Most of you know that I finished up the Northville-Placid Trail last month. The fact that the patch just arrived reminds me that I never did a concluding trip report here. I have extensive details at trailjournals.com/AnotherKevin and a whole bunch of pictures at tinyurl.com/AK2015pix
The tally sheet asked me, "please tell us about any memorable experiences you had along the way. Include especially any wildlife you encountered and where." That spurred an Emerson moment in me, and I wound up writing a too-long essay in response to the question. I'll call that my summary of the trip.
Good heavens, where even to begin to list the experiences that one has in a journey of over 200 kilometres in the wilderness? I suppose, since you ask, I should start with the wildlife.
Prominent in my memory are the insects. There were, of course, half a dozen genera simply out for my blood, from the tiny no-see-um to the huge horsefly (with black flies, mosquitoes, green flies and deer flies spanning the continuum in between). But there was also a riot of color with the butterflies. I photographed the Red Admiral in both his colour morphs, the Canadian Swallowtail, the Hoary Comma, the Mourning Cloak, the Sulphurs, both Yellow and White, and the stately Monarch. There were dragonflies and damselflies, yellow and green and iridescent purple. There were “Jesus bugs” walking on the waters of every pond and backwater. There were bees and wasps, ants and beetles, and all sorts of creeping creatures in abundance.
The rest of the invertebrates were represented. There were sowbugs under the rocks, and millipedes in the deep shadow under Lamphere Ridge. I did not dig for worms, but I am sure they were there in abundance. Tiny snails seemed to be under every wet leaf. A spider wove a perfect orb overnight as I stayed at Stephens Pond, with every dew-beaded strand scintillating with a tiny rainbow in the light of sunrise.
The fish were visible. Every pond had its crop of little minnows. Wild brook trout, some no bigger than a finger and some that would have easily made a supper for me, lurked amid the rocks of the Cold River. On Long Lake, Tirrell Pond, and Stephens Pond, brown trout looking for all the world like trophy fish, occasionally broke the water leaping for a particularly toothsome insect.
Amphibians were also to be seen. Tiny tree frogs serenading me with their peeping. Slightly larger green frogs wherever there was still water, making the twang of rubber bands being plucked. Spotted frogs, and bullfrongs. Tiny red newts struggled, as I did, not to slip from wet rocks and puncheons.
Among the reptiles, I saw only a tiny garter snake, no longer than my hand, rapidly take cover in a pile of stones near Canary Pond.
Birds: Such a variety! Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures, seen afar planing along the ridge north of Piseco Lake. Grouse drumming, or exploding into flight, or feigning broken wings to lure me away from their nests. Turkeys strutting about. Mallards quacking, geese honking, wood ducks whistling, and over all floating the eerie wail of the loon. Songbirds too numerous to list. Crows scolding from the trees, and the squirrels scolding back.
Squirrels: oh yes, the small mammals. Chipmunks, and voles, and woodchuck. The tiny red eyes of a field mouse caught in the beam of my headlamp in the chink of Plumley's lean-to. A porcupine lazing in a tree near Whitehouse, unafraid because he knew well that nobody sane troubles a porcupine.
Our friend Castor the beaver was so busy as to be unaware of my presence for a full ten minutes as I watched him going about his business. Only then did he catch sight of me, give the water an indignant slap of the tail, and dive out of sight.
The tiny footprints of what I think was a mink, in the mud by Priests Vlei. The much larger footprints of moose and bear, and deposits of their scat, as they were happy to borrow the human trail near the West Canada Lakes. The howl of the coyote on the fringes of civilization near the south end of the trail. And once, a quick glimpse of a fisher's sinuous form darting across the trail as I made my way southward to the Mud Lake lean-to in deep twilight.
Memorable, too, is the rainbow of flowers that I got to see by hiking the trail in three seasons. The deep red of the Stinking Benjamin, the orange of trout-lily and hawkweed, yellow, green and blue all supplied by Clintonia in her various seasonal dresses, indigo gentians, and the humble violet bearing its namesake color. Snow-white viburnum and sweet blackberries. Fragrant roses and lavender in the old garden at the Wakely Dam ranger station.
Trees of three or four ecozones, from the alder and cranberry in the low marshes, to the white cedar and tamarack on the streambanks, through the beech, maple, ash and cherry on the slopes, to the tangle of balsam, spruce and grey birch on the high ridges. Sedges in the wet areas and ferns in the dry. And a couple of tart apples from an abandoned orchard, still bearing stunted fruit after perhaps a century of neglect.
Yes, neglect was everywhere. The hand of humans has wrought much upon the land, and then released it that Nature may reclaim it as Her own. Pots and bottles and bits of stove pipe at the Rondeau hermitage, near a huge pile of rust that was once the midden where tin cans were discarded. Broken stoves, bits of logging tools, shards of glass, rusting iron bedsteads, and the shards of tumbled chimneys at what once were mines and camps and ranger stations all up and down the trail. The proud fireplace at Whitehouse, the building to which it appertained long burnt, facing the majestic suspension bridge.
The bridge! And all the bridges of the trail, from mighty (and sometimes vertiginous) suspension bridges, and beam or truss bridges that look as if they would still support the sledges of loggers, down to single logs casually laid across small streams. The wreckage of former bridges lying in the stream beds, or bridges tied up on stream banks waiting for their moorings to be rebuilt. The long stretches of “walking the planks” along the boardwalk sections.
The wrecked bridges bring to mind that perhaps the most vivid memories are of the challenges overcome. Slipping on the rock hop of the rain-swollen Chubb River, trying to return to the trail from the Wanika Falls tent site in near-freezing weather, and hurriedly building a fire to escape hypothermia. The sudden chill of wading Ouluska Pass Brook while spatters of sleet fell, and the subsequent clambering through the sea of blowdown just downstream. Having a rotten puncheon suddenly collapse under my weight between Shattuck Clearing and Plumley's Landing, precipitating me unceremoniously into thigh-deep beaver water. Awaking, coughing and feverish, the next morning at Rodney Point, still needing to stumble into Long Lake to get attended to. Tumbling into Mud Lake off an algae-coated bog bridge lying at a crazy angle. Spraining a knee, and contracting a horrible case of trench foot, north of Spruce Lake, and managing to hobble the fifteen miles to my car in Piseco in spite of those maladies.
Compared with these accidents, the ordinary challenges of the climb in the Blue Mountain Wilderness (not really that challenging for a hiker accustomed to the High Peaks) and the occasional patch of quicksand pale in comparison. Although the last may be my most salient memory of the trail. Traversing a water system as it does, it has a great many patches where the treadway is best described as “submerged logs and quicksand”. Indeed, I blame that uncertain surface for causing the sprained knee and the trench foot in the first place.
But those are all expected hazards of a wilderness trail, and the Northville Placid trail is just that – and a remarkable one at that. It does not have the magnificent mountain vistas of some other trails, but instead has superb views of the mountains from equally magnificent lakes and marshes. It lacks the challenge of tough rock scrambles, but the water and mud offer their own challenges. It is rich in history, profuse in ecology, abundant in archaeology, and indeed the granddaddy of all long trails in the U.S. It gave me a moonlit stroll from Plumley's to Rodney Point, a refreshing swim in Tirrell Pond, and a spectacular display of falling water at Wanika Falls after nearly a week of rain. It surely offers ample reward to all those intrepid souls who hike it.
I'm not lost. I know where I am. I'm right here.