Sunday, August 2, 2009

8-1-09 An August Mountain

Fog and drizzle on Saturday morning (8-01-09) made hiking sound disagreeable but by the time I had my day pack zipped and shoes tied the sun was smooching the mountains and it was getting hot quickly. My goal for the morning was the peak in the above photo that I introduced two weeks ago and called "trail-less" and "nameless". Since then some readers emailed telling me of their experiences on this peak and provided me with a lot of useful information. They explained that the mountain is called "Peak Above the Nubble" referring to a smaller, well known granite nubble (technically a "sugarloaf") just to the north called Haystack Mountain (see the map below). I was told that, for various reasons, Peak Above the Nubble is climbed occasionally but there is, as yet, no formal trail up it.

My plan was to hike up the northeast ridge, the one on the left in this photo, and to pretty much just follow the ridge right to the summit. To get to the ridge I was going to start on the east side of the mountain off the Little River Road close to where I was two weeks ago near the large logging cut that you can see in the first photo. The logged area is the open, meadow-like, light green area at the bottom of the photo. I planned to head up on to the ridge from the upper edge of that logged area.

This is taken from a 1932 series US Geological Survey map, referred to as a "topo map", and shows my route to the summit which is pretty much a straight line. The arrow points to the summit. The dotted line was the way I intended to descend but it was getting too hot so I decided to try that route on another day. The summit elevation is listed on a recent AMC map as 3813 feet. On this topographical map I counted rings and came up with 3763 feet (plus or minus). The corrected altitude of 3813 puts it 1000 feet lower than North Twin. This peak is technically part of the North Twin massif.

This is the peak from the Little River Road, on the east side of the mountain, and from this viewpoint the mountain reminds me of Zeacliff Mountain up behind Zealand Falls Hut in size and shape (this would be true while climbing up it, as well, where the zones of vegetation, presence of rock ledge, etc. would conform closely with Zeacliff). At the onset I decided to call this mountain (just for myself) August Mountain because Saturday was the first of August and I love August the incremental changes in the light and the smells, the sensation of a shift from growth and production to fruition. When I was farming for a living I'd feel it the second the shifted. It might be a late afternoon or morning but always in mid-August. Everything stop for a fraction of a second, like a roller coaster at the top of a rise about to plunge downward picking up energy. In that second you could sense that a season had ended. You can feel that transition in the mountains, too. I feel it when the asters bloom or I see yellowed Mountain Ash leaves on the trail and the nights begin getting cold.

This piece should be titled "The Pleasures of Off Trail Hiking" because it is about that delight that comes with setting out on one's own, the sense of adventure and autonomy. Not that it's anything like holding hands with Shackleton on the gunwales of the HMS Discovery while jumping down onto the South Polar ice for a long walk to the Pole, but, as diminutive as my goals were, as I set foot into the woods Saturday morning there was a feeling of deep pleasure and anticipation. And as I set out the sun was shafting through the deep woods and the birds were as noisy as children at recess.

This is one corner of the logged-over area that appears in the top photo. It only took me a few minutes to get here but moving across it, or through it, was like a gauntlet. It's hard to make out in the top photo how dense all that vegetation is or how tall. This photo shows it more accurately to be over my head and thick: beech suckers coming off old stumps, maple, birch, and a lot of roseate stuff including rasberry canes that dragged at my skin and left little hairline cat scratches. The ground was covered with slash which tripped me up more than once. On the uphill edge I could move easily to find a place suitable for moving up on to the ridge.

From this point I'm finally on the uphill side of the logged area. My target was that big birch in the center left background of the photo, the one with all the forks, and I picked that as my entry point to go up to the ridge.

The upper edge of the cut was over populated by shade intolerant species, some of them invasive due to the logging, but like the rasberries they were here with a singular purpose, and this is just my personal theory, to help bring this huge "gash" back to climax forest (meaning a more efficient economy of energy inputs and outputs) as soon as possible.

There was my old friend Witch Hobble, or more simply Hobble Bush (Vibernum alnifolia) drinking up all the sunlight it could get.

And hobble bush again with his lovely purple tint cause by the anthocyanins in the plant tissue.

And the asters. There was a vast sea of asters just coming into bloom.

Who knows the name of this fern?

I entered the woods on the uphill side of the cut by climbing a steep bank and then continued climbing steeply for several hundred yards. The forest was all hardwoods with the exception of one or two red spruce here and there. The species represented were sugar maple (Acer saccharum), striped maple (A. pensylvanicum), mountain maple (A. spicatum), white birch (B. papyrifera), yellow birch (B. alleghaniensis), and mountain ash (Sorbus americana). The canopy was dense and healthy. The logging cut just downhill, for a short length of time, has created an opening for quite a bit of sunlight to come in at an angle for several hours each day during summer months which has triggered a higher density of small woody shrubs, like Vibernum, but a 100 yards uphill the lower story was less dense.

Walking here was not terribly difficult. The undergrowth was thin and allowed for easy passage but the soil was wet from high levels of rain during the past month and because of that more fragile. I had to be extremely careful not to tear up the soil with my cleated shoes on the steeper slopes. I like to move in a way that insures that I leave no sign that I was ever there.

