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Posts Tagged ‘Cheshire Railroad’

1-ice-climbers

All of the sudden we’re having some warm weather with temperatures expected to reach near 60 degrees tomorrow, so I thought I’d better get down into the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland before the ice began to melt and fall from the walls. As luck would have it there were a couple of ice climbers there. Ice climbers train here and call the place the icebox.

2-ice-climbers

They were two women climbers who said they were doing a “baby climb” and I had the feeling that they were just starting out. They were climbing ice that wasn’t that high; probably 20-30 feet. I didn’t hang around and bother them but I hope they did alright. I’ve read that ideal ice conditions for climbing happen between 20 and 35 degrees F because those temperatures produce the just right “plastic” ice; not cold enough to shatter, and not warm enough to melt. The temperature when I came here on this day was around 45 degrees and by the time I left I was sweating.

3-climbing-anchor

There are plenty of these sturdy looking anchors, called “hangers” screwed into the stone but I think they had their rope tied to a tree. How they get it up there without actually climbing the ice is always a mystery to me. Maybe they walk along the top of the man-made canyon first and tie it off.

4-rotten-ice

Some ice falls looked dull and grayish white because they were rotten. Ice becomes rotten when water, air, and / or dirt get in between the grains of ice and it becomes honeycombed and loses its strength. Instead of a sharp crack when it is tapped it sounds more like a dull thud. It would be dangerous ice to try and climb, so you have to be a good judge of ice to be a climber. The color and matte finish of this example were dead giveaways that it was rotten.

5-ice-falls

This huge ice fall was shiny and transparent; two signs that it isn’t rotting and is most likely climbable. It was probably around fifty feet high and I couldn’t back up far enough to get it all in one photo. You don’t want to be here when ice like this starts melting and falling. The sun warms the stone enough to release the ice where it touches stone, and at times ice columns like this can be free standing. When it can no longer support its own weight it can fall, and I’ve seen ice as big as tree trunks lying across the trail.

6-colored-ice

The ice here comes in many colors and I think that it has to be the minerals in the constantly seeping groundwater that color it.

7-mineral-staining

The stones have mineral stains on them throughout the canyon. There is a lot of iron here, which at times colors the stones bright red.

8-orange-ice

In this spot not only was the ice colored but the snow as well. This is the first time I’ve seen this.

9-snowmobilers

People came through wearing snowshoes but you don’t need them here. In winter this is a popular spot for snowmobiles, and they pack the snow down enough so in most places it’s like walking on a sidewalk. I’d bet that I saw 30 snowmobiles come through on this day; the busiest I’ve ever seen it.

10-stone-wall

But snowmobiles can’t do much about the snow depth and this year there is about two hard packed feet of it on the trail. I like to walk in the drainage ditches to get close to the plants and mosses that grow on the walls, and I was able to in a couple of spots, but it was mostly too deep. The top of the actual trail should normally be about a foot above the base of the wall, so you can see how much snow was on it. I’ve climbed down in there before in winter only to wonder how I’d ever get out. This beautiful retaining wall was built with some of the stone that the railroad crews blasted out of the canyon nearly 150 years ago, and it is still as solid now as it was then. Notice how it leans back into the hillside, just as any good retaining wall should. I’d guess that it’s about 6-8 feet high.

11-moss-on-stone

I had to stand on the trail and wish I could get closer to mosses like this one, but it was warm enough to be in a jacket on this day and warm rather than cold breezes blew through the canyon. It was a hint of the warm breath of spring, and once that warm breeze melts all the ice and snow I’ll be able to get a better look at the plants.

12-wet-moss

White-tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata) is fairly common and I find it mostly growing on stones in sunny spots. In this case it was growing on a ledge where dripping ground water constantly splashed it. I was able to find a path through the snowy ditch to get close to it and saw that it was shedding water quickly. That meant that every time I clicked the shutter a water droplet or two moved, so that’s why some of them are blurred. I never realized how much water runs through the soil below our feet until I came here. It’s always dripping, winter and summer, through the entire length of the canyon.

13-blue-ice

I haven’t seen much blue ice here this year but I did find this example. I’ve heard that blue ice is the densest of all but I never knew what forces combined to make it that way. I recently read on Wikipedia that ice “only appears blue when bubbles do not interfere with the passage of light. Without the scattering effect of air bubbles, light can penetrate ice undisturbed.” So apparently blue ice has fewer air bubbles in it than other colors, and without all those air bubbles getting in between the ice crystals stronger bonds can form, making it more dense. If I understand what I’ve read correctly the more dense ice is the more red and yellow light are scattered and / or absorbed, leaving just the light at the blue end of the visible light spectrum for us to see.

14-green-algae

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.

15-green-algae

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. It’s very hairy and is usually very hard to photograph. I think this is the best macro photo I’ve ever gotten of it after about 6 years of trying.

16-great-scented-liverwort

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. Their common name comes from their scent, because 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 took this photo from about 10 feet away and was astonished to see the amount of detail that the Canon bridge camera I used captured. That camera usually isn’t any good for such things so I use it for landscapes.

17-ledges

I’m surprised that more animals don’t fall from these ledges. It isn’t hard to imagine a deer bounding through the woods and suddenly finding itself in midair, but they must have a sixth sense about such things. I did hear of a moose that fell in here once, He got so badly hurt that the Fish and Game Department had to put him down, which was too bad. There aren’t many animals in these parts that could survive a 50 foot fall.

18-linemans-shack

After an afternoon of picking and poking and gawking and gaping I finally made it to the old lineman’s shack, which is my turn around point. Somehow this old building has made it through another winter.

19-linemans-shack

With half of it gone I don’t know how it stands up to the snow load.  It says a lot for the railroad workers who built it.

20-bird-nest

I saw a bird’s nest up in the rafters that looked relatively fresh.

21-grafitti

The graffiti inside the old shack always reminds me of my father. He would have been 18 in 1925 and he lived near here, 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.

