I have a lot of time to write on the train these days.
At the very tip of the Great North Woods of New Hampshire you'll find the Deer Mountain campground. Nestled against Route 9? there are only a handful of stops above Pittsburg. It is here that my Cohos trips have started and ended. It's the last public head resting spot, albeit primitive, before one arrives at the Northern Terminus of the trail and the Canadian border. And so there I was heading on Sunday June 8th for my third attempt at the Cohos. Again I hoped to establish a semi-respectable claim to an unsupported FKT.
The most out of control crux of the trip for me is getting over Mt. Eisenhower. It is here that bad weather can blow you off the side of the mountain or strike you down with righteous lighting from the heavens. On this particular weather window it looked to be hit or miss (Is it ever not up there?). With that being hopeful yet murky all that remained to fail was my preparation, wit and perseverance. All three would fail individually and sometimes collide in spectacular bouts of doubt.
I once again used the services of Trail Angel's shuttle, though this time it was to take me to the southern terminus and not rescue me from an abandoned attempt. My preparation was lightly modified from prior attempts mostly around gear. The Cohos trail map was now all on one page. I brought a Solomid with me to raise the comfort level above that of a bivy. I was using a sawyer water filter on a Smart Water bottle system as I learned from the great String Bean. A slightly bigger water resistant HMG pack with a aluminum frame for a touch more comfort.
The shuttle had me arriving at the trailhead about 11AM with some light wind and rain. Clouds loitered about around the high peaks and I was unsure of clear passage. Be it planning or laze I wanted only to get 25 miles in the first day and get some pretty solid rest before starting the second. Lots of up with a heavy pack to be had in that first day. My goal was to arrive at the WMNF Primitive campgrounds on Cherry Road and take a load off for a few hours. I'm constantly afraid of bears when sleeping in the woods alone so I like to find spots where people aren't far off. Plus, it reduces the impact that might be caused by rampant stealth camping.
Things moved smoothly and unremarkably through the motions. Beautiful views of clouds and peaks. The rugged, rustic and not oft traveled Davis Path wound it's way toward the spectacle of Mt. Isolation. A surprise along the way was a trail crew bombing through, instruments in hand to dig out drainage. It was the first signs of civilization I had ever seen on that particular trail. They kindly reminded me of the differences between a wilderness area and the other areas of the white mountains, a difference that dictates how clear the paths are cut. Not so much clear for sections of the Cohos for sure.
Having already been on top of Isolation a few times I trekked passed and down towards the Dry River. Due to lingering storm damage the trail still travels over demolished banks and downed trees. I full on missed a turn and followed a sketchy moose path for a spell. The lack of blazes another stipulation in the wilderness trails.
The Dry River itself crashed busily but not angrily. It looked about knee deep where the trail crosses and I soon found out it felt that way too. A large concern I had after being on the AT with String Bean a couple days was my feet getting wet. Owing to this I made a fairly questionable footwear choice.
The Salomon X-Alp's are a hybrid of hiking boot and running shoe with a stiff sole that could accept a crampon (somewhat) but maintain low profile. The whole package is adorned in a running shoe upper with a full length built-in gaiter that repels water on the bottom 1/4. Great at keeping out some bits of moisture, as they had in the muddy and rainy trails I had been on so far, but horrible at draining. I hadn't planned on getting them soaking wet but in my attempt to cross the Dry River with them on, a foot slipped in. I gave up and walked across. I did the best I could to drain them on the other side but to no avail.
The remainder of the hike up Eisenhower was the familiar gauntlet. Squat coniferous trees mark the transition to above treeline. They huddle into the path like a football teams defensive line. Unrelenting wind and weather have hardened them to the rough obelisks they are today. Still not knowing quite what the conditions would be like out of the trees I worried at strong gusts of wind as they battered against the wooden fortress I was encased in.
As I emerged from the verdant walls my face was not melted off by wind but rather confused by unnaturally still air. The whole of the western presidentials stretched out around me, void of clouds. A perfect window for crossing. After getting up to the ridge the trail almost immediately plunges down Edmand's Path? Towards the massive Bretton Woods hotel. Coming to the other side of Eisenhower the wind whipped, threatening to level a person if it had to. An eeriness chased me off the ridge. The highway that is Crawford Path was empty and the sun was beginning to fade. I felt like I had missed all the activity, and the mountain was already closed for the day. I had overstayed my welcome at a party when everyone else had gone. Like when you are leaving a party and run to the bathroom first and when you come out the music has stopped and the hosts are cleaning dishes and talking in low tones.
The descent down Eisenhower is fun and flowy. Despite my best efforts I still could not find the specific route through the XC Ski trails at the base. This time I ended up bushwacking through territory in which I spotted 3 huge piles of bear scat within 100 feet of each. A sure sign I was in the wrong place. Thanks to years of navigating pixelated tunnels in video games as a kid I remembered the path through the XC Ski maze to pick up the route on the other side.
