Saturday, March 21, 2015

Once more into Hockomock

Just returned from a two-hour walk in Hockomock Swamp with Youngest.  Went in this time from intersection of power line and rt138 (Bay Path Trail).  Though we parked at 5pm, we were still able to go all the way to the intersection with the railway embankment, and then go north to the vocational high school that borders on the north.  On the way back we encountered youth on two ATVs and two dirt bikes.  They made a muddy mess of the previously snow-covered trail, but the damage was limited to the bank, and fairly superficial. 

We saw what appeared to be rabbit tracks (2 foot hop, two feet forward, one mark aft) and animal scat (largish and with animal hair, so presumably coyote), and heard several red-winged blackbirds and another not identified.  Shrubs sporting catkin-like flower buds appeared to be alder, and only one small marshy bit still had cattails (photo) –the rest were solid Phragmites, curse it.   One little tree with modest growth of old-man’s beard (Usnea lichen) had trapped what looked like Phragmites fruits. 

The tracks of the earth-movers comes up the embankment from the south and continues straight on to the high school, so they did not come out via the power line right-of-way as I had guessed.  They left more diggings and neatly-labelled wooden stakes.  There was some evidence of local foot traffic, since two different foot tracks were visible coming down from the vocational high as far as the intersection, then returning.  There are also tracks reminiscent of cross-country skis, and some of these leave the trail for the humpy ground west of the track near the high school. 

We got back to the car before dusk, avoiding the need for the nifty new headlamp I had in my pocket.  I still have no clear notion of why heavy machinery has been in the swamp.

 This little patch of cattail (Typha latifolia) was all I saw.  Invasive Phragmites australis 
(also common on marshy roadsides) dominates the rest of that marsh visible from the path.

 Thanks to thawing and some vehicle traffic, the path was fairly easy to walk on.

Hilly and humpy areas at the northern edge of the swamp invite exploration via vehicle or skis. 

Various pools and streams interrupt the thickets and woods.

Youngest makes an Ill-advised Move and is therefore "skating on thin ice."
But he avoids a wetting, probably learning no good lesson at all.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

What is happening in Hockomock Swamp?

 From a February 2013 walk in Hockomock Swamp. 

Hockomock Swamp is one of the premier wild places in eastern Massachusetts, and important in colonial history as a Wampanaoag retreat around the time of King Phillip's War.  (Douglas Watts, nature writer and a local man of Wampanoag descent, has a couple of quirky videos that introduce the swampscape.)  When in February, 2013 I discovered (via Google Earth) that an old railroad embankment makes a nice, accessible transect through the eastern edge of it, I made a winter walk of it.  Finding almost no dry ground in sight except the embankment itself, I haven't been in a hurry to go back. 

But a brilliant afternoon yesterday after a weary week of work invited me back just to check in.  My boots were on my feet and shiny new snowshoes in the trunk (just in case the remaining snow justified them). 

Stepping onto the embankment, I found the snow packed by heavy machinery.  Had earth-movers had been using it to turn around?  No: the tracks ran straight on along the embankment as far as overhanging trees allowed me to see. 

Heavy traffic within the last few days.

The second vehicle had wheels at least two feet in diameter.

The tracked vehicle's traces are overlain first by the V-tread,
which is then scored by the motorbike (presumably a recreational rider).

Surveyor' stake.  Who can decode it?  The last number might be 
an elevation in feet (its value varied little from stake to stake), 
but above what baseline?  Water table seems unlikely.

The gray color of the soil in this excavation shows it is waterlogged,
so the iron oxide that would normally redden it is in reduced form.  

There were signs of three vehicles: one leaving a track like that made by a tank-type tread, partly obscured by a second vehicle with two-foot wide wheels leaving a V-track, and then a motor bike with knobby tires.  I followed them for a good half-hour, although I probably didn't get half a mile.  Nevertheless the vehicles appeared to be making a one-way trip, which means they might have turned onto a power-line right-of-way that crosses the embankment near the north end of the swamp forming part of the Bay Circuit Trail, and then crosses a road that borders the swamp. 

The powerline right of way is popular with the ATV crowd.  (Feb 2013)

At intervals, a worker with boots with a square knobbed tread had gotten down and driven labeled stakes into the ground.  I tried without much success to decipher the code on the stakes, although I'm sure it would be obvious to a surveyor. In several places there were small excavations where gray, anoxic earth had been turned up, as if to plumb the depth of groundwater.  It seemed a crazy idea, since standing pools and streams are visible  two or three feet below the level of the embankment on both sides. 

Plainly no development could happen off the embankment; perhaps a road was going in?  But that makes no sense to me, since a main road roughly parallels the embankment only a few tenths of a mile away.  I left the swamp after perhaps an hour, upset by the discovery.

The Swamp itself--off the embankment--remains wild, 
and what damage has been done on the embankment is largely superficial, so far.

After an hour on the web, I am only a little the wiser.  As an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, and a wetland buffer full of rare and endangered species, the roughly one-third of Hockomock that is not in private hands belongs to the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife as a Wildlife Managament Area.  The rules for WMAs would seem to preclude development of any kind, to say the least.  Several private companies operate on the border of the swamp, at least one of which operates heavy vehicles: are they using it illegally?  The stakes make it look rather "official".  

Oh--probably there will be a new power line on the embankment.  That would make sense.  I hope it's true.  For now, though, the mystery remains.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Sunrise from the grounds of Old Rochester Regional High School on March 10.

I've seen a few fabulous dawns these last few days--one positive effect of daylight savings time.  Where I had been watching the sun rise to shine in my eyes during my morning commute, now I watch it come up from school after I arrive.  

Arguments continue over whether DST kills or saves more lives, as well as its benefits to business, energy use, etc.

I am not by nature an early riser, and I have felt jet-lagged and tired all week, but I do like having light later in the day.  After a late day at school, I was able to walk a mile with the dogs in bright sunlight--first time in at least a month with all the snow we've had.  Good riddance, dark days of December and January. 

Having said that, I find it strange to have the sun reach its highest point more than an hour before noon.  I wouldn't mind simply agreeing to do everything an hour earlier, but it bugs me that the clock and sun are so misaligned. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

I take full responsibility

 New toys.  I used to think getting excited about shiny new things was childish.
I've changed my mind: why deny such simple pleasures?

--provided I can also take full credit--for the end of our run of snow.*  That's right: my new store-bought snowshoes have arrived, ending the snow and bringing on a week of thaw.  (This on the converse principle that hanging clean wash on the line and getting it just dry is pretty sure to attract a rain shower.)

On the one hand, many eastern Massachusetts residents rather wish that we'd broken that record for snowiest year--recompense for all the shoveling, lost work hours, and lost business.)  But this thaw is welcome, anyway.  For my part, I haven't been able to walk anywhere for weeks; the city gave up on plowing sidewalks after the first few storms, and walking in the street is just too risky.  The snowshoes give me another option, if not always a practical one in a city like this.  

After learning how the bindings work, and figuring out how to put them on without falling over, I took a short stroll last night in the crunchy, rough snow that is still a foot deep in most places--just as proof of concept.  Then I put them away in the trunk of my car, with the idea that they would be most available to me in the circumstances I'd be most likely to want them.  Already I am thinking that a daytrip in Hobamock Swamp would be just the thing.    

But even if I don't use them this year, I like just having them--in the same way I used to keep my backpack in my room packed and provisioned as a teenager, with the idea that I could hit the trail with little notice, even if I never really did.  

Peace of mind.

*I know I can't really take credit.  My neighbor with the new snowblower might also be a factor.