I began to doubt that trail conditions this March 28th were going to be as expected when I had to put chains on my boots just to cross the parking lot to the privy. It was an Appalachian Trail privy, the sort that gets you wondering what you’d do if your car keys fell through the bowl to the deep pit below. Last spring, I helped to build a privy like this at Pine Swamp Brook lean-to. I helped as best I could, that is. The brains of the project was a man called Russ. He, like me, gives time and sweat to maintain the AT; just a lot more of it, and for much longer than I have. Russ knew a thing or two about building privies too, using a little cussing and a few cigarettes when things didn’t go right. The AT in Connecticut is maintained by people like him through the local chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC); and now, standing in this airy privy, I saw through its “window” that another AMC member was driving into the parking lot. This was Bert, my hiking companion for the day.
When Bert and I started to plan a hike up Bear Mountain, we knew that its north side would still be covered in ice and snow. After all, it was when I scaled it last year, a week further into spring and after a less severe winter. So we chose the longer southern approach. At home, winter appeared to have left at last; but here in the lee of the Taconics just north of Salisbury, the parking lot was like a frozen pond. The trail, we agreed now, would be fine higher up, up where the sun gets to it. And, sure enough, we were soon hiking on leaves. I took off my chains, and Bert his microspikes. Instantly we wished we hadn’t. The leaves petered out, and all the way to Lions Head – a thousand-foot climb strung out over 2.7 miles – snow covered the trail; and if not snow, treacherous ice. It didn’t look at all like spring atop Lions Head either. Even there, on rocks exposed to the sun, the snow lay. An angry wind drove sheets of rain across the wooded summits to our north and west. We were wearing rain pants and several layers, but were still too cold to hang about. I swapped my cap for a wooly hat. Then we put chains and spikes back on and went down into the sheltering trees. It was obvious now that the AT would be snow-covered all the way to Bear Mountain, and we doubted we had time enough to make it and be home in time for Friday night pizza with our families. But for now we pushed on along the escarpment as fast as balance and talk allowed. We crossed Brassie Brook on its parallel-logs bridge, and came to the signs at Riga Junction – BEAR MTN .9 MI. It was almost 1 o’clock. We’d taken three hours to hike five miles. Somehow we still thought we could dash to the summit and be back in our cars for 4 p.m. So we started up toward the mist, the wind and the rain.
Bert and I got acquainted on an AMC “Leadership Training Session” last year. These sessions teach the necessary skills to lead group hikes; skills like group dynamics, navigation, and first aid. I remember a role-play where one member of a hike group acted out hypothermia. He fell behind, weaved and stumbled, babbled. It was an Oscar-winning performance. Today on Bear Mountain it seemed perfect hypothermia weather. Coming off the top, I sat down to put my chains on yet again, taking off my wet gloves to do so. Getting dressed for the hike in the morning, I had casually put on a cotton t-shirt as one of my layers. Now it was like a towel soaked in cold water about my chest, refrigerated by the wind. I fumbled to get my chains on. We warmed up soon enough as we dropped off the mountain, but it was a reminder that, outdoors, you may be only a bad decision or a slice of bad luck from trouble. It was a reminder to wear synthetics too.
There is, of course, greater safety in hiking in a group. Better to sprain your ankle on a remote trail with friends at hand. And here the AMC comes in again. In addition to maintaining trails and building outhouses, the Connecticut Chapter organizes year-round hikes in our area, hikes with good company. Check out www.ct-amc.org. Now, I admit to liking solitary expeditions, but today’s “talking hike” was a welcome change; even when, deep in conversation about this or that, we missed a junction and added a mile to our hike. We still weren’t too late for pizza though.
|If you go …|
|PARKING||AT trailhead on CT Rte. 41, 0.75 miles north Salisbury.|
|DISTANCE||12 miles, without wrong turns.|
|DURATION||7 hours in tough conditions.|
|MAP AND ROUTE||Official AT Guide map (Four, Jug End-Cornwall Bridge).|
|WHAT TO TAKE||In similar conditions; boot chains or microspikes, rain gear, synthetic layers, plenty of food and water.|