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.

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