Thursday, April 14, 2011

103. Hull: Nantasket Beach

When you walk Revere Beach, you are legally bound to walk Nantasket Beach within 24 hours, according to the Book of the Legendary Battle Between Boston's North Shore and South Shore. I followed the law to the letter, but got a raw deal.

The predicted rain arrived, with violence. The wind blowing off the water formed the drops into stinging needles, and were it not for my raincoat, I would not have walked. My legs did get soaked, but they expected discomfort to be the least of their issues when I told them what they'd be doing this year.

I learned a long time ago to never bow my head when it rains. I walk upright, letting the water hit me as it may. I'm a true believer in the notion that if you hunch your shoulders and act like the rain is getting the better of you, it will. Take nature in for all it's worth. Watch what it can do. Feel its power. Listen to its effects. Revel in it.

I also hearken back - here I go historifying again - to the days of the storm warriors of yore, the men of the United States Life-Saving Service who walked these storms, on this very beach, at their worst because they had to as sworn protectors of the people who worked upon the sea. I walk with them in mind, and with our Coast Guardsmen of today, who risk their lives to save others in peril upon the ocean.

So I got wet. Who cares? I'll walk on plenty of sunny days this year, and for the rest of my life. I'll take a rainy day once in a while.

102. Revere: Revere Beach

I came seeking dead birds, and man, did I find them.

They'd been planted, of course. The folks at SEANET, for whom I volunteer as a dead bird finder on the Spit in Scituate twice a month, had asked me to join them in a training session for local college students. Hence my trip to Winthrop and Revere (on April 12). When in Rome, take a walk and make it count for your silly little year-long walking project. As least, that's what I always say.

We escorted the students through the process, as unsuspecting passersby gawked at the dead gannets, scoters and shearwaters strewn across the beach. In a real surprise, 7 Manx shearwaters, live ones, flew up and down the beach a few times, right atop the breakers. They should be far to sea, but for the past few years have adopted Revere Beach as their home. Go figure.

By the time we were done, on this gorgeous early spring evening, the sun was about to set, and the Red Sox were ready to take on the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway. Rain was predicted for the evening and into the next day, and two dozen college students had a better appreciation of the world of citizen science, a world in which I live just about every day.

101. Winthrop: Deer Island

If I'm not careful, I might go on forever.

I grew up on the other side of Boston Harbor, in Hull, looking out at the "eggs" of the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Facility for what seems like forever. As luck would have it, my college roommate was from Winthrop, spending his youth looking south toward Hull.

Without pretending to be a wildlife sanctuary because of its location and immediate surroundings, Deer Island nevertheless attracts nature. Yes, planes from Logan International Airport soar overhead, and tankers and other huge ships glide slowly out of the harbor proper for anchorage in President Roads. The city dominates the skyline in one direction, the treatment plant in another. But the brants, the northern mockingbirds, the red-winged blackbirds and today, the hermit thrushes, don't care.

The ocean is everywhere one looks, and growing up in Hull, it's the most peaceful of existences for me. I never take for granted my continental edge existence. There's an odd thrill in looking eastward and saying to yourself, "if I started swimming from here, the next land I would touch would be Portugal." Deer Island, with its prominent hills, begs such pondering.

I'll stop now. Gotta save something for the hardcover, or the movie.

100. Ayer: Mirror Lake

The magic number! It means nothing, of course.

I chose Mirror Lake because of my past visits to this place. It's a receration area in the heart of Fort Devens, and the ghosts here just speak to me.

I coauthored a book last year with a good friend on Camp Edwards and the Massachusetts Military Reservation. One of our reserach visits took us to the Fort Devens museum, as, since Devens was the forerunner to Edwards, on Cape Cod, there was a collection of photographs we needed to see. We visited the small military graveyard, which holds the remains of some German U-boat officers, among many American fallen, and stopped by Mirror Lake.

The lake has a sandy waterfront, a little knoll with a platform for picnickers and more. It has the feel of the 1940s and 1950s for me, when physically fit and mentally tough young men brought their young families here during downtimes, knowing that at any moment their peaceful little lives could be harshly and forever altered by the fickleness of war. I feel that tension when I walk the trails here.

