For my part - not that anyone asked - I only tolerate winter.
From November to March my mind races and whirs with variations on the following theme: little rivers, sloughing ice on spring mornings, bloodroot flowering white along the banks. There is such a profusion of life in the little streams of the White Mountains during this time that it is difficult for me not to feel buoyant, present, and calm.
That said: I’ve spent time in the White Mountains in winter, where life is stripped down to its basic boreal units: fir, spruce, birch, and ravens.
This morning, I woke up from my 225th night as the winter caretaker at Carter Notch, a windswept, gaping pass in the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah range where the AMC has operated a very dignified little hut since 1915. On stormy days, like today, it feels as though someone switched the color mode from RGB to grayscale. Pondering the chaotic mess of swirling snow it’s possible to forget that in a few months, the Carter Lakes will roil with breeding amphibians and the elder, mountain-ash, and raspberry around the hut will have gone to flower.
But on calm, quiet, winter days, there comes a bounding, snorting, chuffing reminder that the Notch in winter is an important, living, boreal environment: marten.
The American marten is a medium-sized mustelid (of the same ilk as the fisher and wolverine, both of which were beaten out of New Hampshire through over-trapping and habitat loss in the 19th century, as well as the various sables and marten of the Old World) distributed throughout the boreal zone of Canada and the U.S. In New England, marten once ranged into western and central Massachusetts, but they now reach south only as far as the southern White Mountains. Even this is an improvement over the first half of the last century, when they persisted in Maine but were extirpated, or extremely rare, elsewhere.
Over four winters I’ve been lucky enough to see marten or marten sign in just about every corner of Carter Notch, from the spine of the Wildcat Ridge to the ice-caves under the talus of Wildcat A, on the upper slopes of Carter Dome’s Rampart and on the alpine prow of Mount Height, and over in Zeta Pass and the Carter Ridge. In Carter Notch, as elsewhere on the White Mountain National Forest, it is possible to see marten in broad daylight, prowling through the forest around the various buildings. Some winters there seem to be more than in others.
There are at least four marten about the place this winter; I can tell them apart in my photographs by the shape of their yellow throat-patch and the various little scars on the face and ears (for example, one has suffered a severe injury to its right eye; others have distinct injuries to their ears).
When it’s warm enough to sit quietly on the bunkhouse porch, I sometimes see them as they wander from the Rampart toward the Lakes. Sometimes I hear them first, when they make a hesitant, purring growl from dense cover, and bob their heads for a better view as I walk by. Some are quick to stand on their hind legs for a better view and others seem to seldom do this. Each of them is probably familiar with the whole notch – typical marten’s range encompasses several square kilometers.
Whether or not the marten will recolonize central New England much beyond the White Mountains remains to be seen – its bulkier congener, the fisher, has (by some accounts) exceeded expectations in its efforts to recolonize the southern tier of its former range. Conversely its even larger relative, the wolverine, only haunts the very edges of northeastern America, reluctant to make any sort of comeback, even to the vast wilderness of Québec and Labrador. For the time being, the precautionary principle should continue to dictate our relationship with the pine marten: known populations in the White Mountains and Coos County should be given wide berth and treated with a degree of reverence.
Mike Jones is the winter caretaker at Carter Notch Hut, the executive director of Beyond Ktaadn, and a postdoc biologist at UMass Amherst.