Over the Boulders and Through the Woods

My favorite time of year is approaching. The dog days of summer are coming to an end, and the first hints of autumn are creeping in. The weather calls for a t-shirt in the day, and a sweatshirt at night. The shorts go into the drawer, and the jeans come out. This is the time of year that I get most excited to go into the great outdoors.
Rhode Island’s landscape offers a unique array of activities to urge you off the couch. Bouldering, for example, has an emerging community in our fine state. When I began my bouldering research, one man came to mind. His name is Pete Murphy, and he is an avid rock climber. I knew nothing about bouldering and figured he could enlighten me.
Pete was one of those friends I’d see around, but not too often. In my chance encounters with him, we often talked about climbing, fishing, tattoos, and life in general. Not too long ago, Pete was diagnosed with cancer and the news passed through our group of friends quickly. But as time passed, I was surprised to hear more about his rock climbing than the cancer. I was looking forward to reconnecting with Pete to learn whatever I could about bouldering.
Basically, bouldering is climbing rocks instead of the manufactured walls and surfaces in climbing gyms. Instead of safety ropes, there are mats. Lincoln Woods is known as a good spot for bouldering because it has lots of rocks less than 20 feet tall. Any more height than that, and you should be using safety ropes. Lincoln Woods also happens to be one of my favorite “in a pinch” fishing spots and I often see people carrying mats as I make my way to the little cove just left of the main parking lot. The mats people use are thick, but not wide, so you better have a good idea of where you might fall before you place them. And it’s a good idea to bring a spotter just in case. As you climb, be aware of where you grip the rock because sometimes there are spiders or bees in the little notches that you grab. Many climbers bring chalk to apply to their hands because it provides friction and allows for a better grip on the sometimes wet and slippery rocks.
As my phone call with Pete moved passed the “information about climbing” stage, I knew we had to get to some of the personal stuff. I was nervous about discussing the cancer and the effects that it had on his climbing, but we ended up talking more about the effects that climbing had on the cancer.
Pete started climbing in 2009. When he was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkins lymphoma in November 2013, he further dedicated himself to climbing. He climbed each day after chemotherapy for the first 10 sessions and climbed anywhere from two to five days a week through the duration of treatment. He even made a few climbs in New Hampshire while sick. His last chemo session was May 12, 2014, and he has been in the clear since. He currently climbs five days a week. I asked him why he attacked rock climbing so aggressively during treatment, and he said, “It was better than sitting on the couch.” Well said, bud.
Bouldering is about the basics. Can you climb over the rock or not? You can practice at various state parks or anywhere you get the nerve to climb a rock. I think I’ll make a little detour and give it a try the next time I am heading to my fishing spot by the cove.
Another fun activity that the woods of Rhode Island have to offer is foraging. Until recently,  there was very little I knew about it. At summer camp when I was 11, I was taught that white pine needles are edible and you can make tea with them. Red pine needles, however, are not edible. How can one remember the difference? The word “white” has five letters, and there are five needles in each little cluster on a white pine tree. The word “red” has three letters, and each cluster has three needles on a red pine tree. To this day, I have retained that foraging fact, and very few others.
My good friend Jay Langlais knows much more than I do about foraging. We’ve been friends for about 16 years and he taught me to trout fish, start a fire with flint and steel, clean and cook a fish, and way too many other things to name. When I expressed curiosity about foraging, he was eager to teach me that as well.
My friend Nate, Jay and I stepped into the woods of Exeter just off of Route 3 in early August. We were geared up for hiking and brook trout fishing, but I also wanted to learn something about foraging.
Within minutes of hiking, we came across a grape vine. Jay stopped us and explained the important differences between wild grapes, which are tasty and filling, and moonseed, which is poisonous and looks almost identical to grapes. Before you eat what may or may not be a wild grape, look for a few identifying characteristics. The grape leaves have a jagged sawtooth edge, while the moonseed has smoother leaves. On a grape vine, little tendrils, or thin green arms that grow off of the vine, wrap around the stems or anything they can grab onto. If it’s moonseed, the vine itself is what wraps around objects, and it lacks tendrils. Grapes are often more red or purple, while moonseed is usually more black.
As the day went on, we caught a few small fish, but no brook trout to cook with our planned woodland meal, so I suggested that we complement our potatoes and beans with something from the forest. It wasn’t long before we found a shrub called sweet fern that you can use to make sweet fern tea. Though it is not actually a fern, the leaves of this shrub resemble one, hence the name. We picked the healthier leaves, and boiled them in water, which made for a delightfully natural tasting hot drink.
On our way out of the woods, we came across some fiddleheads, which, unfortunately, were not in season. Early in spring you can harvest and steam these furled baby ferns. Much of what you can find while foraging is seasonal. In the spring, there are mullberries, which give way to raspberries, then to blueberries throughout the summer. By autumn, there are apples.
My brief lesson taught me that it would likely take a year or two to gain any foraging expertise. There’s too much to learn in just one hike. It was nice, however, to have a self-made expert on hand to show me the ropes. I will add that to the list of things Jay has taught me about the outdoors.
If you are interested in foraging in Rhode Island, pick up a copy of the Northeast edition of Peterson Field Guide. It has detailed descriptions of what is edible, accompanied by illustrations. Good luck, and enjoy autumn in Rhode Island. It’s unlike anywhere else.