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Posts Tagged ‘The Icebox’

Finding ice baubles along the shore of the Ashuelot River last week made me wonder if the ice was growing at the deep railroad cut called the “icebox” up in Westmoreland, so last Saturday I decided to go and have a look. There was ice on the man-made canyon walls but it was too early for the ice climbers who named the place to be here.

Broken ice at the base of the ice falls told me that the icicles had formed and melted a few times. It takes a good cold period to get them going but once they start growing in earnest, they can reach the size of tree trunks in just a few weeks.

The groundwater that seeps through the fractures in the stone never stops. Winter or summer, it still flows. The reason the ice grows so well is because, the walls are shaded in this part of the canyon. The canyon rim is 50 feet high in some places, so sunshine might kiss the canyon floor for an hour each day. That’s also why you find no plants growing here.

In this photo from a few years ago you can see the scale of the place and you can also see that the ice climbers don’t wait long to start climbing. These are very focused, intent people and I don’t like to bother them when they’re up there.

In places water pours from the walls in streams but in most places it just seeps slowly, drip by drip.

Never was moss so green as it was on this day.

As you can imagine it is cold here, usually made colder by the breeze that blows through, so the 28 degrees F. I started with was probably more like 18 or 20 when I finally turned south to find some sunshine.

The railroad engineers had a lot of stone to get rid of once the canyon had been blasted through the hillside and one of the ways they got rid of it was to build massive retaining walls along sections of railbed. For the most part they’re still in perfect shape after 150 years.

The southern canyon’s walls aren’t quite so high so more sunshine pours in, and that means more plants grow here on the southern end. At this time of year it seems kind of empty but in summer the growth here is lush, with every vertical and horizontal surface covered by growing things, and it always reminds me of the Shangri-La that James Hilton described in Lost Horizon.

Last summer I discovered ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) growing here and here was the evidence; their feather like fertile fronds, covered with spore capsules. There will most likely be more of them here in the future. They’re a beautiful fern so I hope so.

There are lots of blackberries growing here as well and most still had leaves to show off.

But just because the sun shines brighter here in the southern canyon, that doesn’t mean that ice doesn’t grow here. The cold wins out over the weak winter sunshine and these walls are often trapped under ice that is feet thick until spring.

To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, here is the southern canyon in March of 2015. The ice columns, stained various colors by minerals in the groundwater, were thicker than tree trunks. It’s a good idea to wear warm clothes if you come here in winter.

Until and unless the drainage channels freeze over the ice, no matter how big it might get, is cutoff by the flowing water.

You can see how easily the groundwater can flow through the cracks and fissures in the stone. That’s what makes this place so special. I’ve been in other deep cuts but none have had ice like I find here. Everything has come together perfectly to create a land of water, stone and ice.

Here was new mineral staining that I hadn’t seen before. If an ice column grows in this spot, it will most likely be orange.

An evergreen fern grows in a grotto, set back from the face of the wall and each year icicles, like prison bars, surround it until spring.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of nature, because in other places the ice was rotten. 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. Compare the ice in this shot with that in the previous shot and the difference will be obvious.

There was puddle ice to see. Do you see the fish?

In one spot on the wall of the southern canyon a green alga called Trentepohlia aurea grows. Though it is considered green algae the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes green algae orange. It’s is very hairy, but with the drainage channels filled with water I couldn’t get close enough to show you.

Reptilian great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) also grow on the southern canyon walls. This beautiful liverwort gets its common name from its fresh, clean scent. It will only grow near water that is very clean and it grows here just above the drainage ditches. Groundwater constantly splashes them and keeps them wet in warm months. In winter they are often encased in ice, and they will stay that way until spring. It doesn’t seem to hurt them any because there are thousands of them growing here.

The saddest thing I saw on this day was how the trail had flooded over half the length of the southern end. Nobody has maintained the drainage channels enough to keep them fully open and with all the rain we had over last summer they failed and flooded the trail. Snowmobile clubs try to keep up but there is only so much they can do with hand tools. To fix this properly now you’d have to bring in truck loads of gravel and heavy equipment to restore the drainage channels to the condition they once were in. It won’t be easy or cheap but I hope someone will do it because it would be a shame to lose this one-of-a-kind place. There is simply nothing else like it in this area.

All of the water in the drainage channels becomes a stream that runs off into the woods under that old bridge, and I was shocked to see how much soil had washed away from its banks. What was once a little surface stream is now about two feet below the surface.

I don’t know what this old bridge was used for but there was a lot of stone to be moved out of the canyons and I’m guessing that it was wheeled across this bridge and dumped in the woods. The railroad did that a lot and you can find piles of blasted stone all over this area. If I could find a way out there I’d go and see, but nobody is crossing this bridge unless they’re a tightrope walker.

