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Oct 24 2011

Old Friends

Quite some time ago, I slipped into a hearty infatuation with solo hiking. On one of my first solos, I set off to discover the Tripyramids in Waterville Valley. Ignoring the advice of the guidebook, I opted to walk the entire Livermore Road portion instead of “stashing” a mountain bike, which made for about 13 miles of total hiking. I can remember it well; the day was warm and summery, and although the talus slopes on the south slide were thoroughly dry, I was careful and deliberate as I scrambled my way up. I crossed paths with only a few other hikers while lumbering my way to Middle Tripyramid and on to North Tripyramid’s viewless summit. Before long, I arrived at the trail junction to Scaur Ridge and Pine Bend Brook. But to my dismay, the sign, which is normally staked into the ground and supported by a crude cairn of rocks, had been knocked over. For a good few minutes I looked at it laying there on the ground still attached to its post, trying to imagine which way it had been oriented when it was still standing erect. I suppose it had something to do with the mild fatigue from the eight or nine miles I’d already hiked, but I just couldn’t decipher which way to head. So, I drew out my map and my compass, and began to study them both. But alas I am hardly a “natural navigator”, and it is only now after many years of practice that I have become at ease with the craft. In a bit of a haste, I eventually stuffed my compass and my map back into my pocket, adjusted my pack and forged my path straight ahead hoping that it was the Scaur Ridge Trail.

After hiking briskly downhill for about thirty-five or forty minutes, I was joined by a stream to my right. Despite the normal calming properties of running water, I felt a growing and overwhelming suspicion that I wasn’t on the right trail. I stopped and sat beside the babbling watercourse, and the sting of salt and sweat all along my forehead at once penetrated my pores, and ran ever so slightly into my eyes. I squinted and rubbed the sweat out of the creases below my brow with my thumb and my finger. I was starting to get tired, and after a few minutes of studying my map I decided I needed to head back to that extricated sign; I decided I’d almost certainly made a wrong turn onto the Pine Bend Brook Trail.

Having to head back uphill after getting to the “it’s all downhill from here” point can be mentally devastating. I was cursing at myself, disgusted at my mistake while I plodded up the jumbled mess of woods and rocks to get back on course. I came upon a couple of other hikers who seemed friendly enough, and I figured I’d be clever; I asked, “Hey, this is the Pine Bend Brook Trail, right?” They confirmed that it was, adding that it was one of their personal favorites. I carefully concealed my dismay, and I thought simply to myself Goddamn it.

The hike back up to the junction was a solid mile, and when I got there I made sure to take the right turn. A few hours later I was back to the Tripoli Road Trailhead, and on my way home.

After “bagging” the Tripyramids that day, I’d never been back. I also didn’t have a single photograph of the view from the Tris since I didn’t carry my camera in my early hiking days. It wasn’t that I explicitly didn’t want to return (although I did harbor a bit of personal shame at my wrong turn), but I just never had cause to. The Tripyramids are fairly isolated, and they represent a pretty long day’s hike. For years I would occasionally drive past the Pine Bend Brook on the Kanc and I’d think of that day, and of my wrong turn. But in the passage of those years, my affinity for the outdoors evolved dramatically, and eventually I could no longer hold a grudge against myself, or against the Tris and the Pine Bend Brook Trail. I have come to embrace wholly the experience of nature, the tribulations and the triumphs, and the anoetic growth, so to speak ,that comes of purposeful implantation into the woods and upon the mountains. I conceive the wooded and rocky hills as a place that gives way to art, philosophy, science, and a generally “good” way of existence. I believe that through hiking, I have come to deconstruct a broad variety of my own personal boundaries. And, as luck would have it, I recently stumbled upon some cause to return to the Tris.

An old friend who I used to work with contacted me to see if I’d be up for a hike on Monday, and I happened to have the opportunity to work it into my schedule. After tossing around some ideas we decided to look for a trail that neither of us had been to. He’s still working on bagging his four thousand footers, so the Tripyramids came up for discussion; I was stricken with excitement at the chance to return, and I knew just the trail. At last, I’d finally be able to see the entirety of the Pine Bend Brook Trail.

