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Last weekend I went up to the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland to see if any of the hundreds of spring blooming coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) plants that grow here were blooming. A friend of mine likes to use the plants medicinally so I thought I’d find him some, but unfortunately I didn’t see any up yet. But I did see some ice still clinging to the walls and that surprised me, since it has been so warm.

I knew I wouldn’t see any ice climbers here because this ice was rotten and melting quickly.

It was also falling and some of it had reached the trail. This is always cause for a bit of anxiety when walking through here at this time of year.

Most of the ice didn’t have much height, which meant when it fell it couldn’t reach that far into the trail, so I thought it would be safe to stay. I saw and heard plenty of ice falling but it was quite small.

Here was a slab falling away from the wall in slow motion.

These 4 pieces of ice would have filled a pickup truck.

I saw leaves under ice in the shady parts of the drainage channels.

I always like to look up when I’m here. I think it’s good to be reminded how small we are occasionally.

Heartleaf foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) were looking happy, lifting their leaves to gather more light.  They’re one of our prettiest late spring flowers and I always find them near water or growing in wet ground along rail trails. They’re easy to spot because of their hairy, maple-like leaves and foot high flower stalks, and a colony as big as the ones found here are a beautiful sight. Native plants have leaves that are bright green at first and then turn a darker green, sometimes mottled with maroon or brown. Many hybrids have been created and foam flowers are now popular in garden centers and are grown in gardens as much for their striking foliage as the flowers. They are an excellent, maintenance free choice for shady gardens that get only morning sun.

The sun highlighted a blackberry cane with last year’s leaves still attached. It isn’t uncommon for blackberries and raspberries to hold onto their leaves all winter. Though some will stay green, most won’t.

The buds on the blackberry canes didn’t look as if they were ready just yet. It stays cool here so plants are slightly behind those that grow outside of this canyon.

Now this could be a conundrum; apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) gets its name from its round spore capsules, but as you can see here these spore capsules were elongated and more cylindrical that round. But since I also saw round capsules I was sure it was apple moss. Are immature apple moss spore capsules cylindrical? Yes. Were there two mosses here? No. The answers are: apple moss begins its reproduction in the late fall and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. When the warm rains of spring arrive the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes.

And I mean tiny; apple moss sporophytes are about .06-.08 inches in diameter. Without a macro lens you would need a 10X loupe to see any real detail. The second part of the scientific name, pomiformis, means “apple-like” in Latin.

One of the plants that grows here is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum,) and they grow on the stones by the thousands. This is the only place I’ve ever seen them and I think that’s because the conditions here are perfect for them. They like to grow in places where they never dry out and the constant drip of the groundwater makes that possible. They like to be wet but they can’t stand being submerged for any length of time so growing on the vertical walls above the drainage channels is ideal. They were heavily “budded” so they should display plenty of new green reptilian lobes later on.

For a long time I thought this was a leafy moss in the Fissidens family but now I suspect it is a leafy liverwort called Plagiochila asplenioides, also known as spleenwort hepatic, because each stem is said to resemble a tiny simple fern. And they are tiny; though the plant itself can grow large each stem from leaf tip to leaf tip is only about 1/8 inch across and the stem itself a mere half inch long. Identifying features include elliptical leaves with the corner nearest where the base meets the stem leading down the stem. Leaf edges have very fine teeth, seen only at 8X or greater magnification. I can see some in this photo, I think. The leaf attachment to the stem is slanted so that the leaf corner that extends down the stem overlaps the top of the leaf below it. All of that helpful information comes from the book Outstanding Mosses of Pennsylvania and Nearby States by Susan Munch. This liverwort loves water and grows in places where water drips constantly on the stones it grows on.

One of the most unusual things growing here are these green algae, called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the algal cells called hematochrome or beta-carotene color the algae orange by hiding their green chlorophyll. It is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color. I keep hoping I’ll see it producing spores but I never have.

This natural sculpture was perched in the middle of a drainage channel. It looked like a great blue heron had poked its head up out of the water.

I saw a seed stalk I didn’t recognize. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one like it. The way it opens is interesting and unusual.

The old lineman’s shack has made it through another winter by the looks, but I don’t know how. It seems like more of it is missing each time I see it. Since there was no provision for a woodstove in the building that I can see, I’m guessing this was simply a place to keep tools. I’d also guess that somehow they had to move a lot of snow out of the canyon so the trains could keep running. It would have been quite a job, I imagine, so lots of shovels were probably stored here.

I took another look at the old bridge that’s out in back of the lineman’s shack. It’s far too narrow for cars or trains but it crosses a stream and seems to go nowhere.

But they wouldn’t have gone to this much trouble to go nowhere. I have a feeling I’ve finally figured this mystery out, or have at least come up with a plausible theory.

