Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ice Sculptures

Wake up, put your shoes on,
Take a breath of the northern air
And rub those eyes,
Genuflect beneath the starry skies,
Before you climb the mountain,
The foothills must appear

From "Smile" by the Jayhawks

Crystals formed in the thin ice sheet on a brook in Westwoods Preserve

It was my third of four trips to Westwoods Preserve in Guilford Connecticut. I was hiking with a beautiful young lady named Jasmine. She clearly wasn’t happy about it however. I wasn’t the man she started the hike with you see, and I had only met her two hours ago. Still walking with a beautiful companion is better than walking alone if you ask me. How did we briefly become hiking partners? Well let me start earlier in the season.

It is part of human nature to think that we must travel far to find interesting and wonderful places. Sometimes that is actually true. Sometimes it isn’t. A good friend of mine, Mike, told me in late November of a preserved open space in Guilford Connecticut named Westwoods. His evocative description spoke of caves, ledges, boulders, brooks, and challenging terrain. I was instantly intrigued and resolved to explore this place as soon as possible.

Orange Trail enters rubble

On December 11th I got my chance. I had a few hours to spare and drove down to Guilford. The trail system at Westwoods is nearly 40 miles long. It is blazed with a well thought out system of shapes and colors. A map is essential and they can be obtained at several locations in the area. One such location is the excellent farm store on Route 1 run by Bishop’s Orchard. I obtained a map at the store, as well as some delicious produce for after the hike, and I drove to the nearby Peddlers Road trailhead. All my visits would start at this easily reached trailhead.

Blazes. The system used in Westwoods is well thought out and useful.

While I did not have enough time for a proper hike I did have time to explore enough to decide if it would be a good place to bring my youngest daughter for a walk. Heading in on the white trail I soon descended to a wooded swamp where a plank walkway has been constructed. Crossing this long walkway I soon became aware the swamp was full of the sounds of American Robins and one Hermit Thrush. Most people believe Robins are the first bird of Spring when they show up on our lawns in March. The reality is many Robins are still around in Connecticut during the winter. They are found in flocks that often forage wooded swamps, fields, and cedar woodlands. It is only as nesting time approaches that we find them once again pulling worms out of our lawns.

Plank walk through wooded swamp on White Trail

As I reached the far side of the plank walkway two trails split off from the white trail and all three trails headed uphill. I chose the left hand trail which was blazed as the main orange trail of the system. It took no time at all before I was immersed in a world of dramatic rock ledges that were splintered and shattered into a fascinating and tumbled landscape. I knew at once that I would be bringing my daughter here.

Two days later I did. Janet and her friend Rachel accompanied me on my return trip. We headed in across the now frozen wooded swamp. It is impossible for kids to pass up an opportunity to break the ice if at all possible. It probably started with Cavemen. I can picture the children of our early ancestors smashing the first ice of the season while their parents watched with pride. Well that same tableau played out in 2009 as I watched Rachel stomp the ice along side the plank walk until the requisite sound of ice shattering was achieved and we could push on.

Rachel stomps the ice. What kid could resist?

Once again the orange trail was chosen and we headed into a world perfect for the enchantment of 11 year olds, and 50 years olds as well. The Westwoods landscape has to do with rock and water, or more specifically, rock and ice. I often tell Janet that patience is a virtue and something worth having is worth waiting for. Well ice has slowly, and you could say patiently, sculpted the face of New England in very dramatic ways. The varied manner of that sculpting can be seen in the landscape of Westwoods. Let’s take a look at the wonderful way ice has made this patch of New England into a great place for hikers, naturalists, and of course, children to visit.

Ice columns extruded from the soil. As the ice froze it expanded and "grew" into beautiful little arches protruding from the mud.

One physical law we all learned in school is that when something is warmed it expands and when something is cooled it contracts. Water plays by its own rules however. When water in its liquid state cools it contracts, following the rules, until it hits about 4 degrees Celsius. As it cools beyond 4 degrees Celsius it starts to slightly expand. Then when it reaches the freezing point and solidifies into ice it expands by nearly ten percent! This expansion is impossible to resist since water is essentially non-compressible. So if water freezes in a confined space, such as within a crack in a ledge, that confined space is forced to become larger. So water freezing in a crack in rock makes the crack grow, and repeated thawings and re-freezings eventually splits the rock. Thus is hard rock broken and reduced by the mere presence of water freezing in its cracks. This process, over many centuries, has sculpted the face of New England. So it is at Westwoods.

Rachel rests on a giant stone splinter that has been split from a massive boulder.

The splitting of huge chunks of stone off the Westwoods rock ledges has created many a tumbled field of rubble and many gigantic standing stones. Some of the results of the random arrangements thus created are impressive overhangs, caves, and odd formations. If you hike the trails of Westwoods with children be prepared for the kids to leave the trails as they are drawn to explore these intriguing environs. Face it, you will not be able to easily stop them, and you shouldn't stop them if you ask me.

Janet and Rachel explore an overhang

Rachel and Janet in a cave

The preserve is rife with ice sculpted formations. The trail map has points of interest marked on it and all are visited by the preserve's trails. It is not a short walk to visit all the points of interest, which is just how it should be in my opinion. Not only is this a wonderful place to see sparkling examples of geology but it is a perfect place for a long vigorous hike should you be so inclined, as I am!

