Happy Birthday to the Cohos Trail!

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.

 

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Lake Francis, along the Cohos Trail

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.

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View of the Presidential Range from Cherry Pond in the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge.

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.

At the End of a Much Better Day

First Connecticut Lake and Mt. Magalloway, seen from Mt. Prospect

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.

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Border marker on the way to Fourth Connecticut Lake.

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.

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Second Connecticut Lake

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Coos County Visit

Job responsibilities prevented a backpacking trip for me this season. I settled for four days of dayhikes in Pittsburg, way north in Coos County, New Hampshire. (CO-ahhs, if you please, in case you’re new here. Welcome.) I love the place.

Conditions: upper 80s, high humidity, overcast, with a low cloud ceiling that cut off views of nearly every peak in the area. On the other hand, I was there on quiet weekdays, and I had the solitude I craved on every road and trail.

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Mount Magalloway (in cloud) and First Connecticut Lake. All photos in this post by Ellen Kolb.

Cohos Trail Segments

Covell Mountain really does not want to yield a trail this summer. There were signs of storm damage and logging. The mud made me glad I had shoes with a moisture-resistant lining. Grasses were growing high despite obvious efforts by trail adopters to keep them in check. Blazes were clear and plentiful, though, and I know I can thank those same trail volunteers for that.

There was a newly-fallen spruce across the trail, not far from a junction with a path marked Cattail Trail. The spruce refused to give way to the little knife I carried. All I got for my pains was a sappy blade. (If you need wires stripped, though, I’m down for that.)

Perhaps on a clearer and cooler day, I’d have kept going past Covell to Prospect Mountain, where on another trip I enjoyed a spectacular vista. This was not a week for great views, I thought, so I contented myself with an up-and-back hike on Covell.

As I returned to my car parked at the Ramblewood campground, I caught sight of Mt. Magalloway and a sliver of First Connecticut Lake. The summit was obscured by cloud and the lake reflected the gray sky: a striking monochrome landscape offered up by Covell Mountain, as if to thank me for putting up with its messy trail.

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Second Connecticut Lake, at a low late-summer level.

Second Connecticut Lake is the most peaceful place in the world to me. It never disappoints, however short the visit. This time, I parked at the dam alongside U.S. 3 and followed the Cohos Trail north.

The trail soon intersected Idlewilde Road, and I turned for the five-minute detour to the Idlewilde boat ramp. On a hazy late-summer afternoon, I stood at the ramp on the lake’s shore all by myself, with a loon’s call the only sound I could hear.

Back on the trail, I took up the Chaput segment. It’s named for a couple I’ve never met who are famous to Cohos Trail veterans for their years of trail work. The segment is parallel to and very close to U.S. 3, but it gets hikers off the pavement. I’m a fan. I hiked the northern section of the Cohos Trail in 2009, and at that time the last ten miles of trail to the Canadian border were on the highway. Thanks to the efforts of many volunteers, that’s no longer the case.

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“Lainie’s Lair,” on the Cohos Trail.

Along the Chaput segment, I found the little rocky overhang nicknamed Lainie’s Lair. That’s a fun tribute to another legendary Cohos Trail volunteer. Lainie brought me with her for a memorable day of trail work during my 2009 hike. I had a lot of enthusiasm for the task but zero skill. Lainie patiently coached me on things like how to use tools without hurting anyone and how not to freak out at the sight of bear scat. She could have  accomplished a lot more that day in 2009 without me, but she was happy to be my guide. Nine years later, I smiled at the whimsical salute to her at the “lair.”

Sophie’s Lane is actually part of snowmobile corridor #5, and the Cohos Trail follows it beginning just south of Deer Mountain State Park. After being in the woods on a hot day, Sophie’s Lane was a relief. It was wide and open enough to catch a breeze that kept insects at bay. The lane leads to a spur to the site of an old fire tower, which is a side trip I didn’t take.

