Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Maine Vacation Part 2: Lakes, Ponds, Eskers, Glaciers and the CIA

As longtime readers know, I’m a non-native Utahn who absolutely loves living in Utah. I love the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the P-J woodlands- I even love the Great Salt Lake*.

*And I’m one of the few Utahns who does. Utahns generally ignore or malign the lake, and that’s a shame because it is- in its own weird, hyper-saline way- way, way awesome. Someday I’ll do a great post on the lake, and then you’ll get how awesome it really is.

IMG_0928 In fact, there’s really just one thing I really miss about New England. It’s not the ocean, it’s not the Red Sox, it’s not even Maple Syrup. It’s lakes. Freshwater lakes.

Tangent: Yes, I’m one of those funny people who prefers lakes to the ocean. The ocean is beautiful and all, but it has a weird and frightening power about it at the same time. Standing on an ocean beach is sort of like standing on the edge of the world. There’s constant force and noise, and the certain knowledge that if you just swam out straight ahead, you’d tire and drown long before you caught sight of land again.

IMG_1016 Yes, I know that’s true for many lakes as well, but in general lakes and ponds have a quiet peace and serenity and well- finite-ness- about them that the sea just doesn’t have. They’re quiet and full of interesting little mysteries, almost like outdoor libraries, and conducive to study and reflection.

Then there’s the swimming, the act of diving into clean freshwater, that’s somehow- when you slip in all hot and sweaty, fresh from a run, bike, or bike ride- like diving into cool velvet, refreshing in a way an ocean dive just never can be.

Nested Tangent: A reservoir isn’t like this; you don’t get the same sensation from diving into Lake Powell for instance. When you’re raised in and on freshwater, a man-made lake always has a certain smell and feel that is forever reminiscent of a refrigerator in need of a good cleaning. It’s like the difference between real Coke and Diet Coke; if all you’ve ever drunk is Diet Coke, then it tastes just fine. But if you grew up drinking real Coke, the Diet version seems forever a cheap, stagnant copy.

IMG_1025 As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I spent many summers alongside a small lake in Western Maine, but have visited, swum in, hiked to and canoed upon dozens more. Northern New England is positively strewn with lakes, and until I was about 20 years old or so, I naively thought pretty much everyplace was so blessed.

Me, Lakes and the CIA

My senior year in college, a defense contractor flew me out for an all-day interview in central Pennsylvania. I had lunch with a young Engineer, about 2 years older than me. We talked about hobbies, the area, and what I liked to do when not working. Since my favorite recreation at that time- swimming, canoeing, sailing- centered around lakes, I asked about them. My lunch-companion furrowed his brow and thought long and hard, but couldn’t think of a single lake in the area.

Tangent: No, I didn’t get the job. In fact, though I interviewed with several defense contractors my senior year (my degree is in Electrical Engineering), none offered me a job. In retrospect I consider this one of the great “lucky dodges” of my life. Years later as a salesman I called on, and sold to, a number of large defense contractors, and concluded after a time that by and large, the people who work for large defense contractors Have No Souls.

No, no, no- I’m not talking about ethics or war or anything; I’m not a pacifist. I think there really are bad people and forces in the world and that war- as awful as it is- is sometimes justified. No, what I’m referring to is the spirit of longtime defense contractor employees. After a decade or 2 it seems that they have no excitement, no joy, like they’ve somehow lost their ability to see the Beauty of the World. Maybe it’s the bureaucracy, maybe it’s the secrecy, I don’t know. They’re just missing something.

CIA HQ Floor Nested Tangent: So what job offer did I get- and accept- my senior year? I accepted an offer from- and I swear to god I am not making this up- the CIA. That’s right, I accepted a job with the CIA. Unfortunately or fortunately, I ran into, er, ahem, ‘issues’ around the security clearance process, and never actually began employment with the agency. I eventually took a job with a non-defense-related tech company.

There’s a great story around this, that involves polygraphs, investigators, an interview with a shrink, interrogators and peeing into absurdly tiny containers, but alas, I’ve “tangented” long and far enough. I’ll save my CIA story for a future tangent in a future post.

When I returned to campus, I got a hold of some maps and did some research. Though New England and upstate New York are littered with lakes, South of New York state they disappear. Continuing West, they appear again only in the far North, as in upper Wisconsin and Minnesota. Eastern Canada of course is practically carpeted with lakes, large and small, and the reason for all these lakes in the North is glaciation.

Over the past million years or so, ice sheets have rolled back and forth across Northern North America repeatedly. Each time they push and carry pebbles, stones and boulders, which they leave behind when they melt/recede. The rocky soil impedes drainage in ways that the soils of the Midwest or South do not, and this leads to the fascinating hydrology of the North.

