Sunday, July 3, 2011

7-2-11 Big Trees on the Lowe's Path & brief visit to King Ravine (completed)

By 9 am last Saturday (7-2-11) close to a hundred cars filled the parking area off Route 2 in Randolph at the base of the Valley Way Trail up Mt. Madison. Several dozen more cars lined the side of the highway for a quarter mile in both direction. This meant that the trail, on the perfect mountain day that Saturday was, would be a traffic jam as well, so I drove west another 2 miles to park at Lowe's Store and use the Lowe's Path to head up Mt. Adams. The above photo is the entrance to the Lowe's Path just off Route 2 in Randolph and across the highway from Lowe's Store, a gas station/general store. You can park your car in the large lot to the right of the store for $1.00 (one dollar) a day and not worry about it being broken in to.
The Lowe's Path was a good choice for a couple of reasons. The first is that this year, 2011, is the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act that created the U.S. National Forests and the Lowe family, the Lowe's Path and a lot of people who used the path from 1875 until 1911 were instrumental in getting the Weeks Act written and passed through both houses of Congress quickly. It was done with the urgency of wanting to save what was left of the forests in the White Mountains from further destruction by the lumber industry.

It was a good choice, too, because I had the trails and the mountain to myself. I met only three other hikers, a group heading down from Crag Camp, the entire day. One of my goals was to spend a few hours along the Cold River just at the base of the King Ravine head wall looking for a rare flower, the Alpine Brook Saxifrage, which I wasn't very confident I would find--it being extremely rare. But I wanted to look around King Ravine anyway as it's been years since I've passed through and it's an astonishing, wild, and beautiful place worth vast expenditures of time in exploring.

Lowe's Path begins gently enough but then climbs at a good grade for a mile until it reaches the top of a nub, part of Norwell Ridge, and levels off a bit. I found the beginning section to be quite wet, probably from recent rains (not a permanent feature). This photo is a nearly perfect picture of plant succession in the northern forest. You can make out several generations of forest trees: maple, beech, birch, and balsam fir. The oldest trees have already been culled by weather and disease and lay horizontal on the ground, decomposing; cornucopias of rich humus and all kinds of chemical nutrients most of which go back into the soil. The next oldest generation has a high canopy that shades the youngest trees. The ground cover of ferns and wild sasparilla, etc. are helping stabilize the soil and soil moisture. The entire "system" is putting nutrient back into the soil in roughly equal levels to what is taken out each year. The large vertical tree is a sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Sugar maples are well suited to the damp, cool northern flank of the Presidential ridge and are well represented here.

It's a green world. Another objective of my hike was to record some of the "giant" sugar maples growing here as they represent the iconic "big trees" of my generation; the "old forest", and a reminder of the forest that once grew here. The trees I was measuring on Saturday are roughly equal in size to the trees that were here before the logging in the late 1800s and early 1900s (according to newspaper accounts and other sources from pre-1880). Lowe's Path traverses an area home to what remains of some of the last big trees in the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF). On Saturday I measured the girth of more than 50 of the larger trees and kept a tally of the largest sugar maples and white birches that I passed that were within 100 feet of the trail on either side. The average diameter at breast height (DBH) was roughly 30 inches. The largest one, a sugar maple, was 121 inches in circumference (38.5 inches in diameter). A few white birches (Betula cordifolia) were also more than 3 feet in diameter. The tree in the photo is a sugar maple growing near the trail and only a half mile from the highway. It measured 85.5 inches in circumference, or 27.2 inches in diameter.

This sugar maple is 31 inches in diameter and.....

....this group of sugar maples averaged the same; 31 inches in diameter. In newspaper accounts from the 1870s there are descriptions of the forests at that time consisting of spruce, fir, and birch trees (probably B. cordifolia) 2-3 feet in diameter. I interpret those accounts to be fairly accurate and the forest they described, the old wilderness (that we all yearn for), consisted of trees that averaged 3 feet in diameter, or perhaps a little larger.

This maple is just 3 feet in diameter. As you look at these trees imagine a forest made up of trees this

This ancient white birch is 37.2 inches in diameter. It's in decline and hosting a number of shelf fungi, a Ganoderma, possibly applanatum sometimes referred to as "artist's conk" because the smooth white underside of the conk is fun to write and draw pictures on using a small stick.

