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.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Waterfall wonderland on the Ammo Trail to Mount Monroe

IMG_4535

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.

IMG_4537

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.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The loneliest road in southern Utah

As the road changed from pavement into dirt, and the canyon walls pressed in on both sides, it seemed that we were heading deep into a wilderness where we might be stranded by a broken axle or punctured tire. We hadn’t seen another car, or person, for miles.  My son wondered aloud, nervously, if we should continue as we bumped along the packed dirt road in our rental SUV. What would we find at the end?

Our rental car looks pretty lonely on the Scenic Drive towards Capitol Gorge.

In mid-February, our rental car looks pretty lonely on the Scenic Drive at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.

I pulled out the map, which showed, at the end of the road, a parking lot icon. “It’ll be fine,” I said. “Look, there’s even restrooms.”

The walls of Capitol Gorge close in, at times less than 20 feet apart.

The walls of Capitol Gorge close in, at times less than 20 feet apart.  Capitol Reef National Park is part of the “Waterpocket Fold,” a 100-mile long north-south wrinkle in the earth’s surface.  The rough  terrain of the Fold presented a barrier to 19th century pioneers, who eventually discovered Capitol Gorge (above), a crack in the fold through which people, animals and wagons could travel through more easily.  Just beyond the Gorge, a small group of families settled at Fruita, along the Fremont River, with the last resident leaving in 1968.

And indeed, when we reached the parking lot, we found signs that sometimes, this place is full of people: picnic benches, rustic restrooms, a well-trodden path to the Pioneer Register. But on this day, no people, not even a park ranger’s vehicle. On this late afternoon in February, we might be the only visitors in Capitol Reef National Park.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration.  In these 378 square miles, at least three other people were exploring. Earlier, at a Highway 12 pullover, we had met a father and two sons traveling in a rugged camper with monster wheels, heading towards Cathedral Valley, the remote section of the park that gets few visitors, even in the summer. Then, I envied them, for the solitude, but now, here we were, alone, feeling like pioneers.

The sun was setting as  we drove back to Torrey, where we were staying at the Sky Ridge Inn  bed and breakfast.  On the Scenic Road, not a single car or hiker.  But as we approached the campground next to Fruita, an abandoned Mormon pioneer settlement, I spied a single vehicle and a tent. A small campfire burned in the twilight, making the scene a little less lonely. Or maybe more so.

I’m guessing that in the summer months, when the park gets most of its 668,000 annual visitors, solitude at Capitol Reef feels hard to come by, even if it nowhere nearly as crowded as Zion National Park (which gets 2.9 million visitors).  Families pick peaches, cherries, apples and pears in the orchards planted by the Mormon settlers. Everyone stops to look at the Fremont petroglyphs carved on a rock wall, and almost everyone completes the 2-mile round trip hike to Hickman Bridge.

Exploring at Hickman Bridge.

Exploring at Hickman Bridge, a popular destination on a one-mile hike from the road.  On this morning hike, we did meet one small party on the trail but otherwise had the place to ourselves.

However, even in peak season, Capitol Reef offers plenty of lightly travelled backcountry nooks and crannies, canyons and trails.  I can’t wait to explore them when I come back.  Even though our visit to Capitol Reef was short, the park was my favorite of the three we visited in southern Utah.  The landscape here feels so vast and grand, that it almost makes me feel like I might become a grander person just by spending time here.

Another view of Hickman Bridge.

Another view of Hickman Bridge.

Lots of fun nooks, crannies,  rock formations and otherworldly geology on the Hickman Bridge Trail.

Lots of fun nooks, crannies, rock formations and otherworldly geology on the Hickman Bridge Trail.

Good-bye, Capitol Reef, I'll be back some day as a vagabond retiree in a souped-up camping van.

Good-bye, Capitol Reef, I’ll be back some day as a vagabond retiree in a souped-up camping van.

Posted in Family and Kids, Hiking, Mountains, Travels | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter wonderland: Among the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon

When we stop to pull off jackets, I take in the snow-draped hoodoos towering above us. What was it like for Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce to wander into this amphitheater for the first time back in the mid-1870s? Did he believe that he had found some version of God’s country? Or did he view the slots and twists created by the hoodoos as obstacles in which his livestock might get lost?  Undaunted, he made Bryce his workplace, and built a logging road into the heart of this place named for him.

Descending into the hoodoos on the Navajo Loop Trail. We brought microspikes in case the trail was icy but didn't need them.

Descending into the hoodoos on the Navajo Loop Trail. We brought microspikes in case the trail was icy but didn’t need them, as ice and snow had mostly melted off the trails.

 

Up on the rim of the Bryce amphitheater, visitors gather to take in the spectacle of the Bryce Amphitheater.  At the major stops on the 18-mile scenic drive that winds towards Bryce Point, buses full of Chinese tourists, visiting during their New Year’s holiday, empty into otherwise empty parking lots.  But here on the floor, where Bryce once logged the pine trees, and less than mile from the rim, we are the only hikers on this warm February morning.

February view from the bottom of Bryce Canon, which isn't really a true canyon but a X. Two weeks earlier, a storm had dropped almost two feet of snow here, but it had mostly melted on the canyon floor. But there was still plenty of snow on the high plateau, and the Park Service offers a snowshoe hike to winter visitors.

February view from the bottom of Bryce Canon, which isn’t really a true canyon but an amphitheater formed by headward erosion (rather than erosion from a stream or river) . Two weeks earlier, a storm had dropped almost two feet of snow here. Snow still blanketed the top of the 9,000-foot plateau.  The Park Service offers a snowshoe hike to winter visitors.

 

The National Park Service worries a lot about visitors numbers. This being America, more is always better, especially because some bureaucrats in the Park Service believe that more visitation translates into political support that yields the increased appropriations needed to support more visitors.

National park visitation statistics are a complex beast. At some parks, declining visitor numbers cause concern while at others, increases in visitation create problems. In Utah’s five national parks, however, attendance is steadily rising, with visitation to Bryce Canyon almost doubling from 2006 to 2015, from about 890,000 in 2006 to 1,745,804 in 2015.

On the Navajo Loop Trail, just below Wall Street, where the hoodoos close in to form narrow passages. The passage through Wall Street was closed due to danger from falling rocks (the winter's warm-cold-warm cycles wreaking havoc), so we had to retrace our steps on the Navajo Loop.

On the Navajo Loop Trail, just below Wall Street, where the hoodoos close in to form narrow passages. The passage through Wall Street was closed due to danger from falling rocks (the winter’s warm-cold-warm cycles wreaking havoc), so we had to retrace our steps on the Navajo Loop.

 

If today was a summer day at Bryce Canyon, a wall of visitors would be crowding the rim, shooting pictures. Here on the Navaho Loop Trail, I would be confronting a small army of day hikers, backpackers, and walkers in flip-flops and sandals

Today, on this winter morning, our family of three wanders among the hoodoos, and wonders.

Winter sunrises in mid-February are a little chilly, but not really not that cold..

Winter sunrises in mid-February are a little chilly, but not really not that cold, with plenty of space to shooting photos.

IMG_2042

Morning view of Thor’s Hammer.

 

 

IMG_2039

More hoodoos and their relatives, eventually to become hoodoos, as erosion wears away the sandstone.

 

 

Sources and resources

For more information on Bryce, see the Bryce Canyon site at the National Park Service.

Bryce Canyon Lodge offers limited winter lodging in one building, while the Ruby’s Inn complex — a world unto itself — has plenty of lodging options, including an indoor swimming pool.

For more on the human history of Bryce Canyon, see the National Park Service’s  Bryce Canyon Historic Resource Study. Bryce Canyon is named for Ebenezer Bryce; he did not “discover” the canyon, but settled in the vicinity in the 1870s. and built his road.

We also visited busy (but not summer-busy) Zion National Park on this trip, and, after Bryce, experienced the wonder of being the only park visitors at Capitol Reef National Park, outside of Torrey, Utah.

 

Posted in Family and Kids, Hiking, Travels | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Closing the door on Angel’s Landing

This time, when I gave up on trying to climb to Angel’s Landing in Utah’s Zion National Park, I knew I wouldn’t be trying again. The third time won’t be a charm; I won’t cross the hike off my bucket list.

A view of the knife-edge abutment known as Angel's Landing (late-morning light). Yes, it is as skinny as it looks, at least in a few tricky spots.

A view of the knife-edge sandstone ridge known as Angel’s Landing (late-morning light). Yes, it is as skinny as it looks, at least in a few tricky spots.

Yes, I was disappointed as I descended the steep chained-covered sandstone to the line of hikers waiting to climb up. I knew that the view from  Angel’s Landing wasn’t 100% more magnificent than any other in the park.  But I had been primed to claim the hike as my own, after chickening out on a visit to Zion eight years earlier. And if I couldn’t do it now, eight years deeper into middle age, I never would.

The hike to Angel’s Landing is the most popular in Zion, despite being named by Outside magazine as one of the world’s most dangerous. The trail is a 1/2-mile long offshoot of the West Rim Trail (with a total distance of  2.5 miles from the bottom of Zion Canyon).

Climbing that last half-mile to the Landing requires scrambling up a steep sandstone face, using a set of chain ropes for support while navigating a constant stream of hikers coming and going. Once hikers surmount that first pitch, they move on to other challenges, including spots where the ridge narrows to a width of five feet, with 1,000-feet drop-offs on both sides.  Near the Landing, hikers step up a narrow stone staircase, where a chain railing offers the illusion of safety.

Eight years earlier, I’d known the risks and calculated them small – yes, five people (now six) had fallen to their deaths since 2004, but thousands made the trek each year. I had hiked steep trails all over the world. Piece of cake.

Looking down at the switchbacks known as Walter's Wiggles, first crafted by the Civilian Conservation Core in the 1930s. A bit of an incline, but pretty easy for seasoned hikers.

Looking down at the switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles, first crafted by the National Park Service in the 1920s.  A bit of an incline, but pretty easy for seasoned hikers.

On that end-of-March 2008 visit, the park was bustling with visitors eager to explore the canyon on the weekend before the road closed to cars for the season (from April to October, shuttle buses moves visitors in and out of Zion Canyon). My friends and I hiked towards Walter’s Wiggles in a stream of humanity, including several parents pushing strollers.

At Scouts Landing, where the Angel’s Landing trail shoots off from the West Rim Trail, my friend Natasha said she knew her limits; she was happy to relax on the rock slabs while three of us continued on.

Following behind my two friends, I began to scrabble up the sandstone slope, placing my feet in toeholds carved by thousands of hikers and grabbing the chains for support. About halfway up, I froze. This felt dangerous. If I slipped, I might tumble to my death, or severe injury. Yes, thousands had done it, and only a handful had died, but I was a mother. I had a young son waiting for me back at home. I couldn’t afford to die. I turned back.

Now, on this second attempt, the young son was a young man. Our family of three made it up the first pitch, but the climb was nerve-wracking and not much fun. When my husband announced, “I don’t need to do this,” my son agreed. After five seconds of thought, I concurred.

Carefully, we picked our way down the slope back to Scouts Landing, where a volunteer ranger was doing a talk on California Condors, whose numbers had once dwindled to fewer than 25. An active breeding-in-captivity program has resurrected the population, but these massive birds with a ten-foot wing span, the largest in North America, continue to die off, mostly due to lead poisoning from ingesting lead bullets. About 71 condors fly around Arizona and southern Utah, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

South of Zion, at the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona,  condors are released into the wild every year and monitored for movement, with attempts made later in the season to recapture the birds to test for lead poisoning. If wildlife biologists are able to catch lead poisoning early, they can treat it. But sadly, every season, they find too many magnificent dead birds.

After listening to the talk for a few minutes, my husband suggested continuing on the West Rim Trail. From Scout’s Landing, we hike for ten minutes or so to an overlook with a good view of Angel’s Landing. Instead of the crowds congregating below us, we were alone, although eventually an older couple joined us. The man had a pair of serious binoculars. With the binoculars, we could make out figures standing at the far edge of Angel’s Landing. We could see other scrambling up another steep pitch that looked very perpendicular.

“Now that how did that hiker get on that pinnacle?” the mans asked, pointing to a narrow pinnacle jutting up from the canyon floor.  “He must have needed ropes and gear to get up that.”

Squinting, I could see something – a figure perched on the pinnacle’s edge, possibly a hiker sitting and dangling his legs. My husband asked for the binoculars.

“That’s not a person,” he said. “That’s a bird.”

California Condor in flight, with tracking tags.  Photo via Wikipedia and Creative Commons.

California Condor in flight, with tracking tags. Photo via Wikipedia and Creative Commons.

And then, liftoff: a massive California Condor spread its wings and dove into the shadow created by Angel’s Landing, then began to soar upwards in slow circles.

As its circles became wider, the condor drew closer to our view-point. When its wings tipped at an angle, the condor almost looked like a drone coming in for a landing. And then the condor swooped low to the ground, preparing to land, about 20 feet in front of us.

At the last second, the bird picked up a thermal and soared upwards. We watched its ballet for several minutes, until the condor soared downriver through Zion Canyon.

On Angel’s Landing, the hikers were intent on the sandstone slope, clutching the chains, making sure to plant three points of the body on the ground at all times.  They had to focus; they couldn’t afford to let their eyes and minds wander. That’s what I love about hiking–how it demands my full presence in the moment. But at Angel’s Landing, I couldn’t have the hike and the condor.  Something to remember the next time I have to give up or turn back. Where will I see my next condor?

Twlight view of The Watchman, a warm-up hike we did upon arriving at Zion, with the trailhead right behind the Visitor's Center.  On this February visit, we saw one other party here at the party -- the advantage of visiting Zion off-season. However, being President's Day weekend, the park was busy, and on Sunday, we were "gated out" of Zion Canyon because the canyon had reached its car capacity (we did get in later that afternoon).

Twilight view of The Watchman, a warm-up hike we did upon arriving at Zion; the trailhead begins behind the Visitor’s Center. On this February visit, we saw one other party on this late-afternoon hike — the advantage of visiting Zion off-season. However, this being President’s Day weekend, the park was busy, and on Sunday, we were “gated out” of Zion Canyon because the canyon had reached its car capacity (we did get in later that afternoon).

 

IMG_1833

After being turned away from the Zion Canyon gate, we drove through the Zion Tunnel to the East Entrance and explored a bit of that side of the park, including the Canyon Overlook  hike (at the East Entrance gate). Although this scene suggests solitude, this short trail was busy with hikers, including many families and young children.

One advantage of a Zion lock-out is that it required us to explore other areas on the eastern side of the Zion Tunnel.  Not an official trail here, just a fun spot for climbing around. We did try to get to Observation Point trail from Zion Mountain Ranch, but the dirt road you to take to get to the trailhead was muddy and rutted and/or snow-covered and too much for our rental.

Not an official trail here, just a fun spot for climbing around on the eastern side of the park. We attempted to get to the East Mesa Trail, the easy route to Observation Point which starts out as a dirt road at Zion Mountain Ranch, but the road was muddy, rutted, and/or snow-covered and too much for our rental SUV. The hike to Observation Point, whether from the canyon floor, or via the back route we scouted, is a great alternative to Angel’s Landing.

Sources and resources

Frequently Asked Questions” for Zion National Park. National Park Service.  Note that more people have died at the bucolic Emerald Pool (typically from slipping and falling) than at Angel’s Landing. Also, a map of Zion hiking trails (most useful as an overview and NOT a trail map).

Outside Magazine‘s list of the world’s 20 most dangerous hikes. Note that New Hampshire’s Mount Washington is on the list along with Angel’s Landing.

 

Posted in Family and Kids, Hiking, Mountains, Travels | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lives lived, and lost, at the Kittery Town Forest

Kittery purchased the land for the Town Forest, once known as the Poor Farm, in 1820.  An 1852 Auditors report (the oldest I've uncovered) mentions the Almshouse.  Since the original purchase included a house and a barn, the town was probably using it as an almshouse for many years prior to 1852.

Back in 1820, in Kittery, Maine, the town purchased the original 13-acre plot that became the Town Farm or Poor Farm.

Sometimes when I walk in Kittery’s 72-acre Town Forest, I wonder what became of Ella Hill and her girl Annie. From 1891 to about 1897, Ella and Annie lived here at the Town Farm, or Poor Farm. In 1891, the town spent $2 to move Ella and two children to the almshouse. She arrived with an infant son, Fred, in her arms. He died on May 22 that year and probably dwells in an unmarked grave nearby.

Ella had another son, John, born around 1878 when she was 20.  The 1880 census tells us that she and two-year-old John lived with Rachael Fernald and worked as a domestic servant. Ella’s father, John Hill, a farmer, died in 1880, so she perhaps went to live with and work at the Fernalds  to keep body and soul together for herself and her baby.  No husband is mentioned in the scant records I’ve found that document Ella’s life.  After the census, young John disappears, so perhaps Ella lost two children.

At the almshouse, Ella and little Annie probably ate supper each night with Adelaide and Charles Leach. By that time, Adelaide, about 60 years old, and Charles, her 49-year-old younger brother, had been residents, or “inmates,” of the almshouse for more than 2o years. Perhaps they provided comfort to Ella when her baby died. Perhaps she comforted them when William Leach, possibly their brother or another relative, died there on January 23, 1892, at age 64.

More inmate deaths followed during Ella’s stay. In 1892, Mary Taylor, age 45 died, followed by John Ricker, age 80, and Abigail Clements, age 79. Not long after, 88-year-old Joseph Parsons arrived. Perhaps Ella helped care for these elders to earn her keep.

Ella and Annie stayed on until around 1897, when they disappear from the Kittery town reports. Did Ella marry? Did she find employment in one of Kittery’s big hotels, or somewhere else?

Town records are silent on her eventual fate. They tell us a bit more about Adelaide and Charles, both of whom lived most of their lives at the Town Farm, and died there. On January 22, 1901, Adelaide died. Although the town report listed her name as a farm inmate for more than 30 years, nobody caught the mistake that named her “Annabelle Leach” in the vital statistics.  Charles died 15 years later, on September 20, 1916.

What the records don’t reveal is why the Leaches, an old Kittery family with roots dating to the 1600s, landed at the almshouse. They arrived, it seems, with other members of the Leach family, including their parents, Ebenezer and Iza, some time between 1861 and 1871; a town report from 1861-62 records expenses for “partial support” of 30-year-old Adelaide Leach at a private home. The 1860 census tells us that Ebenezer Leach was a fisherman, as was his son Charles. Various town reports  list the “Leach property” as under town ownership, valued at $500 in 1906 (but not part of the Town Farm, valued at $2,000). What fate befell the Leach family, so that they lost their land and perhaps their livelihoods, and ended up living out their days at the Town Farm? Why did two young adults — Adelaide and Charles – stay at the farm?

The blue-marked Quimby Trail offers a loop walk of about 3 miles through the forest.

The blue-marked Quimby Trail offers a loop walk of about 3 miles through the forest.

Today, the Town Forest is one of the Kittery’s under-the-radar resources, one in which I’ve enjoyed walking, running, and biking since the 1990s. Over the past 20 years, the forest surrounding the town land has shrunk, as housing developments have sprung up on all sides, but the Town Forest remains a great place to wander, and to wonder, about the people who once called this place home, including a good number who still remain, buried somewhere in unmarked graves.

In 19th century New England, the “poor farm” was a well-established institution where some residents worked at farm chores to pay their keep. However, evidence in Kittery’s town reports suggests that taxpayers generally supported the five to eight residents who lived there, with the town paying a salary to a “superintendent,” and bills for flour, wood, food, and other necessities, and even for hiring nearby farmers like William Haley and Samuel Norton to do the mowing and other heavy chores. Although it’s possible that “inmates” took care of a small garden, most were too old to do the hard physical labor of farm work.

The 19th century almshouse has a reputation as a misery-filled place where all manner of humanity was thrown together, elderly widows and young children mixed in with vagrants and drunkards. But some poor farms, especially in rural New England, were more convivial and communal – places of shelter and community where residents might play cards together or just enjoy the benefits of human companionship. They were more like small old-age homes, where elderly residents who had no family or whose family wouldn’t or couldn’t care for them lived out their last days.

The forest offers no dramatic vistas, but lots of old stone walls, a family cemetery, and other remains of the past that speak to lives lived and lost here.

The Town Forest offers no dramatic vistas, but lots of old stone walls, two family cemeteries, and other remains of the past that speak to lives lived and lost here. Here in the Haley Family Cemetery, walkers will find Captain Haley’s 1864 gravestone embedded in the ground, surrounded by other unmarked or illegible stones.

I suspect that the Kittery Town Farm almshouse had a community-like feel to it.  Adelaide and Charles Leach surely enjoyed the company of little Annie Hill, who lived at the farm until she was about seven. 

In 1820, Kittery purchased the original 13 acres for the farm, along with a house and a barn, for $325. Later, Captain John R. Haley left 59 surrounding acres to the town. It’s unclear when the town began using the house and land as its “poor farm,” but a town report from 1852 mentions the almshouse, so I suspect the land was purchased specifically to serve as a home for the poor. Some sources that discuss the Pepperrell family note that one of the Sparhawk brothers of Loyalist William Pepperrell ended up living at the almshouse (and the timing, around the 1820s, sounds about right, as a Sparhawk born in the 1750s or 60s would have been an elder by the 1820s).

Town records suggest that the town began to move away from using the almshouse as the shelter of last resort in the 1920s, when the number of residents declined to two and then to one, Mary Gunnison, an elderly woman who lived there with caretakers Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hall until around 1922.  

Later, the town rented the farm for a $175 a year.  In many years, maintenance expenses outweighed the rental income, which probably led to the decision to demolish the almshouse in 1961.  Many Kittery residents today still remember riding the school bus past the almshouse on Haley Road.

Evidence of porcupine activity in the forest; the porkies love the bark of the many hemlock trees.

Evidence of porcupine activity in the forest; the porkies love the bark of the many hemlock trees.

Somewhere in this forest is a lost and unmarked pauper’s burial plot that probably holds the Leaches and the other souls who died while living at the Town Farm. When the snow melts, I’ll continue to look for it, as I wander, and wonder, about these people, their stories, and why they landed at the poor farm.

Sources and resources

The Town Forest, at 77 Haley Road, runs between Haley and Lewis Roads, with parking areas on both ends. At the southern end, the former town pound, where stray livestock was once corralled, is an interesting feature.

I welcome any comments or additional information that might fill out this story about the Town Farm.

The Town Farm now features one main loop trail, about 3 miles long, known as the Quimby Trail, named for the late Conrad Quimby, a retired newspaper publisher who called Kittery home for many years, and as Chair of the Conservation Commission spearheaded the creation of walking trails in the Town Forest. Numerous herd trails also thread through the forest.  Hunters regularly tramp in these woods in the fall, and more adventurous walkers can plunge deep into the forest without fear of getting hopelessly lost (especially now that residential development surrounds the forest).

Walkers will find the Haley Family Cemetery, on the Quimby Trail, soon after it bears left (from the Haley Road entrance). The Lewis Family Cemetery is located at the Haley Road entrance, next to the Town Pound.

The Rice Library holds town reports dating to 1874. More reports (but not all) can be found in Maine’s Digital Commons. The earliest report I found was dated 1852.

Some general information about the 19th century poor farm comes from David Wagner’s excellent study of six New England town farms and almshouses: The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution,  New York; Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

Information on the 1820 purchase is from the March 3, 2002 Portsmouth Herald article by Amy Wallace, “Kittery Hunts for Town Forest Solution,” by Amy Wallace.

Hunting is permitted in the Town Forest, so I recommend wearing hunter orange Monday to Saturday from November 1 to mid-December and avoiding the forest altogether at dusk and dawn, when hunters are most active. No hunting on Sundays.

 

Posted in Family and Kids, Maine places, Seacoast (mostly) History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Rediscovering the beautiful silence on Coppermine Trail

IMG_2757

Snowshoeing on the Coppermine Trail in Franconia, NH, on the western side of Cannon Mountain.

The car thermometer read two degrees as we pulled on gloves, strapped on snowshoes, and set out on the Coppermine Trail to Bridal Veil Falls.

The trail began flat and easy on a road transformed into tunnel of trees and snow, and then began to climb uphill at a gentle grade.

Although the cold was deep and unrelenting, the sun provided an illusion of warmth, unlike the day before, when bitter winds had sliced through the sky. I expected a crowd of cars and a well-packed trail and was surprised to see only one vehicle in the trailhead lot on this President’s Day Monday. Winter hiking has become so popular in the White Mountains that I assumed the Coppermine Trail would be busy with enthusiasts, but perhaps the relatively easy nature of the hike keeps the hard-core away, as they hike 4,000 footers and climb walls of ice. Or maybe it was just too cold.

But I know that “easy” in summer, when thousands walk on the Coppermine Trail,  can be deadly in winter. I hadn’t hiked in real winter conditions in many years. Although we were adequately supplied for this short hike, with plenty of layers, food, and drink, we weren’t equipped with full winter gear, including ideal footwear, sleeping bags, and hot drinks. Although I didn’t know it then, the previous night a woman had died not far away on Mount Adams, where the high winds had generated extreme cold and whiteout conditions.

For many years, parenthood had kept me off northern trails in the winter.  As a family, winter has meant skiing. Hiking in the backcountry seemed too risky, because I know that kids have trouble regulating their needs or even understanding them until the need has become a harsh scream – “I have to go to the bathroom NOW.” I couldn’t take a kid out in the backcountry who might become immediately hypothermic because he hadn’t understood that he was cold until he was freezing.

But now the kid was a teenager, and taller than I. So up the trail we went, walking in the footsteps of a snowshoer from a day or two earlier, and at times breaking trail. Someone also had skied in, and we tried to avoid the tracks.

Along the way, I looked for the plaque on a boulder that pays tribute, so the story goes, to Arthur Farnsworth, the Vermont guide who became the husband of movie star Bette Davis.  Back in 1939, legend has it, Davis strayed from a group hiking on Coppermine Brook because she knew that Farnsworth would set out to retrieve her.

This unlikely pair married in 1940, and lived together happily in Hollywood, with an occasional visit to the White Mountains. But three years later, in 1943, Farnsworth died from injuries sustained in a fall at their Sugar Hill home. Sometime around 1961, after Davis sold her New Hampshire home, the memorial plaque to Farnsworth, “the Keeper of the Stray Ladies,” appeared on a boulder near the brook.

As we climbed, I could see the outline of Coppermine Brook, silent as it passed through the forest under the deep blanket of ice and snow.  I spied one boulder on the side of the trail – the only recognizable boulder on the trail– but no plaque. That discovery will have to wait another day. (The boulder, I’ve since read, is on the bank of the brook about a quarter mile in from the junction of the trailhead with Coppermine Road).

The trail remained flat and easy. Now I remembered what I had forgotten: the pleasure of walking without having to consider rocks and roots. About a mile in, a young woman in trail shoes came running down: the driver of the other car. Maybe a little crazy, out here running, with no gear except the clothes on her back. A quick hello, and then we were again alone on the trial.

IMG_2758

I knew we were getting close to the shelter and the falls when we arrived at this bridge. Below us, holes of water gurgled.

My son pushed on, looking a little grim, probably wondering when it would all end. I enticed him by telling him we could rest at the Coppermine Shelter, although I knew it wouldn’t warm there, just a dry place to sit and eat some cookies.

I plunged ahead of the team, hoping to keep up spirits with an announcement that we had arrived. And then we came upon the shelter, a small sign of humanity in a white wilderness world.

After resting for a few moments in the bitter cold, we pushed on to the falls, 100 yards or so further up the trail. Here, the “trail”— probably slippery slabs of granite in summer — climbed steeply up to a level spot, probably a frozen pool of water

IMG_2770

At Bridal Veil Falls, granite and water merged into one snowy panorama.

IMG_2810

The falls were a dramatic wall of ice, more like a thick jagged curtain than a veil. A sublime site, in the sense presented by 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke as he attempted to describe those experiences, especially in nature, that inspire feelings of astonishment co-mingled with awe and terror.

IMG_2801

Now, very cold, we headed back to the shelter to warm up – not in the shelter, but in an expertly constructed ice cave we had discovered nearby. At about 32 degrees, the cave was not warm, but definitely much warmer than outside, and large enough to comfortably sleep four to six people.

IMG_2808

After snacking inside the cave, we crawled out, strapped on our snow shoes, and headed down the trail at a good clip since we didn’t need to worry about roots and rocks.  The silence was deep and beautiful.

About 45 minutes later, we arrived back at our car and set off on the trail towards hot chocolate.  Already, I was studying the map, looking for another opportunity to return to this silent winter world.

Sources and resources

The Coppermine Trail departs from Coppermine Road, off NH 116, in the Franconia area.  The hike to Bridal Veil Falls is about 2.5 miles one way, including a portion on a dirt road. For hard-core adventures, a couple of  unmarked backcountry trails off the main trail head towards Mittersill Mountain and (in the other direction) towards Kinsman Ridge.

For more details about the Coppermine Trail and its landmarks, see Robert Buchsbuam’s Nature Hikes in the White Mountains (AMC, 2000), a great source for many wonderful family hikes.

Although I don’t wish to sensationalize a young woman’s death by drawing attention to it, Nestor Ramos’s Boston Globe article about the search for Kate Matrovosa, “The Young Woman and the Mountain,” (February 22, 2015) offers important lessons about winter preparedness and the limits of technology.

Posted in Family and Kids, Hiking, Mountains | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wandering in the wilderness of Mount Paugus

In New Hampshire’s heavily visited White Mountains, solitude often seems like a lost dream on beautiful autumn weekends, when throngs of people climb popular peaks. But not far from the beaten path, in the Sandwich Range Wilderness, intriguing Mount Paugus awaits exploration far from the madding crowd.

A year ago, the ledges of 3198-foot Mount Paugus had beckoned to me from a rest stop on the west side of nearby Mount Chocorua. Now, I set off with two friends on the Cabin Trail to complete an 8-mile loop that would take us over the ledges of Mount Paugus, down to Whitin Brook and the Big Rock Cave, and then over Mount Mexico.

The mist lent an air of mystery to the hemlock forest on the Cabin Trail.

The mist lent an air of mystery to the hemlock forest on the Cabin Trail.

At the trailhead, on Route 113A in Wonalancet, our vehicle sat alone. Although the day had dawned wet, the forecast called for clearing—a good day that would draw swarms to the mountains. But on our hike to Mount Paugus, we met only one other party, two slightly lost hikers and their dog.

Mount Paugus is part of the Sandwich Range Wilderness, designated as such by the government in 1984. This “wilderness” has a long history of human use, for logging and for recreation. But on this walk, I definitely felt like I was wandering in wilderness, one replete with mysterious forests, vast cliffs and ledges, and dramatic glacial erratics.

As the last remnants of rain dripped off the beech trees, the Cabin Trail climbed upward on an old logging road. At one point the forest abruptly shifted from beech to hemlock, almost as if someone had planted a dividing line between the deciduous and the evergreen. About two miles in, the trail climbs alongside a rough sidehill with a steep forested slope.  After this patch, (and 2.7 miles in) the trail descends a bit to reach the junction of the Lawrence Trail, which climbs upward and then crosses over the ledges of Mount Paugus.

The summit of Mount Paugus is buried in trees and we didn’t attempt a bushwhack. Instead, we hiked on the Lawrence Trail until it crosses an open but tree-shrouded patch of ledge. There, with a small detour, we found west-facing views.

When we reached the flat ledges near the summit of Mount Paugus, we scrabbled a bit off to the southwest to eat a windy lunch on this dramatic west-facing ledge.

When we reached the flat ledges near the summit of Mount Paugus, we scrabbled a bit off to the southwest to eat a windy lunch on this dramatic west-facing ledge with cloudy views of Mount Tripyramid.

Although the other hikers we’d encountered had trouble navigating the network of trails around Mount Paugus, we had a map and it wasn’t hard to follow the Lawrence Trail as it descended past the Beeline Trail (which take hikers over to Mount Chocorua) to the Old Paugus Trail.  The descent is rough in spots and the wet rocks added more  challenge, but nothing that couldn’t be solved with a combination of careful steps and butt shimmies.  The Old Paugus Trail offers views of Mount Chocorua through the trees (see photo above the headline).

Deep in this wilderness, with its many turns and unsigned junctions, we frequently consulted the map. People tend to forget that maps are useful not only for showing the trail, but for identifying features in the land that help orient the user, like brooks, or the topo lines that announced the approach of steep ledges on the Old Paugus Trail. I’ve yet to become a confident compass user, but have found that carefully studying a map is almost as good.

An amazing ledge on the Old Paugus Trail -- and quite obvious on the map, from the contour lines.

An immense ledge on the Old Paugus Trail. The topo lines of the map really don’t do it justice.

We dipped low to Whitin Brook, an inviting swimming hole in August, and then picked up the Big Rock Cave trail towards 2020-foot Mount Mexico.  After six or miles of meandering, I groaned a little at the thought of climbing another mountain, but the dramatic glacial erratics at Big Rock Cave soon provided a spirit-boosting reward.

This set of huge glacial erratics, including a pair that creates roomy cave, and several other intriguing nooks, crannies and crevices. I'm not sure I'd want to sleep there, given that bears probably live in  this wild area, but it looks like people use it for campouts on a fairly regular basis.

This set of huge glacial erratics  creates a roomy cave, and several other intriguing nooks, crannies and crevices. I’m not sure I’d want to sleep here, given that bears must prowl in this wild area, but it looks like people use the cave for campouts on a regular basis. A hike into the cave, on the Big Rock Cave Trail, would be an exciting day’s work for the youngest hikers.

Just below Mount Mexico, the forest grows on top of a glacial erratic pushed here by the ice 11,000 years ago.

Just below Mount Mexico, the forest grows on top of a glacial erratic pushed here by the ice 11,000 years ago.

After the caves, we ascended to the flat top of Mount Mexico, home to a beautiful open hemlock forest. Then we were on the home stretch, about two miles downhill to the trailhead.

The hike took more time than we had planned, but we enjoyed the meandering, the conversation, and the solitude. If wilderness is a place in which we can lose ourselves in wonder, then the Sandwich Range qualifies, even given its extensive and sometimes destructive human history. Lucky us!

Sources and resources

To recap, our loop hike to Mount Paugus consisted of the Cabin Trail to the Lawrence Trail to the Old Paugus Trail to the Big Rock Cave Trail.  The Sandwich Range Wilderness and adjacent public and private lands feature a network of interconnecting trails with endless opportunities for exploration, including 4,019-foot Mount Whiteface (the latter well-travelled by 4,000-foot peak baggers). A bonus: this southern range of the White Mountains is only an hour and 20 minutes from the Seacoast region of New Hampshire and Maine.

To read more about hiking on nearby Mount Chocorua, see my post, Intersecting Slopes on Mount Chocorua.

Posted in Family and Kids, Hiking, Mountains | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gray jays, great day: A fall hike on Mount Waumbek

Hiking on the Starr King Trail to 4,006-foot Mount Waumbek, it’s hard to believe that this off-the-beaten-path peak once was part of a proposal for a mega-ski resort stretching across several mountains.

On the beautiful Columbus Day weekend when we hiked to Mount Waumbek, cars spilled from every parking lot in Franconia Notch, where thousands of hikers and visitors had converged for the holiday weekend. But just 20 minutes further north, in Jefferson, New Hampshire, Mount Waumbek was lightly travelled by a few parties of a hikers and several resourceful gray jays.

Setting off on the Starr King Trail to Mount Waumbek, for a hike totaling 7.2 miles and about 2,650 vertical feet.

Setting off on the Starr King Trail to Mount Waumbek, for a hike totaling 7.2 miles and about 2,650 vertical feet. I like it when I arrive at parking lot on a holiday weekend and find plenty of empty spaces.

Back in 1962, the Lancaster Development Corporation proposed a massive 5,000-acre  resort, capped by a hotel on Mount Starr King, famous today among hikers for its chimney, the remnants of a small shelter that once stood on its summit.  The plan called for six lifts, including a tram, with northwest-facing slopes in the Willard basin on the north side of the Kilkenny Ridge, all accessed via a 2.5 mile road near Lancaster, NH.

1964 rendering of the hotel and tramway proposed for the summit of New Hampshire's Mount Starr King.

1964 rendering of the hotel and tramway proposed for the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Starr King, which hikers cross en route to Mount Waumbek. Compare this image to the photo below, which shows the remnants of “development” on Starr King. The summit includes a nice flat granite slab  for picnicking, but  would feel crowded if more than a dozen hikers gathered there (Image from New England Ski History)

Looking around the ledgy summit of Mount Starr King, it’s hard to envision where or how a hotel would fit here. It just doesn’t seem that big. Today, the summit of Starr King (2.6 miles from the trailhead) offers wonderful views of the northern side of the Presidentials, including dramatic King Ravine on the back sides of Mounts Madison and Adams.

On Mount Starr King today, everyone take a photo of the chimney, the remnants of a shelter built in the 1940s and dismantled in the 1980s.

On Mount Starr King today, everyone takes a photo of the chimney, the remnants of a shelter built in the 1940s and dismantled in the 1980s.

From Mount Starr King, we continued on the Kilkenny Ridge trail to Mount Waumbek, which is often described as having no views. This assertion is technically correct, but not really true. Minutes from the summit, hikers can take in great views of the Presidentials at an open area caused by blowdowns just off the Kilkenny Ridge Trail. We ate lunch at this spot with two other parties, including a family of four whose two young kids already had hiked all 48 4,000 footers. Just 10 of us, sharing experiences and breathing in the mountains. Ah, Mount Waumbek. An added bonus: the friendly gray jay who eyed us from the spruce trees.

I was also enjoying the relatively ease of hiking to Mount Waumbek, especially after hiking the strenuous Baldface Circle Trail a couple of weeks earlier.  Don’t get me wrong — the hike is not a walk, but offers a nice steady climb upwards without steeps or significant up-and-downs. Mount Waumbek also offers opportunities for backpacking on the Kilkenny Ridge trail.  We were doing the out-and-back hike, so after lunch we headed back to Mount Starr King.

There, we took a break for more photos and noticed the gray jays again. Soon, they were eating out of our hands and off the tops of our heads, swooping in for landings from a variety of angles.

Gray jays are quite at ease with stealing food from humans. As part of their winter survival strategy, they will use sticky saliva to stick food to tree branches that sit above the snowpack line.

Gray jays are quite at ease with stealing food from humans. As part of their winter survival strategy, they will use sticky saliva to stick food to tree branches that sit above the snowpack line.

Jay grays need about 50 calories a day to survive, and will eat just about anything. Our bird buddy must have been stealing and storing, because he definitely grabbed more than 50 calories of granola bar.

Jay grays need about 50 calories a day to survive, and will eat just about anything. Our bird buddy must have been stealing and storing, because he definitely grabbed more than 50 calories of granola bar.

Gray jays are hardy birds that hikers often see throughout the winter. Where would they be, I wonder, if the Willard Basin ski resort had come to pass?

The peaceful Starr King trail in mid-October.  Because of the warm fall, the foliage remained vibrant; usually, I'd expect fewer leaves on the maples trees in northern New Hampshire in mid-October.

The peaceful Starr King trail in mid-October. Because of the warm fall, the foliage remained vibrant; usually, I’d expect fewer leaves  in northern New Hampshire by mid-October.

Sources and resources

Information about gray jays comes from the Cornell Lab of Orthnothology.

Thornton, T.D. “Big ideas that never quite peaked.” Boston Globe, December 23, 2010.  Includes information about Willard Basin and the Borderline Ski Resort, which I wrote about in my Baldface Circle Trail post.

“Willard Basin.” New England cancelled ski areas. New England Ski History. More details about Willard Basin and other “cancelled” ski areas. One of the lodge renderings at this site reminds me of the lodge that was built at the now-defunct Evergreen Valley Ski Resort, another big dream New England ski resort that was built in the 1970s and lasted only a few years. See my post, White Elephant in a Green Valley.

 

Posted in Family and Kids, Hiking, Mountains | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments