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Posts Tagged ‘Hiking in New Hampshire’

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

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Anyone who has read this blog for very long knows I like to play on the banks of the Ashuelot River, which meanders through several local towns. Though when I was a boy it was terribly polluted, now people fish for trout along its banks and eagles can sometimes be seen flying over it. That’s why a few years ago I was disturbed when I saw an oily sheen on the water that filled my footprint on the shore. It looked much like the puddle I found on the shore in the photo above and I posted it on this blog, saying how I was hoping I’d never see such a thing on these riverbanks again. Then happily, thanks to several knowledgeable readers, I found out that this sheen might easily have come from natural sources. Iron rich ferrous hydroxide that occurs naturally in soil can cause the oil like sheen on water, as can bacteria which generate hydrocarbons in oxygen depleted soil. I was very happy to hear that because though I don’t want to see this river polluted, I do think that this film on the water is beautiful. Just look at those colors.

While I was at the river, I spotted trees that had grape vines loaded with grapes growing in them. Wild river grapes (Vitis riparia) like a lot of rain, and I know that because we’ve had a lot of rain and I’m seeing more grapes than I’ve ever seen before. The odd thing about it though, is how the birds don’t seem to be eating them. These grapes are a favorite of many birds and they are often gone even before I can get a photo of them, but on this day I didn’t see that a single one had been picked. That’s a little disturbing.

Also disturbing is how none of the Oriental bittersweet berries (Celastrus orbiculatus) have been eaten. They are another favorite of the birds and they disappear as quickly as the grapes, so why aren’t they? This vine is very invasive and can strangle trees to death so I don’t want it to spread, but I do wonder about the birds.

While I was there wandering along the river, I took a shot of the Thompson covered bridge, named after playwright Denmon Thompson, who was a native son, and built in 1832. The bridge design is known as “Town lattice,” patented by Connecticut architect Ithiel Town in the early 1800s. The open lattice work lets a lot of light into the bridge and this is unusual because many covered bridges are dark and cave like. In the 1800s being able to see daylight inside a covered bridge would have been the talk of the town. The Thompson Bridge is considered by many to be the most beautiful covered bridge in New England but the person who ran the wires must not have known that.

This bridge is known as the Cresson Bridge, also in Swanzey and also crossing the Ashuelot River. It was opened to traffic in 1859 and I wanted you to see it so you could get an idea of how dark it was inside these old covered bridges. The tiny square windows didn’t let in much light, and that’s why Town truss bridges like that in the previous photo were such an innovation, and why they were so welcomed by the traveling public. By the way, back in those day traveling was done by sleigh in winter, so snow had to be shoveled onto the plank floors of covered bridges so sleigh runners would have something to slide on. What a job that must have been.

I finally found a blue bead lily plant (Clintonia borealis) with a ripe berry on it and now you know why I call it “electric blue.” That might sound like the title of a Jimmy Hendrix song but it is a very unusual shade of blue, to these eyes at least. It seems to sparkle in the right light and it is a deer magnet. From seed to berry can take 14 years, with two of those years taken up by seed germination. This is not a fast-growing plant.

I went to see Baily Brook Falls up in Stoddard and was surprised to see how little water was actually falling. With all of the rain we’ve had I thought they would be roaring. I have a feeling that beavers are involved and if I walked upstream, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that they’ve dammed up the stream.

Since Bailey Brook Falls werent roaring I went to where I knew I’d hear the roar of water; the outflow dam at Swanzey Lake.

I’m always amazed by what I see when the leaves start falling. Here was a wasp nest as big as a soccer ball up in a maple tree, and I had been walking under it several times each day all summer long without seeing it. I’d bet its residents saw me though, and I’m glad they decided we could coexist. I was pruning a large rhododendron once that had a similar nest in the center of it. By the time I was able to stop running I had been stung on the back several times.

When the leaves fall from the trees the wind has greater force as it whistles through the bare branches and inevitably, small bird nests like these get blown out. I don’t know what bird made this one but you could barely have fit a hen’s egg in it. It was as light as a feather and very well made of grass.

I saw a spider web on a lawn and it reminded me of the synapses in my own brain. One of the questions that has been nagging at that brain for quite a long time is why nature uses the same shapes over and over again.

I looked down into the heart of a yucca plant and thought of the Native Americans who used every single part of this plant. They pounded the leaves and used the strong fibers inside them to weave sandals, cords, belts and baskets. They also ate the flowers and fruit of the plant. The sharp points at the tips of the leaves were used as sewing needles and the roots were peeled and ground and mixed with water to make soap for washing their hair and treating dandruff.  Sap from the leaves was used medicinally to stop bleeding and heal sores. Not a bit of it was wasted.

