Saturday, June 4, 2016

Here Be Tygers

Source of All Waters. Here Be Tygers. Hell, Michigan. Nothing. Zap. People have put some pretty intriguing place names and labels on maps. Some that have caught my eye and piqued my exploratory interest over the years include Lost Pass, Ice Gulch, the Sluiceway Trail, Castellated Ridge, Titan's Piazza, Tumbledown Mtn., The Horn, The Knife Edge, Pumpkin Spring, and the Sinks of Gandy. All worth the journeys, for various reasons.

The area called Satan's Kingdom is located just south of Vermont in the northwest part of Northfield, MA, between Interstate 91 and the Connecticut River. I first became aware of it about ten years or so ago while perusing a USGS map of far southwestern NH with a co-worker at the NH Natural Heritage Program. The name immediately leapt out at us, as did the crazy patterning of the topography of part of the area. I'm sure there's a neat story behind the geology, and a "that makes sense" story behind the name.

Satan's Kingdom on a USGS topo map (CT River on right)


Fast forward to two years ago when I was researching good trail sites to include in Trail Running Western Massachusetts. The area certainly came to mind as a possibility since much of it is state-owned and it seems like a place where there should be good trails to run on. I ruled it out as a profile site pretty quickly, however, because I couldn't find any evidence of public trails or access or parking there.

Fast forward again to a few weeks ago. I've been living just south of the area since last fall, and recently found a map for a recommended 3-mile hiking trail there posted on the Town of Northfield's website. Well, I can't report that the map offered there is as useful as it might be. It shows a suggested lollipop route but doesn't show any topography or any of the connecting side trails or spur paths, etc., which makes it very challenging to use in the field. That said, it got me out there exploring and mapping on my own, and for that I am very grateful.

singletrack section of trail along an upland "bench" in Satan's Kingdom

Starting from a parking area with room for 10 or so vehicles just off Old Vernon Rd, the way in is through the closed metal gate and down a wide dirt road. After passing a small wetland, the road quickly begins a steep ascent to a junction with a snowmobile trail network leading off to the left. The road veers right and levels off, then undulates for a bit as it heads northwest into the property just uphill from West Wait Brook. There are several more junctions on the left, and soon you pass through some partially open areas and cut-over areas. The grass in these spots was about ankle-high when I went, but I would imagine it gets taller in summer.

After ascending through the first open area, the trail splits with one fork going sharply left up the hill towards an old cabin, and the the other leading more or less straight along a somewhat overgrown route. From here you can either go left for the 3-mile lollipop option or straight for the 4+-mile lollipop loop option (keep taking lefts if you choose this second way). Both routes will/can bring you up to to a forested "bench" along the hillside. A pleasant singletrack path leads north along the bench, and a short spur path to the left brings you to a partial view southeast out over a cut-over area to the mountains on the eastern side of the valley.

Land ownership there appears to be as complicated as the topography, but much of it seems to be either a WMA or Northfield State Forest. I did not explore on any non-public properties, though I didn't see any No Trespassing signs either. Hunting is both allowed and popular here, so be sure to be aware and wear bright orange during hunting season(s).

Here is a map and photos of the routes I've explored at Satan's Kingdom:


entrance to Satan's Kingdom (the parking area is in a bit from the road)

ascending the access road at Satan's Kingdom

access road at Satan's Kingdom

the dilapidated old cabin along the old road in Satan's Kingdom

singletrack trail in Satan's Kingdom

singletrack trail in Satan's Kingdom

singletrack trail in Satan's Kingdom

doubletrack trail in Satan's Kingdom

the partial view southeast across the CT River Valley to mountains above Northfield, MA

In the end, there's nothing particularly hellish about this part of Satan's Kingdom, though I can imagine the mosquitoes, blackflies, and deerflies all getting pretty bad at times. Worth a visit sometime, and hikers and trail runners alike can make challenging 3-ish or 4-ish mile lollipop loops out of it.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Bonus Site: Northfield Gulf Road

As a brief recap of previous bonus site posts: my guidebook Trail Running Western Massachusetts (click here to view the book's page on Amazon) profiles 51 of the best trail running sites in the region. It was a challenge to whittle down the final list included in the book to just 51 sites, and some that I really like or that would have been nice to include had to get cut for space. I occasionally post profiles of some of those "bonus sites" here and link to them from the book's Facebook page. (see the Chapel Brook to D.A.R. TrailMormon Hollow, and Ashley Pond posts for previous examples).

