Lakes of the Clouds, the Dry River, The Hurricane, and Riley

Riley reaches Lakes of the Clouds hut

Here it is, the big trip report I’ve been trying to write for a couple of years now. When Riley and Connor came into my life, I was hoping to spend as much time as I could playing with them and writing about it. Since then, it’s been about 90% playing, 9% planning to play, and 1% writing. This is that 1%.

It turns out a three year old doesn’t play much baseball or chess. They like playgrounds, especially the ones near busy roads they can run into and basketball courts they can invade to disrupt the game. We go to one with a 40″ high chain-link fence, which my kids regard as more of a suggestion than a barrier.

These aren’t baloney babies. These are the kids who are so insane that their parents often get glared at by others. I’ve even crafted a response for when someone opens their mouth to me: “I’m sorry, we’re doing the best we can.” Then if they keep talking, I can say “I told you I was sorry, so now you’re just being a douchebag.”

I’m still waiting to use that one.

The Rules

So my kids are wanderers, and climbers. The solution to this is obvious: Let’s hike. This is a perfect sport for parents with kids under four because:

  1. Both parent and child can get some air and exercise.
  2. It’s cheap or even free.
  3. Toddlers can easily grasp the rules.
  4. Toddlers can easily master the skills.
  5. (This is for the wise-asses) It’s repeatable.

There are rules for the parents, too. These are much the same as the rules any hiker should adhere to, except you have to double everything, including the level of caution taken with every step. Unless you have amazing friends who will hike with someone carrying a child, it is very likely you will be hiking alone.

Things (And People) That Matter

Connor inspects the Kelty FC3 Child CarrierNone of what I’ve done over the past three years would be possible without a few very important things: a nearby landscape of hills and mountains to explore (including the Lynn Woods just a mile away); the Kelty FC3 child carrier; a great pair of boots in my Merrell Chameleon Mids; and a very sturdy hiking staff (I put a lot of weight on this piece of lumber when carrying, which would destroy trekking poles).

Ryan and Tom on the bridge

Photo Courtesy of Eric Watts

Finally, I have to thank my friends who joined me on several adventures. There’s Ryan, who was with us on trips to Sunapee, Tecumseh and Cannon, and whose GPS device always helped to verify something we had already guessed: we were indeed somewhere on the mountain.

Riley visits Tuckerman Ravine

Photo Courtesy of Eric Watts

And there’s Eric, who was with us on countless trips, starting with Gunstock in July 2009, through Greylock, then our windy traverse up the Edmands path to the Crawford path, to the absolutely triumphant early spring 2011 visit to Tuckerman Ravine, to Cardigan, Sandwich Dome, and the traverse of Specked Mountain in Maine where we met my Dad and his wife Judy coming up the other side.

Riley with The North Face Lunarfire tentThere’s the trip to Wachusett, where Connor and I were disappointed at the high elevation of the trailhead so we headed down to a lower one below the ski slopes. This is where, on a whim, I decided to see if anything was happening in the lodge, only to find a gear swap going on. I found a perfect two-person backpacking tent, The North Face Lunarfire, for $100. This opened a lot of possibilities.

And there’s Acadia, where I first dared to step onto wild rock and dirt with Riley in the Kelty. Cadillac Mountain will always be the first. At the time, Memorial Day 2009, I had no idea how far we’d go tramping all over that island or the Whites. As for Baxter, we’ll see.

The Best Laid Plan

That brings me to the most recent trip: Our first Presidential hut visit. This was originally planned with Eric. We decided to take the same vacation week just before Labor Day, book the Lakes of the Clouds hut to take advantage of the weather, and Riley, Eric and I would head up the Crawford Path, over Pierce, Eisenhower and Monroe to the hut, reach Mt. Washington on day 2, and take the Jewell Trail down to the second car.

Eric had to cancel his plans, but I booked the hut for Monday, August 29 for Riley and myself, and modified the plan a bit. This will all seem a little insane given what wound up happening, but it was a loop I’d been looking at for awhile. I planned to follow the Crawford path and the summit loops to the hut as planned, but instead of reaching Washington, we would head over Boott Spur to Mt. Isolation, then cross the Dry River Valley to the Mizpah Springs hut and back down to the car.

For a regular hiker, this is a small challenge. For me, who will carry over 60 lbs for much of the trip, this is asking a lot. The first day is about 8.5 miles rising over 3,000 feet which is no big deal, but the second day travels 14 miles, first rising across the tundra to Boott Spur, then dropping along the Davis Path, making a 2.4 mile detour to reach Mt, Isolation, then dropping into the Dry River valley. That’s where the parts I was worried about began: Would the Dry River be crossable; and would an otherwise easy 1,200 foot climb to the Mizpah Springs hut be too much to bear at that late point in the day?

Add to this that Connor and I camped two days in the Pemi Wilderness to climb Owls Head Mountain only a few days before. The stage was set for either a valiant success or a colossal mistake.

Water, Water Everywhere…

Hurricane Irene closes the White Mountain National ForestThere was one additional, critical factor: In the intervening days, New England was hit by Irene, a hurricane that didn’t seem all that dangerous on paper (in fact it was only a tropical storm when it hit the Whites), but Irene brought several inches of rain that created immediate torrents in every river valley. The water washed out trails, brought down trees, raised the water table and basically overwhelmed the environment.

It also closed the forest. The White Mountains were closed from Saturday, the day Connor and I left the Pemi, to Tuesday morning, only a few hours before Riley and I showed up at the Crawford trailhead. We found the Kancamagus highway closed due to road damage, and route 302 through Crawford Notch was also closed below the AMC’s Highland Center. That was just a hint of what had happened in the woods.

Day 1: The Early Bird Gets The…

With my Monday reservations now moved to Tuesday, August 30, Riley and I left the house just after 4AM on Tuesday. We got to Tilton at 5:40 to see the diner still closed (never seen that before). We got to Lincoln at 6:45 to see White Mountain Bagel still closed (never seen that before either). I knew our last chance for breakfast was the Monroe Family restaurant in Twin Mountain, so we got there early and waited.

Riley at the Crawford Path TrailheadWe got to the trailhead around 8AM and geared up pretty quickly. I changed into my boots, made sure I had my money and the right keys (!) with me, and up we went. We took a few shots around the trailhead and beyond, then got on with it. We were the only people on the trail the entire way up. It was especially strange not to face a constant flow of guests coming from the Mizpah hut. We detoured to the hut, where the croo seemed excited to be getting back to business. I did not imagine this, but they and other hut croos had all huddled in their huts during the storm, just in case people were caught in it.

Riley on Mt. PierceRiley hiked the entire section from the hut over Mt. Pierce, where the trees finally open up and reveal what we’re going to be in for. Even though I’d been here before and knew what was coming, it still took my breath from me. I grabbed the camera. Riley took a few poses (that she must have learned from mom), we had some lunch, and kept going. I was struck by how empty the mountains were. Nobody was here. Usually the ridge is teeming with hikers, but hurricane Irene cleared the forest, and we were among the first people to return.

Riley and Connor have different hiking styles. Riley walks along pretty well, and likes to be in the lead. When she gets bored, she starts picking berries or rocks, and likes to be kept interested with songs and stories. She will outwardly demand the pack when she wants to ride. Connor focuses on the trail, which he is exceptionally good at following, even faint herd paths like on Owls Head. He doesn’t care about the berries, but he does like to stop and pick up rocks to signal that he wants to ride in the pack. Both of the kids are able to hike for more than a mile at a time (Two if it’s all downhill).

Cairns, Cairns Everywhere…

Riley and dad on Mt. EisenhowerWe were halfway to Mt. Eisenhower when Riley asked to ride in the pack. I figured she had hiked a mile and a half since Mizpah, for a total of more than two miles. We made it to Eisenhower and kissed the cairn, then on to the shrubby section at Red Pond, where Eric, Connor and I made our decision to avoid this summit a year before.

The Edmands Path junction on Mt. EisenhowerAfter that, I was in new terrain. I started to wonder why there were so many cairns. It seemed like they appeared every 50 feet or so. We rose to Mt. Franklin pretty quickly. I don’t know why this peak gets such short shrift. It is actually quite obvious and allows some amazing views across the Dry River Wilderness. Like its namesake, Franklin plays a critical supporting role in a trek across the Presidentials. And the guy is on the $100, after all.

Riley on Mt. MonroeI scrambled up the steep boulders to Little Monroe and this was the first place where the hike started to feel like work. Riley was cold and ready to go home, or at least reach a nice warm hut. So at Little Monroe we got into our cold weather gear and hiked on. Riley led the way, both of us quacking like a mother duck and ducklings, and she made it the rest of the way, at least half a mile, on foot.

“So Did You Take The Auto Road or the Cog?”

Riley on Mt. MonroeAt Monroe, we saw the Lakes of the Clouds, the hut, and the vast alpine lawn leading across to Boott Spur. Cairns dotted the ridge like telephone poles. We made our way down, arriving well before 4PM. After checking in and grabbing a sticky bun, we hung out in front where a crowd from Montreal and elsewhere were singing along to a ukelele. Riley, to the enjoyment of most and perhaps the annoyance of others, has absolutely zero social fear. As a parent who knows that this is a rare and essential trait, I am loathe to try to teach her otherwise.

When seeing a hiking family with a three-year-old at the Lakes hut, it is obviously customary to ask, “So did you take the auto road or the cog?” This was my favorite question of the day, and I was asked it several times. After revealing what we had actually done to get there, my next favorite question was “Wow. How far did she hike?” She probably did three miles on her own.

After a phenomenal dinner of seasoned beef and broccoli, Riley and I read some of the hut’s books in the great room where an AT thru-hiker made a presentation. I made a field fix to her hiking shoes, which came with a goofy spring-loaded plastic sleeve instead of just shoelaces. I had been dreading the next part, but she fell asleep in my arms, and I carried her to her bunk, where she slept soundly until the 6:30AM wakeup call.

One thing I did not realize about the hut was how much light can be seen in the valley. My bunk had a direct view toward the Mt. Washington Hotel and its lines of bright orange streetlamps.

Day 2: “Nobody’s Going To Be Down There”

I awoke shortly before the morning call from the croo. The window glowed pure white, and I was wondering if all the water in the valleys would create morning fog that rose just to the hut’s foundation, leaving only the peaks visible above a sea of white. Instead, all was white above and below.

After a breakfast of bacon and hotcakes, I talked to Jim, one of the croo, about our plans to follow the Davis Path to Mt. Isolation and then through the Dry River valley to the Mizpah Springs hut. The look of concern I received did not surprise me. This was an ambitious second-day plan for a hiker without a child. “That place was hit hard by the hurricane,” he told me. “There are a ton of washouts and blowdowns. It’s a mess.”

“Oh, and absolutely nobody’s going to be down there,” Jim added. The implication being that if something happened, I would have to be extremely lucky to get help. These words are often true in the mountains anyway, but when somebody like an experienced hut croo member says them, they seem a lot more ominous. The hurricane had damaged the landscape and cleared the forest of people, definitely creating a very unique challenge. I believe we had everything we needed to continue.

We said our goodbyes and headed out into the fog. Visibility was about 75 feet, immediately solving the mystery of why there were so many cairns. Riley hiked most of the way to Boott Spur, then napped while we dropped below treeline on the Davis Path, trading the perils of extreme weather for extreme remoteness. After reaching Mt. Isolation, Riley and I ate some of our crackers and raisins, but not all of it. The croo member’s words were still running in my head like a Times Square stock ticker. We stayed awhile, and probably left the peak around 1PM.

Isolation is a gorgeous peak with incredible views. I write this because my iPhone was out of power and I did not get a single shot of the second day. We had amazing views across Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines from Boott Spur, and the clearing clouds added an absolutely wild and sublime patina to the landscape. Isolation looks toward Mt. Washington, with Boott Spur reaching to the east and the southern Presidentials reaching west, like a giant granite embrace. beyond the Presis, mountain ranges successively rise to the west, first the Willey range, then the Twins and Bonds, with the Franconias visible beyond. Carrigain and Moosilauke are prominent to the southwest, and all of the Sandwich range can be seen from Jennings Peak to Chocorua’s trademark cone. The Carters and Baldfaces rise to the east, and Washington was completely clear of clouds.

From there we headed back to the trail that would take us down into the devastated Dry River valley. We did meet some hikers: two who came up from Route 16 to reach Isolation, and one we had met on Monroe the day before who had come through the valley. He repeated much that Jim the croo member had already told me, minus the part about nobody being there, since he already had. It was 2PM.

The Dry River Valley

I headed down the Isolation trail to the point where it reached Isolation brook, where everything I was told was confirmed. Landslides above the brook had obliterated the trail and washed countless trees into the river. The grey mud was thick, soft and deep, and at one point it swallowed my leg up to my knee while I was trying to reach a river boulder. Nothing was to be trusted. The rocks and mud were all in places they hadn’t been a few days before. I stood on some boulders in the middle of the still rushing stream, using logs, trees and rocks to pick my way down. In several places, I could reach where the trail started up again on the bank, only to collapse into the river again. It might have been better to follow the boulders in the river itself for the next half mile to the trail junction. I chose to stay within sight of the trail no matter what.

When we reached the Dry River trail, things calmed down. This trail is not so close to its namesake, which has a larger bed to handle sudden floods (which it frequently does). We saw a lot of evidence of new scourings of the banks and new boulders in the stream. The crossing of the Dry River required me to get one boot wet, but was otherwise unproblematic. I had a dry set of socks and hiking shoes with me, which I would stop and put on as soon as we climbed far enough above the streams.

Now came the part I was dreading: the 1,200 foot climb over 2.5 miles to Mizpah hut. From there it was another 2.5 miles to the car. The climb looked easy on paper, but I was entering mile ten on the second day of a hike with either 27 or 65 lbs on my back. I was carrying a lot of wet gear by now. On trips like Tripyramid I pretended that the 3 miles of gravel road were just part of the commute, not the hike. But now, no mental acrobatics were going to work. I just had to keep hiking.

We made it to the hut as they were starting dinner (6PM sharp) and talked to the croo member we met the day before. She asked us if we took the ridge back from Lakes, and I said, “Yes, the Davis ridge” (actually called the Montalban Ridge). I was very pleased with the surprised look this received. We drank some water and headed down the Mizpah Cutoff and Crawford Path to the car. We made it down in about an hour, just before the light waned.

This was an incredible trip, and it will easily take a place among some others like the overnight with Connor at Unknown Pond, the backpacking trip with Riley to Zealand and the Bonds, the pre-hurricane Owls Head trip with Connor, the visit to Tuckerman Ravine and the traverse of Speckled Mountain with Eric, the giant Chocorua loop last August, and that trip to Cannon with Eric and Ryan.

Next week: Mt. Waumbek and the formidable Santa’s Village. Hey, don’t laugh. That place can be as interesting and challenging as any 4K.

On Peakbagging

Riley in the White MountainsSo why did I visit Isolation instead of Washington? The reason is simple: I am trying to reach all 48 4,000 foot peaks in New Hampshire with Riley or Connor. It happened while coming down Cannon Mountain in June 2010 with Eric, Ryan and Connor. Eric was in pain, and I told him that this was a much more substantial mountain than the ones we had done already. It was a White, after all. It rose more than 2,000 feet from the trailhead. It was a four. It was the biggest mountain any of us had done that year, and it was the first four I had tried with one of my kids.┬áThat’s when I decided I was going to try all of them.

Since then I’ve taken one of the kids up 24 4Ks. I had already reached three others, including Washington, bringing the total to 27. I’m not trying to ‘bag’, ‘get’, or ‘do’ these peaks. I prefer the term ‘reach’, meaning the mountain allows me to attain its summit, provided I make a prepared effort. Every single trip has been a tremendous adventure. We simply haven’t had a bad hike. Some have been strenuous. Some have been hot. Some have been met with limited views. But they have all been epic.

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