Tuesday, October 2, 2012

9-29-12 Mt. Passaconway & Sandwich Range Wilderness (in progress)

Changing color, these Lady ferns (Atherium filix-femina) at the edge of the trail head parking lot for the Mt. Wonalancet Range Trail, are a formal announcement fall has arrived.
This past weekend (9-29-12) I was trying to catch up with September which has flown by with astounding speed. It's a coveted time for hiking with its fine wine-like mountain days but I needed to spend most of the weekends trying to out run an avalanche of over due paper work at my agency; reams and reams of useless stuff that I had pushed aside for a year, or more, and it had caught up to my very heels. That was all forgotten, though, as I headed north on Friday on my way to hike with my good friend Sheldon Perry. I stopped briefly in North Conway Friday night and joined a priceless gathering of my former elementary school classmates in a wonderful celebration of a successful fund raising campaign, The Damon O'Neal Scholarship Fund, that was started three years ago with hopes of assisting potential US Olympic skiers from Kennett High School.  North Conway, the entire Eastern Slopes region, over the years has produced its share of Olympic skiers most recently Leanne Smith ( right) who is a member of the current USSA A Team and routinely finishes right behind Mancuso and Vonn. The Damon O'Neal Scholarship now has enough money in it, according to Rolly O'Neal, to last until 2042!

It was raining buckets Saturday morning so Sheldon and I, for our hike, decided to stay low and close to his abode in Tamworth, NH. We headed for Mt. Passaconway and decided to climb it by first ascending Mt. Wonalancet via the Wonalancet Range Trail, continue on to Mt. Hubbard, and, finally head up Passaconway via the Walden Trail. Even with the weather it was a beautiful day to be in the woods. The fine, gray-threaded rain and mist brought out the rich, evocative smells of approaching Fall. I love hiking in the rain as much as in any other weather just for the sensual spell it casts over the woods.

The photo above shows part of the Wonalancet Intervale that's part of Tamworth and where we started our hike. Each summer, as a scrawny kid, I spent a few weeks here with cousins when Wonalancet was idyllic in its secluded beauty and remoteness from the rest of the world, nestled at the foot of Mt. Whiteface and Mt. Passaconway. For years (prior to European contact) it was the site of the summer encampment of the Pennacook band of Abenaki-related people. The mountains is named for their famous chief, Passaconway, who was an extraordinary and brilliant man. His son's name was Wonalancet.
The Sandwich Range Wilderness was created in 1984. It's an extremely important portion of the White Mountain federal lands that resembles a jig-saw puzzle with several other wilderness areas as well as the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) as snug fitting pieces of the whole. All of it is maintained by the US Forest Service (USFS). The Sandwich Range Wilderness is important for several reasons. The primary one being that it protects the "southern flank" of forest lands which are far more vulnerable to commercial development from the south (along the Interstate highways). It also protects a region of great beauty that is home to many albeit lower peaks, but arguably some of the loveliest in New England like Chocorua, Passaconway and Sandwich Dome.
I used Sheldon here for scale in what resembles a rock "river" coming from the upper southeast flank of Mt. Wonalancet. It's a bit of a puzzle to figure out whether they're glacial erratics,  blocks that have been quarried by frost action on cliffs higher up on the mountain, or some of both. Sheldon voted for erratics and I for frost quarried blocks (felsenmmer) but it could perfectly well be both.

At any rate you can get idea of the extent of the mass of all these rocks as they spread across and up and down the slope.

These two boulders look like they have tumbled here from above.
This boulder looks similar to a cartoon character with its exaggerated mouth. A probable question to ask is how did the top of the boulder, after it was sheared in half by frost action, lose some of its mass so that the two halves don't fit exactly together.
Comparing both photos shows that the two halves are congruent, but the fit is uneven. That's quiz #1. Why?
The Wonalancet Range Trail threads through the rocks and finds level terrain on a bench that runs parallel to the contour lines through the wet woods that were suffused with the bright green reflecting from the overhead beech leaves.