How Maine Hydrology Is Like A Giant Frank Lloyd Wright House

The interior of Maine contains thousands of lakes and ponds. The first obvious-but-cool thing about lakes is that there is no “lake level.” Lakes and ponds occur at all different altitudes and together form series of terraced pools, linked together in large, complex drainage basins. Jewett Brook Our lake (or “pond” as we’ll see in a moment) is one of 4 connected ponds that sits (usually) at 572 feet above sea level. A fifth pond, which drains into ours via a ½ mile-long brook (pic right), sits 8 feet higher. The combined 5 ponds drain through a river and series of falls to a much larger pond- only 8 miles South as the crow flies- which lies at only 369 feet. That larger pond drains into the Saco River and rambles on for another 140 circuitous miles before reaching the Atlantic just South of Portland, being joined on the way by dozens (maybe 100+) more “little” drainage basins en route. And that’s just one drainage basin. Hydrologically, Maine is a like a giant Frank-Lloyd-Wright-Castle, with elegant and complex terraced pools cascading into one another all across the state.

Tangent: Just over the “hill” from our pond lies Cushman Pond, up at 740 feet. Cushman, a mere 1.25 miles Northwest as the crow flies, is the closest body of water to ours that is infected by the dreaded exotic aquatic weed Cinque Milfoil. But fortunately it’s closer to 100 miles away as the water flows. Hydrology involves distances, scale and connections that are often very different from those in the surrounding “dry world.”

5Kezar Esker Map Our “lake” – the “Back Pond” of 5-Kezar Lakes- or 5-Kezar Ponds, depending on which map you look at- is usually called a pond. Strangely, there’s no agreed-upon difference between lakes and ponds; ponds are usually bigger, but many “ponds” are bigger than many “lakes.” Technically, according to the state of Maine, our pond, at 62 acres*, is a great pond, as it’s over 10 acres in surface area. Adjoining Middle Pond is the largest of the 5 at 72 acres. The other 4 all drain into it and Middle Pond in turn drains into the falls.

*Which, coincidentally, is the exact same surface area as Walden Pond.

Back, Middle and Front Ponds are divided by narrow, sandy, forested eskers. That dividing Middle and Front Ponds is the longest and best-defined, but our cabin sits on the other esker, between Back and Middle Ponds. Eskers are narrow, thin, sandy strips of land all over the state that divide bodies of water, and generally run North-South, and their origins are absolutely fascinating.

Awesome Tangent/Spotlight About Water Lilies

Botanical Spotlight*- Water Lilies: For this post, I decided to focus on hydrology and geological origins of lakes/ponds. But it was a tough choice, because lakes and ponds are so wildly fascinating biologically. Fish, Loons, Snapping Turtles, Water Snakes- any of these would’ve made for a great post. Even the botany of lakes and ponds is amazing. No, not just the botany of the plants by the lake- the botany of the plants in it. Here’s a quick example:

*I’m using the “Botanical Spotlight” instead of a “Tangent” here due to a complaint from a Tangent-Only-Reader (let’s call him “Sid”)- whom I will henceforth refer to as TORies- that I got technical in a couple of tangents in Monday’s post.

IMG_0958 Water Lilies (family= Nymphaeaceae) are common in calm freshwater ponds. Rooted on the pond bottom, with flowers and leaves floating on the surface, they’re angiosperms and have pretty flowers. Often small frogs or dragonflies or damselflies hang out on their pads. Everybody knows all that. But here’s something you probably didn’t know: Water Lilies* are possibly the most basal group of angiosperms, meaning that they branched off on their own path long before, and are more distantly related from, just about every other angiosperm. Their origins long pre-date the monocot/dicot split; even Magnolias are more closely-related to Oaks, Sagebrush and grasses than are Water Lilies.

*Which, by the way is why Water Lilies are named wrong. A “Lily” is a monocot, something that was still millions of years in the future when Water Lilies branched off from the rest of angiosperms.

KSFTree cut Side Note: Technically, the absolutely most basal/distantly-related angiosperm is now thought to be the family Amborellaceae, which consists of a single species, the shrub Amborella trichopoda, which is native to- where else?- yes, that’s right, my absolute favorite Gondwanaland fragment- New Caledonia*. Another group that appears to be about as basal/distantly-related to all other angiosperms as Nymphaeaceae is Austrobaileyales, an order of about 100 species which includes the spice Star Anise.

*I have got to get there someday. That place has so got it (botanically) going on.

