Monday, January 29, 2018

See-saw Temps Bring Impressive Ice

Freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw!  That's what the weather has been of late.  On Thursday, my friends and I nearly froze when we faced frigid winds and icy footing along the Spring Run Trail (see my previous post).  Then yesterday, I had to take off my coat before it got drenched with sweat as I walked along Spier Falls Road, which follows the Hudson River at the northern boundary of Saratoga County.

I had come to walk along Spier Falls Road, first, because it offers beautiful vistas along the mountainous river banks, and second, because walking on crusted snow in the woods was awkward, even painful.  And I also thought I might see some spectacular splashing water in the rushing cataract that tumbles down the mountain across from the Spier Falls Dam.

Well, despite several days above freezing, the waterfall was still hidden under a thick ice cover.

I could hear the water's music as it splashed and rumbled from boulder to boulder, but I could not see it under this wedding-cake-frosting of ice.

There was lots of impressive ice to be seen along the road, where the mountains rise steeply right at  the road's edge, and constantly dripping springs have created fantastic ice formations among the boulders.

But the most impressive ice of all was to be seen on the spring-watered cliffs that line the road, in areas where the mountain's bedrock was blasted out to create material to build the Spier Falls Dam, which lies directly across the road from these cliffs.

I could see by their trails to approach these cliffs that ice-climbers had been testing their skills on these ice formations.  Their well-packed trails made it easy for me to make my way to the bottom of the cliff, where I could really sense the dramatic effect of this massive ice buildup.

Back on the road, I was sad to find this porcupine lying dead by the roadside.  Poor Porky!  He thinks his quills will ward off attackers, so he moves along slowly as if he had no enemies.  Porcupines haven't yet evolved to be afraid of hurtling cars.

The clear blue sky made a lovely foil for the rising moon, on its way to becoming the Super Moon (a moon that is full at perigee)  that will brighten the sky Wednesday night -- although that brightness will be dimmed for a while during a lunar eclipse.  It will also be a "blue moon," a second full moon in a single month.  Let's hope for a sky as clear as this to make for great moon-watching!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Fine Place for a Winter Walk

 My friends in the Thursday Naturalists and I are always on the lookout for interesting places to walk outdoors in the winter.  But as the years go by and age- or accident-related injuries mount, we don't always want to challenge ourselves with long hikes through deep snow or up steep slopes.  So this week I offered to lead our group along the Spring Run Trail, which lies within the city of Saratoga Springs. Following an old railroad bed, this flat and well-plowed trail runs about a mile from East Avenue until it dead-ends near the Northway, passing beneath steep wooded banks and along a rushing stream before it terminates in a cattail swamp.

A brand-new feature of the Spring Run Trail this year is the construction of a beautiful boardwalk that crosses that cattail swamp, connecting the trail to an apartment complex that lies at the end of Excelsior Avenue.  I'm hoping our group might begin our walk here.

The boardwalk crosses the Spring Run Creek, which today was running full and fast, thanks to recent rains and melting temperatures.

This creek also runs close by many sections of the paved Spring Run Trail, so we can hear the sound of rushing water as we stroll along.

Although the Spring Run Trail passes through residential neighborhoods,

it definitely has a woodsy, rural feeling to it, offering an experience of nature right in the heart of the city.  With plentiful open water and much wooded and wetland cover, the trail is a favorite spot for birds, so I'm urging my friends to bring their binoculars along.  I did hear the sweet "Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle" song of a Carolina Wren in these woods today.

Since our naturalist group is primarily interested in plants, I imagine we will be testing our skills at identifying plants in their winter guises.  I remember this spot in the trail as burgeoning with beautiful Great Lobelias last summer, so I stopped here today to see if I could find any remnants of these flowers.

Sure enough, I did!

The winter remnants of Teasels are always easy to spot, towering as they do over all other vegetation.

There's no missing the fuzzy scarlet fruits of Staghorn Sumac, either.

Or the tousled blond curls of Northern Willow Herb.

I know that these burry button-shaped tufts belong to the very tall sunflowers I admired along here last summer, but I never did figure out which species of sunflower they belong to.

The leaves of Sweet Fern still retained their wonderful fragrance when I crushed a few between my fingers.  I love the elegant curves of their curling leaves and the furry little catkins that will open in spring to release their stores of pollen.

