Bear to Bear Possibilities: Puzzle Mountain

We got a later than normally late start to our hike today and didn’t arrive at the trailhead for Puzzle Mountain until 11:45 am. It’s a trail we’ve hiked only once before, but knew the chance to see trees with bear claw marks would be numerous.

The Mahoosuc Land Trust and Maine Appalachian Trail Club maintain the trails. Our starting/ending point were at the trailhead on Route 26 in Newry. The plan, should we wish to complete it, was to hike up the Grafton Loop Trail to the summit, then veer to the right and follow the Woodsum Spur Trail in a clockwise manner back to the GLT.

Our other plan to locate bear claw trees . . . was soon fulfilled. The first we spotted about twenty feet off trail, but once our eyes became accustomed to the pattern, we realized they were everywhere.

And some trees had been visited repeatedly.

A few had hosted other guests such as Pileated Woodpeckers.

For about two miles, we traveled under the summer green leaves of a hardwood cathedral. And within such we noticed numerous bear claw tree both beside the trail and beyond.

Occasionally, we noted others worth mentioning such as spring ephemerals like False Solomon’s Seal that showed us the season on the slopes is a bit delayed as compared to our lower elevations.

At last we reached a false summit where the views to the west enhanced the mountains and their natural communities, so defined by shades of green: darker defining conifers and lighter the deciduous trees.

Sunday River Ski Area was also part of the display.

It was at this ledge that we met two young men. They started up a trail behind us and then made their way back and asked us to take a photo. When we asked where they were from, the older of the two said he lived in a small town outside of New Haven, Connecticut. Being a Nutmegger by birth, (and in fact having been born in New Haven), my ears perked up.

“Where in Connecticut?” I asked.

“A small town called Wallingford,” he said.

“I grew up in North Branford (about 15 minutes or so from Wallingford),” I replied. “And have friends in Wallingford.”

Turns out he’s a teacher at Choate-Rosemary Hall, a private school. And his hiking partner was his nephew from New Jersey. They were on their first day of a multi-day backpack expedition.

I took photos for both and then we sent them on the right path, which was behind their first choice. We paused before following them as we didn’t want to be on their tail, but heard the older of the two exclaim, “Wow, that was fortuitous. If we hadn’t gone back for a photo, we wouldn’t have known where the trail was.” We didn’t have any treats to give them as trail angels do, but perhaps our gift of direction was just as important.

While we waited, I honed in on the newly formed flowers of Mountain Ash. I love these trees for the red stems of their leaves and fruits to come.

At last we began the push to the summit, but I had to pause much to my guy’s dismay for the black flies swarmed us constantly. I discovered, however, one reason to celebrate them–besides the fact that they feed birds and members of the Odonata family. I do believe they pollinate Clintonia for we found them on the anthers of those in flower.

Not long after the false summit that the two guys we’d met thought was the top, we reached the junction with the Woodsum Spur Trail. Our plan was to continue to climb and then locate the other end of the spur to follow down from the top. It would take longer, we knew, but be a wee bit gentler in presentation. A wee bit.

As we continued up, another ledge presented a view of Sunday River and so my guy took a photo and sent a text message to our youngest son, who works in Manhattan, and lives in Brooklyn with two buddies he meet while skiing at Sunday River when they were all in high school.

Onward and upward, the conifer cones added a bit of color to the view.

And then we reached a cairn just below the summit. Mind you, the Black Flies were so incredibly thick that we could barely talk without devouring a few. In fact, we gave thanks for eating our lunch much lower on the trail, but even then we’d devoured PB&J with a side of BF.

The view, however, was one to be envied and as long as the wind blew, we could enjoy it in all its panoramic glory.

Again we spied Sunday River. But what always makes me wonder is the tallest tree in the forest. What makes it stand out?

Still, we weren’t quite at the tippy top and had a few more feet of granite to conquer.

There we found the second of two survey markers. Why two? That was puzzling.

Equally puzzling as had happened to us before, where did the trail go?

From past experience we knew that the descent wasn’t all that well marked, but we found it much more quickly today than in the past. And we made sure to point it out to our fellow hikers from CT, whom we’d somehow passed on our final ascent. Our hope for them is that they made it to the shelter on the GLT where they planned to spend the night and that they were well prepared for the bugs. As we left them at the summit, they looked a bit like deer in headlights.

The descent via the Woodsum Spur is as varied as the ascent, but not always as easy to follow. There were downed trees, overgrown sections, lots of mud, and times when we had to search for the trail, much unlike the carpenter ants who knew exactly where they were going on a tree snag.

We passed through one section that reminded my guy of the Munchkins in the The Wizard of Oz, his favorite movie. Just after that we entered an enchanted forest where the giant in my fairy tale, The Giant’s Shower, could have lived happily every after with Falda the fairy.

It was ledges to woods and back to ledges as we descended. But the mileage was questionable for the signs we encountered that indicated distance didn’t necessarily agree.

What did agree with the Woodsum Trail was a moose or two or three. For much of the trail we spotted scat indicating they’d traveled this way all winter.

It was natural signs like that which we most appreciated, but . . . once we finished the spur trail and rejoined the GLT, we spotted a boulder filled with messages we’d missed upon our ascent. You might be put out that some left messages in the moss, but as Ralph Pope, author of Mosses, Liverworts and Hornworts, told us on a Greater Lovell Land Trust walk in 2017, this sort of activity won’t hurt the bryophytes.

When humans leave their initials upon beech trees, however, it does affect them. And I suppose the bear claw marks do as well, but still we are thrilled each time we spy the latter.

Our plan had been to stop for a beer on the way home and make this a Bear to Beer Possibility. But we were pooped for we hiked almost nine miles on a hot summer day and knew if we stopped we might not be able to drive home.

