Ashuelot Rail Trail: Keene, NH

“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.” ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast


Though I’ve lived in northern New England for 23 years, and in New Hampshire for 8, I’d never been to the city of Keene, the eighth largest city in NH (at 23,400 people as of 2010 — 1/4 of whom are Keene State College students). It’s only about 40 miles south of me, but the difference in phenological phenonmena — i.e., what’s happening seasonally now — was noticeable. In contrast to where I live, and to Franklin, NH, where I had walked a rail trail the day before, Keene has almost no snow or ice left; the leaves of some shrubs are noticeably budding out; we saw reptiles, amphibians, plants, and birds that we haven’t seen yet in our neck of the woods, and a couple of butterflies flitted past. It was the first really warm day of the season, 68F in Keene, and people were outside drinking coffee, eating at cafe tables, walking dogs, and, in one case, singing songs from the ’60s in the cute little downtown center.

The rail trail was easy to find, thanks to research on the internet (here, and see comment). It’s right at the corner of Ralston and Emerald streets, with lots of parking in the almost-defunct marketplace parking lot across the road.


We walked the trail toward Swanzey for 3 miles, and then back. The only glitch was that, less than a mile from the trail’s start, the bridge spanning busy, 4-lane, Route 101/12 was closed and we had to make a mad dash across the road each time.

We noticed that the Asheulot river — whether through spring melt or a dam somewhere — was overflowing in many directions, covering the trunks of trees by several feet.



We crossed a couple of bridges during our walk, though none of the covered bridges the trail is famed for. The first was a metal-wood bridge, with some colourful rust:


The second was all wooden — and they’re all built for snowmobiles, since this is a snowmobile trail:



The trail was mostly straight, the hard-packed dirt surface easy to walk, and it was pleasant to see the river as we strolled along.


For a while, I thought the landscape, along with the welcome warmth and freedom from icy walking surfaces, would be the highlight of the trip. I was looking specifically for coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), a very early spring plant; I told my spouse, who isn’t familiar with the plant, to look for dandelions on asparagus stalks, but we didn’t see any of the yellow-flowered, leafless (at this stage), plants along our way.

We did end up seeing lots of other fascinating spring signs, though.

We heard this phoebe and finally spotted it about midway up some trees in the swampy area opposite the river. Later, we saw another one in someone’s yard (abutting the trail).


I was so excited to see this skunk cabbage growing in a wet area below the trail that I skidded down off the trail into a small nest of baby garter snakes; I saw three individuals and the motion, peripherally, of others as I made my way to the skunk cabbage and back to the trail. I hope I didn’t step on anyone.

Symplocarpus foetidus – skunk cabbage



I’m always surprised how much they vary in colour and shade, but then, I was thinking as we walked along, so does hair on children born from the same parents, often.

Soon after the snakes, my spouse stopped and said, “Listen.” For the first time this year, we heard frogs, lots of them, singing in the water, a sort of protected (and warmer) small arm of the overflowing Ashuelot River.

It was hard to see the frogs but we managed with patience to obtain some photographic evidence:



Though we didn’t find coltsfoot, we did see, besides the skunk cabbage, some other interesting flora:

leaf bud! I don’t know which shrub
stand of equisetum (horsetail)
cap of equisetum (horsetail) stalk
Mitchella repens (partridge berry)

After recently reading Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2015), in which he makes quite a point of trees’ ability to feel pain, I could almost hear this tree (and others in a similar situation around it) yelling “Ouch” as barbed wire sliced deep into its bark:


I’m not sure what this fungus (slime mold? lichen?) is but it was the only one of its kind, sitting atop leaf litter on the ground. Spouse asked, “Is that natural?”


I’m used to walking on the northern rail trail (Boscawen to Lebanon NH), where there is lots of evidence of it having been a railroad track — brakesman’s warnings, metal bits all about, track switchers, cisterns and other plumbing, even crumbling train platforms, and lots of railroad ties. Along this part of the Ashuelot rail trail, there were only a few reminders, mainly a couple of piles of ties, now moss-covered.


It was fun to explore another rail trail. I’m looking forward to traveling southwest again and picking up where we left off.

On the way home, we got to see these beautiful wind turbines in Lempster, NH. There are 12 of them, built in 2008 by a Spanish company, Iberdrola.



There are some optimists who search eagerly for the skunk cabbage which in February sometimes pushes itself up through the ice, and who call it a sign of spring. I wish that I could feel that way about it, but I do not. The truth of the matter, to me, is simply that skunk cabbage blooms in the winter time.” — Joseph Wood Krutch, The Twelve Seasons, 1949

Leave a Reply