Sunday, June 14, 2009

6-14-09 One more quick hike up to Lakes of the Clouds to look for blossoming alpine flower

I took another hike up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail yesterday (6/13/09) to check out the alpine flowers with the specific objective of taking pictures of the Dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana) if it had bloomed. The cold and rain of the last week slowed things down a bit and only a few flowers were out, mainly the diapensia. The robbinsiana had not blossomed, or at least none of the those that I visited had. A good warm, sunny day like last Saturday will probably bring them out. This Witch hobble at the base of the trail has already blossomed and lost it's petals and is ready to produce it's colorful fruit, but above 5000 feet it's a different story.

The rain increased the volume of the Ammonoosuc River a lot causing these waterfalls to fairly roar above the wind as I ascended next to the river. The interweaving of the sound of the wind and the water falling is lyrical.

The Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail is lyrical, as well. It's a favorite of mine, in fact it's in the top ten of my favorite sections of trail in the White Mountains. Hiking the upper section yesterday had a different feel to it than last Saturday. The rains on Friday turned the trail into a river in some places, the rocks were slippery, and there were fewer hikers out. On top of that there was a cold northwesterly wind with grey and ominous looking clouds about.

The White Mountains have several things that make them appealing. They're easy to get to, they're rugged but not intimidating, and the forest that covers and surrounds the mountains probably has one of the most diverse list of plants and maybe animals, too, of any other national forest. There's also a lot of water in the form of rivers and lakes that, for the most part, are pristine, clear and cold but one of the reasons I keep coming back is the light. Everyday is a study of light, regardless of the weather. It must be something about the weather affecting the quality of the air, along with the latitude and longitude and the local topography that conspire to create the most exquisite light. Yesterday with the dark clouds and shadows and hint of rain was no exception. Ansel Adams and others referred to the Sierra Mountains in California as "The Range of Light" but it could equally be said of the White Mountains.

These two waterfalls are on the upper third of the trail almost at timberline and in the dry part of the summer are almost non-existent except after a lot of rain so it's a treat to find them rushing down the mountain in their spring mode.

Once above timberline yesterday I went straight to Monroe flats to check on the robbinsiana and see if there were any of the tiny yellow blossoms. It's still a little early for them but one can hope. Anyway, as I've already noted, there weren't any. Then the question is, do I come back next week and hope they don't blossom between now and then? There's a good chance they will.

The fell-field I included a picture of last week when it was dry was full of water yesterday and looked like a small arctic or alpine "tarn". It's a reminder to me that this area of the White Mountains is a remnant of the arctic climate that existed here for thousands of years. The flowers are the most symbolic vestige of that climate, but the fell fields (in the last blog entry) and rock circles and rock stripes as well as the acres and acres of fracture rocks called Feldsmere are also remnants of that climate. In coming entries I want to explore how the plants got here and also explore the etiology of the geologic features as well.

Comparing this photo from yesterday with the one I took last week shows a few differences, most notably the loss of snow from the rain during the week. But you can feel the striking differences in the light and temperature as well.

Birch is one of the three principle trees found at timberline. Balsam fir and black spruce are the other two. These are the embryonic birch leaves just emerging from a dwarf birch that is growing a few inches out of the wind in order to survive the harsh climate.

The diapensia was the most prosaic flower yesterday. It was literally everywhere in vast colonies and clumps like the one above and spread out like stars in the night sky in the photo below.

The diapensia shares the same habitat as larador tea which is just starting to bud and the lapland rosebay seen here with the delicate pink color.

If you click on these photos to make them full screen size you will be able to see how prolific the diapensia is as it covers the eastern flank of Mt. Monroe. The large snow field that was there last week has shrunk considerably.

A string of hikers ascends the north ridge of Mt. Monroe.

When I was a kid we called this Emerald Pool fittingly enough but the name has been changed to Gem Pool to eliminate confusion with the other Emerald Pool over in Evans Notch near the AMC's Cold River Camp. Gem Pool is located about 1.3 miles up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail and at the base of the Ammonoosuc Ravine headwall and is worth the hike. On the descent from the ridge it is always a welcome relief to get to this point because it means the steep section is behind you and the rest of the descent is fairly level and easier on the knees. If your blood contains antifreeze you might even consider taking a swim here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

6-11-09 Mt. Washinton via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail

In the last blog entry I started with a photo of a painted trillium and this time it's a red trillium (Trillium erectum) which is sometimes referred to as Wake Robbin or Stinking Benjamin because of it's foul odor. This one was growing with 50, or so, others that formed a colony right in moderately dense shade in the woods near the base of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail.

Last Saturday (6/06/09) my daughter, Liz, and I started early and headed up Mt. Washington via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, or "Ammy". The Ammy is a really gorgeous trail that traces the Ammonoosuc River back to one of it's sources, two lakes called Lakes of the Clouds, that are located on the southwest side of Mt. Washington. This photo shows the beginning section of the trail at the moment the ravine was flooded with bright, early morning, June sunlight.

Also near the bottom of the trail we found this Star flower (Trientalis borealis). I described this plant in my last blog entry observing that many, many years ago I had confused it with Indian cucumber (photo below). The tuber-like roots of the Indian cucumber are edible and have a taste similar to cucumbers from the garden. On a trip I was guiding back when I was 16, I was handing out tiny samples of the tuber-like roots to the hikers believing that I was giving them a taste of Indian cucumber but it was really star flower. That was many years ago when I was a novice botanist. Luckily there wasn't any serious damage.

This is the Indian cucumber. The two plants occupy the same habitats and are common plants throughout the mountains but even I will admit that seen side by side they don't really look alike.

This is one of the famous orchids of the White Mountains, the pink ladyslipper. There is also a white variety found in the mountains. It's very shy and blossoms through most of June when a lot of sunlight still reaches the forest floor where it hides in small enclaves.

This the balsam-fir-birch-red spruce forest near the bottom of the Ammy at about 2500 feet and typical of the woods on the western slope of the Presidential Range. This forest mix grows nearly to timberline where it becomes more of a monoculture featuring balsam fir.

Some juvenile cinnamon ferns that are about to uncoil.

Part of the beauty of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail is the continuous presence of water in myriad forms. In the lower sections (the photo above) it follows the river closely. The trail has a distinctive no-nonsense personality with the sole intention of getting you up, or down, the mountain but it throws in these perks of tumbling water, incredible views, and a direct approach to Lakes of the Clouds hut and the summit of Mt. Washington.

As the trail climbs higher it passes lovely pools of emerald green water and, even higher up, it ascends steep ledges beside cascades like this one that's just below timberline.

This is the forest just above 3000 feet and is mostly balsam fir with the odd paper birch and red spruce.

This is one of the first panoramic views on the ascent and it's looking down into Ammonoosuc Ravine and out towards the north and the Dartmouth Range in the foreground, Cherry Mt. just behind that, and the mountains of northern Vermont in the distance.

It isn't really this steep. I tilted the camera quite a bit as you can tell by the balsam fir behind Lizzie which is what, 30 degrees off vertical?

But the trail does get steep on the upper section and resembles a steep stair case to get you up the last 1500 feet.

This is looking up from where the last photo was taken.

But then there's this incredible reward as you come out on the upper ledges and look around you. This is looking towards the summit of Mt. Washington. You can see that the trail is nearing the timberline and at just below 5000 feet in June there are still patches of snow nestled into nooks and crannies.

This is a telephoto view of the summit showing the highest reaches of the balsam-spruce-birch krummholz. The fawn-colored patches are lawns of Bigelow sedge and mosses.

This is the larger of two glacial lakes that were carved into a the southwesterly-running ridge of Mt. Washington. The name Lakes of the Clouds refers to two lakes and you can see the smaller, lower lake in the photo below.

This photo was taken from the Crawford Path from just above Lakes of the Clouds hut. (referred to simply as "Lakes") The Crawford Path has the distinction of being the oldest hiking trail in the US that is still used and maintained soley for hiking. It starts at the height of land in Crawford Notch, was built by Ethan Allen Crawford in 1819 and is 8.2 miles in length.

The Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail meets the Crawford Path at Lakes (it acutally ends at the side door of the hut). I included this photo to show a "lay of the land". In the back ground is Mt. Monroe (5, 372 feet in altitude). In the entries earlier (below) in this blog that discuss the phenomenon of "timberline" this photo is useful in showing the patches of mainly wind-dwarfed balsam fir and black spruce extending up the flanks of Mt. Monroe to about 5,200 ft . Mt. Monroe, Mt. Washington, and the Crawford Path in its entirety, are all features of the south portion of the Presidential Range, which is the dominant ridge of the White Mountains of New Hampshire and contains the highest summits of northeastern North America.

To review a bit this photo shows clumps of the balsam fir-black spruce "krummholz" near Lakes and at an altitude of about 5,000 feet. In an article on Timberline by Robert Monahan that's summarized below, the limits of the Krummholz were set at approximately 5,500 feet. So the krummholz in these pictures is within that range and it can be expanded to say the timberline itself falls within that range in the Presidential Range. L.C. Bliss (1963) suggests a different range of 4,800 to 5,200 feet for timberline and the formation of krummholz and this more accurately matches data I have.

In the photo's back ground, behind Lakes, is Mt Clay and Mt. Jefferson, part of the northern peaks of the Range.

This is a closeup of some Krummholz at the base of Mt. Monroe. Krummholz is a German word meaning, in English, "crooked" , or "twisted", "wood". The trees in this photo may, in fact, be very old, and have grown in adverse conditions for a long period of time, even though they are only a few feet high. The photo shows the balsams have trees have utilized called "layering" in which, instead of relying on seeds for propogation in this harsh environment
they transform a root or low level branch that touches the ground into a new trunk by altering the apical meristem normally used for trunk and limb growth into tissue for forming roots. It's similar to cloning.

Th east face of Mt. Monroe, seen from the Crawford Path, still has large patches of snow which is normal. Snow on Mt. Monroe, even though it is on the warm, east-facing slop, often remains late into the spring. Snow is blown over Monroe's summit in large quantities by strong northwesterly winds thoughout the winter and spring and piles up in this sheltered spot. The snow provides surficial mosture during the prime growing season so these trees and the plentiful herbaceous plants are using the snow to their advantage along with their wind-sheltered niche to extend their range upwards.

Turning 180 dgrees away from Mt. Monroe this flat plain comes into view. This is a "fell-field" and a key feature of the arctic as well as the alpine zone of the Presidential Range. It's often referred to as a "sedge lawn" since the primary vegetation here is sedge.In this case it is Bigelow sedge but you can see the stones under the sedge that also identify this as a fell field.

This photo was taken a few feet to the east from the one above and shows what in wet weather looks like a small "tarn" but it's more of the characteristic "fell". Again, these features are similiar to arctic tundra where permafrost exists and there is surficial freezing and thawing.

Looking north from Monroe flats near the fell field this is what you see on a clear day. Cloud shadows are grazing on the west flank of Mt. Washington and in between you can see clumps of krummholz, more fell-fields and the fallow-colored "lawns" of sedges and rushes. By the end of June the lawns will be a bright green. The snow patches are in the those wind-sheltered sites near the two lakes.

Continuing eastward and still in the sheltering flank of Mt. Monroe is this landscape referred to as Monroe Flats, an area of mixed tundra and fell, that is protected by the Forest Service because it is the endangered habitat of several alpine plants. It was once transected by the Crawford Path which because of increasing foot traffic during the 1960s and 1970s posed a threat to the alpine plants and the trail was relocated.

This is a glimpe of the discontinued section of the Crawford Path showing the effects of 25 years without foot traffic.

Lapland Rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum)

A tufted "cushion" of Diapensia lapponica neatly tucked into a sheltering cleft between two rocks.

Close up of the Diapensia.
The rare, tiny Dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla Robbinsiana) is the size of a quarter in US currency. The major reason we hiked up to lakes was to see how close the Robbinsianas are to blossoming. I didn't find any plants with buds but some of the other naturalists reported seeing some so it will probably blossom in the next two weeks given a string of warm, sunny days.

We decided to take a quick run up to the summit only because it was such a clear and beautiful morning. The Crawford Path goes by the front door of the hut and then between the upper and lower lake. There were, by late morning, lots of people arriving up the various trails heading for "the summit" so it was getting crowded around the hut. The black smoke in the rear center of the photo is from the train that goes up and down Mt. Washington.

So this clump of balsam-black spruce-dwarf birch is the highest krummholz on the southwestern flank of Mt. Washington. I'm going to estimate the upper edge of the trees is between 5200 and 5300 feet. It is interesting how it has formed in the midst of the sea of rocks, called Feldsmeer (Fred Steele, 1982, refers to it as "scree") that have been broken up by freeze-thaw cycles over many centuries. Richard Golthwaite (1940, 1968) pointed out that the areas of broken stone, referring to the feldsmeer, typically surround, or enclose, "soil cells" which he describes (1940) as "areas of open fine soil matted with grass" found on each peak above 5000 feet in altitude. The clump of treees in this photo have colonized a soil cell. It would be interesting to study one of these "clumps" over time and measure individual tree growth, reproduction, frost hardiness, mortality, and if the clump grows outwards or upwards.

This photo was taken at the true timberline on Mt. Washington. The plants life from this point on consists of non-woody species and includes mosses, sedges, rushes, and lichens.

The rocks in this close up are covered with lichens and on the edges of these vast areas of the broken rocks there's moss growing in between the rocks which may indicate a past or present attempt by the moss to colonize the feldsmeer and if it does make inroads whether some soil development follows. It would also be interesting to measure movement or changes in the rock over long periods of time.

That's summit of Mt. Washington with all the hardware. This is a typical glimpse of the alpine zone on the south flank of the mountain. On the north facing side of the mountain there are lush lawns of Bigelow sedge that turn green as any pasture by the end of June and are quite inviting to lie down on to watch the clouds drift overhead.

Lakes opened on 6/3/09 and three Lakes croo packing down "req" (pronounced 'wreck') or food and supplies for the hut. During the summer season, from the first of June until the middle of September, Lakes (and most of the other huts) offer "full service" which includes lavish meals, a bunk with blankets, and educational programs. Betsy Cook, in blue, is looking at me as if to say 'if you take my picture I'll flatten you."

This is the panorama from the Gulfide Trail junction just below the summit of Mt. Washington. It's looking southwest towards Lakes and Mt. Monroe and in the distance on the left is the Sandwich Range, Mt. Carrigain is in the center followed by the Willey Range, the Franconias and, way in th distance, on the right hand edge is Mt. Moosilaukee.

This is a view that stays with you for a long time whether it's a warm summer afternoon or a subzero winter morning at dawn, it's lovely at any time (except when you're enveloped in pea soup-thick fog). White Mountain views are often spectacular and a they're a big chunk of the satisfaction in hiking.

Two wind generators and an array of photovoltaic (PV) units supply about half of the hut's energy needs. Propane gas is used for cooking and hot water. Over the past 100 years a number of energy sources have been used at the hut including wood, gasoline, kerosene and, on one occasion, bacon fat. You name it and it's been tried. The current combination of propane, wind and PV is probably the most energy efficient and cost effective for long-term sustainability parameters.