Archive for October, 2013

Trapped

Although it’s a cold and dreary day, that wasn’t going to keep me from going on my usual walk in the woods.  I walked past Evergreen Valley Inn and to a dirt road that is seasonally maintained by the Forest Service.   A monster-sized SUV with Massachusetts plates sped past, followed by a pickup truck with “Maine State Game Warden” painted prominently on its sides and rear.  I figured I would be seeing the warden’s truck more often in the area, since deer hunting season opens this Saturday, so I didn’t give it much thought.  My dog Spencer and I continued along, and then took a side path on some former logging roads and abandoned settlers’ land.  Soon we were bushwhacking through the overgrown woods, although due to the deciduous forest is was easy to see where we were going.  Rain threatened; I really didn’t want to walk back in wet clothes in 35-degree weather, so I decided to head back home before the sky opened.

As we made our way back to the forest road, the SUV with Massachusetts plates stopped alongside of me.  Inside were two women in their 60s.  After introducing herself, the driver said to me, “I hope you don’t mind, but when I saw you were with your dog,  I felt I needed to stop and warn you . . . yesterday we were hiking and my dog was injured by a trap.”

She had been hiking the popular trail up Lords Hill where there is an abandoned mica, quartz and beryl mine, and where people who pick through the “mine dump” of blasted rock can still find gemstones if they are lucky.  Just before she got to the top, only 1 foot off the trail, her miniature schnauzer suddenly went crazy, with erratic movement and horrible noise.  She figured he had encountered a small animal, but when she looked, he was bleeding profusely from the mouth and thrashing wildly.  She ran over to him and found he had gotten his foot caught in the jaws of a trap!

She told me that had her friend not been with her, she doesn’t know what she would have done.  It was very tricky for the two women to free the dog from the trap – – first they had to figure out its release mechanism so they wouldn’t cause the dog even more harm – – and it was connected to a heavy chain wrapped around a tree, so it was hard to maneuver.  Carrying her little dog, they flew down the trail to her car and rushed to an emergency vet about 25 miles away.  Fortunately, the dog did not lose his leg and he will be okay.

She called the Maine State Game Warden and told him about the unfortunate incident.  So together they walked up the trail, where she pointed out the offending trap.  The game warden checked the trap – – a licensed trapper puts an ID tag on each individual trap he uses – – and there was no tag.  This meant it was a poacher.  But, the warden said, while the placement of the trap was both stupid and unfortunate (because many people and their dogs use this trail), had the trap been tagged, since it was off-trail (even only 1 foot) it would have been “legal.”  What’s worse, trappers use a bait scent to attract an animal to the area of the trap, which is how her dog got caught – he was sniffing around.

I find it ironic that most of the dangers associated with the woods are not due to confrontations with wild animals, but are usually human-caused – – and this was no exception.  Even during the height of deer hunting season, I am careful to wear bright orange and to make sure my dog is wearing a bright orange safety bandanna as well.  It had simply never occurred to me that I would run into a danger like trapping!  And worse, now that the leaves are covering the ground, there is simply no way to see a trap and my poor dog is especially vulnerable.  Even keeping him on a leash wouldn’t have helped – – this trap was only 1 foot off the trail.

Needless to say, until trapping season is over, I think I shall be avoiding unmarked trails, nor will I bushwhack or traverse some of the more remote areas nearby.  This poor woman’s story really left me shaken, because she had just gone on what was to be a pleasant, easy hike with her friend, and her dog was merely doing what dogs do  – – sniffing around in the woods, but staying nearby – – and due to one person’s lack of regard, her dog barely escaped  a grievous injury.

I’m sad – – and mad.

Maine Wilderness (Rant)

In New Hampshire, there is a wonderful tourist destination called Lost River Gorge.  They’ve taken a magnificent gorge filled with flumes, waterfalls, and caves, and carved a pathway built with a complicated set of staircases and safety railings so people of all ages can explore this natural wonder.  It allows people who might never be exposed to nature a chance to discover nature’s joys and miracles.  But – – the horror! – – it’s “developed.” (You can see pictures from a previous blogpost here.)

The “holiness” of wilderness is often taken to extremes in Maine. You can see similar gorges and waterfalls not far from where I live, and I enjoy them tremendously.  But unless you have some serious safety equipment or 4WD, they aren’t easily accessible and few but the most avid and experienced hikers and climbers even know about them.  With today’s eco-correctness, development of natural areas like Lost River Gorge will never happen today.  I guess that’s the point – – restricting access to keep things pristine – – but ultimately I believe it to be self-defeating.  I believe that HaShem gave us a world of amazing wonders, and it was created for all of us to cherish, respect and enjoy.

This year I found out that the Forest Service intends to restrict access to my two most favorite nearby places:  Great Brook, and Virginia Lake.  Readers of this blog know how much I enjoy fishing and kayaking at Virginia Lake, and that will not change, but the beach there will soon be closed to campers and the so-called  dirt “access road” will be made inaccessible to anything but foot traffic.  Even walking the 1/2 mile to the beach will be difficult, however, since they will be removing the culverts, allowing the road to wash out and those persistent wild trees, brush, bushes and thorns to grow right in.  Essentially, if you have a family with young kids and are shlepping towels, sand pails, and a picnic lunch, you have your work cut out for you if you want to enjoy a day at the beach, because just getting there will be an ordeal. (You can view pictures of Virginia Lake from a previous blogpost here.)

