Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Black Mountain's Boreal Bonnet

     The plan was a quick climb of Black Mountain. At 2646 feet it is Washington County's highest. The hike is five miles round trip with a little over 1000 feet of ascent.
     We started from the Pike Brook Road trailhead in the Town of Dresden. A few tentative steps on the trail and I could see that snowmobiles had created a packed, smooth surface.
     "We don't need snowshoes," was my assessment.
     Gwenne countered, "What if they don't go to the top. The snow will be deep."
     She already had hers strapped on (Guinness Book of World Record holders are fast at everything) and I had to concede she was probably right.
     Much grumbling and fumbling followed as I tried to get the web and hooks puzzle of the Sherpas to tighten onto my Mickey Mouse boots. Finally, the hardest part of the climb accomplished, we clumped out of the parking lot and up the trail.
     The path was so firm and level, it was like walking on a snow paved sidewalk. Can you remember the last time you saw anyone wearing snowshoes on a sidewalk? After a mile or so Gwenne said, "We don't need these, let's take them off."
     Still smarting from the ordeal of getting into the tangled bindings, I protested, though I knew she was right. Free of her burden she practically floated up the mountain while I stubbornly waddled on, slipping backward whenever the pitch steepened.
     Towards the top I wanted a close-up photo of a fir and spruce highlighting the difference between them. "I can't get this blanking camera to focus," I fumed.
     Gwenne calmly said, "You have to push the Macro button."
     She was right of course, so I handed her the camera and she got a perfect shot. Anyone know where the phrase "Better half" comes from?

     Despite the shortcomings of our teams male component with had a fun hike. I've been reading Peter Marchand's North Woods - An Inside Look at the Nature of Forests in the Northeast and I wanted to see a spruce-fir woodland up close. Most of Washington County's forests are hardwoods with some hemlock and white pine mixed in. Only on a few of the peaks along Lake George are the conditions right for the boreal conifers that become common further north and higher in elevation.
     The trail starts at a height of 1600 feet and I noted grey and paper birch, ash, beech and maple with some hemlock. As we climbed I began to see small red spruces which gradually became larger and more numerous. Hemlock seemed to drop out of the mix just as small balsam firs began to appear. The firs were never a big part of the forest in either size or number. Yellow birch became the most common deciduous tree on the upper slopes, liberally filling in gaps amongst the spruces.
     The ecological concept of natural communities provides a way to understand the changing make-up of the forest on Black Mountain. At any given site a specific set of environmental conditions related to soil, water and climate will tend to result in a similar grouping of plants and to a lesser extent, animals. As you ascend the mountain the climate becomes colder, windier and wetter while the soils are thinner, more acidic and nutrient deficient. Spruce and fir are better adapted to these conditions so that is what we see near the top. Ecologists everywhere are sobbing at my gross simplification, but this is just a little blog, not a book.
     The top of Black Mountain is a mixed blessing. There's a communication tower and solar panels behind a chain link fence plus an adjacent windmill that can be downright scary at times. But there are also great views of the north basin of Lake George stretching up to Anthony's Nose and Rogers Rock.

     A young guy came up on a snowmobile while we were there and we had fun sharing adventure stories. He had rode up from Lake George Village and celebrated his first time on Black with an Angry Orchard. He told us about canoeing the length of the lake last summer while training for the
     Gwenne enjoyed visualizing the small part of her mom's swim that we could see from this vantage point and I recalled a trip from long, long ago. With two buddies I had canoed down from Huletts Landing to Black Mountain Point in an old Grumann. We climbed the mountain and noticed that a breeze had kicked up. By the time we got back down the lake was a frenzy of whitecapped waves. Three in the boat would have been suicide so the youngest and toughest volunteered to bushwhack up the shoreline while Bill and I trusted our lives to aluminum. We all made it, we were all beat and yes, we shared a few beers after that outing.
     The wild lands on the east side of Lake George are fertile ground for naturalists, adventurers and artists. I was struck by how often Black Mountain showed up in paintings at the Wild Nature exhibit currently hanging at the Hyde Museum. I know I'll be back often, exploring the many natural communities found here and taking lots of close-up photos (just press the Macro button!). And I won't be wearing snowshoes, not unless my wife tells me to.

Community Insight
     To prove to my ecologist friends that I'm not a total reprobate, here are some good sources of information on natural communities:
     Wetland, Woodland, Wildland - A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont by Elizabeth H. Thompson and Eric R. Sorenson.
     North Woods - An Inside Look at the Nature of Forests in the Northeast by Peter J. Marchand.

     Also, we are fortunate to have one of the leading authorities on New York State's natural communities living here in Washington County. Greenwich's Greg Edinger is the Chief Ecologist with the New York Natural Heritage Program. Greg leads occasional field trips in our area. If you hear of one, by all means go. You can also view his work by clicking here.

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