Tuesday, February 18, 2014

2-15 & 16-14 Northern Peaks and Gale River Research Site

Sunday (2-15-14) the morning report from the Mt. Washington Weather Observatory (the "Obs") was not a surprise. In fact, it felt more like the norm for this winter. The wind was gusting to 70 mph with some gusts jumping to 100 mph and the windchill was -58 degrees (F) . It was my second day in the mountains after a long absence and I had already been planning a hike up to the Madison-Adams col. The conditions were not at all favorable to a hike above treeline and I told myself I would go up only as high as was "safe" and reasonable. It was not a great hiking day. The photo doesn't do justice to the amount of "spin drift" in the air, or the intensity of the wind and cold. I'd spent Saturday night with Betty and Guy Gosselin in Gorham who, between them, have 40 years experience working for and at the Obs, Betty as a member of the board of directors and Guy as Chief Weather Observer for 27years. So, their combined wisdom is not lost on me and Guy, with a quizzical look, questioned my sanity in even having the desire to hike on a day like Sunday.

But I did hike up for a bit and it was breezy. Late Saturday afternoon, as I drove by, there were 11 cars in the parking lot at the Valley Way trail head and 9 were still there Sunday morning so there was a large number of people staying at Crag Camp and Grey Knob, but no one on the trail heading up Sunday. I hiked up to the Scar Trail and then a little way up that, to about 3500 ft., where I was fully able to "feel" and listen to the roar of the wind and stand in the swirling serpents of spin drift careening through the balsams.

Mt. Washington has a reputation of having the "worst" weather in the world based on extreme wind velocities measured at the summit weather station including one that was more than 230 mph and ambient temperatures, not windchill, as low as -49 degrees (F), but "wild" and "beautiful" are also suitable descriptions. I was experiencing both as I tentatively climbed on Sunday. It was invigorating. It is instructive to be "out in the storm" as long as the risks are weighed. The strength and sound of the wind was daunting as it roared around me plucking furiously at everything, exploding the snow caps crouching on balsam boughs and sending the snow flying. around me. Feeling how distant that experience was from what one experiences on a late August afternoon as one hikes down from the high peaks in a soft, summer twilight, but how equally beautiful.
On Saturday I skied and hiked up to my research site on the Gale River Trail located just off the trail and on the track of the 1954 landslide that came down during Hurricane Diana. "Research Site" is a bit too elegant a description as it's merely a place where I carefully observe and take yearly measurements of soil development and track vegetative succession (production) in the hope of capturing a succint measure of the biomass in five study plots. It's a good site for these activities because we have a specific time and date (1:30 pm on August 28, 1954) of when the slide came down off Mt. Garfield into the Gale River and completely denuding several acres of the forest right down to the glacial till.

Dick Goldthwait, one of the eminent White Mountain geologist, took a team to Glacier Bay in Alaska back in the mid-1960s, to thoroughly study soil development and forest succession where glaciers had melted back leaving bare soil. Goldthwait's results inspired me to do similar studies in the Whites to compare results and create models for local soil development in the post-Wisconsinan period--the time since the Wisconsinan ice sheet melted.

The two local lads in the photo above were gearing up for a day trip up Mt. Garfield. Note the dog's head sticking out of the coat. I liked the idea of the sleds. They were enthusiastic about using them in the descent phase of the hike and I pictured them careening down the north side of Garfield in the deep powder snow after their strenuous ascent.

I chose my Kazamas instead of a sled and was delighted that the long slog up the Gale River road to the trail head only took a few minutes compared to the usual 45 minute hike. On the way out it took me just 10 minutes from trail to car! (mostly because it's downhill.)

Federal budgeting in action: the new trail signs. Magic markers are cheap!

There was, on average, 24.8 inches of fresh new powder snow along the first two miles. When I set out on the trail I was gleeful that someone had gone before me and packed in out but their tracks came to an abrupt end in half a mile and I was on my own. The snow, even with snowshoes, came up to just below my knees, but it was light stuff.

Winter offers kind of an x-ray of the forest; the ability to see things that are not apparent during the months of full foliage. For the first mile, or so, the woods on either side of the trail look worse for wear and under nourished. The slope here is almost nil; flat, and dry, but the top soil is also nil. This piece was logged in the early 1960s and has not fully recovered.

Disease is also taking a toll. Beech Bark Disease (BBD) is killing this beech tree and other beech near by are as fully infected.

Not much farther up slope the picture isn't quite as gloomy and the mixed growth areas appear to have more vitality.

The forest even further up slope, where it becomes more diverse (species wise), improves in health.

A moose sauntered across the trail.

General health of the forest can be glimpsed by the height and vitality of the over story both in winter and summer. In winter it's easier to find dead wood high up and in the summer a good measuring stick is the density of the leaf canopy. In this section of the trail, half way between the trail head and first crossing, the canopy density is about 60 percent. Acid rain, in its peak years, caused a general decline in the leaf canopy of White Mountain hardwoods and the hope it that forest vitality is bouncing back. Even though there is still acidic precipitation the acid content has declined.

Damp areas where the trail curves back over towards the Gale River make the trail swampy and produce areas like this of higher concentrations of conifers like these spruce and hemlock.

Just below first crossing, a few miles above the trail head. Snow depth here was 27.5 inches.

A tiny critter made tracks here where it crossed the trail successfully at least once, but

on a second trip was caught by a flying predator, most likely an owl.
An escape tunnel for wee critters.

And another moose, or the same moose from below making a second pass.

In 1961 this was a lovely glade, about an acre in size, and possibly the site of a small logging camp a decade earlier. It was flat and clear except for some tall mountain asters and in the late afternoons as I packed supplies up to Galehead Hut I would say I was at the "half way" point. With the late afternoon sun shafting through it it reminded me of Yeat's "bee loud glade".

Section of the trail just below the slide and the research area where there is a high frequency of blow downs that doesn't seem to be coincidence and might be caused by thin soil over ledge and an areas where the topography exposes the site to the wind.
Two deer, possibly a mum with a fawn,  had come up from the river bed and continued lazily up through study plot #2. The river was completely frozen over and covered with a deep blanket of snow that was laced with animals of all shapes and sizes and, judging by the numbers the tracks, were using it as a highway .

I try not to disturb the study plots and do a cursory look from a few vantage points to see if there have been disturbances from other sources; storms, etc. My measurements consists of soil depths, tree diameters (DBH) and leaf litter. On this trip I was mainly interested in snow depth and the general condition of the plots. All was well.

Second crossing of the Gale River. I think the stillness is portrayed here. The only sounds I heard all day were of ravens, crows, grouse and juncos calling out now and then--the ravens particularly. For as long as I can remember, back to the 1950s, there have been raven in a number of places in the White Mountains: Mt. J. Q. Adams, Mt. Lafayette (or more precisely the morth peak of Mt. Lafayette, and here along the Gale River. I imagined that the ravens along the Gale nested either high up on slope between North and South Twin, or on the cliffs high on Mt. Garfield.

Heading out and retracing my steps.