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.”

Book of December: Rewilding Our Hearts

It all started with an email message from my long-time mentor and former education director of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, Kevin Harding.

Wrote Kevin, “I rarely find a book that I’m willing to recommend to friends and colleagues. I rarely read books on saving the environment because I find them too depressing. I am guilty of feeling totally overwhelmed by the chaos and daily news of political disfunction that makes any kind of progress toward “saving the environment” seem impossible. Despite these feelings, I would like you to consider reading Rewilding Our Hearts by Marc Bekoff. No doubt many of you know this author and you may have already read some of his work. Bekoff can help us understand that the work we do in Lovell is in fact meaningful and productive.

Book of December

And so I added Rewilding Our Hearts by Marc Bekoff to my Christmas list and a few days ago my guy handed me this copy, which he’d ordered from Bridgton Books.

A professor emeritus of ecology and evolution at the University of Colorado, Boulder, (our youngest son’s alma mater), Bekoff is the author or editor of twenty-five books.

Since receiving the book, I’ve turned up the bottom corner of pages in the foreword and introduction that I want to reread and taken copious pages of notes.

In this book, Bekoff’s intention is to use the big picture challenges of “climate change, population explosion and constant damage to Earth’s ecosystems and loss of diversity” as the backdrop to encourage us all to change how we think and act–especially as it pertains to nonhuman animals.

“Rewilding our hearts is about becoming re-enchanted with nature. It is about nurturing our sense of wonder. Rewilding is about being nice, kind, compassionate, empathetic, and harnessing our inborn goodness and optimism,” writes Bekoff.

In the first chapter, he states, “Our effects on other species are wide-ranging and far-reaching, and we most likely understate the extent of our destructive ways. As with climate change, we often don’t know or fully understand what we’ve done or the extent of our negative impacts. Even worse, we have no idea how to fix the ecological problems confronting us, whether we are at fault for them or not.”

A live and dead spider within a pitcher plant leaf.

He encourages us to open our hearts and form a compassionate connection with nature–even in those moments when we don’t understand. For instance, in November a friend and I discovered two spiders in the water-filled “urn” of a pitcher plant on a land trust property. The larger spider was alive, while it seemed to play with the smaller dead spider that it kept moving with its hind legs. Was it trying to revive the youngster? Would the two or even the one be able to escape the carnivorous pitcher plant?

Great Blue Heron youngsters waiting for a meal

Watching something as small as the spiders or as large as young great blue herons is something some of us could easily take for granted, for we are fortunate to spend many hours as observers. Thankfully, we are constantly filled with awe and wonder.

ArGee as last seen a few weeks ago. A ruffed grouse startled me in the same area yesterday. Was it him? Or another? I’m not sure, but I am grateful that it behaved as a ruffed grouse should by flying off.

As I read Bekoff’s book, numerous visions flashed through my mind and I thought of the corridors that our local land trusts have worked diligently to create. And with that came the memory of an article I wrote for Lake Living magazine in 2015 entitled “Land That We Trust”:

My happy moments are spent wandering and wondering in the woods of the lakes region. And photographing and sketching what I see. And writing about the experience. And trying to find out the answers. Honestly though, I don’t want to know all of the answers. For the most part, I just like the wandering and wondering.

Passing through a stonewall, I’m suddenly embraced by the fragrance of white pines that form the canopy over what was once an agricultural field. Beech and hemlock trees grow in the understory. Lowbush blueberries, Canada mayflowers, bracken ferns, Indian pipe, partridgeberry, sessile-leaf bellwort, Indian cucumber root and a variety of mosses and lichens add to the picture.

I follow a former cowpath that opens to the power line. At the edge, taller hemlocks and northern red oaks stand high, with a few beech trees in the mix. But my eye is drawn to the ground cover, varied in color and texture. Sphagnum moss, several species of reindeer lichen, British soldier lichen, wintergreen, bunchberries, junipers and sheep laurel appreciate the bogginess and sunshine of this space.

To the right of another opening in the wall, the neighborhood changes. This time it’s gray and paper birch that grow side by side. Nearby, a vernal pool teems with life.