But I also feel peace. The waters here are calming, the evergreen trees across the way spread out just enough from each other to allow viewing to the road rimming the water. If another person was walking the trail today, I'd be able to see them no matter where they were. But I was alone. And at 12:27, it became just me and the sun, as it burst into the sky, signaling the end of my day's adventures.

99. Harvard: Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge

Rack up another "I've always known about it but have never been there" sanctuary for the list. As The Rock used to say to professional wrestling crowds around the United States whether he'd been to their venues before or not, "Finally, the walker has come back to Oxbow!"

I have to say I wasn't nearly disappointed. My three quick issues: 1) a train had a problem near the parking area and sat idling the entire time I was there; 2) hunters were blasting the hell out of something across the Nashua River; 3) the government's no trespassing signs. It just seems so odd and out of place. We're on government land when we walk the trails, yet across the river - which none of us are really planning to ford when we start walking - there are numerous and repetitive signs stating in bold letters that it's government land, keep off.

Now to the good stuff. Beavers! I found beaver damage on trees up and down the Riverside Trail. More on them when I get to Lenox later this year. Frogs! Repeated splashes along the bank told me they were seeing me coming and diving for cover (as if I could ever hurt a frog). I stopped and watched a pod of bubbles rushing to the surface, and waited to see if it would repeat itself. Sure enough, it did, every eight seconds or so. But I freaked myself out, thinking about the periodic bubbles of oil that have been escaping from the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor on a rigid schedule since 1941 and the scroes of sailors who lost their lives entombed in the sunken ship.

Spring peepers, peeping in the woods! A swamp sparrow, throwing me for an identification loop! A singing brown creeper!

Yup, I fell for Oxbow. It probably won't be 'til next year, but I'll be back.

98. Bolton: Bolton Flats Wildlife Management Area

As the morning rolled on, I finally came to a familiar place. Birders from across Masachusetts know Bolton Flats as one of those, "well, I should get there at least once a year" kind of places. The last time I was here a hunter walked up with two dead American woodcocks in his hand, telling my friend David and I how he planned to clean and cook them.

There's an irrigation canal that runs through the property, which is enormous, by the way. I barely scratched the surface of it today, which is what a tractor had recently done in preparation for this year's crops. Despite the fact that the morning was wearing on, the birdlife was staying busy. I started to realize, too, that perhaps the fact that it was 65 and cool was going to be more advantageous in the long run than 80 and directly sunny. For both me and the birds.

I found more wood ducks. This time, they made much more sense to me, riding the waters of the canal, spooking with their unmistakable flight call as I approached. Mud on the trails made for some hard walking in places, and at one point I broke a hastily made bridge, a 2 x 6 stretched across a puddle. My bad, folks.

From about twenty feet I noticed something shiny on the ground in the heart of the trail. Hmm, fish. I guess it's not just the hunters who take advantage of nature's bounty here.

What a beautiful place.

96 & 97: Northborough and Berlin: Mt. Pisgah Conservation Area

I think I've found my second favorite natural place in Massachusetts.

Mt. Pisgah (not to be confused with New Hampshire's Pisgah State Park) straddles the town boundaries of Berlin, to the north, and Northborough to the south. The park is somewhat evenly split across the two communities, making for a nice exploration.

Starting from the south on the Mentzer Trail, I found a patch of snow, having to do a double take to be sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. I guess there still is some hanging around in Massachusetts. A moment later, at 9:32 a.m., the sun broke through the clouds, before quickly retreating. It was going to be that kind of day.

Before turning onto the Berlin Road trail I ran across a flock of six wood ducks deep in an upland section of woods, which was odd, but not unprecedented. I've seen them standing in trees before (hence their name), so I wasn't really surprised. The last time was at Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, New York.

Crossing the Berlin line I took to the North Gorge Trail, and found my runner-up paradise. The trail hugs the ridgeline pretty closely, and with the trees not yet fully leafed out (but they're starting!) I could see all the way down to the botton of the gorge, where the little stream that, I'm guessing, cut it flows. Even there, stonewalls run straight and corner sharply, dividing the land up for the ghosts of the farmers who once tended the land. A blue jay grabbed a twig and flew off to build a nest while pine siskins sounded in the trees above it all.

My favorite spot in Massachusetts? I'll let you know when I get there later this year.

95. Westborough: Walkup and Robinson Memorial

Could this place be any cuter?

First, the main trail is an old trolley line: Victorian days, people ridiculously overdressed to be outdoors, picnics, politeness (or so the Victorians would have us believe). Open-air trolley cars brought revelers to places like this one, with little stone stairways that were at once stoically utilitarian and natural-looking, on bright, cheery summer days.

Then, there's the Cattlepass Bridge. Are you kidding me? Farmers using fields nearby, the remnants of which survive, could safely shuttle their cows beneath the trolley bridge to keep them free from fear of collision with passing streetcars. On one side of the bridge there's an old pasture tree, on the other, an old well. Under the bridge itself, a pair of eastern phoebes were building a nest.

Did I just see a bunny? Oh my god.

I spooked a chipmunk on the way back to the parking area, then did the same to a red-shouldered hawk a few feet later. Regarding the former, I've often thought I'd love to write a book called Chasing Chipmunks, about traveling the United States to find all the different species. So far I can score eastern, least and cliff, but I think that's it. Maybe when my son's a bit older he and his dad will take a road trip.

When I got back to the car, I noticed that the temps had actually dropped. Whatever happened to the 80s, as my hairstyle, wardrobe, taste in music and choice of re-runs on TV Land often ask?

94. Southborough: Breakneck Hill Conservation Land

Over the past few years, I've come to know pneumonia almost as soon as it hits me. Around the first of April, that tickle started at the back of my throat. By the 5th, I knew I was seriously sick; by the 6th, I knew it was pneumonia. It's been a rough couple of weeks.

I've also figured out that it's the fifth day after the fever breaks that I can get back in the game full time. By that time, too, I'm itching to exercise my lungs. So on Monday, April 11, the time had come. I hit the trail.

And when I did, I struck apple.

I think that as I continue my westward expansion across the state I'll start to realize just how much farming was and is a major facet of Massachusetts life. Breakneck Hill is part orchard, part field, all rolling hills. Where bedrock pokes through the earth, trees grow in the field. The hint of fresh manure wafted on the breeze with the sounds of Route 9. Hawks soared overhead, robins foraged on the ground, blackbirds squawked in the trees. I even heard a chipping sparrow, a recent returnee from southern wintering grounds.

With temps predicted to hit 80 degrees, the feeling of spring - even early summer - was everywhere. Now if only the cloud cover would break overhead...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Saturday, April 2, 2011

92 & 93. Stoneham and Medford: Middlesex Fells Reservation

After a day immersed in pine needles, sand and ocean breezes, I found myself somewhere between utterly lost and feeling right at home in the Middlesex Fells (as I did on March 30).

Living now as I do in Weymouth, this land is much more what I am accustomed to experiencing when I walk out my front door. Life just isn't the same without protruding bedrock, glacial erratic boulders and oak-pine-maple woods.

The Fells have a bit of the Blue Hills in them (for those of you who live locally, the Blue Hills have a bit of the Fells in them). Paths walk directly up the sides of rocks, using their natural breaks as stairways. There are ups and downs and hills and dells and the occasional wide exposed section of rock that leaves a hole in the forest canopy. When you see one, you can't help it; you have to run for it. Something that instinctual has to go back through time. It's at those moments that you wonder if you're standing in the footsteps of the local natives from centuries ago.

Rocks with recognizable profiles reveal themselves. I found one that looked like a polar bear. Old paved roadways appear here and there, leading to further brow-furrowing mysteries. A jumbled pile of rocks, once, probably, a single entity that crashed to earth from the slippery slope of a retreating glacier, lurch into view. And then Spot Pond emerges, covered with common mergansers, powerfully relaying the sounds of the nearby roadways. If only those roads had been pushed even a half mile farther away when the park was designed...but I dream.

Yes, after a day on the Cape, it was good to be "home" again.

91. Harwich: Hawksnest State Park

What? Another cemetery? Go figure.

I'd been reading online about Hawksnest, the standard case of neglect by the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation, erosion issues and difficulty in parking in the area. So I was very content to park near the cemetery and walk down to the pond, even if it meant lengthening my journey for the day, and not contributing to the ongoing issues.

Trails were a bit difficult to find, tougher to follow once I found them, and I think at one point I walked off the state property. I was serenaded by a particularly melodic American crow. They offer a range of calls, from grotty, nasal squawks to songbird-like trills. Even so, I can pretty safely say this was the most pleasant sounding crow I've ever heard.

At one point I found myself pinned in between two ponds on a thin little wooded isthmus. The trail eventually and unceremoniously petered out, leaving me stranded halfway. It was the isthmus of no return.

By the time I noticed a brown creeper climbing a nearby oak, watching it dive headlong towards the ground before hopping its way up again - singing occasionally, picking at food sources constantly - I realized I was done for the day. I had been heavily breathing in bitingly cold air for 3 1/2 hours, and my lungs were burning. But to paraphrase the cowboy in the famous Far Side cartoon said, "Sure it hurt. But it was a good kind of hurt."

90. Chatham: Conservation Land

I couldn't find a name for this conservation parcel on any nearby signs, but I certainly found a story.

I now know it's called the Triangle, and that I have walked it in its entirety. But it was the first few steps that were of true significance. I stumbled onto a burial ground - not, of course, unprecedented in suburban Massachusetts. Family plots dot the landscape in southeastern Massachusetts, and I'm sure in other parts of the state as well. I'll be finding out for sure later this year.

So I wasn't surprised to see headstones, and old ones, at that. What I was surprised at was the words "small pox" being inscribed into every one of them.

It must have been quite a scare the first time small pox ran through the area. It's a horrible disease, highly contagious and quickly deadly. Scituate, for instance, went as far as banning all outsiders from spending the night in their town by law to prevent the spread of the disease into the community. If you entered that town from anywhere else, the locals shunned you, for at least the years in which the disease was sadly prevalent, cold shoulders and downcast eyes reigned.

That distrust spread into death. Small pox victims often ended up buried far from the normal places, the spots where they figured they'd spend eternity alongside their loved ones and other townsfolk. What a sad ending to a cut-short life. It's hard not to think about those poor lost souls when you walk the rest of the loop.

89. Orleans: John Kendrick Woods

Finally, I found a way to get mysef out of the wind. It was still there, attacking the forest ceiling, and, in fact, it helped me with a revelation, but it wasn't assaulting me personally any more. Hearing the branches rattling above, I glanced directly upward and was startled by the rich, luxuriant blue that unrelentingly covered the sky.

The cold, though, had done its duty for the day. Wildlife had hunkered down as I entered the John Kendrick Woods. By the time I reached a bench overlooking a ravine, I had only heard two species - a chickadee and a crow - and that would be 67% of the total I would tally there for the day. A passing goldfinch would buff out the stats as I left.

Along the trail I found a box for doggie treats, yet no doggies were to be found on this day. I walked so far that I came out the other end of the property, which I did not know was possible. I think in loops. I turned and headed back, only to be almost run over by a guy on a mountain bike. He apologized - not necessary, as I'm always happy to share a nature trail - and seconds later his wife or girlfriend or some mysteriously coincidental female version of him did exactly the same thing. I dodged to the left, without feinting, as I figured that would be too dangerous at her speed, and survived to walk another trail.

Good thing, too, as there was stil more Cape to go.

88. Eastham: Doane Rock Area

Eastham, near the Salt Pond Visitor Center, the public home base of the Cape Cod National Seashore, was where a significant piece of the Cape Cod natural picture came together for me. Walking the Doane Rock area, one finds numerous interpretive signs on the trails, all well done, some more intriguing than others. That, of course, is based on subjectivity. Do you believe in the power of history or the lure of nature? How about both?

Looking through the trees to understand the story of the forest, one is struck by one particular fact. This is not what the pilgrims saw. There's more oak here now than there was pine then.

Shade tolerance is the key. The oaks growing in these woods are capable of growing in a relative dearth of sunlight; the same cannot be said of the pines. So, as those young oaks mature and grow into bigger trees, they create even more shade, making it ever more difficult for those pines to thrive. Over the course of a few years, it might not be noticeable. After a lifetime of walking in the woods, you probably would notice a few changes. Give it a few centuries, maybe a millenium, and you have a different set of trees.

And then, there's that rock. Wow. The Doanes knew what they were doing when they picked that out as their genealogical landmark.

87. Wellfleet: Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

There are few places in Massachsetts you can go and expect to see whale vertebrae as lawn ornaments: several Cape Cod towns, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and the communities around New Bedford. After that, they're hit and miss.

Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary has a good one, on the left hand side of the trail as one enters, opposite the solar array. Past, meet future.

My walk here today, on the way to Try Island, was punctuated with a huge, cold exclamation point. The wind had not relented one mile per hour in my travels from P-Town to Wellfleet. It didn't bother the belted kingfiser much, nor did it dissuade the dozen or so species assaulting the bird feeders near the nature center. But there were no early herons or egrets stalking the marshes, no hawks or kestrels or ospreys in the sky. It was just too darned cold.

I reached the point where I had a decision to make - do I go for Try Island, or do I turn back? The decision was partially made for me, as the trail suddenly had become overwhelmed with salt marsh hay, right in the place I typically try to sneak up on the resident fiddler crabs and watch them scurry into their muddy holes. Faced with that fact, the deep cold, the need to stick to my schedule and, I fear, a growing internal wimpiness, I turned to retreat farther south along the old Grand Army of the Republic Highway.

86. Truro: Pilgrim Heights

Now, this is where I thought I would begin my walking project this year. But, as I said, Dighton got in the way.

I was thinking that I would find myself somewhere historically significant, even as wavering and dubious a connection as this one might be, at least geographically speaking. Let me explain.

We know the Pilgrims came ashore in what would become the northern Truro area before they touched down permanently in Plymouth. We know that they reported seeing deer and finding a water source, and from that water source they drank their first draughts of New World goodliness.

What we don't know is exactly where these events happened.

We know generally where, and that is good enough for you, me and the National Park Service. We need just a little suspension of disbelief when we stand before the marker declaring the story. We have to understand that it took place somewhere in the area. There is no giant tree, no huge rock, no homestead built on the site. And that's just fine. Instead we have a forest full of bear oaks and highbush blueberries, which, oddly, might not even be as historically significant themselves as one might think. More on that later.

85. Provincetown: Beech Forest

Imagine if the world's political boundaries were laid out by dominating habitat types. Cape Cod would be practically a world unto itself, which, of course, you may argue that it is already. It would lead to an interesting arrangement; all the pine barrens, the glacier-scoured lands, of southeastern Massachusetts, the eastern end of Long Island, and into New Jersey, would have one governor, one Schwarzenegger, one Ventura.

That governor would need to be an expert in, for instance, pitch pine, its exportability, its uses, how to maximize its commercial potential. Locals would be experts in pitch pine soup, pitch pine soap, pitch pine construction methods, because they'd have to be. Everything else non-pine barrens related would have to be imported: dolls, bananas, baseball cards, everything.

Instead, we're proud as Massachusetts residents to include the pine barrens as one of a wide array of habitat types, one that many people have to travel long, long distances to see and still claim it as part of their state's natural heritage. With sand underfoot, I started my Outer Cape adventure for the year (on March 28).

I wasn't planning on wind, but then, I was at the tip of the Cape. Chalk that up as a "well, duh" moment. The birds didn't seem to mind, at least not that early in the morning, as they were chattering away, even in the subzero wind chill. One sound caught my attention and I zeroed in on it. It sounded like a cuckoo, but it was way too early for a cuckoo. I remembered what my friend and colleague Wayne once said. If you're thinking you're hearing cuckoo in March in Massacusetts, think chipmunk.

He was so right.