From Lovell to Lewiston, Naturally

This morning dawned as all do, but not all are quite so pristine. As I drove to Lovell I gave thanks that I’d be able to explore with a friend as we completed a reconnaissance mission before leading a wetland hike next weekend.

My friend Alice brought along her friend, Diana, and we tried to bee-line to Bradley Brook and the wetland beyond, but there were so many things to stop of us in our tracks, including the numerous prints of white-tailed deer and an occasional squirrel. Plus beech buds and marcescent leaves and . . . and . . . and. If I share all now, you won’t need to join us on February 8 and we really want you to come.

Eventually we reached the brook and were wowed by the colors and textures it offered.

As the brook flowed so did the ice form and its variation bespoke the water’s varying ways.

It was beside the brook that another local resident revealed its name by the prints it had made. We welcomed conditions that have been a bit on the warmer side of late (it wasn’t exactly warm when we began this morning, but these prints were made a night or two ago and actually showed some details or clues that led to identity). Do you see the baby hand in the upper left-hand print? And the diagonal orientation of one foot ahead of the other?

We continued following the raccoon and the brook toward the wetland of our destination, but paused again and again to rejoice in the presentation before us, including the tree that formed a triangle in reality and shadow.

At last we arrived at our destination, curious about the possibilities it offered. Though the temp was on the chilly side and we’ve had some really cold days this winter, we’ve also had some with much milder temps and so we watched our footing because none of us wanted to break through.

It’s a place where animal tracks intersect with nature’s lines and shadows grow long, whether arced or straight.

While we focused on the offerings, Alice and I gave thanks for Diana’s questions, which helped us consider how and what to share with participants who join us next weekend. Male and female catkins? Oh my.

Eventually we found our way back to the brook, and if it seems like I’ve failed to show you all that we saw, it’s only because I don’t want to give away any treasures we want to share. Did I mention that Alice and I are leading a walk for the Greater Lovell Land Trust on February 8th at 9:30am.

We noted an ice bridge that crossed the brook, but it was thin and no critters had yet taken advantage of its structure. Next weekend, however, we’ll check again.

At the old yellow birch we paused before turning away from the brook, but really, don’t you just want to spend some time in this landscape? Listening to the babble of the water and calls of the chickadees and nuthatches? It’s a perfect place to get lost for a few moments and let the forest refill the innermost recesses of your lungs.

And then to look for lungwort lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria), an indicator for rich, healthy ecosystems such as old growth forests.

Alice teased me because I love to pour water upon it and watch as it magically turns bright green. The main photobiont is a green alga, and when water hits it it immediately photosynthesizes and goes from dull and dry to vibrant and pliable. It’s also a type of cyanolichen, meaning it contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria. When it falls to the ground and decomposes into the forest floor, it contributes its nitrogen reserve to the soil.

Eventually our time in Lovell came to an end and within the hour I drove to Lewiston for another meeting with some like-minded friends.

The plan was for me to deliver sets of tree cookies to Cheryl Ring and Sue Kistenmacher, two of four co-coordinators for the Maine Master Naturalist class now taking place in Waterville. After filling Cheryl’s car with boxes of bark, we headed off for a walk in the woods of Lewiston.

Within moments, we found ourselves admiring the red in the bark of a red oak and Cheryl went forth to honor it for announcing its name.

Red maple also announced itself, though in a completely different manner. It’s the only tree in Maine that suffers from bullseye target canker which creates . . . a bullseye shape or circular plates caused by a fungus.

With these two notorious birders, we spent a lot of time looking up and saw chickadees, nuthatches, crows, a downy woodpecker, heard a pileated, and the icing on the cake: two brown creepers upon the tree trunks.

But . . . we also spent time looking down and the footprints beside our feet amazed us.

It was the orientation of prints always presented on a diagonal with five tear-drop shaped toes and in a bounding pattern that first heard us exclaiming.

Taking measurements and noting all the details, while using Dorcas Miller’s Track Finder book and David Brown’s Trackards, we nailed it. Fisher. (I just have to say this: not a fisher cat. It’s not in the feline family; it’s a weasel.)