I liked the short spur to Moose Flowage, which is part of the Connecticut River south of Third Lake. It was a good spot for a break and a snack. It was a tempting place for a campsite as well, but signs sternly warned against any such notion. (The state park campground, accessible from U.S. 3, is just across the Flowage.)

snowmobile trail information kiosk, Pittsburg NH

Sophie’s Lane trail kiosk

The lane gradually narrowed the further north I walked. I stopped well short of the border, avoiding a walk through a long weedy stretch of trail. I passed a clearing with one boulder covered in street art. That jarred me. That painted rock somehow bothered me more than the relatively new cell tower at the north end of First Lake. It poked a big hole in the sense of isolation I expected in August on a snowmobile trail three miles from Quebec.

What I didn’t see along the way – not on Sophie’s Lane, and not anywhere else – was a moose. No bear or deer, either. I saw moose tracks in one muddy spot, but as for the beasts themselves, nada. Perhaps the heat kept them in hiding. Maybe I’m such a noisy hiker that I scare off everything larger than a mosquito. My presence didn’t bother the birds, though. It was a good week for seeing heron, hawks, and turkeys.

Pittsburg: the Village and Happy Corner

Broadband has come to the ‘burg, or at least parts of it. I stayed in the village – downtown Pittsburg, more or less – in a comfortable little cabin with WiFi and cell service. That sounds like an outrage, but I was able to walk by day and work online in the evenings. The trip wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

The snowmobile crowds are a few months away, people are buttoning up their camps for the season, and the summertime ATV vacationers have mostly returned to work and school. The town roads were thus quiet and inviting during my recent visit. As always in Pittsburg, the people I encountered were friendly and hospitable, ready to answer my questions and point me to interesting places.

A three-mile loop walk from my cabin at day’s end took me to Murphy Dam, Lake Francis, and Cedar Stream Road. A tranquil route, from start to finish. Had I moved east on Cedar Stream Road rather than west towards town, I’d have picked up a Cohos Trail segment leading to the east side of Lake Francis.

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Lake Francis seen from Murphy Dam

Six miles north of the village, the crossroads known as Happy Corner makes a good base for a few Cohos Trail dayhikes and for exploration of town roads. I loved rambling with no schedule and no fixed route.

Road Tripping

I only get up this way once a year or so, and I try to make the most of the long drive. I drove a circuitous route on the way north in order to photograph a slew of North Country historical markers. Interesting sites, interesting history!

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On a cloudy morning, the Cog Railway track seemed to disappear into Mount Washington.

Stalbird marker with Mt Martha

That’s Mount Martha (Cherry Mountain) behind the Granny Stalbird marker in Jefferson.

City Trees Built marker

Berlin boasts four markers, each featuring a different aspect of the city’s heritage.

My drive home was more direct, as I finally had to get back to watching the clock. But who could drive by Weeks State Park in Lancaster without stopping?

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Looking north from the Mt. Prospect fire tower at Weeks State Park: Weeks home and the Percy Peaks.

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Mt. Prospect’s one-of-a-kind fire tower.

Mushroom season

A late-summer visit to Winant Park in Concord brought me the sight of tall summer wildflowers blooming cheerfully by the parking lot. Once I passed the information kiosk where the trails begin, there wasn’t a blossom in sight. Instead, mushrooms were all over the place. I don’t know what’s what when it comes to fungi, so I was reduced to simple wonder at the variety of colors and sizes. A hazy day made the usual Winant vista unremarkable, but the colorful forest floor made up for that.

Monadnock Region Sampler

A summer Saturday, great weather, and no schedule to keep: this is as good as July gets.

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The blossoms that give Rhododendron State Park its name.

I’ve never managed to get to Rhododendron State Park in Fitzwilliam, NH during peak bloom time, which is supposed to be mid-July, give-or-take. Even so, I’ve never had a disappointing trip there. The rhododendron grove is shady and cool, with or without blooms.

