Monday, May 30, 2011

5-28-11 South Twin (complete, finally)

I was inspired to return to Galehead for three reasons; to continue data collecting at the Slide research site, hang out at the hut with Ari Ofsvet, and, Sunday morning, to climb South Twin. Saturday (5-27-11) was not a great hiking day weatherwise. By the time I got on the trail it was hot and muggy in the valley, a prime incubator for some serious thumpers (thunderstorms). On the other hand the summits were in the clouds. I decided to go anyway. Lots of flowers were out below first crossing that weren't out last week. Above are early blooms of Clintonia borealis peeking out from under striped maple leaves.

After asking a number of colleagues I'm still not sure what
this is. I was sure it's Canadian mayflower, then I wasn't
so sure, then I couldn't decide what it is. It's impossible to
see the leaves in the photo and they're the deciding feature.
I'm going to capitulate and say that it's Canadian mayflower.
Confused? I am.

Speaking of First Crossing, lack of appropriate caution led me to a near disaster on Saturday. As I crossed the river I was showing off a bit by jumping gracefully from rock to rock when, on the very last boulder that was still 4 inches under water, my foot slipped. I spun around, did a half somersault, whacked my head, skinned my knee, totally immersed my digital camera under water, and got completely soaked. I scampered out of the water, wrenching my G10 camera from the wet pocket of my hiking shorts, dried it with a bandana and found that it worked fine. My knee and head seemed okay, too. I was dripping wet but the day was warm. I only wish I had a video of the whole thing. Anyway, don't think I learned anything from this incident or that I'll be ever more cautious next time. That would be most unfitting.

Bunch berries (Cornus canadensis) are back!

Wood anemone, or wind flower (Anemone quinquefolia).

Boy Scouts are back as well. The trail was busy, it being a Saturday. Galehead Hut had reservations for 35 for the night including 27 scouts of which this group is part. Most of the scouts navigated second crossing by removing shoes and socks and wading across. Some pioneered a safe, drier crossing down stream. I was so wet from my "dip" at first crossing I just walked through the river with my hiking shoes on.

This is what second crossing looked like on May 27th. It's still a bit high (and very cold) but with the foliage out and millions of thirsty trees nearby the river has gone down dramatically since last week. It will continue to do so as, in addition to the new foliage, most of the snow higher on the mountain has melted which will cause the river to shrink as well.

Just above second crossing I met Hilary Burt packing sundries up to Galehead which will be "HER" hut as she's the hutmaster (trumpets sounding) for the summer. The hut opens for full service this week.

While I worked at my Slide research site for a bit, measuring and recording more tree girths to achieve more accuracy in the biomass assessment of Study Plots 1, 2 and 3, I met everyone passing on the trail including this couple who were heading to 13 Falls tent sites to camp for the weekend.

This was couple #2 on their way to Galehead for the night.

At about 3,000 feet and uphill from the Slide the trail slabs up the west side of a small ravine between North and South Twin carved out by the Gale River. In the upper portion of the ravine there's a kind of sanctuary of large trees. It's worth an hour of time to bushwhack up the river from the slide, say, a short distance to see them.

This white birch is just a few yards off the trail and measures 100 inches in circumference (about 30 inches in diameter).

It's a giant compared to neighboring trees. I've been perusing old Appalachia trying to find out how extensive the logging was along the Gale River and on the slopes of the Twins and Garfield and to get an accurate time frame when the logging occurred. The girth of some of the trees in the ravine indicate that the logging didn't reach that high, but I don't trust that conclusion. It was rare, for the type of logging practiced 100 years ago, to leave anything behind.

Looking down into the sanctuary. Please be advised that "sanctuary" is my description for this ravine and that it's not any kind of official sanctuary. It's one of several ravines in the Whites with a northwest aspect that present us with a steady-state remnant of, not the original version of the boreal forest that emerged out of the detritus left by the last thick ice sheet to cover the White Mountains, but a more "modern" version of it. That would mean a version conspicuously more diverse in tree species with "newcomers" representing fluctuations in climate over the last 10,000 years, beech and the maples for example.

