Doozy of a Playdate

When I sent out the invite to the Maine Master Naturalist Program’s Lewiston 2013 class for a tracking expedition at one of two possible locations, grad Alan responded, “Any place you pick in western Maine is fine; you know the area and conditions well. The only request I have is for you to try to show me a ‘bear tree.’”

Bingo! I pulled a third location out of my hat because it was within an hour of those who would join us and I knew that it passed the bear tree test.

And so six of us met at 10am, strapped on our snowshoes, and ventured forth. It’s always such a joy to be with these peeps and talk and laugh and share a brain.

Because our focus at first was on beech bark while we looked for bear claw marks left behind, we also shared an imagination. One particular tree made us think of a horseshoe.

Even

Eventually we found a few trunks with the etched scratches of bear claws that had grown wider with the years. After the first find, which was actually on a different tree, the others developed their bear tree eyes and became masters at pointing them out.

And though we’d come to track, there wasn’t a whole lot of movement in the preserve except for the occasional deer. But . . . we still found plenty to fascinate us, including Violet-toothed Polypore.

Alan was the fungi guru of the group and so to him we turned to confirm our ID. We were correct, but in the process he taught us something new about this gregarious mushroom. There are two types of Violet-toothed: Trichaptum biforme grows on hardwoods; Trichaptum abietinum grows only on conifers. Now we just need to remember that. Before our eyes the former reached to the sky on the red maple.

All along, as I’ve done all winter, I searched for an owl in a tree. Penny found one for me. Do you see it?

What I actually saw more than the owl was the face of a bear. OK, so I warned you that we took our imaginations with us.

We were almost down to the water, when the group paused. Tracks at last. Near water. Track pattern on a diagonal meaning one foot landed in front of the other in a consistent manner for each set of prints. Trail width or straddle: almost three inches. Stride we didn’t measure because it varied so much, but it was obvious that this mammal bounded through the landscape. Identification: mink. Repeatedly after first finding the tracks, we noted that it had covered a lot of territory.

At last, we made our way out onto the wetland associated with South Pond and followed the tracks of a much bigger beast–in fact multiple beasts: snowmobiles.

Rather than find lunch rock, we chose lunch lodge and stood in the warm sun to enjoy the view.

We did wonder if it was active and determined that though there had been some action in the fall as evidenced by the rather fresh looking sticks, there was no vent at the top so we weren’t sure any beavers were within. Maybe it was their summer cottage.

Close by, however, we found another lodge and the vent was open so we didn’t walk too near.

Because we were on the wetland, we did pause to admire the cattails, their seeds exploding forth like a fireworks finale (but of the silent type, which I much prefer).

Back on the trail, the bark of another tree stopped us. We looked at the lenticels, those lines that serve as a way to exchange gases much like our skin pores, and noted that they were thin rather than the raised figure 8s of a pin cherry.

We had a good idea of its name, but to be sure we conducted a sniff test.

Smells like . . . wintergreen! We were excited to have come face to face with black or sweet birch. Some also call it cherry birch. Hmmm . . . why not wintergreen birch? Because, yellow birch, a relative, also has that wintergreen scent when you scratch the bark, especially of a twig.

Continuing along, the temperature had risen and snow softened so periodically we had to help each other scrape snowballs off the bottoms of shoes.

Otherwise the feeling was one of walking on high heels.

As I said earlier, all kinds of things stopped us, including the straight lines of the holes created by sapsuckers, those warm-weather members of the woodpecker family. One in the neighborhood apparently decided to drum to a different beat as noted by the musical notes of the top line.

Speaking of woodpeckers, for a few minutes we all watched a pileated and admired its brilliant red crest in the afternoon sun, but we couldn’t focus our cameras on it quickly enough as it flew from tree to tree. We did, however, pause beneath a tree where it had done some recent excavation work.

And left behind a scat that resembled a miniature birch tree.

At last, four hours and two miles after starting (we’d intended to only be out for three), we’d circled around and stopped again at the kiosk to look at the map. Do note that we’d also picked up a passenger along the way for Carl Costanzi, a Western Foothills Land Trust board member and steward of the Virgil Parris Forest came upon us and joined our journey. We picked his brain a bit about the property and he picked up a pair of snowshoes that had malfunctioned for one of us. Thank you, Carl! That’s going above and beyond your duties.

Before departing, we did what we often do–circled around and took a selfie.

And then we left with smiles in our hearts and minds for the time spent reconnecting. Our memories will always be filled with the discovery of the first bear tree not too long after we began. As Penny said, “That first one was a doozy.”

Our entire time together was a doozy–of a playdate.

Thanks Beth, Gaby, Roger, Alan, and Penny. To those of you who couldn’t join us, we talked about you! All kind words because we missed you.

