DOWNES BROOK MEANDER: 6/28/12
I love exploring in the three long valleys - Oliverian Brook, Downes Brook and Sabbaday Brook - on the north side of the Sandwich Range Wilderness. Having been into the Oliverian and Sabbaday valleys in recent weeks, it was time to spend a day in the Downes Brook valley, which extends for five miles between Hedgehog Mountain, Mt. Passaconaway and Mt. Whiteface on the east and Potash Mountain and the north ridge off East Sleeper on the west.
The Downes Brook Trail starts from the same trailhead as the UNH Trail up Hedgehog, and soon cuts across to follow an old logging road along Downes Brook, passing some fresh logging in the first half-mile.
At 0.7 mi. is the first of ten crossings of Downes Brook. These can be challenging to near impossible in high water, but on this day the water levels were low to moderate, and the six crossings that I did were quite manageable. This first crossing has some nice ledge slabs and small cascades.
Crossing #2, a wide one.
The trail offers some pleasant valley walking between the crossings.
After the fourth crossing, you enter the Sandwich Range Wilderness.
A view upstream along the brook.
A small cascade seen from the trail.
At 2.3 mi. the trail crosses a small brook where a rock retaining wall has been built. This drains the so-called Downes Brook Slide, which came crashing down the north slope of Mt. Passaconaway in the 1890s (though one source says it fell in 1884).
I took a break on some ledge slabs where the side stream empties into Downes Brook.
Not long after the slide fell, hikers began using its swath as a route to climb Mt. Passaconaway from the Albany Intervale. There are several pictures of it in the two Our Mountain Trips books, which are collections of journals and photos from hiking in the early 1900s. The Downes Brook Slide Trail remained in use for many years, but was noted as a dangerous route due to steep and slippery ledges. In the 1940s the AMC White Mountain Guide cautioned hikers: "This trail is dangerous, especially after a rain, and is not recommended to amateur climbers. It is not signed for this reason."
Because of this danger, the Forest Service officially closed the trail about 1960. In the 1990s, unknown parties put up trail signs at either end and painted white blazes on the route. The Forest Service and the Wonalancet Out Door Club worked together to stop the unauthorized maintenance, as described here. The white blazes have been obliterated or covered, making this route once again largely a bushwhack.
Two friends and I climbed this route back in 1990, and we found it as advertised, very steep and potentially dangerous. The slick ledges on the upper part of the slide were quite treacherous. Above the slide, the route was extremely steep and mossy, and fragile. As the WODC notes, this route, which we found hard to follow in places, is suitable for use only by a small number of well-prepared bushwhackers.
On this Downes Brook hike, I bushwhacked up along the brook, following a trace of the old trail in places, to the open lower slabs of the slide, which are fairly low-angled and have good grip when dry. When wet, they are very slippery, as I discovered on a previous visit when a rain shower moved in, forcing me to crab-walk my way back down. A northern spur of Mt. Passaconaway can be seen in the photo below.
From the top of these expansive lower slabs, there is an intimate view of ledgy Potash Mountain.
To the L is the wooded knob sometimes called "South Potash."
After lounging in the sun for a while, I descended back to the Downes Brook Trail, pausing to admire this cascade along the way.
I continued upstream along the Downes Brook Trail to check out an old logging camp site. In some areas Tropical Storm Irene had left its mark.
At the next crossing of Downes Brook, I could see another side stream tumbling down.
Years ago I made a steep and difficult Fourth of July bushwhack to a huge rock slab up in this drainage. At the bottom of the slab I looked up at a cascade that rivals some of the big White Mountain waterfalls in height, if not in flow. J.R. Stockwell once bushwhacked this way off Passaconaway in winter, and said this was a huge ice bulge.
At the top of the slab there was a shelf suitable for loafing, with a view that included Mt. Tripyramid and the Fool Killer.
Continuing up the Downes Brook Trail, I spotted this half-flume just downstream from the sixth crossing.
Looking upstream from the 7th crossing, with a bit of the north ridge of Mt. Whiteface visible.
It took a little while to locate the logging camp site. According to the map of the Swift River Railroad in Bill Gove's Logging Railroads of the Saco River Valley, this was either the Hawkins Camp or the Lonas Camp. Artifacts seen included a bucket...
...and a shovel blade. Note that it is illegal to remove such artifacts from the National Forest.
There was also a large three-sided metal piece; anyone have an idea on what this was?
As I strolled back down the trail, I thought back to a couple other spots I bushwhacked to a few years ago on a snowshoe journey farther up the Downes Brook valley.
This huge slide on the north ridge of Mt. Whiteface, about 4 1/2 mi. up the valley, can be seen from the trail when the leaves are down.
Near the head of the valley, I whacked up to a small beaver meadow on the west side, from which the wooded ridge of Mt. Whiteface could be seen. The long Downes Brook valley harbors some interesting remote places and is always a pleasure to visit.