Return visit to Orris Falls with Windows to the Wild

Click on the image to see the preview.

Click on the image to see the preview.

Early in January, 2017, I enjoyed a chilly morning to Orris Falls Conservation Area with Windows to the Wild host Willem Lange and producers Steve Giordani and Phil Vaughn. The resulting show, titled “The Maniacal Traveler” is scheduled for broadcast on New Hampshire Public Television on February 15, 2017 at 7:30, with repeat broadcasts on Sunday, 2/19. See the full schedule here. (Eventually NHPTV will archive the show here).

The show is based upon my earlier post, Travels on the White Rose Road to Orris Falls, a post that highlights the hiking within South Berwick’s Orris Falls Conservation Area, owned by the Great Works Regional Land Trust. Nineteenth-century writer Sarah Orne Jewett wrote a lovely piece about an afternoon ride on what she called the White Rose Road, including a visit to the lonely farmhouse of Daniel Littlefield.

We could feel a keen sense of Littlefield’s isolation on the January morning of the filming. Although I was verging on hypothermia by the session’s end (due to misplaced optimism about the temperatures), it was great fun to spend the morning with Willem (80+ years old) and producers Steve and Phil.  Crafting a 26-minute show, it turns out, isn’t so different from crafting a blog post, except that the on-site process takes longer (and probably the editing as well). It’s all about stitching words and images together to tell a story.

I recently wrote another post, Searching for the lost village of Punkintown, about another wonderful patch of land in Eliot that Great Works helped to conserve in the 1990s. For more on hikes in the Seacoast region of Maine and New Hampshire, see the tab, “Hiking: 4k and more,” at the top of the page.


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Celebrating the new year in hut heaven: Champagne toasts at Maine Huts & Trails

We set off for Poplar Stream Hut on a perfect December afternoon.

We set off for Poplar Hut on a perfect winter afternoon.

At Poplar Hut, nestled on a hill in Maine’s Carrabassett Valley, the staff sets out the champagne glasses at 9:30 p.m.  By 10 p.m., most guests will be fast asleep in their bunks, worn out by an afternoon of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or hiking into the hut.

But the party continues for those dedicated to the stroke of midnight. They sip on beer, wine or softer beverages, while pursuing wild games of Bananagrams and Settlers of Catan.  Completing jigsaw puzzle becomes a communal activity, and then everyone settles into the comfy couches by the fireplace or in the upstairs reading room, waiting for the clock to strike midnight.

The countdown begins. At midnight, instead of watching the ball drop in Times Square, we cheer as a crew member ceremoniously lowers an old ball of a wasp nest tied to the ceiling.

This is my first overnight visit to Maine Huts & Trails, and I’m wondering what took me so long.

Two feet of fresh snow made for nice soft cross-country ski conditions, with no scary ice to contend with when skiing downhill.

Two feet of fresh snow made for nice soft cross-country ski conditions, with no scary ice to contend with when skiing downhill. Shown here is the junction at the Narrow Gauge Trail (a popular rail trail, to the left) where it intersects with the Maine Hut Trail to Stratton Brook Hut. The trail climbs about 1,000 feet in 4.7 miles from the Airport Trailhead, making for a good workout. A shorter 3.1 trail with less elevation gain departs from the Stratton Brook/Route 27 trailhead.

Maine Huts & Trails operates four “huts”  — really more like backcountry lodges  — in western Maine which people can visit by foot, ski, bike, or snowshoe.  Poplar Hut opened in 2008, followed by Flagstaff Hut on Flagstaff Lake (2009), Grand Falls Hut on the Dead River (2010), and, in 2012, Stratton Brook Hut, located on a knoll with views of the Bigelow Range and Sugarloaf Mountain.  The non-profit organization eventually hopes to build a dozen huts stretching across Maine’s woods up to the Moosehead Lake area.  Theoretically, skiers, hikers, and bikers can travel from hut to hut, which some do, while others visit for a night or two.  In the winter, the huts also make a great lunch destination for a cross-country ski or snowshoeing day trip.

Previously, I had visited cozy Flagstaff Hut for lunch on a summer boat excursion with Jeff Hinman of Flagstaff Lake Scenic Boat Cruises. But I’d been under the mistaken impression that an overnight hut trip in winter was too much for kids to handle, and thus had put off a winter visit for several years.

When we finally set out on our cross-country skis, we traveled under near-perfect circumstances: two feet of snow had dropped on the Valley that week, making for soft if imperfectly groomed skiing trails (with post-dump grooming still in process). The temperature, by winter standards, was mild, around 30 degrees. The three-mile ski up to Poplar (gaining 500 feet of elevation) was definitely challenging, but we had all afternoon to get there, and the prospect of a bunk nap before dinner.

Dinner was a slow-cooked roast beef and assorted side dishes, along with a delicious roasted veggie-lentil loaf for vegan/vegetarians (Note: backcountry huts of all kinds always make amazing vegetarian meals; you can count on at least one crew member being a serious vegetarian cook). The  chef had piled the champagne cupcakes with way too much frosting and I ate every bit of it (knowing I would need the energy for the next day).

New Year's cheer at Stratton Brook Hut (I got so caught up in my puzzle-building that forgot to take pictures while staying at Poplar).

New Year’s cheer at Stratton Brook Hut (I got so caught up in my puzzle-building at Poplar that I forgot to take pictures there). Behind the fire place are several cozy chairs and a couch.

At Poplar Hut, as I talked to folks gathered around the tables, I was struck by the variety of guests there: the creaky and the lithe, the young, old, and middle-aged, and both novice and experienced backcountry travelers. Because the huts offer many choices and routes, they make backcountry experiences accessible to all kinds of people.  Yes, you do have to work a bit to get here, but most of the huts aren’t that far from roads, even though they feel remote. We skied into Poplar on the 3-mile Maine Hut Trail, but could have snowshoed the same route, or on a shorter, 1-mile(-ish) trail from another trailhead. Visitors do need to bring a sleeping bag, but you can have your gear shuttled from hut to hut, as we did on Day 2 and 3 of our visit.

On New Year’s Day, we enjoyed a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes, eggs, and bacon and good coffee before setting out for Stratton Brook Hut, about seven miles away. Because of  the heavy snow, we ended backtracking on the Maine Trail Hut to the Narrow Gauge Trail, where we eventually headed up another Maine Hut Trail to Stratton Brook Hut. Other trails follow different routes, but would have been difficult to navigate in 24 inches of unbroken snow.

We arrived at Stratton Brook Hut around 2 p.m. I was ready to move in.  Stratton Brook is built on a little piece of heaven situated between Sugarloaf Mountain and the Bigelow Range. Great views abound. (I definitely want to look into the volunteer caretaker program when I am retired).

Hut view

View of the Bigelow Range from inside Stratton Brook Hut.

That night, the crew cooked up a feast of balsamic chicken, plus the requisite dessert: a berry cobbler that tasted summer fresh.

Sunrise at Stratton Brook Hut.

Sunrise at Stratton Brook Hut.

At Stratton Brook, we had our own little bunk room and slept well, rising in time  to get out for views of the winter sunrise.

For breakfast, we enjoyed more pancakes and eggs and conversation with a group from New Brunswick, Canada.  The night before, we had embarked on another puzzle project and could not leave without finishing. But we were in no hurry — the sled took our gear, we enjoyed our coffee and puzzle-building, and then geared up for the ski downhill to the Airport Trailhead.

View of the Bigelow Range from the trail that leads to Stratton Brook Hut.

One last view of the Bigelow Range before skiing down the trail. Like many, I am not a confident cross-country skier on descents, but found the 1000-foot gradual descent manageable with my ski-pole-between-the-legs braking technique. If conditions were icy, we probably would have chosen snowshoes.

So, now I’m a member of Maine Huts, and already making my plans for next year. Or maybe sooner!

