Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wachusett Hike - An "Eft-ing" Good Time!

Windmill just off Harrington
Living in Rhode Island means that the immediate vicinity tends to be rather flat. For someone who likes hauling herself up things that reach a little higher, this tends to mean a drive of at least 2.5 hours each way - not always the most appealing thing to do for a day hike. Since driving is one of the few things in life that makes me nervous, the boyfriend always does the brunt of the driving. It makes me ever-so-slightly guilty, but never quite feel guilty enough to volunteer to drive, but I figured I could at least find something a little nearer to us - and thus the hunt for a littler mountain closer to home began.

I was hoping to find something that would still provide a decent hike sans the long drive, and finally settled on Mt. Wachusett in MA - high point of Worcester county and the 92-mile long Midstate Trail, topping out at 2006 feet. While the peak seemed to be more famous for its skiing than anything else, I figured it would still provide enough mileage on the trails that circle the park to make up for lack of elevation gain. I styled a 7.5 mile fancy twisted figure-eight loop based on this trail description, which sounded like a good way to cover most of the trails in the reservation and give us a good feeling for the area.

Red eft
A mid-August morning brought grey skies and a 30% chance of "light rain" on the forecast, which we figured was worth the gamble - plus, the trail description had mentioned a sighting of a red eft in rainy conditions, and newts seemed like a worthwhile cause to brave the potential wet weather, especially since none of us had seen them before. The weather seemed promising as we drove northwards, with only a few sprinkles gracing the journey, but by the time we pulled up at the trailhead the clouds had swept in and rain had started coming down fairly steadily. Still in good spirits and figuring that I had to field test my Outdoor Research Reflexa jacket sooner or later, we hit Harrington trail and began our ascent.

Our first stop was a little side trail to the windmill farm, where we peered through rain-clogged eyelashes at the white towers. Our observation of the windmills was sadly short-lived, as we quickly realized that the mosquitoes were not being dampened by the weather whatsoever, and we bid a hasty retreat while slapping, scratching and belatedly trying to spray ourselves down with repellent - a somewhat pathetic endeavor, as the rain had gained even more enthusiasm and was washing away the spray as quickly as we could attempt to get it on.

Waterfall of a trail
We headed back on Harrington and observed that the "30% chance of light rain" was now decidedly in the "100% steady and heavy" category, and the trail was starting to resemble more of a waterfall than a trail. Onwards we trudged through the muddy rushing water, feet sloshing around in waterproof boots that were now doing more to keep water in rather than keep them out, and myself rapidly coming to the unfortunate and uncomfortable realization that a mosquito had somehow managed to give me a loving bite right on my (now fat and swollen) lip. The rain, instead of dissuading the insects as we had hoped, only seemed to give them reason to become trapped in our hoods - I suppose the appeal of a dry warm nook and the proximity of tasty human blood made for an irresistible combination - and to our dismay, the high-pitched whining of wings and a frenzied shaking of our heads soon became an annoying constant as we ventured on uphill.

Fire tower at summit
As we were wondering why we thought it would be a good idea to squelch miserably through the woods rather than stay cozy and dry inside, we spotted a bright orange streak that stood out in stark contrast to the soggy moss it was framed against. Closer inspection revealed our first red eft of the day! We oohed and ahhed at the little lizard and admired his neon black-ringed spots, delighted at his awkward waddling gait, and pondered his zen-like indifference towards both us and the weather. It took us a little while to tear ourselves away from our tiny orange friend, but when we started moving again, we started seeing more orange lizards literally everywhere - smack in the middle of the trail, sitting on rocks or hanging out on tree trunks. To our delight, the woods were replete with efts that had emerged to enjoy the downpour that Mother Nature was unleashing upon us. We resorted to walking gingerly at this point to avoid squishing any of the little critters, and even moved some that were sitting in the middle of trail so they wouldn't be stepped on by any other crazy hikers who might have been out that day.

A regal toad on the trail
Tallying efts proved to be the only distraction from the incessant cold rain and the horrible feeling of squishy sodden socks as we squelched our way to the top. We finally reached the summit, a drenched and disheveled trio (2 of our party even managed to aid and abet the rain by dumping accumulated rainwater from their hoods down their backs), and took a minute to huddle beneath a little overhang at the fire tower and attempted to wring our muddy socks out, although to not much avail. We were halfway through our planned loop at this point, but when I broached the suggestion of continuing our hike down to Balance Rock on the other side of the mountain, I was greeted with a hearty nay - and I must admit I was pretty relieved that my proposal was shut down.

Another eft hanging out
It seemed as if the desire for dry feet had won out over any further inklings for adventure that day. With not much of a view to enjoy at the summit beyond snapping a quick soggy self-portrait, there seemed to be no reason to linger, and so we headed back down Mountain House Trail - Bicentennial Trail - Echo Lake Trail, spotting some more amphibious friends on the way - yet more efts, a toad and some frogs, who were obviously faring better in the rain than we were. We made it back to the car around 3 hours after we embarked (thanks to a lot of dilly-dallying and looking for efts), with a grand tally of a whopping 44 live efts spotted that day and many scooped up and off the road to safety, although sadly we did also see many a mangled remain of an unfortunate lizard who had met one car too many.

Echo Lake Reflection
We clambered into the shelter of the car, although of course the rain had died down by this point. Still, it was a relief to strip off wet socks and free wrinkled toes from their watery confines, and we enviously watched another hiking couple parked just down the road from us who had had the foresight to bring extra clothing to change into post-hike. I peeled off my new rain jacket to discover that it had soaked through pretty much everywhere - it was decidedly a trip back to REI for this jacket, which was kind of disappointing (it was such a pretty berry color!), because it had seemed to fit well and had plenty of nifty features...but what use is the fanciest rain jacket if it doesn't keep you dry?

