Sunday, January 24, 2010

1-22-10 Data collecting at the Gale River slide research site

It was close to -10 degrees (F) Friday morning when I began the long slog up the US Forest Service access road to the Gale River Trail. The road is not plowed in the winter and adds 1.6 miles to the hike up to Garfield Ridge and beyond. Most winter days the road is noisy with snowmobiles whizzing by in both directions. On the weekends it's gridlocked. Choosing a Friday to hike and getting out early eliminates having to deal with the noise.

My plan was to hike up to my research site at at an old land slide track located 3 miles up the Gale River Trail. The landslide occurred in 1955 (possibly 1954) and I've been studying the soil development along with the plant succession that has occurred there over the past 50 years since the slide. Not that I was going to see any soil. The snow was quite deep. My main focus was to try and find one or more eastern white pine trees (Pinus strobus) within a two mile radius of the site that might account for the 8 small white pine trees found growing part way up the slide track at an altitude of between 2,800 and 3,000 feet. That's high for eastern white pines but not uncommon. I've found them at 3,000 feet, for instance, on North Moat and there's a gnarled, old white pine growing on the ledges just above Zealand Falls Hut at just under 3000 feet . The white pines on the slide track showed up in my sampling last summer (2009). They were someting of anomaly in such a small population that's pretty isolated there. It made me curious how the seeds arrived there and where the seed source might be. Hiking to the site and beyond on a cold winter day without leaves on the trees, I thought, would permit a wide field of vision, enough to spot any specimen-size white pines in a wide radius around the site.

White pine seeds, like a lot of evergreen species, are borne in cones. The white pine cones are fairly large and heavy as pine cones go. The cones' normal dispersion is via wind and gravity and occasionally water. They float but only for short distances. Each cone contains a dozen seeds, or more, that are an excellent food source for a lot of mammals including mice, red and gray squirrels, and it is these gourmets that are the primary mechanisms in the dispersal of the white pine seeds. It's possible, but improbable, that the white pines on the slide track grew from seeds that traveled by gravity and/or wind from a higher altitude so it's a bit of a mystery how they arrived there.

The AMC posted this sign to alert anyone that was about to hike the 4.6 miles to the hut and expecting to find refuge at the hut in the winter. For years the AMC provided refuge rooms, usually the kitchen, at Zealand, Galehead and Carter Notch that were to be used for emergencies only. As I noted before these were trashed regularly and to the extent that it cost the club too much money to leave any part of the huts open during the winter.

Friday was gorgeous, a bit cold, but it defied the words to describe how beautiful it was. The temperature began to climb quickly with the sun's arrival. The sunlight glittering on the deep snow and the winter colors made the woods seem magical.

The research has shifted to more reading on soil development and collating data I gathered last summer. The first thing I did was make a map of the study area with the location of trees by size and specie. The largest tree on the site is a poplar. The highest number of single species is balsam followed by birch. The white birch (B. cordifolia) are larger in size, however, and contribute much more organic matter in the form of leaf litter than the balsams or red spruce. The number of red spruce on the site is small. The mean diameter at breast height (DBH) of the balsam fir and red spruce on these site are both around 2 inches. This is because most of the conifers are under an inch in diameter with few that exceed 4-5 inches in diameter. The variety of species present includes the white pine, red spruce, balsam fir, white birch and poplar already mentioned, plus cherry, mountain and striped maple, and alder.

I came up behind a medium sized (2 years old maybe), healthy-looking male moose a few miles up the trail, just before first crossing. He gave me a quick once-over, stopping and turning his head to gaze at me calmly over his hind quarters before gracefully (and quietly) striding off the trail leaving these tracks.

I followed his tracks for a 100 yards on the off chance of getting a photo but he was not as curious about me as I was about him and he was long gone.

I came to this moose "yard" where there were dozens of tracks crisscrossing an area dense with hobble bush (Vibernum alnifolium) and striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) otherwise known as moosewood. Hobble bush, I read recently, is known in the North as "she-moosewood".

These are the sweet tasting buds of the hobble bush that moose browse on, among other things. How many of these do you think it would take to fill a moose's stomach?

Back to this enchanted place! This is 'first crossing' where the Gale River Trail crosses the Gale. I've heard the US Forest Service might eliminate this crossing and another above here by cutting the trail straight up the west side of the river between the two crossings. The issue has been that during really high water a number of hikers, not able to cross the river, have run into difficulties as they bushwhacked up the west side to avoid the dangerous crossings.

Without foliage and the dense leaf canopy of the summer it's possible to see quite a way into the woods on either side of the trail. I was looking for white pines but occasionally glimpsed large hardwoods like this old, old sugar maple (A. Sacharum) that was 3 feet in diameter (DBH).

It's massive trunk arched up for 75 or 80 feet.

There were several substantial "blow downs" across the trail that slowed me down a bit. These are the results of snow load, uninhibited high winds, and age, and a part of the natural plant succession process.

This is the downhill, northern edge of the slide area. The slide occurred in late August of either 1954 or 1955 after a hurricane saturated the White Mountains with several inches of rain.

Looking up at North and South Twin from the Gale River Trail at the slide site.

The slide path descended a steep slope on the east side of Mt. Garfield and pushed across the Gale River at this spot and dammed the river up for several hours creating a large reservoir on the upstream side. The dam, the material carried down by the slide, was already water saturated so it didn't take long for the pressure on the upstream side to push the gravel aside. When it did a wall of water 4 feet high raced down the valley. A member of the Galehead Hut croo was packing up the trail at the time and heard/saw the flood coming towards him. He dropped his pack board and quickly climbed a tree to escape the torrent.

