I’m on a business trip in a faraway city right now, when I’d rather be in Stewartstown, New Hampshire. There’s a celebration going on there in honor of a place and people who have come to mean a lot to me. The Cohos Trail is turning 20, and the coming-of-age party is happening today.
In twenty years, I’ve spent maybe eight hours on trail maintenance up there in northern New Hampshire. That’s not even a blip in the tally of volunteer hours and days and weeks given by countless people over the past two decades to build and maintain the CT. If I were at today’s party, I’d be able to meet some of them and offer face-to-face thanks. As it is, this meager post will have to do.
Two people are responsible for drawing my attention to the Cohos Trail: John Harrigan and Kim Nilsen. Harrigan’s old columns in the New Hampshire Sunday News described an intriguing region full of an unfamiliar above-the-notches beauty at which no tourist brochure had ever hinted. He wrote as a lifelong North Country resident and outdoorsman. When I read his words, my imagination was fully engaged.
The first thing I ever read by Kim Nilsen was a magazine article about the Pondicherry reserve through which the CT passes. The photo accompanying the article showed an arresting vista that has since become familiar to me: serene Cherry Pond with the Presidentials looming just past it. Words and image alike were magically compelling.
I read that Pondicherry article sometime around 2005. The following year, I began making plans to hike the Cohos Trail in 2009, as a 50th-birthday gift to myself.
I had never backpacked. My camping experience had begun and ended with Girl Scouts forty years earlier. I had no backpacking equipment. I had no aerobic conditioning. I had a comically inaccurate vision of how far and how fast I could move with a pack. And in 2009, I set off anyway.
It was a trip sharply different from the one I had first envisioned. It was shorter, less ambitious, and highly dependent on support from fellow Cohos Trail fans. It was also one of the highlights of my life. Each step stretched me in body and mind.
The overwhelming generosity of people along the way caught me by surprise. John Harrigan had written about that spirit, but I never thought it would be lavished on a stranger like me. People welcomed me to their cabins, and the tent for which I had so carefully shopped got little use. I was treated to a kayak trip up East Inlet. I was taken to Pittsburg’s Old Home Day. I was driven along forty miles of Pittsburg’s unpaved roads, giving me a better sense of the vast town in which I was hiking. I got a very muddy day-long hands-on tutorial in trail maintenance.
I managed to hike a little, too: eighty-some-odd miles over nearly two weeks. Lots of slack time in there, to be sure. To this day I treasure my photo of one of the little brass international-border markers on the way to Fourth Connecticut Lake. The Quebec border was a sort of finish line. The trail has continued for me, though, from that day to this.
None of this would have been possible if Kim Nilsen hadn’t envisioned the trail many years ago and then inspired people to bring the vision to life. I’d have gotten nowhere without the work of trail adopters. I’d be poorer without the words of John Harrigan that first brought the North Country to life for me.
I’d never have known the incomparable feeling of setting up camp after a particularly beastly day on the trail, and being lulled to sleep by rain and a loon and the sound of the Connecticut River flowing into Lake Francis.
I go back to the trail once a year for two or three days at a time. Once I even pulled off a one-day trip. Eight hours in the car for five hours of trail time makes perfect sense to anyone in thrall to the Cohos Trail.
I’ll turn 60 next year. I want to celebrate with another CT hike. A real one, not a weekend visit. I want to concentrate again on the northern section, enraptured as I am by the Connecticut Lakes and the generous town of Pittsburg.
It all started for me with the work of two New Hampshire wordsmiths. I’m grateful to them, and to everyone involved in the Cohos Trail Association. I can’t be with Association supporters today as they celebrate. All I can do is express the gratitude that I’ll feel for their work all my life.