Monday, September 28, 2015

2015 Foliage Update: Late but Likely to be Spectacular

Leaves are changing color noticeably later this year. But when it arrives, conditions have set up for a potentially exceptional foliage display.

An unusually warm and dry September is largely responsible for both phenomena. First, a lack of cool to cold nights has not provided the temperature trigger for trees to begin changing color, hence the delayed start to the season.

As Laura Peterson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Tourism and Marketing, put it in a recent Boston Globe article, “We had two of the warmest weeks of September in a long time, and the leaves need a cold snap to signal the change in color.”

Second, ideal conditions for maximum fall colors are ample early season moisture, followed by long stretches of warm, sunny days with minimal rain later in the season, which is exactly what September has provided.

Perfect foliage isn't guaranteed, of course, especially if night-time temperatures abruptly plummet--early frosts can halt the development of fall colors in their tracks and can significantly reduce the brilliance of foliage in affected areas. But if the weather stays clear and the nights cool, this year's peak foliage may be exceptionally bright.

The delayed start is apparent in the foliage reports below from the Foliage Network--you can see how little color there is at the end September this year compared to the previous four.

“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.  

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Railbikes Give a Whole New Meaning to "Rail-Trail"

Add this to your list of one-of-a-kind adventures: Riding the rails by pedal power.

This summer, Rail Explorers launched its inaugural season of tours in New York's Adirondack Mountains. Featuring custom-built track-riding contraptions known as railbikes, the company lets you cruise along 6 miles of railroad line between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear. It's the only thing like it in the country.

Railbike on! Photo: Rail Explorers
Through forest and dale, past lakes and wetlands, the journey tours a sylvan slice of Adirondack scenery—and one that flares brightly as fall foliage blankets the region. (The railbike season was just extended through Columbus Day, October 12.)

Each railbike is custom built. Photo: Rail Explorers

The one-way journey takes about an hour (a shuttle returns you to your starting point). Tour prices are per railbike, with a 2-seater running $50 and 4-seater $100.

As an enthusiastic member of the pedaltariat, I always love to see new and inventive ways to turn pedal power into adventure. Plus railbiking adds yet another distinct opportunity and enticement to visit the region. (I'm still itching to take a ride on the Lake Placid bobsled run.)

I hope to make it soon, especially since the track may be converted to a more traditional rail-trail in the coming years. You can learn more about railbiking—and the future of this track—in this recent New York Times article.

“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.  

Sunday, September 20, 2015

May the Foliage Be with You: How to Find Peak Color This Leaf-Peeping Season

To experience foliage in its full kaleidoscopic splendor, you need to know when and where color is reaching its peak. As the brilliance of fall marches south from northern New England to the shores of the Mid-Atlantic, keeping tabs on a few key resources can help you go out in a blaze of leaf-peeping glory.  

Get the Big Picture
First, it's worth getting a quick handle on when foliage typically peaks at locations around the Northeast. As a general rule, color peaks in far northern New England and New York in late September, then steadily moves south over the next four weeks. Peak foliage typically reaches its broadest expanse in early to mid-October, and lingers through the latter half of October and the first days of November in low-elevation, near-coastal regions across southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

For a general overview of foliage timing in New England, take a look at this excellent animation from Yankee Foliage (one of the most comprehensive sources for all things New England foliage).
For the popular foliage destinations of New Hampshire and Vermont, the New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development produces a useful interactive map of likely foliage conditions by date, and Foliage Vermont offers this animation of foliage progression.

For the latest conditions across the Northeast, from New Jersey to Maine, The Foliage Network produces foliage updates twice a week for the entire region, including broad overview maps of the current foliage situation. 

Watch the Weather
Once you have a handle on likely peak foliage times, next pay close attention to the weather forecast—fall conditions can have a significant influence on foliage. For maximum fall colors, the best weather consists of long stretches of warm, sunny days and cool, but not freezing, nights. Keep a particular watch for any early frosts, which halt the development of fall colors in their tracks and can significantly reduce the brilliance of foliage in affected areas.

Also keep an eye out for the approach of stormy weather, which can strip leaves en masse and bring an abrupt end to peak foliage season. If you see inclement weather approaching during the height of color, make an effort to get out and leaf-peep before it strikes.

Follow the State of the States
State-specific resources, including real-time updates of current foliage conditions, are available throughout the Northeast. Several states have adopted the use of Instagram photo streams for the 2014 season, which can help provide daily insights of real-time conditions. From north to south, here are some of the best resources to watch. 
  • Maine: Visit Maine's Official Fall Foliage web site, where you can sign up to receive Maine foliage updates by e-mail 
  • New Hampshire: Check out the New Hampshire foliage reports for the latest and follow #nhfoliage on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media.  
  • Vermont: The Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing provides regular updates at its Fall Foliage Central and also gives you the option of getting Vermont foliage updates by email.
  • Massachusetts: The Massachusetts foliage site from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism features user-posted images from Instagram (#MAinstafoliage), along with other resources. 
  • Connecticut: The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection posts a useful interactive map of estimated peak foliage, as well as regular and simple fall foliage reports. 
  • New York: Weekly fall color reports are posted every Wednesday on the state’s I Love NY site. 
  • New Jersey: Despite its excellent leaf-peeping opportunities, the Garden State is most lacking for a good go-to source for foliage updates. NJHiking provides some limited updates. 
  • Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources posts a detailed weekly update and foliage map.
This column originally appeared in AMC Outdoors. Photo by Jerry and Marcy Monkman

 “Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

How to Become a Cyborg: The Recon Jet

If you've ever fantasized about upgrading your vision to Terminator-level processing power, the Recon Jet offers a first step toward your future cyborgian self.

I see you, data. Photo: Recon Instruments 
The Jet is a pair of sunglasses with a heads-up display unit in the lower portion of the right lens. Designed with active users in mind (runners, cyclists, etc.), the display shows information such as pace, distance traveled, duration of workout, and more. (Built-in motion sensors and a GPS unit keep track of it all.)

What's unique, however, is that this data appears to be floating in your lower field of view, allowing you to instantly access the info without having to glance down at a watch, smart phone, or other fitness device. (Per Recon, looking at the display is equivalent to viewing a 30-inch screen from 7 feet away.)

Those are the basics, but the Jet adds quite a few more whiz-bang features. For example, it's designed to sense when you're peering down at the display rather than looking straight ahead, illuminating the display when needed and dimming it when not. It has an integrated POV camera for both photos and video. It can connect to your smart phone and alert you to incoming calls or messages. And so on.

Serious business, this data. Photo: Recon Instruments
Per the specs, the rechargeable battery can last up to four hours (though I'm guessing the day-to-day reality of it falls somewhere south of that).

Whether you need such a connected existence floating in front of you is another story, especially given how ├╝ber-teched they make you look.

The Jet currently sells for $499 after a recent $200 drop in price.

Learn more:
“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

The World's Woolliest Sheep vs. Average Sweater Output per Shearing

Meet Chris. He is an Australian Merino sheep who wandered from his flock and roamed on his own for six years. When he was finally found and sheared, Chris was toting nearly 90 pounds of wool--enough to knit an estimated 30 sweaters and set an unofficial world record.

Chris, the unofficial record holder for world's woolliest sheep. Photo: RSPCA
Chris unseated former mega-fleece champions Shrek and Big Ben, both of New Zealand, to take the crown for world's woolliest.

Shrek the sheep became a national celebrity when he was discovered in 2004 after six years on the lam.
In 2014, Big Ben briefly held the title for world's woolliest sheep. No word on what he thinks of Chris.
Unlike these three walking puffballs, who yielded fleeces of 40kg, 27kg, and 29kg, respectively, a more typical Merino wool fleece weighs in around 4.5kg, or about 10 pounds. Keep in mind that this is for the uncleaned "grease" wool, which contains a fair amount of dust and dirt.

Once cleaned, a 10-pound fleece generates somewhere around three to four pounds of usable yarn.
Sweaters range in weight from approximately three-quarters of a pound to a pound and a half, depending on their size and thickness. This all translates into somewhere between two and five sweaters per shearing. This varies, of course, depending on the type of sheep and thickness of its wool, but provides a general sense of sweater output. (This helpful overview from sheds more light on the topic.)

Stay warm and woolly out there!

Learn more:
“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Ultimate Bay Circuit Trail Map and Guide

If you love the outdoors and spend any time in eastern Massachusetts, AMC's new Bay Circuit Trail Map and Guide is an essential addition to your bookshelf of awaiting adventures.

This waterproof, three-map set ($19.95; members $15.96) details the entirety of the 230-mile Bay Circuit Trail (BCT) network, which arcs around the greater Boston area in a tour of protected open spaces and soothing outdoor scenery in 57 different communities.

As a local resident and avid explorer of the region's natural places, I've found one of the greatest challenges to be unraveling the dozens upon dozens of land management agencies that collectively protect thousands of acres of public open space in the region.

A panoply of local land trusts, regional and statewide non-profits, town conservation agencies, state parks, national wildlife refuges, and more—all of which maintain their own separate collections of trail maps and information—makes it difficult to get a handle on the full breadth of outdoor opportunities that await in eastern Massachusetts.

And so I particularly appreciate the comprehensive coverage that these in-depth waterproof maps provide. Spanning a broad and nature-rich swath of the region, the maps highlight every parcel of protected open space visited by the BCT, as well as other nearby properties, making it much easier to get a full handle on potential conservation lands to explore.

What's more, the maps indicate viewpoints (precious in this mostly wooded region), notable points of interest, and parking locations for accessing the trail. They also highlight 30 recommended trips to some of the trail's best destinations, including short descriptions and directions. (It's how I discovered and explored the lovely Deer Jump Reservation in Andover this past weekend.)

Most importantly, however, is that this map set makes it easier than ever to get out, explore, and help protect the remarkable natural world of eastern Massachusetts. It certainly has renewed my inspiration and appreciation for the region I call home. 

Equipped is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Best Mosquito Repellent: Picaridin Today. Kite Patch Tomorrow?

In my mind, it's pretty much settled: Picaridin is superior to DEET. Consumer Reports essentially just confirmed it. But will an entirely new approach to mosquito repellents change the picture?

Repellent of the future?
I've written a fair bit about the picaridin vs. DEET debate. Now the latest entry is from Consumer Reports, which reviewed 15 common repellents earlier this year for their effectiveness against both mosquitoes and ticks. Their top-rated repellent, by far? Picaridin-based Sawyer's Fisherman's Formula (20% picaridin), which currently sells for $14.97 on Amazon. (You can see the complete ratings here; subscription required.)

There are some other interesting findings in the Consumer Reports ratings, including the effectiveness of oil of lemon eucalyptus. (Repel Lemon Eucalyptus was the second-highest rated, ahead of a 15% DEET repellent.) But the main takeaway? If you want the best, look for picaridin.

At the same time, a fledgling company, Kite, has garnered considerable resources and facilities over the past few years, including a mosquito megawarehouse for product testing and development in Riverside, California.

The company's goal is to develop new, innovative, cost-effective approaches for repelling mosquitoes. It has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and its own crowd-funding efforts (including more than half a million dollars on Indiegogo).

Their signature product—slated for release in 2016—is the Kite Patch, a small adhesive square that repels mosquitoes. Early tests show promise, including this recent glowing testimonial from a New York Times writer. So it seems at least possible that such an approach might work. (The company is largely quiet on the tech behind exactly how it works.)

I am going to hold my judgment until an actual consumer product is released, especially since equivalent approaches to date (repellent bracelets, etc.) are so ineffective as to be all but worthless. That being said, there is a lot that we currently don't understand about what exactly attracts—or repels—mosquitoes. It seems entirely possible that new understanding and breakthroughs will lead to different, more effective ways to repel mosquitoes.

Will the Kite Patch be it? I'll keep you posted.

Learn more about mosquitoes and repellents:
   Equipped is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.