Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wrigley Field vs. Fenway Park, battle of the ballfields

I once had a calendar in my kitchen that read: "I like old things that time has tried, and proven good and true and fine. I like old things. They have a strength unknown by anything that's new."
I feel the same way about old ballparks. A new ballpark, regardless of how carefully designed, with its comfortable seats, waterfalls, exploding scoreboards, retractable roof, luxury boxes, unimpeded sight lines, etc., etc., still lacks the character of an old park. It is missing the tapestry of joys and pains of seasons gone by. The memories of attending games with a father or grandfather. The depth of experience. Yes, in an old park the seats are small and often uncomfortable. Some of the sections are obstructed by iron pillars. The bathrooms are cramped, outdated, and generally gross. The locker rooms are spartan. But we, the fans, love them. For all their cachet and conveniences, your Jacobs Fields and Camden Yards need to mellow and age for another 80 years or so. In the meantime, give me the two best ballparks in America: Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. They are the national pastime's national treasures.
....But which is best? Fenway, that "lyric little bandbox of a ballpark", as described by John Updike? Or "the friendly confines of Wrigley Field", as described by beloved Chicago announcer, Jack Brickhouse.

...I grew up in Chicago. Now I live in Boston, where I share season's tickets to the Red Sox. I consider myself a neutral observer in matters Wrigley vs. Fenway. In July, 1980, I wrote a long story for Sports Illustrated on Wrigley Field entitled: "One Place That Hasn't Seen The Light". (You can click on the name to read it.) I remember wandering around the dark corners of Wrigley while doing the research, checking out the ivy on the outfield walls, going inside the hand-operated scoreboard, sitting in every section of the park. There isn't a bad seat in Wrigley unless you sit directly behind a pillar.
.... A few years later, in 1987, I wrote a story about watching a baseball game from inside the hand-operated scoreboard at Fenway Park, chronicling the action while watching the game over left fielder Jim Rice's shoulder. One eye open for rats.
So I am well familiar with the nooks and crannies of both parks. I hadn't been back to Wrigley for nearly 30 years, however, until last week, when I had a chance to take my son Teddy to Wrigley and see what, if anything, was new. Turns out, time had marched on without me.
....Our hosts were Sandy and Douglas Stuart, pictured above with Teddy. Sandy had bid on four seats nine rows behind home plate at a charity auction, and was kind enough to share them with us. They were perfect: in the shade, on the aisle, and just off-center so the umpire didn't block the view of the plate. This was it:

....The screen, by the way, wasn't the least bit intrusive. On balance the park was just about the way I remembered it. The ivy still covered the outfield walls in a rich, textured green, and the dimensions of the outfield was still cozy. The centerfield scoreboard still carried inning-by-inning scores of every game in both leagues--the only one to do so in baseball.

But there were changes. For one thing, there were lights, installed in 1988. And the previously pristine outfield walls now featured a pair of ads for UnderArmour in left and right, though they were tastefully backdropped in green.

(Fenway's green monster has ads galore, and the top of Fenway Park is bathed in neon. So on this score Wrigley was the height of reserve and discretion.)

The biggest change, however, had taken place outside the park. The apartment buildings across the street, which for generations had simply featured rooftop patios and deck chairs, were now hideously transformed by the addition of rooftop bleachers which neighboring entrepreneurs had built.
Signs for BeyondtheIvy.com and WrigleyFieldRooftopClub.com let you know where these rooftop bleachers seats could be purchased. They weren't cheap. $168 plus tax gets you one seat in a rooftop bleacher beyond Waveland Ave., plus some hot dogs and beer, so you can enjoy the view from, oh, 500+ feet away. If you're lucky, the seat won't be obstructed by the foul pole!
......What had once been one of the genuine charms of Wrigley Field--a baseball park in a residential neighborhood--had morphed into a kitchy, Capitalist nightmare: old brownstones defaced by steel and aluminum bleachers overlooking the backs of the left and rightfield walls. How the zoning board ever okayed these monstrosities is beyond me--probably in exchange for allowing the Cubs to play night baseball--but the effect ruins the integrity of both the neighborhood and the park. The one amusing part is a code on one of the rooftops on Sheffield Ave., beyond right field, which reads: AC0063100.

I asked Douglas what it meant.

"The AC stands for Anno Catuli," he said. "Latin for Year of our Cubs. 00 is the number of years since the Cubs have made it to the playoffs (2008); 63 is the years since they were in a World Series (1945); and 100 the years since they've won the World Series (1908)."


So here's how I assess the strengths and weaknesses of America's two greatest ballparks.

