Thursday, August 27, 2009

8-21-09 The Sequel: Leaving Lakes

The next morning, at 5:30 am the hut was engulfed in thick fog. This was looking across the larger of the two Lakes of the Clouds. It could be a scene from the Maine coast.

It began to clear at 6 am and it this sequence of photos it almost does clear....

but then the clouds came down again and the fog continued.

This is bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, with fall colors.

I took this photo on the lower part of the mountain to show how the plant got it's name which is from the bunch of red berries that form at the end of flowering stage. The berries are edible but not particularly tasty. They feed a vast contingent of birds and rodents.

Marsh marigold leavesbeginning to turn red along the Ammonoosuc high up on the mountain.
More alpine goldenrod.

A milky cap mushroom emerging from the tundra.

A little clump of wet kleenex looking like a milky cap emerging from the tundra.

Alpine 'lawn" in fall colors with lichen, deer's hair (Scirpus cespitosus) and dwarf billberry (Vaccinium cespitosum).

Boott's Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes boottii).

Black spruce (P.mariana) drenched with cloud water and located in a low, wide clump of krummholz not far from Lakes of the Clouds. The amount of water "clutched" by the needles indicated how welladapted the spruce is to the local climate but also indicates a strategy the tree has for obtaining needed water when, despite the high amount of precipitation that occurs in the White Mountains, most of the rain water becomes run-off because of the poor soils. Trees and plants have to have their root systems close to or on the soil surface in order to obtain sufficient moisture. Krummholz is the name of the mats of spruce and fir trees that represent the upper reach of woody plants in higher elevations.

This is a typical clumb of krummholz. Monahan and others have stressed that wind is the primary factor governing the existence of timberline in the White Mountains. That means wind prohibits black spruce, balsam fir, and dwarf and alpine birch (the principal trees comprising krummholz) from extending their range(s) to higher areas of these mountains. The impact of various limiting factors on trees at upper altitudes and the relationship of those factors to one another comprise what we call the ecology of timberline. Moisture is one limiting factors that has not been studied enough. The AMC is currently beginning to study how water moves through krummholz, how much water is retained and how acidic the water is that seeps out of the krummholz. More generally the study will investigate what happens to water/moisture in it's relationship to krummholz and other alpine plants.

This bit of black spruce next to the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail below Lakes of the Clouds hut looks like it has been planted in a rock garden but the visual context of the trees is representative of how adaptive the trees are in utilizing and/or minimizing limiting factors such as wind, light, temperature and moisture. This particular mat of krummholz has hunkered down near the rocks out of the wind and in a place where it gets maximum sunlight and moisture.

This looks like a common grass one would find in pastures, and I'm not sure what it is. It is either mountain blue grass or mountain hair grass, but the point is that it is frequently found at the edges of krummholz and probably uses the krummholz for a protective shield and a source of moisture. I have even found this grass when crawling through the center of a clump of krummholz.
These two photos, the one above and the one below, demonstrate the success of krummholz in particular sites where limiting factors, what I refer to as stressors, are minimized. Both communities of krummholz utilize surrounding rock ledges for wind breaks and also pick up a lot of moisture as run-off from the rocks. The air temperature is, on any given day, probably warmer in these sites as well.

An aspect of this discussion on timberline dynamics and krummholz in general, for me, still begs the question about soils and substrates and their role in determining where these plants grow, or how they might determine where specific species of plants grow. Soils in the alpine zones are frail and thin and leached out so I'm curious how soil development has impacted the island communities of krummholz particularly since soil development in the alpine zone climate is extremely slow at best.

In the pollen record of northern New England there is evidence that following ablation of the last continental glacier 11,000 years ago that tundra prevailed here even at low elevations for a thousand years or more. That could explain the presence of what are now rare alpine-arctic flowers in the uplands here and the idea that the alpine zones of the Presidentials, Franconia Ridge, Katahdin and the Adirondacks are ecological 'islands' that remain as remnants of a vast ecosystem, or a patchwork of ecosystems, that during a climate shift survived only at the highest, coldest, most extreme elevations.

A clump of krummholz close to the hut. The Crawford Path cuts through this small 'forest' of balsam fir and black spruce.

For about 30 seconds the sun burst forth in a ray of hope for the coming day and it warmed up the guests and the dining room during breakfast before the gloom returned and the morning continued cloud bound.

So, after breakfast and saying my goodbyes to the croo and, given the day's weather forecast, I headed down the mountain in the mist.

Hiking in fog changes my perspective of things. I notice more of what's at hand when the wider vista is denied. I spotted this alpine birch growing happily in a small cleft between the rock ledges. It is out of the wind but can pick up moisture from the clouds and has a fairly good layer of soil for nourishment.

Young hikers coming up the trail after camping nearby. Their is no camping above timberline or near Lakes of the Clouds and these young men, on a five day trip through the Presidentials, were pretty vague where they camped the night before. My conclusion is that it is easier to use an established illegal campsite even if you're a conscientious person, even if it's close to the trail, if you believe, or know, that the chances of getting caught are nil.

Cascading water has such a lovely sound. This small cataract has run like this all summer because of the rain and it has created a small eden, too, with thick and tall Spirea, marigolds, and goldenrod, all of which were still in bloom.

This is a scene that probably wouldn't get your attention if it was sunny and their were views of neighboring peaks. In the mist it's quite fetching in its own way with all the pointed balsam firs.

More hikers braving the weather. This pair was hoping to have a window before the bad weather moved in to make the summit.

The trail down is sometimes more challenging than the trail up.

Yellow leaves on the trail is a sign of the changing seasons which in the mountains are always in transition.

After my experience yesterday of seeing the ugly scar the road beside the cog railway has made I am more and more sensitive to the larger discussion about social and economic impacts on the White Mountains. I think of the National Forests as part of The Commons, meaning they don't belong to anyone, but all of us. We regulate them. We're all involved (and joined) by the responsibility of overseeing them. I think of all the hikers and the hut croos as being overseers of the White Mountains as much as I think of the US Forest Service as part of the overseers. So the scar up the mountain needs to be legislated. An inquiry has to be made. The mountain(s) has to be protected from over use, greed, all unsustainable activities, or it will vanish as something of immeasurable value to us all. It will become a comodity to the few.

When I see illegal campsites like the one in the above photo that is literally on the trail.....

and pits where illegal fires have been fed by those who camp here then I ask the question: how do we legislate the commons? How it is possible to legislate and protect without getting lost in rules and laws and enforcement (and the exorbitant cost of all that)? How can we all take part to protect what is ours in the most equitable way possible? How can we keep these fragments of the commons that remain as reminders of our common unity?

Near the trail head, as I continue down, there are fungi engaged in decomposing things,ever making and healing the soil. They're astonishing in their diversity and form, not to mention function. For most of us they represent an unknown and mysterious. Some, as we know, are deadly and others, like the one in this photo, Hericium ramosum, are good to eat. Some are beautiful and some are truly ugly, and they all have a single purpose: to sustain the Earth.

One of my teachers in Mycology (mushrooms/fungi), Rick Van de Poll, used to take our class to these big mushroom events. These included three day gathering over the October 12th weekend where hundred of mushroom fanatics would come and camp and go off into the woods everyday to bring back hundred of different mushrooms. I was astonished by the numbers of mushrooms that would be collected. Some people only collected the edible varieties. Some collected the rare mushrooms, but put all together and the diversity was mind boggling. My favorites were what Rick taught us to call LBMs: the Little Brown Mushrooms which were too difficult to key out.

Identifying mushrooms is tricky. It takes a lot of practice and it also helps a lot to have an expert close at hand with whom one can test their conclusions. The books that are out now are excellent. I use Roger Phillip's Mushrooms of North America as a bible. It's too large to carry into the field but it's the best reference mainly because it has the best photos. It's fool proof.

I'm throwing in this photo because it has to do, a little, with how the Commons are regulated today: a smattering of rules explained with a gentle touch along with some art work to make them more palatable. Then the hard and fast, no-nonsense rule about camping that spells everything out overtly off to one side. I wonder how many potential campers take the sign about camping seriously. I don't think very many of them do.


Philip Werner said...

We seem to be hiking in the same places this year. I found the bit about Feldsmeer to be very interesting. Keep up the writing and photos. I really enjoy your blog.

Is there any way you could let me leave a Name/url identity for comments? I don't really use my google blogger identity very much.

Alex MacPhail said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex MacPhail said...

Hi Phil, I'll have to research your question. As far as I know you can only leave comments signed as Anonymous or with your blogger id. Kind of a pain, huh? I'm sure there's another way--we'll just have to find someone who knows. Best, Alex