Manchester program invites exploration

It’s been a fine spring here in southern New Hampshire, even with the usual allergies kicked up by all the pollen in the air. I’ve been visiting familiar trails, a couple of new ones, and one that I haven’t visited in a long time. I’ll post some photos and comments in due course. But in last weekend’s Sunday News, I came across something I want to share right away. It just might be something that lets a city-bound Manchester reader discover new places.

Check out Transit to Trails, a project of Manchester Transit in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy and several other organizations. On the first Saturday of each month from June to October, buses will run between 775 Elm Street in Manchester (Veteran’s Park) and an outdoor destination within a half-hour’s ride away. The program is free to riders, and it even includes admission to the state parks that are part of the program. This is a first-come-first-serve program. Find details at

On June 3 and October 7, the destination will be Pawtuckaway State Park, with its fire tower, lake, and miles of trails. July 1 will be dedicated to Manchester parks and a farmer’s market. The August 5 trip will be to Bear Brook State Park, which like Pawtuckaway offers a variety of activities and plenty of trails. On September 2, the destination will be the New Hampshire Audubon Massabesic Center on the south side of Lake Massabesic.

I don’t know of any other way to find car-free and cost-free access to Pawtuckaway, Bear Brook, and the Massabesic Center. This sounds like an amazing program for Manchester residents.

glacial erratic boulder in Pawtuckaway State Park, New Hampshire
Glacial erratics are found throughout Pawtuckaway State Park. Backpack placed at base for scale. Ellen Kolb photo.

Goal: finish that Rail Trail Challenge

I have had a grand time the last couple of years with the Rail Trail Challenge, encouraged by the New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition of which I’m a board member. Explore all of New Hampshire’s rail trails, get a patch. I am ridiculously motivated at the prospect of hanging that patch on my wall alongside my hard-earned patch from the Forest Society’s Reservation Challenge.

The end is in sight, as I glare balefully at my trail list with a great big blank next to “Ashuelot Rail Trail.” That trail has been sitting on the list, mocking me. I don’t get out to Cheshire County very often. Last time I did, I got a brief taste of the Ashuelot trail’s northern end, with its convenient parking area off Krif Road near Keene State College’s athletic fields. My visit was much too short to be classified as “exploration.” No fair checking off a 20-mile trail after a four-mile sampling.

This is the year. I’ll start very shortly by spending a day in Winchester, savoring the southern end of the trail. The drive out that way will be something to savor as well. Grand Monadnock and the humbler hills nearby are always sights to soothe the soul.

Don’t judge me too harshly for following a checklist. The one for the Rail Trail Challenge is pure fun. It has introduced me to trails I would never have known about otherwise. Not a mile has been wasted, and that includes the miles I have traveled getting to the trailheads – and isn’t that always the case for good hikes anywhere?

bench along trail overlooking lake
Goffstown Rail Trail overlooking Namaske Lake. Ellen Kolb photo.

Meanwhile, closer to home…

Regarding rail trails closer to home, I’ve been on a few old favorites this spring. The Nashua River Rail Trail, for one: I’m delighted to see that the NRRT is getting some long-overdue maintenance on its Massachusetts side. The volunteers who maintain NRRT do a great job, but sometimes the paved trail needs intensive work that only the state Department of Conservation and Recreation can provide. Nice to see this well-loved path getting what it needs.

The Rockingham Recreational Trail had some serious ruts in it during mud season. I can understand the cyclists’ impatience, although I know the trail takes a big hit from its users’ early-spring exuberance. As the trail has dried out, the surface has been more forgiving. I’ve enjoyed the Auburn section of trail this April. A bonus the last time I was there was the sight of a loon on Lake Massabesic. I’ve seen plenty of gulls near the parking area by the lake, but the loon was a rare treat.

The Goffstown Rail Trail was in good shape when I walked a few miles on it recently. Winter deadfall has been moved aside, and last fall’s broken glass left behind by careless users has been cleaned up. The Friends group for the trail stays on top of things. Near the west end of Namaske Lake – actually part of the Piscataquog River, behind the dam near the Manchester city line – there’s a new bench on the trail, facing the lake. It’s a pleasant place to stop for a few minutes.

I haven’t sworn off hilly hikes. Sometimes I need to get out on a ledge to find a good vista. The rail trails have kept me busy, though, and I don’t regret that one bit.

Cusp of spring

My favorite garden center opened for the season yesterday. I picked up one pot each of forced narcissus and hyacinths to put in my front window. No reason, really, except that I want something colorful to look at while the hickory and elm trees outside are still looking drab.

A few more weeks and the drab of winter will be past. Buds are swelling. I walked in Concord today on a trail along the Merrimack River. Around me were bare shrubs, bare trees, and fields of corn stubble. But something further away caught my eye: an island in the middle of the meandering river, with trees adorned with cloud-like pale-red streaks. Maples, of course, flowering earlier than all the other trees. Delightful.

Early April, Merrimack River: looks like spring is coaxing the maples along. Ellen Kolb photo.

The trail was in good shape, with very little mud. That’s not the case everywhere in southern New Hampshire, and mud season makes it challenging for me to pick good places to walk. The bugs aren’t out in force yet, though, which is a plus.

Soon I won’t have to look past my yard for flowering trees and unfolding leaves. That means my spring allergies will soon flare up. Worth it, though.

For now, I like being on the cusp of spring. The tom turkeys in my neighborhood are mightily displaying their plumage in an attempt to impress the hens. My neighbor on the sunnier side of the street is tending to the gorgeous little patch of crocuses blooming in her yard. The herons are back at their rookery. And of course the peepers are out now – the tiny tree frogs whose springtime call sounds like a chorus of little bells.

Turkeys at sunset

I seldom take sunset walks these days. Fresh into Daylight Savings Time, though, I find myself with daylight to work with even after I’m through with the dinner dishes. The lingering light lured me outside yesterday, long enough for a round-the-block stroll. I was well-rewarded: I saw and heard the local turkeys as they called it a day.

We share our suburban development with a flock of wild turkeys. My neighbors and I are accustomed to seeing them a few at a time in our yards throughout the year, patiently gobbling up spilled seed beneath bird feeders or checking out freshly-turned soil in our gardens. The flock has grown over the past several years, and I counted 57 turkeys a few weeks ago, pecking and scratching under nearby power lines for whatever food they could find. They’re habituated to us, but still wild.

Wild turkeys flocking together, late winter. Ellen Kolb photo.

I’m used to hearing gobbling and clucking, along with the occasional thumping whoosh as a turkey takes ungainly flight, usually at just the right altitude to match the grille of an oncoming car. On my recent sunset walk, I heard that whoosh, then another and another. Soon I came upon the cleared space under the power lines, and there they were: dozens of turkeys, taking flight one at a time, not to torment motorists but to head into the nearby pines to roost.

I’d never seen a flock at sunset. I stood fascinated, watching them ascend to their chosen spots. There were a few kerfuffles as some of the roosting birds objected to having their space invaded by later arrivals, but there was ample room in the stand of trees for all of them. Soon the clucking subsided to softer sounds, and the whooshes came to an end.

The timing was none of my doing. I just got lucky. Pretty good stuff, for a spur-of-the-moment walk.

male wild turkey displaying feathers
Male wild turkey, posing for his portrait. Ellen Kolb photo.

According to New Hampshire Fish and Game, wild turkeys were successfully re-introduced into New Hampshire in the 1970s, after more than a hundred years of absence due to habitat loss and overhunting. Since then, the turkeys have been thriving. Too thriving, it sometimes seems: I think every driver in the state has at one time or another had to stop for a bunch of turkeys crossing a road, always one bird at a time, moving at an infuriatingly leisurely pace.

I’ve grown a bit more patient with the big fowls as they’ve moved into the neighborhood. I’ve seen them throughout the year, courting and squabbling and caring for their young. Without meaning to, I’ve picked up a bit about the rhythm of their lives. They’re remarkable, even if they do act as though they own the roads.

The well-read hiker

As I write this, a brief but vicious cold snap is dominating the local weather. It’s an evening for reading amid quilts and hot drinks. I want to share a couple of gems that fellow walkers might enjoy.

If you’re not following the one-of-a-kind blog New Hampshire Garden Solutions, click over to it this minute (yes, this one). The photography alone will make your day, but the writing certainly holds its own. Don’t let the blog’s title fool you; I think the site might have grown away from its author’s original intent, as blogs are wont to do. These posts are the record of the ramblings of a southwestern New Hampshire hiker armed with a macro-lens camera, a keen eye for detail, and a love for botany. In almost every post, I learn the name of one or another plant I’ve seen but never been able to identify. On a day like this, when I’ve let the weather get the better of me, New Hampshire Garden Solutions helps me look forward to future Granite State hikes.

One of my goals for 2023 is to walk the full distance of the Ashuelot Rail Trail, which is right smack in the middle of that blog’s territory. I’ll probably use the blog to create a list of things to look out for along the way.

I sometimes think (wrongly) that I’ve read every book published in English about walking, trekking, and hiking. For walking – just plain walking – it’s tough to find anything fresh that’s longer than a magazine article. A casual visit to my local library’s New Books shelf turned up a pleasant surprise: 52 Ways to Walk by Annabel Streets. As the number in the title suggests, there’s an idea or recommendation for each week in the year. The subtitle is “the surprising science of walking for wellness and joy, one week at a time.” Ms. Streets does not believe in being held back by weather, even the kind that has me hunkered down at the moment with a mug of hot chocolate. I’m only a few “weeks” into the book, but I can already tell that I just might get carried away by the author’s enthusiasm….once the outside temp moves above zero once again.

Enjoy the reading, and stay safe as winter serves up its worst. The trails will still be there for us later.

Teamwork makes solo walks possible

I was on the Nashua River Rail Trail for a few miles this weekend. I couldn’t help noticing freshly-cut logs and branches along both sides, thanks to volunteers I’ll probably never meet. Breezes and recent heavy wet snow had brought down trees all over the place. On the northernmost stretch of NRRT, the mess is cleared. All I had to toss aside were a few small branches.

Nashua River Rail Trail: winter winds brought down a tree, and volunteers cleared away the mess. Fence-mending will wait.

Not so upstate at one of New Hampshire’s largest ski areas which I recently visited. It’s one of the few ski areas in the state with a decent system of trails for Nordic skiers and snowshoers. While the resort’s management is understandably focused on the downhill ski trade (that’s where the money is), there’s not enough staff to keep the snowshoe/fat bike trails cleared, at least not yet this season.

I’ve kept an eye on websites reporting on New Hampshire rail trail conditions. Many of the rail trails are much longer than NRRT and have that much more of a mess to clean up. Enter the snowmobile clubs: I’m aware of two in particular in the southwestern part of the state that put out calls for volunteers for workdays this weekend. I’m sure that snowmobile clubs all over the state are doing the same thing, as pretty much every region got hit by storms over the couple of weeks.

Those clubs are doing work that will make walks much easier for me year-round, not just in winter. Grooming snow, clearing deadfall, and mowing grass take time and equipment and volunteers. I like walking alone, but some of the most enjoyable trails I know wouldn’t be accessible or pleasant without the work of many people. My solo walks benefit from teamwork.

Want to say thanks to the snowmobile clubs? Send a donation, even if you’re not a member. Include a note saying that you’re a grateful hiker. The New Hampshire State Parks website provides a list of clubs, and you can look up a club’s social media accounts (usually updated much more frequently than websites) to find contact information and to keep track of opportunities to volunteer for trail work.

My winter walks thus far have mostly been close to home, in neighborhoods and municipal parks. Those routes could use post-storm help, too. Your town’s parks and rec department or conservation commission might put out a call for volunteers on specific cleanup projects. Be on the lookout for such announcements.

And if you happen to come across some folks doing trail maintenance while you’re out and about, stop to say thanks.