Massachusetts

With the snow in the northern mountains disappearing into slush, I headed south and west to find dry, low elevation hiking last weekend. The trails were far from dry, but they were more than adequate to test out my legs on some long backpacking in preparation for this summer’s AT hike. So on Thursday night, I drove to western Massachusetts and camped at the Falls Brook Shelter on the Tully Trail, aiming to hike the entire 22-mile loop on Friday.

A dizzying drop into Royalston Falls.

A dizzying drop into Royalston Falls.

The Tully Trail was almost entirely new territory for me– for about a mile and a half it coincides with the New England Trail, which I’d hiked five years ago, but that short distance was fairly uneventful, aside from stopping at the same lean-to. The rest of the trail circles around Tully Lake and a few low mountains, stopping to admire several of the Trustees Of Reservations’ fine natural areas.

Moss and ice at Falls Brook.

Moss and ice at Falls Brook.

The first of these, on Friday morning with ice still forming in my water bottle, was Royalston Falls, a downright scary-looking waterfall flowing down a gorge not far from the shelter. The falls are less than a mile from the northern parking area for the Tully Trail, so they seem to be a fairly popular spot to visit. But the Tully Trail is in what may be the most remote corner of Massachusetts. Look at the area on the map, and you won’t see much of anything but forest, which is just the way I like it.

The trail continued along Falls Brook through deep, dark evergreens, until coming out onto old woods roads through more remote forests. Much of the trail for the day was re-purposed woods roads, probably from pre-19th century homesteading and logging. The trail is relatively flat compared to more mountainous regions, but the trail has its own set of challenges. As I soon discovered, several areas along the trail were partially flooded, making dry hiking nearly impossible. At 9 AM, before the crust of ice had melted from many puddles, I had to wade through ankle-deep flooding near a beaver bog. I guess it’s never too early in the season to hike with wet feet.

From The Ledges, looking out at Tully Mountain and Tully Lake.

From The Ledges, looking out at Tully Mountain and Tully Lake.

The next Reservation in the Trustees’ Easter basket was Jacob’s Hill, with two viewpoints across the Tully River valley, and another tall waterfall. By this point I’d hiked more than ten miles and seen not a soul, though the views from Jacob’s Hill and The Ledges looked out over miles of forest and wetland. Aside from the dam on Tully Lake, and a bench at The Ledges, there were no signs of humanity at all. This kind of wilderness isn’t something I usually imagine in Massachusetts, but if you search hard enough, you can find it.

Spirit Falls coming down from Jacob's Hill.

Spirit Falls coming down from Jacob’s Hill.

More woods roads eventually brought me to Tully Lake Campground, and around the lake itself. I ran into my first people of the day there, a few of the campground staff working on getting the area ready for summer crowds. The lake is surrounded by recreational opportunities, with the campground, a picnic area, and boat launches, but on a weekday before the full season begins, it was a quiet as could be. I chatted for a bit with some of the campground staff before moving along the lakeside, imagining an easy part of the walk.

The trail around Tully Lake was a little wet.

The trail around Tully Lake was a little wet.

Instead, I found that much of the lake had flooded, submerging large sections of the trail around it to near waist-depth. As my feet were just beginning to dry, I opted not to wade. Instead I had to bushwhack, road walk, and rock hop around some flooded areas. So much for easy walking.

More flooded trail thanks to the beavers.

More flooded trail thanks to the beavers.

The last big scenery for the day came atop Tully Mountain, with a small cliff overlooking the valley below. I couldn’t quite pick out Jacob’s Hill, where I’d been earlier in the morning, but it was definitely out there. Tully Lake was easier to see, as was Monadnock, striking an imposing figure on the northern horizon. When viewed from any of the low mountains in the region, Monadnock is absolutely awe-inspiring. These mountains have a pastoral charm to them, but the rocky top standing above southwestern New Hampshire is every bit as rugged as the high peaks of the north.

Tully Mountain, looking down at the Tully River valley.

Tully Mountain, looking down at the Tully River valley.

The last ten miles of the day were quiet and uneventful, with more walks along old woods roads, gushing brooks, and forested hills. Part of this hike was meant as a wake-up call for my body as I prepare for a much longer hike in May and June. According to my GPS, the day’s tally was just over 28 miles after taking side trails and backtracking into account. I felt surprisingly good after that mileage, the longest day I’d hiked since early last summer, but I promptly fell asleep at 8 PM back at the lean-to. There were a few other people there that night, but I was out cold.

Another gorgeous brook through deep forest.

Another gorgeous brook through deep forest.

