One night last week after dinner at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center at Crawford Notch, (they have really good family-style dinners) we watched a movie called Appalachian Impressions, about people who hike the entire Appalachian Trail. From Georgia to Maine. Crazy people, if you ask me, but a special breed of folks and I’m glad our country is populated with men and women who would do that. The narrator said it’s good that the White Mountains come near the end of the trek (for north-bound hikers) because by then they’re well-conditioned. Unfortunately, I was not in the best shape last week when I drove north to “the Whites” for four days of hiking. I’ve been busy and hadn’t been to yoga class in weeks.
According to the film, the White Mountains, which include the Presidential Range (the big mama is Mt. Washington, at 6,288 feet, the tallest peak in the Northeast and the most prominent east of the Mississippi and home to the Mt. Washington observatory), are considered the most difficult stretch of the AT. I’ll take their word for it. During our four days there, those peaks tested us. We pushed ourselves to our limits, and it’s a great feeling – not giving up when you really want to.
I’m a novice hiker. Sure, I’ve been doing local day hikes, and I once climbed Cradle Mountain and did the Overland Trail in Tasmania, and spent two weeks hiking in Yosemite and Inyo National Forest, but that was a long time ago. So this trip was designed as a learning experience. I decided to go to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s lodge so I could borrow any equipment we were missing and get advice from the guides there. We gained valuable insight that will help us on future trips: like the importance of crampons on icy terrain, waterproof pants for sliding down the mountain, and good recipes for trail mix (craisins, almonds and m & m’s – yum!).
After checking in to the Shapleigh bunk house, our first hike was Mt. Avalon (elevation 3,442). We left at around 1 p.m. and reached the summit about 2 1/2 hours later. It wasn’t the tallest peak we climbed, but one of the more challenging, there are sections that are very steep and solid ice. In some places I was literally clawing my way up, grabbing saplings and branches and looking for a foothold wherever I could find one. But the difficulty of the climb, and not knowing if it will become more difficult, or even impossible, makes it all the more rewarding when you finally get to the top.
On Day Two we hiked a mile uphill on a paved road to get to the trailhead for Sugarloaf. It was about another mile and a half to the mountain’s saddle, from which we went first to the Middle Sugarloaf summit, .3 miles away, then backtracked to the North Sugarloaf, which is .4 miles from where the trail connects to the top ridge. The sky was clear and we could see for miles as we stopped to enjoy our lunch. From the rocky cliff we could see hawks soaring in the valley below.
Day Three. This would have been a good day for a leisurely hike along flat terrain so I could rest my muscles and catch my breath. But no. We had planned to climb Mt. Jackson, our toughest climb by far. (Mt. Jackson is a 4,000 footer – 4,042 feet – but who’s counting?)
Overall, it’s not as steep as Mt. Avalon, (although there was one steep icy “scramble” in the beginning that almost stopped us) but it’s a lot longer, the trail to the top is about 2 1/2 miles. We wore snowshoes, for the traction, but would have been better off with micro spikes.
It was too cold and windy at the top of Mt. Jackson to stay long, so we descended 100 feet or so to have lunch in the snowy trail.
We were joined by a friendly bird who landed on my son Dougie’s hand and helped himself to trail mix and crackers. It was a Grey Jay, or Canada Jay, and they’re very tame. He kept coming back for more trail mix and even managed to steal a Ryvita cracker.
Finally, on our last day we planned a short morning hike to Arethusa Falls, the highest falls in New Hampshire. Now, here I have a bone to pick with the volunteers who maintain the trails. Like maybe a sign that says “wrong way, this is the OLD trail.” This was supposed to be the easiest of our hikes, short and sweet so we could get on the road and drive home. Instead we almost became a re-enactment of the Donner Party fiasco. Just kidding. The volunteers who maintain the trails do an awesome job, I’m the clueless one. Next time I’ll bring a more detailed map. However, as we progressed, I started to notice that the trail was very rugged: downed trees, deep snow, washed-out trail, tricky stream crossings. How can the trail be so rugged? I wondered. This is insane. We weren’t wearing snowshoes, and I was up to my thighs in snow, and getting pretty tired. Eventually, I said, “this is it, I can’t go on,” and then, through the tree branches, I saw the falls!
After we got there, Dougie found a blue arrow on the other side of the river, and a very well maintained trail. It was like walking on a red carpet. We made our way down the mountain, then drove to Conway, NH for wood fired pizza at Flatbread Pizza Co.
What a great trip. Years ago, when I spent that week hiking in Tasmania, I told myself I should do this every year. Then life got in the way. But I never forgot that I wanted to do that. Last year a special woman reminded me. It’s about giving up the soft sheets and creature comforts, roughing it, being able to survive in the wild, forging special bonds with your mates, and appreciating how much you love this beautiful country. This beautiful planet.