Climbin' Spooky Mt. Paugus
In the fall there is a lot of color in the trees. A last whiz-bang of beauty before the snow comes. But beneath those trees, things can get dark – and spooky – real fast. If you let it get to you. A few years ago, I went on a hike, and, well, it got to me...
The cars were clogging the roads all through northern New Hampshire – cigarettes out the left side and cameras out the right – zoomed in on the oranges and reds. Where I was headed was grey and green and black. And I’d go on foot. Mt. Paugus is the stubborn little mountain in a range of legends – Chocorua, Passaconaway, Whiteface, the Sleepers, the Tripyramids. Paugus was an Abenaki sachem killed by white colonists, as were most of the other namesakes of those daunting rocks always just out of reach. Paugus means “oak” in Abenaki. Thoreau wrote that the oak “asks a clear sky,” but the shaggy, staunch Mt. Paugus seems to demand.
Paugus has always called to me, once just a plus-sign signifying a summit on a map. At 3100 feet, it’s a foothill in New Hampshire. Mt. Chocorua is one of the most-climbed peaks in the White Mountains, and Mt. Paugus is linked by one short trail through the Sandwich Range Wilderness. Yet no one seems to want to go there. I felt compelled to find out why.
The trail begins in someone’s backyard. He stood on his land and pointed to the dark woods when I interrupted his work to ask where the trailhead was. It was a clearing at the end of a dirt driveway. I stepped out of the blue sky and into the shadows of the wilderness. The sound of passing cars on the highway faded away and the true, terrifying silence of the woods filled my ears. Wind-bent birches pointed up the trail and into the woods, like old porters showing me the way in.
My instincts told me to turn back now. Late autumn sun wasn’t being generous. For all its demanding, little Paugus did not receive much from the blue sky above. Leaves had fallen from the trees and covered the ground, trail and all. Evergreens and oaks above – not interested in shedding their needles and leaves – offered the ominous rocks some privacy. Everything about the woods this day smelled like sleep and waiting, like dirt and death. I felt, for the first time in a while, fear.
But I found myself at the mouth of a local curiosity known as Big Rock Cave. The cave “invites exploration,” according to the trail guide, so I couldn’t resist. I kept thinking of one thing, all the way up, however. Bears. Bears splaying out in the cave. Bears hiding in the trees behind the cave. Bears up in the trees, hanging down and reaching for me. Bears everywhere.
Stephen King, the horror writer, often explores the very real side of his chosen genre, as he did in his book Danse Macabre. “Terror,” he wrote:
Fear can feel very real and immediate, and for good reason — it’s often based in past experience. For example, everyone seems to remember where they were on September 11th, 2001. Many people still feel a shudder when that image of the smoking towers flashes in their mind.
Years ago, I pitched a tent off the Appalachain Trail at the base of Mt. Garfield, after hiking almost twenty miles from Ethan Pond. I had peaked five summits on that hot and muggy Independence Day, with only a few small bottles of murky water to drink from Zealand Falls — and a few semi-frozen PBRs. I dozed off in the pitch black, enjoying the mild hallucinatory, dehydrated state I was in. At some point, I stepped out of my little scout tent to relieve myself, and within seconds of slipping back in feet-first, I felt a presence. It was standing right above me. My tent was suddenly very hot and still; I felt and smelled its musty breath on my face. Its paw pressed through the screen of the tent far enough to touch my head – the soft leathery pad of a living animal on my head. Time passed as it felt around the edges of the tent and I waited, finally deciding to yell and shine my flashlight on and off – too fearful to look while doing it. I felt the cool air creep back through the screen and listened to my visitor’s lazy thump-thump, softer and fainter as it wandered away. The next morning I found footprints and plenty of rocks up in the woods that provide housing for Ursa.
And so here I was on Mt. Paugus, picking up a stick and crawling into Big Rock Cave. I knew my fears were unwarranted. A cave wouldn’t “invite exploration” if there was a threat of bears. An established trail wouldn’t wander right past a known bear clubhouse. Black bears are typically scaredy-cats, anyway. They survived natural selection by avoiding drama, choosing to hide in trees instead. I mean c’mon – they’re part of the pig family. I ran through my list of reasons not to be fearful, but my pulse raced.
Of course, the cave was empty, except for an abandoned campfire pit. I climbed through all the passages in this pile of rocks that Zeus, himself, dropped for me to explore. I climbed up top, back down and around. Now, only the silence scared me. I kept on with my climb up Mt. Paugus, feeling invigorated.
But that’s when things got even weirder. Mt. Paugus is not an easy climb. It’s steep, and the trail winds unexpectedly. I found myself climbing an ever-more-sketchy ravine, surrounded by wet, moss-covered boulders and fallen trees, which appeared to have been arranged there by a torrent no man could imagine. Not seeing any trail blazes or cairns, and not knowing where else to go, I climbed up.
