Sunday, July 31, 2011

Moonlight and Mad(ison)ness! Part 1

"Here's to us! There's few like us, and they're all dead!" - Douglas Campbell

Into the night. I strike out at 11 PM along the Garfield Trail
I arrived at the trailhead parking area at 10:45 PM. A few cars were parked here in this lonely dirt lot off a lonely dirt road in northern New Hampshire. These vehicles were no doubt owned by hikers who were likely camping at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Garfield Ridge campsite high above. It is fairly unusual for someone to start hiking at 11 PM I admit. But I have long desired to hike to a White Mountain summit under a full moon. And of course I  am fairly "unusual" myself. This was the first full moon that coincided with a clear sky that I could take advantage of in many months. There was little to no wind at the trailhead and the parking area was eerily silent. Somehow human trappings often look forlorn and abandoned in the middle of the night. It took me only a few minutes to "gear up" and after a long drink of water to hydrate I headed in along the Garfield Trail. My target was the summit of Mt. Garfield, elevation 4,500 feet. There I hoped to sit under the full moon, gaze across the Pemigewasset Wilderness, drink some of the red wine I carried, maybe read a bit, and then grab a couple hours sleep on the summit before watching sunrise. Then I would retrace my hike back to my car. I planned on hiking up another peak, Mt. Madison in the Presidentials, the next day. Very little to no sleep was likely over this two day sojourn, but that was fine. It was the plan.

Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora). Also known as "Ghost Plant." In the light of my headlamp, under the heavy cloak of night, the plant did indeed seem ghostly, or better yet, like another of its colloquial names, a "Corpse Flower."

The trail was full of these ghostly moths. I do not know the species, but I soon grew tired of their acquaintance as they repeatedly flew into my face.

I love to hike in the forest at night. Many of my none "woodsy" friends are amazed that I would even venture into the forest during darkness, let alone hike up a mountain. By I feel very at home in the forest, whether day or night. I would have a 5 mile hike up Mt Garfield this night and I expected to hear a number of creatures along the way. The possibilities included many small mammals, owls, Pine Martens, Fishers, Coyotes, Porcupines, Black Bears, and others. But as I strode onward and upward through the night, silence was all I encountered. Even the northerly breeze failed to penetrate the forest and its caress of the canopy was so gentle that the resulting susurrus was barely audible. In the silence and solitude I found myself wishing I had some music to listen to, maybe some Sarah Jarosz, to replace the repetitive thud of my boots on the trail. It is a rhythm I have heard for a lifetime.

The forest canopy not only blocked the breeze from reaching me as I hiked, it also blocked the moonlight from illuminating my way. The trail bed was rife with roots and rocks and light to see was essential to avoid misadventure. So I wore a headlamp, the light of which cast a spooky blue-white glow wherever I looked. The only creatures that I encountered in abundance were moths. These moths, mostly ghostly white with eyes that glowed golden red in the artificial light, were attracted to my headlamp and as a result often flew directly at my face. As they came near their eyes seemed nearly demonic just before they smacked into my face, which they did over and over again. These spooky moths reminded me of J.R.R. Tolkien's vivid description of the nights in Mirkwood in his classic tale, "The Hobbit." You're welcome Tolkein fans!

As I strode along, ever gaining altitude, I looked forward eagerly to climbing out above the trees and seeing Luna far above the Pemigewasset Wilderness. My thoughts had long turned inward in the silence of the night but I was twice wrenched back to awareness of the moment when my headlamp startled roosting birds. On one of these occasions a startled Thrush, either Hermit or Swainson's, exploded out of a small Hemlock a few feet from me and darted directly at my face. I ducked just in time as the bird flew over me in a panic. By that I mean the bird was panicked, not I. I was merely startled half out of my wits, and I may have used profanity as well. If you swear in the forest and no one is there to hear...

The Junction with Garfield Ridge Trail shortlty after 1:30 AM. To the right leads the trail to Garfield's summit. The moon points the way.

It was after 1:30 AM when I reached the junction with Garfield Ridge Trail. I have hiked this trail before so I knew the summit was only a short steep stretch away now. At this point my excitement was growing. The last time I hiked to this peak it had been shrouded in clouds. I had read that the views from this peak were fantastic, but I had been unable to experience them from inside those clouds. Now I would, at night, under a full moon. Fingers and shreds of the cool breeze now were reaching me through the failing and shrinking forest, but it wasn't the cool air on my sweaty skin that gave me goosebumps, it was the anticipation of my first full moon summit

The last stretch was quickly conquered and I stepped onto the open summit of Mt. Garfield at five minutes to two in the morning. I was surprised to find several tents, bivys, and sleeping bags scattered about. I would not be alone in passing the night on the peak, but I was alone in being awake at this late, I mean early, hour. I quickly located a small nearly level area on the stone summit that overlooked the Wilderness to the south and I laid out my own sleeping bag. Then I sat down and absorbed the view. To the right lay Franconia Ridge, as black as the sky but without the stars that spattered the firmament. To the left lay the Bonds, equally as black with the exception of the slide scars of Bondcliff which were just visible if you looked slightly to the side of them. Did you know your peripheral vision is more light sensitive than your direct vision? Directly in front of me was the wilderness, a vast sea of shades of gray under the moonlight. I was elated to be where I was, when I was. I pulled some food from my pack, as well as the wine. Then I switched my headlamp off to allow my eyes to adjust to the darkness while I ate and drank. Now the wind was noticeable and quite cool here on this exposed perch. I snuggled into my bag and luxuriated in the feeling of warmth the wine gave me. I quickly realized how tired I felt. It had been a long day and it was nearly 3 AM when I finally gave into my fatigue. I just did not want to stop gazing across the wilderness and the mountains under silver light of the full moon.

