It’s getting near the middle of October and summer is a distant memory. Autumn has once again circled the block to stare me in the eye and I am another year older and hopefully another year wiser. On this morning it is clear that the weather could not be more agreeable. With the temperatures in the mid-fifties and a cool west wind to evaporate the sweat on my brow I know it is the perfect day for a jaunt in the woods. The skies are crystal blue with big white clouds that blow through the sky like a clipper ship on the high seas. The leaves on the hardwood trees are past peak foliage and although most might prefer the full fall colors provided by early October foliage I am very happy that I will get to enjoy the later fall season that is noted for brilliant yellow, gold, and autumn tan.
A jaunt on this day is a hike to an unknown location and over an unknown distance. There is no real endpoint in mind. The only governing entity is time. The days are shorter now and I am limited to the hours that hold daylight. I will be in no hurry. There is much to see and enjoy this time of year. If I am quiet as I move through the forest I just might get lucky and see something unusual. A quick glance at a deer, coyote or fox would satisfy me, the site of a black bear, bobcat or fisher would make my day. To be honest just the fresh air, exercise, and a few good views of the surrounding landscape will rejuvenate my spirit. There is much to learn and little to complain about in the autumnal woods that grace these ancient hills.
In this neck of the woods there are no “easy” hikes. You are generally either travelling uphill or downhill. Hills, dales, mountains, and valleys stand between my backyard and the closest road in a southerly direction over some 20,000 acres; so much territory and so little time. The hike begins with a long gradual hill that goes on for the better part of a mile. There are trails to follow, or you can take the short cut (which is a little steeper) and find your way through tree trunks and underbrush to a place with a good view to the southeast and northeast. The view to the northeast is expansive, perhaps 20 miles. What is most impressive is the lack of human development. From this precipice looking in a northeasterly direction there are three houses visible, all perched facing west on distant hillsides, and one radio tower located on the other side of the Connecticut River atop a distant mountain just south of the New Hampshire highlands. The view in this direction reveals miles and miles of forest, an occasional field or pasture, and big sky. I try to picture what this area must have looked like 125 years ago when it was 80% deforested from past farm practices. The only picture I can conjure up is the bald, rolling hills and mountains of Scotland that remain denuded since the British cut all of the trees several hundred years ago for building ships and supplying the royal families with lumber. I witnessed the Scottish highlands many years ago while hitch-hiking through Europe. Huge areas of green fields on mountains, separated by stone walls, can be seen from any hill top. At that time the large, open spaces were still dotted with sheep that seemed to experience no discomfort moving up and down the steep terrain. Sheep are curious creatures that revel in wide open grassy pastures with big open skies. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that sheep once dominated the New England landscape as well.
The view to the southeast is dramatically different. A mountain taller than the one on which I stand obscures distant views. This proves to be an advantage as it makes me focus on the deep forest valley below. The “valley” is a series of smaller hills that rise and fall quickly giving the area a rugged appearance. Based on my intricate knowledge of the area there are several stream headwaters that begin in this area and flow to the north and eventually to the east. The plentiful water, mature hardwoods, lush understory all provide nearly perfect wildlife habitat for animals that enjoy the pleasures of the forest. Nearly all of the New England fauna that enjoys forested habitats reside here. Clouds move overhead and cast large shadows on the forested landscape. The cloud shadow moves from northwest to southeast adding depth to the landscape and gives the view an animated appearance. There is nothing like time and space to get my mind wandering.
Rather than stay on a path that will lead me on a long journey to the valley below I decide to take the short route. Perhaps I should call it the steep route. The drop is several hundred feet over a span of about a quarter of a mile. Aware of the idea that I cannot travel in a straight line due to the very steep terrain I follow a series of wildlife trails that travels along steep ledges with quick cutbacks that eventually lead to the bottom of this steep hillside. More often than not I avoid wildlife trails. An occasional jaunt along them will not alarm them whereas consistent passage along these hidden corridors might send them packing to other places. On this day I am wearing clothes that control human scent, one of the many innovative inventions made possible by those interested in advanced hunting technology.
My legs remain strong as my years add up, but I do have a shaky right knee. It has been dislocated a couple of times and so I tend to be careful when climbing down (or up) treacherous terrain. An accident here could be a major inconvenience. I take my time and rest as appropriate. The near and long views are good distractions as I rest my wobbly knee. As I sit here I think about how I would have approached this hike 30 years ago. Part of the fun would have been sliding down steep ledges, hopping over eight foot gaps, and jumping off rock faced ledges. The odds of getting hurt were low in those days. I was strong and flexible. Today I am only strong. These days I am about as flexible as the 20 story brick library located at my alma mater at the University of Massachusetts. Note to self: how about tagging along and going to some of my wife’s yoga classes instead of lifting heavy weights at the gym?