As we followed the fisher tracks we met another traveler of these woods. It threw us off at first because its pattern led us astray. But we followed the track for a bit and examined the prints until we found a few that helped us make a positive ID.

We’d considered fox, but none of the measurements matched up and we were pretty sure we were seeing five toes rather than four and then we knew the creator. The second raccoon of my day.

As it happened we followed both the fisher and raccoon and noticed that while the raccoon walked by the pine trees, the fisher’s prints were visible on one side and then on the other in a way that was not humanly or fisherly possible, unless the mammal climbed the tree and jumped off the other side.

And planted a solid landing–like any great gymnast.

How great it was to stand there and note where the fisher and raccoon tracks had intersected–both overnight perhaps, but for as far as we had traveled no interaction had taken place.

We did, however, find an area that explained why the fisher was on the hunt: a hillside filled with squirrel middens. This spot offered more squirrel middens than I’ve seen all winter.

A midden is a garbage pile. The red squirrel finds a high spot, either the lay of the land, a rock, tree stump, or branch, upon which to “eat” a white pine cone like an ear of corn. The squirrel pulls off each scale on the cone and munches on the tiny pine nuts, discarding the inedible parts.

Each pine scale holds two pine nuts with attached wings or samaras–think maple seed with its wing. If you look closely at the inside of the pine cone scale, you can see the shape of the samaras and seeds.

Just before we turned back on our afternoon journey, we discovered a coyote track and gave thanks that we were in a city space that provided an incredible sanctuary for the mammals and birds.

My thanks began in the morning when I spent time exploring the John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge in Lovell with Maine Master Naturalist Alice and her friend Diane.

And it concluded with the afternoon spent with Maine Master Naturalists Cheryl and Sue at Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary in Lewiston.

From Lovell to Lewiston, naturally with naturalists. Thanks be.

Lighting The Way

It felt like months had passed since our paths had crossed, but finally the stars aligned as they say, and my friend Marita and I found time for a hike this afternoon. Our chosen destination: Mount Tom in Fryeburg, Maine.

Within the foundation at the start of the trail the snow outlined the stones. In other seasons, these structures blend in with the landscape but on this day they were highlighted and we could almost imagine the stories of yore.

Lines intersected and wood interrupted, much as we’ve raised our children both together and independently.

Higher up, again the snow showed off the details in a way that might normally blend in and remain invisible. It all seemed so symmetrical and then in the debris below–a much more random design reflecting the course our paths have taken.

At the edge of the ledges we noted edges. Rounded and straight, interwoven as our families have been with variation along the way.

As we followed the path made by others we caught up on each other’s lives and shared a few memories of the past for ours is a journey that began long before we actually knew each other since we are from the same hometown.

Occasionally, the trail offered shades other than snow white and gray granite; a glimpse into the future was featured by the evergreen leaves of Trailing Arbutus, aka Mayflower. What will our future hold? A continued friendship we know.

We know not what the future holds, but revel in the possibilities as indicated by fresh Pileated Woodpecker holes.

And when scat happens, we’ll be there–to examine it, decipher it, and help each other through it, or at least listen and offer comments of reassurance and consideration.

Two and a half miles later we reached the summit where the contrast of sky and landscape pleased our eyes and gave us our bearings.

And a view of Little Mountain to the far left and the long ridge of Pleasant Mountain pointed to the hometown we have shared for over thirty years, almost twice the time of the place where we grew up but still have some ties.

Our stay at the top wasn’t long for we wanted to descend before daylight gave way to night.

At last we returned to the foundation where our journey had begun and again admired the stones and their placement.

Lighting the way had been the glory of the January light, but really there was more: friendship, understanding, similarities, differences, and hearts that may sometimes turn sideways, but always love.

Tuesday Trackers Track

“Even if the conditions weren’t great for tracking, it was still fun to get out,” said Gilda, one of the newest Greater Lovell Land Trust Trackers as we explored off trail today. Mind you, it was -11˚ at daybreak, and the temperature registered in the single digits when we all met at Lot #1 of Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve.

