This story is from the Winter/Spring 2023 issue of Appalachia Journal.
At age 19, I bushwhacked for the first tome using a compass and map in the Pemigewasset Wilderness of New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. I am still doing it, five and a half decades later. I still explore by looking at an unusual place name or examining contour lines on the map, wondering what is in there.
What follows are stories of some of the mysterious places I explored with my brother, Jim, in recent years, along with a few notes on how we conducted those journeys.
Our excursions were three-day treks with full packs taken in the fall after the leaves had fallen, clearing visibility. We were self-contained, could camp any place, and had no place we needed to be. We set our compasses as our spirits moved us. We explored: plants, plant beds, large trees, tree groves, waterfalls, subterranean streams, bogs, ponds, vernal pools, large solitary boulders, rock caves, rock dumps, ledges, ravines, and signs of long-ago logging.
Hellgate Brook flows deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, from below Bondcliff down to Franconia Brook. Jim and I set out to find the brook on October 30, 1998. Dark gray clouds hid the sun, and an ominous wind blew on that Friday afternoon. We were looking for the narrow entry to the 2,000-foot-deep ravine between West Bond and Bondcliff. I was excited; I’d wanted to come here since the year I was 19 and saw Bondcliff from the southwest as I stood on Mount Moosilauke. Now we were finally here. In a predominantly birch forest, all we saw as we hiked along was a looming black mountainside, but suddenly, it seemed we were standing below a narrow opening. The only way in was to climb the waterway’s rocks to pass through the elongated S-shaped opening. The black cloud cover dropped to nearly the base of Bondcliff. The route moderated, but we had to weave slowly through rocks of all sizes. As the daylight nearly extinguished, Jim found a tiny spot where we could sleep, not far below the 1,000-foot headwall. Hellgate Brook was well named. We had passed through hell’s gate.
Hellgate ravine severely challenged our motto, “We can camp any place.” Since our youth, we had never thought about not finding a spot. The key to a sleeping spot was a large tarp with numerous pitching options; a tent did not offer the needed flexibility.
The 1907 forest fire had not touched Hellgate Brook valley, and loggers using Camp 10 outside the gate cut trees in the valley during the winters of 1909 and 1910. It would have been hellish work indeed to cut among the boulders and skid the logs out through the gate. Perhaps the loggers had named it. We exited the next day via the headwall.
Early on October 21, 2006, we bushwhacked in the Carrigain region, past Sawyer Pond and up to Green’s Cliff. We wondered, “Is there a view?” As we reached the northern end of the cliff ridge, Jim found a U.S. Forest Service sign with nothing on it: a rectangular brown painted, beveled-edge piece of wood nailed to a downed tree. What was once posted on it and why? We weren’t close to anything of note. Back home we would confirm no old trail, and some months later it occurred to us that the sign might have been related to the boundary line of the federal Sawyer Ponds Scenic Area, first designated in October 1961.
We hiked along Green’s Cliff well beyond the sign and found some nice views looking southeasterly to part of the Sandwich Range. Beyond Green’s Cliff was a delightfully open oak forest. We wandered through it, arcing down to get back to the cliff’s base, where we looked for boulders and caves. We found nothing but a nice forest floor and headed back to camp on a compass bearing.
“My compass isn’t working right,” said Jim. “What about yours?” Mine wasn’t, either. We wondered if it had to do with the cliff, which was now masked by fog. We moved carefully away from the invisible-seeming cliff, hoping that would fix it; our compasses’ erratic needle fluctuations soon ceased, and we got back on a compass line. We later discovered other such “dead” spots but also learned that an erratic compass needle might be a broken compass. We each carried a spare and we each ran our own compass line. Sometimes we could tell a compass was malfunctioning if we were not walking parallel lines.
Fires burned this area in 1886 and 1903, and loggers never returned. I caught my first view of the Lincoln Woods Scenic Area—land between Zealand Notch and the Willey Range and so designated in January 1969—in August 1965 from Zeacliff. For our exploration of October 26–28, 2012, we entered this area from its eastern edge, a low point of the Willey Range between Mounts Willey and Field. The first day we plowed through dense growth at about a quarter-mile per hour visiting a few bogs, two unnamed ponds, and the unnamed peaks known by their elevations of 3,691 and 3,526. The ledgeless peaks offered peek-a-boo views; the ponds had no rock outcrops and were surrounded by waist-high brush, and the bogs looked typical to us.
Surprise! The following morning, after moving no more than 100 yards, we burst into open birches, and the rest of the day was a delightful walk in a park of birch and ferns, open granite ledges, or both. The birches rolled up onto the open Whitewall Mountain, where we looked nearly straight down onto the old railbed in Zealand Notch. From Whitewall’s summit, we barely detected the sliver of a pond folded into a narrow crease on the west sidewall of Zealand Notch. This is the only view of the pond we know. From the south end of Whitewall ridge, we meandered north from open ledge to open ledge through the endless birches. Staying in the birches, we eventually swung east and then south to get back to camp. The map’s contour lines suggested we might find a small ravine in the brook below our camp, but we did not discover anything amazing.
In dense woods my external frame pack passed between any trees I pushed apart, but tree branches stole things I was carrying. They stripped off items attached to the outside; I learned to pack everything inside. The branches opened pack zippers, so after a few trips I stopped using the outside pouches. The branches also reached into my pants pockets, so I stopped putting anything in them. The branches even once stole my compass, leaving only its base hanging around my neck; I learned to carry a spare. The vegetation opened my hiking pole clamps; I had no solution for that.
Pemigewasset River’s North Fork
I wondered what I might find in the trailless expanse between the North Fork of the Pemigewasset River and the ridges of the Bonds, Guyot, and Zealand. So, on the first day of our October 2012 expedition, Jim and I headed for the west sidewall of Zealand Notch to find that sliver of a pond we had first seen from Whitewall Mountain. We crossed Whitewall Brook on the Zealand Notch floor, climbed to a wooded shelf, oriented the map, got a bearing on the pond, and angled south, up the trailless west sidewall of Zealand Notch. The forest was relatively open hardwoods with some softwood. On a second shelf above the brook, we came to an extensive vernal pool not on the map. Soon we reached what we were seeking: another shelf with water in a long narrow slit. This was that sliver of a pond.
The mountainside dropped precipitously into it. The other side had a forested moraine-like ridge above it with its bank also falling steeply to the water. At the south end was the nearly dry, tiny outlet with a beaver dam, where we saw old cuttings.
We reset our compasses, then headed to the foot of Thoreau Falls; most people, like us, had never seen the falls because the trail crosses the falls’ top edge where one cannot see the totality of it. When I had walked in here in 1966, I found no herd path to a viewpoint, and that was true also in 2012. We intersected an old logging dugway curling up the steep sidewall below the pond. Being curious we followed it on its gradual descent northerly to the notch floor. At Whitewall Brook we turned south for the North Fork, avoiding the brook because the debris from Hurricane Irene (in August 2011) had filled the woods beyond its banks. Raging water scoured clean every rock in the middle of the brook and left a few scattered islands of wood debris.
Several small waterfalls made for a picturesque scramble along the rocky edge of the North Fork to the foot of Thoreau Falls, a grand site. We retreated by climbing to the top of the ridgeline on the west side of the falls. We followed it through open woods that didn’t attack our packs back to the mouth of Whitewall Brook.
In stark contrast with Whitewall Brook was the no-name brook whose headwater is Zealand Pond. We reached this brook by moving down the west side of the North Fork. The stream’s rocks were not scoured; it had no signs of water overflowing its banks; large and small standing trees lined the brook; mosses padded its long sloping granite ledges.
The havoc-play of water on Jumping Brook, which we reached the morning after our Thoreau Falls visit, made that on Whitewall Brook look like child’s play. The old logging railroad bed we were following ended abruptly at an eight-foot-high wall of gleaming, yellowish, angular basketball-size rocks that we climbed, hearing the brook buried beneath. A hundred steep feet below us was the North Fork, a gray line of rock and water.
