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Posts Tagged ‘Cheshire Railroad’

We’ve seen some unusual below zero F. cold lately and when it gets cold like this my thoughts usually turn to a deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland that ice climbers call the icebox. The groundwater constantly seeping from thousands of cracks in the stone walls of the manmade canyon freezes into ice columns that can easily reach the size of trees. It can be very beautiful but since it is only November I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Though I doubted there would be much ice to see, last Saturday I made the drive to Westmoreland to find out.

There was some impressive ice to be seen but nothing like it will be in January.

There are a lot of minerals in the groundwater that seeps through the stone and they are the only thing I can think of that would color ice like this.

I’ve seen orange, green, blue, red, tan, brown and even black ice here.

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.

This should give you an idea of the scale of the place. Though the ice might look impressive it is much less so than it will be in a couple of months. This climber said she was a beginner but she had climbed just about as far up as she could. The ledges in this spot I’d guess are about 50 feet high. Though it was cold at about 40 degrees this day I’ve read that the ideal conditions for climbing happen at between 20 and 35 degrees, because those temperatures produce the just right “plastic” ice; not cold enough to shatter and not warm enough to melt. Ice climbers swing sharp tools called picks into the ice and embed them in it so they can hang onto them as they climb, and I would guess that the last thing they want to see is shattering ice. Since the temperature in the canyon is always colder than the surrounding countryside it must have been just about perfect for plastic ice on this day.

This view looks back the way we came in. It can be very cold in here because the sunlight rarely seems to reach the canyon floor in winter. There is almost always a breeze blowing through the canyon as well, even when there is no breeze outside. It’s as if it makes its own wind.

The railroad engineers used a lot of the stone they blasted out of the canyon to build massive retaining walls along the parts of the trail outside of the canyon. They are some of the best examples of stone wall building that I know of and you won’t find a teaspoon of mortar in any of these walls. Note how the wall leans back into the hillside at about a 10 degree angle, as any good retaining wall should. I’d bet next week’s paycheck that a bed of crushed stone or gravel extends out at least two or three feet from the back of the wall into the hillside. This is for drainage so wet soil doesn’t freeze behind the wall and heave it apart. You want the back of the wall as dry as possible.

I like to see how the ice forms according to the conditions. This little grotto scene looked almost other worldly.

This ice looked like a necklace made of clear crystal, all formed by drip after drip of water.

In places the ice was rotten, and you can tell that by its matte gray, opaque “sick” look and the dull thud it makes when you tap it. Ice becomes rotten when air  and / or dirt get in between the grains of ice and it becomes honeycombed and loses its strength.

In some places where the sun reached the walls of the cut ice had been falling, and in fact I saw (and heard) some  fall while I was here.

I thought how, if I was a teenager once again, I’d find a way to slide down this giant ice slide.

I have a feeling that it’s going to be a good year for ice formations even though the forecast is for rain and above freezing temps this week.

Drainage ditches along the railbed have been doing their job of directing all of this water out of the canyon for around 150 years, but heavy rain overwhelmed them last summer and washed away parts of the railbed. It’s a hard thing to see this place being so severely damaged but there is only so much the snowmobile club volunteers can do, I suppose. One day instead of a railbed here it might be a stream.

In places the stone is stained by years of mineral seepage.

In other places the colors on the walls come from living things, like this algae, but I don’t think they color the ice because they don’t grow where a lot of ice accumulates. This is actually a green algae called Trentepohlia aurea but the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes green algae orange as well. It’s also very hairy, but I couldn’t get close enough to show you.

Colorful foam gathered on one of the drainage ditches in what I thought were beautiful swirling patterns. What caused it to appear and what colored it, I don’t know.

I didn’t have my high rubber boots with me on this trip so I couldn’t get close enough to the canyon walls to get close shots of the algae or the great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) seen here. This beautiful, reptilian liverwort gets its common name from its fresh, clean scent. It will only grow near water that is very clean and it grows here on the  canyon walls just above the drainage ditches. Groundwater constantly splashes them and keeps them wet in warm months. In winter they are often encased in ice, which has just started happening to the plants in this shot.