The other place –  Great Brook – – is an amazing place to camp, and I took my grandchildren there this summer for an overnighter.  Great Brook has a series of clear, pristine pools, water-filled potholes, and waterfalls that make it ideal for cooling off on a hot day (in fact, before our house had plumbing or a drilled well, we used to go there to bathe!).  Salmon and wild brook trout spawn there in November.

4 grandsons were in the orange tent; my husband and I slept in the green tent

4 grandsons were in the orange tent; my husband and I slept in the grey tent

The kids loved building a fire.  Behind them is Great Brook, with its natural falls, pools, and flumes.

The kids loved building a campfire. Behind them is Great Brook, with its natural falls, pools, and flumes.

The huge swimming hole with its icy water.  My 8-year-old granddaughter was the only one brave enough to jump into the water, which even in August was freezing cold.

The huge swimming hole with its icy water. My 8-year-old granddaughter was the only one brave enough to jump into the water, which even in August was freezing cold.

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The pool is fed by a waterfall

Another beautiful section of Great Brook

Another beautiful section of Great Brook

There is no sign from the road or at either site telling you of their existence, or that there are campsites there (and the campsites are free of charge!)  – – it’s mostly a locals’ secret.  Consequently, you might see one other person using the area on a “busy” day.  That’s because the area is designated as “wilderness” – – so signs are a no-no and maintenance is minimal.  Eighty-five percent of the times I’ve visited, I’ve been the only one there.  Hardly a case for “overuse,” as the Forest Service claims.

So why does the Forest Service want to shut these places down by restricting use, even though it’s public land?  There are several reasons:  1.) the Forest Service hopes to do some major logging in the area,  to generate revenue from cut trees that will be sold for lumber; 2.) to clear 25 years of accumulating brush and fallen trees which are a forest fire hazard; 3.) to clear-cut some areas so new meadows will encourage  growth of beech and establish more moose-friendly habitat; and 4.) the other reason for limiting use – – much more unfortunate – – is that a few people have abused the campsites.

By “abuse” I mean the worst possible things:   trash left at campsites, as well as – – ick — the presence of human feces, which besides being unsightly and disgusting, is a health concern.

You see, these areas are “wild” – – so that means whatever you bring in, you must take out the resulting trash.  Also, there are no bathrooms – – so if you have to go, you need to dig a “cat hole” in the earth some 6″ deep with a small shovel and poop in the hole, and then cover and bury your poop.

I can guarantee that whomever did not treat the campsites with respect, were not locals.  Locals view the wilderness as their very own backyard, and they will not trash their own backyard.   The campsites will be as pristine, or more so, when they leave as when they first arrived.   Now, I don’t blame the rangers for being really, really mad.  It should never be the job of a ranger to clean up after someone’s dirty business.   So how to prevent this from happening in the future?  Is closing down the campsites really the answer?

I don’t believe that people who leave trash and feces at a campsite do so out of maliciousness, but rather, ignorance at best and laziness at worst.

But how can one educate in the wilderness?  Clear instructional signs would help; that addresses the ignorance part.  How many of you reading this had ever even heard of a “cat-hole” (or would want to!)?

But what about laziness?

Let’s face it.  There are going to be people who will, if the road is really bad or non-existent,  consider it to be too much trouble to pack out their trash when they return to their cars.  But there are solutions!

1.  Provide a bear-proof dumpster (but the Forest Service doesn’t want to pay for trash removal, even though the amount of trash generated on site would require only monthly service), or,

2. Improve rather than remove the dirt access road, so people could actually park their cars at the edge of the beach, and would be more inclined to put the trash into their nearby car, rather than being overwhelmed at the thought of walking  a .5 mile bushwhack back to the car  with their garbage.

3.  Provide a composting toilet at the site.  Unlike outhouses, which stink and require weekly emptying, a composting toilet does not smell and requires maintenance only 1x – 2x year.

Alas, the Forest Service’s interpretation is that the area is designated a “wilderness area” and therefore no signs, no composting toilets, no roads, and no dumpsters are allowed.  And since a few irresponsible people can’t take care of it properly, better to shut it down completely.

Another example of “wilderness area” short-sightedness:  climbing Speckled Mountain.  You can climb it from Rte 113 in Evans Notch, on the Maine-NH border.  But if you climb it from the side near my house, you are suddenly in “wilderness” (the Caribou-Speckled Mountain wilderness, to be exact) and suddenly trail signs and blazes on trees showing the way, disappear, and the trails themselves are poorly maintained, or not maintained at all.  If you are lucky you will see cairns (piles of stones) that mark the trail, left voluntarily and charitably by a previous hiker.  Apparently trail signage is thought to desecrate “wilderness.”  Does the forest service prefer spending scarce funds on costly rescue operations for lost hikers, rather than a few dabs of paint on a tree trunk to mark a trail?

Does this make sense?  Are we really ensuring an appreciation of wilderness for future generations by making it inaccessible – – and dangerous! – – to the average person, perhaps precluding them from the chance to experience what wilderness is?

While I am by no means an “expert” outdoorswoman (if I had to rate myself, it would be “advanced beginner”), I have, thankfully, acquired skills and knowledge that allow me to venture forth and explore and enjoy wild places that are basically off the usual maps.  It seems foolish and short-sighted to discount novices who are no less enthusiastic about experiencing the joys of the great outdoors, without giving them the tools and accessibility that will make it easier for them accomplish this.

