Saturday, December 20, 2008

Andrew Riely, author of "The Big Wind" (printed below)

This is Andrew Riely introduced to readers back in July who is generously sharing a brilliant paper with us on the unique weather that mythologizes the White Mountains. Andrew is an exceptional naturalist and has been working in that capacity in the mountains for several summers as well as simultaneously serving on croo at several of the AMC huts. Andrew is still at university and this paper is part of his course work. Thanks, Andrew!
The Big Wind
Andrew Riely


At 4 AM on April 11, 1934, Wendell Stephenson awoke in the Mount Washington Weather Observatory to the sound of the wind ferociously gusting against the side of the building. Perched on top of New England’s highest peak, the observatory was only two years old, and several other buildings on the summit had collapsed under the weather’s beating. The clear weather of the previous afternoon had been superseded by fog, with up to a foot of rime ice forming on some of the summit buildings. The evening’s top wind speed was 136 mph, and Stephenson could tell by the wind’s shrieking that the gale was now blowing harder. His anemometer only read 105 mph, however, so he knew that ice was impeding it ( recordwind.php).

Stephenson pulled on his cold weather gear and headed up to the observation deck with a wooden club for clearing ice. Knocked to the ground by the wind when he opened the door, he nonetheless forced his way to the ladder, atop which the anemometer perched. Luckily, the wind blew him against the ladder as he struggled to de-ice the anemometer. After dozens of blows, it was free. Stephenson dropped the club, which blew away out of sight in the fog.

Back inside the observatory, he resumed his measurements, which in those days involved timing the number of clicks from a telegraph sounder attached to the anemometer, then adjusting for error with a corrections chart (Ibid). The wind now topped 150 mph. As the day wore on, conditions intensified. Between noon and 1:00 PM, wind speed exceeded 220 mph. Finally, at 1:21 PM, the top gust of 231 mph was recorded—the highest surface wind value ever officially recorded, anywhere in the world.

The storm then receded, stubbornly but surely. The press and scientists were astonished when they heard the news, and the anemometer, which was specially designed for Mt. Washington, was brought to Cambridge, Massachusetts for testing in a wind tunnel. The MIT laboratory confirmed its accuracy.

Why, then, on a relatively small mountain of 6,288 feet, did the strongest wind ever recorded take place? This paper will explore and explain the meteorological and geographical dynamics that led to this remarkable storm, and it will subsequently detail how such intense winds affect the geoecology of the White Mountains.


Mt. Washington is the tallest mountain in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, themselves a range of the Appalachian Mountains that lie within New Hampshire. In addition to its wild weather, it is known for its alpine zone, which starts at a surprisingly low elevation (around 4,500 feet) for the latitude (44 degrees north). According to the criteria proposed by Larry Price in his textbook Mountains and Man, Mt. Washington only barely qualifies as a high mountain landscape (Price, 17, 1991). It displays a few features peculiar to glaciated landscapes—a couple of arĂȘtes and cirques—has a few soil stripes and felsenmeer, which are rocks shattered by frost action, and undergoes mass wasting events such as rockfalls and debris flows in its steeper ravines. Despite New Hampshire’s nickname as “The Granite State,” the Presidential Range is actually composed of metamorphic gneisses and schists.

Darby Field first climbed the peak in 1642, only 22 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Mt. Washington’s proximity to the megalopolis has nurtured a substantial tourism industry around the mountain. By the mid-nineteenth century, a hotel stood on the summit, and an auto road, originally built for horses, and a cog railway, the first mountain-climbing variety of its kind, opened in the 1860s. These structures, particularly the former, made the summit accessible and easily supplied, allowing scientists as well as service-industry workers to maintain permanent residence on the summit, from which they could pursue botanical and meteorological studies. The US Signal Service, a predecessor of the National Weather Service, maintained a station on the peak from 1870-1892, but forty years passed before the Mount Washington Observatory was established.

General Weather Conditions

In New England, as in all but the most southerly parts of the United States, prevailing winds blow from the west. Heating at the equator causes air to rise through convection, and the air moves northward until it sinks back to the surface at 30 degrees north. Another zone of movement called the Ferrel cell flows in the opposite direction—air rises at 60 degrees north and moves to thirty degrees north, where it sinks. Along with the coriolis effect, Ferrel cells are responsible for the westerly flow of air across the United States, which partially govern the movement of storm tracks across the country. Low pressure systems are also influenced by the Icelandic Low, an area of consistent low pressure just northeast of New England (Zielinski & Keim, 58, 2005). Nine of the country’s twelve major storm tracks consequently exit the continental US through New England as they move toward this area of low pressure (which is also why the region is especially vulnerable to air pollution). Some observers have nicknamed New England the “tailpipe” of the country (Ibid).

Though the White Mountains are small on a global scale, they are the largest mountains east of the Rockies. The Adirondacks and Green Mountains are the only significant mountain ranges between the Whites and the Rockies, and only two peaks in these smaller ranges exceed 5,000 feet. Mountains generally experience strong winds since they extend high up into the atmosphere. At altitude, air slows less from friction, and it is funneled vertically between ridges and the lower reaches of the atmosphere, forcing it to speed up to pass through the narrower space. In the White Mountains, weather systems are particularly severe because they have sailed across the continent free of obstacles for more than two thousand miles. Thus the Whites, which are aligned roughly perpendicular to west winds, bear the brunt of instability and moisture associated with low pressure systems moving toward the Icelandic Low.

Consequently, harsh weather is normal in the White Mountains. Additionally, westerly flow across the US can be zonal, which moves high and low pressure systems steadily and slowly, or meridional, when the transition between high and low pressure systems is much quicker and more violent (Zielinski & Keim, 24). Though he was unaware of the causes, Mark Twain was referring to meridional flow when he quipped, “If you don’t like New England weather, wait a minute.”

Seasonal disparities in the New England climate are substantial, for wind as well as temperature. Mt. Washington’s most gentle winds occur in August, when they average 25.1 mph; in January, the mean is 46.3 mph ( normals.php). In the winter, the margin of the Polar Cell, which borders the Ferrel Cell to the north, moves south. Its edge, known as the Polar Front or jet stream, intensifies storms, exacerbating winter winds (Zielinski & Keim, 25).

In sum, meridional flow of weather systems can create extremely variable and severe weather around Mt. Washington, particularly in the winter, although wind speed has exceeded 100 mph in every month of the year.

The Big Wind continues......

April 11, 1934 Weather Map of Northeastern US and the Maritimes

Image courtesy

Conditions across the northeast were ripe for strong winds around April 12, 1934, even without taking local topography into account. On April 11, an area of low pressure was moving across Lake Erie. By the next day, it split into two, with its one low remaining in the Great Lakes Region, while a second centered over Long Island. Meanwhile, as is typical during meridional flow in the region, an area of high pressure sat over Nova Scotia, just to the northeast of New Hampshire. The areas of high and low pressure were so close together that they created a dramatic pressure gradient, which is what makes air move as wind. The greater the pressure gradient, the more quickly air moves from high to low pressure and the faster the wind blows (Clark, 2008).

April 12, 1934 Weather Map of Northeastern US and Maritimes

Image courtesy

On April 12, the wind actually blew from the southeast—an unusual direction for Mt. Washington, given the westerlies that dominate the region’s climates. However, a southeasterly wind adds another effect to the region’s cauldron of wind-accelerating phenomena. The land between Mt. Washington and the coast to its southeast, about sixty miles away, is flat until it reaches the Conway region, where the White Mountains form the Mt. Washington Valley, which extends north and passes just to the east of Mt. Washington. A southeast wind, then, faced no obstructions from the coast to the mountains until the Mt. Washington Valley began funneling it, increasing wind speed as air molecules sped up to escape the constraints of the valley wall.

The southeast wind was thus particularly strong due to its unusual interaction with the topography on that side of the mountain. West winds on Mt. Washington, no matter how strong they may be, are not funneled horizontally because the terrain to the west of the mountain is relatively flat, so is very unlikely that they could ever reach such a high speed. The Big Wind happened as a consequence of local topography exacerbating longterm meteorological effects associated with mountains and the middle latitudes.

