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).



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.


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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.


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Rediscovering the beautiful silence on Coppermine Trail


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.

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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.

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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.


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Hiking the Baldface Circle Trail, plus twenty

The guidebook describes the Baldface Circle Trail as “a strenuous trip not to be underestimated,” but I didn’t remember it as so.

I first hiked this 9.8 mile loop with my husband back in 1997 in early November. Then, I had great fun pulling myself up the steep rock ledges. The 1.2-mile walk from the summit of 3570-foot South Baldface over the open ridge to 3610-foot North Baldface was exhilarating.  On the final leg, we walked a couple of miles through a tunnel of golden beech trees.

At the day’s end, I must have been tired. But I was in my mid-30s, and “exhausted” doesn’t stand out in my mind as an adjective to describe that day.

The trail up to South Baldface looks Presidential, minus the weekend crowds.

The trail up to South Baldface, in the Evans Notch border area of Maine and New Hampshire,  looks Presidential, minus the weekend crowds.  In total, the 9.8-mile Baldface Circle Trail features about four miles of wide-open walking.

Fast-forward almost 20 years. I’d had my eye on a return to Baldfaces, this time to introduce my son to the trail. Over the next few years, I want to show him the “greatest hits of New England” hiking before he is off to college.  And he’s more or less game, as long as the hiking happens in moderation.

For several years now, we have made an annual pilgrimage to a small cabin  at Cold River Camps, just across the street from the Baldface trailhead, and have thoroughly explored Evans Notch, on the Maine-New Hampshire border. I love this valley because it lies within striking distance for a day trip, but feels remote and off the beaten bath. When hordes flock to Franconia and Pinkham Notches on gorgeous fall weekends, Evans Notch remains quiet. We see hikers on the trail, but rarely more than a few parties.

This year, when a September Sunday promised a perfect day for hiking, we rose early and headed north. When we arrived at the Baldface parking area on Route 113 around 9:30 a.m., plenty of spaces remained available.

The Baldface Circle hike begins with a 2.5 mile steady uphill walk on an old logging road to the base of the ledges, which begin just past the Baldface Shelter, a popular destination for an easy overnight. We met many hikers coming down the trail, including a family with young kids, most of whom had spent the night at the shelter or the tent platforms. By the time we reached the shelter, however, it had emptied out, and we enjoyed a snack there before taking on the ledges.

The ledges were much as I recalled them – straight up. We gained about 1,000 feet of elevation in just over a half-mile, pulling ourselves up and over rocks and boulders, and walking on granite slabs at what feel like a 60% grade (but was probably was more like 20%).

An interesting cairn -- more sculpture than trail marker -- pointed us to up the trail to South Baldface, and to the peak of North Baldface, in the distance.

An interesting cairn — more sculpture than trail marker — pointed us to up the trail to South Baldface, and to the peak of North Baldface, in the distance.

As I did years ago, I felt exhilarated to reach  South Baldface. But I also felt totally wasted, and was grateful for the sunny warmth that allowed me to stretch out on the rocks and recover.  I could hear my husband talking to another party of hikers.  After a few minutes he asked if I was okay.

“I will be,” I told him. “I just need a few minutes.”


Back in 1936, South Baldface and the other mountains along the Maine-New Hampshire border were eyed for development as a ski resort. The Borderline Resort proposed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) called for the creation of hike-up/ski-down trails on South Baldface and other mountains, including Mount Meader, and West Royce, East Royce, and Speckled Mountains, with a phase 2 to include, on the opposite side of the Notch, Caribou, Elizabeth, Haystack, Peabody, and Pickett Henry Mountains. AMC proposed that its seasonal Cold River Camps could serve as the base area for a mega-resort that eventually would encompass all of the mountains in the Notch.

It’s almost unfathomable to imagine this wild valley (much of it now designated as federal wilderness) as home to a sprawling resort.  Today, in the winter, one off-season cabin at Cold River Camps is the only place to stay for many miles.

The Borderline Resort plan never gained momentum, probably in part due to extensive damage in the forest caused by Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Also, maybe somebody realized that promoting skiing on the icy ledges of South Baldface wasn’t the greatest idea.

Thank goodness – I enjoy skiing, but I’m glad that this scenic valley isn’t so different from when a handful of hardy families settled here in the early 1800s.  Yes, a road exists now (built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s), and electricity runs to the few homes along the road, but as in bygone days, I’m guessing that the few year-round residents hunker down during winter storms, when the valley feels truly remote.  (The upper end of Route 113 closes to automobiles in winter and becomes part of a popular snowmobile route).


Instead of ski lifts and slopes, we had great views of North Baldface and the other peaks in Evans Notch. To the northwest (but not pictured) we had views of Mount Washington, and, to the northeast, the long blue stretch of Kezar Lake.

After a long rest on South Baldface, we continued hiking on the open ridge towards North Baldface. The mountains stretched all around us.

When we reached the junction for the Bicknell Ridge Trail, which reduces the hike by a third of a mile, I was more than game for the shortcut. Besides, as we picked our way down the granite and the rocks, we found that Bicknell Ridge also offers plenty of great views.


Views of the big Whites from the open ridge near North Baldface. I love the maroon ground cover.

Eventually, we dropped down to a green tunnel of beech trees. The last two miles felt like a trudge, and I wondered if I would hike the Baldface Circle Trail again. Perhaps twice in a lifetime is enough.

I had plenty of time to think as I pounded down the trail. Did I still have it in me to hike the Appalachian Trail?  How long will my hiking career last?  What will take its place when hiking is no longer an option? Oh sure, I have many years left, but some day….

Thinking about these questions might seem depressing, but I’m a glass half-full kind of person.  If this was my final trip to Baldface, I wanted to soak it in and appreciate the green forest, even if I couldn’t wait to get back to the car. At the very least, I had to come back for  a dip in the Emerald  Pool, a swimming hole tucked off the trail about a half-mile from the road.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m not sure if that’s true for me on the Baldface Circle Trail.  But by mid-week, when my collapse on South Baldface was fading to a distant memory, I was looking at the weather and planning my next hike, to 4000-footer Mount Waumbek.

Sources and resources

Borderline.” Maine Cancelled Ski Areas. New England Ski History. Updated November 26, 2012.

Trail distances, elevation and other information from the White Mountain Guide, 28th edition (2007), published by the Appalachian Mountain Club.  A newer edition now available, and recommended.

For more on hikes in Evans Notch:

My post, “Five great family hikes in Maine,” includes a short review of the wonderful Blueberry Mountain hike in Evans Notch.

The Basin Trail is another great trail at the northern end of the notch, in the Wild River Valley; see “In the Wild River Valley, a November blizzard, deep snow, and a man who preservers to save his cat.”

And for another tale about a nearby Maine ski area, big dreams and failed schemes, see “White Elephant in a Green Valley.”

Finally, if you want to read more about the hike on Mount Waumbek, see my post, “Gray jays, great day: A fall hike on Mount Waumbek.”

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A Ride on the Wild Quiet Side: Exploring Acadia’s Schoodic Peninsula

Schoodic Peninsula is one of those out-of-the way Maine destinations that provokes conflicting emotions: I want to share its beauty, but also hope it remains off the well-beaten path.

On the warm September day that we visited the Schoodic Peninsula, the ocean was calm.  But often Schoodic is a quiet wild place  — quiet, in that it receives far fewer visitors than the rest of Acadia National Park — but wild with surf that pounds and crashes on its rocky shores.

The one-way road that hugs the peninsula for about six miles, with its promise of continuous and dramatic ocean vistas, had been calling out to me for several years on my map of Acadia National Park.  The lightly-traveled road is known for great biking.


Although Schoodic Peninsula is easily accessed by road, we took the ferry out of Bar Harbor to enjoy the beautiful ride across Frenchman’s Bay. Here, leaving Bar Harbor, with Champlain and Cadillac Mountains in the background

In a small way, the ferry offered an opportunity to time travel, to arrive at Schoodic the way people did for a large chunk of its human history — by canoe and then European-style shallop sloops, in the case of the Abenaki, or by schooners and other vessels, in the case of the small population of 18th and 19th century pioneers who  came to this remote peninsula to work the land and the sea.

Before heading out on the Loop Road, we rode into the village of Winter Harbor to fuel up on breakfast goodies  and coffee at the Raven's Nest.

Before heading out on the Loop Road, we rode into the village of Winter Harbor to fuel up on breakfast goodies and coffee at the Raven’s Nest.

After the hour-long ferry ride, we bicycled the mile or so into Winter Harbor to get the lay of the land, then headed out on Route 186 to Moore Road,  where the ride to Schoodic Head begins. The road begins as a two-way route but changes to one-way about three miles in, at the Frazer Point picnic area.

Moore Road is named for John G. Moore, a Mainer from nearby Steuben who made a fortune on Wall Street financier and bought up much of Schoodic Point in the 1890s. In 1929, his heirs donated the land that eventually would become part of Acadia National Park.

A new campground, Schoodic Woods, recently opened here and the Park Service has just completed a network bicycle trails that begin on Moore Road and lace through the Schoodic Woods.  The trails piqued our interest, but today we were here for the vistas, and continued on towards the Point.

The ride did not disappoint.  Although Moore Road begins with a gentle uphill climb, the riding is mostly smooth sailing, especially once the road becomes one-way — easily do-able for recreational bikers, including kids.  About three miles in on the one-way stretch, we turned off onto the two-way road to Schoodic Point.


At Schoodic Point, with Mount Desert Island’s Cadillac Mountain in the background. I was so busy absorbing the deep blues of the ocean and the striations of the rocks that I forgot to take lots of pictures. Suffice to say that this photo is one of many scenic vistas along the ride

Legend suggests that more than a few people have lost their lives at Schoodic Point to rogue waves.  However, I haven’t found any specifics about such fatalities, so they may be more myth than reality. (In 2007, a Michigan woman drowned while swimming off Schoodic Point — an activity I would not recommend – but she was not swept from the rocky headland by a rogue wave).

Interestingly, according to historian Allen K. Workman, the first known “English” inhabitant was a black man (identified as “mulatto” in the 1790 census) named Thomas Frazer, who came to Schoodic with his wife and seven children and built a homestead before the Revolutionary War at Frazer Point.  I wonder what pulled Frazer to this remote region — the opportunity of the sea, or the desire to get some distance from the racism and bigotry common in more populated regions?

Later settlers followed, and then a small population of wealthy summer rusticators, but for 60-plus years in the 20th century, the main inhabitants of Schoodic Point were a transient group — the officers and enlisted men and women of the U.S. Navy (and their families), who lived at a small but strategically important radio signal station base that was decommissioned in 2002. For 67 years (since 1935), up to 774 Navy personnel (at its WW II peak) were stationed here, doing specialized work in signals intelligence and cryptology.  Its closing dealt quite a blow to the fragile economy of Downeast Maine.

Today, the former signal station is home to the Schoodic Institute, a non-profit research, education, and arts center supported (at least initially) through various grant programs from the Navy, other government agencies, and Acadia National Park.

Rockefeller's architect built this hall which became quarters for Navy officers. Today, the main floor hosts exhibits and visiting researchers and artists stay in the upper floor apartments.

Grosvenor Atterbury, John D. Rockefeller Jr. ‘s architect who designed the carriage road buildings on Mount Desert Island, also designed this hall at  the Navy signal station.  The so-called Rockefeller Building became quarters for Navy officers. Today, the main floor hosts exhibits and visiting researchers and artists stay in the upper floor apartments.


We biked through the grounds of the Institute — about 180 acres, including a new auditorium, a dining hall, dorms, town houses, and recreational facilities.  The grounds were very quiet.  And probably expensive to maintain.  One wonders what will become of this facility.

Continuing on past numerous breath-taking vistas, we eventually landed in Birch Harbor, where we took a lunch break at the Pickled Wrinkle, drawn by its quirky name and a hand-posted recommendation inside the ferry cabin.  The view here is of the parking lot and a gas station across the street, but after our miles of ocean views, we were okay with that, especially because the food, much of it locally-sourced, was great.

After lunch, we finished up our 12-mile loop with a turn back on to Route 186 into Winter Harbor, where we explored the small collection of shops and galleries, and picked up iced coffee at the Raven’s Nest.  The restaurant is named for a dramatic crevice on the peninsula that we didn’t see on our ride, but will find another day.

As we motored back to Bar Harbor on the ferry, we enjoyed close-up views of the islands surrounding Winter Harbor and the peaks of Champlain and Cadillac Mountains. I tried to live in that moment.  But I had discovered the Schoodic Peninsula and already was planning my next visit.

Sources and resources

Acadia National Park’s official page offers a good starting point for additional information on Schoodic Point, including a map. Note that as of fall 2015, the map has not yet been updated to show the new campground and network of bicycle trails.

The Bar Harbor-Winter Harbor ferry —  a converted larger-sized lobster boat — makes the crossing several times a day from mid-June until mid-September. The free Island Explorer shuttle bus meets the boat and takes visitors around the peninsula, stopping at Schoodic Point and other spots. (The bus includes bike storage racks if cyclists want to take the bus for part of the trip).

Allen K. Workman’s Schoodic Point: History on the Edge of Acadia National Park (History Press, 2014) offers a short well-written account of Schoodic’s history.

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Remnants of the Gilded Age at Brave Boat Harbor

Kittery Point, Maine — I dip my paddle in the water, push the kayak into the channel, and glide away from the causeway.  I’m paddling into the marsh, heading out to Brave Boat Harbor for high tide.

At least once each summer, I paddle these quiet waters, squeezing my trip in between the tides and the rest of life.  Even though I’ve paddled the marsh many times, I always feel on the brink of a discovery that might be significant,  even if only to me.

Back in the 1600s, Brave Boat Harbor was a significant discovery for the explorers and early settlers who first came here. The shallow harbor provided safe anchorage from the angry Atlantic.  But the entrance is narrow, and the surf makes passage tricky. Hence, only brave boats dared to enter.

Today, I am floating level with the marsh grass on an incoming moon tide.  The astronomical high tide gives me longer window to explore the marsh, but typically I count on three hours around the published high tide (e.g. if high tide is at noon, I can set out at 10:30 a.m. and plan on returning to the causeway by 1:30).  I’ve learned the hard way that if I linger too long in Brave Boat Harbor, I will end up scraping mud, or stranded.

The marsh is close to home, but feels remote and wild. I spot a kingfisher, skimming across the grass and up into the trees.  A family of snowy egrets wades on the flooded plain. In the distance, the surf thuds at the harbor’s entrance.


A great blue heron lifts off along with a snowy egret. The egrets, once a source of plumage for ladies’ hats, were  on the verge of extinction but now are  common site on the marsh.  They are here  not by accident, but because thoughtful people took action to conserve the marshes on Maine’s southern coast.

This marsh isn’t wilderness. As I navigate the series of S-turns towards the harbor, I can see the occasional house on its perimeter. But this marsh, officially designated as the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, offers refuge both for me and the birds and animals who dwell or pass through these waters and grasses.

Fewer than a hundred years ago, the marsh was a domestic landscape. For three centuries, horses and oxen dragged people and tools across these spongy fields so that farmers could harvest the grass for animal fodder. In the channel, human-made rocky paths once allowed animals to safely cross the mucky bottom.

Then, during the Gilded Age, when droves of tourists  began flocking to Kittery Point and York Harbor, workmen sunk pilings deep into the mud of Brave Boat Harbor to build a trolley trestle. For fifty years, the Portsmouth, Kittery and York (PK & Y) Electric Railway delivered vacationers from the ferry landing on Badgers Island in Kittery to York Harbor, with the clattering trolley cars traversing the marsh eight times a day during the summer months.

The PK & Y electric trolley doing a run on the trestle built through Brave Boat Harbor.

The PK & Y electric trolley doing a run from Kittery to York Harbor on the trestle built across Brave Boat Harbor (New England Electric Railway Historical Society).

This hand-drawn map shows the Routes of the different trolley lines in Kittyer and York, including the Portmouth, Kittery and York Electric Railway (PK & Y) line that hugged the coast and then crossed over Brave Boat Harbor. The trolleys ran until 1923, when the new Memorial Bridge facilitated the rise of the automobile (Seashore Trolley Museum Collection).

This hand-drawn map shows the routes of the different trolley lines in Kittery and York, including the PK & Y line that hugged the coast and then crossed over Brave Boat Harbor. The trolleys ran until 1923, when the new Memorial Bridge facilitated the rise of the automobile (Seashore Trolley Museum Collection).

As my paddle pushes the kayak forward, the vegetation changes, with less saltwater grass and more of the sedge-like salt meadow grass that was harvested for hay. The current stills as I approach the harbor. I push the boat around another bend and into the flooded pool, the still water tinted pink from the clouds above. Even though I’ve been out here many times, this moment of gliding into blue emptiness of Brave Boat Harbor always feels exhilarating.

Black cormorants roost on the line of rotting pilings. The birds stand with their breasts thrust forwards, their necks held high, as if standing at attention. At the harbor entrance, between Rayne’s Neck and Sea Point, small waves crash.

Relatively few kayakers venture out here. On this day, I spot a three or four others, but on the rocky beach,  I eat my lunch in solitude.

The trolley trestle falling into the marsh.  The trolley stopped running in 1923, almost 100 years ago.  I wonder how long these historical remnants will linger.

The remnants of the trolley trestle falling into the marsh.

Almost 100 years have passed since the trolleys stopped running. The pilings won’t last forever. Many have withered to anonymous stumps. People who aren’t familiar with the marsh’s history don’t know where they came from, or why they are there.  A few older folks in the region still recall riding the trolley as small children, but in a few years, all human memories of a bustling Brave Boat Harbor will disappear.

Here, these shorter pilings sit on a bed that would

Here, these shorter pilings sit on a solid bed built up to support them. The bed usually forms a low barrier but was flooded during the full moon tide.










Exploring these remnants of history of the marsh enriches my time here.  Still, I’m glad the marsh is a quiet place today, one that offers a mental escape from a mind intent on relentless planning and doing.

Kayaking here is a meditation in letting go. The ebb and flow of the tide dictates my itinerary. If I ignore the tide, I will end up stuck in the muck. If I note it, I glide on an authentic source of flow.

Sources and resources

The Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge was established in 1966 in honor of its namesake, although Rachel Carson did her work further up the coast, near Boothbay Harbor.  The Refuge protects 50 miles of marsh and coast in southern Maine.

For more on the Memorial Bridge and its relationship to the rapid decline of the Gilded Age “big hotel” era in Kittery, Maine, see my post, On Bridges and the Jet Set.

Experienced kayakers might enjoy the loop paddle through the marsh and around Gerrish Island to Pepperrell Cove and up Chauncey Creek to the causeway.  However, you need an ocean-worthy kayak to do, as ledges off Sea Point create waves and  swell.  It’s not a paddle for novices, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it alone.



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Island living, Adirondack style

Heading through wild rice towards the locks connecting Middle Saranac Lake to the Saranac River.

Heading through wild rice towards the locks connecting Middle Saranac Lake to the Saranac River. The rice was planted years ago to create better duck habitat for hunters but now has become a nuisance invasive species.

In July, an opportunity arose to camp with a friend for several nights on a quarter-acre island on Middle Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondack Park.

My friend warned me that she didn’t do a lot on the island. We could kayak, cook, swim, read, nap, and stay up late by the campfire. If the wind whipped up, as it often does on Middle Saranac, kayaking was probably off the list, along with the campfire. If it rained, reading would be confined to various contorted positions in my tent.

Island living might be cozy and relaxing – or claustrophobic and boring. Was a quarter acre island big enough for a maniacal traveler?

After a day spent driving and packing up my kayak, I paddled across the lake, reaching the island at dusk. That first night, swimming in the dark beneath the Milky Way, the island hardly seemed claustrophobic. Here was an entire universe!

Island 72 and its neighbor

Island 72 and its neighbor, both part of the Saranac Lake Islands Campground.

It took me a day or so to adjust to the idea that I had no place to go and nothing to do. The weather helped reinforce this nothing-ness, as the wind had picked up during the night. Tall white pines thrashed above the clearing where we had set up camp. Throughout the day, gray clouds threatened rain. On the western end of the lake, we could see gray sheets of rain falling, but in the end, only a few sprinkles blew over the island.

I covered the list of activities: cook, read, swim, nap. In the early evening, when the wind died down, I kayaked over to Hungry Bay, passing a few remote campsites and waving at a couple of people on shore.  The exercise and the solitude felt good.

We built a fire and stayed up until midnight, on this island with nothing to do.

The next day, the lake was glassy, the wind almost non-existent.   After breakfast, we pushed off in our kayaks and paddled west and then north towards Weller Pond, which is connected to Middle Saranac Lake by a narrow passage.  En route, we passed a couple of  occupied campsites, but mostly had the lake to ourselves, especially once we entered Weller Pond.

Back in 1931, writer Martha Eben came to Weller Pond to camp and stayed from late spring through the fall. Martha was an invalid, suffering from tuberculosis, when her Adirondack guide Fred Rice transported her to the campsite in a bed he’d fashioned inside his canoe. When they arrived at Fred’s camp, he installed her in a comfy bed set up beneath the pines.

Then in her early 20s, Martha had been suffering from tuberculosis since she was a child. Her family had sent her to Saranac Lake Village for rest and treatment at Edward Trudeau’s Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium. In this era before antibiotics, tuberculosis was progressive and deadly, but in the 19th century, physicians in Europe had learned that rest, isolation, and good nutrition could slow the progress of the disease and sometimes even cure it.

Fred Rice and Martha Rice, from an undated photo in the Adironack Register (Historic Saranac Lake).

Fred Rice and Martha Rice, from an undated photo in the Adirondack Register (Historic Saranac Lake).

Martha had endured several surgeries (probably procedures aimed at collapsing a lung so that lesions and cavities could heal) as well as stays in other facilities. She finally decided that she’d had enough, and hired Fred Rice to take her to Weller Pond and take care of her in the wilderness. Her adventure was an extreme take on the idea of the sanitarium: that rest, fresh air, and wholesome food would bolster the body’s immune system to fight the infection.

At her campsite, Martha rested, read, and sat with Fred by the campfire. They weathered rainstorms, chilly nights and Fred’s generally bad cooking. Fred took her out in his canoe on fishing and animal-spotting expeditions. Martha learned to peel potatoes and gradually was able to take on some of the cooking.

By the time late fall arrived, Martha’s health was restored. Enamored with her simple existence at Weller Pond, Martha returned to the woods with Fred for six seasons (and eventually ended up spending winters in Saranac Lake Village with Fred and his wife). Ten years into her adventures, Martha learned that she was free of tuberculosis (although she died what we now consider the young age of 58 from congestive heart failure, a condition likely exacerbated by her damaged lungs).

In the 1952, Martha published The Healing Woods, the first of three books about her Adirondack experiences. What strikes me in reading Martha’s book is that she focuses on her adventures and not on her condition, which hangs in the background, sometimes limiting her activity but never her enthusiasm.

Lily pads in what Fred Rice called the "slough", a swampy area in the passage to Weller Pond.  We took a lovely detour up into Little Weller Pond as well and encountered many lily pads and sunning turtles, just as Martha had.

Lily pads in what Fred Rice called the “slough”, a swampy area in the passage to Weller Pond. We took a lovely detour up into Little Weller Pond as well and encountered many lily pads and sunning turtles, just as Martha had.

I’m sure Martha had her days when she felt tired and was tired of camping –- sitting out days of rain in which everything gets wet is tedious no matter how much you love the outdoors. But she omitted complaints and frustrations from her narrative, instead choosing to write about her discoveries and her wonder as she learns about life in the woods. She deliberately chooses to focus on the positive even if she sometimes felt negative.

The experience of the woods that Martha conveys is much the same as ours today. Weller Pond still feels remote and wild, removed from the hum of cars along Route 3 as it passes by Middle Saranac Lake. We see one other paddler, an ambitious guy intent on exploring every nook and cranny of the shore. Paddling through the lilies in the slough, we spy turtles lazing on rotting logs and hear redwing blackbirds singing.

On my third morning on the island, I woke up to a glassy lake. I had to go home, but could have stayed longer. Instead of doing nothing, I’d enjoyed three days of being more fully present in my experience.  That’s island living, Adirondack style.

My friend Michelle kayaking back to the island after a visit to the locks connecting the lake to the Saranac River. Ambersand Mountain rises in the background.

My friend Michelle kayaking back to the island after a visit to the locks connecting the lake to the Saranac River. Ampersand Mountain rises in the background.


Sources and resources

The Healing Woods, by Martha Reben. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1952.

Saranac Lake Islands Campground, operated by the New York State Department of Environmental Protection, offers 72 boat-access campsites scattered on the islands and show of the Saranac Lakes.

For more on Martha Reben, see “Martha Reben” on Historic Saranac Lake.

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Skulls of history in a forgotten tomb

Where was he, the most noteworthy man who ever called my town home?

Back and forth I wandered, searching. Where was the life-sized portrait of Sir William Pepperrell?

At the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, nobody seemed to know, at least not the two young gallery guards I asked. At last, an older gentleman led me through American Decorative Arts to my baron.

We turned a corner and came upon an entire wall taken up by the portrait, which easily was one of the largest on display at the PEM. But even here, Sir William was largely forgotten, just another guy on the wall.

Sir William Pepperrell, painted in 1745 by John Smibert, to commemorate the successful Siege of Louisbourg.

Sir William Pepperrell, painted in 1745 by John Smibert, to commemorate the successful Siege of Louisbourg, at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

Such is the fleeting nature of fame  — even when you were once one of the wealthiest and most famous men in the American colonies, and the only American-born Englishman ever awarded a baronetcy.

Reproductions of this portrait of Colonial William Pepperrell (the rags-to-riches orphan who built the Pepperrell Mansion in the late 1600s) are found in several 19th century histories.  I have been unable to locate the name of the artist or the current owner/location of the portrait, which may or may not be that of the first William Pepperrell.

Reproductions of this portrait of the first William Pepperrell are found in several 19th century histories.

The Pepperrells were upstarts start-from-nothing Americans. Sir William’s father, William Pepperrell, came to New England as a teenaged orphan working on a cod fishing boat at the Isles of Shoals, just off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire.

After completing his apprenticeship, young Pepperrell used his earnings to buy his first boat. Eventually, he bought more boats, leased them out, and combined his knowledge of the fishery with his business acumen to build an empire. His 1682 Pepperrell Mansion still dominates Kittery Point’s Pepperrell Cove neighborhood today.

William, his son, expanded the empire and became a colonial real estate magnate, buying up property on Maine’s coast from Kittery to Scarborough. Both father and son, however, did more than count their dollars.  William senior helped to establish establish Kittery’s First Congregational Church, and was active in civic affairs, a legacy continued by his son, who served as a court judge and commanded the local militia.

By the 1740s, Kittery Point had little need for an active militia, as the threat of Indian raids on the coast had faded.  But Britain and France remained engaged in warfare. In 1745, Massachusetts Governor William Shirley, abetted by others, decided that the colonists should try to dislodge the French from their fort at Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. He asked William Pepperrell (the son) to raise an army of 4,000 men and take command of an expedition upon Louisbourg.

Pepperrell had no military field experience.  When he accepted the command of this inexperienced citizen-soldier army, he knew the outcome was far from certain.

Long story short: After a lengthy siege, Pepperrell’s force, aided by the British Navy, captured the fort, and King George II made him a baronet. The American who had commanded the force that defeated a European army returned home to much acclaim.

Three years later, New Englanders had to swallow a bitter pill when the fort was returned to France as part of a swap for a British fort captured by the French in India. But the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle couldn’t take away that fact that the colonials had learned, under Pepperrell, that they could hold their own against professional soldiers – a lesson the next generation remembered 30 years later on the eve of the American Revolution.

Sir William Pepperrell, some say, became an inspiration for New England’s patriots. Conveniently, he passed away in 1759, so he could be remembered for Louisbourg without having to declare himself a Patriot or a Loyalist, as his Loyalist grandson William Pepperrell had to do. In 1774, his fellow citizens recalled Pepperrell as a “great American.”

In the 1730s (or possibly earlier), William built a large tomb for his father – a crypt dug into the side of a hill on a field across from the Pepperrell Mansion. A slab of imported marble capped the tomb, and the first William, who lived into his 80s, was interred there in 1734.  Later, other family members joined the patriarch, including the Hero of Louisbourg.

A postcard depicting the Pepperrell Tomb circa 1910-1920, when the tomb was a tourist attraction for the thousands of visitors who stayed in Kittery's five Gilded Age hotels.

A postcard depicting the Pepperrell Tomb circa 1910-1920, when the tomb was a tourist attraction for the thousands of visitors who stayed in Kittery’s five Gilded Age hotels (Postcard Collection, Portsmouth Atheneum).  The trees are no longer standing, but the basic appearance of the tomb today is the same.

But by the mid-19th century, Sir William’s tomb had fallen into disrepair. Writing in 1875, popular historian Samuel Drake noted that when the tomb was repaired, at the behest of Pepperrell descendent Harriet Hirst Sparhawk, “the remains were found lying in a promiscuous heap at the bottom, the wooden shelves at the sides having given way, precipitating the coffins upon the floor of the vault. The planks first used to close the entrance had yielded to the pressure of the feet of cattle grazing in the common field, filling the tomb with rubbish. About thirty skulls were found in various stages of decomposition.”

These skulls inside the Pepperrell Tomb are likely the remains of different members of the Pepperrell family, including Sir William. The photo, courtesy of the Portsmouth Atheneum, was probably taken by descendent and local historian Joe Frost, as it was found tucked into a book he had given the Atheneum.

These skulls inside the Pepperrell Tomb are likely the remains of various members of the Pepperrell family, including (possibly) Sir William. The photo was probably taken in the 1970s by descendant and local historian Joseph Frost, as it was discovered tucked into a book he had given the Atheneum (Joseph W.P. Frost Collection, Portsmouth Atheneum).

Although the tomb was repaired then, it has repeatedly fallen into a cycle of neglect and renovation. Another source notes that at the turn of the 20th century, young boys played games in and around the tomb.  For many years, the Pepperrell Family Association maintained the tomb, but that organization disbanded in 1937, probably because its members had died, or moved away, or lost interest in a now-distant ancestor. At that time, according to notes and documents in the Frost Collection at the Portsmouth Atheneum, the tomb plot was signed over to a relative in a distant state.

For years, it seems, care of the tomb has depended on happenstance and somebody taking an interest. At the time of Drake’s writing, the proprietor of the Pepperrell Hotel, which overlooked the tomb, took an interest. But because the tomb is sort of an island onto itself, not in a cemetery, not in somebody’s backyard, it is easily forgotten.

At the Kittery Naval and Historical Museum, visitors can look at mourning rings crafted to commemorate the death of Sir William Pepperrell.  These rings were worn by relatives and others to show they were in mourning.  We should do more of that kind of memorial today, although the cost of purchasing 14K gold rings for a large number of mourners is probably reserved to the  1%,  as was likely also the case in 1759.

At the Kittery Naval and Historical Museum, visitors can look at mourning rings crafted to commemorate the death of Sir William Pepperrell. The family distributed these rings to mourners.  I like the idea of this tradition — a small but public display of mourning — although I’m sure the cost of the rings limited the practice to wealthier Americans.

In more recent times, local historian and Pepperrell descendent Joseph Frost (now deceased) corresponded with state officials and others, trying to get a person, a state agency, or some entity to take responsibility for the tomb, to assure that it didn’t again fall into a state of disrepair or neglect (Joseph W. P. Frost Collection, Portmouth Atheneum).

Back in the early 1960s, two people who claimed to represent the disbanded Pepperrell Family Association filed a quit-claim deed signing the lot over to the owner of Frisbee’s Store. He built a parking lot on the lower part of the tomb plot and carried out his obligations, per the deed, to maintain the tomb.  But eventually, the tomb was forgotten again, with brush, grass and trees growing up around it.

I’m still not exactly sure who or what “owns” the tomb, but in 2008, volunteers from the Friends of Fort McClary cleaned up the tomb.  Once again, Kittery’s forgotten hero was remembered. Today, a small American flag and the Union Jack flutter on grassy knoll across the street from Frisbee’s.

I wonder how many years will pass before we forget him again. I know that with volunteers, keeping something going often depends on one or two key people. They get sick, or move away, or die, or just get weary of responsibility.

Is forgetting the tomb an inevitable result of our on-to-go individualistic American lives? I haven’t visited the grave of my paternal grandparents since my grandmother died in the 1970s. I’ve visited the grave of my maternal grandparents once or twice in 15 years. I don’t even know the locations of the graves belonging to my great-grandparents, even though one great-grandmother lived long into my adulthood.

But my great-grandmother didn’t lead an expedition that inspired  a generation of Americans that they had it in them to win a war against a world power.  That’s a man worth remembering.

Front view of the Pepperrell  Mansion, looking out towards Pepperrell Cove.

Front view of the Pepperrell Mansion, looking out towards Pepperrell Cove.  The first William Pepperrell built this house, on a plot of land given to him by his father-in-law, John Bray, who lived next door.  Sir William the son  lived here with his family until his death in 1759, when Lady Mary Pepperrell built her own more modern mansion town the street.

PS: Readers, if you know anything more about the tomb, please add your comments or email me, and I will update the information in this post.

Sources and resources

For more on the Pepperrells, I especially recommended the last chapter of my book, Pioneer on a Mountain Bike, along with my posts, “Ghost of a Pepperrell Lady“, “Globalization,circa 1807, curses the Lady Pepperrell House“and “Nathaniel Sparhawk and the Art of Swagger.”

The Kittery Naval and Historical Museum has several Pepperrell artifacts on display, including — possibly — a telescope that William might have used at Louisbourg.

For more on 18th and 19th century mourning rings, see Historic New England’s online exhibit, Not Lost But Gone Before: Mourning Jewelry.

Drake, Samuel Adams.  Nooks and Crannies of the New England Coast. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1875.


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