Sunday, August 9, 2009

8-07-09 Full Moon over the Pemigewasset Wilderness

Two a.m. Friday morning (8-07-09) found my daugher, Liz, and I hiking up the Zealand Trail on our way up to Zeacliff just for the simple pleasure of seeing the Pemigiwasset Wilderness under a full moon. The view from Zeacliff is astonishing at any time but under a full moon in winter or summer (or in between), particularly when the night is very, very still, it's even more breath taking and a rare treat.

We used headlamps for the first mile where the woods are dense and we fooled around taking pictures of things that look ordinary in daylight but eerie in the headlamps' beam.

The headlamps made everything look underwater (and scary).

At the Zig Zag Bridge we were able to switch off the headlamps and go most of the remaining miles just using the moonlight. It was bright enough to take these pictures by hand holding the cameras.

Zeacliff from the Zealand Trail at the Zig Zag Bridge.

Some of our experiments using headlamps for photographing produced artistic results and some didn't. In the back of our minds we were both wondering if we were going to bump into any large mammals, larger than us, in the dark and we thought that by fooling around we deceased the chances of any surprises.

We stopped at Zealand Hut and sat on the steps for a few minutes. It was eerily quiet, and a little spooky, so we moved upwards into the moonlight.

I've done the Twinway Trail above Zealand Hut at night many times over the years for various reasons. It's a steep trail but I always find that it has a certain grace, an ease, that is equal to the reward one gets at the top.

We reached the top a around 3:30 a.m. and sat in awe looking out over the wilderness around us in the moonlight. It was absolutely still even though only a thousand feet above us clouds were moving rapidly from west to east. We didn't have the ledges to ourselves as there were a number of AT thru hikers camping (illegally) there, but there was enough room to sit. I passed out and froze for an hour while Liz waited for the light to change. She took the above photo around 5 a.m. just as the moon was setting.

Carrigain is one of the most conspicuous and lovely mountains in the Whites, I think, and it has a grace like Mt. Adams that is compelling. It draws you in. It was logged to its very summit more than a hundred years ago and nearly every tree was removed from its flanks. After that insult it's probably just at the end of the initial stage of forest and plant succession and its return to a former state of health and stability. If I could go back to any time in history I'd go back a 1000 years and climb Carrigain to see what the forest were like that covered the mountain then. It must have been amazing.

The daylight grows by increments like our sense of wonder.

Liz took this picture (and the next) with her Nikon. That's the summit of Mt. Washington to the left and it is clear enough so we could see (and you can, too) the towers and buildings on the summit. The Willey range, still asleep, is between the camera lens and Mt. Washington.

Then the sun eases up and the warmth is instantaneous. Around 4 a.m. until the sun actually appeared the temperature was below freezing and I, for one, was really, really cold and wishing I had brought warmer stuff to wear. (well, I make stupid mistakes sometimes)

With the sun comes the full spectrum of light and all the colors that make you swoon.

Carrigain with a wide angle lens. This is looking due south from Zeacliff so besides Carrigain we're looking at the following mountains from left to right: Nancy, Anderson, Lowell, Bemis, Vose Spur (part of the Carrigain ridge line) Carrigain, then a dip and long ridge up to the Hancocks. In the background are Moat (on the left) and Passaconway (right).

Zealand Notch and Whitewall Mountain are in the shadow area. In the distance is Stairs Mountain at the lower end of the Montalban Ridge running due south from Mt. Washington.

We had a blissful quiet for more than an hour before these thru hikers stirred from their sleeping bags. They knew it was illegal to camp here (it's within the Wilderness area and camping within 200 feet of a trail is prohibited) but at the same time they made themselves pretty comfortable. (for info on camping see the AMC White Mountain Guide or call the AMC in NH at 603-466-2721 and ask for the information desk.)

Elizabeth at 20.

Balsams love Zeacliff. It's Balsam Heaven. I discussed this a bit ago in the blog about the phenomenal return of balsam fir to many summits in the White Mountains over the past 20-30 years. I'm continuing to research this and feel that the influx of balsam is part of a natural succession process going back to the intensive logging in the late 1800s and two major fires, in 1887 and 1903, that burned here or near here. A few people are pointing at Global Warming as a causal factor but I want o be more cautious in making my conclusions.

I consider the summit of Mt. Bond (the high point on the left) as the center of the "Pemi" (meaning the designated Wilderness area) and the view from the top of Bond as one of the finest view in the Whites. You can see everything from there (except the Eiffel Tower).

This is a large rib of Conway Granite carved by the glacier on the summit of Zeacliff and even though it has weathered for thousands of years you can see the glacial gouges clearly with this angle of light.

Tree roots have only a thin layer of soil on top of Zeacliff to bury themselves in so they cross these open ledges on top of the rock. You can see that the soil is mostly weathered granite "sand" with some organic matter mixed in in the top, O Horizon. The soil development process is in a dynamic state here and related to plant succession as the population of coniferous and deciduous trees, and the herbaceous plants increases they help build soil. So, instead of back in time, think 1000 years from now and what the top of Zeacliff will look like then!

Here is a real "edge effect" where the trail cuts a line across the spagnum-lichen mat. The ledge is sloping downwards from the summit of Zeacliff and you can see the evolution of plant life over the past 50 years or so, in an instant. It's kind of cool to see the mosses and then the small conifers and then the larger conifers towards the back and a few deciduous trees as well. Trail clearing efforts over the year have certainly played a role here, it isn't completely natural, but it's still a good snapshot for understanding the stages.

Broken chunks of slab form a natural staircase on the Twinway leading up to the summit of Zealciff.

A Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana) has found a niche inbetween two piece of broken slab.

A rose is a rose is a rasberry (eventually).

A well used and illegal camping area a few feet off the Twinway.

This was a fire circle at the illegal campsite but it looks like it hasn't been used recently but using it would also be illegal and carries a pretty major fine if the camper/fire user is caught by the right (or wrong) person. It's an interest place to stand. I recall when people camped and built fires (and were okay as long as they had fire permits) all over the White Mountains except within the Alpine Zone and adjacent areas. The AMC and USFS teamed up in the 1970s to curtail camping within 200 feet of well used trails and prohibited campfires in these areas. Restrictions in official wilderness areas (like Zeacliff) are even more stringent. Enforcement is lagging due to the present economy.

There was fresh moose poop at the campsite as well.

A dead white birch leans against a balsam fir. This is that phenomenon I've mentioned as in last weeks entry. This photo offers a direct link to the idea that the balsam out competes the birch for sunlight but I am not certain that's the entire story. (a work in progress)

The grace one feels on the Twinway here at night, even in the winter, is duplicated during the day. It's lovely. It's a bit strenuous if you've got a heavy pack but it goes by quickly, too.

Above Zealand Falls Hut are these falls. There are more falls above these but this is where the Twinway crosses the brook. You can follow the Twinway down to the hut or descend the last 1/4 mile by (carefully) hiking down the ledges and checking out the various pools and pot holes that on a hot day are so welcome to one's feet and body. The water is icy cold but if you're hot and sweaty it's totally worth it if, just once, you duck your torso into one of the bathtub sized potholes even if only for a millisecond.

A spectacular chunk of Conway granite just off the trail. Sitting on it feels a little like sitting on a whales back or on one of Alexander Calder's bronze reclining figures at the Chicago Art Institute!

One of the falls. The pool at the bottom is lavish and exotic. You can actually swim in it.

Looking down at the same pool from the other side of the brook.

Whe we got to the hut it was clouding up and the overnight guests were packing accordingly. This group was heading up over Zeacliff and on to Galehead Hut for the night, a six mile hike over several mountains and through some lovely backcountry.

These guys didn't say where they were off to but they were fit!

Some more fauna. A small (tiny) bumblebee rested on Liz's sleeve. Bumble bees are, of course, essential and particularly here in the wilderness where they are the symbol of the future

Where there are bees there are spiders and they're essential, too. I wrote a paper that imagined the land in the immediate aftermath of the glacier melting as a land of hard granite ledges and polished mountains where soil emerged from rain running down the rocks and breaking off bits of sand that filled tiny cracks and a few lichens and mosses grew just as we have seen on Zeacliff. And the first fauna were flying insects that were followed closely by spiders and then came the birds following the spiders, etc, etc. It was fiction and fun to write, as fun as it is now to think about while waiting out a sudden shower.

No sooner had the hikers hit the trail then a brief "thumper" (thunderstorm) swept down the notch.
It was over in an instant.

Just long enough to give Nate Brown the motivation to start making bread for the day.

Then the sun was out again.

We could see more showers in the west but decided to continue back down to the trail head anyway.

There were some late season colors even though the Valley is at a fairly low elevation.

Asters are blooming everywhere en masse. This is flat topped aster (Aster umbelatus) which is common throughout the area at low to medium high altitudes. It is one of three white flowered asters and their ranges overlap.

The flat topped aster is easy to key out because of its long narrow leaves that have no teeth. The edges of the leaves are smooth. The flat topped aster, as in the upper photo often grow to five feet. Like the other white asters in the White Mountains they flower in August and September. A look-alike is the Wood Aster (Aster acuminatus) distinguishable by it sharply toothed leaves. A third white aster is the White Wood Aster (Aster divaricatus), also common and again, the leaves are what distinguishes it from the Flat Topped and Wood Aster as they are almost heart shaped rather than narrow and pointed.

Another member of the Rose Family: Spirea latifolia.

Joe-Pye-p (Eupatorium maculatum) about to flower. It will produce dark blue-to black berries that yield a dark liquid that stains everything it touches and that can be used as ink.

If you compare this photo a recent one in the blog you can see that the width of the stream has doubled since the other photo and the water level of the brook has risen quite a bit. So, the beaver are back!

Fresh beaver signs. They like the young alder branches and sink them where they'll be handy.

Another storm approaches.

And soaks us.

Turtle Head (Chelone glabra) get it's name for the shape of the flowers.

Young alder (Alnus rugosa) leaves. One of the favorite leaves of beavers. Two species of alder are indigenous to the White Mountains. This one is the more commo. The other is mountain, or green alder (Alnus crispa) found in alpine areas along streams.

Alder after a shower.

Mt. Tom in the distance from the Zealand Trail with a storm still dropping rain.

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