Winter sport: snow hiking with(out) AMC!

In 2022 I bailed out of the local Appalachian Mountain Club [AMC] chapter, because of their increasingly intolerant attitude about barefoot hiking and control-freak adherence to their "rules".  It was ironic that I had been on several trips with some of their local leaders pre-pandemic, who could easily see that I was fine as I chose to go, but even they had started to get pressure from on high.  AMC doesn't own the woods, though, so it's perfectly legit to visit a park when they're also having an outing there, and perhaps meet them briefly on the trails or at a trailhead "in passing", ahem.  Perhaps a very mild form of trolling?  Sure, why not, they totally earned it.  It's easy enough to see where they're going any given day, and even figure out what their route might be, and if nothing else the trip listings are a nice tool for looking up where some fun hikes might be in the first place.  (Now that I've noted that, they might try to lock it down to logged-in AMC members only, because they're just like that.)

Someone on my usual Wednesday outing had mentioned a trip that AMC had organized in Boxford State Forest, one of my own local fave spots, and were going to be in an area of it that I had never been to.  So why not head out for a little exploring and maybe get some performative snowfooting in as well?  The day turned out to be almost perfect for that: just above freezing, it had snowed two or three inches the previous day, and the intervening night had been colder so everything was still clinging to the trees.  I headed for a small trailhead on the opposite side of the park from where the AMC folks gathered, figuring that all I needed to do was meet them briefly along the way and not worry one way or the other if it didn't happen.  Heck, just being here in the snow would be plenty of fun.

Russel homestead cellar-hole, carriage axle
Cellar hole of the Russell Homestead
(with iron wagon axle in foreground)

I actually started out with the Magic Socks on, as the ground temp was still down around 24F [measured with an IR thermometer] and I wanted to warm my core up nicely before really getting into footin' it.  I made it in past the monster beaver dam, in to Thomas Road, and down to where the old (er, sockprints, which still look almost barefoot) so far.

Small cemetery
Russell Cemetery

Shortly after leaving the graveyard, I shucked the Socks and tested the conditions.  The ground had warmed closer to freezing, and felt fine under my feet.  I continued south, making a guess that the AMC folks could be coming up the opposite way.  But instead of them I met only one local guy with a couple of friendly dogs; I asked him if he'd seen the group.  He had indeed, when they were getting ready at the other trailhead.  I noticed after we parted that his bootprints looked really odd.  I know a couple of other people who walk that way, but this was a fairly extreme splay.

That guy walks funny
Very splayed gait of the local guy I met

I reached the next intersection, and figured I'd go for a quick check of the trailhead myself.  And on the way there, I found a whole bunch of tracks -- clearly from the group, which had headed up a totally different way and was well north of me by now.  We had likely passed on two sides of a loop, like ships in the night.  I never heard anything -- hiking groups often tend to be very chatty, but in these snow-blanketed woods the sound would probably not carry very well.  How many were they?  The tracks looked like only three or four, but it may have been more.  Six cars at the trailhead, though, not counting the truck that had likely been there overnight.  Not too bad a showing for a somewhat bleak and chilly day.  And of course their tracks sported several microspike-prints.

Cars at the other trailhead
Cars at the Crooked Pond trailhead

Rather than try and chase them northward, I decided to go explore the two southern loops where I'd never been to.  [See map at end]   Surely, a group hike intending to explore this "Wunnegen area" section of the park would make it a point to cover those too?  Maybe I wouldn't find the group after all, but they were going to walk those trails they could certainly find ample evidence of *my* passage when they got here.  The snow was in that perfect condition to hold shapes -- just reaching a melty point, but not too soft yet. 

Toe check in a bare patch
Toe check: doin' just fine

So I was going to track up those loops but good, and leave a trail that the group couldn't ignore.  It was a lovely jaunt, through the dead-quiet woods with "clingy" snow sugar-frosting everything and *not* melting off because the air temps stayed right around freezing all day.  A symphony of deeper, slightly crusty snow, muddy patches where it had melted, puddles with a delicate skin of ice, almost-bare ground under the "shadow" of hemlock groves, and tracks from all kinds of critters that clearly use the trails for easy passage too.

Sharing the trail with critters
Critters also use the trails for transit

Parts of the trail were very winding, with a little more up-and-down elevation change and rocky slopes than other parts of the park.  Here and there were signs designating spots named after people.  "Emma's Glen" was a lovely little glade even under snow; I'm going to have to come back in different seasons and see what that whole area looks like.

I was about five miles in as I finished the southern loops and came up past the graveyard again.  Still no sign of the group or their tracks, but at this point I didn't really care.  They were likely barreling toward me straight down Thomas Road at that very moment, maybe having saving the graveyard and cellar-hole for *last* on their own route.  I wanted to do a decent loop instead of grinding all the way back up that toward where I'd parked, even if that would have increased the chances of meeting.  So I headed east instead, picked up their trail again, and found that they had indeed gone up the eastern edge first, along the aptly-named-today "Mystery Train" according to Open Streetmap.  Another one I had never been on either, so why not?  The group was clearly too far ahead to catch up with, but what of that; I'd given up on "the hunt" by now. 

Hemlock shadow
"Snow shadow" under hemlock trees

Mystery Train was also quite nice, more of the twisty up-n-down that I enjoy, and clearly the AMC leader had made some nice choices for his outing.  I wiggled my way along and around, and by the time I came back to the connection point to Thomas I was actually reasonably tired.  The group's spoor turned south toward the Homestead at that point, as I completely expected.

Looking across the wetland
Frosted trees in the "Pond Meadow" wetland

I thought about adding another northern loop, but decided against it, returning out the way I'd come past some of the wetlands.  My feet were still capably holding their own, in a delicate balance between Cold Induced VasoDilation [CIVD] and the slight numbing effect on the temperature-equalized soles.  But I'd kept a pretty brisk pace most of the way; my butt was tired and my knees were complaining a little.  It is a bit more arduous going through snow than on solid ground.

GPS track from the day
GPS track with waypoints

Boxford is big and a bit wild; definitely bring your navigation tools when you go there.  My track for the day was over 8 miles, probably a bit longer than the AMC group had done, but who's to say?  I hiked my own hike, I don't need them other than perhaps as an occasional indicator of where other good hikes can be had.  But it was fun to try and guess their movements from all the little tidbits of evidence in the snow.

So here's the hilarious followup: a guy I had not seen previously showed up for the next regular Wednesday outing in Harold Parker.  We got to chatting, and it turned out he had been on that AMC hike!  He then asked me, before I even mentioned being in Boxford, if I had been out there the previous Saturday.  I told him I had, and he said "I saw your tracks!" -- which clinched it that the group had definitely noticed the evidence I left for them.  I explained the whole deal with AMC to him, as he seemed curious, and then sympathetic that they were being so snooty about footwear choices -- even for people who clearly don't need or want any.

To that end, I wasn't done with this game.  Check out Chapter 2, which wasn't a winter hike, but still another -- *doubly!* -- successful round of meeting AMC groups just long enough to handily demonstrate what feet can do in the woods.

_H*   230127

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