Wednesday, April 28, 2010

4-27-10 Mountains and Art

The White Mountains have had a glorious role in American art. They've played host to historical greats like Albert Bierstadt who is best known, perhaps, for his large, romantic canvases of the American West as it opened up in the early 1800s with paintings of the Rockies and the Sierras. Bierstadt sojourned in the Whites Mountains and completed several paintings of familiar mountains. My favorite is his painting of Moat Mt. with White Horse and Cathedral ledges in the foreground (you can google it by searching for Albert Bierstadt Moat Mt.). The view is from across the Intervale and is stunning. Benjamin Champney of the Hudson River School was another painter who visited the White Mountains often and, although he focused on Mt. Washington, left spectacular paintings of the Franconias. I once owned a really small Champney painting of Mt. Lafayette but traded it for another painting I liked better . When I was a kid in North Conway I was often hired to mow the lawn of Dick Packer in exchange for a large bowl of tapioca pudding and the opportunity to hang around with Dick in his studio. The painting above, of Mt. Chocorua, was and still is my favorite. It was painted in the mid-1950s. The colors, the way he got the colors, are lovely. Gale Packer, his daughter and one of my classmates at the North Conway elementary school and a dear friend, graciously gave me permission to show the Chocorua painting, and the three that follow, in the blog.

Dick was industrious and painted a lot of canvases for his roadside art studio in North Conway. He was always painting! Pictures of Mt. Washington were extremely popular including this one which is a view from the top of the Wildcat ski trail. He painted the same scenes time and time again and was famous for being able to paint the Mt. Chocorua motif upside down. But being an excellent artist he also painted one-of-a-kind things that he loved. The painting below is one of those and another favorite of mine.

This affects me as much as the Chocorua painting above for the light and colors. When I whine about not being able to a paint the lovely patterns of late afternoon sunlight and shadows on February snow this painting is what I am thinking of. Dick helped me, over the years, to "see" and he validated my "eye" for things like color and texture. It's a nice legacy. He was a very important person in my life. North Conway was blessed with several painters when I was there. Mim and Lew Hodgkins, and Dave Baker along with Dick, were the ones I knew best and sometimes took lessons from and who offered me parts of themselves, their kindness and generosity, and particularly their love of beauty.

This painting of the upper Dundee Road in Intervale (Bartlett) is a bit schmaltzy, perhaps, a quick study, but I love the colors in it, like the Chocorua painting, that are so evocative of New Hampshire and the White Mountains and it reminds me of Dick and his ease and expertise with light and how he was able to 'get" it like on the birches to the right. I'd love to be able to do that.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

4-24-10 Galehead and Gale River Research Site

Saturday I felt inspired to head back up the Gale River to make some observations at my soil research site on the landslide track and take some photos before the leaves came out. I particularly wanted to try and get a photo from the opposite side of the valley of the entire slide track, if possible. After driving 3 1/2 hours and running a little late I was a little peeved to find the gate on the access road still locked necessitating extra time and distance.

Without leaves for shade the sun was brazen though kindly tempered by a cool breeze. It was amazing how, without leaves, how much to see there was in every direction. When the leaves are out fully the shade is so intense that there's a tunnel effect on these long straight sections of the Gale River Trail.

The longer days/shorter nights along with the ample sunlight triggered new foliage on the striped maples (Acer pennsylvanicum), mountain ash (Pyrus americana)(see photo below), and the (witch) hobble bush (Vibernum alnifolium). This hobble bush has produced several bracts of juvenile flowers and leaves and their arrival feels earlier than normal.

Mountains ash leaves literally unfold from the bud.

The view towards North Twin from my soil research site on the Gale River Trail. You can compare this photo to others taken at other seasons that are elsewhere in the blog. I've been postponing a trip here for the past three weeks because of the river crossings on the Gale River Trail that tend to be impossible and/or dangerous in high water. The river's level has dropped in the past week although there is still a lot of snow above 3000 feet.

One of my goals for the day was to bushwhack up this shoulder of North Twin. If you look carefully you can see a small opening from a slide or a rock outcropping in the upper left portion of the photo. I wanted to see if I could find that and take a photo back towards the slide track and possibly get the entire track in one frame.

The forest on the other side of the river looked like it had been cut at one time. The stumps were old and decayed but there was a sense they'd been cut with saws perhaps 75-100 years ago. The older trees, though not authentic "old growth", were large in 'diameter at breast height' (DBH) and a few were downright spectacular.

The hiking wasn't easy. In places it was very steep and it was difficult to navigate through the trees and blowdows. I my favorite hiking shirt had been tied to the outside strings on my pack and had fallen off somewhere on the trail below Second Crossing so I was shirtless and in shorts for this bushwhack and you can imagine the consequences. The blood stopped flowing eventually.

