Saturday, June 26, 2010

6-18-10 Franconia Ridge

A week has passed since I took these photos. I'd decided enough time has been spent on Mt. Washington for now and that I needed to branch out a bit, do something different, so I got up very early and managed an early start up Mt. Lafayette (5,260') at the northern end of Franconia Ridge. My goal was to 'bounce' to the summit ahead of a predicted heatwave and savor the cool temperatures and luxurious morning silence of the forest.

It was coolest in the shade of the hardwoods that arch over lower portions of the Bridle Path like the aspiring arches of a Gothic cathedral. I have, on several occasions, written the Bridle in Bridle Path as 'Brida'l for some reason and it's still compelling to write it that way so that I have to stop and check my word use. It's called 'Bridle' (and not 'Bridal') because the path (trail) was originally inaugurated to ferry sightseers to the mountain's summit on horse back. It's a classic trail, one I recommend highly to everyone, with spectacular views from the ridge. I like it for these sections (in the photo) as it climbs through old birches and maples that have been protected here since the creation of Franconia Notch State Park more than 50 years ago.

It's mid June and the leaves are out, the snow is mostly gone, the brooks and rivers have settled into their summer songs, and the mosquitoes and black flies are out in droves.

This large rock is a few feet off the Bridle Path. Greenleaf Hut croos used to refer to as Whale Rock. It stands out this morning because of its even coat of green moss that's particularly eye catching when it's buttered with morning sunlight.

This is the first view as you ascend the trail, a diagonal slash of bright green.

There's a marked transition zone at roughly 2600 feet in elevation between the hardwoods and the balsam-birch forest that continues up to the ridge before becoming mostly balsam and spruce at around 3800 feet.

Bunch Berry (Cornus canadensis) was in bloom everywhere on the mountain to about 5,000' (just below the summit). Cornus is the family name for dogwood and this tiny plant is a relative of the dogwood trees that are notable in very early spring across southern New England and eastern North America. They are conspicuous when they're gleaming white, like a ghost of snow, loaded with showy blossoms.

A slab of granite ledge where the trail breaks out onto to the ridge. I just noticed that it has a 'face' on it with that down curved mouth. Lafayette's summit is in the background.

The ridge, perhaps best known as 'Agony Ridge', is narrow almost like a knife edge, a gradually curving spine of granite with a few areas in which other types of volcanic rocks have intruded. The ridge supports a thin soil with a dense cap of balsam firs, white birch, mountain ash, mountain maple and the ubiquitous hobblebush. From year to year winter storms take a huge toll on the balsams and open up 'holes' where large number of trees have died. The holes are quickly filled by Mt. Ash and birch followed by dense re-growth of balsam. It's a cycle that goes on and on and on.

This is fondly referred to as "Red Rock" and it's one of the steeper sections of the Bridle Path. In the old days the horses were taken around it on a side trail that is now overgrown. Red Rock represents a dike of intrusive rock that's very slippery when wet and can be intimidating with a heavy pack on. The ridge is referred to as Agony Ridge because there are several, 3 or 4 (depending on who you ask), sections like Red Rock which is also referred to a 1st Agony. It's followed by 2nd Agony, etc, like giant steps along the upper part of the ridge that are steep for a bit then level off, then steep for a bit, etc. The Agonies were named by those folks who over the decades worked on the mountain in various capacities and were required to pack heavy loads up the Bridle Path without equine assistance. This is still a practice today with the current Greenleaf Hut croo. One hundred years ago there was a hotel on the summit of Lafayette. That was back in the day when it was all a rage to build hotels on the more spectacular peaks (now it's microwave towers). A lot of those structures, the ones that didn't burn down, were blown down.

At the top of Red Rock there is a 'turn out' with this spectacular view (there are many of these viewpoints along the ridge) of Lafayette (on left) and Lincoln. The little bump on the ridge between Lafayette and Lincoln is locally named Mt. Truman, but it's not an official name. There's an interesting comparison between this photo and the one of the green moss on the boulder and how much the texture and color of the moss resembles the color and texture of the trees on the ridge in the middle of the photo that leads up to Truman.

The path is stunning and particularly with the morning light. This is a level (almost) section between 1st and 2nd Agony.

Greenleaf Hut sits on a knoll, the last Agony, at the top of the ridge and Eagle Lake nestles in a glacial crease right below the hut. The lake is 'eutrophying' as it slowly returns to forest meaning the edges are growing in towards the center and the lake is slowly filling in so that the bottom is rising towards the surface. The area around the lake is an extremely fragile and a unique alpine bog that hikers should not tramp on, or around.

