AMC Outdoors, June 2002

To save the kids' energy, we've decided to ride in the shuttle van up the Mount Washington Auto Road. Along the way, our guide tells us how, in the 19th century, teams of six horses brought carriages of tourists up the steep incline, with brakes made of mere leather strips. We gape out the windows at the expanse of the Presidential Range and the deep-forested bowls stretching before us. As we climb, the trees change from tall sentinels to gnarly scrub to low alpine mats — the children find the speed at which this occurs amazing.

It's 25 degrees colder on the summit than in the valley below, so we throw on fleece coats and hats as soon as we climb out of the van. We're all anxious to walk to the edge of the mountain for a look. Sierra and Bryce have done a lot of alpine hiking in the Rockies, but they are spellbound at the grandeur of the White Mountains. So are we.

As soon as we reach the edge and see a small dot down in the col which we realize is Lakes of the Clouds Hut, the kids get a sense of the space and magic of this place. The pale green and granite landscape seems to extend forever. For a moment, they just stare and take it in. Then they're off, bopping down the trail, happy and singing.

An hour later, Rachel Nye, Lakes of the Clouds' pony-tailed young naturalist, greets us inside the stone hut. Once again, we take laminated drawings of plants and flowers as we head out on our walk. First stop, the krummholz: wind-battered, gnarled trees about a foot tall that look like little old men.

"These matted shrubs are really ancient trees that are hundreds of years old. You can tell which way the wind usually blows by the direction in which they lean," she says. The kids reach out and touch the deformed and fragile-seeming branches.

"The plant life up here must grow in niches and beside rocks and under things to keep out of the wind," she continues. "They have to hide."

We get down on all fours to look closely at diapensia, a very rare and slow-growing, white-flowered plant. It takes about seven years for it to reach the size of a silver dollar and up to 60 years to grow to dinner-plate size. The big mats of them we see can be many hundreds of years old. At home, the kids help us in our garden and are aware of how quickly some plants shoot up and bear fruit in the spring, almost exploding overnight. They compare the diapensia's pace to that of the vegetables that grow so quickly every summer.

We are learning that in this above-treeline world conditions can be severe, and that simply surviving is a major accomplishment. The krummholz really seem like little heroes for still being here.

Rachel tells us there are 76 different species growing above treeline, in what is known as the alpine zone — a zone that encompasses eight square miles of the Whites. Her favorite is the mountain sandwort, because she sees it everywhere and its delicate five-petaled blossom and narrow leaves have come to seem like an old friend. "When they sprout in the spring," she says, "I feel like saying, 'Oh, welcome back.'

"You must look down at your feet," she tells the kids. "There's life everywhere. That's why it's so important to stay on the trail. You could be trampling something that would take a very long time to come back."

The kids immediately move closer together and look down at their feet.

As we walk, we discover Labrador tea, with its fleecy undersides; star-capped moss; and reindeer lichen. Rachel shares a cute way to remember what a lichen is: "Allie Algae and Freddie Fungus took a lichen to each other and now their marriage is on the rocks."

 

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