As the sun disappeared my bear paranoia picked up steam. My previous passage exemplified a New Hampshire summer afternoon with a ton of people playing in the Amonousic. This time the only movement in the river was the fluidic rush against rock. Nearing Bretton Woods the sound of merriment drifted through the trees. While a fancy dress party raged I slipped through the grounds and began the roadwalk to Old Mt. Cherry.
Luckily the 3rd WMNF Primitive Campsite I encountered on the dirt road to Mt. Cherry was vacant. It was later than I had anticipated and by the time I was settled in it was around midnight. As is typical, my stomach was much too unsettled to restore the huge calorie deficit I was incurring. I attempted some pepperoni and cheese. The best bet was to sleep for a few hours and hope for a reset in the morning.
Sleep was restless with images of bears surrounding my tarp discussing who gets the gizzards. 3AM had me up, packed and trying to down some instant potatoes made with cold water. Normally they taste great but I was still having trouble with them. I strolled the continuation of the road to the Mt. Cherry trailhead, munching potatoes and some chocolate.
A dirt parking lot signals the trailhead that climbs Mt. Cherry and beyond to Jefferson. Before the climb I saw to some business. With a fresh dawn came an unsettling experience, my morning bowels included more than a spec of blood. Though a totally unique experience for me, I had heard of exercised induced bleeding before. My mind flooded with all the possibilities and the best I could settle on was that the casing of the pepperoni, combined with the effort, was irritating something. Despite that, everything else felt normal so I decided it was safe to move on.
Morning atop Cherry was stunning. Beautiful undercast pockets within valleys marked the horizon. The trail leads off the mountain, directly into a bog. It was here the shoe mistake doubled down. The wet morning grass soaked through the top fabric, and any dryness gained through the night was immediately lost. My feet squished audibly within pools inside the shoes.
After the bog is a couple miles of engineered flat multi-use trail. The bugs were so aggressive that I donned a windbreaker and pants, along with a bug net for my face. This region offers telling views of the Presidentials and Cherry, where you've been, with the Pliny ridge, where you're going.
The last bit before popping out on to the road to Jefferson is another soaker through thigh high grass. After exiting the woods I sat down and attempted to dry my shoes a bit in the sun while munching more pepperoni and cheese. The road walk to Jefferson took place under sun and heat. Stumbling into town I was hitting serious lows. It also finally dawned on me that the normal and manageable chaffing that usually happens to my feet in any shoe was made dramatically worse by the pooling moisture in the X-Alps. I waited in Jefferson while my shoes dried in the sun.
Resuming for the climb up Starr-King and Waumbek, the dryness seemed to help but pain persisted. This ridge is a horror of rocks and downed trips which I've written about before, this time was no different. I arrived at the Mt. Cabot shelter spent to the core. Here again, a blood tainted sign.
I laid in the empty bunks listening to the haunting and lifeless wind wrap around the building. Another low, fueled by worry. I decided it may be best to get a full rest before starting again. Over 100 miles of the trail remained and I thought about stopping in Stark again. I had neglected to acquire water before arriving at the cabin and was far too lazy to retrieve it down the side of Cabot so I ran out. I still otherwise felt normal for what I had done.
After long but restless sleep I put on the torture shoes and stumbled down Cabot. I still had enough energy to hike around 3 miles an hour. There was no fast to my packing.
The bathrooms at the end of the Kilkenny Ridge Trail were closed, which was a bummer as I was looking for fresh water from them to clean my filters. In the absence of that one does the bottle dance, filtering water and then using that filtered water to clean the filter.
Under the hot sun of another day I crossed the road and stepped into the threshold of where my previous attempt ended. Blood shitting and raw feet aside, I was in a much better place than I had been last year. I was drinking, eating, sweating and peeing. I hardly ever have the self management required to pull all those off at once. So I decided to keep on moving, knowing I'd get where I was going someday.
Somewhere before the Percy peaks I had a long sit down for food and water. I tried flipping my socks here as the toes and heels were entirely worn through on both pairs (in retrospect I might have brought socks with tiny holes in them to begin with). All that succeeded in doing was digging dirty wool into my open skin.
The descent from Percy was an absolute bottoming out of the trip. I stopped to eat some couscous for lunch but within an hour or so of going again I was bare emotionally. After another for some water I noticed my nose was bleeding. Great. Both ends.
I sat down dejected. The one saving thought was that it was less than 100 miles to go. The bugs swarmed and I had to suit up in order to sit still and mope. My feet throbbed and bled. The calorie deficit I was operating under made me feel weak if I wasn't consuming constantly. I began to worry that I might run out of food at that rate.
