The Wild River Wilderness: Jeannette’s Second Death

As I said, Jeannette’s fateful suggestion, “I don’t feel like I’ve had enough outdoorsing. What if we were to go hiking…” set up the conditions of her second death. Also, being married to me had a lot to do with it. Because I’m never content to just “have a good time” hiking, or paddling. No, if I’m going to paddle, I’ll build four nesting canoes and take the family out for a three day adventure in the Allagash. It’s going to be planned, and we’re going to make miles and keep to time tables. If I’m going to hike, we’re going to climb a ridge and see how many 4k+ footers we can bag over two to three days. Jeannette’s therapist has encouraged her to clearly communicate her limits in these instances. In deference to the therapist, I did do that for our earlier adventure this week, which was, as J put it, “carefully tailored to maximize ‘Nettie happiness.” But my filters were off for the second, less well planned adventure. She also can’t resist a challenge. “Is this trail advanced? Good. Because after one gets a Ph.D. it’s hard to settle for less.”

First, I want to establish with emphasis that J was cute for the duration of the hike. This is something she worked very hard on, having tried on the outfits she’d bought for our paddling trip, which hadn’t arrived in time but were waiting for us when we got home. I’m convinced that part of why she wanted to hike in the first place was to show the world how cute these outfits actually were. There were skorts with hidden pockets, athletic bras, and ventilated athletic tops. And there was a trip to REI for new hiking boots to replace her broken old Bean boots. She went with Salomons.

The plan was to visit the Wild River Wildnerness in the White Mountain National Forest. I knew other areas of the park would be mobbed, and I’ve read that this area is less well known. Further, I’d read that the Black Angel Trail was a true gem, and I was eager to hike it and maybe bag another 4k+ footer (or two, or three). So we left as early as we could and arrived at the Shelbourn trailhead at noon. This trailhead sits a ways down the Wild River Road, which follows the southern bank of the Wild River, which is more of a trickle this time of year.

We took the Shelburne trail up to our first mountain, Shelburne-Moriah. Along the way, J made it a point to “document the purple”, which is to say she was on the lookout for a purple lichen she had begun to notice. We also spotted several different kinds of mushroom, a variety of mosses, lichens, and indian pipe. I was struck by how verdant this forest was. There wasn’t a surface that didn’t support life, sometimes life upon life.

As we started to gain elevation I made sure to fill all of our water bottles. I knew that once we got up to the ridge water sources would be hard or impossible to find. And as we reached our first “summit”, where the forrest had shaded into the scraggly pines, spruces, mosses, and lichen covered rock of the alpine zone, we looked west to what we judged was Mt. Moriah. With a few hours of daylight remaining, we hoofed it to the summit of the next mountain and down the ridge to the next draw, looking for the trail intersection that would presage our arrival at the tent site, and our next water source.

Someday I’ll return to this trail with time enough to savor it, as it was full of surprises; you’d descend into alpine only to rise again to bare rock, a winding and twisting path that kept you guessing.

The Shelburne-Moriah mountain in the distance, and on the right, viewed from Moriah. See the vertical side???

Eventually we did arrive at an intersection, but it was not the one we had hoped. The intersecting trail was on our map, and it told us that in fact we were not on the other side of Moriah at all, but that we’d only managed to traverse the first of our summits, Shelburne-Moriah. The thing I sometimes struggle with in reading maps is accounting for the time it takes to scramble up the side of a mountain while making no progress in terms of map miles. So while we’d been hiking, all our our progress had been up, not over, and so we had completely misjudged where we were.

Jeannette was demoralized. She clings to mental goals to keep herself putting one foot in front of the other, and this disappointment was too much. Further, while I’d said several times that I thought this first leg would be a push, and that we might have to cowboy camp, that was too much of an abstraction for her to prepare for. So we hiked down a bit to where we could find some water, and put up the tent in a little spot off trail, but J was miserable and didn’t sleep well.

The next day we pushed on to Moriah which, one we got there, felt much more like a proper 4k+ footer. The views across to the rest of the ridge, with Carter dome in the distance and Mt. Washington behind were stunning.

I know I felt super sheepish that I’d been so far off on my orienteering, and in view of where we actually were, J determined she wanted to take the Moriah Brook trail back to the trailhead. This would make it a much shorter loop than the Black Angel trail would have been. I mean, I knew one night would be too few to make the whole loop, and I secretly was hoping that J would get through the first night and be up for more. But in view of the previous day’s disappointment that hope was even further from reality.

While I’m sad we didn’t get to the Black Angel trail, I’m glad we got to hike this one. It offered everything I had hoped the Black Angel trail would offer: a descent from alpine to deciduous forest; a stark contrast to the dense, moss-covered forest of pines and spruces where we’d spent the night. The trail meandered among boulders and fallen, dessicated trees, and at times it vanished altogether leaving us to pick our way down the brook, hopping rocks and whacking our way through dense underbrush until the trail reappeared. As we continued down, the brook widened into a gorge with stunning pools and artful waterfalls. It’s a gem of a trail.

Later, J looked up the Moriah Brook trail to find out more about its history. It hasn’t been maintained since Hurricane Irene, and hikers do find themselves bushwhacking. Further, while we were able to ford the Wild River to get access to the trail, that wouldn’t have been possible in the Spring, when the water is up because the bridge that used to span the river there had been removed with no plans to replace it. So this truly was a “wild” experience, and one to enjoy while we can. I’d go back in a heartbeat, and plan to. I know Ellis would love it, so maybe we can take a little more time, or pick a slightly different route, and continue to explore this area.

The Wild River, looking East

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