Monday, April 30, 2012

4-30-12 Pemigewasset Wilderness (complete)

 North Branch of the Pemigewasset River above Still Water Jct., June 1961

As I write this the month of May is an hour away and if the last three months is any indication of how fast time flies summer is not far away. The vicissitudes of last summer prevented me from hiking as much as I had hoped and now I am craving the pleasure of being in the mountains. I feel exactly as I did as a teenager when I would dream through each school day of exploring every nook and cranny of the mountains; places like the Pemigewasset Wilderness which, just by its name, sounded every bit as romantic as the rivers and forests around Hudson Bay, the Adirondacks, or the Selkirks in British Columbia. When I passed my driver's exam at the age of 16 it was only a matter of hours before I was driving north. One of my favorite destinations was the Willey House Station in Crawford Notch and the southern trail head of the Ethan Pond Trail. I'd hike to the height of land where the scent of sun baked balsam needles filled my nostrils and I was in heaven.
Looking west across Ethan Pond towards the Bonds, July 1958.

From the height of land the Ethan Pond Trail heads due west and then curves north through Zealand Notch. From this point the illusion is of a vast table land surrounded and made insular by ranges of mountains like the Willeys, Zealand Mt. and Zeacliff, the Twins, Mts. Nancy and Bemis, Mt. Carrigain, the Hancocks, and the Franconia Ridge, etc. In 1961 the "Pemi" felt wild. It was definitely underutilized. I rarely passed other hikers here even on summer weekends and when I did they surprised me, or rather we surprised each other. Once I passed Charlie Swift, the father of two hut croo members that I knew, and I was so unprepared to see another soul that when he came around a clump of alders I jumped like someone coming upon a moose, or bear, might.

                                                              Zealand Notch from Ethan Pond, July 1959.

My plans for this summer (2012) include 1.) locating the "stations" (locations) of all (or most) of the rare Saxifrages on the Presidential Range, 2.) spending a lot of time in old haunts like King and Castle Ravines, and 3.) getting "off trail" again in the Pemi by traversing areas where I've never been. I've mentioned a bushwhack I want to attempt starting from Lincoln, NH, and going up over Mt. Coolidge, down into Lincoln Brook, over Owls Head and the Twin-Bond ridge and coming out somewhere around the Bretton Woods ski area on Rt. 302 (or continue over Mts. Desolation and Dartmouth). This will take me through areas that were heavily logged 100 plus years ago, and areas that weren't. One goal is to find out what it was like to travel in this country before there were trails. 

Whitewall Brook with Zealand Mt. (left) and Zeacliff in the background 
    from the Ethan Pond Trail just south of Zealand Notch. Photo from July 1959.  

Another goal of the bushwhack is to look at the forest from a different perspective then I'm (most of us) used to.  We hike comfortably along well developed trails for the most part. For the purpose of understanding the origin of the present day forests in the "Pemi" I'd like to look at the forest from the forest's perspective; to see it close up for a better understanding of its component parts: soils-geology, slope-aspect, plant diversity, and precipitation-water run-off.   

At the beginning of this blog I announced that the motivation behind it was to better understand the reality of the vast glacial sheet that covered the White Mountains for 30,000 years, or so, and that vacated this region about 11,000 years ago. I was standing on top of Mt.Adams one morning and probably for the first time was really hit over the head with the idea of the glacier being there at one time: the immense scale and depth; the vastness of it. During the past 3-4 years I've found it difficult to separate the glacier's existence from the existence of the present-day forest. In my mind's eye they  go together and I'd like to find an hypothesis for why I feel that way. Is the forest somehow proof that the glacier really was here (as if we needed proof), a different kind of proof then glacial erratics on top of Mt. Jefferson and the glacially carved cirques, roches moutonnees, and striated bedrock.

As to the evolution of the modern forest which so intrigues me I've been reading from books and the popular press a lot about seeds, glacial relects, and the possible relationship between the continental ice sheets and the present day "northern" forests of which the Pemigewasset Wilderness is a part. 

It seems that I am not the only one who is curious about the history of present day forests and their relationship to the last glacier particularly melted back and exposed the bare rock and barely fertile glacial till, the sand and gravel and other detritus that remained when the glacier was removed. An interesting article from the BBC: , described how seeds believed to be 35,000 years old found at a periglacial site in Siberia were successfully germinated. Another BBC article: reports how "alien seeds threaten Antarctic fringes". The seeds in this case are transported to Antarctica on the boots of tourists and scientists. Clothing, including shoes, were also vehicles by which a lot of European plants like lambs quarters, all the docks (Curly, Yellow, Burdock--like the three stooges) were brought to North America in the first years of the Colonies allegedly in the hems of women's dresses. Clothing is still a newly adapted vehicle for seeds of invasive plants, like the dandelions, that are beginning to appear in the Alpine Zone of the White Mountains.

