Sunday, September 25, 2011

Laurel Swimming - Leominster State Forest

Not sure what kind of rock piles I want to explore, I thought instead I would make sure I got a good walk and exercise by going off trail in Leominster State Forest. There are places over near the top of this map that I always wanted to get to. At the same time, going through mountain laurel is a hard thing to do, so I wasn't sure how far I could get. But my muscle tone has finally recovered from a slow winter and I thought it would be fun. It has been raining so the bushes are wet, the ground soaked.

Starting in from the eastern end of Parmenter Rd (a dirt forest road) I encounter a guy in cammo with a rifle. I said I did not know that it was already hunting season. He said "black bear". We chatted, he mentioned some footprints I could go look at, if I wanted to see a bear tracks (which I would love to see). I said, gee should I be wearing orange? (I am wearing the usual white button down collar oxford cloth shirt.). He said I don't look like a bear. Continuing, I left the main road onto a side road heading in the right general direction. In this forest, you should always take an existing trail if there is one. I saw one old split-wedged rock, so covered in moss you could not see the split.
And I was encouraged to see a short stretch of wall ending at a boulder. There are several like this on these slopes. But higher up, not down near the swamp. Then the trail I was following headed off uphill in the wrong direction, so I dove into the laurels.

I am not going to keep saying it but pushing through laurel is hard work. It is a full body workout and sometimes you rest your arms as opposed to resting your legs. Over the course of the walk I refined a technique of locating the edges of the bush and sweeping it sideways to clear a bit of space to walk through. Any twig thicker than 1/2 inch resists bending and you have to step over or around. At the same time as you make these sweeping motions with your arms you have to high-step to get over either the lower laurel branches or the many downed trees underfoot. I was trying to decide what to call this activity and decided I should call it
laurel swimming. [Don't they have "laurel choked hollers" down in the Carolinas? Anybody actively trying to explore in there?]

Anyway, I finally broke free of the stuff. When I got to the bottom of the valley it was a dark hemlock forest with no undergrowth and boulders underfoot. Comparatively easy going, I continued northward until I could hear the 1st brook. Looking for rock piles down and around, I crossed the brook, and saw a few meager traces of man made structures. Photos are blurred cuz of lack of light.

Leominster State Forest is a good place to go if you want to photo "gloomy":
I wonder if anyone alive has ever been in this spot?

I continued northward taking advantage of the easy footing without underbrush. Already before I left the original trail my feet were starting to get wet. When I dove into the laurels my shirt soon got soaked and then my pants and then my feet became pretty wet. But it was nice warm 74 F out and I did not mind.

Each brook crossing is a challenge. You want to get across without getting any wetter. I am working on a grading system, like grading Olympic diving, involving a combination of points for difficulty and points for excellence of execution. But with stream crossing, there is also an element of choosing an elegant solution. In one case "elegant" may involve using a stick as a cane for balance. In another case, recognizing that your feet cannot get any wetter, using a submerged rock might be an elegant solution. The main goal is to avoid getting zero points by going ass first into the middle of the brook.

Finally as I am heading north, I was pinched between the swamp and the laurels and being unwilling to start wading through actual water I cut back into the laurels. There was a lightening in the growth ahead and I pushed through to a huge split boulder. Walking through the split is always recommended and I could see from the deer droppings that this was a place they liked to hang out. And I climbed up on another boulder to have a look around and try to pick a direction with less dense laurel. Then I hear a branch snap, about twenty yards away through the bushes. My assumption is that the only thing clumsy enough to snap a branch is a human and, with bear hunters out and not wanting to trust that I still do not look like a bear, I say "Hello" in a loud voice. Then I hear some thrashing through the bushes. So I hold still a while. Is it hunter? Is it a bear? I cannot keep waiting, so I push out to the clearer space - from where the branch snapped - and there are huge hoofprints in the sphagnum moss and a rubbering horsey smell. Aah! I think: moose. I was in his nest. He had beaten a trail through the undergrowth like a bulldozer and it more or less was heading in the correct direction so I followed it. The only trouble with a moose trail is that they do not care what they are walking in and I did not want to wade through standing water. So this is still very rough going.
At one point a branch crossed the moose trail and I was sure the moose would have rubbed against the branch. Bending down to give it a sniff, I got a nose full of that rank rubbery horsey smell.

I was pretty tired and figured it was time to start thinking about extracting myself from the woods. I could hear the 2nd brook and I pushed through to it. It is usually a little easier going along a brook so at this point I headed uphill following the brook. Unfortunately this brought me into the middle of a swamp and I set off in search of higher ground. So now it is sphagnum moss underfoot, hopping between tussocks, and fighting the laurel at every step. And there are moose footprints and droppings everywhere.

After a while, I could hear the 1st brook again and I managed to get out of the swamp and back into slightly clearer rocky woodlands. There were some big white birch trees and I kept an eye out for "Chaga" mushrooms. I have a friend whose cancer is not responding to modern treatments and Chaga has some interesting medicinal properties (
see here) that might be worth a try. But I did not see any.

It has been raining heavily. The brooks were full to the brim and rushing at top speed. All the ground was soggy. My clothes were already as wet as they could be. I was thinking of a joke: my feet were so wet they actually would get drier if I stepped in the brook. I am a little tired and sweaty and hot and the brook looked so clear and inviting. I thought about taking my clothes off and taking a dip in the 74 F water. But I have a slight superstition about taking your clothes off in the woods....or some excuse, and I did not do it. I just pushed on uphill and popped out onto the northern end of Fenton Rd, which I recognized. Familiar territory, easy going.

So I am slogging back along Fenton Rd, which I know is about 1/2 mile of dull walking with walls of laurel foliage to either side. So when I saw a side road heading back towards what I figured was the right direction, I took the side road. And it is zigzagging uphill, downhill, back uphill and not really going in the direction I want, so I figured to take a short cut down to the brook, hope to find clearer walking and almost immediately I am saying to myself: You are 2 kinds of fool. First kind for leaving the familiar Fenton Rd and 2nd kind for leaving the trail and getting back into the darned laurels. For fun I tried to see how fast I could "swim" without breaking a leg. And I had to sit down under a bush and rest. I tried to photo my state of dishevelledness:
I pulled myself back onto my feet and pushed on. I was really pleased with my body getting tired overall rather than one part getting too tired to use. I still had plenty of energy and it was still a nice comfortable temperature. I am two kinds of fool but then, how else would I get to see something like this, two garter snakes mating in mid air:
I finally got back out to a dirt road and, what do ya know, it was still Fenton Rd. What the heck? I finally had to pull out a compass to make sure I was walking in the correct direction. But I got out of there and back to my car.

When I got home and was talking about my walk at dinner, I realized that I never did get to the destination I had hoped for - a peninsula that sticks out into the western side of Notown Reservoir over there. I am thinking - you really cannot get there. At least I am not man enough to do it and I sure am not going to camp and make it a 2 day expedition.


theseventhgeneration said...

What a great story! It reminds me of the time I *almost* got lost (or maybe I should say I was lost for about 20 minutes) coming out of the woods from the Melondy Hill site in NY.

Root Digger said...

Wow! Thank you for taking us on your adventure! I love the photos!

Geophile said...

Enjoyed this. The snake encounter was one of those little gifts you get if you're out a lot. Thought for a minute you were going to stumble upon a petroglyph rock in that swamp. Applause! Keep doing what you do. (As if you could help it.)

Chris Pittman said...

I really enjoyed this narrative very much. Excellent. Thanks for posting this.