As I stood there on the shore of Shoal Pond, I realized I couldn’t hear a thing. No motorcycles in the distance or helicopters flying overhead. I couldn’t hear the wind, no ducks quacking, or even the water lapping against the shore. I can’t remember the last time I’d heard absolute silence. It was the magical moment I’d come for.
It’s funny how you always find something you never expect whenever you go backpacking. I suppose that’s the lure that my solo trips have for me when I’m alone in the wilderness and free to amuse myself at my own pace and inclination. On this trip, I’d explored some off-trail river gorges in search of elusive brook trout, traced the headwaters of the biggest river in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and enjoyed the early fall foliage.
I’d set off the previous day from the Lincoln Woods Trailhead just outside Lincoln, NH to hike through the eastern half of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, a 45,000-acre tract in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. I wanted to hike up to the headwaters of the East Branch (Pemigewasset River), loop up the North Branch, check out Jumping Brook, before hiking south along Shoal Pond Brook back to the East Pemi. Fishing season is coming to an end soon and I wanted to enjoy a little Tenkara time before it’s over. I’ve found that backpacking and fly fishing make a great combination if you’re willing to hike deep into the backcountry to fish virgin streams that very few people have ever visited. The fish are smaller but the rewards can be huge.
But the rivers were running kind of low, so I focused mostly on hiking and admiring the early fall foliage. There’s nothing like autumn in the White Mountains and I make a point to head up north every few days so I don’t miss peak foliage. Winter is on the horizon and my goal is to soak up as much backpacking time as I can before it arrives in early November. Winter backpacking also has its rewards, but it’s a different kind of pleasure and far more social.
I hiked up the East Side Trail along the East Branch Pemigewasset River and continued on the Wilderness Trail until I reached the Carrigan Brook stream crossing. The best fishing along the East Pemi is in the gorges and cascades which coincide with the stretches of trail that veer away from the river. In other words, you need to hike off trail and scramble along the river banks if you want to reach these secret places. The rewards are immense though if you’re in search of the sublime.
I hiked along the banks of Carrigan Branch to the point where it drains into the East Branch and spent some time playing tag with brook trout. I got lots of bites and hooked one good, but he wriggled off the hook in mid-flight. I planned to hike by this point the next day and have another go at it, so I headed back to the Thoreau Bridge in order to hike up the Thoreau Falls trail find a good campsite before dark.
The Forest Service is thinking about taking down this bridge in accordance with the Wilderness Act and because it’s not in such great shape. The bridge consists of a plywood decking nailed on two huge tree trunks that span the river. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they did take the bridge down, but the ford here can be quite deep and fast in spring and after heavy rain. The best ford is a good deal farther east up-river, but that is also subject to high water flows.
Over the bridge, I hiked up the Thoreau Fall Trail looking for a campsite where I’d spent the night in 2014, the first time I’d hiked this trail. I passed its approximate location but kept on going in hopes of finding something better. The backcountry regulations stipulate that you camp 200 feet off trail in the Whites, which means finding a spot where the trail veers sufficiently far from the adjacent river or crossing the river and camping along the other shore. I was lucky and found a legal pre-existing site without crossing the river, just before sundown and set about pitching camp.
With sunset now at 6:45 pm, I knew I wanted to have a small fire in camp. So, I’d brought along a small wood stove so I could cook dinner and then sit around a bit feeding it with fresh wood before going to bed. I propped it up on some river rocks (it has a flash screen to put underneath to prevent scorching rocks and the ground) and got it going. I ate a nice meal and hung out a bit before I hung up my bear bag and crashed in my hammock. That’s the way I like it.
The next morning I worked my way up the North Fork below Thoreau Falls, one of the scenic highlights of the White Mountains. The gorge below the falls is even more magnificent with swimming holes and trout pools galore. But hike down the trail to get to it. Don’t do something stupid like trying to climb down the falls. That’s a good way to get killed.
After the falls, I hopped on the Ethan Pond Trail for a 0.5 mile and then headed down the Shoal Pond Brook Trail, which is definitely one of the wildest trails in the White Mountains. How do I define wild? When you expect a bear or moose to crash through the woods alongside the trail at any minute and come face to face with you. This trail is definitely like that.
I passed Shoal Pond and plunged headlong down the upper trail which is pretty wild with floating bog bridges and deep mud. It opens up farther south passing through open woods before passing through dense spruce until I reached Stillwater Junction.
From here it was about an 8-mile hike back to my car, which I hiked casually, with occasional stops to fly fish along the way. We still have a few weeks before fall foliage peaks, but it was nice to enjoy a short hike (about 30 miles/w 2000′ of elevation gain) before the color peaks.