We chose Mount Moosilauke for our next hike because it promised a spectacular view and a challenging climb. Number 10 on New Hampshire’s 4000 footers list, the peak reaches its zenith at 4802 feet. There are four main trails and several smaller paths you can use to reach the summit. The Beaver Brook Trail boasted the most scenic and most difficult route, so that’s the one we chose.
I was a little iffy about climbing such a high mountain this weekend. I’d been nursing a booboo knee for two weeks -it got nicely bruised on a mountain, but the real damage was done on home turf. A couple of Mondays ago, before work, I was walking the pups in the dark when they caught scent of something that turned them into snarling, savage beasts lunging at the leads for the freedom to hunt down their unfortunate prey. Whatever it was (I suspect a Bobcat) got them worked up into such a frenzy that they started tussling with each other. I ended up wrapped in their leashes, at which point I knew I was going down, the only question was where. In an effort to not squash a dog, I chose a direction.
Unfortunately, something sharp stabbed me, resulting in a bone bruise that juts out past my knee and a knot in my shoulder the size of my fist that keeps going into severe spasms. The night before the hike, I put icy hot on my shoulder in an attempt to prepare it for carrying my pack. I’ve used plenty of different topical rubs, including icy hot, many times before. This time was different. I’ve had it result in muscles of fire before, but this time it was a full on napalm assault that brought me to my knees. I swear my skin was smoking, and whether it was a sudden allergic reaction or just luck of the draw, it appears to have caused a mild chemical burn.
So needless to say, I was not at my best going into this hike. But I was immediately enthralled, captivated by the beauty of the color of the leaves and the cascading water falls. I was positive this was going to be my favorite hike to date. Shortly in, we passed a warning sign. Most of the higher mountain trails have them. We didn’t think much of it and continued on our way, passing several families with small children and a group of women in traditional hijab garb. Then a little further up we started passing a few stony faced hikers with bloody knees. Also commonly seen on the higher mountain trails. When you’re hiking across wet slick rocks, gnarled tree roots and huge rocks, it happens. You slip, you trip, your foot gets stuck, a loose rock catapults you into space and time…..
Like any good assassin, Mount Moosilauke distracts you with her beauty. This trail had metal hand rails installed into rocks, wooden steps put in places, and many scored rocks for grip. Plenty of other trails don’t. Yes, it was steep. Yes, it was slippery. But it was also very doable, so we continued doing it.
Then we ran into a fast talking Brit with bloody legs, who told us about his friend higher up on the trail who had hit his head and was not doing well. He was on his way to the parking lot to get help. He told us there was a hut about the same distance up, but thought that getting to the parking lot would be quicker. In a few minutes we came upon his hiking companions. The one indeed had taken a good whack to the head and was too unsteady to stand at the time. However, he wasn’t bleeding, his pupils seemed normal and reactive, and he was eating a snack bar, all fairly good signs. We left him with his group, with the promise to get to the hut and let them know, so help efforts could come from both directions. Only, as we discovered another mile up, the hut was simply a lean-to for camping and an out house. Maybe rangers usually hang out there, but due to the government shut down, no one was on duty. We hadn’t even had to pay the $3 parking fee that day.
We continued up the trail because there was really nothing we could do at that point. Too many people would just hamper the rescue efforts on such a narrow trail. Also, we had passed a man who we told about the incident who informed us that he used to be a boy scout and that he intended to make a stretcher from branches to get the guy down. He seemed very excited to take charge of the situation.
We continued up the trail until we reached the top of the north face. We then had to hike across the mountain to the summit. We arrived, exhausted and slightly disappointed because the view was socked in. But, charming seductress that Moosilauke is, it burned off a little, just for us. We reveled in the amazing views until we were frozen, at which time we started are descent.
We found the trail we had arrived on and started down. It wasn’t until we reached a tree that had been recently sawn in half to allow passage that we realized something was wrong. We hadn’t passed that tree on the way up. An hour had passed since we had left the summit. Only, this trail had been so easy, we had no idea so much time had passed. The funny thing about climbing is that unless you look behind you, you have no idea if another trail joins with yours. So on your way down, you don’t realize that the tiny little side trail to your right is the one you came up on, not the trail right in front of you, and to be honest, sometimes it all looks the same.
We were a good way down the mountain already. Going back to find the branch off would add at least an hour to the trip. Had it been earlier, I would have agreed. But dusk was rapidly approaching, and I had no desire to descend that slippery, rocky, dangerous slope in the pitch dark. We would be getting off the mountain at 9:30 pm if we did that. I felt that it would be best to simply get off the mountain, then sort things out from there, once we were safely on flat ground. So we kept going. Until we reached a river and lost the trail. We headed back up to where the trail was well-defined, discussing our options, which weren’t good. Insisting that there wouldn’t be a side trail down the mountain that just ended at the river, I found a map on my phone. We walked back down to the river, the sun setting and darkness falling quickly. We no longer had much of a choice.
My hiking companion caught sight of the rest of the trail – on the other side of the river. The fast-moving river full of jagged rocks. There were exposed rocks to hop across – if you are a giant. So I made the giant cross, while I climbed up river until I found a spot with exposed rocks closer together and started crossing. Hand and foot across the slick, slimy, sharp rocks. After dunking only one boot in the water, I made it to the other side where I was pulled to safety. We went back down river to find the trail again by the light of a glow stick.
