My interview with Nathaniel Philbrick


Last week I interviewed Nantucket author Nathaniel Philbrick, to discuss the upcoming Ron Howard film adaptation of his bestselling book, In the Heart of the Sea. Looks like it will be well worth watching! Here’s a link to my article.


Kindle countdown deal


Starting tomorrow (Wednesday, Nov. 25), Amazon is having a Kindle Countdown deal for my first book, DEVIL’S REEF.  That means starting tomorrow, it’s marked down from $5.99 t0 99 cents.  The next day it goes up a buck to $1.99, and then to $2.99.  The deal ends Dec. 1.   A good opportunity for people who like to read on the Kindles!  To order click here.

Nature’s Detective

(This is a feature I wrote for today’s Cape Codder.)


Naturalist Todd Kelley explains the art, and science, of animal tracking at Harwich Conservation Trust workshop in Bell’s Neck Conservation Area. Here, Kelley explains that this scat indicates the presence of a river otter.


Animal tracking workshop reveals an unseen world.

You don’t have to actually see an otter to know that one’s out there. You just have to read its signs.

Reading those signs is Todd Kelley’s specialty. The self-taught animal tracker from Chatham doesn’t do it to hunt animals, rather, to understand them. Tracking is a way of observing nature, nature that is often unseen.

A short distance from the herring run in Bell’s Neck Conservation area in Harwich, he points out a narrow path where vegetation has been trampled down.

“This is an otter run,” Kelley informs the 15 people who turned up on a recent Saturday morning for his tracking workshop organized by the Harwich Conservation Trust, “and that’s an otter’s scat.”

Everyone gathers for a closer look as Kelley picks up the otter waste and pokes it with his finger. The scat contains fish scales, which makes sense, since river otters eat fish.


Kelley looks for signs near a cranberry bog.

As an added bonus, the otter has also left behind some scant, which is an anal gland secretion animals in the weasel family use to mark their scent. It’s a form of communication, an animal’s way of marking its range, or of attracting a mate.

“It’s nature’s bulletin board,” says Kelley.

A graduate of Chatham High School, Kelley started Kelley Trailblazer Interpretive Guide Services after beginning his career as a 16th century Timucuan Indian re-enactor in St. Augustine, Florida.

That led to an interest in tracking, and Kelley now hosts popular nature walks in Chatham, Orleans, Harwich and elsewhere on the Cape where he introduces the art, and the science, of tracking. During the summer he also works as a naturalist educator at Nickerson State Park.

Part naturalist, part semiotician, Kelley see signs others would miss. “There are signs all around us. When you walk out your door in the morning, there are signs. The question is, can you perceive them?”

When you’re interpreting signs, explains Kelley, “you’re a nature detective…. Through [an animal’s] tracks, you’re stepping into its life.”

With a little practice, he adds, it’s amazing how you start to recognize them.

Interpreting signs involves a process of elimination, says Kelley. That tells you what it isn’t. For example, if a footprint has five toes, it’s not canine. But figuring out what it is can be a challenge.

You look for clues. If a print has four toes in front, four in back, it’s a rodent. A twist in the scat indicates the animal is a carnivore. The color and composition tell us when, in the animal’s digestive process, the scat was deposited, and by whom.

It also helps if you know what you should be looking for. Kelley has been to Bell’s Neck many times before, and has collected fresh water mussel shells that have been bitten open by otters. So he knows they live here.

There are also fishers, bobcats, minks, weasels, muscrats, snapping turtles, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and many other animals. Most of them avoid humans during the day, but are active at night. Kelley is particularly interesting in minks, and hopes to spot one.

“You never see animals, but I want to see signs that they’re there,” said Alison Carroll of Orleans, who attended the three-hour walk. “I thought it was fascinating that there are just so many signs. It’s amazing.”


A track in the sand left by a red fox.

