Hiking on the day of the winter solstice has been an annual tradition of mine for over 20 years, and this year was no different, except the solstice arrived on Friday, Dec. 21, at 5:23 p.m., too late for a day hike.
The following day dawned with overcast skies, along with periodic sleet and rain. The next day, Sunday, Dec. 23, the heavens cleared, which allowed me to finally make the celebratory solstice hike, emblematic of the shortest day of the year and the commencement of winter.
The solstice is significant to me because it marks the official start of the winter hiking season, and a lengthening of daylight hours, as we begin inching our way toward summer. In addition, this year’s solstice included a full moon, making it even more eventful.
Since ancient times, the winter solstice has been celebrated with ceremonies and celebrations: bonfires and feasts, song, music, and dance. The solstice marks a reversal of the sun’s ebbing in the sky and the birth of a new year in the cyclic calendar; the beginning of the end of the darkest days. It also marks the beginning of the harsh cold of the winter months (January-March), also known in ancient times as the “famine months” or the “time of starvation” when food stores ran low. Even though the full blast of winter lies ahead, hope of a warming sun, greening of the earth and the birthing of new life follows the sun as it rises higher in the sky, edging us closer to spring.
I have my own solstice celebration: hiking to a mountain summit, absorbing the beauty of the earth and sky, and celebrating the beginning of the winter season. This year I planned to hike the Hammond Trail to the summit of Mount Chocorua, in the Sandwich Mountain Range. Mount Chocorua is noted for its distinctive alpine peak rising above Chocorua Lake. The view across the lake from Route 16 with the mountain in the distance is one of New England’s iconic mountain views and one of the most photographed. It is also steeped in a legend that is described on a highway sign along Route 16 in Tamworth.
Legend has it that, in 1720, Chocorua, a native chief, was on friendly terms with settlers, and in particular the Campbell family which had a home in the village now called Tamworth. Chocorua was called away and left his son in the care of the Campbell family. Chocorua’s son found and drank a poison that Mr. Campbell had made to eliminate troublesome foxes. When Chocorua returned, he found his son had died of the poison. Chocorua, distraught with grief, pledged revenge on the Campbell family. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Campbell returned home one afternoon to find his wife and children had been slain. Campbell suspected Chocorua and pursued him up the mountain that today bears his name. Chocorua was wounded by a shot from Campbell's rifle. Before Campbell could reach Chocorua, the chief uttered a curse upon the white settlers and their homes, livestock, and crops, and leapt from the summit to his death, screaming these words: "May the Great Spirit curse you when he speaks in the clouds and his words are fire! Lightning blast your crops! Wind and fire destroy your homes! The Evil One breathe death on your cattle! Panthers howl and wolves fatten on your bones!"
Given the fact that many early settlers, tired of trying to farm the rock-laden soil, left the area to find fertile land further west, most certainly they sensed the curse of Chocorua.
The day of the solstice hike dawned bright and clear as I drove to meet my hiking partners, Doug and Ron. It had been several years since we hiked together in Baxter State Park, Maine, attempting to summit Mount Katahdin. Today’s hike to the summit of Chocorua would be a much easier task than the challenge of summiting Katahdin in winter, and one that would bring spectacular views of the White Mountains and beyond.
I met Ron and Doug at the McDonald’s on Route 16 and we drove to the trailhead of the Hammond Trail, where we began our trek. (Reuben was obviously absent from this hike due to his aging legs and the thick sheets of ice that I knew would be covering the trail). Initially the trail was littered with brown leaves and twigs, along with patches snow, but as we climbed higher the leaves disappeared under two feet of snow.
When we reached Bald Mountain (2,130 feet) we were greeted by unlimited views to the east, out across the eastern slopes of New Hampshire and Maine. A short distance from Bald Mountain, we came to the junction with the Liberty Trail. The Liberty Trail, built by the Chocorua Mountain Club, is one of the oldest in the White Mountains. It was improved by Jim Liberty in 1887 and further developed as a toll bridle path by David Knowles and Newell Forrest in 1882. Following the Liberty Trail, we reached the Liberty Shelter, a four-sided structure, where we broke for lunch and put on an extra layer of clothing for the final push to the above-tree-line summit.
We parked ourselves on the steps of the shelter and basked in the warm, radiant sun as we downed our sandwiches and drink. The shelter sits on the site of the once-popular Peak House, a three-story hotel built by David Knowles of Silver Lake in 1892. It was a popular destination for hikers and tourists. It was blown apart by an intense storm in September 1915. In 1924, a shelter was built on the site and named the Jim Liberty Shelter. In 1932, spring winds ripped the roof off, and in 1934, the White Mountain National Forest replaced the shelter with an enclosed cabin with bunks.
After our brief interlude, we began the final leg of our solstice journey to the summit of Chocoua. The trail climbed steeply up the barren rock face of the summit cone. When we reached the summit, I was overwhelmed and stunned by the views. It had been several years since I climbed Chocorua, and it was usually swaddled in clouds. Today the views were unlimited: The Presidential Range, Sandwich Range, the mountains in the Pemigewasset Wilderness and even the Franconia Ridge stood out in the distance.
It was tempting to linger, but dusk was not far off. Making our way down the summit cone, we met a “local” who told us about an abandoned trail, the Skull Cairn Trail, that would take us back to the Hammond Trail and our waiting vehicles. We were tempted to make an attempt to follow this route off the mountain.
I later learned the history of this strangely named trail from Steve Smith, owner of the Mountain Wander Book Store in Lincoln and co-editor of the AMC White Mountain Guide. It was cut by the Chocorua Mountain Club in 1908. It didn’t appear in the AMC Guide until the 1920 edition, which noted that both the “Skull Cairn Trail and Chase Trail were not readily followed by one unfamiliar with them.” Like many other trails, it was abandoned during World War II and it did not appear in the 1946 edition of the AMC Guide.
For a time, a turn on the lower part of the trail was marked with a small plastic skull (hence the trail’s name). The USFS later removed or covered the blazes as the trail was not officially sanctioned in the White Mountain National Forest.
While descending the Liberty Trail, we found the junction with the abandoned Skull Cairn Trail. After several minutes of debate on whether we should take the trail, we decided to “give it a go.” With that decision, Ron quickly disappeared into the forest’s dark tunnel, with Doug and me following close behind. We found old ax blazes dug into trees and a fairly clear pathway. We were able to stay on the unauthorized trail for about two miles, until we reached a series of ledges where we lost the track. We searched for blazes, but found none, and darkness soon overtook us. We donned our headlamps, checked our map, took a compass bearing toward the Scott Road, and continued our journey. We reached the trailhead of the Hammond Trail and our parked vehicles just as the full moon was rising in the east.
With the solstice hike behind me, I look forward to more winter escapades in the mountains of the Northeast. I hope I’m able to continue this custom for many years to come, keeping with the ancient tradition that marks the long winter ahead and the gradual increase in daylight as we move toward the vernal (spring) equinox on March 20, 2019.
Correction to last week’s column, Discovering the Center Harbor Woods, Pine Hill Conservation Areas, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Whittier died in Hampton Falls, not New Hampton Falls, and is buried in Amesbury, Massachusetts.
For comments or questions contact Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org.