Tuesday, October 25, 2022

New Film: The Forgotten Forest Primeval

 Some thirty or so years ago, ecologist Chris Kane suspected he was amidst an old growth forest one day, on the side of New Hampshire's Mount Sunapee. It sure appeared to be undisturbed by humans. Gnarly old trees. Plenty of old, downed wood. Thick understory. No sawn stumps. No stone walls. But, could it really be?

Chris invited a few other experts to take a look at this forest and give their opinions. Charlie Cogbill, an old-growth forest researcher from Vermont; New Hampshire forester Ken Desmarais; and Frank Mitchell (UNH Cooperative Extension) obliged. They all came to the same conclusion: this was original, primeval forest! No sign of human intervention.

With some research, Chris found written evidence from more than a half-century earlier documenting the fact that this was known to be old growth. Astonishingly enough, knowledge of it apparently had been lost to time, even though a ski slope enterprise had been established on the mountain in 1948, and hikers had long been active there too. That can be explained by the fact that eastern old growth is not particularly easy to recognize by those not already familiar with its characteristics.


Mt Sunapee primeval forest
Mt Sunapee primeval forest


Fast forward to late 2021. I was contacted by Steve Russell, president of the Friends of Mt Sunapee group. He described the Mt Sunapee forest to me, and asked if I'd be willing to make a film about it. I was surprised to learn there was any such forest there, and agreed to go up and see it for myself in the spring of 2022. 

Steve Russell

I met Steve and Chris at the base of the mountain on a warm, early June day. They proceeded with my initiation. "Oh, it's only about a quarter-mile walk to the trailhead", Chris said nonchalantly. With backpack, tripod, and camera, I followed along. About sixteen miles straight up a mountainside later (it might have been twenty-six, I lost track), under a blisteringly hot sun, we got to the trailhead. "This is where we start" said Chris. Start?? Despite his soft-spoken, gentle manner, I was now silently planning his death.

But as soon as we got out of the merciless sun and into the cool, green shade of the understory, my temperament quickly eased. My heart rate finally slowed down, and although all unbound water in my body had boiled out into my shirt, I started to appreciate the woods I was immersed in. A short way up the trail (oh yeah, more up, of course), we came upon the first of the ancient yellow birches, which don't look anything like the juvenile birches we see in worked-over forests of today. I began to think maybe Chris should just be tortured a bit, not necessarily totally annihilated. Maybe.

At that point, Chris announced that he had to leave us early that day (no doubt he had heard of ice cream being available somewhere), but he had just enough time to lead us up to the ridgeline where, he proclaimed, I just had to see the view over Lake Solitude, a mountainside tarn (ie, small lake). Well, could I say no to that? Not without embarrassment. Up we went. 

Ok, ok, so it was well worth the effort. At least from that point on, it was a downhill excursion. Chris might actually live another day. And Steve, brother mountain goat to Chris, wasn't complaining at all about the abuse; he'd been here many times before, and I think he actually likes this! Not sure what it is about old trees that draws nuts like us to terrain like this. 


Lake Solitude on Mt Sunapee
Lake Solitude on Mt Sunapee


I had been spending way too much time over the last few years sitting at beaver ponds all day for the Beaver Pond Wildlife series, and not getting my usual hiking exercise. Time to get back in shape! 

Chris Kane at old yellow birch
Chris Kane at an old yellow birch

So, there were more trips to Sunapee to gather footage. I forgave Chris for being in better shape than I. Maybe he hadn't gone for ice cream after all. He's slim and fit from years of stomping around on vertical land.

The Mt Sunapee primeval forest is designated by NH Natural Heritage as "exemplary", one of the best remaining sites in the state featuring northern hardwoods and spruce/fir. Off-trail, it's rugged terrain, not for the sneaker-clad crowd. The small-boulder-strewn slopes are rather treacherous to navigate, with ankle breaking voids hidden by fallen leaves, and the going is necessarily very slow, which is one reason why this forest is still primeval.

Dave Anderson (Senior Director of Education, Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, aka "The Forest Society") joined us on one of the hikes. Steve, Chris, and Dave all share some of their thoughts in the film that has resulted from those days in primeval forest on the sides of Mt Sunapee. 


Chris Kane (L), Dave Anderson (R)


And you can experience some of the old forest vicariously, by watching The Forgotten Forest Primeval - Rediscovering Mt Sunapee's Old Growth, on the New England Forest Youtube channel. Long live the ancient forest!