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TrekEast Blog 56: Creeping into New Hampshire’s White Mountains

Scout’s warnings and thanks:

The next few blogs may be mercilessly long, but they will be followed by quiet stretches.  As I near the end of this wildways trek, I’ll oft be in remote areas free of internet access, and I’ll need to cover many hundreds of miles in cooling weather and shortening days before, I hope, reaching the tip of Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula by mid November.  Many thanks and great gratitude to all of you who have followed or supported TrekEast in some way.  By the end of this journey, I shall have scores of friends, family members, and colleagues to personally thank for making possible this Eastern Wildway ramble.  Whether or not I can stay in touch during the next couple months, please keep following the trek, as Conrad Reining and other Wildlands Network friends will be writing stories on the areas through which the trek is passing.  Moreover, the work for an Eastern Wildway will continue.  Next year, drawing from what TrekEast has taught us, we shall redouble our efforts to create a network of people protecting a network of wildlands from Florida to the Gaspe.

Overcome by Autumn

Mid to late September 2011

The hardest thing about this trek has been saying goodbye.  Ever and anon, I must say farewell to friends and colleagues I may not see again for years, farewell to places I may not see again in this lifetime, farewell to trees who may get cut down and birds who may thereby lose their homes, and farewell to furry creatures who may soon get run over – life so parlous in this broken world.  The partings feel especially poignant when I set off alone again, hiking or paddling to get into the heart of safer, natural habitats, but half wishing I could share the wild experience with some dear friend or family member; and particularly in that bittersweet transition as summer fades into autumn.  A few days in, though, the wholeness of the wilderness overcomes lingering sadness, and I am content to be a plain member of the biotic community, as Also Leopold prescribed, and grateful to my superiors who have made it possible for me to be here.

Here is now New Hampshire’s White Mountains, loftiest in the Northeast, with 48 peaks over 4,000 feet, including seven over 5,000 and one over 6,000: Mt. Washington the highest at 6,288 feet.   Although any eastern mountains seem modest compared to the Rockies, the relatively high latitude of the White Mountains, their rockiness and their position amidst storm tracks makes them potentially severe terrain, and famous for some of the most unpredictable weather in the world.  The weather station atop Mt. Washington has measured wind speeds of well over 200 miles per hour, some of the highest ever recorded.  After summer – and in the Northeast mountains, fall colors are fast creeping down-slope – a hiker must expect cold and be prepared for snow.

So must the wild animals, of course, and they seem to take it all in stride or stroke.  Red squirrels are busily gathering cones for their winter caches, bears are fattening on fall fruits, birds are adding grams of insect or fruit fuel for epic flights south, turtles and frogs are enjoying a few more weeks of intermittent basking and feeding before swimming to the bottoms of ponds and going to sleep in the sheltering muds….  Only a dwindling number of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, most of whom aim to be over the frigid Whites before it gets too cold, are going against the grain and the seasons to continue north this late in the year.

As I hike north on the Appalachian Trail (AT) into the White Mountains, I first reach snow atop Mt. Moosilaukee, a southern high-point in the Whites, at 4,800 feet.  Crisp clear air afforded me grand vistas in all directions.  North through the Presidentials (highest sub-range of the Whites) the land looks good and wild.  South it looks a bit more fragmented but still mostly forest.  Eastward, likewise, forest broken in places, especially near Lake Winnipesaukee, but still intact enough to give most animals room to roam, especially in the Ossipee Mountains.  West is the Connecticut Valley, heavily developed much of its length, especially southward, but with remnant strands of forest providing crucial east-west connections.  Expanding the Silvio Conte Connecticut River National Wildlife Refuge quickly emerges as a conservation priority, when looking out from thousands of feet above.

Two major breaks in the forest interrupted the otherwise wild walking – indeed, at times, difficult scrambling – of the AT north and east of Moosilaukee (pictured left) and west of I-93, which is the biggest break.  Route 112, the famed Kancamagus Highway, recently shut down temporarily by Hurricane Irene, takes motorists through some of New England’s greatest scenery.  Less forgivable, near Eliza Brook, a grotesque power-line cuts a cruel swath through the forest, going east to an industrial ski area, perhaps from a hydro-dam on the Connecticut?  Some intrepid hiker had aptly posted a notice on one of the poles saying NO NORTHERN PASS, highlighting a campaign against a huge new power-line, being led by concerned citizens publicizing their opposition through www.livefreeorfry.org. 

I will quickly opine here that existing power lines in the forest should be moved out to follow main roads, and no new power lines should be sited in undeveloped terrain.  Our forests are already too badly fragmented.  If new lines are needed to allow renewable power to come on line, they should be buried along existing main roads.  The “Northern Pass” would be particularly pernicious, as it would mean massive importation of power from Hydro Quebec, giving an incentive for more dam building in northern Quebec and a disincentive for local small-scale renewable energy sources.

Speaking of electricity generation, along with the Adirondack High Peaks, near where I live, New Hampshire’s White Mountains have been one of the areas hardest hit by acid rain – much of the pollution coming from coal-burning power plants upwind.  Strengthening amendments to the Clean Air Act have lessened but not eliminated this problem.  Apparently, Clean Air improvements have been enough to slow the killing of upper elevation trees, but not enough to prevent acid shock during spring runoff from poisoning some trout populations. (See www.adirondackcouncil.org for updates on efforts to force greater cuts in sulfur and nitrogen emissions from coal-burning power plants.)

The White Mountains are blessed with intermittent valleys and notches that were probably once extraordinarily productive of fish, fowl, and furred creatures.  Unfortunately, most of these valleys and notches have been fragmented with roads, which inevitably bring creeping development.  Hiking the Appalachian Trail through the White Mountains, you enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery and extensive alpine habitat in the East but about once a day you descend (on punishingly rocky & steep trail sections) thousands of feet and must cross a road, diminishing your sense of peace and quiet and, even more important, limiting the size of potential and designated Wilderness Areas in the Granite State. 

Going east and north after walking under I-93 (which Interstate made it all too easy for Boston elite to have ski homes in the Whites), you eventually enter the Pemigewasset Wilderness, which would be a world-class stronghold for the wild and free, were it not hemmed in by roads.  Nor does the Pemi even fill the existing roadless area, as it should.  Politics kept much of the land between Franconia and Pinkham Notches out of the designated Wilderness.  Indeed, New Hampshire’s Wilderness Areas – including the Pemigewasset, Sandwich Range, Dry River/Presidentials, and Great Gulf – appear to be delineated as much by trails as by roads.  That is a sad paradox; hiking is quite compatible with Wilderness protection and values; and trails should not be used as reason to exclude a wild area from Wilderness protection.  Whatever the reason for these unduly tight boundaries, they should be redrawn to fully protect each White Mountain National Forest roadless area as Wilderness (grandfathering in and cherry-stemming out, if need be, historic hikers’ huts).  With Wilderness thus expanded and with links maintained from the Monadnock Highlands (see last blog) northward along the western slopes of New Hampshire’s mountains and through the Ossipee and Sandwich Ranges, the White Mountains can be an anchor in a Northern Appalachian reserve system and part of a larger Eastern Wildway.

For the Wild,

John

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