Poking About Among the Trees

My intention this morning was to meet up with a few old friends, namely a porcupine and a beaver family. Added into the mix with any luck would be a barred owl.

But alas, it was not to be as I wandered on and off trail through the northeast corner of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

Instead, it was those who seemed inanimate that came to life repeatedly.

Right from the start the trees pulled me in for I needed to, well, it wasn’t exactly a need, but still, I needed to check on the swelling red buds of a basswood that grows near the edge of the parking area.

And I could hardly pay homage to one and ignore its neighbor, and so I moved a few feet to enjoy the glory of a beaked hazelnut catkin and bud as they began the countdown toward spring.

Climbing the Flat Hill trail, an old tree grinch tried to sneer, but I noticed a tweak of a smile and knew he was glad to have me there.

He must have been for he made sure that I saw . . . such things as a beech leaf layered upon an oak atop the snow–mirroring the skyspace above.

And speaking of beech, I noticed one spiky husk, which actually surprised me with its presence for so few were the beech seeds this past summer.

The same was true of acorns and without a mast production, the squirrel middens were rather sparse in the landscape, but I did find two, both a couple of feet deep. But there’s something else to note–the trickle of yellow pee by the pine needles to the upper left of the hole. By its skunky scent, I knew that while the squirrel sought sustenance in the form of an acorn, a red fox hoped to dine on the rodent. The latter meal didn’t happen anywhere nearby, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t occur.

With lots of meandering on the way up, I finally reached the summit of Flat Hill, where the mountains beyond hinted at today’s snow flurries and this weekend’s impending storm. But it wasn’t to the mountains that I spent much time focusing. Instead, I scanned all the trees around–hoping for the sight of another spiky one–a prickly porcupine.

I suspected that I wasn’t alone in my search for just below the summit ledge, I spotted a bobcat track.

The evidence of the porcupine’s presence was everywhere as it had left its mark on so many trees where it scraped the outer bark to reach the softer inner tissue.

Shallow and narrow tooth marks were all that remained. I love bear trees, but porcupine trees rank right up there.

And the same is true for pileated woodpecker trees, which are easy to sight not only by their oblong holes, but the woody debris below them as well.

Who can resist searching the debris for scat? I know I can’t. What I found today was an exploded version with ant body parts spewed about in such an array that I almost wanted to glue them back together. Almost.

My wander continued as I walked a portion of Perky’s Path where the wetland mounds were so littered with snow drops that it was impossible to decipher any mammal tracks. I did make my way to the old beaver lodge in the center of the photo, the mound standing tallest toward the background, but the sight and sound of water meant caution was necessary.

The same was true at the rock stepping stones to the south of the wetland and though I have an affinity for water, I chose not to cross for a chilly bath wasn’t in my plans.

Instead, I backtracked and then followed the snowmobile trail for a bit until I reached the outlet of the old beaver pond.

It was there that I turned off trail and followed the stream through the woods.

Water gurgled below its frozen form and ice bridges offered crossings for those who dared. I did not.

My purpose was to check on another lodge that had been quite active a year ago. Today, I was surprised to find no one at home in the stick-built inn.

Beyond, the dam stood high, but the water behind it was low–another indicator that the beavers had moved on by their own doing. At least I hoped it was their own doing.

Evidence of their previous works was apparent all along the brook, where many a tree had been logged by the rodents, including this yellow birch.

Though that birch and others had been toppled, upon the snow old catkins, their fleur de lis scales grown large, added texture to the scenery and seeds to the future.

Finally, I made my way out and smiled at the smiles in the ice and water that mimicked my own. Today, my heart rejoiced with the affirmation this morning that my friend, Jinny Mae, had received good news about her health. She is one of my pokey hiking friends and I tried to emulate her as I celebrated. From Jinny Mae I’ve learned to do what Mary Oliver recommended in “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

And so it was that as I paid attention just before leaving, I was astonished–by the tree I saw in the ice. I knew Jinny Mae, had she been beside me, would have taken the same photograph, for that’s what we often do when we’re together.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

~Mary Oliver

Today, I stayed awhile, poking about among the trees that shined in honor of these two women who have shared the gift of bowing often.

Nature’s Larder

(Warning: Some photos in this post may be disturbing.)

A couple of friends and I didn’t let this morning’s brisk air keep us inside and so at the designated time and place we met, strapped on our snowshoes and journeyed forth.

Almost immediately we were greeted with evidence that others had had the same idea. And though we knew they were turkey and fox tracks that intersected on the snow-covered ice, we weren’t positive about the fox ID until a few minutes later. As it was, the prints were muffled in presentation, which led us to red versus gray fox, but the stride seemed a wee bit short.

