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Posts Tagged ‘Winter Hiking’

I had seen ice here and there that seemed to be growing rather than melting, so that was my cue to go into the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland; a place ice climbers call the ice box. It’s actually a man-made canyon, hacked out of the bedrock some 150 years ago by the railroad. It’s a special place and I’ve never found another like it. There is always ground water seeping and dripping from the stone ledges and in the winter when it freezes the ice columns can grow huge like tree trunks. What you’ll see here is just the beginning.

In the warmer months you can hear water dripping here but you don’t realize how much there actually is until you see it as ice. There is an incredible amount of water here and it runs winter and summer.  

The giant ice columns are like a magnet for ice climbers and members of the New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club come here to train beginning climbers. I was surprised to see some of them here on this day since it is so early in the season. I told them so, and said I didn’t think the ice would be big enough to climb so early. They said it really wasn’t but they couldn’t wait. They also said they were having to use more “screws” than they had hoped, and this meant they were doing as much rock climbing as they were ice climbing.

Here is one of the “screws” they spoke of. These are studded here and there all over the 50 foot high walls of the canyon.

Much of the ice is colored here and I’ve always suspected that it was minerals in the water coloring it, but I can’t prove that.

There are many areas where the stone of the ledges is stained by minerals.

The railroad engineers used the stone from blasting to build massive retaining walls along parts of the rail bed. Drainage ditches run all along the base of the walls on both sides and still keep the rail bed dry after a century and a half. This view is south out of the larger canyon where the ice climbers climb.

The drainage ditches along the bases of the canyon walls were freezing here and there but for the most part they were open and impassible unless you wore knee high rubber boots.

As you move south you come to another canyon, where the walls aren’t quite as high but are still covered with ice. This section is where the ice is usually more colored, in blues, greens, tan, orange and even red.

The trail south was iced up from side to side and over quite a length. I didn’t think I’d need micro spikes so I didn’t bring them. And I slid but I didn’t fall.

Each year an evergreen fern is imprisoned by bars of ice in this spot, but it doesn’t seem to mind. In June it will be happy again.

There is a timelessness about this place, as if the mosses had been waiting patiently encased in ice, for millions of winters. And of course they have been, just not here. You sense that time means nothing here and you have to be aware of that because it can get very cold. If you’re anything like me you can become so absorbed by what you’re seeing you don’t feel the cold anymore, and that’s what happened on this day. By the time I left the place my coat was opened and my gloves were in my pockets. I didn’t know how cold I had been until I was warm again.

In a place or two the stone is orange and though you might think it’s more mineral staining it’s actually algae growth. The green alga (Trentepohlia aurea) that grows here and there on the walls seems to reach its peak orange color in winter, but I don’t know if that coincides with spore production or not. In fact I’m not sure if I’d know when it was producing spores because it always looks the same to me.  But it does produce spores; a blood red rain fell in parts of Spain in 2014 and it was caused by similar algae named Haematococcus pluvialis. The same thing happened in Texas in 2013, in Sri Lanka in 2012, and in India in 2001, each event seemingly caused by different algae. Yellow, green, and black rain has also been reported.

Great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) grow here by the hundreds of thousands and for part of the year they’re completely encased in ice. They shrug it off as if it never happened.

It’s hard to imagine these icicles as big as tree trunks but if the cold weather continues they’ll slowly grow together and become huge; the biggest ice columns I’ve ever seen.

Here was some orange ice. Most likely stained by iron oxide in the stone.

If it’s strange ice formations you’re looking for this is the place to find them. These examples grew on leaves in one of the drainage channels. Wherever water drips or splashes in cold air ice grows into sometimes fantastic shapes.

And sometimes it’s just plain icicles.

I finally made it to the old lineman’s shack, which is my turn around point. I had to wonder if this old building would make it through another winter. I’ve watched it slowly disintegrate over the years and now its ridgepole has snapped. Since the roof rafters are fastened to the ridgepole, when it breaks the roof comes down and then the walls follow. I hope it’s here in the spring but it’s a dicey looking business.

The graffiti inside the old shack always reminds me of my father. He would have been 18 in 1925 and he lived near here then, and I always wonder if he came to see the ice like I do. None of the initials match his but he could have easily walked these tracks through here. Trains would have been running then. That it has stood so long says a lot for the railroad workers who built it.

If you know where and more importantly when to look, you can find an old trestle in the woods near the lineman’s shack after the leaves have fallen. It isn’t anywhere near big enough for a train to have rolled on so I’m guessing it was for ore carts used to dispose of any excess stone. Quite often you can find piles of broken up granite in the woods by railroad tracks. They used most of it to fill in hollows and valleys to make a level railbed but in some instances it looks like they couldn’t use it all. Farmers often took stones from these stray piles and built walls out of them. They have the hand of man all over them and can be easily spotted as very different from walls built with native, undamaged stones.

I usually learn something when I come here and this time I learned that the old lineman’s shack was built on railroad ties, which is probably one reason it has lasted so long. But even railroad ties rot away eventually and the earth’s warm breath wafted through a knothole in one of them. Where the warm met the cold hoar frost grew.

In the winter, the world gets sharp. Beautiful things happen. ~Peter Fiore

Thanks for coming by.

