Monday, December 31, 2012

Hirschgulasch, and other Christmas adventures

It started simply enough.  My aunt was hosting Christmas dinner, and right on par for our family, there was a quickly growing list of proteins for the table.  I was already smoking a turkey and my second idea had fallen through when my PA antlerless tag went unfilled in the firearms season.  My aunt was already preparing two ducks, a brisket, and sausage with onions and peppers. So when her brother dropped off a venison roast, she was at a loss. 

I did some quick Internet searches, and with my recent infatuation with German cuisine I stumbled upon an obscure recipe for German style venison stew called, Hirschgulasch.  Once I located the formal name the real hunting began.  Everytime I searched the name, or some variation of the name, better than half of the Internet results were from German websites.  Now I was intrigued.  After running two of the recipes through Google Translate, to be sure I had a true approximation of the dish, I made my commitment. 

The venison roast itself was what my uncle calls the "rump" roast.  It's the very top of the hind leg.  After splitting the pelvis, and making the top cut leaving the venison ham, where he'll cut his steaks, he leaves the hip meat on the pelvis for roasting.  Since I was making a stew I decided to bone out the roast, collecting all the meat that would eventually be broken down to cubes. 

Prior to all that I reached back into my grandmother's bag of tricks.  Any whole muscle cut of venison, my grandmother would soak in salted water overnight.  This light brine works to draw the blood out, which can lead to the off taste some people experience from venison.

So after boning, and brining, I cubed the meat and followed the recipe I had gleaned from several Internet searches (see below).

The side dish was never really in question.  For me the simple yet hardy spaetzle was the only choice.  For the uninitiated spaetzle is an ultra simple noodle made from flour, salt, pepper, nutmeg, eggs and milk (see below for full recipe).  After boiling to cook the pasta the noodles are pan fried in bacon grease with a touch more salt and pepper.

And to properly set the scene, remember, while all this was happening I was also brining and smoking a turkey, and my aunt worked a brisket, two ducks, and some spicy sausage with onions and peppers.  A crazy Christmas dinner, but undoubtedly one of the best.

Happy Cooking
Scott M

Hirschgulasch, German style venison stew
1 lb venison, trimmed and cubed
4 small onions cut to a large dice
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp flour
1 cup red wine
1 cup beef broth
dash of paprika and cayenne
2 springs of fresh thyme, stemmed
1 spring of fresh rosemary, stemmed and chopped
8 juniper berries
8 peppercorns
2 bay leaves, crushed
1 tbsp of sour cherry jam (or ligonberry if available)
lard as needed

In a cast iron skillet, melt tbsp lard.  Sear venison on all sides in pan.  Small batches will keep the meat from steaming as it cooks.  Remove venison and add lard if necessary.  Saute onions until golden brown add garlic and saute for 1-2 more minutes.  Sprinkle flour and stir through pot to cook out flour flavor.  Deglaze the pan with the red wine stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to lift any browned bits that are sticking to the bottom.  Return meat to the pot, and add beef broth.  Stir in all remaining ingredients.  Transfer contents to a dutch oven with a tight fitting lid and place in oven at 350 for 1 hour.  Check for tenderness after the first hour, and allow additional time as necessary.  If the gravy hasn't thickened to your liking use a slurry of flour and water to thicken before serving.

--As with any noodle or dough, this recipe relies as much on technique as it does on ingredients.--
1 c flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 large eggs
1/4 cup milk

Sift flour and add dry ingredients.  Beat egg and add to milk.  Incorporate wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.  This dough should be more stiff than a pancake batter, but not stiff enough to handle with your hands.  Depending on local humidity you may need more flour or milk to gain the correct consistency.  Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil.  If you have a colander with 1/8 - 1/4 inches holes you can pass the loose dough through the colander so that the dough drips into the boiling water.  I prefer a potato ricer.  The holes are a good size and the ricer has a handle to apply gentle pressure to the dough.  Cook in small batches until all the spaetzle float.  Remove from heat and immediately cool off with cold running water in another colander.  Melt some bacon fat in a pan and toss through the spaetzle, salt and pepper to taste.

Welcome Back!!!

Sorry for the break everyone, but I had a once in a lifetime opportunity last week to spend the week of Christmas at home with my boys, so the blog had to wait.  At 7 and 2 they are just two of the craziest people in my life right now.  Robert, the 7 year old, got video games and Legos, the latter of which were some of my favorite toys growing up.  Aiden, the 2 year old, got Thomas the train engines and tracks, plus several sock monkey themed gifts.  Both boys are still young enough that any kind of present is simply magical in their eyes.  So somehow in between making sure Aiden didn't lose any Lego pieces for Robert, and making sure Robert didn't break any Thomas gear for Aiden, I had my hands full.  Even still I found time for one of my passions in life:  Cooking.

On my mother's side of the family, the Christmas dinner has somehow managed to morph into a feast of nearly absurd proportions.  I'm not exaggerating now when I tell you we managed to have 7 different proteins on the buffet table before we sat down. 