A huge overhang forming an open cave named "Indian Cave"

Westwoods has a great deal of water. There are brooks, streams, wetlands, a lake, and a good deal of water that travels through the fissures and fractures in the ledges. This water had been freezing as it reached the exterior of the rock and many lovely drapes of ice and icicles were festooning the woodland. One overhang we came across was draped with icicles. There was room behind this crystal sheet for the girls to climb into, which of course they did, and I was able to take cool photos of both girls inside this "ice cave." The day Janet and Rachel joined me had started cloudy and cool and had finally yielded rain. We hiked back damp but happy. At one point the Orange Trail passes through a narrow slot formed by huge slabs of stone. This section reminds me very much of something you would expect to find in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was a day full of fun, and the girls and I really enjoyed ourselves. It is one of the great joys of my life to spend time with such wonderful kids, and time spent outside only makes it better.

Janet in the "ice cave"

The girls walk through 'The Slot" on the Orange Trail

On my third and fourth visits to Westwoods I explored much more of the trail system than I had on the previous two trips. I have not yet walked all the trails but I have yet to find a trail that is not interesting and Westwoods is fast becoming one of my favorite places to hike in Connecticut.

Solitary Glacial Erratic along Violet Trail

Along the White Trail, east of Lost Lake, are another reminder of the sculpting ice has wrought, glacial erratics left behind during the last ice age. There are many erratics on the preserve but two near Lost Lake are of particular interest to me. One of these is a nearly perfectly round boulder looking like an enormous cannonball. This erratic must have been tumbled and ground very evenly within the glacial ice sheet to be so nearly round.

The glacial erratic I dubbed "The Cannonball" is just east of Lost Lake

Another glacial erratic in this area called "Carved Rock Sculptures" on the trail map is probably the most interesting one I've seen in some time. It is split in two halves and has a Red Cedar growing between the cloven halves. On first appearance it seems as if the cedar has split the stone, but this is surely an illusion. What has in all probability happened is the repeated freezing of water in a fracture in the erratic. This eventually split it asunder. Then a Red Cedar seed germinated between the two halves, grew to a mature tree, and now is a remarkable spectacle. One well worth seeing for yourself.

A Red Cedar grows in an ice cleaved erratic. The stone split long before the tree came along. Isn't this just the coolest thing to come across in the woods?

Lost Lake viewed from the overlook on the White Trail

I guess it's time to return to the question of how Jasmine and I came to hike together on the Westwoods trails. Well on my third visit I parked at the Peddlers Road trailhead and started to get my gear together. As I was prepping, another vehicle pulled up and out piled a gentleman and his two dogs. I love dogs and so went over and talked to the man whose name was Mark. He told me he ran the trails nearly every day and with the dogs. After a pleasant talk we headed off in different directions into the preserve. A couple of miles of hiking later, as I was leaving the Lost Lake overlook and heading back north, I ran into another couple walking the trails. They had a dog of their own but they also had one of Mark's beautiful dogs which seemed to have joined them. When they saw me approaching they assumed the dog to be mine. I quickly explained who the dog really belonged to and tried to figure out which direction Mark's dog had come from to try and guess where Mark might now be on the trails. I was torn between leaving the Lab with the couple on the chance it would re-find Mark on its own, and taking the dog back with me to the parking area. At first I started to walk away and let the dog go on its way, but my conscience stopped me and told me I would never be happy with myself if I didn't make absolutely certain Mark and his dog were reunited. So, quickly turning around and rejoining the couple, I borrowed a leash from them and took possession of the lost dog. She was not happy to be tethered to me and she balked as I coaxed her along the trail. It was a gorgeous dog and very even tempered, but it knew I was not its master. Still she obeyed, albeit reluctantly and with many a look back where last she saw her master.

More dramatic ledge and rubble along Yellow Trail. Jasmine and I head back northward

It was a difficult return walk with a reluctant Jasmine, of course the dog was Jasmine, but eventually we reached the parking area and after a short wait Mark returned with his other dog. He thanked me for bringing Jasmine back. She had missed him on the White Trail when he went up along a ridge to do pushups (well what do you know, another fitness nut like myself!). She must have thought he had continued along the trail they had so often taken together and she had run ahead only to bump into the nice couple with their own dog. She then attached herself to them, not knowing where her master had gone. Mark eventually also bumped onto the couple and they told him I had Jasmine in tow and would wait with his dog at his car for his return. Mark told me he would have been in deep water with his wife and daughter had he returned without Jasmine. You know, Jasmine would probably have found Mark on her own. But I could not risk it. I did what I knew was right. It made me feel good about myself. That is the best way to know if you have made the right choice in life. That good feeling that fills you with an inner peace and happiness about the choice you made. I would have always wondered if that dog had found her way home if I hadn't taken her in hand. I had to make sure she was reunited with her owner. I'm very glad I made that choice.


So in the words of the Jayhawks, "Wake up, put your shoes on, Take a breath of the northern air, And rub those eyes," and head out for a walk in the woods. I bet it will make you smile. Janet, Rachel, Jasmine, and the ice sculpted rock of Westwoods certainly made me smile, more than once.

If you want to visit the Westwoods Preserve, follow this link for directions and map info;

1 comment:

  1. Looks like a great place to explore, will have to check it out with my kids