We were more than ready for warm beverages and a hot shower at this point, and were excited to get on our way home, although I had a feeling we would return to Wachusett at some point - if for nothing else, to see what kind of view was to actually be had from the top.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Stepstone Falls, RI

Sign at the trailhead
Rhode Island's vaunted position as the smallest state in the US left us with a little skepticism as to what its highest waterfall, Stepstone Falls in Exeter, could offer, but we decided to finally give it a chance on a lovely spring afternoon. After all, even a small state could dream big and be gutsy - RI does have claim to the longest state name, and was also the first of the original 13 colonies to declare independence from Britain!

Some internet research dragged up this trail description/guide, which we stuck to for the most part, although actual trail maps of Arcadia management area proved dismally difficult to procure - this shabbily-drawn map was the best that I could find. Having already picked the wrong trail once on our first attempt at finding the falls, I was determined to actually succeed in reaching them this time around. The falls, as we found out, can actually be accessed by car, but where's the fun in that?

We took Escoheag Hill Road to the unpaved Austin Farm Road (the turnoff is unmarked and a little confusing, as it looks like someone's driveway) and parked at the start of the Ben Utter Trail, just before Falls River. Ben Utter winds its picturesque way upstream, hugging the river for about 1.7 easy and flat miles before reaching the cascades.

The woods were awash in golden spring sunlight, the air jewel-bright with dancing iridescent dragonflies, and nature's glorious details made for a pleasant walk. Distracted by the bounties of nature, we missed the old mill site, but did manage to spot some cool flora and fauna, including wildflowers like spiderwort and pink lady's slippers, some fascinatingly translucent corpse plants/ghost plants, and our first woodpecker sightings - we'd only ever heard them before, and we had a ball watching them work their way merrily at the tree branches.

The falls were a pleasant surprise as they actually turned out to be bigger and more widespread than we thought they would be. We were also surprised to see a couple sitting by the cascades in camp chairs, before we spotted their car a little ways away and realized that there was a road that went up to the falls. We pottered around for a bit and checked out the falls from both sides before heading back.

Although it sure was no good slog up a 4000-footer (my personal preference in the North East), Stepstone Falls turned out to be a pleasant half day excursion, and a leisurely stroll in the woods, although I would definitely recommend going after some recent rainfall. More photos can be found on my Flickr page!

Stepstone Falls
Stepstone Falls

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Adirondack Adventure - Mt. Marcy

There's something magical about mountains. There's just something about the feeling that washes over and through you as you break tree line, stagger with wobbly legs up the last gritty slab of bare rock and see the world unfurl before you, toylike and tiny, so far removed. For a moment, you have transcended it all, you float high and above - no matter the pouring sweat and aching muscles it has taken to reach the summit, that feeling is worth it all. No one who has yet to climb a mountain can really understand how it feels to be "on top of the world", but oh, for those of us who have, it is glorious.

The natural bridge - note size of humans for scale!
And so in the latest of our masochistic peak-bagging excursions, Matt and I decided it was time to make the most of the extended Memorial Day weekend and pay a visit to the Adirondacks. I, of course, picked out the tallest of the mountains to climb, and it was decided that we would hike Mt Marcy, NY State's highest point at 5,344 ft. I toyed with ideas of extending the hike overnight, but with a lack of backcountry camping equipment and a fear of seemingly over-prevalent bears in the area, we opted to man up and take on our longest day hike to date as well - around 14.8 miles roundtrip on the Van Hoevenberg trail.

I booked a campsite for two nights at Meadowbrook Campground, a half-hour drive away from the trailhead at the Adirondack Loj, since it fit the budget much better than the exorbitantly-priced (in my opinion) Loj. We hit the road on Saturday morning with hopes that the forecast for chance thunderstorms would prove to be a lie, and headed out West to see what the weekend would bring.

Waterfall in Noisy Cave
We made a stop en route at the Natural Stone Bridge and Caves to have a little picnic lunch and to check out some geology. We paid the slightly steep admission (I'd recommend printing out the coupon on their site to save a buck!) and joined the holidaying throngs on our "self-guided exploration tour" through the park, which wound its way through and around various formations of interest, the most prominent being the Natural Bridge, which touts itself as the largest marble cave entrance in the East.

We got to check out a few caves, although we didn't have time to embark on the more in-depth adventure tour which gets a little more wet and wild. Noisy Cave was a winner in our books - an underground cascade of foaming white water, roaring over glossy smooth black boulders. Unfortunately, the crowds were getting to us and we made our way fairly quickly through the park, taking in the various sights such as Lost Pool Cave, Garnet Cave, The Potholes, The Oyster Shell and a not-so-tranquil Tranquility Point as efficiently as we could without becoming too entrenched in human traffic jams.

Us being cute in matching "Doctor Hoo" outfits
A scenic drive through the rolling green mountains later, we found ourselves at the campsite just outside of Lake Placid - home to the Olympic training center (I got my first glimpse of ski jumps, and found them to be quite terrifying). Apparently our campsite was located right next to a bar/barbecue joint, and we braced ourselves for a night of mediocre music to come, although we figured it was a decent trade-off for a decided lack of marauding bears. The evening went by quickly - tent up, fire started, hot dogs eaten, and an early bedtime with the drifting melody of "These Boots Were Made For Walking" to lull us gently to sleep.

We were up well before 5 am, with the intention of hitting the trail before 6. Packs ready and boots laced up tight, we jumped into the car, turned the key in the ignition, and...had our hearts skip a beat as the engine sputtered and failed to start. Apparently, our battery was dead. We surveyed the campground with sinking hearts as the utter still of pre-dawn lay fixedly over every soundly-sleeping camper, as we were apparently the only ones trying to get any sort of early start that morning.

Lady's Slipper Orchid
Undeterred, I made a round of the grounds on foot to search for a waking soul, but my efforts were in vain. No one else was up and about. I steeled myself to attempt flagging down one of the occasional vehicles that were driving past on the main road, and began trudging over to the roadside when a flicker of movement caught my eye - was it a human? Yes, someone was heading over to the bathrooms! I ran over and waited outside for them to reemerge before pouncing on my prey - a still sleepy Asian man who thankfully had a vehicle and was enough of a good Samaritan to come over and jumpstart us.

Nothing comes easy though, and we got slightly (embarrassingly) lost trying to navigate back to our site (it's strange how different things seem on foot when you're used to seeing them from a car), but we eventually made it, managed to maneuver the cars within cable-length distance  of each other despite some inconveniently-placed trees, and the jumpstart actually worked. Thankful that we had woken up ahead of schedule and were still in good time, we made the drive over to the Adirondack Loj, paid up the day parking fee and began our expedition.

View at Marcy Dam
We signed the register and hit the trail - the first 2 miles in to Marcy Dam were fairly flat and uneventful, and we made fairly good time in around 45 minutes. We were excited to see some Lady's Slipper Orchids along the way, as we had somehow assumed that orchids only grew in the tropics (apparently the Lady's Slipper is Prince Edward Island's provincial flower...I would have never thought that orchids would be found in Canada, but these can apparently be found pretty much up to the Arctic Circle!).

Marcy Dam was a good spot for a quick sit and relax, with the mirror-calm waters reflecting the imposing mountains surrounding the lake - Mount Colden, Avalanche, Wright Peak, and Algonquin, I believe. The view was pretty, but it was still too close to ground level - we didn't want to dawdle too much as we knew the path was only uphill from there on, and we resumed our onwards journey after a brief rest.

Indian Falls
The path began climbing and we hopscotched over Phelps Brook, onwards and upwards...and upwards...and upwards. We passed the turnoff for Phelps Mountain, but our trail kept going, sometimes through unavoidable muddy stretches, sometimes over boulders and rocky terrain. We kept leap-frogging another group of hikers (one in blue jeans and basketball shoes on his first mountain climb, who seemed none-too-excited about the length and steepness of the trail we were on). This section of trail seemed to last forever, but just as I was beginning to question my sanity and the scale of my trail map, we stumbled upon the sign for the little detour to Indian Falls. 

It was a heart-lifting moment to emerge onto the rocky outcrop from which the falls cascaded, and to see the peaks of the Adirondacks stretching out before us. We took a moment to enjoy the panoramic view and managed to get our shoes wet while splashing over the fall's headwaters, but we returned to the trail proper with renewed vigor.

Taking a break 
The trail kept climbing and so did we - although we now managed to catch occasional glimpses of the summit, which still looked both discouragingly steep and distant. We finally reached a sign that claimed that only 1.2 miles were left to go - although we later learned that "Adirondack miles" can often be deceiving, and I will vouch that these 1.2 miles definitely felt closer to 3! A good section of the last push happened to involve a lot of scrambling up some extremely steep open rock faces, which led to some choice swear words and a lot of panting in between. We took a lot of breathers in between rather short sections of scrambling, but we plodded doggedly from one yellow blaze to the next, and the summit slowly grew closer and closer until...we were there!

View from the top
Mother Nature had been kind enough to ward off all potentiality of thunderstorms, and had graced us instead with gorgeous blue skies and sunshine. The Summit Steward at the top (yes, it is actually someone's job to hike up this mountain every day to educate the hiking masses about the fragile arctic-alpine zone - a commute I will never be bad-ass enough to make) was kind enough to snap our photo and point out some of the other peaks in the Adirondack Range, the Green Mountains in Vermont, and all the way to Canada! To our relief, Blue Jeans made it all the way up as well, and proceeded to collapse gratefully on a welcoming rock with exclaimed hopes that the way down wouldn't kill him - we didn't see the group again on the way down, but I hope he made it safely and without an excessive amount of pain!

We admired the rolling, hazy greenery that seemed to stretch into forever, and picked out our next Adirondack conquest (Algonquin, the only other over-5000-footer in the range) as we munched on victory Snickers bars and basked in the sunshine, willfully ignoring the fact that we still had over 7 miles to go on our way back down. Sadly, our mountain high couldn't last for ever and after sufficient snacking, we picked ourselves up and got ready to return from whence we came. Off we went, but not before checking out the memorial plaque that proclaimed that we were standing on "Tahawus - Cloud-Splitter", which we felt was definitely a more fitting name than Marcy, considering that the guy only commissioned the expedition and didn't even climb it himself...

We made it up!
Anyway, back down the steep slopes we went, crab-walking gingerly down the slabs of stone and wondering how we had ever made it up in the first place. The journey back down went much quicker, although the sun was well and thoroughly out and merrily beating down upon us, which made us lag a little. The section between Indian Falls and the Phelps Mountain turnoff definitely dragged on forever, but eventually we made it back to Marcy Dam for another Snickers break and to rest protesting knees and aching feet for a few short minutes. 