This is Ari Ofsevit. In this photo he's the intrepid (fill in) hut caretaker at Galehead (Ghoul) for the weekend. I'd met him once, very briefly, before this trip to Galehead. He has a well earned reputation for being a gifted naturalist and his presentations in the huts where he has worked in past summers set high standards. We've conversed on line a bit, but it was a great pleasure to meet him and spend hours swapping stories, a great pastime of which there is no end, that we both enjoy. I'm indebted to Ari, too, for those instances where he's been the "acting editor" of this blog and bringing my attention to mistakes in things like place names and spelling.

I left the hut quietly early Sunday morning to head up South and North Twin before breakfast. The day was gloomy with a strong southerly wind driving thick clouds over the ridge and there was a drizzle. On the other hand it was warm, or warmish, the woods smelled wonderful, and the racing clouds (a dense mist) gave the woods an eerie feeling.

The Twin Way connects Galehead and Zealand huts and has a reputation for being dry and hot during the high summer months but not infrequently it offers mud. This photo provides an example. Ascending South Twin from Ghoul this spot is the low point and from here the trail climbs steeply. South Twin is 4,902' and Galehead is at 3800' (asl=above sea level) so the trail climbs 1100 feet in less than a mile! South Twin is a gorgeous, gorgeous mountain by all standards. It dominates the central White Mountains and is in a class with Carrigain, Carter Dome, Adams, and Bond height, challenging trails, isolation and spectacular views. The 360 degree view from South Twin, on clear days, will literally take your breath away. (I've included some photos taken from the summit in the winter so that you get an idea of the view on a clear day.)

There were no views Sunday morning except of the woods that were dark and rain wet in the mist, and with the mist billowing through the trees on the strong wind the forest had an eerie presence.

The forest primeval. This is a glimpse of an old, old forest, not relative to the ages of these particular trees, but to the forest itself and how long ago it evolved here. The term "Boreal Forest" refers to a vast forest "biome" that once extended from the Canadian arctic (as well as Siberia and northern Europe) south across northern New England, New York, Michigan and Minnisota to the northern limits of the temperate, deciduous forest (once referred to as the oak-chestnut-forest) of mid-America, Europe, and parts of Asia. On occasion I've seen boreal forest refer to the Taiga, which is inaccurate, but also describing the forest growing between 3500' and 5000' in the northern New England mountains and the Adirondacks in New York state. The forest in this photo represents the part of the Boreal Forest at its extreme range (sub-alpine). The true Boreal Forest was once a vast circumglobal forest system growing roughly in the area covered by the last glacial ice sheets. During the past 150-200 years this immense northern forest biome has been severely compromised by fragmentation and is no longer the seamless forest it was at its peak 2-3 thousand years ago; several thousand years after the last ice age that ended 11,000 years ago.

The Twinway exposes underlying bedrock which Charles Williams, in his Geology of the Franconia Region published in the June 1934 Appalachia, identifies as Lafayette Granite Porphyry (LGP). This nomenclature brings us back to the complex geological history of the White Mountains and the White Mountain Batholith with its system of ring dikes in this area. At any rate, Franconia Ridge including Mts. Lafayette and Lincoln, plus the Twins, Guyot, and the Bonds have the Lafayette Granite Porhyry in common as underlayment which, towards the east (towards Zealand Mountain) and west (near Lonesome Lake), is bordered by our familiar Conway Biotite, or Conway Granite.The stone blocks in the photo might be described as felsenmeer, or frost quarried bedrock, the LGP in this case, as they're similar to the large blocks found on Carter Dome and Carrigain that, like South Twin, are forested to the summit. (The blocks are similar to the felsenmeer of Littleton Schist so common on several of the peaks in the Presidential Range and that is often a subject of interest in this blog).

I often use the term "Eastern Boreal Forest" to differentiate the forest in the Northeast portion of North America from its counterpart in the western US.. Boreal simply means 'of the north'. The boreal forest in both regions is a mixed species forest with conifers including the spruces, firs, cedars and larch as the dominant tree species. Here in the east the boreal forest has a broader diversity of deciduous species including maple, beech, birch, ash, cherry, and willow most of which are not found in the west. In addition to a large variety of shrubs like rhododendron, and hundreds of indigenous herbaceous plants. A good question might be whether the term Boreal Forest in New England refers only to the less diverse forest growing at the higher altitudes, or whether it is inclusive of all species growing between, say, 2000' asl and 5200' asl. In my opinion it is the latter.