In each space, I encounter evidence of animals, amphibians, birds and insects. Sometimes I even get to see these neighbors with whom I share the land. Gray squirrels build their dreys up high in the hardwood trees, while red squirrels prefer the white pine forest. Deer bed under the hemlocks. Snowshoe hare browse among the birch grove and its vegetative undergrowth. Yellow-spotted salamanders and wood frogs lay egg masses in the vernal pool. Snakes slither nearby. Frequent visitors to each area include porcupines, raccoons, skunks, turkeys, gray and red foxes, deer, woodpeckers, thrushes, chickadees, nuthatches and warblers. Occasionally, I’m treated to moose and bear evidence and sitings.

People, too, are part of this habitat. They recreate along the snowmobile trail that follows the power line. The stonewalls, dug wells and rusty equipment speak to the area’s history.

It’s land like this that our local land trusts work diligently to preserve.

A wee disclaimer: I’ve been a volunteer docent for about eight years and am now education director for the Greater Lovell Land Trust. My involvement stems from my desire to learn about what makes up the landscape that surrounds me.

Sometimes alone, sometimes with my husband or friends, I hike all of the GLLT properties on a regular basis. Trekking along trails with like-minded people who pause frequently to identify and appreciate what they see in any season puts a smile on my face. Something stops us in our tracks every time we explore and we gain a better understanding of ourselves and this place we inhabit.

This past winter, I started recording my outdoor adventures, wonders and questions in a blog entitled wondermyway.com. Sometimes those hikes on land trust properties became the subject for a post.

Bear print and deer print in a kettle bog in Lovell

February 23, 2015: Bishop’s Cardinal Reserve, I’m fascinated by bear sign and love to find claw marks on beech trees. Oh, they climb other trees, but beech show off the scars with dignity for years to come. While bark on most trees changes as it ages, beech bark is known for retaining the same characteristics throughout its life . . . Seeing all the animal tracks and sign, some decipherable, others not so, makes me thankful for those who have worked hard to preserve this land and create corridors for the animals to move through.

March 31, 2015: John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge, It’s one of those places that I could spend hours upon hours exploring and still only see a smidgeon of what is there. I’m overwhelmed when I walk into a store filled with stuff, but completely at home in a place like this where life and death happen and the “merchandise” changes daily.

April 15, 2015: Otter Rocks, A princess pine club moss shows off its upright spore-producing candelabra or strobili. Funny thing about club mosses–they aren’t mosses. I guess they were considered moss-like when named. Just as the mills take us back in time, so do these–only much further back when their ancestors grew to 100 feet tall during the Devonian Period. They make me feel so small and insignificant. And yet, I’m thankful for the opportunity to be in awe of them.

Middle school students from Molly Ockett’s MESA program picking cranberries in the GLLT fen

May 3, 2015: Chip Stockford Reserve, There’s something about the Chip Stockford Reserve on Ladies Delight Road in Lovell that keeps pulling me back. I think it’s the history associated with this property that fascinates me. And the questions it raises. From the start, there is a cellar hole and barn foundation. Eldridge Gerry Kimball had purchased 200 acres on January 31, 1880 from Abraham E. Gray. Various journals from that time period include entries about driving cattle over to the Ladies Delight pasture, picking cranberries over by The Pond, as they called Kezar Lake, picking apples, driving sheep to pasture, picking pears, mowing oats and trimming pines. Today, it’s the huge pasture pines, stonewalls and a couple of foundations that tell part of the story. I’ve also heard that this area was used as a cattle infirmary. According to local lore, diseased cattle were brought to Ladies Delight to roam and die, thus preventing disease from spreading to healthy cattle. . . Another story about Ladies Delight hill is that this is the place where people would come to picnic in the 1800s. Did the women get dressed up to enjoy a day out, a break from their farming duties? I have visions of them wearing long dresses and bonnets and carrying picnic baskets. But could they really afford a day away from their chores?