After my brief respite I continue on a gradual slope that follows a narrow rock ledge. The ledge is about two feet wide and there is a 45 foot drop off on my left hand side. It is a little treacherous because of recent rain that has pooled on top of some of the rock hollows. I turn side ways in some areas and hold onto the schist rock that keeps bumping into my right shoulder. The ledge trail does a sudden hair pin turn and I now am descending the steep mountain face in the opposite direction. The rocky trail is rife with porcupine scat. This master of survival evidently uses these trails frequently to access other areas of bedrock.
Below I hear a quick movement and I look down. A large eight point buck is now standing still. He senses danger but never looks up. He is on slightly more even terrain where exposed bedrock provides ample cover but also allows for quick escape. Weary, he bounds off to the hemlock stand below where cover and bedding areas are first rate. The white flag of a tail, for which the deer is aptly named, waves goodbye to me as he disappears into the conifers.
So as not to disturb the deer I take a path that leads to an area that avoids the hemlock stand. This trail leads to a large area of exposed bedrock that holds deep crevices and miniature caves. Porcupine den hear as evidenced by the many inches of porcupine scat. I’m not sure where they are on this day, probably in the top of a hemlock somewhere chowing down on needles and buds, but I am glad that the path is not blocked by these tenacious rodents. Porcupines really aren’t afraid of much save an occasional fisher. Whenever I encounter them in the woods they take their sweet time to evacuate the area. And why wouldn’t they? They have an almost impenetrable defense system that causes most predators severe pain and agony. Quills can be life threatening to those predators that choose to wear them after an encounter with a porky. They can make walking more than difficult if they end of in the feet or pads of a canine or feline, and barbed quills can make eating nearly impossible if they line the inside of the mouth and clasp to the tongue.
I begin circling in a general northerly direction around the base of the mountain. The breeze has become stiff and staying below the air currents will keep me warm and keep my scent from travelling to far in this dense forest. Large boulders, some picked out of the bedrock ledge above by advancing glaciers eons ago, and some pushed out by the freezing and thawing of water in these cold New England winters, are placed randomly throughout this part of the forest. A few boulders have been in place long enough to have collected enough top soil to grow saplings. One particularly willful yellow birch has exposed roots that hug the top of a large schist boulder and grasp the underlying earth for dear life. The tree is about 30 years old and showing little signs of distress. Deep green moss and white lichen that looks like tiny thin antlers also inhabit this large boulder. These little microcosms of ancient life provide critical links to the forest ecosystem. There is one flat topped boulder that has a large lichen community stamped to its surface. The top of the rock is about head high and so checking it out is enormously easy. Over thousands of years the lichen has etched away rock turning hard mineral into soil. These small areas act as feeder grounds for other allies and herbaceous plants. My view of this tapestry of mosses, ferns, and Canada mayflower is like having my own personal art show. I surely would have paid to see such wonders crafted by nature.
There is a split in the trail that will take me up a different set of paths that traverse the rock face of this southeast side of this mountain. I am favoring my right knee at this point and lean my back against a rock covered boulder. A flock of geese fly through the clouds overhead, singing away celebrating their glorious migration south. Canada geese are tremendously social during the migration season and it seems as if they catch up on all the news as they travel south. Their honking high in the sky brings a smile to my face. Down below, on a ledge that is still catching some sun, a chipmunk chirps away telling all his acquaintances that this was a good day for acorn recovery. An adequate supply of oak fruit will help this jubilant creature survive the winter. A healthy chipmunk means successful breeding and assurance that another generation will bless these hills. Surely this is a good reason to celebrate.
I remain still at this resting point. In the back of my mind I hope to see a bobcat lurking through shadows in search of an evening meal, but no such luck will come my way. Many years ago I spotted a beautiful bobcat sunning himself on these very ledges in the month of February. I remember the cat yawning and stretching himself while taking advantage of the solar energy. I have witnessed other bobcats in this forest and that was the only one that was not aware of my presence.
After climbing a few more bedrock terraces I will be back on top of this hill and can begin the mile or so walk back to my homestead. The sky light is dimming now and so I must take care to watch where I step as I ascend this rock face. I use my arms and legs as I climb this steep craggy hill; handholds are as important as good footing. When I reach the top I turn around and look to the east. I have less than a half hour of light left and so take in the view in a hasty manner. Another day is nearly finished; the light dwindles in the eastern sky. My journey home is short. Perhaps too short for my liking.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in October 2010.