I found this colony of wooly alder aphids (Paraprociphilus tessellatus) on an alder limb in a swamp one recent day. Wooly alder aphids grow a white, filamentous waxy covering that looks like it’s made up of tiny white ribbons. A colony of them looks like white fuzz on the alder’s branches and this white fuzz helps protect them from the eyes of predators. They are sap sucking insects which secrete a sweet honeydew on the leaves and branches of plants. This honeydew attracts a fungus called black sooty mold, but since the mold grows only on the honeydew and not the plant, it doesn’t harm plants. The aphids themselves will do far more harm because they can literally suck the life out of a plant.

I’m not sure if the aphids with dots in this photo I took previously always look that way, if they haven’t grown the white waxy covering yet, or if they’ve lost the covering for some reason. They are very small; not even half the size of a house fly. I find them usually on the undersides of alder branches. If you are lucky enough to catch these insects in flight, they look like tiny white fairies. In fact another name for them is “fairy flies.” This is the best time of year to find them.

Here is something quite rare, unfortunately. American chestnuts were one of the most important forest trees, supplying both food and lumber. An Asian bark fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) was introduced into North America on imported Asiatic chestnut trees and the disease all but wiped out over three billion American chestnut trees. New shoots often sprout from chestnut roots when the main trunk dies so they haven’t yet become extinct. Unfortunately the stump sprouts are almost always infected by the Asian fungus by the time they reach 20 feet tall but since some trees do bloom maybe these particular examples are growing from chestnuts. I found these three or four young trees a few years ago and have watched them get bigger over the years. They look very healthy so far. Though the leaves resemble beech leaves they are much bigger with very serrated margins. Many botanists and other scientists are working on finding and breeding disease resistant trees and maybe these trees will one day fit the bill. If you happen to find any you might want to keep an eye on them.

A tree “marriage” happens when two trees of the same species rub together in the wind. When the outer bark is rubbed off, the inner cambium layer of the trees can become naturally grafted together and they will be married from then on. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. This example is special because it looks like the very tip of a branch on one trunk grew directly into the other trunk. It must have taken many years of strong winds and bark rubbing before they could grow together as they did.

Frost cracks happen when the sun warms the tree during the day and the temperature drops quickly at night. If you’re in or near the woods at night in winter you can often hear the trees splitting and cracking, and sometimes it’s as loud as a rifle shot. Frost cracks can heal in the summer when the tree produces a new layer of inner bark to heal the wound but then can crack again in winter. When this repeated healing and cracking happens over the course of a few years the buildup of new tissue can create a frost rib like that seen in the photo. I’ve seen them on several different species, so I don’t think any one species is more or less susceptible to cracking than others. It’s more a matter of how the sunlight falls on a tree’s trunk. Wrapping an ornamental tree’s trunk loosely in burlap in winter can help prevent the bark splitting.

If you grow stone fruits like peaches, apricots, plums or cherries then you should know the disease called black knot. It is caused by a fungus called Apiosporina morbosa. This fungus grows in the wild and its spores can be spread by rain or wind. The spores will typically infect trees from April through June on new growth. Infected stems swell up and produce hard black knots like that in the above photo. This disease can eventually kill the tree so infected limbs should be pruned off 2-4 inches below the knots and buried or burned before bud break the following spring. Black cherry seems particularly susceptible to the disease.

I saw a hollowed-out stump that was slowly filling with fallen leaves beside a trail. From what I’ve read in the book Bark; a Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast, by Michael Wojtech, eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) are the only trees with stumps that will rot away from the inside out. It’s an interesting thing that I don’t see that often.

You would think that with all the rain we’ve had I’d be seeing slime molds everywhere, but actually I’ve seen very few this year. I believe the orangey brown material in this photo was once an active slime mold but by the time I found it, it was dry and hard. There are many different orange slime molds so it’s impossible to tell which one it is but it was still interesting. It shows how a slime mold will spread over its immediate surroundings, looking for food. Slime molds “eat” tiny unseen organisms such as bacteria and yeasts, and they are also said to help decompose leaves and rotting logs.

I’ve seen many thousands of pixie cup lichens (Cladonia pyxidata.) They’re the ones that look like tiny golf tees, but I’ve always wondered what they looked like when they first started forming. Did they always look like golf tees? I didn’t think so but I couldn’t say why. Then one day I thought I had found the answer. As you can see in this photo the little golf tees start life looking like simple pegs. You can see a few with tiny “cups” just starting to form. Pixie cup lichens are squamulose lichens with fruticose fruiting structures called podetia. Squamulose means they have scale like lleafy obes that often overlap like shingles. The parts that look like tiny golf tees are called podetia. Podetia means a stalk like growth which bears the spore bearing fruiting bodies. Finally, frucitose means a lichen with bushy, vertical growth. It is thought that some colonies of pixie cup lichens might be as old as 4,500 years. It’s good I think, to know a little more about these tiny life forms that see everywhere I go.

