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We have a tradition of getting to a trail near Hollywood, SC to walk on the pine straw and fallen leaves, particularly around Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Sparky, now almost 15 years old, once chased a rabbit in high-speed circles here. Around and around, the two flashed past us on wider and wider circles until the fast rabbit outlasted the panting hound. Much of this path is through open woods of tall, long leaf pines, then you get to shallow swamps full of cypress trees and knees. Tiny green plants float on the black water below the winter-bare trees. Everywhere are stark shapes and linear shadows, and Sparky’s wild energy is revived. He hops over logs and splashes in the swamp.

Happy New Year! and wishes for health and happiness in 2014.




Sandy Lang, January 2014

Heels and suitcase wheels clack on the tile floor. The movie “Casablanca” plays continuously on two TV screens, and is projected across a rear wall. Oversized paintings and photo portraits by San Juan artist Carlos Mercado—colorized in aqua blues and red ochres—are hung in large frames above the Moroccan-style furnishings of bed-like couches, carved-wood, and patterned upholstery. All of this is in the long, narrow lobby at the CasaBlanca Hotel in Old San Juan. For under $130/night, we’re booked in a fourth-floor, walk-up room. Some of the 30 guestrooms have balconies, but we’re in “The Marrakech” that’s Paris-tiny and includes a window on the interior courtyard. Lean out from the bed, open the wooden shutters, and you can look down to the tables in the lobby café—people are drinking coffee, typing on laptops, or talking over card games. No in-room telephone or hair dryer, and the sheets and bedding are thin (mattress, too). It’s all clean and comfortable—basic, but it works. For a “wake-up call,” the desk clerk bounds up the stairs and wraps firmly on the door to make sure we’re up and about. On the first afternoon, we walk up two more flights to a rustic rooftop deck with a few lounge chairs and five empty stone tubs as big as horse troughs that are fitted with faucets and shower hoses. I turn a faucet handle, and the water flows. (“It’s nice to bathe up there at night,” Juan at the front desk later explains, but we never make it back upstairs.) Mornings, Jorge is behind the bar to make espresso, café con leche. Over coffee, I hear other guests complaining about street noise from the night before on narrow Calle Fortaleza. I didn’t notice—always returning after long days walking downtown and touring the countryside in a station wagon loaded with four or five people (and a cooler of iced-down bottles of Cava and cans of Medalla Light in the back).

I’m happily assisting Peter Frank Edwards, who’s on a photo assignment here. With our local friends, we follow two-lane roads on the interior of the island, past coconut and banana trees, and the fattest, tallest bamboo stalks I’ve ever seen. (More reports from those adventures to come.) Rock and roll, soul, and Latin jazz plays on the car stereo—and well past dark every night we make our way back to CasaBlanca, where nothing disturbs my Puerto Rico rest.

– Sandy Lang, March 2013

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Travel, Wild animals and places



Hardwater fishing

Took off for February adventure with PFE for our latest feature for Maine magazine. Thank you to friends from South Carolina who came along, and to everyone we met in the shacks and on the ice at Baker’s Smelt Camps.

The full story runs six pages in the Jan. 2013 issue. Excerpts from the fish tales:

KENNEBEC ON ICE. Trying for smelt before the ice melts.

Even in February, the ice conditions are iffy. We’re driving through the Kennebec River towns north of Merrymeeting Bay, looking for fishing camps. Catching a bucket of smelt is our goal. But the frozen surfaces are thinner than usual this year, where there’s ice at all. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I drive north from Bowdoinham through Dresden, Pittston, and Randolph. Thin, silvery-pink fish often not much longer than an outstretched hand, rainbow smelt are known to live primarily in saltwater bays, but spawn in fresh water—famously, under the ice of the Kennebec River.

