Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Travels in New Hampshire: Mount Washington

In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, about 200 miles inland from the coast is the tallest mountain in the Eastern United States (and Canada): Mount Washington. It is also the windiest place on Earth, with a record of 231 miles per hour (=372 km/h) winds, and with a weather observatory on top (I just read that they had lots of hail yesterday). The top of the Mount Washington is known for its ever-changing and severe weather, and over 170 people have died on the top, most from weather issues.

In the mid 1800s someone decided that it would be good to build a road up there for tourists, so they started and worked on it for 7 years with mules, hand drills, black powder (krut), and hand labor only until it got finished. The road is 8 miles long and goes from about 1600 feet (400 m) to 6200 feet (1920 m, just a bit shorter than the tallest mountain in Sweden, Kebnekaise). Recently they checked where they would have made the road today and it would be exactly the same route - those 19th century engineers were not bad with their hand calculations and old instruments.

Carriages with six horses in front and leather strip brakes for the trip down were used to transport rich vacationers to the top, since this was one of the best summer vacation spots for people that had nothing else to do and wanted to get cooler (this was pre-air conditioning time too). The White Mountains was THE destination in the late 1800s and had many very large and fancy hotels in the valleys. Of course the logging companies had clearcut most of the forest too at that time. The first car that ever drove up was a steam driven car, and today you only see cars and vans on this private toll-road. But it was fun! Here is our experience.
The weather on our day was amazing - I don't know how far you could see but it was as far until the globe curves away from you. This view is to the northeast, towards Maine and Canada.
Up on top, just to prove we were there (or my car at least). The precautions they tell you before you drive up are very detailed: "always be in lowest gear", "turn on the heat if the car overheats", "this road is steep and have no guard rails - some people might not appreciate the experience". And of course, bring warm clothes. It is a lot cooler and windier on top. We started out at the bottom in 68 degrees (about 18 C), and on top it was 35 degrees, nearly freezing, plus a strong wind. But some people (=Harvard undergraduates) drove up in flip-flops and shorts... Here was the current weather monitor at the top on June 24. On the top they built several hotels and other buildings already in the 1800s but the only one that has lasted is the Tip-top house (below). It used to be a restaurant I think, but was closed now (for us there was only a touristy snack bar next to the souvenir shop, so we skipped that food option). All the hotels burned down in a big fire in the early 1900s. The top even used to have its own newspaper. Today you have the newer observatory and some other research buildings. People live up here all year round to monitor the weather, but the road is only open 6 months of the year. But there is another way to get up to the top too! There is a railroad that comes up from the other side of the mountain, with steam locomotives that uses a cog (a large gear that fits into a metal railing and pushes the engine up the hill). This is the oldest cog railroad in the world, and still used for getting tourists to the top. The engine has to work really hard, and it is good it has the cog, because it is very, very steep in some places. It was a strange feeling to see a railroad out here, in nowhere high up on the alpine heath, but somehow it fit right in.
The locomotive has to have its boiler on an angle, that is how steep it is.
Here it is ready to go down again, which goes a lot faster. PP can give lots of more details about this train, and there are more photos from its base camp on the other side of the mountain for another blog post.

The alpine zone is very similar to the Swedish mountains (fjallen). The lichens and rocks look the same and many plants are similar or the same. This is one reason I wanted to go here, to get some 'fjall'-feelings since I haven't been to the Swedish mountains for probably 15 years. Next time I am in Sweden I need to go north with the family! It is windy here too and all the vegetation is creeping along the ground. The diapensia (fjallgrona, Diapensia) had just stopped flowering on the alpine heaths. If you lay down, you could imagine being in Stekenjakk or Abisko. It even smelled just like Swedish mountains.
This is a novelty for Swedes - Kalmia polifolia, named after Per Kalm, a student of Linnaeus that came to North America in the 1700s (below). It is in the blueberry family, Ericaceae.
There were the little white dogwoods (skogskornell) close to the ground (below), but it is a different species from Sweden; this is Cornus canadensis.
Ledum groenlandicum was flowering (below), and it smelled like the Ledum species from Sweden, which are used to flavor akvavit. But the Swedish one grows in mossy bogs around dark little forest lakes, not on top of mountains.
On our way down again, we stopped for a short hike in the conifer forest. The conifer species are also different from Scandinavia, but even here the smell of the forest is very Swedish and not at all like New Jersey. All bears stayed away too, which was nice. The mountain in the background is Mt. Adams I think, not Mt. Washington. They have named all the peaks after presidents, but the original Indian name for Mt. Washington was Agiocochook, or "home of the Great Spirit". I like the Indian name better, and they were the first ones on the top, not white men. We only had two days in the White Mountains, but I want to get back there soon and look at more plants, hike, birdwatch, and see more beautiful views.
(And now the rubythroated hummingbird is perching in the tree outside, resting, and I need some breakfast. Another update from our garden - no groundhogs have been seen yet, and house wrens are nesting in the new WINER birdhouse).


EH said...

And another wonderful tale, nice with all the pictures too. Funny with the tilted train boiler, I must show that to MH.

But....skogskornell is hönsbär isn´t it? And Ledum is skvattram? but it´s called Rhododendron in my flora and the thing used in aquavit is pors (Myrica), so I have to correct the botanist! Nice with the Kalmia flower.

It seem you can get a lot cooler up on the top, interesting with the history too. Why do they stay up there all year now, isn´t a weather station connected to satellites enough?

O.K. said...

I like your trip reports! And it sure looks like "fjällen".

I think one of the windiest places in Sweden is Tarfala valley, with a record of 81 m/s. At least, since the wind speed meter broke at that point. It sure was windy when I was there, and it escalated to a storm when we went up on the top of Kebnekaise.

LS said...

EH, you are quite right and the botanist is quite confused. Ledum (now Rhododendrum, all those systematists mess things up) is skvattram, but this is a different species than in Sweden. We have another species of pors too.

In my book "Brannvinskryddor i skog och mark" by Bengt Sjogren, I just read up about skvattram and it was never used for akvavit, but it was used in beer instead of hops (humle). Apparently the men that drank the beer went berserk and got terrible head aches, which then lead to stories that moose bulls (algtjurar) loved to eat this during the 'brunst' and go berserk too. It was also used to treat worms, lice, scabs, moths, 'kikhosta' and skin infections too. I think it is only included in this book because people mix up the two species like I did.

The oil in Ledum that smells to bad/good (depending on who you are and how much it is) is called ledol, and scientists say (in Swedish) that it gives "kramper och excitationstillstand, liknande berusning. Forlamning kan forekomma vid storre doser" (English - cramps, excitement, and delirium). Also used in abortions and poisonings. So it is probably not what you want to flavor your akvavit with!

LS said...

81 m/s, how much is that in km/h or mph????

O.K. said...

But it still smells good!

O.K. said...

81 m/s is 291,6 km/h or 181 mph.