All of the sudden we’re having some warm weather with temperatures expected to reach near 60 degrees tomorrow, so I thought I’d better get down into the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland before the ice began to melt and fall from the walls. As luck would have it there were a couple of ice climbers there. Ice climbers train here and call the place the icebox.
They were two women climbers who said they were doing a “baby climb” and I had the feeling that they were just starting out. They were climbing ice that wasn’t that high; probably 20-30 feet. I didn’t hang around and bother them but I hope they did alright. I’ve read that ideal ice conditions for climbing happen between 20 and 35 degrees F because those temperatures produce the just right “plastic” ice; not cold enough to shatter, and not warm enough to melt. The temperature when I came here on this day was around 45 degrees and by the time I left I was sweating.
There are plenty of these sturdy looking anchors, called “hangers” screwed into the stone but I think they had their rope tied to a tree. How they get it up there without actually climbing the ice is always a mystery to me. Maybe they walk along the top of the man-made canyon first and tie it off.
Some ice falls looked dull and grayish white because they were rotten. Ice becomes rotten when water, air, and / or dirt get in between the grains of ice and it becomes honeycombed and loses its strength. Instead of a sharp crack when it is tapped it sounds more like a dull thud. It would be dangerous ice to try and climb, so you have to be a good judge of ice to be a climber. The color and matte finish of this example were dead giveaways that it was rotten.
This huge ice fall was shiny and transparent; two signs that it isn’t rotting and is most likely climbable. It was probably around fifty feet high and I couldn’t back up far enough to get it all in one photo. You don’t want to be here when ice like this starts melting and falling. The sun warms the stone enough to release the ice where it touches stone, and at times ice columns like this can be free standing. When it can no longer support its own weight it can fall, and I’ve seen ice as big as tree trunks lying across the trail.
The ice here comes in many colors and I think that it has to be the minerals in the constantly seeping groundwater that color it.
The stones have mineral stains on them throughout the canyon. There is a lot of iron here, which at times colors the stones bright red.
In this spot not only was the ice colored but the snow as well. This is the first time I’ve seen this.
People came through wearing snowshoes but you don’t need them here. In winter this is a popular spot for snowmobiles, and they pack the snow down enough so in most places it’s like walking on a sidewalk. I’d bet that I saw 30 snowmobiles come through on this day; the busiest I’ve ever seen it.
But snowmobiles can’t do much about the snow depth and this year there is about two hard packed feet of it on the trail. I like to walk in the drainage ditches to get close to the plants and mosses that grow on the walls, and I was able to in a couple of spots, but it was mostly too deep. The top of the actual trail should normally be about a foot above the base of the wall, so you can see how much snow was on it. I’ve climbed down in there before in winter only to wonder how I’d ever get out. This beautiful retaining wall was built with some of the stone that the railroad crews blasted out of the canyon nearly 150 years ago, and it is still as solid now as it was then. Notice how it leans back into the hillside, just as any good retaining wall should. I’d guess that it’s about 6-8 feet high.
I had to stand on the trail and wish I could get closer to mosses like this one, but it was warm enough to be in a jacket on this day and warm rather than cold breezes blew through the canyon. It was a hint of the warm breath of spring, and once that warm breeze melts all the ice and snow I’ll be able to get a better look at the plants.
White-tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata) is fairly common and I find it mostly growing on stones in sunny spots. In this case it was growing on a ledge where dripping ground water constantly splashed it. I was able to find a path through the snowy ditch to get close to it and saw that it was shedding water quickly. That meant that every time I clicked the shutter a water droplet or two moved, so that’s why some of them are blurred. I never realized how much water runs through the soil below our feet until I came here. It’s always dripping, winter and summer, through the entire length of the canyon.
I haven’t seen much blue ice here this year but I did find this example. I’ve heard that blue ice is the densest of all but I never knew what forces combined to make it that way. I recently read on Wikipedia that ice “only appears blue when bubbles do not interfere with the passage of light. Without the scattering effect of air bubbles, light can penetrate ice undisturbed.” So apparently blue ice has fewer air bubbles in it than other colors, and without all those air bubbles getting in between the ice crystals stronger bonds can form, making it more dense. If I understand what I’ve read correctly the more dense ice is the more red and yellow light are scattered and / or absorbed, leaving just the light at the blue end of the visible light spectrum for us to see.
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.
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 is usually very hard to photograph. I think this is the best macro photo I’ve ever gotten of it after about 6 years of trying.
The beautiful reptilian great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) like to grow in places where they are constantly splashed by or dripped on by very clean ground water. Though they like a lot of water they won’t stand being submerged in it and die back if the water level rises. Their common name comes from their scent, because if you squeeze a piece and smell it you smell something so clean and fresh scented you’ll wish it came in a spray bottle. I took this photo from about 10 feet away and was astonished to see the amount of detail that the Canon bridge camera I used captured. That camera usually isn’t any good for such things so I use it for landscapes.
I’m surprised that more animals don’t fall from these ledges. It isn’t hard to imagine a deer bounding through the woods and suddenly finding itself in midair, but they must have a sixth sense about such things. I did hear of a moose that fell in here once, He got so badly hurt that the Fish and Game Department had to put him down, which was too bad. There aren’t many animals in these parts that could survive a 50 foot fall.
After an afternoon of picking and poking and gawking and gaping I finally made it to the old lineman’s shack, which is my turn around point. Somehow this old building has made it through another winter.
With half of it gone I don’t know how it stands up to the snow load. It says a lot for the railroad workers who built it.
I saw a bird’s nest up in the rafters that looked relatively fresh.
The graffiti inside the old shack always reminds me of my father. He would have been 18 in 1925 and he lived near here, 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.
Because of our unusually warm January the ice didn’t grow as big as it has in the past but there is still enough to be dangerous when it starts falling, so this will be the last trip through here for me until probably April. By then the canyon walls will be well on their way to becoming covered by lush green growth that always reminds me of the Shangri-La that James Hilton wrote about in Lost Horizon.
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 coming by.