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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Winter in The Bowl Research Natural Area

Only a short jaunt from a busy trail in the Sandwich Range, White Mountain National Forest, lies a special primeval forest that holds rare secrets to New Hampshire's distant past, unbeknownst to the common passerby. Situated in a bowl-shaped glacial cirque, the saddle of Passaconway and Whiteface mountains forms its northern headwall offering centuries of protection from the disastrous hurricane of 1938, wildfire and generations loggers that took 99% of all forest in the east. What remains is a pocket of old northern hardwoods forest that appears as it had to early settlers and Native Americans. As a testament to its magic, and the dedication of the Wonalancet Outdoor Club, it became protected and named The Bowl Research Natural Area in 1913 - the very year Henry Ford developed the modern assembly line.

On a mild winter day, I strapped on my snowshoes and walked through a small village to Dicey Mills trail for over a mile until I reached the bowl. I walked to the west to find Wonalancet brook, then hiked north. It wasn't long before I encountered a towering grove of sugar maples across the brook. Large trees with tall, straight trunks and no low hanging limbs gave the first clue that I was entering a special place. The forest's energy changed from there on.

Not much further up the brook toward its headwaters, I came across a cathedral of gargantuan yellow birch, American beech and more sugar maple - some of which have been recorded to be over 400 years old. I've seen these species many times before in second-growth forests, but never like this. Here, they were spaced far apart with a small shrub understory of hobble-bush and striped maple.

The sugar maples are as tall as I have ever seen them. Their buttressed roots are meant to keep them from toppling over during storms. Their crowns are a tangle of gnarly branches with evident pruning from harsh winds.

The spacing between trees is reminiscent of a park, with a lot of open space in the understory and little open space in the crown. Downed trees were frequent, forming pits and mounds from upended root balls. 

Rocks of all shapes and sizes were strewn about all over to suggest that no agriculture had ever occurred. No stone walls, structures, litter, invasive species or obvious absence of rocks were anywhere to be found.

At some point, I stood still and listened to the melting snow drip from tall tree branches. I could hear the entire forest process the moisture to the bursting brook. I could smell the sweet scent of red spruce and feel the light winter breeze on my face. Through the leafless branches, I could see the surrounding mountain peaks in the distance.

Much like the ancient white pines I encountered in Elder's Grove in the Adirondacks, these trees also had bark that looked completely different than younger trees. Sugar maples were deeply furrowed with flaky bark, and yellow birch had scaly patterns in between papery bark. Large American beech were not nearly as smooth as younger trees.

Big trees are not the only sign of an old-growth forest. An abundance of wildlife and sign  was seen all throughout the bowl. I noticed sprinkles of cuttings from red spruce twigs. During winter, red squirrels eat cone seeds for nutrients and often times take the twig by accident.

Bobcat and bear tracks lined the brook, pileated woodpeckers took advantage of standing dead logs, and many trees had lines of holes made from yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Fungus were abundant on dead and dying trees including chaga, and lichens were on trees and rocks.

A student of forests, I've come to learn that all woodlots tell a unique story. Nearly all have distinct legacies of human disturbance.Though, few pockets of virgin forest like this area remain that, to a trained eye, tell a very different tale - one of wilderness, harmony and pure nature. Many forests have big trees but few are pristine and undisturbed. And although all old growth forests have common characteristics, not all habitat's are represented today and, in my experience, every patch looks, feels and functions differently. Without the dedication of the Wonalancet Outdoor Club, Forest Service and other conservationists, this gem would not be what it is today.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Big Ditch - An American Pastime

The idea of the Cape Cod canal was born nearly 500 years ago as Myles Standish of the Plimoth Colony dreamt of connecting the Manomet and Scusset Rivers – then full of coveted salt-run brook char - to expedite trade with local Wampanoag and Dutch to the north. After years of feasibility studies, the canal broke ground in 1909 and opened to traffic by 1914 providing easier trading, wartime safety, and consequently world-class fishing. This would’ve been around the time my great ancestor, Cristopher “Crit” Whittemore (pictured left), fished for striped bass. Here, he stands below a big pin oak likely along the Connecticut River during a herring run in the late 1800s.

This season, I made a point to learn from the infamously unforgiving canal. Locals joke that it holds more lost lures to its rocky substrate than fish. I put in time observing eddies during low tide, speaking to locals, watching birds, and tagging along with experienced friends. I saw generations of men clustered together whispering of what lure to use and how to fish the current conditions, ignoring passerbyers inquiring about their luck. Others woke up before dawn to walk the banks without a fishing rod in hand, merely in search of comradery.

