Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dry River Immersion 10/7-10/10/14

Working title: Not dry at all

"It would seem from this fact, that man is naturally a wild animal, and that when taken from the woods, he is never happy in his natural state, 'till he returns to them again." ~ Benjamin Rush

They (whoever they are) say that the best way to learn a new language is immersion. I think it works the same with getting to know a place or a region, the more time you spend there, the more you know it. The Dry River Valley suffered inordinately at the hands of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and due to massive washouts, the Dry River and Isolation West trails have been closed since. That was until the notice went out a couple of weeks ago, that the Dry River was open for business again. You better believe that I started plotting!

Having only dipped into the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness (designated in 1975) a handful of times, and only on the eastern edge, I was excited and curious to explore the very heart of it. Like many areas of the White Mountains, the Dry River Valley also saw logging activity, but not in the fiery way the Pemigewasset or Wild River areas did. The Saco Valley Railroad ran 6 1/2 miles up the valley, beginning operations in 1892, though the river and terrain caused numerous headaches for the operators. By 1898 the supply of timber in the valley had been exhausted, and by 1907 all trace of the railroad had been washed away. With few exceptions, it seems that the valley has been left to its own devices for the last 100+ years.

Owing to the steep drainages on three sides, the Dry River (much like the Wild River) is very reactive, even to small rain events. This would be something we would witness firsthand in the coming days.

Tuesday 10/7: Rt. 302 to Dry River Shelter #3

Trail: Dry River Trail

Mileage/gain: 6.3 miles, 2439' of gain

New redlining miles: 6.3

To make this work, I had to take the night off from work. Let me tell you how upset I was. So on no sleep, I packed my remaining items, and headed north. Initially the weather wasn't bad, but as I approached Conway, a light drizzle started to fall. The harbinger of things to come. Picking up Mike, we headed to Sunrise Shack for a late breakfast, before motoring up 302 to the Dry River Trail. Once there, the rain hadn't subsided, and my hope for a relatively dry ascent to the shelter went out the window.

Up to the wilderness boundary, the trail was fairly tame, wide, flatish, and leaf covered. Beyond the boundary, it took on a much different character. The White Mountain Guide describes this trail as being substantially more difficult and rougher than other valley trails in the Whites, and this roughness made its presence known rather quickly. Many relocations were made in the early 1970's, avoiding all but one of the river crossings, after two hikers drowned in separate incidents. These relocations, and the new ones built as part of the trails reopening, constituted the majority of the rough sections. The valley being so narrow, and the walls being so steep, necessitate that any relocation steeply climbs the slope above the river, only to drop steeply back to the bank to rejoin the old course of the trail.

Climbing one of the relocations, following the bend of the river below, we reached a bluff that I'd read about, with a view (restricted due to the rain) up the valley. Dropping steeply, we shortly reached the suspension bridge over the Dry River, where the rain picked up the pace. The river had risen a bit since we first laid eyes on it, and would continue to do so throughout the day. Sticking to the east bank of the river for the next several miles, we climbed and descended numerous times, battling mud and tricky footing the whole way. I determined that this is NOT a trail you make good time on, regardless of the wetness factor.

Passing the junctions with Mt. Clinton, Isolation West, and Mt. Eisenhower trails, we came to a spur path down to Dry River Falls, which didn't look much like any of the pictures I'd seen of it! There's that pesky high water thing again. At this point, regardless of our rain gear, we were wet, and getting wetter. Sloshing up above the falls, we came to the crossing, the only remaining one on the Dry River Trail. The water was high and moving fast, as we looked around for a place to cross. After a fashion, and a lot of waffling, we decided to give the only option a go. Mike made it across first, with a daring leap over fast, deep water, hugging a pyramidal rock on the other side of the flow. Mine wasn't nearly as graceful, and it got the heart pumping! Nothing like standing in several inches of fast water, and having to jump up onto a wet, steep sided rock.

Not far after the crossing, the Forest Protection Area signage appeared, though that last 0.25 miles felt like a lot more. The shelter was empty, and we began the task of trying to dry our wet items, of which there were many. Through the night, the rain continued to fall with varying intensity, and the river serenaded us with its constant roar.

Dry River Trail

Landslides along the river

This way!