1) Beauty: Wrigley is symmetrical, Fenway is asymmetrical. The ivy-covered walls of Wrigley are gorgeous. Fenway's green monster is, well, monstrous. Both have lovely green grass. The rooftop bleachers overlooking Wrigley are an eyesore, but you probably get used to them. Edge: Wrigley

2) Ambiance Wrigley is homey, comforting, pleasant. Fenway is edgy, dramatic, electric. Cubs fans cheer. Red Sox fans cheer, jeer, and boo. Do not wear a Yankee cap in Fenway. Do not interfere with a pop foul along the left field wall when the Cubs are in the field at Wrigley. Edge: Fenway

3) Beer Within two minutes of my seat, Wrigley offered Old Style, Old Style Light, Bud, Bud Lite, Miller Lite, Corona, Amstel, Heineken, and Goose Island, a local beer, for $6.50.
In Fenway they sell Bud, Bud Light, Sam Adams, Amstel, Smithwicks, Guinness and probably others I haven't noticed. But they charge $7.50 for domestic beers, $8.50 for imported. Ridiculous. Edge: Wrigley

4) Restrooms: I can't speak for the ladies rooms. In Fenway, they have urinals. In Wrigley, they have troughs. I hate troughs. I really worry about overflow at the low end. Edge: Fenway

5) Traditions: The Cubs have a guest celebrity lead the crowd in "Take Me Out To The Ballgame", a tradition started by beloved announcer Harry Caray. Comedian George Lopez led it the day we were at Wrigley. The Red Sox sing that, too, during the seventh inning stretch. And even without a celebrity to lead them, people actually stand up and belt it out. But Fenway fans really get their kicks by singing along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" in the bottom of the 8th. Maybe you have to have been there, but I'm telling you, Sweet Caroline carries the day. Edge: Fenway

6) Statues: Outside Wrigley is a statue of Ernie Banks with the inscription: "Let's Play Two" beneath it, Ernie's favorite expression on a game day.

On Yawkey Way, outside Fenway, there's a picture of Ted Williams good-naturedly putting his baseball cap on some kid, like he was the kid's pal. I happen to know that Williams was usually surly and dismissive of kids, even kids who went to his baseball camp, for whom he refused to sign autographs. This is a fraudulent statue.
Edge: Wrigley

7) Movies: Oddly, the best the Cubs can boast in the movie department is "Rookie of the Year", about a kid who can throw the ball 100 mph or something after an operation and leads the Cubs to...wherever he leads them to. I've never seen it. The Red Sox have the Farrelly Bros. "Fever Pitch" starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore. It's pretty darn watchable, even the second time around. And part of it was actually filmed the year the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino and won the World Series in 2004. Edge: Fenway

8) Curses: The Cubs have the Billy Goat curse, placed on them in 1945 when Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis was asked to leave a World Series game at Wrigley because his pet goat's odor was bothering other fans. "Them Cubs, they aren't gonna win no more," he declared while being escorted from the park. Strong words and a strong curse, 63 years and counting.
The Red Sox labored under the "Curse of the Bambino", which was descended on them when the team's owner sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 in order to finance the Broadway show "No No Nannette." It was a pretty good curse, too, lasting for 86 years. But it didn't last forever. The Billy Goat curse might.
Edge: Wrigley

Let's see...add up the totals and you get...4-4. The best baseball park in America? I'm telling you, it's a toss up. But since no journalist worth his salt can possibly finish a column like this without taking sides, I ask myself this last simple question: If I had one ballgame, and only one ballgame left to attend on this earth, where would I want it to be played?
Fenway Park.
Ambiance, baby. Just the ambiance.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My first look at Bethpage Black

In the spring of 1995, seven years before the U.S. Open was played at Bethpage Black for the first time, the U.S.G.A. let the word out they wanted to hold the Open at a true public course. (Technically, Pebble Beach and Pinehurst are "public", but in fact they are resort courses that command sky-high greens fees and cater to the affluent.) Bethpage Black, a true public course on Long Island, was on the USGA radar screen, but no decision had been made yet whether to award it America's most important golf tournament. The A.W. Tillinghast gem had grown threadbare from neglect and needed an infusion of funds to bring the sand traps and greens up to Open standards. But the U.S.G.A. was apparently willing to do make the investment to restore one of the great public courses in the country. Sports Illustrated's managing editor, Mark Mulvoy, a 2-handicapper, called to ask me to write a scouting report on Bethpage Black. I put together a foursome of SI colleagues, and this is the story I wrote:

" Walt's voice was hesitant, maybe a touch apprehensive, as if I had invited him to, say, swim the English Channel. "The Black Course?" he asked. "Why not the Red Course? Or the Blue? I'm not a very good golfer."

Walt Bingham, a special contributor to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and the magazine's former golf editor, had first played the merciless Black Course at Bethpage (N.Y.) State Park in the late '50s. So when word leaked out that the United States Golf Association was weighing the possibility of holding the U.S. Open at Bethpage in the year 2002, I thought he might like to join me and two other staffers and give it another look.

"I swore I'd never play that course again," Walt said, the memories coming back. "It's a monster. They used to post the waiting times at all of Bethpage's five courses. The Red might have had a 45-minute wait. Green: 30 minutes. Yellow: one hour. The Black Course: zero minutes. No one wanted to play it. A couple of times we figured, What the heck—how tough can it be? Five holes later we'd be covered in sweat and ready to give up the game."

