Monday, August 20, 2012

A Better Sense of Place

I-84 Westbound near Southington
For decades I have, from time to time, driven across the state, noticing various hills and backdrops that I knew nothing about, not even their names.  I don't live in that part of the state, and other than some basic geological knowledge of the ridges, the hills were just hills to me.  During a recent drive on the way to New Hampshire, it was different.  I know the names of the hills and have a picture in my head of what's on top. My husband called it, "a better sense of place," which is a great description.

West bound in I-84 coming out of the Waterbury area is the first view of the 100-mile long Metacomet Ridge, with it's various "mountains" (OK, not really, but that's what we call them), and it's a dramatic one. As the highway begins a long descent down the western wall of the Connecticut Valley, on the hard schists and gneisses of the Western Highlands towards the much softer redbeds below,  the Valley opens up and right there in the middle rises the hard traprock of the Metacomet Ridge.  The stepped appearance of Meriden's Hanging Hills, including West Peak and East Peak, is 
unmistakable. Castle Craig is up there, Hubbard Park just below, with it's thousands of spring daffodils.  Behind it, to the right, is another section of the Metacomet Ridge, I believe Mt. Higby or maybe Beseck Mountain. 

Rattlesnake Mountain
Further along I-84 are the twin humps of Rattlesnake Mountain.  The left peak, with the twin radio towers, is Rattlesnake Mountain proper, home of Will Warren's den.  The descent between the two humps is where the New England Trail passed through a cave with an inscription from 1882. Then up on the right hump, that's where Hospital Rock and one of the many spots known as "the Pinnacle" lie. People were rock climbing when I was there.

And there's the Tilcon Quarry. The trail used to go to the right of the quarry, but was rerouted to the left. On the other side of the highway (behind the camera) the trail heads up towards the Pinnacle, and some native cacti grow on a cliff. 

Traprock ridge along I-91 near Holyoke, MA

And that was pretty much it for Connecticut during this drive.  Some time later, as we headed up I-91 in Massachusetts, I suddenly saw the familiar profile of a Connecticut Valley traprock ridge. Steep west side, 15% slope on the east side.  This must be the Metacomet Ridge! And that means the New England Trail is probably right up there.

More traprock ridges along I-91 in MA
And there were more ridges just to the north. My geographical knowledge of Massachusetts is appalling, but I was pretty sure these were traprock ridges.

 After arriving back home, I checked the map, and sure enough there is the New England Trail crossing I-91 where I saw the ridges. The map shows East Mtn, Mt. Tom, and Mt. Holyoke along I-91. Not sure which is which in the photos above. But maybe some day I'll find out first hand.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington

Solomon Seal
This part of the New England Trail was a little different. The cliffs were gone and the trail fragmented.  These two facts are certainly related, as the cliffs were historically what kept the land from being developed.  I started out by parking at the end of Poplar Hill Drive. This was a bit tricky since there is a false cul-de-sac that served as a decoy, and then the trailhead wasn't clearly marked, but I knew it was there somewhere and found it before too long.  The goal was to quickly hike back south to Route 6, where I had last hiked, and then move on to the "real" hike of the day, which would include Hill-Stead Museum. I fully expected this first little section of trail to be overgrown and disappointing.

Up on the ridge
I was wrong. This little section of trail was beautiful. It was the typical New England Trail, up on a ridge, with views of the Farmington River Valley. It was the best hiking of the day. What was unusual was the lack of a climb from the parking area, because Poplar Drive is already up on the low ridge. The hardest part was the quick descent to Route 4, which seemed pointless, but I want to say I've hiked the entire trail (except road walks).  

Ragweed at the parking area.  
It's Ragweed season. Ragweed is the number one cause of hayfever. One plant can spew out a billion spores or something of that order, and those spores are very light and can be blown a hundred miles or more on the wind.   It grows mostly along  roadway, where it can be easily mowed, not deep in the forest.  There was some growing at the parking area.  How hard would it be to train public crews and residents alike to learn what Ragweed looks like and cut it down in late July just before it flowers? Why is there no public education campaign? Think of the millions of dollars spent in allergy and asthma medications each year. Wouldn't it be better to reduce the amount of Ragweed pollen rather than treat the illness that arises from breathing it in?

