It has been a dismal winter in these parts, and spring is closing in. But for lovers of winter weather like Amy and myself, there is always hope. We both had last weekend completely free, the first time that has happened since we moved to Keene last September. The forecast promised to turn early April into something more like January: a strong front coming through, a big temperature drop, snow accumulation and winds gusting to 70 mph. Wind warnings were up and the wind chill was expected to be well below zero that night. It sounded like a perfect recipe for one last Adirondack winter fling. But it was even better than we expected. The rapidly changing conditions produced two surprises for us, two unique happenings, one dramatic, one mysterious and magical, and each beautiful in their own way.
We started the four-mile hike in with spring temperatures, 40’s and light rain. We figured it would get hairier from there, but instead it cleared up and was beautiful. So we hiked up our loop trail and took in the great views from the summit of Burton’s Peak. There was hardly any snow left, just patches here and there. From the summit we continued the loop, coming down to Lost Brook, which was running fast. Along the sides and edges there was still a lot of ice built up from the winter. There were numerous places where the rocky borders of the stream were overflowing with walls of ice, in some places five feet thick, pure blue-white and crystalline. It was so beautiful in the fading afternoon sun that we just sat by the bank for a while and watched the meltwater rush past, accelerating through the ice-narrowed channel.
We finished the loop, arriving at our lean-to and I made a fire for dinner. The menu: Amy’s special mashed potatoes with garlic and pepperoni, salad, delicious Lost Brook water, chocolate and a little snort, as my father would have said. We settled into our sleeping bags as the fire died. The night got quite cold but remained still. I knew there was some light snow through the night because every once in a while a small, wayward flake would land on my cheek.
In the morning we awoke to more snow than expected. It was a wonderland: cold, crisp, with several inches of gossamer-light, powder, the kind that floats almost weightless. It was very quiet, with lovely morning sun. I cleared the fire ring and Amy made her classic bacon and oatmeal breakfast with coffee and even hard boiled eggs. The dog was so tired from the activities of the day before that he kept falling asleep while sitting – that is, until the bacon started cooking. Then he was wide awake, knowing that his breakfast would soon be bathed in bacon grease.
In all respects it was a typical winter morning at Lost Brook Tract. But if I’ve learned anything about the Adirondacks I’ve learned that there is no such thing as typical. As we cleaned up and got ready to hike our loop again to see everything in the snow, a sudden wind squall hit, breaking the stillness. It drove into the treetops just behind the lean-to and thrust all the light, gossamer snow from the spruce and balsam branches into the air in a super-dense cloud that then erupted in all directions like a silvery fireworks display and dissipated into the sky like fine, white dust. I’ve seen snow blowing around all my life, but I’d ever seen an effect quite like this. It was not merely snow pushed off branches and floating to the ground. This was different – a massive explosion of super-light powder into the heights that swirled away violently until it was gone, as though never, ever to fall to earth. It was a huge burst of wind, an explosion of white and then complete stillness. I was stunned.
We hiked up to Kuma’s View, a perch atop a 60 foot cliff that faces southwest off of our summit. It’s always windy there as the prevailing breeze funnels up into the basin between Burton’s Peak and Big Slide. But this morning it was epic – at last we had found the forecast winds. These were not steady winds, however. The breeze would suddenly erupt into a gale-like force nearly strong enough to blow us over.
In the distance we could see all these separate gusts cascading into the tree-tops in various places, maybe a dozen at a time. Every time a gust hit the trees, a big bale of that light powder snow would be blasted off the branches and careen upwards in a fearsome, twisting tornado shape, a literal vortex of snow that would wildly dissipate in all directions and then dissolve and be gone. One after the other, these vortices filled the basin, swirled madly and vanished, from far off by Big Slide all the way to immediately below us. It was unforgettable. It looked like the coldest, wildest place I ever saw. Amy and I stayed too long, watching the spectacle. Our faces today look like they have sunburn – it’s actually wind burn.
Later, on the way down from Lost Brook Tract,as we were walking through a pristine, snowy spruce grove a wind vortex like we’d seen from Kuma’s View hit us dead center. I watched the snow leave the surrounding branches all at once as the eruption of wind enveloped me. The air around me turned into a whiteout, the thickest I’ve ever been in. I couldn’t see two inches. Fine snow hit every part of me, stinging my eyes, tingling down my neck, buffeting my shell. For a split second it was overwhelming. Then in a heartbeat it faded into ephemeral wisps and was gone, the sun was out and Amy was standing ten feet away, frosted with snow, a radiant smile on her face. It was superb.
The other happening was not nearly as dramatic but of particular fascination to me as it was something I’d wondered about for many years: what do waterfalls look like as they freeze? Now, of course I’ve seen plenty of waterfalls both running and frozen – Roaring Brook Falls exhibited both states in 24 hours this week. But I’ve never seen the transition. If you think about it for a second, it’s an interesting question. How does all that water stop moving? It can’t just freeze all at once, in an instant, so what happens? I’d speculated in the past that it must “narrow” as it freezes, until only a trickle is going between ice walls, which then freezes. But I must admit to not having had any evidence for this idea. No more ignorance now! During this trip we actually saw it happening at Lost Brook Falls. It was pretty remarkable
Lost Brook Falls descend in cascades over maybe a hundred feet. They were running fast on the way in, with ice dotting the rocks and still making up huge blue-white bulwarks of frozen runoff on the sides of the canyon. But on the way out, after our night and day of winter cold, the falls were freezing up. They weren’t totally frozen yet but they were close and changing fast.
It was a strange sight, so strange that I had to look it up in a book after we got home. What happens is that very small ice crystals start forming on the rocks under the water. They start building on top of each-other in a fuzzy pattern and proceed to bloom out and up, looking exactly like cauliflower. As the cauliflower heads get bigger they start to cut off the water flow. After a time the water flow is mostly running between all the cauliflower pieces, thus cooling faster and crystalizing at an accelerating rate. As the maze of cauliflower increases the volume of flow diminishes and the water gets more backed up. Slowed by these developments, it fills in all the little indentations and makes smooth ice. It is a very strange sight.
We didn’t have a camera, but here is a pretty good picture of the cauliflower stage that I found on-line. Lost Brook Falls looked just about exactly like that, and evolving quickly. Perhaps many people have seen this dynamic transition, but I never had, nor ever talked to anyone who described it. So to me it was magic.
It seems every time we venture into the Adirondack back country we find some kind of magic that we’ve not experienced before. I have no doubt that one of the reasons for it is the dynamism of this landscape, especially in an unsettled climate season like this one. I’ve noted, as others have, that this very dynamism has caught more than the usual share of hikers off guard this year. Through this dynamic power we are reminded of the respect due the Forest Preserve. Mine, spurred by happenings like these, only deepens.
Photo: Kuma’s View in Winter.