The Trail Less Traveled

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

Early part of the Al Merrill Loop

Heading out this morning for my planned hike, I didn’t know what to expect.  I hadn’t really thought about anything outside of picking a hike that I felt like hiking.  When planning my trip, I knew I wanted to summit a 4k on this hike and I also wanted to work on a region where my redlining percentage was fairly low to boost it up.

Starting with the redlining criteria, my options were the Northern Presidentials, the Moosilauke Region, or Northern New Hampshire.  I knew I wasn’t ready to summit the northern Presi’s with their huge elevation gains in short miles at this point.  Maybe in another hike or two.  The Northern New Hampshire region wasn’t going to get a lot of progress unless I wanted to hike a large section of the Kilkenney Ridge Trail, or piece together several small trails.  This left the Moosilauke Region.

View from the 10th Mountain Division Memorial Outlook

I started looking at some loops that I could hike and redline some significant miles and focused on a couple of different hikes.  That’s when I realized that I really wanted to summit a 4k, so I started looking at the various routes up Mt. Moosilauke.  After some time, I settled on hiking up the ridge to the east of Moosilauke and around to the summit, hiking up Al Merrill Loop to Asquam-Ridge Trail to Beaver Brook Trail to the summit.  I would follow most of the same route back, except I would hike the lower half of Asquam-Ridge Trail on the return, instead of Al Merrill Loop.

I read up on the trail descriptions in the AMC White Mountain Guide, then went to newenglandtrailreports.com to check out some recent trip reports on those trails to see if there were still lingering snow issues or anything else I should be aware of.  I was quite surprised to find almost no trail reports containing Asquam-Ridge Trail over the past year, and I don’t think I saw a single report with Al Merrill Loop in it.  I like quiet hikes, so this suited me just fine, other than not knowing if there are issues on the trails that could complicate the hike.

Moose Track from the upper section of Al Merrill Loop

I drove into the Dartmouth Outdoor Club’s Ravine Lodge parking area and was somewhere around the 10th or 12th car in the day hiker section at that point in the morning.  There were probably another 6 to 8 in the camper section.  I got my boots on, gear packed and quickly sprayed my legs with bug spray before heading up my trail of choice.

It was a nice easy to moderate grade and fairly steady throughout.  I thought several times to myself that this was such a nice trail to follow that I’m surprised there aren’t any people posting trail reports that include it.  The only thing I can think of is that it is one of the longer routes to the summit.  It can’t be rocks, because most of the trails up Moosilauke are pretty rocky anyway.  At one point, I was following the trail through a muddy section and I saw lots of moose prints, but no boot prints.  I guess the trail just isn’t used much by hikers.

View of Jobildunk Ravine from Beaver Brook Trail

I followed my planned route and after almost five miles, I finally ran into another hiker.  He had already summited and was on his way back down to the Beaver Brook Trail parking area.  He had thought there was a hut down Asquam-Ridge Trail, but I informed him that the only thing was the DOC’s lodge which was several miles down the trail.  That was far more than he wanted to go and definitely not what he thought it was.  It turned out that someone had handwritten “hut” on the junction sign and may have been referring to the lodge.  At the point when I met him, we were only 100 yards from Beaver Brook Trail.  We walked back to the junction together, chatting a bit before we separated; me heading up Beaver Brook Trail and him heading down.

As I climbed closer and closer to the summit, I started meeting numerous hikers, both day hikers and backpackers, coming down from Moosilauke.  Some I chatted with, others we just greeted each other in passing.  Overall, I think I passed 15 or 20 people coming down the trail in that 1.5 mile stretch before getting above treeline.  It was very busy for mid-morning, particularly compared to the 5 miles I had hiked completely alone.

Beaver Brook Trail just after it exits tree line on Mt. Moosilauke

I know Beaver Brook Trail is a popular trail up the mountain, so I didn’t think too much of the number of other hikers, especially considering the lousy spring weather we’ve had and the beautiful day today was.  I knew it was bound to be busy.  I just didn’t know how busy it was going to be.

