Monday, May 25, 2009

5-25-09 Spring arrives slowly to the higher ridges and summits

A painted trillim (T. undulatum) beside the Mt. Hale Trail. It's one of the first flowers of spring in the White Mountains. This one was at 2300 feet but they accompanied me, hundreds of them, all the way up to above 3000 feet.

Spring has flooded well up above the valley floor to at least to the 2500 foot elevation but hiking above that yesterday was like turning around and heading back towards winter. There were even patches of rotting snow in the woods off the trail.

This is one of my favorites. It's indian cucumber and grows extensively in the better soils of the deciduous woods. When I was in my mid-teens and just starting out as a guide and naturalist in the White Mountains one of my teachers was this character, Harry Levy, who was a wiz at birds and plants. I've already told the story in the blog about the eagle incident on top of Zeacliff. Well, this is another funny story. Harry had been showing me a number of plants one day including indian cucumber which is a lily (Medeola virginiana) with a beautiful six pointed white flower. The next day I was guiding and I wanted to show off my new knowledge so I showed my hiking group what I thought was an indian cucumber. It gets it's name from the thick root, or tuber, that the stalk of the plant grows from and tastes like cucumber. I had my charges taste one and they looked at me blankly, totally unimpressed. I did this on a few other hikes until Harry pointed out to me that I was feeding everyone the roots of the "star flower", actually a primrose and not a lily, that looks sort of like indian cucumber. So, it's a good thing for me the root of the star flower isn't deadly poisonous.

At 3000 feet spring has been held back by cold nights. The leaves are only half out and when the sun is out more than half of the sunlight penetrates down to the forest floor which is a good thing for the lower level shubs and flowers growing close to or on the ground.

This is a striped maple leaf just emerging. These leaves will get to be almost a foot across.

This is my old friend witch hobble, or hobble bush (Vibernum alnifolium), flowering at just about 3000 feet at the transition to the spruce-fir-paper birch zone. At 2300 feet, about 1000 feet lower, witch hobble has flowered and the flowers have already gone from the leaf axils. It is sometime quoted that when you go 1000 feet up in elevation in the White Mountains it is the same as going 500 miles north. In other words climatic variations are severe enough even within the range of 1000 feet to set back spring a week or two. Working on Mt. Washington during college summers I often left my college campus in mid-May when it was summer-like there. I would arrive at Pinkham Notch and spring would just be getting there at the 2000 foot elevation. The leaves would just be coming out and there was still snow in the woods. Then, heading up onto the mountain itself, I'd turn back the calender and outstrip spring by almost a month as it often snowed at 5000 feet into June and there would be days of near-blizzard conditions.

This is close up of the witch hobble's flowers. The showy flowers around the outside of the inflorescence are sterile and there only to attract pollinating insects. The inside flowers will contain the seeds which begin to appear in late June as clusters of red fruit, also quite showy.

This is a red spruce and a half. It's 60 feet tall and on a south facing shoulder at about 3500 feet. Mt. Hale was burned over in a forest fire in the 1880s (1886 or 1887) but there was sparse description of the extent of the fire or what portions of the mountain it burned except that it reached the summit. Presumably, then, this spruce is about 100 years old. If you enlarge the photo you'll notice that the limbs of the birches are still without leaves at this altitude and will probably take one or two days of warm weather to get them to come out.

This balsam forest is much younger. It is about 60-80 years old. The picture was taken at about the 4,000 foot elevation just below the summit and shows the damage done by snow and wind at this elevation. The other phenomenon it shows is the nursey stock of young balsam seedling that grow in profusion on this ridge. It's really amazing how thick they grow here and at other sites in the Whites. I checked to see how many of the seedlings had reproduced by "layering" and could find none meaning these trees came from the actual seeds. Layering as a means of plant propagation is explained more in Bob Monahan's paper down below.

For comparison this photo (above) taken yesterday and the one below it taken fifty years ago illustrate the extent to which the balsams have retaken the summit of Mt. Hale. The photo above shows the the anchoring pins and the concrete block that was the bottom of the stairs that went up the forest fire look-out tower that stood on the summit of Mt. Hale from 1930 until 1959.

This photo was taken in July 1959 when some of the fire tower super structure was still intact. The upper portion of the lookout, the cabin and deck, had been removed. The view to the west of North (right hand peak) and South Twin is unobstructed by trees. There is just grass resembling a pasture that extended quite a ways down from the summit. There are still remnants of this habitat to be found if you walk a ways down from the summit into the woods on the west side of the moutain.
This photo was taken facing southeast from the summit with the pins that held down the northeast corner of the steel superstructure of the fire tower in the foreground. Below are two picture taken 50 years ago looking in the same direction from the same spot.

This photo was taken from the same exact place on the summit of Mt. Hale where the large pile of stones now sits (as in the photo above) and is looking almost due south into Zealand Notch towards Mt. Carrigain seen in the haze. The picture was taken in July 1959. Look at the knee-high grass that extends down to the mass of balsams (kind of like an army approaching, or pirates!).

This photo was taken from the summit of Mt. Hale looking due east to the Willey Range in the summer of 1960. In this direction you can see the tops of some balsams appearing just below the summit but in that direction only. The extent that the balsams have circled the summit as of today and continue to invade the open area that existed here for decades is astonishing. The same phenomenon is occuring on Carter Dome which was burned over by a fire in 1903, and Zeacliff that I've already mentioned. There is a good article by a past AMC naturalist, Kimme Beal, in a recent issue of Appalachia titled "Climate change at the Top". She addresses somewhat similar issues on other summits in New England as the balsams on Hale, Carter Dome and Zeacliff. As Allan Savory points out, "nature is a coiled spring" that's waiting to explode and the nature of the forest is to grow aggressively unless impeded by humans or major perturbations like fire or storms, or insect infestations. What is happening on Hale and the other summits I've mentioned is most likely the natural course of the forest succession following a fire. One other note about the photo from 1960: in the foreground of that photo there's a soil profile exposed that shows a thick, rich layer of soil on the summit which from the inspection I made yesterday (5-24-09) no longer exists so I wonder why it's no longer there, if it merely blew away because the grass holding it died off, or something else. Another mystery!

It was a treat to find this beauty along the trail as I came out of Zealand Notch late in the afternoon yesterday a few hours after the rain ended and the sun had come out. It's Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense) and an early flowering plant found extensively in the Whites particularly in bogs.

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