Sunday, December 2, 2012

Winding into Winter

Technically it's not winter ... but it's winter. Any more hiking this year will likely be a solo effort. But I wanted to catch up on the rest of fall, which unfortunately didn't have too many weekends in the woods but had some nice, reflective outdoorsy moments nonetheless.

Jordyn and I spent one particularly warmer-than-usual November Sunday afternoon at Purgatory Chasm again. Just can't get enough of that place. We didn't make it all the way to Little Purgatory, which was one of my goals, but we did take the high road back after heading out through the chasm. We also took a few turns heading down the mammoth slide rock that we somehow missed on our visit earlier this year. My little girl is couch-bound this weekend feeling feverish, so just thinking back to this and our other hikes this year puts a smile on my face.

In October I spent a "guys weekend" up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and had pretty much a perfect Saturday doing a grand loop of driving, sightseeing and hiking. The highlights (pictured below) were the mile hike that led out to Ripley Falls, and the drive up to the Cathedral Ledges for some amazing panoramas that got us incredibly close to being about one foot between safety and plunging down the ledge. Actually, at the base we were able to see some climbers who were making their way up the face of the ledge - something that is always incredible to witness in person, no matter how many times I've seen photos in magazines. I'll stick with keeping my feet to the ground.

Ripley Falls is about 100 feet of cascading waters, and well worth the outing if you're in the area. Hopefully next year Sara, Jordyn and I can go back up there as a family. I drove through a covered bridge, did another hike that straddled some cascading water, and even spent a few minutes gawking at Madison Boulder (the largest known "erratic" in New England). Yeah, it's a big rock, but it is one hell of an impressively big rock whose pictures don't do it justice.

The other quick mention is an otherwise unremarkable hike our family did on a Saturday morning off the parking lot at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough. However, I found this little jaunt on the Stirrup Brook Trail uplifting, because it was set up in the community as a story walk featuring Dr. Seuss' "Ten Apples Up on Top" - and gave confirmation of what a fantastic idea a story walk is to get kids excited about hiking. Jordyn's eyes lit up every time she came to one of the signs posted along the way, reading it to us and then quickly setting off to find the next one. With hiking being such a hit-or-miss suggestion no matter how many times we wind up going out and having a good time, I'll be sure to keep an eye out on the community calendars next year for more of these story walks. The Mass DCR page and Audubon Society pages are good resources. In the meantime, we'll have to start collecting our own ideas for weekends in the woods in 2013. (Arlen)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ascending at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary

I love the Mass Audubon organization and its quaint nature centers and hiking trails. One of the main reasons for the Mass Audubon's existence is protecting and promoting the array of bird life in our state, especially all that can be found in the numerous wildlife sanctuaries under its auspices. I'm no birdwatcher, but I could easily see getting into this as a hobby in my retirement years, perhaps. For now, I'm content to catch the occasional falcon or hawk or roadside turkey when the opportunity arises, and get a glimpse of whatever flies near me while I'm on hikes.

We've visited the Broad Meadow Brook nature center and sanctuary that's virtually around the corner from our house here in Worcester on many occasions. It's a wonderfully peaceful way to spend a Sunday morning, especially when there's hardly anyone else on the trail. Recently I got to do the same on a solo stroll through Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton. After stumbling up on a sign for it while driving on Route 10 out of Northampton, I followed the winding roads to the entrance, which features a great visitor/nature center complete with stuffed animals along the walls -- well, not the stuffed animals of Jordyn's bedroom variety, but full-on taxidermy specimens. There's also a whiteboard in the center citing the sanctuaries latest sitings in the 723-acre sanctuary.

As with Broad Meadow Brook, the hiking is easy and relaxed along Arcadia's many trails, of which I walked several. Some lead out to fields, others into the forest and others along the Mill River, which feeds into the nearby Connecticut River. There are several ponds as well as a vernal pool to check out -- I made my way to the Wood Duck Pond, whose namesake is also the image of the stamp that you can mark in your Mass Audubon "passport" that you can fill every time you visit a Mass Audubon locale. And yes, I did catch a few mallards minding their business in the pond.

