Hiking: The Exceptionally Unique Circular Ossipee Range

Ossipee — November 12, 2006 — The circular Ossipee Range is 65 square miles of forested hills, nine miles in diameter. It is exceptionally unique. Due to the obvious value of the place, as seen by those who know it, there are conservation easements on roughly half of the range.

Club Motorsports, Inc., which has no ties to the area — typical for a developer — thought they could roll over a small town and install a luxury private race track in this unique mountain range. Thanks to Focus:Tamworth, this development has been stalled, and hopefully defeated. A great step in this occurred Wednesday night when the Tamworth planning board voted 5 to 1 to deny Club Motorsports their town wetlands permit.

It is true that people’s value systems, like everything else, are in a constant state of flux. Today, perhaps we are beginning to relearn how to have and express affection for the land —from which we have been long separated, starting way back with the advent of agriculture and private property, and continuing through modern industrialization. Anyway, if we don’t continue to relearn how to openly show affection for wild land, it will soon be gone.

This week, and next week as well, I thought I would ask a few people familiar with the Ossipee Range what they thought was valuable about it. The first person I talked with was Richard Boisvert, New Hampshire state archaeologist with the Department of Historical Resources.

“The circular Ossipee Range is a geological marvel,” he said recently. “Stated simply, it is an ancient volcano.” How humans interacted with this place has fascinated him.

“People have traveled between Ossipee Lake and Lake Winnipesaukee for 10,000 years, passing by the Ossipee Range,” he said. The range has been a small source of a rock called hornfels, which natives shaped into tools. Remnants of these tools have since been found all along the Merrimack and Saco Rivers, and southwest to Connecticut.

“Hornfels is an unusual rock formed when volcanic ash was spewed into the atmosphere, fell back to the ground and accumulated, and was reheated by the volcano two or three times,” he said.

As for recent habitation, Boisvert commented that the range must have been an attractive place.

“The interior of the Ossipees is a protected place. It was its own community. There was a village there. Some families, with names such as Eldridge and White, have been there 200 years.”

He concluded that the Ossipee Range is of great value geologically, socially and environmentally. The environmental value of the Ossipee Range is well known to ecosystem management consultant Rick Van de Poll of Sandwich. Since its unique geology is directly related, he first commented on that.

“The Ossippe Range is a very large chunk of basalt,” he said. “Besides this basalt in the outer rim, there is granite and syenite in the inner range. There is also a layer of rhyolite on the outer edge that forms the circularity that is unique in America.”

There are also unusual exposed areas of material from pre-Wisconsin glaciation, left untouched by a combination of the lay of the land and the direction of the glacial flow.

“Off the Gilman Valley Road, there is an area of hardpan composed of sands, gravels and cobbles that dates before the glacier,” he said.

“The real story of the Ossipee Range is the wildlife,” said Van de Poll. “The range is the largest unfragmented chunk of land between the Whites and the ocean. There are denning bobcat, bear, moose, deer and occasional cougar. There have been more cougar sightings there than anywhere else in central New Hampshire.”

Van De Poll is in possession of one plaster cast of a track and two scats from a cougar in the Ossipee Range. He has testified in court that Club Motorsports’ race track would endanger cougar habitat.

“Cougars are dispersers that travel 150 to 200 miles from their native habitat. Why would they return here, if not for the presence of females? The recorded sightings are in the autumn, when the 5- to 6-month-old young disperse.”

Concerning the forest itself, Van de Poll said that there are unusual, rare forest types in the range. “There are old growth remnant forests in deep ravines. There are dry ridgetops with undisturbed oak woodlands, some trees being 350 years old.”

He has been involved in a number of studies in the range, the largest being in the Castle in the Clouds property and the North Ossipee Preserve, both owned by the Lakes Region Conservation Trust.

“From research, I was able to devise where remnant old growth forests were,” Van de Poll said. “I found 800 acres of old growth hemlocks, some trees up to 550 years old.”

Overall, he commented that the Ossipee Range has an unusual combination of Appalachian oak forest, central New Hampshire mixed forest and northern boreal forest.

Jim Shea lives with his wife and son in the old Ames farm at the top of Mason Hill Road in South Tamworth. In the nearby woods, and down through the millennia, the water in Cold Brook has carved a deep and beautiful canyon through basalt, then flowed out into the Bearcamp River. Shea’s family has swum in the deep pools along the brook since they moved here a few years ago. He has also been highly aware of the water of the Ossipee Range up at the farmhouse.

“The water flows out of these mountains and beneath the house,” he said. “Recently we had to cut down a giant willow in the back yard above the house, after a big branch fell in a wind storm. It was only 45 years old, but great in girth. After it was cut, the cellar flooded a little. That tree must have sucked up a lot of water.”

An acquaintance of Shea recently met the woman who planted the giant willow as a sapling when she was a little girl. She is now in her sixties.

Shea has bushwhacked up Little Larkom Mountain above the farmhouse, and hiked in other areas of the Ossipee Range. “I have done a lot of hiking here and am always amazed how beautiful it is,” he said. “I especially like the Connor Pond area in the center of the range. From its shore, you look around and feel like you are inside the crater of an old volcano.”

Conway Daily Sun Columnist Ed Parsons can be contacted at mtsandrivers@yahoo.com.

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