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.

Hike Safe card: not just for mountain hikers

For my New Hampshire readers, here’s a plea from me: if you haven’t purchased a Hike Safe card for 2023, please do so now. Even if you’re sure you’ll never need to be rescued, buy one anyway. It will be a small way of supporting the state’s Search and Rescue fund. Sadly, demands on the fund never let up.

TL;DR: Take out a credit card, go online to the New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Hike Safe page, and plunk down $25 for a virtual card covering an individual, $35 for a family. If a Hike Safe cardholder needs to be rescued in the course of an outdoor activity, she or he will not in most cases be assessed for the cost of the rescue. Just get the card. Don’t wait.

I write this as I hear news about a hiker who perished upstate while attempting a solo hike on a mountain ridge in winter weather. A few weeks ago, another hiker lost her life in the same area. Rescue attempts, which became recovery missions, involved professional conservation officers from New Hampshire Fish and Game plus many volunteers.

Those same volunteers and first responders would come out even if the trail were less challenging. They don’t write off any of us. Missing hikers, once reported overdue by family or friends, spark a search-and-rescue mission.

I know from experience that hikes can go awry even in good weather on heavily-traveled trails. (A particularly embarrassing day on Monadnock comes to mind.) While I haven’t yet inspired any rescue missions, I’m uncomfortably aware that this could change anytime. I carry simple essentials even for short hikes, but even so, bad stuff happens now and then.

Ninety percent of my trail miles are on flat trails within an hour of my home. I buy a Hike Safe card every year anyway. It’s cheap insurance against being assessed some hefty costs arising from my own negligence. More importantly, the card lets me as a hiker contribute to the readiness of search-and-rescue teams.

Hunters, anglers, and anyone registering a boat, OHRV, or snowmobile already contribute to the Search and Rescue fund as part of their license and registration fees. Hikers don’t need a license. We can pull our weight, so to speak, by purchasing the Hike Safe card.

A pair of enduring favorites

The Granite State Walker blog is now sixteen years old! This modest landmark prompted me to look back and see which posts have drawn the most viewers – and I hope inspired as many hikes – during that time.

Two destinations finished way out in front: Mount Kearsarge with its trailheads in Warner and Wilmot, and Oak Hill in Concord. Each has prompted several posts from me, and even the older posts keep finding an audience.

I’m not surprised. Each of those locations has a fire tower, which can be an irresistible draw. Each one offers multiple trails. Easy access is another advantage: the south side of Kearsarge, via Rollins State Park, is only a few minutes’ drive from I-89. Oak Hill is close to I-93, and in fact is only a 12-minute drive from the State House (I checked).

The auto road through Rollins State Park ends at a picnic area a half-mile from the Kearsarge summit, which is a short hike for day trippers. (Don’t be lulled into carelessness by the short distance; plan ahead and wear appropriate footwear.) When the auto road is closed to vehicular traffic, usually November through May, it’s still accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, and one needn’t get to the summit to find fine views along the way. Winslow State Park on the north side of Kearsarge offers a longer hike.

The Oak Hill trails are managed by the city of Concord, which has a surprising number of parks and trails for a city its size. The trail to the fire tower meanders uphill for about two forested miles to the Concord-Loudon town line. Shorter trails lead to pleasant vistas, including a western prospect that looks out toward – you guessed it – Mt. Kearsarge.

In sixteen years as the Granite State Walker, I haven’t run out of good places to explore south of the White Mountains. New trails are ahead, I know. But it’s good to have some old favorites to which we can return now and then. Kearsarge and Oak Hill are two of the best.

Follow the leaders

I like walking and hiking solo. Peace, quiet, my own pace. But sometimes a guided hike is a good thing. I have a lot to learn about the things I see. One way I try to expand my horizons is by participating in some of the guided hikes offered by the Forest Society throughout the year. The latest one was at the Society’s McCabe Forest in Antrim.

I found McCabe Forest a couple of years ago during a Society program. It was summertime, and the insects were out in force. Now, it’s autumn, the golden time, pre-ice and post-bugs. Forest trails are in style.

The Contoocook River edges the property. The river is lazy and low this time of year, but there’s evidence of how high it can get in periods of heavy rain. I thought about how often I’ve seen the Contoocook during my travels: I’ve hiked along the rail trail in Rindge and Jaffrey that follows the river from its source. I’ve walked the Peterborough Common Path in wintertime with the river beside me. I’ve seen it as I’ve explored Mast State Forest in Concord, just a few miles from where the river flows into the Merrimack.

River and forest, autumn, New Hampshire
Contoocook River, Antrim NH. Photos by Ellen Kolb.

I long ago abandoned the silly notion that if you’ve seen one forest trail, you’ve seen them all. Even a single trail can fascinate me with its changes from one season to the next. Accompanying someone familiar with a property can help me sharpen my powers of observation. How could I walk right by a mahogany-colored mushroom of majestic dimensions? I would have, without a guide. It would have been just a random thing blending in with the fallen leaves.

Fungi on the forest floor, dwarfing the leaves

People living in a house at one edge of the property enjoy a view that many of us might envy, with no sign of where the backyard ends and the Forest Society land begins. The “border,” such as it is, is figuratively afire with a very attractive shrub that is unfortunately an invasive nuisance. Burning bush is an apt name for it, with leaves whose color stands out from everything around them. Originally imported as an ornamental, burning bush has escaped garden plots all over the state and now crowds out native plants. In fact, it’s now a prohibited species in New Hampshire, so don’t try to buy it. In my own town, it’s one of several hard-to-control invasives on our Conservation Commission properties.

Burning bush, a invasive ornamental plant
Burning bush, attractive but invasive

These Forest Society hikes feature informal lessons on natural history, geology, and the people who have lived in the area. (If you’re ever on a Society hike with Dave Anderson, settle in for some good storytelling.) Also, it’s fun to meet people who share an interest in New Hampshire’s natural beauty. Keep the Forest Society in mind if you’re looking for guided-hike ideas. You’re bound to come across something interesting.