Thursday, August 27, 2009

8-20-09 Lakes of The Clouds Once Again

Early morning on the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, the Ammy, on what promised to be a lovely August, late-summer day. I was heading back up to Lakes of the Clouds and Mt. Washington for several reasons including some that were mainly social and others that were more about natural history and glacier stuff. One of my goals was to replicate a photograph taken 140 years ago.

Just for contrast this is a picture of the red trillium (T. erectum), aka 'stinking benjamin', that appeared in the blog back in early June. It's a little worse for wear as were several other individual plants that I recognized from more than two months ago. The trilliums went to seed back in early July so, from their perspective, their work was complete for this season.

This hobble bush was still heartily gulping sunlight next to the trail, strategically using the slight opening created by the trail in the overstory that allows more sunlight down to the ground. Hobble bush, I've concluded, is one of the most abundant plant species in the White Mountains along with balsam fir and bunchberry. It's fascinating to look at the hobble bush's strategy in different types of locations around the mountains and try to get an idea of the "roles' it plays in the ecology of the White Mountain. I'll talk more about that later in concert with balsam fir which I also am finding fascinating these days.

This Clintonia borealis that I photographed two months ago when it was just going into bloom has pretty much had it for this year and is in the beginning stage of decomposition.

Two early morning hikers striving for the summit of Mt. Washington. They're from Boston and on their first trip to the area.

A brother-sister duo also on their way to the summit but planning to spend the night at Lakes of the Clouds hut.

A grandmother-granddaughter team also heading to Lakes for the night as well as the summit. The weather forecast for the next day, Friday 8-21-09, was of some consternation to these hikers I met. They all asked me if what they heard, a warning of severe thunderstorms for the following day, was accurate. Thunderstorms cause most hikers a lot of anxiety and their fears, though justified, are somewhat exaggerated relative to the actual experience of being caught in one. Precautions need to be taken including being on the alert for approaching storms visually and by listening for thunder. If a storm is imminent then decisions have to be made about seeking shelter from the wind and lightening. In terms of the large number of hikers using trails in the White Mountains during the storm season the number of lightening related injuries is miniscule. There have been no known fatalities due to lightening on the Presidential Range. Two fatalities have occurred elsewhere in the White Mountain National Forest over the past 100 years. Precautions to be taken are simple: while the storm is approaching get off any summits, exposed ridge lines (or crests), move downwards and do not panic. If you're with a group then you should spread out from each other. Sit on your pack if it doesn't contain a metal frame or sit on a foam air mattress pad if one is handy. Stay as low as low to the ground as you can. Do not take refuge in a cave. I have been "hit" by ground currents from lightening twice in the past 50 years but without injury. In 1965 two young men camping on the summit of Mt. Lafayette (not a good idea and, for that matter it's illegal now) were hit directly by lightening. One was able to walk, talk, etc. and got help. The second had serious burns, some paralysis, and took several months to recover. Direct lightening strikes can cause death, paralysis, and/or severe burns and painful side effects that can last the lifetime of the victim. However, many people every year survive direct hits without serious repercussions, but that's not a good reason to gamble with electrical storms

A woman aiming for the summit of Mt. Washinton accompanied by her dog. Many hikers bring their dogs to the mountains and some of the dogs are seen carrying packs of their own. Dogs are not allowed inside the AMC huts or shelters and have to be on a leash around other hikers.

I like to include pictures of hikers I meet on the trail as a reminder that we, as people, are part of the natural history of the White Mountains. The social history of the White Mountains is almost as rich as the natural history and the social and economic impact of people on the White Mountains grows annually and needs to be considered by anyone seriously interested in the ecology of this area.

I love this rock staircase near the top of the Ammy. It's located at the lower "edge" of timberline.

This is a view from the top of the 'staircase' to the north. The ridge in the middle distance will be my destination for part of the day. The cog railway tracks ascend that ridge and I'm going to head part way down the tracks to see if I can find the exact spot where a stereoscopic photo was taken in 1869 and was copied by Richard Goldthwait, the geologist, in 1937. My photo at the same location will offer comparative data regarding the question of whether the huge blocks of stone that we call feldsmeer have moved in all that time.

The summit of Mt. Washington from the top of the 'staircase'.

Spirea is still in blossom and rampantly growing along the trail and beside the stream.

When I go to Lakes the new 'fall croo' had taken over. This is Alex and Cory who were beginning the task of preparing the evening meal for what will be a full house.

And this is half of the summer croo packed up and ready to head down the mountain as they scatter to the four winds. Actually several of them will be working as fall croo at other huts. The summer season ends August 20th and the fall season begins August 21st. The huts remain open until mid-September for the high huts and mid-October for the lower huts. Three of the huts, Carter, Zealand and Lonesome are open on a caretaker basis all winter. (The croo from left to right are Drew Hill, Carly Jesset, Carrie Piper, Phil Cosby, and Betsy Cook.)

Alpine goldenrod (Solidago cutleri) was everywhere and still in bloom. It will continue to bloom until the first heavy frosts, usually in mid-September.

Mountain sandwort (Arenaria groenlandica) or Greenland sandwort) was also everywhere and blooming (through August) to just below the summit of Washington. It likes to hunker down in protected places as in this photo and often is confused with Diapensia (which was also blooming today).

The summit of Mt. Washinton from Lakes of the Clouds. As you can see it was a brilliant, almost-fall day, calm and warm, perfect for hiking in the alpine zone. Another reason for visiting lakes was to meet up and hike for the afternoon with naturalist Andrew Riely who, some may remember, helped inspire me to create this blog. He's been out West finishing a masters level program and looking for a job. Now that he has a job teaching in Washington D.C. he's wishing he had more free time to amble among the peaks. We were supposed to meet at Lakes at noon but he was late and I wanted to set out to get my photo while the sun was relatively high so I started off for the west side of the summit cone and the cog railway tracks.

I was greeted by this group who were hiking to raise money for medical research. This is becoming a common activity in the White Mountains where groups go out onto the trails en masse as part of one fund raising project or another. I have witnessed nearly a continuous line of more than 100 people hiking up the Crawford Path at once which, I have to say, is a little disconcerting when you have to stand aside to let them all pass.

Looking back towards Lakes and Mt. Monroe from the Westside Trail.

An extensive area of Feldsmeer ('sea of rocks') below the summit of Washington and on the west side of the cone. Pretty much the entire summit cone of Washington is made up of these broken blocks of rock which, although they've broken off some larger mass, they're still pretty hefty. Goldthwait theorized that they formed due to frost action (freeze-thaw cycles) sometime during past 10,000 years. They were not deposited by the last continental glacier, or even overridden by the glacier. or polished by the glacier so they have to have been formed from parent material (Littleton Schist) sometime since the last continental glacier. Along with several other aspects of the glacial history of the White Mountains I find the feldsmeer intriguing. The more I read and think about it the more questions I have.

Feldsmeer on the northwest flank of the summit cone interrupted by grass cells of varying widths and lengths. The cells are mostly bigelow sedge. There are 'seeps' at various locations around the Mt. Washington summit cone that are like springs and are wet enough to host a variety of plants usually found lower down the mountain including marsh marigold and false hellibore.

Moving towards the north west flank of Mt. Washington opens up vistas to the north. That's Clay, Jefferson, Adams and Madison curving around towards the northeast. Madison is about 6 miles away via the Gulfside Trail from the point where the photo was taken.

The Westside Trail meets the Gulfside Trail at the cog railway tracks in the col between Mt. Clay and Washington. When I arrived I was horrified to find this road paralleling the tracks all the way down the mountain. I have no idea how the Cog Railway Company obtained permission to do this. It's an atrocity of unequaled proportions.
Between the "road" and the tracks was this debris left over from rennovations done on the trestle that supports the track which, in itself, is an atrocity. It is impossible for me to understand why this was necessary except to save the company money in the effort to rebuild the trestle so that it meets safety standards. It clearly shows what little regard the Cog Railway company has for this mountain if they can create a scar like this one by balancing money with what I consider the sanctity and beauty of these mountains. The road is less than 100 yards from the boundary of the Great Gulf Wilderness. What does this say about the future if money is more important than preserving this unique and beautiful mountain range?

This is the road as it descend the mountain. It goes all the way from the top to the bottom and, at the moment, I do not know what function(s) it served, or serves, but I do know that the wound it represents will never heal and a law suit should be filed. This is economic impact at it's worst and it could serve as a pathway for other businesses to follow particularly in times of a weak economy.

This is the cog train and one of it's new diesel engines. Diesel engines are currently being put into service to replace the steam locomotives that traditionally push the cars up the mountain but that have been singled out due to pollution issues. The steam engines were what made the Cog Railway unique and so alluring to people. By comparison the diesels are ungainly and they speed up the mountain in a fraction of the time taken by the steam locomotives so they can handle many more trips a day which, in turn, equates to more money for the cog. I'll take the coal smoke to the road anyday.

Unable to use the road out of disgust for its existence I crossed the tracks and bushwhacked down the ridge to find the spot where the photo I wanted to emulate was taken. I first thought it was near the top of the trestle referred to as 'Jacob's Ladder' but soon realized it was taken much farther down the mountain and close to the bottom of the trestle so I was in for a rough time. As I fought my way down I became a spectacle worth staring and jeering at for these passengers.

I climbed down over the feldsmeer and krummholz in the photo below to get to the desired location.

That's Mt. Munroe in the back ground so as I descend the mountain I am almost on the same level as Lakes of the Clouds. As I negotiated this terrain I kept seeing remnants of the original paths used during the initial construction, in the 1860s, of the cog railway which showed how little things change on the mountain over time.
I came out on a small knoll and found this glacial erratic which I was about to dismiss when I noticed something that I thought was profound. If you study both photos of it that I took you can actually get a visual idea of how feldsmeer is formed. In the photo above you can see all the cracks in the larger rock that would normally fill with water that would then freeze, thaw and expand causing more cracks to open up in the rock.
In this photo you can see how blocks of feldsmeer have broken off the larger rock and either lie next to it or close by. Goldthwait observed the likelihood that the blocks move downwards from their source from gravity and more frost action. He explained that as the ground freezes and thaws it moves the blocks by tiny increments each year and over huge period of time they move quite a distance. Looking at these two photos above I get a better idea of how that works.

This is a page from Goldthwait's 1939 publication "Geology of the Presidential Range". The upper stereoscopic picture was taken in 1869 at a location at the bottom of Jacob's Ladder, a long trestle in the steepest part of the cog railway, and is looking downhill towards the Marshfield base station of the railroad. The bottom photo was taken by Goldthwait in 1937 of the same scene.

Goldthwait points out the two large slabs of rock and the smaller rocks, the erratics, that are in the top, older photo and then identifies them in his photo taken 68 years later.

The glacial erratics are circled in white to the right in the left half of the photo.

In Goldthwait's own photo the erratics are circled in black and they are in the identical position they were in 68 years earlier. Int he text he doesn't mention the formation of rocks a little to the left of the erratics which are also in the identical positions they were 68 years earlier. Goldthwait concludes that the photos demonstrate the stability of the feldsmeer over time. His reference is that, at least in modern times and given the present climate, etc., the blocks have been stable.

This is the same scene as I saw it on August 20, 2009. The large blocks are still in the same location they were in 140 years ago but the erratics are gone and the configuration of rocks to the left of where the erratics were have changed somewhat.

These are the principal rocks were are referring to and numbered the same as in the 1869 photo.

In close up the erratics are not to be seen anywhere and the other rocks that were in the area circled are also gone.

This slab supported the erratics. It's not perfectly level but close. The erratics in the earlier photos looked stable and secure on this block and since the block itself hasn't changed I am going to say the erratics were removed. A search around the block (#3) turns up nothing so if the erratics rolled off the slab they would be apparent somewhere in the vicinity. They're not.

This is slab #3 looking along the level top.

This is the downhill side of slab #3. The erratics are not here. The rocks in the photo are all Littleton Schist in origin and by size and shape they do not resemble the erratics in the photos.

The cog railway may be the culprit in solving the mystery of the erratics. As you can see the footings for the newer portions of trestle are local rock as well as shims made from redwood cedar shingles. It is probable, but I don't know how likely, that while rebuilding the trestle may have utilized the two erratics in some way. The trestle itself is only 15 or so feet from slab #3. There are other possiblities given the proximity of the railroad tracks and trestle. Vibrations caused by the passing of trains over time, or work parties going up and down along the tracks, or anomalous weather events, also over time, could have, in some way caused the disappearance of the erratics and the other rocks present in the first photos.

This gives you another view of the area under the trestles and the enormous impact work on the trestle had on the ground. There was a lot of movement. If you have good eyes you might be alble to see in the photos I took the "drift" of cinders where they fell from the coal fired steam engines. They're quite thick in places and difficult to walk in.

Another train descends as I climb back to the summit. This area in the photo was on the south side of the cog tracks but it, too, has been compromised by a bulldozers and torn up so that outer layer of rocks has been disturbed forever.

The ground under the rock has also been torn badly and in the climate this high on Mt. Washington it will take years and years to heal.

A car and one of the diesel engines at the skyline switch near the junction of the Westside and Gulfside Trails. It was the still-unexplained failure of this switch that caused a descending train to derail here in the early evening of September 17, 1967. The engine fell off the side of the tracks and the car began descending at increasing speed until it eventually fall off the tracks. Nine people died. It is the only accident in the 140 year history of this tourist attraction.

I went back to Lakes via the summit thinking I might find Andrew there, or in the vicinity, and as I descended the clouds began to descend as well and it was getting late.

I got back to Lakes as a layer of clouds began moving in from the west.

Lilly, Carrie, and Libby were finishing preparing supper and getting ready to take it out to the guests...

....who were all seated in the dining room and ravenous.

Guests watch the sunset and the lights blinking on in the towns down in the valley.

As a storm approaches the lights come on in the hut and it begins to look pretty cozy.

After the guest have eaten, the tables cleared, the dishes washed, the croo gets to eat whatever leftovers remain and finally sit down and relax. Left to right are Cory, Alex, Andrew (who took a long way up the mountain and arrived in late afternoon).....

and Libby and Nick.