Monday, September 12, 2011

#71 East Sleeper via Blueberry Ledge, Rollins and Kate Sleeper trails, September 11, 2011

New England Hundred Highest #71 East Sleeper via Blueberry Ledge to Mt. Whiteface to Rollins and Kate Sleeper trails - 9/11/11.  What a glorious September day to be hiking! 

Total mileage: 11.5; elevation gain: about 3,500'.  Sandy and I were quite pleased that we hiked the 3.4 miles to and from East Sleeper in less than two hours.

Lesson learned: Use caution if you plan on bringing your dog up Blueberry Ledge.  One of the crew's dog was injured trying to descend the ledges.

As I peruse dreamily through the New England Hundred Highest list, thinking about when and how I will be meeting each challenge, I take notes on the location of each peak. Several of these peaks are backed up against a NH 4000 footer; some require you hike the 4k again to get to the desired peak.  Vose Spur is located on the west side of Mt. Carrigain.  Reaching the Weeks mountains will most likely require resummiting Mt. Cabot. And the best way to get to East Sleeper is via Mt. Whiteface. 

Several months ago, Eileen decided to be part of the annual "Flags on the 48" effort, where the American flag is flown on each of the NH 4000 footers on September 11th to remember the victims of 9/11 and those who have since fought terrorism.  This would be the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.  In support of Eileen - Rich, Sandy, Joe and I also signed up to help with the installation and removal of the flag that day.  Whiteface Mountain was chosen, and I figured East Sleeper would be an easy side trip for me on that day. 

A few weeks after we signed up I met Becky - the coordinator of the Whiteface FOT48 - on the summit of Mt. Jefferson!  Mt. Whiteface was also to be Becky's 48th NH 4000 footer. 

Becky had organized a strong group of about 20 hikers to help with the installation of the flag on the southern summit of Whiteface (the outcrop). Our friend Art also planned to hike to the summit that day. Art's son is a Navy Seal and provided a flag that was flown during the Iraq war.  Thinking the others are much faster hikers than us, Rich, Sandy and I started up the Blueberry Ledge trail (listed on the Terrifying 25, a list I'm not working on but you may be!) while the others were still in the parking lot organizing the tasks.  Joe and son Matt headed up to Passaconaway as Joe needed that peak for his 48. They would hike over the Rollins trail to the flag and meet Sandy later on that day. 

The first half mile of the trail was very muddy and people were walking off trail to avoid it.  It was easy going for the two miles but soon we came upon the ledges: a series of steep slabs that required thoughtful scrambling. The views were spectacular. 

Steeps and slabs always make for an interesting hike!
The plan was for the three of us to meet the flag crew at the summit, assist with the raising of the flag, stay for the ceremony and then head to East Sleeper.  Eileen and Art were already at the top with the flag, waiting for the group. 

Coordinating such a large group was not easy and as a result, those carrying the flag pole, ropes and base got a late start.  We realized we would be waiting for them at the summit so Rich suggested that Sandy and I not wait around for the flag raising, but head right to East Sleeper without him.  Rich would stay behind and help the crew with the flag raising. Sandy and I planned to return in time to see the flag lowered and help with the removal.  It was a sound idea so after a brief visit to the true summit of Whiteface (about .3 miles north of the southern rocky summit), we had a quick lunch and headed out.

We followed the Rollins trail briefly to get to the junction of the Kate Sleeper trail.  The junction is in a small clearing; I have heard that there was a campsite there at one time.  The Kate Sleeper trail descended in moderate grade and we found a few spots very wet, requiring a brief rock hop.  At one point we came upon three very fat partridges, perched no more than eighteen inches from Sandy. They just sat there and stared, then eventually walked/flew away.

In no time we hit the Downes Brook trail junction and headed straight over mossy but dry brook rocks, continuing on the Kate Sleeper trail.  The trail was smooth and comfortable to hike. There were however, four to six blowdowns in the path but each one had fallen only partially in the trail, making for an easy walk around.  We were making good time!