For most people, I’d recommend doing the trip in two halves, starting from Tully Lake Campground, hiking to the Falls Brook shelter on the first day, then back to the campground on the second day, since the shelter and campsite almost perfectly split the trip into two halves.

As soon as I crossed the border into Connecticut, I could sense a difference in my surroundings on the trail. All of a sudden, the trail gets a little steeper and rockier. The country roads and farm pastures seem a little sleepier. The views from rocky outcrops take in meandering rivers and church steeples poking out of the woods to mark small towns. This must be New England.
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As with the earlier parts of this trip, the difficulty of the trail in Connecticut surprised me. Maybe it was partly the heat, but the short and nearly vertical climbs into the Taconic mountains had me winded every day. I found myself hoping for pine groves (shade) and riverside trail sections (flat). Sometimes I got lucky and had both. Usually I had neither.
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The Appalachian Trail in Connecticut is one of the highlights of the entire 2180 miles, and in such an unassuming place. I never think of Connecticut as a wild or rural place, but the AT cuts right through the best corner of the state, with mellow walks along the Housatonic River, and rocky ascents to 2000-foot peaks. It’s only 56 miles long, but those miles stick in your memory. There’s enough beauty to make up for the short distance.
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On my second night in the state, I camped by myself at one of the many established tent sites, this one in a dark and quiet pine forest. I fell asleep to the sound of a lone Hermit Thrush echoing through the woods. Paradise.
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There’s a lot of character to the trail towns in Connecticut, too. I finished up the state with a three-hour breakfast in Falls Village at a hiker favorite– a combination gourmet cafe and vintage British motorcycle shop. Then on to the ritzy town of Salisbury, where an octogenarian Italian woman rents rooms in her house to hikers. Maria McCabe, a legend along the AT, was full of stories and attitude. Hanging out with the hiking community keeps her young, although I don’t think she was ever a hiker herself. You meet all kinds out here.
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After Salisbury, the AT climbs steeply again, this time leaving Connecticut and entering Massachusetts on one of the most scenic (and brutal) mountain ranges in the northeast. The AT traverses the southern Taconic range, climbing to Lion’s Head and Bear Mountain, then dropping to Sage’s Ravine, and back up to Mounts Race and Everett. The trail is rocky and cruelly steep, but loaded with waterfalls, cliffs, long views as far as Mount Greylock (where this trip comes to a close) and the Catskills in New York. Weekend day-hikers crowded a few of the summits, but the depth of the forest still felt secluded and wild.
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I walked over the South Taconics on Sunday, so the crowds were to be expected. Through the rest of the week, I scarcely saw a soul. There were a few section hikers, and the occasional couple out walking the dog. The trail goes through plenty of farmland valleys, but nobody seemed to be out in those.
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The wilder forests were more interesting, anyway. Miles of trail interrupted by nothing but ledges and cliffs, or ice gulches and quiet ponds. Large, lonely trail shelters with choruses of peepers and geese. The burbling sound of a trail-side spring running out from below a rock. I’d forgotten so many of these moments and scenes that are so common on the trail. In a few months, there will be more hikers on the trail, and some more distractions from the wilderness. For this trip, I had them mostly to myself.
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On the second to last night, I stayed with another personality known up and down the trail– Tom Levardi, whose home is directly on the trail, and has been hosting hikers for over 30 years. I’d stayed with him in 2007, as a through hiker with a few others. This time I was a section hiker at the end of my hike, but he was just as generous and outgoing as before. The trail community is a pretty amazing thing. I’m beginning to realize all over again just how good people can be when connected by a bond like the AT.
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The trip finished with a bang, going over Massachusetts’s highest peak, Mount Greylock. Being so early in the season, I had the usually crowded summit all to myself. There were clear views to Monadnock, Stratton, and Glastenbury– my home mountains for the past few years. This was a good backpacking trip to start out the season. In a few days, I’ll be back to work on the apps, doing some programming, lots of data management, and lots of computer work. But I’ll be starting with a clear mind after three weeks of walking.

Yesterday morning, Yvonne and I went a different direction than usual for a day hike– south, into Massachusetts and toward the Mount Holyoke range. Yvonne had never been, and I hadn’t climbed the mountains since I hiked across them in 2009, while hiking the New England Trail. I remember liking that range quite a bit, and we all know how much I like to revisit places from the past.

