Patching up

Four years, folks. That’s how long it’s been since I plunged into the Forest Society’s Forest Reservation Challenge. Visit 33 of the Society’s New Hampshire properties & get a patch, they said. Piece of cake, I said.

It took me four years to consume that particular piece of cake, I just got my patch.

Forest Society patch held by Ellen Kolb of New Hampshire
The Granite State Walker meets a challenge.

A few favorites

The project sent me to easy hikes and challenging ones, wetlands and high granite ledges, near home and darn near Canada. A few of the properties made deeper impressions than others.

Christine Lake, Stark, New Hampshire
Christine Lake, Kauffmann Forest, Stark NH
  • Kauffmann Forest, Stark. Christine Lake with its view of Victor Head and the Percy Peaks is a worthy destination in itself.
  • Dame Forest, Durham. When my daughter was a UNH student, I didn’t know this beautiful wetlands jewel was only a few miles away from campus. A long easy trail leads to Great Bay, and shorter trails are available. I had the place to myself for an unhurried visit when I was there a couple of years ago. I’m told that since COVID, it has become much more popular. I recommend a midweek visit.
  • Morse Preserve, Alton, with the summit of Pine Mountain. After seeing the wonderful view of Lake Winnipesaukee from there, and sharing the trail with only three other people, I may never visit Mount Major again.
  • Moose Mountains Reservation, Middleton/Brookfield. The view from Phoebe’s Nable turned my brown-bag lunch into a special event.

That’s not to mention the lime kilns, and the roads with whimsical names like Faraway and Local Ox Team, and autumn on Silver Mountain. Then there are a few spots suffering these days from too-much-love syndrome, and I’ll let you figure those out for yourself.

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Autumn on Silver Mountain, Lempster NH

How I did it

Pre-COVID, I had a job that sent me all over the state for various projects. I fit in Forest Society reservations where I could: a stop in Bethlehem on the way home from business in Littleton, a trail in Sandwich on my way to a presentation in Ossipee. A couple of times, I took one-day road trips with two or three reservations on the itinerary. The Society’s 5 Hikes programs helped me.

Bretzfelder Park, Bethlehem New Hampshire
Bretzfelder Park, a Forest Society property in Bethlehem NH

The Kingsbury-Chippewa property in Haverhill was particularly elusive. I finally got there as my husband and I returned from a weekend upstate, determined to avoid I-93. I said, “There’s this Forest Society reservation over in Haverhill…” and I may have mentioned something about the patch. Actually I’m sure I did. “Let’s go,” said my traveling companion. And so we did.

As is often the case, the journey – in this case journeys – mattered more than the arrival. The arrival took the form of a little embroidered patch. Every time I look at it, I’ll recall one of those journeys, and I’ll be smiling.

Exploring Forest Society properties

The Forest Society has some excellent resources. Check out NH Forest Explorer for a mobile-friendly guide to select reservations. Enjoy the 5 Hikes Challenge, a modified version of the older 5 Hikes in 5 Weeks program. Follow the Forest Society’s Facebook page for videos including virtual field trips to various properties.

A gallery of trail bridges

Everywhere I hike, I benefit from trail builders and maintainers. One of the most important things they do is design, install, and maintain bridges. I’m grateful for those structures, from the deceptively simple-looking bog bridges through soggy areas to the big metal spans replacing broken-down trestles over rivers.

rail trail bridge over Merrimack River in Manchester New Hampshire
The Hands Across the Merrimack bridge, where the Piscataquog Rail Trail crosses the Merrimack River in Manchester NH.

Some of them are lovely. Some are downright homely. A few are used: there’s one metal trail span in my town that was acquired from another municipality where it was no longer needed. There are bridges over rivers and bridges over busy highways.

Erecting a bridge on a trail isn’t a simple matter of saying “let it be so.” Sometimes, wetlands permits are required. Local commissions and even the state Department of Transportation might be involved. For bog bridges, materials need to be hauled in, often some distance from the nearest trailhead. Sometimes it takes a helicopter to lower a span into place. Maintenance is a constant concern, as wood rots and metal corrodes.

Thank you to all the bridge-builders out there!

Here are photos of a few that have helped me get from point A to point B now and then. From your own travels, what are some of your favorites?

Winnipesaukee view

A ten-dollar view for a two-dollar hike: that’s how a way-more-experienced hiker once described an easy scenic hike for me. Not a literal description, of course. The hike was free. The view was out of all proportion to the effort I’d put into getting there.

And so it was on a recent stop in Alton, when I visited the Forest Society’s Morse Preserve as part of the “5 Hikes” program. There’s a patch, you see…but I digress.

Lake Winnipesaukee and Alton Bay, New Hampshire. Photo by Ellen Kolb.
From Pine Mountain, Morse Preserve, Alton NH: Lake Winnipesaukee and Alton Bay. Photos by Ellen Kolb.

Alton’s Pine Mountain

A short uphill hike led me to the modest summit of Pine Mountain, where I was treated to a vista that included Lake Winnipesaukee and summits near and far.

Nearby was Mount Major, Alton’s principal crowd magnet, famed for the views from its summit. I once went there with a friend. The trail was mobbed from top to bottom. The parking lot was overflowing. And that was before COVID. I didn’t even make it to Major’s summit. Not a bad day, but too much company for my hiking taste.

If only I’d known about Morse Preserve then…! On my recent visit, I enjoyed the vista with three other people and a well-behaved dog. Hawks caught thermals overhead. Patchy hints of autumn flared here and there. An interpretive sign from the Forest Society identified the various peaks in the distance. Blueberry bushes were all over the place, resting up after what must have been a bountiful July.

No views to the south, but that’s just nitpicking, and I ought to be ashamed of myself for even mentioning that.

Let the Forest Society’s information be your guide to finding this enchanting place. Anyone interested in the area’s broader trail network should consult Belknap Range Trails.

The Belknap Range offers an extensive trail network.

Gilford

Later the same afternoon, Gilford played Miss Congeniality to Alton’s flashy prizewinner. The entrance to another Forest Society property, Weeks Forest, is located across Route 11-A from Gilford’s municipal government complex. Weeks has a couple of miles of flat trails, lined in September with late-summer wildflowers. It’s a pleasant spot. Getting there requires a nerve-wracking walk, or trot, across 11-A (parking is in the municipal complex lot).

Slender trees forming archway, Weeks Forest, Gilford NH
I entered Weeks Forest through an archway of sorts.

Gilford also has a couple of historical markers. I stalk those like they’re big game. I reward myself with a photo and a brief history lesson at each marker. The day’s catch: something old (a story of how Gilford was named for a North Carolina Revolutionary War battle, if you please) and something relatively new (a tribute to the town’s Outing Club).

Gilford NH Outing Club historical marker. Photo by Ellen Kolb.
The Gilford Outing Club marker sits at the base of what must be a fine sledding hill in winter

Home by the scenic route

I stretched out the afternoon’s road trip as long as I could before surrendering to I-93. A wrong turn sent me down some of Belknap County’s finest dirt roads, which I shared with flocks of turkeys blissfully unaware that hunting season began this week. I took it easy through Belmont and Canterbury on Shaker Road. I deserve a cookie, or at least a pat on the back, for resisting the urge to turn onto a road that leads to Concord’s Oak Hill trails and fire tower.

That’s a hike for another day.

Gifts from August

While a couple of my local recreational areas have been closed due to the too-much-love phenomenon (complicated by the no-sense-of-stewardship phenomenon), I am still getting out for good walks. August started out hot and hazy. It’s going out with hints of fall: fresh breezes, low humidity.

Pack Monadnock

On the one and only hilly hike I tried recently, Pack Monadnock via the Marion Davis Trail, I slipped on a bit of wet ledge and fell on my best-padded feature. I’ll have the bruise for another couple of weeks. It was worth it, just to be back on Pack. Even on a hazy day with a noisy storm approaching – which is what had me zipping downhill too quickly – Pack Monadnock makes for a nice hike.

View of Mount Monadnock from Pack Monadnock with Wapack Trail sign
The view of Monadnock from Pack Monadnock is unimpressive in summer haze. All photos by Ellen Kolb.

Pack Monadnock is in Miller State Park, one of the New Hampshire state parks that is operating under an advance reservation system for parking permits. Yes, COVID restrictions are still with us. I’ve used the reservation system at a few parks since last spring, and after some initial annoyance, I’m OK with it. It rules out spur-of-the-moment trips to certain parks, but there are always other trails to consider.

Close to home

Bench in a forest
The overlook I discovered: peaceful, not flashy.

Closer to home, my favorite nature preserve in town has been a soothing refuge all summer. I recently discovered a little overlook that I somehow hadn’t known about, complete with bench, in a quiet part of the preserve. What does it overlook? A bone-dry stream-bed, that’s what. We’re in a drought. Birches in the preserve have shown their stress by dropping leaves early. The larger ponds and marshes in the preserve are at low water levels, but they’re still full of life.

Dragonfly on log in pond
I sat pondside to watch for herons, and got distracted by the dragonflies.

Beaver Brook, Hollis

I took my own advice and sought out a less-used trailhead at Beaver Brook, where the Jeff Smith Trail meets NH Route 130 in Hollis. I was rewarded with a couple of hours of near-solitude on surprisingly varied trails.

Large maple tree hosting large fungus, mushroom, located in New England
Maple tree hosting the day’s most dramatic-looking fungus

The mixed hardwoods were no surprise. I loved coming across a meadow with an old cellar hole and a stone wall nearby, dead giveaways that there had once been a farm there. My favorite trail turned out to be one that I hadn’t known about before, through a patch of woods dominated by white pines. Pine needles cushioned my every step.

The breeze in the trees there reminded me of growing up in south Florida, where fifty years ago long-needled Australian pines dominated every local park. Those trees were non-native and invasive, but I didn’t know it at the time; they were just normal trees to me. The memory of the sound of the wind through those long needles has stayed with me. The pines in New Hampshire with their shorter needles play a slightly different tune, just as soothing.

Tiny late-summer pink wildflower in New England
Less than an inch wide and only a few inches above ground, this wildflower caught my eye.

Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod tried to get my attention, but a tiny pink wildflower beat them both. I don’t know what it’s called. Perhaps it’s something common, but it was new to me: a gift from August.

Too Much Traffic: When a Park Gets Too Much Love

I’ll start with my conclusion: if the parking lot at your intended trailhead is full, keep driving. Please.

What’s happening in my own town is surely happening elsewhere. A recent online meeting of the conservation commission, normally an under-the-radar board, drew plenty of viewers and plenty of questions (submitted in advance by email). Topic: what’s to be done with Wildcat Falls?

Wildcat Falls is one of the main conservation lands in town with a trail network. It’s along the Souhegan River, not far from where I live. In ordinary times – will I have to say “former times” eventually? – the small parking lot is ample for the number of people who come to walk their dogs, birdwatch, or enjoy sunning themselves by the falls that give the area its name.

Then came the pandemic. The neighboring state of Massachusetts has been hit much harder than New Hampshire, and accordingly has had more restrictions on recreation. So did Massachusetts residents stay home and wait for things to clear up? No, they did not. (And neither would I, in their place.) They headed over the border and discovered some of the little southern New Hampshire parks I’ve been raving about for years.

That has meant a lot more action in Wildcat Falls. Combine our visitors with the locals who already love the place, and Wildcat Falls is being loved to death.

Like many local parks, Wildcat Falls is adjacent to a residential area. The parking lot for the trails is meant to hold maybe a dozen cars, though a few more can squeeze in with creative parking. What happens when the visitor census explodes? The visitors park on the local streets, blocking driveways and fire hydrants, and narrowing the streets to the point where emergency access – say, by a fire engine – could be impossible.

The conservation commission meeting was specially scheduled to give people a forum to vent about the parking, noise, and public health problems created by the additional visitors. No decisions were made that evening. There were plenty of suggestions, though, ranging from “tow the cars” to “close the park.” I’m not sure from what direction a solution will come, but for now, I am avoiding the area and taking my walking shoes elsewhere.

The Forest Society is coping with the too-much-love phenomenon at Mount Major, one of their properties that is extremely popular anytime but has become a major (no pun intended) draw for people whose other recreational options have been limited. Aerial footage of the road leading to the parking lot has made me wince, with cars parked along the road as far as the eye can see.

The Forest Society, blessed with numerous properties statewide, has responded by publicizing some of its less-visited reservations as alternatives to the hot spots. Good solution.

New Hampshire State Parks have resorted to a reservation system for popular spots like Monadnock and Pawtuckaway. It’s a little grating to me have to go online for a parking pass in advance, but not as grating as having the parks closed altogether – which was the situation for awhile.

In larger parks with an extensive trail network, a full lot doesn’t necessarily spill over to local streets, and doesn’t necessarily rule out social distancing on the trails. Little residential parks are different.

I have put serious mileage (for me, anyway) on my walking shoes since COVID-19 began affecting our health and blowing our routines to pieces. Getting outside has been absolutely essential to keeping me on an even keel. I get it: a lot of my neighbors, including my neighbors south of the nearest border, are in the same position.

But, please…when a trailhead parking lot in a residential neighborhood is full, let’s find someplace else to go. Quite aside from public health concerns, the neighbors will be grateful.

Update: in late June, a month after I wrote this post, the Merrimack Town Council voted after lengthy consideration to close the Wildcat Falls conservation area temporarily.

Related: I wrote Keeping It Local with some ideas for finding less-traveled trails in southern New Hampshire.

Keeping It Local

Granite State Walker sprang to life when I realized that the low-key southern New Hampshire paths I loved weren’t getting the attention they deserved. I’ve spent more than a decade now blogging about these little gems close to home. For my readers in the Granite State’s southern tier, itching for recreation as the COVID-19 pandemic turns everything upside down, this might be a good time to review the nearby spots where we can walk and decompress.

Go ahead. Get out there. It’s worth the effort to find an uncrowded place to walk. Aim for solitude instead of isolation (there’s a world of difference). Social distancing is important, and some of us need to stay extremely close to home, but don’t rule out every outdoor option. Remind yourself that it’s spring, even if this seems like a crazy time. The peepers are waiting for you. The pollen may have found you already.

Can’t get out now? Plan for future hikes. The current unpleasantness is temporary.

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Oak Hill Trails, Concord NH

  • What are your favorite spots in your own town? Are the trailhead parking lots full?Maybe there’s a new park to discover nearby. Look up Parks and Rec or Conservation Commission on your city or town website. You may find trail descriptions and maps available for download.  Maybe there’s a newly-acquired property you haven’t heard about yet.
  • Facebook and Instagram can be gold mines of information on current trail conditions. Follow or “like” pages such as Friends of the Goffstown Rail Trail and Londonderry Trailways (to give just two examples). You might find reports that one trail is experiencing too-heavy use on a particular day, while another one five miles away is much quieter.
  • The Forest Society has more than a hundred properties statewide for you to discover. Forget the one on Mount Major, where the parking lot looks like a mall on Black Friday. That still leaves a bunch of beauties, and there’s probably one near you. Website bonus: virtual tours, where you can check out properties online and plan for future hikes.
  • There’s probably a New Hampshire state park near you. There are some access limitations due to COVID-19.
  • This isn’t the time to push any physical limits. First responders have enough to do at the moment without fetching injured hikers.

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Stratham Hill Park, Stratham NH: a guide to what you can see from the observation tower.

Are you avoiding even solo road trips? Join the club. I’m lucky to have a walkable neighborhood: no sidewalks, but no through-roads, either. That’s where I’ve done most of my walking for the past couple of weeks. I find that a daily walk is an absolute necessity, not so much for the physical exercise as for the mental shift.

Bonus for the soul: I’m seeing neighbors I’ve never met, who are also trying to fight the shut-in feeling that comes with these days. We observe social-distance protocols. The six-foot rule does not bar smiles and greetings.

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Mbari House by Geoffery Nwogu, one of many sculptures along the trails at the Andres Institute of Art, Brookline NH. 

I love the free Map My Walk app on my phone, which faithfully keeps track of my route and distance whether I’m going around the block or up to the Canadian border. I’m seeing how many miles I can rack up doing loops on my neighborhood’s streets. Maybe you like to leave watches and phones at home while you’re out, and that’s fine, too.

Traditional school’s out, gyms are shut, businesses are closed, paychecks may or may not be forthcoming, and #stayhome is trending. My walks are a refuge from all that. 

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Madame Sherri Forest, Chesterfield NH