We quickly found ourselves at a check-in booth stating that the trail needed to be adopted and was currently un-cared for. But as the navigator on my phone promised, the road was right around the corner. Upon reaching Tunnel Stream Road we were a little over 8 miles from the car, but figured once we reached civilization, we could get a lift the rest of the way. If only we knew.
We hiked down the dirt and gravel road, relieved to be on our way back to the car and safety and food. But there was something strange about this road. When we came upon a series of fallen trees we realized the road was unkempt and undrivable. This was confirmed when, by the dim light of the glow stick, I noticed that something looked odd and insisted on stopping. We grabbed the flashlight from the pack and discovered that we had reached a section where the entire road was washed away except for the narrow strip where we were standing. Complete disaster movie conditions. So our flat road to safety became a hazard that required careful navigation up, down and around, climbing down and across gorges, carefully skirting along a narrow rims, tripping across a loose rock moonscape, until at last we reached the end of Tunnel Stream Road, which was blockaded off with a metal barrier and a sign explaining the damage beyond as the result of Hurricane Irene.
From there we took a right onto Tunnel Brook Road, which started out as Tunnel Stream had – a flat graded dirt road. We had already traversed 1. 9 miles, and had another 1.8 to reach the highway. Hopes were high. Dork that I am, I started making the “Checheche aahaahaah” sound from the Friday the 13th movies. Like some beastly cue, the woods came alive around us. Constant snapping twigs and rustling noises. We walked through a fresh cloud of skunk, wondering what predator had elicited the reaction. Several times some type of animal followed – or stalked – us from along the wood line. There were times when the hair on my arms stood on end and my heart thumped in my chest as my adrenal gland spewed like an uncapped fire-hydrant. At one point we came upon the strong stench of pig. Growing up in Florida, I had a half domesticate/half razor back boar named Mowhawk as a pet. It’s not a smell you forget. Mohawk really was a very sweet animal, but some types of boar can be highly aggressive and territorial.
We walked as quickly as possible, the battery on my phone now dead from getting maps and navigating. My hiking partner’s phone not getting any reception because he has AT&T instead of Verizon. (To make a long story short on that end, there have been numerous situations in which my phone has been the soul beacon of hope because I had service and he didn’t). Eventually we saw some lights in the distance. There were two houses, both situated far back from the road. We could see cars passing sporadically on the highway in front of us. What to do? Approach a house and bother people who obviously want seclusion, or continue to the highway where help and cell reception should soon follow?
We soldiered onward to the highway. Which ended up being a barren stretch of pavement without a light in sight. Gone were the ideas of stopping at a gas station or restaurant, calling a cab or asking for a lift. And there still was no AT&T reception, so calling the non-emergency police line was out, too.
What takes mere moments to pass while driving in a car takes 10 minutes on foot. And nothing looks familiar in the inky dark we were surrounded by. The good news was that the curious critter noises in the woods were being made by much smaller animals. The bad news was having to run past the bridges to jump over the guard rail before the random vehicles came speeding through. The first to pass up was an over sized pick-up that honked its horn at us. Us, standing 10 feet from the road, exhausted and obviously in distress, This was not the kind of road you choose to walk down – there was nothing around for miles.
We continued on our way, hoping someone would call the cops for us (or on us) when the gun shots started. First just one shot. Then another. Then someone decided to empty their chamber. Silence as they reloaded, then it started again – until we turned the light off. Strange coincidence, or direct correlation we’ll never know, but we walked by moonlight for a good half mile before turning the light back on.
We passed a house here and there, but quite honestly I’ve watched too many horror movies and I just wasn’t in the mood to be hunted. Before my phone died, my navigator had predicted that we’d reach Lost River Gorge, which was my land mark and only a 1/2 mile from where we parked, by 9:30 – the same time we would have gotten off the mountain had we climbed back up and down. So we knew around what time we’d know how much trouble we were in.
After hours of hiking in the dark (after hours of hiking in the light), we reached the parking lot, which was 1/2 mile before lost gorge, as we approached from the west this time instead of the east. We know how lucky we were to get out of this one unscathed. We’d gotten into some pretty bad situations lost in the woods in Florida before (including a close run in with HUGE gators), but this was worse. But, quite honestly, I’m sure we had a better day than the kid who hit his head. I believe everything happens for a reason. Perhaps, had we gone down the way we climbed up, one of us would have been severely hurt.
We’ve hiked dozens of time without using 3/4 of the supplies we carry in our packs each time. We tend to forget half the stuff we even have. But when an occasion arose when we needed those forgotten items, they were there. My dad passed away in July – very sudden and unexpected, very much before his time – but he left something very important behind. My dad was huge on outdoor preparedness. When I moved up to Massachusetts he sent me with tons of supplies – every nonperishable item in our packs, from the quick clot, first aid and bite & sting kits to the light weight LED flashlights, fire starter and space blankets, are items my dad felt we needed to have in our packs at all times.
We made it to the nearest open gas station at 5 of 10, bought two lonely slices of pizza that they assured us had been sitting for quite some time, and started on the journey home where the real nightmare would begin – facing two very angry, very hungry pups!