In and Out of the Wild River Wilderness

Wild River, Wild River Wilderness, White Mountains, New Hampshire

The Wild River before the downpours.

I love the word “wilderness”. It never fails to set me to imagining.

I imagine being out of sight and earshot of civilization, in a place where man’s touch is absent; and you see, hear and smell only nature – and yourself.

Earlier this month, I spent four days backpacking in and around a wilderness, at least a place that is officially designated as one. If you take a purist view of wilderness, you might certainly argue that none is left, that man has altered everywhere now. Our plastic fills the oceans, our soot covers the icecaps, the seas lap ever higher around remote desert islands. My hike around New Hampshire’s Wild River Wilderness got me thinking about just what wilderness means.

Wild River Wilderness is small – less than twice the size of Manhattan. The forested White Mountains valley it occupies has been anything but untouched by civilized man. It was thoroughly logged in the 1800s, unnaturally burned in 1903, and set aside as wilderness by Act of Congress only in 2006. I was interested to see what that designation meant in practice.

The first 3.7 miles of my hike took me to a ridge called Eagle Crag. Speaking casually, you could call it a wilderness hike. The only obvious works of man were the trail itself, its blazes, and a few signs. A careful eye – not mine – might notice that in places the trail followed an old logging road. But all of this was before the wilderness boundary. (There were, by the way, fantastic views from Eagle Crag, and if you are not interested in my ramblings on wilderness, you can just follow the hike via photos and notes here.)

I crossed into the wilderness just beyond Eagle Crag in the early afternoon, and remained in it – on and off – for the best part of two days, and two full nights. The wilderness was a mixed forest in the drainage of the Wild River. I saw no one and my cell phone did not work. The main differences from the non-wilderness land around it was that its trails showed no sign of maintenance, trail signs were few, and blazes scare and not to be relied on. In places, the Wild River Trail vanished. The river itself had always to be forded.

Then there was Perkins Notch where I spent my first night. I knew the shelter had been removed, but was unsure what other camping facilities would remain. Apart from a few packed-earth tent pads, there were none; no privy, no bear pulley. I would have liked the pulley especially, but this was a wilderness so I strung a rope over a half-fallen pine.

Sunrise hits the Carter-Moriah Range, Wild River Wilderness, White Mountains, New Hampshire

Sunrise hits the Carter-Moriah Range

All through day two it poured. Thankfully, I had left the wilderness for Carter Notch Hut for most of the storm. I had planned, on day three, to hike over Carter Dome, and then cross seven miles of the wilderness on the Blue Angel Trail. But a cold front was due to come through in the morning. It promised thunder, and I did not want to be on a mountaintop for it.

But there was another factor in my decision to retrace my steps down the Wild River; I now knew where the trail could be lost, where it would be wettest, where I would have to wade streams. I knew none of that, firsthand, for the Blue Angel Trail. It was now irrelevant to me that the White River valley had been logged and burned a century ago. It didn’t matter either that its very air held man’s invisible interference. It was a wilderness, even if not quite a trackless one, and I had better err on the side of caution.

Sunrise Hike, Devil’s Den, Weston CT – October 31st

AMC-logoJoin me if you can on another Appalachian Mountain Club Connecticut Chapter hike in the Devil’s Den. Details from the AMC announcement below.

B2C means 5-8 miles, fast pace, average terrain. There is no need to be an AMC member.

Fri., Oct. 31. Weston Great Ledge, Devil’s Den, Weston (B2C), West of River, CT. Set yourself up for Friday and Halloween with a brisk, crack-of-dawn hike. We will hike out to the Weston Great Ledge, break for breakfast with a view, then retrace our steps.  We’ll cover approximately 6.5 miles of mostly gentle grades in about 3 hrs (including break). Meet Pent Road parking area 7:15 a.m. for 7:30 sharp departure. Co-Lead welcome. Call Rob if interested to car-pool from Rte 7 commuter parking lot next to Orem’s Diner, Wilton. Heavy rain cancels. L Rob McWilliams (203-434-0297,

Across Scotland – New Lanark to the Solway Firth

Start, finish and overnight stops of Week Six.

Start, finish and overnight stops of Week Six.

It looks as if WordPress successfully published last week’s post for me as I slept at Carter Notch Hut in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. At least, I was probably sleeping. I suppose it could have happened during one of my wakening moments – when a critter scuttled across the hut floor; when the hut filled with a thin gray light of uncertain origin; when the gale and rain outside really cranked up the noise. Anyway, back to Scotland three years ago.

Week Six took me from the Upper Clyde Valley at New Lanark, over the Southern Uplands, and finally along Annandale to the Solway Firth. The Firth is a bay that divides southwest Scotland from northwest England, and was therefore the end of my journey.

Some journeys fizzle out. I don’t feel this one did. Although the last two days were an easy walk on country lanes, the 20 miles on the Southern Upland Way harkened back to the Highlands – solitude, rough trails, treelessness.

START: New Lanark, Saturday October 8th.
FINISH: The Solway Firth at Annan, Thursday 13th.
DISTANCE: 73 miles.

Day 38 - Rainbow over the Potrail Water, a headwater of the River Clyde.

Day 38 – Rainbow over the Potrail Water, a headwater of the River Clyde.

TERRAIN: Mostly country lanes, plus 20 miles of the Southern Upland Way. Approaching Beattock, I came to think of the path as the Southern Upland Waterway.
BEST WEATHER: A rainbow during a bright spell near the source of the River Clyde.
WORST WEATHER: Cold, horizontal rain on the climb to Wanlockhead, Scotland’s highest village.
WILDLIFE HIGHLIGHT: A gray-white bird of prey – a peregrine falcon perhaps – circling above the river at the Falls of Clyde.
MOST IMPRESSIVE HILL: The steep green hills hemming in the Dalveen Pass between Wanlockhead and Beattock.

BEST COMPANY: The friendly staff and guests at The Hopetoun Arms in Leadhills, where I took shelter from that “cold, horizontal rain”.
BEST “CRAIC”: Spain versus Scotland football match in the bar of The Old Stables Inn at Beattock. It was the end of Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2012, but the crowd – especially a joker called Willy – eased the pain.
BEST LODGING: The Garage B&B in Wanlockhead, run by a friendly granny named Emily.

HIGHEST HIGH: Spying the Solway Firth 40 miles off from high on Hods Hill.
LOWEST LOW: My evening in Lochmaben. It seemed a nondescript place but, more importantly, I just wanted the time to pass so I could start my last day’s hike.

HISTORY NOTE: Recent economic history. I ran into the turbines of Clyde Wind Farm high in the Southern Uplands. It was still under construction, but when it opened a year later it boasted 152 turbines, generating power for 280,000 homes. This is at the cost of views, of course. A reasonable cost? A government survey of visitors to Scotland found that 80% of them were not put off by the turbines that have sprouted over the landscape to date. I agree with the 80% – for now.

Day 41 - THE END. The Solway Firth at Annan.

Day 41 – THE END. The Solway Firth at Annan.

Across Scotland – Glasgow to New Lanark

Glasgow - back to Milngavie - onward up the Clyde Valley

Glasgow – back to Milngavie – onward up the Clyde Valley

When this post is published, I hope to be in New Hampshire’s White Mountains; 3,288 feet high, and asleep too. I am programing WordPress to publish in the wee hours of October 8th. If all goes well, I will be snoring in Carter Notch Hut at that time. The post is the fifth of the “map, notes and photos” series recalling my hike the length of Scotland exactly 3 years ago.

In a sense, Week Five was a series of day-hikes. I walked from Glasgow City Centre back to Milngavie, where I had ended the West Highland Way. I walked 12 miles up the urban Clyde, visited relatives in Bellshill, and then took the train back to Glasgow. The next day I actually carried my big pack – from Uddingston to Wishaw – but then rode the train on to Lanark, where I stayed at the nearby New Lanark youth hostel. I returned to Wishaw the next morning, and then walked the banks of the river back up to New Lanark.

I took all these rides – rattling back and forth to the SYHA hostels in Glasgow and New Lanark – because I was unsure if I’d find suitable accommodation in the industrial towns that line the Clyde upstream from Glasgow. It was a short week too, but it took me from the city center to the tight, rural valley of the Falls of Clyde.

START: Glasgow, Monday October 3rd.
FINISH: New Lanark, Thursday 6th.
DISTANCE: 43 miles.

TERRAIN: City and suburban streets; paved riverside track; footpaths from the broad and fine to the thin and slimy.
BEST WEATHER: The solitary sunny day, Friday – a day off in Lanark.
WORST WEATHER: If the sun came out at all from Saturday to Wednesday, I do not remember it; and I think I would have.
WILDLIFE HIGHLIGHT: A fox darting across a footpath near Cambuslang.
MOST IMPRESSIVE HILL: Tinto, seen to the south from the train from Lanark to Wishaw on my way to start Thursday’s hike – at 2,333 feet the highest hill since Loch Lomond.

The Arlington bar, Woodlands Road, Glasgow's West End.

The Arlington bar, Woodlands Road, Glasgow’s West End.

BEST COMPANY: Visits with relatives in Glasgow and Bellshill, no doubt about that.
BEST “CRAIC”: I made the friendly, no-frills Arlington bar my Glasgow local (seen right on sunnier visit).
BEST LODGING: The spacious SYHA hostel at New Lanark, where I stayed 3 nights. I stayed 5 nights in total at its Glasgow equivalent. Its only negative was a dormitory overcrowded with Glasgow University students who had not yet found permanent digs.

HIGHEST HIGH: Probably the convenience store worker in Uddingston who, when I said I had walked out from Glasgow (12 miles), said with total sincerity “From Glasgow? That’s amazing! I didn’t know you could do that.”
: A generalized low in Glasgow whenever I was not in company or otherwise entertained. It may have been city rain, or the dormitory, or a yearning for home.

HISTORY NOTE: My walk took me along the edge of Glasgow Green – the city’s first public open space, and scene of the “great proletarian celebration”. Glasgow had held a summer fair since 1190, at first a place to trade but, by the 1800s, the venue for a week of “Bachannalian bad behavior”. By 1870, the city fathers had had enough of it and banished the fair from the Green. “Glasgow Fair” is still the name of a July public holiday in the city.

Day 34 - Sunshine and coming squall, the River Clyde in South Lanarkshire near Crossford.

Day 34 – Sunshine and coming squall, the River Clyde in South Lanarkshire near Crossford.

Across Scotland – Fort William to Glasgow

Start, finish and overnight stops of Week Four.

Start, finish and overnight stops of Week Four.

Week Four of my walk across Scotland three years ago was different from weeks 1-3; not the weather (still mostly either a dry or a wet gray), and not the scenery (still varied and spectacular). But this week I did not have to plot my own course; it was laid out for me by the West Highland Way – the popular, 95-mile marked trail from Fort William to Glasgow.

Most of the 30,000 people who walk the WHW each year do so south to north, and for many it is their first (and last!) long-distance hike. If it had been my first long-distance Highland hike too, I know it would have felt like a big adventure. But after my three weeks in the northwest, it felt undemanding at times; not easy, just laid on. This does not mean I did not enjoy it. I did, immensely.

I have said that the southern end of the WHW is in Glasgow. That is not quite true. The trail ends (or, more usually, begins) in Milngavie, a town on the outskirts of the city (and pronounced Mull-GUY, by the way). My week’s journey ended on a train from Milngavie to Glasgow Central. But, in the interests of completeness, I walked the city and suburban streets back to the town a few days later. Week Four:

START: Fort William, Saturday September 24th.
FINISH: Glasgow, Friday 30th.
DISTANCE: 95 miles.

Day 24 - Kings House from the trail south; Beinn a' Chrulaiste behind.

Day 24 – Kings House from the trail south; Beinn a’ Chrulaiste behind.

TERRAIN: Since this was the West Highland Way, much improved over my first three weeks. There was no trackless moor, but some trail – notably at the north end of Loch Lomond – was still rough enough.
BEST WEATHER: The sun came out as I skirted Rannoch Moor. If it had to choose to shine on only one section, this was the best choice (Kings House to Bridge of Orchy).
WORST WEATHER: The next day – torrents of rain around Tyndrum and into Strath Fillan.
WILDLIFE HIGHLIGHT: Coming face to face with a huge, horned, wild billy-goat beside Loch Lomond.
MOST IMPRESSIVE HILL: It has to be The Beuckle (Buachaille Etive Mòr) at the head of Glen Coe; storm-enveloped on Sunday afternoon, pointing into a blue sky on Monday morning.

BEST COMPANY: Although I only spoke to one other patron, the Climbers’ Bar at the Kings House Hotel on Sunday lunchtime. It held a steady procession of cheerful, soaked hikers.
BEST “CRAIC”: Not craic exactly, but rambunctious Partick Thistle football ground in Glasgow on Friday night. Come on the Jags!

BEST LODGING: Hmm. All the bunkhouses, hotels and hostels were special for something; Kings House and the Rowardennan SYHA for location; Bridge of Orchy Hotel and The Clachan Inn (Drymen) for food; and the Drovers Inn (Inverarnan) for sheer Disney-ness. The Blackwater Hostel in Kinlochleven was probably my best overall experience – friendly, simple, and an easy walk from the village.

Day 27 - Loch Lomond from Conic Hill, the Highland-Lowland boundary.

Day 27 – Loch Lomond from Conic Hill, the Highland-Lowland boundary.

HIGHEST HIGH: The view past the Pap of Glencoe to the mountains of Appin from high above Kinlochleven.
LOWEST LOW: A strange, short melancholy for no apparent reason at the southern edge of Rannoch Moor. Maybe it was as simple as a sudden shower in the woods after a morning of sunshine and open views.

HISTORY NOTE: The murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure in the woods of Lettermore in 1752 (the “Appin Murder”) was both a historical event and an episode in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Campbell was the crown representative on forfeited Jacobite estates in Appin, responsible for evicting disloyal tenants and collecting rents. One James of the Glens – almost certainly innocent – was hanged for the murder. Before mounting the scaffold he recited the 35th Psalm, still known in the Highlands as “The Psalm of James of the Glens”.

Evening Hike, Devil’s Den, Weston CT – October 2nd

AMC-logoFollowing a successful evening outing last week, I will lead another Appalachian Mountain Club Connecticut Chapter hike in the Den this Thursday. Details from the AMC announcement below.

C2C means under 5 miles, fast pace, average terrain. There is no need to be an AMC member.

Thu., Oct. 2. Ambler Gorge, Devil’s Den, Weston (C2C), West of River, CT. We will take an evening hike to Ambler Gorge and back, taking in streams, ledges, and the rocky chasm itself. We’ll cover approximately 3.0 miles of mostly gentle grades in about 1.5 hrs, stopping at vistas on the Ambler Trail. Meet Pent Road parking area 4:30 p.m. for 4:45 sharp departure. Co-Lead welcome. Call Rob to car-pool from Rte 7 commuter parking lot next to Orem’s Diner, Wilton. Heavy rain cancels. L Rob McWilliams (203-434-0297,

Across Scotland – Ratagan to Fort William

Start, finish and overnight stops of Week Three.

Start, finish and overnight stops of Week Three.

Week Three of my 2011 walk across Scotland took me to Fort William, the halfway point. A town of 10,000 people, it felt like a metropolis after the northwest Highlands. I reached it after a 22-mile, storm-battered day on the Great Glen Way, and stayed for two full days to get ready for the West Highland Way.

Fort William doesn’t get good reviews. The Rough Guide uses adjectives like grubby, wrecked and tacky to describe different aspects of the town. I did find hanging out there for two days tedious at times, but all my days off were a bit like that. Perhaps it was the sudden loss of the easy purpose of walking. Anyway, there was plenty about Fort William that I liked, from friendly folk through good curries to the West Highland Museum.

Notes for Week Three:

START: Ratagan youth hostel, Saturday September 17th.
FINISH: Fort William, Wednesday 21st.
DISTANCE: 67 miles.

TERRAIN: The usual selection, plus canal towpath into Fort William.
BEST WEATHER: Occasional sunshine, rainbows.
WORST WEATHER: Gale-force winds, lashing rain by Loch Lochy, south of Laggan.
WILDLIFE HIGHLIGHT: Thinking of – but not actually seeing – wildcats in Glen Affric.

Day 15 - At Bealach an Sgàirne,  looking east toward Glen Affric.

Day 15 – At Bealach an Sgàirne, looking east toward Glen Affric.

MOST IMPRESSIVE HILL: Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan (skoor nan ker-uh-van) seen from the glen between Glen Affric and the Cluanie Inn.

BEST COMPANY: Colin, warden of the Glen Affric youth hostel and maker of strong tea.
BEST “CRAIC”: At the Tomdoun Hotel, now sadly closed – good food, drink and talk in Scottish, English, Dutch and Hungarian-Romanian company.

BEST LODGING: For location and atmosphere, it has to be the Glen Affric youth hostel, 6 miles from the nearest tarmac. But I must mention the spotless Great Glen Hostel in Laggan too.

Day 18 - Loch Garry towards hills of Knoydart, a few miles from Tomdoun.

Day 18 – Loch Garry towards hills of Knoydart, a few miles from Tomdoun.

HIGHEST HIGH: Finding, eventually, a faint path leading away from the River Loyne. Without it, I’d have been heather-whacking over to Glen Garry.
LOWEST LOW: Occasional tedium in Fort William. I enjoyed much of the stay, but the days were gray, and kicking my heels was hard.

HISTORY NOTE: The last ten miles into Fort William followed the Caledonian Canal. It opened in 1822 after 19 years under construction, but quickly became a white elephant as the new ships – built of iron and powered by steam – neither fitted in it nor needed its shelter.