Water Lilies have big showy flowers that are “primitive” in that they have lots of stamens, lots of not-clearly-differentiated petals/sepals, and fair number of sort-of-petals-sort of stamens. In this respect they’re reminiscent of Magnolias (also notable for their “primitive” flowers) and also bring to mind cultivated Roses, many of whose stamens have been coaxed by breeders back into a more primitive, petal-like form.

Water Lily Zoom There are about 70 species of Water Lily, around the world. The common species of Water Lily around the lakes is Fragrant Water Lily, Nymphaea odorata, which is one of the most widespread Water Lilies in the world, ranging from Central America to Norhtern Canada. IMG_0923 Like most Water Lilies, N. odorata flowers open during the warm part of the day- late morning to mid-afternoon- then close up for the night (pic right). True to their name, they smell absolutely lovely, though you have to get up good and close to sniff them.

This Part Is So Freaky-Cool It Blows My Mind

The eskers dividing our ponds are the deposited sediments of ancient streambeds that ran under the mile-high ice-sheets under the state. Our cabin sits on an ancient streambed that only 14 or 15,000 years ago lay under a mile of ice! These sub-glacial streams typically ran out toward the South-facing edge/front of the ice-sheet, which is why most eskers run North-South.

Tangent/Spotlight/Whatever/Get-Over-It-Sid: OK, one more botany thing. The sandy soil of eskers makes them a frequent home for Red Pine, Pinus resinosa, which otherwise doesn’t seem to be all that common in the Maine woods.

Red White Pines Esker As the glaciers receded from Southern Maine about 13,000 years ago, they generally retreated fairly evenly by the coast and adjacent lowlands. But in the hilly interior, large, multi-acre glacial chunks became isolated and later buried by sediments. These chunks endured for several centuries, and when they finally melted, left deep depressions that became the sites of many of today’s lakes and ponds (often called kettle ponds.)

En Route Gorge Shortly after the glaciers receded, 5-Kezar Ponds probably was a single, bigger, deeper pond. But the ice melted, it fed strong flows that carried sediments and gravel, making its waters highly erosive, and they carved a deep gorge through the granite blocking the South end of what is now Middle Pond, providing a lowered drainage outlet that lowered the elevation of the ponds to below that of the eskers.

IMG_0984 Today Kezar Falls Gorge (pic left) is 6 feet wide and 30 feet deep. On Friday we canoed down to the South end of Middle Pond, then hiked down and around a few hundred yards to the bottom of the Falls, where together we jumped in and swam up the gorge. In a “normal” year, you can swim all the way up and stand atop the pile of boulders at the bottom of the falls, but the flow is so high and strong this year that I could barely make it to within 6 feet of the bottom before the current forced me back.

Gorge Swim Path2

Happy but a bit worn out from our efforts, we IMG_0978returned to the canoe and started the long paddle home. The South end of Middle Pond is my favorite part of the ponds. It’s un-developed and wild-looking, and it’s easy to think it’s been like this forever. But only 800 or so generations ago, none of this- forest, ponds, falls- was here. The world changes fast.

Next Up: Uh, nothing for a bit. Believe it or not, we’re leaving on our next vacation tomorrow morning*. After 10 years, Awesome Wife is going back to work, a part-time Reading Specialist position with Salt Lake School District. She’s thrilled, but we had to compress our vacation schedule a bit to be home in time for her start-date.

Our vacation will take us up into Western Montana, and I probably won’t be blogging much over the next week. But I expect I’ll have plenty to blog about when we return, including some surprising botanical and geological parallels between our 2 vacations. Have a great week.

*Yes, of course Ray will be at the house while we’re gone. Don’t even think about it.


Anonymous said...

I didn't read your blog today, once I got to the second tangent, because my feelings are hurt. I think it was a little mean-spirited to suggest that defense contractors have no souls. I work with dozens of defense contractors, and I am actually a Department of Defense employee, which may be considered one level down from soulless. Yet, most of the folks that I work with are really interesting. They have hobbies like cycling, traveling, photography, skiing, astronomy, botany, camping... kind of like you. They have spouses, kids, parents... kind of like you. And they come to work, try to do their best, are pleased when things go well, and really proud to support our men and women in the Armed Forces.

I'm not mad, because I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I think you may be misinformed. And as a result, are propagating a stereotype which is rather negative. Yes, we have tough jobs, and the bureaucracy can be draining, but soulless? That's just wrong.

Watcher said...

Anon- Thanks for your comment. First, I’m sorry that my post hurt your feelings and I apologize for the expression. Though I comment on many, many things in this blog, my intent is never to hurt anyone’s feelings. (Except Kim Jong Il. I really don’t like him.) The choice of wording on my part was poor; more on that in a sec.

Tangent: (Yes, I’m including a tangent in a comment) Not that this will make you feel any better, but I don’t actually believe in a distinct, metaphysical “soul”, so technically I believe that everyone is “soul-less”…

Second, I always acknowledge that anything I post here- opinion or otherwise- can be mistaken or just flat-out wrong, and I welcome constructive corrections and/or alternative views regarding my content (botanical or otherwise.) Certainly with your experience of a career working with defense contractors, you’re well-qualified to disagree with my impressions.

So back to the wording. I’d be lying though, if I said I didn’t feel I’d had a “lucky dodge” by not pursuing a career in the defense industry. Though I have nowhere near your experience working with defense contractors, one thing I’ve gained from my career (and to be clear, there is NO line of work that is more worthwhile or enjoyable to make total fun of than Sales) is the experience of having visited hundreds of companies across dozens of industries. And honestly, employees of some industries (and certainly specific companies/agencies/universities) often seem to be- on average- happier with their professional lives than others. I- and a number of my colleagues- have, many times, sensed a certain lack of “joie de vivre” amongst long-term employees of defense contractors. This isn’t a value judgment; it’s an observation. And in that my use of the term “Have No Souls” implied such a value judgment, I regret the choice of words.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the apology. Normally, I am very thick-skinned, but for some reason that really struck a nerve. Just based on MY observations, it's not what you do for a living, but who you work for that determines how much you like your job.

Granted, working in defense is not for everyone, but jeez, it's got to be better than working in SALES! Keep up the watching and the blogging.

(and I apologize for being Anon, just trying to protect the innocent)

Lucy said...

Awesome post! Eskers, kettle lakes, continental glaciation, hydrology, erosional resistance of granite vs. unconsolidated sediment! Wow. Great treatment of the recent geologic history of your homeland.

I was born and raised in the kettle lakes region of North Dakota. Tons of little ponds (we called them sloughs - probably because by the end of summer with the added nitrogen contributed by run off from the fields, they were usually skanky), and my mom lives on an esker. ND and Maine do not quite have the geologic bounty that Utah has, but they do deserve honorable mentions.

And a question for you: do you think Monkshood and Death Camas would still be blooming this weekend in Mill Creek? I wasn't able to get up there last weekend but really wanted to check them out - without touching them, of course. But, hey, weren't those your fingers in the pictures?

Watcher said...

Lucy- Glad you liked it! ND is one of the 3 states I haven’t been to, but I’d read you guys have kettle ponds/depressions and that paleobotanists had found evidence of tilted/jumbled forests from when the subterranean ice-chunks underneath melted (I guess that area was forested at the time. Think I read it in E.C. Pielou’s “After The Ice Age”, but not sure…)

Re: Monkshood & Corn Lily (did you mean Death Camas or Corn Lily?) I haven’t been back to VoD since 8/2, so it’s possible, but I’d guess unlikely, that they’re still blooming in that spot by Saturday (8/15). But there’s a similar spot about another ~mile(?) up/East, and maybe 200-300 feet higher, on GWT, where the trail crosses from the South to North side of the stream, and where there’s similar vegetation (I photo’d Case’s Fitweed there on 7/12) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Monkshood was still blooming there.

Re: Fingers+Flowers- busted. Yeah, I almost didn’t use that shot because of the sloppy contact, but it was my best close-up. Truth is that I knew the flower was toxic when I photo’d it, but had no idea *how* toxic until I did more research after the encounter & photos. Coincidentally I came home from the ride and showered before making dinner, so I was fine, but it was way sloppy.

Lucy said...

Oh, whoops, I meant Corn Lily. You were right about the shock factor of the names - Death Camas sticks in the brain more easily. I will head up there Friday or Sunday and hunt the toxic flowers.

KanyonKris said...

What a beautiful place! And so different from Utah. I love water and would be in heaven spending some time there. Thanks for the detailed post that shows off what you got to enjoy.

Lucy said...

This is Lucy again. Thanks for the tip on where to find Corn Lily and Western Monkshood. They were right there at the creek crossing where you described. Monkshood is a super cool looking flower.

Anonymous said...

that was very interesting and cool, I am on the enternet try to find out what the study of fresh water in lakes and ponds is because I can't figure it out. I liked your story it was cool:)

Mark Brown said...

nice place!

Anonymous said...

As an owner on Wild Acres, I appreciated reading your research. Best to your Mom and Dad. ST