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Posts Tagged ‘Mineral Staining’

Last weekend warm air moved over the cold snow and created a fog which was quite thick in places, including here in the man-made railroad canyon in Westmoreland. Ice climbers call it the icebox and there was plenty of ice to see on this day.

Once cold settles in here, which in places is as much as 50 feet below surface level, it usually stays for the winter. There is also a lot of groundwater trickling out of the rock walls, and that coupled with the cold creates ice columns which are often as big as tree trunks. So big that the Appalachian Mountain Club comes here to train ice climbers.

There were some impressive Ice falls here on this day but I don’t know if they were ready to be climbed.

There are many signs to tell you what goes on here, like this metal tie off. Ice climbers call these “screws.”

I’ve included this shot from last year to give you a sense of scale of the place. It doesn’t take much ice to get them climbing but on this day they admitted that they were doing as much rock climbing as they were ice climbing. I don’t usually speak to these people out of fear of breaking their concentration. It could be the climber’s first climb and they need to be able to hear and concentrate on the instructions coming from below. Sometimes if I hear them say they need a rest I’ll speak to them but I never stay long. They’re a gutsy bunch. With my paralyzing fear of heights they’d have to pry me from that wall one finger at a time.

In places water quite literally pours from the rock walls. Until I came here I never knew how much ground water could be moving just below the surface.

Water pours and trickles from every crack in the stone, in winter and summer.

The ice falls can be very beautiful.

In places the groundwater sometimes doesn’t flow and even in winter the place reminds me of the Shangri-La James Hilton described in his book Lost Horizon. Being here is like walking back in time to an unspoiled place, even though it was actually created by man. It’s easy to lose yourself in the beauty of it and it’s common for me to have no idea how long I’ve spent here.

Of course all that water has to be taken out of the canyon somehow, so the railroad built drainage channels along each side of the trail. When they are maintained they still work as they were designed to 150 years ago.

As I always do I headed south out of the deep canyon to the southern part of the trail. On the way you pass an excellent example of how a retaining wall should be built; tilted back into the hillside at about 10 degrees. This adds a lot of strength to the wall. You can’t see it in this shot but what’s left of a signal box is on top of the wall about half way down.

And before long I saw this; the entire southern canyon was flooded. Trees and tree limbs fall regularly here and they often land in the drainage channels. With regular maintenance this isn’t a problem but if nobody removes the trees and branches leaves build up and plug the channels. That’s exactly what has happened and since the water had nowhere else to go it ran into the rail bed and washed it out in several places. I went along and pulled out what branches I could but this will take two strong backs with a chainsaw and a stone rake to do it properly. Coincidentally I met a man on a 4 wheeler who was trying to clean things up but he had no real tools and his ability was limited, but he did say that there are many committees and commissions that know about this problem, so hopefully it won’t be long before this is taken care of. This place is after all one of a kind. There is nothing like it that I know of anywhere else on this rail trail circuit.

I’ve noticed that the green alga (Trentepohlia aurea) that grows here and there on the walls seems to  be spreading, so the conditions must be right for it. 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. Someday, maybe after I retire, I’m going to come here regularly so I can better understand its life cycle. I know it produces spores but it’s something I’ve never seen happen. Since you have to walk through the drainage channel to get to it I don’t see it up close very often.

There was some colored ice already forming. I believe the color comes from various minerals in the groundwater. Due to the rise and fall of the water in the drainage channel the ice is always cut off in a very straight line as you can see here.

Every year this evergreen fern is encased in an icy prison, but every year it just shrugs it off.

A blackberry still had some color.

Here was more colored ice. Blue is the most dense but I didn’t see any of that. In fact much of the ice was rotten, which is what happens if it gets too warm. Rotten ice is soft and opaque and makes a dull thud when you strike it. New clear ice is quite hard and rings a bit when you strike it.

Here is one of the mineral seeps found along the trail. I believe it is iron, possibly oxidized by bacteria. Certain types of bacteria can take iron dissolved in groundwater and oxidize it. Oxidation prevents iron from dissolving in the water and produces either an orange colored slime as is seen here, or an oily sheen. I think this must play a large part in why there is so much colored ice found here.

Here was a bit more colored ice. Location seems to be random because it doesn’t always happen in the same place year after year.

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. Ice doesn’t seem to bother them because they are often totally encased it all winter in this place. This is the only place I know of to find them.

Since I wasn’t wearing my rubber boots I couldn’t get close to the liverworts but I wished I could smell them. If you squeeze a small piece and smell it you’ll immediately smell one of the cleanest scents found in nature that I know of. In general liverworts are a sign of very clean water, so that says a lot about the quality of the groundwater in this place. There are also small brook trout swimming in the drainage channels, and that’s another sign of very clean water.

Orange crust fungus (Stereum complicatum) is also called crowded parchment but no matter what you call it, it’s a beautiful fungus that can be seen from quite a distance. It loves moisture so this place brings out its best.

How appropriate I thought, to find one of the fungi that Ötzi, the 5000 year old “iceman” whose well preserved body was found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991 carried. From what I’ve read he carried two types of fungi; birch polypores (Piptoporus betulinus) and the one shown here, which is the tinder polypore (Fomes fomentarius.) There are lots of different theories of why he would have carried these two particular fungi but I don’t think anyone will ever know for certain. What is known is birch polypores have antiseptic properties and tinder fungi are good for starting fires, and both would have been valuable to someone who walked 5000 years ago.

This stream carries all the water from the drainage channels off into the woods to some unknown body of water. It could flow into Tenant swamp in Keene, which isn’t too far downhill from here. The “hills” you see on either side are actually made of much of the blasted stone that came from the deep cut canyons.

Off in the distance a bridge goes over the stream. It’s a narrow thing, possibly 8-10 feet wide, and I’ve always thought it must have been used as a way for ore carts to get all the stone away from the railbed, but now I wonder if it might have been used for one of those pump handle carts they used to use. Somehow men had to get into the canyon and move a lot of snow after every storm and I’ve wondered for years how they did it. There were plows fitted to the front of some locomotives but I think there still would have been a lot of cleaning up to do afterwards. The canyons are only about 4-6 feet wider than a train so there wouldn’t have been a lot of room for snow.

I think all the snow removal tools would have been kept in the old lineman’s shack, which may or may not make it through another winter. Ever so slowly it leans in on itself. Since we just got 16 inches of snow on the day I’m finishing this post I wonder if it isn’t just a pile of boards now.

One moment the world is as it is. The next, it is something entirely different. Something it has never been before. ~Anne Rice

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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

Thanks for coming by.

 

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