My friend, who also shares the name Matt, brought his dog Buddy, a strikingly handsome husky. With a 9 o’clock start, the air was warming, but still crisp and cool. As we criss-crossed with the brook and began to make a steady uphill push, I told Matt about my only other experience along this trail; I confessed to my wrong turn. I pointed to the spot where I’d stopped to sit with my map and reconnoiter my plan that day. I chuckled audibly while telling him my story, and he chuckled right along; it wasn’t a wrong turn of grave misfortunes, but it felt like big deal at the time. We walked along, chatted, and enjoyed occasional views back to the north that showcased Mount Washington, I thought to myself how unjust it would have been to ever hold anything against this mountain or this trail.

Our journey was planned as a simple back-and-forth to North and Middle Peak, which the only two of the Tris that qualify as four thousand footers. We spent quite a bit of time marveling at the clear views from Middle Peak, with Waterville Valley’s Mount Tecumseh and the Osceolas on one side, and the Chocorua area on the other. I have come to realize that it is always amazing to be on the top of a mountain; but those mountaintops become all the more charming when you have the chance to share them with an old friend.

Matt & Buddy on Middle Peak

Matt & Buddy on Middle Tripyramid

We began our descent after taking in the views for about a half hour. The day was winding down and giving way to that late October light, in which everything seems awash in gold. At the last crossing with the Pine Bend Brook, I stopped and took off my pack. I knelt down in a few inches of water and cupped my hands beneath the water, letting it run past my writs for a moment. I drew my hands upward and pushed the cool water of the brook gently over my face. I cupped hands again and drew more water up, this time pouring it onto my hair, and giving a bit of a scrub. I took a few more cupfuls for my face, and few for my thirsty mouth (I can never seem to resist water fresh from the Whites). Matt also seemed to think that was a good idea, and he followed my lead. I stood up and threw my pack over my shoulders and took to walking along the last few thousand feet of the trail. My still-wet face was cooled by the slight breezes, and as I lifted up my chin and opened up my nostrils, I took in a deep and cleansing breath through a satisfied smile; I felt very much alive, and very happy to be with Matt and the Tris again.

I couldn’t help but think that often times, men look into the still of a pond or a lake and find that they are drawn immediately to decipher the reflection of their own face; for those who are fortunate enough though, a good hike within the woods and among the mountaintops allows for the reflection of the self, as it if conveyed unseen upon the wind.

Thanks for stopping by to partake of my New Hampshire Landscape Photography here at Summitblog; I do hope you take care and as always, I hope to see you again soon.

Oct 6 2011

Harvesting What You Will

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that you’re driving along one of New Hampshire’s scenic byways on a crisp, autumn morning. For the last week and a half, you’ve watched a wet a rainy forecast play out and this was the morning when the rain would finally end. You woke up early, hours ahead of sunrise, and it’s midweek; a Wednesday. As you drive along, you try to decide on a subject to shoot during the peace, quiet, and color of the “magic hour”. You run though some of your old ideas in your mind. How about that flat and wet area with the mountain in the background? What about a scenic overlook? Or, perhaps the river? Today it seems that you gravitate most toward the idea of a vista. After all, you’ve been under a raincloud for ten days now, and it seems like a proper way to bid farewell to the moisture. You arrive at your overlook, which is situated right beside the road, and you are alone. The first bits of diffuse and indirect light begins to reveal the detail in the world around you. You turn your engine off, casually grab your gear, and find the perfect spot in the grass for your tripod. You take a deep breath of fall air and you scan the landscape in approval. Life is good.

With about ten minutes left until sunrise, the silence is abruptly broken. A car peels into the parking lot, and before it even comes to a complete stop the driver yanks the e-brake, shuts off the engine, and hustles out. He pulls a large and sturdy tripod from the back seat and he rushes to set it up. The metal legs make loud clanks as they telescope outward and lock into place. He scurries toward you, slinging his camera over one shoulder and his bag of gear over the other. He’s still groggy, rubbing his eyes as he sets up next to you. You don’t say a word to each other and your eyes never meet; but now you’re sharing some space with him. No big deal, because all is quiet again, but only for a few seconds.

