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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Exploring Big Reed Forest Reserve - New England’s Largest Virgin Forest

Those who know me well know I have a penchant for exploring virgin eastern deciduous forests (i.e. my posts on virgin forests of the Smoky Mountains, White Mountains, and Adirondacks). They paint a picture of what America looked like prior to European settlement and, to me, there is nothing that peaks my imagination more. Rampant forest clearing in the 19th century has made virgin forests (forests that were never logged) so sparse that not even all forest communities are represented in such a way anymore. Thankfully, Big Reed Forest Rereserve in Piscataquis county (Abanaki word meaning "at branch of river"), owned by The Nature Conservancy, was protected and exists in northern Maine some 38 miles away from the nearest town. It occurs in the center of a heavily logged forest where the majority of visitors are loggers and bear hunters, reachable only via 50 miles of unpaved logging roads or by float plane. This relatively small 98 acre kettle pond is unique for having arctic grayling, arctic char and blue-black trout - a species only known to 14 Maine water bodies. Although I love fishing, I left my fishing gear behind; on this day, I was after New England's largest contiguous virgin forest (5,000 acres) across the pond, which makes up two-thirds of New England's old growth.

It began at 3am when I left the Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket owned and operated by Paul Sanders or "Ole Man" - his trail name. The lodge was filled with Appalachian Trail thru hikers who were about to summit Katahdin to finish their long journey from Georgia. I headed north three hours on unpaved dirt roads where the occasional logging truck flew by. My sense of awe grew as the sun came over the rolling hills filled with the most brilliant peak foliage imaginable.

After 80 miles of driving, the road took me to a laminated The Nature Conservancy (TNC) sign that read, "Recreational boat storage at Big Reed Pond is not allowed. . . Please use complementary canoe that is stored at the end of trail." It was an exhilarating and comforting feeling being so far away from civilization knowing that only a handful of people know about this place, and that I have arrived. I couldn't wait to explore.

I grabbed my paddle and headed down the lightly maintained path until I reached a Big Reed Forest Reserve sign overlooking the crystal clear pond. What a sight to see!

I couldn't have asked for better mid-October weather with 61 degrees, sunny and light breeze. I hopped in an aluminum canoe courtesy of TNC and paddled all along the pond's edge. I saw fish surfacing, dragonflies buzzing, whirligig beetles haphazardly moving on the water's surface. The foliage was as bright as could be in the surrounding hillsides, and white cedar, tall white pine and red spruce lined the pond's edge. Nature was the only sound I could hear.

I landed the canoe along the northern edge of the pond and headed north slowly admiring the forest until I reached the logging road 3/4 of a mile away. I was greeted with a gradient of forest types from towering red spruce-white pine, mixed woods dominated by sugar maple and yellow birch, and ancient white cedar forests. On the south facing slope of a moraine with Telos-Chesuncook-Ragmuff association soils, I encountered this mixed woods scene.

Having visited several virgin forests throughout the country, I knew to expect characteristics that, when taken together, are are common to virgin forests in America. For example, most virgin forests seem to all have tall, straight trees of uneven ages with exception to alpine zones. Whole trees are snapped like toothpicks by wind creating forest gaps for other trees to regenerate.

Virgin forests also have a high abundance of downed trees that have fallen over naturally. Here, they were strewn everywhere and often times stacked on top of each other like lincoln logs. As ecologists, we call this coarse woody debris - a crucial part of a high functioning forest system.

Trees were completely uprooted in many areas causing tip-up mounds - another characteristic of virgin forests. Over time, a forest floor will exhibit an uneven surface creating micro topography and niches for many species. Tip-up mounds are very prevalent in this forest perhaps because of having low topographical relief (thus, no protection from strong winds). Notice the sugar maple in the background. They are straight as an arrow and over likely over 150 feet tall. A researcher found some around 400 years old!