I planned my ferry rides from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole around the moon cycle. The new moon brings dark skies, bright stars and big tides. The breaking tides occur when the extreme low tide coincides near the break of day when the bite is strong. I napped by day and met my father and friends by midnight to claim our spot. After every story we told, more and more headlamps sprung up across the canal. The silence of anticipation was interrupted by the occasional barge and constant lead jigs raining down from across the ditch. I’ll never forget the sudden explosions of feeding fish on the surface as the sun crept up from the pitch pines. Grown men riding makeshift “canal bikes” creatively fitted with rod holders, tackle baskets and fish trailers passed back and forth chasing baitfish and their predators. Lines crossed and fistfights sprung up from time to time - the bite was on!

Within an hour's time, we caught big bass nearly every cast. Smaller fish were caught first before a lag in action. The big fish were next, expending less energy by cleaning up the disoriented tinker mackerel pushed up against the rocks below my feet - sometimes jumping onto the rocks to avoid the inevitable.

At some point, the adrenaline wears off and a breather is much needed. I look up with a sore back to find the banks lined with big fish - one per person - caught by those who claimed good spots.

Before long, men slowly trickled out from their spots dragging their keep, hoping to buy ice and make work on time. The streets are lined bumper to bumper with cars fastened with license plates of all different colors as the novices begin to show up.

What began as a quest to catch my first big canal fish this year turned into something more. The journey gave a glimpse into old-time America, and connected me with my past. I came across folks of infinite backgrounds, occupations and orientations bound together by our nation's oldest pastime. Dragging my fish up the steep bank staring off at the old Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge built in 1910, I felt like I was passing through a speakeasy where I didn't hear a lick about religion, politics or money - just fish tales and what a great day it is to be alive. 'Til the next new moon!

Monday, April 9, 2018

The 1675 Grove: A Virgin White Pine Forest

Hidden, scattered vestiges of old-growth groves offer a living glimpse into pre-European America, largely untouched by the ax or plow. They survived the industrial revolution, the hurricane of 1938, the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the saw mill and all its men. Such areas are sparse and kept secrete and protected often only by a good family deed passed down generations. They make up less than 1% of their original area in the northeast, with only some forest types represented. For those that remain, they are diamonds in the ruff - true national treasures.

In the small town of Brighton, NY in Franklin County, a stand known as Elder's Grove or 1675 Grove (aptly named after the date of germination) is all that remains of a once expansive northern hardwood forest. Here, stately white pine (Pinus strobus) - one of the rarest old-growth tree species - tower above surrounding second-growth pole size forest like tropic emergent trees, making a nostalgic natural cathedral.

As a vegetation ecologist with a deep love for forests, I expect a virgin stand to consist of trees of all ages, or "uneven aged," but this tract is different. Eldner's Grove was studied and age-class distributions were created by forest ecologists who wanted to know its structure and composition. They found that the brunt of old-growth pine was approximately the same age, ~347 years old this year, hence the name 1675 Grove. This suggests that a natural disturbance likely occurred prior to germination such as a micro-burst like the one that devastated the region in 1995. What resulted is a grove consisting of a lot of monstrous trees fairly close together.

P. strobus shoots high above the shade tolerant red spruce (Picea pungens), with one tree over close to 160 feet tall and 13 feet in circumference, making it nearly the tallest tree in New York state! Large black cherry (Prunus serotina), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), yellow birch (Betula allegheniensis) are some of the more dominant associates. I was surprised to find little to no evidence of pine seedlings and saplings, hinting at the possibility of a changing forest.

The bark has a much different appearance than younger pines, even mature pines that are near 200 years old. Virgin pine has deeply furrowed bark with deep fissures and a disproportionately small crown in relation to its overall size, reminding me of giant sequoia trees. There is some crown shyness offering protection to limbs of this relatively soft-wood species. Expansive buttresses help anchor the advantageous root system into the sandy, well-drained soil they prefer. They are straight as an arrow with self pruned lower branches, and they are seldom plum to the ground, giving an appearance of a sort-of "drunken" permafrost forest.

As an ecologist, I also know that big trees are not all that make up a true virgin forest system. Old-growth stands characteristically have unkempt signs of natural disturbance such as tip-up mounds left by roots that create uneven ground, or large standing dead trees that died of old age. It's hard to believe a tree so massive could be supported by such underwhelming shallow roots.

In this forest, many trees snapped near the base, likely from the micro-blast of 1995 that downed thousands of acres of old-growth forest in the Adirondacks. Natural disturbances like this open up the canopy for regeneration of other trees, and the dead and decaying wood adds nutrients to the soil. 

Virgin forests in the northeast have all but disappeared, and many paint an accurate picture of what the Native Americans, first pioneers, and sawyers saw. They offer a pathway back in time, a spiritual connection, and a laboratory to scientists. But with humans aside, they are simply an intrinsic beauty to behold if not only for their rarity today. Some land is just meant to be preserved - like this tract - free from direct large-scale human disturbance. I hope that after reading this post, you will agree.