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The Other Side of Snake Mountain

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I have been looking forward to my next post for some time now – Since March, the inevitable aches, pains, and nuisance injuries of middle age have kept me off the trails and out of my running shoes.  While I am not back to 100% (or what delusionally passes for 100% at this point in my life), I was at the point where continued rest and inactivity seemed to hurt more than help.  Contemplating a relatively short, easy run I remembered learning of a much less traveled trail up Snake Mountain, ascending from the gentler east side of the mountain.  Since this side of the mountain appeared much less imposing than the west facing cliff side where most hikers and runners begin, I assumed I was in for a relatively easy run.  Sometimes visual impressions can be deceiving!

The east face trailhead is much less known than the far heavier traveled east side trail on Snake Mt.  The easiest way to get to this trailhead is to head out of town to the west on Rt. 125 until you get to Lemon Fair Road.  Turn right onto Lemon Fair Road at the yellow house at the top of the hill about a mile and a half out of town, and stay on this road until you get to Snake Mountain Rd, where you take a right turn.  Head north on Snake Mt. Rd. for 2.5 miles, until you come to a small barely marked parking lot slightly up to your left.

The trail begins gently enough following a broad, well maintained path through a few hillside meadows before reaching at gate about a third of a mile up the trail.  After this point, the trail soon becomes a narrow, single track trail, unlike the broad former coach road which makes up the west side trail.  Nonetheless, the trail was obvious to follow, and went by several pretty, boggy areas where the trail got a little bit muddy.  Along the muddiest section, the source of the flooding was soon obvious – a beaver pond had started raise the water level in one of the boggy sections to the point where the trail was beginning to get slightly flooded.  There were also several clearly recently felled trees (one with green leaves still on it!) indicating that the beaver in residence had been characteristically busy in the previous day or two.

Beaver Pond

 

 

Downed Tree

 

Continuing past this muddy section, the trail got significantly steeper before leveling off for a traverse to the south. I was beginning think that I must be getting nearer to the summit, but was puzzled where the trail would end up, as I had never noticed where this particular trail joined the main trail, let alone the summit. My questions were soon answered as the east side trail joined the west side trail – only about half way up the mountain – I had plenty of running yet to do! Upon reaching the summit view point, I was far more tired than usual – was this solely due to the expected loss of conditioning after 3 months off the trails? Or was the east side trail deceptively longer? I would have to wait until I got home and synced up my Garmin GPS watch to get most of the hard data.

View to the North from the summit

View to the North from the summit

 

I was pretty tired at the summit, and the circling vultures did little to comfort me! Another far more ornithologically informed hiker at the summit commented that since I was so sweaty, the vultures were probably smelling me as if I was carrion. Funny – Mrs. Trailrunner seems to think the same thing when I return from a good long trail run. The return to my car was relatively uneventful, with the caveat that less traveled trails are sometimes more difficult to find on the way down than they are on the way up – I unwittingly ended up following a dry stream bed rather than the trail for a few hundred yards, but fortunately rejoined the true trail at about the point when I was beginning to realize I had taken a wrong turn.

After checking the mileage on this run, which was harder than I hoped it would be, I found that my observations were verified – the east side trail is about a half mile longer (4.6 miles), about 100 vertical feet more to climb (1000 ft total), and significantly rougher than the west side. It was also a more interesting and prettier path in my opinion – in other words, a true trail run! I am looking forward to some new and more adventurous runs as my body continues to heal.

Altitude Profile

View of the run from the east, looking west

Muddy Meadows and Poison Parsnips

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

This posting covers the last remaining section of the TAM (Trail Around Middlebury) which has not yet been described in this blog.  Most of this run proceeds through the open meadows to the west of Middlebury College, with a short loop on the Ralph Myhre Golf Course thrown in as a warm-up.  Since my locker is at the college Field House, this made for a good start and finish point for a lunch break run on a warm early summer day.  The first two miles of this run were pretty easy, consisting of the well-trodden two miles around the golf course.  Unlike my earlier description of this section, I chose the clockwise direction, which necessitated entering the trail by the soccer goals behind the artificial turf field on the athletic grounds.  Following the trail around the periphery, carefully dodging errant drives, brought me to the Rt. 30 road crossing at the two mile mark.  Entering the woods on the far side led me to the section of the trail labeled as the “Colin O’Neil Class of 97 Trail”, built by the classmates of a student who passed away in a tragic auto accident when driving while intoxicated during his senior year at Middlebury College.  This heavily wooded segment weaves between the trees while angling downhill, until it reaches the open meadows below and to the west.  Although this has been a drier year than usual, it also passes through the first of several deep muddy puddles, making this a bad run to take the shiny new sneakers on.  Reaching the bottom of the field, I took a left turn and followed the trail which ran at the periphery of several adjoining meadows.  While this section is easy to follow, it can be surprisingly challenging to run, since the light traffic it receives leads to fairly high grass, slowing the running considerably.  I was also careful not to accidentally bump into any of the clusters of the now all-too common weed “Poison Parsnip”, also known as “Wild Parsnip”.  This weed looks much like a slightly larger version of the well-known “Queen Anne’s Lace” but with yellow rather than white blooms.