Rainy view up the valley

Dry River

For posterity

Dry River Falls

Wednesday 10/8: Zero

The morning dawned, and a thunderstorm rolled through with torrential rain, so we staying snug in our sleeping bags. Eventually we decided to get up and eat, which was pretty ineffectual, considering we were basically still in our bags... and would be for most of the day. This was a somewhat unwelcome change of plans, as we wouldn't get to do the Isolation West Trail, which both of us needed. They say leave no stragglers... but when faced with water of this magnitude, it's better to be safe, and come back for it another day. Most of the clothing that we hung to dry, was still wet, as was our footwear. Showers came and went, the sun made a couple of brief appearances, and patches of blue sky showed themselves.

By the afternoon, after several naps, we were able to step out of the confines of the shelter, put on some wet clothes, and move around in an attempt to dry them. Though mostly in vain, it did the job, as we had a bit of cabin fever going on. The river was still running high, and the tributary above the shelter wasn't much better. Through the day, the water levels dropped, and the sound diminished, though a low level roar persisted throughout our stay. A welcome breeze started up in the afternoon, and stuck around through the night, helping to further dry our gear. Feeling sore and lazy, we went back to sleep not long after the light was out of the sky, more than ready for movement the next day.

That pretty much sums it up

Dry River Shelter #3

The Gnarled Birch

Thursday 10/9: Oakes Gulf, some southern Presidents, back to the shelter

Peaks: Mt. Monroe (5372'), Little Monroe (5197'), Mt. Eisenhower (4760')

Trails: Dry River Trail, Crawford Path, Mt. Monroe Loop, Mt. Eisenhower Loop, Mt. Eisenhower Trail

Mileage/gain: 10.8 miles, 3937' of gain

New redlining miles: 6

The night was cold, and I awoke at one point to rain on the metal roof of the shelter. It was short-lived, and I drifted back to sleep. Waking to fairly clear skies and sunshine, we got ourselves prepared rather quickly, and got started up. Following the crossing above the shelter, the trail climbs steadily up into Oakes Gulf. The forest here is gorgeous and primeval, the trail wasn't too shabby either, continuing its rough streak to the last. A massive amount of work was done by the trail crews, trying to reopen this trail, and the evidence was everywhere as we climbed. Of all the glacial cirques of the Presidential Range with trails in them, this one is decidedly the wildest and most remote feeling. Hitting the alpine zone, the trail steepened, with a couple of scrambles, though it was a while before we truly broke treeline.

Step on these, I dare you...

Headed through some blowdowns

Standing dead on the floor of Oakes Gulf

Flowing water between boulders

It's a bit faded...

The trail spent quite some time in the alpine zone, before it actually gets above the trees, but it was spectacular when it did. Views swept out over the valley, colors raging in the lower elevations, rime ice above us, and dark clouds overhead. Climbing over the ridge heading towards Lakes of the Clouds, the terrain was coated in delicate rime, the trails seemed to be the only thing it wasn't clinging to. The melding of the seasons.

A rough stone staircase

A gully in Oakes Gulf

Climbing into the rime



Dry River Trail

Stopping by the now closed for the season Lakes of the Clouds Hut, we took a break and layered up, chatting with a local (now living in Chamonix, France) named Zoe (Zoey?). We fairly zoomed up over Monroe and Little Monroe, before rejoining the Crawford Path heading south. Across the "Franklin Flats", where the wind knocked us about a bit, we dropped down to the base of Eisenhower, before rocking it up and over. Connecting some dots for Mike, we came around the base of the summit on Crawford Path, before hitting the junction with Mt. Eisenhower Trail.

Bretton Woods on the climb of Monroe

Lakes of the Clouds Hut and the flanks of Washington

Climbing the stairway to Monroe


Washington from Monroe

The vast Dry River Valley and the many peaks beyond

South along the ridge

Between Monroe and Little Monroe

Jefferson and Clay

The Monroes in front of Washington

Climbing Ike

South view from Ike, as Mike takes off

We took a short break at the top of the ridge, in the scrub, before diving in (quite literally). The top section of the trail is VERY grown in, swimming in spots, though the tread is easy to follow. Once through this, the trail follows a wide fir covered ridge down into the valley, with soft footing most of the way. Really a joy. Past the Dry River Cutoff, we hopped across the Dry River (twice), and made haste back to the shelter, for we were hungry.