But, as we do, I prioritized the things I could help and those I can't. The most pressing issue was the shoe scrape. I had one final option which I was really avoiding, ruining a somewhat good pair of nearly $300 shoes. FKT claim or not I wanted to finish this trip so out the knife came.
Almost immediately after the gutting of my upper the going was easier. It also helped that the trail itself began to get much smoother after this point. The way no longer felt like you were traveling through the veins of the woods. The trails were wider and mostly better trodden. All the high peaks had been peaked. Despite my love for the embrace of the woods, I repeated a mantra about just getting to the road and even easier trail sections up ahead. My comfort with the whole situation reached a high shortly after all seemed lost. I sat on the edge of a river and ate cheese, reading text messages on my InReach. Messages from loved ones choked me up. I was able to relax and capture that enjoyment and the adventure of unknown roads ahead. Again I was humbled by the privilege given to me of traveling this route.
Long climbs on ATV roads escorted me towards the shelter where I planned to rest my head. As my proximity to the shelter grew, so did sightings of large piles of bear scat. While I had intended to stay and rest longer it was impossible for me to nod off completely so I faked it for a bit and prepared to trudge through the rest of the night. I found a sucessful nerve calming technique in playing music through my phone, alerting large mammals of my presence.
More trails. My movement was the very dreams of a moose. Endless corridors through boreal woods with no thoughts aside from the focus on breath. The sounds of rivers and the cool air they bring came in and out of my senses. Somewhere I passed through a clearing in the pre-dawn hours, Cathedral Meadows I believe. I laid down on the grass for a moment to look at the stars and the silhouettes of mountains in the distance. It was uncommon on this trail to have such visibility. I hadn't seen another human being in a long time.
The morning hours found me approaching another shelter, this time with a partial enclosure which helped me sleep much better. The heat of the late morning woke me. Again I had planned to try to sleep through the middle of the day but sleep was not restful. Instead of laying there I wanted to get moving.
I sorted through my remaining food and choked down my second box of cold couscous. It was a little clearer to me at this point that I might run out. All I wanted was 40 Hershey's bars to get my energy back up. What was becoming familiar was the feeling of not having any expendable oomph left. I felt it a little bit on the AT a couple weeks earlier, now more so. Without calories I slowed to a state that required putting my head down. Moving actually felt okay when I got a big intake, like sitting for hours eating and starting again. It's one thing to weigh what items you should take when staring at an excel sheet. Coming to the reality of what to eat when, was not working out as easy. The shattered sputtering of my hike and sleep mishmash was not getting me anywhere fast. What was a fastpack before, now a disjointed set of short hikes with naps in between.
Into the heat I went towards Dixville Notch. The way included an exposed climb on a very wide dirt road that did a number on me and burnt my shoulders. Of all places to make my second navigational error I needlessly climbed down a ski slope. After a trip through the ski grounds I was dousing myself in the rivers spilling down into the notch. The other side of the notch was one of the other last climbs of the trip. The Sanguinary trail lead to the next refuge, the Panorama shelter. The view around that area struck me at a time when I was feeling good, it filled where the negative had drained.
A much more peaceful shuteye had me rearing to go. This was the last section before I emerged near Pittsburgh, a landmark that signaled my proximity to where my adventure would end. It also brought the road sections. It made the frustration of getting lost in a logged woods that much more grumbly. Huge sections had been cleared, leaving a few scattered stumps and trees, some with blazes. Large piles of downed limbs formed walls that took time and swearing to get over without breaking a leg. It was difficult finding the way at night and I stood next to one blaze and tried to best guess the straightest line from where it pointed, returning if I couldn't find the “bearing”.
Without much fanfare I closed in on the Colebrook campgrounds. My stomach had been iffy since the first night, but manageable. I considered it an accomplishment of the highest order that I had kept it together through high heat and whatever else. Abruptly I vomitted before the camps. It was the first time in all my outdoor excursions that it wasn't some kind of voluntary admission.
I know my bodies reactions in such conditions and likely a slight recovery was possible. Initially I thought the whole thing was over. Typically a cascade starts that ends with my plantar fascia throbbing to the point of hobbling. Best I can tell it happens when I am absolutely out of calories and digestion stops. I've had slices of pizza totally restore my feet, but that was not an option at 1AM in the woods. Neither was stewing in frustration about it. I sipped some water, took a shot block, forgave my body, and got on my way.
I recall recently someone remarking about how quickly food actually exits your stomach in normal digestions, and it is really true. Luckily the only wasted calories were in half a Hershey's bar. At the campsite I sat and collected myself, looked through my food, and began the road section. I was able to run parts of it, using muscles that hadn't been taxed in days.
I love running on quiet new england backroads so it was hard to ruin my demeanor. Plus I had been looking forward to this moment ever since tripping and skipping along the Kilkenny Ridge Trail.