And then we found the calling card and both friends were thrilled to get down on all fours and take a sniff. Indeed, the skunky scent made us certain that the fox’s color was red.

Everywhere, whether atop a snow-capped rock or sapling or winter weed, we found that calling card–most of it a mere dribble, but enough.

Everywhere we also found the fox tracks and wondered–one or two? It seemed likely that she followed he, but we couldn’t be absolutely certain.

And then something in the distance atop the snow called our attention and we quickly followed the fox tracks to the dark sight.

It turned out to be turkey feathers. And we got to wondering again. There were no turkey tracks nearby, only fox. What had happened?

Toward the shore we tramped and suddenly one of us found a display of feathers and cartilage.

And then another about ten feet away.

And still another.

Beside it all, we found the calling card of the red fox to be even more prominently displayed.

Later, after one of our group departed, two of us revisited the kill sight and realized that there were some black and gray hairs left behind. My assumption was coyote as we had also seen their tracks. And we found a rather robust coyote scat not far away.

So here’s the story as we pieced it together, though we know some pages are missing: The fox(es) stealthily sneaked up on the turkeys who were scratching about for food on the ground under some hemlock trees where the sun had melted the snow. They pounced on one who wasn’t able to fly off quickly enough, for if you’ve ever watched a turkey take off, you know it’s awkward motion in slow speed. We hoped that the kill was quick and the turkey didn’t suffer as its feathers were plucked. The body was dragged here and then there, and the fox urinated to stake his claim. Maybe he shared some meat with his girlfriend. Along came the coyote who didn’t care about the fox’s territory and perhaps he scared them off and helped himself to a tasty treat. We had to think about it as nature’s way and jules of energy being passed on from the insects and birds to plants and seeds to the turkey and on to the canines. They, too, need to eat.

We searched all over for a head and maybe leg remnants or other body parts, but found not much, though we did find a bony structure and wished our veterinarian friend had been with us to perhaps enlighten our understanding.

Finally, we moved on and a few feet away another sight made itself visible.

Tucked into the top of a tree snag was a partial ear of corn. The refrigeration obviously worked for it looked as fresh as one might eat on a summer day.

How did it get there? We know it came from a nearby corn field, but who was responsible for its placement? Perhaps a squirrel? Or a bird? It didn’t seem likely that a raccoon could climb the snag, but then again, in nature the impossible often happens when we aren’t looking.

Today, we looked and even when it wasn’t pleasant, we were excited for we gained a wee better appreciation for and understanding of nature’s larder.

The Spirits of Long Meadow Brook

People often ask me this question: Aren’t you afraid of hiking alone? My response is that I’m more afraid to walk down Main Street than through the woods, the reason being that it’s a rare occasion I encounter another mammal. Oh, I do move more cautiously when I’m alone and today was no different. But . . . there’s something uniquely special about a solo experience.

Perhaps it’s that my mind wanders with me and I see things I might otherwise miss when I’m distracted by conversations with dear friends and family members. That doesn’t mean I don’t like to travel with them, I just equally enjoy going forth on my own.

Today’s exploration of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Long Meadow Brook Reserve and the adjacent private property protected under a conservation easement with the land trust allowed such a wander, both literally as I only occasionally followed the trail, and figuratively as I was sure that the two-headed tree spirit chuckled with me, not at me. You’ll need to let your own imagination wander to see the spirits within the split tree–believe me . . . they are there.

One of the things I love best about the Long Meadow Brook Reserve is its cathedral of pines–and the route I chose today appeared to lead to infinity. It’s not the blazed route, but someone had obviously been that way before.

When I reached the first bench, I heard the voices of fellow travelers and the laughter of the Lovell Recreation Summer Campers who often clamber for a seat. For the time being, their good-natured chatter was buried until they return again.

From the bench I moved across the field as many a deer had done, and found my way down to the namesake for this property, Long Meadow Brook. I’ll never forget my first visit several years ago–and the awe when discovering this view in the summer. In every season, I welcome the opportunity to have my breath taken away.

The view by my feet also garnered my attention, for it was obvious that a red fox had walked this way before me.

How did I know it was a red fox and not gray? Well, first I measured the print size, straddle, and stride. And then I looked at the foot morphology as presented in the snow. The prints were a bit muffled, which is one aid in identification, for a red fox has hairy feet. And . . . I spied the chevron, a little indented ridge that appears in the foot pad. If you look at David Brown’s Trackard in the previous photograph, you’ll see the chevron as a dark line.

There were other clues as to the maker of the tracks–for some frozen urine by a sapling spelled his name. And its skunky scent added a flourish to his penmanship. It’s mating season and this boy had an announcement to make.