This bonus site comprises portions of three major properties in Northfield: Northfield Town Forest, Northfield State Forest, and Brush Mountain Conservation Area. Whether you approach from the north (or technically, the west) via Northfield or the south via Erving/Orange, the parking area for this site is at the height-of-land on Gulf Road in Northfield (hence the name). The Metacomet-Monadnock (M-M) Trail / New England Trail (NET) crosses the road here. You can do out-and-backs on the M-M Trail, and there are two nice short loop options, one on either side of the road.


Northfield Gulf Road map -- click here to download a full-size pdf


From the small parking area on the west side of the road, where there is space for maybe 3-4 cars, cross the road and head east on the M-M Trail into Northfield State Forest. Follow the white blazes east about 0.1 miles, to a signed junction where a blue-blazed trail leads left. Go straight for now and follow the M-M Trail east for about 0.5 miles, crossing over an unmarked woods road and gently rising and falling a few times, to a junction with the eastern end of the blue-blazed trail. From here, you can continue north on the M-M Trail towards Hidden Pond and Stratton Mountain. The trail is quite good for running, but there is an initial steep descent via switchbacks and the eventual ascent to Stratton Mountain goes on for quite a ways. You can also access a very dense network of blazed trails in Northfield State Forest that way, but most of the trails are currently unmaintained (though the paint blazes were very fresh in spring 2016; ditto the blazed-but-overgrown network north of Alexander Hill Rd).

Go left at the junction and return to Gulf Road via the 0.9-mile "Over-the-Top" loop trail that climbs gradually up the forested slopes of the Bald Hills. It zig-zags over the crest of the ridge and then drops via easy switchbacks down the west side. Cross over the woods road and reach the junction you were at before, then go right to get back out to Gulf Rd. The only drawback is that it's over before you know it. Total mileage is about 1.5 miles.

this pretty stretch of the "Over-the-Top" loop trail on Bald Hills in winter has "flow"

Now go west from the parking area into Brush Mountain Conservation Area (the M-M Trail currently detours south here to avoid a closure near the summit of Crag Mountain). The trail parallels the road briefly, then arrives at an older trail/woods road. Going right would immediately pop you back out on Gulf Rd. Go left and pass by the foundation remains of the Swan Homestead. At a junction where the Brush Mountain Trail (and former M-M Trail) leads left up the slope, continue straight onto the yellow-blazed Town Forest Loop Trail. 

The Town Forest Loop Trail is a well-marked and well-built lollipop loop in Northfield Town Forest. To reach the loop part, head northwest and cross under some powerlines and then descend slightly on wide doubletrack trail to the junction. The loop portion can be done in either direction, and both ways are fun to run, though there are short sections of steep climbing no matter which one you choose. There are no views, but the woods are nice and in spring a waterfall cascades down a set of wooded ledges. The newly-cut singletrack portion (about half of the mileage) is especially nice. Make sure to make the turn at the part of the loop farthest from the parking area; an unmarked woods road continues downslope and off-property here. Total mileage for this loop is about 2 miles. 

a mossy seep in spring along the Town Forest Loop Trail

An optional extension that can be fun to run is the white-blazed Brush Mountain Trail (formerly the M-M Trail, which it is still signed as in places so it's OK to be a bit confused). About a quarter of a mile up from the junction with the Town Forest Trail, it passes over a long stretch of semi-open ledge that I call "The Ramp"; you'll get it when you run back down it (VERY fun). You can follow this trail for about a mile up and over the semi-open summit of Brush Mountain and then up and down along a northern portion of Crag Mountain. The blazes will come to a sudden end, however, and the land to the south is posted No Trespassing. The M-M Trail used to continue from here to the open summit of Crag Mountain, but it is currently closed and re-routed along Gulf Road. Stay legal, friends. 

