Friday, September 26, 2008

A brief visit to Lakes of the Clouds, September 12-13, 2008

This is Lakes of the Clouds Hut (referred to simply as Lakes) run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (The AMC) on Mt. Washington. That's Mt. Washington (referred to as The Wash) in the background partially hidden in the clouds. There are usually clouds around Mt. Washington and it's one reason that the AMC has its cloud sampling program at Lakes. Lakes usually closes for the season in the middle of September and I went up this year for that annual ritual. Last year on the last night there was a dusting of snow that fell, maybe a half an inch or so, and the next morning was crystal clear and astonishingly bright as the sun came over the ridge. For just an instant everything glistened and was lyrical in that light. Lakes is well known for a bunch of things including clouds, sunrises, sunsets, alpine flowers, and it snows almost every month. It's magical there, just above timberline, and a great place to spend a summer.

Ana Roy at the cloud sampling site near Lakes of the Clouds Hut explaining the equipment and the program to hikers, September 12, 2008

This is Ana Roy (short for Anastasia), a naturalist working for the AMC who operates the cloud sampling project at Lakes. The hut is located at 5000 feet on a southwestern shoulder of Mt. Washington and at the foot of Mt. Monroe. Almost every afternoon, weather permitting, Ana gives a demo of the cloud sampling equipment and explains her project on clouds and talks about the clouds themselves to guests at the hut and random hikers. The cloud project is fascinating for two reasons. One is that clouds tell unusual stories about how they form and what they contain inside of them. For instance clouds sometimes contain particles of soot or clay that get filtered out in the cloud filter Ana uses. The clay may come from 1000s of miles away. Clouds consist of moisture mostly and the water that condenses out of clouds also tells Ana something about where the clouds come from. In the mid-1960s I was a lowly research assistant and part of a team of researchers working in forest laboratories in the US, Scotland, Norway and Germany who eventually coined the term "Acid Rain". The phenomenon of acid rain became well known in the 1970s because it raised a long list of grave environmental concerns. When I give programs about the health of the forest the question of acid rain comes up often and most people think it's a ghost from the past, that the coal fired plants in the mid-west are all 'clean' burning now. So the second reason the cloud program at lakes is interesting is that it has shown that some of the rain that falls on Mt. Washington and the White Mountain National Forest is still pretty acidic. Rain normally has a pH (or acidic content index) of 5.4 to 5.7 where 7 is neutral and 1 is very acidic. Acid rain has a pH of between 5.8 and 3.0. Some of the water samples from the equipment at Lakes has a pH as low as 2.6 at times. This is an issue because acid rain has such a destructive impact on the environment. The quantitative and qualitative damage it does is literally immeasurable. Things are certainly better than they were in the 1960s and 1970s but they still need scrutinizing.

The small, seemingly fragile Dwarf Cinquefoil, or Potentilla Robbinsiana, one of the world's rarest flowers

This is a tiny, tiny plant and it's called Dwarf Cinquefoil, or Potentilla robbinsiana, and it is one of the rarest plants in the world and perhaps one of the most cared for rare plants in the world. It only grows in the harsh, arctic environment of the alpine zone of the White Mountains. It grows well in this cold climate where frost persists most of the year and in a soil that is a dense but well drained glacial till. In 1963 it was noted that the number of dwarf cinquefoil on Mt. Washington were decreasing. Something was happening to them, perhaps the impact of acid rain, and they were not surviving. In 1963 Lawrence Bliss wrote in his Alpine Ecology of the Presidential Range: "please help protect this rare plant." A cadre of people became invested in protecting the fragile Robbinsiana in the early 1960s including Bliss, Miriam Underhill and her husband Robert, Slim (Stuart K.) Harris and his wife Cal Harris (photo below), Brad Swan, Fred Steele, myself and a number of folks then working in the huts and for the Mt. Washington Observatory. In 1963 I helped Cal Harris, Mirian Underhill and others map the location of each of the Dwarf Cinquefoils growing on Mt. Washington at that time. Fred Steele identified a small population of the dwarf cinquefoils on Mt. Lafayette, a population that at one time was down to 3 specimens. What began at that time continues today and is supported by the response of all the people who took part and continue to take part in this endeavor and by the response of the Dwarf Cinquefoils which have thrived and multiplied during the past 40 years or so. The population is perhaps more viable today than ever and certainly the news that the Mt. Lafayette population now numbers in the 100s is worth celebrating in itself

