Walking on water:   an unshod cross-reservoir tour in Middlesex Fells, February 2019

  A midwinter day, snow on the ground, and another storm on the way.  The ideal time to go barefootin' around someplace fun!  As temps climbed up to around 40F on a day I was headed for a social gathering, I decided to check conditions in the Fells on the way over.  Instead of messing around finding group hikes like a year before, this would be a quick solo blast around as far as I felt up for at the time.  It was a month and a half after my stupid calf injury and at this point it felt pretty solid, only giving a mild reminder once in a while on heavy dorsiflexion, so I figured I was okay to hike.  A few short jaunts closer to home had pretty much confirmed that.

[Images are linked to larger copies.]
Climbing Bear Hill As a test of ascent capability, I started with a straight shot up Bear Hill, including up to the top of tower for a quick lookaround.  That's Marjam Supply in the background.  My soles were still in cool-down phase, so the going was a little slippery but doable.  Snow grip always improves as the temp equalizes through the bottom of the foot, but a lot of people aren't willing to stay in it long enough to realize and enjoy that.

Footprints still frozen into the snow The night before had been below freezing and more shaded parts of the trails hadn't quite thawed out, so a lot of this was rough and still icy-hard.  The sharpest bits were the ridges sticking up between half-overlapping boot prints, and the little 4-way knife edges in the dog prints between where their pads had come down.  With careful stepping and a somewhat broad stance in case of a slip, none of it was really a problem.

I scorn your microspikes! Bah, who needs microspikes for this?  That's what toes are for.  I had plenty of grip and stability, in terrain where I saw some other people being somewhat uncertain about foot placement.


[Full disclosure: this pic is from a different walk around the same seasonal timeframe, in similar conditions and slightly deeper snow, but illustrates the same comparison I was seeing here.  It was even taken with the phone camera, which actually doesn't do too badly (considering) once I figured out the right software *settings* for it in the stupid Cat app.]

Down toward the reservoir I came to a right/left trail junction, but it was clear that others had gone straight ahead toward the north reservoir itself.  I'd already gotten the idea to go check out the ice layer.  Our area had gotten a run of single-digit "polar vortex" days a while back, and some warmer days afterward hadn't really been enough to kill the ice on local bodies of water.
This wasn't any particular wrongdoing, despite the sign.  The Fells is kind of a strange duck as far as what the DCR and water authorities would consider "trespass".  I was already well inside the official reservoir area boundary, where there are plenty of well-used trails.  While absolute exclusive fenced-in protection of the reservoirs may have been some golden but unrealistic ideal in the past, the semi-unwritten rule nowadays seems to be that all the trails to and along the water are open to public use, as long as people keep themselves, their trash, and their dogs (mostly) out of the water supply.  The old fences are still in place but quite decrepit by now, with plenty of gaps where *documented* trails pass through.

Very sharp rocks! I picked my way down a rock face to the shoreline, and found some very splintery rock right at the edge.  It was okay to walk on, but I wouldn't want to, say, have to jump down onto this from a height.

On the first reservoir Ice is still 6 inches thick
And the ice was fine, even pretty solid up against the shore where it tends to retreat away from first!  I was able to break open a thin top layer where a hole had formed, possibly due to current from a spring underneath, and sample the thickness of the main layer around it.  Still 5 or 6 inches thick, totally safe to walk on, and no hint of weakness or cracking even when I jumped up and down on it.

Way behind me is the North Dam in Winchester, which is again part of public water resources, and the Fells trails run right over it at that corner of the reservation.  I opted to head straight across to the nearer shore, though, and find the trail along that side.  If anything the lake ice and snow-crust on it out here felt warmer underfoot than the stuff in the woods, and it had a fairly fine and nicely grippy texture to it.  My toes has been enjoying the glowing sensation from vasodilation for a while at this point and the calf was still feeling okay, so I was good to go for plenty more distance.