Life has been pretty hectic in the past few weeks, and it feels like I haven’t gotten out much, so I definitely needed a good hike to set my mind straight. Stick season is on us, with all the leaves down and no snow in the low hills, and that always knocks down my hiking time by quite a bit. Between that, working back at EMS again, and spending as much time as possible programming my apps, I’ve been neglecting my hiking life a bit more than I intended for this fall. But it seems like the inevitable cycle I go through– after leaf season each year, my outdoors time drops drastically as I try to make life work through the winter.

Looking across the Seven Sisters to Mount Holyoke, and Northampton below.

The initial climb up to Bare Mountain from “The Notch” on route 116 was as steep as I remembered, but not nearly as long. Once up top, the overcast and bare trees made for a pretty dreary morning, and the constant sounds of traffic below made me wonder why I had liked this section of trail so much. I didn’t get the wilderness feeling that’s been so necessary for me in the past few years, or the sense of solitude. Just the pleasant rush of endorphins from the climb, but not much more. I’m beginning to think I’m turning into more of a hermit as far as my relationship to the wilderness goes. I crave long and remote sections of trail, and little contact with humanity. The graffiti and litter on Bare Mountain were exactly the opposite of what I want in the mountains.

Nice, open forest.

Soon after, though, we got to the good stuff. It was a bitingly cold day, with precious little sunlight (until we finished the hike, of course, when the clouds finally cleared), and the views were dreary and grey. But there’s something comforting about the kind of forest that covers southern New England. It’s so open and clear, especially during stick season. There was a steady cover of leaves on the ground, and rolling contours between the exposed ledges of the mountains. The crunch of leaves underfoot drowned out the sound of traffic after a while, and the views of farmland closer to the Connecticut River opened up just enough.

The view of the Connecticut River oxbow and Northampton from Mount Holyoke is the best part of this hike.

Since “disconnecting” a few months ago, I’ve felt much more at peace with the world, but it’s kind of killed my urge to write. I’ve spent most of my creative energy on programming instead of writing, and most of my reading time on books (made of paper!) rather than blogs and web forums. I feel a lot more productive and relaxed. Of course, with my goal of turning the apps into a semi-reliable income, spending more of my creative energy on them is as much necessity as desire. But it feels good to put them together, especially knowing that they’ve already been well-received by PCT hikers this year. It feels good to know I’m helping other hikers, and staying a part of the trail community in a way.

The leaf cover on the ground was thick enough to make the trails difficult to follow.

After a chilly lunch at the Holyoke Mountain House, Yvonne and I took a different trail back to the Notch, passing by Lithia Springs reservoir, and enjoying the more remote southern side of the range. We didn’t see a single person on the trails all day, which is to be expected on a cold Monday with less than ideal weather. The open forest turned out to be extra useful, since we took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up bushwhacking a half mile back to the trail (and I must say, the bushwhacking was much more entertaining than a lot of the secondary trails on the mountain).

To finish off the day, we had a nice drive up Route 63, and a short detour to the Leverett Village Coop, a place I discovered while hiking the New England Trail. With a planned relocation to the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, the Coop will no longer be on the trail, but it’s a lovely place to stop for snacks to finish off a day of hiking on Mt Holyoke.

You may have noticed that in the past few months I’ve been doing a lot less hiking and a lot more reflecting about life. Moving in with my girlfriend, committing to over a year of residence in one place, and trying to make a living in unfamiliar territory has certainly made me a little nervous about the future. With my past experience being almost entirely nomadic and seasonal, the idea of settling down is pretty foreign to me.

This stream crossing was rough enough without the newly collapsed bank, probably from Hurricane Irene.

So with the holiday shopping season promising to overwhelm my work schedule for the next few months, and the impending winter promising to make the cost of living rise to push my limits, I needed to get out for a day in the woods. I wasn’t looking for great views– just some alone time to collect my thoughts and to knock off a few of those Long Trail Side Trails that I’d hoped to complete this year. For the past few months I’ve mostly been doing day hikes with Yvonne, but I needed some solitude on Friday. Sometimes a lone walk in the woods is the best thing for the brain.

Starting to look like autumn for real– all the leaves are down, and there’s snow on the ground.

I started out reasonably early at the remote trailhead for the Broad Brook Trail, just over the Vermont border from Williamstown. It seems like an odd trailhead, since it’s right across the street from someone’s house, and the first few tenths of a mile of the trail go behind rural houses in dense hardwood forest, but soon enough I was walking along the gushing Broad Brook, hurrying to stay warm. The forecast had called for cool temperatures– indeed, it didn’t rise above freezing until I was ten miles into my hike.

As if the rock hops weren’t enough, those rocks were slick with ice.