That certainly sounded like a place suitable for the U.S. Open. With one big difference. The Black Course at Bethpage, unlike the storied courses that traditionally host the Open—Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Merion, or this year's site, Shinnecock Hills, which is just 55 miles east of Bethpage—is a public course. Walt agreed to the outing, and I called Bethpage State Park to find out how long our foursome could expect to wait for a tee time if we showed up at 6 a.m. on a Thursday morning in May. "If it's a nice day?" the woman said. "Two to three hours. Sometimes people sleep in their cars."

On a recent Saturday in May, I was told, the wait had reached four to five hours. With the advent of the golf boom, the days when there was no wait at the Black Course are long gone. But the appeal of teeing it up on a potential U.S. Open course where golfers routinely spend nights in the parking lot to snag a tee time at first light was irresistible.

My next call was to David Fay, executive director of the USGA, to see if the rumors about the Open's possibly going to Bethpage had merit. He confirmed that he had taken three foursomes to the Black Course in early May to check out the suitability of the venue, which he'd last played as a high school student 27 years ago. "We do a lot and say a lot about the importance of building more public golf courses," said Fay. "But holding the Open at a true public facility is something we've never done. Over half our member clubs are public in orientation. Pebble Beach and Pinehurst are the only two public courses we play our national championship on, but they're really resort courses. The whole idea is still in its infancy, but it's a dream of mine to hold the National Open at a place like Bethpage, which is the quintessential public facility."

Quintessential is the word. An hour's drive from Manhattan, Bethpage State Park, which is the largest public golf complex in the country, hosted 296,000 rounds of golf in 1994. Forty-six thousand of them were on the Black Course, which is open from April till early December. A new reservation system lets golfers book tee times up to seven days in advance, but walk-ons are welcome from 5 to 7 a.m. on a first come, first served basis. Greens fees on the Black Course are $20 on weekdays, $25 on weekends, with half price on weekdays for seniors.

Fay told me that four of the five courses at Bethpage were built as a Depression-era WPA project. Some 2,400 people had been put to work building them, and, additionally, 800 caddies were employed when the complex opened in 1936. Everything had been built on a grand scale. The courses were spread out over 1,100 acres of rolling woodlands. Bethpage's central clubhouse was the largest building in Long Island's Nassau County when it was completed, and its huge, high-ceilinged cafeteria was, according to Fay, one of the great places in golf to have a cup of coffee while awaiting your tee time. Fortunately, on the day we'd chosen to play, the forecast was for thunderstorms. The parking lot had only a dozen cars in it when Walt and I drove in at 5:25 a.m., and when we paid our money at the ticket booth, we were given a starting time of 6:27. That made us the fourth group off. A thick fog completely shrouded the Black Course's 1st hole, a 430-yard, dogleg right from an elevated tee, but once the mist burned off, it promised to be a fine spring day.

We rented pull carts for $1.50. One of the many fine things about the Black Course, which was designed by the renowned golf architect A.W. Tillinghast, is that motorized carts are forbidden there. It is strictly a walking course. There are only two sets of tees—regular and championship—and from the back tees the Black Monster measures 7,065 yards and plays to par 71. The slope rating from the championship tees, which I had convinced our foursome we should play from, is 144. One of the par-4s, the 12th, measures 480 yards. The 16th is 466 yards, and there are four other par-4s of 430 yards or more, often uphill to elevated greens. The par-5 7th is 585 yards and requires a 200-yard tee shot over a bunker the size of Rhode Island to reach the fairway. We were going to be in for a punishing day.

The starter, 72-year-old Barney Adamo, had been one of Bethpage's original 800 caddies when the Black Course opened. He didn't figure it had changed very much over the years, despite the increase in golfing traffic. It's the same old grumbling bear it has always been.

"Everyone thinks they're John Daly," he said as a golfer on the 1st tee waited for the group ahead to turn the corner of the dogleg. When the man ". grounded his drive into the thick rough, Adamo nodded knowingly.

Once the foursome ahead of us disappeared into the gradually lifting fog, we never saw them again. Given the difficulty of the course, the pace of play, which is monitored by a polite but vigilant ranger, was impressively quick. Anyone is allowed to play the Black Course, but when you buy your ticket, you are discouraged from trying the course if you don't have a low handicap. That policy helps keep things moving.

The course is an endlessly interesting challenge. The tees provide one visual treat after another, usually involving vast distances and copious amounts of sand. Water only comes into play on one hole, the 8th, a 195-yard par-3. The rough, drenched with dew, was U.S. Open-length the day we played, two inches long in the first cut but more than five inches in the second cut. On certain holes there were also stretches of uncut prairie grass that came up to a golfer's waist. A wayward ball flying into it was as good as lost.

"I wonder if I'll recognize the tree a photographer friend threw his putter into," Walt said on his way to the 5th tee. "I had to climb up to retrieve it."