The Downes Brook trail junction - a mossy pile of brook rocks. Go straight, continuing on Kate Sleeper.
The Downes Brook trail junction is located about halfway between the summit of Whiteface and East Sleeper. The trail was well marked with blue blazes. We started ascending again and eventually came to the side trail for East Sleeper.

A small blow down directly under the sign for the side trail.
You know how sometimes you head down these summit side trails and they just go on and on and on?  Not this one! We were at the summit in less than two minutes! 

Nice trail - the view from the Kate Sleeper trail looking toward the summit side trail.
To document the moment (this was Sandy's first NE 100 highest) we used my cell phone to take photos. Every time we tried to take a shot, we accidently pressed the button on the other side of the phone and kept getting a voice declaring, "Say a command!" instead of hearing the shutter! We got to laughing about it and it took a while to get a few pictures!

My buddy Sandy and me - finally we pressed the right button on the phone!
We wanted to be there when the flag was removed so we started back.  Though there were mossy, rooty and wet spots here and there, the Kate Sleeper trail proved to be a welcome break from the scrambling and rock hopping we dealt with that morning on Blueberry Ledge. 
As we headed back up to the Rollins/Kate Sleeper trail junction, Rich called on the radio and announced that they were taking the flag down! We begged them to wait 10 more minutes and picked up our pace.  We arrived in time to see the flag flying high.  Joe and Matt had arrived from Passaconaway too.

There were so many people helping that day that little help was needed. So we watched them lower the flag, Art carefully folding it.  The crew dismantled the pole and we all headed down to the parking lot.

Art folding the flag.
The entire group started their descent of the Blueberry Ledge trail.  Though cloudy, the views were clear and breathtaking!
The poles were carried up and down tucked in the side pockets of the backpack.
Once we descended the ledges, the steepness of the trail subsided and light from a setting sun created a glow among trees heavy with late summer leaves.  The forest became quiet, calm, reminding me that summer is giving way to weeks of moderate temperatures, less humid conditions and shorter days.  In New England, our "summer" hiking season can be prematurely short and tempermental.  I have been lucky this year to have hiked in the best of weather!

Monday, September 5, 2011

#58 Old Speck Mountain, Maine September 3, 2011

Old Speck via Old Speck trail,  September 3, 2011.   

Mileage:  7.6 miles (RT)

Elevation gain:  3,073'

Trailhead: Bethel, Maine, follow Rt 2 for 6 miles to Newry. Turn left and follow ME26 to Grafton Notch State Park (12 miles). The AT parking area is on the left side of the road and is large and well-signed. There is a $2 per person park fee. 

The plan for Labor Day weekend was to relax; I had no plans to hike.  But my friend Eileen was planning to hike Zealand Mountain and I wanted to tag along. 

It was not to be. Damage from Hurricane Irene (which arrived as a tropical storm) had closed Zealand Road.  Most of the Whites were in rough shape.

I was psyched to do Zealand and the cancelled plans left me empty.  After looking at the options, I chose Old Speck Mountain via the AT (Old Speck trail).

Old Speck is in Grafton Notch State Park in Maine. I called the park ranger earlier in the week to ask about storm damage and he said that the roads and the trails were just fine! 

I had heard nice things about Old Speck, needed it for my New England 4k list, and it wasn't too far away.  Old Speck is the lone four thousand footer in the park, which is also home to one peak on the New England Hundred Highest list - Baldpate Mountain. Rich wanted me to find something closer to our home.  With parts of Route 302 and the Kangamagus Highway closed due to flooding, we had few options.  Besides, I wanted to see AT thru-hikers!

By 8:30 a.m. Saturday, I had convinced him to hike Old Speck.  Since we had not planned on it, nothing was done to prepare for our trip. Our packs are always ready (except for water and lunch), so we threw on clothing, and threw boots, poles and packs in the car and off we went.

Turns out Grafton Notch State Park is no further from our home in Stratham than Crawford Notch in NH (give or take 15 minutes). Traffic was thick on I-95 north but we arrived at the trailhead in no time (after picking up a few sandwiches at the I-95 rest stop near Wells).  We started our hike at 11:20 a.m. with blue skies and warm, humid temps.