A particular dogleg turn gave me the final serious navigational error of the trip. I ended up traveling down the wrong ATV lane in the pre-dawn hours, passing alongside wide open fields. The blazes had been light to non existent, or at least I hadn't spotted many, since I started the road miles. Walking back and forth down the ATV trail zapped my oomph and I collapsed on the side of the field to shut my eyes for an hour. In and out of something like sleep, tucked in with a blanket of stars above.
Light filled the world again, on raw feet I traveled further down the ATV path convincing myself it was the right way (it wasn't). Soon I emerged on a picturesque road with lovingly maintained farm houses, the kind that scream “not an active farm but rather a wealthy homeowner”. I consulted map, guidebook and phone GPS. Definitely not the right way.
Back I went slopping through water and wet grass till I found the turn I had missed. More dirt roads. An old tree farm that still has its fields mowed presented a fantastic view of the surrounding area. The road passed off the grid camps and old logging lanes, New Hampshire AF as the kids say. At a Cohos kiosk I had to take yet another moment to lay my head down. My breaks were getting more and more frequent. As of late I had barely managed 2 miles an hour even given the dirt road sections.
As I lay there an unlikely visitor crawled on by. After hearing the rustle I lifted the side of my tarp to see a porcupine staring back at me. As they do, it began chattering a warning and slowly, and I mean slowly, rotating its back and spines towards me. Clearly meant to intimidate I let it know I got the message, but it kept on giving it. The truly ornery little creature milled about chomping at me for a good couple of minutes before sauntering off. The nerve.
After a rest and some grub it finally set in that I was not going to have enough food to finish. I weighed the merits of trying to get it done with a meager supply but given how rough everything else was going I decided not to push it. If I had just a little more I'd be happy to eek it out licking my food wrappers but a heroic finish was not in the cards. With that decision made I set my sights on Young's General store, and then on to the Tillerson hut for my final night's stay.
The next section of road was 5 or 6 miles under the sun and passed more camps that line Lake Francis. As the trail curves around the east side of Francis I took a long rest (Notice the pattern?) on the side of a river. Eating slowly and coming to terms with what was so much effort but missing the intended mark a third time. After another brief woods stretch I emerged on a bridge to see someone fishing off the side. My voice cracked out a hello to a human for the first time in days.
Young's was everything you'd want it to be. I eyed up a pint of ice cream, wondering if I could eat it all in one sitting. I ended up with two strawberry shortcake ice cream bars and a bag of chips. I bought some new socks and antibacterial ointment for my raw feet. I loaded up on caffeine and candy. I saw people open carry into a convenience store. More poignantly, I set foot on the road that went right to the campsite where my car awaited. The option to bail was now just a road walk away, luckily my will remained strong at this point in time.
The section before Tillerson visits one of the local residential areas, painfully quaint and nestled into short mountains. Picturesque lake houses in what was now very much a far away place. The Tillerson hut was only about a week old when I arrived, and what a handsome shelter it was. At this point in the trip any fear of bears I had was replaced with rage. The constant fear made me resent them. I sharpened a stick and slept soundly. With no hopes of making a respectable FKT claim and with the completion of the trail half a day a way I decided to get a full 9 hours.
The morning goings were easy aside from the calorie deficits and raw feet. The last 20 miles or so wind through flat trails, some built new just to complete the Cohos and get it off route 9. My car was parked at a campsite I had reserved at the Deer Mountain Campground which is about 5 miles from the finish. The trail passes very close to this point so I ducked in to sit by the small stream there and eat.
I still had a few hours of ATV trails and then the trip on the road back to the campsite from the Northern Terminus. With some renewed energy and a shoe change I was able to run a 3 mile section of hard pack which felt like a time warp after all the 30 minute miles. Before long I emerged from the woods at the border checkpoint, adorned with flags and signs about crossing on snowmobiles. It's here the Cohos sends you out to a remote little lake for a 1 mile or so loop and returns to the finish.
The loop was a great time to reflect on all the things that I experienced on the trail. The area itself is geologically and biologically different from where one started in the White Mountains, maybe even culturally. I knew the peace and quiet was promptly heading towards an end. Already I felt an urge for more days of waking up and traversing the unknown. I get why people do long distance hikes.
At the end of the loop I tapped the border monument and plopped down beneath some signs, it was done. 5 days and an hour after departing up Davis Path. A group of hikers showed up to do the short loop I had just done, a hidden gem of a lake in the rugged north.
I certainly want to visit the Cohos under the same context again, but also under a slower and more relaxed one with more spurs. The trail truly is a testament to the work that goes into building a legacy. As more shelters are added I expect it to get a lot more popular. For now, it remains a long walk of solitude.