By the bridge, on the far end, there is a huge pile of broken granite and, since there are massive stone walls here, I’m thinking this is where the stones for the walls were faced. “Facing” a stone means making at least one face flat, and when you stack a lot of flat faced stones together you get a flat faced wall.

These stone walls are some of the largest dry (no mortar) stone walls I’ve ever seen. The space between the walls is narrow; just wide enough for someone to stand aside when a train passed. And I’d guess that nearly every stone would have had to have been faced. That’s why I think the bridge led to where that work was done, and the pile of cut granite is left over from that operation. Small carts full of faced stones could have been pushed across the bridge to a waiting flat car to move the stones down the rail bed to where they were needed. They most likely would have had a rail mounted crane as well. Just a theory yes, but if I had been in charge of building such massive walls that’s what I would have done.

Our minds, as well as our bodies, have need of the out-of-doors. Our spirits, too, need simple things, elemental things, the sun and the wind and the rain, moonlight and starlight, sunrise and mist and mossy forest trails, the perfumes of dawn and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the ancient music of wind among the trees.~ Edwin Way Teale

Thanks for stopping in. Be well and please stay safe.

 

 

 

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Every day I drive by a wooded area that has had some changes come to it over the past year. About a year ago a huge machine came along and chewed its way through what was once a nearly impenetrable forest. Okay I thought, let’s see what they do next. But they did nothing, and what you see above is what is left. Why, I wondered, would they go to all that trouble to chew their way into the woods and then not do anything with the now empty space? I had an idea, so I decided to go exploring.

This particular piece of forest borders a large wetland and as the above stump shows, there is quite a lot of beaver activity here. I saw more stumps like this one than I could count. I wondered if the machine chewed through the forest to get at a beaver dam, so I kept going to see where it would lead.

They didn’t finish this one.

The ripples under the bark of the muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana) tree are what give it its common name. It is also called American hornbeam, blue beech, and ironwood. It’s in the hazelnut family and the name iron wood comes from its dense, hard and heavy wood that even beavers won’t usually touch. At least I’ve never seen them touch it until this day; virtually every tree they had cut was ironwood. How odd is that? I asked myself.

Female iron wood catkins form in pairs at the ends of the branches and are about a half inch long with a leaf-like bract. Last year’s bracts are  what is seen in the above photo. The bracts eventually grow to 1 inch or more long, becoming 3-lobed with smooth or irregularly toothed edges. They look like leafy butterflies.

The forest eating machine had come quite a way into the forest, I was surprised to see. It had to stop somewhere though, or it would sink into the swamp. I kept following the trail.

I noticed that all the evergreen ferns had magically lain themselves flat on the forest floor. Quite often snow will flatten them but we really haven’t had much snow. Maybe it was the three or four ice storms we had. In any case new fiddleheads will be along to replace them at any time now.

Well, here was the swamp and as I thought it marked the end of the forest chewer’s progress. But I didn’t see a beaver lodge or dam. Do they put on waders and walk in from here? I wondered.

I think the reason for all of this worry about beaver activity is because of this stream that flows into the swamp. It flows under a busy road and when we’ve had a lot of rain it can flood quickly. I’ve seen it washing over the road several times. If there is a beaver dam on it it’s even more likely to flood.

Since I was here I decided to explore along the stream. This entire area is a drainage for the surrounding hills and smaller streams join the larger one all along its length. Eventually all of the water finds its way to the Ashuelot River, then the Connecticut River, and then on to the Atlantic, so all the water that passed me on this day will join that great sea before long.

The water here is very clean and clear and the stream bed is gravel with very few aquatic plants growing in it.

There are so many river grapes (Vitis riparia) along this stream you often have to weave your way through the old, thick vines that grow into the treetops. I always like to see what I can see in their tendrils. I’ve seen Hindu dancers, fanciful animals and many other things. On this day I saw the beckoner, which held its arm out as if to beckon me close to it so it could give me a hug. River grapes are known for their ability to withstand cold and have been known to survive -57 degrees F. That makes them a favorite choice for the rootstock of many well-known grape varieties. We have about 20 native species of wild grape in the U.S. and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so they mostly made juice and jelly from them. They were also used to dye baskets a violet gray color.

Tree mosses (Climacium dendroides) grow along the stream but it’s getting harder to get to them all the time because what was once a streamside trail has become a brushy maze that I have to weave my way through. They are cheery mosses that look like little palm trees, and they always glow with a beautiful inner light, so they’re worth the effort. By this stream is the only spot I’ve ever found them so they aren’t common in this area, but I’m happy to see that they’ve spread quite well where they grow. They must not mind being under water for a time because this stream floods once or twice a year.

Rough horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) also grow along the stream, and like the tree moss this is the only place I’ve ever seen them. These are ancient plants that are embedded with silica. Another common name is the scouring rush because they are sometimes used to scour pots when camping, and they are also used for sanding wood in Japan.

