Last weekend I joined a small, wonderful group of folks from the Society for Protection of NH Forests on a day hike to the summit of Mount Major in Alton, New Hampshire. Although I frequently post photos of my adventures in the woods of New Hampshire and elsewhere, I don’t often write in detail about the specific trails I hike, the lands I traverse, or why I do what I do. Well, one of the things that I do in my spare time is volunteer for the Forest Society in Concord, NH. I’ve helped their communications department with a variety of projects on and off since this past January. Most recently I created and continue to manage their Tumblr (check it out!) and I’m also doing what I can to support their campaign to purchase 950 acres of land surrounding Mount Major and the Belknap Range.
My hike with the Forest Society marked my second trek up this modest mountain. My first hike was earlier this summer supervising a small camp group of 13-14 year olds. What a difference these two hikes were! Back in July I scrambled after rambunctious teenagers who would have ran the entire way up the mountain if they could have had their way. This weekend we really took our time to enjoy the hike, visit off-trail features, and observe what we could about this ever changing landscape.
Just a few steps off the main trails you can find so many interesting natural features, such as giant boulders and tucked away hiding places. And there are many unnatural features, such as man-made impacts left behind from historical happenings. There are signs of old quarrying, logging, farmhouses, and cellars.
The trails leading up Mount Major are extremely popular, but most people that hike them probably don’t realize that they are crossing private lands. But, why would anyone notice? The parking lot and summit are owned by the State, and there are no signs designating private property. The landowners simply allow the trails to exist and people to use them. It’s strange for me to hike such popular trails. I spend most of my time in quiet corners of State Parks and National Forests, and for the past few summers I’ve worked with trail crews building and maintaining public trails on public lands. Trails that are owned and managed by public entities, whether they see a lot of traffic or not a lot of traffic, have typically been crafted and revised and broken down and fixed by a long line of professionals and volunteers. Trails that see lots of water (flooding) or use (people’s footsteps wear trails down!) erode over time and eventually get re-routed or a trail crew will build structures such as bridges, water-bars, turnpikes, stepping stones, the list goes on. Newer trails are now designed with all of this in mind and either include features to prevent future erosion or follow terrain that won’t lend itself to erosion. The main trails on Mount Major have seen a lot of wear and tear, to say the least. They need to be managed, but can’t be the way that they are owned as of right now. Hikers have created their own routes based simply on the fact that they walk where they want to go and “user trails” appear. When the main trail becomes eroded or soaked with water, hikers will walk to the side and slowly a new trail tread appears and begins to erode itself.
The trails have become like canyons in some sections because of the erosion and high-volume of use. In other areas, the trail is as wide as a road or multiple paths weave their way through the woods side-by-side. It’s unfortunate because this is such a unique and beautiful area, as well as a stunning summit. Of course we want future generations to be able to hike and appreciate the landscape, but we have to figure out a way to enjoy this place without continuing the erosion that’s taking place right now. Hikers, too, would probably enjoy quieter corridors that appear more wild and less traveled.
A fern grows on the edge of an old farmhouse foundation just off the trail. One of the reasons I love hiking in New England is being able to see old stone walls and foundations throughout the woods. Although I live in the most forested state, most of the woods that I call home were once logged and used for farming. My group of fellow hikers and I paused by the old foundation and imagined the landscape without trees. We gazed upon the area where a barn would be, a front “yard,” and through the existing trees we could just make out Mt. Major’s ridge-line. These farmers of old would have had an amazing view of the peak.
A potential porcupine home?
After a final steep ascent up the mountain’s granite we were rewarded with this amazing view of Lake Winnipesaukee ^^
The foliage wasn’t peak yet but the warm glow of autumn was starting to show across the landscape.
I was lucky to be accompanied by such a knowledgeable group of conservation enthusiasts. They helped identify many of the distant peaks, ridges, and mountain ranges.
The summit was a roar of commotion on such a sunny, warm, weekend day. But with nearly 360 degree views as far as the eye can see, it’s not surprising. Just take a short walk keeping on any of the granite surfaces and you’ll find yourself a quiet ledge to enjoy your lunch or snack or maybe even nap in the sun.
I find myself itching to get back up Mt. Major. Why is that? I have a State Park right in my backyard that I hike many times a week. It’s home for me and I know many of its paths intimately. I rarely ever come upon other people on my hikes. It’s a peaceful place for me to walk, think, and photograph undisturbed. Mt. Major’s trails on the other hand are over used and over crowded. I have to say, though, vistas can be intoxicating, and Mt. Major has one of the best I’ve seen around. There’s also camaraderie in the mountain. Locals hike it over and over and more come from far away to enjoy its trails. Sometimes its nice not to be Alone in the Woods. The crowds at the summit of Mt. Major are a testament to our culture’s deep appreciation of the outdoors. How important it is to keep these often distant concepts of “nature” and “landscape” close to our hearts and minds… and then to work through their meanings as we move our bodies through a mountain trail.