I'm not really happy to find the invasive Oriental Bittersweet climbing the trailside trees, but there's no denying those beautiful berries do add pleasing color to the winter landscape.  Supplying abundant fruit, they also are one of the reasons that many species of birds winter over along this trail.

Two species of dogwoods, Silky and Red Osier, also add some bright color to the swampy spots.  Both dogwoods shrubs have red twigs, but I can tell that this particular shrub is Silky Dogwood because of the vertical lenticels of its bark.  The lenticels of Red Osier Dogwood look like pin dots instead of stripes.

I'm sure my naturalist friends will find many other items of interest when we explore this trail on Thursday, and I will be sure to return to this post and report them if they do.

Update:  About 10 intrepid women showed up this clear, cold morning to brave the frigid wind and occasionally icy footing along the trail.  We parked cars at each end of the trail so we could walk the entire length without backtracking, and we kept up a brisk pace, much brisker than this group of observant naturalists usually walks when exploring a trail.  We didn't linger long over any of our plant finds.  Thawing out over lunch and hot tea at my house afterwards, we all agreed the hike was most enjoyable, despite the cold.  Here are a couple more photos from our walk along the Spring Run Trail.

I'm glad one of our group noticed the brilliant red fruits of Highbush Cranberry, which was growing in a swampy area well off the side of the trail.

I was surprised to see such plump, unwrinkled fruits, considering the many below-zero days we have had this winter and the multiple freezings the fruits would have undergone.  They look so tempting, but I know from experience that they are very bitter.  Best to leave them for the wildlife, who will eat them when little else remains.

As we neared the end of the trail, we came upon several clusters of Wild Bergamot, identifiable even now by the compactly bulbous seed heads and their minty scent when crushed.  I know they are this particular species (Monarda fistulosa) because I always stop at this spot on the trail to admire their pretty pale-purple flowers when they bloom in summer.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Winter Fog

Warm rain today transformed the winter landscape.  Two views.

An island in the Hudson River:

A rural road:

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Powerful Ice

 The regional news this past week was full of stories about ice jams on the Hudson that caused record flooding and washed-out roads along the river near Warrensburg, about 30 miles north of Saratoga Springs.  I had just visited that area on January 3, noting the buildup of frazil ice due to bitter cold temperatures (see my post for January 4).  The ice heaps were significant then, but nothing like they became in the weeks that followed, which brought melting temperatures and pouring rain to unleash the destructive power of those monumental ice heaps and the roaring river that caused and carried them.  Having gasped at the newspaper photos and website videos of the river's ferocity and subsequent damage, I decided I needed to go have a look for myself.  Heading north out of Warrensburg along Golf Course Road, I began to see what remained of the immensity of the ice build-up, noticeable in the monumental heaps of jumbled ice pressing against the guard rails and pushing over roadside trees.  Normally, the surface of the river lies about 15 feet below the road.

I was glad my friend Evelyn Greene was free to join me on Friday to go survey the sites of maximum damage.  For several decades, Evelyn has been studying this section of the river and its distinctive ice called "frazil," which forms in turbulent sections of the Hudson and can grow to enormous heights when conditions are right.  This year, the conditions were right not only for an enormous build-up of ice that dammed the river's flow, but also for pouring rains and melting temperatures that added ferocity to the volume of river water.  Together, Evelyn and I drove south on the River Road to a point where we could drive no farther.  We got out of the car and started walking and soon came to see the reason the road was blocked.

Nearly half of the roadway, River Road on the west bank of the Hudson, was gouged away by the force of the raging flood waters.

Even the thickets of trees that line the banks here could not withstand the force of that fierce torrent.  Obviously, the road cannot be rebuilt along this same route, and it will take many weeks or months before an alternate road can be constructed.  In the meantime, some of the people who live along this section of the River Road can come and go from their homes only by snowmobiles or other vehicles designed for rough travel.  The train tracks that run close to this bank have also been affected, mostly by being covered by frozen flood waters. No trains are running at present.

In the warmer months, my friends and I visit this section of the river that is called the Ice Meadows, a wildflower habitat remarkable for the rarity of some of its plants.  Evelyn and I had hoped to explore the Ice Meadows on this day, but the deposits of frazil ice at the site, some at least 15 feet high, deterred our explorations.  The heaps of frazil had pushed well into the woods, and the boulders we can scramble around on summer days were buried well under the ice.