I like the way they look as if someone had knitted them fancy little socks.

Japanese honeysuckles (Lonicera japonica) are already leafing out but I wasn’t surprised. Many invasive plants get a jump on natives by leafing out and blooming earlier.

I saw more hazelnut catkins (Corylus americana) turned to gold but none of the male flowers were peeking out yet.

I’m seeing more and more female hazelnut blossoms though. I’m surprised that they don’t wait until the male flowers open before appearing. That’s the way alders do it.

I saw some willow catkins but they weren’t anywhere near as far along as others I’ve seen. It could be the shade here that’s holding them back or it could be the plants themselves. If every willow bloomed at the same time and we had a frost there would be no seed production, so willows and many other shrubs and trees stagger their bloom time so that can’t happen.

The biggest surprise for me on this day was finding what I believe is a marsh marigold plant growing in the sand beside the stream. I searched for marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) for many years and never found a single one until I found one growing in a roadside ditch a couple of years ago. The ditch was reconstructed the following year and there went the plant so I lost hope of ever seeing another one. They are rare here in my experience and I was very happy to finally see another one. I’ll come back in early May to see if it’s old enough to bloom. I’d love to see those pretty yellow flowers again.

It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone is healthy and doing the best they can in these unusual circumstances we find ourselves in. From what I’ve read most states and countries, even when they say you should self-quarantine, say that people can get out for some exercise. I can’t think of any better way to get some exercise and calm yourself down than taking a nice walk in the woods. There is a difference between intelligence and wisdom and though 21st century man may be clever he isn’t very wise, and that’s because he has lost touch with nature. In any event whatever you do and wherever you do it, please stay safe and try to be calm. This too shall pass.

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Last Sunday I decided it was time to give my tired lungs a little more exercise by climbing 962 foot Mount Caesar in Swanzey. This is the longest climb that I do these days. I’ve done it many times, but not lately. The COPD I have makes it a little more difficult but I believe lungs are just like any other body part; they need to be used. This photo shows the start of the trail. The end of the trail at the summit is also granite bedrock. In fact after you’ve climbed it you realize that you’re on a huge granite outcrop with a little bit of soil on it.

Did you see that depression in the granite in that first photo? For years I’ve wondered if it was natural or man-made. “Man” would have been the red man; Native Americans had been here for thousands of years before Europeans and according to the town history of Swanzey, they are said to have used this mountain as a lookout. The Native Squakheag tribe (I think) burned the town to the ground in the 1740s but it was rebuilt some time later.

There are lots of reindeer lichens (Cladonia rangiferina) here. Huge drifts of them line both sides of the trail at its start. These lichens are quite fragile and should never be walked on.  Reindeer lichen is very slow growing at about an eighth to three eighths of an inch per year and if overgrazed or dug up, it can take decades to reappear. I’m guessing the large colonies found here must be hundreds of years old. The Native American Ojibwa tribe was known to bathe newborns in water in which reindeer lichens had been boiled.

I was surprised to see that native evergreen goldthread had melted its way through the ice in a shaded spot. Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) gets its common name from its bright yellow, thread like roots. Native Americans showed early colonists how to chew the roots to relieve the pain of canker sores and that led to the plant being called canker root. It became such a popular medicine that the Shakers were paying 37 cents per pound for dried roots in 1785 and people dug up all they could find. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other plant, and of course that meant the plant came close to being lost. Two centuries of being left alone have brought healing to Goldthread though, and today I see the tiny but beautiful white flowers quite regularly in April.

When I see soil configurations like this I know what to look for…

…Ice needles. I just talked about them in a previous post so I won’t go into great detail but as they grow up out of the soil they push up and lift any soil in their way, and you can tell you’re walking on them by the crunching sound the soil makes.

Quite often you’ll find a place where the ground looks like it has heaved up and around stones. The stone sits at the bottom of a hole that is usually shaped exactly like it is, so it also looks like the sun has heated the stone enough for it to melt down into the frozen soil. I doubt that is the answer though because the sun would heat the surrounding stones as well and often only one stone has done this. I think the ground must have heaved up and lifted all the soil that surrounded it. I saw that this had happened in several places along the trail. It’s a common sight in the spring.

It was a beautiful day to be in the woods. I saw many friendly people (and their dogs) and we all said the same thing; We were glad to see the end of winter.  

The beeches backlit by the sun made me want to just sit and admire them. They’re so beautiful at all times of year but especially in the spring and fall.

I didn’t see any signs of movement in beech buds but it won’t be long. By mid-May the newly opened buds will be the most beautiful things in the forest. It’s something I look forward to all year.

The old stone walls that line the trail tell a lot about the history of the place. At one time the flanks of this mountain were cleared of trees, most likely for sheep pasture. When the industrial revolution came along and farmers went to work in the mills all of that hard won pasture reverted back to forest. This means that most of the trees here aren’t much older than the mid-1800s, if that. They may have been cut again and again since that time.

There are still a few big trees left though; pines and an occasional oak. This huge old white pine was emptying itself of all the rotted wood within. I’m guessing that it’s probably full of carpenter ants but it can still stand and live for years, even when completely hollow. I wouldn’t want to be near it in a windstorm.

These seed heads at the edge of the trail caught my eye.

I moved a few leaves aside and found the orchid the seed heads were attached to; downy rattlesnake plantain orchids (Goodyera pubescens.) There are about 800 different species of Goodyeara orchids and telling them apart can be tricky because they cross pollinate and create natural hybrids. These leaves look fragile but they’ll remain green throughout winter. They’re a very pretty but also very small plant. Many aren’t more than two inches across.

In places the trail gets steep and an occasional side trail veers off, but all in all it’s an easy trail to follow. I’ll never forget the day I saw a high school aged boy run up the trail to the top and then he ran back down, all before I could even reach the summit. I think that I could have done it at his age but not now.

Signs help show you the way.

There is a an old , very large log near the summit and I often pretend that I’ve seen something interesting on it so I can stop and catch my breath. On this day I didn’t really have to catch my breath but I did see something interesting on it.

The green bits in the photo are eastern hemlock needles. If you know that tree that should give you an idea of how small these unusual growths were. A lichenologist friend looked at this photo and he said he’s quite sure they aren’t lichens. I’ve looked through every one of my mushroom books and haven’t found anything there either, so if you should happen to know what they are I’d love to hear from you. I used to collect cacti and succulents and they remind me of the succulent called “living stones” (Lithops) but of course they aren’t those.  

NOTE: A kindly reader has identified this mystery being as the Ceramic parchment fungus (Xylobolus frustulatus.) Many thanks to all of the kindly readers out there. You’ve been a lot of help over the years!

The views were hazy on this day, a good illustration of why I don’t climb for the view.

I was surprised to find that I had no fear of falling when I took this shot. Since I fell out of a tree and fractured my spine when I was a boy I haven’t been a great fan of heights, but I thought this cliff face was interesting enough to chance a couple of shots. I didn’t look down but if you look over to the bottom left corner of the photo you’ll get an idea of how high this was. You don’t want to go back down that way.  

When the light is right there’s a good view of Mount Monadnock over in Jaffrey from up here. Of course the best photos are found where you have to dance a little closer to a cliff edge than I like.

All in all this day was as close to perfect as one could get. Full sunshine, warm temperatures, easy breathing and getting to see a whole solar system in a toadstool lichen no bigger than a penny would be hard to beat. I hope all of you will have such a day in your near future.

Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve; they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion. ~Anatoli Boukreev

Thanks for stopping in.

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I couldn’t remember the last time I had climbed a hill or mountain so last Sunday I decided it was time. I chose Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey, for no particular reason other than that’s where the 40 ton glacial erratic called Tippin Rock lives. I set off across the meadow in wall to wall sunshine and a 46 degree temperature. This was no thaw, this was spring, and I was glad that I had worn a short sleeve shirt and a light jacket.

There is at least one basswood tree here and someday I’m going to find it. They aren’t common in this area in my experience.

The trail starts off level enough but it isn’t long before you’re climbing.

Someone lost a glove and someone else hung it on a tree.

There are lots of black birch here. I keep running into black birches (Betula lenta) with what appears to be a deformity in their buds. I wouldn’t call it witches broom but the buds grow in a tightly packed cluster which isn’t normal, judging by the other buds on the trees. I haven’t been able to find out anything about it from any source, so if you happen to know I’d love to hear from you.

Oak leaves have been falling, and that’s a good sign of spring. The trees will make new leaves as they shed the old.

This trail is well blazed. Blazes are important because they keep people from getting lost out here. A trail is easy to follow at this time of year because you just follow the footprints in the snow, but in the fall when the trail is under a fresh coating of leaves it can disappear quickly for those who don’t know how to read the woods. The meaning of various blazes and how to read them is easily found online. This one means there is a right turn ahead. On a single out and back trail like this one blaze color has no real meaning.

The old way, a hatchet blaze, simply tells you that you’re on a trail.

I saw lots of freshly fallen trees out here; more than I’ve seen anywhere else. There must have been quite a wind storm come through here.

But there are plenty of hemlock seedlings waiting to fill in the gaps. Life is a circle.

There were icicles on the ledges. They weren’t that impressive at about three feet long but it shows how cold it has been up here.

I think the outcrop the ice was on was more impressive. It’s quite long.