There are going to be many people reading this post who will disagree with me about making wilderness more accessible to the public, especially life-long Mainers who are very protective of “their” outdoors.  By clicking on the highlighted items you can see some interesting links that discuss the Forest Service’s plans for my immediate area, known as the Albany South project,  as well as the strong feelings in the debate about keeping Maine’s wilderness wild.

Pietree Orchard

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Beautiful views from Pietree Orchard.
Those are the White Mts. in the very far distance.

A few years ago on a cold February day, Tabitha King (wife of megamillionaire and prolific author Stephen King, and an author in her own right) was driving along a country road in Sweden, Maine.  At the top of a steep hill, the view was magnificent:  the hills and mountains of Western Maine on one side, the White Mountains on the other.  There was a tiny, rustic cabin, and an 80-year-old untended apple orchard.  There was also a large sign:  Now Selling!  Sweetwater Estates.

Forty-two parcels had already been sold, and were just waiting for more temperate weather before building would commence.  But Tabitha King wasn’t having it.  A housing development on an old Maine farmstead with history?  Not happening!

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So Tabitha King proceeded to buy out every single one of the forty-two future homeowners.

“Aw, come on,” I said to an employee of Pietree Orchard who was telling me the story, “there are always idealists who are hold-outs.”

“Let’s just say she made them offers they couldn’t refuse.”

(Hey Tabby, feel free to check out our place!)

For the Kings this was nothing remarkable.  They own lots of land in my neighborhood and property along Kezar Lake in Lovell.  And although they enjoy their lovely lakeside summer homes, they want to make sure that few others will do the same.  They want to ensure that Maine wilderness stays wild, and that historic farmsteads remain productive.

It’s a sentiment I can appreciate, yet I think their fears of overdevelopment are pretty much unfounded.  Maine is one of eleven states in the USA where more people are on welfare than employed.  In remote areas like where I live, it costs $10 in gas  and 90 minutes of travel time just to get to a supermarket and back.  Housing is cheap but the market is flooded with foreclosures and for sale signs, and some of those signs have been posted for four years.  Basically, there are no jobs and no economy, unless it has to do with excavation, water well drilling, logging, carpentry . . . you get the picture.  The “best” doctors, dentists, scientists are not coming to live in Maine anytime soon, that’s for sure.  It’s only been 4 years since WiFi connections via DSL were a possibility in our area.  The entire state of Maine has only one large shopping mall (most people in rural Maine have little use for clothing that isn’t denim, fleece, or flannel) although there are a couple of outlet centers in tourist towns.   So while we do have an increase in population during the summer from tourists and people who have summer homes, Maine is just too darn far away from everything and everywhere else.  The Maine wilderness will never be filled with bedroom suburbs; it’s too impractical.

The other thing is that in the Maine wilderness, the woods always, always win.  Maine’s climate and rocky, thin soil are pretty inhospitable for growing much anything besides apples, potatoes, summer corn, and hay.  But, as my Maine friend says, “the one thing Maine knows how to do is grow trees.”  It’s true.  You go to bed at night and when you wake up in the morning, there are trees where there weren’t any the day before.  If you own a house in the woods, half the time is spent beating back the woods from taking over.  Wild raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and thorny bushes; beech, birch, oak and pine saplings:  they all invade your yard and your driveway with devious encroachment.  It’s no wonder that “bush hogs” that gobble brush are a more popular tractor attachment than grass cutters.  Just take a walk in the woods and you will see countless abandoned cabins.  The roofs are caved in (due to heavy snowfall), the wood has dry rot, and the mice and woodpeckers have ensured that the cabins melt back into the earth.  And of course, trees are growing in all former rooms of those cabins.

But.  Tabitha King has done absolutely wonderful things with the old McSherry farmstead in Sweden, now called Pietree Orchard.  She hired pomologists (apple experts) who pruned and babied the old trees, and got them blooming again.  With their help, she added thousands of apple saplings, and incorporated new, successful techniques that limited or avoided use of pesticides.  She also re-introduced “heirloom” apple varieties from old Maine orchards that you can’t find in stores, and that would otherwise be lost forever.  She built a market store that sells bagged apples from the orchard, along with freshly picked vegetables and peaches, pumpkins, mums and winter squash grown on site, along with natural honey and crafts provided by local residents, farmers, and artisans.  Their cider press turns out cider that is the best I’ve tried anywhere.   Tabitha King also created an on-site artisan bakery,  and hired an artisan baker,  who turns out luscious-smelling pies, pastries, breads, cakes and cookies on a daily basis, baked with the finest and freshest – – and mostly local – – ingredients.  She created a Pick-Ur-Own business to help harvest the produce, and provide a fun and productive outing for the public.  The orchard provides tours and picking for educational groups and schoolchildren to learn  everything there is to know about apple orchards and their legacy in Maine.  She provided jobs for dozens of Mainers, who run the orchard, help with growing, harvesting and packing.  The workers are models of pleasantness.  When you visit Pie Tree Orchard, you come away happy.