Sources and resources

For a family, staying at Maine Huts & Trails is a splurge, as the per-person price adds up. However, I consider the huts a good value: the $130 weekend/holiday rate per night includes three meals, with a 50% discount for kids ($65, including teens).  One day of ski tickets at nearby Sugarloaf Mountain, with no meals or lodging, would cost about the same for our family of three. I don’t mean to pit one experience against the other, just to show that the huts are reasonably priced for the experience they offer. Sunday-to-Thursday rates are about 30% less, and members get a 10% discount, plus a variety of other discounts, including some steep “flash-sale” discounts.

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Searching for the lost village of Punkintown

In the 1920s, unmarried sisters Mary and Almira Payne reportedly were the last residents of Eliot’s Punkintown, a small community of 10 or so families who once lived near the outlet of York Pond. One town history relates Mary had no legs below her knees and travelled by walking “like a toad.”

Today, the remnants of Punkintown (also spelled as Punkin Town) lie deep within 500 acres of conserved forest land between Route 236 in Eliot and Route 91 in York.   Punkintown Road, now a trail,  still connects these two routes.  Exploring this trail and others that lace through these woods,  I wonder how often Mary walked on Punkintown Road to York or South Berwick.  She never married, but had five children. Did she have a common-law marriage? What became of her children? And what happened to the home where she lived? Mary died in 1927 and Almira in 1936.  One account reports that both are buried in the woods near the site of their home.

On my adventures in Punkintown, I have not found that site, or other cellar holes and foundations that once supported homes, but the woods are full of historical clues, like small quarry ponds, cemeteries, and old stone walls.

Punkintown wasn’t truly a town, but might have been a world unto itself, especially once snow piled up on the narrow road. Today, hikers and mountain bikers can get a feel for that isolation when exploring the trails that loop around this forest full of wonders like witch hazel and sassafras trees, and views of Bartlett Mills and York Ponds.

This hand-drawn map shows the direct route to P-town. Explorers will definitely want to walk or ride the loop the goes to Bartlett Mill Pond and past the Plaisted Cemetery.

This hand-drawn map shows the direct route to Punkintown. Explorers will definitely want to walk or ride the trail that loops by the shore of Bartlett Mills Pond and past the Plaisted cemetery. Post a comment if you would like me to share a more specific description of the northerly, more complicated loop (yellow line).

One history of Eliot suggests that the area was settled by Major Charles Frost, who set up a grist mill in the York Pond area in the 1770s. Today, the outlet from York Pond meanders down a channel reinforced with stone walls that look like someone built them 200 years ago, or yesterday. The grist mill may have the reason a few families settled here in the early 1800s.

But was Punkintown as isolated and hardscrabble as these deep woods suggest today? Near the shore of Bartlett Mills Pond, the Plaisted cemetery includes a family monument, a sign that the family was fairly well off, at least by 19th century rural Maine standards.

The Plaisted family cemetery, near Bartlett Mills Pond. Patriarch Ebenezer Plaisted, the patr

The Plaisted family cemetery, near Bartlett Mills Pond. Patriarch Ebenezer Plaisted, born in 1793, lived a long life, dying at age 88 in 1881. The Plaisteds married into the Emery and Payne families, all of whose local histories date to the 17th century.

Also, a photo of the Plaisted family house, labeled as built before 1800, looks sizable and quite respectable.  This house reportedly burned down in 1916, but thus far, I have not located a foundation cellar hole (it’s possible that it was filled in, or swallowed up by the newer homes on the private land beyond the York Pond outlet stream).

Ebenezer Plaisted House

This photo, which I found online, was published in Margaret A. Elliot’s book ” Eliot”, published in 2005 by Arcadia Publishing for the Eliot Historical Society.

The Plaisted family settled in southern York County in the 17th century. Roger Plaisted, a likely ancestor to Ebenezer, was killed by Indians in South Berwick in October of 1675, along with his son, Roger. So Ebenezer was likely well-established in the area, with many relatives and community ties.

No one knows for sure how the community came by the name, Punkintown. Some say it was because the people here raised and sold lots of pumpkins.

People lived in Punkintown from the early 1800s until Mary and Almira passed away, with one history suggested that the community died out after a tuberculosis epidemic in the 1920s. However, I question that assertion, since tuberculosis was as common as mud before antibiotics and didn’t “wipe out” towns in a year or two, as infected people tended to succumb slowly, over many years).  Edward Vetter’s account tells us that locals recall that an eccentric woman named Emma Payne who may have lived in Punkintown as late as the 1960s. Emma reportedly came to town occasionally to sell vegetables, some of which may have been pilfered from other gardens or farms along the route.

The trail to Punkintown begins on Punkintown Road,  by the Brixham Dance Works on Route 236 (across from Marshwood High School). Visitors should park at the top of the hill, off to the right in a small space that holds two or three cars. Here there is a confusing three-way intersection. Walkers or mountain bikers should turn head to the right and up a small hill.

Park at the top of the hill crass from this somewhat confusing sing. , which

Park at the top of the hill directly across from this somewhat confusing sign, which designates house numbers on the road and has nothing to do with the trail.

After ascending the first part of the hill, you will reach an intersection. Here, the old Punkintown Road — and the most direct route to the York Pond area — continues straight up the hill.

The right fork (somewhat straight ahead) takes hikers on the old Punkintown Road. The left fork takes visitors to Rocky Hills and a variety of other trails, including a loop back to Punkintown Road. However, you need an adventurous spirit to explore in here, as trails are not marked (although it is hard to get truly deeply lost). Upon request, I will post more specific directions to this route, which includes a stop at small quarry pond.

After climbing up to and then along a ridge, the trail descends gently towards the headwaters of York Pond, where an outlet flows towards Bartlett Mill Pond.

Bridge over the outlet from York Pond. Note the beautiful stone work, which lines this stream and may date to the early 19th century. Here, Punkintown Road continues on private land posted against trespassing. Several houses are visible, and the road links up with Route 91 in York.

Exploring further, a side trail on the north side of the road leads to the shore of beautiful York Pond, a hidden gem in the forest. Behind the pond, the glacial drumlin, Swazey’s Hill, rises above the pond.  You can circle the hill on a flat trail, or climb up and over it on a trail that eventually lands back on Punkintown Road, where you would turn right to head back.  At one intersection, a small white arrow directs you to stay right. Pretty easy.

December view of York Pond.

December view of York Pond.

But there’s so much more to explore.  To find the Plaisted cemetery, you take another trail on the south side of Punkintown Road. The trail intersects the road in two places (see map above). If you are facing the York Pond outlet stream (looking toward the private land), the trail is to your right.  After about 50 yards of walking, you will find the cemetery and Bartlett Mill Pond.  If you continue along the woods trail that runs near the pond shore, it will wind back to Punkintown Road, which is basically the spine for these trails and others in the forest.

We turned off the main PUnkin town road to the a side trial dtoarards BArlemt mill, and e

The single-track trail along the shore of Bartlett Mill Pond, headings towards the Plaisted cemetery.

This beautiful swath of forest features many other trails to explore on foot or mountain bike, all of them suitable for what I call intermediate middle-aged lady mountain biking (woods roads, some single track, and some mud, with a few logs that I walk my bike over).

I’ve lived in the Seacoast region for over 20 years and until this fall, when I first visited Punkintown on a Great Works Land Trust walk, I didn’t even know that this patch of protected land existed. On my explorations since then, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ll definitely come back again for more adventures in Punkintown.

Bartlett Mills Pond.

Bartlett Mill Pond.

Sources and resources

I welcome any corrections or additions to this piece.

The Great Works Land Trust has been working with other entities for 20 years to conserve the land in this area.  Today, this 500-acre forest includes parcels owned by conserved by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy, and the Town of Eliot.

Much of the information about Punkintown comes from Edward Vetter’s A Pictorial Tour of Eliot: Historical Markers, Plaques and Landmarks in Eliot, Maine, edited by Esther Morrow. Vetter’s account is based the memories of Frank Parsons, who relayed his memories of Punkintown in 1987, when he was 87.

Margaret A. Elliot’s Eliot, published in 2005 for the Eliot Historical Society, also includes some information on Punkintown.

