Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wilderness Isolation

"I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion." Ralph Waldo Emerson
I am not afraid of the dark. I do not fear isolation. I do not fear being in the wilderness. I am not without fears, I have more than my share. I am not insane nor is my amygdala damaged. The amygdala is the part of the brain that plays a key role in feeling fear. Well okay, I think it isn't damaged. I mean I haven't had it assessed. Why would I? Okay let's forget the last two assertions and stick with the first three... dark, isolation, wilderness, not afraid, ya. The reason I mention them, or more specifically my lack of fearing them, is that under the August full moon I night hiked into the Presidential Range - Dry River Wilderness in the White Mountain National Forest to climb a peak I had never before visited, Mt. Isolation.

The trailhead sign at 10:45 PM. I start in on an all night hike to Mt. Isolation.

I parked in the Rocky Branch Trail parking area off New Hampshire Route 16. This is just south of Pinkham Notch where the well known Appalachian Mountain Club's Mt. Washington base camp is located. It was 10:30 PM when I pulled in. At that hour only one other car was parked in the dark and lonely lot. I had purchased gas and a six pack of Tuckerman's Pale Ale in North Conway on my way here from my home in Connecticut. As I geared up for the hike I drank one of the ales. I also packed another to drink later in the wilderness. I had never had Tuckerman's before, it is a good ale by the way. My plan was to hike the Rocky Branch Trail, Isolation Trail, and Davis Path to Mt. Isolation where I hoped to watch the Perseid Meteors, the setting of the full moon, and the sunrise. Originally I had planned on hiking in much earlier in the day than this so I could get some sleep on the summit, but with this late start it looked like I would be pulling an all-nighter. I can still do that despite my teen years being very small in the rear-view mirror of my life. I just don't want to do it very often.

A "Widowmaker." That's what they call fallen trees that have hung up and not reached the ground. At some point this one will continue to the ground and land on the trail. Hundreds, if not thousands, of hikers will walk underneath it before then. So I think you can see why they are called "Widowmakers"!

I finished off the ale, locked my car, shouldered my pack, and headed in under the cold light of a full moon and the colder light of my LED headlamp. The trip to Mt. Isolation would be roughly 7.3 miles one way. I had never hiked to this mountain before and I was hoping the trail bed would be a leg friendly smooth surfaced one. At first it was, and I made good time. Early on I passed (nervously) under an impressive "widowmaker." That's a tree that has fallen over the trail but has not fallen all the way to the ground, hanging up on other trees. At some point it will break free and the thousands of pounds of it will crash the rest of the way to the ground. When that happens, if a hiker happens to be passing under it, it might earn the widowmaker name. I can promise you that if a tiny twig snapped while I was walking under that tree, I would have instantly become an Olympic quality sprinter.

The start of the Rocky Branch Trail was an easy path and I made good time climbing the Rocky Branch Ridge.

One of my fellow creatures sharing the night under a beautiful full moon in the wilderness.

Allow me to lay out the landscape for you, albeit briefly. My target summit on this hike was Mount Isolation, a peak that was only named a little more than 120 years ago by William H. Pickering, an early AMC explorer. This bald knob peak lies on the 20 mile long Montalban Ridge that extends south of Mt. Washington in the White Mountain National Forest. It is dwarfed by old Agiocochoock (Mt. Washington's native name) and very few non hikers would ever have heard of it. To the east of the Montalban Ridge lies the Rocky Branch River valley and to the west lies the Dry River valley. Both of these rivers eventually empty in the Saco. As you can imagine by its name, it is one of the more remote White Mountain 4,000 footer peaks, with the shortest round trip from a road being 12.0 miles. That route is over the Glen Boulder Trail on Mt. Washington and is not the easiest approach since it requires climbing much higher than Isolation's summit on the way there and then on the way back again. The easiest path would be the one I was taking, which though nearly 3 miles longer, has much less elevation gain along its course. It is the usual route hikers take to visit this peak. Only Mt. Owl's Head and the Bonds in the Pemigewasset Wilderness are more remote from roadside trailheads.

The boundary sign for the Presidential Range - Dry River Wilderness Area. When I reached this point I still had a long way to go to Mount Isolation.

The first stretch of trail I hiked was the Rocky Branch Trail, which climbs westward over the Rocky Branch Ridge, across the broad ridge top, and then downward into the Rocky Branch River valley. When it reached the Rocky Branch River I would cross the river and take the Isolation Trail northward till it reached the Davis path on Montalban Ridge. There I would turn southward till I reached the short spur trail to Isolation's summit. So you can see this is rather a round-a-bout way to get to Isolation. But there is no straight path to the summit from the east. As I climbed through the birch forest on Rocky Branch Ridge, the trail was fairly easy on the legs. The footing was easy and a decent pace could be managed even under the mantle of darkness. The biggest problem with hiking at night wearing a headlamp is that your only source of light originates very close to your eyes. This means the topography you view has no shadows since they are cast directly away from your eyes. This reduces your depth perception, making rocks and roots appear slightly lower than they actually are. Consequently there tends to be a few more stubbed toes and stumbles than otherwise would occur in daylight. Okay, a lot more.

