Off the Beaten Path

The Great Meadow, June 13, 2011
by Kathy Schillemat

“Express the heart too full to speak in one exultant hymn.”

Sometimes, words are wholly inadequate to describe the experience or the feelings of a day.  Such was the case with our adventure on the Great Meadow which flows over the border between Nelson and Harrisville.

Al Stoops and I set out in the morning from the outlet of Nubanusit Lake behind Dave Birchenough’s house.    We explored the upstream channels before going with the downstream flow.  In the shallows, we found numerous cone-shaped “nets,” made apparently from some gelatinous material and coated with silt.  These seemed to be some means of catching small aquatic creatures, but we could not look closely at the structures as they flattened out into silty slime when we attempted to take them out of the water.  Our first mystery of the day: what creatures create these “nets” and what is their intended prey?

We noticed as we turned to follow the current that brilliant green grasses line the stream bed.  These grasses bend completely with the flow of the stream as if to point the way through the meadow.  Small schools of fish darted before and beside the canoe too quickly for identification.

Dave had told me that canoeing the Great Meadow from start to finish takes about two hours, but Al and I had all day.  Why hurry when there is so much to discover?  Over and over we chose to explore the side channels to look for salamanders, frogs, mammal sign, and perhaps this day would offer up a turtle.  We were also on the lookout for unusual and edible flora.  Cattails are abundant and we stopped to eat a few of the tender inner shoots.  Later, we came upon wild cranberries, with a few of last fall’s berries still clinging to the plants.  Amazingly, the berries are still good and we found them refreshing and sustaining.  “Better than cattails,” Al quipped.  I had to agree.  We look forward to returning in the fall to pick more to enjoy through the long winter.

Later we dug up a few arrowhead roots to try boiled for lunch.  These tasted like a very bitter radish.  I ate mine, but Al found them not to his liking.  Maybe they need to mature more.

We saw many red-spotted newts in the shallow silt-coated channels and coves, but only caught one which we determined was a male.  We also found many spotted salamander egg masses with algae-coated larvae.  The algae and the larvae have a symbiotic relationship: the larvae feed on the algae and the algae live and outside the larvae.  We found one small pickerel frog and abundant pickerel weed.  The purple blossoms will appear later in the summer.

Wild roses are everywhere on the Great Meadow.  Leather leaf and sweet gale are two other plentiful shrubs.   Sweet gale is fragrant in an ephemeral way. If you crush the leaves, you smell very little, but if you brush by the plant or fall in it (as I often did), the scent wafts up- a sweet, sage-like aroma, then fades quickly away.

On one of our many detours, Al found a smooth green snake which had wound itself around a clump of sedges.  The snake was about 15 to 18 inches long.  I noticed that its eyes seemed blue and foggy.  When we found another snake, we understood why.  The second snake was bright green with clear eyes.  It had likely recently shed its skin while the first was soon to shed.  The contrast between the two snakes was striking.  We spent fifteen minutes holding and inspecting the two snakes as they slithered up our arms and tied themselves in knots on our fingers.  It was an enchanting tactile experience.  When I released them, I could see how perfectly their color allowed them to blend in with their habitat.

Farther into the meadow, Al spied the slate-colored carapace of an eastern painted turtle amid the tall sedges.  We reversed the canoe and I held on to the sedges while Al hopped out to get the turtle.  It no doubt thought that it was well-hidden, but it was no match for Al’s keen skills of observation.  The turtle hissed its displeasure at the unwelcome attention we gave as Al held it while I took pictures.  On the bright yellow underside, Al discovered two turtle leeches attached to its shell near the neck.

Leeches!  I was less than excited about this find until Al held the larger leech up to show me the exquisite patterns on its body: a black and brown geometry.  Al also showed me how the leeches attach themselves to the skin of an animal and enthusiastically attached the larger leech to the end of his nose! Not something I cared to try, but it made for a good photo.  I can’t say that I share his fascination with these parasites, but I am convinced of their beauty.

The turtle burrowed under our gear and continued to hiss as I held it up for inspection.  I appreciated the pattern of its carapace and the bright colors of its neck and underside.  Eventually, I released it into the stream, grateful for our second reptilian encounter of the day.  Al kept the leeches in hopes of enlightening more people to their unlikely charms.

The clouds built up overhead as we followed a mallard duck family into the portage area in Harrisville.  We also saw and heard ravens in the pines near the water and pileated woodpeckers in the trees at the other end of the portage.  The portage area is greatly altered since the microburst of June 2010, but a new trail has been established and the remnants of the old mill are clearly visible.

We stopped to eat lunch before returning to the waterway, boiling the arrowhead root and ground nut tubers that we had collected.  We also had more conventional fare—a rehydrated chili dish garnished with cheese and chips and rehydrated chocolate cheese cake.  No skimping on food even though we’re exploring!  A little backpacking stove and dehydrated meals make it easy to eat well.  Refreshed, we returned to the stream as it began to rain.

We had seen evidence of past beaver activity in the upper meadow but nothing recent.  The lower meadow was a different story with active lodges and dams in various states of construction.  We found it necessary to get out more than once to traverse the beaver dams.

At the last dam before entering Harrisville Pond, we saw the flash of a sleek, brown body—the elusive muskrat.  We had seen muskrat sign in the upper meadow, but until now, no actual animal. We were about to pull the canoe over the final obstacle when we looked across the water to view a charming scene: the pond, the Village, and Mount Monadnock.  We turned back to find the perfect angle for a picture.  While we were there, we decided to explore one more side channel.  Why not? Again our curiosity was rewarded: Pitcher Plants in bloom.  These ancient insectivorous plants are fascinating in their adaptation of “pitcher”-like bowls which hold a liquid which entices unwitting insects.  The insects land on the side of the bowl lined with fine hairs.  These hairs point into the bowl and the insects cannot climb out.  Eventually the insects fall into the liquid and the plant digests them.  The blossoms are also interesting in shape and construction.  Are the same insects that pollinate this unusual plant enticed into the plant’s trap and consumed?

Returning to the last dam, we reluctantly bid farewell to the Great Meadow, for this day.  Our final paddle across the pond was hushed.  The birds filled the air with the joyous song that I couldn’t find words to sing.  Al paddled silently as I closed my eyes to savor their music and the fullness of serenity that this day had so abundantly given.

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