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The path less traveled by

By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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PITTSBURG, N.H. - In 1978, a young newspaper reporter in northernmost New Hampshire wrote an editorial calling for the creation of a grand hiking trail spanning the length of Coos County, from the White Mountains in the south to the Canadian border.

The young man, Kim Nilsen, dreamed of opening this remote part of New England, dense with natural wonders but scant on people, to new eyes.

His plan was bold. It was sweeping. And it elicited absolutely no response.

So he set out to build it himself.

Two weeks ago, under a misty fall sky just a few miles from the Quebec border, Nilsen, now 63, finished his 162-mile trail. It had only taken 33 years.

As the last maple sapling was cut, Nilsen produced a bottle of champagne and addressed the small group of volunteers who had come out to help clear the final mile of what he has named the Cohos Trail.

“This is cheap champagne for a cheap organization,’’ Nilsen said with a big smile as a blast of bubbly splattered onto the autumn leaves around him.

And with that, his “ridiculous, foolish’’ idea had finally come to fruition, though it is much more than a personal accomplishment. The Cohos Trail is the largest trail system to be built in the northeast in generations, and it becomes the third long-distance trail in New England, alongside the Appalachian Trail and Vermont’s Long Trail.

It is already attracting followers because it offers something those popular trails do not: solitude.

“It really appeals to people looking to get away from the crowds,’’ said Steven D. Smith, co-editor of the famed White Mountain Guide and owner of the Mountain Wanderer bookstore in Lincoln. “It’s unique among trails in New England. It’s wild. It’s remote. You’re not going to see a lot of people out there, and that’s its appeal.’’

Sue Kenn, who was the first person to “through-hike’’ the entire trail a few years ago - she bushwhacked the sections that had yet to be cut - said it was an entirely different experience than when she hiked the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail.

“It was the remoteness that drew me to it,’’ she said of the Cohos Trail, “the chance to do something new, but also to be in a quiet space, in a quiet place, and really just be by myself.’’

In many ways, that solitude is what inspired the idea in the first place.

A lifelong hiker, Nilsen took a job as a newspaper reporter at the Coos County Democrat in the early 1970s and began to explore the backcountry on his own. “I could see this very long, very narrow county, hemmed in by rivers, but everywhere I went I could see this elevated spine, but nobody would go in there,’’ Nilsen said. “I did a lot of hiking in the Whites, but I also liked going in places that people didn’t go.’’

When he was alone, really alone, Nilsen said he would experience something he calls “continental silence,’’ where “all you can hear is your own blood circulating.’’ If he could create a hiking trail that threaded over the higher ground along that spine, Nilsen believed, he could lead people to similar experiences.

But his initial editorial went nowhere, and eventually Nilsen and his family moved down to Keene, in the southern part of the state. He went into the natural foods business and later became a caretaker for severely developmentally disabled young people, but he was never able to shake the idea for the Cohos Trail.

Fifteen years ago, during a rainy family vacation in Maine, he took out his maps again and vowed he was finally going to do something with his idea. He organized a public meeting in Lancaster, and when 55 people came out for it, he says he “finally felt comfortable with the idea.’’ Thus began the great quest, and great headache, of his life.

The state told him if he could pull it off on his own, they would support the idea, and twelve years ago Nilsen and a small group of volunteers finally began to cut the Cohos Trail. Much of it was new territory, but much of it involved connecting to existing trails throughout the county, including a large stretch in the White Mountain National Forest, where new trails are not permitted.

The trail begins in Crawford Notch and slowly snakes its way through Coos County, which is about the size of Rhode Island, before hitting the Canadian border, where it joins with a Quebec trail system that leads to Mont Megantic. Along the way it passes over 30 mountain peaks, including four 4,000-footers, all while never encountering a town with more than 900 people. At the moment there are three shelters, but plans call for nearly 10 more with the goal of allowing through-hikers to travel without the need of a tent.

Clearing the actual trail turned out to be the easy part, he said; if that had been the only task, “we would have been done a long time a go.’’ Instead, the process of negotiating for permission with the various landowners - particularly timber companies -not to mention endless process of networking and herding volunteers to maintain the trails they had already cut, wore him down. Five years ago, he announced that he was quitting on his idea, and shut down the Cohos Trail Association.

He credits Lainie Castine, a devout hiker who lives in Pittsburg, near the northern terminus of the trail, with motivating him to continue and taking on much of the work, especially the last bits of trailblazing. What he began, he says, she finished.

On the final day, with just two-tenths of a mile left to be cut, Castine bushwhacked her way through thick growth looking for the best route. “You have to look beyond the blow-downs to the treadway beneath,’’ she said as she tried to take the final section past a beautiful rock formation she had discovered. “I’m trying to avoid grassy areas, ferns, raspberry bushes, anything that will grow back quickly,’’ she said as she tied ribbons to branches to mark the path. “It looks like a big fat mess, but when it’s done, you won’t believe what it looks like.’’

And quickly, her statement was confirmed as Nilsen and three men came behind with chainsaws and loppers and handsaws and quickly carved a clear path.

With the Cohos Trail finally complete, and his 30-plus year odyssey over, Nilsen took a moment to reflect on what he had done.

“You don’t build a trail for yourself. You do it for other people,’’ he said. “This is an opportunity for me to share with others what I’ve been enjoying for a long time. Everybody knows the Presidential Range, but there’s a whole nother 100 miles north of that filled with dramatic peaks and huge lakes and waterfalls galore, and we made it possible for people to trek out there, to steep themselves in the magic of that part of the world for a little while.’’

Of course, as the trail grows in popularity, it will eat away at the solitude, but Nielsen said that for the time being at least, that’s not a huge concern.

“You have as much a chance of meeting a moose as another person.’’

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

Kim Nilsen credits Lainie Castine (left)
with motivating him to continue and taking on much of the work, especially the last bits of
trailblazing. What he began, he says, she finished.