Some Hikes Are Better Left Undone: Our Hike of Whiteface & Passaconcaway
Earlier this week I was able to spin through some of the smaller towns of NH. Jefferson, my hometown, Milan, Stark, and the now seemingly smaller Groveton, visiting the old farm and plot of my great-grandparents Willard along the Conneticut, even stopping to visit some distant Willards buried nearby. This is the real New England, NH in particular. I made a mental note to return to climb the mountains hemming in Stark. These remote cliffs are too inviting. It was in this area I made my next goal after my 48 to do the Cohos Trail.
Pushing these thoughts now aside, I whizzed down a road I wasn’t supposed to be on. Even though I’d been here before it was a long time and I turned onto 113 too early. Heck, I’d never driven so far south just to hike in a northerly direction either.
Hiking in the rain for a week produced a recipe that is baked into your hiking style. It’s a mix and blend of defiance and acceptance, seasoned with a devil-may-care attitude, but never made with reluctance. You defy the rain from stopping you, accept that you will be doused, and never give up.
As we drove to Ferncroft I enjoyed the variety of signs. NO PARKING, NO CARS, but HIKERS WELCOME. My kind of people. It was now 830am. As we walked to the Blueberry Ledge Trail we noticed the homes. It wasn’t even raining(yet). They are a clusterof cottages, summer homes, year-rounders, and especially the farm house and barn bordering the parking lot. I knew that although we would be hiking the mountains, this hike was going to be about community.
As we crossed Squirrel Bridge it began to rain. Lightly, but enough to force the forest floor to release a fine mist, not unlike the type that lifts off the last forest snow mounds left in spring. We had hopes of being alone as no one was in the lot when we arrived, and the woods certainly engendered that feeling. At the 1/4m mark we reached what I thought would be another typical “No Fires, Camping, etc. Wilderness Area” sign, but it wasn’t. Instead it mentioned the efforts of the volunteers of the Wonalancet Out Door Club who keep these trails open. Not the names of the volunteers mind you, just the trails. You see, its about the community.
When we hit the first incline after crossing a small freshet we discussed the following thought. Where we live right now is in a state full of transients. We’ve met few people who have moved here because they want to, ourselves included. It has homes and families, but lacks community. Maybe its my own stubbornness. I dare anyone to try to assimilate me down here. If I have the unfortunate circumstance to pass on while living here, I will go down as, and forever be“the guy from NH”. My remains will then quickly head north. My wife knows the saying “ Ashes to ashes, body or dust, back to NH before I’m cold, it’s really a must.”
Appropriately named is the Blueberry Ledge Trail. They were everywhere. Two things slowed us down today, and this was the first. How on earth is one expected to stop eating these? We decided on a hydration break at the Wiggins Trail junction. Here we heard voices from behind and out popped two brothers who were moving along. We asked if they were also doing Passaconaway and they replied that they didn’t know. We got to the first ledge where the scrambling begins. The light rain had let up and for this we were relieved. No sooner were we prepped to proceed when bounding down off the ledge came a small dog. The next sound we heard was that of windbreaker, zippers, boot soles, pack frame, and lace hooks sliding down rock, by belly or back, you choose. It is a sound that can’t be replicated, but its meaning is totally understood. The hiker appeared shortly and we chatted about his route and away he went.
I like these ledges, they are tricky and require forethought and good placement. The drilled holes at one ledge are of note. I can’t discern if they were placed as an aid for some old climbing device, or if they were there cause at some point in time it seemed like a good idea. I know this, with one foot planted on rock face, another braced for push-off, an arm outstretched for a soon coming, self-propelled birch grab, you are about as vulnerable as you will ever be when hiking. The next step is to take your finger of choice, stick it in one of those holes and pull your body weight. This was great. The other ledges required some belly lands and leg swings, but we made it. It was all good, clean(?!) fun.
Ah yes, the rain, the second factor slowing us down. After summiting Whiteface the rain fell with almost epoch proportions. That stretch of Rollins Trail to Dicey’s Mill seemed like it would last forever. Terrain-wise it reminded me of the Hancock ridge run. Under better weather this would be a great place to make up time if you were pressed for it. It was wondrous forest, almost primeval. The force of rain reduced visibility and made us hood up. At one point we stopped for a snack and I was tempted to try to empty my boots but I didn’t. For awhile it seemed as if there were tracks in front of us but it was impossible to gauge how recent they were.