With the home stretch in sight, we powered through the last 2 (thankfully relatively flat) miles back to the trailhead, although they were 2 miles that I could have definitely done without. We made it back to our car at 2.45 pm, having started the trail at 6 am, jelly-legged but content with our 8 hour 45 minute hike time and another gorgeous high point summited. 

More photos from the trip can be found in my Adirondack album on my Flickr page!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Destination: Panama

(Mostly) packed and ready to go!

In three hours - no, less, we will hit the road for foreign lands. Panama is calling this year, although I will admit that it played second fiddle to my dream of traipsing Iceland's rugged landscapes. But no matter, an adventure abroad is an adventure abroad. It still seems somewhat surreal, especially when one has to work up to the last minute, and two weeks will be scarcely enough to tame my wanderlust, but we will enjoy our return to Central America.

Nothing is booked beyond our first night in Panama City, and nothing set beyond a desire to scuba dive with brilliant Caribbean fish, hike jungle-clad and cloud-swathed volcanoes, spot resplendent quetzals and harpy eagles, wander coffee plantations and frolic by foaming waterfalls. And of course, eat a lot of good food.

What will the open road bring this year? We can only find out. On the list of potential stops are Panama City where we will definitely check out a famous canal, Bocas del Toro and Humedal de San San Pond Sak where I hope to spot nesting turtles and the reclusive manatee, and Boquete, which speaks of gourmet coffee, fresh mountain air, and...of course, the masochistic enterprise of hiking Panama's tallest peak, Volcan Baru.

Now we can only pray for smooth trails, and for Mother Nature to be kind and send us all the wildlife we could desire, and the most gorgeous of weather to grace our days.

I would also dearly like to hug a sloth, but my research has not been able to give me anything conclusive on the possibilities of doing so - if anyone can direct me into the embrace of a long-clawed, slow-moving friend, please let me know!

The more I settle into the rat race and the 40-hour workweek, the stronger the niggling feeling that I might begin to fear the unknown more and more. I hope this trip revives the thrill of diving into places not yet trodden, and keeps my faith strong in the beauty of the world.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Biking Block Island!

Point Judith - last mainland stop before Block Island!
There was once an idea hatched in the minds of three lasses, born somewhere between a common love for sunshine, the ocean, and the dream that we would all someday be fit and muscled enough to take on a bicycle ride of decent length. Block Island was quickly picked as our target destination as two of us had never been (one being a life-long RI resident, so it seemed about time...), but life continually interfered with our plan - we never realized quite how difficult it is to coordinate both three separate schedules AND the weather. 

Days, weeks, even months passed. In that time, Abbey and I both tuned up our bikes and failed to ride them for an entire season (well, I did 3 measly miles to Savers to buy some biking spandex that sat unused in my dresser for a year), and then winter unreasonably got in the way. But as the shoots of spring began to unfurl, so did our dormant plan also reawaken. With unseasonably warm weather kicking off the year, we figured we'd jump on the sunny opportunity and so, with a glorious spring Saturday on the forecast and three open schedules, Block Island finally was to become a reality!

More boats at Point Judith
The first thing I did in preparation for the day was to load up my Camelbak with a ridiculous amount of stuff. I usually try to pack fairly minimally, but the idea of eating just peanut butter sandwiches and trail mix somehow did not appeal! I wanted my chicken salad and a cold beverage for a picnic on the beach, and so I found myself stuffing a cooler and a load of ice cubes into my pack. Adding on a couple liters of water and my over-3-pounds of camera made for a substantial load, and I wondered if I was just spelling trouble for myself. I figured that the chicken salad and cold ginger beer would be worth it, and that the melted ice cubes would be muchly appreciated as a beverage later on.

Still bleary-eyed, we stumbled out of the house at 6.30 am so Matt could drop me off at Abbey's by 7. I had wanted to wait till my eyes were less morning-gunky to put in my contacts, and so I figured I would do it at her place. In the bathroom, I tore open the package, lifted the contact to my eye, and had it pop back out. Undeterred, I dried my hands on a towel to get rid of the excess saline and brought it up again...hang on, there was a whole bunch of cat hair stuck to it! I tried rubbing it off, but the strands refused to budge. I had overlooked the important fact that everything in Abbey's house was covered in cat hair, and had neglected to bring my little bottle of saline. A few rubs later, I figured I was only going to tear the lens before I dislodged the hair, and I had no desire to take any chances on laminating any cat hair between my eyeball and the lens, which I could only imagine would make for an unpleasant situation. Oh well. Into the trash the lens went, and I resigned myself to wearing glasses for the day.  

Heading down to the bluffs.
After various introductions between significant other, cats and snakes, we got down to business and loaded up our bikes on to her car, which proved to be slightly more complicated than we had hoped for. A little finagling later, we managed to attach the bike rack and get the bikes safely (or so we hoped) strapped in, before zipping over to Seven Stars to pick up Debbie.

Still mostly on schedule, we made the drive down to Point Judith without much incident. Upon our arrival, some enthusiastically-waving girls succeeded in luring us into their all-day parking lot, which, despite the early hour, was already full of cars and a plenitude of bikes. At this point, I figured it was a good idea to at least get on my bike to see if it was functional - Abbey and I had both had a panicked moment in the last 24 hours regarding our tires, hers when she accidentally deflated them while using an air compressor, and mine when my rear tire suddenly refused to inflate! I guessed my situation was due to a bent pin in the valve and had fixed it that morning with a pair of pliers (good thing we jewelry-making girls always have needle-nosed pliers at hand!).

