Sunday, December 17, 2006

Whose woods are these?

Yesterday Dave took us on our first hike, in Pelham-Next-Door, that was accurately described by Hiking the Pioneer Valley guidebook as "an easy and pleasant walk through hemlock forests and alongside running waters." This lovely walk winds past backyards bordered by aging stone walls and edges the ravines of Buffam and Amethyst Brooks. I was astonished by the different types of forests we passed through, how abrupt and distinct they were. One 100-yard section was light, full of 30-foot maples that had dropped their leaves, with dozens of smaller three- to four-foot pale-green junipers struggling to grow underneath them. This area was followed by an old pine forest with huge trees too massive to wrap your arms around and everywhere, soft beds of pine needles.

We took a detour across Meetinghouse Road and followed a dirt road that wound up to the Hills Resevoir. We heard it long before we saw it, as the overflow water cascaded down the stonestepped waterfall as Amethyst Brook continues southwest toward Amherst.

Crossing the road back, we rejoined the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail and took another detour down into the ravine to walk alongside the brook some more. We passed Harris Resevoir, smaller and with shorter falls than the first one, but just as calm and lovely. Eventually Amethyst Brook intersected with Buffam Brook and we passed by Buffam Falls. The streams moved fast, over lots of huge boulders and down chasms into pools deep enough to soak in on hot summer days, if not actually swim. I kept thinking of Frost -- "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" -- and was struck by how quiet it was, and how dark below the canopy. The clouds looked ominous and we got tired so we hustled back to the car, but fortunately it never rained.

Lessons learned:

A) Dave and I can make due with the boots we have for now, but Lily needs hiking boots, or trail runners, or something with some traction and support. She just had her sneakers, which were slippery and not remotely waterproof.

B) I am a scaredy cat. I need to lighten up and not get so anxious about getting lost or Lily getting hurt. At a couple of points on the trail it felt entirely remote and all we could hear was the sound of the rushing water, which I kept thinking was car traffic. When we came up out of the woods we could see how close to the road we actually were, but in space no one can hear you scream. Thank god for cell phones, and cell phone signals.

C) Trust the guidebook but read it carefully and bring a compass. Several times we got a bit confused and a bit nervous about where we were exactly, although in restrospect the guidebook's description was entirely accurate.

D) Buy a general topo map of the area to bring with us. The guidebook's tiny maps don't show the big picture.

E) If we are going to start our hike at 11:30 in the morning, bring lunch! Dave and I should have learned that one on our honeymoon on the Napali Coast.

F) We will most likely join the Appalachian Mountain Club, which Berkshire branch maintains the M-M Trail.

I loved teaching Lily, my Brooklyn girl, how to walk in the woods. I take a lot for granted -- that green stuff on that rock is called moss or lichen and will make the rock very slippery. Likewise the leaf beds, especially when you are headed downhill. It's hard to walk down steep hills and it makes your legs feel funny. You have to be particularly careful of your footing if you are wearing sneakers. Step on the dry, gray part of the rocks if you are trying to cross a stream or a muddy patch. If you push past a tree branch it often snaps back into the face of the person behind you. Pine needles can be slippery to walk on, too. When you forgot to bring lunch, cheese popcorn and apples taste really good. Terrariums are way cool to build.

With the temperature staying in the 50s it doesn't feel like mid-December. Nevertheless, we put up our tree this weekend, which we bought from our neighbors next door, whose family grows them in Rhode Island. We went to a birthday party there and patted some cows, and then to a Hanukah party nearby.

Tonight we went to Hatfield-Across-the-River for its annual Luminarium celebration. On the Sunday before Christmas, the residents line their driveways and sidewalks with candles inside paper bags. Many people have elaborate electric lights, too, so on this evening everyone drives around town with just their parking lights on, or even with no lights at all, in order to appreciate the full effect. Santa passes out candy canes. Various local groups -- a brass band, church choirs and hand bell groups, and even a UMass a cappella group -- played holiday music. What the performers lacked in skill they made up for in enthusiasm. It was all very festive and jolly.


  1. I know the value of a compass well, having been stuck bushwhacking in a swampy area late on an overcast day. Since that humbling experience, I've found that, if you always hike with the same backpack, it's good just to keep the compass in the backpack all the time.

    It's also good, if you have the energy after the hike, to write trail tips in your guidebook. Sometimes the guidebooks actually do go out of date (trail routes can change for assorted reasons) and sometimes it's good just to add comments that can help you on a return trip (which might occur years later).

    And here's one more suggestion for scaredy-cats like us: Consider bringing a flashlight with a simple plastic whistle attached to it.

    And always plan to be back well before nightfall, especially on an unfamiliar trail. Heightens the pleasure, cuts down on the anxiety--a great combination!

  2. Oh yeah. Almost forgot.

    Swiss Army Knife.

  3. Your "loyal mother" loves every word you write, I get all the details that rushed phone calls don't include. My hiking trips are very short these days, but I do carry a whistle just in case. cn

  4. And clothing that can be seen on and off the trail!

  5. Wow, David, great tips! And mom, you'll hear all the details in person this weekend. Happy new year, everyone.


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