Shurpike: Perfect day in every way

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dbhguru
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Shurpike: Perfect day in every way

Post by dbhguru » Sun Apr 25, 2010 2:11 pm

ENTS,

On April 24th, Monica and I climbed to the top of Clark Ridge in Mohawk Trail State Forest following the path of the historic 1790s Shunpike, a route laid out to avoid a toll road followed by the route of today’s River and Whitcomb Hill Roads. There are three historic trails in the area: the old Indian trial, now called the Mohawk Trail; the Turnpike; and the Shunpike.

My good friend DCR District Manager Tim Zelazo has been researching the Shunpike route and has placed markers along the way where washouts have obscured the original route. Tim and I walked part of the path in late March and both felt a sense of history as we walked and talked. Notable trees along the way stimulated our sense of history, including a scattering of old-growth hemlocks and white ashes, and a handsome yellow birch that just reaches 100 feet – an important height threshold for the species.

The day of our trek was picture-perfect--sunny, not too warm, not too cold. The black flies were pesky, but not yet biting. I was thankful that we didn’t have to douse ourselves with insect repellant. The swarming of the flies around our heads was a nuisance, but one well worth enduring for a chance to experience the unfolding of spring. It becomes a different matter when the little buggers begin sinking their teeth into your face and hands and draining you of your blood supply.

The iridescent green of the maples gave the forest a light, uplifting feeling, affirming for me that spring is the season of renewal. I began looking for an image to showcase the maples, which were set against the undistinguished colors of species not yet leafed out – principally oaks and ashes. Soon this seasonal spectacle of variegated colors will pass and the eyes will then behold a more uniform green. By mid-summer only experts will be able to distinguish the species at a distance. So, this time of year is provides excellent opportunities to recognize which species inhabit the mountainside and in what abundances.

The first image I will present was taken near our starting point at Zoar Gap. The view is what you see when on the Zoar Gap bridge looking across the Deerfield River and up onto the Todd-Clark ridge. The low point in the image is the gap between Todd and Clark, about 1530 feet elevation. The ridge has been a research site for years. It boasts a Rucker Height Index of over 130, a value that is achieved in an area of only 300 acres.
DeerfieldRiverSmall.jpg


The start of the climb up Clark Ridge begins just across the Zoar bridge. The old seldom-used trail passes through impressive northern red oaks and by a stand of bigtooth aspens that includes the 126-foot tall northeastern champion. The aspens are slender and only a seasoned veteran would take notice of them.

As we climbed higher, one attractive scene after another unfolded. Evidence of past human habitation is evident from old rock walls, a sign of the sheep-pasturing episode of the mid-1800s. But the forest has matured beautifully since a time when what is now forest was open fields that were nestled against the slopes of Clark Ridge.

Once we were well upon Clark Ridge, the views through the trees revealed the sharp profile of Negus Mountain which lies on the other side of the Deerfield River. The shape of Negus as seen from that area is pleasingly conical. In fact, all the landforms are striking. The steepness of the gorge at Zoar Gap suggests higher mountains than the modest topographical elevations confirm. The swift flowing Deerfield River just below Zoar Gap lies at an elevation of about 650 feet above sea level. The summit of Clark is listed on the latest terrain maps as 1,912. Todd Mountain at the end of the ridge complex is listed as 1,711 on older maps, and 1,702 on the latest ones.

The next two images show Negus Mountain as seen across the gorge at 1,773 feet elevation. Negus is seen through a veil of trees. The second image shows a lookout spot with a large glacial erratic in the center of the picture. That erratic is famous among dedicated hikers, who pause at the boulder to catch their breath after a challenging climb up from the river through dense mountain laurel. The laurel and rock outcroppings that have to be negotiated have turned more than a few casual hikers around. You earn the view from the erratic.

Negus is an old haunt of mine. It is a mountain long recognized as highly scenic by none less than the late Harvey Broome, past president of the Wilderness Society. When Broome climbed Negus it was in the 1960s, I think. He later wrote about the event in his book “Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies”. I recall that he made a comparison of the view from Negus with a famous view from his beloved Smoky Mountains. That comparison always excites me and confirms that our Berkshires are not to be easily dismissed. I sometimes wonder if Broome recognized that the forest he gazed into from the Negus side of the gorge is Mohawk Trail State Forest, which would one day be called the forest icon of Massachusetts? Did he recognize the line of ancient hemlocks along the Todd-Clark ridge that predated the arrival of European Americans to the area? Did he know that an old Indian trail runs along that summit ridge, a trail that saw Mohawk and Pocumtuck warriors; a trail that saw the likes of Benedict Arnold, General John Burgoyne, and many other persons of historical significance; a trail that was declared a well kept secret by none other than my friend Bill McKibben.
NegusThruTreesSmall.jpg
NegusRockSmall.jpg

