Ten thousand years ago, the human race strapped boards to their feet with pieces of sinew, and through generations trekked across the blankets of snow between Asia and what is now the Appalachian Mountains. The people that settled this region as the last ice ages frozen fingers relaxed their grip, found themselves in a land of granite gorges, cascading waterfalls, and verdant living woods.
Around them the natural landscape inspired a pantheon of gods and religious beliefs that integrated society and nature. A landscape, which to another ideology would become the Presidential range, was to be the backdrop for one of the oldest trails in the USA; the Appalachian trail. Due in part, to the efforts of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) the land remains one of poetic inspiration that calls over six million people a year to become lost in a wilderness metaphor. While the journey to the Appalachians may not take generations of movement in the modern world, two stunning snowshoeing locations are still worth the adventure.
The first begins in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where snowshoers can course over fields of crystalline manna during the day, and by night sleep in one of three hearth-warmed huts placed along one of the Appalachian Trail. The sounds of labored breath and crushing snow mingle with those of the wild, while traveling before the Presidential range. Valleys drift into boreal forests and into river’s falls, as the Appalachian Trail becomes a block of memory lane that will be returned to time and time again. Initially conceived of by Benton MacKaye the Appalachian Trail was to be a route by which society might integrate itself with a more agrarian existence. He had hoped to establish camps along the trail that would provide solace to those looking to escape the mechanizations of modern society. While his social underpinnings were not taken up by the masses, his call for the trail was. As a result of the effort of volunteers, the trail opened in 1937, and was designated as the first National Scenic Trail in 1968. While the trail has never reached its’ lofty goals, the AMC has established eight seasonal communal huts, along 56 miles of the Appalachian Trail that, along with numerous other facilities and programs, would have brought a grin to MacKaye.
The winter brings to the huts and trails in the area a sense of solitude that must have been experienced by the first pioneers as they trekked across the ice covered streams and frosted pines. During the winter, three self-service cabins remain open, though without some of the amenities of the summer lodging. This means that the service that brings droves of tourists to these parts are in hibernation, and the snowshoer can take advantage of low rates and less traveled trails that wind up through the notches of the White Mountains to the AMC huts. While, during the winter months, there is no staff to prepare the traveler’s food, in the evenings the hearth remains a light in the common areas, and there is a full kitchen to cook one’s food. Meanwhile, the caretaker of the cabin is an enthusiastic source of information on the flora and fauna of the region.
While each of the huts houses between 30 and 50 people it is always best to check on the availability, conditions, and recommendations for the cabins by going to their website (www.outdoors.org). It is also best to call ahead for reservations at (603)-466-2727. While the huts themselves provide an interesting experience, it is the journey that brings the snowshoer. Each hut is accessed via one of three spectacular notches, with sights and sport that are unparalleled. So get your White Mountain National Forest parking pass (http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/white_mountain/passes/) and prepare for some wild fun.
The first hut on our exploration of the White Mountain Range is Carter Notch Hut, the oldest of the huts. Built as a log cabin shelter in 1904, and rebuilt in 1914, this hut is rumored to even have its own resident ghost. Late night ghost stories tell tales of late caretaker “Red Mac” MacGregor who allegedly swore not to leave the natural beauty of this site. Set near two pristine lakes and covered throughout most of the winter in snow, it huddles between the Wildcats and Carter Dome. A great snowshoe hike even from the trail head, you can take either the easy 3 hour 19-mile Brook Trail from Pinkham Notch area, or for a much harder 5.1 mile trek experts can use Wildcat Ridge Trail, keep in mind that it features some steep climbs, and icy ledges that can be dangerous. Then in the morning, on your way back to the car, head over to Glen Ellis Falls, a 62-foot waterfall that descends over cliffs formed from past glaciations. Back in your car it is time to take advantage of the horses that pull your metal wagon, turn the key and head further down the Appalachian Trail.
Parking down at the entrance into Crawford Notch, get out and take a look at the various sights before heading up the 5.5 A-Z Trail. The trail will take you between Mounts Tom and Field, and you’ll climb 2,ooo feet so be reading for a good hike. A stop at Zealand Falls Hut not only affords you the opportunity to view the falls on Whitewall Brook, but also can be used as a base to go and see the views of Zeacliff, or any of the other 4,000-foot mountains that are near. Here one is able to experience the awesome power of nature. While this valley at one time had been stripped of its vegetation by man and fire, the area has grown back lush and teaming with life.
While you may be tired after two hard days of snowshoeing take the short trek up to Lonesome Lake from Franconia Notch. Named perhaps for the lake that Lonesome hut sits on, this mountain refuge, the furthest western hut on the Appalachian Trail, stands before Cannon Mountain. During the winter this site is an easy hour or two snowshoe hike away from the car, yet as you travel you may notice that your neighbors change into red squirrel, moose, fox, and particularly around lonesome Lake Snowshoe hairs. Here you can match strides with the hare whose back feet act very similar to the snowshoes on your own feet. And when you take them off spend some time enjoying the view of Franconia Ridge just on the other side of the lake.
A five or six hour drive across the boarder into Maine’s section of the Appalachian Trail corridor lies our second destination. A trip to Gulf Hagas, called the “Grand Canyon of Maine,” is worth more than the 150 odd miles you’ll have to drive. This four mile long gorge seems to have been carved by the Pleasant River simply to provide a playground for snowshoers and winter sports enthusiasts. With crampons the experienced snowshoer can safely enter into a land of ice crevasses and seventy-foot tall sheets of glistening ice that cover the granite walls. Excursions to the gorge can start at another of AMC’s facilities, Little Lyford Pond Camps. A traditional Maine sporting camp, it is surrounded by a hundred miles of wilderness full of sites and trails. Here you can stay in log cabins and enjoy the camp’s cedar sauna after your days explorations. From here you can take the eleven-mile roundtrip snowshoe trek to the bottom of Gulf Hagas. However, most guests choose a shorter trip, with only 1 to 3 miles of snowshoeing on the Rim Trail at Gulf Hagas, in addition to a 4.5 to 5 mile roundtrip cross-country ski to the head of the gulf to catch its main attractions. These include Stair Falls at the head of the Gulf, Billings Falls, Buttermilk Falls, and The Jaws. The eleven-mile cross-country/snowshoe trek is considered a difficult trek and should not be attempted without crampons, as well as, endurance and navigational training. You’ll find the snow-covered road to the Hagas on a trail paralleling the Pleasant River. When you get to the gulf, unless it is hiding behind a curtain of snowfall, you’ll be clicking your heels together wishing this could be home.
In today’s world we no longer have to carve our place out of the wilderness as did those who strapped sinew and wood to their feet. Instead, as we strap our snowshoes on, we carve a place for the wilderness in the society that has grown with and around us. Preserving such a vital place for us to play and reflect has been a major goal of the AMC since it’s founding. Their work and the work of others have helped to keep both the Appalachian Trail, and Gulf Hagas a trek of discovery worth taking generations to see.