Sunday, December 15, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #11: Carter Dome and the Wildcats, New Hampshire

Hike #10: Carter Dome, Wildcat, Wildcat D Peak
Elevation: 4,832 (Carter Dome), 4,422 (Wildcat), 4,050 (Wildcat D Peak)
Date: September 14-15, 2013
Location: Coos County, NH
Distance: 13.7 miles over two days
Time: 12:11 (53:21/mile)

It’s not often that I go off into the middle of nowhere to walk for hours and find that the most memorable aspect of the experience is the vibe, but that’s exactly what this hike was all about.

Sara and I headed into New Hampshire’s Carter Notch, a tucked away part of the woods, nestled against the Maine border. It’s not as popular as its brethren, Franconia, Pinkham, or Crawford, which are more accessible. It’s also been a somewhat-overlooked notch for well over a century. But it’s home to some peaks, a leg of the Appalachian Trail, and some great Appalachian Mountain Club trails.
Working our way up to Carter Notch

Enjoying the view of Wildcat

For this hike, Sara and I were joined by Pete and Melissa, a couple of friends she’s hiked and skied with over a number of years. It was a somewhat spontaneous trip and is only one of a few hikes I’ve done with a group, and it started things off with a different energy. Sara had the chance to reconnect and catch up, using the easy 19-Mile Brook Trail as an opportunity for conversation. For me, it allowed me to get to know them better, to listen to stories, and to generate my own experience with them. 

But after three miles and three hours, we’d arrived at the Carter Notch hut. It’s one of the smaller huts that AMC operates, with room for forty people. Unlike some others, this has bunkhouses and a main building. Carter Notch has maintained a hut for well over a hundred years, making it the oldest in the system. Early ones appear to go back to 1853, but the current one was built after fire destroyed its predecessor in 1914, and has been modified since. Renovations have also continued to go on to the property. As such, we found ourselves in one of the two bunkhouses in great condition that had four rooms. Our room had two bunk beds, which meant we had the room to ourselves. There’s something about any version of “roughing it” or being without things you normally take for granted, that makes anything unexpectedly good extra exciting. So, having a room in which we know all the residents was grounds for celebration.  
Looking down on the Carter Notch huts
while ascending to the Carter Dome peak
It was brief, though, as we hadn’t stood atop a mountain yet. So we quickly dropped the thirty-pound bags for small ones that could hold the essentials. The Carter Notch hut is tucked in a saddle between the peaks of Wildcat and Carter Dome, both over 4,000 feet of elevation and looming on either side of us. So at about 3,300 feet of elevation, the hut left us with some serious climbing to do. We headed out and worked hard over the next hour to reach Carter Dome’s summit, which lacked any view. But a couple of points along the way allowed us to look down on the hut, the small pond adjacent to it, and Wildcat beyond it. Fog was rolling in, adding to the feeling of intimacy.

Enjoying Carter Notch Hut's hospitality

After returning to the hut, about 5:00, we had an hour to change into warm and comfortable clothes, to have wine, cheese, and crackers on the deck of the bunkhouse, and to enjoy the early evening view. When we transitioned into the main building for dinner, a family-style meal was served. The fresh-baked bread was still warm, the soup steaming hot, the salad crisp and fresh, and the meat and mashed potatoes delicious. Even though the gravy had an odd consistency (henceforth known as “semi-coagulated meat juice”), we still poured it on and wiped it up. The place was mostly full, and cheery voices echoed off the stone walls, creating a loud but festive atmosphere. The AMC staff added to it with polite hospitality and friendly stories and introductions. Whether they were new to the role, had been with the AMC for years, or were a third-generation staff member, they were all there finding various ways to promote our enjoyment and respect for a beautiful place.
Birthday celebrations!
When they brought out brownies, it was grounds for another round of grown-ups as excited as kids, some of whom had also trekked through miles of woods to be there. Eric and Marnie, a couple from Newton, Massachusetts, sat next to us with their two boys, who looked to be in elementary or middle school. Eric just had a birthday and when his wife presented him with a small birthday cake she’d snuck in, she pulled another out for our friend Melissa, whose birthday was the day before. As they admired the ingenuity of our mini-cardboard boxes of wine (for lighter weight to carry), we returned their graciousness by adding a little Captain Morgan’s to their coffees which made Marnie’s eyes light up and Eric’s smile as wide as his mouth would allow. Seemingly at every table, whether it was the AMC Naturalist teaching about weather systems, or us discussing how Marnie’s family, too, had an AMC caretaker in the lineage, there were laughs and smiles all around.

When everyone returned to their rooms around 8:00 p.m., the sun had long since set. A partial moon was visible, with frequent wisps of fog racing past it and the steep mountain walls hulking in the shadows below. We spent the rest of the evening chatting and reading highlights of a trail book from the lodge. I was tired, but wired from the festiveness. 9:30 is lights-out time, which was the only sad part of my day. Given that I fell asleep within minutes, I guess it was for the best. Although the hut is said to be haunted by Red Mac, an early caretaker who was a key player in stringing together the AMC huts, much the way they’re used and located today, he didn’t bother me. Should his spirit remain, it would seem to be because of his love for the area and the mission of the hut, so I guess if I saw him it would’ve been as he pulled another wool blanket over me instead of trying to scare the bejeezus out of me.

Reflection of Wildcat
The next morning dawned chilly and clear, and I watched the colors of the sky changing. By the time the sun climbed high enough above Carter Dome to be visible it was too high to be spectacular. But I’d had my quiet moments to watch the sunrise hues and my breath as I sat on the deck in the crisp air for a bit. When we piled into the lodge for a 7:00 a.m. breakfast, we found everyone’s moods unchanged. The decibel level, the smiles, the excitement at the food were all still very much in evidence. The enthusiastic debate regarding whether or not the delicious seasoning for the hash browns was the leftover semi-coagulated meat juice and the etiquette tips they delivered via a modified version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail provided the rest of the partially-planned morning theater.

Looking at Carter Dome from Wildcat D's summit
We were back on the Wildcat Ridge trail at 8:00, having written final notes in their logbook. We hadn’t covered a tenth of a mile in our planned 5.26-mile hike out before we passed that same small pond we’d passed and spied the day before. But the glorious Fall day seemed to make Wildcat’s trees more colorful, and they reflected beautifully off the pond’s still surface. Wildcat’s up-and-down trail quickly forced us to lose the view of the water, but replaced it with a number of views of a number of mountains, including several Carter peaks, Mount Hight, and the Presidentials. We drifted through varied terrain: birch forests, moss-covered rocky sections, stands of scraggly pines only seen at higher elevations, washouts and tiny waterfalls, rocky areas needing hands as much as feet, and water-prone sections with planks to keep feet dry and the environment protected. The rolling trail meant none of us ever got too tired or sore from climbing or descending, and when we stopped for lunch we found ourselves at the Wildcat ski area on an observation deck, having cheese and crackers and homemade banana break as we admired Mount Washington and recounted more hiking stories.

Admiring the Presidential Range from Wildcat

Because of limitations on bodies and time, we changed our route and hiked down ski trails. But they afforded amazing and varied views as we wound our way down the mountain. Although Pete and I had a final couple of miles to hike along the road, putting us closer to eight miles in total while Sara and Melissa sat in the shade awaiting our chivalrous return, it provided a final chance to process the hike.
Hiking Wildcat's ski trails
The energy, camaraderie, and enthusiasm that infused everyone I ran across, and the intimacy of the hut’s location, are my signature memories of this hike and my first time staying at a hut. My girls are enthusiastic about certain activities but prolonged physical exertion isn’t one of those things. I’ve sought ways to engage them, and am left believing that if they can make it to this hut; if they, “Big Sara” and I have a bunkroom to ourselves; if we spend an afternoon in the lodge having hot chocolate, brownies, and playing games; if the naturalist enthralls Sarah as he did some others; if the weather is half as good and Sydney can practice her drawing and photography; if the girls can read the note left for them in the logbook; if these things happen then I can watch my girls as vibrantly enjoying life as I did this weekend.

See you on the trails,
Jay, AKA RockHopper

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