Climbing Mount Monadnock, New Hampshire
Hikers on Monadnock Trail
Climbing Mount Monadnock
New England never looked greener. White pines towered over Concord, Massachusetts where I attended the annual Thoreau Society meeting in the intense heat of mid-July. The heat was so overwhelming that I had difficulty listening to the various lectures. But one of the delightful escape options for attendees was a guided climb of Mount Monadnock, New Hampshire, including finding the spot where Thoreau spent several nights in August, 1860.
Five of us set out for Keene, New Hampshire, on July 17th with our guide Jose Garcia, a professional botanist and immigrant from Cuba who moved to the United States after the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Hopping out of our van, we began our hike via the Spellman Trail through a dense mixed forest of paper-bark birch, white pine, giant beech trees with heart-shaped leaves, and thick stands of hemlock. We walked along Henry David Thoreau's route of 1852, and in two short miles through fragrant forests, we gained 2,000 feet to arrive at Thoreau's favorite bog, piping with white-throated sparrows and eastern warblers. Thoreau wrote that these nice little bogs of Monadnock stayed perpetually moist by "retaining some of the clouds" that hovered above.
Jose pointed out a surrounding canopy of striped maple and golden-barked yellow birch with a forest floor of New York ferns. The valleys of New Hampshire spread far below, and we could begin to discern the high, rocky shell of Monadnock, looking like a sleeping turtle whose shell rose above tree line.
Gaining elevation, we passed through stands of red spruce that replaced the white pines of the lower slopes and valleys. I mentioned to Jose that western white pines or limber pines grow up to tree line in the Rockies. But not here in New England, he explained. They are less tolerant of higher elevations. He went on to explain that a fierce forest fire in the early part of the nineteenth century created a false tree line, as the trees had not yet come back due to the fact that the climate above 3,000 feet in New Hampshire is quite severe. Mount Washington, above 6,000 feet, has one of the most severe climates in North America, with winter winds clocking at 225 miles per hour and temperatures dipping well below forty below zero (not counting the wind chill factor).
Up here in a chilly northern forest of yellow birch (whose bark makes an excellent tea), Canada mayflowers grew in profusion, and we stopped to listen to the notes of a warbler: twirl, twirl, twirl, zee, zee, zee. Its notes blended together with the distant notes of a black-throated green warbler somewhere up in the high canopy.
We arrived at Falcon Spring to get an icy cold drink while chickadees chattered around us. Jose pointed to a two hundred to three hundred-year old yellow birch rising high into the forest canopy. We continued our climb up a steep trail past patches of hobblebush and mountain maples, which served as perches for Tennessee warblers and hermit thrushes, with their ethereal notes piping through the woods. We soon arrived at a dark-brown bog saddled between two lower summits beneath Monadnock. Here again we stopped to listen to a symphony of white-throated sparrows and hemit thrushes. I was reminded of my boyhood days along the coast of Maine, with its symphony of forest birds and foghorns at sea. All kinds of berries grew on the forest floor: bunchberries, mountain cranberries, and sandworts.
At last we arrived at the granitic turtle shell of Monadnock (now used as a gelogic term for hills with bare granitic summits) and sprang up over the rocky summit to the very top at 3,166 feet in cool and pleasant breezes. We enjoyed sweeping views of eastern New Hampshire and the distant, rolling hills of hazy Vermont to the west. We followed Jose down a different route to a seven-foot ledge overlooking five tall spruce trees, the exact location of Thoreau's campsite of early August, 1860 where he feasted on cranberries and delighted in watching sunsets. Observing smoke-signal clouds from his camp, he wrote, "One evening, as I was watching these small clouds forming and dissolving about the summit of our mountain, the sun having set, I cast my eyes toward the dim bluish outline of the Green Mountains in the clear red evening sky, and, to my delight, I detected exactly over the summit of Saddleback Mountain, some sixty miles distant, its own little cloud, shaped like a parasol and answering to that which capped our mountain." We proceeded down a very steep and rocky slope into the rsing heat and humidity of the valleys below, with occasional views into eastern New Hampshire lake country.
It had become far too hazy to see in the distance another hill of Thoreau fame, Mount Wachusett, outside of Ameherst, Massachusetts. None too soon, we six returned to Falcon Spring for a nice drink of water to refresh us for our hike back down to the valley below. We wished we could have camped overnight up here, but just remembering that icy spring in a steamy hot lecture hall the next day was enough to refresh me.
It is interesting that this mountain's very name has become a geological prototype for any granitic mountain that has resisted erosion and that rises above the plain.
*This is a modified excerpt from my book Breaking Through the Clouds (Pruett, 2005).
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