Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Cheshire Railroad’

John Burroughs said “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday,” and that was to prove very true last Sunday. I followed a rail trail in Swanzey that I’ve followed more times than I can count but saw many things that I’ve never seen here before.

Male American Hazelnut catkins swayed lazily in the slight breeze. They had lengthened to three times their winter length and were still heavy with pollen.

The tiny female flowers were waiting for a good dose of that pollen so they could become the hazelnuts that so many birds and animals eat.

There is a nice little box culvert out here that I always like to stop and see. There was quite a lot of water in the stream it carries safely under the railbed on this day. It’s amazing to think these culverts are still keeping railbeds from washing away 150 years after they were built, and without any real maintenance.

The stream rushes off to the Ashuelot River, which is out there in the distance.

The first thing I saw that I had never seen here were trout lily leaves (Erythronium americanum). I didn’t see any flowers but I found the leaves growing all along the trail, and I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t ever seen them.

You can get a glimpse of the Ashuelot River here and there along the trail. This was where I was to get another surprise. I saw something swimming quickly toward me from those fallen trees you see in this photo. I thought it was ducks but I couldn’t see anything except ripples.

And then up popped a muskrat. At least I’m fairly certain it was a muskrat. Though it never showed me its tail it was much smaller than a beaver and nowhere near as skittish. It saw me up on the embankment but still just sat and fed on what looked like grasses. It probably knew I was far enough away; this photo isn’t very good because my camera was at the limit of its zoom capability. At least you can see the critter, and that matters more to me than a technically perfect shot.

I knew that apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) grew here and I was able to find it. Its reproduction begins in the late fall and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. When the warm rains of spring arrive the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes that always look like pearls to me, but someone thought they looked like apples and the name stuck.

Beech buds (Fagus grandifolia) are beginning to lose their straightness and that means the beautiful new spring leaves will be appearing before long. Beech 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 new leaves can emerge. The buds literally “break” and at the bud’s location on the tree branch an entire year’s new leaves and stems will often grow from a single bud.

New maple leaves were everywhere but every one I saw was green. That was unusual because young maple leaves are often red for a while.  

Raspberry plants were also showing their new leaves but blackberry buds had barely broken.

I saw native cherries in all stages of growth. Cherries usually leaf out and blossom quite early.

Some of the willows along the trail had thrown in the towel and were finished for this year.

This is what the flower buds of a shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis) look like. After shadbushes come the cherries, closely followed by the crab apples and apples, and then the peaches and plums. Shadbushes bloom earlier than the other shrubs and trees but are often still in bloom when the others bloom. The flowers appear before the leaves, unlike apples and some native cherries. Small, reddish purple to purple, apple shaped fruits follow in June. The fruit is a berry similar in size to a blueberry and has from 5-10 seeds. They taste best when they are more purple than red. Shadbush flowers are pretty but their fragrance isn’t very appealing. I can’t remember ever seeing them bloom along this trail but there they were.

Forsythia has escaped someone’s garden and was blooming happily beside the trail. Another surprise.

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is also called mayflower because that’s often when its small white to pink, very fragrant flowers appear, but here they were blooming beside the trail. This is another plant I can’t remember ever seeing out here before. Trailing arbutus was once collected into near oblivion but these days it can be found at many nurseries so there is no longer any reason to dig it up. Since it’s very fussy unless it’s given the right amount of light, water, nutrients and soil type it won’t grow except where it chooses to anyway. The reason it was collected so much was because its small pink to white, very fragrant flowers were used in nosegays.

I reached the trestle and found that someone, most likely a snowmobile club, had overlaid the flooring, which was starting to rot out. This was a another welcome surprise because that little square that juts out to the right was a hole right through the boards. It’s quite a drop down to the river.

This trestle is the last one I know of with its tell tales still in place. These are pencil size pieces of soft wire that hang down low enough to hit the head of anyone standing on top of a freight car. They would warn the person, or “tell the tale” of an upcoming trestle. I can walk from the trestle to this one in under a minute, so whoever was on top of the train wouldn’t have had much time to duck before they’d hit the trestle, and that would have been too bad. Tell tales used to hang on each end of every trestle in the area, but this is the last one I know of.