May 10, 2015: Bald Pate Mountain, The “bald” mountain top is the reason I am who I have become. Being outside and hiking have always been part of my makeup, but when our oldest was in fifth grade, I chaperoned a field trip up this mountain that changed everything. The focus was the soils. And along the way, Bridie McGreavy, who at the time was the watershed educator for Lakes Environmental Association, sat on the granite surrounded by a group of kids and me, and told us about the age of the lichens and their relationship to the granite and I wanted to know more. I needed to know more.

June 16, 2015: Bishop Cardinal Reserve, Though we never plan it that way, our journey lasted three hours. Suddenly, we emerged from the wet woodland onto Horseshoe Pond Road–all the richer for having spent time in the land of the slugs, bears and caterpillar clubs. Oh my!

We are fortunate to live in an area where five trusts protect land for us and the species with whom we share the Earth: Greater Lovell, Loon Echo, Western Maine Foothills, Mahoosuc and Upper Saco Valley. This strikes me as a valuable reflection of who we are and where we live.

Land trusts work with community members to acquire land for permanent conservation through purchases and donations. They also create legal and binding conservation easements that allow residents to protect land holdings in perpetuity, while retaining private ownership. Scenic views, wildlife corridors, flora and fauna, and topography remain, subject only to the whims of nature itself, which is ever-changing.

Conserving the land doesn’t mean it can’t be touched. The organizations develop management plans and steward the land. Timber harvesting, farming, residency and recreation continue, while specific wildlife habitat, wetlands, unique natural resources and endangered or rare species are protected. And in the process, they strengthen our towns. Ultimately, they give us a better sense of our place in Maine and opportunities to interact with the wild.

The service area of each of the local trusts include watersheds and wildlife corridors. Greater Lovell Land Trust is committed to the protection of the Kezar Lake, Kezar River and Cold River and adjacent watersheds located in Lovell, Stow and Stoneham.

Loon Echo Land Trust serves seven towns: Bridgton, Casco, Denmark, Naples, Harrison, Sebago and Raymond, and their efforts actually reach beyond to the 200,000 residents of Greater Portland for whom Sebago Lake is the public drinking water source.

Western Foothills Land Trust serves the Greater Oxford Hills towns of Buckfield, Harrison, Norway, Otisfield, Oxford, Paris, Sumner, Waterford and West Paris. The watersheds they protect include Lake Pennesseewassee, Thompson Lake, Crooked River and Little Androscoggin River.

The Mahoosuc Land Trust works in central Oxford County, Maine, and eastern Coos County, New Hampshire. It strives to protect the watersheds and natural communities of Albany Township, Andover, Bethel, Gilead, Greenwood, Hanover, Milton Plantation, Newry, Rumford, Shelburne, Upton and Woodstock.

Likewise, the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust crosses the border and includes the communities of western Maine and northern New Hampshire that make up the upper watershed of the Saco River. Its service area flows from the source of the Saco in Crawford Notch toward the Hiram Dam and includes Harts Location, Jackson, Bartlett, Chatham, Conway, Albany, Madison and Eaton, New Hampshire and Fryeburg, Denmark and Brownfield, Maine.

In addition to their service areas, the land trusts collaborate with each other and local lake associations. Most recently, the GLLT, LELT, WMFLT and USVLT, plus the Portland Water District have joined forces to protect the fifty-mile Crooked River. The river is the largest tributary flowing into Sebago Lake and it provides primary spawning and nursing area for one of four known indigenous populations of landlocked Atlantic salmon in Maine.

Lovell Girl Scout Cadette Troop 67 up close and personal with tree cookies

Protection is key. So is education, which develops understanding and appreciation. I know for myself, my relationship with the landscape continues to evolve. The mentors I’ve met along the way have played an important part in my involvement and caring for the environment.

All five land trusts offer numerous hikes open to everyone, providing a great way to explore and learn more about the diversity of the natural communities. Staff and volunteers lead walks, stopping frequently to share a bit of knowledge, ask questions and wonder along with the participants. These organizations also offer indoor programs featuring knowledgeable guest speakers.