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A September walk in the woods: Mount Cabot to Unknown Pond

Mount Cabot or the Carters? As I drove up Pinkham Notch early on a lovely September Saturday, the many cars spilling from every parking lot cinched my decision: on to Mount Cabot.  I would escape the crowds on this gorgeous day, but also have some company on the lightly traveled Kilkenny Ridge–a good thing, as I was hiking solo.

As it turns out, while Mount Cabot is off the beaten path, it isn’t all that remote. Just outside of Berlin, New Hampshire, the York Pond-Bunnell Notch and Unknown Pond trails begin at the state fish hatchery on York Pond Road. When I arrived, I found about ten cars at the trailhead—enough hikers, but not too many.

Having come this far, I was aiming to complete the 11.5 mile loop up through Bunnell Notch to Mount Cabot and then over Kilkenny Ridge to Unknown Pond. However, feet problems have limited my hiking, so the 9.2 out-and-back to the Cabot peak was also an option.

My recommendation:  if you get yourself up to Mount Cabot, do the entire loop. The hiking is fairly easy, by White Mountains standards, beginning with the first mile of overgrown logging road and including lots of easy pine-needle walking on Kilkenny Ridge. The trek includes 3,00o feet of elevation gain, so it’s not a walk, but covering the miles with breaks at the Mount Cabot cabin, the Horn, and Unknown Pond makes for a great day in the woods.

First views come at Bunnell Rock, just off the Kilkenny Ridge trail. Skies were hazy, but I thought I could see Franconia Ridge in front of Mount Washington — an intriguing perspective that I hadn’t seen before (and later confirmed was correct).

The Mount Cabot cabin, about four miles in, was my first rest stop, where I enjoyed lunch on the porch. I had contemplated making this hike an overnight family trip, with a late start and sunset at the cabin, and had heard many opinions about the cabin, some declaring it a horrible, filthy hovel, and others finding it tolerable.

The old fire warden's cabin has sleeping platforms with 8 spots. It's definitely not fancy. The fire tower was dismantled in the mid-1960s, and it's a small miracle that the cabin still exists. Winter hikers take note: The Forest Service has removed the wood stove.

The old fire warden’s cabin has sleeping platforms with 8 spots. It’s definitely not fancy. The fire tower was dismantled in the mid-1960s, and it’s a small miracle that the cabin still exists. Winter hikers take note: The Forest Service has removed the wood stove.

My verdict: I would sleep in the cabin (although I wish the Boy Scout maintainers would rip up the padding on the sleeping platforms, as those pads tend to collect the mouse droppings for which the cabin is noted). However, I’m not sure that sleeping there would be noteworthy or interesting, unless doing so was part of a longer backpacking trip. The view is limited, through the trees, and  I’m glad I wasn’t hauling a full pack for 11.5 miles. I’ve read that a spring flows near the cabin, but didn’t look around for it; the cabin also has a rain barrel that contained a small puddle of water. (Bunnell Brook is also a potential water source if you can stock up before reaching the cabin).

Two gray jays at the clearing where the fire tower used to stand.

Gray jay in the fir trees just below the Mt. Cabot summit.

Finishing up lunch around 1 p.m., I decided to go for the entire loop. I was planning to power through the fire tower clearing after a short look at the hazy views, but I had to linger and visit with a couple of gray jays. They weren’t quite as bold as the jays on Mount Waumbek, who will eat out of your hand, but they were happy to steal a few bits of my granola bar.

And on to the summit, a half-mile from the cabin. The wooded Mount Cabot peak is peaceful but anticlimactic, and I pushed on. The trail descended, then climbed uphill, and before I knew it, I was at the junction for the side trail (.3 mile) to the Horn. I had already hiked over the Bulge without feeling the pain.

I scrambled up to the Horn and its 360-views. Confronting the large glacial erratic that caps off the Horn, at first I wondered if I could get up there. Exploring its perimeter, I found that the south-facing side works for a short person, and I pulled myself up via a large crack.


The haze had cleared and I had great views from the Horn, including this south-facing view, with Mount Washington in the distance.

The friendly crack (from perspective above) that gave me leverage to pull myself up and scramble down the Horn.

The friendly crack (from perspective above) that gave me leverage to pull myself up and scramble down the Horn.

After my snack and rest on the Horn, I was off to Unknown Pond, where lots of vegetation restoration is underway. The Forest Service wants hikers to stay away from the shoreline (which of course is the best spot to hang out when visiting a pond). I rested briefly at a designated spot  to enjoy the view, and then checked out the campsites, just above the pond (a 2-minute walk). The campsites were empty on this full-moon Saturday (and I didn’t see a single person on the Unknown Pond trail, although I had met hikers on the Kilkenny Ridge).

View of the Horn from Unknown Pond (photo by John Compton of

View of the Horn from Unknown Pond (photo by John Compton of

I expected my last leg, a 3.3 mile walk on the Unknown Pond trail, to go quickly, but it was a trail, not a logging road, with lots of small rocks and a couple of stream crossings. Not difficult, just not a jogging path. But I made good time to the parking lot, where my lonely car was the only one waiting for its owner.

Although I’m happy that I finally checked Mount Cabot off my 4000-footer list, I’m even happier that I discovered this area north of the Notches. From the Horn, the Percy Peaks (featured image on header) called to me. Camping at Unknown Pond would be a great overnight on a northerly hike along the Cohos Trail. The deluxe shelter on Sugarloaf Arm sounds like a palace. Next September, when the Notch trails are packed with hikers, I’ll continue heading north.

Good-bye, Mount Cabot! I'll be back another time to explore on the Cohos Trail.

Good-bye, Mount Cabot! I’ll be back another time for more exploring on the Cohos Trail.

Notes and resources:

The York Pond-Bunnell Notch and Unknown Pond trailheads that complete the Mount Cabot loop are located at the end of York Pond Road off NH 110, just north of Berlin, NH. (Note that the northern end of the Unknown Pond Trail is located off Mill Brook Road , also off Route 110, in Stark, NH. You can’t do a loop hike from the northern end).

The gate closure sign at the New Hampshire State Fish Hatchery scares people off from doing the loop. I called the Fish Hatchery and learned that the gate is only pinned at 4 p.m., and not locked until 10 p.m. As it turns out, the gate wasn’t closed when I drove out around 5:45 p.m. However, to avoid an accidental car stranding, I recommend calling at 603-449-3412 to confirm that the policy remains the same.

If you want to explore far from the madding crowds, the Cohos Trail is a 165-mile trail that begins in the Crawford Notch area and ends at the Canadian border.

Read more of my 4000-footer posts here, including the trip to nearby Mount Waumbek.

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Travels in Japan: French fries, pancakes, and pickled plums

The summer flew by, with hikes, kayaks, and swims, plus a long-anticipated trip to Japan. For the first part of the trip, we travelled with a small group of teenagers as part of an exchange program our town has with a school district in Aomori Prefecture. Later, my son and I travelled about on our own. Here’s a start to a series of posts on that trip, this one focused on some of the contradictions and quirks of modern Japan.

In Oirase, Japan, I visited a class at a community center where women gathered each week to learn or polish their skills in wearing a kimono, once everyday wear but now mostly reserved for weddings and other big events. Except in Kyoto, where we saw many young women and men and women out strolling in kimonos or summer yukatas.

In Oirase, Japan, I visited a class at a community center where women gathered each week to learn or polish their skills in wearing a kimono, once everyday wear but now mostly reserved for weddings and other big events. Except in Kyoto, where we saw many young women and men and women out strolling in kimonos or summer yukatas.

Our visit began with breakfast at the Mercure Hotel in Narita, home to Tokyo’s airport. For the teenagers: pancakes with maple syrup and a heap of french fries, topped off by pain au chocolate, buttery croissants, or cereal, and fresh fruit or salty pickled plums. Those who wanted to mix in more traditional could select grilled fish, miso soup, tofu, noodles, cabbage slaw, and more pickles.  Eggs for everyone, along with cafe-quality coffee produced by a single-serve machine that brewed coffee, latte, and cappuccino with a press of the button and no throwaway plastic cups. Why don’t we have these at home?

