Chapter Thirty-Four: An Autumn Walk around the Property

NOTE: "Semi-Rough: A North Country Journal," is now available as a complete book, that includes these on-line essays and more. If you'd like a free pdf to download to your computer, send me a note at symbios@condortales.com and I'll email you a copy.

NOTE: One autumny afternoon in October, I went on my usual evening walk, but I decided to try a little experiment. I took a tape recorder with me, and (between various huffings and puffings - the tape recording sounds like I could be dying of emphysema), I chatted about what I was seeing, what I would have seen at other times of the year, and about the general layout and history of our 92 acres. With only a minor amount of editing, I think it turned out pretty good. I hope you enjoy it.

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I thought I'd take you on a little stroll around our property today. I'm starting out from the house in the afternoon, walking the old road that runs down into The Swamp past where we used to dump our trash years ago, before there was town trash pickup at Dummer Plain. The forest has grown up and pretty much obliterated all signs of the dump, now. Someday, maybe a hundred years from now, someone will see an old ketchup bottle lying in the forest, brought to the surface by frost heaves or some intrepid animal, and will develop a case of "old bottle fever."

I've opened up a number of trails down through our Swamp. When Slim and Calista [Sally's parents] were around, they didn't wander too much off the old logging roads. After I retired and was able to spend more time at Camp, and particularly after the Ice Storm of 1998 took out so much of our nice woods above the field, I thought it would be great to have some other walking and birding possibilities, so each year I've spent a little time opening new paths and maintaining the older ones.

The wind is blowing today. Many of our leaves are on the ground now. The Leaf Peeper advisors say the autumn color is not yet atpeak around the North Country, but here on our Hill many of the leaves have fallen. It's very, very open all the sudden. A week or so ago, the woods were bright red and orange and very pretty; now they're faded orange and red and looking decidedly bare, but still very pretty. All the leaves don't turn at the same time here. Even now when things are beginning to look a little stark, if you look closely, you'll see that there's still quite a bit of greenery mixed in with the remaining reds and oranges.

This trail, which I call the Swamp Trail, is marked with horticulturist's tape that has a yellow and black checkerboard pattern. Other trails have other markers. If the deer hunters who come in the fall after we leave want to stay on the trails rather than just wandering cross-country, they can tell approximately where they are by the tape colors and patterns. I would prefer they use the trails. Otherwise, each hunter who doesn't follow my paths flags his own cross-country route, and I spend part of my wandering time in spring and early summer removing dozens of red and orange tapes that, once the hunters have passed through, mark a myriad of trails to nowhere.

I'm coming to a part of the trail that I re-routed this year. When I first built the trail some years ago, I took it a little lower down into The Swamp, and when I came to moose wallows and other wet places, I put rounds of firewood in for stepping stones. That worked pretty well for a few years, but it got really sloppy after awhile, as moose churned up the ground around the stepping-stones. There was also a pretty bad crossing on the little creek that goes through there. Because it was very boggy at both ends, I re-routed the trail once, but the new crossing involved hopping from rock to rock and was a little tricky, and as we got older and shakier it wasn't very safe. Also, we've had a lot of blow-downs in that area. So, this year I rerouted the trail at a little higher elevation, and found a nice old log across the creek to serve as a bridge. The log won't last forever, but for a few years it's solid enough to make a good, dry crossing. And there are only a few moose wallows on this new stretch, so it should be pretty dry even in the spring of the year when the woods can be very wet.

I've just come up on one of the really big maples left over from our former forest primeval. These maples are well over a hundred yearold, and they're all gnarled up near the top. I came out here the other day with my tape measure and did some sampling to get an idea of just how big some of these old patriarchs really are. First, I measured seven of the bigger-sized (but not giant) maples, and their circumferences were 37 to 57 inches, with the average about 45 inches. Then I measured three of the really big trees - like the one I'm standing by, now - and found they were 92 inches, 100 inches, and 113 inches around. They are really impressive. This one I'm looking at right now has a hole near the top. I've never seen anything in the hole, but it would be a great place for a barred owl nest, or for flying squirrels. Just behind me is a tree that has been completely hollowed out by pileated woodpeckers - big elongated rectangular holes, not the kind to nest in, but those made digging for insects. They are very diagnostic.

