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November 4, 2010

Travelogue 2009-2010, Part 2: Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts – Summer 2009

Filed under: Birding,Cycling,Photography,Travel,Wildlife — Steve Hamlin @ 10:08 pm

Grafton Notch moose, July 30, 2009This is the second part of my series of essays relating our recent adventures away from our western Massachusetts home. These essays are my selfish attempt to relive our travel experiences in order to pass the increasingly cold, dark days, as I await our next journey. If they provide some entertainment for you too, that’s a bonus.

Where our spring trip to Florida was crammed with adventure, interspersed with lots of setting up and striking of camp, packing and unpacking, and several thousand miles of driving, our summer trip was more relaxed, but ultimately less satisfying. It was three weeks in New England, with a week in each of three different places. Two of the three weeks were in time-shares.

We’ve owned a time-share for the last ten years or so. It’s brought us a mixed bag of pleasure and frustration. On the one hand, owning it has spurred us to find creative and portable ways to maintain an income while we’re on the road. Before buying the time-share, we seldom went away for more than a week in a year, and there were years when we didn’t get away at all.

Once we had invested money in a yearly get-away, we adapted quickly to our new lifestyle. Suddenly we had entrée not only into our own resort, which we liked very much, but also a huge selection of other resorts all over the country and the world.

In order to make the most of the money we had spent on our yearly week, we had to begin planning our travel months or years in advance. Planning for travel suddenly became a priority, rather than an afterthought.

We also began to take advantage of “Extra Vacations” – reduced-price weeks at resorts that are under-booked. Linda was still working a regular job at the time we bought our week, so we had to work around the time she was allotted for vacation, but we began to spend a lot more time thinking about getting away.

In 2005, Linda left her job, which freed us up to travel as much as our commitments and resources would allow. That year, we took our first extended trip to Florida, took a short trip soon after our return to Baxter State Park in Maine, did a driving tour around the Bay of Fundy, culminating in a week in Nova Scotia, and spent a week at our time-share about an hour away from home.

That’s been the pleasure side of our time-share ownership. The frustration has come from the considerable yearly expense of maintenance fees and our lack of a voice in how it gets spent. It’s also been frustrating trying to make the best use of our investment without tailoring our trips around available resorts – being limited by the destinations and schedule available, rather than the choosing what we really want to do.

Our love of camping has complicated the situation further, while at the same time, it’s given us options and greater flexibility. The complication comes from being torn between wanting to camp and having a limited time to use the time-share week(s) we’ve already paid fairly substantially for, or risk losing them and wasting the money we’ve already paid for them.

That was our situation in 2009. We had two weeks banked which were approaching their expiration dates, and we had our regular week for the year that we either needed to use or have it add to the accumulation of weeks. At over $700/week, we couldn’t bear the thought of letting a pre-paid week slip through our fingers.

After a less than satisfying search for available weeks, we decided to exchange into a resort in Bethel, Maine. We had been to Bethel several times before, but had only ever stayed there in disappointing accommodations for a week in November. We took a hit on our week, exchanging the two-bedroom unit we own in a very nice resort for a one-bedroom in a fairly tired wing of a somewhat less nice resort. The exchange fee of more than $150 pinched a little too, but at least we’d be in a location we liked and wouldn’t waste the week.

We decided to use the week we owned for the current year too, choosing to go back to our home resort for the first time in several years. We booked the two weeks with a week in between to give us the opportunity to camp. We settled on Brighton State Park in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont for that week – a region we had never explored at all.

Our trip began on July 24 with a late departure and a five-hour drive to Bethel. We arrived at the resort at about 9:00 after driving directly there, rather than taking the more circuitous route I prefer through Errol, New Hampshire to look for moose. We unpacked the van and unwound from the tension of the long day.

On Saturday, our first full day away, I rode my bike through Grafton Notch to Upton (just short of the ME/NH state line) and back. It was a ride I had wanted to do since I first drove through the notch. By the time I returned from the 50-plus mile ride, I was in full relaxation mode, filled with the satisfying feeling of a good ride through beautiful and unfamiliar country.

During the balance of the week I logged another 150-plus miles on three rides for a total of about 205 miles for the week. I did the climb to Evans Notch twice. The tiny state highway through the National Forest is beautiful and seems to be endowed with a perpetual tailwind on the climb out of Gilead.

We took full advantage of the opportunity to explore the region for moose and birds. I had purchased the excellent Maine Birding Trail guidebook (by Bob Duchesne), which we made good use of to find out of the way places and improve our success.