22-rail-trail

Because of our unusually warm January the ice didn’t grow as big as it has in the past but there is still enough to be dangerous when it starts falling, so this will be the last trip through here for me until probably April. By then the canyon walls will be well on their way to becoming covered by lush green growth that always reminds me of the Shangri-La that James Hilton wrote about in Lost Horizon.

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

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1-aerial-view

We’ve had some snow here and it’s hard to get into the woods right now so I thought I’d take a walk through the plowed sidewalks of Keene. This aerial view from probably the 1960s shows a good part of the downtown area. Main Street was once, and might still be, the widest paved Main Street in the world, as someone has written on the photo. Where the street becomes a Y at the northern end is the town common. Washington Street is the right leg of the Y, and that’s where I go when I want to show you Beaver Brook Falls. On the left Leg of the Y is Court Street and that’s one way to get to Tenant Swamp, which I showed in my last post. By American reckoning Keene is an old town, having first been granted township status in 1732 and settled in 1736. The population fluctuates because of the college students coming and going, but I think it averages about 25,000 residents.

2-keene-main-street-in-the-1960s

Here’s a shot from the 1960s showing just how wide Main Street was. It’s still as wide but there is now a divider going up the center of it with a walkway for pedestrians. I could have easily been in this photo riding my stingray bicycle up the sidewalk, but I can’t really tell.  I can tell that this wasn’t taken on a Sunday though, because on Sunday every single store closed and Keene became a ghost town for a day. That was when my father and I usually went to visit relatives. We often drove up the right side of the Y, past Beaver Brook Falls.

3-the-white-church

One of the most familiar landmarks in Keene is the United Church of Christ, all in white. It’s called the “white church” or the “church at the head of the square” by most of us. Though the town common is round the blocks of buildings that surround it form a three sided square, so that’s where the term “head of the square” comes from. That confuses a lot of people so I just call it the “white church.” It’s a very beautiful building, in my opinion.

4-coal-silos

Almost as iconic to townsfolk as the white church are the huge coal silos that have been here for as long as anyone can remember. Surprisingly I can’t find much historical information about them.

6-coal-silos-old

Since there are railroad tracks beside the silos in this photo from about 1920, I’m guessing that the coal was brought in by rail, but how it got into the silos from there I don’t know. I’d guess that some type of conveyor was used.  If you needed coal you just backed your horse and wagon or truck under the silo, a door would open and gravity would do the rest. I walked down those tracks beside the silos many times when I was a boy but I never saw them actually work. By then the roof over the tracks was gone but trains still used them.

7-cheshire-railroad-repair-shops

Keene has a long railroad history. The Cheshire Railroad was opened in Keene on May 16, 1848. The first train to arrive was from Boston, a “doubleheader” with two engines, the Cheshire No. 5 and the Monadnock No. 6. The train is said to have been decorated its entire length with flags and evergreens. By the time I was old enough to walk through here the double arched repair shop had become a screw factory. My father worked there and so did I for a while. The old roundhouse can still be seen today, even though the building is now full of stores and restaurants. When I was a boy the original turntable was still there. I used to love playing on it, but I never saw it turn a locomotive.

8-railroad-station

This photo is of a big steam locomotive leaving the railroad station which was once located on Main Street. I never got to see one quite that old but I saw a lot of trains pass through town.

9-oak-gall

At one time Keene was called the Elm City because of all the beautiful 200 year old elms that grew along almost every street, but Dutch elm disease wiped out most of them in the 50s and 60s and the city replaced the elm trees with others of various species, including oak. I happened to look up at one of these oaks and saw that it was covered in gouty oak galls. Gouty oak gall is caused by a wasp called, not surprisingly, the gouty oak gall wasp (Callirhytis quercuspunctata). In spring the wasp lays its eggs in expanding plant tissue and secretes chemicals that will cause the abnormal growth seen in the photo. The gall grows quickly and once the eggs hatch the larvae feed on its tissue. It can take two years or more for the gall wasps to reach adulthood. One adult exits the gall through each hole.

10-court-street-keene

This photo of Court Street from the late 1800s shows why Keene was called the Elm City. Almost every street in town became a tunnel formed by the massive arching elms. I was lucky enough to have been born before all the trees died and I remember seeing many views just like this one. It was a beautiful place for a boy to grow up in; like living in a Currier and Ives lithograph.

11-lichens-on-tree-trunk

Many of today’s trees are encrusted with fringed candle flame lichen (Candelaria fibrosa) and other lichens. The city of Keene uses in-ground sprinklers in the summer and the spray keeps the trunks of the trees moist to about 5 feet off the ground and that’s just where these water loving lichens grow. Some trees are so covered with them that it looks as if someone painted them bright yellow. People were giving me some strange looks; probably wondering what was so fascinating about a tree trunk. If only they would stop and see for themselves.

12-lichen

The book Lichens of North America says that fruiting bodies (Apothecia) are commonly seen on fringed candle flame lichens, but I rarely them.  They are the tiny cup shaped parts, which were extremely small and difficult to get a good photo of. I think the largest one seen in this photo was probably only 1/16 of an inch across. This lichen is said to be very sensitive to air pollution, so seeing it is a good sign that our air quality is good.

13-lichen

What I believe were star rosette lichens (Physcia stellaris) grew among the fringed candle flame lichens.  Star rosette lichen gets its common name from the way its lobes radiate outward like a star. This photo doesn’t show that feature well though, because I was trying to get a shot of the apothecia. This lichen’s dark brown apothecia are often pruinose, which refers to a white, waxy, powdery coating like that found on blueberries, plums, and first year black raspberry canes. The waxy coating can reflect light in different ways, sometimes appearing ashy gray and at other times more blue.