For my contribution to this feast I smoked a turkey breast and made a German style Venison stew, called Hirschgulasch.  The recipe for the stew, is apparently so authentic, that half of the websites that contained the recipe were completely in German.  Thanks to Google translate, and some patient digging, I was able to re-create the recipe with amazing results.  Served with some scratch made Spaetzle the stew was phenomenal.

Stop back tomorrow for a complete breakdown of this recipe.

For the smoked turkey breast I chose a very straight forward process.  Whenever smoking meat I find myself lost in the process.  Since I had purchased a whole turkey at a pre-Thanksgiving discount price, I decided to remove the wings, legs and thighs, and save those for another meal.  After exercising my butchering skills I created a brine with salt, sugar, peppercorns, onion and garlic powder and lemon juice, then soaked the breast overnight in my 3 gal ceramic crock.  Thanks to Erie weather the crock stayed cold enough to be save, but never froze.  After drying the bird into the smoker he went over some lovely Pecan wood.  Five short hours later the bird was out, and rested, whole, in the fridge overnight.  My goal was to utilize my "new-used" meat slicer on the breast meat.  The results were outstanding.

In addition to both of these great dishes I utilized my new cookbook:  The German Cookbook by Mimi Sheraton to make 2 more fantastic dishes I'll be sharing with you over the next several days. I discovered this book while reading Hank Shaw's blog: Hunter Angler Gardner Cook. And after making just 2 of the recipes I'll say that I'm thrilled with the results.

Happy Cooking!
Scott M

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Family and Friends

Maybe it's the holidays. Maybe we all have to go through this from time to time, but does anything bring out as much emotion as gathering together with family and friends?  I'm reminded though, that this is the point of holidays.  We gather those around us that we want a connection with. 

We gather around old friends, over drinks or sport.  We ask questions of each other to fill in what we do not know.  In reality we just want their company.  We gather them to us, to remind us of where we have been.  We gather among them for hope of future adventures together.

We gather around family, over dinner in familiar homes.  We look to the aged for wisdom, and to remind us of times we gathered the knowledge we will use in our lives, from them.  We look to the young, to remind us that our time is fleeting.  As quickly as our generation's time will come upon this earth, it will be removed. 

And that's the cycle of it all. 

This isn't something I find troublesome.  This is something I use to remind me that I am human.  An animal no different than those that make their homes in the woods.  My time is fleeting, and should not be wasted on petty things. 

My time should be used to raise my boys to be great  men.  My time should be used to take in Mother Nature, because that is the true magic of being human.  Our consciousness.  Perhaps other animals have conscious thought, but that is nothing more than conjecture.  Reality is we know that we have conscious thought, so it is an assault against nature to not use that conscious thought.  We should know that our time is fleeting.  We should use that to our benefit.  Soak in what Mother Nature has to offer.  Be happy when you are freezing cold, because some day you will not be. 

The holidays remind us of time passing.  An endless cycle of nature all around us.  The holidays are a reminder to love those you gather around, and those that chose to gather around you.

Happy Holidays
Scott M

Saturday, December 22, 2012

An Angry Lake

Growing up on Lake Erie, you don't really need a boat to feel a connection to this amazing body of water.  I find it very hard to describe, but the lake is like a home base.  When I leave this area I find myself struggling to find my direction.  The lake, figuratively and literally, is north.  No matter where you are in Erie County if you can point to the lake, you know north, and therefore you can navigate.  Just like Polaris in the night sky, once found, navigation becomes easier, and a level of comfort is discovered. 

I think that's it really.  Comfort.  We all long for things in our lives that we can depend on, and no matter what else is happening in our lives, that lake, our Great Lake, will always be there.  Eternal.

Ironically, the lake can simultaneously be a destructive force.  Relentlessly thrashing against rocks.  Carving cliffs and bluffs.  Something as seemingly eternal as bedrock, is forged into shape by the endless persistence of water.

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the 5 Great Lakes, and thereby quite deadly.  Storms can blossom very quickly.  You see a shallow lake is a warm lake.  That heat energy, stored from the sun, gives birth to storms.  When cool air sweeps out of Canada it acts like a vacuum cleaner, sucking moisture directly from the lake.  Once that same air hits land the winds have to rise to escape the Great Lakes basin.  It can't do that with all the moisture it just absorbed.  In winter this action creates Lake Effect snow storms.  Storm machines would be more accurate.  Like a conveyor belt of cold air, sucking moisture out of the lake and depositing it back onto the land. 

The western Great Lakes experienced this weather phenomenon distinctly as winter storm Draco plowed out of the Midwest states.  Unfortunately that never really reached us here on the shores of Lake Erie.  The winds howled (as my 2 year old, and the bags under my eyes, will attest too) but the 2 inches of snow that did fall were stripped by whipping winds.  All we were left with was a dusting of snow, and an angry lake.  In the above pictures you can see just how awesome the waves can be stirred up, and this was several hours since the storm passed.  A testament to the awesome powers of Mother Nature.