Three more cars pull in to the lot, and each one quickly empties its occupants. They all have cameras. One of the cars is a large van, and four people from another corner of the globe spill into the area next to you, and they begin speaking loudly to one another. Nonstop. Although you have no idea what they’re talking about, you quietly wonder if they really need to discuss it at that particular volume. You begin to long for some peace and quiet.

Amidst the spontaneous chaos caused by all the folks around you, the sun begins to rise. You hear shutter buttons clicking, adjustment dials turning, and the whoosh and wish of filters sliding in and out of lens mounts. Oh, and still with the loud conversations right next to you. This sunrise as it turns out looks great to the naked eye; a once gray world instantly turns to color, and the brilliant glow of the sun illuminates the sky as it climbs over the horizon directly in front of you. But the camera and the naked eye are different, and as you look into the viewfinder you see that your filter setup is now creating some kind of lens flare. Moreover, the intensity of the sun is throwing your camera’s built-in metering system for a veritable loop. You take about 30 pictures or so, making minute changes to mitigate the wild range of tones before each click. You change filters a few times as the intensity of the light waxes and wanes. You know that your results won’t amount to anything spectacular; in fact, you knew that before you started shooting. But you came here to this spot simply because you were excited to get behind the shutter button for the first time in more than a week. You pack up and quietly leave before anyone else, and your heart lacks that usual excitement from an enjoyable sunrise photo shoot.

Now, open your eyes.

For you, this probably was not your reality on Wednesday morning. But, it was for me. I mean, what was I thinking? Sure, this is a big part of the fall foliage season. The “Camera Harvest”, as I call it. Travel and tourism are hugely important to the Granite State, and in a way I was thrilled to see that playing out all around me at the top of the Kancamagus Pass. But I was out of my element. My usual modus operandi is to seek out, experience, and ultimately capture the secluded, the desolate, the “roads less traveled”, if you will, among New Hampshire’s diverse landscape. Usually, I find what I’m looking for up on high peaks or deep in the woods, early in the morning or late in the evening. I literally immerse myself in every single aspect of the landscape; the beauty, the danger, the aloneness, and the atmospheric uniqueness of the day and the moment. Today, however, I had only a limited amount of time to get out and shoot in the morning due to some prior commitments, making the scenic vista as one of my only feasable options. It’s not that I don’t like sharing space with others. In fact, if ever there is a fellow or a gal who comes to occupy the same spaces that I do, high up in the mountains at the same ungodly hours, I tend to rather enjoy their company. When I stick to what I know and love, I usually come away with a good experience, decent results, and a sense of replenishment by way of the natural world. Lining up with a half-dozen (or more) other photographers, all vying for the same space and all shooting at the same low-hanging fruit of a subject has never been my idea of fun. To this end, I’d never make it as a celebrity paparazzi photographer (for a litany of other reasons, too). My work is literally a heartfelt and passionate attempt to take subjects that are usually quite distant for most, and bring them to life. It is my representation of what I love most about this great Stat. The process itself is at once an art, a challenge, and by and large a form of therapy.

As I drove away, I thought about how I had to make up for my morning somehow. So, as the day progressed I had some ideas for what to do when the sunset hours would approach. These ideas percolated in the back of my mind all day, and served to distract me thoroughly (which was okay by me). I took the cold and windy weather into consideration, and decided that I would head for a couple of my favorite spots in Pinkham Notch.

Now, I will admit that the foliage is “down” this year so far. The fall colors in Pinkham have been coming along for a week and a half or so, but there is a lack of the usual and desired intensity. There is a lot of muted yellow, not a whole lot of red and orange (my personal favorites) and the umber simply abounds. The experts attribute this to several factors; too much moisture, a bit of abundant leaf fungi, and daytime temperatures that have struggled to dip much below 65 until just recently. Despite the fact that leaf peepers are suffering of want this year, the world is still becoming less green. I thought of how I hadn’t been by some of Pinkham’s waterfalls for a few weeks, so my first stop was Thompson Falls.