14-coke-sign

I don’t know when this Coca Cola sign was painted but it has been here all of my life, on the side of the old Bullard & Shedd drugstore. Bullard & Shedd had special things like Russell Stover chocolates and I used to save my money and buy my grandmother the biggest box of them that I could afford on Valentine’s Day. Of course she always shared them and I usually got about three to her one.

15-jumanji-sign

This sign isn’t anywhere near as old as the Coca Cola sign but it’s probably a lot more famous, because it was painted for the film Jumanji with Robin Williams. Many of the exterior scenes in the film, including the animal stampede on Main Street, were filmed here. The film crew painted this sign for a business that never existed on the wall of a downtown building. Robin Williams was a nice guy who truly enjoyed meeting people, and he became friends with some of our local residents.

16-boston-ivy-berries

We have a lot of brick buildings here in Keene and Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) grows well on a few of them. But Boston ivy isn’t from Boston and isn’t an ivy; it is in the grape family and comes from eastern Asia. In the fall its red leaves are one of the most beautiful things in town but since the vines grow mostly on the rear of buildings few notice them. Boston ivy attaches itself to just about any vertical surface with tiny circular pads that form at the ends of its tendrils.  It secretes calcium carbonate and uses it to “glue” the pads to the surface it wants to climb. The glue can to hold up to 260 times its own weight and it is close to impossible to remove the vine from a building.

17-blue-spruce

A Colorado blue spruce poked its colorful branches out of the deep snow. Snow won’t hurt this tree any; it was found growing in Colorado on Pike’s Peak in 1862 up in the high country, so it’s perfectly cold hardy. Its silvery blue color comes from the waxy coating on its needles, which is similar to the bloom on blueberries and plums. This coating helps its needles (actually leaves) to minimize moisture loss in winter when there is little water available to its roots. Some western Native American tribes used the tree medicinally to treat colds and stomach ailments but today its value comes from its popularity as a landscape specimen.

18-japanese-andromeda

I didn’t notice it when I took the photo but this Japanese Andromeda looks like it might be infested by Andromeda lace bugs. Andromeda lace bug nymphs are 1/8 inch long when they hatch in late spring. They suck cell sap, which speckles the leaves with off color dots. These lace bugs damage broadleaf evergreens throughout the eastern U.S. from western North Carolina to Maine. They attack shrubs that are stressed, especially those that receive too much sun.

19-the-old-clock

It wasn’t the time but the cold that ended this outing. The odd thing was that at 22 °F it really wasn’t that cold, but every time I had to take off my gloves to snap the shutter my fingers felt like they had been frostbitten so I called it a day. This beautiful old cast iron clock is another Keene landmark. E. Howard & Co. was a clock and watch company formed by Edward Howard and Charles Rice in 1858, but I haven’t been able to find out when this clock came to Keene. With its gold leaf details restored it certainly is spiffier than it was when I was a boy.

How strange it is to view a town you grew up in, not in wonderment through the eyes of youth, but with the eyes of a historian on the way things were. ~ Marvin Allan Williams

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1. Trail-2

When it’s hot and humid here in New Hampshire you have a few choices when it comes to cooling off outside. You could go to one of our many lakes, you could climb a mountain to catch a cool breeze, or you could go underground like I did last Sunday.  The deep cut Cheshire rail trail in Westmoreland is almost always about 10 degrees cooler than it is everywhere else and there’s always a gentle breeze blowing. I’m convinced that the narrow slot canyon shape of the place creates its own breeze, because it never stops here.

2. Climber

Unfortunately last Sunday, even though there was a breeze, it didn’t feel much cooler as I walked through the man-made canyon. Considering how warm it was I was surprised to see two rock climbers. But I was also happy to see them because photos with people in them always give a sense of scale to the place. He looks quite small but you can see one of the climbers off to the left. He was looking up at his partner who was climbing up the wall of the canyon.

3. Cliff Face

You wouldn’t catch me climbing these walls, but a lot of people do.

4. Hanger

The hardware that rock climbers use looks safe enough. One hanger like this one that I read about said it could support 5600 pounds. It had better, because if they should fall this will probably save them.

5. Trail

The railroad workers cut through the solid rock by drilling deep holes into the stone using steam powered drills and then poring black powder into them. Packing these holes with black powder and lighting a fuse was a very dangerous business and many were killed doing it, but dynamite wasn’t invented until 1866 so it was either black powder or brute force. I’ve broken stone with a sledge hammer quite a few times but I wouldn’t ever want to face something like this. Breaking up the stone wasn’t the only daunting task; after the wall face was blasted away someone had to clean up tons of broken stone. Much of it was dumped in the woods and abutting landowners picked from the piles and built stone walls along the property lines. You can still see them today and they are oddities with their flat faces and sharp angles. You know immediately that stones like them aren’t natural.

6. Stone Wall

This photo I took last May shows what I mean. There isn’t a rounded edge to be found anywhere in this wall and our natural fieldstone always has rounded edges. This stone is obviously cut and seems very foreign compared to what we’re used to seeing.

7. Stone Wall

Not all of the blasted stone was dumped; the railroad built stone retaining walls along parts of the cut to hold back the hillside. They must have had stone cutters working right at the site, cutting and fitting the blasted stone into stone walls that have stood solid since the mid-1800s. You can always tell that a wall is a retaining wall by the way it leans slightly backwards into the hillside that it’s holding back. It takes skill, care and experience to get it right and the railroad stone masons had plenty of all three.

8. Drainage Ditch

Even as dry it has been the drainage channels on either side of the trail still had water in them. Groundwater constantly seeps from the ledges and runs through these channels away from the rail bed. They are filled with water year round and help keep the humidity stable and slightly higher than it would be otherwise. They’ve also kept the rail bed dry for well over a century and a half.

9. Purple Flowering Raspberry

There are many plants growing in the few sunny spots found here and some of the most beautiful on this day were the purple flowering raspberries (Rubus odoratus) in full bloom. This shade tolerant plant is in the rose family and the 2 inch wide flowers might look like a rose at first glance, but one look at its large, light gathering, maple like leaves will show that it isn’t. The plant has no thorns but it does have a raspberry like fruit. The flower petals always look a bit wrinkled.

