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...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Slide Up, Spring Down

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended,
From "Reluctance" by Robert Frost
 The air was humid and dank and clung to me like a jacket that was too small. My boots made dull thuds on the damp, fecund soil of the trail as I wended my way through the forest. I was in the woodlands that cloak the feet of Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire. It had been nearly five months since last I put boot to stone in the White Mountains. Then it had been snowshoe to snow and ice on Cannon Mountain with my young friend Mark. That frozen landscape now a memory, the woods were everywhere clad in greens and browns this early July weekend.And the air was warm, and quite humid actually. Snowflakes had been flying when Mark and I climbed Cannon, mow it was mosquitoes. I distinctly preferred the snowflakes.

Standing Stone. Before Native Americans, before the coming of Europeans, before the birth of our country, for millennia, this boulder has stood witness in the forest on the mountain.
  The White Mountains are made of rock and stone thrust and shattered by gargantuan geologic forces. For eons since, they have been irresistibly ground and weathered by wind, water, and ice. Though appearing timeless to the casual human eye, the forests that cloak their shoulders and flanks are ephemeral by comparison. Add to that thought how fleeting are our own mortal lives. In such places we walk through a timescape that has many disparate components. In the course of this hike, I would feel as young as an infant, and as old as father time. That is how every hike should make you feel, that you are alive!

Shortly after leaving the parking area the trail crosses a brook. Whitehouse Brook and Cascade Brook are confluent here, but I do not know which appellation is in effect at this point.
Today I planned to hike over two 4,000 footers I had never hiked before, Mt Flume and Mt Liberty. These two peaks make up the southern end of the magnificent Franconia Ridge. This ridge runs north and south on the western border of the beautiful Pemigewasset Wilderness. The more notable peaks on this ridge are Lincoln and Lafayette. I have hiked those peaks previously, a year or so before. To the west of the ridge lies Franconia notch and Route 93, which in turn is bordered by Kinsman Ridge with its well known ski area on its northern terminus, Cannon Mountain.

On the metal railings of the bridge crossing Whitehouse/Cascade Brook, were many butterflies called "White Admiral," (Limenitis arthemis). These delicate creatures were "mineralling," gathering minerals from the rusting metal. This mineraling of butterflies can often be seen on mud as well as on scat... ya, scat.

My chosen route would take me up the southernmost of the two peaks first, Mt. Flume, along the trail known as "Flume Slide Trail." The approach to the "slide" is mostly an easy walk in the woods. The problem with climbing mountains is, well, you have to climb. So anytime an approach trail is easy and relatively level for an extended stretch it means you will have to pay for that ease later with long steep sections of trail. Of course you should always be aware of the nature of the trail before you set out along it. The old saying "Ignorance is bliss" is often true, but not in the wilderness. In wilderness, ignorance is frequently dangerous.

The trail approaching the beginning of the "slide" is an easy walk through the woods.

So I was cruising along this sylvan way at a pretty good clip. The warmth and humidity had caused me to sweat freely, but my energy and strength usage was minimal. There seemed few people on this trail today, which was fine with me. I do enjoy meeting people along the way, but I also enjoy long periods of solitude. As I walked these low elevations many Red-eyed Vireos sang their slow repetitive songs. Few songbirds will continue to sing throughout hot summer days, but Red-eyed Vireos are one which will. As I approached the lower end of the slide the trail started to climb past mountain streams. These streams are fed by the slow shedding of melted snows from the previous winter augmented with rainwater that followed. These mountain streams are often quite cool to downright cold. At one point, after eating an early lunch, I rinsed my hands in the stream and they came away almost numbed by the icy water!

The icy cold mountain stream caused the moist warm air above it to condense, resulting in a misty "smoke" along the surface.

Soon after eating lunch I reached the slide's base. The "slide" is a remaining scar of a long ago landslide that ripped through the forest on the mountain's flank. There are many of these in the White Mountains, and they are often visible from many miles away as stone colored vertical slashes rent in the green forest cloak. Some now have prominent trails that run right up them. This scar on Mt Flume is one such "slide trail." I have taken many trail photos over the years and I have found it to be nearly impossible to actually capture in photos how steep some trails are or how dangerous they can sometimes be. This slide is not the most difficult by any means, but it does offer ample opportunity to fall with potential serious injury resulting. Some hikers will not climb such slides when they hike solo. I will, I'm part Irish. That makes me hard headed and stubborn. At least that is the excuse I frequently use. Maybe it would be more accurate to say "I'm stubborn and hard-headed" and leave off the "... because I'm Irish!" bit. Maybe.

Looking back down part of the slide. It's steeper and more slippery than it looks in photos.
As I climbed I frequently had to use hands and knees to scramble up some sections. It wasn't long before I had a few scares (and new scars) as one of my feet slipped out  from under me time and again. There is an old adage when climbing, "three points of contact." That means of your two hands and two feet, at any given moment only one of the four of them should not be attached to what you are climbing. It's a good adage, frequently ignored. And not just by me. When one of your feet suddenly no longer is where you planted it, you usually get reminded what it feels like to have adrenaline shot into your bloodstream. At those moments, the usefulness of a solid hand-hold really strikes home.

Looking up the slide. This section was a scramble. I left some of the skin on my shins on these rocks

Along the upper end of the slide I started to hear female voices ahead of me. It wasn't long before I caught up with three pretty young ladies and their dog, Raleigh (or maybe "Rollie?" I didn't ask the spelling, so I'll go with Sir Walter - it's more romantic). The girls where concerned because Raleigh had slipped and tumbled down part of the slide a short time before. He looked fine to me when I looked him over but the girls were anxious that the event should not be repeated. Therefore they were taking their time and using a long leash on the dog and carefully picking their way upward to ensure it would not fall again. I helped them find a way around a difficult stretch and then headed on. I knew I would see them again on the ridge.

After finally reaching the ridge line, the trail heads off toward Flume's summit.

A hiker should always be prepared to turn back if he or she feels unable to safely finish a planned hike. As yet, I have never had to do so. However as I neared the end of the difficult and hot climb up the slide, I felt much more spent than I should have. At that point the thought of continuing the planned hike seemed daunting and I was surprised how tired I felt. This may have been the first time I have ever felt that my physical condition was so much less solid than it should been for the effort spent. It was a relief when I finally stepped onto the ridge trail and I soon recovered physically and spiritually. The thrill I always feel when about to climb above the tree line returned with vigor.

Mt. Liberty as seen from the trail below Flume's summit. Franconia ridge runs off northward and upward from Liberty.

Mt. Flume's summit.

A short pleasant hike along the ridge trail found me on Mt Flume's summit. In the White Mountains, there are 48 peaks called "4,000 footers" by Appalachian Mountain Club. Many hikers set a goal to climb all 48 at least once in their lives. Mt. Flume was my personal 40th of these. Only eight more summits to complete them all. Of course I have sumitted several of the peaks that I have climbed more than once but I have not yet summitted all of the 48. My goal is to finish this year. Then I will have to start working on round two. I have no intention of stopping.

Mt. Liberty seen from Mt. Flume. To the left, across Franconia Notch, lies Kinsman Ridge. To the right, Franconia Ridge climbs northward.

Across Franconia Notch, with Rte 93 running north and south far below, Mt. Moosilauke forms the far horizon's apex. I had last climbed that beautiful mountain two years earlier with a dear friend.

On Flume's summit I noticed an immature Common Raven was hanging around. The corvid was drinking standing water from a cavity formed by fractures in the stone. It was easy to age the bird as the plumage had brown tones (instead of the glossy black of adults) and the gape, the flesh at corner of its "mouth", was pinkish instead of the blackish color a mature bird would display. It was also easy to age due to its behavior. Adults very rarely allow such close approach by humans, nor do they show such poor landing skills as this youngster. Whenever it alighted from a short flight it looked quite new at the game, in a word, awkward. Very soon the three young ladies and Raleigh joined me on the summit.

An immature Raven drinks water from a fracture in the stone on the summit of Flume.

Raleigh and his three lovely companions reach Flume's summit.

I spent nearly a half an hour luxuriating in the beauty that lay in all directions. To the west lay Kinsman Ridge. To the North lay the rest of Franconia Ridge. To the east lay the Pemigawssett Wilderness and many more of the White Mountains. To the south lay the gap where the Kancamagus Highway runs, the Osceolas, Mt. Tecumseh, the town of Lincoln, Loon Mountain Ski Area, and more. At my feet lay the delicate beauty of Mountain Sandwort. Literally adding spice to all this was a young hiker couple who generously shared their Trader Joe's Chipotle Mango chips with me. Though admittedly the young man wasn't too happy with his ladies choice of trail food! If only I had a nice ice cold India Pale Ale or two to wash them down with...

Mountain Sandwort. This delicate looking montane beauty is a very hardy denizen, growing wherever a little soil has collected on the mountain.
I still had another summit to climb and then a hike out to do, so after a while I headed further northward on the ridge trail towards Liberty. The girls and Raleigh left a little earlier and were somewhere between the two peaks when I headed on.