Nancy Pond, February 1983

The origin of the present day forests that we've become familiar with in northeastern North America: generally in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and northeastern Canada, originally came from seeds and and via the mechanics of seed dispersion. Knowing that still leaves the questions that I formulated on top of Adams that July morning: what did the White Mountains look a thousand years before the day the glacier finally melted down to its extinction? What did the landscape look like on that day? What was here? What had taken place during the long phase of melting? Did the glacier deposit organic material it had taken up on its descent from the far northern latitudes? Were there seeds in the detritus that was left behind by the "retreating" glacier? Was the glacial till fertile enough to support plants? Did the forest take hold on till and areas of muskeg exposed as the glacier melted through its last 1000 years? Or did it take thousands of years and many "successions" of biotic communities before the forest we see now became dominant?  We know that saber toothed tigers, mammoths and huge bison roamed the White Mountains while the glacier shrank but those types of animals became extinct soon after the glacier's demise giving some proof that climates changed dramatically during the time that the forest was evolving. How did the forest adapt?
The following photos taken recently from the summit of Mt. Carrigain cover an arc of 180 degrees that show the northern areas of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The above photo is towards the west and in the center background is Mt. Osceola and, to the right, the sharp summit of North Hancock.

This photo is looking across the Pemi at the Franconia Ridge. The large "Y" shaped slide track is between Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Lincoln. A ridge of Mt. Moosilauke, not part of the wilderness area, is on the left edge of the photo while a ridge of Mt. Bond and Bondcliffs which are close to the center of the wilderness area are on the right edge of the photo.
This photo shows, so well, the undulations of the mountains and the forested areas of the Pemi, and it's beauty. Mt. Lafayette is at the left hand edge of the photo and is the western boundary of the wilderness area. North and South Twin are in the center background with the Bonds close by. Mt. Hale is close to the right hand edge of the photo. This photo, alone, depicts two-thirds of the breadth of the Pemi and one sees it as diminutive; much smaller than anything called a "wilderness" west of the Mississippi, but, at the same time, it is a "modern" remnant of an ancient forest far larger than even our collective imaginations can contain; vast, dark with immense conifers 3-4 feet in diameter and contingents of alders, birches and a few other hardwoods in some wet areas or on south slopes . It was probably strikingly beautiful and teeming with life which, in itself, must have been rich in diversity given the thousands of years it kept this land, this place, and this idea about what a forest means to us.

The photos above and those below are meant to give you a sense of place by way of showing the scale and the textures of the PemiFrom this height it's hard to feel the diversity it contains and from the ground it's difficult to feel the scale. It is a forest ecosystem with its own natural boundaries as well as the artificial one put in place by the federal government. The two are nearly congruent which is important when trying to imagine the shape and size of the Pemi. The photo is looking up through Zealand Notch towards Mt. Hale, left of center, and Cherrry Mountain in the center background.
This photo nicely includes the forest with the reminders of the glacial presence in this area. Crawford Notch in the center of the photo is a beautiful glacially carved valley and behind it is the Presidential Range, with Mt. Washington the highest peak, that was the focus, beginning more than 100 years ago, for understanding the complex geology of these peaks and if and when continental glaciers did indeed shape and scar this entire landscape. It took years for the proof to emerge and it is still being tested.

Then, there is the green carpet, almost unbroken, of the forest that has come to reside here. Standing on the summit of Mt. Carrigain to take this photo is a reminder that about 100 years ago the summit of Carrigain had been cut of all its trees and the whole landscape seen in this series of photos taken from Carrigain, was denuded of nearly every tree by horrific lumbering operations. The forest prior to the rogue lumbering must have been remarkable as the forest of today is remarkable. It's healthy and has proved its resilience.

Going back to the question of its emergence from under and around the last glacial ice sheet, the hows and wheres, are daunting. Clearly seeds can travel easily almost anywhere on the planet to take root where conditions are favorable or just nearly favorable. It's usually all trial and error unless its the apple falling to the ground at the base of the tree. In the recent news article the vehicle was the shoes of tourists but it could be the fur of a fox, the hoof of a moose, wind, a flood, or a glacier or a whole series of things:wind, water, the stomach of a deer, more water, a squirrel, a hawk, a boat, a bale of hay, etc. If you put a cylinder of sticky paper and hung it 6 feet above the summit of Mt. Everest and came back in a month, or two, took the cylinder down the mountains and looked at the surface you would find fine, light seeds that circle the earth on jet streams. Seeds are everywhere.

Researchers at a site along the Kolyma River in Siberia found some seeds that had been buried in old squirrel burrows in an area that has been under permafrost for between 30,000 and 35,000 years. The dating was partly based on findings of "the bones of large mammals, such as mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, bison, horses, deer and other representatives of fauna from the age of the mammoths as well as plant remains. The floral material included seeds and placental tissue (ed. ovaries) from Silene sternophyla, a member of the Campion family, and the researchers were able to germinate living, healthy specimens from the ovaries of these plants. They reported that the next oldest seeds to have been germinated were 2000-year old palm seeds from Israel." (BBC, op. cit.)
North end of the Carrigain Notch Trail that follows an old logging railroad bed, June 2003.

