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Posts Tagged ‘Big Ice’

Last weekend I went up to the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland to see if any of the hundreds of spring blooming coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) plants that grow here were blooming. A friend of mine likes to use the plants medicinally so I thought I’d find him some, but unfortunately I didn’t see any up yet. But I did see some ice still clinging to the walls and that surprised me, since it has been so warm.

I knew I wouldn’t see any ice climbers here because this ice was rotten and melting quickly.

It was also falling and some of it had reached the trail. This is always cause for a bit of anxiety when walking through here at this time of year.

Most of the ice didn’t have much height, which meant when it fell it couldn’t reach that far into the trail, so I thought it would be safe to stay. I saw and heard plenty of ice falling but it was quite small.

Here was a slab falling away from the wall in slow motion.

These 4 pieces of ice would have filled a pickup truck.

I saw leaves under ice in the shady parts of the drainage channels.

I always like to look up when I’m here. I think it’s good to be reminded how small we are occasionally.

Heartleaf foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) were looking happy, lifting their leaves to gather more light.  They’re one of our prettiest late spring flowers and I always find them near water or growing in wet ground along rail trails. They’re easy to spot because of their hairy, maple-like leaves and foot high flower stalks, and a colony as big as the ones found here are a beautiful sight. Native plants have leaves that are bright green at first and then turn a darker green, sometimes mottled with maroon or brown. Many hybrids have been created and foam flowers are now popular in garden centers and are grown in gardens as much for their striking foliage as the flowers. They are an excellent, maintenance free choice for shady gardens that get only morning sun.

The sun highlighted a blackberry cane with last year’s leaves still attached. It isn’t uncommon for blackberries and raspberries to hold onto their leaves all winter. Though some will stay green, most won’t.

The buds on the blackberry canes didn’t look as if they were ready just yet. It stays cool here so plants are slightly behind those that grow outside of this canyon.

Now this could be a conundrum; apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) gets its name from its round spore capsules, but as you can see here these spore capsules were elongated and more cylindrical that round. But since I also saw round capsules I was sure it was apple moss. Are immature apple moss spore capsules cylindrical? Yes. Were there two mosses here? No. The answers are: apple moss begins its reproduction in the late fall and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. When the warm rains of spring arrive the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes.

And I mean tiny; apple moss sporophytes are about .06-.08 inches in diameter. Without a macro lens you would need a 10X loupe to see any real detail. The second part of the scientific name, pomiformis, means “apple-like” in Latin.

One of the plants that grows here is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum,) and they grow on the stones by the thousands. This is the only place I’ve ever seen them and I think that’s because the conditions here are perfect for them. They like to grow in places where they never dry out and the constant drip of the groundwater makes that possible. They like to be wet but they can’t stand being submerged for any length of time so growing on the vertical walls above the drainage channels is ideal. They were heavily “budded” so they should display plenty of new green reptilian lobes later on.

For a long time I thought this was a leafy moss in the Fissidens family but now I suspect it is a leafy liverwort called Plagiochila asplenioides, also known as spleenwort hepatic, because each stem is said to resemble a tiny simple fern. And they are tiny; though the plant itself can grow large each stem from leaf tip to leaf tip is only about 1/8 inch across and the stem itself a mere half inch long. Identifying features include elliptical leaves with the corner nearest where the base meets the stem leading down the stem. Leaf edges have very fine teeth, seen only at 8X or greater magnification. I can see some in this photo, I think. The leaf attachment to the stem is slanted so that the leaf corner that extends down the stem overlaps the top of the leaf below it. All of that helpful information comes from the book Outstanding Mosses of Pennsylvania and Nearby States by Susan Munch. This liverwort loves water and grows in places where water drips constantly on the stones it grows on.

One of the most unusual things growing here are these green algae, called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the algal cells called hematochrome or beta-carotene color the algae orange by hiding their green chlorophyll. It is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color. I keep hoping I’ll see it producing spores but I never have.

This natural sculpture was perched in the middle of a drainage channel. It looked like a great blue heron had poked its head up out of the water.

I saw a seed stalk I didn’t recognize. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one like it. The way it opens is interesting and unusual.

The old lineman’s shack has made it through another winter by the looks, but I don’t know how. It seems like more of it is missing each time I see it. Since there was no provision for a woodstove in the building that I can see, I’m guessing this was simply a place to keep tools. I’d also guess that somehow they had to move a lot of snow out of the canyon so the trains could keep running. It would have been quite a job, I imagine, so lots of shovels were probably stored here.

I took another look at the old bridge that’s out in back of the lineman’s shack. It’s far too narrow for cars or trains but it crosses a stream and seems to go nowhere.

But they wouldn’t have gone to this much trouble to go nowhere. I have a feeling I’ve finally figured this mystery out, or have at least come up with a plausible theory.

By the bridge, on the far end, there is a huge pile of broken granite and, since there are massive stone walls here, I’m thinking this is where the stones for the walls were faced. “Facing” a stone means making at least one face flat, and when you stack a lot of flat faced stones together you get a flat faced wall.

These stone walls are some of the largest dry (no mortar) stone walls I’ve ever seen. The space between the walls is narrow; just wide enough for someone to stand aside when a train passed. And I’d guess that nearly every stone would have had to have been faced. That’s why I think the bridge led to where that work was done, and the pile of cut granite is left over from that operation. Small carts full of faced stones could have been pushed across the bridge to a waiting flat car to move the stones down the rail bed to where they were needed. They most likely would have had a rail mounted crane as well. Just a theory yes, but if I had been in charge of building such massive walls that’s what I would have done.

