St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Maple Season 2017 Starts

With the forecast definitely in maple sap running weather, our test tap running some, we began tapping and putting out buckets yesterday with more out today.  The sap ran some from yesterday afternoon and overnight so although we didn't collect our first time, we will do it tomorrow morning. 
   I don't think our Hanson family has ever tapped maples in February in the 145 years since Great Grandpa learned how to do it from his wife's family.  
We have mostly tapped from March 15  to the end of March with most of our production during April.  So this is at least 2 weeks ahead of normal. 
   Scott is doing more of the work nowadays as I seem to get bogged down in other activities. That is good, as I am 70 years old, in good health, but won't be able to run this forever.   Dad began to have difficulties as he got older and parkinsons disease robbed him of his strength, although I think he still helped out until he was 84 or so, and then kept me company in the sap shed, visiting the last time on his birthday turning 89 on April 18th, 2005.  He passed away that fall. The last time, I had to help him from the car and he used a walker to make it to the chair in the warm shed.   Once seated near the boiler, he relaxed, and talked about some of the maple sap making of his youth. 

  Dad's story as I remember it: 
   When we were kids (he had 5 brothers and 2 sisters), we lived in Maple Grove Township, Barron County WI.   We had maple trees in the cow pasture we tapped.  I remember one year my older brother Maurice was staying in the woods cooking the syrup and lost it all. 

   In those days, we followed the pattern our dad and his brothers had done in their early days.  We found a cradle knoll in the woods to use as the fire box.  A cradle knoll is a place where a tree blew over leaving a hole where the roots came out and a mound of dirt where the tree rotted away.  We used the pit for our fire, and then piled some rocks or dirt on the side opposite the pile of dirt.  Then we put our flat cooking pan over the pit with one end on each mound.  

   Our pan was the same kind we used for making concrete, for pig troughs and other water pans.  We took two boards, basswood if we had them, and rounded the ends like sled runners, and nailed a sheet of 2 foot wide tin between them.  The ends came up with the wood curve and using closely spaced shingle nails, it was water tight. You remember the first pan I made back in the 50s?   It was like that only about 3 foot long. 

  Well, we didn't do batches of syrup, we just kept adding sap and boiling it until the pan was full of syrup.  It was pretty dark, but tasted fine.  

  Maurice was all by himself in the woods, cooking when he realized it was done, and ready to boil over the pan.  It was in the middle of the night.   So he tried to slide it carefully off the fire and off the mounds so he could dip out the syrup.  

   It turned over dumping just about all the syrup on the ground, probably 10 gallons or more -- everything we had gathered so far that season.  He was as upset as the pan, and after that we kept two of us in the woods at night. 

   It was fun staying out in the woods.  We were in school, and probably came in smelling like we were well smoked.  Maple syrup time was fun for kids!

   Your Grandpa (Pearl) made syrup to sell when he was younger.  He had the farm he bought on Quarter Mile creek, 90 acres with 4 acres open and the rest huge white pine stumps and maple trees when he bought it about 1902.  He had to clear it all and turn it into fields.  When he sold 1941, there were only 4 acres not in fields or open pasture. 

   Dad was a very active person.  He was almost never at rest, always doing something new or different along with being a full time farmer.  From cutting logs, running a sawmil, working as a carpenter, mason, canning factory field hand, town board, church board, school board, and much more while still farming full time.  He took after his father who was just as restless and busy.  I managed to change things to be much more moderate!
   Probably have enough sap to begin cooking later this week.  The first batch of maple syrup is usually very mild flavored and light colored and although it used to be the highest rated class of syrup, I prefer a later season darker more robust flavor. 
   We didn't spend much effort selling syrup last year and we did have a good yield, so this year I think we will buy a nice metal sign to hang at the end of the driveway and be a little more organized to sell the syrup.  We do it as a small business.  Syrup in glass bottles done correctly will stay good for years.

  I brought up some 1994 jars from the basement of the old farm house -- that Mom had stored away.  It tasted OK, but was one of those batches that was not wonderful flavor--likely the last batch of the season when syrup can become bitter.   
   We save this syrup to cooking.  One research paper I read found that to remove this late season "buddy" flavor, one had to raise the temperature of the syrup far above the normal 217F we bottle it at, to something like 350, and then add water back if you were trying to make good tasting syrup.  Cooking does the same thing, and having a few jars of cooking syrup is nice to let us explore some recipes without worrying about failure.  
   I found you can use maple syrup in place of sugar in most recipies, but you have to add something to take up the extra moisture (or not add wet things).  Most people would think it wasteful to use expensive maple syrup in place of sugar or corn syrup, but having all the maple syrup we want, it seems fine.  The added maple flavor is very subtle. 
   I think I first remember Dad trying maple syrup in the mid 1950s.  The first year he borrowed Grandpa's big black hog scalding cast iron kettle from Uncle Maurice who had borrowed it to use to feed corn to the pigs or maybe the cows. 
  It was filthy, and so Dad cleaned it thoroughly and boiled some water in it to kill the pig aroma. However, although we thought the syrup was fine, he couldn't pour some on a pancake without remembering the pig crud and it ruined his meals. 

Next year he made his own wooden sided pan with two cherry boards (we sawed our own lumber), and the nailed on metal bottom.  That year he thought all his syrup had a bitter cherry taste.  Next year he tried basswood sides, and that was definitely better, but he had to be careful with wooden sided pans to keep the fire away. 
  Finally he had Mr Clayton, of Clayton's hardware in St Croix Falls (this was Ben I think, father of John), a metalsmith, fold a sheet of metal into a pan, riveting the corners and soldering or maybe welding the corner seams.  That would have been in the late 1950s.  
   Scott and I use that same pan each year now.  We wonder if this year will be the one that it springs a leak, but at 58 years old, it still seems sound. 

   Later this week we will probably finish our first 2017 maple syrup.  We claim that gggggg grandpa Beebe who hung out in New London CT in the 1650s, likely made the first syrup. We know that he moved to Western NY in the maple region and have 4th cousins out there who have been syruping since about 1800.  GG grandpa Beebe moved to Wisconsin in 1864 where tradition is that he made syrup from maples in the Chippewa River Valley in Dunn County.  Young immigrant, Charles Hanson married his daughter Anna Maria in 1872 and learned to make syrup from her family.  
 Since then, every spring we head to the woods and reap the sweet rewards. '


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Home Again

January 22, Margo and I left Wisconsin for points south.  Today, Feb 22, we returned to Wisconsin.  The trip ended up with about 3000 miles driven, about $2000 per week spent. Although Margo would have been happy to spend another couple of weeks south, I didn't think we could afford any more time.
   The cost wasn't really all just for the trip, as we did end up spending about $6500 for a different car ($5800 plus tax plus licensing and a few extras), I got a $387 traffic fine (for speeding 52 in a 45 plus having an improper automobile license -- the drive out of Arkansas license was not acceptable to the tiny town of Pine Prairie Louisiana where the city budget is funded primarily from traffic fines--and the internet advertises it as a severe speed trap).  
  Anyway, the 2011 Impala that replaced the 1991 Olds is probably worth the cost as it is a completely rust free car.  It was previously owned as part of a fleet of cars from the local US prison, sold at just over 100,000 miles.  
  As a prison car, the backseat is vinyl and the lock knobs removed for transporting prisoners and likely a special edition for the government.  We drove a total of about 3000 miles of which 2300 were on the new car.  Averaged about 23 mpg pulling a camper, and about 28 on its own.  We put 300,000 on one of my Oldsmobiles (the 1988 one) with the same engine, so this one may give me ;another 200,000 miles or probably 15 more years.  I think my heart is rated for about 12 more years, so if I am lucky, this car will "do me out."   
    The deep south was a little too warm, some 80s and in Louisiana, where the parks are bayous, mosquitoes bothered a little in the evening. We stayed in Arkansas and Mississippi (Natchez, and Lake Village) where it was more comfortable in the 60s to low 70s.   The folks there were all saying that this had been an abnormally warm winter in the south, and that many of the flowers we saw were ahead of schedule. 
  We left northern Arkansas (about 100 miles below the border) and headed north to camp in northern Missouri two nights ago.  However, as we neared northern MO on highway 65, we saw a sign that said "Des Moines --170 miles."  
   "Gee Margo, that is only about 3 hours ahead, and from Des Moines to our place in Pine Island, MN is only another 3 hours.  It's 5 pm now, so we would be home before midnight.  Supposed to rain tonight and be thick fog in the morning.  Shall we go for it?"
   Now we always do this -- once we smell Iowa's farmland, we know we are just a few hours from our own bed, and usually we drive an old car that has made the trip many times and knows the way home on its own, so we always go for it.  
  An sure enough, just before midnight, we pulled into the yard, unpacked the necessaries and slept in our own bed.  Then a day of unpacking cleaning the branches from the yard, and washing clothes and this morning headed out for Wisconsin. 
   This vacation was a test of sorts.  Margo, after a year of cancer treatment and two back surgeries is hard press to walk very far, depends on pain pills to function and so we were not sure how well she would handle camping in our "roughing it mode."  
   She did fine!  Riding in the car was OK.  The camper bed with a couple of extra layers of padding let her sleep normally.  And we always managed to get a campsite near the bathrooms -- usually a handicapped one which let her use her walker or cane and no uneven ground to walk on.  
    Something we didn't realize, but appreciated was that in Mississippi and Arkansas there was a discount for handicapped campers (half price) in state parks.  The campsites are off season right now and so were already discounted.  In Mississippi it cost us $90 for a full week of full hookup camping.  The handicapped sites are paved and have paved paths to the bathrooms.  
    The state parks mostly empty except on weekends, so quiet, calm, and no lines in bathrooms.  Most of the winter campers used huge motorhomes or units that are completely self-contained.   Louisiana was the worst for state park maintenance, having had 8 years of a Bobby Jindal budget cutting regime that essentially cut money to anything other than tax cuts for the rich folks and businesses. Seven state parks had been scheduled to close in Jindal's last year due to his budget priorities, but with the election of a Democrat, Edwards, things were looking up again. 
  So what impressed me on this trip?
  -- the rust-free undercarriage of old used cars.  Having inspected many while trying to find a replacement car, even 20 year old ones looked nice, clean, and showed paint underneath
  -- the spring flowers.  They were ahead of schedule, but the yellow twining vines of the carolina jasmine; the beautiful and bountiful shades of the azaleas-- stupendous; the friendly folks who were easy to strike up a conversation, interesting to talk to, and very very helpful to strangers -- and that included Cajuns, white folks, rednecks, black folks, and even some illegal immigrants from Mexico.  The shop where I bought my car was owned by a black man with his wife as the office manager, some black, white, Mexican and other mechanics.  
  Jon, an illegal probaby 23 years old:  "I was born in Mexico, but when I was 3 years old, my parents came to the US.  They are still here and have worked the whole time. I went through the schools here and work here at the garage.  But I am illegal even though I have been here almost 20 years. I wish I could be a citizen, and I feel like an American, but I never qualified for any path to citizenship.  I don't speak Spanish, don't know anybody in Mexico, and think I have earned a chance to be a legal American."   He and I changed the battery from my old car (a good battery) to my new car with an old battery, and he took me around looking for a car to buy at the lot. 
  Getting back to what impressed me
   -- that we can get in a car, drive 16 hours and transition from winter to summer weather.  I told Margo I think we should sell our MN home and buy a winter one in southern Arkansas.  Why Arkansas?  Mississippi and Louisiana are warmer, but they are really backward states; dirt poor, run by Republicans who are racing to make their states the worst places for workers and the best places for businesses and rich folks.  Rotten to the core in public education, health systems, and anything that is helpful to anyone other than the rich--and as a result, crappy places to live. 
   Arkansas had a stretch of the Clintons and the idea of public education, health, parks etc., got ingrained in the folks enough so  although the Republicans took it over again, it is really a notch or two above the neighboring states to the south.  You get used to appreciating good services and it perpetuates-- at least it seems to. 
  Mississippi public radio "Think radio" was a shining beacon in the wasteland of country western, redneck (Limbaugh type) and religious programming that pervades the south.  Local programming, culture, arts, and the music of the region made MPB (Mississippi Public Brodcasting) something quite wonderful. They have a music stream and the talk streams -- and do stream online.  Think Radio


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Maple Syruping Time?

   Margo and I are spending the week in Natchez, Mississippi, an old graceful (and decaying) town on the Mississippi.  The town is beautiful with azaleas of all colors blooming abundantly, daffodils, tulip trees and other spring trees.  
   The weather is mild (70s) with overnights in the 50s.  We expected to stay until about the beginning of March, but with Scott telling us the warm weather has already hit NW Wisconsin, we now think we may head back next Monday. 
   Most years, maple syruping season is mid-March to late April, but over my lifetime, we have seen a swing towards earlier and earlier seasons.  Rather than getting most of the sap in April, we now see much in March, and in 2012, probably it ran in February. 
   Natches has much to look at; many beautiful old mansions, the riverfront, gambling, and the river itself.  The river, often coming out of its banks to crush development nearby, is mostly clean and calm along the banks.  Behind the levees in LA and up the hill in MS is where the development continues. 
   As in most of the towns and cities we have visited in the south (and probably true in the north too), the old down town with its historic brick buildings is emptying to the golden arches, dollar stores and gas station development along the edges.  Sad to see empty shells.  This is not really tourist season here, so it may get better other times of the year. 
  One barge being pushed up river, but otherwise almost no traffic along this stretch.
   Across the river from Natches is Vidalia, Louisiana.  It is a smaller town, mostly the urban sprawl around the edges of a bigger city, but a few nice buildings including the library where we are using free wi-fi today.  The Natchez state park has no wi-fi, and weak cell signals.  
  We drove 30 miles along the Natchez Trace, something you should look up on wikipedia to read about.  Natchez Trace  A 444 mile National Park that follows a very old road from Natchez to Nashville TN.  Think of the Scenic St Croix River corridor national state park but with a road rather than a river.  Quiet, lovely, peaceful, and wandering though the wooded countryside with historic information along the way.  
  Photos from this area

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Saturday Tours

  (Copies of my Sunday Facebook Posts).  

69F, humid, sticky, headed to 80F today in Louisiana. The campground here filled in wall to wall campers -- big ones for the weekend. As far as we can tell, we are the only non-Louisiana, non-local folks in the campsite. 100% white folks; the music highly syncopated accordion Cajun playing in the evening around campfires; the slur of French Cajun around the fire; good old boys and girls (50s -70s) out for a weekend of socializing. 

Everything is absolutely quiet after 9:30 pm, except for the hum of air conditioning units cooling trailers that stretch the full length of the back-in parking spots. 

We spent some time with the two Cajun couples next door showing them photos from Wisconsin winter and maple syruping. One wife admitted to never having seen snow, the others recalling trips to the north or that time back 7 years ago when it got down to 22F, and a sheet of white snow covered the magnolias one morning. 

The big campers are, according to our new friends, just for weekends in the local parks. To get away from work, some from towns, and to visit, listen to good music, make a huge pot of Cajun spiced riced crawfish/oyster/catfish gumbo. 

I took the 2-hour bird/nature walk at the Arboretum Saturday morning. Just 3 folks, a couple of dedicated bird watchers who came in just for the walk and me; and a bright, dedicated young man--the park naturalist. He knew every bird, bug, plant, land or water feature as I pumped him for "what is that tree; bush; hill..."

We saw mostly the same birds we see in the north, just variations of them (i.e. the Carolian Chickadee rather than the black capped one of Wisconsin). A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly; dragonflies, a few native hummingbirds, wood ducks, cardinals, blue jays, robins, flickers, vireos, phoebes, etc. The songs identified the bird, and binoculars pinned them down. 

"Our habitat here in the 6000 acre park is most threatened by feral hogs. Domestic pigs gone wild crossed with Russian boars brought in years ago by sportsmen for hunting." The ground was rooted up quite extensively as the hogs and their multiple litters of young each year tore through the undergrowth looking for food. 

"Hunting, trapping goes a little way towards control, but they just seem to get worse each year. Now they are tearing up the rice fields and other crops and farmers are losing crops from them. Some folks have taken to fencing in their yards to keep them out--have to be a very secure fence to keep them out." 

The local newspaper says that a new bait made of warfarin (coumadin--the blood thinner) is being developed with special bait feeders the hogs have to push up a door to eat. Problem is that bears, raccoons may be able to get at the bait too, and the worry of bits of the feed spilt by greedy hogs might kill birds, squirrels etc. 

Another idea is bounty hunting/trapping. They hogs are big, mean, and rather skittish unless a sow is disturbed with her litter of 8-12 hamlets. The hogs are somewhat thin and not prime eating. "They are a problem at night driving -- run into a big one and it wrecks your car," said my fellow birder. 

The huckleberries (tall blueberry plants) are in bloom, clustered with bees. The wild trilliums (pretty leaf and almost invisible flower) are up; leaves are coming on the bald cyprus; the swamp maple has budded out, and winter mosquitoes have been rejuvenated with the influx of prey into the park. 

Took a tour off the back roads to the east of the park. Flat, flooded, rice, cotton, crawfish and other farming. The farmers level an already flat piece of land, build dikes around it and flood it for rice crop.  I asked one of the campers about rice farming.  

Rice is planted March and April. Rice is grown in about 2 inches of water -- flooded fields with water pumped in. In June, when the rice is a few inches tall, crawfish are "seeded." That means they add live mature crawfish. The crawfish live in burrows under the rice.

In late July the fields are drained and the rice harvested. In late September the fields are flooded again. The mother crawfish come out of their burrows with 200-400 tiny ant-sized crawfish attached to her tail. They detach and feed on the rice stubble and in about 90 days are market size. The mother crawfish may have several broods each season, so as long as there is food and water, they continue to grow. 

Mostly the crawfish harvest is done by June. Although crawfish/rice farmers can grow rice again that spring (called "double cropping) many wait another year and give the crawfish two seasons. 

So which crop, rice or crawfish makes the farmer the most money? I hope to find that out by asking one of them next time.  

Took a drive through the nearby town of "historic" Washington. It was a very quiet, small town, a mixture of beautiful huge live oaks, magnolias, narrow streets and wonderful azaleas in bloom, old empty stores and buildings, some selling antiques, and the other side of the tracks, -- the black poor folks in shacks, their windows lined with aluminized bubble wrap for winter warmth, roofs of rusted tin, poverty in most graphic form. 

LA is one of those states with the lowest income, lowest health, lowest education, near the bottom in nearly every statistic of well being of its folks. At the same time it is immensely energy wealthy with big oil companies, wells, refineries all over as well as huge farms that appear prosperous. 

This is one of those low tax for rich states that tries to make it up by fees and taxes on things poor folks have to do. The state legislature is meeting in emergency session trying to make up the budget shortfall of 360 million for this year, and with Republicans in control of the House -- insisting that Gov Jindall (govenor last 8 years with Republican control), none of the giveaways to oil companies, rich folks and big business in general will be rolled back. A study in how giving to the rich just takes from the poor. Misery and gluttony share the state with the gluttonous having the upper hand, supported by their own personal political party.

In the evening, I heard my neighbors talking about the "bonding" bill in the state legislature -- borrow money to meet the deficit rather than tax or cut spending. I was surprised as I had heard no talk of politics nor any bumper stickers indicating any political preference are on any of the cars, trucks or campers can be seen or heard in the park, not even "Trump" mentioned.    

"You know, whatever they do it all goes to help the rich.  We get poorer and they get richer, and that just the way God want's it, I think or they wouldn't get to run everything."   Then they switched back to Cajun and I couldn't understand anymore -- but it appeared to be about the huge pot of boiling savory gumbo jumbala etouffee, crab, crawfish oyster surprise on the campstove.   