And where were the animals?  Living through it, as they always do.  As humans we have adapted shelters and tools to survive in every single one of Earth's climates.  Yet we overreact the worst.  Another signal of how disconnected we are from the natural way of things?  Perhaps.  However that's far to pessimistic for me.  To capture these pictures I visited 4 Mile and 8 Mile creek in Harborcreek, PA.  Both creeks held fisherman, anxious to tangle with one of our winter Steelhead's.  Maybe some of us have become a bit soft to the rigors of nature, but there are those among us that understand the magic of the natural order.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Friday, December 21, 2012

Falling Snow

Have you ever just sat back and watched it snow?

Ever been lucky enough to be sitting in the woods when a snow storm blows in?

While driving in snow and ice can be scary for many of us, there is still a great deal of beauty in falling snow.

Several years ago I had picked up a Migratory Bird license so that I could hunt ducks and geese.  Well I didn't have idea 1 about doing that, but I ventured out none-the-less.  During a late season hunt I found myself tucked back into some pines.  I had given up on seeing a goose at least an hour ago, and I was content to sit back and enjoy watching the world turn.  Without noticing the once grey sky had darkened, and the view gentle snow flakes had turned into a full on Lake Effect event.  If you didn't grow up on the Great Lakes, you've never had the pleasure of witnessing a Lake Effect snow event.  When cold air sweeps out of Canada and hits unfrozen lake water the cold air sucks up moisture like a vacuum.  Once the air hits the colder land and begins to lift to get out of the Great Lakes basin, the air has to lose that moisture.  This interaction of land, air, and water leads to amazing snow falls.  12-18 inches in 24 hours, and locally even more than that. 

So here I was tucked back in the pines and the snow had created a sheet of white.  Visibility was down to under 50 feet.  The trail I had followed in was long gone, and my foot prints had vanished.  I could barely make out the shore of the pond I had been watching, and hoping for some kindly Canadian Geese to take up residence on, in order to save my season.

Having grown up on the shores of Lake Erie, I realized there was simply no reason to panic.  It was January and this was bound to happen.  However, I also realized that these events, don't end quickly.  So I tucked back in, checked my bag for a snack, and looked at my water bottle. 

There was no rush to leave, but there was no hope in this blowing over.  I buckled down my bag, and my gun.  I made sure my gear was tucked in and accounted for. I stepped out into the whiteout and made my way from landmark to landmark.  Quickly I became acutely aware that I was the only living creature moving at this time.  Every other animal had already dug in to weather the storm.  It took me the better part of an hour to make it back, but I made it to my truck.  I shook the snow off, and climbed in, to catch my breath. 

The beauty in that day had stuck with me for more than 10 years.  For a brief time I was in the woods for that storm, and reminded that I'm just another animal making my way in the wilderness.

Happy Exploring
Scott M 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Winter Solstice

Talking to a friend yesterday I realized I was different than most because I enjoy this time of year.  Mid winter makes some people rather blue.  I on the other hand find it exciting.  This is my New Year! Not really mine, but truly every agrarian/Pre-Christian society around the planet. 

The solstice is the point when the Earth's axis reaches its ultimate lean and in December the North Pole is pointing as far away from the sun as it will for the year.  Leading to short days and long nights.  In fact the further north you travel you eventually reach a point where the landscape has days and days of night.  A pure hell to some, but I'd lie to say I'm not excited to adventure their some day.

The great part about reaching the solstice is just like reaching the peak, or the ultimate point in anything.  Its the finale; The big show; The point we were all waiting for.

Why the perverse obsession with reaching the depth of winter?

Because the daylight gets longer the very next day.

Immediately we're on the upswing, with days getting longer, and nights shorter.  Native peoples around the world would celebrate this time as New Year, because in reality the sun is re-born.  The new sun is staying out longer and longer.  This change brings life back to the earth.  Sacred earth, which yielded all the natives needed to survive.  Grains to grow, and make bread. Animals feeding on new growth, making them fat and delicious to the natives.

So much to celebrate it's no wonder that native cultures made the winter solstice their key celebration of the year.  In fact it's no wonder that all the modern religions have chosen mid winter for some of their largest celebrations.  Wikipedia, lists 27 different religious celebrations occurring in the month of December.  Many are Christian, but Jewish and Muslim faiths are represented as well.

A fascinating time of year, which should be filled with hope and joy for the new year to come.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Let it Snow

As Winter Storm "Draco" bears down on us (apparently we're naming winter storms too, if you hadn't heard) I find myself so excited.  It's mid winter after all, and on the shores of Lake Erie, we should have snow.  In fact we should have been getting snow for 3 weeks by now.  2011-12 was a fluke and a I refuse to believe otherwise. 

So here's a shot of what the woods should look like.

I love the woods in winter.  I see the woods so often in summer with leaves and bushes.  Once everything's on the ground the woods become a whole different world.  One late season muzzleloader hunt I found myself turned around, and found an amazing scrape.  This mud-hole had been worked over by several bucks during the season.  Of course wanting to hunt that area in the future I immediately starting looking for landmarks.  None were to be found.  So I worked a couple loops around the area, making sure to not lose this new honey hole.  On the third loop I ran into the main trail for this piece of woods.  Shocked at how close I was I continued to loop back to the scrape.  Sure enough this entire time I was within 50 yards of the main trail.  A trail I had walked 100's of times in my life.  How did I not realize how close I was to the trail? 