By chance—and because we could see actual ice—we choose Baker’s from more than a half-dozen smelt camps that pop up each year on frozen stretches of the Kennebec River and its tributaries. “This is a sweet spot,” claims Cindy Lougee. The Pittston site is situated at a bend in the Kennebec that creates an eddy; the spawning fish like to feed in the calmer water, she says. Lougee helps owner Mike Baker, a logger, to coordinate the ice fishing at Baker’s Smelt Camps. In a lined notebook, she keeps a handwritten record of the shack reservations. “People book them for a tide, and stay six or seven hours,” she explains. While we talk, guests come in to the wood-paneled office to buy beef jerky or homemade cookies, or just to soak in the heat and conversation. Lougee suggests we go down on the ice and choose which shack we’d like to reserve. She shows us what I think at first is a pizza box, but then she opens it to reveal a bed of seaweed and tangles of long red sandworms.  These, she says, are hand-collected on the Maine coast; some people cut them up into small pieces to use for bait.

To get to the ice, we descend the bank and step onto a narrow wooden boardwalk. The surface is slushy on either side of the planks, but no one seems concerned. I can hear several radios playing from different shacks. We peek inside a few that are empty and see similar layouts inside of each: a plank floor down the center, a woodstove at the rear, and a trough of open water along the length of each side, where the ice has been cut.

A few of the teenagers who work at the camp, delivering firewood and keeping things tidy, catch up with us. One of the young laborers, Steve Potter, is pulling a load of firewood on a sled and says his job on the frozen river has its odd moments. He says, “Earlier, I saw a four-wheeler go by on the river pulling a La-Z-Boy with a guy strapped to the seat for the ride.” Two other workers, Airyn Jewett and Katie Baker, are both from Gardiner. They say they’ve been coming to the camps for years, and that their fathers helped to clear the snow for an ice-skating oval a few yards from the shacks. The teenagers tell us most people hang bait lines from a horizontal post, but they’ve had good luck catching fish on handheld “jigger” poles with a short, heavy line, using the poles to jiggle bait in the water and then hook the fish. It doesn’t look like there’s room inside the shacks for jiggling or much of anything else, but I’m told some of the structures can hold up to six people who are actively fishing. We reserve number 35, a smaller shack with a decent-looking woodstove…

– Sandy Lang, February 2013 (images by Peter Frank Edwards)



Hunt and sip

A year ago this month, I had the honor of mingling with some smart and scrappy hounds and horsesand the tweed-wearing ridersat a fox hunt near Landrum, South Carolina.  This part of the Upstate is great for antiques’ shopping and wine touring, too. From the opening paragraphs of my story, “Art of the Chase,” for Charleston magazine:

Everything is hovering around 30 on the morning of the fox hunt in a rural corner of Greenville County.

The Upstate air is a frosty 30 degrees, and today the count for the Tryon Hounds’ hunt is a field of about 30 riders on horseback with 30 yelping hounds. Anita Williamson, the “road whip,” has offered to let us ride in her truck to tail the party once the chase begins—throughout the hunt, she’ll follow the riders’ progress, open fence gates, and watch for any stragglers—canine or equine.

This is one impressive and natty hunt club. Attire of the men and women at the meet includes white riding pants, black wool caps, and brass-buttoned blazers that are as red as a holly berry. The well-groomed horses sport trimmed or braided manes. The day’s huntsman, Jordan Hicks of Pickens, is tall and trim in a scarlet coat. He opens the gate of a transport truck and releases the lanky, tricolor hounds. The carefully bred foxhounds bound into a scene of winter-bare trees and country pageantry as one twisting mass of yelps and sniffs. The pack is bursting with energy and confidence. Watching them, I wonder if they know they’re descended from old Virginia bloodlines…

You can read more in the print version (a few pages below) or online here.

– Sandy Lang, January 2013  (photography by Peter Frank Edwards)



When you have to get to a place by floatplane, you’re either going somewhere, or nowhere. We collect their annual mailings. The last two are still stuck to the fridge by a single, tiny magnet—cards printed with lakeside musings and season’s greetings from Karen and Igor Sikorsky of the Bradford Camps “in the heart of the North Maine Woods.” One year, we tried to book a stay, but couldn’t find dates to mesh with our work schedule. Ever since, a new card arrives yearly to tease us with pictures of rustic log cabins, trout, and forests best reached by floatplane. Finally, we carve out another block of time and lock in on a plan for a stay over four late summer days.