Eagle Lake and Lafayette's north summit from the trail. The trail passes by the south end of the lake, near it's outlet. The lake is about 10-12 feet deep in the center.

Looking into a small bower underneath a balsam canopy next to the trail. The balsam, though in a stunted form, grows prolifically around the lake and the hut. This bower is carpeted with sphagnum moss that's punctuated with lichens and fungi.

The Goldthread (Coptis groenlandica) is a lovely, delicate member of the Crowfoot (Ranunculacea) (or Buttercup) family. The roots of Goldthread are a bright yellow to gold color, and have a long history of medicinal use principally as an astringent similarly to Golden Seal and Yellow Root.

Pale Laurel (Kalmia polifolia). Most of the blossoms I photograph were dancing feverishly in the brisk wind so it was difficult (really frustrating!) to get focused photos of them.

This is Hare's Tail (Eriophorum spissum) that was gyrating in the wind at the edge of the lake. The plant is classified as a "cotton-grass" and has a three-sided stem characteristic of the sedge family.

The trail just above the lake. I took a similar photo from this spot in the winter which shows a remarkable different scene.

Winter damage to the balsams was rampant in a few exposed areas on the upper section of the mountain. The damage, represented by the brown needles, is most on the southeast facing parts of the trees.

A Red-Eyed Vireo resting briefly at the top of a balsam fir before moving on again. They're common to the tree-line area and are often seen moving quickly through the trees

An early morning hiker who came across the ridge from Little Haystack and reported that he had the entire hike to himself. The population density will exponentially increase on the ridge through the mid part of the day and then taper off again. Around 1 pm there will be a steady line going across from both directions.

Mountain Avens (Geum peckii), a beautiful and showy plant found only in the White Mountains (and one small island in Nova Scotia according to Slim Harris in Mountain Flowers of New England, 1964, pg. 98). It is considered an alpine plant and prolific at in the tree-line areas but is occasionally seen at stations at lower elevations. They are located on the ledges next to Zealand Falls Hut (2700') and on the Bridle Path at roughly 2600'.

The view west with Moosilauke in the middle distance, South and North Kinsman, and Cannon Mt. That's Greenleaf Hut a little lower down on Lafayette. The boulder area (felsenmeer) on Mt. Lafayette is restricted to the northwest flank of the summit cone and generally is not a feature of the Franconia Ridge. In this photo taken at 4800' it's been overrun with vegetation, mostly balsam fir.

Wolf spiders were everywhere and constantly underfoot. On my descent I had to hop quickly to avoid stepping on any and at one point there were so many zig-zagging across the flat rocks in the trail I had the sensation they were spilling out of my hiking shoes. (Just a brief psychosis, luckily).

Looking across an area of substantial boulders towards the north summit of Lafayette. The trail threads its way over these boulders which are contained in a fairly small area.

This is the source of some of the fractured boulders and is a large outcropping of parent material which is also the source of small, perennial 'seep', out of which a stream of water flows all year that supports a verdant population of plants.

Frost fractured blocks just below the summit of Lafayette. The juxtaposition of the larger blocks shows where one of them slid down slope after fracturing.

This material was clustered in several locations below the summit and is made up of very small stones. The largest stones in this photo are about 6 inches long.

The summit rock formation.

Another example of frost mechanics. This boulder was broken neatly in half and on the hidden side of the left half, there was an intricate tooth-like flake that perfectly fit a notch on the right hand half, sort of like a lock and key.

Here's another example of a boulder (about 4' long) that has moved downslope several inches. Remember that these examples are under the heading of 'mass wasting' in geologic terms.

This is roughly the extent of the felsenmeer on Lafayette. The important point is that exists at all on Lafayette which is roughly the same altitude as Mt. Monroe and that has a similar, constricted area of felsenmeer, but that, like Lafayette, continues right to the apex of the summit.

The summit ridge of Lafayette looking north towards the North Summit (in shadow). One reason for my hike was to find a 'station' of Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentialla Robbinsiana) on Lafayette. It has a history here as well as on Mt. Washington and in the early 1960s the P. Robbinsiana population was down to one plant. Additional plants were transplanted here during the interceding years, but I was unable to find any of them last Friday after laboriously looking for several hours.

Diapensia laponicum graces Lafayette as well and there were still a few blooms out. By this time in the season the flowers, in preparing seeds, take on a different color. You can the more mature flowers in the lower right hand corner of the photo.

This is a tiny, tiny clump of Diapensia about as big as my fist. Compared to others that we've seen that are massive this one looked vulnerable but it's well anchored in it's niche including local support from the club moss.