Poison Parsnip

If you aren’t familiar with this stuff, it is VERY nasty, and should be avoided at all costs – fortunately alert runners can do so on this stretch of trail!  This invasive species came to North America with the first European settlers, and its presence was noted as early as 1630.  It is not apparent why it seems to have become so prevalent along Vermont fields and highways in the last decade or so, but the northern midwest, especially Wisconsin, seems to have been similarly afflicted.  Unlike other better known toxic plants, like poison ivy, which depend on our immune response to cause their discomfort, this plant is just plain corrosive!  When the tissues of this plant are broken open, it releases a family of substances known as “psoralens” which are initially harmless, but quickly react with UV light to take on their corrosive character, causing skin burns and discoloration which can last from weeks to months on human skin.

This nasty weed, like most invasives, has no natural enemies among our local fauna. Its natural predator, the “Parsnip Webworm”, also native to Europe, has found its way to some wild parsnip-infested areas in the US, diminishing the numbers and health of the plant in those locales.  Apparently, the psoralens are not part of the plant’s biochemistry solely to torture humans, but to keep its naturally coevolved predator, the webworm, at bay.  When faced with large populations of webworms, the plants generate higher levels of psoralens, which in turn stunts the plant’s own growth to ensure its survival.  I say bring those webworms to Vermont and let chemical ecology run its course!

Getting back to the run before I get too distracted:  The route crosses over College Street and passes just to the west of the Organic Garden, with excellent views of the Green Mountains, and my place of work, Bicentennial Hall.  The organic garden is worth a trip by itself, with a mix of flowers and vegetables on a quiet knoll in the middle of the field.

Mountain Views

After about a half mile in the open, the trail heads back into some fairly open forest before eventually joining Weybridge Street for the 2 mile return to the locker room and showers at the Fitness Center.   I chose to take the shortcut through campus, entering through the Weybridge St gate, and passing through the dorms.  Even with the shortcut, the run ended up at 6.6 miles, plenty of distance for this runner on a hot day in the early afternoon sun.

Google earth of the route

The Widow’s Clearing

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

This week’s post begins at what is by now, a fairly common trailhead for my runs, the Brooks Road parking lot.  This trailhead, a mile or so downhill from the Middlebury College Snow Bowl, has been the starting point for several of my blogged runs over the last year, most recently a post entitled “A Tale of Two Weekends.  Nonetheless, there are many opportunities for unique runs emanating from this National Forest entry point, so I keep coming back to check out new variations.  I have skied this route quite a few times over the years, but have only done limited exploring of most of this route during the summer months, so much of the scenery looked very different from the images in my memory.

The start of this run, however, treads on familiar turf.  I suspected (correctly) that some of the terrain would be a little rougher later on in the run,  so I chose to complete the lion’s share of the climbing on the easy running surface of Brooks Rd., including the entirety of the “up and back” route described last summer in the Sugar Hill Reservoir post.  The straightforward start to this run involved running up Brooks Rd. for 2.5 miles until joining the righthand side trail leading to the reservoir at the three mile mark.  Entering the clearing below the reservoir dam, I noted a sign which was clearly aimed at runners who were far more fleet footed than I!

Speed Warning

Rather than returning to my car by the same route, I chose to lengthen the run by delving deeper into the National Forest and trying out a loop run.  Immediately after entering the dam clearing, take the trail veering downhill sharply to the right.  At this point, the run seemed much more committed than other runs in the area, leaving me with the impression that I was heading into remote wilderness, despite the fact that civilized roads are never far away.  The next 4 miles or so are on trails which are well-skied upon in the winter, but rarely travelled in the summer months, so there are some sections which are (surprise surprise) very muddy and/or slightly overgrown, but never difficult to follow.  In order to find your way back to the parking lot, the simplest instruction is ALWAYS STAY RIGHT at each obvious trail junction.  Since much of this trail parallels the Ripton-Goshen Road a “wrong turn” to the left will probably deposit you pretty quickly on this obvious dirt road, but you can be back on route by reversing your course for a few minutes.  Finally, this segment of the  route also coincides with The Catamount Trail, the state-long ski trail, so the unique Catamount Trail markers can be followed as well.  This stretch of the Catamount Trail eventually joins up with the Widow’s Clearing Trail at a well marked intersection.