And then there was the old lineman’s shack which, with its ridge beam broken, can no longer support its own weight. It now tilts at about 30 degrees, and if we have any mentionable amount of snow this winter I think it will surely come down.

It looks to me like the heavy slate roof is actually pulling what’s left of the building apart. It’s a shame that something so well built has to give itself up in this way but with absolutely no maintenance over a century or more, it has put up a good fight.

Though the old shack is beyond repair I hope the townspeople will somehow vote to find the funds to repair the damage to the trail itself one day. Other parts of the rail trails that surround Keene have had extensive work done to them, but they’re closer to town so more people use them. Meanwhile I’ll continue enjoying the place for as long as I’m able. I hope you enjoy seeing it as well. It’s a rare and special place that should be appreciated more than it is.

It’s amazing how quickly nature consumes human places after we turn our backs on them. Life is a hungry thing. ~Scott Westerfeld

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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

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1. The Icebox

Each winter seeping groundwater creates columns of ice that grow to unbelievable proportions in a deep cut railroad bed that lies slightly north of Keene. Ice climbers call this place “the icebox” and come here from all over New England to train. The New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club also holds ice climbing clinics here. I don’t climb; I just come to see beauty of a kind that I can’t see anywhere else.

2. Blue Ice

Some of the ice is blue. This example looked very solid and climbable.

3. Green Ice

Some ice is green. This example was on its way to being big enough to climb but I don’t know if the ice climbers will climb green ice. I’ve only seen them climb blue ice, which is very dense.

4. Icy Grotto

This ice formed a kind of shallow cave or grotto that I could have stepped into if I wasn’t so wary of falling ice and stone. It happens fairly regularly here and you don’t want to get hit by it.

5. Running Water

Most of the groundwater seeps through cracks in the stone but in places it runs in small streams and this is one of those places. One of the constants here is the sound of trickling water, winter and summer alike. The ice in this photo was formed by splashing water and was crystal clear. This place has taught me that there are differences in the clarity of ice, depending on how it has formed.

6. Drainage Ditch

The drainage ditches that the railroad engineers built 150 years ago at the base of the ledges still work as they were designed to and carry the water away down the gentle grade, keeping the rail bed high and dry. As the snow gets higher these ditches get deeper. I often put on knee high rubber boots and walk in them to explore the rock faces, but I didn’t do so on this trip. It was the ice I came to see.

7. Drainage Ditch

The water in the drainage ditches never freezes completely and its movement cuts off the ice on the ledges at water level. This means that the ice that looks like it’s hanging from the ledges really does hang and isn’t supported by the ground at all in many places. When it comes free from the walls and falls sometimes it’s as if a crystal tree fell across the trail. I wonder what the railroad did when such large pieces of ice fell on the tracks when the trains were running.

8. Orangey Brown Ice

Last year the ice in this spot was bright orange but this year it leaned more toward orangey brown.

9. Mineral Stains

Mineral stains on the rock faces tell part of the story of the colored ice but there are many reasons that ice can be colored. Even a higher density can turn it blue.

10. Orange Algae

There are other colors on these rock walls but they aren’t in ice. This orange patch is caused by 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. I’m not sure if the algae color any ice here.

11. Liverworts

Large areas of stone are covered in places by liverworts but they don’t seem to mind being encased in ice for the winter. In the spring you wouldn’t know they had seen any ice at all.

12. Mossy Ledges

Many mosses turn a yellower shade of green in winter but otherwise ride it out with little change.

13. Fern in Ice

This fern was completely encased in ice. Since it is an evergreen fern it will most likely lose its leaves in spring when new growth begins.

14. Dirty Ice

I think there must be soil washed along in the groundwater for ice to look dirty like this example does.

15. Ice Columns

I was hoping this shot would convey a sense of how tall this ice is but it really doesn’t.  These ice columns are too small in diameter to climb but the ice climbers go for the taller ice I’ve noticed, and these were plenty tall.

16. Green Ice

Much of the ice was half what it was last year but we still have February to get through. One of the things that made last February so memorable was the extreme below zero cold that went on and on for most of the month. If that happens this year this ice will become huge like it was then.

17. Icicles

This past week has been the coldest we’ve seen this winter so I’m sure the ice has grown some. I’ll have to visit it again before it all starts to melt away in March. When I leave here and write a post about the place I often marvel at having virtually no memory of how cold it was, so captivating were the colors, sounds, and shapes. When great joy passes through you inconvenience slips away. You remember the joy but not the inconvenience.

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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