After the wild, highly energized, intensely social experience of a convention, a hike in the White Mountains is therapeutically antithetical. My hiking buddy Mary is still recovering from double knee surgery — yes, she had both knees done at once. There is very little Mary loves more than hiking, and she couldn’t bear to be kept off the trail for more time than absolutely necessary. So she endured the crippling agony of a double knee replacement, all the icing and massaging and grueling physical therapy, in hopes of being back in shape within a year. While in recovery she lost a lot of muscle tone. So although she is enjoying freedom of movement again, she hasn’t got the strength to do the long, strenuous hikes yet.
So we took to the woods for a lovely but comparatively gentle hike and overnight camping trip: the East Pond loop off of Tripoli Road. There are no formal campgrounds along this trail, and there is a quarter-mile buffer zone around East Pond itself to protect its delicate ecology. People obviously have ignored this, as there are a couple of rogue campsites with the remains of camp fires at the pond’s edge. It is possible to camp with minimum impact, respecting and preserving the natural landscape. Stomping the surface to bare dirt, dragging logs and stones around, and burning every stick of dry wood you can find, is not the way to do it.
Because of the rugged terrain and dense forest undergrowth, there are few spots along the trail outside of the protected zone that are conducive to setting up a tent. But we found one off the trail between East Pond and the smaller, swampier, Little East Pond. We also found a small rogue campsite right next to Little East Pond. Although that area isn’t protected, the rules state that campsites must be at least 200 feet away from trails and water sources. The one down the faint path further up the trail fit the rules. It is also an easy walk down gentle grades to East Pond.
The East Pond Trail climbs gradually but steadily up from the parking area through lovely hardwood forests for about a mile and a half to the pond. It was perfect for Mary, who is still adjusting to carrying a full overnight pack. I’d been out there the year before with my younger son, and knew the treat that was in store. Tripoli Road has designated roadside camping sites, and thus is lined with cars and people on the weekends. I can understand why this set-up would be grand for urban folks seeking to enjoy an overnight in the forest with minimum effort. I confess, I am a camping snob. I don’t even much care for remote designated campsites, for all their relative convenience (platforms, bear boxes and outhouses) because I don’t like being so close to other people. For me, solitude is the whole point.
I do like hiking with Mary (and her husband Nick from time to time) because she is the ideal companion. Very trail savvy, in fact, she taught me just about everything I know about camping in the wilderness. An avid amateur naturalist, she knows a great deal about the flowers and small residents of this environment, so I get an education as we stop to admire toads, mushrooms, and tiny, delicate blossoms along the way. She takes the photos. As much as I like solo hiking and camping, I don’t have a camera. It’s only my hikes with Mary that I have visual records for, and I treasure them.
I needed East Pond desperately. Although we ran into day hikers on our way up, they cleared out as the afternoon advanced. By evening, we had the place to ourselves. The pond is a classic mountain tarn, excavated thousands of years ago by the passing glacier and filled upon its melting. Runoff from the surrounding and sheltering mountains keep it replenished. The water is oxygen poor, so often tarns don’t support much in the way of fish. They can also be somewhat shallow, not cold enough to suit most fish. East Pond, however, supports abundant fish life, as evidenced by frequent leaps and splashes. We saw a large shoal of brook trout at a spot where a brook was bringing in fresh, cold, oxygen-rich water. Trout don’t tend to swim together, but these were cheek by jowl, all holding position facing the flow of water coming in from the brook, enjoying the freshness of the current. Not large specimens, most between five to ten inches, averaging around six or seven.
Sharing the crystal clear water with the trout were frogs, salamanders, and long, shuddersomely healthy leeches. Along the shore we found clusters of sundews and aquatic lobelia. There was evidence that beaver had been active there at one time, but there was no sign of them now.
Peace settled in with the evening. We got our tents set up and ate some dinner, then went down to the pond to watch the sun set. Dragonflies zipped past in abundance, rattling their wings and scarfing up insects. This kept the mosquito population to a minimum. There were tiny gnats of some kind, but they weren’t too annoying. The only thing that at all interfered with our pleasure were dark grey clouds that hovered just at the edge of the cirque containing the pond. Occasionally we got sprinkled on. But to the west it was mostly clear, so the sunlight angled through until it dipped below the silhouette of the mountain ridge. No doubt there was a rainbow somewhere behind us that we couldn’t see for the forest.
The clouds lit up in gorgeous shades of gold, crimson and deep raspberry, fading into slate blue and grey. The occasional frog twanged like a plucked rubber band. A breeze rippled the still water; raindrops occasionally pattered on the surface. And the fish leaped and splashed.
It was quiet, peaceful, a balm to the soul.
I sat for quite a while, just taking in the stillness, breathing in the subtly fragrant air. As much as I enjoy the three-ring circus of conventions, this is where I am at home. This is the place I think of when the unanswerable questions and impossible choices of life grind me down. This, and the other places I have walked and sat in stillness and solitude, these are the refuges my mind seeks when I am overwhelmed with the pressures of ordinary life and extraordinary crises. Here I am at peace, content.
At first, the hemlock boughs overhead protected me from the gentle rain. I did not want to leave this place. But when it became a steady drizzle I had no choice but to fish my headlamp out of my pocket and retreat to the shelter of my tent. Later that night I heard the drum of heavy rain on my tent, but I was spared a soaking while I was on my way. Snug in my little one-man Lightyear tent, it could rain all it cared to. Short of high winds, my tent does an effective job of keeping me dry. When I camped out near Galehead my tent protected me from a horrific drenching downpour. This was not nearly so bad.
The next morning, cool and sparkling, we got up and made our breakfast. When I hike solo, I do without the luxury of a stove. I don’t mind cold mocha and cereal for breakfast. But I’ve got to say, having a hot meal, especially on a chilly morning, is splendid. Another reason I enjoy camping with Mary.
We continued on our way to Little East Pond, a shallow moose wallow compared to East Pond. We saw a duck at the other end, and there were salamanders, water striders, and undulating leeches (ugh!). No fish. It’s still a pretty place, also sheltered by surrounding mountains and nourished by runoff from Scar Ridge. We poked around a bit. Found a place someone had used as an outhouse. Please! We all must answer Nature’s call, but damn it all, bury the evidence! Nobody wants to know where you’ve been and what you did there. Disgusting as leeches.
There was no putting it off. We had to complete the loop and head back to the car. We took our time. Discreet logging had been going on in the area, and the clearings were filled with saplings and raspberry bushes. We picked raspberries as we passed the clearings. Whoever had done the logging had done a good job of trying to leave tree buffers whenever possible, minimizing the visible damage from the trail. I dislike the sight of logging, although I grudgingly acknowledge its necessity. Done in wise moderation, clearing areas of woods can be beneficial to many creatures who browse the shoots and hide in the thickets.
We got back to the parking lot where my son would be meeting us to give me a ride home. He always grumbles when he sees those signs at the boundary of the National Forest that say, “Land of Many Uses.” Like they somehow have to justify preserving wilderness, reassuring the general populace that the land isn’t being “wasted” and is “useful.” Like the worth of something is only measured in its utility to humans. Insufferably arrogant and self-centered. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his essay “Walking”, “Wildness is the preservation of the world.” It is also the preservation of sanity. And the key to our survival as we chew and ravage our way through this thriving ecosystem we’ve inherited and now systematically exploit. If we don’t preserve the wild world, the world as it evolved in exquisite balance before the very recent advent of egotistical humanity, we will likely screw it up beyond its capacity to support us. Our short-sighted greed may cause our extinction, and we may take out a sizable percentage of species with us, but Life will re-emerge, dust itself off grumbling, and busily go about evolving new species to fill the vacated niches. Wilderness will reassert its dominance. We survive here by its grace alone.