Once Monica and I had climbed high up on the side of Clark, the sounds of the Deerfield River faded. Still, we could hear an occasional squeal of delight from a river rafter far below. But human sounds are muffled. On the slopes, one is surrounded by dense forest. One threads one’s way among rocks and ledges, which act as excellent sound bafflers. Nature asserts itself, especially when off trail. The convenience of a human-established path disappears. One pays close attention to every step. But on our route up Clark, we were following the Shunpike. It was a little rendezvous with history, a local history that we didn’t know, but could dimly imagine. For me, I could only envision endless toil. I felt a slight twinge of guilt, so casually walking on what had been hard labor for generations of early settlers. More recently, the route we walked was a jeep path for hunters. But last winter’s ice storm near the summit of Clark has shut the path to all but foot traffic – a good thing. The following image shows Monica on a short stretch of the Shunpike.
image007.jpg
As we continued up the Shunpike, I became engrossed in the numerous microhabitats that we saw. The slopes of Clark are dominated by trees, shrubs, and rocks, loges, tip up mounds, floral displays, and small streams. Here natural forms do not compete with human engineering. Nature draws one to the bosom of the mountain. We were in Clark’s world and the mountain presented its treasure of exquisite forms for our eyes to behold.

One treasure of the route up was an area literally saturated with Squirrel Corn. It reminded me of an ostentatious display of Dutchman’s Breeches on Flattop Mountain in Virginia. One expects floral shows of all kinds in the southern Appalachians, but displays such as we saw in the Berkshires are rare feasts to be savored. The dainty foliage and small white flowers called out to me, asking to be noticed and remembered.

Combinations of flowers, trees, or rocks are what I most enjoy. The next two scenes focus on picturesque rocks and trees – two out of three.
SacredRockSmall.jpg
image011.jpg


When in superlative forest, I become fixated on individual trees. I do not want human-created forms and sounds to interfere with the subtle stream of perceptions that the woodlands provide. I come to know and appreciate each tree, anticipating its presence from afar, when returning to a favored haunt. As a young person, full of youthful energy, the forest was often little more than a background that slid by my feet as my fast pace and labored breathing turned woodland outings into athletic endeavors. In such a state of mind, trees lose their individuality, becoming mere props to social and athletic events. But now older, and hopefully wiser, connections to trees develop quickly and become intensely personal. Trees are never just trees.

I present the following Clark Mountain trees as evidence of my passion, beginning with Magic Maple, a favorite of Tim Zelazo. I think Tim puts Magic Maple at the top of the pecking order of drop-dead beautiful red maples. I would never vote against this graceful entry. Magic Maple presents herself to her admirers in a small glade-like area where one can circle the magic one and gaze into her upsweeping branches - a metaphor for the rising spirits in places of physical beauty.
MagicMapleSmall.jpg


When I’m in a forest with charms, I’m constantly thinking about trees as individuals and in the collective sense. Each species has its group personality. Each tree has its unique appeal, but thinking in terms of group characteristics, few species can match the yellow birch for the raw expression of individuality. Yellow birches are attention grabbers, especially when they do what they do best - bond with rocks. The yellow birch is the quintessential architect, the sculptor among forest trees. Birch roots often engulf entire rocks in an octopus like fashion, reshaping the terrain and joining organic with inorganic structures that will endure for centuries. Both Monica and I were instantly taken with the birch in the following image.
YellowBirchSmall.jpg


I should include a little something for timber community. In the Shunpike area of Mohawk Trail State Forest, gorgeous northern red oaks are everywhere present. The Shunpike oaks are not old - certainly not old growth. Most are in early maturity, but one feels secure in their presence – reassured in some inexplicable way. The Shunpike oaks are pencil straight. I’m sure each and everyone one would make the lumberman salivate, but in today's environment where shortcuts are the rule, few lumbermen would let oaks reach the sizes or ages of the Shunpike oaks. So, these handsome trees serve an unintended function. They remind us of what forests can become, managed or unmanaged, if allowed to grow for 100 years. The image below shows Monica behind one of the perfectly straight northern reds.
StraightOakSmall.jpg

For real tree aficionados, few species garner more respect than the ancient Berkshire hemlocks. We have dated them to a little over 500 years. This charismatic eastern species seems to best fit our notion of what primeval woodlands should look like. There is a number of imposing old growth specimens in the area of the Shunpike. The following image shows a prominent old-growth hemlock that began life before the Shunpike was even conceived. This tree has seen it all and through the tempests has remained rooted. It witnessed the building of the Pike. It has endured three centuries of winter storms, of summer lightning, and the wistful eyes of passing lumbermen. It is a living museum. The old tree now measures an impressive 10.8 feet in girth and 120 feet in height (the calculation came out to 119.96).

