Monday, August 24, 2015

Cohos Trail

New Hampshire’s longest long-distance hiking trail, The Cohos Trail, had been on my radar for years, but I’d put it on the back burner because I wanted to wait for the Trail to be finished as opposed to walking many miles along Rt 3 at the last-to-be-finished northern end. The CT is now officially “complete” although improvements in routing are still a bit of a work in progress, I think.

The trail is advertised as 165 miles. My GPS measured at least 10 miles more, but I turned the tracker on for only a few segments in the far north. (More on that later.) The CT runs from Notchland on Rt. 302 all the way to tiny Fourth Connecticut Lake on the Canadian Border. Except for a short segment in the beginning, the entire trail is within Coos County. In the White Mountain National Forest, the CT utilizes long-established trails, including Davis Path, Isolation Trail West, Dry River, Mt. Eisenhower, Edmands Path, Cherry Mtn, Martha’s Mile, Owl’s Head, Starr King, and Kilkenny Ridge Trails. There is also a rather bizarre walk through the Mt. Washington Hotel golf course followed by road walks of Rt. 302 and Cherry Mtn. Road. Interesting and scenic Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge, along with a 3-mile road walk on Rt 115A into Jefferson Village, connect Cherry Mtn with the Kilkenny. In Pondicherry the route utilizes some pleasant trails--Presidential Rail Trail and Rampart Path--as well as some NOT nice trails--Slide Brook and Colonel Whipple “Trails.” After traversing the delightful Kilkenny Ridge, next up is the awesome Nash Stream Forest section via Bald Mountain Notch, Rowell Link, Old Summer Club, Percy Loop, Nash Stream Road, West Side, Sugarloaf Arm, East Side, Headwaters, and Gadwah Notch Trails. For me, this is where the Cohos Trail REALLY starts since it was mostly through uncharted territory. Other than redlining the WMG trails and climbing the New Hampshire 100 Highest peaks in this area many years ago, my experience in northern Coos County was embarrassingly deficient.

En route to Dixville Notch, the CT traverses Baldhead, Kelsey Notch, Dixville Bypass, Dixville Peak, Table Rock, Three Brothers, and Huntington Cascade Trails. North of the Notch is the beautiful Sanguinary Ridge and Sanguinary Summit Trails, Spruce and Diamond Ponds Trails. The next section was my least favorite because it was about 20 miles of road walking--both car and ATV roads--connecting Coleman State Park to the far (east) side of Lake Francis. However, the views of abandoned farm country atop Stewartstown Plateau were spectacular! From the Connecticut Lakes to Canada, the CT traverses mostly new trail, including Lake Francis, Minnon-Young (ATV), Prospect Mtn, Covell Mtn, Round Pond Brook, Bog Bridge, Moose Alley, Falls in the River, Idlewilde Link, Chaput, Black Cat, Sophie’s Lane, a truly icky unmarked snowmobile trail abutting Third Connecticut Lake, and finally, the Fourth Connecticut Lake Trail. There are also small connector road walks of River, Danforth and Round Pond Roads in this section.

History: The Cohos Trail is the brainchild of Kim Robert Nilsen, who first proposed such a long trail through the North Woods in a 1978 editorial in the Coos County Democrat and who has worked tirelessly to see his idea take root and blossom. The Cohos Trail Association was formed in 1998 and maintains a very active “Friends of the Cohos Trail” Facebook page. The Cohos Trail has come a long way since 1978! Many, many, many volunteer hours have been spent to make the Trail what it is today. THANK YOU to all who have turned Kim‘s concept into reality!!

Guidebook and Maps: TCTA publishes The Cohos Trail Guidebook, updated most recently in 2014. For a “just the facts-data book” type person such as myself, the wordy-folksy-anecdotal style of the guidebook almost made my head explode at times. (It actually reminded me a lot of another guidebook, that of Arkansas’s Ouachita Trail.) But I realize they can write the guidebook however they want and any issue with it is my own. And some of the stories WERE rather entertaining! What I would recommend--and what I myself failed to do--is to take a highlighter to the book before embarking on the Trail, highlighting the most pertinent information. I would say emphatically that the CT cannot really be done without the guidebook because there are quite a few confusing sections and some which are not well marked (those are mostly road sections). Buy the guidebook! As well, the maps are an indispensable general guide--buy them, too! (Incidentally, there are supposed to be new maps coming out next year produced by none other than cartographer Larry Garland.) However, there is not a lot of detail to the current maps, so I found my iHike GPS app also indispensable. As with the Catamount Trail last winter, this app worked fabulously (buy it, too, if you have a smartphone!) and certainly allowed me to venture into the unknown with a bit more confidence than map and compass alone. It also allowed me to track mileage. I wish I had the tracker turned on for the entire trip, but alas I did not. I believe the guidebook mileage to be mostly accurate; however, there were a few spots that were pretty far off, namely the Presidential Rail Trail (1.9 miles instead of 0.6), Colonel Whipple “Trail” (2.1 miles instead of 1.1), Whipple Road to Jefferson Village (3.1 miles instead of 1.6), Coleman State Park to Lake Francis Trail (20 miles instead of 12!!), River Road to Young’s Store/Happy Corner (1.6 miles instead of 0.7), and Deer Mtn Campground to US Customs (5 miles instead of 3.8). I am not saying any of this to be a whiny complainer--Hey, I love a challenge! Bring it on!--but more to give a heads up to people out there who may be contemplating a thru hike on the CT so they know what to expect.

The Low Down: The Cohos is not the Appalachian Trail. It is a remote “postgraduate” trail where you will likely not encounter another hiker above the Kilkenny. Towns are far apart, and resupply options are limited. There are only a few shelters--Cabot Cabin, Old Hermit, Baldhead, and Panorama Shelters, a lean-to at Coleman State Park, and a cabin available at Deer Mtn Campground. (One could also splurge at the Mt Washington Hotel, but you might want to mail ahead proper dinner attire.) The footing is a mix of regular ‘ol gnarly White Mtn trail, old logging/skid road, grassy/wet/sloppy snowmobile trail, ATV trail, and newly constructed footpath that is very kind--soft and spongy!--to the feet. (There was actually more of the latter than I’d expected and less of the overgrown slop, e.g. South Pond Link.) I would NOT recommend this trail to anyone who requires manicured trails and blazes every 20 feet, to anyone whose feet must remain dry (haha, good luck with that: they will be wet almost constantly), nor to anyone who cannot disconnect: my phone had no signal north of Dixville Notch. I WOULD recommend this trail to those adventurous souls who can appreciate the challenge and spirit of the Cohos Trail, those who crave solitude and quiet ('cept for when ATVs are buzzing by), who thrive on a pathway that is utilized far more by moose and bear than by humans. An open mind and a good sense of humor--including the ability to laugh at oneself--are very helpful!

Plan/Execution: I actually did the CT in 6 full and 3 partial days over 3 separate trips. From June 18-21 I backpacked from Rt. 302 to Unknown Pond, bailing down Unknown Pond Trail in the pouring rain. On June 24 I went from Mill Brook Road/Unknown Pond Trail to Percy Loop Trailhead using a bike spot. I did not get out on the CT again until August 19 and finished up the northern half over the next 4 days, slackpacked by my husband Chris. (I do not EVER pass up the opportunity to slackpack!)

Now, for the play-by-play:

Jun 18: Rt. 302/Davis Path TH to campsite at mile ~6.5

With Chris visiting family in California, Leg #1 of the CT was a 3-night backpack. My folks helped spot my car at Nash Stream Road, we stopped for a Dunky Donuts in Lancaster, and I hit the trail at 2:30 pm. M and D walked across Bemis Bridge w/me at the start. On the Saco River we saw a duck-like bird--I later looked it up and think it was a Common Golden Eye) with many babies, some riding on her back! Said goodbye to my parents and continued up the trail. Mosquitoes were pretty bad for a little while, so much so that I applied bug repellent. (I rarely use the toxic stuff.) There was one conglomeration of lady slippers--I counted 30--just beyond the Mt. Crawford Spur. I dropped to the old Resolution Shelter site to fill up on water, but this turned out to be unnecessary as there were probably a half dozen good water sources between here and Isolation Trail. I checked out the established campsite atop Giant Stairs (wow!), but with darkening skies opted to continue on the ridge to a more protected spot in the trees. About a mile after Giant Stairs I came to a confusing spot near a small stream. Foot traffic went down and to the right following the stream, but that path soon ended abruptly. I turned back and found the correct route (left und UP). Shortly thereafter was a large (space for 4-5 tents) campsite. I picked the flattest spot, set up my tent, made some tea, ate dinner and fell fast asleep.