10. Purple Flowering Raspberry Fruit

The fruit of the purple flowering raspberry looks like a large raspberry and is edible but is on the tart, dry side. Native Americans had over 100 uses for this plant, both as food and medicine.

11. Coltsfoot

Coltsfoot flowers (Tussilago farfara) might look like dandelion flowers but it’s clear that they don’t have a taproot like a dandelion. Here they grow on solid rock.

12. Tear Thumb Flowers

Arrowleaf tearthumb (Polygonum sagittatum) is in the smartweed family, which gets its common name from the way your tongue will smart if you eat its peppery parts. Though the flower buds in this family of plants seem like they never open they do, sort of. They look like they only open about halfway though and I find the buds as pretty as the blossoms. This plant is a kind of rambler / sprawler that winds its way over nearby plants so it can get as much sunshine as possible. I was surprised to see it growing here in deep shade along the edges of the drainage channels.

13. Tear Thumb Stem

Tearthumb got that name because it will indeed tear your thumb or any other body part that comes into contact with it. Many a gardener has regretted trying to pull it up without gloves on, because when the small but sharp barbs (prickles, botanically) along its stems slip through your hand they act like a saw and make you sorry that you ever touched it. The plant uses these prickles for support when it climbs over other plants, and they work well. Sometimes the stems and prickles are red but in this example they were green. Tearthumb is considered a wetland indicator because it likes to grow in very moist to wet soil. I almost always find it near water, often blooming quite late in summer.

14. Liverworts

Of course I couldn’t come here and not visit with my friends the liverworts. They grow here by the thousands, and this is the only place I know of where they do.

15. Great Scented Liverwort

My favorite liverwort is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum) and I wore knee high rubber boots so I could walk in the drainage channels to get close to them. 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. With most of the state in severe drought I’ve been wondering how the liverworts were doing. Some I saw had dried out completely by the looks but thankfully many were still thriving.  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.

16. Overleaf Pellia (Pellia epiphylla.)

Another liverwort that grows here is called overleaf pellia (Pellia epiphylla.) At a glance it looks like great scented liverwort but a close look shows that its leaf surfaces are very different. This liverwort always reminds me of bacon and I’ve learned to spot it from a distance by its shape and wavy edges. It’s much narrower in width than great scented liverwort, and in colder weather it often turns purple on its edges and shrivels a bit. Don’t tell it I said so but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as beautiful as the great scented liverwort.

17. Algae

One of the strangest things growing here are these green algae, (Trentepohlia aurea) which are actually bright orange. 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 in the algae but it’s still called green algae. It grows like small tufts of hair all over some rocks. I’m not sure what that algae / stone attraction is, but it only grows on certain ones and this is the only place I’ve ever seen it.

18. Algae Close

The algae are very small and hard to photograph. They are described as “filamentous green chlorophyte algae.” The pigment that masks the green chlorophyll can also be yellow or red. In India in 2001 airborne spores from these algae were in high enough concentrations in to cause a “red rain” that actually stained clothes pink. Yellow, green, and black rains were also reported.

19. Lineman's Shack

I took a walk out of the far end of the canyon to see if the old lineman’s shack was still standing. It was, but I’m not sure how with so many sections of wall and roof gone. I suppose that, like everything else the railroad built, it was built to last. There was an old bakelite (a type of early plastic) television antenna rotor controller on the floor of the shack for well over a year, but it disappeared as quickly and silently as it appeared. I’m guessing that this smallish shed must have been used for tool storage; after all, somebody must have had to shovel the snow out of this canyon in the winter. Just thinking about that makes my back twinge.

20. The Chesire

With all this talk of railroads and trains I thought I’d better show you the train that ran through here from 1935 until it was retired in 1957. It was a stainless steel 3 car diesel streamliner with “Cheshire” (for the Cheshire Railroad) proudly displayed on its nose. A 600 horsepower Winton engine was in the first car. The second car was a combination baggage / mail / buffet dining car, and the third car had coach seating for 188 passengers with rounded glass on its end that allowed 270 degrees of countryside observation. A sister train called The Flying Yankee ran on another part of the railway. How I would have loved to have had a ride or two on them.

If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads. ~Anatole France

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1. Trail

On Saturday I went to see some old friends and to get there I had to take a short hike down this rail trail in Westmoreland. It was a warm and beautiful spring day and I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many birds singing. The dark dot at the end of the trail is where we’re going. It looks like a tunnel in this photo but it isn’t.

2. Woods

The forest here is made up of nearly all hardwood trees; mostly beech, maple and oak, and there are some old, large examples here. The fallen tree shown in this photo doesn’t look like much because I was so far away from it, but it’s one of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen.

3. Oak

For every fallen tree there is a new one coming along to replace it and the oaks were just unfurling their new leaves when I was here.

4. Ledges

Here we are already. This is the dark spot that looked like a tunnel at the end of the trail in that first photo. For a short time there are ledges on either side of the trail made by the railroad blasting their way through the bedrock 150 years ago, and some remarkable plants grow here.

5. Ledges

Almost every crevice has some type of plant or tree growing out of it.

6. Columbines

And these are the old friends that I came here to see; the wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis.) They like to grow on partially shaded rocky slopes so this area is perfect for them. How they got here is anyone’s guess but their numbers have been steadily increasing since I first found them. Though I’ve spent 50 years walking through these woods this is the only place I’ve ever seen them.

7. Columbine

They are beautiful things; well worth the hike. Each red and yellow blossom is about an inch and a half long and dances in the slightest breeze at the end of a long stalk. The Aquilegia part of the scientific name comes from the Latin Aquila, which means “eagle” and refers to the spurred petals that Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus thought resembled an eagle’s talons. Some think they resemble pigeons around a dish and the name Columbine comes from the Latin Columbinus, which means “pertaining to doves or pigeons.” It is said that Native American men rubbed the crushed seeds on themselves to be more attractive to women. Whether they did it for color or scent, I don’t know.

