Tuesday, May 24, 2011

5-21-11 Gale River Trail & Soil Research

For the past 11 or 12 Saturdays it has rained in the White Mountains. It's been a pattern where Thursdays and Fridays in that period have been perfect mountain days followed by a weekend of cold, windy, rainy days. Two Saturdays ago Liz and I drove into an abysmal amount of rain as we crossed the Vermont border heading for Mt. Lafayette and we eventually turned back. Last Saturday, 5-21-11, the same thing happened. I crossed the Vermont state line and rain pummeled the windshield but this time I kept heading north.

The rain stopped periodically, enticing me onward, until I reached the Gale River road and the trail head of the Gale River Trail where for brief moments the sun came out to welcome me...

...along with these bluets.

It's hard to describe how delighted I was to be heading up the Gale River Trail again. I gleefully ran for the first quarter of a mile like a kid going out to recess.

It was sooo green!

Lots of early-season flowers were out including painted trillim, (T. undulatum) and hobble bush.

Red trillium (T. erectum)

This is hobble bush (Vibernum alnifolium).

Do you remember what this; a tall plant growing in moist niches with this tell-tale whorl of leaves (usually eight leaves)?It's Indian cucumber (Medeola virginiana).

Ari Osevit texted me from his iPhone last Thursday as he was packing out of Galehead giving me trail info including the level of the Gale River at First and Third crossings. I anticipated a slight challenge because of the rain during the early morning on Saturday. First Xing was a hop, skip and jump although my shoes did fill with icy water and they squeaked for the rest of the hike.

Heading higher above First Xing I could watch spring retreat back a few weeks as the leaves became smaller and smaller until they were buds again like reversing the film.

Second crossing was not a hop, skip and jump affair. It necessitated wading through this channel with the water half way up my shin. This crossing has always posed challenges for hikers in the spring as during peak snow melt periods, or combined with heavy rains.

After second crossing the trail starts to gain altitude and it enters the V of the deep valley between Mt. Garfield to the west and North and South Twin to the east. It eventually slabs up on to the ridge at the head of the valley which you can see straight ahead in this photo.

The trail at this altitude still follows the old logging "road" that was probably cut and in use 80 to 100 years ago. It's interesting how the balsam fir line up on the west side of the trail and the birches line up on the east (right hand) side indicating the competition for sun light between the two species.

The focus of this hike was, again, soil development, aka soil building, and this mouldering stump is another reminder of the process by which plants, weather, soil and an almost infinite number and species of critters large and infinitesimally small collaborate to create soil. It's a metaphor for our economic systems in that it represents the production, distribution and investment of capital where soil=capital. In one sense soil equals true wealth in that it's our only real wealth. Without it, and all the "riches" (microorganisms, etc.) it contains, we'd be toast.

On this stretch of trail between Second Xing and the Slide there were a number of large spruce and birch. I measured a spruce with a DBH (diameter at breast height) of 21.7 inches and a white birch with a DBH of 17.2 inches both at an altitude of 2650' asl. In this section the trail is still following a logging road built perhaps as far back as the 1920s and an indication that this area
was logged-off in that time frame: the 1920s to the 1930s.

Sphagnum moss on another nearby stump.

As the trail rises towards Garfield ridge and without the foliage that will come in the next few days the views of North Twin are enticing and pull you higher.

Without the foliage and paying some unaccustomed attention to the topography of the slope on the right hand, up hill side (west side) of the trail there's myriad physical evidence (like this cluster of sub-angular rocks in the trail) and a general sense of topography that this area has had many rock slides, like the one I'm investigating a bit further up, that have come down off of Mt. Garfield. The evidence suggests that the slides have been of varied sizes and this form of "mass wasting" occurs constantly, or until the mountains are reduced to a level plain.

I pretty sure this is Thompson Brook. It isn't always as perky as this. In the summer it shrinks to a trickle, but swells again with each rain. I'm mentioning it because Thompson Brook comes down off Garfield and at one time, visible on the 1932 USGS map, a trail that accompanied the brook from Garfield Ridge down to the Gale River Trail. I last hiked it 30 years ago but Andrew Reily, in his excellent blog "Gulliver's Nest" (linked to this blog) has recent photos of Thompson Falls, a wonderful feature of Thompson Brook, for those of you who like to explore hidden nooks and crannies.

I got drenched several time by showers. There were two heavy, prolonged cloudbursts that took a long time to taper off and some finer, mist-like showers that coated everything with a glaze of wetness.

This, too, is difficult to describe but I have rich memories of this rock in the foreground going back more than 50 years. After packing supplies to the huts for several years I, and most hut croo probably, have memorized the rocks and stones in the trail particularly the larger rocks that are good for "crumping" (translation: sitting down and resting). The pack boards have "legs" of sorts, the downward extension of the wood frame, which make it possible to balance the load when resting but you need a flat rock or the load will topple over and create havoc. I once dumped a 100 lb. load on the Jacobs Ladder section of the Gale River Trail (just above where this photo was taken) that included a 60 lb. "flat" of sugar. The bag of sugar broke, of course, and spilled down the trail. I salvaged some of it but it was an awful mess.

Stairs were built here a year or two after the 1954 landslide so the trail could rise and cross the debris from the slide. My memory is of climbing the stairs and coming out on the woods on to a vast open area the size of two or three football fields

And the view from the slide looking across the Gale River towards North Twin on the left and a ridge of South Twin far to the right. The river level, from here, looks like it's starting to drop back to normal levels.

I was able to contact Art Prentiss who was hutmaster at Galehead during the summer of 1954 and was at the hut the day and night of the slide, August 30, 1954. His response was, "I was there for what turned into a complicated adventure for those involved. The fortunate thing was that no one was hurt of lost."

I've yet to contact or locate Ben Bowditch who was packing supplies to the hut and below the slide when it occurred at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. He survived by climbing up or holding on to a tree for several hours until the water subsided and he was able to get back down to the highway as Art and others from the hut were searching for him.

This is what the slide looks like today. It's no longer a "vast, open area." This photo is of Study Plot #2. It's clear that snow melted off a few days ago and the vegetation and leaf mat are still showing the "weight" of it. I derived a maximum snow depth for the 2010-2011 winter of 52 inches at this site. That's a foot less than last year.

Indicators for the recent melting of the snow pack are these Evergreen Woodferns beginning to unfurl. They're growing in a shaded small area where the snow lingered into last week.

These fronds are a couple of days ahead of their neighbors because they were in the open and although the snow might have been deeper it melted faster.

The snow compacts the upper most leaf litter into thin sheafs like these that can be peeled up like linoleum.

Where the 2010 leaf litter contacts the 2009 layer decomposition has already begun. All the measurements taken on 5-21-11 are consistent with the measurements taken last November to within, plus or minus, 1/16th of an inch, which is the anticipated norm. Any change in soil depth during snow months would be an anomaly.

Coarse woody debris (CWD) takes longer to decompose, but it adds substantially more nutrients back into the soil then leaves over long periods of time, even though leaves account for the primary influx of nutrients on a seasonal basis. Leaves decompose faster than the CWD so they are a reliable source of nutrient for the existing vegetation but they also migrate as they dry out and are carried off by wind and/or water, particularly on mountain slopes.

Decomposition is proceeding well in a sample of the 2009 leaf litter layer. The 2010-2011 winter was less severe than the 2009-2010 winter in terms of temperature and amount and type of precipitation. The 2009-2010 winter introduced a lot of water in the form of rain in at least two major storms. Rain mixing with snow would have a greater impact on leaf litter than just snow. During spring thaw the degree of slope controls the net loss of nutrient in the form of leaves and small wood debris which is carried down slope.

Looking up the clay bank towards the half way point of the slide. In the background is Garfield Ridge.

The top of the clay bank looking down towards the area with the study plots. The clay bank is a feature of most landslides in the White Mountains (Flaccus, Appalachia, Dec. 1958) and it's impressive because it has not been colonized appreciably by vegetation in more than 50 years. The clay resembles a sand dune under foot.

One of seven white pines (P. strobus) found on the slide and growing in stations from the bottom
to near the top (between 2907' asl and 3361' asl). This one is 4 inches in circumference and about 8 feet tall. The largest one is near the bottom of the slide, near the dense balsam fir growth, and is 25 inches in circumference and 26 feet tall. I'm repeating myself, but I find the introduction of white pines in this site fascinating and the fact they are competing well so far. I found birch seedlings, or "starts", tiny ones, trying to grow in the clay bank indicating that vegetation is being consistent in its efforts to retake this disturbed site and stablize it.

The lovely patterns and textures of the trees with their spring colors. This is looking down and across the river at the slope rising towards the summit of North Twin.
The western flank of North Twin showing the large rock outcropping that I tried bushwhacking to last year at this time. More impressive are the changes in species density, the varying patterns of tree types, covering the entire slope that are indicative of soil types, under laying bed rock, and topography.


lots of them. I made a quick hike up to Galehead and while running out and below first crossing met this large, friendly group of Canadians heading up to the hut for the night. Each of them in turn asked me if the river was passable as they had preconceived notions that the crossing would be extremely treacherous. At any rate, my French is getting better.

I headed over to the AMC's Highland Center (in Crawford Notch) after my hike to do some work ferreting out useful articles from old volumes of Appalachia in the excellent library there . This was the view from the library window of Mt. Avalon in the foreground and Mt. Field (The Willey Range) in back.

After dinner more rain squalls moved through the Notch creating a dramatic sunset. Mt. Webster is in the background. Added 5/26/11: A few people have written to me about this photo and I forgot to add that when I took it I was struck by the similarities of the light and colors last Saturday evening with those in the famous Thomas Cole painting, The Notch Of The White Mountains, painted in 1839. You can Google "Thomas Cole Crawford Notch" and see the resemblance.


Kimball said...

I just love your after dinner picture of the sunset on Mt Willard (or is that Elephant Head?)

Great shot.

Alex MacPhail said...

Thanks Kimball! Mt. Willard is in the background and Elephant Head is in the foreground in the bright sunlight. This photo is an attempt to mimic a famous painting by Thomas Cole titled The Notch In (or Of) The White Mountains and painted, I think, in or around 1839.