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: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/
science-environment-17100574 , described how seeds believed to be 35,000 years old found at a periglacial site in Siberia were successfully germinated. Another BBC article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ science-environment-17258799 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.
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.
|North end of the Carrigain Notch Trail that follows an old logging railroad bed, June 2003.|
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.