Catamount Trail joins Widow's Clearing Trail

From this point on until the end of the run, the trail through mature hardwood forest following the Widow’s Clearing Trail.  There is one last tricky intersection, a sharp turn climbing to the right which I would have overlooked if it wasn’t pretty well marked.  About a half mile from the end of this loop I passed by large hillside clearing, which was clearly the remnants of a former homestead, as indicated by the ancient apple orchard at its edge.  A small sign referring to this site as the Widow’s Clearing was also nailed into a trailside tree.  A descent on well traveled trail returned me to the parking lot to complete this 7.6 mile loop.

Google Earth of the run

Between numerous signs labeling the Widows Clearing trail, the Widow’s Clearing trailhead, and the Widow’s Clearing itself, upon my return to my vehicle, I began to wonder, who was the eponymous widow?  I was not able to find any information on my own, so I emailed my favorite expert on local history, Jan at the Sheldon Museum.  She was not familiar with this mysterious widow, but she did some research, and eventually connected me with William J. Powers, Jr. of Lake Dunmore and Rutland.  All of the following information comes from Bill and is the result of his unpublished research on the topic.  This is just a brief synopsis of a much larger body of his work.  Bill has also authored a history book on another of my favorite  running destinations, Silver Lake, and those who are interested in learning more about the history of the lake and its surroundings can purchase his book at the Sheldon Museum.

As it turns out, the widow of interest was one Lucina (Billings) Chatfield, 1818-1897.  While Lucina was born in Tunbridge, she married Alonzo Chatfield in Middlebury in 1838.  They moved up to his home in Ripton, and in 1859 they started farming the plot of land which we now call the Widow’s Clearing. Local records indicate that their farm was rather poor, even by Ripton hill farm standards.  When this site became known as “Widow’s Clearing” is not in the information which I have at my disposal, but it is clear that Lucina was not widowed immediately – she was abandoned by her husband!  In 1855 Alonzo left her and their four children, and moved to Michigan where he lived the rest of his life with his second wife.  Accounts from that time also indicated that Lucina was not openly distraught about this.  Whether this was stoicism on her part, or a case of “good riddance”, we can only speculate.  She owned and operated the farm until 1882, in later years with her son Parsons and his family, although it is not clear if she actually lived there all those years.  It must have been a challenging hardscrabble existence for Lucina and her family, as an 1871 map of Ripton shows “Mrs. Chatfield’s farm” as the most remote, and probably highest altitude farm in Ripton.  Nonetheless, local records also show that by this time, the farm was more successful than it had been during the years of her marriage.  In 1882, Lucina, Parsons, and his family relocated to Middlebury, and there is no record of anyone living at the clearing after that time.  The widow passed away in East Bethel, VT in 1897 at the age of 79, and was buried in the Galvin Cemetery in Ripton alongside her parents.  Kind of an interesting little story of the challenges of mountain life in Vermont!

Finally, Bill’s research also uncovered a picture of the view from the Widow’s Clearing, circa 1870.  The wide open land stands in sharp contrast to the fully recovered forest of modern times. This photo is included with his permission.

A Tale of Two Weekends

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Two weekends ago, I had a great run in the mountains with the intention of writing it up for this blog.  While out on the run,  I discovered much to my dismay that the batteries in my camera were dead, negating the opportunity for including a few photos.  Adding further to my technological woes, my other primary gadget, the GPS watch with which I map out the run, had apparently hiccup’ed at one point in the run, indicating a 500 vertical ft drop and climb in a section of the trail which I knew to be quite flat.  I could have attempted to take on the challenge of creating an appropriate mental picture of the run with just the power of my words, but instead chose the easy way out, namely re-running the route with my technological crutches in better working order.  This did, however, present a perfect opportunity to see the same trails from two very different perspectives, given significant differences in weather, trail conditions, and my own physical state.  Thus, this description will not only describe the route, but also illustrate the differences which can occur over the course of just one week, especially one week in Vermont’s unpredictable April weather.

This run starts at one of my favorite trailheads, the Brooks Rd. parking area, which can be accessed by a short drive up Rt 125 above East Middlebury.  Brooks Rd. is the dirt road heading right shortly after passing the Breadloaf Campus, before the final ascent to the Snow Bowl, and the large parking area is found about a quarter mile down the road.  During the winter and spring, this parking lot is the end of the road, but when things dry out in the summer and fall, the full road is open to vehicular traffic, although I don’t remember ever seeing a vehicle on it!  This trailhead is also featured on my previous posts entitled “Brooks Road” (creative, I know) and “Sugar Hill Reservoir“.