Looking up a yellow rock alley barricaded on either side with trees ripped out by the roots, we climbed the gleaming rocks upward, sensing from the contour lines we might find waterfalls. About half a mile up we came to our first ledge swept of its rocks and scoured clean by the water of Hurricane Irene leaving boulder fields on either side. Another 400 yards above that was a much longer scoured ledge cascade with a great view southeast to Mount Carrigain. Not far above the falls the brook from Guyot Shelter entered, also looking like a newly scrubbed barren boulder rockslide 50 to 100 feet wide. Out of time, we could only wonder how far up the mountain that went.
Dark came early in late fall, so to help ensure that we got back to camp before dark, at lunch we set a “head back to camp time.” From our map, we knew how far we were from our camp, but we had to guess how long it would take based on the brush’s density. In the densest brush, where we must push the trees apart to get through, we estimated we could cover a quarter-mile per hour. Generally when bushwhacking we figured our speed at a half-mile per hour. As we moved slowly along, sometimes we’d fall into camouflaged holes, trip over branches, or step on a rolling rock. Our slow forward momentum helped lessen the chance of injury.
We stumbled into a campsite marked Camp 23 on the map. The site lay east of Jumping Brook on the old logging railroad line we’d picked up near the North Fork below the no-name brook from Zealand Pond. The maps in C. Francis Belcher’s book Logging Railroads of the White Mountains (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 1980) used labels such as Camp 23, Camp 23A, New Camp 22, Camp 22A, footbridge, and the symbol of an abandoned logging railroad line; these were some of the landmarks that had inspired us to explore this area along the North Fork. The lumber company, whether headed by the Henrys or the Parker-Youngs, used a sequential numbering system for camp names.
At Camp 23 I exclaimed, “Look at this cooking pot! Can you imagine cooking 45 gallons of anything?” We found a bunch of its pieces and tried to put it together to get a visual sense of its size: huge. Other metal remains were plentiful throughout the area.
We found New Camp 22 but did not look for 22A and did not find the old site of 23A nor any old tote road leading to it; blame it on dense spruce growth, blowdowns, and that the loggers burned these two log camps so that hikers would not accidentally set them on fire. A massive number of peavey heads and sled runners marked the horse hovel and blacksmith’s workshop at New Camp 22, west of Jumping Brook on the rail line. The clearing, pierced by scattered birch, was still evident, but metal remains were scarce compared with Camp 23. We saw no building foundation remains; this had been a camp of prefabricated buildings disassembled once the camp was no longer in use. What years crews logged in the area remains undiscovered, but the company camped in this area in the mid- to late-1930s, perhaps into the early 1940s.
We named this water-rich area “Little Thoreau Falls.” Nothing on the U.S. Geological Survey map below Thoreau Falls stimulated our imaginations about the river course, but we were still curious because it is unseen from the Thoreau Falls Trail on the other side. East of the mouth of Jumping Brook, the footbridge’s old log crib abutment remains were visible on the bank and below the water’s surface. Below New Camp 22 the old railbed’s river crossing site was obvious. About 150 yards downriver, something looked different about the rock, so we went to investigate. The rock was smooth and the river dropped over and effortlessly slid through polished ledges. The falls we were calling Little Thoreau Falls looked quite different from Thoreau Falls, where the water spilled over rough ledges.
Of all the mystery explorations we’ve done, this one in October 2012 offered the most unexpected discovery. Something small, like a portion of the shiny end of a soda can and barely visible in the leaves and brush, perhaps no more than 100 yards west of Jumping Brook on the north side of the old rail bed, caused us to stop. We cleared away the leaves and branches and found a plaque:
At this site [on] February 21, 1959, Dr. Ralph E. Miller with his passenger Dr. Robert E. Quinn successfully crash landed his Piper Comanche following motor failure. Without food or proper clothing the two survived four days of stormy, 10 degree below zero weather before dying of exposure.
