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Column: A Hike Into One of N.H.’s Largest Lowlands



For the Valley News
Tuesday, July 24, 2018

East Montpelier

The morning sun already promised heat as we geared up for the day’s hike in the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge — water bottles, sun block, bug dope, lunch and dog snacks.

There were to be three dogs with us today: the ever-effervescent Kiki, a lively medium-size poodle named Lucy, and Pepper, a let’s-get-’er-done little schnauzer who in his day has with his partner, John, climbed all 48 4,000-foot mountains in New Hampshire at least once in every month of the year. Think about that for a second.

All of us are accustomed to prominent features related to the most recent North American continental glaciation. Our everyday horizons are studded with hard-rock mountains rounded by the crushing weight of the moving ice and, on their downstream slopes, littered with profusions of boulders. We’re used to the sight of massive glacial erratics beside our roads, often decorated with graffiti celebrating some high school class or declaring undying love for some young lady. And our most spectacular scenery is immediately post-glacial — the cirques of Mount Washington, Mount Greylock and Mount Katahdin.

Far less noticeable are the flat lowlands between the mountains, where runoff has deposited sand, gravel and mud in great bogs, fens, marshes and ponds.

Haunted by songbirds, raptors and waterfowl, they’re birders’ paradises. The shallow ponds, slowly shrinking and transforming into quaking bogs, harbor perch, sunfish, bullheads and chain pickerel.

Our TV crew, in its never-ending quest to take viewers to places they might never see otherwise, or because of indisposition or infirmity might be unable to get to, has come to film a hike into one of the largest lowlands, the Pondicherry Refuge. With us are John Sobetzer, a forester who lives in Rumney, and Georg Feichtinger, a retired ski coach from Meriden — and Lucy and Pepper.

The road into the refuge is gated; a five-star kiosk full of information graces the entrance. Say what you want about the feds — as a lot of folks seem to feel free to do these days — but they put out really good maps of their refuges. This one is loaded with natural and human history, wildlife and bird data, and things to look for.

It’s a mile and a half in to a junction near Big Cherry, the first pond — a pair of birders hummed past us on mountain bikes, exciting my envy — and a viewing platform above the near shore. From there you can spot floating islands of peat and shrubs. A beaver family has built its lodge on one of them and lives a semi-nomadic life drifting around the pond. Loons sometimes build on them, too. The commonest sound, in the midst of deep silence, is the chirring of red-winged blackbirds. The view across the pond is magnificent, of the northwestern slopes of the Presidential Range not far away.

There’s an unusual post-glacial feature here — we’ve seen it on lakes in the Canadian Arctic — called an ice-push rampart. It’s a low ridge caused by broken, wind-driven ice floes bulldozing a lee shore in a late-winter storm and shoving rocks and soil up into the woods.

We left the viewing platform and walked a hundred yards or so to the railroad line that traverses the refuge. It’s always a tossup: walk the maddeningly spaced ties between the rails or crunch through the heavy ballast along the sides. I tried ’em both, until we reached the trail to Little Cherry Pond and dove into a thick, damp forest of spruce and balsam.

The bugs obviously had been waiting for us, and welcomed us heartily. Bog bridges crossed the wettest and most vulnerable spots in the trail. At one quiet pool, Pepper jumped right in to cool off, and Lucy joined him. Kiki took a look at the mud they’d stirred up and demurred, while I silently cheered her decision. This area was logged in the winter of 1952-53, and was taken over by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000. It’s home to ancient species like sphagnum moss and lichens, and pitcher plants, which get their nourishment by trapping and eating insects — another thing I silently cheered. Great blue herons nest on Little Cherry, their rookeries making abundantly clear their direct descent from pterodactyls. We didn’t see any moose or beaver, though it was clear they were around.

Finally the hike back out to the cars, what I’ve long called the Death March Phase. The road is so straight — remember that it was once a rail line — that you can spot where you’ll be in the foreseeable future. But a scarlet tanager, protecting his territory, flashed red at us, and Georg, hanging back to accommodate my geriatric gait, returned me to the German accents of my youth, while Lucy and Kiki, sniffing and trotting ahead, affirmed that it had been a great way to spend the day.

Willem Lange can be reached at​ willem.lange@comcast.net.