Between work and fellowship interviews, it’s been a long dry spell for hiking. Until about 2 weeks ago, I was basically spending every day working, traveling, or interviewing. Last weekend, though, we were able to tie a couple days of hiking into traveling north for an interview. It would have been three days save for Hurricane Sandy…we seem to have a knack for planning trips just before hurricanes. I got back into Cambridge on Friday evening from a trip to NY and NJ. We packed and listened anxiously to the weather reports. It seemed pretty clear that the storm wouldn’t make landfall until Monday, and that we could get two full days safely.
So the next morning we threw our gear in the car, made a food run to Trader Joe’s, stopped for a very overdue oil change, and hit the road. It was after 10 by the time we got on the highway, and it wasn’t initially clear how much daylight we’d have once we arrived. Our destination was the Hancocks. We made good time despite a pit stop to re-duct tape my passenger side mirror on (thanks, person who hit my car in the Amtrak lot!) and turned into the lot at around 1 in the afternoon. The parking lot was busy but not packed, and we were late enough that the other folks on the trail were heading out rather than in. We made good time on Hancock Notch and Cedar Brook trails. Both trails were mostly flat and with good footing except for some rooty sections and an eroded wet stretch on Cedar Brook. The brook crossings were particularly beautiful. Our plan was to ascend South Hancock first since the Guide commented on its steep, eroded, and rough nature–which usually means the trail is particularly awful. It turned out to be a good plan, although the South Hancock branch was nowhere near as awful as the section of the Wiley Ridge trail from Ethan Pond to the summit of Wiley. The trail was rough, rocky, and–as billed–quite steep. It was fine to ascend but wouldn’t have been so fun to descend. South Hancock is wooded and viewless. There was an outlook that involved too much descending (and ascending on the return) that we didn’t bother with, and an illicit campsite complete with toilet paper and feces that made me mad. We didn’t tarry on the summit and moved on to the loop section, which was generally easy on both feet and eyes. The northern summit was rockier and thus offered bits of view…and no campsites to be found. We hung around for a little while, eating apples and sausage sticks and enjoying the gorgeous fall weather. The return was uneventful–unrelentingly steep and rocky, but light on the loose gravel. On the way out, we passed two guys who we’d passed earlier on the trail as they were setting up their own illicit campsite.
The more I hike, the more I become aware of illicit campsites, and the more they tick me off. I understand the desire to stay in the woods in beautiful places. But really, have people never heard of Leave No Trace? Is it really so hard to make camp out of sight of the trail? Do you need to build a campfire in the woods? Doesn’t the amount of potential fuel–and the extent of potential damage–freak you out? And the whole not digging catholes or packing out toilet paper–I mean, it’s gross, but so is leaving a pile of used toilet paper and shit on the ground.
If you’re going to backcountry camp, please brush up on LNT principles before you go. A good primer can be found on Phil Werner’s SectionHiker blog here. It boils down to respecting the woods and the other creatures (human and animal alike) that you share it with.
We got back to the car in fantastic time (just under 5 hours for 9.8 miles). Evening was falling as we set up camp at a site in the Hancock campground (surprisingly busy) and ate reconstituted udon noodles (surprisingly delicious). We were in bed by 9:30-10PM. It was almost a full moon and I kept waking up from the brightness until finally I pulled a hat on over my eyes and passed out.
We got up around 6 and ate muffins and raspberries in the dark by headlamp. The sun started rising around the time we were packed and getting in the car, but it was still quite grey when we parked at the East Pond trailhead. We were in for a long day. Everything I’d read about the Osceola trail suggested that the southern end was relatively easy, and the northern end was not. Starting from the southern end meant a much longer drive from the campsite that would eat into precious hours better spent hiking.But an out-and-back from the north sounded painful. So I planned something unconventional. We’d start from the north from Greeley Pond trail, ascend East Osceola and Mt Osceola from the Mt Osceola trail, then return via the East Pond trail after a short road walk on Tripoli Road. All told, it was around15 miles for the trip, with the most strenuous sections of the trail coming early in the day.
We started with a short road walk on the Kanc around 8AM. The parking lots at both the East and Greeley Pond trailheads were completely empty when we arrived, although 3 cars pulled into the Greeley Ponds lot in quick succession within minutes. In contrast to the Hancock Notch and Cedar Brook trails the day before, Greeley Pond was not particularly easy. Footing was pretty good, but the trail went steadily up and up. I went through several cycles of sweating, taking off my outer shirt, freezing, putting my outer shirt back on, and sweating again in the cool morning air. Once we started to ascend East Osceola, though, that problem resolved and I just sweated. The climb was not particularly difficult, just hard work and an unrelenting grade. The slide mentioned in the Guide wasn’t as terrible as I’d feared–just a short bare rocky stretch that would have been nasty if wet (or descending) but had plenty of hand and footholds. The summit of East Osceola was wooded and uninteresting, with a cairn to mark it. We moved on quickly.
The stretch between the summits had some ups and downs, but stands out in my memory as being fairly pleasant (as such ridge walks tend to be). Even the chimney on the ascent to Mount Osceola was fun–a short, very steep scramble that probably would not have been so nice to descend or tackle in slicker conditions. But on a sunny October day, it was a delight. We arrived at the same time as a group of two humans and two dogs. The humans stood around contemplating the chimney, while the dogs just charged up it (and down, and up again).
Mount Osceola’s summit was lovely. It was clear and we could see to the Moats (I think) and beyond. We had lunch, admired the view, petted the dogs, and then were ready to move on as the crowds started to arrive. The descent was long but easy compared to the trip up, with many switchbacks and trails that were more dirt than rock. H spotted a colleague from his grad school program in a group of hikers who were making their way up. Just as we were starting to wonder how much longer the trail continued, the parking lot at the trailhead appeared!
Here’s where I started to get a little nervous. My plan sounded fine on paper just looking at numbers and elevation lines. I had no idea, though, what the trail would actually bring, especially as far as being able to follow it for its entire length. It turned out to be just fine. The first section was wide and well blazed. We had second lunch at East Pond about 1.4 miles in from the road. Beyond the pond, the trail got narrower and less well blazed until we got close to the Kancamangus, but we were able to follow it without too much difficulty throughout. It also ascended gently but steadily until it reached the height of land (and then descended in a similar fashion), making it more work than it seemed on first glance…but again, completely doable. We saw 1 person in the entire 5 mile stretch. The solitude was glorious.
Although we didn’t move as quickly as we had on Saturday, we were out of the woods before 5PM and walked at a pace faster than book time. We were back in camp well before sunset after stopping in town to get firewood, and had time to set up a campfire and a protective tarp before it got so dark we needed headlamps. By 7:50 it seemed like midnight and H and I were in bed shortly thereafter. We planned to get up early to avoid having to eat and drive in the middle of a hurricane. Our goal was to ride it out from a hotel room in Hanover.
As it turned out, Sandy largely spared northern New England and we were fine. Would that all of the eastern seaboard had fared so well.