Trip Report: Owl’s Head, Summer ’19

Owl’s Head Mountain, Lincoln, NH. 2019-08-14. (Wednesday)

Via Lincoln Woods Trail, Black Pond Bushwhack, Lincoln Brook Trail, Brutus Bushwhack. Approx 16 miles. 

75 dF +/- and partly cloudy. 

Trailhead: 1100; Summit; 1530; back at car: 2000. (9 hours.)

Thrice as nice! 

Things turned out to be a little weird. Nothing bad, just a couple of unusual things. Maybe first, I left the house reasonably on-time for the first time in a bit. On arriving at the Lincoln Woods parking area, I noticed an AT thru hiker (“Boomer”) which confused me. He’d gotten off trail by a bit up near the Bonds, and wasn’t sure where to go. So we chatted for a bit. I got my big map of the area out, and showed him the lay of the land. And then we got into the car, and I ran him back into town, so he could get a hot meal, and a shot at doing laundry.

Thinking back, this isn’t the first time I’ve met up with a wayward AT hiker. Last time, it was near North Twin’s summit, and it was the Twinway that got him flummoxed. Makes me wonder if it’s the signage there? Dunno. But odd coincidence, right?

Anyway, returning to Lincoln Woods, I got a nice parking spot in the first row. Not that it really mattered in the context of a 16 mile hike, but there it is. Not quite the governor’s spot, but still nice. I got my stuff out of the car and shuffled toward the trailhead.

The ranger happily reported the rainfall since last week didn’t really amount to much, and his estimate was that the water crossings would be minimal at best. No change there, which was nice. I made my way back down that familiar trail, and in contrast to last time, there were a lot fewer people. Not “none” by a long shot, but it didn’t feel terribly crowded. I made good time, despite slowing down a little to walk with a couple from Boston who were planning on doing a Pemi loop. They were mid-way through their 48, so we shared a few thoughts about that. Always nice to hear about other people’s experiences.

At last, I was back at Black Pond, scarcely an hour after getting out of the car. Bushwhacking to Lincoln Brook was about the same as last time. The first few hundred feet were slow going while I found the trail, but the rest was quite easy to follow. Before long, I was at the brook, and on the “real” trail.

Lincoln Brook was scenic like last time, but unlike Lincoln Woods trail, it didn’t have the long, sweeping vistas of mountains. All the views were nearby, and while there are occasional, very sweet views of Lincoln Brook, you’re very much in a green tunnel. And yet, that didn’t mean anything. The solitude was peaceful, the gurgling of the brook serene. Unseen loads were lifted off my shoulders. The calm was palpable.

At last, I made it to the Brutus Bushwhack trailhead, where the fun began.

First, note that the bushwhack starts about 200 feet, or about 75 paces (and under a minute) from the brook. There is a small cairn on the right, but it’s about four stones in total, smaller than a wild turkey, and entirely missable. So with that said, walk out from the brook about 50 paces, and start to look for small pieces of birch lying down on either side of the trail. And near them, you’ll find the trail. (If you’re using the Gaia app, zoom in, and you’ll be OK.)

Somehow, I had it in my head that the bushwhack would be easier than it was. I know it’s easier than the slide, but wow, it’s still steep. From my winter post I wrote that it was about a 25% grade for most parts, and I stick to that today. But also, the trail was pretty easy to follow, and although there were plentiful blow-downs, they were very easily managed. And as before, as I approached the top, the grade eased and I transitioned from climbing to walking.

Up top, I found a lot of tangled trees, a very winding trail, and still not much of a view. Lincoln could be seen better than Lafayette through gaps here and there, but most of what you’re going to see is immediately in front of you. I checked in at the summit cairn (and like the entrance to the bushwhack, it too was hardly the size of a large duck) and turned back.

I bumped into a NHPR reporter, who was working on a story on Owl’s Head. He asked what I thought of the mountain, was it one of the worst in the Whites, and that gave me a lot of food for thought on the way back. Not that I need food for thought most days, but it’s a question I grapple with sometimes, though in the reverse: which is the best? And of course, for me, that might just as well be “which is your favorite child?” No doubt, Owl’s Head doesn’t make its summit an easy day out — it’s not like Waumbek, nor is the long hike in even an iota the same as the long drive to Cabot. I don’t think there’s a guidebook around that doesn’t make the trip seem daunting.

But then again, do we hike because it’s as easy as going to a cinema? Not me. I thought of Jack Kennedy, who said “we do these things not because they are easy… but because they are hard.” I love great cinema, but I need to get outside, too. And every time I do something hard, I find out that it isn’t anymore. We adapt as we improvise and overcome, and those adaptations become a permanent part of ourselves. Owl’s Head my first time was a long and hard outing — easily my hardest at the time. I got turned back by Tripyramid the first I tried it, too. Oddly, now I’m thinking of doing the north slide a second time. Owl’s Head the third time wasn’t a walk in the park, but it wasn’t daunting. And while the words “fine views from the summit” will not be associated with that mountain absent a devastating fire or slide, at the same time, I was caught up in the peacefulness and serenity of the isolation that enveloped and cradled me. It’s hard, it’s challenging, it’s nurturing, and it’s nourishing. By trail’s end, I was beat, but re-energized.

Down the bushwhack I continued, and true to form, it wasn’t nearly as hard going down as up. But it wasn’t fast: that steep grade is steep, and so cautious hiking was the order of business. But then I was back at Lincoln Brook, where I refilled my water supply. Wow, that’s ice cold and delicious water, always a treat. Further down Lincoln Brook trail, I spent perhaps a little more time than I ought, looking around. The book I got last week about the East Branch and Lincoln logging railroad put a bug in my ear. Some rail ties I spotted on the trail now demanded my attention.

It’s a little mind-bending to think of what great lengths the timber barons went to completely denude the massive forests of the Whites, but there are maps showing rail beds reaching deep into the Pemi. And the trails that take us so long to hike are built on those beds, even at the foot of “inaccessible” Owl’s Head. Wow. (I’m also amazed, seeing photos of completely cleared mountainsides, at how resilient the forest has been in recovering. But let’s not do that exercise again — the mountains look much better with trees than without.) Tramping through brush, I followed an abandoned grade to what would only have been a bridge across the brook, imagining the back-breaking labor to move all that dirt. And what it must have taken to remove it.

I came back through the Black Pond bushwhack, and I don’t know if it was the setting sun or what, but the trail seemed a little easier to follow, particularly near the pond, where it’s quite “fuzzy.” It’s still a bushwhack at that end, but then the pond is right there. Insects dotted the sleepy surface of the still water, Bondcliff in the distance, keeping watch as the night began to creep in. I made my way down Lincoln Woods trail in the increasing dark, with a full moon overhead and a few birds singing their nocturnes. Like my return in the winter, no headlamps were necessary. A placid end to a fine day out.

Rail spur on Black Pond Trail
Lincoln Brook
Brutus Bushwhack — it’s steep!
At this point on Brutus, come in from the left, and hook left — don’t go across.
Lincoln, in the distance, with its slide.
Whorled wood aster
Indian Pipes. They have no chlorophyl, and so are parasitic, drawing energy from nearby trees.
What will this bedrock look like hundreds of years from now?
That bedrock, in the context of everything else.
Similar cascade, but with a more sedimentary rock.
Serene little gurgling cascade on Lincoln Brook.

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