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A Taste for Bushwhacking by Steve Smith

Moriah Brook Birches
Moriah Brook Birches

As I remember it, my first bushwhack in the New England woods was a fiasco. I was working at the Mt. Snow ski resort in southern Vermont during the snowless winter of 1979-1980, and I had plenty of time to hike because there was precious little skiing. I was trying to make my way to the shore of the Somerset Reservoir from a nearby road. Halfway down through a brushy, densely grown clearcut, I realized that my favorite jacket – which I had foolishly attached to the outside of my pack, rather than securing it inside – had been plucked off by the clinging saplings. Angry and frustrated, I yelled curses and lashed out at the brush with my walking stick.

Getting hold of myself, I battled back up the way I had come and found the beloved jacket, and eventually made it to the shore of the reservoir for some nice views. But overall it was a pretty miserable experience. At the time I had no further desire to attempt any bushwhacking.

That changed after I finished climbing the 4000-footers of the White Mountains a year and a half later. I greatly enjoyed the pursuit of that list, mostly in the company of good friend Bill Vecchio. Bill and I noticed that in the back of the AMC White Mountain Guide there were two more lists: the New England 4000-footers, and the New England Hundred Highest. The latter list, we discovered, included several peaks without trails. To climb these, we would have to bushwhack, making our own way through the woods.

Bondcliff from West Bond Slide
Bondcliff from West Bond Slide

We both lived in Twin Mountain, NH at the time, and one of the trailless summits – “Peak on North ridge of North Twin, South Twin Quad.” – was literally in our backyard. We decided to give it a go. On a crisp late October day we whacked around a clearcut, stumbled through some blowdown, and scrambled up to the rocky Nubble, from which we could see our objective looming a thousand feet higher to the south. We plunged into the woods and navigated across to the edge of a long, curving brookbed on the northwest flank of the mountain. This was an exciting route, with views out over the valley and icy sections that we skirted through dense conifers. When we eventually bulled our way through the thick forest to the top, and found a white sign labeled “3813” (the summit elevation), and a Mason jar with a register inside, we felt an exhilaration quite different from any arrival at a trailed summit. We had climbed what is now called Peak Above the Nubble with map and compass and our own navigational skills, limited as they were. It was a terrific feeling.

Peak Above the Nubble
Peak Above the Nubble

Over the next few years I went on to complete the New England Hundred Highest list, doing some more peaks with Bill and then a finishing flurry with another peakbagging convert, Mike Dickerman. I even went back and repeated a few of the bushwhack peaks with Mike. Since then I’ve gotten most of the way along the New Hampshire Hundred Highest list, but have never really tried to finish it off.

I slacked off on trailless peakbagging because I acquired an interest in a different kind of bushwhacking, unrelated to lists. This could be called exploring off-trail for its own sake, to find a ledge with an unusual view, to traverse an interesting ridge, or to seek out a hidden waterfall or pond.

Carrigain Pond
Carrigain Pond

I took a first step in this direction when I thrashed through old clearcuts on a low spur of Cherry Mountain, trying to find a rock known as “Beecher’s Pulpit.” In the 1870s the famous preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, was a frequent summer sojourner at the Twin Mountain House. His Sunday sermons would sometimes draw more than a thousand worshipers. I’m not sure if he ever preached from this rocky perch, or whether he went there for inspiration. But “Beecher’s Pulpit” was a local landmark, and a Google search will reveal images of postcards showing the view from the ledge. I never did find an outcrop that I could confirm was this once-famous spot – it was probably long-since overgrown – but it sure was fun to try. Some more local explorations followed, including a partial traverse of the Rosebrook Range near Bretton Woods with several friends.

My interest in random off-trail exploring really blossomed after I went on several hikes led by the late Guy Waterman. Though he was a confirmed peakbagger, whose feat of climbing every White Mountain 4000-footer from all four points of the compass, in winter, was a masterpiece of imagination and execution, Guy also loved to move freely through the woods, just to see what was around the next bend in the stream, or over in the next valley, or up on the next ridge – bushwhacking for the pure love of terrain.

Climbing Owl's Head Cliff
Climbing Owl’s Head Cliff

I had the privilege of joining Guy, his wife Laura, and other friends for a half-dozen bushwhack explorations, including off-trail ascents of Mts. Bond, Lincoln, and Carrigain, and visits to remote ponds and waterfalls. Guy was an amazing bushwhacker who seemed to melt with ease through the densest forest, humming tunes as he went, while we wouId thrash and curse in his wake. I soaked up as much as I could on these jolly journeys, learning about navigation, the lore of the woods and the mountains, baseball trivia, and – very important – how to pass over the land lightly, leaving minimal trace of our passage.