As trees die of old age or snap from the force of microburst winds, they begin the slow process of decaying, becoming homes and food sources for wildlife. Pileated woodpeckers have gone to town on this tree looking for insects. Eventually, wildlife species will utilize the cavities for homes if they haven't already.

Over time, coarse woody debris covers the forest floor at various levels of decomposition. Moss, lichens and fungi first move in. Moss retains water - the universal solvent - on the log like a sponge; the fungi and lichens decompose it. As this happens, nutrients are released providing a perfect place for seedlings to grow. We ecologists call these nurse logs. Nurse logs are another common trait in American forests from coast to coast.

Although we can expect certain characteristics in any true American virgin forest, there are also unique features that differ from forest to forest. These nuances are what capture my interest the most: the diversity of tree species, wildflowers, anthropocentric pressures, wildlife dynamics, size of trees and other facets that differ across the country with changing latitude and longitude. 

Big Reed Forest Preserve has a tree canopy consisting of late-successional northern hardwoods tree species. Northern hardwoods is a broad forest community that forms a tension zone between the oak-hickory forest to the south and boreal forest to the north, so there is a healthy mix of deciduous and evergreen species. Another virgin forest somewhat nearby is The Bowl Research Center in the white mountains, NH. There, similar species are present except for such large white cedars and hop hornbeam and that forest is protected from wind by Mount Passaconway and Whiteface while this site displays evidence of a lot of wind disturbance. Thus, even in virgin forests of the same general community type, there are many subtle differences based on species ranges, soils, climate, herbivory, ect. I was pleasantly surprised to see such large and tall deciduous trees so far north.


Take this towering sugar maple for example. In a virgin forest with topography, you can leave your compass at home. The moss clings to the northeastern side of the tree where it exhibits cool, damp conditions longest throughout the day. On southwest facing slopes, the leaves are crunchier and species composition differs. For example, here, the sugar maples were the biggest I had encountered. Sugar maples are shade tolerant and depend on forest gaps to be released. they can be suppressed for years in the understory before shooting up quickly. Foresters and ecologists call this "advanced regeneration."

Yellow birch is similar in that they exhibit an intermediate tolerance to shade. Thus, they flourish in forests that have sporadic disturbances and canopy openings, but can also do well in shade. As you can see, this forest seems to have a lot of sugar maples at the seedling level and not in the sapling level - we'll get into that later.

The red spruce are large and straight but not as large as they could be thanks to the eastern spruce budworm. They are as big as those I encountered in a virgin forest at 5 ponds wilderness in the Adirondacks, which are not very large relative to some hardwoods on this site. The budworm is native to North America and has devastated balsam fir as well. 

The white cedars here are very large and old. Cedar are slow growing. Groves here congregate around water, whether on the edge of Big Reed Pond or along seeps.

One of the most unique traits of this particular forest is the abundance of very large and old hop hornbeam trees. A researcher recorded one in this vicinity at around 289 years old! This tree grew tall and straight reaching the sub canopy. In all my time in a forest, I've never encountered such large hornbeams, which provide some of the toughest wood in eastern North America. You would be hardpressed to find this species large and old enough to form buttressed roots anywhere else in the country.

Virgin forests consist of more than just trees. Lichens, mosses, fungi and herbaceous plants were all around and in high diversity. I've never seen so many tree lungwort lichens. Look how big and vibrant this one is! 

The most striking trait of this forest was the sheer abundance and amount of fungal species. They were nearly everywhere, and that's only for species seen above ground. I can only imagine the diversity in mycorrhizal fungi clinging to plant roots. The coarse woody debris, untouched soils, and moisture held below the canopy all aid in fungal diversity. This mushroom is called "honey mushroom," a devastating parasite of trees that forms white rot. However, like eastern spruce budworm, this species is native and has been around for thousands of years.

They were found on living trees and dead logs including these poisonous jack-o-lanterns, which closely resemble edible chanterelles. This species has been shown to glow in the dark.