Our minds, as well as our bodies, have need of the out-of-doors. Our spirits, too, need simple things, elemental things, the sun and the wind and the rain, moonlight and starlight, sunrise and mist and mossy forest trails, the perfumes of dawn and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the ancient music of wind among the trees.~ Edwin Way Teale

Thanks for stopping in. Be well and please stay safe.

 

 

 

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I wanted to see how the ice columns had grown at the deep cut up in Westmoreland so off I went last week with low expectations. With the unusual warmth we’ve had I wasn’t sure I’d see any and when I saw the parking lot empty I was pretty sure I had wasted my time. No ice climbers on a January weekend is unheard of but I found out why; though there were ice columns most were rotten and crumbling.

An opaque finish on ice it does not bode well for an ice climber, because ice that looks like this is rotten and unsafe. Ice becomes rotten when water, air bubbles, and/or dirt get in between the grains of ice and cause it to honeycomb and lose its strength. Instead of a sharp ringing crack when it is struck it produces more of a dull thud. The grayish white color and matte finish are a sure sign that you should stay away from it when it’s hanging over your head. Ice grows very clear and  shiny when it’s cold and it doesn’t usually get rotten until March. Since January’s average temperature has been a full 8 degrees above normal I wasn’t that surprised to find it rotten.

The slush underfoot showed how warm it was, even in here where the temperature is usually a good 10 degrees cooler.

This is where I’d expect to see climbers. There were signs that they had been here but nothing recent.

Just so you can get an idea of the scale of the place here’s a shot of some ice climbers I took previously in about the same spot as the previous photo. It was a lot colder that year.

Leaving the northern canyon in the previous photos, I made my way into the southern canyon. It was here that disappointment hit me, because you could see as much stone as you could ice.

This photo from 2015, taken from about the same spot as the previous one, shows what the southern end of the trail looks like in a cold winter. You don’t see a lot of stone.

I did see some colored ice though. All of this ice is caused by groundwater constantly seeping through the fractured stone of the canyons and I think the color comes from various minerals in the water. This photo also shows another example of rotten ice; there is no shine to it at all when normally it would shine like glass. It’s dull and completely opaque.

The mineral laden water also stains the snow.

Here were some stains on the stone; caused by iron, I’m guessing.

There was some hard shiny ice here, but very little.

The railroad engineers knew about all the groundwater and they built drainage diches along the sides of the rail bed to carry it all away, but to see the ditches open and flowing in January was odd. Usually the ice covering them is strong enough by this time to walk on them.

The mosses seemed to be loving the weather and I loved seeing the mosses.

I’m guessing that I’ve been through here a hundred times or more but I had never seen this big vein of quartz until this day. That’s why naturalist John Burroughs said “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.”

Here was an ice column just getting started. It was about as big around as your thigh and, though it’s hard to tell from the photo, it only touches the stone at its top and bottom. If it grows it will become as big as a tree trunk in diameter and attach itself to the stone all along its length. Clearly though, the mosses were winning on this day.

Here were some chunks of fallen ice along the side of the trail. When an ice column detaches from the wall it can fall across the entire trail, and when that happens this can be a very dangerous place to be. Once or twice I’ve seen small pieces fall; I didn’t hear a thing until they hit the ground so I doubt you would have any warning.

Here was more fallen ice. Any one of these pieces was big enough to kill someone and that probably explains why I didn’t see any snowmobilers here. I saw one lady on cross country skis and she looked like she was trying to get out of here as quickly as she could.

If a piece of ice or stone falls on you from way up there, you’re all done.

This is the biggest piece of ice I’ve ever seen and I know that don’t want to be anywhere near it if it lets go and slides into the trail. It’s like a small glacier.

Behind this ice was a hidden waterfall of groundwater and it made the ice crackle and sizzle like bacon frying in a pan. It was one of the strangest sounds I’ve ever heard in nature.

Here was another smaller waterfall that had washed away most of the ice that covered it. It shows how water streams off theses walls in places. When you understand that all this water is groundwater, running under the ground we walk on, it seems incredible.

Board by board the old lineman’s shack slowly disappears, yet still it stands, a testament to the quality of the railroad worker’s craftsmanship . Each year I tell myself it can’t possibly stand through another winter but here it is. How will I feel I wonder, when it finally comes down?

How much water can the weight of ice carry?
~Dianna Hardy

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I had seen ice here and there that seemed to be growing rather than melting, so that was my cue to go into the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland; a place ice climbers call the ice box. It’s actually a man-made canyon, hacked out of the bedrock some 150 years ago by the railroad. It’s a special place and I’ve never found another like it. There is always ground water seeping and dripping from the stone ledges and in the winter when it freezes the ice columns can grow huge like tree trunks. What you’ll see here is just the beginning.

In the warmer months you can hear water dripping here but you don’t realize how much there actually is until you see it as ice. There is an incredible amount of water here and it runs winter and summer.  

The giant ice columns are like a magnet for ice climbers and members of the New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club come here to train beginning climbers. I was surprised to see some of them here on this day since it is so early in the season. I told them so, and said I didn’t think the ice would be big enough to climb so early. They said it really wasn’t but they couldn’t wait. They also said they were having to use more “screws” than they had hoped, and this meant they were doing as much rock climbing as they were ice climbing.