He never found that landmark, but Walt was a wonderful sport throughout. A 27 handicapper who was shod in sneakers and playing with rented clubs, his only par came on the par-3 3rd hole, which I double-bogeyed. His best drives repeatedly landed short of the fairway, in heavy rough or in some cavernous bunker. "I can't hit it any better than that," he said after belting a good drive that failed to reach the fairway on the 15th, an uphill par-4 that measures 438 yards and plays more like 475. His drive had nestled on the side of a bunker, amid a tangle of vines. The green, sloping high above us like a sleeping elephant, was still 200 yards away. Walt swung at his ball savagely, but it didn't budge. "I can't play it," he said, moving forward six inches and peering down. "I can't even find it. I hit it a foot." He finally found the ball, which he declared unplayable. "I'm on my way to a Laurel and Hardy."

"A what?"

"A Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. A 10. One worse than a hangman. Two worse than a snowman."

Walt in fact curled in a four-footer for a 9. For the round he shot 111. I have a seven handicap and got up and down about seven times to squeeze out an 81, which in 10 more tries I would not expect to improve on. Our foursome played in four hours, 10 minutes, and never waited on a shot.

"It's obviously one of Tillinghast's best," golf course architect Rees Jones told me later when I asked him to critique the Black Course. Jones was with Fay at the USGA outing in May, and his words of praise were a mouthful. Tillinghast, who designed more than 50 courses in his career, is certainly one of America's greatest golf architects, with five of his courses in the top 27 of Golf Digest'?, 1995-96 list of America's 100 greatest golf courses. Tillinghast's gems include the East and West courses at Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Quaker Ridge in Scarsdale, N.Y., the San Francisco Golf Club and Somerset Hills (N.J.). The Black Course was the last course Tillinghast built. Afterward he retired to Beverly Hills and opened an antiques shop. Golf Digest omits the Black Course from its Top 100 list, but it is regularly mentioned in Golf magazine's rankings. And former PGA champion and television analyst Dave Marr, who last played Bethpage 35 years ago, puts the Black Course among his alltime top 10.

"Neither Baltusrol nor Winged Foot is in as dramatic a setting as the Black Course," says Jones. "I guarantee you, if they hold a tournament there, it'll become a world-renowned course. It needs some work up the middle. The tees have to be redone, and the bunkers need new sand. Some of the fairways could use some work. The greens have become smaller over the years and need to be brought back to their original size. But it has all the elements the USGA looks for—the long par-4s, and green contours that will enable the putting surfaces to get up to Open speed. The bunkers are larger than anything I've seen Tillinghast do. He used to walk Pine Valley a lot, which was the hot course of his time, and he might have been influenced by some of the Pine Valley bunkers. The Black Course is the most bold of any of Tillinghast's courses I've seen. I'm sure he intended it to hold major championships."

The Black Course has twice held the New York State Open and annually is host to the Ivy League golf championship. But it has never been dressed up for a major. "It would be great for golf," says Jones. "This is no longer a private country club game. More golf is played on public facilities than private ones."

Chances seem excellent that at long last the Black Course will get its day in the sun. Fay has yet to present a formal proposal to the USGA board, but he's guardedly optimistic that if a few hurdles are cleared, it'll be well received. With its huge acreage, Bethpage can easily handle the logistics required of a U.S. Open site: the corporate tents, the practice range, sufficient public parking and accessibility to golf fans. A public road that runs through the middle of the course would have to be shut down during the tournament. But there doesn't seem to be any insurmountable problem.

New York State Parks and Recreation commissioner Bernadette Castro is enthusiastically behind the idea. "It would be tremendous for Long Island and for the golf course," she says. "We'd never be able to sink a million dollars of public money into the Black Course to bring it back to its original condition. But if the USGA were to make that investment, we'd maintain it. Once you host a U.S. Open, you have an obligation to keep it looking like a U.S. Open course."

Asked if the golfers who usually play at Bethpage would object to the course being closed a few weeks for the Open, park superintendent Jim Evans says, "The pride it would give our golfers, knowing the USGA was so enthused about our golf course they'd make that sort of investment in it, would be terrific. They'd really go for it."

Certainly, Walt is enthusiastic about the idea. "By all means, bring on the Open," he said after our round. "I'd like to see the Black Course pick on someone its own size."

....That was the story, which SI ran 13 years ago in its June 17, 1995 issue. Seven years later Tiger Woods won the Open at Bethpage, a wire-to-wire win that validated the course's greatness. Phil Mickelson finished three strokes back. Bethpage was a bear. This year? Like everyone else, I'm picking Tiger, though the wet June weather has softened the greens and will make the course play easier, which brings many more contenders into the mix. The real winner, though, will be Bethpage Black, a grand old man now recognized as the great taskmaster the locals have always known it to be.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Father's Day gift ideas

Now that the hockey playoffs are behind us--and they were seriously great this year, thanks to the vigilance of the referees calling holding, hooking and obstruction penalties--it's time to turn our attention to the most important holiday of the year: Father's Day!
....Hold the whipped cream pies, ladies. I'm trying to do you a favor here. At the end of your rope trying to think of something to please the father in your life? Here are four ideas to meet every budget guaranteed to bring a smile to Daddy Dearest.
1) A fogless shower mirror.