I'm coming now to my log bridge across the creek. Although the start of the creek is only about 50 feet above here, in a wonderful spring coming out of the ground, the flow is enough to create quite a significant stream of water even this close to the source. So, you really do need some kind of dry crossing. As I said, this old log won't last too many years, but it's certainly solid enough to hold a person for awhile. If you have a walking stick or some kind of a pole to balance you along, it works out quite well.

As you might have guessed from my calling this the Swamp Trail, and from my capitalizing "The Swamp" previously, this area I'm in now we call The Swamp. Up near the north end of our property, there is a real coniferous forest swamp with lots of red cedar and a lot of moose wallows. In this part of The Swamp, it is very damp down along the edge of the main creek (which is one of the headwater creeks forming Cedar Brook), but the higher ground is covered with dryer-land species like maples, birches and beeches, with a scattering of red cedars and other coniferous types.

Now, I'm past my re-route and back on the original trail. It's stayed fairly open, considering that some years I don't really clear it. This year I did a pretty good job of removing a lot of the blow-downs, and lots of tree branches. I had to do quite a bit of sawing, rather than just dragging branches aside, because I hadn't done any last year. We keep this as a natural forest in the sense that a lot of trees blow down and a lot of branches come off, and they just lay where they land. It seems like most of them land on my trail.

Right down ahead of me, there's a branch trail that I cut fairly early on, that runs back up through some nice woods to our field. I won't take that one today, but we'll pass the other end of it as I complete this loop and come back up the field on the way back to Camp. It was right about this spot, maybe about the first year I built this trail, I was walking along here when I saw or heard some movement a little ways off from me. It was a bear sow and some cubs. When they saw me, the cubs went zipping up trees, amazingly fast, which I guess is what Mama Bear teaches them to do when any possible danger approaches. I'm not sure she ever saw me. I didn't want to disturb them, and I didn't want them to disturb me, so I just turned around and went back the way I came.

Along this stretch of trail in midsummer, there's a lot of white wood sorrel. A little earlier than that, there'll be yellow clintonia (blue bead lily), lots of star-flower, and lots of Canada mayflower. Very, very early you'll find hobblebush in bloom and also the really pale greenish-white flowers of the fly honeysuckle. The honeysuckle is really quite common, and the first green one sees in the woods in early spring, but after late spring you hardly notice it in with all the other vegetation. The hobblebush right now is a nice purplish-orange color.

I didn't really clear the ferns off this part of the trail this year, but the moose kept it open for me. It's funny, I create a new trail or open up an old trail and the moose begin using it immediately, often the same day I work on it. I guess they're not dumb; they take the easiest way through, too. But other than the blow-downs, this part of the trail has stayed remarkably open, considering I haven't done much with it the last couple years.

Now I'm at a great big conifer lying across where my trail used to go. This section has a lot of conifers - a lot of hemlock, a lot of balsam fir -- and it's very prone to blow-downs, and a lot of trees have come down here. The blow-downs were so thick after one particularly hard winter, it was just easier to completely re-route the trail. So, again, I took the trail a little higher up the hill and bypassed the worst area. The route the trail used to take here is quite boggy and filled with Indian poke - hellebore - which is a whitish green spiky lily plant. It only has flowers every other year. There's quite a patch of it here in the wet ground.

Now we're coming to the junction of one of my other trails that goes back up toward the field. This one is kind of interesting because, when Winston Emery surveyed our property in 1980, he talked about one of the biggest spruce he'd ever seen, and it's right at the junction of this trail. It has grown over the top of a little rock wall that was the end of a fence line when our field was fenced in the 1930s or early 1940s. You can still find bits and pieces of the old fence line way out in the woods. But the tree is still here. It's got some pretty big cracks in it, but it's still very much alive and still very, very impressive.