By the time I reached the summit, the people I passed who were going down Beaver Brook Trail had easily passed 30.  There was a crowd visible as I crossed the ridge crest toward the summit sign.  The wind was fairly strong at the summit, so I didn’t realize how large the crowd was until I actually got there.

There are old stone foundations from an inn that used to be on the summit plateau.  People used to take a horse and carriage up an old road from Warren back in the early 20th century, maybe the late 19th century.  There were lots of people hunkered down inside those old foundations using them as a buffer against the wind.  Other people were milling about the summit sign, waiting turns to take pictures, while even more were on the south side of the summit, down behind a ledge, shielding themselves from the wind.

A view of the final section of Gorge Brook Trail as it approaches the summit, taken from the summit

I didn’t count, but in all there were easily 50 people on the summit, and maybe as many as 100.  For every person that left down Gorge Brook Trail or the Carriage Road Trail, more replaced them.  As I sat to start eating my lunch, I snapped a quick picture of the final stretch of Gorge Brook Trail as it approached the summit.  Counting the people in the picture after I got home, there are 18 in the photo and there’s more trail to the left of the photo edge before it reaches the summit.

I quickly ate my lunch and snapped a few pictures, trying unsuccessfully to get photos of the view without other people in them.  I took one last picture of the summit sign as I left, then headed back down Beaver Brook Trail.  About half way back to tree line, I stopped and took a panoramic photo of the White Mountains to the north.  I’ve posted it to the HikingtoCenter Facebook page since Facebook has such a nice interface for panoramic photos.

As I descended the trail back to the Asquam-Ridge Trail junction, I think I passed another couple dozen people ascending.  Today was just too many people for me and I was ready to get back to my “private” trail again.

After returning to the car, changing my boots, and starting the drive home, I had time to reflect on my hike for the day.  The only summit I’ve been on that had that kind of crowd was Mt. Washington.  That’s not entirely comparable either, since you can drive up Mt. Washington and that’s what most of those people had done.

Today was the third time I’ve summited Mt. Moosilauke.  The first two were both via Gorge Brook Trail.  After my time on the summit today, I’m so very glad I chose the trail less traveled.  I was able to enjoy some peace and quiet on the trail for most of the hike and got a good number of miles of trail redlined in the process.  Overall, for a 12.9 mile hike, excluding the middle four miles on Beaver Brook Trail and that 100 yards near it, I saw a whole two other people on the trail, and they were hiking together.

Baker River from a footbridge on Asquam-Ridge Trail

It was a day that has made me reassess my plans for the Appalachian Trail.  Not whether to do it or not.  I still want to section hike it.  It was more an assessment that I need to consider the when of section hiking each section.  I’m not sure that I want to hike the southern terminus section in the spring when the major northbound bubbles are starting out, but I also have to consider getting that section done before the summer heat sets in as well.  Avoiding the largest bubbles or crowds on the AT may be possible, but I think it may force me to reconsider the sequential sections I had originally wanted to do.  Maybe it will be best to pick the dates for sections that work best and avoid the major heat and crowds.

This isn’t something I’ve seen discussed on boards and websites.  Section hiking also doesn’t have the breadth of resources available that through-hiking has, so this is just something new to consider and I’ll need to figure out what my planning priorities are going to be.  There’s so much to learn and plan that it’s both overwhelming and exciting at the same time.

Summary:

Hike Date: Saturday, June 8, 2019
Location: Mt Moosilauke, White Mountain National Forest, Warren, NH
Trails: Al Merrill Loop, Asquam-Ridge Trail, Beaver Brook Trail
Total Mileage: 12.9 miles
Redline Mileage: 9.0 miles
Redline Progress: From 30.5% to 31.2%

Hobbies New and Old and Some Lessons That Tie Them Together

I’m not sure that my hiking is a hobby at this point, but it’s the best word I can come up with for my level of interest combined with my level of activity.  I’m probably classified mostly as a “weekend warrior” since I get to hike once a week, provided family commitments don’t prevent me from getting out one day during the weekend.  Occasionally, like this past Friday, I’ll take a day off from work to go hiking when the weekend schedule doesn’t work out for me.  However, I want to take it beyond this.

