Plimpton Forest (and a bit more)

Some news to start: next month I’m heading on a three night, four day hike through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, staying overnights at the High Huts of the White Mountains with some friends from work. So I’ve been gearing up and doing practice hikes as often as I can.  I have yet to do a real tough mountain hike (I plan to hit up Wachusett before the hike, but am not sure when I’ll make it happen), but this Labor Day I wanted to hike several days in my hiking boots to break them in and make sure I shook out any issues.

I had Friday off, so I started with a solo hike on a piece of property newly acquired by the town of Sturbridge, the Plimpton Community Forest.  The forest was a big win for open space advocates in the area, as numerous sources of money had to combine to make up enough to buy the land rather than letting it be developed.  It’s located next door to Hamilton Rod & Gun, where I’m a member (the club and its members were instrumental in getting the land protected), and also connects to two other open spaces (Wells State Park and the Wolf Swamp WMA).  It creates (or, perhaps, preserves) a continuous tract of open land, great for outdoor recreation as well as wildlife habitat preservation.

There are no trail maps for the property yet, but I knew that volunteers had marked some trails two weeks prior, so I went in search of those.  There are two trails on the property right now, one marked with red blazes and one with yellow.  The red trail starts up a fairly steep hill, and is obviously along an old road in some spots as it’s fairly wide.

The trail goes through some sections which have been logged but also trails along some beautiful old stone walls.

There are also some muddy parts, which I’m guessing will be quite marshy in wetter weather.

The red trail was clearly marked and easy to follow, and it was obvious when it ended. Signs marked the property boundary, and according to my GPS I was close to a stream crossing which would have put me on private property.  I followed the red trail back and then followed the fork which was the yellow trail.

The yellow trail was much narrower and windier, with some slightly challenging terrain in spots.

The yellow trail goes through some open areas which are beautiful and peaceful (there were no real sounds of neighboring roads, a nice treat for such a close-by trail).  I quite liked the lone boulder seen below.

The trail started to narrow significantly and eventually the markers disappeared. There was no sign that the trail had ended, but there were no more blazes and no path to follow. I believe there is more work to be done here.

Doing both trails added up to about three miles of peaceful hiking.

But … that wasn’t enough.

The next day, Jessica and I took a short hike through the woods at the Rock House Reservation, a favorite of ours for many years.

And the day after that, in fairly steady rain, I took a solo hike through Opacum Woods, a beautiful property I’ve explored plenty of times.  It offers a variety of terrain types, interesting things to look at, and the trails loop instead of being out-and-backs.  The only complaint I have about Opacum is that it’s directly next door to one of the busiest interchanges in the state (I84 + I90) and the highway noise is constant.  As the trails here are fairly simple, I won’t narrate the whole hike, but I did the full loop and the highlights are below.

(Note, my waterproof hiking boots were fine in the rain, but my water-“resistant” jacket failed miserably.)

And as if that was not enough, after three straight days of hiking I went for a fourth day of outdoor activities with a long kayak trip with a friend.  We hit Quaboag Pond from the south and fought the wind and even did a bit of fishing.

Four days off from work, and four days of vigorous outdoor activity.  I can’t complain.  Even if I wasn’t training for a big hike next month, I’d be enjoying this, but knowing it’s getting me ready for this adventure, it’s even more rewarding.

A quick summary of August

I wanted to post every month, but I never got around to posting during August. So I’ll give a short update on what August was like, before moving on to more exciting September content.

First off, these feet definitely earned the right to be called eager during August. My Fitbit tells me there were only two days in August when I got under 10,000 steps, and my average was over 13,000 — so that’s cool.  Since our trip to Sanibel I’ve been focused on my fitness more, have dropped some pounds, and remembered how much I enjoy the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.  Many of those steps came in walks, either around the office or around the neighborhood.  Sometimes the neighborhood reminds me how much I enjoy it.

I also dragged my family out for at least one walk together, on the Rail Trail in Brimfield.  We saw snakes galore!

We also returned to Florida in August, for a quick couple days, to visit my grandfather.  He lives alone, and still takes good care of himself, even though he’s past 90.  We visited him during the solar eclipse … and while I didn’t get a good shot of the actual eclipse, here’s how the shadows looked in the driveway!