Higher on the mountain's shoulder there was a quiet, a primeval feeling, with just the wind rustling the tree tops. There was an enormous amount of debris, everywhere; a lot of fallen trunks, old and large, mostly spruce logs that stretched 60 to 70 feet across the forest floor. That high up, 3400 feet, there were standing spruce with DBHs of close to 3 feet. The young growth in the photo was typical of sections and indicated competition for light as the old growth fell and created openings. Nevertheless, it did not look or feel like productive growth.

At this time of year, with the sun striking the ground at an angle and lots of it, my expectations would be for more growth closer to the ground.

There were glades like this, small openings, that let in a lot of light and where the moss was deep and springy underfoot, but they're seasonal. As the sun climbs higher into the summer season the forest floor will get less light.

I traversed up and across the shoulder using the Garfield ridge behind me as a "compass point" to gauge my location but I couldn't find the outcropping hard as I tried. It was not as easy as I thought it would be and I used up a lot of time. The sun was moving westward.

I went south a bit and headed down slope through this terrain. I hoped for a chance opening as I descended back into hardwoods. It was not easy going here either. I had to weave my way down around massive blow downs and sections of small, tightly interwoven trees that were practically impenetrable.

Finally I got the first chance I had for a passable photo in this stand of white birch. It wasn't what I wanted. It was too low and I could barely make out the outline of the slide. In previous blog entries I've stated with utter confidence that the slide occurred in August of 1955 during Hurricane Diane, but after doing quite a bit of reading in old Appalachia's recently I have been able to piece together the true story. In the December 1958 Appalachia an article (pg. 175) titled White Mountain Landslides explores a cross section of landslides in the White Mountains with a scientific bent of trying to describe each in detail: the dimensions, altitude, etc, and all the causal factors. It compares 135 slides where the precise date and weather is known and eye witness accounts are available. The article was written by Ed Flaccus as his doctoral thesis and contains fascinating information about some of the larger, more famous slides. I' ll include more of the article later in the blog. For the moment, though, Flaccus reports that Hurricane Carol struck northern New England on August 31, 1954 accompanied by heavy rainfall typical of tropical storms. He gives this as the date of the Gale River Slide, which was newsworthy because the slide damaged the Littleton reservoir. He ads, "An AMC hutman had a narrow escape from the downstream consequences of this slide." (pg. 175)

A bit further south and lower down I found this opening which has a better view of the slide and clearly shows the upper 2/3 of the slide track. It was the best I could do on this trip. I'd wasted a lot of time traversing back and forth but if I can get back up before the leaves emerge, I might be able to find the opening on the upper part of the mountain and get an aerial view of the entire slide.

Flaccus did not mention the name of the hutmen who had the narrow escape in the 1954 slide, but in the June 1956 issue of Appalachia I found part of the story of the hut croo member who got caught in a flood that occurred lower down of the Gale River Trail after the slide came down. The story was contained in a letter by John Ranlett to a Felix Ranlett. John Ranlett was a student at Bowdoin College and worked summer for the AMC as a truck driver.

In his letter John reported that on August 31, 1954 (a Tuesday), Galehead croo member Ben Bowditch left the hut right after breakfast to meet his two sisters down at the trail head. It was raining heavily. The distance from the hut to the pack house was roughly 7 miles then (the same distance it was for me today with the gate locked) so it took a couple of hours to get down and out to the road. He met his sisters and they began hiking up the trail at 1:30 pm. Ben followed a little later presumably to tie on a pack load. He left the pack house at 2 pm. At 3 pm as he got to second crossing (what is now first crossing) and was a little way above the crossing when he heard an unusual noise. He looked up to see a large wall of water rushing through the woods (the trail at this point was 100 feet from the river). He grabbed a tree and the water struck him up to his knees. He clung to the tree for an hour as the water rushed by and at one moment rose up to his waist. The water was carrying rocks and branches with it. Eventually the high water passed and he was able to make it to third crossing but the water was still too high to cross.

It's important to mention that Ben's sisters, meanwhile, by some magnitude of good fortune made it to the hut safe and sound and knew nothing about the flood or the slide.

This is the "Jacuzzi", a long-time cooling off place for hut croos, located 100 yards upstream on the Gale River from the slide. It's deep, over my head, and a great place to rest for awhile on a hot summer day when you're sweaty from packing (or hiking).

The slide from the river bed now. For 20 years after the slide this was entirely open from the river to the top of the slide, an areas the size of several football fields.

This is study plot #2 and still has some snow on the ground. The average depth of snow in the plot was 9 inches. It was 53 inches in February. It will probably snow a few more times between now and mid-May.

Study Plot #3 also had snow. In the open plots the snow depth was less then in those plots with dense conifer growth.

Plot #6

A moose recently visited one of the plots.

Average snow depth in Plot #5 was 18 inches.

I didn't have a watch but after making my observations in the study plots at the slide site I headed up towards the ridge and Galehead Hut. If I made it in good time I was planning to go on up to the summit of South Twin.

This is looking back down the Gale River valley towards Vermont and southern Quebec from Garfield Ridge. It seemed as though I had the mountain to myself. I hadn't seen any other hikers all day.

Galehead Hut.

South Twin from Galehead.

I went halfway up to the summit of South Twin from the hut but began to think of the time and the distance out to the road. I had already done 12 miles and had 8 more to do and it was getting late so I "bailed" and headed back down. Those cliffs on the ridge in the middle distance were close to the spot that I was trying to reach earlier in the day.

This is a telephoto view of those cliffs. They're prominent in the view of the Twins from the slide track, too.

As the afternoon warmed the trail became a "post hole hell". It was impossible to take a step without sinking in up to mid-thigh and since I was wearing shorts this was a grave insult and I had several little fits as I wrestled to get my leg out of the post hole.

For the most part the depth that I went down was only 18 inches but occasionally there would be one in which I would sink to my hip.

The boulder that marks the bottom of the Gale River Slide. The stretch of post holing ended here, mercifully.

I should finish the story of Ben Bowditch after the Gale River Slide of August 31, 1954. When Ben did not show up at the hut when he was scheduled to his sisters got anxious. Art Prentiss, the other Galehead croo member that summer, and Gene Demonet, a visiting Zealand croo member, started down the trail to find Ben. It was almost dark when they reached the slide and they were shocked by the size of the slide and deeply fearful that Ben was under it. They continued down the trail shouting Ben's name. In an hour, in the dark, they made voice contact with Ben who was on the opposite side of the river looking for a place to cross. They all continued downstream all the way to the bridge at Route 3. They then drove in Art's car, which was parked at the pack house, and went to Zealand where they spent the rest of the night. Art and Ben returned to Galehead early the next morning.

I've been trying to get in touch with Ben Bowditch to hear his rendition of the story; a first hand narrative. I haven't been able to locate either Ben or Ranlett, but will keep trying. There are some questions I have, particularly about the space of time between when the two young women walked past the spot where the slide crossed the trail and when the slide occurred. They reported that they didn't hear it or feel it. That's remarkable. The slide must have occurred between 2:30 pm and 3:00 pm. They must have just past that spot.

Afternoon light.

The Gale River just below Second Crossing.

There were numerous blowdowns across the trail from the parking lot to Garfield Ridge. Some of them were not there in early February so they did not come down in the big storm in January.

This blow down was next to the trail and it's roots were actually part of the trail. It's demise opened up a large 'pool' of sunlight and it will be interesting to see what happens to this opening in the next five or six years.

The roots tore out the top soil around them exposing several horizons. The soil around the roots was a sandy loam studded with small rocks.

This is a handful of soil taken from the root ball. It's mostly sand.

Below the roots the soil layer is a mixture of clay and sand. Because of the aspect of the slope here which faces northwest, the clay, the shade of the tree, and the proximity of the river this site was damp most of the year. A logging road paralleled the river here and impeded drainage so that in some sections the trail is perennially wet and boggy. The soil in those locales is dark with organic matter.

Higher up the slope the soil is more uniform and brown and similar, if not the same, as the soil in some of the study plots at the slide.

A 100 feet down the trail was a second blow down but this sight was drier.

The soil, again, was mostly sand with a low percentage of organic matter and typical of soils a long the river.

A 100 feet further down the trail there was another blow down. Someone had found my shirt and left it where I would found it, so I wasn't alone on the mountain. I left a thank you note of some chocolate and cashews.

Can you see the butter fly? In a sunny glade next to the river I was besieged by a flock of juvenile butterflies that darted around me, landing on my shoulders and outstretched hands. I don't know what kind they were but they were gleeful.

Here's one on the rock.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). Note the 'pickerel' pattern on the leaves.

Sharp Lobed Hepatica (H. acutiloba).

The river is cold and clear. I was daydreaming that the yellow rock was a huge chunk of gold.

It was impossible not to get a little wet on the crossings. This is First Crossing and the boulders that once supported a footbridge that was here for years before being washed away in a flood.

Almost down. There are hot afternoons when the miles between First Crossing and the road feel like a death march. It just seems to go on and on.

The access road. I was silently complaining to myself about having to endure the long hike to the paved road and my car.

After a mile of complaining I stopped and looked around. It was a lovely afternoon and the complaining wasn't doing me much good. I asked myself what I would rather be doing at that moment and thought how many times a week do I have when I can just take a long walk on a beautiful afternoon surrounded by mountains? The answer, of course, is none, or rarely, so here was a golden opportunity to enjoy this moment, which I did.