Massachusetts

This weekend I joined a group of New Englanders from the Backpackinglight.com forums for the first of hopefully many group hikes. We’d been lamenting the fact that west-coast BPLers seem to have a tighter community than what we’ve been able to arrange in the northeast, so with some expert planning by a few of the forum members we were able to get ten strangers together in the mountains of Western Massachusetts together for a weekend of what I can only describe as intense gear-nerdiness.

Tranquil forest in Mount Washington State Forest, MA.

I’m a bit of a hermit, myself (hence the backpacking, the blog, and the lack of interaction with real humans in my immediate vicinity), so this trip was a welcome change of pace. I’d been feeling less like a part of the BPL community since my PCT through-hike a year ago, as I’ve had less time to go through forums and participate in the really great discussions there. This would be quite different from joining discussions on the latest trends in lightweight backpacking, but it seemed like a good idea none the less.

I joined the last of the Boston contingent late in the evening on Friday, meeting them in Northampton to leave my car and ride the rest of the way with a group. We were the latest arrivals at Mount Washington State Forest near South Egremont, MA, getting to the trailhead at 10:30 PM, and hiking by headlamp to the camping area. Luckily, I had just charged my Petzl Core battery, since hiking in an unfamiliar place after dark is always better with a bright light. We arrived at the campsite at 11, just after most of the group had gone to sleep. A few who were still awake excitedly welcomed us to the site, but we wasted little time in setting up shelters and passing out ourselves.

The morning is when the real fun began.

Ultralight Home Show part 4: Gossamer Gear The One

There were ten of us at the remote campsite, and you could tell it was a gathering of ultralight backpackers. So much cuben fiber, sil-nylon, and spinnaker fabric stood around the campsite that we couldn’t help but start the day with an “Ultralight Home Show.” We toured the site and had each person show off their backpacking shelter, sleeping set-up, and cool gear.

After looking through ten shelters (five pyramid tarps, four flat tarps, and a hammock), we talked gear, gear, gear, and more gear, before realizing we should go for a hike rather than just stand around and act like nerds all day. It was a short hike to Alander Mountain, but with the New England foliage still bright in its decline, the lack of sunshine couldn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.

The Massachusetts/Connecticut Border in fine form, late in autumn.

We spent most of the day hiking around on Alander Mountain, with some fine views of the Catskills and the valleys below, and on the South Taconic Trail, a particularly gorgeous walk in the woods with some of the most beautiful streams running through the wide open forest. It was beginning to feel like autumn proper, though, with a light overcast all day and chilly temperatures. After several stressful days last week, dealing with work and the life of a part-time hiker, a day of trading stories with other hikers and enjoying the relaxing forests of southern New England wiped away all my worries.

If I must have a fire, it’s got to be a good one.

The day finished with some more show and tell about lightweight gear, and then, to make sure nobody thought we were too serious, a giant campfire and an unspecified amount of wine.

I can’t get over how clear and peaceful these frigid streams were.

To sum up the weekend, it wasn’t so much about hiking as about meeting other lightweight backpacking crazies. We’re a relatively rare bunch– backpackers aren’t a big population, and lightweight backpackers are a fringe of that small group, so we don’t often meet. And since a lot of the equipment that we get excited about is either home-made or sold only online, it was sort of a shopping experience, too. I got to see and test several tarp shelters, backpacks, and new ideas that I’d never seen before. The downside to this is that now I have even more items on my wishlist than before. This could get expensive.

Kentucky Blue, Cough Drop and I drove along the winding road to North Adams, Massachusetts, on Friday afternoon, fighting to keep our eyes on the road despite the clear skies and shining forests. The foliage this year was duller than in years past, an unfortunate development that was much lamented by the organizers of this year’s Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association Gathering, but it was a gorgeous weekend none the less. I was excited just to be in the company of such good friends, regardless of what the Gathering might be like. This would be my first, so I had no idea what to expect.

