Sunday, March 28, 2010

3-27-10 Percy Peaks

It felt good to be driving North to the mountains again after a 3 week hiatus and to enjoy the wonderful but simple pleasure of sunrise as it fanned out in salmon and orange behind Smarts Mt. and Mt. Cube just north of Hanover, NH. By Hanover I still hadn't decided where I was going to hike for the day (Saturday 3-26-10) and I didn't decide until I got to St. Johnsbury. On the way up Interstate 91 there were glimpses of Moosilauke, Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge all lathered with snow that looked like fluffy, white Betty Crocker frosting and that beckoned to me but in the end I decided on the Percy Peaks. I last ventured that far north above the Whites to climb North Percy in 2006. The last time I made a winter-like ascent was back in 1967. A problem with a winter (or early spring in this case) ascent is that Nash Stream Road (photo above) is closed until May and to get from the end of the paved road to the trail head is a 3 mile-long slog. All the same, a brisk walk on a cold spring morning is a gift in itself. It was 12 degrees (F) in Groveton at 8 am and probably the same along Nash Stream and it would be close to 5 or 6 degrees (F) on the summit of N. Percy which, for me, is ideal for hiking.

I've always thought that Nash Stream Road, at one time, had been the bed of a logging railroad but from from the research I've done I've never been able to find definitive information that a railroad went into the Nash Stream watershed. The road certainly has the feelingit was a railroad bed. In the 1890s The Upper Ammonoosuc Lumber Company built a railroad into the Kilkenny basin to harvest the last big black spruces in what's now the Kilkenny Wilderness and that's near Nash Stream. That company also did a lot of harvesting between Stark and Groveton, also in the late 1890s, but there's no record of that outfit building a railroad up Nash Stream. Fran Belcher in his "Logging Rail Roads of the White Mountains" (AMC 1980) makes no mention of one, either.

Nash Stream drains out a huge area in the northern part of New Hampshire. It's a great trout river if you happen to fish and in high water, like this, is navigable by kayak. Last Saturday it was singing with that full, loud voice you hear during spring thaw or after heavy rains in summer and fall.

Something worth noting is the high banks, this one on the west side of the river, that are nearly 100 feet high and that consist of glacial till. At this point we're about 25 miles northwest of the Presidential Range and Mt. Washington, and these high sand and gravel banks are probably what was once the bottom of a glacial lake. The Connecticut River, once a formative part of Glacial Lake Hitchcock, is just five miles west of Nash Stream at this point. Nash Stream dumps into the Connecticut River at Groveton, NH.

This guy's name is Ray. I was surprised to see him coming towards me when I was two miles up the road and pretty far from the main road. He said he walks his dogs up along the river every morning. During our conversation he raised his hands in dismay over a massive clear cutting operation he said is currently happening on state owned forest land near his home. He called it a tragedy and said he's been writing letters to the local newspapers and trying to talk to the forestry commission but no one returns his phone calls. We talked for a quite a while. He's a passionate, knowledgeable guy, who sees himself as an environmentalist and admits being frustrated but certainly not shy or afraid to speak his mind.

With the road behind me there's that deeply satisfying moment of finally being on the trail!

I first heard about the Percys from Casey Hodgson who I already introduced in this blog. Casey worked at the "Obs" (Mt. Washington Weather Observatory) in the early 1960s along with Guy Gosselin, Willie Harris, and others and I've told the story of how one afternoon a passenger who had just come up to the summit on the cog railway passenger raced over to the observatory and in great excitement asked Casey where all the rocks on top of Mt. Washington came from. Casey in a matter of fact tone quickly replied, "The glacier brought 'em." The city slicker, to his credit, walked around the summit for a bit and, scratching his head, looked all around the summit and down the steep summit cone towards the valleys. Finally he came running back to Casey to ask, "Well, where's the glacier now?" Without so much as an intake of breath or the slightest pause Casey replied, "Gone back for another load."

The forest floor near the bottom of the trail. Do you recognize any of the dry leaves? I can see beech, maple, cherry, poplar and birch. The fern is evergreen woodfern, or mountain woodfern (Dryopteris spinulosa var. americana), that's pretty much everywhere in the Whites.

One summer day in 1961 Casey asked me if I wanted to go up and check out the Percys and, of course, I said yes. We agreed that the next time we had days-off at the same time we'd hop in his car and go climb the Percys. Well it turned out that when I had a day off he didn't, or vice versa, until just before a Saturday in mid-July when I asked him if he wanted to go "do the Percys?" His face lit right up and he said "Yeah, I've got Saturday off! We can go up Saturday morning." Everything was settled when he suddenly exclaimed, "Wait a minute, I'm getting married Saturday morning." There was a slight moment of confusion but then his face lit up again and he said, "but we could go Saturday afternoon!"

