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Posts Tagged ‘Hiking in Abandoned Places’

You might want to grab a shawl or a warm cup of something before you start reading this post because it will be a cold one. We’ve seen some of the coldest temperatures we’ve had since 2019 they say, and cold means ice, so at about 2:00 pm when it had reached the highest temperature of the day (21 F) last Saturday, off I went to the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland to see if I could find any big ice. Finding ice would not be a problem I quickly discovered, but keeping warm would.

When I say big ice, I mean tree size ice columns that start sometimes 50 feet off the ground. This is the kind of ice that you don’t find just anywhere, and that’s why I and many others come here. If you’d like a better view you can click on the photo and see a larger version.

Sometimes the ice is colored due to various minerals in the groundwater, I believe. I’ve wondered if there are impurities in the colored ice that weaken it because I’ve noticed when the Appalachian Mountain Club comes here to train, they never seem to climb the colored ice. You can see a few of the climbers there in the distance to the right. They call this place the icebox.

These ice climbers are the most focused people I know of. They have excellent powers of concentration, but I’m still always wary of disturbing that concentration. When this climber paused and looked at me, I asked if my being there would bother him. He said no so I watched for a bit. It was a bit disconcerting because every time one of the picks he held hit the ice it made a hollow “thwock” sound, but if there is one thing I’ve learned by watching these people it is that they know the ice, so I don’t ask questions. In fact unless they have both feet on the ground, I don’t say a word. I just stand and watch. When my nerves have had enough I leave, and with my fear of heights sometimes it doesn’t take long.

I suppose one reason I get a bit nervous watching them because I’ve seen a lot of this. There is a crack running through that ice column. The column diameter is about the same as three or four men side by side so if it came down well, I don’t like to think about that. I’ve seen them after they’ve fallen in the spring and some can reach from one side of the trail to the other. If you happened to be there you would be crushed, and that’s why I don’t come here in spring when things start to thaw out.

By this time I was feeling a little chilled so I decided to go south into the southern canyon where all the sunshine was hiding. The blue ice on the left was pretty. I’ve heard that blue ice is the hardest and most dense. Ice climbers tell me they like their ice “plastic” with a little give, so maybe that’s why they weren’t climbing the blue ice.

I stopped to admire a frozen waterfall. It’s hard to tell it’s a waterfall I know, but I’ve seen and heard it countless times so I was surprised to see it completely frozen and silenced for the first time. The ice has mounded up and is engulfing that tree.

I stopped again to see some intersting frost formations on the ice of a drainage channel. I’ve seen frost grow directly on ice before but these appeared to be growing on leaves and twigs. The various shapes were feathery and lacy or long and sharp. They were so delicate a single breath would have most likely melted them.

I thought I was going to tell you that frost was even growing on the stones but a closer look at the photo shows that it was actually growing on bits of moss that hung down. These kinds of frost crystals must need high humidity to grow because they grew over and on the drainage channels.

The ice on the drainage channels was interesting in places but I couldn’t get too close to it since I didn’t have my rubber boots on.

The southern canyon wasn’t quite as icy as I thought it might be but it still held some impressive ice columns. The walls aren’t as high here as they are in the northern canyon so more sunlight gets in. In this view looking south it is the wall on the left that gets the most sun.

This snowmobiler gives a good sense of the hieght and scale of the place. This was the only one I saw on this day. I’ve heard all the arguments against snowmobilers but since they’re the ones who keep these trails open, I think we’re very fortunate to have them.

You have to stop sometimes and remind yourself that the ice here didn’t grow in a flood or a waterfall. The groundwater seeps from these walls almost imperceptibly, drop by drop. In the summer you can hear the drops falling into the drainage channels but in the winter, you can see just how much water there is here. This ground is full of it, and much of it is very close to the surface.

Quite often, in fact almost always, the most colorful ice is found in the southern canyon. I’ve seen blue, green, orange, red, tan and even black ice here. As I said when we were in the northern canyon, minerals in the groundwater seems to be the only explanation.

This was the best example of colored ice that I saw on this day. You don’t see things like this just anywhere. It is one of those special, beautiful gifts of nature.

Here you can see how the colored water that makes the ice can also stain the snow.

When a drainage channel freezes solid like it had in this spot the water has nowhere to go so it pools at the base of the ledges. This ice had humped up and was slowly inching its way into the trail.

In other places there was no ice at all in the drainage channel. I don’t know what the difference bewteen the two places was. Maybe the depth of the water has something to do with it or maybe this spot gets more sunlight.

In other places the ice was growing slowly but it hadn’t covered the water yet.

Before I knew it, I was at the old lineman’s shack. It looked to be leaning even more than it was the last time I was here but that could just be my imagination. Last time it seemed to be at about 30 degrees but I’d say it was tilted more than that this time.

There really isn’t much left of it to fall but the place sure was built to last, with railroad tie sills and a slate roof. Now it’s the weight of all that slate on the roof that is helping to pull the place apart.

By this time, after about an hour and a half in the icebox, I was about cooled off right down to the bones, so it was time to go. The sunshine was bright enough but it held little heat. The car thermometer still read 21 degrees, just as it had when I arrived. I hope you stayed warm and aren’t feeling too much of a chill after reading about all this ice. It’s cold, but it’s also amazing.

As children, we are very sensitive to nature’s beauty, finding miracles and interesting things everywhere. As we grow up, we tend to forget how beautiful and magnificent the world is. There is magic and wonder for eyes who know how to look with curiosity and love. ~ Ansel Adams

Thanks for coming by.

