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Posts Tagged ‘Cheshire Rail Trail’

 

I’d been almost everywhere I knew of where coltsfoot plants (Tussilago farfara) grow and hadn’t seen a single one, so last Sunday I decided to visit the last place I knew of to find them; the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland. I don’t like going there at this time of year because this is when all the ice that has accumulated through winter starts melting, and when it starts melting it starts falling, and this can be a dangerous place to be when tree size pieces of ice come crashing down.

There was a lot more ice than I expected and it was rotten, which means it has probably released its hold on the stone and could come down at any time.

3. Falling Water

Melt water ran off the stone walls in gushing streams.

4. Trail

I decided to get out of the deepest, northern part of the canyon and head south where the coltsfoot plants grow.

5. Columbine Seedlings

This rail trail includes the ledges where the wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) and blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) grow, so I thought I’d see what was happening there as well. I saw lots of columbine seedlings but still no blue cohosh shoots.

6. Red Elderberry Buds

I also got to see some red elderberry buds (Sambucus racemosa) opening. They always open with tiny purple fingers like those seen here. It won’t be long before this plant is covered with bright red berries. The birds love them so much and eat them so fast it’s almost impossible to get a photo of them. I think I’ve gotten just one photo of red elderberry fruit in the 8 years I’ve done this blog.

7. Turkey Tail

I saw a turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) wearing colors that I don’t often see. I’ve been seeing a lot of blue ones this year so this one was a pleasant surprise.

8. Unknown

I also found this chunk of blue something. It’s light and feels like plastic but it also crumbles so I doubt it is. I don’t know what it is or where it came from but I love its color; almost the same as the blue of cohosh fruit.

9. Unknown Stems

And then I saw these strange little trumpet shaped stems. They easily pulled right out of the wet soil and had a tap root.

10. Unknown Stem

The stems were thin and hollow and felt like paper. I don’t know what plant they’re from but there is a huge selection of plants growing here. I’ll have to see if I can figure it out in the summer when they’re growing.

11. Drainage Ditch

The drainage ditches had so much water in them in places it looked like they would wash up over the trail. I moved some bunches of wet leaves that were holding back the flow in a couple of places.

12. Fallen Ice

And this is where I had to stop. If you look closely you can see ice columns that have fallen completely across the trail. These columns are huge, easily as big as trees, and if one ever fell on you it wouldn’t be good.

13. Fallen Ice

This “small piece” was about two feet square. I can’t imagine what it must have weighed but I wouldn’t want to feel it falling on me.

14. Green Ice

The ice here is often colored, I think because of the various minerals in the groundwater, and there was some green ice left. It was very rotten and I didn’t get near it. Rotten ice has a matte, opaque “sick” look and the dull thud it makes when you tap it gives it away. It should sound like a sharp crack. Ice becomes rotten when air and / or dirt get in between the grains of ice and it becomes honeycombed and loses its strength.

15. Great Scented Liverwort

The beautiful great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) made it through the winter just fine despite many of them being completely encased in ice. They like to grow in places where they are constantly splashed by or dripped on by very clean ground water but of course in winter that means ice. They show that the groundwater here is very clean and most likely drinkable.

16. Great Scented Liverwort

This is the only place I’ve ever seen this beautiful plant and they are one of the things that make this place so very special. Their amazing scent is where their common name comes from; if you squeeze a piece and smell it you smell something so clean and fresh scented you’ll wish it came in a spray bottle. I didn’t have my rubber boots with me to walk through the drainage ditches so I had to take this shot from about 6 feet away, but at least you can see the pores and air chambers outlined on the many leaf surfaces. It makes them look very reptilian and leads to the name snakeskin liverwort.

17. Algae

The green algae called Trentepohlia aurea looks to be spreading some. Though it is called green algae the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes it orange as well. It’s also very hairy, but I couldn’t get close enough to show you. Algae produce millions of spores and colored rain has fallen all over the world because of the wind taking the spores up into the sky. If you ever hear of red rain chances are it’s algae spores coloring it.

18. Mosses

It was so nice to see so much green for a change. It was also nice and warm here, which was a surprise with all the ice.

19. Ostrich Fern Frond

I was surprised to find the fertile frond of an ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) because I’ve never seen one growing here. Now I want to come back to get photos of the fiddleheads, which are pretty and very hard to find in this area. There are thousands of ostrich ferns growing along the Connecticut River but most of the land along it is privately owned.

20. Unknown Leaf

Well, in the end I never did find coltsfoot plants in bloom but I certainly found lots of mysteries along the trail on this day. Here’s another one that maybe one of you can solve. I know I’ve seen this plant and I should know its name, but I can’t think of it. The leaves are large at about an inch and a half across, and I think the bronze color is just what they do in winter. They sprawl on the ground in all directions from a central crown like a violet, but the leaves are too big to be a violet. It’s a pretty thing but without flowers it’s hard to identify.

A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. ~Lewis Mumford

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For a few years now I’ve thought that if anyone came to my door wanting to see a plant that I’ve shown on this blog I’d be able to lead them right to it. I don’t think my memory is any better than anyone else’s but I do believe that I remember where most of the special or unusual things I feature here grow because I visit them as often as I can. But I don’t know that for sure, and I sometimes wonder if I really could lead you to a sweet gum tree, (which isn’t even supposed to grow here) so last Sunday I decided to test myself. Somewhere along this rail trail is a red maple tree with a beautiful lichen on it. It’s grayish white and has blue fruiting bodies (Ascomata) and after my last post about lichens I wanted to see it again, so off I went.

This was a blue day because everywhere I looked I saw blue, like the beautiful blue of the sky’s reflection in the flooded area beside the trail.

There are lots of American hazelnuts (Corylus americana) growing along this trail and their catkins had me longing for spring, when the tiny scarlet threads of the female flowers will appear. They’re a sure sign that spring is upon us, but I won’t be seeing them for a while.

Here was more blue; the beautiful blue of first year black raspberry canes (Rubus occidentalis.) When I was a boy I used to pick and eat handfuls of them along the tracks that used to be here.

The blue color is caused by the way light is reflected off the powdery, waxy white crystals that cover the canes. The crystals are there to protect the young canes from moisture loss and sunburn and many other plants including blueberries, plums, grapes and blue stemmed goldenrod also use the same strategy. The color in this instance was much like that of a blue jay.

There are also wild grapes growing along the trail and most of them were fermenting up in the trees, so the smell of grape jelly was heavy in the wind.

I saw a squirrel up ahead working furiously at something and as I got closer it ran off with a corn cob in its mouth. When I looked at the place it had been I found a pile of corn. It had been stripping the kernels from the cob, and I wondered why it didn’t do it in its nest.

In fact this trail is overrun with squirrels and I’ve never seen so many squirrel nests in one place. The trees were full of them and I’d bet that I must have seen 30 or 40 on this walk. Nests start with a woven twig floor and then damp leaves and moss are packed on top. A spherical framework is woven around the floor and leaves, moss and twigs are stuffed into it until a hollow shell of about 6-8 inches across has been formed. Gray squirrels can have nests that are up to two feet wide and though they look like they’re open to the sky from below, they aren’t.

Some of the trail sides were covered by newly fallen maple leaves and I’m sure the squirrels are using them for nest building. I’ve watched them build nests before and have seen them gather up a bunch of leaves, tuck them up under their chin and hold them there with one front paw, and then run up the tree with the other three paws. They will also carry leaves in their mouth but they can’t seem to carry as many that way.

In spite of the drought last spring the corn grew well this year. I lived very near here when I was a boy and back then the Boston and Maine Railroad ran through here twice each day. There were extensive corn fields all along the railroad tracks in those days, and not much else. These days there are shopping malls nearby and the college has grown more than anyone thought it would. I used to sit out here all day and not see a soul but these days the trail is like a city sidewalk. College students, joggers, walkers, bicyclists and snowmobilers all use it regularly.

The farmer was harvesting his corn while I was there. This is silage for cows, what we used to call “cow corn,” so the entire plant except for the roots is chopped up and blown into 10 wheel dump trucks to be taken off to the farm. The stubble that is left will get tilled under in the spring and then the field will be planted again. These fields aren’t watered so it all depends on weather.

The farmer wasn’t the only one harvesting the corn. His crop must support hundreds of squirrels, and that explains why there are countless squirrel nests here even though there are no oak trees for acorns and very few pine trees for pine seeds.

There is a good view of Mount Monadnock from here, and on this day it was very blue. Since it was easy to see all over town this is the view I grew up with and it comes to mind whenever anyone mentions the mountain. It was from right here when I was probably 14 or so that I hatched a plan to identify and catalog all the wildflowers on the mountain. Henry David Thoreau started doing just that in the 1800s but never finished. I thought I will finish what Henry started, but when I finally got to the mountain I saw how foolish the plan was because this mountain is huge, and it might take ten lifetimes to do what I thought would be a lark. It’s no wonder that Henry never finished.

We’re almost there. That big thing in the center of the photo is a bridge.

And the bridge goes over a very busy highway, built so Keene State College students and others could cross safely. If you’re interested I wrote about it in a post I did last year called “Bridging a Dangerous Crossing.” When I was a boy the highway was just a road so I don’t think it was quite so busy as it is now, but over the past few years you often had to stand and wait for a while before being able to cross.

When I see the bridge I know I’m very close to the maple tree with the beautiful lichen on it, but on this day I got distracted by these married maples. A tree “marriage” happens when two trees of the same species rub together in the wind. When the outer bark is rubbed off the inner cambium layer of the trees can become naturally grafted together and they will be married from then on. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. I see it happening more all the time.

I knew when I was near the bridge that the tree with the lichen on it would be on the left side of the trail, just a few yards from the bridge. It was a maple but they were all maples and all about the same size, so I had to look at each tree. Actually I had to inspect each tree with my camera because the lichen I was looking for is only about as big as a dime. If you look at all the white spots on the married trees in the previous photo you’ll see what I was up against; those are all lichens.

But after about half an hour of searching I found the frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia) I was looking for, so my memory hadn’t completely failed me. Why did I want to find a dime size white spot on a tree? Because it’s a beautiful thing and this is the only example of it I’ve ever seen. The only other lichen I know of with blue fruiting bodies is the smoky eye boulder lichen and that one has blue apothecia only in a certain light. The spherical fruiting bodies on this lichen, called ascomata, are blue in any light and they don’t change color when they dry out. They are also very small; each blue dot is hardly bigger than a period made by a pencil on a piece of paper, so lichen hunters need to carry a good loupe or a camera that is macro capable.

