When I hike to the summit of Mount Moosilauke via the Beaver Brook Trail, I always marvel at the deep ravine on the south side of the trail, just after passing the junction with the Asquam-Ridge Trail. A former hiking partner who has gone missing told me about an abandoned trail that he would use to descend into the Jobildunk Ravine to climb the headwall. He explained that the water flowing down the cliffs of the headwall, coming off Mount Moosilauke, are the headwaters of the Baker River. The remoteness of the ravine, the spectacular headwall and the abandoned trail into the floor of the ravine have always intrigued me. I have wanted for years to experience the wildness of this place and view the headwall from its base. The image of the ravine has stayed with me for years.
The Jobildunk Ravine is a glacial cirque, one of several ravines on the Mount Moosilauke massif: Gorge Brook Ravine on the southeast, Slide Ravine on the southwest, Benton Ravine on the northwest and the Little Tunnel Ravine on the on the north. The strangely named Jobildunc Ravine, I would assume, is a Native American name, but others say that the ravine’s name is an amalgam of the first three hikers to explore the ravine: Joe, Bill and Duncan ("Place Names of the White Mountains," Robert and Mary Julyan).
This past summer, I decided to attempt a descent into the ravine by way of the Asquamchumauke Trail (Native American name for “Place of Mountain Waters”), the abandoned trail my ex-hiking partner told me about. The trail was cut in 1949 by the Dartmouth Outing Club and abandoned around 1973. I hiked the Beaver Brook Trail to the junction with the Asquam-Ridge Trail. According to an old map, the abandoned trail starts near this trail junction. I found what I thought was the Asquamchumauke Trail and followed it for a mile before it began to peter out, climbing steeply the east face of Mount Moosiluake. I realized I wasn’t heading into the ravine and turned back. I learned later that I was on an abandoned section of the Beaver Brook Trail. The current Beaver Brook Trail was rerouted years earlier.
Having been foiled on this attempt, I was still determined to get into the ravine. I was advised by Steve Smith, co-editor of the AMC White Mountain Guide, that the best time to hike into the ravine is winter when the Baker River is frozen and the ravine “is in its midwinter garb, with the beaver ponds on its floor frozen and the ice cliffs fully formed on its headwall.”
On a cold midwinter day, Fran and I began our search for the Asquamchumauke Trail that would take us into Jobildunk Ravine, the headwaters of the Baker River and the magnificent ice cliffs of the headwall.
We parked at the beginning of Ravine Lodge Road, off Route 118, and hiked 1.5 miles, passing the rebuilt Dartmouth Ravine Lodge, an architecturally magnificent structure that is open to the public (except during the winter season — darn!). After admiring the lodge, we set out on the Asquam-Ridge Trail, a logging road built by the Parker-Young Company in 1949. Fran and I admired the pristine beauty of this woodland trail. Snow balanced on the boughs of spruce and hemlock trees. Clouds had draped themselves over the Moosilauke massif, hiding the summit from sight. The air was crisp and cold. The only sound in this wooded wonderland was the crusty snow crunching beneath our snowshoes as we trudged along the trail.
On the Asquam-Ridge Trail, two narrow bridges cross the Baker River and were piled high with snow. The hand rail was knee level, not much help in maintaining our balance. We looked like high wire acrobats as we slowly tightroped across the bridge on a narrow band of snow high above the river. Having made another precarious crossing of the second bridge, we began our search for the lost trail.
Looking for a trail that has been abandoned for 45 years is not a simple task. It’s like playing detective. What are the clues that would indicate a trail even existed? A bit of red tape on a branch, a pile of rocks, a fading ax blaze, a small opening in the trees lining the established trail, a few broken branches, animal tracks indicating a route used by woodland animals?
Our detective work paid off when we found some red tape and a slight opening in the copse. We found the Asquamchumauke Trail — or what we thought was the trail. It was definitely a small narrow footpath through the woods, paralleling the Baker River. This had to be it. However, to be sure, we needed to find an old blaze or other indications that this was a trail, not an old woods road, skidder path or ski trail.
The confirmation came when we found a metal pole sticking out of the snow, painted orange, the trail blazes of the Dartmouth Outing Club. Now we knew for sure we were on the “road to victory.” We checked our watches and it was already approaching noon. Our turnaround time was set at 2:30. Our trek through two feet of unbroken snow was taking longer that we had planned. We forgot that snow travel can double the time it takes to trek a mile in summer.
We labored on, following the obvious path through the woods, and then we found another trail sign: a bucket sitting on a tree stump. I learned from Steve Smith that the bucket is a relic from the Jobildunc Cabin, built near this spot in 1931. The cabin was most likely used by ice climbers, but was abandoned after the infamous hurricane of 1938. Soon after spotting the bucket, we lost the trail and began a long and arduous bushwhack toward the floor of the ravine, looking for an opening that would indicate we were at the first beaver pond and could view the icebound cliffs of the headwall. Climbing higher into the ravine, the snow got deeper and we got slower, slogging through soft, deep snow.
At about 2:30, we came to the opening we thought was the first pond. Our hearts and hopes jumped with glee. We made it. Within a few minutes, after walking through the opening in the forest, we realized this wasn’t the beaver pond, but more likely a frozen bog. The pond was just beyond a thick wall of conifers that stood like a heavy curtain protecting the “Wizard of Oz” from discovery. Fran and I searched for an opening through the thick wall of trees and, with time ticking away, we knew turnaround time was closing in. Our search ended when we reached an impossible crossing of the headwaters of the Baker River, not far from the bog that was once Deer Lake. Our quest for the headwall of Jobildunk Ravine ended with the realization we had to turn around and begin our trek back to Ravine Lodge. Darkness was closing in soon and we didn’t want to be searching for our path in the dark.
My long-held desire to stand at the headwall of Jobildunk Ravine was over for the moment. The good thing is that the ravine will always be there; it’s not going away. On our hike out of the ravine, donning headlamps to light our way, we began to plan for another attempt to reach the Jobildunc Ravine headwall later in the winter. Besides, the goal of reaching the headwall was only secondary to the walk in the woods and following an abandoned trail.
Most people tramp along the same worn-out paths over and over again. I prefer the solitude and the mystery that awaits me on these adventures. The beauty of the woods that engulfed us that day was the most important aspect of this hike. I look forward to returning to Jobildunc. It will always be there for another try.