Wednesday, September 16, 2009

9-05-09 Back to the Research on the Gale River Slide and A Quick Trip to Galehead Hut 9-04-05.

I headed back up the Gale River Trail (GRT) last Saturday (9-05-09) with my surveying and measuring tools to continue working on my research project at the site of the 1955 landslide that swept down from Garfield Ridge and across the Gale River during Hurricane Connie. The slide swept trees and topsoil down the mountain and left a denuded landscape and a broad clearing the size of two football fields laid side by side on the flood plain just above the south side of the river. It's my conjecture (I take complete responsibility, in other words) that this denuded area, the post-slide landscape, originally looked a bit like a post glacial landscape. It's also my guess that this landslide landscape would have developed soil and vegetative cover in a sequence similar to the sequence a post glacial landscape would regenerate. Conjectures and suppositions aside the research is trying to observe and measure two things: a.) how long soil development takes, and b.) what is the sequence of plant succession after a major perturbation. In this case soil development and plant succession would be closely related and interdependent processes.

The day was cast in the most audacious light; warm and incredibly brilliant, it poured through all the openings high lighting myriad details in the forest like the leaves on these Evergreen ferns and, in the same moment, the light accentuated and deepened the shadows.

The light was magical. I stumbled (as in not looking at the ground) trying to look at everything.

At first crossing on the Gale River the sun etched the rocks with the shadows of leaves

and the leaves in the canopy were green in the morning light and still singing a rustling, summer song in the wind.

I met this couple just below second crossing. They'd spent the night at Galehead Hut and commented that they "loved the hut". Their only prior experience of mountain huts has been in the French Alps where they've climbed Mt. Blanc and other summits. I was curious that they liked hiking in the White Mountains as much as the Alps because the Alps have those spectacular views of the huge rock faces and perpetually snow clad summits.

The GRT uses an old logging road for the first half of the trip to Galehead and the section of the trail in this photo is a good example. The trail used to be a full 7 miles from trailhead to hut and the first couple of miles were on a fairly level logging road that in wet weather was murder with a heavy pack because the mud came up above your ankles in some places. Now the trail is 4.6 miles long.

As the trail gets closer to the slide at about 2.9 miles from the trail head it begins to ascend more steeply through terrain like this. These boulders are likely from other landslides that have occurred here over millennia.

There are several steep sections along the GRT in the fourth mile as as the trail ascends to and then traverses eastward along Garfield Ridge. There is one section, the last bit up to the ridge, referred to as Jacob's Ladder that was named after a Galehead hutmaster back in the 60s, Steve Jacobs, who often spent afternoons working on the trails near the hut. He was instrumental in creating the Twin Brook Trail which connects the hut with the Franconia Brook Trail. Galehead was never a popular hut for the masses and it was often the case in the 1960s that a day or two would go by without any guests at all and some of the hut croos took to advertising the hut with hand made posters tacked up at local restaurants. To no avail, I should add.

Here's the cuboidal boulder marking the location of the slide. It's also my desk while I'm there doing research. The boulder itself is a remnant of the '55 slide as is the sand, gravel and smaller rocks scattered here.

This is another view of the boulder and the aggregate of material deposited by the 1955 landslide when it slid down into the Gale River. There has been substantial erosion of this material as you can see from the level of the boulder compared to the ground here (and in the next photos).

This is a photo I've displayed before of the slide. I took the photo in November 1968 from the uphill edge of the slide track. It shows that at that time there was nascent vegetation reappearing on the site 13 years after the slide occurred. If you enlarge the picture on your screen you can see sphagnum and other moss growing in the foreground, some birch and alder bushes, a balsam fir in the immediate foreground and more, smaller balsam firs growing in between boulders.

If you enlarge the photo and follow the black line downwards you will come to the boulder that's in the above photos and see a marked difference in the way it's "seated" on the slope. In the photo the boulder is sitting solidly on the ground and there isn't a "moat" around it. Also there is a large rock on the right side that's no longer there. To the left of that boulder there's a cluster of much larger boulders, the same ones in the photo below, that are now closed in by dense balsam fir and red spruce.

This is the set of large boulders seen in the above photo with the trail threading around them. In the 1968 photo you can also see the Gale River Trail edging to the left around these boulders but the configuration of the boulders looks a bit different today then in 1968. I'm not sure if it's an illusion or there has been movement there. At any rate the balsam firs are not there in the old photo.

Then, this is the view from the boulder looking down to the river and up at North Twin. This view point, along with the boulder, is the best way to locate the slide.

