Ice slide on Wonalancet Steam
By Gordon DuBois
ust as Henry Schoolcraft searched for the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1832, Dick, Tom and I, along with Reuben, were on a mission to discover the source of Wonalancet Brook. Henry Schoolcraft found Lake Itasca in Minnesota, the source of the Big Muddy. We were unsuccessful in our hunt for the beginning of the Wonalancet. Our mission was denied by the sheer walls of the Whiteface Bowl Natural Area, a stunning glacial cirque carved out from the side of Whiteface, Passaconway, and Wonalancet Mountains during the Pleistocene epoch. Why search for the source of a little known stream in New Hampshire? Because it lies in this beautiful wilderness that contains one the few remaining old growth forests in the White Mountains. Our search would take us through an area that is rarely traveled, where few have seen the cliffs of Whiteface rising above or trekked the floor of a valley that has never been logged or trammeled by man. We had the opportunity to experience what the first settlers in New Hampshire saw when they entered the New Hampshire wilderness. For the hiker who is looking for solitude or a saunter in an old growth forest the Bowl Natural Area should not be missed.
We began our mission of discovery by taking Dicey’s Mill Trail from the Ferncroft Parking Area off Rt. 113A in Wonalancet. The trails in this section of the Sandwich Range and the Sandwich Range Wilderness are maintained by the Wonalancet Outdoor Club. We followed Dicey’s Mill Trail for about 2 miles, before turning onto the Tom Wiggins Trail. The snow was crusted over from the recent warm weather and rains, so we didn’t need snow shoes, but preferred instead to wear light trail crampons. Within a few 100 yards we came to Wonalancet Brook, beginning our wilderness meander to find its source. Staying on the east side of the brook we entered an area that few choose to explore. Most hikers are not interested in old growth forests or the flora and trees that exist in this type of woodland. As we strode along the frozen snow, we entered a northern hardwood forest of large sugar maple, American beech and yellow birch. The understory was dominated by young spindly beech and plenty of hobblebush that frequently slapped us in the face or tried to trip us up. We stopped frequently to admire the gigantic trees, their gnarled limbs stretching resplendently skyward into the pale blue sky.
This spectacular treasure of the Northern Forest was made possible by the dedicated work of innkeeper Kate Sleeper Walden and members of the Wonalancet Outdoor Club. Kate, who owned a 600 acre farm and inn, was also married to Arthur Walden, who raised and trained sled dogs. He became well known for his breeding of the Chinook, a powerful sled dog used by Admiral Perry in his quest to reach the South Pole. In 1914 fourteen members of the WOC met with members of the US Forest Service. The WOC advocated strongly to have the “Bowl”, as they called it, included in the creation of a section of the White Mountain National Forest. Their efforts were successful and in 1931 the Forest Service set aside 500 acres of the Bowl as a Natural Area. This was expanded in 1975 to 1,500 acres and designated as a Natural Research Area, set aside for research as it pertains to old growth forests. Studies indicate that some of the trees are 200-250 years old.
We continued to follow the steam through the glades of the old forest, continually moving higher up into the valley where we began to encounter fingers of smaller streams flowing into the main branch of the Wonalancet. The snowpack at the higher elevation forced us to change over to snowshoes. We were post-holing in more than a foot of snow, making our trek slow and exhausting. Now with snowshoes strapped to our feet and televators extended we were able to easily glide over the snow. It was guesswork as to which brook would lead us to the original source. We came to a branch we thought was the main artery. Looking up we viewed the cliffs and ledges high above. The forest canopy turned from hardwood to balsam fir and red spruce. The summit of Whiteface and its connecting ridge to Passaconway stood clearly in view. We began to gain elevation quickly as the trek turned into a stiff climb. The steep walls of the bowl rose before us, exposing the ice encrusted cliffs above. Trudging upwards we were suddenly confronted by a ledge blocking our track. The icy outcrop was impossible to climb without technical climbing gear. We carefully weighed our options and decided to traverse across the face of the bowl to find another route to the cliffs above.
The traverse was no easy matter with a pitch of about 25-35 degrees. Tom broke trail, Reuben found his own path and eventually we came to an open glade of beech and maple where we settled down for a relaxing lunch, the sun warming our hands and face. We were high above the floor of the valley, looking across at Whiteface and Wonalancet Mountains. After lunch we began climbing through the glade, up to a rock shelf that blocked our ascent. We were beginning to doubt we’d find the source of the Wonalancet, when I heard Tom and Dick yell, “Come on down off the cliff and look at the frozen water fall. We think the source is just above.” I scurried down the cliffs, securing my steps against tree trunks as I descended. Sure enough, a significant frozen waterfall lay just above Dick and Tom. I was tempted to climb the ice flow, but Tom reminded me that it was getting late in the afternoon and we still had a three hour hike out of the Bowl. At that moment I began planning a spring trip into the bowl to again search for the source of the Wonalancet. The spring flora will be in full bloom: Canada mayflower, wood sorrel, painted trillium, purple trillium, lady slipper, starflower, bluebead lily, hobblebush, yellow trout lily. I may also find a small patch of the rare and threatened plant squirrel corn.
After viewing the frozen waterfall we began out trek back into the base of the bowl. As we made our way down and out we happened upon a small cave. Standing in front and listening carefully we heard the cries of some newly born critters. Reuben became excited sniffing around the opening and barking. I first thought of bear cubs which would have just been born. Dick suggested bobcat. Either way it was a rare event to stumble across this cave. In reviewing data from research done in the Bowl by the US Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station signs of bear have been present but there were no sighting or signs of other animals that would bare their young in a small cave. It was most likely a bear’s den, occupied by mama bear and her newly born cubs.
I’m counting the days until I can return to the Bowl and again search for the source of the Wonalancet Stream, high on the face of the Whiteface cirque, when there’s no ice and snow to impede the exploration. Even if I don’t find the source, a trip into the Whiteface Bowl Natural Area will be well worth the effort. If you are looking for solitude in the wilderness and a setting where few people have trodden, spend a day in this old growth forest. It’s a marvelous resource that’s been preserved through the diligent work of the US Forest Service, Kate Sleeper Walden and the Wonalancet Outdoor Club.
If you would like more information go to: http://mountainwandering.blogspot.com/2013/06/exploring-in-bowl-53013-i-chose-fine.html, or https://www.fs.fed.us/nrs/pubs/gtr/gtr_ne189.pdf.
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