Tree thinning on the west coast

Having spent a great deal of time hiking and skiing in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, I have grown quite fond of the beautiful scenery out there. I suggested to my friend Tom that I might write a short article on his travel blog about something that will affect peoples’ ability to enjoy the sheer beauty of the region, and that is the wild fires that are burning up huge swaths of pristine and scenic land that will take decades to be reforested.

My name is Steve Portnoy and I have been working in the tree trimming and removal business for a couple decades. Back in the late nineties and early two thousands, I spent a great deal of time travelling up and down the west coast camping, fishing, skiing, and hiking with my wife Belinda and a friend from high school named Suzanne and her husband Nick, a contractor in the roofing business. They enjoyed being out in nature as much as we did, and we all grew very fond of the unique geography of the West Coast.

While Belinda and I still go out from time to time, Nick wound up with arthritic knees, presumably from crawling around on roofs and standing at awkward angles for hours at a time, so activities like hiking and skiing had to go.

Anyway, we spent a lot of time in the woods and all noticed that it didn’t seem there were enough efforts made at thinning the thick and overgrown forests we frequented. Lots of underbrush was allowed to grow unchecked, and dead trees were left to rot and fall. In forestry, thinning is the process of selectively removing trees to allow for the remaining trees to have more room to grow unobstructed and to therefore allow them to be healthier and stronger.

Every 20 or 25 years might be considered frequent thinning, and would allow for the trees to get wider crowns, increasing their diameter and be more resistant to threats like ice breakage or wind damage. If an area is overthinned, which is possible, the site would get too many shrubs in it and prevent what is called the “understory” from regenerating effectively. This also causes an abundance of branches on the trees which makes them knottier. Not doing it often enough will cause the trees to grow tall and slender, reducing their value on the market by creating less wood.

As you might imagine, our country uses a tremendous amount of wood and wood products, like paper, in construction and in our day to day lives. Forests are the source of all this wood. While it may sound cruel, growing trees for the primary purpose of cutting them down and using them for the advancement and growth of society is a noble and just cause, kind of like raising cattle. So the object here is to grow trees that are best suited for this purpose. There are several methods for thinning, and the effectiveness of each method is highly dependent on individual site conditions and species mixes and responses. This is definitely not a one size fits all activity.

There are really 5 methods for thinning. I will briefly discuss each.

  • free thinning – this basically means thinning around a desirable tree. In some cases there is almost nothing to remove and in others a lot of thinning.
  • geometrical thinning – this is mostly done on tree farms where the trees are planted in rows, and by design one row is taken out periodically to make room for the remaining trees to thrive regardless of the condition of each tree.
  • thinning from below – this is done entirely around the base of the tree and can range from light thinning that removed all over-topped trees all the way to heavy thinning which removes anything that might affect the growth of the desired tree.
  • thinning from above – this removes all the trees that have an impact crown-wise on other similarly-sizes trees.
  • diameter thinning – large trees exceeding a pre-determined diameter are cut down for the benefit of smaller trees which are in good shape. This process can go on and on until the all valuable trees have been harvested. At that point the remnant is clear cut and the process begun again.

All of the methods above are used to great effect when employed properly. Our appetite for wood is insatiable here in the USA and we need all the creative ideas we can muster in order to provide all the wood we can possibly produce without damaging or destroying our valuable forests. In fact the thinning methods mentioned are done to protect forests from fires and pests that might otherwise destroy thousands of acres. We have seen firsthand the destructive power of fires on the west coast. The amount of wood lost to these fires could have built tens of thousands of homes but instead went up in smoke. As a friend in the fencing business said to me convincingly, we are much better served to over-thin rather than under-thin. Stopping these fires before they really get big should be out number one priority in our forest management efforts.

Deep Sea Fishing out of Oregon Inlet, N.C.

Well, I wasn’t expecting to be posting a trip like this one but with a lot of great travel destinations either closed or with limited availability, some friends and I decided to charter a deep sea fishing trip. From where we live, the Outer Banks area seemed like the best departure point.