The trail climbs steeply to a flat shelf above the level of the river where the vegetation is mixed hardwoods and mostly birch (B. cordifolia) beech (F. grandifolia) ("folia" means leaf by the way so grandifolia just means 'big leaves'), and sugar maple (A. saccharum).

The snow pattern and how it lingers in some places and not others is interesting. There could be myriad reasons for this beginning with the wind direction, temperature, etc. when the snow was initially falling. The 'pit and mound' contour of the ground plays a role. This contouring is created by the soil, by seasonal flowing of rain water and snow melt, by logging in some cases, and by thousands of years of trees getting blown over in storms and decaying where they fall. The roots of the decaying trees and/or stumps of trees taken out by logging make the mounds and the pits are holes where the tree's roots were torn from the ground. Shading or exposure from direct sunlight also plays a role in these snow patterns.

After climbing gently for a mile and a half the trail comes to these ledges that slant upwards at a pretty good pitch, about 45 degrees, and provide a long ramp right to the summit. When Robert and Miriam Underhill first blazed a trail up the Percys they took the most direct route so the ledges here were once part of the main trail to the top of North Percy. The ice would make it tricky to navigate the ledges without crampons or similar forms of traction.

A little ways above the icy section the ledges were smooth and dry. like a sidewalk, and certainly serviceable as a trail. The question was how much ice would there be even further up. Looking at North Percy from Groveton it was pretty well capped with snow and ice.

In the 1980s a new trail was cut that parallels the ledges for 1/2 mile and then veers away from the ledges and heads in a southeasterly direction up to the col between South and North Percy. Since I was alone and no one knew where I was and the main road was miles away I decided to be safe and take the trail rather than head up the ice crusted ledges as I am used to doing. If I fell and broke something I'd have a pretty long limp back to the car.

The southwest flank of the Percys has some superb large, older-growth trees that apparently were out of reach of loggers. These red spruce (P. rubens) towered above me. If you look closely you can see a lot of die-back on the upper and lower limbs. I don't know the cause in this instance but will try and find out.

Here's another of what I call a rogue white pine (P. strobus) growing close to 2850' just like the 3 or 4 specimens I found on the Gale River slide track. This tree is much larger then any on the Gale River site and quite a beauty. Its growing in a well drained, warm site, with some protection from northwesterly winds but, due to its extraordinary height, is still quite exposed. You can see the "flagging" of the upper branches that form that way, all pointing in the same direction, from the constant wind.

At the height of land in the col between north and south Percy the slope leveled off and the trees formed a nice glade where I found recently made ski tracks.

Sorry! I know I torture everyone with all the photos I include of sunlight on snow. It's just that in some quaint way I find this ephemera evocative of something.

This was an old and fairly largewhite birch (B. cordifolia) with heart-shaped leaves. It's dead and has been for some time. As in other places in the White Mountains that I've written about the birch and its competitive struggle with conifers like spruce and balsam fir here in the col it's also been edged out by the spruce and fir which are more efficient at competing for available sunlight.

South Percy from the col.

Ascending a little way up North Percy and out of the col this view appeared. I was barely out of the trees here and starting up the ledges. That's Mt. Washington on the left at a distance of about 25 miles. The interesting thing is that from this angle Mt. Jefferson is directly in front of Mt. Washington so they are seen as one mountain. The line of sight is directly into Castle Ravine of on Jefferson's northwest side. You can even see the castles. Mt. Monroe is to the right of Mt. Washington. The forested area between the Percys and the Presidentials comprises most of the Kilkenny Wilderness with Mt. Cabot (4170') to the right of center. The sharp peak in the center is The Horn (3905').

Looking a little to the right of Mt. Washington on the skyline is the distinctive form of Carter Notch, often called 'Gun Sight Pass' with the Wildcats to the left of the notch and Carter Dome and South, Middle, and North Carter all to the right of the notch.

It's a fairly short, brisk hike up the open ledges to the summit of North Percy. The granite offers good traction and lots of hand and foot holds so is relatively easy to climb. There are a few places where it's a little airy but they're all safe. Lately, in the summer the mountain gets visited by hundred of hikers. There was a time when more bears visited the summit then people. When I worked in the huts I used to spend at least one set of days-off (3 days and 2 nights) camping on the summit to gorge myself on the plush blueberries and would often be in the company of an occasional black bear. You could literally eat berries all day on North Percy and there would still be plenty more, a seemingly infinite supply.