I had reached the steepest part of the trail without any breathing issues, for which I was very grateful. I was also grateful that there was no ice on the trail. I did stop here to catch my breath and thought about how nice it was to be climbing through the winter woods again. Climbing is easy to get addicted to. The more you climb the more you want to climb and when you can’t you miss it. It calls to you, and it won’t stop calling until you climb again.

I noticed that captain obvious had put up new signs.

I call this mysterious person captain obvious because the sign in the previous photo is only a few feet from the behemoth called Tippin Rock. You couldn’t miss it if you were blind, so the sign is kind of useless. But how amazing that such a thing was dropped by a glacier onto this hilltop. Even more amazing is how it will rock slowly back and forth like a baby cradle when pushed in the right spot. Even after seeing it myself it’s hard to believe.

Some of the oldest striped maple trees (Acer pensylvanicum) I’ve seen grow up here. This one was probably 6-8 inches through, which seems big for them if I’m to go by the ones I’ve seen.

I learned a long time ago that if you climb solely for the view you’ll be disappointed most of the time. On this day it was hazy but not too bad. I like a good view as much as the next person but I never count on there being one because it doesn’t take much haze or humidity in the air to spoil them.

This view shows the haze in the distance. There was actually a warm breeze blowing and the snow had melted from the leaf covering in several spots so I sat, warm and dry, and looked out over the endless forest.

You can’t help but wonder, after seeing miles of unbroken forest from above, how the early settlers ever did what they did. I always wonder if I could have gone on after seeing this, or would I have turned back? There was nothing familiar out there, after all. No stores, no roads, no houses, nothing. It would have almost been as if they had landed on another planet. Personally I would have loved the emptiness and the solitude but you have to eat and you need shelter, so I’d guess that staying alive would have taken up almost all their time.

It’s a long way down from here so you want to watch your step. I always check to see how near the edge I am before I bring the camera to my eye. Once I’m looking through the viewfinder, I don’t move a step. Heights and I don’t get along well but up here you don’t know how high you are until you look down. Then you get the heebie jeebies.

Of course I couldn’t come all the way up here without checking on my little friends the toadskin lichens (Lasallia papulose.) This one seemed to whisper “Hey, look at me,” so I did and I saw how very different it was. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen that was brown. Usually they’re pea green when moist or ash gray when dry. You can see a hint of that gray in this one’s center. You can also see the point where it has attached itself to the rock in its center. It’s like a belly button and that’s what makes them umbilicate lichens. The many “warts” are what give it its common name.

When dry the toadskin lichens usually turn from their normal pea green color to the ashy gray seen here. They also become very brittle, like a potato chip. All those black dots are this lichen’s fruiting bodies, where it’s spores are produced. I’ve noticed that they often seem to form where the lichen stays wettest longer after a rain.  

The head of a pin is .06 inches (1.5 mm) in diameter and one of the toadskin lichen’s fruiting bodies (Apothecium) could easily hide behind one. The apothecium is where the lichen’s spores are produced. In this case it is tiny black disc with a sunken center that makes it look like a bowl with a thick black rim. The way that they sit on the body (thallus) of the lichen makes them look like they’d blow away in a breeze, but they are attached. This isn’t a great photo but it’s only the second time I’ve ever been able to get this close to this lichen‘s apothecia and it’s a pretty fair bet that you’re seeing something you’ve never seen.

Here is what a normal, healthy and happy toadskin lichen looks like, and this one looked like this because an icicle was dripping meltwater on it. It was about as big as a quarter and cute as a button.

I got back to my car and saw that a horse had been there. Horseshoes are supposed to be lucky but I’m not sure about a horseshoe print. I did feel lucky though, having gotten up and down the hill without any issues. The temperature even went up 8 degrees and it was a beautiful day, up or down. I’m already itching to climb again.

Perhaps there’s no better act of simplification than climbing a mountain. For an afternoon, a day, or a week, it’s a way of reducing a complicated life into a simple goal. All you have to do is take one step at a time, place one foot in front of the other, and refuse to turn back until you’ve given everything you have. ~Ken Ilgunas

Thanks for coming by.

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There is a rail trail in Keene that is probably the best one to walk if you like railroad history, and since history and botany are my favorite subjects it’s a must see for me. I think it has been about a year since I was out here last but I remembered what a pleasure it was to walk on the wide rail bed. It was icy in spots but since it is level it wasn’t bad.

There is a nice old box culvert that I’ve seen before but I didn’t know that I could see right through it to the far end. It spans the entire width of the rail bed to let a stream pass under it, so it’s quite long. It’s amazing how much weight these culverts once carried and how long they have lasted un-maintained. A train hasn’t rolled through here since the early 1970s.

Old signal boxes litter the sides of the rail trails in this area and a blogging friend who does asbestos remediation warned me that many of these boxes contained asbestos. I just take photos of them though, so they don’t bother me.