Week One:  It usually takes me a few months of training each spring to start trying runs longer than 5 or 6 miles, but the continuing gorgeous weather this year encouraged me to put my middle-aged runner’s mantra of “long and slow” to an earlier than usual test.  A cool but sunny Sunday afternoon tempted me to try a longer run which had been on my “to do” list for some time, connecting several sections of trail which I had previously skied or run in segments, but had never linked together in a route with a potentially fun loop around the Sugar Hill reservoir.  Upon my arrival at the trailhead, I could see that the weather had beckoned others to enjoy the outdoors as well – this often quite empty lot had a surprising number of parked cars, indicating that my day’s inspiration had not been unique.  I started off the run very slowly, not really knowing how my body would respond to the anticipated mileage and climb.  The plan for the first 3.7 miles of the run matched the route described in my Brooks Rd. ski tour – a straightforward uphill run on a dirt road culminating at the road’s terminus.  The stiffness in my legs made the first 1.5 miles consisting of the lion’s share of the climbing a little tougher than usual.  It was great to see others, including walkers, fishermen, and even a family heading out for an overnight on the Long Trail, enjoying the day as well.  Another family of wild turkeys crossed the road in front of me, and disappeared quickly into the woods as I trudged by.  Note the trail merging from the right at the 2.4 mile mark – this is where the loop portion of the run rejoins the dirt road in a few miles.  Upon reaching the end of the dirt road, I couldn’t help but reminisce on how much snow there was up here less than two months ago while crossing the footbridge over Sucker Brook.  Sucker Brook cascades down from the main Green Mt. ridge at this point, and continues its descent joining, and then providing the outlet for the Sugar Hill reservoir, and continuing on until its final rush over the Falls of Lana before reaching its outlet at Lake Dunmore in Salisbury. At this point, almost all of the climbing on the route had been completed, which was fortunate, as my legs were starting to tighten up, and I had quite a few more miles to go.

No more snow

No more Snow!

Week Two:  A few long runs over the last week got many of the winter’s kinks out of my legs, so I was looking forward to testing them with a more challenging workout.  Pulling into the empty parking lot, I could see that the day’s blustery, unseasonably cold weather had given me complete solitude for the day’s run.  Looking up towards the mountains in the distance, it was easy to make out the snow line from the previous evening’s precipitation, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my planned run would take me high enough for some running on snow-covered paths.  My legs felt as loose as I had hoped they would – at least this would prove a strong workout, even if the weather was far poorer than the week before.  Reaching the end of Brooks Rd., I was somewhat relieved to see that the 750 feet of altitude gain over the course of the climb had not quite brought me up to the snow zone, although I could see the rather distinct demarcation line between earlier snow and rain occurring only a few hundred vertical feet above where I was standing.

Week One:   The run continued for a few yards beyond the end of the road, joining the Sucker Brook Trail in the Blueberry Hill ski touring area.  A left turn here would bring you to the Long Trail, and eventually north to Middlebury Gap over Worth Mountain, but the lead in my legs necessitated taking the right turn, descending.  The expected April mud was apparent, and in a few short sections it could not be avoided, but to my (pleasant) surprise, most of the trail was relatively dry with good footing.  Sucker Brook is intermittently visible to the right, first at pretty much the same altitude as the trail, and eventually well below down a steep embankment.  Passing several groups of hikers, and staying on the downhill trail at every trail junction gets you to the forest service road connecting the Goshen-Ripton road with the Goshen Dam and the reservoir.  The last quarter mile or so of the trail corresponds to the route of the “Goshen Gallop“, but instead of turning left on the dirt road to complete the aforementioned race, take the right turn on the short uphill to get to the next landmark on this route, the reservoir.  A few cars and trucks motored by, presumably bringing fisherman and other outdoor enthusiasts to and from this popular spring fishing hole.  A short descent brought me around the corner to an odd looking forest service gate, and out into the open area featuring reservoir views.  From the vantage of the Goshen Dam, I could see numerous groups of people fishing around the shoreline and enjoying the bright sun which made the day feel warmer than the temperature indicated.