On to the Hill-Stead section of the trail. I could have walked down Poplar Drive to pick up the trail again, but decided to drive the road walk and parked on Mountain Road instead. This section of trail was disappointing. There is only a hint of a traprock ridge here, and the crest has been sadly claimed by houses, forcing the trail part way down the overgrown slope below.  The trail is routed through fast growing shrubs like pepperbush and as a result was somewhat overgrown.  But before long there was a junction with the trails of Hill-Stead,  and I headed down towards the museum.

Imagine if these signs were wood instead of plastic.

Hill-Stead Museum has an entire network of trails.  As you might suspect, they also have a museum. In fact, that would rather be the point of most people going there to visit.  But I had my dog and a pack and dirty hiking boots, so I skipped that and cannot tell you about. According to their website, they get 45,000 visitors a year. I only saw a handful of people since they were closing up for the day.  The parking area closes at 5:30 pm, which is why I parked on Mountain Road (a rainy morning lead to a very late start). Some day I hope to go back in cool weather when I can leave my dog in the car and go inside with clean shoes.

Overlook at Hill-Stead. 

There's a nice variety of walking paths here: mowed paths through fields of blooming Joe Pye and Goldenrod, woodland walks, a pond loop, and paths around the barns and house.  There was a big sewer construction project cutting across the grounds that completely messed up the trails and lead to some adventures in muck. The construction area crossed a swamp and I actually tried walking down the sewer line for several hundred yards in an attempt to pick up the trail. The muck was so bad I resorted to walking on top of the black plastic pipe, which had water running through it (I could hear it). Later I had to cross the line again (photo) and climb a four foot muck embankment. 

Step in mud, sink a foot.

Doomed Ash Tree
The nice shade tree in the above photo is doomed. Emerald Ash Borer has been found in Connecticut during the past month and is expected to spread rapidly and kill off the ash trees. There are some preventative treatments for important landscaping trees.  I wonder if they know about it. By the way, that's what those purple gizmos up in the trees at Hubbard were all about - monitoring for the Emerald Ash Borers. 

The main house was deserted. According to their website, "Alfred and Ada Pope built Hill-Stead between 1898 and 1908 as a retirement home and country estate for entertaining their many guests and showcasing the Impressionist paintings they had begun collecting in 1888. The 33,000-square-foot house is both a planned exhibition of its residents’ art and one of the nation’s most notable examples of Colonial Revival architecture."  Ahh, the good old Robber Baron days. Alfred Pope, the owner, made his money investing and running iron-working mills back in the day when iron was a big deal.  It was his progressive daughter, Theodate, who defied traditional expectations of women and designed the estate. She was supposed to be sitting at home doing needle point or something equally exciting.

Sunken Garden gazebo

Trail crossing Route 4 traffic fence

North of Hill-Stead is Route 4 and another small section of trail. Initially the trail is overgrown with invasive species and then abruptly it all clears out at a habitat restoration project. 

These projects generally entail removing non-native plants by cutting, pulling, and applying Round-Up (often to cut stumps).  This will in theory allow native plants to regenerate.  However, there are so many deer in some of these areas that the native plants tend to just get eaten to the ground, leaving an area more or less barren.  The deer, in fact, are one of the reasons the non-native plants spread in the first place. Unfortunately, some of the well-meaning people who attack non-native species tend also to be animal lovers who abhor the idea of deer control. But  you can't have both a healthy ecosystem and a deer population that is 500% or so of what it  should be. You just can't. The deer eat the native plants faster than the plants can regenerate. It's basic math, really. So, if the deer population is to remain too high for native plant regeneration, is it better to leave the non-native species alone so there is some cover and food for wildlife, or cut it all down and leave the ground barren because non-native species are "bad"? And should grants be handed out for restoration projects in areas with high deer populations? 

The trail meander up to a bench and memorial plaque, then back into some forest more typical of the trail. It was a very short section however, and in a flash I was back at Route 4. 

At one point during the day I found this letterbox with a shed snakeskin stuck to it. A reminder to always look for snakes before stick your hand into a crevise! 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Waiting for September

Crappy forecast for hiking

Welcome to the hottest month ever recorded in the United States. In Connecticut, our summer temperature has been something like 3 degrees above average.  Since the average high in central Connecticut is about 84 degrees in the summer, that means the typical high has been around 87 degrees or so, and it's usually raining on the cooler days. My ceiling for hiking is around 80 degrees, depending on the humidity. So I'm hanging out at home, stuffing the fridge with produce from the garden, and planning out the remainder of the route so I'll be ready to really hit the trail when it cools down.