I will never understand why every American man doesn't shave his face in the shower. Actually, I do understand it. Most showers don't have mirrors, and most men are too lazy to put a fogless mirror in their shower and don't like to shave without one. So they shave in the sink, as their father's did before them, making a mess, dribbling on the front of their shirts, leaving little nubs of facial hairs behind and flecks of shaving cream around their ears, resenting the daily chore. Or, worse, they use an electric shaver! All so unnecessary! When you shave in your morning shower, it's pure pleasure, extending the time in which a man can stand under a hot, restful stream of water before having to face the day. They're so inexpensive it's incomprehensible why every shower doesn't have a fogless mirror pre-installed. The mirror pictured above sells for $24.95 at this website:ShavingDirect.
It has two slots from which you can hang your razors--most shower mirrors do--but the best feature in this model is a locking suction device that keeps the mirror from falling. I've found that the ordinary, press-on suction cups that come with other mirrors eventually wear out, and the mirror starts to crash to the floor. They are shatterproof, but it's still an annoyance.
....Fogless mirrors arrive with a protective coating that repels fogging, but that coating eventually wears out. So you should order a spray bottle of anti-fogging cleaner when you order the mirror. Once a week or so--whenever the mirror starts to fog--just spray the mirror with the anti-fogging agent and it will work as good as new again. You can also spit on it, as you would into a snorkeling mask. But it's disconcerting to spit into the reflection of your own face. This is a gift that will literally provide years of daily enjoyment!

2) A barbecue smoker.
.....I'm not talking about a grill for hamburgers and steaks. I'm talking about a smoker, in which Dad can slowly smoke ribs, fish, chicken, brisket, or turkey, infusing them with the rich, delicious flavor of hardwood smoke while appearing capable and manly.
....You can spend thousands of dollars on a smoker. Or you can make your own out of a 55-gallon drum. They can be heated with wood, charcoal, propane, or electricity. An electric smoker is the fastest and easiest type of smoker, but it's also the least flavorful. I like a smoker that uses charcoal for its heat source and chunks of green wood to provide the smoke. I cut the wood from my backyard maple and apple trees.
You have to choose between the offset smoker, in which the charcoal is not beneath the meat, and the upright smoker, which uses a pan of liquid to shield the meat from the heat source. This is a picture of the offset smoker:
....Looks good, right? I think so, though I've never owned an offset smoker. The charcoal and the green wood chunks go in the little chamber on the left, and the meat, fish or poultry go in the longer chamber on the right. The smoke and heat is channeled up and around, past the meat, then out the little chimney. The heat can be controlled by the various air vents. The key to good smoking is long and low: a long time over low heat. I've read that the offset smoker requires some trial and error to determine how to keep the heat even and steady. But one of its advantages is the large grill space you have to work with. This actually looks like a lot of fun, and they can be ordered online from websites like smokersshowcase.comfor $269, plus shipping.

....I, however, use an upright, water cooled smoker like this one which is made by Weber. The Weber Smokey Mountain sells for about $250, and is vertically integrated, everything you need beneath one roof. At the bottom is the pan of charcoal, then a pan of water/beer/wine/herbs to shield the meat from the heat. Then one grill. Then, a level above that, a second grill. At the top is a heat thermometer. The two-level, upright smoker probably ends up holding as much food as the offset smoker, but to get at it, say to baste it, you have to disassemble the top levels, which takes time and a clean place to set the meat. Smoke and heat inevitably escapes during the disassemblage. It's not a big thing, but it's something. On the plus side, the water in the pan unquestionably helps keep that which you are smoking moist. No one likes smoked meat that is dried out. And an upright smoker is easier to store and less expensive than the offset smoker. If you order a Brinkman's smoker like the one pictured here, you can buy an upright, water cooled charcoal smoker for as little as $79. I've kept a Brinkman's smoker at our cabin in Wisconsin for 20 years, and it still does a wonderful job. The Webers are great, but to some extent you're paying for the name.

3) A subscription to Netflix.
If your father doesn't have Netflix, he should--assuming he can use a DVD player, which may be a bold assumption. (If he can't, maybe you should get him a DVD player instead, and teach him how to use it.) But for $9 a month, you can give him access to a virtually unlimited supply of movies, old and new, foreign and domestic, TV and Hollywood, major motion picture and niche documentary. The rating system Netflix has devised is dependable, the website easy and fun to navigate, and the shipping fast and dependable. The one drawback: occasionally one of the movies is dirty or scraped and it either skips or gets stuck when played on DVD. Tip: when this happens, put some liquid dishwasher detergent on the disk and gently sponge clean. Except in the case of bad scrapes, this nearly always works.

