Howe Peak (2966′) is a New Hampshire 200 Highest Mountain in the Wild River Wilderness, near Shelburne Moriah Mountain. It’s a trail-less peak, so the only way to get to the summit is to use your navigation wits and brawn to bushwhack to the top. More brawn was needed on this one than I expected, blood was spilled, and clothing destroyed.
I’ve had my eye on Howe Peak for a while. It’s in a little pocket of the forest I’ve been meaning to explore further. Howe is located at the western end of the East Branch of the Kenduskeag Trail, which was closed some time in the 1950’s. The trail runs from Howe’s summit to the abandoned town of Hastings, the site of a sawmill that closed when logging at the north end of the Wild River stopped. I found some old cairns near the Howe summit, but it’s anyones guess whether they’re part of the old trail or of more recent construction.
This hike started with a thigh high ford of the Wild River. The current was pretty mellow, but the water was frigid. The ford was the first of three water crossings, one right after another, before I started climbing the Shelburne Trail. My goal was to climb up to 2500-2600′ before heading off trail and following the ridge to Howe’s summit. It seemed like a straightforward route, but I had no idea how thick the woods would be when I stepped off trail.
At first the going was easy through open woods. I could see that the peak had steep ledges along its east side, so I tried to bear west and avoid them. That didn’t work out to great and the brush got thicker and thicker at I approached the summit. I’m not sure when I ripped my hiking pants, but I realized that one leg was flapping open, starting just below my front pockets, all the way down to my ankles. Those pants were toast.
My knee was bleeding slightly, but I wondered how I’d get off the peak without scratching the hell out of my now exposed skin on the way down. Then I realized that I had a pair of rain pants with me. Given the heat and humidity of the day, it wasn’t a comfortable solution to my dilemma, but it did the job.
When I broke above treeline, I found a sequence of open granite peaklets, running northeast. There wasn’t much visible elevation difference between them and I couldn’t tell which was the highest. But I found some old cairns and decided to keep following them in the hope that they would lead to the top. They did and I knew I’d summitted when I saw a glass jar tied to a tree.
Many of the trail-less mountains in the White Mountains have glass jars or PVC pipes that contain summit registers. These are small notepads where you can leave messages for future visitors. I read through the most recent entries and noticed a few of my friends’ names. It’s a small bushwhacking community.
Now to get back down. I dreaded going back the route I’d come, but decided it was probably for the best. But I found myself cliffed out, unable to retrace my steps back to the ridgeline. There were steep gullies between the peaklets and dropping down between them didn’t feel like the right thing to do. I found myself drifting west and ended up picking my way down the steep slope. The ledges weren’t as bad as I’d feared and I was able to descend them without incident.
Then I hit a sequence of fern glades that were easy going. I was dropping to the east of my original track up the peak, but I knew I’d come across the trail I’d climbed eventually, just lower down than where I’d stepped off trail. I found what appeared to be a game trail, probably moose, through the fern patches and made better time. This would have been a much better line to climb by, but there’s no way I could have known that beforehand. There’s only so much information you can discern from a topographic map.
I breathed a sign of relief when I found the trail that I’d climbed up that morning. It’s funny how finding a maintained trail can provide so much reassurance when it’s just steps from wild forest. I hiked back down to the Wild River and fished for trout for a bit before refording the river and heading back to camp.