Since those wonderful trips in the late 1980s, I’ve had the good fortune to visit hundreds of off-trail view ledges, waterfalls, ponds, ridges, slides, valleys, logging camps, beaver meadows and other terrain features. Some of these trips have been solo, many have been in the company of good friends such as Creston Ruiter, Mike Dickerman, Cath Goodwin, Keith D’Alessandro, Chris Whiton (the master of finding forgotten waterfalls), Roger and Peter Doucette, Sue Johnston, my wife Carol, and others.

The Bonds from Owl's Head Cliff
The Bonds from Owl’s Head Cliff

One of the most memorable journeys was a six or seven mile bushwhack along the ridge from Rattlesnake Mountain to the summit of Carr Mountain in the southwestern Whites. I did this in 2005 with master bushwhacker J.R. Stockwell, who has carried on Guy Waterman’s legacy with numerous bushwhack ascents of 4000-footers by unusual routes. (Last I knew he’d done at least three different off-trail routes up every 4k peak, almost always solo. J.R. is old school – map & compass, no GPS, no online research or trip reports. He doesn’t use computers; he just picks out a line on the map that interests him and goes for it.) On our fourteen-hour Rattlesnake to Carr traverse we passed through almost every kind of forest found in the Whites – from open oak forest to frightfully thick firs – and stopped to admire vistas from a dozen different ledges.

In recent years I’ve accompanied kindred spirit John “1HappyHiker” Compton on a number of delightful bushwhack explorations. John’s “1HappyHiker” blog (1happyhiker.blogspot.com) has a wealth of reports on treks to interesting and unusual places.

Slide in Crystal Brook Valley
Slide in Crystal Brook Valley

Though the wild areas of the Whites pale in size and scope when compared to those out West, they still offer many interesting, seldom-visited spots, enough to occupy several lifetimes of wandering. The rewards of this type of exploring are manifold. You get to see familiar peaks from new and unusual angles. There’s the joy of pushing off through seldom-visited country, whether it be a long, secluded valley or a particularly graceful ridge.

Off-trail you’re more attuned to the composition of the forest, both for its aesthetics and its ease (or difficulty) of travel. You become intimate with the lay of the land, seeing how drainages, ridges and plateaus on the map translate on the ground. And there’s the tingle of anticipation as you approach a ledgy break in the woods. What will the view be like? Will there be a place to sit and soak up the sun?

East Whitewall View
East Whitewall View

At times bushwhacking can be humbling. On several trips I’ve made navigational mistakes that cost hours of extra time and effort. Occasionally, after a strenuous whack, a potential view ledge has turned out to be inaccessible due to dangerously steep terrain or super-dense scrub (or both). And there’s this cliff face on the western ridge of Mt. Huntington that I have twice tried to get to in winter, both times failing miserably after floundering in super-thick softwoods, retreating with my tail between my snowshoes.

Bushwhacking is an acquired taste. There’s nothing like a few hours of being slapped, stabbed, squeezed, tripped, scratched and soaked to the skin by seemingly malevolent vegetation to help you appreciate the virtues of a cleared trail. The great majority of hikers will, quite sensibly, never leave the trails intentionally. That’s a good thing, lest we have herd paths trampled all over the place. And there is real danger for the inexperienced in getting lost or seriously injured in remote country.

A Kilkenny Ledge
A Kilkenny Ledge

If you do choose to seek out an off-trail destination, go with someone experienced in this sort of thing, and please keep your group small, your route unmarked and your impact as light as possible. If they tread thoughtfully, a small number of bushwhackers can pass through many wooded areas leaving less trace than a moose. Off-trail travelers should avoid the alpine zone and fragile steep slopes, and should step carefully in ledgy areas and wet places to avoid trampling mosses and lichens. If large numbers of bushwhackers follow the same route (the definition of large varies with fragility of vegetation and terrain), worn herd paths will develop. This has happened with several peaks on the increasingly popular New England Hundred Highest list.

Required reading for bushwhackers are Laura and Guy Waterman’s thoughtful and provocative books on physical impact on the backcountry (Backwoods Ethics) and on maintaining the “spirit of wildness” (Wilderness Ethics). In both of these books there are interesting discussions on bushwhacking and its potential impacts.

Wherever you hike, whether on-trail or off, please be safe, have some fun, and tread lightly on our beautiful mountains.

About Steve Smith

Steve Smith has been an avid White Mountain hiker for more than 30 years. He owns the Mountain Wanderer Map and Book Store in Lincoln, NH, which specializes in Northeastern outdoors titles. He has been co-editor of the “AMC White Mountain Guide” since 2001 and has authored or co-authored several other White Mountain hiking books, including “The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains,” “Snowshoe Hikes in the White Mountains,” and “Wandering Through the White Mountains.” He is a trail adopter on the White Mountain National Forest, is a longtime member of the AMC Four Thousand Footer Committee, and is a Board member of the Pemi Valley Search & Rescue Team. He lives with his wife, Carol, in Lincoln, NH, in the western White Mountains.

To follow Steve’s ongoing hiking and bushwhacking adventures, visit his blog Mountainwandering.blogspot.com

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20 comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. My bushwhacking experience is limited, what little I’ve done has been great fun and my interest in doing more is increasing.

