PASSACONAWAY CUTOFF & SQUARE LEDGE: 5/15/09
Since 1980, the White Mountain Adopt-a-Trail program has enlisted volunteeers to perform the basic maintenance tasks - brushing, blazing, removing blowdowns and cleaning drainages - for many of the trails across the region. This is a cooperative program of the Appalachian Mountain Club and the White Mountain National Forest. (Several clubs, such as the Wonalancet Out Door Club and Dartmouth Outing Club, have similar programs.) Having the routine maintenance tasks performed by volunteers frees up the professional trail crews for major projects such as building rock steps, waterbars, or bog bridges.
Depending on the program, adopters agree to perform a minimum of two to three trips per year on their chosen trail. Once the snow is gone, spring is an important time for adopters to get out on their trails to scrape drainages and remove manageable blowdowns that fell during the winter. Cleaning the drainages is a top priority, since a waterbar clogged with leaves and other debris does not function well in diverting water off the trail. Shown below is volunteer Dave Stinson cleaning a waterbar on the Bondcliff Trail.
Adopting a trail is a great way of "giving back" to the mountains that give us so much pleasure. The work can be tiring, but also very satisfying. And doing trail work with friends is fun, involving alot of camaraderie and teamwork. For me, the rewards are still substantial after 20-plus years as a trail adopter. Let me add that there are many others who are far more dedicated to trailwork than I am. One friend, John Compton (1HappyHiker), has FIVE adopted trails. And each of the trail maintaining clubs and AMC chapters has stalwarts who devote many weekends to trail work each year.
One of the two trails I work on is the Passaconaway Cutoff, which leads up the valley of the west branch of Oliverian Brook and is part of the northern route to Mt. Passaconaway.
(Photo of Passaconaway by Carol Smith, taken on East Ledges of Hedgehog Mountain.)
This is the adopted trail of the AMC Four Thousand Footer Committee (FTFC), which I've been a member of for a number of years. (Previously the FTFC has been the adopter for the Davis Path near Mt. Isolation and the lower part of the Bondcliff Trail. I like to switch trails every few years to keep things fresh. With advancing age, I find myself selecting trails with progressively shorter approaches.)
I have several generous friends who regularly help me out with this trail, but this spring trip on Friday, May 15 was a rather impromptu solo effort. Earlier in the week I'd heard a report that the trail was snow-free, and with a great weather forecast for Friday, and the bugs not yet in season in the higher terrain, I decided to go for it. So I motored over the Kanc and set off on the Oliverian Brook Trail - an easy 1.9 mile approach to the start of our trail - at 8:30.
About 0.7 mile in this trail skirts the edge of an active beaver pond that partially submerges the footway at times.
This part of the Oliverian Brook Trail provides smooth walking on the grade of the Swift River logging railroad operated by the Conway Lumber Company in the early 1900s. According to Bill Gove's excellent book, "Logging Railroads of the Saco River Valley," this was an especially busy branch of the railroad, serving a number of logging camps in the broad Oliverian Brook basin.
At one spot a short side path drops to a pretty spot at the edge of the brook.
At about 1.7 miles you enter the Sandwich Range Wilderness. The entire length of Passaconaway Cutoff was included in the expansion of the Wilderness that was signed into law in December 2006. The next summer I had the pleasure of accompanying members of Friends of the Sandwich Range and Forest Service staff for the installation of this sign as part of a "Wilderness Celebration" event held at the Russell-Colbath Barn on the Kanc.
After the Wilderness designation, new trail signs were installed at the Oliverian Brook/Passaconaway Cutoff junction. Signs in Wilderness, by design, do not show mileages, the idea being to foster a more primitive and challenging hiking experience.
The lower part of the Cutoff passes through an attractive hemlock area.
Farther along there is some nice leafy hardwood forest.
In this section there are a couple of large "step-over" blowdowns. Since they are not a hindrance to travel, these are generally left in place on trails in Wilderness. In any case, this one would be too much for my Sven saw to handle. My friend Dave Stinson and I might be able to take it out with one of the antique crosscut saws that he has lovingly restored. (Use of chainsaws is not permitted in Wilderness areas.)
Farther up the trail, in a steeper spruce section, was this double blowdown. It took about 45 minutes to remove these. When working alone, one has to be especially cautious when dealing with leaning blowdowns. A careful inspection is needed before any cutting is begun. If it looks too tricky, it should be left for a return trip with reinforcements, or for a pro crew if really massive. I cut the smaller underlying spruce tree first, which brought the overlying maple down a bit and made it easier to cut in turn. In both cases undercuts were required when the blade began to bind in the top cut.
On the upper part of the trail, at about 2300-2550 ft. elevation, there are countless dying white birch trees. These may have grown up after a fire in the area between Mt. Passaconaway, Hedgehog Mountain and Mt. Paugus in 1912. This was described in Charles Edward Beal's classic 1916 book about this region, "Passaconaway in the White Mountains." It seems these birches are reaching the end of their lifespan; perhaps some of this has to do with the infamous 1998 ice storm, which hit hard in the Sandwich Range. This past winter brought over a dozen birch trunks and large limbs down on this part of the trail. Luckily they could all be pushed, pulled or flipped off the trail without major saw-cutting.