Not too far along the Chestnut Trail a trough extending from both sides drew our attention. We split up and followed it in either direction trying to determine the creator. Deer? No, not deep enough in the fluffy snow. Coyote? We kinda sorta saw the footprint and perhaps the pattern, but why the trough? Fisher? We were almost certain it was for we convinced ourselves that the vague prints were on a diagonal and the critter had bounded and slide across the landscape. It seemed to be characteristic of a weasel family member. But would a fisher slide that much? We’ve seen occasional slides but this was consistent. Porcupine? Now that didn’t occur to us and as I looked at the first photo I took I thought why didn’t I think of that. I know that the summit of Flat Hill is covered with porcupine tracks and dens. We were at the base. Just maybe what we saw was the trough of a porcupine. As it was, we spent a lot of time questioning our observations and blaming it on the snow for not providing us with the best tracking conditions. Someone mentioned that I should have kept track of how many times I said, “I don’t know.” Perhaps tracking those three words would have provided us with a higher success rate.

What I did know was that when we reached the stream and noted that the mystery trough maker had crossed to the other side and we didn’t like the looks of the ice and running water below and chose not to follow suit, we did spy some prints with a pattern we all knew to be coyote based on the size, X between the foot pads, and nail marks. Actually, we thought a family was on the hunt. Perhaps for a porcupine?

All in all, we did find vole and mouse tracks, and later some that we were 95% sure were fisher, and domestic dog. But like Gilda said, it was fun to be out on a brisk winter day in a beautiful location as we shared a brain and tried to figure out the stories in the snow.

Today’s Tuesday Trackers included Joan, Bob, Lucy, Ingrid, Pam, Joe, Gilda, and Frank.

These trackers were as intrepid as those I traveled with year ago and the article that appeared in today’s Bangor Daily News was based on a similar adventure last year. Well, let me clarify that. It was similar in that the temp was 4˚, but if I recall correctly it must have been windy for it felt even colder. And the tracking conditions were pristine that day.

Here’s the article: https://bangordailynews.com/2020/01/21/act-out/how-to-track-maine-wildlife-in-the-snow/

Thanks once again to Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News and “Act Out with Aislinn” for giving me the opportunity and making it all happen.

Where Flakes Gather

Where flakes gather . . .

Trees don necklaces.

Hemlocks act like umbrellas.

Branches create geometric shapes.

Hieroglyphics are written upon crustose bases.

Red squirrel toes are enhanced.

Leaves transform into stained glass.

Catkins release fleur de lis scales and tiny seeds one by one.

A young woman smears on cranberry red lipstick.

A gnome watches from his hiding place.

And a snowman steps forth to ask for a dance.

All of this can only happen where snowflakes gather.

Ice on the Rocks Mondate

This past weekend’s January thaw was a doozy. First the temperature reached 61˚ on Saturday and then 56˚ on Sunday with a downpour in the mix and most of our 12+-inch snowpack disappeared.

And so after my guy and I finished some errands in North Conway, New Hampshire, we decided to walk along the Saco River to check on the conditions.

Our starting point was at the Smith-Eastman Landing on Meeting House Road. A look at the old bridge stanchions brought childhood and teenage memories of the covered bridge that once stood there back to my guy.

According to an article in the September 23, 2015 issue of the Conway Daily Sun:

The bridge between Redstone and Center Conway — the Smith-Eastman Bridge — was built in 1845-46. It was the longest, historically. Animosity developed among townfolk over where it should be located. Many wanted the Chataque site in Conway, as it would allow them to get to Dover more easily. Those living eastward toward Center Conway wanted it there in order to get to Portland.

Judge Joel Eastman, with his farm located at the latter site, won out. His neighbor was John Smith, who delivered the stage line to Portland. Tolls would be necessary. In December 1844, articles were drawn up between the two men, and they were ultimately reimbursed by the town. Many called this bridge the Joel Eastman; others the Smith-Eastman.

This bridge was repaired in the 1930s by members of the Broughton family. Sadly, arsonists — partying youths — destroyed the 130-year-old structure in July 1975. A plaque was erected at the site a year later as part of local observances of the nation’s bicentennial.