But what's with all the sugar maple saplings? And why are they sparse in the sapling level?

As they say, the proof is in the pudding. Moose have increased greatly since the Europeans arrived and hunted their main predator - the grey wolf. Wolves were once abundant throughout much of the country. Today, no wolves or wolf packs exist in the state of Maine. As a result, moose have greatly increased and prefer sugar maple. This forest will see the effects for years to come as less palatable species will gain a competitive advantage over sugar maple. Nancy Sferra, Director of Stewardship and Ecological Management at TNC's Maine chapter, says that moose mortality the past several years is around 70% on yearlings because of winter tick. She hopes for some recovery of vegetation with reduced moose populations.

Another change caused by humans - even in such a remote virgin forest - is the loss of American beech from the canopy due to beech bark disease. The disease was spread by humans from Europe and has decimated the beech population here. However, you can still see some infected saplings and the beech drops plant - a plant that is parasitic the the American beech - feeding on decomposing beech roots below.

As I head out of the forest, I can't help but to take a moment to admire this gem in autumn. 

The tall, old cathedral of trees displayed here nearly as they were prior to European settlement.

As I hopped in the canoe to head back, I admired the old gnarly white cedars. I'm very thankful for the opportunity to experience this wonderful place. Thank you to Robert L. Crowell who donated 1,000 acres of the preserve to The Nature Conservancy to help protect it. May it exist forever as it was intended, and may the effects of humans keep out.

Alas, another dot to connect the puzzle of what America looked like previous to European settlement. After doing my thesis in a hemlock splash community with virgin stands, exploring the virgin stands in the heart of the Adirondacks, white mountains, smoky mountains and now Big Reed Forest Reserve, some characteristics stand out to me. First, all of these had similar traits associated with virgin forests. The composition consisted of late successional species and the structure entailed uneven aged stands with an abundance of coarse woody debris. Nurse logs, tip-up mounds, trees snapped from wind; and tall, straight and old trees dominated. These systems had low to no observed exotic invasive plant species. Nuanced differences from forest to forest pertained to range differences of species. However, perhaps the most glaringly obvious and disheartening observation is that, even in the most remote tracts, the anthropocentric influences are conspicuous. Whether it's higher moose or deer herbivory because of wolf extirpation, competition from invasive plant species, exotic pests and pathogens that have taken the American chestnut, American beech and threaten ash and hemlock - even our most protected vestiges of wild America are diminishing. We need to do all we can to study the common and nuanced differences of such forests before they change.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The White Mountains and their 48 4,000 Footers

I may not have it all, but I'm thankful everyday for knowing what my passions are and wholeheartedly pursuing them any chance I get. From an early age, I developed a true love for the outdoors while living in southern New Hampshire. My family and I lived on the boarder of woodlands and a drive in any direction yielded mouth-dropping vista views. Some of my earliest memories are of my father pointing out the old man in the mountain (since collapsed) from the car window on route 93. I sure never lost my love of nature, nor nostalgia for the granite state. Fast forward a quarter century and you'd find me daydreaming of a way to recharge after a long week of School in Ohio. That's where my quest for completing the 48 4,000 footers began. Always with a camera in hand and an eye for the ecology, I set out to bag peaks one by one solo or with anyone who would join.

On a weekend in mid-October 2016, one of my closest adventure friends, Kaitlin Lipka, and I convinced ourselves that it would be worth it to drive from Ohio to New Hampshire non-stop to complete the presidential traverse for our first taste of the White Mountains. Although we only made it halfway to Mount Washington, it was more than we could've imagined! Looking back through social media, Kaitlyn wrote this of the trip: "A spontaneous weekend trip out to the White Mountains NH with Michael Whittemore consisting of 28 hrs drive time, 12 miles of hiking, 10,000' elevation gain and 5 summits... New Hampshire has won my heart, what a beautiful place!" I couldn't have said it better. After a food stop at the Mount Washington visitor center, we were off.

