Saturday, April 23, 2011

4/23/11 Last Glimpse of Winter colors

Phellinus nigricans, a shelf or bracket fungi common in northern hardwood forests where it grows on downed beech, maple and oak logs.

A beech, Fagus grandifolia, that will soon sport bright green leaves the size of mouse's ears.

A pair of recently transplanted Vermonters who've moved to western Massachusetts to be closer to their grandchildren.They came by just as I was clearing out a large winter blow down that was lying across the trail and that had become a bit of a nuisance for trail running. They exclaimed how much they love the trail (the Notch Trail on Mt. Skinner). We don't usually go around saying "I love that particular trail, or that one", so it's nice to hear other people express appreciation for certain trails. I think trails have personalities just like people do and there are some, like the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail on the west side of Mt. Washington, that have genius. They're brilliant. Anyway, the three of us talked about trail upkeep in these days when states have no money for that sort of thing so that it might be left to volunteers, like myself, to help with upkeep, and they readily wanted to cast in their lot.

In these last glimpses of wintery landscapes I like these two because of the textures and colors but because you see so much in the winter, as I often say, when the foliage is not there and one thing that catches my eye is the large numbers of dead trees lying about on the ground, lots of them, and how rudimentary a form they are in the forest: meaning how essential they are.

Dead wood (windfalls, dead branches, etc) on the ground has long been referred to as Coarse Woody Debris or CWD and that catagory had specific rules in terms of dimensions of individual pieces of CWD. I think the minimum size was 3 inchs in diameter at the small tapered end and 6 feet long. For several years, since the increase in global climate change relative to carbon stores in the biosphere a great deal of research has been initiated to measure carbon contained in forest ecosystems. Over the past two decades a great deal has been learned about how trees store carbon (function as a carbon "sink") in the early succesional stages from seedling to mature tree, at "peak" growth, and then the "decline" stage when the tree dies and decays and emits carbon back into the soil and atmosphere.

We used to categorize carbon in forest systems using percentages. I think the value of 40 percent was the amount of carbon in forest soils and around 10 percent was in dead wood, or CWD. With more recent research these percentages may have been upgraded, but the main point is that these are gradual processes. Forest ecosystems, even small groves of trees, are relatively stable in terms of carbon storage and emissions. That can change as when the immense deforestation of Brazil occurred 20 years ago (and continues) and huge amounts of carbon were added to the atmosphere by the quick burning of the felled trees and brush, or in Hurricane Katrina in which more than 300 million trees died. Dead wood standing or on the ground does give off carbon gradually but that dead wood is also enormously beneficial to the forest itself. It slowly releases nutrients back into the soil, it provides habitats and/or protects habitats of myriad organisms, it provides food for other organisms in the form of insects, it retains moisture and sometimes pools moisture when on the ground. If you "google" Carbon content of forest ecosystems you'll find an array of articles recently published on the importance of this carbon cycles in forests and how they pertain to us as organisms.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

4-17-11 Miscellaneous

Skiers near the Chute on the left side of the Tuckerman Ravine headwall last Sunday, 4-10-11, taking advantage of great snow conditions with almost no wind and lots of sun. Photo taken by U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers based in Tuckerman Ravine.

The same area of the Ravine in a photo taken by the Forest Service on 4-08-11 that includes Left Gully. There's a lot of snow in the Ravine this year.

I launched a new blog, When it's finished in a few months it will create access for readers of this blog to articles and photos in Appalachia, the august journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), that's been biannually published since 1876. Appalachia is an astounding resource that's difficult to access because it's available at only a few locations. Within the 135 years of its publication it contains the complete histories of skiing, hiking, climbing, and mountaineering in North America including New England, all of the US, and Europe and the Himalaya as well. It traces the development of outdoor recreation, generally, along with the conservation movement going back to John Muir. My goal has primarily been to provide access to articles focusing on the sciences: botany, geology and glaciology, ecology, natural history and the rich social/human history of the White Mountains contained in older volumes. Reading them is like taking a mountain excursion back in time. Take a look when you have a minute.

I seldom plug products of any kind in the blog. The product has to meet my criteria for sustainability which I feel is synonymous with "quality". On my climb up to Lakes of the Clouds and Mt. Monroe a few weeks ago a critical piece on one of my Kahtoola crampons broke causing the crampon to fall off my boot when I was in a fairly exposed section of the climb. I mailed the crampons back to Kahtoola in Flagstaff, AZ for repairs and was pleasantly surprised to get a call back from Vance, one of the managers, who said he was going to completely revamp them for me (even though my pair is well worn after 4 years and no longer on warranty). The turn around time was one week. Kahtoola makes a number of quality items including two different "traction" devices: the hardened steel, lightweight, fully adjustable, strap-on crampons in the above photo, and the "Micro Spike" system (with the red rubberized webbing) also shown in the photo which is a slip-on, flexible, very safe and versatile system that I see everywhere I go now. I've used the "micros" in the last two years everywhere in the Whites (and jogging and trail running around home) and I use the crampons on sheer horizontal ice or sustained, steep, hard water-ice surfaces where I want the most secure traction I can get. My overall perception, after my conversation with Vance, was that Kahtoola, like Patagonia and a few other suppliers, has a world vision based on the highest quality craftsmanship along with excellent customer satisfaction. That's why I'm recommending these products to hikers.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

