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Posts Tagged ‘Boston and Maine Railroad’

On a recent hot, humid day I thought a rail trail might be a rather effortless walk so I chose one I knew well. When I started walking here some 50+ years ago trains ran through what now looks like a jungle. The railroad would never have put up with so much growth on the sides of the railbed of course, but I kind of like it this way. I was to find out that a little bit of everything grows here now, and the time spent here was full of discovery. This trail has become popular with bicyclists and I was passed by quite a few.

I saw lots of hazelnuts (Corylus americana.) Hazelnuts are a common sight along our rail trails but they have good years and bad years and more often than not there are no nuts on the bushes. On this day though, they were everywhere.

If you turn the nut cluster and look at the back you can see and feel the unripe nuts inside. There were four in this cluster.

Fringed loosestrife grew in shaded places along the trail. Note how virtually every flower nods toward the ground. As far as I know this is the only one of our yellow loosestrifes with this habit. Whorled loosestrife looks identical at a glance, but its flowers face outward.

A vine I never saw when I was a boy and saw only in one spot just a few years ago is spreading enough so now I’m seeing it almost everywhere I go. It is the smooth carrion flower vine (Smilax herbacea.) This native, non woody vine gets its common name from the strong odor of its flowers. There are both male and female plants, and they usually grow near each other.

The flowers of the smooth carrion flower vine become dark blue berries that birds love and I would guess that accounts for it quickly spreading from place to place as it has. The berries on this vine were still green but I would guess that they’ll be ripe by the end of July.   

Common mullein surprised me by growing along the trail. I’ve always wondered if the railroad didn’t spray some type of herbicide along the tracks because you never would have found plants like mullein growing here back when the trains ran. There were an awful lot of raspberries and blackberries back then though, but now all I see are canes with no berries. Raspberries and blackberries bear fruit only on second year canes so I’m guessing the young canes I’ve seen here are being cut. Possibly by a snowmobile trail improvement crew.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) grew all along the trail and had large flower heads all ready to bloom. You can see how smooth and hairless its stems are in this photo. They are also a bluish color when young. This is another plant I don’t remember ever seeing here when I was a boy.

Here is a smooth sumac flower, just opened. They are so small I really doubted that I’d be able to get a useable photo of them. They look quite complicated for such a small thing.

While smooth sumac was just starting to bloom staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) had already formed fruit. I didn’t know that sumac berries went from green to pink before they became red.

Some of the things I remember most about this place when I was a boy are the cornfields, most of which are still here. More or less; last years drought killed off the young corn plants and for the first time that I can remember there was no corn growing here. This year in spring I came out here and found wheat growing in this field, as far as the eye could see. Wheat? I didn’t know what that was all about but they’ve cut all the wheat and are leaving this part of the field fallow, apparently. Off in the distance you can just make out corn growing, about a third of the way up in this photo. Why they didn’t plant the whole field I don’t know but the corn that is there was knee high by the fourth of July, and that’s perfect.

Here is the wheat I found a couple of months ago. It is actually triticale according to Google lens, which is a hybrid of wheat (Triticum) and rye (​Secale) first developed in laboratories during the late 19th century in Scotland and Germany. If the word triticale (trit-ih-KAY-lee) rings a bell you might have seen an original Star Trek episode called “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Everyone knew what triticale was except captain Kirk, and the tribbles ate all the poisoned triticale and saved the day.

I kept taking photos of the trail because I couldn’t believe how jungle like it has become. I dreamed of being a plant hunter in the world’s jungles when I was young, so I would have loved this. Back then though, this corridor was at least twice as wide.

There are things to watch out for in any jungle and on this day it was stinging nettle (Urtica dioica.) The Urtica part of the scientific name comes from the Latin uro, which means “I burn.” The hollow stinging hairs on the leaves and stems are called trichomes and act like hypodermic needles, injecting histamine and other chemicals that cause the stinging.

Buttery little sulfur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) likes waste places and disturbed ground so I wasn’t really too surprised to see it here. I was surprised that it got enough sunlight to bloom though.

Tall meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens) bloomed weakly. Since it starts blooming in June I was surprised to see any flowers at all. I took this shot this way specifically so you could see the plant’s leaves. In early spring a lot of people confuse this plant with wild columbine, though the leaves are quite different.

What surprised me more than anything else I saw was a Canada lily (Lilium canadense) blooming beside the trail. This is something I would have remembered had I seen them here years ago. These plants are one of our biggest wildflowers. They can reach 7 feet tall and have as many as 10 flowers dangling chandelier like from long petioles. This plant only had 2 blossoms and I think it was because it didn’t get enough sun and grew in dry, sandy soil. I’ve seen woodchucks burrow into this ground and all they’ve brought up from under the railbed is pure sand.

Canada lily flowers are big, and can be yellow, orange or red, or a combination. They have purple spotted throats that aren’t always seen because the flowers almost always face downwards. If you’re very gentle though, you can bend a stem back enough to see into a blossom without breaking it. This plant is unusual because it prefers wet places. Most lilies, and in fact most plants that grow from bulbs, do not like soil that stays wet. They prefer sandy, well-drained soil. I almost always find Canada lilies growing along rivers and streams, and that’s why I was so surprised to see it here in this dry soil.

A tiny golden metallic bee landed on a leaf beside me.

The green berries of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) are now speckled with red. Eventually they’ll become all red and will disappear quickly.

I was surprised to see tall lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) blooming out here. Though it can reach 10 feet tall its flowers are very small; no more than a 1/4 inch across, and appear in loose clusters at the top of wiry stalks. Native Americans used the plant for pain relief, as a stimulant, and for calming the nerves. The milky white sap contains a compound called lactucarium, which has narcotic and sedative properties. It is still used in medicines today but should be used with caution because overdoses can cause death.

There was the trestle over ash brook, where the brook meets the Ashuelot River after it snakes its way through Keene. I usually like to go under it and see what flowers are blooming along the banks of the brook but we’ve had several inches of rain and the water was far too high.

Of course the river was high as well. Not too far from this spot there used to be a small island in the river just off shore, and an oak tree had fallen from the river bank to the island and made a bridge. I used to spend many happy hours on that island but high water like that which we see here first washed away the oak tree bridge and then over the years the island disappeared as well. Water is a powerful thing.

This is a magical place for me. It’s a place where I can see, better than anywhere else, how the world has changed. Or at least this small part of it. The land in this view for instance was a cornfield when I was a boy. Now it’s just silver and red maples and a lot of sensitive ferns; all plants that don’t mind wet feet. If you walk through here you find that the surface soil is pure silt, as fine as sifted flour, and that makes me think they probably stopped farming this piece of land because of flooding. Both the brook and the river still flood in this area and since as I write this on July 11 there are rain or showers predicted every day for the coming week, it’s liable to flood again.

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time. ~John Lubbock

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I hope you’re in a nice warm place while reading this because this post is full of ice like that in the photo above, and you might feel a little chilly by the time you’ve reached the end.

Last Sunday, about a month since my last visit, I decided to visit the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland where the “big ice” grows each winter. The walls of the manmade canyon are 50 feet high in places and groundwater running through the stone creates ice columns as big as tree trunks. I wanted to see how much the ice had grown in a month.

It had grown quite a lot; enough to climb, in fact and by chance the Appalachian Mountain Club were training here today. They come here as soon as the ice is safe to train people in ice climbing. On this day the 25 degree temperature and 10 mile per hour wind made this place feel like an icebox, and that’s exactly what the climbers call it.

I was here for ice too; not to climb but to photograph, and I saw plenty.

There was an entire canyon full of it.

Some of the ice is colored various colors, I believe according to the minerals that happen to be in the groundwater.

There are plenty of mineral stains to be seen on the stones where groundwater has seeped out of cracks and it makes sense that mineral rich water would color the ice.

This slab of ice is huge and if it ever lets go of the rock it grows on I hope I’m nowhere near it.

I speak about “rotten ice” a lot when I come here so I thought I’d show you the difference between good, solid ice like that in the above photo and the rotten ice in the following photo. This ice is clear and very hard and will ring sharply if you tap on it. It has very few air bubbles and other impurities trapped inside it.

Rotten ice on the other hand is opaque, weak and full of impurities. 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. When you tap on ice that looks like this you hear 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 like it can do here.  

Falling ice is a real danger here; most of these pieces were big enough to have killed someone. This doesn’t usually happen until the weather warms in March though, so I was surprised to see it.

Then there are the falling stones. These fell very recently because they were on the ice of the frozen drainage channel. This always concerns me because I walk in or over the drainage channels to get to the canyon walls. That’s where interesting mosses and liverworts grow. If I had been hit by any one of those stones it would have been all over.

But speaking of the drainage channels, the ice growing on them was beautiful.

The opening photo of this post also shows ice that formed on the drainage channel, just like that in the above shot.

Here was something I’ve never seen; an icicle fell and stabbed through the ice on the drainage channel, and then froze standing up.

Last year’s leaves were trapped under the ice in places.

In other places the drainage channel hadn’t frozen at all. Here the sun was reflected in the water of the channel. I thought the colors were very beautiful. Like molten sunshine.

This spirogyra algae dripping off the stones was something I’ve seen but have never seen here. Spirogyra has common names that include water silk and mermaid’s tresses. It is described as a “filamentous charophyte green algae of the order Zygnematales.” I’ve read that they grow in nutrient rich places. They’re always interesting and I wanted to take a closer look but I didn’t have my rubber boots on so I couldn’t walk through the drainage channel.

Here is some spirogyra algae that I found last year. The strange thing that looks like a vacuum cleaner hose is a chloroplast, and its spiral growth habit is what gives these algae their name. There are more than 400 species of Spirogyra in the world, almost always found in fresh water situations. According to what I’ve read, when used medicinally spirogyra are known as an important source of “natural bioactive compounds for antibiotic, antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and cytotoxic purposes.” As I said; they’re always interesting.

NOTE: A botanist friend has written in to say that chloroplasts are microscopic so the hose like thing is not one of those, but neither one of us can figure out exactly what it is. It’s a very strange thing to be seen under algae, that’s for sure. I wish we had studied algae in the botany classes that I had!

The orange red color in this shot is iron oxide, washed from the soil by groundwater. I thought the colors in this scene were amazing; otherworldly and beautiful. There was much beauty to be seen here on this day and it reminded me why I come here again and again.

As I always do I stopped at what is left of the old lineman’s shack. It was easy to imagine a group of workers huddled around an old potbellied stove in there on a day like this, but it would have had walls and a roof then. It was very well built and simply refuses to fall. They actually used railroad ties for the sills.

Here is a look at the inside of the shack. It’s too bad people feel the need to tear things apart, but it has probably been abandoned for close to 50 years now, since the Boston and Maine Railroad stopped running in the 1970s.

If you aren’t cold yet you must be a real trooper, but I thought I’d end with a warm shot of sunshine and blue sky just in case. With the wind chill the temperature was about 10 degrees F, and I was thankful that my cameras hadn’t stopped working. I was also thankful to be back in a warm car again even though I discovered that wearing a cloth mask is a good way to keep your face warm. Hopefully spring isn’t too far off.

It’s getting cold. Some of you will put on jackets from the last season. Check your pockets. You might  well find a forgotten, unfulfilled wish.
~ Ljupka Cvetanova

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Last Sunday the weather people said it would be windy and cold with possibilities of snow squalls but I wanted to be in the woods, so I headed for a rail trail in Swanzey that I hadn’t been on since last year sometime. When I left the house it wasn’t bad; 36 degrees F. and cloudy, with a slight breeze. I was hoping the snow squalls wouldn’t happen because they can take you into white out conditions in an instant. When they happen you can’t see very well so I made a plan to just stand under a pine or hemlock tree until it passed. Luckily, I didn’t need a plan.

The trail was icy because we’d had rain all day the day before and then it froze up at night, but someone still had their bike out. You wouldn’t catch me doing that.

Though the trail was iced over the forest along the trail was mostly clear. Pines and hemlocks keep a lot of snow from hitting the ground.

The old whistle post wasn’t covered by forest debris yet. The W stands for whistle and the post is called a whistle post because it marks the spot where the locomotive engineer was to blow the train’s whistle. When there is a crossing very nearby, where the railbed crosses a road, the whistle would have alerted wagon or auto drivers that a train was coming. Some whistle posts were marked – – o -, which meant “two longs and a short” on the whistle. I grew up hearing these whistles (actually horns) daily as the old Boston and Maine diesel freights went by our house.

There are houses not too far from this rail trail and years ago someone planted a privet hedge and let it go. Now it has fruit.

I saw lots of big red stem moss (Pleurozium schreberi) out here. This is a common moss that I often see growing in very large mats, sometimes even overrunning and choking out other mosses. In fact I’ve never seen a moss grow as fast as this one. A few years ago I hardly saw it and now I see it just about everywhere I go. I’ve read that it is native but it seems bent on taking over the earth.

There are lots of small oak trees out here that have been cut again and again by the people who maintain these trails, and this is one of them. It stopped me when I noticed all the various colors in its leaves. Beautiful warm browns, orange, and even pink.

Many of the oak leaves were covered with small spots, which I think were some type of fungus.

One of the oaks had galls on it and a bird had pecked them open to get at the galls inside. Years ago I thought at first it was woodpeckers that did this but I’ve seen blue jays and even chickadees pecking at them.

High up in the branches of many oaks jelly fungi grow on the limbs, and when these limbs fall we get a good chance to see them. I think that the most common of all jelly fungi is this one; the amber jelly (Exidia recisa,) because I see it all the time, especially after a rain. This one always reminds me of jellied cranberry sauce. Jelly fungi dry out when it’s dry and appear as tiny colored flakes that you’d hardly believe could grow as much as they do, but they absorb water like a sponge and can grow to 60 times bigger than they were when dry. Jelly fungi have a shiny side and a kind of matte finish side and their spores are produced on their shiny sides. After a good rain look closely at those fallen limbs, big or small, and you’re sure to find jelly fungi.

One side of this trail is bordered by Yale forest and there is plenty to see there. Yale University has a hands on forestry school in this forest so you can occasionally see it being selectively logged.

It’s easy to see how white tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata) got its common name. This is a fairly common moss that seems to like to hang from the sides of boulders and ledges. Another name for it is Medusa moss, because when dry its leaves press close to the stem and it takes on a very wiry, string like appearance. Its ball shaped orange spore capsules (sporophytes) are hidden among the leaves on very short stalks, so they’re hard to see. This moss will even grow on asphalt roofs, so it is a perfect choice for green roof projects.

Due to the rain of the day before this particular moss looked happy and beautiful.

Before I knew it I was at the trestle.

There are good views of the river from these old trestles so I’m glad they’re still here.

Many trees topple into the river each year and that’s why you usually only see kayaks or canoes on it when the water is high in spring. I have a feeling that leaning maple will be in the water before too long.

I’ve been out here when the leaves were on the trees so I know they’re silver and red maples, but even if I hadn’t seen the leaves, those buds would tell the story.

I walked on past the trestle and saw a few stones with drill marks but I didn’t see any ledges or boulders that they might have come from. Usually you can tell right where they are from.

It was nice to see green leaves in January. I think the overhanging evergreens must have helped protect these blackberry leaves from the cold.

I saw a few partridgeberry plants with the berries still on them. Usually turkeys and other birds snap them up quickly so they can be hard to find. Partridgeberry is one of the lowest growing evergreen plants on the forest floor, hardly growing more than 3 or 4 inches high. Plants have a vining habit but do not climb. Instead they form dense mats by spreading their trailing stems out to about a foot from the crown. Roots will often form at leaf nodes along the stems and start new plants. The berries will remain on the plant for long periods unless eaten, and can sometimes still be found the following spring.

Partridgeberry flowers come in pairs that are fused at the base. Once pollinated, the ovaries of these flowers will join and form one berry with 8 seeds. Partridgeberry plants can always be easily identified by the two indentations on the berries that show where the flowers were, and these can be seen in the photo above.  Other names for this plant include twinberry and two-eyed berry. The berries are edible, but mostly tasteless.

I saw a stone that was shot full of mica. I’ve had a hard time getting a good shot of mica in the past but this one came out reasonably well.

After a time I saw the river again and I knew it was time to turn around, because from here it is just a short walk to the other end of this leg of the trail where several roads meet. I was glad the snow squalls held off until later in the day.

Forests, lakes, and rivers, clouds and winds, stars and flowers, stupendous glaciers and crystal snowflakes – every form of animate or inanimate existence, leaves its impress upon the soul of man. ~Orison Swett Marden

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I’ve heard stories about a deep cut rail trail up in Hancock New Hampshire for a couple of years now so last Saturday I decide to see what it was about. This railroad was different than the ones that I’m familiar with because it went out of business before the second world war and all of the steel, including the rails, bridges and trestles were sold off during the second world war to help the war effort. The original railroad, built in 1878, was called the Manchester and Keene Railroad. It was taken over by the Boston and Maine Railroad in 1893 and used until flooding damaged many of the trestles. Since replacing the trestles would have been extremely costly, the line was simply abandoned.

What I thought was a drainage channel was actually a stream. It was nice to have its music with me as I walked along.

The water was crystal clear.

Just as I was thinking that it was strange that the stream wasn’t frozen I ran into ice on the trail. I had my micro spikes on so I wasn’t worried about ice.

I like looking at the patterns in ice.

Ice can do amazing things and it can also be very beautiful.

I saw some unusual things out here and this was one of them. This wall is not holding back anything so it isn’t a retaining wall. It looks more like a loading dock but it’s too far away from where the rail cars would have been, so it’s original use is a mystery. Someone went through a lot of time and effort to build it though so it had some importance in its day.

Ice needles grew here and there by the thousands.

I saw the seed heads of heal all (Prunella lanceolata) so I know there are flowers out here. Heal all has been known for its medicinal value since ancient times and has been said to cure everything from sore throats to heart disease, and that’s how it got its common name. Native Americans believed the plant improved eyesight and drank a tea made from it before a hunt. There are Botanists who believe that there are two varieties of heal all; Prunella vulgaris from Europe, and Prunella lanceolata from North America.

I saw the tracks of wild turkeys that had come out of the woods. Turkeys have a “toe” at the rear of their foot that leaves a little dot in the snow and though it’s hard to see in this photo, they are there.

There are whitetail deer out here as well.

The land sloped away on my right and an old stone wall marked what was once pastureland. Many of what are today forests were cleared pasture lands in the past. Most stone walls dates from the late 1700s to early 1800s. Many farmers went off to work in factories in the mid-1800s after the industrial revolution and gave up farming and their pastures slowly returned to forest, but I have a feeling this land was still being used for pasture when the railroad came through in 1878.

The original stock fencing, so common along these old railbeds, wouldn’t have been needed if the land wasn’t being used to keep animals on. You didn’t want animals on the tracks so many miles of this fencing was strung up along the railways.

And then there was this; a tunnel under the railbed. I doubted it was a culvert because there wasn’t a stream nearby so I think it was a passage for animals. A way to get them from one side of the tracks to the other without them having to cross the tracks.

It was all concrete. Concrete has been around since Roman times so it wasn’t a clue to age but I’d guess it had to have been built while the original railbed was being built. The roof wasn’t high enough to let a horse, cow or tractor through but it was plenty high enough for sheep. Sheep farming was very big in New Hampshire’s rocky ground in the 1800s so a passage under the railbed would make perfect sense. You wouldn’t want your flock on the tracks when a train was coming.

And here was the deep cut, snowier than I had hoped. I like to see what grows on these old exposed walls and that isn’t an easy thing to do when they’re snow covered.

It was easy to see what they did with all the stone from the cut. There are several of these big piles in the woods.

I wondered if they had blasted the stone and sure enough, there were the marks of a steam drill. The railroad workers cut through solid rock by drilling holes into the stone and then blasting. Holes like these were often drilled by steam power and are evidence that black powder rather than dynamite was used. Packing these holes with black powder and lighting a fuse was a very dangerous business and many were killed doing it. Dynamite wasn’t invented until 1866 so it was either black powder or brute force before that. Since this railroad was built in 1878 they might have used dynamite but I doubt it. It would have been far more expensive and harder to get than black powder. After the wall face was blasted away someone had to clean up tons of stone, and that’s how all the stone piles came to be in the woods.

There were signs of groundwater seeping through the stone and the staining on the snow pointed to minerals in the groundwater.

All in all though I didn’t see that this would be a good location for great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) because of the lack of water. They like to grow on stone that hangs over water. That way they get plenty of the humidity that they need.

But there were liverworts here; or at least I think so. I believe this example might be ciliated fringewort (Ptilidium ciliare). Wikipedia says the Ptilidium part of the scientific name comes from the Greek word ptilidion, meaning “small feather”. According to what I’ve read it is widespread in Canada, Alaska, the northeastern United States, Greenland, Iceland, and northern Europe. I’ve never seen it before, so if you know that I’ve given it an incorrect identification I hope you’ll let me know. I suppose it could be a very dry moss but I don’t get a moss feeling from it.

NOTE: A lichenologist friend told me that this liverwort is actually called  grove earwort or (Scapania nemorosa) . It’s great to have helpers.

I also saw an old friend; a single smoky eye boulder lichen (Porpidia albocaerulescens), and the light was just right to show off some of its beautiful blue spore producing apothecia. Like jewels sprinkled on the stone; that’s what they always remind me of.

Broom moss (Dicranum scoparium) peeked out from under the ice.

I was surprised to find a red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) out here. These shrubs are on the rare side in this area so I hope nobody cuts it. From its purple buds in winter to its pretty white flowers in spring to its bright red berries in fall this is a beautiful native shrub. We had a beautiful well shaped example where I work until someone who thought they knew what they were doing hacked at it. Now there is a lot of dead wood on it and I’m not sure it is going to make it.

It looked like a mouse or chipmunk had done some house cleaning. Acorns keep a lot of birds and animals alive in these cold winters.

No matter how much fun you’re having it can’t last forever so I finally headed back down the trail, promising myself that I’d come back in the spring. I have a feeling this might be a good place to find some spring wildflowers. Because of all the deciduous trees a lot of sunlight must reach the ground in early spring and that’s what they like.

Go to the winter woods: listen there; look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest. ~ Fiona Macleod

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Last weekend warm air moved over the cold snow and created a fog which was quite thick in places, including here in the man-made railroad canyon in Westmoreland. Ice climbers call it the icebox and there was plenty of ice to see on this day.

Once cold settles in here, which in places is as much as 50 feet below surface level, it usually stays for the winter. There is also a lot of groundwater trickling out of the rock walls, and that coupled with the cold creates ice columns which are often as big as tree trunks. So big that the Appalachian Mountain Club comes here to train ice climbers.

There were some impressive Ice falls here on this day but I don’t know if they were ready to be climbed.

There are many signs to tell you what goes on here, like this metal tie off. Ice climbers call these “screws.”

I’ve included this shot from last year to give you a sense of scale of the place. It doesn’t take much ice to get them climbing but on this day they admitted that they were doing as much rock climbing as they were ice climbing. I don’t usually speak to these people out of fear of breaking their concentration. It could be the climber’s first climb and they need to be able to hear and concentrate on the instructions coming from below. Sometimes if I hear them say they need a rest I’ll speak to them but I never stay long. They’re a gutsy bunch. With my paralyzing fear of heights they’d have to pry me from that wall one finger at a time.

In places water quite literally pours from the rock walls. Until I came here I never knew how much ground water could be moving just below the surface.

Water pours and trickles from every crack in the stone, in winter and summer.

The ice falls can be very beautiful.

In places the groundwater sometimes doesn’t flow and even in winter the place reminds me of the Shangri-La James Hilton described in his book Lost Horizon. Being here is like walking back in time to an unspoiled place, even though it was actually created by man. It’s easy to lose yourself in the beauty of it and it’s common for me to have no idea how long I’ve spent here.

Of course all that water has to be taken out of the canyon somehow, so the railroad built drainage channels along each side of the trail. When they are maintained they still work as they were designed to 150 years ago.

As I always do I headed south out of the deep canyon to the southern part of the trail. On the way you pass an excellent example of how a retaining wall should be built; tilted back into the hillside at about 10 degrees. This adds a lot of strength to the wall. You can’t see it in this shot but what’s left of a signal box is on top of the wall about half way down.