Walking on water tour track With ice on the first reservoir in such great shape, I decided to route my loop so I'd cross all three reservoirs and get it all on the GPS track.  It totaled about 5.5 miles by the end.  Opportunities like this don't come along too often, with pond ice still solid but ambient temps well out of the frostbite-risk range!  There was evidence that one or two cross-country skiers had traversed the ice when the snow had been thicker on top, but I saw very few boot-prints.

The middle and south sections are separated by a thin raised dike, so that didn't count as a water crossing, but I spent plenty of time happily "icefooting" and seeing the shorelines from a whole new viewpoint.  The woods themselves presented a rich variety of textures, usually depending on whether the slope of the ground was toward the north or south; everything from bare ground to sparse slush to the remaining hard crusty patches in the sheltered north-side areas.

Second reservoir crossing Second crossing, middle reservoir.  This had more bare ice, showing possible evidence that water had run out of a line of spring holes or an expansion crack going across, and spread out to melt more of the snow before re-freezing.  Still quite safe, even fairly close to the black spots.  And fun to take a little run and slide on!

Sketchy crossing made of sticks The south reservoir has sort of a half-island sticking down into it, and off the end of that is another small island that is actually separated.  But the water is shallow enough in the gap that there's always a sketchy collection of sticks and logs that people have dumped into the water in a half-ass attempt at making a bridge.  This was kind of fun to negotiate with snow on it, and necessary right here because the surrounding ice was just a skin.  Perhaps the water moves more through here.  I'm used to crossing this from warm-weather visits, so I didn't even think of going around a different way.  There was plenty more good ice beyond, so this would be one rare time that the island wouldn't be a dead end!

Tiny island with a cairn on it Farther into the southern pond is another tiny little land-mass of sorts, just a maybe ten-by-ten lump of rock that sticks up out of the water.  Normally I'd never be able to get to this, so it was worth exploring!  And piling up some rocks into a small cairn to leave behind, just to mark evidence of human activity out there that would last far longer than my retreating foot-tracks.

Hornet nest under the rock As I turned over one of last rocks I picked up, surprise!  Well, it would have been a much nastier surprise in the summer.  But the nest made a nice little embellishment for the top of my pile.

As I worked on this, I started hearing an odd whining -- someone was flying a drone overhead around the pond, and as I finished up and exited toward the south I found its pilot.  I couldn't really tell at the time which way the drone camera had been pointing but I asked him to check his footage later, to see if he'd caught me making my little rock-pile.

Slipsliding through the mud Sheepfold was a total mud-field
I took sections of Skyline and a couple of other trails up toward Sheepfold, the somewhat diamond-shaped green area near the I-93 legend.  It's the official dogs-off-leash area, and of course that's where the pay parking lot is because a lot of people use it.  The field was a complete mud-pit -- with its open exposure enough sun had melted most of the snow but the ground underneath was still half-frozen, not allowing it to absorb the water.

It didn't look that bad until I was in the middle of it, and had to finish crossing to get to the next trail I wanted.  I thought the slip-sliding dog tracks were amusing, because here I was now doing my own share of that.  It took every bit of attention to not have my right foot go out from under me and put me on my ass, as I was traversing across the slope.  My pants came out looking like I'd been dirt-biking, but I would wear that proudly to the party later because the explanation was so much fun.  [I have a delightfully geeky social circle ...]

Another part of the fun in outings like this is the reactions from other people I meet on the trail.  It's living proof for them what human feet are capable of, and whether they think to try some barefooting themselves or not, at least they've observed a real-life benchmark. 

Stompin' through the yellow snow While on the subject of dogs and their owners ... as I got up near the north parking area to exit I made another observation: a few hundred yards in from the trailhead there were a *lot* of yellow snow patches!  Sure, some people might react "eww gross" upon figuring out why, but not only is this completely harmless to healthy soles, be it of canine, equine, or even human origin ... but, well, just google for "epidermal growth factor".  And remember that a lot of skin care products contain urea as a prominent ingredient.

With a little scientific perspective applied, environments like this or even public restrooms become far less scary for barefooters than we've been brainwashed to believe.  We're at much greater risk from what people have touched with their hands, especially during New England flu season.

_H*   190225

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