A boulder on the side of the road was covered by moss and though that might not seem surprising or earthshaking, it caught my attention.

Picture yourself in a small, single engine plane flying low over the treetops in the Amazon jungle, and you’ll understand why I was fascinated by this mossy boulder. I imagined that scene would look a lot like this.

Here’s a little hint of what’s to come. We finally had a frost, more than a month after our average first frost date and the second latest since such things have been recorded. But we haven’t had a freeze, and that means we still have colorful leaves on some of the trees.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. ~Henry David Thoreau

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1. Sign

I’ve been determined this year to show you what our fall foliage looks like from up above the treetops. My first try on Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey wasn’t entirely successful because of the limited viewing range and the bright sunshine that day, so last week I decided to try Pitcher Mountain in Stoddard. There are 360 degree views from the top of this mountain, so I reasoned that it would be possible to take photos without the sun shining directly at the camera.

2. Trail

It was partly cloudy and windy that day and most of the trees seemed to still have plenty of leaves on them.

3. Maple

This young maple was certainly colorful.

4. Meadow

About halfway up the trail you come to a large meadow where long horned and long haired Scottish Highland cattle are kept. At least some of the time, anyway; I’ve climbed this mountain many times now and have never seen an animal in this meadow.

 5. Ranger Cabin

A little more climbing brings you to the old ranger cabin. The fire tower on this mountain is manned when the fire danger is high, but I don’t think the ranger station is used any longer.

6. Fire Tower

It’s hard to miss the fire tower. In April of 1940 27,000 acres of forest burned, including all of the trees on this summit and the old wooden fire tower that once stood here.  It was the most destructive fire in the region’s history and burned the summit right down to the bare granite. The tower seen in this photo replaced the original that was built here in 1915.

7. Tower Tie Down

It’s a good thing that the tower is well anchored. The wind felt like it was blowing at gale force up here on this day, and I had to use it as a wind break.

8. Common Goldspeck Lichen

Large colonies of common gold speck lichen (Candelariella vitellina) cover the exposed granite. They were fruiting so they must be very happy up here.

9. Blueberry Bush

Pitcher Mountain is famous for its native high bush blueberry bushes which cover many acres, and people come from all over to pick them.  They are also one of our most colorful native shrubs.

10. Mount Monadnock

Mount Monadnock’s outline was barely visible off to the south due to the weather conditions, but by fiddling around with the camera’s controls I was able to get a shot of it. I’m not sure why the meadow and trees in the foreground look so dimly lit, but I kind of like it.

11. Distant View 1

Almost every time I’ve climbed Pitcher Mountain it has been sunny when I started out and then clouds rolled in as soon as I reached the summit. This day was no different, but a little patience paid off and every time the sun broke through I snapped a photo. It was so beautiful, I didn’t mind waiting.

12. Crow

As I sat waiting for the clouds to part I watched this crow struggling to not be blown out of the sky. The wind was fierce and I too struggled with keeping the camera steady on its monopod.

13. Closest Hill

I sat on the side of the fire tower away from the wind and waited for some sunshine to illuminate this, the nearest hill. I had to laugh at my luck because once or twice all of the surrounding landscape in any direction was in full sunshine except this hill and the mountain I sat on.  When the sun finally illuminated the hill, it was beautiful as I knew it would be. I was surprised that so many trees were bare though.

14. Foliage

There were some nice colors up close, too. I think we’re seeing the red of oak, orange maple, and yellow beech in this shot.

15. Distant View 2

This was taken when the sun was shining just about everywhere except the mountain I sat on. It’s a good example of how the light, and lack of it, can impact foliage colors. I’m not sure why the few evergreens in the foreground appear so dark.

16. Distant View 3

Though the photos don’t really do them justice the colors seen from the mountaintop and the way the light played on the distant hills were breathtakingly beautiful, and at times I felt like I was inside a painting by Monet or Renoir. There is simply nothing that compares with being on a mountaintop, especially at this time of year.

Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve; they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion. ~Anatoli Boukreev

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I don’t know why, but for the last two or three months I’ve had the urge to go places I’ve never been and see things I’ve never seen. Recently I walked into a forest in Winchester, New Hampshire, which lies south of Keene on the way to Northfield, Massachusetts to see a waterfall called Pulpit Falls.

 1. Stream and Bedrock

The directions weren’t the best; follow an old logging road until you hear running water, and then bushwack your way upstream until you see a waterfall. In other words, once I left the logging road there was no trail-just me and the woods.

2. Stream

Being so late in the year there was little actual bushwacking to do. What few shrubs grew near the stream were easily skirted. Since there was no trail the meandering stream became the trail.

