Most people only know Mount Dickey from hiking the Welch-Dickey Loop Trail. It’s a circuitous route over the two mountains and one of the most popular hiking trails in the White Mountains because of its outstanding views and the ease at which they can be reached. The scrambles over ledges provide a challenge for hiking newbies, as well as a fun-filled adventure for children of all ages. On any given weekend, you can find the parking lot filled with vehicles from various points south.
On a beautiful morning with the sun reigning down and clear skies overhead, I decided to return to Dickey-Welch. When I arrived at 9 a.m., the parking lot was nearly full. I eased my truck into a tight parking space, grabbed my pack and started for the trailhead. People were bustling about, chattering away, stashing food into packs, lacing up boots, snapping leashes on dogs, looking at maps and getting companies of children in order.
I started out on the trail with a parade of fellow hikers: two teenagers talking about the Red Sox and Bruins; a father trying to push his infant son up the trail in a baby stroller; a women balancing a cup of coffee in one hand while the other held her straining canine on a leash; hikers donned in fancy clothing and outdoor gear. The cacophony drowned out the melodious sounds of the brook that parallels the beginning of the trail.
I wasn’t in the mood for a parade, so I considered another route: following the Dickey Ravine Trail (also referred to as the Brown Ash Swamp mountain bike trail) and then bushwhacking to the summit of Dickey. The Dickey Notch Trail is not well-used, except for a few mountain bikers who are looking for a single-track trail that takes them into the wilderness of Dickey Notch. The trail follows an abandoned logging road for 1.7 miles, ending at U.S. Forest Service Road 23 and eventually Millbrook Road in Thornton. I reversed direction, headed back to the trailhead and began my hike to find solitude and peace. I would not see another person for the rest of the day.
Bushwhacking is a hiker’s term for trekking off-trail; no paths to follow, no blazes or signs to guide the way. Bushwhacking is a skill that is learned from trial and error. One must use a topo map and compass, and a GPS can be very helpful. I have been bushwhacking for several years, and through trial and error (more errors than I would like to admit) I am still learning. One must also be skillful in reading the terrain and knowing when to bypass cliffs, water crossing, bogs and swamps, yet stay on a line to your end-point (e.g., mountain summit or lake). Bushwhacking also means you are willing to push through thick brush, forest scrub, blowdowns, “pencil” spruce, muck and water. There are no bog bridges, ladders, trail markings, rock steps or signposts to guide the way. Many of the mountain summits with spectacular views have no trails, and the only way to the summit is by bushwhacking. It’s not for everybody, and very few even attempt the bushwhack, unless they’re lost. However, it’s a skill, once mastered, that can take you to the splendor of the wilderness that few ever experience. If you want to get away from the crowded trails of the White Mountains, find solitude and answer the “call of the wild,” then you might want to start learning the skill of bushwhacking.
When first learning, it’s best to hook up with an experienced bushwhacker or sign up for a map-and-compass navigation workshop — the Appalachian Mountain Club occasionally offers orienteering workshops. At the very least, start to learn to read a map and use a compass. Take a short walk through the woods, using a map and compass to guide you to a predetermined destination.
I started my bushwhack to the summit of Dickey Mountain in open woods, following my compass bearing aimed at the ledges on the west side of the mountain. It was a relatively easy climb until I ran into a significant blowdown. That meant working my way around, through and under trees stacked like “pick-up sticks.”
After the encounter with the jigsaw-puzzle blowdown and pesky black flies, I reached the ledges with magnificent views to the west. The skies were a brilliant azure blue and there were no clouds. I sat down to have lunch and was greeted by what to me looked like a groundhog (at this elevation?). When I pulled out my camera, he trotted away into the brush. The blueberry bushes next to me were in full bloom; tiny bell-shaped flowers hung abundantly from the short branches. Pollinators, including a bumblebee, floated about, tapping into the sweet nectar of the flowers.
After this brief break, I resumed my whack up the ledges. While careening toward the summit, I was stopped short by the stunning views to the north. The entire ridgeline of the northwest mountains stood out like a wall guarding the White Mountain National Forest. Across the skyline stood Mount Moosilaukee, North and South Kinsman, the Cannon Balls, Cannon Mountain, Cannon Cliff, and the entire Franconia Ridge. Closer to Dickey stood Fisher (2,609 feet) and Hogback Mountains (2,770 feet). I was drawn to the view of Fisher and Hogback. Their summits were above treeline and ledges stretched across the summit cone. I thought for a while: Do I want to return to the trail and the summit of Dickey, to the hub-bub of the crowded trail, or do I continue on my bushwhack into the solitude of the wilderness? I thought of John Muir, who said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” That sealed the deal. I wanted to enter the universe of the forest. I took a compass bearing to Hogback, checked my map, read my GPS and, with little more thought, I found myself hiking down ledges and entering beneath the forest canopy.
Leaving the rock ledges of Dickey Mountain, I headed almost directly north, frequently checking my compass bearing to stay on track. My bearing took me down a steep slope into a conifer forest and soon I was fighting my way through waves of black flies as well as tightly packed spruce and fir. In the openings of the forest, hobblebush formed a wall of branches that I had to fight through. Hobblebush is appropriately named, since I found myself stumbling and wavering as my feet got caught up in the tightly packed branches.
When I reached the stream crossing for Shattuck Brook, I checked my map and realized I would now begin to climb 800 feet to the summit of Hogback Mountain (2,770 feet). With a final push, I reached the summit, climbing up several rock ledges and through thick stands of black spruce. A stiff wind greeted me at the summit and clumps of rhodora were blossoming across the summit cone. The showy, lavender-pink flowers stood out in contrast to the gray, barren peak. I felt elated knowing that I had reached a mountain summit few people have visited to take in this view of the White Mountains.
After a few moments, I began my solitary bushwhack back to the Dickey Ravine Trail. I eyed the valley below, checked my map and GPS to fix a bearing and the descent began, and it was much easier than the climb to the summit. The woods were open and going down is usually easier than climbing. I soon reached Shattuck Brook and, knowing the brook flowed westward to the terminus of the Dickey Ravine trail at Forest Road 23, I confidently followed the course of the river. When I reached the trailhead, I turned northward on the trail, ending the eight-mile bushwhack at the parking lot of the Dickey Welch trail, where I began the day.
The parking lot was nearly empty, most people having finished their day of hiking. I was worn out and my legs felt like lead. My arms were bruised and scratched from scrub fir that had battered my body. The swarms of black flies had taken their toll, leaving my arms swollen from numerous bites. I’m sure they got their fill of my blood. However, I was overjoyed to have accomplished my goal, even though I felt beat. Bushwhacking has challenges, yet the reward is worth the effort. The Iron Mike I had waiting for me lifted my spirits and I headed home, looking forward to my next whack to Cone Mountain on the western side of the Dickey Notch Trail.
For comments or questions contact Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org.