The drive back to Bethel on Friday didn’t look any better than any of the last several days of rain and fog, but I was still holding out some hope that the weekend would get better. I met Angela for a late lunch, and then we took our sweet time getting ready to head out on the trail. The late start didn’t bother me nearly as much as it normally would have. There’s no reason to rush getting on the trail in the rain, especially when the plan was to only hike a few miles that evening.
As we drove into Grafton Notch State Park, a most glorious thing happened- a patch of blue opened in the sky. It was the first time I’d seen the sky in over a week. I rejoiced, and we continued to the AT parking lot at Grafton Notch. The blue sky disappeared soon after we got there, but it was still a huge boost to my spirits.
We planned to hike in a short way that evening, then take three more nights on the trail to complete the Grafton Loop Trail, one of my favorite backpacking trails in New England. A forty-mile loop with four major peaks and several more glorious views, even if the weather was mostly crap we might have some good scenery. The forecast called for more rain Saturday, then a relatively clear Sunday and Monday. Good enough for me!
With a slight detour Friday evening we had some nice views of the notch from Table Rock, but soon enough the clouds had crept back in. Occasional mist cooled me down, but not enough to dampen my spirits. This was the first time this season I’d carried my MLD Exodus, my first overnight trip of the year. It felt fantastic to have that solid, if light, weight on my back. Later, at the Bald Pate lean-to, it was mighty nice to be camped out in a shelter again, knowing I would be dry and cozy through the night regardless of the weather. I’d gotten so used to tenting on the PCT that I’d almost forgotten what it was like to stay in a shelter. I’d even begun to think of shelters as many hikers do, as mouse infested and overcrowded dumps. This one was mouse-free, and there were only three people total for the night. It was pure luxury.
The problem with that luxury, though, was that when I awoke the next morning inside a cloud I didn’t get very excited about hiking. By the time Angela and I started our way up Bald Pate, it had already begun to rain. The new rain, along with over a week of saturated ground and still-melting snow higher up on the mountain, turned the already steep and eroded trail into a constant water way.
Once atop Bald Pate, the rain began to come down even harder, so we did what we could to hurry along and get back into the trees on the loop trail. Of course, Bald Pate is not a place where you would want to be in a hurry, especially if it’s raining. The slab rocks the trail goes over between the two peaks of the mountain can be slippery enough in dry weather, forget slick and wet conditions.
We made it to East Bald Pate with some brief glimpses of Old Speck through the clouds, but there was no time to enjoy the views. We ducked back into the trees and descended through further muddy and wet trail. The rain stopped, at least, but brushing past wet branches and stomping through thick mud did just as well for soaking us.
When hiking in really wet conditions like these, I tend to turn off my mind and just push on all day, barely noticing my need for food or drink. That’s what happened on Saturday. My rain gear was soaked through early on, but I was perfectly warm in my wet clothing while I walked. The fine scenery of the Grafton Loop was mostly lost on me that day. The views from Lightning Ledge and the few other viewpoints along the way were totally obscured by clouds.
The east half of the loop trail follows and crosses several streams, which I’ve always found to be rather pleasant in my past hikes of the trail, even in wet weather. But those streams were much higher on Saturday than they’d ever been for me before. Angela and I ended up having to ford half a dozen streams that were up to knee deep, along with all the sections of trail that had turned into rushing steams. It was a hell of a wet day.
Not long before we got to our campsite below Puzzle Mountain, it began to rain hard again, not letting up this time until we had camp all set up. We were both feeling a little grouchy at this point, having had too little to eat, being soaked through all day, and now following a trail that it seemed had had a rough winter. There was some evidence of planned trail work for the summer- flagging tape leading off the trail denoting welcome relocations- but we were too early in the season for that to be of any use to us. We arrived at our campsite to find it completely sodden, just like all the others we’d passed that day. We set up camp and hid in our tents for the rest of the night.
I’d already decided that if Sunday wasn’t remarkably better, we might as well call it quits at the halfway point for this trip. Since Sunday had been forecast to be the highlight of the weekend, if it wasn’t perfect there would be no way for us to dry our things and really no need to put ourselves through another few days of piss-poor hiking conditions. So when we awoke in a cloud again Sunday morning, I didn’t feel very optimistic.
We went over Puzzle Mountain in a cloud, which wasn’t any different from the usual for me. This was my third time hiking this trail, and each time I’ve gone over Puzzle it’s been inside a cloud. The open ledges would certainly provide nice views, but I had to make do with the nice, mossy forest on the mountain’s north side for scenery instead. Not too shabby, but by then I knew I wouldn’t be finishing the loop this time, anyway.We got down to the road and hitchhiked back to our cars, far too exhausted for such a short weekend. Of course, the sun popped out of the clouds after we got back to the cars, but just long enough for us to dry out our gear before the storm clouds rolled back in.
It seems this spring is just not my time for hiking. The forecasts for all of the northeast continue to look like a bleak Pacific Northwest winter. I’m beginning to wonder if this summer is going to be a repeat of those two while I was working on the Long Trail. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for that not to be the case.
I’ll have a brief break from hiking in the next few days, including the Lightweight Backpacking presentation with Earlylite in Boston tuesday evening, but after that I’m going to need to reevaluate my plan for the next few weeks. The general plan was to hike until June 12, mostly doing the Long Trail Side-to-Side, but the weather could throw a wrench in the gears. I’ll play it by ear, and hopefully I’ll be able to get some hard hiking done before my summer camp gig starts. Maybe next summer I’ll have a real job, and instead of squeezing all of my personal hiking trips into the early part of the season, I can spread them out a little more through the summer. All these things come with trade offs, though. Oh well. For now, I guess I’ll just be like a cat. Yawn.