Tuesday, June 30, 2015

NH: June 22 Trip Log: Lovern's Mill Natural Area, NH

The North Branch of the Contoocook River is loud, frothy, and crystal clear.

On a morning when I didn't need to rush in to my grad school class, I took a few hours and revisited a favorite place of mine I used to visit frequently when I lived nearby. Surrounded by forest reserves and easements is the Nature Conservancy's Loverns Mill Cedar Swamp Preserve Natural Area just ten miles from the Eppig place.

Atlantic White Cedar.

An old woods road follows the North Branch of the Contoocook River for a short while, past tumbling falls and drops. A very busy barrel and cable reel mill  (powered by an overshot waterwheel) once stood where the gradient is steepest, but now only the remains of a blown out stone dam stands off the east bank. The original 1798 Revolutionary-era  mill long gone from this site was the first industry built on this wild, whitewater river by Sam Dinsmore, a Revolutionary war veteran from County Antrim, Ireland. Nothing of any of the several mills that followed it are found here now.  All of it has reverted to wildlands. All of it protected by both the Nature Conservancy and for miles around by private land owners.

Bunchberry in flower.

The road soon intersects with the three mile loop Lovern's Mill Trail. This trail begged to be walked slowly to listen to birdsong, explore along the boardwalk, and to sit on the river bluff that overlooks the freshwater marshes. I'm glad I took the time because I did not get another opportunity for the rest of the week before or after class to take some time to myself. 

Cinnamon Fern. 

Northeasterners have a special relationship with their forests and private forest owners especially are critically important to conservation planning of the region. New England was once fully engaged in agriculture and when the great forests had been logged and the land cleared, hill farms spanned the landscape in a patchwork of walled-off pastures and fields.  Farm abandonment began after the Civil War and slowly the forests began to return. So did the forest industries. By the 1990s land owners recognized the economic as well as the natural value of their properties and they consulted with land trusts to balance stewardship of working landscapes. Most of the forest preserve lands of NH today are privately held.

A living wall of granite. 

All along the trail huge rounded boulders towered over me and the trail wove in and out of dark passages through them. In the half light, lichens and mosses covered their flanks in thick carpets of green, grey, and dusty blue, living walls of granite. A recent study of lichen biodiversity revealed that here on the rim of the cold bowl of high altitude swamplands, these living boulders hold thousands of years of growth. Pollen studies of the swamp core soils at the center of the bowl indicate that this environment has been intact for over 4,000 years and that the northern white cedar have been growing here at least as long. The oldest trees are known be about 150. It's a rare environment, however, and less that 500 acres of northern white cedar swamp remain in the whole state. This protected area is only about 50 acres in size, protected all around by private lands under easement, logging company reserves, and Nature Conservancy ownership. The complex arrangement of protection between state, private, and non-profit easements is impressive.

As I made my way down the boardwalk practically sunk in the high water that collected after a day of heavy rain, I watched clouds of damselflies in their mating flights. The males floated like ebony- blue fairies over the grass beds where the females laid their eggs on stems. A yellow warbler sang from a tamarack overhead and the northern white cedar trunks glowed in the low morning sun. Mosquitoes rose from the moss like mist. Dragonflies darted crazily around scooping them up as they flew slowly, still cold from the dawn hours.

The boardwalk in.

 I can imagine the superstition and fear of the early settlers who dared explore the dark, buggy world of the swamps. It is a strange relationship some people continue to have with the dark, wet, woods and find no solace in a world where insects claim dominion. In this world of bugs. I founnd it a bit like time travel looking back into the Devonian. I leaned against a young cedar tree and it tilted slightly with my weight pressing into it, anchored as it was to the boggy bottom and not the rocky rim. Butterflies, flies, midges, mayflies, beetles, bees, wasps, floating spiders on wisps of web, and a large lazy cranefly filled the air space around me.

The male damselflies were as curious about me as I was about them landing eyes front.

Northern white cedar grow thick on the interior of the swamp, evenly interspersed with tamarack and on hummocks, black spruce. Not very tall, these old trees practically sang for themselves bedecked with white-throated sparrows  darting from limb to limb declaring territory and chipping alarm calls at my presence. They were joined by red-eyed vireos, black-capped chickadees, flycatchers, wood thush, ovenbirds, towhees, a peewee, and a chorus of warblers so numerous I couldn't keep up with birding by ear. The music abruptly ended however as a feather grey missile burst through the swamp: a sharp-shinned hawk.  

On the rim of the swamp, looking in.

