulip bulbs that I planted last year!


Now, I know that mice are just a part of country living, especially in my stick-built garage that has seen its better years. There are a few holes here and there where they always find their way in. Spraying “Critter Out” chases them back outside for a while until they make another stab at it. I know that off and on there have been a few of those lovely rodents visit my garage.

Up until now we have co-existed with a mutual understanding. I don’t use D-Con because I don’t like waiting for them to get to that distinct odor stage before I find them. We had a truce, I did not resort to D-Con and they stayed out of my important stuff. They broke the treaty. One ventured into my truck and proceeded to leave shreds of paper and other little presents inside. Even worse, he/she set up housekeeping in the glove compartment…game on!

I cleaned the whole truck out, top to bottom. Sprinkled peppermint inside and put glue strips on the floor, with a note reminding me that they are there. They not only catch mice but also people’s shoes.

Then, I turned my attention to the source of the problem and bought four cans of expandable foam. I know, it makes a huge mess and looks awful, but desperation calls for desperate measures. After moving everything out and blowing the entire garage out with the leaf blower, me and my cans of foam crawled under the workbench and filled every little hole we could find. I guess that, if there is a bright side to this, it is that when I put stuff back, the garage actually got cleaned. After 5 ½ hours of sweeping, plugging and blowing, I am ready to take on the feistiest rodent. I mean business this time because, as much as it goes against my grain, I will resort to D-Con.

I am literally up against a wall when deciding how to tackle my next critter problem. I have a cardinal who will set for hours on end on the mirror or bed of Ron’s truck when it is here or my truck and attack the mirror. It thinks it is attacking its rival. Of course, it leaves a trail down the side of the trucks. It is also getting braver and a little less choosey and will also attack any vehicle that happens to be in my driveway. How embarrassing is that when company comes!

But it doesn’t stop there. When there are no vehicles setting out, it will perch itself on my deck and stare into the house. When I do go outside, it will perch in the tree and scream at me if I go any direction except toward the garage. It wants a vehicle in the yard. Who owns the place here anyway! I am beginning to wonder.

A few years ago, I was given a basket filled with some pampering goodies. Well, there were goodies all right. Also, hitchhiking in the basket, powderpost beetles came along for the ride. I didn’t realize it until they had burrowed into the oak baseboards. What they do is chew the hardwood until it is pulverized. They had started to venture out into the hardwood floor before I discovered them.

Cedar oil is a natural alternative and works well to kill them. You just spray it into their tiny holes. This was last year and I have seen no recent signs of them…until the day I found the mouse in the truck. Is this a coordinated effort on the part of all critters to hit me all at once?

Yesterday morning three wild turkeys crossed my yard. I have no qualms with them, they were just passing through…I hope. As I am writing this, a movement caught my eye outside my office window. It is a pair of sand hill cranes out in the field. Perhaps they are the only critters in my neighborhood with respect. They keep their distance and I will keep mine; we can co-exist just fine this way.

Mind you, this is early in the season, I haven’t even gotten the garden underway yet. Who knows what other critters will decide to call it home?

I think perseverance is the key here. It is daunting to deal with so many critters that want to call this home. At times it is overwhelming but I will prevail. Until they start paying taxes on this little spot of earth that God entrusted to me, I rule…lest they forget it and then I will prepare for real battle!


Country Moon

My friend Susie and I love to garden, grow things, preserve and nourish. We were recently scouting out different greenhouses and she mentioned that she was considering raised beds in the future instead of planting a traditional garden. I have also toyed with the idea so I wanted to research some of the pros and cons.

Raised gardening beds are more than just adding more soil to rows in a garden. Quite simply, they consist of walls made of various materials surrounding soil with vegetables, herbs and flowers planted inside the structure. They are also known as garden boxes and framed beds.

raised bed2

Perhaps the biggest pro for raised beds is that you can make them as high off the ground as you wish and this prevents so much bending over or crawling on your knees. Some other pros to raised beds are:

  1. Raised beds can be as compact or as large as desired to fit any backyard or city lot. They can also be placed anywhere, regardless of the soil type. This is especially important if you have poor soil or contaminated soil. Since you add your own planting mix, it makes no difference what the bed sets on.
  2. They allow people with disabilities or who are less mobile to garden because tending to them is less strenuous.
  3. The soil in raised beds warms quicker in the spring than garden soil does, allowing for earlier planting and subsequent earlier harvesting.
  4. In areas with heavier soil types like clay, raised beds will drain better and soil will dry faster for planting. However, this can also be a two-sided sword because if they drain faster, they will also require more watering during the season.
  5. With more than one raised bed, each one can be filled with different types of soil and different fertilizers and nutrients can be used and matched to the different crops. Since the soil is contained, these beds may also help to concentrate the compost and fertilizer and keep them from being washed away. Especially if your garden spot is on rolling or hilly ground, raised beds can prevent erosion.
  6. Bottoms can be screened to prevent gophers, moles and other critters from wreaking havoc with your crops.
  7. On the same note, they keep kids and pets from stepping on plants.
  8. Gardens look neater, soil is kept in place and pathways are kept cleaner. Yes, this is a benefit but there is also a downside here. You trade off cultivating for weed eating around the beds. Personally, I like the look of a well-rototilled garden.

Now for the cases against raised beds:

  1. Unless you use the same dirt that is in your garden now, you have to buy dirt whether you choose top soil, peat moss, a mixture or something else; there is still an expense involved.
  2. Add to this the expense, in both money and time, to buy the material and build the raised beds.
  3. Soil dries out faster, which was pointed out as a good thing if you have clay soil, but in sandy soils, this is definitely not an asset. Because of this, raised beds usually require more watering.
  4. They are less sustainable because of buying and transporting the soil and walls.
  5. Since soil warms faster in raised beds, it is good in the spring but summer’s heat may be a problem for some plants. On the other side of the coin, the beds also cool down faster in the fall.
  6. They may actually require more space since the runs between the beds have to be wide enough to accommodate wheel barrows and other equipment.
  7. Drop irrigation is harder to install.
  8. Perennials have to be hardier because raised beds get colder in the winter.
  9. They restrict root systems on plants like tomatoes where roots grow several feet in all directions.
  10. Squeezing more plants into a tight space reduces air circulation and increases moisture levels which increase the risk of diseases.
  11. Building materials are restricted because you want no chemicals that will leach into the soil.

raised bed3

On the subject of building materials, the best ones to use for the walls of raised beds are redwood or black locust lumber because of longevity and natural rot-resistant traits. These woods have been known to last up to 20 years with cedar a close second, withstanding the elements up to 15 years. As an added bonus, cedar looks gorgeous and fits most any landscape.

Concrete and masonry are definitely more permanent but is more costly and is harder to remove if you ever choose not to have raised beds anymore. Cinderblock is a middle-of-the-road option. It can be mortared for longevity or just stacked, making it easier to remove. Natural rocks are always an option, especially if you already have them on your property because cost doesn’t get much cheaper than free. The downside here is that weeds will eventually creep in between them.

One of the latest trends is to use galvanized culverts, sliced in sections in the length that you want your height to be. Galvanized stock tanks also work well. Both will never rust and look good with any landscaping.

The types of material to definitely steer clear of is treated wood. This includes creosote-soaked railroad ties. Eventually anything with chemicals in it will find its way into the soil.

Taking the raised beds one step further is the square foot gardens that have found some fame as of late. These are basically raised beds that have been divided into perfect squares with each square holding a single variety of plant. These look well groomed and are ideal if you are limited in space. However, they are not ideal for crops that need a lot of room such as squash, cucumbers, melons and other plants that like to vine out. They make great containers for herbs.

Before you decide to go the raised bed route, be sure and check all the conditions for your particular area such as how much rainfall you usually get, what type of soil you have, what you plan on growing each year, etc. All of these reasons listed, both pro and con, have nothing to do with higher productivity, better flavor or nutrition. When raising plants, dirt is dirt.

Whether you choose to go the raised bed route or not is a matter of personal taste. Like so many things in life, it boils down to what is best for you. As I get older, having raised beds may entice me a little more. As for now, I love to see the old-fashioned rows in a garden and to dig my toes in the sun-kissed dirt while I work the soil and watch the plants grow. There is nothing better!

Images courtesy of Getty Images


Country MoonAt this time of year, most folks can be heard cursing all those little yellow faces that  turn up in lawns, gardens and just about everywhere. Those pesky little dandelions are weeds that no one wants, especially after they go to seed and the white spheres of seeds protrude above the lawns. Every year Americans spend millions of dollars on lawn pesticides to have uniform, weed-free lawns.

