Sunday, August 24, 2014

Peak #31: High-altitude toad encounters
highlight a trek to summit of Mount Waumbec

Inca explores the ridge area between Mount Starr King and Mount Waumbec.

The day's target: Mount Waumbec, one of the more obscure summits on the list of New Hampshire's 4,000-footers.

At 4,006 feet, it barely qualifies. Also, it rises north of the main jumble of White Mountains peaks. And there's no view. So it's kind of a rebel.

Cast: Zahnna, an 11-year-old German Shepherd; Inca, a four-year-old hyperactive terrier mix; and yours truly as chauffeur and chaperone.

Dogs on the trail. "Hey, got anything to eat?

Weather (on Saturday, Aug. 23): cool for August in New England, dank at dawn but with promises of sunshine later. One of those mornings where the ground fog hangs in the lower valleys, with high clouds keeping it from burning off.

Upon arriving at the modest trailhead parking lot in Jefferson, N.H. at 7:30 a.m., both dogs celebrated with expansive and elaborate bowel movements. Hooray!

But then smooth hiking ensued up via the Mount Starr King trail, which climbs steadily up the flank of this subsidiary peak on the way to Waumbec, a total of 3.6 miles one way.

By White Mountain standards, it's in pretty good shape—not much erosion, moderate grades, and few rough patches, but worn enough to be easily followable.

About an hour in, Inca pounced on something in the leaves. A toad! How it got that far up a mountain is beyond me, but I allowed the dog to sniff it a few more times to satisfy her curiosity without terrorizing the toad. Then it hopped again, startling her, and on we went.

Dogs on the trail in profile, if not quite awake just yet:

One nice thing about the Starr King Trail is that about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, it runs by a reliable spring that flows out of rocks just below the trail.

We came upon it just when I sensed the dogs needed water, so they enjoyed splashing around and tanking up.

I'm of two minds with dogs and water: I know the risks of giardiasis. But then the dogs are just being dogs, and will start lapping from any dirty mudhole if they feel like it. To have to keep pulling them away would be a serious downer, as most trails are full of dirty mudholes and the like.

So I let them drink out of springs and running brooks, but try to keep them away from really skanky standing water that you sometimes find in the Whites, especially close to summits.

I remember my mother always stopping at mountain springs and having us kids cup our hands to taste how great the water tasted! I thought it wasn't nearly as good as, say, root beer. But now I understand what she meant: treated municipal water isn't the same at all. (Now we have Dansani.)

Anyway, we lived, but I don't feel like getting an intestinal parasite just now, so in the woods I refrain from drinking in anything but the scenery.

Interesting that the trail came up on a side of Mount Starr King that doesn't seem to get a lot of sun. We passed entire logs covered by smooth green moss that resembled the stuff they use on billiard tables.

Before long, we approached the Starr King summit, preceded by the inevitable one piece of ledge that threatened to stump Zahnna. (The smaller dog just hopped up in one leap.) But she managed it on her own, without need of a boost. It was just barely 9 a.m., and there we were.

At 3,907 feet, Starr King's summit once hosted a structure that's long gone, except for the chimney (still there) and a clearing that does offer a limited view of the northern Presidential peaks to the southeast.

I didn't have the phone/camera out, but here's someone else's pic of the fireplace.

Fog was not only still hugging the valleys, but banks of clouds at random elevations were being pushed from the northeast and grazing the high peaks.

Weird: in the 1960s, there were plans to create the "Willard Basin Ski Area" on the northern slopes of this peak, complete with aerial tramway and summit hotel. The plan also featured that great 1960s transport-of-the-future, a monorail. It never happened, and this morning it was just us and a few birds and the old chimney up there.

An artist's rendering of the proposal Willard Basin Ski Area in the 1960s, complete with Monorail.

I recall reading how at one point someone planned a mountain railway to the summit of Mount Moosilauke, and another rail line to loop around the northern Presidential peaks. Someone should compile a book of "White Mountains Attractions that Might Have Been." For now, here's an interesting online list of ski areas that never happened.

Okay, moving on: To get to Waumbec's summit, you trek about a half-mile across the forested ridge between the two peaks.

It's just high enough to be that kind of weird sub-Alpine landscape that you often find at these altitudes: a kind of New England terrarium of oversized ferns, enormous mushrooms, weird flowering plants, and roots and rocks sporting spectacular growths of lichens of all textures and colors.

One small area can host a panoply of exotic fauna, such as this patch of lichen that's not content to hug the ground but wants to grow skyward.

The light is different, too: the trees are thinner and fewer, filtering the sun (when it's out) as if you're in an enormous greenhouse. And because you're on a ridge that's substantially higher than the land on either side, there's always some sort of breeze blowing.

I really enjoy passing through these ridge landscapes, which to me feel so different from much else in this part of the world. With the abundance of unusual flora, at times it seems like you're on some other planet.

Zahnna waits for us to catch up on the ridge.

The ridge leading to Waumbec was a classic of its type, traversed by a path that zig-zags among plants that I may or not have never seen before. I certainly couldn't identify them.

For instance, this deep blue berry-like thing:

Whatever it was, it was growing everywhere. Anyone know?

Waumbec's summit was, as advertised, completely anticlimactic: a featureless flat spot in the forest without views. The trail rises, then evens out, and only the presence of large cairn announces you've arrived. (The time was 9:45 a.m.)

A guy at the summit, one of the few people we encountered all day, was nice enough to take the above picture. He also said if we went about 100 yards beyond the peak, a clearing offered more views of the northern Presidentials.

The trail beyond the peak will take you 20 miles to...forget it!

So we went, and there they were: the rocky peaks of Mounts Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington and Monroe, lined up and in and out of the scudding clouds. Unusual because I've never seen these summits from this angle.

Zahnna looked out with a gaze tinged with anxiety, I thought. The three northern Presis—Madison, Adams, and Jefferson—are the three toughest left for her to get if she ever hopes to complete the quest for all 48 peaks in New Hampshire that rise above 4,000 feet. And at 11, she's not getting any younger.

Zahnna ponders the northern Presidential peaks.

Well, bagging Waumbec gets her up #31, so she's at least a little closer.

The trek down was highlighted by yet another toad encounter. (How do they get up so high? I know—hopping.) And near the end, the trail runs above a noisy brook tumbling its way down into the Israel River, which drains into the Connecticut.

I found a relatively open patch of forest that allowed us to bushwhack down to the water, giving the dogs a chance to tank up again and wash off accumulated trail mud.

Cooling off, canine style, on the way down.

Reached the car at 12:30 p.m. That's #31 for Zahnna, #3 for Inca. Not sure what's next, but I know we'll be doing a few more as I prepare to trek on Kilimanjaro in January.

Official summit photos below:

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