To the south, though not currently in use, the train trestle bespoke a time of prosperous productivity based upon action at the Redstone Quarry

Our journey began at the south side of the Smith-Eastman Park and after crossing a small footbridge, we followed the trail beside the river. Notice the snow deficit. But . . . there was ice as today’s temp was in the more seasonal low 20s, though it felt more like the teens, perhaps because we’d been spoiled over the weekend. Anyway, I wore my micro-spikes; my guy shoved his into a pocket. At least he had them with him. We climbed a mountain a month and a half ago, and he intentionally left them behind. Let’s suffice it to say he regretted that decision on more than one occasion when his feet left the Earth.

As we walked along today, our Beech tree vision found us looking for bear claw marks. We never did see any, but an elbow did manifest before our eyes. So . . . what’s its story? Someone marked the trail by bending the tree? Another tree landed atop it in its younger days and caused it to reform? Your thoughts?

Continuing on, we came to a stump where you know who decided to sit and don those micro-spikes. He was behind me as I took this photo and acknowledged the fact that he’d made the right choice.

As you can see, it’s a well traveled trail that offers recreational opportunities for both man and his best furry friend.

Despite the fact that this is a well-frequented doggie walk, we also found evidence that wild mammals are familiar with the territory as evidenced in deer prints and fresh beaver works.

We looked for a lodge, but found none. Perhaps theirs was a bankside lodge located in a place we couldn’t reach.

And where humans were warned not to fish, another mammal whose name shall be forever muted by the conditions, went across an ice covered swamp to get to the other side.

Side trails frequently departed the main drag and led to the water. This was the only one with such an artistic sign and we gave thanks to the Cato Trust for the creation–of sign and trail.

We checked out their beach. It wasn’t exactly a beach day, but . . . when in Rome.

Not long after that a strange structure greets all those who travel this way. It’s a shed with mini solar panels above and cables and other forms of technology, all bedecked with a dark moss I couldn’t identify. As a gauge station for the USGS Maine Water Science Center and provides data National Water Quality Monitoring Council.

From the beach below it, we looked back toward Route 302 as the day darkened and a fine sleety mist greeted the only exposed part of our bodies, our cheeks. I probably should have had us pose for a selfie for we both would have added a rosy color to the landscape.

Because of the melting and rain, the water level was high, but not at its highest. Still, we wondered if there was any ice left.

Eventually, we began to find it offering a contrast to lichen covered rocks.

And thick sheets sitting upon the shore like beached whales.

We found frozen ground, ripple marks created by the water’s motion, and thin layers recreating the work of line artists.

Then there was a stream that flowed innoculously below our feet until it met the riverbank and added various sculptures to those who ventured near.

We enjoyed the view offered from either side of a downed tree, but chose not to climb down and taken in the scene from below. I know we missed something, but it was rather steep and as great as our micro-spikes were in giving us a feeling of security, we didn’t feel like going swimming.

In the end, and after a couple of hours and three or four miles our journey did come to an end because it was sleeting by the time we finished, it was the configuration of rocks and ice, ice and rocks, and all the lines and textures they offered that intrigued us most on this Mondate.

Rocking the First Mondate

Christmas gifts don’t always have to cost and such was one that my guy cashed in on today. You see, I gave him a card and wrote a message within that read something like this: “Let’s travel to Tin Mountain Conservation Center’s Rockwell Sanctuary in Albany, New Hampshire, one Monday this winter. Your task will be to identify three reasons why I chose this place for us to journey. If you figure out all three, I’ll buy you a beer.”

And so we went. And I wondered how quickly he would figure it out.

At the kiosk, we examined the map and decided we’d start off on the Maple Leaf Loop to the left and stay to the left, thus covering all of the outer trails. That meant we wouldn’t see everything, but in three or four hours we would see enough. Maybe.

From the get-go, he tried to figure out what three things I had in mind. Was it the signage on the trees for he appreciated that they boasted their names?

I liked that as well, but, no, the tree signs weren’t part of the deal.