Calista Harris, Naturalist & Pioneer, at Lakes of the Clouds, July 1984

Cal Harris, photographed at Lakes of the Clouds in July 1984, was a brilliant naturalist and botanist who lived and worked in the White Mountains for many, many years and knew them about as well as anyone can. I loved working with Cal because of the depth of her knowledge and her wonderful sense of humor. She was an amazing person. Her partner/husband, Stuart (Slim) Harris, was also an amazing botanist, naturalist and artist who worked in the White Mountains for years and together they wrote articles and helped publish books like the AMC's Mountain Flowers of New England that had its debut in 1964. Cal was instrumental in creating the project to steward the Dwarf Cinquefoil population (see above) on Mt. Washington and put in lots of hours to help make the area near the base of Mt. Monroe and close to the Crawford Path and Lakes of the Clouds Hut a restricted area to protect the nearby Dwarf Cinquefoil population. When I meet the younger naturalists like those from the 2008 season, Ana Roy (above), Benny Taylor, Andy Reily (see article below), Alex May, Kate Keefe, and all the others I think of Cal because it's her footsteps they/we are following and you couldn't ask for better company.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bushwhacking down the east side of Mt. Bond, September 6, 2008

Mt. Bond is one of the really amazing summits in the White Mountains. Fairly high at 4698' it commands a breathtaking view of a vast area and is accompanied by two other summits close by, Bondcliff (4265') and West Bond (4540'), that are also members of the 4000-Footer Club summits and offer prize views as well. Mt. Bond is near the center of the Franconia section of the White Mountains in the Pemmigewasset Wilderness area and is difficult to get to for all of that. That's Mt. Bond in the photo above with its head in the clouds. The photo shows the east side of the mountain and was taken from Whitewall Mountain above Zealand Notch. I've skied on the east side of Bond enjoying the birch glades that extend from around 3200 feet down to the notch. However, I've never explored that side of the mountain beyond skiing it and have been interested because when J. E. Henry was logging this area in the late 1800s he had two fairly large logging camps on the east flank of Bond and many miles of logging roads cutting across it. I've long wondered if there is any evidence of either the roads now, or the camps, so I decided to bushwhack across the east face to see what I could see. I also want to try and illustrate the idea of "zones" of vegetation in the Whites. And by that I mean stratified groupings of certain plants according to altitude. An example is what is called the 'Alpine Zone' extant on the Presidential and Franconia ranges above, say, 4500-5000 feet. The Alpine Zone is fairly set and well defined but some of the zones are not hard and fast boundaries. There is a lot of variability but, still, if you observe the terrain you're hiking through you'll notice that certain plants form communities in specific areas particularly as you go up and down. They also form communities for other reasons besides the altitude, for instance, the availablity of water (near a brook or beaver pond), or on the north side (so cooler, wetter) of certain mountains, or where there's a lot of ledge (so warmer and drier) as opposed to where the soil is rich, deep and moist. So this will be a cursory look at what changes we find, if any, on a roughly 2500 foot vertical 'transect line' down Mt. Bond.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A spruce-fir, sub-alpine forest at 4200 feet on Mt. Bond

I began this bushwhack at roughly 4500 feet just north of the main summit of Mt. Bond (4698'). The clouds were down to about 3000 feet when I started so the woods were misty. The forecast was for a chance of rain in the afternoon. I hoped to be back at Zealand Falls Hut before the rain started. The above picture was taken just a few hundred feet down from the ridge, maybe at 4200 feet and shows a typical high altitude, or sub-alpine forest, in the White Mountains. The dominant trees are spruce-fir-birch. The two most populous trees are red spruce (Picea rubens) and balsam fir (Abies balsamea). The terrain here was very steep and a little tricky as the undergrowth was thick and it was difficult to see where I was putting my feet.

Confierous spruce-balsam fir forest at the 4000'-3500' elevation on Mt. Bond

As you can see on the map the eastern slope, or flank, of Mt. Bond is fairly steep from 4600 feet down to between 3500-3000 feet. I was trying to get to a small brook that comes down from near the summit of Mt. Bond and that flows into Jumping Brook at about 3000 feet. I was going to use the brook as a path down. This photograph was typical of the forest at 4000 to 3500 feet. Note the larger trunk of the spruce tree in the foreground. Some observers feel this represents "old" growth forest but it is situated in an ideal place for steady growth and is definitely less than 100 years old. It's just a large tree.

