Norton Conifer Plantation Walk

This is a short family walk over old-road trails, suitable for dogs, children (except teenagers who don’t want to accompany parents anywhere) and grandparents. In addition to a review of the upland oak community, it includes a stroll through some of Professor Norton’ s conifer plantations. There is also opportunity to visit a small, shrubby swamp.

 

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Go to Rockport. Go past the railroad station on Route 127. Stop at Dunkin Donuts for emergency supplies. Turn steeply left on Squam Road and go to its gravel road end at a white metal gate. There is limited (but free) roadside parking. Proceed past the gate into a pleasant tree-lined trail. The overstory here is mainly middle-aged black oak (Quercus velutina, in case you forgot) with occasional red maple and beech. Beech and maple are also growing up in the understory along with an occasional sassafras (Sassafras albidum).

 

Figure 27. Road-trail near Squam Road entrance to Dogtown.

 

These species are tolerant of shade, and beech may eventually succeed the oaks, especially on good soils. Sassafras is interesting in that it may occur as clones with individual genetically identical stems connected by roots. You will note that it sometimes occurs in clonal clumps here. Always pick a small green twig and chew it as you move along the trail. The forest floor is mainly occupied by bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) and lowbush blueberry, with patches of wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) here and there. Canada mayflower, which one notices everywhere in the spring, is beginning its August fade out. At about 300 meters from the gate you may notice a dimly marked (faded yellow paint mark on oak) trail to the left; as noted on the Map it follows the north edge of Briar Swamp.

 

At about 400 meters from gate, arrive at the Map’s Number 18 intersection; as of August, 2011, it was unmarked - or perhaps marked and painted over. At any rate take the trail to the right at the fork. Also note the clump of sweet fern (Comptonia peregrine) marking the intersection. Sweet fern is not a fern, but a shrub that is frequently found on dry sandy soils in the north. Usually growing in sunnier places, it was probably much more abundant in Dogtown before forest became dominant. Crushed leaves are aromatic; I dare you not to sample.

 

Continue under the oak overstory, but note the thickening shrub understory, most black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) with a scattering of highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), in 2011, both with very few fruit. Like the lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium, in case you forgot), these two species commonly have low fruit productivity in this shady environment. However, a maple-leafed viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) at left of trail has an abundant crop, unfortunately not very good to eat. Sweet pepper-bush here and there is still much with flowering. And one can’t help but notice a colony of Indian cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana) with red fruit, perhaps a bit off site in this mostly dry area.

 

Figure 28. Indian cucumber-root in fruit.

 

Carpets of Canada mayflower wither, leaving stems apexed with fruit. Tis the season of reproduction! A small trailside golden rod (perhaps Solidago nemoralis) is beginning its floral season just before we reach a stone geological marker on the Gloucester-Rockport line.

 

Figure 29. Geological marker noting border between Rockport and Gloucester.

 

Then in a few more steps we are at junction Number 19 noted on the north side of a small oak and easy to miss. Three trails collide here; take the center one bearing NNE on a very old road. To our left is a small swamp. If you are a swamp lover and are prepared for very wet trail, bear left off the main trail at the first big boulder. If not so prepared you can see the same stuff on the Briar Swamp boardwalk. Below the boulder at swamp edge find evidence of a very primitive trail cut through the swamp for a few meters to allow first hand examination of its constituents.

 

Figure 30. Interior of the small swamp near Number “19”.

 

While ecologists might classify this as a highbush blueberry swamp community, it has three major shrub constituents: highbush blueberry, male-berry (Lyonia ligustrina) and our old friend sweet pepper-bush. You will also note red maple as small trees and sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) under the larger shrubs, especially at swamp edge. Blueberry and male-berry have similar leaves, but their fruit distinguishes them. Male-berry has terminal racemes of hard achene-like subglobose fruit 2-4 mm in diameter (i.e. little hard, round fruit at the end of branches, not good to eat). There is sphagnum moss under and around your feet (you sink about 2 decimeters in it). And watch out; you’re stepping right on a sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)! The short trail (more like a tunnel) ends in a patch of Virginia chain fern (Woodwardia virginica) where you can stand surrounded by “impenetrable northern swamp” and admire its beautiful small places.

 

This swamp with its acid soils (much as in Briar Swamp) may have begun as a kettle hole, a pond formed when a block of glacial ice is covered by glacial outwash or till, then melts. This took place during glacial retreat, about 10,000 years ago around here. Kettle holes then acquire vegetation around the edges and may gradually become bogs, sometimes with floating mats of plants tolerant of acidic water. Gradually this vegetation fills in the pond, which then becomes a swamp such as the one here. Of course I have no information directly related to this particular swamp’s history.

 

Continue through oak forest along trail paralleling swamp edge. Slow down and note the good patches of pink lady-slipper (Cypripedium acaule) between swamp and trail, all amidst populations of wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and cow wheat (Melampyrum lineare). Cow wheat is a wide ranging annual which is hemiparasitic (partly parasitic) on roots of host plants. Interestingly it’s found both in dry upland woods and in bogs. Several varieties are recognized within the species. I don’t think cows much like it – or have even heard of it.

 

Figure 31. The stone memorial plaque to Anne Natti.

 

As the trail leaves the swamp’s vicinity notice a small stone plaque laid in the trail. The plaque is a memorial to Anne Natti who was murdered on the trail in 1984. The murder case and a history of Dogtown are subjects of Elyssa East’s fine book, Dogtown:Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. Sometimes the plaque is covered with gravel; look closely.

 

Figure 32. One of Professor Norton’s white pine plantations.

 

At about 100 meters beyond the plaque a white pine plantation begins left of the trail. The trail follows the edge of the plantation then turns sharply left (SSW) between a hemlock and a white pine planting. It is easy to miss this trail junction and proceed sharply down the hill to unknown territory off the map! Stroll to a red pine (Pinus resinosa) planting on the right. These conifer plantations were established in the 1960’s and 1970’s by Dr. Frederick Norton, a professor at MIT. (It is still private land so tread respectfully on it.) At the time, the land was largely bare of mature trees, and state forestry agencies around the country encouraged reforestation through conifer plantations. Many were modestly successful, including Dr. Norton’s. After thinning by harvest for pulpwood, such stands (forestry lingo) are commonly allowed to develop into trees large enough for lumber. Note the straight lines and even spacing at which trees were planted to allow for easy thinning and harvest. Or maybe this formality is due to the influence of European plantation forestry with its strict straight lines that so dominated much of early 20th century forestry in North America. Those of you who object to straight lines in forests may wish to remember that as the plantations age and thin to a few big trees per hectare, they lose their orderliness. The red pine here appear to be much healthier than the white pine, tall clean boles with thick healthy looking crowns. Some foresters may see really nice telephone poles in them.

 

Figure 33. Professsor Norton’s red pine plantation.

 

Note that natural vegetation is sparse under some of the plantings due to the year-round heavy shade of conifers, especially spruce. In other stands, local vegetation (deciduous trees, shrubs, ground cover species) are already established and will eventually take over once conifers are harvested or die. Seed from the conifers will generate seedlings at appropriate places and conifers will probably persist as a small percentage of the vegetation. Already we see young white pine occupying natural openings in the forest. But now we simply enjoy walking among pine, listening to their inimitable sighing and sucking in their aromatic volatile hydrocarbons.

 

Continue past pine to a white spruce (Picea glauca) planting at the stone-walled edge of the plantation area. Thence back into oak and red maple with a few sweet birch and scattered white pine saplings. Huckleberry understory with bracken fern and low blueberry, sparse and dry. Proceed down slightly, then take a hard left to a dimmer trail through the same stuff. After another 200 meters take another left at the Dennison Trail (J) junction. Hang lefts all the way to complete the circle and avoid the maze of trails to the west. The trail is a relaxing path through mossy old rock, beech and maple. Watch for berries on an occasional highbush blue. Then to a low spot where the “small swamp” empties into an adjacent lower swamp following rains, sweet-pepper bush lining the trail with its fragrance. And you are back to Number 19 on the oak tree. Retrace your steps to the Number 18 intersection, hang left to your parking spot at the end of Squam road.

 

Figure 34. Path for a relaxing stroll back to Number 19.