4: The book Final Rounds. by James Dodson. A funny, poignant, wonderful read about a father and son who take a golfing trip to Scotland after the father learns he has just a few months to live after being diagnosed with cancer. The book is filled with wit, wisdom and humanity, and is ultimately uplifting in its message. You don't have to be a golfer to love it, anymore than you have to be a fisherman to love A River Runs Through It. But it doesn't hurt.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Rose By Any Other Name...

Here at Breakwind Farm, which is just west of Boston, in Carlisle, Mass., June is the month my roses begin to bloom. I can't tell you how rewarding it is to pass by your own bed of roses, to admire its varied splashes of color--some subtle, some gaudy--and
to have its perfume-like fragrance blow into an open window. Roses are the most generous of flowers, and while they require attention, they are not the hothouse lilies they're sometimes reputed to be.
...I do not want to pass myself off as a rose expert. I'm not one, plain and simple. That's the point, really. You don't have to be an expert, or even have much of a green thumb, to grow beautiful, fragrant roses. All you need is the interest and a small, sunny plot of land.
...Our plot is right in front of our porch, south facing, and somewhat protected from the winter winds. It used to be an evergreen hedge, until I decided to tear the hedge out and replace it with the rose garden pictured above. That was about ten years ago. Roses have come and roses have gone--I probably lose an average of one bush every winter. But they are easily and inexpensively replaced, and the occasional new face in the rose garden is invariably a source of delight. Let me introduce you to my favorites before unmasking a few myths about roses.
....This dew-covered beauty is a hybrid tea rose known as a Mr. Lincoln. A velvety deep red rose with a luscious fragrance, it is probably the most dramatic single-stemmed rose in my garden, and has proved hearty enough to twice survive transplanting. There are 35 petals per bloom, which open up far too quickly for my liking. Just 36 hours after the first picture was taken, the weather turned hot and this is what Mr. Lincoln looked like: Had I cut the bloom and brought it inside, it would have lasted longer. But as it was my garden's first rose of 2009, I couldn't do it. Another 24 hours, and all 35 of the petals were on the ground.
....I find it far easier to take cuttings when the rose garden is in full bloom, as it will be in the next few days. But early in the season it's nice to see as much color in the garden as possible. My worries are over once my most productive rose bush takes off, which may or may not be named Irish Beauty. Early on, I didn't write all the varieties down, sadly. All I know for certain is this bush is some kind of floribunda, which unlike the hybrid tea rose, bears its flowers in clusters rather than individual blooms. My Irish Beauty literally explodes during its June blooming, with dozens and dozens of blossoms opening within days of one another.

The cuttings don't last long inside--a couple of days at most--but they have a scent that reminds me of the memory of my grandmother's perfume, which was almost overpowering in its sweetness. The individual blossoms are reddish-pink with a gold hue at the base of the petals, rather like the colors in a tequila sunrise.

It is a gaudy, prolific flower in both sight and scent, and my one regret is that I don't have it planted in the far corner of the garden, for it is an overpowering neighbor to its cousins nearby.

....On the other end of the subtlety spectrum is the pale pink blushing hybrid tea called Pearl Essence. You would do this rose a grave disservice by planting it near the Irish Beauty, or a similarly gaudy cousin. I took this picture this morning, and it loveliness speaks for itself.

...There are seven groups of roses in all, one of which is the "climbers and ramblers". I have two climbers,which you must train to climb whatever it is you want them to climb. This doesn't take much: a trellis or some wire, a ladder, and some string. I love the color of this rose, which is called an Autumn Sunset Climber.

The cuttings from the Autumn Sunset Climber don't last long in a vase, so I just let the petals open up and fall to the ground. I wish they did, however. An individual flower blossom is simply stunning:

My other climber is called a Climbing Blaze. It starts out small and rather shy looking, hiding behind its trellis:

And within one season, if all goes well, grows into a rose of staggering elevation, climbing toward the sun like some sort of magic stalk:

If it dies back, as mine did last winter, it just starts from the ground up again. The scarlet-colored blaze of flowers look spectacular against our yellow house.

Another rose group is the miniatures, which we use to front our hybrid teas, climbers, and floribundas. We have some white ones, and pink ones, but my favorite is the Scarlett Meideland: incredibly prolific all summer long, and an eye-poppingly scarlet hue:

My only challenge with this rose is to prevent it from getting leggy. It is supposed to be a miniature after all, and not block the view of the taller roses behind it. So I prune it aggressively, and the pruned blossoms last for days in water. So it's win-win.

...Now to address a few myths about the difficulty of tending roses.
1) Myth: You have to spray roses all the time.
Fact: I probably spray my roses twice a summer for insects and mildew spots. I hit them at the first sign of insect damage, and keep an eye out for any recurrences. But I don't have them on any sort of regular pesticide program. You do, however, have to spray them. You are kidding yourself if you think, as a hobbyist, you can keep roses without the use of an insecticide.

