Sunday, December 16, 2012

Clearing the Way

This past Friday, Tristan, Odin and I set out into the woods with hammer and saw, headed to prep the route for the upcoming Camel's Hump Challenge, a fundraiser backcountry ski tour (just a tour with friends, not a race) to benefit the Vermont Alzheimer's Association.

Tristan and I share the Camel as our favorite Vermont peak - we find ourselves often dreaming of its pointy undeveloped summit, and scheming for our next chance to get there. There is a mystic for us in the Huntington approach, particularly the longer Forest City route, which brings the hiker up from beneath the sheer face of the couching lion (or Camel, as it were). This is a long route, prefaced with a long drive, but it is always worth the trip. Even the shorter Burrow's Trail approach from the western Huntington side is worth the drive. But on this day we approached from the eastern side via the Monroe Trail. And it was not the summit we were after this time: We were planning to take a left off the Monroe Trail somewhere past the junction with the Dean Trail, and head into the woods for terrain seen only by the skier of the Camel's Hump Challenge, or the volunteers who prep the trail for this fabulous once-a-year ski day. (Please note, we are very familiar with this area and the route we were taking, we planned our route ahead, and also carried a map and compass, which we know how to use. Additionally, we carried headlamps, matches, bright clothing, and emergency supplies. If you are inexperienced with hiking or are unfamiliar with the terrain, please leave this type of off-trail adventure for experienced hikers - there is plenty to see and do on the many beautiful marked routes up and around the mountains of the Northeast.)

The plan for the day was to clear the trail and mark it periodically with Forest Service-approved trail markers for the Camel's Hump Challenge. The plan was also to see some beautiful terrain reserved only for those roughing it on this 13-mile backcountry ski loop, which is open for skiing only on the day of the Camel's Hump Challenge (February 10, 2013). There are unusual vantage points of the summit, beaver ponds-aplenty, and fabulous birch glades that go on for as far as the eye can see.

There were several big blowdowns to clear along the way, and many, many downed branches and debris from recent storms.The scenery along our trip was outstanding. In particular, the backcountry ice was like art work.

The trail winds through mature hardwood stands, dark evergreen forests, birch glades, and meadows. Every now and then, we would pop out of the woods on to the edge of a high-country beaver pond. These were tricky to navigate in early-winter conditions, but the views these openings afforded were stunning and made the rough-going worth it.

Happily, our faithful and trusty trail companion accompanied us the whole way.

Our turn-around point was Wind Gap, from where we planned to loop back to the Monroe Trail via the Dean Trail. We popped out of the woods on the Dean Trail and took a break and drank warm tea as we listened to the wind howl through the Gap just above us. Wind Gap is one of our favorites, and is one of only a few named "Gaps" in the Greens - it always reminds me of the many southern "Gaps" on the Appalachian Trail: Woody Gap, Neals Gap, Stecoah Gap, Newfound Gap. They marked our progress for us on that 1,200-mile hike.

We crested the sag to Wind Gap, where we stood and took it in. The view to the west showed an almost-setting sun, painting  the sky with pastel colors through the naked tree stems. A raven soared on a wind current overhead. There was total silence, save for the rushing wind and the trademark caw-ing of an on-wind Corvid.

The Trail North beckoned, as it always does - but not this day. Today, we were headed back down the mountain for a friend's art show, and some warm supper. In the end, we cleared and marked the section of the Camel's Hump Challenge route from the Monroe Trail west towards Wind Gap. Tristan tells me I saw only about one-sixth of the trail, and I am looking forward to seeing the rest of it on skis later this winter.

It is a good feeling to see the Vermont wilds, climb mountains, and give to a good cause.

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