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A snowshoe journey into The Bowl


A valley of old-growth hardwood


February 25, 2010
Credit for saving this remote tract from imminent logging in the early 1900s goes to the good folks of Wonalancet. As related by Marjory Gane Harkness in The Tamworth Narrative, innkeeper Kate Sleeper Walden (who had founded the Wonalancet Out Door Club in 1892) persuaded Louis Tainter of Publishers Paper Company to give her a 60-day option on the purchase of 3,000 acres in The Bowl area. Half of the $50,000 was to come from local and summer residents, the other half from the federal government as part of the creation of the new White Mountain National Forest.

In 1914 a delegation of 16 from the WODC, led by Edgar Rich, journeyed to Gorham for a White Mountains Forest Conference and pleaded their case with the feds. Their efforts were successful, and the Bowl tract was included in a larger appropriation for National Forest land purchase.

In 1931 the Forest Service designated 510 acres of The Bowl as a natural area. Recently expanded to over 1,500 acres, it is now a Research Natural Area within the Sandwich Range Wilderness. Over the years numerous research projects on old-growth forest ecology have been conducted in this unique valley.

The popular Dicey's Mill Trail and the steep, seldom-used Tom Wiggin Trail skirt the mouth of the main valley of The Bowl, which is drained by the Wonalancet River (a mountain brook, really). There are no trails on the floor of the cirque.

I've been smitten with this valley since I first looked down into it thirty years ago from viewpoints on its rim along the Blueberry Ledge Trail and Rollins Trail. The bond was sealed in 1996 when I made the first of several off-trail snowshoe explorations on the floor of the valley, and up to small viewpoints on the walls.

Over the years I've had the pleasure of introducing several friends and my wife, Carol, to The Bowl's beautiful hardwood forest. These visits have only been in winter, when bushwhacking impact is minimal and there would be no disturbance of sensitive research projects.

Last Thursday, on a warm, partly sunny and very windy day, I paid another visit to The Bowl. Partaking of Wonalancet's many winter hiking opportunities requires patient navigation over frost-heaved Routes 113 and 113A. But once you arrive at the Ferncroft trailhead - with its idyllic view up to Mts. Whiteface and Wonalancet it always seems worthwhile.

There was one set of boot prints ahead of me on the Dicey's Mill Trail. The path was solidly packed under a couple inches of new wet snow, making for easy travel. A couple of miles in I strapped on my snowshoes, headed into the woods, crossed a brook on suspect ice, and climbed a brushy rise into The Bowl.

I wandered slowly up the broad, gently sloping floor of the valley. The snow was well-consolidated, making for good 'shoeing.' I paused frequently to admire the big, old trees in this sun-drenched northern hardwood forest of sugar maple, yellow birch and American beech. Some of the maples were particularly resplendent, their gnarled crowns stretching ent-like to the deep blue sky. Through the treetops the high crags of Mt. Whiteface could be seen, a mighty wall enclosing the west side of the valley.

A study published in the 1970s found that on the floor of The Bowl there were yellow birch and sugar maple with trunk diameters exceeding 30 inches. For the White Mountains, those are big trees. Other studies indicate that some individuals are 250 to 275 years old. I snowshoed with reverence amidst these aged giants. (It should be noted that old growth stands are not composed entirely of big specimens; there are trees of all ages and sizes, with an abundance of dead and down wood.)

The hardwoods extend up the walls of the valley to about the 2,600-foot elevation, above which red spruce quickly becomes dominant. Studies have found old-growth red spruce here, though these stands have been much disrupted by storms such as the 1938 hurricane. Above 3,300 feet the shorter-lived balsam fir is the stalwart of the forest, with red spruce and paper birch in the mix.

After travelling well up into the valley, I swung west, following a trench-like brookbed through the open hardwoods, eventually reaching the base of an old landslide on the steep flank of Mt. Whiteface. Skirting along the edge of a wide, icy ramp, I ascended to the base of an imposing ice cliff, which I judged to be about thirty feet high. I had seen this on my first visit to The Bowl fourteen years ago, and if anything it was more impressive this time.

I struggled steeply up in denser woods, breaking trail through deep, soft snow, and came out to a safe perch on the edge of the slide, above the ice cliff. From here I could see the upper slide above, ice bulge rising upon ice bulge; the lower brookbed below; and the sunlit Wonalancet Range across the valley. It was a scenic spot for a late lunch.

After a careful descent beside the slide, I meandered along a different route back down the valley, through acres and acres of expansive hardwood forest. I stopped several times to gaze at the Wonalancet River. Two-thirds of the way through this wacky winter it is completely open, its moss-cloaked rocks on full display.

I can't say my visits have made any contribution to the body of knowledge about The Bowl, but I always come away thankful that this special place is to be forever left to its natural processes.

You don't have to go off-trail to sample the beauty of The Bowl. For an easy snowshoe excursion, I recommend the first 2.3 miles of the Dicey's Mill Trail, which leads past a lovely summer home and then makes a mostly gradual ascent through fine hardwood forest. Especially enjoyable is the level stretch between the Tom Wiggin Trail junction and the crossing of the east branch of the Wonalancet River, where the trail begins a steeper climb towards Mt. Passaconaway.

A side jaunt along the Tom Wiggin Trail, descending briefly to cross the Wonalancet River, then ascending 0.3 mile or so, reveals some magnificent old hardwoods bordering the trail. A huge trailside boulder is a good turnaround point, before the steep climbing begins.

You might wonder how there could be old-growth forest when Dicey's Mill was located about two miles up its namesake trail. Apparently the valley of the east branch of the Wonalancet River was partly logged in the late 1880s, with the trees being processed at the mill. But the larger valley of the main, western branch of the stream was protected before it could be cut.

Additional information about The Bowl is found in archived issues of the Wonalancet Out Door Club newsletter. Go to www.wodc.org, click on "WODC Library," then on "WODC Newsletter." The May 1997 issue has an informative article on The Bowl by the late George Zink, known as "The Father of the Sandwich Range Wilderness." The November 2000 issue has an interesting piece by Chris Conrod of Tamworth entitled "Old Trees in a Young Forest."

Also, a Google search will reveal numerous research articles about various aspects of The Bowl's ecology. One of the best is "Botanical Reconnaissance of The Bowl Research Natural Area," by Lee E. Carbonneau and Sarah D. Allen, published by the Forest Service in 1995. It is available for viewing or download at http://treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/4289.

For more pictures of The Bowl, visit mountainwandering.blogspot.com.

Editor's note: Pick up "The AMC White Mountain Guide" for maps and descriptions of these and other trails in the White Mountains.

Steve Smith, author of "Wandering Through the White Mountains: A Hiker's Perspective," has hiked and written about the White Mountains for more than 20 years. He owns the Mountain Wanderer Map and Book Store in Lincoln, and lives with his wife, Carol, in Lincoln.

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