"The Ramp" on Brush Mountain in Northfield, MA

Other good nearby trail running sites: Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center (site #30 in the book), Stratton Mountain at the top of Alexander Hill Road in Northfield (see upcoming Bonus Site post; I would advise against using the maps currently available either on the town's website or posted on-site), Wendell State Forest (site #32 in the book).

If you have any comments, complaints, corrections, praise, or suggestions about this bonus site or anything related to Trail Running Western Massachusetts, please comment below or drop me an email with your thoughts!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Dry Hill Hike

Trying to take it easy on a (hopefully) recovering achilles that I've been going to physical therapy for, I haven't been running for the past few months. Which sucks. But I've been doing a lot of stretching and strengthening, especially core stuff, and doing a fair bit of cycling as cross-training (the mild winter has been a blessing that way). And some hiking, which arguably isn't great for the achilles but I just can't help myself. I do baby it as much as I can, and try to not do too many miles. And I ice it a lot afterwards.

Anyway, this afternoon I ventured out onto a nearby section of the Robert Frost Trail that I've never done before: south from its northern terminus at Wendell State Forest (site #32 in Trail Running Western Massachusetts) up and over Dry Hill to Chestnut Hill in Montague.

Robert Frost Trail sign in Wendell

I parked at the Wendell State Forest headquarters building, noting that the road into the forest was still closed for the season, and remembering that fun time I got locked in behind the gate at 4 p.m. one fine weekday afternoon in June a few years ago. The orange-blazed Robert Frost Trail (RFT), which ends about 47 miles to the south at The Notch in the Holyoke Range, starts heading south from the parking lot up E Chestnut Hill Rd (paved). About a quarter of a mile along, it bears right onto a rough jeep road called Cross Road, which it ascends to a powerline swath. At first, the land on either side of this road is heavily posted with yellow No Trespassing signs, but the road itself is a public right-of-way so it's OK as long as you stick to the road. About a tenth of a mile beyond the powerlines, the trail turns left off the road onto a singletrack path and climbs the northern slope of Dry Hill at an easy grade. At 1,289 feet, the forested summit of this mountain is the highest point along the entire RFT. This part of the trail is in Montague State Forest.

Robert Frost Trail on the north side of Dry Hill
climbing along the Robert Frost Trail on the north side of Dry Hill

Continuing south from Dry Hill, the RFT meanders gently downslope, passing by a few impressive boulders but otherwise no other particularly notable features. About 0.75 miles south of the top, the trail, now entering the Montague Wildlife Management Area, turns sharply right and crosses the slope heading east and even slightly north for a bit, passing over the upper reaches of two branches of Chestnut Hill Brook. Then it swings left and heads south again along a mostly flat, narrow, steep-sided ridge called Chestnut Hill. I trekked on to the southernmost tip of this ridge, where I secretly hoped to find some kind of view (there wasn't one; I don't know why I expected otherwise). From the there, the trail swings right and begins dropping down the west side of the ridge. I turned around soon after this, about 3.5 miles from where I'd started. 

Robert Frost Trail on Chestnut Hill
a nice section of the RFT along Chestnut Hill

It had been cloudy and cool when I started, but then had warmed up considerably by the time I got to Chestnut Hill. The sun even broke out briefly and I was able to hike comfortably in a long-sleeve T-shirt. By the time I got back to Dry Hill, however, a strong line of thunderstorms had hit, and I needed my full rain jacket and a hat. Hoping to shave a few tenths of a mile off since I was starting to get wet and chilled, I popped down a short spur path to the powerlines and followed the access road below them back down to Cross Road. Somewhere along this stretch was when the hail began to pelt and the rain came at me sideways. My pants got soaked all the way through, and for some reason the tops of my hands were really cold. I made it back to the car just as the storm abated, naturally. 

powerline swath with access road
descending along the powerlines just before the storm really hit

In general, the actual trail portion of this section of the RFT is very pleasant and in good shape. The blazes are fresh and plentiful. I did stop quite a few times to clear smaller fallen logs and branches out of the way (because I think I might be a bit obsessive about trail maintenance, especially on ones I like), but I didn't encounter any big blowdowns. There aren't any connecting trails, so it wouldn't make a very good site for a trail run loop, but it would make an OK out-and-back run, and certainly would be great if you could spot a car to the south at North Leverett Road, Mt. Toby, or even Bull Hill Road or beyond. One other thing this section of the RFT has going for it? Solitude. I hiked about 7 miles total, on a Saturday afternoon, and never once saw another person. 


