Sunday, October 6, 2019

Isle au Haut - Camping at Duck Harbor

As with our canoe trip the previous week, we were dragging our feet about getting out to Isle au Haut. I’d made the reservation for Duck Harbor Campground back in early April, which is pretty much the only way to get a reservation for the five-site, National Park campground. As the only public camping area on Isle au Haut, its sites are in high demand. The sites are deluxe – perhaps what some would call ‘glamping’ if you rigged-up a few string lights. Each site has a three-sided shelter, a picnic table and fire ring. There’s a couple of outhouses, and drinking water comes from a well just down the trail. It’s the perfect base camp if you’d like to spend a day or two exploring the rugged and remote southern end of Isle au Haut, either by paddling or on foot. 

If you’re just tuning-in, Isle au Haut is the big island (about 6 miles long and 2 miles wide) that lies 5 or 6 miles south of Stonington, our home on the Maine coast. Much of the island is part of Acadia National Park, but unlike the heavily-populated part of the park on Mount Desert Island, which is thick with tour busses and very casual visitors, access to Isle au Haut is by boat only, which has a way of weeding-out the riff-raff. It takes a little effort to get out there. 

Of course, as the big island on the horizon, it also has a way of attracting people who don’t know what they’re getting into. A decade or so ago, Outside magazine ran a short, rather misleading piece touting the island’s merits, suggesting that novice paddlers ought to rent a kayak and just head-out to the island, flagging-down a lobster boat along the way to grab dinner, and then “crash” in one of the lean-to shelters. For a while at Old Quarry, the ‘kook’ factor, already high, greatly increased. I still encounter paddlers whose plan is simply “Isle au Haut,” never mind the archipelago along the way, or the fact that much of the shoreline there is private or difficult to access. (Or the fact that paddling skills, including navigation might come-in handy). There’s a tiny village near the island’s north end, home to about 40 year-round residents and more in the summer.

As is often the case for us, getting out the door took more effort than it should have, and we didn’t launch until sometime in the afternoon. We had the current and a north wind helping us along, but if we’d continued to Duck Harbor we would have arrived around sunset. 

After 45 minutes of paddling, we paused below the campsite on Harbor Island, eyeing the sun sinking toward the Camden Hills, and decided to spend our first night there. We had the maximum 3-night reservation at Duck Harbor, but as much as we wanted to get there and wake the next morning to a full day, we prefer to avoid late-day arrivals, especially when the seas are lively, as they were even in Merchant Row. So we camped on Harbor the first night.

The northern campsite on Harbor is a favorite (although I suspect I might say the same of any island in the archipelago when I happen to be camping on it). The granite ledge slopes gradually down to the water, where a cushion of rockweed makes it easy to pull a kayak ashore. We pitched our tent on the soil just above the ledge. I quickly set-up the stove on a particularly flat-topped boulder to cook dinner, and Rebecca remarked that I seemed to have the routine worked-out. I’d camped there a few weeks earlier with a client and used the same rock, and had probably used it in the past as well. There were a few mosquitoes, but we carried our dinner to a windier, bug-free outcrop and watched the sunset. By bedtime (pretty early these days) the wind further shifted northward, and it rustled our tent fly all night.

By Monday morning, we’d lost our previous sense of hurry and took our time leaving Harbor Island and then meandering out through the Isle au Haut Thorofare, past Robinson Point Lighthouse, and then the last couple of miles to Duck Harbor. 

We parked our boats by the trail and carried our gear in Ikea bags up to Site #5. Only two other sites were occupied – perhaps thanks to the cool, windy weather and a rainy forecast. We’d stayed in the other sites, and this was our first time in this one, which is set-apart from the others, a little more remote, adjacent to a trail leading out to a cobble beach. We ate a late lunch and took a couple of walks, finally watching the sun begin to sink from the rounded granite hump of Ebens Head.

The first time we camped at Duck Harbor, years ago, we thought we’d use it as a kayaking basecamp. One could do that, especially if you wanted to don a helmet and get into the extensive rocks and ledges along the island’s southern end. But lately we had paddled enough that the simplicity of walking seemed a luxurious indulgence. Plus, you get to wear dry clothes. We headed-out around Western Head, pausing frequently to take pictures and just sit and take it in. 

It was nearing high tide when we arrived at Western Ear, the small island barred to Western Head at the southern end. Meaty waves rolled-in from the southeast, colliding over the bar with smaller ones from the west. We watched as the tide rose, mesmerized, regretting a little that we weren’t in our kayaks – I’d never seen such waves at this spot. Usually when I paddled around Isle au Haut I was out here around low tide. But this was a day to sit on shore and watch, which became more obvious as we walked the Cliff Trail. 

At every spot where the trail poked-out for a view of the waves crashing against the rocks below, we had to stop and take it in. 

We ate all our snacks. A walk that might take 2 or 3 hours grew into a 5 or 6-hour hike. We encountered no other hikers that day, and the only boats we saw were a couple of lobster boats.

The winds that day, Tuesday, were from the south, and would have made our paddle back to Stonington easier than in the strong north winds predicted for Wednesday. But by the time we arrived back in camp for a late lunch we were tired and didn’t feel like packing-up and paddling. Besides, reservations out at Duck Harbor are hard to come by, and you might as well make the most of them. 

We spent one more night and paddled back amid lively seas Wednesday morning, into a powerful headwind: exhausting paddling. It really was a mistake to not head back a day earlier, when the wind was in our favor, but it allowed us another long, leisurely day out there. And now with the hard work behind us, when we’re no longer cold and wet, it’s easy to only remember the more enjoyable parts.

Every time we go out to Western Head, we’re struck by what a different world it is from Deer Isle, and yet so close. Every time we go, we resolve to get out there more often. A few weeks ago we paddled out in the tandem in a little over two hours – maybe that’s one way we can do it. Or we just need to work less and play more.

Read more about this route in my book, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England.

Reservations for Duck Harbor Campground may be made starting on April 1st. I suggest you wait a few days though, until we have our reservation.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Lobster Lake - West Branch Penobscot Canoe Trip

Because we were cooking chili on the last night, there were the inevitable fart jokes and comments – the lure of sleeping without flies over our tents to allow better air circulation, the hope that the beans would run their course by the next day when we would all pile into the truck at the take-out. One might expect that laughing at flatulence would be the sort of thing we outgrow, but we – all six of us – ranged in age from late forties to early sixties, and we had not outgrown fart jokes. 

But then again, it was day three, and we’d been having fun, like kids, laughing easily at just about anything. We were at the Pine Stream campsite, on the West Branch of the Penobscot River in Maine’s North Woods, our canoes pulled-up on shore below us. 

The trip had begun some 14 or 15 miles upstream where, instead of just paddling down the river, we’d spent our first night going up Lobster Stream to Lobster Lake. That first day we’d launched later than hoped. Rebecca and I had started the morning in Stonington where we’d been cat-sitting for a couple of weeks – a bit of luxury to have a bathroom and kitchen and a comfy couch with internet – a nice break from our trailer out in the woods. We left in the dark, as fishermen were arriving in town. We’d been up late, cleaning the apartment in anticipation of the owners’ return, our cars each stuffed with miscellaneous belongings and bins of kayak gear, and we were feeling weary of the unrooted nature of our lifestyle. We drove our separate cars over to Deer Isle, where the day before we’d loaded the canoes onto the trailer at our friends’ house. We finished loading gear and food, hoping we’d got everything, and set-off, six of us in the crew cab of Linda’s truck. We were hoping to meet our shuttle at 9 am, well over three hours away. 

Those plans dissolved quickly when, north of Blue Hill, a wheel came off the trailer. Linda saw it happen and stopped quickly enough to avoid destroying the hub, and amazingly, we found the wheel and tire intact, along with 4 out of the 5 lug nuts, in the roadside weeds. A man waiting with a child for a bus helped us get it put back together. At the time it felt like maybe the trip was doomed, like it was a sign. We’d all struggled with the decision of whether we would go or not. It seemed there was so much else going-on, and it would have just been easier to stay home. But we all told ourselves that these were mental obstacles, that once we got our butts into the canoes, we would be very glad we came. Now we weren’t so sure. At nine am, instead of meeting our shuttle, we sat in the waiting room at a tire store in Brewer, flipping through magazines. The truck and trailer could be shuttled later though, and now we were not beholden to a schedule.

By then it seemed prudent to persevere; what else could go wrong? We launched mid-afternoon and paddled a few miles to our campsite at Lobster Lake. Along the way we had glimpses of Katahdin and other nearby mountains, but I was struck that the area was mostly flat, mostly wet, criss-crossed by waterways. Our canoes were piled with gear in the middle, some with coolers and folding chairs. In the back of my mind, I observed how this differed from doing the same thing in a sea kayak, but also compared it to a composite L.L. Bean catalog cover, and wondered if maybe I should be wearing plaid, or a more backwoodsy sort of hat. We camped at Shallow Bay campsite, above a sandy beach. Not far away, an L.L. Bean guided trip had camped on another beach, and as it grew dark, the glow of their campfire was the only other light we could see. 

On Saturday morning we paddled back up Lobster Stream, past the put-in, overflowing with trucks, and entered the West Branch of the Penobscot, where we suddenly had a little current helping us downstream. I started off paddling in the bow and it felt good to work on my canoe stroke, to get into a torso-turning rhythm, to know when to throw-in a little draw stroke to pull us around an obstacle. Our friends, unknown to each other before the trip, chatted behind us. I wondered when we might see a moose. We stopped to check-out campsites, but never felt like we’d gone quite far enough. Then when it did feel we’d gone far enough the campsites were full: big tents, fishermen, canoes with outboard motors. Around Big Island, the sites were all close enough to each other that you’d never feel quite alone. We stopped at a vacant site, ate a late lunch, and kept going until late in the day, when we were almost to the next lake, not far from where we would take-out. By then, the vacant site near Pine Stream felt a bit miraculous: a big hump of smooth rock rising from the river. Before the canoes were even unloaded we jumped off the rock, into the river, and swam. Fresh water: that’s another difference between sea kayaking and canoeing. 

While we ate dinner we easily decided to spend another night at this site. We liked the smooth rock and the broad view of a bend in the river with shallow, marshy banks. It seemed inevitable we would see moose here. At the first campsite there’d been tracks in the morning – a moose strolling right up to the tents – but we’d seen none along the river. There were plentiful tracks in the mud here as well. We decided we’d spend Sunday enjoying this place and taking a side trip up Pine Stream.  

On the map, Pine Stream winds several miles south, originating in several remote ponds. The water was only high enough to paddle a mile or two upstream though, so we got out and walked a little and then headed back, stopping for lunch along the way. We had a little down-time that afternoon, something we all needed. I lay in my hammock and read for a while.

The weather changed overnight, clouds moving-in from the west, the wind increasing, and in the morning we paddled the last couple of miles out the river to Chesuncook Lake with the wind behind us. Katahdin rose above the lake in the distance. We took-out at Graveyard Point and found the truck and trailer parked there. The rain began while we loaded-up.

Moose seen: 0 (maybe they were anticipating the start of hunting season on Monday).

Shuttle provided by Allagash Gateway Campground, $225. 

There were a few other fees as well, a day-use fee and a nightly camping fee – all well worth it, but another notable difference between camping here and along the islands of the Maine coast, where it is generally free. So, groceries and gas aside, three nights of camping with a shuttle came to a couple-hundred dollars per couple.

Among our friends on this trip were Shari and Hutch, whose adventures living in a tiny trailer can be read about at their Freedom In A Can website

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Mellow Days Along he Bold Coast

We’d been working without much break since June. The guiding business had done well, and in addition we’d kept-on with some of the home improvement work, hedging our bets in case the kayaking work didn’t come-in. But it did come-in, so we worked every day, trying to keep up with it, the rest of the summer stretching ahead like marathons yet to be run. Finally, on Labor Day, we tied the Delphins atop the car and drove Downeast. We felt a weight lifted, just to be driving, a few days-off ahead.

We took a few kayak excursions off the Bold Coast, paddling it just the way we like: no need to get anywhere, just tooling along the steep rocks, exploring, looking for waves to buoy us over ledges or through chasms. 

Despite windy forecasts, the conditions were perfect for near-shore wave and rock play: small swell gently rolling-in, nothing too big. We did this each day, taking-on short stretches of the shore, retracing our routes as the tide changed, revealing a different set of features. It was the first time we’d paddled together in a while, the first time in a while either of us had paddled without a guest. 

On that first excursion I caught a wave between some rocks – one of those moments when you’re not sure if it will play-out like you hope, but a pillow of refracting wave bounced me along into a watery pile-up that left me in a calm pool when the wave went back out. I felt myself smiling, We’d felt worn-down enough on the drive up, that it almost came as a surprise, this smile. 

The new guiding business had evolved over the summer. I began with the idea we would simply be guides for hire, and try to avoid investing in too much overhead like boats and gear. But I suspected that this approach might take a while to catch-on, so I started offering scheduled day trips through Air BnB Experiences. This has gone well. I’ve offered regular trips in the Brooklin Islands and Stonington as well as the Cranberry Islands and a few sunset trips. The private trips and instruction filled-in the rest, including a few multi-day trips. Rebecca was further busied with her studio-gallery in Stonington, and filling-in at the Old Quarry shop. 

All this time we lived in our vintage (old) thirteen-foot travel trailer on a friend’s property in Deer Isle. It was tight, rustic living, but nice, despite this being a banner year for mosquitoes. I built a small deck with a screen room as a vestibule, which gave the mosquitoes a place to congregate and feel welcome before proceeding to the inner sanctum where we slept. Evenings found me rinsing gear and hanging it out, hoping it might be somewhat dry before I needed it again in the morning. We roasted vegetables on the grill as it grew dark and usually fell asleep exhausted. We’d wake with sunrise and think ‘what now?’ In those last weeks of August we looked forward to the four days off we’d planned way back in April. 

Anyway, that’s what we’ve been up to, in case anyone has wondered why this blog has been dormant. I feel less inclined anymore to write about trips with guests, and that’s pretty much all the paddling I’ve done for a while. I’ve had very little down-time these last few months. But I’d like to have a few more days like the ones we spent along the Bold Coast. We were in a rented cabin, and when we weren’t on the water, we stared-out at Grand Manan Channel, puzzling over the mysteries of this stretch of coast, watching the water surface for indicators about current direction. The seas were generally calm. It was foggy about as much as it was clear. 

In our kayaks, we just followed the shore, looking for passages among the rocks, riding occasional waves, gradually emptying our heads of clutter. 

Driving back to Stonington, where we would be cat-sitting for the next few weeks, we felt pleasantly drained, not quite ready to leave the quiet behind, but I also looked forward to returning to my work, which over the next week would include several full days and an overnight off of Stonington.

Looking for more particulars about paddling off the Bold Coast? Buy my book, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England. The Maine Island Trail Association’s annual guidebook also now includes some good info on paddling this volatile area. If it’s not obvious from my observations here, I think a great way to explore this area is to take smaller day trips, rather than the end-to-end approach that some paddlers follow when they want to ‘do’ this spectacular stretch of shoreline.

My article Dallying Downeast came out in July’s Small Boats Magazine. The article covers the same trip that inspired a forthcoming book… hopefully out soon. 

Want to book a trip with me or Rebecca?  Check-out our website or our listings on Air BnB Experiences.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Little Hen Island, Revisited

We’d just paddled across West Penobscot Bay from Stonington, our bows pointed to the tiny islet, and we were anticipating getting there: getting tents up, a snack, just absorbing the place. It was still early enough in the day that we could get out for another paddle, or perhaps just spend a few sunny hours exploring the island and its surroundings as the tide went out. We were also early enough that if someone else had beat us to the island – it was, after all, July 3rd– we’d be able to find a different spot. 

Just then, a short catamaran – a Hobie 16-footer – shot out from the north, driven by a tailwind, right for ‘our’ little island. We both paused our paddle strokes. The sailboat was moving fast and would certainly get there first. I began to mentally imagine the other campsites we could go to instead. But the boat kept going, right past the island, over the shallow sandbars that would soon be revealed. We didn’t hesitate; we hurried to our landing and quickly began unpacking gear from our boats.

It reminded me of when Rebecca and I arrived here two summers ago. We’d paddled from Ram Island around the southern end of Vinalhaven. We were tired, anticipating some relaxing time in the campsite, when another group of sea kayakers arrived in our peripheral vision, also headed for the island. In denial, I simply didn’t look toward them until I’d arrived first, and then realized they were friends, and I felt a little bad, and of course, invited them to share the island with us. There were four of them though, and they went-on to Hay Island instead. 

This time was oddly similar, since we noticed, as M put up her tent and I strung my hammock, that the catamaran had arrived on the sandbar, and the occupants were unloading gear onto Tiny Little Hen (Middle Little Hen?- both my names) another small islet a couple hundred feet to the north. We were camped in the MITA site, but I guessed that the other, unofficial site might work better for them, since they could beach the catamaran and easily access the island: our campsite stood atop steep granite bluffs over the sandbars – we’d landed on the other side. It did certainly change the nature of our stay there, looking from our cooking spot at others camped so near, but other people’s presence is simply one of the variables that makes our experiences out there unique each time.

M took her time, exploring with her camera. After a while, we took a spin in the kayaks up the bay to check out the schooner Victory Chimes,which was anchored near a tall bluff. We landed and looked in vain for a trail I’d once followed to the bluff-top. Then we paddled back to camp. There’s a story here about when high tide came – a new moon spring tide that arrived at midnight. My hammock set-up was not so ideal, and judging from the flurry of headlamp-lit activity on the other islet, their site was not quite high enough… but I’ll keep this short and save it for another time.

As Rebecca and I had done two years ago, we liked it so much on the island that we decided to use it as a base camp the next day. That gave M a lot more time to explore with her camera, and we took a day trip out to Brimstone Island. Also, since it was July 4thand a lot of people were out in boats, it took away our worry that we wouldn’t be stuck without a campsite. And we had it to ourselves the next night. All of this was part of a 4-day trip. On the 3rdday, M and I paddled north, letting some strong currents push us up the bay. As Brimstone had been, it was a day of visiting islands with hiking trails to gorgeous vistas. We spent our last night on Pond Island, off Cape Rosier, and finished our trip at Bridge End, in Eggemoggin Reach. 

This was the first multi-day trip I’ve guided for my new sea kayak guiding service, Upwest & Downeast, and it was a wonderful way to start, made possible by a client who knew just what she wanted- part of which was to relax a bit, since work had been lately stressful. 

I realize there are some significant gaps in my blog output; it’s due to too much happening, rather than not enough. Getting Upwest & Downeast off the ground has been a consuming endeavor, and I’ve continued to work for others – on-call guiding and teaching as well as the ten-day guide’s class I teach every spring in Bar Harbor. I started the guiding service simply as that- a bare-bones service for people wanting to hire a guide, but I've added day trips for people without their own gear as well, mostly available right now through Air BnB experiences. 

Over the winter I focused mostly on my book-length account of our trip two summers ago, as well as an article about it that came out last week in Small Boats MagazineIn addition to all that, we still tend to make much of our living from other work. I sometimes ask myself if I need to keep writing this blog that has followed my paddling progress almost from the start. I’m not sure who reads it or cares. But the fact that I just now enjoyed recounting a little of last week’s trip seems reason enough to keep at it. I hope you’ll check-out the article in Small Boats Magazine. And the book is getting there, at this point mostly waiting for more illustrations.

Happy Paddling!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

New Sea Kayak Guide Service in Maine

Rebecca and I have launched a new sea kayaking guide service. In February, with snow on the ground and ice in the harbor, “launched” seems an exaggeration. It hardly seems real, more of a concept expressed through a website and a few posts on social media, but it has been a long time coming. The idea for the service is a bit different than that of most outfitters; our goal is to provide clients with guidance and instruction just about anywhere on the Maine coast, and to keep both the overhead and cost of our services affordable. We’re aiming at a niche of paddlers who have their own equipment and could use our help to develop skills and safely expand their comfort zones, who want to learn by doing, by going somewhere. Or, simply, we’re guides for hire, and we know this coast well.

Lately, I’ve been revising the manuscript of Upwest & Downeast: Meandering the Maine Coast by Sea Kayak, an account of our 2017 summer-long paddle along the coast. The revising seems to be unending. I’ll get through the story only to begin again, removing vast sections and then, sensing something missing, write new sections afresh. It’s my second winter on this project, and Rebecca is working on a series of block print illustrations for the book. We’re quite obsessed, and it sometimes occurs to me that we’ve drawn-out our immersion simply because we like where it takes us, back to those long days, paddling from island to island, living that life. In some ways, I think that’s also why we’ve started the guiding service (which is also called Upwest & Downeast). It’s a selfish desire to spend more time out there. But like the book, it’s also a chance to share what we’ve experienced and help others discover it for themselves.

Rebecca and I have been guiding and teaching off and on since 2010. We were reluctant to plunge into the commercial side of the sport, not wanting to sacrifice the personal enjoyment it brought us, but it forced us to seek-out more training, to dial-in skills and take our paddling to a level we would probably not have otherwise attained. As a result, we get much more out of paddling. We’ve also experienced the usual ups and downs of the sea kayaking business, and realized that for us to stick with it, we’d like to cultivate those better experiences and minimize the ‘downs.’ So here’s a few ways we hope to do just that:

-       Each trip is private. We help you go on the trip you’d like to take. You don’t need to compromise with a stranger who might have different goals.
-       Every trip is a ‘go.’ We don’t put a trip on the schedule and wait for sign-ups. If you’d like more people for your trip, let us know and we’ll try to put you in touch with other like-minded paddlers.
-       Each trip is a full-day or more. There are enough barriers to just getting on the water that once there, we want to make the most of it, and we don’t want to rush. We can meander leisurely, or we can focus on putting-in some miles. We can explore islands on foot, lie in a hammock, play in the surf or take a time-out to improve our navigation. Or we can do awesome, big paddles.
-       We can go just about anywhere.  Take a look at our Destinations on the website to get an idea about our favorite places.
-       Guiding / instruction: it’s all the same to us. You choose what you’d like, but we’d rather do any instruction in the context of a journey: no ‘Quickstart’ crash courses. And if you simply want to paddle with no instruction, that’s fine too.
-       Our pricing is simple and fair: $300/day for up to two people. Beyond that, it’s $70 for each additional paddler.  If you get six people together, that’s less than $100 per person.
-       There’s no additional charge for overnights. For two people, a two-day/one-night trip is $600. Again, simple pricing. 

But here’s the catch. We don’t provide equipment or food. See paragraph #1: we’re guides for hire, not outfitters. Aside from helping to keep the price down, it encourages the sort of paddlers we once were ourselves: committed to the sport, seeking out new challenges and improving skills along the way to gradually build confidence. There are, of course, reasonable rental options in the area as well. Odds are we’ll eventually invest in some client equipment, but for now we’re going to keep it simple and see how it goes.

Warmer weather is only a few months away. Check-out our new website and get inspired!


Sunday, October 28, 2018

West Rattlesnake, Chocorua, The Sugarloaves

At the check-out line, the cashier, a woman probably a few years older than me scrutinized my face and asked me a question, and as usual, I needed to repeat it back to her to make sure I understood: “Am I… over fifty?”  

She smiled. She probably saw my hesitation, as if I still didn’t quite accept that I’d begun to slide into old age, that I might prefer to not admit it, and I didn’t exactly want to be reminded. Was I getting carded? I looked at our groceries and there wasn’t any alcohol, besides, she’d said fifty, and not whatever the drinking age was. Hutch and Shari were ahead of me in line; we were all together, our faces all still red and flushed from an afternoon hiking up a mountain after the first snow. She hadn’t asked them. They looked on curiously. She’d singled me-out; it was that obvious.  I shrugged. “Yes,” I said.

“You’re in luck.” She turned to the register. “You get a discount on Thursdays.”

We took our first walk on Wednesday afternoon, the day after Hutch and Shari had arrived. It was a pretty typical walk to take first-time guests on: West Rattlesnake, a small mountain that overlooks the lake. It’s a bargain hike: a relatively short and easy walk with the reward of a massive view at the top. Aside from being a good warm-up hike, we get a good look at the neighborhood from up above. The lake spreads below us, islands recognizable as if from a vividly colored map, with an autumnal red and yellow arboreal border. Rebecca and I like to take our friends up here and just stand for a bit and not say anything, not point anything out, just watch our visitors take it in and try to remember what that was like. But then we’ll point things out, just to get oriented: that lake over there to the left is Winnipesaukee. That mountain off in the distance to the west? That’s Moosilauke. We sat for awhile as others came and went, just taking it in until finally it occurred to us that maybe we should head back down.

On Thursday Hutch and Shari and I headed up Mount Chocorua, which quickly became ‘Chocula’ instead – it’s only a few letters off, and the name of the vampire-themed cereal is much easier to pronounce. The hike began in autumn, beneath a canopy of vivid green and yellow foliage, but progressed into freshly-fallen snow that became ankle-deep by the time we stopped at the Jim Liberty Cabin for lunch.

The cabin is there for overnight stays, first-come, first-served, with nine wooden bunks and decades of graffiti scored into its woodwork. Heavy chains secure it to the ledge, and there’s a hint of a view between the spruce trees encircling the small meadow around it. It all lay beneath a heavy, wet layer of snow, which still clung to the spruce boughs like sugar frosting on a gingerbread house. I remembered a visit from many years ago in which my friends and I spent a night there. Tents were pitched in the ‘yard’ and the cabin was crowded, dominated by the loudest occupants, drunk and boisterous, and it reminded me why I tend to avoid such places. But we had it to ourselves and we ate our sandwiches on the porch steps, admiring the fresh snow.

We progressed up the trail, and within minutes paused to turn around. We all gasped involuntarily when we saw the view. Whatever our expectations, they were surpassed. The nearby trees lay beneath heavy snow, while down below the white frosting tapered, blending with bright reds and yellows and greens, a study in contrasts. It had been snowing intermittently still, but sunbeams bore through the grey layer of clouds, lighting startling patches of color. 

This alone was worth whatever effort the hike had taken, which was good, since not much farther up the trail we decided to head down without reaching the summit. Had the snow been deeper, we might have been able to find traction along the path, but the unstable single layer of snow tended to simply slide away below us on the steeper parts – with consequential drops beneath them. Microspikes wouldn’t have been effective, but it hardly mattered; that revelatory glimpse buoyed us as we walked down, and later it carried us through the grocery aisles so that even the cashier’s reminder of my advanced age only further elevated the mood.

The next day, after a late morning, we were in the mood for another bargain hike in a different neighborhood, so we drove up to the north side of the White Mountains to a pair of smaller mountains called the Sugarloaves. Again, we began in autumn and gradually ascended to snow-covered ground, although not nearly as deep as the previous day’s. It was still chilly, below freezing, but the wind had died and the sun shone with hardly a cloud in the sky. 

This is another true bargain hike, and the snow made it even more so, since the surrounding peaks, including the Mount Washington massif, were sparkly white, frosted like a heavily-sugared breakfast cereal. And you get not one, but two stunning mountaintop views, from both North and Middle Sugarloaves. We looked up at considerably higher peaks I’d been too fairly recently, like North Twin and Mount Hale, where the views are not nearly as overwhelming.

We returned to the trailhead not long before sunset and grabbed coffee at a gas station for the drive home, which took us through Franconia Notch at dusk, listening to nostalgic oldies on the radio – songs from the eighties and nineties that had been popular, it seemed, not so long ago, soundtracks to fleeting episodes from our pasts.

We got to know Hutch and Shari over the summer when they worked with us at Old Quarry. They’ve spent most of the last six years living in a tiny ‘canned ham’ travel trailer, traveling all over and documenting their adventures on their blog, Freedom in a Can.

Info on these hikes can be found both in the AMC White Mountain Guide and in AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains by Robert N. Buchsbaum.