We approach the wilderness in the armor of our modern lives. Those leatherstocking days when long hunters took little more into the wild than a Pennsylvania rifle, skinning knife, hunting shirt and a handful of salt are gone forever with the first-growth timber.
Modern materials have certainly made backpacking a more comfortable and rewarding experience for many, and practitioners of minimum impact camping create a modest amount of disturbance. Nevertheless, most of us are lost without the crutch of our conveniences and few Americans today live anything approaching self-sufficient lives.
The campgrounds of America are flooded with modern-day voortrekkers who laager their mobile homes and braai their sirloin on propane fires. A need for speed, a lust for power, drives SUVs to the supermarket and ATVs through our backcountry. Where would we be without GPS? This is not a rhetorical question: wherever we are, and in the moment.
Since I feel this way, it will surprise you to learn that I packed a cellphone on my three-day hike in the Taconics. Since I needed to coordinate my rendezvous at the Quarry Hill trailhead with my darling wife, perhaps this can be justified. Fact is, one of the things that makes the forest of the Taconic Plateau so special is that it remains virtually untainted by cellular infrastructure. There are many places, on the rim and in the bowl of the Plateau, where you'll never get a signal. I know better than to rely on the false promise of cellular security: any mountain rescue I might require would be uncertain at best and a long time in coming.
This has not been my best year - if you'll indulge me in a bit of severe understatement - and I'm feeling off my game. I got my first mid-life crisis at 37 and it hasn't let up for months. My retreat to the mountains was more of a pilgrimage than a vacation, and pilgrims, you will note, seek both spiritual enlightenment and personal reaffirmation. I needed the journey to re-engage my senses, to confirm my confidence in my worth and abilities. And so the cellphone was a grudging concession to aging bones and uncertain steps. I vowed I'd leave it in the bottom of my pack.
I reached Lion's Head around noon on the first day and walked toward the overlook facing south-southeast. A clump of pitch pines perches near its summit, a modest fringe of craggy trees unremarked by most hikers intent on the prospect of what lies below. Yet before we peer out over Washining and Washinee Lakes, Canaan Mt. and distant Mohawk with its downhill scars and drivable summit, pause for a moment to consider this remarkably adaptive tree and how it comes to persist here in the harsh, acidic ridgetops, and also in another, quite different habitat: the sandy outwash and coastal plains of the Albany Pine Bush, Cape Cod, Long Island and New Jersey.
Pitch pines have been with us in the Northeast for over 10,000 years. When the last, great ice sheet withdrew, melting faster than it could advance, it left a landscape scraped to its bedrock bones. The first vegetation to recolonize this greatly disturbed landscape were tundra species, now represented in Northern New England by alpine remnants atop our >4,000 footers. The first tree species to arrive were pines- pitch pine and jack pine- and in the absence of competition they were everywhere. We had pitch pines in fens and pitch pines on sweet soils. We had pitch pines in optimal habitat and pitch pines in marginal settings.
Tim Flannery's The Eternal Frontier, his extraordinary ecological and social survey of North American history from the death of the dinosaurs to the present day, notes that for a million years after the impact event that blasted the flora and fauna of the Northern Hemisphere out of all recognition, the fossil plant record shows one dominant species. This plant evolved in riverine systems, with long tapered leaves designed to disperse the force of floodwater, but it turns up on mountaintops, in deserts, on cold, northern slopes. It made use of all environmental niches because it had survived the asteroid impact and fires and floods that followed in its preferred environment and had no competition to check its spread for the next few million years thereafter. Once other vegetation recolonized the landscape, it was pushed aside from all but its specialized niche and was not longer "invasive". The same thing occurred following the last glacial period with pitchpines.
The tree species that followed the pitchpines, slower to disperse but more persistent once they arrived, were better adapted to many of the available habitats and were able to out-compete the pitch pine in all but the most extremely harsh environments. The acidic ridgetops of the Taconics are one such place, and here one finds small patch communities of pitchpine, scrub oak and huckleberry in place of the denser forest types downslope.
There are even examples of the rare dwarf form that pitchpine assumes on Mt. Race and Mt. Everett, where the trees seldom reach a meter in height yet persist without being shaded out by oaks and red maples. Often pitchpines require periodic groundfires to remain viable, as the flames both suppress competing vegetation and allow their sticky, serotinous cones to open and germinate. Coastal pine barrens and some ridgetop pitch pines have serotinous cones, but those on Mt. Everett and perhaps other sites in the Taconics are not thought to be fire dependent. Their cones are apparently not serotinous and their competition has thus far not managed to displace them from these ridgetops.
From a management perspective, then, pitch-pine/scrub oak ridgetops present a challenge to conservationists. Some may be fire dependent at some interval and intensity, while others may be fire sensitive and unable to regenerate after fire. Although I am aware of no research that has taken advantage of the opportunity to study the effects of the recent Mt. Everett wildfire, in 2002 it burned across a pitchpine community on the east flank of the mountain and over the course of the next six weeks smoldered through a total of just 18 acres before it was finally extinguished by heavy rains.
Just 18 acres! It took the resources of dozens of fire companies just to get to the fire and consumed many local fire budgets as well as timber. It burned so hot that there are fire scorch marks 20 feet up the trunks of large trees, and today there is a brown scar on the hillside that marks the fire's passage. It was such a stubborn fire because it went underground. It burned in the deep duff layer that had accumulated in this forest over more than a century, in places to a depth of more than a foot, and even burned through tree roots.
There is so much available fuel, not because we haven't done more logging, but because natural fire has been long absent and is vigorous suppressed when it appears. Although not as fire dependent as our western forests, perhaps 3/4 of the eastern woodland communities rely on fire to some degree to persist over time. Oaks may prefer low intensity ground fires every half century or so to aid in regeneration. Fire dependent pitch pine communities need to burn at least every 40 years to allow resprouts as well as regeneration from cones, and often at much more frequent intervals.
Some estimates by fire practitioners in Massachusetts indicate that the Commonwealth easily has 50,000 acres of fire dependent communities that should be actively managed each year with fire. In a good year, the Nature Conservancy and its partners in Massachusetts managed to burn near 1,000 acres. Former TNC Massachusetts Chapter Burn Boss Joel Carlson is now Chief Fire Warden for the State, so perhaps we can look forward to more prescribed fire in the future.
Not all wildfire will have these positive benefits. The fire ecology of our woodlands has been dramatically altered along with species composition and structure by past and current human land use and the impacts of chestnut blight and other pathogens. There was a great wildfire in 1930 that began around Boston Corners, NY and burned across Bear Mountain in CT before it was checked in Sages Ravine on the MA/CT line. Old timers recall the days where the fire raged on the Mountain, and truckloads of unemployed men from Hudson were paid by the day to fight the fire with Indian packs and shovels through thick mountain laurel and the sproutlands that covered much of the formerly logged mountainside. I had been told that the summit of Bear Mt. was quite different in species composition from other ridgetops as a result of this old wildfire, but found as I gained the massive cairn at the peak that there were plenty of pitchpines and other typical species. Still, there must have been significant changes in natural community response after such an intense fire.
We'll pick up the trail at the summit of Bear Mt. in a subsequent posting.