Jun 19: to Mt. Martha, ~24.5 miles

Started raining in the wee hours of the morning. Found out the single-wall Black Diamond tent leaks in multiple spots. Aargh! After dabbing drips with my Pack Towel for a couple of hours, I finally made coffee, ate breakfast, packed up, and hit the trail by 5 am. Twas a wet stroll over Mts. Davis and Isolation, my umbrella helping keep my face dry at least. Fortunately it was not very cold below treeline but higher up the breeze was picking up. I opted for the original CT route: down the Isolation (west) Trail and up Mt. Eisenhower Trail. Having just done these trails less than 2 weeks ago, I knew what lay ahead:  marginal post-Irene trail conditions on the former followed by a potentially hairy crossing of Dry River. The roar sounded more treacherous that reality and it ended up not being too bad; this time I went upstream a bit to find a shallower crossing before commencing up Mt. Eisenhower Trail. I made quick work of the 3/10 mile or so above treeline--it was chilly!--and began heading down Edmands Path. After having not seen another soul all morning, within the next 3 miles I would meet 17 people, on a marginal weather Friday. The CT turns right on Mt. Clinton Road, then left onto Bretton Woods B and M Trail, a path I have skied quite a few times! The summertime view of Upper Falls is dramatic, and I showed up just as some crazy guy decided to dive straight into the main pool. OMG! Mosquitoes were bad in boggy sections, but shortly I was strolling across the grounds of the Mt. Washington Hotel golf course and feeling the stares. Quite the juxtaposition! I stopped by Fabyans for coffee, a burger, and to recharge my phone. They were very nice there. Some biker people (it’s being Bike Week in NH) screamed in excitement when a small black bear sauntered by the back window. Waitstaff said it gets into the dumpster! (So, why don’t they put a lock on the dumpster??) Long slog up Cherry Mtn. Road followed by an even longer slog up Cherry Mtn. but really enjoyed these last few miles and the ridge up there is just gorgeous. Decided to bivy atop Mt. Martha on a nice grassy spot. Arrived about an hour before a spectacular sunset. Views towards the Presidentials were stellar, those south to the Franconias and Twins, and west to Vermont were pretty darn tootin’ as well. Tried to dry tent out in last bits of sunlight with moderate success.

Jun 20: to Cabot Cabin, 26.5 miles

Tent accumulated lots of condensation during the night on the grassy patch, so once again it was soaking wet. Lots of moose sign on Martha’s Mile. Owls Head had a great little scramble just below the summit and some nice views to the Presies again. Descent to Rt. 115 was nice at first but then got pretty muddy. Think this is the section that the RMC has had to relocate a couple of times in the past few years. Could use more bridging, rock steps, or something. CT takes a right on Rt. 115, then cuts left on the Slide Brook “Trail.” Ha ha ha! Waist high WET grass, barely a discernible footpath, ticks (3), skeeters (100s), then across a beaver dam--THAT is the “trail.” Fortunately that section lasted only only a half mile or so, then it was on to the pancake flat Presidential Rail Trail through Moorhen Marsh. This was a very beautiful section with lots of birds along with great views back to the Presies; however, the mosquitoes were of Biblical proportions!! Finally I resorted to bug repellent and a headnet which did wonders in preserving my sanity. Shore and Rampart Paths were nice, but Col Whipple was another “trail” trail. Har dee har har! It started off not too bad with some nice bog bridging covered in chicken wire so as to be more grippy, even though some of the bog bridges sank 6” into the water when stepped on, but THEN… the “trail” turned into an overgrown skidder track with hidden moose pock marks and other sinister ankle twisters. And still mosquitoes…! I was very happy to hit Whipple Road and then Rt. 115A. Since I had 3 miles of road walking, I wisely decided to switch into my Crocs. Heaven! Road walk wasn’t too bad although being midmorning on a Saturday, there was some Santa’s Village traffic. At the Corner Store I took a good long break of about an hour, dried out my tent for real, bought a few things (egg salad sandwich, Starbucks Frap, water), charged my phone, and talked with Chris. (We talked or texted regularly whenever I had phone service.)

Leaving Jefferson at noon, I had almost 15 miles to go before Cabot Cabin. Thunderstorms were predicted that night and the next day, so a real roof overhead would be much appreciated. Plus, I’d always wanted to spend a night there. TODAY was a beautiful day, however! The slog up Waumbek seemed never to have been that much of a slog before… OTOH I have never carried a full pack up it. The Saturday hiking hordes on a trail leading to a 4000 footer were out en masse, but it was a nice diversion having seen no other hikers today up to this point. (Apparently no one else was idiotic enough to traverse through Pondicherry Mosquito Refuge in mid June.) After 2 full freaking hours, I finally topped out on Waumbek and said adios to my last day hikers of the day. The ridge over to South Weeks is gorgeous, and at first the blowdown situation wasn’t too bad. The farther along I got, though, the worse the blowdowns. Ugh. It is sad that the Kilkenny Ridge Trail doesn’t see more love. It almost looks as if it’s being abandoned and is definitely in the worst shape I’ve seen it. (Aug 2015 edit: I hope the blowdowns have been cleared this summer. Anyone?) The Weekses seemed to have moved further apart since the last time I did the Kilkenny Ridge Traverse 4 years ago, but at least there was a nice stream just below North Weeks where I filled my water bottle. Many more blowdowns heading into Willard Notch, and much to my surprise I met 3 guys with their 3 sad looking dogs coming off Terrace. They said there were more blowdowns, but it wasn’t quite as bad on the Terraces. Plus the 3 Terrace peaks were closer together than the Weekses--yay. Finally I made it down to Bunnell Notch and began the final 1.5 miles to Cabot Cabin, arriving just before 8:30 pm. Good thing it was summer solstice with lots of daylight left! I was whipped. There were 4 people and a dog there, but only 2 of the people and the dog stayed the night--Hannah, John, and Josie a sweet border collie. Hannah and John live in Vermont too, have hiked the LT and AT, they offered me some wine (Bota box cab, baby!), AND they offered a ride back to my car if I decided to bail due to the impending rain… so we sort of connected.

Jun 21: to Mill Brook Road, 5.4 miles

Steady rain started to fall in the wee hours. We were all up and packed by 7 am and began the very wet slog down to Unknown Pond and then Unknown Pond Trail. (Yes, I bailed!) UPT to Mill Brook Road was mostly a streambed of a trail although John and Hannah reported a near bone dry surface just the day before! We made it to their Subaru in 2 hours and after a quick clothing change, we were off to Nash Stream Road.

Jun 24: to Nash Stream Road at Percy Loop TH, 12.5 miles biking, 21.4 miles hiking

Left car at Percy Loop TH and mountain biked to Unknown Pond TH on Mill Brook Road. The bike ride was actually quite nice and took a little over an hour, most of MBR being uphill. Stashed my bike in the woods and proceeded back up Unknown Pond Trail. (Trail was a bit drier than 3 days previous!) Saw one other hiker head out on UPT just ahead of me; other than him, no other hikers encountered all day. Once up UPT I took a left on the Kilkenny Ridge Trail. This segment of KRT is also in need of some love - lots of blowdowns, mud, and encroaching ferns obscured the trailbed. View from Rogers Ledge was awesome, and from there to South Pond trail was in great shape and had received recent maintenance, both blowdown removal and drainage work. A few families enjoyed the South Pond beach this beautiful day. I took a short break before proceeding down the road for just over a mile to the South Pond Connector. Having done this muddy, overgrown snowmobile trail last year, I was sorely tempted to just stick to the pavement. OTOH I am committed to the Cohos Trail proper, so into the mud I traipsed… It was pretty gloppy. A short road walk across Rt 110 and up North Road brought me to the (unsigned) Bald Mtn. Notch Trail. I liked this trail last year and liked it again on my second visit, especially where one approaches the actual notch. Next up was Rowell Link and the Old Summer Club Trail, another that I really like. The OSCT was littered with branches and a few blowdowns but was easily passable. I did climb the side trail up North Percy and was treated to far reaching 360 degree views. All that was left was the Percy Loop Trail with a brief stop at the tent site and privy, where there is a trail register. I was only the second party to sign in this year! A great day on the CT! Driving all the way back to Unknown Pond TH was a bit of a pain, but my bike was still there! Yay. Think I am about halfway done the CT at this point but will wait awhile, for both my feet and the trail to hopefully dry out a bit. Have been having lots of rain…

Aug 19: to Dixville Notch/Rt. 26, 23.2 miles

Two months later I am back at it. It has been raining a lot this summer. Thru-hiked the Long Trail last month, and I survived THAT episode of trench foot so think I’m good to go on the Cohos Trail. Chris offered/agreed to slackpack me the rest of the way, the idea being that I could git r done more efficiently and comfortably with a very light daypack in supported mode rather than both of us trying to slog through the remaining miles with full packs, dealing with transportation issues, etc. We were very happy with this choice when all was said and done!  We figured on 3 full days to finish the CT, but that estimate was based on the mileage in the guidebook being accurate…

The adventure began with an early morning jog along Nash Stream Road, the 2 miles from the Percy Loop trailhead to Pond Brook Falls (nice!) before heading up West Side Trail. This ATV route is followed for about a mile; the CT then diverges right onto the Sugarloaf Arm Trail, a nice stroll through hardwoods passing by the Old Hermit Shelter. I was perusing the register--as it turned out, of the 3 CT shelters, the ONLY one with a register--when Chris reached me having hiked up from Sugarloaf Mtn. Trail. Recrossing Nash Stream Road, next up was the East Side Trail, another trail I ranked in the “nice” category that paralleled Nash Bog. It even had a sort of neat geologic feature, Devil’s Jacuzzi, and the northern reaches of this trail had recently been mowed. Nash Stream Road was gated near 19 ½ Mile Road, and that is where Chris and I separated… he for the long drive south, west, north, and east(!) to Dixville Notch, me for the ~15 miles to the same point through uncharted-for-me territory. With the Cohos Trail’s reputation, I was a bit nervous!

Once I proceeded northward through beautiful Cathedral and Moran Meadows, Muise Bowl and Gadwah Notch, anxieties disappeared. The lower meadows section had been mowed to Bulldozer Flat so there was none of the nasty chest-high growth I’d read about, there was fresh moose sign everywhere, there were beautiful views that I’d never before seen, and there was utter silence save for the natural sounds of birds, wind and running water. Gadwah Notch to Baldhead Shelter stayed near 3000 feet in elevation and had a real feeling of remoteness. A couple of times the trail became lost in thick ferns, so constant vigilance was required in following the yellow blazes. Thankfully, this section was very well marked. I think the mileage was off to Baldhead Shelter because it took 2 ¾ hours to go “5 miles” and I was walking at a pretty good clip! Sad there was no register in the shelter, but the view was pretty nice. There were quite a few downed trees in the mile or so before and after the shelter, but within a couple of miles I’d hit the Kelsey Notch “Trail” which is actually a dirt road that is used by ATVs. Now I was in “Ride the Wilds” country of Coos County, with its 1000 miles of ATV trails. I was glad to be there midweek as opposed to the weekend! The CT next climbed a wide ugly access road toward the Dixville Peak wind towers (my, how this NH 100 highest peak has changed since I was last here in the early 1990s!), but before reaching the top, took a left on newly constructed Dixville Bypass Trail. Rain was not predicted this day, but rumblings in the sky soon progressed to a pretty good little soaking rain shower which actually felt refreshing at this point in the day. The good trail lasted only about a half mile before dumping out on a nasty, muddy ATV trail, one that is quickly eroding to bedrock. Fortunately the CT does not follow this ATV track for long. Unfortunately it turns onto a mucky, grassy service lane leading to the Wilderness ski area and eventually to Table Rock and more manicured trail. The CT was a bit confusing to follow at the top of the ski area but was pretty easy to figure out. Chris met me near Table Rock, where we took a nice break and gazed down into Dixville Notch and The Balsams. What a spectacular spot! We finished off the day’s hike by jumping into a pool near the foot of Huntington Falls. Heaven! The night was spent at Coleman State Park, a very nice little campground on Little Diamond Pond that had 3 particularly cool things: awesome showers (25 cents for 3 minutes), resident LOONS, and a bald eagle!!

Aug 20: to Cedar Stream Road, 25.5 miles

After a wonderful night’s sleep, we drove back to Dixville Notch and proceeded up misty Sanguinary Ridge. Chris walked a couple miles with me before heading back to the car. CT hikers have an option of taking either the “low route” or the “high route” in this section. Most, including me, opt for the high route because Panorama Shelter is there, plus it just sounds better. The evergreens could use some trimming in the mile or so leading to Panorama. Also, there was a very confusing turn off a dirt road that was unmarked. Basically I got lucky in finding it! As with Baldhead Shelter, there was no register in Panorama. After topping out on Mud Pond Ridge on good trail, the CT traverses very grassy cross country ski (?) trail toward Mud Pond, at which point it was back on ATV trail for a short distance. A pleasant surprise was newly constructed trail on the climb of Tumble Dick Notch. It was a very pretty stroll through the woods and even passed by a 6-8 foot waterfall! The Diamond Ponds Trail coming down the northwest side of the notch had been mowed recently--yay! Soon I was back at Coleman State Park for a lunch break.

The remaining miles for today (and into tomorrow) would all be mountain bike-able, all 20 of them! Somewhat annoyingly, the mileage for this section was way off, and even more annoyingly, I did not bring my mountain bike. I remembered someone mentioning this mileage discrepancy in their Trail Journal, so I decided to turn on my GPS tracker upon leaving Coleman State Park. I ran a bit of this section but walked most of it: down Diamond Ponds Road to Heath Road to Bear Rock Road to MacAlester Road to Creampoke to Dead Water and finally to Cedar Stream Road. What was supposed to be 9 miles turned out to be 14. Much of this section was ATV “trail” but again, I was fortunate to be here on a Thursday and not a Saturday or Sunday. I met maybe 10 or 12 ATVers. They were all friendly--two guys even stopped and asked if I was okay (which got me thinking, “Do I look that bad?!”)--but it’s not the kind of terrain/company a hiker usually seeks! A very cool spot was MacAlester Road, a pretty stiff climb leading to expansive views of farm country. This area looked more like my hometown in Vermont than “the Great North Woods” of New Hampshire. Upon reaching Cedar Stream Road and Lake Francis, I called it a day, and we drove up to Lake Francis State Park for the night. Again, the showers at this state park were wicked awesome! And I scored a free Snickers bar for correctly answering the question: “What mountain was once known as Mt. Agiochook?” Mt. Washington, duh! (The next day was Chris’s turn. He properly answered the question “How many New England States are bordered by the St. Lawrence River?” ZERO!)

Aug 21: to Moose Alley, 25 miles

The day began with “3 miles” on Cedar Stream Road that was actually 5.7, but my attitude today was more of “BRING IT ON, M’F’ER!” so I found this all rather humorous. Less humorous (but still quite funny really) was the 4 miles of waist-high wet weeds along the Lake Francis Trail. I met a dude training his bear dogs on this section, he (packin’ heat!) dressed appropriately in jeans and knee-high rubber boots as opposed to me in shorts and trail runners. There was a short spur to “6 Mile View” on Lake Francis. It was pretty cool. The rest of this trail was something to just get through. After 4 miles I popped out on Carr Ridge Road and a bridge across the CT River. Next up was more road and ATV trail to Happy Corner and Young’s Store, where Chris got me a sandwich just as it began to rain.

The rest of this day was thankfully mostly real trail over Prospect Mtn, Covell Mtn and around Round Pond. Chris joined me for Prospect Mtn which had a nice view of First Connecticut Lake. Probably my most confusing moment on the CT was upon reaching the Ramblewood network of trails, where there were two intersections that would’ve benefited from either double blazes or arrows. I missed both a 90 degree righthand turn, then a 130 degree hard left. My stars were apparently aligned because Mr. Ramblewood himself was out mowing trail and helped direct me toward the correct route. It rained on and off all afternoon, but with my umbrella I didn’t mind at all. Plus rain always brings out the brilliant colors of the forest floor and it wasn’t cold, so I was happy. The trail circumnavigates Round Pond, though you never actually see the pond until way later when you hit the dirt access road. There was tricky route finding here and there in this section due to diverging moose paths. The section was very well blazed, however, so I had no problems. A half mile road walk and soon I was on the new Round Pond Brook Trail which earns 2 thumbs up! The new section of trail leads directly across Rt. 3 to another new link, the “800 Foot Bog Bridge Trail.” Chris joined me for this piece. The boggy section was cool. Chris counted 87 bog bridges. Again, much sign of moose but no actual moose sightings! My final trail section for the day was Moose Alley Trail. Did I see a moose? No. But I did see two deer. I also saw my first two actual hikers on the Cohos Trail since, what… Mt. Cabot? It was none other than the Krobi’s!! We had a fun chat on the trail and actually ran across them, Damselfly and Steve later at the Happy Corner Café. Since it had been rainy all afternoon, we decided to splurge on a little cabin at Happy Corner. Fun!

Aug 22: to Fourth CT Lake/Finish, 14.5 miles 

My final day on the Cohos Trail was the usual combo of nice trail, easy road walk and icky snowmobile trail. Falls in the River Trail is gorgeous as was Second Connecticut Lake. Next up was Idlewilde Trail, Chaput Trail, and Black Cat Trail. All were in pretty good shape, and Middle Black Cat had recently been weed whacked (thank you, thank you!). Chris joined me in the early miles and then met me at the Deer Mtn Campground access, regaling me with CT, err, “adventure stories” told by the ranger there. Sophie’s Lane was 1 ½ miles longer than advertised, but I enjoyed these last miles of easy walking. There was one final mushy ¾ mile length of snowmobile trail abutting Third Connecticut Lake before reaching the US Customs Station and the final 2-mile section up to and around Fourth Connecticut Lake. After having met only 2 hikers in the past 4 days, we met 5 hikers on this section. It seemed very crowded--hah! We drove down to Third Lake and dipped our feet in the water before showering at Lake Francis State Park (and Chris winning his free candy bar) and the long drive home.

In the end I LOVE the Cohos Trail! Upon finishing two days ago, I said I’d never do it again, but it certainly did have its charms. Hmm… Maybe I’ll bring my mountain bike for that 20+ mile road next time…

Huge thanks to Kim Robert Nilsen and all the folks of TCTA!!!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

VT's Long Trail in 9 1/2 Days

NOT an accurate depiction of Long Trail footing

I spent July 15-24 slogging through mud pits, dodging thunderstorms, and scrambling up and down slimy, slick roots and rock slabs. To what did I owe this particular version of fun? Vermont's Long Trail from Massachusetts to Canada! This was my fourth End to End and second Thru-Hike, the other 2 being Section Hikes. The last time I completed the LT was 5 years ago, when I went almost totally self-supported in about 9 days not including 3 zero days in the middle. This time around I completed the Trail in about the same amount of time with no days off; however, I did it fully supported wearing just a small Nathan pack--I am evidently getting smarter (?!) with age--as Chris agreed to crew me once again for which I am infinitely grateful. Upon hearing that I was "slackpacking" the entire Trail, the common refrain was "Wow, you have a nice husband!" to which I replied, "YES, I SURE DO!" Every day Chris got up early to make coffee and breakfast, crewed me at road crossings, set up camp, got the solar shower ready (high living this), and made dinner. I was completely spoiled. This was my second traverse of the State's length this year, the first being on skis via the Catamount Trail (see 3/18/15 post). While I am a more efficient hiker vs. skier, some days I yearned for those days of smooth kick-and-glide terrain on the CT!

Trail conditions proved challenging and slow this year due to the excessive amounts of rain that has fallen all summer. On the Long Trail that means mud... lots of mud... very large pits of mud... DEEP pits of mud. While the southern 100 miles coincides with the Appalachian Trail and seems somewhat better maintained, the northern one third of the LT could use approximately 184,000 rock steps or bog bridges. Many of the existing bog bridges are rotting and/or floating in soupy mud. A couple of sections are in need of a good haircut. I finished off 3 pairs of running shoes--Hokas, Montrail Hardrocks, and Salomon XAs--which were almost rotting off my feet by the time I pitched them. These were all old shoes--no way would I ruin a new pair on THIS trail! In attempts to mitigate somewhat the effects of constantly wet feet (e.g. trench foot), I would apply Desitin diaper rash cream to my feet in the mornings. By the end of the day my socks would reek of fish and blue cheese, such that many socks ended up being trashed. Somewhat incredulously I ended up with just one tiny blister the entire trip--in fact, my feet were the only body part that ever really got sore--but the bottoms of my feet now look and feel somewhat like old leather, and a pedicurist would certainly recoil in disgust at the condition of my toenails.

But enough whining. In the end this was my beloved, wild, gnarly Long Trail, Vermont's "footbath in the wilderness," and I knew what I'd signed up for: along with the mud, rugged peaks, pristine ponds, lakes and streams, moose droppings, early morning and late day birdsong--white throated sparrows, thrushes, veeries, barred owls, alpine flora, achingly beautiful hardwood forests blanketed in damp mosses, lichens and mushrooms, toads and newts gently moved off trail, glistening softwoods above 3000 ft., other weary but undeniably happy thru-hikers, the peaceful serenity of the woods on a misty day, and the incredible sunbeams piercing through the early morning forest, enough to make this agnostic actually sense a spiritual presence. For the most part, I was unplugged from the bad news of the day, the latest online Noise, and the everyday chores of home. Instead, I was happily lost in my own thoughts in that place in the world that I have always felt most comfortable, the Northern Forest.

Day #1 began at O'dark 30 on County Road in Stamford, Vermont. I walked the 6.2 miles to the Mass border and back by headlamp before continuing northward over the relatively easy terrain of southern Vermont. Near Sucker Pond there was a light rain shower lasting about 15 min., but it was actually rather refreshing. Chris met me at the Rt. 9 crossing--he brought me a Dunkin Donuts coffee!--and continued up the trail as far as Maple Hill. I saw lots of hikers in this section: thru-hikers, weekenders, and Boy Scouts, probably 50 between Rt. 9 and Kelley Stand Road, my destination for the day. The spring at Goddard was gushing--there is no shortage of water anywhere on the Trail this year!--and the view from Glastenbury Fire Tower was its usual spectacular. The afternoon miles dragged on a bit, but finally I made it to USFS 71, where Chris waited. Since there was still plenty of daylight and I wanted to make the next day a bit shorter, I decided to continue 2 more miles to Kelley Stand Road and, boy, am I happy I did. It was mud pit after mud pit in that newer section of trail (~late 1980s, when the LT/AT was relocated over Stratton Mtn.), and it would have been a miserable way to start the next day. Incidentally, this was the first spot where the Catamount and Long Trails cross, out of a total of 8. We camped that night at a primitive site on USFS 71 a mile or so down the road. 40 miles total for the day.

Day #2 commenced with the climb up Stratton Mountain, always a highlight of any LT/AT excursion since it is the "birthplace" of both trails. Today I dubbed "Goober Day" because I kept meeting goofy people on the trail starting with one guy, a thru-hiker, who decided it would be a good idea to bivy RIGHT ON THE TRAIL. I almost stepped on him! At Stratton Pond another guy announced that the trail was IMPASSABLE going north! What the...??!! A brief investigation revealed a short flagged relo due to the pond flooding the trail a bit. Another guy looked like he was dressed for a winter hike (it was maybe 60 degrees), and yet another, a southbounder, asked if I was headed north. "Umm... yeeeah." I took in the nice view of Manchester Center from Prospect Rock and shortly met Chris near Spruce Peak. More coffee at the Rt. 11/30 crossing resulted in a good pace up Bromley, and I arrived at the conveniently located composting privy exactly when it was needed. Mad Tom Notch provided another crewing spot, this time a grilled cheese sandwich from JJ Hapgood's Store in Peru. Yum! The next section is one of my favorites--over Styles, Peru and Baker Peaks as well as Peru Peak Shelter and Griffith Lake. Some day we need to get back there, spend a couple of days and do all the side trails... This day ended at USFS 10, and we set up camp right in the parking lot. 35 miles for the day.

Day #3: I always hike most energetically first thing in the morning so made quick work of the next section past lovely Little Rock Pond and White Rocks to Rt. 140. From Rts. 140 to 103 is probably my favorite section of the entire LT due to the fact that the Trail is so SMOOTH. After Clarendon Gorge at Rt. 103 Chris brought me another grilled cheese, this one from the Whistle Stop Restaurant which has become quite popular with thru-hikers of late. The climb up Clarendon Lookout is always an eye opener because for about 1/2 mile you feel like you're in the White Mtns. It is STEEP! The Trail crosses many roads over the next few miles; Chris met me at the last one, Upper Cold River Road before I finished the day with the final 12 miles up and over the Killington peaks. This area was devastated by Hurricane Irene and looks quite a bit different than on my last trek through here 5 years ago! The climb up Killington went well, and on the traverse to Jungle Junction I tried to keep up with “Gangrene,” a young AT thru-hiker, so the pace was pretty fast! Chris met me above Churchill Scott Shelter, and we marveled at all the downed, uprooted hardwoods about ½ mile before Rt. 4; apparently this wind event occurred in September 2014. It is stunning in its devastation! Chris had made the executive decision that we would celebrate the 100 mile mark by scoring a room at the iconic Inn at the Long Trail. The mattress, shower, real food, and beer were most appreciated! 32.2 miles for the day.

Day #4: Since Chris wanted to head over to the Vermont 100 Miler early to see some running friends, I was on the Trail by 5 am. It had rained in the wee hours of the morning, so we were happy to have stayed at the Inn and not have to pack up a wet tent. The stretch from Rt. 4 to Rt. 73 (Sherburne Pass to Brandon Gap) is 20 miles long and one that I have come to love. This day was wet, misty, and overcast, also very peaceful and contemplative. I enjoyed it very much. The AT split off just a mile into this section, so there were far less hikers from here on. Our plan had been to reunite at Rt. 125/Middlebury Gap, so imagine my surprise when I reached Brandon Gap and saw Chris sitting there in our car! He’d had enough of ultrarunners for a day by that point--haha. The next 10 miles seemed tougher, and there was always one more peak… Horrid… Cape Lookoff… Gillespie… Romance… Worth… FINALLY Chris met me atop Worth Mtn., and we headed down to Rt. 125 across some of the Middlebury Snow Bowl trails. Much of this section of trail was severely eroded, and my feet did not appreciate the steep descent. Magic Hat #9 never tasted so good as at the end of this day! We spent this night at a primitive campsite off USFS 67, which is also where the Catamount Trail passes through. It was quite a bit warmer than the last time we were here! 29.8 miles today.

Day #5: With the realization that I was just crossing the halfway mark, this day started off a bit of a grind over many peaks: Burnt Hill, Kirby, Boyce, Battell, Breadloaf, Wilson, Roosevelt, Cleveland, Grant, and many, many ups n downs in between. There were a fair amount of mud pits and the Trail was overgrown in many spots. There was also a pretty good rain shower going over Mt. Grant and the Trail’s getting ever rougher. I was happy to reach Lincoln Gap and take a good break. Due to bridge construction, Lincoln Gap Road from the east was closed, so Chris had to detour all the way around to the west side--aargh! This did result in far less day hikers than usual for a Sunday on Mt. Abraham, however. The rest of the day, across the southern end of the Monroe Skyline, went better, and I cracked up at the crazy descent between Starks Nest and Rt. 17/Appalachian Gap (OMG!). THIS is where the LT starts to get really gnarly! Chris scored a primo campsite near App Gap… or so we thought… 28.9 miles.

Day #6: Somewhere around 2-3 am, the Mother of all Storms blew through… and I mean BLEW. Unsure what the actual wind speeds were, but they were stronger than anything I experienced on Denali. The tent poles were exactly 1 mph away from snapping. It was… well… I won’t say “epic” because I hate that overused word, so I’ll say it was rather “extreme” for July in Vermont. At one point we sort of held up the tent with our hands for fear it would completely implode, and I questioned whether we’d even be able to make it to the car, about 1/3 football field’s length away. Thankfully the storm eventually abated, our Big Agnes pads kept us, er, afloat inside the tent, and we were able to get back to sleep. Amazing how beneficial extreme physical exertion can be. Incidentally, this was the same storm that produced devastating flooding in nearby Barre and Plainfield, Vermont. Chris had an appointment in Burlington this day, so he made Trader Joe’s and laundromat run as well. My morning was rather sporty with the gymnastics required to traverse Molly Stark, Burnt Rock, the Allens, and Ladder Ravine. There were even 3 rope assists in this section! What the…?! I don’t remember this! At Montclair Glen Lodge I met 4 other LT hikers “recovering” from what we’d all just traversed. Everyone was in good spirits, however, laughing and joking about the crazy, wet terrain we’d just navigated. Camels Hump was easy in contrast, and the summit crowded with many day hikers, I booked it over the top without pause. It is 6 miles from the summit down to Duxbury Road, and it is freaking endless, the upper mile or so basically a brook bed and extremely eroded. Chris hiked partway up the ridge and had quite the baggie full of blueberries by the time I reached him (all of which I promptly inhaled). I decided to do the 3-mile road walk to Bolton Notch Road and the NEW BRIDGE over the Winooski River before calling it a day. The bridge is awesome, and as I found out the next day, the new relocation rocks!! We spent this night at Little River State Park in Waterbury, the highlight being real showers! 21.7 miles today… my mileage is getting less and less--hah!

Day #7: I looked forward to this particular day because it meant traversing the newly opened 4.65 mile section of trail across the flanks of Stimson Mtn. An additional bonus to the relo: the mileage is now 1.2 road miles less according to the Green Mtn. Club! The relo eliminates the Jonesville-to-Bolton Notch Road section and, thus, no longer passes Duck Brook Shelter, but the old section of Trail is still open as a blue blaze. However, the new section is SO MUCH NICER: smooth trail, an easy climb, and *switchbacks* which are unheard of on the Long Trail! I enjoyed it immensely. Once atop Bolton Mtn. I experienced a mild thrill to know that I was extremely close to the Catamount Trail on the popular Bolton-to-Trapp’s section. Shortly I was sitting at Puffer Lodge downing a Snickers and chatting with thru-hiker Steve from WV. Chris met me near Mt. Clark, and we took a short break at Taylor Lodge at which point, I should note, the weather was sunny and warm. We bid adieu as he hiked back out via Lake Mansfield Trail and I continued on toward Vermont’s highest peak, Mt. Mansfield. We were aware that T-storms were predicted--about a 50% chance--for that afternoon, but wishful thinking… About 10 min. after leaving Taylor, the skies darkened ominously as the wind picked up. I walked faster and faster and ALMOST made it the 3+ miles to Butler Lodge before all hell broke loose. Ten minutes in the driving rain and I burst through the empty cabin door. Whew! I spent the next 90 min. drying out as best I could--fortunately there is an upstairs at Butler which was markedly warmer than the lower level. There was also a pad on which I could lie down and rest as the hard rain pummeled the cabin’s roof. Fortuitously, I had phone reception so Chris and I texted back n forth re what to do. Long story short… I waited for the rain, thunder and lightning to stop and took the Forehead Bypass up to the Visitor Center just beyond The Nose, and he drove up the Toll Road to rescue me! Of course, by then the winds had diminished and I could have continued across the ridge, but he had driven all the way up, so… (Kudos to the Toll Road attendant who was very nice and didn’t even charge Chris the normal $19 fee to drive up. We thanked him profusely for “saving my life” when we reached the toll gate.) So… I missed about 4 miles of Trail, but it is a section I have done many times so got over it pretty quickly. We spent the night at Smuggler’s Notch State Park. Chris got a lean-to this time since more rain was forecast… Only 18.4 miles today.

A typical dinner!

Day #8 started early, at 4 am, because my intent was to kill myself and get all the way to Rt. 118 (and thus finish in 8 ½ days). Halfway into the day I thought WTF am I doing this for? and opted to break the final miles into a more enjoyable 3 days. (Yay me!) From Rt. 108/Smuggler’s Notch to the descent off Whiteface Mtn., the Trail is extremely gnarly. Upon reaching a ski trail near Sterling Pond, I even lost the Trail for a bit due to sketchy blazing and had to backtrack. Chris hiked in past Bear Hollow, and we encountered the first of 5 large groups of teenagers from Camp Chateaugay over the next couple of days (between Rt. 108 and Hazen’s Notch). They were staying in the shelters apparently, which would have kind of sucked if you were a solo thru-hiker, just sayin’. At the Lamoille River I said goodbye to my trusty Montrail Hardrocks (am I the only freak who gets sentimental over trail shoes?), the soles ready to completely delaminate after Whiteface Mtn. The next few miles were pleasant, the weather beautiful. We discussed options at Codding Hollow Road and, since we were just over an hour from home and it was still early, decided to go sleep in our own beds for a change! Dean’s Beans Porter was most yummy this eve. 21.2 miles today.

Day #9: Rested and happy, I looked forward to another of my favorite sections of LT, Codding Hollow to Rt. 118. The trek over Laraway, Butternut, and Bowen Mtns. did not disappoint, and Devil’s Gulch was the same “primeval” fern-filled defile as ever. Chris enjoyed giving away some of our unwanted food to a fellow thru-hiker who we dubbed “Rabbi” (because he was studying to become one). The climb up Belvidere wasn’t too bad, but from that point to Hazen’s Notch was one of the most difficult of the entire LT for me. This section of Trail seems to have been abandoned (!). In fact, in reading the LT Guide it appears that there is no Club section responsible for it. The mud pits were intense, there were blowdowns, and the trail needed brushing. Before letting myself get too pissed off, remembering this was all self-imposed, I forced myself to SMILE and laugh in the face of adversity! Hah! Between Haystack and Tillotson Peak, I met another of the Camp Chateaugay groups headed for Tillotson Camp and am not sure they made it since some of them looked utterly exhausted. Unfortunately it was another rainy night so I hope they did make it… By the time I made Hazen’s Notch, I was SO ready to be DONE with the LT. 24.4 miles for the day.

Day #9.5: FINISH DAY!! Compared to the previous section, the walk from Hazen’s Notch to Jay Pass was a cakewalk (well, not really, but…). I took a good ½ hour at Jay Pass eating and drinking coffee before heading up to Jay Peak in the cold drizzle. SO thankful for grabbing my really good Patagucci rain jacket before heading up--it was *nasty* up there. I did not stop on the summit but doubt the café was open in this weather. Spent some time reading the registers in the last 2 shelters, Laura Woodward and Shooting Star. The mud pits were many, but who cared at this point? Chris hiked in to meet me one last time, and we enjoyed one last crew stop at Rt. 105/North Jay Pass in the midst of a downpour. I huddled on the tailgate while he admonished me to not get too comfortable and git r done! Waiting a few minutes for the rain to stop while watching construction vehicles--all the asphalt was ripped up on Rt. 105--I split around 2 and was at the border a little after 3 pm. Mileage for the day was an even 20.

We celebrated at Parker Pie in West Glover with pizza and Allagash White, a very tasty brew. Total time was just about exactly 9 ½ days. Immediately after finishing I said this might have been my last LT hike, but 2 days later I’m thinking it would be nice to do in a dry year, in September, following the foliage south…

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Length of Rhode Island on The North South Trail

Chris and I spent April 23-27 backpacking the North South Trail through western Rhode Island. We started Thursday evening and finished Monday morning. Our daily mileages were approximately 5, 25, 22 ½, 20, and 5.

The North South Trail runs the length of the state, 77 miles from the Atlantic Ocean at Blue Shutters Beach to the Massachusetts state line at the start of the Mid-State Trail. The route connects 8 state-owned wildlife management areas and Burlingame State Park. It is about 1/3 true trail, 1/3 dirt road, and 1/3 paved road (ouch!), but fortunately the road walks pass through mostly rural landscapes and residential areas, so traffic is light. There are tiny ups and downs, but for the most part it is pretty flat walking. Along the way, the NST passes old foundations and cellar holes and literally MILES of old stone walls. Those early settlers sure were industrious!

There is an excellent guidebook by Cliff Vanover -- I purchased mine from The Mountain Wanderer in Lincoln. The guidebook is loaded with detailed and accurate maps and sufficient route descriptions and mileages. Alternate routes are described -- sometimes these routes are more scenic and more trail-like than the actual NST. The route is very, very well marked with blue blazes and plastic NST markers -- we were impressed -- and there were no moments of confusion. The guidebook could have done a little better job as far as pointing out good water sources; there was plenty of water, but much of it did not look exactly drinkable (swamps, ponds, or otherwise yucky).

The camping situation is a little murky, but suffice it to say we never had any problem finding a place to low-impact camp for the night. The one “shelter” at Arcadia Backpackers Campsite, the one that supposedly required a permit, was a hoot: two sides of the rather large cabin had completely caved in leaving only the opposing two walls standing. We set up the tent! The NST passes about a dozen campgrounds, most of which were not yet open, on or near the trail (one was even a nude campground!), and also a one-star motel at mile 53 northbound which we might have considered had the weather been rainy. At the same road crossing, Route 6, the NST passes right through the parking lot of Shady Acres Restaurant. Heaven! (I polished off the 4-piece fried chicken dinner with mashed potatoes, corn, roll, turkey-rice soup, a salad, blueberry pie a la mode, and 3 cups of coffee. Oink!) We saw many, many Dunkin Donuts cups strewn along the roadsides but, alas, the NST does not come within reasonable walking distance of any DDs.

Speaking of litter, there was a lot of it on the road walks. By the looks of of it, a rather scary number of Rhode Island folks apparently like to drink and drive. We saw many empty bottles of every imaginable hard liquor, oodles of “miniatures”, soda cans, rubber gloves (!), fast food wrappers, cigarette packs, etc. The middle section had A LOT of road walking, and we entertained ourselves -- and took our minds off our aching feet -- by counting beer cans. Final count for the day: 339 Bud Light/Bud cans, 242 ALL others. (One street we renamed Busch Road.)

Speaking of coffee, a big shout out to the kind folks at Meadowbook Golf Club, mile 19’ish. We inquired at their restaurant about buying some coffee, and they said it was on the house!

Wildlife is scarce or very shy/smart, but we did hear coyotes the last night, barred owls twice, and we saw 6 turtles, 3 ticks (ick), and 2 deer, both of which were unfortunately dead. With all the road walking, dogs were the animals we saw the most of, and it seems every other resident of rural Rhode Island has a flock of chickens and a rooster these days!

We saw a few other people using the NST: a couple of mountain bikers, a couple of day hikers, one other thru-hiker (she southbound), and a group of 4 section hikers who videotaped and dubbed us “The Indigenous Hikers.” Hah!

Our friend Jim, who lives in northeastern Connecticut, was a godsend. He not only let us leave our car at his home but also drove us to the start… AND picked us up Monday morning at the finish. If you’re reading this, THANK YOU Jim! We owe ya big time!

This was a nice trail to thru-hike this time of year. The trees had not yet budded out, so views were farther reaching.  Unlike the mountain trails in our parts, there was NO SNOW. Temps were cool, and we endured no rain. Big thanks to the trail maintainers and to those who turned the concept of the NST into reality. In my attempt to traverse a minimum of 50 trail miles in each state, this was my third-to-last state left to do. North Dakota and Hawaii remain. Guess which one I’ll finish with?!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Madshus Wuss Skis the Catamount Trail

My Winter 2015 project was one I had been dreaming about for many years: to ski the length of Vermont on the Catamount Trail. That dream became reality on Monday, March 16, when after 25 days scattered within the past 2 months, I skied the final section from Camels Hump Road to Route 17.

The Catamount Trail is the country’s longest marked ski trail. It extends the length of Vermont from Massachusetts to Canada and while advertised as 300 miles, my GPS recorded a solid 325. This backcountry ski trail follows old logging and skid roads, hiking trails, a few groomed Nordic center trails, snowmobile (VAST) trails, and many miles of trail that were scouted and cleared specifically for the CT.  According to Catamount Trail Association literature, approximately 85 miles are on Green Mountain National Forest lands, 60 miles on State lands, 10 on municipal lands, and 86 on protected/conserved lands or via trail easements. Approximately 60 miles are unprotected and exist due only to the generosity and permission of individual landowners. The trail breaks down into 31 sections, and each section has a “trail chief” or two responsible for overseeing maintenance of their particular section. Blue plastic diamonds with black catamount paw prints mark the trail. If my experience is representative, the CT finds very light use, which I find crazy because this trail is so beautiful, so awesomely cool, such a treasure! I found myself repeatedly wondering why I didn’t see throngs of skiers and snowshoers out there… yet happy they weren’t. Between the Canadian border and Stowe, a distance of about 75 miles, I saw only one person on the trail, she skiing at Craftsbury Outdoor Center! Other than 2 large groups encountered, a handful of skiers at the Nordic centers of Stowe, and a Bill Koch youth event at Mountain Top, I saw maybe a dozen skiers on the remainder of the trail. I also encountered maybe 35-40 snowmobilers total, all of whom were courteous and friendly. No crowds on this trail!

History and the CTAThe CT is the brainchild of University of Vermont students Steve Bushey, Paul Jarris, and Ben Rose, who in 1984 conceived of and skied the first end-to-end tour. That same year the Catamount Trail Association was established. This small nonprofit does a stellar job of overseeing management of the CT. As of this writing, less than 80 people have skied the entire CT. Most section-ski the trail over several years, but a few hardy souls thru-ski the trail in one winter. Three individuals -- Zachary Edwards, Sam Brakeley, and Bob Ordemann -- made Winter 2015 a banner thru-ski year.

Background and prepIn December I turned 49 and decided that this -- my 50th -- year I would attempt to traverse the length of Vermont in 5 different ways. The Catamount Trail would be the first, the most logistically complicated, the longest in terms of duration, and the most physically challenging due to the fact that I am not a very good skier! Previous backcountry ski experience amounted to things like skiing into Baxter State Park, the Pemi ski-thru, and some of the longer winter approaches to New England peaks. I also skied Mt. Garfield once… badly. 99% of my skiing experience had been at Nordic centers on beautifully groomed trails and on very skinny skis. On the positive side, I have a long history of backpacking, winter hiking, long-distance running, and am confident and comfortable going solo. I’d intended to do more actual ski training early this winter but in the end managed to get out exactly once on my skis, a 3-hour jaunt on a local rail trail. On the other hand, I’d just pushed thru December in a 30-day yoga “immersion” of 90 minute classes. I believe that that, along with regular hour-long sessions on a Concept 2 rower, proved very good training for long-distance skiing. My back, arms, shoulders, and core were strong, and my hip flexors suffered none of the usual soreness so common after my first couple ski outings in earlier years.

Gear talk:  After discussion with the helpful CTA staff, cursory internet searches, and talking with the fine folks at Burlington’s Outdoor Gear Exchange and The Ski Rack, I settled on the Madshus Eon with the Salomon xAdv6 boot and binding, happy with that choice. Enter Stage Left: Madshus Wuss! Being, well, let‘s say a conservative skier -- a snowplower -- and opting for less weight over control, I avoided a more full-on backcountry setup. As for boots, my main concern centered on warmth and comfort, and the xAdv6’s served that purpose. I did have to be watchful of the bindings icing up; for that reason I carried a pocket knife for the first time in my backcountry career and actually used it on a couple occasions. On two separate days my boot froze onto the binding, though fortunately discovered not until day’s end! I also bought Black Diamond kicker skins, again opting for weight savings over the much heavier, full length variety. (I later exchanged the first set after ripping the lashing strap on their second use and have not been particularly pleased with the second set because I cannot get the plate to lie flat, so snow bunches up dangerously under the plate.) In any event, I used kicker skins on five days only for short stretches of sustained, otherwise ungrippy climbs. My final purchase, a boot dryer, meant multi-day excursions each began with warm dry feet.

Guidebook and Maps:  The CTA-published guidebook and the more updated online version proved indispensable. All section maps, profiles and descriptions are available on the excellent CTA website, My one small critique is that 75% of the time my GPS recorded section mileages anywhere from 0.3 to 4.2 miles longer than advertised, but I believe the CTA plans to address those differences (and anyway, it meant more miles to enjoy). Three National Geographic/Trails Illustrated Maps (Mt. Mansfield-Stowe, GMNF North, and GMNF South) proved equally helpful, especially for my husband Chris who crewed me. Unfortunately, there is no NG/TI map for the northern ~65 miles. Additionally, my iHike GPS app performed marvelously. (Best $6.99 I ever spent!) In the end, I was “confused” only a couple of times but quickly figured out correct directions by using the tools at hand.

In my pack:  Except for crampons/Microspikes, my backpack contained most of the things I would normally carry for a winter hike, including a huge down jacket, insulated pants, extra hat, neck gaiter, big mitts, chemical hand warmers, a Blizzard Survival Bag, small stove and pot, food and fluids, duct tape, headlamps, etc. With most days cold enough, I usually wore wind pants and a hooded shell over a base layer or two. I did not carry a PLB device but did carry an iPhone and was surprised at the places I had phone service as well as the places I didn’t. Chris and I knew better than to rely on cell service, but when possible we enjoyed texting each other in order to gauge progress.

Chris:  Without my husband’s help this adventure would not have been possible. HUGE thanks and gratitude for his unwavering support. Chris would drop me off at the day‘s starting point, then snowshoe in from either an access point within the section or from the end point and get some miles of his own. There are other ways of thru-skiing the Trail, of course, including joining one of the CTA-sponsored outings, skiing inn to inn ($$$… ka-ching!), skiing with others in opposite directions and exchanging car keys, or winter camping along the way, the latter of which was not going to happen. (I once spent 2 weeks on Denali so have been fully cured of any future desire to camp on snow.) Being able to ski the whole CT with a dependable and supportive partner: priceless! I am a lucky woman…

Plan v. execution:  I worried there might not be enough snow this winter, but that turned out for naught. What an amazing snow year! In the warmth and comfort of my home, I’d made a rough plan to complete the trail in 15-20 days with the expectation that on most days I would complete 2 (of the 31) sections per day and relatively easily ski 20 miles a day even though I would be out there solo most of the time. Hahaha… In reality I managed 2 sections per day only 5 times, and one 7-mile section took 2 whole days to complete! My start at the Canadian border on January 18 proved rather inauspicious. Within the first 2 miles I had already missed a turn onto a new relo and skied an extra 2 miles on the older route before figuring out my mistake. Grrr…! Then for some stupid reason I decided that it might be fun to ski the next section south of Jay Pass the day after a dumpage of almost a foot of heavy, wet snow. After 3 miles of absolutely exhausting trail breaking, I wisely retreated and luckily got enough cell reception to text Chris. “Skiing” 6 miles that day took 4 ½ hours. Gulp. Oddly, over the past couple years the Jay Peak area has been a kind of kryptonite for me, but I am stubborn and focused and don’t throw in the towel that easily.

The next few outings played out much better, but for the Madshus Wuss no day came easy! The route up and over Lowell Mountain on the Revolutionary-era Bayley-Hazen Road was especially enjoyable, and reaching Craftsbury Outdoor Center on the 5th day of skiing (January 24) was a big milestone. On the 8th day of skiing (January 29) I navigated through the somewhat confusing maze of interconnected Nordic ski centers of Stowe, a total of 21 miles and 3000+ feet of climb. Boy, was I happy to reach Trapp Family Lodge at the end of that day! By February 1, I had made it to I-89, the psychological third-of-the-way milestone.

Prior obligations prevailed and we couldn’t get back out there again until February 18. Up to this point each of the outings were day trips from home in the Northeast Kingdom. Toward the end of the day my fatigued, addled brain would often have difficulty trying to decipher the guidebook backwards -- its narrative reads south to north -- so I shifted plans to do the majority of what remained in the south-to-north direction. We headed down to the Mass border on February 18 and over the next 6 days clicked off Sections 1-9, about 87 miles. Fortuitously, I started just a couple days behind a group of 20-30 skiers, the CTA’s Southern Week-Long Tour. In contrast to the northern Sections 21-31, these southern miles rolled much gentler, making the skiing generally even more enjoyable for me. On the other hand, a couple days had crazy cold wind chills and impressive newly formed 3 foot snowdrifts to plow through: I’ll not soon forget the Somerset Reservoir Drifts from Hell! Crossing the AT/LT and skiing on Stratton Pond was another significant milestone. (The CT crosses the Long Trail a total of 8 times.) We spent 2 nights in the funky Old Red Mill Inn in Wilmington, 2 at the Snowden Inn in Londonderry, and a final night in Ludlow. By Section 7 I had caught up to some of the SWLT and the next day was breaking trail for THEM… and sheesh, did I break trail out of Landgrove that day! Let’s just say that upon reaching the VAST section of trail on February 22 I fully realized my appreciation for snowmobilers. By the time we made it to Healdville on the 6th day of our southern tour, we were both ready for a few days off.

Our next outing, I skied another section southbound to Camels Hump Road, then Chris and I climbed Camels Hump via the Burrows Trail and I sledded down while Chris jogged in snowshoes behind me. (THAT was fun! My one and only 4000 footer this winter.) The entire CT passes through beautiful, mostly open hardwoods with tons of critter tracks, and the central third may have been my favorite of all. Despite some trail breaking, Section 11 near Salt Ash and Burnt mountains, and Section 12 which traversed the flanks of Shrewsbury Peak, Little Killington, and Mendon Peaks were just absolute “winter wonderland” areas. I also really enjoyed Sections 13 and 14, Route 4/Sherburne Pass to Rt. 73 just below Brandon Gap, loaded with a bundle of easy but remote VAST trail skiing! After spending the night at the Brandon Motor Lodge (2 thumbs up), climbing out of Brandon Gap the next day on an apparently lightly used 3.4 mile section proved to be a rude awakening to my day, as approximately 8 inches of fresh snow blanketed the yet unconsolidated base. However, the rest of the day unfolded as easy and fun trail through the Blueberry Hill network and beyond.

On March 12 I skied Rt. 125 to Lincoln Gap, then back down the west side, fortunate enough in that section to run across the Kroka group. Kroka Expeditions, out of Southern NH, takes some pretty amazing teens on a semester-long adventure, one leg of which is skiing parts of the CT. They really warmed up to Chris when he gave them all the remaining food we had in the car, including chips, Snickers and Lara bars (but not the beer)!

The next day we were at it again, this time climbing Lincoln Gap from the east side. By this point in the journey, a couple thaw-freeze events created an unbreakable crust situation for the descent from Lincoln Gap to West Hill Road which made controlled skiing quite difficult for the Madshus Wuss. Consequently I ended up side stepping down a lot of what could have been really fun downhills with just a few inches of snow. This was the one and only day when I almost resorted to tears of frustration, but I would not allow that and forced myself to laugh instead! When compared to my GPS numbers, the guidebook mileage was most off in this section: the book read 3.7 miles, I got 7.0. But, my gosh, the section was gorgeous! SO many animal tracks, quiet stillness, and beautiful open hardwoods as far as the eye could see. Juxtaposed against this fairly remote backcountry stretch, the next 2 miles traversed the “wilds” of the Sugarbush Golf Course. Enough warming had occurred that I actually had to ski around a few bare patches this day!

On March 16 I skied my last section southbound from Camels Hump Road to the covered bridge of Battleground Condos on Rt. 17 in the Mad River Valley, crossing the LT (at Huntington Gap) one last time. Advertised as “very remote, requiring advanced skiing abilities” with some long sustained climbs, I approached this final section with a bit of trepidation. But with 2-3” of fresh snow over that same unbreakable crust and temps getting in the 20s and 30s, conditions were near perfect, even for a Wuss. Chris met me in Phen Basin, and we completed the last couple miles together. What a great finish to an incredible trip! While there is a satisfying sense of accomplishment, the joy is in the journey and the finish is always bittersweet for me. A big thank you to the Catamount Trail Association, the Trail Chiefs and all the volunteers for the wonderful job they’re doing. I love this Trail!

A few stats

Total miles done: 352
Total CT miles done: 326
Days skiing: 25
Average mileage: 14.0
Median mileage: 14.5
Most miles in a day: 22 (Rt. 4 to Rt. 73)
Least miles in a day: 5 (part of Section 20)
Coldest temp: -16 in Elmore (I swore I’d never go out in temps this cold again… but there I was...)
Warmest temp: high 30s - used scraper and MaxiGlide only 3x
Windchill warning days: 3
Dams crossed: 3 - Harriman, Chittenden, Sugar Hill
Breakfast at Maplefields: Too numerous to count
Pre 4 am wakeups: Too numerous to count
Nights away from home: 7
Miles driven: I don’t wanna know
Best post-ski meal: Prime rib at Old Red Mill Inn
Best souvenir: ½ moose shed, Section 27


Jan 18 - Canadian border to Jay Pass (14.5 m.)
Jan 19 - Jay Pass to “Birch Knoll” and back (6 m.)
Jan 21 - Hazen’s Notch Road to “Birch Knoll” and back, then to Brookside Road (12 m.)
Jan 22 - Brookside Road to Wyllie Hill Road (17 m.)
Jan 24 - Wyllie Hill Road to Stevens/Garfield Road (20 m.)
Jan 25 - Stevens/Garfield Road to Elmore (10 m.)
Jan 26 - Elmore to Mud City Loop Road (15 m.)
Jan 29 - Mud City Loop Road to Trapp Family Lodge (21 m.)
Jan 30 - Nebraska Valley to Route 2/I-89 (14.5 m.)
Feb 1 - Nebraska Valley to Trapps and back (6 m.)
Feb 4 - Duxbury Road to Camels Hump Skiers Association high point and back (10 m.)
Feb 18 - MA border to Rt. 9 (18.1 m.)
Feb 19 - Rt. 9 to Kelley Stand Road (16.75 m.)
Feb 20 - Kelly Stand Road to Kendall Farm Road (10.4 m.)
Feb 21 - Kendall Farm Road to Danby-Mt. Tabor Road (19 m.)
Feb 22 - Danby-Mt. Tabor Road to Rt. 155 (16 m.)
Feb 23 - Rt. 155 - Healdville (7.4 m.)
Feb 25 - CHSA to Camels Hump Road (5 m.)
Mar 5 - Buttermilk Falls pkg. to Tin Shanty (18 m.)
Mar 6 - Tin Shanty to Rt. 4 (14.2 m.)
Mar 8 - Rt. 4 to Rt. 73 (22 m.)
Mar 9 - Rt. 73 to Rt. 125 (13 m.)
Mar 12 - Rt. 125 to Lincoln Gap and back down west side (19.5 m.)
Mar 13 - Lincoln Gap Road east side to Rt. 17 (17 m.)
Mar 16 - Camels Hump Road to Rt. 17 (10.4 m.)