Tracking is “really an art, but it’s a science also,” says Kelley. In fact it’s a blend of many sciences: meteorology, ornithology, dendrology, botany, and geology. That’s because it not just about footprints, it’s about using all your senses to see, hear, and smell the signs around you: weather, sounds, smells, marks on trees, birds in the sky.

It can also get very technical, and as Kelley examined a set of tracks left in the dirt, one is reminded of Sherlock Holmes investigating a crime scene.

Trackers consider many three dimensional components of an animal’s track, as well as the composition of the soil. Identifying the gait, which is a pattern of movement that demonstrates the rate of speed, is also important. The gait indicates whether the animal is a bounder, a hopper, a waddler, or a loper, among other things. It may also indicate if the animal is tired, injured, old, hungry or sick.

On the sandy marge of a cranberry bog, Kelley studies a footprint. He points out a subtle raised portion of the print which he says was made by the fur on the bottom of the paw, and a barely discernable chevron pattern on its heel. The only animal around here that has fur like that on the bottom of its paw, and a chevron, is the red fox, he explains.

Kelley is concerned that people are losing that connection to nature, and are out of sync with the seasonal rhythms that traditionally guided activities on Cape Cod.

By reading the signs, we realize how much nature is all around us, and that leads to greater respect for it.

Says Kelley, “when you have a deep reverence for it, you stop being a consumer and actually have a relationship with nature.”

He pauses by West Reservoir toward the end of his tour, and looks down to examine some scat he’s noticed at the water’s edge. Even an expert tracker like Kelley is sometimes challenged.

“I’m starting to think in my mind weasel, I’m hoping for mink.”


If you go…

Kelley Trailblazer or

‘Bagging peaks’ in the White Mountains


At the top of Mt. Avalon.

One night last week after dinner at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center at Crawford Notch, (they have really good family-style dinners) we watched a movie called Appalachian Impressions, about people who hike the entire Appalachian Trail. From Georgia to Maine.  Crazy people, if you ask me, but a special breed of folks and I’m glad our country is populated with men and women who would do that.  The narrator said it’s good that the White Mountains come near the end of the trek (for north-bound hikers) because by then they’re well-conditioned.  Unfortunately, I was not in the best shape last week when I drove north to “the Whites” for four days of hiking. I’ve been busy and hadn’t been to yoga class in weeks.

The view of Mt. Washington from Mt. Jackson.

The view of Mt. Washington from Mt. Jackson.

According to the film, the White Mountains, which include the Presidential Range (the big mama is Mt. Washington, at 6,288 feet, the tallest peak in the Northeast and the most prominent east of the Mississippi and home to the Mt. Washington observatory), are considered the most difficult stretch of the AT.    I’ll take their word for it.  During our four days there, those peaks tested us. We pushed ourselves to our limits, and it’s a great feeling – not giving up when you really want to.

I’m a novice hiker.  Sure, I’ve been doing local day hikes, and I once climbed Cradle Mountain and did the Overland Trail in Tasmania, and spent two weeks hiking in Yosemite and Inyo National Forest, but that was a long time ago. So this trip was designed as a learning experience. I decided to go to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s lodge so I could borrow any equipment we were missing and get advice from the guides there.  We gained valuable insight that will help us on future trips: like the importance of crampons on icy terrain, waterproof pants for sliding down the mountain, and good recipes for trail mix (craisins, almonds and m & m’s – yum!).



After checking in to the Shapleigh bunk house, our first hike was Mt. Avalon (elevation 3,442). We left at around 1 p.m. and reached the summit about 2 1/2 hours later.   It wasn’t the tallest peak we climbed, but one of the more challenging,  there are sections that are very steep and solid ice. In some places I was literally clawing my way up, grabbing saplings and branches and looking for a foothold wherever I could find one. But the difficulty of the climb, and not knowing if it will become more difficult, or even impossible, makes it all the more rewarding when you finally get to the top.

North Sugarloaf.  Do we look like we're having fun?
Middle Sugarloaf. Do we look like we’re having fun?

Sugarloaf has interesting igneous plutonic rock formations.

On Day Two we hiked a mile uphill on a paved road to get to the trailhead for Sugarloaf.  It was about another mile and a half to the mountain’s saddle, from which we went first to the Middle Sugarloaf summit, .3 miles away, then backtracked to the North Sugarloaf, which is .4 miles from where the trail connects to the top ridge.  The sky was clear and we could see for miles as we stopped to enjoy our lunch. From the rocky cliff we could see hawks soaring in the valley below.

It was cold and windy at the top of Mt. Jackson.

It was cold and windy at the top of Mt. Jackson.

Day Three.  This would have been a good day for a leisurely hike along flat terrain so I could rest my muscles and catch my breath.  But no.  We had planned to climb Mt. Jackson, our toughest climb by far. (Mt. Jackson is a 4,000 footer – 4,042 feet – but who’s counting?)

Halfway up Mt. Jackson

Halfway up Mt. Jackson

A cairn at the top of Mt. Jackson.

A cairn at the top of Mt. Jackson.

Overall, it’s not as steep as Mt. Avalon, (although there was one steep icy “scramble” in the beginning that almost stopped us) but it’s a lot longer, the trail to the top is about 2 1/2 miles. We wore snowshoes, for the traction, but would have been better off with micro spikes.

It was too cold and windy at the top of Mt. Jackson to stay long, so we descended 100 feet or so to have lunch in the snowy trail.

Grey Jay

Grey Jay

You're not supposed to feed the animals, but this guy had real personality.

You’re not supposed to feed the animals, but this guy had real personality.

We were joined by a friendly bird who landed on my son Dougie’s hand and helped himself to trail mix and crackers.  It was a Grey Jay, or Canada Jay, and they’re very tame. He kept coming back for more trail mix and even managed to steal a Ryvita cracker.

Finally, on our last day we planned a short morning hike to Arethusa Falls, the highest falls in New Hampshire. Now, here I have a bone to pick with the volunteers who maintain the trails.  Like maybe a sign that says “wrong way, this is the OLD trail.”  This was supposed to be the easiest of our hikes, short and sweet so we could get on the road and drive home.  Instead we almost became a re-enactment of the Donner Party fiasco. Just kidding. The volunteers who maintain the trails do an awesome job, I’m the clueless one.  Next time I’ll bring a more detailed map.  However, as we progressed, I started to notice that the trail was very rugged:  downed trees, deep snow, washed-out trail, tricky stream crossings.  How can the trail be so rugged? I wondered.  This is insane.  We weren’t wearing snowshoes, and I was up to my thighs in snow, and getting pretty tired. Eventually, I said, “this is it, I can’t go on,” and then, through the tree branches, I saw the falls!

Arethusa Falls

Arethusa Falls

After we got there, Dougie found a blue arrow on the other side of the river, and a very well maintained trail. It was like walking on a red carpet.  We made our way down the mountain, then drove to Conway, NH for wood fired pizza at Flatbread Pizza Co.

Resting on a cliff overlooking Crawford North

Resting on a cliff overlooking Crawford Notch

What a great trip.  Years ago, when I spent that week hiking in Tasmania, I told myself I should do this every year. Then life got in the way.  But I never forgot that I wanted to do that. Last year a special woman reminded me. It’s about giving up the soft sheets and creature comforts, roughing it, being able to survive in the wild, forging special bonds with your mates, and appreciating how much you love this beautiful country.  This beautiful planet.


mssThe second draft of SLEEPER CELL is finally done, I thought I’d give you an update. I am putting a polish on it, and filling in a few blanks (like the name of a hat an Afghani would wear, and what color the lightbulb is in  a C-130 during an airborne assault, etc.). The polishing should be done in a week or so, then beta copies are going to a US Army officer and Coast Guard public affairs officer for fact checking, as well as to some other test readers. I will keep my faithful readers updated.