I’m thankful for the work being done to protect the ecosystem. There’s so much I still don’t understand, but with each nugget of knowledge gained, the layers build. Maybe someday I’ll get it. Maybe I never will. Either way, I’m happy for the chance to journey and wonder on land trust properties.

Even though we can’t all endow the future of our properties, we can get involved to ensure that these organizations continue to protect land for future generations of humans and wildlife so it will remain in its natural state for the benefit of all.

Water snake at the GLLT Otter Rock

So back to Bekoff’s book, he quotes many biologists and others as he makes the point that when we experience alienation from nature we make bad decisions including “wanton killing of wild species, clear cutting, pollution and other human impacts, and caging of nonhuman animals.”

“What we do,” writes Bekoff, “does make a difference and rewilding our hearts is about fostering and honoring our connections to one another and all life.”

My daily fox–12/30/18

After all, as evidenced in our yard each day and night when the visitors are many, we share this place with and in fact live in the world of our nonhuman neighbors. We need to figure out how to live together–and that premise is at both nonhuman and human levels since we are all interconnected in the web of life.

Inside structure of an oak apple gall

Though Bekoff’s focus is on nonhuman animals, I do wish he’d also addressed other forms of life, such as fungi, insects, plants, and the like.

He does list what he calls the “8 Ps of Rewilding” as a guide for action: Proactive, Positive, Persistent, Patient, Peaceful, Practical, Powerful, and Passionate. “If we keep these eight principles in mind as we engage one another and wrestle with difficult problems, no one should feel threatened or left out,” says Bekoff.

As the book continues, there are definitions provided for catch phrases such as compassionate conservation and stories of unsung heroes who have made it their life’s work to “rewild our hearts and to expand our compassionate footprint.”

GLLT/Lovell Recreation Trailblazers created a woodland map

Bekoff is a realist and so am I. He would love to see us all become vegetarians or vegans, but realizes we will not. He knows that it will take people time to unlearn preconceived notions, especially given that the media thrives on misrepresenting animals. He knows that his rewilding our hearts is a concept with a broad agenda.

One of my take-away thoughts was that all of local environmental organizations are working hard to create corridors and raise awareness and awe about the natural world. Of course, we could all do better. But, we’ve already got a good start on doing what Bekoff suggests: “Figure out how to foster a love of nature and other animals so that every generation sees this connection as precious and vital and worth nurturing.”

But . . . he concludes that “if we all made some simple changes to our lives, the world would soon become a more compassionate place for all beings and landscapes.

Great Horned Owl Plastica species

And he reminds us to be humble and able to laugh at ourselves. Yeah, so um, I was the one who stopped a small group of friends as we moved along a trail on private property because I was the first to spot a great horned owl this fall. Yeah, um. It was plastic. And a set up. I’m still laughing.

Dear readers, if you’ve read this far, you deserve a reward. I know I got a bit off track by including my own article, but I do believe that we’ve got a start on rewilding our hearts in western Maine. Yes, we have a long way to go. Let’s do this. Together!

And remember, my guy purchased this copy of Rewilding Our Hearts at Bridgton Books.

Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence by Marc Bekoff, 2014, New World Library.

When You Go

My goal was simple. Walk the blue trail at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Chip Stockford Reserve and add a few more decorations to the Christmas Tree. 

If you recall, two weeks ago the Fairs, Farms, and Fun Homeschool 4-H Group decorated a tree(s) as part of the Maine Christmas Tree Scavenger Hunt.

Their biodegradable ornaments were mighty tasty, smeared in peanut butter and bird seed much to the good licking of birds, squirrels, and deer. 

Since the first decorating party, we led a fun walk where participants adopted a scavenger hunt attitude and examined all evergreens along the way until they spotted the special tree(s). And then, because we’d packed more peanut butter and bird seed, and some of the youth had gathered pinecones on the way, we spent time creating new ornaments. That was on Saturday. By Monday, those had also disappeared. 

 As has been the case in the past, only the hearts cut from fallen birch bark remained. 

Taking a tip from our neighbors at Western Foothills Land Trust, which is also participating in the Maine Christmas Tree Hunt, I added orange and apple slices to the tree(s) and a few higher branches. 