Thoreau wrote about the northern cedar swamps as providing indigenous canoe builders with all the wooden thwarts, gunwales, and paddles they could use for their bark-skinned boats that long ago plied the river highways and crossed thousands of lakes and ponds of this region. Confronted with heavy white water (like I can planinly hear  a quarter mile distant) these boats were light enough for one man to hoist upon to his shoulders and walk  well-worn portage trails around. The rivers and lakes are connected by networks of these trails that you can still find hundreds of years later. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is one such water trail that has been restored by modern paddlers and in many places the old Indian, fur trader, and explorer portage trails are again in use.   

Indian Cucumber in blossom.

I find dark forests not the least bit frightening and I don't carry the unnecessary baggage of superstition, but I did put into context the good possibility of bumping into wildlife in this low light, hushed environment. The dramatic hilly  terrain of the rim, the shadowy depths of the sun-starved forest floor, and a fresh pile of bear scat in the trail gave me a little pause. It was still steaming. I think I caught a glimpse of the bear browsing far ahead along the edge of the swamp where dappled sun helped a large patch of berries to grow luxuriantly. But if it was just a shadow or the real thing, I never found out.  I stood a long time and watched, but was unable to hear anything over the roar of birdsong and scolding red squirrels. 

Maybe the bear was browsing this nice patch of partridge berries at the edge of the swamp.

The path got quite muddy in low spots and hoof prints of a moose filled with water as if she'd just passed this way in the early morning hours. My love of northern woods wildlife overcame any concerns and I continued along the trail a bit faster and a lot quieter hoping to spot the bear or catch up to the moose. It hard to blend in, though, with the constant chucking and alarm calls of a very upset red squirrel who, for some reason, followed me rather than going about her business. I noticed another large patch of partridge berry nearby and wondered if the bear and the squirrel weren't feeling a little protective of it! I certainly would! 

Sphagnum Moss in its element.

I came to an absolutely beautiful spot along the edge of the swamp and sat transfixed by the color, the sound, the juxtaposition of water, granite, moss, and trees.  The night before I had done a thorough reading of the Pope's encyclical Laudato Si, Praise Be.  I wondered, looking around at the blending of living and non-living material - cells of sphagnum and grains of glacially-ground sand, fern fronds higher than I could reach, and boulders draped in tapestries of lichen - if we've come to some sort of balance in the Northwoods - some kind of making-peace with landscapes that require our stewardship and care as opposed to landscapes of extreme exploitation a century and more ago.

Red Squirrel.

Conserving whole landscapes is a little like making peace with ourselves, dropping irrational fears and unrestrained greed, to allow wild nature to simply be within us too, I think. I recalled the recent release of a video in which an entangled dolphin swam trusting, maybe even in friendship, up to a group of marine biologists to ask for help. Understanding relationships and community is the foundation of ecology, and the divers - being ecologists and biologists - knew that their role was no longer as scientific observers but willing participants in responding to this simple act of asking for help. They became part of the story, connecting in the most intimate way with a most vulnerable creature who had sought them out. Ecology, from the Greek oikos meaning home, the study of home - the study of our place, our landscape, and our neighbors who share home with us.

A beautiful rest.

I moved from that beautiful rest and walked further along, considering what it meant to be at home, to be so comfortable in a particular place that it is seamlessly part of you. Laudato Si, the title of the Pope's letter was borrowed from St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Sun, seemed a good sentence starter for a poem I wrote in my journal  to Little Sister Red Squirrel still following along.  I sat down next to a tiny creature shining like a fiery star in the dark universe of the forest floor and sketched Little Brother Red Eft.

Fiery star of the dark forest floor. 

The trail  reached into a wild and birdy marsh and I sat here too, a beautiful place for a writing break. The winds were just high enough to deter clouds of flies and mosquitoes, which come as part of the landscape. You must accept the messy, biting, buzzing annoyances and the downright danger that comes with the reality of wildness. I laugh sometimes, mostly at myself, but other writers too, when the romanticism of place runs roughshod over the realities of what it means to be physically in nature. 

A boreal refuge.

Things have claws, fangs, teeth, four legs or six legs or eight. I trip and fall and I get hurt. It's painfully cold or frighteningly hot. Storms rage or floods rise and wash life from the land.  That moose I was following and calmly calling "she" could well have been a large grumpy bull. That bear could have had a cub or two. So we need to not only learn to appreciate our place but understand our place in it.  We are powerful guardians and yet we are as vulnerable as an entangled or tiny wild thing at the mercy of it all. 

Fresh water marsh, West Mountain rising in the north.

