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Time once again to think about what there is to do outdoors besides yard work. Lately I have been taking to the cool woods, hiking stick in hand, a backpack loaded with my binoculars, camera, and water and tea fixings for a little break when I finally reach my destination for the day.
I don’t often go anywhere in particular; I just go! The woods roads and trails in our area go a long way in every direction imaginable. There are river and stream trails, lake and mountain trails, and plain old logging paths that seem to go everywhere at once. I make my travel plans based on compass direction: if I go in heading generally south, I know enough to come out heading generally north. Same for east and west. Few logging trails go very far in any general direction, but if I stay the course and turn south whenever possible, it’s easy enough to choose north on the return trip.
When I come to a confusing crossroad (and there are many in the deep woods where old and new loggers cut those now-grassy skidder trails) I’ll scratch an arrow in the mud or make a pile of stones showing me the way. Sometimes I’ll just break off a few small saplings and point the stem in the direction I’ll need to go. There’s nothing scientific about it (and I have not had much luck so far with GPS units – too many glitches in them in the places I like to go) and I have not been lost in the true sense of the word in over 50 years of running the woods. A few minutes of orientation with a map and compass, combined with a few more minutes of just looking and listening to get your bearings when you strike off, is all it takes to make a morning or afternoon hike a pleasant and interesting experience. I do not like marked trails or the kinds of places herds of Cub Scouts may be found – that’s not “wilderness” to me. Such places seem sterile and contrived, full of signs and postings and warnings but not much wildlife or serenity, come to think of it. The last time I took a marked trail I came upon three different groups who were not only lost but were arguing about which way “the road” was. I told them where it was and how to get there soonest, but they seemed to prefer to argue about it, so I continued on up the Blue Trail and left them to their debate.
Noise, agitation and confusion are not among the things I look for when I head into the woods.
I’m often torn between hiking the lowland swampy areas in search of deer, moose, bear, beavers and other wetland residents. I’m even satisfied seeing the tracks of these and other animals in the stream-side mud. A good, big, fresh bear track is quite a sight at any time of year, but when it’s found near a water hole and is still filling up with water, there’s a tendency for the hair on the back of your neck to sizzle as if you were about to be struck by lightning. I don’t know if more people are struck by lightning or by bears, but the thought does cross one’s mind when a fresh track appears in the trail just before dark!
I also like to head for the high country on a summertime hike, just to see how the beeches, yellow birch and oaks are doing. Mast production is the watchword of wildlife experts, particularly hunters and trappers, and a good mast year is usually considered good news for those who seek deer, bear, turkeys and other game.
I am more inclined to seek out the long abandoned apple trees near old homesteads where subsistence farmers once toiled under the same July sun I’m trying to escape. Though the farmers, their homes and barns are long gone, their orchards continue to produce tons of essentially wasted fruit. Only the deer, the birds, the bears and I partake of them now. We’re drawn to them like apple-crazed zombies, waiting patiently for the earliest bloomers (Yellow Transparents) to ripen. The early bird does get the worm in this case. I have filled my shirt with these sweet, juicy apples one afternoon only to return the next day to empty limbs. Bears and grouse know when the crop is at its best, and they waste no time taking advantage of it.
The apple game goes on all fall and into the winter (in the case of crabapples), and a late July stroll to those hidden ancient orchards tells me which apples trees are producing but also when I should return to pick my share. I don’t need or even want them all, just enough to celebrate their existence and to justify the labor and effort those hardy early Mainers invested.
One day last fall I ended a Sunday hike at a favorite Stayman Winesap tree that may well have been one of the original trees planted in Maine. Dr. Joseph Stayman first produced these fat, red-skinned apples in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1866, but it wasn’t till 1895 that the trees began to show up in the East.
The tree I know is at least three feet thick at breast height and as gnarly and dense an apple tree as you can find. No doubt that it was planted in the early 1900s, close to an old foundation at the top of a hill overlooking Boyd Lake in Milo. This a great place to end a hike for the view alone, but the string of apple trees that line the homesteader’s lane leading to the summit are especially appealing in October, when the fruit is ripe and juicy. I like to check on them in late summer, because if there are green apples covering the limbs I know I’m going to have a great bird, bear and deer season up there.
Pick a trail, head for the high ground and see what treasures and pleasures the woods will show you. I know it’s a bit early to be thinking about fall, but, just like spring, we can’t wait for it to arrive!
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