Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mahoosuc Range Fun - June 15, 2013

I only made it to the White Mountains once in May. Rain, snow, sleet, and more caused me to bail on a backpack of the Pemi Loop, which I had been looking forward to for months. But what can you do? This is New England, and the weather is fickle. Point in case: the weekend following Memorial Day (8" of snow fell on Mount Washington that weekend!), it was in the 90s in the valleys. Life gets in the way sometimes, and I was unable to take advantage of a couple nice weekends, but at long last I could get back at it. And more importantly, it is time to finish off the New England 4000-Footer list, of which I have 6 left: Old Speck in Maine, and the 5 peaks in Vermont. Old Speck was my planned finisher, but Ian proposed a trip that was too awesome to pass up. So I'll finish in Vermont somewhere, but that's another day. This report is about hiking Old Speck the non-traditional way.

Mahoosuc Notch. That was the main objective for the day. Old Speck was to merely be a warm up. Mahoosuc Notch is commonly referred to as the "toughest mile on the Appalachian Trail". Many are said to feel lucky to complete only that one mile of trail that day. I don't know if that is really true, I've had Thru-hikers tell me before that the notch isn't as bad as advertised, but still an adventure. This notch is not a typical notch with a trail through it, instead it is a boulder-strewn mile of rough footing crawling over, under, around, and through boulder caves. This was going to be fun!

The route plan was to drive our vehicles in on the infamous rough logging road known as Success Pond Road, in over 12 miles total in fact. We would leave one car at the trailhead for the Notch Trail, which leads in 2 miles to Mahoosuc Notch, and then drive about 2 miles further to the trailhead for the Speck Pond Trail, our starting point.

Conveniently, we both stopped for breakfast at the same place in Gorham at the same time, so we drove together to the trailheads. I noted before we even left Gorham that Ian had indeed brought his hiking hound Marlie along. I was curious to see how Marlie would manage Mahoosuc Notch, which is emphatically NOT RECOMMENDED FOR DOGS according to the White Mountain Guide. Marlie isn't your ordinary trail hound though. More on that later.

Ian in his pickup truck didn't have to doge much on the road, but my station wagon needed to take some care dodging all the potholes and protruding rocks. Thank goodness for that good, heavy-duty aluminum belly pan I put in when I bought the car a couple years ago, it took a number of strikes from rocks I could not avoid, but at least they were minor ones and did no damage to the car otherwise. Leaving Ian's truck at the Notch Trail, where we noted the presence of another car, we headed up the road to our starting point, and were off in short order, a tad after 7AM.

White Lady's Slipper on Speck Pond Trail

Pink Lady's Slipper on Speck Pond Trail

Lush green understory on the upper parts of the Speck Pond Trail
The climb up the Speck Pond Trail was pretty straight-forward, and while not an inconsequential climb, there was nothing really tough or tricky about it except a couple water crossings at the start that needed a few moment's thought. Dry boots in the end though, no worries, though these could be tough in really high water. We hit the first 3.1 miles and 2000ft of climbing to the junction with the May Cutoff in a tad under 2 hours.

Now our route gets a little hard to understand for a minute, so if you have a map of this region, pull it out. From here we would take the May Cutoff up a short, easy climb to Mahoosuc Arm, and then take the Mahoosuc Trail all the way to Old Speck, returning from Old Speck, we would take the last 1/2-mile of the Speck Pond Trail BACK to this same junction, again take the May Cutoff, and then take the Mahoosuc Trail in the other direction toward Mahoosuc Notch. Got that?

The ledges around the summit of Mahoosuc Arm offer some great views of what we would also see later.

Old Speck fire tower in the distance

Madison and Adams in New Hampshire peeking through the trees

Alpine bogs on Mahoosuc Arm

A clearer view of Old Speck ahead

Pano from a ledge on Mahoosuc Arm towards Sunday River Ski area dead center
The awesome peak of Sunday River Whitecap behind Slide Mountain. The Grafton Loop Trail goes over the summit of Sunday River Whitecap.

From Mahoosuc Arm, there was a steep but short drop down to Speck Pond and Speck Pond campsite, where we briefly chatted with the caretaker before heading up to Old Speck itself.

Speck Pond

Marlie posing for pictures by Speck Pond

The crossing at the outlet of Speck Pond. Not terribly hard now is it?

Open ledge hiking ahead!

View back towards the Kilkenny Ridge on the left, Success Pond in the center, and the Percy Peaks and more on the right.

Success Pond, which apparently has a bunch of houses/cabins on its shore. Guess you'll own a pickup truck for the rough road if you have one of those sites...

Mahoosuc Arm from ledges on Old Speck

Peek at the Baldpates

The Eyebrow Trail traverses near this cliff on Old Speck in Grafton Notch
Soon enough, we were on the summit of Old Speck, where there is a cleared view to the East, and a fire tower you can climb for awesome 360-degree views. Note that the ladder to the tower is just that, a ladder, nearly vertical and made up of steel round rungs. Not all people will be comfortable climbing it, and poor Marlie had to be left down below while we climbed up to enjoy the view.

Old Speck fire tower

View from the ground at Old Speck. Baldpates right in front.

Ian and I taking pictures of each other taking pictures of the ladder to the tower.

Marlie didn't like that we were up here, and she couldn't come too!

Baldpates across Grafton Notch

Partial pano from Old Speck summit tower

Other half of the pano from Old Speck summit tower

Sunday River Whitecap and it's ledgy goodness. Back before the Grafton Loop Trail opened up, I worked for a week helping build the trail over this summit.

Looking down Grafton Notch from Old Speck
There were also some good views of what was to come: Mahoosuc Notch.

Mahoosuc Notch dead center, with Madison and Adams off in the distance

Closer view of Mahoosuc Notch. Lots of sheer cliffs surrounding it. Should be fun!
After a nice break, during which we only saw 3 other hikers, we retraced our steps to Speck Pond before heading up the last segment of Speck Pond Trail and then cutting back over Mahoosuc Arm to the trail down towards Mahoosuc Notch. Shameless redliners, yes we are!

Old AT survey marker in the trail. Seems I've seen a number of these in Maine while hiking the 4000-Footers.

The "inlet" end of Speck Pond

Speck Pond Trail climbing back up to Mahoosuc Notch from the campsite

Mahoosuc Notch, dead ahead!
I'd heard that the climb up Mahoosuc Arm from Mahoosuc Notch was rough, and we were descending it. Well, it is steep, rough, and no fun to descend either. The upper half is mostly angled slabs, and they were often wet. I slipped a few times, but managed to avoid actually falling thankfully. Ian, following me, therefore knew where not to step. Marlie and her 4-paw drive had no issues. The lower half was large boulders, still tricky to descend, and we assumed a preview of what was to come. In here we met the only person we would meet between the campsite and the trailhead all afternoon, a gentleman who appeared to be on a weekend backpack trip.

At the bottom of Mahoosuc Arm, the trail eased for a short time as it approached Mahoosuc Notch. There, at the foot of the notch, is a boggy area where we stopped for a snack before tackling the notch. A short stop mind you, as the black flies and mosquitoes descended upon us here.

For the next 1.5 hours, it was scrambling over, under, around, and through boulder caves. There are many gaping holes between rocks, so each footstep needs to be thought out. There is no alternate route around the notch, so once you are in it, you are there for the duration. We found several caves alongside of the main route that still had ample pockets of snow and ice in them, and it felt like a freezer door was open in our faces in places. It felt great!

Marlie, who is usual very good on her feet and needs next to no help ever, balked at several of the caves, and needed encouragement in many places. She made it through with the good trust of human and canine that have shared many miles together. I mostly stayed in front trying to scout the "easy" route through. Just to be clear here, I highly recommend that dog owners either not go through Mahoosuc Notch, or leave their canine friends at home the day they do go through it. Ultimately that decision is up to you though, it is possible with the right dog/human combination. It would be a bad spot for a rescue to be needed though.

The upper portion of the descent off Mahoosuc Arm looked much like this, and many of these ledges were wet...

The start of Mahoosuc Notch

Lingering ice in the trail in Mahoosuc Notch

Follow the arrows...

Ian helps Marlie into the first of many boulder caves

Yea, this is what a lot of the trail looked like. Up and down stuff like this.

Snow pockets aplenty in the deeper, shaded caves


We built a small snowman at one point. In mid-June.

Cliffs on the side of Mahoosuc Mountain bound us on one side

Cliffs on the side of Fulling Mill Mountain bound us on the other side

We made it out!

After finally getting through the notch, we cruised down the Notch Trail to the waiting car with little incident. This trail is gentle, has few rocks on it, and was a great cool-down lap. Then it was just the matter of getting back to my car, and the long 45-minute drive back out Success Pond Road to the car.

This was an awesome hike. Old Speck was a great summit, and Mahoosuc Notch was fun for much of it (toward the end it got a little old, but that may have been partly due to being a bit tired from the tedious descent off Mahoosuc Arm right beforehand). While I have no great desire to repeat the section of the Mahoosuc Trail on the notch side of Mahoosuc Arm, I would go through Mahoosuc Notch again. Which means I'd have to climb or descend the Arm again. Well, maybe someday. Speck Pond and Notch Trails were really nice trails too, and clearly lightly-traveled.

This was an epic hike, and the weather was absolutely perfect. Thanks to Ian for the invite! An awesome way to finish off the Maine 4000-Footers! Next up, Vermont!

Trails: Speck Pond Trail, May Cutoff, Mahoosuc Trail, Notch Trail
Peaks: Mahoosuc Arm (3765'), Old Speck (4170', NE67)
Mileage: 12.8 miles
Elevation Gain: ~4200ft
Book Time: 8hr 35min (actual time 9hr 45min)