Every hike teaches me a lesson. Sometimes I learn something about myself and my limits, while other times it’s more about the hike or the mountain I’ve chosen to climb.
My most recent hike taught me a few things. First, I learned that I’ll travel a long way to climb a big mountain with great views. I also learned that Old Speck in Newry is a big mountain with not only great but outstanding views.
For the hike, I joined a longtime hiking partner, Randy Galen from Veazie. He had called the week prior to Labor Day weekend and invited me to meet him at the Sunday River Ski Area, where he had booked a condo for the week. He asked if I’d be interested in couch surfing at his place over the long weekend and I signed up. It really didn’t take much thought. Let’s see, staying in a condo near a resort town like Bethel; a base camp with every creature comfort and hiking trails everywhere. I couldn’t say no.
It was about 8:30 when we left the Grafton Notch State Park parking lot for the hike on Sunday morning. The sky was partly cloudy, with a strong northwest wind blowing through the notch, following a cold front that had passed the day before.
The 4,180-foot summit of Old Speck lay up the trail 3.8 miles ahead. We met a southbound through-hiker named Pete and hiked with him for a short ways, until he stopped beside a stream to fill up with water. We said we’d meet up with him on top and we kept hiking.
For the first mile the trail passes beside a cascading stream, fittingly named Cascade Stream. The sound of the stream descending over the bare ledges mixed with the sound of the wind in the leaves overhead. The morning sun had still not vacuumed the clouds from the top. The trail got steeper as we wound our way past several view points. We stopped at one to get a great look down into the notch. After a short break there, it was back on the trail and the ascent.
As we hiked, the sun glistened off mica embedded in the rock and ledge beneath our feet. The day was shaping up to be a good one, and at one view point we could see clouds lifting away from the top. The trail was lined with several varieties of mushrooms. It seemed like every color and shape of mushroom was represented along the trail. I wished I knew more about them, I thought, as I trudged ahead.
The air was cold. It was cold enough to see my breath vapor as I walked along the fairly easy grade. It seemed that in no time we had only a mile left to hike to the top. From a view at the top of a ridge that connects to the summit, we stopped for a short break to take in the view of Baldpate Mountain across the notch. We were at about 3,300 feet elevation.
Soon, we arrived at the mostly wooded summit. It was about 11 o’clock. By now the top had completely cleared of clouds, but the wind was still strong.
There is an observation tower which extends above the trees for the most surprising 360-degree view of the landscape. Before climbing the tower, Randy and I had a lunch and chatted a while with the southbound through-hiker, Pete, who arrived shortly after we did.
Shortly after reaching the top a trio of Canada jays flew in and perched in the firs. Canada jays are renowned for their tameness around people and I showed other hikers, who had by now arrived by the same trail, just how tame they are. I put some trail mix in my hand and immediately a jay flew to my hand, landed, grabbed some mix and flew away. Then I put mix on my head. Promptly a jay flew in, stayed a while on my head, grabbed the mix and again flew away. The other hikers were amazed and soon everyone was putting food on their heads. The jays had a feast.
The through-hiker and I climbed the tower so I could point out the views to the south and name some of the mountains we could see. The view was jaw dropping. Ahead of us rose the entire Mahoosuc Range, divided by Mahoosuc Notch, the undisputed toughest mile of the Appalachian Trail.
In the distance Mount Washington’s summit was partly covered in clouds, but because I know where it’s located, I could point it out. Also visible were the Carter Range and the mountains in the Evans Notch region west of Bethel. There was a sea of mountains out there.
The scene to the northeast was just as inspiring. Mt Blue outside Farmington, Sugarloaf, Mount Abraham, Baldpate and others were all in view. To the north lay Lake Umbagog, Richardson Lake and Mooselookmeguntic Lake. I could’ve stayed there all day and not named all the features.
Of course we couldn’t stay all day, so Randy and I said our goodbyes to Pete and the others and turned away from the top to hike down. On the way down I realized that I learned a couple of more lessons that day. A great view is always worth a long road trip and Canada Jays are really friendly, at least as long as there’s food.