Entrance to the Rock House

Entrance to the Rock House

It’s been a busy few weeks, and I’ve been able to get to some interesting places. I’ve been writing pretty regularly for Digital Journal and I haven’t gotten around to blogging. I’ll do my best to catch up.

Working backwards, I went for a hike at the Rock House Reservation in West Brookfield, Mass., the other day. It’s easy to get to, just off Route 20 and well worth a visit. It’s a Trustees of Reservations property, so you can be sure it’s a quality place.

At the information kiosk near the parking area, I picked up a map and chose a looping trail that would eventually take me to the Rock House. There are about 3 miles of trails, easy to moderate walking, that wind through a boulder-strewn forest of mixed pine and hardwood, typical of central New England.

When I got to the area where the Rock House was supposed to be, I was confused. There wasn’t anything that looked like a building, other than the Trailside Museum on the other side of a small pond.

As it turns out, Rock House is an enormous overhanging ledge surrounded by huge boulders that form a large, almost fully-enclose shelter that could easily accommodate a dozen or more people.

In fact, that’s just what it’s been used for. There’s evidence that it was used by Native Americans as a hunting camp as much as 8,000 years ago. There’s a lot more to see. I’m planning on going back.

It’s open year-round, sunrise to sunset, and it’s free.





If I had to pick one, I’d say the first day of fall is my favorite day of the year.

The sluggishness of summer is behind me. The air is brisk, energizing. I want to get out and do things.

The foliage change is just beginning, mostly among the swamp maples that turn a brilliant red and suddenly stand out against the other foliage that’s still green. Elsewhere you see a few dabs of color here and there. The peak is still a couple of weeks away.

New Year’s Day is a famous time for making resolutions – starting new projects, getting old ones done. Some people think of the first day of spring – a time of rebirth and new beginnings.

For me it’s this time of the autumnal equinox, to look back at what I’ve done then re-focus and look ahead. I’m excited by what I’m doing, and can’t wait to get to it.



A swamp maple begins to turn red

A swamp maple begins to turn red


A dwarf redwood

A dwarf redwood


Tucked away in a remote part of Athol, Mass., is the Skyfields Arboretum, a 10-acre parcel dedicated to native species, with a focus on edible fruits, nectar and nuts. Unlike many other carefully planned and landscaped arboretums, the policy here is strictly hands-off.

It gives the place a sense of wildness.                                                       

There are some 24 species of native trees and shrubs, many with explanatory plaques, as well as dozens of species of wildflowers. It’s a great place to study the different species in an easily accessible small space.

There is one tree there that caught my eye and had me puzzled. I had never seen one like it before. It stands by itself, out in a meadow. It has no identifying plaque. When I got back home I went through all my field guides and couldn’t find anything like it.

On a return trip, there was a staff person, and so I asked him what it was. He called it a dwarf redwood. I couldn’t find out much about it, other than it appears to be a cultivar, developed to accommodate property owners who didn’t have space enough to accommodate the larger species. An interesting tree, nevertheless.

The entire property consists of 40 mostly wooded acres with several trails winding through them. There is a farmhouse dating back to the 1800s. It had been the summer home of famed concert organist E. Power-Biggs and his wife Margaret. Peggy, as she was known, bequeathed the property to the Mount Grace Land Trust in 1999, and since 2001 the trust has used it as their headquarters.

Directions and more information can be found at their website:




On a recent gloriously beautiful morning, I decided it was a good day to make my more or less annual pilgrimage to Walden Pond.

I first visited there nearly 50 years ago, when I was still in high school and had just read Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience and Walden. I knew I had found a kindred spirit, and had to see the place he had made so famous.

That first visit was a bit of a disappointment.

Instead of an isolated spot deep in the woods, the pond was just off busy Route 2, and instead of gentle birdsong all I could hear was traffic. And because it was a summer weekend afternoon, cars were parked bumper-to-bumper on the side of the road for the better part of a hundred yards (there wasn’t much of a parking lot in those days) and the place was crawling with people, like so many ants.

My spirits lifted a bit when I realized most everyone was interested in the swimming area, so by the time I reached the site where Thoreau’s cabin had stood, about a half-mile away, I was pretty much alone.

I learned my lesson from that first visit. This time I went on a weekday, and I went early in the morning, while the schools were still in session.

After Thoreau left the cabin, it was sold to a farmer who carted it off into obscurity, and nature began to reclaim the spot where he had lived for two years.

During his lifetime, Thoreau was known only to a relatively small circle of intellectuals. His reputation grew only after his death, as did the popularity of Walden. People wanted to see the place.

One such person was Mary Newbury Adams who was visiting Concord in June of 1872. She asked her friend Bronson Alcott to show her the spot. It had been 25 years since Thoreau had lived there, and there were few who could remember exactly where it had stood.

Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May) had been a lifelong friend of Thoreau’s and was one of the few who remembered, and took her there. She regretted that there wasn’t some permanent marker to mark the spot. Then she got an idea.

