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Posts Tagged ‘Cheshire Railroad’

It was a beautiful sunny, spring like 40 degree day last Saturday when I set off down a favorite leg of the Ashuelot Rail Trail in Swanzey. Every time I come here I discover something I haven’t seen here before and today was no different. In fact I saw many things that I’ve walked right by on previous trips. That’s why John Burroughs said “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday,” and that’s why I follow the same trails again and again. Though I’ve traveled them many times I know that I haven’t seen half what is on them.

There were lots of beech trees along this section of trail and their dry leaves shivered and whispered softly in the light breeze. Soon they will begin to fall and make room for new leaves.

These berries had me scratching my head for a minute until I realized that the large shrub they grew on was privet. A homeowner who lived along the rail trail had long ago planted a privet hedge and then never trimmed it so the hedge grew to about ten feet tall, and it was covered with berries that the birds weren’t eating. That’s a good thing because privet is considered invasive. This is one of those things that I’ve walked by fifty times but haven’t seen.

One of my reasons to come here was to see the old trestle that crosses the Ashuelot River. There has been a lot of talk about ice jams and I wanted to see what the ice looked like out here in a place you can’t drive to.

Dark purple-brown frullania liverworts decorated a young oak tree. This liverwort is an epiphytic plant, which means it takes nothing from the trees that it grows on. I think of them being like a bird; they simply perch on trees in spots where they get the moisture and light that they need. They are easiest to see in winter when the cold darkens them.

There are about 800 species of this liverwort so identification can be difficult but this is the one that I most often see, with tiny leaves that are strung together like beads. Some frullania liverworts are said to be very fragrant but I keep forgetting to smell them.

A heavily fruiting lichen grew right next to the liverwort on the oak tree. I see this lichen quite often but I’ve never been satisfied with any identification I’ve come up with so far. I thought it might be rosy saucer lichen until my color finding software told me that its many apothecia were brown instead of rosy. For those who don’t know lichens, the apothecia are the round, rimmed fruiting bodies where this lichen’s spores are produced.

An old railroad marker had slowly tilted until it had fallen almost all the way over but its “W” was still visible, highlighted in snow. The W stands for whistle and the post is called a whistle post, because it marks the spot where the locomotive engineer was to blow the train’s whistle. There is a crossing very nearby where the railbed crosses a road, and the whistle would have alerted wagon or auto drivers that a train was coming. Some whistle posts were marked – – o -, which meant “two longs and a short” on the whistle. I was surprised that I couldn’t remember seeing the post here before, but I’m sure it had to have been.

I scuffed my boot in the snow to find that there were only about two inches over very firm ice. The ice remains even though it rained more than a week ago, but maybe a day or two of this warmth will have melted it.

When the sap (called pitch) of white pines turns blue and / or purple you know it has been cold. The only time I see it do this is in the winter. In summer it is either a matte finish, tannish color or a very clear honey / amber color, depending on when it oozed from the tree. Sometimes in winter it can be a very beautiful deep blue.

The biggest surprise on this hike was how many balsam fir trees (Abies balsamea) I saw. This is thought of as a more northern tree so I don’t expect to them here in the southern part of the state but I must have easily seen 20 of them that I hadn’t seen the last time I came this way. It’s hard to believe but maybe it is cold enough here these days to keep them happy. A lot of Christmases came rushing back when I smelled a few of its crushed needles.

The red buds of striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) were a welcome sight but I was surprised again because I’ve never seen them growing here. Toward the end of April the fuzzy buds will be showing pink and orange hues. They’re one of the most beautiful things in the spring forest and well worth the effort to see.

The chubby, thumb size buds of shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) were no surprise because these trees grow quite abundantly in the river bottom section of Swanzey. This is another bud which, when it breaks in early June, will easily be one of the most beautiful things in the forest. The insides of the bud scales are orange, pink and yellow and make these tress look like they are full of beautiful flowers.

Shagbark hickory gets its name, not surprisingly, from its shaggy bark. The wood is very hard and tough but flexible and shock resistant, so it is prized for use in tool handles. It was also once used to make wheels and spokes for wagons and early autos. Northeastern Native American tribes used the wood to make bows and stone axe handles. Hickory is also one of the hottest burning woods.