We’re having some wet heavy snows this month but the old lineman’s shack still somehow stands, even though people have been pulling it apart for as long as I’ve known about it. It just goes to show how the railroad built things to last. Their carpenters were as good as their stone masons. I hope it’s still standing a month from now when I come back to see how the ice has grown.

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

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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Last Saturday I decided to hike one of my favorite rail trails. Not only does it have wildflowers and flowering shrubs all along it, it has plenty of railroad history too. I hadn’t been out here for a couple of years because I had heard of a bear out here that seemed to have no fear of humans. A bear that has no fear of humans is a bear to fear, but bears and many other animals are most active early in the morning and in the evening, so when the clock reached mid-morning I grabbed my can of bear spray and out I went.

This is the first example of spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) that I’ve seen blooming this year and it’s about a month early. Dogbane is toxic to both dogs and humans, but insects love it. It’s closely related to milkweeds and has milky sap like they do. Monarch butterflies drink its nectar. Though it is an herbaceous perennial its growth habit makes it look like a 3 foot tall shrub. The Apocynum part of its scientific name means “away from dog.” Not only dogs but most other animals avoid it because of its toxic sap. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and used its strong fibers to make thread and cord. The plant’s milky white sap is very sticky and I wonder how they removed it from the thread they made.

An Ox eye daisy bloomed in a sunny spot at the edge of the trail. It was notable because there was just one.

Invasive but very fragrant multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) grew up trees all along the trail. I just featured this plant in my last post if you’d like to know more about it.

If you’re on a rail trail and see a stream flowing under it, there’s a good chance that it is flowing through a culvert-possibly a very old culvert. The one in the photo is a box culvert, made up of two side walls, top or lintel stones, and a stone floor. In the mid-1800s railroad stone masons cut these stones from ledges or boulders found in the woods near the rail line. There were certain rules that they had to follow. One regarded the thickness of the lintel stones and by how many inches they had to overlap the side walls, and even how much soil would be packed on top of them. These lintel stones were at least a foot thick and supported the weight of locomotives twice a day for over a century.

According to a website I found called Historic Stone Highway Culverts in New Hampshire the difference between a bridge and a culvert is the length of the span. (Width of the opening) Anything less than 10 feet is a culvert, and more than that is a bridge. Most culverts are covered by earth fill and the amount of fill over a culvert plays a huge role in how much weight it can carry.

Though I grew up hearing everyone call this type of span a trestle, according to Wikipedia this is a Warren-type through-truss bridge. This type of bridge was made of wood, wrought iron, cast iron, or steel. We have several that cross and re-cross the Ashuelot River and for the most part they are cared for by snowmobile clubs, but I was dismayed to find that this one had seen no attention for a while. All the wooden side rails were missing and the floor boards were rotting enough so some had holes through them. I hope the snowmobile clubs haven’t abandoned this leg of the trail. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for working so hard to keep these trails open. They donate their time, tools and quite often their own money.

The view of the Ashuelot River from the trestle shows how low it is. We’re over 3 inches shy of average rainfall now, and I don’t think we’ve had a real rainy day for about a month.

I was surprised to find native whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) blooming out here already. It’s about two weeks early and as this photo shows, it was wilting from the dryness and heat. This plant’s leaves and flowers grow in a whorl around the stem and that’s how it comes by its common name. A whorl, in botanical terms for those who don’t know, is made up of at least three elements of a plant (leaves, flowers, etc.) that radiate from a single point and surround the stem.

Both the leaves and flowers grow in a whorl on whorled loosestrife, because where each leaf meets the stem (axils) a five petaled, star shaped yellow flower appears at the end of a long stalk. Many plants grow flowers in the axils of the leaves, but most do not grow in whorls. Almost all species of loosestrife with yellow flowers often have a lot of red in them as this example had.

