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TrekEast Blog 59: Hiking and Crawling the Mahoosucs

Slipping into Maine

Late September 2011

If you expect to be let down after hiking north out of the spectacular Presidential Range (pictured right) of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, you may be startled by the rugged beauty of the Mahoosuc Range, extending north and east into Maine.  Though more modest in stature than their famous neighbors to the southwest, the Mahoosucs include craggy faces, sweeping vistas, alpine heath communities above 3500 feet, one mountain above 4000 feet (Old Speck 4180), and “the toughest mile of the Appalachian Trail” – Mahoosuc Notch, where hikers, including me, are slowed to a crawl, by a long stretch of huge boulders through which a biped with a backpack must use every available tactic and handhold to traverse.

Recreationally, then, the Mahoosucs are loved and respected by hikers, skiers and climbers.  Ecologically, they provide critical habitat connections in all directions, particularly east-west across the New Hampshire-Maine border.  Being north of the White Mountains, their boreal habitats begin a bit lower, as I would find hiking for miles mostly through alpine heath from Goose Eye (about 3800’) through South Peak (3300+’).  At the latitude of northern New Hampshire, nearly halfway north from the Equator to the Pole, a botanist can find bogs with boreal affinities even at low elevations.

For a botanically challenged hiker like me, who can scarcely distinguish leatherleaf from Labrador tea, feeling the boreal affinities is aided by a quick plunge into a mountain pond.  Indeed, a rusty blackbird atop a black spruce was my unexpected audience as I emerged, a bit boggy but otherwise cleaner, from Page Pond, just north of the Mahoosuc and Appalachian Trail.  My only good look at a rusty blackbird prior to this was two summers ago in a bog near the Noatak River in Alaska’s Arctic.  Rusty blackbirds are among the boreal birds whose populations are declining in many areas, perhaps in part due to climate chaos, so I felt fortunate to espy this fine bird, whose short call notes were almost like chuckles at my flopping out of the water.

In general, boreal birds have been exceptionally tolerant of me as I’ve been trudging through their habitats in recent weeks.  I’ve already mentioned the spruce grouse, boreal chickadees, Bicknell’s thrush, American pipits, common loon, and pine grosbeak I saw in the White Mountains.  In the Mahoosucs, in addition to the rusty blackbird, prize sightings have included white-winged crossbills, high in the spruce/fir zone of Mt Carlo; another pine grosbeak near the crossbills but on the ground; and two boreal chickadees so curious – maybe young of the year who’d never seen such a big ungainly creature before! – they flitted to within a yard of my face.  Now I’m scanning the bogs for Lincoln’s sparrows and the spruce forests for black-backed woodpeckers, other boreal bird species that may prove susceptible to warming climates.

My climb up Mahoosuc Arm and Old Speck also felt very boreal.  The cold rain chilled me despite the steep pitches, and the summit ridges were wild and windy, with fog swirling thick around and strong gusts forcing me to cling carefully to the slippery rock outcrops.  Descending into Maine’s Grafton Notch State Park in pouring rain, I did not realize till I was down and looking back up what dramatic granite faces tower above the road (Rt. 26) below.  These cliffs are habitat for peregrine falcons, so off-limits to climbing during nesting season.   Fortunately, most climbers are conscientious about not disturbing wildlife, so the falcons are apparently doing fine, diving at speeds up to 200 mph to nail smaller birds amidst some of New England’s grandest scenery.

Hiking in middle elevations of both the White Mountains and Mahoosucs, I was occasionally seeing scat piles full of American mountain-ash and other berries: fisher, Martes pennanti, I guessed.  The fisher’s more boreal mustelid cousin the marten, Martes americana, should also be here, along with smaller weasel species.   M. americana, warned a study by Carlos Carroll for Wildlands Network then Wildland Project, some years back, could be vulnerable to a combination of industrial logging, climate warming, and trapping.  Marten (pictured right, photo www.masterimages.orgdo best in forests with big old trees and downed logs, deep snow in winter, and no leg-hold traps.  Where I live, in the Adirondacks, the population is isolated from other marten populations, and thus if trapping continues and snowpacks diminish and private lands are heavily logged, we could lose this adorably cute but effective predator.

A thought about boreal species and climate change:  Some might question the wisdom of advocating for marten or rusty blackbird or other animals that could appear doomed at the southern reaches of their native ranges as climate warms.  I would urge fellow conservationists to keep striving to protect and restore these species wherever they are native and hope remains.  The larger and more widespread their populations, and the better connected their habitats, the more likely they are to be able to adapt to human-induced climate change and find their climate envelopes, in one area or another. 

Moreover, biologist Dave Gravotsky remarked while we looked last week at the Mud Pond bog near Randolph, New Hampshire, some climate models suggest that after a period of warming, northern regions near the Atlantic Coast could actually grow colder again, as melting of the polar ice floods the ocean with fresh water and essentially shuts down the Gulf Stream.  (Whereafter, jolly old England may have the climate of Labrador!)  Dave also noted that alpine plants high in the White Mountains have endured several warming periods since the last Ice Age.  If we give wildlife the space and connections, many species will be able to weather the coming climate chaos.  Of course, this is no reason to cease demanding reductions in carbon emissions; just more reason to work for big wild interconnected habitats.

The Mahoosucs, then, should provide good habitat and sturdy connections for species that were extirpated decades ago but that might, if we do our work well, return to the White Mountains and beyond from Canada and the Maine Woods .  If we restore adequate forest connections, the wolf and lynx, for two critical examples, might regain viability in the sparsely populated Maine North Woods, then work their ways south and west into the White Mountains, Green Mountains, Adirondacks and so forth.  The Mahoosucs would be a crucial link in such a rewilding process, and should offer ample habitat themselves for at least a few cougars and lynx and a wolf pack or two – perhaps even for that ultimate wilderness wanderer, Gulo gulo, the wolverine! 

Maybe one day, intrepid hikers on snowshoes will have the chance, as they flail their way through deep snow and hidden air pockets in Mahoosuc Notch, to find a safe line along wisely-placed wolverine tracks (pictured left, photo by www.masterimages.org), or to glimpse a snowshoe hare darting through the spruce trees upslope with a lynx in hot pursuit!  Maybe on one of your sunset hikes into the alpine heath north of the Goose Eyes, you’ll chance upon a young cougar feasting on the old buck he has just taken down; or glassing the distant ridgeline, you’ll see a pack of wolves keeping the moose moving!

For the Wild,

John 

 

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