Into the Clouds of Franconia Ridge

One of the things I love about photography is the way a single image has the power to spark a memory. That’s what happened to me today when I saw a picture of Franconia Notch. Its snow covered ridge rising above the vibrant fall foliage was different from the lush summer green that I remembered. Yet it held the same power, and the memory of my climb was as sharp as if it had occurred only yesterday.

At the sound of the alarm I hopped out of bed, being careful not to disturb my sleeping husband. As I slipped into my typical hiking clothes, Rocky, my three year old yorkie’s head popped up. I tapped my leg and he sprang to my side.

In the kitchen, I started breakfast and before long the aroma of bacon, eggs and toast drew my nineteen year-old son out of bed. Once our bellies were full and our gear packed, we climbed into the car and let the GPS lead us along scenic roadways to the Franconia Ridge trailhead.

The trailhead parking area is immediately off interstate 93, but the second my feet met the hard-packed dirt of the trail, the sounds of traffic faded away to a distant memory. I had entered the sanctuary of the forest.

IMG_8431Ferns, saplings and the occasional wildflower hid the ground alongside the trail. Stout maple, lean aspen and rough pine stretched their branches toward the sky, created a canopy of deep green leaves that provided welcome shade along the path. IMG_8472My son marched ahead of me, his long, lean legs carrying him one step for every two of mine. My little yorkie, tugged at his cani-cross leash, his feet scrabbling through the dirt as he tried to catch up with my son, which he does when we reach the intersection of Greenleaf and Falling Waters Trail.

The murmur of a not-so-far-away creek, draws me to the Falling Waters Trail and the tightly packed dirt beneath my feet is replaced with a path of large boulders, as if a giant had tossed them down the mountain to add to the challenge of our ascent. My son is like a six-foot-two Billy goat as he leaps from rock to rock, pausing frequently to wait for me as I chose my steps carefully grasping the trunks of nearby trees to steady my way.

Falling Waters Trail is clearly named for the water that tumbles down the mountain. Its music surrounds me as it bounces and splashes over rocks, twists around corners and cascades down miniature falls. I’m tempted to close my eyes and lose myself in its watery melody, but the threat of tumbling head over heels down the trail persuades me to keep my eyes open.

Before long the cadence of the creek changes from bubbling laughter to a dIMG_8445istant roar. I scramble up the bouldered path toward the sound and am not disappointed. Rushing water spills over the top of a semi-circle of step-like ledges, then swirls into a shallow pebbled-bottom pool before it continues its downward journey. It may not be the largest waterfall, but it is beautiful.

IMG_8459I could still hear the sound of the rushing water behind me when I discovered something I’d never seen before. It was a three-legged tree creature, caught mid stride. Only a tree could hold this pose so perfectly.

For the next three miles with my little yorkie still trotting along ahead of me with his endless energy, I
enjoyed more waterfalls, each one beautiful in its own way.IMG_8466IMG_8452IMG_8463

And I kept a close eye on the trees, hoping to catch one unawares. But trIMG_8489ee real estate is tight up here in Franconia Notch, where the trees, rocks and moss have learned to co-exist peacefully. I suppose, living in such a tight space doesn’t allow for much movement.

My fast-moving son waited for me by the sign for Shining Rock. It was a no-brainer that we would go check it out.

IMG_8483Shining Rock doesn’t shine when you’re right next to it, but I image that from other peaks, it is without a doubt a beauty! It’s a completely flat rock face that I’m guessing goes straight up to Franconia Ridge. There is a constant flow of water down its surface and when I stand at the right angle, I catch sight of brief reflections from the sun. Someday I’ll have to investigate which peak to climb so that I can enjoy it in its full splendor.

After a short break, which I spent dissuading my adrenaline-junky climbing partner from attempting to scale Shining Rock, we resumed our upward trek. The path veered away from the water and the rocky trail grew steeper. I pushed on, trying to keep up with the giant billy goat leading the way.IMG_8491

And then he called down to me that he’d reached the ridge. His proclamation of breath-taking views energized my feet and Rocky and I scurried up the last portion of Falling Waters Trail.

When I climbed up over that last rock I stood in awe trying to take in the panoramic views of the White Mountains that surrounded me. It overwhelmed me. The space, the beauty, the realization of how big the earth is and how really, truly small I am in comparison. Franconia Ridge is everything I imagined it to be and more.IMG_8492IMG_8494

I read once that when you reach the summit of a mountain, you’re only half-way through your journey.

Well, in the case of the Franconia Ridge loop, you’re just over a third of the way.
We rested, ate lunch and enjoyed the view—well, I rested, my son provided entertainment!IMG_8523IMG_8512

The beginning of the ridge trail is hard packed dirt surrounded by low growing brush, moss and alpine flowers resilient enough to withstand the cool, windy climate.