The Broad Brook trail turned out to be much more interesting than I’d expected. Several crossings of the brook were difficult, to say the least. I had to walk up and down the banks to find a decent rock-hop, then make leaps of faith over ice-coated boulders. I dunked my feet at one point when a rotten log collapsed beneath me, but I later found that my feet would have been wet most of the day anyway– starting about halfway up the trail there was a thick dusting of snow that stuck to my shoes and melted through.

I haven’t seen this place since 2007, when the sign was older and a little more ragged.

Once I arrived at the Long Trail near Seth Warner Shelter, I realized I didn’t want to try any of those stream crossings again, so instead I took the Long Trail / Appalachian Trail south to the Pine Cobble Trail, and then a three-mile road walk back to my car. This turned out to be a very worthwhile detour, since the LT/AT is in a much better state of maintenance, and much easier than the Broad Brook trail. And I was able to knock off one more side trail from my list (leaving only four short trails in my side-to-side list). The scenery didn’t hurt– the trail passed by several large glacial erratics, near a few open hollows, and across long abandoned logging routes in the forest. There weren’t any views (except a few from Pine Cobble), but it was a wonderfully peaceful walk. And even with all the leaves down, the forest had an austere sort of beauty. Most of Northern New England has dense, overgrown forest, but down here it was open and orderly. It seemed I could have just walked in any direction without difficulty.

Somebody spent a lot of time at the top of the Pine Cobble Trail on this rock garden.

By the end of the day I was happily exhausted. Fourteen miles of walking, and the sun had finally come out around mile ten. Though I’d started with the intention of collecting my thoughts, I found that my mind stayed happily blank, just soaking in the scenery and the joy of being alone in the forest. What little pondering I’d done revolved around future plans, which is normal for me, but unlike usual I felt overly optimistic.

How’s that for an interesting find in the forest? A bowl of ice made from a trio of trees.

I’m living a very hand-to-mouth existence right now. My Christmas-season retail job will likely end in mid-January, leaving me with no idea what I’ll do for the rest of the time until summer, when my plans are just as vague and uncertain as ever. And yet I felt like everything was right with the world. I may not have a steady job, or a plan for the future, but I’ve got great expanses of New England forest to roam. If I had to choose one of those three things, you know which one I’d go with every time.

For someone who used to be a huge computer nerd, these days I feel like an old fart when it comes to technology. Social networks and smart phones seem like voodoo magic to me. Popular programs and websites like Facebook and Google Earth are totally new to me in the past year or two. Things like Twitter make some sense to me, but I can’t quite understand why they’re so popular. But I try to keep up with what all the kids are up to these days.

A few weeks ago, on the Backpackinglight Northeast Regional Meet Up, I overcame my fear of spending money on the iPhone App Store and downloaded the Massachusetts State Parks Maplets app. In the past ten months that I’ve had this phone, I’ve only spent money on two apps before this one. I’m a pretty stingy person, and I don’t like to buy things without knowing exactly what I’m getting, so dropping the whopping $1 for this app made me nervous. The verdict? Even if I never use it again, it was well worth the money I spent on it.

Screen shot from the app while I was in the trailside campsite. The GPS location was spot on.

In a way, this app is everything you want an iPhone app to be. It’s simple, effective, useful, and elegant. Come to think of it, it also represents much of the Ultralight ethic in those four traits. What you get for your 99 cents is access to maps of every state park in Massachusetts (there are other versions of this app for California, National Parks, and others), but with a twist. While you could get any of these maps for free from various state park websites, or from park visitor centers– the extra bonus here is that the free map now integrates quite nicely with the iPhone’s GPS.

The three of us driving into Mount Washington State Park on that Friday night got in late at night, so the directions we’d taken down were a little difficult to follow. Being deep in the Berkshires, we also had no data signals for our phones, so my Google Maps weren’t loading to give us directions. I’d already downloaded the state park map, though, so I switched, and we were able to use that map with the little blue dot of our GPS location to direct us to the park entrance. Later, while hiking on Mount Alander, I was able to use the GPS function and watch the compass direction pointing out from the blue dot to see where I was going on the trails, which were otherwise spottily marked.

This seems self explanatory, right? When you tap on the pins, they show which park they represent.

Plenty of people will pooh-pooh the use of smartphones in the backcountry, but let’s face it: they’re just another tool you can use in the right situations. For occasionally checking my location on the trails, and having easy access to several maps of an area, a simple app like this is a perfect example of simplicity and functionality.

Disclaimer: I paid real money for this product, and the review is unsolicited by the developers of the app.