Crawford Notch, White Mountains, New Hampshire

“Are you familiar with the area?” the older gentleman asked.

“Yes I am” I replied, “How can I help you?”

“Do you know how I can get to the confluence of Nancy Brook and the Saco River?” I thought for a moment of poor Nancy Barton, a classic New England tale of love, betrayal and hypothermia. One version of the story goes like this. Back in December 1778 she had followed her lover, who had run off with her dowry, some thirty miles or so. Eventually exhausted and wet from crossing the brook she slumped down next to the trail and never rose again. She was found the next day by a search party, head resting in her hands, leaning against her walking stick, frozen solid. They say her ghost still haunts the notch.

“Sure, you need to head North back up through the notch. If you pass Notchland on your left you’ve gone too far.”

“What’s Notchland?” the man asked with a puzzled look on his face.

“It’s the big stone mansion, you can’t miss it.”

“I didn’t see any stone mansion on my way down.” He stated.

“Ok, no problem.” I took out one of my maps and laid it on the ground.

“Oh you have a map!?” he seemed to say somewhat pleased and surprised.

“Always” I responded. “We are here.” pointing to an area just off the road. “If you head back up the road about three miles you’ll see the trail head for Nancy Pond Trail on your left. Just after that you’ll see Notchland on your left and a little bit further up you’ll see the trail head for Davis Path on your right. Nancy Brook flows into the Saco here between Notchland and the Nancy Pond Trailhead.”

“Oh! He exclaimed. I see now, I drove right past it.” He seemed grateful as I chatted with him for a few more minutes. I was glad to help and suggested a few other scenic locations he could explore before we parted ways and I went back to loading my gear onto my external frame pack.

This was last Friday up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Bryan and I have been coming to this area for over fifteen years to camp, fish, hike and explore. Its easily one of my favorite spots in the world and I love being able to share its grandeur, majesty and history with whoever is interested.

It happened to be Bryan’s birthday so he had the day off. This means I was responsible for selecting a site for base camp, cooking, gathering wood, keeping the fire going and all the other tasks required to have an enjoyable time in the woods. It was already midday by the time we made it to the mountains and I was anxious to get to work. Bryan had brought along his new dog Luke and was busy packing up their things so I took off down the trail ahead of them to find a spot to set up camp.

Being familiar with the area it didn’t take long. For the sake of convenience and conservation I selected an established site along the Saco River. I took off my pack and being hungry for lunch I grabbed my axe and set my mind to collecting tinder, kindling and fuel. After a few minutes of work I had plenty of material to work with and got a small cooking fire going. As I mentioned earlier, it was already afternoon so we decided on a simple meal of hotdogs and baked beans. I had planned on cooking soup and bannock from scratch, using all fresh ingredients but for ease of cleanup we decided on a simpler meal. So I switched gears and heated the beans and sliced saugies in my bush pot and carved a couple of spits to roast the remaining saugies over the fire.

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While I was cooking and tending to the fire, Bryan was busy setting up an old fashioned pup tent that he and Luke could sleep in. After lunch I set up a tarp shelter for myself, grabbed my axe and set back out to collect more fire wood. After the brutal winter we had I wasn’t surprised to find all the downed trees that I did. I made quick work of them with my axe, sectioning them into manageable pieces that I could carry back to camp where Bryan was waiting to de-limb and buck them with his saw. We spent an hour or so doing this taking plenty of breaks in between.

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The weather was amazing. I can’t remember any other time camping in the mountains in early spring when the weather was so warm, it felt more like summer. It was hard to believe that just over a month ago there was still almost a foot of snow on the ground. There was still plenty of snow above 2,500 feet but down in the valley it was hot and dry as a bone. I needed to take a trip back to the Jeep to grab some more supplies so I strapped on my pack and headed back up the trail.

About a quarter mile up the river there was a group of rowdy Marines camped out near a swimming hole. As I passed their camp I could see them swimming and splashing around like little kids in a pool. I have no idea what the water temperature was but I’d guess it wasn’t much warmer than forty degrees. It didn’t seem to faze them much but hey, they’re Marines. I’ve swum there a few different times and even in the blistering summer heat the water is still ice cold. I remember jumping in once in mid October and felt like the equivalent of sticking my finger in a light socket. Sensory overload!

At the Jeep I grabbed the supplies we needed for dinner and dessert before making my way back. At camp I unloaded the food items from my pack and put them in the bear box provided by the Forest Service. These bear boxes are a relatively new thing in the White Mountains and make things a heck of a lot easier than hanging your food or packing it out after every meal. It seems the bears have gotten wise over the years and hanging your food is not as effective as it used to be. That combined with the lazy and/or uneducated camper who can’t be bothered and doesn’t properly store or dispose of food items, make certain areas a magnet for black bears.

As humans we have very little to be afraid of when it comes to black bears. I’ve made the mistake of leaving food items out longer than I should have and had issues with the occasional fearless mouse, crow or raven but rarely a black bear. The problem is that in some areas they become accustomed to humans and their food and they lose their natural fear of us. When this happens the bears are classified as a nuisance animal and are destroyed. So please don’t feed the bears!

Bryan had returned to bucking the logs while Luke was enjoying the plethora of scents the great outdoors has to offer. Seeing that things at camp were taken care of, I grabbed my axe again and set out to collect more wood. I followed the river down a ways until a came to a grove of trees mixed with thick underbrush. I stopped for a moment as it had become really quiet. There were no rapids on this section of the river and the roar of the raging Saco had died down to the soft purr of a wide, flowing stream. There were no birds chirping or chipmunks rustling, in fact besides a few tracks from various small birds and mammals there was no sign of any animals at all. I knew they were there though because (A) I was in the woods and (B) I had the sensation of being watched. It’s the equivalent to walking into a crowded, noisy bar and all of a sudden the music and conversation stop and you can feel everyone looking at you, checking you out and murmuring to one another “Hey, who’s this guy?”