Geomorphological Effects

Such persistent weather trends and their resulting harsh climate have dramatically influenced the geoecology of the Presidential Range. One of Mt. Washington’s most striking features, especially for such a relatively small mountain, are the prominent glacial cirques on its eastern face. The two largest and most famous are Tuckerman and Huntington ravines, famous in the northeastern United States as backcountry skiing and ice climbing meccas. They are named for a pioneering botanist and surveyor who were active on the mountain’s flanks. While Huntington Ravine is far rockier and has a sheer interior face, both have the classic U-shape of glacial cirques. Worn down by the thrust and weight of alpine glaciers that flowed off the main ridge during a succession of ice ages, they adjoin onto the wider Mt. Washington Valley running north to south, which culminates at Pinkham Notch (notch is New Hampshire vernacular for a glacial valley). Here, a massive continental glacier carved another U-shaped valley through a weak spot in the topography as it slowly moved south.

Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines on Mt. Washington

Image courtesy

Curiously, the western side of Mt. Washington is devoid of glacial cirques. In fact, it has noticeably less developed topography, with nearly all the runoff from the mountain’s alpine zone draining off into Ammonoosuc Ravine, a massive V-shaped valley that plunges several thousand feet to the foot of the mountain. Its shape stands in dramatic contrast to the cirques on the mountain’s opposite side.

The discrepancy is caused by the prevailing western wind in the middle latitudes, which dramatically affects snow accumulation in the region. The White Mountains are very wet. New England’s climate is generally humid, and like all mountains, the Whites block clouds as well as wind, leading to a regional orographic precipitation effect in which water vapor cools as it moves up mountainsides, eventually forming droplets of rain when its temperature reaches the dew point. The mean annual precipitation observed on Mt. Washington (averaged between 1971 and 2000) is just shy of 102 inches per year ( The average temperature atop the peak is 27.2 degrees Fahrenheit, so precipitation on the summit falls as snow rather than rain for more than half the year. In fact, the record snowfall for one season is an astonishing 566.4 inches, in the winter of 1968-69 (snowfall’s liquid equivalent is used to calculate annual means and for comparisons with the summer months).

With such prodigious snowfall, one might expect to find large accumulations of snow on Mt. Washington’s heights, and indeed, where sheltered, deep drifts do form. In general, however, the west wind is so strong that it blows the snow off the ridges into its eastern ravines, where an enormous amount of powder builds up. Snow is so deep in Tuckerman Ravine that it often does not completely melt until August, two months after the last of the snow has disappeared from the rest of the mountain. By April, however, it is packed with skiers, for whom “Tucks” has the best backcountry skiing in the region. The glaciers that once filled the cirques grew as a result of the wind’s scouring the ridges, as well. While the eastern ravines were originally shaped like Vs due to erosion from runoff, glaciers formed in them during ice ages because windblown snow accumulated to such a depth that the pressure at their base was strong enough to turn snow into firn and firn into ice. This process continued feeding the glacier, which dug out and enlarged the ravine into a cirque until temperatures rose high enough that ablation exceeded accumulation. The last episode of glaciation ended about 13,000 years ago, towards the end of the Pleistocene (Slack & Bell, 17, 1995).

Ammonoosuc Ravine, on the western side of Mt. Washington, maintained its V-shape because it was never subject to glacial erosion. Relatively little snow built up in its confines, so liquid runoff continued to be the main agent of erosion. Winds on the mountain are usually highest there, however, so the region is fully exposed and notorious among hikers as a setting for death due to hypothermia.

Ecological Effects

The quantity and variety of wind’s effects on the flora and fauna of the Presidential Range is enormous. No book, let alone a paper, could enumerate all the strategies plants employ to gain shelter from the wind and retain heat. But in describing how wind has helped create an alpine zone on Mt. Washington, a few of these techniques come to light.

Treeline is influenced by many factors, not all of which are climatic. Wind, temperature, and precipitation are usually primary causes, however, particularly in alpine environments. On Mt. Washington, wind can be so strong that it strips a tree from the ground, tearing up its root system, or shears off its needles so that the tree can no longer photosynthesize. In the krummholz (the word comes from German, meaning twisted wood), the mountainside belt just below treeline, spruce and fir trees are gnarled and stunted by the wind. Winter winds often carry ice fragments, which scour the branches, particularly on the windward side of the tree. If the wind is steady, the conifers lose all the needles on one side, giving them a flaglike appearance, or, if the lead branches survive while most other branches die, the tree will eventually resemble a broomstick

Flagged trees on Mt. Bond, west of Mt. Washington

Photo courtesy of the author

In and of themselves, low temperatures do not necessarily threaten conifers, but they do injure plants by increasing rime ice buildup. On cold days when the air is full of moisture, water droplets in fog freeze directly onto plants, rocks, and manmade structures, forming beautiful and feathery ice sculptures—rime. Directed by wind, rime ice tends to build up on the windward side of trees, exacerbating needle loss by providing a brittle and broad surface for the wind to blow against.
On Mt. Washington, winter winds are so strong and rime ice is so common that almost all exposed plants perish. A few trees, including Balsam Fir, Black Spruce, and Paper Birch survive by growing horizontally rather than vertically, forming thick mats that are extremely difficult to penetrate, for humans or competitors. These small tree communities are very flexible, which protects them from summer winds, and they are also so low that snow covers them completely in the winter. Thus the wind never scours them, nor can rime ice freeze to their needles (in the case of the conifers), which would prevent them from beginning photosynthesis as soon as the snow melts and the growing season begins. Determining average winter snow accumulation around these communities is easy, even in the summer, because the trees can only grow as high as the snow cover.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Diapensia Lapponica at 5,000 ft in the Franconia Range, west of Mt. Washington

Image courtesy
One plant, Diapensia, develops such a mimimalist strategy even further. Diapensia’s tiny evergreen leaves grow so tightly together that they insulate the plant’s interior from the frigid outside. The entire plant resembles a pincushion, and while it rarely grows higher than six inches, allowing the wind to flow over it with a minimum of disturbance, it can spread out for several feet. Consequently, Diapensia grows in the most exposed areas of the alpine zone on Mt. Washington, often occupying ridgelines where few other plants can survive (Slack & Bell, 65, 1995).


Thus the plant communities as well as the physical structure of Mt. Washington are profoundly influenced by the remarkably strong winds in the area, of which the Big Wind was only the most extreme example. Wind is not the only factor influencing the Presidential Range—temperature, precipitation, sunlight levels, and humans are other important determinants—but it is perhaps the most dramatic feature of this region. Without it, the tourist industry on Mt. Washington could hardly market its destination as having “The Worst Weather in the World” (Lemonick, 2007).


Clark, Brian. (2008) “The Big Wind.”
Lemonick, Michael. (2007) “The Worst Weather in the World.” Time Magazine, February 15.
Marchand, Peter J. (1987) North Woods. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books.
Price, Larry W. (1991) Mountains and Man: A Study of Process and Environment. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Slack, Nancy G. & Allison W. Bell. (1995) Field Guide to the New England Alpine Summits. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books.
Waterman, Guy & Laura. (1989) Forest and Crag. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books.
Zielinski, (2005) Gregory and Barry Keim. New England Weather, New England Climate.
University Press of New England.

Alexander "Mac" Mckenzie (left) and Robert "Gramps" Monahan (right), Pinkham Notch, June 1984

I'm slipping this photo in with Andrew's article on weather in the Whites and his account of the Highest Wind Velocity ever recorded on the planet. These two world famous characters (and they were definitely characters!) in the photo were member of the Observatory crew in 1934 and were both founders of the 'new' observatory in 1932 along with Joe Dodge and Sal Pagliuca. Alex, or "Mac" as he was called, was at the Observatory the day the World Record gust of 231 mph made history. This photo was taken in June 1984 at Pinkham Notch as members of the Observatory celebrated the 50th anniversary of the event. Robert, or "Gramps" as he was called, wrote the classic Mt. Washington Reoccupied, published in 1933, which describes in great detail the first year at the Mt. Washington Observatory. The word 'Reoccupied' in the title accounts for the fact that in 1870-1871 a weather observatory was opened on the summit by Professor Charles Hitchcock, then State Geologist for the state of New Hampshire and his assistant, J. H. Huntington.

Mt. Washington and Mt. Jefferson (right) from Mt. Adams, 2008

Andrew Reily’s paper on The Big Wind (above) got me thinking about the complex theories about glaciation in the White Mountains: ways glaciers, over millions of years, have impacted the present day natural history of the White Mountain. So I want to use this picture from Mt. Adams that I took a few weeks ago to begin an exploration of glaciers and the whole bit about glaciation. There are two major things I want you to imagine with me using this photo. One of them, perhaps the easier one, is to imagine you're standing on top of Mt. Adams and looking down into the Great Gulf, Jefferson's Ravine (partially hidden there on the right), and an unseen basin, or small glacial cirque hidden behind that ridge of Mt. Jeffersons in the photo's center. We refer to that as Jefferson's Knee. Now imagine it's 140,000 years ago. Now, Adams would probably be much higher, by a thousand feet or more, but let's say the scene is similar to the one in the photo. What you would see is a fairly large glacial system, an Alpine Glacier, like you would see on Mont Blanc, or Annapurna. It would fill the Gulf half way and have tributaries coming out of Jefferson Ravine and that nook below Sphinx Col. There would be a bergschrund and crevasses in the upper parts of the glacier, the "accumulation zone". There would be rocks and debris on top of the glacier from landslides coming off the side walls. So, yes, an extensive glacier that flows down and out to the valley below.

So that's one bit of imaging. The other is a bit more dramatic, I think. In the photo my eye level is about 5805 feet above sea level and we’re looking across the Great Gulf at Mt. Jefferson on the right and Mt. Washington straight ahead and due south. Mt. Washington is 6288 feet above sea level so it’s 483 higher than my present eye level. So, imagine that instead of standing on the highest rock on the summit of Adams gazing up at the summit of Mt. Washington we’re actually standing 800 feet above Mt. Adams and on an immense ice field extending to the horizon in every direction. No mountains are in view, just ice, snow and crevasses as far as the eye can see.
That would be 20,000 to 115,000 years ago when the last continental glacier, the Wisconsinan, was here in the Whites. (cont.)

Tuckerman Ravine one of the better known glacial cirques on Mt. Washington, NH.

Can you imagine that? I have a hard time picturing a vast continental ice sheet more than a mile thick covering the White Mountains, but, of course, all the evidence says at least four continental-sized glaciers covered this region over an enormous span of time. And, to make things even a bit more more complicated, during the thousands of years between these continental glaciers there were smaller, alpine glaciers on the higher peaks of the Presidential Range and possibly on Mt. Moosilauke as well. According to accepted theory small, alpine glaciers that existed more than 100,000 years ago began carving out the cirques. Tuckerman Ravine, in the photos above, is the more famous of the glacial cirques in the White Mountains and the eastern US. Part of it's fame is that it looks like a glacial cirque is suppose to look, the characteristic 'bowl' shape and the enormous volume of snow that fills the bowl every year and lingers until the mid-summer months. It's relatively easy to picture a glacier spilling out of the Ravine and down over the Little Headwall in the foreground of the top picture and 'flowing' down the mountain.

The high snowfall winters of 1968-69 (the total snow accumulation of the 1968-1969 winter is still the record), and 1995-96, and 1999-2000 with near record snow accumulation, each filled Tucks almost to the point where snow lingered around the seasons. Unfortunately (for those of us who would like to have a glacier on Mt. Washington), it would take many record breaking winters back to back to produce glacial ice. Tuckerman is one of four or five of the cirques in the Presidentials that for the past 80 years, or so, are enjoyed each spring by thousands of skiers and snow boarders who hike up and ski every inch of the terrain even the vertical and near vertical chutes and drops. If you click on the bottom picture to magnify it you will see a thin black line of skiers hiking up in the very center of the photo. They're heading up over the 'Lip', a nearly vertical area of the face, and, from there, some will continue to the upper snowfields.

The enormous continental glaciers arching across the top third of the northern hemisphere of Earth for those millions of year were formed by countless billions of cubic feet, or cubic miles, of snow. With their point of origin being in the topmost arctic regions the continental glaciers were energized by the downward pressure of the snow, or by gravity in other words. The snow, as it accumulated, sublimated into ice under the pressure and settled to the lower two thirds of the glacier adding enormous weight but also a plasticity. This ice layer is compared to silly putty in texture and tensile strength/flexibility. With the enormous volume and weight the glacier came to life and began oozing outward and down towards the equator. Glaciers move by continuous pressure at the “top” of the glacier in the snow accumulation zone. The front of the glacier is being pushed by gravity from behind and being “pulled” outwards by gravity to a lesser extent.At the front of the glacier, the terminus, the process of ablation is a limiting factor. This process includes all the factors that decrease the forward movement and volume of the glacier including melting and evaporation, calving (when the glacier ends in a body of water), sublimation, run off and downwasting which is the thinning of the glacier.

The northwestern slope of the Presidential Range with Mt. Jefferson (left) and Mt. Washington (right)

The last continental glacier, the Wisconsinan, beginning roughly 110,000 years ago moved very slowly over the White Mountains and south across most of New England on a south by south east course as far as Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The Cape and the islands, built mostly of sand, represent the terminal moraine of the Wisconsinan glacier. In the photo above you see the northwest 'flank' of the northern Presidentials, with Mts. Jefferson, Clay and Washington, as it looks today. You can visualize the impact of the Wisconsinan glacier at this point where the immense ice sheet met the rock. In this case the rock in the Presidential Range is a hard, metamorphic mica schist of the Littleton Formation. As the glacier “felt” the resistance of this rock it was able to push up over it lubricated with water melted out of the glacier by the enormous pressure of the ice crushing against the hard mica schist. I often try to picture the ice pushing slowly up this ridge and am filled with curiousity what it would have been like to watch it all in person. It’s very likely the White Mountains, in general, looked a lot different then today, in their 'youth', 500,000 to 1,000,000 years ago, and it would have been neat to see them then, too. If we only had a time machine.

Because of fluctuations in the climate and a gradual warming the glacier began to retreat through “ablation”, or, in other words, a process of melting, probably 15,000 years ago. This ablation process may have been interrupted periodically by short local and global shifts to colder climates during which the glacier may have re-advanced slightly or remained stationary. In other words the downwasting of the glacier was probably static, but it’s safe to say it had completely melted back from the White Mountains by roughly 11,000 years before the present, (BP)

Great Gulf on Mt. Washington, NH, from Jefferson's Knee, September 2006

As a rookie naturalist in the early 1960’s I carried in my pack dog eared copies of The Geology of the Presidential Range published in 1940 by Richard Goldthwait, and another text by Marland Billings and Katherine Fowler-Billings, titled The Geology of the Mt. Washington Quadrangle published in 1946. These contained the cutting edge theories about both the geology and the glacial history of the White Mountains. These three geologists often worked as a team and were regular visitors at the high huts, Lakes and Madison, and at the Mt. Washington Observatory (The Obs). where we could sit down with them and enjoy lengthy conversations about geology and glaciers.

The Goldthwait-Billings theory (I will call it) is this: before the inundation by the Wisconsinan continental ice sheet there were nine small, local, alpine glaciers on the Presidential Range. This is more than 110,000 years ago when the White Mountains may have looked much different than they do now. In a discussion with Marland Billings at the Mt. Washington Observatory in the early 1960’s he asked us to imagine that the 'youthful' White Mountains, back 500,000 years ago, may have been as high as, or higher, than the Alps of current day France, Italy and Switzerland. He thrilled us with the image of Mt. Moosilauke being 18,000 feet high, or higher.

If you’re interested in the glacial period in the White Mountains I recommend reading Richard Goldthwait’s Mountain Glaciers of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire published in 1970 in Arctic and Alpine Research, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1970, pp. 85-102. It’s also available on the web. This is a published text of his 1968 address to the International Symposium on Antarctic Glaciological Exploration held at Dartmouth College that I was fortunate to attend. Another paper available on the web is The History of Research on Glaciation in the White Mountains, New Hampshire (USA) by Woodrow B. Thompson (1999) which is a brilliant summing up of how this complex puzzle gradually came together along with short biographies of all the characters that played a role in solving it over the past 200 years, or so.

An interesting note about this photo is that it was taken from a spur of Mt. Jefferson called Jefferson's Knee, a sharp ridge that abruptly separates the Great Gulf from Jefferson Ravine.
The picture is taken from just below a flat area on the Knee that has an uncharacteristically deep, loamy topsoil in select locations indicating low levels of disturbance, climate protection, sunlight, and a consistent supply of water. It is one of a few 'islands' of similar micro-environments in the alpine zone of the Presidential Range. Mt. Jefferson itself is interesting as it is the most western peak in the range and bears the brunt of the prevailing northwesterly winds. Some observers have attributed a Venturi-like effect in speeding up winds that blast Mt. Washington .

Edmunds Col viewed from Mt. Jefferson (top photo) and from the Gulf Side Trail north of the Col (bottom photo)

These photos of Edmunds Col show evidence of the continental Wisconsinan glacier as it came up and over the north slope of the Presidential Range and then spilled down into Jefferson Ravine and the Great Gulf. In both photos what stands out the most is the 'Roche Moutonees', the large rock formations that have been 'carved' smooth on the side towards the direction the ice came from and broken off, or rough, on the side in the direction in which the ice flowed 'departed' so to speak. Richard Goldthwait theorized that the continental ice sheet flowed over this landmark after smaller, alpine glaciers had already carved out the lower cirques on the mountains. He also observed that Edmunds Col could be what is left of arĂȘte, a serrated knife edge that you see in the alps and elsewhere that are crossed by sitting down and straddling them (e.g. the knife edge of Mt. Katahdin) and that form between glacial basins, but that would have been when the White Mountains were much younger and possibly much higher.

Goldthwait has detailed 9 definite cirques and 3 small rock basins formed by these local glaciers which he concluded had a maximum length of up to 8 miles long at times and radiated out from the peaks towards the north west, north, east and southeast. Goldthwait’s nine cirques are what are now named Oakes Gulf, Gulf of Slides, Tuckerman’s Ravine, Huntington’s Ravine (see Andrew Reily’s paper above), Great Gulf including Jefferson’s Ravine (see below), Madison Gulf, King’s Ravine, and Ravine of the Castles. To these he added three steep sided cirque-like rock basins.

Jefferson Ravine Headwall with Goldthwait's schrund line and the Ravine downslope showing absence of terminal moraine

These two photos taken in 2007 show Jefferson Ravine, one of the nine cirques included by Goldthwait in his theory of local and continental glaciation in the White Mountains. The schrund (black) line is where Goldthwait's placed the upper limit of the alpine glacier that existed in Jefferson Ravine prior to the inundation by the Wisconsinan ice sheet. Goldthwait described the glacier in Jefferson Ravine as a tributary of the local glacier in Great Gulf and that also incorporated another small glacier that formed in a small cirque below Spinx Col. This compound glacier curved down and out to the lower valley in the back ground of this photo before curving again towards the North (left in the photo). The Goldthwaits estimated this glacier to be eight miles long at times; the longest of the Presidential Range glaciers.

The notable controversy in the discussion is whether the cirques were formed before the Wisconsinan epoch or afterwards. Billings and Goldthwait concluded that there was a major period of local glaciation before the continental ice inundated the White Mountains. Their conclusion is based on several observations including (1) the absence of terminal moraines. A more technical and much more controversial note (2) is the question of “drift’. Drift is a general term for the rock debris left by the glaciers and Goldthwait (and other geologists) carefully cataloged drift found in the cirques on the northern slope, in king’s Ravine for instance, and determined that it came from a few miles north of the mountains and was deposited there by the Wisconsinan ice sheet after local glaciation ceased. Goldthwait (1970) makes several more points in his argument for the theory that the local glaciers created the alpine cirques before the arrival of last continental ice sheet that you can read in his paper. I won’t include them here.

Mt. Cardigan, NH, summit ledges polished and weathered with soil forming in fissures in the solid rock

There are several other puzzles to solve that aren’t so much about the glaciers but how long it took the glacier to melt and what happened immediately after the glacier ablated. That time period itself is worth thinking about. For instance, I like to try and picture what the mountains looked like the morning after the glacier left. Was the whole region swept clean, as in this series of photos of Mt. Cardigan, with the mountains polished to a high sheen like granite countertops or were they covered with debris made up of random sized rocks, sand and gravel? In the period of time since the glacier melted, roughly the last 11,000 to 12,000, years there has been some weathering. The same forces Andrew Reily discusses in his paper including temperature variations, wind, frost, and precipitation, over thousands of years would cause rocks and soils to weather. The question is how much has changed in those ten millennia? Geologically it isn’t a lot of time but a few of the things that would be effected would be soil development, types of vegetation, biota associated with soils and plant communities, the movement, or sheet flow, of water, containment of water, mass wasting in the form of landslides, all representing energy transfers and “movement” towards increased stability.

Mt. Cardigan, NH, glacially polished ledges below the summit, 2006

These photos taken on a ridge of Mt. Cardigan indicate how the White Mountains, some of them at least, might have looked in the years immediately after the glacier ablated. Their soil is thin because of a low level of weathering in the granite and gneiss rocks which are very hard and resistant to weathering. The high rate of sheet flow, as in water runoff, too, would have impeded weathering, but, like on Zeacliff, the bald caps eventually manage to foster spotty soil in thin layers followed by a cap of vegetation, usually coniferous, like balsam, along with black and red spruce. In these photos there is a glimpse of what some of the mountains looked like 8 or 9,000 years ago meaning they were polished to some extent, capturing soil in small cracks in the hard rock that started as sand and gravel from wind borne particles, frost action and local erosion. These unlikely niches are then colonized by a few pioneering conifers and perhaps some dwarf birch or other shade intolerant species like Mountain Ash. It makes sense that forest followed the melting glacier almost instantly. It’s feasible that trees were growing within 5 to 20 years in some favorable places as the glacier melted nearby. The limiting factors, again, would be temperature and amount of sunlight and their affect on photosynthesis and seed germination.

Mt. Franklin, Mt. Washington, and Mt. Monroe from the south on the Crawford Path, 1968

This picture taken on the Crawford Path at a place I refer to as Franklin Flats, shows Mt. Franklin on the left, Mt. Washington in the center rear, and Mt. Monroe on the right. This picture, I think, represents what the higher Presidential peaks looked like immediately after the glacier had melted completely away from the mountains. In other words a lot of gravel, and an array of boulders, and other stones, some if not most of them are glacial erratics meaning they were carried here by the glacier from other places that are not far away. In addition to the erratics there is some of the 'felsenmeer', or frost-fractured rock with the sharp, less rounded edges we see a lot more of on the higher northern Presidential peaks like Adams, Madison and Jefferson. Felsenmeer has sharper edges than the erratics for the simple reason that any rocks pushed along by the glacier have more rounded to round edges. Some authors have referred to the Felsenmeer as 'Scree' which usually applies to the sharp-edged rock debris found at the base of cliffs. Soils in the higher altitude regions are fragile at best because of the weather phenomenon Andrew discussed in his paper. The plants in this zone, from 5000-6000 feet, are catagorized as 'Alpine' but they are more correctly described as 'Arctic" as they are remnants of distant arctic populations that found their way here after the glacier ablated. A few of the plants exist only in the Presidential Range and others are only found on the Presidential and Franconia ridges (e.g. above 5,000 feet) and in the arctic regions 500 miles north of Mt. Washinton. They have an interesting story to tell.

The Glen Boulder, a famous glacial erratic on Mt. Washington, NH, 2006

Glaciers carry a lot of debris. That’s pretty much all they’re good for is picking up loose stuff that’s lying around (dirty socks?) transporting it a ways and depositing it in piles and layers miles away. My favorite bit of debris is the famous Glen Boulder. For me, this is proof that an enormous glacier passed through here. I don’t think there is any other force of nature that could move a boulder 16 feet high by 12 feet across into this delicate and precarious position high on a shoulder of Mt. Washington. And I’d like a dollar for every person that’s thought of, or actually attempted to, tip it over and get it rolling down the mountain where it would land smack in the middle of Route 16. Everything short of dynamite has been employed to get this rock to go end over end, careening down the mountain, but it’s quite happy where it is. Anyway, its typical of the kinds of things glacier carry around. There are hundred of erratics in New Hampshire, some much larger than the Glen Boulder. There is a spectacular, jaw dropping erratic near the summit of Mt. Moriah next to the trail, and, of course, Madison Boulder in Madison, NH, is easily the size of a house.

The Glen Boulder, a little closer, on its precarious perch on a shoulder of Mt. Washington, NH

Glaciers carry other stuff besides gravel, sand, boulders and the odd bits of smaller stones. Remember the glacier in Austria that deposited a 5,000 year-old corpse near a popular hiking trail? Glaciers carry other organic matter including billions of viable seeds, organic matter in the form of millions and million of cubic yards of soil components including loams it has scraped up when it moves through open areas and forest. It contains whole and splintered trees, leaves, plants, animal carcasses, you name it. A glacier is like a bulldozer that bashes down trees and plants, everything in its path. It’s all ‘plucked’ up and carried along. When the glacier melts all this detritus gets dumped on the ground and becomes an integral part of the landscape. A glacier destroys habitats, but it’s also carrying some ready made, new ecosystems in the making.

Montalban Ridge towards the Atlantic Ocean visible in the background, 2006

The rocks in the foreground are weathered remnants of the glacier as is the soil, that mica laden gravel till in the foreground. This picture is just below treeline near the headwall of the Gulf of Slides, another of the alpine cirques of the Presidential Range. Some of the rocks to the left of the trail have been moved there by humans to form a low barrier next to the trail and to the right, rocks have been stacked up to make a cairn, or trail marker. The Atlantic Ocean is visible under the haze line in the back ground.

Montalban Ridge on Mt. Washinton Looking west towards Mt. Lafayette, 2006

As in the previous photo(s) this shows another sample of rocks left by the glacier as it melted including the erratic in the center of the picture with rounded edges and the other, smaller rocks in the center foreground. Between the rocks the vegetation includes mosses, lichens, diapensia lapponica, a flower found in the alpine zone, which is the plant beween the smaller rocks that form a tight crown or tuft, and in the background is some krummholz of black spruce and balsam fir. This is still sub-alpine, at the transition point at about 4800 feet, where the alpine
zone would begin on the northern side of the range. This shoulder of Mt. Washington has a southern aspect and is also protected from the north by the summit massif of Mt. Washington and Boott Spur, an intervening higher ridge also just to the north.

From Montalban Ridge on Mt. Washington looking south towards the Sandwich Range, 20007

We can’t forget that, next to rocks and boulders, the most abundant thing a glacier carries is water, in fact billions and billions of cubic feet of water are contained in a glacier as big as the Wisconsinan at it’s peak. Glacial ice is about 90 percent water and the upper layer of the glacier, where it’s mainly compressed snow, is about 50 percent water. When these huge continental glaciers were “alive” and all that water was “locked up” as ice one can only guess at how far the sea level dropped. It must have been a dramatic lowering of ocean levels just as when the glaciers melted how fast and how much the sea level must have risen. For our purpose, though, I’m thinking about the impact of the water the continental and local glaciers represent in terms of the natural history of the White Mountains.

Richard Goldthwait thinks the continental glacier took between 100 and 1000 years to completely melt back away from the White Mountains. The melt water flowed in three directions. It flowed east towards the Atlantic via what’s now the Androscoggin Valley, south towards the Atlantic via the Pemigewasset (Merrimack) and Saco Rivers, and west, also to the Atlantic via the Ammonusuc, Israel and Connecticut Rivers. The melt water created vast lakes such as Glacial Lake Hitchcock that was a huge body of water a 100 miles stretching from near Northampton, MA, northwards to Littleton, NH.

In the photo above it's possible to 'feel' how the melt water shaped the landscape, the downward sloping valley, softening it, and you can sense how the water founds its way towards an established 'bed' as it sought out the Atlantic Ocean there in the distance.

From Mt. Lafayette towards the Presidential Range, 2006

I'm using this photo I took from the summit of Lafayette in January ‘06 again because it has an enormous amount of geological and ecological history plainly visible in it. It shows examples of “fluvioglacial” outwashing. mass wasting (as in erosion), and containment, all the stuff that was going on as the continental glacier ablated. It also shows clearly how trees get selected by specific soil types and drainage patterns.

In the lower center of the photo you can see the long tongue of outwash, probably as a result of glacial outwash and, technically, it could be termed a “fluvioglacial landform” meaning that it was formed by glacial meltwater that was under pressure and had the energy to move a the heavy gravels and stones. If you study the picture for a moment you can see where the mountains actually moved. From Garfield, the peak on the left, you can almost feel where the east flank slid down towards Franconia Brook as did that large area that washed down from the ridge between Garfield and Galehead Mountain towards the valley.

It makes some sense that the southward moving glacier pushed non-resistant crustal matter, soil, gravel, small to fairly large sized rocks and boulders proglacially, or in front of it, so a lot of what we see in the photo is glacial till. But there would have been a separate process occurring as the glacier melted back northward in its retreat. The remaining movement of water and till after that would be as nominal erosion and mass wasting caused by melt water flowing as rivers and streams.

The photo shows how the hardwoods, paper birch and yellow birch primarily, like the well drained glacial till and lower elevations in the center of the photo. In higher zones where drainage is mixed the conifers, balsam and spruce, predominate. We'll focus on the herbaceous plants a little later.

Richard Goldthwait presented a paper in 1966 titled "Soil Development and ecological succession in a deglaciated area in Muir Outlet, southeastern Alaska" that I am trying to get a copy of. It's rare, but I'd like to read it and see what is salient for the White Mountains in terms of the actual chronology of soil development and ecological succession here between 11,000 and 5,000 years ago.

Mt. Owls Head, Pemigewasset Wilderness from Mt. Lincoln, 2006

At any rate, this movement of earth by water as a result of the glaciers melting must have been an enormous process, a profound contagion of different forms of energy combining to create ponderous results. For the most part the results were mass wasting on a huge scale as chunks of mountains eroded. The photo below was taken the same day and almost the same place as the one above and it shows Owls Head in the foreground with Carrigain the high mountain in the back. On Owls Head you can see the channels where melt water from the glacier poured down the west flank. I’ve often thought of Owls Head with this large slab of glacial ice perched on top and a deluge of melt water cascading down like a cloud burst on a sand pile (but there is bed rock there and it is probably is granite).

Kilkenny Wilderness from Mt. Madison looking across to Mt. Starr King and Mt. Waumbek, 2007

By 11,4000 to 11,000 years ago the Wisconsinan glacier, the ice sheet, had melted back to the distant horizon in this photo of the Kilkenny Wilderness. The melting glacier created a large lake in the valley between the northern Presidentials and the Kilkenny ridge, right down there where you see US Route 2 in the photo. The lake extended from the right hand side of his photo all the way to the left to where the present towns of Whitefield and Littleton, NH, are located about 35 miles to the west. This lake eventually drained off to the south by way of the Saco and Connecticut River watersheds.

One of the truly striking things about the glacier ablating is the question of the return of the boreal forest to this region, how long it took and what it was made up of in terms of species of plants and trees. Climate (temperature and precipitation), water, cloud cover, and length of daylight and, most important, the amount and quality of the soil and the availability of seed sources, would all play a role in determining the vegetation that followed the glacier.

I like to think that soil building is the principal activity of the combined natural forces on Earth; that all living things, the weather, the sun and moon, are all working in unison to cover the Earth with a rich layer of healthy soil. For instance, when I am in the woods in the fall and the wind is blowing the leaves around I like to think of it is “redistributing the wealth” of soil nutrients by distributing the leaves more equally. I even go so far as to say soil is our only true wealth, but that may be overstating things. And to be realistic the wind doesn’t equally distribute the leaves, either. At any rate, I do think that the large continental glaciers played an enormous roll in creating the soils of the northern hemisphere around the globe. Glaciers, along with plants and animals, over time created some amazing soils. Where I live in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, the so-called Pioneer Valley, there's a glacial soil here, actually formed under Glacial Lake Hitchcock, that is called, simply, Hadley Loam, a light, sandy loan, that is arguable one of the best soils in the world. When you slide your hand down into it feels alive. It’s great for growing things like corn and onions, etc. It sits comfortably on a thick layer of mixed glacial till with superb (in most places) drainage characteristics. I’ll say more about soils of the White Mountains later. I just want to throw this notion out that glaciers, in moving so much solid “stuff” are key soil builders and when you think of the enormous damage done to New England forest soils by Acid Rain alone, the leaching of key nutrients by the acid, you can think of another ice sheet descending and with it tons and tons of “rock fines”, the ground up, powdered form of essential nutrients, the magnesium rich silicas and the acid neutralizing calcium, as the perfect remedy to reverse the effects of Acid Rain and, hopefully, return the native soils to a less acidic "circumneutral" pH.

Kilkenny Wilderness, from Mt. Adams, 2007

I think it is feasible that the boreal forest followed the melting glacier by just a few years and that the forest 11,000 years ago, with some variations, looked a lot like the boreal forest of today. One of the striking ideas, though, about the end of the glacier and the return of forests is that there is good, solid evidence that humans were traveling through that forest and living just north of the White Mountains at the face of the retreating glacier roughly 11,000 years ago.

On what had been the northern shore of glacial Lake Whitefield, mentioned above, a number of human artifacts have been found that date to about 11,000 years ago (Bosivert, R.A. 1999). Dikes of igneous Rhyolite found nearby in what is now downtown Berlin, NH, are the source material for these artifacts which are comprised mostly of fluted points (arrow heads) and what could have been a fleshing tool, or scraper. The dating of these artifacts is complicated. Marland and Katherine Fowler-Billings and Richard Goldthwait who, in concert, had pieced together the currently accepted framework for the glaciation of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, were called upon (in 1956) to help date the sites where some of these human artifacts were found in Jefferson and Colebrook, NH. The accuracy is still a little shaky for technical reasons related to the Carbon Dating process, but if the data is reasonably close we can say that humans were in the White Mountains as the glacier was ablating

Most histories of American natives begin in the early 1600s as if they arrived here a few steps ahead of the Europeans. A vast amount of time passes between the melting of the last glacier from the White Mountains and the arrival of the first Europeans. Nearly ten thousand years goes by. The non-written history of North America prior to the European invasion is somehow skipped over as if it is too meager, or inconclusive. The confounding part is that there definitely were people here in this part of New England all during that time.

Kilkenny Wilderness, crossing a high ridge at dawn, 2008

I took this photo on a bushwhack across the Kilkenny Wilderness back in August (2008). A lot of the time when I am bushwhacking I’m constantly thinking of the people who lived and possibly thrived here long before hiking trails, before the Europeans, before logging, and who knew all of this terrain with unparalleled intimacy and were so intimately part of this landscape. The natural history of these mountains is, to a large extent, their history.

In the 1992 film Last of the Mohicans Chingachgook, who is the last Mohican and one of my true boyhood heroes, is shown running swiftly through a dark forest pierced by shafts of sunlight. He’s chasing a white tailed deer. Chingachgook has his bow cocked with an arrow and is running the deer down to kill it. He looses the arrow striking the deer. The deer collapses to the ground and Chingachgook moves quickly to the deer, grabs the deer’s muzzle with both hand and blows his own breath into the deer’s nose and mouth in a propitiary offering to the spirit of the deer, an act of gratitude.

There’s great beauty in this scene; the beauty of the forest itself with the light shafting through the ancient trees, the man running like a deer, leaping over blow downs, aiming the arrow and taking the deer’s life with astonishing skill and coordination. It’s breathtaking. I, for one, would love to run through the woods as lithely as Chingachgook just to experience his delight of speed and agility. He is, of course, a fictional character created by James Fenimore Cooper in his Leather Stocking Tales but with a certain accuracy in the depiction of the beauty and simplicity that is implicit in this non-sedentary way of life and the ability of humans, at least at one time, to actually be at home in nature, an integral and highly functional part of it.

When one thinks of people there is the question of food and in this case, with the ecological succession that would follow the glacier, or deglaciation of the area, one also thinks of animals as part of the succession, not just the trees and plants. We already explored the impact of beavers on devastated sites but we would expect to find them in these valley soon after the glacier ablated. The first humans here after the glacier must have had to base their economy on animals for clothing and food. Perhaps their motivation for coming here in the first place was to hunt. So the White Tailed Deer in the movie clip represents many kinds of animals that re-populated the northern forests in the post-glacial years including caribou, an excellent source of food and clothing, and those mythical beasts like huge bison and mammoths.

Pemigewasset Wilderness, 2008

I took this photo bushwhacking across the 'Pemi' last summer (2008), across the middle of the broadest part where it's pretty flat with a lot of muskeag and took the picture because I thought that this scene represents the boreal forest that has been here for long time. This area was logged, rather, stripped of all trees 112 years ago, then burned extensively by forest fires in 1894 and 1903, so this is still an early-to-middle succession forest.

(Natives cont.)
By the beginning of the Christian era, roughly 2000 years ago, there were Algonquian-speaking peoples living from the Maritimes (Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) across what is now New England south to Cape Cod and west to the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondack Mountains. They lived and still live as far north as Hudson Bay (Wampagusti Cree) and, by at least 600 years ago, around the northern shores of the Great Lakes (Anishinabeg ). and as far west as the Rocky Mountains by some accounts. Corn was being grown in the St. John’s River Valley in Maine and in Western Vermont more than 1000 years ago. This is a hard, white flint corn used for hominy that was brought north from Central America along with beans and squash, obsidian, turquoise and “cutting edge” technological information thousands of years ago. Native bands were active traders throughout the Americas. The Iroquois have stories of sending groups of ‘braves’ out to the four directions every decade or so to see what was going on in other locations on the continent and to bring back trade items. When the French arrived in Canada and northern New England their passion for converting the natives to Catholicism was largely a scheme to make them strong allies and lucrative trading partners.

When Jacque Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence, the first time, in 1534, looking for China he was astounded the natives he met had an enormous knowledge of medicinal botany that was more sophisticated than anything in Europe. Their herbology included hundreds of plants the natives used for food, medicine, fiber and dyes. The natives wove ropes that were stronger than any the Europeans had seen. The natives were healthy and peaceful. They had an established form of government.

The Iroquois Confederation, or Haudenosaunee (People of the Long House), established a government with a constitution dating back, by some accounts, to 500 years before Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence. The Abenaki, too, had an established government and, similar to the Iroquois, had a balanced system of ‘power’ distributed between chiefs and clan mothers. The political seat of the Abenakis was at Odanak, or St. Francis Village, in Quebec. Cartier and Champlain reported that there were many bands of Abenaki in eastern Quebec and what is now Vermont and New Hampshire. The estimates of the Abenaki population living in New England in 1600 range from 40,000 to close to 100,000. There is no explanation for the wide difference in population estimates. The bands were identified by geographical names only based on the location of their villages. Champlain reported that in all but a few months of the years the natives moved constantly across what is now Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine traveling as families. All records were kept orally. These features may have made it difficult to make an accurate population count.

Until the Europeans arrived the Abenakis were relatively disease-free. They hadn’t known diseases like small pox, measles, typhus, influenza, tuberculosis, syphilis, and peumonia that between the mid- 1400s (when coastal bands had contact with Portugese fisherman) and the mid-1700 caused the deaths of roughly 80 percent of all Abenakis. That’s an enormous figure. The survivors of these plagues reorganized and regrouped as best they could but their way of life as it had existed prior to “contact” was shattered.

A second factor regarding contact with Europeans that destroyed native culture less dramatically but just as effectively was that the natives had no such notion as a Protestant (or Puritan) Work Ethic. This idea of work, materialism, and “progress” would be forced upon them and used as a terse, discriminatory judgment against almost all native peoples by the various churches and would eventually marginalize the natives into a twilight of non-existence.

The Pemigewasset Wilderness (the Pemi) makes me think of moose (Alces alces) and the fact that for several decades, the 1960s, 70's and even the 1980s, there were no moose, or maybe safer to say hardly any moose, in the Pemi. During those years every time I traversed the Pemi I looked for signs of moose but found none. Then in the mid 1970's they appeared in the northern areas of the WMNF and now, of course, there's a large, healthy population of moose in every corner of the forest. So that's another mystery. Why did they disappear for all those decades and what brought them back? What changed? The population itself? It's size? The number of males to females? A lessening of fear of humans? None of the above and other factors?

The Intervale, Intervale, NH, as it looks today, 2008

This photo shows Mt. Washington across the broad intervale in Intervale, NH, less than a half mile from the small Abenaki village, once called Pigwacket, where Stephen and Manuel Laurent lived for a time. The Intervale, when I was a child, was a broad, lush meadow where cows grazed and on summer evenings we could sneak down and watch deer grazing with their young fawns.

I moved to Intervale, NH, when I was 6 years old. The postmaster at that time was Manuel Laurent. His brother, Stephen, was the postmaster in Jackson, NH. These two brothers were Abenakis and sons of Joseph Laurent, former Chief of the Abenakis at St. Francis (Odanak). The Abenakis are also called the Wabenaki (Wobanki or Wabanki which translates to ‘people of the dawn’ or ‘people of the rising sun” meaning from the east). Stephen and Manuel lived in Intervale in a small encampment of Abenakis that included their wives, children and extended family. They were remnants of a group that had lived there for many years who were referred to as the Pigwacket band of Abenakis. Their village was named Pigwacket after the mountain of the same name (the mountain is also called Pequawket and Kearsarge). There had been Abenakis living here, I was told, for many centuries and that it was known as a warm, sheltered place with ample resources. The ‘intervale’, itself, is a beautiful, broad, flat, alluvial plain, a grassland or meadow, bordered by the Saco River and a place where the deer were plentiful. John Josselyn who visited New England from England in 1638 and again in 1663 identified Pigwacket in his book New England's Rarities Discovered as the village where Darby Field (referenced in Andrew Riely's paper) stopped in 1642 to hire guides to assist him in his ascent of Mt. Washington. Field is credited with being the first non-native to climb the peak. Josselyn quotes Field as saying there were about 200 Abenakis living at Pigwacket at that time.

Stephen often took me with him on short trips into the woods. Sometimes the Abenaki women would be my babysitters when my mother was away and I would go with them to the rocky summits of nearby mountains like Moat, Cranmore, Kearsarge (the same as Pequawket, Pigwacket), and Mt. Stanton to pick blueberries. We would spend whole days sitting right in the blueberry bushes, moving gradually across the mountainsides filling birch bark baskets and shiny galvanized pails with blueberries. The women gossiped endlessly switching to Algonquian when the gossip got particularly juicy to keep me from blushing.

Stephen told me that the Abenaki word for ‘white man’ was ‘awarnoch’, pronounced ‘awarnoots’ but that it doesn’t translate literally as ‘white man’ He explained that it is a condensation of two separate phrases: “Who is this guy?” and “Where did he come from?” Which makes total sense. You’re a person used to seeing others like you. You are living where you always lived with people you accept as being ‘the ones', those who have always been there. This is your place. Your people have lived her for thousands of years. So you’re walking along and “ka-bam” there is this really strange, ugly, pasty white, human-looking ‘thing’ walking up the trail towards you. It’s earth shaking. In your surprise you turn to your chum and exclaim ‘awarnoch’, or “Who-from?” Steven explained that a lot of Abenaki words are condensations like awarnoch and it makes sense. All languages evolve and re-evolve similarly. Language is, after all, alive.

Stephen recounted stories describing yearly summer encampments near the present day Weirs on Lake Winnpesaukee where Abenakis from near and far came and spent weeks and months socializing, catching and drying fish, collecting and processing zillions of acorns to make flour, cooking pemmican, making winter clothing and equipment, and maybe finding wives and husbands. Members of the Nausets, an Abenaki band living on and near present day Cape Cod, have also told me of large pre-contact summer gatherings on the Cape that were social and practical, where a lot of work was done including winter food and clothing preparation and where a lot of the natives came to gamble on their favorite Lacross teams. They took Lacross seriously. Games went on for days. I’m not sure if this part is true, but one source told me that the games were played on rough fields that were sometimes a mile long.

As I said it would be nice to have a time machine and have a first hand account of what the landscape really looked like 10,000 years ago and have a better idea of who lived her and how they lived. For instance, what was the landscape really like and was it so different from the landscape today? Stephen and others described a vast forest of old growth trees through parts of central New Hampshire and central and northern Vermont. On the north side of Mt. Kearsarge, behind where my family lived in Intervale, loggers went in during the winter of 1951, and cut down and hauled out white pine trees that were five feet in diameter and probably eighty feet tall. They were massive, beautiful trees. When Stephen saw them he said “that’s what all the forests used to look like.” Stephen had also heard descriptions of red and white oaks growing along the Lake Winnipesaukee shoreline that were six feet in diameter and seventy five feet tall. That had to be at least five hundred years, or more, after the Wisconsinan glacier, though, and probably closer to the time of first contact. Even in the best of conditions it would take hundreds of years for an oak to grow to those dimensions. In Vermont and upstate New York the forest were described by Champlain to be “park like’ meaning with massive, tall trees standing far apart and with an immense canopy of interlacing limbs and dense foliage overhead blocking the sunlight, like a Gothic cathedral, with the forest spreading out mile after mile. The distance between trees and the absence of underbrush made it easy to hunt there. Stephen thought the natives may have set fires to burn out the underbrush to encourage more game. For their own part the Europeans set out to completely destroy the ancient American forests immediately upon arrival .

Roger's Ledge, Kilkenny Wilderness, from the south, 2007

This is a picture of Roger’s Ledge in the Kilkenny Wilderness. It's visible for miles and when you get to the summit there is a huge rewards waiting. (see the next photo) I was visiting in Labrador a few years ago, working with some members of the Innu (French-speaking Montagnais) community there in their attempts to block a huge Hydro-Quebec hydroelectric dam on one of the big rivers in Labrador. I was staying with an Innu woman, a friend of mine, who was married to an Inuit-Eskimo man. (Innu, like ‘Inuit’ means simply “First People”). One morning in mid-March we climbed a small whale-backed mountain near their village to watch the sunrise above the horizon for the first time after the long winter. We got to the top of the mountain and there was this astonishing view of the ocean still locked in ice and behind us the dark interior of Labrador, all greys, blacks and white from the rock, ice and remaining snow. We stopped and caught our breaths and the husband suddenly said, “urgaghook” or at least that’s what it sounded like to me. She smiled and nodded. I thought maybe he'd coughed. “Did he just say something?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” she replied. “He just said ‘It’s good to get up to high heights and look out over long distances.” Urgaghook!

Roger's Ledge and the view south across the Kilkenny to the Presidential Range

Standing on top of Roger’s Ledge and looking south towards the Presidential Range across the Kilkenny makes me think in detail about who those first people were who traveled here and resided in this gorgeous land, this astonishingly beautiful place. Their artifacts, estimated to be 11,000 years old, have been found at several sites just a seven or eight miles from here pointing to the time the Wisconsinan glacier had just melted back towards the north from the Kilkenny, heading back to Labrador and points North. The urge to climb to a height of land, a hill or mountain must be universally human with the reward being the deep satisfaction of seeing out over great distances, to get a sense of where you are, and, of course, be able to look out beyond the farthest ranges and try to imagine what’s out there, to wonder who else is out there and where they're from.

A small lake and mountain in the Kilkenny Wilderness close to where human artifacts were found that dated back 11,000 years

It’s mostly conjecture and the piecing together of a few facts to create a picture of who was inhabiting the Kilkenny ten, or eleven, thousand years ago. The artifacts don’t say a lot. This is close to the time of the Clovis Culture in the Southwest of which we also know little. Innu and Inuit hunters have told me stories that go back to a time when the people were so new in the land they learned to live observing animals. In one story they shared their teachers are wolves and crows (ravens in some versions) who teach them how to caribou. At any rate, who ever lived here in New England and southern Canada that long ago must have come a long distance to get here. It would mean, too, that whoever arrived here right at the heels of the Wisconsinan glacier had to be closely related to those first humans who came across to the western hemisphere.

In an evolutionary, Darwinian sense, they were opportunists and generalists. They would have been hunters, nomads, skilled in all ways of contending, following game, large animals probably, maybe even mammoths, large bison, and mastodons, and not carrying a lot of extra baggage. It's likely that they migrated from the northwest entry point swiftly across the continent staying close to the front edge of the melting glacier.

They may very well have been ancestors to the Abenaki and Iroquois. Maybe a handful of those first Pleistocene people settled and made the northeast their home. They spread out quickly, in just a thousand years or so, and developed unique cultures using a common language. They were not ‘hunters and gathers’ per se. As they settled they developed a sophisticated “agricultural” practice in which they cataloged the wild animals and plants that were most useful to their needs. They knew exactly where the plants grew and could find them as needed. Ginseng and Goldenseal are two examples of plants they relied on heavily because of the plants’ antibiotic qualities. They altered areas to create environments more favorable to some plants and game animals, deer primarily, that were more commonly used as food and medicine. They made decoys out of grass and wood that they painted to look like common game birds, like ducks and geese. They may even have built fences to corral animals and used fire to clear out underbrush in the forests to aid hunting. In some cases they learned how to propagate and grow cultivars from wild plants. Jerusalem artichoke is one example

During one of Champlain voyages to America he wrote that at the mouth of the Saco River he visited an Abenaki (probably Penobscot) village that was enclosed by a palisade of logs, like a fort, that was organized around a number of activities including boat building, fishing and whaling, and growing corn and vegetables. He describes how the village preserved food through the winter months by placing it in trenches four feet deep (below the frost line) covered with tight mats woven from sea grass and the trenches were backfilled with very dry beach sand. Corn, Jerusalem artichokes, several varieties of squash and beans, and wild parsnips or carrots they cultivated that could all be preserved for months with little spoilage. They also dried meat and fish and preserved some fruits like blueberries in pemmican, their winter staple.

Iona, Mohawk Clan Mother, Seed Keeper, Onondaga, Ontario, 1999

I worked a bit with some Iroquois on their reservations in New York State and Canada on some food and agricultural projects and principally with a woman named Iona who is a clan mother and seed keeper for the Iroquois. When I first met Iona she was in tears. It was early evening and we were walking along a narrow lane on her farm on our way to a field where she grows out her seeds every year. She was responsible for seeds that the Iroqouis have had for more than a thousand years and she had close to a hundred varieties representing the pure strains of ancient cultivars. She was crying, she told me, because she was afraid and sad because she believed she was losing her indigenous knowledge, that her people were forgetting the “old ways” and that this knowledge was lost forever.

From my own perspective talking to Iona over days and weeks it was clear to me that she had not lost her “knowledge”. It was like she feared the knowledge was “lost” because she saw the younger generation in its ambivalence about that knowledge and the way of life it is represents. They’re willing to let it go. It has very little meaning to them. Some of them told me, “I don’t want to know how to make a pair of snowshoes, or a bow, or a decent arrowhead. What would I do with them?” One of Iona’s interns, a young Seneca woman, said “I didn’t think much about it for a long time. I listened to what the older people were saying about the old ways, like how the outside world was intruding and weakening the position and power of women in the bands, that the clan mothers were no longer on equal footing with the chiefs. It didn’t interest me until I took the internship here with Iona working with the seeds, the plants, then I wanted to know everything about the old ways. Iona has given me a lot. She’s a very wise soul.”

(I'm adding this bit on January 17, 2009 as I just finished re-reading Henry Thoreau's The Maine Woods and I found this quote: “Our Indian said that he was a doctor, and could tell me some medicinal use for every plant I could show him. I immediately tried him. He said that the inner bark of the aspen [Populus tremuloides) was good for sore eyes; and so with various other plants, proving himself as good as his word. Acording to his account, he had acquired such knowledge in his youth from a wise old Indian with whom he associated, and he lamented that the present generation of Indians ‘had lost a great deal’”. He wrote that in 1857, 150 years ago but it certainly resonates with my discussions with Iona and her intern.

Chief Lehman, Onondaga, Ontario, 1998

Stephen’s stories, told over the years, were congruent with Iona’s and those of her chief who she introduced to me simply as Chief Lehman who is Mohawk. He and I had long discussion about the native life prior to the occupation and subjugation of native cultures by the Europeans. Stephen who died a few years ago was a scholar as is Chief Lehman. Both have spent a great deal of time studying the “old ways”, the time before time, the time that has passed since the last glacier melted. They have compared the native culture here in eastern North America to cultures in other parts of the world that have been in continuous existence for thousands of years and point out that the natives of northeastern America have had a relatively stable existence over a long period of time. There have been classic, long-ranging conflicts between bands in every section of the country, as in the northeast between the Abenakis and the Iroquois, who have fought and waged wars over land and hunting rights, particularly where they bump up against each other in western Vermont. A lot of the fighting occurred after Europeans arrived and was politically motivated. For the most part, though, the two bands have had a remarkably long history of peaceful co-existence and both developed rich, complex cultures.

Their technology and science were direct adaptations to the local environment. They were brilliantly astute, practical and versatile. Their bows were unique in the world. The Abenaki bows were short so they could be maneuvered in thick forests and brush. The Abenaki had other machines in addition to the bow. They had drills, saws, levers, ropes that they used effectively like block and tackle to increase efficiency of work. Near Putney, VT, there is a prehistoric stone structure, an enclosure with a large stone slab roof, which is assumed to have had multiple functions over time, including a calender of sorts and a refuge, but, like other native stone works, it is apparent that the natives were good engineers and had the means to lift an enormous amount of weight.

In science, in addition to medicine, including some knowledge of internal human anatomy, and their vast knowledge of plants, they understood weather, animal behavior, the stars, navigation, etc. Their craftsmanship was sometimes astounding both in practical applications and the development of aesthetic ‘lines’. Take, for instance, the birch bark canoe. A well made birch bark canoe is an astonishing bit of craftsmanship and engineering as well as a work of art. Stone carvings, decorated birch bark baskets and boxes, carved drums and earthenware pottery, achieve a high level of art that is sought by museums. I have seen wampum belts, made from small, intricate beads carved from sea shells that are stunningly beautiful. I've seen full regalia hand sewn from white deerskin, elaborate pieces of clothing and moccasins, decorated with beads and dyed porcupine quills that are also stunningly beautiful, as are some of elaborately carved drums and smoking pipes. It’s true that the best carving came with the introduction of steel knives after European contact but it does not detract from the fact that natives achieved a well defined, original artistry.

That leads me to what will appear as a huge generalization and idealization of native life but it is also consistent with my experience living and interacting with native peoples in North and South America, Kenya, and Nepal. It's this: my perceptions of the native people who lived here over all that time, those millennia since the glacier melted, came to me through Stephen, Manuel, their wives and children, the Abenaki, the Iroquois, Iona, Chief Lehman, the Cree and the Innu, and all the glimpses they afforded me of their way of life including their wonderful sense of humor, their knowledge and wisdom and from the breath of that experience what tells me the most about them is the way they treated me. When I was in the woods with Stephen, or picking blueberries on top of a mountain with the Abenaki women on those august afternoons beneath the towering thunderheads listening to them gossip I was accepted without conditions. In a long house ceremony given for me at Onondaga I was also accepted without conditions, in other words, with enormous respect. I didn’t have to charm anyone, cut off parts of myself to fit in, or believe anything I didn’t want to. I was accepted for who I was, another human being, and I realized in the long house that I had yearned for that feeling all my life. Any culture that has that self-respect, that sense of congruence and the capacity to create that ‘space’ among it’s people has a lot to lose, and it is sad, it’s a real tragedy in this aspect of the “Commons”, in that their culture still has so much to offer.

I'm adding this quote from Henry Thoreau's book The Maine Woods on 1/17/09 because I just read it again for the first time in decades and, along with the passage I quoted above, I was struck by this one as well: “Pointing southeasterly over the lake and distant forest, he observed, ‘Me go Oldtown in three days.’ I asked how he would get over the swamps and fallen trees. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘in winter all covered, go anywhere on snowshoes, right across lakes.’ When I asked how he went he said, ‘First I go Ktaadn (Mt. Katadin), west side, then I go Millinocket, then Pamadumcook, then Nicletow, then Lincoln, then Oldtown,’ or else he went a shorter way by the Piscataquis. What a wilderness walk for a man to take alone! None of your half-mile swamps, none of your mile-wide woods merely, as on the skirts of our towns, without hotels, only a dark mountain or a lake for guide board and station, over ground much of it impossible in summer.”

That was in 1857 when Maine was quite different than today and the distance from where Joe Polis, Thoreau's Penobscot guide, was standing it was about 130 miles as the crow flies to Old Town, Maine. In that country that is a long way to go in three days! So the guide's reflections were the result of experience, he had definitely made that trip before, and he was not simply bragging. He was offering Thoreau insight and Thoreau was as delighted with this kind of insight as I have been and continue to be.

There is something really, really precious in all of this. I think that is why I go on and on like this about the native peoples of this part of North America. Represented by Iona, the Cree poet and friend of mine, Margaret Sam Cromarty, and Stephen Laurent, there is someting enormously important about these people in the way that they lived here and preserved this land. When you think of Joe Polis walking around the clock in mid-winter from the wilds of western Maine to the coast one also thinks of people moving through, over, and around the White Mountains in a constant stream for those millenia, going from St. Francis to the coast through Crawford Notch, or Zealand Notch, snowshoeing across the Pemigewasset, following the Israel and Androscoggin Rivers, stopping to make arrow points on Mt. Jasper, fishing in the Saco, hunting deer on the Intervale, all that activity, those lives, these mountains, this land, a half million sunsets and sunrises. It's quite striking and lovely at the same time. There is profound beauty here on so many levels, that's the way I see it.