Here is one of the “screws” they spoke of. These are studded here and there all over the 50 foot high walls of the canyon.

Much of the ice is colored here and I’ve always suspected that it was minerals in the water coloring it, but I can’t prove that.

There are many areas where the stone of the ledges is stained by minerals.

The railroad engineers used the stone from blasting to build massive retaining walls along parts of the rail bed. Drainage ditches run all along the base of the walls on both sides and still keep the rail bed dry after a century and a half. This view is south out of the larger canyon where the ice climbers climb.

The drainage ditches along the bases of the canyon walls were freezing here and there but for the most part they were open and impassible unless you wore knee high rubber boots.

As you move south you come to another canyon, where the walls aren’t quite as high but are still covered with ice. This section is where the ice is usually more colored, in blues, greens, tan, orange and even red.

The trail south was iced up from side to side and over quite a length. I didn’t think I’d need micro spikes so I didn’t bring them. And I slid but I didn’t fall.

Each year an evergreen fern is imprisoned by bars of ice in this spot, but it doesn’t seem to mind. In June it will be happy again.

There is a timelessness about this place, as if the mosses had been waiting patiently encased in ice, for millions of winters. And of course they have been, just not here. You sense that time means nothing here and you have to be aware of that because it can get very cold. If you’re anything like me you can become so absorbed by what you’re seeing you don’t feel the cold anymore, and that’s what happened on this day. By the time I left the place my coat was opened and my gloves were in my pockets. I didn’t know how cold I had been until I was warm again.

In a place or two the stone is orange and though you might think it’s more mineral staining it’s actually algae growth. The green alga (Trentepohlia aurea) that grows here and there on the walls seems to reach its peak orange color in winter, but I don’t know if that coincides with spore production or not. In fact I’m not sure if I’d know when it was producing spores because it always looks the same to me.  But it does produce spores; a blood red rain fell in parts of Spain in 2014 and it was caused by similar algae named Haematococcus pluvialis. The same thing happened in Texas in 2013, in Sri Lanka in 2012, and in India in 2001, each event seemingly caused by different algae. Yellow, green, and black rain has also been reported.

Great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) grow here by the hundreds of thousands and for part of the year they’re completely encased in ice. They shrug it off as if it never happened.

It’s hard to imagine these icicles as big as tree trunks but if the cold weather continues they’ll slowly grow together and become huge; the biggest ice columns I’ve ever seen.

Here was some orange ice. Most likely stained by iron oxide in the stone.

If it’s strange ice formations you’re looking for this is the place to find them. These examples grew on leaves in one of the drainage channels. Wherever water drips or splashes in cold air ice grows into sometimes fantastic shapes.

And sometimes it’s just plain icicles.

I finally made it to the old lineman’s shack, which is my turn around point. I had to wonder if this old building would make it through another winter. I’ve watched it slowly disintegrate over the years and now its ridgepole has snapped. Since the roof rafters are fastened to the ridgepole, when it breaks the roof comes down and then the walls follow. I hope it’s here in the spring but it’s a dicey looking business.

The graffiti inside the old shack always reminds me of my father. He would have been 18 in 1925 and he lived near here then, and I always wonder if he came to see the ice like I do. None of the initials match his but he could have easily walked these tracks through here. Trains would have been running then. That it has stood so long says a lot for the railroad workers who built it.

If you know where and more importantly when to look, you can find an old trestle in the woods near the lineman’s shack after the leaves have fallen. It isn’t anywhere near big enough for a train to have rolled on so I’m guessing it was for ore carts used to dispose of any excess stone. Quite often you can find piles of broken up granite in the woods by railroad tracks. They used most of it to fill in hollows and valleys to make a level railbed but in some instances it looks like they couldn’t use it all. Farmers often took stones from these stray piles and built walls out of them. They have the hand of man all over them and can be easily spotted as very different from walls built with native, undamaged stones.

I usually learn something when I come here and this time I learned that the old lineman’s shack was built on railroad ties, which is probably one reason it has lasted so long. But even railroad ties rot away eventually and the earth’s warm breath wafted through a knothole in one of them. Where the warm met the cold hoar frost grew.

In the winter, the world gets sharp. Beautiful things happen. ~Peter Fiore

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It was cloudy but finally warm at 38 degrees F. last Sunday so I decided to see how the ice had grown in the deep cut rail trail that ice climbers call the icebox. Since we have had plenty of below zero nights I expected the ice to be big, and I wasn’t disappointed.


Though I’ve seen as many as thirty at a time, on this day there were only two ice climbers here. It was dark in this part of the canyon on such a cloudy day so I had to really increase the ISO on my camera. Sunshine is limited on this part of the trail even on a sunny day because it’s about 50 feet below the surrounding hill that the railroad cut through.


The ice climbers said this was their third time here but they were climbing on a skimpy little ice column that didn’t look like it would support much weight. I pointed out the huge ice column on the other side of the canyon and told them that was where most people climbed, but they stayed where they were and I bid them good luck. You could fit what I know about ice climbing in a thimble anyway.

This massive pile of ice is where most ice climbers climb but on this day you could hear water dripping behind it, and that was odd.


There was a large pool of water at its base as well, and that probably would have given me second thoughts about climbing it. If groundwater was dripping between the ice and the stone of the canyon the whole thing could come tumbling down, and you don’t want to be here when that happens.


