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Posts Tagged ‘Westmoreland Rail Trail’

The last time I visited the deep cut rail trail that was once part of the northern branch of the Cheshire Railroad there were huge columns of ice hanging from the walls of the manmade canyon. These ice columns start to melt in the spring and can sometimes fall into the trail. Since they’re big enough to crush a person I stay away from this, one of my favorite places, until I’m sure they’ve melted. Though we’ve had a cool May I was sure they had melted by last Sunday, so off I went.

Right off I noticed something disturbing; a rock half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle had fallen from the face of the canyon. Particularly disturbing was how it fell right into the drainage ditch, which is where I am when I want to get close to the liverworts and other plants that grow on these walls. Thoughts of tons of stone whistling 50 feet down through the air certainly captured my attention for a while. It’s going to take a lot more than muscle and pry bars to move this one. I’m not sure that a backhoe could even move it.

As I walked around the stone I saw that more than one had fallen, and when they fell they took down a yellow birch tree about 6 inches across, which someone had cut up. The New Hampshire chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club comes here to train in rock and ice climbing and I hope there wasn’t anyone near here when all of this fell. If anyone were to be hit by even the smallest stone I doubt they would have survived.

Rocks fall here regularly because of the constantly seeping groundwater. In the winter it freezes, and when it freezes the ice in the many fissures inside the stone expands enough to fracture it into pieces, which eventually succumb to gravity. This year there is a lot of groundwater seeping through; all the cliff faces were wet, as the above photo shows. Of course, the plants love it.

Three or four years ago a stream appeared out of nowhere and has run down the rock face ever since, winter and summer. It’s a good thing the railroad dug wide drainage ditches along this section of rail bed, otherwise the place would be flooded and impassable from so much water constantly pouring in. The ditches have kept the rail bed dry for nearly 150 years now.

Apparently I’ve been walking right by mountain maple trees (Acer spicatum) all of my life without realizing it, but now all of the sudden I’m seeing them everywhere I go. That could be because they’re flowering now, and these trees flower like no other maple. All other maple trees have flowers that hang down but mountain maple’s flower clusters stand upright, above the leaves. At a glance the big leaves look much like striped maple leaves (Acer pensylvanicum) and I think that’s why I haven’t noticed them; I didn’t look closely. The shrub like tree is a good indicator of moist soil which leans toward the alkaline side of neutral. Native Americans made an infusion of the pith of the young twigs to use as eye drops to soothe eyes irritated by campfire smoke, and the large leaves were packed around apples and root crops to help preserve them.

There might be plenty of fruit to snack on later. Wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) bloomed all along the trail but many types of wildlife eat the berries, so I doubt I’ll get any. Wild strawberry is one of two species of strawberry (Fragaria virginiana and Fragaria chiloensis) that were hybridized to create the modern strawberry. Strawberries were an important food for Native Americans and they made a cold tea of mashed strawberries, strawberry juice, water and sassafras tea to drink at their strawberry moon festivals in spring. For that reason it was called strawberry moon tea.

Up ahead a big red maple had fallen across the trail and its top had caught on the opposite rim of the canyon. There are many people who ride and walk along this trail and I hoped there wasn’t anyone near it when it fell. Once again I was dismayed to notice that, same as the stone had, the tree’s butt end fell right into the drainage ditch.

The maple had broken off about 6 feet up its trunk, probably in a good wind. Bark was missing and that’s a good sign that it had died some time before.

Foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) grow here by the hundreds but I was surprised to see them because I’ve never noticed them before. I’m guessing that I’ve never come here when many of the plants I saw on this day were blooming. With such a huge variety of plants all growing together it’s a simple thing to miss a leaf or two, even when walking at a toddler’s pace. Before long many of the plants here, like tall meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum,) will be shoulder high.

What I think are marsh blue violets (Viola cucullata) grow here by the thousands and I was glad that I got here when they were blooming because it was quite a sight. The 5 petaled flowers stand above the leaves on tallish (6-7”) stems and can be violet, dark blue and sometimes white, They are said to be darker at their center, as these were. Many Native American tribes used violets medicinally for everything from stomach pain to swollen joints. A blue dye was also made from the plants, used to dye arrow shafts blue.

When I look up at the rim of this manmade canyon I don’t think about falling stones or trees; I think about how lucky I am to have found a place so beautiful, where nearly every surface is covered with plants of all kinds. I think of the Shangri-La that James Hilton wrote about in Lost Horizon, and imagine that I’ve found it. As a boy I dreamed of being a plant hunter in distant jungles, and this is the closest I’ve ever been able to come. I’ve found many plants here that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color, hides the green chlorophyll of the algae called Trentepohlia aurea. It is one of the things I found here that I can’t see anywhere else and is one of the reasons I put on my rubber boots and walk in the drainage ditches. Up close it is surprisingly hairy. I keep hoping I’ll see it producing spores but I haven’t yet.

Another plant I’ve never seen anywhere else is the eastern swamp saxifrage (Saxifraga pensylvanica.) In fact this day was the only time I’ve ever seen it, and I think the only reason I saw it at all was because it happened to be flowering. The thick, three foot tall flower stalk is covered in sticky hairs and terminates in several flower clusters. The flowers aren’t really anything to write home about; they’re small and greenish with petals that can be green, white or yellow, and rarely purple.  One plant has a single flower stem and both black bears and deer love to eat it. I know there are deer here so I was lucky to see it.

The big leaves of swamp saxifrage are in a basal rosette, each about 9 inches long and 3 inches wide, widest at or above the middle, with a blunt or sharp point at the tip, tapering at the base, on a short reddish stalk. The leaves and flower stalk are edible and the Native American Cherokee tribe ate the young leaves as salad greens. They also used the plant’s roots in a poultice to treat muscle soreness.

Another plant that grows here that I’ve never seen anywhere else is wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris.) At least I think it is wild chervil; so many plants in the carrot family look alike. Some call it Queen Anne’s lace on steroids but its fern like leaves don’t look anything like queen Anne’s lace leaves to me. This plant is thought to have been introduced to North America from Europe in wildflower seed mixes. It has been growing in this area since the early 1900s and is considered a noxious weed in many places. Oddly, some of those places are very cold, like Alaska, Iceland and Greenland. It makes sense that it would like this place then, because it gets very cold in winter and has ice columns that grow to unbelievable proportions.  Wild chervil contains chemical compounds which have been reported to have anti-tumor and anti-viral properties against human cancer cells. It is an entirely different species than cultivated chervil, which is an herb used for flavoring soups.

Mosses of every description grow to cover huge areas of the vertical walls because of all the water available. It makes the place seem even more like a lush, verdant paradise.

A little violet grew alone on a ledge where it would be constantly watered by the splashing water. I never knew that violets liked so much water, but I guess names like marsh violet should have been a clue. I’ve even seen them growing in standing water this year.

A dandelion also grew on a ledge near splashing water. I wondered how this plant, which has a long tap root, could grow on a stone that was covered by maybe a half inch of soil.

The beautiful great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) like to grow in places where they are constantly splashed by or dripped on by very clean ground water. I was surprised last winter to see that many of the plants had turned gray and appeared to be dying. On this day when I walked in the drainage ditch to get close enough for photos I noticed an odor rising from the water with each step, as if it were stagnant, and now I wonder if something in the water is killing them off. Even those that show new growth appear much smaller than in previous visits.

This is the only place I’ve ever seen this beautiful plant so I hope I’m wrong about what I’m seeing. Without knowing much about them it’s hard to say. What I’m seeing could be a natural phase of their life cycle. At least that’s what I’m hoping. I’d hate to see them disappear because they are one of the things that make this place so very special. Their amazing scent is where their common name comes from; if you squeeze a piece and smell it you smell something so clean and fresh scented you’ll wish it came in a spray bottle.

The photos of the liverworts were taken quickly, rushed because in the back of my mind there were thoughts of things falling from the cliff wall I was standing under at the time. I later stood at what is left of the old lineman’s shack thinking about that but knowing that though there may be danger here, I’d be coming back. For me this is a place of wonder and bliss, a place like no other I know, and I can’t just abandon it because of something that could happen someday.  What I can do though, is stay out of the drainage ditches. That I probably will do, but we’ll see.

Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing. ~Denis Waitley

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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

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1-trail

We’ve had some cold nights and a little snow over the last week or so and it seems like winter might be here to stay, so I decided to visit the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland recently. Once the cold settles down inside this man made canyon it’s reluctant to leave, and spectacular ice formations grow here.

2-ice

The ice is fueled by the groundwater that constantly seeps through the bedrock that the railway workers hacked their way through in the mid-1800s, and ice columns as big as tree trunks are commonplace. I’ve seen huge ice columns here many times but I’ve never seen their birth, so that was the object of today’s hike.

3-ice

Ice was forming almost everywhere on the vertical walls of the canyon. It was very cold this day and even in the bright morning sunshine the ice wasn’t melting. That’s the secret of the why the ice grows to such giant proportions here; the temperature seems to stay about 10 degrees cooler in both winter and summer. On a hot July day the natural air conditioning is very welcome, but in December it can be like walking into a freezer so you had better be dressed for it if you plan on spending much time here.

4-ice

The groundwater seems to follow the natural lay of the stone and seeps between the layers winter and summer. The water doesn’t seem to ever stop seeping so when an icicle forms more and more water flows over it, increasing its length and girth drip by drip. There can be enough ice here in February to cover the stone ledges completely in many areas.

