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Going it alone.

by Bob Edwards

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I am convinced that some of the greatest moments of backpacking come when we break conventional rules. Hiking with a partner, for example, is wise and safe. But there are times when going it alone allows each of us some of the deepest self-reflection possible. Maybe this desire in me to be alone arises from my childhood in upstate New York, a rural, agricultural homeland set in the hills and valleys of North Americaís glacial retreat twelve thousand years ago. Perhaps it developed as a yearning to be more like my humble, hardworking grandfather who used to fish for bullhead by himself, and make maple syrup in the shack that he built with his hands and spent hours in alone seeking refuge. In this day of backpacker education courses and backcountry responsibility, there still remain some few times when I like to shake off conventional wisdom and hike solo.

Another politically correct-more recent, and, to me, awful-type of backcountry thinking is that dogs ought to be leashed at all times when not hedged in by a fence. This idea, and what some now try to legislate or make into a "rule," should not be taken literally but should be considered only in light of responsibility. If you have a dog that has the potential to be a threat to people or to other dogs, keep it out of the woods. If not, then take your dog along for the hike and enjoy your time together. Too many people these days seem annoyed if they have a dog in the woods on a leash and you donít.

Last summer I broke my two least favorite rules and had a splendid three day trek through New Hampshireís White Mountain National Forest. I work as a backpacking instructor at a summer boarding school there, and had the opportunity to scout some trails for the upcoming summer hikes. I needed little prodding when we as a staff decided that we needed to add a few more hikes to our current fare. "I will find some," I declared, almost leaping from my chair at the opportunity. I packed my pack, perused my trail guides, let the Director know my route, and prepared for a two to four day excursion into the woods. I had just about gotten completely ready when I looked down and saw that my dog, Grace, was wagging her tail as if to say, "You are going to take me, right?" I opened the door to my car and said, "Come on you old girl, letís go have some fun."

Grace and I hit the trailhead from Crawford Depot on Route 123. As I leveled my pack, Grace, a Dalmatian Labrador mix, scouted ahead. For two hours we hiked up the steep terrain and sweated beneath the summer heat. Grace is fast in the woods and sometimes a bit absent-minded. When she strays it is normally because she is on the scent of some animal, and thankfully, it doesnít happen often. However, the steep ascent of Avalon Trail-or maybe because the terrain was so utterly rocky that off-trail activities were nearly impossible-kept Grace focused. She was excellent, staying constantly twenty five to thirty yards in front of me.

During a water break a contented National Park Guide, Carol, happened upon us. She had a small daypack on and was out for a three-hour trek down the trail. She was going to stop at her three favorite overlooks before returning back to her hut. Like I, she loved to go it alone and spend some time enjoying the pleasures of nature and listening to the gentle sounds of animal life in the woods. Though I would have liked to leave business behind, I did ask her about bringing groups up that trail. We chatted for a brief bit and she suggested a few possible areas where I might find enough room to pitch five or so tents.

Life on the trail continued to be rigorous and hot as our ascent continued for what felt like an entire day. When we finally reached the trail merge, I was promising Grace that we would soon arrive at a sublime water hole where she could cool down and get some more to drink. We stomped on, heading south along Ethan Pond Trail and enjoyed, if for only a short time, the steady, flat terrain.

After about a mile of flat walking, Grace and I bushwhacked up to some nearby waterfalls and took a dip in the cool, fresh mountain water. We shortly returned to the trail, hiked over a magnificent rock ledge, and finally, after eleven miles of steep, jagged terrain, arrived at the precipice of Thoreau Falls. I set camp while Grace perused the area and returned as the smell of my macaroni and cheese and pepperoni filled the air. I cooked, fed Grace some Alpo, cleaned and hung the bear bag and then walked down to the rock slabs where the rushing water flowed over the falls. There Grace and I sat and enjoyed about an hour of dusk and I thought about the place on earth where we were; Life could not get much better. Here we were surrounded by all sorts of birds singing their young ones to sleep, by the soothing sound of water splashing ninety feet below at the base of the falls, by trees more green than seems real, and by the sweet smell of a White Mountains nightfall. We went back to the tent and fell asleep to the gentle chorus of falling water.

Grace woke me up in the morning, as usual, and wanted me to unzip the tent door. She ran for a bit as I prepared my oatmeal and some dry food for her. I loaded all of our supplies in my pack and we were back on the trail by eight-after a short dip in the beautifully crisp, cool waters of Thoreau Creek. The day began as most second days do, my legs were a bit weary and my body craved water. No surprises, nothing new.

Grace and I spent the second day of our trip scouting Ethan Pond Trail, Shoal Pond Trail, and Thoreau Falls Trail, looking for possible group sites and just plain enjoying being in the woods together. We hiked thirteen miles, looping each trail for about two and a half miles before deciding to spend the night on the shores of Shoal Pond, a tiny, and very pleasant White Mountain pond. I set camp under some pines and we ate and relaxed as the stars rose.

When we awoke on day three and hadnít yet found a suitable site for our camping groups, I wasnít stressed. The great aspect of scouting for a spot is that if you donít find one, you have to scout some more. And for the camping director that meant a future trip or two. We looped fifteen miles in our jaunt back to my Jeep and eventually arrived there safe and sound. It is hard to describe how awesome those three days were but I know that I will never forget the experience. I have been in the woods with one partner, with groups of ten, and with all numbers in between. Each experience is unique and satisfying in its own way, but I have to admit that there is something extraordinarily special about going it alone.

About the Author

I am a Social Studies teacher in upstate New York and have spent four summers as camping director at Wolfeboro Camp School in New Hampshire.


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