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Finding ice baubles along the shore of the Ashuelot River last week made me wonder if the ice was growing at the deep railroad cut called the “icebox” up in Westmoreland, so last Saturday I decided to go and have a look. There was ice on the man-made canyon walls but it was too early for the ice climbers who named the place to be here.

Broken ice at the base of the ice falls told me that the icicles had formed and melted a few times. It takes a good cold period to get them going but once they start growing in earnest, they can reach the size of tree trunks in just a few weeks.

The groundwater that seeps through the fractures in the stone never stops. Winter or summer, it still flows. The reason the ice grows so well is because, the walls are shaded in this part of the canyon. The canyon rim is 50 feet high in some places, so sunshine might kiss the canyon floor for an hour each day. That’s also why you find no plants growing here.

In this photo from a few years ago you can see the scale of the place and you can also see that the ice climbers don’t wait long to start climbing. These are very focused, intent people and I don’t like to bother them when they’re up there.

In places water pours from the walls in streams but in most places it just seeps slowly, drip by drip.

Never was moss so green as it was on this day.

As you can imagine it is cold here, usually made colder by the breeze that blows through, so the 28 degrees F. I started with was probably more like 18 or 20 when I finally turned south to find some sunshine.

The railroad engineers had a lot of stone to get rid of once the canyon had been blasted through the hillside and one of the ways they got rid of it was to build massive retaining walls along sections of railbed. For the most part they’re still in perfect shape after 150 years.

The southern canyon’s walls aren’t quite so high so more sunshine pours in, and that means more plants grow here on the southern end. At this time of year it seems kind of empty but in summer the growth here is lush, with every vertical and horizontal surface covered by growing things, and it always reminds me of the Shangri-La that James Hilton described in Lost Horizon.

Last summer I discovered ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) growing here and here was the evidence; their feather like fertile fronds, covered with spore capsules. There will most likely be more of them here in the future. They’re a beautiful fern so I hope so.

There are lots of blackberries growing here as well and most still had leaves to show off.

But just because the sun shines brighter here in the southern canyon, that doesn’t mean that ice doesn’t grow here. The cold wins out over the weak winter sunshine and these walls are often trapped under ice that is feet thick until spring.

To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, here is the southern canyon in March of 2015. The ice columns, stained various colors by minerals in the groundwater, were thicker than tree trunks. It’s a good idea to wear warm clothes if you come here in winter.

Until and unless the drainage channels freeze over the ice, no matter how big it might get, is cutoff by the flowing water.

You can see how easily the groundwater can flow through the cracks and fissures in the stone. That’s what makes this place so special. I’ve been in other deep cuts but none have had ice like I find here. Everything has come together perfectly to create a land of water, stone and ice.

Here was new mineral staining that I hadn’t seen before. If an ice column grows in this spot, it will most likely be orange.

An evergreen fern grows in a grotto, set back from the face of the wall and each year icicles, like prison bars, surround it until spring.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of nature, because in other places the ice was rotten. 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. Compare the ice in this shot with that in the previous shot and the difference will be obvious.

There was puddle ice to see. Do you see the fish?

In one spot on the wall of the southern canyon a green alga called Trentepohlia aurea grows. Though it is considered green algae the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes green algae orange. It’s is very hairy, but with the drainage channels filled with water I couldn’t get close enough to show you.

Reptilian great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) also grow on the southern canyon walls. This beautiful liverwort gets its common name from its fresh, clean scent. It will only grow near water that is very clean and it grows here just above the drainage ditches. Groundwater constantly splashes them and keeps them wet in warm months. In winter they are often encased in ice, and they will stay that way until spring. It doesn’t seem to hurt them any because there are thousands of them growing here.

The saddest thing I saw on this day was how the trail had flooded over half the length of the southern end. Nobody has maintained the drainage channels enough to keep them fully open and with all the rain we had over last summer they failed and flooded the trail. Snowmobile clubs try to keep up but there is only so much they can do with hand tools. To fix this properly now you’d have to bring in truck loads of gravel and heavy equipment to restore the drainage channels to the condition they once were in. It won’t be easy or cheap but I hope someone will do it because it would be a shame to lose this one-of-a-kind place. There is simply nothing else like it in this area.

All of the water in the drainage channels becomes a stream that runs off into the woods under that old bridge, and I was shocked to see how much soil had washed away from its banks. What was once a little surface stream is now about two feet below the surface.

I don’t know what this old bridge was used for but there was a lot of stone to be moved out of the canyons and I’m guessing that it was wheeled across this bridge and dumped in the woods. The railroad did that a lot and you can find piles of blasted stone all over this area. If I could find a way out there I’d go and see, but nobody is crossing this bridge unless they’re a tightrope walker.

And then there was the old lineman’s shack which, with its ridge beam broken, can no longer support its own weight. It now tilts at about 30 degrees, and if we have any mentionable amount of snow this winter I think it will surely come down.

It looks to me like the heavy slate roof is actually pulling what’s left of the building apart. It’s a shame that something so well built has to give itself up in this way but with absolutely no maintenance over a century or more, it has put up a good fight.

Though the old shack is beyond repair I hope the townspeople will somehow vote to find the funds to repair the damage to the trail itself one day. Other parts of the rail trails that surround Keene have had extensive work done to them, but they’re closer to town so more people use them. Meanwhile I’ll continue enjoying the place for as long as I’m able. I hope you enjoy seeing it as well. It’s a rare and special place that should be appreciated more than it is.

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

Thanks for stopping in.

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