I suspected his words were heard for it appeared that more than one fox had traveled across the old beaver dam and I found more pee at each little post.

I desperately wanted to cross as others had, but I was alone and knew it was best to stay on the eastern side.

That didn’t stop me from looking and noticing what may have been a recent otter or mink slide in the midst of the fox tracks.

Or the remains of a snowball fight that I imagined the fox affectionately tossed as his date.

Looking south, I couldn’t see any action, unless you consider the cattails. But I had to wonder, were the fox and the mink and the otter and any others at the edges keeping watch over me?

I couldn’t be sure, but I did note that the cattails parachuted seeds were eager to set off on the breeze and start their own lives.

Likewise, the water at the dam added its form of action and color and texture and sound–in as many renditions as possible.

At last I moved on, followed the blazed trail and climbed to the second bench on the property, along a route the deer know so well. Where were they? Also at the edge, again keeping watch?

Had I startled them from browsing the red maples? Missing buds and long tags represented their mark on the land.

Before moving on again, I stood behind the second bench where the mountains in Evans Notch looked as if they’d been coated with frosting; and in the way of the winter world, they had.

And then I followed a seldom used trail back down to the brook, where I spied a fox track. Do you see it? It’s about in the lower middle of the photograph.

I was even more excited when I noticed mature tamaracks growing along the brook’s bank and gave thanks.

For you see, several years ago some young tamaracks that grew along the beaver dam had been inadvertently chopped down to make a pathway for the snowmobiles. I was saddened by the discovery because this is one of the few GLLT properties with this deciduous conifer that looses most of its needles each fall. And that spot had also featured balsam fir, hemlock and white pine, making it the perfect outdoor classroom.

Add to that the pitch pines that grow by the first bench, and voilà! A lesson completed.

That made today’s discovery of the tamarack’s nubby twigs extra special and I knew that the tree spirits weren’t making fun of me, they were smiling upon me.

With that in mind, I was going to follow the trail back, but decided instead to journey for a bit beside the brook, where I found a deer bed in the sunniest of spots.

Eventually, I climbed up a hill and back to the trail, crossed through a stone wall to the neighboring property, continued on to a field and across that to a stump dump. Why go to such effort to reach a stump dump?

Because it’s actually a porcupine condominium hidden among the rocks and decaying tree stumps.

There were several entry ways–all showing the telltale signs of the pigpens of the woods.

Nipped twigs covered with a tad bit of fallen ice made me think the creators were snug inside and not over my head.

I did look up, but I did the same thing last week and didn’t see what others saw from a few feet back. That day, a porcupine was right over my head. Today, I didn’t think so, but the sun was bright and I couldn’t be absolutely certain. One may have been observing my actions from above.

And wondering what my fascination was with its scat. Check out those woody commas.

As I wandered about by the stump dump, something else also caught my eye–a promethea silkmoth cocoon.

At last I climbed back on to the porcupines’ rooftop and had to watch my step for there were several frosty vent holes and I didn’t want to land inside the humble abode.

As I stood there, I searched again for any quilled critters, but saw none. What I did see–that only a skeleton of a hemlock remained. It’s a tree the porcupines have spent more than several years denuding.

And in the tree next door, I noticed that they’d not yet reached the tip of one branch. Word has it that porcupines have many broken bones from falling out of trees. I’d love to be present when one returns for this leftover.

At last it was time for me to make my way out. I’d made a silly mistake today and thought that because it was so cold the snow would support me so I hadn’t worn snowshoes. Instead I created post holes with each step I took.

As I started across a five-acre field, my own spirit led the way–encouraging me not to give up despite the fact that I was tired.

And by the edge of the field, I did find a spirit hanging out. What was the cairn thinking? Maybe its expression was one of disgust that I’d ventured forth in its space. Or perhaps it was forlorn that I was now taking my leave.

I chose to believe the latter and gave thanks for the opportunity to wander among the spirits of Long Meadow Brook.

Wandering the Wilson Wing Way

We’ve wandered there before, my friend and I, and we’ll wander there again. For as she said, “No matter how often we come here, there’s always something new to see.” And so it was that we found ourselves crawling over the crusty snowbank to get onto the trail of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Wilson Wing Moose Pond Bog Reserve.

Virgin snow greeted us as we sauntered ever so slowly beside Sucker Brook, which drains out of Horseshoe Pond. All along, we were serenaded with water songs, but bereft of such from any birds, which seemed eerily odd.

