Solving the Puzzle Mondate

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.

Whispers Along the Trail

“The way to be heard isn’t to shout,” said the Reverend Dr. Sam Wells of St. Martins in the Fields, London. “It’s to whisper.” But who are the whisperers?

Listen for the slightest murmur of Trailing Arbutus’s delicate blossoms beneath its leathery leaves.

Hear also the soft words of a rattlesnake-plantain explaining that its striking veins may suggest “checkered,” but it actually goes by “downy” in common speak.

Take notice of an old beaver wound upon a hemlock healed in such a way that it could be a snake embracing the trunk.

Be attentive to hobblebush no matter how much it makes you hobble for it always has more to offer including corrugated leaves unfurling and a flowerhead silently forming.

Give audience to Rhodora’s woody structure of last year before her magenta flowers soon distract.

Concentrate on the red back of the Red-backed Salamander before it goes back into hiding beneath a flipped log.

Heed the ruby red lips and hairy lining of a Pitcher Plant’s leaves as they invite all to enter . . . and never leave.

Pay attention to the male Hairy Woodpecker who speaks in hushed pecks as two females squabble for his attention.

Give ear to otter scat full of scales that mutter the name of its last meal.

Tune in to the secret hieroglyphic message a beaver leaves in chew sticks left behind.

Remember to keep your voice low as you spy the first crosiers of those most sensitive.

Walk in silence through the forest and wetlands while listening intently to all who whisper along the trail. May their hushed voices shout from every corner and uplift your spirits now and forever.

Spring In Our Steps

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.

One Act Play: The Bog and Just Beyond

Act One, Scene One.

Setting: The forest road, a two-mile walk beyond closed gates.

Sound effects: Woodpeckers drilling; Chickadees singing cheeseburger songs; Spring Peepers peeping; Wood Frogs croaking.

Props: dirt road, birch, aspen, and maple trees.

Cast: Tiny skipper butterflies flitting from one spot to another as they seek minerals from the road.

Star of the act: Mourning Cloak Butterfly: Clothed as it is like one who is in mourning.

Scene Two.

Setting: A bog.

Sound effects: A certain Grackle with a regular rusty-gate note; turtles slipping into water; ducks in the distance.

Cast: A shy Painted Turtle basking in the sun.

A second Painted Turtle stretching its neck in reflection.

Two looking south in reverence of the day’s warm temperature.

Three turtles in a . . . bog.

And one smug female.

Scene Three.

Setting: An underwater rock.

Sound effects: A certain Grackle with a regular rusty-gate note; turtles slipping into water; an American Bittern in the distance

Cast: An Eastern Newt (adult form of a Red Eft salamander).

A bullfrog tadpole entering its second year of growth.

And lots of leeches that change shape constantly as they swim by the rock.

Scene Four.

Setting: varies between bird blind with Eastern Phoebe nest, tree branches, ground.

Sound effects: Fee-bee; a guttural readle-eak or rusty gate; low-pitched peek; plumbing sound.

And singing the fee-bee song.

A Common Grackle appearing aloof while consistently rasping that rusty gate sound . . .

and appearing to look upward, while really looking down.

And a Hairy Woodpecker representing many.

Some aren’t quite ready to sing yet having just arrived, like the White-throated Sparrow.

Scene Five.

Setting: On the water.

Sounds: Canada Geese honking; Spring Peepers peeping; American Bittern plumbing; Barred Owls in a duet.

Cast: Male Hooded Merganser–an actor who loves to transform his shape for the occasion.

The action requires focus on the male’s head as he becomes the star of the show.

All eyes focus on the white patch on his head.

She goes into shock as he starts to raise his hooded crest.

She takes his show into consideration.

Scene Six: Grand Finale.

Setting: The road home.

Sounds: Silence.

Action: A bear cub crosses the road and pauses in bramble.

This is the first of one act plays featuring the bog and beyond. Stay tuned as life plays out in the water, on the ground and among the tree limbs.

Wruck on. Chirp on. Before you hop on.

The ice went out only a few days ago in western Maine, but as is their tradition, the frogs took no time in making their presence known. Have you heard them? The wruck wruck wruck of the wood frogs?

Over the years wood frogs have taught me so many lessons, the major one being patience–to stand still beside the pond and wait because eventually they will resurface. What strikes me is that there is more action this year than last year and last year there was more action that the previous five years. Why is that given that the pool seems to dry up so soon and I always worry that the tadpoles don’t have time to finish morphing into adults and hopping toward upland habitats. Do some mature before I realize it? That would be great news.

Otherwise I have to wonder how so many return each year and within a day or two of the ice melting, lay masses of eggs in colonial form.

Of course, as I watch, mistakes are made and males so eager grab others of the same sex only to realize moments later that it’s not worth the effort.

And then there’s that ear-shattering harmonic symphony produced by the spring peepers, one which typically comes to a complete rest when I approach. But late this afternoon there was just enough breeze to disguise my footsteps and sing on they did.

I couldn’t believe my good luck in spying the peeper on the stalk, but to notice the one below added icing to the cake.

As I watched, the second tiny frog began to climb onto the first.

Theirs was one of frog versus frog as they volleyed for the highest spot on the stem.

Occasionally for a mere second they paused.

But really, there was no break in their behavior as they sang on and on in a manner more aggressive and vied for superior achievement.

One must remember that spring peepers are much tinier that their wood frog cousins and measure about the size of a quarter all told.

The X on their backs provides for their scientific name: Pseudacris crucifer, or cross bearer.

And bear a cross did they as they competed for that best spot.

Like brothers they tangled, each in hopes of gaining the upper frog leg.

Really though, it’s the male peeper’s ability to generate his seductive and ear-splitting peep by closing his nostrils, and pushing air over his vocal chords into that amazing throat sac, that acts as a resonator at vernal pools each spring and gains him an upper position in the pool heirarchy.

The frogs that chirp the fastest are the ones with the greatest stamina and so chirp quickly they do in hopes of achieving a mate.

Wruck on. Chirp on. Before you hop on. The season has begun. There’s such competition and what I don’t understand is how a vernal pool that dries up so soon these past few years continues to produce but it does. The mystery of life continues.

Looking Up

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.

Bound and Determined

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, Lobaria pulmonaria 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 . . .

and mud.

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.

The Invitation Stands

It took me by surprise, this change of seasons.

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.

Wishing for the Emerald Isle on this St. Patrick’s Day 2021

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.

river-liffey-and-quay-dublin

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.

trinity-college-dublin

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.

library-at-book-of-kells-1-1

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.

architecture-and-flowers-dublin
dublin-church-architecture

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.

guiness-sign-and-face

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.

singing-oyster-guiness

We learned about the process of creating beer, and then there was the whistling oyster, one of the many icons of the Guinness® brand.

guinness-gravity-bar

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.

guiness-view-2

The Gravity Bar offers 360˚ views of the city.

wicklow-mtns-from-gravity

And the view includes the Wicklow Mountains, our intended destination for week 2.

the-temple-bar

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We put our fear of heights behind us and made our way across.

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Did he just do that? Yup.

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And I followed.

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Our views included Raithlin Island, the northernmost point of Ireland.

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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.

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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.

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My guy found a spot to take in the giant’s viewpoint.

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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.

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Originally built by one clan in the early 1500s, it was seized by another in the mid 1500s. Its history includes rebellions and intrigue.

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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.

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Back in Portrush finally, our own tale continued. At the suggestion of our hostess, we walked to the Harbour Bar for dinner.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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While I got Darren’s autograph on one of the masks, my guy befriended Willie, the bar manager.

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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.

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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.

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Upon our descent, the light at a distant lighthouse beckoned in the background as Fairhead came into view.

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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.

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This area may appear familiar to viewers of Game of Thrones–including the site of Stormlands.

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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.

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The next morning we took in the Titanic Museum and stepped aboard one of its tenderfoot boats, the Nomadic.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Forty shades of green and Brigadoon all came to mind as we approached the monastic settlement and its round tower.

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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.

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From the altar window in the cathedral, the largest of seven churches within the monastic city,  a view of the world beyond was offered.

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Likewise, we could see the world within, including the Priest House in the background.

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And everywhere, gravestones told the story of many who’d passed this way.

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A little closer to Laragh, Trinity Church.

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Upper Glendalough was the jumping off point for our initial hike upon the Wicklow Way.

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We paused beside Poulanass Falls before zigzagging our way up the first trail.

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Sheep merely looked up to acknowledge our passing. We, however, needed to pay more attention for sheep shit was prolific.

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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.

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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.

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Our journey took us over boggy portions,

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down grassy sections,

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on village lanes,

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over boardwalks,

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through the black forest,

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and into the future.

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Frequently, we had to stop, reread the directions and study the map, but more often the route was self-explanatory.

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Along one section that was particularly muddy due to frequent horse crossings, we made a discovery unique to us.

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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.

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We saw deer, one rabbit and two red squirrels.

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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.

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Bessie One,

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Two,

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and Three (pronounced Tree) tolerated our presence.

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And Bessie Four made us laugh–as she stood upon a wall.

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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.

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And one even offered us nourishment.

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Our path included obstacles, though most were easy to overcome from a rope loop

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to a simple step or

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ladder crossing.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Our views from the Wicklow Way were worthy of wonder.

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And the ever present clouds added to the drama.

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The land resembled a patchwork quilt.

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No matter where we looked, it was forever changing.

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Some of our fun discoveries included chestnut trees,

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black slugs, and . . .

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the crème de la crème–bear claw marks! Did Bear Gryllz really leave his signature on the trail behind the Glendalough Hotel?

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When we weren’t hiking, we explored the area, including Wicklow and its stone beach.

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We didn’t understand this ship at first until my guy asked–meet Wavewalker, a maintenance boat for Ireland’s Offshore Windfarm.

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Across the harbor, we spied the remains of a castle that invited a closer look.

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It seems Black Castle was constantly under siege and totally destroyed in 1301. And yet–I felt a presence still there.

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Do you see his face?

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The oldest mill in Ireland also drew our attention–Avoca Handweavers Mill was established in 1723.

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It was the home of color with attitude.

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Upclose and personal, we saw the inner workings.

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And marveled at the creative results.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And later that night, a display of sun and clouds as we went in search of supper.

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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.

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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?

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Before we checked out, I made my guy drive to this field ensconced in an Irish mist.

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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.

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My guy stands almost six feet tall, so his height provided a sense of size.

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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.

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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.

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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.

March Madness

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.

Grasshoppers?!!!

A Most Pleasant Mondate

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.

Tail-end Greetings

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?

Ho Hum Mondate

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.

Happy 6th Birthday, wondermyway

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.

Transitioning With My Neighbors:

From sun to rain to sleet and even snow, it’s been a weekend of weather events. And like so many across the globe, I’m spending lots of time outdoors, in the midst of warm rays and raw mists.

I’m fortunate in that I live in a spot where the great beyond is just that–great . . . and beyond most people’s reach. By the same token, it’s the most crowded place on Earth right now.

We’re all in transition, my neighbors and me. What the future holds, we know not. The best we can do is hope we come out on the other side–changed by the experience, of course.

Under the Bubbles

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.

Dragonfly Whisperer Whispers

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.

Marvels of the Meadow

“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.

Celebrating Cemetery Cicadas

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. 

Frog Alley

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.”

No way.

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.

Crowning Glory

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.

Making Sense of Scents

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.

All In A Day’s Walk

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.

My Heart Pines

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.

My heart pines . . . naturally.

Sharp Observation

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.

Ghost of the North Woods

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.

Top Notch Tracking

“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.

P.S. Thank you, Becky and Jim.

Folly of a Sun-Mondate

Into the wilderness of Sebago, Maine, we ventured upon land owned by Loon Echo Land Trust.

Sometimes we had to break trail.

Other times it was like the white carpet had been rolled out to show us the way.

And often, we found ourselves traveling the same route others had taken or crossed over, for such a corridor it is.

We tromped through a vast wetland.

And bushwhacked into what seemed like a never-ending shrub-land.

The hares made it all look so easy as they traveled back and forth on their packed-down snowshoe routes.

Meanwhile, the beavers remained snug at home despite frequent callers.

Though we couldn’t see steam rising from the lodge’s chimney, we suspected they reposed quietly within.

Nearby, their works of art added a decorative nature to the winter scene.

We spent one day seeing hugs . . .

and hearts in the forest.

And the next day exploring an unorganized territory; or was it?

It’s such a place where wooden birds fly.

And owl talons cling.

On Sunday, we snowshoed along a five-mile route, that was rather easy given that most of it was a snowmobile trail at Tiger Hill Community Forest, and paused briefly for lunch on a rock in the woods, followed later by a brownie beside Cold Rain Pond that I think my guy was still eating when I snapped this photo.

Today found us nearby at Perley Ponds-Northwest River Preserve, where the tree spirit chuckled for he knew before we did that our two-mile tramp would be much more challenging but we’d come upon unexpected finds that would add to this folly of a two-day Mondate on either side of Folly Road.

Ghost of the North Woods

For almost thirty years I’ve roamed this particular wood and for the most part you’ve eluded me.

Oh, I’ve seen you cross the field. And heard your snort in the distance.

You’ve taught me to recognize your old prints by their figure-eight or egg-timer resemblance and heart-shaped fresh impressions.

Your depth compared to mine has been another indicator of your identification.

Occasionally I’ve stumbled upon your beds, old and fresh, and recognized them as places where you take a rest in the middle of the day or night.

I’ve learned to examine said beds for artifacts left behind including wisps of tubular hair meant to insulate.

And always, your calling card includes scat and urine.

Above the scat at a height only you can reach, you tag the trees with mini flags after ripping off their buds with your lower incisors yanking against that toothless upper palate.

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!

You looked at me. I looked back in complete awe.

And while I thought we were having a staring contest, I later realized you continued to feed as I continued to photograph you.

Standing beside you and way more interested in dining that wondering about me, your yearling.

Our time together lasted ten minutes. Or was it twenty?

Who knows? Who cares? What mattered was that in this woodland that has served as my classroom for all these years, you showed that your priorities had everything to do with food and nothing to do with me.

Thankfully, or so it seemed, my presence didn’t interrupt your dining for I know that in winter tree buds and bark offer some sustenance, but still you loose weight at a time when you most need it, especially if you are expectant.

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.

This post is dedicated to my grand-nephews: Andrew, Finnegan, and Maxy Moose. I trust they will someday meet my moose or their own.

Tree Spirit Mondate

Four days ago I happened upon a set of fresh coyote tracks, which didn’t surprise me for I’d seen so many of the same in that particular area all winter. But it was the color of scat left beside one print that stymied me.

I wanted to know what had been on the menu for breakfast. Noting hair as a component, I wondered: red squirrel? Didn’t think so. Red fox? Maybe. White-tailed deer? A possibility.

What to do? Backtrack the track, of course. Which worked well for a bit, until I realized it was going to lead me up a hill and across the street and snow was falling and I needed to head home. But . . . despite the fact that the prints would get filled in by the flakes, I promised myself a return venture in search of the main course. And I was pretty sure I could convince my guy to make the journey with me.

The moment we stepped onto the trail, I chuckled for even if I hadn’t known that some friends who had seen the photo I’d posted of the scat and prints had gone in search of the same meal over the weekend, I would have known by their tracks left behind where they had traveled. Well, especially his. Pretty cool when you can look at snowshoe tracks and identify the gender, don’t you think? But I know the pattern of Tom’s wooden snowshoes and can spot them in an instant. Paula’s are more generic, but he followed her wherever they went except for a few times when they split up like a fox or coyote would do when trying to surround prey (or figure out the maker of the prints as Tom and Paula had done), the imprint of his shoes covering hers both on and off trail.

Their journey and ours followed a certain brook where noon sunshine gleamed upon the snow and ice as the water flowed forth.

In a spot where two weeks prior I’d noted bobcat tracks crossing the brook via a log, there were fresher tracks today, though not so fresh to determine feline or canine.

Eventually, because we were close to the spot where I’d first made my discovery, and it was time for a meal of our own, my guy and I climbed up the stairs to a treehouse and sat down to dine.

We unwrapped our sandwiches while taking in the view of a bog beyond. Maybe as we ate we’d spy some action in the bog beyond. Maybe we wouldn’t. We didn’t.

Finally, we were ready to pick up where I’d left off on backtracking the coyote four days ago. Because of snow over the weekend, the prints were filled in, but still the pattern was visible, making them easy to follow. We could see that in the more recent past, a fisher had crossed over the track in search of a meal of its own.

The coyote tracks took us uphill, and eventually forced us to cross the road upon which we’d parked.

Crossing over, we followed them until they led to an area near a stream and again fisher prints entered the mix and we suspected something of importance had happened here, but couldn’t be sure what, and beyond this point the fisher went one way and the coyote crossed onto a private property and we decided we needed to give up the hunt. Drats.

In the midst of it all, however, deer tracks led the way. And so we followed those to see where they might lead.

And bingo. A feeding area where the disturbed snow indicated the deer had been seeking acorns.

Not only was it a feeding area, but also where the ungulates had bedded down, such as this youngster. Can you see its head, rounded back and legs tucked beneath?

We found at least seven beds in this spot and actually another bunch in a second spot later in our journey and gave thanks to know that the land through which we ventured is a deer yard.

A deer yard frequented by predators including the coyote we’d tracked earlier and this fisher.

Eventually, we made tracks upon a different trail for though I was there in search of someone’s meal source, my guy had a destination in mind.

Upward we climbed upon rock ledges hidden beneath snow.

A look back revealed the mountains beyond and horseshoe-shaped pond below.

It was there that white and red pines showed off their bonsai form among brothers and sisters who grew straight and tall.

Cones galore presented themselves as we reached the summit, such as these upon a red pine.

High upon the White Pines the same.

And the spruce trees didn’t want to be left out of the offerings.

We could hear the sweet chirps of birds and finally focused in on our feathered friends, puffed up as this chickadee was in response to the chilly wind. Four or five layers kept us warm, while the birds depended upon air they could trap within their feathers to feel the same way.

At last we reached an old mine and peeked within, thinking perhaps a critter or two had taken advantage of a cave to take refuge. If that was the case, we weren’t cognizant of it.

But we did enjoy the layers and reflections and colors of the mica, quartz, and feldspar for which this spot is known.

Eventually it was bear trees that captured our attention. Imagine this–your right paws grasping the beech as you climb in search of its nutritious nuts.

Simultaneously, of course, your left paws did the same as you shimmied up the trunk of the tree.

Some bears chose to leave their signatures with claw marks, while others preferred to leave their initials behind.

Either way, the bears had visited. As had fishers, deer, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, mice, squirrels, birds, and who knows how many others. Oh, and Tom and Paula–whose tracks twisted and turned like the mammals they followed.

The tree spirit knows as we learned on this Mondate. And he shows it in his heart which is filled with hope within colored green for all that has passed this way and all that is yet to come. The fact that we didn’t discover what the coyote ate didn’t matter. What mattered more is that this is a place for all to be and become.

Tire’m Out Mondate

Recently someone whispered in my guy’s ear (from a moose-length away and fully masked, of course) an alternate trailhead to a small mountain we’d hoped to climb last week but avoided because there were too many vehicles. “Take a left, and then drive a mile or two down the road, and I don’t know if there is a plowed parking area,” is the way the message was relayed to me.

And so we did.

And much to our delight there was not only a small parking area that had been cleared, but also blazes painted on the trees and footsteps showing the way. We felt like we’d found the pot of gold, especially since there were a few cars at the other trailhead as we passed by.

The cool thing about the trail we followed today is that it reminded us of the walled path on our property; not wide enough to be a road, but two stonewalls indicating a previous use of the land. Maybe for cows. Maybe each farmer marking a boundary. Doesn’t matter; it made for a delightful beginning.

In a short time, we reached another wall that ran perpendicular to the two we’d walked between, though this one was intentionally made of flatter field stones. While it called to mind stonewalls in Connecticut more than Maine, given the ledge mountain upon which we hiked today, it made perfect sense that construction should be such. And gave me reason to consider a return on another day when there is no snow on the ground so I can further explore it.

For today, our focus was first on reaching the summit via this new-to-us trail that was like a walk in the park. After passing through the field stone wall, below which mixed hardwoods grew, we entered a hemlock grove and knew the summit wasn’t far off.

It was by the summit that we took a turn in order to visit the castle, a place our sons in their youth used to love to explore. We took them with us in spirit today as we played while they were in their respective cities and hard at work.

Long ago, the rocks were deposited upon this mountain top as the glaciers receded and over time weathering split them creating spaces for playmates like us to wave to each other from opposite sides.

And peek through . . .

before crawling out.

We finally moved on to the summit outlook, where our view embraced Keoka Lake to the east . . .

Bear Pond in front of lunch rock . . .

and our beloved Pleasant Mountain to the west with the ski trails at Shawnee Peak showing off their white paths.

Following lunch, we decided to hike down a different trail with hopes of eventually reaching the road and then climbing back up the main trail we’d passed by earlier. Sounds crazy, I know, but that’s the way we are: crazy.

We thought we knew what we were doing as we followed a skidder trail down. After a bit, while my guy went ahead, I paused by a downed tree in search of what I might find.

The best find I made in a limited amount of scanning was a sweet, yet dried, capped mushroom.

My guy’s discovery: we’d reached an apple orchard and no trespassing signs and so much to his dismay we turned 180˚ and started back up, in hopes of finding another skidder trail to follow in a different direction.

Success greeted us eventually, though like the turkeys, we did a bit of postholing on the next route we traveled. Or perhaps we were the turkeys.

At last we reached the road as we crossed someone’s land, walked about fifty to one hundred feet down and then found the main trailhead to climb up once again.

And so up we went, though by now my guy had followed my example and donned his micro-spikes as the conditions warranted.

At the end of the day, he was tickled because he’d discovered not one . . .

but two geocaches.

When he opened the first, though the contents were in baggies, they were wet and frozen, but the second was in prime condition and we saw that our friend David Percival had signed the log this past summer.

I was happy to spend a couple of minutes searching for winter bug sites, and found the egg sac of a spider . . .

and pupating form of a bagworm moth caught in someone’s web, both discovered upon a shed as we trespassed on property that wasn’t posted.

A double red-belted mushroom also caught at least my eye.

Our best find of the day, however, was one we’ve seen before, but always brings a smile to our faces as it gives new meaning to bear tree.

It was back to the summit outlook for a Lindt candy before following the trail back to the cowpath.

Up and down, up and down with a little bit of a third up and down along way, turkey-style. No wonder they call it Mount Tire’m. To that end, my guy took a power nap on the way home. Good thing I was driving.

Special thanks to Bob Spencer for being the whisperer of trailhead information.

Sharp Observation

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.

And much to my delight a sign hanging from a tree announced what I’d hoped. Can you read it? The hemlock sprig dangling from the birch stating that So-and-So was in residence?

Suddenly I realized there were a million items shouting the obvious, scattered as they were upon the snow and rocks like neon signs on a city street: “So-and-So Slept Here;” “So-and-So’s Diner;” and “So-and-So’s Rest Rooms.”

Hemlock twigs with angled nips and singular scats spoke to So-and-So’s presence. Was So-and-So present? I could only hope so.

As I looked about, I noticed the signs dropped by one or two others, including one of whom I totally expected to surprise me as it has on several occasions in the recent past. While I didn’t startle the bird, I knew by its offering left on the rock that it continued to frequent the locale–do you see the “golden” cylinder among the brown scat? That would be a notice from the local grouse.

And then I stepped under the hemlock because there was more bird sign on the tree created by a Pileated Woodpecker and I hoped to find its scat. No such luck among the wood chips, but plenty more fresh pellets stating that the occupant was possibly in situ.

All the telltale signs were there. About one inch long. Comma shaped. Groove down the inside. Fresh. Did I say fresh?

From every angle the evidence was clear. I shouldn’t be standing below because just possibly that certain So-and-So might be resting above. And said being has been known to fall out of trees as I’ve told others while standing in this same spot on previous occasions. Did I say this is a creature of habit?

Whenever I visit I look up. But it’s not until winter that my sight is graced with that of such another. Can you see it? The anomaly in the canopy?

How about now? Do you see the dark blob sitting up there?

Porcupines are indeed creatures of habit and every winter I know certain places to locate a few locals, including this big guy. A guy? Yes, because it’s the males who tend to rest in trees during the day.

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.