As I walked back down the trail I wondered how and when all the grass grew along the sides of this rail bed. It wasn’t here when I used to come here as a boy. Back then all you saw here were sharp black clinkers, which were basically boiler slag and ash. They were the ballast that the tracks were laid in and it must have been an awful lot of work to get rid of them, but I do like the result. Those clinkers were hard things to take a fall on, which I seem to remember doing quite regularly as a boy.

As I was walking back this birch tree caught my eye. I like to look at the inner bark of trees because sometimes it can be quite beautiful. The inner bark of staghorn sumac can be bright red for instance, after it has peeled and been exposed to light and air. This birch had a deep wound, right down to the wood, and the peeling bark was thick. I thought I saw color there so I had to have a look.

I never expected to see anything like this on the inner bark of a gray birch. The only thing I could think of is the tree’s sap might have turned blue in the cold, because the blue bits weren’t lichens. I can’t think of anything else that could explain so much color. White pine tree sap turns a beautiful blue when it gets cold and on this day it was in the 30s F. with a biting wind. Whatever caused it, it was beautiful and I was happy to see it. As I said it was a blue day and, since blue is my favorite color, I wasn’t at all blue.

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story. ~Linda Hogan

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It was another of those hot, humid July days last Sunday so I decided to see if the air conditioner was running up in the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland. It was, and the relief was immediate. This man-made canyon creates its own breeze and the air blowing over the moist canyon walls usually runs about 10 degrees cooler than it is “out there” in the world. It was wonderful to stand there and be cooled but taking photos was a chore because it was very dark due to all the overhanging trees. I had to use the flash to get this photo, which is the mediocre best of a poor lot. But it does show you what I’m talking about and I guess that’s the point.

The railroad used a lot of the stone they blasted out of the bedrock in the previous photo to build walls, and as a dry stone wall builder myself I can say that they’re impressive. This example is a massive retaining wall, built to keep the hillside from flowing onto the rail bed. You can’t tell from the photo but it tilts back into the hillside at about 10 degrees, just as any good retaining wall should. It’s probably also much thicker at the base than at the top. Not quite Mayan joints but close enough for me; these walls have stood without losing a stone for over 150 years.

I stopped to look at what I thought were intermediate wood ferns (Dryopteris intermedia.)

A look at the back of the leaf confirmed that they were indeed intermediate wood ferns. The tiny spore bearing sori are part way between the central vein and the outer edges of the pinnules. A pinnule in botanical terms is a secondary division of a pinnate leaf, but I usually just think of them as leaflets and in my own mind don’t pay much attention to the fancy (but correct) terminology. It just doesn’t seem as important as it once did. The beauty of it all is enough these days.

And I saw plenty of beauty here, like these fern like leaves of wild chervil, which grows along the trail. Wild chervil is thought to have come over from Europe in wildflower seed mixes. It has been growing in this area since the early 1900s and is considered a noxious weed in places. Wild chervil contains chemical compounds which have been shown to have anti-tumor and anti-viral properties. It isn’t the same plant as cultivated chervil used to flavor soups though, so it shouldn’t be eaten.

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) had a visitor so I didn’t want to intrude. There are an amazing amount of insects here.

What I think was a cabbage white moth rested on a leaf in a shaft of sunlight. Ancient superstition said that a white moth embodied the soul of a loved one. This came from the ancient belief that the night is a dwelling place for souls and it is also the realm of the moth.

In winter this place is like a frozen Arctic wasteland but in summer it becomes a lush paradise with an incredible variety of species growing on every square inch of ground.

Plants, mosses, liverworts, fungi, and algae all grow on the stone walls of the canyon and add to the lushness. In summer this place reminds me of the Shangri-La described by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon. For someone who dreamed of exploring the Amazon Jungle as a boy, it’s the next best thing.

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.

The algae are surprisingly hairy and in some cases can produce enough spores to color the rain. When you hear of a red, black, or green rain falling algae spores are almost always the reason why. I’ve never seen these examples producing spores but then I wonder if I’d even know that they were doing so. The spores must be microscopic. Everything you see here would fit on a penny with room to spare.

Much of the growth along the side of the trail is spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis.) Jewelweed doesn’t mind shade and many thousands of plants grow here.

Out of all the many thousands of jewelweed plants I saw just one with a flower, and this is it. The white pollen at the top of the opening tells us that this is a male flower. Soon there will be many thousands of flowers, both male and female.

There are also many flowering raspberry plants growing here and many were still blooming. Purple flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) is in the rose family and it isn’t hard to tell by the flowers, but the big light gathering leaves look more like a maple than a rose. The big leaves give it a certain tolerance for low light, and that’s how it can grow here so well. The fruit looks like a giant raspberry, about the size of the tip of your thumb. I’ve heard that it is close to tasteless but some say if you put a berry on the very tip of your tongue it will be delicious. I keep forgetting to try it.

Other berries found here include those of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum.) These berries turn bright red but before they do they are speckled red and green for a time. The plant is also called treacle berry because the berries taste like treacle or bitter molasses. They’re rich in vitamins and have been used to prevent scurvy, but large quantities of uncooked berries are said to act like a laxative so moderation is called for. Native Americans inhaled the fumes from burning roots to treat headache and body pain. They also used the leaves and roots in medicinal teas.

The railroad dug drainage ditches on either side of the rail bed and because the groundwater constantly seeps through the stone the ditches always have water in them, no matter how hot or dry it has been. I always wear rubber boots when I come here so I can walk in them and get closer to the canyon walls when I need to. I have to be quick though because stones of all sizes fall from the walls. For the first time I actually heard one fall on this day. It must have been small because it made a clacking sound. Thankfully it didn’t fall near me.

One of the reasons I like to walk in the drainage ditches is because greater scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) grow on the stone and I like to see them up close. Two winters ago I saw an alarming amount of them turn an ashy gray and they appeared to have died, but since then the many colonies seem to have bounced back. Scientists say that liverworts are like “a canary in a coal mine” because they are very vulnerable to environmental changes and will be one of the first organisms to show the effects of climate change. On this day most of them looked good and healthy.

This is one of the most beautiful liverworts in my opinion because of its reptilian appearance, which is caused by the way its pores and air chambers are outlined on its surface. It is the only liverwort with this feature so it is very easy to identify. And, 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.

In this photo you can see how wet the stones are from the ever dripping groundwater. All that water means that many plants with tap roots or extensive root systems like dandelions and even shrubs and trees can grow in the thin soil that is found on horizontal surfaces. This photo shows a Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) that has grown on the stone and fallen over. Though it’s growing on stone it’s perfectly healthy and even has produced berries. Jack in the pulpits have corms for roots. A corm is a kind of flattened bulb and other plants like crocus and gladiolus grow from them.

I saw many Jack in the pulpits here and most had berries that hadn’t ripened yet. When ripe these berries will be bright red and shiny like they’ve been lacquered. Deer love them and will chomp off the entire stalk of berries when they can. That’s why it’s so hard to show you a photo of ripe Jack in the pulpit berries.

I finally reached my turn around spot, which is the old lineman’s shack at one end of the deep cut canyon. I usually dawdle here for a while, marveling at how a building that has so many missing pieces can still stand. So many boards have been taken from it there isn’t much left, but so far it still makes it through our snowy winters. It fits the very definition of well built, but that’s how they did things in those days.

This is where the planks from the lineman’s shack end up; as bridges across the drainage ditches. They do come in handy but I’d still rather see them on the lineman’s shack.

To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long.
~John Moffitt

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Last Saturday I did a post about a rail trail that I had hiked in Winchester and in that post I mentioned that I was a bit anxious that the trail looked like it was no longer being maintained. The maintenance of many of these rail trails is handled by local snowmobile clubs. They volunteer their time and effort to keep these trails open for winter use but there is only so much they can do, and I’m afraid they might have had to let that one go. This post will show what happens to a trail when it is no longer maintained, and why the thought that some trails might no longer be maintained gets me a little anxious.

Two weeks ago we had a thunderstorm. It didn’t seem like anything special; we expect thunderstorms in June in this part of the world. It only lasted for maybe 20 minutes and as I say, it didn’t seem like anything special. Until I looked out my window and saw my neighbor’s huge old oak tree on my lawn, that is. Then I knew that this wasn’t just a June thunderstorm. In fact thousands of trees had been blown down all over the state, and close to 100,000 people lost power because of it. This day, on this trail, I saw at least 10 trees that had blown across the trail, but they had all been cleaned up. Do we ever wonder who does all the cleaning up? I wonder. Some trees fell where I work, and it took all day for two of us to clean up a single pine tree like the one pictured above. It was a lot of work, and that was just one tree.

There will be more tree work on this trail; I saw 3 or 4 trees that had fallen and gotten hung up on trees on the other side of the trail. These are called “widow makers” and I hope nobody is under them when they come down.

I’m still not seeing many fungi because of the dryness, but a little rain the day before was apparently enough to coax this yellow mushroom into fruiting. It had a little slug damage on the cap but it was still worthy of a photo or two.

A colony of heal all plants (Prunella lanceolata) grew in a sunny spot, still moist from the previous day’s showers. I love to see these small but beautiful orchid like flowers.

Other flowers I like to see are maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoids) and they found sunny spots to grow in too. At first I thought they were their cousins the Deptford pinks (Dianthus armeria) but the jagged circle in the center of the flower told the story. Deptford pinks don’t have this feature.  They should be along any time now.

There are lots of box culverts carrying streams under this rail trail but much of the rail bed was built on fill that was packed between two hills, and in some cases it’s a 50 foot climb down to see the culverts. This example was the only one that was just a few feet below the rail bed. That granite lintel stone over the opening is about two feet thick; strong enough to have locomotives roll over it for well over a century.

There are plenty of other reminders of the railroad out here as well, like this old signal box. I once had an asbestos abatement contractor tell me that these were often lined with asbestos, so it’s best to just let them be.

Old stone walls still mark the boundary lines between private and railroad property.

I’ve never seen a horse on this trail but you can tell that they’ve been here.

I was surprised to find many pinesap plants (Monotropa hypopitys) up and ready to bloom. I don’t usually find these until well after their cousins the Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) bloom, but I haven’t seen a single Indian pipe yet this year. The chief differences between the two plants are color and flower count. Indian pipes are stark white and have a single flower, while pinesap plants are honey colored or reddish with multiple flowers. Neither plant photosynthesizes. Instead they receive nutrients from fungi that are associated with the roots of oaks and pines.

I’m guessing this log must act like a sponge and hold water, because it had coral fungus all over it. I think the soil is simply too dry to support much fungi at the moment.

I think these were crown tipped coral fungi (Clavicorona pyxidata) but since I don’t have a microscope to make identification a certainty, please don’t hold me to that.

This is a great trail for groups of people to walk because it is so wide. I think 4 people could walk side by side over most of it. It is level over much of its length and mostly arrow straight as well. When it does curve the curves are so gentle you don’t even realize it.

And that is why this should tell you something; the railroad would have never built anything like this. It’s hard to tell but it goes steeply uphill and the curves are far too sharp for a train to follow. That’s because this is a detour around the actual railbed, which lies abandoned over there on the right.

If you were to ignore the detour and keep walking straight on, this is what you’d find; the original rail bed. After I climb over and under a few downed trees, we’ll have a look.

The original rail bed was another deep cut, with a man-made canyon hacked out of the stone hillside. I’ve explored it before and found that the far end is blocked by many tons of gravel, which was poured into the canyon when a road was built across it. It’s a confusing conundrum, because I’m sure both the road and railbed are very old. If the road was there when the railbed was built there should be a tunnel under the road. If the road was built later over a running railroad there would have been a bridge or trestle over the rails. In any event there is just a huge mound of gravel at the end, and that has caused the drainage ditches on either side of the railbed to fail, so I got very wet feet in here. I should have worn my winter hikers.

These photos show what our rail trails would look like if the maintenance on them were to suddenly stop. When I say that we owe our snowmobile clubs and all of the other volunteers who keep these trails open a huge debt of gratitude, I’m not joking. I think it took me over two hours to pick my way through the entire length the first time I explored it, and this section isn’t even a mile long.

The woods have a luminous quality out here but even so this part isn’t a very pleasant walk. I spent far more time climbing over trees and avoiding walking in standing water than I did actually walking so I decided not to follow the canyon to the end. Standing in ankle deep mud taking photos isn’t much fun, so my only thought was to get out of here.

I grew up in a house that was just a few yards from a Boston and Maine Railroad track that freight trains ran over twice a day, so when I saw them tear up all the rails and take them away it was traumatic enough to keep me off rail trails for a very long time. Seeing a dirt trail where the trains once ran was a hard thing but finally after 30 years or so I convinced myself that it was time to get over it and I’ve been walking these rail trail ever since. In that time I’ve discovered what a great gift they are. For a nature lover who wants to get far into the woods without having to cut a trail, there is simply nothing that can compare. I hope we will all do our best to keep them open, even if it is simply telling a town or state representative how much we enjoy them. To stand aside and watch nature reclaim something so unique and valuable would be a real tragedy, in my opinion.

It’s amazing how quickly nature consumes human places after we turn our backs on them. Life is a hungry thing. ~Scott Westerfeld

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Keen observers of the flowers that bloom in spring probably noticed that there weren’t any coltsfoot flowers in my last post. That’s because I hadn’t seen any yet, even though I had been to every place I knew of where they bloom. Except one, I remembered; the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland that the ice climbers call the “Icebox” has a lot of coltsfoot plants along the trail. So, though I wasn’t sure what I’d find, last Sunday off I went. What I found was where winter has been hiding. As the above photo shows there was still plenty of ice clinging to the man-made canyon walls.

But the ice was rotten and melting quickly. Ice this big can be very dangerous when it falls, so I don’t get near it. I thought it had been warm enough to melt all the ice and snow here but obviously I was wrong.

The opaque gray color is a sure sign of rotten ice. Ice is rotten when the bonds between ice crystals begin to break down because of air and dirt coming between them.

Water was literally pouring from the walls. The groundwater always seeps and drips here but on this day it was running with more force than I’ve ever seen so I think it was meltwater.

And then I saw this fallen ice column. It looked like a boat and was as big as one that would fit 5 people. If this ever fell on a person it would crush them, so I decided to turn back and get out of here.

The view further down the trail didn’t look safe at all with all the ice columns melting in the sunshine, and there was what looked like a pile of ice down there.

That’s what it was; a pile of huge ice chunks all across the trail. I know it’s hard to judge the scale of things in a photo but these ice columns are as big as trees. Actually there is a fallen tree over on the left.

Here’s a shot of some ice climbers taken in February to give new readers an idea of the size of this ice. Some of it is huge.

I think that part of the reason the ice columns fall like they do is because the water in the drainage ditches along the side of the trail erode their bases away, as can be seen in this photo.

Ice isn’t the only thing that falls here. Stones fall from the ledges regularly and I saw at least three fallen trees on this day. I’m reminded each time I come here how dangerous the place can be, but it is also a place where I can see things that I can’t see anywhere else.

One of the things I can’t see anywhere else is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum.) They grow here by the thousands and I’ve learned to expect them to look a little tattered and worn in spring, because most are covered by ice all winter. By June though they’ll all be a beautiful pea green. Another name for the plant is snakeskin liverwort, for obvious reasons. Its pores and air chambers our outlined on its surface, and that gives it a very reptilian look. In my opinion it is one of the most beautiful of its kind.

I decided to look a little closer at areas with no ice or leaning trees nearby and I’m glad I did because I saw many interesting things, like what I believe is yew leaved pocket moss (Fissidens taxifolius.) This little moss grows in very wet places on the ledges where water drips on it almost constantly. Pocket mosses get their common name from the way the lower lobe of each leaf curls around its stem to form a pocket. This example was a little beat up because it has also most likely been under ice all winter.

Grasses were just coming up in the drainage ditches that follow along each side of the trail. The beech leaf in the foreground will give you an idea of their size.

I saw a large patch of moss on part of a ledge.

It turned out to be Hedwigia ciliata, which is a very common but an uncommonly beautiful moss. It’s also called white tipped moss because its branch tips are often bright white. I usually see it on stones in full sun.

Seedlings were coming up among the mosses. I’m not sure what they are because they had no true leaves yet but I do know that Jack in the pulpit plants grow all along this section of ledge. Many different species of aster also grow on the stone. It reminds me of a radish seedling.

I found that green algae (Trentepohlia aurea) darkens when wet. This hairy alga is orange because of the pigment beta carotene hiding the green chlorophyll. It grows out of direct sunlight on the damp rock walls.

I thought I’d practice my photography skills by trying to get a shot of a stone filled with mica. It isn’t as easy as it sounds because each piece of mica is like a tiny mirror that amplifies the sunlight.

If I could have gotten closer to the ice columns I would have shown you that the ice comes in many colors here. One of the colors is a reddish orange and I believe that it comes from iron leaching from the soil and stone. The above photo is of a spot in the woods where a pool of water was. When the water evaporated it left behind the minerals it carried, in this case probably iron.

I saw this bubbly mass in one of the drainage ditches. I’m not sure but I think it’s some type of algae. It reminds me of the spyrogyra algae I saw a few years ago. That example was on a very wet stone outcrop and this one was in water. I’ve read that it is most abundant in early spring and that the bubbles come from trapped gasses. It isn’t something I see regularly.

I never did find any coltsfoot flowers to show you but there were plenty of other interesting things to see. I also never made it all the way to the old lineman’s shack because of all the fallen ice, but I did see a piece of it; this plank from it was being used as a bridge to cross the drainage ditch. I wish people wouldn’t keep pulling the old shed apart but I don’t suppose anything can be done about it.

Nature is never static. It is always changing. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Nothing endures. Everything is in the process of either coming into being or expiring.
~Kilroy J. Oldster

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By now you might think I’d had enough of ice but there is a special place called the ice box in Westmoreland, just north of Keene, that I couldn’t go long in winter without visiting. I was here a month ago at the end of December but the ice, which often grows as big as tree trunks, hadn’t grown much by then. This is a deep cut through solid rock made by the Cheshire Railroad back in the mid-1800s which has become a popular spot for learning how to ice climb. The New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club holds ice climbing clinics here and on this day there were more climbers here than I had ever seen.

They were young and old and from what I gathered, all skill levels. As I usually do I just wandered through quickly, snapping the shutter now and then. I worry about distracting the beginning climbers so I don’t often speak to anyone or even stand and watch. I’ve asked in the past if my use of a camera bothered them and they’ve always said no, but that wouldn’t make me feel any better if someone fell because they were wondering what I was doing instead of paying attention to what they should have been doing.

What I’d like to ask them is why they don’t ever seem to climb the colored ice. It’s possible that it isn’t as stable as the clear or blue ice. Even though blue ice is the densest they seem to stay on the clear ice when climbing. I’ve read that ice is plastic and actually has quite a lot of give and movement, so maybe that has something to do with it. All of the bags and packs that you see in this photo are what the ice climbers use to pack their ropes out here. They use lots of rope!

These ledges soar up to what I would guess is about 50 feet in places and the ice columns sometimes reach all the way to the top. As I’ve said, they can also grow to the size of large tree trunks and they can be amazing things to see.

Sometimes it isn’t just their size that makes the ice columns amazing. It’s their beauty as well.

I believe that the colors in the ice come from mineral seepage in the groundwater that forms the ice columns, and I believe that simply because I can’t come up with any other plausible explanations. I’ve seen brown ice, green ice, orange ice, blue ice, red ice, and even black ice on these walls, so there must be some kind of mineral soup going on here.

I should say that I know regular readers of this blog have heard me say these things many times but there are new readers coming on board all the time, so I hope you’ll understand why I keep repeating what I say about this and some of other places I visit. This place especially, seems to fascinate those who haven’t ever seen anything like it. It really is quite amazing even to me, and I’ve seen it countless times.

I like the far southern end of the canyon; the end away from the climbers, because there is never anyone here. I think it might be because the ice receives too much sunshine on this end and it melts and fills the drainage ditches along the sides of the trail. I wouldn’t want to climb down an ice column and suddenly find myself standing in two feet of freezing cold water.

In years past I’ve seen huge ice columns colored reddish orange but this year I only saw those colors in the mineral stained stone. You can see in this photo how the groundwater seeps directly out of fractures in the stone.