The definition of a weed is “any plant growing where it is not wanted which is in competition with cultivated plants.” Maybe we should re-classify the dandelion and upgrade it from weed status since science now tells us that its leaves, roots and flowers are all useful and good for us. It’s funny how things come full circle because in the 1800’s when folks depended on herbs and the natural things around them for medicine, they would actually pull grass out of their lawns to make room for dandelions to grow. People are once again realizing the benefits of this misdiagnosed “weed.”

The name dandelion comes from the French word dent de lion meaning lion’s tooth because of the plant’s coarsely-toothed leaves. Today, in France, the word for dandelion is pissenlit which means “pee the bed,” because dandelions are strong diuretics.

Technically, dandelions are herbs and not weeds and the plants are pretty complex. Although we lump them altogether, actually 30 various plants make up the species. Some are biennial and some are perennial. It is the only plant that represents the three celestial bodies. The flower represents the sun, the seed ball is the moon and the scattering seeds are the stars. The flowers open in the morning to greet the day and close in the evening to sleep.

Some have roots that go down as far as 10 to 15 feet which help individual plants survive up to 13 years in undisturbed areas. They have one of the largest flowering seasons of any plant and seeds are carried up to 5 miles. No wonder they are so hard to eradicate.


But, do we really want to get rid of these golden gems? If you look beyond their interruption of a totally green lawn, they are actually nutritional powerhouses that help to fight disease. The flowers, roots and stems are all edible. In the garden, they improve the quality of the soil by increasing the nitrogen content and other minerals.

Studies from the University of Maryland Medical Center confirm that the flowers are low in calories and contain antioxidants. They are rich sources of vitamins A, C and K and contain high levels of iron, calcium and potassium. They are widely used in Asian cuisine as ingredients in salads and sandwiches.

Dandelions are a great food source for many animals. Many birds, insects and butterflies consume the nectar and seeds of dandelions.

For years, dandelions have been used in folk medicine to treat infections and liver disorders. They are also important ingredients in root beer and wine production. Roots, which can also be eaten in their whole form, produce a strong tea that is often served as a substitute for coffee.

Dandelion greens are powerhouses of Vitamin E, folate, small amounts of other B vitamins as well as minerals, iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. Just one cup of dandelion greens yields 112 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A and 535 percent of vitamin K.

The roots are rich in the carbohydrate inulin which is a type of soluble fiber found in plants that support growth and maintenance of healthy bacterial flora in the intestinal tract. Inulin is a prebiotic fiber that has a strong capability to reduce constipation and increase intestinal movement. This makes dandelion roots a great choice for healthy digestion.

They contain polyphenols which combat inflammation in the body and help protect the liver by reducing levels of excess fat stored in the liver. Add to this, they boost the immune system with their antimicrobial and antiviral properties. They also promote healthy skin and bones.

Speaking of fat, dandelions can improve carbohydrate metabolism and reduce fat absorption which aids in weight loss. The chlorogenic acid in dandelions has been shown to reduce body weight and levels of some fat storage hormones.


These dandies have also shown promise in keeping blood sugar in control and lowering blood pressure. The diuretic effect and potassium in the plants are natural sources for getting blood pressure to normal levels.

Now for the big one. Dandelions help fight cancer by preventing the growth of cancerous cells on many organ systems. Dandelion leaf extract significantly reduced the growth of cancerous cells in one study. Dandelion root extract has the capacity to drastically slow the growth of cancer cells in the liver, colon and pancreas. How about that for a “weed!”

I remember when I was a kid, I would take the milky substance from the stems of the dandelion and put it on small cuts because it seemed to be soothing. Whether there is truth in this or not, the milky liquid does contain latex, a substance similar to rubber. Scientists have created a new species of dandelion which produces a higher quality latex in greater amounts. This type has the potential to replace rubber in the production of tires in the near future.

So, maybe with all of these attributes, dandelions shouldn’t get such a bad rap. I have always been in the camp of people who thought they were pretty. I love to look at a sea of yellow in the spring and they are usually the first “flowers” that every kid presents to his/her mother.

Yes, they are irritating when they get to the seed stage but they are gone before you know it. As for reaping all the benefits of this plant, they are free for the harvesting. Just be sure to pick them where they are free of pesticides.

