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Willey Range, March 2012

A half-day hike to four small but scenic peaks.
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After a three-hour drive from Boston, Smaranda dropped me off at the Crawford Depot parking lot. It was breezy as always in that part of Crawford Notch, but it was a warm sunny day and the snow at this elevation was not deep enough to require snowshoes. As with almost every hike this winter, I hesitated a while over whether to bring the snowshoes with me. With my itinerary consisting entirely of popular trails, most of which I knew (from checking trailsnh.com) had already seen travel in previous days, I was just about certain I wouldn't need them unless I wandered off-trail - which I wasn't planning to do today. On the other hand, not carrying snowshoes in winter feels to me like walking through a busy city while wearing a blindfold - it's acceptably safe if you know what you're doing, but it limits your options and independence in ways that feel unacceptable. Finally, I decided that I needed the extra weight for training: it won't be long before I'm hiking while carrying an infant, a spare diaper or three, a bottle and a changing table. (Just kidding about the changing table, I hope.) So I'd better not let the weight of mere snowshoes slow me down.

I started up the A-Z trail a few minutes after noon. Shortly I came to the sign indicating the Willard trail, and decided to follow the spur trail of the moment. In my planning, Willard had been an optional peak in case I finished ahead of our rendezvous time. But seeing the sign, I realized I'd never been up Mt Willard, and if I waited until I was tired at the end of the day, I might not bother. Now that I was doing Willard first, I'd have to make sure I kept up a decent pace, and/or give up my planned visit to Mt. Tom. I'd been on Mt Tom at least twice before, so that was all right.

Up the Mt Willard trail I went, puffing a bit under my full pack and pushing hard with my poles to keep my balance on the hard-packed trail. I passed a few people, but my speed wasn't too impressive. I stopped three times, to remove layers (I ended up in just a shirt and still sweating, due to my "breathable" softshell pants) and to put on MicroSpikes. The spikes improved my speed a fair amount, but I was still struggling with my pack's weight. I didn't stop to take any photos along the way, though the trail was beautiful - fresh snow was everywhere, glittering in bright sunshine.

Forty-five minutes later, I was at the end of the trail - close enough to the summit for my purposes. A dozen people were milling around, some talking on cellular phones. I positioned the doll I'd brought with me right on the cliff edge and snapped a few photos. (My child has already bagged a few peaks in utero, but on this trip the doll would have to serve as his/her proxy.)

View toward Mt Willey from Mt Willard

Baby and Crawford Notch, from Mt Willard

As soon as that business was done I raced back down the Willard trail in fifteen minutes, startling a couple of people along the way, though I was careful to slow down and make lots of noise and wait for a good opportunity to pass. Trail conditions were excellent for running - the trail was packed just right to absorb shock and prevent slipping but not soft enough for my prints to damage the surface.

Back on the A-Z trail I turned uphill again, wondering how much energy I'd have left. Every time I head up the A-Z trail from Crawford Depot, it's steeper and longer than I expect. For a while, though, I had no problems. I kept looking ahead to see if the terrain would get steeper, as I chugged my way up moderate slopes on another perfectly packed trail. I don't think I've gone up this trail in daylight before, so maybe the darkness made it seem longer those other times. Before I knew it, I was at the intersection with the Avalon trail.

A-Z Trail

stream crossing

stream detail

A-Z Trail

The Avalon trail was steeper than the A-Z trail, simultaneously less trodden and more slippery. Somebody had recently butt-slid down much of it, which made traction more difficult. I would have gone faster with crampons, and I would have expended less effort if I'd worn my snowshoes with heel lifters, but I couldn't see far ahead and kept stubbornly thinking that the slope would diminish around the next bend. It's only about a half mile to the summit of Avalon, and soon enough I emerged to the views, breathing hard and sweating considerably.

On Avalon I took a few photos, then put on a fleece jacket and sat down to brunch. There was a slight breeze which pierced my layers easily enough, but I ignored it as I basked in the sunshine. Eventually a chill in my toes warned me that I'd best start moving again.

Mt Avalon summit, with view of Mt Webster

Continuing southwestwardly on the Avalon trail, I tried to ignore the burning sensation in my fingers as circulation returned. Apparently that breeze was cooler than I realized. Note to self: wear gloves and a windbreaker during winter lunch breaks.

Soon enough I reached the spur trail to the summit of Mt Field. I considered dropping my pack, but I wanted to bring food and water with me - and also gloves, a hat, and a windbreaker. Besides, I was in training. The exact summit of Field is treed in, but I took one photo of the doll there, dropped my pack and walked back a few paces to photograph the doll in front of some excellent views from the trail.

Mt Field summit

Mt Field viewpoint

Mt Tom from Mt Field

That was when I heard the soft calling of a grey jay over my shoulder. I took some photos of the jay, then tried to coax the jay close enough to the doll to get both into a photo. No luck. The jay didn't look twice when I held out my hand - usually they'll land on your hand to investigate. Even rustling my empty granola wrappers didn't fool him.

When I grew frustrated I sat on my pack and had a snack. By this time a second jay had arrived, and both became a lot more friendly when I accidentally dropped a couple of crumbs. I stood up and led them back to the viewpoint which had direct sunlight and rime-covered trees, and took a bunch more photos as they investigated me from all angles. I even got the classic "bird in hand" shot. I still couldn't get them to pose near the doll, however. Perhaps they were afraid of it.

