The Dartmouth Fifty, almost

The legendary Dartmouth Fifty Miler is the name by which I have heard it called; whatever name you prefer to give this long-haul, it consists of roughly fifty consecutive miles trekked along the beautifully scenic Appalachian Trail. Beginning in downtown Hanover on the Dartmouth College Green and following the 2×6 white blazes, which the AT is so well-known for, all the way to the 4,803ft summit of Mount Moosilauke.

Actually if tacking on the +3,200 foot ascent to Moosilauke at the end of a long run was not enough, the trek technically ends on the other side of the massive pile of rock, at the Ravine Lodge which stands at 2,460ft.

Packing for this adventure was more or less a scavenger hunt; the notion to take on this section of trail came to me just shortly after running north from Mount Cube about 8 miles to the top of Webster Slide Mountain and back. The trail was generally dry, gently rolling with some leaf litter covering the rocks here and there. It seemed like a great idea and honestly with everything going on in the world, those hours spent cruising through the tunnel of wildlife had me contemplating a future of six months spent running, jogging, climbing, hiking – whatever would transport me from Katahdin to Springer Mountain down south.

My mind felt prepared to spend time with myself throwing down some miles!

Since I did not take weeks or even months to accumulate much gear or snacks, I used what I had. Rummaging through my Gregory 75L pack that accompanied me on the Northville Placid Trail thru-hike and most of my longer winter snowshoe treks, I ransacked through folded zip-lock baggies for unopened packets of Muir energy and any unfavorable bars that had henceforth been tossed aside.

Stockpiling 5 or 6 slow-burning and fast-burning Muir energy gels, an old all-fruit bar, along with my bag of thrown together nuts, seeds, raisins, this time I also threw in a handful of crystallized ginger chews which were purchased for who knows what reason so long ago, perhaps being excessively thirsty and hungry would make them palatable once again!

Like every other outing I go on, I always bring the essentials: map and compass, Sawyer water filter (packed two 16oz soft flasks and 1.5L camelback style pouch) knowing I would have a plethora of stream crossings to re-up at, I also brought along my long time ultra running favorite – medjool dates!

Part of the reason I had about 24 hours of packing and prepping (I knew the route from living more or less on one of the trail heads I would be passing, so route finding was essentially all set) was that all the stars miraculously aligned – the weather gave several days of sunny and dry allowing any snow to continue to dissipate (or so I thought..), a coworker who lives basically on the Green offered the use of his driveway for me to stash my vehicle while I had coordinated a pick up once finished at the Ravine Lodge – in my mind, this was my time and I didn’t know when or if I would get another chance in the near future to embark on the Dartmouth 50, my time was now!

Given the window of good weather, I was looking at 40s to start and warming up to roughly 65 degrees with increasing sun as the morning wore on, I opted for a favorite pair of running shorts (proved that I can run 54 miles with zero chafing back in September!), the blue Mount Desert Marathon longsleeve tech shirt that I basically live in, an option of buffs and Smartwool beanie and Gore-tex outer layer, just in case the sky wanted to throw me any curve balls during the day.

Opting for Altra Lone Peaks with matching gaiters; I stuffed my Injinji toe socks into each shoe, grabbed for my trekking poles to improve stability on the uphills and I was good to go. On a side note, I have found that toe socks, while I cannot stand the feeling of anything stuffed between my toes, they work for my long runs – especially if I know that my piggies will be wet for a while, just the added security decreasing the ugly chances of rubbing or blisters.

Let’s go run in the dark!

After a quick breakfast of rye oats topped with nuts and seeds, gear was loaded into the transport vehicle (Ciara’s Honda, she offered to be my ride for the journey!) and we began the early morning trek into Hanover, NH.

Arriving at the Green, we just sat in the car for a minute looking around, watching the early morning traffic which was minimal due to the Stay at Home orders while the COVID pandemic was taking place. Most traffic consisted of Dartmouth College Security which struck us as slightly funny since the college had not been in session for weeks!

The starting line doesn’t wait forever so with a long hug and a kiss or three I said my goodbye’s and thank you’s before using the short walk to Robinson Hall as a slight warm up for the calves before starting my timer.

I was now in this journey alone. Two people in this world knew who was running these dark streets and where this mad-man was running to.

Without really planning for it, my day began from the Dartmouth Green at precisely 5am.

I gave one last wave to Ciara and the doggies (who were now both heads out the back windows, tongues flailing, excited for anything at this point) as my headlamp clicked on and I began the slow shuffle past landmarks which only felt familiar during daylight hours.

Before I knew it I was crossing route 120 with no traffic (so strange.. this is such a busy stretch of college-town-road!), passing the Co-op where I patron so often and running behind the ball fields.

I was now on it; running the Appalachian Trail, on a section which I had never been.. and loving every bit of it, the trail was rocky and steep in sections as it switchbacked its way over bare granite to the split for the Velvet Rocks AT shelter.

Soon after passing the shelter signage, the trail began closing in as rocky moss-covered ledges were illuminated by way of headlamp beam, my trail started rolling over all of the contour lines that had been studied on topo maps in the months leading up to this fine morning.