2) Myth: Roses are fragile
Fact: Most modern roses have been bred to be cold-weather tolerant and disease resistant. This isn't true of all breeds of roses, of course. But your local nursery should stock roses of all colors and shapes that are hearty and easy to care for and appropriate for the climate in which you live.

3) Myth: Roses take a lot of work
Fact: Roses take more work than most flowers, but they also give back more. And a couple of hours a week is all I spend on mine. I feed them with Miracle Gro once every couple of weeks, which takes about fifteen minutes. I dead-head the blooms to encourage them to continue blooming. I water them if it hasn't rained in a couple of days. And I weed them. This is by far the hardest part of keeping roses, in my experience: controlling the weeds. I've tried mulching with cedar bark; with pine bark; with leaves. I've tried hoeing the weeds away. I've tried ignoring them. All with limited success. Right now I'm allowing some sort of ground cover that I don't know the name of to come in and take over. It isn't crabgrass and isn't offensive to the eye, and my hope is it will keep the crabgrass and dandelions from moving in, while not detracting from the roses. Of course the best solution is to have a very short, very nimble fingered, very cheap illegal alien to do the weeding for you. But this is Massachusetts, not California.
(One word of caution, if you're considering putting in a rose garden. The landscaper I hired to do the initial prep work on the garden talked me into putting in an underground hose, one of those deals with a thousand little holes in it used for watering the roots of a plant. That way, in the middle of the day, when the heat is searing, you can do the watering without damaging the leaves of the plant. Problem is, the weeds grow their roots in and around the underground hose, and you have to pull them all up by hand. Any back-saving hoe-like tool will rupture the underground hose, rendering the whole system useless. Better to forget the underground watering system and water the roses in the traditional way, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and use your hoe to get out the weeds.)

4) Myth: In order for a rose to survive a Massachusetts winter, you have to cover your garden with six inches of straw.
Fact: It wouldn't hurt, of course, but the truth is snow cover--and we almost always have snow cover from December till March west of Boston--is a brilliant insulator for a rose bush. To prepare for winter, if I'm really feeling industrious, I'll dump leaves over the bed of my rose garden. But that's really more for mulching purposes the following spring. Last winter I did nothing. It was a cold winter. And every rose bush survived.

...The payback? From June till late September, we'll enjoy looking at blooms such as these:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Flyfishing the Deerfield: a float trip

For my money, there's nothing in flyfishing that beats a float trip, one that incorporates, in equal measure, good fishing, good scenery, and good company. Over the years I've done many float trips--in Wyoming (the Bighorn; the New Fork), Idaho (the Snake, the Henry's Fork), Montana (the Yellowstone, the Blackfoot), Arizona (the Colorado), and even Argentina (the Malleo, the Chimehuin). But until last week, I'd never done one in New England, where I live. Now I can report that the Deerfield River in the Berkshires, about two hours drive from Boston, offers a float trip that is, in its way, as beautiful and satisfying as any of them.
...Granted, it doesn't have the panache of Patagonia. Many of the trout are stocked. The Berkshires aren't the Rockies. And the Deerfield hasn't inspired volumes of angling literature like the Blackfoot or Henry's Fork. But the river is beautiful; many of the fish have held over and are wild; and despite its proximity to Boston, the Deerfield flows through secluded, even remote country, where the wildlife one can see includes bears, osprey, wood duck, mergansers, and even, occasionally, moose. On a perfect spring day, midweek in late May, in eight hours on the river, we passed two other fisherman, both wading. We saw no other boats, no houses, and passed through no towns. Compared to the renowned Bighorn, which can feel like a float trip during rush hour in Los Angeles, the Deerfield feels like a float through wilderness unspoiled.

....The float trip was an anniversary gift from my wife, Sally, who arranged it through Harrison Anglers, which is run by brothers Dan and Tom Harrison from Warwick, Mass. The Deerfield isn't the only place the Harrisons guide, but they considered it the best floating river in New England, with a dependable flow of water throughout the summer that's regulated by a series of dams. Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife stocks both rainbows and browns in the Deerfield, and the entire section we were floating is designated catch-and-release. As a result, many of the fish hold over and become wild. Plus there are wild brook trout in the upper stretches of the river, and smallmouth bass in the lower stretches. Some of the trout grow to be trophy sized by any standards, as the photograph below attests. This is Tom Harrison with a twenty-eight inch, ten-pound brown trout that he caught, and released, last winter.

....We fished with his older brother, Dan, with whom we rendezvoused at 9 a.m. in Greenfield, Mass. There wasn't much sense in starting earlier. The river had been unseasonably cold all spring, and the fishing tended to get better as the day went on and the water lost its breathtaking chill. Any insect hatches would happen later in the day. Dan and Tom had both grown up in nearby North Adams, and after guiding in the American West, and Chile, decided to move back home and introduce float trips to the Deerfield. They clearly were filling a need. With virtually no competition, and without advertising, they had already booked over 200 trips through August. (August, because of the insect activity, is Dan's favorite month to float the Deerfield.) So far, not one customer has canceled because of the poor economy, and Dan thinks the business has actually benefited from the recession. Fishermen are going to fish, in bad times and good. When the money is tight, though, they will fish a little closer to home.