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Bonus Site: Bull Hill (Mt. Toby south)

The forecast for this weekend looked daunting, with seasonally chilly temperatures and a possible nor’easter storm on Sunday or Monday. However, it didn't turn out that bad, and by the middle of this coming week it’s supposed to warm way up again. In honor of THAT forecast, here is a new bonus site. 

As a brief recap of previous bonus site posts: my guidebook Trail Running Western Massachusetts (click here to view the book's page on Amazon) profiles 51 of the best trail running sites in the region. It was a challenge to whittle down the final list included in the book to just 51 sites, and some that I really like or that would have been nice to include had to get cut for space. I occasionally post profiles of some of those "bonus sites" here and link to them from the book's Facebook page. (see the Chapel Brook to D.A.R. Trail, Mormon Hollow, and Ashley Pond posts for previous examples).

Land ownership at this southern end of the Mt. Toby block is a complex puzzle of parcels, some of which are public conservation land with public access, some of which are private conservation land with public access, some of which are private land posted with No Trespassing signs, and some of which are unposted private land.  Trail signage is minimal, and restricted to the trailhead for the Robert Frost Trail and several major junctions along its route north to Mt. Toby.

There are some fun sections of trail, most notably the Robert Frost Trail as it gradually climbs up and over Bull Hill via Russell Hill from the trailhead at Bull Hill Road. There is also an interesting loop that can be made through The Nature Conservancy’s Greene Swamp Preserve, which includes two south-facing vistas with great views across the pastoral valley to the Holyoke Range and Mt. Tom beyond. Part of this loop traverses private land. 

autumn view from one of the south-facing vistas southwest of Bull Hill and Greene Swamp

hemlock ravine along Middle Mtn. Road
scenic hemlock ravine along Middle Mtn. Road on the west side of Mt. Toby

To the northwest, several dirt roads lead up from the town of Sunderland and head east toward Mt. Toby. There are several pretty stretches, including one notably pretty hemlock ravine, but for the most part these old roads (Middle Mountain Road and South Mountain Road) are heavily eroded and not particularly nice to run on since they are too full of loose rocks and wet, sloppy sections to be much fun. Also, a warren of unmarked trails and old roads weaves in and out of private land, some of which is distinctly posted No Trespassing. A better bet is to continues N/NE of the RFT toward Mt. Toby (see site #33 in the book). Note: the RFT Bypass Trail makes a particularly pleasant alternate option to the part of the RFT that runs just west of the summit of Roaring Mtn. (also, the hard-to-follow spur up to the wooded summit of Roaring isn’t really worth it).

Bull Hill (Mt. Toby south) -- Click here for a full-size pdf of the map

Other good nearby trail running sites: Mt. Toby, Puffers Pond and the Eastman Brook Conservation Area, Sugarloaf Mountain, Pocumtuck Ridge

If you have any comments, complaints, corrections, praise, or suggestions about this bonus site or anything related to Trail Running Western Massachusetts, please comment below or drop me an email with your thoughts!

Friday, March 18, 2016

many hats / heavy rotation

When people ask me what I do, I always struggle a bit to answer. I wear a lot of hats. In the past I spent a lot of time as a GIS Specialist in the environmental field, specifically focused on rare species and biodiversity conservation. Now, though, my current day job is working as a Production Editor (proofreading, copyediting, etc.) at the Pioneer Valley branch of a big multinational education company. My side gigs include being a photographer at Northeast Race Photo, author/salesman of Trail Running Western Massachusetts (and hopefully some sequel/companion guidebooks soon!), contract editing and proofreading for various clients, GIS mapping project work for various clients, and writing occasional articles for publications. And I'm also the editor of my local running club's newsletter, which comes out every two months and feels (in a good way) a bit like a full-fledged local running magazine sometimes.

