Sunday, February 15, 2009

On post glacial soil evolution and a trip to beautiful Galehead

Happy Valentine’s Day! The weekend mountain weather seems to be in a rut. The past several weekends the winds have been extreme, temperatures arctic-like (at least with the wind chill), and there’s been a lot of cloud activity above 3500 feet reducing visibility to zero. So this morning I decided to take a different tact by staying low, below 4,000 feet. I skied halfway up and then hiked up to and then east along Garfield Ridge to Galehead Hut. I only stayed a second. It was very cold and “maxed in” (meaning the clouds were down) with a strong wind from the northwest that was debilitating if you stopped and stood around in it.

A winter hike to Galehead is, at best, a long slog, a death march of sorts, the bottom half anyway, because the access road is closed in winter so several miles are added to what is already a long hike. The road is used in the winter as part of an extensive snowmobile trail. You get to walk along the road carrying your gear with snowmobiles passing you at 50 and 60 miles an hour. In the afternoon, as I was skiing back out to the car, there was even a National Forest Service policeman on a sleek, black machine complete with blinking blue lights and a radar gun. He was giving out tickets. He clocked one guy doing 68 mph!

The snowmobiles were a minor distraction, though, because the Gale River is a discourse in beauty. The trail threads along beside the river and is one of the most beautiful places I know. This morning, the early sunlight slanting through the trees (top photo), was stunning. There was a dusting of new snow on everything and a wonderful muffled solitude. At “first crossing” where you have to jump across the river from rock to rock, I feel I've entered another place, another mind, and surrounded by incredible beauty that I become part of it as it flows through me. Today the river was its winter color, that deep emerald green, that contrasts so well with the snow covered rocks. The light, again, was lovely. Coming down this afternoon the light was golden and warm, like butter, February light, shafting through the trees and across the river’s opening creating shadows on the snow.

During the day today I saw lots of moose tracks (above) and lots of mouse tracks (below) in the snow. The mouse tracks are from a tiny white footed deer mouse (Peromyscus leucopus). The foot print is about an inch long. The moose tracks were everywhere which is a good sign. I also saw otter tracks, snowshoe hare tracks, and what may have been a dog or coyote.

My primary goal of going up the Gale River Trail was to check out a spot on the trail, about half way up, where a landslide occurred in the early 50s. There’s an interesting story about the slide which I’ll relate in a minute but my interest in the slide goes back to the glaciers we’ve been talking about and the soil development and ecological succession that occurred after the glaciers ablated (or melted) as it applies to the White Mountains..

I've (finally!) finished Richard Goldthwait’s paper on Soil Development and Ecological Succession in a Deglaciated Area of Muir Inlet, Southeast Alaska, particularly the chapter on soil development and re-vegetation written by Fiorenzo C. Ugolini, an agronomist (soil scientist) at Ohio State University. After reading the paper I thought about practical ways to bring Ugolini's research from that project to life here in the White Mountains. I was actually thinking about a place that might replicate soil conditions in the White Mountains right after the Wisconsian glacier melted viz. soil development and the various evolutions of the soil and all the different types of vegetation that took over after the glacier melted and how long re-vegetation took.

Without going into a lot of detail regarding the Goldthwait paper (although if anyone wants to take a look at it I will be happy to email it to you) I was thinking that the land slide path (see photo below) that went across the Gale River Trail would be a good "laboratory" for a study researching soil development and evolution in the White Mountains. We can use the slide to look at the types of processes that occurred here when the glacier melted. This would work primarily from the point of view that the slide occurred in 1955 and there are pictures and data dating from 1968 and 1974, so 13 years and 20 years after the event and now, 50 (rounding them off) years since the event. Those are good intervales for studying the soil development and re-vegetation.
The slide, shown in this picture taken in October 1974, launched from the Garfield Ridge either on August 19th 1954 in Hurricane Carol or on August 19th 1955 in Hurricane Diane. I don’t have enough data at present to say in which storm it occurred. Both hurricanes dumped an enormous amount of rain in New England. Diana is remembered as one of the “wettest” tropical storms to ever hit New England. At any rate, on the day the slide occurred a hutmen, and I think it was a young man by the name of Parker Blatchford nicknamed “Parkie”, had gone down the mountain to meet the truck trip at the base of the pack trail (The Gale River Trail). The truck driver informed Parkie (there were no radios in the huts in those days.) that a hurricane was causing all the rain. Parkie hitched a ride into town with the truck and then returned to the pack house about two hours later, loaded his pack board and headed back up to the hut.

Just below 2nd crossing he heard a roar, saw a wall of water heading towards him, dropped his pack board and climbed a nearby tree getting hit with the wall of water in the process. He was able to hold on and climb high enough to get out of the hydraulic pressure. In a short time the water level dropped. He couldn’t find his pack board, it was getting dark and he headed up to the hut. As he came up the trail, at one point, he stepped out onto the immense track of the slide, a 100 yards wide and extending a half mile up the mountain to the ridge (above photo), that had come down between the time he packed down and when he began packing back up to the hut. It looked as though the slide had gone all the way across the river and dammed it up temporarily. There was so much water backed up by the slide that it burst through the dam in a few hours sending the flood down the valley.

Parkie found several overnight guests at the hut when he go back who had arrived during his absence and were shaken by the severity of the storm. Several windows were broken from the wind and it was pouring buckets of water. End of story. Now, when I tell this story at gatherings there are a number of people who take issue with it, Bob Cary being one of those. Cary worked in the huts at the time and says it definitely wasn’t Parkie that was on the trail that day but he can’t say who it was. I wasn’t around then so I haven’t a clue, just the way I first heard the story. It’s a good story and I kinda like the name Parkie. We’ll worry about the details later.

The picture on top taken in 1968 is looking from south to north on the Gale River Trail. The boulders just to the left of center in the photo are the same ones in the photo below it (2nd one down) taken 2-14-09. And the single rock with my poles leaning against it in the bottom photo can be seen in the 1968 photo as well, just behind the two boulders. If you compare the two photos, the one above and this one you can see how much vegetation has re-colonized the slide track.

Comparing the black and white photo from 1974 and the color slide from 1968 you can see two types of re-vegetation occurring within 15-20 years after the land slide. In the black and white photo, near the top of the slide filling in on both sides of the slide you can see poplar (Populus tremuloides) and alder (Alnus rugosa) invading inwards to cover the open ground. In the foreground of this picture you can also see some balsam fir and alder seedlings.

In the color slide from 1968 you can see extensive herbaceous cover everywhere between the rocks and in the immediate foreground. This cover includes some birch (Betula minor), poplar, asters, sedges, mosses, and there's lichen visible on the rocks as well. As in the study from Muir Inlet also found that immediately after the "event", when the top soil and the A1, A2, and A3 horizons haven't evolved yet, specific plants will colonize the disturbed ground almost immediately and begin the process of soil development necessary to "stabilize" the site.

Then in these photos from this afternoon (2-14-09) you can see the extent of the vegetation on top of the slide now. It’s mostly balsam fir (Abies balamea) with some straggly yellow birch (Betula lutea var. cordifolia). The fir varies from an inch in diameter (dbh) to four inches and there are several individual trees that are 30-40 feet tall. The last of these pictures was taken from the same place as the one above from 1968 looking towards the boulders and is aimed in the same direction so you can see the density and relative progression of the reforestation that is occurring.

A quick conclusion: I’ll get back up there as the snow melts and set up two transect lines up the slide to use for sampling which will mainly focus on the soil types and soil depths to see if there is any evolutionary soil development. as in the Goldthwait paper on Muir Inlet.