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I should add that here in Maine, Stephen and Tabitha King are venerated – – they can do no wrong.  And for the most part, they don’t.  They obviously and rightfully cherish their privacy while holed up all summer on exclusive Kezar Lake, the fount and muse of many of King’s books.  But they run a foundation that provides grants for Mainers, as well as a foundation for destitute artists who’ve lost their home or health through accidents; and they donate heavily (in the millions) to libraries throughout Maine (when asked for $13K in funds to repair a public library, they wrote a check for $12,999:  Stephen King is phobic about the number 13).  In Lovell, the location of their summer home,  they donated big-time to remodel the public library there; the children’s library is now state of the art – and they used all local craftsmen and supplies to build it.  They donated funds for a baseball field and recreation center in their summer town as well, used by local Little Leaguers and Boy and Girl Scouts.

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Hundreds of apple seedlings. It takes 4 to 6 years from the time it is planted for an apple tree to produce.

Since apple-picking season is coming to a close, I realized that I’d better hurry out to the Kings’ Pie Tree Orchard to get my winter supply of apples.  Of the many varieties (samples are offered by employees with dazzling smiles) I chose Northern Spy, known for its good storage qualities (they’d be wintering on my porch), and hard, crunchy, juicy-tart bite.  I was supplied with a hand wagon and two half-bushel boxes for picking, as well as a an apple picking tool on a telescoping stick (no ladders are provided) which resembled a lacrosse stick.

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apple picker

Within 30 minutes I had picked my bushel of apples and then some, but I lingered in the orchard because the day was so beautiful and the views so far-reaching.  Pietree Orchard is truly a gem of a place.

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Back at home, I began planning:  apple butter; dehydrated apple slices; apple sauce; cider; pie.   Lots of activity to keep me busy on those days when inclement weather prevents me from venturing out . . .

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Blueberry Mountain

Shell Pond Trail

Shell Pond Trail

On Sunday we decided to take a short hike of 2 or 3 miles.  We live very close to Shell Pond in Evans Notch.  We had hiked the easy Shell Pond Trail loop 4 years ago, and to tell you the truth, it wasn’t the most exciting hike in the world, neither visually nor in terms of challenge.  It was interesting, though:  it is home to the Stone House, which is one of the few houses in the area constructed, well over 100 years ago,  with a stone facade  (surprisingly rare since we are surrounded by granite, but in the White Mountains, wood rules) from a quarry dug behind that house.  The land abutting the Stone House and Shell Pond was cleared by colonist settlers, and in the 1940s it was the site of an airstrip, used for practice landings and takeoffs by the military during training exercises during WWII.  Today it is a perfectly flat, grassy meadow.

This newly built home sits adjacent to the old airfield and the Stone House.

This newly built home sits adjacent to the old airfield and the Stone House.  (click to enlarge)

The most popular approach to Shell Pond is via Stone House Road off of Rte. 113 in Evans Notch; but just up the road from us on Deer Hill Rd. there is a small sign indicating a hiking trail that cuts in to Shell Pond, and that’s the route we took.  It’s always thrilling,  knowing that hiking trails, snowmobile trails, colonist history, stories of Indian wars of the 1760s and natural wonders are literally in our backyard.  Incidentally, the entire hike was on private land – – the owners have graciously allowed hikers on their property under the guidance and maintenance of the all-volunteer Chatham Trails Association, provided outdoor enthusiasts  stick to the trail and respect privacy boundaries of the owners.

It was a particularly lovely autumn day, the air cool but the sun kissing our faces; a strong wind the previous night had resulted in a deep carpet of golden leaves covering the trail.  It was a bit of a slog since walking in the leaves was slippery, and necessitated the use of hiking poles to probe the ground to see if the downed foliage was covering up large stones, mud, or deep, hidden puddles.

Shell Pond Trail

Shell Pond Trail

Weird but beautiful fungus growing on a rotten tree trunk

Weird but beautiful fungus growing on a rotten tree trunk

The route was very short and mostly level, and since the day was so nice we decided to continue on an adjacent trail to Rattlesnake Gorge.  A footbridge spanned the narrow granite flume some 30 feet below, fed by a pulsing waterfall.

Before our ascent of Blueberry Hill, this footbridge took us over Rattlesnake Gorge.  My husband, a geek gadgeteer, spent a lot of time consulting his GPS, which he installed with all the trails found in the White Mountains

Before our ascent of Blueberry Hill, this footbridge took us over Rattlesnake Gorge. My husband, a geek gadgeteer, spent a lot of time consulting his GPS, which he loaded with software containing all the trails found in the White Mountains

We continued a few hundred feet up the trail to Rattlesnake Pool.  We almost missed it – the trail marker blended in so well with the woods.

rattlesnakepoolsign

This magnificent swimming hole would provide perfect relief after a hot day of hiking, but we were not in the correct season for dipping in its freezing waters.  Fed by yet another waterfall, the round pool – really a giant glacial pothole – has incredibly green, clear water and is truly magnificent.

This glacial pothole is fed by a rushing waterfall to its left, unfortunately not shown.

Clear, cold Rattlesnake Pool.  This glacial pothole is fed by a rushing waterfall to its left, unfortunately not shown here.

Now we were truly energized, so we kept going.  And going.  We decided to climb to the top of Blueberry Hill, hoping for some nice views.  A couple we met on the trail who were on their way down told us that the climb was well worth the effort.  “And make sure you take the Lookout Loop Trail after you get to the top!” they added.

