off trail on owl’s head

Perched on a wooden shelf in my house, the maps of the White Mountains lay wrinkled, their edges beginning to wear from years of reference. Lined up against each other, each map displays in detail different sections of the mountains. Before each hike, we always press the map we need out against the kitchen table, drawing our finger up and down the contour lines. We zip it into pack pockets, pull it out in front of the steering wheel, and occasionally at trail intersections. You see, the main goal of the maps is to orient yourself against established hiking trails. While the red lines are any map’s focal point and have even sparked the creation of “red liners,” hikers who strive to lay their bootprints across every trail, it’s often the terrain off the trail that seems to be the most compelling.

As I was planning out my path up to the peak of Owl’s Head, the red lines were little help. They led my finger in loops around the route that I wanted to take, and up an incredibly dangerous ice slide in the winter. The real and only way to ascend Owl’s Head in the winter is through a course of two bushwacks.

I woke at 5:00 AM and scrambled to pull on my winter layers. We were out the door early and drove in silence as the darkness of the sky seemed to wash away any conversation. Our car was solitary; there didn’t seem to be many others out this early on a Sunday morning. Zealand was unfortunately left at home for fear of her paws being exposed to snow for too long. It was just the humans today. 😦

Two hours later, after a brief stop for Dunkin Donut’s muffins (which may not have been the best hiking energy fuel), we finally arrived at the trailhead. I shivered, complaining about the nine-degree temperature I was informed of by my phone. While my dad tried to convince me that his car had a more accurate thermometer and the real temperature was actually a whopping three degrees higher than I thought, I remained cold and struggled to make my numb fingers pull my microspikes and gators onto my legs.

Geared up and ready to go!

We began down the Lincoln Woods Trail trail, an incredibly flat and seemingly neverending bike path. With no turns, I could see a mile ahead of me and felt like I was making no progress. My mind was void of stimuli as I trudged down this boring trail, appreciating only the partially frozen river beside me and the orange wedges of the rising sun.

I was relieved when we finally turned onto a traditional hiking trail, uneven and curvy as it rose and fell with the hills of the choppy terrain. Eventually, we arrived at Black Pond, a beautifully frozen expanse. I wanted to step out onto the snow covered ice, but I was too afraid to even make a sound and disturb the peacefulness that hung in the cold air. I wished to rest against a rock and stare at the pond for hours, but as I rested, the cold seemed to be catching up with me and I had to continue moving to keep warm.

Black Pond
Pond selfie
Hiking along the half-frozen river

Around the edge of the pond, we began our first bushwhack. You could see the footprints in the crunchy snow suddenly veer off the cleared path. I didn’t feel as if I were bushwhacking because I was following a pre-tracked trail, though the trees did seem a bit closer and the brush a bit thicker. My dad suffered several facial flesh wounds from hiking too close behind me and being the target of rebounding branches. Many thanks to the folks in front of us who blazed the trail and saved us from what could have been a very challenging navigation. I wondered how much the trail’s route changed with each new snowfall.

To avoid the Owl’s Head Path, a sheer ice slide in the winter, we were forced to take on a second bushwhack. Once again, every track of boot-prints turned off the main path, but this time they headed straight up a wall of mountain. At once, the struggle towards the peak began and we were heaving ourselves up bit by bit, taking our ten-second breaks with every couple of steps. My lungs were burning and blisters on the backs of my ankles quickly formed. My own hiking boots were left in our Maine house, so I was wearing two pairs of socks to fit my mom’s oversized boots. I pressed the toe of my boot into the vertical, leaving my heels suspended and my calves on fire.

A view of snowy Lincoln and Lafayette on my hike up

At last, we rose over the painfully steep ascent and continued bushwhacking on a flatter surface to the true peak. This time, I really did feel like I was bushwhacking. Every step I took, I whacked like eight bushes. The whacking seemed to persist forever, but eventually, we arrived at the peak of Owl’s Head, my 43rd 4,000 footer!

peak selfie!!

While the hike up was painful, the ride down was fun. I had been nervous about coming down such a steep trail on my way up, but as I was coming down, I followed the tracks of sledders on my butt. I felt incapable of actually walking down something so steep, but as soon as I sat on the snow, I slid quickly down. I had to jam my spikes into the snow to keep from picking up too much speed on such a windy trail, and had to stand periodically to traverse dangerous sections, but overall had a blast.

Hiking the final 2.5 miles was physically and mentally exhausting. The monotonous flat trail seemed neverending, and my feet were crying from the constant pounding. I was ready to fall down, but I had to keep trudging forward, knowing that I would eventually find the parking lot. Through my 16.5 mile hike, the last 2 were unquestionably the hardest. Even though these miles were on a what could have been paved bike trail, they were more physically and mentally strenuous than the mile that went straight up a wall. Throughout my pain on this trip, I kept thinking to myself I’d rather be doing this than doing homework. It kept me going 🙂 though there were times I questioned if we’d ever reach the end, I did eventually finish and another peak was added to my growing list.

4 thoughts on “off trail on owl’s head

  1. Beautifully written. Reading your report made me feel like I was there! I can’t wait to read your first book. I’m looking forward to reading about your next adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

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