On the other end of the “hobby spectrum” is blogging.  This one is new for me, or at least a new attempt.  I’ve previously blogged briefly and failed miserably to keep it going.  My original blog, done a few years ago, was going to be a hiking journal with some pictures to keep family and friends included in my hiking adventures.  It didn’t last long.  This one is already more developed than that one was and is going much better in my mind.  Some part of that is the increase in social media connections and another aspect is that my mindset has been much different going into this attempt.

A small stream crossing Bickford Brook Trail

Obviously, there is a connection between these two hobbies, which is that the blog is an extension of my hiking, my goal to hike the AT, and the preparation to achieve that goal.  There’s also a connection between my two blogs (outside of the hiking theme).  I’m at that point where outside influences are taking priority over my desire to write blog posts at a reasonable frequency.  This was the death knell of my original blog.  Summer started and family time became a higher priority.  I didn’t have the motivation to spend time in front of the computer writing a blog post immediately after my hike and after I was a few hikes behind, it just seemed like a total waste of time to continue blogging at all.

I’ve hit that point again.

Sort of.

I took this past Friday off work to go hiking due to a combination of weather and family activities over the weekend.  With a busy weekend followed by a couple of days at work that has kept me significantly occupied, I have had the desire to write a new post, but not the motivation to actually do it.  Every night since my hike I have sat in front of the computer thinking about writing a post about Friday’s hike.  Each time I ended up doing something else instead, whether it was catching up on paying bills, or playing a game, or surfing internet sites on hiking or other topics.

Despite continuing to try to avoid snow, there was still this patch along the trail.

I felt like I was spiraling into the same trap as last time.  I was getting too far removed from the hike to write a good blog post about it.  Then I was going to go on another hike this weekend and would trap myself into the mindset that I couldn’t write about that hike until I’d written about the previous hike I’d skipped writing about.  Then, I got to today.

I don’t know what happened.  Sometimes the mind processes things in strange ways and makes connections that you’re not even considering.  Today, I realized that I haven’t been having a hard time motivating myself to write a blog post.  If I’d forced myself to do that, it was probably going to be a standard-type trail report:  Trails hiked, miles hiked, trail conditions, interesting things seen, throw in some pictures, and so on.  This was the reason I hadn’t written it.  It wasn’t what I wanted to read, so it wasn’t something I wanted to write.

The survey marker at the summit of Speckled Mountain.

What I needed to realize was that I wasn’t interested in a typical trail report.  The hike was wonderful with beautiful weather in Evan’s Notch that day and I have pictures to prove it.  However, while the hike was fun and interesting, a trail report wasn’t going to capture the spirit of the hike nor was it going to be interesting to myself looking back at it, let alone most readers.  Instead, my subconscious brain forced me to consciously realize more important lessons which will hopefully lead to a more interesting and longer lasting blog site than my previous endeavor.

First and foremost:  This is Hard.

I’m not a writer, I’m an Accountant.  At least, that’s according to training and education.  I can be a good writer and I can be a very creative person under the right circumstances.  I would be a horrible reporter or anyone else who had to write on a routine schedule or a deadline for a living.  My writing doesn’t seem to work that way.  I’ve always been able to write excellent papers when the spark hits me.  It’s like a spigot fully open with creative ideas, interesting imagery, and extensive vocabulary.  The problem is that I can’t voluntarily open the valve, or at least not close to fully open.

One of the many feathered friends hanging around the summit.

I think it’s one of those skills that good professional writers have.  The ability to tap into that creative pool of ideas and language, as needed, is a gift.  It’s a gift that probably gets refined and honed through use and practice, like most skills, but it’s still a gift.

