NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 15, 2013

On the hunt

Scavenging for items at Warren-Weld Woodland

Outdoorsing the North Shore
Justin Chase

---- — From winter preparations to inevitable senescence, our forests and waterways are busy winding things down. Sometimes it’s easy to miss from indoors, but this time of year, the natural world around us bustles with year-end activities.

Looking to get our boys outside to check it all out, my wife and I brought them for a November scavenger hunt at Warren-Weld Woodland in Essex.

Owned by Essex County Greenbelt Association, the woodland reserve offers more than 100 acres of old oak forest, surrounded by marshlands, swamps and spring pools. It provided us a perfect family place to explore a forest and all that it does after we close our windows for the year.

We arrived armed with a checklist, cameras and kid-sized binoculars. From a small roadside parking lot, the trail rises gradually into the forest and follows a gorgeous web of old stone walls left over from farms years before. Super-tall oaks tower overhead, and huge, moss-covered boulders line the trail.

Patches of sunlight scattered the leaf-covered ground ahead of us while the sweet smell of gone-by ferns and fallen leaves filled the air. As beautiful as it all was, however, we were on a mission: to search for items on our list!

With nine open-ended items, the boys were free to search and determine for themselves if their discoveries indeed satisfied their list. Is bark alive, or is it part of the tree instead? Do squirrels live on or inside the trees? In the end, they both agreed that a big, beautiful mushroom, striped in cream and bronze, satisfied their quest for “something that lives on trees.”

After marking a quick red check on the list and taking a couple of pictures with their camera (for solid evidence of their find), they were off in search of the next item, “something preparing for winter.” And so it went, from discovery to discovery, they led the way, pausing, running, climbing, peering under rocks, and looking into old stumps and dead trees. It was absolutely awesome to watch.

Continuing down the narrowing trail alongside a small pond and young birches vying for real estate among tired aging pines, we made our way to an old forest road. Although in need of signs and blazes, we knew from a map that we had made it to Rocky Hill Road at the far end of the reserve. With only about a half-mile hiked, our boys proclaimed it break time.

The excitement of scavenging for their list made them hungry for Mom’s homemade snack mix and some hot apple cider, so we rested together on an old stone wall, chatting and enjoying ourselves the way hiking often allows. Steam swirling up from our open thermos reminded me that as the sun begins to set this time of year, it quickly gets cold out — we needed to get moving. Looking at our list, we had only two things left to find: a bird and a mammal. Perfect motivation to get back moving on a trail!

Making our way along the old road under a canopy of brown oak leaves, we past our intended turn onto a trail back to the car. After a quick backtrack, while discussing the difficulties of finding trails covered in leaves, we were again on our way.

The rolling, narrow trail from Rocky Hill Road travels alongside a small swamp and a beautiful stand of young, silvery birches. The kids grew tired, yet still appreciated the beauty of the woods through which we hiked. Then, right when our youngest boy was about to hit a wall of exhaustion, a gray jay flew quietly ahead of us. Strangely, it was the first bird they saw in the woods that day and its timing was impeccable. Checking off one of the last remaining items from the list buoyed their energy and carried them back to the trailhead.

Unloading our packs into the car, I thought of our afternoon filled with exploration, exercise and fresh air. The concepts my boys connected from their list to the forest around them were sensational. Learning from something as simple as a family scavenger hunt in the woods proved an awesome way to explore November, and Warren-Weld Woodland provided us a great place for the lesson. With a couple of miles of rolling trails, tons of diversity and plenty of quiet, the reserve is perfect for anyone looking for a casual walk in the woods.

As for the last item — the elusive mammal — my wife reminded our boys they indeed saw several that day. “Boys, what kind of animals are we?” she asked. “Mammals!” they declared excitedly. Check!

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Justin Chase is an avid naturalist who lives in Amesbury and grew up in Newburyport. He is the author of the blog Outdoors, By Cracky! Visit his website at www.outdoorsbycracky.com or contact him via email at justin@outdoorsbycracky.com.