Native Americans used the nuts of shagbark hickory for food and the word “hickory” comes from the Native Algonquin “pawchiccora,” which was their word for the oily nutmeat. If a mother’s milk wasn’t available infants were fed hickory milk, which was made by boiling crushed hickory nuts. Today the nuts are eaten mostly by squirrels, chipmunks, foxes and turkeys.

As if often the case what should have been a short walk turned into a long one because there was so much to see along the way, but I finally made it to the trestle. Wooden decks and railings were added to most of the old, unused trestles in this area by snowmobile clubs, and all who use these trails really owe them a debt of gratitude for maintaining them. When I was a boy you had to step from railroad tie to tie, with a gap between that it was easy to catch a leg or an ankle in if you weren’t careful. I was so used to crossing trestles by the time I was ten I could cross them in the dark but I know people who got their leg down between the ties and one who even fell from a trestle into the river below.

I wouldn’t recommend falling into this river in January. There was something going on up river but I couldn’t tell if it was an ice jam or just ice that had formed around a submerged tree. There are a lot of submerged trees in this river and that’s why you only see kayaks or canoes when the water is high, usually in spring. You can see in this photo how the trees lean out over the water as they grow, trying to gather up as much sunlight as possible.

Slabs of ice in the trees told me how high the water had been a while ago. I’m guessing that the water level had dropped 4 or 5 feet since that ice formed.

Another reason I come here is to see the only “tell tales” left to see in this area. Tell tales are thin, pencil size pieces of wire suspended from a cross brace that hangs out over the railroad tracks. They were put in place to warn anyone walking on top of a boxcar that a tunnel or bridge was ahead so they could duck down and avoid a nasty collision with an immoveable object. Being hit in the face by these hanging wires couldn’t have been pleasant but it was certainly better than the alternative. They used to hang on either end of every trestle but now these ones are the only ones I see.

Of all the times I’ve come here I’ve never noticed that the upright that holds the tell tales out over the rail bed is actually a piece of track stood vertically and buried in the soil. It tells me that these tell tales might have been fashioned in place rather than made ahead of time and shipped to the site.

Where I grew up the Boston and Maine Railroad crossed the Ashuelot River just a few yards from my house and there was a trestle there just like this one, so I wouldn’t be lying if I said I grew up on this river and on these railroad tracks, and I guess that each are as much a part of me as anything can be. I think that’s why I come back to them again and again; to check on their health and to see that they’re doing well, and I’m happy to say that both the river and the rail trails are doing much better now than they were then. The Ashuelot was very polluted back then and the trains kept many people off the tracks, but now you can come and sit on a trestle like this all day and admire a near pristine river where bald eagles once again fish for trout. It makes me want to say just look what we can do when we really want to.

When I came here I had nothing but a camera and curiosity but I left satisfied with a smile on my face and a bounce in my step. It struck me on this walk that if people could find happiness in simple things like a walk outside on a warm January day, or seeing sunshine falling on last year’s grasses, they might find that they were happy most of the time. I find that I’m pretty happy most days, and that has happened quite by accident, just by spending most of my free time in nature. It really is amazing what an abundance of joy simply being outside can bring to you. I hope you’ll try it and see.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
~Lao Tzu

Thanks for coming by.

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After posting the 2 part blog post just before Christmas about searching a new rail trail to find ledges where huge icicles might grow I realized that many readers might have no idea why I would be looking for such things, so I visited one of my favorite rail trails in Westmoreland. This is a deep cut that was blasted through a hillside in the mid-1800s so the Cheshire Railroad could get to Vermont. Groundwater constantly seeps through fissures in the stone and in winter it freezes into huge ice columns as big as tree trunks.

The size of the ice columns can be quite amazing but sometimes the minerals in the groundwater color them and make them even more amazing. The walls of this man made canyon soar up to 50 feet high in places so the ice columns also get very tall. They must be perfect for climbing because the New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club comes here to hold ice climbing clinics.

As luck would have it they were there climbing the ice on this day. Though I didn’t ask I’m assuming that the climber in this photo was relatively new to climbing, because he was on ice that wasn’t very tall. I met climbers here last year who described this kind of climb as a “baby climb.” Just to get used to it, I would think. I try not to be too intrusive or distracting when I see climbers so I don’t ask to many questions for fear of breaking their concentration.

If you are wondering what became of all that blasted stone, in this case the railroad used it to build mighty retaining walls along the sides of the cut where there was hillside soil that had to be held back.

This view is of the opposite end of the canyon from where the ice climbers climb. Though the ice here is nearly as big as on the other end I’ve never seen them climb here, and it wasn’t until this year that I finally figured out why.