One of the things that makes the Outer Banks region such a good spot for fishing trips is the fact that along the coast in the northern part of the state, the land juts out into the ocean making the trip out to the continental shelf shorter. The quicker you get to the good fishing grounds, the better.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. Our group of six included, besides myself, our neighbor Edd who is a travel agent for Tour Plan International in Richmond Va., , his wife Eileen, our friend William Tyler (an actual descendant of President Tyler) who owns a germicidal UV and UVC lighting company, William’s brother-in-law Freddie who owns an SEO company in Richmond, Va., and last but not least my wife Angie. Angie and Eileen were skeptical about this adventure but we were having trouble rounding up enough people to join us, so they agreed at the last minute. We were hoping to split the relatively high cost between 6 people, but four of us wound up splitting it and the ladies were treated to a free trip (since they didn’t want to go anyway, it seemed the least we could do).

We did some research to find a good charter, but discovered there are a ton of good ones with lots of high ratings. We wound up choosing Bite Me Charters due to the great name and their awesome boat which is pictured on their website. They normally run out of Hatteras but move the boat to Oregon Inlet in August because the billfish tend to congregate there.

We drove down on a Friday night and stayed in a hotel, excited about the prospects of landing a big Marlin or Sailfish. The weather was beautiful with relatively light winds and temps in the upper 80’s, perfect for a day out on the water.

The trip began about 5:15 in the morning, just before daylight. Why fishermen insist on leaving at such early hours is beyond me. There was a parade of boats all vying to be the first out of the inlet. It was a traffic jam. I was glad I wasn’t driving … too many boats in too small of an area for my tastes. Anyway, it took about 90 minutes or so to get out to where we were going. On the ride out, once we left the inlet, it seemed the boats veered off in many other directions, but once we got out there seemingly in the middle of nowhere, there were boats visible all over the place.

It was a relatively calm day, but surprisingly Captain Jay informed us that in the event you start to feel a little queasy, he has a supply of foods that if eaten in very small quantities, would settle the stomach. He had chips, fried chicken, sausage, and a few other “medicines” for the seasick, but it turned out none of that was necessary.

We had been trolling for maybe 30 or 40 minutes when one of the crew spotted a piece of wood floating out there so we made our way over to it. We were told that the shade underneath the wood attracts small baitfish and Dolphin like to feed there. And sure enough as we got close you could see 5 or 6 nice Dolphin swimming under it. We pulled in the lines and got spin casting rods with cut bait and simply cast over to the wood. Bingo! We caught 4 of them in short order before the others disappeared. They are beautiful fish and some of the best eating out there. Just in those alone we felt like we got our moneys worth. But we were far from done.

An hour later we hooked a nice Wahoo. Felt like 30 or 40 pounds. Before the day was done we also has two Yellowfin Tuna in the box. We were, of course, hoping to hook up with a Marlin or Sailfish but it wasn’t to be that day, but still we had a great time.

While the ride out is somewhat somber and quiet as everyone anticipates the big day, the ride back in is quite the opposite, with music playing and everyone high-fiving, laughing, and recanting somewhat embellished stories from the day. Captain Jay and crew were extremely knowledgeable and friendly. The ladies also had a wonderful time but thankfully it was flat and calm. If the weather had been different, they might have come away with a different impression.

We will try to get this on the radar to do annually, and would book with the Bite Me crew again. Fantastic day and 30 or 40 pounds of excellent fillets each (plus a bunch given to the crew) turned it into a successful outing.

The Biltmore Estate

We had a chance to travel to this vaunted estate and it was well worth the time. It is located in Asheville, N.C. and is the largest privately owned house in the U.S at north of 178,000 square feet!

It is called a Gilded Age mansion and is still owned by George Vanderbilt’s descendants. It is a remarkable spectacle and worth a visit.

George Washington Vanderbilt began making regular trips to the Asheville area in the 1880’s, where he is said to have loved the scenery and climate. He built himself a summer house there which he called his little mountain escape. Over time he wound up buying hundreds of surrounding parcels of land, including about 50 farms and a half dozen cemeteries. I was told by a spokesperson there that the archives show that the area was poor and much of the land was in bad shape, so most landowners were glad to sell at the time.

In order to build the house, rather than try to ship in all the materials, a woodworking factory and a brick kiln were constructed right on the property. Also a railroad access spur was constructed to more easily get materials to the site. There were about 1000 laborers working on the main house and George made many trips overseas to bring back artifacts he wanted placed in the house.

