The Presidential Range of the White Mountains looked enticing from the summit of Mount Starr King, but I had something else in mind while venturing farther north on a less-traveled path. After years of distraction and delay, I was finally on the Cohos Trail, hoping for a good dose of solitude in a sprawling, wild forest. A 45-pound pack tugged at my shoulders. My sweat-soaked t-shirt reminded me how out of shape I was. No matter. I was footloose and free for the next week and a half.
With the recent death of my mother weighing heavily upon me, I desperately needed to be alone in the woods. The fewer people I encountered, the better. I ran into a few hikers while tramping along the Kilkenny Ridge for a couple of days, but nothing like those crowds on the busy trails to the south. Beyond Mount Cabot, there was practically no one. I saw a camper in the distance while filling my water bottles at Unknown Pond. That’s all. I grieved the loss of my mother as I hiked the beautiful stretch of trail coming off Roger’s Ledge, but there was no one around to witness it.
The Cohos Trail is a newly created, 170-mile footpath that starts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains then winds north all the way to the Canadian border. It’s a combination of old woods roads, ATV trails, and existing footpaths linked by trails that have just been cut. The CT is so new that parts of it are still road walks. An updated map and a sharp eye for yellow blazes are necessary to navigate this trail. Rugged and remote in places, this isn’t a good trail for novices. But for seasoned backpackers, the CT is a delight. It climbs over mountains, skirts ponds and bogs, and meanders for miles through an otherwise trackless forest.
On my fourth day out, I entered the Nash Stream Forest. “In a very real sense, the Nash Stream Forest is the heart of the Cohos Trail,” Kim Robert Nilsen wrote in his book, The Cohos Trail. It certainly felt like I was entering a whole new world as I started up the grassy woods road beyond a gate. North of the White Mountain National Forest, the Great North Woods begins. Like the Maine Woods, this is logging country heavily populated by moose. The wild is alive and well here.
After hiking several miles into the Nash Stream Forest, I landed in the brand new Devil’s Rest Shelter and stayed there for a day before continuing north. In my 60s now, I’m not the hiking machine I was thirty years ago, or even ten. Had to take a zero day sooner than planned. That turned out to be a good thing. It gave me a chance to think about all the family members and friends I’ve lost through the years, and to reflect upon my own mortality.
Back on the move again, I climbed into the col between North and South Percy Peaks where a thick mist clung to the trees. Then the hike became a wet one as a steady, all-day rain commenced. Pond Brook Falls was a torrent of whitewater by the time I reached it. The rain kept the bugs at bay, though, and the early summer air was warm enough to keep me comfortable. I reached Old Hermit Shelter soaking wet but in good spirits. There I took another zero-day to dry out my gear and simply groove on the woody chaos surrounding me. I lounged all day, quietly celebrating the Summer Solstice – a good time of year to contemplate life, death, and the interconnectedness of all things.
During the 11-mile push between Old Hermit Shelter and the next one on Baldhead Mountain, I stumbled upon an Outward Bound group going the opposite direction. By then I hadn’t seen anyone for three days. The CT provides plenty of deep woods solitude, that’s for sure. After chatting with those young hikers for a while, I followed the fresh blazes that mark a mile or so of barely discernable trail. Then I ambled along a charming woods road past dreamy meadows awash in sunlight on a blue-sky day. When a hiker has no concerns any more pressing than tapping the next stream for water, life is good.
Gadwah Notch was easy to negotiate, thanks to puncheon spanning the muddier spots, but the climb up Baldhead Mountain took something out of me. I was wiped out by the time I reached Baldhead Shelter. More importantly, my right ankle was giving me trouble. I had turned it early into this trek and had done so again on several more occasions. While voicing my concerns about it to the folks who shared the shelter with me that night, I finally accepted what had been obvious for days: this hike would have to be cut short. I had planned on hiking 80 miles from Jefferson to Pittsburg, but 62 would have to do. On my ninth day out, I wrapped my ankle with sports tape and limped to Dixville Notch.
The view of Dixville Notch from Table Rock is magnificent. That cliff, seemingly suspended in thin air, juts out over the notch. It was a dramatic finish to a tough yet rewarding hike. A light lunch then I descended a steep section of trail, reaching the road by mid-afternoon. My wife picked me up shortly thereafter. When I told her I was done doing long, punishing treks, she just laughed. Yeah, she’s heard that before.
About the author
Backcountry traveler, freelance writer, and philosopher of wildness, Walt McLaughlin has ventured into the wilds of Southeast Alaska and New York’s Adirondacks as well as the forests of northern New England. His book about hiking the Cohos Trail, The Consolation of the Wild, was released in 2021 and is available for sale at Wood Thrush Books and Amazon. You can also follow Walt’s adventures at his blog Woods Wanderer.
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