4-09-11 Close to Home

I was waiting for my laundry to finish its wash cycle last Sunday morning (4-3-11)and decided to do a quick bushwhack up the steep northwest facing flank of Mt. Tom in Easthampton, MA. I was staying close to home for the weekend as a money and gas-saving measure rather than spend $60.00 for fuel for a one-day trip to the White Mountains. The weekend before I drove at 62-65 mph all the way up and back to the Cog Railway Base Station (205 miles one way) and managed to squeeze out 37 mpg in my old Camry but it still cost me around $50.00 (including a little food). It also took me 3.5 hours to drive one way so it amounted to more than 7 hours of driving to go hiking for 6 hours so not very economical any way you look at it. I only had to drive 2.5 miles to get to the base of Mt. Tom. Somewhere in his writing Thoreau observed that a person could spend a lifetime exploring the seemingly small world contained within a 20 mile radius around his home. But, if you read his books you know he was not one to stay at home all the time. I'd prefer to be hiking in the White Mountains any day but to make it more economical I'm going to have to go for two or three day stretches, or not go as often and find more things to do around here. I've never been on this part of the Holyoke Range so it was new to me and I just wanted to see what I could see. I took off uphill and into the woods behind a friend's hosue and almost immediately found myself in a protected forest that doesn't see a lot of visitors. It's consists primarily of old, huge hemlocks with some maples and white pines mixed in. There was a lot of debris on the ground from winter felled limbs and dead trees.

The mix of leaves on the ground indicates an over story of hemlock (the smaller green needles), beech, poplar and white pine (the long green needles).

Looking at this slightly larger sample there's more beech and a few red oak leaves mixed in as well. The oak leaves probably traveled here on the wind as there are few, if any, red oaks on the shaded and more moist north slope of the mountain.

A little higher up there was more debris on the ground and the forest was rather gloomy. The sun had not risen high enough at this point to shine on the north side of the ridge.

Some of the hemlocks, as I said, were huge. This one was 13 feet in circumference.

This hemlock had been a "giant" at one time. It probably died in the 1960s and fell around 1980.

The crowns in this photo are about 80 feet high.

A broken hemlock top snapped off in high winds probably while holding a lot of snow. It fell 50 feet and is buried 6 feet in the soil here.

A dead hemlock trunk that's 12 feet in circumference. I once read that most of the biodiversity in a given forest ecosystem is contained in the dead tree trunks like the one above mainly due to huge numbers and varieties of insects, like beetles (Coleoptra), that come to feed on the dead wood. But, there is the same diversity in the animals inhabiting the leaf litter on the forest floor, and the canopies (crowns) of living trees, all representing different communities and different niches.

In The Nature of Natural History (Scribners 1950 & 1961) Marston Bates writes, "'Community' and 'succession' are common words in the ecological vocabulary. Equally common is 'habitat'. The habitat of an organism is the place where it occurs. It might thus be defined as the envrionment of a particular kind of organism. The habitat may be co-extensive with the community, may (rarely) include several types of communities, or may represent a niche in the community. The description of the habitat would include the physical and chemical environment as well as the biological environment. (new paragraph) Generally, the habitat of an organism corresponds to a particular niche in the community. I'm using 'niche' here in a slightly different sense from that usual among ecologists. Niche is customarily used 'to describe the status of an animal (or plant) in its community, to indicate what it is doing and not merely what it looks like. The trouble for me with that is that 'niche' has connotations of place--the dictionary says, 'a place, condition, or the like, sutable for a person or thing.' I would prefer to use 'niche' to indicate an organism's physical place in the community structure." (pgs 116-117). I always like Marston's take on ecological terms and how he uses them. Learning the differenceand similarities between 'habitat' and 'niche' is important and as Marston adds, "there may be endless special niches."

This is a good illustration of how "pits and mounds" are formed on the forest floor when a tree falls. As a tree topples over it acts like a lever causing the roots to pull up a "ball" of soil which later becomes the "mound". An empty pit is left where the soil has been lifted out and upwards by the roots. Storms, particularly hurricanes, often leave behind hundreds of blow downs and over time the tell-tale pits and mounds are all that remain. Sometimes they are noticeable for several decades. There are places in New England where faint indentations of the pits as well as faint mounds are still noticeable from trees that fell in the 1938 hurricane.

Some trees fall without leaving a pronounced pit or mound. This tree pried up a stone that was caught in the root ball.

The Holyoke Range, also referred to as the Mt. Holyoke Range, is about 10 miles long and is a "fault block" formation consisting mostly of basalt, also called Trap Rock, that was extruded perhaps as many as 200 million years ago. Fault block means that during tectonic movements of the earth's crust the volcanics caused an open fault line to tilt upwards producing this ridge that's steep on one side and relatively gently sloping on the other. This is a chunk of diorite, granite in other words, and I encountered dozens of pieces of it this size spread out over a large area but only on the northern slope. It's probably from a volcanic intrusion that occurred after the range was formed. The higher summits of the range are around 1100 feet above sea level.

This is the Eyre House (no relationship to Jane Eyre) built on this lower summit of the range in 1861 completely out of the local trap rock. It looks like a perfect movie set.

The house burned in 1902 and the stone shell and this carriage road, unused for 100 years, are the remnants of what must have been, in its time, an elegant building.

This looks as though it was once a turn-around, or parking area, for horses and carriages.

At this point I had reached the main ridge of the range at 800, or so, feet above Interstate 91. I could hear the early Sunday traffic plainly from the highest point. Because of the decreased sunlight on the steep, shaded north slope, it's a much cooler and wetter climate (speaking very generally) that favors the hemlocks, maples and beech, but reaching the ridge a dramatic thing happens. Accentuated by the early morning sunlight which was astonishingly warm on my arms and face there was a sense of a different world. Red oaks dominated although there were several other species as well, but if was open and peaceful, park-like, even with the robins and other thrushes calling loudly to each other.

There were a few of these visible, clues that there was a fire here at one time, that might be a reason for the open, park-like feel of the woods on the ridge crest.

Mt. Tom in the distance is about 3.5 miles away. There are several knolls including the one closest in view that are emblematic of the entire ridge line. The Connecticut River cuts through the range dividing it in two at about its mid-point. East of the river the ridge undulates in several rounded knobs called the Seven Sisters. I decided to extend my hike to the nearest summit.

There is a trail that traverses the two halves of the ridge that is a day-long hike.

An open glade formed by the red oaks. You can see a line of hemlocks to the right which are on the ridge crest in this photo and the one below.

A glacial erratic rests comfortable on the very crest of the ridge.

It was dropped off here 12,000 to 14,000 years ago and probably spends its time dreaming of the time when another glacier will sweep down from the north and whisk it away to new climes.

Hemlocks crowd the summit unable to invade further into the warmer, drier oak zone.

This is the ridge crest proper and the unnamed summit and you can see the dividing line between the two climate niches, or habitats, with the wetter, cooler climate on the left.

The summit rocks are basalt, or trap rock, which characteristically fractures in octagonal-shaped formations like this one. Trap rock contains iron from the earth's mantle and it has a metallic sound when you strike two pieces against each other.

Sphagnum moss occupies the cooler, damper side of the ridge.

Looking south-south-east and down slope from the summit. Mt. Tom is the name of the state reservation that contains most of the Holyoke Range. Fifteen years ago a local developer proposed a housing development on the side of the range below the reservation boundary and was stopped successfully by a grass roots campaign which took the name Friends of the Mount Holyoke Range. There was a large ski area on Mt. Tom located on its southeastern flank that closed 10 years ago in bankruptcy.

Looking north from the crest and at the "oxbow" of the Connecticut River made famous by Thomas Cole and other American painters of the Hudson Valley School. The city of Northampton is in the mid-distance, two miles away, and the town of Amherst is located towards the right and out of view. It is notable to point out that the base of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail on Mt. Washington is only 207 miles upstream from here as the Ammonoosuc River is a major tributary of the Connecticut and then it's only 2.5 miles to Lakes of the Clouds.

I'd completely forgotten about my laundry and ran down through the hemlocks to the road as the sunlight began to teeter on the ridge and poke down into the large hemlock crowns.

With April comes this lovely spring sunlight. There was some snow here on the north slope this morning but even after a winter of late, deep snow the ground is already drying out.

A perturbation from two winters ago. This is one of those events in the forest that creates ripples of change, most of them subtle. Going back to the quote from Martson's The Nature of Natural History events like these are perturbations within communities that effect succession.

For instance, a major change that may occur is the dramatic increase in the amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor after a large tree goes down. The impact could cause a more competitive species to get a "toe hold" in the niche, like a species that's more tolerant to open sunlight.

Speaking earlier of Thomas Cole, and painting in general, scenes like this one and the one below remind me of other New England painters like Winslow Homer and Rockwell Kent who were so deft at painting these patterns of sunlight and shadow.