Brown Creepers at Grafton Notch, July 26, 2009
Brown Creepers at Grafton Notch

During the week, we spotted eight or nine moose – a record for us – including a bull with a fairly well-developed set of antlers. On Sunday, the 26th, we drove through Grafton Notch, stopping at Spruce Meadow picnic area. The spruce and pine trees were crawling with brown creepers. I had seen single brown creepers a couple of times before, but never so many at one time.

On Monday, we drove through Evans Notch to visit Basin recreation area – a spot that I had read about in the birding trail book. It was a bit of a disappointment, but Linda had a memorable experience with a female redstart that flitted between the underbrush and a small, overgrown asphalt sidewalk. The redstart repeatedly flew out of the brush, landing on the pavement almost at Linda’s feet, then, after hopping around for ten seconds or so, flying back into the lower branches of the surrounding bushes.

We also explored the National Forest from the east side, accessing it off of Rt. 5/35. We drove in to Patte Marsh and Crocker Pond, but found little to get us excited wildlife-wise. Admittedly, we there in mid-afternoon, which is probably the worst time of day for wildlife viewing.

Grafton Notch moose, July 30, 2009
Grafton Notch moose

The week was far less productive photographically than any of the three weeks of our Florida trip, but it was relaxing and enjoyable. We came away having learned a lot about the Bethel area. It’s best known as a ski town, but the town has a lot to offer in the summer too.

On Friday, July 31st, we packed our belongings under threatening skies and headed off to northern Vermont. Since the drive would be short, we chose not to take the most direct route, opting instead to drive through 13 Mile Woods, along the Androscoggin River in New Hampshire. Once in Vermont, we planned to drive through Victory Bog on our way to Island Pond and Brighton State Park.

About the time we entered Grafton Notch State Park, the skies made good on their threat as a steady rain began to fall. The rain continued through the rest of our drive, dampening our enthusiasm as well as our chances for wildlife photography. We did photograph a doe and her fawn as they forded a small stream on the far side of the Androscoggin in 13 Mile Woods.

In Lancaster, New Hampshire, just as we were approaching the bridge that would deliver us across the Connecticut River to Vermont, I spotted a bald eagle in a treetop. The steady rain, low light and distance between us and the eagle made any worthwhile photographs impossible, but it was a welcome sight nonetheless.

The drive through Victory Bog provided us with nothing except muddy road conditions and a cursory familiarization with the area. We arrived at Brighton State Park and checked in at around 4:30 in the afternoon.

Fortunately, the rain let up just about the time we located our campsite. We set up camp and settled in for the evening.

We had selected a site on the waterfront near the north end of the campground. The rest room and shower facilities were a short walk up a fairly steep hill. Our site had an easy path to the waterfront, but the view of Spectacle Lake was limited by the fact that our site was in a cove.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny. I rose fairly early and puttered around the campsite, exploring the cove and enjoying my morning coffee. A gang of loons patrolled Spectacle Lake, which Brighton State Park campground faces. The early morning call of a loon is an unmistakable sign that you are in the boreal zone.

Most of the time the loons co-existed peacefully, but occasionally they erupted into noisy altercations. They were entertaining to watch. Loons can swim underwater quite a long distance. It was intriguing to watch one slip under the water, and reappear halfway across the lake.

Our campsite was frequently visited by ovenbirds. The hillside on the opposite side of the road from our campsite was wooded and the ground was covered with low shrubs. The ovenbirds would appear out of the under-story, cross the road, and work the edges of the campsite. If we were still enough, they would come quite close.

In the afternoon of our first day, we visited Wenlock Wildlife Management Area and Moose Bog. Of course, with that name, we hoped to see moose, but I was also hoping to catch a glimpse, or better yet, a photograph, of a spruce grouse. According to Birdwatching in Vermont, (Ted Murin and Bryan Pfeiffer) spruce grouse nest at the end of the trail into Moose Bog from Wenlock WMA.

Moose Bog Purple Pitcher Plants, August 1, 2009
Purple Pitcher Plants

We saw neither. In fact, the most exciting animal wildlife we saw was a leopard frog that climbed onto the boardwalk. Still, it was an enjoyable visit. The roughly fifty-yard wide edge of the bog, over which the boardwalk conveys visitors, is thickly carpeted with purple pitcher plants (Saracenia pupurea).

Purple pitcher plants are carnivorous and attractive. They are broadly distributed up and down the east coast, and are able to tolerate cold northern zones like the Northeast Kingdom. Despite their broad distribution, we had never seen them before.