This old train depot along the rail trail in Ashuelot, New Hampshire  isn’t as elaborately adorned as some that still stand in this area but it has been taken care of and seems to be fairly complete, except for the wooden platform it surely must have had. The train would have stopped just a few yards out from that red door. This was on the Ashuelot branch of the Cheshire Railroad, which was part of the Boston and Maine Railroad system. The Cheshire Railroad ran from Keene to Brattleboro, Vermont, and from there north into central Vermont or south to Massachusetts.

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

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

The name “forget me not” (Myosotis) comes from the original German “Vergissmeinnicht” and the language of flowers in 15th century Germany encouraged folks to wear them so that they wouldn’t be forgotten by their loved ones. Mozart wrote a song about the flowers and Franz von Schober wrote a poem about them. It seems that the plant has always been associated with romance or remembrance; Henry IV had forget me nots as his symbol during his exile in 1398, probably so his subjects would remember him. Surely they must have; he was only gone for a year. Only Myosotis scorpioides, native to Europe and Asia, is called the true forget me not. The plant was introduced into North America, most likely by early European settlers, and now grows in 40 of the lower 48 states. In some states it is considered a noxious weed though I can’t for the life of me understand why. I hardly ever see it.

In several places the sides of the trail had grown in so much there was barely room for two people to pass, and that gave me another sinking feeling that there had been no maintenance here for a while. I do hope I’m wrong.

This view of the river shows how low it really is. In a normal spring you would hardly be able to see a single stone here.

The last time I was out here a hawk circled overhead for quite a while as I walked so I wondered if this time a hawk didn’t snatch up a woodpecker, because I can’t think of any other birds with feathers like this. I hope the birders among you might have a better idea. The feather wasn’t very big; maybe about an inch or inch and a half across.

June is the month when our native mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) bloom and they are one of the reasons I wanted to hike this trail, because they bloom along quite a good length of it. The wood of this shrub twists and turns and can form dense, almost impenetrable thickets when it grows in suitable locations like this area. An older name for mountain laurel is spoon wood, because Native Americans used the wood to make spoons and other small utensils.

Like the bog laurel I showed in my last post the pentagonal flowers of mountain laurel have ten pockets in which the male anthers rest under tension. When a heavy enough insect lands on a blossom the anthers spring from their pockets and dust it with pollen. Once released from their pockets the anthers don’t return to them. Though related to the blueberry, all parts of this plant are very toxic.

What once may have been five petals are now fused into a single, cup shaped blossom on mountain laurels. This rear view shows the cups that the anthers fit into. The way that these flowers work to make sure that visiting insects get dusted with pollen is really amazing.

New Hampshire used to have a lot of paper mills but many have gone out of business. This one seems to be slowly crumbling. I’ve watched buildings like this crumble before and it always seems to start with an unrepaired leak in the roof. The water coming through the roof rots the roof rafters, floor joists and sills, and finally the rotting building is too weak to handle the snow load and, usually after a heavy snowfall, down it comes.

I know that a lot of freight was hauled over these rails but I was surprised a few years ago to find these old boxcars slowly sinking into the earth outside the old abandoned paper mill. There was a lumber yard and warehouses across the tracks from my grandmother’s house and when I was a boy I used to play in and on boxcars just like these. That was back when the trains were running so I also used to get chased out of them frequently.

The old knuckle couplers still held the boxcars together after all this time. After a three mile walk I’d seen enough and it was time to turn around and walk the three miles back to my car. I spoke with several homeowners along the way who were out doing yardwork and every one said yes, they had seen bears out here, but I didn’t see one and that made for a fine hike.

After all this talk of railroads I thought you might like to see one of the trains that ran through here. A sister train to the Flying Yankee pictured here carried passengers on the Cheshire Railroad from 1935 until its retirement in 1957. The gleaming stainless steel streamliner with “Cheshire” on its nameplate ran over 3 million miles in its history as a state of the art diesel passenger train. Its second car was a combination baggage / mail / buffet dining car and the third car was coach seating and had a rounded end with 270 degrees of glass for observation. It carried 88 passengers.

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

I’m sorry this post is so long, but I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping in.

 

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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

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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