Moose, Newts, Apple Trees and History

It’s a chilly morning when I hop into the truck of one of the recreation staff, my tour guide for the day. She pulls away from the bunkhouse and we drive towards the mountains. I answer questions the whole way: what do you do? Where have you been? What do you want to see here? What do other National Forests do? When we park at the end of the road, we are perched upon the divide of two wilderness areas: Peru Peak and Big Branch. These two mountainous areas are divided by a snowmobile corridor – the only access to the Robert T. Strafford White Rocks National Recreation Area in winter.

We follow a road up a steep incline, and this Missouri girl struggles to keep up on her fourth day of hiking in Vermont. When we finally turn off the steep ATV-road and spot a wilderness portal sign, the trail is barely visible. Someone has created a small rock cairn and carved a tree to mark the trail. We scramble up wet rocks and duck under downed trees, following a cold mountain creek upstream. We reach the top and approach Little Mud Pond in silence, and I’m stunned by one of the most unique places I’ve visited in the eastern region. High-elevation ponds are relatively flat and cool, surrounded by bogs. A healthy beaver community alters the flow of water and carves new, shallow channels through sponge-like mosses. We hop from rock to rock and approach Big Mud Pond, which is stocked annually with thousands of native fingerling brook trout, many of whom escape and head downstream. Our course follows the very recent path of a moose, and we climb out onto a small peninsula over Big Mud for a rest and to soak up the sun. There is an immediate peace about the area. In every other places I’ve visited, noise carries miles into the wilderness. You never feel truly alone or isolated. Here, however, the silence is deafening. You almost expect moose to come crashing out of the trees and into the pond at any moment. This part of the wilderness doesn’t get much attention. It’s hard to access and further away from popular recreation hot-spots, ski resorts, and towns. Adult eastern red-spotted newts swim up to the rock we sit on and then duck away into the mud. Kingfishers and herons fly overhead. The reds and golds of fall are mirrored perfectly in the clear, still water. It’s an inspirational spot with an instant feeling of tranquility.  

We bushwhack our way back to the start, passing through fir, spruce, hemlock, beech, and birch forests. I’m pleasantly surprised to find living, healthy ash trees this far north, as all other forest I’ve visited are feeling the effects from Emerald Ash Borer. The descent is far easier than the climb, and my clumsy feet only fail me once. We stop for a brief lunch and talk with visitors before continuing on the Old Job Trail. We pass through cleared pastures and apple tree orchards, remnants of the sawmill community that once lived here. Our trail brings us to one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen: a massive pile of sawdust. This random find is fairly common in the Green Mountains and in the morning, this pile of shavings “steams” in the cold air. This pile is 15-feet tall, is as soft as beach sand, and has been here since the turn of the century. We hop on the Appalachian/Long Trail and enter Big Branch Wilderness, passing over a massive suspension bridge over Lake Brook. The AT/LT trail is more maintained, blazed, and far more frequently visited than other trails. We reach the Big Branch Shelters, a historic Adirondack style shelter that houses 8-10. Visitors pay the caretaker to stay the night. There’s even a moldering outhouse at this shelter! These sorts of permanent structures and accommodations may not be ideal in wilderness, but they are necessary. Shelters and the AT/LT predate the Green Mountain National Forest and the wilderness designation and are an important cultural and historic resource. These shelters concentrate extremely high numbers of visitor use, reducing impacts to the wilderness in other areas.

We retrace our steps, picking more apples from the trees as we leave the wilderness behind. The Green Mountain wilderness areas are laced in history and previous use, and yet, still, there are truly wild and secretive spots that remain. The dense, mixed hardwood and conifer forest, trickling streams, waterfalls, and alpine ponds provide never-ending beauty in any season. It is my first time in New England, and the shelters, AT/LT, and sawmill piles are all new and odd findings to me. The Green Mountain is my sixth stop so far, and each forest – each wilderness – has come with its own set of quirks and natural places just waiting to be discovered. 

Kelsey AndersonRegion 9 Wilderness Researcher for the folllowing Wilderness Areas: Allegheny IslandsBald KnobBay CreekBig BranchBreadloaf,Bristol CliffsBurden FallsCaribou-Speckled MountainCharles C. DeamClear SpringsGarden of the GodsGeorge D. AikenGlastenburyGreat Gulf,Hickory CreekJoseph BattellLusk CreekLye BrookMcCormickNordhouse DunesPanther DenPemigewassetPeru PeakPresidential Range-Dry River,Sandwich RangeSturgeon River GorgeSylvania, and Wild River.

Kelsey is a farm girl from the middle of Missouri. She always had a love for all things nature, and in high school she excelled at science, played softball, and illustrated a children’s book about pollution for the USDA and NRCS. Kelsey went on to attend Missouri State University (go BEARS!), where she stayed in the sciences, and just finished her MS in Biology. Her graduate research examined antipredator behaviors of a local stream fish, but she also worked with hellbenders and terrestrial salamanders during my time. Ask her about it – it’s all very cool! During her undergraduate she ventured away from her comfort zone and volunteered in South Africa, where she worked with rescued elephants, cheetahs, and lions alike. Now that school’s over Kelsey is ready to get out there in the real world and start working in natural resources and conserving the things that she loves in this world. She keeps her waders and muck boots in my car at all times if anyone wants to go out looking for salamanders or go wading in the stream! 
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