Nature lovers can spend their outdoor time efficiently and have more fun by learning certain skills, and two fine examples follow: determining wind velocity by eyeballing its effect on the landscape, and knowing the heat output of Maine tree species for cooking and warmth.

Knowing wind velocity helps outdoor types in two ways:

1. It ensures safer canoe and small-boat passage when folks know what wind velocity can blow up waves big enough to swamp them. This is important when running downwind, because lake and pond waves increase in size ahead of a wind. (In my late 20s, an elderly Maine guide told me to avoid canoeing when whitecaps form – advice that struck me as timid at the time. These days, I approve of that rule.)

2. Wind affects firearm projectiles. When sighting on a target or game, experienced shooters consider windage and hold to the right or left of the impact point, depending on velocity and direction.

Experienced folks can ascertain wind speed by observing natural objects. Years ago, I learned a little chart:

Calm: This describes a day with air movement of less than 1 mile per hour. Smoke can be an accurate sign. It rises straight up.

Light air: 1-3 mph wafts smoke in the other direction, but a wind vane doesn’t shift, nor do leaves flutter.

Light breeze: 4-7 mph means folks can feel wind on their face and see leaves rustle, and wind vanes shift with the moving air.

Gentle breeze: 8-12 mph steadily shakes leaves and twigs, and flags blow straight out. This wind affects firearm projectiles.

Moderate breeze: 13-18 mph moves small branches, and dust and loose paper fly into the air.

Fresh breeze: 19-24 mph sways smaller trees and kicks up waves on lakes. When whitecaps form, get canoes and small boats ashore.

Strong breeze: 25-31 mph gets large branches moving up and down like a bucking bronco, wires whistle, and umbrellas blow inside out. Whitecaps are certain.

Moderate gale: 32-38 mph may make walking difficult, and large trees sway.

Fresh gale: 39-46 mph may snap twigs from branches, and it becomes extremely difficult to walk.

Strong gale: 47-54 mph may cause minimal damage and blow shingles off. Once while deer hunting in New Brunswick, I was standing against a large trunk when wind tipped the tree just enough to lift the roots and me a little.

Whole gale: 55-63 mph uproots trees.

Violent storm: 64-72 mph creates widespread damage.

Hurricane: 73 mph and higher damages utility lines, trees, structures, etc.

Knowledge of wood BTUs helps campfire and woodstove operators choose the right wood, whether for robust heat for long periods, for lower, gentle cooking temperatures, or for flash cooking. Awareness of BTUs by species also helps folks gather a more efficient woodpile for a cozy home during winter cold or a cheerful, moderately warm place during a slightly chilled late-summer dawn.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture did pyrometer and performance tests of common Maine woods and graded them by BTU output, evenness in burning, amount of smoke, and tendency to throw sparks. I came across this list in 1973 and have used it since.

Government officials put the wood species into three lists, beginning with the best: (I’m just listing woods common to Maine.)

Best: Sugar maple, red oak, white oak, beech, birch and ash.

Medium: Soft maple (red, silver, etc.), cherry, white pine and cedar.

Lowest: Basswood, poplar, yellow poplar, spruce and larch. (The list included larch and tamarack, but they are the same tree species in Maine vernacular. Why the old list included both names is anyone’s guess.)

Decades ago, I spent an autumn in the Rockies guiding elk hunters from a tent camp at 8,000 feet, and we hunted at 10,000 feet. We burned poplar and fir, and the choices surprised this Maine boy, but we used what we had. The fir, a slow growing species, did produce good cooking coals.

Mainers have efficient hardwoods for heating and cooking. I love beech for broiling meat over coals – where red oak is too hot, birch not hot enough and beech just right – say a grouse or venison steak. Dry alder burns with a fierce heat for baking bread, pizza or biscuits or for flash cooking Chinese recipes. Old timers nicknamed it “biscuit wood.” Alder must be dry, though, to burn hot.

Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at

[email protected]


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