Glimmers of light appeared occasionally off in the distance from where the layer of dense cloud ended, overall the path grew a blueish haze as the morning sun began to illuminate my way.

My mind was absolutely astonished at the places both my feet and the trail were taking me this morning! Through boggy areas which featured long, winding bridges, up and over boulders which lay in my path forcing use of hands to vault over, and naturally this wouldn’t be the Appalachian Trail without a foot submerged into a blackened muddy abyss to start my trek – all in all, I ran through a self-systems-check: breakfast was staying down, ankles were loosening up, pack felt good, nothing was rubbing, my mind was at ease: I just felt good.

Somehow the road crossings began to blur by; first Trescott, then Etna road was in my rear view mirror. I didn’t feel fast, but landmarks seemed to wiz by faster than I had anticipated!

Before long, I found myself on a beautifully manicured, PCT-style trail featuring a single-file beaten down pathway when a gun shot rang out a bit too close for my comfort. I later found out this was likely the 6am shooting of a turkey, either way a little unnerving that I was out there in the woods alone – my pace may have spiked just slightly during this section!

As the sun continued to break the night away, I could not help but laugh at myself – every fallen tree reminding me of my encounter of being followed by curious moose only several days prior, thankfully no moose were out to get me this morning!

Familiar territory

Through the dim morning light as I cruised in and out of picturesque boggy areas there grew the image of headstones in the distance, I was running straight toward them! Across the paved road, I had just passed a spot in which my drive home often took me; so many afternoons I had spent day dreaming of how nice it must be to encounter such a green velvetty-mossy knoll while the world needed me nowhere else but on the Appalachian Trail.

Moose Mountain, the South Peak

Through some old evergreen forests, across some winding brooks, up and around some mild ridge lines and before long, I was away from the road and entering logged territory. For a moment I seemed to be a lone trespasser, running the still blazed AT via single-file path through an old field.

My adventurous mind wanted to believe an old artist lived here, one who lived a lonely but fully content life, coming out to their field just to sit quietly under their trees and watch the seasons change, noting the change of hikers’ attire as the years passed from 70s to 80s, then 90s and eventually to present day.

Snapped back to Saturday, April 25th 2020. Checking the stats on my GPS watch, the time read 6:50am when I hit 8.5 miles into my 50+ mile day. Still feeling good, surprisingly good in fact – I had only tripped over my trekking pole once, luckily a forest floor of mud and leaves were there to break my fall!

Making the beeline up the shoulder of Moose, I encountered my first real wildlife – and shockingly not this peaks namesake moose but a chunky black bear lumbering up ahead, likely nosing its way around in search of breakfast. I began some encouraging hoots and hollers, making the 250lb ball of fur aware of my presence so I could politely pass by. Luckily, showing no interest in me it scampered off the trail, I was relieved to see that it had no wee baby bears tagging along!

Much like all other destinations along my trek up to this point, the bright orange DOC (Dartmouth Outing Club) sign stood proudly showing that I had now reached the high point, trying to slow my breathing, I was content to be back on familiar turf and heading toward home!

Last time that I had run from my home to the summit of Moose Mt it was somewhere around autumn with colorful leaves on nearly every tree – what a difference now! Early spring and no leaves blocking my view into the ravine east, I felt like I would be able to see any big animal before they could spot me (forget the fact that they would smell me from a mile away..!).

I began looking at the trail from which I came as chapters in my story; I had closed the Velvet Rocks chapter, passed the unknown road crossings that in the days leading up I had put in much time studying on Google Earth, I had the South Moose chapter softly closing behind me and within minutes the same with the North peak.

Descending Moose Mountain’s North summit the sun was now in full-warming effect, what a beautiful morning to be out on the trails, zig-zagging down from bare rock to leaf-covered AT, switchbacking my way steeply down to my next destination:

Goose Pond Road to Holts Ledge and onward to the Dartmouth Skiway

I had run this section of today’s adventure last fall while dull leaves still clung tight to the branches from which they came. It was much like a corridor or a hallway taking the walker from one set of rolling hills to another. This time around the wooden planks spanning the boggy area just upstream from Pressey Brook displayed much more wear and tear from the 3 million annual AT trekkers, some appearing new had snapped and were now shooting spouts of murky water straight up at the passerby!

From these planks peering in the northern direction, however, is one of the finest views that I have found along this stretch of trail, the southern portions of Holts Ledge forming the northern backdrop from the pool of water.

Shortly into my hill climb which traverses more or less right up the spine of the ridge, I decided this sixteen mile mark would be a fine point to actually take my 8L running pack off, let the sweaty back breathe momentarily and dive into my first snack of the day, a handful (..maybe two!) of deliciously moist medjool dates.

Each and every turn I took, finding views back toward North Moose first and finally the southern counterpart further in the distance, I was amazed at what distance I could see through the trees and down into gullies and to far away marshes – certainly I would notice any larger creatures before I snuck up on them? I hoped fate would work in such a way for me!

A little uncertain of where I was on my climb up to Holts Ledge, I simply took it a few steps at a time; a few turns at a time, remarking to my inner child about all of the moss covered boulders and how badly I wanted to jump off this trail and go climb on them – perfect for the bouldering enthusiast of the climbing world for sure!

