I’ve always been fascinated by the damage that heavy rain, landslides, avalanches, and flooding can inflict on the mountain landscape. Hurricane Irene wrought havoc in the White Mountains in August of 2011, wiping out roads, bridges, and countless hiking trails. One of these, the Rocky Branch Trail remained closed for years and only reopened again in September 2015, after extensive reroutes and new trail construction replaced the sections of trail that were washed away and destroyed. When you pile on the epic drought we’ve experienced in 2016, the weather has wreaked havoc on this area, located on the southern ridges below Mt Washington.
Being curious about the extent of the landslide damage and interested in the trail reroutes, I took a long ramble up the restored section of the Rocky Branch Trail last week. I started my walk at the Jericho Road trailhead and hiked six miles up to the old shelter site where most people cross the river enroute to Mt Isolation, starting at the other end of the Rocky Branch Trail which leaves Rt 16. This is an excellent area for backpacking trips, wild and remote.
Thunderstorms were forecast for mid-day, so I was prepared to hike in rain. I was actually looking forward to it, with the drought we’ve had this summer. This hike has four river crossings, but I wasn’t worried about the river flashing up, since the drought has brought it to its knees. I was also curious to see if the locations of the old river crossing had been changed by the terraforming hand of Irene.
Before the Flood
The Rocky Branch river drains the southeast side of Mt Washington bordered to the west by Montablan Range and the Davis Trail, which travels along its ridgecrest. The eastern boundary follows the Rocky Branch Ridge, a jumble of trail-less smaller peaks that are seldom visited. The two ridges meet at Boot Spur, a subsidiary peak of Mt Washington, where they form a steep ‘V’.
The northern section of the Rocky Branch is a small stream, easily crossed by rock hopping, that grows wider as its catchment area gets larger. I’d just sat down to have lunch by the river when it started to chuck down big drops of rain. I noted that the weather forecasters had predicted the start of the afternoon’s thunderstorms on the nose, as I hastily put on my rain gear.
I met the fellow pictured at the crossing. He didn’t know where he was, didn’t have a map, hadn’t checked the forecast, and didn’t have any rain gear. I pointed him back east to his car and headed down south again, enjoying the rain to be honest.
I’ve pretty much given up on trout fishing this year since the rivers are so low and was using this trip to scout a long backpacking and backcountry fishing trip, for sometime when the water levels return to normal. The southern end of the Rocky Branch is very isolated and I think it’d be fun to do some off-trail hiking and fishing in the area with a few friends who are into that sort of thing.
The middle section of the river, about three miles downstream of the northernmost crossing is where most devastating hurricane damage occurred. The hillsides abutting the river fell, wiping out the hiking trails that ran along the banks and followed old lumber railroad grades. Trail crews have rerouted the trails up behind the slides or over to the other side of the river where the banks remained untouched.
The southern end of the river, just before it empties into the Saco, is a rock-choked delta today, a parched wasteland, its bones laid bare by the drought. It’s hard to imagine what the Rocky Branch would have looked like during the 2011 flood with massive walls of water careening downstream, given its current diminutive state. I’ll be happy to see it return to normal when the rains return. I’ve caught brook trout here in the past, but it hardly seemed worth trying now with so little water in the channel.
As I hiked the trail on this 12 mile out and back, I mapped the route on my phone using the Gaia GPS app. Before the flood, this section of the Rocky Branch had four river crossings, and I wanted to see if that had changed or if their locations had moved.
Easier said than done. I don’t have the GPS locations of the former river crossings, so I can’t compare them, and a careful study of my 1988 edition of the White Mountain Guide does not indicate where the four crossing occur along the route. It wouldn’t surprise me if some re-routing of the crossings did occur, but there doesn’t appear to be any way to say where it occurred.
I did make one discovery on this hike, a designated campsite that I didn’t know about toward the north end of my hike. While widespread, these campsites are undocumented in local guidebooks and maps, probably because the Forest Service treats them as temporary, opening and closing them when they become overused. This one was very small, with space for just one tent, but close to a side stream with good water. I suspect it was used by a trail crew when they were repairing the trail.
Farther downstream, the old Rocky Branch #1 Shelter is still intact, although the rumor had been that it was going to be dismantled this year. Built in 1974, it’s still in good pretty good shape, and there are several nearby platforms that can also be used. There was a fresh stack of kindling next to the shelter fire pit, a nice reminder that trail etiquette still exists in the backcountry, but little sign of recent use, perhaps the greatest gift that hikers can leave on another.
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