Frog Alley

I’m pretty sure I said to the friend whom I met on the dirt road that I never see frogs there except for the painted boulder that has faded with age and I no longer even think to honor with a photograph.

But still, she reminded me, “I’m sure we’ll see something interesting.”

No way.

After walking one stretch of the road and only pausing a few times in the hot sun, we hopped back into our vehicles and made our way to a much more shaded location. As we stepped toward the river, in flew a Kingfisher. And we knew we were in for a treat or two or three . . .

But first, we had to explore the structure that has spanned the river for 163 years: Hemlock Covered Bridge. My friend is a history buff and I’m a wanna-be so it was apropos that we should take our time as we walked across–pausing to look and wonder as frequently as when we’re on a path.

I first saw this relic of the past years ago when I canoed up the Old Course of the Saco River with a group of tweens whom I took on weekly adventures when my summer job was as Laconia YMCA’s Summer Camp Director. In those days, one could get permission to camp by the bridge. Things have changed and that land is now posted with No Trespassing signs.

The bridge is a woodworking masterpiece and a symbol of the pioneering spirit of the 19th Century. In this 21st Century, there are others who also have a pioneering spirit and create their own masterpieces within.

Built of Paddleford truss construction with supporting laminated wooden arches, Hemlock Bridge is one of the few remaining covered bridges still in its original position. Peter Paddleford of Littleton, New Hampshire, created this design by replacing the counter braces of the Long-style truss bridge, creating an unusually strong and rigid structure.

Though reinforced in 1988 so you can still drive across, it’s more fun to walk. As we did we took time to admire the work of our forefathers,

peer at the river,

and read the carved messages on Maine’s oldest remaining covered bridge.

It was designated as a Maine Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers on January 17, 2002. I’m not sure what happened in 1922, but obviously it was another date to note.

Originally there were 120 covered bridges which spanned rivers throughout Maine. Covers or houses were constructed to protect the wooden span from the weather.

They were also places where travelers and animals could seek refuge from a storm, or lovers could sneak a kiss. Six of the remaining nine in Maine are located in the Lakes and Mountains Region.

We admired every facet of the bridge for moments on end, and then made our way to the river’s edge, where Slaty Blue Skimmers continued to dance. But as is their habit, this one kept landing on the same broken branch. Eventually, I coaxed it onto my finger, but then a sweetheart zipped by and he was off, hoping to sneak a kiss of his own making.

Next, our attention focused on a bullfrog. A huge bullfrog.

Two little Green Frogs were focused on the same and remained as still as possible in hopes of not attracting Mrs. Bully’s attention.

She at last began to move and her forward motion was slower than either of us have ever witnessed. We watched as she slithered forth one frog leg length at a time.

At last she reached a destination and paused. Was she hiding from us? Had she slithered like a snake in hopes we wouldn’t see her? Or did she have her eyes on a meal?

We’ll never know for a rare treat suddenly flew onto the branch where Slaty Blue had posed time and again. Meet a Dragonhunter. This huge clubtail dragonfly is known to eat butterflies and even other dragonflies. Thank goodness Slaty Blue had moved on.

Suddenly it was time for us to move on as well, but not before spying one more frog–this one a small Pickerel with sets of dark rectangles decorating its coppery-colored body.

With that, before my friend and I bid adieu, I had to eat my words that there are no frogs on Frog Alley. But technically, we weren’t on Frog Alley, but rather Hemlock Bridge Road. Still, the two are connected and we gave thanks for the chance to honor the past and wonder about the present in this locale.

Amazing Race–Our Style: The Grand Finale

At last–the day we’d anxiously anticipated for the past month. Actually, for the past year.

I was sure the post-it note we found attached to the door would instruct us to drive to Lincoln, New Hampshire for a visit to the ice castle. My guy thought we’d find ourselves on a dogsled journey.

But no . . . either of those would have been too easy I suppose. Instead, we had to end this race in the same manner we had begun. Aboard a snowmobile. Egads! My least favorite mode of transportation.

To top it off, my guy’s two-seater is headed to the shop for some engine work. But his brother came through and lent us a machine so we were able to stay in the race. Our task was five-fold. 1. Ride through Sweden, Waterford, Lovell, Fryeburg and Bridgton; 2. Identify an interesting natural wonder; 3. Frame a picture; 4. Conquer the moguls; and 5. Pull the entire Amazing Race–our style together in a coherent order.

We started in the frigid morning air and no one else was about so we had Highland Lake and Stearns Pond to ourselves. Our journey took us whizzing across lakes and ponds, along open trails such as ITS 80 and 89, and through some narrow connecting pathways–or so they seemed to this untrained eye. I’d brought along my Trackards and the tracks were many, but all remained a blur.

You have to realize by now that for the two of us riding a snowmobile is like the tortoise meeting the hare–my desire to move slowly through the world met his need for speed. In the end, I did OK, and he went as slow as was safely possible, and even slower than that when he felt my knees nudge his back. But really, my teeth did chatter. Oh, maybe that was because of the temperature.

In Lovell, we got in line to gas up.

Funny things can happen when you’re standing around waiting for your turn at the pump. A nature moment presented itself in the form of a willow gall. Now I can’t wait to return to look at the willow blossoms in the spring.

From there, we made our way across to the Kezar River Reserve for the roadway had been groomed. Alas, at the kiosk, for some unknown reason, the groomer had backed up and headed out to Route 5, so we had to do the same. That wasn’t our only roadblock. We found our way onto a road that had previously served as the trail for a short bit, only to discover where road should have rejoined trail a house had been built. Again, we had to backtrack. Yikes. How would these affect our time?

We also noted historic sites as we cruised along, including the old Evan Homestead in Sweden, the Brick Church in Lovell, and Hemlock Covered Bridge in Fryeburg, which served as our lunch stop at 2pm.

It was there that I found the photo to frame for challenge three–the mixed forest reflected in the Old Course of the Saco as taken through a bridge window.

And then, after the bridge, we meet our fourth challenge: the moguls. For at least two miles, maybe more, between Hemlock Bridge Road and Knights Hill Road, we bounced up and down as if we were riding a bucking Bronco. Truly, I spent more time in the air than on the seat and each time I landed, it was with a thump. I was certain I’d fall off or at least my body would be flying behind the sled while I’d still be attached–via the vice grip I had on the backseat handlebars. Talk about white knuckles. Oh wait, maybe that was from being cold.

Somehow, we survived . . . and so did our relationship.

As for the other contestants, we weren’t sure where they were because as it turned out there were many riders out there and they all looked the same! Well, maybe they had their idiosyncrasies and I wasn’t paying attention to the little details of jacket and helmet color and design, but I’d much rather look at tree bark, mammal tracks, and winter weeds this time of year than people apparel.

Soon after the moguls, it was time for the last task. We encountered a display of twelve photographs; each represented a moment of wonder we’d encountered during the race and one of us had to place them in order from start to finish.

My guy had done all the driving and maneuvered us successfully through the mogul course (I didn’t fall off, remember) so it was my turn to complete this final challenge.

Episode one: The elephant face we discovered along the Narrow Gauge Trail.

Episode two: A rainbow in the Harpswell sea mist.

Episode three: The exotic kissing pigeons with heart-shaped white cere on their bills.

Episode four: The gallery of midnight artists at the Battery on Peaks Island.

Episode five: A Crimson-ringed Whiteface Dragonfly beside Shingle Pond on the Weeks Brook Trail.

Episode six: A sand collar in Clinton, Connecticut. While it felt like sand paper above and was smooth below, it was actually a mass of snail eggs.

Episode seven: After climbing Table Rock, a couple paid for our pie at this roadside stand and so we did the same for the next vehicle that pulled up.

Episode eight: The 1930 122 ft. steel-hulled yacht Atlantide, that served in WWII and was featured in Dunkirk.

Episode nine: (possibly one of our favorites) The cribbage board in the two seater below Piazza Rock on Saddleback Mountain.

Episode ten: An alpaca at America’s Stonehedge in Salem, New Hampshire.

Episode eleven: Finding an H to represent us while looking for decorated trees in the Maine Christmas Tree Scavenger Hunt.

Episode twelve: The final episode and another framed photo of the Old Course of the Saco from Hemlock Bridge.

Phew. I was pretty certain I had them all correct. And so on to the mat we drove, arriving at 3:36pm. And then as we stepped off the sled we discovered that we’d lost our backpack somewhere on the trail. The only item of any value in it was my cell phone.