Snow showers moving in

Dry River Valley and the Sandwich Range

The ridge

A bit brushy

A better section

Dropping in

Most improved, you get a gold star for the day

At the shelter, there was activity. A wild Ashley had appeared! I had told her about our plans, but never got service on the ridge, to check and see if she was going to make an appearance. She had come over from Pinkham via Glen Boulder and the Isolation West Trail. In the short time between her arrival and ours, she had gathered up a bunch of kindling, and had it not been for her, we would have been too lazy for fire! Dinner was had, and we had that fire, then crawled into our bags for the night.

Friday 10/10: Dry River Shelter #3 to Rt. 302 via Mizpah Hut

Trails: Dry River Trail, Mt. Eisenhower Trail, Dry River Cutoff, Mt. Clinton Trail, Webster Cliff Trail, Mizpah Cutoff

Mileage/gain: 10.9 miles, 2302' of gain

New redlining miles: 4.7

The morning dawned cold and clear, and we all slept in. I eventually got up and started in with breakfast preparation (boiling water), and saw that it was about 7:30... oops! Our lateness made it so Ashley wouldn't be able to hike out with us and make it to work on time. Packing up, she headed out around 9, Mike and I set off not long afterward. Working our way down and across the river (twice, again) to Dry River Cutoff, we headed up. All in all, the trail was pretty mellow, with some nice swampy bits near the top just for good measure.

Dry River

Nice woods along Dry River Cutoff

Reaching the junction with Mt. Clinton Trail (where the sign was conspicuously missing), we headed up to Mizpah Hut where we took a break inside, since the wind had come up, and it was chilly. Mike needed to hit Mizpah Cutoff, and I was coerced into joining him. Just before the junction, we ran into two dudes with a dog. I recognized one of the dudes, then the other, then the dog... it was my friend Jake, his brother Sam, and dog Harvey! He asked if we'd been exploring the Dry River, and I said yeah, since Tuesday! They were planning to descend the same way we were, so we took off, hoping to run into them later. After our out and back, we regrouped and headed down... not realizing what was in store.

This should have been a warning

A redlining fool!

Down to the unsigned junction, we hung a right. At first the trail wasn't bad as it dropped through the forest at decent grades. Then a couple of blowdowns showed up, then some erosion and the accompanying mud. More erosion and more mud became evident the further we dropped, the trail also got into a bad habit of becoming obscure. In a marshy area, we lost the trail. A bit of backtracking, and some bushwhacking put us back on course, but only for a little while. One thing I can say, is that all the crossings were marked with flagging! I don't know when it exactly happened, but we lost the trail, and never did find it again. Pretty sure we found the old route, from before the junction got washed away, but we weren't sure. All I know, is that we ended up bushwhacking on a ludicrously steep sidehill, high above the river. Expletives flowed in a torrent that would make even the most seasoned pirate blush. We eventually made it through, crossed the Dry River, and bushwhacked upslope to meet the trail... to find out that we ended up above the junction.

I'm counting the trail, though for the sake of completeness, I will go back and finish off the lower bits, even though at the time I told myself I'd never be back.


Eroded through the moss (not the trail)

Looks alright so far

Getting not so alright

Flagged crossing

One of the last bits of actual trail-like trail

Up a slippery slope

New signs, junk trail

Back on the Dry River Trail, the walking was easy, though the remaining uphill sections were somewhat unpleasant. A better view was had from the bluff, than we had on the way in, and in short order we heard cars (for the first time in days), and were soon at the road. Dinner was procured in Bartlett, and after dropping Mike off at home, I headed to mine.

Late afternoon at the bluff

Something changed in me on this trip, I can't quite put my finger on it, maybe I became more attune with the woods, maybe I got comfortable with the rhythm of life on the trail. Either way, my return to society was harder than any I've thus experienced after a trip. Four walls felt claustrophobic, I ran a temperature for two days (and wasn't sick), people were loud, music was loud... all I wanted to do was get back in the woods. The pull has always been there, but there was an intensity about it that was different. I suppose all I can do is surrender to the pull.

Totals: 28 miles, 8678' of gain, 17 new redlining miles


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! The AT is definitely on my short list, LT first, then I'll start making plans.

  2. I completely understand your last paragraph. There is a rhythm and a simplicity to the trail, that is not found in the rush and noise of modern society. Probably one of the reasons I'll start a long walk in the woods in April in Georgia. ;)

    1. Awesome Summerset! I hope to be able to follow along on your journey, while salivating over the thought of my own. Cheers!