IMG_8495IMG_8518

I had tied my sweatshirt arIMG_8496ound my waist at the beginning of the hike. Now I pulled it up over my head and stepped onto the trail. I looked to the next peak (at the time I thought it was my last peak…NOT) and headed on to traverse Little Haystack Mountain and Mount Lincoln. As I descended the summit of Mount LincolnIMG_8531 I looked ahead to Mount Lafayette and I felt a thrill. The peak was hidden in the clouds. I prayed that the skies wouldn’t clear and I walked faster. I’ve never hiked into the clouds before!

As the elevation increased, so did the size of the rocks beneath my feet and once again I found myself rock-hopping and occasionally scrambling up boulders, which of course delayed my journey to the clouds.IMG_8513

But I made it. I stood on the top surrounded by clouds. It was beautiful and amazing and…..

I turn and face the  wind. A cloud rushes toward me like a monstrous white beast. My heart pounds. The cloud looks so solid as it flies toward me that I am tIMG_8537empted to duck. But I stand firm and the monster dissipates into a wave of thick fog that surrounds me. I feel victorious. I have hiked into the clouds and faced them without flinching! It’s a memory I will hold onto forever!

I could have stayed up on that peak indefinitely. Except that I was getting hungry and the 3.8 miles of the Greenleaf Trail seperated me and dinner.

IMG_8550 (2)The Greenleaf Trail starts out very steep—like hold onto trees and slide on your butt steep. This steepness slowed me down quite a bit. Of course, it didn’t slow the billy goat down. Where I slid, he jumped. The trail finally eased up soIMG_8554me and opened out onto a ledge. The warmth of the sun felt good and I took my time, enjoying the views and letting the sun chase away the last of the mountaintop chill.
And then the trail veered back into the trees and resumed its steepness.

About a mile down, we reached the Greenleaf Hut. It’s a lot more than a hut. You can hang out with other hikers in a large open room (I didn’t get to do this, because there are no dogs allowed inside). There are indoor restrooms with cold, but running water, a few co-ed rooms with bunkbeds and I’ve since read that you can get a hot meal there at specified times. I could have purchased water or a few souvenir like items, if I hadn’t left my wallet in the car. The Greenleaf Hut has officially been added to my list of things I want to do. I think it would be fun to stay for a few days so that I could hike and really explore Franconia Notch.IMG_8510

Knowing I had a 2 ½ hour drive ahead of me after we returned to the trailhead, I didn’t linger here. I’ll admit it. My legs were getting tired. Not so tired that I didn’t enjoy the 2.7 mile remaining miles, but tired enough that when I once again heard the sound of traffic, joy filled my heart and sent a final surge of energy to my legs.

The parking lot was a beautiful sight! I tossed my pack into the back seat, my little yorkie hopped in beside it and immediately curled up into a ball, and I flopped into the driver’s seat, every muscle in my body cheering in relief. We did it!

P.S. I almost caught another tree creature in action!IMG_8556

Journey to Katahdin’s Summit

The sun was still tucked away beneath the horizon when my eyes opened. I lay still, listening to the bubbling gurgle of Katahdin Stream as it wandered past the campsite. I rolled out of my sleeping bag, pausing to gaze up into the still-dark sky at the waniIMG_8599ng gibbous moon that shone down on me. It took only a moment for the cool morning air and my excitement for the journey ahead to clear away the last bit of sleepiness from my mind.

Bacon sizzled over the fire as the sound of rustling sleeping bags and murmured voices coming from the lean-to signaled the rising of my friends. We spoke in whispered voices so as not to disrupt the sleep of the other campers as we filled our bellies with bacon, eggs and fried oatmeal, then prepared our packs for the hike ahead.

IMG_8614 (2)Although the sun was still hidden beyond the mountains, the sky above us was filled with her soft morning light when I stepped onto Hunt Trail. A potpourri of trees—pine, birch, maple and mountain ash—bordered the path. As I walked past the trees, I slid my hand along their trunks, feeling the energy of the wilderness around me. To my right, water splashed and swirled as it rushed over rocks and down miniature waterfalls. Beneath my feet the trail varied from root-strewn packed dirt to large stones—some scattered haphazardly along the path, others arranged neatly into stairs.

IMG_8618 We breezed past the trail to The Owl, and continued the easy trek to the wooden bridge that carried us across the water.

I paused to snap a picture of  the heavy iron eye-hooks that had been drilled into large boulders on both sides of the stream. I pictured a rope bridge stretched across the stream and imagined what it must have been like to feel it sway beneath my feet as I made my way across the water.IMG_8630

The rush of water turned to a roar and I hurried ahead to take in the beauty of the falls. After breaking for a few pictures, we continued up the trail,
which was now a long, smooth surface of rock. Here, along the falls, the trees
had been replaced by bushes. It took only a second to recognize the tiny crowns on the round blue berries. I plucked a few as I walked and enjoyed the sweet—with a hint of tartness—taste of the late season blueberries. And then, the bushes faded back into the towering trees of Maine’s largest wilderness.