    • Thanks, JJ! Bushwhacking can be very rewarding, though it may be hard to appreciate that when you’re floundering in a vast thicket of young conifers. If you’re just starting out, you’ll find generally easier going in lower elevation hardwoods, especially when the leaves are down. Late October is s great time of year in the hardwoods.

  2. Thanks for this … enjoyed reading about your experience. I “fondly” remember a swamp in the Jersey Highlands, hopping from tuft to tuft to avoid the murky bog, while at the same time cowering down to duck underneath the mountain laurel. Never in the history of human endeavors did a butt hurt so much after so few miles ;). But that’s what I like about the bushwhack … I pretty much remember my off-trail hikes in vivid detail, whereas the on-trail hikes tend to fade and blur after a while. I’m also Geocaching at times, and my favorite caches are the ones that haven’t been found for a year or two, because there is simply no easy/sane way to get to the box.

    • Thanks for sharing your Jersey bushwhacking experience, Philip. Sounds quite different from off-trail travel in the Whites. I grew up in central NJ and did a little exploring in the Great Swamp in my youth.

      I agree, the ‘whacks are the hikes you remember most vividly.

  3. I particularly enjoyed the photos Steve. One thing you didn’t comment on was finding flora and fauna that one might not see on the more traveled trails. There is also the joy of finding untapped berry sources. There is nothing like a find of blueberries that are just begging to be picked.

    My last bushwhack was in Virginia. I was avoiding a mom black bear and her three cubs. She and the kids took up residence on the trail and left me no choice. I was glad, that, as a kid, I had spent considerable time in Connecticut bushwhacking around to see if I could find better routes to my favorite places.

    Your description of how it feels to bushwhack brought back so many fond memories of those days. It isn’t for everyone, but for those that master it, it is a treasure. Thanks for an interesting perspective.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Dennis. As you noted, you certainly do see many interesting things when you wander off trail. We’ve encountered moose many times when bushwhacking, and bears on occasion.Well-worn moose paths have helped us along on a number of trips.

      We love the varied hardwood and softwood forests encountered on bushwhacks in the White Mountains, with fern-filled birch forests being a special favorite. (“Fernwhacking,” some call it.) In the spring we’ve seen seemingly endless carpets of trout lilies and other wildflowers in the hardwoods, and we, too, have come across some untouched blueberry stashes.

      A couple of years ago I had an unplanned bushwhack similar to your experience in Virginia. In this case it was a rutting and ornery bull moose who had claimed the trail. He actually followed me a short distance into the woods before giving up the chase.

  4. Steve, I’m just blown away by this report! It’s a compelling narrative about the joys of bushwhacking. Plus, it’s a truly delightful life-story of your early days, and is chockfull of interesting accounts about the many bushwhack adventures you’ve had over the years.

    Thank you for including me among the names of those who have been thrilled by the experience of bushwhacking with you.

    Regarding the person in the “Peak Above the Nubble” photo, is that you? Also, regarding the Carrigain Pond photo, is that you and Mike?

    Steve, this report is a true classic. It truly merits inclusion as a chapter in a book. With your wealth of experiences, you could easily develop many other chapters to fill the book!

    John

    • Thank you for your very kind comments, John! And thanks for appearing in two of the photos that accompany this post (“Climbing Owl’s Head Cliff” and “A Kilkenny Ledge”). We’ve certainly had some memorable trips, with hopefully many more to come.

      The hiker in the “Peak Above the Nubble” photo is Bill Vecchio, who still lives in Twin Mountain. The hikers in the “Carrigain Pond” photo are Roger Doucette and Mike Dickerman.

      Keep up the excellent blogging! (1happyhiker.blogspot.com)

  5. Steve, great article! I love the photos too. The first one reminds me of the terrain on the way to the Rock of Gibraltar. Thanks again for telling me about that place.

  6. Talk about a trip down memory lane. Wow! Love the photos, especially the Carrigain Pond image from lo those many years ago.

  7. I can’t add much more to everyone else has already said, Steve. A very enjoyable article! I got a chuckle out of the waterfall master bit. It’s definitely easier to wander along a brook than to hunt for a ledge in the scrub! Carrigain Pond… now that’s a place I’ve got to visit someday! Thanks for all the great inspiration and memorable adventures, Steve!

  8. Thanks, Chris. I am continually amazed at your ability to seek out hidden waterfall gems, and capture them in spectacular photos (www.facebook.com/WhiteMountainImages). Keep ’em coming!.

  9. I went hiking in the Gates to the Artic in Alaska two years ago. There are no formal trail but you end up following a game trail to your destination. It was a lot of bushwacking and I to lost my pack cover to low hanging branch.

  10. I found Beecher”s Pulpit

  11. All of my best discoveries, unforgettable scenery and most restorative solitude have been experienced off-trail!

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