Dave turned to me and said “I love this!” as we passed a steaming pile of bear poop after a freezing lunch on the summit of trail-less Black Mountain, just outside of Jackson, NH. “I love the adventure,” he said, as we dropped into the col between the north and middle peaks, the thorns of the summit raspberry bushes tearing at our clothes.
Dave has become a regular on the autumn bushwhack series of trips that I lead for the Appalachian Mountain Club with my friend Lisa. They’re an ideal way to get away from the crowds that descend on the White Mountains during leaf peeping season and require a very different mind-set and mental agility than regular trail hiking, since you’re forced to navigate without the assistance of a pre-defined trail.
We had a great group for this hike including students from the autumn AMC Map and Compass navigation course I taught this year with Joe Comuzzi, graduates of the course from previous years, as well as students I’d guided with Andrew Skurka in past years. Many have bushwhacked with me multiple times and I look forward to these hikes because they’re so much fun.
There was definitely a lot of adventure on this trip too, which started at a remote trail-head, only accessible by following several, poorly marked, gravel forest service roads. Everyone got lost on the way except Rick and I, so we got started about 30 minutes later than I wanted. The best map into the area, which was only recently re-opened after extensive damage from Hurricane Irene, is Exploring New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
It was also unseasonably cold for this hike, with snow on the ground, despite the fact that it was still mid-October. It sure felt cold and I hiked the second half of the trip wearing four layers, including a Montbell down coat under a hard shell. Luckily, I’d made a last-minute decision to switch from trail runners to insulated Snow Junkies, so my feet stayed relatively warm, even after my boots filled up with mud.
The route plan for this bushwhack was to hike in about 3-4 miles on the East Branch Trail to height-of-land at 2680 ft, before heading off-trail to the highest and northernmost Black Mountain summit (3304′). Black Mountain has two other subsidiary summits, all on the same ridge: we were climbing the north peak, while the 52-with a view summit is the southernmost.
From the northern summit, we decided to hike to the middle summit, before vectoring off to the southeast to pick up a logging road, or the East Branch trail again, and follow it back to our cars. This area is riddled with logging roads and cross-country ski trails however, so it’s never clear if you’ve hit a logging road/ski trail marked on your map or not, since most of them are not on the map at all. The hope was that the logging road would be “unmistakable,” although they seldom are.
The hike up East Branch Trail was straightforward, although it’s a quite muddy and annoyingly rocky trail. It runs along the East Branch of the Saco River, a prime backcounty fly fishing river, which I eyed wistfully, vowing a return visit when the water levels goes up a bit more. This is super remote area in the White Mountain National Forest and I may end spending a lot of time in it next year,
Once we got to height-of-land, which is best thought of as the boundary (usually a high point) between two water-sheds, we climbed up to the summit of Black through open forest and hobblebush. It was a straightforward climb and we could even see the summit for the last quarter mile up to the summit cone. The views from the peak were excellent: with Carter Notch to the west, the snow-capped Baldfaces to the northeast, and trail-less Sable and Chandler to the east.
The hike to the middle summit was straightforward as well, but then we entered the extended off-trail portion of our hike out.
While being able to take a compass bearing and a follow it are important, there are a host of other skills seldom taught in map and compass courses, that are just as important for off-trail navigation: such as learning to navigate by “reading the land” without requiring a compass, energy management by picking routes that require less exertion, and for lack of a better term, “uncertainly management.” While you often don’t know exactly where you are when hiking off-trail, there are steps you can take to manage the degree of uncertainty, or eliminate it entirely, in order to figure out exactly where you are. Learning how to integrate all of these skills requires a lot of practice, but once mastered, you will become an expert navigator.
One option on our hike out was to descend to a logging road marked on our maps, and hike out following it back to our cars. If we couldn’t find that, we also had the option of hiking due east to the East Branch Trail, or the river it runs parallel to, and following the valley back to our cars. Both of these different route options required a significant elevation decrease first, which we struggled with after hitting some subsidiary ridges and messy plateaus to the east of Black Mountain.
When we finally started descending, we came to a major north/south logging road (there aren’t paved roads, but cut pathways through the forest that were probably used to drag out logs 100 years ago), although there was no way of knowing whether it was the road marked on our maps. I remember my friend Cesar asking, “is this the road we were looking for?” and his puzzled look when I responded that I didn’t know with any certainty.
Think about it this way. You’re driving through a suburb looking for a friend’s house, but none of the roads have street signs. How do you know which street you’re on if there are many streets, including ones that aren’t on any map or GPS display you have with you?
The fact is that I’ve had some bad experiences following logging roads in New Hampshire and ignore them more often than not when I come across them in the forest. I’ve found that people (including myself) try to “bend the map” to the location of the road to justify following it, and throw out “more certain” navigation information like a bearing. A bearing is much more “certain” than a winding road (which will most certainly take you off your bearing) unless someone in your party has first-hand experience using it and knows for certain that it’s the road marked on your map.
Having reached this road, I let the group follow it for a ways since it ran in the direction we wanted, but when it veered back to the west, I left the road and headed east to find the East Branch Trail again. After some thick bushwhacking, we came to the trail about 1/4 mile away from the trail-head and were back at our cars about 6:30 after we’d started out hike. I’m still not sure where that logging road goes, but I knew we had a “hand-rail” valley to our east and hiking to it got us where we wanted to go.
Total mileage: 9 miles with 2000 feet of elevation gain