This is the landscape where I go to learn more about what it means to be a steward. As Pope Francis says in Laudato Si we need more of these places, communally protected, shepherded, cared for, where the conservation of wild land "takes us to the heart of what it means to be human."

Rosebud Azalea.


Though the Northern Forest Canoe Trail passes far to the north of Lovern's Mill Natural Area above the White Mountains in NH.  The modern trail now logs 72 miles through the state and uses the Connecticut River, Upper Ammonoosuc, and the Androscoggin as the main route (as it did 300 years ago!) - but it's important to remember that hundreds of linked water and portage trails spanned all of New England and northern cedar swamps were important sources of raw materials for the building of lightweight bark canoes. I have no doubt some of the Lovern's Mill Trail around the swift water of the North Branch served as an old route into and out of this swamp.


Friday, June 5, 2015


PhD desk.

I'll be taking a  break from the blog for a few weeks to finish another dissertation chapter and attend my last PhD seminar week in New Hampshire. My time for total focus has arrived, but I'll be back in July with more adventures on the Mason Dixon Trail and some snaps from my lunch hikes in New England. Onward!

Monday, June 1, 2015

PA Mason Dixon Trail - Map 4: Apollo Park to Kline's Run Park with Bad Language

Saturday May 30, 2015: Boyd's Run Lot (Apollo County Park) to Kline's Park, Long Level, PA
10 miles had we stayed on trail/ 9 miles because we didn't. [140/200]

If you have no doubt that we are anything other than intrepid, serious hikers, then continue reading. If you have a problem with inferences of  foul language and real pain then avert your eyes and look elsewhere for pleasantries on the Mason Dixon Trail.

Wilson's Run. Cuff's Run. Fishing Creek. We knew going in we'd have three steep descents and three equally steep ascents in order to cross three ravine then traverse three high sections of bluff and cliff edge. We knew we had ten miles to cover. Not a bad day, since we've already had several days of 12 - 13 miles. But by the time we limped to the car at Kline's Run Park at the northern edge of Long Level almost ten hours later, we thought back to the fit man who met us that morning. "He was an omen," I moaned to my hiking partner Kim.


The descent into Wilson's Run was just a warm-up, literally. The famously hated Pennsylvania humidity had returned. Carefully picking our way through a boulder field of frost heaved rock the size of small cars, crossing the stream, and climbing steeply up to the river bluff high above was slow going. We met a woman at the stream crossing, in her mid-50s, who was literally jogging along the jagged path. She was an ultra-trail racer. She happily told us about the 100k race that starts in Havre de Grace, MD, and ends at Shanks Mare at Long Level, PA, and takes 24 hours to run (in August - are they nuts?!). She happily told us about the MDT meeting she was scheduled to attend at the Safe Harbor hut building site - five miles to the south. She happily told us about how we should join an ultra race! She was so very nice. But I hated her the minute we said our goodbyes and she happily continued bouncing along her way up the steep switchbacks. Mile 1.

Trying not to fall down 100' to the river below.

Along the first bluff edge we could see the river far below through thick forest canopy. It was beautiful but hard to admire. It was tricky to keep an eye on the rough and pitched footing with every step and not go careening down the cliff.  A young man came trudging along, in his mid-20s, he seemed grateful to have an excuse to stop and chat. "I'm doing this section everyday to get in shape," he said , "I'm carrying 20 pounds of water. But - shit - this is too hard when its humid like this. I'm calling it early." I started to get a little nervous. We came across a nice place to take our first break and grab a snack. A nesting pair of eagles chatted above us from a nearby nest. I wished I had wings to fly back to the car and sit in the AC. I wished for winter...

Cuff's Run.

As I've mentioned in this blog before, the Susquehanna River Hills are known for their steep creek ravines that carry water down from the Piedmont Plateau above, dropping a hundred of feet of grade to the river below. Nowhere along the MDT so far have the ravines been as steep as on this section.The next descent into Cuff's Run was a tortuous knee buster. By the time I got to the bottom my legs were shaking and my head was pounding. I took a full head and shoulders bath in the cold water and awaited Kim, who was being very cautious with her down-steps so as not to aggravate an old ligament injury. "Obnoxious," she said, over and over again. Three miles out of ten so far and it had taken us five solid hours. Mile 3. But there were butterflies...

Spring azures and Tiger swallowtails muddling for minerals Pic by Kim.

The second bluff section was straight across a sharply defined bow of cliff high above the water. I was hanging on to trees to stay centered on the trail. I said "F--K!" a lot. No, really, a lot. I had reached my F-point. My half gallon of water was running low and I began to ration. The sounds of people boating and swimming below put me in a foul mood. "Oh shut up!" I cursed as I wedged myself between two towers of stone. Another hour passed. Then another. I lost count. I started playing music in my head again. "Music for a Darkened Theater" from the soundtrack of Edward Scissorhands. Go figure. I tried to tell myself a joke. I forgot what the punch line was...

Any tree to lean on, grab hold on to, or hug was welcomed. Pic by Kim.

Four teenagers came frolicking up and over giant blocks of stone stacked like books on their sides. "Hello!" they called as they bobbled happily by. I hated them too. "Where are you headed?" ask Kim. One of the pink sneaker clad teens chirped happily back "To the top!" The other  pink tank top clad girl stopped huffing in her tracks and stared at us. Two old women with backpacks and hiking poles. No pink to be seen. Maybe some blood, though. "Wait," she said, "How do we get down from here?"  One of the two boys cheerfully proclaimed "Easy! The way we came up!"  Kim, having reached her F-point some time ago, said not so happily, "Good luck with that!"  The foursome looked somewhat somber and skittered away. "Did you hear what that lady said?" But the good news was that somewhere nearby was a parking area where these kids must have started from not to long ago. "Stop being so bubbly," I muttered. A six foot blacksnake slithered over the cliff...

Stone steps like books on end. Pic by Kim/

Mile five at the height of land overlooked the river and we found a tree stump to sit on. Seven hours.  By this time we were F-bombing every ankle twisting step and trying not to just sit down and cry. So we just sat. I did, at one point however, sit right in the trail against a tree and begged Kim to go ahead while I stewed in my own sweat. Nursing an almost empty half gallon water bottle I fought back the pounding headache that comes with too much heat. I talked myself out of throwing up a few times. But soon we were down into another creek ravine where people were hurling themselves off a cliff...

Cliff climbing box turtle relocated down slope towards Cuff's Run. Pic by Kim.

We should have taken a clue as to what we were up against when as we were strapping on our packs at the Boyd's Road parking area in Apollo County Park, that fit man in his early 50s, came cruising into the gravel lot from the trail we were about to climb. His face was pained and red. We asked where he'd started. "I started at High Point and had this bizarre vision that I'd make it to Otter Creek Campground today. I just called my wife to come pick me up. I cant go another quarter mile. This section kicked my butt!"  He muttered something about rocks.  Climbing and crawling through and around and over and between lots of rocks. He collapsed on the side of the lot to await his wife. "Maybe I can get a nap in before she gets here." That was eight hours ago. I stopped to think about him coming this way hours earlier.

Through a slot to a steep descent (again) to Fishing Creek. Pic by Kim.

Finally we stepped off the mountain and on to an old road. Fishing Creek ran deep and cold next to the road. We met a cabin dweller who was wiring shut a gate that the four bubbly teens had opened to access a short cut to the ridge climb through his property. It was hung in three or four places with No Trespassing signs. He overcame his anger to chat with us a few minutes, then we hobbled on towards the ice cream shop in Long Level another mile further. And of course it was closed. Closed!

At five o'clock on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the riverside park crowded with picnics and kids and what we most desired that very minute was Closed!

A kind outfitter pulled in to park his trip trailer and offered us a few bottles of water. We decided not to delay or lengthen our walk any further and started out on the road straight for Kline's Park, rather than returning to the twisty up and down trail behind the outfitters. I walked at a fast pace, swerving off the narrow shoulder for wide boat trailers and wincing as loud motorcycles yowled by. The sun was setting. Mile 9.

I almost cried when we saw this. Good food, friendly service, and ice cream to go with lo mein.

We made our escape up out of the river valley, AC roaring. We were disappointed, muttering unsavory things in our exhaustion. Approaching a little crossroads we almost missed a new place to eat! We cheered! I backed up in the travel lane and drifted down into the parking lot.  A Chinese/Asian food eatery with a Hershey's ice cream shop and Hawaiian shaved ice. Oh delish! Saved! With our meals of Lo Mein, General Tso's chicken with pork fried rice, egg roll, milkshake, Coke, and ice cream cone one of two fortune cookies had this inside...

Thanks to Kim for most of the pictures for this post since my trusty SLR decided the humidity was to much and threw error codes with abandon. Thank you, most of all, to the MDT Trail Crew who again impressed us (even in their absence) with the all the work to clear blow-downs all along the way. We can't imagine the work involved in hauling chain saws and other important tools to these remote and rugged parts.