A fir-spruce-birch forest at about 3600' on Mt. Bond

Looking uphill at about 3600-3700 feet into a stand of balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and red (Picea rubens) and black spruce (Picea mariana) with some fairly large, old, white birch (Betula papyrifera). This is typical of the forest one finds on the eastern slopes of these mountains at this altitude. Just below 4000' the forest opened up a bit on the line I was following from the summit ridge of Mt. Bond and passage became a little easier. I could 'lope' rather than pick my way down. The soil here is deeper, there's more duff, but there is not much herbaceous vegetation on the forest floor. Just bunch berry (Cornus canadensis) and a few asters (Aster radula) where there is sufficient sunlight passing threw the over story.

typical forest at 3000 feet in the White Mountains

This is a fairly typical glimpse of the spruce-fir forest at 3000 feet. I slabbed northeast following the contour in the general direction of Zeacliff and Zeacliff Pond through this kind of growth. After a mile, or so, of bushwhacking in this stuff your ears, shorts, pockets, shoes, socks and pack get filled with fir balsam needles and it becomes very irritating. Notice that there's no witch-hobble (Vibernum alnifolium) in the photo. Witch-hobble is rare above 3000 feet in the Whites. There's some herbaceous growth on the floor, some clintonia (Clintonia borealis) a lily named after a former governor of New York that Bliss refers to as Blue Bead Lily because of the fruit, and prior to taking this photo I saw some star flower, Trientalis borealis, which is the only member of the primrose family that grows in this area at this altitude. Remind me to tell you a hilarious story about the star flower from when I was an apprenticing botanist under my brilliant teacher Harry Levy of the Arnold Arboretum. Also, in the vicinity of where I took this picture I was quite sure, for a few hundred yards, or so, that I was following one of the old logging roads that traversed this part of the mountain.

A random sampling of the forest floor

This is a random sample photograph of the forest floor close to where the photograph below was taken and it shows vegetation patterns and types. On the right side of the section of birch limb there's a lot of bunch berry (Cornus canadensis), a member of the dogwood family, and one or two small balsam fir (Abies balsamea) seedlings. On the left side of the birch limb there is a few sharp-leafed wood asters (Aster acuminatus), a few Spinulose woodferns (Drypoteris spinulosa) and here the variety is mountain woodfern. There's also one or two small, long beech ferns (Thelypteris Phegopteris) in the left center of the photo. Ferns are pretty cool and the Whites have an astonishing array of them. They are, with the mosses and lichens, a neglected population of plants.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dense small birch and spruce-fir mix on lower half of the east flank of Mt. Bond at @ 3000 feet, September 6, 2008

This was about the point where my camera quit and sent a message saying "battery exhausted", and my first thought was "Oh, poor baby", but it's actually infuriating when you're out in the woods and there are lots of things to photograph and you can't. Anyway, this was the last photo on this trip and taken at between 2900 and 2800 feet. From this location I slabbed in a southerly direction perpendicular to the fall line along the uphill edge of a forest dominated by birch that you can see opening up in this photo with the ubiquitous witch-hobble there as well. The witch-hobble, or simply hobble bush (Vibernum alnifolium) was between 6' and 7' high. This open growth extended several miles on a fairly gentle slope with a southeast aspect. There was a lot of herbaceous ground cover in this glade-like area due to the high amount of sunlight available at the ground level. I used visual sightings of Whitewall Mountain and Mts. Lowell and Carrigain to determine where I wanted to descend the final ridge and drop down to the North Fork of the Pemigewasset River about one mile below Thoreau Falls. The witch hobble made the going difficult as it is true to its name and I had little temper tantrums all the way across each time I got tripped or snagged. It didn't help that it started to rain hard as I got into the witch-hobble. This plant is rarely found above 3000 feet so it is a good indicator for altitude when hiking. Once I was on the final steep descent down to the river, from about 2600 feet to 2000 feet, the vegetation changed to dense mixed hardwoods, mostly maple including sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and mountain maple (Acer spicatum). The witch-hobble disappeared. The soil was thick because of the deciduous trees so the last mile was relatively easy. I followed the river back up to Thoreau Falls, circumnavigated those, and continued to follow the river back up to Whitewall Brook and then followed the Ethan Pond Trail back to Zealand Hut. I'm going to save what I saw along the brook for another entry. In terms of my orginial goal in bushwhacking down Mt. Bond I had found sections of what might have been the logging roads of 100 years ago but no sign of Camp 23-A which is what I had expected.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Beaver Dam in Zealand Valley, September 2008

This is an old beaver dam in the Zealand Valley on the trail to Zealand Hut that is located about a half mile away on the mountain side in the background. This photograph correlates to the next photograph below and was taken at the exact spot the one below was taken 40 years ago and shows some of the changes that have occurred in the vicinity of the beaver dam. It's an interesting comparison.

Beaver dam in Zealand Valley November 1969

When I hiked through the White Mountains as a youngster I was fascinated by the beaver dams and lodges. In 1950 Walt Disney made a movie titled Beaver Valley that I went on a "field trip" to see at the Majestic Theater in North Conway with my third grade class in the mid-1950's. We walked single file from the school to the movie theater. It was filmed in a remote valley in the Montana Rockies. The scenery would make you drool. The cinematographer cut a beaver lodge in half and put in a sheet of glass so he could film the beavers inside their lodge all winter. He filmed a beaver colony through an entire year even under the ice. I loved the movie and went back to see it several times. The photo above was taken in November 1969 of a dam created by beaver around 1952-53 close to the Zealand Trail and at the north end of Zealand Pond, a pre-existing body of water. The dam stabilized the level of the pond and made it possible for several generations of beaver to use the pond as a home for decades. The dam is still there but seriously overgrown (photo above) There is little, if any, beaver activity in the valley currently. Beavers are notoriously shy and there are more people hiking in the Valley then there were 30 years ago and that may have impacted on the beaver population. With the exception of Zealand Pond itself, although that may also be caught in the same succession process, all the ponds shown in this article on beavers, will eventually go from ponds to bogs to fields and presumably back to forest. That is because the tension in the larger environment is to find a level of stability (homeostasis), or balance, while achieving maximum output. Alan Savory, a wildlife biologist in South Africa, refers to nature as a "coiled spring", a metaphor for the productivity level of nature everywhere, or what we refer to as nature, and its resilence. The Zealand Valley is a perfect example of this coiled spring and nature's resilence as a little more than 100 years ago the valley, the notch, the mountain sides on the east and west, all the vegetation, were completely destroyed by sensational forest fires. So what you see today, the vitality and health of the current ecosystem, including the contributions made by the beavers, is a testament to how prolific nature can be when man isn't trying to destroy it.

Looking down at Zealand Pond from Zealand Falls, November 1969

This photograph gives you an idea of the size of Zealand Pond which, at least over the past 40 years has not changed a great deal. It is five or six acres in size. The photograph also gives a good idea of the U 'shape' of the valley here. Zealand Pond is located at the valley's most constricted point but the valley floor is still flat enough to give the pond sufficient stability while holding it within strong boundaries. It would be interesting to try and discover if the outlet for the pond every flowed south through Zealand Notch. As you travel north the valley gets wider and the valley floor spreads out allowing the water to spread out and meander a bit as it flows from beaver pond to beaver pond.

Zealand Pond, the first beaver pond in the valley chain of beaver dams and pons extending north through the valley

This is Zealand Pond, a geographical feature of the notch for some time, perhaps on and off for thousands of years, but it's existence is somewhat controlled by beavers by means of the dam you see in the two photographs above. The pond is probably of glacial origin, at least the depression where the water collects, and it is fed by springs. It drains in two directions, north and south. The south drainage is a trickle most of the time and flows into Whitewall Brook and eventually feeds into the Pemigewasset and then on to the Merimack River. The north drainage feeds into Hoxie Brook and then into the Ammonusuc andon to the Connecticut River. As you can see from the photos the pond is an extensive with several acres of surface area. It has slowly become slightly smaller and shallower during the 40 years between the two photos. When the older photograph was taken there was an active beaver colony living in a lodge towards the north end of the pond. At the moment there is no beaver activity. The pond has a diverse list of plants growing in it and around the perimeter and up until 25 years ago there was a small population of Sundews (Drosera rotundifolia), a carnivorous insect eating variety of plants, that I wasn't able to find this year and they may have died or moved.
This is beaver pond #2 and immediately adjacent to the first pond, otherwise called Zealand Pond, and second oldest in this particular "chain" of consecutive dams and ponds that stretch northward up the valley. The dam for this pond is well grown over with vegetation including small trees of several species and it is, as you can see, a horse-shoe shaped arc built for strength.

A few notes about beavers in general

This photo shows a birch tree about 10 inches in diameter cut down by beaver (using their large front, or incisor, teeth) several years ago close to the Zealand Trail and the beaver pond in the photo below. The following is a concise natural history of the beaver that might be interesting if you know nothing about them.