 

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I thought I’d go and see Brickyard Brook over in Richmond, New Hampshire last week because I hadn’t been there in a while. When I was here last I saw a very curious thing; the brook had plugged itself up and had changed course. More accurately it had always been split in two with a weak half and a strong half, and the strong half got plugged up so the weak half then became the strong half, and the original strong half is now all but dried up. I hope you can follow that. I saw it for myself and even I can barely follow it. But it was all very strange.

There is a trail of sorts that is blazed but you don’t need it. All you need to do is follow the brook.

I’m seeing lots of blowdowns this year and here was another. We’ve had some ferocious windstorms.

Here is the brook further up, still running strong.

And then all of the sudden, no more brook. It’s running a few yards off to the left now but you can’t see it in this photo. Just upstream from here there is a quite large pile of fallen trees and stones all in a tangled heap, and that’s what plugged up the original water course. The brook used to roar right through here when I first started coming here and there was a big stone you could lie on to take photos of the brook. The stone is still there but the brook isn’t.

If you moved a few small fallen saplings you could set a tent up over there and wake each morning to the happy sounds of the giggling, chuckling brook. To me that would be paradise right here on earth. I must have been a hermit in a previous life because for me a hermit’s life yearns inside of me, and when I see a place like this I dream of how wonderful it could be.  

I’ve seen purple cones on many species of conifer but this was the first one I had ever seen on an eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis.) The scales on the cones were still closed tightly but soon they will open and the seeds will become winter food for black capped chickadees and other small birds. The 1/2 inch long cones are among the smallest of all the trees in the pine family but the trees usually produce so many of them that the ground is completely covered in the spring. The needles and twigs of hemlocks are ground and distilled and the oil is used in ointments. Native Americans used the inner bark (cambium) as a base for breads and soups or mixed it with dried fruit and animal fat to use in pemmican. They also made tea from hemlock needles, which have a high vitamin C content, and this saved many a white settler from scurvy.

Tinder fungi (Fomes fomentarius) were also wearing purple, and this was the first time I had ever seen that as well. They were growing on a dead beech tree. The spores from this fungus enter the tree through damaged bark and cause rot inside. It usually grows on hardwoods but can occasionally grow on conifers as well. This bracket fungus produces spores at all times of year but through spring and summer studies have shown that as many as 800 million can be produced in a single hour. Its common name comes from its usefulness as tinder for starting fires. The 5000 year old “iceman” found preserved in ice and snow in the Italian Alps carried pieces of this fungus with him. It is also useful medicinally and is known to stop bleeding, so he might have used it both ways.

A young eastern hemlock had broken off about shin high at some point in the past. I knew it was an eastern hemlock because of its bark and because the way the stump was rotting away.

In the book Forest Forensics, Tom Wessels describes white pine (Pinus strobus) and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) stumps as “decaying from the outside in toward the center.” He also says that it takes 50 years for the wood to completely decay.  Hemlock has a very rot resistant bark that is usually still in place even when the wood has completely decayed, so the stump looks like a tube.

I could tell by the way the moss was worn off this log that I wasn’t the only one who had walked here. I usually step over logs rather than up on them because it’s easier on the knees. If you’re walking miles through the woods and step up on every log you see you’ll know why you shouldn’t have the next day.

Here was another tree down across the trail but it was easy to step over.

Your reward for this hike is a small waterfall that empties into a good size pool. The pool looked to be about 4-5 feet deep and on a hot August day would be very inviting. My father would have loved this place because he loved fishing for brook trout. He took me with him a few times when I was a young boy but I was more interested in exploring the forest than fishing so that didn’t last long. It’s hard to catch fish while you’re trying to catch your wayward son, I would imagine. 

I read once that you should always slow down your camera when photographing water to “show its movement.” Now, I’m betting that everyone reading this blog knows that the water in a brook is moving but just in case, I slowed down the camera so we could be sure that the water was indeed moving.

I saw an oak apple gall on the underside of an oak leaf and it looked like a bird had gotten the wasp larva within. These galls form out of leaf tissue when a gall wasp injects chemicals into it. It grows into a spherical shape like that seen in this photo, and a wasp larva grows at its center. 

The fronds of the evergreen wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia) stay green throughout winter, but their weak stems usually see them lying flat like these were so they’re often covered by snow. This example grew on top of a boulder, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen.

Looking for two rows of spore cases (sori) growing on the underside of the sub-leaflets and the large brown scales on the bases of its stalks are good ways to identify the evergreen wood fern. This fern contains toxic substances that can paralyze some reptiles and mammals, so it isn’t often eaten. 

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) plants are loaded with berries this year, so our wild turkeys will eat well.

Heart leaf foam flowers (Tiarella cordifolia) grow here by the hundreds. They’re one of our prettiest late spring flowers and I always find them near water or growing in wet ground along rail trails. They’re easy to spot because of their hairy, maple-like leaves and foot high flower stalks, and a colony as big as the ones found here are a beautiful sight. Native plants have leaves that are bright green at first and then turn a darker green, sometimes mottled with maroon or brown. Many hybrids have been created and foam flowers are now popular in garden centers and are grown in gardens as much for their striking foliage as the flowers. They are an excellent, maintenance free choice for shady gardens that get only morning sun.

A hairy, maple like leaf that grows close to the ground, usually in large colonies, is a sure sign that you’ve found foamflowers. The hard part is remembering where you saw them when spring comes around.