For me, when the valve is open, the writing comes easily.  I’ve received lots of positive comments on my writing from people who have read my work when this happens.  Teachers and professors have said I should write more.  When the same teachers and professors read other papers written for a deadline which didn’t have that spark behind it, the reactions are definitely more muted and then the constructive criticisms come out about structure and grammar and voice and other “English Class stuff”.

From front to back are the Baldface Range, then the Carter Range, and Mt Washington poking up behind them all.

My second lesson learned really goes back to a saying, of which there are lots of variations:  “Nothing worth doing is easy.”

There are lots of paths I could follow to tie this lesson into hiking or blogging.  Hiking is hard and to me it is worth doing.  On the surface, I initially wouldn’t have made the same statement about blogging.  I looked at blogging as something that would journalize or document my process and learnings about preparing for an AT section hike.  I hoped it would be useful to other people as they prepared to do the same thing.  However, I thought it would be fun and easy and something I could look back on after my AT experiences as a bit of a memoir.

Boy, was I wrong.

In the beginning, the energy and enthusiasm for the blog was there, making the writing and posting easier to do and interesting like most new endeavors.  Looking back at the past couple of posts, the rote of trail reports has infused itself into the posts and while it helps to provide a timeline of my hiking and a basic story along with it, the post doesn’t convey any sense of life to the story it is trying to tell.

Looking north to the Mahoosuc Range.

This spring has been a series of personal growth moments for me, which is something I haven’t opened myself up to for a long time.  Apparently, I’ve got some catching up to do. 

For a long time, life has been a lot about family and work responsibilities, with hiking mixed in for recreation.  It was just a “grind through life” mentality.  I’ve now made the conscious decision to balance life more, or bring myself to the center of it.  Work will take a lower level of priority overall, with my family and my self increasing in priority, hopefully to a relative balance of the three.  Making that decision was the first step in the growth process.

Kezar Lake (I think) from Blueberry Ridge Trail.

Once I made that decision, I followed it up by deciding to attend the AMC 4000 Footer annual meeting.  I’d been hemming and hawing for months since I submitted my completion application and received the information about the meeting.  My wife and I are both definitely introverts and large gatherings with lots of people we don’t know aren’t really our usual scene, but I finally got off that fence and decided to go.

As I posted back in April, about that meeting, this was a continuation of that growth.  It was an opportunity to realize what hiking meant to me overall, but also what other people have gained from hiking.  Some of them gained far more than I have and had much harder journeys to completing their lists than I did.  It further reinforced the decision I made earlier in the year to finally start section hiking the AT, but more importantly, the presentation opened my eyes to the fact that while I am a goal oriented person, I could change my outlook and make goals that were more flexible, allowing me to enjoy my hikes more.  No longer did I have to make the summit the goal.  I also didn’t need to have a finishing time as a target.  It was going to be about the hike, the enjoyment, and the experience, rather than the time or the distance, specifically.

Shell Pond from the Blueberry Mountain ledges.

Now, I’ve extended that lesson to this blog.  I finally realized that I don’t need to blog each hike to be successful at this.  The important thing is to write something worth writing, which isn’t necessarily going to be easy each time.  If it is worth writing, then I hope it ends up being worth reading for more than just myself.  However, as long as it’s worth it to myself to read, then that’s all that really matters.  If I take care of making it worth writing, then things should just take care of themselves and all the readers after me will hopefully enjoy and learn from what I write.  Hopefully, this will help me practice opening up that spigot and I can start getting better at doing so.

And that ends up leading to the next (and maybe most important) lesson learned so far.  Take care of the most important pieces for the right reasons and in the right ways, and all the rest should fall into place.

Bickford Brook from Blueberry Ridge Trail just before the southern junction with Bickford Brook Trail.

To finish up, I don’t want to leave out those people who were checking in to see what trails I’ve hiked since my last post, so here’s a quick trail report summary of Friday’s hike.  I’ve interspersed pictures from that hike throughout the post with captions about what the pictures include.

