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Posts Tagged ‘Winter Hiking’

Well, we survived the coldest stretch of weather I’ve ever seen and now we’re in the midst of a January thaw, but I didn’t think I’d ever thaw out after going out on January 7 th to take many of these photos. It was a brisk 14°F but the sun was shining and I didn’t think it would be too bad, but it still felt frigid because of a breeze. Anyhow, anyone who lives here would know how cold it must have been just by seeing this photo of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey frozen from bank to bank. I think this is the first time in two or three years that this has happened.

Downstream from the previous photo ice shelves were forming but the river was open.

You could see how much ice had formed since the last snow. But the last snow was just 3 days before this photo was taken.

Close to a foot of snow fell and plowing it made mountain ranges.

After the snow storm dragged down more arctic air it got even colder; too cold to be outside for more than just a few minutes.

On New Hampshire’s tallest peak Mount Washington, a tie score for the second coldest place on the planet was recently recorded. At -36 ° F. with a wind chill of -94 °F. it was just two degrees warmer than Yakutsk Russia. What an honor.

Birches bent under the weight of the snow, which fell on top of the ice from the December ice storm. It has been so cold that the ice from that storm weeks ago has never melted.

The birches were giving up their seeds to the wind and to the birds too, probably.

Birds are definitely eating the seeds from eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) cones. Chickadees, pine siskins and other small birds eat them, and several species of warblers nest in the dense foliage. Larger birds like turkeys, owls, and grouse will often roost in the branches, possibly because hemlocks are excellent at shedding water. You can stand under large hemlocks in a pouring rain and barely feel a drop. Deer will eat the foliage.

By September the small cones and seeds of eastern hemlock are ripe but are still green, wet and oily. Once the cones begin to turn brown the seeds will be dry and birds can get at them as soon as the cone opens like the one pictured. Hemlock seeds are often lacking in viability, with less than 20% of them viable. Hemlock trees can live to 800 years old and reach a height of 175 feet. Native Americans used the inner bark, roots, and needles of hemlocks medicinally. They contain antiseptic properties and were used to treat wounds and in sweat lodges to treat colds and rheumatism. When food supplies were low the inner bark was often eaten.

Bird tracks under the hemlocks reveal their value to wildlife.

The birds have eaten all the coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seeds. Since these coneflowers were mostly planted by the birds the seeds belong to them and I don’t cut them or other plants back until spring. The more seeds they eat and spread around the yard, the more plants I’ll / we’ll have.

A motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) stem poked up from the snow and I thought it was interesting how I could see where all the little tufts of tiny flowers had been much easier without its leaves in the way. Of course the flowers are now seed pods. Though I’ve searched to find out which birds eat the seeds of motherwort I didn’t have any luck at all. It could be because the plant isn’t native, coming originally from Asia. It was brought here because of its long history of medicinal use in Europe and Asia. It is said to be useful as a heart medicine, hence the cardiaca part of its scientific name. It has a sedative effect and is also said to be useful to treat anxiety and muscle spasms.

The ice on most lakes and ponds is safe now, probably thicker than it’s been in years, and fishermen have begun setting up their bob houses. Some of these small, garden shed size buildings are quite elaborate, with all the comforts of home included. This fisherman built his out of clear corrugated plastic, probably hoping for some solar gain. I’d have to want to catch a fish pretty badly to stand on the ice all day, even if it was in a bob house.

When you approach a frozen over pond with snow covered ice you often can’t tell where the land ends and the water begins, so I look for cattails (Typha latifolia.) They always tell me right where the water starts.

Japanese knotweed stems (Fallopia japonica) looked red in the bright sunshine. It’s too bad this plant is so invasive, because it is pretty through much of its life cycle.

Milk white toothed polypores are resupinate fungi, which means they look like they grow upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi seem to do. This is a common winter fungus with “teeth” that are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and break apart and turn brown as they age. This fungus can be found on the undersides of hardwood tree branches. They don’t seem to mind the bitter cold temperatures we’ve had.

