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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.

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