10-19-19 Parsons-Bowl Research Natural Area

Ed Parsons next to an old hemlock in the virgin Bowl Research Natural Area. (COURTESY PHOTO)

Wednesday morning, we wanted to get one last foliage hike before the heavy rain came that night, knocking a lot of the leaves down. We decided on the Bowl Research Natural Area in the Sandwich Range.

That may seem like an unconventional choice. But lingering in a virgin forest at the height of a banner foliage year, where there are many trees up to 400 years old, sounded like a good idea. It was.

The bowl is located in a unique cirque cradled by Mount Whiteface, Mount Passaconaway and Mount Hibbard and is easily reached by trail from the Ferncroft parking lot.

The cirque was formed by a glacier in the Middle Pleistocene era called the Illinoan Ice Sheet (190,000 to 130,000 years ago). It was much colder then than during the most recent glacier, the Wisconsin Ice Sheet, and formed cirques at a lower altitude. The higher Tuckerman Ravine was formed during the Wisconsin, the lower Basin in Evans Notch and the lower Bowl in the Sandwich Range during the Illinoan.

Anyway that is ancient history to be sure. Bumping forward considerably in time, in 1915 the Bowl was saved from logging by Wonolancet resident Kate Sleeper and other members of the Wonalancet Outdoor Club, during the process of the creation of the White Mountain National Forest.

Along with Louis Tainter, a representative of the Kennett Lumber Co., they traveled to Gorham to meet with officials. A deal was made to transfer ownership of the uncut land from the logging company to the Wonalancet residents, and then to the national forest. An aside, today Tainter’s ashes are evidently in a crypt cut somewhere in the south summit ledges of Mount Whiteface.

Later in 1931, 510 acres of the Bowl were designated the Bowl Natural Area. In 2006, it was expanded to 1,500 acres and called the Bowl Research Natural Area, a valuable living laboratory for comparing virgin forest to the rest of the extensively logged White Mountains.

Bumping further forward, this Wednesday mid-morning my friend Beverly Woods and I pulled into the Ferncroft hiker parking lot, walked further down the road, passed the Smith farm, and started up the Dicey’s Mill Trail.

We planned to walk up the trail a couple mile to the Tom Wiggin Trail, turn left on that and drop down to the Wonalancet River, then bushwhack upstream on the right side of the river until we found a nice grove of impressive trees to linger for lunch.

The Tom Wiggin Trail, which crosses the river and continues very steeply upward to reconnect with the Blueberry Ledge Trail on Mount Whiteface, is the southern boundary of the Bowl Research Natural Area. When we turned off it and plunged upstream in the woods, we were in virgin forest.

Soon, we began to see scattered old growth birch trees and hemlocks. On the forest floor, extensive hobblebush lived up to its name, making forward movement challenging.

We continued until we found a glade with some big trees. Some of the birch were over 200 years old, the hemlocks likely much older. I sat under a wise old hemlock, but Woods looked ahead to a sunlit rise up ahead and wanted to go there for lunch. So we did.

It was the perfect spot. Just below us the Wonalancet River plied its course through boulders, carrying yellow and red leaves in the current. Around us shade tolerant young trees were aflame, and the tall birches bright yellow. Leaves fell, each a Zen lesson in suchness. The stern hemlocks rose like dark pillars amidst all this color.

We lingered an hour, then bushwhacked at an angle directly to out the Dicey’s Mill Trail. Walking along it, there was no breeze. Woods paused to look up at the sky. Clouds moved in. “It’s the calm before the storm,” she observed. It was the perfect time to be there.

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