At the hotel, hallway vending machines were stocked with beer along with cold green tea, sodas, and water. Over time, we learned that the bottle with the green Japanese maple leaf, not the bottle with the rain drops, contains water rather than some sugary flavored version of water. On the street, sidewalk vending machines didn’t offer the beer, except in Kyoto, where I spied one in the Gion area.

Japan is really hot and humid in the summer, but nobody drinks water, or at least not the way Americans do. Temperatures were 95 or higher almost every day of 17-day visit. We never left our lodging without full water bottles and were constantly refilling at vending machines. But crowds of Japanese tourists seemed immune to the heat, at least when it comes to drinking water. We soon took up the Japanese habit of wearing towels around our necks to absorb sweat.

In Japan, shinkansen — the bullet train — whisk passengers hundreds of miles in a couple of hours, but  I needed to go to the Japan Rail office in person to make train reservations and collect my paper tickets. A dot-matrix printer buzzed with the transaction. We were traveling with Japan Rail passes used only by foreign tourists; passengers paying an ordinary fare can buy their tickets online. Even so, I had to wait in line quite a while as many Japanese passengers managed their reservations and purchases in person.

In Oirase, at this traditional inn, or "ryokan", you can still dial for a taxi.

In Oirase, at this traditional inn, or “ryokan”, you can still dial for a taxi.

Japan is high-tech but in many ways remains an analog society. Old-fashioned cash is king, and the vast majority of businesses and tourist attractions only accept cash.  Banks offer rows of ATM kiosks for people to do all their banking electronically, but it’s hard to find a bank staffed with people, so if you have lots of dollars to exchange for yen, as I did, it’s difficult to do so in a bank (to get the best exchange rate).

Vending machines stock many brands of iced coffee (and sometimes hot coffee) for about $1.20 a can, but in a café, a teacup-sized coffee runs about 500 yen, or $5.  Refills are not free and I soon realized that I did not want to spend $10 on coffee a couple of times a day. Unless coffee was included as part of a meal, I enjoyed my coffee canned. Prices are strangely high for some items, like $5 apples, but you can get a delicious filling bowl of ramen for the same price.

At our AirBnB in Tokyo, we recharged in an air-conditioned studio apartment, but began to swelter as soon as we stepped into the hall, because such public spaces are often AC-free. We were glad that our host provided a pocket wi-fi device to keep us connected as we travelled around the city because public wi-fi is not common in Tokyo. However, on the upper reaches of Mount Fuji, wi-fi ruled, maybe because people love selfies and posting them from the mountain.

Travellers can drop their luggage off at a Seven-11 and ship it almost anywhere in the country for next day arrival for about $30. But if you arrive at your hotel before check-in, don’t count on getting into your room, no matter how empty the places seems. Hotel staff will gladly store your luggage, but rules are rules in Japan  — 4 p.m. means 4 p.m.

In Kyoto, we stayed at the Shunkoin Temple guesthouse, which was located in the xxx temple complex, a vast walled working religious community with many private and public temples. Here, cars park in front of our temple, although by evening, all cars were out of site and we could walk these narrow "roadways" and enjoy the site of the mainXXX temple lit up with hundreds of paper lanterns.

In Kyoto, we stayed at the Shunkoin Temple guesthouse, which was located in the Myoshinji temple complex, a working religious community with many private and public temples, some dating to the 14th century. Here, cars park in front of the Shunkoin gate, although by evening, the cars were gone, and we could walk these narrow “roadways” and enjoy strolling around Myoshinji temple lit up with hundreds of paper lanterns.

In the older sections of cities, sleek cafés with their $5 coffees sit cheek-by-jowl next to restaurants where a chain-smoking owner grills yakitori chicken on a single burner portable gas stove, as future chicken meals peck around in the back courtyard.

In Kyoto, a picture in the window of American-style pancakes drew us into the Frog Cafe, owned by an elderly woman with a vast collection of frog and other knick-knacks. She explained, in Japanese, that we should only order one set of the pancakes. A bit puzzled, we complied, and a few minutes later she set down a plate of pancakes topped with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream. That definitely enough dessert at breakfast, although we did order some toast after our ice cream. Of course we couldn't leave without a present for "the boy."

In Kyoto, a picture in the window of American-style pancakes drew us into the Frog Cafe, owned by an elderly woman with a vast collection of frog and other knick-knacks. She explained, in Japanese, that we should only order one set of the pancakes. A bit puzzled, we complied, and a few minutes later she set down a plate of pancakes topped with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream. That definitely was enough dessert at breakfast, although we did order some toast after our ice cream. But we couldn’t leave without a present for “the boy.”

Ice cream and pastry shops are favorite afternoon hangouts, but nobody in Japan is overweight. Also, it is easy to eat well without cooking. You can get a fabulous take-out meal at the local supermarket, and a pretty good one at a 7-11 or Lawson convenience store. French-style bakeries with Japanese twists, like edamame baked into pastry twists, are the best.

Public trash cans are few and far between, but litter is non-existent. You never have to hunt for a public restroom — they are everywhere and always clean, which we definitely appreciated as we drank our gallons of water.

Before traveling to Japan, I had some trepidation about visiting a country where the signs would be incomprehensible to me, and few people speak fluent English.

Although it’s true that your average person doesn’t speak much English, in Japan, I learned, it’s never hard to understand something, or to be understood.

Information at train stations, for example, is always posted in both Japanese kanji and English, and recorded English messages on trains provide clear direction on the various stops and connections.

But most of all, Japanese people want to visitors to enjoy their country and most will do whatever they can to point you in the right direction.

Tokyo will host the summer Olympics in 2020. Tempting, very tempting.  Must remember to bring my neck towel.


Posted in Family and Kids, Travels | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Caps and castles on Mount Jefferson

IMG_4775On Friday, prospects for a hike up Mount Jefferson looked gloomy. The higher summits forecast called for steady 50 mph winds, with hurricane force gusts, and winter temperatures in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, as one weather system collided with another.

But by Monday, July 4, the winds had settled down, and no storms clouded the radar. A perfect day for climbing 5,716-foot Mount Jefferson.

The 2.5 mile Caps Ridge Trail promised a short but challenging hike to the summit, with hikers surmounting three rocky outcrops known as the Caps before continuing up the rocky slope to the Jefferson plateau. I knew the hike wouldn’t be a piece of cake, but we climbed up and over the three caps fairly quickly. Aside from the first cap, which begins with a tricky steep  slab of granite, the three caps were fun to climb and not as difficult as I expected.

First views of Mount Washington on the Caps Ridge Trail. Great views to the west as well, of Bondcliff and the tip of Mount Lafayette.

First views of Mount Washington on the Caps Ridge Trail. Great views to the west as well, of Bondcliff and its neighbors, and the tip of Mount Lafayette.

As we ate lunch atop the third cap, out of the summit wind but high enough to bask in the views of open alpine terrain and Mount Washington, we consulted the pages I’d copied from my guidebook, Smith and Dickerman’s The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains.

Climbing up the Caps looks scarier than it is. My son is a teen and now a stronger hiker than me, but younger hikers can do this route as long as parents are prepared to turn back if weather deteriorates. I hope it goes without saying that I wouldn't recommend the Caps as a first hike for younger kids. But once they get some experience....

Climbing up the Caps looks scarier than it is. My son is a teen and now a stronger hiker than me, but younger hikers can do this route as long as parents are prepared to turn back if weather deteriorates. I hope it goes without saying that I wouldn’t recommend the Caps as a first hike for younger kids. But once they get some experience….

We felt energized and the day was young. What else could we do?

In the distance, about a mile away as the crow flies, the rock heaps of Castellated Ridge, known as the Castles, intrigued us.  We consulted my Smith and Dickerman pages, which described a possible loop from the Jefferson summit down to the Castles, then across the lower mountain on the Link Trail back to the Caps Ridge Trail.

