Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Green Mile (18 of them to be exact)
Our goal to climb NH's 48 peaks officially listed over 4000 feet is close to fulfillment. A few weeks ago we did an overnight hike to Mt. Isolation and camped out on the summit of Mt. Davis (must remember to blog and post pictures about that one). We still have Galehead Mtn. to do (we blew right past it on an earlier hike and missed the spur path leading to the summit) which we will do some other day. Our last peak, which we plan to do in the autumn, will be Mt. Carrigain. So with Carrigain as our finishing peak and Galehead as something to do later on, we really had no choice but to get the third (and only other remaining) peak out of the way. The one we've been avoiding for years. The much loathed Owl's Head Mtn..

This mountain can be so much better than it is - that is if someone takes a chainsaw and clears away the trees at the summit. Its located right in the middle of a vast horseshoe of spectacular mountain ridges: the Franconias to the West, the Twin/Bond range to the east, the Garfield ridge to the north. All day, hiking into the area, I would catch teasing glimpses of these high ridges through the trees. I bet the views were better back in the days of logging baron JE Henry. The remnants of his logging railroads served as the trails we used to hike into the Pemigewasset Wilderness and on to Owl's Head. Some say it was his abundant clear cutting of the Pemi that frightened citizens and lawmakers enough to pass the Weeks Act - which ultimately led to the creation of the National Forest system. I wouldn't mind some clear cutting now - it would open up the views.

Hiking the trails that follow JE Henry's railroads is both magnificent and maddening. Magnificent because they are routinely easy to follow, free of large stones, uniformly straight, and flat with gradual elevation. On the other hand they can be monotonous to hike for the same reasons. The 3 mile hike from Lincoln Woods parking lot (off the Kancamagus) to the boundary of the Pemigewasset Wilderness runs straight and true with little change. You are progressing through a green tunnel without end. In some places you can see 1/2 - 3/4 mile ahead and tiny specs of people making their way forward (or towards you). Once in a while you have to walk in between the remnants of railroad ties, this can interrupt the mind's wandering for a few moments. Then its back into the hiking stupor...

However, to be fair hiking into the Pemi is to some extent enjoyable. Sure its flat, but you can crank out the miles at a good pace. The reason Owl's Head can be hiked to in a day in good time is due to the fact that 8 of the 9 miles it takes to get to the summit are hiked on JE Henry's railroad grades. And 4 miles into it you are gaining the heart of the Pemi Wilderness. The ring of mountains all around deprives your ears of engine noise and car horns. Its all conducive to letting the mind wander and let go.

Understandably, traveling along at slight inclines to the base of Owl's Head Mountain means the elevation has to be gained at some point. With Owl's head, 1500 ft are gained within the last mile to the summit. An unofficially maintained (but easy to follow) trail branches off from the railroad grade and ascends an exposed rock slide scouring down from the summit. The rock slide is dauntingly steep but not particularly difficult to climb as there are plenty of rock steps and scree to hold the footing. The chief benefit of climbing the slide is that you're granted the first and last far-reaching views of the day. You're not treated to a sweeping panorama of NH, but instead an interesting "back end" view of the Franconia ridgeline and the popular peaks of Mts. Lafayette, Lincoln, Little Haystack, Liberty and Mt. Flume. You can make out the people traversing the bare Franconia ridgeline. Mrs. Rants wondered if those people could make us out climbing the Owls Head slide. "Hey, who are those jackasses climbing that ridiculous mountain?" Yes, jackass indeed. There we were hoofing it to the top of the slide. From there its a monotonous traverse of the wooded peak to reach the imperceptible highest point. There's no sign, summit cairn, or fanfare. Just the end of the trail embedded within a wooded prison. I poked around hoping to spot some sort of ledge or outcrop where a view could be attained. Fat chance. There's nothing. And yet those purple mountains majesty are hinted at through the trees. With a few swipes of the Husqvarna this summit would be THE mountain for views. Instead there's no view. And you've got 9 miles of walking to do to get back to the car.

Owl's Head is hiked by those obsessed with The List. We saw several hikers on our way to Owl's Head and all made the same comments; "Damn List"..."the List's cruel trick"....etc etc. Oddly, people seemed to be in jovial spirits in this pursuit. I think the mountain provides a different set of rewards. The flat walking lets you crank up to a cruising speed hard to attain most other places in the Whites. There are some interesting wide river crossings along the way that give you some element of problem solving (finding the best rock hopping route). The mind wraps itself around the concept of Wilderness and being embedded within it. And at 18 miles round trip pushes your body to levels of exertion rarely encountered during times at the office cubicle. Plus, on the hike back you get to entertain yourself with thoughts of the fast food reward to be granted once back in civilization (for me it was two super value meals - large sized. I asked them to supersize me to "lawsuit size", but the people at the counter didn't have a button to push for it on the register, so I downscaled...).

Owl's Head is done. Finished. Checked off The List. I'm able to put two pins on the map and call it completed. If in 20 years my kids (attempting their own crack at The List) ask me to climb it, I may have to decline. Does this mean I'll never do The List again in my lifetime. Not sure to tell you the truth. But as far as I know now, Owl's Head Mountain is enough to get you to say "Been There, Done That", smile, and walk away.


At 3:03 PM, Blogger Heidi said...

i struck owl's head off my list 8 years ago and while it is the most 'anti-climatic' of the 48 because of the lack of views, it is probably the most memorable because you can do 18 miles in about the same time it would take to go up and down washington. (isolation was my 'last'.)

At 12:15 PM, Blogger Bob said...

Congrats on the paring down of your list! The one thing I noticed when we moved back here from AZ was that you can't see a damn thing when you are riding in our mountains. A drive, or hike, in AZ was one incredible vista after another.

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Chosen said...

Good choice on saving Carrigain for last. That's what I did, too. I felt bad for all the people who finish up on Owls Head. What an anticlimax that would be after so many nicer peaks.

I agree that a chain saw would improve the view immensely. However, it's one of those stupid wilderness areas where you can't even build a proper trail (hence the rock slide that passes for a trail) let alone maintain the views. Maybe someday people will come to their senses and allow proper management of the forest resources.


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