Little by little, spring seems to be arriving in Western Mass. Our resident house finches and robins are singing nonstop, and even though the landscape is mostly grey and brown, I’m starting to see some traces of green poking up through leaf litter. Yesterday the mercury climbed all the way into the 60s, and with that we laced up our hiking boots and headed out to hike our next portion of the New England Trail.
(Editor’s note: At the time of this posting, the ground is covered in a fine layer of sleet, with more on its way. Take advantage of the season-appropriate weather while you can. This is New England.)
We live a short drive from the Holyoke Range and Mt. Tom State Reservation, where the M-M trail traverses trap rock ridges to awe-inspiring vistas, but our ambitions were not so great this weekend. What’s more, I was not in the mood to deal with the inevitable crowds that this spring day would bring. So we headed north to Wendell State Forest.
HIKE 2: S15 Wendell State Forest – Ruggles Pond to Jerusalem Road
(3.6 miles round trip)
Nestled in the uplands south of Millers River in Franklin County, Wendell State Forest offers over 7,500 acres of forested, rolling hills. It’s home to an extensive network of multi-use trails, several recreational facilities, and the popular Ruggles Pond. A walking trail goes around the perimeter of the pond, which would be good to explore on our next visit—especially if it gives good views of the beaver dam we saw on the southern edge.
The pond must be hopping on hot summer days, what with its sandy beach, barbecue stations, and plentiful picnic tables. But on this day in mid April, the gates were closed, with only a few other cars parked in the ranger lot off Wendell Road. In our 3 hours on the M-M trail, we ran into two groups of hikers and a friendly dog, but that was all.
As we walked down the park road, we were greeted by the insect-like trill of a male pine warbler loudly proclaiming his territory. The pine warbler is one the earliest of the wood warblers to arrive each spring. And although its song is similar to that of some of the other migrants that are just now arriving—chipping sparrow and swamp sparrow, namely—its lemon-lime plumage brings a jolt of cheer to the woods that is unmistakable.
The white-blazed M-M trail begins in the Ruggles Pond parking lot and traverses the western edge of the forest. An Adirondack shelter, equipped with a fire pit and picnic table, is situated a couple hundred yards from the trailhead; I was surprised to see it so close to civilization (if a parking lot can be called civilization). As is our habit now, we paged through the trail log; two slim notebooks chronicled the journey of over a decade of hikers. I wonder if the pages will fill up faster this year with more people hiking the NET.
Leaving the lean-to behind, we followed the trail as it descended through laurel scrub. The trees were thinner here, the result of a tornado that passed through the area in 2006. Chickadees called in the underbrush, and we saw a small hawk perching on a snag just up trail; it was too brief a look for a definitive ID, but the shape and size had me leaning towards broad-winged hawk. As we went deeper into the ravine, the sound of Lyons Brook grew clearer until eventually we were faced with some inspiring cascades. I can only imagine what this looked like earlier in the spring when the brook was swollen with snow melt.
Eventually the trail began to climb, entering the Hidden Valley Memorial Forest, part of Mt. Grace Land Conservation Trust. This 67-acre holding was the research camp of the famed botanist Arthur Cronquist, who was an expert on asters. The centerpiece of this area is Lynne’s Falls, named after Cronquist’s daughter. The gneiss boulders were indeed, well, nice, but the falls itself was mostly a trickle on this day; we’ve made a note to return after a rainfall later this spring.
Deep in the woods, we heard the raucous cackle of the pileated woodpecker. These feathered dinosaurs never fail to thrill me. We didn’t have them on Long Island, and now I hear them everywhere—and when I don’t hear them, I see their telltale sign: deep oblong gouges and fresh wood chips littering the ground beneath.
Mostly, though, the woods were buzzing with eastern phoebes and hermit thrushes. Last weekend I heard my first thrush of the season, but was unable to get a visual. On this hike, we saw at least six. Of all the breeding birds in the area, I think that hermit thrushes will always hold a special spot in my heart. Their fluting song is more fleeting than the wood thrush’s and more pensive than the veery’s. Oh, holy holy, ah, purity purity eeh, sweetly sweetly…
Eventually the wind grew colder and the sky a little less hospitable, so we turned back just after reaching Jerusalem Road, retracing our steps to the trailhead. We’ll return another day—maybe when it’s warmer—and I look forward to seeing what real, full-fledged spring brings to this hidden valley.