As far as I know, there isn’t a list of ‘Great Wonders of the Northeast’ but if there were, the annual display of alpine wildflowers in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains would be one of them. I look forward to this event each year in the way some folks look forward to fireworks displays on the Fourth of July, and I hope you too will experience this brief but fantastic spectacle.
Although common in arctic and subarctic latitudes, in New England these plants, many of them rare or endangered in the eastern United States, only grow in the elevation-induced near-arctic conditions above 4,500 feet (on average). Because the growing season is so short and the weather so extreme, the plants tend to blossom all at once and in great array, carpeting the thin, rocky soils in a brilliant palette. Although you can see some of these plants at other New England alpine areas (most notably Mt. Marcy in NY, Mt. Mansfield in VT, Katahdin in ME, Moosilauke and Franconia Ridge in NH) at 7 square miles the Presidential Range is the by far the largest alpine zone in the northeast United States and has the greatest diversity of alpine flora.
The best place to see the alpine wildflowers are along the Crawford Path from Mt. Eisenhower through Lakes of the Clouds, the Alpine Garden on the east face of Mt. Washington, the "Monticello Lawn" between Mt. Clay and the summit of Mt. Jefferson, the Edmonds Col area between Mount Jefferson and Mount Adams, and the flats around Star Lake below Mount Adams. The best time to see the display is late May through early June (peak bloom fluctuates from year to year) but some flowers tend to peak sooner and some later. The showiest early blooms include the white Diapensia, also known as the "Pincushion Plant" (Diapensia lapponica) and pink Alpine Azalea (Kalmia procumbens), both of which grow in low, ground-hugging cushion-like clusters to better hold to thin soils and withstand the desiccating subzero winters, along with somewhat stouter lavender-colored Lapland Rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum). Later, look for Labrador Tea (Rhododendron tomentosum), a small shrub with showy white blossoms and leaves with fuzzy undersides), and in late June the sunny yellow Mountain Avens (Geum peckii), pinkish-white Mountain Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) and delicately-leafed yellow Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana). Alongside these blooms, you'll also see creeping alpine willows and birches, and the famous and locally rare Bigelow Sedge, (Carex bigelowii) which passes for grass in the alpine zone.
All of these plants lead fragile and tenuous lives due to the extreme growing conditions and short seasons of the alpine zone. That being the case, when visiting the alpine zone it’s extremely important to stay on the marked trails and step only on rocks so that you won't trample the rare plants (even plants that look like ordinary grass may be endangered species in the alpine zone) so that this great spectacle will continue to amaze in the years to come. Sadly, each year I witness far too many people who are ignorant of the fragile nature of these rare plants (or who know but don't care). Trails in the alpine zone are often marked with lines of rocks on either side of the path to keep hikers from destroying the rare vegetation--please do the right thing and stay between the lines. Trust me, there is plenty of fine viewing right from the trail.
If you own a tent, you’ve probably noticed that the holes in the bug mesh screening are quite fine—typically over 1,000 holes per square inch, much finer than your average window screen in a house. The holes have to be this fine in order to keep out “No Seeums" (Ceratopogonidae), the tiniest of biting flies, so tiny that you have to squint in order to see them. In fact, if it’s dark out, you won’t see them at all, unless you happen to shine your headlamp closely on one as it feasts on you. No Seeums, also known as “punkies” and “moose flies” are a family of biting midges 1-3 millimeters in length and translucent grey in color. They have a striped wing pattern that is barely visible to the naked eye in larger specimens. Their tiny size (about half to one quarter the size of a Black Fly) and translucent color makes them nearly invisible. If you find yourself suddenly feeling itchy in the dawn or dusk, or after dark, but can’t identify the cause, you may be the victim of a No Seeum attack. Despite their tiny size, their bite packs a punch, and like Black Flies, they slice holes in the skin then lick out the blood.
Season & Habitat
Here in the northeast, No Seeums are most active in the twilight hours, on moderate to warm nights in the spring and early summer, near wetlands and still bodies of water. They prefer damp conditions; drought will substantially reduce their numbers. Unlike other biting flies, their larvae are not aquatic. No Seeums are not known to be vectors of pathogens in the northeast, but some people are allergic to their bites (the allergy can cause painful, long lasting itchiness).
Ecology and Behavior
Like other species of biting fly, adult No Seeums feed on plant nectars; females will procure blood for nutrients used in egg production. Like mosquitos and black flies, No Seeums tend to attack in mobs. Overall, No Seeums are more localized and less omnipresent than mosquitos and black flies and they tend to travel less far in search of blood; sometimes it is possible to escape them by moving away from their home turf a relatively short distance, and it’s quite easy to out-walk them. I’ve never had a problem with them while hiking—only when I stop and settle down for the evening. They are too tiny to bite through clothing but can easily slip under cuffs and down collars. They will bite any area of exposed skin. They will sometimes pass through house window screens to bite people inside.
Cold weather or a strong breeze will drive No Seeums away, as will campfire smoke, natural insect repellants (such as lemon-Eucalyptus concoctions) and man-made chemical repellents (DEET, Picaridin) insect repellants. While most tents come equipped with mesh netting fine enough to keep out No-Seeums, you can easily carry them into your tent on your clothing or skin—shine a headlamp near the apex of your tent after you get inside, and squash any that came in with you (or else they will find you later). If you’re sleeping in a lean-to in No-Seeum habitat, they will come inside the lean-to to bite—in which case you could protect yourself with an insect repellent or with an over the sleeping bag mesh bug net—but make sure you buy netting with very fine holes (some cheap bug nets on the market aren’t fine enough to keep out No Seeums). There are few fates more torturous than being bit all night by nearly invisible bugs.
If you do end up reacting to No-Seeum bites, consider anti-inflammatory creams containing Benadryl or other salves to reduce itchiness.