I hope you’ll challenge yourself and your family and friends to go on the hunt.

I also hope that some of the ornaments will still be there. But if not, know that the mammals and birds are dining in style. 

In fact, their style reflected in scat I found included more than the offerings we’d supplied. On this rock, it looked like the local staghorn sumac had provided some nourishment. 

That wasn’t the only scat in the area. It took me a moment to realize what I was seeing atop the snow. The scat of larger birds also decorated the trail and I wondered what predators might be about. 

So here’s the thing–when you go in search of the tree (or on any walk in the woods) take some time and look for scat. And while you’re at it, see what else might draw your eye in. 

Maybe you’ll spy an empty sawfly cocoon. 

Or one that will protect the larvae as it pupates within over the winter months. 

When you go, look for the unusual among the usual. I found this pine tree snag that struck me as most intriguing. How tall had it grown before its life tumbled down? 

No matter. What did matter was that its whorled limbs still reached outward in star-like fashion. 

And inward as well. 

Above, its kin stood tall. 

When you go, make time to enjoy the scenic view opened this past summer by staff and volunteers. 


When you go, look for interesting sights like this one, where one pine embraced another. 

Pines typically self prune, but these two chose to keep their lower branches and snuggle together for the rest of their lives. 

So close did they grow that the “arms” of the tree to the left had grafted to the tree to the right so that their hug included shared energy. 

When you go, look for the other old pines along the stone wall–those that grew up when the landscape was more open and their structures could stretch out more than up. 

And below them, notice the squirrel middens. I wasn’t sure there would be many middens this year since it wasn’t a mast production year and few cones had formed.

When you go, let your imagination see the discarded pine cone scales and cobs as toppings on a bowl of ice cream. 

When you go, look for the amber nuggets of pine sap hardened on old bark. 

When you go, if the apple slices remain on the tree(s), notice the star shape of the core. 

When you go, look for all of these . . . or better yet, make your own really cool discoveries. 

I do hope you’ll go to the Chip Stockford Reserve or any of the three other sights in western Maine where trees are decorated. But . . . if you can’t go here, go somewhere. And when you go . . . have fun! 

Amazing Race–Our Style: episode eleven

The second to last episode of the Amazing Race–Our Style was upon us and we hoped it wouldn’t be the final one for us. 

Today’s clue was a bit different than most. It gave us four specific locations–and much to our delight, all were within 20 minutes of home! How could we be so fortunate? 

We were also given a time frame and a few other instructions. We were to arrive at our first destination at 10:30am. From that starting time, we had until 5pm to finish our tasks and send four photos to a certain website. The sooner we completed all of the tasks, except for sending the photos, the better our chances of hanging in for the final episode. The pressure was on. 

One of the biggest challenges was that the photos we needed to send were selfies. We aren’t selfie fans, unless you count photos of our footwear! 

Our overall mission today: to locate the four trees that had been decorated by homeschooled children and/or local land trusts. Since there were four teams left and four different properties, we were each given a different location in which to begin. 

Our starting point on this very foggy morning was Western Foothill Land Trust’s Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway, Maine. As instructed, we arrived at 10:30 and made sure to stay on the snowshoe trails only, for there is also a network of groomed ski trails. The trail was long and sometimes wet, while other times icy, but we didn’t notice too much as our eyes were focused on the trees. Of course, we were occasionally distracted, such as when a downy woodpecker flew into sight. 

My guy was certain he knew where the tree would be located, but . . . it wasn’t, at least as far as we could tell in the fog. 

We did spy a spider web embellished with beads of water and I remembered a story based on a legend about a poor family who had no decorations for their Christmas tree. As the tale goes, while the children slept, spiders spun webs of silver around the tree’s branches. The next morning, the family awoke to a Christmas tree sparkling with silver webs. Today’s webs were such and though we hadn’t found the decorated tree I was already richer for the experience of looking.

And then . . . my guy walked right by it. I was surprised I didn’t, for we both expected a different evergreen species to be adorned. 

Most of the ornaments were meant to feed the critters and we saw deer tracks in the snow. 

