Be careful, to avoid tragic results. Great.
A punishing hike is exactly what I hoped to avoid when I set out on this day in mid-June to climb a 4,000-footer and decided to make my first ascent of New Hampshire’s 4,802-foot Mount Moosilauke, on the western side of the White Mountains. But the road to the Benton Trail – a one-time bridle path that offers a gradual climb — remained closed due to damage wrought by Hurricane Irene. So here I am, reading the sign at Beaver Brook Trail.
On this weekday morning, several cars are parked in the lot, and I know that Beaver Brook, as part of the Appalachian Trail, has to be a well-traveled trail. How bad can it be? Answer: for experienced hikers accustomed to suffering in the White Mountains: not that bad (definitely easier than Kedron Flume Trail on Mount Willey). For afternoon strollers and people with heart conditions: heed the warning. The trail climbs straight up to the ridge for most of the first 1.4 mile stretch.
The climb is both beautiful and brutal. Today, a few days after heavy rains, Beaver Brook pours over rock ledges in a series of cascading waterfalls. On a rainy day, the rock slabs overlooking the brook could get slippery, and yes, the possibility of a “tragic result” exists, but probably only for small children or crazed tween boys running amok. If hikers watch their footing, the trail is fine. As I told another pair of hikers, I read the accident reports in Appalachia and don’t recall ever reading of a fatal hiking accident on Moosilauke.
The mountain has claimed lives, but not from hiking. On January 14, 1942, two airmen were killed after a B-18 bomber returning from an Atlantic patrol crashed in a snowstorm, not far from this trail, on the flank of neighboring Mount Waternomee. Five survivors were rescued by Lincoln and Woodstock locals who had heard the explosion and set off on snowshoes into the dark snowy woods to see what had happened. (Today, from a trail off Route 18, you can hike to the plane crash site and memorial).
Up, up, up, I climb, placing one foot at a time on wooden slabs glued onto the rock (or so it seems). I take a drink, rest my calves, and continue. Glassy sheets of falling water splash down the rock face. Taking a breath, I remind myself to appreciate its magnificence. After an hour-and-a-half of climbing, I arrive at the Beaver Brook three-sided shelter. A great spot to rest, with views of Mount Lafayette and Franconia Ridge and many mountains rolling behind them. Those AT hikers who spend the night here catch the sunrise over the mountains.
Continuing to climb uphill, eventually I reach a ridge. Although the ridge has some ups and downs, the trail feels like a road walk after the brutal ascent up Beaver Brook. To the southeast, Gorge Brook Ravine drops below me. After 3.5 miles (and several hours) of hiking, I arrive at the junction of the Benton Trail, and step out of the mixed spruce and fir forest into an ancient druidic world of rock cairns and green alpine meadow. From my vantage point below the summit, the foundation remnants of a once-thriving mountain-top hotel suggest Stonehenge.
A hotel was first established on the summit of Mount Moosilauke in 1860, reportedly opening on July 4, 1860 with a band that entertained a throng of 1000 visitors. A hundred years earlier, Mount Moosilauke and the surrounding area was a wilderness, partly because of the rugged terrain and partly because continuing warfare between the French and their Abenaki allies and the English had discouraged settlement, even on the rich floodplain of the upper Connecticut River Valley.
Several 19th century histories of the area relate that during the French and Indian War, one of Robert Rogers’ Rangers, Robert Pomeroy, perished on Mount Moosilauke, after the Rangers were retreating from their October attack on the Abenaki mission village at St. Francis, Quebec. However, whether or not Pomeroy actually died on Mount Moosilauke is hard to determine, as many variations of his demise exist.
According to Rogers’ journals, the Major did split his starving party of retreating Rangers into several groups after the raid on St. Francis, with the hope that the smaller groups would be more successful in finding game. The men were all supposed to meet up a couple of weeks later at the junction of the Wells and Wild Ammonoonsuc River. One group, however, led by Sargent Benjamin Bradley, decided to strike out across the wilderness for Concord. Of course they became hopelessly lost in the mountains. Travel was never easy in the mountains. Now, with cold weather coming on hard and no provisions, they struggled through woods and mountainous terrain loaded up with loot from St. Francis, including a 10-pound silver medallion of the Madonna.
One historical account (see Loescher) recounts that the group of four men wandered in the mountains for many days until all but a man named Private Hoit were too weak to continue. Bradley, Pomeroy, and a black private named Jacob “crawled under some rocks and perished in the delirium brought on by hunger and despair, blaspheming and hurling horrible imprecations at the silver image on which, in their insanity, they blamed all their sufferings.” Although weak with hunger and exhaustion, one of the men reportedly “seized the statue, tottered to the edge of a precipice and, exerting all his remaining strength, dashed it down into the gulf below.”
Another source (Smith and Dickerman) states that Pomeroy perished on Moosilauke’s summit, while a companion was rescued by an old trapper in Gorge Brook Ravine. However, a local history of Derryfield, N.H., Pomeroy’s hometown, says that Pomeroy perished in the vicinity of the headwaters of the Merrimack River, at a place where some artifacts belonging to him were found.
Was the silver Madonna from St. Francis hurled into Gorge Brook Ravine from the very ridge on which I walk? We can never know for certain, and I guess it doesn’t matter, except that knowing the history of the mountain contributes to how I know the mountain, and adds to the value of my experience. For modern treasure hunters seeking riches, the mystery continues to motivate them in searching for the silver Madonna, which has never been found.
At the summit, I rest in the lee of a crumbling foundation wall, eat my hummus sandwich, and take in the 360-degree views of the White Mountains and the Connecticut River Valley. A bit of a cloudy day, but plenty of view. Today a mild breeze ruffles the mountaintop, but typically, the summit is very windy. As the most western high peak in the Whites, Moosilauke catches winds from the west head on. In the 19th century, guests at the summit hotel must have spent many nights listening to the howling winds and wondering if their shelter would hold fast. In the end, the hotel and all of its variations withstood winds that can reach hurricane force, but fell victim to fire, in 1942.
On the way down the mountain, I suffer less and notice more. The trillium are just past their time, but the hobble-bushes still hold their flowers. I hear a chickadee singing and spot the bird on the crown of a spruce tree, like a star on a Christmas tree.
I make good time on the ridge and down the first pitch of the mountain and rest up at the Beaver Brook Shelter. Then I am ready to begin the steep walk downhill, one step at a time. Today’s hike will cure me of the desire to climb 4,000-footers for at least a couple of weeks. But I know I will relapse. The cure is never permanent — thank goodness.
Directions: The trailhead for Beaver Brook Trail is located a few miles west of North Woodstock, NH, at the height-of-land on Route 112/Kinsman Notch.
Resources and Links:
Hike to Mount Waternomee Plane Crash Site: Detailed description of the hike to the plane crash and how to find the trailhead.
The Gorge Brook Trail, the most popular trail up Moosilauke, begins at the end of Ravine Lodge Road, just above the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, which is open to the public for food and lodging. The Lodge is owned by Dartmouth College, which also owns a variety of cabins in the area that can be rented by the public (see details at the link to the Lodge).
Loescher, Burt Garfield. History of Rogers’ Rangers: The First Green Berets. San Mateo, California, 1969. Loescher’s history, available in online archives, provided the quote about the lost Rangers and the Madonna. Where he derived is information is unclear, although it might be from the journal of the French Captain Pouchot, who is listed as a reference in Loescher’s appendices.
Smith, Steven D. and Mike Dickerman. The 4,000-Footers of the White Mountains: A Guide and History. Littleton, NH: Bondcliff Books, 2001.
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