We were concerned about that, but also found out that without the pack we couldn’t cross the finish line. So, we made a quick decision because we needed to be done by 5pm. I hopped off the sled and my guy took off in a spray of snow to search. We were sure it had fallen off near the moguls. Apparently, along the way he questioned people and learned that someone (thank you whomever you are) had hung the pack on a tree. Over the moguls he went, but to no avail. He was in a dip on his way back to the covered bridge when he spied it. Wowza.

At 4:41pm he pulled up to the mat.

And we crossed it together–As. The. Winners. YES, we WON!

But, of course, we won. For if you have followed us from the start then you’ll remember that in episode one I wrote: I created a Valentine’s gift for my guy–our very own Amazing Race. My rationale was that we enjoy the show, but know that while there are certain stunts one or both of us could handle with ease, there are others that would certainly cause us to be last to the mat–and lose. So, why not create an Amazing Race that we have a 99.9% chance of winning. If we lose, we’re in big trouble.

I do feel bad that I fibbed to some of you, but you got caught up in the challenge and I didn’t want to let you down. Some of you asked me about it and I have a terrible poker face so I was sure you’d figure it out. In the spirit of it all, I was glad that you didn’t. That added to our fun.

And all of the characters–they were real people we met along the way. Team Budz in episode six was my sister and brother-in-law. Team Purple was a hearing-impaired woman full of moxie we met during episode eight in Camden. She hiked in sandals and had spent the previous month camping solo. The others we named for their attitudes, hometowns or some other attribute. I don’t know if you noticed, but we began the journey as Team Wonder, which I probably only mentioned once, but by episode eleven I’d forgotten that and called us Team Hazy–thus the H to represent us. Ahhhh.

Of course, my mom always washed my mouth out with soap when I fibbed, so if you want to do the same, I can’t say I blame you.

Thank you all for following us on this adventure. We’ve had fun looking forward to and participating in a variety of adventures. Though I’d given my guy a list of locales for each month, I didn’t know what the various additional challenges would be until they presented themselves.

Today’s activity was supposed to be a dogsled ride in January. But, the weather gods and price gods weren’t on our side and when the weather didn’t cooperate on his days off we chose not to spend the money. An alternative was the ice castle, but we’ve done that before and were too late in trying to purchase tickets this year, so . . . why not end as we began. On a snowmobile journey. The third of my lifetime and longest one yet. We spent over five hours on the sled. Well, my guy spent even one more hour. And now we’re snug at home and sipping some Bailey’s Irish Creme before we tune in to British comedies and fall asleep on the couch.

The Amazing Race–Our Style has come to an end. Thanks for tuning in. We had fun and hope you did too.

Saco River Mondate on a Sunday

My relationship with the Saco River began in 1985 when I was a YMCA camp director in Laconia, New Hampshire. My charges were tweens and teens. Each week they piled into the 15 passenger van and I took them on an adventure–just as much fun for me as for them.

I’d scoped out this particular canoeing/camping trip ahead of time and felt confident that we had a good plan.

We rented canoes from Saco River Canoe and Kayak in Fryeburg, Maine, and the first leg of our journey was a long day spent paddling down the river and then up the old course to the covered Hemlock Bridge. My copilot was a 16-year-old lifeguard named George.

Though we’d practiced canoeing techniques in the Y pool, the real thing was a challenge.  Once on the river, the kids eventually learned to paddle in an almost straight line after many circular attempts.

At last we reached our destination, set up camp, told ghost stories, spooked each other and settled down for the night. Sleep alluded me so I watched the lightning show and listened to serenading bullfrogs.

In the middle of the night, one of the girls yelled out, “Help! Somebody! Help me!” When I arrived at her tent, I asked, “Dawn, did you have a nightmare?”

“It wasn’t Dawn. It was me,” replied Melissa quietly. “The zipper on my sleeping bag just got stuck.”

The next morning we paddled back to the main course of the river and enjoyed a pancake breakfast on a sandbar. As the day went on, we lolled about–splashing each other, getting out to swim, and singing silly camp songs.

Until . . . a few girls forged on and forgot to pull over when they saw Walker’s Rip. Two canoes went over the rip without any problems. The third got caught atop two rocks in the rapids. The girls panicked when water began to flow in one side and out the other as the bow and stern bent toward the river. The current and slippery rocks made the ten feet from the riverbank feel like ten yards. People on either side came to the rescue. In a fast few moments things went from bad to worse and we had several injuries accompanied by lots of high drama, including an ambulance ride to Memorial Hospital in North Conway, New Hampshire.

The diagnosis: everyone was fine with a few minor bruises. The prescription: ice cream and Tylenol.

Though we were supposed to camp out that night, the kids were done, so I drove back to Laconia and the Y director met us there (with a 6 pack to calm my nerves.)

As far as summer jobs go, this ranks number one on my list. I don’t know what has happened to any of the kids, but I hope they still remember the pranks and fun we shared. (Number 2 favorite summer job: painting Yale bowl)

A year later I landed a teaching job in western Maine and the Saco River and Hemlock Bridge became part of my place.

So it was that yesterday, my guy and I left one truck at the Brownfield Bridge and drove to Lovewell Pond to launch our tandem kayak. It was actually a reconnaissance mission for me because the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust has asked me to lead a paddle on this portion of the river in a few weeks.

Mt Tom

Mount Tom, a Roche Moutonnée, is visible to the left. This asymmetrical hill features a gently sloping up-ice side that has been smoothed and polished by a glacier. The other side is  abrupt and steep–the down-ice side where the rocks were plucked off, leaving a more cliff-like appearance.

Lovewell Pond

We’d never been on Lovewell Pond before, so were a bit astonished by the white sandy beaches accentuated by the mountain backdrop as we looked toward Fryeburg and North Conway.

Pleasant Mtn

Pleasant Mountain also forms part of the backdrop, giving us a sense of direction. Home is on the other side of the far left peak.

corm 2

Paddling about for a bit, we checked out the local wildlife, including this pair of cormorants and


a wading great blue heron.

SR access

And then we were ready to begin our journey. We thought we might be a wee bit crazy to be on the river this weekend, along with the boys from deliverance, but we only met a few. For the most part, we encountered families and friends enjoying a beautiful day in Maine. And a clean river thanks to the Saco River Recreation Council.

Saco Access

Silver maple trees grace the banks.

shallow water

Being September, the river was quite shallow in some spots. But walking in the water felt good.

round the bend

Around each bend, we reminisced about previous river runs, including the time we did a much longer trip in an inflatable raft–we were young, in love and clueless. And uncomfortable. Now we are old, in love and still clueless. But happy.

silver maples

Though the river is at a low point, you can tell by the bank that water rushes through here. The silver maple, known for the silvery color of its leaf’s underside, is fast growing and a bank stabilizer, but it also succumbs to the river’s force.

Elm leaves

As we floated along, I began to wonder what I should point out in a few weeks.  Yes, there’s the silver maple floodplain forest, which includes red maples. Royal fern, sensitive fern and ostrich fern were visible along the way. And some shrubs and plants. Finally, we came upon this American elm leaning over the river–large and healthy with its asymmetrical leaves.

Burnt Meadow Mtn in background

We were close to our pull-out point when I saw some white and red pines and thought I might talk about the King Pines–those massive pine trees that were marked with the king of England’s arrow, so selected because they grew straight and tall and would be perfect for ships’ masts.

I may also mention the river’s curse, but I might save it until the end when Burnt Meadow Mountain is visible in the background.

According to legend, in 1675 the wife and infant son of Squandro, chief of the Sokokis tribe, were playing on a river sandbar when they encountered three rowdy, drunken English sailors.  The mother and child were laughing and didn’t hear an approaching canoe. One of the three sailors claimed that a papoose could swim like a wild animal (dog paddle) naturally from birth. The others doubted him. To prove it, the man jumped out and grabbed the child. The mother watched in horror while the sailors threw her baby into the water. She grabbed the baby and ran to Squandro. It was too late. Squandro raised the limp body toward the sky and said, “As long as the grass grows and the water runs, it shall be the will of the Great Spirit that every year the waters of this Great River shall take three White Men’s lives.”

There is also a version whereby the mother was pregnant and she, her infant and her unborn child all died.

Some say the curse ended in 1947 when no lives were taken. That was also the year of the Great Fires, including in Brownfield, our take-out point. Related?

It seems to me that respect may be the key. Respect for the land, respect for the river and respect for each other.

Though our trip yesterday was short (about four miles), this wander has been a bit long. Thanks for coming along for the ride.