Sunapee Old Growth: Where Youngsters Meet Ancients

November 8, 2008

Perhaps my favorite end-of-the-field-season excursion is an annual field trip with Colby-Sawyer College students to visit the old growth forest in the “east bowl” on Mt. Sunapee. On Halloween, Dr. Laura Alexander, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies invited me to again share the history and ecology of a rare 150-acre forest of old growth red spruce, yellow birch, beech and sugar maple. The largest-known fragment of old growth forest remaining south of the White Mountains is hidden along a seldom-used trail in Mount Sunapee State Park.

It’s not easy to reach the ancient forest – if it was, it would have been logged long ago. A steep drive up the access road to a group campsite located at the base of the “Sun Bowl” and then a short, steep hike up the “Williamson” ski trail that doubles as a summer maintenance road reaches the trailhead for the Lake Solitude Trail. With afternoon sunlight fading fast at 3:00 p.m., we hiked quickly up into the frosty forest where the first snow lingered on the high slope overlooking Sunapee.

We’d come to visit a stand of gnarled old yellow birch trees with nearly-40 inch diameter trunks. Most are less than 50 feet tall in stature. At the sub-alpine elevation of 2,400 feet, the uppermost branches have been twisted, broken and wind-pruned by centuries of harsh mountain weather including the 1998 ice storm. Some old yellow birch stems were age-cored to 240 years old a decade ago. The largest hollow giants with rotten heartwood are likely in excess of 300 years old – can’t tell now. Red spruces exhibit protruding “knees,” exposed roots radiating from flared trunks. The red spruces grow 80 feet tall, 30 feet or more above the surrounding hardwood canopy. One red spruce was age-cored at 248 years in 1997. The tallest red spruce are visible from the Sun Bowl chairlift and are seen from the lake 1,400 feet below at an elevation of 1000 feet.

In the presence of the ancients, the raucous banter of the students quiets. We find fresh black bear tracks in the snow where a bear rolled in a snow bed next to a huge fallen spruce whose tangle of upper branches would make an ideal winter den. There’s a narrow window for seeing bear tracks in snow in late fall and early spring.

With an inspiring eight mile line-of-sight view north to their New London campus visible through the hardwood branches, I asked students to consider how those old trees have overlooked Sunapee for centuries.

Local lore says the first recorded European visitor to Lake Sunapee was an advanced scout for a Boston exploring party in 1630. But due to hostile bands of Abenaki Indians, the region remained an uncharted, howling wilderness for another 130 years.

A red spruce now-259 years old began growing on Sunapee in 1749, just prior to final seven years of the French and Indian War from 1753 to 1760, an era of Indian raids when isolated homes were attacked and burned and helpless settlers were taken captive, carried off to Canada and sold. Few white settlers dared venture inland from Seacoast towns of Durham, Hampton, Portsmouth and Exeter. British Colonial expansion was effectively blocked by the French and Indian confederacy.

By 1755, Indian raids against British settlements along the Hudson River and east to the Connecticut River and upper Merrimack River valleys were launched from Western Abenaki strongholds at Missisquoi on Lake Champlain and St. Francis in Quebec. In 1755, under the command of Col. Joseph Blanchard, father of an original surveyor of the Masonian Curve, New Hampshire troops were dispatched to Crown Point marching from the Salisbury Fort on the Merrimack River west via the shortest direct route to Fort Number Four in Charlestown. Blanchard’s 500-man regiment with oxen hauling cannons included famed Captain Robert Rogers and his lieutenant, John Stark. The men followed a rough Indian trail through dense forests, camping at the foot of Sunapee Lake in the shadow of the forest on Mount Sunapee. The march transformed the trail into the famed “Province Road” along what is now Rte 103 in Newbury.

It wasn’t until the 1771 that the venerable trees bore witness to the survey party working along the “Great Sixty Mile Curve,” an inland arc sixty miles from the coast which delineated the west boundary of the British province. Surveyor Joseph Blanchard Jr. and nine men were hired “to run the line and mark it well” passing just west of Mt. Sunapee and crossing “Great Sunapee Pond” on a raft of logs. The Masonian Curve eventually became the western boundary of Merrimack County and now divides the lake from south to north.

When the present town of Newbury’s charter was granted in 1772, lots were surveyed by Zephaniah Clark for the Portsmouth-based Masonian Proprietors in 1775. Subsequently, Newbury was incorporated as “Fishersfield” in 1778. By then, the old yellow birch and red spruce were already 70- and 30-years old respectively. All around them, forests of the region began to fall for the creation of new farms. Yet 230 years later, the few ancient trees in the east bowl still grow overlooking the lake.

From the students: silence. It happens every time. Living ancient trees have the power of time-keeping, living for centuries beyond any single human lifespan.

The undergraduates seem to get younger each year. My oldest daughter is now a junior in college herself. Like my daughter, the students likely think I’m an odd tree-worshiping fossil.

“Respect your elders!” I instruct as I gesture at a particularly massive yellow birch. Now let’s give this old birch tree a big group hug!