IMG_8662The trail grew steeper as we traveled over the next mile. Added to the terrain of dirt, roots and rocks (mostly rocks) was the intermittent flow of water emerging from underground springs. It ran around and sometimes over the rocks on the trail, and I was thankful for the water-resistant hiking shoes on my feet. In the midst of one of these tiny brooks the trees spaced out around a large boulder.11960155_10153582697219568_6171188044636868333_n

I climbed to the top and admired The Owl. It was then that I noticed the moon, still
visible in the clear blue sky.IMG_8708

Not far up the trail, we discovered a large boulder with ‘3M’ written in white letters. Almost half-way there, I thought. Little did I know that ahead of me were some of the toughest miles of the trail.

Before long, I noticed that the trunks of the trees were thinner and they no longer towered above us. As the trees grew smaller, the rocks grew larger, until the towering trees were replaced by mountainous boulders. I craned my neck as I tilted my face upward, searching for the white blazes that had marked the trail. And then I spotted them, marking a path straight up.IMG_8685

I gripped the edge of a boulder, found a foothold and hoisted myself up to its top. My journey to the summit of Katahdin had truly begun.11999018_10153582745429568_5019333435101806547_n

I scrambled, hitched and hoisted myself higher and higher along the side of the mountain. Over and over I crested sections of boulders, thinking I’d reached the top only to discover a new section rising above me. I watched for the iron ladder rungs I’d read about in the trail description and laughed to myself when I finally reached “them”.  I’m not sure if that ‘S’ was a typo or if I’d misread it, but what I discovered was a single rung and a curved iron peg just below it.IMG_8682

“Here goes,” I said to myself and gripped the rung, pushed off with one foot, stretching with the other, just catching it on top of the curved iron peg so I could scrabble to the top. I paused, catching my breath as I waited for my hiking companions, ready to offer a hand if needed.IMG_8712

My bouldered journey continued, inching my way up through narrow crevices and finding a few more iron pegs to help me along my way until finally, I found myself standing on the Tablelands of Mt. Katahdin.IMG_8722 IMG_8763

The trail wound its way through the fragile vegetation of thick stemmed grass and low growing bushes. Half-way across the Tableland, I reached Thoreau Spring, named for Henry David Thoreau, author of ‘The Maine Woods’ which he wrote after ascending Katahdin in 1846. What had it been like to ascend this mountain without the benefit of a beautifully maintained trail, blazes and cairns?IMG_8729

At this point I was used to the fact that the spring and the trail were one. I hopped from rock to rock, continuing this habit beyond the spring, because it was more rock than earth. At the end of the Tableland, I knew I’d reached the last phase of my journey. At the top of the steep trail before me I could see people—small splashes of color—moving about on the summit.

IMG_8737Twenty minutes later I reached Baxter Peak. I felt a thrill of accomplishment as I stood at an elevation of 5,267 feet and gazed at the Katahdin sign. I turned and looked behind me at the path I’d travelled and felt a surge of pride.IMG_8693

As I waited for the last two members of our group to join us, I took in the breathtaking views. Below me, the deep green of the forest trees was broken only by the numerous lakes that shone in the late afternoon sun. Mountain ranges stretched as far as I could see. White clouds billowed and streaked across the blue sky. A raven landed beside me, hopping about and flying short distances. My hiking partner pointed out a large cairn. He told me it was thirteen feet tall, built to give Katahdin the extra feet necessary to be a full mile. My eyes shifted past the cairn to Knife Edge, a trail for another day.IMG_8748 IMG_8741

I settled onto a rock and enjoyed watching Appalachian Trail through-hikers summit, often running the last few steps to the Katahdin sign, some stopping to plant a kiss on the worn wood. What will it be like for them to return to their lives after months of being surrounded by nature? Will the walls of their home be warm and welcoming, or claustrophobic? Maybe a little of both.

My friends summited and we spent the next hour on Baxter Peak. In hindsight, it was a bit too long, because reaching the summit of any mountain is only half the journey. Although our descent of Katahdin was, without a doubt, faster than our ascent, by the time we reached Katahdin Stream Falls, the sun had slipped below the horizon, forcing us to complete the last 1.2 miles of our journey by the light of our flashlights.

As I sat by our campfire, I gazed up at the millions of stars that shone down on me. I was filled with awe and appreciation of the beauty of this Maine wilderness, and although my legs were tired, I dreamed of my next hike.

IMG_8617 IMG_8815

Teri Lee is the author of Troubled Spirits, a YA paranormal novel set in Maine. Troubled Spirits is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Books, Ibooks, Smashwords and other online sites.

*All photos are taken by Teri Lee and may be used with permission only