Monday, February 7, 2011
Hiking the Vischer Ferry Preserve.
My friend Ed introduced me to a delightful place to hike today: The Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve, where the Mohawk River forms the southern boundary of Saratoga County. The going was easy on snowshoes as we followed a well-packed towpath along what used to be part of the Erie Canal, an area rich in historic significance as well as natural beauty.
Our adventure began as we crossed the canal at the Whipple Iron Truss Bridge, originally built in 1869 by a man named Squire Whipple and reconstructed at this site in the late 1990s. Ed, an engineer by training, was able to explain to me how the different kinds of iron -- both cast and wrought -- were used to create this bridge in an era when materials had to be carted by horse and erected by sheer manpower.
Surrounded by frozen wetlands on either side, we followed the towpath a little under two miles until we came to another, even older, historic site, a double-chamber lock built in 1849. Boat traffic along this section of the Erie Canal was discontinued with the construction of the larger New York State Barge canal in 1918, but the remnants of these old locks still stand along the old waterways.
Although both Ed and I share an interest in the social history of the area, our primary passion is for plants, so of course we spent our time botanizing as we tromped along, straining to hear one another talk over the crunch, crunch, crunch of snowshoes on icy packed snow. We found the usual expected plants -- Swamp White Oak, Silver Maple, Silky Dogwood, etc., plus lots of invasive shrubs like buckthorn and honeysuckle. Nothing out of the ordinary. But some of the ordinary stuff is still extraordinarily pretty, such as these rosy pedicels of Panicled Dogwood.
And sometimes the ordinary stuff produces extraordinary variations, such as this group of galls on a twig of some kind of oak. Neither of us had ever seen galls that looked quite like these little pixy-capped nubbins.
I had never noticed the long gray pointy buds of Sweet Viburnum before, but now that Ed has pointed them out to me, I shall never miss them.
Nor, thanks to Ed, will I ever again fail to notice the pale blue bloom that marks the new twigs of Box Elder trees, a color that is diagnostic for this species of maple.
Both of us found ourselves at a loss regarding the identity of prickly-stemmed vines we found growing abundantly all over a wooded marshy area. Was it Tearthumb? No. Was it Climbing False Buckwheat? No. Was it Cleavers? Couldn't be. But then we found one leaf that still retained its shape when we carefully unfolded its papery brown crumples.
I still had no clue, since that leaf shape was quite unfamiliar to me, but Ed had an inkling what it might be. When we returned to our cars, he pulled out his Newcomb's and turned to the proper page (page 326), et voila! There it was: Common Hop (Humulus lupulus). That's a new one for my life list. Thanks, Ed. You always have so much to teach me.
Another really amusing thing Ed taught me today was the exploding cattail trick. We were passing through a frozen marsh thick with cattails when Ed grabbed one of the fat brown heads and gave it a squeeze. A bit of fluff emerged through a crack, and then several squirmy worms of fluff came pushing out. Then it suddenly became a roiling mass of fluffy snakes. It reminded me of those little pellets we would light on the Fourth of July that would grow very quickly into long writhing snakes of gray ash.
I picked one cattail head to bring home to show this trick to my husband. After a few squeezes and pinches, this is what that narrow brown sausage looked like.
I left the cattail on the counter for a while, and when I returned it had turned into a veritable cloud. Just about as impossible to contain as a cloud, too, as I soon discovered when I tried to clean up the counter. We'll be kicking up cattail seeds for weeks, I'm afraid. But it was worth it. What a marvel, so much energy packed in that cattail head!