We did, however, have plenty of sights to admire, including the beaded fertile fronds of sensitive fern standing stalwart in the cold water. And then it dawned on us. Yes, the fern was standing in water. We know it prefers the edges of wetlands, but today’s offerings were at least ankle deep. And then we remembered. During the summer, it would have sprouted at the margin for the brook barely trickled through the landscape prior to the rain and snow that have fallen since then.

As we stood there, we noted reminders of others, such as the basal leaves of the Cardinal flowers that grace the brook in late summer. Visions of their red heads danced through ours.

And within our crowns, we mentally gathered the fertile fronds of royal fern. Already the days are lengthening and in a flash we’ll wonder how winter passed so quickly (well, some of us will) and dried brown leaves gave way to lush green.

Then we let the brook gather our attention again. The late morning sun played with the water and snow-covered mounds, casting shadows to its liking–and ours.

Beside the brook grow hardwoods and soft, but none were as brilliant as the yellow birch. Perhaps it was the glow of a winter day that encouraged their golden sheen to stand out among the rest.

For a few moments we stood before one of my favorite yellow birches. I love how its spindly legs stand tall above the rocks in the middle of the brook. Today, all were but another memory as they stayed snug below the blanket of white.

The boulders were also skirted in a coating of white, and hemmed with an icy floral display.

Eventually, we moved on–but only a few steps at a time. In this wintry landscape one might think there is so little to see. And one might be wrong. The trees know, their bark displaying crustose lichens of various shades and shapes overlapped by frullania.

Frullania is a genus of leafy liverworts that you’ll see on many a tree as it splays across the bark in a spiderweb-like manner. Each leaf consists of two parts, giving it a three-dimension look. On this particular tree it could have been a work of art–a scene that included the branching arms of a tree against a blue sky, the blue being a trail blaze.

Given the conditions, the blazes were hidden by many works of nature. But staying on trail wasn’t always our focus.

Between the two of us we spied one sight after another that begged to be noticed, like the fruiting bodies of a lichen possibly called Snag Pin that topped small stems sticking out perpendicular to an old tree stump.

And then there was the fungi to note, like witch’s butter, this particular specimen reminding me of a duck posing in a frilly gown and crown.

Almost hidden by the snow, an old false tinder conk with its cracked black upper surface sporting a velvety margin below.

We also found tinder conks with their equally velvety spore surface, concave as opposed to the convex form of the false tinder conk. Both are known as a hoof fungus for their shape somewhat resembles that of a horse’s hoof. Somewhat. Perhaps this particular horse high stepped through the woods.

My friend’s affinity is more to the fungi, but she knew I was equally drawn to the hobblebush, their leaves tucked inside praying hands embracing the global flowerhead. Do you see the touch of green peeking out? Again, for those of you who would prefer to wish winter away, spring isn’t far off.

It took us a while to reach the viewing platform along this not so long trail and we chose not to climb up.

Instead we opted for the view beside the brook as it flowed forth into Moose Pond Bog.

Our main reason for such was that we were curious to know if any others had traveled beside the water as well. And we weren’t disappointed when we immediately spied mink tracks.

If you look closely, you’ll also note a slide, for why bound all the time when occasionally you can take advantage of the snowy landscape and save some energy. And have a little fun.

The Wilson Wing Moose Pond Bog Preserve was born prior to the organization of the Greater Lovell Land Trust. Outside the White Mountain National Forest, it was the first parcel to be conserved in the area. Behind the scenes, retired Episcopal Bishop and outdoor enthusiast George Cadigan, who summered in Lovell, encouraged his Lower Bay of Kezar Lake neighbor Wilson Wing to purchase some acreage along Sucker Brook in the early 1970s and donate it to The Nature Conservancy since the GLLT didn’t yet exist. Additional acreage was added in the late ’70s, but because the nearest office of the conservancy was located closer to the coast and the GLLT was beginning to take shape, the land was deeded to the land trust with the request that it be named for Mr. Wing.

The 32 acres beside the brook is a preserve managed primarily in its natural state for preserves are deemed to be forever wild due to fragile ecological conditions. That means that when a tree falls at Wilson Wing, its voice will resonate in a variety of ways before it finally decomposes because it can’t be touched. It will serve as habitat to a variety of species whether on land or in water.

Across the street, the Bishop Cardinal Reserve is managed to protect water quality and provide recreation and habitat.

Today, I had the pleasure of meandering beside Sucker Brook with Jinny Mae in a fashion that I imagine Wilson Wing would approve–wandering the Wilson Wing way.

Secret Giver of Gifts

Though I first posted this two years ago, I keep returning to it. Thought you might want to as well. Peace and joy be with you.