Soon the trail turns left right into the mountain and begins to climb steeply up past this huge tilting chunk of granite that's got a roof of common polypody ferns (Polypodium vulgare L.). It's also decked with sphagnum moss, rock tripe (Umbilicaria hyperborea Ach after Slim Harris), creeping snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula L.) and probably numerous other plants.
Sheldon on the steeps. It was much steeper than the photo actually shows.
Roots of the red spruce (Picea rubra) searching for a good "foot hold" on the bare granite. This is base level of the "conferous caps" (confierous vegetaion as in balsam, spruce, hemlock etc.) we find on the upper summit regions of mountains all over the US. The conferous are better adapted to the poor, thin soils in these niches than are most deciduous trees with the exception of white and yellow birch, cherry, mountain maple and striped maple.
Steepest part of the headwall with an intriguing cave, or overhang, between two house-sized boulders.
At the top of the steep climbing we found this lovely path striking out in the rain along the nearly level ridge which it does for 2.2 miles until it's junction with the Walden Trail.

As soon as we reached the ridge we were greeted by an assortment of glacial erratics like this one. Many of the erratics we passed Saturday were huge. They were right there on top of the ridge where they couldn't have gotten there any other way but by  glacier express. There was one as big as a small house off of the Dicey Mill Trail.
 It's lovely and I'm going to have to key it out because I don't know the name. I was going to say it's an Agaric, but now I'm not sure. Mushrooms are kind of fun to key out.
The trail was enchanting particularly in the rain and mist. It beckeoned us along with its twists and turns. I'll spare you words for a moment so you can just look at the photos and imagine yourself relaxed and enjoying the trail.

 A giant toad?

Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis L.) A ginseng family member.
There were many small "caps" or summits in the 2 mile stretch with limited views to the south and west.
This is looking southeast from Mt. Hubbard down towards the Intervale (far left) where we left the car. On a clear day the view would be smashing.

This small pool of water in a "sink" in this ledge reminded me of our early methods of "hydrating" in the days before fancy plastic water bottles and resevoirs that fit in back packs. In the history of the "hut traverse", for instance, these little pools of collected rain water were often used as the only source of water between two huts. When I was trail running I used to drink from these rather happily. There were often times when you competed with a variety of small swimming insects for the precious water.
The series of photos ahead are mainly of the trail and offer a first hand look at the terrain and vegetation on the ridge. I'm including a number of them if only because I've long been intrigued by the concept of "wilderness" and how we, in the 21st Century, conceive of it. It has become a fleeting entity in my life time. As I walked along this ridge in this wilderness area set aside 30 years ago, I wondered what it would be like here on the ridge in 100 or 200 years from now and what kind of legacy it leaves for coming generations.
More large boulders among the red spruces. The spruce outnumbered the balsam firs on the ridge which is somewhat of a rarity in the White Mountains that seem to be overpopulated with the latter. The next photos represent a about a mile-long section of the ridge.

Occasionally there were small descents when it was satisfying to run for a ways.

A red spruce of grand proportions.
Hobblebush (Vibernum alnifolia).

