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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.