When I was in high school I had an art teacher who knew how to paint winter scenes. She taught me how to paint snow on tree branches and have it look realistic, and how to paint snowy landscapes. She was a professional artist as well as a teacher so she knew her way around an easel, but I still questioned her when she said that my gray winter shadows should be blue. I told her I painted them as I saw them, and I saw gray. I don’t know if it was colorblindness or some other reason that I saw gray but whatever it was has corrected itself and now I see blue winter shadows, just as Miss Safford said they should be. What makes them blue? The ice crystals that make up the snow reflect the ambient blue light from the sky. The color of a shadow is determined by the amount of light reaching the area that is in shade and light from the blue sky will even illuminate shaded areas. If the sky is gray, the shadows will appear gray.

It was so cold on this day that even the window frost seemed contracted, like each crystal had been held back by an icy grip, so instead of large, elaborate and beautiful frost feathers what formed were blocky, clunky crystals.

Here is an extreme close up of some window frost crystals. They didn’t have the beauty of frost feathers but this example reminded me of Aztec and Inca carvings I’ve seen photos of. It looks like a figure with a headdress, a long nose or beak, and wings. Or maybe it just looks like ice. I’ll let you decide.

Nearness to nature keeps the spirit sensitive to impressions not commonly felt, and in touch with the unseen powers. ~Charles Eastman

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For the first time in almost eight years the weather has brought this blog to a screeching halt. Since Christmas we’ve had dangerously cold temperatures, with the lowest reading at my house -20°F below zero (-29 C.)  Add to that howling winds and the temperature can easily be in the -30s below zero range. Flesh can freeze in about 15 minutes in those conditions so I haven’t been outside to take photos in nearly 2 weeks now. In my lifetime I’ve never seen such extreme cold last for so long without letup. It is for these reasons that I offer up a post I did on the “blizzard” of 2015 on January 31st of that year. They say we’ll see a real January thaw this week with temperatures above freezing almost all week, so things should return to normal soon.  I hope.

I’m sure by now everyone has heard about the blizzard of 2015. While it’s true that a small piece of New Hampshire coastline did see blizzard conditions, in my yard I had trouble finding snow that was 6 inches deep. That might not be entirely accurate though because the real story was the gale force wind that blew the powdery snow every which way and made you feel as if you were in a snow globe.

So how do you tell the story of wind on a blog? Showing wind sculpted snow is one way.

The wind can do some fantastic things with snow, including sculpting snow waves.

Here is the snow wave in the previous photo, shot from a different angle. It seemed odd that a 4 foot deep snow drift would form in the middle of an open field, but that’s what happened here.

Another part of the story is the cold. For the last two winters January has seemed a very cold month indeed, but at least this year the Ashuelot River hasn’t frozen over at my favorite viewing spot in Swanzey. The only remarkable thing about this photo is what it doesn’t show; there have always been Canada geese in this spot but last year when the river froze from bank to bank they left and haven’t come back.

The rocks in the river show a layer cake like history of winter’s ice and snow storms.

Ice shelves are forming along the river banks. I saw that people had been walking on them in a couple of places, which is a very dangerous thing to do. I know there are many young people who read this blog so I’ll speak directly to them for a moment: Please stay off the ice on rivers and streams! I was walking down the middle of the frozen Ashuelot River one winter when I was about ten years old and all of the sudden the ice started cracking all around me. I’ll never forget the rifle shot sounds of the cracking ice echoing in my ears as I ran for my life to the river bank. As I clung to a tree I saw the dark cold water come bubbling up through the cracks where I had been walking just a moment before. I was more scared then than I’ve ever been and it took a while before I could stop shaking long enough to peel myself off that tree trunk and scramble up the river bank. You never know how thick the ice that has formed over moving water will be so it’s best to be safe and just stay off it.

Up in the mountains snow cornices can be dangerous but here they don’t seem to do any real harm. A snow cornice is “an overhanging edge of snow on a ridge or the crest of a mountain and along the sides of gullies. They form by wind blowing snow over sharp terrain breaks.”  People walk out on them, not realizing that there is just a thin layer of snow beneath them, and when the cornice suddenly crumbles away they find themselves trapped in an avalanche. A rabbit or squirrel might have trouble with the one in the photo but otherwise I think it’s pretty safe.