Believe it or not there is a house at the top of that hill to the right, so this gorge is as far as I’ve ever followed the brook. The walls of the gorge are steep so I’d have to go to the top of the hill and follow the brook through that family’s yard. What a lucky family; imagine having all of this in your back yard.

The woods were made for the hunters of dreams,
The brooks for the fishers of song;
To the hunters who hunt for the gunless game
The streams and the woods belong.
~ Sam Walter Foss

Thanks for stopping in.

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Last Sunday was a beautiful but chilly day at about 30 degrees F. After almost two weeks of cold weather I thought I’d visit a local beaver swamp to see how they were doing. If beavers haven’t stored enough food underwater before their ponds freeze they can be in serious trouble, and this year the ponds have frozen earlier than average.

What might look like water is actually ice; very smooth ice, but also thin. I walked out on it and didn’t get too  far before it started creaking and cracking, so I quickly returned to shore.

There is a trail of sorts that leads a little way around the swamp. There were lots of fallen trees out here but they were caused by wind and old age, not beavers.

This one broke off about 10 feet up, making it a challenge for a chainsaw. Widow makers they call these, and for good reason.

Stone walls tell me someone used to live out here and farm this land before the beavers took it over. Nobody did the back breaking labor of clearing stones from the land unless it was absolutely necessary, so this wall wasn’t built here for the fun of it. I’m guessing it probably dates from the late 1700s to early 1800s. Many farmers went off to work in factories in the mid-1800s after the industrial revolution and gave up farming, and their pastures slowly returned to forest.

Vinca (Vinca minor) is one of the plants you often find near old stone walls and cellar holes. Others are wild roses, lilacs and peonies. All were passed from one neighbor to another. This colony is one of the largest stands of vinca I’ve seen and it still grows and blooms beautifully after hundreds of years. The word vinca means “to bind” in Latin, and that’s what the plant’s wiry stems do.

I was going to say that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky but there was one shy one hiding behind some trees.

Not all the water here was frozen. This is a seep, which happens when ground water reaches the surface. They are like puddles that never dry up and they don’t flow like a stream or brook. In my experience they don’t freeze either, even in the coldest weather. They are always good to look at closely, because many unusual aquatic fungi like eyelash fungi and swamp candles call them home. They’re also an important water source for many small animals and birds.

Stilted trees grow from seeds that fall on a rotted log or stump and grow their roots around the stump or log. Once the stump or log rots away what is left is a tree that looks like it’s standing on stilts. The strange thing about this stilted tree though, is how it grew over a stone. I don’t see them do that very often. I’m guessing that, probably over centuries, enough leaves fell on that stone to eventually turn into humus. Enough at least for a tree seed to sprout.

This is more what I’d expect from a stilted tree. Whatever it grew on has rotted into the soil and now it looks like it’s running away.

This beaver pond has two beaver lodges in it and this is one of them. I don’t know if that means there are two families of beavers or if one family uses both lodges. Beavers will move into a place, dam a stream to make a pond, and cut all the nearby trees and then move on. Their pond will eventually drain and new trees will start to grow, and then they will move back again to repeat the cycle. I’ve read that it takes about thirty years to go once around the cycle. I’m not sure what stage of the cycle this pond is in but I’ve never seen freshly cut trees here.

There are lots of standing deadwood here and that usually means it’s a good place for great blue herons to nest. I’ve seen the big birds fishing here but I’ve never seen one of their huge nests in any of the trees. What struck me most about this place was the quiet. I heard a bird or two but for the most part it was absolutely still, and that’s a rare and wonderful thing.

Here was a sign of beavers. I think that dark line of ice was made by beavers trying to keep their channel from freezing. But freeze it did, later than the rest of the pond, and that means thinner, darker ice.

Much of the ice was made up of large crystals.

Leaves were frozen into the ice in places and they were white with rime.

Scratches on a tree were too small for a bear. I’d guess it was a bobcat because I found wild turkey wings very close to this spot one day. Bobcats are one of the most common predators of wild turkeys. According to the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game “Based on observation reports occurring over the previous 20 years, bobcat numbers appear to have increased in New Hampshire. They  take advantage of environmental conditions, such as winter snow depth, to kill large prey, such as deer and turkey.”

Seeing green goldthread leaves was enough to have me longing for spring, even though winter hasn’t yet arrived. Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) gets its common name from its bright yellow, thread like roots. Native Americans showed early colonists how to chew the roots to relieve the pain of canker sores and that led to the plant being called canker root. It became such a popular medicine that the Shakers were paying 37 cents per pound for dried roots in 1785 and people dug up all they could find. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other plant, and of course that meant the plant came close to being lost. Two centuries of being left alone have brought healing to Goldthread though, and today I see the tiny but beautiful white flowers quite regularly in April.

Many mosses will grow on wood, stone or soil and delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum) is one of them. Delicate fern moss is a beautiful little thing that isn’t as delicate as its name implies, but it certainly is fern like. The leaves of this moss are often bright yellow green in fall and are dull rather than shiny. It is fairly common and easy to find because it often forms very large mats. It grew on many of the logs here.

