Sages Ravine is a deep cleft along the Massachusetts and Connecticut line. There used to be a spur trail here from Rte 41 to the AT, but landslides and windfall have severed the connection between its upper and lower elevations. This is fine with me. Sages is a pleasure best experienced undisturbed.
The ravine takes its name from the Sage family who long ago operated a mill at the bottom of the mountain. The remains of the mill foundation lie below the bridge embankment where Rte. 41 crosses the stream. The remains of Zaccheus Sage, veteran of the Revolution, lie in the Cande family burial ground deep within nearby woodlands conserved by The Nature Conservancy. Each Memorial Day, someone from the Town of Sheffield makes their way through the honeysuckle thickets with a bright new flag for his headstone.
Before the beaver returned, ending more than a century of extirpation in New England, the wetlands below the mountain and beyond the cemetery were confined to natural seeps and the margins of Schenob Brook. A road, barely discernible now as a faint track heading through the trees into the swamp, crossed the dry lowlands and over Schenob Brook. Today, the wetlands sprawl over 1/2 a mile from the main channel and the crossing has disappeared beneath the water. Zaccheus Sage sleeps beneath a forest that was absent while he lived, but the water still comes down in torrents through the ravine bearing his name.
It can be ninety degrees and sweltering elsewhere in Sheffield, but the temperature drops dramatically under the hemlocks in Sages, air conditioning courtesy of the plunging stream. There are dramatic boulders and steep walled gorges and a series of ever more secluded pools and cataracts as you ascend the ravine. Unlike Race Brook Falls and some of the other ephemeral streams that drain the Plateau, Sages runs year-round - although during low water, at one point it makes a detour underground through the porous limestone and then emerges in a sheet from a cave in the bank further downstream.
Sages Ravine is a wild, primordial kind of place, seldom visited beyond the lowest pools by all but the most intrepid adventurers. It's a good place for a bracing skinny dip in high summer. Once I found a scrumptious patch of black trumpet chanterelles in Sages but return trips in subsequent years have failed to produce more of these delectable fungi. Several state-listed rare vertebrate species occur in the ravine, including one with an unusually uncharismatic name: the Slimy Sculpin. Mind you, the common names of many species are rustic in the extreme: Drooping Spear Grass, Stinking Willy.
Tsuga canadensis, the eastern hemlock, is as emblematic of the habitats it favors as the American elm once was along our village streets and byways. In cool ravines like Sages, on north facing slopes and in some acidic wetlands, Hemlock is the dominant species, shading out or excluding through the release of tannins into the soil much of the competing shrubs and undergrowth. That does not mean hemlock habitat is sterile - far from it - as kinglets love its thick canopy and deeryards form beneath the shelter of its boughs when the snow is deep in the deciduous woods. Hemlocks play a vital role in regulating the temperature of cool streams like that which runs through Sages, making it great for native trout and a host of salamanders.
Hemlocks today occur in such preferred niches and comprise perhaps 5% of the overall trees in the northern hardwood forest. Fossil soil cores and pollen analysis indicates that once this species was far more pervasive, by far the most common tree in these woodlands 5,000 years ago. A shift in climate, a new pest or pathogen, or some other environmental factor produced a rapid crash of this species thereafter, and it now persists in restricted habitats like Sages Ravine.
Hemlocks are under siege again, but this time from a pest introduced from Asia where it evolved with other Hemlock varieties that are able to resist its destructive feeding. Hemlock woolly adelgid is spreading slowly but inexorably up and down the Atlantic seaboard, leaving devastated Hemlock stands with dead and dying trees in its wake. Eastern hemlock is the Pennsylvania state tree and stands are suffering 90% mortality across the Keystone State. Hurricane Bob blew the pests across Long Island Sound into southern New England and the wave of destruction has progressed north and west from there.
The leading edge reached Berkshire County, Massachusetts, in the late ninties, and is into southern Columbia County, New York across the Taconic Plateau. All indications are that the adelgid will persist even in the northern reaches of the hemlock's range. A cold winter will dramatically depress the pest population, but any warm spell in subsequent years sees it explode once more. Biocontrol efforts are limited in coverage and preliminary results are mixed. Where the introduced predator reduces the adelgid, other pests gain a foothold.
What will Sages ravine be like after the adelgid is well established? The ancient, nearly old growth Hemlocks deep in its recesses may be spared, or eventually found by a bug that can be dispersed on the feet of birds. Assuming that 90% of the hemlocks here today will die in the next decade or two, Sages will be a deeply disturbed habitat and those species that will replace it will either be invasive shrubs, poised on the margins of the forest, or deciduous species like black birch and red maple that do not have the cooling and shading properties of the hemlock. I would expect increased erosion beneath standing snags, perhaps a flush of mountain laurel further up the gorge.
That is what may happen without human intervention. It would be a fascinating project to design a restoration project for a cool ravine community like Sages in the absence of hemlock. One would need to introduce new conifers with similar shading properties. Perhaps a species with a slightly more northerly range, a white or red spruce, would provide some of these qualities, but I'd want to be sure that these will persist over time as the overall climate warms and other, boreal and northern hardwood species contract their range into Canada. One could use biodegradable coconut husk or hemp erosion mats to help retain soils and exclude invasives. It would take significant resources and a better reason than I can come up with to fund such a restoration effort, but without it some things will undoubtedly be lost when the hemlocks depart: things we have not yet attempted to quantify as well as those deeply qualitative aspects of Sages Ravine that make visiting here such an evocative and moving experience.
Near the headwaters of the ravine, the AT drops down and crosses to a nearby campsite maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club of Connecticut. This site, and the old Bear Rock Falls site further up the trail in Massachusetts, received such heavy use in past years that it was not uncommon for upwards of 80 campers to use and degrade the surrounding area over a single weekend. Soil compaction, loss of vegetation, and water contamination were inevitable byproducts.
Both of these sites have recently been relocated to less sensitive habitat away from the streams and waterfalls and I applaud this step, long in coming. Campers still disregard the prohibition against campfires - and the next one I encounter will get an earful about the joys of fighting a stubborn groundfire at altitude - but the latrines are better sites and there are bear boxes for foodstuffs and overall it makes for a pleasant stop over for weekenders and through hikers. I stayed at the Laurel Ridge Campsite on my September Taconic Plateau traverse, and was serenaded by a coyote chorus in the midnight hour.
More musings from the trail to follow in a subsequent posting.