Walking by the bluffs
Anyhow, I wobbled my way on to the bike and down to the landing, wondering if the bumping I felt was normal but I soon put it down to just cracks in the sidewalk. We bought our tickets and headed on to the first ferry of the day, where apparently a multitude of boy scout troops had already laid their bikes for passage. We added ours to the two-wheeled heap and made for top deck, where we managed to snitch a section of bench that wasn't already occupied by aforementioned tie-dye-clad boy scouts. The bullhorn sounded, startling us fully awake, and we were off! 

It took a little under an hour to reach New Shoreham, with a little bit of rock-and-rolling ocean action, but thankfully no seasickness occurred among our crew. We finally saw the curve of Block Island's shoreline pull into view, and we were soon docked and raring to go. Deb disembarked ahead of us while Abbey and I headed down to retrieve our rides, trying to keep ahead of the Scouts. Standing in front of the pile of bikes, we perplexedly scanned the rows, trying to pick them out.

"He said row 5, right? Wouldn't that be further back there?"
We stared into the distance at rows and rows of indistinguishable bikes for a minute.
"I don't see them...yours was purple, right?"
"Yeah, what was yours?"
"Wait a minute, they wouldn't be right in front of us, would they?"

Great egret dropping by at lunch
We looked down and there they were, sitting right smack under our noses. We shook our heads at ourselves and proceeded to try to untangle our bikes from the rest of the pile. It took a little yanking and pulling, but we eventually got free and headed out to meet Deb on shore and get her a rental ride. A few minutes later, she was hooked up with a snazzy pink bike with a nifty basket, and we headed off on the Mohegan Trail.  

The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and we were all-too-apparently out of shape. Thighs started burning quickly, and lungs were gasping as we struggled up the road, cursing every uphill. We kept at it though, and with a few stops to catch our breath we came across the sign for Mohegan Bluffs, a picturesque spot with impressive steep clay bluffs that tumbled down to the ocean. Despite having been on the trail for only a little bit, we decided that we were sufficiently famished and decided to have lunch by the ocean. We trotted down the 141 steep stairs on slightly wobbly legs, clambered down a slightly treacherous rocky section at the bottom of the stairs, and found some welcoming boulders to sit on at the base of the 185-ft tall cliffs. 

Taking a rest stop
We cracked out our respective picnics, and I definitely scarfed down my chicken salad all too quickly. Dessert came in the form of ginger beer and a slightly mangled but deliciously drippy lemon cake courtesy of Deb. We watched a passing egret and examined the seaweed, enjoying the ocean breeze. It was a lovely spot for a break, although its namesake came from a far less peaceful event - the battle between the native Niantic and intruding Mohegan, who were forced over the cliffs to their deaths in the mid 16th century.

Bellies full, we decided we were re-energized enough to take to the road again, especially since hordes of Boy Scouts were now beginning to descend on the beach. We hauled ourselves back up the steep incline to the top of the cliffs, and resumed the loop around the south end of the island. The landscape was pleasant and rolling, with plenty of cute houses to envy and birdsong lilting in the air. 

Unfortunately, the length of the ride and the uphills got to Deb somewhere along the way and she started Charlie horsing pretty badly. Her water was also running low because she had somehow managed to spill one of her bottles in her backpack a little earlier on. As we stopped for a breather, I thought that the melted ice cubes in my cooler would now make for a refreshing treat, and the enthusiastic response that I got when I mentioned them definitely confirmed the idea. I got my ice cube ziploc and poured the contents into Deb's water bottle, watched her take a swig...and pull a face. Not one of delight and relief, but one of distaste.

"What's the matter? Does it taste okay?"
"It tastes like curry!"
Abbey sniffed the bottle. 
"That's weird, it does smell really strongly of curry!"

New Harbor - still shut for the season
Somehow, somewhere, my ice cubes had picked up some unwanted oriental spice. I was pretty bummed - I had wanted to be the savior of dehydrated biking souls, the provider of icy refreshment, but all that we could do now was dump out the unpalatable liquid and press on towards New Harbor, where we hoped we could restock on drinkables.

What seemed like miles later, we pulled into New Harbor and trotted to the only open restaurant in the hopes that we could use their restroom and get some cold beverages. No dice - they weren't even open for business - but we did get directed to the public restrooms by the pier. We took another good rest stop, resigned ourselves to the fact that no water was to be found here, and made the final push back towards New Shoreham. 

Over the dunes to Crescent Beach!
Enticed by the dunes, we made another  quick beach stop before heading into town to restock. We sat on Crescent Beach for a little while, letting Deb "ice" her ankles in the frigid ocean before cruising back into town to grab a few delightfully cold bottles of water from the grocery store.

Despite sore legs and muscle cramps galore, Deb was reluctant to leave the island before making an attempt to reach the tippy-top where the North Light resided. We made sure that she was certain in her masochistic plan before embarking northwards on Corn Neck Road. We made it there in fairly good time, although as I zipped down the last long hill I thought to myself that I would probably be rather unhappy trying to get up it on the way back - I was later proved absolutely right.

Rocky rocky beach
We pulled into the parking lot by Settler's Rock in Cow Cove, which was apparently named so when the first settlers swam in with their cows. North Light stood still a mile away over a curving expanse of rocky shoreline, but we hadn't come here for nothing, and so we started trekking out over the rocks towards the lighthouse.