This height puts the hemlock into an exclusive fraternity of Berkshire hemlocks that mathematician and Ent extraordinaire John Eichholz is tracking. He is documenting all hemlocks that reach the threshold height of 120 feet. Why 120? Our data tell us that a height of 120 feet is an expression of hemlock growth that can be achieved in potentially many locations in Massachusetts, but is toward the upper limit of what we can expect out of the species. By contrast, the population of hemlocks that we’ve documented over 130 feet is extremely small and appears to represent rare exceptions. So, we drop the bar to a point where there is a real probability of a good hemlock site producing a tree of the threshold height. We have many species thresholds that we deal with. It keeps us busy.

The old sentinel on the Shunpike had its crown broken in the past, but from the area of the break, sprouts developed and the crown has once again become healthy. The sentinel of the Shunpike could live another century if the hemlock woolly adelgid doesn’t cut its life short. At this point, it has no adelgid, nor do any of its neighbors. So far all Mohawk has been spared.
image019.jpg


No visit to the Shunpike area of Clark Mountain is complete with out a visit to Bruce Kershner's Pine. For those who didn’t know him, Bruce was an outstanding forest ecologist who devoted his life to the preservation of ancient forests. There is even a law named for him in New York. He and I coauthored the “Sierra Club Guide to Ancient Forests of the Northeast”. But Bruce had many accomplishments to his credit. The list would be longer than this essay.

I like to think that My wonderful friend's tree holds the energy of the spot. His tree represents what Bruce stood for. Sadly, Bruce was never well enough to visit his tree, but he saw images of it and embraced it as the monument he wanted. Without further adieu, I present the Bruce Kershner Tree. Oh yes, my wife Monica was the one who chose the tree. She was moved by its symmetry and presence. It is a white pine’s white pine.
BrucesPineSmall.jpg


The final event I'll report on was the big surprise of the day. As we descended, bush whacking down the steep, rocky side of Clark, Monica asked me if we would see the great Joseph Brant white pine. She was accustomed to approaching it from below. I allowed as to how we might see it, if I could steer us toward it, not knowing for certain that I could. I didn't say any more, but silently headed to where I thought the Brant pine would be. After a descent filled with uncertainty, I unexpectedly let out a yelp. There it was. Monica was at first startled then realized what likely had excited me. "Is it Joseph Brant?" she inquired. "Indeed, it is", I replied. I had homed in on the lone tree like a sidewinder missile locking onto an unmistakable heat source. There the hulking form of Brant stood, its crown rising far above the 100-foot plus canopy of hardwoods. It is king of its court.

We headed straight for the Brant Pine and stood for a while spiritually connecting with and honoring the great tree. I took a shot of Brant, looking up its long trunk. I suppose shots of other white pines look similar, but Brant rises to just under 159 feet and may well enter the ultra-exclusive 160 Club with two years. The Brant pine is no spring chicken. I think it is around 175 years old, which means that it began life around 1835. That is well past the Revolutionary War, but 25 years before the start of the Civil War. The Brant Pine marks a point of development and turmoil in our history. But the Brant Pine is not about the United States. It is about a Mohawk warrior who was a towering figure in eastern New York during the Revolutionary War. Brant understandably fought for his people against the tide of white settlement that could not been stemmed. He fought with the British, holding the rank of captain in the British Army. He eventually settled in Canada. Many places bear his name in the Toronto area. Now, one tree bears his name in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
image023.jpg
After paying tribute to Brant, we moved silently down the ridge, where I re-measured the impressive Oneida Pine - a 154-foot tall tree that grows down slope in the shadows of the Brant Pine. From its lower perch, I think of Oneida as announcing the presence of Brant, the Mohawk. The Oneidas occupied land just west of the Mohawks, were a much smaller tribe, and were closely allied to the keepers of the eastern gate.

After I was satisfied that I had finally resolved the question I had about Oneida’s exact height, I was ready to continue. Monica was patiently waiting close by, as she so often does. In terms of determining the Oneida Pine’s exact height, you see, if I hadn’t resolved the problem, it would have laid in my subconscious. I would have even dreamed about it. I am programmed to return over and over until I have resolved the issue with a tree as surely as a spider must weave its web. With me, it's genetic. So with Monica’s indulgence, I had done justice to the Oneida Pine, and would be able to sleep that night.

As we started down the ridge, I looked to the southeast. My gaze settled on the distant crown of a tall pine I had measured back in 2001. At the instant I looked toward the pine, it looked extremely tall. It rose far above the hardwoods surrounding it. I dimly recalled a height of around 146 feet from the early measurement. Could the pine now be over 150? I tried to spot the base from where I stood, and made some preliminary calculations that suggested the pine was indeed a candidate. We moved down to toward the tree. Monica calmly and me excitedly. I found a spot where I could see top and bottom clearly and took careful measurements. Yes, the pine had made it. It is now 151.8 feet tall, and becomes number 105 I Mohawk, i.e. the 105th tree in Mohawk to have been accurately measured to a height of 150 feet or more since the end of the last growing season. Watch out, Cook Forest State Park, PA, and Dale Luthringer, MTSF is slowly but surely closing the gap. Mohawk might well overtake Cook by the end of this growing season. Mohawk has half a dozen pines above 149. A good growing season could produce 111 to tie Cook. An exceptional growing season could produce 2 or 3 more, and put Mohawk firmly in the lead.

What to name the new 150? Several possibilities floated through my mind, but none seem to fit. I often imagine a tree talking to me, suggesting the name it wants. If I force the process, I'll invariably forget the un-acceptable name. Then suddenly I remembered that we have a Hiawatha Pine in the Trout Brook drainage of Mohawk. For those unfamiliar with Iroquoian history, Hiawatha, the great peacemaker, is associated with the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy. In lore and song, Hiawatha is widely remembered, but there was a second, Hiawatha’s teacher. The other legendary creator of the Haudenosaunee was Deganawidah. Ah, the new 150 should be named in honor of the mysterious Huron who helped establish the Confederacy. So Deganawidah, it became. Deganawidah is older than most other pines in the area, perhaps 190 or 200 years old. Its girth is 9.2 feet, not overpowering, but respectable and probably befitting the physical stature of the sage, himself. Behold Deganawidah in the image below. Note the somewhat twisted form.
DeganawidaSmall.jpg


I've put a lot on everyone's plate. So, I'll present one more image. It is of Monica next to Deganawidah. I doubt the old pine has many more years. It has a long lightening scar and lots of rot in its base. So, I will visit it often, photograph it, think about the role of Deganawidah and the improbable link between that legendary figure and a future trail that would wind across the Berkshires of Massachusetts joining the waters of the Hudson with those of the Connecticut. When his tree falls, we will name another.
MonicaDegonawidaSmall.jpg

I will close with a special thanks to my wife Monica for her patience as I steer us across boulder fields and up and down slopes always toward another tree to check on or measure. I also frequently ask her to pose by a tree. I tell Monica that I need her in the image for scale. The truth is that I just love to photograph her.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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edfrank
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Re: Perfect day in every way

Post by edfrank » Sun Apr 25, 2010 2:24 pm

Bob,

Fantastic post, as always.

Ed
"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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Larry Tucei
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Re: Perfect day in every way

Post by Larry Tucei » Mon Apr 26, 2010 2:52 pm

Bob, Wow another 150 footer! Great photos! The Forest up there looks very healthy, it must be all the carma you are giving to the trees. They are listing to you, and reaching for the stars. Ed hit the nail on the head, your post are always good. Larry

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James Parton
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Re: Shurpike: Perfect day in every way

Post by James Parton » Mon Apr 26, 2010 6:12 pm

Bob,

Outstanding post! You make the reader feel as if he is there right beside you and Monica. And I know how you feel about photographing Monica among the trees. I do Joy the same way. I often run pictures as computer backgrounds of my wife in the forest. And you tell Monica that her cheerful face does augment the forest!

I am glad to hear that MTSF is free of adelgid. I never see a completely free area of it here.

James
James E Parton
Ovate Course Graduate - Druid Student
Bardic Mentor
New Order of Druids

http://www.druidcircle.org/nod/index.ph ... Itemid=145

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dbhguru
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Re: Shurpike: Perfect day in every way

Post by dbhguru » Mon Apr 26, 2010 6:56 pm

Larry, James,

Thanks. It is truly a labor of love. The adelgid free hemlocks keep me holding my breath. I know it can't stay that way forever. I'm going to document as much as I can while we still have healthy hemlocks. James, I will pass the message on to Monica. Thanks.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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