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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A walk in the woods in a Charlestown treasure

Francis Carter Preserve Walkabout
By Jim Bedell, Progressive Charlestown guest columnist

Frank’s take on saving open space for the enjoyment and refreshment of present and future generations was straightforward: “nothing flamboyant, just a place to take a walk in the woods.”  The Francis C. Carter Memorial Preserve is that and, still true to his vision, much more.

This walkabout is located off of Route 112 in Charlestown. It is the second largest holding of the Nature Conservancy comprising 841 acres and, I estimate, at least six to seven miles of wonderfully laid out trails which lead through varied forest types and topographical features. This parcel of land is contiguous with other preserved land as part of an eleven mile open space corridor running form Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge at the coast through the Carolina Management area.

To start, go north from the junction of Routes 2 and 112, or south from the junction of Routes 91 and 112, and look for the lovely Conservancy sign on the west side of the road.  There is parking for about ten cars, and an introductory kiosk loaded with information, guidelines and announcements.  The coordinates are: N 41º 25.943’ and W 071º 39.413.

With or without one of the nature guide pamphlets available at the kiosk, you have something to catch your eye within fifty feet of the start of the trail. A modest pond with a viewing stage is located just over the rise from the parking lot.  My first view of this feature was of a sparkling pool reflecting a brilliant blue sky from a mirror smooth surface.

On a subsequent visit I was looking at the dry litter covering an upland forest floor.  It is one of the dozen or so vernal ponds you will see on your travels.  You may recall that the date of equal night and day, which occurs in the spring, is called the Vernal Equinox.  It is the arrival of spring, and these vernal pools that fill at the end of winter in our latitudes with the melting of the snow and the soil moisture, are very special…especially if you are a frog or a salamander.

Some creatures migrate to avoid becoming a year around food staple for a local predator population.  The temporary pools in our woods give a similar type of protection.  An amphibian can survive the dry season and over winter in the wet, muddy material in the bottom of these depressions, and then emerge with the thaw to hurry through their aquatic reproductive cycle.

A predator such as a large mouth bass, on the other hand, would not be able to make it past the dry, end of summer months when these pools are reduced to soggy soil.  Ergo, we have amphibians (and many other invertebrates) in our neighborhood that we would not have as part of our local fauna if these vernal pools did not exist or if they stayed full all year long.

For this walk I went past the cutoff for the red trail, the choice which takes the traveler over the longest arc of paths possible, and left the “trunk” yellow trail onto the blue.  There was also an opportunity to turn left onto the “Split Rock” trail, which I saved for my return when I would have a better idea of exactly how close to sundown my ending would be. All of the paths are well marked, with maps mounted on trees at most of the junctions.

The first part of the stroll has you rambling over gentle hills strewn with huge boulders sitting oddly out of place on the surface. There are many more of them hiding under the surface all around you, all gently lowered to their present positions when the great glacier melted with the ending of the last ice age about nine thousand years ago.  Some are locals, broken from the huge bedrock ridges and knobs you will see later on the hike.  Others are shipwrecked glacial sailors, marooned far from the cliffs and mountain sides of more northern locations where they were spawned, and built of rock and mineral types not found in our area.  Because of their impressive size, odd placement, and sometimes foreign composition they are called “erratics.”

At some point in the ups and downs of the stroll, at the top of one of the hills, I realized that, “Wow, I’m pretty high up!”  From my vantage point, and because of the bare trees of winter, I could see the white and silver patches of several ice covered ponds standing out in contrast to the dark forest litter quite a way below me.  The topographical relief is considerable (for RI!), and the view from this and other hill crests is impressive.  By the same token, when passing through one of the low depressions, one has the feeling of being deep in a pocket of the outdoor world. I should add, however, that the trails are so well laid out that the slopes are not a burdensome challenge.  You get from bottoms to tops without feeling the need for oxygen!