I saw plenty of tan ice that had a few orangey streaks, but no orange ice.

There was so much ice in some spots you couldn’t see the stone that it hung from.

This photo shows the drainage ditches, which are frozen over at times and clear of ice at other times.

I saw some waves that had been frozen in place. There are small fish in these drainage ditches but they’re very fast so I’ve never been able to get a shot of them.

The ice over the drainage ditches is often thick enough to stand on, but you want to make sure you have high rubber boots on if you do. I’ve plunged through this ice before and found myself almost up to my knees in the cold, wet ditch.

Wherever the water touches the ice columns they melt, and they tell the story of how the water rises and falls in the ditches. We had a recent day with almost 2 inches of rain and there was plenty of evidence of flooding here.

This is one of two places where the water in the ditches rose so high that it washed parts of the railbed away. This was disheartening to see because the same thing happened last winter and the local snowmobile clubs had to put in a lot of time and effort last summer to fix it. They keep these trails open on their own time with their own tools without pay, and that’s why I always remind people to donate a little to their local snowmobile club, if and when they can.

The rushing water scoured away the finer material on the rail bed and exposed the gravel base. Chances are good that this hasn’t been seen in about 150 years, since the railroad workers put it down. It’s interesting to see that most of this stone isn’t made up of pieces of blasted rock from blasting the canyon through the hillside. These stones are more what I’d expect to see on a river or stream bank. So where did they come from? There must be a very big hole somewhere.

I thought I had chosen a good day to come here because it was sunny and approaching 50 degrees. It was a beautiful spring like day but somehow I never gave a thought to the fact that the ice would be melting because of it. But it was, and in places it was melting fast and falling from the walls. This rotten ice was a sure sign that things were changing due to the warmth. Ice is rotten when air bubbles or dirt particles get in between the ice crystals and weaken the bonds between them. It gives the ice a gray, opaque, “sick” look. When you tap on it you hear more of a thud than a good ringing rap.

This wasn’t good and it convinced me that I’d better get out of here, because an ice column had fallen and reached the center of the trail. I always walk in the center of the trail, thinking that if ice ever fell it would never reach me. So much for that theory.

I put a glove on one of the pieces of fallen ice column to give you an idea of how big they were. They were easily big and heavy enough to crush and kill if they ever fell on someone.

All of this freezing and thawing takes its toll on the ledges and stones fall from these walls too. The water gets into the cracks in the stone and expands when it freezes and shatters the stone, as can be seen in this photo. Stones big enough to crush cars have fallen from the walls in the past. I hope I’m not here when the next one comes down.

As I always have I stop and stand in awe of the old lineman’s shack which, even with one wall and half its roof gone still stands. It’s slowly getting worse though and I doubt it will make it through one more winter. I often wonder if they stored shovels in the shack so they could shovel out this canyon when it snowed. I’ve seen photos of train locomotives with big plows on them but where would they plow the snow in a canyon barely as wide as the train was? I think they must have had to shovel it, at least some of it, and I can’t even imagine what back breaking work that must have been.

After one last peek at the ice climbers my time here was done.

There are places which exist in this world beyond the reach of imagination. ~Daniel J. Rice

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We’ve had a return to summer here in southwestern New Hampshire and it was a hot, humid day when I sought out the natural air conditioning of the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland. It’s always about 10 degrees cooler here and there is almost always a breeze blowing through the man-made canyon. The canyon was hacked out of the bedrock by railroad workers in the mid-1800s. The rails are long gone but luckily, thanks to the efforts of local snowmobile clubs, the trails remain open. Note all the fallen leaves.  Already.

The last time I was here in May I found that a huge stone had fallen from the canyon wall. Though someone had been cleaning out the drainage ditches and cutting brush, the stone still sat where it had fallen. I think it would take a good size bulldozer to move it but then, move it where? The only way out of here is by one end or the other; there are no side trails.

Rocks aren’t the only things falling here; a large maple tree had fallen as well, but someone had cut it up. It seems odd that I see so many things that have fallen but I never see them fall. Maybe I should just count my blessings. That tree or the boulder could have easily killed a person.

The railroad used the stone blasted from the canyon to build retaining walls along parts of the trail. They’re beautifully built and they’ve held the hillside back for 150 years. Anyone who knows much about lichens would expect a wall like this one to be covered with them, but this entire place is remarkably almost lichen free.

Most of the trail is natural; just a very long trench cut through the bedrock of the hillside. It really must have been difficult to remove the snow from here in the winter so trains could get through. The canyon walls would have allowed just a few feet of space on either side of a train.

Many kinds of mosses, liverworts, ferns, flowering plants, and trees grow on these ledges, constantly watered by groundwater that seeps out of cracks in the stone. The scope of what you can find here is really amazing; I’ve seen things here that I’ve never seen anywhere else. At this time of year the lush green growth always reminds me of the Shangri la that James Hilton wrote about in his book Lost Horizon.

Drainage ditches on either side of the rail bed catch all the seeping groundwater and transport it out of the canyon so the rail bed stays dry. The railroad built the rail bed by laying large, flat stones like Roman road builders once did. On top of that they put course gravel, and over the gravel they laid track ballast. Track ballast is the crushed stone on which the ties or sleepers were laid. If the ballast was thick enough it kept weeds from growing and helped with drainage. Judging by all of the plants that usually grow alongside the ditches the ballast is most likely gone now, or it has certainly thinned out. I knew that people had been working here because all of the shoulder high plants that normally grew alongside the ditches had been cut, but they’ll grow back.