The Gathering campsite in a hayfield with a beautiful view of Mount Greylock

The opening festivities of the Gathering initially made me feel a little like an outsider. The announcements went into great detail about people who everyone else seemed to know by name. The Appalachian Trail has some amount of celebrity culture which I choose to avoid, so I was intentionally in the dark. I was happy enough to watch old friends reconnect as I had done with Cough Drop and Kentucky Blue in the last few days, though. (I’ll put up a trip report of our previous days’ hike soon.)

The real fun started when the announcements were over. “Let’s see who’s hiked the most in here!” the announcer shouted. “If you’ve hiked or backpacked five thousand miles, stand up!” Kentucky Blue and I stood, along with dozens of others in the small auditorium. “Now ten thousand!” We sat, along with most of those already standing. Fifteen thousand and twenty thousand dropped all but two. Only Billy Goat and a jolly-looking lady in the back remained standing. In one-thousand mile increments, the announcer raised the ante, looking completely amazed. “Twenty-seven thousand?” Billy Goat and the woman both nodded, smiling widely. At thirty-four thousand miles, the woman finally sat, laughing. Billy Goat claimed the title at 40,000 miles. The announcer gave a shout-out to Wanda (I can’t remember her last name) as being one of the most powerful hikers out there. I was more impressed at her accomplishment than Billy Goat’s, only because nobody seemed to have heard of her, while Billy Goat is something of a hiker celebrity.

Trail organizations like the International AT showed off their accomplishments.

The announcer then went on to have each Appalachian Trail through-hiker class stand, and I was amazed to see representatives from every single year from 2011 back to 1977. The earliest year represented was 1968, a spry and strong grey-hair. A wave of applause drowned out the announcer as he congratulated the man for his accomplishment. Will I still be a part of this community in forty years? I wondered. I know so few of the people here, and my circle of hiker friends is pretty small as it is. This crowd seems like a tight family, and I’m like a new friend coming in for the holidays, missing all the in-jokes and wondering who everyone is talking about.

Kentucky Blue addresses a classroom about lightweight hiking

Saturday morning was when the real meat of the Gathering began. My presentation on the New England Trail was on the earliest schedule block, competing with others on the Canadian Rockies, Kilimanjaro, Nepal, and the Israeli National Trail. I resigned myself to presenting only to my close friends. Kentucky Blue and Cough Drop were with me for sure. I was overjoyed to see Uncle Tom and Anne from the Pacific Crest Trail, and Mad Mike from the Appalachian Trail, all good friends I see very seldom. There were a few other familiar faces, but I was blown away to see the room completely packed! I got so nervous I almost went over my allotted 75-minute period, but the crowd seemed to enjoy the show. What a relief!

With my first presentation out of the way, I was able to check out several others for the rest of the weekend. I watched talks on the Spanish Sierra, the International Appalachian Trail in Maine and Canada, and the Canadian Rockies, all places I would love to see someday. The presenters had been to so many places, seen so much. As I realized how many of my trail friends were in fact here, and how much I have in common with the crowd, I started to realize how this community is formed. It’s not so much about the people at the Gathering as it is about the many places in the world we can explore.

Paul LaBounty talked about his trek through the Spanish Sierras. It’s good to see so many people who are obviously hikers.

I couldn’t talk about the Gathering without mentioning the one real celebrity of the weekend. Saturday night’s presentation by Andrew Skurka, probably the most accomplished explorer of our generation, was a fine show. Last year he used a combination of skis, packraft, and feet to traverse a nearly 5000-mile loop in Alaska and the Yukon. I can’t say much about it except that if you have a chance to see him talk, go for it. He’s a pretty cool guy.

The Gathering ended on a bittersweet note, my friends having left early Sunday and the crowd dwindling. It’s always hard to leave a beautiful and exciting place like this, but I can only say I can’t wait to go to another Gathering. I guess that’s why everyone had been so happy to see each other in the beginning, and I guess that means I really am a part of this crazy community of hikers.

 Holy crap! I just saw in my Green Mountain Club quarterly newsletter that one of my dreams has come true! Forest and Crag by Guy and Laura Waterman has been re-released!