This photo and the one above were taken "inside" what is commonly called a "fir wave", or an area of dead trees killed, in large part, by extremes in weather and where succession (where new growth of young trees) is taking place. The waves are common in the higher altitude forests of the Northeast and are more common on the windward flanks. They're called "waves" because, from a distance, their form and color resemble waves. They're also referred to as "bands" or "stripes". At any rate their light gray color is due to the the tightly spaced spars of dead trees. The thin, vulnerable mountain soils "draped" over the stone block underlayment might contribute to this pattern of succession by compromising root growth of the dominant trees, balsam fir particularly, in what is interpreted as the forest's vigorous attempt(s) to achieve stability and continuity. The roots of the fir balsam tend to be shallow and also tend to spread out more than, say, spruce, to use the soil and soil moisture more efficiently. When there is extreme wind loading as in winter storm the roots aren't secure enough to stabilize the tree which is ripped from its mooring and tilts away from the wind and eventually dies. On the other hand, I've witnessed the interweaving of tree roots in and around the stone blocks which appears to strengthen the tree's hold on the steep slopes.

A photo of South Twin and Ghoul (aka Galehead Hut) taken from Galehead Mt. in September '09. The Twin Way follows the main West facing ridge in a more-or-less straight line from the hut to the summit. The photo shows the fir waves, or dead tree zones across the entire flank of both South and North Twin (at left). The photo clearly shows the summit of South Twin as a glacially sculpted dome. To the right in this photograph the sides of the mountain all the way south to the Hancocks from just below the summits of South Twin, Guyot, and the Bonds was intensively logged in the late 1800s-early 1900s and then, in the horrific forest fires of 1902, were burned over.

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) is the dominant tree specie above 3500' asl in the White Mountains. It's joined in this zone by black spruce (Picea mariana), and red spruce (Picea rubra) in smaller numbers. The understory consists of ferns, fern allies (being the club mosses of which there is a long list), sphagnum and haircapped mosses, many lichens, grasses and sedges in some places, heaths (like the blueberries, mountain cranberries, snowberries), a long list of flowering herbaceous plants including these familiar ones: Clintonia (Clintonia borealis), Star Flower (Trientalis borealis), Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), Wood Sorrel (Oxalia montana) and Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna, an arctic plant), and Gold Thread (Coptis trifolia) (which is a small sampling) and a number of shrubs like hobble bush, shad bush, and mountain ash.

These are balsams growing at 4100' asl. The boles of these trees are large even at this altitude. The one closest is 9.5 inches DBH. Their altitude places them 500 vertical feet above the large birch with the 30 inch diameter just above the slide and what we think of as the height limit for yellow birch and aspen, and the transition zone from the mixed deciduous and conifer forest to a this predominance of fir and spruce in the sub-alpine zone. Earlier in the blog I showed a photo taken from the December 1936 Appalachia showing a large yellow birch, 13 inches in diameter, growing right behind the Galehead Hut in an exposed location, at 3800 feet. This may hint that the transition zone is more fluid over time. The Boreal, or northern forest is in constant flux. We could easily say it's a "work in progress" and if we step back a bit and consider the dimension of time in a wider perspective, the Boreal Forest appears to be an interconnected-interdependent-ecosystem.

Other balsam firs nearby have DBHs of 12 inches and this one is nearly 60 feet high. In fact, as the altitude increases, at least between 3900' asl and 4400' asl uniformity in tree girth and height is markedly varied. One expects as the altitude increases trees will achieve a more uniform height which, in turn, would make a uniform girth predictable, but it is not the case.

The more important concept to grasp isn't necessarily the accuracy of Boreal Forest as a definition of these forest tracts but the "macro" view of this diverse forest as a once integral, interconnected, cohesive ecosystem of vast proportions that is now fragmented to the point that it's no longer in a "steady state", but in decline. It will in time, like the tropical forests of South and Central America be reduced to small "islands"; small tracts in protected zones.

The Twinway does not ease up no matter how much you hope it will. It seems to go on and on and to be the longest mile ever. A couple of summers ago when I was making what I hoped would be my last (out of four) attempt to complete the West Pemi Loop, a 30 mile-long hike encompassing the entire Franconia Ridge, Garfield, South Twin, Guyot, Bond and Bond Cliff (starting and ending at the Wilderness Trail parking lot just off the Kancamagus Highway) in under 10 hours. (You can go clockwise or counterclockwise) I got to Ghoul in somewhat of a psychotic state brought on by Mt. Garfield and was having trouble leaving the hut because I couldn't bear the thought of going up South Twin ever again in my life. Finally, Erin Robinson, the hutmaster that summer, handed me a gallon pitcher overflowing with gatorade that was deep purple in color. "Drink this and get your (butt) up up that mountain!" she barked, pointing towards the summit of South Twin. It actually worked. You wouldn't think it, really, but I made it up in a little less than an hour, a veritable crawl, but after that the loop was pretty much downhill and I made it back to the "Kanc" in my alotted time.