The river has come up some since the recent snowfall and a few rain showers. I was surprised I didn’t see any kayakers. They like to paddle the river in spring when the water is high because in that way they can float over all the submerged fallen trees.

It still has to gain more run off before it reaches its average height, by the looks. We’re still in a drought according to the weather people.

I was surprised to find a small colony of bloodroot plants (Sanguinaria canadensis) as I was leaving. This is another plant I’ve never seen growing here, so this day was packed full of surprises.

Bloodroot flowers don’t usually open on cloudy days and I couldn’t tell if this one was opening or closing, but I was happy to get at least a glimpse of its beautiful inside. These flowers aren’t with us long.

In a forest of a hundred thousand trees no two leaves are identical, and no two journeys along the same path are alike. ~Paulo Coelho

Thanks for stopping in.

Read Full Post »

The weather people were saying that it was going to warm up so I thought I’d better to get into the man-made canyon on the rail trail up in Westmoreland before the ice started melting. Once the stone starts warming up the ice releases its grip and starts to fall, and I sure don’t want to be here when that starts happening.

Ice here grows as big as tree trunks and when it lets go it often falls all the way across the trail. I’ve never seen the big ones fall but I’ve come here right after they have, and I’ve seen enough to know that I’d rather not be here when it happens.

This isn’t a great year for colored ice but I did see some here and there. This formation was huge.

A few ice climbers were here but most of them had gone by the time I got here. They like to be here quite early in the morning I think, but since it was only 17 ˚ F. when I got up I thought I’d wait a while.

That icicle was longer than I am tall.

Evergreen ferns are still hanging on, even under the ice.

I saw a few snowmobilers. A lot of people complain about them but the arguments for them using the rail trails far outweighs the arguments against them in my opinion because they put a lot of time, money and effort into maintaining the trails. In fact without them many of our trails would no longer exist and thanks to them walking this trail in winter is like walking down a sidewalk. The ice climbers have posted rules to follow and one of them says that snowmobiles always have the right of way. I simply stand to the side and return their waves.

The southern canyon usually has the most colored ice. Blue is the most dense ice and I thought I saw blue in this group. It doesn’t look like the camera saw blue but it still saw plenty of beauty.

My color finding software tells me that the color of this ice is “lemon chiffon.” Pale yellow, I’d guess. You can look these names up and relate them to a specific color but I haven’t bothered.

It also sees orange and tan. I might see tan but I’m not sure about orange.

I thought this ice was green but the software sees pale orange and “wheat”.

I thought we’d agree that this was blue but no, the software sees slate gray.

I couldn’t even guess what color this ice was but the software says “papaya whip,” whatever that is. By the way, if you or someone you know is colorblind just search for “What Color?” color finding software and you’ll find it. It’s free and has no ads.

This shows that the color in the ice doesn’t color it completely sometimes. I still believe that it has to be minerals in the groundwater that color it. I don’t know what else could.

I hoped I might see some red ice stained by iron but there was none. Just lots of staining on the stone.

This ice looked just plain dirty. I’m sure a lot of soil must be washed out of the cracks in the stones by all the groundwater that seeps through them.

I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t much ice on the drainage channels. That’s where you often see the laciest ice.

I needn’t have been disappointed though because just a little further down the trail ice had formed on the channels.

All the variations in ice forms are an endless source of amazement and wonder for me. It’s quite beautiful.

This one that had formed on a stone just above the water surface looked like a fish, I thought.

A young skier was headed for the old lineman’s shack and I thought I’d follow him because that’s where all the sunshine was. He stopped to talk for a bit and said he was trying to do ten miles for the first time. He also said he hoped he’d make it. I hoped so too and wished him well.  

The old lineman’s shack still stands so it looks like it will somehow make it through another winter. When I see it I think of the way things once were and how things were built to last. It continues to surprise me.

I saw what was left of another small bird’s nest near the old shack. It might have been just big enough to hold a hen’s egg with no room to spare. I’d guess that it started life in the V of those two branches.

As I left I looked up and hoped it was warmer out there.

