I started up the A-Z trail a few minutes after noon. Shortly I came to the sign indicating the Willard trail, and decided to follow the spur trail of the moment. In my planning, Willard had been an optional peak in case I finished ahead of our rendezvous time. But seeing the sign, I realized I'd never been up Mt Willard, and if I waited until I was tired at the end of the day, I might not bother. Now that I was doing Willard first, I'd have to make sure I kept up a decent pace, and/or give up my planned visit to Mt. Tom. I'd been on Mt Tom at least twice before, so that was all right.
Up the Mt Willard trail I went, puffing a bit under my full pack and pushing hard with my poles to keep my balance on the hard-packed trail. I passed a few people, but my speed wasn't too impressive. I stopped three times, to remove layers (I ended up in just a shirt and still sweating, due to my "breathable" softshell pants) and to put on MicroSpikes. The spikes improved my speed a fair amount, but I was still struggling with my pack's weight. I didn't stop to take any photos along the way, though the trail was beautiful - fresh snow was everywhere, glittering in bright sunshine.
Forty-five minutes later, I was at the end of the trail - close enough to the summit for my purposes. A dozen people were milling around, some talking on cellular phones. I positioned the doll I'd brought with me right on the cliff edge and snapped a few photos. (My child has already bagged a few peaks in utero, but on this trip the doll would have to serve as his/her proxy.)
Back on the A-Z trail I turned uphill again, wondering how much energy I'd have left. Every time I head up the A-Z trail from Crawford Depot, it's steeper and longer than I expect. For a while, though, I had no problems. I kept looking ahead to see if the terrain would get steeper, as I chugged my way up moderate slopes on another perfectly packed trail. I don't think I've gone up this trail in daylight before, so maybe the darkness made it seem longer those other times. Before I knew it, I was at the intersection with the Avalon trail.
On Avalon I took a few photos, then put on a fleece jacket and sat down to brunch. There was a slight breeze which pierced my layers easily enough, but I ignored it as I basked in the sunshine. Eventually a chill in my toes warned me that I'd best start moving again.
Continuing southwestwardly on the Avalon trail, I tried to ignore the burning sensation in my fingers as circulation returned. Apparently that breeze was cooler than I realized. Note to self: wear gloves and a windbreaker during winter lunch breaks.
Soon enough I reached the spur trail to the summit of Mt Field. I considered dropping my pack, but I wanted to bring food and water with me - and also gloves, a hat, and a windbreaker. Besides, I was in training. The exact summit of Field is treed in, but I took one photo of the doll there, dropped my pack and walked back a few paces to photograph the doll in front of some excellent views from the trail.
That was when I heard the soft calling of a grey jay over my shoulder. I took some photos of the jay, then tried to coax the jay close enough to the doll to get both into a photo. No luck. The jay didn't look twice when I held out my hand - usually they'll land on your hand to investigate. Even rustling my empty granola wrappers didn't fool him.
When I grew frustrated I sat on my pack and had a snack. By this time a second jay had arrived, and both became a lot more friendly when I accidentally dropped a couple of crumbs. I stood up and led them back to the viewpoint which had direct sunlight and rime-covered trees, and took a bunch more photos as they investigated me from all angles. I even got the classic "bird in hand" shot. I still couldn't get them to pose near the doll, however. Perhaps they were afraid of it.
It was 4:15 PM; time was starting to run short if I was to make it back to Crawford Depot in time for my 6:00 rendezvous with Smaranda. My shortest path down would be to retrace the Avalon trail, but I decided to take the Willey trail to the Mt Tom spur; if I made good time I'd hike up Mt Tom, otherwise I'd go down directly from there.
I made it to the Mt Tom spur in about half an hour. I could make it a four-peak day if I moved fast. Dropping my pack, I took only my cell phone, my camera, and an extra jacket (with hat and gloves in the pocket) and set out on the last uphill slog of the day.
I was starting to tire, and by the time I was halfway up I regretted not bringing food or water with me. Still, it wasn't far, and at exactly 5:00, having taken the requisite summit photos of the baby doll, I paused on the east-facing ledge which I expected to offer the only cell phone reception near the summit, and called Smaranda to let her know that I expected to arrive at the trailhead on schedule.
Spurred on by increasing hunger and thirst, I reached my pack in a few minutes, only to make a disheartening discovery: the grocery bag holding my lunch had been partially pulled through a small hole in my backpack (where there handn't been a hole before). Opening my pack I saw that the egress of the bag had been halted by the bulk of my remaining sandwich. The corner of the sandwich had been clawed or nibbled, and so had a corner of a Snickers bar, but losses were minimal. A quick check convinced me that no mouse remained inside my backpack (that's happened before). On further reflection, pulling the bag out would indicate something larger than a mouse. Perhaps a bird? A squirrel? There were some vaguely squirrelish tracks nearby: long hops that seemed to start and end at tree trunks, but the tracks were not very clear. In any event, my first priority was to drink some water and to take a few bites from my candy bar.
I was still chewing my first bite when I heard an odd noise - something like a short, shallow snort, or a soft bark. This accompanied a flash of furry motion, and to my surprise I saw a weasel - a pine marten, to be precise - hopping across the trail below me. He circled around at a distance of ten or twenty meters, barking at me, and then hopped away uphill and eastward.
I dropped everything and grabbed my camera from its case. In my excitement it took me three tries to remove the lens cap. I remembered that after taking photos on the sunny ledge I'd left the ISO setting at 100 and the aperture at something like f/18 (no good at all for action shots in the dim light of these thick woods), so I tried to adjust the settings while keeping one eye on the marten. With gloves on, I couldn't manage to change the ISO (even though I usually can), so I left my gloves on top of my pack. Then I walked up the trail to a point near where I'd last seen the marten. My first few steps off the trail brought me within sight again, but the marten bounded away just as my feet started sinking. I followed to a clearing, where a small spruce trap stopped me and allowed the marten to disappear. Without my snowshoes on, I had no chance of getting a photo. I extricated myself from the waist-deep snow and backtracked to the trail, peering disconsolately into the woods as I returned to my pack.
Hold on - what's that on the ground right next to my pack? The clever little bugger had circled back while I was stuck in the snow, and was now inches away from the candy bar I'd left lying on top of my open pack. I took a few shots from where I was, and gradually crept closer. The marten heard me coming, but mostly ignored me. He was busy investigating my pack from all angles, including from ten feet up in nearby trees. The way he could leap up into a tree, travel vertically up or down a trunk and hop horizontally from one tree to the next, would be the stuff of nightmares for tasty sciurids.
In the rapidly fading light, I decided to risk using flash. Frequently the clicking noise of the flash popping up scares animals away, but this marten barely looked over his shoulder. I got about four shots with flash, then discovered that my camera's battery was dead. I changed batteries, cursing my luck. I got a few more shots and then discovered that the CF card was full. I changed cards and kept shooting.
Eventually the marten grabbed the candy bar and hopped away. I followed off-trail a short distance and watched as he tried to bite pieces off the frozen caramel. He eventually decided to eat in private, and skipped further into the woods. I considered putting on snowshoes, but the light was fading further and I was going to be late for my rendezvous with Smaranda. I had spent only ten minutes in the company of the marten, but it was time to go.