This shows the average grade of the ledges and it also show remnants of trees that grew here that were not successful and brings us back to the discussion about the natural history of the bare, open summits in the White Mountains. We talked about the top of Zeacliff, Mt. Hale, Carter Dome, and now include North Percy.

In the June 1953 Appalachia an article (that I stumbled on recently) I found an article titled "Barren Mountain Tops in Maine and New Hampshire" by Charlie Forbes that takes a look at the question of why some lower altitude summits are barren, like Mts. Cardigan, Moat, and the Percys, while the summits of much higher mountains are forested.

Looking over at South Percy with the Kilkenny Wilderness stretching out in the background towards the south.

To the east the entire Mahoosuc range is stretched across the skyline from Mt. Hayes on the far right to Old Speck on the left. The pointed summt that looks a bit higher than Old Speck is Mt. Goose Eye, another barren summit. The Mahoosucs run north and south along the Maine state line so that we are looking across the entire state of New Hampshire at this point. The white areas on the flanks of the Mahoosucs are areas of clear cutting that were logged off during the last decade. The trees were harvested mainly to be made into pulp for manufacturing toilet paper.

Christine Lake with the Carter-Moriah ridge (right), the Wildcats and the northern Presidentials (left) in the background.

I climbed the Percys the first time in the summer of 1961 without Casey. I borrowed a friend's car and drove over from Pinkham Notch. David Swift, the car's owner, wanted it back by late afternoon leaving me a total of three hours to drive, hike, and drive back. I was in great shape then and made it to the top of North Percy in under 1/2 hour and decided to go down the south side to check out the south summit and I found an old trail that looked interesting. Without paying a lot of attention (any?) I started down the trail and ended up on the shore of Christine Lake. I was three miles away from the car. Panicked I put on all the speed I could and followed logging roads that ran in a westerly direction, leaping over fallen logs like a hurdler. I came out on the Nash Stream Road just a 1/4 mile from the car. I got back to Pinkham in the allotted time and never had to tell anyone that I got lost on the Percys.

Half way up the ledges on the southeast side of North Percy there is ample evidence that fir and spruce have tried to colonize in specific niches where deformities exist in the granite slabs, either cracks or small 'sinks' and level areas. While some of these trees survive they don't ever thrive and most die leaving forlorn stumps and exposed, sun bleached root systems.

I'm going to quote what I think is a fascinating paragraph from Charlie Forbes' Appalachia article: "It is interesting to note that during the years that have intervened since the retreat of the last continental ice sheet, the northward migrating flora has been able to establish itself in its various types all over the northeastern mountains with the possible exception of the summit of Katahdin, parts of the Mt. Washington range, Mt. Mansfield, and Mt. Marcy. Even today the slow process of plants re-establishing themselves on these highest peaks is still in progress, but this struggle is so slow that the ordinary span of a man's life is rather insignificant when considered in this program of Nature.

Because of the gradient soil has a hard time sticking to the smooth granite slabs and it can only develop marginally in the random pockets like these. In these cases the thin, gravelly soil can support some vibernum (e.g. blueberries), lichen and mosses. In some of the pockets there are small balsam fir (A. balsamea) trying to make a start.

CF article continued: "Irving Blake has presented an interesting study in Appalachia, December 1931, entitled "Biotic Succession on Katahdin," where he describes "the dynamic process of ecological succession." From this article may be obtained a clear picture of the biotic communities found on Katahdin and how they are advancing up the mountain. Blake states that "the altitude of Katahdin is not sufficient, in itself, to prevent the establishment of a typical northern coniferous forest biota as a climax." Another ecologist, LeRoy H. Harvey, wrote in 1901, referring to Katahdin, "it is largely the element of time that retards the forestation of the very summit."

As the gradient changes to one less steep just shy of the summit there's more vegetation present. Although a number of dead spars stick up on the horizon there are a host of balsam firs, short and bushy, making an effort to grow in this somewhat hostile environment at 3000 feet.

This is a typical micro-community that consists of balsam fir, vaccinium (blueberry), labarador tea, spirea, reindeer lichen and several mosses that has established itself in on protected site that catches eroding sand and gravel washed down from the ledges above by rain and snow melt. These soil building particles are rich in nutrients and only need a small amount of organic matter to become a soil medium.

A veteran of the storms. This balsam got nailed by the rain-ice-snow storm of late January and it is proof that the mean temperature since the storm has been below freezing since the storm. When the wind blew, which it did in high gusts on Saturday, the trees creaked from the ice and others sounded like chimes.