Last, but not least, August saw my birthday — we had a birthday dinner at a cool Cuban / Blues bar/pub in Florida after leaving my grandfather for the evening.  No food pictures, but the vibe was pretty cool.


Sanibel Island, Summer 2017

These Eager Feet love to travel, whether it’s a day trip to a new hiking trail or a month-long road trip (still the best trip I’ve ever taken). It’s always difficult to decide when to take on new adventures and when to return to comfortable ground. It’s like going to a restaurant — order the tried and true meal or branch out and order the special with the garnish you’ve never heard of?

Each year we weigh this, and we keep coming back to Sanibel Island. We’ve been coming here for years (since before Evie was born), and it’s hard to put into words why we keep coming back. It’s somewhat unique, or at least uncommon, in that most of the island is a natural preserve. Development is controlled; town by-laws prevent chain restaurants from opening, hotels from going above three stories, or buildings a certain distance from the beach. Speed limits are low across the island, and it’s quiet, to the point where some people (I won’t name names, but they’re our own flesh and blood and traveled with us just once) get bored here.

I come here, I drive across the massive bridge, and I immediately begin decompressing. Tradition holds that our first meal on the island is usually at a restaurant called the Island Cow.  The Island Cow isn’t an amazing restaurant; it’s loud, crowded, disorganized, and has a massive menu that puts quantity a bit above quality. There’s always a wait, and I always get a drink from the bar and sit out back in the Adirondack chairs and slowly let the warm Florida air begin doing its magic.

This year we splurged and revisited a condo we’ve stayed in before. The views are incredible and you can’t help but be drawn to the windows whenever you’re trapped indoors, trying to spot the telltale splash of a pair of dolphins swimming by.

As well as having Jess’s parents along, we took Evie’s friend with us on this trip, so she would have someone to share the experience with. It’s always easier when they’re entertained and can share their unique childhood perspective with another friend instead of just adults.  While the grown-ups shopped for kitchen supplies I accompanied them outside of Jerry’s grocery store to talk to the parrots.  Again, these experiences are comfortable and routine to me, and even Evie is beginning to remember them from prior years, but her being able to share them with someone else made them feel new again, for all of us.

I apologize for a lack of pictures in this post; on a trip like this, when relaxation is king, especially when swimming and being by the water is such a big part of it, the phone just doesn’t come out that often, and I just experience the trip rather than photograph it.  In the moment it’s the right call but I can’t help but wish I had more snapshots to help summon the memories (especially in the dark days of winter, or the hardest days of work).

On Tuesday, we made our way across the length of Sanibel to its sister island of Captiva. There, Jess, Evie, and Evie’s friend took to the skies on a parasailing adventure with the accurately named Yolo Adventures.

After their trip, we spent some time at a nearby beach, playing, swimming, and collecting shells. For lunch that day, we stopped at RC Otter’s Island Eats, a little casual place on Captiva. We sat outside at a table for six, listened to a guitar player singing Jimmy Buffet and Billy Joel songs, and I enjoyed a couple cans of one of my favorite beers, Jai Alai IPA (not distributed to Massachusetts, I’m afraid).  My lunch was a simple blackened fish sandwich, and I honestly could have sat there, in the breeze with the salt drying on my skin, listening to that music and enjoying the moment, all afternoon.  It was one of the high points of the trip.

Later in the week the ladies took a speedboat tour around the island (The Sanibel Thriller) while Jess’s father and I fished our way across Ding Darling.  We fished a bit almost every day, but this was our day to have some dedicated time to fish.  We saw some interesting fish, including a shark that cruised by where we were standing — very exciting.  I didn’t pull in much but Steve did — the story of my (fishing) life.

We got some more fishing in on our last full day there, taking a boat out of Tarpon Bay Explorers to fish the inlets and shallow waters of the bay.  We caught over 40 fish between the six of us, across a wide variety of species.  Everybody had a great time.

And then … as quickly as it began, it was over.  The next day we drove north to Tampa (stopping at a tourist trap mini-golf place to play 18 holes, feed the gators, and break up the routine) and then flew home.

