Hikin' Herons! Part 7: Return To Great Hill & Beyond!
I was so excited all week for Monday and when it came, I loaded Wilder up in the car and we drove through the snow flurries to wrap up the Hikin' Herons challenge – and quite likely our hiking for 2017. I drove down Great Hill Road to the parking area at the Hemenway Road intersection. There was Great Hill Road (plowed), Hemenway Road (not plowed), and then a gated access road (also not plowed). We hiked up the access road.
There were a few inches of fresh, crunchy snow. I wore running sneakers (I know, I know). Wilder hopped through the snow with vigor, actually bounding ahead of me, so I let go of his leash and let him free-range dog it until we reached the trail, since there weren't any signs of people nearby. If he went too far or off-trail, I called him and he'd return – or at least check back on me. Often he'd run back at me and barrel into me.
It was a slight uphill walk and I tramped through the snow, slog slog. I found some packed snowshoe tracks and mostly walked in those, wishing I had a pair with me. That's fine, it was an excellent workout. My legs would be sore by the end of the day. We passed two access roads, both on the left and both gated. The first one led over to Hemenway Road, and the second one was the fire tower road that we hiked the week before. The map insisted that Betty's Path was just around the bend – and that the road we were on continued onward. But just ahead, the road ended in a clearing. A small path ventured off from the clearing in the opposite direction of Great Hill. I didn't see Betty's Path.
Wilder sniffed around the perimeter of the clearing and I called him over. He looked at me and hesitated, but followed me anyway. I saw an old wooden sign holder nailed to a tree with nothing on it and bootprints leading into the woods (at least, I think they were bootprints). I wondered if this was Betty's Path. It certainly didn't look like much of a trail, but it couldn't hurt to follow. We ankle-deeped it for about thirty seconds before I felt silly and Wilder got tangled up in trees, so we went back to the road.
I decided to walk the perimeter of the clearing – and lo and behold, Wilder was right the whole time. I've observed before that he has a knack for staying on the trail and it was no exception this time. Right above where he had been standing when I called him over was a simple wooden sign reading BETTY'S PATH --->. He had even marked the snow with a bright yellow, the color of the blazes on the trees. Clever pup!
The path was uphill, covering about a hundred feet to the summit, a little steep at times, and the snow made it a challenge. I felt fortunate to be able to follow the snowshoe tracks, which acted as stairs up the steeper sections.
It was beautiful forest, what I now think of as “classic” Hemenway State Forest, with lots of big trees and exposed rock and boulder and peeks of peaks to our right – as if Great Hill sat unmatched in height for miles around. We found a fallen log and Wilder leaped over it with not grace and finesse but vigor and wild energy. I also spotted numerous piles of acorn shrapnel at the bases of trees, the remains of countless meals for winter-fattened squirrels.
Great Hill Fire Tower, Round Two
As we approached the top of Great Hill, the tower appeared. We passed under an arbor of leaning trees into snow flurries. I tied Wilder up to the tower and climbed up. The sun was out, somewhere out there, but the clouds were low and snow kept coming. Mt. Chocorua's head was in the clouds today. I was particularly fond of the Ossipee peaks – Whittier catching my eye all along the highway, and now here from my high point. We've been in the area so often lately, the Sandwich and Ossipee mountains had just become background scenery. The ski slopes on Whittier looked inviting.
This tower was built by members of the CCC in 1935 and was regularly manned until 1974 by State Forest rangers. It used to have glass windows and was probably pretty cozy. There was a plaque hanging on one of the old wooden walls of the tower with a poem etched onto it. I particularly liked the lines,
Make my way over rocks to the trail
I keep an ear out for snapping branches
Like most sane men I'm afraid of ghosts.
For us, even in the daylight – dreary grey winter, sunlight be damned – there were spooks to be had, high alerts to experience. I again thought of Wilder down below and felt anxious about leaving him, so I climbed back down, leaving the tower to the winds and mad flurries of winter. There he was, looking up at me, determined to keep an eye on me at all costs. After I untied him, he tried to climb the stairs, but gave up after realizing he couldn't get up even one, they were so steep and narrow.
Wilder tried luring me down the Spur Trail, back into the Hemenway State Forest, and while I was tempted, we had different plans. So we returned down Betty's Path and back to the access road. It was quick bunny-hopping through the snow back to the gate. We just had to dodge a tractor sent to plow the snowy parking area.
Now we were Hikin' Herons! But real hikin' herons don't quit when the adventure's over! Not when there are other dotted lines on maps to explore!
Bonus Hike: Duck Pond Loop Trail
On the map, just inside the boundaries of the State Forest was a body of water, simply called “Duck Pond.” There was a trail flanking its western side, and cross-country trails/access roads all around it. So, it was a perfect hike. Our original plan was to hike along Great Hill Road to the dotted line's trailhead, then hike to Hemenway Road and back to the parking area. The tractor complicated things by being in the way, so I simply reversed the plan, and we went up Hemenway Road. I'm quite glad we did, because the map didn't show the entire Duck Pond Loop Trail – it parallels Great Hill Road and leads directly to the parking lot. We would have walked in the road for no reason had we gone that way in the beginning.
So up Hemenway Road we went. It was considerably sloppier than the gated access road, and uphill. There was water running alongside the road and Wilder dived in more than once. At one point he stopped and lifted his ears and was very aware of something. I realized after seeing the tractor that I wouldn't be surprised if snowmobiles raced by us, even though there were no signs of them out here at all – only snowshoe tracks on Great Hill. But I grabbed Wilder's leash and we carefully crept forward.
Wilder was concerned, I realized, with a fallen spruce branch in the middle of the road and the mild gurgling of a brook that flowed through a tunnel under the road. I'm actually a bit impressed he stopped to check it out because it wasn't visible in the snow from more than ten feet away. If we weren't paying attention, we could have stepped into drift and fallen in.
Soon we saw the frozen-over, snow-covered pond through the trees, but it was too far away through the woods to walk to. It looked like a clearing in the white landscape and was unexciting. We never caught a glimpse of it again, really. Maybe it's better enjoyed in the warmer seasons.
We climbed Hemenway Road – up, up – and cross-country trails began comin' and goin'. The first left turn was our path. I saw a sign a ways in that read THE MIDDLE TRAIL (EASIER). It was beautiful out here, though eerily quiet. No one had been out here and we were breaking this trail ourselves – paws and Merrells in fluffy six inches of powder. We jogged most of it – easier on the mind, not much on the legs.
I don't think the map was exactly to scale because the distance looked longer to the Duck Pond Loop Trail intersection than it really was. I took the turn with trepidation, but concluded it had to be the correct trail, as the pond was clearly between us and Hemenway Road. Unfortunately, I was uncomfortable about it and a little antsy for the rest of the hike.
Like most sane men, remember, I'm afraid of ghosts.
We followed the blue diamonds that designate a cross country trail. This was definitely a tougher trail for skiiers than the “easier” Middle Trail we had just turned from. There were lots of rocks and other bumps under the snow. We definitely walked over some wet spots. I took one step that got sucked into mud and my shoe nearly came off! The yellow CAUTION sign was on the other side, unfortunately. We went uphill after and I was more careful for the rest of the hike not to repeat the blunder of stepping into a trap.
This was another older-growth area – a well-developed, beautiful forest. We couldn't see any clues there was a pond nearby, but I enjoyed it, anyway. Wilder began rolling over and mouthing at snowballs in his paws and I helped him pick them clean. I don't know how those wild canines do it.
We came to a clearing filled with younger trees and I followed footprints that had suddenly appeared around the edge of the field. We didn't see any blue diamonds and the spooks swirled around me. The trail wasn't clear, so the footprints were a godsend, but we had followed prints earlier, and they led to nowhere. Before long, we returned into the woods and the trail was so obvious and wide that I almost let Wilder off his leash again. The stand of spruce trees was majestic and regal. We could have wheeled a king's carriage through them right back to the road.
Soon we were at a trailhead. A sign welcomed us to Duck Pond Loop Trail and a map pinned to a wooden signpost showed us the stretch of trail along Great Hill Road. We passed the foundation of a building and the remainder of a huge fireplace and chimney. I figured it was the old CCC camp. It invited exploration, but from the trail, looked tough to reach in the snow. Because Wilder was getting snowballed, we just pressed on. We ducked through the trail – lots of narrow path with snow-covered trees dropping their frosty burdens onto us – and were back in the parking lot within five minutes.
The tractor was gone so Wilder and I hopped over a snowbank into the road and celebrated our completed hike, shaking snow off ourselves. There was a truck in the lot and I nodded hello to a fellow about my age, carrying his snowboard toward the access road up Great Hill. Off on his own adventures. Wilder and I? We had one more of our own. We got back in the car and I drove through the hills of Tamworth to our next destination.
Bonus Hike: Perkins Trail
Great Hill Road to Pease Hill Road to Brown Hill Road to Cleveland Hill Road to Bunker Hill Road. You'd think Tamworth was nothing but hills. It mostly is. But they are the best, most scenic, backroads in the state.
As the car snaked down Bunker Hill Road past Jackman Pond, I peeked into the woods for the North and South Shore trailheads and could hardly see signs of them in the snow. Nor could I see any sign of the short Perkins Trail, across the street from the South Shore Trail.
Perkins Trail connects the road to Bearcamp River Trail. In the old maps, the riverside trail goes on for miles and miles and I've been enamoured with the idea of exploring it. But according to the White Mountain Trail Guide, much of it has not been maintained, is closed, or is now private property and isn't much of a trail these days. Before learning this, it was my intention to conclude this series at the end of Perkins Trail – looking left, looking right – and then returning on my own to the Bearcamp River Trail for a rompous epilogue, but I no longer think that will happen. At least Wilder and I could explore Perkins Trail, right?
I parked my car at the tail end of a parking lot nearby an old farmhouse. Across the street was a barn, a greenhouse, and in the distance, dozens of pasturing cattle. There weren't many signs of people around, just a few cars near the farmhouse. We hadn't seen a single car since leaving Great Hill Road.
I leashed Wilder and we walked down the dirt road. The small wooden sign for Perkins Trail was easy to spot from this direction and we trudged back into the snow. As for a trail, I'm not entirely sure we found one. The area had a mix of older trees and lots of small pines and succession trees competing to fill what was likely farmland not long ago. We could see the pasture fencing occasionally and I steered clear of that. From the trailhead there were no footprints or signs of activity, but further in we saw something. I couldn't tell if they were collapsed bootprints or those of a deer.
Perkins Trail is supposed to be straight – we did find one blaze and a few ribbons tied to trees – and the prints were pretty straight, so we followed them. There were no signs of the river or any change in scenery after a couple hundred yards. I kept feeling the presence of the fencing behind the trees to our right, and I really didn't want Wilder meeting a herd of ruminants, so we veered eleven o'clock. The prints kept going. It still sorta felt like a trail, but then we came to a mass of pines, a bright rich green exploding out of the snow. And the prints went straight into it. Ghosts.
The snow was falling in thick chunks by now, and it lended to the strangeness of the situation. I looked around and couldn't tell what was what. Yep! Hike's over. Let's get the heck outta here, Wilder. We chased our steps back to the trailhead and we hiked up Bunker Hill Road like a couple of locals, even waving at a passing truck.
But when we returned to my car, I heard trouble. The car was about a hundred yards from the house and a big old farmdog had stood up on the porch and was barking at us. I hurried Wilder into the car, and as I settled into my seat, I looked up to see the dog approaching us. It barked – Wilder barked – the dog kept approaching and barked some more. I scurried to start the car while the two dogs tried to out-dog each other and I backed out slowly. The farmdog was only a few feet from the car and I was careful not to run it over, but it knew what it was doing.
It was being just polite enough – and just assertive enough – to see us out properly. It followed the car closely as I crept away at ten mph, laughing in the rear view window, down to Rte. 113. Well, well. At least it does a good job protecting the herd.
We drove in the shadows of the Ossipee mountains, down Rte. 25 into the intersection where the Yankee Smokehouse is. My dad and I used to stop at the McDonald's here to get breakfast before big hikes. I'd look up to our first views of the Whites or over to a gondola chair on display in the parking lot, nostalgia being downloaded into my brain right then in that moment to be called upon years later, like right now.
Then Wilder and I drove twenty-three miles southbound, past the sign that says the Yankee Smokehouse is only “23 smiles” away. Then we drove the remaining twenty-two miles to our home. When I was a kid I used to love that sign, a giant happy pig on a billboard telling me we're almost in the mountains. Almost at McDonald's, almost at Mt. Chocorua, almost in North Conway, almost at Pinkham Notch....
I think it's pretty awesome that the “23 smiles” sign is exactly halfway between our home and that intersection. It has a whole new meaning to me now that I've explored the hills and woods of Tamworth. There's hikin' gold in those hills. We'll go back again and again. The nostalgia circuitry in my brain is already being rewired.
Thanks for reading the Hikin' Herons! series. It was a great month of hiking for Wilder and me. I mailed the appropriate form to the Tamworth Conservation Commission and now the wait is on for our dandy patches. I'll update the world when they arrive! Happy hiking out there, and don't forget to check back in to I LIVE IN NH for more fun and adventures.