A Tiger moth caterpillar found along the trail. I believe this may be Great Tiger Moth (Arctia caja), an inhabitant of northern latitudes and alpine habitat.

When I reached the top of the Rocky Branch Ridge the trail started to pass through wet rocky meadows with dense grasses and sedges crowding the path. This made footing difficult to see and choose. I was soon stumbling and tripping frequently, which with my backpack's weight throwing me around as well, started to tire my legs and annoy me. It takes a good deal of strength and effort to recover from such mishaps without falling while wearing a pack. So the dark was adding quite a bit to the effort of the hike, and also slowing my progress considerably. My emotional state was still very positive despite this awkward hiking and my lack of sleep, for I was walking under a cloudless full moon in the mountains. It was a world of ethereal silver light, brilliant stars in an indigo sky, and fantasy.

The trail down the ridge into the Rocky Branch Valley alternated between open decent footing and densely vegetated wet rocky areas where I stumbled and frequently muddied my boots and pants. Unfortunately the wet rough stretches were longer and more common than the stretches that were open and leg friendly. Eventually I reached the Rocky Branch River and crossed over the dark water using rocks and boulders that stood above (or just below) the surface. My path to the mountain would cross and recross this river several times, and at periods of high water these crossing can be dangerous or impossible. But now in August, with the river still flowing well but much less than after the snow melt of Spring, they would be easy.

After crossing the Rocky Branch Ridge into the Rocky Branch Valley, I finally cross the river and pick up the Isolation Trail. Time to head northward.

After crossing the Rocky Branch River I turned northward along the Isolation Trail. I passed awkwardly through a very muddy stretch bordered by asters (probably Mountain Aster), Spotted Forget-me-nots, and Turtlehead flowers. It was a literal mud bath with several moments when I thought I would fall. It would have looked comical to anyone watching my gyrations. However there was no one there in the wilderness with me. So I could only laugh at myself.

The trail climbed slowly upwards, crossing and recrossing the river. I frequently encountered American Toads along the path, sometimes having to quickly adjust my steps to avoid stomping one. I was pleased that the white moths I had encountered on my last night hike in the Whites, the ones that kept flying into my headlamp (and eyes), were largely absent here and now. It was mostly just the toads and me among the mud and rocks this August night.

The Isolation Trail climbs northward in the valley of the Rocky Branch River.

An American Toad (Bufo americanus) peeks out from under Bunchberry (Cornus candensis). Bunchberry was omnipresent along the route of my hike and is very common throughout the White Mountains.

I was aware of the time as I hiked. I wanted to reach the open summit area as soon as possible to watch the Perseid Meteor shower which was peaking this night. The sky was cloudless at this time and I could see the full moon and brilliant stars through the forest's thinning canopy. Trying to push on faster only resulted in more stumbling, and more dramatic stumbles at that. I took few breaks along the way, trying to finish the trip to the summit as soon as possible. As the birch woodland began to be more and more mixed with conifers, I knew I was gaining significant elevation. The trail had finally turned away from the river and was now heading westward. The susurrus of the river faded and failed as I pushed higher into the hemlocks, spruces, and firs. At last I reached the junction with the Davis Path. To my right, along the Montalban Ridge, the Davis path ascended Mount Washington. I turned south.

The junction with the Davis Path. The last leg of my hike in was now before me.

Ridge walking is cool. Ridge walking above treeline is even cooler. I was not above treeline however, I was in a wet coniferous forest. But it was ridge walking never-the-less. I was walking along the Montalban Ridge away from Mount Washington and towards Mount Isolation. It felt great to know that the greater bulk of the physical effort and time involved in reaching the peak was done. What didn't feel great was seeing that the sky was no longer free of clouds. Indeed it had been clouding up for the last hour or more. The forecast had been for clear skies. So why were clouds obscuring the heavens above me? Because Washington was making them.

The Davis path along Montalban Ridge. Though appearing deep in a coniferous forest, the path was actually following the spine of the ridge, with the Dry River Valley to my right and the Rocky Branch Valley to my left.

