Living outside of the mountains, it’s easy to think that winter is dead. The snow here in Portland is gone except where piled at the edge of parking lots, and the temperatures have risen above 40 more than half of the days in the past two weeks. But a quick trip up to the mountains earlier this week proved that winter will be a long time in leaving. I’m pretty happy about that, since a flu and sinus infection in February knocked out my hiking aspirations for much of the winter.
My hiking partner, Nancy, and I had an off-trail adventure in the Mahoosuc Range near Bethel, attempting to find our way to Sunday River Whitecap, one of the most spectacular summits in a region known for its spectacular summits. To reach the peak, we opted for a bushwhack from the south, hoping to find an abandoned logging road to near Miles Notch, and then picking up the Grafton Loop Trail for the last section.
After about an hour of breaking through crusty, late-winter snow near Notch Brook, we found the abandoned logging road. The going up until that point had been incredibly slow, so finding the road was a welcome development. There were no tracks on the road, so we continued to break trail through deep, crusty snow. There was evidence that people had been into the road much earlier in the winter, but certainly not in the last month. This was classic Maine wilderness– not completely untouched by humanity, but left behind indefinitely.
Abandoned logging roads have always been some of my favorite places to explore in winter, since their openness allows for fine views of peaks above the roads, and the occasional clearing or beaver pond opens things up even more. I imagine if I were to walk on these old roads in summer, they would feel more claustrophobic than even the normal woods nearby, since the undergrowth grows in so tightly, but in winter all of that is buried beneath three or four feet of snow. The abandoned and overgrown road becomes as open as it was in its heyday.
Walking on the logging road was much faster than contouring along sides of hills and zig-zagging across Notch Brook, but soon enough we turned off the road for the final mile to Miles Notch. By this point, the clear skies and bright sun had made the snow sticky and heavy. Pushing through dense forest while breaking trail in the deep, wet snow, dropped our pace back to less than a mile an hour. By the time we reached the notch, I could barely lift my legs. A few weeks of the flu had taken a lot more out of me than I’d realized.
We had decided already that trying for the summit of Whitecap would be impossible, so we had our lunch in the notch, right on the Grafton Loop Trail, then followed our tracks back down. The Loop Trail would have been impossible to find if not for the GPS track I’d taken of it during a hike in the fall, but even then it was invisible. Some trails are not meant to be hiked in winter. Of course, that realization just made me want to try it even more. Some day, a traverse of the GLT in winter would make for an incredibly difficult and exciting three or four day backpacking trip.
On the way down, we took a short detour to a beaver pond below the logging road for some slightly better views. Along with logging roads, lakes and bogs are some of the most underrated views in winter. In warmer months, those views are impossible to come by, but with the pond frozen over we had unobstructed views up to Whitecap and Slide Mountain. A few pictures, and then we were on our way back down. By following our own tracks, we more than doubled our hiking speed on the way down. I was pretty happy about that, too. I can’t remember being so exhausted after any hike since last winter.