Reaching the beautiful overlook spot, I stopped momentarily to shoot my first text message letting Ciara know of my progress and that I was still somewhat on track for the time schedule I had planned.

I could understand why this section of the Appalachian Trail had become so well trafficked and somewhat eroded, the views are easterly out to Winslow Ledge (the ‘other‘ side of the Dartmouth Skiway) with a bit of Smarts Mt just behind, even Cardigan can be seen off in the distance, such a relaxing spot if you can nab these open ledges to yourself on a calm day!

Beginning down, the trail does some switchbacking, passes some minor waterways, but the trail finally becomes packed dirt with some rocks sticking out – perfect terrain to get some speed going and really feel like a trail runner bouncing from rock top to rock top (just don’t catch the toe of a shoe or that may end your day!).

Within what felt like minutes, I zoomed passed the spur trail on the left over to the Trapper John Shelter. As the leaves had not yet grown in, I could still make out the 1,948′ summit of Bear Hill just beyond to the west, which was a fantastic bushwhack over fallen leaves with some bare rock on the steep ascent, great little rewarding climb!

Arriving at the Dorchester Road/Dartmouth Skiway trail head, the air was silent, most folks still at home while New Hampshire remained under Stay At Home orders, to keep the nasty COVID-19 at bay.

I pass this section of the AT daily on my way to work or into town as I live 4 miles down Dorchester Road, lovely little spot and such a sense of being incredibly lucky to have this all in our backyards!

But that did not mean that I had actually learned where the white-blazed trail goes through this stretch to Smarts Mt! I knew it cut into the woods from the Skiway, but in prior treks all around this area all I had found for the first mile or so were merely snowmobile paths, and today there was no snow!

Trails were indeed still melting as the days grew longer and had turned into a river of mud underfoot; I cautiously yet boldly tried to employ trekking poles to make the most of each leap, bounding from log to rock with the occasional foot plunge up to the ankle as I mistook a mound of grass for something sturdy!

What really brought my attention to the present and the fact that I was doing okay was a familiar face of two fellow runners who live basically across from the Skiway, they were out for an early dog walk together. Amazed at how far I had traveled under my own power, and partially at my ambition to go all the way, they wished the best and we parted ways, back into the woods I went.

Being fearful that Grant Brook would be high with the springtime melt water mixed with any recent rains we had accumulated, I was thrilled to see that today would not be the day I became washed away by white caps two miles from my cabin doorstep, and with that I was one obstacle closer to my next road crossing!

I had found several months back, here in the woods standing trail side along the AT a stone monument with both northern and southern AT distances. Everytime I see this, I can’t help but stop my mind and ponder the amount of long haul trekkers who had stopped here, maybe having their moment of enlightenment at this very spot.

Having friends who had hiked the AT come to find out that I live so close to this stone in the trail, several had sent me photos, selfies during their own excursion standing next to the very stone source of energy and will to keep walking; a sort of magic, I suppose!

Onward to Smarts Mt and beyond!

Still surprised that the US Forest Service had barricaded off the Smarts Mountain Trail Head, I was even more surprised to see that someone had actually driven into the bright orange barricade, to the extent that the laminated sign was torn from the impact and the entirety of gate was off to the side..essentially allowing folks to park in the lot if they disregarded this warning sign which was printed and signed USFS!

Still feeling decent, I took the inclines as efficiently as I knew how, being completely aware that I first had a 1,500′ climb to Lambert Ridge, just to drop back down a few hundred feet to the “base” of Smarts Mt to ascend the additional 1,000ft or so up to the tower location atop the mountain!

The sun was out, I had the trails to myself and the views to where I had come were spectacular! I could even see all the minor ponds and summer cabins of who made up my neighbors, certainly a view I don’t think I could grow tired of seeing!

My first “oh no!” moment came just on the backside of the Ridge as the trail changed from very runnable open rock sticking straight up to a sea of white as far as the eye could see. It was incredibly beautiful, but not the sight I wanted to see at the end of April – and definitely not when I still had twenty-eight miles to run!

The snow was rotten, completely hollowed underneath and each step gave way to a mystery of off-camber rocks below, and if I found reprieve from ankle-breaking rock, it was only to plunge my foot into fresh, frigid melt water down below – had my ankles needed an ice bath, this would have been very welcome indeed!

Deciding to press on, staying hopeful that once I hit the south-facing grade of Smarts Mt, hopefully the sun would have melted the trail and I could make some progress.

I was wrong as wrong gets.

As I gained altitude the melted snow that I had encountered a half mile earlier was now frozen solid. I stood, braced against a tree on this twenty percent grade, looking up.. then looking back down.

I had my Hillsound spikes which I absolutely expected to use on Moosilauke as I could see from a distance that mountaintop was still very white. I, however, did not expect to fumble with traction yet – with twenty-eight miles to go.

Quickly doing some crude math in my head I made the call. I determined that a fourteen-hour day was tolerable, but if I continued at this slower pace while dealing with rotten snow, solid ice and melt water – essentially if I couldn’t guarantee a clear path ahead, I would be running back into darkness during the descent of Moosilauke, not really what I had in mind for this trek.

