Winter is not a time to hike alone very often, a fact that has been nagging me for the past few months. In other seasons, I do most of my hiking alone, but winter brings a few more risks. I’ve been hiking with groups all winter, and having a fine time of it. The part of me that loves climbing mountains is perfectly happy with that. But the part of me that needs solitude and wilderness has been getting antsy. So last week I tried to find a place near home to get that solitude.
The bulk of the White Mountains National Forest lies within New Hampshire, and if you ask anyone about the forest, they’re likely to forget that there’s a chunk of it just over the border in Maine. The Maine section has none of the famous 4000-footers. In fact, it only has one peak over 3000 feet in elevation. I figured that this forgotten corner of the mountains would be a good place to find that peace and quiet I’d been lacking, and I was right.
After miles of increasingly rural roads, I wound up on a woods road west of Stoneham, deep among forests and lakes and low, craggy mountains. The first two miles on the Cold Brook Trail were a groomed snowmobile track, where I met the only person I would see all day– a Maine Forest Ranger driving a snowcat and grooming the snowmobile trails. He stopped to say good morning, then proceeded to give me a spoken tour of the entire valley and surrounding mountains. I was in a hurry to get moving, but I love to hear about areas like this from the locals, so I took it all in until it got too cold to stand still. The Evergreen Valley was just a set of lines on a hiking map as far as I knew, but after listening to him for a while, I realized there’s a dense history in this area, with an abandoned ski resort, old mountain lodges, and a long tradition of outdoor recreation off the beaten path.
After that stop, I was off into increasingly untrodden woods, leaving the snowmobile trail at a recently logged clearing and heading steeply up the Cold Brook Trail. This winter’s snowpack has been hit-or-miss, and it’s still in the “miss” stage, so there was barely enough on the trail to make for good walking. After clunking around with snowshoes for a few more miles, I switched to light crampons for the rest of the climb. Once I arrived at the southern ridge of Speckled Mountain, with its wind-blasted, open rock faces, the snow built up into dense drifts with not a hint of human presence. No footprints anywhere to be found, no sound of civilization. This is my paradise.
With the crystal-clear views to the Baldface Range, Carter-Moriah Range, and Presidential Range to the west, and far into the lowlands of Maine from the first ledges, I was tempted to call it a day there. After all, I already had my fine views and time away from people. But I carried on to what looked like a treed-in summit anyway. After all, I’d never been to Speckled Mountain, so I wanted to see what else there was to see. That turned out to be a good decision.
The summit of Speckled Mountain, though only 2900 feet high, was partially clear with tremendous views to the north, from Mount Washington all the way to Old Speck and Tumbledown. It was the most perfect view I’ve had all winter.
Beyond the view, it was also the first time in months that I’ve had total, utter silence. I remember the last time that happened quite well– on top of White Cap Mountain in July. It’s such a rare thing to have, I wonder if most people have ever experienced it, or if they ever notice it. It’s almost impossible to have unless hiking alone, and it’s rare even in the most remote places. The silence was interrupted only a few times by the flapping of a songbird’s wings, my only company on the summit.
I stayed up top for almost an hour, taking in the richness of the surroundings. I’ve been thinking recently of leaving the northeast, if the right opportunity comes along, but on days like this I don’t know how I ever could. Other places might have taller mountains or more remote wildernesses, but they don’t have these mountains or this wilderness. I can’t think of a place I’d rather be.