At least I think I know why they don’t climb here. The drainage ditches are full of water on this end of the canyon and there is no water in them where the climbers climb. These ditches are almost knee deep in places and I’d hate to climb down an icicle and find my feet in frigid water. This is the section where most of the interesting plants grow though, so when I need to get close to the walls I put on rubber boots and walk in the ditches. I don’t do it often because of the danger of falling ice and stone, but I’ve done it a few times.

These drainage ditches were designed to carry water out of and away from the rail bed, so the water is always flowing like a stream, and the movement keeps the ice columns from growing any further than the surface of the water. It looks like they have been cut off right at the water’s surface all the way down the ditches.

It’s always cold here in winter and it often gets cold enough to freeze the surface of the drainage ditches, and that’s what happened in a few spots on this day. Where they had frozen over long feathers of hoar frost had grown. Without thinking I hold my breath when I’m taking photos of these beautiful, fragile things because all it takes is the warmth of a stray breath to destroy them.

In some places the hoar frost had grown into sharp looking needles. It’s odd to think of frost growing on ice but it happens quite frequently when conditions are right. Humidity seems to play a large part in it.

I’ve learned much from this man made canyon and one of the chief things among them is how cold can change the appearance of stone. It brings out colors in the stone for instance, that aren’t seen when it’s warmer. Colored stains from over a hundred years of seeping, mineral laden groundwater appear as if by magic when it gets cold.

But do the minerals color the ice? I think they do, because I can’t think of any other thing that would. And the color doesn’t come in just green; I’ve also seen orange, blue, brown, and even black ice here. The blue ice is colored by its own density and clarity and by the way it reflects light, but the other colors must come from some foreign material. Brown ice for example, might simply be colored by soil. Orange ice could be colored by the iron in the stone. There’s a lot of it here.

You can see in places how the mineral laden water colors the snow as well as the ice.

Ice isn’t the only reason I come here. There are many unusual plants here that I don’t see anywhere else, and one of them is the green algae called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it’s called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta-carotene color them orange. It’s the same pigment found in carrots, but in this instance it hides the green chlorophyll in the algae. I couldn’t get close enough to show it but these algae are very hairy. Though I’ve seen orange ice here it wasn’t where the few colonies of algae grow so I doubt they have anything to do with coloring ice. I keep hoping to see the algae producing spores, but so far I haven’t had any luck. In certain parts of the world algae have produced enough spores to color the rain. If you ever hear of red rain falling chances are it’s because of algae spores.

Another plant that I come here to see is the beautiful, reptilian, great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum.) This liverwort gets its common name from its clean, fresh scent. It is the only liverwort with this reptilian appearance, so it’s easy to identify. They grow on these ledges by the thousand, constantly watered by splashing groundwater. They like a lot of water but it has to be absolutely clean and unpolluted, so finding this liverwort is a good indicator of very clean water.

White tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata) also grew in an area where it was constantly splashed by dripping groundwater, and the tiny water droplets made it even more beautiful. One of the first things you notice here in this icy canyon is the sound of dripping water. It seeps and drips year round, winter and summer, through the entire length of the canyon and the sound can be very pleasing or very annoying, depending on your mood. I’ve met people here who described it both ways. There are those who feel that the sound of water intrudes on the peacefulness of a place I suppose, but to me it is like a musical gift from the earth.

Can Ice be beautiful? Oh yes it can, and these windblown icicles looked every bit as beautiful as Lalique crystal to me. For those who may not know, Rene Lalique was a French glass designer who practiced his art in the Art Noveau period (1890-1910.) He is known today for his opaque, matte finish glass, which can look much like these icicles. He was completion for Louis Comfort Tiffany, so if you received a piece of Lalique crystal for Christmas you are very lucky indeed.

Unfortunately, though the opaque finish on Lalique crystal means good things, on ice it does not; especially if you happen to be an ice climber, because ice that looks like this is rotten and unsafe. Ice becomes rotten when water, air bubbles, and/or dirt get in between the grains of ice and cause it to honeycomb and lose its strength. Instead of a sharp ringing crack when it is struck it produces more of a dull thud. The grayish white color and matte finish are a sure sign of rotten ice, and a good sign that you should stay away from it when it’s hanging over your head.

Each winter I come here and stand in awe of the old lineman’s shack, which still stands against the weight of the snow even though it lacks half its roof, a wall and a half, and most of its floor. It has stood here for well over a century and is the very definition of well built. If it wasn’t for people slowly pulling it apart I have no doubt it would still look just as it did when it was built.

The sun was getting lower and a single ray fell on a green icicle. Though it lit up the icicle it had no heat to melt it, and this reminded me how very cold it was here on this day. This canyon usually runs about 10 degrees cooler than it is on the outside and it was 27 degrees F when I came in, so it was no wonder that my toes were cold. I always have to be careful that I don’t wander too far out of myself and get lost in this winter beauty because frostbite is always close by.

With a last look at some beautiful little frost feathers back out into the world I went, hoping that it would be just a bit warmer there. I’ll have to return in a month or two when the icicles should be as big as trees.

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

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas. Thanks for coming by.

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Last Saturday in part one of this post I headed south out of Swanzey on a quest to find ledges and deep cuts on the old Cheshire Railroad that once ran from Keene to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and then on to Boston. Now, in part two of this post I’ve driven south just a short bit and I’m heading north to Keene, simply to cut down on the walking mileage. At this point I haven’t found the deep cut but I’ve seen many other interesting things, like this granite railroad bridge on the southern branch of the Ashuelot River. Built in place with granite hacked out of the nearby hills by railroad stone masons nearly 170 years ago, it’s as solid now as it was then and every bit as impressive too. Most of these arched railroad bridges were laid up dry with no mortar, and that’s quite a feat.

Near the railroad bridge are ruins of old bridge abutments which probably held a wooden or iron highway bridge at one time. Ruins like this are common here because our rivers and streams occasionally rise to “100 year flood” levels and wash everything in their path downstream. In reality it seems like the term 100 year flood should be revised to “10 year flood,” because we’ve had several bad ones in just a few years.

I picked up the trail head just off Route 12 south to Troy but this view looks north into Keene, and that’s where I’m going.

A sign told me exactly where I was but it urged me to go south into Troy and that wasn’t in today’s plan. It reminded me though, that Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harrison Blake and other transcendentalists rode on the railroad to Troy from Fitchburg, Massachusetts and then hiked to Mount Monadnock to climb it. Thoreau did this four times and wrote extensively of his journeys by rail and his climbs afterwards. He loved Mount Monadnock but even in his day complained that there were too many people on the summit. He would be shocked if he could see it today; some days it’s standing room only up there, and that’s why you never see views from the summit of Monadnock on this blog.

I saw a lot of trailing arbutus growing right along the sides of the trail. This was surprising because the plant was once over collected and is notoriously hard to find. We call it Mayflower and its sweet, spicy scent is unmatched. It was one of my grandmothers favorite flowers, so she was with me along this stretch of trail. I’m going to have to come back in May when it must perfume the air all through here.

I didn’t have to walk too long before I finally found some ledges. I had previously checked out the satellite views of this section of trail and this looked like an area that would have ledges, but even a satellite view isn’t a guarantee because of the heavy tree cover.

The ledges were probably about 20 or 30 feet high; not hugely impressive compared to some I’ve seen. I was a little disappointed by the lack of dripping groundwater. I doubt very much that anything like the tree trunk size ice columns that I see in the Westmoreland deep cut would grow here because it takes a lot of constantly dripping groundwater to create them. They are simply gigantic icicles, after all.

But there must be groundwater seeping in from somewhere because the usual drainage channels along the sides of the rail bed had water in them. Sometimes the color of the rocks makes it hard to tell how wet they are.

We have three or four evergreen ferns here in New Hampshire and the spinulose wood fern (Dryopteris spinulose) seen here is one of them. This lacy fern looks fragile but is actually very tough and will still be green in spring after its long sleep under the snow. I saw many examples of this pretty fern along the trail.

Many ferns release their spores in the fall and if you look at the underside of a fertile frond at that time you will often see small dots called sori. The sori are clusters of spore producing sporangia and they can be naked (uncovered) or capped by a cover called an indusium, as they are on the spinulose wood fern. When the spores are ready to be released thicker cell walls on one side of each sorus will age and dry out, and this creates a tension which causes the cover (indusium) to burst open and release its spores.

This photo shows a single sorus with its cover (indusium) burst, revealing the almost microscopic spherical sporangia. This is as close as I’ve ever gotten to this event. Each sorus is tiny and I can’t even guess the size of the sporangia. I do know that I can’t see them without a macro lens. What I could see if I had a microscope!

