Water Closet for 12-27-13 Cold Snow Crunch
A mild nor’easter left an inch of snow in mid-December, the first to speak of this fall. A dry west wind off cold Canada followed and froze ponds and hardened the new white cover. In clear air beneath a blue sky it crunches beneath our soles. Middleton’s Friday morning hikers are in the up-and-down woods of Boxford State Forest and protected surrounds on a trail that includes the summit of Bald Hill, an almost perfect oval drumlin that is shaped like an inverted spoon. It’s long axis runs NW to SE the direction of flow of the last continental glacier here.1 The glacier’s vertical half mile or so of plastic ice, so the geologists tell us, hasn’t filled the sky above for over 10,000 years. We happy hikers try to imagine it bearing down hard upon naked, now well treed land. Mature white pines, oaks and hemlocks make up much of our scenery. The trails, thanks to the Boxford Trails Association, are open.2 We have but to keep old feet and legs from slipping. The thin snow on frozen ground around our soles provides fair traction. It is deer hunting season; this is good tracking snow. We without guns or bows see many animal signs including deer tracks of different sizes. Their hooves intertwine with those of the soles of hunters’ boots who passed at different times. No blood drippings are found on the new snow. A shotgun blast within a few hundred yards startles us. The hunter or any victim or escapee are not seen. Our talkative group gives the latter fair warning. The deer probably don’t know we don’t have guns. Perhaps they are fooled by our walking sticks. The first blast and another from two hunters are heard a few minutes apart while descending the northwest slope of the drumlin.
Stone walls, beautiful, but long of no account to people, break the openness of the mature wood’s floor having few understory bushes or small trees. Periodically along the walls are spreading pasture oaks. These few knarled elders, a hundred years old or more, provided shade for grazing livestock. The forest of straight trunks around them is made up of trees of about half a hundred years. We conclude that in the mid 20th century this great hill was open pasture.
Halfway down en route to a trail at the toe of slope, we rest near a stone cross formed by two long walls meeting and continuing at right angles to each other. Here we can easily imagine grazing cows and farmers passing by with horse or ox drawn carts. In places worn signs of cart paths diagonally climbing the slopes can be guessed at. We suspect this like other drumlins in the county may have been open pasture for 300 years. Nineteenth and early twentieth century geologist John Sears counted 173 drumlins in Essex County.3 Old photos show that most were without trees in his time. The names Bare Hill, Middleton, and Bald Hill, Boxford, are further evidence.
The livestock pastures are gone. The hoofed denizens now are deer and on rare occasions a passing moose. Tracks of various sizes are seen crossing the trail we now turn back east on. A few dense hemlock groves are passed. We are tempted to explore them to look for deer yards, sleeping areas, but our old legs are feeling the miles passed on uneven ground so we stay on the clearer trail. Return visits are planned to check out places passed. Exposed ledges and glacier-carved knolls capped by old trees have us wondering what is behind them. Out from several high ledges great boulders mined by the ice tumbled down and were carried southeast by the glacier thus forming “boulder trains”. If kids again we’d crawl among them. Some are tempted now.
And so the walk leisurely continues on crunching snow. Old lungs warmer now have adapted to the cold dry air. Sunlight shining down among the trees from a clear sky reflects off the snow. All seems right with the world at least here. For awhile we don’t think about there.
1 Wisconsin Glacier was the last continental glacier. Several preceded it over the last few million years.
2 BTA/BOLT’s Boxford Trails Guide 2012, $25 non-members
3 Sears, John. Geology of Essex County Massachusetts (Salem. MA 1905)