tumbledown

All posts tagged tumbledown

As a backpacking instructor for NOLS, one of the lessons I try to impart on students is that we can’t take for granted the beautiful mountains and forests we play in. When I was first a student on a NOLS course, I spent three months in various wild areas, assuming that these remote mountains and canyons had forever been used only for hiking, paddling, backpacking, or other wilderness ventures. But with each area we entered, there were new cognitive dissonances. Paddling by oil derricks on the Green River, or hearing warnings of an angry, shotgun-toting neighbor next to a Forest Service trailhead in the Wind River Mountains. These things didn’t fit with the wilderness I thought I was in.

Since then, I’ve learned more about the trails that I hike on, and the land I recreate in. Most hikers still take for granted that the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail exist, meandering through scenic mountains for thousands of miles. They don’t give too much thought to who owns the land under them while they’re standing on a mountain or paddling a river. But who owns the land, and how it’s managed, and how it came to be like that, are issues that matter very much if we plan to continue visiting the mountains.

Maine's public lands managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Click here for the original.

Maine’s public lands managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Click here for the original.

These issues pop up mostly on the local level– they don’t get national attention when headlines are more concerned with high-profile political squabbling. I’ve been watching a few of these debates play out in Maine over the past year, mirroring debates from national lands in the west. You might not hear about these if you live outside the state, but I can almost guarantee something similar is going on near your home.

Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) is a well-regarded agency that oversees Maine’s State Parks and Public Reserved Lands. The Public Reserved Lands are analogous to National Forests, with the land being managed for wildlife habitat, recreation, and sustainable timber harvesting. BPL uses income from the timber harvest to pay its overhead, and most everyone is happy with the arrangement. Locals and tourists get beautiful mountains and lakes to visit, and management costs come out of sustainable logging, which doesn’t significantly impact the recreation or wildlife habitat. It’s a harmonious balance between the three primary goals of the Bureau.

Heading up Parker Ridge, with a view of Tumbledown Pond and Mountain.

Tumbledown Pond and Mountain, one of the most loved Public Reserved Lands.

But as with all balances between recreation and resource extraction, politics rears its ugly head. In the past several years our governor has tried to tip the balance in public lands more toward logging, which has led to increased harvests despite sustainable logging limits set by BPL. A few weeks ago came his latest attempt (as reported in Bangor and Portland), which involves dissolving BPL, and moving management of the Public Reserved Lands to the Maine Forest Service– an agency that is primarily concerned with logging on private lands, not recreation on public lands. Practically everyone sees this as a veiled attempt to cut more trees for short-term economic gain.

Looking over Flagstaff Lake from the Bigelow Range (possibly my favorite Public Reserved Land)

Looking over Flagstaff Lake from the Bigelow Range (possibly my favorite Public Reserved Land)

The reaction to the governor’s plan hasn’t been particularly positive (editorials in the Bangor Daily and Free Press, testimony by Natural Resources Council of Maine, and some backlash in Augusta), but the fight continues. There’s a lot of quick money in resource extraction and real estate development, while the economic benefit of recreation on public land is a bit harder to measure, so short-sighted politicians often see public land as a pile of cash being squandered by whiny environmentalists.

The Appalachian Trail touches five Public Reserved Lands (Mahoosuc, Four Ponds, Bigelow, Abraham, and Nahmakanta), which means over a thousand through-hikers each year visit these lands, not to mention various section hikers. More importantly, there are millions of tourists who come to Maine each year, most of whom spend at least some of their time enjoying the great outdoors. Whenever I meet someone from away, I hope they come to love the land as much as I do, and even come back again and again because of it. It’s harder to imagine that person seeing Maine as such a special place if the balance between conservation and resource extraction tips too far away from conservation.

Edit: I’ll post some articles about how the issue progresses as they come in.
3/23/15: A well-balanced article from the Portland Press Herald that highlights the history of BPL, the varied opposition to the plan, the governor’s plan for where the increased revenue would go, and his strong-arming tactics for getting a widely unpopular plan into effect.
4/4/15: Maine Legislature’s Agriculture Committee almost unanimously rejected the proposal in a bipartisan vote (the full legislature still has to vote on the proposal, but this is a good indication of where the proposal belongs). According to the committee chair, “We didn’t get any emails, calls, letters from anyone in the state who supported it… Every correspondence we received was opposed to it.”
4/16/15: The legislative committee gave a resounding and nearly unanimous NO to LePage’s proposal, and even added some extra rules to make his plans less likely to succeed.

Last week seemed like a good time to take an alternative weekend and head to the mountains, so on Thursday morning I took off for the town of Weld, not knowing exactly what I was getting into. The plan: hike up to Tumbledown Pond and camp for the night by myself. The difficulty: there’s no winter trailhead for Tumbledown, since the Byron Road isn’t plowed in winter. Even more difficult: almost nobody attempts Tumbledown in winter, so there’s no info online about parking or attempting the hike.

The Tumbledown-Jackson ridge from a farm on the north shore of Webb Lake.