This month, I had articles published in New England Runner and Level Renner (see p. 26) magazines, and here is a link to the latest issue of the newsletter. It's all a bit exhausting, and at the same time I'm doing some intensive physical therapy for my achilles and trying to cross-train as much as possible on my bike (which has been easier than expected this month due to the near-complete absence of late-winter weather). But I'm feeling good, and I actually LIKE having so much variety and spinning so many plates and wearing so many hats, even though most of that "variety" somehow revolves around writing and running. I'm in a building phase. The trick now will be to keep momentum going on all fronts. Onwards!

 
L: the SMAC club profile in the March/April 2016 issue of Level Renner
R: an ad for Trail Running Western Massachusetts that ran in New England Runner

MDI Scenic Stridings article from the March/April issue of New England Runner

Monday, March 14, 2016

two trail maintenance days

This past weekend I participated in two local trail maintenance events:

Mt. Warner -- Gravelcrafting
On Friday, March 11, about a dozen people helped improve a frequently flooded section of trail at the Trustees' Mt. Warner reservation in Hadley, MA (see the Trustees' website for this site here). Starting at 9 a.m., we first had to spread some gravel and lay down medium-size sticks along a very muddy section of the right-of-way access road on an adjacent parcel at the northern end of the site, to ensure that the truck carrying the gravel could get up there. Then the truck dumped load after load of gravel (about one per hour) at the wet spot where we spent the next few hours working. First we spread the gravel out along and across the road using rakes and shovels, then made sure it was level or, in some spots, raised just slightly on uphill side for drainage. We also dug a decent-sized ditch on the downhill side of the road to allow for future drainage to be shunted away into an adjacent flat area where it could spread out and soak in and/or run down the nearby slope.

some photos from this work day
digging the drainage ditch

improving the trench

dumping gravel

spreading gravel

the finished section

Mineral Hills Conservation Area -- Spring Trail Work Day
On Saturday, March 12, about 20 people showed up to work on the trails at this site (see map), which is site #38 in my Trail Running Western Massachusetts guidebook. We split into several groups and headed to different areas. One group headed out with chainsaws to get rid of blowdowns. Another group went out to repair boardwalks. And a third went out to trim back shrubs and new growth. A fourth group, the one I was in, went up to the parking area at the upper end of Turkey Hill Road and cleared overgrown sections of the unnamed road/trail south of Stagecoach Trail, from the parking area up to its junction(s) with Stagecoach. Then I worked alone on the westernmost spur path leading up from a 4-way junction along Stagecoach to the southwestern corner of the quarry, mostly trimming shrubs, briars, and saplings, and leveling a few lumpy spots. And I also trimmed back a bunch of stuff growing out into the trail along the southwestern arc of the quarry loop trail, up to the new link trail that leads over to the Summit Trail. Afterwards, I also did a little bit of pricker and sapling trimming at the Sylvester Road parking area / trailhead sign kiosk.
(see the site's Facebook page for more details).

the quarry at Mineral Hills, looking north

After both days, my arms and neck were sore and skin on my keyboard-soft hands got rubbed a bit raw (I write and edit and make computer maps, and run and bike, so my hands are pretty wussy), but it feels really good to have given back a little bit and helped to maintain runnable/hike-able trails at some of the sites I enjoy frequently.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Latest Sun

Two months ago I wrote a brief blog post about becoming the new editor of the Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club's (SMAC's) newsletter, The Sugarloaf Sun (or sometimes just The Sun). Somehow two months have flown by and the next issue is out already. Here's a preview of the cover, and a link to the full pdf on the SMAC website. I'm really proud of how this issue came out; the submissions from various club authors, creators, and runners were really terrific, and the volume was such that this ended up being a genuine double-sized issue. That said, I'm really looking forward to the next one (hopefully) being just a regular-sized issue. It's a lot of work putting it all together!

March/April 2016 issue of The Sugarloaf Sun

Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Day

Happy Leap Day! Here's a small selection of leaper photos taken since my last leaper post in late 2013 (see Leapers). As before, the phenomenon tends to happen more frequently at trail races and ultras, but it certainly also occurs at road races and other events as well: