Hikin' Herons! Part 6: Big Pines Natural Area & Great Hill Fire Tower
Once Rte. 113A – Chinook Trail – turned into a windy, wild backroad, the pines and spruce bending under the snow and glimpses of the swollen Swift river through the trees, I knew this would be my favorite hike of the Hikin' Herons challenge yet. It was also the most challenging – and the longest.
The Big Pines Natural Area is in the Hemenway State Forest, certainly a stately place. The trees were huge and the forest was thick and the colors were bright and my senses were instantly on overdrive. It all channeled a very primal feeling that I only seem to experience in the old woods of the White Mountains.
I think Wilder gets like that, too. His dogness comes alive. In these wild environments he becomes an unstoppable machine of energy and madness. I know his senses are on overdrive, too. He's over here, over there, over here again, sniffing marking looking at things up close, digging his nose into snow, his eyes practically bloodshot they're open so wide, then he'll stop and his ears will perk up, what's out there in the woods wait where's the daddy there's the daddy let's go jump on the daddy okay let's keep hiking climbing jumping rolling in the snow zowwwww! He was so happy in his element all day – he was truly a photogenic beast. It is in his favor to blur with the snow, his bright eyes, his pink tongue, the evergreens and mucky mud all vibrant in the snow and blue merle fluff explosions.
Wilder is still so rambunctious that I feel obligated to keep him on his fifteen-foot leash, though in these tangled woods, I kept the leash shortened to ten feet. We dived down a hill through the snow, hiding leaves and roots and mud puddles. I was grabbing onto trees to keep from being dragged butt-first by the rampaging dog, finally restricted from the back seat of the car.
Easy Walker Trail
We reached the Swift river, practically rapid under a marvelous footbridge. But first we'd loop-de-loop around the Easy Walker Trail, just a narrow path along the river. We had to watch for trail markers, little red arrows and yellow blazes. There were also interpretive markers but Wilder had no interest in any of them. He was practically skijoring me across the snow so I just crumpled the interpretive guide up and stuck it in my pocket. The information was more relevant in the spring and summer – the ferns and hobblebush can wait until next time. Today we'd learn about snow and mud.
Wilder loves mud and dived right into a swampy bit beside a wooden plank walk while I tried my hardest not to follow him in. Then we raced all the way around the loop back to the trailhead in about thirty seconds. Easy Walker Trail? More like rollicking good run! Perhaps this trail isn't for leashed dogs, as we found ourselves wrapped up around our feet, legs, and nearby trees.
“Wilder, let's go back!” I said and the dog took up the challenge. We raced all the way around the loop again, in quick time. And now that he had burned some energy off, we could focus on the real hike ahead.
But one obstacle separated us from the climb: the footbridge. It was the king of footbridges. The river was certainly not passable at this time. There were no safe places for humans or dogs to cross in the high, fast water. Wilder has learned a lot on our hikes throughout Tamworth (and other hikes) – how to pace himself, how to listen, how to check back when he gets ahead of me, and how to be brave and cross bridges or walk on uncertain platforms and surfaces. We've dealt with numerous bridges and planks throughout the Hikin' Herons challenge, almost all of them covered in snow or slippery frost. They're not always pleasant for puppy paws and often he'd rather jump off and navigate the mess below. This bridge had stairs, was high up, covered in snow, long and narrow, and stairs back down the other side. Fortunately, the railings were low enough that the bridge was perfectly safe for him to cross – it was only a matter of convincing him that.
I climbed ahead of Wilder and called him up the stairs. He jumped up and landed on a stair with his front paws, then flashed me that arrogant puppy smile and climbed up with me. He timidly pawed across the bridge ahead of me, as if each step might be his last, and on the other side he dived off the stairs and spun around to tangle me in leash and puppy high-fives. Piece o' cake!
Betty Steele Loop Trail & Spur Trail
The next stretch of trail was the Betty Steele Loop Trail, and we could go left or right to climb the 1200-foot high Great Hill. Both sides of the trail led to the same intersection, but I chose to take the right side, which was straight (and steeper) to the Spur Trail (the ascent). We'd follow the winding side of the loop back down, since it ran around the edge of the hill with less dramatic descents. Easier in the snow, for sure. Right, moving on!
We were so mesmerized with the beauty of these woods and brooks and snow and silence that we wandered off the trail a little. There were a few switchbacks to look out for and it's important to keep an eye out for the double-blazed trees.
And it got steep real fast! Nothing to worry about, but I had a good sweat going under my jacket. This side of the loop trail wasn't long, and soon we were on the Spur Trail, which feels more like a big mountain trail than anything else we've climbed yet in Tamworth. It was four hundred feet of climbing in less than a mile. There were deep pockets of shade in these old woods and the sun flurried through. Sometimes I swore I saw shades of blue or green twinkling on the snow, it was all so beautiful and sort of mystical.
Wilder occasionally perked his ears up and looked around, but we were all alone out here. Sometimes silence can trick us. But maybe there was something just around the bend, I'll never know. We approached a huge log, a fallen pine, a shipmast crumbled. I let go of Wilder's leash and asked him how we'd get past it. I've seen him jump some piles of brush and smaller logs, but even this one required us to hyup up and over. With a twinkle in his eye, the pup put his front paws up on the log, bounced up, back paws barely touching the log, then sprung off the log onto the other side. Rare form today, this mountain goat.
Great Hill Fire Tower
We got up a steep section to the last stretch, and the trail curled around a ledge for some mountain views. Twelve hundred feet is plenty high to see clear views all around and I got excited. And then we saw it! Just ahead, the Great Hill Fire Tower, reminescent of a Walker from Star Wars. I thought about ducking and hiding, actually, but it looked pretty stationary, out of commission from blasting rebel forces.
We had the whole summit to ourselves. There were bootprints – we'd seen some on the trails, too – but no one had stuck around. I tied Wilder's leash to the tower and tip-toed up the snow-covered stairs. Fire towers are not puppy-friendly places. Wilder sat stoically at the bottom step looking up for my calming presence.
I certainly could have spent more time up top and studied the landscape, but the silence was so dreary I didn't want to leave the poor pup alone too long. Mt. Chocorua was astounding, though. The clouds were still dark and grey, the sun plowing through, Chocorua's snowy brow furrowed. “How's the weather up there?” I asked from one-third its height. Conflicted, it said. I skiied back down the stairs to Wilder who jumped with excitement and practically tangled us up all over again.
There was a snow-covered road down the back of the hill so we walked down, passing a ranger station cabin off to the side. The road turned at a ninety-degree angle and descended moderately to a gate. I tapped the gate and we climbed back up, returning to the summit briefly then moving along back to the Spur Trail. I remembered that getting to the summit is only half the adventure – we also had to get back down.
The Descent & The Overlooked Trail
Wilder continued his high-energy mountain goating – and I continued clutching to trees to avoid being dragged. Once we got down to the loop trail again, the path was less steep and the remainder of our descent was a breeze. Wilder had to stop a few times to chew snowballs out of his paws and I felt bad. It's that time of year again to break out the Musher's Secret, I decided – it's a natural wax that protects paws from snow and ice build-up.
We walked under a very cool windblown tree. I wanted to swing off of it, like a boy in a Robert Frost poem, but I figured it wouldn't hold my weight. Then we walked through a stand of some of the biggest trees I've seen yet. Suddenly we found ourselves on a ledge overlooking the Swift and I had to shorten Wilder's leash lest he take a nosedive into the rushing water. It was quite the view and quite the hike! A good rugged trail! We splashed through a brook and popped out right at the dreaded footbridge! Wilder knew what to do this time and we sped across it, over the river and through the woods right back to the trailhead and the comforts and pleasures of treats, fresh water bowls, belly scratches, and the car heat turned on high.
“We're hikin' herons, puppy!” I cheered. “We did it!” We drove home in our victory mood. Our challenge was over! And just in time for winter to settle in and cover the earth with its frosty blanket.
Except.... a few hours later as I filled out the Hikin' Herons form, I realized we completely overlooked a short trail – obnoxiously short. Betty's Path was parallel with the road behind the fire tower that we had walked down, and it was required for completion of the Hikin' Herons challenge. Doh! We were steps from it as we reached the gate, but in that moment I completely overlooked it, mistaking the road for the path. A heads up for those who may head to Great Hill in the future: Betty's Path is on the map, but it is not marked as "Betty's Path," just a nondescript dotted line.
But no worries! I was excited to return to Great Hill. I already saw a few other trails on the map nearby we could explore. And it would snow during the week and give us a new element to explore. And was Wilder excited or what? “Hey puppy, wanna go . . . hiking?” He jumps all over me when I say the H-word.