Snow quietly drifted earthward as baking scents wafted through the house and, Christmas lights sparkle from the living room. The spirit of the season has settled upon me at last. And today I was reminded of a time when our youngest asked, “Mom, are you Santa?”

s-barn

He’d held onto the belief for far longer than any of his classmates. And for that reason, I too, couldn’t let go. And so that day long ago, as we drove along I reminded him that though the shopping mall Santas were not real, we’d had several encounters that made believers out of all of us.

The first occurred over thirty years ago when I taught English in Franklin, New Hampshire. Across the hall from my classroom was a special education class. And fourteen-year-old Mikey, a student in that class, LOVED Santa.

Each year the bread deliveryman dressed in the famous red costume when he made his final delivery before Christmas break. To Mikey’s delight, he always stopped by his classroom. That particular year, a raging snowstorm developed. The bread man called the cafeteria to say that he would not be able to make the delivery. School was going to be dismissed after lunch, but we were all disappointed for Mikey’s sake.

And then  . . . as the lunch period drew to a close, Santa walked through the door and directly toward Mikey, who hooted with joy as he embraced the jolly old elf. As swiftly as he entered, Santa left. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-waiting-for-santa

And about nineteen years ago, as the boys sat at the kitchen counter eating breakfast on Christmas Eve morning, we spotted a man walking on the power lines across the field from our house. We all wondered who it was, but quickly dismissed the thought as he disappeared from our view, until . . . a few minutes later he reappeared. The second time, he stopped and looked in our direction. I grabbed the binoculars we kept on the counter for wildlife viewings. The man was short and plump. He wore a bright red jacket, had white hair and a short, white beard. The boys each took a turn with the binoculars. The man stood and stared in our direction for a couple of minutes, and then he continued walking in the direction from which he’d originally come. We never saw him again. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

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Another incident occurred about seventeen years ago, when on Christmas Eve, our phone rang. The unrecognizable elderly male voice asked for our oldest son. When I inquired who was calling, he replied, “Santa.” He spoke briefly with both boys and mentioned things that they had done during the year. I chatted with him again before saying goodbye. We were all wide-eyed with amazement. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

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Once I reminded our youngest of those stories, he dropped the subject for the time being. I knew he’d ask again and I also knew that none of us wanted to give up the magic of anticipation for those special moments we know as Christmas morning, when the world is suddenly transformed.

I also knew it was time he heard another story–that of Saint Nicholas, the Secret Giver of Gifts. It goes like this . . .

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The nobleman looked to Heaven and cried, “Alas. Yesterday I was rich. Overnight I have lost my fortune. Now my three daughters cannot be married for I have no dowry to give. Nor can I support them.”

For during the Fourth Century, custom required the father of the bride to provide the groom with a dowry of money, land or any valuable possession. With no dowry to offer, the nobleman broke off his daughters’ engagements.

“Do not worry, Father. We will find a way,” comforted his oldest daughter.

s-bracken1

Then it happened. The next day, the eldest daughter discovered a bag of gold on the windowsill. She peered outside to see who had left the bag, but the street was vacant.

Looking toward Heaven, her father gave thanks. The gold served as her dowry and the eldest daughter married.

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A day later, another bag of gold mysteriously appeared on the sill. The second daughter married.

s-sweet-fern-1

Several days later, the father stepped around the corner of his house and spied a neighbor standing by an open window. In shocked silence, he watched the other man toss a familiar bag into the house. It landed in a stocking that the third daughter had hung by the chimney to dry.

The neighbor turned from the window and jumped when he saw the father.

“Thank you. I cannot thank you enough. I had no idea that the gold was from you,” said the father.

“Please, let this be our secret,” begged the neighbor. “Do not tell anyone where the bags came from.”

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The generous neighbor was said to be Bishop Nicholas, a young churchman of Myra in the Asia Minor, or what we call Turkey. Surrounded by wealth in his youth, Bishop Nicholas had matured into a faithful servant of God. He had dedicated his life to helping the poor and spreading Christianity. News of his good deeds circulated in spite of his attempt to be secretive. People named the bishop, “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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Following Bishop Nicholas’ death, he was made a saint because of his holiness, generosity and acts of kindness. Over the centuries, stockings were hung by chimneys on the Eve of December 6, the date he is known to have died, in hopes that they would be filled by “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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According to legend, Saint Nicholas traveled between Heaven and Earth in a wagon pulled by a white steed on the Eve of December 6. On their doorsteps, children placed gifts of hay and carrots for the steed. Saint Nicholas, in return, left candy and cookies for all the good boys and girls.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas, called Sinterklaas by the Dutch, was so popular for his actions, that the people adopted him as their patron saint or spiritual guardian.