From Bear to Beer Possibilities

Christmas in our house requires a bit of creativity and so it was that a light bulb went off and a theme was born.

I found a little brown cardboard box, decorated it with some hiking stickers and then did a bit of research on local trails and pubs. This was for my guy, you see, for on his days off, he’s always asking me where we should hike. I decided to make it easy for him to suggest a trail at least once a month, and the hike would be followed by sipping a brew at a local pub. There was one caveat: the hike had to include the search for bear paw trees. We both love a challenge. Some of the places I chose are familiar to us, and though we know the trees are there, will we find them again? That remains to be seen. Others are totally new on our list and I had no idea if they’d offer one of our favorite sights.

In keeping with the theme, I also gave him a UMaine sweatshirt; UMaine being his alma mater. Of course, back in his day, it was referred to as UMO for the University of Maine at Orono.

And finally, a growler from a local brew pub so he can walk down the street and refill it occasionally.

It was Western Foothill Land Trust‘s Packard Trail that he chose for this first adventure.

The property itself is the Virgil Parris Forest, named for this man who was born in Buckfield in 1807. Mr. Parris attended local schools, Colby College, and Union College in New York, where he studied law. In 1830, he was admitted to the bar and returned to his hometown to open a practice. His career followed a political path both at the state and national levels.

The main trail that loops around the 1,250-acre property was named for the Packard Family. According to the interpretive panel at the trailhead, “the farmstead’s foundations and family cemetery are on site. Daniel Packard was given this land in Buckfield as compensation for his service in the Revolution. Daniel was born in Bridgewater, Massachusetts in 1749 and married Elizabeth Connelly of Cork, Ireland during the war. Daniel died in Woodstock, Maine in 1836, and is buried there. It is said that Daniel and Elizabeth were the prototypes for James Fennimore Cooper’s Sergeant Hollister and Betty Flannigan in Cooper’s novel The Spy.”

The sky was brilliant blue as we began our journey, each step of the way scanning the trees. Had it been a couple of months later, we might have mistaken the large burl in a paper birch for a bear cub.

Though bears climb other trees, it’s on beech bark that their claw marks show up best.

When one focuses one sees . . . many a thing that might have been passed by, such as this beech, which began we know not as one or two, and if one, why did it become two we wondered? And then, like a work of magic, it was once again unified.

Another beech offered a snow chute that seemed like the perfect squirrel slide.

And yet another was decorated with the chiseled tooth marks of a natural logger–a beaver.

There were some decorated with cankers from beech scale disease that could have passed for ornamental faces.

And others that hosted squirrels who had built dreys appearing haphazard in construction from our stance about thirty feet below, but were really complex and apparently well insulated.

Fungi, such as this tinder conk, also fruited upon some trees. But . . . where were the bear trees? My guy asked how I’d chosen this particular path, and to be truthful, I couldn’t remember. I just thought it was a new one to us and might have some paw marks to boot.

Down an esker ridge we continued as we approached South Pond.

The wind was cold on the pond and snowmobiles zoomed past, oblivious to our presence, which was just fine with us.

And then we heard voices and framed between beech branches, we saw a dog sled team across the way.

And then, just as we turned from the Packard Trail onto the Cascade Trail, we spied some familiar marks. Or were they? We so wanted a bear paw tree that we convinced ourselves we’d found one.

It certainly did look the part. And so we felt successful.

Onward we journeyed, enjoying the cascades in their frozen form and promising ourselves a return trip in a different season.

As is his style, my guy moved quickly and I accused him of not searching, but he was.

And bingo! Another bear tree.

The cankers were abundant and made it difficult, but our bear paw eyes discerned the patterns.

And once we noticed, it seemed as if they began to pop out at us from every tall beech. Not really so. All in all we counted five. Well, five if you include the first tree, which we continued to question. And there were probably many more that we missed.

At last we’d completed our journey and relished our success. As I drove back down Sodom Road in Buckfield, I knew there were a few final trees that needed to be examined–telephone pole trees. Most were in great shape, but one close to the preserve had been visited by a large furry mammal that scratched it and nipped it and probably left a scent on it.

As planned, we knew exactly where we’d stop following our hike and so we made our way to the Buck-It Grill and Pub, another place we’d never visited before.

Lisa, the bartender, took our burger order and then we sipped Allagash White while we watched the Weather Channel on the TV above. Sitting next to us was Joyce, and she said that the impending storm was named for her partner’s niece, Harper. When did they start naming winter storms? Never mind. The important thing was that the fresh hand-packed burgers and fries were delish. The beer wasn’t bad either.

We went not knowing but came away with smiles after a successful hike–and already we’re looking forward to next month’s “From Bear to Beer Possibilities.”