Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Great North Woods Trifecta

Back in lovely Vermont visiting my folks, I had the opportunity to string together some seriously rewarding trail mileage in the North Country of New Hampshire and Maine over the past three days.  Uninspired by the thought of doing some of the same old peaks, loops and traverses in the White Mountains, this time I decided do something a little different and stay north of US Route 2, where the trails tend to be even more rugged and where solitude is guaranteed.

Day 1:
The first, "warmup" leg was on Sunday, the 18th - New Hampshire's Kilkenny Ridge, a lightly traveled 25-mile traverse of the entire range from the town of Jefferson to South Lake Recreation Area.  En route, the trail passes over or very near a total of 11 summits, including two 4000 footers, Mts. Waumbek and Cabot.  My last full Kilkenny traverse was in the late 1990s, although a small group of us had made a solid attempt at a north-to-south traverse last January.  We were thwarted - as anticipated actually - by deep, unbroken snow a little shy of 2/3 the way through, at which point we bailed out to the York Pond Fish Hatchery.  Save for Mt. Cabot, very few people venture into the Kilkenny in winter, so it made for a challenging but gorgeous snowshoe through a stunningly beautiful winter wonderland.

The terrain on Sunday was, as expected, rather unimproved, rough and muddy (reminiscent of the Long Trail last summer), with many blowdowns and frequent signs of moose... though, alas, no sightings.  After depositing me at the Starr King trailhead in Jefferson, Chris drove around to the Fish Hatchery and joined me for the inner loop over Cabot, The Bulge and The Horn.  (Chris's 4000 footer count is now up to 10; of course, he couldn't care less if he ever finishes...)  The Horn is reached via a 3/10 mile spur trail, and I believe I last stood atop it 13-14 years ago.  A cool summit indeed. At Unknown Pond we split up, Chris descending back to the car, me continuing on to South Lake.  The leaves are just starting to change color here in northern New England, and the yellows were particularly beautiful on this day.  I'd encountered only eight hikers to this point and  met only two more on the way out, backpackers carrying HUGE packs...  like ~70 lbs. huge. Confused and awed, I inquired as to their itinerary.  "We have until Friday to do the entire trail."  Wow.  Upon reaching South Lake, it was evident that the road was already gated for the year (??!!), as the parking lot - on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in September (??!!) - was completely empty and the place was deserted.  Oh well, what's another mile to the gate.  Chris's timing was perfect - he had arrived only minutes before and had started walking up the road to meet me.  We retired to, in order - Dunky Donuts, Mr. Pizza, and finally, Altopia.
Atop Mt. Cabot with the funnest and funniest person I know.
Halfway through the Kilkenny traverse, I came up with the bright idea (?) of a "Great North Woods Trifecta."  The Grafton Loop in western Maine has been on my New England bucket list for a couple of years, and the Mahoosuc Traverse, part of the Appalachian Trail, lies in between, so... the "logical" thing seemed to do all three.  "Great North Woods" is what the New Hampshire Dept. of Tourism has dubbed the northern part of the state. Voila! A silly name for a crazy adventure.

Day 2:
We began the 30-mile Mahoosuc traverse the next day, Monday, just before daybreak at the Centennial/AT trailhead, "we" being myself and my good pal Al.  As with the Kilkenny, I had done the one-day Mahoosuc traverse a couple of times before but never in the south-to-north direction save for my AT thru-hike, when I schlepped a very heavy and full backpack and required 2+ days for the traverse. For those who have never been there, the Mahoosucs are extremely rugged and slow and include the notorious "most difficult mile of the Appalachian Trail," Mahoosuc Notch. Going in the southbound direction, the final ~10 miles tend to drag at the end of a long, gnarly day so I was curious as to how the Gorham-to-Grafton Notch direction would play out, with Mahoosuc Notch, Mahoosuc Arm, and Old Speck to negotiate at the end of the day. The early miles with Al seemed to pass quickly with nonstop conversation and laughter.  We parted ways at Dream Lake as Al descended the Peabody Brook Trail.  I was on my own from there.

No apologies, the Mahoosucs are a range deserving of hyperbole:   Gorgeous! Spectacular! Awesome!  I love this place, so diverse and unlike any other area of the Whites, with its extensive views, boggy "tundra" and nary a road crossing.  The icing on the cake this day was perfect late summer weather, and the only other hikers out on a Monday this time of year were AT thru- and section hikers. Yippee!  Up and over Mt. Success I went, up 'n down, up 'n down, arriving at the NH/ME border and its "Welcome to Maine - The Way Life Should Be" sign, stumbling through Carlo Col, climbing the crazy little "via ferrata" on Goose Eye, slippin 'n slidin up 'n down North Peak, and finally taking a short break at Full Goose Shelter.  I flipped open the register and cracked up at some of the entries.  A sampling:

     "Welcome to Maine - the way trails SHOULDN'T be."
     "One mile in TWO HOURS?  What the...?!"
     "Oh...  I'm bleeding."
     "I wanna go back to New Hampshire."
     "New Hampshire is for pussies."

But I couldn't hang around for long because it was time to descend into the abyss and negotiate Mahoosuc Notch, a car- and house-sized boulder-filled defile, full of deep holes, a hidden water course, and ice sometimes lasting through the summer (though none seen this day).  Requiring the use of upper body muscles as well as balance and flexibility, the Notch is a virtual jungle gym for big kids.  It is *wicked fun*!!!  Thirty-eight minutes of acrobatics later, I was through.  Mahoosuc Arm wasn't nearly as bad as I'd remembered; carrying approximately 35 lbs. less compared to my thru-hike made a big difference!  At Speck Pond I stopped to chat with five thru-hikers (dang but they looked happy) before heading up Old Speck and then down to Hwy. 26 where Chris waited, pleased to finish before having to pull out the headlamp.

(BTW, I ultimately enjoyed doing the Mahoosuc Traverse in the northbound direction because it seemed the last few miles didn't drag on and on.)  We hit the Sunday River Brewery for a very yummy and satisfying dinner.  I'd contemplated taking some ibuprofen but decided on a pint of Black Bear Porter instead.
A smooth section of trail
Day 3:
Tuesday's forecast wasn't exactly appealing:  90% chance of showers with temps in the 50s.  But I was already there and wasn't about to throw in the towel so easily.  Mainly a woods walk, at times also reminiscent of the Long Trail, the Grafton Loop was constructed just a few years ago.  It is 38.6 miles in length.  I went clockwise and started on the southern end so as to be generally climbing for the first segment and generally descending for the second part.  After two very light and brief showers around 8 a.m., I crossed what was the highlight of the day for me - a mountain called Sunday River Whitecap.  Views encompassed 360 degrees, and the surrounding undercast gave the impression of water, the hill and mountaintops virtual islands in a sea.  Truly spectacular, it ranks as one of my favorite mountaintops in New England.  From there, the trail continued north and back up to Old Speck, from whence I descended the same gnarly 3 1/2 miles back to Grafton Notch as the previous day.  This was my one and only aid station - and potential bailout point - of the day.  While confirming whether I was willing to commit myself to the remaining 21 miles with no bailout options (this trail is remote!), Chris served soup, potato chips, cookies, and DD's coffee.  I still felt great and since it hadn't been raining, decided to go for it. 
Pausing for a photo op at Grafton Notch before heading out for the final segment.

With its steep and wet rock, the Baldpates seemed more daunting than I'd remembered; then again, it had been some years since I'd last climbed these peaks.  After carefully negotiating the tricky terrain and summiting both 'pates, I located the Grafton Loop turnoff on top of East Baldpate and started down the comparatively gushy, needly trail.  Wow, all of a sudden it felt like I was walking on Spenco insoles.  About 2 1/2 miles from the summit, I encountered the Blowdown Patch from Hell and lost about 25 minutes trying to find the correct route.  A bit rattled but finally back on course and jacked up on adrenaline, I made quick work of Lightning Ledge and, a few miles later, Long Mountain.  With about a dozen miles to go, three backpackers raised eyebrows when I confirmed that yes, I was going all the way to the highway that night.  They were the only other hikers I encountered on the non-AT portion of the Grafton Loop.

The segment between Long and Puzzle Mountains is kind of a woodsy blur because, having never been on this trail, I was pushing to make it to the top of ledgy Puzzle before being benighted.  Even with good lights, it can be difficult to locate the trail on an open, ledgy peak in the dark, especially if there is a misty fog, especially if one has never before set foot on said mountain!  Additionally, the fact that the mountain is named "Puzzle" didn't give me warm fuzzies either.  Ultimately there was only one confusing area, where I resorted to going from LED headlamp to Big Girl Flashlight and shortly found the correct route.  About five minutes later, I heard Fun Guy calling my name.  Yay, Chris had hiked up to meet me!  The final three miles went quickly, each of us sharing stories of our day's adventures; his involved Errol NH, the Moose Cave, and Screw Auger Falls and were especially titillating.  And then... it was over.  Three days, three awesome trails, 93 total miles.

(Think I'll be sweeping the VT 50k.)


Steve Smith said...

Yikes - that's amazing, Sue! And thirty-eight minutes thru Mahoosuc Notch in the middle of all that! Three of the coolest areas in the Whites. SR Whitecap is a gem. Thanks for a great read.

Steve Smith

Olga said...

Sounds so awesome! Loved the log entries:) Main must be beautiful beginning to change colors, I have a few slides (and even more memories) from October's Main. AT definitely makes anything out West looking pussies. This confirms, kid out of HS - I am out for long trail fastpacking:)

Casseday said...

Awesome!! The Mahoosucs were certainly one of the highlights of my thru-hike. Tough day, but unreal beauty. The pic of you at the Grafton Notch "steel AT" brought back my memory of running down the mountain at dusk, hootin' and hollerin', only to find the parking lot empty and my wife nowhere to be found. Luckily, she arrived an hour our so later (with stories of her own), but I was ready to bivy under the picnic table by the parking lot and take my chances with the abundant black flies and mosquitos.
Thanks for sharing and jogging my memories!

Karl said...

Great blog post! I hope to check these trails out sometime in my life!

The AT sign in the photo is pretty cool...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the memories. I loved that part of the AT and always will.

ultrastevep said...

Nice, Sue.... thanks for some memories!
Deb and I did the Grafton a couple of years ago for the first time with a bunch of Maineacs. Here is my photo link.