The 35,000 year old seeds found in Siberia that were viable (at least they could be germianted under special conditions in a laboratory) may be significant in the context of the Wisonsinan glaciation that occurred here in the White Mountains, but first, it needs to be pointed out that 35, 000 years sounds like a very long period of time, but in the life of a plant species it's not. Usually plants evolve at a much slower pace which is not to say plant genotypes cannot change "quickly" when survival prescribes adaptation.

Another facet of this "problem"  is the ice sheet itself during that same, long period of time. Theories differ but it seems more than likely that it would have been going through major fluctuations, all kinds of changes, corresponding to climate changes. The term being used recently is that the continental ice sheet was "static" meaning not staying the same size either in width or depth throughout its history. It moved down from the Laurentides, stopped, began to shrink, grew some more, then began shrinking again, stopping for long periods, then alternating with major thickenings of the ice in turn adding to the pressure pushing it southward.

That morning I stood on the summit of Adams I was trying to envision the ice possibly as 7000 feet thick, or 1000 feet higher than where I was standing. Clearly I was thinking of something different and apart from reality: a vast uniform "continent" of ice like Antarctica or the Greenland Ice Cap, with uniform thickness, like a huge pancake or a vanilla cake. In retrospect, I wasn't paying attention to detail or how the ice sheet would really look after all the fluctuations like the movement, time,  changes in weather/climate, etc.

For instance, Nunataks, which are high points of land that appear as islands of rock and soil in the ice sheet, would emerge during when the ice sheet shrank. The nunataks could possibly have served as   refuge (refugia) by the plants.  These plants, in the post glacial period, would repopulate the areas vacated by the glacier as it fluctuated. Another possibility, pushing the idea of nunataks aside, is that plant species survived in the periglacial areas adjacent to the glacier and methodically repopulated those areas vacated by the glacier as it shrank. Imagine the Presidential Range of the White Mountains as a nunatak and a refuge for alpine/arctic plants.

Going back to the seeds from the Kolmya region I'm curious whether a species of plants born from viable seeds frozen in the ice sheet for, say, 35,000 years would be able to survive very long if they were not exposed to adaptions to dramatic climactic and environmental changes occurring during that period of time?  Factors such as frost hardiness loom large in the discussion as does the question of whether the seeds in the ice were actually frozen and whether the bottom strata of the ice sheet, subjected to huge pressure, might have a higher coefficient of plasticity.

I found a research paper published on the Web looks at the "survival strategies of glacial relects" in the the Black Forest in southern Germany in Alnus viridis, or "green alder", a species of Alder with a large population in north central Quebec and that grows here in northern New England and is known here as Mountain Alder but with the latin name A. crispa (instead of A. viridis). The more common alder here is A. rugosa which has been featured in several articles in this blog about the Gale River slide site, the old Zealand Valley beaver ponds, and the avalanche track in Ammonoosuc Ravine. Alders are called "pioneers" because they are often the first to move into disturbed sites, like the old beaver ponds and slide tracks with exposed sand and gravel soils where they do quite well. 

At any rate, the author of the paper, Sultana Kamruzzahan (from Bangladesh and working on her doctoral thesis at the University of Freiburg in Germany) looked at several different populationsof  A. viridis in the Black Forest of southern Germany to determine if some of the groups are "Glacial Relicts" meaning they may have found refuge in various sites, like the Nunataks mentioned above, during the period of glaciation in Germany and that corresponds closely with the Wisconisnan glaciation including climate, etc. Her paper is titled Is Alnus Viridis a Glacial Relect in the Black Forest, and her summary, after years of difficult research, states that she found several A. viridis populations that at one time (7 million years ago) were part of a single larger group and during  glaciation became geographically isolated but continued to adapt to their immediate environment. Changes, or adaptaions, consisted mostly in changes in the function of photorecpetors. Waves of isolation of different populations of Alnus began 7 million years ago but the groups she identified  in the Black Forest began isolating 1.5 million years ago which is the time frame of the last continental glaciation and during that time and now we know at least some plant species were weathering the difficult climate and landscape. They did not become extinct and were adapting to the environment throughout their isolation.

An exciting aspect of this paper is that the author was able to detect and measure exactly in time when a plant divided into two intermediate or separate species. It would certainly be exciting to know, for instance, when the alder family left the birch family, to which its related, and became a separate genus.

This photo was taken from West Bond in 1959 while I was doing a 10-day camping-hiking trip with friends and we traversed the mountains from Randolph to North Woodstock. West Bond was a bushwhack in those days but was well worth the scrapes and hair-full of balsam needles. The summit is near the center point of the Pemigewasset Wilderness with great views all around including Mts. South Twin in the foreground and Garfield in the distance.

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