Beaver have an immense 'range' and are found everywhere in North America from the Arctic to the Sonoran Desert. They're the largest rodents on the continent and have a history going back 30 million years in the fossil record. Modern beaver has been around for more than a million years but probably less than 4 million years. The latin 'genus' name for beaver is Castor (thus Castor Oil). The full latin name of our North American beaver is Castor canadensis There is one other species of beaver that is related to our C. canadensis and is native to Europe. Modern beavers can be six feet long, counting the tail, and weigh 50-65 pounds but the average adult size is more like 40 inches long, including the tail which is nominally 10 inches long, and a weight of around 35 pounds. The babies are referred to as 'kits'. Beavers live in a semi-aquatic environment (meaning near but also under water) but can be terrestrial and live in burrows that they dig themselves such as beaver who live in the Sonoran Desert region of the southwestern United States. Beaver's front paws are incredibly adept at many tasks including fine manipulations of objects (cameras, cell phones?). Their hind feet are webbed for swimming. Their eyes, mouth, and ears have protective membranes that allow them to stay for long periods, and see and chew underwater. Beavers are vegetarians, or 'herbivorous' and eat bark of trees like aspen, poplar and willow, and birch. Like many rodents the beaver is incredibly versatile and able to adapt to myriad environments. The most notable aspects of beaver is 1.) their proclivity to stop moving water and impound it behind dams wherever they can, and 2.) their fur. They have two layers of fur, a grayish bottom layer next to the skin made of really thick fur that acts as super insulation, and a second layer of coarse brown colored fur sometimes referred to as "guard hairs". The beaver active in the White Mountains are typical, modern beaver. They live in lodges that provide amazing protection from predators as well as warmth in the winter months. They are typically called 'nocturnal' meaning they're active at night but they're also seen during the late afternoon and early evening and in the early morning as well. They live in extended families, or colonies, which typically have up to a 8-10 individuals with at least 2 of them a mated pair of adults. Beavers mate for life and could be considered matriarchal as the female manages the colony. If the male dies the female will take in another male. If the female dies the dam and lodge are abandoned. It may be the case in the Zealand Valley that the colony's female died and the pools and lodges have been abandoned. The picture above shows a beaver cutting that's several years old. There are no new cuttings that would indicate current activity. When beavers overpopulate an area and are considered a public nusance trapper are sometimes contracted to "cull" the beaver which means trap and kill them. This was the case at Lonesome Lake a few years ago where there was an active beaver colonly. Beavers and human are sometimes at odds but from the early 1600s and until the late 1800s, the period when top hats, made from beaver skins, were fashionable in Europe, beavers were at odds with humans and were nearly killed to extinction. As soon as Europeans arrived in North America they began trapping beaver from a starting population probably in the millions reducing it to very nearly to zero, as was reported in Maine and New Hampshire, in just a few decades. The beaver skins, of course, were valuable. One last note of interest: in the summer of 1963, right around sunset, I found a female beaver on the summit of Mt. Washington, at 6, 288 feet above sea level, heading east to west and about to descend into Ammonoosuc Ravine. She was trapped by some Fish and Game personel and taken to a location unknown. Her migration is interesting to note if only because Mt. Washington, basically a rock pile a mile high, would be an arduous hike for a beaver, I would imagine, but this one was undetered and dramatized their determination and strength.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

This is beaver pond #3 in the Zealand Valley chain of ponds and dams

This is the large pond created by the dam in the photo below. When I was 10 years old there was a large field here, big enough so that you could play softball there. There was a huge white birch at the edge of the field and we found 'artifacts', like railroad spikes and broken glass, evidence there had been a logging camp on this site. I also heard from Fran Belcher who wrote a book about the logging railroads of the White Mountains that there had been a switching yard for the Zealand Valley logging railroad here, on this site. Trains switched here to take the lower of the two railroads that cut down through Zealand Notch, the upper track bed cut across Whitewall Mountain partway up the talus slope and the other track ran down along Whitewall Brook 100 feet lower. It's extraordinary when you look at the pictures in Fran 's book that almost every tree was stripped off the mountain slopes right up to the mountains' summits. In some of the photos there are massive logs two feet in diameter and you could only imagine what the forests looked like before the logging and all of that destruction.

Beaver dam #3 in the chain, Zealand Valley, September 2, 2008

This is a relatively old beaver dam probably dating from the 1970's. It has captured mud (soil) and is overgrown with plants including a birch sapling. To the right and downstream from the dam you can see the silt build up and the plant life taking over the channel. This means the flow rate of the stream in very slow for most of the year and that beavers are no longer active here.