At one point on the trail I looked down to the left to the road I had been driving on just a short time before and saw that I was probably what must have been about a hundred feet above it, and it was then that I realized that I was walking on fill. Many thousands of cubic yards of soil must have had to have been used to fill in what was once a small valley between hills. The railroad engineers were smart though and used all the blasted rock from the deep cuts to fill in the low spots. This method is still in use today when a road is built; you bulldoze the top of a hill into a valley to make the roadbed level.

Here is a look down at the aforementioned road. I was almost in the tree tops and had to marvel at such an engineering feat. How they did all this in the mid-1800s is beyond me. It must have been very hard work indeed.

I was surprised to find running ground pine (Lycopodium clavatum) out here because in my experience it is relatively rare in this region. Though it is called running ground pine the plant is a clubmoss and has nothing to do with pines. The “running” part of the common name comes from  the way its horizontal underground stems spread or run under the leaf litter. Other names include lamb’s tail, fox tail, wolf’s claw, stag’s horn and witch meal. Native Americans used clubmosses medicinally to treat a variety of ailments including headaches and urinary problems. They were also used to treat wounds and dye fabrics. The Lycopodium part of the scientific names comes from the Greek Lycos, meaning wolf, and podus, meaning foot.  Whoever named them obviously thought clubmosses looked like wolf paws, but I don’t really see that.

It wasn’t too long before I saw more ledges, and these looked to be much higher than the first ones.

In fact these were some of the highest I’ve seen in this area. They might have been 60 feet or more at their highest point I’d guess, and I couldn’t back up enough to get all of them in view. Like the first set of ledges I saw these were quite dry with little groundwater seepage, so I’m guessing that I won’t be seeing many of those huge ice columns out here.

This tree was a fallen white pine that fell when it was young. I’d guess 30-40 years old maybe. It’s hard to say how tall it was but it had some height.

Some parts of the ledges were absolutely covered by what at first I thought was moss but which turned out to be liverworts. Many thousands of them.

This isn’t a very good photo because of the shiny wet leaves but I believe that these liverworts were the same greater featherwort (Plagiochila asplenioides) liverworts I saw at 40 foot falls in Surry back in November. These were very wet while the ones at 40 foot falls were on the dry side. They look quite different when wet like these but that’s when they’re at their best. They’re very small.

Again, this is a poor photo but it shows a closer look at the liverwort that I think is greater featherwort. This is only the second time I’ve ever seen them though, so I could be wrong.

Part of the ledge had collapsed and a large rock slide had dammed up the drainage ditch. This isn’t good because the water will eventually flow out into the rail bed and wash it away. I’ve seen the same thing happen on other rail trails, so I hope one of the snowmobile clubs will repair it. It is they who keep these trails open and we who use them owe them a big thank you. If it wasn’t for them in many cases there would be no rail trails. They work very hard to keep them open using their free time and often their own tools, so I’m sure a donation would be welcomed too if you feel so inclined.

The prize for the prettiest thing I saw on this trail has to go to these turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor.) They were as beautiful as flowers and some of the most colorful I’ve seen this year.

Well, I didn’t find the great scented liverworts and potential ice columns out here like I hoped I would but I certainly found plenty of other interesting things. I hope you thought so too and I hope this post inspires you to explore the rail trails in your own area.

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

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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Westmoreland lies north of Keene and the soil there is lime rich in certain places which means that you can see plants there that won’t grow in the more acidic soil of Keene, so last Sunday off I went down one of my favorite rail trails. I used to try to ride my bike out here but the gravel of the trail is very soft and I had such a time getting through it that I ended up walking the bike for much of the way anyhow, so now I just walk it. Though it was cloudy it was a great day for hiking with all of the beautiful spring green and singing birds.

This maple was that green that only happens in spring; kind of a yellow green, I guess you’d call it.

Though it doesn’t mind acidic soil red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) does well here in the more alkaline soil.  There were several plants which were flowering well with panicles of whitish flowers growing from the axils of the upper leaves.

Each greenish white flower is about 1/8″ across. They have 5 petals (petaloid lobes) that curve backwards sharply. The flower’s 5 stamens have white filaments and are tipped with pale yellow anthers. There is also a pistil with 3 small stigmata. If pollinated each flower will become a small bright red berry.  Though the plant is said to be toxic many Native American tribes steamed, dried and ate the berries. They are said to be very bitter unless prepared correctly.

