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Sunapee Old Growth: Students Meet the Ancients

by Dave Anderson

Perhaps my favorite end-of-the-field-season excursion is the annual field trip to visit a rare old growth forest in the remote East Bowl of Mt. Sunapee with Colby-Sawyer College students enrolled in the Environmental Studies Department's Exploring Nature classes. Just before Halloween, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Laura Alexander invited me once again to share the history and ecology of the rare 150-acre tract of old growth red spruce, yellow birch, beech and sugar maple. This largest known fragment of old growth forest south of the White Mountains is hidden off a seldom used hiking trail within Mount Sunapee State Park.

It's not easy to reach the ancient forest—if it were, it would have been logged long ago. A steep drive up an access road at the base of the Sun Bowl and then a short, steep hike up the Williamson ski trail reaches a trailhead for the Lake Solitude Trail. With afternoon sunlight fading fast before 3 p.m., we hike quickly into the frosty forest where the first snow lingers on a high slope overlooking Lake 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. At the subalpine elevation of 2,400 feet, the uppermost branches are twisted, broken and wind-pruned by centuries of harsh mountain weather, including the 1998 ice storm. Some of these yellow birch stems were age-cored to more than 200 years old a decade ago. The largest hollow giants with rotten heartwood are likely more than 300 years old. The red spruces exhibit protruding knees, exposed roots radiating from flared trunks. They grow 80 feet tall, 30 feet or more above the surrounding canopy of hardwoods. One red spruce was age-cored at 248 years in 1997. The tallest spruce are visible from the Sun Bowl chairlift at the ski slope and from the lake below.

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

With an awe-inspiring late autumn view north—ten miles by line of sight back to the New London campus, visible through the bare hardwood branches—I ask students to consider the history these old trees have witnessed. Local lore says the first recorded European visitor to Lake Sunapee was an advance scout for a Boston exploring party in 1630. Due to hostile bands of Abenaki Indians, the region remained an uncharted, howling wilderness for another 130 years.

The 260-year-old red spruce began growing on Sunapee in 1750, just prior to the final years of the French and Indian War, from 1753 to 1760, an era of Indian raids when isolated homes were attacked and burned, and settlers were taken captive, carried off to Canada and sold as slaves. Few white settlers dared venture inland from the 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. That year, under the command of Colonel Joseph Blanchard, New Hampshire troops were dispatched to Crown Point, marching from Salisbury Fort Number Six on the Merrimack River west, via the shortest direct route to Fort Number Four on the Connecticut River 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 in the mountain's shadow at the foot of Sunapee Lake. Their march deepened the trail that would become Province Road, now part of Route 103 in Newbury.

In 1771 the venerable trees bore witness to the first survey party working along the “Great Sixty Mile Curve,” an inland arc 60 miles from the coast which delineated the west boundary of the British province. Surveyor Joseph Blanchard Jr., son of the colonel, and nine men were hired “to run the line and mark it well,” passing just west of Mount 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 Newbury's charter was granted in 1772, lots were surveyed by Zephaniah Clark for the Portsmouth-based Masonian Proprietors. Subsequently, Newbury was incorporated as “Fishersfield” in 1778. By then, the old yellow birch and red spruce trees were 70- and 30-years old respectively. All around them, lowland forests in the region began to fall for the construction of new farms. Yet 230 years later, these few ancient yellow birch and red spruce trees of the East Bowl still stand, watching over the lake.

Why did the trees survive? In 1911, conservation activist Herbert Welsh and forester Philip Ayers raised funds for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to purchase two tracts of 656 acres to protect them from logging. The 1938 hurricane and a devastating forest fire in 1947 spared the core of old growth in the East Bowl. Through conservation efforts and the will of the winds, these trees have survived fire and tempest.

The Colby-Sawyer students stand in stunned silence: happens every time. Ancient trees have an unparalleled power of time-keeping, living for centuries beyond any single human lifespan.

To me, the undergraduates seem younger every year. They must think their professors, Laura Alexander and Leon Malan, and I are tree worshiping fossils ourselves. “Respect your elders!” I instruct as I gesture at a massive yellow birch tree, our ultimate destination. “Now let's all give this old tree a big group hug!”