It's the winter woods.  The woods really are a different world. 

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Season of Change

Tis the season I suppose.  Many friends I talk to have very strong feelings about where they are at and where they are going with their lives.  It's normal for this time of year, and being this far north I think it gets a little magnified.  Today we are three days away from the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.  Here on the shores of lake Erie we are lining up for a little less than 9 hours of daylight on December 21st. 

For modern people this doesn't seem like a big deal.  We've got electricity readily available.  We've got indoor jobs, and a constant flow of entertainment from a couple magic little boxes.  Many of us barely notice the change within ourselves, until we wake up grumpy.  Irritable the whole day, no matter how that day is filled. 

Lack of sunlight really does a number on all of us.  Our bodies most efficient way to supplement Vitamin D is through sunlight.  Even being outside on a cloudy day will help because some of the ultraviolet waves still push through the clouds. 

Our not-to-distant ancestors didn't feel the pinch as bad as we do.  In agrarian societies outdoor work still needs to happen whether there is 14 hours of sunlight or 9.  Even that little bit of light gives us amazing health benefits.  I do try to get out whenever possible.  Even on a rainy day I'll walk down to the corner store to pick up an afternoon snack.  Then if the sun is shining, well watch out.  Aiden (my youngest) and I spent a solid 4 hours outside just this past Sunday.  It was sunny and a pleasant 56 degrees.  If you're reading this any significant distance from northwest PA, yes 56 is delightfully pleasant in mid December. 

The fact that our bodies respond so well outdoors, is really a great indication of how connected to nature we really are.  We've had thousands of years of evolution to build this body to survive on this planet.  It's just been in the past 150 years that we've closed ourselves off.  Developed larger and larger cities.  Moved more and more of our lives indoors, under artificial lights, disconnected from where our bodies are built to survive. 

Is any of this going away? Of course not. The only alternative is actively add outdoor activities to your weekly routine.  Take a walk around the block.  Go hike your usual hunting spot and see what it looks like out of season.  Explore a new trout stream.  Get out and move.  Your body, and your mind will thank you.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Monday, December 17, 2012

From the Driver's Seat

So as a couple with careers and young children my wife and I, are bound to have some times when one or the other, needs to be with the kids in order for the other one to get stuff done.  That happened this past Sunday.  My wife was coming off 3rd shift and needed to sleep during the day.  The oldest was out with his grandpa, so it was me and our youngest, Aiden.  He's 2 1/2, and independent beyond those few years.  However, I still can't take him deep into the woods, or too far up an unfamiliar stream.  So what's an outdoor explorer to do?  Get out the new camera and the telephoto lens, and hop into the Jeep. 

After a short drive I found myself on a country road I had been down a 100 times before, but apparently not this late in the year.  The above pic is what I believe to be a Holly Leaf Redberry Bush.  Being mid December the leaves were all long gone, so I was only left with the berries and the stems to identify the plant, so I'm not 100% sure on that name.  The above pic was taken from the driver's seat.  God Bless Telephoto lenses!!

What I really love about these pics is what I also really love about living in northwest PA.  Being this far north, we experience true change in the angle of the sun.  This picture was shortly after noon, but look at how the shadows reaches out in the right of the frame.  That is just how low the sun is at mid day here during December.

Here's another one.  Classically posed, just draping over the old split rail fence.  Again the long mid winter light illuminating the berries and causing shadows to reach out of the frame.

And again, just a classic shot.  Split rail fence, barn in the background, long mid winter light.  On a sunny day in December, I could put 200 miles on my Jeep looking at these shots.  And thankfully Aiden is a great passenger.

I did let him run off a little energy. You simply can't keep a 2 year old in a car for that long.  Least of all Aiden.  So we headed over to Presque Isle.  If you've never heard of Presque Isle, please take the time to look it up. If you're within couple hour drive, please please come and visit.  Presque Isle is a true gem in PA's State Park system. 

At the east end of the peninsula there stands a monument to Oliver Perry, and the Battle of Lake Erie, fought during the war of 1812.  History buffs will tell you the significance of the war of 1812, and the role the Battle of Lake Erie played in that war.  Since Aiden had no interest in hearing about that (what 2 year old would) we simply ran around and explored the sites and sounds.

I couldn't have posed him better.  I was looking at the bay, and he simply walked over to the cement wall, knelt down and peaked over the edge.  Shots like this make the investment I made in my camera, 100% worth it. 