8. Columbine

Wild columbine flowers have 5 petals and 5 sepals. Each petal is yellow with a rounded tip, and forms a long, funnel shaped nectar spur that shades to red. The oval sepals are also red, and the anthers are bright yellow. When they grow on ledges some of them are up overhead, so you can see the nodding flowers in a way you never could if they were growing at ground level. From this viewpoint you can see the 5 funnel shaped holes that are the start of the nectar spurs. Long tongued insects and hummingbirds probe these holes for nectar. Some say that these holes look like dovecotes, which is another reference to birds. We’re so very lucky to have such beautiful things in these woods.

9. White Ledge

Columbines like sandy, well-drained soil on the poor side that has limestone in it, so seeing them is a good indication of what type of soil is in the area.  Some of the stone faces here are covered by grayish white deposits of something I’m assuming is limestone leaching out of the stone. At first I thought there were lichens covering the stone but the powdery deposits rub off easily with a finger and I’ve never seen a lichen do that.

10. Jack in the Pulpit

You can tell that there are pockets of somewhat deep soil on the ledges because Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) also grows here. They have a root that forms a corm, which is a kind of flattened bulb much like those found on gladiolus plants, and they need a few inches of soil to grow well.

11. Trillium

At the base of the ledges purple trillium (Trillium erectum) and many other plants grow. It is near the end of its brief time with us and this one was just about done blooming. If pollinated a three part seed capsule will form.

12. Poison Ivy

It’s easy when photographing flowers and other ground dwellers to become so absorbed in the subject at hand that you don’t pay attention to your surroundings and just kneel or lie wherever you need to be to get the best photo. That wouldn’t be wise here because poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) also lives here and I’ve ended up with itchy knees by kneeling on leafless vines in the early spring. Luckily I’m not very sensitive to it and the rash usually just stays on my knees without spreading, but I’ve known people who had to be hospitalized because of it, so I try to always watch for it.

13. Stone Wall

When the railroad had to blast through a hillside they used the stone to fill in low spots, but if they had too much they simply piled the excess in the woods. Local people often took the stone to build with and this landowner built a stone wall with it. You can tell exactly where the stone came from because there isn’t a rounded edge on a single one. Our natural stones are almost always rounded.

14. Concrete Pad

There are reminders of the railroad all along this trail. I’m guessing that a signal box once stood on this concrete pad, because an old road once crossed the tracks up ahead.

15. Wires

Whatever the signal was it took 6 stout wires to control it.

16. Tie Plate

I flipped this tie plate over to see if there was any writing on it. I’ve seen them with a maker’s name and date but this one didn’t have a mark on it.

17. Fallen Beech

One of the biggest beech trees I’ve seen fell last year and shattered some oaks as big as watermelons when it did. Last summer I heard a tree fall in the woods close to where I was but not close enough to see. I’ll never forget the sound it made as it crashed its way to the forest floor. This beech fell right across the rail trail and I’m glad I wasn’t nearby when it happened. I see a startling number of fallen trees; usually at least one each year in every location that I visit regularly, and often many more.

18. Trail

I was going to take you on a climb up a new (to me) hill for this post but there were high wind gusts forecast for Sunday so I stayed out of the woods for most of the day and visited meadows instead. I’m very grateful that I got to see such a rare sight and I hope you enjoyed seeing the wild columbines as well. For me this walk has become an annual spring rite and I always look forward to it.

Gratitude turns anything into enough, puts past to rest, brings tranquility to our hopes of tomorrow, and blesses today with harmony and bliss. ~ Joseph Rain

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1. Trail Start

Last Saturday I decided to see if the hobblebushes were in bloom, so I followed one of my favorite rail trails out into the forest to see them. It’s a six mile round trip along the Ashuelot River and there’s usually plenty to see, so I’ve been looking forward to it.

2. Coltsfoot

Before I had walked half a mile I saw coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) growing in a ditch by the side of the trail and I was surprised that they were still blooming now, on this last day of April. In the past coltsfoot was thought to be good for the lungs and the dried leaves were often smoked as a remedy for asthma and coughs. It was also often used as a tobacco substitute, asthma or not. A native of Europe, it was most likely brought over by early settlers.

3. Coltsfoot

Coltsfoot leaves appear just as the flowers finish their brief display and there were plenty of leaves to be seen, so this is probably the last photo of a coltsfoot blossom to appear on this blog until next spring. It’s hard to say that; it seems like spring has barely gotten started.

4. Dandelion

We won’t have to go without yellow flowers though, even when the coltsfoot flowers fade. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) as we have this year. We should really grow (and eat) even more dandelions; I was just reading a paper by the University of Maryland Medical Center that said dandelions are “chock full of vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium, and zinc.” When I was a boy I ate the young spring leaves cooked just as spinach would have been. Like lettuce the leaves turn bitter with age, so you want to pick them young.  I’ve also roasted and ground the roots to use as a coffee substitute, and it wasn’t bad.

5. Trestle

Before long the rail trail crosses the Ashuelot River in Winchester. The old steel trestles still seem as strong as when they were built and are used by hikers, snowmobilers and bike riders. Other than snowmobiles in winter no motorized vehicles are allowed on rail trails, so it’s always a very peaceful hike.

6. Ashuelot

The Ashuelot was calm here on this day, but it isn’t always so. Lack of runoff from snow melt has kept it at summer levels and it will be interesting to see how it looks in August, which is usually when it reaches its lowest levels in this area. In some places you can walk across it and barely get your ankles wet in high summer, but it would be wise know the place well before you try it.

7. Maple Leaves

Spring was busting out all over along the trail.