I can’t explain what is going on with the end of this log but I thought it was interesting.

Blue sap lines were run in the woods parallel to the trail in places.

The way these plastic lines save time and effort is by eliminating the need to empty hundreds of sap buckets into large tanks. These tanks were pulled through the woods by horses or tractors and it was a labor intensive operation, especially when we had feet of snow. What the lines haven’t eliminated is the need to still drill and tap the trees each spring. I’ve also heard that a moose or deer can wreak havoc if they get caught in the lines. All it takes is a pin hole to stop sap flow, and then you have to walk all the lines until you find and fix it, so there’s still a certain amount of labor involved each year.

You don’t realize how high up you are until you see a road below you.

The road passes through this tunnel built by the railroad. The previous photo was taken way up there where the ground is flat. The tunnel was probably 2 wagons wide when it was built but now only one car can pass through at a time. I’d guess the tunnel was built first and then all the soil you see was put over it, which would have been a huge amount of work.

There are at least two culverts out here in the woods that are built in the same way the tunnel in the previous photo was built, but on a smaller scale. It’s pretty amazing to find something like this out in the middle of nowhere. The railroad masons were true craftsman who took pride in their work and it still shows 150 years later. I’ve heard that many were from Scotland but I don’t know how true that is. I do know that I would have loved to have worked with them.

You don’t realize what wilderness the city of Keene encompasses until you come out here. This view is just a few miles from major roads but I wouldn’t be surprised to meet a bear, bobcat or moose out here.

Anyone who knows anything about railroads knows they don’t take sharp turns or go steeply uphill like that trail on the left, so what’s going on? The original trail keeps going straight, right through that fallen tree on the right. If followed it’s an education, but you’d better be prepared to climb over and under a few fallen trees.

Once you climb over a few trees this is what you see; more fallen trees in a deep cut through ledge.

A mountain of stone off in the woods shows how much was taken out of the deep cut.

Though it’s hard to see because of the snow it’s very wet here. The drainage ditches have failed and water has filled the rail bed, so if you come here you’d better wear good waterproof hiking boots.

There isn’t much groundwater here and I know that because there wasn’t much ice.

In the deep cut rail trail I visit up in Westmoreland the walls are fairly straight, having been drilled and blasted. Here the walls look quite natural, so I wonder how it was done. Since there is a mountain of stone in nearby the woods it was obviously taken from here. There are tool marks here and there that I have seen, so they did have to drill in places, but not many. In any event it would have been a huge amount of work but that’s what the railroads were known for; doing the impossible.

I saw some lush examples of delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum).  

What this place reminds me of is what all of our rail trails would look like if they were no longer maintained. In this area many of them are maintained by snowmobile clubs and the deserve or thanks, as well as any time and / or money we could donate.

I turned around here but I have been all the way to the end before and the end of the line is nothing but a huge pile of dirt. But that is a problem, because railroad tracks don’t just stop at a dirt pile; this line ran north to Westmoreland and then cut over into Vermont at one time, so I know it came through here. Hurricane Road was laid out in 1761 and ran to the Westmoreland town line and the railroad came to this area in 1848, so the tracks would have had to run under the road at this spot. Does that mean that there is a beautiful granite tunnel under that huge pile of dirt? Did they take the tunnel apart and fill in the hole when the railroad stopped running? In any event this rail trail is a dead end. Sort of anyway; you can still cross Hurricane Road and pick it up again on the other side. But what happened to the tunnel? It would have been great fun to walk through.

I didn’t meet any horses on the way back down the trail but I did meet Tucker, a very happy and friendly golden retriever. He was taking his humans for a walk.

The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for. ~Louis L’Amour

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I wanted to see how the ice columns had grown at the deep cut up in Westmoreland so off I went last week with low expectations. With the unusual warmth we’ve had I wasn’t sure I’d see any and when I saw the parking lot empty I was pretty sure I had wasted my time. No ice climbers on a January weekend is unheard of but I found out why; though there were ice columns most were rotten and crumbling.

An opaque finish on ice it does not bode well for an ice climber, because ice that looks like this is rotten and unsafe. Ice becomes rotten when water, air bubbles, and/or dirt get in between the grains of ice and cause it to honeycomb and lose its strength. Instead of a sharp ringing crack when it is struck it produces more of a dull thud. The grayish white color and matte finish are a sure sign that you should stay away from it when it’s hanging over your head. Ice grows very clear and  shiny when it’s cold and it doesn’t usually get rotten until March. Since January’s average temperature has been a full 8 degrees above normal I wasn’t that surprised to find it rotten.

The slush underfoot showed how warm it was, even in here where the temperature is usually a good 10 degrees cooler.

This is where I’d expect to see climbers. There were signs that they had been here but nothing recent.