Among the mix was a tree cookie with a wood-burned sketch–perhaps of Roberts Farm? 

While my guy picked up fallen treats to rehang on the tree, I practiced my selfie skills. I was feeling confident that we could pull this off. 

And when I told him that we’d have to send the photos to mainechristmastreehunt.com, he was eager to pose–and I was shocked. We tried to make sure that the tree was visible in the background. 

We checked off that tree, hopped into the truck and headed to Lovell. 

OK, so we knew when the clue arrived that we had a bit of an advantage for we’d been invited to join the Fairs, Farms, and Fun 4-H Group that decorated the tree at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Chip Stockford Reserve on Ladies Delight Road in Lovell a few weeks ago, and I’d just co-led a walk on the trail this past Saturday where other adults had fun looking for it. And redecorating it.

Oh well. Other teams had had different advantages during different episodes, so it was our turn. 

But, the most curious thing–when we arrived . . . there were no tracks made by any of the other teams. Team Purple was supposed to begin at this point. Had she gotten lost? 

Because we knew right where to go, our journey was quick and we easily relocated the tree on the one mile loop with a spur. And . . . discovered that the birds and deer had once again dined on the bird seed ornaments. 

When it comes time to remove the decorations after Chrismas, the task will be super easy. 

Thankfully, the subtle birch bark hearts continued to add a festive note. 

And so we posed. 

We did discover a new clue at the kiosk on our way in–we were to find something in the woods that represented our team. We found an H for Team Hazy. 

Within the clue package, we were also told to take time to eat–at a place locals frequent. We chose Quinn’s Jockey Cap Country Store in Fryeburg and somehow managed to resist the sweet treats while we ordered sandwiches. 

And then it was on to the Mountain Division Trail on Route 113 in Fryeburg to look for Upper Saco Valley Land Trust’s Andrews Preserve. There are no signs or trails at that preserve, but our adventure on Saturday had included a visit there. That’s why I couldn’t believe that this was the intended challenge for today’s episode, but all had been decided almost a year ago and it just worked out that I knew where we needed to go today. That being said, I let my guy lead. 

He had a bit of help as one or two others had been that way–leaving their tracks in the snow. 

And . . . he did a super job, quickly spying the tree. What I love about this scavenger hunt is that each tree has a different theme and flavor. The USVLT tree was decorated by a teen and her mom, and the teen didn’t want the animals to eat all the ornaments. Understood. 

They created a pipecleaner garland and added glittery bulbs. It’s a bright spot in the middle of a thickly wooded site. 

And so we posed again. 

Our final destination was to Lake Environmental Association’s Pinehaven Trail at the Maine Lake Science Center on Willet Road in Bridgton. This is a place we know well for it’s practically in our backyard, but we didn’t know which tree would be decorated. And so we began our hunt, pausing briefly to remember the fun we’d had on the low elements challenge course that dots the trail. We’d actually completed that challenge one rainy day and were thankful (and surprised) we didn’t have to attempt it in the snow. 

Suddenly, the decorated tree jumped out with its brightly colored garland and we rejoiced for we’d found all four trees. And still had plenty of time. 

The laminated garland featured words related to LEA’s mission and activities. And so did the tree cookies, much to our liking. 

And so we posed for one final time. We still aren’t great in the selfie department, but it would have to do. 

Our next task before sending off the selfie photos to the website, was to create a scavenger hunt for others. You already know the four properties and their locations. Plus for each organization, I’ve included a link to their websites. 

Your task, should you choose to complete it while you look for the decorated trees, is to also locate these finds. 

#1: Phoebe nest protected from the weather.

#2: Shiny chrome in the forest

#3: Home for flying salamanders

#4: Wet wetland

#5: Fairy castle with many spires and towers

And finally, #6: Snowshoe snowflake! 

The numbers: 

4 trees: √

4 selfies: √

Photo to represent our team: √

Scavenger hunt for others: √

Total time to complete race: 5 hours

We finished this leg of the Amazing Race–Our Style by 3:30pm, uploaded the selfies, sent them to Maine Christmas Tree Hunt, and found out that we took first place today! Yippee. (We were sad to learn that Team Purple made some wrong turns and got delayed.)

