The Height Of Land: The Natural History Of Smugglers Notch

         A colorful sunrise is a paradoxical encounter. Aerosols of anthropogenic origin enhance the red hue of a morning sky through refracting long wavelengths of light in the atmosphere (Ballantyne, 2007). These pastoral skies are in danger however as the dubious myth that pollution leads to brighter skies during dawn and dusk, will inevitably lead to a complacency in society with the abundant particulate matter altering our atmosphere. Dependent on your definition of beauty, an over abundance of airborne pollution will eventually monopolize our morning skies into a singular blazing red horizon with the loss of our natural azures and violets; of course only until they are blotched out entirely. One may witness this battle of colors in our atmosphere playing out on the shoulders of Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s tallest peak. Mt. Mansfield sees all in this northeastern region and has witnessed every sunrise long before their alteration by humans. 

            We will not witness such a sunrise this morning, at least not from the road. My ski partner and I are travelling into Smugglers Notch, a mountainous pass nestled between Mt. Mansfield and the Sterling-Spruce peak range, which lays claim to some of the most fascinating and adventurous alpine terrain in New England. This region was birthed during the Taconic orogeny some 430 million year ago and shaped via glacial movement, flowing water and melt-freeze cycles (Johnson, 1998). The resulting profile of Mt. Mansfield embodies that of a resting man with a forehead, nose and chin all assigned to resembling topographical features. If considering the Abenaki creation story however, it is believed that the great giant Gluskabe, who formed the mountains and ravines of New England during his travels, hunted and killed a great moose whose body was so enormous that when it was covered in soil it formed the great mountain Mozondebiwadzo or Moose head mountain (aka Mt. Mansfield) (Johnson, 1998). The cultural heritage of this region is rich with creation stories, but whatever may have formed the region, we were thankful for its work.

            Turning up route 108 also known as “The Notch Road” we found ourselves on the northern terminus of the notch, still engulfed in darkness and roaring up the steep terrain to our destination. Smugglers Notch is an area of immense wilderness, not entirely in the sense of virginity but rather in its provision of freedom. It was such freedoms that attracted smugglers to the region, during the War of 1812, who would transport cattle and other goods north into Canada to trade neglecting the newly placed embargo on the French (Dodge, 1977). The region would again benefit smugglers during the prohibition when bootleggers moved their illegal goods through the mountainous pass, uninterrupted, and into near by markets (Hagerman, 1971). It is easy to understand where the name of this area developed.

            The Culture surrounding Smugglers Notch has evolved along with the landscape over time and has become primarily known by its two ski industries Smugglers Notch Ski Resort and Stowe Ski Resort. Stowe would open in the late 30’s with the installation of a 1000’ long rope-tow powered by a 1927 Cadillac engine (Hagerman, 1971). A skier could ride for the day for a mere 50 cents while a season’s pass fetched for only 5 dollars back then. Todays goals however wouldn’t include either ski resort, our eyes were set on a much more challenging task, a gully concealed high in the mountain that offered incredible ski terrain with a challenging ascent.

            The Notch Road closes after the first snowfall and is passible only on foot, skis, or snowmobile during the winter.  I park the car next to the roads closed gate and we pull out our headlamps and place our climbing skins on our skis. The morning’s sky is still filled with the winter night’s stars and the cool morning breeze crystallizes my breath as we move synchronously up the snow-covered road. Thinking back I consider that some form of this road existed as a path centuries before European settlement but it was not until 1910 that the present road was built (Tree & Foulds, 2006). The 18 percent grade of the road resembles more the pitch of some ski trails than other roads and it’s narrowness prevents busses and large trucks from driving the pass at anytime of the year.

            We pass the height of land and contour down the road towards Stowe. This area is known for its collection of impressive rock formations including the Hunter and his dog, Smugglers Cave and Elephants Head. We turn up hill, pushing small trees aside and dodging around large boulders and ice chunks. Thompson characterized the forest type here as primarily a Montane Spruce-Fir forest, which is common above 2,500’in Vermont (2005). Encountering yellow and paper birch at lower elevations, we weaved around their brush gaining ground quickly. While these birches don’t grow that rapidly, it is very likely that those not affected by the 1938 hurricane may be 200 years old such as some of those found on the Hells Brook trail, not far from our current location (Bazilchuck & Strimbeck, 1999).

            These higher elevation forests are some of the oldest in New England as they were the few that were not impacted by early logging ventures used to increase farmable land. Populations of Native Americans in the region prior to European settlement were small and their use of land was well dispersed leaving little to no permanent alterations on the Landscape (Thompson & Sorenson, 2005). Irrationally, by the 1850s Europeans had cleared 75 percent of Vermont’s forests resulting in the long-term loss of species and alteration of the soil and water quality (Thompson & Sorenson, 2005).

            As the forest clears we get our first look at the top of the ravine and the impressive curtain of ice that we will have to climb to get to reach the peak. Downslope movement, also known as mass wasting is a key disturbance process in mountainous regions of Vermont and the mechanism behind the creation of this gully (Thompson & Sorenson, 2005). This movement can be characterized by the gentle washing of nutrients downslope or more likely in the Smugglers Notch region, rock fall and major landslides caused primarily by heavy rainfall. These slides are what backcountry skiers live for. Long, steep and open slide paths with large amounts of snow; this is exactly what we had set out for.

            Our crampons now on our feet and our boards on our backs, we put ice tools to ice and move steadily up the large blue curtain. I’m certain that Ira Allen, founder of Vermont and supposedly the first white man to climb Mt. Mansfield, did not do so in the same style as we were today. Scrambling up the small snowfield above our line of descent we reach the peak of the gully and sit to enjoy the sunrise we had hoped for that morning.

            Turning our attention downhill we focus on the task at hand, a mistake up here could result in a 50’ fall over the frozen waterfall below us. Making short turns I ski down to a small tree in a vegetation island above the icefall. I wrap a small cord around a tree, placing a steal mallion within it and run a rope through in order to rappel the next section. I load my rappel device and begin to lower myself over the edge of the ice curtain. I’m back on my feet in no time and I move to safety to watch my partner rappel the route as well. He joins me on a lone terrace in the ravine and we play rock-paper-scissors for dibs on the first turns in the magnificent white pillows below us. I win the first pitch and I’m off in a flash of powder, surfing the white wave and riding the gullies banks and drops. We ride the 1500’ long gully directly back to The Notch Road and exchange compliments and breath a sigh of relief.

            Smugglers Notch has appealed to humans as long as they have been in the region. Whether utilizing its mountainous pass to smuggle goods or snatch up powdery turns, the Notch has provided a deep and gratifying relationship to all who have been lucky enough to experience it. However like most things it has changed over time making it more accessible to people and accommodating too more human centered activities. Like many state parks, Smugglers Notch was protected in order to preserve an important natural resource not only to suit human devices but further to protect the natural ecosystem and it’s more wild inhabitants. With the onset of DDT in the 40’s and 50’s we nearly lost our Peregrine falcon population in Vermont and they are still today recovering from that horrific onslaught pesticides. Lynx have been driven from our wild hills due to forest degradation, hunters and farmers have entirely removed the once the apex predator of the region, the wolf, Marten and Beaver were trapped to near extinction and are still rebounding, invasive plants, insects and diseases never seen in Vermont before are now threatening our forests and native plant species and climate change has begun to sway our natural communities and weather cycles.  

            It is undoubted that more and more people will flock to Smugglers Notch each year and this area will continue to sustain a high level of stress. But Vermonters are resilient. In 1970, under governorship of Deane C. Davis forward thinking environmental protection legislature known as Act 250 was passed in order to preserve these landscapes (Guyette, 1986). Rehabilitation programs have been implemented for our forests and wild neighbors and the 75 percent of removed forest is now filled with young regrowth. Our impact on our natural resources can be mitigated and sustainably managed but it starts with fostering an appreciation for the outdoor realm. Whether skiing, hiking, climbing or just watching the sunrise, Smugglers Notch has provided that awareness to many and must be protected so as to provide to many more.

Taylor Luneau

Works Cited:

·      Ballantyne, Coco. "Fact or Fiction? Smog Creates Beautiful Sunsets." Scientific American, (2007).

·      Bazilchuk, Nancy, Rick Strimbeck. Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Vermont Mountains. 1. Atlanta: Longstreet Press, INC., 1999.

·      Dodge, Bertha. Tales of Vermont Ways and People. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1977.

·      Guyette, Elise. Vermont: A Cultural Patchwork. Peterborough: Cobblestone Publishing, INC., 1986.

·      Hagerman, Robert. Mansfield: The Story of Vermont's Loftiest Mountain. 1. Essex: Essex Publishing Company, INC., 1971.

·      Johnson, Charles. The Nature of Vermont. Hanover and London: University of New England, 1998.

·      Thompson, Elizabeth; Sorenson, Eric. Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: A guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005.

·      Tree, Christina; Foulds, Diane . Vermont: An Explorer's Guide. Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 2006.