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!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Ponkapoag Pond, MA

The Blue Hills span an area of 7000 acres just a tad south of Boston - a green little escape that we'd overlooked thus far in our nature pursuits in favor of hikes further afoot. However, this overcast Easter Sunday seemed like a good time to head out and see what treasures lay in our own backyard, and so the bf and I headed out to stroll the Ponkapoag Pond loop - around 4 miles of mostly flat trail that surrounds Ponkapoag Pond and its adjoining patch of white cedar bog.

45 minutes and a Honey Dew stop after leaving RI found us pulling into the "parking lot" off of Route 93, which was in reality a little cul-de-sac with about room for 8 vehicles - I'm not sure how busy the area gets, but you might want to get there early to be sure of snagging a spot! We polished off some brownies for sustenance before hitting the trail, opting to embark in an anti-clockwise direction following the green dot trail blazes around the pond.

A few minutes in, we passed a YMCA center and reached the turnoff for the boardwalk that led out into the middle of Ponkapoag Bog, a white cedar bog that offered what we thought was a tantalizing opportunity to see some carnivorous plants and hopefully a salamander or two. The boardwalk proved to be exactly that - a series of single boards laid out across the bog, some more deceptively stable and less afloat than others. Definitely a tad less structured than the boardwalks we'd been accustomed to elsewhere! We picked our way out into the bog trying not to get our toes too wet, as the boards would often sneakily dip when you stepped on them. Luckily the weather had been pretty dry over the past few days and we made it out the whole way to the end of the walk with mostly dry feet. At this point the walk simply ended at the edge of the pond proper, and it was a choice between donning swimming gear or turning back around - we opted for the latter especially since 50 degree weather was still a little too chilly for a dip!

The walk was pleasant, mysterious and mossy over dark tannin-stained water with the cedars arching still mostly-naked branches overhead. We thought we picked out some pitcher plants lying low on the ground, but the furled purple-spotted vegetation turned out, on later investigation, to be swamp or skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) instead. Unfortunately, no amphibians, reptiles or fish came out to play and the only animals that we heard or saw were birds.

The remainder of the circuit around the pond was pleasant if unremarkable - the spot by the dam with open water was pretty, and offered a sighting of a lone flying goose and some ducks a-bobbing for lunch. It was fairly quiet on the path although we did come across several other people, many with dogs in tow and some on horses, and at one point the trail passed through a golf course where some folks were out and about getting their game on.

It probably took us under two hours to walk the boardwalk and the circuit at a leisurely pace - all in all a pleasant little excursion if you're looking to just get out of the city for an hour or two and take a little stroll. Checking out the bog was definitely a neat experience and a little change of scenery from typical New England walks. We'll definitely be back in the Blue Hills in the near future to check out some of the other hikes!

A return to cyberspace!

It has certainly been a long while since I've spilled my thoughts and innermost secrets into your welcoming text fields, dear blog world. We've been separated for quite a while, but I've decided it might be time to make a return - I hope you'll have me back.

Writing came easy on the road when so much was new and amazing and overwhelming, but it's been two years (or more) since I had to shrug off the well-worn backpack and somehow assimilate into the monotony of the five day, forty hour workweek. For a free spirit to be cooped up in an apartment (with a lease!), running the same commute (owning a car, the horror!) every day to do the same thing in the same cube...well, it has been somewhat bleak. Needless to say, my creative energies have been sapped and inspiration has been low.

I am determined to break out of this slump and reclaim my life - hoping to find beauty in this "real world" experience that, if I must go through before returning to the open road someday, should attempt to appreciate and enjoy.

Life in a little town in Rhode Island may not seem like the most epic of existences, but I'm sure there must be adventures to be found here nonetheless. Wish me luck!