By Arnie P
After the Fall
I often get asked about my favorite hiking season or location. It seems no matter how often I am asked I have to think before answering. The main reason is that I don’t have a favorite season but if I think of particular places then I find that each one has good times of the year for being there. Since my playground is New England this discussion will be how I look at the outdoors of New England as a yearly repeating cycle. I have selected when the leaves have fallen as the beginning of my discussion.
To me this is the one time of year that occurs almost at the same time each year despite the weather changes that have been happening. This is when the trees are naked, the visibility is greatest, the insects are gone, it is colder but not frigid. To counter this, the trails are harder to see as they are covered with newly fallen leaves, and it is easier to slip and fall. The cold weather is invigorating but the daylight is shorter. The air is less humid, there are less clouds and one can see farther distances. My pack is heavier and I make use of my trekking poles more often. I find with the leaves gone, I can explore more off trail areas and possibly make discoveries. This is also the noisiest time of the year with the constant rustling of the leaves under my feet. I often see places that I will want to return to when the ground has frozen solid. This is like previewing hikes that I can possibly take as the weather gets colder.
Cold with and without snow
As the season progresses it does get colder whether we have snow or not. By the time the ground is frozen, the leaves are pretty much gone from the medium to well used trails. The air is crispy most of the time and when there is a wind the cheeks feel the cold. When a new snowfall arrives one has to follow the the markers on the trees or signs placed for that purpose. The snow has the advantage of covering up the ground and making it a lot flatter and in most cases a lot easier for hiking. Sometimes a fine layer of snow is covering more treacherous ice. There seems to be this balance between the things that make hiking easier and those that make it more difficult. Depending on the amount of snow, it can be time for the cross country skiing, snowshoeing, or ice skating. The snow also silences the sound of boots hitting the trail. There are sounds that are only heard at this time of the year. A branch breaking this time of year can sound a lot louder than at other times. The footprints of wildlife become clearly visible. This is often a topic for discussion on the trail. Questions like what kind of animal, how big, what was it doing? If the snow gets so deep that the trail makers can no longer be seen one either has to know the trail very well or stick to trails where the trail is clearly visible from being compacted by the many hikers. At some point in this continual weather cycle the daylight hours get longer and daytime temperatures increase during the day.
The transition from winter to spring hiking
During the spring thaws the trails should not be walked on. They are muddy and can be damaged. The length of this period depends on the amount of snow that has accumulated, the altitude and the forest cover. The transition from frozen to thawed starts slow and is not easy to detect. The first melting starts above the tree line where the rocks are exposed and absorb the heat of the sun. The melted water flows downward following the easiest path. The lower temperatures at night cause refreezing and because the ground is still frozen the melting process is slow at first. During the winter in the deep snow areas, the trail is compacted and lower than the surroundings. As the day temperatures get warmer the surrounding snow shrinks and the trail becomes higher than the surroundings. The ambient noise of the forest goes from being quiet to becoming noisier as the melted water reaches the streams and rivers. The snow off trail becomes known as “rotten”. At some point in this melting process one can sink to your hips in snow that is a mixture of ice crystals and water. It does cool you off quickly. One of the dangers of walking off trail in deep snow and melting conditions is discovering a “snow cave”. This is when an evergreen tree (typically a spruce) gets covered by snow and is not visible. This can be a very dangerous if one walks over such a tree and falls through the snow cover. This could result in being in a position where you are facing downward and finding yourself stuck without being able to move very much. Always best not to be alone when this kind of condition can exist. Snowshoes can help a lot also in preventing this.
The trees begin to have leaves
The leaves are beginning to appear, the ground is slowly thawing and some trails need to be avoided because of mud. The sound of water is almost everywhere and the streams are overflowing their beds. I am reminded of Paul Dukas’s “ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. The sound increases until the streams crest and return to normal levels. This is the time of year where a lot of stream crossings are very difficult and dangerous to cross. The water is near freezing, the rocks at the bottom are covered with slime, and the current is strong and unpredictable. The bottom of the stream bed is unpredictable which makes for a slow frigid crossing. I choose to turn around many times or to hike upstream hoping to find an easier crossing. This is not always an easy choice. Bushwhacking along a stream is usually time and energy consuming. This is especially true if this is not a loop trail or if because of time constraints you have to go back by the way you entered. At this time of year it does not take a lot of rain to cause the water levels to rise drastically.
The insects return
The return of insects is a sure sign that warmer weather is getting closer. Leaves and flowers are starting to bloom and color returns to the forest. The streams remain noisy as long as there is not a drought. The ground becomes fully thawed and at some point gets warmer than the overnight temperatures. It is time for the 5 B’s in the forest. Bugs, bees, birds, berries and bears. When you pass through a blueberry area and you can detect the smell of what reminds you of a dog that has not been washed but only a lot stronger, coupled with bear scat it is a good indication the bears are not too far away. Seeing bears at a distance is good enough for me. For me this is backpacking season. My backpack load is at it’s lowest, the insects can be handled, the forest abounds with various life forms, and this is my time for backpacking. The longer days allow for leisurely hiking and more time to explore while heading to the nightly campsite.
As this time of year begins to end with colder nights, the leaves changing colors, falling, and the insects have gone. This may signal the end of this cycle but it also is the beginning of another cycle that will be different than the last one. For those who pay close attention, the forest changes continuously.