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Late season snowshoe journeys

March 31, 2011
The Birches of Rocky Branch Ridge

Two weeks ago Chris Whiton and I spent a day exploring Rocky Branch Ridge, the easternmost of the three long ridges that descend south from Mt. Washington. We parked at the Rocky Branch Trail lot on Route 16, just north of the Dana Place Inn. The trail surface was hard-frozen and rough, so we donned Microspikes for the two-mile climb to the top of the ridge. Where the trail eased off, we switched to snowshoes.

We ambled up to the height-of-land and struck off into the woods, bushwhacking to open ledges on two nameless peaks north of the trail. The firm, deep snow provided ideal conditions; in three miles off-trail, we were ensnared by only one "spruce trap." From the view-spots we enjoyed sweeping panoramas of the Rocky Branch valley, Montalban Ridge, and many distant summits. We could even peer down into North Conway, far off to the southeast.

Best of all, though, was the expansive paper birch forest between the two ledges. A legacy of the big Rocky Branch fires of 1912-1914, which flared near the end of the Rocky Branch logging railroad operation, these graceful "pioneer" trees cover many acres of gently sloping mountainside. The birches are widely-spaced, with little undergrowth. Under deep snow cover the area has a marvelous park-like appearance.

This was off-trail travel, but in these conditions you could hardly call it bushwhacking. Weaving through these gleaming trees on a March day with unlimited sunshine well, snowshoeing just doesn't get any better. (It wasn't all peaches and cream, though. To reach the second ledge, we had to push through a long stretch of clinging, eye-poking conifers.)

Chris and I wondered about the openness of this birch forest. I asked Dave Govatski of Jefferson (retired from the Forest Service and the most informed person I know concerning the natural and human history of the Whites) about the undergrowth-free glades here and in other places, such as the Kilkenny area.

Dave explained that a carpet of ferns - which would likely be found in the Rocky Branch glades in summer - inhibit other plant growth because they have "aleopathic qualities." The ferns produce an herbicide-like chemical that prevents other plants from flourishing. It's an interesting way to stay ahead of the competition.

Sun and Slush on Potash

Two days later I climbed 2,700-foot Potash Mountain, one of the best half-day hikes off the Kancamagus Highway. I avoided the difficult crossing of Downes Brook along the Mount Potash Trail by using a logging road that leaves the Kanc a half-mile west of the regular trailhead. (The trail crosses it about mile up.)

This was a sunny, taste-of-spring day, with temperatures soaring into the low 50s. Despite the warmth, the snowshoe track on the trail remained solid, having been pounded down by hikers all winter. After climbing steadily through an extensive spruce forest, I emerged on south-facing, snow-covered ledges just below the summit.

The reflection from the sun was blinding, mandating the use of sunscreen and shades. After admiring views of Mt. Passaconaway and Mt. Chocorua, I climbed the last steep pitch to the top over several more open slabs. Here the snow was quickly turning to slush, making for slippery snowshoeing.

At the summit, I repaired to a favorite southwest-facing perch, fashioned a seat from my pack, and spent the better part of an hour gazing out at Mt. Tripyramid, Sleeper Ridge, and the Sabbaday Brook valley. The vistas north to Mt. Hancock, Mt. Carrigain, and the shining beacon of Mt. Washington weren't too shabby, either. At any time of year, Potash is a little gem.

Under the Big Moon

The unusually large full moon on March 19 inspired me to undertake a late-night excursion on the Lincoln Woods Trail near the west end of the Kanc. This wide, flat trail, a former logging railroad, is well suited for a moonlight ramble, with no tricky footing or face-slapping branches.

I was surprised there were no other trekkers out on such a brilliant night. The snow surface was crusty and uneven; though noisy, my snowshoes offered stability. I went a mile and a half in to a spot where the trail skirts the edge of the East Branch of the Pemigewasset.

This river, the biggest and brawniest backcountry stream in the Whites, had opened up during the thaw. Glinting under the moon, it was flowing fast and free. A jumble of ice chunks on the bank provided ghostly views downstream to Mt. Osceola and upstream to Bondcliff and slide-streaked West Bond.

On a moonlit outing, you slip through the yin and yang of hardwoods and softwoods: the former flooded with light, the latter dark enough that you proceed by feel as much as sight. By day, Lincoln Woods is considered one of the tamest trails around. But late on a full moon night, with no one else around, it was a surprisingly wild and desolate place.

Bonus Views of North Tripyramid

The densely wooded summit of North Tripyramid, at 4,180 feet the highest peak in the Sandwich Range, is not normally deemed a viewpoint of much merit. In summer, aside from the dramatic views down-slope on the precipitous North Slide, there is just one partial northeastern vista at the summit and not much else.

Last week, though, thanks to a deep late-season snowpack, it was a different story. I made the long climb to North "Tri" from Waterville Valley via the wide Livermore Trail, the delightful, hardwood-rich Scaur Ridge Trail, and the upper Pine Bend Brook Trail, where several steep pitches with powder over hard crust tested the limits of my MSR snowshoes.

Four hours of steady snowshoeing brought me to the summit. The normal northeast viewpoint was much improved by the lift of the snowpack, extending across the Albany Intervale to the Presidentials, the Moats, Pleasant Mountain, Mt. Chocorua, Mt. Passaconaway and beyond.

The big surprise was the two other vistas I found, both from scrubby areas where you wouldn't see much in summer. One was just a few yards down the North Slide trail, looking northwest to Mt. Osceola and the Franconia Range and north to the Bonds and Mt. Hancock. The other, which required a very short bushwhack, faced south to the neighboring Tripyramid peaks, Sandwich Dome, and all the way out to Mt. Cardigan and Mt. Sunapee.

Combined, this trio of vantages offered a near 360-degree panorama. Who woulda thunk it, on North Tripyramid? The temperature was in the comfortable twenties, there was no wind at all, and the backcountry was pin-drop quiet. I'm as anxious as the next person for spring, but at times like this I wish winter would last just a wee bit longer.

Editor's note: Pick up "The AMC White Mountain Guide" for maps and descriptions of these and other trails in the White Mountains. Steve Smith, author of "Wandering Through the White Mountains: A Hiker's Perspective," has hiked and written about the White Mountains for more than 20 years. He owns the Mountain Wanderer Map and Book Store in Lincoln, and lives with his wife, Carol, in Lincoln.

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Alton School
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