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Crossing the East Branch Pemigewasset River

Mt Carrigan overlooking the East Branch Pemigewasset River
Mt Carrigan overlooking the East Branch Pemigewasset River

The East Branch Pemigewasset River (the Pemi) is the huge wild river that runs through the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. I spent two days this weekend hiking its length starting at Lincoln Woods all the way up to its headwaters at Stillwater Junction searching for potential places to ford the river. There aren’t any until way upstream near Carrigan Notch, where the river is a fraction of its downstream size.

I concluded that the only safe crossing from the north side near the Bondcliff Trail to the south side is over the Thoreau Falls Trail Footbridge, which can only be reached with a bushwhack and two mid-size stream crossings. I half expected this, but I wanted to see it firsthand because many of the maps of the area that I own or have access to have out-of-date trail and bridge crossing data. This is a region of the White Mountain Trail System that I haven’t hiked much, so I wanted to make sure that some key assumptions in my White Mountain Challenge Route Plan were indeed valid, or even salvageable.

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  1. Very cool scouting expedition. I’m really impressed with all the research your dong prior to the White MT challenge. Better to do the leg work now, than find out 50 miles into the trip there is no place to cross the river.

    My buddies and I did a winter camping trip along the Pemi at Hancock campground. It’s really a magnificent river.

    • It was also great excuse to combine training and scouting trips. On this hike, I carried a bag of charcoal to bring up my gear weight! I must be crazy.

      Seriously, I was really impressed by the wildness of this area, especially further east along the Pemi. I had no idea that you could feel this far from civilization in the middle of the White Mountains. I’ll be back.

  2. Great write up and pics. Just curious, do you carry shoes for fording?

  3. That last picture is … um … interesting. Is the FS planning on letting the Thoreau Falls bridge deteriorate to the point where is comes down, and then not replace it?

    Also, do you know of any existing pictures of the old suspension bridge. That’s a neat little bit of history :)

  4. Philip, I got a lot out of reading your scouting report — detailed planning issues in preparing for a long distance wilderness journey and for the hazards of wild river crossings. I wonder if the state has coordinated with AMC or the regional Boy Scouts for bridge building programs in the area. What motivated the original bridge crossings at those junctions and why would the state abandon the continuing services?
    Thank you for a great read and many considerations for my own wilderness hiking in the Adirondacks, where there are also challenging wild river crossings.

    • Dan, it’s a US national forest administered by the dept of agriculture unlike the Adirondacks which is state maintained. The reason for the removal was based on lack of funding and to reduce overuse impacts. Though controversial, it is working.

      • I thought the bridge removal had to do with the fact that they were in designated wilderness areas. Am I wrong about that?

        • Same thing really. They’re trying to return the area to a low use (less impacted) wilderness state. This is standard Forest Service doctrine. As these structures age (shelters, bridges), they’re simply not replacing them.

  5. Hey Liz – thanks for posting that link. It was neat to see the progress … or would that be regress :)

    I think a trip into that area is in my future, Philip. I am looking forward to summer conditions when I find that I have the leisure (and the comfort-zone) for just wandering about, rather than staying on-trail and peak-focused. As always, you are an inspiration!

  6. As one who has done that too-dangerous Pemi crossing a couple of times, I can testify: it’s Too Dangerous! The first time was poor judgement; the second was stupidity. I won’t push my luck a third time.

    • I wondered if anyone had done it. I used to by a class 4 Whitewater kayaker and that river is a beast. I wouldn’t want to run it above the Lincoln Woods suspension bridge let along try crossing it on foot. Wicked rapids and current. Foot entrapment is a real possibility.

  7. I remember the railroad trestle you you have pictures of, and I suspect I have pictures of it too in my slide file. It was in much better condition in 1966 or so, and I think maybe the rails were still there. Am I correct in thinking that this old bridge is the subject of some major discussion as on one hand it is a historic relic which by law cannot be removed, and on the other hand is a non-native thing in a wilderness area which MUST be removed. My guess is it will stay as it’s too expensive to do anything else about it. And in my mind it is a bit of history which should stay put for those energetic enough to pass that way.

  8. Thanks for the report, including part 2. This past weekend, while walking out from the parking lot along the Lincoln Woods Trail, I met a couple of hikers who wanted to carry on for some ways, ford the East Branch of the Pemi River, and return via East Side Trail. I knew this to be a bad idea and discouraged them, but I didn’t know offhand where one could cross. A search brought me here. The answer seems to be pretty far upstream, and with some bushwhacking.

    Since this report was posted, of course, the Thoreau Falls Bridge was removed, in 2019. Folks may be interested in this video of the demolition by Forest Service crew, all done with hand tools of course. “2019 Thoreau Falls Bridge Removal Project” uploaded April 2020:

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