Perisoreus canadensis

Perisoreus canadensis

Perisoreus canadensis

Perisoreus canadensis

Perisoreus canadensis

Another Mt Tom view

Rime on a balsam fir

Grey jay on rime

Grey jay

Worth two in the bush!

Westerly view.

It was 4:15 PM; time was starting to run short if I was to make it back to Crawford Depot in time for my 6:00 rendezvous with Smaranda. My shortest path down would be to retrace the Avalon trail, but I decided to take the Willey trail to the Mt Tom spur; if I made good time I'd hike up Mt Tom, otherwise I'd go down directly from there.

I made it to the Mt Tom spur in about half an hour. I could make it a four-peak day if I moved fast. Dropping my pack, I took only my cell phone, my camera, and an extra jacket (with hat and gloves in the pocket) and set out on the last uphill slog of the day.

I was starting to tire, and by the time I was halfway up I regretted not bringing food or water with me. Still, it wasn't far, and at exactly 5:00, having taken the requisite summit photos of the baby doll, I paused on the east-facing ledge which I expected to offer the only cell phone reception near the summit, and called Smaranda to let her know that I expected to arrive at the trailhead on schedule.

View south to Mt Field

Mt Carrigain from Mt Tom

Mt Carrigain detail

Wider southerly view

Approximate summit

Close to the summit

Baby doll with photo of daddy and mommy

Another southern view

One more Mt Carrigain view

And here's Mt Field again.

Spurred on by increasing hunger and thirst, I reached my pack in a few minutes, only to make a disheartening discovery: the grocery bag holding my lunch had been partially pulled through a small hole in my backpack (where there handn't been a hole before). Opening my pack I saw that the egress of the bag had been halted by the bulk of my remaining sandwich. The corner of the sandwich had been clawed or nibbled, and so had a corner of a Snickers bar, but losses were minimal. A quick check convinced me that no mouse remained inside my backpack (that's happened before). On further reflection, pulling the bag out would indicate something larger than a mouse. Perhaps a bird? A squirrel? There were some vaguely squirrelish tracks nearby: long hops that seemed to start and end at tree trunks, but the tracks were not very clear. In any event, my first priority was to drink some water and to take a few bites from my candy bar.

I was still chewing my first bite when I heard an odd noise - something like a short, shallow snort, or a soft bark. This accompanied a flash of furry motion, and to my surprise I saw a weasel - a pine marten, to be precise - hopping across the trail below me. He circled around at a distance of ten or twenty meters, barking at me, and then hopped away uphill and eastward.

I dropped everything and grabbed my camera from its case. In my excitement it took me three tries to remove the lens cap. I remembered that after taking photos on the sunny ledge I'd left the ISO setting at 100 and the aperture at something like f/18 (no good at all for action shots in the dim light of these thick woods), so I tried to adjust the settings while keeping one eye on the marten. With gloves on, I couldn't manage to change the ISO (even though I usually can), so I left my gloves on top of my pack. Then I walked up the trail to a point near where I'd last seen the marten. My first few steps off the trail brought me within sight again, but the marten bounded away just as my feet started sinking. I followed to a clearing, where a small spruce trap stopped me and allowed the marten to disappear. Without my snowshoes on, I had no chance of getting a photo. I extricated myself from the waist-deep snow and backtracked to the trail, peering disconsolately into the woods as I returned to my pack.

Hold on - what's that on the ground right next to my pack? The clever little bugger had circled back while I was stuck in the snow, and was now inches away from the candy bar I'd left lying on top of my open pack. I took a few shots from where I was, and gradually crept closer. The marten heard me coming, but mostly ignored me. He was busy investigating my pack from all angles, including from ten feet up in nearby trees. The way he could leap up into a tree, travel vertically up or down a trunk and hop horizontally from one tree to the next, would be the stuff of nightmares for tasty sciurids.

Who's hanging around my pack?

Look up in the tree...

Back on the ground...

Cute varmint

Smells like peanut butter

In the rapidly fading light, I decided to risk using flash. Frequently the clicking noise of the flash popping up scares animals away, but this marten barely looked over his shoulder. I got about four shots with flash, then discovered that my camera's battery was dead. I changed batteries, cursing my luck. I got a few more shots and then discovered that the CF card was full. I changed cards and kept shooting.

Snatching the prize

Eventually the marten grabbed the candy bar and hopped away. I followed off-trail a short distance and watched as he tried to bite pieces off the frozen caramel. He eventually decided to eat in private, and skipped further into the woods. I considered putting on snowshoes, but the light was fading further and I was going to be late for my rendezvous with Smaranda. I had spent only ten minutes in the company of the marten, but it was time to go.

The rest of the trip was less eventful. I ate my remaining Snickers bar and drank some water, then I tore down the whole trail at a run, except for the deep gully at about 3,200' which required some caution. I remembered this gully well, having lost the trail in the dark here in January 2005 (going uphill, it turns sharply to the right, in the middle of the stream). I'm not sure if I was relieved or disappointed to see that, according to all visible tracks, nobody had had any trouble following the trail in at least a week. Not long afterward, sweating once again, I trotted into the Lodge to find Smaranda and dinner waiting for me.