I'm aware I mostly talk about flora (the plant kingdom) and rarely touch on fauna (the animal kingdom) and it's not intentional. On this hike, dozens of times, I looked down at moose tracks where they had skidded in the wet soil as they dug their toes in to the incline for traction. Some of the indents were 3-4 inches deep and some where made within the hour. I have seen several moose this summer as reported earlier but none recently except two dead yearlings lying beside Interstate 93 and Route 115 near Cherry Mountain. I usually see several bears each summer but haven't seen any this year. I've seen signs including fresh scat (poop) on the trail and on the slide on the Gale River Trail. I've seen countless white tail deer.

Other mammals I've seen this summer include lots of rodents; moles and voles, red squirrels and chipmunks (of course), snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) which aren't rodents, and two fox. Of the hares I've noticed there are fewer than there used to be, or rather, they're less common that fifty years ago. When I was seven and living up on the east branch of the Saco River in Intervale, NH, we would occasionally see mountain lions on the logging roads that stretched from Intervale over towards the Carter Range and Maine. The relationship between mountain lions, snowshoe hares, bob cats and lynx was explained to me as a tenuous balance. If you saw some hares but not a lot the balance was "healthy", I was told. I'm not sure if anyone sees mountain lions these days. It would seem unlikely for several reasons. We used to see bob cats and lynx high up on the northern Presidentials pretty often. I don't think I've seen one in five years.

The toads (Bufo americanus) have hatched recently and on this hike they were underfoot everywhere and I had to be careful because they're tiny right after hatching. I've seen two different species of wood frog, the common wood frog (Rana sylvestris) and the gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) which was plentiful in the boggy-balsam areas near Zealand Pond.

The more exciting bit is about ravens (Corvus corax). Last Saturday I heard a pair close by me when I was on the summit but I didn't get to see them. They were below me on the south slope in and around some cliffs but it was really nice to hear their distinctive voices. Birds are always plentiful. I wish I knew bird songs better than I do or just more about birds in general, but my knowledge is pretty limited. There are some that I know like white throated sparrows that are one my favorites because of their mating song. They come through in early June an their plantif-like song is distinct and lovely, a kind of iconic sound in the higher country. They spend the summer in the Arctic and come back through in the late summer but with a different song.

So there is really no end to fauna in the White Mountains, and fun, but it raises challenges in terms of photographing a cross section of all the animals. I'm not sure I'm equipped for it properly and then there is the time element. Plants are easy.

I do think about insects, the whole insect family and their presence in the White Mountains. The alpine spiders and ants constitute what would be an amazing and ambitious research project. I've spent hours this summer alone trying to photograph the large spiders that are so common on the summit cone of Mt. Washington but they move much too quickly and are too wary. Hikers pass me lying prone on the trail uttering abbreviated oaths when I've missed another shot and question my sanity. I also think about the beetle family, Coleoptera, because no one that I know of has ever done research on them in the Whites. In my travels I once heard an entomologist claim that the Family Coleoptera makes up 60 percent of the biomass of the Earth. I have no idea if it's true, close to being true, or how you'd find out how accurate the statement is, but if it is true then it's pretty amazing. The same entomologist told me that ants make an inch of top soil every year around the globe.

At the ridge, as I edged up on to it, I was greeted by huge white birches, in dozens, and a mix of softwoods, mainly red spruce and balsam. This transition might be caused by the principal factors of light and available moisture. The ridge is on the north flank of the mountain which will cause these factors to vary. The ridge had a similar "feel" to hiking up the Valley Way on Mt. Madison a month ago: cool and wet.

Vibernum (V. alnifolia), red spruce (P. rubens) and white birch (B. papyrifera ); a pretty standard mix.

Higher on the ridge the slope became even steeper and, for the most part, the mix was birch and balsam. I moved through glades like this one where the bracken ferns and birch were wide spread and created a park-like feeling that contrasted with the much denser growth of balsam which was the predominant feature of the vegetation all along the ridge.

This is a good example of the denser birch-balsam forest on the ridge.

Half way up the ridge there was a lot of rock outcroppings of this granite ledge with a lot of fracturing and there were a lot of large boulders up and down the ridge that appeared as glacial erratics at first but were, more likely, fractured pieces of this ledge formations.

The light was stunning all morning. There was a sense of quiet and isolation in the mist that was rising as the day heated up and the moisture from the rain the night before was pulled back up. There were no sounds for most of the first hours of my hike. There's a sightseeing flight service out of Twin Mountain airport that usually is in the air by 11 o'clock on clear Saturdays and eventually I heard the drone of the small Cessna overhead as I got to the summit.

The idea of bushwhacking isn't necessarily a rebellion. There's plenty of literature, poems included, that urges us to get off the trail in order find out about ourselves and our purpose and I'm not sure if that's true for me. Like Thoreau I once got lost on a mountain in Maine and I freaked out. That taught me a lot about myself quickly. But trail hiking has solitudes and spaces and lots of things to reflect on. I like bushwhacking because you have to think and use all your senses (at the same time). You have to be alert and cautious if you're alone. Hiking trails can be meditative and I like that. I like the trails in the White Mountains and the Adirondacks. I like moving gracefully along them, but there is a certain energy you get, another sensory level, when you go off trail that I like. I like the feeling of solitude there, off the trail, and I like looking at a places as if for the first time, that feeling of discovery. I think it's an intrinsic part of who we are as humans, and not that it's exclusive to us.

These photos are good examples of those moments you get when you're bushwhacking in new surroundings and your senses are heightened. The beauty is electric, tantalizing, and palpable.
Hiking is about beauty for me. It's not necessarily to get from point B to point A or tick off another mountain climbed (although I do that, too). Some of the pleasure I get bushwhacking is to be fully in my body and part of the landscape. I try to blend in, like a deer. In Carl Jung's "Nature Writings" he talks of the necessity for humans to spend "enough" time in nature to "allow nature in". I like that idea of "letting it in" and bushwhacking intensifies that process.

There is a false summit on the ridge, less than halfway, and when I got up to where I took these photos I was sure I was just below it and near the end of my hike. I was elated that I was making such good time. The birch-balsam forest here was open, too, with the illusion that there was a trail opening up, and I'm thinking, "oh, that was easy. I'm there already!" Then I got a glimpse between the tree tops and there was summit and it was much higher and a long, long way away.

The forest is open 0n the upper ridge with little ground cover, a few ferns, and there is enormous amounts of fallen white birch limbs and trunks, debris including shreds of birch bark lying about everywhere as if there had been a violent storm that ravaged the mountain. It is all moldering back into the soil from whence it came but it is so unusual to see the quantity of it. My thought has been that some kind of "perturbation", an opening caused by a natural force like winds or winter kill, and the birch comes in to fill the opening and, as as the birch is shade intolerant, the balsam soon takes over and out-competes the birch. The birch has completed its task and dies.

Getting close to the summit the trees get closer together and smaller and more difficult to navigate through. It's fun to see how fast you can get through this kind of growth.

The amount of decaying vegetation is considerable. This is a kill zone for a lot of plants because of the exposure to wind and snow. It's a challenging environment, energy-wise, for any kind of production and the turnover is constant.

Gnomes live here and you have to be very quiet when you pass by or they get really pissy and cause all sorts of mischief to be visited upon you (or at least that's what I've been told).

A beautiful, intricate blanket of Reindeer Lichen growing near the summit.

In several places near the summit there was what felt like an old trail. You can see it in this photo. There was no indication that hikers had been there recently but I found one or two saw cuts on fallen trees that had human origins and were made a long time ago, maybe as far back as the 1960s.

The summit. Walking was difficult here because of the blowdowns.

To get any views from this summit means climbing gingerly over masses of fallen trees to find stable footing then holding the camera up at arm's length with one hand and snapping photos randomly. This picture is of North Twin and I was particularly attracted to that huge slide coming down the north face. It kind of beckons to the adventurer in me.

Mt. Hale, where I was back in late March when the Trilliums were just coming out. That's the Willey Range in the background to the right of the Mt. Hale summit.

Mt. Washington and some of the other Presidential peaks were still in morning clouds. The summit, where I was standing was extremely hot but tolerable because it was such a gorgeous summer day, a perfect mountain day, a real treat!

Back down at the cut just after noon with those fleecy clouds streaming over Cherry Mountain.

I plunged through the thick vegetation once again to get down to the open woods below the cut and close to the road and found a lot of these older, more stately trees. There were sugar maples, beech, white and yellow birch and all lovely to see as they're all healthy.

The canopy of this large maple is close to 70 feet up and dense and healthy looking.

New York Fern was everywhere on the ground here. Because of the thickness of the crown (canopy) the herbaceous plant on the ground were not as thick as in other places I had traversed in my hike and the soil was deep and rich with organic matter.

Just above the Little River Road, not far from where I went into the woods in the morning, I came upon two large stands of health Beech trees that were all more than 12 inches DBH and without any signs of beech bark disease.

A 60 foot-high esker or kame, a glacial remnant consisting of gravel and sand left here thousands of years ago by the last continental glacier as it melted in retreat. It's a reminder that we can't travel far in the White Mountains without constant references to the mountain's glacial past.

That's it! It was a lovely hike! I've wanted to climb this mountain for more than 20 years and there's a lot of satisfaction in getting up there and checking it out, finally. I plan to go back now that I know a little moe about it (it would be a great winter hike).

There are a number of things that should be said about bushwhacking that I want to close with that come from experience. First, I am not prosletyzing. I don't want anyone to think of me as advocating that everyone should get out and bushwhack around the White Mountains. It's an activity that takes skill and knowledge. Knowledge and having a really good 'sense' of the area, like being able to recognize landmarks, is critical. Bushwhacking can have serious consequences if not done safely. Please don't bushwhack unless you have the right equipment and knowledge, and unless you are fully prepared to self-rescue. And, don't depend on cell phones to get you out of a squeeze.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Was the first photo of ferns also New York Fern, as in the latter fern photo?