It hasn’t even been a month yet and the memories are fading, work is front and center again, and the stress levels are back up.  But I can still summon the taste of that ice cold Jai Alai with the breeze in my salt-water-hair, and I know that while my Eager Feet may crave adventure, there is some value in tried and true relaxation.

Quechee Gorge and Windsor Vermont

There’s something about the mountains of Vermont which speaks to me at a deep level. The winding roads, the gentle green slopes, the contrast between the lush mountains and the blue skies … it relaxes me almost immediately. Add to this the excellent local food and beer, and the fact that we can get there without touching the Mass Pike, I-495, or I-95, and you can begin to understand why I keep coming back.

To close out May of this year, we traveled with our friends Sean and Crystal and their daughter Olivia. We’ve traveled with them several times before, in both Vermont and the Berkshires. We have similar relaxed traveling styles when it comes to the outdoors and a love of great food, and our kids get along well too.

This time, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Club Vacations Mount Ascutney Resort, a small ski resort near Windsor, Vermont.

The resort itself is beautiful, spacious, and quiet (maybe too quiet for some — it’s certainly a vastly different feel than Smugglers’ Notch). In the photos above you can see the building we stayed in, as well as the views from the rear of the main building, looking out over a small pond and up at the hills.  If you look closely you can see a fire pit with firewood stacked near it; we enjoyed some relaxing time around this fire but not nearly enough.  There’s something about a fire pit and a good drink that erases weeks of stress per hour spent.

We drove on Saturday up to Windsor for a visit to The Harpoon Riverbend Taps and Beer Garden. The food was great, and the atmosphere a ton of fun. I highly recommend it if you’re in the area.

We enjoyed sampler flights and a good lunch, and then spent some time outside playing as families.

Unfortunately, we didn’t time things well and I missed out on the brewery tour.  Next time!

The next day we went up the road a bit further to Quechee Gorge, also known as Vermont’s Grand Canyon.  A hundred year old bridge here is 163 feet above the river below, and makes for jaw-dropping views in both directions.  The bridge has crosswalks at both ends and wide sidewalks making for excellent, safe exploration (once you get over your fear of heights).

There’s a few hiking trails near here and we did a short hike up the river to the beautiful Dewey’s Pond. Along the way I couldn’t help photograph some of the cool tree bark.

At the end of the trail, we caught tadpoles in the pond and watched kayakers go by the river bend.

After exploring the trails, we stopped at the nearby gift shop and ice cream store.

The next morning, before the rains hit, we did a bit of exploring the property. Little memories sometimes make the most difference; we floated sticks under a small bridge over a nearby stream and watched them go over a little waterfall.

It wasn’t a very long trip, but three nights in the mountains does a world of good.

Quinebaug River Trail – East Brimfield Section (Kayak)

For the past two years, I’ve wanted to take a kayak or canoe along the Quinebaug River Trail between Lake Siog and the East Brimfield Reservoir. But whenever I’ve had the time, the river’s been too low, whether because of drought (last year) or just general late season low flow.  But this spring has seen enough rain to keep all the nearby rivers fat and happy, which made for a great opportunity.

With a solid half-day available to me this past weekend, I got everything ready the night before, so I could roll out of bed and into the car first thing Saturday morning. We’d had a few hot days in a row but the temps had fallen overnight and it was in the upper 40s as I drove to Holland.  I again cursed the low clearance and bad angles on my otherwise well-loved Mazda 3; many of the roads to parking areas for trailheads or fishing spots make me wish for something with a bit more room for error (we’ll see what my next car is). After I navigated the potholes and ruts and got to the parking area, I found a few cars and trucks already there at 7:10 AM.

I got to work unpacking the car and loading the boat with fishing equipment.  I’m still getting used to my load-out. The kayak can handle a ton of cargo and so I tend to bring a ton of cargo … but sometimes it’s all a bit overwhelming.  Either way, I was on the water by 7:30, after waiting a bit for some kids to finish getting their little flat-bottom boat off the ramp.