For those of you who don’t know about this, Forest and Crag is a definitive history of hiking in the northeast. From first ascents of major peaks to the long-distance trail craze and the back-to-nature backpacking boom of the 1960s, this book has more than you ever thought you wanted to know about the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, the Adirondacks, Katahdin, the Long Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and more and more and more. Really. It’s more entertaining than it sounds. The Watermans crafted a wonderful book, and it reads much easier than you’d imagine.

I picked up a used copy of Forest and Crag several years ago because it had gone out of print. I figured maybe the Appalachian Mountain Club didn’t sell enough of the books to justify another printing. Who knows. It’s a massive book, and who reads histories of hiking? The news is that the Green Mountain Club managed to re-publish the book as a Kindle e-book, which gets around the cost of printing a thousand-page tome. I don’t know why the AMC didn’t do this already, but I don’t care. I’m just glad that if my big old copy of this book ever gets lost (as I’m afraid it will one of these days during my many moves to new homes), I can get a new one that is much easier to keep track of.

The authors have written several other wonderful books, and their story is pretty amazing by itself. But sticking to the topic at hand, you should read Forest and Crag. And if you like it, you should read some of their other books. My favorites are Yankee Rock and Ice, a companion piece to Forest and Crag which details the rock and ice climbing history of the Northeast; and the pair of Backwoods Ethics and Wilderness Ethics, which detail the philosophy of protecting the physical wilderness, as well as the mental state of being in the wilderness. Great books. Check it!

If the Southern New Hampshire section of the New England Trail was a little weird, the trend just continued as we got closer to the coast. After a relaxing zero day, we got back on the trail at the base of Monadnock, another cold morning for what would be our last day in New Hampshire. From now on we would deal with frequent trail relocations, harder-to-follow paths, and very ambiguous camping restrictions. But there were a few restaurants and stores near the trail that made life a little easier. And the terrain was generally easier.

One of our last views of Monadnock from new Hampshire

From the hills on that first day, Monadnock dominated the horizon again, but this time it was capped in snow. We counted ourselves lucky to be in relatively warm conditions, and continued on through the small town of Troy, where we stopped at the newly opened Eva’s Bakery for the first of many on-trail feasts.

The rest of the day was hot– without a doubt the hottest day of the entire trip at about 60 degrees. We left Troy on an old road or ATV trail, and soon went over Little Monadnock with more views of Monadnock, and then dropped into the lower woods for most of the next several days. The trail was very well blazed, but the lack of traffic meant that we couldn’t see the trail at all in most places without searching for blazes. Most trails further north are pretty obvious when you look at the ground, so this was a little extra challenge.

An early evening from Crag Mountain, behind schedule due to a new trail relocation 

After Little Monadnock, the views were sparse until we hit the Holyoke Range near Amherst. Instead of going over mountains, the trail stuck to deep woods and secluded streams. We figured this would mean easy hiking, relaxing days, and big miles. What we hadn’t bargained for was the miles of relocations ahead. Due to uncooperative landowners along the trail, several sections had been replaced with lengthy relocations, or the blazes had simply been painted over to hide the trail. In a few cases this meant we took wrong turns and had no idea where we were, but where the relocations were well blazed (most everywhere) the only downside was that we had no idea how far we had come, or how much was left– we just had to keep following the blazes and hope that they put us in the right place.

Despite the frustration with the relocations, the trail had just enough high points to keep us satisfied. On one long relocation we came to the top of a cleared hillside where we could see Mount Grace and Monadnock in the distance. later we came to a power line with some large boulders arranged in a kind of Stonehenge. We never did figure out just where we were, but the blazes didn’t lie.

As we approached the Holyoke Range we found a bit more traffic on the trails. A local and his dog helped us find the trail in one area where it had been de-blazed, and we ran into several walkers just after setting up our tents the night before we walked over the Holyoke Range. That night we had yet another tremendous rain storm, which lasted throughout the day. We ended up hurrying over Holyoke to get to our friend Angela’s house to dry out. No views from the mountains that day.

After showers and laundry at Angela’s house, we went out on the town for ice cream and dinner (in that order). During all of this, the rain fell harder and harder, practically flooding the area. Lucky us! To add a little excitement to the night, during our tasty Indian food feast in Springfield an unexpected belly-dancer routine started up for about half an hour, distracting us from our dinner. It takes a lot to take hikers’ minds off of their food– apparently a pretty young lady with some serious belly-dancing moves is more than enough.

Looking down at the Connecticut River Oxbow from Mount Tom

The next day was the polar opposite of the rain and cold we had over the Holyoke Range. Despite missing the first turn from the Connecticut River up to Mount Tom, we had a windy, cool, clear day with views of the entire region from the steep cliffs over Northampton. And once we left Mount Tom behind, we had more cliffs on much less-traveled mountains west of Springfield. The trail wasn’t as easy to follow in these areas, where in some places it was totally overgrown or obscured by old blowdown, but it was still the highlight of the M-M.

The cliffs on Mount Tom provided extensive views.

We spent another night at Angela’s place, figuring the best of the trip was behind us. The next day we would pass into Connecticut and breeze through four more days of hiking, easy as pie.

An early morning farewell to Massachusetts.

On our final morning in Massachusetts, we got an early-morning ride with Angela’s mother across the Westfield River and started hiking. It was another icy morning, but it was the last of those, since Connecticut was quite a bit warmer. We had a few nice cliff views, but nothing quite as spectacular as the Mount Tom vistas the day before. There was a bit of excitement about a mile from the end of the trail, where a beaver dam had just barely flooded a set of bog bridges (again, those beavers). By this point we were sick of wet feet, and we had no intention of wading through the water, so we found some palettes near the bog and made our own bridge. Dry feet and sunny skies on our way into Connecticut!

On our nineteenth day of the trip, October 14, we broke camp early and caught a ride out of the White Mountains with Andy. The original plan had been to walk from the Squam Mountains through Plymouth and to Cardigan Mountain on our own, but the prospect of a twenty-plus mile road walk had long since lost its appeal. Better to spend our time in the mountains than on roads. So we wound up in Bristol, where we stuck out our thumbs for a hitch to AMC’s Cardigan Lodge.

All-out winter on Cardigan Mountain

After arriving and setting up our tarps at the campsite, we set off for the mountain. The sky was sunny with a few fluffy clouds cruising by overhead, but the air was frosty. This would be the trend for the next several days, with the temperature dropping like a rock and staying there for this entire section of the trip. According to weather.com’s records, the low temperatures for this section were between 20 and 30 degrees.

Because it had snowed only a day earlier, Cardigan’s summit ridge looked like it probably does in the middle of February. The bald top was thick with ice and snow, and we had to duck behind the few trees or other obstacles to avoid the stinging wind. Despite the conditions, there were plenty of people on the mountain, getting in one of the last good autumn hikes of the year. The views were tremendous, again, and we got to finish the day by resting in the Cardigan Lodge library, reading thirty- to sixty-year old issues of Appalachia. How amazing it must have been to be a part of the AMC when things that now seem so common and mundane were new and exciting. I found articles that described the first New Hampshire 4000 Footers Diretissima, and the original construction of Mizpah Hut, as well as several other fascinating articles.

After another freezing night (30 degrees according to weather.com) we headed out in the morning on what seems to be a seldom-used trail to Knowle’s Four Corners, plenty south of Cardigan Mountain. From the middle-of-nowhere trailhead, we walked on small dirt roads to Route 4, then hitched to Danbury and then to New London. Our ride to New London turned out to be a Long Trail hiker who’d hiked with Nancy for a while last summer, and her husband worked at the Colby-Sawyer College dining hall. Good luck prevailed again, and we were able to spend some time at the dining hall, filling up on town food. From there, we met Jason, whom I’d contacted before the trip for a place to stay in New London. We got pizza, discussed hiking and outdoor gear, and eventually wound up sleeping on his porch.

An early morning on Lake Sunapee

On Friday morning, after yet another cold night, Jason drove us to the base of Mount Sunapee (skipping the Sunapee-Ragged-Kearsarge Greenway section was a last-minute decision, but turned out to be a good one) where we got back on the trail. It seemed like we had been off the trail for a while, though it had only been two days of skipping around.

We walked up Sunapee, our feet crunching through iced mud, and began what would be one of the unexpected highlights of the trip. The Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway turned out to be one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever walked on. Most of it was pretty easy, and there were shelters at every campsite, but the scenery and choice of paths was incredible. Even where the trail had to follow roads or walk close to houses, it stayed mostly on little-used back roads, mostly unpaved, and went by houses that seemed perfectly at home in the deep woods. Best of all, we had perfect weather for most of the trail.

Gary poses on one of many spectacular views on Sunapee

Our first day was mostly spent on the southern ridge of Mt Sunapee, then dropping down into the town of Washington, where we camped at an old shelter near the road. It was absolutely freezing all day (I don’t think it got above 40 degrees until late afternoon), so we had to keep moving constantly, but the views we got along the way were spectacular. We were beginning to catch up with the fall colors, so what had been far past peak in the White Mountains was now only a little past peak. Since almost all of our surroundings were lower in elevation, there were more deciduous trees, so views were almost entirely blazing color.

Along the way we saw the last moose of our trip, which makes seven if you count the two we saw on the car ride to the Canadian border. Only one moose anywhere besides on the Cohos Trail. Yet we didn’t get a single picture of the big beasts.

Another frigid night, another early morning to try for a very long day. We saw some thick frost in the morning, but by midday we were perfectly warm and basking in the sunlight. And what a day it was! The Greenway continued to be gorgeous, with unexpected views from the tiny peaks of Jackson Hill, Hubbard Hill, and Pitcher Mountain. If we had been earlier in the season, we might have stopped for hours on any of those hills– all of them were covered with blueberry patches that could have supplied the entire county. We could see Monadnock dominating the horizon from each of the hills.

From Pitcher Mountain, Monadnock dominated the horizon

After Pitcher Mountain we stuck to the lowlands, but still had some pretty scenery in the Andorra Forest, then through the less wild regions to the south. The trail went by quickly, except for one small setback– a section of trail flooded by beavers! We had passed about a dozen such sections earlier in the trip, including one this same day, but this one was the worst of the bunch. Gary and I each took a different route to avoid sloshing through knee-deep water, but both of us ended up with wet feet anyway, as well as a few scratches and scrapes from pushing through dense brush.

We ended the day (our longest on the entire trip at just over 25 miles) at the last shelter on the Greenway, excited for a zero day at my grandmother’s house the next day after some fine views from Monadnock. Once again, New Hampshire had a final surprise for us.

In the morning, as we got to the last road crossing before Monadnock, a light snow began to fall. Sure enough, before long the trail was coated in a thin but consistent layer of snow. As we continued up, the snow got thicker and more slippery. Just like on the Appalachian Trail, the blazes going up Monadnock were white, so following them became very tricky. As we broke out of the tree cover, we were blasted with wind so strong that it became nearly impossible to walk– Monadnock is scarcely over 3100 feet tall, but its summit is surprisingly similar to the 4000-Footers throughout New England, all of which are much further north.

Gary keeps his spirits high, despite being blasted by ice and wind

The last hundred feet or so to the summit were so windy that we had to stumble like drunks to the top, then hide behind a boulder to get our bearings. We took the wrong trail down at first, and had to re-summit the mountain and head back down the correct trail. From the park headquarters, we hitched a ride with some nice weekend-hikers from Boston, and made our way to my grandmother’s house. The snow continued to fall throughout the day, but by afternoon it had become a wet, sticky mess.

We relaxed indoors, utterly relieved to be dry, warm, and well-fed. One zero day, and then we would soon be out of New Hampshire.