Sunday, March 30, 2014

3-29-14 Mt. Jackson 4052' asl.


A winning smile! On pulling into the parking area for the Webster-Jackson Trail I was stunned to see dozens of climbers getting geared up for a day of technical ice and rock climbing on the cliffs above the railroad tracks on the west side of Crawford Notch. These two men look like they have enough gear for the Eiger. Driving through Crawford Notch early Saturday morning I noticed that almost every likely parking place on 302 was filled with cars and climbers were heading up towards the large areas of ice high on both sides of the notch--a remarkable testament of how popular winter sports are becoming. Stopping and talking to some of them I found that they were not all of the younger generation. Some of them, males and females both, were in their 50s, or close. I was impressed.

I was doing a day trip and drove up I-91 from Northampton, MA, north thru Vermont to Littleton, NH, in pouring rain. As I approached Twin Mountain around 8 am the rain stopped and there were signs of clearing. I had three hikes in mind: Carter Dome, Mt. Nancy and Mt. Jackson with the final choice resting on weather and time. The snow banks along the highway made climbing Mt. Nancy an unlikely choice. They were 6-7 feet high and there were no safe places to leave my car. Carter Dome would have required another hour of driving (both ways) and I was already running late. The parking area at the top of Crawford Notch was plowed out and that alone made Mt. Jackson the better choice.

The snow in the woods was 4 feet deep. The trail was broken out but if you stepped off the packed part of the trail you'd "post hole" down to your hip. I chose to avoid all of that by wearing snowshoes. It's a trade off because snowshoes slow you down a bit.

The trail leaves Rt. 302 at the south end of Saco Lake, a small tarn that is considered the source of the west branch of the Saco River that flows south through Crawford Notch to Bartlett, North Conway and on to the Atlantic Ocean in Maine. Saco Lake is fed by several brooks most of them descending from the east, from the large tracts of forest between Mt. Pierce, Mt. Jackon, and Mt. Webster, and collectively named "Silver Cascades".  They are most evident on the east side of highway 302 towards the top of Crawford Notch, but they are represented, too, by non-descript streams that have, over years, cut steep sided, often deep, notch-shaped gullies like this one. The Crawford Path parallels a fluvial stream bed cut deep into the side of the mountain by Gibbs Brook and the Webster-Jackson Trail both parallels and cuts across several streams. Gibbs Brook flows north out of Crawford Notch and joins the Ammonoosuc River 6 miles north in Bretton Woods. The Saco and the Ammonoosuc are two of several important rivers that drain the Whites and the protection of which is one of the key purposes of the White Mountain National Forest.

After the trail leaves Rt. 302 it climbs at a fairly steep grade gaining access to the "bench" that runs north and south above the notch.

It steep in a few sections that are "steps" where it gains altitude quickly...

and passes under and around these huge bulkheads that mark the top of the notch.

At Bugle Cliff the trail eases out having reached a gentler slope.

The view from Bugle Cliff is limited with the exception of this vista to the north that includes a glimpse of the tiny Highland Center.

Looking down on to the train tracks in the Notch and up at Mt. Avalon and the Willey-Field ridge.

Just to the north of Mt. Jackson is the Gibbs Brook Scenic Area and beyond that is the Mt. Clinton Road. Confined in that area, between Mt. Jackson, the Mt. Clinton Road, is an old forest of Red Spruce (Pica rubens) that gets very little attention but offers a wonderful glimpse of what size the spruce achieved before the beginning of the disastrous logging in the White Mountains that began in the late 1870s.

This Red Spruce measured out at 20 inches diameter and there were large ones I couldn't get to due to the deep snow. They are quite elegant and similar, if not a little large that the red spruce I measured in the Mt. Whiteface-Mt. Passaconway natural area back in September.

A red spuce in the rear and a large yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis). Yellow birch grow to 60 feet or a bit higher and with a diameter (DBH--meaning diameter at breast height) of 3 feet under ideal conditions--meaning at lower elevations in stands of other hardwoods, but this was 27 inches DBH.

The relationship between these trees and the rivers talked about earlier is an intrinsic one. The area around Mt. Jackson with borders on the Mt. Clinton Road and Dry River to the south is a vast catchment, like an upraised palm, that "cleans" and funnels water towards the valley below. Rain is one source, but snow, and particularly the depth of this year's "snow pack", is preferable as it admits melt water into the topsoil slowly so that it penetrates deeper. Rain is more apt to form sheet flow that descends the steep mountain flanks so quickly that it doesn't penetrate. The trees and vegetation in general help the soil retain moisture.

The sun finally came out after a slow start. Clouds lingered on the nearby summits after the rain stopped and the day promised to be warm and sunny into late afternoon when a trailing weather front  bringing snow and rain was forecast.

The brook bed for one of the streams comprising the "Silver Cascades".

The amount of snow that has accumulated this winter has been astonishing.

It gave the impression that everything was smothered by it.

A ghost.

Halfway, or roughly.

Looking over towards Mt. Willey and sensing a pleasing gain in altitude.

The prevalence of smaller trees also lends to the feeling of higher altitude.

A little above halfway I was passed by this handsome lot who were traveling light and without snowshoes proving that it could be done.

And by the way, Mt Jackson is not named for President Andrew Jackson. Even though the mountain is located on the "Southern Presidential" ridge it is not really one of them. It was named after Charles Thomas Jackson, New Hampshire State Geologist 1841-1844 who published a paper, "On the Geologic Age of the White Mountains" in 1848 and who was controversially involved in several far flung scientific projects including the development of the telegraph, the use of diethyl ether as anaesthesia, as well as being prominent in the field of geology.  And Charles T. Jackson should not be confused with Charles H. Hitchcock (as I often do) who served as State Geologist and authored the three volume "The Geology of New Hampshire". Charles H. Hitchcock's imprint on New Hampshire geology is huge. ( I've always thought that Mt. Hitchcock, a trail-less peak with three summits, the highest at 3620', located in the southern tier of the Pemi was named after Charles Hitchcock but I am not sure of this.)

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More stunning morning sunlight

and shadows on the trail.

Two red spruce cones (with seeds attached) wait patiently for their futures to unfold. They may be hoping for a spectacular ride down the mountain perhaps even connecting with a brook to carry them down and beyond this mountain flank as they surf on the crest of the spring thaw (if there is one!). They will probably remain close to where I photographed them. The transport of seeds is fascinating because it's quite random and most do not travel far from their "parent" trees. Red spruce cones are gourmet items for red squirrels who eat vast quantities which is another way the seeds get transported but mostly in their immediate neighborhoods.
The summit of Mt. Jackson. It's a typical White Mountain summit produced by ledges of granite

that get steep just below the top.

Looking west-north-west towards the Willey-Field-Tom ridge and other peaks to the northwest. Mt. Willard where some of the ice climbing is going on is in the right center of the photo.

Lovely Mt. Carrigain in the right distance.

The Willey and Field ridge again with Mt. Bond to the left on the horizon. Mt. Webster is in the near distance, but dark. Shooting into the sun darkened the foreground.

Northwest, again, and in the far left background Mt. Lafayette with snow gleaming.

Mt. Clinton in the center with Mizpah Hut down to the left and barely visible. The Southern Presidentials extend from Mt Clinton (not a president) up to Mt. Washington from Mt. Clinton over Mts. Pierce, Eisenhower, Franklin, and Monroe.

Mt. Washington!

These folks again. They celebrated their first 4,000 footer after their successful hike up Mt. Jackson.

Another group approaches the summit.

Then there's that wonderful feeling of moving quickly down.

These guys were sweating. It was well into the high 30s (Fahrenheit) and calm so it turned out to be a spring-like day. These gentlemen hailed from Hillsborough, NH,

and were joined by a third Hillsborough resident.
Heading down in the early afternoon.

And a change of light, too, as clouds gather in front of another storm system predicted to start tonight and dump more snow on the mountains.

On my way home I saw several strings of Canada geese flying north.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

2-15 & 16-14 Northern Peaks and Gale River Research Site

Sunday (2-15-14) the morning report from the Mt. Washington Weather Observatory (the "Obs") was not a surprise. In fact, it felt more like the norm for this winter. The wind was gusting to 70 mph with some gusts jumping to 100 mph and the windchill was -58 degrees (F) . It was my second day in the mountains after a long absence and I had already been planning a hike up to the Madison-Adams col. The conditions were not at all favorable to a hike above treeline and I told myself I would go up only as high as was "safe" and reasonable. It was not a great hiking day. The photo doesn't do justice to the amount of "spin drift" in the air, or the intensity of the wind and cold. I'd spent Saturday night with Betty and Guy Gosselin in Gorham who, between them, have 40 years experience working for and at the Obs, Betty as a member of the board of directors and Guy as Chief Weather Observer for 27years. So, their combined wisdom is not lost on me and Guy, with a quizzical look, questioned my sanity in even having the desire to hike on a day like Sunday.

But I did hike up for a bit and it was breezy. Late Saturday afternoon, as I drove by, there were 11 cars in the parking lot at the Valley Way trail head and 9 were still there Sunday morning so there was a large number of people staying at Crag Camp and Grey Knob, but no one on the trail heading up Sunday. I hiked up to the Scar Trail and then a little way up that, to about 3500 ft., where I was fully able to "feel" and listen to the roar of the wind and stand in the swirling serpents of spin drift careening through the balsams.

Mt. Washington has a reputation of having the "worst" weather in the world based on extreme wind velocities measured at the summit weather station including one that was more than 230 mph and ambient temperatures, not windchill, as low as -49 degrees (F), but "wild" and "beautiful" are also suitable descriptions. I was experiencing both as I tentatively climbed on Sunday. It was invigorating. It is instructive to be "out in the storm" as long as the risks are weighed. The strength and sound of the wind was daunting as it roared around me plucking furiously at everything, exploding the snow caps crouching on balsam boughs and sending the snow flying. around me. Feeling how distant that experience was from what one experiences on a late August afternoon as one hikes down from the high peaks in a soft, summer twilight, but how equally beautiful.
 
On Saturday I skied and hiked up to my research site on the Gale River Trail located just off the trail and on the track of the 1954 landslide that came down during Hurricane Diana. "Research Site" is a bit too elegant a description as it's merely a place where I carefully observe and take yearly measurements of soil development and track vegetative succession (production) in the hope of capturing a succint measure of the biomass in five study plots. It's a good site for these activities because we have a specific time and date (1:30 pm on August 28, 1954) of when the slide came down off Mt. Garfield into the Gale River and completely denuding several acres of the forest right down to the glacial till.

Dick Goldthwait, one of the eminent White Mountain geologist, took a team to Glacier Bay in Alaska back in the mid-1960s, to thoroughly study soil development and forest succession where glaciers had melted back leaving bare soil. Goldthwait's results inspired me to do similar studies in the Whites to compare results and create models for local soil development in the post-Wisconsinan period--the time since the Wisconsinan ice sheet melted.

The two local lads in the photo above were gearing up for a day trip up Mt. Garfield. Note the dog's head sticking out of the coat. I liked the idea of the sleds. They were enthusiastic about using them in the descent phase of the hike and I pictured them careening down the north side of Garfield in the deep powder snow after their strenuous ascent.

I chose my Kazamas instead of a sled and was delighted that the long slog up the Gale River road to the trail head only took a few minutes compared to the usual 45 minute hike. On the way out it took me just 10 minutes from trail to car! (mostly because it's downhill.)

Federal budgeting in action: the new trail signs. Magic markers are cheap!

There was, on average, 24.8 inches of fresh new powder snow along the first two miles. When I set out on the trail I was gleeful that someone had gone before me and packed in out but their tracks came to an abrupt end in half a mile and I was on my own. The snow, even with snowshoes, came up to just below my knees, but it was light stuff.

Winter offers kind of an x-ray of the forest; the ability to see things that are not apparent during the months of full foliage. For the first mile, or so, the woods on either side of the trail look worse for wear and under nourished. The slope here is almost nil; flat, and dry, but the top soil is also nil. This piece was logged in the early 1960s and has not fully recovered.

Disease is also taking a toll. Beech Bark Disease (BBD) is killing this beech tree and other beech near by are as fully infected.

Not much farther up slope the picture isn't quite as gloomy and the mixed growth areas appear to have more vitality.

The forest even further up slope, where it becomes more diverse (species wise), improves in health.

A moose sauntered across the trail.


General health of the forest can be glimpsed by the height and vitality of the over story both in winter and summer. In winter it's easier to find dead wood high up and in the summer a good measuring stick is the density of the leaf canopy. In this section of the trail, half way between the trail head and first crossing, the canopy density is about 60 percent. Acid rain, in its peak years, caused a general decline in the leaf canopy of White Mountain hardwoods and the hope it that forest vitality is bouncing back. Even though there is still acidic precipitation the acid content has declined.

Damp areas where the trail curves back over towards the Gale River make the trail swampy and produce areas like this of higher concentrations of conifers like these spruce and hemlock.

Just below first crossing, a few miles above the trail head. Snow depth here was 27.5 inches.

A tiny critter made tracks here where it crossed the trail successfully at least once, but

on a second trip was caught by a flying predator, most likely an owl.
An escape tunnel for wee critters.

And another moose, or the same moose from below making a second pass.

In 1961 this was a lovely glade, about an acre in size, and possibly the site of a small logging camp a decade earlier. It was flat and clear except for some tall mountain asters and in the late afternoons as I packed supplies up to Galehead Hut I would say I was at the "half way" point. With the late afternoon sun shafting through it it reminded me of Yeat's "bee loud glade".

Section of the trail just below the slide and the research area where there is a high frequency of blow downs that doesn't seem to be coincidence and might be caused by thin soil over ledge and an areas where the topography exposes the site to the wind.
Two deer, possibly a mum with a fawn,  had come up from the river bed and continued lazily up through study plot #2. The river was completely frozen over and covered with a deep blanket of snow that was laced with animals of all shapes and sizes and, judging by the numbers the tracks, were using it as a highway .

I try not to disturb the study plots and do a cursory look from a few vantage points to see if there have been disturbances from other sources; storms, etc. My measurements consists of soil depths, tree diameters (DBH) and leaf litter. On this trip I was mainly interested in snow depth and the general condition of the plots. All was well.

Second crossing of the Gale River. I think the stillness is portrayed here. The only sounds I heard all day were of ravens, crows, grouse and juncos calling out now and then--the ravens particularly. For as long as I can remember, back to the 1950s, there have been raven in a number of places in the White Mountains: Mt. J. Q. Adams, Mt. Lafayette (or more precisely the morth peak of Mt. Lafayette, and here along the Gale River. I imagined that the ravens along the Gale nested either high up on slope between North and South Twin, or on the cliffs high on Mt. Garfield.


Heading out and retracing my steps.