To get there, we drive a few miles north of Millinocket to meet Jim Strang, a pilot at Katahdin Air Service, which shuttles mail, supplies, and people to and from many of the historic sporting camps. Hopping on his plane will save us from more than a half-day’s drive and the possibility of a few blown tires on unpaved logging roads. Once airborne, it’s easy to see that we’ve traded a rough and rutted route for easy and expansive views.  Through the headphones, we hear Jim talk of the millions of acres of undeveloped land below us. As far as we can see is Maine’s great northern treasure.

Within 25 minutes, the plane flies over a four-mile-long a lake called Munsungan. Suddenly, there it is—on a stretch of the forested shoreline, the cabins and grounds of the Bradford Camps come into view. From a few dozen yards above the treetops, I see a large dog bound out into the water (that would be Moxie, a chocolate-colored retriever with a head like a brown bear), and then a man and a woman walk out from the porch of the lodge, and I surmise they must be Karen and Igor. The plane circles back and touches down on the water, and the engine putters like a motorboat as Jim guides it to park at the dock. We don’t have to imagine any more. We’ve arrived.

No laptops or mobile phones to fool with here—our two-room, lakeside log cabin for the next several nights is equipped with running water (cold and hot) and propane wall lamps, but no electricity. Igor and Karen give us a tour and encourage us to follow a trail into the woods for a walk before dinner. Not long after the floatplane disappears in the distance, I realize the gift of time and space we’ve just gotten. We follow the narrow path past a stream that gushes over stones to form what looks like a natural waterslide. A tremendous amount of mushrooms have sprouted, and we come back to the cabin with handfuls of chanterelles and few big lobster mushrooms that look just like claws. Without high-tech diversions, I find a pencil and start jotting observations in my paper notebook.

When the dinner bell rings we walk over to the lodge, along with the only other guests, a dozen men from New Jersey who’ve come as a group. They mostly keep to themselves and sit together at one long table in the dining room. Ours is a table by the window overlooking the lake, and I soon notice the mounted deer head in the dining room has a nonchalant look—there’s something carefree about the buck’s sleepy eyes. I look up at him between courses prepared by Matthew Mills, the camp chef who hails from New Hampshire and says he’s been here all summer, and cooks at a game preserve in South Carolina in wintertime. We’d wandered through the garden rows just yards from the kitchen door earlier, and saw beans, corn, greens, tomatoes, herbs, and more. Matthew makes good use of the harvest. Along with fresh bread, he cooks up dishes of haddock with a butter sauce, zucchini and squash, roasted prime rib, corn chowder, cubed watermelon with fresh mint, and more.


Naturally, we fall into the rhythm of this place. I go to the small wooden ice house behind the lodge and use one of the ice picks—Igor shows us how—to stab a gin-clear block until I’ve got enough shards and chunks to fill a small bucket to tote back to our cabin. Igor says he comes up to the camp by snowmobile every January with a group of friends to cut ice from the lake, and together they bury it under sawdust in the icehouse. Over the course of a summer, they’ve never run out, he says. I love this ice—the idea of it, and the taste. The first night after dinner, a group of us sit on the porch of the lodge after the generator has been turned off for the day. The only light is from the moon. We’re all talking, and at some point, Moxie laps up the melted ice and splash of whiskey in someone’s glass. Everyone’s laughing and then Karen and Igor recount the time Moxie picked up a lit cigar, and appeared to try to smoke it. My glasses of ice and water (and a cocktail or two), never tasted so sweet. A few of us wonder aloud if there’s a way to market these crystal clear cubes of lake.