I rested for a few minutes and enjoyed the quiet solitude before spotting a downed birch tree and went to work sectioning it with my axe. It took a few trips back and forth to camp before I was satisfied we had enough fuel for the night. We probably had enough for two nights at this point. We certainly didn’t need the fire for heat, just enough to cook with and to provide the ambiance that only a camp fire can provide.

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At this point the sun was beginning to set and it was time to start preparing dinner, so I took out my bush pot, a Dutch oven and got to work. The evening’s dinner was shrimp and steak kabobs with rice and apple cake for dessert. The cake would take about an hour, the rice a half hour and the kabobs around ten minutes or so roasting on a spit. I began doing the prep work, chopping vegetables, mixing cake batter and measuring water for rice. I was soon finished and had everything on the fire, minus the kabobs and took another pause before moving on to dish duty. At some point Bryan decided he wanted a sauce with his meal and begin chopping up his own stuff and throwing it in his mess kit along with other ingredients to complete his entree. We finished up dinner and Bryan passed out almost as soon as the last bite was devoured so I cleaned up the remaining dishes 200 ft from camp and finished putting everything away. I stayed up for at least another hour enjoying the campfire, the sound of the river and the peacefulness of the woods.

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I woke up the next morning at 7AM, climbed out from my tarp shelter, yawned, stretched and peaked into Bryan’s tent to see if there were any signs of life. He was still out cold but Luke was looking back at me with his floppy beagle ears and big puppy dog eyes. It was my day off and I was looking forward to relaxing. We had a scouting trip and hike planned for the day, a few meals to prepare but other than that no plans. I made my way down to the beach, sat down by the edge of the water and meditated for thirty minutes. Many thoughts and ideas came and went through my mind and I watched them come and go like the clouds moving across the sky.

After, I stretched my legs by walking along the water’s edge for a few minutes before heading back to camp. Bryan was still sleeping soundly in his tent so I went over to the fire ring, poked the coals, added some tinder and kindling and blew them into a flame. I heated some water for coffee and enjoyed the peace and quiet as I sipped my drink and felt the warm sun on my face. For the next couple of hours a puttered around camp not doing much of anything. I was starting to get hungry so I broke out the leftover apple cake from the night before and had a serving for breakfast. I wish I remembered to take a picture to show you but I was too busy enjoying it! Hopefully I’ll have a chance to share a campfire with you someday and then I’ll bake an apple cake we can share then too.

Around 9:30AM Bryan got up and made his way over to the bear bin and began breaking the stuff out for brunch. He filled the bush pot with water, brewed some coffee and began assembling the ingredients for a traditional “mountain man” breakfast in a Dutch oven. It was a few hours before we were done eating and got everything cleaned up and put away. We threw our haversacks over our shoulders and set off to scout a few different locations in the mountains.

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We first scouted an old logging road near base camp. With my compass and ranger beads in hand we followed it for a little over four-hundred meters before turning ninety degrees to the right and bushwhacking another couple hundred meters through the woods. We explored the area for awhile and found an old logging camp before turning around and retracing our steps back to the old road.

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Next we followed a lesser known trail up one of the nearby mountains. There were a lot of down trees and a few water crossings to deal with but the real challenge was the steepness. At just over three thousand feet, the mountain wasn’t particularly tall but it was still a solid cardio workout and I could “feel the burn” in my legs as we ascended to the top. It felt great to shake off the winter cobwebs and we had views of some impressive cascades that seemed to coach us along as we climbed.

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After about 1400 meters into the trail I had completely drained the contents of my water bottle so we stopped at one of the water crossings for a break. I took out my filter from my haversack and used it to top off my bottle with the cold mountain runoff. Feeling refreshed I took out my map and located our approximate position based on pace count, being aware of the steep terrain and how it had shortened my steps. It was getting late in the afternoon and we needed to be back for a certain time so Bryan could start prepping dinner therefore we agreed to head back. We turned around and hiked the few miles back to base camp in the valley below. We made good time coming back down the mountain. About half way down I stopped next to the cascading brook and dunked my bandanna into the ice cold water before putting it back on my head. Boy did it feel good.

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Back at camp we enjoyed a couple of sandwiches before Bryan made a quick run for more supplies. I got busy making another cooking fire and collecting more fuel. Bryan was back and started prepping a kale soup with linguica, chorizo, root vegetables, garlic, onion, potatoes and chicken stock for dinner. He also baked a bacon corn bread and we enjoyed a couple Tuckerman’s Pale Ales over dinner. Luke was exhausted from the day’s adventures and was out cold. With hot food in my belly and the peaceful sound of the forest and river lulling me to sleep, I wasn’t far behind him. I crawled under my tarp while Bryan cleaned up and put away the dishes and soon was fast asleep.

We were up the next morning, breaking down camp and cooking breakfast at the same time. We had a feast of scrambled eggs, bacon and bannock. We weren’t in any particular hurry to leave and although the sky occasionally threatened to rain it was still a great day. We cleaned up our campsite and made sure to leave some wood for the next campers that happened to come by. Around mid afternoon we reluctantly made the walk out to the Jeep and made our way home. Crawford Notch is a beautiful, powerful, place with a lot of history. Even after coming here for over a decade, I’m still being pulled back to explore it’s woods, rivers and mountains. I hope to see you up there sometime soon, so we can explore and enjoy its wilderness together.

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