What about the trail being well marked, he wondered. Yes, that was a good thing and we do sometimes have a tendency to get “fake” lost, but donning snowshoes meant we could always backtrack and find our way out. So that wasn’t it.

Could it be the decorated Christmas tree? Well, that certainly is what introduced me to the trail system a month ago for the tree was decorated as part of the ME/NH Christmas Tree Quest I’d coordinated, but that wasn’t why I wanted to travel these trails with him.

Maybe it was Chase Pond? No again. I did, however, love its layers and really wanted to walk onto it to explore some more, but I’m not ready to trust ice recently formed and then coated with an insulating layer of a foot of snow. Soon, but not yet.

In the meantime, however, the edge of the pond presented the woody structures of Leatherleaf’s former flowers and I rejoiced. He marched on, totally oblivious, but that was okay. I knew these would capture my heart, not his, and the goal was for him to figure out the three things that would appeal to both of us.

“Could it be the beaver works?” he asked as we circled the Beaver Loop.

No, but the high ridge of an old beaver dam in the mid portion of this photo made me wish we’d seen more recent works. It appeared the beavers had done their work and moved on a few years ago.

Was it the canoe half hidden in the snow? That surely was fun to stumble upon and reminded us both of canoes at LEA’s Holt Pond in Bridgton. This looked like another case of bring your own PFD and paddles. You might throw in some duck tape, just in case. But, no, it wasn’t the canoe.

We followed Stoney’s Spur down to the water’s edge and again a question: Perhaps it was that we could be the first to make tracks in the snow? Well, sorta the first, for a fox and mink had been there before us. I reminded him that when I wrote the message on the card I had no idea exactly when we would visit the sanctuary or what the trail conditions would be so again, that wasn’t one of the thoughts on my mind.

The spur did lead us to a boardwalk and we broke trail on it before heading back around to the Laurel Loop.

A sudden stop by me and he knew that this wasn’t part of the equation for he had no idea what the structure was that drew my attention. We find these occasionally and they always make me happy. This was the capsule of a Lady’s Slipper and while I suspected that there are more such plants in these woods, we’ll have to return in the spring to verify that assumption.

The Laurel Trail lead us across Bald Hill Road and it was there that the great signage we’d enjoyed came to an abrupt end. And so we moved about searching left and right to figure out where to go next.

No blaze led diagonally behind us, but down through the trees my guy spied some yellow paint and so he checked it out before beckoning me to join him.

It was that way for much of the trail and though we enjoyed the lay of the land, we had a difficult time determining where to go next.

The glacial boulders, however, were a sight to see.

And upon one I discovered an act of gravity I didn’t understand: icicles extending outward and growing parallel to the ground rather than perpendicular to it.

Was this some sort of magnetic hill? My guy never saw these so he couldn’t add his two cents, which I would have gladly welcomed. Sometimes he sees things that make sense of what I spy.

The thing about the trail, however, was that neither of us could spy the blazes most of the time, unless we turned around and looked back. We were supposed to be exploring a loop and crossing back over the road, but suddenly found ourselves traveling back toward whence we’d come. Even with GPS, which didn’t pick up the actual trail, we could see our movement but couldn’t determine where we were supposed to be since the map wasn’t geo-referenced.

That was okay because our wander found us traveling through a Mountain Laurel field we would have otherwise missed.

My guy was rather certain the plant was not for his focus and so he moved on while I paused for the old Kodak moment.

Finally crossing back over the road by backtracking our steps for a bit, he wondered if the Owl Prowl Trail was one of the three reasons I’d chosen this place. No, though we both love owl encounters.

Crossing a bridge, he didn’t realize that he was suddenly getting hotter.

The bridge marked the outlet of Chase Pond and huge boulders formed its old damming point.

Our next left hand turn took us on to the Quarry Trail.

As we traversed it, a lightbulb went off and he asked, “The quarry?” YES! Quarries fascinate both of us and I knew he’d enjoy finding and exploring this one. He was feeling rather successful and grateful that he wouldn’t be the victim of a shut out.

