Lichen Alert

Two of the wonders of our White Mountains are our granite outcroppings and the array of lichen that are drawn to them. We marvel at the rich hew of color they add, busily painting every rock they anchor themselves on. Their story is one children delight in.

We usually tell children about the way lichen come to be. It goes something like this: fungi are slimy little organisms with strong tentacles that can grab onto rough granite and anchor themselves in the rock or on trees. They are so tenacious that if you ever try to scrape them off, you’ll find it difficult not to leave some of the fungi in place. BUT, fungi need food and since they’’ve anchored themselves to a rock, they can’t go shopping.

Algae are at home swimming in our lakes. They are like little food factory plants that float up into the atmosphere in the water cycle and get carried by the winds until they land on fungi. There, the algae find a solid foundation and the fungi have the food they need. When the algae and fungi come together like this, they become lichen. Because they give each other what they need, we call this a symbiotic relationship.

Now, the plot thickens, especially when we hike in the White Mountains, especially when or after it rains. Lichen, often dry and crusty on rocks when baked be the sun, willingly slurp up any rain and become slimy sluiceways that hikers need to beware of. One step on wet lichen and you would be amazed at how quickly balance is lost and you risk injury. Here’s how.

Last week twelve of us met to hike the 10 mi. Baldface loop in Evans Notch. We hiked up the first few miles in the understory of a variety of trees, shrubs and plants and hopped the rocks across streams.  It was great just to be out with friends. As we came to the open areas leading to the summits, we were relieved to find the rocks dry, making scrambles doable. This hike, being a loop over two summits, brings spectacular views of lakes, surrounding mountains and the burst of fall colors. We grazed on some ripe  blueberries and abundant cranberries, and found a sheltered well out of the wind to huddle in for lunch.

I love hiking into the wind over bald granite summits and down again into the shelter of trees, especially when hiking with friends and enjoying rich conversation from different perspectives. The last mile of this hike is relatively level and we were hiking in a closer pack with ease. Unconcerned with underfooting,  my mind focused on conversation, in the shadow of late afternoon light, I stepped on a slab of dark brown wet lichen and instantly went down, fracturing my left humerus.

Fortunately, we all carry emergency first aid supplies, my arm was gently put in a sling, I was handed a couple of ibuprophen tablets, my adrenalin kicked in for a safe mile out, and I was taken to the N. Conway ER.

Moral of the story: Hike with friends, carry emergency supplies and WATCH YOUR STEP, ESPECIALLY NEAR WET LICHEN.


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