The steepness is easy to read here and what appears to be a thinning of the tree growth which is an illusion brought on by the light and the fog. South Twin is almost high enough to have a "timberline" effect, a general hunkering down of vegetation and an array of frost hardy plants. This particular location probably experiences weather nearly as extreme as any site in the mountains with the exception of the summit of Mt. Washington. The altitude here is low at 4700 feet compared to altitudes in the Presidential Rane but these trees are up against extremely cold temperatures and high winds even at this height.

The view from the Twinway looking west towards Mt. Garfield and down at the old Galehead Hut. Photo taken July 1967. Iput it here simply to show you what the view would be like from the this stretch of the Twinway on a clear day.

The dome shape of the summit means that you can anticipate the steepness of the trail will gradually slacken before you reach the summit, but here the trail still climbing at a good angle and is not faltering.

Here the forest displays honestly the enormous amount of stress it endures a good deal of the time just from the weather.

Like other areas at or near the tree line there are a high number of downed trees and weather beaten and rotting trees that are still standing.

Even with all the tensions within the "system" caused by the weather the forest, generally, is in good health. It's had a remarkably long time to adapt, and perhaps re-adapt to the limiting factors of wind, temperature and moisture fluctuations, marginal soil, and insect infestations. The major perturbations caused by man: clear cutting, fires, and acid rain have had as large, or larger impact on this forest in the pat 150 years then anything before. Hurricanes, wild fires caused by other than human sources, glaciers, drought, floods, avalanches, landslides, and insects have been around for an impressive amount of time but the forest, much reduced in size, is still striving vigorously towards its own call of equilibrium.

The colors, the forms are compelling. In any mood, in any of the myriad states we are apt to "catch" the forest in, there is always the unifying element of beauty, everywhere we look.

Just below the summit, maybe 4870' asl there's this old balsam trunk, 9" DBH, toughing it out although with about 75 percent mortality.

Then your feet feel the arc lessen and their is a general sense of the "dome" (like St. Paul Catheral) and with that slighting of the angle the trees also hunker down probably because it is within their own wisdom to do so.

The summit rocks appear in the mist and....

the summit, itself, is underfoot. There is something to be said about climbing in the mist; finding a greater sense of isolation along with, perhaps, a meditative state and a deeper appreciation and closeness to the mountain itself.

The summit rocks are Lafayette Granite Prophyry and exhibit...

the same "quarrying" and fracturing from fluctuations in temperature between thawing and freezing over immense periods of time.

Reindeer lichen and Mt. Cranberry crowd in on a small ledge. There are a number of other lichens in this photo as well as the one below..

where I counted seven different types including Cornucopia lichen, target lichen, two species of rock tripe, cinder lichen, map lichen, quill lichen, and gray starburst. I think there are even a few more species two obscured to key.

The balsam's form maps as they do in the alpine zone in what we call Krummholz

At 4,902' asl the summit of South Twin is in the transition zone between sub-alpine and alpine and it's not surprising to find some of the characteristics of the alpine zone, including the krummholz-like adaptations by the balsam fir and black spruce. I'm curious if the balsam will continue to grow and eventually convert the South Twin summit to a forest in the near future.

Sunset from South Twin looking towards Mts. Lafayette, Lincoln, Haystack, Liberty and Flume. South Twin has a lovely and breath taking 360 degree view and this is but one sliver of it and I put the photo here merely to show what the summit is like on a clear day. Photo taken in August 1968.

More photos from early winter 2007:

R to L: Garfield, Lafayette, Lincoln, Little Haystack.

Looking south towards Guyot (center) with Carrigain (highest peak, middle left) behind it, Passaconway behind and just to the left of Bond (on horizon), the Hancocks and Osceola (on horizon) to the right and behind Bond.

Looking east with Mt. Washington behind me.

Garfield framed by balsams.

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