Here, I'm keeping on the main yellow and black trail. The spurs up to the field I've marked with white and black tape. (Some were originally marked with white and red checks, but that particular tape faded badly, and after the first winter, my markers were white on white.) There were a lot of blow-downs in this section this year, too. The winds seem to sweep around the corner of the hill, and hit full bore on this area. Cordwells said we had some really strong winds this spring, which probably accounts for a lot of the stuff I had to cut and haul off my trail.

Now I'm working down into The Swamp, itself. This is a fairly dry hillside I'm going down, but in just a minute I'll get right down into the boggy lands that fringe one of the biggest creeks on our land. "Big," is a relative term because, if the land around the creek wasn't so wet, I could just about straddle the stream in places. This is another one of the headwater streams that form Cedar Brook, which then flows down to Cedar Pond, with its super view of the Presidential Range. The little creek that my log bridge crosses flows into this bigger stream.

There's a lovely ridge off to the east of me, and I've roughed out a trail over there (appropriately if unimaginatively named the Ridge Trail). It's a nice high ridge, it's very open, and the trees are very big. Apparently it was not logged as recently as some other areas in The Swamp. It has quite a large area of ladys-slippers, and also one of the biggest patches of goldthread that I know of on our property. I don't get out on The Ridge too often, but I really like it over there. I haven't done any major maintenance on the trail the last couple years, but the moose have done a good job maintaining it for me.

I often see moose in this stretch near the creek, which I'm now paralleling heading north. A week ago I was near here, and I could hear a moose down below me. I never did see it, but I could hear it huffing and puffing. It sounded like it had asthma (like I do as I talk into the tape recorder as I walk along). Once or twice it made a real mooing sound, which I'd never heard before. (One of my mammal books mentions it, but I guess it is a fairly rare sound to hear.) This time of year the bulls are in the rut. They have lots of testosterone, and are looking to mate. They can be a little surly at times.

The night before last I did see a bull moose right about here. I think it's one that we have seen up in our field. It's not a gigantic animal, but is very solid and bulky, and its antlers are wide. I don't know if he ever saw me or if he was aware of me being near; he was right below me in the brush, but headed off in another direction. He moaned and huffed and mooed and made more noises - more aggressive vocalizing -- than I'd ever heard before. Quite exciting. I think there was another moose nearby, but I never saw it. It might have been a cow he was courting, or another bull infringing on what he considered his territory. He went off in the brush making lots and lots of noise.

I've been working my way around the hillside, up and down, just on the edge of the real swampy area. I'm still in deep woods. These woods were certainly affected by The Ice Storm, but not to the extent that the ones above our field were. This area was more sheltered, and at a little lower elevation, and the ice didn't form or stay as long down here. There were lots of broken branches, and lots of broken treetops, but it's still a very good- looking forest. It's been around awhile, having had no cutting in it since before 1947. I suspect Edgar Bacon may have done some cutting in the early 1940s. Willy Forbush owned it for a lot of years before that, and cut quite a bit of it, I think. You see quite big stumps occasionally, and Willy had a sawmill down here by the creek. It's on Winston's survey map. I located it a time or two back in my early days here at Camp, but haven't been down in that particular part of The Swamp in recent years.

Now, I've come back up out of The Swamp. I'm still in the woods, which are mostly deciduous here: lots of maple, birch, beech, etc. Here's the next creek that feeds down into the main Cedar Brook. This one comes down off the Faulkenham property, and has a good yearlong flow. I've walked due north from here a number of times, up to our northern boundary line, but the woods are very swampy all year long all the way to the real cedar swamp.

I'm turning west through an area that's really open to the north wind, and one of the areas where I've had the most trouble with blow-downs. I've spent several hours the last couple weeks cutting trees off the trail, and making minor re-routes around the worst tangles.