And before long I saw this; the entire southern canyon was flooded. Trees and tree limbs fall regularly here and they often land in the drainage channels. With regular maintenance this isn’t a problem but if nobody removes the trees and branches leaves build up and plug the channels. That’s exactly what has happened and since the water had nowhere else to go it ran into the rail bed and washed it out in several places. I went along and pulled out what branches I could but this will take two strong backs with a chainsaw and a stone rake to do it properly. Coincidentally I met a man on a 4 wheeler who was trying to clean things up but he had no real tools and his ability was limited, but he did say that there are many committees and commissions that know about this problem, so hopefully it won’t be long before this is taken care of. This place is after all one of a kind. There is nothing like it that I know of anywhere else on this rail trail circuit.

I’ve noticed that the green alga (Trentepohlia aurea) that grows here and there on the walls seems to  be spreading, so the conditions must be right for it. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color, hides the green chlorophyll. Someday, maybe after I retire, I’m going to come here regularly so I can better understand its life cycle. I know it produces spores but it’s something I’ve never seen happen. Since you have to walk through the drainage channel to get to it I don’t see it up close very often.

There was some colored ice already forming. I believe the color comes from various minerals in the groundwater. Due to the rise and fall of the water in the drainage channel the ice is always cut off in a very straight line as you can see here.

Every year this evergreen fern is encased in an icy prison, but every year it just shrugs it off.

A blackberry still had some color.

Here was more colored ice. Blue is the most dense but I didn’t see any of that. In fact much of the ice was rotten, which is what happens if it gets too warm. Rotten ice is soft and opaque and makes a dull thud when you strike it. New clear ice is quite hard and rings a bit when you strike it.

Here is one of the mineral seeps found along the trail. I believe it is iron, possibly oxidized by bacteria. Certain types of bacteria can take iron dissolved in groundwater and oxidize it. Oxidation prevents iron from dissolving in the water and produces either an orange colored slime as is seen here, or an oily sheen. I think this must play a large part in why there is so much colored ice found here.

Here was a bit more colored ice. Location seems to be random because it doesn’t always happen in the same place year after year.

The beautiful reptilian great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) like to grow in places where they are constantly splashed by or dripped on by very clean ground water. Though they like a lot of water they won’t stand being submerged in it and die back if the water level rises. Ice doesn’t seem to bother them because they are often totally encased it all winter in this place. This is the only place I know of to find them.

Since I wasn’t wearing my rubber boots I couldn’t get close to the liverworts but I wished I could smell them. If you squeeze a small piece and smell it you’ll immediately smell one of the cleanest scents found in nature that I know of. In general liverworts are a sign of very clean water, so that says a lot about the quality of the groundwater in this place. There are also small brook trout swimming in the drainage channels, and that’s another sign of very clean water.

Orange crust fungus (Stereum complicatum) is also called crowded parchment but no matter what you call it, it’s a beautiful fungus that can be seen from quite a distance. It loves moisture so this place brings out its best.

How appropriate I thought, to find one of the fungi that Ötzi, the 5000 year old “iceman” whose well preserved body was found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991 carried. From what I’ve read he carried two types of fungi; birch polypores (Piptoporus betulinus) and the one shown here, which is the tinder polypore (Fomes fomentarius.) There are lots of different theories of why he would have carried these two particular fungi but I don’t think anyone will ever know for certain. What is known is birch polypores have antiseptic properties and tinder fungi are good for starting fires, and both would have been valuable to someone who walked 5000 years ago.

This stream carries all the water from the drainage channels off into the woods to some unknown body of water. It could flow into Tenant swamp in Keene, which isn’t too far downhill from here. The “hills” you see on either side are actually made of much of the blasted stone that came from the deep cut canyons.

Off in the distance a bridge goes over the stream. It’s a narrow thing, possibly 8-10 feet wide, and I’ve always thought it must have been used as a way for ore carts to get all the stone away from the railbed, but now I wonder if it might have been used for one of those pump handle carts they used to use. Somehow men had to get into the canyon and move a lot of snow after every storm and I’ve wondered for years how they did it. There were plows fitted to the front of some locomotives but I think there still would have been a lot of cleaning up to do afterwards. The canyons are only about 4-6 feet wider than a train so there wouldn’t have been a lot of room for snow.

I think all the snow removal tools would have been kept in the old lineman’s shack, which may or may not make it through another winter. Ever so slowly it leans in on itself. Since we just got 16 inches of snow on the day I’m finishing this post I wonder if it isn’t just a pile of boards now.

One moment the world is as it is. The next, it is something entirely different. Something it has never been before. ~Anne Rice

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I could see some beautiful trees along the river in Keene from the highway but the only way I could get close enough for photos is to follow this rail trail to them. This is the rail trail I’ve walked since I was about 8 years old, so I know it well. Back then the Boston and Maine Railroad tracks ran through here, and I loved walking the tracks. Though you can see a lot of bare trees in this shot they weren’t all bare. I actually saw a lot of color out here.

There were some pretty trees and shrubs quite far off in the distance that I couldn’t identify.

This one was a poplar. They’re common out here now but I can’t remember seeing any when I was a boy.

Staghorn sumacs are also common. In the fall they have beautiful scarlet leaves but most had already fallen.

There are lots of sumac berries out here as well but I think these were smooth rather than staghorn sumac berries. They weren’t quite fuzzy enough for staghorn sumac fruit.

A large flock of robins was eating sumac fruit but there will still be plenty left in the spring. Usually nothing touches them until spring, but I don’t know why. I’ve always wondered if the migrating birds ate them when they came back. Of course robins used to be migrating birds so maybe it was they who ate them in the spring.

There are lots of many different kinds of fruit found along this trail, including the beautiful berries of Virginia creeper. This is where I first realized exactly how much natural food there was for birds. My grandmother always feared they would starve even though I told her there seemed to be plenty of food for fruit and seed eating birds.

I was surprised to find asparagus growing here so apparently humans can find food here too. There were two plants.

Blue wood asters were seen here and there but even they are coming to the end of their bloom time.

The always beautiful and always surprising blue of the black raspberry can be found all along the trail.

Here was some color; a huge maple. Unfortunately it was the invasive Norway maple (Acer platanoides.) These trees are native to Europe and hang on to their leaves longer than our native maples.

This tree had a lot of tar spot on its leaves. Tar spot is a fungal disease caused by three related fungi, Rhytisma acerinumRhytisma americanum and Rhytisma punctatum. Though it looks unsightly it doesn’t cause any real harm to the tree. It is usually found on Norway, silver and red maples.