...We put in below the Fife Brook Dam, at a public access area where Dan, unaided, easily slid his raft down the embankment and into the shallows, where we set up.

.... It was still early, and cool, so he rigged us up with streamers, wooly-bugger type flies, and rowed a short way out, and anchored at the head of a pool. I cast from a seat in the bow, Sally cast from a seat in the stern, and within ten minutes Sally, stripping upstream, hooked and landed a healthy 14-inch rainbow that jumped twice.

.... The water was clear, but the stones on the bottom gave it the color of tea. It was obviously a healthy environment for the fish, because every one we caught was thick around the shoulders and mid-section, almost like little footballs. Eventually we moved downstream to another pool and switched to nymph rigs, which involved using a bright red bobber and a bead-head pheasant tail nymph pattern. We didn't have much luck until a trout tried to eat my bobber, twice, which gave Dan the idea to switch my nymph for an egg pattern, which was orange and round, like a smaller version of the bobber. First cast, bang! Another rainbow, maybe 15 inches. He then tied an egg pattern on Sally's line, and she caught this beauty, a 17-inch rainbow whose deep, rich color and thick body made it clear it had held over from a previous year.

.... The air was warming fast under the bright sun, and as we drifted down alongside an abandoned railway track around noon, we began to notice small splashes on the surface. Then we saw the little sailboats--mayflies, drifting in the current. We'd happened upon a Hendrickson hatch, a springtime phenomenon that is an ice cream sundae for a New England fly fisherman. This is what the little devils look like:

...The Hendrickson dry fly, I happened to know, was originally tied by using the urine-stained tummy hair of a red fox. Modern dyes and, I suppose, a ban on fox hunting have made this ingredient expendable and obsolete. (If you ever pass a dead fox on the highway, though, pull over and bring your scissors. There are still purists who insist on pee-stained fox hair for their Hendricksons, and will pay handsomely for a swatch). Here's what a Hendrickson dry fly looks like:

....For the next two hours we never stopped casting to slurping rainbow. There were probably only five feeding fish in that stretch, all with size, and they kept moving up and down the foam line, sticking their noses up, inhaling mayflies. We hooked four, but landed none. The largest, which I had on for several minutes, must have been about 20-inches, though he never got very close to the boat. I had actually switched to a slightly larger fly, a March Brown. The big rainbow took it the first time I got the drift right: Here's the March Brown:

...The fish jumped once, showing us his size. In the heavy current, fishing 5X tippet, I tried to work him gently upstream as he shook his head doggedly. After a stalemate in what looked like a deep portion of the river, the rainbow managed to find a sunken branch to wrap himself around, insuring his escape. But we got that distant glimpse, and he was beautiful to see and feel. His buddies that were feeding alongside him were all highly selective, spooky, and focused on eating one thing: drifting mayflies. The slightest drag on your line would put them down, and they'd start feeding again elsewhere, usually downstream. We'd drift down to their new feeding location, and pretty soon, after a poor presentation, they'd move back upstream again. Always feeding, noses just breaking the surface. It was what you hope for, what brings you back. You didn't have to bring one of those wild trout to hand to make it the highlight of the trip.
....They eventually stopped, of course, and in the late afternoon, further down, I actually landed about an 18-inch rainbow in a tricky current on a nymph. Here's a picture of its tail and body, slapping against me as I tried to get it to pose for a nice portrait. It seems to me I am cradling the fish in the net much the way I cradled my firstborn son, Nate, when the nurse handed me his slimy, bluish, 8-lb. body in the maternity ward and asked me if I wanted to cut the umbilical cord. I'm sure I wore a similar expression then.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a bigger frown on anyone, in any situation. It's cartoon-ish. I didn't know my mouth could turn that far down. I didn't know anyone's mouth could--maybe Mike Tyson's. I must have felt surpassing angst for the trout's well-being, because I know I was happy to see him and to cradle him against my chest. It's a mystery. Sometimes my mouth doesn't reflect what I'm really feeling.
....Which, at the time, was pure, mindless happiness and a feeling of peace. That is what good fishing does for me. Writers often wax eloquently about the deep feelings and cerebral thoughts they have on the river, but that's never been my experience. I can't remember ever having a constructive thought on any river about anything that wasn't related to fishing. No flashes of inspiration. No brilliant investment ideas. No sudden insights. Only: where's the fish? What's he eating? How do I catch him?
... And occasionally a glance around at the beauty that surrounds me. Because great fishing, or even halfway decent fishing, is invariably found in beautiful places.
The Deerfield River in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts is such a place. Try to put it on your life list of rivers to fish.