I reached Perkins Notch two hours before sunset. To get there I’d climbed a 2,500-foot ridge, dropped 1,000 feet down the other side into a forested valley, forded the same river back and forth more times than I can remember, sunk above my ankles in mud, crawled under fallen tree trunks, and teetered on bog bridges that were sinking into the bog. It had been 8.5 miles all told; and since no one else had done the same thing today, Perkins Notch “tent site” was all mine.
But the tent site is located in a federally designated wilderness — New Hampshire’s Wild River Wilderness — so I didn’t expect much. I didn’t expect trash bins, or a water pump, or even a privy; and these expectations were met. What I did hope for was somewhere to keep my food from bears. I nosed around looking for a pulley or a box, but found neither. I had my own rope, but the pine trees were so close together that it seemed impossible to find a place that a climbing bear could not reach with ease. Eventually, a decent distance from my tent, I found a half-fallen tree, threw my rope over it, attached my food bag to the rope, and hoped to God Perkins Notch bears were none too agile or determined.
After that, my lonely night in the Wild River Wilderness went very smoothly. I was fed (dehydrated chicken teriyaki with rice) and in my sleeping bag by soon after sundown, which is to say by 6:30 p.m.; and I stayed there — warm, asleep, and undisturbed by critters — until an hour before dawn. It had been sunny all the way to Perkins Notch, but already this morning sprinkles had touched my tent. And when I stumbled out into the faintest of twilight, the pines were wrapped in mist. On my way to that part of the woods that I had designated the privy, a bird exploded out of the brush. I didn’t know it was a bird for a whole split second, and it had made enough noise to be something altogether bigger and more carnivorous. Then, as my heart rate returned to normal, I scanned the woods and saw my food bag still dangling from its pine. There would be breakfast.
It was the second year in a row that I had set out on a four-day October backpack in the White Mountains; and, same as before, I had booked into an Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hut for my second night, a precaution against bad weather or lonesomeness. Last year, it was unnecessary on both counts. This year, though I had seen nobody for a day now, I wasn’t especially lonesome either. But soon after leaving Perkins Notch I was very glad for the prospect of the hut. At first, heading out of the Wilderness on the Wild River Trail, it was just rain. But as I climbed toward Carter Notch, a wind began to flex its muscles in the steep forest.
Comfort is relative, but I think most people around here would agree with me that there was little comfortable about Carter Notch Hut that afternoon. There was no heating, no showers, no warm bedding or La-Z-Boy chairs. AMC huts don’t do that kind of thing. And because I had arrived after the end of full-service season, no meals would be cooked for me either. But as the wind thumped against the walls of the notch and a cold rain turned the ground to creeks, I was immeasurably grateful for my hard seat in the chilly hut, a bunk to put my sleeping bag on, and the use of a huge cooking range. And for someone who wasn’t lonesome, I lapped up the company too. It consisted of Casey — the young caretaker — and the guy who hiked 3.6 miles to service the range flue. He was in no rush to go back outside, so the three of us enjoyed an afternoon of on-and-off chat of a very pleasant weightlessness.
I studied my map at the hut table. The Wilderness was a fingerprint-shaped green area six miles across. It was bounded west and east by the Carter-Moriah and Baldface ranges respectively. I had crossed the Baldface Range to reach Perkins Notch. Tomorrow I planned to climb over Carter Dome (4,832 feet) and re-cross the Wilderness. But I could see the weather outside, and Casey had the forecast. A cold front would blow through in the morning just when I needed to be on Carter Dome. It would bring thunder, and maybe even snow. I also knew now just how poor the wilderness trails could be, and they’d be much worse after the rain. I decided to skip the Carter-Moriah Range and return the way I had come — via the devil I knew.
I set out the next morning in heavy rain. Brooks I had stepped over on stones yesterday had to be waded today. On the trails, I sank even deeper in mud. But the day cleared, and by the time I made camp beneath North Baldface mountain, all the summits surrounding the Wilderness were visible. I went up to the ridge for sunset, which was followed by the moon rising the color of a newly minted penny. In the morning I came back to see the sun peek into the sky above Maine, and eventually soar to fill the Wild River valley with sharp, fall light. (A picture is worth a thousand inadequate words, and you will find 70 pictures from this hike on Facebook — “McWilliams Takes a Hike”, “Wild River Wilderness, October 2014” album, no login needed.)
|Wild River Wilderness|
|LOCATION||Approx. 10 mi due east of Mt Washington, New Hampshire, between NH 16 and the Maine line.|
|SIZE||24,030 acres / 37.5 sq. mi (by way of comparison, Manhattan covers 23 square miles).|
|MAP AND GUIDE||Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide and associated map (5, Carter Range-Evans Notch).|
|ACCESS||Except for a gravel road to Wild River Campground at its NE edge, the Wilderness can only be reached by trails through the White Mountain National Forest.|
|BALDFACE CIRCLE TRAIL||I reached and left the Wild River Wilderness via the 9.8-mile Baldface Circle Trail. According to the AMC guide, the loop is strenuous but “one of the most attractive trips in the White Mountains”. It starts on NH 113 at North Chatham. Allow a full day.|