As our winter winds down and spring starts to open her warming hands, brooks, streams, and rivers begin to lose their coats of ice and snow. Their shackles of bondage are melting under the rays of a strengthening sun as it rises higher in the sky each day.
Water is starting to appear where ice and snow reigned. Likewise, the layers of ice that hide the falling waters of cascades and waterfalls are slowly melting, returning to their former self: thousands of droplets of water. Ice is fading, exposing gushing water tumbling from cliffs and ledges high above to the foaming depths below.
For now the water is frozen in time, stuck in place, waiting for the warming sun to release the water molecules from their solid state known as ice. The waterfalls are still strong enough to support ice climbers carrying cordage, ice axes, harness, ice tools, carabiners and other sundries. Frozen waterfalls not only offer opportunities for technical climbers to scale walls of ice, but also for the trekker to view the unique splendor of a frozen waterfall.
Recently I visited one of these beauty spots that only winter can claim ownership: the frozen falls of Fletcher’s Cascades. Reuben and I were joined by Steve, Fran, and Beth on this short sojourn of four miles, round-trip.
A walk to the base of the falls is a lovely hike any time of the year, but winter offers the rare opportunity to observe, up close, a 60-foot wall of ice that has been enlarging and strengthening all winter long and is now in full display. The ice crystals reflect sunlight, resulting in a sparkling array of colors: blue, green, brown, and orange.
I am always fascinated by the fact that a drop of water rushing over a cliff and flying through the air can be stopped “dead in its tracks,” frozen in mid-air. The wall of ice at Fletcher’s Cascades was created by billions of water droplets hardening in mid-flight, a miraculous event of physics.
The cascades originate on the northwest side Flat Mountain and are most likely named for Ebenezer Fletcher of Concord, who in the 1870s settled in the Waterville Valley. The trail to the cascades was probably cut around that time, but extensive logging in the late 1800s wiped it out. The trail was reopened by the U.S. Forest Service in 1951 and the cascades are located within the Sandwich Range Wilderness.
After parking our cars in the parking lot off NH Route 49, at the Drakes Brook Trailhead, we began our snowshoe trek on a ski trail that had just been groomed. After a short walk on the groomed trail, we found the sign for the Fletcher’s Cascade Trail and began our amble along Drakes Brook.
On the way, we observed numerous tracks. Fortunately for Fran and me, Beth and Steve were able to identify many of the tracks: coyote, bobcat, rabbit, fox, turkey, squirrel, and the domestic canine. It’s the mating season for many of our woodland animals and love is in the air. In one particular area along the trail, dozens of fox tracks were outlined in the snow, indicating a maddening romp by a couple falling into a passionate dance of love. The musky scent of the fox was still floating in the air.
The trail climbed easily along the north side of Drakes Brook and then we entered the Sandwich Range Wilderness. After a mile of an easy snowshoe walk, we began to climb into the gorge of the north fork of Drakes Brook. The headwaters of the brook are rooted in the western slope of Flat Mountain. The small rivulets gradually form the large brook that flows over a 60-foot cliff, forming Fletcher’s waterfall and cascades.
As we climbed higher, with the frozen brook below us, the ice wall came into view. In the summer, the roaring waterfalls can be heard well in advance of its view. Today, the falls provided no sound, and we were engulfed in silence. The only din was that of our breath, as we huffed and puffed up the steep incline.
At the end of the trail, marked by an arrow, we came to a ledge overhanging a 60-foot drop to the frozen brook below, ice gleaming overhead, reflecting the morning sunlight. We stood in awe of the huge mass of frozen water, knowing that underneath the many feet of ice, water was running down into the valley below. Drakes Brook lies beneath several feet of snow and ice, silently running to meet the Mad River in Waterville Valley. In the distance we spied Mount Tecumseh, Mount Osceola, and the twin summits of Welch and Dickey mountains.
I considered bushwhacking to the top of the falls, where I could look down into the valley below. However, that idea was quickly scuttled when I attempted to step off trail and found myself wallowing in waist-deep snow, even with snowshoes strapped to my feet. At one point, my feet went out from under me and I found myself swimming in the snow. With my hiking poles in hand, I tried righting myself, but my arm sank out of view and my poles never hit terra firma. Back home, even though sidewalks and lawns lay bare, the snowpack in the mountains is still substantial. The snow melt will take many more weeks before the north branch of Drakes Brook is running free over bounders, rocks and ledges. Before that happens, you have time to view one of the amazing sights of winter: water frozen in time.
Another one of best frozen falls to visit is Bridal Veil Falls in Franconia. The falls are located at the terminus of the Coppermine trail. The trail starts on Coppermine Road, off Route 116. It follows Coppermine brook, climbing steadily and crossing a bridge at 2.3 miles. It then passes the classic Coppermine Shelter where you can grab a bite to eat.
On a delightful, almost-spring day, Karen, Tom, and I hiked to the base of Bridal Veil Falls. After stopping at the shelter to unload our packs, we hiked into the chasm at the base of the ice-laden falls. The cold enveloped us as we stood in amazement at the depth and height of the ice. We were surrounded by a veil of frozen water, layers of ice that reached skyward. Tiny droplets of water were dripping from high above, as the warming sun was beginning to eat away at the ramparts of ice. I felt small compared to the immense towers before me, walls of ice that have been building for months are now beginning to disintegrate with the coming of spring.
We bid farewell to Bridal Veil Falls and began the trek back to our car. However, we learned earlier about a plaque that was erected by the famous actress Betty Davis, who often vacationed in Franconia. In the summer of 1939, Davis got lost in the area, and was saved by Arthur Farnsworth, an innkeeper in the area. Davis and Farnsworth fell in love and married in 1940, but in 1943, Farnsworth died tragically in Hollywood from a fall. Betty Davis went on to fame in more than 30 films, and became a Hollywood legend.
After considerable searching, thanks to Karen’s investigative instincts, we found the plaque on the bank of Coppermine Brook. The plaque states, “In Memoriam to Arthur Farnsworth, ‘The Keeper of Stray Ladies,’ Pecketts, 1939, Presented by a Grateful One.”
There are many more frozen waterfalls and cascades that you can visit before the sun melts the walls of ice coating the sides of cliffs and ledges: Beede Falls in Sandwich, Georgiana Falls in Woodstock, Diana’s Baths in Bartlett, Nancy Cascades in Crawford Notch, and Arethusa Falls in Hart's Location. Closer to home are the waterfalls in the Belknap Range along the Precipice Trail. However, don’t dally, as the sun is getting higher, temperatures are rising, and the walls of ice will soon be crumbling into oblivion. The majestic ice sculptures of the frozen waterfalls will soon be gone and no longer will water be frozen in time.