This is part 2 of my trip report up the East Branch Pemigewasset River (the Pemi) to scout a second river crossing at Stillwater Junction and beginning of the Shoal Pond Trail which links Carrigan Notch to the Ethan Pond Trail. I’ll be passing through this way on my White Mountain Challenge Route and since I’ve never hiked in this area, I wanted to make sure it was a viable route.
That might sound like an odd concern, but some White Mountain trails are frustratingly difficult to find either because they haven’t been maintained regularly or because their routes have been diverted but not updated on existing maps. In addition, the quality of the signage in the Whites can be a bit dodgy and the quality of blazing is often poor to nonexistent. I’m not complaining about poor blazing, mind you, but it’s one of the “features” of the White Mountains that you need to factor into route planning and decision-making when hiking in the more remote sections of the National Forest. This will become more apparent later in this trip report and one of the main reasons why I took this scouting trip in the first place.
In addition to checking my White Mountain Challenge route, I wanted to experience the Wilderness at Stillwater Junction where the Shoal Pond starts, which Steve Smith, editor of the White Mountain Guide (which has to be the BEST job in the world) says is the “wildest country in the Whites.”
After crossing the foot bridge over the Pemi on the Thoreau Falls Trail, I continued east along the Wilderness Trail headed toward Carrigan Notch and Stillwater Junction. I really enjoy hiking on trails I’ve never been on before. The landscape here was all new to me and I drank it up like ambrosia.
While the Wilderness Trail is easy to follow, it’s obviously not heavily maintained. Large sections of the trail were flooded out by snowmelt and there were a fair number of blowdowns across the treadway. But the water on this trail looks like a permanent feature and not seasonal.
I came across the remains of an old lumber camp and an old iron stove. This entire area of the Whites was a beehive of clear cutting and lumber railroads in the early 1900”s and Stillwater Junction was a major rail crossing where many different lines converged.
I stopped to check out the stove, which is surprisingly good shape for a relic that’s probably a 100 years old. The top is stamped with the following: “Wrought Iron Range Co. St Louis, Mo. Home comfort.” You have to wonder how much comfort there was in a logging camp of that era.
In the absence of recent trips reports through the area, I’d set off on this hike with microspikes but without snowshoes, expecting the trails to be clear under 3,000 feet of elevation or lightly coated with ice. But the snow got deeper and deeper the farther east I travelled towards Carrigan Notch and Stillwater Junction. This concerned me, in part because I was wearing trail runners instead of boots, but also because I hoped to continue beyond Carrigan Notch and hike through Hanock Notch and up the Cedar Brook Trail in order to make a big 30+ mile loop around Mt Carrigan and the Hancocks, without actually climbing the peaks themselves. I don’t want to be bored when I hike the 48 x 4000 footers in June, and I’m happy to take a break from peakbagging to help build some anticipation for my White Mountain Challenge hike
As the Wilderness Trail continues east, it runs along the banks of the East Branch Pemigewasset River, sometimes down low and sometimes climbing up several hundred feet up its steep banks. The scenery on this river is just stunning with huge boulder gardens full of house-sized rocks and wild waterfalls. Fording it here would be suicidal, even at lower water levels.
The snow abated for a while when I reached an area of open woods due north of Mt Carrigan before the Desolation Trail Junction. There are beautiful views of Carrigan and its subsidiary peak, Vose Spur, visible through the trees. Most people do not hike Carrigan from the north but from the south, up the Signal Ridge Trail, so they don’t know what they are missing.
Just over the rise, I dropped down to another stream crossing across Carrigan Branch, which has its headwaters at remote Carrigan Pond, and drains the watershed between the Hancocks and Mt Carrigan. There’s a great view of Carrigan upstream and a nice gravel bar to sit on and take in the view. Carrigan Branch drains into the East Branch Pemigewasset River about 50 yards downstream and the easiest knee-deep stream crossing is just before the two rivers meet. Once across, there’s a hiker’s stone cairn that marks the continuation of the Wilderness Trail, but no signage and no blazing. The beginning of the trail is not obvious from that gravel bar and without that cairn, you’d have to scout the riverbank closely to find it.