8. Washed Out Trail

We had torrential storms this past summer which in certain instances dropped 4 inches or more of rain in less than 24 hours in places, and this was one of those places. This photo shows a 3 foot wide, 6 inch deep trench that rushing water cut down the center of the rail bed. There were 2 or 3 other places that had washed out as well, so somebody has a lot of work ahead of them. Luckily trucks can get in here, but I doubt anything bigger than a one ton dump truck would get through without destroying the rail bed. The only thing good about the washout was that it let me see how the railroad built the rail bed.

Green algae (Trentepohlia aurea) grow here and there on the walls and are bright orange and very hairy. They grow like small tufts of hair all over some rocks. I’m not sure what the algae / stone attraction is, but it only grows on certain stones and this is the only place I’ve ever seen 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. I keep hoping I’ll see it producing spores but I never have. In fact I’m not sure if I’d know when it was producing spores because it always looks the same to me.  Algae do produce spores though, and they can produce them in high enough concentrations to actually color rainfall. Red, yellow, green, and black rain has been reported in various parts of the world.

I saw plenty of asters on this trip and some of them grew right out of the cracks in the stone walls of the canyon. Many plants and even trees grow on these walls, wherever they can gain a foothold.

In the winter huge columns of ice, some as big as tree trunks and 50 feet tall, grow here; fed by the constantly dripping groundwater. In places the groundwater carries a lot of minerals with it, and the above photo shows orange staining on the stone, probably caused by iron in the soil or stone. The minerals in the water also stain the ice columns in winter and you can find blue, green, red, orange, yellow, brown, and even black ice. It’s a magical, beautiful place when we have a cold winter.

The ledges soar overhead, up to 50 feet in places, and rock and ice climbers can often be found training here. I haven’t been able to talk to any of them to see what they think of the large boulder that fell, but I would think that it would make them a bit nervous. The shadows make the stone look very dark but it isn’t quite as dark as the camera thinks it is.

The sun lit up the yellow fall foliage of the black birches (Betula lenta) that grow at the top of the canyon walls. This tree is also called sweet birch and its numbers were once decimated because of its use as a source of oil of wintergreen. The bark looks a lot like cherry bark but chewing a twig is the best way to identify it; if it tastes like wintergreen then it is black birch. If not then it is most likely a cherry.

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) grows well here in the moist soil, and even grows on the ledges. Since they have a root much like the corm on a gladiolus I’m not sure how they manage to grow on stone but they do. Though it is considered toxic Native Americans cooked and ate the roots, and this gave the plant the name Indian turnip. Jack in the pulpit is a native plant in the arum family similar to the Lords and Ladies plant found in the U.K.

The ripe fruit of a Jack in the pulpit is bright red when ripe. Deer love these berries and often come by and chomp off the top of the plant, but I don’t know if deer dare to come into this canyon. I’ve never seen any signs of them here. Each Jack in the pulpit berry starts out green and contains 3-5 seeds.

Where it hadn’t been cut jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) still bloomed. These blossoms dangle at the ends of long filament and sway in the slightest breath of a breeze, so it was tricky getting a shot of one here where the breezes almost always blow.

Many species of moss grow on the moist stone ledges. I think this example was cypress-leaved plait-moss (Hypnum cupressiforme,) also called sheet moss or Hypnum moss. It is one of the mosses that are often used in moss gardens.

My favorite liverwort is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum) and they grow here on the stone ledges by the thousands. I was worried about them last year because many of them turned gray and looked like they might be dying, but now they’re back to their green color and looked to be good and healthy. Last year’s color change must have been a reaction to the drought. These plants need plenty of water.

Great scented liverwort is also called snakeskin liverwort, for obvious reasons. The reason it looks so reptilian is because of the way its pores and air chambers are outlined on its surfaces. It is the only liverwort with this feature, so it is very easy to identify. They love growing over the drainage channels here with ground water dripping on them from above. They are very fussy about water quality and will only grow where the water is clean and pure.  When you crush a leaf of this liverwort you smell a clean spicy aroma that I always think would make an excellent air freshener. They’re very beautiful things and I wish I could see them every day.

Another pretty moss that grows on the ledges is the leafy common pocket moss (Fissidens taxifolia.) This small moss is a water lover that grows near waterfalls and streams on rock, wood, or soil. It’s very small though; what shows in this photo would fit on the face of a penny. Its tiny leaves are only one cell thick and in the right light they are translucent.

The trail goes on all the way to Keene and I always tell myself that someday I’m going to follow it all that way, but by the time I’ve reached the old lineman’s shack I’m usually ready to turn around and head back. By this time I’ve seen much and have taken hundreds of photos, so I don’t need any more of those.  I like to take a little time poking around the old shack and usually end up wondering how it is still standing, and if it will make it through another winter. It was built well, that’s for sure. It’s only supported by two walls and only has half a roof and half a floor now.

There is always an adventure waiting in the woods. ~Katelyn S. Bolds

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