The New Hampshire Department of Transportation says that it cost 2 million dollars to clear the snow from this one storm, and that doesn’t include what the individual towns spent. The snowbanks along Pudding Hill Road in Winchester were about waist high. I’d say that was average for this time of year.

So what do you do when the night temperatures fall to ten below zero (F) and only rise to twenty above zero during the day with a gale force wind thrown in for good measure? You stay inside and take photos of the frost feathers growing on your windows, of course. They’re beautiful things to behold.

All in all the blizzard of 2015 was a non-event here. Yes it was windy and cold but it could have been much worse and I’m thankful that it wasn’t an ice storm. Speaking of ice, the woods are full of it. A couple of weeks ago 2 inches of rain fell and puddled up in the low spots. It froze almost immediately and will be there until the ground thaws. Seeing these puddles slowly seep into the soil will be a good sign that spring is happening.

Though there have been photos of blue skies and sunny days in this post most days throughout December and January have looked more like the above photo. Despite the cold, cloudy, snowy weather spring really is right around the corner. Maple sap usually starts flowing in February and the skunk cabbages will be poking up through the snow soon. Male black capped chickadees are already singing their sad fee bee mating calls, the sun is rising higher in the sky, and daylight lasts a little longer each day. Before we know it the Boston Red Sox will start spring training, tree buds will begin to swell, alder catkins will be heavy with golden pollen and winter will be fading into memory. Any time now that itch called spring fever is sure to come upon us.

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant. ~ Anne Bradstreet

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This post was supposed to be part 2 of a lichen post I did back on November 29 but I’ve dilly dallied so long it would probably be hard for all of us to remember what was in that one, so I’ll just start anew. I do these lichen posts because people seem to be mystified by lichens and afraid they won’t be able to identify them. I’ll be the first to admit that identifying lichens isn’t easy, but I try to show lichens that are easier to identify than other species in the hope that you’ll give them a try. Often times when I go hunting lichens I start with a smooth barked tree like that in the above photo. As you can see it’s absolutely peppered with them and I can tell without even zooming in that there are at least 3 different lichens in that photo.

One of the lichens on that tree was this script lichen. Script lichens are easy to identify as such but breaking them down into species can be difficult. I think this one is the common script lichen (Graphis scripta.) Script lichens seem to be fussy about what kind of trees they grow on and the common script lichen prefers trees with smooth bark, like maple or beech.

The script lichen’s common name comes from its apothecia, which are its fruiting bodies where its spores are produced. They look like ancient runes that someone has scratched into the body of the lichen (Thallus.) Some appear as horizontal lines, some can be vertical or angular but most appear random like those in the photo. Some, like the asterisk lichen can be very beautiful but even though I’ve searched for an example for many years I’ve never seen one.

This script lichen had a very dark thallus and isn’t like any other that I’ve seen. I’m not sure what would make it so dark, but it might have been the cold. I’ve seen cold change the color of other lichens from gray to blue. From what I’ve seen of script lichens the body of the lichen is there year round, but only when it starts to get cold in the fall do the fruiting bodies appear. Many lichens choose to produce their spores in the winter and I’ve never been able to find out why.

One of the most common lichens seen on trees in this region is the common green shield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata.)  They are large, leafy, round or oval lichens that are kind of a yellow green color, and colonies of them can cover nearly the entire trunk of a tree. They are usually very wrinkled and in fact the caperata part of the scientific name means wrinkled.

Seeing fruiting bodies (Apothecia) on green shield lichens is rare in my experience but they always seem to have abundant soredia, which are tiny, powdery vegetative reproductive bodies that can be carried off by the wind or rain to form new lichens. The soredia form on the body (Thallus) of the lichen in pustule like areas called soralia. They are very similar to other vegetative reproductive growths called isidia, which are stalked growths on the thallus. Some Native American tribes dried and crushed this lichen into a powder and used it to treat burns.