How long have you two been hiking together?
--Well, quite a few years, we used to live together, we lived together for like four or five years in DC. Now I live in New York and she lives in New Jersey and we came up for the weekend.
So you’re old friends? Do you hike often together?
--Yeah, old friends.
--Every couple months.
--Yeah we try to.
--Especially when it’s nice outside.
What do you like about hiking?
--Being out in nature, and you get good exercise.
--Fresh air, especially living in a city, its really nice to just have a break.
--And the quietness.
--And we both have puppies, so it’s nice to bring them along and do an activity all together.
And you like hiking with dogs?
--Hiking with dogs is really fun.
--This is his [Leo's] first time, this is first official hike, but it’s gonna be nice because he’s going to be so tired after!
--It’s nice for them to just run around and explore and not be confined to a yard, house, or apartment.
Any advice or wisdom for people who hike?
--For me, I’m not the most natural hiker. . .its something, especially over the past year or two, I’ve tried to do more of. So for people who are maybe nervous and not used to it, just going out there and doing it, trying, starting out with an easier hike and then working your way up, and then it becomes something you crave.
--And I would say, bring snacks!
Black Flies (Simuliidae) are speedy black gnats that attack in mobs. They are completely black in color and have a distinctly hunched thorax. There are over 2,000 species of black fly worldwide with over 200 species in the United States alone. Black flies are sometimes mistaken for “eyeball gnats” (Liohippelates--a late spring/ summer species of annoying gnat which licks the eye mucus of animals but doesn’t bite) and other small, non-biting flies that tend to congregate in large numbers in the spring (mayflies for instance) but aren’t attracted to human beings.
Season and Habitat
Black Flies only breed in fast-flowing water (they love mountain streams); their larvae attach to rocks and filter feed on algae and bacteria. The adults emerge from the water in the spring. Since spring is relative to elevation as well as latitude, “black fly season” in the northeast may end in the lowlands just as it is beginning on the peaks. Dry spring weather will knock populations down; wet springs will bring them out with a vengeance. Most black fly populations are done by mid-July even at the highest elevations. Occasionally, in the late summer, if conditions are sufficiently wet, a few black flies may return, but these are usually short-lived, localized outbreaks. Black flies are intolerant of polluted waters, so a robust black fly population can be a good indicator of a healthy aquatic habitat. Many animals feed on black flies including various bird species, other insects (like dragonflies), fish, (especially trout), and amphibians.
Ecology and Behavior
Male and female black flies feed on plant nectars, not blood. Only the female black fly will bite for blood: she does so to procure nutrients for egg production. Although black flies aren’t known to be a host to pathogens in the northeast United States, they do leave painful, itchy, and lingering welts. Unlike mosquitos-- connoisseurs who delicately drill into their hosts-- black flies are butchers; they gouge a tiny hole in the skin with their knife-like mouthparts, apply an anticoagulant saliva, and then lick up the blood. They prefer to bite high but will go low often enough to keep you guessing—I’ve found black flies biting between my sandaled toes from time to time. Black flies have acute senses for detecting hosts from a distance but they tend to be somewhat more attracted to darker clothing (which more closely resembles animal fur).
When black flies are in full swing they can assault you in such numbers to make you want to jump off a cliff. They tend to fly around annoyingly for quite a while, landing briefly again and again before they settle down to bite. This is a successful tactic (and possibly a genetically coded behavior--one shared by other species of biting flies): the more you aggravate the victim, tickling their skin and making them fruitlessly swat around, the harder it is for the victim to notice when and where the fly lands and bites. Black flies are masters at finding the tiniest patch of skin unprotected by bug repellent—you could take a bath in bug repellent and a black fly will still find that one spot you missed or rubbed it off. They will crawl into your clothing around cuffs to bite beneath. Even when they are not biting, they will get in your eyes, mouth, and ears and will tickle your skin. Black fly bites itch maddeningly, which benefits the black fly population as a whole --itched wounds will bleed and become desensitized to biting, making it easier for other black flies to procure blood from you.
Thwarting Black Flies
Bug repellent is a must during black fly season (take it with you, as it will wear off when you sweat); I don’t find much difference between manufactured chemical repellents (DEET, Picaridin), or natural repellents (such as lemon-Eucalyptus concoctions, etc.) but I do find that I have to apply a lot of it to discourage black flies and re-apply it during the hike when I sweat it off. I apply it to all areas of exposed skin (except around my eyes, lips, and nostrils), on my hat, and around my collar and cuffs. Even this will not stop them from flying annoyingly around my head. I always wear a hat or keep handy a bandanna to cover my head, and I keep a mesh head net in my pack for the worse black fly days.
Black flies are good enough reason to avoid some places altogether in the spring (in the arctic and subarctic spring they can be numerous enough to be life-threatening), but you can pick your days carefully: cold weather or a stiff wind will thwart them (but as soon as you take shelter from the wind, they will be waiting there for you). Black flies are active only during the day and will avoid dark places—you can take refuge from them in the back of a lean-to, an overhang cave, or even a dense thicket of evergreens. They will mob you most when you are taking a break, and they tend to loiter in places where hikers congregate. The longer you stop, the more black flies will find you. Keeping up a good hiking pace can reduce biting—although black flies are fast, a moving target is harder for them to zero in on. When resting, I’ve sometimes succeeded in diverting some of their mob by placing my sweaty backpack as a scent decoy a few feet away from me and watching while they fruitlessly attack it. When camping, the smoke from a fire can discourage black flies (in old time outdoors language, lighting a fire for this purpose is called "smudging").
Because you will not be able to avoid getting bit by black flies if you hike in the northeast in the spring, it’s helpful to have a salve of some kind to coat your black fly bites and keep the itching down.