Subtly Spring

“Show me some spring pictures,” a reader recently asked me. He was looking for budding trees and fresh green growth. Perhaps I can oblige him in another week or so. For now, the signs of spring are subtler.

It’s mud season, but the trails at Horse Hill Nature Preserve in Merrimack were in remarkably good shape the other day. The herons were back on Lastowka Pond, croaking and courting. I could see that the beavers had been busy along the shoreline, taking down a big tree that barely missed a bench as it fell. Deeper into the woods, I smelled freshly-cut lumber on a refurbished bog bridge.

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Early-season work by trail maintainers: a refurbished bridge. Photos by Ellen Kolb.
Trees with beaver damage
The beavers are in town: this pair of trees had been untouched a week earlier.

On a recent walk through Mine Falls Park in Nashua, I looked for swans in the cove but found none. Some years, there’s a pair that bullies the park’s Canada geese into the cove’s farther reaches. The geese are safe for now. I was glad to see blackbirds amid the reeds that edge the cove; I missed them in winter.

Blackbird amid reeds
Blackbird, nearly hidden in reeds

Business took me to Loudon recently, and I added a couple of hours to the trip so I could visit nearby Belmont and discover the Winni Trail, a paved rail trail along Lake Winnisquam. That was one of my better detours.

Winni trail logo, Belmont NH

I had the advantage of a fine sunny day, with cool air and miles of visibility. A stretch of trail went through the woods, with lake and rail line out of sight, and then broke into the open to hug the shore alongside the rails. Good thing someone thought to set up a few benches along the way; the views are definitely worth stopping for.

Lake Winnisquam, Belmont, New Hampshire, from rail trail
Seen from the Winni Trail: a railroad signal mast, Lake Winnisquam, and the hills of the Lakes Region.

It was my first experience with rail-with-trail, where a trail shares the right-of-way with an active rail line. That particular line is owned by the state of New Hampshire, not by a rail corporation, and I suppose that might have simplified development of the trail.

The shared right-of-way continues into Laconia on the WOW Trail (for Lakes Winnisquam, Opechee, and Winnipesaukee). Someday, with a lot of cooperation and investment and volunteer work, there could be a continuous recreational rail trail linking WOW in Laconia with the Winnipesaukee River Trail in Tilton via the Winni Trail in Belmont. That’s a project to cheer for, if Belmont’s trail is indicative of what’s ahead.

Winni trail, rail trail in Belmont New Hampshire, in early spring.
Early spring on the Winni Trail

On just-right snow

I’ve been a Granite Stater for a few decades now, but I grew up in Florida. “Snow” to a Floridian is all alike, just cold white stuff that falls from the sky, ideally several states away. My first few New Hampshire winters were a revelation: powder, heavy slush, the dreaded “icy mix,” thawed-and-refrozen, and so on. I’ve learned to appreciate the variations that give each winter day its own personality.

Even for a onetime Florida girl, winter has its moments. A sunny day on packed powder, for example, is as wonderful for a walker as for any skier. A recent Saturday on the Nashua River Rail Trail was as good as it gets.

Nashua River Rail Trail in winter
Nashua River Rail Trail at New Hampshire/Massachusetts state line. Ellen Kolb photo.

Snow on several bitterly-cold days had piled up powder along the trail. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the NRRT, and there’s no snow grooming, so users had to make their own paths. By the time I got to the trail, a few informal lanes had already formed. Cross-country ski tracks were evident, as was a packed-down lane suitable for walkers wearing snowshoes or cleats. There was plenty of untracked snow for snowshoers wanting to get a workout. Best of all, while the trail had obviously seen traffic before I arrived, hardly anyone was out there during my walk.

I’ve been on NRRT in every season. It’s shaded in the summer, colorful in the fall, and adorned with a succession of flowers from mud season until hard frost. It’s popular on summer weekends, when segments of it are as crowded as a carnival midway. Winter is its quiet time.

I drank in the quiet the other day. The prop plane from the nearby skydiving school was in its hangar; no one was mowing a lawn; the crowds were home awaiting warmer days. Snow covered the pavement, muted every sound, and concealed the ground where bluets and columbines will bloom a few months from now. I spent two hours on the trail and wished I could have spent two more.

Since that visit, I’ve seen winter’s messier side. The snow’s now crusted with ice. A few thaw-refreeze cycles in the coming days will leave roads looking much better than trails to me. That’s fine – but when the powder falls again, I’ll be ditching work for a few hours.

Nashua River Rail Trail in Dunstable Massachusetts
On Nashua River Rail Trail, Dunstable, Massachusetts. Ellen Kolb photo.

Easing into the year

I wrote last October about a layered trail: ice, mud, and leaves underfoot. That’s pretty much what I’ve found in January in southern New Hampshire, minus the leaves. Things are pleasantly messy, as long as I have some traction on my shoes. Yes, even for the flat paths: slipping on an icy flat trail in Mine Falls Park left me with a concussion a few years ago. That’s one winter adventure I don’t care to repeat.

I was in Sandown the other day, sharing a trail with some polite ATVers. The trail wasn’t so much layered as patchy: ice here, slush there, frozen tire tracks in the shade, and lots of mud down the middle. I accidentally hit on the best time of day to be a walker there: mid-afternoon, after most of the ATVers had finished for the day. Not every multi-use trail works out so well for me.

Not every trail gives me town line markers. I like it when the markers agree with my GPS.

A short drive north: the Northern Rail Trail follows the Merrimack River in Boscawen and part of Franklin. On New Year’s Day there, I was surprised to see what I’m certain was an osprey. I thought for sure they’d all have headed south long before. An unexpected sighting like that is always a treat. I was too slow to get a photo. I have many miles yet to discover along this trail, which is one of the most popular in central New Hampshire. I’ve walked on each end, so to speak – Lebanon and Enfield at one end, Boscawen at the other – and there are about 40 more miles to go. I could bike it in the summer or fall, but somehow I think that’s taking the easy way out.

Norhern Rail Trail New Hampshire with signs for two snowmobile clubs
Where the work of one snowmobile club ends, another’s begins.

While we’re on the subject of walking in January, let’s thank the snowmobile clubs that groom so many of the trails I enjoy. It’s not all snow grooming: when a club takes responsibility for a trail, the members also do things like clear away deadfall and make sure the trail’s full width gets attention.

I haven’t neglected my town’s conservation areas. I spent a brisk hour on a big loop route starting in Grater Woods, connecting with an adjacent neighborhood with which I was unfamiliar, returning on busy Baboosic Lake Road. I’m not a fan of being a pedestrian on one of our town roads with little shoulder and no sidewalk, but sometimes that’s where a path takes me. As for Horse Hill, I’ve never had a bad day there. No matter how many cars are in the parking lot, the trail network is extensive enough to keep us out of each other’s way.

Do you have resolutions about walks you want to take this year? I always start the year with a list of destinations, more for inspiration than anything else. I don’t want to waste time wondering where to go, if I find myself with a free afternoon. I just dip into The List, which I admit is heavy on rail trails. I also keep a map of New Hampshire on my wall, with outlines of each town, and after I walk in a new town I color in its spot on the map. I get a silly amount of satisfaction out of that little visual record.

Monadnock Region Sampler

A summer Saturday, great weather, and no schedule to keep: this is as good as July gets.

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The blossoms that give Rhododendron State Park its name.

I’ve never managed to get to Rhododendron State Park in Fitzwilliam, NH during peak bloom time, which is supposed to be mid-July, give-or-take. Even so, I’ve never had a disappointing trip there. The rhododendron grove is shady and cool, with or without blooms.

I skipped the trail leading from the grove to Little Monadnock Mountain. Instead, after  a walk around the grove, I left the park via Rockwood Road to connect with the Cheshire Rail Trail at Rockwood Pond a little over a mile away.

Rockwood Road

Where the Rhododendron State Park sign points left, Rockwood Road goes right.

Rockwood Road is unpaved but well-maintained, at least in midsummer. I walked the first half-mile with only a barred owl and a few tiger swallowtails for company, which suited me. Beyond that, as I approached the pond, I passed a few houses and was passed by a few very polite drivers.

Last time I saw Rockwood Pond was on a foggy autumn weekday without another soul in sight. This time, there were picnickers at the shore and canoeists on the water. Not much traffic on the rail trail, though. In fact, the only other pedestrians I saw were in the grove at the park. Grove, road, and trail together made a great walking route for me. Bug repellent was useful.

 

Rockwood Pond

Rockwood Pond, Fitzwilliam, NH

A map of the area suggests to me a longer loop hike for some other day: from the trailhead in Rhododendron State Park, go uphill to Little Monadnock; follow the Metacomet-Monadnock trail northward into Troy; turn south on the Cheshire Rail Trail; then turn right (south-southwest) on Rockwood Road to return to the park.

But no long hike for me today. Instead, after my walk I drove to discover a couple of places that were new to me (even though they’re apparently very well known by the rest of the world).

  • I am now a very big fan of Monadnock Berries in Troy, where I picked about three pounds of scrumptious blueberries while enjoying a prime view of Mount Monadnock.
  • The Kimball Farm ice cream stand in Jaffrey was crowded, and I could have done without the smell of fried seafood being served a few windows over. But those are just quibbles. My ice cream cone, allegedly a “mini” portion (but don’t you believe it), was perfect.

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Monadnock and blueberries: a great combination. Photos by Ellen Kolb.

 

Visits to Nashua River Rail Trail

Look back over this blog’s decade of posts and one place gets mentioned in all seasons: the Nashua River Rail Trail. It extends 12 miles between Nashua, New Hampshire and Ayer, Massachusetts.

I’ve biked it and walked it, and if I were so inclined I could skate on it or ride a horse. (Neither is likely.) I love marking the seasons. I like the sound of the skydiving plane overhead and the sight of the colorful chutes as the skydivers make their jumps. I like seeing what’s being planted at the farm in Dunstable. I am enchanted anew each time I see the soda machine that a trail-abutting family has set up. I LOVE the ice cream stand by the trail in East Pepperell.

There are no bad seasons here.

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Summer drive: Benson’s etc.

Hot day, feeling sluggish, mulling over a list of places to go: I finally just got in the car and started driving. Cue George Harrison’s Any Road.

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Along the Haselton Farms trail in Benson Park

Zipping through Rt. 111 in Hudson enroute to yet another Forest Society property (I’ll get that patch if it kills me), I realized that I was near Benson Park. I hadn’t been on the property in years – since it was Benson’s Wild Animal Farm, in fact. I made a quick detour, found the park, and walked a good three miles on its trails and paths. The trails I chose weren’t crowded, even with a couple of Pokémon Go groups intent on doing whatever it is they do.

Download a trail map before you go. I settled for taking a photo of the map at a kiosk on site. Kids, don’t try this at home; batteries are fickle friends.

The history of the property is available on the Town of Hudson web site. Indulge me as I recount a grossly oversimplified version:  once upon a time in the town of Hudson, New Hampshire, there was an amusement park called Benson’s Wild Animal Farm. We Of A Certain Age can recall bringing our families there once a year for the annual Sanders company outing, back when Hudson seemed to me way-the-heck-out-there.

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Several small gardens in Benson Park can serve as shady spots for lunch.

(I have since walked to the Canadian border, where I adjusted my notions of what in New Hampshire constitutes way-the-heck-out-there.)

The Finer Minds at the state capital decided that a Circumferential Highway would ease all of Nashua’s traffic problems. (I hear you tittering over there in the back.) The Benson’s property was bought up by the state to mitigate the expected loss of wetlands for the highway project. Years passed, and the Circumferential Highway project quietly expired, leaving only exit 2 off the Everett Turnpike to remember it by. Eventually, the Finer Minds released the Benson’s property to the town of Hudson.

More years passed, many people put enormous efforts into rehabilitating the property, and Benson’s Park is now a Hudson jewel with a playground, dog park, memorials, and a trail network. The longest single trail, Haselton Farm, is about two and a half miles long; many shorter ones allow for extended hikes.

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Not your typical trail feature.

On the Haselton Farm trail, some of the pavement remains from the Wild Animal Farm days, and the occasional sewer-access cover along the way serves as a reminder that this used to be a more developed area. On this 90-degree summer day, the trail was wonderfully shady, and a light breeze made bug repellent unnecessary.

This was the best spur-of-the-moment stop I’ve made in a long time. It’s great fun to find a place like this fairly close to home. I’ll be back.

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9/11 memorial at Benson Park, featuring a beam from the World Trade Center.

 

I left Benson’s and stopped at the Bockes Memorial Forest just a few miles away before hunting down a pair of historical markers in Salem and Hampstead. Only short walks at each of these stops.

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Last stop was at an old friend of a place, the rail trail near Lake Massabesic in Manchester and Auburn, where I found everything I needed: shade and breeze and views of the lake.

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Lake Massabesic 

May you enjoy some shady hikes of your own this summer!