January 21-23, 2000
Rob, Robert, Mike, Hector & Bill
For the other four, this was a practice run for their upcoming trek to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. For me, it was an opportunity to join in on the insanity, and to experience my first multi-day winter expedition.
For overnight winter excursions, having reliable gear is key. Fortunately, we've all had several years to accumulate the costly inventory required for winter hiking and camping. The only critical elements that we lacked were the sleds we would use to haul our gear behind us as we skied up the trails. While this would not ordinarily be a problem, the recent snowstorms had triggered a run on winter toys, so sled-hunting proved a challenge. Hector called several stores in the area and was fortunate to find enough sleds for our party at the quality arctic outfitter, Toys 'R' Us.
For our ski route, we chose the Lincoln Woods and Wilderness Trails, which begin at the Kancamangus Highway and penetrate into the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The flat, wide trails follow the bed of an abandoned logging railway, last operated in 1948.
Robert, Mike, Hector and I arrived at the trailhead shortly after 6pm on Friday evening, having made arrangements to rendezvous with Bill the following morning. Motivated by the bitter cold, we quickly packed our sleds in the Lincoln Woods parking lot, trying desperately to stay warm as the wind kicked up spindrifts across the icy pavement. We were soon on our way, happy to find that the woods offered some protection from the wind. We expected to see some semblance of a full moon rising in the east, but the thick cloud coverage effectively screened the lunar rays, reflecting only the pale orange glow from the lights of North Conway.
Since time and daylight were not on our side, we skied only three miles, setting up camp where the Osseo brook meets the Pemigewasset River. We pitched our tents, prepared a dinner of pasta with hot dogs, and boiled hot water bottles to keep our feet warm through the night. My sleeping bag was rated to zero Farenheit, but it performed remarkably well in the subzero temperatures. My official indoctrination into the world of winter camping came late in the night, with my first use of a pee bottle. Confused? Don't ask.
Saturday morning, Bill met us at breakfast as we dined on oatmeal, fortified with heaps of brown sugar and a half-stick of butter. We packed up camp quickly, anxious to get back on our skis to get some warm blood pumping to our frozen extremeties.
The second day of travel proved considerably more difficult than the first. The trail was poorly maintained, with frequent deadfall barracades that were difficult to navigate with the awkward sleds. My topheavy Turbo Boggin tended to overturn at the slightest obstacle despite frequent stops to balance my load. At a treacherous water crossing, A six-foot wide circle of unsupported ice collapsed under Bill's weight, dropping a couple feet into the shallow brook below. Fortunately, his sled remained high and dry, and Bill managed to jump to safety before the bone chilling water could penetrate his boots.
Robert had made arrangements for our group to rendesvous with Luke Sosnowski, who planned to lead another MITOC group on a moonlight ski that would pass within a quarter mile of our campsite. But noting that the temperatures were approaching fifteen below, we speculated that he had very likely called off the trip. At around 8pm, we jokingly paged Luke with our Motorola Talkabout and were quite surprised to get a response. Bill, Mike, and Hector opted to wait at camp, while Robert and I strapped into our skis to meet with Luke's group.
Robert, who is an accomplished competitive skier, raced ahead of me, aiming for a suspension bridge a half mile east of our campsite. I clipped along at a reasonable pace, catching only occasional glances of Robert's headlamp in the distance. The bright spotlight eerily resembled the cyclopean lantern of an ancient train engine that might have barreled down the abandoned railroad bed more than 50 years before.
At the other side of the bridge, we immediately spotted several spots of light, peering through the trees to the east. Robert pulled out the Talkabout, "Luke! You missed the bridge! We can see you to our east!"
"We can see you too - Just east of here," Luke replied.
Something wasn't right. We can't both be east of each other. Robert inspected the ski tracks and noted that only one skier had broken the trail, so Luke's group must not have passed.
"The moon! We're both following the moon!" Luke was right, but the illusion was so convincing, it took a few minutes before I would believe it.
Robert and I sped westward for another mile, finally meeting the first member of Luke's group near the intersection of the Cedar Brook Trail and the East Branch Road. We exchanged greetings and escorted the group back to our campsite, where Mike, Hector, and Bill had already disappeared into their tents. In the name of hospitality, I sacrificed my hot water bottle to make hot chocolate for our guests. I also shared my remaining supply of Chewy Chips Ahoy, which were much appreciated. After a short fifteen minutes, Robert and I bid farewell to our guests and crawled into our own sleeping bags.
I was the first out of the tents, so I started up the stove and fetched some water from the same treacherous brook that had threatened to swallow Bill. We dined once again on everyone's favorite health treat, hearty oatmeal drown in a thick syrup of butter and brown sugar. After a short walk to warm the toes and fingers, we quickly packed up camp, anxious to get moving. Unfortunately, Mike's Turbo Boggan had suffered major structural damage, so Bill set to work repairing the critical systems using tree branches and duct tape. When it was clear that the damage was irreparable, Mike improvised by wrapping his gear in a tarp, which he dragged the seven miles back to the cars. Mike found the makeshift sled difficult to pull, but the tarp proved remarkably stable and robust.
Back in the parking lot, we inspected the shredded remains of our Turbo Boggans and divied up the gear between vehicles. We took an extended dinner at Elvio's Pizzaria to discuss plans for the rest of the group's attempt on Katahdin the following week. Hector and I took the long route back to Boston, stopping at every toy store and sporting goods store to look for replacement sleds.
Back at MIT, I thoroughly enjoyed a long hot shower and a steaming cup of cocoa, all in the comfort of a fully-heated dormitory. Enjoy Katahdin guys. I'll think of you as I sip my hot cocoa by the radiator.