Mt. Carrigain The Hard Way: 18 Miles In The Pemi Wilderness

The Pemigewasset Wilderness
Imagine an 18-mile trek through barely-traveled wilderness, past forests of birch and pine, the occasional overgrown clearing, constantly accompanied by the rush of a clear river, without seeing another person. That’s the Pemigewasset Wilderness on a Tuesday.

On Monday we got out of Dodge (Eastern Massachusetts) during mid-morning. This was harder than it should have been due to traffic and construction. In fact, it’s extremely frustrating trying to get out of a busy region after everyone is up and about. But we finally headed north, and after swimming above the Basin in Franconia Notch (coooold), and lunch in Woodstock, we headed for Lincoln Woods and set up the tent at the Franconia East campsite, started a fire, then settled in before the 8PM rainstorm began.

BTW, I know the WMNF campsites have no quiet hours like the tourist-infested private campgrounds do, but that’s because it shouldn’t be necessary. If you’re the type who likes to yell drunkenly through the night, despite there clearly being a dozen tents pitched and occupied by tired hikers nearby, by all means get an RV and go camp in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Stay the heck out of the Whites.

Franconia East Campsite in the Pemigewasset WildernessPosing at the Carrigain Branch CrossingBreakfast by the Pemigewasset River

Anyway, as soon as the tent walls were a shade above pitch black, Rye and I woke up and got started on our trek to Mt. Carrigain. That’s just a hair over 9 miles each way, and I was hoping to shoog boog to Stillwater Junction by midmorning. With Rye in the pack, it weighs about 60 lbs, and I’ve found that I can really move on easy sections, while moderate pitches really slow me down. On steep sections, on the other hand, I move no slower than the average hiker.

Purifying Water at the Carrigain Branch CrossingMy Morning Bootprint on the Wilderness TrailCarrigain Branch Crossing in the Pemigewasset Wilderness

This means the hockey-stick profile of the hike from Franconia East to Carrigain is perfect for me. Flat to easy for the first 7 miles, then moderate for the first mile of the Desolation Trail, and steep and strenuous for the last mile. It basically turns Carrigain into Tecumseh plus 14 miles of woods walking. I’ve become really good at predicting times based on the contour and guidebook advice. The only X-factor is whether the trail’s footing is readily walkable or a knee-jarring ordeal.

Stillwater Junction in the Pemigewasset WildernessOn the Wilderness Trail to Mt. CarrigainThe Firetower on Mt. Carrigain

Believe it or not, the two-mile long Desolation Trail, which receives a lot of coverage as a steep bugger, is actually a very welcoming hike of human-sized steps and good footing. Except for the short section of blocks and rough pitches requiring four-point climbing in the middle, the trail allowed a slow but steady feet-only pace heading up, and a rapid descent, especially on the lower mile.

This is in stark comparison to the Kinsman Ridge Trail on the back side of Cannon, which is a rough climb over huge boulders, or the Boott Spur Trail, which below treeline involves a lot of steps the size of a cube fridge or higher, all sloped downhill. The Desolation Trail was an extremely pleasant surprise.

Desolation Trail on Mt. CarrigainThe Mt. Carrigain Summit MarkerOn the Mt. Carrigain Fire Tower

For any hiker, this trip is eminently doable. Here are my times:

  • Franconia East 6:30 AM Departure.
  • Arrival at the Carrigain Branch crossing (.2 mi before Stillwater Junction) 8:38 AM.
    Here we tanked up on water, and though I never have problems with bugs in the morning, I knew that my fast pace would not continue on the next section, so we broke out the bug juice. Rye also would be on foot for the next half-mile or so.
  • Departed the Carrigain Branch crossing at 9:00 AM and reached Stillwater Junction within minutes.
    Rye got back in the pack somewhere along the Carrigain Notch Trail before the Desolation Trail junction. I never time these sections, so we just hike at Rye’s pace, stopping to pluck leaves, examine campsites and throw rocks into the river until she asks for the pack.
  • Then it was slow going up the moderate and then the steep sections of the dreaded Desolation Trail. It’s mercifully short. The next milestone was when we saw the firetower a few dozen yards above us. 11:30 AM.
  • Left the firetower and the summit at 12:08 PM. Rye hiked the first quarter mile, then into the pack for the steep parts. She fell asleep and awoke at the Carrigain Branch crossing, where we tanked up again.
  • We arrived at the crossing at 1:30 PM or so, and left before 2:00 PM. Tent by 4??? It was possible, but Rye hiked the next mile or so of the Wilderness Trail, which probably added a half-hour to the time.
  • Rye got in the pack at the difficult Crystal Brook crossing, and we shoog booged back to the tent, arriving at 4:30 PM.

By all rights we should have relaxed by the river, stoked a fire, had dinner, and hiked out the next morning, but the next day was the 4th of July and I had lawnmowing to do. So we packed up and slogged the last 2.9 miles to the car, all the while wondering why the blackflies were so enamored with my eyeballs. We did find a perfectly-ripe unpeeled banana on trail shortly after passing some tourists. It was welcome.

Thanks for the Mikes Hard LemonadeOh, and to whomever left the 6-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and the box of Fig Newtons in my unlocked car at Lincoln Woods; how did you know? Thank you.

Back to civilization!

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