The climb wasn’t long, but it was extraordinarily steep.  I was huffing and puffing and my heart was beating so hard I thought it would burst out of my chest.  I needed to stop frequently to calm my pulse.  I am up to a challenge, but that nagging little voice inside of me wasn’t so sure.  “It’s going to get dark, and you’re going to be stuck,” it told me.  I was so tired, so winded.  My husband assured me we had plenty of time to complete the hike, but even if in the worst-case scenario it got dark, we could manage with our flashlights.  (We also had appropriate clothing, food, water, and first aid kits in our backpacks.)  “Ok,” I said doubtfully, and continued climbing and resting, climbing and resting.  I tried talking myself out of negative thoughts.  “We can turn around now if you want,” my husband said, and he meant it without any malice, but even though I was filled with doubt, I pushed grimly on. Surely we were so close to the top!  Despite his best intentions, my husband’s constant, cheerful GPS reportage (“1000′ feet to go!  950′ to go!”) was incredibly irritating and got old, fast.  Still, I kept climbing.

Finally, through the dense tree cover:  peeks of blue sky a few feet ahead!  The end really was in sight.  We finally made it to the top.  Blueberry Hill was indeed aptly named.  Although we were long past the July blueberry season, the blueberry leaves had turned a burnished maroon, and the surrounding green lichens were now a frosty white.

blueberrylichens

The view was shrouded by pines, and with the clock ticking, we hurried along the Lookout Loop Trail to a series of clear granite ledges.

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It was then that we were blessed with our reward:  probably one of the all-time nicest views I’ve ever seen on a hike, and that’s saying a lot here in the White Mountains!  We felt like we were on top of the world – literally and figuratively.

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(Click to enlarge) A five-star view:  from Blueberry Hill on the Lookout Loop Trail. Shell Pond lies below, and in the far distance on the left you can see a sliver of Horseshoe Pond and beyond it, Kezar Lake.

Our dog Spencer checks out the view at the top

Our dog Spencer checks out the view at the top

Despite his age (70 in dog years), Spencer still enjoys hiking.

Despite his age (70 in dog years), Spencer still enjoys hiking.  Here he smiles for the camera.

Although we couldn’t linger as long as we might have liked, the arduous climb had been absolutely worthwhile.  The steep, slippery descent was punctuated by my worries (“it’s going to get dark!” and my husband begging me to slow down (‘if you go fast you’re going to take a fall or stress your knees!”)  but soon enough we were indeed down the mountain and walking the last mile of trail.  Never had a soft, grassy, and “boring” flat former airfield been so welcoming to my poor, tired, sore feet!  And indeed, we did make it to the car before dark.

My husband, the gadget geek, was agog with the information spewing from his cellphone apps and GPS.  If you had asked me earlier that day if I was in the mood for a 5.5 hour, 7.2 mile hike climbing 1,870 feet and walking 18,500 steps, I would have said “No way!”  Instead, our spontaneity led to a challenge I wouldn’t have thought I could muster.  Besides being in awe of the incredible beauty we were privileged to see, it was such a positive life lesson.  Go!  Live!  Just do it!  Try!  You might fail, but you can achieve!  Choose happiness!  We had just experienced a taste of heaven, and being a bit tired and sore nevertheless seemed a small price to pay (not to mention the 950 calories my husband’s phone’s app said we burned) – – especially after the hot bath and cold beer that followed 🙂

I was sure HaShem has placed those two people on the trail at the moment I needed the most encouragement, and without the Providence of meeting them we would probably not have attempted the fantastic Lookout Loop Trail since the hour was late.

Since this hike was impetuously conceived, although we could rely on the GPS trail map, we nevertheless had no real information prepared in advance as to what glories awaited us. In the words coined by hiker and author “It’s Not About the Hike” Nancy  Sporborg, we were truly “riding the grace wave.”

Pumpkin Festival

The Lone Pumpkin and his sidekick, Tonto

The Lone Pumpkin and his sidekick, Tonto

This time of year pumpkins are serious business in the White Mountains.   There are numerous pumpkin festivals throughout Maine and New Hampshire, which include carving contests, pumpkin bowling, and pumpkin catapulting just down the road at Sherman Farm.

The town of Keene NH started its pumpkin festival in 1991 and garnered its first world record with less than 5,000 carved and lit jack-o-lanterns in 1993.  Twenty-two years later the festival is still going strong; this year they took back their place in the Guinness Book of World Records with 30,581 carved and simultaneously  lit pumpkins!  (You can read about it here.)

In Jackson, New Hampshire, the festival is called Return of the Pumpkin People, and it’s been happening since 1988.  Each year an ever-growing number of businesses (this year it was about 75 banks, stores, cafes, etc.) participate in creative, complex, and humorous life-sized dioramas of painted pumpkins (since the festival runs for 3 weeks, they can’t use carved pumpkins due to spoilage, so they paint them.)  The Jackson Chamber of Commerce prints out maps of the pumpkin people locations, and maps in hand, tourists and locals alike walk from exhibit to exhibit throughout the town.  The event attracts thousands of people from all over New England, and brings lots of revenue to shops, B&Bs, and other White Mountain tourist attractions.

Mostly, though, it’s about good old-fashioned fun.

(Click pictures to enlarge to see some of the amazing details!)

At the cafe

Poker Night

Feelin' Groovy  (the VW van play tent was for sale inside the store)

Feelin’ Groovy
(the cool VW van play tent was for sale inside the Ragged Mountain Camping Store that’s behind the diorama)

Tea Party   This was an elaborate diorama that stretched all over this property with many characters from Alice and Wonderland

Tea Party
This was an elaborate diorama that stretched all over this property with many characters from Alice and Wonderland

rabbit

Queen of Hearts:  Off with their head!

Queen of Hearts: Off with their heads!

Alice The swing swayed gently in the wind

Alice
The swing swayed gently in the wind

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum

And my favorite . . .

Nascar pit team readies the pumpkin carriage for the race!  Love the pumpkin tech under the carriage!

NASCAR pit team readies the pumpkin carriage for the race.
(Love the pumpkin tech under the carriage!)

(Check out this National Geographic video of pumpkin catapulting filmed in Delaware.)

Cranberries

For the past few years during autumn, I’ve noticed a sign just up the road from my house.   (“Up the road,” in rural Maine, as a friend from the city noted sardonically, is relative.  In my neck of the woods, that means 1 – 10 miles away.)

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I’ve gone to many u-pick farms over the years, harvesting apples, cherries, peaches, blueberries, pumpkins, peaches and beans, but picking cranberries, one of the United State’s few native plants, and almost exclusive to New England, would be a first.

Really, I should have been home stacking wood.  Since our sometimes-handyperson Bill felled more of our trees and chunked the logs into manageable pieces, my husband and I have been busy shlepping them into a pile so at a later date he can come and split them.  (By “manageable” I mean 10 – 30 lbs. per log.  The oak is a lot heavier than the pine or birch.)  Once split, the wood needs to be stacked in the woodshed so it can dry for an entire year before it becomes fuel for our woodstove.  (If you burn “green” wood without seasoning, it doesn’t burn very well, produces lots of creosote, and smokes heavily.)  But like unmade beds, dirty dishes in a sink, or laundry that needs to be folded and put away, that woodpile was not going anywhere and waiting a little longer was not going to hurt.

In the foreground are the cut logs we dragged in from our woods.  In the middle ground is a pile of split wood that needs to be stacked in the woodshed behind it.  That's our house on the left.

In the foreground are the cut logs we dragged in from our woods. In the middle ground is a pile of split wood that needs to be stacked in the woodshed behind it. That’s our house on the left.

I followed the sign down a dirt road and it led me to Woodward Cranberry Farm.

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I asked the owners, Rick and Linda Woodward, for a tour of their operation, and they graciously complied.

Linda (l) and Rick (r) Woodward

Linda (l) and Rick (r) Woodward

This is a good year for cranberries – their best ever.  The Woodwards expect to harvest 7,000 lbs of cranberries in 2013!  (Last year, one of their worst ever due to a late spring freeze, they harvested only 600 lbs.  Their average is 1200 – 3000 lbs. per year.)

“Wow, seven thousand pounds!  Are you going to sell to Ocean Spray?” I naively asked.

“Perish the thought!” said Rick.  The Woodwards are very proud of the fact that their cranberries have always been farmed organically (Ocean Spray uses insecticide) and that they supply local customers and small businesses (such as bakers, eateries and health food stores) in New England.

About 25 years ago, Rick, a contractor, and Linda, a dental hygienist for the Massachusetts prison system, were looking for a place where they could be weekend farmers and supplement their retirement.  Someone suggested cranberries, so they took a few university extension courses and they were hooked.  They bought land in Albany Township in western Maine adjacent to the White Mountain National Forest, cleared about 2 acres of trees in boggy ground, and started planting.

“We made tons of mistakes over the years,” said Linda, “but we have two major advantages:  my husband is good with his hands, and I am physically very strong!” she said.  Which is a good thing, because they do just about everything themselves, and that includes a lot of kneeling, bending, and lifting.

Their cranberries are certified organic and the Woodwards are members of MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association).  Birds control the harmful insect population; their 2-acre bog is bordered by many nesting boxes.

“Bluebirds,” says Linda.  “Swallows only eat the flying bugs but bluebirds eat them at the larval stage too.  We love bluebirds!”

Nesting boxes (left) edge the bog

Nesting boxes edge the bog (click to enlarge)

The gentlest, most thorough way to harvest the berries, albeit not necessarily the most efficient,  is by hand rather than machine.  Each picker is supplied with a kneeling pad to provide a cushion for one’s knees, along with a small bucket.  The cranberries actually grow on small, thin vines, and they share the space with moss and sandy soil.  Infringing tree saplings are vigilantly picked and discarded, lest they overtake the bog and threaten the crop.

A close-up of cranberries growing in their natural state

A close-up of cranberries growing in their natural state, close to the ground amid moss and sandy soil

Linda Woodward picking cranberries

Linda Woodward picking cranberries

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I had been under the impression that cranberries are always harvested from water, but the Woodwards prefer a dry-pick method since there is less likelihood of mold.  The bog is flooded when frost or snow is expected, however.  The water (or snow or frost) that ices over the ripe berries actually serves as a form of insulation against the severe cold, and make for a juicier berry.  The Woodwards dug a pond next to the bog, and built a pump house.  The pump transfers the water from the pond to the bog when needed, and then can pump the water out of the bog and back into the pond when drier conditions are called for.  Due to the standing water and surrounding woods, the blackflies and mosquitoes are prolific in springtime, but to my amazement the Woodwards were unfazed.

The pond the Woodwards constructed that is to the right of the bog.  At left is the pump house, which transfers the water from the pond to the bog and back again, as necessary.  To the immediate right of the pump house, also in red, is an outhouse with a composting toilet.