Water impounded by dam #4 in the current Zealand valley system of beaver dams and ponds

This is beaver pond #4 impounded by the dam in the photograph below. It has 6 acres of surface area and holds a large quantity of water. From the human (hiker?) perspective the beaver dams and ponds in Zealand Valley are aesthetic as in this photo where the pond has created a large opening with a lovely view of Zeacliff in the distance which is further enhanced by the reflection in the pond. From an ecological point of view the ponds also have a positive impact locally as they create a rich habitat for a diverse interactive community of fauna and flora (animals and plants) than would not exist otherwise. The dams and ponds impact the types of plants that grow here and the animals that come in search of food. Ecologically we talk about 'Trophic Levels" or, more simply, "food webs" and "food chains". Beaver activity in total, not just the dams and ponds, significantly alters the local food web when they interact in the local ecosystem. Beavers themselves are in the middle trophic level meaning they are herbviores and only eat plants (vegetables), principally tree bark, aquatic plants and some non-aquatic plants like meadowsweet. Beavers stay close to home and engage in intense activity in a relatively small area. They expend a great deal of energy to procure and move their food and therefore need a lot of food proportionately and compared, say, to a mouse, or a chipmunk. Beavers signficantly alter their habitat by cutting down trees and slowing the flow of water and expanding water outwards into ponds that then floods plant communities sometimes destructively. In most cases this increase in activity and expenditure of energy is profitable for other animals and plants. The relationship between beavers and the trees they eat is an example of a food chain. It's a simple, direct relationship. The ecosystem the beaver dams and ponds make, however, gives rise to a complex food web involving plants (primary trophic level) and herbivores that eat the plants, like deer, porcupines, moose, fish or insects, and small carnivores, like birds, snakes, frogs, toads (yuck!) and spiders, that eat the small fish and insects, and the larger carnivores and omnivores that eat the deer, birds, and more of the plants and the fish like bears, fishers, mink, otters, coyotes, skunks, fox, and raccoons (to name some).

Beaver dam at the Z bridge on the Zealand Trail

This is the last dam in the current 'chain' of beaver dams and ponds that extend north through the Zealand valley. A photograph below shows this dam in the 1960's and it has been rebuilt one or two times since then by beavers. Also, it looks new in this photo but it's not. If you look carefully you can see that it is made from quite old material. It has impounded a large body of water for some time, though, as the beavers attempted, and for a time succeeded in controlling the flow of water through the valley for their purposes and it has, over time, dramatically increased the overall vitality of the valley, the fertility of the soil, the diveristy of plants and animals, and created a micro environment that is appealing to humans as well as native fauna and flora. Beaver dams and ponds are at best temporary although 'temporary' is loosely defined. From the photos we can measure some of the longevity of the Zealand Valley beaver dams, about 40-50 year at least, but we also know that eventually the ponds will become swamp-like, or bog-like and then, in their last stages become field-like, with grasses, sedges, and woody stemmed plants invading them as in the photo that follows.

The beaver dam at the Z bridge in September 2008 with a wider view and taken from the foot bridge on the Zealand Trail.

Step back from the dam in the photo above and look at this photo, also taken in September 2008, of the water course flowing from the dam and the dam itself (just barely visible in front of the large rock) compared to the same scene 24 years ago, in 1984, portrayed in the photo below.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

This was the same scene in the above photograph in 1984 taken in the same place.

As you can see most of the components that are present in the photo taken in September 2008 are present in this photo taken in July of 1984 except that the small dam in the narrows near the two hemlock trees on the right is not there and there is much more water in the foreground. The large rock in the photo above (and below) is just barely showing in this photo. This means the beaver, in the intervening 24 years changed the way the water was distributed in this specific location and the dam was moved just a few feet downstream from the left edge of this photo.

Scene of last four photos but taken 40 years ago

This photo was taken at the same spot as the two above it and of the same scene but it was taken in November 1969, 39 years ago, and it shows the beaver dam where it is today. So, again, this is documentation of the flux in the way the beavers have tried over four decades to control the flow of water along the floor of this lovely valley. For whatever reason, or lack of a reason, they have changed the rate of flow and the depth of the water myriad times. The fact that there is probably, by the most empirical data, no beaver activity at the current time does not rule out that they will return in the future and that the water flow in Zealand Valley will again be subjected to their engineering mania. The thought is, from purely a natural history perspective, that their efforts really contribute a kind of random, loosely knit, impact on the valley. It is a history not so much about the beavers, but about the water and how it impacts the valley. They are the change agents. By slowing down the water flow, impounding it so it widens itself beyond the normal stream bed, extending outwards on either side, the beaver have irrevocably changed the valley and added something significant. They have markedly improved the soil here and, by that achievement alone they have made it a more hospitable environment for a diverse plant community that, in turn, protects the soil.