Starring out at the White Mountains and the Pemmigewasset Wilderness under a full moon from the summit of Mt. Garfield. One of the life experiences I had long desired, now and forever was mine.

My small point-and-shoot camera could not decently capture the night scenes. Here the moon shines down on the distant peaks of Franconia Ridge.

During the roughly two and a half hours I slept, fitfully, the wind freshened and I had to shift my backpack to form a wind break for my head. Dawn came soon. Very soon.  I awoke with a start and scrambled out of my sleeping bag to take pictures of the sunrise. In the cold of morning and the fog of too little sleep, my body and brain were functioning poorly and caused me to stumble like I was intoxicated. I came rather too close to tumbling down the shear south face of the peak. The resulting adrenaline rush of this brought me fully awake.

The sun rises over the Twins. I had achieved one goal in sitting atop a White Mountain peak under a full moon, and now I achieved another in watching sunrise from a summit.

Sunrise comes to Franconia Ridge. As seen from Mt. Garfield.

After photographing the sunrise I had started to feel deeply chilled and I retreated to my sleeping bag for warmth. While I warmed up I took some more photos of the tableau spread before me. To the west northwest the lowlands had pools of cloud/fog in the valleys. The Wilderness below was still mostly in shadow, blocked from the early sunlight by the ridge that is the "Bonds, " with its peaks, West Bond, Bond, and Bondcliff.

Looking to the lowlands off to the west northwest.Clouds and fog lay in the valleys.

The shadow of Mt Garfield's pointed summit lies on the northern flank of Franconia Ridge.

Once I recovered a little warmth I crawled out of my bag once again and started to make breakfast. The smell of coffee was a very welcome addition to my surroundings. While I drank the nectar of the bean I heated more water on my JetBoil for my breakfast, which would consist of freeze dried sweet and sour pork and rice. This is hardly what most people eat for breakfast, but it was absolutely delicious this day and seemed more than appropriate. I took my time eating. The glorious views that surrounded me were too arresting and wonderful to hasten from.

Owl's Head Mountain rises in the isolation of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. I have yet to visit this peak. Soon... Very soon...

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) on the summit area with its characteristic upright blue-gray cones.

The morning was getting on and I had a long day of hiking ahead. With regret I roused myself and organized my gear. After brief ablutions I shouldered my pack, took one last longing look at the views, and started down form the summit. I was retracing my steps of the night before but in the light of day it seemed a very different world. The early rays of sunlight picked up the morning mists that still hung in the high forest. The air was cool and clean and felt wonderful coursing through my lungs.

The rays of sunlight pick up the lingering morning mists.
The coniferous forest on these mountains is often dense and dark. Trying to travel through it off trail is no easy task. To do so means much toil, much sweat, and no small amount of blood. Navigation is also very difficult with the lay of the land and the densely packed trees making your direction of travel its own choice. It is wisest to stick to the established trails unless your woodland skills are well and truly developed.

The dense and dark forest on the upper slopes of Garfield Ridge. The lower branches of these living trees can not get sunlight in this dense cover and often die off.

Birdsong now replaced the complete silence of the night. I have long been a birder and I know all the songs and calls of the the birds of these woodlands. I now heard many Warblers singing and calling. These included (from high elevation to low elevation) Blackpoll Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Magnolia Warblers, Nashville Warblers, Blackburnian Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, American Redstarts, and Ovenbirds. One of my favorite birds of these mountains is the Boreal Chickadee. I rarely fail to find them on these hikes and I heard the familiar nasal calls just below the ridge line alerting me to yet another encounter. The Boreal Chickadee is a close relative of the Black-capped Chickadee which we all know form our bird feeders at home. I managed a poor photograph with my point-and-shoot before continuing down.

Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus). This is the best I could do photographing this old friend with my little camera.

I met the first dayhikers on their way upward when I was roughly half way back to my car. I stopped and exchanged greetings and short conversations with these strangers as I encountered them. Everyone was in good spirits on this fine July day, including me. The trail wound its way down through the firs, spruces, and hemlocks, and finally reached the birches, maples, and oaks of the lower slopes. I had noticed that the few Bicknell's Thrushes I had heard calling on the upper slopes were no longer signing by this date, but their congeners the Swainson's Thrush and Hermit Thrush were still in full song. And glorious were these slvan floutists songs!

Common Wood Sorrel (Oxalis montana). One of the many beauties of the White Mountains trails.

Late in the morning I finally returned to my car. The parking area was now full and hopping with hikers gearing up. I threw my own gear in the car and then moved it away from the parking area to allow arriving hikers to use my spot. Then I got out again and changed my clothes and cleaned myself up a bit. After that it was time to head to my next goal, the climbing of Mt. Madison in the Presidentials. Yes it was to be a long day of hiking on very little sleep. But a glorious day, a fine day, and ultimately it would be a testing day. But I did not know that then. What I did know was that I had a bit of a drive to do to reach the Appalachia Trailhead near Randloph, New Hampshire. And somewhere along the way I needed to find more coffee...

1 comment:

  1. Great hike Dave! I may have to try a night hike that involves a full moon as well. Great pictures; I will share with my brother who knows the area better than I do. Sincerely, Anthony