This is what I mean by an "iconic tree". It's huge; three plus feet in diameter, and perhaps 100 feet tall (next photo). It takes your breath away to stand beside it and take in it's enormity and its presence here. A few white pine trees 4 feet in diameter have been reported in several places in northern New England, but their pine trees. To have a hard wood, a maple or birch, this large in the wild is rare today. A few miles from where I am writing this, in Hadley, MA. the town common is lined with sugar maples some of which are 4' DBH planted in the open in front of house built in the 1700s. Another likely place to find larger sugar maples would be on old farms in Vermont and locations across the northeast where the trees grew in open pastures. Thinking about the age of the tree in the photo you can guess it contains a lot of history. It could be 400 years old, or older, and contain detailed information (for instance) about the impact of acid rain here during the last 150 years, going back to the time before acid rain.

The survival of these large trees depends on a number of things and not least is luck. We often point to the 1938 Hurricane as a yardstick for the enormous destruction that occurs in large forest systems from high category storms because the '38 Hurricane was so well documented. Photos I've recently published in this blog I took while hiking up Mt. Deception document intense storm damage that occurs in certain types of terrain, ridge tops being a prime example. Most of the damage seen on Mt. Deception was recent, occurring possibly in the large storm of January 2010. The legendary ice storm of January 7-9, 1998 was on the scale of the 1938 Hurricane in terms of extent of destruction to forest trees in northern New Hampshire, particularly the hardwoods: beech, birch and sugar maples. That rogue storm devastated the Randolph area.

Evidence of the severity of the recent January 2010 storm is easy to find in a broad pattern across the White Mountain National Forest. Massive damage occurred due to several large avalanches on the steeper slopes that destroyed hundreds of acres of forest, along with snow loading during the phase of the storm that produced heavy, wet snow, and damage from ice and high winds throughout the storm. Damage from that storm can be recognized from the direction the blow downs are pointing. The storm came in from the southeast during it's most intense phase so trees downed point in a northwesterly direction, like a compass needle. Trail crews had a hard time clearing the damage. This photo shows a balsam (Abies balsamea) that came down across the Lowe's Path in a unsheltered site on Norwell ridge, but not particularly high on the mountain.

Storm damage in an example of the entropy in forest systems as in the flow of energy from a storm to the trees to soil and water which is circular and a continuum over time. This massive root structure (it's looks a lot like an ancient shaman performing a tribal ritual. The photo below makes it look like a bear) belongs to the wind-killed balsam that fell across the Lowe's Path and is a good example of that entropy. The energy from the storm 18 months ago is still moving through the forest on myriad levels. This tree and thousands of other blow downs from the storm throughout the WMNF , as they decay, will add carbon to the immediate area which will stimulate other mineral nutrients that, in turn, will move into and through the soil. The loss of the tree in this space will cause several things to happen. In addition to increasing soil carbon it will increase the temperature of this micro-environment a bit, at least until the canopy fills in the opening it left and decay slows. It will also raise levels (in micro-amounts) of soluble chemicals freed by decomposition of wood tissue, that will infiltrate the soil and the run-off from rain and snow melt around the site. An increase in soluble nitrogen will also occur providing important benefits to plants.

As the tree toppled in the storm the tree's roots broke a short distance from the tree and were pried up by the lever of the tree falling exposing the underlying soil. It offers us an opportunity to look more closely at the soil. On Carter Dome and the upper reaches of the Gale River along the Gale River Trail we've seen the layers humus (containing organic matter), clay , and a layer of fine sand just above the bed rock. The clay formed by feldspars occuring in local granites that were subjected to chemical decomposition. Clay is also made up of plate-like micas that being flaky have large surface areas. The unique structure of clay accounts for it's plasticity and ability to absorb water.

Some clays with high cohesion coefficients become impermeable to water and will act like a plastic sheet to keep water from being absorbed into the soil. The clay acts as a partial barrier for water absorption and as a vehicle for moving water down hill. Forest soils in the White Mountains are acidic. The pH value averages 4.5 but soil pH tends to vary from station to station so configuring an "average" is tricky.

