I had a surprising experience over the summer on top of North Percy Peak, a mountain north of the White Mountain Region, in northern New Hampshire. As I sat there pondering the view, I realized that I couldn’t name any of the mountains spread out in front of me. I’d become so intimate with the high peaks to the south in the White Mountain National Forest, that looking at a novel vista was rather startling.
But the fact remains that I don’t know the names or profiles of most of the peaks in the White Mountains, only the 48 x 4000 footers and a smattering of other mountains that don’t have trails running up them. There are hundreds of smaller mountains, many quite interesting that I’m just in the process of getting to know by climbing them. If you want to become intimate with a mountain, try bushwhacking it!
That was the case with Bear Mountain (3220′) located off Bear Notch Road, a twisty seasonal road that links the Kancamagus highway to Rt 302, but is closed in winter. Winter is just not that far away, so I’ve been prioritizing the hikes I want to finish this autumn based on whether they’re accessible in winter or not due to seasonal road closures. As soon as the Bear Notch Road gate closes, the only way to get close to the mountain will be a long snowshoe or to hitch a ride on a snowmobile.
Bear Mountain does not have any trails running up it today, but it did in 1950, a fact that I determined by researching historic USGS maps of the area (see Hiking into the Past with Historic Maps). I’ve drawn the historic trails in blue above along with the actual route I followed on this bushwhack in green.
While you can’t count on finding these old trails on an off-trail hike, they can make a bushwhack much easier if they haven’t grown in and been reabsorbed by the forest. They can also be very confusing and screw you up if you decide to follow one “because it looks like it might be the right trail.” These old woods have lots of undocumented trails and game trails that can look like old trails, so you can’t put too much faith in what you find on your journey.
When starting a bushwhack, I always like to leave a trail or road from a very well-defined start point that I can find and that I know the elevation for, so I can calibrate my barometric altimeter watch. An altimeter measures elevation and can provide very valuable navigation clues during an off-trail hike. For this hike, I set my altimeter at the Sabbaday Falls Trail head enroute, which has an elevation of 1325′. I read the elevation off of the Exploring New Hampshire’s White Mountains Map, which has the elevation of every trailhead and trail junction in the White Mountains and is real handy for altimeter calibration.
For this hike, I parked my car at a pull off near height of land (1778′) on Bear Notch Road. Height of land is the high point between two watersheds and the point where you stop climbing uphill and start walking downhill. You can think of it as a sort of virtual landmark that tells you where you are on a topographic map. I knew height of land was 1778′, so I walked to that point on Bear Notch Road and then walked of the road into the forest to start climbing Bear Mountain.
The woods just off the road are fairly dense with lots of blow downs, but opened up after a couple of hundred yards. I quickly came across a plethora of old trails and pink and yellow flagging, but I really couldn’t determine their significance. I knew I was close to the old trail that climbed Bear Mountain ,which also started at height-of-land, but I wasn’t ready to commit to following a trail (or that looked like one), so I stayed on my compass bearing. This proved to be prudent because I came across a dozen paths that looked like trails, but dead-ended in a wall of woods after a couple of hundred feet.
The forest got denser as I climbed, so I kept an eye out for open lanes. Bushwhacking is all about energy conservation. It’s incredibly exhausting if you plow into the trees and try to brute force your way through, so you need to find a line where you can minimize your energy expenditure but still “stay found.”
The best line I could see climbed east of the ridge. I could see open sky above the trees to my right, so I kept climbing the ridge without bothering to refer to my compass. Between that land feature and my altimeter, I knew where I was at all times.
I started hitting bands of spruce at about 2100 feet which alternated with more open woods. I was surprised that the spruce started so low.
The woods started to open up when I reached 2800′ and I figured I was nearing the false summit, a flat plateau below the actual summit. I happened across an big open space full of fern and hobble bush, which was unmistakably the old summit trail that runs the length of the peak. I also saw more pink flagging, although it looked like it actually marked the old trail and wasn’t logging related.
I stuck to the east side of the plateau which was more open, occasionally veering over to the old trail when that way was more open. From here on, I just kept hiking uphill towards the summit, following the old trail through a ledgey section until I walked up to the summit canister.
It’d taken me 2 hours to make this climb and I’d really nailed the route. The old ridge trail appears to continue over the length of the mountain and bears (ouch) future exploration, but I didn’t have time to follow it on this trip.
My descent off Bear Mountain was much less elegant than the climb. I screwed up by following a trail that veered down the east side of the mountain, probably the old ski trail, rather than carefully following a compass bearing off the false summit area. I was very relaxed about the descent because I knew that any northeasterly route would run into Bear Notch Road.
I only realized my mistake when I came across a stream that wasn’t supposed to be on my route.
Looking at my map, it wasn’t clear which of the two streams I’d come across, the southern one or the northern one. So I set a course that would keep me close to the same elevation but head north with the aim of finding the second stream or looping back around the ridge that I’d climbed on my way up. I had too little information to determine where I was, so I headed this way to find more.
I found that second stream and knew where I was with greater certainly. So I headed further west to find the ridge I’d climbed.
Only when I got there, it didn’t look like the spruce and deciduous choked forest I’d climbed through on the ascent. I thought about backtracking and then decided the best thing to do would be to descend and come out somewhere on Bear Notch Road.
Instead of coming to the road, I came out to the stream which parallels the road and that I knew I could follow back to my car. I did just that and popped out of the woods within sight of my car.
That descent had been a real adventure, but I felt good about the fact that I’d been able to reason through it. This isn’t the first time I’ve been sloppy on a descent, but it’s a good reminder to be as on-the-ball coming down as going up.