8. Depot

Ashuelot is a town named after the river, (I think) and this is their old railroad depot. There was once an upper Ashuelot (Keene) and lower Ashuelot (Swanzey) and Ashuelot streets and roads are still found today. The word Ashuelot is pronounced ash-wee-lot by out of towners or ash-wil-ot by locals. The pronunciation is most likely a corruption of the original Native American word, which meant “place between” in the Native Pennacook or Natick languages. Between what remains a mystery. Hills maybe; we have plenty of those and the river does run between them before finally joining the Connecticut River.

9. Ashuelot Covered Bridge

The town of Ashuelot also has a beautiful covered bridge built in 1864, which is a strange time because the Civil War was still raging. I’ve read that it was originally built so wood could be carried across the river to wood burning locomotives, but I have no way to verify that. Anyhow, in spite of the fighting it was built in two spans and is 160 feet long. It’s a Town lattice truss style bridge, patented by architect Ithiel Town in 1820. The open lattice work sides were a big step away from the solid walled bridges that came before it. Now, instead of being dark like a cave covered bridges were filled with light and had better air circulation. They also often had covered walkways for pedestrian traffic, as can be seen on this bridge. I’ve crossed both styles and the difference is amazing. The change must have been a very welcome one to people of the 1800s.  At one time there were about 400 covered bridges in New Hampshire, and 70 of them were left at the end of the 20th century. The Ashuelot Bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

10. Violets

Violets blossomed in great profusion along the trail and made me wonder about all the beautiful things the railroad workers must have seen along these rail beds when the trains ran through here.

11. Violets

I didn’t bother trying to identify which violets they were. I just enjoyed them.

12. Garlic Mustard

I didn’t have to try to identify the invasive garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that grew in several places; I know it well.  Garlic Mustard spreads quickly and prefers growing in shaded forests. It isn’t uncommon to find areas where no growing thing can be seen on the forest floor but this plant. It is considered one of the worst invasive species because of its ability to spread rapidly and is found in all but 14 U.S. states, including Alaska and large parts of Canada. It grows from 1-4 feet tall and has a strong but pleasant garlic / onion odor when the leaves are crushed. It’s really too bad that more restaurants don’t use this potherb, because people foraging for it might be a good way to control it.

13. Canada Mayflower

Since it is native to North America it’s hard to describe the Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) as invasive, but it does form monocultures much like garlic mustard and I’ve seen large swaths of forest floor with nothing but Canada mayflowers, as the above photo shows.  Woe befalls the gardener who finds it in their garden, because its fibrous root system is almost impossible to eradicate once it has become established. If you try to pull the plant the leaf stem just beaks away from the root system and it lives on. The speckled red berries are eaten by ruffed grouse, white footed mice, and chipmunks, all of which help spread it throughout the forest.

14. Trail

I stopped here and took this photo because this is where a hawk circled over me, just above the treetops as I walked along. It didn’t make a sound but its shadow crossing in front of me gave it away and I didn’t even have to look up to know that it was escorting me down the trail. But of course I did look up and knew it was a hawk by the beautiful stripes on the underside of its tail feathers.  Unfortunately many hawks seem to have like stripes, so I don’t know its name. I’ve had vultures circle me but never a hawk; for it to do so for a few minutes seemed like odd behavior and I wondered if I had stumbled into its nesting site.

While trying to find the identity of the hawk I read that some Native American tribes believed that a hawk showed itself to a person when the person needed to pay attention to the subtle messages found in the natural world around them. The hawk was also a messenger and was said to bring gifts that included clear sightedness, courage, wisdom, and illumination, the ability to see the bigger picture, creativity, truth, magic, and focus.

15. Ashuelot

The Ashuelot gets very rocky in this area, mostly because of the low water level, and picking your way through in a canoe or kayak seems like it would be very tiring. If the rafts I built as a boy had done their job I would have had to face getting through it.

16. Pine Tree in River

There are other obstacles to river travel as well. That’s a full grown white pine (Pinus strobus) that was stuck on the rocks. White pines are the largest trees in eastern North America, and often grow to 150 feet tall. In Colonial times they were said to grow to over 200 feet but later verifiable accounts measured them ae about 180 feet. It’s a tall tree in any event and seeing one lying in the river like that reminds you just how big this river can be.

17. Bliss

There are places of bliss and torment in this world and we can usually tell which is which by the way we feel attracted to or repelled by them. This spot always calls to me when I hike here but when I took this photo I was about 30-40 feet above the river, and there is no good way down to it. It reminds me of an island in the river that I used to visit when I was a boy, and if I was 12 years old again I’d be spending a lot of my time down there in that little piece of Eden because if I couldn’t have found a path I’d have made one. Sometimes you have to put up with a little torment before you reach your place of bliss.

18. Hobblebushes

If you’ve ever lost yourself inside a painting, a poem, or a piece of music then you know why I’ll happily walk 6 miles to see a hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) in bloom. To see an entire riverbank full of them is beauty rare enough to see me walk twice as far. There really isn’t anything else quite like it in these spring woods, so you have to just stop and look.

19. Hobblebush

I had to get a fallen tree off this example before I could take a photo because it had squashed most of the blossoming branches down to ground level, and as a thank you for freeing it the bush didn’t trip me up. The name hobblebush comes from the way the low growing branches, unseen under last year’s fallen leaves, can trip up or “hobble” a horse or hiker. The name is a good one; I’ve found myself sprawled on the forest floor beside it a few times. I was a little early in visiting them this time so some of the small fertile central flowers hadn’t fully opened, but the large outer sterile ones more than made up for it. If it wasn’t for the rail trail through here no one would ever see these beautiful shrubs or the wild azaleas and mountain laurels that will follow, and that would really be too bad.

Note: A viburnum with similar flowers called cranberry bush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) can be found at nurseries.

20. Bent Railroad Tie

Someone made a bench out of an old railroad tie. Normally there wouldn’t be anything noteworthy about that but this one is bent, and that’s very strange. It must be natural, maybe because of the weather; I don’t think mankind could find a way to bend one of these in that way unless steam was used. Surely it wasn’t done out here in the middle of the woods with only hand tools.