Hike Date: Friday, May 31, 2019
Location: Evan’s Notch, White Mountain National Forest, Stow, Maine
Trails: Bickford Brook Trail, Blueberry Ridge Trail, Blueberry Mountain Loop
Total Mileage: 9.1 miles
Redline Mileage:7.4 miles
Redline Progress:From 30.0% to 30.5%

Maybe the next post will be more trail report than philosophical reflection, but we’ll see what comes out of the spigot next time.

Spring Hiking in the Whites

I finally had another weekend with time to get out to hike.  It’s been mostly miserable for weather since I was last out two weeks ago.  Rivers have been roaring with the rain and melt water and they’re finally starting to subside.  Trail reports still indicate multiple feet of snow above 4,000 feet, but with the rain and temps eating away at the snow cover quickly, I headed out in the morning to cover the nearly 2.5 hour drive to Franconia, NH for my planned hike, as well as my alternate hike.

As part of my new outlook on hiking, I didn’t want to race the clock per se.  My daughter is not quite five yet, so if I leave before she gets up in the morning AND don’t get home until after bedtime, life gets less pleasant.  Therefore, I was less focused on the clock today, but still mindful of the overall timeline.  I was ready to leave the house a bit before 6:00 but I waited until she was up to say goodbye.  A 10 minute delay wasn’t going to create problems with the hike and would make for a much happier girl throughout the day.

My route there took me through Crawford Notch, and with all the water flowing from the rain and melting, I stopped on the way to the top of the notch to get pictures of the two waterfalls which are about 100 yards apart:  Silver Cascade and Flume Cascade

Silver Cascade; Crawford Notch, NH
Flume Cascade; Crawford Notch, NH

My plan was to hike Mount Kinsman Trail up to Bald Knob.  Depending on how I felt and also the weather and snow conditions, I had the option to hike up to North Kinsman and along the ridge to South Kinsman.  The goal two weeks ago was distance, with a bit of climbing.  Today’s goal was all about the climb.  Climbing to Bald Knob would give me 1,391 feet of elevation gain, while going all the way to North Kinsman would yield 3,182 feet of gain.

The trailhead is just south of Franconia, on Route 116 and there’s plenty of parking for a dozen or so vehicles.  There were two others there when I arrived.  There was no sign of snow and trail reports had been indicating that snowshoes weren’t very useful anymore, so I left my snowshoes in the back of the car today.  I attached my “spring” microspikes to my pack, as well as my hiking poles, and started out in fog and light drizzle.  For my microspikes, there really isn’t any difference between my “spring” spikes and my “winter” spikes.  Spring spikes take a beating on rocks and gravel and don’t stay sharp.  Once the snow starts to melt down to the ground, I swap over to the older “spring” pair.

Overall, my gear consisted of:  baseball cap, sunglasses, wicking T-shirt, Techwick medium weight shirt, medium weight long underwear (bottom), light weight smartwool socks and my Salomon waterproof backpacking boots.  In, or on, my pack were my fleece jacket, a winter hat, mid-weight winter gloves, glove liners, my spikes, my poles, and 3 liters of water, along with food and a pack saw for any blowdowns needing to be cleared.

The early trail is fairly easy and was dry and solid, despite the rain overnight and the current drizzle.  The trail began to get wetter and softer about a half mile in.  Around one mile I climbed into the cloud bank, as the fog appeared and got thicker.  After a bit of a climb, I started reaching the stream crossings.  One has a waterfall next to the trail.  The last major crossing has a spur path to a flume, but I’ve been down the spur before and it’s wet and slippery in summer, so I wasn’t about to try it in today’s weather.

Trail-side Waterfall, Mount Kinsman Trail; Easton, NH

Shortly after the spur path to the flume is where the Mount Kinsman Trail takes a hard left and the Bald Knob Spur goes to the right.  Judging how I felt, I decided to try North Kinsman and I would head over to Bald Knob on my return.  Up to this point, there hadn’t been any snow on the trail.  About 200 yards after the junction were the first small chunks of unmelted ice remaining from the winter’s monorail.  Within another quarter-mile, the monorail had become fairly consistent and too difficult to avoid, so I pulled my spikes off my pack and put them on my boots.