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Saturday, December 15, 2012


I post about my boys very often. Fact is I love being a father and a husband. I love sharing my knowledge with my boys. So I'm torn and sad today. In a small town in Connecticut, a town most of us have never heard of, a tragedy happened yesterday. 27 people, children and adults both.  Went to school. They should have been safe there. Hundreds of thousands of people did the same thing. Yet these 27 didn't go home last night. In that small town in Connecticut 27 beds went unfilled last night. Hundreds of hearts lost one of their pieces.
My Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of people praying, people crying, and people looking for something to point a finger at.
The sad fact is there is no one and nothing that will make sense of this act. Its a tragedy in the purest form of the word.
So instead of looking for a reason, look to your loved ones, especially the littlest ones around us. Find beauty in their wonder and innocence. Hold them close and listen to their stories. Grieve for the ones we lost, and love the ones we have.
Scott M

Friday, December 14, 2012

Clouds and Sun

Epic Skies:  While it has become cliche to throw the word "epic" around, anyone who has gotten away from it all and has been able to see an unobstructed view of clouds stretching off to the horizon, would have to agree that "epic" fits.  This photo is probably my favorite picture out of my new camera.  There's enough sun to start to over expose the sky, and cause the ground to black out, but the sun doesn't dominate the shot.  I think the clouds take over here.  The sun back lights the clouds and highlights the tops.  Then shadows on the bottom of the clouds create the depth.  Finally, the sun creates enough of a focal point that by the time you focus your eyes on the clouds you realize they stretch for miles off into the horizon. 

Just minutes before taking the above shot I had captured this shot, about a half mile down the road.

Here I centered an old oak and used the clouds in the back to contrast the leaves on the tree.  This oak watches over a 19th century family cemetery.  A simple wire, and stake fence outline the boarder of the cemetery.  There are several weather worn tombstones that mark, maybe half the graves.  The other half of the tombstones are lost to time.  Since this tree is inside the cemetery it has survived the chainsaw, allowing it's canopy to stretch to such a massive size.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I'm a sucker for a sunrise

Thumbing through my photos, particularly the quick ones I grab with my phone, I've come to realize I'm sort of a sucker for a sunrise.

This one just goes to show how distracted I get by a sunrise. I was taking this picture while standing over the doe I had just taken in 2009. It was the last day of the PA firearms season. We had been dumped on for the last 36 hours. As you can see even under the tree canopy there was a foot of snow. As a result, I decided to still hunt an east facing ridge. Sure enough 300 yards into the stalk I catch 2 doe feeding their way up the hill. I picked the bigger of the 2 and took my shot. As I got started field dressing her, I realized how beautiful the sunrise was and snapped off a picture.

This spot is my absolute favorite spot for spring gobbler. This view is at my favorite tree and shows why this spot has yielded more than a couple gobblers.  You see the roosting tree is over my shoulder. So if my calling is up to par, the birds will come in facing the sun. Giving me an extra layer of cover from their sharp eyes.

Finally a misty morning at my uncles cabin. This is mid July, but because the camp is near the top of the hill the fog is hanging thick in the trees. Just the perfect setting for a cup of coffee and a rock on the porch swing.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

2012 Summer Family Camp

I changed phones last night.  A surprisingly painless process because of how I had my previous phone organized.  There is, however, the inevitable searching through files and photos, just to be sure everything made it over.  It all made it, but while I was viewing the photos I came across several photos from last summer's family campouts. 

After spending a weekend in both May and June at my uncle's cabin in Warren Co, near Pittsfield, we made the bold decision to spend 5 nights at the cabin, plus a 6th night at a rental cabin on the Kinzua Reservoir.  Now I say bold decision because we have a 7 year old and a 2 year old.  The 7 year old is relatively self-sufficient, aside from not wanting to hike long distances and being to old to carry.  The 2 year old is, well, a 2 year old and all that entails.  We went for it anyway, and even though I remember some relatively stress-filled points, the good memories are amazing.

There it is.  The iconic symbol of camping. A fire.  Nothing sets my mind at ease like the tasks of collecting wood, and building a proper fire.  I've done it thousands of times, yet I never get tired of it.  We had a fire nearly every night, and for my time and effort, there is nothing more relaxing.

One of the great aspects of my uncles camp is that it serves as a tremendous home base to explore the Allegheny National Forest.  The edge of the forest is a solid 20-30 min drive, and most of the sights are deeper than that, but to sleep in a cabin, for free, I'll put in some windshield time and spend money on other parts of the trip.

Hearts Content Scenic Area Interpretive Trail, is not a long trail.  30 minutes at an easy pace, while answering the 7 year olds continuous questions and carrying the 2 year old on my back.  The joy of Hearts Content is the majestic old pines.  People throw that word around, but this place lives up to the true meaning of majestic.  Hearts Content is 200+ acres of virgin ground.  This land has never had trees harvested.  Enormous white pines reach to the sky, with bases so large that my wife, son, and I could barely hold hands around.  The woods are in a beautiful mature state, meaning that the trees reach enormous size, but also that trees have broken and fallen down, simply dying as a natural part of their life cycle.

The Kinzua Railroad bridge, at one time was the highest and longest railroad bridge in the world in it's hayday.  As you can see in the above photo several of the supporting structures were toppled by a tornado back in 2003.  The cost to reconstruct such a masterpiece would be astronomical, so the decision was made to allow the steel structure to remain in the valley as a display of Mother Nature's awesome power.  While my childhood memories of walking the bridge rails from end to end will never be revisited by my children, I have to admit I love the re-purposing.  The remaining structure has been reinforced and a observation deck has been added at the end with a section of glass floor. 