This a large area of Diapensia on Lafayette right at the summit.

I have found cushions of Diapensia with this kind of dessication far from any trails on Mt. Washington and Mt. Adams and am not sure whether it is damage from severe weather including ice, or from hikers. In one area of Bigelow Lawn on the southeast flank of Mt. Washington I recently photographed a large 50 foot X 50 foot area of Diapensia that looked as though something had been dragged across it so that whole cushions were torn up and badly damaged.

Alpine Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia alpestris). The interesting thing about this plant is that as it matures it breaks away from the ground. The green plant surround the lichen is Mountain Cranberry (Vaccinium Vitis-Idaea). Vitis-Idaea is an arctic plant and at the southern boundary of its range in the White Mountains. It's common in Labrador and also grows on several islands off the Maine coast.

A better view of the nearly symmetrical summit of Lafayette from the north. It's a gorgeous mountain! This photo was taken around 11 am and hikers were beginning to arrive in clusters, ascending on the right side of the cone and from the south via Franconia Ridge.

This hiker, striking a contemplative pose, was part of a group of about 80 who we dressed alike in white and they most, but not all, wore black baseball caps.

They arrived one by one and in small groups like this one. Later, as I was returning from Mt. Lincoln I could hear them singing 'acapella' from the top of Lafayette. This is not an ordinary experience, although I have seen groups like this on Lafayette many times over the years.

Franconia Ridge Trail looking south towards Mt. Lincoln. Trail builders have laboriously erected low stone walls with the hope that hikers will stay on the trail and not tramp on the vegetation next to the trail.

Mountain Sandwort (Arenaria groenlandica) growing in a crevice of the stone retaining wall alongside the trail.

Take a guess how this boulder ended up in this position. It's just below the summit of Lafayette and perfectly balanced so that it rocks back and forth nicely, like a see-saw.

Looking back up at the summit of Lafayette showing vegetation including clumps of balsam fir extending up to the summit rocks.

A broad lawn on the south shoulder of Lafayette near the headwall of Walker Ravine. This is a distinctly different configuration of plants then the lawns on Mt. Washington and the northern Presidential Range. Two things are missing, Bigelow Sedge and Haircap Moss. This lawn is at approximately 4900' above sea level.

Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia rangiferina) and Alpine Birch (Betula glandulosa).

This is a large area of balsam fir at about 4,900' growing on the east flank of Lafayette and about 300 feet below the summit. In the photo it looks like an independent stand but is actually close to and extensive tract of balsams growing in the lee of the summit. North and South Twin are in the background and behind the Twins you can make out Mt. Washington and Mt. Jefferson in the haze.

A few feet down slope from that population is another large population of balsams which is just over the crest and on the eastern, leeward side of the Franconia Ridge. It's a good study plot for researching the movement of balsam firs over time in this habitat. Owls Head Mountain is in the immediate background with Mt. Carrigain to the left in the haze along with the Hancocks, Sandwich Dome, Mt. Osceola, and Mt. Hitchcock. The haze is smoke that's been drifting south from large forest fires in Quebec.

A closer look at this large population of balsams growing on the leeward eastern flank of the ridge crest shows an incredibly dense stand with mountain birch (B. minor) mixed in. These balsams are contiguous with the continuous forest covering the lower, eastern slope of the Franconia Range and extending down to the Pemigiwasset Wilderness.

Moving around inside this stand of balsams was difficult but revealed openings where there were dead, or dying, trees, sphagnum moss and an accumulated soil several inches 5-6 inches deep in places with a variable A horizon containing a lot of organic matter which you can see here. The organic matter was not evenly distributed. These balsams were not here 50 years ago so the population we're looking at is relatively new to the ridge and the soil, too, is young (not highly differentiated). On a sadder note as I was crawling around in this stand I found an inordinate amount of trash left (thrown) by hikers including cans, plastic water bottles, paper and candy bar wrappers that I packed down with me.

In the thickest parts of the stand I found individual balsams that had propagated by "layering", a form of cloning, and individuals that propagated from seeds. Both forms of reproduction would be possible at this elevation. Where layering occurred in this stand the trees are extremely dense, packed tightly together, and within their ranks I observed numerous dead trees. I found no balsam cones either on the trees or on the ground.

Balsam fir is a shade tolerant specie meaning it will seed in under the canopies of other tree species including hard woods like maple and birch. As we've seen the balsam tends to wipe out the white birch when it overgrows it and deprives the birch of sunlight.