Years later, in 1613, Dutch people sailed to the New World where they settled New Amsterdam, or today’s New York City. They brought the celebration of their beloved patron with them to America.

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To the ears of English colonists living in America, Sinterklaas must have sounded like Santa Claus. Over time, he delivered more than the traditional cookies and candy for stockings. All presents placed under a tree were believed to be brought by him.

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Santa Claus’ busy schedule required he travel the world in a short amount of time. Consequently, as recorded in Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer replaced the wagon and steed.

Since Saint Nicholas was known for his devout Christianity, the celebration of his death was eventually combined with the anniversary of Christ’s birth. December 24th or Christmas Eve, began to represent the Saint’s visit to Earth.

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Traditionally, gifts are exchanged to honor the Christ Child as the three Wise Men had honored Him in Bethlehem with frankincense, gold and myrrh.

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One thing, however, has not changed. The gifts delivered by Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, or whomever your tradition dictates, have always and will continue to symbolize the love people bare for one another.

Though they are now young adults, my continued hope for my sons is that they will realize the magic of Christmas comes from the heart and that we all have a wee bit of Santa in us. Yes, Patrick, Santa is real.

May you continue to embrace the mystery and discover wonder wherever you look. And may you find joy in being the Secret Giver of Gifts.

Holey Mysteries

It all began with a photo sent to me by a friend two days ago. “Any ideas? 8 inches wide. 20 yards from a bog,” he wrote. 

I asked him about tracks in the area, but other than deer, he saw none. He did, however, see two track makers–a fisher and a weasel. 

And so, I contacted a few other friends and invited them to join me on a quest to figure out what the hole was all about. 

We met at the designated location, determined it would probably be in our best interest to wear snowshoes rather than Micro-spikes, and set off to search for the hole and clues. 

But first, something else stumped us. Oh, wait. I wasn’t stumped. I knew it was sumac and a bird must have been munching on the seeds. But . . . I didn’t remember sumac having such long hairs and there certainly were strands associated with the droppings. 

The color, however, made it incredibly obvious. Sumac indeed. 

Until . . . 

it wasn’t! Corn on the cob? On ice? And then we remembered that there was a cornfield located directly across the road. So . . . that made sense. But, how did it get to the other side? We’d noticed plenty of turkey tracks. Would turkeys carry cobs of corn? Not the ones that visit my backyard on a daily (sometimes twice daily) mission to eat as much bird seed I’ve tossed on the ground as possible. They scratch about and eat whatever is available on the spot rather than carrying it–as far as the four of us knew anyway. 

Did the deer bring it across? Again, we’ve always seen them dine on site. And . . . we noticed that the cobs, and even occasional husks, were left within their prints, so the corn arrived after the deer. 

As we continued to look around, we began to see kernels in small piles everywhere. 

And with that, we suddenly spied something else that looked oddly familiar. 

The hole! Notice its spiral shape. Discernible tracks? No. Dirt? Yes. Hoar frost? Yes. Hmmmm . . . 

We looked around for signs. “So and So lives here” would have made it too obvious. But, we found hoar frost on an adjacent hole, which raised a few questions: 1. Were the holes connected? 2. Was a critter breathing within? 3. Or, because we were near the bog, was there warmer water below that was creating the frost? 

Then we found something none of us had ever seen before. A smattering of sawdust on the snow located about five feet from the hole. Scat? Upset stomach? Two of us got down with a loupe to take a closer look and came to no conclusions. 

As we continued to look around, we noticed that though there wasn’t a discernible track, it did seem that activity led to two hemlock trees.

And there were snipped off twigs cut at an angle below the trees, plus some comma-shaped scat. 

With that in mind, we returned to the hole in question. 

Bingo! There was a sign that clearly read “So and So lives here.” A quill! When I first looked at the photo the other day I’d suggested porcupine or fox. Porcupine it was. 

Within the hole which we could tell was deeper to the left, we spotted more quills. 

Mystery solved–almost, for we didn’t know about that smattering of sawdust. Porcupine scat consists of sawdust because their winter diet includes tree bark and needles. Did the animal have a bellyache? 

Our excitement at finding the hole wasn’t diminished by the unsolved portion of the story. And still, we continued to find corn cobs as we moved closer to the water in hopes of finding tracks. 

Indeed, there were some and we tried to figure out the pattern to determine what mammal had crossed the ice. 

But before taking a closer look, there was ice on the bog’s edge to admire and we each found artistic displays to our individual liking. 

Back to the tracks on the ice.

At first, with porcupine on my mind, I thought I recognized the pigeon-toed behavior. 

But my companions couldn’t see it. And then I realized that I was seeing a different pattern instead. Opposite diagonals became important in the overall look of two feet together. 

