Monday, August 22, 2011

Field and Trail Guides

Written by Adam

Did you know you can estimate the age of an eastern white pine by counting the whorls (places where the branches grow out)? One whorl of branches approximately equals one year of growth. I learned this during the hike we enjoyed in the Fenton-Ruby Wildlife Preserve in Joshua's Trust. 

One great thing about the hike was the natural diversity. Though the flora and fauna offered up was typical New England fare, the abundance took me by surprise. It seemed as if everything you could find in the region was represented in these few hundred acres. 

It was made even better by the simple guide found inside a wooden box at one of the trail heads. It coincided with numbered markers on the trail to assist with identifying the specifics.

The hike became a sort of treasure hunt as we checked the ages of white pine trees, ate some wild black raspberries, and marveled at three giant pines sprouted from the massive stump of a single tree cut down over a century ago. 

Having that little trail guide pulled the trees from the forest, so to speak, and made me realize that sometimes you need the details to appreciate the big picture.

Furthermore, we went beyond the obvious everyday identification exercises of "that's a robin, that's a cardinal, that's a dandelion..." It's exciting to be reminded that there is always plenty to learn regardless of all my time outdoors. 

This made me think of ways we try to get the most knowledge out of a simple hike. Here's what I came up with:

Do Some Scouting Beforehand

Tourism is important to our economy, so local organizations (many non-profit) do plenty of work to make the trails enjoyable and to draw people outdoors. State Departments of Environmental Protection are a good place to start looking for places to explore in your area. 

Retail stores such as EMS and REI are staffed with outdoor enthusiasts who love to talk shop. Don't feel like you have to be a hard core hiker to talk with them. They're passionate about what they do and are eager to help families as well as beginners get outdoors. They'll know the best places to explore in your area. Sometimes these stores offer various clinics and workshops, too. You may even have a local shop that can guide you on your way.

By doing some research ahead of time, we can go out with some idea of what to look for and where it may be located on our hike. A fine example is our Joshua's Tract Walk Book (Heather and I talk about this book a lot, for good reason)It not only leads us to the trail, but points out key features to look for while there.  

Of course, the Internet is a top pre-hike resource. For our region, Berkshire HikingGreen Mountain Club, and  Appalachian Mountain Club are great resources. We make note of particular highlights mentioned in trail descriptions, and are able to plan a hike that includes our favorite features - vistas, ridgelines, and rivers. 

Get Some Useful Field and Trail Guides 

We are fortunate to have pretty good trail guides for our area from the same organizations mentioned above. We also have quite a stack of field guides for everything from birds and rocks to wildflowers and medicinal plants. These are great references to have, but for a relative novice like me, they almost have too much information. 

Even worse, there was a time when I would bring the bulk of them with me on the hike. It would look like a library exploded on the side of the trail as I tried to find out what kind of tree some random leaf belonged to. And nothing ruins a walk in the woods like twenty pounds worth of books on your back.

That is why we picked up some local guide books that are specific to our area. My favorites include the Snakes in Connecticut pamphlet from the local Department of Environmental Protection office and Amphibians & Reptiles in Connecticut by Michael W. Klemens

Very easy to use and carry, with excellent full color glossy pictures, these are my top choices to have on hand. Beautiful pictures are a must for a visual learner like me. Because salamanders  and snakes tend to be elusive, they garner more excitement than other creatures, and I am always ready to ID them.

When in Vermont a few weeks ago, we grabbed Nature Guide to the Long Trail  by Lexi Shear.  Organized as a specific guide for the Long Trail, I am finding that many of the natural wonders can also be found in Connecticut. Detailed pictures and descriptions abound.

We also picked up Naturally Curious by Mary Holland. It is a field guide organized month-to-month for New England. I am very impressed with its layout and details, and we reference it before and after our trips. It's a big book though, so it stays at home.

Carry A Notepad Or Journal

Even if I leave all of the guides at home, I still carry a small all-weather pocket journal and a pencil (or a Space Pen, if you have one). Then I can jot down questions I have without missing a step. For example, right now mushrooms seem to be in full bloom despite the lack of meaningful rainfall, why is that? 

I used to try and sketch things, but that was a ridiculous mess. Better to have Heather take a picture (instead of taking the object itself) and then look it up later on. 

Maintaining a journal also forces me to slow down. I tend to be so destination bound that I ignore the journey. Taking some time to scribble what I see, hear or smell increases my awareness of the surrounding wilderness. 

As I note one thing, others come into focus.

I maintain a nice balance between hiking and research on the trail. Some days I just go and take it all in, wondering at the natural world with little consequence. Other times, I turn it into an expedition, complete with field guides and GPS coordinates. It all depends on the mood and the environment.

Do you have a favorite field guide or resource for learning on the trail?

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