The joy of birds is delightful. Madelyn Given isn't afraid to get close to them!

The Joy of Birds

Birds have a way of attracting one’s attention in our daily lives, whether we’re inside the home or outside running, hiking, or kayaking. I’ve learned a lot from birds—more from them than they from me! Their survival skills are amazing. They stay attuned to their surroundings. They are good at what they do, they persevere, work from dawn to dusk seven days a week, and never complain. Instead, they go about life happily chirping tunes to support each other and warn of danger.

Birds are curious, trusting and appreciative. We gained the trust of a pair of phoebes after they built a nest over the entrance door of our porch. This was not an ideal nesting place for them or for us. The constant banging of the door as people went in or out was annoying to them, and we were less than thrilled about the messiness to avoid with our feet.  We left the nest until after the babies flew out of the nest. Then we built a tiny triangle shelf high in a corner of the porch.

Soon after, the same pair of phoebes greeted us and built another nest, but this time they used our shelf. They repair the nest each spring and sometimes this nest has several hatchings of babies in one year. They greet us and chirp a greeting from the nest as we go in or out.

Hummingbirds are trustful, curious little helicopters who swirl in one place, watching what we are doing, before tiring and going on about their feeding. They know our voices and act differently toward visitors in our home. Baltimore orioles can spot a newly-placed orange the first day in spring when it is hung on a tree. They hoped we would remember that they were coming back.

Water fowl are interesting to observe and get to know. Wild ducks and Canadian geese return to the same nesting site each spring. They have good memories and remember that a seed or two may be under the bird feeders. Creatures of habit, they like to walk the same paths again and again.

Crows are intelligent birds, whether people like them or not for their clever ways. They have a guard on duty while several others are eating. They stay in a small group to support and protect each other.

While hiking, I enjoy birds. Listening and identifying birds keeps the mind occupied when putting in a long hike. Spotting birds in surprising places is something to remember.

My most unusual bird-sighting was in Russia, when I saw an eagle sitting on top of Mt Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. It was over 18,000’ in thin air in a complete white out. The clouds opened for a few seconds and there sat the eagle, only a couple of feet from me, eating a rabbit. It did not fly and was not at all interested or afraid of the four humans, two Iranians, my Russian guide, and me. The storm showed no signs of stopping, so we stayed only a few minutes before leaving behind the eagle at that unusually high elevation.

One sunny afternoon on the Appalachian Trail, I was greeted by two Canadian jays. They flew from one rock to another, waiting for me to feed them. I stopped, put down my pack, found a trail bar, and broke off little pieces—and lo and behold, they ate from my hand.

Birds are nature’s wonder and without them the world would not be as pleasant and full of joy.

(posted July 26, 2016)

What an adventure to hike with Jamling Norgay! Photo by Madelyn Given.

Campfire Stories, Part 3

On trips with the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and family, our campfires were for fun. At the end of a day in pleasant weather, we would gather dry sticks to add to dry wood we usually brought from home. Everyone was cheerful as we waited for the fire to die down to red-hot coals, and then we would toast marshmallows and make s’mores. We still do enjoy these great campfires with family and friends.

But I remember on Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and later in the Himalayas on Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, our only campfires were for our cooks to make our meals and to boil and purify water for our tea, which we poured from a big tea kettle into our water bottles each day. Our porters and sherpas would then sit by the small fire to keep warm. I would take my water bottle and put it in my sleeping bag to keep my feet warm at night. By morning, the water would be cold even inside my bag, but if it had been unprotected in my tent, it would have been frozen. Sometimes a small fire was built in the morning for hot milk or hot cereal, but usually only once a day. At 15,000 or 16,000 feet, we were above the tree line and could not collect wood, so bundles of wood had to be carried up with us. As we went higher, we had no campfires at all and only used small mountaineering stoves.

One day on Kilimanjaro, we climbed from dawn until it was time for a break for lunch. We had been climbing in clouds all the way and we were wet. We stopped at a cave and went inside to sit down and dry out for a few minutes. The porters started a fire. It was dreadful! It only took a few minutes to drive everyone outside to sit on a rock. My eyes were stinging, and everyone was crying, choking, and coughing from the smoke. You couldn’t see a thing, but we felt our way to the opening. To make matters worse, one of our porters had twisted his ankle and it was badly swollen. They discussed who would carry him down and who would stay, and all would now carry extra in their already heavy loads.

Using only our campfire, our amazing cook managed to make a birthday cake for Jamling Norgay! Photo by Madelyn Given.

Using only our campfire, our amazing cook made a birthday cake for Jamling Norgay!

Each night on Kanchenjunga, our cook made a hearty meal of soap, a main dish of meat, vegetables, and rice, and hot tea. We sat and ate our meal and then listened to Jamling Norgay tell amazing stories of his expedition on Everest and mountaineering and rescuing people in thin air. His father, Tanzing Norgay, was the first to summit Everest with Sir Edmund Hilary. He led the Swiss team first, then two years later the German team, and then two years later the British team, and finally conquered the tallest mountain in the world. One night our cook made a birthday cake to celebrated Jamling’s birthday. Imagine: high in the Himalayas, on the most primitive campfire with no camp oven, our cook made a birthday cake!

[posted July 12, 2016]

A rare campfire on Madelyn Given's thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Campfire Stories, Part 2: Appalachian Trail

There is nothing like a campfire to bring comfort to the body and soul when you are far from home.

A few years ago, I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt Katahdin, Maine. It was a grand, never-to-be-forgotten adventure, all 2,175 miles. There were highs and lows every day: it was a strenuous feat but a grand experience. Every day, I hiked from dawn to dusk, rarely stopping except to purify water or to take a breather. Before dusk, I would be hurrying to find a place to set up my tent or reach the nearest lean-to shelter. I would set up my tent pronto to get out of the wind, rain, or cold. Then I would unpack my pack, find something to eat, and get off my weary feet. I had no added energy to build a campfire.

What an adventure it is to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail! Photo by Madelyn Given.

What an adventure it is to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail!

During my four months on the trail, there were very few campfires built by thru-hikers. My son offered to hike with me early on, and one night we were hiking along the AT on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. On this clear, pleasant night, we set up camp and enjoyed a campfire. No one else was around and it was a peaceful moment in time.

Another campfire was quite different. After beginning with my son, I had continued hiking solo, and I had now reached Pennsylvania, known as the rocky state by the hikers. Every four to six days, hikers are able to get off the trail near a town or other place to get food and supplies. For some reason, I must have been thinking of a campfire, because when I bought my food I bought a package of marshmallows.

By this time it had been over two months of walking every day, and I had had only one campfire. I had made some trail friends along the way and I thought this would be a pleasant surprise. The young fellows were always so hungry. I reached the campsite with a lean-to already full and I looked for a place to set up my tent.

It was the least likely place to set up a tent I had ever encountered. The place was full of brush, on the side of a very steep hill, and muddy. It was dusk and I was exhausted, with no hope of moving on down the trail. Nevertheless, I set up my tent, and then three more of my friends arrived and pitched their tents almost touching each other.

During this time, the mosquitoes decided to invade the place! Only one other night in four months had I been attacked by mosquitoes, and this was one of them.

The hikers decided to have a campfire to rid the place of the mosquitoes, but the pesky creatures had a way of finding me. Bringing my package of marshmallows, I walked from my tent over to the lean-to area in front of the fire, planning to stay by the campfire and chat with my friends for a while, but the mosquitoes got the best of me.

I left the marshmallows (to the delight of the happy campers), hurried to my tent, zipped it up, and called it a night. To my dismay, the mosquitoes had won the battle that night.

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(posted June 21, 2016)