It had just reached freezing (32 ˚F) when I came in here so allowing for the usual 10 degree difference meant that with the breeze it was probably about 20 degrees inside the canyon. After two hours I was ready to leave and I had taken about three times the photos that I could use anyway. There is an awful lot to see in this place, all of it beautiful, but I think the next time I come here the ice will have fallen and it will be more green than white. Thousands of violets bloom here in spring and I want to be here to see them.

The splendor of Silence—of snow-jeweled hills and of ice. ~Ingram Crockett

Thanks for stopping in.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

There was an entire canyon full of it.

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

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

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

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

Rotten ice on the other hand is opaque, weak and full of impurities. Ice becomes rotten when water, air bubbles, and/or dirt get in between the grains of ice and cause it to honeycomb and lose its strength. When you tap on ice that looks like this you hear a dull thud. The grayish white color and matte finish are a sure sign that you should stay away from it when it’s hanging over your head like it can do here.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for stopping in.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ice falls can be very beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A blackberry still had some color.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for stopping in.

Read Full Post »

Last Sunday I needed to see something new, so I decided on the rail trail that heads south out of Keene to Swanzey, Troy, Fitzwilliam, and eventually the Massachusetts border. I’ve done the northern and southern legs of the trail but never this middle section. I started my hike on this amazing stone arch bridge. Built of granite quarried a half mile away from the site, it was dry laid with no mortar in 1847 and soars 38 feet above the river. The bridge is 27 feet wide with a span of 68 feet, and its arch has a radius of 34 feet. Evidence of the plug and feather method used to split the stones is still visible on the faces of many of the stones. It’s hard to imagine how it was ever built without the use of modern tools and equipment.

The bridge is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means it earned a little money for upkeep. Part of the upkeep involved upgrading the drainage and laying a new bed of pea stone where the trains would have run. It seems to be still as solid as the day it was built.

Here is a postcard view of the bridge, probably from the early 1900s. The view and landscape is very different today of course. These postcards were usually actual photos colored by hand but I think this one was a drawing.

The white building in the postcard view is no longer there. This view from the top of the bridge looks west towards Vermont. It was a partly cloudy, very windy day and the gusts felt like they might blow me right off the bridge so I didn’t hang around up here for very long. We’ve had at least some wind nearly every day for over a month now.

I saw some very symmetrical horsetails. This is one plant you do not want in your garden because once you have them you’ll never be rid of them. When I had my gardening business I tried just about everything I could think of including covering them with black plastic for a full year. They loved it and grew on as if nothing had happened.

I also saw some very red new leaves on the staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina.

The trail is wide and dry for the most part because the drainage channels that the railroad built 150 years ago are still working.

Skunk currants (Ribes glandulosum) grew in patches here and there along the trail. I’ve read that the plant gets its common name from the odor given off by its ripe dark red berries, which doesn’t sound too appealing but they are said to be very tasty. If you can get past the smell, I assume. This is a very hairy plant; even its fruit has hairs. The Native Ojibwa people used the root of skunk currant to ease back pain but it is not a favorite of foresters or timber harvesters because it carries white pine blister rust, which can kill pine trees.

Skunk currant flowers are quite small at about 1/4 inch across. They are saucer shaped with 5 petals and 5 purple stamens.

Unfortunately I also saw a lot of garlic mustard out here. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive plant once used as an edible pot herb. This plant forms large colonies and chokes out natives by poisoning the soil with compounds called glucosinolates that leach into the soil and kill off many soil fungi that native species depend on to survive. It grows from 1-4 feet tall and has a strong but pleasant garlic / onion odor when the leaves are crushed. It 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. Maybe if we all decided to eat it, it would prove to be less of a problem. According to what I’ve read, the young spring plants are delicious.

The sunshine seemed to always be just up around the next bend. Until I got to the next bend, that is. By then it had disappeared.

This is a typical New Hampshire mixed forest with mostly pine, hemlock, cherry, beech, oak, maple and white and gray birch. Also this single beautiful golden birch.

I saw a small bird’s nest in a cherry sapling. It was about 5-6 inches across so a small bird must have made it.