Bottlebrush shield lichen (Parmelia squarrosa) is very common but is also easily passed by because it often grows quite small and I find that its pale gray color blends well with the color of the bark of the trees that it grows on, like smooth barked maples. You can just see small shiny spherical dots on a few of its lobes in this photo. These are granular vegetative reproductive structures called isidia. When a squirrel runs up a tree and breaks these granular parts of it off, the broken parts will start new lichens. Lichens books say that fruiting bodies (Apothecia) are common on this lichen but I’ve never seen them.

The bottlebrush part of this lichen’s common name comes from its dense, dark mat of rhizines on its undersides. These rhizines can be thought of as tiny rootlets which help anchor the lichen to the bark of trees. When they are branched like a bottle brush they are said to be squarrose. This lichen will also grow on mossy rocks and likes shaded, humid places.

Yet another shield lichen usually found on trees is the hammered shield lichen (Parmelia sulcata.) Its common name comes from the way its network of sharp ridges and depressions makes it look like it has been hammered out of a sheet of steel. Fruiting bodies are said to be rare on this lichen, which explains why I’ve never seen them. Instead it relies on powdery, whitish soredia to reproduce. It also has rhizines like the bottlebrush shield, but they don’t seem as bushy and noticeable. Hammered shield lichens are relatively small and though the book Lichens of North America says they can even be weedy, I don’t see them very often.

It’s very common to be walking through the woods and find twigs and branches with large, leafy (Foliose) lichens like the one pictured growing on them. These lichens can be difficult to identify because they change color drastically when they dry out. Though this one appears on the gray side its normal color when wet would be a deep, olive brown. I think this one is in the Tuckermannopsis group, probably the fringed wrinkle lichen (Tuckermannopsis ciliaris.) Lichens in this group often have “wrinkled” in their common name because that’s the way they look. They’re very pretty and easy to see and I often find them on birch and white pine branches.

Fruiting bodies (Apothecia) are common on the fringed wrinkle lichen. They are also quite large and easily seen; shiny and brownish green. Tiny bead like structures called pycnidia line the margins of the apothecia. They are yet another type of vegetative reproductive structure that will form new lichens if they break off. This lichen or family of lichens is very common and I see them almost every time I go into the woods.

There are many beard lichens and many are abundant in this region, but one that I don’t see quite as often as others is the fishbone beard lichen (Usnea filipendula.) It grows high in the treetops and when I find it it’s almost always on a fallen branch, as this one was.

The fishbone beard lichen gets its common name not surprisingly, from its resemblance to the skeleton of a fish. Lichens in this genus contain usnic acid and have strong antiseptic and antibiotic properties. They’ve been used medicinally since ancient times throughout the world to stop bleeding and heal wounds, and also against lung and fungal infections. Native Americans moistened the lichens and used them as a poultice for boils and wounds.  Beard lichens are still used today in antiseptic skin creams, deodorants, and mouth washes. It is said that about 50% of lichen species have antibiotic properties and research to develop medicines from them is ongoing worldwide.

Man isn’t the only one who uses lichens. This bird’s nest had many beard lichens woven into it. One study that I read about said that 5 different species of lichen were found in just a tiny hummingbird’s nest.

Concentric boulder lichen (Porpidia crustulata) gets its name from the way its black apothecia grow in concentric (or nearly so) rings around their center. The gray body of the lichen forms a crust on stone and that makes it a crustose lichen. This lichen is relatively rare here and I only see them once in a blue moon. They grow in sun or shade and don’t ever seem to change color.

Another shield lichen that’s very common in this area is the peppered rock shield (Xanthoparmelia conspersa.) It grows on stone in full sun and I usually find it on old stone walls. It’s a big lichen, often 10 inches or more across, that seems to be almost always fruiting, with crinkly brown fruiting bodies (Apothecia.) Though it must produce an abundance of spores this lichen also reproduces vegetatively, again by the granular vegetative reproductive structures called isidia, like the bottlebrush shield lichen we saw earlier. When bits of the lichen are broken off the isidia increase its chances of starting a new colony. Isidia also increase photosynthetic efficiency.

Here is a closer look at the peppered rock shield’s apothecia. They are big enough to see without any magnification and are an orangey brown color.  You can also see bits of the insidia. It’s clear that this lichen is all about continuation of the species and it does well at it. One stone wall I know of has them on almost every stone in the wall.

The golden moonglow lichens (Dimelaena oreina) that I see are usually about an inch across but they can get much bigger. They grow in full sun on granite and don’t seem to change color when they dry out like many other lichens do. The one in the photo was producing spores and that’s something I don’t see this lichen do very often. If you spend much time in cemeteries you have probably seen this pretty lichen, because it seems to like growing on smooth, polished stone. It is a crustose lichen, so removing it from any kind of stone would be a challenge. When lichens grow on glass the acids in them can actually etch the glass and this is a problem in the big European cathedrals, especially.

Rock foam lichens (Stereocaulon saxatile) grow directly on stone in full sun. When dry this lichen is very stiff and brushy and almost seems as if it would cut you but caribou will eat it when they can’t find reindeer lichens. This lichen is often used by prospectors because a simple lab test on it will show what type of stone it was growing on and what minerals, like copper for instance, are in the stone.

Lichens, as I hope these lichen posts have shown, can be very beautiful, and one of the prettiest I’ve seen lately is the frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia.) Its blue gray apothecia against a yellowish gray body make it easy to identify but you have to look closely to see these features. This one was no more than a half inch across and the blue apothecia were about the size of a period made by a pencil on paper.  I hope you’ll take the time to look for it and other lichens on your next nature walk. They can be found virtually anywhere at any season, and are always interesting and often beautiful.

We keep seeing things all our life, yet seldom do we notice them. ~Avijeet Das

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Though this is only the third one I’ve done I’ve come to like these “looking back” posts. They make me  have another look at the past year in photos and I always seem to stumble on things I’ve forgotten. These tiny fungi I saw last January are a good example of that. When I saw them I didn’t know what they were and thought they must be some type of winter slime mold, but then I moved the hand that was holding the branch and felt something cold and jelly like.

And that’s when I discovered what very young milk white toothed polypores (Irpex lacteus) look like. These crust fungi are common in winter but it was the first time I had ever seen the “birth” of a fungus.

February can be a strange month, sometimes spring like and sometimes wintery. This year it was wintery, and this is what Half Moon Pond in Hancock looked like on February 4th. The relatively warm air combined with the cold ice of the pond produced lots of fog and I thought it made for a very beautiful scene.

March is the month when the ground finally begins to thaw and things begin to stir. First the skunk cabbages blossom early in the month and then by the end of the month other early plants like coltsfoot can be seen. Many of our trees and shrubs also begin to bloom toward the end of the month. This shot of female American hazelnut blossoms (Corylus americana) was taken on March 25th. They may not look like much but after a long cold winter they are a true pleasure to see. Just think, March is only 60 days away!

April is the month when many of our most beautiful spring ephemeral wildflowers appear and one of those I am always most anxious to see is the spring beauty (Claytonia virginica.) Each flower is very small; maybe as large as a standard aspirin, but the place they grow in often has many hundreds of flowers blooming at the same time so it can be a beautiful sight. These beautiful little flowers often appear at just the same time maple trees begin to flower. I saw the ones in the photo on April 26th.

Another small but beautiful spring flower that I look forward to seeing is the little fringed polygala (Polygala paucifolia.) These plants often grow and flower in pairs as those shown were doing and often form mats that carpet the ground in places where they like to grow. The flowers need a heavy insect like a bumblebee landing on their little fringed third petal, which is mostly hidden. This opens their third sepal and lets the insect crawl into the tubular blossom, where it is dusted with pollen.  They often start blooming in mid-May but this photo is from May 31st. Because of their color at a glance fringed polygalas can sometimes look like violets so I have to look carefully to find them.