The easiest way to check that a tree is a Norway Maple is to break a leaf stem (petiole). Norway maple is the only one that will show white, milky sap in broken leaf petioles. Native maples have clear sap.

A wasp nest had fallen out of a tree. I couldn’t imagine how long and how many wasps must it have taken to build such a thing. It was quite big and beautifully marbled. It looked like sedimentary stone.

This bridge was built in 2017 so it would be safer for people to cross one of Keene’s busiest highways. I haven’t used it much but a lot of people do, especially college students.

The patterns inside the bridge are a bit mesmerizing. Some of them are actually optical illusions. In fact if you see the bridge from the side it looks nearly flat and level.

I saw some beautiful oaks after the bridge. The color of them this year is beautiful enough to make you gasp.

But though it was hard to ignore the beauty of the oaks these are the trees that drew me here. They can be seen from the highway but I still couldn’t get close enough to be able to tell what they were. They could be maples, able to hang onto their leaves due to the warmth of the river water. I noticed all the red maples along the highway, which normally turn red in fall, turned this color this year. My color finding software sees orange but I see something that’s impossible to describe. More like tan.

There was a small grove of birches by the bridge. Gray birches (Betula populifolia,) I think.

I wondered how many times I had walked by this beech tree without seeing it. There was no missing it on this day.

Eventually you come to the old Boston and Maine Railroad trestle. When this was built there was nothing here; it was just another trestle in the middle of the woods, and it was a boundary for me when I was a boy. I grew up just behind and to the right of where I stood when I took this photo and back then there were no boards on the deck as there are now. There were railroad ties with gaps in between and if you fell through you’d be in the river, so it took a few years for me to muster the courage to cross it. I was probably 8 or 10 when I expanded my world by finally crossing it. Once across I thought, if I wanted to I could walk all the way south to Florida, but I made it only as far as the next town down the line.

The small wooded area I once played in was one of the more colorful places along the trail.

The Ashuelot River bank was colorful as well. This is a moody stretch of river; I’ve seen it quickly rise in spring to overflow its banks. Luckily our house was never flooded but each spring was a nail biter. I still get nervous when I see a river at bank full.

How strange was this? As soon as I crossed the river some of the maples still had their leaves, and some of the oaks were still green. It was like a jungle and totally different from when the trail started. If you scroll back to the beginning of this post you’ll see what I mean. I can’t explain it.

And mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) grew in great drifts here. I think I could cut arm loads of it without putting a dent in the huge colonies of it. I’m very interested in this plant but I don’t think I need armloads of it. Still, I’ll be back in the summer to collect a few plants. It’s a dream machine, this one.

I saw an old friend, still beautiful even though it was busy with seed production.

A bumblebee slept on a goldenrod blossom. If there is anything more true and right and good than a bee sleeping, or even dying on a flower I don’t know what it is. The flower needs the bee as much as the bee needs the flower and together, they are one.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
~John Muir

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On Easter Sunday I went for a walk along the Ashuelot River in Keene. This trail, possibly used by Native Americans for thousands of years, is one of my favorites. 12 Native American historical sites have been found along the Ashuelot River, including the oldest known evidence of humans in New Hampshire dating back 10,500 years.  I’ve walked here for over 50 years and think I know it well, but I see new things each time I visit.

This day’s new thing were these strange orange buds on the shrubs that the river had swamped.

At least I thought they were buds; they’re actually the male catkins of the sweet gale (Myrica gale.) Sweet gale  is also called bog rosemary. It likes to grow on the banks of acidic lakes, bogs and streams. Touching the foliage releases a sweet, pleasant scent from its resinous leaves which have been used for centuries as a natural insect repellent. Though it is a native plant here it also grows native in Europe, where it is used as an ingredient in beer making in some countries. It is also used in an ointment used to treat sensitive skin and acne. I was hoping to see some of the scarlet female flowers but I think I was too early.  

The banks of the Ashuelot are lined with highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) and their buds had swollen to bursting, easy to see against the blue of the water. The highbush blueberry is a native plant that you can quite literally find just about anywhere in this part of the state.

The bud scales have opened and, though I didn’t see any leaves yet, I think it’s safe to say that bud break has happened among the blueberries.

Bud break is defined as “when the green tip of a leaf can be seen emerging from the bud,” and these new cherry leaves more than fit that description. You can see how the bud scales have curled and peeled back to release the new growth within.

The stamens of male box elder flowers (Acer negundo) hang down from the buds on long filaments and sway in the breeze. Box elder is in the maple family but its wood is soft when compared to other maples. Several Native American tribes made syrup from its sap and the earliest example of  a Native American flute, dating from 620-670 AD, was made from its wood, so it seems appropriate that the trees would grow here along the river.

I saw two turtles on a log but my camera doesn’t have enough reach for anything better than this. As soon as I hit the trail the sun went behind a cloud and stayed there the whole time, so the turtles were gone when I returned. Of course as soon as I left the trail the sun came back out.

The trail through these woods isn’t that far from where the railroad repair depot used to be in Keene, and the trail is black because it was “paved” with the unburned slag from the big steam locomotive fireboxes.

This slag is usually called “clinkers” or “clinker ash” and it is made up of pieces of fused ash and sulfur which often built-up over time in a hot coal fire. Firebox temperature reached 2000 to 2300 degrees F. in a steam locomotive but they still didn’t burn the coal completely. A long tool called a fire hook was used to pull the clinkers out of the firebox and in Keene we must have had tons of the stuff, because it was used as ballast on many local railroad beds. The section that ran by my house was as black as coal and I learned at a very young age not to walk barefoot on it. Those clinkers are sharp.

When a spring beech bud (Fagus grandifolia) grows longer and starts to curl like a rainbow it is getting ready to open. The buds I saw this day have a while to go but you can see the curl starting. The curling begins when the sun shining on one side of the bud causes the cells on that side of the bud to grow faster than those on the other, shaded side. This causes tension in the bud, making it curl first and eventually making it tear open its bud scales, releasing the new growth within. When beech buds break the new growth looks like downy, silvery angel wings for just a very short time. It’s one of the most beautiful things in the forest and well worth watching for.

The roots of this young beech caught my eye.

And the thorns of this multiflora rose caught my clothes. Invasive multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) 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 even 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.

The hips of a multiflora rose are about the size of a pea, so that should tell you something about the size of that spider.

The fuzzy white buds of shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis) were seen here and there along the banks of the river. Shadbushes originally got their name from the way they bloomed when the shad fish were running upriver to spawn, including here in the Ashuelot. Another name, Juneberry, refers to when its fruit ripens. The fruit is said to resemble a blueberry in taste, with a hint of almond from the seeds. Shadbush wood is brown, hard, close-grained, and heavy. It can also be very straight, and Native Americans used it for arrow shafts. Shadbush makes an excellent garden shrub or small tree and is easily found in nurseries. It grows naturally at the edge of forests and along waterways.

The bark peeled off an old dead birch and revealed a bright orange fungus.

I thought I’d found something on a tree that I had been looking for for a very long time; an asterisk lichen (Arthonia radiata.)

But it was a common script lichen (Graphis scripta.) it is also called the secret writing lichen, for obvious reasons. I’ve never been able to decipher their meaning but I enjoy seeing them.

One of the reasons I wanted to come out here was to see if the trout lilies that live here were blooming. They weren’t but the plants looked very robust and healthier than those I’ve seen in other places. I have a feeling this colony will be beautiful when they all are in bloom.

This trout lily leaf came up through one of last year’s leaves so it couldn’t unfurl. Which leaf will win, I wondered.

The trout lilies grow by the little red bridge, which is my turnaround spot.

In July you can step over what is little more than a trickle in this spot and I’ve always wondered why they even put a bridge here, but on this day it was like someone had made a wide path of black marble for it to cross. This stream and many others empty into the Asuelot River, and that might be why the name means “collection of many waters” in Native American language.

Well, I didn’t see many flowers but I did see a lot of other things that brought me closer to spring; especially the swelling buds of many trees. I hope all of you are able to get outside and find a bit of spring for yourself and I hope you’ll be able to be able to stay safe while doing so.

If you have a river, then you should share it with everyone. Chen Guangbiao

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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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Back pain led me to look for an easy place to walk, so I chose a familiar rail trail that I knew wouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Since I fell out of a tree and suffered a double fracture to my spine when I was a boy, back pain has been an old “friend” for most of my life. Usually it really isn’t that much of a problem but every now and then it becomes an issue, and I’ve found that the best cure for it is to simply walk it off.

It was a beautiful blue sky day with temperatures just above freezing, so walking was just what the doctor ordered. Actually in my experience the doctor will order you to go home and stay in bed for a week if you complain of back pain, but I’ve found that is the worst thing I can do. Keeping moving; that’s my cure.

I saw a log with some very strange looking branch collars on it. It was some type of evergreen, possibly spruce, but I’m not sure. The part of the tree that protrudes and surrounds the branch is called the branch collar and it should always be left intact when pruning. As can be seen here, the tree leaves it behind naturally.

Private suburban land abuts this section of trail along parts of its length and over the years the homeowners have planted numerous nonnative trees and shrubs, trying to screen their yards from the trail that cuts through them. A homeowner who lived along the rail trail had long ago planted a privet hedge and then never trimmed it so the hedge grew to about ten feet tall, and it was covered with berries that the birds weren’t eating. That’s a good thing because privet is considered invasive.

Evidence of the ice storm I wrote about in my last post was still seen over a week later, sparkling in the sun.

An Oriental bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) decided it would try to strangle a large white pine tree. If the tree lives another 50 years or so the bittersweet will most likely win and the tree will die, because these vines are like steel cables. They strangle many native trees by wrapping themselves around the tree’s trunk like a boa constrictor. I’ve seen vines as big as my arm wrapped tightly around trees so as the trees grew they had no room to expand and slowly died. 

Sometimes they even try to strangle each other.

The bittersweet berries are quite pretty but unfortunately they’re also quite tasty to birds, and of course that’s why they’re so successful at spreading throughout the countryside, and why they grow near trees and fences.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years of doing this blog is how windstorms are becoming more numerous and more severe, and I saw evidence of it everywhere out here. Though it’s hard to tell from a photo this pine tree was the diameter of a car tire and it snapped like a toothpick.

The pine tree wasn’t the only tree that had fallen. Downed trees were everywhere.

I saw a child’s footprint frozen into the ice.

Then I saw a lot more children’s footprints leading off the rail trail into the woods. It seemed I had stumbled onto the trail to a secret hideout off in the woods. It wouldn’t be secret for long though, with all those tracks coming and going. I was tempted to follow the prints but I thought about how I would have felt if an adult had appeared at my secret hideout, so I kept going down the main trail.  

They had marked their secret trail with a broken concrete base to an old birdbath. How in the world did they get that out here, I wondered. It must weigh 50 pounds.

The secret hideout was on Yale Forest land, which borders part of the trail. This sign marking the forest is slowly being eaten by a tree.

These oak leaves shining in the sunshine were beautiful, I thought.

This oak was full of galls. There are horned oak galls, gouty oak galls, artichoke oak galls, potato oak galls, and oak marble galls. The photo above is of marble galls and they really are about the size of a marble. These marble galls are usually near perfect spheres. Some galls form on the undersides of leaves, some on the tree’s roots and others, like the one shown, on the twigs and stems. All are caused by different wasps or mites which will only lay their eggs on the leaves, roots, or twigs of their favorite species of oak tree. Iron sulfate mixed with tannic acid from oak galls made ink that was the standard writing and drawing ink from the 12th century until well into the 20th century. Some still use it today.

I’m not sure what happened here but this oak gall was seriously misshapen.

My back felt much better by the time I reached the trestle but it didn’t last so I’m still trying to walk it off as of this writing. It takes longer to straighten it out as I get older, but it will happen.

Every time I see the Ashuelot River from one of these old trestles I’m very happy that I didn’t have to bushwhack my way through the woods to see it. We’re very lucky to have these trails.