As it happened, driving south on Routes 5/35 and just before the intersection with Vernon Street, a Black Bear ran across the road. For us, it will be another in our shared minds’ eye as I couldn’t take a photo.

Thus today’s hike was a Bear to Bear rather than Bear to Beer Possibility.

Be Puzzled Mondate

Our favorite Monday mornings begin with my guy unscrambling the Jumble words in the newspaper, but leaving the final answer cells empty so I can give it a try, me decoding the cryptoquip, and both of us solving the crossword puzzle. And then our day can begin.

p1-kiosk map

And so it was this morning before we drove an hour north to a Mahoosuc Land Trust trailhead on Route 26 in North Newry. Our plan was to climb the trail to the summit and then make our descent via the Woodsum Spur before connecting back to the main trail. We figured we’d finish up about 3:30pm.

p3-dry brook

And so we began our climb, crossing six or seven dry streams, where not even a trickle pleased our ears.

p4-bear 1

But our eyes knew otherwise for we were in a beech forest and scratch marks were prevalent.

p6-bear 3

In spite of the nectria caused by beech scale insects and others, we spied a familiar pattern that always thrills us. Our first puzzle teaser–do you see the pattern we saw?

p8-bear 6

Without going off trail, the bear paw trees were plenty and our quest for such satisfied.

 

p11--suspended animation

Our questions, however, continued beyond the bear trees. How did this beech leaf happen to be dangling in suspended animation?

p14-jack in the pulpit

Why did we find only one jack-in-the-pulpit?

p15-Indian Cucumber Root

What is the purpose of red on the Indian cucumber root leaves?

p17-doll's eye

And why are white baneberry’s fruits, aka doll’s eyes, poisonous?

p16-hiking upward

We noticed all of these great finds as our upward climb took us through a neighborhood of hardwoods.

p12-sugar maple on sensitive fern

Along the way we also noted sugar maple leaves atop sensitive fern fronds.

p13-oyster fungi

And one tree bedecked with oyster fungi. Their name always throws me off given that I grew up on the Connecticut coast where I often cut my feet on oyster beds.

p20-roots and rocks on trail

As we continued upward, suddenly the smell and look changed. We’d entered the Christmas Tree Shop where hemlocks, balsam fir and spruce trees dominated the landscape.

p21-fog 1 view

At last we approached a scenic view . . .

p22-fog 2 view

but all that we could see in the great beyond . . . fog.

p25-witherod

The further up we climbed, however, other shrubs added color to a gray day, including wild raisins, aka witherod.

p26-among the rocks

Eventually the trail conditions became more difficult and we worked our way through a boulder field that made me think of bobcats.

p27-summit in view

Eventually we emerged from the fog into the sun, thankful all the time for cairns marking the way. And the sight of the summit above.

p28-summit view 1

As we advanced, other summit views made theirselves known.

p30--heading up

But, we weren’t there yet. To reach the summit, we had to climb on.

p34-mountain ash 2

Along the way, mountain ash trees showed off their prolific fruits.

p35-almost the summit

Finally, the summit was just a few steps above.

p36-first survey mark

We’d reached the high point of 3,133 feet.

p38-lunch rock

Lunch rock quickly presented itself–backed by the summit cairn.

p40-view from lunch rock 2

And the view–mountain islands amidst a sea of clouds. Had the day been clear, we would have had a 360˚ vantage point, but it was beautiful no matter.

After lunch we looked for the trail beyond so we could follow the Woodsum Spur for 1.7 miles before looping back to the main trail. We found many mini-trails that led nowhere and two or three times my guy looped down and around on one that promised hope, only to find himself back at the summit. But after about a half hour of searching,  we spied a splash of blue paint that held promise and so we followed it, in hopes that we’d eventually find our way down.

p42-bobcat scat

Along the way, we found lots of bobcat scat, which made perfect sense given our locale.

p43-snowberry and sphagnum

And sphagnum moss interrupted by snowberry tendrils.

p44-view from SW ledge where lost

And then we reached a cairn with no trails to follow down over a rather steep ledge. We looked and looked and looked, again spending at least a half hour trying to find our way. At last, much to our disappointment we decided we’d need to retrace our steps to the summit and follow the main trail down.

p45-Woodsum sign

Somehow, about fifty feet back, we discovered a sign that we’d previously missed. Apparently, those who had created the trail wanted us to go forward as we had to enjoy the scenic overlook, but what we didn’t realize was that then we needed to backtrack. At this point, we wished we’d had a magic marker in our pack so we could highlight the sign.

p47-heading down

As we headed down, we were still in the sun, which was incredibly toasty, but the fog prevailed below.

p50-my guy and a bear

The Woodsum Spur felt much longer than its 1.7 mile length, maybe because we were so hot and tired, but we thrilled at a sight in some mud–my guy’s print on the left and a bear on the right.

p48-bear print

It was a front print of the bear–and we wondered where it might be.

p53-trail sign

At last, we emerged from the spur and only had 2.6 miles to go to get back to the trailhead. I swear we ran down. My guy said that I always say that. He’s right–because we do.

p54-beer1

Six and half hours (an hour later than our intended departure time) and nine miles later, we were sweaty and stinky and happy to have made the acquaintance of Puzzle Mountain–though we still had many questions–puzzling as it was.

On the way home, we stopped for some ice water followed by a couple of local brews at Sunday River Brewing Company–Long Haul Lager for me, because it was such, and Raspberry Wheat (Razzle Dazzle) for him, because he was curious.

Be puzzled? We were. But we toasted this Mondate and trust we’ll travel the same trail again.