There are plenty of reminders of exactly where you are out here, like this old signal base.

When the rails were torn up the railroad left all the ties stacked up along the railbed. People came and took what they wanted but there are still plenty to be seen, slowly rotting into the soil.

The boulder in the previous photo had a golf ball size hole in it, probably made by a steam drill so it could be blasted apart when they were laying the rails. For some reason they decided not to blast it.

Almost there; the dark circle in the distance marks the end of one leg of this journey.

Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) wears bronze for its new spring coat, but its leaves will green up quickly. Wild sarsaparilla grows all through our forests and is a common sight. The plant sets flower buds quickly just as its leaflets have unfurled, and often before they’ve changed from their early deep bronze to green. In botanical terms the “leaves” are actually one leaf with a whorl of 3 compound leaves, which have groups of 3-7 leaflets. People sometimes confuse the plant with poison ivy before the flowers appear because of the “leaves of three” as in leaves of three, let them be. One easy way to tell the difference is by looking for a woody stem; poison ivy has one but this plant does not.

Wild sarsaparilla always starts out with its three compound leaves held vertically and clasping at the very top.

I was surprised to see logging going on in this part of the forest, but not completely. There are many hardwoods here like beech, oak and maple and very few conifers. Hardwood always brings more at the mill.

A logging road had to be built to get to the section of forest to be logged, so huge boulders were bulldozed into a place that needed a retaining wall. These stones are new, meaning they were just dug or cut. You can tell by how clean they are, and by their color. Most stones will turn gray in just a few years.

Here we are at the man made canyon that showed as a dark circle in a previous photo. There are a few of these along this section of trail, and they were all blasted out of the bedrock almost 150 years ago for the Cheshire Railroad.

I don’t know what it is that draws them here, but many interesting plants not easily seen in other places grow on these ledges.

Purple or red trillium (Trillium erectum) grows here in fair numbers. Each flower averages about as big as a quarter, or about an inch across.

Trilliums are all about the number three. Even the name trillium comes from the Latin tres, meaning three. On the purple trillium the three green sepals just are behind the three red petals. Once they open the flowers often nod under the three leaves (actually bracts,) and are mostly hidden from view for a short time before finally standing erect above the leaves. Inside the flower are six stamens and three stigmas. If flies pollinate the flower a three chambered, red fruit will grow.

False Solomon’s seal grows well here. Though it’s too early for their June bloom time the plants were budded. In about three weeks they should have small white, star shaped flowers in a branching cluster (raceme) at the end of their stems. The blossoms will give way to small but beautiful reddish and tan speckled berries that provide food for many birds and other wildlife.

The wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) are what I came here to see and as usual they stole the show. 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. The rich alkaline soil is very unusual in this part of New Hampshire and many rare plants are known to grow in this area. The trick is in finding them; though I’ve spent 50 years walking through these woods this is the only place I’ve ever seen wild 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.

I couldn’t stop clicking the shutter, always hoping for a better shot. The wind was blowing through the canyon so I was sure every photo would be blurred. There have been years I’ve had to come back three or four times for that very reason.

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. 5 funnel shaped holes lead to nectar spurs and 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.

In some Native languages the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us.”
~Robin Wall Kimmerer

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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Last Sunday I decided to follow a rail trail in Swanzey that I knew had a trestle on it. History and botany are two of my favorite things and I knew I’d find a lot of both here. It was a beautiful warm, sunny day and hiking just about anywhere would have been pleasant.

Sometimes the sap of white pines will turn blue in very cold weather but it was warm on this day and the sap was still blue. I wonder if it stays blue once it changes.

I’ve never heard of bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) being evergreen but there were several plants along the trail, all wearing their winter purple / bronze color. If this plant looks familiar it’s probably because it is the smallest of our native dogwoods and the 4 leaves look like miniature versions of dogwood tree leaves. Bunchberry gets its common name from its bunches of bright red berries. It is also called creeping dogwood and bunchberry dogwood. Native Americans used the berries as food and made a tea from the ground root to treat colic in infants. The Cree tribe called the berry “kawiskowimin,” meaning “itchy chin berry” because rubbing the berries against your skin can cause a reaction that will make you itch.

