Ah rain. We need rain. I love rain. Our weary land that was so parched in June is suddenly refreshed by rain. And our plans are changed by rain, but that’s okay because it provides opportunities for us to consider other trails than those intended.
And so it was that we headed onto a local community forest this morning between rain drops.
The trail, terrain, plants, and weather gave us the sense of wandering in Scotland. Or perhaps that was wishful thinking.
As we explored, our hopes lifted as hang clouds decorated the backdrop behind erratic boulders.
And birds like this handsome Field Sparrow sang and gathered food, presumably for nestlings.
In the mix, Catbirds meowed.
But what mattered most to me were the insects and I expected so many, but was disappointed by so few. I did spy this Band Net-Winged Beetle on a Spirea, its bright coloration shouting a footnote of its offensive taste to predators.
Similar in Halloween costume color choices was the Small Milkweed Beetle, its main plant source a week or two past, but note the heart on its back–a sign of forever love. Interestingly, Small Milkweed Beetles help gardeners enjoy the milkweed plant and the butterflies that are attracted to them without having to worry that milkweed may overtake the garden.
To keep the party going, a Blue and Red Checkered Beetle happened onto the scene. Checkered Beetles occur where there’s a large supply of nectar and pollen.
Of course, with all this goodness, there has to be at least one in hiding–in this case a Goldenrod Crab Spider on a Bristly Sarsaparilla.
We spied him as we walked out with a sandwich from Eaton Village Store on our minds, and then again as we hiked in for a second time and then finally out again.
Upon our return, though it had poured as we ate, the rain abated and Ossipee Lake made itself visible.
It was on that second visit that I finally noted a honeybee working frantically to fill its honey pots.
So did small skippers such as this Dun Skipper upon the early blossom of Joe Pye Weed, his proboscis probing the not yet opened flowers.
With the rain abating, the Pye Weed soon became a plant of choice. Among its guests was a Great Spangled Fritillary all decked out in stripes, dots, and commas.
Because the flower hadn’t fully opened, the Fritillary’s proboscis curled in true butterfly behavior.
Suddenly, or so it seemed as the temp slightly rose, pollinators came out of hiding, including a Silver Spotted Skipper, its spot shouting its name.
Toward the end of our adventure, my heart rejoiced with the spot of a Green Lacewing, one of the subtle offerings in the wooded landscape.
It was just such a landscape that appealed to us today and we tossed all other trail choices into the pot for future expeditions. If you know my guy, you know what is to come.
Little fruit morsels became the object of his attention.
You and I know them as Low-bush Blueberries.
He knows them as the source of his Blueberry Greed.
All in all, he filled a couple of bags (and I helped! a little bit, that is). I have to say that I was amazed by the sight of all the little blue fruits for so few seemed the pollinators of the day. What I’ve shared with you was it. Literally. In number.
Yesterday my friend Joe Scott, an avid birder, shared this information with me from a New Hampshire Bird Listserve:
“The absence of insects obviously impacts insectivorous bird species. In Knight Hill Nature Park in New London, [NH] for the last two weeks, there have been 27 fully blooming butterfly weed plants, hundreds of common milkweed plants and two pollinator apartment blocks, but no insects! Oh, on any given day, perhaps one or two butterflies and half a dozen bumble bees. Ten years ago, at this time of year, these plants would be covered with butterflies, bees and other insects, as many as 20 species of butterflies and 10 species of bees.”
Today’s Mondate Blues represents those who don’t like the rain, or my guy and his blueberry greed, or the lack of pollinators or my color of choice. I’m just happy that we got out there and found so many sources of goodness on this wet day.
Erika Rowland, executive director of Greater Lovell Land Trust, asked me a year ago to consider finding someone who could give a talk about leeches. And so the search was on. Back in February I found just the right person. At first he declined the invitation, but I enticed him with a place to stay thanks to GLLT members Linda and Heinrich Wurm (she asked that he not bring any live leeches with him) and through a couple of email exchanges we set up a date and time and accommodations. And so it was that we had the absolute pleasure of learning from Dr. Nat Wheelwright and his delightful wife Genie.
Nat is well known for the book he co-authored with Bernd Heinrich: The Naturalist’s Notebook. He’s also known for Nature Moments, including the one that cinched the deal for me: Swimming with Leeches.
Certain that not everyone would be fascinated by leeches, he suggested that he talk about other nature moments and so it began with a look at Bracken, a sometimes waist high fern with triangular fronds that provides a great place for children to hide, or when placed atop ones head, an insect distractor as they’ll go to the highest point, being the stem, and leave you alone. As Nat explained, it’s a prolific fern that mainly reproduces by rhizomes rather than spores. I can think of only a few occasions when I’ve spied the spores on the undersides of the leaflets . . . and believe me, I’ve turned many over in hopes of spying such.
We had about a mile-long walk along a woods road to our destination beside a pond, and were overjoyed that Nat showed off our favorite syndrome: Nature Distraction Disorder as any little thing captured his attention and he couldn’t wait to share it with us. Each time, we thought we knew exactly what he’d share, and then he’d add some tidbit we’d not realized or considered before.
Really, what more could one learn about an American Toad? Until we did. How to tell its gender! Grasp it by its underarms. If it makes a noise, it’s a male! Huh? Yup, because that’s where a male would clasp a female in amplexus and if he thinks another male is grasping him he needs to let it know it has made the wrong choice. We have a frog and toad safari coming up with a bunch of youngsters and this will certainly be on the agenda.
The closer we got to our destination, the more we began to spy Ebony Jewelwing damselflies. As Nat explained, living by the coast, this is a rare species for him, but in our region of western Maine, with so many lakes, ponds, rivers, brooks, and streams, we see them frequently.
What would we learn from him about this species?
Again, how to tell the gender. Male or female? What do you think?
See the second segment of the abdomen where the arrow points? That bulge under segment two is where the secondary genitalia are located. This is clearly absent in females. Therefore–this specimen was a male.
We gave him another way to identify the gender of Ebony Jewelwings: the male’s wings are solid black, while the female has a white psuedostigma toward the tip of each wing.
And notice the white at the tip of the abdomen? That’s pruinosity, which like dragonflies, occurs in mature damsels. Not a gender idiosyncrasy, but rather one of age.
It took us a wonder-filled while, but eventually we made it to the pond of our destination and several of us took off our hiking boots and splashed our feet in the water. To cool off on a hot summer day? Certainly a benefit. To attract a leech or two? Well, we tried, but there were no takers.
Interns Emily and Anna had been there the day before and suggested another spot that might lead us to the leeches we desired and so we walked back along the road and headed down another path to the water. But . . . there was another story to share first of Genie’s experience swimming with tadpoles one day and the demise of said tadpoles a couple of days later and a discovery of ranavirus, which kills frogs in a short time period. Nat did tell us that the pond where the discovery was made seemed to be recovering; maybe some frogs exhibiting a resistance to the virus.
One of the take-aways from this is to always clean your equipment, including trays and D-nets, between pond explorations so if one pond is affected you don’t accidentally spread the virus to another.
That said, we reached a shallow area of the water’s edge, and Moira, Nat, and I took off our hiking boots and socks and stepped into the water. So . . . what did it feel like? Mucky. And rooty. And did I say mucky. BUT . . . it was only a matter of minutes and a blood-sucking leech found my leg. We tried to capture it, however, it wasn’t ready to be the star of the show and quickly released itself. That’s not how it usually goes with such, and a shake of salt would have been necessary to get it to release. I should have been thankful.
Then we spied a much larger leech swimming about and I got out so others could get closer to the pond’s edge and see it. Moira stood still as it circled her leg over and over again.
At last, either she or Nat captured it and placed it in a tray for all to observe. At its longest stretch, it was about five inches, though sometimes it appeared to be only about an inch in length.
In awe, we watched it move gracefully as its body contracted and protracted around the edge of the tray. And then the moment of anticipation came. Time for an up-close-and-personal look.
By the line of spots on its back . . .
and orange belly, Nat identified it as the common and colorful Macrobdella decora—North American medicinal leech, apparently used for bloodletting, but not one that would harm us as we continued to witness.
The more time we spent with Della . . .
the more comfortable we became in its presence, and soon learned that it moves rather like a slinky and we needed to place one hand below the next to keep its rhythm going.
That said, it was rather disconcerting. I mean: leeches are to be feared. We’ve spent a lifetime honing that attitude.
But . . . after spending a little time with them, I realized I truly don’t understand their ecology, but I’ve certainly gained a new respect, including the understanding that they have a brain and a sucker at each end. There’s a whole lot more to them than meets our eyes–including the fact that they have ten . . . eyes, that is, if I’ve got my facts correct.
First, we thought standing in the water was enough of a challenge. And then holding the leech. But . . . Nat had one more challenge–let the leech crawl on your face. Have you ever? Genie was willing to give it a try, but it fell off.
Moira gladly also gave it a try, but it fell to the ground.
Nat, however, was the most successful . . . until we were all certain it was headed into his ear.
Did you know this about leeches?
some families are jawless, some toothless, and some feed through a tube
leeches swallow their prey whole, extract the bodily fluids, and spit out the crunchy-bits, rather like a carnivorous plant
they prey on invertebrates, turtles, frogs, ducks, or fish
they are eaten by crayfish, salamanders, birds, turtles, carnivorous aquatic insect larvae, and fish
There is so much more for me to comprehend, but what a great beginning. Today we were be-leeched at Greater Lovell Land Trust with many, many thanks to Nat and Genie Wheelwright for traveling to western Maine to share their nature moments with us, Linda and Heinrich Wurm for hosting the Wheelwrights overnight, and Moira Yip and Vanny Nelson for being today’s lead docents. (Vanny, a former intern, nailed the intro–Nat was impressed, as we all were. And they have a Bowdoin College allegiance.)
Are you ready for some more in the dragonfly tales? I thought for this second edition, and actually the third and fourth to follow, I’d stick with the stocky Skimmer family.
We’ll begin with the Four-spotted Skimmer, (Libellula quadrimaculata. I shouldn’t have favorites, but this is one. It’s as if it was given the crown jewels to display.
The name comes from the black spots at the nodus (that point in the wing where it appears notched and some veins begin) about halfway across each wing, and stigma at the wing’s tip. If you count going across, you have four spots. If you count instead the fore and hind wings, you have four spots, making for an easy ID when one perches to consume a meal like this one did.
And then there is that incredible stained-glass black basal spot on the hind wing that is interwoven with amber venation. My heart be still.
Look for Four-spotted Skimmers near shallow water during the summer season. I saw this one in a meadow located between a brook and lake.
As you can see, the lighting wasn’t quite right on this lady, but notice how her coloration is sorta similar to the Four-Spotted, thus forcing the brain to work. I have to slow myself down when in the field and remember key characteristics. Both may share shades of brown and creamy yellow, but upon closer inspection, they aren’t the same at all. The clue to the identity of this skimmer is the white stigmas on the wings. To my knowledge, no other dragonfly shares this feature. (Till one does, of course.) And in the case of this female Spangled Skimmer (Libellula cyanea), the tips of her wings are dark.
Those white stigmas really stand out on her male counterpart. Spangled Skimmers fly in my neck of the woods. from June through August near lakes and ponds and fields and woodlands, so keep your eyes open for the white flags.
A bit smaller in size to the Four-spotted and Spangled, the Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is another handsome specimen. That white face. Those green eyes. Can you see that the eyes have a metallic blue hue on top? His female’s eyes are red over gray, though they also turn green as she matures.
In a combination of colors, the thorax is striped, abdomen bluish with a black tip, wings with an amber base patch, and then, of course the eyes and face.
Floating or emergent vegetation, such as this Spadderdock, are preferred as Blue Dashers are spotted throughout the summer season. I’ve read that some migrate along the Atlantic Coast.
Some dragonflies are easier to identify than others because of unique features and such is certainly the case with the Widow Skimmer ((Libellula luctuosa). It’s the large dark patch that stretches from the base of the wing to the nodus that gives away her identity. Where her abdomen has a dark stripe down the middle that widens toward the tip, and yellow stripes on each side, his abdomen is entirely gray blue above. And his wings feature the same black patch with an adjacent white patch reaching almost to the stigma. Do you see a. bit of the whitish patch on the wings?
