Thursday, December 3, 2009


This trek reminded me of a familiar admonition from childhood: don't bite off more than you can chew. Even after 30 years of hiking and bushwhacking, there are lessons to be learned, or re-learned.

The setting for this journey was the Dry River valley, the long, remote drainage on the south side of Mt. Washington, which forms the core of the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness. (The view of the valley seen below was taken from a southerly spur of Mts. Webster and Jackson.)

The Dry River area has an almost spooky mystique about it, dating back to the Indian legend of the "Great Carbuncle," a brilliant gem said to be hidden high in the valley and guarded by an evil spirit. Lucy Crawford's History of the White Mountains told of a party of treasure-seekers who hired Abel Crawford as guide and went looking for the carbuncle: "They set out and went up Dry river, and had hard work to find their way through the thickets and over the hills, where they made diligent search for a number of days..." But the effort was, of course, futile. This mythical stone was immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne's haunting tale of obsession, "The Great Carbuncle."

Dry River is wild, rough country, and, despite its proximity to the ultra-popular Southern Presidentials, its primitive trails are lightly traveled. In recent winters the valley has developed a reputation as a catchbasin for lost hikers driven off the Southern Presidentials by bad weather and/or misnavigation. Once down in there, it's a long ways out, and the trails are usually unbroken, if they can be found at all in the deep snow.

The name of the river itself is deceptive - it is a fast riser after heavy rain, and two hikers drowned here in separate incidents in 1971. In the wake of those tragedies, the Dry River Trail was relocated to eliminate the many river crossings of the old logging railroad grade, and a suspension footbridge was built over the first crossing, 1.7 miles from the road.

(Middle of Dry River valley from Mt. Pierce.)

I had two objectives for this hike. One was to visit the newly reconstructed suspension footbridge, which had just been opened to public use the previous weekend after being closed for four years. The second was to bushwhack to a small cliff deep in the valley, where I had found an unusual view on an autumn journey back in 1997.

Heavy snow had fallen a few days earlier on the north side of Crawford Notch, and I had decided that if there was significant snow at the trailhead, I would hike elsewhere -- a nine-plus mile solo round trip through unbroken snow would not be manageable.

When I got to the trailhead on Route 302, I found...bare ground. I knew there would be at least some snow farther and higher in the valley, so I brought both Microspikes and snowshoes along - one of the things I did right today. Without either I wouldn't have completed the trip.

In the first half-mile, the Dry River Trail meanders through a fine hardwood forest, where it felt more like late October than early December. It got well up into the forties by afternoon.

Then the trail hops aboard a section of the old Dry River logging railroad, which had a brief run during the 1890s.

Before long you're in the Wilderness, and this one certainly has more than enough "wild" in it to earn the label.

A view of the boulder-strewn Dry River.

A mile and a half in, the trail makes a sudden steep climb up the side of the valley. This is a recurring theme in the next several miles: rough ups and downs or sidehills mixed with sections of railroad grade strolling. The trail originally followed the railroad bed, which made thirteen (!) crossings of the river to keep to a gentle gradient up the tightly confined valley. (In his Logging Railroads of the White Mountains, C. Francis Belcher described this as "one of the most inaccessible of all the White Mountain locations to be logged by railroad.") After the hiker drownings, the trail was relocated to eliminate the crossings, but this necessitated running it up on the side of the slope in many places. Thus, as the AMC Guide hints, the Dry River Trail is a lot more rugged and tiring than your typical valley trail.

Where the trail swings around the slope, high above the river, there is a striking "window" view up the valley to Mt. Washington rising above the headwall of Oakes Gulf, with Mt. Monroe's sharp peak to the left. This is a nice objective for a short hike -- 3 miles round trip.

I ran into the first snow here, which had refrozen into near-ice where the trail tightropes along a very steep slope just past the outlook. I put the Microspikes on, and wouldn't have done this stretch without them. Then the trail descends a rather nasty steep pitch towards the bridge; this will be a tricky spot when it freezes up.

Approaching the new bridge.

An impressive work of footbridge construction, it is.

This Seattle company specializes in trail bridges.

A nice ledgy spot on the river just past the bridge.

Soon the snow cover was continuous on the trail, a crunchy couple of inches. At one point you see this massive gravel slide across the valley.

About 2 1/2 miles in, where the trail makes a welcome return to the railroad grade, the snow depth had increased to the point where barebooting was becoming tedious and tiring.

On went the snowshoes for their first workout of the season.

A landmark along the way - the junction with the Mount Clinton Trail at 2.9 miles.

The previous week's storm had wreaked havoc on the trails, with numerous blowdowns from high winds, and bendovers of small trees from a burden of heavy wet snow.

After a rough, rocky stretch along the bank, the trail crossed this brook. And here I made a careless navigational error. I assumed this was a brook shown on the USGS topo map, and I soon left the trail to head up the ridge that rises between it and the Dry River, a route that would lead me to the clifftop I was seeking. The trail had become increasingly obstructed by blowdowns and bendovers, and I was anxious to get off it and start whacking.

I climbed up a steep spruce-clad slope to a shoulder. At the top I realized that there were brooks on both sides of this ridge, and the one down to my left was not the Dry River. What a bonehead - I had left the trail one brook too early and gone up the wrong ridge! That's why the woods seemed thicker than I remembered. With the short daylight hours this time of year, this whack was starting out as a fiasco. Cursing was heard in the valley. To correct my course, I dropped to the left down a steep slope, crossed the brook at the bottom (shown below), then struggled up an even steeper slope on the far side. My mistake had cost me an extra half-hour of strenuous snowshoe bushwhacking through the increasingly wet snow.

The correct ridgecrest started out as a narrow hogback.

Out here, deep in the valley, I felt "Alone in the Wilderness." I soon found evidence that there were other creatures out and about. First a bear...

...and then a moose.

Through a break in the trees there was a peek up at the high ridge of Mt. Davis.

Then the woods started to open up, though the snow was getting deeper, about 8 inches or so, and there were hobblebush patches to wade through.

I broke out into the open hardwoods that I remembered from my previous visit to this ridge. Some large old yellow birches in here.

The slope steepened as I approached the little knob where the SW-facing cliff was located. By now I was pretty pooped from four hours of nearly non-stop hiking and snowshoeing, and I was taking frequent rests during the slow, winding ascent. On the steep final approach to the cliff, I found the little gap that had provided a convenient route up through the ledges on my first visit was now roadblocked with a humongous blowdown mess. This forced me into some awkward snowshoe maneuvering in steep terrain.

And here my legs put up their first protest in the form of painful cramps of the inner thigh muscles. This has happened occasionally before on bushwhacks with much leg lifting, and also on the first full-day of snowshoeing in a season, when these muscles have been on a long layoff. On this trip I was doing both. Compounding the problem, I had not stopped often enough to drink water because I felt an urgency to keep moving with the short daylight hours. Dumb and dumber!

After wallowing through the first spruce traps of the season, I finally made my way out to the little clifftop perch at 1:30 pm, 4 1/2 hours from the trailhead. It was downright balmy here, no need for a hat or more than one extra layer.

The view from here south down the Dry River valley is unique, though the low December sun and hazy skies made for less than stellar pictures.

Mt. Carrigain (L) and the sprawling Hancock (R) dominate the distant horizon.

The lower Dry River valley is like a canyon - it's hard to believe a railroad was put up through here.

Across the valley to the west is Mt. Jackson, which has a broad-spreading aspect from this perspective, quite different from its usual nubbly look. In the foreground the steep valley wall is scored by numerous small slides and gullies.

Closer by to the SE was a spur ridge of Mt. Davis. A half-hour rest here was all I could afford, during which I ate, drank water and took electrolyte tablets to try and counteract the leg cramps.

