Learning in the Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

mama bear and her cubs, to . . .

a lynx chasing a snowshoe hare, to . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

And really, that hand comes with the softest touch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

our bird sightings were plentiful.

How many do you spy?

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

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

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

The possibilities for exploration were endless.

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

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

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

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

Mountain Mondate

Sabattus Mtn sign

Our Monday date took us to Sabattus Mountain in Lovell this morning. It’s an easy trek offering great views, lots of wildlife activity and a decent workout in a short amount of time.

trail sign

Which way should we go? I ask myself that question over and over again. Habit took us up the right-hand trail, but in hindsight, maybe we should have mixed it up this time. A life lesson?

burl

Check out this burl. Over and under and around, oh my!

transition 1

I stood at this spot on the trail and looked down–Lots of beech, hemlock, birch and maple in the mix.

transition 2

And then I turned to look up the trail. Oak, pine and hemlock dominated the scenery. A transition point.

growing apart

Speaking of transitions, this hemlock grew apart after a couple of years. With two rather than one terminal leaders growing side by side, they eventually found their way back together.

and together again

Here they are woven back together–it’s almost difficult to tell that the two have become one. It made me think of our relationship as we trekked up the mountain. Maybe this tree didn’t really grow apart, the two parts just respected each other as their life together began and they allowed each other to continue growing in their own way, knowing that they needed to stay together ultimately because being united and supportive is what it’s all about. And maybe I’m reading way too much into a natural occurrence.

porcupine 1

A porcupine tree. Lots of porcupine activity in the hemlock grove both on this trail and on the way down.

porc trail

A well-traveled porcupine trail.

fire tower

The concrete stanchions that once supported a fire tower. Apparently, the tower was removed in 1963.

bench 1

Perfect spot for a hot cocoa break.

oake and pine

Eastern White Pine and Northern Red Oak–looks like the oak is ahead in the race to the sun right now. I wonder if that’s how it will play out over the years.

buried bench

And then there’s the other bench at the summit. We couldn’t actually sit on this one.

bobcat 1

Heading along the ridge, we found these prints that always excite me. This critter had traveled to and fro before going off trail. Notice the “C” shape between the toes and the pad. C is for cat. Yup, a bobcat. And it was at some point in the last six hours or so, because we’d had a dusting of snow. These were fresh. Yippee!

bobcat2

A bobcat is a “perfect” walker. Ah, perfection. But really, it places a front foot down, and as that foot moves forward, the hind foot steps into its place. I think you can see that here–it looks like it might be two feet sharing almost the same space.

bobcat dinner?

Breakfast? The bobcat obviously snatched some little brown thing–or tried to. This was just off the man-made snowshoe trail and right by the ledge. I was a bit surprised that the cat had followed the trail for as long as it had. They usually cross our trails and have their own corridor. But, it sure makes for easier traveling to follow where others have gone before.

old oak

This old oak has seen better days. Amazing that it’s still standing.

support of a friend

But then I looked up. We all need the support of a friend. In this case, the friend is a white pine. They may compete for sunlight, but apparently they can count on each other occasionally.

heading down

Heading down. Transitioning again. There were a zillion snowshoe hare trails. And  mice. And squirrel. Good feeding grounds for a bobcat.

lunch 3

We finished up our trek before we were hungry for lunch. But, when hunger struck we ate PB&J sandwiches beside Kezar Lake.

Thanks for wondering along on this wander through the Maine woods.

Wondering Among Giants

Robinson Woods

It’s not every day that I get to wander and wonder among 300-year-old giants, but such was the case today. A friend and I met at Robinson Woods in Cape Elizabeth. It was a reconnaissance mission for me as I’ll be leading a senior college class there next month. And for both of us, it was a delightful way to spend three hours snowshoeing on and off the trail, with frequent pauses to look, listen, touch, smell and learn.

Because the land was not suitable for farming (terrain rocky and uneven), it was left unchanged for all these years. Actually, we met the executive director of the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust along the way, and he told us that the Robinson family was a paper company family, but they left this piece untouched. Thanks go to them. And to the land trust for preserving the land so that it will remain in its natural state.

feeding cone

We could hear the birds sing and call as we moved along. Someone apparently wanted to make sure they have enough to eat as we found a couple of these “bird-seed” pine cones dangling from trees. (Separate note: back at home, for the second day in a row, I’ve had chickadees landing on my mitten to eat crushed peanuts–well, they don’t actually eat them on my hand, they just grab and fly to a nearby branch, where they use their feet to hold the nut or seed and then peck away at it.)

porcy trail

We followed this porcupine trail for a bit. As we backtracked our way toward the people trail, something caught our attention:

bear claws

Yes, even in Cape Elizabeth, and only steps from the ocean, you can find bear claw sign on beech trees.

bear claws2

We showed these photos to the executive director of CELT–he had no idea they were there. I’ll be curious to see if he adds black bears to the list of mammals that frequent the property. I did see that they have pine martens on the list–that surprises me.

gnarly tree

I know I’ve spent a lot of time writing about beech trees, but this one looks like a totem pole of gnarly faces. Think gargoyles. Was the beech scale disease initially responsible for this? I wonder.

gnarly face

more gnarliness

Very gnarly indeed. In the center, you can see where a branch broke off.

burls on a maple

This Red Maple had some serious burls. Perhaps they were caused by stress or injury, though researchers don’t know for sure why they occur. Despite the bumpy, warty growths, the tree appears to be healthy. You can see that there is new growth–young red branches sprouting from the burls. Removing a burl causes a large wound that could eventually harm the tree, so they’re best left alone–though I know woodworkers covet them.

walnut?

We were almost back to our trucks when we came across this tree. It’s a young tree and we tried to key it out. We’re pretty sure it’s Shagbark Hickory, but if you know otherwise, please enlighten me.

Thanks for wondering along with me on today’s wander through the woods.