Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Two Hikes in the Southern Presidentials

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After hiking up Mount Washington, I wanted to get-out to some of those ridges and peaks that surround it. It seemed a good idea to follow the hike with something a little less challenging to let my legs recuperate, and Mounts Webster (3910’) and Jackson (4052’), at the southern end of the Presidentials seemed like a good plan. The two peaks can be hiked as a loop on the Webster-Jackson trail, with about 2400’ of elevation gain. The day felt unseasonably warm and sunny, and it felt great just driving to the trailhead, listening to music, drinking coffee.  The fall colors in the morning were not as brilliant as they would be for the return drive.

It had rained the night before and the air still felt moist, the rocks in the trail still damp and slippery, the ground dotted with bright red berries that had blown down from the treetops. I took a side trail to take-in the view at Bugle Cliff, and it occurred to me that I’d been here before, probably multiple times, and probably not all that long ago. I suppose I must gravitate toward easy loop hikes with a view. I was happy to hike it again, but perhaps wondering why I can look at a chart of the coast and pretty much imagine - in detail- every place I’ve been, while mountains seem to blend together in my memory. Maybe I just need to hike more often.


Not far below lay the AMC Highland Lodge beyond a stretch of still mostly green treetops with a few reds and yellows sprinkled-in. Farther off, the red roof of the Mount Washington Hotel looked like another splotch of fall color. There’d been a woman ahead of me on the trail, and I’d taken the cliff detour as much to give her some space as for the view… giving myself some space really. I wanted to be in my own world for awhile, and I was: no other hikers. It’s worth mentioning that this was mid-week.


I paused at a pool below a waterfall on Silver Cascade Brook, and the trail climbed gradually up to the white-blazed Webster Cliff Trail, and took a short detour to the summit of Webster. I found a spot out of the wind and ate a snack. There’s a great view of Crawford Notch and the mountains off to the west, but stunted trees obscure the view to the east. But this is also the beginning of the ridge that, with a few significant ups and downs, leads toward Mt Washington. For me, some of the thrill of hiking to these places is akin to exploring in a sea kayak: just taking-in the lay of the land, seeing the contours you’ve studied- now in 3-D. It is weirdly satisfying.


Atop the ridge, the path over to Mount Jackson feels pretty relaxed: a meander over bog and damp, mossy forest spanned by timber boardwalks. Like Webster, the top of Jackson is mostly forested, but a rocky outcrop affords expansive views of the ridge leading up to Washington, around which blew turbulent, swirling grey clouds. I sat and ate a sandwich with my map on my lap, identifying the bumps on the ridge: Pierce, Eisenhower, Monroe.


I hadn’t planned on continuing to Mt Pierce (4312’) but I felt good, the day was still young, and it just seemed a waste not to. It only added 2 or 3 miles and a bit of ascending. Plus, there’s something about walking on the AT that urges you onward, following those white blazes and the footsteps of so many before you. There are some pretty spots along this walk, damp, grassy bog-meadows that open-up in the trees, with the mountainous backdrop behind.


Pierce is partially forested like the previous summits, but just a little higher-up and a bit more open. As I began descending the Crawford Path I started running into a few hikers, including a loud-talking group that fell-in behind me, encouraging me to increase my pace, skipping down the trail with the help of my trekking poles, until I could no longer hear them. And I kept going.


On Saturday, I had a family dinner to get to in the early afternoon, so again I wanted a hike I might be able to finish quickly enough. Having been up Monroe and Washington and then the southern Presidentials, I felt drawn to the one peak right between them: Mount Eisenhower. And the Edmands Path, a 3.3-mile trail that ascends 2750 feet seemed a good choice. At 8 am, mine was probably the fifth or sixth car in the lot, and I passed only one pair of hikers - backpackers - en route to the top.

The Edmands Path is handy, and a relatively quick way up to the ridge over a not-too-bumpy trail, as well as a nice walk in the woods, but most of it is just that- a walk in the woods. As you ascend, occasional openings in the trees afford views over to the Cog Railway base and the flanks of Mt Monroe, but on Saturday even those views were soon obscured by clouds. At the ridge, I donned a couple more layers and headed-up the Eisenhower Loop, encountering very strong winds as I made my way up.


Approaching the summit, I remembered a photograph from my first hike here, which was in ninth grade- maybe 1978. The photograph was in the local newspaper, and accompanied my first ever trip report, which I co-wrote with my friend Noel, a Filipino exchange student whose vocabulary was much broader than my own, and included a few fancy words that I’d still have a hard time using in a casual sentence. Like, for instance, ‘scintillating.’ This was probably my first trip with a school program called ‘Project Exploration,’ and our victorious pose upon this mountaintop expressed what a big deal this was for us. Our shapes were jaunty, near-silhouettes against the cloudy backdrop, and I stood off to the side of the group, hefting a stout hickory walking stick, and a brimmed hat upon my head- gifts from my parents they must have hoped might encourage these outdoorsy pursuits I was lately into.


A single cairn marked the high spot, obvious as the summit only because the earth sloped away –off into the clouds- in all directions. A man hunched behind the cairn, and before he left, remarked that it was probably blowing forty. I stayed for a few minutes, watching as the clouds blew past, occasionally catching a brief tease of mountains beyond the clouds.


On my way down, I encountered other hikers- and soon even more other hikers. I stepped aside to let them pass (whatever the etiquette, they were working harder than I was, and I didn’t mind a brief breather to let them pass). Many asked how far it was and what the conditions were like, and after witnessing enough disappointment, I changed ‘windy and cloudy’ to ‘dramatic.’ It was a bit stunning really, how many people were coming up the path, and when I returned to the trailhead at about noon, the parking lot was overflowing, with cars parked on the roadside far in each direction. Even more stunning was the volume of parked cars and traffic in Franconia Notch. The colors were pretty, yes, but I think I’d look for a quieter spot if I encountered such congestion. I was glad I’d made an early enough start.

That’s it for New England for a bit. We’re now en route to Newfoundland, where I expect we’ll do some walking and paddling as well. It’s not as simple as it might sound, this uprooted lifestyle. We’ve just spent an evening and a day at Rebecca’s rented studio space (and our storage space) in Stonington, Maine, unpacking and repacking the car, trying to figure out what we might need for a journey of indefinite length – the art stuff, the kayaking and hiking stuff… and the cold weather stuff, should our stay extend beyond the fall. All this dealing with stuff just makes me appreciate even more those unburdened days that somehow feel stolen, in which I can get out and stretch my legs, and get to a place that makes it all feel worthwhile.

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