Also blooming in May is the beautiful soft pink, very fragrant roseshell azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum.)  It is also called the early azalea, even though there are those that bloom earlier. It has a fragrance that is delicate and spicy sweet and the fragrance comes from the many hairs that grow along the outsides of the blossoms. This native shrub grows to about 8 feet tall in a shaded area of a mostly evergreen forest. I found it blooming on May 26th.

One of my favorite finds of 2017 was a colony of ragged robin plants (Lychnis flos-cuculi.) I’d been searching for this plant for many years but hadn’t found it until logging kept a small lawn from being mowed last summer. After a month or two of logging operations the unmown grass had gotten tall, but it was also full of ragged robin plants, and that was a great surprise. I don’t know their status in the rest of the state but they are fairly rare in this corner of New Hampshire. This type of ragged robin is not native; it was introduced from Europe sometime in the 1800s but that doesn’t diminish its beauty. I found these plants blooming on June 28.

Two years ago I was walking through a swamp and lo and behold, right there beside the trail was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen; a two foot tall greater purple fringed bog orchid (Platanthera grandiflora) in full bloom. It was beautiful; like a bush full of purple butterflies. I went back again and again this year to keep track of its progress and on July 12 there it was in full bloom again. I can’t explain what joy such a thing brings to me, but I do hope that everyone reading this will experience the same joy in their lives. It’s a true gift.

August was an unusually cold month; cold enough to actually run the furnace for a couple of days, so I didn’t see many mushrooms in what is usually the best month to find them. I did see these little butter wax caps (Hygrocybe ceracea) one day but all in all it wasn’t a good year for mushrooms and slime molds in this area. Some were held back by the cold and appeared much later than they usually do.

The cool August didn’t seem to discourage the wildflowers any, as this view from August 12th shows. In fact we had a great year for wildflowers, even though some bloomed quite a lot later than what I would consider average. I think the abnormal cold had something to do with that, too.

It was also an odd year for fall foliage, with our cold August tricking many trees into turning early, as this photo from September30th shows. Our peak foliage season is usually about the second week of October and some trees had turned color in mid-September. After that it got very hot and the heat stopped all the changing leaves in their tracks, and nobody knew what foliage season would be like at that point.  Some thought it might be ruined, but all we could do was wait and see.

After seeing few to no monarch butterflies for the past 3 years suddenly in September they appeared. First one or two every few days, then more and more until I was seeing at least two each day. This one posed on some Joe Pye weed on September 16th. I can’t say if they’re making a comeback or not but it was a pleasure to see them again. I didn’t realize how much I had taken them for granted until they weren’t there anymore, and that made seeing them again very special. Not only did their reappearance teach me something about myself, it also taught me that monarchs fly like no other butterfly that I’ve seen.

By mid-October, right on schedule for our peak foliage season, all the leaves were aflame and that put a lot of worries to rest. New Hampshire relies heavily on tourism and millions of people come here from all over the world to see the trees, so a disappointing foliage season can have quite a financial impact on businesses. This view from Howe Reservoir in Dublin with Mount Monadnock in the background is one of my favorite foliage views. It was in the October 14th post and reminds me now how truly lucky I am to live in such a beautiful place.

By November 22 Mount Monadnock had its first dusting of snow, which would melt quickly and show no trace just 3 days later. For those new to the blog, Mount Monadnock is one of the most climbed mountains on earth, second only to Mount Fuji in Japan. Even Henry David Thoreau found too many people on the summit when he climbed it in the 1800s. He, like myself, found the view of the mountain much more pleasing than the view from it. He said “Those who climb to the peak of Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain. I came not to look off from it but to look at it. The view of the pinnacle itself surpasses any view which you get from the summit.” I agree.

I thought I’d end this post with something I just found recently on a rail trail; the prettiest bunch of turkey tail fungi that I’ve ever seen. It’s a perfect example of why I spend so much time in the woods; you just never know what beautiful things you might see. I found these beauties on December 2nd.

Laughter from yesterday that makes the heart giggle today brightens the perspective for tomorrow. ~Evinda Lepins

I hope everyone has a very happy and healthy new year! Thanks for stopping in.

