Thursday, July 18, 2013

Walking Wachusett and a Step Back to the Drawing Board

On a beautiful, one-cloud Monday morning, July 15, 2013 at 8:00 with GPS strapped to my hat I set out on the first of my hikes for this project. Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, MA. It is the highest mountain in Massachusetts east of the Connecticut River (2006 feet) and the largest "monadnock," an indigenous word for "a mountain that stands alone," "near the mountain," or "mountain place," east of the Berkshires (again, in MA). 

A beautiful, one-cloud day


With a red light blinking telling me that I had a signal from a satellite I set off along the Bicentennial Trail. This path runs along the bottom of the mountain through deciduous forest of maple, oak, and birch. The trail was rocky and rooty and I picked my way carefully at first, but soon settled into a rhythm stopping periodically to notice the flora; Wood and Christmas Fern, a variety of mushrooms (unusual, I thought it's having been so dry), and a lone Jack-In-the-Pulpit, whose "jack" and "Pulpit" were well gone by.


Wood Fern

Xmas Fern

For a while I was being led up the trail by a downy woodpecker who jumped from trunk to trunk keeping a steady 15-20 feet ahead of me. I was also accompanied by a wide variety of birdsong with the call of a yellow-shafted flicker piercing through the dense chorus. It was not long before I came upon a sight and situation that Henry David Thoreau was unlikely to encounter on his initial walk to Wachusett in 1842.

A "You can't go up there" sign.

The Pine Trail Hill was undergoing construction. As this was not the route I had chosen (it's the most direct to the top and I am looking to wander these hills), I was not concerned. However this trail construction reminded me that for Thoreau, Wachusett Mountain, at least at that time was his western horizon. He saw it as a wild place, which it still is, but now with recreational "inputs" like marked trails and footbridges. Henry had set off in a spirit of pioneering, with his companion Richard Fuller, into the unknown. Of course, leaving from Ralph Waldo Emerson's house in Concord, where he was living, they walked through several towns and villages, farms and fields, walking all day with  rests by brooks and streams, on the way to the mountain. They passed through Stow, Bolton, and Sterling among others. "Civilization" was never far off their way. It was not all untrammeled wilderness en route. They camped the night in Sterling and set off to the mountain the next day. By comparison, I drove to the Wachusett Reservation Office/trailhead in Princeton from my home in Fitchburg in a matter of 15 minutes.

The trail began a slow ascent and I turned onto High Meadow Trail which for a while was less rocky and inclined upward at a steady rate. The woodpecker had left me behind and ahead the character of the forest was beginning to change a bit. Most of the forests that we know in this area are second, third, maybe even fourth generation having been cleared for timber and farms a few times over. Most of the forest at Wachusett Mountain grows in a harsh and fragile environment. The rocky soil on the steep slopes is thin and infertile. The trees have been exposed to frequent ice storms and strong winds that have damaged their branches and caused the trees to grow slowly. Because of the bad form of these trees, they have no value as lumber. The steep slopes also make it difficult to harvest the trees for timber. In fact, there is a small old growth forest growing on rock ledges 500 feet below the summit Mt. Wachusett. It encompasses about 220 acres.

Turn right onto High Meadow Trail
High Meadow

The ubiquitous New England stone wall

I also came upon this wonderful fallen tree. It has many attributes that could make it sculpture, except, perhaps, the most important: intention.

From High Meadow I turned onto Jack Frost Trail which eventual took me into a grove of hemlock trees.

Hemlock Grove
Jack Frost trail took me to Mountain House Trail which crossed a road and a paved parking lot to the summit (yes, you can drive to the top)
. There  I saw a man wielding a weed-wacker, a radio tower, and a lookout tower. There were a few trash cans, one a solar powered compacter. The trails were miraculously refuse free, but on the top where the trash cans are there were empty water bottles, candy/power bar wrappers, and some blue broken glass. 

Through a break at the tree line I saw the chair lift and I thought, "Henry, it ain't what it once was." 

I circumambulated the summit, walking 6 times around it counter-clock-wise (picking up trash as I went) then sat at a picnic table in the shade of the lookout tower for a snack and hydration.

I saw no humans on the trail, but on the top I encountered 15 people. Not all at once. They had taken a more direct route up. In fact, it's the route I took down. I walked Old Indian Trail through the old growth. This trail is also the Midstate Trail for a while before that one turns off to the west (it runs the length of MA). Old Indian can lead one down to Balance Rock, two boulders one perched atop the other... 2 "erratics" left by the retreating glacier. I passed on Balance Rock and turned onto the paved road that lead back to my car. I stopped into the Reservation Office and took a look at the displays and information about the mountain and its history, natural history and that relating to human activity on the mountain. Thoreau's walk to Wachusett is on the timeline. 

As regards a drawing made by the GPS on this walk, well... when I returned home and plugged the memory card into the Macbook the icon appeared on the desktop. Hurray! But there was no data!! While it seemed that I was getting a signal, something either interfered with it (tree cover?) or it could be any number of things... the movement of my head as I walk, the heat of the sun, body heat, digital belligerence, etc. I just don't know. So John Anderson and I will put our heads together and try to solve the problem. This is an experiment. I'm trying to document, in a very real way, a direct experience. It may be that I need a new strategy or process. But I'm hoping we can get this thing working and drawing.