As a 12-year-old boy, I had riveted myself to news of that event and followed the accounts of days of searching, and then the discovery of the missing doctors and the plane months later. I already appreciated how wild and seemingly impenetrable the Pemi was; this event cemented it in my mind. At the time I wanted to know the exact crash site in the Pemi, but the papers my parents read did not say the specific location. Here I was, 50-plus years later, stumbling upon it.*
When I got home from that trip, I wrote Ralph Miller’s son and in subsequent exchanges helped him plot a course to the site; he and other family members made the journey the following year. The original Thoreau Falls Trail passed by the site, but sometime between 1972 and 1976, the Appalachian Mountain Club relocated the trail to the other side of the North Fork.
Our exit on this journey was via the no-name pond one can look down upon from the southwest corner of Zeacliff. The pond called to me the first time I saw it back in August 1965. To reach the pond we followed the Zeacliff Pond outlet stream from the North Branch. Its long sloping walkable granite ledges made for easy walking. We eventually turned easterly in thick spruce to the open meadows surrounding the remaining tiny body of water. Beaver once had a dam at the meadow’s outlet, perhaps attracted by the white birch of an old burn area on the east side of the meadow. We exited to the northeast through the open birch to the Zeacliff outlook for another view.
The name Jumping Brook remains a mystery for us. Based on what we saw, we made up a nice folk tale about how loggers built a sluice for the spring ice and water to jump over the railway into the North Branch. The earliest map we could find with this name was Henry Francis Walling’s Map of Grafton County New Hampshire 1877. In 1870 and 1871 Charles Hitchcock performed a geological study of this area and perhaps used this name; to follow the brook might have been a jumping-off point for Hitchcock to study the rock formations between the North Fork floor and the Guyot–Zealand ridgeline. The 1877 map also used New Zealand Notch and Pond.
More Than Thirteen Falls, and Four Other Bushwhacks
Five other trips in the Pemi provided equally interesting discoveries. I will list them briefly here but won’t give away everything. Go explore yourself!
- The trailless ridge of Mounts Bemis, Nancy, Anderson, and Lowell northeast of Mount Carrigain was a thick forest in some places, an easy walk in others. In one area we walked on top of the krummholz, enjoying magnificent views down the East Branch before we descended into Carrigain Notch—so steeply it felt like an incredible dive.
- East of Carrigain Notch, we entered Whiteface Brook valley, where we could see Mount Whiteface. We forced our way north through dense growth to Duck Pond in a bowl surrounded by more thick growth with few signs of any rock promontories for a view.
- Our circumnavigation of Carrigain was via The Captain, Carrigain Pond, down Carrigain Brook valley to the junction of the Desolation and Carrigain Notch Trails, up the north side of Vose Spur through a stunning spruce forest, and down through the south side’s hardwoods.
- Redrock Brook, which had red rocks in one spot, had underground streams and a stream that flowed out of its West Bond sidewall.
- We never reached the top edge of Mount Garfield’s south ridge, a magnificent cliff overlooking Lincoln Brook valley. But as we explored above 13 Falls Tentsite, we counted how many falls flowed above it. I can’t remember the number now, but we were sure it was more than thirteen.
- My spookiest and most shocking find was in the Mahoosuc Range, which is immediately north of the White Mountains’ Northern Presidential Range. For this one I won’t reveal anything of what I found or a precise location, but consider wandering the area within 1.25 miles of the summit of Mount Success’s south side. Perhaps I’ll write about that someday.
*For more about the 1959 crash, see John Morton’s article, “Unforgiving Forests.” Dartmouth Medicine (Winter 2000). dartmed.dartmouth.edu/winter00/html/plane_crash.shtml.
William Geller, a retiree who explores in the outdoors in every season, lives in Farmington, Maine. His research and writing are available at his website Mountain Explorations, sites.google.com/a/maine.edu/mountain-explorations, and the Raymond Fogler Library Special Collections Digital Commons.