The took a stone from pond to mark the spot, as did Alcott.

“Let everyone who loved Thoreau add a stone,” she said, and visitors have been adding their stones ever since. In the 142 years since, a sizeable cairn has grown.

As a footnote, the foundation of the cabin was rediscovered on November 11, 1945, just a few feet away from the stone cairn, and today is marked by a rectangle of granite posts.




Not too long ago I wrote about a walk through Purgatory Chasm in Sutton, Mass. At the time, I recall thinking that I had never spent much time in south-central Massachusetts. It was the kind of area I always drove through on my way to someplace else.

That’s why I decided to make another trip down there, this time to the 5,907-acre Douglas State Forest, in Douglas, Mass. The last few miles of the Midstate Trail run through it, before ending at the Connecticut border. Over the years, I’ve hiked the northern half of the trail – from the New Hampshire border to the Wachusett Meadows sanctuary in Princeton – but never farther south. This seemed as good a time as any to check it out.

As it turned out, I got so distracted by the other things to see, that I ran out of time and never got out to the Midstate Trail.

The entrance and parking areas are located in one corner of the forest, on the shores of Lake Wallum. There’s a picnic area, a bathhouse, boat ramp, a store, and a bird blind. It must be popular, because their literature warns that they often have to turn people away because it’s reached its capacity. On this particular day, I was there early and it was the off-season. I had the place to myself.

Not counting the Midstate trail, there are a number of shorter trails. The landscape is generally a bit gentler, more rolling, than farther north where the hills are higher and steeper.  But just like much of New England, he woods are full of rocks and boulders left behind by the melting glaciers 11,000 years ago. The most common rocks that seem to be native to the area are gneiss and schist.

I took a trail called the Coffeehouse Trail, most of which wound through an oak forest. The oaks seemed to be white, black, and maybe scarlet oak, with grey and white birch, and maybe some yellow birch mixed in, along with white pine and occasionally some eastern hemlock. Identification was a little tricky since the leaves hadn’t come out yet – not surprising given the late spring we’re experiencing.

This is a little different from the mix found farther north, where there’s a lot of maple and ash mixed in.

There’s also a 5-acre Atlantic White Cedar Swamp – quite rare. A boardwalk trail loops through it.

Note: I usually try to post a photo, but I seem to have lost the ones I took in Douglas. I was sure I downloaded them, but now I can’t locate the file. And of course, I erased them from my camera. It’s not easy getting old.

The Hikers Shelter at Muddy Pond

The Hikers Shelter at Muddy Pond



Spring finally seems to have arrived, though somewhat late and it’s got some catching up to do. It was on one of those warm, sunny afternoons we had last week that I decided to hike out to Muddy Pond in Westminster.

The Mid-State trail runs by it, and the Westminster Conservation Commission has built an Adirondack-style hiker’s shelter – made of logs, three walls with one side open looking out over the pond. I approached from the south, from where the trail turns back into the woods from Bragg Hill Road.

It’s about a mile or mile and a half, a nice walk in good conditions. The open sunnier areas were dry and easy going. Once into the deeper woods, however, conditions got considerably more difficult. The snowmelt had created large pools in some places and fast-moving streams in others. I had to do a lot of bushwhacking to find a suitable place to cross. The snow was still knee-deep and soft, and the ice was unreliable. These obstacles would have been impossible to negotiate without trekking poles and microspikes.

The snow and mud provided plenty of opportunities to study animal tracks. There were lots of deer tracks, and a bear had ambled along the trail for quite a distance not too long ago. The tracks were fairly fresh. Coyote tracks showed up occasionally, and possibly a bobcat, though I can’t be sure. It was old, and there had been some melting so it was distorted. And I saw signs of porcupines in the area – gnaw marks on hemlock branches, a favorite food source for them.

The pond itself was still completely frozen over. I had only been here once before, maybe 20 years ago. It was larger than I remembered it. Across the pond there was a dock reaching out into the water, but I didn’t see a house or camp. It could have been set farther back in the woods.

Two-thirds of the land around the 30-acre pond is protected from development – 500 acres of Westminster Conservation land, 32-acres of state forest land, a large parcel privately owned, but under a conservation restriction.

The Mount Grace Land Trust, based in Athol, has mounted a campaign to raise the funds necessary to place the remaining third under a conservation restriction, and to expand the trail system. The landowner is willing to sign over the conservation restriction for significantly less than the land is worth; the town has pledged some money; and the state has approved a grant.

According to a news report, $39,000 still needs to be raised.


On one of those unusually warm November mornings before winter set in for good, I decided it would be a good time to revisit Purgatory Chasm in Sutton, Mass. The only other time I had been there, I was still in high school. I had always meant to go back, and now, nearly 50 years later, it seemed as good a time as any.

Located in the Purgatory Chasm State Reservation (exit 6 off Rte. 146), the chasm itself is a gash in the earth about a quarter-mile long, 70 feet deep, and 50 feet wide, filled with a jumble of huge boulders that seem to have fallen into the chasm from the walls.

