Published in The Hour – October 2013.
Sometimes you get lucky. The start of one of my backpacking trips was disrupted by Hurricane Irene. Another time, my youngest and I had to take refuge in an open-sided shelter for 36 hours until a band of soaking storms cleared Isle Royale in Lake Superior. But today the ranger at Franconia Notch in New Hampshire’s White Mountains was saying “You couldn’t have picked a better week. There’s not a drop of rain in the forecast, and that’s almost unheard of up here”. My plan was to hike for four days in and around the Pemigewasset Wilderness, the largest federally-designated wilds in the Northeast (roughly as big as Stamford, Darien and Norwalk combined). With two nights under canvas – or nylon, to be exact – the fine forecast was a real morale-booster.
Backpacking is different from day hiking. When you know you will drive home at the end of the walk, it doesn’t matter half so much if you are wet, footsore or fed up. You’ll soon have the comforts of home. When you sleep in the woods, you need to take your comforts with you, or be of a mind to do without. But backpacking has some real pluses too, and this trade-off between hardship and reward played out throughout my hike. The first hardship, of course, is a big pack. Mine weighed in at 40lb, not counting water (each pint of which adds 1lb). The climb up to Franconia Ridge, and along it to Mt Flume, would have been tough enough with a daypack. But then a reward kicked in. As the afternoon wore on I didn’t have to bolt for the parking lot. With my home, snail-like, on my back I could push deeper into the woods, filter water from a brook to slake my thirst, see a foraging bear as the sun went down, and wade the cold East Branch to my campsite. That all felt pretty good.
In the morning there was another reward. I woke three miles from any trailhead, able to enjoy the woods at their most serene. A crescent moon was in the brightening sky when I went down to the pebbly banks of the East Branch to fetch water for breakfast. Then I headed into the Wilderness and saw not a soul for eight miles. Near Thoreau Falls – cascades, slides and a perfect ledge for lunch – my route joined the Appalachian Trail, and stuck with it for the next two days. On the AT in the White Mountains the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) operates a string of huts, and I had a reservation at Zealand Falls hut for my second night out. It was a precaution, unnecessary it turned out, against bad weather or lonesomeness. My $102.50 bought me a bunk; dinner and breakfast; cheerful company; and a fabulous setting to enjoy stars and sunrise. Some of the huts, Zealand Falls included, can be reached via relatively easy hiking routes. The huts are a fine way to get a feel for the Whites without humping a full pack. For more information check out the AMC’s website, www.outdoors.org.
If you look at my photographs (and you can, on Facebook – “McWilliams Takes a Hike”) the walk looks idyllic from start to end. The weather was exceptionally kind. But the camera came out when I was impressed or relaxed. A lot of hard slog went unrecorded. It stayed in my pack, for example, on the tedious, step-and-scramble descent from South Twin Mountain; and on the draining climbs on trails of piled boulders as steep as any castle stairway. I didn’t think of snapping photos when, pack straps digging into my shoulders near sunset on Day Three, I felt that I had seen enough rocks, roots, ups and downs for a lifetime. The greatest joys of backpacking are found in the brief, intense periods of rest – a mountain top, a sunny clearing, breakfast taken in the open.
I walked 41 miles in the end, conquering Mount Lafayette on the final day to complete a circle. There was plenty of company after Mt Lafayette, day hikers out in the sunshine and breeze. And that is a great way to do the Whites too. So, in that spirit, here are three day hikes I learned about or have walked myself. (1) LONESOME LAKE: a 3-mile roundtrip from the Franconia Notch campground. I heard the lake has a resident moose. (2) MT WILLARD: a gentle climb from Crawford Depot just north of Crawford Notch State Park to the summit of Mt Willard and stunning views of the notch (3.2 miles roundtrip). I know for sure there are moose on this trail. (3) ETHAN POND: a stiff climb from Willey House in Crawford Notch SP to a quiet pond on the AT (5.2 mi roundtrip). Happy trails!