I paddled my way past a few other fishermen on the water, one of whom was fly-fishing from a rather small kayak.  I was impressed with his balance and form; it’s hard enough to fly-fish standing on solid ground, but sitting in a shaky kayak is another story entirely.  I was about to ask if he was having any luck when I watched him set his hook and begin fighting a small fish.

Once I cleared everybody I started periodically pausing to cast as I went.  This area is very quiet with no major reads nearby.  Near the Morse Road bridge I hooked into an aggressive pickerel, who shook the lure out of his mouth just as I was pulling its head out of the water.  I love how pickerel attack and fight, but I’ve never been a fan of taking treble hooks out of their jaws.  So having one toss the lure that close almost felt like a win, even if it was a bit disappointing.

I fished for a while on both sides of the bridge and didn’t hook into any more fish, so I kept heading downstream.  I paused for a moment at the first rest area of the trail, just one mile in.  I took off my heavy sweatshirt (the sun was starting to peek out and the paddling was keeping me warm) and considered changing out my terminal tackle, but decided to leave the simple spinner baits on I had been using.  I probably should have taken the time to switch one of my rods to a rubber worm, but my scissors were buried somewhere in the milk crate and I was itching to keep moving. (Lesson learned; attach the scissors to the life jacket — or use a snap swivel).

I continued downriver as the course grew much more meandering. I passed rest stops 2 and 3 (fairly close together at 2.0 and 2.4 miles downstream) without stopping, simply pausing in the boat when I grew tired and letting the current drift me slowly downstream. The peace and quiet was amazing; every once in a while I could hear a distant car but never the constant hum of traffic I hear from on the Quaboag and East Brookfield rivers. The other thing I was blown away by was the smell … so early in the season that dead pond-scum smell hadn’t really started to develop yet. The river smelled fresh and alive, and periodically as the river went past a particularly flowery tree I’d be overwhelmed by totally different spring smells.  This was exactly what I needed; a quiet, peaceful excursion away from civilization where I could really sink my senses into nature for a few hours.

Of course, as I paused and drifted, I came to the realization that the current was helping me quite a bit … which meant it was going to be fighting me quite a bit on the way back.  I looked at the time, made some guesses, and figured if I wanted to be out of the water by noon I had to start focusing more on the paddle and less on the fishing.

I paused frequently to take pictures and occasionally cast my line, but at this point my focus was on keeping moving.  I saw several beavers, many Canada geese, more red-winged blackbirds than I could count, and lots of turtles too.  I heard a wild turkey calling, watched little fish dart away from my kayak into the reeds, and let the rising sun soak me with warmth.

A bit after 9:30, I approached the bridge tunnel that led to the East Brimfield Reservoir.  I paddled under the bridge, fished nearby for a while without any luck, and enjoyed a banana in an attempt to inject some quick energy into my tired arms.  Then, I turned around.  It had taken me around two hours to get here with the current helping me, and I wanted to get back in about the same time, so I knew I had to push a bit.

The current was rough at first; whether it was just the depth of the water, the peculiarity of the wind, or just my own weak muscles, I felt a little doubt about how this morning was going to turn out.  But I pressed on and things got a bit easier.  I paused much less frequently, as every rest meant the kayak would start to get turned around by the current (not that the current was particularly strong, but it was certainly noticeable). Forward I paddled, until I made my way back to the third rest stop, where I dragged the kayak out of the water and took a breather, eating a protein bar and measuring my progress while throwing out a few half-hearted casts with the fishing rod.  Ten minutes later, I was heading back upstream.

I started to encounter many more paddlers who had started the day later than I had. There were probably twenty different people on kayaks and canoes between the rest stop and the ramp, most in groups, laughing and enjoying the beautiful day.  I waved and greeted them all, happily tired and feeling accomplished.

I made it back just before noon, and was back on the road, headed home and back to civilization.  I’d definitely be up for taking this trip again, though if I was going to do it round trip I’d try and reserve a bit more time for it.

There’s something calming and almost meditative about solo paddling for a few hours, with nobody to talk to, nobody to listen to, and no routine except what you set as you measure how fast you feel you need to go. It appeals to me in the same way that hiking does, with the added benefit of being able to change up the activity with fishing.  I’m already trying to figure out my next chance to get on the water.