Violets bloomed all along the trail. I thought this might be an early blue violet but since my color finding software sees mostly purple, I’ll just call it a violet. It had long above ground rhizomes that I’ve never seen on a violet.

Sessile leaved bellworts (Uvularia sessilifolia) grew along the drainage channels in groups. I’ve seen them carpet large areas of forest floor so I had the feeling that they must have just gotten started here. They’re in the lily of the valley family, which can also form large colonies.

This signal post looked new, and that’s because someone had painted it. I’m not sure why anyone would but there it was, looking like it had just been installed yesterday.

I was very surprised to see skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) growing on a wet hillside. I’ve read that eating the leaves can cause burning and inflammation but something had eaten many of the leaves. Often animals don’t have the same reaction to plants that we do. Birds even eat poison ivy berries.

This is a photo of the fruit of a skunk cabbage which is a rare sight, even for those of us who look for such things.

I saw just two red trilliums (Trillium erectum) out here. I also saw Jack in the pulpit, starflowers, and lots of fern fiddleheads. The trilliums and our other spring ephemerals will probably be done by the time this post is read. Leaves on the trees and warmer weather finish their short bloom periods quickly.

I saw lots of wild sarsaparilla plants (Aralia nudicaulis) just unfurling their leaves. At this stage many people confuse wild sarsaparilla with poison ivy, which comes up at the same time and has glossy green leaves. One way to tell the two apart is by the stem. Poison ivy usually has an older, woody stem while sarsaparilla has a fresh, tender stem. The roots of this plant were once used to make root beer but the drink that was called sarsaparilla contained no part of the plant. It was made from birch oil and sassafras root.

There were already flower buds on some sarsaparilla plants. They’ll bloom in late May, with ping pong ball size flowerheads made up of tiny individual flowers.

I thought these new oak leaves were beautiful, both in color and shape. They were soft like velvet, and there were flower buds as well.

A broken whistle post told me that a road was coming up. What looks like an M is really an upside down W. The W stands for whistle and the post is called a whistle post, because it marks the spot where the locomotive engineer was to blow the train’s whistle. When there is a crossing very nearby, where the railbed crosses a road, the whistle would have alerted wagon or auto drivers that a train was coming. Some whistle posts were marked – – o -, which meant “two longs and a short” on the whistle.

There was indeed a road; route 12 south out of Keene parallels the rail trail and I had walked to the Cheshire Fairgrounds in Swanzey. Only 2.2 miles by car from where I started, so I’d guess it was a two mile walk.

And that meant that it was two miles back, but on such a sweet spring day with birds singing in the trees two miles didn’t seem like anything, really. It was one of those days that gets inside you and lets you see how wonderful this life really is, and there was no hurry to get anywhere or to do anything. I felt doubly blessed.

Some journeys take you farther from where you come from, but closer to where you belong. ~Ron Franscell

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone is able to find some outdoor time.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming by.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mineral laden water also stains the snow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming by.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And sometimes it’s just plain icicles.

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming by.

 

Read Full Post »

I know of only three places to find gentians and only one place to find bottle or closed gentians, and that place is along the Ashuelot River in Keene. Last year I got upset when I went looking for them and found that the Keene Parks and Recreation Department had sent someone out here with a weed wacker, and that person had cut down countless beautiful wildflowers all along the trail, including the gentians. I didn’t know what I would find this year but last Saturday down the trail I went.

One of the first things I noticed was how ripe the false Solomon’s seal fruit (Maianthemum racemosum) was getting. It goes from mottled to solid red and many of these were red. They’re very pretty berries that are said to taste like molasses.

Virginia bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus) bloomed all along the trail. This is a close relative of water horehound (Lycopus americanus) and looks much like it except for its purple tinged leaves.

It was a beautiful day for a walk in the woods and I petted dogs, talked to strangers, and was happy to be in a place I’ve known since I was about 10 years old. To think I was walking a trail which was, in high probability, a Native American fishing trail which has probably changed little in thousands of years. Remains of settlements dating back 12,000 years have been found very near here and it boggles the mind to think about all that might have gone on in this place.