Studying that one pattern of a waddling animal, we soon realized another had crossed over it–in a leap and a bound. Do you see the intersection of the two in the middle of the photograph? 

And, there were a couple of corn cobs on the ice. 

It was all too enticing, and so we got up the gumption, threw risk to the wind, and stepped out. One of us, stepped onto all fours as she slid across, the better to distribute her weight. It also gave her a better view of the tracks. 

Another came forth with caution, though she admitted she’d hoped we’d go for it. 

Her husband was the smart one and he stood on shore–looking at tracks in the snow created by one of the critters we were examining on the ice. And ever ready to call for help should we need it. 

Back to the pattern–do you see three sets of two feet? In the lower set the diagonal is higher on the left and lower on the right. It switches with the middle set of prints. And goes back to the same with the upper set. 

Where debris had frozen into the impressions you can almost see the toes. The smaller, almost rounder right hand print is a front foot and the longer left hand print is the opposite back foot. That’s how it goes with a waddler such as this. 

We’d actually seen clear prints near where we’d parked and so we knew this mammal had been in the area–those baby hand-like prints belonged to a raccoon. Raccoon tracks and corn on the cob. Hmmmm. We were beginning to make some connections. 

With that figured out, we moved on to the next set of tracks and determined they belonged to a snowshoe hare–the larger front prints actually representing its back feet as they had landed after the front feet bounded forward. 

As we studied the hare track, we noticed lots of movement had previously been made by another critter and I’m going to go out on a limb to say based on its size and behavior that it was related to the next mystery we encountered. 

First, there was a hole around a couple of tree stumps and it was the layers of ice that drew our admiration. 

Right near it, however, was another frozen over hole and we could see some tracks that were difficult to read. 

But the ice was glorious and there was another small tree stump in the center. 

We weren’t sure who had made the holes until we spied another and some prints in the snow. 

The five tear-drop shaped toes provided a huge hint. 

And a bigger hint–a hole nearby. 

As usual, it commanded a closer look. 

And what did we find? Fish scales. With that signature, and the prints and even the pattern of the older tracks near the snowshoe hare activity, we knew a river otter had recently eaten. 

Eventually, we made our way back to the road, crossed over and checked the cornfield for we still weren’t sure who had brought the cobs to the bog. It made sense that the raccoon may have, but all of them? 

We found plenty of deer tracks, many of which were again filled with either kernels or nearly complete cobs. 

But it was the one stuck up in a broken red maple limb and the chitting nearby, plus scat below, and the actual sighting of a particular mammal that we think gave us the answer as to why so many piles of kernels–red squirrels. 

With that, it was time for us to take our leave. First, we gave great thanks, however, to Parker for sending me the photo of the hole. When I’d shown it to another friend, he asked why the spiral. I think that was the lowest point and the porcupine climbed out and then made its typical swath around until it reached the higher ground each time it exited and entered.

The question none of us could answer–what about that sawdust smattering?  

Ah well, we saved that for another day and left thankful for the opportunity to solve most of the holey mysteries. 

Amazing Race–Our Style: episode eleven

The second to last episode of the Amazing Race–Our Style was upon us and we hoped it wouldn’t be the final one for us. 

Today’s clue was a bit different than most. It gave us four specific locations–and much to our delight, all were within 20 minutes of home! How could we be so fortunate? 

We were also given a time frame and a few other instructions. We were to arrive at our first destination at 10:30am. From that starting time, we had until 5pm to finish our tasks and send four photos to a certain website. The sooner we completed all of the tasks, except for sending the photos, the better our chances of hanging in for the final episode. The pressure was on. 

One of the biggest challenges was that the photos we needed to send were selfies. We aren’t selfie fans, unless you count photos of our footwear! 

Our overall mission today: to locate the four trees that had been decorated by homeschooled children and/or local land trusts. Since there were four teams left and four different properties, we were each given a different location in which to begin. 

Our starting point on this very foggy morning was Western Foothill Land Trust’s Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway, Maine. As instructed, we arrived at 10:30 and made sure to stay on the snowshoe trails only, for there is also a network of groomed ski trails. The trail was long and sometimes wet, while other times icy, but we didn’t notice too much as our eyes were focused on the trees. Of course, we were occasionally distracted, such as when a downy woodpecker flew into sight. 

My guy was certain he knew where the tree would be located, but . . . it wasn’t, at least as far as we could tell in the fog. 

We did spy a spider web embellished with beads of water and I remembered a story based on a legend about a poor family who had no decorations for their Christmas tree. As the tale goes, while the children slept, spiders spun webs of silver around the tree’s branches. The next morning, the family awoke to a Christmas tree sparkling with silver webs. Today’s webs were such and though we hadn’t found the decorated tree I was already richer for the experience of looking.