We left Moose Bog and explored the roadsides in the township of Ferdinand. The edges of the road showed abundant moose sign, but we saw no moose. In fact, during our entire week in the Northeast Kingdom – an area that’s reputed to have more moose than people – we didn’t see a single moose. That fact was both disappointing and surprising, given our success in Maine.

On Sunday, I took the first of my three bike rides in the Northeast Kingdom. I rode to the Columbia Covered Bridge, crossed it into New Hampshire and returned – a distance of about 50 miles. Otherwise, we stayed around the campsite enjoying the relaxation and letting the wildlife come to us.

Miller's Run covered bridge, Lyndonville, August 3, 2009
Miller’s Run covered bridge

On Monday, we drove to Lyndonville, the self-described “Covered Bridge Capital of the Northeast Kingdom”. There are five covered bridges in the little town, most still open to traffic. We photographed all five of them.

On Tuesday, I took the longest ride of our summer trip – a 70-miler that took me almost into Canada at Norton, then to Canaan, very near the northeastern-most corner of Vermont, then along the Connecticut River back to Rt. 105 in Bloomfield, which eventually brought me back to our campsite. After my long ride, I was happy to relax around the campsite, but we ventured out in the late afternoon to try our luck at Wenlock WMA again.

On Wednesday, we drove to Victory Bog. I walked the boardwalk into the bog, but Linda chose not to. I flushed an American Bittern that was hunting from the vegetation just feet from the boardwalk. I watched it as it flew off, but I wasn’t able to find it again.

On Thursday, we explored Nulhegan Basin in the Silvio Conte WMA by car and made one last stab at Wenlock WMA. The Conte WMA produced nothing, but it’s a vast area and we only saw the most accessible part of it.

Our week in the Northeast Kingdom over, we were left scratching our heads about the scarcity of wildlife and the complete lack of moose. We joked that all the moose in Vermont must have gone on vacation in New Hampshire and Maine. I had looked forward to a rich Boreal experience, but, despite our concerted efforts, the Kingdom had failed to reveal its riches.

Friday was travel day. We struck camp and drove the four or so hours to Bentley Brook, located at Jiminy Peak ski area, in the northwest corner of Massachusetts. It was a beautiful afternoon and we enjoyed the drive. After stopping to shop for groceries in Williamstown, we got to the resort at about 5:00.

We had invited our daughter and son-in-law to join us for the first few days of our last week to celebrate Linda’s birthday on Sunday. They arrived with our grandson around 9:00.

The weekend was interesting. Our daughter’s marriage was in trouble, creating a palpable air of tension. I was happy to escape for the solitude of my bike.

On Saturday, I did a loop that took me over the top of nearby Mt. Greylock – at about 3600 feet, it’s the tallest peak in Massachusetts. I did the climb from north to south – the steepest approach. Mt. Greylock has always figured prominently in our times at Bentley Brook. With the exception of our son-in-law who was napping, we all visited the peak that afternoon to climb the tower and hike one of the trails.

Sunday was dreary. In the afternoon, I went for a ride with our grandson. In the evening, we managed to cut through the thinly-veiled antipathy long enough to share dinner and a birthday cake.

Monday morning, I did a ride that’s become another fixture of our Bentley Brook visits. It’s a tri-state loop that takes me through the southeast corner of Vermont, across the state line to New York near Hoosac Falls, then south to re-enter Massachusetts by way of Petersburg Pass.

In the afternoon, our guests left. Linda and I shared a collective sigh of relief. The rest of the week passed as if in preparation for a soft landing – we were in our own backyard, with only a few days respite between us and the commitments and responsibilities of our day-to-day lives.

Tuesday, we visited my aunt and cousins in nearby Charlemont. We always enjoy visiting there, but, despite the fact that it’s not much further from home than from Bentley Brook, we have difficulty finding the time except when we’re at the time-share.

On Wednesday and Thursday, I got in my final two rides of the trip, bringing my total for the three weeks to a fairly respectable 555 miles. For the entire week, the only wildlife we photographed were a small herd of deer that we spotted crossing a neighboring field and a cottontail rabbit.

On Friday, we packed up for the hour-long drive home. The entire last week felt like an extended transitional period as we slid smoothly, but reluctantly back into home-life – the answering machine was full, the lawn needed mowing, work demands had piled up. By mid-week of our first week home, our trip was just a dim memory.

The vaguely unsatisfying nature of the summer trip left us wanting another adventure before our winter hibernation. We began making plans for an autumn trip almost immediately. The numerous moose sightings of the first week whetted our appetites, so we began looking for a way to return to Bethel in September or October.

In the meantime, we settled in to make the best of our time at home.

All text and images © Steve Hamlin
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