The pond the Woodwards constructed is to the right of the bog. At left is the pump house, which transfers the water from the pond to the bog and back again, as necessary. To the immediate right of the pump house, also in red, is an outhouse with a composting toilet.

The pumphouse (r) and the outhouse with composting toilet (l)

The pump-house (center) and the outhouse with composting toilet (l)

Once the cranberries are gathered it’s time to sort out the debris (more prevalent when machine harvested with a mechanical rake) which can include small vines, pebbles, moss and grass.  Mr. Woodward uses a winnower machine with a fan that blows the debris aside and puts the cranberries into crates.

Freshly gathered bushel of cranberries

Freshly gathered bushel of cranberries

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Rick Woodward pours cranberries into a winnower.

Linda was excited to show me their antique sorting machine.  It and much of their equipment, including their wooden crates (dated 1908) came from a farm museum that had closed its doors.  They continue to use the antique machines at Woodward Farm.

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The antique sorting machine that came from a museum and is still used by the Woodwards

The antique sorter searches for berries with the most bounce.  And bounce, they do!  (That’s why to the right in the above photos there is a screen in front of the ejection box.  It helps contain the berries from bouncing all over the barn.)  Those berries that are soft and not bouncy are considered “rejects” but are fine for sauce or juice, known as “utility grade.”

Antique crates, ca. 1908

Antique  wooden crates, ca. 1908

Originally the Woodwards slept in an RV on the property, but eventually they ordered a barn (“It came in a kit!” Linda said) which they assembled and built themselves.  They use part of the barn for their cranberry operation, and part of the barn, which they modernized and insulated, for living quarters.

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Sometimes when the barn gets too cold, Linda sorts by hand on this antique sorting belt, which is located in the part of the barn that serves as their living quarters.

Sometimes when the barn gets too cold, Linda sorts by hand on this antique sorting belt, which is located in the part of the barn that serves as their living quarters.

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Another view of the hand-sorting belt.

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These berries have been sorted and are ready to be juiced, baked, cooked or dried. They are full of anti-oxidants and are known to be helpful for UTIs (urinary tract infections) and prostrate troubles. The Woodwards are happy to share recipes using cranberries.

When Linda heard I enjoy juicing fruits and vegetables, she suggested I make my own fresh cranberry juice and then use the pulp to make fruit leather.  Cranberries are extremely tart, but I prefer not to use sugar.  I found that juicing cranberries with an apple made the perfect tart-sweet combination.  For the fruit leather, I added 1 tsp. stevia to the apple-cranberry pulp, along with a dash of cinnamon.

Cranberry-apple pulp on parchment paper, to be dried into fruit leather.

Cranberry-apple pulp on parchment paper, to be dried into fruit leather.

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My cran-apple fruit leather.

After a wonderful morning picking cranberries and learning so much, Linda Woodward put some cranberry vines into my hands.

“Try planting these rooted vines on your land, but make sure you cover them with sand if you want them to succeed,” she suggested.  “Maybe you’ll have your own cranberry crop!”

It is so nice to see people like the Woodwards – and there are many like them in their 60s, 70s and 80s  here in Maine — whose idea of retirement is not lying around doing nothing, but remaining physically active by choice as long as they are able, pursuing and enjoying a healthful lifestyle in a pristine and beautiful environment.  The hard-working and cheerful Woodwards were truly an inspiration to me, and gave me yet another unique Maine experience to share with others.

The Woodwards’ website:

http://www.woodwardcranberryfarm.net/woodwardsite/

An informative article about organic cranberry growing:

http://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Summer2009/Cranberries/tabid/1194/Default.aspx

Reportage from a local newspaper:

http://www.advertiserdemocrat.com/community/story/025-42-com-2011cranberries-31-v-0

Where Burly is the New “Hot”

A modern-day Paul Bunyan

A modern-day Paul Bunyan

Monday September 30 was Woodsmen’s Day at the Fryeburg Fair and I was not about to miss it!  Besides the usual midway, agricultural exhibits, farm animals, crafts, harness racing, hucksters, and fried food (the amount of oil used during the week of the Fryeburg Fair is enough to fuel a small country), Woodsmen’s Day is a full day of lumberjack contests and events.

This vendor was selling custom-made wood signs.

This vendor was selling custom-made wood signs.

I guess some customers request all sorts of inappropriate sayings.  I give the vendor a lot of credit for posting this sign, despite a potential loss of business.

I guess some customers request all sorts of inappropriate sayings. I give the vendor a lot of credit for posting this sign, despite a potential loss of business.

Participants come from all over New England, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Minnesota and Wisconsin to participate in crosscutting, bucksawing, underhand chopping, axe throwing, log rolling, springboarding, chainsawing and tree felling through thousands of pounds and lengths of logs, boards, blocks and trees as they work against the clock.  There are identical contests for lumber “jills” as well as “jacks,”  and their muscle mass is pretty intimidating!   The event is held at the infield of a racetrack, and the huge grandstand is completely packed with 8,000 – 10,000 onlookers.  Who knew that sawing a piece of wood or rolling a log could be so exciting?  And yet I found myself cheering the victors and groaning when contestants failed along with the rest of the pumped-up crowd.

Both tiers of the grandstand are completely full, along with spectators watching on the ground.  The woodsmen's contests attract thousands of spectators.

Both tiers of the grandstand are completely full, along with spectators watching on the ground. The woodsmen’s contests attract thousands of spectators.

This event, called the Under Hand Chop, requires enormous hand-eye coordination!  The contestant stands on a solid wood block, and using his axe, must chop through the block between his feet with some very powerful swings without falling off the block or, G-d forbid, injuring himself in the process.  The winner chopped through the wood in less than 15 seconds.

This event  requires enormous hand-eye coordination! The contestant stands on a solid wood block, and using his axe, must chop through the block between his feet with some very powerful swings without falling off the block or, G-d forbid, injuring himself in the process. The winner chopped through the wood in less than 15 seconds.

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This pictures was taken moments before the final cut, when he chopped all the way through the wood beneath him and was left standing on what was now two pieces of block wood.

This picture was taken moments before the final cut, when he chopped all the way through the wood beneath him and was left standing on what was now two pieces of block wood.

Working against the clock, in this event logs must be unloaded as quickly as possible into a neat pile beneath the truck.  Then they must be reloaded back onto the truck.

Working against the clock, in this event logs must be unloaded as quickly as possible into a neat pile beneath the truck. Then they must be reloaded back onto the truck.

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First, the contestant must chop a gash into the tree trunk that will be large enough to accommodate a slab of wood.

First, the contestant must chop a gash into the tree trunk that will be large enough to accommodate a slab of wood.

Then he climbs atop the slab, and hacks away at another gash higher up on the tree.  He then makes his way up to the top of the tree, chopping gashes, inserting the slab, and climbing, again and again.

After inserting the slab of wood into the gash he’s created, he climbs atop the slab, and hacks away at another gash higher up on the tree. He then makes his way up to the top of the tree, chopping gashes, inserting the slab, and climbing, again and again.

Once he gets to the top, a new challenge awaits:  he must chop a thick block of wood that is nailed to the top of the trunk in half.  This is much harder than it sounds:  he is now balanced precariously on the narrow plank of wood that he inserted into the gash on the trunk, while 12' - 14' above the ground!

Once he gets to the top, a new challenge awaits: he must chop a thick block of wood that is nailed to the top of the trunk in half. This is much harder than it sounds: he is now balanced precariously on the narrow plank of wood that he inserted into the gash on the trunk, while 12′ – 14′ above the ground!

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At the final stage, chopping the attached solid block of wood at the very top.

This woman (known as a "lumberjill") won every one of the women's events.  She was STRONG!

This woman (known as a “lumberjill”) won every one of the women’s events. She is STRONG!

Women also compete!  The winning time for chopping through this solid block of wood was just over 6 seconds!

Women also compete! 

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The winning time in the men's division was just over 5 seconds

The winning time in the men’s division was just over 5 seconds

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The logrolling contest was much more difficult than it appeared, and many lumberjacks were flummoxed.

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This extremely big strong guy was the champion chopper…

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. . . but perhaps in his next life he’ll join the plumber’s union 😉

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Here are the winners of the crosscut competition.  These women sawed off two pieces from this solid block of wood in about 6 seconds.

Here are the winners of the crosscut competition. These women sawed off two pieces from this solid block of wood in about 6 seconds.

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This woman is all smiles - - she won 4th place in the young women/collegiate division.  She comes from a logging family.  "Once wood gets into your blood, it stays," she said.

This woman is all smiles – – she shows off her 4th place ribbon in the young women/collegiate division.  She came to the competition from the University of Minnesota. She comes from a logging family. “Once wood gets into your blood, it stays,” she said.

The lumberjacks and jills who entered the paired crosscut competition were all tough and strong, but they babied their saw blades with a gentle touch.

The lumberjacks and lumberjills who entered the paired crosscut competition were all tough and strong, but they babied their saw blades with a gentle touch.

Making sure the handle is tight before the competition.

Making sure the handle is tight before the competition.

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Both immediately before and after the event, the saw blade is oiled lightly with a brush, and any dirt or dust is removed.

Both immediately before and after the event, the saw blade is oiled lightly with a brush, and any dirt or dust is removed.

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Both men and women entered the axe-throwing contest.  Here a man takes aim and is about to throw the axe toward the target.

Both men and women entered the axe-throwing contest. Here a man takes aim and is about to throw the axe toward the target.

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And now he lets it fly!

Excellent shot, but just short of a perfect bullseye.

This woman executed an excellent throw, but it was just short of a perfect bullseye.

Lest you think it can’t get any more exciting than this, you haven’t been to the skillet-throwing contest.  This is a women-only event, in which a heavy cast iron skillet is tossed as far as the tosser can throw it.  It is measured for both distance and accuracy.  Sadly, the fair’s oldest regular contestant, Mildred Heath of Conway, NH passed away this past February at age 103.  In recent years she threw the opening toss from her wheelchair, but she always won in her age category!  This year’s winner in the “under 45” category tossed the skillet 61 feet.  You won’t want to mess with her!

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Before I left the fairgrounds I went to the Expo Center which held two different displays (one from Maine and one from New Hampshire) of dueling moose taxidermy.  A pair of bull moose in rut (mating season) were dueling by charging against one another and head-butting.  Their antlers became entangled and tragically, neither could break free.  They died from a combination of exhaustion and starvation.  Their decomposed bodies were found and reconstructed with great skill by expert taxidermists.  Here is the result:

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