But I decided not to think of such things and instead focused on the beauty of the ice. After all, it was why I had come. All of the water that drips from the stone walls of the canyon collects in drainage ditches originally built by the railroad 150 years ago. The water is carried by the ditches out into the woods where it must eventually find its way to a swamp or pond. Meanwhile beautiful patterns form in the ice covered ditches.

Ice can be very beautiful, especially on a warm day when you have time to linger and appreciate it. I often catch myself lost in the photos I’ve taken of it as well, wondering what I might see. I’ve seen birds flying, eyes staring, waves and rivulets caught in mid flow and entire galaxies, all frozen into the ice. I love what it did here; it’s much like a topographic map because if you look closely you see that the ripples formed around peaks, and the peaks are stones in the stream. It’s a beautiful scene, and there are thousands upon thousands of others much like it out there, just waiting to be discovered.


I saw that someone had put up a sign to warn snowmobilers that there were people on the trail. That’s a good idea because the trail curves in the canyon and I’m sure a snowmobiler could be just about on top of the climbers before he sees them, depending on how fast he was moving. I hear people complaining about snowmobilers but I don’t agree, because if it wasn’t for them many of these rail trails would have become impassable long ago. Many snowmobile clubs donate their time and tools and work hard all summer long to keep these trails open and we who use them owe them a real debt of gratitude.


When you come into the canyon you can go north where the ice climbers climb or you can go south where the most colorful ice grows. I usually do both. The walls don’t soar quite as high in this section but the ice comes in many colors and grows as thick as tree trunks.

There was lots of blue ice here this day and I wasn’t surprised because it has been so cold. I’ve heard that blue ice is the hardest and most dense, and its color comes from the way the dense ice reflects light, rather than any imperfections in the water.


Other colors come from the minerals in the groundwater, I believe. Some years you see lots of orange ice like this and in other years you hardly find any. You can see at the base of the column how the snow is stained by the dripping, mineral colored water.


Though I see green when I see this ice my color finding software sees tan. Since I’m colorblind the software gets the call. Whatever the color, this formation was big. This also illustrates why I don’t come here much after the end of February, because when large ice columns like this one release from the stone they often fall like trees, right across the trail. I’d rather not be here when that happens because a person could easily be crushed.

Here is some mineral staining on the stone walls of the canyon. I believe this is what colors the ice but the strange thing is how these colors all but disappear in warmer months. Cold brings out the colors in many things like tree sap, and apparently mineral staining on stone.


It was the texture of this ice column that caught my eye. It was like ten thousand icicles had all frozen together. Quite often you see these ice columns with a smooth, shiny surface but this one was rough.


Here is a better example of how the snow stains at the base of these columns.


Frost flowers bloomed on the ice covering the drainage ditches.


I don’t see these very often so conditions must have to be just right. I’m guessing it has a lot to do with humidity. I see birds flying above Saturn’s rings, and the universe beyond.


This takes the prize as the biggest mass of ice I’ve ever seen off a pond. It’s so big I don’t know how to explain just how big it is. Tons and tons of ice, I’d guess.


Somehow a beech leaf stuck itself to an icicle. I’ve noticed that many beech and oak leaves are falling, and I hope that’s a sign that spring isn’t far away.

A small animal came out of its den for a drink and found the well frozen over. Its tracks made the snow look as if it had been zipped together.


My walk through the canyon ends at the old lineman’s shack, because that’s where the big ice ends. It looks like the old building will make it through another winter, though I don’t know how. It’s the very definition of well built. I picture it full men sitting around a potbellied, coal fired stove, wishing they didn’t have to shovel all the snow out of that canyon. But that chore must have fallen to someone.

Ice burns, and it is hard for the warm-skinned to distinguish one sensation, fire, from the other, frost. ~A.S. Byatt

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Keen observers of the flowers that bloom in spring probably noticed that there weren’t any coltsfoot flowers in my last post. That’s because I hadn’t seen any yet, even though I had been to every place I knew of where they bloom. Except one, I remembered; the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland that the ice climbers call the “Icebox” has a lot of coltsfoot plants along the trail. So, though I wasn’t sure what I’d find, last Sunday off I went. What I found was where winter has been hiding. As the above photo shows there was still plenty of ice clinging to the man-made canyon walls.

But the ice was rotten and melting quickly. Ice this big can be very dangerous when it falls, so I don’t get near it. I thought it had been warm enough to melt all the ice and snow here but obviously I was wrong.

The opaque gray color is a sure sign of rotten ice. Ice is rotten when the bonds between ice crystals begin to break down because of air and dirt coming between them.

Water was literally pouring from the walls. The groundwater always seeps and drips here but on this day it was running with more force than I’ve ever seen so I think it was meltwater.

And then I saw this fallen ice column. It looked like a boat and was as big as one that would fit 5 people. If this ever fell on a person it would crush them, so I decided to turn back and get out of here.

The view further down the trail didn’t look safe at all with all the ice columns melting in the sunshine, and there was what looked like a pile of ice down there.

That’s what it was; a pile of huge ice chunks all across the trail. I know it’s hard to judge the scale of things in a photo but these ice columns are as big as trees. Actually there is a fallen tree over on the left.

Here’s a shot of some ice climbers taken in February to give new readers an idea of the size of this ice. Some of it is huge.

I think that part of the reason the ice columns fall like they do is because the water in the drainage ditches along the side of the trail erode their bases away, as can be seen in this photo.