The main house, which opened in 1895, features 250 rooms including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, a bowling alley, and an indoor swimming pool. It was completed in the span of 6 years. It was fully electric at the time of its construction, which was notable at the time. It had central heat and was one of the first homes to use Thomas Edisons light bulbs. It has a fire alarm system, indoor plumbing, two elevators, a call box system, and even a telephone. There is a massive chandelier hanging from the middle of the grand staircase weighing about 1700 pounds. It it attached by a single bolt that runs into the steel girders above. We were told the bold has been replaced only once since the house was built.

There is far too much to cover inside the home but we took some pictures and got some thoughts from friends. The picture below is of one of the dens. It had the square footage of a small house and was loaded with books, art, gorgeous furniture, and spectacular oriental rugs.

Everything was immaculate, which made me wonder how the cleaning was done in a structure of this size. We learned that it takes several weeks of training just to learn how to handle all the special objects in the house. The service they use, called Biltmore Company, employs a seven person team to clean the house. It takes the whole team about four days just to clean the books and shelves in the library, which holds over 10,000 books. They could not tell us how long it takes to clean the whole house, but they evidently start in the basement and work their way up to the fourth floor.

When I returned to Richmond, I was showing a friend some of the pictures of the stunning carpets and asking him questions. He works for a Glen Allen based carpet cleaning service. He told me in order to do this quality of carpet they tend to use citrus-based cleaners that have no chemicals, sprayed on and buffed into the carpets and vacuumed out using very high efficiency particulate air filter vacuums. This relatively dry style of cleaning insures the carpets dry quickly before any type of mildew or mold gets into the fibers. The picture below is an example of the size of these rugs. Everything must be moved off, then the rug cleaned and allowed to dry, then everything placed back where it was prior. It is inconceivable how long this must take.

The picture to the left is of a main dining area around Christmastime. I’m told Christmas is by far the most beautiful time to be there, but we chose to go in the summer when the weather was warmer and we could appreciate the grounds as well.

There is a lot of history here that I will skip over to bring us to the current. The estate occupies about 8000 acres which is bisected by the French Broad River. It is overseen by the Biltmore company, a trust set up by the family. There is a winery, a 200+ room luxury hotel, and villages of gift shops and restaurants all on the property.

While the buildings are jaw-dropping, one of the more remarkable aspects of the estate is the grounds. I can’t begin to describe how beautiful they are. The picture above is a case in point. This site has a lot of information about them.

I visited Biltmore with a couple friends, both of whom are in the landscaping or irrigation businesses.

One friend was Rachael, who is a landscape designer by trade and owns a landscape design and planting company. She has been in the business for decades and said she has never seen any landscaping as beautiful as this. Not even close. The variety of shrubs, flowers, and trees all carefully selected to compliment each other is nothing short of miraculous, according to Rachael.

The other friend was Daniel. Daniel is in the irrigation business and partners with Rachael quite often to bid on Richmond area projects. Daniel owns an irrigation company called Old Dominion Irrigation. Daniel, like Rachael, was awestruck by the intricate flora and complex irrigation techniques employed by the Biltmore staff.

If you ever get a chance to see this, you will not be disappointed. Plus Asheville is just a wonderful little town to explore.

Intro Post

This is my first blog post. In addition to trips with my friend Rob that I talk about on the About Us page, I have traveled extensively myself. Trips to China, South America, the South Pacific, Europe, Mexico, and Canada round out the international portfolio.

Additionally I have been to almost all 50 states and will have lots to share about those as well. I hope you enjoy the site.

Rio Travel

Regarding my trip to Rio, there are a ton of things I can report back. It was a fascinating, scary, beautiful, and poor place all at the same time.

The food was outstanding and I could go on and on about that. The countryside is very unusual and has beauty in itself, but it can be a dangerous place to travel so extreme care is required.

I stayed in Copacabana Beach which is the largest tourist spot in Rio. It is a 5 mile long collection of hotels, bars, restaurants, and condos. The entire 5 mile span has a hand-laid stone sidewalk that must be 30 feet wide. It is quite a spectacle, as you can see in the picture below.