What remains of a specimen red spruce about 24 inches in diameter that fell ages ago. Remember that when J.E. Henry began logging the Pemi he only took spruce that were 16 inches in diameter, or larger, at first. That's now pretty much the largest sized red spruce you'll find here now.
This is getting close to the summit of Passaconway and to get here the Walden Trail climbed magnificently up a very steep section, a rock climb or "scramble", from a saddle between Mts. Hubbard and Passaconway. It was so rugged and engaging that I forgot to stop and take photos.
Just below the Passaconway summit amid some older red spruce that have weathered many storms.
We bumped into these two friends of Sheldon's who were doing the loop clockwise.
A perfect place for a leisurely lunch next to Dicey Brook on our way back down. We sidestepped the very summit of Passaconway because we were wet and getting cold and because the summit was in the clouds.
At a lower elevation the woods were again suffused with this wonderful green light.
Quiz #2: what made these two perfectly parallel grooves in this large boulder?
The natural destroyers of wood in the forest, various kinds of fungi enjoying a meal
and with a lot of work to do.
Between the summits of Mt. Whiteface and Mt. Passaconway there is an interesting "bowl", or ravine, that has the shape of a glacial cirque. There is some evidence that it may have been carved by a small, local alpine glacier during the same period that the alpine glaciers on the northern Presidential peaks including Mt. Washington. It's an intriguing part of the Sandwich Range Wilderness and has been set aside for research. Near the bottom of this "cirque" and close to the Dicey Mill Trail Sheldon and I found some large maples and large yellow birch trees similar in size to trees I've measured on the north flank of Mt. Adams north of Mt. Washington. They are stately "giants" that rose high above us into the mist.
Sheldon offers a comparison in size to this yellow birch. He looks a bit shy. Sheldon is quite a character and has lived in the north country for many years. A skier of renown he was on a few national ski teams in his Dartmouth College years and eventually turned pro. As I've reported earlier he, so far, is the Course Setter for the annual Inferno ski race on Mt. Washington. He is also a master crafts person, a cabinet maker by trade, and he makes beautiful things.
There were many large boles growing like these over a wide area like these and the ones in the photo below.
On a cold April morning in 1965 I hiked through here on the Dicey Mill Trail heading up to retrieve water samples from high on Dicey Brook to take back to Dartmouth for a research project. It was a cold, cloudy morning and I was moving quickly to stay warm. I was just passing a tree next to the trail (like one of these) when I was struck by falling bits of bark coming down from the tree and heard a scratching-scraping noise. I jumped aside and a black bear, a small female, fell to the ground with a "thud" only eight feet away from me. She looked a bit dazed. I backed away slowly and, with my usual precaution, began talking to her in a calm voice one might use to talk to their dentist, small talk like: "hey, how are ya doing? What you been up to? I'm hiking up Passaconway here. It's kinda chilly this morning, don't you think." She stood up and looked at me quizzically. I kept backing slowly up the trail until I was 15 feet away from here. Suddenly she bent foward and with her two forepaws grabbed a big wad of dry leaves and with a rapid motion threw them up in the air so they showered down around her and she half barked-half-growled a loud "wuff".  I watched her for a second and she didn't make another move. I bent down and gathered a big wad of leaves and threw them up in the air and imitated her "wuff". We looked at each other. "I've got to get going. I'm going to go now and head up the trail for a ways and you're welcome to come along if you'd like," I said. I turned and started hiking again. I got a 100 feet up the trail and looked back. She was following me on the trail. For the next hour she followed me at a distance of 40-50 feet until I got up to the snow line and the going got a little harder. She was slowing down with all the post-holing we were both doing. Then I looked and she was gone. Later, I came down from Mt. Whiteface, after doing the loop from Passaconway. The morning had cleared and the sun was out as I came down some ledges. She was sitting near the trail on her rump gazing up at the sun. I said, "Hi, bruin, what-cha-doin?" Without moving any other part of her body she tilted her head by rotating her neck a little and she looked at me briefly before straightening up her neck and went back to gazing at the sun on a fine, early afternoon in Spring.


Bob Christiansen said...

Alex - Great post and great to read your 'dulcet tones' again! Love the photos - it's been a few years since I was last on Wonalancet and Passaconaway (last time with Sheldon too) but I'm yearning to do them again, as I sit here in Oz looking out over the Coral Sea!

Let's try to catch up for a hike when we're back over there this winter. ... Best ... Bob

Alex MacPhail said...

Hi Bob, Just caught your note. Thanks for the kudos. I enjoy the blog if only for the wonderful emails and comments I get. I agree, we should get in touch during your New Hampshire winter rendezvous. All best, Alex.