Down closer to Warrensburg, ice jams are still causing flooding near the Thurman bridge, but up here where Rte. 28 crosses the Hudson at The Glen, the Hudson was wide open and flowing free.  We could see floating rafts of slushy frazil ice charging along with the river's current, but so far the frazil had not cohered to clog the river's flow this far upstream.

As I mentioned above, Evelyn is quite the student of frazil ice, and she knows not only how it forms, but also where, in sections of the river that are particularly turbulent.  It was to one turbulent section of the Hudson we headed next,  to a place known to locals as Washburn Eddy.  And of course, Evelyn knew exactly how to get there, along an unmarked trail on private property.

We could hear the rushing river well before we could see it, so we only had to follow the sound, and soon we were standing on the banks.

A toll bridge once spanned the Hudson at this point, back in the 19th Century, and large stone structures still mark the spot.

Although this is one of the river's sections where frazil forms, the deposits of frazil along the banks  here were only of modest height.

Mixed in with the snowy-white frazil were slabs of hard blue ice that had formed in quieter waters of the river and had traveled here on the current.

It was interesting to observe the opposite bank and its distinctive layers of ice, determining by the texture and color which layers consisted of frothy-white frazil and which were of glassier hard ice.

A delicate frieze-work of icicles decorated the layers that lay directly over the water, caused by water splashing up from the turbulent ripples and wavelets.  Having so recently noted the terribly destructive power of ice and water, it was certainly pleasant here to witness some of their elegant beauty.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Snowy Walk in the Park

A lovely winter day yesterday, light snow falling, temperature around 20 above.  A good day for a walk through Saratoga Spa State Park, tasting the mineral springs as I went.

The Ferndell Ravine is my favorite place to start a walk in this park.  It's quiet and woodsy, with tall pines towering overhead and a tiny brook tumbling along the trail.  Saratoga Spa State Park is better known for its golf courses, swimming pools, picnic areas, and a performing arts center than it is for wilderness trails, but this short woodland trail through a steep ravine gives me a little taste of deep forest right close to home.

These very green plants were thriving in the rushing water along the path.  I'm not sure what they are, and I did not feel like plunging my bare hands into that icy-cold water to obtain a specimen in order to find out.

I did recognize the spore stalks of Ostrich Fern protruding from a snowy bank.

When I reached the end of Ferndell Ravine, I turned and walked along the road that provides access to many of the springs that the Saratoga Spa is famous for. The first one I came to is called Tallulah, a word that in the Choctaw language is said to mean "leaping water."

And leap this little spring certainly does, spurting in a crystalline arc directly out of the ground.

The next spring, called Polaris, also leaps up from the ground.

I was struck by the blood-red color the spring's stone basin has taken on, the result of all the dissolved iron in the water.  I was also delighted by the filigree ice that has accumulated around the edge of the basin.

I continued along what is called "The Vale of Springs," which follows Geyser Creek, very full and rushing today because of recent rains.

The most immediately noticeable feature here is the Island Spouter Spring, a large dome of mineral accretions, called a "tufa," out of the center of which leaps a tall spout of mineral-rich water.  Although this spring is commonly called "The Geyser," the same name as the creek it inhabits, this spring is not technically a geyser, but rather a spouter.  Geysers are features of hot springs, and they gain their energy for spouting from the build-up of heat below ground.  The Island Spouter's waters are cold and highly carbonated, and it gains its energy for spouting from the pressure of built-up gasses.

I continued along the path that borders the Geyser Creek.

I was enchanted by these snow-capped starry bracts of a little wild aster.

And also amused by the texture of snow caught on the rough bark of a creekside tree.

Banks of many-layered shale rise steeply alongside the trail, and today those banks were decorated with dangling icicles.

Soon I reached this enormous tufa, a huge mound of mineral deposits created by generations upon generations of flow from the Orenda Spring, which springs from the earth high up on the bank.

The dissolved lime in Orenda's waters crystallizes to create this intricately textured mound, which today was further ornamented by frozen waters with a lovely blue coloration.

I soon came to the end of the creekside path and then climbed the banks to approach the Orenda Spring itself, flowing abundantly from this quaint little stone springhouse.  As the mineral-rich water spreads across the ground, the earth becomes colored with red oxides from the dissolved iron in the water.

The blood-red staining of the intricately-textured mineral deposits presented quite a colorful contrast to this otherwise rather gray day.