On the cusp of autumn, I found myself on an old woods road that connects NH Route 112 to Landaff. It is better known as the Cobble Hill Trail and lies within the White Mountain National Forest. I was on a bushwhack to climb two little-known peaks, Cobble Hill and Moody Ledge.
Moody Ledge is the highest point in Landaff, 2,326 feet, and Cobble Hill stands at 2,306 feet. I had two objectives in mind when I chose this route: to hike an obscure trail in solitude with Reuben, and to bushwhack to two of the 500 highest peaks in New Hampshire. For me, the New Hampshire 500 peaks list is just a way to motivate me to discover remote summits that few people ever think of hiking and to discover silence and solitude in the New Hampshire wilds, which is difficult to find on many of the well-traveled paths of the White Mountains.
Many people question why I bushwhack when I can just hike a well-marked trail. For me, the primary reason is the passion to go to places where few people go; to find a view from a remote mountain top or camp along a wilderness stream. It’s also the peace and solitude I experience when hiking off-trail. Rarely have I encountered other people while bushwhacking, just the cries of ravens, the groans of a bull moose during rutting season, the call of a Canadian jay, the wail of bear cubs, the howls of coyotes or simply silence. The appeal is the challenge of finding one’s way to a destination: a mountain summit, a wilderness pond, or a spectacular waterfall without following an established trail, and being immersed in solitude and beauty that only nature can provide.
Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up by writing, “Do not follow where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave trail.”
Bushwhacking is not for most people, as it involves using a map, compass, GPS, an ability to read the terrain, a good deal of common sense and knowledge of woodland signs (herd paths, old wood roads, moose browse, animal tracks).
When I read the trail description of the Cobble Hill Trail in the AMC White Mountain Guide, I learned that it eventually leads to the town of Landaff. I had never heard of Landaff before, nor knew of its location. Now I do. The town was first chartered in 1764 by the King of England and named for the Bishop of Llandaff, chaplain to England’s King George III. In 1770, a new charter was granted to Dartmouth College. The College’s goal was to bring education and religion to the wilderness settlement. However, residents rebelled against this intrusion and fought for their own charter. In 1791, Dartmouth College withdrew its claim and looked further south to Hanover to construct the college. If Dartmouth College had won the argument that was fought in the courts for several years, Landaff would have been home to one of the most prestigious colleges in the world.
On a day when the crisp smell of autumn filled the air, I began my journey by driving NH Route 112 to the Cobble Hill trailhead, just south of the junction with Route 116. I pulled off at a small parking area and began my hike with Reuben, passing a locked gate and an impressive cascade. A chill hung in the air and I sensed that my warm-weather hiking days of summer were almost over. The road climbed gradually and, within a mile, the abandoned South Landaff Road veered to the left. I was tempted to diverge from my plan and explore the many cellar holes, stone walls, apple orchards and other vestiges of a hill farm community that once flourished in the 19th century, but I stuck to my goal and continued on the Cobble Hill Trail, passing other cellar holes and stone walls lining the trail.
Upon reaching the height of land, I grabbed my GPS, along with a map and compass, and decided on a route to the Cobble Hill summit. I began the bushwhack on an easterly bearing, with Reuben leading the way. Reuben has the innate sense to find a path to a summit without the aid of a GPS or compass. Reuben is a born bushwhacker, as probably most dogs are. Cobble Hill proved to be a challenge, because the summit is protected by a series of cliffs and ledges except on the north side of the mountain. I decided to take a direct route up through the ledges instead of skirting around them. I like a challenge and Reuben is an excellent trail guide and bushwhacker, even though his aging body struggles to climb precipitous areas. He is able to find openings in crags, thick woods and blowdowns. We scrambled through open woods, then climbed a series of ledges and rock slides, finding an open brushy meadow near the summit. Pushing through brambles, I found a small plastic jar hanging from a tree, which I knew was the summit register. I scanned the log inside and recognized a few if the names of other whacky bushwhackers: Amy, Brian, Beth, Jack from Littleton, J.R. Stockwell, Jeremy, and others.
Reuben downed a snack of kibble while I munched on a handful of peanuts, and then we began our descent back to the Cobble Hill Trail. Again, we took a more direct route, descending the ledges we climbed earlier. We were making good progress when we came to an abrupt halt. A 10-foot sheer cliff blocked our route. I gazed into the abyss below and looked at Reuben. He quickly disappeared into the woods looking for a safer route, one that he could manage without injury. Again, the challenge of getting down the ledges tempted my wild side, the part of me that likes a challenge. While surveying the slope, the ground suddenly gave way. I tumbled down the mountain, like an Olympic gymnast doing a triple twist, front summersault, lay-out. I landed head first, lost my water bottle and with it my sense of daring and self-confidence. Lying on the ground, trying to regain my senses, Reuben came along, stood over me, licked my face, and with a puzzled expression seemed to say, “You idiot, why didn’t you follow me? I found a safe way down the ledges.” A lesson learned: Don’t take chances when hiking alone. Take the safe and easy way out of the woods.
After a short recuperation and examination of my body parts to ensure I was still all in one piece, we continued to our next bushwhack-climbing to the summit of Moody Ledge. The bushwhack to the summit was rather uneventful with the exception of a hard push through an exceptionally thick stand of spruce and fir. We continually crossed numerous herd paths, an indication that the area around Moody Ledge is well-traveled by a number of different wildlife — moose, deer, bear, fox, bobcat and coyote.
As we neared the summit, the forest floor was covered by a mat of dark green moss. The deep carpet was incredibly soft, and it felt as if I was walking on a sponge. This side of the mountain was in sharp contrast to the rock ledges of Cobble Hill. I wondered about the difference in the environment and left the answer to a naturalist.
After a rather easy ramble to the summit, we turned around and began our descent back to the Cobble Hill Trail. Reuben loped ahead, nose lifted in the air, smelling some unknown object or possibly a moose that was spying on us from the dense forest. Bullwinkle will soon be bellowing as the rutting season approaches.
As autumn approaches, this is a great time to be out in the woods. Whether hiking a well-maintained trail or bushwacking through the wilds, you will experience the beauty and serenity that only a forest walk can provide.
“Sometimes, you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.” (Unknown author)
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