Being that it was later in the day, I had the place essentially to myself. I had a fantastic time observing the colorful landscape around the falls. The water was flowing brilliantly after all the rain of the past ten days. The wind had created some fairly significant leaf-drop throughout the day, and I was able to work the movement of both the water and the fallen leaves into my photos.

Thompson Falls

Leaf-Drop Swirl at Thompson Falls

Thompson Falls

The Motion of Thompson Falls

Feeling inspired, I packed up and got anxious to see if Washington perhaps would emerge from the clouds for sunset. I hadn’t checked the Mount Washington Observatory website during the day, but I figured that at least some snow or ice had to be accumulating on the summit given the conditions. Sure enough, when I emerged from the wood, Mount Washington stood starkly before me, finally naked of its cloud cover. Now, it was me who was off to the races. Without a second though, I jumped into my car and raced a half mile down the road to the Pinkham Notch visitor’s center with Square Ledge on my mind.

Usually, I don’t think of Square Ledge as a sunset location since its view looks right into the setting sun. But sometimes, when you have a feeling, and when you can just taste the light, you follow it. I hiked as quickly as I could up to the ledge, which isn’t a tough scramble by any means, but a scramble no less. Once on top, I spent a few minutes just taking it all in. I was alone here, too; just me and a few crows who were struggling to navigate a stiff wind. Looking toward Washington, the sunset was just begining to unfold…and it was magnificent.

Mount Washington

Tuckerman Autumn Magic

The sun was not in sight because there was a bundle of clouds lingering on the western side of the summit. This created a “barrier” between the mountain and the setting sun. The summit itself obviously isn’t occupied by trees, so its mix of rocks and stunted vegitation creates a look of brown (Bigelow’s sedge meadows) and grey (Felsenmeer barrens); but there was also a fine sprinkling of snow here and there above the 5000 foot zone. Looking into Tuckerman Ravine, I could clearly see the streams that comprise the beginnings of the Cutler River. North of that, a single plunge of water could be seen rolling through the lesser-known Ravine of Raymond Cataracts, making up another distant waterfall. The foliage below timberline was made up almost entirely of yellow, with only small helpings of red; one here, one there. The sky came to color and the clouds took on a fiery look. Just then, a hole opened up in the clouds directly behind the Tuckerman Ravine Headwall, allowing a final breath of light to pour over the edge of the cirque. It lasted only a few moments, but it seemed as if Mother Nature was perhaps showing off her talents a bit. To me, it looked to be a reminder of the mystique of Tuckerman Ravine. Whatever it was, it reminded me of why I walk the miles that I do, into the more desolate corners, albeit sometimes ever so slightly more than a roadside vista; but still just enough out of reach.

My hope is that in keeping with what I know, by continuing to lug 20-30 pounds of camera gear uphill with another 10-15 pounds of survival gear, I can collect images and words that describe the most innate and unique beauty that New Hampshire holds. This is the side of New Hampshire that speaks to me the most. So perhaps it is here that I will admit that I’m no good at coexisting with a noisy throng of fellow photo enthusiasts, and that I’m also no good at composing anything “usual”, or “quintessential” in terms of photographs (think stone fences flanked by hundred year old maples). There are those among the crowd who tend to find these kinds of scenes, and capture them with style and great aplomb. I wholeheartedly applaud their work. I also fully support and encourage the tourism associated with the fall season, as it creates important revenue opportunities for many of New Hampshire’s small businesses. But sometimes I think I’m either fully addicted to the solitude of the New Hampshire wilderness, or I’m becoming hardened in my ways and I am no longer well-adapted to the environment of the Scenic Vista.

This year’s foliage is all about the search and the surprise since the color is just not what it has been in years past. But when you find something that strikes you, the excitement and delight is tough to contain. Regardless of where you’re looking as you hunt for that magical autumn scene, I hope you’re enjoying your search…and I hope you eventually find what YOU are looking for.

Thanks for reading, and take care.