I had two hopes for the first part of the return trip: find a less strenuous route off the clifftop knob, and maybe before dropping down find a west-facing ledge I had spotted from Mt. Pierce on a winter hike. I made a brief stab at searching for the ledge, but quickly decided I had better start heading my butt down. (A look at Mt. Pierce photos after the hike showed that the west-facing ledge would have required a significant side trip for which there was neither time nor energy.) I started descending the moderately steep slope, not sure what I would find for vegetative obstacles. And soon I came into some really good woods. At this point I was pretty pleased with my choice of descent route.

A nice area to snowshoe in.

And then, about halfway down to the valley floor, I hit some bad woods. With the need for lots of maneuvering and leg-lifting to negotiate these small snow-covered conifers, the leg cramps really kicked in, the worst I've ever experienced. Several times I was immobilized for a few minutes. Clearly I had way overdone it today. I ate and drank more and chewed more electrolyte tablets.

It was three o'clock and I will confess to having a few anxious moments while struggling in the thickets. I figured I would be able to get out OK, but that it could take longer than usual. If I needed to eat and drink periodically to keep the cramps at bay, I had plenty of food and still had a bit of water left. I could drink more from the several side streams crossed by the trail, or from the river itself.

Various thoughts came to me when I was trying to work out the cramps. As a husband, I was concerned about the worry an unusually late exit would cause for my wife. As a search and rescue volunteer, I considered the embarrassment of a really, really late exit, having Fish & Game officers and some of my Pemi Valley cohorts give up their evening and come out in the dark looking for me when I wasn't injured or lost, just delayed by my own stupidity. Say what you want about cell phones - I carry one - but in a case like this a call could save alot of trouble and worry. No chance of a signal in this remote valley, though. Lurking in the back of my mind was the knowledge that heavy rain was moving in overnight.

I was very happy to finally get down to the trail and begin the four-mile trudge out, even with its ups and downs and many blowdowns and bendovers and stepovers. The cramps settled down when I was just doing regular walking, but continued to act up when going over fallen trees. I reached the bridge at dark, and sat down to pull out a headlamp and put on the Microspikes for the steep icy pitch up past the Mt. Washington outlook. With the cramps I had a difficult time bending my legs to pull the stretchy rubber of the 'spikes on - for one foot I had to take my boot off to do it. (In this instance, Stabilicers would have been far easier to put on.) Once past the steep descent from the outlook, the walking became pleasant on bare ground.

The last stretch out could have been a scene from "The Great Carbuncle," with gnarled hardwood branches looming high overhead under the dim light of a cloud-veiled moon.

As it turned out, I made it home in time for a not-too-late dinner. When I emailed my bushwhacking buddy John Compton about this trek, I said it could be considered an epic or a debacle, depending on your point of view. With his usual good humor, he suggested it be called an "epicable." The photo below, taken from Mt. Pierce, shows the setting for the day's journey, one which this fool won't soon forget.


  1. Steve, thank you for sharing this impressive report! And I say "impressive" not just because of the narrative and splendid photos that resulted from a very unique hike.

    By far the most "impressive" aspect of your report is the honesty and character you showed by recounting all aspects of this hike, including those aspects which you referred to as "misadventures" in the title of your report. William Shakespeare is credited with saying that "No legacy is so rich as honesty." I think your legacy not only remains intact, but has actually been ratcheted up a few notches!


  2. Thanks, John. Aren't you sorry you missed this one? It would have been a better scenario had you been along with your good common sense.

    I was careless in several ways on this hike, and felt it should be noted in the report. I hope to avoid any repeats in the future!


  3. Steve, thank you for your honesty and humility. Conjures up memories of one of my own "misadventures" on the Franconia Ridge twenty years ago that resulted in a badly frostbitten nose. Thanks for the great photos and report!

  4. Thank you, John. Sounds like you have a good tale to tell there. There are always things to be learned from trips gone awry.