Balsam is a generalist in the sense that it does well in varied environments. It tends to like acidic, mineral soils but will grow on frail soils like those we've seen on Zeacliff, Mt. Hale and Moat Mountain. It grows in lowland bogs, in mesic sites, and, as we've seen, high up above tree line on glacial till. It's a "late succession" or a "climax" species and does not do well in areas that have been burned over until other species including hardwoods like white birch, aspen, poplar and black spruce have been growing on the site for at least 25-50 years.

I'm inserting this photo for the sake of comparison. I took the photo in August 1967 from the Franconia Ridge Trail just south of Mt. Truman looking north towards Mt. Lafayette. The ridge between Truman and Lafayette is bare on both sides and the balsam fir has ascended to a line about 60 feet below the ridge crest. The line is more or less uniform with the exception that in the immediate foreground the balsam has ascended aggressively almost to the ridge indicating that there was a kind of 'upward mobility' in the balsam's movements through time and space.

That same section of the ridge today has balsam growing up to and over the ridge crest and it's evident that the trees are 'spilling' up out of Walker Ravine to the right in this and the following photos.

From another vantage point just off the trail and standing near the lip of the headwall it's possible to see the relative density of the balsam growth on both sides of the trail in this section of the ridge. Two things stuck me: the unfaltering movement towards the ridge and the numbers of dead trees within the stands. This indicates that, even though the ridge is below 5,000 feet here, the trees are encountering stressful conditions.

Looking straight down into Walker Ravine from the ridge shows a stream of balsams growing up out of the steep gully that's loose rocks and gravel and susceptible to mass wasting processes.

From the rock promontory overlooking Walker Ravine and looking straight down into the gully shows the trees from still another perspective and how lush and well established they are. I venture that there weren't any trees in that gully of Walker Ravine 40 years ago (1961) as I hiked up it a several times and there weren't any balsams then.

The balsams have adapted well to the climate and altitude of the alpine zone of the White Mountains. One of these adaptations is in the form of a distinct variety, named 'phanerolepis' (e.g Abies phanerolepis), that's more suited to the higher elevations at which we've been finding firs on Mt. Washington. This variety is most likely a spin-off of the balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and developed over a long period of time when the climate was particularly cold.

Another adaptation is the variation in methods of propagation mentioned above. It's conjecture that both varieties use both types of reproduction. in nominal reproduction firs, in general, produces a small 'cone' about two inches long that produces the seeds after being fertilized by the male flower. The seeds are mature by late May or early June. The seed is about 2-3 millimeters long so is tiny and light, and has a 'wing' about twice the length of the seed that allows the seed to ride on the wind. Nominally the seed travels no more than 200 feet from the tree but seeds have been observed traveling 500 feet. It must be that high winds on Lafayette, moving up through Walker Ravine, are capable of assisting the firs in getting their seeds at least 500 feet and perhaps a bit further up the slope. Layering, alone, would not allow for the distance the firs have moved up hill in the past 50 years, although it might produce the dense stands on the crest. As to the firs spotted at high elevations on Mt. Washington the wind would have had to carry the seeds a lot further than 5oo feet. Seed dispersal by small mammals and birds has been observed and reported in the Canadian journals, however, if we're talking about a distinct variety of fir then the mystery is not solved by the wind or animals.

A foot note on the seeds of balsam fir, again from field test done in Canada: the tests found that fir seeds from cones were about 50 percent viable ( 'germanitive' or able to germinate) but only about 30 percent of those seeds germinated. That's a small amount. Balsam firs nominally have 'mast' years, seasons when they produce well above average quantities of seeds, every 2 to 4 years which probably makes up for the low germination counts in the years between mast production.

While I was standing on the promontory overlooking Walker Ravine I took this photo looking across at these rocks just below the Lafayette summit. In the summers of 1961 and 1962 a bunch of us used to explore around in these rocks and found a cave which you can see in the photo. The photo impresses me more for the incredible balancing act some of the larger boulders are doing. Some look like they're about to topple down Walker Ravine.

From the outlook over Walker Ravine looking down at Greenleaf Hut and Cannon Cliffs. That's Cannon Mountain Ski Area you see to the right.

Here is a photo which attests to the size of the balsams along the Franconia Ridge Trail just below Mt. Truman.

Looking back at Lafayette from Truman to show, again, the extent the balsams cover the ridge compared to the 1967 photo.

Looking back up to the ridge from the 1st Agony during the trip down. The lighter green is the hardwood forest while the darker blue-greens are the firs and spruces. The gully where I was standing when I took the previous photos is straight over the shadow in the center.