A beaver pond that has evolved into an alder swamp on its way to becoming part of the neighboring forest.

This photo was taken merely by turning around in the spot where the third one up from this was taken showing the the current, 2008, beaver dam and water course. This photo shows a bog, or swamp, that is gradually becoming a field where there had been a beaver pond and open water 25 years ago. It's now home to a rich and diverse plant community that includes alder, which is nitrogen fixing and improves soils where it grows, spirea (meadow sweet), sedge, viburnum, several species of grass, and some small red (or swamp) maple seedlings. It's a good bet that it is gradually becoming part of the existing forest that surrounds it. So this is the natural climax of beaver dams and ponds. Once the beaver impound water and form a pond it begins the long process of becoming a swamp, or field, or forest. A few conclusions that could be drawn from this brief (and incomplete) exploration are: 1.) beaver dams and ponds, though they may exist for several decades are at best ephmeral phenomenon. They're transitory in nature and mark a transition in the evolution or development of the landscape. They help heal scars left by perturbations like forest fires, poor logging practices, and hurricanes. 2.) Looking a bit below the surface of beaver activity we might conclude that the real benefit to the local ecology is a marked improvement in the nutrient content of the local soils. We'll look at that feature a little later. This is kind of the end of the beaver dam story for now. I'd like to return to this theme next spring, though, and include an article in the blog that goes into more depth about the plants that grow around the beaver ponds including some that are rare.

Bush wacking up Whitewall Mountain with Andrew Reily July 12, 2008

My first piece for my new blog is a tribute to Andrew Reily who inspired it with his own blog: (http// Andrew was the naturalist this summer (2008) at Zealand Falls Hut and has worked in the hut system for a few seasons. He’s a great naturalist with great insights. In fact, everything he does he does well. Andrew personifies the superb 2008 summer croo at Zealand that also included Ben, Lindsey, Nick, and Anna . In fact the croos in all of the huts the past few years have been excellent. I worked in the huts for many years several decades ago and I know what the job entails and I know that the croos today have a much tougher job than we did and they do it well. I have great admiration for them.

Having said that I want to point out Andrew to you. That’s him in the photo above on July 12, 2008 standing on the summit of Whitewall Mountain with the wind lifting his shirt. Andrew is an excellent writer as you will see if you visit his blog and read his own version of the story I am about to tell.

Andrew and I were inspired to bush wack up Whitewall early in the season, in June maybe, and we both know how quickly summers go by in the mountains, so we didn’t want to procrastinate. Not that it’s a huge climb. It really isn’t. It’s more like an hour up, a half hour to fool around on the summit looking at things, and three quarters of an hour back down.

Dense growth of conifers with white birch, Whitewall Mountain, 7-12-08

We picked a Saturday because of my schedule and that was a bit hard on Andrew as he absolutely had to pack that day which meant going out to the road, tying on a 80 pounds, or so, of fresh food and packing it back up to the hut. Because of this our time was limited but that was okay.

We did compromise our time line by NOT climbing the steep, 60 degree gully that ascends the 1000 foot high west face of Whitewall from the Ethan Pond Trail. The gully is the quickest way up but sketchy for two people to do together in that it is very steep and the boulders that provide footing tend to move sickeningly as you climb (or descend). There is a high possibility, also, of sending small chunks of rock down on your mate. Instead we choose to go up the broad, gently sloping and densely forested north side.

A bed of ferns on the northern edge of a birch glade, Whitewall Mountain, 7-12-08

This was easy because all we had to do was head off-trail just below the hut at the junction of the Zealand and Ethan Pond Trails. We headed east to get away from the dense coniferous growth on the west side of that slope. We headed towards the open birch glades where we could move more efficiently, or so we thought. When got to the birch glades we found they were grown in densely with a shrub about four feet high called ‘witch hobble’ or simply hobble bush,

Vibernum, aka Witch Hobble or just Hobble Bush, leaves in their fall colors, Whitewall Mountain 9-02-08

Witch hobble is aptly named. Maybe not the ‘witch’ part but the hobble is accurate. I can think of another word that rhymes with witch that gives you a good sense of this plant. It literally reaches out and grabs you by the legs (as in ‘to hobble’.), or the ankles, the shoes, the shoe laces, anything it can quickly glom onto and then it whips you to the ground and roughs you up a little. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but I can tell you that it is principally why they made trails in the first place—because of witch hobble. It was pretty much the sole motivation for the vast network of trails we see in the mountains today. Witch hobble and bogs I should say because that’s what we ran into next. We found a huge upland bog of several acres size that was right in the path of our ascent route. To make it even worse there was fresh bear scat everywhere.