One more leg to go in January. Who will be the winners of the Amazing Race–Our Style? Stay tuned. 

Mondate Preserved

The other day a sign caught our attention as we drove to Overset Mountain and we realized we had new trails to explore. But, we, or rather I, drove by  so fast that we didn’t know which local organization owned the property. 

If my guy read these posts he would chuckle or guffaw at my comment about driving too fast for he is of a different opinion. But suffice it to say that we didn’t read the name of the land trust on the sign and so this morning I contacted Loon Echo Land Trust because in my online research, their name was associated with the property. Maggie quickly let me know that I needed to contact Lee at Western Foothills Land Trust and violà. 

Both have been involved in the Crooked River Forests Project for as is stated on the LELT website: The Crooked River has been identified as a priority for conservation as it is the largest tributary to Sebago Lake, with 38% of the inflow, and it offers local recreational opportunities and is situated above high quality sand and gravel aquifers. The river has been identified in the state’s Natural Resources Protection Act as an Outstanding River Segment with AA status; free flowing with the best water quality. This trout fishery is home to one of only four native populations of landlocked salmon in the state and is known to host one species of anadromous fish (American eel) and is thought to historically host Atlantic salmon and sea lamprey.

As I pulled up to the sign today, however, the ownership was obvious. The name, Two Bridges, was not so. The area has long been named such, and all we could imagine is that twin bridges once spanned the Crooked River in the area where we stood. 

Since the parking lot was under construction, for the property won’t officially open for another two weeks, we parked on Plains Road rather than Route 117 in Otisfield. 

At the start, the trail was wide and straight, and we both hoped for a change. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It was lovely and we had fun naming all the evergreens, including white and red pine, hemlock, balsam fir and red spruce, for those were the most abundant species, with a few young beech, red maples and red oaks thrown into the mix. But . . . we wanted diversity. And we wanted to walk beside the river. 

Soon, thankfully, we came to a Y in the road and a new sign post, or so we imagined it to be. We chose the trail to the right since it was closer to the water. 

And within minutes our reward awaited. That being said, we’d followed a spur to the riverbank and since there were no telltale pieces of flagging we suspected it won’t be marked as a public trail. 

Further along, we again spent time by the river, and noted its sculptures made of decorative roots . . . 

and splashes of ice. 

And in the mix–a rare sight indeed: an ice disc, this one being about three or four feet in diameter and spinning in an eddy. 

Eventually, the trail took us across a bridge constructed by the land trust in October 2017 that will provide the landlocked salmon and brook trout with another mile of spawning habitat.

And that’s not all. We saw plenty of evidence that mammals inhabit the space from deer . . . 

to fox . . .

to bobcat! 

There were several intersections, and we kept turning toward the river, which took us along trails more to our liking as they narrowed and twisted and turned through the forest. 

At one point, a tree arched over the trail and its purple crust fungi added a different color to the display. I think it was Phanerochaete crassa. 

My guy pointed out the hugging cousins–a white pine and hemlock and I was reminded of my finds on Black Friday. “I knew you’d like it,” he commented. He knows me well. 

Because we were in an evergreen forest, we noticed several examples of witches’ brooms. No, they were not the variety that one might have expected on Halloween night. Instead, dense masses of shoots rose from a single point on an otherwise normal branch and created a nest-like structure. Their cause: fungi, viruses, bacteria, mites or aphids. 

Speaking of the latter, aphids created the cone galls we knew as witch’s hats on witch hazels that grew near the river. The little structures provided both food and shelter for the critters that developed within. 

We also spied lungwort on a few hardwoods, its leafy structure springtime green as it photosynthesized in response to the flurries that floated earthward during the morning hours. 

And then the forest’s canvas began to draw our attention, from snowcapped artist conk (Ganoderma applanatum) fungi . . . 

to icy reflections, . . . 

man-made sculptures, . . .

and dazzling trail markers. We spied another made of pipe cleaners and a soggy feather and wondered.