American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens,) is also called teaberry or checkerberry and it is the first wild plant that I learned to identify, with the help of my grandmother. We used to love to eat the bright red minty tasting berries. It’s probably the easiest of all wintergreens to identify because of the strong, minty scent that comes from its crushed leaves. If you have ever tasted teaberry gum then you know exactly what it smells and tastes like. The plant contains compounds that are very similar to those found in aspirin and Native Americans used it much like we use aspirin. Its leaves often turn purple as the nights get colder, as these plants show. The name teaberry comes from a pleasing tea that can be made from the leaves. Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, grouse, partridges, bobwhites, turkeys, fox, deer and bears eat the berries.

There is a much studied phenomenon called the Red Bark Phenomenon, and scientists have devoted much time studying trees with colored bark all over New England. It isn’t always red; it can be orange as well. It affects all kinds of trees, both conifers and deciduous, and many different species. I’ve seen it here and there on tree bark and after a lot of research a few years ago I found that it was caused by the algae Trentepohlia, which is a genus of filamentous chlorophyte green algae in the family Trentepohliaceae It appears on tree trunks, stones and is even present in many lichens. So if you see a tree with red bark there isn’t anything wrong. It’s just algae looking for a place to perch.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. ~Henry David Thoreau

Thanks for stopping in.

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It has gotten cold enough now to start freezing up our ponds and rivers.  I’ve seen pancake ice on rivers many times and I’d expect to see it there; it’s the current that constantly moves circles of river foam or slush and makes them bump into each other and form rims, so that they start to look like pancakes. Most are about the size of a honeydew melon but they can be bigger or smaller. From what I’ve read pancake ice is rare outside of the arctic but I see it on the Ashuelot River almost every winter. What is strange about the ice pancakes in the above photo is that they were in a pond, not a river. Normally there is no current in a pond but we had very strong winds and I think they were what made the current that formed the ice pancakes.

In this photo you can see the ice ridge caused by the wind blowing across the pond. It blew all the slushy ice that had formed on part of the pond to this end and then spun some of it into pancakes.

On shore the ice kept piling up into higher ridges. In the arctic these frozen “pancakes” can pile on top of one another and in some areas 60 foot thick ridges of them have formed. In two days after it warmed up a little all of this ice had disappeared.

A milkweed seed was stuck on a very hairy branch of an American hazelnut (Corylus americana.) A good way to tell that you have an American hazelnut and not its cousin the beaked hazelnut is by the very hairy stem seen here. Only American hazelnut has hairy stems.

The male catkins of an American hazelnut are bigger in diameter and longer than those of the beaked hazelnut, from what I’ve seen. In spring they’ll slowly grow even bigger until finally turning golden yellow and bursting with pollen. I wait impatiently for it to happen.

If the male hazelnut pollen reaches a female ovary then there’s a good chance that hazelnuts like those seen here will be the result. In 1995 a large shallow pit in Scotland was found to be full of the remains of thousands of burned hazelnut shells and was estimated to be 9,000 years old, so man has been eating this nut for a very long time. In this country Native Americans used them to flavor soups, and also ground them into flour, most likely for thousands of years as well.

Here is a common sight in winter: milk white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus) is a resupinate fungus, which means it looks like it grows upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi appear to do. This is a very common winter fungus that grows on the undersides of limbs. The “teeth” are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and then break apart and turn brown as they age.

If you pick up a fallen limb and touch something that feels cold and rubbery, it might be milk white, toothed polypore. They are very tough and can stand all the snow and cold that winter can throw at them. I’ve never seen the interesting patterns that this one displayed.

If two trees or parts of trees like limbs of the same species grow close enough together the wind can make them rub against each other, wearing the outer bark away. Once the outer bark wears away and the cambium or inner bark touches, the trees can become naturally grafted together. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. I see at least a couple of self or naturally grafted trees each year.

If you thought you saw scratches on the bark of the maples in the previous photo you weren’t imagining it. Squirrels leave claw marks all over smooth barked trees and sometimes if you look closely you can see trails up the tree that they use over and over again. On those kinds of trails the scratches will appear thickly like those in the photo. I’ve known for a longtime that squirrels will nip off buds to make tree branches easier to travel on, but this is another of those bits of nature that I have never understood until just recently.

The beautiful color of a maple branch healing itself held me rapt for a time, and I remembered all of the times I’ve felt down when I walked into a forest, only to return having forgotten what it was that bothered me. The forest is such a loving place; a place full of miracles and one that reveals the secrets of creation, and it pains me to know that some people think it is a dark, forbidding place to be feared. Given a chance it will change you, and even heal you. If you spend enough time there first will come joy, and then a deep sense of gratitude and finally, after a time that might be weeks, months, or even years, a great love will well up inside of you. It is the love of all things; of creation, and at times it is so powerful it can bring tears to your eyes and make you want to kneel; not because someone tells you should but because of the love, gratitude and joy that you feel inside. You’ll begin to understand that you aren’t separate from all of this and you never have been. You are as much a part of nature as the birds that sing overhead and the leaf mold you might one day find yourself kneeling on.

Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata,) seed pods dry as thin and weightless as a sheet of paper, so though their spines are sharp at this point you can’t throw them at your friends. In the lower right quadrant of this example you can see a bit of the netting that is inside these seed pods. A man wrote to me once and told me that he decorated pens that he makes with that same netting. For me these plants are like a time machine that always takes me back to my boyhood, when we used to throw the soft spined fruits at each other before they dried out.

Wild cucumbers have two large seeds that look like cucumber seeds but they’re at least 10 times bigger. The cavities seen here are where they grew. I’m seeing fewer and fewer of these vines each year and I can’t understand why. When I was a boy they were everywhere but now I have to search, often for days or even weeks, to find them.

Last year I saw a very strange pouch like cocoon on a tree. It wasn’t very big; about the diameter of a pencil or maybe a little bigger. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it and couldn’t find anything that looked like it online so I wrote to a local insect expert who explained that it was a tussock moth cocoon, probably made by the white marked tussock moth. The caterpillar constructed it incorporating its own hairs into the design. Now here was another one, almost exactly a year later.

All of the gypsy moth egg cases I’ve seen have been smooth and hard, like this one. European gypsy moths were first brought to the U.S. in 1869 from Europe to start a silkworm business but they escaped and have been in the wild ever since. In the 1970s and 80s gypsy moth outbreaks caused many millions of dollars of damage across the northeast by defoliating and killing huge swaths of forest. I remember seeing, in just about every yard, black stripes of tar painted around tree trunks or silvery strips of aluminum foil wrapped around trunks. The theory was that when the caterpillars crawled up the trunk of a tree to feed they would either get stuck in the tar or slip on the aluminum foil and fall back to the ground. Today, decades later, you can still see the black stripes of tar around some trees. Another gypsy moth population explosion happened in Massachusetts recently and that’s why foresters say that gypsy moth egg cases should be destroyed whenever they’re found.

This little moth was on the door of the maintenance shop where I work one morning and it stayed there all day. Since it was about 30 degrees that day I thought it was odd behavior, but then I looked it up and found its name is the Winter Moth. It is a European species that was first noticed in Nova Scotia in the 1930s and now is found coast to coast in the U.S. It’s a very destructive insect, especially to apple and blueberry crops because its caterpillars eat the emerging buds in spring just as the bud scales open. They also feed on maple, oak, ash, crabapple, cherry, and many deciduous shrubs. According to the University of Massachusetts “The eggs are green at first, but turn red-orange soon thereafter. In March, prior to hatching, the eggs turn a bright blue and then a very dark blue-black just before hatching.” They sound very pretty but I think I’d rather not find any.  

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) berries are ripe and red. These berries don’t get anywhere near as hairy as staghorn sumac berries do but the plants still look alike and are easy to confuse if you don’t look closely for the hairy stems of staghorn sumac. Smooth sumac leaves turn bright red in the fall and produce a rich brown dye. Birds supposedly love them but the berries are usually still there in spring until the migratory birds come through.

Staghorn sumac berries, like the rest of the plant, are very hairy. They are said to be an important winter emergency food for many types of birds including Robins, Evening Grosbeaks, Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Scarlet Tanagers in other parts of the country but like the smooth sumac berries seen in the previous photos, staghorn sumac berries aren’t usually eaten until spring here. That could be because we have so many other native fruits and berries for them to eat. After a thorough soaking and washing, the berries were made into a drink resembling pink lemonade by Native Americans. In the Middle East they are dried and ground into a lemon flavored spice.

Even on a cloudy day the stems of staghorn sumac glow, and they really do resemble deer antlers. (Antlers are not horns, by the way, and a stag has antlers.) If this were a smooth sumac this branch would be as smooth as a maple branch.

Many things in nature will turn blue when it gets cold enough. Ice can be blue and so can the sap of the white pine tree. I’ve also seen the white striations that give striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) its name turn blue. This is the only maple tree in New England that has bark that is striped like this. Other names for the tree are snake bark maple, moosewood maple, goosefoot maple, Pennsylvania maple, and whistle wood, because the soft pith makes the wood easy to hollow out and make whistles from. Native Americans used the bark of the tree to treat many ailments including coughs and colds.

I like the flowers of thimbleweed but I never see many of them. Until recently, anyway; I stumbled into a forest of them and for the first time, saw them going to seed. The plant gets its name from the seed head that grows to look like a thimble and I’ve seen those, but until now I’ve never seen one actually producing seed. The seeds are on the sticky side and before I was through trying to get a photo I was covered with them, so I might find them growing in my own yard one day.  

Here is a beautiful turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) for your Thanksgiving. If you walk off that big meal on a wooded trail you might see some in person. They’ll be far more beautiful there than they are here.

I thought I’d end this post with one of the things I’m thankful for; this view of Mount Monadnock I see every morning on my way to work. If you click on it you’ll see a larger version and then you might be able to see the snow on the summit.

If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. ~Tecumseh, Shawnee

I hope all of you have a safe and happy Thanksgiving day. Thanks for coming by.

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I couldn’t remember the last time I was at Beaver Brook Natural Area in Keene so last weekend I thought I’d take a walk up the old abandoned road to the falls that are at the end of it. As far as I can tell the old road was laid out in the 1700s and was abandoned in the early 1970s when a new highway was built-literally right across the existing road. Nature has been taking back what is hers ever since and the old road slowly gets narrower as the plants and trees grow in toward its middle where the sunlight is. It is kept open to the public as a nature trail and follows Beaver Brook, so named because of the beavers that once thrived here.

It was cold the night before and was still cold when I started out. Below freezing weather had created ice here and there on the brook, mostly in areas that don’t get much sun.

I like to come here because I can find things here that I don’t see anywhere else, like this smoky eye boulder lichen (Porpidia albocaerulescens.) Actually I see this lichen just about everywhere I go but nowhere else are its fruiting bodies (apothecia) so blue. The blue color comes from the way the light falls on the waxy coating that covers the black outlined apothecia and often when the light is just right the stone they grow on appears golden, which makes for a very beautiful scene.  

Plantain leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea.) Is another reason I come here. This is the only place I’ve ever seen it so when I want to see how it changes as it grows I have to come here. Today I discovered that it must be evergreen because we’ve had over a week of real cold weather, with nighttime temperatures sometimes in the single digits, and it was still as green as it is in May.

I like the crepe paper like leaves of this sedge. The prominent midrib, two lateral veins, maroon bases, and puckered look of the leaves are all used as identifying features for plantain leaved sedge. The leaves can be up to a foot long and an inch wide and I can’t think of another sedge that has leaves that look quite like these. I’ve read that it likes cool shady places where the humidity is relatively high. There is a stream just a few feet from where this one grows.

There are calm pools along Beaver Brook and this is one of them. It had a thin skim of ice along the stream banks but it still caught the forest in reflection.

Where the water splashed and dripped, icicles grew in long fingers.

In places the old guard posts and cables survive. These posts used to have to be hand painted black and white, one by one, all the way along this and every other road in the county. Of course it was a lot more open here then, when the forest wasn’t allowed to grow so close to the road.

The guard rails were a necessity on a narrow, two lane road. You didn’t want to drive into the brook because in places the embankment is quite steep. This is a view across the brook to the hillside beyond. There is a boulder fall there and when we get enough rain a stream runs down through and over it. On this day there was only ice.

The utility pole in the distance is broken off at the base and it leans precariously toward the brook. I think it will eventually fall into the brook if something isn’t done. It looks like it might be taking these two poles with it.

I’m not sure what these electric lines power but whoever receives their power from them must be frequently in the dark because every time I come here there are trees on the wires. In fact there are fallen trees all through here.

Here was a huge pine tree in the brook. It had fallen with its top pointing perfectly downstream. Whether or not it will dam up the brook is anyone’s guess but it looked to be about 100 years old and was big enough so I doubt the brook will be able to move it, even in flood.

Beech nuts and their husks littered the old road. There are lots of beech trees here and this seems to be a mast year, so the forest animals will eat well. Native Americans ate beech nuts raw but they contain toxins that can be removed by cooking, and they are said to taste better when roasted.  Early settlers pressed the nuts and used the oil for lamp oil and as a substitute for olive oil.

In this light it was easy to see how the golden birch (Betula alleghaniensis) came by its common name. There are many of them here right alongside the road and they make a beautiful contrast on winter afternoons when the snow is deep blue in the shadows. These trees like it cool and moist and are often found near streams and ponds. They can also stand a lot of shade so a cool, shaded forest is perfect for them. Golden birch is also called yellow birch, and Native Americans tapped this and other birch trees for their sap, which they boiled down into syrup. They also made a medicinal tea from the bark.

We have several vase shaped evergreen ferns and a few species grow here. This one was a little flat but it was still green.

The two rows of spore cases (sori) growing on the underside of the sub-leaflets and the large brown scales on the bases of its stalks told me this was the evergreen wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia.)

Black raspberry leaves (Rubus occidentalis) provided some late fall color.

There was ice on the ledges and it wasn’t a surprise.

The groundwater that created the ice in the previous photo is slowly bringing down the ledges, which are weakened and shattered after close to 300 years of freeze / thaw cycles. This big rockfall could have killed anyone standing under it so I don’t get too close to these ledges anymore. Most of the stone here is feldspar, which is why it appears white in the photo. Feldspar is a soft rock when compared to quartz or granite and it can be split with a sledge hammer. When you strike it with a hammer it has a very unusual smell.

Beaver Brook cascades over ledges into a small, shaded pool that was once a popular swimming hole. There seems to be a lot of conflicting information about how high the falls are; I’ve heard everything from 10 feet to 100 feet, but I’d guess that they are closer to 30 to 40 feet and maybe 50 if you include the part that isn’t visible in this photo. They’re big enough to make a roar that can be heard from a distance.

Up above the falls there is a small turn off; I guess you’d call it a rest area, where cars could have pulled off the main road. The guard posts seen in this photo would have stopped a car from tumbling into the falls, but just beyond the last one you could walk right off the edge and fall into them if you weren’t paying attention. That’s probably why I can’t remember my father ever stopping when he drove through here on our way to see relatives. I was what you might call a “handful” when I was a boy and he probably thought he’d have to fish me out of the brook if he let me out of the car. A few years back a teenage boy was fishing up here and fell in and was swept over the falls. He was lucky to come away with only some bruised ribs and a broken arm.

Right before the turnoff is a fairly good side view of the falls when the leaves have fallen. In fact I think just after the leaves fall is the best time to come here because you can see the falls from the old road, and that’s important if you happen to be a little too creaky to slide down the steep embankment to the brook. Soon it will be winter and the roar of Beaver Brook will most likely become a whisper under the ice for a while; some winters even the falls are muffled by the ice.

But for now you can still see the old no-passing lines in the road. I could do 5 posts on this place and still not show you all of the beauty found here, so if you live nearby I do hope you’ll pay it a visit. It isn’t far from the center of town, which makes it a perfect nature spot for anyone living in Keene.

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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Spring is happening, but ever so slowly this year. April showers have come along right on schedule and though they’ll take care of the remaining snow they’ll also enhance mud season, which has already been a bear. The ground froze deeply this year and the deeper the freeze the worse the mud. None of this has anything to do with the above photo of juniper berries but I love their color and I was surprised that the birds hadn’t eaten them yet.

From a distance I saw what looked like a patch of small yellow flowers. I couldn’t even guess what yellow flowers besides maybe coltsfoot or dandelions, would be blooming in March.

But they weren’t flowers at all. They were the fruit of horse nettle plants, hundreds of them. Carolina horse nettle (Solanum carolinense) isn’t a true nettle but instead is in the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and potatoes and many toxic plants. This plant is also toxic, enough so to be named devil’s tomato. It contains alkaloids that can make you very sick and which have caused death. There are also spines on the leaves which can break off and embed themselves in the skin. Skunks, pheasant, and turkeys are said to eat the fruit but it didn’t look to me like a single one had been touched. Nothing seems to eat the stems or foliage.

I saw these pretty buds on a small ornamental tree in a local park. It had a weeping habit and couldn’t have been more than six feet tall with many weeping branches. I thought it might be some type of elm but elm buds are flattened, not round, so in the end I’m not sure what they were.

This shows what happens when a sap spigot, actually called a spile, isn’t removed from the tree after sap season. The tree has almost grown completely over this one and has squeezed what should be round into a teardrop shape. The crushing power of the wood must be incredible.

This photo that appeared in a previous blog post shows what a spile looks like when the tree hasn’t grown over it. Things like this inside trees are a woodcutter’s nightmare. Spiles started out as simple wooden pegs which were hammered into a hole in the tree to direct the sap into the buckets which were hung from them but these days they are made from galvanized steel.

I found this mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus) growing up through the pavement in an old abandoned parking area. It’s in the process of shedding its large old, outer leaves from last year to make room for the its new leaves. This plant stays green all winter long under the snow and starts growing quickly in spring as soon as it melts. Another name for this plant is flannel leaf because of its large soft, fuzzy leaves. Pliny the elder of ancient Rome used the warmed leaves as poultices for arthritis and Roman legionnaires dipped the long stalks in tallow and used them as torches. The plant is originally from Europe and is considered invasive.

I see this plant in a flower bed every time I go looking for spring bulbs blooming at the local college, but I’ve never seen it bloom. I think it’s a hollyhock but I’m not sure, whatever it is it’s very tough and stays green all winter long. I like the pebbly texture of its leaves.

I’ve written about Edgewood Forest in past posts. It lies near the Keene airport and there always seems to be a controversy boiling over the trees there. The Federal Aviation Administration says the trees are tall enough to pose a hazard to planes, but the original documents that deeded the land to the city says that the land should be left as is, with no cutting of trees. What this has amounted to is trees being cut all around the deeded parcel called Edgewood Forest, leaving it a kind of forested island. The place shown in the above photo was forested until not too long ago but then all the trees were cut, all the stumps pulled and this-whatever it is- was built. Picnic tables were placed here and there. Apparently the higher powers thought that people would flock there and love it enough to even want to picnic there, but I’ve been by it hundreds of times and have never seen a soul there, picnicking or otherwise. Since there are hundreds of trees that are taller very nearby this seems like a total waste of effort and money to me.

This kind of thing is happening all over and town governments can’t seem to get the fact that people go to these places to enjoy nature. They stand and scratch their heads, wondering why the people don’t still flock to the same places after they’ve been “improved” like this one. Instead of attracting people they are driving them away, and I’m sure the income from tourist dollars is going to start reflecting that, if it hasn’t already. Meanwhile we’ll have monuments like this one to shake our heads at as we pass by in search of places that are more open and welcoming to nature lovers.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) is one of the plants that grew in that forest before it was turned into a lawn. Luckily I know where there are more of them. Native Americans showed the early settlers how to use goldthread to relieve the pain of canker sores and it became an extremely popular medicine. At one point in the 1800s more of it was sold on the docks of Boston than any other plant and that meant that it was severely over collected. Now, 200 years or so later It has made a good comeback and it will always be with us if we stop turning forests into lawns. It gets its common name from its bright yellow, thread like roots. It will bloom in late April with a pretty little white flower. I love its leaves, which look like they were hammered out of sheet metal.

When a sunbeam picks out something specific in nature I usually pay close attention, thinking that maybe I’m supposed to see that thing for whatever reason. On this day a sunbeam picked out this beech leaf, which was perfect and unblemished. It was a beautiful thing, as the things picked out by sunbeams almost always are. A sunbeam showed me how incredibly beautiful a red clover blossom was once and completely changed my opinion of what I always considered an ugly, unwanted weed.

A sunbeam also fell on this single turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) and its dominant blue color just happened to be my favorite. Turkey tails can vary greatly in color and I think I’ve seen them wearing just about every shade this year.

I’m hoping this is the last of this winter’s ice I’ll have to show here. Both day and nighttime temperatures are rising and ever so slowly the white is disappearing.


If you’ve never looked through a knothole this photo is for you. Knotholes like these happen when branches die and their wood shrinks faster than the surrounding wood of the tree. Eventually they fall off the tree, leaving a hole behind. The part of the tree that protrudes and surrounds the branch is called the branch collar and it should always be left intact when pruning. As can be seen, the tree leaves it behind naturally.

Other “improvements” I’ve seen lately involved cutting all the alders and other native shrubs from the banks of a small local pond, but since this pond is used as a water source in case of fire I can understand the thinking behind wanting to keep the brush cut back. I thought this stump, cause by two young alders growing together, looked like the face of an owl.

I had the face of this barred owl to compare the stump to. A few years ago I met a barred owl sitting in the middle of a trail. It just sat there, staring directly into my eyes while I walked to within 5 feet of it. I stood for several minutes, feeling as if I was being drawn into those big brown eyes that were much like my own, until I finally turned and left. The last time I saw that owl it still sat on the ground, which is a very odd thing for an owl to be doing. It was a strange experience and seeing this owl reminded me of it. This owl was much bigger than that one but sat quietly in the same way, letting me take as many photos as I wanted. The photos would have been much better had it been a sunny day but you can’t have everything, and being able to look into the eyes of an owl should be enough.

If you’d like to see what it’s like to stare into the eyes of an owl, look at the beautiful photo of a saw-whet owl that Montucky recently posted on his blog. You can see it by clicking on the word HERE. Its eyes are yellow instead of brown like a barred owl, but the effect is the same.

Just a note: This post is the first I’ve done on my new computer and I’m having trouble getting photos to look right on the new monitor, so if things look a little stranger than usual that might be why. It’s a nice big monitor that’s easy to see but it’s also very bright so photos look like they were overexposed. I hope you’ll bear with me.

I am grateful for the magic, mystery and majesty of nature – my loyal friend and companion – always there, welcoming and waiting for me to come; to be healed. ~Tom North

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Last year I found a blue cohosh plant on the rail trail out in Westmoreland and I’ve gotten to see the flowers and fruit but I’ve never seen the spring shoots. From what I’ve seen in photos they’re very beautiful things, like little dark blue hands coming up out of the soil, so last Sunday off I went with a pocket full of hope.

There was a little ice on the start of the trail but after that it was ice free. It was a beautiful early spring day with the trees full of bird song and a temperature of almost 60 degrees F. It’s amazing how much snow one warm day can melt. If we had a week of days like this it would all be gone.

There are plenty of reminders of the history of this place, like this signal base. The Boston and Maine Railroad ran through here for many years.

There are some nice old stone box culverts out here, still working fine after 150 years. The stream that runs through this one must be off and on because there was no water here on this day.  Leave it to the railroad to build something “just in case.” That’s why these railbeds are still here 150 years later with virtually no maintenance.

Someone found a bent rail spike and put it on a boulder.

The stone walls out here are very unusual in that there isn’t hardly a round corner to be seen anywhere. That’s because these are stones left over from when the railroad blasted their way through the ledges. They’ve never gone through the grinding action of a glacier. Rather than the usual stone walls built by farmers clearing their land, these walls are simple property markers.

There must have been many thousands of tons of stone blasted out of the hillsides and that’s a good thing because this railbed had to be built high above the surrounding terrain and all of the blasted stone had to be used essentially to fill in a valley between hills. When you build a road bed through a hilly area you take everything you’ve cut from the hills and use it to fill in the valleys, and in that way you end up with a flat, level roadway, hopefully without having to bring in a lot of fill. This shot shows that I was almost in the tree tops where I was walking.

When you look down the side of the very high railbed you see large chunks of stone and realize that you’re walking on a huge, long pile of it.

But you’d never know it from this view of a flat, level trail. The railroad engineers were very good at what they did and the sheer amount of stone under this trail boggles the mind.

If you’re on a rail trail and see a stream going under it that almost always means a box culvert, and I always look for them if the hillside isn’t too steep.

This one was bigger than the first I showed and it had water running through it. It was under the snow though, so you can’t see it. There is mortar on this culvert and that tells me that it has probably been repaired because I’ve never see railroad masons use mortar on anything they’ve built.

Before I knew it I was at the ledges where I found the cohosh. The question was, where exactly did I find it and could I find that spot again? There were a lot of leaves to poke around in.

This is the spot where wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) also grow and this is the ledge most of them grow on. Both columbine and cohosh like limestone and that tells me that there must be a lot of lime in these ledges.

There was a columbine leaf from last year, still hanging on. I never knew they were so hairy.

The mosses were as beautifully green as I’ve ever seen them.

I’m not sure what this one is but it’s a very pretty moss. And it was covered by ice.

I tried to dig around in the leaves at the base of the ledges in several spots and found ice under them each time. The only plant I know of that can melt its way through ice is skunk cabbage, so I knew I wouldn’t see blue cohosh shoots on this day.  I’ll have to try again.

In this place it was still a little too cold for emerging plants.

And the snow on the ski slopes of Stratton Mountain over in Vermont proved it. I’m sorry I couldn’t show you those blue cohosh shoots. I’ll see what I can find this weekend; It will be worth the effort to see such a rare plant.  If you’re interested just Google “Blue cohosh shoots” and you’ll see why I want to see them.

That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself, then how to come pliantly back to life again. ~Ali Smith

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