A U.S. border guard searches through my pack for contraband. As he crouches on one knee and empties the trash bag containing my sleeping kit, he asks, "So what keeps you going for 165 miles? What do you eat?"
"Well, keep digging," I reply. He produces soggy, disintegrating Milano cookie bags. "Whatever my body tells to me to."
"I don't get it." He muses. "If we have the same diet, then why don't we look the same?"
At 6:50 AM on Wednesday, July 22nd, a dream began to take the first steps into reality. Since moving to the great state of New Hampshire for a career-shaping opportunity in 2011, I have been enthralled by the landscapes, history and people of Coös County, New Hampshire's most northern and largest county. The entire area of Coös County is about the size of Rhode Island and boasts the total population of a small city (32,000 or so). Nicknamed the "Empire of the Trees," this land has been left mostly undeveloped and instead used for the primary economies of timber harvest, paper product and outdoor recreation. It is a veritable forgotten paradise of wilderness experience, and this is what led to the creation of the Cohos Trail over the last twenty years by a small group of audacious, energetic individuals. The same reasons led to my first steps over the Bemis Bridge at the head of the Davis Path that morning with my compass pointed north, my pack light and a resolution to follow the yellow blazes non-stop until Canada was in my sight.
|The first good view from the Davis Path, looking southwest across the White Mountains. The Cohos Trail makes a hardy zig-zag across the southern ranges of the Presidentials before leaving popular White Mountain areas entirely.|
Day One (Hours 1 - 24): Montalban Whites, Southern Presidentials, Mt. Martha, Jefferson Dome, Kilkenny Ridge
The first tastes of new trail came upon exiting the Edmands Path and drifting easily downhill through ski trails maintained by Bretton Woods and the Mount Washington Hotel. All went well until I made the mistake of closely examining the knee-high brush I was running through - monoculture poison ivy. My biggest fear, my worst enemy. It's easy to become complacent about watching for it in northern New Hampshire, where it almost never occurs...and then it strikes! I immediately dove into the nearby Ammonoosuc River and scrubbed HARD. Luckily, I had gone through the worst of it and didn't see any more for the remainder of the trip.
A few confused, intrigued stares were received as the trail spat me out onto the Mount Washington Hotel golf course and rear lawn. Sharing their space with a dirty trail runner in very short shorts, men and women in bright linens carrying summery cocktails tried to disguise their rubbernecking. I made a show of sucking down a GU and intentionally smearing it across my face, and moved on. Service roads, Base Station Road and eventually a course down Route 302 took me back into the woods on Cherry Mountain Road.
The trail went comfortably up and over the Mt. Martha group of summits and through the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge in the valley beyond. Pondicherry might be the prettiest place on the entire Cohos Trail, with expansive views of the highest ranges in Coös County set amongst a huge valley of extreme ecological diversity. I took my time through here, the black flies took their time with my scalp, and soon I was making my way up the two-mile road walk on Route 115A to Jefferson Village.
|Slide Brook Trail to Pondicherry Rail Trail|
|Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge with Kilkenny in background|
Michael Walsh, an old friend, co-worker and Jefferson Village resident, surprised me by pulling up in his Sprinter van on his way home from work. I like Michael for many reasons, but one in particular - his care and love for the people he values and his lengths to help them extend past any societal niceties he might offend in the process. So in true form, Michael drove his large van at a top speed of 4mph all the way in to Jefferson Village so that he can pace me and we can have a conversation. After all, we hadn't laid eyes on each other since March of 2012! The traffic dealt with it.
|Summit of Mt. Waumbek|
|Sumit of Mt. Cabot|
Day 2 (Hours 24-48): Nash Stream Region, Gadwah Notch, Dixville Country and Coleman State Park
The day dawned cloudy and moody as I picked up all the food from my first large cache at the South Pond Link and headed down to Route 110. This was the day I was most excited about: Nash Stream and Dixville are my favorite regions along the route and I would get to enjoy both before sunset.
To get into the Nash Stream Valley, a CT trekker must first pass through Bald Mountain notch and behind the mighty Percy Peaks (the profile of which inspired the CT logo). I underestimated these trails; don't make the same mistake. Both felt like significantly hard climbs, especially after a full 24 hours on the feet. I was relieved to finally descend into the Nash Stream valley after what felt like forever - although a glance at my phone revealed that it had only been three hours. Time was starting to warp. Life gets interesting after a night without real sleep.
Now I was free to enjoy the flat roads and rolling trails lining Nash Stream. Sugarloaf Arm and the East Side Trail were a joy to tramp along, and I took a dip in the Devil's Jacuzzi to wash off the accumulated grime. A climb through spectacular meadows followed: Cathedral Meadow and Moran Meadow. Both are both managed openings in the forest for wildlife habitat, and they led me up through the northern reaches of the valley and into the dark heart of the Cohos Trail: Gadwah Notch.
As noted in a previous blog post, I had scouted this section with my friend Johannes back in June. Gadwah Notch has a certain mystic quality to it; nowhere else on the trail does one feel more removed from modern human life. All is quiet in this boreal wasteland, and only huge piles of moose droppings alert a human to other life passing through. This might well be the most geographically isolated place on the Cohos Trail, and I hope it stays that way. The trail beyond took me through familiar but rarely trodden terrain past the Baldhead lean-to and into Kelsey Notch, where the signs of civilization reappear. A series of ATV trails, wind turbine service roads, newly cut trail and ski trails took me past Dixville Peak and on to Table Rock at the edge of Dixville Notch.
Quickly I descended the Three Brothers Trail to the bottom of the notch (Highway 26) and my last large cache. My left achilles tendon had become aggravated and inflamed throughout the day; this was my time to make a judgement call. Pull the plug, save the tendon and get a ride home? Or risk damage to the tendon and limp through another sixty miles? That number made me sick. How was I going to baby my left foot for SIXTY MILES? Sunset was coming on, and after cooking a quick dinner I just decided to keep walking and postpone the thought. Here, I had a short history of 100-mile and multiday racing to lean back against: when things begin to break down and the wheels fall off, steady forward motion will generally solve the problems.
I limp-climbed the Sanguinary Ridge, and in full darkness the rain came. I missed a critical turn along the SST High Route. With rain flying in my headlamp beam, I navigated with map and compass through a maze of ATV trails and eventually found the High Route again, where it bottomed out and reconnected with the Low Route. In doing so, I had inadvertently missed the Panorama Shelter entirely, where I had planned to take a break. Soaked to the skin, I made my way through the head-high weeds along the trail to Tumble Dick Notch and eventually down to Coleman State Park, where I crashed out for 2.5 hours in their lean-to.
I was visited by fitful nightmares that woke me consistently, and each waking moment reminded me of how painful and swollen my achilles tendon had become. I knew it wouldn't feel good, but I had faith in this strongest of tendons, and I felt that I probably wouldn't tear it significantly or rupture it. It was getting swollen enough to make me consider cutting a slit in the rear of my shoe to accommodate the extra size.
Around 3 AM I packed my stuff, paid my $29 for the lean-to at the self-pay station, and set off on the long section of farm roads that would eventually take me to Lake Francis and the town of Pittsburg, my beacon of hope. The sun rose through thick fog and cloud banks as I wandered the upper reaches of the Stewartstown Plateau over to the Deadwater Region, and somewhere around the site of the old Weir Tree Farm, hour 48 ticked away.
Day Three (hours 48-66): Connecticut Lakes and Boundary Mountains
The achilles tendon was under control (more or less), but now the constant water on the trail began to take its toll on my feet. Deadwater Road deposited me along the shores of Lake Francis, and five miles of the Cedar Stream road took to me to the trail bordering its eastern edge, a snowmobile lane that the Cohos Trail Association has named the Lake Francis Trail. Blisters and wet dirt abrasions began to spring up all over my feet during this push to Pittsburg, but there was no helping it - water is an unavoidable obstacle on the Cohos Trail, and only a foot cast of duct tape would begin to help.
|First view of Lake Francis!|
|Brunch on Lake Francis|
I made it to Young's Store in Pittsburg at 12:45 PM and began making the phone calls. I estimated my finish time at the Canadian Border to be somewhere around midnight, so it took a while to find a couple of friends with the right mix of crazy and tolerance of sleep deprivation who would be willing to pick me up at a far flung place late at night. My friend Laura Kathrein saved the day with a Facebook posting calling for volunteers, and the right amount of crazy answered the call: Danielle Jepson and Nick Blanco. "No problem!" they said. Wow. True friendship!
I began making my way into the hills north of Pittsburg at around 1:45 PM. The Prospect/Covell Mountain trail system took me behind the residence of Peter and Lainie Castine, two prolific trail builders in the region and the driving force behind finishing the Cohos Trail through the Connecticut Lakes. I chatted with Peter for a while as he was cleaning his chainsaw, and he wished me good luck on the final 30 miles.
The trails along the Connecticut Lakes are some the best in the system: 800' Bog Bridge, Moose Alley, and Fall in the River Trail were all a joy this evening, despite my disintegrating feet. My final sunset illuminated the hills above Second Connecticut Lake, and I shuffled on into what I hoped would be my final darkness.
Until a handful of years ago, the CT had a large gap here that caused the hiker to walk along Route 3 for many miles. That is all in the past, and a few new trails now eliminate the road walk. R&J Chaput Trail, the Black Cat system, and ultimately Sophie's Lane (a wide snowmobile corridor) took me along to the heavenly sign I had longed so badly for: "Canada/United States Boundary 500 feet ahead." Fighting through the last of the high weeds, I swam into the brightly illuminated perimeter of the customs compound and tapped my trekking poles to wake up Danielle and Nick, peacefully napping away in their car.
I didn't realize how profoundly I had been affected by being alone for so long until the buoyant energy of these two friends brought me out from my void of emotion. I rode the high all the way up to Fourth Connecticut Lake, the northern terminus of the Cohos Trail. My official finishing time was 12:47 AM on Saturday, July 25th, almost exactly 66 hours after beginning on Wednesday. Nick graciously came up with me, and we shared shots of Maker's Mark to celebrate! He then carried my pack back down to the customs station. A crew of friendly border guards met us at the trailhead, and rightly enough were suspicious about our behavior: backpacks, middle of the night, possibly sneaking into another country. They searched us for contraband and upon finding none, we had a fun and celebratory hangout session in the parking lot. The guards were very interested in what we had been doing, and about how I had managed to do the trail in my chosen style. I even knew one of the border guard's sons, who was a participant on a 7-day backcountry trip I had led last summer! Small world here in Coös County.
Four days later, I still am fighting to stay awake a full day. My left achilles tendon is regaining it's normal range of motion but still creaks and groans. My right foot has two numb toes, an injury I didn't realize until a day after finishing. And I am left with the familiar hollow emptiness of success: what did it all mean, and what is next? At least I know this: I fulfilled my dream of traversing my favorite region in a single push, fully expressing myself across the landscape where my heart feels at home. And in doing so, I hope that I have inspired others to realize this region as well. The White Mountains see many millions of visitors a year, and that area is getting loved to death: eroded trails, garbage at shelters, highways turning into parking lots. By heading further north, I believe that you will find what White Mountain pioneers found in the early 1800s: lightly used footpaths, duff underfoot, and a world that truly feels non-dominated by man. The Cohos Trail is your route to a true wilderness experience, few of which can still be found in the Northeast. Take it, and take care of it.
-- Rob Rives, 7/29/2015