I always seem to see something I haven’t seen before out here, even though I’ve walked this trail for over 50 years. On this day it was a nice colony of one of our prettiest native orchids, the pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule.) I wonder if I’ll remember where they are next June when they’re in bloom.  

One of the lady’s slippers still had last year’s seed pod on it, and on that was a spider’s egg sac.

The branches of this fallen tree always make me think of the ribs of an ancient sunken ship. Indeed, at one time sections of this river were dredged so that river boats could navigate it, but the railroad coming to town put a stop to that.

Other trees might add to the hazards in the river; I could see right through this hollow red maple (Acer rubrum.)

There was lots of duckweed on the backwaters where the current is almost nonexistent.

Mad dog skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia) grew on the sunny parts of the riverbank. The skullcap part of the common name comes from the calyx at the base of the flower, which is said to look like a medieval skull cap. The plant was once thought to cure rabies, and that is where the “mad dog” part of the common name comes from. There is powerful medicine in many skullcap species and when Native Americans wanted to go on a spirit walk or vision quest this was one of the plants they chose. The small blue and white flowers always grow in pairs in the leaf axils on mad dog skullcap but you have to look closely because sometimes one bloom will fall off before the other, which is what has happened with this example.

The seed pods of fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) are unusual and hard to confuse with any other plant. I saw hundreds of seedpods but only one flower left, growing out of reach down the river bank.

Royal fern (Osmunda spectabilis) hasn’t changed into its fall yellow yet. When they are near a water source royal ferns can grow quite large and appear to be a shrub, but this one was young and on dry ground so it wasn’t very big. The royal fern is found on every continent except Australia, making it one of the most widespread of all living species. They are also thought to be one of the oldest living things, with fossil records of the Osmundaceae family dating back over 300 million years. Individual plants are believed to be able to live for over 100 years. Cinnamon and interrupted ferns are also in the Osmundaceae family and also grow here. It is thought that the genus might have been named after King Osmund, who ruled in the British Isles in the eighth century. Royal ferns are one of my favorites because they are so unlike any other fern.

I think, in the eight years I’ve been doing this blog, that I’ve only show beech nuts (Fagus grandifolia) one other time and that’s because I rarely see them. But on this day I stumbled onto hundreds of them that must have just fallen, because many of the kernels were still inside the prickly looking husks seen here. If you harvest beechnuts and then leave them alone for a day or two they will open and out will drop two kernels. Like many trees and other plants, beech trees will have a year of heavy production, known as a mast year, and then produce very few nuts for a few years afterwards.

I put a kernel on a penny so you could get a sense of scale. A penny is 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Chipmunks and squirrels and even bears love the kernels, so you usually find more empty husks than anything else.

As I’ve said so many times, spring and fall really begin on the forest floor, much earlier than many of us realize. This wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is a good example of that. It might be leafless before many of the trees it grows under have even started to turn color. The roots of the plant were once used to make root beer but the drink that was called sarsaparilla contained no part of the plant. It was made from birch oil and sassafras root.

There was a single blossom on what looked like an all but dead St. John’s wort plant (Hypericum perforatum.) I haven’t seen these blossoms for a few weeks now so I’m going to say this may be the last one I see this year. It’s a beautiful thing. This plant has been used medicinally for thousands of years. It likes to grow in open meadows in full sun but will stand some shade as it did here.

Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) climbed up over the shrubs along the trail. It likes to grow in sandy soil and prefers a bit of shade over full sun. The flower spikes (Racemes) grow to 6 inches or more all along the main stem.

When those maples on the other side of the river turn scarlet in the fall this is an awesome view, but it isn’t really so bad in green either.

I saw a single New England aster blossom (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae.) As I’ve said in previous posts, they are our biggest, most showy aster. Some tower up over my head but this one had bent down to about knee level.

I was very surprised to see turtleheads (Chelone glabra linifolia) blooming out here. I’ve never seen them here before this day.