Only a few months later, my father and I took a trip to Lincoln, NH to do Mount Lafayette during winter. At this point, the white mountains were still very intimidating to us, especially during winter. Dad had a huge bag filled with equipment like knives, a stove and warm clothes, and I carried up a down sleeping bag. Along the way, we met up with two Japanese woman who were clearly seasoned hikers. They snickered at us the whole way up. With poor visibility at the top, we turned back before reaching summit but had a great time nonetheless. The old growth birch forest along the bridal trail was a site to see.

Nearly one year later, I was getting antsy in grad school and needed a trip to recharge. I was due back to Massachusetts for the holidays so I brought my winter hiking gear. One day in early January, I spontaneously checked the weather and saw that the windchill was only -4; it's closer to -50+ some days in January, so I took advantage. I did a solo hike from Pinkham Notch on Lions Head trail. At one point, I was less than a mile from the top when I began losing my tracks. The visibility was terrible and the temperature was dropping. I sat in the same spot for 10 minutes contemplating whether to turn back- an eternity above treeline on Mount Washington during winter. I was ready to turn back when two french Canadian's were hiking up the path. We ended up pushing through to reach the summit for one of my most memorable experiences. We slid on our butts all the way down the trail.

By the time I'd make it back to the mountains, I would be living in my home state of Massachusetts having recently accepted a research position with Woods Hole Research Center and living with my then girlfriend, Ashley. She and I set out on the 4th of July 2017 to hike Mount Washington. Little did we know, we'd be walking into a peak display of alpine flora along the great gulf wilderness. Pin cushion plant, Bigelow's sedge and alpine azalea are just a few of the plants we saw. As we got closer to Mount Washington, we heard loud cars. It turned out that Jay Leno had a vintage car race up there so we got to hangout around him in the visitor's center. We ended the trip with a ride on the Cog railroad where the last piece of snow in the eastern US was hanging by a thread on Tuckerman's Ravine.

Like every early October in recent memory,  I turned my sights to an annual autumn trek. This time around, I set out to do Mount Carrigan alone. The fall colors were extraordinary below 3,500ft with snow above. The tamaracks were yellow, and the Kancamangus highway was ablaze. I stayed at the White Mountains Hostel before heading back.

A year later in 2018, my friend Kristen were looking for some color on Mount Tom, Field and Willey. We found dozens of mushrooms for dinner - chanterelles, oysters, and angel wings. Along the way, I saw my first gray jay and fed them (and red squirrels) by hand. The colors were gorgeous beneatht eh low overcast of fall.

The following day, I picked my friend Mimi up at t south station; she took a bus from Brooklyn, NY to help me hike the Hancocks and Oseolas. What we thought would be an easy fall hike turned into a trek through a foot of snow, which was the first winter storm of the year. International Mountain Equipment had all the snow gear we needed to finish the trip. Between hiking out in the dark, waiting hours for a plow truck to bail us out of a multi-car pile-up on the Kancamangus, and the many miles we put in, the chicken alfredo meal we prepared at the hostel hit the spot!

By this point, winter hiking had really grown on me. I took a trip out a month later to meet my friend Dane to do Carter Dome. Dane had some faulty gloves, which made the hike slow in the friged weather, but we got it done. Near the top, I saw my first snow-shoe hare! I was surprised how big they are. We passed through Carter Notch Hut to refuel and on we went. The next day, I met up with my friend Julia - an employee at a high school in my hometown, to tackle Passaconway and Whiteface. I noticed large balsam firs along the ridge and realized one of the only virgin forests lay beneath us in The Bowl Research Center, which I would later explore on another trip seen here.


