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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:

mountgrace.org           

Image

While it’s always fun to find a new trail, explore a place I haven’t been to, there’s a certain comfort in returning to a favorite walk every now and then. The Mass. Audubon sanctuary at Flat Rock in Fitchburg is one of those places. My family used to take walks and picnics there when I was young, long before it became a sanctuary.

A week or so ago I took the main trail that starts out behind the old Burbank Hospital. At some point in history this was meant to be a main road – there are culverts and ditches lined with stone. It’s on the east side of the hill and the woods are noticeably cooler there.

I was walking along thinking that not much has changed over the years. Then the clusters of red berries shown in the picture caught my eye. I’ve walked past that spot hundreds of times, and I’ve never seen them there before.

My first thought was it was a mountain ash. When we first moved this house in 1960, my father tried planting a mountain ash in the backyard. It didn’t make it. It’s too sunny and the soil is all wrong. When I looked at this sapling more closely, I realized it wasn’t a mountain ash, but a very similar tree, the red-berried elder.

Both trees are common farther north, but somewhat rare down here. There were two or three of these saplings fairly close to each other, but I didn’t see any others anywhere nearby. Which makes me wonder how they got there.

One of the few blossoms remaining

Mount Monadnock from Little Monadnock

  

 

 

I spent yesterday morning at the Rhododendron State Park in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.

The park gets its name from a 16-acre stand of rhododendrons which, when they are at their blossoming peak, can be spectacular. I had the good fortune some years ago to see them at their peak. The blossoms were so large and white it looked like there had been a mid-summer snowfall.

Not so this year. Usually the rhododendrons up there bloom mid- to late-July, but they were two weeks early this year. Except for a few late-bloomers, the others were done and gone.

The day was hardly a waste. The morning was sunny and bright, the humidity of the past several days was gone – a perfect day. From the parking area I took the Little Monadnock Trail which leads to the summit of Little Monadnock, where it connects to the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, and offers a fine view of Mount Monadnock.

There is an old cottage on the property, built by one of the region’s original settlers, dating back 200 years, which at one time had belonged to the Appalachian Mountain Club. It had served as a hostel for hikers of the M-M trail. In 1946 the AMC deeded the property to the state of New Hampshire. The park is now designated as that state’s only “botanical park.”

I also took the short, pleasant, half-mile Rhododendron Loop which quite literally tunnels through the large overhanging Rhododendrons.  The winding trail through the spindly twisting branches give the walk an other-worldly feel.

This time around there was another interesting feature along the Little Monadnock Trail. As part of a forest management program, there were several small areas where there had been logging carried out. It opens up parts of the forest to allow selected trees to grow and new growth to establish itself. It also provides new habitat for a wider variety of species. From what I could see, this kind of limited controlled clear-cutting did not impact at all on the visual pleasure of the hike.

Massachusetts has experimented with this on state-owned land. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been properly supervised and there have been several instances where loggers have “inadvertently” logged many more acres than they were permitted, or “accidentally” logged in areas where they weren’t supposed to be logging at all.

 

 

Forty years ago the black bear was nearly extinct and coyotes were unheard of in Massachusetts. Today the census for both species numbers in the thousands. Hardly a day goes by without some news report of one these critters wandering out of the wilderness and into a city or suburban neighborhood.

Coyotes have been a problem mostly with people’s pets, though there have been a few attacks on people in the region. Interactions with bears have been a little more benign. Take the Cape Cod bear for example.

A couple of weeks ago, a young male black bear was spotted on the Cape, where there had never been one before, at least not since colonial times. It was mostly marauding bird feeders and rubbish cans, and tracking it became a kind of game. As long as it wasn’t posing any serious threat, authorities decided to let it be.

And then they changed their minds. And herein lies the problem.

They decided that there were just too many people around, and if a situation came up where the bear felt cornered or threatened, it could hurt someone. So the decision was made to tranquilize it, and move it back to a more remote area in the western part of the state.

That’s been the standard practice for decades. Euthanizing an animal has always been a last resort, as it should be.

In today’s news, that same bear had made it back east to Chestnut Hill. And again, it was tranquilized and it will apparently be released once again.

At the same time that the populations of these animals has been increasing – in the case of bears, something like 8% per year – so has the human population, and so has the amount of land under development, cutting into their natural habitat – more bears, less space, more people.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that humans and large animals like moose, bear, and coyote, are on a collision course.

As yet, there’s no indication as to what measures the state Div. of Fisheries and Wildlife might be contemplating. Their website is silent on the matter. There is some information under “Living with Wildlife,” which is somewhat useful – don’t go near them, don’t leave food out, etc.

 These animals are here to stay, they’re part of our landscape, and that’s good.

But steps need to be taken now to control their numbers, for their sake and ours, before a minor problem becomes something more serious.

Connecticut, which has been experiencing the same trouble as Massachusetts, has instituted a bear-hunting season for the first time in a century. Massachusetts has a bear season, but there doesn’t seem to be any movement toward expanding it.

Willard Brook in Townsend

This afternoon I took a short walk along a nice local trail. It starts just below Damon Pond at the Willard Brook State Forest in Townsend, Mass., and follows the brook downstream for about a mile. Several short spur trails connect to other trails that run along the ridge above the brook, making for a nice loop back to the parking area.

At this time of year the brook has usually dried up to a trickle, but with all the rain we’ve had the brook is swollen and fast-moving. The woods are littered with fallen trees and branches from the storm two weeks ago, but nothing was blocking the trails I was on.

Looking around, there were the marks of many other similar events, including a big old, moss-covered hickory log that probably fell twenty or more years ago, and was still intact.

Down by the brook, the air is cool, and eastern hemlocks are the predominant tree. When I climbed up the ridge a short way, I noticed something curious. The air was noticeably warmer, and the predominant tree on one side of the trail was white pine, while on the other it was mostly black oak, with relatively few hemlocks.

It was a good example of how just a few degrees difference over a relatively short distance can change the whole mix of vegetation.

The white pine were all about the same age, and there were almost no other types of trees, which would indicate that area was a clearing 40-50 years ago, maybe the result of logging or a forest fire.

Nice view of Wachusett from Rollstone Hill, but where are the colors?

I was heartened this morning by a story about the fall foliage on the front page of the Sentinel and Enterprise. They even had a couple of pictures of brightly-colored trees, to help make the point. So, after dinner, I decided to head out to see for myself.

This time I went someplace I hadn’t been to in a while – the old quarries at the top of Rollstone Hill in Fitchburg. I was in for a couple of surprises.

First, the old dirt access road off Pratt Road was now a paved driveway with a new house at the end of it. But just past the house there was a gate, and the road continued – not the old path I remembered – but a wider and graded dirt road. It led to a new communication tower. There were signs of recent quarrying, too.

Like I said, it’s been a while.

Eventually the improved roadway ended, and it was back to the old paths I remembered.

The top of the hill is strewn with huge, jagged chunks of granite, left behind after the quarries closed in the 1940s. It was up here that the famous Rollstone Boulder used to sit, perched above the city. The 110-ton boulder was left there by the glaciers 10,000 years ago. During the 1920s, people began to worry that with all the quarry work, it might roll down into the city.

So they did the only sensible thing. The boulder was blown up and re-assembled on a traffic island at a busy intersection at the end of the Upper Common.

Back to my search for brilliant fall foliage. Newspaper stories notwithstanding, there wasn’t any.

It was fun scrambling around the big rocks. The hill dominates the surrounding landscape, and offers great views. But once again, there was hardly any bright foliage color. What colors there were, were muted.

I’ll just have to try again next weekend.

In September of 2001, I was living in a cabin on a mountaintop along the Mohawk Trail. I was the caretaker/naturalist for a large wildlife sanctuary, and I was the only human around for several miles. The cabin was primitive but comfortable: two fireplaces for heat; water came from a spring a quarter-mile from the cabin. Every few days I had to pump water up to a storage tank in the attic. There was no electricity, so I relied on a battery-operated radio for news and entertainment. I had a cellphone, but to get a signal I had to hike around to the other side of the mountain.

I would be at the cabin from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day. Weekends were the busiest, with groups of families and boisterous hikers coming by to ooh and aah at the spectacular view. Weekdays were quiet, especially after Labor Day. Days would go by without seeing another person. That suited me perfectly.

I was up early, as usual, on Sept. 11 that year. I did some reading while I had my morning coffee. Looking out the big picture window I could see the vapor trails of jets heading west out of Logan and Manchester. One of them caught my eye. It had made an abrupt turn to the south, nearly at a right angle. Unusual, I thought, but I didn’t think any more of it, and headed out to do some trail work.

It wasn’t until I came back some hours later that I put on the radio and heard the news. I kept listening as more and more awful news came in. My former brother-in-law worked in one of the towers. I decided to call my son to find out if he had heard anything from his Uncle Rob. I hiked around to the other side to make the call. My son told me he and his mother hadn’t heard anything yet. They were worried.

When I checked back again a few hours later, my son had left a message that Rob was out of town on a business trip, and so hadn’t been at his office that morning. He was safe, but except for a few others who had also been out of the office, everyone else he worked with had been killed. What must that be like?

Then something remarkable happened. It started late in the afternoon, and continued until dark.

People came up to the cabin, perching themselves on the ledges looking out over the Berkshire Hills. People sat alone, or in small clusters. Most were silent, just staring out. Some prayed. A few cried. If anyone spoke, it was in a whisper. By sunset there were more than a hundred people in a place that never had more than a dozen at a time. Many stayed until well after dark.

They had all come to seek out a refuge, some place quiet to be away from it all.

This was a place meant to be a sanctuary for wildlife. At that time in my life, it was a sanctuary for me, too, one I needed, and now all these people had come here for the peace it offered.

Much later, as the news reports began to go back and document the sequence of events that day, I learned that one of the planes from Boston had been hijacked in the sky over Pittsfield. The hijackers had ordered the pilot to change course, turn due south, and head for New York City, and I remembered the strange vapor trail I’d seen that morning.

Nature's starting to take over at the Steamline Trail

There’s no other way to describe the short length of trail that runs upstream along the Nashua River from the old Central Steam Plant in West Fitchburg before ending abruptly at a stone overpass. Mixed in with wildflowers and other lush vegetation bordering the rejuvenated river is the detritus of the Industrial Age – rusting pipes and girders, boarded up brick factory buildings.

It’s the antithesis of a place like the Lowell National Historical Park, where the old mills along the Merrimack have been carefully cleaned, painted, and polished to present a sanitized version of the Industrial Revolution.

This was like visiting a ghost town.

For someone who grew up near these mills and remembers when they ran three shifts a day every day, it comes as a bit of a shock to see these once busy buildings standing abandoned, victimized by the elements and vandals.

I remember coming down to these same mills once, with a friend whose father worked there. It was all noise and confusion – trucks coming and going, machinery running, smoke and dust everywhere, men loading and unloading things. Everything was running, everyone was busy. No one believed it could ever end.

Now there are just neatly printed information boards along the way, describing the city’s era of prosperity and the contribution these mills to that prosperity. The buildings are sturdy, built for the ages. They had to be, to support all that heavy machinery. But the industries they housed weren’t, and one by one they closed up or left town. The city never quite recovered.

On the bright side, nature here is gradually making a comeback. The river is clean. A great blue heron flew overhead as I walked there. Lily pads and pickerel weed line a small cove.

It’s an interesting place to visit, both beautiful and haunting.

The trail starts at a small parking area along Westminster Street, just across from a playground and variety store, near the intersection of Route 2A and Route 31.

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