Sep 28 2011

Of Autumn Sounds and Memories

There is something authentic and nostalgic about the fall. For me, the smell of the dirt and dead leaves underfoot conjures up wistful memories of a childhood spent outdoors climbing tall maples and building rickety forts in the woods. This child-like elation is something that I wholly welcome after the exhausting pace and excessive temperatures of the summer. Enchanting hikes and deeply meaningful photography are a usual result of these feelings, and my obsession with high peaks and sweeping views plays well this and inspires my outdoor plans.

About twelve years ago, one of my now-closest friends and I drove to the Sawyer River Road after a long October day at work in Southern New Hampshire. Each of us were hikers and novice outdoorsmen in our childhood, but we had both lost sight of the trail during the hubbub of our college years. For no particular reason, we picked Mount Carrigan as our perfect spot to reconnect with the hills. We had packs stuffed with heavy gear, and I remember that one of us even brought along a can of baked beans. After a long and uneventful drive, we arrived at the Signal Ridge trailhead just in time for the first few sprinkles of what would turn out to be a full night of rain. We were too steadfast in our plans and travels to turn back at a bit of rain, so we plunged into the woods. After about two miles of hiking, the rain became so intense that we had no choice but to stop hiking and make camp. We were soaked, chilled to the bone, and stubbornly contented to be sleeping in a puddle. After a night of segmented sleep, we awoke to a foggy fall scene among the hardwoods. We made our way up through the lichen-covered slopes of Signal Ridge to the top of Carrigan, where we marveled at the views of rolling hills colored in handsome red and umber hues. We enjoyed breakfast in the summit tower, and discussed our descent. We chose the brutally rocky Desolation Trail, and made our way around Vose Spur through Carrigan Notch. We were kids again, dirty and boisterous as we walked along the rugged hillsides and out of the woods.

If I were to look hard enough, I might be able to locate a few pictures we took using a Kodak disposable pocket camera but it’s hard to say. Ever since that hike, I burst with excitement at the return trips, and whenever a hike brings me to a view of Mount Carrigan. In my travels, I’ve found that the most profound views of Carrigan are seen when standing on the precarious ledges of Zeacliff. I originally happened upon this spot while on an eight-day section hike of New Hampshire’s Appalachian Trail, and it’s a spot I return to time and again. Today, I felt that tug of nostalgia and went out to spend an afternoon on the cliffs.

It was no accident that I chose today to chase the memories and feelings evoked by a view Carrigan; noting the progression of the foliage thus far, I hoped for some decent color on Carrigan and Vose Spur. I knew that the plentiful birches in the Stillwater Junction area would be mostly bare with some playful sprinklings of strong and predictable yellows. I also knew that The Bonds would cause interesting shadowing along the outer knolls of Zealand Mountain and across the Whitewall Ledges. If the sky would just cooperate and grant me the gift of colors and clouds, the scene over the northeastern Pemi could be, well, awesome. If things worked out, I figured that I had the chance to finally portray Carrigan in the mystery, wonder, and colorful amazement that accurately reflects my innermost feelings about this wondrous peak.

Pemigewassett Wilderness

Fascinating Fall Light

Despite the usual popularity of the Zealand area, I had the place to myself. The sounds of wind and the rustle of stunted trees clinging to the ledges were the only “voices” competing with the evening autumn silence. Perched on this high and rocky outcropping over five miles from the nearest major roadway, I gazed into the deep cleft that separates Vose and Carrigan. I watched as shadows slowly moved within the contours of the desolation area Carrigan’s peak. I thought back on how I felt twelve years back, on that rainy October night; I recalled joy and the power of that experience. It was one of the first overnight hikes that I remember partaking of, and like a drug it made me long for more and more. That hike is still in my blood, and still inspires me on nights like tonight.

My solemn view for the evening not only took in Carrigan and Vose, but also swept over the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and along Mounts Willey, Field, and Tom. In the distance, Mount Washington loomed in the clear, offering a reminder of “who” is in charge in New Hampshire.


