Using mud season to plan ahead

New Hampshire’s mud season is here, thanks to a month that has brought days of snow alternating with days of 50 degrees. I went to the forest trails in one of my favorite Concord parks the other day, and I turned around after about a hundred yards. Squishy ground is not ideal for hiking. Turns out hiking isn’t ideal for squishy ground, either. Ask any trail maintainer. I’m switching to pavement for the time being.

Paved bike trail in wooded area, with old brick industrial building in background
March 2022: Nashua River Rail Trail, Dunstable MA. Clear pavement, muddy edges. Ellen Kolb photo.

While I’m putting in the miles on roads and paved trails, I’ll be giving some thought to the maintenance work and spring cleanup that will be going on as the weather gets warmer and the mud dries up. This is a good time for trip planning, too.

I serve on my town’s conservation commission, on a subcommittee dedicated to one of the town’s nature preserves. We’ve been keeping an eye on some areas being taken over by invasive plants that are crowding out native species. In consultation with an expert from the local university’s extension program, we’re coming up with a management plan to tackle the invasives later in the year. Planning now will pay off later.

My favorite local paved trail, the Nashua River Rail Trail, has obviously seen recent work from volunteers who have already made the most of mud season. While the side paths in the woods are still muddy and soft, working on the pavement is easy. Between my last two visits to the northern section of the trail, a crew or crews had been through to clear away fallen branches and pick up trash.

I’m gathering trail information this month for a multi-day hike later in the year on the rail trails in the southwestern part of New Hampshire. I don’t feel quite so stuck during mud season when I know there’s a trip ahead to plan and train for.

Mud season might give you time to learn more about the trails in your area, even if they’re temporarily off limits until things dry up a bit. Is a trail owned or managed by your town? Check with the Parks and Recreation department or the municipal Conservation Commission to find out if there are opportunities for you to volunteer for upcoming events. Are you fond of a certain rail trail? The New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition website contains links to many local trail clubs, each with its own projects and schedule. Don’t dismiss Facebook; it’s still a great way to find groups organized around a specific trail or park. Those Facebook groups are often the best source of information on up-to-date trail conditions and maintenance needs.

Avoiding the trails for another couple of weeks will be good for them. Using the time for planning ahead will be good for me.

A walker’s view of rail trails: video of Granite State Walker’s presentation to NHRTC conference

The New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition biennial conference went virtual this year, and the online environment didn’t get in the way of an informative event. I was invited by fellow NHRTC board members to talk for a few minutes about a walker’s view of the trails, and how even the slowest of users can become an enthusiastic advocate for rail trails. My presentation is now up on Vimeo, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

The Granite State Walker Explores NH Rail Trails-Broadband High.mp4 from NH Rail Trails Coalition on Vimeo.

For all of you who have suffered through videoconference indignities this year, you’ll sympathize with the post-slide-show Q&A here featuring my deer-in-the-headlights reaction to someone’s unintentionally muted mic. Once that problem was solved, our ace moderator kept the questions flowing.

You can find other presentations from the conference at The New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition Vimeo page.

Little things

I love vistas from mountaintops. Sweeping views can take my breath away. They’ll always have their place for me. Even so, I take time to look down as I walk. What’s along the trailside? What’s in bloom this month? What’s that little kid ahead of me exclaiming over, pulling mom or dad aside to see? Little things.

What’s growing

Local history

What’s current

When I parked at Gerrish Depot in Boscawen and walked south along the Northern Rail Trail, I knew I was near a veterans’ cemetery. What I didn’t know is that there was a spur from the trail directly to the cemetery, with a sign that offered an detour to trail users wishing to pay respects. Other trails use signage to inform users about expansion plans, inviting donations to maintain or extend a trail. Sometimes a trailhead kiosk will feature a flyer that tells me about a local festival or program.

Destination hikes – heading to a waterfall, a view from a notch, or a fire tower, for example – are always interesting. I like big payoffs, especially if I’ve had to stagger my way uphill for a few miles. I’ve learned to love my undramatic walks, too. They’ve taught me to look out for the little things.

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.

Simple wooden bridge on forest trail
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.