The first picture doesn't quite do justice to the scale of the remaining bridge section, but in the above picture look at the rails run off into the horizon next to Robert.  The bridge is breathtaking, and truly a must see.

Looking forward into 2013 we have decided to head back to the Allegheny National Forest for more camping with the family.  This time we plan on exploring the lower half and get down  into Elk Country.  PA has done a remarkable job growing the Elk herd, and in towns like Bennezette, there are several spots to explore and see these massive animals.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Into the woods.

There's just something about being in the woods.  At least for me.  I can't think of any other place or situation where time can be so still, and so vibrant, simultaneously.  Trees are such silent sentries.  Standing watch.  Witnessing reality. 

Whenever I get distracted by the daily drudgery of work, tasks, sleep,  I turn to images like the one above.  This is a sunrise taken during the recent deer season in PA.  It was taken with my cell phone, so please excuse the quality.  I haven't really created a habit of carrying my new camera each time I head out.

There's nothing special really happening in the photo.  No deer or turkey feeding through the shot.  No squirrel leaping from tree to tree.  Yet the photo captures a very real moment.  This is sunrise.  This is reality.  The work we do to earn a living is important, because it provides a living.  Yet it is fleeting.  Whether we build something, or sell something, or take care of someone, it is all temporary.  The woods, a sunrise, they are real.  They have born witness to a hundred centuries, and they will bear witness to a hundred more.  Despite our quixotic attempts to reign in mother nature, to sculpt her to our ideas, she will reclaim all.  There is literally nothing we can do, that mother nature will not undo.  Perhaps the damage seems so severe that to our minuscule perception, the damage lasts forever, but we can't conceptualize forever.  Mother nature can, and she will reclaim all.

Again, another cell phone shot.  This was the slope I sat on for the rifle opener.  What you can't see in this picture is the homestead that existed to the left of the frame.  Walking up to it, there is plainly a hole in the ground surrounded by sandstone blocks that at one time made up a basement.  The driveway up to the house exists, but primarily because a logging operation has used it recently.  Without the large blocks and the trail through the woods, you would never know that was a home. 

I love to picture the area when the house was there.  This was someone's home. Someone LOVED living there.  They built it for themselves and they made it a home.  They had memories of births, and deaths, and holidays.  To this day, their is probably a story passed down through multiple generations about Grandma's house on the hill, near French Creek.  And now mother nature has reclaimed the area. 

I never look at this with any morbid fascination.  More just a reminder of what is real in our lives and what is fleeting.  A way to stimulate my mind to remember and appreciate small things.

Directly behind my position on opeing day of deer season a red fox came in to investigate.

Very difficult to see, but there's a reddish orange figure about halfway up the right side of the picture.  Here's a cropped shot zoomed in to highlight the coloring.

Just a fellow hunter, sharing the woods with me for a brief moment in time.  That's the magic of the woods.  That's when I remember that the woods are alive and full of activity.  That our time is fleeting and it's vital to our existence that we witness the small things.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Monday, December 10, 2012

Culinary adventures

As a hunter I've been faced with the dilemma of, "I've killed it.  What do I do now?"  Luckily for me, I'm an adventurous eater, and I love searching for new recipes.  However my dear wife, she's not as adventurous.  She's a good sport, don't get me wrong, but often she'd rather not think of what is now on her plate, was once walking around. 

So I was placed in a pleasant conundrum just the other day, when I realized I had accumulated 5 rabbit legs in the freezer.  Why 5 and not 6?  Fair question.  2 of the legs were from a rabbit I shot with my bow.  He had spent just too much time dilly dallying around my tree stand, and the archery deer season overlaps with small game season here in PA.  The next 3 were the result of my uncle having the great idea get some rabbits, but the unfortunate mistake of not separating out that buck he had.  The following spring another uncle was called in, to handle the population growth, and I was pleasantly surprised by a Ziploc bag with 3 rabbit legs. 

On another tremendous blog by Hank Shaw ( I rediscovered a classic German recipe:  Hasenpfeffer.  Literally, Peppered Hare.  The name is a result of the extended marinating time with many many spices.  After the marinade, the rabbit pieces are braised in the strained marinade for about 2 hours, making the meat wonderfully tender.  In Hank Shaw's blog post he paired his Hasenpfeffer with some delicious looking semolina dumplings.  Now I'm a big fan of dumplings, myself, but I decided to give my Grandfather's Spaetzle recipe a try.  Spaetzle are simply small dumplings made by passing a very loose dough through a colander over boiling water.  The resulting drops of dough are instantly turned into tasty bite sized noodles.  After a cool rinse I like to pan fry them with butter, salt, pepper, and garlic.

I decided to strip the braised meat from the bone, giving the entire dish more of a stew appearance.  And this worked, to help my wife to get past the idea that these were rabbit legs in the pot.  The meat was very tender, but didn't get that dried out texture overcooked meat can get.

After pan frying the Spaetzle, everything was served together.