Rotting Monorail on Mount Kinsman Trail

The packed, solid portion of the monorail ranged from a foot wide in places, down to just a few inches in others.  It was very challenging to stay on the monorail throughout the climb up North Kinsman.  My poles often broke through the snow to the sides and I had to be careful not to rely on the poles too much for balance, or else I’d end up falling off the monorail when the poles broke through.

Up wasn’t a terrible problem.  It was a bit slow and tedious, making sure to stay on the packed monorail.  I ended up getting to an elevation of about 3,600 feet when my legs decided they were done.  It was a hard decision to turn around at that point.  I was only about a half mile from the summit, but I also had about 600 feet of gain to climb in that half mile.  I had already been slowing down during the climb and if I had pushed myself to reach the summit, I probably would have been very late getting home tonight.

Reading a bunch of AT blogs and Instagram posts, there are a bunch of “words of wisdom” that can be found, but there are two that have stuck with me so far.  First, “Hike Your Own Hike”.  Do it your way, not someone else’s way, because you’ll be happier and more fulfilled doing it the way you want it done.  Second, “Listen to Your Body”.  When your body says it’s done for the day, let it rest.  If it needs a zero day, give it a zero day.  I’ve been notoriously bad at the second one as a day hiker.  I have pushed myself to hit my targets and reach my goals, whether it be time targets, distance, or reaching the planned objective of my hike.  I hate failure and I have paid the price after a hike in the past, where my feet are sore, joints ache, and I have low energy for days afterward.  This is another of the adjustments I’m making to my hiking style this year, as I prepare for the AT.

In the past, I’d have pushed on to complete the summit and paid the price.  Today, I listened and turned around.  Now, for me, down is always faster.  I have good knees and I have very little problem moving quickly down a mountain.  However, down on a rotten monorail that is three feet above the ground is far more dangerous than that same monorail when going up.

When you are climbing, you move slowly and are picking your footing carefully.  Down, you are fighting gravity and your footfalls land much heavier, leading to more postholes.  Go down too quickly and you run the risk of postholing and breaking ankles, twisting knees, or other injuries.  On the way down today, I passed two groups on their way up.  The first group, I moved off to the side of the trail so they could go by me and I promptly broke through and sunk to my waist.  Fortunately, much of the snow had melted, leaving empty space under the suspended monorail and it was easy to climb back onto the monorail after they passed.  However, that was done carefully and with the expectation that I would fall through.  The results can be completely different if I was moving ahead at a rapid speed and broke through.

For the second group, I happened to find a spot to the side of the monorail where a rock and stump stuck up through the snow and it gave me a solid purchase to stand on as they went by.  Much easier and safer this way and was easy to step back to the monorail and continue on my way.

Eventually, I reached the junction with the Bald Knob Spur and followed it for the 0.2 miles to the open ledges.  Unfortunately, they were still mostly in the clouds, but it was a good opportunity to sit and rest and enjoy the peace and quiet.  While I was there, I ate a snack, drank some more water, and realized how muddy my legs were.  There’s a reason I keep choosing waterproof boots.  Today would have been miserable with wet cold feet.  It’s also the reason for the long underwear today.  While the temperatures were starting out in the low 40’s and were in the low 60’s by the time I returned to my car, my legs stayed warm and mostly dry despite my outer hiking pants being soaked and mud covered.

Spring Hiking Fashion

As a bonus, the sun broke through the clouds when I was about a mile from the trailhead and I managed to find a few flowers starting to blossom.  The first is a red trillium that is ready to blossom, but not quite there yet.  I’m not much of a botanist, so I don’t know what the second flower is, but it was in bloom and I took its picture.

Red Trillium, Not Quite Blossoming
Unidentified Small Yellow Flowers

Overall, today was a great day!  I exceeded my expectations on my climb, making it far closer to the North Kinsman summit than I expected.  I got to drive around and see a bunch of waterfalls and it was a wonderfully relaxing day on the trail.