Pawtuckaway to Portsmouth: Hiking and Eating

Just about an hour and 15 minutes north of Boston, Pawtuckaway State Park in southern New Hampshire is the perfect middle-ground between leisurely woodland strolling and vigorous actual hiking. On a recent excursion, Ania and I chose the park’s longest loop trail, roughly 8 miles and passing over two peaks, as a way to break in our legs for a new hiking season. (Don’t get too excited; even the taller north peak was scarcely over 1,000 feet.)

A damn fine dam at Pawtuckaway State Park.

A damn fine dam at Pawtuckaway State Park.

Our path took us past all sorts of wildlife — or signs thereof — from the sparrow-sized mosquitoes that followed us most of the way (it being our first hike of the spring, we naturally both forgot to bring bug spray) to a massive beaver dam separating two large ponds. One has to wonder if the beavers look at the park’s rustic little wooden bridges and scoff. Or perhaps wonder how we manage to get the boards so flat using only our teeth.

We also tramped past rockclimbers belaying one another among the park’s house-high boulders, and startled some unidentifiable black birds who’d made a huge nest in a notch in the cliffs. If anyone knows of a cliff-dwelling bird whose cries sound like a buzz saw, let us know.

OM NOM NOM at Portsmouth's Black Trumpet Bistro.

OM NOM NOM at Portsmouth’s Black Trumpet Bistro.

Having completed our leisurely hike in about five hours, we were ready for some beer. Suddenly, the 45-minute drive to Portsmouth (or more specifically, the Portsmouth Brewery) seemed like NBD. We were there in a flash, a sampler spread out before us, ranging from the smokey stout “Chat Noir” to the pleasingly refreshing session “Petite Enffronte” to the stealthily strong (10% ABV, not that you could taste it) “Wheatwine.” At 5pm, the barkeep produced a plate of fries doused in bacon, feta, garlic, and chives, announcing that it was their free 5pm bar snacks. We ate most of the plate before we could stop ourselves, then tore ourselves away to stroll around the town.

We reasoned that the best way to miss the crush of weekenders returning from Maine to Boston on I-95 would be to have an amazing dinner at the Black Trumpet, a cozy bistro tucked into one of Portsmouth’s antique seaside buildings. We sat upstairs in the wine bar, which had a homey, casual ambiance, and faced the paralyzing indecision of the menu. Fortunately, in such a situation there are no bad choices — and plenty of excuses to go back.

A Three-Day Presidential Traverse

Clambering down the slopes of Mount Adams, with Mount Madison still ahead.

Clambering down the slopes of Mount Adams, with Mount Madison still ahead.

It was just after 10 am, and we’d already summited Mt. Eisenhower and Mt. Pierce. We’d bagged Jackson, the southernmost peak in the Presidential Range, the previous afternoon. We took out the map to check how much further to Mt. Washington, and lunch. Ania was concerned. Ryan was not there to consult — he had already rabbited on ahead.

Book time for the day’s hike was 11 hours; breakfast at Mizpah Spring Hut, where we’d spent the night, hadn’t been served until 7:30 am, and dinner at Madison Spring Hut, where we were staying tonight, was at 7 pm. That didn’t give us much margin for resting, taking photos, having lunch, or enjoying the view. But I was bullish. The morning air was cool and misty. The views were spectacular. My legs felt springy and strong. “Listen,” I told my cautious friend, “By the time you’ve done half the range, you’ve already done most of the elevation. We’ll get Washington, have lunch, and it will be all downhill from there.”

The first rule of hiking: the mountain will always be there another day.

The first rule of hiking: the mountain will always be there another day.

And indeed, we made it to Washington right on schedule, lining up in the cafeteria with tourists in flip flops who’d ridden the Cog Railway to the top of the tallest mountain east of the Rockies and north of the Smokies. Standing there with my plastic lunch tray, the warning in my AMC guide seemed surreal: “Mount Washington has a well-earned reputation as the most dangerous small mountain in the world… If you begin to experience difficulty from weather conditions, remember that the worst is yet to come, and turn back, without shame, before it is too late.” Quietly hanging in a hallway across from the gift shop, restrooms, and — yes — tiny post office, I found the plaque listening the names of the more than 140 people who have died on Washington’s slopes, along with the cause of their deaths: drowning, falling, hypothermia, avalanches, heart attacks. Sobered, I tightened the straps of my pack and headed back out on the trail.

While Mount Washington is known as the home of the world’s worst weather — Antarctic-level cold, hurricane-force winds, whiteout blizzards — the day of our hike was hot. Very hot. It was July and 100 degrees in the valley. The morning mists had burned off, and as we headed north up the ridge we had spectacular 360-degree views of Washington’s fearsome ravines. As the afternoon wore on, I stopped worrying about dying of hypothermia (as Paul Zanet and Judy March of Dorchester did in July of 1958), drowning (as happened to Oysten Kladstad of Brooklyn in 1929), or falling ice (as befell Sewall E. Faunce in July of 1886). I was worried about running out of water.

By 5 pm, we were dragging ourselves up the vertical boulder field that is the summit cone of Mt. Adams. It was the last peak before we get to the hut, to dinner, and to bed. Everything hurt. I was climbing using hands and knees and trekking poles and feet. I was keeping myself going with the un-Muir-ian mantra, “This mountain is an asshole. This mountain is an asshole.” It dawned on me (and I was suddenly aware that by now, my brain was not just exhausted but actually dehydrated) that I’d made a crucial mistake.

It is true that the Presidential Range is “downhill all the way” after you summit Washington. If in fact you are hiking the Presidential Range north-to-south. As any sane person would do.

Socked in by fog at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, near the summit of Mount Washington.

Socked in by fog at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, near the summit of Mount Washington.

But if you are hiking south-to-north, as we were doing, then you’re doing a gradual ascent all morning over the rolling green summits of the southern Presidentials and saving the mean, rock-strewn peaks of the northern Presidentials for when your tired legs are at their rubberiest.

We did not intend to be so stupid. But when Ania, Ryan, and I went to outdoors.org to book our stay in the AMC’s ridge-top huts, the only nights available were a Saturday night at the southern-most Presidential hut (Mizpah Spring) and the northernmost (Madison Spring). And in all the negotiations and permutations (this weekend, or that weekend? Friday and Saturday, or Saturday and Sunday? In our out? This or that?) our careful reading on the range had gotten pushed aside.

Watching the sun go down from the porch of Madison Spring Hut.

Watching the sun go down from the porch of Madison Spring Hut.

In the end, we made it to the hut around 8 pm, hopped up on Aleve and sliding down Adams on our butts. While the hut administrators had been very clear that dinner would be saved for no man, woman, or child, the hut “croo” themselves were much more sympathetic, and so we flung off our boots, found bunks, and inhaled every leftover. And we were far from the last stragglers to appear — there were lost hikers, late hikers, and some very beardy Appalachian Trail through-hikers who all stumbled in after we did.

The next morning, we strapped ourselves back into our hiking gear, scrambled up our final summit, Mount Madison, and then began the long, steady descent back to the car. Ryan shot ahead again and, by the time Ania and I stumbled giddily out of the woods, he was waiting for us with a tank full of gas and a six-pack of ice-cold Tuckerman’s Pale Ale. Our victory would not taste sweet; but rather, hoppy and lightly carbonated.

If you go:

Day 1: Fuel yourself for the steep ascent to Madison Spring Hut with breakfast at Polly’s Pancake Parlor. Get the lung-busting, heart-thumping climb to the hut out of the way, claim your bunk, and dump your pack. If you have time before dark, bag Mt. Madison before retiring to the Hut for the evening. Or just content yourself with exploring the nearby summit lakes.

Day 2: Struggle valiantly over the knee-destroying northern peaks before a late lunch on Mt. Washington. Spend the night at Lakes of the Clouds. If you’re not totally socked in, you’ll have the best view in the entire hut system. And if you’re too beat to continue, you can always take the cog railway down.

Day 3: Enjoy the grassy summits of the southern peaks and finish up at Crawford Notch. Grab celebratory beers and good food at Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery in North Conway.

And remember: if you run into trouble, remember that the worst really is still to come, and turn back, without shame, before it is too late.

No pain, no views.

No pain, no views.

Finishing the NH 4,000 Footers: Can I Do It?

Spring is in the imagination, if not quite yet in the air. I awoke this morning to find my hand reaching for the AMC guide that lives next to the bed.

Nothing beats a White Mountain vista on a fine day.

Nothing beats a White Mountain vista on a fine day.

Over the past four summers, I’ve hiked 29 of New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-foot mountains. The big gaps in my list are those in the North Country — the Presidentials, the Carter Range, and Mount Cabot, which is not far from Dixville Notch (the remote outpost, population 12, that always declares its results first in any election). There’s also a couple of mountains I’ve avoided just because they’re known for being annoying hikes: Owl’s Head, whose only trail is a rocky slide that goes straight up the side of the mountain to a viewless summit, and Isolation, which, true to its name, has no convenient approach. (Also, there’s known to be a very hostile grouse on the path to Isolation, and isn’t afraid to lunge at hikers invading its territory. Angry birds may be a fun iPhone game, but they don’t make great hiking companions.)

Even with no view, a day of hiking brings a big smile to my face! [Photo credit: Paul Green]

Even with no view, a day of hiking brings a big smile to my face! [Photo credit: Paul Green]

With only 19 peaks left to bag, can I make 2013 the year I finally complete this goal? I think so. Here’s my plan:

June
Weekend 1: Hike Galehead and South Twin in one day. (31 peaks total)
Weekend 2: Hike Owl’s Head in one day. (32 peaks)

July
Weekend 1: Hike Isolation in one day. (33 peaks)
Weekend 2: Hike the Presidentials over three days. Day 1: Mt Madison (staying overnight at Madison Spring Hut); Day 2: Mts Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce (staying overnight at Mizpah Spring Hut); Day 3: Mr. Jackson. (41 peaks)

August
Sit at the beach and rest my quads. It’s August, after all.

September
Weekend 1: Tackle Wildcat D and Wildcat Mountain (staying overnight at Carter Notch Hut), before moving on to Carter Dome, Middle Carter, and South Carter. (46)
Weekend 2: Hike Mt Cabot Saturday and Mt Moriah Sunday. (48!)

Hope you brought your headlamp.

Hope you brought your headlamp.

Now, I do have some doubts about this plan. First, elements of this plan are contingent on there being space in the huts for me — they’re already filling up, so I’ll need to hop on that. Second, if I take all of August off, will I really be ready to tackle the Carter Range in one go in September? Likely not. So I might need to find another hike to do that month — maybe one in Maine, which would mesh nicely with some of my beach-sitting. Third, I’m a little worried about my knees. Most of my hiking the last couple of years has relied heavily on a mix of trekking poles, Advil, and ice. Are my knees really going to stand up to a summer of vigorous hiking? There’s only one way to find out. But if they don’t, that weekend on the Carter Range will likely get broken up into a few different outings. And finally, some of these hikes will be much more pleasant as traverses rather than out-and-backs, which means I’ll need my driver I mean boyfriend to come along, drop me off, spend the day fishing, and pick me up. But hopefully this isn’t too tough a sell.

Nonetheless, if all of these variables break my way, it should be a great summer of hiking — and of finishing a goal I’ve been working toward since 2009. I’ll keep you posted!