Okay, I’ll be serious. We stayed the course and navigated through the bog. It is a remarkable niche. There were animal tracks everywhere and a vast array of plants—kind of a little Eden. On the lower, western-most side there were moose signs including fresh indentation of matted ferns where they has been lying down. And there really was a lot
of fresh bear scat.

Mt. Hale in the distance from Whitewall Mountain 7-12-08

We eventually came out on the summit ledges. It was very hazy. The view, though, is exciting—a totally new perspective. The west horizon includes a view stretching from Mt. Hale in the north, to Zeacliff, the Bonds, Hitchcock in the west and on a clear day probably a good bit of the Sandwich Range to the south. To the southeast, of course, is gorgeous Mt. Carrigain, crown jewel of the Pemmigewasset Wilderness. After a difficult slog through scrubby, dense black spruce and balsam Andrew located the top of the infamous gully and decided to take that route down to the Ethan Pond trail to expedite getting back to his hut responsibilities. I considered the gully and after a fair bit of apron wringing chickened out.

Looking across the Notch to Zeacliff and Zealand Mt. it is hard to believe that 100 years ago from the top of Whitewall where we were standing to Zeacliff was lifeless, not a tree standing, just fire blackened stumps and the gleaming, calcined granite cliffs and ledges after the huge fire of May 1903. Mt. Bond and Mt. Guyot were burned over completely by the Franconia Brook-Owls Head fire of August 1907. Between the intensive, clear cut logging of 1881-1907 and the fires of that period what is now the Pemmigewasset Wilderness was completely destroyed. It's fascinating how 'nature' succeeds itself, coming up out of all those ashes, and starts over. It might be that those fires are what causes this ecosystem to be so healthy today.

Zeacliff Mountain from Whitewall Mountain 7-12-08

Whatever Andrew wrote in his version of this tale to make me look, by some odd chance, noble and wise, I want to make it clear that I was flat out scared to go down that way. I’ve ascended and descended it twice in the distant past and it made me very queasy. I did think with two of us on it simultaneously it would be dangerous. That may, or may not have been wise but it didn’t matter. As I followed Andrew down the loose rock at the top of the gully I became terrified and, boy, was I relieved when I made the decision to go down the other way.

View of Whitewall Mountain from Zeacliff taken 7-14-07

While Andrew scampered down the gully (which you can see in the right center of this photograph) I took the long way, first returning to the summit, and then followed a different line from our ascent as I hiked down. I spent a little more time exploring the bog and looking at plants and I ventured over to the eastern side of the bog to glimpse the wild area between Whitewall and Mt. Willey. I'll certainly put that on my list of places to explore a bit this fall. The bog, too, seems worth exploring more. It's really lovely with a large diversity of plants and, on the eastern side, a lot of large red spruce.
After the bog I went in a westerly direction, towards the cliffs, to an extensive stand of old growth black spruce and balsam fir that Andrew had explored on the ascent. The average bole of the trees was about 12 inches, fairly large, and most likely grew in since the devastating forest fires 130 years ago.

There was more witch hobble. It turns out you can kind of work in harmony with if you relax a bit. Of course, it helps to have gravity on your side going down through it. You can be just like a moose and bull your way down. I’ve skied in these glades in deep snow and the hobble bushs are not visible or a problem. It’s presence in the glades is evidence of the large amount of sunlight that that is available to plants growing on the forest floor here in comparison to the relatively low amount of sunlight reaching the floor in the more dense coniferous-evergreen stands.

Lindsey in the kitchen at Zealand Hut 7-12-08

(Bush wacking Whitewall continued)

I got back to the hut half an hour after Andrew who had already headed off to the road and the pack house. Lindsay, the chef for the day, whipped up some macaroni and cheese for lunch while I whined about all the gashes and bruises on my legs left by the horrible hobble bushes. “Oh, my poor legs,” I kept whimpering with little or no sympathy from anyone! Anyway, it was an awesome hike!

The End