Mount Washington Beyond the Willey Range

After seeing off the last bits of daylight, I gathered my belongings and sunk into a final spell of memories. I smiled as I hoisted my pack, pulled tight the straps, and clicked my headlamp “on” for the descent. I hopped along the rocks, guiding my steps with my tripod (which I often use in favor of a pair of trekking poles). I made my way past a very full Zealand Hut, which clamored with jovial after-dinner conversations of more than thirty travelers. A bit later, as I passed through the Zealand Pond area, my rhythm was jostled by the abrupt sound of a large animal tromping past the edge of the wood and sinking its legs into the pond, each wet step a bit more slow than the last. I continued on, and enjoyed the only sounds left to fill the air; my own footsteps, and a deep autumn silence. I thought back to the commotion of rain against our tent that night in the woods of Signal Ridge, and I was thankful to have so many stars in tonight’s air to cap off my nostalgic look on Mount Carrigan .

Pemi Sunset

Gentle Autumn Sunset Surrounds Carrigan and the Pemi

Sep 23 2011

Alpine Autumn

This year’s harvest of fall color is proving a bit slow to develop, but dashes of auburn and gold are beginning to pop up here and there in New Hampshire’s White Mountain Region. “Peak foliage” may well be a week or two away but at a handful of locations within the State, autumn’s show is already nearly over. These locations are a small and desolate bunch, each with a unique assemblage of plants and geological features. They create a beauty so raw that it continually captivates those travelers who dare to traverse their isolated and bouldered footpaths. It is here, in the barren and limited expanses known as New Hampshire’s Alpine Zone, that fall takes on a whole new look, and an uncommon cadence.

Not all who travel to New Hampshire during the fall are aware of the exemplary splendors of New Hampshire’s unique Alpine Tundra. A small handful who frequent these hard-to-reach areas tend to know what to expect, and have come to love the Alpine Zone for what it has, and for what it lacks. Alpine Tundra in New Hampshire are limited to select areas atop the Presidential Range, the Franconia Ridge, Mount Moosilauke, and patches along Mount Guyot and Bondcliff. What defines these areas is a presence of unique soils and rare (and at times endangered) plant species; and a ubiquitous shortage of tree cover. The Tundra are relics of the last glacial period, suspended on high slopes where other species cannot survive the callous and unsheltered conditions.

Mount Lafayette

Hiker's Delight: Alpine Autumn on Lafayette

Hiking into the Alpine Zone, a notable transition occurs at the “entrance”. A change in both the type and the condition of trees is evident, as Krummholz formations tend to prevail, and hardwoods essentially disappear from the landscape. A more inexact set of observations notes that the rush of the wind, the chill in the air, and the predominant smell of spruce all add to the dramatic transition into the Alpine Zone. Just as the area above the treeline is a different world compositionally from the boreal forests below, so too is its cycle of seasons. Here, the winters come early and linger, and the other three seasons shift and truncate in compromise.

Usually by mid to late August, the sedge on Mount Washington begins to brown, and do so quickly; a sure sign that summer is on its way out. By September, the bunchberry is turning, and the “cushions” that flowers like diapensia (diapensia lapponica) grow in, begin to turn the color of a fine merlot. Places like Boott Spur on Mount Washington, and Little Haystack on the Franconia Ridge, transform almost without notice. Add to that the long, golden light of summer’s end and you have a rich and colorful medley unlike anything found in the valleys below. The show is short, tough to reach, and utterly spectacular.

Franconia Ridge: Alpine Autumn Sunset

Franconia Ridge: Alpine Autumn Sunset

New Hampshire is a major destination for foliage lovers, yet this is a side of the state’s autumnal show that remains unseen by many. Simply by learning about the unique above-timberline environments, one can find great joy and reward. It is an area worth appreciating, whether it be by literature, photographs, or in-person journeys. This year’s in-person show most certainly did not disappoint.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this brief look into the lesser-traveled height of autumn in New Hampshire. Alpine Autumn has a dramatic beauty that always serves as a stunning opener to the more classic fall show in the valleys. Much like admiring and reflecting on distant stars in the twilight sky, remember to look up at the rocky peaks as you make your way to the quintessential New Hampshire fall vistas. Take a moment to consider what grows up there, and how splendid it is.

Mount Washington

Boott Spur's Alpine Foliage Show

Take care.