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Louisiana Daze

We pulled into Louisiana last Monday and parked at Chicot State Park, near Ville Platte (south central part of the state).  We are in Evangeline Parish (county) named after the Longfellow poem. 
     The area is a mixture of blacks, whites, and folks who call themselves Cajuns -- French is spoken in about 1/3 of the homes here.  The culture is Cajun, Creole, Black and rural white folks.           The mix is interesting, generally low income, and lots of poverty that shows in low quality housing.  
    As a farm kid, I like to see what is growing.  The crops here include soybeans, corn and hay, but also cotton, sugar cane, rice and crawfish.  About all that is active right now is crawfish harvest in the flooded rice field stubble.
   Lots of oil wells around here.  Much of he land is very flat, and here and there are pastures with beef cattle including one that specializes in Brahma cattle, more adapted to the hot summer weather. 
   The Louisiana spring is here.  A few violets are blooming, Carolina Jasmine, Azaleas, tulip trees, narcissus, camelias and a few others I don't know.  Creeping Charlie and dandelions are beginning, clover is just poking a few blooms, and some of the trees are budded or even leafing out.  
   We have been enjoying temperatures that ranged from as low as 46F this morning to 81F yesterday afternoon.  Normal would be 50s-70s and that is what we see for the coming week. 
   The park here is quiet during the week, filling with fishermen with boats and campers Friday and Saturday as the park is on a panfish and bass lake.  
   Haven't met any other folks from the north on our camping so far, they probably go more south where it is even warmer.  Almost all of the folks who camp here are those with the very big units that bring home away from home.  One tenting couple are here and another popup camper pulled in today.  
  The history of the area is that of plantations, civil war battles, and the Cajuns.  That means music, food, language and friendly unpretentious folks who love fishing and hunting, dogs, beer and good food. 
   You can buy a basic house in Ville Platte for $20,000 that is livable and ready to move in. For half that you can buy one to fix up.  Of course there are many modern houses that are normal prices and many that are expensive too.  
   The Park here is severely underfunded, as are all public services in Louisiana.  Huge tax cuts led to huge spending problems and parks, police, roads, schools, libraries and health care have all taken a back seat to making sure the rich have less role in helping out the community as a whole.  
   The park restrooms are taken care of by a camper who "hosts" the campsite.  He gets free camping ($120/week) for cleaning the bathrooms and sort of checking on things.  He does not seem to take the job seriously.  He lost his house in the recent flooding "down south" and moved here to get away from being homeless -- he does have a nice large camper unit and vehicle that are now his home.    
   Once a week, a young kid (probably 20 year old), without supervision drives a truck around and empties the garbage cans he can see are in need of emptying -- he doesn't check them all, just the running over ones.  He told me he gets $8/hour and no benefits and is on his own to do what he thinks needs to be done.  Another person is in the office to take fees and check visitors.  We think there is someone in charge too, but no one seems to ever come out to the park areas to check on anything.  The main office is open 7 days a week for 12 hours a day, so probably need 3-4 folks to cover it.  It appears some may be part time -fill ins on the weekend, as the person who set us up when we first arrived had no clue about any of the campsites. 
    Campers seem to be pretty good at cleaning up their sites, and the park, unlike the roads leading to it, is clean from litter.  The road in are absolutely terrible with litter.  
    The weather here is nice; it is quiet, the bathrooms on the North loop are decent, and so we are happy staying here for the weather break from the north.  
    Our plan is to return about the beginning of March, and maybe stay here in this park until then.  I have a lot of computer work (books) I am working on and so I setup in the shade outside and work; then take a walk and photos, work and walk. 
   Margo is handling the sort of roughing it camping better than I thought.  She does some walking, some computer surfing, some taking it easy, and so on, and her back does not seem to be any worse than when we are at home.  We usually take a drive into the countryside or a small town each day too, and have more to explore. 
The Bayou Chicot

Concrete burial vaults about 3 feet into the ground with a cover to keep folks from floating away in a flood 

Hundreds of fundamentalists churches each with their advice

The north campground has handicapped facilities that are nice 

Azaleas shed some in the wind and rain of the past two days

Even dandelions are welcome

Headed to a bird watcher's walk Saturday 9 am.  Haven't seen any strange birds here in the park. Robins, sparrows, an owl, crows. blackbirds, cardinals, etc. 

Spanish moss and Resurrection Ferns add some decadence to the park 

The states down here only require back license plates, so the front ones are for personal statements.
Spring violets -- only about 3 months ahead of Wisconsin

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Walk Around Lake Chicot North Campgrounds LA Feb 7 2017

A refreshing early morning thundershower let up and so I took a stroll around the campgrounds in Lake Chicot State Park -- North site.  Since we have recently left the snow and ice of MN and WI  what interests me is the signs of spring here.  
 A photo tour:  

The camping unit -- 2011 Impala bought in AR and 1990 Jayco

An early bird trying to get the worms brought up by the rain

Jasmine vines, with evergreen leaves, climb through the smaller trees and are in bloom here and there around the park. 

Resurrection ferns and Spanish moss take advantage of the trees and humidity.  

Azaleas here and there about the park.  I think they are planted as they appear along the drives rather than in the woods.