Just below the clay is a layer of sand. The features in the clay and the sand layers are identical to what we've seen on the Gale River Trail. The sand horizon, or layer, here is only five inches deep where it hits bedrock. On Mt. Deception and here, the bed rock is very close to the surface and it obviously plays a role in why we are more likely to find blow downs in these sites. The roots of the tree (in the photos) tore up the top soil and like the top soil we've seen elsewhere in the mountains it's a thin layer of sandy-loam with a "mat" of organic matter on top; very similar to the samples at the Gale River research site.

A sugar maple 3 feet in diameter some way off the trail.

Where luck has played a role in the the longevity of these maples their successful aging is also due to tree and root system productivity. Moving water from below ground to the high crowns of these large trees involves tremendous energy, most, or all, supplied by the sun. The productivity can be expressed, generally, as the health of the individual trees relative to the environment they're growing in. One reason it's so exciting (for me, at least) to see these large trees here is they represent positive evidence of the excellent (general) health of the forest here.

In the pre-1880 forest that existed here and from which these maples started out there were different standards of health and productivity. Two factors influenced the health of the earlier forest here. One was the long-term stability of the forest system over a major period of time. The sizes of tree was more uniform as were their ages. This would translate to an image of a forest with moderate productivity that used to be referred to as a"climax", or mature forest. Those pre-1880 forests were a carbon "sinks" with enormous amounts of carbon stored in the trees and soil, but other nutrients as well.

The second factor regarding the health of the pre-1880 forest was the levels of key nutrients in the forest soils on these slopes at that time that would have been higher than they are today. Logging, by removing every tree, stripped off the nutrients normally being cycled through the system. The logging practices of the late 1800s destroyed the integrity of the soils in the logged areas. Erosion followed and continued until plant succession resumed after a decade, but not before slides on steeper slopes and increased water run-off (from precipitation) in all logged areas leached out remaining nutrients (This, again, is similar to the course of events on the Gale River slide track.). In specific areas, like the Zealand Valley, huge fires that occurred at the cessation of logging destroyed the soils on a whole other level along with any remaining nutrients.

This is the trunk of the same tree in the photo above that's 38 inches in diameter and one of the largest hardwoods I measured on Saturday.

The forest is gorgeous. It's a treat to thread one's way upwards while the morning is still cool surrounded by elegant stillness. Can you imagine, instead of these trees in the photo, a vast forest of 3-foot diameter sugar maples and birches covering the skirts of these mountains? I like to visualize them growing yards apart, almost like a park, towering 120 feet above the forest floor like a diminutive version of a coast redwood grove in northern California. It may actually have looked like that 400 years ago.

One of the most awe inspiring trees of the morning was this maple serving as sign bearer at the junction of Lowe's Path and the Link. The Link runs between Appalachia (the place on Route 2 where all the cars were parked and the trail heads are for the Valley Way, Air Line, Brookside, etc., with connection to the Randolph Path as well.) The tree is a bit under 3 feet in diameter.....

.....and around 100 feet tall. It's stunning! I want to emphasize that calling these trees "giants" is a relative term. They could be categorized as normal in terms of the species itself throughout its range. At a lower altitude and in better soil sugar maples grown much larger than these. I'm taking liberties in exclaiming their size relative to each other and conditions of the site: the altitude, harshness of the weather, and thin soil conditions. A question to pose is whether these trees are at the limit of growth? Will they grow larger in the foreseeable future if given the opportunity and good luck, or, are they already in their decline? There are ways we could find out, for instance, by identifying individual trees by their GPS coordinates, taking precise measurements of the sample trees, and mapping them. Then, have someone check up on them and remeasure them every 5 or 10 years.

These are the three Quebecois hikers from Montreal who had spent the night at Crag Camp. They were the only other people I saw all day (until I was back down the mountain in mid-afternoon) which is a testament to how unspoiled this part of the Presidential Range is
It's appropriate that I explain that I'm wrestling with a serious though not life threatening medical issue that will require surgery in August and will require a month of convalescing (no hiking). For the moment I'm behaving normally but with a "stent", a surgical tube, from my right kidney to my bladder. It's annoying as it chaffs a lot. Two weeks ago I hiked into Zealand, a relatively easy hike, to determine if I can hike, or not, in July and how strenuously. Hiking to King Ravine, a little more rugged than Zealand, was, likewise, a test. I took it easy on the ascent and had no problems. I did curb an urge to run up Chemin des Dames trail to get up on the ridge and to (the new) Madison Hut to say "Hi" to George, Miles, Johanness and the rest of the stellar Madison croo. It was good that I didn't because I was dismally uncomfortable coming down. I recovered quickly drinking a lot of water but the message was that I need to go slow (a good thing). The frustration will come after surgery when I'll have to take August off. It's bothersome as I had some great trips planned for the summer that will have to wait 'til September. One point I'm making is there may be a paucity of articles for the blog.

In the above photo the King Ravine trail leveled off suddenly after a rather steep climb from the junction with the Lowe's Path. I had temporarily left the land of the giant sugar maples. The trees in this particular area were not very mature. Succession was occurring but it looked as though there had been a disturbance of some kind, an avalanche or storm perhaps 20 years ago, that caused a die-off and this was the next generation.

On this north facing slope next to the trail the lack of ground cover and the over population and thin boles of the trees indicate that succession was botched, perhaps by over crowding of the dominant species. This is similar to the Gale River landslide track right after the slide in 1954 when a large area on one side of the slide was colonized quickly by overcrowding stands of fir and spruce that even today are immature.

The trail kept ascending up towards the "floor" of the ravine, actually the lower floor as there are two levels. This is the lower one. There's a stunning amount of diversity within this relatively small transitional area. This tract is on a north facing ridge and following a normal pattern of succession, but it looks and feels like it's early succession, again, due to a local disturbance. King Ravine is a glacial cirque similar to others, including Tuckerman Ravine, in the Presidential Range. It's an area where mass wasting is constant in all seasons and we would expect snow and rock avalanches as well as intense storms with high winds and deep snow that create wear and tear on local vegetation.

Not much farther up the trail I found this stand that contrasted markedly with the one in the photo above this one. It's populated by large birches and sugar maples with younger, competing firs and red spruce. This is at close to 3,000' asl and may represent the original forest "mix" that's been growing here for a long time; even thousands of years.

On its way towards the upper part of the ravine the trail climbs over a low ridge and then descends steeply for 3/10th of a mile through a balsam fir-spruce-white birch forest that's shady and moist. I was whining to myself about the loss of elevation when I heard that lovely sound of rushing water below me that turned out to be Cold Brook.

Cold brook cascades down from the headwall of the ravine in scenes like this that's a theme of King Ravine along with the older trees and the relaxing sense of timelessness that's exuded by the water and the forest. However, it was a bit disconcerting to find wads of wet, used kleenex lying in the trail. I see these omissions by other hikers: wrappers, bits of foil, and kleenex, more frequently and I don't like to judge others because I make my own mistakes, but, still, it irks me. I feel ambivalent about packing the trash out because I feel I'm colluding (like picking up after my kids when I should tell them to do it), but I do it anyway (like I do for my kids: to get it done).

The sunlight coming off the water was dazzling. It was tempting to stay and clean the dead trees from the pool and have a quick soak, but I knew there would be more pools above. Hopping across the brook here the trail climbs steadily again as it reaches the ravine proper and I could feel the presence of the steep walls, the "bowl", beginning to enclose me.

Wildness, when we try to explore it purely from our senses, finds synonyms like "timeless", "lovely", but what it best conjures up is a sense of "otherness"; a difficult concept for most of us because it describes how the arc of our personal lives moves us further and further away from wildness, from nature itself (despite the avalanche of media served to us daily). It's here, though, in places like King Ravine, sometimes as a stubborn reminder that we find inconvenient (as we keep killing ourselves in the pursuit of more "convenience") or, at other times, a brilliant flash of insight telling us that it's true; we can't exist without this very thing (wildness) and it's shrinking, shrinking, shrinking.

I laughed when I came upon this "vintage", log bridge built in the early 1960s (out of things at hand) to provide hikers the option of having dry feet (maybe) but that often provided the opposite. The logs are smooth and when they're wet can (not always) surprise the unwary hiker with a ride similar to being on a skate board that often leaves them standing ankle deep in the ooze anway.

Climbing higher into the ravine and the solitude is like a glass of cool, spring water.

Mountain wood sorrel (Oxalis montana).

At this altitude a transition is occuring in both the terrain (it is looking more alpine) and the plants (also looking more alpine.)

And in this photo there is a strong hint (all the boulders that are strewn about) of the trail approaching the steep, high headwall of the the ravine. From time to time, through the tree canopy I can glimpse the crests of the ravine walls on the left and right but no sign of the headwall yet.

Another cascade, and then another, and finally I'm at

famous Mossy Falls, not far from the head wall. Looking straight up to my right through the dense birch leaves I can just see the Randolph Mountain Club's Crag Camp a thousand feet directly above me.

The water coming down the falls is beautifully clear and the rocks under the falls host a rich cover of aquatic plants.

(Not sure about this one. I'm still working on it. Don't tell me! I want to key it out.)

Climbing higher above Mossy Falls the trail becomes quite steep and enters the boulder field on the left hand-side rampart leading up to the Chemin Des Dame Trail and the head wall itself.

This sign marks the approximate 4,000' asl elevation. I continued climbing for another 1/4 mile to the junction of the Chemin Des Dame Trail up a steep "ladder" of rocks, some the size of automobiles, in which a few elementary rock climbing maneuvers were required that I found satisfying only because they increased the level of difficulty making it feel more alpine. Unfortunately the hand over hand stuff increased the pain in my mid-section so I began my descent.

Just below Mossy Falls the Short Line Trail branches off the King Ravine Trail (KRT) and it's a direct line to the road, a bit shorter than the KRT, so I gladly took it.

Very quickly I was back among the large trees which was an added pleasure to the trip down. The sun had moved to mid-afternoon. I had not climbed high enough for a clear view of the high walls of the ravine which would have been exciting but something I can save for another time. In the meantime the hike down was summery and quiet and the light in the forest was (as always) stunning.

It was certainly green. Summer was outdoing itself. The ground cover on both sides of the trail was dense

.......and the sugar maples along the Short Line were as big as those I'd measured in the morning.

They were between 31" and 37" in diameter. The 37" measurement was on a tree that was dying which may be the indicator for maximum girth in this location.

It was such a "summery" day and a great mountain day, too. Hiking down in the late afternoon light filtering through the trees was lyrical (really cool!), particularly in the company of the large maples.

A few things crossed my mind about the significance of these large trees. One of them was that they're sentient beings and have the knowledge we're looking for in terms of how to preserve the Earth and to insure it will be around for more than just another 100 years or so. What they do, what they have been doing for a long period of time, is collaborate in maintaining "homeostasis" which is a term meaning "equilibrium", "balance", "stability", or "stable state" of the Earth's complex biogeochemical systems including weather systems and soil mechanics.
This was my favorite tree of the day. It measured exactly 3' DBH. In addition to all the history they contain these old, large trees are significant as parents to untold generations of maple trees which is to say the germplasm contained in their seed stocks is of immeasurable value. Germplasm contains the genetic coding of these trees and with their age (and perhaps nobility) their germplasm represents a kind of heirloom quality which is the foundation of the diversity we need to exist.

Hobble bush is one of the dominant plants in this zone of the forest. It's prolific due to it's method of getting seeds distributed. Each one of these berries contains thousands of seed that will be dispersed by water, wind and animals.

The hobble bush almost monopolizes the light at between ground level and the zenith of its height which is about 6 feet, though on average the hobble bush is often between 2-5 feet in
height. It's a great competitor, though.

Throughout the area, the northern slope, the ground cover was tightly interwoven with a variety of herbaceous plants like these violets.

Look at the levels of light that is able to penetrate to the forest floor and how it is used by the plants.

In this photo, too, you can easily see strategies used by various plants to qet there quota of light.

Lucille Lowe at the family store on Rt. 2 in Randolph. Between us there are a lot of years here in the mountains and all the history woven into them. It was fun to talk with her for a while and share news. She's a direct descendant of Charles Lowe (and all the Lowes in Randolph) so she, herself, contains a lot of the history of northern New Hampshire. "It's changed so much. It's not anything like it used to be." she said.