And then . . . my guy walked right by it. I was surprised I didn’t, for we both expected a different evergreen species to be adorned. 

Most of the ornaments were meant to feed the critters and we saw deer tracks in the snow. 

Among the mix was a tree cookie with a wood-burned sketch–perhaps of Roberts Farm? 

While my guy picked up fallen treats to rehang on the tree, I practiced my selfie skills. I was feeling confident that we could pull this off. 

And when I told him that we’d have to send the photos to mainechristmastreehunt.com, he was eager to pose–and I was shocked. We tried to make sure that the tree was visible in the background. 

We checked off that tree, hopped into the truck and headed to Lovell. 

OK, so we knew when the clue arrived that we had a bit of an advantage for we’d been invited to join the Fairs, Farms, and Fun 4-H Group that decorated the tree at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Chip Stockford Reserve on Ladies Delight Road in Lovell a few weeks ago, and I’d just co-led a walk on the trail this past Saturday where other adults had fun looking for it. And redecorating it.

Oh well. Other teams had had different advantages during different episodes, so it was our turn. 

But, the most curious thing–when we arrived . . . there were no tracks made by any of the other teams. Team Purple was supposed to begin at this point. Had she gotten lost? 

Because we knew right where to go, our journey was quick and we easily relocated the tree on the one mile loop with a spur. And . . . discovered that the birds and deer had once again dined on the bird seed ornaments. 

When it comes time to remove the decorations after Chrismas, the task will be super easy. 

Thankfully, the subtle birch bark hearts continued to add a festive note. 

And so we posed. 

We did discover a new clue at the kiosk on our way in–we were to find something in the woods that represented our team. We found an H for Team Hazy. 

Within the clue package, we were also told to take time to eat–at a place locals frequent. We chose Quinn’s Jockey Cap Country Store in Fryeburg and somehow managed to resist the sweet treats while we ordered sandwiches. 

And then it was on to the Mountain Division Trail on Route 113 in Fryeburg to look for Upper Saco Valley Land Trust’s Andrews Preserve. There are no signs or trails at that preserve, but our adventure on Saturday had included a visit there. That’s why I couldn’t believe that this was the intended challenge for today’s episode, but all had been decided almost a year ago and it just worked out that I knew where we needed to go today. That being said, I let my guy lead. 

He had a bit of help as one or two others had been that way–leaving their tracks in the snow. 

And . . . he did a super job, quickly spying the tree. What I love about this scavenger hunt is that each tree has a different theme and flavor. The USVLT tree was decorated by a teen and her mom, and the teen didn’t want the animals to eat all the ornaments. Understood. 

They created a pipecleaner garland and added glittery bulbs. It’s a bright spot in the middle of a thickly wooded site. 

And so we posed again. 

Our final destination was to Lake Environmental Association’s Pinehaven Trail at the Maine Lake Science Center on Willet Road in Bridgton. This is a place we know well for it’s practically in our backyard, but we didn’t know which tree would be decorated. And so we began our hunt, pausing briefly to remember the fun we’d had on the low elements challenge course that dots the trail. We’d actually completed that challenge one rainy day and were thankful (and surprised) we didn’t have to attempt it in the snow. 

Suddenly, the decorated tree jumped out with its brightly colored garland and we rejoiced for we’d found all four trees. And still had plenty of time. 

The laminated garland featured words related to LEA’s mission and activities. And so did the tree cookies, much to our liking. 

And so we posed for one final time. We still aren’t great in the selfie department, but it would have to do. 

Our next task before sending off the selfie photos to the website, was to create a scavenger hunt for others. You already know the four properties and their locations. Plus for each organization, I’ve included a link to their websites. 

Your task, should you choose to complete it while you look for the decorated trees, is to also locate these finds. 

#1: Phoebe nest protected from the weather.

#2: Shiny chrome in the forest

#3: Home for flying salamanders

#4: Wet wetland

#5: Fairy castle with many spires and towers

And finally, #6: Snowshoe snowflake! 

The numbers: 

4 trees: √

4 selfies: √

Photo to represent our team: √

Scavenger hunt for others: √

Total time to complete race: 5 hours

We finished this leg of the Amazing Race–Our Style by 3:30pm, uploaded the selfies, sent them to Maine Christmas Tree Hunt, and found out that we took first place today! Yippee. (We were sad to learn that Team Purple made some wrong turns and got delayed.)

One more leg to go in January. Who will be the winners of the Amazing Race–Our Style? Stay tuned.