At the top of the ravine, after fifteen minutes of climbing, I reached a dead end. The faintest taunting of a footpath led to a patch of baby trees, but it was nothing but gnarl beyond. I sighed, confused as to where the damned trail was, and climbed back down.
All the way at the bottom of the ravine, I found where the trail turned, poorly marked. Beyond that, it picked right up, as easy as ever. Birds chirped and jumped from tree to tree at the appearance of a stranger, not aware that I was as frazzled as they were.
I was gifted with the pleasing view of Mt. Chocorua, before being filed into the darkest, quietest woods I’ve ever seen. An intersection with an old wooden sign that hasn’t seen the sun since the beginning of time welcomed me – or did it warn me? To my left was Old Paugus Trail, leading to the summit, or somewhere near it. There is no trail to the true summit. That route was my planned ascent. It looped somewhere near the top and wandered back down to the main trail on the other side of the mountain. To my right was Beeline Trail, a path that led to Chocorua’s main network of trails, filled with soccer moms and golden retrievers and church youth groups. Less daunting than this ancient place, no doubt.
I continued up Old Paugus Trail. The path was less than a foot wide. Branches scraped my face. I began seeing piles of animal droppings. Fuck. Big piles. And there were big rocks all around me. The kind of rocks bears liked to hang out around. Fuck, fuck. But I knew I was so close to the top that I had to continue.
I picked up another large branch and dragged it with me, in order to intimidate any bears I’d meet. I kept my eyes on the trail ahead of me, only peeking around sparingly, expecting to see a bear’s face turn in the woods towards me, like a velociraptor in Jurassic Park. “Clever girl,” I’d say before raising the stick to scare it off.
That is what you’re supposed to do when you’re confronted by a bear, say the experts. Try to look larger than the thing, bang on pots and pans, talk and yell. Fortunately, there are very few – if any – recorded deaths by bears in New Hampshire. In fact, the last recorded death was in 1784. More black bears have died from eating chocolate left by campers than campers have died from black bears. After my encounter with Ursa years ago, I read online that the easiest way to get rid of a bear is to say, “Hi! I’m a human!” Off they lumber, timid and confused, while you relax from the comfort of your roaring campfire.
But with my back against the forest, and only more forest to plow ahead into, I was having none of that. I began to talk out loud to myself, to try and ease my beating heart. I tried to laugh, knowing that laughter and smiling will override the body’s fight-or-flight system. I stepped over more scat, looking fresher and fresher as I climbed. Then I came to another dead end. That was the final straw. Towers of rock lorded over me, and the trail was legitimately finished. My map showed no clues as to where I was, as it was not supposed to end anywhere.
I paced up and down the last hundred yards of the trail and finally convinced myself to quit. I raced back down to Beeline Trail, and towards the road. I continued to carry my stick, stepping over more fresh animal droppings. I almost began begging for a bear to attack, so that I may finally rest in peace.
The trail ended in a parking lot filled with cars. I was at the trailhead for a very popular path up Chocorua. Desperate for some noise, human activity of any kind, I gladly walked the final mile along the road back to my car. I could hear the whispers of laughter in the rustling leaves and I wanted no part of it.
While walking along the road, someone’s guard dog decided to trail me – barking and baring its teeth, only a foot away. I kicked dirt and rocks at it and it left me alone. I didn’t feel scared at all. I pondered my fear, and realized that all of it feels very unreal to me — from hazy memories of 9/11 to the dancing ghosts of bears in haunted woods. Perhaps my experiences were real before, but they are not now. In fact, I looked up at Mt. Paugus as I walked past, and it seemed to shrink just a bit, in recognizance of my discovery.
When I got home, I went online and typed in “Paugus” and “bear.” I found nothing. I typed in “bear scat” and found pictures. They did not match the scat I saw. I refined my search and found moose droppings that were identical to what I saw on the trail. A search of “Paugus” and “moose” turned up many sightings of moose right there on the Old Paugus Trail. I even read one account of a fellow who went up that ravine and bushwacked his way to the summit, quite easily. I was right there, I thought, scowling. It turns out Mt. Paugus is one of those mountains you have to bushwack, since they keep the trails rustic. If only I had known these things before I set foot onto the trail – I likely wouldn’t have panicked, at least not as much. It seems so silly to me that I was scared at the time, with what little information I needed to flip my fear around.
Stephen King, in his Danse, thinks that we embrace artificial horrors and fears “to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools – to dismantle themselves.” Horror, he concludes, can be an “analyst’s couch.”
Much like that time I met a bear in the dark, I laugh about my scamper off the mysterious Mt. Paugus with a stick in my hand. I'd like to go back someday soon to those spooky woods and see how I handle it. I think this time I'd embrace the fear – just let it all in and see how it tastes. It might make for some interesting bushwacking as I find that summit.
And I look forward to the day I meet another bear. I might just say “Hi! I’m a human!” If I’m trapped in my tent in the dark, even better.