All Aboard Mondate

His birthday present several weeks ago was a Cat’s Meow replica of the North Conway Scenic Railroad (from my collection) and a note: October 21, 11:00 am – 4:00 pm. Be there!!

This morning I drove him there. No, I wasn’t the engineer of the train, but rather the conductor of his entertainment schedule.

Our chosen car, the Dorthea Mae, was built in the mid-1950s for transcontinental service in the United States and turned out to be the perfect choice for this adventure. We’ve ridden the Conway Scenic train before–several times when our sons were young and we took the one hour ride from North Conway to Conway, New Hampshire, and once for an anniversary celebration as we enjoyed dinner on the Bartlett Route. But for all the times we’ve driven along Route 302 through Crawford Notch and looked at the scary trestles hugging the mountains, we always said we’d love to take the longer ride. Well today, that became a reality.

Group by group, riders were welcomed to climb on and find their assigned seats. Ours was located opposite a delightful and chatty couple from Iowa, MaryPat and Ron.

For us, part of the fun was recognizing familiar spots along the rail, including a rail crossing on Route 302 by a historic barn.

Through the village of Bartlett we travelled along rails originally laid down in the 1870s for what was once the Maine Central Railroad’s famed Mountain Division Trail.

The church to the left is the Union Congregational Church on Albany Avenue, and to the right the Odd Fellows Hall, a historic fraternal society.

Early on we crossed trestles over several rivers where shadows, angles, curves, and foliage delighted our eyes.

As we headed toward Crawford Notch, again it was the same, only different, with ever the click-clack of motion providing a new vista that captured our awe.

History presented itself over and over again, with old rail ties and power poles dotting the landscape–obscured for a wee bit longer by the golden hues of the forest.

Knowing that today was the only date available when I’d booked the trip, and in fact, that we got the last two seats on the Dorothea Mae, we wondered how much color we might see given that we were traveling north. It was past peak, but still . . . one Red Maple stood out amongst the yellowy-orange-bronzes of the landscape.

There was also some white to view–not only the few clouds, but the summit of Mount Washington with a recent coating of snow and rime ice.

The ridgeline of Mount Webster, forming the eastern side of the U-shaped glacial valley which forms Crawford Notch, stood crisp and clear as we headed north.

The mountain was named for Daniel Webster, a statesman and orator born in Salisbury, New Hampshire, which is present day Franklin where I began my former teaching career in 1980.

From our seat on the train, looking south, Mount Webster was on the left, Route 302 between, and Mount Willey on the right forming the western side of the U.

By Mount Willard, we heard the story of the section house that stood here in the 1900s.

Willey Brook Bridge is Crawford Notch, New Hampshire https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-a2cf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation

Our narrator, Denise, spoke of the Mt Willard Section House built in 1887 for section foreman James E. Mitchell, his family, and crew who maintained Section 139 of the railroad. Loring Evans became foreman of Section 139 in 1903. He was killed ten years later in a railroading accident at Crawford’s yard, but his wife, Hattie, raised their four children and despite all odds ran the Section House until 1942. It was Hattie’s job to house and feed the men who worked on the shortest yet most treacherous stretch of the rail.

A memorial garden still honors her work.

Below Mount Jackson, across the way, two waterfalls graced the scene. Typically, we’ve viewed them one at a time, but from the train, both Flume and Silver Cascades were visible as water raced down the mountain’s face.

This being Silver, but both looked like traces of chalk from our position.

Two hours after our journey began, we arrived at Crawford’s Depot.

Disembarking, and with an hour to ourselves, my guy and I ate a picnic lunch that included chicken salad sandwiches enhanced with home-made cranberry-orange relish, and then we crossed the road to walk the .4-mile trail around Saco Lake, the origin of Saco River.

Beside it a few Dandelions flowered. And my guy questioned me. “You’re taking a photo of a Dandelion?” Yup. Never Call it just a Dandelion is the title of a most delightful and informative book. And sooo true. Notice how each ray is notched with five teeth representing a petal and forms a single floret. Completely open as this one was, the bloom was a composite of numerous florets. And can you see the stigmas? Curled and split in two? “Yes, I am taking a picture of a Dandelion because it deserves to be honored. And not pulled from the lawn. Just sayin’. ”

Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba var. latifolia) also posed, its fruit’s five-parted capsules each containing two to four small seeds. It was the color that made me smile on this fall day.

Upon a small bridge where Elephant Head Brook flows into Saco Lake, most people paused and then turned for so wet was the trail. But you know who kept going. Despite wearing sneakers rather than our hiking boots, we found our way and soon moved beyond the wet trail.

We laughed when we discovered a wooden boardwalk in a drier section.

Others had also ventured here and called it home, although based on the lack of new wood, we suspected the beavers had left the lodge. Perhaps they’d moved across the street to the AMC’s Highland Center.

Upon granite that defined the outer side of sections of the trail, Rock Tripe lichens grew, some turning green as they photosynthesized when I poured water upon them.

Always one of my favorite views is the discovery of Toadskin Lichen beside the Rock Tripe, both umbilicate forms.

Back to Route 302, asters showed their displays of seeds awaiting dispersal and those older empty nesters forecasting their winter form in a flower-like composition all their own.

Just prior to 2:00pm, we reboarded the train for the journey south.

For the return trip, we’d switched seats with those who sat on the western side of the train for the journey north and so got to spy the Willey foundation. Local lore has it that in 1793, Samuel Willey took his wife, five children and two hired men to live in a small, remote house in the mountains. That year, he and the hired men built a house.

As our narrator said, “In June of 1826, a heavy rain terrified the Willey family when it caused a landslide across the Saco River. Sam decided to build a stone shelter above the house where he thought the family could find safety in case of another landslide. On August 28, 1826, a violent rainstorm caused a mudslide. The Willeys and hired men took refuge in the shelter. The landslide killed all nine of them, but the house they’d fled stood still.” Apparently, a ledge above the house spared it from destruction.

We loved the historical aspects of the trip, as well as the scenery, short hike, and good company.

At the end of the day, we were all smiles for this All Aboard Mondate.

Women of the Dragonflies

The minute we launched our kayaks, I knew we were in for a treat, for beside bur-reed and water-logged branches and even upon our boats, the Autumn Dragonflies danced, theirs a frantic last-minute mating routine.

Single males watched as couples prepared for the grand event and every once in a while they’d try to interfere, though that usually ended within seconds.

Once they gave up, they were willing to land and hang out with me for a few moments. If you know me, you know I was thrilled–especially given that every time I see a dragonfly of late, I’m sure it’s the last of the season. And then . . .

I heard a loud buzz over my head and upon my friend Pam’s vest, a Lake Darner landed. I told her not to move as I took in its glory. That being said, only moments before perhaps this same dragonfly tried to nab a canoodling pair positioned right below my paddle. For the moment, they survived, and he took a break.

His break over, onward we paddled into the wind and current. But really, it wasn’t a tough journey and around every bend we were wowed as we paused, drifted, and got lost in the scenery. The colors have reached their beyond peak rendition, but still, we were surrounded by beauty.

It showed itself in layers,

reflections,

and a combination of the two.

We paused beside tree stumps and gasped at their intricate structures as we remembered summer sightings of painted turtles.

As one might expect, the littlest things begged our focus, such as the spider only Pam spied through her lens.

While she looked down, I looked beyond to a far stump and Heron Rookery in the distance. And in the midst of my search–a Lake Darner Dragonfly flew in on patrol. Do you see it in the upper right-hand corner?

Our next wonder moment occurred when we realized a certain insect posed upon a drowned branch.

Our spot: a Wooly Bear caterpillar. Having grown up in Canada, Pam didn’t know about the Wooly Bear’s reputation as a predictor of winter weather. According to local lore and backed up by The Farmer’s Almanac, this is how it works: “The Woolly Bear caterpillar has 13 distinct segments of either rusty brown or black. The wider the rusty brown sections (or the more brown segments there are), the milder the coming winter will be. The more black there is, the more severe the winter.”

The curious thing: this is the first I’ve seen with a wider rusty brown section; all others have had wider black sections. Hmmm. Methinks that by April we’ll know which W. Bear was correct.

But here’s another question: there was water on either side of the downed limb. How in the world did the caterpillar get there? We’ve watched Hickory Tussock Caterpillars squirm their way across the water all summer, so we know they can “swim.” Did W. Bear come from the shore? A bird’s mouth? Or fall from a branch above? We’ll never know, but considering the possibilities opened our minds.

Beyond W. Bear, we found ourselves looking at a familiar view we’ve always enjoyed from the land behind us: a look north toward a Heron Rookery.

High up in the trees sit condominiums that we’ve seen filled with birds. One, two, three, four, even five birds. Large birds. Yes, the nests are large, but how in the world do they survive wild winds and how in the world do the birds co-exist upon them before fledging?

We spent a lot of time looking up, but an equal amount of time looking down, where Equisetum fluviatile, or Water Horsetail grew prolifically. The thing about it was that it had all been browsed as if a field mowed. We suspected the diners were Canada Geese that we knew had inhabited this place for months.

At last we reached a point where paddling further north presented some issues and the sun was lowering in the sky. So, we turned around and paddled south as far as we could go, with the sun blinding much of the sights. But . . . beside another stump we did stop. And were honored with the lines it presented from a complicated spider web intermixed with the tree’s lines.

Wthin sight of the Route 93 bridge, we again turned around to return to our launch site. The temperature had dipped and as we rounded the final bends, we found ourselves in full shade rather than sun. And a discussion of seasonal lighting entered our conversation.

Things are in flux in these parts. But for one more day, we were the women of the dragonflies.

Wandering and Wondering the Jinny Mae Way

This morning I chose to channel my inner Jinny Mae in honor of my dear friend who has been in isolation for medical reasons since last January. That meant I had to try to slow down and be sure to notice. And ask questions. Mostly it meant I needed to wonder.

She’s a lover of fungi, so I knew that she’d pause beside the Violet-toothed Polypores that decorated a log. The velvety green algal coating would surely attract her attention. Why does algae grow on this fungus?

I didn’t have the answer in my mind, but a little research unearthed this: “As is the case for lichens, the algae on top of a polypore arrangement appears to benefit both partners. The algae (usually single-celled ball-shaped green algae), being filled with green photosynthetic pigments, use sunlight to make sugars out of carbon dioxide gas. Some of these leak out and are absorbed and consumed by the fungi as an extra source of energy-rich organic carbon. The fungus, in turn, provides a solid platform upon which the algae can set up shop and grow into dense green communities.” (~rosincerate.com)

The next stop occurred beside the fall forms of asters where the seeds’ parachutes could have easily passed as a flower. What’s a seed’s parachute and why does it have one? The parachutes are made up of hair-like structures. As an immobile parent plant, it needs to disperse its young so that new plants can grow away from those pesky competitive siblings. And maybe even colonize new territories. At this stage of life, the seedy teenager can’t wait to fly away from home and start its own life. Do you remember that time in your life?

And then, it was another fungus that asked to be noticed. Those gills. That curly edging. And crazy growth structure. Jinny Mae would have keyed in on it right away, but it took me a while. I think it’s a bioluminescent species, Night Light aka Bitter Oyster (Panellus stipticus). But as I often say, I don’t know mushrooms well, so don’t look to me as the authority. What would Jinny Mae ask? Hmmm. What makes it glow? That’s even further beyond my understanding than naming this species. But I can say that it has to do with enzymes that produce light by the oxidation of a pigment. And have I ever actually seen such a glow? NO. But one of these nights 😉

As I continued to walk along, I noticed movement and realized I was in the presence of a butterfly. A butterfly I don’t recall ever meeting before. It had the markings of several familiar species, but it wasn’t until I arrived home that I figured out its name. Do you see its curled proboscis?

Jinny Mae would have been as wowed as I was by this species that I can confidently call a Faunus Anglewing or Green Comma. Typically it flies from May to September, so why today? I got to wondering if this week’s Nor’easter caught it in a more southern clime and forced it north on the wind? But I discovered that its a boreal species and was perhaps at the southern end of its range. Maybe the storm did have something to do with its presence today after all.

Eventually the journey became a mix of following a trail and bushwhacking. Both provided examples of the next moment I knew Jinny Mae would love. Dead Man’s Fingers, all five of them, in their fall form, the lighter color spores having dispersed and the mushroom now turning black. Why the common name for Xylaria longipes? According to Lawrence Millman, author of Fascinating Fungi of New England, “Certain African tribes believe that if you’ve committed a crime, and you rub the spore powder from an immature Xylaria on your skin, the police won’t identify you as the culprit.”

It seemed these woods were a mushroom garden and one after another made itself known. I could practically feel Jinny Mae’s glee at so many fine discoveries. Resembling cascading icicles (I was wearing a wool hat and my snowpants actually, which turned out to be overdress after three hours), I wanted to call it Lion’s Mane, but to narrow down an ID decided to leave it at the genus Hericium. I suspected Jinny would agree that that was best and it should just be enjoyed for its structure no matter who it really was.

Nearby, another much tinier, in fact, incredibly teenier fungus could have gone unnoticed had the sun not been shining upon it. I was pretty certain 2019 would be the year that would pass by without my opportunity to spy this one. But, thankfully, I was proven wrong. Forever one of my favorites, I knew Jinny Mae also savored its presence. The fruiting body of Green Stain are minute cup-shaped structures maybe 1/3 inch in diameter. I used to think when I saw the stain on wood that it was an old trail blaze. And then one day I was introduced to the fruiting structure and rejoice each time I’m graced with its presence. There was no reason to question these delightful finds. Noticing them was enough.

In complete contrast, upon a snag nearby, grew a much larger fungus.

Part of its identification is based on its woody, shelf-like structure projecting out from the tree trunk. Someone had obviously been dining upon it and based on its height from the ground and the tooth marks, I suspected deer.

The pore surface, however, is the real reason to celebrate this find for it stains brown and provides a palette upon which to sketch or paint, thus earning it the common name of Artist Conk. But the question: while some mushrooms fruit each year and then if not picked, rot and smell like something died in the woods, what happens with a shelf fungus? The answer as best I know: A shelf fungus adds a new layer of spore tissue every growing season; the old layer covered by the new one, which look like growth rings in a tree.

A lot of the focus on this morning’s walk tended to be upon the fungi that grew in that neck of the woods, but suddenly something else showed its face. Or rather, I think, her face. A Wolf Spider. Upon an egg sac. Super Mom though she may be for making a silk bed and then enveloping her young in a silk blanket, and guarding it until her babies hatch, this spider did not make the slightest movement, aggressive or not, as I got into its personal space. Usually the mother dies either before or after her babies leave the sac. What would Jinny Mae think? Perhaps that for some reason Momma waited too long and maybe the cold weather we’ve experienced upon occasional lately got the better of her?

I don’t know entirely what Jinny Mae would think, but I have a pretty good idea because the reality is that today, she and I traveled the trail together for the first time in forever. For each of these finds, it was like we played trail tag–first one spying something wicked cool and then the other finding something else to capture our attention as we tried to capture it with our cameras.

We caught up. We laughed. We noticed. We questioned. We laughed some more.

Our three-hour journey drew to a close as we revisited the Stair-step Moss that grows in her woods.

I’m still giddy about the fact that I got to wander and wonder the Jinny Mae way today.

Ponds #1 and #2 Mondate

My friend, Alice, suggested a trail to me over the weekend, and so when this day dawned, my guy and I had a plan. We’d pack a lunch, drove a wee bit north, and let the fun begin. We love exploring places new to us and this was such.

Immediately, the forest floor reflected the canopy above where Sugar Maples, Beech and Red Oak presided.

Other items also made themselves known, including the dried capsules of Pinesap, a plant that features three to ten topaz-colored flowers during the summer. The plant has such cool characteristics: it lacks chlorophyll because it doesn’t have any leaves to photosynthesize, and acts as an indirect parasite of trees. You see, Pinesap’s roots steal nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi, specifically from the genus Tricholoma, that the mushroom obtains from associated trees.

It wasn’t long before the carpet changed color indicating we’d entered a Red Maple community.

And again, upon the ground, another cool site worth honoring. Many-fruited Pelt is a foliose lichen that grows on soil, moss and rocks. The rust-colored projections among the shiny brown lobes made me squat for a photo call. Those reddish-brown projections are the fruiting bodies on the leafy margins–thus the name.

Again we moved onward and upward and again the community changed, the leaves telling us we’d entered a Big-Tooth Aspen/American Beech neighborhood.

Wherever beech trees grow this year, it seems the parasitic Beechdrops are also present. Lucky for me, though my guy likes to hike as if on a mission to get to the destination, when I ask him to pause, he quietly does. I’m forever grateful that he understands my need to take a closer look. I’m not sure if he’s amused by it or just tolerates it, but he never complains. And occasionally he points things out for me to notice or tells me the name of something.

Anyway, Beechdrops, like Pinesap, lack chlorophyll, have scales in place of leaves so they have no way to photosynthesize, and are parasitic. In the case of the Beechdrops, however, it’s the roots of the American Beech from which it draws its nutrition. Small, root-like structures of the Beechdrops insert themselves into the tree’s roots and suck away. Do they damage the trees? The short answer is no because the parasitic plant is short-lived.

Our journey continued to take us uphill and really, it wasn’t easy to follow, but somehow (thanks to GPS–I surprised myself with my talent) we stayed on the trail.

Do you believe me now that it wasn’t easy to follow? Yes, that is a blaze, the yellow paint practically obliterated by a garden of foliose and fruticose lichens. Foliose being a “leafy” looking structure and at least two grew on the bark. Fruticose, likewise the “fruity” structure (think a bunch of grapes minus the fruits) also presented itself in at least two forms.

Of course, there were still many other things to admire including the multiple shades of magenta presented by the shrub: Maple-leaf Viburnum. In my book of autumn, nothing else exhibits such an exquisite color, making it easy to identify.

Our luck increased once we began to spy rock cairns marking the trail.

And it got even better when I noticed several classic deposits beside the cairns. Bobcat scat! Check this one out. Have you ever seen anything quite so beautiful? Look at that hair tucked within the packet. Of a snowshoe hare. Oh my.

While taking a closer look, I realized I wasn’t the only one with all eyes on the structure. Yes, that’s a wolf spider.

Realizing we were at the summit of a certain small mountain, suddenly we found ourselves walking along ledge.

And then the view opened up. It became lunch rock view.

Words seemed not enough to describe.

At last we made our way down, for still we hadn’t reached our destination.

And that’s when Pinesap’s cousin, Indian Pipe showed off its one-flowered structure. While Pinesap features three to ten flowers per stalk, Indian Pipe offers only one waxy structure made of four to five small petals. Until fertilized by a Bumblebee, the flower droops toward the earth, but upon pollination turns upward toward the sun. Eventually a woody capsule will form.

Also parasitic, Indian Pipes have a mutually beneficial relationship with many tree species plus Russula and Lactarius mushrooms, as they work together to exchange water and carbohydrates with nutrients from the soil.

At long last, we reached the first of our destinations, Pond #1. The glass-like water offered a perfect mirror image of the scene upon the opposite shore and we both let “oohs” and “aahs” escape from our mouths when we came upon an opening in the shrubby vegetation that protected the shore. I think my favorite portion of this photo is the evergreens that add a fringed frame.

Our journey, however, didn’t stop there, for we had another pond to locate. Again, we referred to the GPS and found ourselves climbing over several fallen trees. Upon one, I spied pumpkin-colored fungi that requested a stop. Of course. But really, it’s another I can never resist–Cinnabar-red Polypore.

As lovely as the color of the upper surface may be, it’s the pore surface that really makes my jaw drop. That color. Those angular shapes. Another “oh my” moment.

And then upon another downed tree, multi-aged tinder mushrooms. It was the mature one that fascinated me most for it looked like happy turtle basking on rocks in the sun.

Last week I met a Snapping Turtle in the shade and he hardly looked thrilled with our encounter.

At last my guy and I reached Pond #2, where we sat for a few minutes and took in the scene. Okay, so we also enjoyed a sweet treat–as a celebration.

We still had another mile or so to hike before reaching my truck, but we gave thanks to Alice for the suggestion and for the fun we’d had discovering Pond #1 and #2 on this Mondate. And all that we saw between.

Go ahead, take a second look at that bobcat scat. You know you want to.

Afternoon Dragon Delight

I never expected it to be so, but stalking insects has become a favorite pastime. And this beautiful fall day, with temps in the upper 60˚s, provided plenty to admire if one took the time to look. The best way to spy the insects, for often so camouflaged are they, is to stand still for minutes on end and try to cue in on your surroundings.

Grasshoppers, their armored bodies so intricately designed, drew my attention first and I spent an hour on and off watching a male and female in hopes that they might set a date. On my clock, they never did, though I suspect when I wasn’t looking, they snuggled under a leaf.

Another was a Robber Fly that flew from boat to boat and root to root as is its habit in this habitat. So named for its ferocious manner of pouncing from the air onto its prey, I didn’t have the good fortune to observe that behavior. But do check out that bristly body.

And then I wandered over to the hammock and a Stink Bug made its presence known. I surprised myself with the find for it was almost camouflaged as it moved upon the ropes.

And somehow, cueing in on the Stink Bug provided the opportunity to see another dangling below the ropes. I thought I’d been in insect heaven up to this point, but the position was cinched when I spotted the dragonfly.

It didn’t move and so I was sure it was dead, and gave thanks for the opportunity to snap photos of it.

Really, it was a perfect specimen, its body and wings in immaculate shape. I had visions of my insect collection growing by one.

To that end, I took the dragonfly from the hammock and placed it on the cover of the well. Giddy as could be at my good luck in locating such a fine specimen on a mid-October day, I began snapping photo after photo as I took the opportunity to get to know this guy better.

It wasn’t until I placed him on the palm of my hand, however, that I began to notice more than its mosaic thorax.

Suddenly, his wings began to beat, ever so slowly and methodically. And yet, he remained in the same spot on my hand.

I gave constant thanks for I couldn’t believe the opportunity I’d been gifted to examine this magnificent being at such a close perspective. My typical encounter with a darner dragonfly is that they cruise over water in almost constant motion and rarely land. And yet . . . here one sat upon my hand with no intention to move on any time soon.

Have you ever looked at a dragonfly in such close proximity? And taken time to notice all the hair on its thorax?

Even its underside is covered in hair. And those folded legs. Remember when I found it dangling below the hammock? Its legs were extended back then.

My handling of the dragonfly was gentle for I wanted it to fly off, but at the same time, my fascination got the better of me. The face provided part of its identification for it had a thick black crossline stripe in the middle of the face that looked rather like a mustache.

I assumed it had been caught in a spider web under the hammock, and really, it did seem a few pieces of silk were stuck to one wing. With extreme caution I tried to brush them away, but feared I’d tear a wing in the process.

Back in my hand, I noted another facial idiosyncrasy–a T-spot with a robust upright and a top cross-piece–almost like a cat face upon its “nose.”

But what was really noticeable was the fact that suddenly my friend arched his body as he might when meeting his love. Was he as in love with me as I with him?

Just as suddenly as he arched, he began to relax.

And then, another movement . . . his bent legs that had been folded close to his thorax moved and he stood upon his knees.

What I couldn’t understand was why he didn’t extend those legs.

Rather, he started to do something else. Keep an eye on his head.

He cocked it as if to say, “Hey lady, it’s getting late. What are you going to do about me?”

I did what I hope was the right thing even if it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I placed him on a leaf upon the well cover. Yes, I so wanted to take him inside, but he wasn’t meant to be inside and whatever happens to him, happens. I can’t control his world, despite that questioning face that tugged at my heartstrings.

What was our encounter all about? And why didn’t he behave in typical darner fashion? I’ll never understand, but I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy today’s afternoon dragon delight. Indeed.

Learning in the Forest

Today was field trip day. Well, actually, every day is field trip day. This week’s trips have included Kezar Lake and the Kezar River Reserve in Lovell, as well as Holt Pond in Bridgton. But today, it was further afield as I drove north to China, Maine, to introduce Erika Rowland, Executive Director of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, and Alanna Doughty, Education Director of Lakes Environmental Association to a special person and a special place.

The special place is one that allows children young and old to use natural materials to build faerie houses. I’ve been entranced by such since my youth–thanks be to my father and his Scottish ancestry, and our “Aunt” Betsy, (she isn’t related, but she’s always been a wonderful aunt) who often took us on a picnic to the fairy table in her woods.

Faeries (fairies) love quiet places and their homes come in many forms. They’re best made from scavenged materials. Imagination rules and nature provides all the things needed for such creative architecture.

This particular village is identified by a sign that provides a list of materials both appropriate and inappropriate.

A wee bit further along the trail, we happened upon another spot that hasn’t been finalized yet, but it’s a collaborative effort between our hostess and last year’s fifth grade class.

The kiddos studied Maine mammals and then created a scavenger hunt. Erika, Alanna, and I continued to channel our inner kid and looked left, right, high, and low to spy the critters that share these woods. From coyotes to . . .

mama bear and her cubs, to . . .

a lynx chasing a snowshoe hare, to . . .

a moose, they were a pleasant surprise all along the way. If you have a smartphone available, you can learn more about them.

And if there are mammals, then there must be tracks.

We checked the gravely mammal “pit” and discovered pointed toenail prints leading us to think coyote. Had the silhouette come alive?

Continuing on, we came to an old log landing, where pine saplings happily inhabited the clearing. Our hostess, Anita, showed off the recent crazy growth years. Each year, a White Pine produces a whorl of branches, thus allowing one to age the tree by counting from one whorl to the next. And in between–well, the tree grows. Some years, the growth is extensive if conditions are right, such as this 18″ spurt one year and a similar one above the next.

A couple of trees, however, showed off the efforts of a White Pine Weevil. Brown, wilted main shoots (terminal leaders) featured tips curved into a shepherd’s crook. More on that later.

In the midst of all the pines, I was wowed by another tree with needles. It’s one that begs a handshake every time.

And really, that hand comes with the softest touch.

Even upon its trunk, the needles do splay . . . like an aster, but they won’t last long for a Tamarack (aka Larch, Hackmatack) is a deciduous conifer and already they are turning their golden autumnal color.

The Tamarack wasn’t the only star, for cedars also added a different texture to the woods.

And then . . . and then . . . we came upon the Treehouse. A handicap accessible treehouse.

It’s known as the Reading Tree, but it’s more than that, which the interpretive sign explains. Remember that White Pine Weevil damage we saw at the log landing? Well, the White Pine that the treehouse surrounds was a long-ago weeviled tree. When a pine is weeviled, the leader shoot dies and the whorl from the previous year take on the task of growing skyward.

The treehouse is built to accommodate its growth and let the sun in.

It also provides a fantastic place for all to blend in to its structure.

Of course, if you climb the tree, you might have to spend a bit of time in “Timeout.” But really, what a pleasure to do both.

We didn’t want to leave the treehouse behind and actually considered moving in, but onward our journey continued to a spot where the story transitions to mathematical computations. A cord of wood in the background, a chance to measure board feet in the foreground. It’s all a part of this special place, where classrooms abound . . . in the forest.

It didn’t stop there. A fence with cut-outs high and low let us peek at more local wildlife. Had we been with a class of twenty or more elementary school children, we surely would have scared the birds away. But . . .

our bird sightings were plentiful.

How many do you spy?

At the end of the wall, the interpretive sign offers clues of those one might see.

Leaving the wall, as we walked toward a wetland, movement at our feet led to the realization that we’d disturbed two garter snakes trying to grasp the rays of today’s limited sun.

Onto a bridge originally built by students twenty plus years ago in the man-made wetland, we paused to covet the outdoor classroom.

The possibilities for exploration were endless.

And they were all possible because of our incredible hostess, Anita Smith. Anita is a retired teacher, Maine Master Naturalist, and Project Learning Tree Advocate.

Her community close to home appreciates her, but so do the rest of us for as I’ve learned, Anita is alway happy to share what she and others have created to educate all ages.

Before we drove back to western Maine, we had one last wonder to fill our day–the woody capsules of Lady’s Slippers gone by that grow in clumps like we typically don’t see anywhere else.

Thanks to Anita and all her volunteers, we spent today wandering the China School’s Working Forest in China, Maine, and loved exploring the twenty or so learning stations set up on the fifty-plus acre forest. Neither Greater Lovell Lovell Land Trust or Lakes Environmental Association can replicate the China School Forest, but our take-away was immense and we loved the opportunities to learn in the forest.

Seeking Red Mondate

When I invited my guy to join me in a wetland today to mark out a trail, I truly expected him to hem and haw about going. And then when we got there, I thought he’d want to rush through the process and be done with it.

But perhaps it was the setting that slowed him down. I know that it always slows me down.

It’s a place where over and over again I’m surprised to discover that others have come before. Last year, it was bear prints that stopped me in my tracks. Today, bobcat. The print is upside down in the photo, but do you see the pad, C-shaped ridge and four toes heading toward you? Notice that the two front toes are a bit asymmetrical. Ah mud. It’s as good as snow. Though I can’t wait to go tracking in snow.

Another reason that this place slows me down is all that it has to offer. The Winterberries were a major part of our stumbling movement, but still they made me smile even though I had to untwist each foot as I tried to step over, around, and through their woody stems.

Among the mix in the shrub layer was Maleberry, its woody fruits of last year displaying shades of brown, while the newer fruits were tinged green.

And then there was the Nannyberry with its oval shaped fruits so blue upon red stems, and . . .

Withe-rod just a wee bit different shape that always makes me question my identification.

Rhodora also showed off its woody structure of last year embraced by this year’s softer fruiting form.

But what we really sought were little gems of red hiding among sedges in a different herbaceous layer.

I totally didn’t expect my guy to develop cranberry greed quite the way he has a penchant for blueberries, but he did. And he also rejoiced in eating the tart berries right off the stem. Even he commented that the little balls of red were like the blue-gold he usually sought during the summer.

Seriously, it got to the point where I gave up picking, and cranberries are much more my thing than blueberries. And I began to focus on other shades of red, like those that the Pitcher Plants loved to display.

The pattern on the Pitcher leaves always makes me think of the Tree of Life. But . . . equally astonishing are the hairs that coat each pitcher. If you rub your fingers down into the urn-like leaf, you can feel the hairs and gain a better understanding of them creating a landing strip for insects. The true test, however, comes when you dare to escape this carnivorous plant. Can you climb out of the leaf? The way out is sticky and rough and by tracing a finger upward, its suddenly obvious why insects can’t find their way out.

Equally unique, the flower structure that remains, waiting to share its 300+ seeds to the future. For now, it reminds me of a windmill on the turn.

My guy wasn’t as taken with the Pitcher Plant as I was. And he certainly didn’t care about the fact that a Funnel Weaver spider had recently taken up home among the plants urn-like leaves. But me . . . I was totally wowed. Why did a spider that likes to wait in its funnel tunnel until something landed on the net it had created, use a carnivorous plant as its home base? Did it have an agreement with the plant? I’ll bring you food if you don’t see me as food? And was that dark V-shape on the web a leg of one devoured?

With no spider in sight, I knew I’d have to let my questions go, but still . . . it was a mosaic web worth appreciating.

The Pitcher Plant grew on the edge . . . of an Arrowhead wetland . . .

growing beside a Sphagnum Moss peat bog.

And as I walked among it all, I felt the bog quake below my feet.

The pom-pom mosses were responsible for the environment in which we travelled . . . and for its inhabitants.

And because of the Sphagnum the cranberries grew. Abundantly.

Our movement continued as my guy wanted to find as many little red balls of tart glory as ever. And in the midst, the natural community came to focus on Devil’s Beggarstick.

Notice the spines along the seed’s structure.

The beggars chose to stick indeed. Volunteers. They hoped we’d move them on to another place, but we chose to pull each one off . . . Not an easy task.

At last it was time for us to take our leave. And so we found our way out as we’d come in, but felt like crowned royalty for all the finds we’d made, so many of them featuring a shade of red.

In the end, a look back was a look forward. We sought red and so should you—head to your favorite cranberry bog as soon as possible for the fruits await your foraging efforts. And wherever you go, don’t share the location with others. It’s much more fun to have a secret spot as you seek red.