To my surprise, I was totally content with what I had accomplished! I had run twenty-three miles from the Dartmouth College Green in downtown Hanover, through some of the most beautiful rolling hills I could have ever asked for. I saw bear and loads of wildlife and buds just starting their springtime journey to life, I was thrilled actually.

My biggest concern, I decided on the long arduous hike back to the main road and thence back to my home, was that if I had continued along out of sheer stubbornness, that I would run the risk of forgetting all of what I had seen and experienced up to this point and would only be able to focus on how crummy it was to break through snow and ice every step, or how long it had taken me to complete – and that was absolutely not what I was out running for!

I had failed my attempt at the Dartmouth Fitty miler, but in my own regard.. I came out a winner!

I love the places I saw, the (very few..) people I got to wave to and say good morning to, the views breathed life back into my soul when I wasn’t even aware that my reserves were being exhausted in my day-to-day.

I feel that I made the call at the right time, I have nothing but incredible memories – one of the finest even being standing on the Green at 5am, trekking poles in hand, pack on my back in the dark as cars crept by and I could look over to Ciara and the pups and think to myself with a smirk: “I’ll see you in a few miles“.

And with one wave, a good long hug and a kiss I’ll always remember – they were gone and I was alone with my own mind on this dark tunnel before me.

– Erik


Overall stats for the day:

  • 28.24 miles
  • 7hr 10 minutes
  • 7,743′ elevation gain
  • Altra – Lone Peak 4.0 shoes
  • Dartmouth Green – 540′
  • Velvet Rocks Hill – 1,243′
  • Moose Mt, South Peak – 2,283′
  • Moose Mt, North Peak – 2,303′
  • Holts Ledge – 2,110′
  • Dartmouth Skiway AT TH – 878′
  • Lambert Ridge – 2,380′
  • High point on Smarts Mt – 2,782′
  • (Smarts Mt – 3,238′)

 

A long day out.

Sugarloaf via ski resort to Spaulding to Abraham, back to Spauling via the AT North to South Crocker to North Crocker, back to South Crocker to Redington via a mean bushwhack.

Or at least that was the lofty plan running though my excited mind at 1000mph as I made the drive from western New Hampshire to Central Maine Saturday morning at a cool and calm 2:45am. The sun would not rise for many hours, which would allow my mind to race, jump, hop and skip all the way along the 186 mile commute – heck, I was even convinced for a brief moment that I had actually witnessed a goat walking down the side of Rt 16 in pitch darkness.. “what the heck even was that doing out here..?“.. I never will find out what creature of the darkness was I had just witnessed.

As I sit here in a post-weekend haze with bruised legs still dotted with dried blood, hearing fellow hikers reiterate all of the ‘do not even attempt to cross the Carrabassett River‘ warning signs,  I am still not even sure that a trek like this was possible.

7:30AM 
Relieved to pull into the Sugarloaf Ski Resort parking lot to find that the morning onslaught of frigid rain drops had tapered during the preceding 5 minutes – I grabbed for my larger of two running packs that this weekends trail-fest would see, laced up the almost-still-pristine Altra Lone Peaks, once the two beeps signaled from my watch indicating that both GPS signal and my heart rate were found (sometimes its the smaller accomplishments in life that we need to focus on.. like having a pulse this fine morning!), hit Start, and with trekking poles in hand – I began up that hill.

I stopped several times during this initial 2,553 foot climb; not far into my day and I could still look back.. I could nearly reach out and touch the bottom of the cloud layer, like a whisping cotton candy awaiting my entry. Once in, however, my beautiful post-fall-foliage mountain scape was replaced with gusting winds, the unbearded spots on my face bombarded with sideways travelling snow and ice chunks – I desperately wanted to reach for my sunglasses, but hoped I could just topple over the summit rocks before removing my pack.

The 4,237ish (look around – each source you check will list a different elevation..) summit cone offered little to no escape from the torrent of weathering ice pellets, with squinted eyes I tried to discern some indication of where the path dove into the cover of the forest and henceforth to the Appalachian Trail.

Once on the Sugarloaf Side Trail, time slowed down and the one half mile trek to the AT south seemed to last an eternity. A lifetime of frosted over boulders and trees shrouded in glistening hoarfrost. Just to add a little consequence to this mornings outing, the winterized trail of course would not be complete without the ice water trickling down the middle of my path – “dunk a toe now and you will be wearing ice bricks for the remainder of the day, you won’t make it anywhere..

Still I managed to enjoy my time in this Northeast Winter Wonderland, bear bells jiggling, all I needed now was to recall a few good carols to keep the wildlife at bay.

Admittedly, I was completely unsure if my day would be what I had hoped, I was busy readying my mind for the ‘abort mission‘ phase and retreat back to the warmth of my heated Subaru seats.

Up ahead, the burnt orange hue rang through the blinding plainness of all-white-everything.

SPAULDING MTN. 150 YDS. M.A.T.C.

Steep, bouldery, more steep, super slick rock, still with the steep, and here is a bit of a view finally over to the Crockers.

Precisely how the so called 150 yard jaunt up to Spaulding went, in fact the summit was so unremarkable that I continued on.. completely unsure of when I had reached the summit until the trail topped out and began steeply once again – descending the other side.