A couple of features at Arcadia deliver interesting reminders of the past. There's a path called the Old Trolley Line Trail that bisects the sanctuary, which obviously played a traffic role back in the day, and there's also an observation tower. The tower is kind of like a tree house, and presents views of the marsh and swampland. You take a spiral staircase to reach it, and the most fascinating part is that you pass a pair of signs on the neighboring tree that mark how high two historic floods reached in 1984 and 1936 -- you can only shake your head at just how monstrous those floods were when you see how high up the signs are. I made my way back along the well-marked trails, whose blazes are conveniently color-coded to let you know if you're heading toward or away from the nature center (why can't every place do that!). I didn't see any wildlife out of the ordinary on this day, but that certainly gives even more reason to return at different times of the year. (Arlen)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Waterside Walking in Newport & Whitehall

There are plenty of reasons why Newport, R.I., is a hot tourist destination during the summer -- beaches, sailboats, mansions -- which is why we waited until the end of summer to head down there. It's a short ride from Worcester (thanks for being so small, Rhode Island!) and I really wanted to hike the famed Cliff Walk that runs along its eastern shore. Sometimes I'm not the greatest planner, though, and aside from heading there over Labor Day weekend it also happened to be move-in time for students at Salve Regina.

That didn't phase me, but unfortunately Jordyn was already a bit mentally exhausted from the car ride (thought we didn't hit any traffic until we actually reached town). For most of the cliff walk portion we did accomplish, she was perched on my shoulders as you can see above. Still, my pained shoulders couldn't take away from the awe-inspiring views that this hike yields. Sara and I both enjoy hikes that come across water in whatever form -- streams, rivers, cascades, falls, ponds, lakes -- and Newport serves up ocean views with the best of 'em.

Every now and then the trail offers some steep pathways down near the water, but we took some nearby steps -- an area called Forty Steps (yes, that's how many there are) -- down for a closer view on the ledges. The one drawback to the trail is that there's no cover from the sun, and on our walk there were few clouds to provide a break and little ocean breeze; we just couldn't last too long. Eventually I'd like to head back and walk more of the 3.5-mile trail, because it's certainly an East Coast treasure, with hiking riches befitting the enormous wealth on which Newport made its reputation.

The following weekend we kept things closer to home for more trekking along the water's edge. This time it was Whitehall State Park in Hopkinton, Mass. The views were not as majestic, and those darn trees got in the way a lot, but the quiet, peaceful morning by Whitehall Reservoir was refreshing -- and provided a nice taste of the coolness that quickly arrives when the calendar turns from August to September.

I have no idea how many miles the entire circumnavigation of the reservoir is, but I'm pretty sure it would entail an entire day of hiking. We probably did about a mile and a half round trip, turning around after getting a good view of the Whitehall Dam in the distance. After a hot summer, during which our hiking schedule is interrupted by things like heat and birthday parties, it felt good to be back in the woods. (Arlen)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Heavenly Hiking at Halibut Point

Where to go on our 10-year anniversary? After contemplating things to do on our own, without Jordyn ... New York City, Foxwoods Casino ... we decided to take our little girl with us wherever that might be. We settled on Newport, R.I., for a day of cliff walking and kite flying -- only we had to nix it when we discovered that it was Folk Festival weekend. So now where? Eventually, after considering museums, aquariums and what not, I surfed the Massachusetts DCR page and found Halibut Point State Park in Rockport.

Part of what attracted me was the drive -- I love road trips and I'd never visited this remote-looking area that juts out from the North Shore outside of Boston. Sara had been to the scenic seaside town with her family, but it had been years, and she was all for it. We could hit another state park on our Weekends in the Woods quest and then scarf down some seafood.

I do love the way this sort of "checklist" travel brings me to places I might otherwise overlook. It's not a spot where Sara had gone on her family's visits to Cape Ann. Halibut Point is a true beauty, though definitely not in the woodsy wonder sense of a typical state park. Nope, instead it combines a serene pool, bordered by massive granite ledges of what used to be a 19th-century quarry, with the rocky Atlantic Ocean shore.

A renovated World War II fire tower serves as the visitor center for this state park gem, which is managed by the DCR and the Trustees of Reservations, and you can pick up a map for taking the self-guided loop tour around the quarry. There are nine stops that provide some historical reference into the granite trade, and if you're a dork like me you take time to read the history blurbs aloud to your embarrassed wife and daughter. The cooler thing to do is embrace the danger of standing right at the edge of the granite ledges and trying not to lose your sunglasses as you look down to the water. 

Even better than the stroll around the quarry was the lookout point over the Atlantic, where you can see New Hampshire and Maine (not so much on the hazy afternoon we went), and walk down to the shore. Halibut Point has an incredible rock cairn garden, where visitors have constructed the most elaborate cairn formations I've seen, like the arch shown, a rock penguin and other architectural sculptures -- Jordyn really dug this area and added her own stone bridge. After that we hopped along the big, barnacle- and seaweed-covered rocks by the water, where Jordyn plucked snails (pictured at left) from the crevices. Her day was made when she lured them out of their shells by humming -- a trick she learned about only a couple of weeks earlier. A modern-day siren of the sea! (Arlen)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Relaxing, Rejuvenating at Rock House Reservation

When it comes to weekend hiking excursions, this one really rocked.

But the rocks were only the beginning of what delighted me about Rock House Reservation in West Brookfield. This was one of those outdoor gems where as soon as my foot hit the trail, as soon as I smelled the heady mix of fragrant fauna and fresh earth, I knew I wanted to return again and again.

I'd never heard of Rock House Reservation until a few weeks prior, when I was scrolling through some recently logged photos at the newspaper where I work. At first glance, I thought the pictures of children climbing on gargantuan rocks were taken at the popular Purgatory Chasm in Sutton (see our blog post from April 17).

Managed by the Trustees of Reservations, the 196-acre RHR features a natural rock formation -- 20- to 30-feet high -- that was exposed after a glacial retreat 10,000 years ago. The cave-like structure is believed to have been used as a winter camp by Native Americans. The property features three miles of hiking trails, a man-made pond, a butterfly garden, and a small museum (which turned out to be empty but whose elevated deck offered a lovely view of the water below).

After a leisurely and scenic drive from Worcester to West Brookfield, we arrived at a small parking lot, where we greeted by no less than four dogs. Fortunately, as I was not in much of a dog mood, they were the only canines we saw that day. (We didn't see many other hikers at all, for that matter. Lucky us!)

A short uphill jaunt from the parking area led us to a lovely pond. A nearby sign explained something about the ecosystem, but I was smitten as soon as I saw the words "painted turtles." Jordyn and I examined the water from several vantage points on shore; alas, no turtles were to be spotted that day. However we did see a snake wend its way into the water, proving to us novices what skillful swimmers snakes can be.

Looking for painted turtles. Or as I like to call them, "teer-tles."

Off to our left was the unmistakable rock house. Jordyn was eager to find the butterfly garden, but we assured her she wouldn't regret making a pit stop at the rocks. As we approached, I was overcome by a feeling of awe. It was the rocks, yes -- but it was something more, something in the air. Let's call it a perfect combination of serenity, song (the birds provided a virtual chorus!) and satisfaction -- satisfaction that nature's perfection could so quickly bring one back to balance after a perfectly crappy week. 

As we meandered through the natural shelter, we spied myriad "chairs" and "tables" provided by ledges and nifty little "hallways" between rocks. It took me back to my grandfather's steep, rocky backyard in Malden, where I used to spend hours climbing and looking for secret hiding spots.

I believe I could have spent hours among the rocks, but Jordyn was eager to find butterflies, so we pressed on. It was a good choice, as I found the trail we traversed every bit as pleasing as the rocks. Something about the particular feel of the earth under my shoes, the delicious coolness provided by the tree canopy and the aroma of dozens of white flowers dotting the ground made it just about the most perfect walk ever.

