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.

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.

Picking it up

Picking up litter is such a little thing, and I’ve really appreciated that act this year. Increased trail usage in my area has meant more trash on the trails, as people unused to using public lands haven’t yet developed good habits.

Does that sound patronizing? It’s kinder than my gut reaction, which is that people sometimes behave like jerks. Not a neighborly thing for me to think.

At any rate, I see folks rising to the challenge and picking up the trash. Some do so individually. (I keep a trash bag in my pack when I’m out and about, so I have one less excuse for passing by a dropped can.) Some people form or join crews, with the single purpose of cleaning up after thoughtless hikers.

woman picking up trash
Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay
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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?

Clean-up Crews

It’s only February, but my local parks and rec department has an eye on Earth Day in April. Signups for an EarthDay Park Clean-Up are open. Look for a similar event in your own neighborhood, via Facebook or your town’s web site on the parks-and-recreation page.

I call dibs on Horse Hill.

There’s never a wrong time of year for park and trail maintenance, but events like this one are as much a town-wide celebration as a work party. It’ll be a good day.

Front-Page Coverage for a Trail Adopter

I had a big smile on my face over breakfast today, reading this story from the New Hampshire Union Leader. This front-page feature fills in the story of a man I’ve encountered many times on the Piscataquog trail in Manchester. He’s a quiet, diligent trail adopter who didn’t wait to be asked before he started taking care of things.

https://www.unionleader.com/voices/city_matters/mark-hayward-s-city-matters-clearing-a-path-in-the/article_50284c96-1e10-5d66-8c98-b1341bd1a5ad.html