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Book Identifies Region’s Many Glacial Erratics

  • Elephant Rock is a glacial erratic in Newport, N.H., June 21, 2018. Jan and Christy Butler write about the boulder in their book "Erratic Wandering: An Explorer's Hiking Guide to Astonishing Boulders in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont," as follows. "At 30 feet in length and 20 feet tall, standing atop the rock gave a commanding view over the town of Newport, until the reforestation of the woodlands enshrouded the hill top obscuring the view." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • "At 30 feet in length and 20 feet tall, standing atop the rock gave a commanding view over the town of Newport, until the reforestation of the woodlands enshrouded the hill top obscuring the view," write Jan and Christy Butler in their book "Erratic Wandering: An Explorer's Hiking Guide to Astonishing Boulders in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont." Now there is a view to Goshen in the southeast (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Previous visitors to Elephant Rock have improvised the means to climb to its top. Photographed in Newport, N.H., Thursday, June 21, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jan Butler at Papoose Rock at Holts Ledge in Lyme Center, N.H., featured in the book "Erratic Wandering: An Explorers Hiking Guide to Astonishing Boulders of Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont." (Courtesy photograph)

  • Christy Butler at Ragged Mountain’s Balance Rock in Andover, N.H., featured in the book "Erratic Wandering: An Explorers Hiking Guide to Astonishing Boulders of Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont." (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Correspondent
Monday, June 25, 2018

New England is home to glacial erratics the way Florida is home to palmetto bugs. You can’t walk through any New England woodland without seeing rocks that range in size from small to large to mammoth. When the glaciers pushed southward from present-day Canada, and then retreated, they left behind a landscape characterized by granite ledges and boulders.

A new self-published book Erratic Wandering: An Explorer’s Hiking Guide to Astonishing Boulders in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont by Jan and Christy Butler, a sequel to their book Rockachusetts, takes hikers and walkers to 123 sites in Northern New England.

Some of the rock formations they describe are famous, like the Madison Boulder in Madison, N.H. It’s the largest glacial erratic in New England, and one of the largest in the world: 83 feet long, 23 feet high, 37 feet wide, with perhaps 10 to 12 feet underground, and estimated to weigh 5,000 tons. It dwarfs everything around it.

Other boulders, however, are less well-known, such as the Dog Head Rock in Johnson, Vt., Balance Rock in Lincolnville, Maine, Cantilever Rock on Mt. Mansfield in Vermont, and Frog Rock in New Boston, N.H.

There are balance rocks in each state, the name describing the precarious way some boulders perch on bedrock, looking as if they could easily be dislodged. It’s an optical illusion because they have stood in place for thousands of years.

“There are so many other ones tucked away in the nooks and crannies of New England,” said Christy Butler in a phone interview from his home in Cheshire, Mass., in the Berkshires. To his knowledge, this is the first book that compiles a list of significant glacial erratics in Northern New England. His wife, Jan, is the photographer.

The Butlers are neither geologists nor historians, Butler said, but they are enthusiastic hikers and, as it were, collectors of glacial erratics. What makes a glacial erratic significant or noteworthy, Butler added, is its shape, size, location and the human dimension, or how we measure our scale against that of the boulder or rock formation,

The Upper Valley has some notable examples of glacial erratics: Elephant Rock in Newport, Papoose Rock at Holts Ledge in Lyme Center, Tipping Rock in Lebanon, and Devil’s Den on Wrights Mountain in Bradford. A little farther afield, an explorer can seek out the Pound Rocks and Rumney Boulders in Rumney, N.H., and the Cooks Conservation Property Trails in New London.

Each description of an erratic includes a brief history, if known, of the boulder, a map, directions, level of accessibility and how it rates according to the “wow” factor.

The authors also include the GPS coordinates for both destination and parking. New Hampshire boasts the lion’s share of glacial erratics while Vermont comes in second. Maine is somewhat under-represented in the guidebook, Butler said. Many of the boulders are in conservation areas or parks where well-marked trails guide your way. Others require more perseverance and rock-hopping.

At the turn of the 20th century, the landscape of northern New England was largely cleared. With the regrowth of forests over the last century, many of these boulders, which had been in the open, were gradually overtaken by woodland.

“Now they’re hidden and that is why the GPS is very important,” Butler said.

The book also includes several examples of elegant 19th-century keystone bridges that span streams and rivers and carried trains or served as walking bridges. The Butlers included the bridges because the masons building them often incorporated glacial erratic material.

Last week I took my dog to Wrights Mountain in search of the Devil’s Den, a ravine notable for its boulders. It’s less than a mile up a trailhead off Chase Hollow Road, which is off Route 25. You follow the yellow blazes until you reach the Devil’s Den marker. As a would-be spelunker I missed the mark because I couldn’t find the shallow cave described in the guidebook, and in other online guides to hikes on Wrights Mountain.

However, the short hike did lead up and down moderate ground past impressive ledges. What makes such hikes memorable is the air of mystery that surrounds the boulders. Concealed by surrounding woods, they seem to loom out of nowhere, and are home to who-knows-what. Hobbits? Elven peoples?

Our sense of time is so minute-to-minute, day-to-day that exploring boulders that have been there for thousands of years tends to reorient our perspective.

“That rock is going to be there forever,” Butler said.

Not always: the venerable Old Man of the Mountain rock formation in Franconia Notch collapsed in 2003. But for the most part, yes, these boulders speak to a permanence and scale which make humans seem relatively insignificant. It’s a potent reminder. How important are we really?

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.