Soon we approached a sunny clearing that was the butterfly garden. Jordyn was momentarily confused, as she likely had been expecting the type of indoor butterfly haven she had visited before. But this was cool -- really, really cool. We didn't see too many winged wonders, but the ones we did see were dazzling in color and teased Jordyn just enough to make her think she could catch them. After a few minutes, I started to get hot and told Arlen I would be waiting in some nearby shade. While he watched Jordyn in her futile attempt to bag a butterfly, I sat down on the forest floor and took out my journal. Those were a wonderful few minutes, ones I wanted to shove into a bottle from which I could sip during my next stressful week. It was bliss. It was ... real.

But sometimes reality bites -- reality, in this case, being a hungry group of mosquitoes that soon had me covered in welts while my companions remained delightfully itch-free. Such are weekends in the woods (Sara)

Jordyn finds her heart's delight in the butterfly garden,

For the love of rustic language.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Backtracking Through History at Blackstone

Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain ... these are the names that come to mind when you think America's national parks. But the U.S. National Park Service encompasses more than just protected wilderness areas, weaving in many areas of historic significance among its vast roster, albeit to much less fanfare outside of the realm of elementary school field trips.

Actually, for anyone interested in the outdoors, history and our country's "greatest idea" as noted filmmaker recently documented, it's certainly nice to have these sites especially here in New England. We're not as spoiled with the great traditional parks as the West, with Acadia National Park (where Sara and I honeymooned, by Bar Harbor, Maine) the closest option.

So I loved the idea of a quick trip down Route 146 to hit a few of the spots that comprise part of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, which runs from Central Massachusetts into Rhode Island. Plus it's also a notch on our Massachusetts state parks and forests tour. Granted, Jordyn's not quite old enough to appreciate the importance of the Blackstone Canal and mill culture on early-to-mid 1800s society, but being able to combine some hiking and history lessons (okay, I'm partial to the latter as an undergraduate history major and trivia buff) doubles the reason to visit.

It was warm and sunny the morning we went to the Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park visitor center (pictured above), so we stayed in the lovely shade along the canal's Towpath Trail for a peaceful walk, where almost everyone we passed exchanged greetings in good spirits. That always puts a smile on my face, as did the abundant wild (and domesticated) animals we spotted: a snake, a beaver, fish, birds, turtles sunbathing on rocks, and dogs on their morning trots.

After our walk we headed south for two more suggested stops on the corridor tour: the Millville Lock and Blackstone Gorge. I took a solo walk in the woods to reach the lock, which is billed as the best preserved one from the era and felt like a nice little transport back in time to see and think about the barges that passed through it. Then we went to the Blackstone Gorge (pictured below) and checked out the impressive falls that drop the tranquil river into the rocks where it swiftly goes on its way, far removed from its time one of the region's chief transportation hubs. (Arlen)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Celebrate National Trails Day!

Well, the hiking has slowed down a bit this month, but Saturday we have a really good excuse to get back onto a trail ... and so does everyone else. It's the annual National Trails Day, courtesy of the American Hiking Society, and there are plenty of events to choose from no matter where you live.

Here in Central Massachusetts we're leaning toward attending the grand opening of a new hiking trail, which I figured would be very apropos for the occasion. It's the Walnut Hill Trail in Southborough, overseen by the Sudbury Valley Trustees.

That leads me into a couple of points/recent discoveries from this continually wonderful experience of the outdoors. For one, I continue to stumble upon cool trails right here in the heart of Worcester, which as Sara pointed out is often overlooked as a major city -- the second largest in New England (yeah, we're looking at you, Providence and Hartford). One of Saturday's events is a roundtrip traverse of the East Side Trail, which winds its way from a city park on "hip" Shrewsbury Street all the way to Lake Quinsigamond ... but at more than 6 miles we'll be skipping that, perhaps saving for a one-way trek another time.

The other nice recent finding is the Trustees of Reservations. Just to add to an already-packed state parks and forest bucket list of destinations, the Trustees oversee a ton of great places in its aim to "preserve, for public use and enjoyment, properties of exceptional scenic, historic, and ecological value in Massachusetts."
That includes cool spots like Doane's Falls and Royalston Falls in Royalston, along the 22-mile Tulley Trail Loop that I'm keenly eyeing. Maybe a solo hike as a birthday present to myself. (Arlen)