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;

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Carved in Stone

It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves. - Thornton Wilder.
The passage of time can be seen. It can be touched. It can be heard. It can even be climbed upon. In November, at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s George B. Parker Woodland, my dear friend Mary, her children Mark and Rachel, my daughter Janet, and I went for a hike through a small patch of the landscape of time. On a beautifully cool autumn day we walked the woodland trails that wind through the fingerprints time has left behind in Coventry, Rhode Island. The Parker Woodland is an 860 acre property consisting of magnificent old forest, reverting fields, whispering brooks, strange and mysterious rock cairns, enormous glacial erratics, stonewalls, and forlorn stone foundations. In this lovely forest, the passage of time can be seen, touched, heard, and even climbed upon.

The entry to the trail system.
We arrived at one of two parking areas along Maple Valley Road that allow access to the trail system. We chose the parking area near the nature center, a converted barn, and headed out on the Orange Trail. As we entered the forest, the perfume of red cedars greeted us. Mingled with this was the earthy smell every forest yields up to the autumn visitor. This smell of damp earth, moss, and decaying leaves is a sort of welcoming home to me. It never fails to awaken a swirling veil of emotions in me. It is at such times I can almost believe in reincarnation. Surely I have passed through here many times over the canvas of history. Or is it simply an instinctual memory? A murky reminder of where we came from, where we once belonged, where I still belong. Does it matter? Not really. All that matters is that I come back as often as I can. This day I once again wandered through the trees with a good friend and with three beautiful children. Is there a sweeter sound than the laughter of children intertwining with the song of a forest stream? If so, I’ve never heard it.

Mark, Mary, and Rachel on the blue trail
The Orange Trail soon yields to the Coventry Loop of the Blue Trail. This loop is about three miles long and wanders through hardwoods and over many outcroppings of bedrock. Rock is what our planet is made of, its bones so-to-speak. There are precious few places in New England where you are not constantly reminded of this fact. We turned right and soon entered a stretch of the woodland that is sprinkled with strange stone cairns. A cairn is a pile of stones built by human beings.

The mysterious cairns of Parker Woodland
Cairns can take many forms and serve many purposes. Some were built as future points along an intended stonewall. Others were loose piles of stones dumped in the process of clearing pasture land or cropland. Some are still being erected as trail markers. Yet others were erected as ceremonial or spiritual monuments by Native Americans. Each of these types of cairns can be recognized by their structure and their surroundings. It is believed that these particular cairns were Native American in origin. This seems likely correct to me.

A tall and carefully constructed cairn. This structure suggests Native American origin.
They are carefully constructed and sprinkled about the forest in a way that is not found in cairns constructed for the other purposes I mentioned earlier. Looking at these mute sentinels I imagined the strong hands that built them and the purpose in the eyes of those people so long ago. Now time has passed and many changes have been wrought on our world, but these small monuments to a different era still stand witness on the landscape.

Rachel climbs a ledge along the trail, and mugs for the camera!
We continued along the Blue Trail leaving the cairns behind. The Blue Trail then started to parallel Turkey Meadow Brook. This evocatively named watercourse, like all its brethren, is a liquid ribbon of time. The cut in the landscape and the rounded stones in its bed were visible reminders of the long ages that this brook has existed. Slowly carving its bed and tumbling and grinding rock, the very substance of the earth, into the smooth rounded stones the kids now hopped across. Nothing attracts children more than a stream. I think no child can enter a forest that holds a stream and re-emerge without dirty wet clothing and shoes. And that is how it should be if you ask me. This day was no different. Mark, Rachel, and Janet all crossed and re-crossed the stream intent on exploring the environ of the watercourse. Their exploration was only briefly interrupted by the sound of Mary’s laughter as she and I stood and watched them move along the stream. It is in shared experiences that we give our children the gift of time. Here among the trees and along the banks of a sparkling brook we shared wonderful moments with the children.

Mark, Janet, and Rachel rock hop Turkey Meadow Brook
A bridge across Turkey Meadow Brook marked the point that the trail was joined by the path from the second parking area. This bridge was new in construction and sported woven metal cables that anchored it to the banks of the brook. These cables clearly were for times when the brook flooded and the water level would rise and push against the bridge and threaten to dislodge it. If you have ever waded across a stream, you know the amazing power of even slowly flowing water. If you have waded across a fast moving stream, you know the feeling that your legs are moments away from being yanked out from under you.

Mary inspects the new Bridge over Turkey Meadow Brook

A closer look at the cable anchoring system for the bridge
As we left the new bridge behind, we soon came across the carcass of a previous bridge. It was broken and twisted as it lay where it had fetched up along the brook’s banks after some previous flood wrenched it from its home.