The ridge trail between Flume and Liberty drops back into the trees. North of Liberty, where I would not be hiking today, the trail climbs out of the trees for good and offers magnificent 360 degree views all the way to where it finally descends the north slope of Mount Lafayette.

One of the common insects hikers encounter in the New Hampshire woods is the "Hover Fly." I do not know the correct name for the species and there is likely more than one species involved as well. These little guys do not bite but  they do hover over the middle of the trail and create a high frequency buzz that is reminiscent of a mosquito flying near your ear. I believe the buzz may be either to attract the opposite sex or to establish territorial rights. They also sit on branches and create this high pitched buzzing. Curious little entities.

A "Hover Fly" along the trail.
It wasn't very long at all before I was approaching Mt' Liberty's summit. Just below the summit, I found the girls trying to figure out how to get Raleigh up over a particularly high boulder that formed an obstacle for Raleigh where the trail passed between two steep walls of stone. The only easy way was to pick him up and scramble up to where he could be put on top of the boulder. So that is what I did. This was the first time I have every hiked in the White Mountains carrying a dog, another life experience! The girls thanked me. Raleigh did not. All of us were soon on Liberty's crown.

The "arch cairn" on Mt. Liberty's summit.Many summits have small cairns that serve no purpose other than to express the  joie de vivre of their creators. This one expresses that joy more artistically than most!

Cannon Mountain, with its summit tower, lies at the north end of Kinsman Ridge. Seen from Mt. Liberty's summit. The "bumps" in the ridge line running to the left of Cannon Mountain are called "The Cannon Balls".

Kinsman Ridge as seen from Mt. Liberty. The left peak is South Kinsman and the right peak is North Kinsman. In the distance lies Vermont.

Looking downslope. The transition line from deciduous trees on the lower slope to a mix of deciduous and conifer up higher is obvious.

Looking eastward into the Pemigewasset Wilderness. In the foreground is Owl's Head Mountain. Beyond are the Bonds, and on the horizon, Mount Washington rises towards the clouds.

Franconia Ridge running northward from Liberty.

The day was beautiful and the views spectacular, so I was in no hurry to leave Liberty's summit. The girls had pushed on with the intent to camp at the AMC's Liberty Springs campsite, a little below the summit cone. Several species of butterfly were flitting about the summit area I was lounging on. A Canadian Tiger Swallowtail came and went. The Swallowtail's presence was objected to by a Mourning Cloak that constantly chased it whenever the Swallowtail ventured too close. Regrettably Black Flies were also present in  the summit area and my ankles were particular targets of these little demons. I frequently counsel people to not assign human qualities to wildlife, but these little scourges often bring me to the point of momentary fury and certainly cause me to at least think foul language. I will admit on this occasion to vocalizing many words you wouldn't use if your mom was in earshot.

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). This individual sits on its favorite perch, from which it repeatedly chased a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail.

When it came time to press on, I retied my boots, scratched the bites on my ankles viciously, condemned every Black Fly and its relatives to eternal misery in Hades, shouldered my pack, and hiked on. I stopped to take one last set of photos before plunging back into the trees.

Mt. Liberty's cone, seen from the north side.
I would be hiking Liberty Springs Trail back to my car in the Notch. This trail is much easier than the Slide Trail I took up to the ridge. It also passes by Liberty Springs Campsite where Raleigh and the girls were camping tonight. I have never camped with a dog in the mountains but I would think it would be fun. It wasn't long before I passed the site. The caretakers at these AMC sites all seem to have the same military surplus type tents. They are quite spacious and comfortable, which is good since the caretakers spend most of their summers in them.

A pretty new trail sign at the junction with Liberty Springs Trail, my path down to the Notch.

The caretaker tent at Liberty Springs Campsite.

The rest of the hike was uneventful. I like to set a fast pace on the last downward leg of a hike. This means I pass most other hikers. I had reached the lower stretch of the trail and only had about a mile of fairly level trail left when I encountered a solitary hiker who was also headed out. I passed him and exchanged a few friendly words as I usually do with the hikers I pass. But this time the solitary hiker clearly wanted to continue a conversation rather than just have a brief "How are you doing?". So I slowed my pace and fell in beside him. We had a pleasant conversation as we covered the last mile of the day. His name was Joe and he was from Massachusetts. I certainly enjoyed his company and I enjoyed swapping stories with him. At the parking area we shook hands and headed to our respective vehicles. I stripped off my sweaty shirt and poured clean water over my head. Popping a clean dry shirt on felt wonderful! It had been a good day, "sliding" up and "springing" down. And I got to carry a dog named Raleigh. Briefly. Though I have to admit, I enjoyed it more than he did.