This is the snow covered boulder that I use to locate the slide, as a baseline for all my height measurements (the top left corner is 2,839 feet above sea level), and as a desk and picnic table.

This is what my study plot #1 looked like on Friday. It was an impenetrable wall of snow anointed trees. The snow was almost 4 feet deep. Not good conditions to make measurements but just spending time there in the woods, thinking, day dreaming, relaxing, was satisfying enough.

One thing I was thinking about was the earlier phase of the plant succession on the site during the first 15 years after the disturbance when the slide occurred. In the early photos of the site that I took and in my memory there's evidence that the first plants to emerge were mosses followed by alder, some balsam and some poplar. It would make sense, then, that the poplars are the larger individual trees on the site. They are fast growing and shade intolerant so usually stake a claim to an opening in the forest quickly. The balsams are slower growing but highly competitive as seen on some of the open summits and ridges where they are taking over as returning colonists.

This was study plot #3 on Friday. (I use the past tense because the weather forecast called for rain on Sunday and Monday so this scene has probably changed dramatically). I tried negotiating this plot on snowshoes but got perilously wet in the process so I retreated. (As you can imagine, it's not cool to get soaking wet when the temperature is below zero and you're 6 miles from the road. I changed my shirt and the wet one I took off froze solid in a minute or two!)

This tree was "wrapped" by snow that looked like a sheet or blanket that had been thrown over the tree to dry the way it is draped there. It has delicate folds in it as well and looks like it has been sculpted (wind?) and has a plastic consistency

The trail leading out to the uphill, southern edge of the slide track. It cuts through another of the study plots. This is where you can easily see the larger of the average diameters of the balsam firs on the site. These average 3-5 inches in diameter. They've crowded into this "edge" of the site because there's a lot more available sunlight but they've also crowded each other out.

Correlating the DBH data I have with soil depth I've observed a couple of things. One is that there is no soil to speak of under the balsam firs and red spruces where they grow in profusion. The soil in those areas of balsam fir dominance has a mean depth of 1.75 inches. In the study plots where the dominant canopy species is white birch the mean soil depth is 5.5 inches. Going by DBH the figures, then, are what one would expect. The larger the mean DBH in a study plot, or the studied area, the greater the depth of soil. Also, and most important, the soil in the areas with the higher mean DBH have an A horizon of particulate organic matter and a deeper B horizon. In other words the larger DBH areas have better soil and more of it.

Traveling higher on the ridge was slow going and at time require getting down on hands and knees to push through snow crushed balsams. In numerous places the trail just seemed to end.

In the research of soil development and plant succession Goldthwait and Ugolini did in Glacier Bay back in 1966 they found that immediately following the ablatement of a glacier the first plant succession was shade intolerant, pioneer species like willows (Salix spp.) alder (Alnus incana), with a ground cover of mosses, ground pine and some rushes. Ugolini described this as the "shrubby stage" which was followed by a stage of dense thickets of alder. The end stage was mature stands of Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). Under each succession Ug0lini found different soils. He wrote, "The purpose of this report is to illustrate in a qualitative and quantitative way the changes affecting the disorganized assemblage of soil material left by the ice (glacier) as it became a soil with definite porperties and genetic characteristics." My study of the landslide is to determine the time lines for the changes that occurred in the "disorganized soil" deposited by the landslide as it began the process of stabilizing to become a soil again with different horizons and a developed profile parallel to plant succession leading to reforestation.

I didn't see one white pine tree between the trail head and Garfield Ridge but my hike was well worth the effort anyway. This photo underlines the pleasures of hiking the Gale River Trail, even a long hike on snowshoes, and the pleasure, as I've said many times, is to be immersed for hours in this beauty and to feel the deep silence and peace of this remote area of the mountains.

Friday was really gorgeous. After my hike I drove south through Crawford Notch and caught this view from Bretton Woods of (left to right) Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Clay, Mt. Washington, and Mt. Monroe with the famous Bretton Woods Hotel and resort in the foreground. A few moments before I took the photo a dog sled carrying two people crossed the broad lawn in front of the hotel.

From another view point along the highway in Crawford Notch I took this photo of Mt. Monroe (on the left) and Mt. Washington. They look remarkably different from this angle. Richard Goldthwait identified the two ravines visible in this photo, the one on Mt. Monroe and the larger one, which is Oakes Gulf, on Mt. Washington, as glacial cirques that contained smaller, alpine glaciers like the ones in Bumpus Basin on the north side of Mt. Madison and the small glacier in Madison Gulf.

This is compressed about 3 times and shows details of Oakes Gulf with it's numerous gullies. The top of Boott Spur is in on the right side of the photo. Also, this is the upper Dry River watershed.

This is world famous view of Mt. Washington across the intervale in Intervale just north of North Conway! Compare it to the pair of photos earlier in the blog taken in late summer, one in 1957 and the other in 2009.

On my way home Saturday afternoon via Route 118 which climbs and descends a shoulder of Mt. Moosilaukee I stopped as usual at this viewpoint for one last glimpse of Mt. Washington. The photo was compressed as a telephoto.

This is the same view in wide angle showing the entire Franconia Range (with Mt. Lafayette far on the left), the Bonds and Mt. Washington.

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