As a hiker, I almost always stick to the trail. Following trail markers — such as blazes painted on trees and orderly rock piles called cairns — gives me confidence that I won’t get lost while traveling through the wilderness. Plus, on many conserved properties such as preserves, the land owners and trail maintainers ask that hikers remain on trail to protect wildlife habitat, respect neighboring landowners and for all sorts of other reasons.
But there’s a time and place for stepping off trail, too.
In fact, many Maine outdoors-people prefer to explore the wilderness trail-free, whether that’s on their own property or other land where wandering is permitted. This mode of exploration, which involves following stream banks, ridges and ravines, is often referred to as “bushwhacking,” and it can lead to some truly fascinating discoveries.
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Such was the case recently, when my husband Derek and I discovered a free-standing granite fireplace and chimney in the middle of the woods near our house. It was located just off a local snowmobile trail. We’d passed within 100 yards of it hundreds of times while walking on the trail, but the structure was just deep enough in the woods to be masked by tree trunks and branches.
Even though we’ve been bushwhacking a lot lately, I’m not sure if we ever would have found the fireplace without the guidance of one of our neighbors, who knows the woods well in that area. While out walking recently, Derek ran into him and — practicing social distancing — they visited the fireplace together.
It makes me wonder: what else is in the woods to discover?
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When we wander off trail near our home, my husband and I often use our smartphones to aid in navigation (though I do own a handheld GPS, as well). But often, we follow a geological feature, such as a brook or ridge, and we can use the sun to judge our general direction. We’ve also started to use mobile apps like onX Hunt, which provides maps for hunting that include property lines.
Also recently, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with lichen. My fixation is the result of noticing a variety of lichen in the woods and along the roadside near my house, as well as a recent story by Maine naturalist Grace Bartlett about lung lichen. Her story actually led me to conduct a little experiment that involved pouring water on lung lichen to see if it would change color from pale, chalky green to vibrant green. And it actually did.
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Of course I’ve continued to watch the birds. Just yesterday I saw two northern flickers land in a tree right outside my window. While I’d seen photos of the species before, I’d never seen it in person. It’s a fairly large woodpecker with a spotted chest and beautiful coloring. As you can imagine, I was excited. Yes, I did creep outside in my socks in hopes of capturing a photo. And no, I did not succeed. The army of robins on my lawn gave me away as soon as I opened the front door.
I also witnessed a group of at least four yellow-bellied sapsuckers (another pretty woodpecker) raising a racket across the road two days ago. They appeared to be chasing each other, so I’m not sure if they were being territorial or attempting to woo one another. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, “In early spring, before mating, sapsucker pairs engage in playful pre-courtship behavior, with one sapsucker chasing the other around tree trunks and branches.”
I kept an eye out for frog and salamander eggs this week, but I still haven’t come across any. I did, however, come across a different sign of spring: bees. Though I don’t know what kind, they were lazily flying and crawling among the sparse vegetation lining the road. Unfortunately they reminded me that the black flies will be up and about before we know it.
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As for the mysterious chimney in the woods, we contacted a local historian to see if he knew anything about it, and he told us that it belonged to an old cabin that burnt down a long time ago. He also told us that the chimney was built by Finnish people with hand-cut granite from the area.
It’s amazing to see how nature takes over a space. Looking closely, I could make out the general boundaries of the cabin. Poking up through the leaf litter is the metal frame of a bed, bits of rotted wood siding and roof shingles. That’s all that’s left.
In the cabin’s place is a stand of tall yellow birch trees, their golden bark shining in the sun. Moss and lichen have started to grow on the chimney, reaching into cracks between the granite blocks. Yet it looks sturdy. I imagine it will remain there, standing among the trees, for many years to come.
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path” and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.
Watch: Backyard safari — sapsuckers and other noisy birds