Abbey and I made it out to the lighthouse - the fourth to be built on this site - and sat there for a while, waiting for Deb who took a little longer to arrive. She eventually made it, and at that point we realized that we had a little less time than we thought to make it back to the ferry in time for the last boat of the day. It was time to hustle, and so we started back at a good clip over the beach and back to our bikes. 

The hill we had so effortlessly cruised down on the way in proved to be our first and fairly brutal nemesis on the way back, and we all were pretty soon walking our bikes up the hill as pedaling had proved useless. Deb's Charlie horses had also kicked back into action, and although it was painful to watch, she was a total trooper and we made it all the way back to town with some time to grab a chicken wrap before getting back on the ferry to Point Judith. 
Heading to North Light

The ride back was a quiet one as we were all fairly exhausted - I Google-mapped out our route later on and concluded that we had ridden at least 17 miles around the island, a fairly respectable ride for 3 non-regular bikers on a hot sunny day. A few wrong turns later, we were back on the freeway heading home, with bike-sore butts and suntanned shoulders, content with our accomplishments for the day. 

More photos from our trip can be found here on my Flickr page.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

First camping trip of 2012!

One of our victims sitting in Pug's Puddle
When my college roommate announced on Facebook that she would be making an appearance in New Hampshire 3 days later with her 4-week old little one in tow, I pounced on the opportunity to roll all sorts of awesome into one quick weekend trip - I figured spring had sprung enough that we could survive a night in a tent without freezing (despite the skepticism of my co-workers) , there was a supermoon happening (I thought sleeping beneath a supermoon added an aura of even more awesome to camping), and I could meet the new tiny human and take lots of baby photos (the only way I can truly appreciate babies is with a camera safely in between me and them).

Attempting to catch frogs
The first step in my spontaneous camping plan was, well, to find a place to camp! I easily found two state parks in the vicinity of my roommate's house, but despite the initially promising statements that the parks were "open year round for recreation", none of their camping grounds were up and running yet. I quickly turned my search to private campgrounds, and soon settled on Saddleback Campground due to the fact that they had (wait for it...) a pond where you could catch frogs! The two twelve-year-olds embodied in Matt and myself needed no further persuasion, and I made our reservation for a tent site and spent the remainder of the workweek hoping that the incessant rain would clear up by the time we hit New Hampshire that weekend.

Got one!
We threw a veritable mountain of sleeping bags and an abundant supply of snacks into the car (oh, the joys of car camping) on Saturday morning and hit the road a little past noon. It was pretty smooth cruising for 2 hours and we pulled into the campground in the early afternoon, noting with delight that the heavy grey skies of the morning were lightening. It took a little while to get someone to check us in (I probably pulled too gently on the bell rope as instructed in case of an empty office, as I must admit the resulting "ding" was a little lackluster) and a little longer to figure out that the credit card reader wasn't functioning. I guess that's what happens when you show up less than a week after a campground opens for the season, but we eventually ended up in our site and proceeded to set up our home (my new REI Camp Dome tent's virgin outing!) for the evening.  

First order of business complete, we proceeded gaily down to the edge of Pug's Puddle, where a little cluster of bamboo-poled green nets sat by a "frog catching here" sign (you do have to release them after, in case you were wondering). We excitedly pointed out the plethora of green frogs that were calmly sitting amidst the reeds, as well as the giant tadpoles that quickly wriggled away into the murky depths, and eagerly grabbed nets to begin the hunt. However, our excitement was short-lived as we realized that we were surrounded by a cloud of black flies and other various bloodthirsty insects, and we bid a hasty retreat to the car to mist ourselves in a cloud of noxious repellent. Alas, it was too late for me, as a hungry individual had marked me with a bite (the only one I acquired that weekend) smack in the middle of my forehead.

Northern water snake!
Sufficiently repellent-saturated (or so we hoped), we returned to the water's edge and proceeded to merrily (and clumsily) attempt to scoop up the little croakers. Netting a frog proved to be initially more tricky than we anticipated, especially as they would let out little panicked squeaks of warning upon sensing our approach and retreat en masse into the water. After feeling a wee bit embarrassed that the family a little ways down was capturing frogs aplenty with no problem, we finally figured out proper ninja technique (approach from behind their eyes!) and managed to net our own. As entertaining as frog hunting was for us, the wildlife-spotting highlight of the day was definitely was a northern water snake that we espied sitting in the reeds (those hefty tadpoles probably make for good eating!). We were a little bemused that everyone immediately assumed it was a water moccasin and seemed a little unnerved by it, (I'm pretty sure those don't live in New England), but we were just glad to be able to watch it for a little while.  

Campfiring it up
Our next mission was to get a fire going and fill our bellies, and we did just that - we had wood to spare, having had to buy a "half tractor load" of firewood, and some delicious hot dogs just waiting to be roasted on a stick above the campfire. Not only that, but we had brought along a jar of curried pickled ramps (Matt's first attempt at pickling), so we were definitely dining in style. We had two dogs apiece, and since we were so full, we decided it was time to go for a walk!

