We hike the Yellick Trails in Northborough, Massachusetts, fairly often. We usually hike the Old Farm Trail along the river, back through the corn field, past the beaver dam and the abandoned, rusted-out cars and farm equipment, and on to the creek, where we spend time tossing rocks and sticks into the water and delighting in the splash. Sometimes we invite friends who collect beautiful and unique stones which my son then grabs and tosses into the middle of the creek. Then we turn around and head home.
Today, we decided to explore some of the trails that we never seem to get to. We parked at the trailhead off of Route 20 and followed Old Farm Trail to Birdsong Trail, intending to hike all the way out to the trailhead off Hudson Street at the end of Coyote Trail.
The path led us among the trees that were felled by Hurricane Sandy week before last. Many pine trees were blown over, their roots sticking up like mountains of dirt, as my three-year-old son observed. At one point we were startled when a large branch fell form a great height about fifty feet away from us. Trunks bisected the path, but someone had taken a chainsaw to them and we didn’t have to climb any of them. Instead, we walked between the two ends of the trunks and got to observe the sap that had dripped from the fresh cuts and count the concentric rings inside.
On one we saw this:
Further up was one with the notation, “NH3.” Looks like some local Hash House Harriers have used our little trail.
Earlier this week, the kids and I went on a hike on our usual trail in search of club moss. It was chilly and my son complained that it was “winding” (pronounced like “wind” with a short “i” with “ing” at the end) and we didn’t see any club moss, so we cut the hike short. Today on our less-traveled path, we were thrilled to find a few good patches of it.
For those unfamiliar with club moss, it’s actually an ancient plant that predates trees. Prehistoric club mosses grew to heights of 100 feet or more, but today they grow no taller than a few inches. They reproduce via spores and have no root system although they’re often linked together just under the surface of the ground by a root-like stem. If you pull up one plant, you can end up with a whole string of club mosses. It takes club mosses seventeen years to reach maturity and ten years just to become large enough for us to see. People think the diminutive evergreens look like miniature Christmas trees, and some collect them to use on wreaths and other decorations, which is kind of sad when you think that it took almost two decades for the poor plant to reach just a few inches in height. At least it’s sad to me.
Incidentally, we learned about club mosses from Gale Lawrence’s fabulous book of essays, The Beginning Naturalist. There are 52 essays in the book, which follow the weeks of the year. Starting at the autumnal equinox, we’ve been reading one essay a week and then hiking to look for whatever plant, animal, or other feature Lawrence has written about for that week.
At any rate, my daughter and I think the club moss we saw is tree groundpine or Lycopodium dendroideum. She was hoping there would be some of the yellowish spores left to stain her fingers, but I think we must have found this patch of club moss too late for that.
Soon after the club moss sighting, we noticed that the sun was dipping rapidly into the trees, so my husband sent our daughter and me along to explore the trail ahead while he followed our son’s more leisurely pace. My daughter and I travelled over bridges and through mud and along trails lined with dried and rustling grasses until we reached the river and Coyote Trail.
Very quickly, Coyote Trail became very narrow and sloped steeply down towards the river. The going was made all the more treacherous by the slick layer of dead leaves that covered the trail. My daughter and I pressed on until I noticed that the air was cooling as evening drew ever nearer. Not knowing exactly how far we had to travel and not wanting to try and traverse this path in the dark and risk an unplanned dip in the river, we decided to turn back. My daughter hopped, skipped, and ran along the trail, leading the way and calling back to me, “I love to run! Especially when we’re out in nature!”
We paused long enough to note that one clearing would be a good place to set up our tent, should we ever choose to backpack our little trail (which led to a little discussion about why we don’t set our tent up just anywhere), but within a few minutes we’d met up with my husband and our son, who were playing poohsticks from one of the little bridges.
With the little guy on my husband’s shoulders, we retraced our steps back to our car. I flicked a tick (male deer tick, I think) from my sweater before I got in the car, but we found no other arachnid hitchhikers during our thorough tick-check either at the car or back home where we combed our hair and bathed thoroughly. I want to do everything possible to avoid having one of those buggers embed itself in our skin. The sight of that tick lodged in my daughter’s scalp a couple of weeks back, eight little legs wiggling, is not one I want to see again any time soon. Thinking about it now makes me feel all itchy all over again.