I had found my second summit of the day, when I returned from the frost-covered boulder descent I was faced with the next question.. push on down the white trackless trail into even deeper wilderness, far from the safety of any rescue mission, or turn back now with the hopes that I could retrace my footsteps in the morning, perhaps with warmer temps and more sunshine?

My legs, still brimming with early morning energy, made the decision for me and with no time lost at the junction – I was on my way deeper, heading toward a peak containing the largest alpine zone in the state, second only to that found on the highest reaches of Katahdin.

I was now fully immersed in moose country, later in the day many hikers asked enthusiastically if I had seen any bear. If I had ran face to face with any large wildlife, I would have been spooked.. but ready for it, I was tip toe-ing through their front yards, after all!

With about a mile to go south on the Appalachian Trail, my gaze was struck from straight down to one more cast in the distance, through the trees I now saw the massive ice-covered bare granite rock faces that adorned the northern slopes of Abraham. Just then it hit me, there was no option – I was going over to that mound of rock.

I met the junction with open arms and excitedly joined the Abraham Side Trail, remnants of footprints in the grass that harked back to the wildest herd paths of the Adirondack Mountains. I wanted to run these trails, but decided to save the effort for the return trek, agreeing to focus on my footwork over the still frosty boulders.
My frozen herd path soon opened up to a jagged boulder-field, which I wasted no time auto-piloting up. Only a handful of foot prints were laid down before I glanced to my left.. the massive rock cairns continued left, not straight up this mount of shattered rock.
“Ohhhh… I see now”, I thought to myself and to my disbelief what I saw appeared to be dozens of miles in the far distance – Abraham was over there, not over here.

Over some rocks and through some woods found me now on the side slopes of Abraham where I found the hiding wind, I had not even experienced wind thus far into my day until I began up the final ascent of Abraham.

Putting my trekking poles to good use, I found myself bracing at every step ‘three points of contact at all times‘, I reminded myself before taking each well-thought out step onto frozen boulders, not a single step on this peak was flat or easy going – and I adored this mountain for that!

I would admit in hindsight that I hung out on the summit cone for a few minutes too long – but the incoming wildly whipping cloud layers were absolutely mesmerizing; initially I had my first officially clear views of the day, all the way to Spaulding and beyond to the second highest in the state, to where my day had begun.

More than once I had almost been blown away like a rag doll from the rocks high atop Mount Abraham, and somehow deep inside, I remained calm to this fact – I was where I wanted to be, I was in the right place at the right time.

The return trip was more of the same in reverse, employing my trekking poles every step along the way to keep what little balance that I still had, retracing my Lone Peak foot prints back down to treeline.

Now was the time to throw some coal to fuel the fire; coal that is, in the form of dates washed down the hatch with several gulps of water. By now the sun had rose to an angle that warmed the icy white hats atop every tree around, each second that passed found swatches of ice and snow falling to the earth which, to my heightened senses had me assuming that moose and bear were now coming at me from every angle – not in a paranoid sort of way, but now the forest simply breathed the sound of life.

One would think living in rustic New Hampshire, where I have had many black bear and moose using my driveway to reach the other side of the forest, that I would have experienced the sound of a moose call – I had not, until Saturday morning at 11:40am, that is. I don’t think I have ever experienced something that has raised the hair on my neck so abruptly, what a true treat of nature – the way its call just echoed through the valleys, I knew I was not in its path – but I had just witnessed the magic of nature, 110%.

Then, to even further my surprise this morning, I heard yet another rarity this far into the depths of pure wilderness – people. Thinking it was only a quick encounter, I simply told Ryan and Yvonne about the ice and wind, but incredible views that awaited them, and just as soon as we ran up on each other, our paths widened. Once again I was alone with the sound of creaking trees straining to remain upright from the weight of ice and snow in their boughs.

1:13pm, mile 15

I was quickly approaching the most important decision of my day: continue following my beloved Appalachian Trail north, or call it a day; retrace my steps back up the steep slopes of where my morning had begun – to retreat up and over the mighty Sugarloaf?

I was not afforded the time necessary to debate with myself the options, ‘see you in a couple of mountains!!‘, I greeted and sped by the intersection: my feet had subconsciously made the call: I was now headed AT North.

Not an inch shy of 1,000 feet is all I now had to descend to reach the river crossing, run across the old logging roads and quickly make the 1,800 foot ascent up to South Crocker.

That’s all I had to do, with what I had already tackled.. those miles didn’t seem so bad!

This is where I really hit the line of traffic; kids, parents, friends, a thru-hiker, plus several pups slowly crawling up the flooded trail as I tip-toed cautiously from rock to rock, avoiding the chilly foot bath below me at every well placed step.

The Carrabassett River thundered from down below in the ravine, all of the melted ice and snow finally making its way and adding their droplets to the white capped roar slamming down the river bed.

I had heard reports of a plank now spanning the river, creating a tight rope of sorts and an extreme sport on top of this pre-winter climbing! To my delight, the plank remained in place, held by a series of cables on one end.

One foot onto the old weathered plank. As soon as I found myself mid-span along this old piece of drift wood, it was evidenced that neither end of this plank was fastened to anything! 

Left foot led as the plank began to roll, completely off kilter – the rogue waves crashed underfoot as I tried to escape my mind from the sights and sounds below; I was off balance and there was nothing I could do about it. 

Using a trekking pole, I jammed that sucker into a nearby rock as hard and fast as my reflexes could muster up – pushed off and began to run using pure, raw instinct. No way was I going into that ice bath below – because had I not regained a slight smidgen of balance, I’d be washed away for sure far down stream!

Once on the distant side of the river, I stopped to thank whatever forces helped me traverse this mess – I did not even want to think about my return trip, all I knew was that I had to cross back while there was still daylight – that gave me about five hours to cover the next twelve miles over three summits.

I had my bail out options, but none of them were easy: ascend South Crocker to North Crocker and bail out by continuing north along the AT and add far too many miles to my day vs. return now back across the river and pick up my trekking in the morning vs. ascend these three linear peaks while following the logging roads back to civilization.

I continued weighing my options during the coming miles. 

I was greeted by many hikers now descending the South Crocker trail past the Cirque as I pressed my way from one boulder to another, through the mud and frost, clawing inch by inch to the next summit of my day.

Every step higher brought this hiker closer to views where I could see the surrounding peaks, Sugarloaf now appearing to be light years away!

As the trail topped out and leveled off, I found myself super relieved to finally reach the summit signs:

SOUTH CROCKER MTN. ELEV. 4010 FT.

As the ice continued to pelt down around me, I took a chunk to the top of my head.. stood there momentarily in disbelief and thought: “hmmph.. so this is how I get broken on this trek, I bleed to death from my scalp by falling ice.. oh the irony!

To my delight, I did not bleed much and the wack did next to nothing to alter my determined pace, South Crocker had been checked once and what appeared too far away must have been North Crocker; “they call that a mile?!

Turns out this mile absolutely flew by, concentrating on one step at a time – the trail was covered in fresh soil from the waterbars that trail crews had recently dug out in anticipation of the ‘nor-easter’ only days prior.

Fresh blackened soil, decorated with a delicate white layer that resembled permafrost and strewn with softball sized rocks made up the trail, steep down for half a mile, steep up for half a mile – with some upper body use to crawl up and over some erratics blocking my path.. that’s really all it was!

NORTH CROCKER MTN. ELEV4168 FT.

The summit of North Crocker was not quite the open views that I had read about, in fact.. I really quite enjoyed the enclosed peak! Took a walk down a short spur path to get the Northwest vistas while I chewed up the remaining dates that became my afternoon snack. All trees that encircled the orange signage indicating I had indeed reached the highpoint of this loop spur were encrusted in ice and snow, which continued to crackle, pop and drop into the surrounding forest – it sounded truly alive and not so lonesome in that moment!

The run back to South Crocker was exactly that, I had fuel back in my belly and several swigs of water from what I had been conserving (of course I had my Sawyer water filter had I actually run out, and plenty of sources along the trail from which to filter..), and I was jamming right along. Concentrating on not catching a toe on any rocks or roots, it was more like a fast cadenced dance than an actual run for the one mile back to the main junction.

My intuition told me to head out toward a herd path that was labelled as “view point”, turns out I had actually gone past the cut off for the bushwhack over to Redington! Glancing back over my shoulder, I caught glimpses of orange surveyors tape strung up in one of the trees, this lone tie indicated the start of ‘into the deeper woods’.

Initially the trail zig zagged, a few branches reaching out in attempts to jab eye sockets and tear flesh – several branches had their way with me as I could feel the sting of sweat mix with fresh red blood – simply battle scars, I suppose!

To my utter surprise, I met another couple on the return bushwhack who boosted my confidence even further as they assured me the path ahead was certainly ‘followable‘, just what I needed to hear as the sun crept even lower still in the sky above.

The so-called bushwhack actually reminded me of some of the ‘unmarked’ herd path trails that I had hiked on my pursuit to becoming an Adirondack 46er, certain seasons might require better route finding skills – but today, simply being aware and looking around provided all the evidence one needed of a trafficked pathway.

Reaching the col between South Crocker and Redington, the bushwhack spat me out to a dozer-wide old logging road; there was absolutely no question of which direction to trek though, with all of the arrows and cairns made from rocks and logs guiding the way!

Perhaps a quarter mile had passed and I began to wonder if I had missed the junction to where the bushwhack re-entered the mountainside and leaves old road, I had not. Spirits were super high as I shot a few more photos and picked up my pace into the woods once again, my day was going okay!

Weaving through standing trees, zigging and zagging, trying to keep flesh away from each sharp pointy thing, that sense of seeing the blue sky over the horizon crept in once again and I knew that the infamous summit canister should be looming very near!

Of all places, I heard voices yet again. Which really should not have been a surprise as it was Saturday in the 4000-footers of Maine, but what really perked me up was the sound of: “HELLOOO AGAIIIIN!!!!“.

Nobody but my old pals from the other side of the river, Ryan and Yvonne, making their way down from the summit – we talked for longer than I would have liked, but they were such amazing and kind folks! They confirmed that the summit was just up ahead, told me all about their terrible bushwhack down from Spaulding Lean-To up to Redington.. best part of all: Redington was officially the final, 67th summit for Yvonne – and just like that another NE67er was birthed!