The rabbit meat has now been marinated in red wine and red wine vinegar for 48 hours, then braised in that marinade for 2 hours.  The resulting gravy had a very tangy kick that wasn't unpleasant, however it wasn't quite what I was looking for in my dish. Should I ever have a couple rabbit legs laying around again, I might play with the recipe a bit to cut down on the tang in the finished product.  However the Spaetzle recipe was perfection.  My 2 year old probably ate over a cup and a half by the end of his meal.

Happy Hunting
Scott M

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Latest Article

Hunting for ideas? | Times-News

Check out my latest gear article in todays Erie Times-News. This will be a series of gear articles so if you have something you'd like to see, let me know.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Holiday Gift Ideas

December 7th. 

Mathematically 18 days until Christmas.  Plenty of time. Right?  What's your calendar look like for the remainder of the month?  Work Christmas party.  Spouse's Work Christmas party.  Family coming into town early. Your leaving to be out of town for Christmas.  Now what do those 18 days look like? 

They probably look mighty thin, especially if there's an outdoorsman (or woman) on your list.  As outdoors-people go we rank among the hardest to shop for when Christmas roles around.  Why?  Not everyone is into the outdoors, so they don't have any idea of what we use or need out there in the field.  Even if they have an idea, outdoorsman are notorious for just buying what we need when we need it. 

So here's a trick:  Don't try to buy something he doesn't have.  Replace something he already uses.

Let's talk optics.

What most of us know about optics, binoculars specifically, could fit in the palm of our hand.  Hunters included in this discussion.  So let's go with a basic primer on optics and look at some options that won't break your Christmas budge and the outdoorsman in your life won't be scared to lose in the woods.

Unless you're heading out west for a Elk or Antelope hunt you really don't need a big over-powered set of binoculars.

All binoculars have two statistics that you should worry about:  Weight and Objective lens size.

Weight is easy.  Lighter is better.  If it's hanging around my neck, or weighing down my pocket, the lighter the binoculars are the more likely I am to carry them.  Save the full size binoculars for bird watching when you are heading afield with a book and a good pair of binoculars.  Look at the compact models for packing in with the rest of your hunting gear.  The typical hunter is probably carrying between 10-15lbs of gear including the layers of clothes, and whatever lands in their pockets and packs.

Objective lens size.  Okay this is honestly a tougher choice, but in my opinion, boils right down to usability.  When you see a binocular and it's called a "10x25" or "8x42" the second measurement is called the "objective lens."  The objective lens is not the lens near your eye, it's the lens that let's in light.  Therefore the bigger the objective lens the more light that enters the binoculars.  More light, more detail.  However that objective lens can contribute a lot to the overall weight of the binoculars. 

The reality for most hunters east of the Mississippi is we hunt small thick woodlots.  So in this case if you hunt in areas common to Northwest PA you simply don't need a bigger objective lens.  It's not going to help you to see through the thick brush, so unless you really like being able to pick out individual thorns on the brier bushes 50yds away, save the weight and go with a 10x25.

So before you head off to the local sporting goods store, write down these two things:
Compact binoculars, 10x25

I'll let you decide between black and camo!

For more gift ideas check out my gear article in this Sunday's Erie Times-News on the NWPA Outdoors page.

Happy Hunting
Scott M

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Light and Color

Is there really anything else more important when capturing an image with a camera?

Sure you can snap off picture after picture, but will your finished product be something that someone wants to see? 

I grew up around cameras.  My father and two of my uncles all had nice cameras and they have always enjoyed snapping pictures whenever possible.  So naturally when I started writing about the outdoors, I was very aware of the need to invest in a nice camera to capture the places I was talking about.  After messing around with some lower end point and shoot models I recently made the commitment and upgraded to the Olypus E-pm1.  This model falls outside of the DSLR category, and into the newer category of Micro Four Thirds cameras.  Despite the unwieldy name, the camera has been so much fun to shoot with.  I won't pretend to know the ins and outs of the technology, but the goal of the system is to offer both the usability of a camera with interchangeable lenses and the quick handling of a digital point in shoot.  This is accomplished in a more compact body by taking advantage of increases in digital technology.  While playing around the day after I bought the camera I captured this image of a Brown-Eyed Susan in my garden:

Nice color and sharp focus with minimal experience handling the camera. Being digital, it has auto focus features, which can be set to conform to certain styles of shooting. However, the auto features can be shut off allowing the user to play with the image themselves.

A couple weeks after that photo, I capture this one in a corn field near my favorite hunting spot:

Here I really tried to focus on the composition of the photo.  It was setting sun light, so I was able to almost eliminate any shadow on the front and our left of the ear of corn.  The green leaves and stalks created nice contrast, helping the yellow kernels really come to the front of the picture.

Take time to enjoy the details,
Scott M

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sand and Wind

Since Mother Nature refuses to release winter on us here in Northwest PA I figured I'd break out a couple pictures of two of her more destructive partners: Sand and Wind.

