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.

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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.

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.

 

Destinations, Found and Missed

I really thought I could nail down that Forest Society patch for visiting 33 Society properties throughout New Hampshire. I’ve fallen short. Dalton and Sandwich did me in, which is to say I haven’t been able to manage a trip to Dana Forest or Eagle Cliff. I’ll settle for earning the patch via tier 2 status, AKA the easy way, which involves concentrating on one specific region and answering a few questions about the properties there. I shall send the Forest Society my entry in a New Year’s Day email.

Don’t think for a minute that my time on the patch project has been wasted. I loved every  property I visited. Every mile driven was worth the time and effort. Sometimes, I’d go a few miles off-route on a business day just to find one of the reservations or forests on the project list. (Tip: always keep walking shoes in the car.) One gorgeous fall day, I spent hours on the Route 16 corridor plus-or-minus a few miles, discovering four Forest Society properties including High Watch Reserve. I wanted to stay up there on Green Mountain until the last leaf dropped.

Seeking inspiration for your hikes this coming year? Check out the Forest Society’s list. Make a list of state parks you want to visit. Do a web search of conservation commissions in the towns near you; you’ll find a treasury of local trail maps and descriptions.

Just get out there.

Mt. Skatutakee, Early Fall

I headed to Hancock hoping to find some autumn color, but foliage season is only skimming the Monadnocks so far. The brilliant colors are a couple of weeks away. I had a beautiful drive nonetheless, followed by a good walk up Mt. Skatutakee on the property of the Harris Center for Conservation Education. (Check the “Trails” tab on that site for maps to local trails.) Great early fall conditions: sunny, cooling down, no bugs.

With or without fall color, Skatutakee’s summit is a good spot for lunch, just as I recalled. I was last there about thirteen years ago on a spring day when the blackflies were ferocious and ladyslippers were everywhere. I remember great views from that day, so the shrubs at the summit must have been trimmed back at the time.

I started too late in the day to add Thumb Mountain to the hike, with its Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down trails connecting to Skatutakee. That’s an inviting route for another day.

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Harriskat Trail. Leaves are falling, but the maples haven’t turned yet. 

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The view from the Skatutakee summit south to Mount Monadnock was limited by the leafed-out trees. 

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Caterpillars are out and about.

North Pack and Pack from Skatutakee

North Pack Monadnock (at left) and Pack Monadnock, seen from Skatutakee’s summit.

Snowshoes on Goffstown rail trail

We braced for two feet of snow with high winds, and got a little shy of a foot and a half. No wind to speak of, although neighbors to the north and east got slammed. No ice or mixed precipitation. Just fresh powder, plowed roads, and no obstacles between me and the trailhead of my choice.

I took  my snowshoes to the Goffstown rail trail and had it to myself for an hour on a weekday afternoon. I saw one set of fresh cross-country ski tracks. A set of snowshoe tracks looked a day old. Aside from that, the powder was mine.

And omigosh, holy boot camp, Batman…! This was only the second time this season I’ve used my snowshoes, and the last time was on a well-packed down path. This time, all the splendid snow gave me a workout. Every muscle from ankles to hips is now indicating that I should have some ibuprofen handy tomorrow. Worth it, though. Conditions were excellent.

Through the trees,  I saw and heard a red-tailed hawk doing lazy circles over the river. I figured I’d get a good look at it once I got to the bridge over the Piscataquog River. Darned thing waited until I got there and then flew away downriver.

(If you’re in the Goffstown/Manchester area: The little parking area at the Moose Club Park Road trail crossing is plowed enough to allow a subcompact car without snow tires to get in and out without needing a push. Heading eastward from there, the trail has no deadfall from the recent storm. At the Manchester end of the bridge over the river, there’s a wall of snow left by plow trucks clearing the road to the ice arena, and the boat launch parking area is temporarily inaccessible.)