As the trail crosses the slide it actually exposes the slide itself and the assorted material the slide brought down the mountain in the form of rocks and gravel, etc. This photo, taken nearly 50 years after the slide, represents pretty much what the slide looked after it ripped down the mountain. Geologists refer to landslides, or slope movement, as "mass wasting".

Let me explain once more that my curiosity in all this is to see if a picture can be created of the post glacial landscape in the White Mountains by trying to imagine what the landscape looked like "the day after the glacier melted". Then, in a long succession, when did the forest begin to appear and what were it's primary features? And, as the forest took form in the lower elevations of the White Mountains what was going on at 5,000 feet? This last part represents my curiosity about the "feldsmeer", those large blocks of stone that are strewn over the peaks and down their flanks, and exactly how it formed, what kind of climate was necessary, and in what time period? Finally, for the Alpine Zone there's the question of what kind of climate created the "island" at 5,000 feet inhabited by all the rare alpine and arctic flowers that only grow here and in Labrador and Greenland, or just here and nowhere else?

Okay, enough with my curiosity. Back to concrete stuff and my research project. These two photos (one up and one below) taken close to the cuboidal boulder show the makeup of the original slide. This photo is of the trail as it crosses the slide.

When it came down off of Garfield Ridge around 11 am on the morning of August 20, 1955 the slide was probably highly plastic in the form of mud highly saturated with water. It had been raining for a week straight as two hurricanes, Connie and Diane, drenched New England. The slide quickly slid down the steep slope from the top of Garfield Ridge and kept going straight across the river and up the opposite bank for several hundred feet. It really would have been amazing, and terrifying, to watch.

There was a hutmen, a Galehead croo member, that almost had an opportunity to watch the slide come down the mountain in person. I believe his name was Parky Blatchford but I've been told it wasn't Parky by a number of crusty old hutmen but they haven't been able to say who it was if not Parky. At any rate, he had hiked down to meet the supply truck that morning. The slide occurred while he was in the valley and for several hours, at least, the the river was dammed up by the slide until there was enough water to blow out the dam and a wall of water descended the valley. The hutman heard it, saw it, dropped his pack board (which disappeared), climbed a tree and sat for an hour while the water dissipated.

The mix here is some pretty hefty rocks measuring 12 inches in diameter but mostly smaller, fist-sized rocks, and some coarse gravel and fine sand. It is mostly granitic in origin. It's particularly dense and difficult to drive even thin stakes into.

I established the first study plot at the front edge of the slide so that it incorporates the trail, the boulder and the upper section of the steep slope that descends to the river. The above photo shows the vegetation at the edge of the opening and on the west side of the GRT. The vegetation is mostly balsam fir with some red spruce and paper birch. There's little diverity of ground cover to speak of and the top soil is only 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches deep and most likely acidic.

The direction North is straight down on this map. The GRT, or Gale River Trail, runs through the plot right of center. The cuboidal boulder is the large square in the middle of the plot. To the right the small cirlces represents each of the trees growing there. To the left of the trail on the map the vegetation is sparse and mostly alder (A. rugosa) mixed with mountain alder (A. crispa). There are also a few cherry trees (Prunus pensylvanica). In the upper left corner of the plot there's a tall red spruce (not shown on the map) with its topmost branches well covered with fresh seed cones.

The vegetation on the right took hours to measure. It's made up of small diameter balsam fir that averages 14 feet tall and with a mean DBH=1.83 inches.

This is what the balsam looks like close up. The total basil diameter of the predominant species is small comparatively. The predominant species in order of volume are: balsam fir, paper birch, red spruce, cherry, and mountain ash. There are no herbaceous plants to speak of with the exception of sphagnum moss and snowberry (see below).

This is the a typical bed of sphagnum but only growing on the western (right on the map) of Plot #1 and adjacent to a brook.

Soil development in Plot #1 is severely limited by the monopoly created by the balsam fir, the lack of herbaceous, annual plants, the marginalization of sunlight by the dense firs, and the"edge effect" of he steep slope that descends to the river where there is evidently erosion. This photo depicts a metaphor for the low level of soil development that's in progress here. The rotting piece of limb probably landed in this spot during a storm..

The brook mentioned above is narrow and shallow and comes down the length of the slide in pretty much a straight line and then bends 90 degrees to the north at the GRT. It is a border between the dense balsam growth and the more open, hardwood forest. West is left in this photo. The GRT is towards the right behind the wall of balsam fir.

The canopy in Plot #2 is 35-40' above the ground. The dominant species is white birch and the mean DBH=6.84 inches.

This is Plot #2 looking North and showing the dense herbaceous growth on the forest floor that's catalyzed by the open canopy and deep, rich soil. The shrubs are: hobble bush, mountain maple,
small balsam fir, and small birch. The predominant herbaceous plants are star flower, aster, and rasberry.

There were several specimen size paper birches in Plot #2 with DBHs of 17.9, 18.1, and 17.8 inches. These are comparatively large trees and are growing on the slide track meaning they have attained these diameters in 50 years starting on a barren site. In the forest on either side of the slide track I measured paper birch with DBHs of 26.7 and 30.5 inches.

Soil development in Plot #2 was not static. The amount of wood decomposing on the ground was healthy. Soil transcepts showed variable depths of between 7 and 11 inches but some of the samples were deceptive because the soil was actually supported by root structures several inches above the actual ground.

This measuring system worked pretty well and you can see where one transcept had a lot of measurements in the 7 inch class and a few in the 10 and 11 inch class. The soil was a sandy loam with a lot of decaying organic matter in the A, or top, horizon. It's probably acidic, like most of the soils in the White Mountains, due to the lack of neutralizing carbonates in the soil emanating from parent rocks. Limestone is more common in the western part of New Hampshire closer to the Connecticut River than in the area covered by the White Mountain National Forest.

Snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula). It forms mats and often interweaves with other low growing plants like this moss. You can just see some of the white snowberries in the upper right corner of the photo.

The snowberry and spagnum moss growing in Plot #1 find a safe niche from hiking boots tucked under some alder.

Not surprising since it was Labor Day weekend and the weather was scintillatingly beautiful I had a lot of company on Saturday. There was almost a constant flow of hikers moving upwards into the afternoon. This guy, I referred to him as a "Techie", was delighted that he had 'service' on his cell phone at this location and became totally absorbed in sending long text messages on his cell phone to someone, somewhere. I wonder if Texting on cell phones might someday become an Olympic event. They could have individual and team events, even sprints and marathon texting events.

Two more "techies" but hiking with GPS in hand (not cell phones) and totally absorbed in continuously reading the distance to their destination and the altitude gained or lost in tiny increments. In all the years I've been hiking I think the introduction of the hand held GPS receiver and the cell phone into the mountains astounds me more than anything else I've seen.

This was Peter and for a minute I thought he might actually be a real gnome, not the ones I often joke about.

A father and daughter duo who were on their way down the mountain after spending the previous night at Galehead and the morning "bagging" a couple of 4,000 footers.

A 'guy group' (there was actually one woman with the group who was hiding from the camera in the back) on their way into the Pemi (the Pemigiwasset Wilderness) for a long weekend of camping.

This hiker turned out to be the mother of one of the fall Galehead croo on her way up to spend the weekend with her daughter.

Another stalwart with his ancient Kelty pack frame that revolutionized backpacking 50 years ago. The kelty was often advertized as the strongest pack on the market and some wildly exaggerated reports were made that it could carry more than 100 pounds. Part of the Kelty pack's design was borrowed from the packboards used by the AMC that are constructed so that the weight can be placed higher on the back of the person carrying the pack.

Dan is carrying about 58 pounds up to Galehead on this AMC packboard. The center of gravity of the load is higher than his shoulders so it comes down more evenly on his spine and is much easier on the body of the packer. Loads of 200 pounds have been routinely carried on these frames and occasionally loads of 300+ pounds have been carried from the Mt. Washington summit downhill to Lakes of the Clouds. The Kelty adopted this feature and made their pack frames taller so the center of gravity could be raised and the weight distributed more evenly on the wearer's back, shoulders and hips. The idea was to put heavier items towards the top above shoulder level. The Kelty was also the first backpack (I believe) to introduce the waist belt that also helped distribute weight onto the hips.

Dan came up the trail with a load of fresh food for the hut as I was finishing my research for the day and he convinced me to hike with him to the hut which I was happy to do. He's the hut naturalist for the fall and his ulterior motive was to get me to do the evening program at the hut. Galehead is my favorite hut and my second home and the trail is an absolute delight.

Just below the hut the trail arches over this granite slab that looks and feels just like a sidewalk and in a few more yards the hut is reached

where you are presented with this view from the front yard of the hut that makes you swoon.

The front yard had its share of exhausted hikers. It's kind of like the bar on the asteroid in the Star Wars movie that was a cross roads of the Universe. Galehead is at the intersection of trails going in four directions all of them somewhat strenuous in length and steepness.

This is the "new" Galehead hut constructed 10 years ago. It's a wonderful, efficient and certainly fitting replacement for the first hut built here in 1932. Last Saturday it was packed to the max as there were several large groups on the guest list and there wasn't a spare bed to be had.

This is Galehead as it looked after if was first constructed in 1932 from red spruce that grew nearby. Zealand was also built that year and with a similar design. With the addition of these two huts a "chain" was created of 8 huts (including Pinkham Notch Camp) extending from Franconia Notch to Carter Notch and located a day's hike apart. The creation of the 'hut system' allowed hikers the option of short or long overnight trips where they didn't have to carry heavy bedding, tents or food and could travel 'light'. Note: There are now eight huts, with the inclusion of Mizpah Spring Hut in 1964-65, AND Pinkham Notch Camp. Pinkham is no longer considered a link in the hut chain as it was in the early days.

Galehead in 1968

and in 1996. As you can see all the log walls were eventually (had to be) replaced between 1961 and 1996. The original spruce logs from 1932 did not fare well on the west and south walls and those had to be replaced first in the mid-1960s. The original logs were still in place in the east wall when the hut was demolished and burned piece by piece during the fall, 1999. Check out the tiny solar panel that was used to run the two-way radios.

Galehead is the remote, 'wilderness' hut, situated the furthest back from civilization of all the huts, and a thus a kind of sanctuary.

It's a lovely place to go and curl up with a book and a cup of tea. It's also a good hut to stay at and use as a base for day hikes.

Galehead's appeal is the wildness of its location and the way it nestles down snugly on the ridge between South Twin and Garfield (not in the photo).

Looking from this vantage point near the summit of Galehead Mountain looking towards South Twin and just focusing on the high number of dead trees visible in pattern that some refer to as waves as in "Fir Waves". This is a topic for later on, but while I am talking about my perceptions of an influx of balsam fir it's interesting to actually look at this picture and see vast number of dead trees in a number of different patterns. There are large kill-zones that attest to the severity of the winds and the climate generally in this topographical location. The kill-zones stretch across the west flanks of both the Twins, but are found on the west and northwest flanks of many of the high peaks throughout the Adirondacks in New York, the Green Mountains in Vermont, the White Mountains, and the high mountains of Maine.

This is a telephoto close up of a tear drop-shaped area of a concentrated number of dead balsams just below the summit of South Twin that's visible in the photo above. In this area of dead trees it is possible to see the regenerative trees, the smaller balsams surging forth. This is characteristic of the successional pattern of growth. Climate inevitably controls this dynamic but geology and topography of the areas where it most commonly occurs play key roles. As an example, some of the kill zones are on sheer ledge where there's little or no purhcase for the balsam fir's root systems. Balsam fir's primary roots are typically shallow in an adaptation to moisture because there's more moisture near the surface then in the deeper soil that is frozen for long periods of the year including a portion of the growing season. We learned this from the krummholz. Steepness of slope has a role in the way it exposes the trees to high velocities of wind. The kill zones also appear on ridge areas where the wind squeezes through between two peaks.

I am interested, too, in how much the logging in the Whites and other mountain ranges mentioned, has played a role in the occurence of these kill zones. In this picture you can see the logging roads that were constructed more than 100 years ago slabbing across the ridge of South Twin. The logging went high up on the slopes, in some cases to the summits, of these mountains and every tree removed, or at least cut down. This was a major perturbation for the mountain soils as they began to "die" from lack of inputs and until the trees began to regenerate on these slopes the soils dried out, eroded and lost their critical vitality. Soils are systems within systems and key components of forest ecosystems.

Speaking of trees, this photograph appeared in the December 1936 issue of Appalachia in an article titled "How It Looks to the Hutmaster" that begins on page 234. The photo was taken by J. G. Blacklock. The amazing thing, or things, are the two huge yellow birch trees growing just behind the hut. Galehead, having been built in 1932, had been on the ridge for four years when the photo was taken. One wonders if the whole ridge was so disposed to birch trees this large. One can also see a wall of smaller balsams surrounding the hut.

I took this picture in the summer of 1961. The birches are gone but the wall of balsam firs remains but without a large increase in size. This could be because the population of balsam firs was stable through those years or, possibly, because they were cut down from time to time by the hut croos to afford better views of Mt. Garfield.

Today the wall of balsam fir's behind the new hut is taller and thicker. Ocasionally in the past 49 years balsam firs near the hut must have been cut down for one reason or another so it's possible the trees in this photo are not entirely the originals in the 1936 or the 1961 photos, but some must be.

In 1968 when I took this photo this dead tree (probably a red spruce) near Galehead hut was a landmark. It speaks to the size of trees once common here despite the extreme climate of the Garfield Ridge. It speaks eloquently to all the trees once covering these mountains, this land. It fell in the winter of 1978.

This is just a little treat, a photo I took in 1968 of the sunset from the top of South Twin looking west to Garfield and the Franconia Ridge.

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