When I was a boy I walked the railroad tracks to get to my grandmother’s house but before I got there I had to cross a street. This was the same street crossing that, twice a day, the big diesel Boston and Maine locomotives would slow for. Before they crossed they would blow their horns to warn the cars on the street, and you could hear those horns from either my or my grandmother’s house, so I heard them twice a day everyday while I was growing up. Knowing all that you would think I would know what the W on this post stood for but it has taken me years to learn that it simply means “Whistle,” as in “blow your whistle because there’s a road crossing up ahead.” Two longs blasts followed by a short blast and a final long blast of the train’s whistle or horn is a Federal law and every train crossing a road has to abide by it to warn passing traffic. These days you’re more likely to see a flashing light or some type of barrier, but back then I could tell time by the horns on those trains.

These trains are just like the ones that rumbled by (and shook) my house for so many years. Once the trains stopped running it was very hard to see them tearing up all the tracks in this area, and it took several years before I could walk the rail trails left behind. Though I’m very thankful that we have the rail trails, seeing photos like this one is like seeing a photo of an old friend who has died. They roll by only in dreams now, hauling boxcars full of memories.

Human history and natural history are visible from trails. The old railroad routes through a town can show a lot about how the town developed, what it was like long ago. When you go through a town by bicycle on an old railroad route, the place looks very different than from the customary perspective of the car and the highway. ~Peter Harnick

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I had seen ice here and there that seemed to be growing rather than melting, so that was my cue to go into the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland; a place ice climbers call the ice box. It’s actually a man-made canyon, hacked out of the bedrock some 150 years ago by the railroad. It’s a special place and I’ve never found another like it. There is always ground water seeping and dripping from the stone ledges and in the winter when it freezes the ice columns can grow huge like tree trunks. What you’ll see here is just the beginning.

In the warmer months you can hear water dripping here but you don’t realize how much there actually is until you see it as ice. There is an incredible amount of water here and it runs winter and summer.  

The giant ice columns are like a magnet for ice climbers and members of the New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club come here to train beginning climbers. I was surprised to see some of them here on this day since it is so early in the season. I told them so, and said I didn’t think the ice would be big enough to climb so early. They said it really wasn’t but they couldn’t wait. They also said they were having to use more “screws” than they had hoped, and this meant they were doing as much rock climbing as they were ice climbing.

Here is one of the “screws” they spoke of. These are studded here and there all over the 50 foot high walls of the canyon.

Much of the ice is colored here and I’ve always suspected that it was minerals in the water coloring it, but I can’t prove that.

There are many areas where the stone of the ledges is stained by minerals.

The railroad engineers used the stone from blasting to build massive retaining walls along parts of the rail bed. Drainage ditches run all along the base of the walls on both sides and still keep the rail bed dry after a century and a half. This view is south out of the larger canyon where the ice climbers climb.

The drainage ditches along the bases of the canyon walls were freezing here and there but for the most part they were open and impassible unless you wore knee high rubber boots.

As you move south you come to another canyon, where the walls aren’t quite as high but are still covered with ice. This section is where the ice is usually more colored, in blues, greens, tan, orange and even red.

The trail south was iced up from side to side and over quite a length. I didn’t think I’d need micro spikes so I didn’t bring them. And I slid but I didn’t fall.

Each year an evergreen fern is imprisoned by bars of ice in this spot, but it doesn’t seem to mind. In June it will be happy again.

There is a timelessness about this place, as if the mosses had been waiting patiently encased in ice, for millions of winters. And of course they have been, just not here. You sense that time means nothing here and you have to be aware of that because it can get very cold. If you’re anything like me you can become so absorbed by what you’re seeing you don’t feel the cold anymore, and that’s what happened on this day. By the time I left the place my coat was opened and my gloves were in my pockets. I didn’t know how cold I had been until I was warm again.

In a place or two the stone is orange and though you might think it’s more mineral staining it’s actually algae growth. The green alga (Trentepohlia aurea) that grows here and there on the walls seems to reach its peak orange color in winter, but I don’t know if that coincides with spore production or not. In fact I’m not sure if I’d know when it was producing spores because it always looks the same to me.  But it does produce spores; a blood red rain fell in parts of Spain in 2014 and it was caused by similar algae named Haematococcus pluvialis. The same thing happened in Texas in 2013, in Sri Lanka in 2012, and in India in 2001, each event seemingly caused by different algae. Yellow, green, and black rain has also been reported.

Great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) grow here by the hundreds of thousands and for part of the year they’re completely encased in ice. They shrug it off as if it never happened.

It’s hard to imagine these icicles as big as tree trunks but if the cold weather continues they’ll slowly grow together and become huge; the biggest ice columns I’ve ever seen.

Here was some orange ice. Most likely stained by iron oxide in the stone.

If it’s strange ice formations you’re looking for this is the place to find them. These examples grew on leaves in one of the drainage channels. Wherever water drips or splashes in cold air ice grows into sometimes fantastic shapes.

And sometimes it’s just plain icicles.

I finally made it to the old lineman’s shack, which is my turn around point. I had to wonder if this old building would make it through another winter. I’ve watched it slowly disintegrate over the years and now its ridgepole has snapped. Since the roof rafters are fastened to the ridgepole, when it breaks the roof comes down and then the walls follow. I hope it’s here in the spring but it’s a dicey looking business.

The graffiti inside the old shack always reminds me of my father. He would have been 18 in 1925 and he lived near here then, and I always wonder if he came to see the ice like I do. None of the initials match his but he could have easily walked these tracks through here. Trains would have been running then. That it has stood so long says a lot for the railroad workers who built it.

If you know where and more importantly when to look, you can find an old trestle in the woods near the lineman’s shack after the leaves have fallen. It isn’t anywhere near big enough for a train to have rolled on so I’m guessing it was for ore carts used to dispose of any excess stone. Quite often you can find piles of broken up granite in the woods by railroad tracks. They used most of it to fill in hollows and valleys to make a level railbed but in some instances it looks like they couldn’t use it all. Farmers often took stones from these stray piles and built walls out of them. They have the hand of man all over them and can be easily spotted as very different from walls built with native, undamaged stones.

I usually learn something when I come here and this time I learned that the old lineman’s shack was built on railroad ties, which is probably one reason it has lasted so long. But even railroad ties rot away eventually and the earth’s warm breath wafted through a knothole in one of them. Where the warm met the cold hoar frost grew.

In the winter, the world gets sharp. Beautiful things happen. ~Peter Fiore

Thanks for coming by.

 

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