I had made ambitious plans to take gorgeous photos of the sunset and moonrise from within Pawtuckaway State Park. Little did I know that the State Park authorities had different ideas. Upon reaching the park, the first thing we learned about the parks being "open year-round for recreation" meant that you could walk as far as your legs could take you into the park, but the roads were closed to motor vehicles. Walking an extra mile each way on a paved road to get to the start of the trail that we actually wanted to walk on seemed a little bit frustrating, but we were there and hell, we were going to walk! Before heading out on foot, we scrounged up 5 dollars in singles and change (all our cash had unexpectedly gone towards our campsite, thanks to the malfunctioning credit card machine) in an attempt to be good citizens who paid state park fees, although no rangers were manning any booths and the self-pay station was equipped with the wrong envelopes. We stuffed the money into a donation envelope and left a note on our dashboard, and headed out along the road into the park. 
Burnham's Marsh

Pawtuckaway State Park seemed to be a mysterious, cool green place with mossy boulders and groves of pine trees, small brooks and the low sun filtering through the greenery. We trucked along the road and finally reached Burnham's Marsh, where we watched the birds for a little while (no moose made an appearance, unfortunately), before heading off on Fundy's Trail which skirted the edge of the marsh, since I figured that taking a little stroll would be a good way to kill time until sunset and the (super) moonrise. Dusk was descending, and we heard owls calling to each other (if you know us, you know that Matt has an obsession with owls), and we spent a while trying to spot one particular tease of an owl that would keep calling, and then shut up when we got too close for comfort.

Thinking that we still had some time until moonrise, I decided that I didn't want to stay and wait around in the park until after dark (alright, so the woods at night can be a little creepy), and so I thought that we could make it back out in time and find a good vantage spot. Little did I know that at some point in the evening, I had (mistakenly) got it stuck in my head that moonrise was at 8.41 pm instead of 7.41 pm. We power-walked our way back out of the park in fading light as I didn't want to miss the moon (I even managed to give myself some degree of shin splints in the process! Another reason to hate walking on paved road). To my surprise, when we managed to catch some breaks in the trees on the drive back, the moon was already well above the horizon! I mentally slapped myself for my mistake. The moon was definitely big and bright though, and maybe I will give the moon-chasing another shot in June since the difference in Earth-moon distance is supposed to be pretty nominal between this month and next.

We got back to camp and pretty much went straight to bed - but as luck would have it, we were stationed next to the loud, drunk group of campers who insisted on playing crappy music (Country Metal? Is that even a genre?) at unreasonable volumes. Thankfully, they turned things off and went to bed at some point, although the music was soon replaced by deafening snores that echoed through the New Hampshire night - we could hear them quite clearly in the site across from theirs, and it definitely made us grateful that we weren't the snorer's tentmates - although, judging from the mess of cups and bottles on their picnic table in the morning, they might have been too drunkenly passed out to care.

Somewhere in Bear Brook State Park
I slept fitfully but warmly (and have definitely decided to invest in some sort of air-filled sleeping pad since I'm apparently getting too old for a roll of blue foam from Wal-Mart), and we woke up the next morning to the sound of turkeys laughing in the distance at 5.30am. We hustled the sleeping bags and assorted bedding into the car but left the tent up to dry, and headed out to Bear Brook State Park for our morning walk. We couldn't pass up the idea of coffee though, and being in New England, our GPS quickly found us the nearest Dunkin' and we acquired some brew to get us going.

Matt looking for porcupines
Once again, NH parks determined that we were going to get some extra walking done and we found ourselves at the edge of the park. We decided to skip out of trying to pay any form of entrance fee (especially when I opened the "trail map" box to find a dirty pair of work gloves and no maps). We opted to walk in along Podunk Road and hike along Hedgehog Ledge Trail (misnamed for the supposedly abundant porcupines who inhabit the area), planning to turn back before it hit the Ferret Trail and looping back around Hayes Marsh on the Lowland and Hayes Farm Trails. 

Mossy rocks
It turned out to be a pleasant morning walk - the terrain was fairly level, although some of the trail junctions weren't signed as well as they could have been. We unfortunately didn't see any porcupines - just some fun ferns and various fungi, although the giant moss-covered boulders and slabs of rock that the porcupines are supposed to love were pretty impressive. We weren't too keen on poking around in the crevices in a more thorough search for porcupines, (I gather that being stuck by one isn't too pleasant), and so the most exciting point in the trail was probably having to negotiate a few flooded sections without getting our feet too wet or muddy. We finished our loop in around 2 hours, headed back to the campground to break down the tent, take a shower, and headed out to make our social calls. 
Flooded trail

It was a good weekend outdoors and a great way to kick off camping season, but I think I'm ready for some bigger climbs - hopefully Memorial Weekend will bring good weather! I'm eyeing Mt. Marcy in upstate New York for a good ass-kicking, but we'll see - we need to get some proper camping gear first if budget will allow.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Dinosaur Footprints, MA

Welcome to Dinosaur Footprints
190 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed our backyards. Despite their apparent commonness in this region of the world, I had never seen any evidence of dinosaurs outside of reconstructed skeletons and fossilized eggs kept safe beneath the arching hallways of various museums. When I read that a little site (aptly) called "Dinosaur Footprints" contained hundreds of fossilized dino footprints and resided just off Rt. 5, I figured it would be a fun little stop on our way back from hiking Mt. Tom (see previous post), since we would be driving past it anyway.

Touching the past
A little pull-off on the side of the road accommodated a few cars, and a sign welcomed us to the site and warned of the 10 ft elevation change which we figured we could handle. A short pathway sloped down to the riverbank next to the sedate Connecticut River, and we quickly came upon the large flat slabs of sandstone that contained the footprints. They were discovered in the 1920s during the construction of Rt 5, which was probably a nice surprise and a good distraction from highway-building for the workmen.

We quickly found the largest 3-toed impressions, which were created by two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs called Eubrontes giganteus, which could reach 15 feet in height and had a 6-foot stride, and were also possible ancestors of Tyrannosaurus rex! We had fun comparing our respective hand and foot spans to the impressions, but unfortunately did not do too well at identifying any of the other purported fish, plants and stromatolites that were supposedly also present in fossilized form. 