Mountains make their own weather. So while the skies all around were clear, Mount Washington was generating a cloud bank that stretched directly over the Dry River Wilderness as well as the summit of Mount Isolation. The northerly wind was being forced up over the summit of Washington, where it cooled and released moisture, forming a cloud mass on Washington's peak as well as to the south of her peak. Unfortunately for me, that was exactly where I was, hoping for clear skies and falling stars. So as I approached the summit of Isolation, I knew I would not be able to view the Persieds this night. Well at least the limits of the cloud cover did not reach to the horizons. So I would be able to watch the moon set and the sun rise.

I scrambled up the spur path to my 43rd White Mountain 4,000 footer and settled behind the summit cairn to break the wind. It was 4 AM. The sky was mostly clouds but the moon peeked out above the western horizon and the first dull glow of dawnlight could be seen above the Wildcat and Carter ranges to the east. I changed into a dry shirt and added a jacket, gloves, and hat since it was in the 50s with a steady northwesterly breeze. I also cracked open the bottle of ale and settled in. I figured I had about an hour before sunrise. The summit area of Isolation is a bald knob rimmed by firs and spruces. It was not the most comfortable place to stretch out but I was dog tired. I started to feel chilled and relented to the elements, pulling my sleeping bag out of my pack and wearing it like a cloak. Thus I spent the last hour before the dawn.

The moon sets. As dawn crept into the sky, the bulk of Washington's cloud bank shredded and melted away. Ironic timing.

I did manage a few dim Perseid meteor sightings around the edges of the cloud mass before the dawn scrubbed away the darkness. The moon was setting in the west and the eastern horizon was glowing red, fuchsia, purple, orange, and pink. I got to my feet and stared at the unfolding majesty. Here in isolation, on Isolation, alone, I welcomed the glory of the dawn and bid adieu to the sinking disc of the moon. It is at the seam of night and day that the spark of life burns the brightest.

The glory of the dawn returns to the White Mountains.

Standing on Isolation, looking south of east, I watch the the colors of the dawn usher in the Chariot of Apollo.
As the dawnlight chased away the shadows of the night, I watched intently for the moment when the disc of the sun would break above the slopes of the Wildcats and the Carters. And then it was there, suddenly a brilliant point of light on the horizon. Sunrise. The night was over. It had held no sleep for me but this I did not regret. Most people never have the opportunity to see what I saw this morn, the setting of the full moon and the rising of the sun from the summit of a wilderness mountain peak.

The moment of sunrise. Sol returns, peeking over the slopes of the Wildcats and Carters.

I watched the sun quickly rise clear of the horizon. The cloud bank that Washington had generated in the last hours of the night was largely gone but a lenticular-like cloud cap still sat on her summit and stretched away to the southwest. As the increasing light returned the color green to the world around me, I began my morning ritual, making coffee.

Though the bulk of of the clouds had disappeared, the summit of Mount Washington remained enshrouded.

I spent the next hour slowly breakfasting, drinking coffee, enjoying the solitude, and gazing at the world around me. From my perch I could see many peaks, including Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Jackson, Mousilaukee, Lafayette, Carter Dome, Pierce, and many others. I could see the dramatic cirque below Monroe and Washington called Oakes Gulf. The spiking peak of Boot Spur stood out 1,200 feet above me but 800 feet below the summit of Washington. Silhouetted in the distant east I could see some of the mountains of Maine. And all this beauty unfolded to the sound track of Cedar Waxwings, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Juncos, and White-winged Crossbills.

Mount Carrigain as seen from Isolation.

Red Spruce (Picea rubens) on the summit of Isolation (Thank you Janet!). The bald knob of Isolation has enough exposure to create a small sampling of the krummholz and dwarfed spruces, including Black Spruce, that are far more common on the higher summits.

A closer view of a Red Spruce cone. Spruce cones hang downward while Balsam Fir cones point upwards.

Silhouetted against the dawn the many ridges and peaks to the east of Isolation. The conical peak dominating the right side of the view is Kearsarge North, elevation 3,268 feet. The horizon beyond is the state of Maine.

Mountain Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). A mat forming shrub of the alpine zone. Called Lingonberry in the Old World. Photographed on the summit of Mount Isolation.

US Geological Survey marker for Mount Isolation's summit. I actually sat on this unknowingly during my vigil for the dawn.

Looking toward Mount Washington. In the foreground the Montalban Ridge climbs towards Boot Spur. Mount Washington's summit is capped in cloud. Mount Monroe dominates the ridge of the southern Presidentials (left of center) with Mount Franklin immediately to its left. Oakes Gulf lies over Montalban Ridge and below Mount Monroe and Washington.

In the center foreground is Mount Jackson, a slight bump in the ridge line. Beyond that, seen as a dark line of peaks, from left to right is Mount Willey, Mount Field, and Mount Tom. On the horizon behind are Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette.