Ice isn’t the only thing that falls here. Stones fall from the ledges regularly and I saw at least three fallen trees on this day. I’m reminded each time I come here how dangerous the place can be, but it is also a place where I can see things that I can’t see anywhere else.

One of the things I can’t see anywhere else is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum.) They grow here by the thousands and I’ve learned to expect them to look a little tattered and worn in spring, because most are covered by ice all winter. By June though they’ll all be a beautiful pea green. Another name for the plant is snakeskin liverwort, for obvious reasons. Its pores and air chambers our outlined on its surface, and that gives it a very reptilian look. In my opinion it is one of the most beautiful of its kind.

I decided to look a little closer at areas with no ice or leaning trees nearby and I’m glad I did because I saw many interesting things, like what I believe is yew leaved pocket moss (Fissidens taxifolius.) This little moss grows in very wet places on the ledges where water drips on it almost constantly. Pocket mosses get their common name from the way the lower lobe of each leaf curls around its stem to form a pocket. This example was a little beat up because it has also most likely been under ice all winter.

Grasses were just coming up in the drainage ditches that follow along each side of the trail. The beech leaf in the foreground will give you an idea of their size.

I saw a large patch of moss on part of a ledge.

It turned out to be Hedwigia ciliata, which is a very common but an uncommonly beautiful moss. It’s also called white tipped moss because its branch tips are often bright white. I usually see it on stones in full sun.

Seedlings were coming up among the mosses. I’m not sure what they are because they had no true leaves yet but I do know that Jack in the pulpit plants grow all along this section of ledge. Many different species of aster also grow on the stone. It reminds me of a radish seedling.

I found that green algae (Trentepohlia aurea) darkens when wet. This hairy alga is orange because of the pigment beta carotene hiding the green chlorophyll. It grows out of direct sunlight on the damp rock walls.

I thought I’d practice my photography skills by trying to get a shot of a stone filled with mica. It isn’t as easy as it sounds because each piece of mica is like a tiny mirror that amplifies the sunlight.

If I could have gotten closer to the ice columns I would have shown you that the ice comes in many colors here. One of the colors is a reddish orange and I believe that it comes from iron leaching from the soil and stone. The above photo is of a spot in the woods where a pool of water was. When the water evaporated it left behind the minerals it carried, in this case probably iron.

I saw this bubbly mass in one of the drainage ditches. I’m not sure but I think it’s some type of algae. It reminds me of the spyrogyra algae I saw a few years ago. That example was on a very wet stone outcrop and this one was in water. I’ve read that it is most abundant in early spring and that the bubbles come from trapped gasses. It isn’t something I see regularly.

I never did find any coltsfoot flowers to show you but there were plenty of other interesting things to see. I also never made it all the way to the old lineman’s shack because of all the fallen ice, but I did see a piece of it; this plank from it was being used as a bridge to cross the drainage ditch. I wish people wouldn’t keep pulling the old shed apart but I don’t suppose anything can be done about it.

Nature is never static. It is always changing. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Nothing endures. Everything is in the process of either coming into being or expiring.
~Kilroy J. Oldster

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By now you might think I’d had enough of ice but there is a special place called the ice box in Westmoreland, just north of Keene, that I couldn’t go long in winter without visiting. I was here a month ago at the end of December but the ice, which often grows as big as tree trunks, hadn’t grown much by then. This is a deep cut through solid rock made by the Cheshire Railroad back in the mid-1800s which has become a popular spot for learning how to ice climb. The New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club holds ice climbing clinics here and on this day there were more climbers here than I had ever seen.

They were young and old and from what I gathered, all skill levels. As I usually do I just wandered through quickly, snapping the shutter now and then. I worry about distracting the beginning climbers so I don’t often speak to anyone or even stand and watch. I’ve asked in the past if my use of a camera bothered them and they’ve always said no, but that wouldn’t make me feel any better if someone fell because they were wondering what I was doing instead of paying attention to what they should have been doing.

What I’d like to ask them is why they don’t ever seem to climb the colored ice. It’s possible that it isn’t as stable as the clear or blue ice. Even though blue ice is the densest they seem to stay on the clear ice when climbing. I’ve read that ice is plastic and actually has quite a lot of give and movement, so maybe that has something to do with it. All of the bags and packs that you see in this photo are what the ice climbers use to pack their ropes out here. They use lots of rope!

These ledges soar up to what I would guess is about 50 feet in places and the ice columns sometimes reach all the way to the top. As I’ve said, they can also grow to the size of large tree trunks and they can be amazing things to see.

Sometimes it isn’t just their size that makes the ice columns amazing. It’s their beauty as well.

I believe that the colors in the ice come from mineral seepage in the groundwater that forms the ice columns, and I believe that simply because I can’t come up with any other plausible explanations. I’ve seen brown ice, green ice, orange ice, blue ice, red ice, and even black ice on these walls, so there must be some kind of mineral soup going on here.

I should say that I know regular readers of this blog have heard me say these things many times but there are new readers coming on board all the time, so I hope you’ll understand why I keep repeating what I say about this and some of other places I visit. This place especially, seems to fascinate those who haven’t ever seen anything like it. It really is quite amazing even to me, and I’ve seen it countless times.

I like the far southern end of the canyon; the end away from the climbers, because there is never anyone here. I think it might be because the ice receives too much sunshine on this end and it melts and fills the drainage ditches along the sides of the trail. I wouldn’t want to climb down an ice column and suddenly find myself standing in two feet of freezing cold water.

In years past I’ve seen huge ice columns colored reddish orange but this year I only saw those colors in the mineral stained stone. You can see in this photo how the groundwater seeps directly out of fractures in the stone.

I saw plenty of tan ice that had a few orangey streaks, but no orange ice.

There was so much ice in some spots you couldn’t see the stone that it hung from.

This photo shows the drainage ditches, which are frozen over at times and clear of ice at other times.

I saw some waves that had been frozen in place. There are small fish in these drainage ditches but they’re very fast so I’ve never been able to get a shot of them.

The ice over the drainage ditches is often thick enough to stand on, but you want to make sure you have high rubber boots on if you do. I’ve plunged through this ice before and found myself almost up to my knees in the cold, wet ditch.

Wherever the water touches the ice columns they melt, and they tell the story of how the water rises and falls in the ditches. We had a recent day with almost 2 inches of rain and there was plenty of evidence of flooding here.

This is one of two places where the water in the ditches rose so high that it washed parts of the railbed away. This was disheartening to see because the same thing happened last winter and the local snowmobile clubs had to put in a lot of time and effort last summer to fix it. They keep these trails open on their own time with their own tools without pay, and that’s why I always remind people to donate a little to their local snowmobile club, if and when they can.

The rushing water scoured away the finer material on the rail bed and exposed the gravel base. Chances are good that this hasn’t been seen in about 150 years, since the railroad workers put it down. It’s interesting to see that most of this stone isn’t made up of pieces of blasted rock from blasting the canyon through the hillside. These stones are more what I’d expect to see on a river or stream bank. So where did they come from? There must be a very big hole somewhere.

I thought I had chosen a good day to come here because it was sunny and approaching 50 degrees. It was a beautiful spring like day but somehow I never gave a thought to the fact that the ice would be melting because of it. But it was, and in places it was melting fast and falling from the walls. This rotten ice was a sure sign that things were changing due to the warmth. Ice is rotten when air bubbles or dirt particles get in between the ice crystals and weaken the bonds between them. It gives the ice a gray, opaque, “sick” look. When you tap on it you hear more of a thud than a good ringing rap.

This wasn’t good and it convinced me that I’d better get out of here, because an ice column had fallen and reached the center of the trail. I always walk in the center of the trail, thinking that if ice ever fell it would never reach me. So much for that theory.

I put a glove on one of the pieces of fallen ice column to give you an idea of how big they were. They were easily big and heavy enough to crush and kill if they ever fell on someone.

All of this freezing and thawing takes its toll on the ledges and stones fall from these walls too. The water gets into the cracks in the stone and expands when it freezes and shatters the stone, as can be seen in this photo. Stones big enough to crush cars have fallen from the walls in the past. I hope I’m not here when the next one comes down.

As I always have I stop and stand in awe of the old lineman’s shack which, even with one wall and half its roof gone still stands. It’s slowly getting worse though and I doubt it will make it through one more winter. I often wonder if they stored shovels in the shack so they could shovel out this canyon when it snowed. I’ve seen photos of train locomotives with big plows on them but where would they plow the snow in a canyon barely as wide as the train was? I think they must have had to shovel it, at least some of it, and I can’t even imagine what back breaking work that must have been.

After one last peek at the ice climbers my time here was done.

There are places which exist in this world beyond the reach of imagination. ~Daniel J. Rice

Thanks for stopping in.

 

 

 

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After posting the 2 part blog post just before Christmas about searching a new rail trail to find ledges where huge icicles might grow I realized that many readers might have no idea why I would be looking for such things, so I visited one of my favorite rail trails in Westmoreland. This is a deep cut that was blasted through a hillside in the mid-1800s so the Cheshire Railroad could get to Vermont. Groundwater constantly seeps through fissures in the stone and in winter it freezes into huge ice columns as big as tree trunks.

The size of the ice columns can be quite amazing but sometimes the minerals in the groundwater color them and make them even more amazing. The walls of this man made canyon soar up to 50 feet high in places so the ice columns also get very tall. They must be perfect for climbing because the New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club comes here to hold ice climbing clinics.

As luck would have it they were there climbing the ice on this day. Though I didn’t ask I’m assuming that the climber in this photo was relatively new to climbing, because he was on ice that wasn’t very tall. I met climbers here last year who described this kind of climb as a “baby climb.” Just to get used to it, I would think. I try not to be too intrusive or distracting when I see climbers so I don’t ask to many questions for fear of breaking their concentration.

If you are wondering what became of all that blasted stone, in this case the railroad used it to build mighty retaining walls along the sides of the cut where there was hillside soil that had to be held back.

This view is of the opposite end of the canyon from where the ice climbers climb. Though the ice here is nearly as big as on the other end I’ve never seen them climb here, and it wasn’t until this year that I finally figured out why.

At least I think I know why they don’t climb here. The drainage ditches are full of water on this end of the canyon and there is no water in them where the climbers climb. These ditches are almost knee deep in places and I’d hate to climb down an icicle and find my feet in frigid water. This is the section where most of the interesting plants grow though, so when I need to get close to the walls I put on rubber boots and walk in the ditches. I don’t do it often because of the danger of falling ice and stone, but I’ve done it a few times.

These drainage ditches were designed to carry water out of and away from the rail bed, so the water is always flowing like a stream, and the movement keeps the ice columns from growing any further than the surface of the water. It looks like they have been cut off right at the water’s surface all the way down the ditches.

It’s always cold here in winter and it often gets cold enough to freeze the surface of the drainage ditches, and that’s what happened in a few spots on this day. Where they had frozen over long feathers of hoar frost had grown. Without thinking I hold my breath when I’m taking photos of these beautiful, fragile things because all it takes is the warmth of a stray breath to destroy them.

In some places the hoar frost had grown into sharp looking needles. It’s odd to think of frost growing on ice but it happens quite frequently when conditions are right. Humidity seems to play a large part in it.

I’ve learned much from this man made canyon and one of the chief things among them is how cold can change the appearance of stone. It brings out colors in the stone for instance, that aren’t seen when it’s warmer. Colored stains from over a hundred years of seeping, mineral laden groundwater appear as if by magic when it gets cold.

But do the minerals color the ice? I think they do, because I can’t think of any other thing that would. And the color doesn’t come in just green; I’ve also seen orange, blue, brown, and even black ice here. The blue ice is colored by its own density and clarity and by the way it reflects light, but the other colors must come from some foreign material. Brown ice for example, might simply be colored by soil. Orange ice could be colored by the iron in the stone. There’s a lot of it here.

You can see in places how the mineral laden water colors the snow as well as the ice.

Ice isn’t the only reason I come here. There are many unusual plants here that I don’t see anywhere else, and one of them is the green algae called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it’s called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta-carotene color them orange. It’s the same pigment found in carrots, but in this instance it hides the green chlorophyll in the algae. I couldn’t get close enough to show it but these algae are very hairy. Though I’ve seen orange ice here it wasn’t where the few colonies of algae grow so I doubt they have anything to do with coloring ice. I keep hoping to see the algae producing spores, but so far I haven’t had any luck. In certain parts of the world algae have produced enough spores to color the rain. If you ever hear of red rain falling chances are it’s because of algae spores.

Another plant that I come here to see is the beautiful, reptilian, great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum.) This liverwort gets its common name from its clean, fresh scent. It is the only liverwort with this reptilian appearance, so it’s easy to identify. They grow on these ledges by the thousand, constantly watered by splashing groundwater. They like a lot of water but it has to be absolutely clean and unpolluted, so finding this liverwort is a good indicator of very clean water.

White tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata) also grew in an area where it was constantly splashed by dripping groundwater, and the tiny water droplets made it even more beautiful. One of the first things you notice here in this icy canyon is the sound of dripping water. It seeps and drips year round, winter and summer, through the entire length of the canyon and the sound can be very pleasing or very annoying, depending on your mood. I’ve met people here who described it both ways. There are those who feel that the sound of water intrudes on the peacefulness of a place I suppose, but to me it is like a musical gift from the earth.

Can Ice be beautiful? Oh yes it can, and these windblown icicles looked every bit as beautiful as Lalique crystal to me. For those who may not know, Rene Lalique was a French glass designer who practiced his art in the Art Noveau period (1890-1910.) He is known today for his opaque, matte finish glass, which can look much like these icicles. He was completion for Louis Comfort Tiffany, so if you received a piece of Lalique crystal for Christmas you are very lucky indeed.

Unfortunately, though the opaque finish on Lalique crystal means good things, on ice it does not; especially if you happen to be an ice climber, because ice that looks like this is rotten and unsafe. Ice becomes rotten when water, air bubbles, and/or dirt get in between the grains of ice and cause it to honeycomb and lose its strength. Instead of a sharp ringing crack when it is struck it produces more of a dull thud. The grayish white color and matte finish are a sure sign of rotten ice, and a good sign that you should stay away from it when it’s hanging over your head.

Each winter I come here and stand in awe of the old lineman’s shack, which still stands against the weight of the snow even though it lacks half its roof, a wall and a half, and most of its floor. It has stood here for well over a century and is the very definition of well built. If it wasn’t for people slowly pulling it apart I have no doubt it would still look just as it did when it was built.

The sun was getting lower and a single ray fell on a green icicle. Though it lit up the icicle it had no heat to melt it, and this reminded me how very cold it was here on this day. This canyon usually runs about 10 degrees cooler than it is on the outside and it was 27 degrees F when I came in, so it was no wonder that my toes were cold. I always have to be careful that I don’t wander too far out of myself and get lost in this winter beauty because frostbite is always close by.

With a last look at some beautiful little frost feathers back out into the world I went, hoping that it would be just a bit warmer there. I’ll have to return in a month or two when the icicles should be as big as trees.

In the winter the world gets sharp. Beautiful things happen. ~Peter Fiore

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas. Thanks for coming by.

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1-trail

We’ve had some cold nights and a little snow over the last week or so and it seems like winter might be here to stay, so I decided to visit the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland recently. Once the cold settles down inside this man made canyon it’s reluctant to leave, and spectacular ice formations grow here.

2-ice

The ice is fueled by the groundwater that constantly seeps through the bedrock that the railway workers hacked their way through in the mid-1800s, and ice columns as big as tree trunks are commonplace. I’ve seen huge ice columns here many times but I’ve never seen their birth, so that was the object of today’s hike.

3-ice

Ice was forming almost everywhere on the vertical walls of the canyon. It was very cold this day and even in the bright morning sunshine the ice wasn’t melting. That’s the secret of the why the ice grows to such giant proportions here; the temperature seems to stay about 10 degrees cooler in both winter and summer. On a hot July day the natural air conditioning is very welcome, but in December it can be like walking into a freezer so you had better be dressed for it if you plan on spending much time here.

4-ice

The groundwater seems to follow the natural lay of the stone and seeps between the layers winter and summer. The water doesn’t seem to ever stop seeping so when an icicle forms more and more water flows over it, increasing its length and girth drip by drip. There can be enough ice here in February to cover the stone ledges completely in many areas.

5-ice-climber

Unless you’ve seen them the ice formations are hard to imagine, so I’ve used this photo from last February to better illustrate the size of both the ice and the place. Last winter was mild so the ice shown is tame in comparison to previous winters but still, ice climbers came to train. The New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club holds regular ice climbing clinics here and seeing climbers on the ice is fairly common on weekends. I expect that I’ll see a few this winter.

6-waterfall

There is almost always the sound of water dripping here. Usually it comes from the seeping groundwater but in at least one spot water gushes through a rift in the wall with enough force to be called a stream. I wonder if a stream on the hillside above somehow changed course, because I doubt that the railroad engineers would have left it this way.

7-drainage-ditch

All that water has to go somewhere so the railroad built drainage ditches on either side of the railbed to direct it where they wanted it to go. The ditches have kept the railbed dry for over 150 years but I saw that a rockslide further down the trail had dammed up one side and now water is washing away the railbed. With no railroad to maintain these rail trails it’s now up to private groups like snowmobile clubs to do all the work. They do a great job but it they might not be aware of the washout.

8-rock-fall

This is a shot of where the rocks have fallen across the drainage ditch and dammed it up. What isn’t seen in this photo is how all the water in the ditch has been forced into the railbed, washing it away. The rocks are big and I’m sure are very heavy but I would think that two men with crowbars could at least slide them over enough to let the water through.

9-ledges

There are many mosses, liverworts, and other interesting things growing on these walls that I don’t see anywhere else so I put on rubber boots and walk across the drainage ditches to get close to them. I’ve seen large stones that have fallen into the railbed and in the winter falling ice is always a possibility, so I have to be very aware of what’s going on around me. I always look up before I cross a ditch to get to a section of wall to make sure that I’m not going to be standing under overhanging ledge like that seen in this photo. I’ve never seen one fall but fallen stones litter both sides of the trail all down its length.

10-liverworts

For me this is what makes coming here worth any small amount of risk involved; I can get close to so many plants that I’ve never seen before, like the great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) seen here. They are very particular about where they grow, insisting on just the right amount of light, humidity and temperature and they have found the perfect spot here, where they grow in great numbers. Though they are said to be common I never see them anywhere else.

11-liverwort-close

The great scented liverwort is also called the snakeskin liverwort, and with good reason. I love its reptilian skin and its scent, which is so clean and fresh it always makes me wish it came in a spray bottle when I smell it. Each more or less hexagonal leaf cell has a central pore over the top of an air chamber. On the floor of the air chamber are photosynthetic filaments called chloroplasts, and the pores through its skin let in enough light for the chloroplasts to do their work, which is photosynthesis. It’s quite amazing, as is all of life.

12-liverworts

Though the liverworts might seem fragile they are actually very tough as all of the plants that grow here have to be, because they are often completely encased in ice throughout the winter months. From what I’ve seen it doesn’t seem to bother them.

13-ferns

Any thoughts I had about the delicacy of our evergreen ferns went right out the window when I saw them growing here. They too are often covered in ice through the winter, but still green.

14-moss

Mosses also have to be able to withstand the ice. Curiously, though this one was surrounded by ice it was quite dry, as its twisted leaves show. I think it might be tall tornado moss (Tortella tortuosa) which has leaves that twist and contort when it dries out. It grows in the thin soil that forms on boulders and on rock ledges, and likes limestone.

15-algae

One of the strangest things that grow here  is a green algae called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color, hides the green chlorophyll. It’s very hairy and produces spores which, when produced in high enough concentrations, can even color rain. I was just reading about a blood red rain that fell in parts of Spain in 2014. Many worried that it was a bad omen or extraterrestrial in origin, or a plague worthy of the Bible, but it was actually caused by the algae Haematococcus pluvialis. The same thing happened in Texas in 2013, in Sri Lanka in 2012, and in India in 2001, each seemingly caused by different algae. Yellow, green, and black rain has also been reported. It seems that colored rain can happen just about anywhere on earth when conditions are right. The blue in this photo is the sky reflected in ice.

16-mineral-staining

I’ve never seen colored rain falling in this place but I have seen plenty of colored ice, and I think at least some of the ice colors are caused by minerals in the groundwater, like the iron staining shown on the stone in this photo.  The ice here can be blue, green, red, orange, yellow, brown, and even black.

17-mineral-staining

Another example of mineral staining on the stone, this time in a sandy, orangey brown color.

18-colored-ice

And this photo from last year shows what the minerals can do to the ice. At least that’s my assumption. Neither I nor readers of this blog have been able to come up with any other theories except in the case of blue ice, which can become blue simply because of its own density.

19-linemans-shack

It takes a while to get used to this kind of cold again and by the time I had reached what’s left of the old lineman’s shack I couldn’t feel my toes any longer, so I thought I’d better do a little less lollygagging and more walking, and I trudged back down the trail at a high rate of speed (for me.)

20-ice

Watching ice melt might not be very exciting but watching it grow is, so I’ll be coming back here often throughout winter.

He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter. ~John Burroughs

Thanks for coming by.

 

 

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