Dick Widhu and Fran Maineri in swirling snow squalls
By Gordon Dubois
Several weeks ago, while hiking in Northern New Hampshire, Fran and I were basking in the sun, traipsing along herd paths and old skidder roads in shorts and short sleeve shirts. The forest was bathed in a spectrum of color. A week later when we returned to the Colebrook-Pittsburg area to continue our hiking exploits, the autumn colors were beginning to fade from orange and red to brown and gray. The temperatures had begun to drop and frost was beginning to appear on roadsides. Over the last couple weeks we have encountered traces of snow at the higher elevations, ice forming on the edges of streams and ponds, below freezing temperatures in the morning and windblown snow accumulating in the crevices of rocks and roots. Our beautiful warm autumn has come to a close. I now must make the transition from summer hiking to winter. There’s a new game in town, it’s called winter and is closing in.
Earlier in the fall we had driven miles of logging roads in Coos County. This northern most county in New Hampshire is the largest county in the state and is one of only two counties in the United States to share land borders with two different states (ME & VT) and another country (Canada), along with Boundary County, Idaho. The name “Coos” is derived from the Abenaki dialect--the word “Cohos,” or “Coo-ash” signifying ‘pines.” The tribe occupying this region was known as the ‘Coo-ash-aukes,’ or ‘dwellers in the pine tree country.” Our purpose in driving these rutted and winding roads was to reach the base of numerous little known mountains that few people have climbed: Scott Bog, D’Urban, Tucker, Crystal, Pisgah, Blue Ridge, S. Deer and many more. Most of these mountains are known only to loggers and hunters and a few hardy fools who love to hike in wild places. These mountains are not trailed and one must use a GPS, map and compass to reach their summits.
Our treks in the North Country have taken us through beautiful birch glades and thickets of hobblebush and briars, along moose paths, and abandoned skidder roads. We’ve had to fight our way through thick underbrush and blowdowns. But these are the challenges of bushwhacking in this rugged and remote section of the state. The rewards however are unmatched, knowing that you’ve summited a peak that few have experienced; when you have taken in a view that only few have seen. This past week would be our last outing of the year in the far reaches of northern NH. The logging roads that provide access to these remote peaks are closing, coated with ice and blocked with snow. Our quest to summit the highest NH 200 would have to wait until next spring. Cave Mountain would be our final peak, number 199.
Fran, Reuben and I started the day at 6:00 am driving to Colebrook, NH. Upon reaching Colebrook we turned onto Rt.26, driving through Dixville Notch and past the iconic Balsams Resort, now closed. We found Flume Brook Rd., a logging thoroughfare, gated at the entrance. We pulled my truck into the small lot before the gate. When we opened the doors we were struck by a blast of wind that said, “Welcome to winter!” Winter was suddenly thrust upon us. We geared up and set off on a two mile hike up the logging road, before we began our whack into the woods. Heading toward Cave Mountain, aptly named for the many rock cliffs and crevices that form the upperparts of the summit, we whacked along old skidder roads. The wind continued to howl and the temperature plummeted as we reached the summit. There was little time to dilly-dally, besides any views were blocked by a thick blanket of clouds that had been spitting snow all day. My hands began to turn numb and my inner core began to feel the bone chilling air. It was time to head back to the truck, our goal of summiting Cave was met, and now we would have to wait until next year to complete our goal: the NH 200.
This one day hike to Cave Mt. served as a wakeup call to winter. It is time to stow away all the summer hiking clothes and gear, break out the winter gear and find the winter garb. Winter is now with us and so is the cold weather hiking season. Below are a few suggestions that you should consider when planning your next trip into the wilds, whether it’s the Belknap Range, the Presidential Range or the mountains of the far north.
Research the route or trail you plan to hike. Write down the trip itinerary (route, day/time start and end the hike) and leave this with a friend or spouse. Check the most recent weather report. As most of us know, weather can change quickly in the mountains, so you need to be prepared for any and all conditions. In addition the conditions at the base of the mountain or the trail head are usually much different than at higher elevations, particularly on the summits. It isn’t rare to see flatlanders hiking up Mt Lafayette totally ill equipped for weather at 4,000 ft.
Proper clothing and layering are the most important part of any winter journey. Layering allows you to easily adjust your clothes to regulate body moisture and temperature. After you begin hiking your body will start to warm. You do not want to get overheated and sweat. Adjust your layers of clothing to prevent heat buildup and sweating. Three layers are considered normal: a liner layer against your skin, a fleece layer for insulation and a wind/waterproof layer. This is applied to both your upper and lower torso. You should also have additional clothing in your pack for further warmth and protection. None of your clothing should be cotton. As the expression goes, “COTTON KILLS”. Cotton clothing holds moisture when it gets wet, either from sweat, snow or rain. Wear only wool or a synthetic material. Over half of your body’s heat loss occurs through the head. A balaclava and cap will insure you stay warm. I was told, “If your feet are cold, put on a hat.” Two pairs of insulated mittens or gloves with liners are also an important ingredient for a happy hike.
Your footwear should be of well-oiled leather or plastic winter hiking boots, with good insulating qualities, at least 200 grams. Do not wear summer hiking shoes. There is nothing worse than hiking in cold, wet feet. Snowshoes, Micro spikes, crampons are also going to be needed depending on the conditions of the trail. Even though we are seeing grass around our homes, the higher elevations in the mountains could have 3-4 feet of snow and ice. Trekking poles are important for balance in snow or going over those icy spots. You also may want to consider wearing gaiters. They add extra warmth to your lower leg and keep snow and ice out of your boot
Bring plenty of food and water. I usually carry two liters of water in insulated bottle jackets or place your bottles in heavy wool socks. It’s very important to include plenty of carbohydrates in your food bag to provide fuel for hiking and for simply keeping your body warm. I like to bring two peanut butter and honey sandwiches made from Nancy’s home-made bread and our own home grown honey.
Other considerations: Being in good physical condition; Hike with a buddy; Carry a headlamp, with extra batteries; Bring a first aid kit; Pack a map and compass and know how to use them.
One last point: Do not depend on your GPS, cell phone or other electronic devices for trail finding or to call home when you get lost. In the mountains cell phone service is not always available and batteries die in cold conditions. These devices can be helpful, but depending on them is not wise.
If you would like to learn more about winter hiking and backpacking there are several good books available from the AMC. Winter hiking websites also offer a wealth of information. The AMC also offers winter hiking/camping workshops at Cardigan Lodge. Hiking safely and sensibly are the key words for any tramp in the woods. This takes on extra significance in the winter as there is little room for error. Plan your winter hike sensibly, so you can return to the trail and enjoy those crystal clear views that only winter can offer.