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Bring your boots

Springtime in the White Mountains can land a hiker amid snow and sun, mud and mist, ice and greenery

Email|Print| Text size + By Peggy Miller
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2004

The muddy water was flowing in a 2-foot-wide stream down the center of Liberty Spring Trail in New Hampshire, deep enough to cover the boots of anyone willing to trudge up its middle.

After that inauspicious beginning, patches of icy snow appeared, sprinkled over the trail and slowly merging to form a continuous lane of steep, shiny ice that covered all but the larger boulders.

In addition, rain was coming down steadily on this 60-degree, late-April day, putting rain gear to the test and adding a slickness to the Franconia Notch trail.

Four days later, this hiker went back up the trail on a 40-degree, bright, sunny day, determined to reach the summit, and found most of the wetness gone and the ice and snow navigable. The summit and its stunning views of the Presidential Range to the east, and the Green Mountains in the distance to the west, were jaw-dropping for a newcomer. Worth every step.

Welcome to spring hiking in the Whites.

Some say spring hiking in the White Mountains -- often a mix of mud, rain, snow, and ice lasting into early May -- is only for the foolhardy or the deranged. It is certainly challenging enough to deter all but the most committed, and even they often stay on lower trails in the southern part of the state, which have their own blend of slush and mush, though less ice.

In later May, there still can be unexpected snow, hail, or sleet storms near the summits of the higher peaks in the Whites. Gear for ice, cold, and rain is a necessity for high terrain travel in spring and recommended at all times.

"You always have to be prepared for cold and 'weather' on spring hikes," said Judi Lee, a Pembroke, N.H., resident, nurse, and New Hampshire native who has hiked the state's trails most of her life. "It just takes planning," she said as she strode up Liberty Spring Trail on the rainy day.

Sean Moynihan, who was hiking with his friend Andy Cronk on the sunnier day, carries a filled pack at all times.

"You have to be prepared, even in summer," said Moynihan, who hikes the 4,000-foot Whites weekly with Cronk. "I use walking sticks in winter and spring to help with the ice."

Liberty Spring Trail is a fairly vertical, boulder-strewn, 8-mile round trip from the parking area. Most of the way is sheltered by a hardwood forest in the lower areas that then merges into a mixed forest that, in turn, opens near the summit. Rivers and streams mark the trail's lower section.

Unpredictable weather conditions are only part of the picture, though. Spring hiking has its own unique moments of beauty. There is the way the sun breaks through the clouds and lights up the ice on the trail and the dew on pine and spruce branches, the smell of the earth and new spring growth, the song of the winter wren, or the sight of a hawk taking off on those wet, shining trails.

There is the unique pleasure of feeling rain-sodden gear quickly dry in the unexpected breezes that break through when the clouds open for a time, or suddenly glimpsing distant mountain tops previously hidden behind fog and low clouds.

"There are real positives to hiking in spring," said Alan Stein of Hooksett, N.H., a family physician among the hikers on Liberty Spring Trail that rain-soaked day.

Stein enjoys spring hiking because of the open, leafless forests offering long views, the lack of insects, and the brooks flowing down the mountainside.

"See that brook there?" he said. "It would be dry in summer. Isn't it beautiful?"

Hiking with folks like Stein and Lee means listening to jokes, some of them good, some less so. I stopped and asked a man, "Do you know how to get to Milbridge?"

"Yep."

"Well, how do you usually get to Milbridge?"

"My cousin Henry usually takes me." That sort of thing.

The beauty is often enjoyed even more when the steepness of the trail and increasing thickness of the ice become too much for someone in less than tip-top shape, forcing a humbling solo turning back before the summit. The added time in the quiet forest, watching the birds, listening to the sounds, investigating the details of the plants, and enjoying the glistening prisms that abound when the sun suddenly appears, is peaceful and relaxing with its own sort of loveliness.

"It is not just the journey's end, but the journey itself" is a saying that came to mind that day.

If climbing a 4,000-foot peak seems daunting, consider one of the many other hikes with great views in the Whites that are achievable with a bit less work.

Mary Ann Leekley, an Appalachian Mountain Club guide who usually hikes with Bill Bowden, both being known for their long tales, ability to spot wildlife, and helpful assistance to hikers along the way, recently led five hikers up the Hedgehog Trail off the Kancamagus Highway. This day, ravens, hawks, a winter wren, and other birds were the main interest, along with the fancy new gear some hikers wore, which caused long discussion.

This AMC hike, the UNH Trail (also known as Hedgehog Trail), had less ice than Liberty Spring Trail. Still, it did require a scrambling maneuver using hiking tactics that rely on grasping tree branches to maintain stability in slick conditions.

(Lee said it is wise to avoid such side-trail approaches where possible because they can destroy the fragile high terrain around the trail.)

Getting to the top of Hedgehog in spring pays off.

Mount Washington, Mount Carrigain, Greens Cliff, and other inspiring views await those who hike the 4.8-mile loop up and back. The trail leads through forests up to rock ledges offering different views along the way: Chocorua, Passaconaway, and then Mount Washington, its snow-covered height standing out against the bright blue sky.

"By May, this trail will have little ice," said Leekley. "But mid-May will have black flies." Lemon balm, a leafy natural remedy, can repel black flies and mosquitoes for a couple of hours when rubbed on the skin. Other commercial products also work.

For some, the rewards of spring hiking are simple:

"I hike this trail every week because it is just a great workout," said Rachel Lakey, a young woman who leapt easily from one boulder to the next along Liberty Spring Trail. "I have tried others, but this is my favorite."

Peggy Miller is a freelance writer and photographer in New Hampshire.

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