This shot was just a couple of weeks ago near what locals would call "Kite Beach" on Presque Isle.  It's actually a turn off just before the official parking spot for Beach Ten.  The wind was pulling just perfectly across the beach and this picture captures these little wisps of sand across the surface.  Seemed like something from the desert southwest, where a dust devil would just spring up, and carve a path across the beach.  I also like this pic because it's a rare angle to capture the lake without the giant rock break walls.  Break walls are a necessity to be sure, however their military precision down the length of Presque Isle, just can't help but to break up the natural beauty.

Several weeks back Hurricane Sandy ravaged the east coast, and reminents of her wind and rain graced us for a couple hours.  My oldest, Robert, had school cancelled so we took a drive to see how the Mile Creeks were flowing.  The Mile Creeks are all the creeks east of the city.  Apparently the Polish and German immigrants that developed the area, felt fancy names were unnecessary, so we are left with 4 Mile Creek, 6 Mile Creek, 8 Mile Creek, 12 Mile Creek and 20 Mile Creek.  Named for their distance from the city.  Leave it to the practical northern Europeans!

This picture captures the scouring effect the rushing water had on the bank of the creek.  Of course the polished stones are always fascinating to dig through.  Within about 20 feet I uncovered a piece of white beach glass and a nice sized piece of green beach glass that morning.  Of course Robert quickly realized if you stomped your foot close enough to the edge, the bank would cave in and you'd be left standing on the new bank.  So it took about 15 minutes to knockdown about 30 feet of under cut bank.  Shortly after that the rock throwing started.  No one was fishing that day anyway, so letting Robert bask in the big splashes he could make was priceless.

He definitely thought that was just the best thing ever.

Happy Exploring,
Scott M

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

2nd Week of Deer Camp

It is the 2nd week of Deer Camp. 
Or at least the 2nd week of Pennsylvania's firearm deer season is here, and as the song goes: 

"It's the 2nd week of Deer Camp.  And all the guys are here." 

These days there's probably more fiction in that line than ever before.  As little as 10 years ago I can remember opening day being an event that everyone actually participated in, but this year was a bust.  At least in my little corner of Northwest PA.  While it may sound odd to be nostalgic for the days when you would hear 50+ gun shots before lunch, realize this:  all that activity is why people came out to hunt, and why deer are taken.  Without hunters out there pushing the deer around, the deer can hunker down and simply watch Pennsylvania's orange army stumble around the woods for a day. 

Don't misunderstand me.  I've never been one of the guys that despised the PGC's recent deer management practices.  I've been to the areas in Warren and Forest Counties where hay scented ferns are the last remaining undergrowth for as far as the eye can see.  I've witnessed the return of berry bushes and young oaks and cherries deep in the woods, and I think it's fantastic.  What I've also seen is the deer management practices decimate hunter numbers across the state. 

Where I hunt, along the banks of French Creek, I would estimate half to a third of the hunters that used to hunt that area 15 years ago are hunting that area today. Perhaps their life has taken them down a different road, and hunting no longer holds a place in their hearts.  Or perhaps the perception of over harvest of Does has led to a preponderance of yellow Posted signs.  I'd never advocate purposefully trespassing, but I have on occasion wandered behind those signs.  Even on the opener, and the first Saturday, I didn't bump into  hunters.  If you're not going to hunt the land, why close it to others that would like to hunt the land?

The demographics of the rural landowners has changed.  Perception of hunters has begun to lean to the more negative side.  And a feeling that deer have been over harvested, therefore I must post my land, to protect "my deer," pervades modern thought. 

How is a modern day hunter supposed to adapt to this?

With any luck the modern hunter will also eventually be a landowner.  Maybe not on your own.  Maybe we will hearken back to a more communal ownership models of camps and wooded land.  Where generations of a family, or a collection of friends, pool resources and own their own property for hunting. If this isn't in the cards for you I'd suggest the tried and true method of driving a country road and knocking on doors.  You don't know what you'll find until you ask.  Don't do it the week before the season.  Don't do it dressed in camo, with a gun on your shoulder.  Put in your time in June and July.  Make an introduction.  You may not have success behind each door, but you will build relationships and you will find places where you are welcome to hunt.

Happy Hunting
Scott M

Monday, December 3, 2012


Hello, and Welcome.
My name is Scott Messenger, and I'm a Outdoor Enthusiast, Freelance Writer, and Photographer (among many other things) living in Northwest Pennsylvania.  My family and I, hunt, fish, hike and camp as often as possible exploring the splendor of the great outdoors.  I also write and photograph our adventures, sometimes selling articles to our local newspaper The Erie Times-News (  My intention with this blog is to share information about the great outdoors, and to broaden my audience outside of Northwest PA.  I will be uploading photos and links to my articles.  High quality copies of my photos will be available for sale, please e-mail me for pricing.  As a freelance writer, my skills are also for hire.  I've written about hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and outdoor adventure travel, just to name a few of my most popular topics.  In my 9-5 life I'm a technical writer for GGS Information Services.  So my writing and editing skills are wide and varied.  Please don't hesitate to contact me for a quote on any writing you may need completed.
Thanks and Happy Hunting!
Scott M