And there they were; one of my favorite shades of blue is found on bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) but I don’t see many because they are quite rare here. This is the only place I can find them so you can imagine my delight when I found that they hadn’t been cut down again. When they start to go by theses flowers become even more beautiful by turning very dark blue and then a kind of purple. They closely resemble narrow leaved gentian (Gentiana linearis) but that plant has much narrower leaves. Why anyone would cut such a rare and beautiful thing is beyond me.

I’ve been here enough times to know that the only thing beyond this bridge is a highway, so this is where I turn and go back. As I chose what photos to use for this post I was amazed that I saw so much on what is a relatively short walk of only an hour or so, and once again I was thankful that it hadn’t all been cut down again, because it’s a beautiful walk.

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring- these are some of the rewards of the simple life. ~ John Burroughs

Thanks for coming by.

Read Full Post »

Last year I found a blue cohosh plant on the rail trail out in Westmoreland and I’ve gotten to see the flowers and fruit but I’ve never seen the spring shoots. From what I’ve seen in photos they’re very beautiful things, like little dark blue hands coming up out of the soil, so last Sunday off I went with a pocket full of hope.

There was a little ice on the start of the trail but after that it was ice free. It was a beautiful early spring day with the trees full of bird song and a temperature of almost 60 degrees F. It’s amazing how much snow one warm day can melt. If we had a week of days like this it would all be gone.

There are plenty of reminders of the history of this place, like this signal base. The Boston and Maine Railroad ran through here for many years.

There are some nice old stone box culverts out here, still working fine after 150 years. The stream that runs through this one must be off and on because there was no water here on this day.  Leave it to the railroad to build something “just in case.” That’s why these railbeds are still here 150 years later with virtually no maintenance.

Someone found a bent rail spike and put it on a boulder.

The stone walls out here are very unusual in that there isn’t hardly a round corner to be seen anywhere. That’s because these are stones left over from when the railroad blasted their way through the ledges. They’ve never gone through the grinding action of a glacier. Rather than the usual stone walls built by farmers clearing their land, these walls are simple property markers.

There must have been many thousands of tons of stone blasted out of the hillsides and that’s a good thing because this railbed had to be built high above the surrounding terrain and all of the blasted stone had to be used essentially to fill in a valley between hills. When you build a road bed through a hilly area you take everything you’ve cut from the hills and use it to fill in the valleys, and in that way you end up with a flat, level roadway, hopefully without having to bring in a lot of fill. This shot shows that I was almost in the tree tops where I was walking.

When you look down the side of the very high railbed you see large chunks of stone and realize that you’re walking on a huge, long pile of it.

But you’d never know it from this view of a flat, level trail. The railroad engineers were very good at what they did and the sheer amount of stone under this trail boggles the mind.

If you’re on a rail trail and see a stream going under it that almost always means a box culvert, and I always look for them if the hillside isn’t too steep.

This one was bigger than the first I showed and it had water running through it. It was under the snow though, so you can’t see it. There is mortar on this culvert and that tells me that it has probably been repaired because I’ve never see railroad masons use mortar on anything they’ve built.

Before I knew it I was at the ledges where I found the cohosh. The question was, where exactly did I find it and could I find that spot again? There were a lot of leaves to poke around in.

This is the spot where wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) also grow and this is the ledge most of them grow on. Both columbine and cohosh like limestone and that tells me that there must be a lot of lime in these ledges.

There was a columbine leaf from last year, still hanging on. I never knew they were so hairy.

The mosses were as beautifully green as I’ve ever seen them.

I’m not sure what this one is but it’s a very pretty moss. And it was covered by ice.

I tried to dig around in the leaves at the base of the ledges in several spots and found ice under them each time. The only plant I know of that can melt its way through ice is skunk cabbage, so I knew I wouldn’t see blue cohosh shoots on this day.  I’ll have to try again.

In this place it was still a little too cold for emerging plants.

And the snow on the ski slopes of Stratton Mountain over in Vermont proved it. I’m sorry I couldn’t show you those blue cohosh shoots. I’ll see what I can find this weekend; It will be worth the effort to see such a rare plant.  If you’re interested just Google “Blue cohosh shoots” and you’ll see why I want to see them.

That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself, then how to come pliantly back to life again. ~Ali Smith

Thanks for coming by.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »