I’ve taken groups of beginners on a “My First Hike” loop at the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, MA. It’s great for first-timers or not-in-a-long-timers. But now I need a next hike for those folks who’ve done the first hike.
Maybe a loop over to Buck Hill and back to Houghton’s Pond will be just what’s needed.
My faithful hiking companion and grand-dog, Juniper the Bichon Frisee, and I start out on a perfect “Colorado” day—hot sun, clean, dry air and temperature in the low 60s. We don’t get many of these in New England, so one snatches them up like the gifts they are.
We begin the same way as the first hike. I figure the gentle warm-up around Houghton’s Pond and a touch of climbing up to the top of Tucker Hill is good for the beginner body, and the familiarity for those who’ve done it before will be good for the confidence level. And who can argue with another view of Great Blue Hill from the top of Tucker?
Check out the morning section of My First AMC Hike several posts back for pictures and description.
Eastward and Downward
From the top of Tucker Hill, we follow the blue blazes of the Skyline Trail east. The sun warms our faces and brings out little plant companions like this little yellow flower that I couldn’t identify. Does anyone out there know it?
And here’s one of my favorites, Toad Flax. I love the crazy name and their spindly look with the odd bluish purple flower. They’re ugly and delicate at once. Here they are set off by the map lichen behind them on the rock.
Not to be outdone by the plant world, birds caw and sing, and this handsome butterfly stops by for a visit. Anybody know what kind of butterfly s/he is?
From here the trail starts to look like we’re in New Hampshire. We stare down from the top of rock piles that, in fact, are the trail that takes us down the side of Tucker. Little Tucker Hill, which seemed so friendly with its bit of rocky ascent on the western side, gets crankier and more demanding on its eastern slope, as if to say, Hey, I’m no pushover!
Think boulders, smaller rocks and dusty loose pebbles, or scree. It’s just like the White Mountains, except it only lasts for a few minutes rather than several hours. Or days.
Soon the trail gentles, and greens considerably. We stroll through the forest, then up a gradual embankment that turns out to be the side of North Boyce Hill. The top of this small hill is like an underwater sea of greenery with trunks of giant kelp floating upward.
We decide this is a beautiful spot for a snack, and a bowlful of water for the pooch.
Our trail leaves N. Boyce gradually and climbs to the vast open meadow of Buck Hill’s shoulders and summit, great grazing for a pair of hawks circling by close enough to make me keep a sharp eye on my not-quite-13-pound hiking companion. Her Bichon Frisee friend, Sadie, was swooped by a red-tail at no less a civilized place than Fresh Pond in Cambridge!
With no hawk mishap, we arrive shortly at a view of Boston, roughly five miles distant, from atop Buck’s. The city skyline is so clear it looks like a cardboard cutout that I could fold up and stick in my backpack. Now I understand the naming of the trail. I’m impressed, both with my city and with the wisdom of those who, in 1893, preserved the accessible and varied Blue Hills for we city-dwellers.
Red Dot Return
After admiring the view long enough to develop a sweat from the bright sun, we clamber down from Buck’s. Again, the trails are rocky and somewhat rough, but not for long. We get just enough of a work out for the knees and hamstrings to feel like we’ve earned the pleasant shady green stretches in between the harder bits.
Meandering back through the forest to Houghton’s Pond, Juniper goes for a dip to cool off before we head for home, refreshed by the morning’s ramble. It’s a good hike, but a little more than I wanted for Hike Number Two for beginner groups. Oh well. This just means another scouting expedition for Junie and Grandma in the Blue Hills!
North Pack Monadnock lies in southeastern New Hampshire, 12 miles away from its brawny, more famous and far more popular cousin, Mt. Monadnock. Hiking Mt. Monadnock is a gorgeous, hamstring-pulling adventure filled with people young and not-so-young. But if you’re looking for a pleasant time in nature, alone or nearly so, I recommend nearby North Pack.
It’s a lovely hike for people and dogs, gentle but steady uphill and downhill, only one somewhat steep bit, and 6.2 miles roundtrip. The elevation gain varies according to what source you read, but appears to be between 1300 and 1400 feet, a great warm-up to start the hiking season!
We took Ted’s Trail up (to the intersection with Cliff Trail) and were accompanied much of the way by a charming stream that made for picturesque moments and handy drinking spots for the canine contingent.
The stream also wandered in and among clumps of boulders, offering various small waterfalls and pools.
We had nearly perfect weather and conditions. The trail was dry underfoot. On April 22, after the snowy winter of 2011, only the tiniest few patches of the white stuff remained. The temperature was 50°- 55°; and the sun shone. There was a bit of haze, which we never noticed until we had a long view, as we did from the south ledges where we stopped for lunch.
The only thing that irritated me about this trail was the number of false summits. I swear I said, “Here we are, this must be the top” about seven times. Because the websites we read about the summit claimed it had limited views, we were surprised to find quite an expansive summit awaiting us, with a really humongous cairn and plenty of room to roam around and explore. The views were pretty, too. Just keep following those blue blazes!
Yes, we did see Mt. Monadnock, recognizable by its rocky top and for standing by itself. I’ve included a photo of it here. The haze made it hard to discern its solid rock cone, but I can’t complain about such a wonderful day.
Coming down we switched to Carolyn’s trail to enjoy the loop experience for different views and sights. The first quarter of the return trip meandered down slabs, not at all like Ted’s trail. That Carolyn sure likes her ledges!
Once past the ledges, the trail was a sweet, easy ramble that eventually joined up again with Ted’s and led us back to the trailhead.
The dogs slept like rocks all the way home.
It’s not too early to begin getting your body ready for a hike in May. Generally, three months are required to build up to an “event,” like a big hike or race or match, but more time means you can spread out and slow down the training—a good thing, especially for beginners.
So make a plan for yourself. Start now. Whatever kind of training you decide to do, block out time for it on your calendar, like an appointment. Putting something on the calendar and saving the time for it is the surest way to make it happen.
For hiking, you need strength—particularly in your legs—and breath. Going up the mountain will work your cardiovascular system (heart and lungs); coming down will test your quadriceps muscles, the four sets of long muscles in your thighs, and your knees. Having a strong core, i.e., muscles in your abdomen and back, helps you carry the weight of your pack.
There are lots of ways to build up your ability to breathe when being active. You can bicycle, run, walk fast, climb stairs, use a Nordic Track machine, walk on a treadmill with a steep incline, or wor
k out on the elliptical machine. What works best for me has been going up and down long sets of actual stairs, like in the subway or in a stadium. Overall, I’d say that’s the best training for a hike I’ve found.
In the last few years, however, due to knee injuries and my knee caps wearing down, I’ve decided to save that kind of wear-and-tear for actual hikes. To go easier on my knees in training, I’ve turned to the elliptical machine.
Start Easy and Build Up
When I started using the Nordic Track years ago for my cardio workout, I stayed on it for three minutes only at first, got off and stretched for 30 seconds, got back on for 3 minutes, stretched for 30 seconds and was done. I built up by adding several minutes each week, still chunking the workout into time on the machine and time off for stretching. I built up to a good workout of 30-45 minutes with no breaks, three times a week. Ideally, you want to do a cardio activity for 30-60 minutes three times a week, thought it may take you quite a while to get there. Another reason to start now for that spring hike!
Overdoing the length or difficulty or a
workout can lead to injuries or so much discomfort with sore muscles that you get discouraged and quit. So don’t be impatient. Many small steps will still get you to your goal, with a lot less risk and pain. Be gentle with yourself and, most important of all, listen to what your body is telling you even if the person next to you in the gym is going twice as fast or as long as you are. Forget them! If you start to feel pain anywhere, slow down, ease up. If the pain doesn’t go away, stop and stretch. Take a five-minute break; walk around. Try again, slowly, but if the pain is still there, quit the workout altogether. Go home and ice the area and rest.
Whatever you do for cardio exercise, spend some of the time doing it backward. Be safe, of course. Make sure there are no obstacles in your path and go slowly if you’re not on a machine. But be sure to do as much as you can backwards. This builds up your hamstrings, a group of three long muscles in the backs of your legs, those tight long critters that burn from the back of your ankle up to your butt when they’re not stretched out. They help bend your knee and move your thighs, crucial actions in hiking, so you need to balance your strength building both front and back.
On the elliptical, for example, I break up my workout into chunks of time, one chunk forward, one chunk backward, another forward, another backward and so on so that by the end I’ve spent an equal amount of time going forward and backwards.
Going backwards has an added benefit: it works your proprioceptive system. Basically, this system helps us sense things inside our bodies and, for example, where our bodies are in the space around us.
Walking backwards, I find, helps me gain a better sense of when I’m about to run into something. It also has improved my balance quite a bit. Even better, if one of my knees or hips feels tight or a bit sore, walking backwards “resets” my muscles in such a way that when I turn around and walk forward again, any pain or tightness has eased.
All of the things I’ve mentioned above for cardio workouts also build up your quadriceps and hamstrings. There are specific weight machines or hand weights you can use to build strength, too. If you have limited time to work on strength training, focus on your legs.
Naturally, it’s great to also build your core, or torso, strength. One way to do this is by wearing a backpack filled with water bottles or cans of food as you do your cardio training, thereby getting a two-for-one workout. The same principles I mentioned earlier apply. Start slowly! Add weight to the backpack gradually as you become comfortable and build up to what your filled backpack will weigh on the hike, a weight you determine by loading the pack up with everythi
ng you plan to take and setting it on a scale.
If you can, take a Pilates class. It’s the best thing I’ve found for building not only abdominal strength but back strength. I’ve got scoliosis (a curved spine) so I have to be extra-protective of my back. Nothing takes care of the back better than strong abs and a slow, gradual building of back strength. Again, don’t overdo. Take your time. Hiking is an endurance sport; you don’t need to rush through the hike, nor the training for it.
It’s the Vision Thing
If working out is not your favorite pastime, remind yourself you’re doing this so you can enjoy that first beautiful spring hike out in the woods or mountains, breathing crystalline air and surrounded by beauty. It helps to focus on the goal when you’re tired and would prefer to collapse in front of the television or sit down with a book instead of do your work out.
Take pride in the progress you make. Give yourself small rewards at the end of each workout, or the end of the week if you’ve done everything you planned to do. Some people set aside a dollar for every work out, building up to a massage. Others eat a piece of chocolate when they’re done or take along bath with candles. Whatever turns you on, reward yourself with it for your hard work. (Rewards also train the unconscious to expect something pleasant, so eventually going to work out becomes easier.)
In the months between now and May, you’ll become more fit in the service of getting ready to do something you’ll really enjoy. Look forward. Anticipation is half the fun. Picture yourself there on that first hike feeling strong and comfortable in the body you’ve thoughtfully prepared to have a great time.
Come hike with me in the spring!
I’ll be leading a hike for beginners. Which means it’s time to think about training, since it’s never too soon to start training and making sure your gear is in good shape. So here are suggestions for any beginners—or folks who are returning to hiking after a sojourn in the office, on the couch, or doing another sport.
Hiking doesn’t have to be hugely expensive, but it does require some paraphernalia. Check out the Appalachian Mountain Club’s suggested list of stuff to bring on a day hike, or email me for my personal list. You can then apportion any needed purchases over the next several months.
Be on the watch for sales after Christmas and New Year’s!
What to buy first? Boots. They are the single most important piece of equipment for three- season hiking. (Winter hiking requires another whole set of purchases and of skills, so I’ll focus on hiking during the rest of the seasons.)
Yes, boots can be expensive. The key thing is to find ones that fit both your feet and the kind of hiking you’re likely to do. If you intend to backpack, you need taller, sturdier boots to help support the extra weight and distance. Some folks prefer leather boots, which last a long time but are heavier and hotter on the foot. Others like ones that are partly netted, providing more air to the foot and lighter to pick up and put down on all those steps one takes on a hike. If you’ll mostly day hike, you can do with lighter boots.
I have both kinds, as shown in the picture, but mostly wear the lighter ones.
Some people, even for day hiking, don’t like boots that come higher than the ankle. Me, I’m prejudiced in favor of taller boots. I think the support they give to the ankle is worth the extra weight. But if you try on lots of pairs of boots and the ones that feel the best are lower, go with them. The key is to be as comfortable as possible.
Shop in places with knowledgeable salespeople and where you can take your time. Try on a zillion pairs of boots in different sizes, shapes and materials. Definitely walk up and down the ramp, if the store provides one, so you can see if your toes get squished on the way downhill. Squished toes are bad juju. Find another boot.
Boots should offer room for your foot to swell as you hike, because it will most of the time, but not so much room that your heels rub up and down; heel rubbing is also bad juju.
Wear Boots Now
Start wearing your boots now, around your apartment, to the grocery store, on the subway. Wear them for half an hour only at first. Then gradually increase the amount of time they’re on your feet. Here’s the first rule of enjoyable hiking: never, ever wear new, unbroken-in boots on a hike. They will hurt your feet! Enjoyable hiking is all about keeping your feet happy.
“Happy feet” means un-blistered feet. The best start to blister prevention is good socks, so make them purchase number two if you don’t already have socks made for hiking. Hiking socks provide a little cushion to weary soles, but most importantly, they wick away sweat. Sweat can cause blisters.
Lots of folks, including me, wear two sets of socks so that the inner sock, not your skin, rubs against the outer sock. These inner socks are called liners and are made of very thin wicking material.
When I was in my 20s searching for heels in a shoe store once, the sales guy looked at my small, skinny feet with even narrower heels and said, “Lady, you’ve got aristocratic feet.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It means you have to spend a lot more money on shoes.”
Sadly, he was right. And since my skin is tender, I have to be pro-active to prevent blisters. For most folks, you can do the double-sock thing, go hiking and all you need to do is be aware when any place on your feet or ankles feels warm, hot or rubbed. Stop. Stick a Band-Aid or piece of moleskin on that spot immediately (no moleskin if you’ve already formed a blister), and you’ll be fine.
Not me or hikers like me. I moleskin-up beforehand because I know I’ll get blisters if I don’t. I also use the rubbery kind of blister-aid things, which stick well until your feet get too damp, but come in great shapes for toes and heels, for example.
I also use anti-blister powder, which I shake into my liner socks to help prevent blistering in places I haven’t bandaged. Other times, I rub Vaseline petroleum jelly all over my feet before sticking them in the liner sock. This feels a little nasty at first, but works and is cheaper. If your feet don’t blister when you buy a new pair of shoes, you probably don’t suffer from aristocratic feet, so you may never have to go this extra step.
This post could go on forever, so I’ll be doing it in installments. Check back each week for a new topic in getting ready for the spring hiking season. Remember to contact me if you want my personal gear list, tested over ten years and 80 or so mountains.
We were blessed with Goldilocks weather: not too hot, not too cold; not too sunny, not too cloudy. I was supremely grateful. The last three hikes I’ve co-led were like climbing through hot soup. My clothes were soaked within the first half hour.
Not only the weather made the day special. My friend Nancy flew in from CA to join me. Moosilauke was the first hike we ever did together, back in 2002. Unfortunately, she got bumped from her original flight and neither of us slept the night before the hike until she walked through my door at 2:00 a.m. But who needs sleep when you’ve got good company?
Which we had in spades. We had a group of 13 fine souls signed up. But when it came time to head out, we were missing Randy. I was surprised because Randy had hikedwith me the weekend before and I knew he was excited to do his first 4000 Footer. We waited a while, but then had to press on.
Gorge Brook Trail Up
Very soon we crossed a bridge.
The trail had delightful footing, lots of pine needles, much like trails in the west. The brook gurgled chattily by our side, Gorge Brook, of course, the namesake for our eponymous trail, and we enjoyed sweet glimpses of coursing water and rock through the trees.
Leslie, our fearless leader, had us hike for half an hour, then take a five-minute break for water, snack or other necessities, a schedule calculated to give us a generous 45 minutes or so for lunch and exploring at the top and still keep us to book time overall.
We marched on as the trail steepened, getting to know one another.
You could say that Moosilauke is a hike connected by lodges. At the base of many of the trails stands Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, a wooden ski lodge constructed in the 1930s from nearby spruce, full of character, now owned by Dartmouth College. Ravine Lodge serves breakfast and dinners to guests, much like the AMC huts in the Whites, staffed, in this case by Dartmouth students and alums. Overnight rates are unbelievably reasonable and the lodge is open to the public.
Best of all, you can start and end the hike using indoor plumbing!
We continued on through the woods, with surprisingly few bugs. I switched with Leslie and took the sweep position. We kept to a moderate pace, working up a light sweat, just enough to enjoy the break when it came.
Four thousand footers tend to be all up, then all down. You spend the morning going steadily, sometimes steeply, up hill; eat lunch; then spend the afternoon coming steadily, sometimes steeply, down. Occasionally, there’s a bit of level trail, rare enough to be noticed. Speaking for myself, I rejoice to see dirt on the trail as opposed to rock and root. Dirt feels like sofa cushions for the feet.
As we finished up our second break, Leslie and I did the usual head count. “All here,” I said.
“No,” she said. “We’re supposed to be 13.” Kristen reminded her we had to leave somebody behind and we were just about to start off again, when I recognized a guy speeding up the trail towards us wearing a cowboy hat. I swear, just at the moment Leslie had counted him back into the group, a breathless, drenched Randy arrived, having caught up to us from over half an hour behind. We all applauded and gave him a few minutes before moving out.
Getting to Views
Not long afterward, as we gained more elevation to arrive at 3850 feet, we came to our first cleared outlook, in this case, to the South. From here we could see Mt. Kineo and Carr Mountain, according to The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains by Steve Smith and Mike Dickerman, inveterate hikers of the Whites. All I know is, it was one fine view and we all stood there, oohing and aahing.
From there we ascended steadily enough that conversation slowed as we needed more breath. We went back into woods for a while, passing a couple more outlooks as we hiked. Being sweep, I could cheat and stop to admire the views even though it wasn’t yet break-time.
It’s little wonder that Moosilauke is such a popular hike.
For a 4000-Footer, it’s pretty easy, not too long, and chock-full of vistas.
At last we came to the last rocky slog to the summit, which promised not only lunch, but 360° views that show huge swathes of NH, parts of Vermont, and, off to the Northeast, wave upon wave of mountains, Franconia Ridge backed by the Presidentials, among others.
By the time I arrived, the group had donned more clothing to avoid getting over-heated bodies chilled by the wind and settled down in two groups to partake of their repast. At various points, someone would wander off to all points of the compass to take in the sweeping panorama.
I had kept a wary eye on Nancy, waiting for her jet lag and lack of sleep to kick in, but she hiked with ease all the way up. In fact, everybody seemed in great shape. All enjoyed the rest, though, and the summit treats we leaders brought: chocolate covered peanuts and dark chocolate almond bark.
A Bit of History
The first trail up to the summit was cleared in 1840 and that year Mrs. Daniel Patch, again according to Smith and Dickerman, became the first woman to climb the mountain. At the top, apparently, she fixed a cup of tea! Imagine carrying a tea cup in your pack, along with tea, fire starter and a tea pot. Did she take lemon or milk, I wonder.
Back to lodges for a moment. The top of Moosilauke used to have one right on the very summit on which we sat. The first hotel, sporting six rooms, opened in 1860 and was built of stone,. They note that it was expanded several times and had several names: Prospect House, Summit House, Tip-Top House. A bridle path was built up to it, for obvious purposes, part of which was expanded into a carriage road that actually charged tolls until 1919.
I could still see the stony remains of part of a room, or foundation, of the last summit retreat. I’d have taken a picture but a group of kids was sheltered from the wind in the vee where two low walls stood and I didn’t want to bother them. You’ll just have to use your imagination to picture it.
Coming Down the Carriage Road
I was reluctant to leave, but time waits for no woman, not for Mrs. Patch and not for me. We looped onto the Carriage Road to descend, which was a lovely trail with open views and some of the best-looking cairns I’ve seen. I suppose their height (over six feet) attests to the amount of snow that falls on the summit and the popularity of Moosilauke as a winter hiking destination.
Beyond the cairns, you can see the bump of South Peak, our next goal, with the trail etched into its wooded sides.
Descending strains the knees and quads already tired from the 3.7 mile climb up, which bothered a few folks, whereas ascending had strained the heart and lungs, which tended to tax other folks. Each to her or his own. I played sweep again and enjoyed some quiet moments enjoying the scenery as I waited for a couple of unscheduled “separation” (pee) breaks.
Hanging Out with Wildflowers
I enjoyed some time with wild flowers. Approaching the summit, on the grassy part called “the balcony,” I’d seen Diapensia, a hardy little white flower
that braves the toughest alpine conditions and was still blooming on the last day of July.
There also was a nice patch of Indian Pipe on the way down, so-called, because of its obvious resemblance to the long clay pipes Native Americans used in ceremonies.
On the way up as well as on the way down, Turtleheads bloomed, a flower I loved in part because it took so long before I saw my first one. I’ve never seen a mountain strewn with so many stands of them. As we hiked down, I noticed Brenda poised over a particular Turtlehead. When I approached, she showed me the colorful beetle lurking on one of the leaves.
All in all, it was a hike to make Goldilocks happy. Not too hard, not too easy. Not too high, nor too long. Not too slow, not too fast. This AMC trip to Mt. Moosilauke was most definitely Just Right.
This was a hike with history. On January 14, 1942 at 7:40 in the cold, dark night, a US B-18 Bomber crashed into the shoulder of Mt. Waternomee in North Lincoln, NH. The shock made tableware dance and windows rattle; even in Plymouth, 22 miles away, people wondered what on earth had happened.
Only weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the citizens of North Lincoln and nearby Woodstock initially thought they were being attacked by the Japanese. The first rescue crew to reach the crash site wasn’t sure whether they were aiding enemies or allies.
I won’t give away more of the story, but I will tell you that the heroism of the soldiers who survived the crash—and astoundingly five out of seven did—and the heroism of the townsfolk who worked so hard during a bitter blizzard to keep them alive, moved me deeply.
While the rest of our group settled down for lunch, I spent some time alone at the memorial site, thinking about these utterly amazing, utterly ordinary people, and lit a candle in their honor.
Everything I know about these people comes from a booklet written by Floyd W. Ramsey, The Night the Bomber Crashed. If you can, read it before you do the hike; it will make a difference, I assure you.
From Meadow to Woods
Despite a forecast of rain, we started off our 4.6 miles in sunshine and fine fettle, marching along an old logging road overgrown with grass and wildflowers.
In about half a mile, we came to a surprisingly perfect circle of meadow that signaled our turn onto the trail, and a perfect spot for a group picture. The trail was marked by a tiny cairn, nearly hidden in the grass, that someone had recently built to mark the way.
Entering the forest, the landscape changed dramatically. We charged along, sweating in the heat and humidity, grateful for the dense shade. Drinking, a lot of drinking, became de rigueur.
The trail steepened considerably, with much of the 1350’ elevation gain coming in the last mile. Sweat soaked our clothes.
At least the footing was nice and soft, almost mushy on this un-maintained and rather unknown trail compared to the usual rocky tramp in the White Mountains. On the other hand, it was slippery. Going up wasn’t so bad, but later on, when we descended, people slipped and slid and the occasional ankle was turned, though none seriously.
The Crash Site
I was merrily chatting away to folks from the “sweep” position, when I noticed that the line of hikers ahead of me had not only stopped but dispersed. What was up? It took me a moment to realize the lump of something to my left was not another rock, but an airplane engine.
The B-18 crashed high and then skidded at an angle through the trees going downhill, tearing off its wings, splitting open the fusilage, and losing its landing gear in the process. But that’s not how you come upon the wreckage. You climb up to the last bits to fall off or explode away.
First you see an engine, then other chunks and hunks or metal and gradually you piece together a doorway, a hydraulic part, and then, at the highest part of the mountain, the wings. Looking down from there you can see the line the bomber made tearing through the forest to its final rest and the explosion of the plane itself and one of the 300 pound bombs it carried.
The remaining bomb lay there, near the burning wreckage, the entire time of the rescue. It was eventually detonated by military personnel the next day.
Some of the wreckage takes fantastical shapes. Some of it looks like litter.
Parts of the plane flew far and wide from the various blasts, so the field of discovery is broad here in little traveled Mt. Waternomee.
Though the burn marks and scars on the mountainside have healed completely, it’s astonishing how fresh the metal parts still look despite the nearly seventy years the forest has had to work on them.
We Find the Falls
We ate lunch on the flattest spot we could find, surrounded by chunks of wreckage. It felt like sitting in some ancient ruins.
On our way down Mt. Waternomee, Robert was able to locate the falls he’d seen when he scoped out this hike a few months before. There’s no trail per se, one has to simply wait until the sound of water comes at you from both sides, the climb up the embankment on the left as you face downhill and voila! A beautiful, rugged stretch of rocks and falling water.
Some of us hiked down the steep embankment to the water’s edge while others rested on the trail above. Three adventurers, Andrew, Randy and Frank climbed up the mossy rocks to wet themselves with the cold water and enjoy the refreshing breezes. Not me. I was content to meander along the water’s edge and take pictures.
As we came near to the end of our journey through the forest, I noticed an arrangement of Nature that looked like wooden brushstrokes representing a Japanese or Chinese character. What did it symbolize? The word “peace” came to my mind.
What does it say to you?
Saturday I co-led my second Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hike, this time with Robin, the woman who leads hikes all over the world, the one who got me interested in leading for the AMC in the first place. We were lucky with the weather this time, in that it didn’t rain.
We’d had to cancel our first attempt at this hike back in May. The trails on these two mountains, Welch & Dickey, near Campton, NH, frequently sport slabs, long patches of bare rock. Sometimes you go across them, sometimes down and sometimes up. In any direction, you don’t want to be messing with steep bare slab when it’s rain-slippery. Not if you want to come back with all your hikers intact.
It didn’t rain but there was a lot of moisture on the hike, mostly in the form of sweat falling from my forehead. The temperature remained in the high 80s, with what felt like equally high humidity and the sun blazed onto the rock. In other words, it was hot. Every little breeze was a blessed event.
The first dilemma arose before we took our first step. One of the hikers locked herself out of her car, but that wasn’t all. She locked herself out because she was anxious about her wallet, which had been stolen in a rest stop on her drive up to NH. No one’s cell phone got reception in the mountains, so she had to get down from the trailhead to the road to call in her missing cards before someone had a field day with them. Since she couldn’t get into her car, someone had to drive her.
With the pressure on, Robin remained calm. We agreed that I’d drive our unfortunate comrade to find help for her bank account and also for her car, while Robin led the rest of the group up the trail to our first summit, Mt.Welch. With luck, Charlotte and I would catch up with the group at some point, but if not, I’d leave a note on Robin’s windshield telling her what our plan was.
Charlotte and I successfully accomplished our missions. Now the trick was to catch up to the others when they had an hour’s lead on us. Did I mention it was hot?
Fortunately, Charlotte is a born hiker. I could hardly keep up with her. She didn’t eat or drink, hardly, she just hiked. She said it was nervous energy, but I don’t think so; she’s just strong. Here she is at the start of the hike.
I wondered as I mopped my face how Robin and the others were faring. Meantime, Charlotte and I did a little trail repair (replacing some moss that grew like a miracle in the middle of hot baked slab that somebody had dislodged). And climbed a cool crevice.
We also managed to help a stranded hiker whose group had left her while she clutched in a moment of fear trying to climb up some steep slab. Charlotte took her pack and I stood next to her and together we told her where to put her feet and hands.
Once she got past that hard spot, she was fine. So fine, in fact, she and her group passed us later, thanking us again over her shoulder as she sped by. I think actually it was the other way around. It gave me an energy boost to help her out.
Along the way we saw things both small, like this vivid toadstool in the woods and large, like the slabby side of Mt. Dickey that we would later hike down, from our perspective looking like the side of a slumbering elephant.
There are several reasons to hike the Welch-Dickey loop trail. The first is the views. So is the second. The third is the sense of what a mountain is that you get from marching on its bones rather than its skin of dirt and trees.
As we neared the summit of Mt. Welch, we turned to look back at the rocky plateau from which we had seen our first 180° spread of mountains, greenery and the twin ribbons of the Mad River and Route 49 winding along beside it.
After enjoying the gorgeous views east and south, we hauled ourselves up to the peak of Mt Welch. What to our wondering eyes did appear? A bunch of backpacks and gnoshing hikers, our very own group eating lunch at the summit!
On to Mt. Dickey
Our next mountain, Mt. Dickey, is perhaps underappreciated after the wondrous slabs and views of Welch, but it has its moments. Starting out to hike the half-mile to the top of Dickey leads you to the edge of a cliff. The trail disappears and one can only presume there’s some death-defying leap to doom in store. It’s a moment that instills excitement, or horror, depending.
We all made it down alive, then up again, which is the way “ridge” trails tend to go in the Whites, and stopped for a break. It’s almost impossible to drink enough water when you’re sweating so much. To wit very few of us required, in AMC jargon, a “separation break” to relieve ourselves.
The trail down from the top of Dickey is, I have to say, wonderful. There’s a fabulous view to the north and, despite some haze, you can see all the way to the Twin Mountains on the northern edge of the Presidentials, two identical little pale blue bumps against the horizon, roughly 50 miles away as the crow flies.
Then there’s the fun of the trail itself. Check out these slabs!
Our hike was billed as a beginner hike. Robin and I hoped that some people who were not old hands in the Whites would come try it out, and several did. They found it challenging, sometimes because it was steep, sometimes because it was scary, and sometimes because it kept going up, with much of the elevation gain coming in chunks. And, yes, it was also hot.
We got some friendly comments about how people now realized AMC stood for Appalachian Mountain Club, not Appalachian Hill Club. Or how they thought beginner hike meant easy hike. But they all stuck it out; everyone summited two not-insignificant mountains in the White Mountains, characterized by most through-hikers as the hardest mountain range of the whole 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
As we neared the trailhead parking lot, we passed the remains of an old root cellar from somebody’s home long ago, a glimpse into a different time and way of life.
It was a great group of people that banded together to succeed in hiking one of the more beautiful spots in NH. Well done, everyone.
My first official Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hike after being certified to co-lead was, ironically, called “My First AMC Hike.”
Bob, the experienced hike leader who had created the concept years before, agreed to resurrect it when I said it appealed to me. Designed to attract new people to hiking and to the benefits of AMC membership, “My First AMC Hike” was a two-part hike in the Blue Hills of Milton, MA.
Part I was basically flat, three miles around Houghton’s Pond and a bit of incline up to Tucker Hill to catch a view. No special gear required, just decent foot wear, a rain jacket, snacks and water.
Lots of water. When I started the trail talk at 9:15am on Saturday morning, it was already 75° and humid. The sun beat down hot enough for me to remember to slather my arms and face with sunscreen.
Bob had put in the information sheet we sent out to all participants ahead of time the little-known and unlikely fact that not only copperheads but rattlesnakes inhabit the Blue Hills. I’d encountered a rattler once in my life, out hiking in Sedona, AZ, off trail in popcorn rock, exactly where a hiker should never be. I was climbing up hand-over-hand and had just pulled myself onto a nice ledge when I heard that unmistakable sound.
If you’ve ever wondered if you’d recognize a rattlesnake’s rattle, trust me. It’s hard wired into the human brain. The guidebook to all the critters that could kill you in Sedona, AZ was emphatic about what to do when one encountered a rattler. Freeze. Locate the snake with your eyes. Back away slowly.
I did not locate the snake with my eyes. I did not back away slowly. I leapt off that ledge faster than a jack rabbit. My husband, who was coming up the mountain behind me was startled to see me scuttling back down. “You sure it was a rattlesnake?” he asked.
I gave him a look. “If you don’t believe me, go on up and find out for yourself.” I paused. “Just remember you’re too big for me to carry, so be sure it’s the last sight you want to see.”
The Trail Talk
AMC hikes always begin with a trail talk in which one of the leaders reminds everyone of the plan for the hike and sets out a few rules, like start together, stay together, end together.
I also gave the when-you-encounter-a-snake-that-could-kill-you instructions. Copperheads, I cautioned, were more aggressive than rattlers and often took a warning swipe at people who got too close. They cut the warning so fine that sometimes they broke the skin on someone’s leg and even that could be dangerous. “Don’t go closer to a snake to get a better view,” I said. “Don’t sneak up on it to see if it’s the dangerous kind. Don’t try to snap a picture. Just back away slowly.”
“Bob’s been hiking in the Blue Hills for 12 years and not only hasn’t he been bitten, he hasn’t even seen one of these snakes.” I wanted to put the risk in perspective.
I thought my first trail talk went reasonably well, but what do I know? The participants were all nice polite people.
Tracking 15 People
When one of the hikers acknowledged he liked maps, I asked him to go first with a copy of the map in hand and he graciously agreed. I hiked one or two people behind him, close enough to the front so I could keep an eye on the trail as well. Bob hiked toward the back of the pack so we could cover the whole long line of folks between us, and off we went.
The initial footing was easy, a path wide enough for four people abreast. As we left the perimeter of the pond, the trail narrowed some and roots showed from thousands of shoes and boots hiking the soil right off of them.
I’d expected to see a lot of other folks out walking on a weekend, but we encountered few other hikers. That was a good thing, in my book. It
was hard enough to make sure all the members of our group were still together. Eighteen people had signed up for the hike and 15 of them showed up.
There’s a lot to focus on as a hike leader besides not losing anybody and staying on the right trail. Some of our participants were beginning hikers. I tried to remember to remind everyone to drink. Were any of them getting hot spots on their feet, indicative of blisters-in-the-making? Did anyone need a bio-break? How was the pace—too fast, too slow, just right?
A hike is also a social event. I wanted to get to know each of the hikers at least a little bit so they felt welcomed and freer to say their feet hurt or they needed a break, and, besides, they were interesting to talk to. Sometimes it was hard to stop conversing to count heads.
Soon we arrived at the rocky trail, about two-tenths of a mile long, up to the top of Tucker Hill. Bob gave an encouraging speech about how everyone could hike up a steep hill, it just took time. He cautioned newer hikers not to expect to go as fast for the same output of energy up a hill. I added that many smaller steps were better for the joints and less tiring than fewer large steps. Up we went. Everyone did fine.
At the top was a lovely, if limited, view. We all admired it while we caught our breath. Bob pointed out the radio tower for Boston’s public radio station, WGBH, a mile-and-a-half west of us. One of the hikers, Steve, told us what the call letters stood for: Great Blue Hill. The tower perched atop the largest of the hills in the Reservation, Great Blue. I never knew that!
After Tucker Hill, the group naturally broke into two clusters, one faster and one slower, for part of the hike. Bob roamed from one to the other little group and, when he appeared, I’d head off to the other. That way we got to talk with and check on everyone.
At one point, Bob remembered that we’d forgotten to tell people to turn their cell phones off, always a good idea when you’re out enjoying nature. I had left mine on initially in case any of the participants who hadn’t shown up called me and then I’d forgotten it was on, so the reminder was a timely one.
We returned to our starting point on Houghton Pond and hunkered down in the shady grass for lunch. Bob dumped his pack out on the lawn and explained why he carried the various things he packed.
He shared with us a cool fact he’d learned from a scientist dedicated to improving gear for soldiers: turn your hiking socks inside out, so the fluffy part faces out. As the scientist said, “Have you ever seen a sheep, or any animal, wear their fur on the inside? Much better to disperse the heat and moisture if it’s facing out.”
Cynthia put on fresh socks turned inside out and said they felt like “an oasis of pleasure” between her feet and her boots. I can’t wait to try that myself. We said goodbye to those who were leaving and got ready for Part II of the hike.
For anyone who had managed Tucker Hill well enough and wanted more, we’d spend the next few hours going up and down three or four more hills, taking in Great Blue, the biggest hill and namesake of the Reservation, covering another four miles. Four hardy souls stayed on. We crossed the road and hiked up Houghton Hill, which seemed a fitting way to begin since our morning jaunt had begun with Houghton’s Pond.
When one member’s bootlaces kept coming untied, Bob offered up another golden nugget: Cheryl’s Magic Knot. (Not me Cheryl, another Cheryl from AMC’s Southeastern Mass Chapter who’s a longtime member and hike leader.) Check it out.
It was hot, really hot. And very sunny. It was humid. Really humid. And sticky. You could hardly drink enough water to make up for all that sweated out of you. Our shirts and shorts were soaked. Salt caked on my face. Not one of our staunch little group complained.
We got on to the South Skyline Trail, tramping up and down hills, till we reached the Tower atop Great Blue, a lovely stonework formation which housed steps up to the top and windows looking out over the whole Reservation.
Far to the East lay Boston, a shadowy city in misty grey.
A cool breeze blew through the windows at the top of the tower, as refreshing to the body as the sight of distant Houghton’s Pond, our starting point, was to the eye.
After enjoying vista and breezes, we saddled up and hiked off on the North Skyline Trail. Fine views were to be had atop Wolcott Hill and some of the Hemenways before we turned back to our friend Houghton and sloped on down to the parking lot.
A young mother with a friendly girl agreed to take our picture, proving that not only was the Blue Hill Reservation an amazing gift of nature within eyesight of Boston but it brought out the best in people. I certainly plan to return now that I’ve had such an enjoyable hiking venture there.
The Four Thousand Footer Club
I recently sent off my application for a patch saying I’m admitted to the Four Thousand Footer Club . It’s a club I’ve wanted to be part of for years. The only way to join this elite group of the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) is to climb all 48 peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet high.
If you’re from the West, you’re probably sneering right now. Four thousand feet is probably half the height you’re used to. But are you used to elevation gains of 2500’ to 4200’ in four to ten miles? Probably not.
East vs. West
Your Western mountain trails start up high, often at 8,000 or 10,000 feet, leaving only a couple of thousand feet to arrive at the summit. The mountains themselves are so young, compared to our eastern mountains, and so big there’s lots of room to have long, leisurely traverses during those elevation gains.
Switchbacks in the Whites are a luxury, and they tend to be pretty short. We simply don’t have the height or the width for long, gentle angles in our trails. Add to that the fact that our trails are built on rock and root, not that nice soft stuff called dirt or an even sweeter layer of fallen pine needles.
I hiked my first “Fourteener” (a mountain over 14,000 feet) in the Rockies last year and, trust me, the trail was technically a piece of cake compared to what one encounters in the 4000 Footers of the Whites. Of course I could hardly breathe, but that’s another issue.
Why The Delay?
Am I pleased with myself to have done the 48 peaks? More than pleased—thrilled, delighted, proud. Ecstatic!
So why did it take me a year-and-a-half to send off to join the Four Thousand Footer club?
Part of the reason is that it never really was about joining the club, about getting the patch or the T shirt. Hiking the 48 provided me a framework for getting out into nature, staying in shape, and spending long chunks of time with friends or alone in the majesty of a national forest. I found peace hiking. My mind couldn’t chatter at me about all the things I should be doing or hadn’t already done. I left my responsibilities at home.
There was nothing for me to fix in the mountains, nothing I had to do except leave no trace of my passing and get up and back down as best I could. I found myself, over time, feeling connected to the trees, the sky, the rocks. I came to love lichen, that varied and colorful stuff that grows on rocks, breaking down bits of the rock to provide enough soil for ferny things to grow . . . that break down the rock further so little plants and saplings take root and, voila! Eventually, you have more soil and more forest.
Hiking all these mountains made me want to know more about the world I spent so many hours walking in. I started noticing birds. And toads. Snakes. Beavers. Coyotes. I never saw a moose or bear on a trail (only crossing or by the side of the road, oddly enough) though I saw their signs and scat. I began to feel like one of a very large family in which only some of the siblings were configured more or less like me.
Oh, I kept track of my hiking times to see if and when I could beat book time, book time being defined as what the AMC White Mountain Guide estimates as the time to get up a trail. And I never liked it when other hikers passed by me on the way up or down because they were faster. So don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I wasn’t competitive. I am. But it was so much more than that for me.
The End and The Letter
Now that I’ve sent off the application, I think another reason it took me so long was because I didn’t want it, the whole glorious complex quest, to be over.
Much as I wanted to be done when I climbed my last peak, Mt. Isolation (13.3 miles, 3800’ elevation gain), much as I celebrated with hiking pals when I’d completed my years’ long journey through the Whites, I think a part of me hated that I was finished. Now I didn’t have the big hiking goal that added so much richness to my life.
Here’s the letter I sent with my application to that stalwart and generous group of volunteers who keep the Four Thousand Footer Club going:
Dear 4K Footer Folks,
Thank you so much for creating, managing and continuing this venture.
Hiking the 48 has been one of the highlights of my life. It took me ten years to finish. During that time I had several injuries, lost two years to breast cancer, and watched my hiking buddy die from ovarian cancer. The Whites sustained me though it all. I’m writing a book about it.
I am so grateful to you.