Once at the summit, I found a wooden “Redington 4010” sign that had seen many snowstorms and probably more terrible storms than I had years! Just off to the right, through yet another herd path was where I located the white summit canister strapped to an old tree.

All the years that I’ve seen pictures of this hidden gem, wondering if I was capable of such a feat as reaching this coveted location boiled down to this instant, the fact that I did it. This was a huge moment for me, that canister, as simple as it is buried deep in the forests of Maine, on a summit with no official trail, represented so much for me. I did it. I did it for me. I took each step in that unmarked forest for each day that I struggled. These are the moments I live for, the mountains that take me home, the mountains that help me breathe life.

I stayed long enough for some photos, trying to forever burn this image of this summit into my memory bank – and then I turned to leave, so quickly and it was over.

Running back down the trail, I had a rad couple of trail runners to catch up to! My new friends informed me of yet another side trail that led more directly (once hacking my way through super dense forest that had grown back in!) down to the logging roads. Before we went in opposite directions they had suggested that, “if you are not trying to reach a certain mileage today.. we are more than happy to show you to our car.. and give you a ride back to yours!”

Eventually, turn by turn through this thick canopy, I began to hear their voices. Once caught back up, we re-entered the openness of old logging terrain, running off and on, the two strangers of the woods told stories of hiking this area almost a decade prior, truly an entertaining bunch!

The low trickle of the river soon turned into a roaring river once again, indicating that we were nearing the gate of the old logging road, and thence their Subaru hatchback.

They stopped their watches: 13 miles for the day.

I stopped my watch and yelled out “Nooooo!!! I have to jump around for TEN more feet!!”, was my response when I read 9,990 feet of elevation gain for the day.

Joking of course, I humbly tucked my muddy Lone Peaks onto their sides as to not get the hearty black Maine Mud all over Ryan’s Subie interior.

Super thankful for helping me along with the final miles of my day, we all talked of seeing each other some day, somewhere out on the trails. They invited me to a celebratory BBQ, I politely declined, opting instead for the spinach salad with bread and garlic hummus that I had stashed in my trunk.

I had accomplished in a round about way, what I had set out to do and quickly settled into my home for the night with dinner and a change of clothes in my near future. Life in the backseat of a Subaru Impreza was not so bad as the sun quickly set and the frigid evening temps quickly set in.

Sugarloaf, Spaulding, Abraham, South Crocker, North Crocker, Redington. 

This was my day, this is what I drove 186 miles for, this is my time with nature that I craved.

Now I settle into my sleeping bag, try to stretch out stiff limbs and get ready, for.. tomorrow I will do it all over again.

Tomorrow I will be in the Bigelow Forest Preserve for the first time, and certainly not the last time. 

What a wild, wild ride I had in these hills – and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

Happy Climbing!

Erik


Overall stats for the day:

Recorded with COROS Pace

  • 27.55 miles
  • 9hr 54 minutes
  • 9,990′ elevation gain
  • Sugarloaf Mtn – 4,250′
  • Spaulding Mtn – 4,010′
  • Mt Abraham – 4,050′
  • South Crocker Mtn – 4,050′
  • North Crocker Mtn – 4,228′
  • Mt Redington – 4,010′

*summit heights provided by AMC

 


 

Finding yourself on new trails.

Today is a holiday for us folks who work on the clinical side of hospital operations and with Ciara 2600 or so miles away having a ball, roaming somewhere in the Sawtooth mountains – all this can mean only one thing: I am on puppy-watch until she returns to the east coast!

I’ve been hitting our favorite trails every day after work; lace up, collars on the boys, then start right from home. Boone and Crockett damn near pull me like a kite down the murky trails as we meander our way to their favorite spot on the lake – they know this spot well and need no guidance – the best place to jump in for a quick dip in the water, I suppose!

Today I craved something more, something that I had not done before.. which is really not at all difficult having nearly 80K of old abandoned roads and trails, with the addition of about 1,790 miles of Appalachian Trail to the south, with about 400 miles more heading north.

As of writing this, I actually have not found myself seeking out the AT.. sure, I know it is there and I know there are some absolutely stunningly beautiful sections of it nearby – but I always felt that I would like to leave its mystique and draw for the actual thru-hikers.. heck, I may actually be one of those rad long-distance trekkers soon!

There has been a loop poking at the “hey, I haven’t done this yet.. so let’s get to doing this..now” side of my brain.. but with so much to explore, I just had not settled on it – until today!

The map packed (yes.. a paper map which I reviewed the night prior just to amp myself up!), topped off all of the 60 or so ounces that my running vest will hold, stretched just about every muscle in my body, had a mini-breakfast of tofu (I had an open block in the fridge that needed eating!) and a few bananas, laced up the Altra’s, slapped on my gaiters that I tore at Chocorua thinking “these are going to fall right off!“, set the Coros to record in trail run mode – and my adventure was unfolding right under my feet!

The initial miles slipped by, feet became wet from the mud seepage and before I knew it.. shoved myself right into the thick knit of pine branches that I knew would lead right to Smarts Mountain summit.