When we took this trail over in 2006 parts of it were badly overgrown. It took three years, but we finally have a corridor brushed out to our satisfaction. But the hobblebush wars in this area are never fully won.
It was about this spot that on a trip last year that I saw a snowshoe hare bounding down the trail towards me with a pine marten in hot pursuit. The hare veered off into the woods while the marten, whose fur was a sort of warm gold color, stopped and peered at me
for a minute before heading into the brush, his lunch denied.
Near the top of the Cutoff a ledge on the trail offers a framed view north to ledgy Hedgehog and more distant peaks.
At 3:00 I scraped the last of the 43 drainages and reached the top of the trail.
It's always nice to have a little reward at the end of a day of trailwork. When we worked on the Davis Path in the 1990s, we would take a break on the wonderful summit of Mt. Isolation before making the long trudge out. From the top of the Cutoff, I've enjoyed several short rewarding treks after finishing up the work. The first time I worked on the trail in 2006, I made a thick and somewhat precarious bushwhack to some obscure slabs on the flank of Nanamocomuck Peak, which rises a short distance SW of the top of the trail. This spot rewarded with a hazy view of Mt. Paugus rising above the upper Oliverian Brook basin...
...and an unusual side view of the steep south face of Square Ledge.
Later that spring I lured my friend Keith D'Alessandro into helping me clean waterbars with the promise of an easy bushwhack to a prominent slide on the east side of Mt. Passaconaway.
Well, the whack was fairly easy when I did it back in 1997, but the 1998 ice storm had changed things, and in 2006 it was much thicker and slower going than anticipated. In fact, it took twice as long to cover the same distance. (This was early in Keith's bushwhacking days, and he never complained. He has become an ardent and accomplished bushwhacker, conquering the NH 3000-Footers and and many other peaks. He is now a member of the Four Thousand Footer Committee and is a trail adopter for the eastern 2.8 miles on the UNH Trail on Hedgehog Mountain.) This is typical of the woods encountered during our journey. (Photo by Keith.)
We did eventually battle our way over and up to the slide, and enjoyed some marvelous views over the eastern Sandwich Range area.
An on-trail reward available after a Cutoff work trip is the slide on the north side of Nanamocomuck, the bottom of which is crossed by the Square Ledge Trail.
A short, careful scramble up the slide opens a fine view north to Hedgehog and on a clear day out to Mt. Washington.
On my May 15 work trip, the treat was a trip to the summit of nearby Square Ledge, reached in 0.4 mile of up, down, and up on the Square Ledge Trail. First the trail climbs to a shoulder of Nanamocomuck, where at a left turn there's a view of Mt. Paugus.
Then there's a steep descent to an area where blowdown is a chronic problem on the trail. As you climb up from this col the south cliff of Square Ledge looms ahead.
The trail climbs alongside an impressive rock face. This area has some of the wildest terrain in the Sandwich Range.
Near the 2620-ft. summit of Square Ledge an obscure side path on the right climbs a ramp , scrambles up a ledge, and pushes through thick brush, ending abruptly (caution needed!) at a secluded white ledge, beckoning for a nap in the sun.
This vantage has an intimate view up to the looming mass of Mt. Passaconaway.
Rising nearby are Passaconaway's spurs Nanamocomuck...
...and the Wonalancet Hedgehog.
There's also a view north, dominated by the mighty Mt. Carrigain.
A quarter mile farther east along the Square Ledge Trail is another outlook atop the main, east-facing cliff. However, I didn't head over there as that cliff is a peregrine falcon nesting site most every year. From April 1 to August 1 it's best not to hang out at that spot lest you disturb the birds. I generally save it for a fall or winter visit. So after a nice snooze on the white ledge, I returned to the top of the Cutoff, picked up my tools (adze hoe, clippers, Sven saw and folding saw), and headed for home.
The essential map for exploring the Sandwich Range is the 2007 (3rd) edition of the Wonalancet Out Door Club's "Trail Map & Guide to the Sandwich Range Wilderness." Crafted by cartographer Mike Bromberg, this tyvek map has a 1:40,000 scale with GPS-surveyed trails, mileages between points, viewpoint stars, and descriptions of the 52 miles of WODC-maintained trails on the back. We sell lots of these at the Mountain Wanderer.
For information on the great work of the WODC, visit www.wodc.org.
If you're interested in adopting a trail, here are some contacts.
AMC: Alex Delucia email@example.com 603-466-2721
WMNF Saco District: Cristin Bailey firstname.lastname@example.org 603-447-5448
WMNF Ammo/Pemi District: Jenny Burnett 603-536-1315
WODC: Jack Waldron email@example.com