The ice is solid and you can see how it 'grew' on the tree's appendages even as the storm raged. As at Lakes of the Clouds a few weeks ago where the south side of Mt. Monroe was varnished with thick water ice these trees indicate that the force of the storm was from the southeast.

The summit.

I included that long quote from Forbes's article because the last sentence by LeRoy Harvey is astonishing. It suggests that eventually forest could cover most of the high mountains of New England and I wonder if perhaps thousands of years ago the summits were all forested with the exception of the Presidential Range and the Franconia ridge. Fire, throughout time, has had a significant impact on forest cover in many locations including the lesser summits that are barren now. Fire alone has long played a major role in the patterns of forestation. The mountains were certainly denuded by the last glacial sheet and the question of how long a period of time it took forests to come back is a question this blog is trying to answer. Definitely, though, the forests are still growing back from that event even though they are subject to set back, some catastrophic, like landslides, fires, avalanches, hurricanes, insect infestations, disease, etc. How fascinating it would be, though, if in a 1000 years trees covered part of Mt. Monroe, or Mt. Lafayette.

Forbes' article goes on at some length and discusses the role of fire in clearing off a lot of the summits that were barren when he wrote the article in 1953. Two years , 1854 and 1903, are mentioned in the historical data as being years of major forest fires in New Hampshire and Maine following several dry years. Moat Mt. near North Conway was burned over in 1854 by a "great fire" that according to newspaper articles at the time destroyed all of the soil on the mountain as well as the vegetation. Mt. Monadnock in southern New Hampshire was similarly burned in 1820. Mt. Chocorua was burned in, or about, 1815. In 1903 fires burned a huge area on the northeast slope of Mt. Madison and the entirety of Pine Mountain, and huge areas of the Pemigewasset valley. The number of forest fires in the White Mountains cited inForbes' article is daunting and indicates that much of the White Mountain National Forest and bordering mountains on all sides have been burned, some areas extensively such as the Zealand valley, since Europeans arrived here in the early 1700s.

Trees as art. If you look way in the background just to the left of this tree you'll see Mt. Lafayette.

On the skyline is the entire eastern range from Mt. Washington to Old Speck.

The entire range to the south from Carter Dome to Moosilaukee.

A lynx sauntered across the summit dome as they often must. I saw lot of snowshoe hare tracks as well indicating a large population this year.

This is what I like best, looking North. This is country I've never stepped foot in and it always fascinates me. I don't even know the names of those mountains. Maybe I'll leave it that way, 'terra incognita', so it will always retain a bit of mystery and beauty in my imagination. The photo represents a big chunk of the Nash Stream watershed. It has no trails, only logging roads, and some fairly high mountains. Most of what is seen in the photo is state owned land.

A close up of two of the mountains on the right side of the above photo. The coniferous caps caught my attention. They are the product of thin soil and minimal moisture. Because of the structure of the mountains and the bedrock the caps are mostly thin soil over ledge which doesn't hold water. The balsam fir-spruce mix which we see everywhere is suited for these kinds of sites. Over time soil has evolved, going through several stages and developing more rapidly on the lower sides of the mountains. Gravity plays a role in insuring that the soils at the bottom of the mountains are deeper and richer and more moisture retentive. These areas are taken over by a succession of hardwoods including poplar, maples, birches, beech, cherry and other deciduous components of the boreal forest.

At full size you can see myriad logging roads like a set of arteries and veins threading everywhere in this picture except into the coniferous caps.

Coming down was a joy, half bounding like a gazelle and half sliding.

I was back at the col in a few seconds and able to see the top of North Percy through the trees in a few places. The area shown is the where the trail blazed by the Underhills traversed the ledges in a direct line from the Nash Stream road to the summit.

This is a "warm" or "dry"site often found on the south slopes of mountains less than 4,000 feet in altitude. The entire south slope of South Moat has this characteristic environment of thin soils, ledge, thin forest cover and very little moisture. It is often designated as 'fire dependent' as they are often ravished by fires and manage to recover quickly. When I encounter these areas I'm reminded of hiking in the Rockies and other western mountains even by the smell of these dry niches. The south slope of North Percy, where it is not shaded by South Percy, is a "warm-dry" niche.

This feature is present all the way down the mountain.

Interested in glacial till? That slate boulder is literally as big as a dump truck. This pit is used by the state for highway sand and is located on the Nash Stream Road.

A parting look back at South and North Percy from the great sandpit.

One more showing the Percys over the old Scott paper mill in Groveton. Timber, wood, and paper were once the mainstay of the economy in northern New England and New York, but the recent economic bust and importation, etc., has wiped out most of the infrastructure of the paper industry in this area. Groveton has the feel and look of a ghost town now.