Week Two:  As I turned the corner onto the Sucker Brook trail descent, the increasingly cloudy skies finally began release the anticipated precipitation.  Over the course of the next two miles or so, the trail alternated between quagmire and open stream, as the weather alternated between drizzle, heavy rain, and freezing rain.  The right turn onto the Goshen dam road allowed for faster running with the improved footing, and there was no need to worry about oncoming traffic – nobody else in their right mind was out today.  The short fast descent to the oddly shaped gate blocking vehicular traffic but not runners made the reasons for this gate more apparent.  The gate was designed with a “crook” to allow passage, and I would guess that it was placed here for the benefit of mountain bikers, who might not have a chance to respond to a more typical gate design as they came hauling around the corner on this short steep descent.  The same crook which allowed my easy passage was also just the right width for a cyclist, and this design probably has saved quite a few mountain bikers from bone-jarring and painfully sudden stops.

Mountain Biker-Friendly Gate

Mountain Biker-Friendly Gate

By this point the descending clouds were obscuring the surrounding peaks, and as the rain gained intensity, the lone fisherman in sight appeared to abandon his  sentinel’s post on a small rocky outcropping and head back to his pickup truck.

Lakeside Solitude

Lakeside Solitude

Week One:  After crossing the dam, the trail headed into the woods along the far shore of the reservoir, making a series of short and steep climbs.   By this point, the length and challenge of the run had taken a lot out of me, and my running was reduced to fast walking by the crest of the final hill.  Fortunately, the last 2.5 miles were all downhill, but the cramping in my legs forced a slow descent.  A sharp left turn back onto Brooks Road brought me back to my parked car, with my GPS registering this as an 8.8 mile run – not bad for April, but I could tell my legs would be the source of some regret for this run that evening and the next day.

Week Two:  Bearing right on the trail after crossing the dam, the muddy ascent along the far shore passed more quickly than expected – I was pretty wet, and eager to complete this otherwise scenic run run under less than ideal conditions.  I couldn’t help but notice a very deep set of tracks in the mud, but my modest tracking skills combined with the ill-defined tracks made it difficult to tell whether they were created by the passage of an earlier horseback rider, or a moose, as both are common here.  The tracks eventually left the trail and headed into the forest, making it more obvious which of these animals had generated them!  As I took the left turn onto Brooks Rd., the rain turned to snow, and left me looking like a snowman for a few minutes until the last of the run’s precipitation ceased.  I enjoyed picking up the pace a little bit on this descent, and when I reached my car, I easily threw in a lap around the parking lot to make this run an even 9 miles.

Doc1_001

Google Earth projection of Sugar Hill reservoir loop

Google Earth projection of Sugar Hill reservoir loop

Mud Season Traipsing

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

The snow has melted away at lower elevations (except for in my yard, but that is another story), the sun is shining, and the weather is warm.  Is Spring here?  No way – this is all Vermonters’ favorite time of the year, Mud Season, and chances are good that true “Spring” is a few weeks to a month away!  Nonetheless, Friday’s 70 degree weather inspired me to go for one my favorite short hill climbs, Snake Mountain.  I briefly contemplated breaking out my new running shoes to begin their break-in process, but at the last minute, decided against it.  This ended up being a very good call.

I am not going to go into my usual details about this running route, as I covered it pretty well last summer in my post entitled “Snake Mountain” (http://sites.middlebury.edu/trailrunner/2009/08/30/snake-mountain).  Since central Vermont is remarkably free of major tectonic activity, I think it is pretty safe to assume that there was not much change in the location of the trail, making my past post a still-relevant description.

Mud season trailrunning has its benefits and drawbacks.  There are none of the late spring mosquitoes or black flies to offer torment, and views into and beyond the adjacent forest are not obscured by the foliage which emerges in a few weeks.   The greatest benefit, of course, is that it increases one’s fitness level, making longer midsummer runs both possible and pleasant.  The drawback, of course, is mud.  Lots of mud.  But what did I expect?  All that melting snow had to go somewhere.  The first quarter mile or so of the Snake Mountain trail had some of the deepest shoe-sucking mud on the entire trail.  After a few yards of trying to tiptoe around the wallows, I recognized the futility of this approach, and charged right up the middle of the trail and hoped that I didn’t lose my running shoes in the deeper mud.  This section of the trail was not without its pleasures, however.  A few small patches of wildflowers forcing their way through the wet leaves on the forest floor provided the first living evidence of the emergence of spring.  Since this was a late afternoon run, I also had the pleasure of hearing the peepers for the first time this year.

The first wildflowers of the season

The first wildflowers of the season

Kicking back at my arrival at the overlook point on Snake Mt., I gave my running shoes the opportunity to enjoy the view.  These sneaks were white about an hour earlier…..My legs most definitely told me that this was one of my first significant hill runs of the season, as well, but the stiffness resulting from this relatively short run will make the next few months’ runs all the easier.   The descent back to my car was slow due to caution so that I didn’t take a fall in one of the frequent mud wallows along the way.

muddy sneaker view