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A Brief History of Vermont’s Alpine Summits (7/05)

Vermont has over ninety mountain summits, all pushed up above the surrounding landscape when this part of the continent was “folded” millions of years ago. Over three dozen summits are crossed by the Long Trail, and other hiking trails make it possible to reach the highest points of many of the other mountains.

Eighteen thousand years ago (give or take a few hundred), all of Vermont was under a mile-thick lake of ice called the Laurentide Ice Sheet. This monstrous glacier covered eastern Canada, all of New England and New York, parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and even some of the Dakotas. When the global temperature entered one of its warmer phases, the ice sheet started melting. It gradually receded, leaving behind a polished granite landscape that was bare of living things.

Very soon, however, sparse layers of green began appearing, as tiny lichens established themselves on the glacially-scoured rocks. These mutually beneficial combinations of fungi and either bacteria or algae anchored themselves by sending down tiny threads into even tinier spaces between the separate grains and crystals of the rocks. The lichens survived because they were able to get their nutrients directly from the air.

Centuries passed before there was anything around except the thin smears of lichens on the rocks. Gradually, more complex lichen arrived. Then little bits of dirt brought by wind or water caught on the lichens and stayed to become the first post-glacial Vermont soil. Bigger plants (still tiny, but a whole lot bigger) provided more opportunity for soil formation, which allowed for more retention of water, which in turn created the conditions for still bigger plants to root themselves, survive and reproduce. Gradually, Vermont was covered with low-growing sedges and small flowering plants that hugged the earth for warmth and protection from the wind.

For thousands of years after the first plants returned, post-glacial Vermont looked like a hilly Siberia. There were no tall flowering plants — no goldenrod, no meadowsweet, no hobblebush. There were no trees at all. (The landscape wasn’t completely without large living things, though! Vermont was home to herds of over-sized elk, bison and mammoths, as well as a kind of bear with legs six feet long.)

Every few hundred years there was a bit more diversity in the plant world. Most of Vermont was on its way toward stands of white pine, mixed hardwood forests, birches, oaks, maples, and a riot of flowers. In three places, however, the arctic tundra never left. In these three places — the summits of Mt. Mansfield, Camels Hump, and Mt. Abraham — you can still see the arctic–alpine ecology that once covered the state.

The plants on these three Vermont mountains have lasted so long simply because nothing has come along to push them out. Nothing else can survive there. The plants on the three highest Vermont peaks are sturdy little things, designed to succeed in unusually harsh climates where there are high winds, lots of cloud cover, and long periods of sub-freezing temperatures. However, these amazing survivors, plants that have clung to Vermont’s summits for tens of thousands of years, can be killed by careless boots or paws, the stab of a hiking pole, or someone dropping a heavy pack on them.

Alpine plants aren’t designed for rapid growth. If a section of a plant is crushed or ripped, repair and regrowth can take decades. If a hiker pulls one of these tiny survivors loose from the little crevasse where it’s been huddling for centuries, it will be picked up by the relentless winds and taken far from the only environment in which it can live.

GMC members are obvious protectors of the state’s unique alpine environments. When we travel to a summit, we should do our part not only to stay off fragile plant life, but also to talk with fellow hikers. Point out the amazing plants. Give a little bit of their history. Remind hikers to keep their dogs on short leashes when they’re on alpine summits. Tell others on the summits that they’d have to travel 1500 miles north to find the next place where these same plants live.

Vermont’s small communities of alpine plants have been here for thousands of years. Let’s give them a few more!