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Life on the trail in the Mahoosuc Mountains

The Mahoosuc mountain range is a world unto itself.  Spanning the New Hampshire-Maine state line, the Mahoosucs are home to the most infamous
mile of the entire 2000-mile-plus Appalachian Trail (AT). But after nearly a month of working at camp, the open trail was just what I needed. At times
the trail isn’t all that open, but it’s really all about how you approach it. For those who are looking to set speed records on the AT, it’s a major obstacle. For those of use who aren’t in such a hurry, it’s a playground.

The Mahoosuc Mountain Range

My friends, Dawn and McKenzie, joined me for this leisurely paced, three-day, 20-mile early September adventure. Our packs were light and small, and my friend Al, who lives next door to the Mahoosuc range, dropped us off at the trailhead at 7am in Grafton Notch.

We hiked the trail from North to South, which put us against the primary flow. That primary flow consists mostly of through-hikers – people who
started hiking at the beginning of the AT in Georgia earlier in the year. The people we met on the trail are (or should be) the tail end of the
season’s through-hikers. Anyone behind them runs the risk of getting caught in the snow or other inclimate weather while on their final climb
up Mt Katahdin in Maine. In this stretch through the Mahoosucs, they cross their last state line and “only” have about 200 miles left. Once they climb
Mt. Katahdin they will close a chapter of laudable accomplishment in their lives. It’s a chapter that profoundly affects most who hike the full length of the AT.

Once we got south of the Mahoosuc Notch and had settled down in the Gentian Pond Shelter we were invaded by an affable crowd of through-hikers looking forward to their time in the Notch. They came trickling along in small groups or on their own. For the most part, they all knew each other, or of each other.

In staggered shifts, we all settled down to make dinner after the usual bustle of getting water and setting up our sleeping areas. Each of us
claimed a small patch of earth to transform into a kitchen. With the near silent lick of flame from simple alcohol stoves and the jet blast roar of
pressure-fed stoves  some of the through-hikers started to ask us about getting through the Notch. It’s something they’d been hearing about for nearly 2000 miles.

We told them how much fun the Notch is; that it’s a natural jungle gym. The steep walls of Mahoosuc Mountain to the northwest and Fulling Mill Mountain to the southeast tower above as one climbs and scrambles through the rock pile that has accumulated in the Notch. That rock pile creating narrow gaps to squeeze through, small caverns to crawl under, and a hopscotch pattern of boulders with deep crags between to skip across tantalize your balance and tolerance of vertigo.

The vegetation in the Notch is thick and lush. Moss covers any place with a veneer of soil and on the exposed rocks lichen creates fascinating patterns. The Notch’s staggering walls provide ample protection from the sun whose beams can only reach the inner depths for a few hours each day, keeping this microcosm cool and moist. It’s so shielded from the sun that at times a faint mist rises from a shaded nook or the warm moisture in our breath condenses into a wisp right before us. The pockets of cool air were refreshing, cooling treats as we pushed, crawled and climbed our way through the rock detritus thrown from the mountains above.

The tight spaces made us grateful for our small packs. On multiple occasions we would barely squeak through a narrow passage, our bodies and packs scraping against the rock as we pushed against the resistance. If our packs were as big as those of the through-hikers, we would have had to take them off and pass them through the unyielding gap. Most of the hikers in the shelter had just stopped in Gorham, NH to restock their food supply. This always pushes a pack to max capacity and it can weigh up to, and beyond, 60 pounds. At that weight, it’s still pretty easy to manage once you have it on your back and strapped down. But to handle that bulky bag in any other way is exhausting and awkward. Some of the hikers were likely to spend more energy taking their packs on, off and passing them through the rocks than on squeezing themselves through.

Midway through the Notch, we stopped for lunch. While we had welcomed the cool patches of air as we worked our way through, for our break we wanted a warm patch of sun. And we couldn’t have found a more beautiful spot. The rocks formed perfect seats for lounging, tables to pile our shared lunch food, a perfect amount of sun to warm us, And on top of everything, lush greenery softened the jagged edges of the gnarled rock that still whispers of the ferocious and ancient tumbling that must have been responsible for dropping the Notch’s massive rocks here in the first place.

The through-hikers asked us about camping in the Notch. I had to pause and think. The churned nature of the rock in the Notch does not leave many camping options. Where the uneven piles of rock stop, the steep slope up to the mountains begins. I’m not one to put limits on people, and I’m a big fan of the saying “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” I’m sure they could find a way to camp in the Notch if they wanted to, or to bivouac for whatever reason. And I’m sure it’s been done before. But I do recall there being places more suited to camping on either side of the Notch.

The conversation abated only slightly when dinner was ready, shifting back to the usual trail talk: gear comparisons, meal ideas and the gossip about other mutually known through-hikers who weren’t present.

The Gentian Pond Shelter is a gem among the shelters in the White Mountains. The entrance’s large opening faces southeast and sits only a dozen feet from a vegetated precipice that gives way to a 400 foot drop into the Austin Mill Brook drainage and across to the rolling hills around and up to the 2242 foot wooded peak of Mt. Ingalls. The weather report predicted rain for us tonight and the clouds were starting to comply. We watched from the shelter as the setting sun glowed through a thin layer of cloud in the sky. Thicker layers of clouds created stark contrast outlines while they floated casually by. It was as if they meant to distract from their big dark brothers bearing rain. Everybody was in and settled by the
time the light rain hit. In the end we had a very full shelter with sixteen hikers covering every square foot of space available.


The next morning Dawn, McKenzie and I made an early exit. But not nearly as early as we had our first night on the trail when we left Full Goose Shelter in the dark wearing our headlamps to climb the 700 feet on the trail to North Peak to catch the sunrise while enjoying our breakfast. Still it was early enough to hike through the mist lingering in the woods from the night.

By noon, we were out of the woods and back at the car we dropped off three days earlier. We headed back to Al’s where it was time for a hot shower, a soak in the hot tub and a scrumptious homemade salmon and rice dinner with ice cream dessert to bring our Mahoosuc adventure to a close. Now, that’s livin’.

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