Getting back up to the elevation of our field and camp, I've come into an area that's been disturbed for many years. Back in the 1940s it was farmed - potatoes and timothy hay - and now this northern half of what used to be cleared land has grown up into a dense stand of softwood of various kinds - lots of balsam fir, hemlock, and spruce. I'm walking through a stretch now where it's just fir after fir after fir, all six or seven feet high, forming a line maybe 20-30 feet deep that you go through before you come out into the old field, itself. You wouldn't recognize as an old field, of course, if you didn't know the history of the land and how the land reacts when a clearing reverts to nature. Now, it's just a finger of almost all coniferous trees extending into the mixed hardwoods on either side. It's a great area for wildlife variety. Most of our 92 acres are grown up to mixed softwood-hardwood forest. Only in this little area can we find some of the real coniferous forest birds like golden-crowned kinglets, red-breasted nuthatches, and sometimes something more unusual like black-backed woodpeckers. If I want to add a few coniferous forest birds to my daily bird list, all I have to do is walk down the field to this area, and I can usually see or hear something different.

I'm starting to work my way a little bit more to the southwest, and am coming up to the old tread of the road that used to come down into this part of the field when it was farmed, and also to the tread of the old trail that went north around the corner of Dummer Hill to meet what used to be the Dummer Hill Road at McLaughlins'. Winston Emery thought it was an old Indian trail, and it certainly is distinctive. Even with the little use that we've given it over the years, it is a well-indented trail that is easy to find through this section.

From where I am you can look off to the west, and see where our wonderful 100-year old maple forest started before The Ice Storm destroyed it. It's growing back, but it's still just small trees. It'll be a lot of years - long after we're gone -- before it gets back to be the cathedral forest that it was. I still like to go up the hill, and walk the old skid trails. There are nice long distance views in the fall. The color is really wonderful as you look off toward Maine, and in the spring before all the leaves come out you can see Pontook Reservoir down on the Androscoggin River. It's nice up there, but it's nothing like what it was when I used to go up there and sit under the trees. You couldn't see anything but the trees right around you, but that was why you went up there.

Now I'm walking back south on the old trail. Lots of moss; lots of conifers - balsam fir, hemlock I'm just coming up to the second of the black and white checked cross trails that I talked about, which leaves from the northeast corner of the current field. As I said, when they were farming it in the Forties the field used to be twice as big as it is now. When I retired and we started working this area regularly, I bought a big mower - a DR field and brush cutter - over in Vermont. I began cutting down all the little trees at this end of the field, and then mowing all the brush, mostly meadowsweet, and now I've about doubled the size of the field over what it was when Slim died in 1969. He hadn't made a very great effort to keep the field as field, but with his bush scythe he did keep some of it open. It was mostly meadowsweet, which gets very woody, but looks like a field from a distance until you try to walk through it.

Now I'm coming out into the field, and I can see our little cabin at the far south end of it. I've never tried to measure the precise size of the field. I'd say we have cleared about five acres. Since I started mowing, it's gone from mainly low woody brush to a mixture of grass and flowers and herbs of various kinds, and now to a more or less grassy field that pretty well maintains itself. There are still a lot of wildflowers in the early summer; it can be really lovely, but there's a lot more grass as I continue to mow it. I mow about twice a year, and I mow the edges sometimes a little more than that just to keep the forest from encroaching too quickly.

Down at this end of the field there are lots of wild apples along the field edges and back in the woods. If you release them by opening up the woods so they get a little bit of sunlight, most of them will bear apples of one kind or another. When we leave in October, most are pretty hard and barely edible, although some make good applesauce. After we leave and the area has had a good freeze or two, some get to be pretty good eating apples.