We take turns looking at the silvery-white full moon through a telescope, and Igor starts a bonfire at the very edge of Munsungan in a firepit protected from the lake’s winds and water by a huge stone and the upright blade of a steel backhoe. (In a feat of man and equipment a few years ago, Igor says he moved the whole thing into place.) The pyre reflects in the water and sparks crackle and rise into the coal-black sky. I look back at the circle of men around the flame from a distance as we walk back to the cabin, and the scene looks historic, even pre-historic. Later I read in the propane lamplight until we fall asleep under quilts. Well past midnight I sit upright in bed, suddenly wide-awake and listening. At first I can’t process what I’m hearing, and I think the ruckus is the men’s group whooping it up at their card games in the cabins near ours. But soon I realize that it’s actually coyotes yelping—sounds like a roundup of pups very excited about something. A hunt? Someone had said that coyotes are supposed to be on the opposite shore of Munsungan Lake, but they sound much closer. I’m excited to be in a place so wild. But in the morning, some of the other guests say they heard nothing. “Good sleeping weather,” one man says, stretching his arms over his head. “I slept ten hours last night.”

The second afternoon, two loons are on the flat, calm lake in the hour before dinner. Sunlight is falling fast, and I see Karen is on the dock near where Igor’s plane is tethered and floating, as if it were a boat at a marina. I pull on my bathing suit, grab a towel and hurry down to the water. Karen says, “Let’s jump from the plane.” She shows me how to step around the propeller and get a foothold on one of the floats. She’s standing on one and I’m on the other, and like kids in a schoolyard, we decide to jump together at the count of three into the chilled water. Thunder is rumbling in the distance and I look at the ancient mountains across the water once more, before we both jump as high and far as we can. The lake feels so cold it must be on its way to becoming ice again, I think, and I gasp when I come up for air. After some splashing around, I dash back up to the cabin. I’ve got just enough time to change into a turtleneck and jeans before the dinner bell.

We hatch a plan to catch a native brook trout while there, and Igor and Karen know just the place, a nearby pond with an undeveloped shore. Even better, they suggest that we all go in Igor’s floatplane the next day to get there—taking along fishing poles, gear, and a cooler of sandwiches and drinks from the lodge kitchen. It’s our third day at the Bradford Camps, and in a few minutes we land on the pond—the name and location of this fishing honey hole is a secret—and Igor cuts the engine and uses a paddle to guide the plane over to a spot on the bank where he keeps canoes. The pond is restricted to fly fishing only, and we each take turns casting. All’s quiet for an hour, and then Karen is the one to get a hit, and she reels in a brookie of keeping size—its gold and red spots gleaming on an olive brown body. We land one more, but wrap only one fish in a red bandana to bring back to Matthew at the camp’s kitchen. The trout is a beautiful treasure, and we carry it carefully.

The next day is when we’re scheduled to leave the camp. We pack and then meet Matthew, where he’s already frying the whole trout for us in a skillet. I don’t think guests typically go into the kitchen, but we’re comfortable amid the shelves of plates and cups, the loaves of rising bread, and the big pot of squash soup that’s already simmering on the stove for the day’s lunch. We’ve waited so long to get here, and we’re still taking in as much of the Bradford Camps as we can. When the fish is plated and ready, we don’t go to the dining room. Instead, we all find forks—Karen and Igor, too—and taste the wild-caught trout that’s pink-fleshed and incredibly delicate and delicious. We talk of the prior day’s fishing and of other happenings in the several days since we’ve arrived, stopping when Karen turns up the volume of a radio for the daily “Writer’s Almanac” segment on NPR—listening to this is apparently a ritual at the camp. Everyone in the kitchen goes quiet and still for these moments as announcer Garrison Keillor reads a poem by Hayden Caruth. It’s a thoughtful verse, something to mull over and discuss, but through the screen door, we already hear the distant buzz of Jim Strang’s plane. Too soon, he’s coming to return us to the everyday world—where time for such things as poetry, fishing, and jumping from float planes is simply too damn rare.

– Sandy Lang for Maine magazine, June 2012 issue

bonefish, Kaua'i

North of Hanalei, almost all the way up the coast road on Kaua’i, we came across some local men and women fishing from the beach. They’d stretched three nets, one inside the next, and brought each net in slowly – walking from neck deep water to the beach, as waves rolled in over their backs. The closer the line of fishermen got to shore, the crowd grew.

bonefish2 Kaua'i

The catch was made, and it was a big one. Someone went for a pick-up truck with a tub in the back that they’d fill with saltwater and the flopping, silver fish – the mountains of Na Pali towering behind as they worked. Old men with wrinkled faces held and pulled the red nets, along with younger men and women, many from the same family. Once the fish were on the beach, even toddlers helped to carry them to buckets and then onto the waiting truck. It was a good catch, they said, and then they drove off to take it to market.


– Sandy Lang, September 2010

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Travel, Wild animals and places



Road trip to paddle


Put the canoe on the wagon and go. We did, and drove on up to the Congaree National Park near Columbia, South Carolina, the state’s only national park. On Cedar Creek you can lay back in the canoe and just float, the blackwater current is so easy and slow. It’s a beautiful spot, and all along the drive and paddle, the new leaves were brightest green, with yellow Carolina jasmine tumbling over. I’ll have an article about the trip in a summer issue of Charleston Magazine.


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Travel, Wild animals and places



Oh, blackwater


I swam with at least one eye open the summer I was 12, looking out for alligators. That was the year I spent most of the summer at the houses of my aunts, uncles and cousins in Conway, SC. They lived on high ground at the edge of a blackwater swamp between the Waccamaw and Little Pee Dee Rivers. (They thought it was high ground until a few years later when two or three “100-year” floods hit in a row. One aunt and uncle moved after the first flood, and the other raised their house high on stilts.)

On those summer nights, I’d heard the adults talk of seeing alligators sometimes, so I looked out for them. I saw turtles lined up on logs in the sunshine, and egrets and herons wading the pond’s edges. My nine cousins and two brothers and I swam most of those steamy July and August days, and one or two nights when the moon was out. I remember the dark water feeling thick somehow, and that you could sink below the warm water on top to a layer of very cool water below that we called “the deep.” But I don’t remember ever seeing an alligator that year. Other years, yes, so many times. But not during that first hot summer when I watched the water.

The image is of the Waccamaw, from a late afternoon day earlier this year when I was in Conway again. I stopped by the riverfront walkway to watch the glass-black surface again for a while.

– Sandy Lang, March 2010

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Wild animals and places

Mr. Biggerstaff

His business cards read, “Honey is my hobby,” and 72-year-old Robert Biggerstaff isn’t kidding. Since 1967 he’s been building bee boxes, tending hives and collecting honey – all under the oak trees in his sideyard that backs up to a tidal creek off the Stono River on Johns Island.

“The Bee Man,” just published with images by Josh Zoodsma, is one of several pieces I wrote for the 2009 issue of 5757 Palm, now in print. Click here for an earlier post about Mr. Biggerstaff and his bees.

– Sandy Lang, May 2009



Rainforest flights

St. Kitts, Mount Liamuiga

“Take your hands off the grips, lean back and fly,” the Kittitian guide, Kenny, told me. I was working in St. Kitts earlier this week, and tried out the zipline course that’s just opened in the jungle above the ruins of a centuries-old sugar cane factory. A Land Rover took us up to the top of the mountain, and the cables zig and zag to bring you back down to the base. From the second line, the view was all wide Atlantic, with the treetops and the Wingfield River’s bed below. St. Kitts is an island of green vervet monkeys and mango trees, of batik making, cricket tournaments, and of plates of whole pan-fried hine fish served with plantains, rice and peas. Oh, and the 18 mile-long island makes sugar cane rum and three of its own beers, Carib, Skol and Stag (advertised as “a man’s beer”).

In the clouds is Mount Liamuiga, which at 3,792 feet is the tallest peak – otherwise known as Mt. Misery.  (Images by PFE.)

– Sandy Lang, May 2009

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