21. Box Culvert

Man can do some remarkable things out in the woods with only hand tools though, and I wonder how many of these box culverts were built along these Boston and Maine Railroad tracks back in the mid-1800s. There must be thousands of them. This one caught my interest because every other one I’ve seen was put up dry with no mortar, but this one had all its joints mortared. I’m guessing it was a repair that came later. You can see how the bottom left corner of the opening is kicked in towards the center a bit and instead of repairing it correctly someone must have tried to cement it back together. How the damage could have happened in the first place I don’t know, but since I usually have a pocket full of mysteries when I leave places like this, adding one more was no real burden.

22. Forget Me Nots

Forget me nots asked that I remember all I had seen here today. I’m fairly certain that it’ll stay with me for quite a while.

Life is full of beauty. Notice it. Notice the bumble bee, the small child, and the smiling faces. Smell the rain, and feel the wind. Live your life to the fullest potential, and fight for your dreams. ~Ashley Smith

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1. Tunnel

Last weekend I decided to explore a place that I first saw a couple of years ago and which I’ve been curious about ever since. My hike down a section of the Cheshire Rail Trail would carry me over this stone arch tunnel built when the railroad came through circa 1848. That was back when only horse drawn wagons used it and to this day it’s only wide enough for one car at a time.

2. Culvert

Off in the woods is a culvert built as a smaller version of the tunnel that carries water instead of cars under the rail bed. Both the culvert and tunnel were built by expert masons from stone quarried very near here. They are beautiful examples of the stone mason’s art and are also fine examples of taking pride in your work. Even though these culverts are in places where they couldn’t be seen by the public they were built as if everyone in Keene, New Hampshire would be seeing them.

3. Ice on Rock

It was a cold morning and the stones in the stream wore skirts of ice.

4. Stream

This is the view of the stream from the rail trail above the culvert that passes under the rail bed.

5. Road

And this is the view of the road that passes through the tunnel under the rail bed.

6. Trail Start

And unfortunately this is the start of the rail trail section that I planned to follow. The ice stretched on into the distance so I went back to my truck to get my Yaktrax, but that’s when I discovered that I had foolishly left them at home. There was nothing to do but walk on the edges of the trail and hope for the best. I had to pinwheel my arms a couple of times to keep my balance but I didn’t fall. I actually saw 2 bike riders and a jogger riding and running across ice just like this. I don’t know how they did it; it was all I could do to walk on it. Walking on ice makes your body tense up and it can be very tiring.

7. Trail

Finally the ice gave way to gravel and from here on it wasn’t bad.

8. Ripples in Ice

But there was still ice to be seen in the drainage ditches that line each side of the rail bed. It was too thin to walk on but admiring it was possible.

9. Trail Detour

Before I knew it I was at the detour that goes uphill and around the original rail bed.

10. Abandoned Section

And that’s because this is the original rail bed, which is obviously no longer used. I’ve taken the detour around it and I’ve been able to look down into what is a deep railway cut through the hillside from up there. Since I first saw it two years ago I’ve been curious about what is in there and today I planned to find out. There were a few obstacles ahead but they didn’t look unsurmountable. I had to make myself very small to crawl under the tree in the photo, but I got through the tangle.

11. Fallen Trees

I should say that I got through the first tangle. It looked like there were plenty more up ahead.

12. Fallen Trees

Most I had to simply climb over, but ice made it challenging in places.

13. Ledges

It was easy to see why there were so many fallen trees in here. They were perched on the brink of ledges which looked like they were about to crumble and fill the space with rubble. Sizeable stones had  fallen in places but I didn’t really want to think about that. I could only hope I wouldn’t be in here when anything fell.

14. Fallen Trees

Trees of all sizes had toppled onto the rail bed and each one had to be climbed over or crawled under. While in this place I didn’t see a single foot print and I wondered if it was because nobody wanted to go through what I was going through. The next time you meet a snowmobiler I hope you’ll give them a big thank you, because without their voluntary trail maintenance all of our rail trails would probably look just like this, and that would be a shame.

15. Drill Marks

Reminders of the railroad workers were everywhere. When this rail bed was blasted out of the rock they drilled a hole with a steam drill or by hand with a star drill and sledge hammer. They then filled the hole with black powder, lit the fuse, and probably ran. And then they had tons of blasted rock to move without the use of gasoline powered vehicles. These people certainly earned their pay.

16. Ice

There was some ice here but it wasn’t anywhere near as big or as colorful as the spectacular ice falls that I’ve seen in the other deep railway cut on the way to Westmoreland. This ice was very clear.

17. Fallen Trees

Finally the fallen trees thinned out so I could walk normally without climbing or crawling. I could tell that there was needle ice under the thick mat of leaves by the way they crunched with every step. For a change I was grateful for the ice underfoot because otherwise it would have been very wet here. In fact I’m not sure I could get through it in warm weather without my knee high rubber boots on. Normally the drainage ditches would keep the rail bed very dry, but they were blocked in several places and had soaked it.

18. Telegraph Pole

A telegraph pole leaned against one of the walls. These used to be strung along the sides of the rail beds with glass insulators on cross arms. I haven’t seen one of these for a long time.

19. Dead End

The end of the line was nothing but a pile of dirt covered by last year’s fallen leaves but that was 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 was here. The guard rails for Hurricane Road, which was laid out in 1761, can just be seen at the top of this photo. Hurricane Road 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. So does that mean that there is a beautiful granite tunnel like the one in the first photo of this post under that huge pile of dirt? Did they take the tunnel apart and fill in the hole when the railroad stopped running? These are questions that I can’t answer yet but there must be a record somewhere, and the county Historical Society will be a good place to start searching.