The Tumbledown-Jackson ridge from a farm on the north shore of Webb Lake.

After calling Mt Blue State Park, I knew it was possible to reach the trail, although parking was still unknown. Once I arrived in Weld, I stopped at the General Store and found a trove of information from Jerry, the owner. He and another local there at the time were both on the area’s Search And Rescue team, so they were happy that I stopped in to let them know my plans. If you want to try a winter attempt at Tumbledown like this, I’d highly recommend letting Jerry know your plans, just in case he has any local news about parking, or in case anything goes wrong on your hike.

Parking at the east end of Byron Road might have been possible with a high-clearance vehicle, but I wasn’t going to chance it in my Jetta, so Jerry’s other suggestion was parking on the West Brook Road, where the town snow plows turn around at the end of the last driveway, just after crossing West Brook on a small bridge. This isn’t a trailhead parking area, just a space where one or two cars could pull off, and it wouldn’t be a good place to park if snow is coming, since it would block the plow truck. I chose a day with a clear forecast, and parked as far into the corner of the turnaround as possible.

From where I parked, I had about three miles of walking along snowmobile trail, first on West Brook Road, and then on Byron Road. This was easy going on icy, packed crust. I tuned out for most of this section, although near the junction of the two roads is a large gravel pit that has some nice views of the Tumbledown-Jackson ridge and the Walker-Whaleback ridge across the valley.

Busting through the snow.

Busting through the snow.

Once at the Brook Trail, it was much slower going. There was a very old set of snowshoe tracks ahead of me, but it was old enough that I had to break my own trail. The snow had melted and refrozen in the past few days, so there was about an inch of crust on top of loose sugary snow, which makes for some painful postholing, even in snowshoes. It wasn’t too bad until about halfway up the Brook Trail, when the trail begins to climb steeply. This last three-quarters of a mile took almost two hours to climb, with every step twisting my ankles and punching through mostly solid ice.

All the postholing slowed the hike down considerably. This little bit took almost five minutes to walk.

All the postholing slowed the hike down considerably. This little bit took almost five minutes to walk.

Finally up top, I found the pond frozen solid as expected, and a stiff wind kept me hunkered down in the trees most of the afternoon. As with my other overnight trips this winter, there was no liquid water anywhere, so I would have to melt snow for drinking and cooking. I busied myself with building a home for the night, complete with a small kitchen outside my tent, and a wind-break wall. I had planned to climb the high point of the ridge, but the wind and cold convinced me to take the more cautious approach and enjoy the views from the pond itself.

Finally at Tumbledown Pond, wind-blasted and frozen.

Finally at Tumbledown Pond, wind-blasted and frozen.

The view from my tent. Tumbledown Mountain and Pond.

The view from my tent. Tumbledown Mountain and Pond.

It was a long night, but the wind finally calmed and the clouds cleared after the sun went down in a spectacular sunset. The near-full moon lit up the night enough that I could read a book without any artificial light, had I remembered my book. Instead, I holed up in my sleeping bag and stayed warm. It was hard to stay warm, though. The evening’s low temperature was predicted to be around 4 degrees, which shouldn’t have felt as cold as it did.

Clouds cleared after the sun was below the mountains, and I was treated to this at dinner time.

Clouds cleared after the sun was below the mountains, and I was treated to this at dinner time.

Early morning sunlight over the West Brook valley.

Early morning sunlight over the West Brook valley.

When I got back into town the next morning, I spoke with Jerry and some other locals again, and discovered that the temperature in the valley had been measured between -9 and -20, and that was about 2000 feet lower than where I had been camped. Maybe taking this trip as a solo wasn’t the smartest decision, but it turned out well and turned out to be a highlight of an already stellar winter.

Mt Washington, the Mahoosuc Range, and Baldpate in the morning from the outlet of Tumbledown Pond.

Mt Washington, the Mahoosuc Range, and Baldpate in the morning from the outlet of Tumbledown Pond.

Yesterday's tracks still well-defined. The wind must have been non-existent at the bottom of the mountain.

Yesterday’s tracks still well-defined. The wind must have been non-existent at the bottom of the mountain.

Clear skies and another view of the ridge from where I parked.

Clear skies and another view of the ridge from where I parked.

Yesterday, I did a day-hike that ended up being a lot more punishing than I thought it would be, but it was one of the most rewarding I’ve been on in years. The hike was two full loops in the Tumbledown range near Weld, ME, each of which makes for a challenging full-day hike. The weather this week has been phenomenal for hiking, and I’d been itching to get back to Tumbledown after my last visit, two years ago. After this trip, I’m pretty confident in saying that Tumbledown (along with Little Jackson Mountain) is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Looking out at Tumbledown from Little Jackson Mountain.

Looking out at Tumbledown from Little Jackson Mountain.

I arrived at the trailhead a little late due to missing the first turn onto the road around Webb Lake, and then taking a detour around a washed out road. But I was on the trail by 9:30, choosing to go up Little Jackson Mountain first, since I hadn’t been up that mountain before. The trail was like many trails in Maine– rocky and rooty, and generally beautiful, crossing a bunch of brooks and streams that might make for good head-dunking in warmer weather. Soon enough, the trail started to climb a fairly steep grade, becoming a long stair-master as I approached tree-line.

Mount Blue and Webb Lake from Little Jackson Mountain.

Mount Blue and Webb Lake from Little Jackson Mountain.

Once above tree-line, though, I could tell this was going to be an amazing day. For almost a mile from the junction with the Jackson Mountain Trail, the Little Jackson Trail walks on completely exposed granite with sweeping views in all directions. It’s not a terribly high mountain, at 3400 feet, but it had a similar feel to Saddleback Mountain (which was visible nicely just to the north). A stiff, icy breeze kept me nice and cool, while the clear skies gave me a pretty good sunburn. The views from the mountain were just extraordinary– aside from the unique perspective on Saddleback Mountain, there was also a clear view to Mt Abraham and Sugarloaf, and in the other direction I could see much of the Mahoosuc Range, the Presidential Range, and the Bemis Range. I’m sure there was a lot more that I couldn’t identify, but that’s plenty right there.

Little Jackson Mountain as seen from a ledge on Jackson Mountain.

Little Jackson Mountain as seen from a ledge on Jackson Mountain.

After some time up top, I got cold enough that I had to descend, then take a quick trip up to Jackson Mountain. The taller of the two peaks doesn’t have an open summit, and the trail looked like it didn’t get much use. There was an interesting installation up top, with a small building and a large set of solar panels. I couldn’t tell what the purpose was, but either way I’ll stick with the shorter peak next time.

A few fly fishermen were having a good time at Tumbledown Pond, despite the wind.

A few fly fishermen were having a good time at Tumbledown Pond, despite the wind.

Next up, the Pond Connector Trail to Tumbledown Pond. This trail was also somewhat overgrown, but it went through a pretty stand of birch that was starting to change color, so I can’t complain. And when I arrived at Tumbledown Pond (one of three highlights of the entire area– how can you get much better than an alpine pond with a view all the way to Mount Washington?), I saw the first two people of the day. They were fly-fishermen rather than hikers, and both were having pretty good luck despite the brisk wind blowing their lines around. By now it was about 1 in the afternoon, and I’d already gone about 8 miles. I was pretty tired. But why stop now?

Heading up Parker Ridge, with a view of Tumbledown Pond and Mountain.

Heading up Parker Ridge, with a view of Tumbledown Pond and Mountain.

I descended along Parker Ridge Trail, which has some more amazing views as well as some really astonishing geological features. On the way down, I passed a group of four folks hiking up to the Pond, one of whom gave me a tasty apple by way of greeting. Taking food from strangers? Don’t mind if I do! I ended up back at my car by 2:30 PM, finishing the first of two major loops. The Little Jackson-Tumbledown Pond loop would be a fantastic day hike on its own. But I had other business.

Some neat striations in the rock on Parker Ridge.

Some neat striations in the rock on Parker Ridge.

Next up, I walked a mile and a half down the road to the Loop Trailhead. This was where I’d hiked during my previous trip to Tumbledown, and I knew it would be a rugged, difficult trip, especially starting so late in the day. After a fairly straightforward climb to the base of the cliffs of Tumbledown, the trail first jumps up 500 feet in a quarter mile, takes a break by walking along an exposed ridge, then climbs another 800 feet in 0.4 miles, before reaching the ridge of the mountain. The temperature wasn’t much more than 60 degrees, but I was pouring sweat and aching all over by the time I got to the top.

Looking across Tumbledown Mountain from Tumbledown Ridge. Mount Washington and other are visible in the distance.

Looking across Tumbledown Mountain from Tumbledown Ridge. Mount Washington and other are visible in the distance.

Best of all, the last short climb to the top goes through one of the most entertainingly-named features I’ve seen on a trail– Fat Man’s Misery, a spot where you have to climb straight up through an overhead chimney, using iron rungs and squeezing through a tight opening in the rocks. It’s a funny name, but pretty apt. I’m a scrawny guy, and it was a tight squeeze even for me.

Back to Tumbledown Pond with Little Jackson Mountain above.

Back to Tumbledown Pond with Little Jackson Mountain above.

I ended the day by walking across the ridge of Tumbledown, with fine views across to the giant cliffs that make the mountain so spectacular. I got back to Tumbledown Pond around 5. By now the anglers had headed home, or to camp, but I was able to have a nice chat with a local lady and her very affectionate German Shepherd. One of my favorite parts of this mountain is that the local area is so sparsely populated. Being able to meet a local who hikes the mountains gave me some great ideas for coming back in the winter, or just visiting other parts of the region.

In the end, I had to get moving to beat nightfall. I got to my car at 6:30, with a long two-hour drive ahead of me. The full tally for the day was 17.6 miles, 6800 feet of elevation gain, and 200% daily value of aches and soreness. I’m still aching a lot. It was absolutely worth it.