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.

Cross-Country Skate Skiing in Waterville Valley

Spend the winter gliding through deep pine forests and over snow-covered streams -- and it will be spring before you know it.

Spend the winter gliding through deep pine forests and over snow-covered streams — and it will be spring before you know it.

To be happy living in New England, one needs a winter sport. Otherwise, beautiful autumn days turn ominous as you begin to dread six months of frost. The dark, cold days between Thanksgiving and Easter just stretch on… and on… and on. Sure, hibernating is fun, too — for a while. I like to imagine being curled up by the fire, swathed in layers of cashmere, reading British mysteries and enjoying a buttery snootful of old Scotch. The reality — a YouTube video of a crackling fireplace, my Grandma Harriet’s old scratchy tartan blanket, the Pottery Barn catalogue, and a mug of ginger tea (supports digestion!) — is pretty cozy, to be sure, but somehow less comfy-cozy than my imagined den of wintry delight. And eventually, one’s legs start to feel stiff.

Find the right activity, however, and you start to find yourself looking forward to winter. That’s what happened to me this fall after I discovered skate skiing last year. I’d never gotten into downhill skiing — too expensive, too cold, too many lift lines. And the slow pace of traditional cross-country skiing left me frustrated. I did enjoy a good snowshoe trek, but that never really felt like exercise somehow. Then a ski instructor at Waterville Valley’s Nordic Center suggested Ben and I try skate skiing — easier on the knees, she said. She let us borrow a pair of rental skis and take them around the golf course, and we were immediately hooked. The speed was much more satisfying than traditional cross-country, the side-to-side motion a lot more fun, and the sweaty endorphin rush quicker to attain. After a winter of skiing happily on rented gear (which, at $20 a day, does add up — but is still half the price of renting downhill equipment) we lucked into an insane sale at the L.L. Bean outlet in Concord, NH. Ever since, I’ve been all geared up with no snow to ski on.

This weekend I finally got the chance I’d been waiting for. We drove the two hours north to Waterville Valley and ventured out on the trails — Waterville offers a day-and-a-half pass for only $20 (by it at 2pm on Saturday and it covers all of Sunday, too). While the snow wasn’t fantastic, we had a great time anyway. We zig-zagged past frozen streams and snow-covered pines and worked up a sweat despite the bitterly cold weather. It was the perfect combination of focus, exertion, nature, and gravity. Since I’m a rookie, I’ve only been to a few different spots — Waterville Valley’s cross-country trail system and Fahnestock Winter Park in New York state — but I’m always on the lookout for more. I’ve heard good things about Carlisle’s Great Brook Ski Touring Center, for instance, but have yet to check it out. If you have suggestions of places to go, let me know in the comments. And if you have any good British mystery recommendations, leave those too — today’s 60-degree rainstorm means I’ll be doing a little more reading and a little less skiing in the immediate future.

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.