I’ve always toyed with the idea of someday hiking the entire 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail (A.T.) as a thru-hike, but life, a job and various other responsibilities have accumulated such that taking off for the required ~6 months to complete the trek no longer seemed feasible. However, it occurred to me this year that I could still hike the A.T. – I just needed to do it in pieces, referred to as section-hiking. Given that I live on Cape Cod, the 91 miles crossing Massachusetts seemed like a reasonable place to start (although given the location of road crossings and access points to the A.T., in order to cover the entire Massachusetts section, I decided to start a few miles into Vermont an end a few miles into Connecticut, totaling just about 100 miles overall).
I broke the hike up into 9 days, with mileages each day ranging from 8 to 15.5 miles – certainly no where near the daily distances seasoned thru-hikers were logging each day, but more than enough for an out-of-shape backpacker like myself. The A.T. in Massachusetts traverses extremely varied terrain, ranging from thestate’s highest point (Mount Greylock) to cow pastures and corn fields in the Housatonic Valley. I could write a great deal about my experience, the landscapes I crossed, and the people I met along the way, but for now I’ll focus on a couple nature-related highlights.
Blue-bead Lily (Clintonia borealis)
By late summer most wildflowers have given way to berries and fruit. By far the showiest and most common “berry” along the shady forested portions of the trail was the blue-bead lily, also known as yellow clintonia. In the spring, this lily-like plant has a single flower stalk with three to six yellow bell-shaped flowers, surrounded by two to four large, shiny, basal leaves. By this time of year, the plant is remarkable instead for its bright blue clusters of berries. Held up on tall stalks, which can extend 12 to16 inches in height, these fruits stand out in sharp contrast to greens and browns of the forest floor. Although the blue fruits of the blue-bead lily may look appetizing, they are not blueberries. I did, however, encounter multiple dense patches of ripe, edible (and delicious) wild blueberries along the way.
Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
At one camping location (the Tom Leonard shelter), one of the tent platforms was situated at the edge of a rocky promontory. I chose this location from among the others available, not only because it afforded a decent view of the surrounding hills, but because its exposure also provided enough of a breeze to keep the majority of the mosquitoes at bay. It turns out common garter snakes also favored that spot, likely due to the exposed rocks warmed by the sun. I encountered one large common garter snake almost immediately after arriving; it slithered off under a small rock ledge after it and my dog gave each other quite the scare. It coiled itself up and remained in that location for an hour or two. Later that afternoon, when I went to check to see if it was still there, I was surprised to see not one, but three snake heads peering back at me! Two others had joined the first.
Although there are some regional variations, common garter snakes generally have a pattern of three yellow stripes (one in the middle of the back, and one to either side) on a black or dark brown background. Most common garter snakes I’d seen before were only around 2 feet long, but the first snake I encountered there was easily the biggest garter snake I’ve ever seen at about 3 1/2 feet long (although multiple sources indicate that they can grow to almost 5 feet long). The other two late-comers were much smaller. Garter snakes are known to group up, or form “snake balls”, in the spring when they are mating, or during the winter when they are hibernating to help maintain acceptable body temperatures. Given those are the only two reasons I can find as to why this normally solitary snake would be congregating together, I don’t have a great explanation for why this would be occurring in the middle of July, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Perhaps it was just that good of a sunning spot?
- Numerous black-throated blue warblers (Setophaga caerulescens), a new to me bird.
- Plentiful black trumpet and oyster mushrooms growing along the trail. Disappointingly, I was not able to gather any, but I now have some prime foraging spots for the future.
- Hundreds (literally) of red efts (the juvenile phase of the red-spotted newt) along the trail after evening rain storms. I counted 35 in a single hour of walking.
- A cacophony of coyote howls preceding every burst of pouring rain during intermittent thunderstorms one evening.
- An up close look at a barred owl (Strix varia) early one morning as I set out on the trail.