I skipped the trail leading from the grove to Little Monadnock Mountain. Instead, after  a walk around the grove, I left the park via Rockwood Road to connect with the Cheshire Rail Trail at Rockwood Pond a little over a mile away.

Rockwood Road

Where the Rhododendron State Park sign points left, Rockwood Road goes right.

Rockwood Road is unpaved but well-maintained, at least in midsummer. I walked the first half-mile with only a barred owl and a few tiger swallowtails for company, which suited me. Beyond that, as I approached the pond, I passed a few houses and was passed by a few very polite drivers.

Last time I saw Rockwood Pond was on a foggy autumn weekday without another soul in sight. This time, there were picnickers at the shore and canoeists on the water. Not much traffic on the rail trail, though. In fact, the only other pedestrians I saw were in the grove at the park. Grove, road, and trail together made a great walking route for me. Bug repellent was useful.

 

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Rockwood Pond, Fitzwilliam, NH

A map of the area suggests to me a longer loop hike for some other day: from the trailhead in Rhododendron State Park, go uphill to Little Monadnock; follow the Metacomet-Monadnock trail northward into Troy; turn south on the Cheshire Rail Trail; then turn right (south-southwest) on Rockwood Road to return to the park.

But no long hike for me today. Instead, after my walk I drove to discover a couple of places that were new to me (even though they’re apparently very well known by the rest of the world).

  • I am now a very big fan of Monadnock Berries in Troy, where I picked about three pounds of scrumptious blueberries while enjoying a prime view of Mount Monadnock.
  • The Kimball Farm ice cream stand in Jaffrey was crowded, and I could have done without the smell of fried seafood being served a few windows over. But those are just quibbles. My ice cream cone, allegedly a “mini” portion (but don’t you believe it), was perfect.
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Monadnock and blueberries: a great combination. Photos by Ellen Kolb.

 

When the temps hit 100…

My state is having its annual heat wave. My car’s thermometer registered 104° today. It’s hot enough to make me forget for a few days that icy driveways are only a few months away. It’s even hot enough to make an indoor treadmill look appealing. But I found a good place for a half-hour walk today: a rail trail under a nice shady canopy of trees.

Summer day Goffstown rail trail

The Goffstown rail trail was my destination today. You might have a shady refuge just like it near you. Packed sand underfoot, trees overhead, river nearby. Restful and cool, until the trail crossed a power line cut and the shade disappeared for a hundred yards or so.

From the trail’s bridge over the Piscataquog River, I could see a couple of kayakers who were no doubt in for a whopping case of sunburn. Still, the river was their refuge from the heat, so good for them.

Piscataquog from Singer bridge

As I turned around at the bridge to return to my car, a smiling bicyclist flew past me. She called back to me over her shoulder, “isn’t this a glorious day?”

Yes, it was.

More ideas: Five years ago, I made a list of five of my favorite southern New Hampshire hot-weather hikes

GSW rail trail photos in latest edition of New England Antiques Journal

Treat yourself to this article by Brian Roche in the latest edition of New England Antiques Journal: Bridging the Gap Between Past and Present: The Preservation and Repurposing of Historic Railroad BridgesIn one of the sidebars, you’ll see some pictures familiar to longtime readers of Granite State Walker.

Hands Across the Merrimack (and Manchester)

Hands Across the Merrimack bridge, Manchester NH

I was surprised and pleased to get a call a few months ago from Mr. Roche, a freelance writer. While researching the rail bridge article, he came across this blog and its posts about the Hands Across the Merrimack bridge in Manchester. He kindly sought permission to use some of my photos.

The resulting article features photos of several northeastern bridges of striking beauty. I’m honored that a few of my photos made the cut.

Mr. Roche spelled my name correctly in his text; it was left to a magazine editor to misspell it in the sidebar. But to err is human, and to publish photos of a New Hampshire treasure is divine.

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Second Street bridge, just west of Hands Across the Merrimack Bridge, along the Pisacataquog trail.