Here, downstream of the new bridge, lies the old bridge's remains.
A forest road crossed our path as we continued along. This road was little more than a sunken track through the forest. How many wagon wheels and hooves had passed this way so long ago, carving this sunken bed? Just as water had carved out the bed of Turkey Meadow Brook over time, this road had been carved out by the flow of humans and horses. This forest road is called Biscuit Hill Road. There is a legend that claims the road got its name during the Revolutionary War when a wagon headed to the campsite of French General Rochambeau’s troops overturned and spilled biscuits over the hillside. A quaint story, I do hope it’s true.
Where Biscuit Hill Road and the Blue Trail intersect, not far from Maple Valley Road, there is the barren foundation of an old sawmill. The sawmill was in operation from the 1760s until 1875 and was owned by African Americans. The mill is long gone and the stream is no longer diverted as it once was to turn the wheel that drove the mill’s saw. But the stones of the foundation remain, an impressive work of our forebears indeed. The kids climbed down into the deep pit that remains. Many hours of hard toil had occurred here, the sound and smell of the mill must have been a landmark for the community. Now a silent skeleton remained, silent but for the sound of the children exploring this relic of time long past. Watching Mark, Rachel, and Janet I imagined how much time I would have spent here if it had been part of the landscape of my childhood.

The gang inspects the foundation of the old saw mill
The day was passing and we continued on along the trail. Walking along Mary and I talked of many things. At one point our conversation went to hiking barefoot. When we had climbed Mt. Moosilauke the previous May, we had passed a hiker climbing barefoot. Somehow that memory came up and we were talking about it now. Rachel overheard the conversation and decided she was going to walk barefoot now. It was quite chilly for such a thing but Mary and I believe in letting kids experience things without too tight a leash. So off came Rachel’s shoes and she soldiered on for the rest of the day feeling the earth and rock against her bare feet. She’s a tough one, just like her mom.

Rachel takes the challenge and hikes bare foot
Thousands of years ago ice covered New England. The massive Laurentide Ice Sheet marked the last Ice Age when New England was covered by a blanket of crushing ice that slowly ground the surface of the earth as it crept southward. Huge chunks of rock were splintered free from the earth’s crust and caught up in the ice. These were slowly tumbled and ground against one another and the underlying rock the ice slid over. When the ice finally retreated, these boulders were dropped wherever they were, often many miles from where they were shorn from the earth. Now they stand scattered about looking out of place like stones tossed by some legendary giant. These boulders are called “Glacial Erratics.” We came across one such erratic sitting where it had fallen many thousands of years ago. It towered over us. There was only one thing to do. Climb it.

The three kids and the glacial erratic
I gave Mark a boost up on its lower sloping edge and Rachel soon followed. Noticing a small log lying nearby I recognized it for what it was, a make-shift ladder that had been employed by some former adventurer to gain access to the top of the erratic. Putting the log in place I soon scrambled up and helped Janet to climb on as well while Mary prepared to take pictures. It wasn’t long before the kids came up with the idea to do “YMCA” for the picture. Through the randomness of events, the Village People and a boulder dropped 20,000 year ago in southern New England met on the landscape of time. Fact is stranger than fiction.

The Village People meet the glacial erratic! Mark really needs to work on his "M"
After Mary took a few pictures, I helped her to climb up and I slid off to take more pictures. As I looked up at Mary and the kids I couldn’t help but reflect that there could be no more vivid reminder of how brief our time on this planet is than the massive chunk of rock in front of me that has rested there for two hundred centuries. Our life spans are little more than a finger snap by comparison.

The gang atop the erratic. That is no small stone!
Leaving the erratic behind, and with the day slowly fading, we pushed on. Rachel had put her shoes back on to climb the boulder but now they were off again. There were many more reminders of the passage of time on the woodland’s landscape. We found another erratic which had been split by thousands of years of water freezing in cracks and slowly splitting the giant into two halves. As the kids scrambled around it, I couldn’t resist a joke. So I told the kids I could tell how long the boulder had been there. They looked at me expectantly as I walked up to the surface of the erratic and caressed it as if I was somehow magically extracting information about its past by simply feeling it. I then proclaimed it to have been standing there for 20,000 years. Mark asked how I could tell. I responded with a smirk that I had read that the Laurentide Ice Sheet melted that long ago so the boulder must have been dumped then. This admission, after my theatrical conjuring performance, brought looks from the kids (especially Janet) that clearly said, “Very funny wise guy!” and a laugh from Mary. I do love messing with kids’ minds. After all, they are always messing with ours, aren’t they?

Mark, master of disguise
It was time to head home. We picked up the pace and soon found our way back to the car. We had only walked about half of the Parker Woodland’s trails, if that. But it had been a wonderful hike. Sharing time with children is one of the great joys of life. Sharing such a special part of the New England’s natural world with Mary and the kids was one of the highlights of the autumn for me.

One of several old stone foundations on the preserve

A "Wolf Tree" or "Pasture Tree." This tree was left uncut by the early farmers, probably to provide shade for pastoral animals.

The day fades and our walk through Rhode Island's Parker Woodland comes to an end
There are many gifts we can give our children, but none is as precious as the gift of our time. Our lives pass quickly, especially in comparison to such things as glacial erratics. We can chose to use our time wisely, to live life and to experience the world we live in, or we can fritter it away doing things like closeting ourselves indoors sitting in front of a television. I hope you will choose to get up and go out. Take your kids or your nieces and nephews and go outside. Or go for a hike with friends, or far better, the person you love. Life should be a shared experience. Life should be spent outdoors. I doubt when your life is in its twilight you will think back fondly of all the time you sat in the dark watching sitcoms. But you may just smile when you remember a sight such as a very brave young lady walking barefoot on stony trails through the woods of Rhode Island on a chilly November day. I know I will.