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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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Yes, I know I’ve shown photos of snow here already this season, but those were of conversational snow that didn’t really count. We often start the season with small snowfalls that cause a lot of talk but no action and the last one was one of those. This time though, the snow piled up to about 8-11 inches in two back to back storms and required considerable effort with plows and shovels to get it out of the way. This photo shows what I saw last Sunday morning in my own back yard.

A local trail that I follow sometimes was as snowy as it ever gets. It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I’m not a great lover of winter because of all the added work it heaps upon me, but I can’t deny its beauty, and when I’m not working because of it I love being out in it.

The breeze picked up and snow fell from the trees, creating what I call snow smoke. It’s like seeing through a veil of snowflakes and if you’re walking the trail when they fall it feels the same as being caught in a snowstorm. There was so much falling from the trees that day I had to put my camera in a plastic bag. I always carry one in winter and summer.

The skies were changeable; one minute sunny and the next cloudy. The bane of photography, because you have to keep changing your settings according to the amount of light coming through the lens, and if you don’t pay attention your photos will come out too dark like this one did.

The horses in the pasture in the previous photo pawed at the snow to get at any green shoots and ignored the skies above them.

I love how water looks so dark when surrounded by white but just when I didn’t want the sun to come out it did and kind of spoiled the blackness of the stream.

Photos of white snow on red fruit have become common enough to be a cliché, but I was there and the rose hips were there and I had a camera, so there you are. But my thoughts were not of red fruit in white snow. I wondered why the birds never seem to eat these native Alberta rose hips (Rosa acicularis)  even though they’ve taken every hip off the invasive multi flora roses (Rosa multiflora.) It could come down to size, since these rose hips are much larger than those of the multiflora rose.

Snow covered every single thing, including these beech leaves.

A small pond was slushing over, and I saw more snow smoke coming from the trees over on the left.

The red wing blackbirds will have plenty of nesting material in the spring. These birds are very defensive of their nesting sites and have no problem letting you know when you’re too close. They’ll fly right in your face and hover there. They also chase hawks and eagles, so they have no fear.

The trees told me which way the wind had blown during the storm.

The trail around the pond was very snowy but it wasn’t too deep to manage. When it is deep I let snowshoers and cross country skiers break the trail and then I follow. If I’m lucky a snowmobile will have gone through first, but they aren’t allowed on this trail.

Sometimes without warning you can be sent off into a dream by nature and that’s what happened on this day when I saw this stone surrounded by the pristine white snow. I’ve walked this trail hundreds of times and I’d be willing to bet that I’ve tripped over this stone and have probably even cursed it, but on this day it sang to me and I loved it enough to take over 30 photos of it from different angles. It was so dark and perfect surrounded by such whiteness, and I’ve purposely over exposed this photo so you can see what I saw. It looked as ancient as the earth itself, and was beautiful.

There was fun to be had and people of all ages were having it. There was a lot of sledding going on, some on snow shovels.

I walk by this exposed bit of bedrock quite often but only in winter do I notice all its folds and wrinkles. For the geology nerds among you, the bedrock in this area consists of medium-grained light to dark-gray granodiorite and quartz diorite. (Basically granite) This is composed of oligoclase-andesine, quartz, biotite, muscovite and potash feldspar. The bedrock is fractured and has areas that have been split by the shearing motion of moving rock. This information comes from a natural resources inventory completed in 2009 by our local university.

A couple of our evergreen wood ferns grow out of cracks in the bedrock but they must be starved for nutrients because I’ve known them for years and they never get any bigger. But they are always green and any green thing is welcome in winter.

Icicles hanging from the stone outcrop told the story of the cold the evergreen ferns were experiencing.

Brooding. That’s what this scene says to me. A brooding landscape means that it’s “darkly somber,” and that’s how it looked to me when the clouds began to fill in. Winter it seems, might be here to stay.

Snow or not this is where I’ll be, every chance I have. I hope you have something every bit as wonderful in your life.

The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found? ~ J. B. Priestley

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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