Just so you can get an idea of the scale of the place here’s a shot of some ice climbers I took previously in about the same spot as the previous photo. It was a lot colder that year.

Leaving the northern canyon in the previous photos, I made my way into the southern canyon. It was here that disappointment hit me, because you could see as much stone as you could ice.

This photo from 2015, taken from about the same spot as the previous one, shows what the southern end of the trail looks like in a cold winter. You don’t see a lot of stone.

I did see some colored ice though. All of this ice is caused by groundwater constantly seeping through the fractured stone of the canyons and I think the color comes from various minerals in the water. This photo also shows another example of rotten ice; there is no shine to it at all when normally it would shine like glass. It’s dull and completely opaque.

The mineral laden water also stains the snow.

Here were some stains on the stone; caused by iron, I’m guessing.

There was some hard shiny ice here, but very little.

The railroad engineers knew about all the groundwater and they built drainage diches along the sides of the rail bed to carry it all away, but to see the ditches open and flowing in January was odd. Usually the ice covering them is strong enough by this time to walk on them.

The mosses seemed to be loving the weather and I loved seeing the mosses.

I’m guessing that I’ve been through here a hundred times or more but I had never seen this big vein of quartz until this day. That’s why naturalist John Burroughs said “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.”

Here was an ice column just getting started. It was about as big around as your thigh and, though it’s hard to tell from the photo, it only touches the stone at its top and bottom. If it grows it will become as big as a tree trunk in diameter and attach itself to the stone all along its length. Clearly though, the mosses were winning on this day.

Here were some chunks of fallen ice along the side of the trail. When an ice column detaches from the wall it can fall across the entire trail, and when that happens this can be a very dangerous place to be. Once or twice I’ve seen small pieces fall; I didn’t hear a thing until they hit the ground so I doubt you would have any warning.

Here was more fallen ice. Any one of these pieces was big enough to kill someone and that probably explains why I didn’t see any snowmobilers here. I saw one lady on cross country skis and she looked like she was trying to get out of here as quickly as she could.

If a piece of ice or stone falls on you from way up there, you’re all done.

This is the biggest piece of ice I’ve ever seen and I know that don’t want to be anywhere near it if it lets go and slides into the trail. It’s like a small glacier.

Behind this ice was a hidden waterfall of groundwater and it made the ice crackle and sizzle like bacon frying in a pan. It was one of the strangest sounds I’ve ever heard in nature.

Here was another smaller waterfall that had washed away most of the ice that covered it. It shows how water streams off theses walls in places. When you understand that all this water is groundwater, running under the ground we walk on, it seems incredible.

Board by board the old lineman’s shack slowly disappears, yet still it stands, a testament to the quality of the railroad worker’s craftsmanship . Each year I tell myself it can’t possibly stand through another winter but here it is. How will I feel I wonder, when it finally comes down?

How much water can the weight of ice carry?
~Dianna Hardy

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Just so you don’t think that every day is sunny here in New Hampshire I decided to flirt with a drenching rain and walk along the Ashuelot River last Saturday. The forecast was for rain and lots of it, but it wasn’t supposed to happen until later in the afternoon, so I thought I’d stay dry.

The trail was snow covered but not icy, so that made for a relatively easy walk. This trail I believe, though I have no real proof, was probably originally used by Native Americans to get to their favorite fishing spots. The word Ashuelot means “collection of many waters” in Native American language and just upriver from here an archeological dig discovered artifacts dating to about 12,000 years ago. Their villages were all along this river, so why wouldn’t they have used this trail or one very much like it in this same general area? People still fish here today as I did as a boy, and they still use this trail to get to their favorite spot.  

I startled a flock of black capped chickadees that were poking around on the bare ground under a white pine.

These branches of an old sunken tree always remind me of the timbers of a ship, so “shiver me timbers” came to mind. Actually the word shiver had nothing to do with ice or cold. It meant splintering the timbers of a ship, accomplished by storms or cannonballs. And it’s doubtful that a pirate ever said it; the term first appeared in print in 1834 in a novel called Jacob Faithful, written by a British Royal Navy officer named Captain Frederick Marryat.

On a meandering river like this one the current always flows slowest on the inside of a bend, and because of the slow moving current ice can form there easier than it can in the swift moving current on the outside of bends. That’s why only half the river was ice covered.

A pair of mallards swam near the far bank. She ate while he watched me for any sudden moves. Meanwhile I fumbled with my camera, trying to get a too short lens to reach them.

Maleberrry (Lyonia ligustrina) shrubs look much like a blueberry, even down to their flowers, but their flowers are much smaller than those of blueberry. I’d guess barely half the size of a blueberry blossom. The two shrubs often grow side by side and look so much alike that sometimes the only way to tell them apart is by the maleberry’s woody brown, 5 part seed capsules, seen here. These seed capsules stay on the shrub in some form or another year round and are helpful for identification, especially in spring when the two shrubs look nearly identical. They both grow all along the banks of the river.