Mount Eisenhower as seen from Mount Isolation.
The sun was well up by the time I decided I was ready to head back out. I was not anywhere near as tired as I feared I might be, having stayed up all night. Still I had a more than 7 mile walk out to do. Footing would be considerably easier in the light of day, at least I hoped so. I was curious if I would encounter anyone on the trail. Isolation is not one of the  peaks that gets a lot of traffic but it was a beautiful Saturday. The weather forecast for the next day was heavy rain, so I thought I might well encounter some fellow hikers today.

The exit from the summit of Mount Isolation.
Much of the return trip seemed interestingly different in daylight. The areas of mud were quite familiar though, regrettably. During the night, under the artificial light of my LED headlamp, I had stepped on many "rocks" in the muddy stretches that had turned out be not rocks at all but illusions caused by the mud and dim light. Now at least I could see what really were rocks and what were not.

A "Bog Bridge" is a log split length-wise and secured over a muddy or environmentally sensitive area. This bog bridge is fairly rotten and in need of replacement, as many were on the stretch of the Davis Path that I walked.

In daylight  Isolation Trail looked much more open and airy than it had seemed at night. Then it felt close and tunnel like.

The trails in the wilderness need upkeep or the forest will reclaim them. This trail is far from a road and sees little traffic relatively speaking. Consequently the trail work is sporadic and sometimes lacking. This stretch is choked with fallen trees that require an axe or a chain saw to clear, but it is a long way to carry one to get there. Those who volunteer for trail maintenance are a generous and hardy lot.

One of the crossings of the Rocky Branch River.

The Rocky Branch River where the Rocky Branch Trail meets the Isolation Trail.
As I hiked out I started to encounter the birds of the northern forest. As summer moves towards Fall, birdsong falters and the woodlands grow less musical. I did encounter a large flock of neotropical migrants, Wood Warblers of a number  of species. These birds form large post-breeding feeding flocks. I spent several minutes looking through the flock to try to identify all the species present, not easy without binoculars. I also heard a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher call, surprisingly the only individual I encountered in these mountains this Summer.

A gorgeous mushroom along the trail. I am no mycologist, that's for sure, but perhaps one in the Amanita group? If you can offer identification help please post a comment!

The oddly shaped flower, Turtlehead (Chelone glabra). This plant is found on stream banks and wet ground. Frankly I'm surprised I didn't find millions of these considering how wet much of my hike was!

A gorgeous Sphinx Moth caterpillar found along the way out. I believe this is Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis).
About halfway out I encountered my first inbound hikers, two women headed for Isolation. We spoke for a short while during which one of them said I must have made an early start to be headed out already. When I told them I had hiked during the night, skipping sleep to try and view the Perseids without success, one of the ladies spoke a very profound truth. She said, "Sometimes you can work really hard for something and it still doesn't work out." Amen to that. At least as far as the Perseids, in every other respect however, my hike had paid handsome and priceless rewards.

The widowmaker near the start of the hike seen in daylight. If anything it looks nastier by day, especially since I could see how little is keeping it from crashing the rest of the way to the ground.

I was nearly out when I encountered a man and his wife doing trail maintenance. We talked for some time as they told me about their efforts to maintain a section of the Rocky Branch Trail and about the path  their lives had taken. They were retired and had always been hikers of these crystal hills. In retirement they chose to move from southern New England to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As the man stated, "We decided to quit driving here every weekend and moved here instead." I deeply respect and appreciate the effort they and others like them make to maintain these trails on a volunteer basis. Hiking these trails is physically demanding. But it is no where near as demanding as maintaining them.

Orange Jewelweed or Spotted-Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis). Hiking the trails of the White Mounatins in Spring and Summer is always rewarded with beautiful blooms.
Saying goodbye to the trail volunteers I finished the last leg out to my car. It was now mid day. I popped open the trunk to stow my gear and get clean dry (not mud encrusted) clothes to change into. It had been a rewarding night hike that added yet another beautiful memory to my life. As I ruminated on this I shifted my gear in the trunk and saw the remaining Tuckerman's Pale Ales. They must be hot by now I thought. Touching one of the bottles I was elated to feel they were still cold from the night in the mountains. With a huge grin I popped one open and pulled a well earned hop laced swig. After all, it was 5 oclock somewhere.


  1. I wonder if that black spruce is really red spruce. In the boreal region, black spruce is widespread in both uplands and wetlands, but tends to be restricted to wetlands this far south. Red spruce, as far as I know, grows in both upland and wetland habitats in New England.

  2. Great article and photos! What kind of camera did you use for the photos of the caterpillars? I've been to the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness a number of times, but for some reason I've never made it to Isolation. Now I'm going to have to!

    I just started my own blog about New England's nature, and I hope I can write articles as engaging as yours are.