Monday, October 11, 2010

An Old Freak, Much Laughter, and Cold Mist. Day 1

"Trust only movement. Life happens at the level of events, not words.Trust movement." Alfred Adler

The "Freak," Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Seen from Franconia Ridge.

I had visited the old Freak before, with my youngest daughter. Now I was back to climb it. The Freak is an obscure old name for a peak much better known now as Cannon Mountain, one of the White Mountains of New Hampshire and home to a famous ski area. My daughter and I visited the summit via the tramway that runs from the base of the mountain's north slope. I was on my own this time, taking an opportunity to hike new peaks and spend some time thinking. I am not one who likes to sit on a couch and self reflect. I need to put boots on and miles behind me to think long and clearly. This trip was an ambitious one, my plan was to hike seven mountains over three days. I would be carrying a heavy pack and camping at high elevation for two nights. Reality would fall short of my expectations, but that is the way of life at times.

The start of Kinsman Ridge Trail at the Cannon Mountain Tramway parking area. Ah, there's nothing a little tape can't fix!

The weather forecast was questionable for this trip, but I pulled the trigger and went for it anyway. As I stood next to my truck at the Kinsman Ridge Trailhead and scanned the sky, it certainly didn't look promising. The sky looked deeply troubled. Shreds of white clouds ran up and over the peaks like strips of torn silk pulled across the top of a chair, while a roiling blanket of leaden cloud loomed heavily above all. This hike was intended to be a quick up and down before I drove around to the real hike, up Garfield Trail and on to the mountains called The Bonds in the Pemigewasset Wilderness. So, with rain gear in a daypack, I headed up Kinsman Ridge.

The Kinsman Ridge Trail's northern terminus is very heavily water eroded.

Just as I started, two sunbeams broke through the clouds, and like theatrical stage lights, they ran across Franconia Notch and partway up the flank of Franconia Ridge before being sliced off by the racing clouds. A good omen I hoped. The trail's start was deeply water eroded and looked more like a gulley than a trail. Still, hiking up a mountain is much like living. Whatever the trail, the only way forward is to put one boot higher than the last. It is in this repetitive motion that, when hiking alone, I can lose myself in my thoughts. This trip was one I needed for just that purpose. So as I climbed, I thought of many things. The forest along the trail at low elevation was heavily populated with birch and hemlock. The hemlocks here in New Hampshire are not yet devastated by the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid which was introduced into North America accidentally. The adelgid is an insect that sucks the sap of tender hemlock shoots, and appears to inject a toxin that ultimately desiccates and kills the hemlock off. Here on Cannon's feet the hemlocks are spectacular, and a healthy dark green.

Echo Lake below the north slope of Cannon Mountain.

Winter Wrens, one of my favorite birds found along the trails, were in force on the lower trail and popped out often to "chup chup" at me while bobbing up and down. It was warm and humid along this lower section and I was sweating with the effort of gaining elevation. I am physically in decent shape, but mountain hiking always makes me feel as if I should be a whole lot stronger. The electric hum of the tramway could be heard starting up every 15 minutes as the cars traveled up and down, filled with tourist who would be unlikely to ever climb the old Freak on foot. This mountain is the former home of one of North America's most iconic natural formations. "The Old Man of the Mountain," the rock formation that jutted out over Profile Lake in Fanconia Notch, and which now graces the New Hampshire quarter dollar coin, (and the profile is still the background for the state's license plates) fell in the night in early May, 2003. Once forming a rugged profile of a man's face when seen from the northern end of the notch, the boulders that made up this visage now lie among the talus at the cliff's foot. The night he fell, two rock climbers who were sleeping nearby heard the rumbling death of the Old Man, though they did not know the momentous event that rumbling heralded. The trail I was taking would swing out over the cliffs above the Old Man's former place.

 Route 93 in Franconia Notch.

The ledges in the foreground are above the former Old Man of the Mountain's home. Across the notch are Mount Lafayette and Mount Lincoln.

It was not long before I reached the area above Cannon Cliff where the Old Man once lived. As I had climbed, the clouds had unexpectedly faltered and failed. Now blue sky largely domed Franconia Notch. Across the notch stood the ridge with Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Lincoln dominant among its peaks. Many hikers would be walking along that ridge as I gazed at it. Below me, at the bottom of the notch, a gray ribbon snaked north and south, route 93. The weak but persistent growl of cars, motorcycles, buses, and trucks reached all the way to my lofty perch. Behind me the herd of tram tourists would be ambling from the tram landing to the summit building and back again. I was certainly not lost in the wilderness here. Still the natural wonders around me held me on those ledges for longer than I planned to be there. It was with thoughts of the miles I needed to put under my boots before nightfall that I finally shook off my procrastination and I headed up towards the Freak's summit.

The summit tower of Cannon seen from the ledges above the Old Man's former site.

The trail had gotten busier as the morning passed. Now I was frequently passing day hikers and dogs. Dogs on the White Mountain trails are becoming more and more common. And it isn't just big breeds either. There are some remarkably short canine legs scrambling along the rugged tracks. Just below the summit of Cannon, the ridge trail I was walking meets up with the tourist path that leads from the tram landing. It is at this confluence that hikers and tourists intermingle on the stretch to the summit tower. One group in muddy boots and using trekking poles, and the other in gleaming sneakers or open sandals and carrying pocket books and video cameras. The hiking etiquette of letting faster hikers pass is absent in the tourist crowd, and I had to be patient as the people ahead of me ambled along with strides that fell far short of my expectations. Still, even glaciers end up getting somewhere, eventually. I took every opportunity to pass that I could. The tourists were generally very amicable, and smiled at me as I went by. However, there was one group of older people wearing motorcycle paraphernalia that looked somewhat offended at being passed. Ironic, I thought. At last I reached the summit tower and ran up the crampon pocked wooden stairs. The wind was cold on my sweaty back and I was feeling the passage of time acutely now, so my sojourn was brief. A few pictures and I was headed down with as quick a pace as I could sustain. The old Freak was my 36th White Mountain 4,000 footer summit. 12 more to go to complete my goal of hiking over all 48. If I live that long of course.

Franconia Ridge across the notch, seen from the summit tower of Cannon. Mt Lafayette is left of center and Mt Lincoln is right of center. Looking eastward.

Kinsman Ridge south of Cannon. North Kinsman is right of center and South Kinsman is center. When my young friend Mark and I hiked those peaks in March they were clad in snow in ice.

The return to the parking lot where my truck awaited was routine. One stride after another, one thought after another. The miles passed and the thoughts passed. Thoughts and miles are much the same. We travel through each to reach the next. Maybe we find ourselves somewhere better, maybe not. I believe we are free to choose the trails we walk, whether through the mountains or through life. Often we deny, especially to ourselves, that we do actually choose the direction our lives go. Too often we use words such as "I had no choice," to relieve ourselves of the admission that yes we did, or we fail to see our lives as our own to live but rather see our life's disappointments as the result of other people's failings. It is easier to accept that fate can not be affected by our choices, that we are on some sort of course whose path we can not alter, than to make the hard decisions to make our lives better, happier, more fulfilled, more purposeful. Often we chase the wrong things in life, and then blame others when we find ourselves unhappy with our lot. Life can be difficult, trust me I know. But life can be wonderful as well. You just have to choose the right path. It's okay to make mistakes, you'll learn more about life and yourself from your mistakes than you will from any triumphs. When you come to a fork on a trail, you need to open a map. When you come to a choice in your life, you need to open your eyes, your mind, and your heart. If all else fails, and you have kids younger than 20, just ask them. They'll know the answers to all your problems. After twenty they start to get stupider, like their parents.

Mount Garfield rises from Garfield Ridge. Seen from the summit of Mt. Lafayette on Franconia Ridge.

It was time to continue my journey. After a quick lunch by my truck, I drove northeast to my next trailhead. I would be hiking up Garfield Ridge by using Garfield Trail, just west of the Gale River. I would be camping at 4,000 feet at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Garfield Ridge Camp Site, just below Mount Garfield's summit. I took a few minutes to organize my pack and then shouldered the forty-five pounds that would be my home, food, and safety in the mountains. I met a hiker and his dog at the trailhead who had just finished a long trek in the Pemigewasset Wilderness and were awaiting a ride out. We talked a while and then I headed in. Do you ever notice how some people say they headed "out" when going into the wild lands? I don't see it that way. For me the wild lands are where we came from and where I choose to return to, a landscape of peace and beauty, a place of simple but wonderful truths, and a place of harsh realities. It is a place to find out who we are, or who we can be. For me, when I pass into the shadows of the trees, I am coming in. When it is time to return to the world of steel, concrete, and glass, Then I am heading "out."

The Garfield Trail is a wonderful and relatively easy mountain trail. It starts by passing through a stand of old hemlocks and pines. Here the heady scents of these noble trees greeted me. As I walked I soon spotted a Garter Snake by the trailside. The Garter Snakes here in the Whites are called Maritime Garters, a race of the Eastern Garter Snake. I decided to catch it and photograph it, but wearing a forty-five pound pack and catching a nimble reptile are not symbiotic human endeavors. I figured the only way to catch this guy was to do it quickly and clumsily, and let the snake have every opportunity to bite me.

Maritime Garter Snake.

So, burdened by my pack and moving like those films of the astronauts walking clumsily on the moon, I stooped and grabbed the snake by the tail. Promptly, and predictably, it bit me. Just the once though, and it quickly let go. Having introduced ourselves, we did a little photography. While I was taking pictures, an older couple stopped (ya older than me) and asked me if it was a Ribbon Snake. The next few minutes were spent in a pleasant conversation about identifying snakes and about what birds they saw in the mountains. The snake had little to add to the conversation, and frankly I felt it could have made a better effort. The couple then headed out to the parking area and I released the snake and continued along the trail. The sky, what little I could see through the canopy of dark green, was darkening and clouding up again. It was time to walk fast. The trip up the Garfield Trail would be a race against nightfall. It would also be a walk with many meetings along the way. I didn't know it then, but the night ahead held much laughter with newly met friends, and the morning would find me climbing into in a cold and lonely mist.