We didn’t walk the entire trail system, but left knowing that we’d return for further explorations. 

Because we were in the neighborhood and my guy had never seen it, I drove along Plains Road to the Ryefield Bridge. Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, the structure was built in 1912 as a double-intersection Warren truss bridge. 

The bridge spans the Crooked River between Harrison and Otisfield and is still used today. In fact, we walked and drove across it. 

One of our favorite parts was the sign at the top, which not only stated the construction company, but also honored the selectmen of the day. 

My excitement about the bridge was equally matched by some prints I spotted when I stepped into the snow to take a photo from the river bank. Beaver prints! Like the ice disc in the river, beaver prints have always been a rare find. Often, I can see their pathways, but not decipher their tracks for their tails swish out the features. 

But today, not only the tracks and a trail down to the water, but beaver chews, their snack sticks, left behind on the ice. 

We took one final look before heading home–Crooked River framed by the bridge. And we both gave thanks on this Mondate for a land and a bridge preserved. 

Make Your Own Impressions

A couple of us were honored this morning to share the trail with ten homeschooled kids ranging in age from about four to teenagers. There was even a babe in his mom’s arms, but he choose to sleep through most of our journey as we looked for tracks at Western Foothills Land Trust’s Shepard’s Farm Preserve.

s1-into shepard's farm family preserve

I was wowed by these kids for their knowledge about the natural world was impressive. It was obvious that they’ve spent a lot of time outside not only due to all they had observed and the stories they told me, but also because it was quite cold and they never complained.

s2-the bog and deer tracks

Through a mixed forest and into the bog we searched for and followed tracks–of mice and deer.

s3-into the bog

We so wanted to see those left behind by a predator and thought for sure we would since the deer tracks were plentiful, but today that wasn’t meant to be. We did find where the deer had browsed, peed, scatted and slept.

s4-curious kids

The kids’ curiosity was for more than just tracks and so we stood in awe of a pileated woodpecker tree.

s8-hornet's nest

And a hornet’s nest.

s9-hornest nest in flight

The nest was flying high–on the underwing of a bird sculpture–reminiscent of a certain Tesla Roadster on a rocket.

s10-flying squirrel tracks

After showing them some plaster casts of prints and my scat collection back in the parking lot, we said our goodbyes and I drove on to meet my friend, Jinny Mae.

Not long into our time together, we squealed with delight when we thought we’d made a new discovery. We found squirrel tracks that started about ten feet from any tree and as we looked at the overall pattern we noticed that there were arced lines between the sets of prints that appeared different from the lines behind the sets that we typically encounter. Our brains and hearts worked in unison and we determined that we’d found a trail left behind by a flying squirrel. It was a first for both of us. But . . . as we continued on we began to question our conclusion and we switched back to red squirrel. I don’t know. What I do know is that it was a squirrel. And maybe that’s enough.

s13-beaver dam

We made our way to a beaver pond, again hopeful for interesting tracks, but our best finds were squirrel and mice. Oh, and a domestic dog and its skiing partner.

s22-beaver lodge

We did spy a lodge that we thought might be active, but didn’t risk the journey to check on it for we found ourselves sinking deeper than our comfort zone.

s12-steeple bush gone awry

As we made our way off of the pond, a steeple bush came to our attention–its erect structure gone awry. Uh oh. Had it done something wrong?

s14-pileated woodpecker

And then we heard a pileated woodpecker that we finally spied on a distant tree. Though we both have the good fortune to see them often, we were still thrilled and amazed at its size.

s15-brook

Our next stop was beside the brook that flows out of the pond. I was with Jinny Mae so it was no surprise that we stood for a long time, listening and admiring.

s17-ice

Ice and water always fill us with wonder . . .

s23-ice 3

and awe.

s20-shadows

Shadows and textures do as well.

s19-lungwort

And not to be left out, lungwort.

s5-creating a snow angel

The tracking wasn’t so great, but at the end of the day we’d all delighted in the discoveries and questions and understandings and connections we’d made. And the fun we’d had in doing so.

s7-snow angel

When life gives you snow–make your own impressions.