I have always thought that whatever diseases we have given ourselves as results of technology and chemicals, God has provided the cures in the plants and herbs that He has also provided. Perhaps the dandelion is the perfect place to start realizing these benefits.

Images courtesy of Getty Images


Country Moon

There is something alluring, almost magical, about the Rocky Mountains, affectionately known as “The Rockies.” They had been tugging at Caleb Winings’ heart a long time to “come and see” them.  In August of 2018, the then 22-year old from Indiana, gave into the calling and experienced a hike of a lifetime.

Caleb relates, “I have always loved camping and hiking and being in the woods. I’ve always wanted to see the Rockies too but when I had the time, I didn’t have the money and vice versa. This year it all came together. It was just the right time.”


So it was. Caleb chose Montana because he wanted somewhere semi-green instead of all rock. He had been looking at Glacier National Park until he hooked up with an outfitter on a gun forum who told him that if he wanted away from the crowds and to be able to experience the true Rockies to stay away from Glacier. Instead, he suggested the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in northwest Montana.

This wilderness area is broken down into three regions, the Great Bear, the Scapegoat, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness area. All three together comprise more than 1.5 million acres that are one of the most completely preserved mountain ecosystems in the world. The area offers rugged peaks, alpine lakes, cascading waterfalls, grassy meadows embellished with shimmering streams, towering pines, and big river valleys. Caleb was sold, it had it all. Over 1700 miles of trails wind through the wilderness which is home to moose, elk, mountain goats, mountain lions, black bear, and numerous grizzly bears.

From Indiana, he flew to Kalispell and from there he hired a Uber driver to drop him off at Devil’s Creek Campground in the Flathead National Forest, literally in the middle of nowhere. There was a landline for phone service at the campground but, from here on out, cell service ceased to exist. Caleb instructed the Uber driver to pick him up in five days at that point. The Uber driver told him that if he wasn’t there, he would call the Rangers. Caleb was on his own, just himself, his 2” barreled snub-nosed .357, bear spray, and a knife. If he encountered anything that none of those would handle, it would be game over.

His plan for the first day was to hike to Forester Mountain but, like many best-laid plans, they tend to go awry. “That first day tested me,” Caleb admitted. “I hiked 6.2 miles and gained over 2000 feet in elevation, all in rain that never let up. I made it to Elk Lake and decided to wait it out there overnight.”


He had five days’ worth of food with him, winter gear that was good down to 10 degrees F., one change of clothes, a butane stove for boiling water to drink and heating freeze-dried meals and no tent. By nightfall, he was literally soaked from brushing against the six-foot high foliage along the trails. Caleb used the app “All Trails” on his phone, which was a big help in locating the trails and registering their degree of difficulty. However, the trails were merely paths that were cut through the overgrowth.

“The only thing that saved me were my wool socks. My boots got wet but my socks stayed dry and kept my feet warm,” he explained. “Elk Lake was beautiful, even in the dreary rain. I made camp there and vowed to stick it out, hoping that the next day would be better.”

No such luck. He hung his food in a tree to lessen the temptation of the Grizzlies coming into his camp and put on his dry set of clothes. As it rained even harder, he hunkered down in his military sleeping bag with a rain-proof cover on it. Around midnight the waterproof cover quit working and the water started draining back on him, but it still wasn’t a big deal.

The next morning was a different story. The temperature was 40 degrees and it was snowing. It was so miserable and cold that his fingers couldn’t feel the zipper on his jacket. “I was ready to pack it in and give up, so I headed back to Devil’s Creek to call the Uber driver to take me back to Kalispell and regroup.”

He got a hotel room for the night to get warm and dry out. With clothes hanging all over the room to dry and spirits broken, he kicked around the idea of going home. “Two things saved me,” he recalls. “My Mom, knowing what this trip meant to me, told me not to throw the towel in just yet and the fact that it would have cost me more to go home early than to stay. It’s probably the only time I’ll ever be thankful for expensive airline flights!”


So, he ordered pizza and planned his strategy. Flathead National Forest was 25 minutes away from where he was and it was still in the Rockies. Plan B was set.

The next day was like someone had flipped a switch from the previous day, temperatures were in the 70’s with blue skies and beautiful sunshine. The Uber driver dropped him off at the trailhead about 11:00 AM that third day where he would climb the mountain adjacent to Strawberry Mountain. The trail going up was all switchbacks but provided some gorgeous overlooks.

“Words can’t describe the beauty,” Caleb recalls. “It was awesome! I got some cool photos even though they don’t do it justice. My eyes literally hurt from taking it all in.”

So impressed with the area, he camped at Strawberry Lake and stayed in that general area the rest of the time, exploring various trails. The last day held yet another challenge. “As I was going down the trail, I kept hearing something switching back and forth in front of me. It turns out that I was actually following a black bear! Forty yards in front of me, I caught a glimpse of him. Thankfully, he went his way and I went mine.”

You do what you have to do at the time. Looking back, Caleb confides, “I was actually more concerned about mountain lions than bear. I knew my .357 would take care of a lion and, actually, the bear spray would have been a better deterrent for the bear. As I was told, it is like ‘mace on steroids.’”

He did find that he and the bears have one thing in common, they both love huckleberries! “I encountered these on the trail that went towards Jewel Basin. They are like blueberries, except smaller with a taste all their own. They were a real treat.”

All in all, he encountered only eight people in five days on the trails. Two of those were a husband and wife who were fly fishing. He spent a little time with them since he had never fly fished and was intrigued by it.

The rest of the time, it was just him and nature. Although an experienced hiker and camper, he admits that it was different knowing you were totally on your own, especially after dark. “The mind does interesting things and the imagination can lure you to dark places. You have to keep your mind straight because you hear every little sound in the stillness of the night.”

Unfortunately, he had to be cautious not only about the various wildlife, but also for any people he might meet on the trails. “These days things are different and it’s sad, but you have to look out for yourself at all times.”

On this note, Caleb is thankful that his parents were behind him 100 percent. “It would have been harder,” he admits, “if they had expressed reservations about my safety. Instead, they totally wanted me to have this experience.”

When I asked Amy, his mother, in retrospect if she did have any reservations before he left she commented, “I only asked him to take a GPS locator with him.”

Gene, his dad, laughed. “I told him, ‘See you when you get back!'”

Ironically, if he could have changed anything, it would be to take less food. His backpack, including food, only weighed about 50 pounds. Of the freeze-dried food, protein bars, and dried fruits and nuts that he packed, he only ate about two-thirds of that in the five days.


As Caleb reflects, “It was definitely a challenge, on all fronts. I had kicked around the idea of taking a friend, but it is good knowing that I did it myself. There is a satisfaction in that.”

However, there is also a flip side to this. He adds, “There were so many magnificent sights but I had no one to share it with. You just can’t capture this in pictures.”

The experience was different than he had imagined. “The Rockies are referred to as the ‘Lonely Mountains’ and for good reason. I love the Smokies, but these are mountains! I spent a lot of time reflecting out there and it definitely made me a stronger person.”

Would he do it again? Without hesitation, his answer is an enthusiastic, “Absolutely! I got to experience the Rockies instead of just seeing them.”

He has just touched the tip of the iceberg. Even though he hopes to someday hike in Alaska, see the Great Wall of China, and experience British Columbia, the call of the Rockies will definitely lure him back to this wild area.

Images courtesy of Caleb Winings


Farmers in the Midwest are playing a game again this spring that has become all too familiar with them over the last few years…hurry up and wait. Above average rainfall during March and April, coupled with the massive flooding in many areas, have prevented them not only from planting but even getting the dirt worked to plant.

Farmers are more dependent on the weather than those in any other occupation. It can make or break them. I knew when I went to work that I was going to be there for 8 hours and get paid for eight hours, five days a week. Farmers don’t have this guarantee. Their whole livelihood depends on the weather. A grower from northeast Indiana echoes the sentiments of famers all over the Midwest, “It’s been too cold and too wet, I haven’t turned a wheel this calendar year yet.”

Farmers spend most of the winter months, or at least those weeks since the first hint of spring is in the air, getting equipment and supplies ready to go. By now, they have greased, oiled, repaired, washed, waxed and gassed up all their equipment and are ready to rock and roll. There is nothing else to do but hurry up and wait. How frustrating!

It is easy if you are a farmer or a family member of a farmer to feel the anguish. However, this year everyone will feel the widespread effects of too much rain for Midwest growers. The trickle-down effect will hit supermarkets and we will all feel the impact. After all, farmers feed us all.


This whole mess started last fall with above normal rainfall during harvest in September and October. Farmers had a hard time getting their crops out last year. The excessive autumn rainfall saturated the fields and the moisture stayed in the ground all winter. There were record amounts of snowfall on top of that and then when the spring thaws came followed by more heavy rainfall this spring it proved too much for the ground to handle.

It’s hard to comprehend just how massive this flooding is and the damage it has ensued. It has literally submerged parts of the Midwest and the Great Plains under inches of water. Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin, some of America’s most productive farm states have declared states of emergency while parts of Iowa have been declared disaster areas. And these are just the hardest hit areas. Many other places in the nation are suffering these same conditions. Parts of Virginia received two months’ worth of rain in two weeks.

Remnants of barns, silos and grain bins are seen protruding from the waters. Not only are the structures gone, but also the grain and equipment that they held have perished. Fields and stockpiles of feed have turned to swamp. Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and other states have drowned livestock. Sonny Perdue, United States Ag Secretary, received reports from the governors of Nebraska and Iowa that the loss of calves may reach one million. Early estimates are that floods have destroyed as much as 1.3 million acres of corn ground and 1.7 million acres of soybean ground in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Tom Geisler, a farmer from Winslow, Nebraska, puts it in perspective, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I lost two storage bins of corn, the income from the livestock is gone and all the feed is gone.” On top of that, before the flood, he hadn’t been making any money from selling grain because of trade issues and low prices.

Farmers are used to going through good and bad years but the flooding may sadly put some over the edge. Reuters, an international news agency, reported that the loss of crops and livestock in Nebraska alone could total one billion dollars and would end some family farms.

Anthony Ruzicki from Verdigre, Nebraska, will probably be one of the casualties. His family has been farming the same plot of ground for five generations since the 1800’s. Floods literally destroyed his farmhouse, his alfalfa and cornfields with huge chunks of ice and killed 15 of his cattle. He told the New York Times, “There’s not many farms left like this and this will probably be it for us too. Financially, how do you recover from something like this?”

On top of personal hardship, the floods damaged bridges, roads and railways, leaving no way for farmers to transport whatever goods and stock they have left. It’s a real mess.

Farmers know, way before statisticians even publish their projections, what this means; prices will go up while profits go down. They also know that the ripple from this will include not only their seed, fertilizer and other supplies, but also food, gas, clothing and other necessities.

So, what does it mean for our local farmers in southwest Michigan and north and central Indiana? Even though their fields are still too wet to work, they are not flooded out…yet. That’s why they are nervous; they know that, with more rain predicted, it could be them. Hard decisions have to be made.

Do they opt to not plant at all this year? Sure, that would mean no income but it would also mean that fertilizer, seed, spray and gas were not wasted either. That also adds up to a savings. One farmer in central Indiana who has planned on planting half corn and half soybeans this year said that he will not plant any corn after the first of June because in past years of doing that, the yield didn’t justify the input. How many farmers are thinking along the same lines? This could also drastically affect the law of supply and demand during this year’s harvest.

There is also another scare that they don’t talk about. Many fear that they are getting all the precipitation for the year now and later in the year when crops really need it, there will be a drought. It seems like there is always too much or too little.


If there is any bright note to this at all, it is that all equipment should be in tip-top shape. This year there was time for all those projects that farmers had on the back burner but didn’t have time to get to. One farmer had purchased an extra set of saddle tanks for spraying and got them mounted on another tractor. Another farmer got extra lights mounted on his tractor and spray booms so he could spray at night if need be. Little jobs that were not necessary and that were put on the back burner got finished this year and also provided diversions while farmers wait to get in the fields.

On our last trek from Michigan to Indiana we saw evidence of these flood waters. We cross three main Indiana rivers, the Salamonie, Mississinewa and the Wabash. All three had not spilled out into farmland where we crossed them, but future rains would put them over the spill level. Although there had been a few fields planted in southwest Michigan where the ground was sandy and the water drained quicker, nothing was planted south of there.

So, for now, the name of the game is hurry up and wait. Of course, when…not if…when it does dry out, there will be a big push to get everything done at once, to pack a week’s worth of work into a couple days. Such is the life of a farmer, some things never change.

Images courtesy of Getty Images

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