We finally reached Dicey’s Mill and headed up to Passaconaway. We figured we may have the peak to ourselves. The three exposed rocks just above the junction now formed a beautiful cascade. The whole trail was a flowing brook. We reached the summit in 30 minutes, and indeed had it to ourselves. We could now enjoy our lunch of wet pepperoni, wet crackers, and wet Cabot NY Sharp. We talked about the great Passaconaway. I think he would have been a great one to meet. He sought to unite his people to save them. Why? Because he loved his community. See, there’s that thought again. According to legend he departed for the spirit world one winter aboard a sled pulled by wolves which burst into flames as he approached Agiocochook. Now that’s good planning. I’d like to see that stunt on a day like today. Yea, sure, the sled might work in mud like this. Anyone raised in NH tried their runner sled during mud season, right? But there would be no flame anywhere today, and I don’t know what wolves do on a frog-strangler day like today, but I can picture them hunkering down and leaving the towing to another noble species this time.At 230 we began our descent, sloshing really, down Dicey’s. We were able to pick up speed due to its gentle grade. Before we knew it we hit the Wiggins Trail, then the old mill crossing, then Blueberry Ledge Cut-Off, then the Forest Boundary, and were down by 430pm.
As I mentioned before this hike was about the feeling of community. As we exited onto private property we carefully observed staying on trail. The homes, fields, and outlying barns have existed for generations. So has the goodwill of their residents. They are kind enough to allow hikers to traverse. Some of these homes have fostered not only hikers, but fellow trail workers too. A small remote community this is, it lives and thrives because it cares for its own, but at the same time it benefits all.
I had made it my determination that if we encountered a resident out of doors to take the initiative to approach them and say thanks for letting us into their world. It was even tempting to knock on their doors to do so. I figured that was left better undone. Best to respect their privacy, doesn’t it say enough that the members of this community don’t mind us strolling by their windows and open doors? Perhaps they feel thanks isn’t even necessary, maybe that’s the way they are, after all, this is a NH community.
The thought of unburdening my water-logged canoes presented itself. I was even willing to walk on gravel road barefoot. But all I needed to do was untie my sodden laces and catch a whiff of what rolled out and up. It proceeded what I could only imagine would be the greatest offense to my olfactory senses if I went any more forward with this pursuit. I thought better of it and retied them, knowing that deep within lurked a brine of 5 dried prunes stuck to a block of moldy cheese aged over 12 miles. It would only get worse when we got in the car and my wife turned on the heat, effectively crocking the end of my appendages with leather chum buckets attached.
The walk to the car also presented a new angle of the large farmstead. Off in the corner of the field ,which bordered the parking lot, was a sizable cemetery. I love old sites like this, especially those with grave of soldiers of the Revolution. Alas, there was also a sign which said STAY OFF THE FIELDS. My plans were dashed, yet it was a reasonable request for this community.
At the parking lot I noticed a bushwhack path through the woods which at the top would allow access unseen to the cemetery. Sadly, it was strewn with some trash. I picked up some wrappers and stuff but couldn’t get the banana peel in the tree above me.
I knew a quick dash after 12 miles and 2 peaks would easily put me in there. Then I thought of community. I don’t live here, but after hiking Whiteface and Passaconaway I felt a part of it, even if at least a caring observer. I thought carefully.
Whether of choice or planning, be it the hard life and its toll so long ago, be it a ripe old age or struck down in youth, sickness or accident, even dying in a foreign land, they all came back here in the end. Its where they wanted to be. Generations. And you know what, even in this eternal way, they’re still a community today. Always had been, always will be.I felt everyone here had already forsaken enough privacy. I owed them that. As much as I wanted to, I put those thoughts of sneaking in deep and away in my mind.
I had decided that even this short scamper would be one hike I wouldn’t take.
Please enjoy the pics.
"LIVE FREE OR DIE...DEATH IS NOT THE WORST OF ALL EVILS." Gen. John Stark. "by reason of much foule weather and Extreme Bad Woods to travel in..." From the letter of my Great Uncle, Samuel Willard (accompanied by my grandfather Henry), to Governor Dummer on August 16, 1725, explaining the reason for his return, being instructed to "range all the country", of the Wawobadenik (White Mountains) July 19-August 16, 1725. I am a 13th generation New Englander and proud of it.