Clubmosses poked up out of the snow. These evergreen plants have been around for a while; fossil records show that they were here 200 million years ago and that some now extinct species reached 100 feet tall. They are thought to be the source of the coal that we burn today. Though some club mosses look enough like evergreen seedlings to be called princess pine, ground pine, and ground cedar they bear no relation to pines or cedars. I remember, not too far in the past, people collecting club mosses to make Christmas wreaths and earn extra money. Unfortunately that led to over collecting and club mosses are now on the endangered species list in many states. They seem to be making a good comeback here, though I still see wreaths made from them every now and then.

Clubmosses don’t flower like pines and cedars but instead produce spores like a fern. Spores form in spike-like structures called sporophylls, which are the  yellowish “clubs” seen in the previous photo. They reproduce by their spores, which can take 20 years to germinate, and by horizontal underground stems. When the “clubs” look prickly like this example they have released their spores and they usually do so in winter. The spores were used to control bleeding and the plants used in a medicinal tea by Native Americans. The spores contain a wax like substance that repels water and have also been used to soothe diaper rash and other skin ailments. Dried spores are extremely flammable and will explode in a blinding flash when lit. They are the source of the flash powder used in some stage pyrotechnics and were used in photography as an early form of what later became the flash bulb.

I went off the trail into the woods to look at something and there was a tearing at my clothes. I thought I had stumbled into a blackberry patch but no, these were the thorns of multiflora rose  (Rosa multiflora.) This plant originally came from China to be used as an ornamental and as the old story goes, almost immediately escaped and started to spread rapidly. It grows over the tops of shrubs and smothers them by using all the available sunshine. I’ve seen it reach thirty feet into trees. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was imported more for its scent than any other reason, because to smell it is like smelling a bit of heaven on earth. Its thorns mean business though.

There were more thorns to worry about on invasive Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) stems. They looked like knee high barbed wire. The shrub grows into nearly impenetrable thickets here along the river and fruits prolifically. It crowds out native plants and can prevent all but the smallest animals getting through. The berries are rich in vitamin C and are sometimes used to make jams and jellies.

A broken maple had fallen into another tree on the far side of the river.

Another broken maple was closer, right along the path. This was a red maple.

The target canker on the bark of this tree tells me it’s a red maple because, if I understand what I’ve read correctly, red maple is the only maple that gets target canker. There are plenty of red maples here, and in fact I think they’re the predominant species. Unfortunately many of them seem to be weak trees because they fall regularly. It isn’t because of target canker though; it doesn’t hurt the tree.

I saw through a see through tree.

Beavers had munched part way through an ash tree. I wish they’d take the tree down because half cut trees can be dangerous, especially with the winds we’ve had lately. In the end though, I don’t suppose the beavers care what I think. They have their reasons for doing what they do and they’ve been doing it for a lot longer than I’ve been wishing they wouldn’t.

While I was thinking about the beaver tree I almost stumbled into a muskrat burrow. It looked like it had collapsed and fallen in on itself. The word muskrat is thought to come from the Algonquin tribe of Native Americans and is said to mean “it is red.” I’ve read that the original native word was musquash. Muskrats will burrow into the banks of ponds, rivers or lakes creating an underwater entrance. They also build feeding platforms in wetlands.

Every now and then I’ll see a tree standing dead, with all of its bark gone. I always wonder what, even if the tree has died, would cause all of its bark to come off. It’s normal for trees to lose bark, but usually not all of it all at once. I’ve seen long strips of bark at the base of trees like this one, curled around the trunk where it fell. Sometimes these bark strips are 10 feet long or more and pliable, as if they fell off while still healthy.

I kicked around in the snow at the base of the tree in the previous photo and sure enough, there were strips of bark all around it. The bark was still pliable; this photo shows the beautiful colors of the inner bark.

The inner bark of trees can often be beautiful and sometimes unexpectedly colored. I’ve even seen blue. This photo shows the colors found under a strip of birch bark that someone had peeled off this tree.

I reached the little red bridge in what seemed like record time, but I had seen much. When you dawdle and look at this and admire that sometimes you lose yourself and time does strange things. In any event I had no appointments and had only to wonder about the coming rain. In the end I didn’t get wet so it was a perfect day. Actually it would have been a perfect day even if I had gotten wet.

All along the trail I kept getting glimpses of a bright golden something on the bank up ahead and finally when I reached the bridge I could see that it was only a clump of grass. I had to smile because all along the trail every time I had tried to get a photo of it there was something in the way, but I also had to admire it for its beautiful color. Never did a clump of dead grass please me more.

Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself. ~L. Wolfe Gilbert

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