Something unusual I saw this day was a Canada yew (Taxus canadensis.) It is native from Newfoundland west to Manitoba, south to Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Iowa, but in this region I rarely see it. Though all parts of the yew plant are poisonous several Native American tribes made tea from the needles to ease everything from numbness to scurvy. A man in England died not too long ago from eating yew, so I wouldn’t advise trying to make tea from it. Natives knew how to treat poisonous plants in ways that made them beneficial to humans, but much of that knowledge has been lost.

A yew branch looks very flat and once you get to know what they look like you’ll never mistake it for any other evergreen.

Snowmobile clubs have built wooden guardrails along the sides of all of the train trestles in the area to make sure that nobody goes over the side and into the river. That wouldn’t be good, especially if there was ice on the river. Snowmobile clubs work very hard to maintain these trails and all of us who use them owe them a great debt of gratitude, because without their hard work the trails would most likely be overgrown and impassable. I hope you’ll consider making a small donation to your local club as a thank you.

Years ago before air brakes came along, brakemen had to climb to the top of moving boxcars to manually set each car’s brakes. The job of brakeman was considered one of the most dangerous in the railroad industry because many died from being knocked from the train when it entered a trestle or tunnel. This led to the invention seen in the above photo, called a “tell-tale.” Soft wires about the diameter of a pencil hung from a cross brace, so when the brakeman on top of the train was hit by the wires he knew that he had only seconds to duck down to avoid running into the top of a tunnel, trestle, or other obstruction. Getting hit by the wires at even 10 miles per hour must have hurt some, but I’m sure it was better than the alternative. Tell tales are rarely seen these days; the above photo shows the only example I know of.

The Ashuelot River was full in places.

And over full in others. This happens regularly throughout this area and the trees survive it just fine. Many are silver (Acer saccharinum) and red maples (Acer rubrum.)  Another name for them is swamp maple because they often grow in the lowlands along rivers that flood regularly.

The large crimson bud clusters make the maples easy to spot at this time of year but I couldn’t tell if these examples were flowering or not. Many are, now that we’ve had some warmth.

There isn’t a lot of ledge in this section of trail but there is some and it shows the marks of a steam drill.  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. Trains first rolled through here in the mid-1850s.

Maple dust lichens (Lecanora thysanophora) are beautiful and are definitely worth looking for. I’ve found them growing on maple, oak, beech, and poplars. They are usually quite a different green but the camera didn’t seem to be seeing green very well this day.

You can tell that it’s a maple dust lichen by the tiny fringe around its outer edge.

The trail goes on for many miles and it is wide, flat, and sometimes busy as it was on this day. I saw several people while I was here and I was happy to see them out enjoying nature. I hope they saw as many interesting things as I did.

There was snow for anyone who might want it. I didn’t.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) bud break begins when the normally straight buds start to curl, as in the above photo. The curling is caused by the cells on the sunny side of the bud growing faster than those on the shaded side. This creates a tension that curls the bud and eventually causes the bud scales to pull apart so the leaves can emerge. At the bud’s location on the tree branch an entire year’s new leaves and stems will often grow from a single bud. Beech bud break doesn’t usually start until mid-May, so I think the example in this photo is a fluke caused by early warmth. Others I saw had not curled yet.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is one of the lowest growing evergreen plants on the forest floor, hardly growing more than 3 or 4 inches high. Plants have a vining habit but do not climb. Instead they form dense mats by spreading their trailing stems out to about a foot from the crown. Roots will often form at leaf nodes along the stems and start new plants. The 4 petaled, pinkish, fringed, fragrant, half inch long flowers appear in June and July. The berries remain on the plant for long periods unless eaten, and can often still be found the following spring.

Partridgeberry flowers are fused at the base. Once pollinated, the ovaries of these flowers will join and form one berry with 8 seeds. Partridgeberry plants can always be easily identified by the two indentations on the berries that show where the flowers were. Other names for this plant include twinberry and two-eyed berry. Native Americans ate the berries and made them into a jelly, which was eaten in case of fevers. Partridgeberry is still used in folk medicine today to treat muscle spasms and as a nerve tonic.

Apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) grows along the sides of the trail and its thousands of tiny spore capsules were shining in the sun. Reproduction begins in the late fall for this moss and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. In the spring the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes that always look like pearls to me, but someone thought they looked like apples and the name stuck.  Sometimes the capsules do turn red as they age, so I suppose the name makes sense.

Most of these spore capsules were not quite spherical and that means that they were still immature. When they become spherical the spores will begin to ripen and prepare for the wind to disperse them.

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

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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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