Taking a Hike – Wild River Wilderness

Wild River Wilderness, NH, from North Baldface mountain.

Day Four – Wild River Wilderness from the Baldface Circle Trail

“Taking a Hike”, my monthly newspaper column, has now been published for November at both The Hour and Hersam-Acorn Arts & Leisure. I hope it gives a flavor of the four-day backpack I took in and around New Hampshire’s Wild River Wilderness in October.

One aspect of a hike like that which the article does not talk about is how very busy your mind is kept. You would think the absence of people, the internet, chores, and work would free the mind for the uninterrupted contemplation of nature – or at least for boredom. But I remember being endlessly occupied with not falling over; not getting lost; not running out of daylight; keeping my gear dry; keeping my camp in order; updating my plans as the weather changed … There were, of course, opportunities to admire the scenery – particularly on the last day – but they were fewer and further between than one might expect.

August’s “Taking a Hike” – mounts Pisgah and Mansfield in Vermont – is now available in full on this site (via the Taking a Hike tab – 2014: “Aug – Vermont Peaks” – or by clicking here).

Day Hike Notes – Macedonia Brook

Macedonia Brook State Park, Kent CT.

Macedonia Brook valley, Kent CT, from its west side.

For many years now, I have hiked the same route on Black Friday (so called, by the way, because too many people go shopping instead of hiking). The route crosses the Saugatuck watershed in Easton and Weston CT. If you are interested in that hike, there is information for it here. But this year I broke with tradition. I was more in the mood for a mountain than a meander through Fairfield County woods. I thought of the Catskills or Taconics, but then the snow came just before the turkey, and I thought it would be stupid to drive for two hours just to find a mountain now made inaccessible. So, after some wavering, I compromised, and drove an hour to the little mountains of Macedonia Brook State Park. Little mountains, but still plenty of snow.

DATE: Friday, November 28th.
START & FINISH: Intersection of the Blue trail with Macedonia Brook Road, near the State Park’s southern entrance.
ROUTE: Anticlockwise around the Blue trail, plus a long detour and double-back after baulking at the slick clamber up Cobble Mountain’s northeast side. Detour took the Green, Orange, and White trails – plus an unmapped trail – to reach Cobble via the Blue trail from the south.
DISTANCE: Blue trail is a 6.4-mile circuit. The detour made my hike more like 8 miles.
TIME: 6 hours, more or less.
TERRAIN: Up and down steep, wooded hills. Some awkward scrambles. 6-9 inches of snow cover made everything slower and more difficult. I gave up the ascent of Cobble from the northeast (Blue trail) for lack of safe foot- and handholds.
MAPS: Available from CT Deep here.

WEATHER: Sunshine and clouds; light snow showers in the afternoon.
WILDLIFE: Just tracks in the snow.


Cobble Mountain, Macedonia Brook State Park, Kent CT

Looking southwest from Cobble Mountain

BREAKFAST: McDonald’s in New Milford.
LUNCH: Thanksgiving turkey on rye. Walkers oatcakes (“bannocks”) carried across the Atlantic by my eldest daughter. Thanks, Katie!
– Patches of the purest ultramarine sky.
– “Winter” views of the Macedonia Brook valley.
– The cold air got to my lungs at first.
– Finding out that I had lost the White trail, and that even my detour was going to be longer than expected as a consequence.
KIT: I brought snowshoes, but left them in the car. They would have been useful at times, but a nuisance on steep, rocky sections.
COMPANY: Nobody at all, until a couple with three dogs five minutes from the end.

A.T. Journeys – Trail Stories: A Trail Unbroken

AT Journeys Nov-Dec

I have enjoyed AT Journeys, the magazine of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, for eight years now, first in print and now electronically. It is old-fashioned in a nice way. Its articles assume the reader is prepared to, well, read; it’s cleanly presented; it showcases fantastic photographs; the ads don’t overrun the content. Anyway, early in the summer, I sent the magazine a short article about how the AT became a part – a small but valued part – of our family life since we came to Connecticut. I am delighted to say they have just published it as A Trail Unbroken (their title). If I have set this up correctly, clicking here should open a PDF of the relevant pages. I hope you enjoy it.

Taking a Hike – Solo Hiking, Group Hiking

The Hiltebeitel Trail, Devil's Den, Weston CT -- destination of one of my AMC hikes

The Hiltebeitel Trail, Devil’s Den, Weston CT — destination of one of my AMC hikes

“Taking a Hike”, my monthly column, has now been published for October at both The Hour and Hersam-Acorn Arts & Leisure. It’s a bit of a ramble (appropriate, I suppose) on the pros and cons of hiking alone versus in company; and how I have started to appreciate social hiking more, helped along by two fun group hikes I organized for the AMC at the Devil’s Den in Weston, CT.

July’s “Taking a Hike” – a very solitary walk in the Catskill Mountains – is now available in full on this site (via the Taking a Hike tab – 2014: “Jul – Panther Mountain” – or by clicking here). Thinking back to its voiceless woods, I know I will never give up solo hiking entirely. There are photos for this hike here.

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, robert.c.mcwilliams@gmail.com)

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.