I'm standing right by a tree now we call "Sally's apple." When I started mowing, it was back in the brush and barely looked like an apple tree, at all. The leaves looked a little different than the other apples near it, so I cut the brush and trees away from it to give it more light. A few years later, when it finally bore fruit, it turned out to be a very red apple, rather than the usual yellow-green of most of our wild apples. It smelled really good. We took the one apple up to camp and set it on the window sill, and the smell was wonderful. When we cut it open we found it had lovely red and white meat inside. So, we began cultivating the tree a little bit, keeping it out it the open and occasionally fertilizing it. The porcupines, moose and bears have done a real job on it over the years, but we've put some wire around the trunk to discourage the porkys. Now it's grown up to be out of reach of most of the animals. Its yield has gone from 1 or 2 apples per year to 50, 60 or 70 apples. it's quite impressive now. The trees next to it always have lots of apples, but they're more the wild apple variety, not fancy like this one.

We have one maple tree out in the middle of the field that we saved while I was clearing the area. It had a nice growth form, and our botanist friend Gerry Courtin from Canada liked it, so we saved it, and it's become a very nice tree - maybe a foot around, nice and straight, and about 25 feet high.

The field is quite steep, which wasn't really evident before I cleared off the brush. The meadowsweet at the lower edge of the field had grown higher than the plants on the upper part of the field, and together had made the field look almost level. It was quite a surprise when I started clearing.

A few years back, Fred and Nona Cordwell had some extra trees and shrubs from a wild turkey encouragement project. They brought them up here and planted them. There were about 10 little crab apple trees. Almost all of them survived for several years, but the moose and deer browsed them mercilessly in the winter, and some succumbed to Nature Raw and Savage. The shapes of the ones that have survived are really grotesque. I put some wire baskets around them, but to not much avail. Maybe some day, like Sally's apple, they will grow enough that the browsers will leave them alone. If not, they will join a large group of plants that didn't survive on this cold and rocky ground.

In the summer, you might be surprised to see little clumps of orange daylilies scattered around the field. When I was first clearing, I'd find rocks that could do damage to my mower. I began marking the rocks by transplanting daylilies - old fashioned ones from old cellar holes on the Hill. After that, I seldom hit a rock while mowing. I know the rocks pretty much by heart now, and don't really need the warning, but the lilies are pretty.

In addition to the crab apples, Fred and Nona brought in some other shrubs. There were several rugosa roses - apparently the turkeys like the rose hips - and some snowberries and a few other shrubs that have berry fruits. I think all of those shrubs have survived, and some have grown substantially. The roses were slow to mature, but have spread and have more blossoms each year. The snowberries have fruit for the first time this year.

Probably my favorite field plant is our hawthorn. Like "Sally's apple," the hawthorn was pretty much lost in the surrounding brush when I found it. Each year, I cut around it to give it maximum light, and now it is about 15 feet tall. In a good fruit year, the ruffed grouse flock to it.

I'm walking along the lower edge of our field, and I'm almost back up to the house. I'm at the edge of what we call "the lawn," the part of the field that we keep mowed low so we can walk around with relatively dry feet in wet weather. Keeping this part of the field near the house as lawn also keeps the bugs down.

Our biggest apple is right here on the edge of the lawn area - a wild apple, but one we have fertilized and cultivated over the years. It's a massive tree now, and we get most of our applesauce and canning apples off it. We have a number of lilacs, some of which came from old cellar holes, so they date back to the turn of the 20th century, at least, and some probably were originally planted in the 1800s.

We have a lot of high-bush cranberry around the field, a local plant that the chipmunks love. We used to can a lot of high-bush sauce, which we'd mix with applesauce. Since Sally is on more strict diabetic diets, we don't do that anymore, but we do send some of the berries to our daughter Sara, who loves the jellies and jams she makes from them.
Behind the high-bush is our big patch of elderberries. Every year we manage to harvest enough berries for a few pints of preserves. The birds really love the berries, too. Just in the last few weeks the cedar waxwings and vireos have been working over the last of this year's crop.

I'm almost back to the house now. There's the car. There are our fancy daylilies. We have about 70 named varieties now. Few plants grow well in our rocky, cold soil, but the daylilies have proven to be good here. We don't have masses of color yet, but we're moving them around to match colors and bloom times better, and it gets nicer each year.

Well, here I am back at the house. I hope you enjoyed the tour.


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Sanford Wilbur 2018