autumn, Bogs of Essex County, fall, Family, foliage, Hiking in New England, humor, leaves, Life Lessons, Massachusetts, Nature, New England, photography, Seasons, Uncategorized

A Boggy Day in Middleton


Anytime anyone talks about a 3-hour tour whether on land or on sea, I immediately think…”and we all know how that ended for Gilligan and crew”.  And though the 3-hour hike description we read identified  a glacially impacted, remote, long wooded area most people don’t get to see, we still went in part because late fall’s the best time to hike. The bugs are mostly gone and it’s too cold for snakes.

Heading into the woods
Heading into the woods

I’m good with the woods, I actually think I know a lot about what goes on in there and this sounded easy enough. I interpreted the descriptor  “family hike” to mean well-defined, hard-packed trails without bugs or snakes. I was wrong in all instances.

My husband and I continued to the meeting spot even when the real road ended and we bounced and scraped the fuel tank along divots, gullies and rocks for 3/4 of a mile. We tarried forth as did 33 others ranging in age from 5 to 82 plus a couple of super wussy canines.

This erratic rock hadn't rolled in ages
This erratic rock hadn’t rolled in ages

The guide told us all about glacial formations. I might not have known the proper names, but I knew the random boulders (erratics) were glacial deposit; I knew the glaciers moved from northwest to southeast digging out u-shaped valleys and scratching rocks. I knew it was the weight of compacted snow that changed the nature of the snow, made it more plastic and able to edge forward maybe 100′ a year, and actually melted back more than actively retreated as the earth warmed.

(Erratic Rock cave) Like a box to a cat....
(Erratic Rock cave) Like a box to a cat….
Kids cannot escape its spell
Kids cannot ignore the chance to explore.

Through my fault alone, I did not know we were going to walk across a six acre bog or that bogs dry out enough to make this possible. I should have read the details. Bogs are pretty rare in Essex County, MA, and I’d never visited one beyond the Ocean Spray commercials on TV. There was one point during the hike, shortly after my husband stepped on a garter snake on this cool, down vest and fleece late fall kind of day (wrong about the snakes being inactive, too, I guess) that  we were given the option to cross the bog or wuss out and go around. I asked the sensible question…”why would someone wuss out?” It was not a rhetorical question though it was regarded as such.

Why wouldn't someone want to cross a 6 acre bog?
Given the option to cross the 6-acre bog or wuss out and walk around, why would anyone wuss out?

So I went along only to figure out very, very quickly why someone would opt out. You see a bog is covered with waist high grass, it is spongy and challenging to traverse. Even the two dogs in our midst insisted on being carried. Walking on a bog feels like walking on a water bed. You can feel the springiness by jumping on the rotting plant mattress, a mattress made of 8-10 feet of very slowly decaying plants layered on top of poorly draining water). Deer must have a recessive 70’s gene; they just love water beds especially when tall grasses keep them hidden from intruders, unless you know where to look. Our group knew where to look and directed us to a deer clearing. Can you say “tick haven!” Strategies shifted.  For the first time I gladly let anxious kids and pants-inside-of-socks hikers pass me on the trail in the hope they’d leave in their wake some sort of a clearing for me as we bushwhacked our way through the grass.

Flesh-eating pitcher plant
Flesh-eating pitcher plant. It might take a while, but I’m guessing it could eat a baby toe.

Our guide had an amazing headful of facts and patience as big as the bog we were crossing. From him we learned all lakes are temporary and all bogs are lakes without rivers or streams feeding them and that they become engulfed from the edges in by plants gone mad. The bogs high acid content fosters some very odd plants – Carnivorous pitcher plants that entice bugs with the promise of food and water and, then eat them like Sweeney Todd.

Wild, edible(?) cranberry
Wild, edible(?) cranberry

Peat Moss (officially named sphagnum) that carries many times its weight in water and has antiseptic qualities.  And Cranberries….cranberries grow wild in this bog (lean through the tall grass for a look down low, close to the mattress part) and many daring folks plucked them and ate them without a pre-rinse of either fruit or hand. I declined though my husband tried three of the jewel-like berries, and still lives today. I couldn’t get beyond the tick potential as the reeds bent toward me to offer their ticks an easy on-ramp.  I imagined or felt invisible little suckers stalking me and waiting to thrive on my blood. I was so ready to return the bog to its fearsome plants and reclining deer.

