Sunday, June 15, 2008

Zealand Falls Hut and its situation

Six days into our summer, the Zealand Falls Hut croo has yet to hit the trail, due to time spent opening the hut and, more recently, poor weather. Beyond a Mountain Classroom group that spent a couple of nights, we’ve barely had any guests and are spending most of our time in the croo room above the kitchen, reading, eating, and sleeping.

Only 2.5 miles from an access road, Zealand is the most accessible of the huts, and its situation, though not as dramatic as Galehead’s, is beautiful and interesting. Directly to the south is Zealand Notch, which leads into the vast (for New Hampshire) Pemigewasset Wilderness, where I spent many weeks doing trail maintenance while a teenager at camp. On a clear day, you can see from our porch through the notch to Mt. Carrigain, a massive, lonely peak. Its fire tower, no longer in use, has the most wild and inspiring views in the Whites, at least to my eyes.

The rock around here is mostly Conway granite, which possesses a distinctive white hue due to its high content of orthoclase feldspar. About 200 million years ago, Pangaea, the “original” supercontinent split apart, causing volcanism and a great deal of magma to swirl towards the earth’s surface. Some of it cooled underground, which meant that it hardened slowly into large crystals. This, of course, is a distinctive trait of granite.

Runoff has gradually but steadily eroded the old rock formations so that the granite, originally buried, is now exposed in many places. Various ice ages and their associated periods of glaciation have also left their mark. 50,000 years ago, continental ice sheets up to a mile thick extended across this entire region. The rock around Zealand Notch was probably already weak from streamflow, but the glaciers carved the pass into its distinctive U-shape as they moved southward.

The east side of the notch is highly eroded. In fact, Whitewall Mountain, as it is named, gets its moniker from the crumbling Conway Granite on its flank. The trail through the notch is clearly visible through the fallen rock; it is remarkably straight and wide, which betrays its origin. The region around Zealand was extensively logged between 1880 and 1897 by the notorious JE Henry, who later moved his operation to Lincoln, from which he ransacked the southern Pemigewasset.

Henry based his operation at the junction of what is now the Zealand Road and Route 302, where he built a company town named Zealand. From here, he extended his railway south, eventually extending through the notch. The sites of his logging camps are hard to pin down, but I am told the remains of an old locomotive are strewn about at the bottom of the notch. Henry’s engines were wood-fired, which proved disastrous because they threw off so many sparks. Given the amount of “slash,” debris leftover from the logging operation, it was inevitable that fire should break out. Two enormous fires, in 1886 and 1903, burned thousands of acres in the valley. More importantly for Henry, a fire in 1897 consumed the town of Zealand, which spurred him to move the business to Lincoln. Apparently the lesson he took from the experience was to exclusively employ clearcutting rather than leave valuable timber to be consumed by fire.

In any case, one of the fires that swept through the notch was so intense that it burned up all the organic material in some places, leaving nothing but bedrock. The slope is steep enough that no soil has accumulated in the years since.

The hut gets its name from the waterfall within earshot to the south. While this brook empties through the notch, there are a pair of beaver ponds to the north which serve as the headwaters of the Zealand River. While the beavers move around from year to year, they have a dramatic affect on the landscape of the valley. Apparently the rushing sound of water motivates them to gnaw trees, though I would love to know how exactly researchers proved this point. Beavers are much more mobile in the water, which is why they construct dams, and they feed on the twigs and shoots of the trees they fell. They are a primary source of disturbance in valley ecosystems, infusing their pond areas with new growth and attracting animals that feed on pond vegetation such as moose.

Just above the ponds, across the notch from the hut, the crown damage on white birch is plainly visible. Many birch were severely damaged during an ice storm that hit New England about ten years ago. While they weren’t necessarily killed outright, trees suffered many broken limbs, allowing parasites access to their interior. Disease is now finishing off many survivors. Additionally, birch, being a pioneer species, colonized the area after the logging and fires of the Henry era. A century on, they are now being replaced by slow-growing, shade tolerant species such as balsam fir.

Evidently, the Zealand Notch area is subject to a variety of influences—ecological, meteorological, geological, and human. While it is typically human to exclaim over the changes in landscape we last observed it, we forget the dynamism of the forces affecting the exterior of the planet.