I believe that these were some of the earliest dinosaur footprints ever to be discovered, and were also responsible for birthing the theory that dinosaurs were not all solitary but often traveled in groups, as 28 distinct trackways were identified by Professor John Ostom of Yale in the 1970s.

It was a pleasant little stop and nice to see dinosaur evidence in its natural habitat. It was fairly quiet - we did see just one other dad-and-son combo checking out the footprints, and it was nice to (over)hear from the exclamations that kids today are as excited about dinosaurs as always!

This site does not allow plaster casts of the footprints, but I hear there is another park in CT that does, so we may unearth our inner kids someday to cast some tracks and paint them!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hiking Mt Tom, MA

0.5 miles in, 2 miles to the top!
Itchy feet were calling to climb a mountain, and I picked Mt. Tom (in Massachusetts, not to be confused with the apparently identically-named other 42 mountains in the USA) as our first peak of the spring. At an easy 1202 feet and just under 5 miles for the hike, I figured it would be a mild warm-up for the rest of the year - especially since we were bringing along a friend who was relatively new to the world of the trail and had never really climbed a mountain before (and I didn't want to scare her off!).

Mt. Tom is part of the 110-mile Metacomet-Monadnock trail that stretches from Connecticut to New Hampshire, and is a basalt/traprock mountain unique for its cliff formations. It's also a hotspot for raptor migration (although that happens in the fall, so perhaps we will be back for some birdwatching!). The promise of dramatic cliffs as well as the chance to come eye-to-eye with some raptors sounded like an excellent use of a sunny weekend, and so we hit the road at 8 am on a Saturday afternoon to drive the 1.5 hours to Holyoke MA.

The gentle start of the white-blazed trail
We initially drove right past the turnoff to Reservation Road on Rt 5 (the sign to the park is only really visible if you come from the north), but pulled a turnaround a little ways up the road and drove in to the trailhead parking near the visitor center in the center of the park. The center was closed, but we took a brief glance at the information board outside that talked about the history of the area including the summit house (Mt Tom Hotel) that burned not once, but twice, and a "mysterious 50-degree breeze" that emanated at all times from a cleft in the rocks and was used for refrigeration purposes in times of yore.

Curly ferns
All breezes were in the 50-degree range this morning and not particularly mysterious but rather, fairly brisk. We started our way southward along the white-blazed trail after a quick bathroom trip in the woods. The trail meandered on fairly gently before hitting a short, steep incline to the top of the ridge. We were probably making too much noise to have any chance of seeing any wildlife, but we did come across some ferns that we hoped (in vain) would turn out to be fiddleheads. We noted the change of the rock underfoot as we neared the top - the way the basalt broke off in angular, clean cuts looked almost crystalline and was pretty cool to look at.
The Pioneer Valley

Breaking out on to the ridge immediately brought great views of the Pioneer Valley sprawled out before us in the sunshine, with the Connecticut River lazily meandering its way through the spring green, and the Berkshires rolling along the horizon. It was a nice change to have solid views for most of the way along a hike, as the path clambered up and down over rocky formations and followed the cliff side, sometimes hugging the edge closely enough to perhaps cause trouble for one afraid of heights! I know we at least were grateful that the wind was blowing on to the mountain and not the other way.
Chilling on a cliff
We were fortunate enough to spot two turkey vultures that morning - the first one flew by a mere 20 or so feet from us, with a crow in hot pursuit. It was pretty funny to see the large vulture being chased by a significantly smaller bird, but it was exciting to see one so close up and actually be able to see its bald red head and wobbly wattles. We did spot a few other raptors, presumably hawks, and can only imagine the area full of magnificent birds during peak migration season! Unfortunately, the birds went by too swiftly and unexpectedly to be good photo subjects. We also came across a cocoon/nest of tent caterpillars chomping their merry way through the early spring buds, and those proved to be more photo-friendly, but that was it for our interesting animal sightings of the day.
Tent Caterpillars

Excited to be at the top!
Despite the popularity of the trail, at some points it seemed as if it could have been better blazed. We ended up on a slight detour at one point when we accidentally followed a pseudo-path until it petered out, and spent a few other moments having to pause and search out the next blaze to guide us on. We eventually made our way past the first few telecommunication poles and a windmill, and finally made it all the way to the summit, which, unfortunately, was full of more communication towers (some even warning of unsafe radiation limits!). The summit was also home to a star-shaped frame with lights, and a flagpole, and unfortunately, litter here and there (we've started trying to pick up recyclable litter when we're out and about, but it's always frustrating to see). Mt Tom is apparently a broadcasting hotspot for a few TV and radio stations, and we sat on the steps to one of the buildings and snacked eagerly on trail mix, Snickers and bananas before turning around to head back the way we came.

Water by the trail
Spring blooms
The way back down passed much more quickly than the way up since we stopped less to ogle the views, and we  found ourselves back at the car park surprisingly quickly. We had spent about 3 hours in total for the round trip hike at a causal pace, with a detour for good measure, and a fair number of view-admiring stops. I'd say Mt. Tom was overall a pleasant and not-too-strenuous trip with a few fun rock scramble bits through cool geological features and a great view to accompany - all-in-all, a good pick for an introductory hike - a thought reinforced by the fact that our friend wasn't scared off climbing future mountains - in fact, she loved it! It was a great way to kick off our climbing season and we're definitely excited for some bigger peaks to come...

A couple more photos from this trip are up on my Flickr page if you'd care to check them out!