Perhaps the white is a little more evident now? I think I’m correct in stating that this brown-eyed specimen is an immature male due to the hint of white as well as the dark face. While both male and females have brown eyes, his face is dark, where hers is tan. Does that make this a widower? Hmmm. Not sure how that works. The Latin luctuosa in its scientific name refers to feeling sorrowful and I suppose these dragonflies were considered to be wearing black in mourning.
While they are summer fliers beside water bodies, fields, and woodlands, I’ve only ever encountered this one . . . that I can remember.
And just when you thought you had it, another species with black patches on its wings flies into the scene. But, there are differences. First, there’s the dark, wide crossband stretching from top to bottom of each wing and from nodus to stigma. Then, there’s the basal patches: black on fore wings; black with a white patch below on hind wings.
This dragonfly is known as a Common Whitetail (Libellula lydia). Huh? Well, you are actually looking at an immature male. The female is similar in that she also has the yellow slashes along the sides of her abdomen, but she lacks white patches on her hind wings. So how does the “whitetail” fit into the name?
The abdomen being the tail, this male demonstrates how the name came to be. I may have used the term “pruinosity” before, but this mature male surely illustrates it–a frosted or powdery appearance caused by pigment on top of an insect’s cuticle that covers up the underlying coloration. It’s my understanding that for some dragonflies like Blue Dashers and Common Whitetails, displaying pruinescence on the abdomen to other males is a territorial threat.
Common Whitetails are also summer fliers who prefer to perch on or just above the ground.
Finally, the last species for today, which is hardly the least. I’m so excited to introduce you to the Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifaciata)because I only just made its acquaintance this summer. My first thought when we met was that it was a Calico Pennant Skimmer. I got the skimmer correct, but not the actual ID. Notice that cherry-colored face that is tan on the sides. That gave me the first inkling that I might be on the wrong track.
The wings provided the next clue. While the Calico has dark patches on its wings, the Painted features bands that extend from top to bottom toward the tip of each wing about halfway down beginning at the nodus. Likewise, the abdomen differs for each species, with the Calico’s featuring heart-shaped spots, while Painted’s is brown with yellow sides and black triangles and lines on segments 6 and 7, plus wide black stripes on segments 8 through 10.
This is a face I hope to remember for a long time as the Painted Skimmer and I got to know other during a few brief moments along a forest road near a river in June. Until we meet again . . .
One final note: if you are with me in the field, I may not remember every little detail or the common name. I definitely won’t know the scientific name. But the more time I spend with them and the more I study and write about them, the more I learn and I hope you are learning a wee bit as well.
I leave you with my latest creation: Indigo Skimmer (Libellula indigofera), formed from deconstructed blue jeans.
As we drove to North Conway, New Hampshire for an errand today, we had no idea where we might hike. And then in the midst of said errand, my guy suggested Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch. It had been a while since our last visit so we decided it was a great idea.
It’s funny how the trail seems flat in my mind’s eye, but it’s hardly that as roots and rocks or boulders keep all eyes looking down while we climbed up. While it’s long been this way, the impact of hikers seeking solace during the past fifteen months means it’s been trodden even more than in the past.
The hike to the falls is rather generic and I soon decided I wouldn’t need to write about it until . . . we reached the Devlin’s staircase. And then it dawned on me that summer began late last night and we were in the right place, only having missed the celebration by half a day. My only hope was that we might glimpse our friend who had built them.
When we arrived at the falls, I could see that he had indeed turned on the shower and others were standing below taking advantage of the cool water on such a hot day. Do you see the heart created by leaves and trees at the top of the waterfall? That was another sign.
When in Rome–and so yes, we did the same.
After hanging out there for a bit, we hiked down and decided to detour via the trail to Bemis Falls, where even more roots slowed us down a bit, but the water spilling into the tiered basins made the trip well worth the effort. Notice how rather than a shower, the basins offered a place to bathe. It was another sign and again we knew Devlin was responsible.
Farther down the trail, we walked into Colesium Falls and again sat for bit while White Admiral butterlies fluttered around us.
One even paused long enough for us to admire its handsome features. We suspected their presence in this particular area was to serve as decoys.
For without realizing it until we returned to the Bemis Trail, we’d entered Falda’s home range. My heart be still. It was all coming together as planned.
The icing on the cake was a single Pink Lady’s Slipper, which we’re convinced Devlin had planted for Falda.
So . . . who are these two: Devlin and Falda? Why a giant and a fairy, of course. And perhaps you’ve read my fairy tale before, but even if you did, I’d love for you to read it again. And share it. And if you haven’t then, sit back and enjoy. And one more and, if anyone cares to illustrate it for fun, give it a whirl, but please share your works with me and maybe when I post this again in a year or two (It seems I’m on an every-two-years plan for sharing this story) I’ll include your works, with attribution, of course.
Once upon a Midsummer’s Eve, on Sabattus Mountain, a group of fairies gathered in a circle for a night of magic and merriment. All wore crowns of wood sorrel and ferns about their heads. Their sparkly skirts matched the color of their hair, purple and green and yellow and orange and blue. Together they danced and sang this tune:
We whirl and twirl and dance around, Our feet, they barely touch the ground. We wish and wish and wish tonight, For a Midsummer’s Eve that is fun and bright.
Aisling stopped suddenly and stared at the delicate pink lady’s slipper they circled around.
“What is it, Aisling?” asked Carys. “Why did you pause?”
“I had a vision,” Aisling said. Her wings fluttered as fast as a hummingbird’s, which they always did whenever she had a vision.
“Tell us,” insisted Imma.
“It’s about Falda,” said Aisling.
“Oh, will my wings work again?” pleaded Falda, for her wings were folded and though she could dance and jump, she could no longer fly.
“No, Falda. It’s not that, but something even better, I think. And there’s a nice ogre too,” explained Aisling.
“Tsk. Tsk. A nice ogre. Whoever heard of such a thing?” demanded Biddie. “The only ogre we ever knew was a devil. Remember his sign in Crawford Notch: ‘Devl Hom.’ That ogre was so mean, he couldn’t even spell.”
The fairies continued dancing and forgot about Aisling’s vision for a few hours. When the merriment was over, Falda and Biddie, the older fairies, returned to their homes beneath the thick foliage and moss-covered tree stumps. Imma, Carys and Aisling used pine needles to sweep the area so no hikers would discover them.
“Tell us more about your vision, Aisling,” said Carys. “Who is the ogre? And what does he have to do with Falda?”
“I don’t know for sure,” said Aisling.
“Biddie always says that there was a giant who lived near our old home in Crawford Notch. He was cursed and not to be trusted,” said Imma.
“Let’s go back there and check him out,” suggested Carys.
“Yes, let’s,” said Aisling. “Remember, we can always avoid contact with him by reciting the backward chant: Ogres bad big with contact eye avoid always.”
“OK,” agreed Imma. “Let’s go.”
In a twinkle and a flitter, the three fairies left their home in Lovell, Maine, and reached Crawford Notch. The rising moon glowed on the giant’s staircase made of carefully placed tree trunks.
Aisling was the first to smell something awful. “What stinks?” she asked.
“I think it’s him,” said Imma, pointing to where the giant stood building a two-hundred-foot high granite wall. “Biddie said his smell is why we left.”
“Shhh,” whispered Carys from her hiding place high up in a beech tree. “Listen to him.” This is what they heard: “Humph. I sure hope I can find water to flow over this fall. Then I can finally take a shower. And who knows, maybe Sweet Falda will hear that I’m clean and she’ll finally return.”
The three fairies held their noses and giggled.
“That’s your vision, Aisling,” squealed Imma.
“Humph. What was that sound?” the giant demanded. In the gruffest voice he could muster, he said, “Who goes there?”
Imma quickly waved her magic wand and a breeze moved the leaves. The giant could no longer hear them. He returned to his work of stacking granite boulders on top of one another.
“We’ve got to figure out how to get Falda and the giant together,” said Carys.
“Don’t you think he’s a mean, old ogre?” asked Imma.
“Not at all,” said Carys.
“Me either,” said Aisling.
“OK then. I have a plan, but I’ll need to ask my cousin to help,” Imma said.
In a twinkle and a flitter, the fairies returned to Sabattus Mountain and their village under the moss-covered tree stumps in the old pine grove.
“Falda, Biddie, wake up,” they called.
“What is it?” Falda asked as she walked out of her wee house, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“We just came from Crawford Notch and we saw the most amazing thing,” said Carys.
“Tsk. Tsk. There’s nothing amazing left in Crawford Notch,” said Biddie.
“Oh, but you are wrong, Biddie. We saw a giant staircase, a giant waterfall . . . well, almost waterfall, and a certain giant himself,” said Imma.
“Almost waterfall?” asked Falda.
“Yes, it just needs water,” said Imma.
“Tsk. Tsk. Did you say ‘a certain giant’?” asked Biddie.
Carys fluttered up and down. “Yes, Aisling’s vision is coming true. We saw a certain giant building the almost waterfall and . . .” She was so overcome with excitement that she choked up and cried happy tears.
Aisling continued, “ . . . and he mentioned you, Falda.”
Falda’s cheeks turned as pink as the lady’s slippers that bloomed around them.
“Tsk. Tsk. You talked to that devil? Didn’t I always teach you that he is a cursed ogre and not to be trusted? Did you use the backward chant?” demanded Biddie.
“Oh, Biddie, don’t worry. We didn’t talk to him,” Imma said. The she whispered, “Yet.”
“No, we didn’t talk to him. We just listened to him,” said Aisling.
“I never even knew his name,” said Falda. She twisted her wee hands together. “He used to leave me beautiful gifts though, like a pinecone wreath and an oak picture frame.”
Biddie said, “Tsk. Tsk. He’s the devil, I tell you. And he stinks.”
“Yes, he did have a certain odor,” said Falda. “That was one reason we moved to Maine.”
“Maybe he smelled bad because he was always busy building something and couldn’t take a shower,” suggested Carys.
“Tsk. Tsk. He’s the devil and we’ll not return to Crawford Notch. It’s obvious that he put a curse on Falda and her wings got caught on a branch when we landed here. Now they are folded and she cannot fly,” insisted Biddie. “Enough of this nonsense. Go back to bed all of you.”
Aisling, Imma and Carys returned to their homes . . . momentarily. A few minutes later, when they were sure they could hear Biddie snoring, they met under an oak leaf behind Aisling’s house.
“I’ll ask Cousin Arethusa to provide a spring so water will flow over the boulders,” said Imma.
“Oh goody,” Carys said as she clapped her hands.
“Shhh,” Aisling whispered. “Quiet or they’ll hear us. We must act quickly before the sun rises on a new day.”
Silently, the three fairies formed a circle. Imma held her magic wand high and swung it in a sweeping arch above their heads. Fairy dust sprinkled upon them. Out of the dust, Cousin Arethusa appeared. In a whisper, Imma explained the need for a spring in Crawford Notch to which Arethusa agreed as long as the waterfall would be named for her.
“Thank you, Cousin Arethusa. Now we must go,” said Imma.
In a twinkle and a flitter, the three fairies returned to the Notch. They found the giant placing the last granite boulder on top of the wall.
He blinked when they landed on it. “Humph,” he growled, again using his gruffest voice, which wasn’t really gruff at all. “Who might you be?”
Immediately the three fairies covered their noses and gasped for air.
“Oh my. Do I smell that bad?” the giant asked. His cheeks turned red as the wintergreen berries that grew on the forest floor.
“Yes,” Carys squeaked.
“But if you turn around three times . . .” gasped Aisling.
“ . . . And say ‘water, water, everywhere’ five times fast,” added Carys.
“ . . . Water will flow over the falls and you can finally shower,” finished Imma.
“Really?” asked the giant.
“Try it,” said Carys.
“And hurry,” added Aisling.
“Do it for Falda,” finished Imma.
“Fal . . . da? You know Sweet Falda?” asked the giant.
“Yes, but hurry . . . you need to shower,” said Imma.
“Oh, yes.” So the giant turned around three times, said, “Water, water, everywhere,” five times and water flowed over the falls.
“Look, Arethusa Falls,” exclaimed Imma.
“I can’t believe it. I’m not very good at being mean and scary, but I can make wonderful things with my hands. Only I did wonder how I’d make this shower work,” said the giant.
“Well, you must thank Arethusa for that. And by the way, Biddie thinks you ARE mean and scary,” said Imma.
“Biddie. As I recall, she’s just an old biddie,” said the giant.
The fairies giggled.
“Why are you laughing?” he asked.
“Because that is exactly what Falda always says about Biddie,” explained Aisling.
“Oh, Sweet Falda. I must shower now so I can see her again.”
The fairies told him that Sabattus Mountain was only a few giant steps east of Arethusa Falls. Then in a twinkle and a flitter they returned to their village.
A few winks later, the Earth rumbled. All five fairies quickly gathered at Falda’s house.
“What was that?” they wondered together.
“Sounds like thunder,” said Falda. “A storm must be approaching.”
“But I thought I saw the sun rising as I rushed over here,” said Carys.
Suddenly, the sky darkened. The fairies fluttered closer together. Falda lit a candle. Then they heard a tapping sound near the entrance. She peeked out, but saw no one. Curious, the fairies cautiously walked outside. Standing atop the mountain was a certain giant.
“Oh,” said Falda and her face brightened with a smile.
“Tsk. Tsk. If it isn’t the devil himself. And he’s flattened the trees,” exclaimed Biddie.
“The devil? Why on Earth do you say that, Biddie? And sorry about the trees. I tried my best to tiptoe,” said the giant.
“Tsk. Tsk. That’s what your sign said, ‘Devl Hom,’” said Biddie.
“Oh, that sign. It broke in an ice storm. I just never got around to fixing it. I was too busy building other things. My name is Devlin. That sign should read, ‘Devlin’s Home,’” said the giant.
“Tsk. Tsk . . . you stink too,” stammered Biddie.
“Not anymore. Now I can shower whenever I want. You must come see all the changes in the Notch.” Devlin leaned down, picked Falda up and placed her in the palm of his oversized hand. “What happened to your wings, Sweet Falda?”
“Nothing really. Just a wee accident,” she said.
So Devlin carried Falda over to Crawford Notch for a visit. In a twinkle and a flitter, Carys, Imma and Aisling followed behind him. Biddie tagged along, tsk-tsking all the way.
And they all lived happily ever after. All but Biddie were happy, of course.
Arethusa Falls and Sabattus Mountain Hikes
Guess what! You can hike to both locations mentioned in The Giant’s Shower. First, climb the giant’s staircase to Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. Be sure to pack a snack or lunch to enjoy beside the falls. Who knows, you might even see Devlin working nearby. If he smells, remind him to take a shower.
The trailhead to Arethusa Falls is located on Route 302 at the southern end of Crawford Notch in the White Mountains. The hike is easy, but it does take about 45-60 minutes to reach the over 200-foot high falls. Several trail options are available so be sure to check local guides, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club’s White Mountain Guide and bring a map.
And only a few giant steps east of the falls is Sabattus Mountain in Lovell, Maine. If you are traveling via car rather than giant steps, Sabattus Mountain is about an hour and a half from Arethusa Falls. Follow Route 302 East to Route 5 North in Fryeburg, Maine. Stay on Route 5 through the villages of Lovell and Center Lovell. Just after the Center Lovell Inn, turn right onto Sabattus Road. Drive about 1 1/2 miles, then turn right onto Sabattus Trail Road.
The trailhead and parking area are a half mile up the road and clearly marked. The round-trip hike takes about 1 hour and is fairly easy, with one moderate spot. From the top, you will see Kezar Lake and Pleasant Mountain to the south. The White Mountains of Maine and New Hampshire are to the west.
Hike up the right-hand trail. You’ll reach the top in about 45 minutes. Take time to enjoy the view left behind when the giant flattened trees with his footsteps. Some trees still stand tall, because he was only tiptoeing. Continue along the ridge until the trail turns left to descend.
In an old pine grove along this trail, you might suddenly feel the presence of fairies. Their homes are among the moss-covered tree stumps. They enjoy visiting Crawford Notch, but Sabattus is now their forever home. Pause a bit and let the magic of this place overtake you.
Do be sure not to add to or take away from the fairies’ homes. These are natural homes and you shouldn’t disturb them.
Happy hiking! And say hello to Carys, Imma, Aisling, Falda and Biddie for me.
Meanings of names used in the story: Aisling–vision, dream Carys–love Imma–water bearer Falda–folded wings Biddie–strength Arethusa (Ara-Thuse-A)–spring Devlin–brave, one of fierce valor Pink lady’s slipper–moccasin flower, large, showy orchid found in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire
How to make your own fairy dust: Combine dried flower petals, leaves and birdseed in a small bowl. Crush together. Sprinkle outdoors wherever magic is needed.
Fairy houses: Best if made from natural materials, e.g. bark, sticks, leaves, pinecones, rocks, grass, moss, berries, wood chips and flowers. Fairies particularly like the thick foliage of moss and old tree stumps. Remember, they hope that humans won’t discover them, so be cautious and don’t upset nature.
We had a feeling we might be rushing things when we set out on one of our planned Lady’s Slipper hikes this morning. But this was one nature moment my guy was actually looking forward to–oh, he loves to hike, it’s just the stopping for hours on end to look at all the idiosyncrasies of a flower or insect that doesn’t appeal to him.
And so it was that not long after we left the trailhead, we met the first lady of our intentions. She was classic–her pink slipper-like pouch inflated and darkly veined (in a manner that reminded me of a pitcher plant’s veins), her sepals and upper petals purply-bronze, stem hairy, and the set of basal leaves well ribbed. With that, we got excited, announced her as number one, and couldn’t wait to continue the count.
As luck would have it, by the time we reached the beaver dam crossing, we’d seen only four.
But at the dam we did pause, at which point several large tadpoles disappeared and a frog jumped into the muck to hide from us. Do you see him? By his dark angular spots, rather than dark rounded spots surrounded by a light ring did I know his name to be Pickerel.
Once the trail began to actually ascend the mountain, we continued to search left and right–and in the process discovered Indian Cucumber-root suddenly in flower. This is one of my favorites, perhaps because of the unique and quite subtle flower that nods below the upper leaf whorl. Except for once that I know of, typically Indian Cucumber root needs a second tier of leaves to help supply more energy so it can flower and fruit. One might easily pass by these plants, but they’re worth a stop to notice the six recurved, yellowish-green tepals (petal-like parts), six stamens, and those three stunning dark red styles.
Still no more lady’s to delight us, but flower clusters of Clintonia added bright cheer beside the trail. And actually, when not in flower, it’s quite easy to confuse their leaves with that of Lady’s Slippers. While both are basal, green, and oval in shape, Clintonias have several smooth leaves featuring a central vein and you can easily fold them in half, while Lady’s Slipper leaves of two are deeply pleated.
As we climbed higher, we spotted more and more Painted Trillium, the flower appearing above its three leaves. The flower has three green sepals and six pink-tipped stamens. Two of the features I love about these flowers: its wavy-edged petals; and the inverted pink V at the base of each. And I’m proud of my guy because he can name a trillium and seems to find pleasure in pointing them out to me. Of course, then he moves on, while I stop to honor the plants with a photograph. Every time 😉
My heart cheered at the sight of this little one, a Bunchberry. While the plant seems to sport a single flower, it’s “flower” is a series of four large petal-like bracts, surrounding the actual flowers, which are tiny and greenish, with four minute petals. Like the Indian Cucumber-root, this plant needs more leaves when it’s ready to flower, so instead of the usual leaves of four, flowering Bunchberries have two extra large leaves to help the cause.
It wasn’t just flowers that were worth noticing for upon a tree leaf that was being consumed after only recently breaking bud, two May Beetles, quite possibly Dichelonyx elongatula, prepared to canoodle.
As we approached the top, where the naturally community transitioned, so did the insects. Here and there fluttered several Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. I’m never quite certain of my ID for these versus Canadian Tiger Swallowtails, but the latter has a solid yellow band on the trailing edge of the forewings and the yellow is broken by black for Eastern. Also, on the hind wings, if I’m correct, the blue on the Eastern is outlined in black arcs or curves, while the black line is straight for a Canadian Tiger.
And what to its dining delight should be offering nectar on this fine day–Rhodora.
A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth was equally pleased with the menu.
So what about the ladies of our quest. It was in this new community that we found the most. And not all were completely opened, which made us wonder if we’d jumped the gun and headed off on our search a week too early.
We had to look under trees and shrubs, and though we didn’t find as many as we’d anticipated, we were still pleased.
Our favorite was this cluster, which my guy was proud to discover.
By the time we reached lunch rock where our PB&J sandwiches were consumed as we took in the view, the final orchid count totaled 47. We may just have to return for another Mondate in a few weeks because we suspect there will be more in bloom.
What season is it exactly? That was today’s puzzlement as we headed up a trail in Newry, Maine.
The temperature was in the 20˚s at best and wind gusted to at least 25 miles per hour as we hiked along the forest trail, but my heart sang with the sight of a field of Trout Lilies, a plant that I sadly seldom encounter. We’ve hiked this trail a bunch of times and never could I recall seeing these delightful spring ephemerals so named because the maroon markings on the leaves resemble a brown or brook trout. And then it occurred to me: being ephemerals, they bloom early when the canopy isn’t yet closed in with leaves and then disappear into the landscape as so many other flowers and ferns fill the space. Though the yellow nodding flowers hadn’t yet opened completely, it was enough to see into the future.
Similar in color were the Forest Yellow Violets, their tiny flowers offering teeny rays of sunshine beside the trail like runway lights at an airport. Their purple veins served as runways all their own and despite today’s brisk weather, the translucent coloring of the flower’s tips indicated that insects had done their duty and pollenated the plants.
And then, my heart be still, a Red Trillium waiting to blossom. That, of course, brought out a comment from my guy about a trillion trilliums because he knows well that I find it difficult not to honor each one.
Through a deciduous wood we climbed for two miles and then decided to find lunch rock. It happened to be beside a stream and so we sat, ate our PB&J sandwiches, topped off with cookies from Fly Away Farm, all the while enjoying the water’s babble and view beyond with Sunday River Ski Area in the offing.
If I had to say exactly where lunch rock was located it would be this: where X marks the spot.
Ah, but notice the icicles. Can you feel the chill of the day?
And then it was onward and upward, with a brief stop at the infamous trail sign where many have carved their names in a proclamation of love or at least acknowledged ascent of the trail.
Eventually we emerged onto the start of the ledges where we met the wind head on and it grabbed our bodies in an attempt to whip us off the mountain. Did I mention that for the first mile we wondered about our choice of trail given the day’s conditions and considered other possibilities for today’s hike, but neither wanted to give in and so the wind was ours and likewise we belonged to it.
That said, rosy-cheeked as we were, we posed for a selfie and wondered it might be the highest height we’d reach. And then upward we continued to hike, uncertain about the future.
Over and over again, Sunday River Ski Area became our focal point as we viewed it from a variety of vantage points.
With a half mile to go before reaching the 3000+ foot summit, we peered into boulder caves and wondered if anyone was home.
Our best finds: more icicles.
And so onward and upward we continued, our hoods helping to keep the wind at bay.
Suddenly, only a few boulders stood between us and the summit. Tackle them and we’d arrive.
Which we did, the cairn at the top the first recipient of our honor.
One of three survey markers our second focus.
And a quick pause to mark the fact that we were actually there, and then we found the trail down the backside that led toward a spur that circles below the summit.
It was there that we climbed down into winter.
Or perhaps it was late, late fall that met us along the trail.
As we followed the spur, snowflakes flew sideways in front of us and started to blur Sunday River’s face.
My guy, the naturalist 🙂 in his own right, did what he often does and pointed out things of interest to me, like the #4 tree. So, what created the 4? I had ideas; he’d already moved on.
We eventually found our way back to the main trail and continued the descent. It was rather quick as is my guys’ custom, but I know a few tricks to slow him down and one is to mention the potential for bear paw trees.
Bingo! He found one we’ve missed on previous journeys.
Eventually we left late fall/winter behind and upon the descent met spring again, this time in the form of Canada Mayflower making preparations to bloom.
And then . . . a first bloom of one of the trillion Trillium.
With that the puzzle was solved. Even if it feels like a cooler season on Puzzle Mountain in Newry, Maine, blossoms like that of a Stinking Benjamin (Red Trillium) tell the truth. It is spring after all.
Early spring, that time of transition when it feels as if the world has slowed down, is one of my favorite times of the year. Oh, besides all my other favorite times that is–like tracking time and dragonfly time and stalking insect time and . . . and . . . and.
These days it seems my day often begins with a certain male visitor.
No, it’s not my guy, but another handsome fellow named Jake. At least I think that’s his name, based on the length of his beard, short conical spurs on the backs of his legs, and light red and blue head, which would be much brighter for his elder named Tom. It doesn’t matter for in the morning sunlight he gleams and makes me realize that he embodies every color of the rainbow.
We typically spend a few minutes together before he departs and I know that means it’s time for me to do the same.
To ensure there will be more of these little water tigers, I discover two adults canoodling.
In its adult form, the beetle backs up to the water’s surface and captures air under the elytra, or firm front pair of wings where the spiracles or respiratory openings are located. (Think external pores) The challenge is to carry enough air to breath, but not too much that might cause them to sink. That said, I frequently watch them surface and then swim off after an oxygen grab, but storing that air for at least ten minutes serves them well while mating for they certainly don’t have a plan to rise for a refill.
If you’ve never watched a pair of Predacious Diving Beetles mate, this is worth the eleven-second clip. It was a first for me, and what a frenzied time it was.
Ah, but there are other things to look at in a pool and so I pull myself away from the canoodlers and begin to focus on the result of some other interaction, this being egg masses of Spotted Salamanders. One evening in the past week, a male Spotted Salamander deposited spermatophores that look like tiny pieces of cauliflower on the pool floor. A few nights later a female picked up sperm from the small structures and internally fertilized her eggs, which she later attached to the small branch in the water. If you look closely, you might see the gelatinous matrix that surrounds the mass.
Likewise, Wood Frog egg masses have also been deposited and their overall structure reminds me of tapioca. In no time at all, the embryos began to develop, but it will still be about three weeks before the larval tadpoles hatch.
Because I was looking, I had the good fortune this week of spying another tiny, but significant critter swimming upside down as is its manner–a fairy shrimp. Fairy shrimp don’t feed on the embryos but rather filter algae and plankton with eleven pairs of appendages, which they also use for swimming and breathing.
Similar to the Predacious Diving Beetle, in order to digest food, a Fairy Shrimp produces a thick, glue-like substance to mix with a meal. My awe with Fairy Shrimp remains in the fact that after a female produces broods of hardy eggs called cysts, they lay dormant once the pool dries up and don’t hatch until it rains again the following spring or even years later.
I could spend hours searching for Fairy Shrimp and other insects and in fact, do even marvel at the Mosquito wrigglers as they flip and flop their way around.
You, too, may watch them by clicking on this short video. And remember–they eventually become great bird and insect food.
By now, I suppose it’s time to honor other more beautiful sights of spring, including my favorite first flower of the season, the tiny spray of magenta styles at the tip of Beaked Hazelnut flowers waiting for some action from the male catkins.
And yesterday’s most delightful surprise, the first blooms of Trailing Arbutus on the forest floor. Known as Mayflowers, they usually open in April. Just to confuse us.
Standing for a while beside a river rather than a pool, another of my favorite sites was an abundance of Painted Turtles basking. No, they aren’t sunbathing to get a tan, but rather to raise their internal body temperature. Being cold-blooded, their body temperature is determined solely by the temperature of the surrounding environment.
In the same neighborhood a pair of Belted Kingfishers could be heard rattling as they do in flight and then seen preening and it seems that love is not only in the water, but in the air as well.
Likewise, a Song Sparrow or two or three trilled their lovely notes to announce their intentions to any who would listen.
And then today dawned–and with it a spring snowstorm graced this part of the world and all who live here, like this Sheep Laurel with buds still tiny.
Back to the pool went I, where the only action seemed to be snow striking its surface and creating rippled patterns in constant flux.
Some of the snow drops were so large that bubbles reflecting the canopy above formed. Under water, I couldn’t see any action and finally turned toward home, trusting all the swimming critters were tucked under the leaves in an attempt to avoid the rawness of the day.
There was one more stop to make, however, before I headed in. On December 1st, 2020, upon this very same tree, I watched slugs for the last time last year as documented in a post entitled “My Heart Pines.” It was a squirrel midden that had attracted me to the tree, but so much more did it have to offer on that day.
Today, as I searched for slugs, I was equally surprised for just as I found last year, once again the froth that forms on pines as the result of a chemical interaction when rain drops pick up oils and air in the bark furrows bubbles through that oily film and the end result is pine soap never ceases to amaze me. Even in snow, I learned, it can occur. Plus there was a subtle rainbow of colors.
Ah, but it certainly didn’t match the colors Jake displayed.
Today’s snowfall will melt by tomorrow and only be a memory of that year it snowed on April 16. We’ve had much bigger April storms than this one turned out to be and henceforth Jake and I will walk with a spring in our steps.
With recent encouragement I changed my focus and gazed skyward.
Rewarded immediately, the porous and slightly concave underside of Otzi, the Ice Man’s Tinderconk fungi, revealed a pattern repeated over and over again.
In another place where the forest is intended as a demonstration project, the dancers of the woods let their boughs reach down as if they were ladies dressed in gowns rather than Norway Spruce standing in a foreign community.
The upward gaze, however, was soon drawn down to the cone with scales numerous, thin and irregularly toothed, attracted my eye and that of a squirrel who left a large midden at the tree’s base.
And then that gaze focused outward where Common Mergansers whispered amongst themselves in a language only they understood.
In their midst, a Common Goldeneye swam and once again I wondered about that descriptive term “common.” Exactly what is common about that golden eye and all the other features of this duck?
Moments later I gazed skyward again from under a princess pine clubmoss that ends each leaflike structure with a Y as in “Why”? Certainly. Perhaps because.
Distracted once again–I spotted a spring stonefly with its rolled wings providing a stain-glassed venation.
The next upward gaze turned a tree stump into a nurse nourishing an entire deciduous forest as if it could.
Downward, I focused on a black-capped chickadee puffed up on a cold spring morning . . .
and a Mourning Cloak butterfly who had overwintered as an adult under the bark of a nearby tree.
So as a friend reminds me, I’ve entered a new season, one where I squat over vernal pools and beside streams and search for life within for hours on end.
For now, the ice is only just melting and life within the pool taking time to emerge, such as this predacious diving beetle larva.
At last I stand up straight and turn for a reason I don’t recall. But . . . there it is. A bird I’d seen swoop over the pool and stand at its edge as I approached. Of course, then it took off, not giving me an opportunity to identify it . . .
Until the barred owl did just that. Flew back in and posed above. And I realized that as I looked up at it, it looked around . . .
and then down at me. My gaze might be upward, but the owl also searched outward and downward.
As it should. This well-focused visionary knows that one must look in every direction for there’s always something to wonder about. Especially as we celebrate Easter 2021.
And my guy and I give thanks for receiving our second Pfizer shot this weekend. In the midst of joining the owl’s vision, we’re all looking upward.
For his birthday in the fall, as you may recall, I gave my guy a baker’s dozen list of geocaches to locate in the wilds of Maine and New Hampshire. Prior to this past weekend, he’d located twelve with one left–burning a bit of a hole in his pocket because we thought we’d get there on Thanksgiving, but rain changed that plan. And then winter happened and we knew the journey would require more time because gates on the Forest Road would be closed and we’d have to trek a longer distance. With the dawn of spring, however, he thought we should take our chances. Oh, we’d still have a ways to hike, but thankfully it’s light later and so we had that on our side.
That was Saturday. But . . . that journey wasn’t enough, and so despite high winds on Monday, I created a mini-list for him and off we went in search of five more geocaches.
Our Saturday adventure found us practicing our balance beam skills, for if we fell off, which we did from time to time, we’d sink into snow that was at least knee deep.
That said, not only were we gymnasts, but we also had to pull some ballet leaps out of the daypack; sometimes the stream crossings like this one, were obvious, but other times we had to guess where the softest spot might be and try to jump to the other side without crashing through the snow bridge. Success wasn’t always on our side.
On a different trail, we outbested the conditions by walking in the stream that was actually a woods road, having chosen different footwear.
And yet again, there was a narrow balance beam to climb across. Thank goodness we had such great training in junior high and knew how to stay on top, otherwise we would have gotten soaked. Haha! I don’t know about him, but I’m pretty sure I failed the gymnastics unit all those years ago.
At one point in our journey, we spotted a gate ahead and thought for sure it would be our turn-around spot, but upon reaching it we found this kind note, which inspired us to pick up downed branches along the private drive since the owners were kind enough to let us venture forth.
And beyond said destination (read: geocache), we continued on to a summit we’d never reached before.
We also spent a few moments on the property of the Parsonsfield Seminary, founded by the Free Will Baptists as a seminary, aka high school in 1832. The eight-acre campus includes four buildings and once served as part of the Underground Railroad. Though the buildings are no longer used for education per se, special events are hosted by the Friends of Par-Sem, and it’s available for private functions.
Over the course of the two days, we crossed the state line between Maine and New Hampshire multiple times, both via truck and foot. Our favorite crossings came in the form of stumbling upon standing split granite stones in the woods.
Maine must have been the poor cousin for we could almost not see the M.
The marker on top, however, clearly established who owned what portion of the land.
and a sign in Taylor City, where Earl Taylor served as mayor until his death at the age of 95 in 2018. Earl was a graduate of Par-Sem it seems. He ran the general store and was quite active in town affairs–on both sides of the border.
Mind you, hiking and history weren’t the entire focus of our time together. Nature also was on display like the underside of lungwort showing off its ridges and lobes that reminded someone long ago of lung tissue. In reality, Lobariapulmonaria is an indicator of a rich, healthy ecosystem.
There was also a bear nest high up in a beech tree–where last summer a black bear sat for a bit, pulled the branches inward till some of them broke, and dined on the beech nuts.
Multiple times we spotted moose tracks in deep snow . . .
One of the creme de la creme sightings for me, was the first Beaked Hazelnut flower of the year. Gusty wind prevented a better photo, but still, it was worth capturing the moment.
And upon the ground, an old bee structure, each papery cell precise and reflective of all that surrounded it.
others medium in size . . .
and a couple on the larger side.
Water always seemed to be part of the scene. We hiked for at least a mile beside a racing brook.
And stood for a few minutes enjoying the sun at Mountain Pond.
There was a wetland that we explored from all sides (actually, there was more than one wetland that we explored and got to know rather personally–from the soles of our feet), full of future life and opportunity.
Spanning it all, we hiked thirteen miles through snow, ice, mud, and water, and found five of six geocaches, including completing the birthday baker’s dozen list.
The fact that we didn’t find one is driving my guy a bit buggy and we actually returned to the location, but to no avail. He’s bound and determined, so I have a feeling we’ll look in that spot again. But overall, we felt successful and appreciated that our quest led us to a mountain lake we’ve enjoyed in other seasons, but not this one, and new vistas/locations where nature provided moments of wonder.
Despite all the clues from fading otter prints . . .
and not so deep moose tracks . . .
to reverse tracks raised above the snow cover as a result of a frozen crust followed by wind and warmer temperatures.
But still, somehow I was fooled into thinking winter would hold its grasp for a wee bit longer because I don’t like to let it go. The faces hiding in the ice knew otherwise.
As did the constitution of pond ice that despite recent brisk days and nights began to react to the sun’s rays and display the tea-stained color of organic matter decomposing in the water below.
Even Winter Dark Fireflies, who don’t carry lanterns like their summer cousins, and aren’t even flies as their name suggests (they are beetles), knew what was happening before I did for in their adult form they’d been tucked under bark in recent months, but in a flash are now visible on many a tree trunk as they prepare to mate in a few weeks.
The same is true of the Winter Stoneflies who only recently started crawling out of the water. and drumming as an announcement that they too are ready to let the mating season begin.
The birch trees also knew before I did and made sure to let last year’s catkins release their scaled fleur de lis, thus scattering the seeds that look like tiny winged insects upon the snow where they’ll join the melt down and eventually find a moist spot upon which to germinate.
And so it is that spring snuck in a few days after St. Patrick’s Day as it always does, but still surprising me and now I join others and anticipate the changes to come.
But . . . there’s something different about this spring. Oh, I’ll still stalk vernal pools until they dry up.
I’ll marvel at each and every tiny bud preparing to bloom like those of Trailing Arbutus.
I’ll spy on spiders and insects for hours on end.
I’ll continue to look for fine specimens of scat, including otter filled with shiny, mica-like fish scales . . .
and coyote that at first glance I might think is bobcat, but the tapered ends offer one hint of its owner . . .
and the sight of bones and toenails tucked within remind me that bobcats are true carnivores who grind the contents of a meal so no bones are typically visible in their deposits, while such do show due to the omnivore appetite of a candid. I will be sure to question the meal based on the color of the fur as well as the contents.
But . . . this spring will be different. Yes, such was the same a year ago when we all moved into our bubbles. Now, though, there’s a glimpse of hope on the horizon and with that comes an assimilation to being with others and I can’t help but wonder, how will I react? I’ve become so accustomed to this forced insulation, and I have to admit that there are parts of it that haven’t bothered me, perhaps because I don’t mind being in my own space.
The question has been on my mind a lot lately and the answer flew in this morning as I listened in on a ZOOM church service. Just as it was to begin a small flock of Common Redpolls arrived to check out our birdfeeders.
“Invite in” were the words I heard another utter on the computer screen.
Indeed. Each day this past week, the variety of birds at the feeders grows, some species arriving at their breeding grounds, while others like the Redpolls pause before passing through. For the most part, our feathered friends accept the presence of others. An over-the-shoulder look being what it is, they remind me that I must behave like them and be open to opportunities.
As the snow melts, I realize that I must share space with all who wander here . . .
including the deer who tried to walk the labyrinth path.
The Invitation Stands. Spring is indeed here and I invite you to join me for a wander when you are able so we can wonder about nature’s communities together. I look forward to welcoming you back with a smile . . . though please don’t expect a hug.
Like so many others, we had hoped to venture back to the Emerald Isle in 2020, but “you know what” prevented that from happening. And so it sits on our “To Do” list, right there beside clean the barn and replace the stairway carpet.
In the meantime, however, we have memories from an Irish honeymoon in 1990 and a return visit in 2016. You might have read the latter here, but maybe like us, you’ll enjoy refreshing the memory on this St. Patrick’s Day. So sit back with a glass of Guinness and enjoy the journey.
My guy and I journeyed via bus, car and foot across northern and eastern Ireland these past two weeks. Our main agenda–a vacation in the land where twenty-six years and two months ago we celebrated our honeymoon. We both also had semi-hidden agendas–his to seek out ancestral roots, mine to search as well, though my quest wasn’t quite so clear.
Our journey began after we dumped our bags at the hotel, where our room wasn’t yet ready, and crossed the River Liffey in Dublin. It was to the right that we’d parked a rental car 26 years previously as we searched for traditional music and supper, only to return hours later and discover that the driver’s side window had been smashed and our video camera stolen. All these years I’ve held a sour view of the Fair City and so I felt a bit nervous as we stepped forth.
The feeling began to wane immediately, for as we approached a street corner and chatted about locating the library, a Dubliner overheard us and assumed we were looking for Trinity College (founded in 1592). We decided to play along and followed his directions–thankfully. It was “Welcome Freshers” week and the quad swelled with activity tents, music and students anticipating the year ahead. We passed among the frivolity and found the self-guided tour of the 18th century Old Library and that most ancient of manuscripts–the Book of Kells, a 9th century book featuring a richly decorated copy of the four Gospels of the life of Jesus Christ. A favorite discovery: the monks used oak apple galls to create ink–apparently, they crushed the galls and soaked them in rainwater, wine or beer until they softened. I’ve got to try this.
While (or whilst as the Irish say) no photos were allowed in the Treasury where the manuscripts are stored, equally impressive was the Long Room, which houses 200,000 of the library’s oldest books in ancient oak bookcases. Just thinking about the centuries we were encountering was mind boggling, enhanced of course, by a lack of sleep.
A few hours later, we made our way back to the hotel, enjoying the architecture and flowers as we walked along. At last, we could check in and so we checked out–a rejuvenating nap essential to our well being.
Rested and showered, we hopped aboard a bus–our next destination, the Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate Brewery. The 250-year story of Guinness® is portrayed on five floors in a building designed in the shape of a pint. What’s not to like about that.
We learned about the process of creating beer, and then there was the whistling oyster, one of the many icons of the Guinness® brand.
After taking in the full story, we reached the Gravity Bar, where ticket holders may each sip a complimentary foam-topped pint. The museum was preparing to close and the bartenders made the last call. My guy asked if we could purchase a second pint and we learned that they don’t sell any, but he kindly slipped us two. Don’t tell.
The Gravity Bar offers 360˚ views of the city.
And the view includes the Wicklow Mountains, our intended destination for week 2.
If you hear my guy tell this story, he’ll say that we were told it was a 45 minute walk from our hotel to the Storehouse, but a short bus ride. We rode the bus there, but later weren’t sure where we should queue for the ride back, so we decided to walk instead. According to him, it took us five hours to make that 45 minute walk. I’m not sure it was quite that long, but we did stop at The Temple Bar for the music and a few other prime spots to eat and sip a wee bit more.
The next morning we set out for the National Library, which had actually been our intended destination the previous day–but who can deny enjoying the Book of Kells exhibit. My guy was hopeful that the genealogists at the library would help him make some connections, but without knowing parishes he hit a bit of a stonewall.
And so we left the Fair City with much fonder memories, took a bus to the airport, picked up our rental car, and ventured on. Oy vey. If you’ve ever watched the BBC program, “Keeping Up Appearances,” you’ll appreciate that I was Hyacinth to my guy’s Richard. “Mind the pedestrian,” I’d say. “I’m minding the pedestrian,” he’d respond.
Our first stop, Newgrange, a Neolithic passage tomb alleged to be older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids. Constructed during the Stone Age, about 5,200 years ago, Newgrange is a large circular mound that covers 300 feet in diameter and stands 36 feet high. A stone passageway leads to three small chambers. Some describe it as an ancient temple, a place of astrological, spiritual and ceremonial importance. Our guide told us that bones were found here and it may have been a place for worship as well as where people were laid to rest. We were in awe of its structure and the fact that the passageway is oriented northward allowing the sun to illuminate it during the winter solstice.
Yes, the railings are new, but this is possibly the oldest building in the world. That’s worth repeating–the oldest building in the world. We had to bend low to enter and then squeeze between the walls as we walked toward the center, where three small chambers with stone basins created a cross-like structural plan. Even as we stood with others in darkness and waited for a beam of artificial light to demonstrate the real thing, we couldn’t quite fathom what we were witnessing.
Our awe continued within the center and by the entrance stone, where we witnessed megalithic art. The spirals reminded me of labyrinths, but we’ll never know their true significance. And that’s OK.
By the time we arrived at Carlingford, it was pouring and we had no idea where to stay. We stopped at a hotel, which was full–thankfully. They suggested the Ghan House, a Georgian House set within three acres of walled gardens. It was our most posh stay and we didn’t truly appreciate it until the next morning when the sun shone brilliantly.
The Ghan House is located just a stone’s throw from the Thoisel or town gate leading into the narrow streets of the town centre, where we found Ma Baker’s in the rain, a welcoming pub frequented by the locals, who laughed and joked and reminded us that the Irish love to sip a pint, tease each other and tell stories no matter what the weather might be out the door. And they don’t care about spelling, punctuation or run-ons. Life is too short for that–note to self.
The tide was low when we walked along the lough the next morning and took in King John’s Castle, which was initially constructed by Hugh De Lacy in 1190, though it wasn’t completed until 1261. Purportedly, King John, the brother of Richard the Lionhearted, visited in 1210, and thus the name for this Norman structure.
From Carlingford, we travelled north and did what we had wanted to do 26 years prior; we crossed into Northern Ireland. On our previous adventure, we’d journeyed as far as Letterkenny in the northern part of the Republic of Ireland, only a half hour from Derry. But that was then, the time of The Troubles, and we didn’t dare to cross the border. Again, my guy was seeking ancestors and at the Welcome Center he was told to visit the Tower Museum where Brian Mitchell would be able to provide some help. We were too late when we climbed down from the wall to the museum, so we did what the Irish would do–when in Rome–we found a pub and had a nice chat with a young man who had recently returned to Derry in search of work. We also walked around the city, taking in the sites made famous by The Troubles. And the following morning we again returned to the museum, where the curator told us that Brian would probably show up around 11am. So, we paid for a self-guided tour and learned about the town’s colorful and dramatic past through “The Story of Derry.” At 11:30 we once again went in search of Mr. Mitchell, only to learn that he was out and about somewhere. Since we needed to check out of our room, we decided that our Derry experience was over, but Mr. Mitchell did respond to an e-mail and so my guy has some more resources to consider.
Our next stop, Portrush, a resort town along the Atlantic and on the northern fringe of Ireland. After checking in at the Antrim House B&B, we headed off along the Coastal Scenic Route to Carrick-a-Rede Island. Carrick-a-Rede is from the Scottish Gaelic term, Carriage-a-Rade, meaning the rock in the road.
And the road is presumably the sea route for Atlantic salmon that were once fished here prolifically. In fact, so prolifically, that the fishery is no longer viable. In order to reach the best places to catch the migrating salmon, for 350 years fishermen crossed regularly to the island.
One hundred feet above the sea, the fishermen crossed the 60-foot chasm via a rope bridge to check their nets. Of course, they had only one rope, not the steel and plank structure that we crossed. That being said, it was quite windy and the bridge did sway.
We put our fear of heights behind us and made our way across.
Did he just do that? Yup.
And I followed.
Our views included Raithlin Island, the northernmost point of Ireland.
Our next wonder–the Giant’s Causeway, a geological phenomenon of 40,000 basalt stone columns formed by volcanic eruptions over 60 million years ago.
These hexagonal tubes stacked together like cans on a shelf offer yet another mystical and magical look at the world, one that the Irish embraced by creating legends to explain their existence–Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), an Irish giant, was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Good old Fionn accepted said challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two could meet. There are two endings so take your pick: In one version, Fionn defeats Benandonner, but in another, he hides from Benandonner because he realizes his foe is much bigger. Fionn’s wife, Oonagh, disguises her husband as a baby and tucks him in a cradle. When Benandonner sees the size of the “baby,” he fears that its father, Fionn, must be the biggest giant of them all. Benandonner flees back to Scotland in fright, but makes sure to destroy the causeway behind him so he won’t be followed by Fionn.
My guy found a spot to take in the giant’s viewpoint.
As we made our way back toward Portrush, we paused at Dunluce Castle. We couldn’t go in because it had closed for the day, but we could still see part of the castle town that was developed in the early 1600s.
Originally built by one clan in the early 1500s, it was seized by another in the mid 1500s. Its history includes rebellions and intrigue.
Included in its dramatic history are tales of how the castle kitchens fell into the sea one stormy night in 1639. We couldn’t help but wonder if the same happened to the wall.
Back in Portrush finally, our own tale continued. At the suggestion of our hostess, we walked to the Harbour Bar for dinner.
While we waited for a table, we paused in the wee pub, as they call it. A few minutes later, two guys walked in with a trophy and made a big fuss about its placement among the best bottles of whiskey.
At the time, I was standing to the right of the gentleman in the middle and so I asked him about the trophy. He explained that when you participate in the Ryder Cup you receive a replica. My guy immediately realized that I was talking to a famous Irish golfer, he just couldn’t put a name with the face. On the wall above, we could see photos of him, but we weren’t close enough to read the signatures.
It turns out we were in the presence of Darren Clarke, the European Ryder Cup captain for 2016. We didn’t know that until we went to check on our table and asked. One of the bartenders encouraged us to stay for the send-off, so we did. Everyone donned a D.C. mask (at 00:16, if you look quickly to the back left, you might see my scraggly hair behind a mask)–and sang “Shoulder to shoulder, we’ll answer Darren’s call.” We were included as the North American entourage.
While I got Darren’s autograph on one of the masks, my guy befriended Willie, the bar manager.
The next morning, after a traditional Irish breakfast, we toured the downtown. Ireland amazes us–the temperature was chilly and yet the flowers were gorgeous. And palm trees grow throughout the country.
Upon our departure, our hostess suggested we follow the coastal route to Murlough Bay and so we did. And took a wrong turn that lead down a dead-end to a gate with a sign warning us that guard dogs were on site. With caution, my guy backed up the lane until he could turn the car around. Our hostess had also told us not to park at the upper lot for Murlough Bay, but instead to drive down. I insisted upon the upper lot given that the road had at least a 10% pitch. So we walked down. And down. And down some more.
Upon our descent, the light at a distant lighthouse beckoned in the background as Fairhead came into view.
The coastline was as dramatic as we’d been promised. And I was glad we’d walked because the drive would have been even more dramatic with Hyacinth in the passenger seat.
This area may appear familiar to viewers of Game of Thrones–including the site of Stormlands.
After a hike back up the road, we drove on to take in the scenery of Torr Head. The road narrowed significantly as it twisted and turned along the coast. And then . . . we met a porsche rally. As best he could, my guy squeezed our car past them. And as soon as he could, we got off the coastal route and drove on to Belfast. It was late in the day and pouring when we arrived. By the time we parked in city centre and walked to the Welcome Center, we were drenched. And disappointed. There was no where to stay in town and we’d have to move on. But . . . then one final effort proved that a hotel was available. We should have questioned if for the price. Well, actually I did, but we were told that it was a fine place and served as a conference center. So we took it. And couldn’t wait to get out of there. Fortunately, we found some Irish music back in town and a delightful meal of locally harvested food. All we needed to do was sleep in the rathole, though even that didn’t work so well.
The next morning we took in the Titanic Museum and stepped aboard one of its tenderfoot boats, the Nomadic.
A dose of coffee and I was ready to take the helm. And if you are wondering if it’s windy every day in Ireland, the answer is yes. It also rains at some point each day. Our time in Northern Ireland was over, but except for that one accommodation, we’d had a wonderful and wonder-filled time.
As we worked our way south, we spent a night at a delightful B&B in Navan, which featured more traditional music and a place to relax. On Monday morning, we finally headed to the cottage we’d rented in the town of Laragh–Glendale Holiday Cottages–we highly recommend. Our host, Christy, was extremely accommodating, the cottage spacious and amenities plentiful.
We’d chosen this location because it was a five minute walk to the pub and restaurant in Laragh, located in the Wicklow Mountains, and near the Glendalough monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century.
Forty shades of green and Brigadoon all came to mind as we approached the monastic settlement and its round tower.
St. Kevin’s kitchen is actually a 12th century church, so named because it was believed that the bell tower was a kitchen chimney. Apparently, however, no food was ever cooked there. But . . . if you think of the word of God as food, then perhaps many a feast was actually served.
From the altar window in the cathedral, the largest of seven churches within the monastic city, a view of the world beyond was offered.
Likewise, we could see the world within, including the Priest House in the background.
And everywhere, gravestones told the story of many who’d passed this way.
A little closer to Laragh, Trinity Church.
Upper Glendalough was the jumping off point for our initial hike upon the Wicklow Way.
We paused beside Poulanass Falls before zigzagging our way up the first trail.
Sheep merely looked up to acknowledge our passing. We, however, needed to pay more attention for sheep shit was prolific.
Tree felling was also a frequent sight, but we noted a unique (to us anyway) method of reforestation–in this case the Sitka spruces and Scots pines being felled were replaced by mountain ash saplings. One other thing we wondered about–the plastic sleeves–we saw some that had fallen away as trees grew, but were left in place. Biodegradable? We could only hope.
We spent three full days on the trail, not covering all of it, but a good portion as we hiked 10-15 miles each day.
Our journey took us over boggy portions,
down grassy sections,
on village lanes,
through the black forest,
and into the future.
Frequently, we had to stop, reread the directions and study the map, but more often the route was self-explanatory.
Along one section that was particularly muddy due to frequent horse crossings, we made a discovery unique to us.
A badger print. Sadly, or maybe happily to locals, we saw a dead badger on one of the lanes not far from this print. Related? We’ll never know.
We saw deer, one rabbit and two red squirrels.
Writing of the latter, we chuckled when we encountered this sign because we have frequent encounters with them at home. But considering we only saw two in two weeks and spent most of our days outside, we had to wonder.
and Three (pronounced Tree) tolerated our presence.
And Bessie Four made us laugh–as she stood upon a wall.
Though we passed through pasture after pasture and by many a farm and barn, we never saw any farmers, but knew that they were hard at work preparing for winter.
And one even offered us nourishment.
Our path included obstacles, though most were easy to overcome from a rope loop
to a simple step or
Only once were we uncertain. The stile was padlocked and there was no step or ladder. We finally decided to climb up over the gate in hopes that there wasn’t a bull on the other side. Usually though, a beware of bull sign announced their presence and no such sign marked that particular crossing–phew.
Our days ended with a stop at the local pub because Guinness® is good for you. I actually overheard an older woman telling her significant other the truth behind this. Apparently, when this woman’s mother had been in hospital years before, she was given Guinness® to drink each morning and evening–perhaps for its iron content. Or perhaps just because it’s good for you.
One of our stops was at the smallest and oldest pub in the nation–the Dying Cow. Mr. Dolan sat behind the bar sipping a Guinness® along with us as he and my guy got into a discussion about American politics. We noted that to be a hot topic. Our reason for finding this pub was because we’d walked into Tenahely after a fifteen miler and were about to step into Murphy’s for a pint when a gentleman sitting outside started chatting with us. He suggested we head off down the road because we needed to experience this tiny bar and he would have joined us but he’d just ordered his pint and didn’t want to waste it.
We followed the directions he wrote out for us, and missed the 1798 monument at first, but retraced our route and found it. We only wish he’d then told us how to get back to Laragh. That took a while, but eventually we found our way home.
Our views from the Wicklow Way were worthy of wonder.
And the ever present clouds added to the drama.
The land resembled a patchwork quilt.
No matter where we looked, it was forever changing.
Some of our fun discoveries included chestnut trees,
black slugs, and . . .
the crème de la crème–bear claw marks! Did Bear Gryllz really leave his signature on the trail behind the Glendalough Hotel?
When we weren’t hiking, we explored the area, including Wicklow and its stone beach.
We didn’t understand this ship at first until my guy asked–meet Wavewalker, a maintenance boat for Ireland’s Offshore Windfarm.
Across the harbor, we spied the remains of a castle that invited a closer look.
It seems Black Castle was constantly under siege and totally destroyed in 1301. And yet–I felt a presence still there.
Do you see his face?
The oldest mill in Ireland also drew our attention–Avoca Handweavers Mill was established in 1723.
It was the home of color with attitude.
Upclose and personal, we saw the inner workings.
And marveled at the creative results.
Our last full day in Ireland found us in Carlow. Standing beside the River Barrow, this castle was thought to once be a stronghold and it survived attacks in the 1400s and 1600s. According to local lore, a physician set out to remodel it into an asylum in the early 1800s. As he tried to demolish the interior, he placed explosive charges near its base and accidentally destroyed all but the remaining west wall and twin towers. Uh oh.
As happened daily, the weather quickly changed from blue sky to raindrops. Swans in the River Barrow didn’t care. They were in their element.
My guy counted while I photographed. Thirty some odd–all wishful that we’d brought good tidings in the form of bread. Not to be much to their dismay. Despite that, we were treated to several displays.
And later that night, a display of sun and clouds as we went in search of supper.
Our final night was spent at the Green Lane B&B in Carlow where Pat and Noeleen took special care of us. My guy watched the GAA football game with Pat, their grandson Sam helped us print out our airline tickets and Noeleen made sure we had toll money for our journey to the airport. And then there was the breakfast–the finest we’d enjoyed.
Think eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon, sausage, white pudding, toast and Irish soda bread. And they wanted to know if we wanted porridge and cereal. Really?
Before we checked out, I made my guy drive to this field ensconced in an Irish mist.
The fog seemed apropos for our walk out to the Browneshill Dolmen. This was a burial chamber that may have originally been covered with earth.
My guy stands almost six feet tall, so his height provided a sense of size.
The two more pointed stones on either side of the squared stone were known as portal stones that would have supported the granite capstone or chamber roof. The squared stone in the center was probably the gate stone that blocked the entrance. This site has not been excavated so there’s no other info about it, but just standing in its presence and considering those who came before and created such was enough.
And then there were the spider webs. I’d missed them as we’d walked toward the dolmen, but they captured my attention all the way back. From prehistoric to present, the structures before us were breathtaking.
And when we finally pulled out of the B&B driveway on our way to the airport, I asked my guy to stop while I jumped out of the car. What a sight to behold–web ornaments. A perfect ending to our vacation.
My guy meet several roadblocks on his search for roots, but at the same time, he learned about some new avenues that may help in his quest. And I, I wished for more time to understand all that was before me from prehistoric to present–but maybe I sought answers that don’t need to be. Having the questions might be enough.
Together, we were grateful for our Hyacinth and Richard Adventure on the Emerald Isle. And glad to return the car safely to the rental agency.
I awoke early, filled with concern for Greater Lovell Land Trust’s March Madness hike planned for today. The wind was blowing and the temperature had dropped significantly after several days of “Fake Spring.” Would volunteer docents and staff be ok in parking lots and summits at GLLT’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve where we were encouraging people to climb one, two, or all three “peaks”?
We had it all planned–“snowman” passports available in the parking lots, along with trail maps, healthy snacks, magazines, and advice. Oh, and a donation jar 😉
At each summit, participants would have their passports stamped and choose one GLLT/nature-related swag item.
But that wind. A check of the weather report, thankfully, promised that the wind advisory suggesting gusts up to 45 mph, would end by 10am. Our event was planned to begin at 9:30. As I wrote in an email to volunteers and staff, “Let’s go for it.” No one balked. One replied, “We’ll be there.” And another wrote, “They don’t call in March Madness for nuthin’.”
After making sure everyone was set, at parking lot #4 on Route 5 in Lovell I opened the back of my truck to display the offerings. Our talented executive director had created a snowman out of the three summits, one of them actually being the snowball, and the buttoned breast serving as connector trails.
For the first two hours or so, my only companions were chipmunks, which despite, or maybe because of the cold, ran frantically from one side of the trail to the other, in and out of holes, and disappearing at one section of stone wall, while a short time later reappearing at another. Or was that a different chipmunk?
I counted four, but really, there could have been more for they entered and exited so frequently. Meanwhile, I was also on the move in an attempt to stay warm. The wind may not have been gusting per se, but it was rather breezy and certainly quite chilly.
And so I walked (and sometimes ran) around the parking lot and about a tenth of a mile up the trail, over and over again. In a way I wish I’d tracked my trail, because it would have looked as if I was indeed mad.
But . . . I made discoveries, including raccoon prints in the mud,
Yellow birch catkins flying like flags upon their twigs over my head,
and their associated trunk showing off its curly bark.
A Red Maple sported the perfect target fungus that I often mention to others, who can’t always see the bulls-eye pattern.
And somehow, though I’ve walked this trail many times over many years, I’ve never spotted the burnt potato-chip bark of a Black Cherry right beside the path before.
I also learned something about chipmunks. They scampered for several hours, but early afternoon must be siesta time and I never did see any of them again, though I checked frequently.
By 11:30, participants began to pull into the lot and I felt a certain sense of relief. Being without cell phone reception, I had no idea how things were going with anyone else, but gave thanks that people wanted to participate in the hike and had learned about it from several forms of media.
As they hiked, my parking lot meandering continued, though the space to move shrunk due to their parked vehicles.
With the chipmunks no longer offering entertainment, I decided to add an examination of the kiosk to my point of view.
Upon it I found a bunch of larval bagworm moths, their structure such that they remind me of the caddisflies I’ll soon be looking for as waterways open.
Another frequent observation at any kiosk is the cocoon structure of tussock moths. This one didn’t let me down.
Speaking of down, it was down that my eyes were next drawn and I spotted an old apple oak gall that curiously sported two exit holes–or had someone dined upon the goods once forming inside. How it survived two feet of snow and retained its global shape stymied me. Another thought though is that it may have remained attached the tree for a long time and only recently blew to the ground.
While I considered that, something hopped. Seriously.
The hopper turned out to be a . . . grasshopper instar. A what? An instar is a phase between two periods of molting in the development of an insect larva or other invertebrate animal. Think of it as a nymph, if you will.
Spying one seemed an anomaly, but . . . I spied three more upon the snow.
They couldn’t yet fly, but they certainly could hop up to three feet despite their diminutive size of about 2 centimeters. Their direction wasn’t always forward, but sometimes more sideways.
In the end, thirteen folks hiked from my lot and the others had 12 and 9, so I’d call the first annual March Madness a success. All volunteers and staff stayed sorta warm–each finding their own way to do so.
As for me, I somehow managed to cover 7.8 miles in a small space and found myself smiling frequently as March Madness was really March Gladness.
The tale of this date really began on Sunday, February 28, when my guy and I decided that if possible we’d like to hike a trail up Pleasant Mountain. Knowing how popular all of the trails have been in the past year, and how careful we’ve been to choose those less traveled, we had a few plans in mind. Plan A: Bald Peak Trail. Cancel that plan due to too many cars in the parking lot. Plan B: Ledges Trail. Cancel that plan due to not only the parking lot being full, but cars parked all along Mountain Road; something Loon Echo Land Trust, which owns 2,064 acres on the mountain and protects an additional 24 acres through a conservation easement, has asked people not to do. Plan C: Southwest Ridge Trail. See Plan B. Plan D: Firewarden’s Trail. Tada. Only three vehicles and so we pulled in. Mind you, on the way to the latter we did develop a Plan E, but we quickly put that on hold for another day and donned our micro-spikes.
And so it was that in the mid-afternoon we began to climb up the trail that also serves as a snowmobile trail. But back in the day, this was the route not only to a hotel that stood upon the summit in the early1900s, but also for fire wardens to reach the surveillance tower erected in 1920.
As an old tote road, it can be quite rough and I find it hard to believe it was a comfortable ride, but a family of four on two snowmobiles found it to be a fun adventure.
Because of them, our ascent was rather quick, with pauses to get out of the way for the two machines, as well as one hiker and one snowboarder.
Near the summit, we paused again, at the old lightning shack.
The wardens’ or watchmens’ cabin was actually located lower down on the trail. If there was a lightning storm, however, the observers couldn’t get down the mountain to the cabin, so instead, they built this structure near the tower, which served as a lightning shack.
It was obvious by the signatures inside that since the tower was decommissioned in the early 1990s, others have found it a haven.
Just above is the fire tower built in 1920 and manned until 1991 when the state switched to aerial surveillance. It’s my understanding that originally it was 48 feet tall, but in 1968 when the cab at the top was replaced, it was lowered to 36 feet.
There’s something about coming upon it at the top that always brings to me a sense of awe. I suppose it’s the historical significance and admiration for those who remained there for the fire season–keeping an eye on the forest for as far as they could see with binoculars and scopes no matter what the weather might be. According to the Forest Fire Lookout Association’s Maine Chapter: “The very early lookouts used a transverse table with scopes and later the department issued high-powered binoculars. Opening day for lookouts was heavily dependent on how the winter was. Typical openings were in April and closing was in late September or early October. It was also dependent on location. Southern Maine usually had a longer season than northern Maine and the higher elevation peaks.”
Just prior to reaching the tower and summit we’d wondered how many people we might encounter. At least twenty was our assumption for so many vehicles filled the parking lots. It was with great delight that we discovered we had the place to ourselves, though on that day a storm was brewing and the view wasn’t as spectacular as it is on other days.
Upon our descent we decided we’d return the next day and follow two other trails–that is until that storm that was brewing crashed our party and forced us to stay home.
Today, however, dawned with a blue-bird sky and so we decided to take two trucks and if all went as planned, my guy would park at the base of the Ledges Trail and hop in with me in hopes that we could begin our ascent at the Southwest Ridge Trail.
Success. His was the only truck in the lot mid-morning. And at the Southwest Ridge there were only two other vehicles. And so we began to climb, turning back from time to time to take in the view–initially of Pleasant and Lovewell Ponds.
Being well-packed by so many others over this past weekend made for a much easier climb than on a summer day when one has to contend with rocks and other trail obstructions.
It seemed like in no time, we reached the teepee, where we stopped for a quick break before continuing on.
Oh, and a selfie for good measure.
Zooming along as we were doing, I did make one naturalist discovery–rhizomorphs or black, stringy mycelial cords of a fungus. Though I’ve seen this before, I’m not sure I’ve ever discovered the tendrils coating a dead but standing tree like a lacy shawl, with some even dangling as if fashionably draped.
Onward we charged after that brief break, for we had the summit on our minds and lunch in the pack that I was carrying.
For those of you who like a challenge of locating something in the distance, think of my guy’s head as the center of a clock. And then look up toward one o’clock. Do you see the cab of the fire tower?
How ’bout now?
With three plus miles behind us and only one hiker and one telemark skier encounter, we reached the summit on this glorious day.
And again had it to ourselves, though my guy quickly claimed lunch rock. Just in case we had competition.
Looking behind us we could see from whence we had come sorta. including the cellphone towers on the Southwest Ridge. Some scorn them, but so many of us depend upon them.
The white trails you see, one a road below the cell towers that some scorn, but so many of us depend upon, and the other belonging to a private landowner, aren’t the trail we followed for Loon Echo rerouted a section taking hikers away through the woods instead of near those towers of another kind.
More spectacularly, however, was the view before us, with Mount Washington adding a striking backdrop.
Do note the four dead trees in the foreground: they are (or were) Red Pines that were killed off by a pine scale insect within the last ten years or so. The insect is believed to have been introduced to the US on exotic pines planted at the NY World’s Fair in 1939.
Since we had such an incredibly clear wide-angled view (and unlike any fire watchers didn’t have to think about whether what we might be seeing was a wisp of smoke or a wispy cloud for there was no sign of either) of the surrounding mountains with lakes and ponds and Saco River between, gave a true idea of a glacial lake in its time.
Through a telephoto lens we pulled in the grand mountain of the Northeast in, and even the rime-ice coated buildings at the summit of Mount Washington were visible.
Eventually leaving all that behind, we remembered to hike down the Ledges Trail rather than backtracking, and completed 5.8 miles in about three hours–making for a Pleasant Mountain Mondate on every level.
Despite a frigid temp and wind chill in the negative numbers, today was a day to head out the door and check on an old friend or two. I wasn’t sure I’d find either, but since so many work from home these days it was worth taking a chance.
Two years ago there was evidence that the first had spent some time sleeping in the den, but on that day, though I knocked and knocked, no one answered the door.
This morning, however, I spotted the family name hanging on a shingle right by the front door and suspected a greeting in my future.
Beads of sap accessorized a brand new tapestry of grooves that spelled out Erethizon dorsatum, aka North American Porcupine. And my heart began to sing. Maybe. Just maybe.
To the front door I again ventured. And noted that familiar pattern of tracks on the welcome mat. Maybe. Just maybe.
My heart stilled. After years of stalking a variety of porcupines, this was a first for me–to actually spy one within its winter den. And in so doing, I garnered a keen look at its quill-covered backside and tail. A porcupine’s body is covered with at least 30,000 quills on its back, shoulders and the upper surface of its tail, but it’s not only those large stiff hairs that complete the animal’s coat. Their fur also includes fine hair as you can see in the mix here.
We visited for a bit, but I soon realized our conversation was one-sided–me asking questions and answering for my friend who slept quietly in hopes of gathering energy for a night-time feeding frenzy.
Eventually, I moved along the trail, that is until I noted where my friend, or one of its kin, had crossed and descended down the steep ledge, a path I chose not to take.
Turning in the opposite direction, I decided instead to follow a track which turned into an intersection of roadways–all created by my friend.
Step into the living room as I did today. By the dropped hemlock twigs, I recognized the carpet design on the floor.
Angle-nipped twigs were part of the room’s wall decorations.
Dribbles of pee, and there were lots of them, added to the aura, some of it a few days old.
Other samples were more recently shared.
And scattered among it all, like dust-bunnies in any room . . . SCAT!
Upon a hemlock frequently visited for that’s what porcupines do, frequent the same tree year in and year out that is, I spied claw marks indicating the staircase upon the uneven bark substrate.
And so it was that because I was in the vicinity, I decided to check on my other friend who lives about a tenth of a mile away. The last time I visited in November 2020, it was obvious that my pal had been by, though I couldn’t say exactly the last time this bedroom had been used.
Spotting a track in the right locale, I decided to see where it might lead.
Bingo. Tracks and even a few scats led to a small opening below the boulder.
Like with my other friend, on hands and knees I went and was well rewarded.
Notice how porky friend one and two both had their tails facing out–a defensive move incase a predator shows up and needs a little needling to remind it of who is boss. But . . . being a friend, I felt honored to be able to spend a few minutes with each–neither of us disturbed by the other.
Having spent that time with those two friends, I did feel a bit of porcupine greed and went in search of several other friends located in different areas. I really wanted an eye-to-eye meeting like this one in January, but still . . . today I was blessed with a tail-end greeting of my porky friends and who can complain about such?
Today’s adventure began earlier than most because we hoped to beat the snowstorm and so over bumpy roads did we travel to an old favorite. Actually, it’s a favorite we haven’t visited in at least a year because on one approach there were so many cars parked along the roadway that we knew the trails would be crowded so we found a spot to turn around and skedaddled out of there. And with the overcrowding of trails in mind, we’ve spent a lot of time finding the those less traveled, and not always mentioning our location. But . . . finally, we returned to this one.
One of the reasons I love the winter trek is that the road upon which everyone parks from spring through fall isn’t plowed, so one must walk in. And do what I always do–check the telephone poles for bear hair.
Whether it’s the creosote on the pole, the hum of electricity riddling high above on the wires, or something new and shiny in their territory, bears are attracted and rub their backs against the object as they turn their heads to nip and bite. The jagged horizontal lines speak to the upper incisors scraping the wood as they reach toward the lower incisors. And the shiny numbers that marked the pole–all that is left is a notation in the power company’s data base.
The thing is: we always check the poles along this stretch when we hike in on the road. And we’re always rewarded for our efforts. Do note the color of the hair–bleached by the sun, a Black Bear’s hair turns ginger.
Almost a mile in we reached the starting point for our expedition as a few flurries fluttered from the sky. Much but not all of the Stone House property is conserved under an easement with Greater Lovell Land Trust.
Our plan was to continue down the road, then turn right onto the Shell Pond Trail system.
All along the road we’d noted tracks galore of mice, squirrels, hares, foxes, fishers, coyotes and weasels.
The snow was well packed, but we weren’t sure that would be the case when we turned onto the intended trail.
It was, and so having donned our micro-cleats, and carried our snowshoes, we decided to ditch the latter behind a tree. And crossing over the trail at said tree, a bobcat track, complete with a classic segmented bobcat scat. Did I mention that we almost always encounter bobcat tracks here and that we often store our snowshoes, deciding that we should be just fine without them?
At the first bridge, we paused and I hoped against hope we’d see signs of an otter. Or even the real deal.
No such luck, but there was a mink track by the edge of the water. It’s often one or the other that we expect to see here.
Ditching the snowshoes, like always proved to be a good idea as our progress was much quieter (and quicker–but then again, any hike with my guy is rather on the quick side no matter the distance). Only occasionally did we punch holes into the snow.
On a couple of occasions my post-holing was intentional for I spied woodpecker trees.
The debris below each meant the bird had spent a lot of time excavating.
And the depth of the excavations meant it must have found delightful little carpenter ants and maybe some beetles to dine upon. What do I always do when I see such a refuse pile? Examine it for scat, of course. At the first tree, I found none and worried that either the bird had gone hungry or was constipated.
I was just about to stomp back to the trail after looking about below the second tree when the pièce de résistance caught my attention. The bird wasn’t starving and didn’t have digestive issues after all.
And then there’s another tree that begs to be honored with each passing and so we always do. Today the burl gave us the feeling that we might be passing through the Jurassic period, albeit snow taking the place of lush vegetation.
At last we reached the bench, or at least the top of it, and my guy turned from Shell Pond to clean it off for lunch.
Our traditional PB&J sandwiches unwrapped, we took in the view and watched the clouds play as they danced across the mountain range.
At last we continued on in the area where Peregrin Falcons will soon nest (or so we hope) on the cliffs above, and if you follow us frequently, you may note that at first my guy doesn’t have the Curious Traveller pack on his back. Once lunch is eaten and more water consumed, he takes the pack and I tease him about it being so much lighter.
The journey took us through the old orchard . . .
across the former airstrip where the clouds parted to reveal some blue sky . . .
and past the privately-owned stone house for which the property is named.
And then, because the snow had held off for the most part, we decided to hike a short distance up the Stone House Trail to Rattlesnake Pool. Surrounded by ice and snow, it had shrunk in size, but still, it’s always worth a visit.
We climbed down and got within about six feet, but chose not to dive in. The emerald green water was enough to revive us.
Because we were there, we also needed to walk in to Rattlesnake Gorge, located south of the pool. Water gurgled in the background, but much of it travelled under the weight of snow and ice.
And when we turned, it was more of the same–a frozen world waiting for the upcoming thaw to free it.
Oh, did I mention that we stowed the backpack before heading up to the pool and gorge, giving my guy even more of a break from hauling it the rest of the way? As we returned to the airfield, the snow was just beginning to fall in earnest.
Remembering to grab our snowshoes, we finally made our way back along the road, past the lemonade stand house, and returned to the truck, completing a seven-mile journey.
We are creatures of habit, as becomes more obvious each day, and we’re thrilled to back at this perennial favorite. To top it all off, we realized that we had the entire property to ourselves today. No Ho Hums about this Mondate.
It’s hard to believe that six years ago I gave birth to wondermyway as a means to record the natural world and all I met along the way.
There’s no need in reminding everyone that since last February it has been quite a year, but I have to say that I’m especially grateful to live where I do, in a place where I CAN wander and wonder on a regular basis.
As I look back through posts of these expeditions, I realize how often nature presents itself in such a way that moments of awe make everything else going on in the world seem so foreign. If only everyone could whisper to a dragonfly upon his or her hand; watch a cicada emerge from its larval form; and even appreciate a snake or two or three.
Join me for a look back at some of my favorite natural encounters of the past year. If you want to remember a particular adventure, click the titled link below each photo.
Wander outdoors if you can and let the anomalies pull you into their realm. I promise, your eyes and your mind will be opened to so many wonders that you’ll resist the urge to move along for so enamored will you be by your finds. Slow down and look and be wowed.
In the end, may it not be an end. May it be a beginning. May you live under the bubbles and give thanks that your bubble is attached to so many others as you share a brain.
We had no intention of eating lunch in this spot today, but while looking for a mountain to climb, we kept encountering full parking lots and so our backroad meander put us beside a bog at lunch time and voilà, we managed to walk all of less than two tenths of a mile. Total.
But in that short distance, our eyes feasted. First it was all the Painted Turtles basking in the sun. And birds. And dragonflies.
I just had to find out. Would he or wouldn’t he? He would and did. Yes, I quietly placed my finger on the leaf and he climbed aboard, then struck a rather relaxed pose. The Dragonfly Whisperer whispers once more.
“My lupine meadow is in full glory!” a friend wrote in an e-mail. And she encouraged visitations. So . . . I went. Actually, we went, for I invited another friend to join me.
Fortunately, I guess, though unfortunately on some levels, we pulled ourselves away by mid-afternoon. But our bug eyes were wide open. In the end, we offered up thanks to our hosts, Linda and Heinrich, for inviting us to enjoy the full glory of their lupines and all the marvels of the meadow.
Beings who once walked the Earth
support new life as summer's serenade
begins to take shape
upon stones that memorialize the past...
On this summer day, hollow cast(ket)s left behind
provide a memory of vulnerable forms.
From soft pastel bodies to wide-faced creatures with bulging eyes,
I get to celebrate cemetery cicadas.
I’m pretty sure I said to the friend whom I met on the dirt road that I never see frogs there except for the painted boulder that has faded with age and I no longer even think to honor with a photograph.
But still, she reminded me, “I’m sure we’ll see something interesting.”
After walking one stretch of the road and only pausing a few times in the hot sun, we hopped back into our vehicles and made our way to a much more shaded location. As we stepped toward the river, in flew a Kingfisher. And we knew we were in for a treat or two or three.
The theme of the week didn’t dawn on me immediately, but a few days into it and I knew how blessed I am.
It was a week for me to realize how important all the young people in my life are from our sons whom I can chat with on the phone to those who have chosen to make this area of western Maine their home and to get to know their place in it. And then to go beyond and share it in a way that benefits the wider community.
Thank you, Hadley, for the opportunity to celebrate your birthday. And thank you Rhyan, Parker, Dan, Jon, Mary, Brent, and Alanna: it’s my utmost pleasure to share the trail with you whenever we can. And to know that the future is in your capable hands.
We are all blessed. Today we crowed Hadley, and in so doing, gloried so many others.
Last week, while walking along a trail I later intended to share with some local kids, a subtle movement caught my attention.
About two thirds of the way along the trail, exactly where I’d spied it two hours prior, the Garter Snake still posed. And the kids got to examine it. And wonder. And exclaim. They went in for a close-up look, thus the snake stuck out its tongue repeatedly in an attempt to get a better sense of who or what might be in its midst.
Snakes have poor eyesight and their hearing ability is limited. Thus they use their nostrils and tongues to pick up scents of prey or predator. By flicking the tongue, they collect odors that the forked prongs relay to two holes in the roof of their mouths, aka Jacobson’s organ. With information transferred from the organ to the brain, they can interpret scents.
For the kids and me, it was this sense: Best. Moment. Of. The. Afternoon.
For the snake: it decided we weren’t worth getting excited about as it made sense of our scents.
My mission was two-fold. Hike up a small mountain and capture a one minute video to post on a work website next week, and retrieve a game camera so we can download the photos and then place in a different location.
First there was the porcupine den, then a beaver tree, and along the way a fungi.
My final sighting of the day, that still has me smiling, occurred in the middle of the adventure, but I wanted to save it for last. Do you see what I saw?
Who cooks for me? I wish this Barred Owl would, for I must now prepare dinner. But that’s okay because I’ll take him with into the kitchen in spirit and give thanks that I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with him . . . all in a day’s work.
Fourteen months ago I wrote Ode to Pinus Strobus, showing my respect for the mighty pines that inhabit our woods. Curiously, it was a rainy day then. And today dawned the same, though even more curiously, today we turned the calendar to December 1, yet the temperature rose to 57˚, like a summer day as we approach winter in western Maine. Because of the temp, the day offered some incredible wonders.
For those who love to wander and wonder, I hope you’ll be still and have an experience similar to what this tree offered me today.
I was early–a rare occasion as usually I’m the one who arrives at least ten minutes after the agreed upon time. It wasn’t always that way, but has become a bad habit. That said, it was a creature of habit that I went in search of because I had some time to spare.
He was up there enjoying the cambium layer of the bark as witnessed by the goldeny color of the branch by his feet. All those downed twigs–apparently they were in his way so he nipped them off and dropped them to the ground in order to get to the nutrients he sought for his winter diet.
Check out his eye. We were both sharp observers as we eyed each other from a distance.
For almost thirty years I’ve roamed this particular wood and for the most part you’ve eluded me.
After finding so many signs year after year, today . . . today I spied an uprooted tree at the very spot I thought might be a good place to stop and spend a few hours in silence. As I made plans to do such in the near future, the tree moved.
And transformed into you!
When at last you and your youngster departed, despite your sizes, it was as if you walked through the forest in silence. My every move comes with a sound like a bull in a china shop, but you . . . Alces alces, you weigh over one thousand pounds, stand six feet at your shoulder, and move through the forest like a ghost. For that reason and because you let me spend some time with you today, February 11 will henceforth mark the day that I celebrate the Ghost of the North Woods.
Thank you to all who have joined me for any or all of these journeys. With each learning or sighting, I get excited and can’t wait to share it with you. I’m not only grateful to be able to wander and wonder, but I’m also thankful for all of you who take the time to read these posts.
“Want to go back to Becky’s?” was the message I received last night.
My instant reply, “Yes!”
And so we did, Pamela M. and I.
We chose Moose Alley as the first trail to follow, though traveling in a counterclockwise pattern to change things up a bit. If you joined us for our journey there a few weeks ago, you’ll recall that we found lots of moose sign and even a few beds. Oh, I know, this is indeed a sign, but . . . it wasn’t exactly what we hoped to discover.
Within seconds of beginning today’s journey, tracks of a snowshoe hare pretending to imitate a snow lobster made themselves known.
We soon began to realize that the hare crossed the trail . . . frequently. One hare? Two? Or even more. One thing we did notice was that there was a least one of a slightly smaller size than the rest and now I regret that we didn’t measure the print and snap a photo. Oh well, maybe the next time. There’s always time for another trip to Becky’s.
There were some domestic dog tracks and we had to remind ourselves not to be confused by those, but we did spy coyote and possibly fisher along the way as well. More certain we were, however, when we occasionally spotted prints on the diagonal of a bounder. We quickly nailed down the identification to either ermine or long-tailed weasel by the size and track pattern.
After a bit, we found another moose sign. But still no moose prints.
So, we decided to explore the land around and beside the bog to see if the moose was just off trail. In our search, we found an old vireo nest tucked away in a beech sapling. On first thought it seemed the bird had built it rather close to the ground, but a second thought was the realization that the ground was probably two feet below our feet for such is the depth of the snow all of a sudden.
We also found a small cottony egg sac on red maple bark and wondered if it was deposited by a moth.
And an intact sawfly cocoon. Quite often we encounter these with perfectly cut lids meaning the adult fly had previously emerged–as in six months previous at least.
But, just as we know we should follow a track for a ways to make a correct identification, or walk all the way around a tree to study its bark, we were also reminded to look at the backside of the cocoon. Had a bird tried to dine? Or perhaps a wasp parasitized the sawfly? We’ve been spending a lot of time lately focused on bug forms in winter, but thankfully still have so much more to learn.
The bog, itself, was beautiful and we followed the edge of it for a wee bit, until that is, we saw water and thought better of our intention to locate the moose for which it was named.
Back on Moose Alley, we made our way downhill and then a depression about fifteen feet off trail stopped us. And, of course, we had to tromp through the snow to check it out. Though we made quite a disturbance with our snowshoes, there was only one possible track about ten feet behind us and five feet off trail. Then we noticed a ball of scat.
Being the mighty investigators that we are, once we realized the sawdusty scat was from a moose, we got down on all fours to investigate the broken depression. When we started digging we discovered more moose scat frozen inside. But still, we pondered. There were no other tracks. The depression was several feet across, but not large enough for a moose. We hadn’t seen any deer tracks. And it seemed odd that it the crusty chunks were not smoothed out by the body heat of an ungulate. Still, we did consider a small flying moose. How else would it have gotten to that spot?
Walking back to the “prints” that were closer to the trail, we examined them again. And noted a bit of tunneling. Maybe they weren’t prints after all.
And then we spied a bird track a few feet beyond. Turn on the light bulb please. Could it be that the ruffed grouse, who burrows into deep, soft snow to hide from predators, and scares the daylight out of us when it explodes out of its hiding spot, had blasted through the crusty layer of snow to spend the night. Was it surprised to find moose scat in its chosen spot?
Once we began spying the grouse tracks, we realized they were everywhere. Just like the snowshoe hare. The question remains: which came first?
While the grouse was searching for birch seeds upon which to dine, the hare made its meals of the woody foliage stems. Like a moose’s winter scat, the hare’s is also quite sawdusty in texture given its food source.
Did I say the grouse’s tracks became quite ubiquitous? And we began to find more holes like that made by the flying moose, I mean grouse.
The thing that really struck us was the thickness of the crusty layer and the energy the grouse had to use in order to blast into and out of it. Some call them fool’s hens, but they struck us as being rather smart about penetrating solid slabs.
Eventually, our own need for nourishment and energy renewal brought us to a halt in a sunny spot at Moose Alley’s intersection with Loop Trail. We each found a stump upon which to dine and while we sat quietly, chickadees entertained us with their quick seed gathering foray and calls to each other.
To take it all in, Pam struck a pose the reminded me of a certain famous person; she just needed wool mittens 😉
Eventually we stood and moved along, pausing briefly beside mullein in its winter form–hoping against hope that a spider or another insect might make itself known. No such luck, though we did admire the size and structure.
More domestic dog tracks shouted their names by their behavior, but we soon discovered prints of a strict carnivore who had recently moved through the forest with intention.
By the four toes, no visible nails, and shape of the ridge and heel pad, we knew it to be one who says, “Meow.” Well, maybe not exactly like a domestic cat, but still a feline, in this case a bobcat.
Our final find of the day was the track of a red fox. Oh, we’d seen squirrel and mouse as well. And maybe a few others I’m forgetting to mention. But moose?
Just as Marta and Kristoff wanted nothing to do with us, we suspect the moose was the same. That means only one thing.
We must return to Notch View Farm on Route 113 in Evans Notch again . . . and again . . . and maybe again.
As for today, with powder upon the crusty layer of snow, it was a Top Notch Tracking day.