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Low Elevation Alpine Love

by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

I fell in love with alpine plants at the bottom of the mountain. In college I worked as an environmental educator at a backcountry hut in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Many of these huts are “high mountain,” perched just at treeline for beautiful hikes through alpine communities with Sound-of-Music-style panoramic views of open summits.

My hut, Zealand Falls, was not a high mountain hut. Our elevation was 2700’ and we were surrounded by lowland trees like paper birch and striped maple. But, Zealand Falls had waterfalls. During the lull of midday — the post-breakfast quiet when all of last night’s guests had hiked on to higher peaks, and that night’s guests were still trudging up the trail — I spent hours wading up the Zealand River, lounging in the rills, climbing the falls.

Little clumps of butter-cup-yellow flowers clung to the moss-covered rocks in the middle of the falls: mountain avens. In New Hampshire, mountain avens belong to much higher elevations; this rare plant with a truly weird post-glacial distribution is endemic to the White Mountain alpine zone and coastal Nova Scotia. Mountain avens are supposed to be high mountain hut plants, not inland valley forest plants.

They didn’t grow on the banks of the river, or anywhere in the forest around the hut, just the waterfall. They seemed to know what I knew: the falls were a cool retreat from the July heat and humidity. Living with mountain avens, and sharing their waterfall microclimate for a summer, made me feel like I had a secret alpine plant “pet.”

Years later, I started graduate school and joined a research project that brought me back to alpine plant plots around the high mountain huts in the White Mountains. But, I always made a point to hike back to Zealand Falls and see my original “alpine” loves.

Caitlin "mountain aven" McDonough MacKenzie is a 2017 Smith fellow and a founder of Plant Love Stories. She uses fossil pollen to study plants of the past alpine plant communities in Maine. You can follow Caitlin in Maine at @CaitlinInMaine


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