5-ice-climber

Unless you’ve seen them the ice formations are hard to imagine, so I’ve used this photo from last February to better illustrate the size of both the ice and the place. Last winter was mild so the ice shown is tame in comparison to previous winters but still, ice climbers came to train. The New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club holds regular ice climbing clinics here and seeing climbers on the ice is fairly common on weekends. I expect that I’ll see a few this winter.

6-waterfall

There is almost always the sound of water dripping here. Usually it comes from the seeping groundwater but in at least one spot water gushes through a rift in the wall with enough force to be called a stream. I wonder if a stream on the hillside above somehow changed course, because I doubt that the railroad engineers would have left it this way.

7-drainage-ditch

All that water has to go somewhere so the railroad built drainage ditches on either side of the railbed to direct it where they wanted it to go. The ditches have kept the railbed dry for over 150 years but I saw that a rockslide further down the trail had dammed up one side and now water is washing away the railbed. With no railroad to maintain these rail trails it’s now up to private groups like snowmobile clubs to do all the work. They do a great job but it they might not be aware of the washout.

8-rock-fall

This is a shot of where the rocks have fallen across the drainage ditch and dammed it up. What isn’t seen in this photo is how all the water in the ditch has been forced into the railbed, washing it away. The rocks are big and I’m sure are very heavy but I would think that two men with crowbars could at least slide them over enough to let the water through.

9-ledges

There are many mosses, liverworts, and other interesting things growing on these walls that I don’t see anywhere else so I put on rubber boots and walk across the drainage ditches to get close to them. I’ve seen large stones that have fallen into the railbed and in the winter falling ice is always a possibility, so I have to be very aware of what’s going on around me. I always look up before I cross a ditch to get to a section of wall to make sure that I’m not going to be standing under overhanging ledge like that seen in this photo. I’ve never seen one fall but fallen stones litter both sides of the trail all down its length.

10-liverworts

For me this is what makes coming here worth any small amount of risk involved; I can get close to so many plants that I’ve never seen before, like the great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) seen here. They are very particular about where they grow, insisting on just the right amount of light, humidity and temperature and they have found the perfect spot here, where they grow in great numbers. Though they are said to be common I never see them anywhere else.

11-liverwort-close

The great scented liverwort is also called the snakeskin liverwort, and with good reason. I love its reptilian skin and its scent, which is so clean and fresh it always makes me wish it came in a spray bottle when I smell it. Each more or less hexagonal leaf cell has a central pore over the top of an air chamber. On the floor of the air chamber are photosynthetic filaments called chloroplasts, and the pores through its skin let in enough light for the chloroplasts to do their work, which is photosynthesis. It’s quite amazing, as is all of life.

12-liverworts

Though the liverworts might seem fragile they are actually very tough as all of the plants that grow here have to be, because they are often completely encased in ice throughout the winter months. From what I’ve seen it doesn’t seem to bother them.

13-ferns

Any thoughts I had about the delicacy of our evergreen ferns went right out the window when I saw them growing here. They too are often covered in ice through the winter, but still green.

14-moss

Mosses also have to be able to withstand the ice. Curiously, though this one was surrounded by ice it was quite dry, as its twisted leaves show. I think it might be tall tornado moss (Tortella tortuosa) which has leaves that twist and contort when it dries out. It grows in the thin soil that forms on boulders and on rock ledges, and likes limestone.

15-algae

One of the strangest things that grow here  is a green algae called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color, hides the green chlorophyll. It’s very hairy and produces spores which, when produced in high enough concentrations, can even color rain. I was just reading about a blood red rain that fell in parts of Spain in 2014. Many worried that it was a bad omen or extraterrestrial in origin, or a plague worthy of the Bible, but it was actually caused by the algae Haematococcus pluvialis. The same thing happened in Texas in 2013, in Sri Lanka in 2012, and in India in 2001, each seemingly caused by different algae. Yellow, green, and black rain has also been reported. It seems that colored rain can happen just about anywhere on earth when conditions are right. The blue in this photo is the sky reflected in ice.

16-mineral-staining

I’ve never seen colored rain falling in this place but I have seen plenty of colored ice, and I think at least some of the ice colors are caused by minerals in the groundwater, like the iron staining shown on the stone in this photo.  The ice here can be blue, green, red, orange, yellow, brown, and even black.

17-mineral-staining

Another example of mineral staining on the stone, this time in a sandy, orangey brown color.

18-colored-ice

And this photo from last year shows what the minerals can do to the ice. At least that’s my assumption. Neither I nor readers of this blog have been able to come up with any other theories except in the case of blue ice, which can become blue simply because of its own density.

19-linemans-shack

It takes a while to get used to this kind of cold again and by the time I had reached what’s left of the old lineman’s shack I couldn’t feel my toes any longer, so I thought I’d better do a little less lollygagging and more walking, and I trudged back down the trail at a high rate of speed (for me.)

20-ice

Watching ice melt might not be very exciting but watching it grow is, so I’ll be coming back here often throughout winter.

He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter. ~John Burroughs

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