3. Mt. Laurel Thicket

Mountain Laurels (Kalmia latifolia) grew here and there. These native shrubs often grow in large impenetrable thickets that are always best to walk around rather than through. This place must be beautiful in the summer when the laurels are covered with pink and white blossoms. Native Americans used to make their spoons out of the wood, which is why it is also called spoon wood.  This plant was first recorded in this country by the Swedish / Finnish botanist Peter Kalm in 1624.

4. Pulpit Falls

We’ve had such a dry summer that the falls themselves weren’t much to write home about, if indeed this was them. But, easily seen was evidence that this small stream could become a raging torrent several yards across. I’ve seen pictures of the falls when the stream is running like that and it would be worth the hike to see it. I’ll come back during the spring rains, if we have them.

5. Boulders at Pulpit Falls

Upstream from the falls, the stream appears from under these huge pieces of stone. The biggest of them was as big as a delivery truck. I didn’t see anything that looked like a pulpit, so I’m not sure where the name Pulpit Falls came from. Uphill above these boulders was nothing but forest-no stream or any sign of a stream, so it must go underground somewhere uphill and then reappear here. What bothers me is that this area doesn’t look like the pictures I’ve seen. The rocks are much flatter than round in those pictures.

6. Fern on Stream Bank

A thin shaft of sunlight fell through the trees and lit up this fern as if it were on a Broadway stage. It was growing on a boulder at the side of the stream and I think it was a polypody fern, also known as rock cap fern. These ferns are evergreen.

7. Clubmoss Fruiting

The clubmosses here were covered with fruiting “clubs” where spores are produced. I think this is common ground pine (Lycopodium dendroideum) which is native and which the U.S.D.A. lists as rare. The people at the U.S.D.A. have obviously never hiked through the woods of New Hampshire, because this plant is everywhere now. It was once endangered after being over collected for use as Christmas greenery. The dried spores of this plant were also once used in photography as flash powder before flashbulbs were invented.

 8. Beard Lichen

I found a tree branch on the ground that was covered with lichens, so I put it on this mossy boulder and took a picture.  I think the larger hairy examples are bristly beard lichens (Usnea hirta.) The others are foliose lichens that I don’t recognize.

9. Ledges

On my way home from the falls I stopped to get a few pictures of a local hill that has had its heart torn out by a construction company, which crushes the rock and sells it. To give you an idea of how massive this really is-the “shrubs” on top of the hill in the upper left hand corner are actually white pine trees (Pinus strobus.) White pines can grow to around 160-190 feet tall are the tallest trees in eastern North America, but the youngsters in the photo were probably closer to 100 feet.

10. Icy Ledges

You know it’s cold when stone doesn’t absorb enough heat from the sun to melt the ice that clings to it. But at least we saw some sunshine!

If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere ~Frank A. Clark

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Last weekend when I wasn’t climbing up Beech Hill in Keene I was climbing another hill in Walpole, New Hampshire. Walpole is a small town on the Connecticut River north of Keene.                       There wasn’t anything remarkable about the trail itself, but it did go up and up-and then it went up some more. Those beech and oak leaves are very slippery and hide loose stones that can give you a nasty ankle twist when they slip quickly out from underfoot, so it is wise to watch where you step at this time of year. This is the view from a granite outcropping at the top of the trail, looking westward toward Vermont. I can’t find the name of the hill that this view is seen from, but it is part of the 165 acre Warner Forest preserve. This trail is called “High Blue,” because at 1588 feet it is higher than the surrounding terrain, and because the view is indeed blue-especially when you zoom in on it with a camera. This photo shows exactly what the camera saw, but I don’t remember everything being quite as blue as it is seen here. The mountain floating on the clouds is Stratton Mountain in Vermont. You know you’re there when you see the sign and the view and need to sit for a bit to catch your breath.

Finding quartz in New Hampshire isn’t special, but finding an outcropping of pure quartz certainly is. This ledge was large and quite long, and it’s the only one like it that I’ve ever seen.Other boulders were covered with rock tripe lichens. Because it hadn’t rained in a while the rock tripe was brittle and would break in half like a potato chip. After a good rain it becomes pliable and bends without breaking. I’m not sure if this is a jelly fungus or a slime mold but there were several large, half dollar size examples on a fallen log. It had a rubbery consistency. Someone used to live up here, and this is all that’s left of their house. Behind this foundation corner was an old chimney that had toppled long ago. Finding stone walls and abandoned foundations in the woods is very common here in New Hampshire. In fact, you could walk for days into the wilderness to a spot where you thought nobody had ever been and you would probably find a stone wall there.I’m still seeing mushrooms in spite of the cold nights. These orange ones grew on a sun washed stump.

We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home, in towns and cities ~ G.W. Sears

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