Coming out of one of these vales flanked by a huge ridge of solid bedrock on one side, a scene presented itself that illustrated why so many Civil War soldiers from our area pulled up stakes and headed elsewhere after the war.  A field stone wall, itself built from the heavy fruit of clearing the adjacent land to render it passably farmable, transitioned from the leaves of the woods across a large expanse of exposed, bare granite.

Here in the western portion of the preserve outcrops of bare rock were often visible, sometimes as vertical walls of modest height, or on the hilltops as crowns of lichen covered crystalline planet in low relief, appearing and disappearing from just under the shallow soil. Those veterans who had seen the Shenandoah Valley, the coastal plantations of Carolina, and the fertile promise of the prairie, realized that there were sweeter places for a farmer to call home than the “hard land” of New England.

Be you an educated arborist or a pedestrian with tree hugging proclivities, these woods will catch your interest.  Throughout the hike, trail side markers with identifying drawings and information educate the traveler about the various tree types which can be found here. The list is too long to render here, but the variety of tree types is very impressive.

Not to mention size. In one stand near the western terminus of the blue trail, there were several pines of enormous size.  A forester measures the circumference of trees at “breast height” to compile a forest survey, and I could not come close to putting my arms around some of these behemoths. I do not think two of me could surround the largest of them! When looking straight up along the trunk, with a low slanting sun beaming across the top of the forest, the heads of the giants were lit up like torches raised high above the crowd.

And now the surprise ending! The yellow main trail which began at the information board on Route 112 actually exits on another, less traveled neighborhood road (Old Mill Rd.) at its far western end.  This side of the preserve presents an entirely different experience to the sojourner walking over the land.

For one thing, this entrance has a larger parking area (under the power lines, coordinates for your GPS: N 41º 26.299’ and W 071º 39.413’), which accommodate horse trailers.  Yes, equestrians are welcome on the section of trails at this end.  From the information board at this entrance, go left before the farm-gated beginning of the yellow trail and head down the forest road to the north. Go past the opening of a loop section on the left, proceed down slope and you will come to an immense, 35 acre mowed field. 
You will notice as you walk to the right along the margin of the open area that the forest has been “eco-sculpted.” Along the field margins the first hundred feet or so of forest has been thinned, with the large trees cut down and chipped to create an apron of shrub vegetation between the grass and the trees.

Because transitions between environments are where the action is for a majority of species, this active site management enhances the attractiveness of the setting for the wildlife, and thereby enhances the wildlife viewing for us! The Conservancy curators have created a double edged opportunity for the observer.  One is a shift from open field to shrub zone, and then a change from shrub to forest environment. This setting extends around a large part of this vast open area. To top it off they have set up benches at regular intervals along the stroll for visitors to sit upon to watch the action.  Pretty cool!

With the sun getting low, and the car at the far end of the preserve, I scampered back across the yellow trail to my starting point. On my return journey I took the Split Rock side trail, which is a loop off of the yellow main branch.  It has more bedrock cliffs and outcrops to explore, and indeed there is one prominent erratic which has split right down the middle.  Actually, I saw several boulders similarly split, and each one I encountered I thought was THE split rock.  All I can say is that you will know the namesake one when you see it!

These splits in the boulders, as well as the cracks you will see in the bedrock walls, are caused by spring like forces within the foundation rock.  Because these granite masses originally cooled from molten material tens of miles inside the earth, the atoms of their crystals solidified in cramped conditions.  Now that these rocks are at the surface, without the crushing pressure of their deep genesis, the molecules of the crystals are relaxing and that is expressed by cracking open along flat surfaces at regular intervals.

My hike described here only covered a part of the trails available, and only saw some of the sights.  There is also a home site ruin with covered well and foundation hole, a significant lake sized pond, and, I am sure, sights still unknown to me for your discovery.

See you on the trail.

This column is the opinion of the author. Jim Bedell is a geologist and teacher of Marine Environmental Science, biology and physics. He welcomes comments or questions from readers and he can be reached by calling 401-499-1405 or e-mailing