When we got there, two former AT hikers were in the parking lot spreading some trail magic: boiling lobsters and corn for lucky thru-hikers.  As we passed the group I could hear one hiker (lying on her pad) saying, "I am SO full!" 

We head up the trail, which was wet from a recent shower. The ascent started immediately, with several easy water crossings.  A very beautiful waterfall to the right follows us for the first mile or so. It provides a bit of cool and a bit of breeze.  We pass the start of the Eyebrow trail, a steep cliff trail that meets up with our trail further on.

The trail follows this delicate waterfall.
I am tired and the humidity and heat are slowing me down. We started this hike very late and in the heat of the day.  Surprisingly, we make very good time, and find we were hiking our usual pace. The alternating steeps and flats make for a very comfortable ascent overall.  Your blood gets pumping, breathing is heavy and then reward!  Ten to twenty yards of flat terrain.  This pattern continues to the summit.

The trail is completely wooded with rock steps, wooden stairs, and many rock slabs with good footholds.  Most of the slabs are what I call "sticky rocks," a rough surface that provided security even when wet.

At about 2500' we come to a fabulous vista of the Notch, though a bit hazy.  This is the last view we have as we soon hike into a thick cloud. 
Right side view from a vista.
We reach where the Eyebrow Trail meets back up with the Old Speck Trail and can hear voices from the cliffs of the steep Eyebrow Trail. We would soon meet those hikers at the summit.

Trail junction Eyebrow Trail
Once we got to the ridge, the steepness levels off and the trail becomes rolling terrain.  We stop and have lunch at one of the many pleasant flat spots (this one would have had partial views if not for the misty cloud we were in).  We reach a false summit and a dip down before we are back ascending.  Just before the true summit the trail turns and brings you into another open area where you must feel like you are on top of the world!  We saw only clouds. We reach the true summit, sock in with mist.

On the summit with the Eyebrow hikers!
The summit marker is on a large rock opposite the lookout tower. I climb up the tower ladder to the lookout platform but don't spend any time up there as it was damp, cold and windy with not a bit of view!

An AT thru-hiker arrives (the summit is actually a side trail from the AT). He is wearing his rainpants and looks like he has spent a few wet days on the trail.

As it was cool and viewless that day, we start down from the summit soon after we arrived.  The woods are dark from the mist. The descent is unremarkable; the wet rock slabs very sticky, making for a good pace.  On the way down Rich takes a photo of the open area close to the top. 

No view here today!
We see several AT thru-hikers on our descent and when we reach the junction of the Eyebrow Trail I hike down it a bit to see if I could see the cliff our friends from the summit hiked up (they did not recommend hiking down it as conditions were wet!). 

We get down to the parking lot at 5 p.m. to many more thru-hikers enjoying the lobsters and corn.  7.4 miles RT, about 2600' elevation gain.

Hiking on the AT this time of year is particularly fun as you meet thru-hikers of all ages; most headed to Katahdin.  The lobster feed in the parking lot had such a festive atmosphere; everyone was happy!  We gave two thru-hikers a ride on the way to our beer in Bethel (brew pub).  Scribbles is a former IBM worker in her mid fifties; SloGoing is retired (mid-sixties). Both had many stories to tell and we enjoyed hearing what it is like on the trail.

This was a beautiful hike and I would recommend it to anyone, including families. It was completely wooded with fine views along the trail (and I am assuming on the summit). Footing is fine and there is no scrambling, at least not on the Old Speck trail.  Adventure seekers can take the Eyebrow trail portion of the hike and meet up with the rest of the group at the junction. The trip had something for everyone!

Lessons learned.  1. Hiking a mountain in Maine does not have to mean a 3+ hour trip in the car to get to the trailhead. We were home in a few hours and found the ride on Route 26 quite pleasant.  2. The turkey sandwiches we got at the I-95 rest area were delicious! Who knew!

This is #58 of my New England Four Thousand footers and my most likely my last NE 4k for the 2011 season.