At the next intersection he had his second answer: Bear Trees. Bingo. But, would we be able to actually see any?

Indeed we would. We both love the discovery of scratches left behind by the big mammals.

And so, as we climbed about through the quarry, we continued to look for beech trees with marks showing the way of the climber.

The rocks left behind offered their own interesting forms.

And the trees, lots of evidence.

There was more on the trees as well, and not all of it worth celebrating: do you see the tiny white spots mingled occasionally among the red bloom? Those white dots are the minute beech scale insects. The holes the tiny insect makes in the bark create a perfect entry point for nectria pathogen to make its way into the tree. The pathogen, a type of fungus, kills some areas of the tree at the point of entry. In reaction, the tree develops a canker as a defensive attempt to ward off the invader, but by doing so the canker blocks the vascular tissue of the infected beech by stopping nutrient flow in that one area.

And those red spots, as pretty as they appear, are actually tarry spots which ooze out of the cracks in the bark caused by the canker. Essentially, it appeared the tree was bleeding.

We preferred to focus on the scratches, some indicating a more recent visit than others, based on the width of the marks.

We kept finding them and wondered how many more there must be within the sanctuary and beyond.

It was no wonder for many of the trees are mature and, as evidenced by the husks left scattered on the snow, they’ve been producing fruits, aka beech nuts, for a long time.

After almost four miles in three hours, my guy and I finished up our trip and he was thrilled to have figured out that I chose this place for the quarry and the bear trees. But the third reason alluded him.

That’s okay. It just means we’ll have to return again so he can figure it out. Of course, that also meant no stop for a beer on the way home.

Perhaps the next time. In the meantime, we’re both still thrilled with the finds we did make as we rocked this first Mondate of the new year.

First Day 2020

We never know how many to expect for any event, but the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s First Day hikes typically attract a maximum of nine. Today, however, we were wowed as eighteen gathered.

Before leaving parking lot #2 on Slab City Road to reach the trailhead for our loop up and down Whiting Hill at the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, we all donned snowshoes and marveled at the mix of styles and colors.

Why snowshoes? Because Mother Nature dumped a foot of snow over the past two days and finally it felt like winter.

In single file, we marched along, but paused periodically, including to practice shouting. The phrase that bore repeating: Happy New Year.

Occasionally mammal prints made us stop in our tracks and for one we noted signs of urine. Hmmm, who exactly was the four-footed explorer? A red fox. And how could we be so certain? Because its pee smelled rather acrid and skunky. We initiated a few of our trekkers for they got down on all fours to take a whiff.

Other things also drew our attention along the way, including Mother Nature’s Snowball Tournament.

At last we reached the summit of Whiting, where the view encompassed Kezar Lake, but not so much the mountains for it was snowing.

While there, we shared hot cocoa and tea, pumpkin bread and scones, and lots of conversation. And again, we shouted, “Happy New Year.”

The temperature was just right and the snow the right consistency, that soon a few of us got creative.

Snow sculptures and a snowman became the focus of our intentions.

This snowman was extra classy for he chose to sport a mustache.

At first, he wanted to look into the woods, but eventually he decided to change his orientation and take in the vista of the lake and beyond.

Because we were in a festive mood, or maybe just because, a juggling act began to take shape.

In the form of snowballs.

Perhaps next year we’ll add a talent show to the day’s offerings.

In the midst of all the fun, conversations continued and old acquaintances were renewed while new friendships formed. What we love about any of our hikes is that by the end, whether you come as a frequent traveler or a newbie, you leave feeling like part of the crowd.

A couple have traveled this particular hike with us since its inception: Kitty and Dale Nelson. Kitty has been with us for three of the four years that we’ve offered a First Day hike and Dale hasn’t missed one yet.

Finally, we decided to call our time at the summit to a close. But first we needed to hear from those gathered. Mr. GLLT began by shouting: “Happy!”

To which the Mrs. added, “New!”

And the rest of us completed the phrase, “Year!” Additionally we shouted out the names of the towns we serve: “Stow, Stoneham, Sweden, Lovell, and even Chatham.”

Best wishes from all of us for a Happy New Year!