Not every large object was moved to the woods by a glacier
Not every large object was moved to the woods by a glacier

We may have cleared the bog and arrived on the big trail, a former albeit long abandoned dirt road, but I could not clear my mind of the potential calamity that bog presented.  My crisis management  planning began in earnest. We would strip in the living room on the hard wood floors so as not to harbor any critters in the carpet, we’d stuff our clothes in plastic bags and immediately hop in the shower and then give each other the tick once over…you can’t imagine how many places a tick can hide. I’d shave all shavables in the hopes of scraping those critters clear. And then, only then, would I be clear to sit in an upholstered chair or lounge on a mattress. The danger would be mitigated.

White and red oak...whiter leaves for white oak, but notice difference in shape...White oak was the most valuable wood
White and red oak…whiter leaves for white oak, but notice difference in shape…White oak was the most valuable wood

It was a spur of the moment  thing; I wasn’t appropriately dressed, but the following day I was just going to see a couple of pine saplings and oak variations  we’d discussed on the trail. I headed into the woods behind my house, this time alone. I’d gotten pretty far, beyond the view and most of the noises of civilization. I’d gone through briars, scratched my leg on a stick, and desperately tried to remember which were the poison ivy stalks.

Pine is perhaps the smartest tree, it fullfills that most human of needs to know how old a tree is without getting decapitated. Each branch coupling is one year
Pine is perhaps the smartest tree, it fullfills that most human of needs to know how old a tree is without getting decapitated. Each branch coupling is one year.

Then I came upon a clearing that was cushioned by pine needles and hidden by tall weeds. The creepy voice inside my head whispered  “deer would find it very comfortable here”.  I wanted out. Then I heard what sounded like a shot. I’m not the kind of gal who can say definitively it was a shot and assess  caliber and danger levels. I’m the kind of girl that thinks “Holy crap, I’m in deer territory, in the woods, near where I’ve seen hunters before and I’m wearing  my best deer costume – a super oversized buck tan down vest that goes to my knees. ” And then I wondered “is it deer season?” I didn’t know the answer, but I don’t think it’s any easier being shot by a poacher than a legit hunter. So I high tailed it out of there, whistling madly trying not to sound like a deer. An hour and a half into my 15-minute walk,  I popped out of the woods in a back yard where  legions of turkeys and a half dozen or so deer congregate, but by now the tick danger was eclipsed by the hunter danger so I trespassed. Another pile of clothes dumped  on the hard wood floor, and the most stubble free legs ever.

Despite the fact that I feel like a cool kid for having taken on the bog experience and learning so much more about nature, I made a vow I will probably ignore: to next time find my wild life in the mall … where coincidentally, I might also find a pair of those pants-tucking-into socks.

Thank you Middleton Stream Team for showing me that if you want to experience wonder and amazement, sometimes you have to move away from the computer.

(c) Alison Colby-Campbell

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE MIDDLETON STREAM TEAM     http://www.middletonstreamteam.org/

LEARN MORE ABOUT LYME’S DISEASE:   http://www.ilads.org/lyme_disease/about_lyme.html    http://livinggreenmag.com/2013/10/28/food-health/lyme-disease-infographic/

6 thoughts on “A Boggy Day in Middleton”

  1. My lovely wife sometimes has trouble discerning the subtle (almost ephemeral) differences between a gas tank and a trailer hitch frame. Please be assured that no gas tanks were scraped, bounced or otherwise endangered in the making of this adventure.

    Further, before she was sadly overcome with her worst fears concerning bugs and poison plants, she felt the need…nay…she was driven to, wisely, first submit herself to the highly ascorbic properties of a pepperment stick ice cream sundae from Richardson’s (for medicinal purposes only).

    1. the trailer hitch makes an entirely different and non hollow sounding noise than the gas tank. The sundae was sublime and mandatory I might have lost a few calories during that hike that needed replacing.

  2. I loved your description of a bog in MA, I have just started a blog about all things boggy in Ireland, we have no snakes here though!! St. Patrick got rid of them all 🙂 it’s at meathecotours.wordpress.com if you fancy a look!

  3. The boardwalk was quite slippery this morning, especially if you walked along the edges, rather than the middle, so I spent a lot more time looking down than up. So many of the plants have changed since last week that I hardly know where to start.

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