Certainly some upheaval of cataclysmic proportions must have taken place – but just what isn’t clear. The prevailing theory is that as the glaciers melted towards the end of the last ice age, about 14,000 years ago, the meltwater became dammed up and eventually broke through, cutting the channel.


The entrance to Purgatory Chasm

The entrance to Purgatory Chasm

Another theory is that the chasm formed much earlier, maybe 200 million years ago, when a fissure occurred, loosening the rock along the walls, eventually falling into the chasm over time. Whatever the origin, it presents a wild and forbidding landscape.

A single trail runs through the chasm itself. Actually, the term trail is a bit of a stretch. Mostly it’s just a smear of blue paint on a boulder leaving it up to you to figure out the best way forward.

It’s just a short distance, but the footing can be tricky in places, where it’s necessary to perch precariously on the tip of one rock while stepping over a deep gap to the next. In recent years, the chasm has claimed two lives, several injuries, and many calls for help from hikers who have ventured a climb off-trail only to find they couldn’t get themselves back down.

From the parking lot, I took the trail that entered directly down into the chasm. It descends in a series of terraces. Once coming out at the other end, the walk is much gentler looping back to the parking lot through a predominantly pine forest.

Thinking back, it might have been easier to enter the chasm from this direction. Perhaps climbing out of the chasm might be marginally easier that climbing down.

Being November, there wasn’t a lot of plant life or bird activity, but there were several interesting varieties of mosses and ferns not usually seen outside this unusual setting.


DSCN0777I like nothing better than to come across something unexpected.

That’s just what happened on one of those warm afternoons last week when I was taking a leisurely walk around Coggshall Park in Fitchburg, Mass. I had been taking one of the trails through the woods and came down to the pond at the heart of the park. Most of it was still frozen over. A few geese were standing on the ice near a strip of open water. A pair of mallards were napping on a rock in the sun.

I went closer to the mallards to get a photo when I spotted something moving under the water at the edge of the ice nearby – a fairly good-sized painted turtle. I wouldn’t have thought a turtle would be active yet, with the pond still covered with ice. But there he was.

Turtles are cold-blooded reptiles – ectotherms – meaning their body temperature varies according to the ambient temperature around them. The warmer the temperature the more active they become; the colder the temperature, the more sluggish.

Later, I looked it up in a few sources, and true enough, turtles go mostly dormant during the winter, but they have been known to move around occasionally. Apparently the sun had warmed the water up just enough to get this turtle going.

Late afternoon snowshoeing

Late afternoon snowshoeing


Today is officially the last day of a very long winter. It’s been several years since I can remember a continuous snow cover from November to now, and it won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Just yesterday I was snowshoeing at the High Ridge wildlife management area in Westminster. There’s still more than a foot of hard-packed snow on the ground. Nevertheless, there are still signs of spring.

The days are much longer, and generally milder. This allows for leisurely afternoons of snowshoeing and skiing. The robins that spend the winter in the swamp below my house have moved up to the open fields at the top of the hill. I heard my first red-winged blackbird call out with it’s distinctive trill.

Sugaring season has been delayed. It takes a combination of cold nights and warm days to get a good flow going. We’ve certainly had the cold nights, but not the warm days. Things do seem to be getting milder, and once it gets going the result may be a better than average season for both quantity and quality.

The continuous snow cover also bodes well for wild blueberries, and I’m looking forward to a bumper crop in a few months. For now, I’m going to take advantage of the longer daylight and milder temperatures to get out as much as I can.

The northern half of Green's Pond

The northern half of Green’s Pond




The Green’s Pond Conservation area in Fitchburg, Mass., is one of those small gems that are so often overlooked, even though thousands of people drive by it every day. Located between Ashby State Road and Rindge Road, it is small by any measure – just 28 acres, and half of that is taken up by the pond.

Originally, the pond was created as an ice pond. I can remember the old ice house still standing across the street back in the 1950s, when I lived not too far from there. A friend of mine and I would go fishing there, catching mostly perch and the occasional pickerel. My mother would make a fish chowder out of the day’s catch, something we all considered a treat.

Late one afternoon recently I decided to go back to the pond, hoping to catch sight of some migrating birds. A flock of mallards came onto the pond and started feeding and getting ready to settle in for the night. It was impossible to tell whether they were a migratory flock or not, since so many mallards now stay here throughout the winter.

A Great Blue Heron flew low over the pond. It had been feeding along the shore opposite to where I had been standing, and was no doubt heading for the perch where it would spend the night. Back when I was working for Massachusetts Audubon I was leading a family canoe trip on the SudburyRiver when a Great Blue Heron flew across the water in front of us. One of the kids pointed to the gangly bird and shouted “Look! A dinosaur!”

He wasn’t far from wrong. Great Blue Heron fossils dating back to the Pleistocene epoch, about 1.8 million years ago, have been found here in the western hemisphere. Elsewhere, some heron fossils date back 14 million years.



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