20. Rail

A rail comes out of the pile of dirt where the tunnel should be but it is loose and not attached to any ties that I could see. Piles of the old ties were stacked here and there along the rail trail before I entered the canyon.

21. Mossy Wall

When I was a boy I wanted to be a plant explorer in the Amazon jungle and though this place was far from jungle like it was a kind of Shangri La like lost world and I felt right at home. I searched the walls for the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum) but I don’t think enough groundwater trickled down the walls to support them. Instead I saw what must have been many thousands of the smaller greater whipwort liverwort (Bazzania trilobata.) It doesn’t seem to need as much surface water as some of the others and was thriving here. There were also plenty of mosses but I couldn’t get close enough to the walls to get any macro photos of them. I’m already looking forward to seeing this place when all the plants start growing. It might be a good spot to see some of our native red columbine.

22. Looking Back

To me this place was completely wild and beautiful and though it was slow going in places there was a lot to see. Time must have gotten snagged on a branch of that first tree I crawled under because I lost all sense of it and was surprised to see that 5 hours had passed when I got back to the start of the trail. It had felt more like 15 minutes.

Surrender to the unknown and trust that the universe will lead you home. ~Karen A. Baquiran

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1. Ice Climbers

After our below zero cold of Valentine’s day weekend I wondered if the ice in the deep cut rail trail on the way to Westmoreland had grown. When I got there I could see that it really hadn’t grown much since my last visit but I was pleasantly surprised to see a group of ice climbers there. You can just see them in this photo, way down toward the light at the end of the canyon. That’s where the biggest ice grows.

2. Ice  Climber

Last time I did a post about this place that the climbers call the “ice box” several readers said they wished I could find a way to better show the scale of the place, so I broke my own rule and took photos of the climbers. I’ve avoided doing so in the past because I didn’t want to distract them, but since several of them were talking back and forth I didn’t think I’d break anyone’s concentration. These few photos should give you a good idea of the size of the place and the height of the walls that the railroad blasted out of the bedrock nearly 150 years ago.

3. Ice Climber

This climber had nearly made it all the way to the top. It must be exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time.

4. Ice  Climber

Ice climbers wear spikes called crampons on their climbing boots and have a tool called a pick in each hand. They swing a pick into the ice and then swing the other, and when they’re sure the picks will hold them securely they move their feet up until the crampons have found a purchase, and in this way they slowly move up the ice fall. There is always a helper with each climber who keeps the climbing rope taut or slack, depending on what is required at the time. These people must have great concentration.

5. Polished Ice

After our cold snap we’d had some warm days and the melting and re-freezing had given some of the ice columns a high polish.

6. Rotten Ice

Other ice falls looked dull and grayish white and these were rotten. Ice becomes rotten when water, air, and / or dirt get in between the grains of ice and the ice becomes honeycombed and loses its strength. Instead of a sharp crack when it is tapped it sounds more like a dull thud. It would be dangerous ice to try and climb, so you have to be a good judge of ice to be a climber.

7. Trail

There is still a lot of ice here in spite of the warm days we’ve had but as I walked along I noticed that much of it was rotten, and that’s my signal to stay away from this place until it has melted. I’ve seen ice columns as big as tree trunks fallen in the trail in years past, and I don’t want to be anywhere near them when they start falling.

8. Falling Ice

For the first time since I’ve been coming here I saw ice falling in the spot shown above. It wasn’t a huge amount but it was enough to warn me away until spring has taken a solid hold. This entire ice fall was rotten. Note how white it is, and how it has lost its shine and has become dull, even with the sun shining on it.

9. Fallen Ice

These fallen chunks were large enough to kill someone if they ever fell at the wrong time. The biggest was as big as a car tire.

10. Colored Ice

I knew I wouldn’t see sights like this again until next winter, so I took my time and admired the ice. This is a place where you can be immersed in winter’s beauty, and I haven’t found another place like it.

11. Ice Cave

You can just see an evergreen fern inside this ice cave. In summer this place is green and lush with most of the rock faces covered by plants, and I often think of it as the Shangri-La in James Hilton’s book Lost Horizon, but walking through here in winter can be like walking on a distant frozen planet. If there is a place where the difference between the two seasons is more apparent I haven’t found it.

12. Ice Free Wall

One wall in full sunshine had lost all its ice. This is an unusual sight here in February.

13. Liverworts

In one spot the ice had melted enough so the liverworts that grow on the walls could be seen.

14. Liverwort

After checking to see that there was no ice overhead and the ice covering the drainage ditch was solid I inched out across it to get some close ups of the liverworts. I only stayed for a minute; if the ice I was standing on had broken I would have been up to my knees in freezing cold water because I didn’t have my knee high rubber boots on. It would have been a cool walk out of here.

15. Liverwort Closeup

The beautiful reptilian great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) made the risk of cold wet feet worth taking. These liverworts 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. Their common name comes from their scent, because 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.

16. Trail

I always try to take photos that show how high the cliffs can soar, and this one does a fair job of showing that. In this section the trail was very icy. This winter any snow that has been packed down has turned to glare ice and is very difficult to walk on. That’s why I’ve stayed away from hill climbing this winter.

17. Ice Column

This column of ice was about as big as a basketball, or about 9.25 inches across. Though it looked from the trail like it had grown solidly along the rock face this view told a different story.

18. Lineman's Shack

The old lineman’s shack tells me that I’ve reached the end of what I came to see. I really thought that the winter snows would bring it down this year but I don’t think we’ve had more than 4 inches fall in a single storm, and that was the biggest. The other 4 or 5 storms were only 2 or 3 inches.

19. Lineman's Shack

There really isn’t much holding the old place up. It looks like a strong breeze would blow it over.

20. Gaffitti

I’d kind of like the old shack to stay standing. The graffiti inside always reminds me of my father. He would have been 18 in 1925 and lived near here 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 the tracks through here. I’m not sure what NLP! GH means; maybe: No Longer Present! Gone Home.

I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it. ~William Shakespeare

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