The language was slightly intimidating:  the Link Trail was “extremely rough and tiring, making for slow going.”  But we had the entire afternoon on a beautiful summer day. Hiking above treeline on the Castle Trail for a 1.5 miles down to the Castles would be amazing.  When again would we have this perfect combination of weather, time, and opportunity? And how hard could the hike be, really, given that the hike up the Caps had seemed fairly easy (at least by White Mountain standards)?

So after a snack at atop the tallest of the three peaklets at Jefferson’s summit, we began to pick our way down the Castle Trail. “Trail” is a bit of a misnomer, as it suggests a path, while the Castle Trail is mainly a cairn-marked route across a jumble of lichen-covered rocks.  But the lichen glistened green and the wide open skies made for a pleasant if nerve wracking traverse down the slope of Jefferson towards the Castles.

On the Castle Trail, and not another hiker in sight.

On the Castle Trail, and not another hiker in sight.

My teenage son scrambled ahead of us and I worried about a twisted ankle or full-on header (coming close to both myself), but I had to let go of those worries, assume all would be fine, and get online in the coming week to buy a New Hampshire HikeSafe family card. (Later, my son casually mentioned that he thought he had twisted ankle several times, but had shaken off the stumbles and continued).

On July 4, I expected crowds up high, but the mountains were open and empty, perhaps because of the weekend’s harsh weather. After we left the Jefferson summit, we didn’t see another hiker until we arrived back at the parking lot at Jefferson Notch Road. I suspect that the Castle Trail is not heavily used, because if it was, twisted knees, broken ankles, and hypothermia would keep New Hampshire’s search and rescue teams even busier than they already are. (Although, sadly, this past February, a search and rescue team had to carry out the body of a 54-year-old man who froze to death in Castle Ravine, just below the Castles).

Hiking down towards the Castles, I wondered if I had misread Smith and Dickerman’s language describing the 1.7 mile Link Trail that would take us back to the Caps Ridge Trail. Surely, “rough and tiring” combined with “slow going” had referred to the treacherous footing of Castle Trail, not the upcoming Link Trail.  Or maybe the writers had gotten it wrong?

The Link Trail crossed the mountain through the trees and couldn’t be that hard.  The thought of an easier trail ahead kept up my spirits as we continued to climb the Castles, shimmying down steep pitches and between rocks slabs (ironically, one reason we chose this trail was the opportunity to avoid hiking down the Caps).

Hiking down to the Castles, which look over the lightly-traveled Castle Ravine.

Hiking down to the Castles, which looks over the lightly traveled Castle Ravine.  The hike also  offers a continuous view of Mount Adams and the barren terrain around it.

After a half-mile, we came to the link with the Cornice Trail, another rough trail that leads back to the Caps. Still a mile to go to get to the Link Trail. Sigh.

In the distance, the three Caps looked like little bumps on the mountain.  Below us, the Castles seemed to rise from Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

A break atop the last section of the Castles.

A break atop one of the Castle ramparts, not far from the junction with the Link Trail.

Finally, we reached the Link Trail, which HAD to be easier than the descent from the peak to the Castles. But it wasn’t.

My perspective was likely distorted by fatigue and expectations, but the challenge continued, unabated. Up and over rocks, across streams, including one that plunged over granite at a nearly perpendicular angle off the mountain (but easily crossed at a level spot a few steps up the trail), we trudged up and down through the woods, on a mossy path that served as a thin carpet over Jefferson’s rocks.

Finally, after one last uphill, we returned to the Caps Ridge Trail, much later in the day than we had planned (so much for the leisurely swim in the river, followed by a relaxing dinner, and a daylight ride home). Ours wasn’t the last car to leave the parking lot – maybe the third to last – and plenty of daylight still remained, but we definitely felt like we had hiked a long, long day, even though the total distance covered was only 6.7 miles (yes, less than seven miles).

My husband, son and I were all exhausted, but being a glass-half-full kind of person, I was glad we’d explored the Castles, both for the beauty and isolation of the open alpine terrain and for the lessons learned.

Namely, just because trails connect and offer options other than out-and-back doesn’t mean they are necessarily viable “loop trails.”

Of course, the experience of a hike depends a lot on expectations. We expected the Caps Ridge Trail to be an arduous scramble up slippery rocks. It was easier than expected.  For the Castles, the reverse was true.

Hikers who want to experience the spectacular landscape of the Castles and undertake the hike expecting a long day of slow going will be rewarded great views in a lightly visited side of the Presidentials. I cursed myself many times on the Link Trail for pursuing this route, but I have no regrets–even though I won’t do it a second time.

Sources and resources

The Caps Ridge Trail begins at the height of the land on Jefferson Notch Road, the highest road in New Hampshire (closed in winter). The turn to the Notch Road is 3.5 miles down the Cog Railway Road, off Route 302 and near Bretton Woods Ski Resort.

A variety of other trails lead to the Castles from various other nearby locations, although if you study the map, you’ll see that all appear to be equally arduous. On, Daren Worcester describes the Castle Trail hike to Jefferson’s summit from its origin on Route 2.

For more information on the February 2016 death of hiker Timothy Hallock, whose frozen body was found by other hikers, see accounts in the Manchester Union Leader and from WMUR TV.

Read more of my posts about 4K hikes at my Hiking page.



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Fragments of history: When the KKK came to Kittery

This photo by early 20th century photographer and businessman Frank Walker documents one of the KKK "Konclaves" held in Kittery in the 1920s.

This photo by early 20th century photographer and businessman Frank Walker documents a large KKK parade held in Kittery in the 1920s (courtesy of the Kittery Historical & Naval Museum).

Why and how did Kittery-ites join the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s? The Foreside parade in this undated J. Frank Walker photo likely took place on either June 30, 1924, or August 17, 1925, when Portsmouth Herald articles document these two “Konclaves” .

The 1924 parade concluded with a “naturalization” ceremony — an initiation ritual that echoed the ceremony for becoming a U.S. citizen.  The festivities wrapped up at Locke’s Cove with a cross burning.

But even though these two parades are fairly recent events, we have only fragments of history about the Kittery Klan.  Were the marchers — an estimated 400, according to some — all from Kittery, or was this a region-wide gathering?  Kittery was a small town of 4,700, so it seems unlikely that a single organization would draw 400 locals, especially at a time when many belonged to one or more fraternal organizations. Then again, 1924 lacked the myriad entertainments of the current era, so maybe the Klan parade provided an opportunity for a summer social event. On Labor Day, 1924, a Klan parade in Saco drew 300 marchers–reportedly a mixed crowd of locals and Klan members from throughout New England–so perhaps Kittery’s parades drew a similar crowd.

Some say–and again, this is hearsay based on fragments of talk and memory — that the parades were organized to protest the construction of St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Kittery.  But in the 1920s, no construction was happening at St. Raphael’s, established in 1916 to serve the town’s small community of 77 Catholics.  Parishioners celebrated Mass in a small chapel, constructed in 1916 within the existing foundation of a one-time stable; the church was built in 1933-1934 at the same Wentworth Street location.  St. Raphael’s history book mentions that Catholics faced some bigotry, including the burning of a cross on the grounds of the basement church, but includes no dates.

Another view of the parade, which shows the marching band that also participated. The photo is undated, but The lighting suggest that this is a different shot of the same parade as above (courtesy of the Kittery Historical & Naval Museum).

Another view of the parade, which shows the marching band that also participated (courtesy of the Kittery Historical & Naval Museum).

Between 1923-1925, Klan membership surged in Maine to over 20,000 people (as reported by the Klan, with other sources reporting higher numbers), mostly due to a charismatic leader, F. Eugene Farnsworth, and a fear that French-Canadian immigrants might gain political power. Thousands of Quebecois were working in the mills of Biddeford, Saco, Sanford and other Maine towns, with more crossing the border each year.

What was happening in Kittery at this time? The town didn’t have the large mills with hundreds of employees.  However, U.S. Census records show a population surge in Kittery from 1900, when 2,872 people lived in town, to 1920, when 4,763 residents were counted–an increase of 66%.  U.S. immigration as a whole peaked in these years.  Was Kittery’s population increase fueled by immigrants? Or was the surge due to expanding job opportunities at the Shipyard as it built up during World War I?

In the early days of St. Raphael’s, the parishioners were not French-Canadians; the original membership list includes names such as Curran, Witham, Bridges, and Drake. This small group had been around for years, initially rowing to Portsmouth to attend Mass and then later traveling to South Berwick’s St. Michael’s Church.

Further north, in Portland and beyond, King Kleagle F. Eugene  Farnsworth, a one-time hypnotist best described as a huckster, had capitalized on fears of French-speaking Canadian immigrants to generate interest in the Klan. In 1923, Governor Percival Baxter, a Republican, spoke out against the Klan, predicted that the organization would fail to influence the “level-headed citizens of Maine.”

But he was wrong. Two years later, Republican Ralph O. Brewster became Maine’s governor, thanks in large part to the support of the “White Knights” who backed him.

This circa 1910 postcard shows an Atlantic Shore Line trolley crossing Locke's Cove. The KKK ceremony and cross burning occurred somewhere in this vicinity (Postcard from collections of Seashore Trolley Museum).

This circa 1910 postcard shows an Atlantic Shore Line trolley crossing Locke’s Cove. The KKK ceremony and cross burning occurred somewhere in this vicinity (Postcard from collections of Seashore Trolley Museum).

Farnsworth promoted 100% Americanism,” by which he meant White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. By this time, Irish Catholics were mainstream in East Coast cities, and politically powerful, and Maine had a small Irish-Catholic population (the oldest Catholic church in New England, Saint Patrick’s, was established in Newcastle in 1808).

But a new horde of non-English speaking Catholics in a rural state like Maine posed a threat. They might take all the jobs or spread diseases in their tenement houses. They might gain political power and demand funding for parochial schools, or worse.

These sentiments echoed national anxieties about immigrants, especially the “yellow swarms” from Italy and other southern and eastern European countries.  By the early 1920s, the Klan claimed 6 million members, many recruited with its “100% Americanism” rhetoric.

This 1924 Portsmouth Herald article...

This Portsmouth Herald article describes the parade on June 30, 1924, including the cross-burning at Locke’s Cove. A similar short article describes a parade on August 30, 1925.

Today, when I see these photos of ordinary citizens marching in white robes, I wonder who they were and why they marched. Were they “old Kittery” residents, fearful of being displaced by industrialization and a changing economy?  Were they suspicious of French-speaking immigrants, even if they didn’t know any of these “outsiders” who didn’t speak English, practiced a “foreign” religion, and allegedly owed their allegiance to a religious leader in a faraway country? Were they seeking connection and community with others who made them feel safe?

During the Gilded Age of the 1890s, the outside world rediscovered Kittery, which became a popular summer destination for tourists who stayed in the town’s five large hotels.

But before the tourists came, Kittery, along with the rest of the Piscataqua region, was a sleepy backwater, in decline since Jefferson’s Embargo in the 1800s killed off the merchant economy (Kittery lost 35% of its population between 1800 and 1810).  Although many stayed and got by with farming, fishing, building ships, more than 100 years passed before the Kittery reached its pre-Embargo population of about 3,100 people.  Vital records in the Town Reports — births and deaths — show the same names over and again,  many from families who had settled here during colonial times.

kkk at the Grange 1933 (2)

This January 19, 1933 update on Kittery Grange news mentions Kittery Klan No. 5 as contributing to an upcoming Unemployment Bazaar.

The last documented Klan event in Kittery is a 1933 notice about a social event at the Kittery Grange.  By then, the Klan’s national membership had dropped to 45,000, with 225 members reported in Maine in 1930. The Klan had imploded, due in part to the murder trial and unveiling of King Kleagle D.C. Stephenson, a one-time salesman who had murdered his girlfriend, along with a variety of other allegations of corruption and abuse of power. In some parts of the country, the Klan continued to terrorize its victims, especially African-Americans, but it had lost its force as a national organization.

But before its implosion, the Klan had achieved several goals: it had helped to secure the passage of the 1924 National Origins Act, which limited the number of immigrants, especially non-Protestants from southern and eastern Europe. Then in 1928, the Klan helped to defeat presidential candidate Al Smith, a Catholic.

Still a small group in Kittery hung on.  I wonder who these ordinary people were, and why we have forgotten about Kittery Klan No. 5 so easily.

Sources and resources

I welcome all additions, corrections, comments, or suggestions for further information about the Klan in Kittery, via the Comments section.

Many thanks to Kim Sanborn, Executive Director of the Kittery Naval & Historical Museum, for sharing her insights on the Klan’s presence in Kittery.

U.S. Census data is compiled in an easy-to-read format on the Kittery, Maine Wikipedia page, but I have not been able to verify the accuracy of this data.

The King Kleagle of Maine’s Ku Klux Klan was an opportunist,” by Sharon Cummings.  SoMeOldNews: Surprising Southern Maine History.  Cummings’s research suggests that anti-immigrant King Kleagle Farnsworth was himself a Canadian immigrant from New Brunswick, although he claimed Columbia Falls, Maine as his birthplace.

“The Ku Klux Klan in New Hampshire, 1923-1927”, Stephen H. Goetz. Historical New Hampshire, Vol 43, No. 4, Winter 1988. Goetz also looks at the brief time of the KKK in New Hampshire, where long-established French-Canadian communities had largely assimilated into the mainstream.  He speculates that the national “social hysteria” over immigration and other issues fueled Klan membership (which required the significant expenses of a $10 initiation fee and $5 for the white robe), as well as the general popularity of all fraternal organizations.

The Nativist Klan.” Maine Memory Network of the Maine Historical Society.

Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan confronts New England in the 1920s, by Mark Paul Richards. Amherst/Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015.

Richards’s book offers insightful and evidence-filled chapters on the rise of the Klan in Maine in the 1920s.  By the mid-1920s, Roman Catholics were the largest single religious group in the state, with 173, 893 adherents, compared to the Northern Baptist Convention, at 32,031, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, at 22,938.  Richards also cites a 1930 Washington Post article claiming a peak membership of 150,141 Klan member in Maine, the largest in New England, and almost 20% of Maine’s population, or 30% of the white native-born population.

U.S. Immigration Legislation: 1924 Immigration Act.  U.S. Immigration legislation online. The National Origins Act set limits on immigration and set up a quota system based upon the current population of the United States which basically guaranteed that the majority of immigration slots would go to immigrants from northern Europe (Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia).

Uncomfortable History,” by Candace Kanes. Maine History Online. Maine Historical Society.

For more on Kittery history during the Gilded Age of the 1890s (especially on the PK&Y Trolley), see my posts “On Bridges and the Jet Set” and “Remnants of the Gilded Age at Brave Boat Harbor.

Posted in Seacoast (mostly) History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A trail ride for Father’s Day

A section of the off-road portion of the 62-mile Eastern Trail that stretches from Kittery to South Portland. About 22 miles are off-road, with plans in the works to complete another off-road stretch from Kennebunk south to Wells.

An off-road section of the 62-mile Eastern Trail that stretches from Kittery to South Portland. About 22 miles of the Trail are off-road, with plans in the works to complete another bike path from Kennebunk to Wells.

The bike bridge across Scarborough Marsh had beckoned to me for several years. Now, on this Father’s Day, we decided to discover it.

At the time (a few years ago), my son was still building confidence as a bike rider and wasn’t too keen on riding the busy roads with non-existent shoulders found in my town and much of southern Maine.  So, we loaded up the car with the bikes, and set out for Thornton Academy in Saco, Maine, where we could park and then ride on an Eastern Trail bike path eight miles to Scarborough.

As a bonus (or maybe a bribe), we planned to finish the day with some rounds of skee ball at the arcade in Old Orchard Beach.

From Saco to Scarborough, the miles flew by on the easy grade of an old railroad bed. As we peddled through a shady of tunnel of trees, I remembered why I love to ride my bike–the feeling of freedom generated by effortless forward momentum.  Other bikers and walkers were using the path, but it wasn’t crowded.  The packed dirt trail attracts mostly families and recreational riders rather than hard-core road bikers, so we didn’t feel intimidated by packs of fast-moving cyclists.

We blinked as we rode out of the woods at Pine Point Road, which the trail crosses and then enters a parking lot for the bridge.  Here, the trail was busy with a mix of walkers, riders, and kids on their first bikes, all drawn by the bridge and the beauty of the marsh.

The eight-ride from Saco to Scarborough culminates in the bridge over the Scarborough River. Currently (2016), the Eastern Trail is raising funds that will close a 1.6 mile gap in the trail so that riders can ride off road continuously to Bug Light in South Portland.

The eight-ride bike path ride from Saco to Scarborough culminates in the bridge over the Scarborough River. Currently (2016), the Eastern Trail is raising funds to close a 1.6 mile gap in the path so that riders can ride off-road continuously from Saco to Bug Light in South Portland.

The trail continued for an additional three miles or so after the bridge. Wild geraniums and buttercups blossomed alongside the path. I easily could have continued on to Bug Light.

High tide at Scarborough Marsh, taken from the pedestrian/bike bridge that crosses the marsh.

High tide at Scarborough Marsh, taken from the pedestrian/bike bridge that crosses the marsh.

But I knew that a 16-mile ride (round-trip) was long enough for a kid, so we turned around and rode back to Saco, on what seemed like faster miles on a downhill grade (although in reality, I suspect the grade shifts up and down all along the trail).

These off-road sections of the Trail are built upon the one-time Eastern Railroad corridor, first constructed in 1842. The views have changed as the forest has grown up around old fields and pasture, but I liked the idea that we were traveling on a path that had carried so many people, and continues to do so today.

Sources and resources

Ambitious riders can ride from Kennebunk to Scarborough on mostly bike path, with a small stretch of road riding from Biddeford to Saco. The Kennebunk to Biddeford stretch is a woods ride, except for the bike-pedestrian bridge that crosses the Maine Turnpike.

To see more of the Eastern Trail, consider signing up for the Maine Lighthouse Ride, an annual September event sponsored by the Eastern Trail Alliance, and which offers riders various route choices, including 25-mile, 40-mile, 60-mile and century rides.  A couple of years back, I signed up for the 40-mile ride, which cycled past a half-dozen lighthouses and over the Scarborough Marsh bridge.  The ride was mostly flat and easy. Next time, I’ll sign up for the 60-mile ride.

Currently, the Eastern Trail Alliance is raising money to build a bridge over the Nonesuch River in Scarborough, so that bikers can ride off road all the way from Kennebunk to Bug Light, South Portland.

The old railroad right-of-way through which the Eastern Trail passes is now owned by Unitil, a New Hampshire-based public utilities company.  Back in the 1960s, Portland Gas Light bought up much of the abandoned Eastern Railroad corridor and installed a natural gas pipeline that still operates today. Read more about the history of the trail here.




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Travels on the White Rose Road to Orris Falls

When writer Sarah Orne Jewett stopped by the Littlefield farmhouse in June, 1889, she found Daniel Littlefield, then 68, sitting in his deceased wife’s rocking chair, looking out the window at the same lane on which we walked on a recent Sunday in April.

Although the hike to Orris Falls is a short mile from the trailhead, walkers can get in a good four to five mile hike within the Orris Falls Conservation Area

Although the hike to Orris Falls is a short mile from the trailhead, walkers can get in a good four to five mile hike within the Orris Falls Conservation Area

Littlefield, Jewett observed, had a “large frame…built for hard work, for lifting great weights and pushing his plough through new-cleared land.”

But now, this Civil War veteran, crippled by war wounds, aging, and a lifetime of “undiverted toil,” could no longer do the heavy lifting of farming. Like many in 19th century South Berwick, Daniel and his wife Mercy had lived a hard-scrabble life on their hilly and rock-filled land. They had endured the deaths of infant Izaro, three-year old Eunice, and 22-year-old Henrietta.  Although son Orris stayed on, and daughter Phebe married locally, Daniel and Mercy witnessed the departure of many young people who abandoned family farms and left Maine for better prospects after the Civil War.

But despite the hard living, every farmhouse on what Jewett called the “White Rose Road”  had a white rose bush planted near the door, including that of Littlefields — a small burst of daily joy from June through fall.

Daniel built his farmhouse around 1860 on the foundation of a home built in the 1800s.  In 1889 — and probably long before that — few people passed by the lonely farmhouse, located just over a half-mile off Thurrell Road (Jewett’s “White Rose Road”).

Although we found no sign of the white rose bush, we felt a similar sense of isolation when we explored the Orris Falls Conservation Area.  We saw other walkers, but not many, considering that this April afternoon offered ideal circumstances for exploring these trails, with all the sights and contours of the land fully revealed.

On the old woods road towards Orris Falls.

On the old woods road towards Orris Falls.

When I set out for this hike, I didn’t know about Sarah Orne Jewett’s sketch, “The White Rose Road,” which recounts an afternoon ride through this neighborhood.  After reading it, I was struck by how Jewett’s sketch of an agrarian neighborhood in decline captured the sense I felt of traveling in a lost New England as we wandered through the forest now grown up from the old farm fields.

We began at the Thurrell Road trailhead on the same woods road that Daniel Littlefield and his family rode or walked en route to town, school, or to the closest neighboring house.   About  a half-mile in, we stopped at the Littlefield family cemetery, where Daniel and Mercy are buried along with at least two of their children.

This map from the 1872 Atlas of York County, highlights the isolation of the Littlefield house from its neighbors in South Berwick. Today, visitors may feel an echo of the Littlefields' isolation when they walk to Orris Falls.

This map from the 1872 Atlas of York County  highlights the isolation of the Littlefield house from its neighbors in South Berwick.  Note many of the “old” names still common in southern Maine today. Until World War II, the majority of southern Maine residents consisted of old families descended from colonial era pioneers (Image from trailside kiosk via the Old Berwick Historical Society).

The Littlefield house, now a cellar hole, is just past the cemetery. Daniel and Mercy probably sometimes went for days without speaking to a neighbor, especially during stormy days or intense cold.

A cavity in the foundation of the Littlefield house. I've seen these cavities in other cellar holes in York County and wonder if they were used as a root cellar or for some other purpose.

A cavity in the Littlefield house cellar hole. I’ve seen these cavities in other foundations in York County and wonder if they were used as root cellars or for some other purpose. Daniel Littlefield purchased this land (a 78-acre parcel) for $850 in 1843 and built his home around 1860.  Behind the house are the foundation walls of a large barn. Another large wall is built into the side of the slope that looks out at the beaver pond — almost as if Daniel was intent on building a viewing platform/patio.  But the wall must have served a practical purpose — perhaps flood control. Please leave comments if you have more information.

Continuing on, the trail crosses a wooden footbridge before turning right to Orris Falls, where water was tumbling in a small fall that probably froths large after a heavy rain.   Here, the trail loops back towards Thurrell Road; hikers who wish to continue on to Balancing Rock should backtrack towards the main woods road.

Orris Falls tumbling in April. The Falls are named for Daniel's son Orris, who owned the farm by 1891, when Daniel died. The falls spring from a small gorge and hikers with small children need to watch carefully.

Orris Falls tumbling in April. The Falls are named for Daniel’s son Orris, who owned the farm by 1891, when Daniel died. The falls tumble through a gorge with banks that rise  t0 90 feet, so hikers with small children need to watch carefully.

Continuing on the main trail, we ascended Spring Hill and discovered the Tatnic Ledges, with a pre-foliage view of Mount Agamenticus.  We were beginning to wonder if we had missed the turn-off to Balancing Rock when we came upon a small sign pointing the way.

Balancing Rock, a glacial erratic left by the melting and receding glacier. The Rock is on a short side trail just beyond the legde views of Spring Cliffs.

Balancing Rock, a glacial erratic left by the receding glacier; the Rock in located in a little hollow off the main trail.

After our visit to Balancing Rock, we backtracked to the junction at the Littlefield cellar hole and hiked over to the Big Bump.  Somehow we missed LaChance Point, so that viewpoint will have to wait for next time.

Fifteen years ago (circa 2000), this property was not accessible to the public and was ripe for development. Thanks to the work of many at the Great Works Regional Trust, Orris Falls Conservation Area was preserved through land purchases and conservation easements over private lands  —  an effort that involved years of negotiations regarding multiple parcels of land and various financing arrangements .

It’s hard to imagine that this patch of forest might have become another southern Maine subdivision. I know that people need places to live, but I’m glad that Great Works managed to save this special place so that we can wander here today.

Beyond the LIttlefield homestead, beavers have created a large pond with several dams and beaver houses readily visible.

Beyond the LIttlefield homestead, beavers have created a very large pond with several dams and beaver houses readily visible.

Sources and Resources

Here, the map for the Orris Falls Conservation Area, which is part of the Great Works Regional Land Trust (see the website for a mobile version of the map).

The full text of Sarah Orne Jewett’s sketch, “The White Rose Road,” first published in The Atlantic Monthly, September, 1889, and again in her book, Strangers and Wayfarers (1890).

Scholar Nancy Meyer Wetzel links Jewett’s sketch to the historical people and events in her 2003 article, “The White Rose Road: Sarah Orne Jewett’s Journey to Orris Falls.

Find-a-Grave has photos and more details about the Littlefield Family cemetery.

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Waterfall wonderland on the Ammo Trail to Mount Monroe


Every May, I try to fit in my “end-0f-the-semester hike”, a few days after completing grades and graduation. In May, this hike usually involves some snow and ice, along with cool air, few people. and open vistas.

I love my job as a community college teacher/administrator. But working with students from all ages and walks of life, I encounter more than the typical share of life’s challenges compressed into 15 weeks: students with depression and anxiety, illness and emergency surgeries, suicides and overdoses (usually of family members but sometimes a student), and other troubles, plus a couple of annoying cases of blatant cheating.  I have plenty of students without such troubles, but the weight of those who do tends to build up over the course of the semester.

My work with students is a sacred space of sorts. I usually can’t do anything about the other issues, but I can help them learn to find good sources, or create smooth transitions in paragraphs, or develop an idea into a solid short story.

My end-of-the-semester hike is both a way to celebrate the finish and to enter my own sacred space, where the clutter and noise of the semester subsides, as it must, when I am navigating an icy patch of leftover snow on a steep trail.

This May, I decided to conquer Mount Monroe, one of a handful of 4,000 footers left on my list, a 7-mile round-trip hike via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, also known as the Ammo trail — 2,900 feet of elevation gain, most of it in one steep mile up the Ravine.


Evidence of Hurricane Irene, which sent trees tumbling into the river and hurled boulders across trails.

On Friday morning, I set out at a good pace through the forest of fir and birch trees. Without the hardwood foliage, the forest was both shady and full of light.

After an easy mile, the trail began to climb along the Ammonoosuc River.  The tumbling river still shows much evidence of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Irene in August 2011 when a wall of water crashed through these mountains. I was planning to hike the Ammo Trail that weekend with my family, with an overnight stay planned at the Lakes of the Clouds hut, but the Forest Service closed down the White Mountain National Forest, a good decision that probably saved some lives and lots of worry.

After another (relatively) easy mile along the river, I reached Gem Pool.  But I knew tough times were coming — 1,562 feet of elevation gain to the Lakes hut at the head of Ravine, then another third of a mile to 5,372-foot Mount Monroe.

Gem Pool

Gem Pool looks like an inviting place to cool off on a hot summer day.

Sure enough, the hike from Gem Pool was basically straight uphill.  Is it the toughest mile in the White Mountains?  I’m not sure if it’s any harder than Kedron Flume Trail up Mount Willey, or the mile from Galehead Hut to South Twin Mountain.  Since I’ve hiked those trails, I knew I could get up the Ammo.  But could I get down?

Even with the steeps, I couldn’t stop smiling, as I discovered waterfall after waterfall. I’ve never seen so many beautiful waterfalls on one trail, except in Iceland. As I approached the upper half of that mile, I began to encounter patches of hard-packed icy snow.  The sun had softened up the snow, and on flat spots, it was easy to walk across.

Waterfall with small headwall of snow on the Ammo Trail.

Waterfall with small headwall of snow on the Ammo Trail.

But when the trail inclined, I had to consider whether to pull on the microspikes.  Sometimes I could get around the icy patches, but since I was alone, I erred on the side of caution, and pulled on the spikes, then pulled them off, then pulled them on again.  On the last quarter-mile below the Lakes hut, I wore the spikes continuously and they gave me confidence to work my way up the steep slabs of rock and snow.

Another view of falling water.

Another view of falling water.

Earlier that morning, I’d had delusions of grandeur, of possibly summiting Washington, or   at least hiking over to the Jewel Trail after completing the hike to Monroe. By the time I arrived at Lakes, however, I knew that I would ONLY be climbing Monroe — more than enough for my first major hike of the season.

I knew I had reached the top of the Ravine when Lakes of the Clouds hut rose above me.

I knew I had reached the top of the Ravine when Lakes of the Clouds hut rose above me.

After passing the Lakes hut, and shedding my spikes, I continued to the junction of the Crawford Path and the Mount Monroe Loop and climbed up a pile of  rock pile to Mount Monroe.  Above treeline, I encountered no ice, just some patches of soft snow leftover from a storm two days earlier.  The trail to the summit is a bit of tricky climb on rocks, but just a third of mile from the junction, so it didn’t take me long to get there.

The rocky heap of Mount Monroe

The rocky heap of Mount Monroe

On Mount Monroe, I enjoyed a quick lunch as the wind picked up and gray clouds hovered above Mount Washington.  Although the forecast did not predict any storms, I know that in the Presidentials, the weather can change quickly.  I made my way down to Lakes, and rested a bit on a sunny bench there, out of the wind. It was lovely to sit by the always-busy  hut with no people except a small AMC research crew out collecting data on flower blooms.

View of Mount Washington and one of the still-ice covered Lakes of the Clouds.

View of Mount Washington and one of the still-ice covered Lakes of the Clouds. Note the rusty colors of the alpine flora.

Now, it was time to descend the Ammo. I was definitely glad I had my spikes. Carefully, I picked my way down the trail, sometimes sliding on my butt. The quarter-mile from Lakes into the woods was laced with hard-packed slippery snow, and demanded total concentration.

At one point, a text message beeped from my husband. I stopped to text him back,  asking him not to text me again. I was confident that I could get down, but knew that I had to completely focus on the trail.

The waterfalls were still beautiful, but I couldn’t appreciate them quite as much on the way down. After the steep descent, I was relieved to get to Gem Pool, and to the easy hiking from there to the parking lot.

By then, the challenges of the semester were long gone, erased by the work of climbing up and sliding down rocks, reaching for sturdy branches, and putting one foot in front of the other.  Now, I’m ready to begin again.

I added a rock to this pile for the memorial to XXx, a college student who died of hypothermia near this spot in   December 1932 on what was probably his end-of-the-semester hike.

I added a rock to this pile for the memorial to Herbert Judson Young, a Dartmouth college student who died of hypothermia near this spot in December 1928 on what was probably his end-of-the-semester hike.


Sources and Resources

The 4000-footers of the White Mountains: A Guide and History, by Steven D. Smith and Mike Dickerman. Always a great resource, especially the view guides.

Checking the Higher Summits Forecast, from the Mount Washington Weather Observatory, is a must before hiking in the Presidentials, where weather conditions can vary dramatically from the Valley.

Note: The Ammo trail is easy to follow but not well-blazed, so hikers need to keep an eye on certain turns where arrows guide the way.  Also, a variation of this hike from the Cog Railway parking lot cuts about a half-mile off the hike.



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