During the holidays, I got away for a few days before Christmas to tackle the rest of the presidential range with Julia. The temperature was -35 with gusts of winds around -75 - hurricane level. We suited up, parked our cars in separate places, and started early. The views of this trip were second to none with bluebird skies and wispy clouds from the heavy winds. It was a day we knew we couldn't make any mistakes, and we left no skin exposed. As we approached her car on the way down, she realized she left her keys in her car forcing us to hitch-hike back. But nothing could dampen our spirits after such a beautiful, arduous hike!

March 1, I met up with my friend Hallie and a group of hikers to do the Bond-Zealand traverse. Having never looked up the specs of the hike, I didn't know what to expect. All I knew is that I would be helping to break trail. In retrospect, I now know that this is one of the toughest hikes in the range, especially in winter. The terrain, spruce traps (weaks spots in deep snow where spruce saplings lay, and sheer distance (25 miles) made it a doozy, but it was a blast and I got to meet new faces. Yes, the middle picture shows the snow near the blaze on the tree! Along the way, we bumped into the Herr family, a mom and her two daughters, who are well known for their experiences in the white mountains. There is a book about them, in fact. Hallie and I booked it and got out of the woods by 9pm. What made it more difficult for me was the fact that I did the Tripyramids the day before - ouch!

By this point, I saw the end in sight so I took a vacation to tackle the remaining 15 peaks in 8 days rain or shine. I met multiple people up there and stayed in either The Notch Hostel in Lincoln or The White Mountains Hostel in North Conway. I started out meeting Emily at the trail head to Cabot. We had some juice left and hit Waumbek in the rain. Big miles meant a big takeout meal from an Italian restaurant in Lincoln.

The next day, I did the Franconia Ridge Traverse to snag Lafayette, Lincoln, Liberty and Flume. All in all, it was an 18 mile hike since I wasn't brave enough to take flume slide trail down. The views were amazing along the Appalachian Trail, with a vibrant lenticuluar cloud perched above the hut.

By this time, Mel - my former classmate from Ohio - flew out from Atlanta to get in on the action. Mel was always a great friend in Ohio and I always enjoy her company and laid back/positive attitude. We hit up North Twin together but hked 5 miles extra because Haystack Road was gated off. So, she hung out at North Twin while I ran to South Twin. The views couldn't have been better and met some new faces from Massachusetts along the way. With the exception of Mel losing her water bottle on the water crossing, and the rocky and strenuous hike, it was a great day!

The next day, My friend Dane drove up from Concord to crush Owl's Head. I've heard that it would be a tough hike and now I can see why. It's situated in the heart of the Pemigawessett Wilderness. The trail is basically miles of flat ground and they very steep climbs at the end. However, we were rewarded near the top with Rhodora blooming alongside round leaved sundew. A cold beer made the trip down easier but by that point, my feet were feeling it. I finished most of the trip back barefoot! 

 For me, the toughest hike of them all came on my second to last day doing the Kinsman-Cannon loop. Wow, what a wet hike! My feet were raw and muscles tight by this point. Elyse drove in from Manchester to get these under her belt as she would be finishing her 48 a few weeks later. Although the vista views never appeared, this was a challenging and fun hike!

 Last but not least, my good friend Dan came in from East Kingston with his dog Abby to do Mount Isolation via Glen Boulder trail. We started the trail with 100% cloud cover but were rewarded at the top with a break in overcast. I can now see why everybody finishes on Isolation! Mount Washington behind you and mountains for as long as the eyes can see in front! Poor Dan thought it would only be a few miles each way but I pulled a Dan Cline and didn't give him details beforehand. 12 miles later, we were back in the parking area sipping beers. On my way back, I was detoured around route 2 as the infamous motorcycle crash that killed 7 happened a couple hours ahead of me.

I've never been one to set out to complete lists like this but, to me, there wasn't one mountain that wasn't enjoyable. From the abundant wildlife, northern plants, forest communities to the great people and memories along the way - this ranks as one of my most memorable experiences. I'm already thinking of the 111 New England 4,000 footers! Above all else, I'm so thankful to have these passions passed down from my parents and grandparents.