Rewards and risks in hiking New Hampshire’s White Mountains
View of New Hampshire's White Mountains from Meader Ridge. (Jonah Flicker)
Five miles into a 23-mile hike, standing on a rocky cap above the treeline in New Hampshire's Wild River Wilderness, the last drops of water trickled from my bottle into my parched mouth. Given the oppressively high temperatures blanketing the northeastern United States at the time, this was a disconcerting feeling, to say the least.
I knew I would be crossing several streams before reaching our campsite, so I was not terribly worried. But as my companions and I clambered up and down summits, the brooks we came across were bone dry, and a bit of anxiety began to set in.
The Wild River Wilderness is a beautiful and unspoiled part of the White Mountain National Forest, located just a few miles from the Maine border in central-eastern New Hampshire. The area is relatively remote, meaning you are less likely to run into fellow hikers than you might be while wandering in the more popular Presidential Range or staying in the Appalachian Mountain Club Huts. Our planned route took us, over two nights and three days, from the rustic Wild River Campground, along Meader Ridge, over the rock-strewn Carter Dome and along winding trails skirting Moriah Brook and Wild River back to our starting point. But when the situation proved to be much more taxing than we had originally thought, and possibly dangerous, we cut our trip by more than half. Still, we were able to camp in and explore some incredibly beautiful locations in this isolated and rugged wilderness, an area that feels truly removed from civilization.
After summiting the craggy Ragged Jacket, 2,462ft, and 2,782ft-high Mount Meader's sparsely pine-covered crest without finding a water source, we needed to get back down to Wild River as soon as possible to refresh and refill. We left the rocky alpine pinnacle, where a beautiful view of thick forest and tantalizing, sparkling lakes extended for miles in every direction, and began our descent.
In the White Mountains, one can pass through several different microclimates in as little as an hour. As we trudged along, our surroundings changed from barren, stony outcroppings to dry pine forest to beech tree clusters to mucky, grassy, deciduous bogs. As the afternoon wore on and the heat began to diminish slightly, a wind kicked up, soaring over the ridge at our backs and down the mountain's slope. Every time the trees rustled in the breeze, my ears pricked up at an auditory illusion of a rushing river just around the next bend. It seems that even mild dehydration can make one completely fixated on the enticing, frustrating prospect of water that has yet to appear.
At long last, we reached the Wild River, promptly disrobed and sat in the low but rushing stream, letting the cool water wash over us as we filled and sterilized our bottles. We found an established campsite close by the river and decided we could go no farther. The bugs swarmed as the sun went down, a very common occurrence that time of year in the forests of the northeastern United States. Repellent only helps so much as flies, gnats, mosquitoes and gigantic brown moths the size of a fist buzzed around our heads. In the middle of the night, a passing storm brought some relief with about half an hour of showers, cooling the temperature down even more, but not completely drenching our campsite.
The morning sun brought with it the prior day's heat. Although the humidity had decreased significantly, we decided to cut out the Carter Dome summit attempt. Instead, we hiked downstream along the Wild River Trail to the Spruce Brook Campsite, a short trek which brought us to a magical spot at the convergence of the two rivers.
Here, the Spruce Brook runs crystal clear into the brown, mineral-infused waters of the Wild River, forming a multitude of pools that are perfect for whiling away a summer day in the mountains. In an effort to preserve the land, the Spruce Brook Shelter was removed after the Wilderness Area designation of a few years ago, but there are several established campsites on a ridge up above the river. We set up our tents here and spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing, sitting in the refreshing pools, eating and drinking whiskey from flasks left to cool in the water.