mt st helens

The actively eroding raw landscape around Mt. St. Helens.

Ever since learning of the history of the ice ages as a young man, I’ve wondered what our region was like as the glaciers melted and a brand new land surface was revealed. Much of the inspiration for the following flight of imagination came from the work and writings of Jonathan Lothrop, curator of archaeology at the New York State Museum, and former New Hampshire State Archaeologist Richard Boisvert.

Olli stopped to catch his breath. His feet hurt. He had been running for what seemed like hours and had lost track of his fellow hunters. He sat down on a rock outcrop and looked around. Down the valley, to the southeast, he could see the spruce woods where they had first spotted the mastodon. It was the spot in today’s Lyndon we know as Red Village, where the Passumpsic veers sharply south, spilling from the valley that contains Lyndonville down a series of falls over the next several miles. To the northeast, he could see where the larger valley split, and well to the north, he could make out the edge of the ice on the heights. There were spots of vegetation but mostly the landscape was barren, with lots of rock. The river below was in full flood on this warmish spring day, and the broad valley was one giant lake, gray with silt. Olli knew the water was paralyzingly cold. The mastodon had veered away from the river when it sensed the hunters. There would be nothing for it to eat close to the ice, so it was circling to the west, headed over the ridge to the next valley.

I’ve visited glacial margins where ice has retreated in Chile, around Mount Rainier in Washington, in the Canadian Rockies, and Iceland. I’ve seen brand new land surfaces in the volcanic landscapes of Iceland, Hawaii, and Mount Saint Helens. The volcanic landscapes are desolate places where existing life was extinguished rapidly and a new land surface deposited in a matter of days or weeks. In contrast, the post-glacial landscapes appeared slowly over the decades and centuries.

The landforms we know today are quite different from those first revealed by the melting ice and shaped by the first years of rampant erosion. Twelve thousand years ago, steep, rocky hillsides without vegetation eroded impressively in the humid climate of the NEK. As you walk across a hillside today and traverse the ups and downs including some impressive little valleys, you are likely crossing the gentle remains of what were raw gullies with slumping sides in the first few centuries after the ice melted. Eventually, as vegetation covered the land, steep banks reached their angle of repose and streams eroded down to a stable bottom. Hills and valleys settled into the landforms we see today.

The sun had disappeared behind the clouds and his sore feet were starting to get cold, so Olli rose and resumed his trot up the hill. Topping a rise to the west he spotted one of his mates standing on a boulder, looking in his direction. He could see it was Nab, the leader of their little hunting party. Olli quickly began to run. When he reached the boulder he climbed up next to Nab and saw that they had a commanding view to the west. The treeless expanse rose and fell, with ponds scattered in the low spots and boulders large and small dotting the hills.

The elders told stories of a time when the ice-covered all this land, right down to the great lake that was the focus of life then, but which disappeared generations ago. Olli’s grandfather remembered ice lingering on the tops of the ridge to the west (what we know today as the Kittredge Hills). He also remembered the common sightings of a mastodon in the spruce wetlands to the south. But this was the first mega-beast Olli’s band had seen in years. Their excitement had pulled them north, chasing this lone apparition.

As they looked at the rough landscape they would have to traverse if they were to pursue the great beast, Olli and Nab realized that their quest was folly. It would bring prestige to kill a rare mastodon, but then what? They were two days north of the band’s summer camp where they had just settled in. To make effective use of the creature, the whole band would need to come north for a time to butcher and preserve the meat and whatever else they could use from the animal. And if it continued to warm, the meat would be spoiled by the time they got here.

As the two men sat on the boulder chewing on dried venison they caught sight of the third member of the hunting party, trotting beside a big pond about half a mile away. He disappeared into some brush in a swampy area, then emerged and seemed to spot them. Olli and Nab waved and got down from the boulder, trotting down the hill to meet him. They found Boji on the bank of the brook and joined him for a drink from the ice-cold torrent. The water was gritty but refreshing. After a brief conference, the three men agreed to abandon the mastodon and head south over the hill to the bigger valley beyond where they hoped to encounter a deer on their way back to the camp.

Olli and his contemporaries left no record of their lives. We can only speculate based on scattered bits of archaeological evidence. Archaeology in the northeast has always been a quiet pursuit, carried out by a few academics and state employees. In western North America, ancient sites are more common, and much easier to investigate due to dry climates and open landscapes. Here in the humid northeast, any evidence of early human activity is buried under thousands of years’ worth of plant detritus and our forested landscape. Discoveries are infrequent and often accidental, such as the important sites in Jefferson and Randolph, N.H. There, in the 1990s, local archaeology volunteer Paul Bock looked carefully at the exposed root ball of a tree overturned by a storm near the Israel River. That led to the discovery of the oldest Paleo-Indian site in New Hampshire, demonstrating that humans were here about 11,000 to 12,500 years ago. Assuming that humans migrated here from the south and west by way of major river valleys like the Androscoggin or Connecticut, the existence of a major site well up a minor tributary in Jefferson implies that humans were in the larger Connecticut valley even earlier.

As they made their way up the barren rocky hillside, the men crossed gully after gully where the spring melt had eroded the bare soil. Here and there sedges had taken hold and patches of willow grew in moist spots. Navigation was never an issue north of the forests. The hunters had unobstructed views and knew the outlines of familiar hills. On clear days they could see the sun glinting off the thick white ice caps on the mountains. As they looked east (at what we know today as the Presidentials) they saw a long ridge of ice, bright white with snow at this time of year, but graying to a dull sheen by late summer. Each year another mountain or two lost its cap entirely in the heat of the summer, an event which caused much speculation around the fire at night.

As the hunters worked their way down into what we know as the Sleepers River valley, they began to see grass again, and a smattering of trees. In the wetlands, willow thickets were thriving and around the edges, the grass was turning green. Here where ice and snow were already gone, the spring flood was over and the tall, freshly eroded streambanks stood vertically, ready to slump into the water. As the little valley widened, they came to a spot where the river poured over a sharp drop in the bedrock at Emerson Falls. Below the falls, the river cut deeply into the bottom of the valley. They trotted along the edge of the valley to avoid having to climb in and out of gully after gully where streams cut their way toward the bigger river. As they approached the confluence of the Sleepers and the Passumpsic, the three men climbed up onto a large flat plateau, with scattered large spruce trees growing from the grass that covered the sandy soil. They had camped here before, as had their fathers and grandfathers. As the sun set behind the hills to the west, the men kindled a fire and chewed their venison as they watched and listened to the roaring river below them. Tomorrow would be another day.

Tim McKay is a retired natural resource conservationist and current woodworker and tree farmer who lives in Peacham.