As soon as I re-entered the woods, I hit deep wet snow, all the way to Stillwater Junction. It was easily two feet deep and I was postholing. There was no way to avoid the snow because both sides of the trail are lined with short, tightly packed spruce trees, so I just plowed ahead, hopeful that conditions would improve as I neared Carrigan Notch. My feet got cold and wet in my trail runners, but the temperature was fairly warm so I wasn’t too worried about permanent damage. :-)
I reached Stillwater Junction which turned out to be a rather tame stream crossing and waded to the other side. There’s a remnant of an old dam or a water gauge there and old rebar in the water. The Shoal Pond Trail starts just on the other side of the crossing and it’s easy to see the treadway. I’ve read that is get’s very boggy and wet, but it’s a pretty straight shot north so I’m not that worried about finding the treadway next month. After hiking the Long Trail in Vermont, I used to following trails that are barely discernable and underwater!
Still Steve was right about the wildness of the place. There were no people around and I doubt that many venture to this neck of the woods. While I felt safe in my aloneness, I was very aware of the big animals, bear and moose, who were clearly out and about in the forest, judging by the scat and footprints on the trails. I kept my eyes open for them, especially on the my forays off-trail, occassionally singing out to announce my presence.
After savoring the solitude of that moment, I backtracked across the Stillwater Junction stream crossing and continued toward Carrigan Notch, once again encountering deep snow interspersed with bare patches of ground.
I felt bad about postholing through the snowy bits but it would have been really annoying to wear snowshoes and have to take them off and put them on between after each section of bare trail. Still, I wished I’d brought them. It’s so difficult to forecast snow conditions in the springtime here, but I’ll have them on my next route scouting trips up to the Whites.
This next section of the Carrigan Notch Trail runs alongside Carrigan Branch which is another fierce but beautiful wild river. The drops are much more significant than on the Pemi and must result in magnificent rapids and waterfalls after heavy rains. The trail gets hard to follow again in this section, which also shows past evidence of heavy camping activity.
I arrived at the Desolation Trail junction, which climbs up Mt Carrigan from the northwest. I’ve never hiked this trail before, but it’s on my White Mountain Challenge route too. The White Mountain Guide recommends that hikers with heavy packs climb this trail but not to descend it. I’ll be descending it, naturally, which I’m sure will be “interesting”. Butt sliding may be called for.
I encountered more deep snow in the next 0.8 mile stretch of trail before the Nancy Pond trail junction, and started getting more concerned about the trail conditions and my cold, wet feet.
I took a break and purified 3.5 liters of water to carry me for the next few hours and camping. The day was waning and the postholing had taken a lot of energy out of me. I decided to keep hiking for another hour or two until I was well into Carrigan Notch and then find a nice place to camp out. Things didn’t quite work out as I’d planned though.
I continued along the Carrigan Notch Trail, heading southeast along Notch Brook. The trail was underwater but still fairly easy to follow.
But erosion has severely impacted the trail the next stretch which was more stream than trail, with log water bars suspended a good two feet above the water-choked treadway.
But the real fun started when snow and ice covered the trail with water flowing underneath it. After postholing and falling through into the rushing water a few times, I moved off trail and walked alongside it on the saturated ground. The trail continued on into the forest again and then I lost it. I saw faint blaze on a tree and then nothing but snow covered ground in all directions.
No big deal. Notch Brook was on my left (east) and I figured the trail was around somewhere, so I headed off into the surrounding brush and bushwhacked to try to reacquire it again. I found a lot of pathways that looked like old logging roads but that deadended after a 100 yards or so. I never found that trail but I found a rather nice campsite and decided to call it a day.
Despite the unexpected snow and being unable to find the next section of the Carrigan Notch Trail, I’d bushwhacked a section of the Pemi, scouted two water crossings, eliminated some lingering questions marks on my White Mountain Challenge route, and hiked several White Mountain trails I’d never been on before. I ate a hot dinner, hung a bear bag, and crashed before sunset.
The next morning I set out again and scouted the woods looking for the trail only to find more snow and more dead ends. I knew where I was and could have bushwhacked until I found the Carrigan Notch Trail further into the Notch, but I was concerned about what the trail conditions would be like on my planned loop through Hancock Notch (which is not visited often) and up the Cedar Brook Trail, which is always wet and a fairly high elevation trail. While getting there wouldn’t be a problem, getting out could be, without reversing direction and hiking back all the way I’d come.
I’d scouted what I wanted to scout for my White Mountain Challenge route already, so skipping the rest of the loop seemed prudent. I turned around and walked back down the Wilderness Trail to the East Side Trail and back to Lincoln Woods. Not the big trip I’d hoped for, but a successful scouting mission, nonetheless.
I plan to explore this entire area further in better weather later in the year, especially nearby Mt Anderson and Mt Lowell.