Breaking through to the official AT, I was drawn to the left, trekking south for those 10 feet or so – just to see the sign in a new light, focusing on the lettering and classic A over T logo harder than ever this time before scooting down the side of the mountain. I had read this sign many times leading up to today’s encounter, it read: AT North.

Sure, technically the Appalachian Trail does run back down the south side of Smarts Mountain – sure, I had been on that trail a few times now.. but something just felt different about heading down this side of Smarts, I was heading away from that cabin that I call home.

I noticed something different.. immediately as I passed that sign and concentrated on my feet as to not catch every root (heck, I do that enough.. always trying to not catch a toe!).

One white blaze after another, passing those marked trees, each 3×6 white paint strip took my thoughts deeper into remembering the time Ciara and I spent recently on the Northville Placid Trail. It took me back into the depths of my mind to each and everytime I had been anywhere else, be it north or south, riding in the car or hiking down (I see a lot of those white blazes hiking the Whites and living in New Hampshire..) the trail. My path was quiet as I was certain hikers were finishing in celebration at either end of the trail, but at least for a minute or five – no one was here with me.

The AT itself seemed to contain a shimmer of magic, perhaps all of the past trail magic dispersed its way through these hills had settled into the soil, trees and water itself. Looking down, trying to keep myself up-right and moving forward, I was taken back by so many simple things – the most tangible, of course, being the AT itself – the amount of time plugged into these sections – to install waterbars, placing rocks to ford bottomless mud pits, all the wood beams carried in to build iconic White Mountain bridges.

The trail was clean, like.. really clean.

Sure, it sees its share of hikers annually, perhaps it will see another 700 or so finish their trek this year – flying over roots and rocks at 10am, these are the thoughts barraging my mind. I felt truly content to be sharing this section of the AT with so many other determined individuals – is it possible to soak up the energy, the laughter, the will to simply push on from these roots, rocks and flowing water? Some may argue: Yes.

I did see some thru-hikers, and it was a simply amazing experience to see their faces light up as I wished them an excellent rest of their journey – and of course, a super happy Fourth of July! I could tell quite a few out there on the trail had in fact forgotten what day it was, or perhaps just chose not to remember, only the present moment to be alive in – the way of life that I grew dearly to while traveling cross-country several years ago!

I should to add also that my perception of the AT between Smarts over to Cube may have been slightly biased because I finally finished reading last week a very excellent book by an incredible ultra-runner/athlete known by some as Scott Jurek, the read is simply titled: North.

It was an amazing read, and much like this trail today – it took me back to all of the places we have traveled, recounting the USGS marker on Cubetowns and nameplaces Ciara and I had encountered. Toward the final pages of this book there are several photographs.. the back of Jurek out on Lambert Ridge as he heads away, up to the summit of Smarts. In short: it reminded me of all persevering that friends and hikers exuded which then fell in the form of sweat into this soil and onto the rocks all around, a rather humbling thought for me to be on these trails at that very moment, sharing muddy footprints with so many others!

There were, of course, several thru-hikers who decorated their packs with the iconic American flag. Remembering this is a holiday and nice days such as today have a way of bringing everyone out, I took a few photos and moved on.

Some longhaul trekkers turned their weighty packs into pillows, catching some good ol’ vitamin D atop the summit of Cubebut even with hats over their eyes, everyone still gave a pleasant ‘hello!’ as I passed by, and I even tried to travel lightly as to not wake them!

For the route down.. sadly, I was now off the AT. The trail seemed to lose its charm as I passed families with their dogs all off leash – the encounters so frequent in fact, I had a mind-game going on, trying to figure out whose pup belonged to which family!

Let’s remember the day as what I already mentioned.. and not the overgrown, old logging roads that made up the remainder of my day. It only took two decent bushwhacks pointed in the general direction of “home” – and here we are! Writing about it, eating watermelon and listening to the gentle rhythm of the inhale-exhale cycle of both Boone and Crockett.

They ran, they ate, they are happy now.

I ran, I ate (a lot of watermelon!), and I am also quite happy now.

So keep an eye out on your morning commute, or afternoon bike ride – the looked over trailhead you’ve noticed a thousand times just may be the ticket you were looking for, the trails you’ve been dreaming of! Don’t be afraid of what you might find, make the time and decide to go check it out – after all, has anyone really been in a worse mood after spending time outdoors? Just get out and explore anywhere! See what nature has to offer, and while you are at it – pick up that wrapper that someone dropped, move that stick out of the trail before it trips someone! Say ‘hello’ and wish someone a nice hike, these things are small and so simple yet go so far! Let’s get more hikers and trail runners on the wagon! What can you do? Just be a thoughtful, decent human being.. and that alone should put you as well as everyone else around you in a better mood! 🙂

 

And if you made it this far: don’t forget to check for ticks after you and your pups spend any time outside!

It’s quick and easy to do – my boys love the attention of fingers running through their fur.. seeking out those dreaded little bloodsuckers, find ’em and crush ’em!


Today’s fun run stats:

Recorded with Coros Pace

  • 27.2 miles
  • 5hr 50minutes
  • 5,387′ elevation gain
  • Smarts Mt, 3,238′ – mile 5.7
  • Mt Cube, 2909′ – mile 13.6