I met a couple who lives there, Eddie and Lessie (I guess that is how you spell it) who took me around and showed me the ropes. Had a great time with them. They have a lovely condo that it 3 stories tall, but not real wide. They have a spiral staircase going up the middle of the place from one floor to the next. On the roof is a big patio where she has lots of plants growing. It is a wonderful place to have a drink, overlooking the South Atlantic. You could do worse!

As we sat there chatting I noticed a mold issue. They told me it can get very damp and humid in Rio and mold problems are a common occurrence. I know the owner of a mold remediation and removal company in Richmond, Va., who I called for advice. He gave me a few suggestions for killing it and suggested we keep an eye on it and call a removal company if it keeps coming back.

Anyway Eddie really enjoys his beers and Lessie is a great cook so we had a wonderful time together. We went for some walks along the beach and they showed me an old fort at one end of the beach. The beach that adjoins Copacabana is called Iponema. There is a song about that one. Iponema is a wonderful place that harkens back to the 60’s. There are arts fairs and music and crafts everywhere. If I go back to Rio, I would definitely stay here. It is quieter than Copacabana but still has lots of bars and restaurants and character.

This is a picture of Iponema beach.

Rio Food

Despite the relatively poor status of Rio, there is some outstanding food to be found there. Like much of the world outside the US, there are almost no preservatives used in their food, and therefore most things have a fresh taste that is foreign to lots of foods at home that taste relatively bland by comparison.

While you can find a variety of restaurants there, even the bottom of the line ones seem to take great pride in everything they serve. In fact owners almost have a competitive feel to the presentations they serve. The picture above is from an open market where shoppers do their almost daily shopping. Like Europe, it is much more popular to buy food fresh every day than to store it for weeks at a time in big refrigerators.

Marrakech Trip

This is an Islamic country that reminds me a lot of Las Vegas. There are a lot of old mosques mixed in with Vegas-esque resorts. It is hot and arid there and is built around a number of oasis’. It is mostly a barter society and everything is based on cash. You can negotiate on everything you buy.

There are a number of amazing spas. The old market is composed of a number of old alleyways covered with planking and steel rafters. The colors are out of this world. This market pictured is filled with snake handlers and music and sounds. It is a remarkable sight.

This is a French colony with a ton of European and traditional middle eastern influences. One of the most amazing places is the La Mamounia resort that is one of the top resorts in the nation. It is a very social hotel and out by the pool you meet travelers from all over.

One of the top excursions is a hot air balloon ride over the Atlas mountains where you can see the lush oasis’ of Marrakesh contrasted against the arid desert and mountains. The sunsets here are especially striking due to the sand particles in the air from the Sahara desert.

While at the La Mamounia I met a local couple that shared my fascination in leather goods and invited me to their house for dinner. Their names were Said and Damiya. Always looking to spend time with the locals I jumped at the opportunity. A couple days later they picked me up at the La Mamounia and we went on the hour drive. This included an excellent tour of the city from a couple people that seemed to know everything. I learned a great deal from them.

Prior to going to their house, I did some research on typical food in Marrakech so I might be more prepared for whatever they decided to serve, since they told me it would be “a surprise”. I got a lot of information from this site, however I was still not prepared for what she served. It started with something called pigeon b’stilla which is a type of layered pie with a crunchy crust followed by a lamb shoulder that took all day to cook. It was absolutely mouthwatering. While alcohol is frowned upon in much of the region, they served a beer that went perfectly with the meal. I believe it was called Flag Speciale, a nice full bodied pilsner.

Afterwards we retired to their den where there was a table full of olives, nuts, and wine to cap off the night. As the evening went on, Damiya spilled her wine onto their beautiful Persian Rug. We scrambled to get it cleaned up but she did not have the supplies I am used to seeing. She seemed upset so I called my friend Tammy who owns a residential and commercial cleaning company in Richmond Va. to get her advice. She spoke with Damiya to find out what she had handy and they were able to concoct a cleaning agent from the household supplies available. It didn’t do a great job but was the best possible outcome given the situation.

Anyway, I highly recommend Marrakech to anyone who loves Middle Eastern culture and food. It is a wonderful area rich in color, beautiful old architecture, friendly people, and lots to do.