Plan B salvages cloudy hiking day

Brad Viles stops on the shore of Big Moose Pond last Sunday to check out the summit of Little Moose Mountain in Greenville.
Brad Viles stops on the shore of Big Moose Pond last Sunday to check out the summit of Little Moose Mountain in Greenville.
Posted Nov. 12, 2010, at 6:22 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.

I took one look at the top of Big Moose Mountain last Sunday and figured I needed a Plan B if I wanted to hike. The 3,196 foot summit’s final 300-400 feet was encased in an ugly gray cloud. Now, I’m no fair-weather hiker, but with temperatures in the 30s, a brisk northwest wind and no prospect of the sun breaking through the thick cloud blanket overhead, views from the top appeared to be out. For the next few minutes I mentally ran down my list of options.

Option No. 1 was that I could hike partway up and see if it cleared up. It still was early, around 9:30 a.m., and there was always a chance it would clear while I was on the trail, I reasoned. But if it didn’t clear, a 2½-mile hike to the old fire warden’s cabin would not return much of a reward besides a long, cold climb.

Sometimes a hike is just a hike, and I could’ve convinced myself that that was how this one would go. Views aren’t the only reason I hike. “It is what it is,” I told myself, still sitting in the truck.

Option No. 2 took into consideration the chance that the sun might actually come out. In that event, I would spend the rest of the day on top just kicking back and identifying the outstanding landscape features of the Moosehead Lake country.

I didn’t want to think of an option that didn’t include a hike. Occasionally, I’d glance up from the trail map to the summit, just to check for any break in the clouds; a sign conditions were changing. They weren’t. There was rime ice coating the firs and spruces visible just below the cloud line. It would probably be icy on the trail, too. The wind was stirring the treetops around the parking lot. I got out of the truck and gathered up the day pack and strapped it on.

After walking around to get loose for a few minutes, I still hadn’t picked an option. I walked over to the interpretive panels near the trail and read a little about the first fire tower on Big Moose. It was erected in 1905, the panel read, and was the first in the country.

I had been looking at that tower ever since I was in high school. On winter Saturdays, my mom would drive me from our home in Brewer to the mountain to ski. The tower was a familiar landmark back then. The tower’s still standing but I decided I wouldn’t be climbing up to see it today.

I dug the map out of my pocket and looked for other trails in the Little Moose Unit of the Maine Bureau of Public Lands. Little Moose Mountain, elevation 2,000 feet, popped right off the paper. Little Moose — Plan B. It meant a short drive up the road to another trailhead that leads to Little Moose Mountain on the other side of the lowland, which includes a couple of ponds. I could see the mountain to the south above the trees lining the road. Its top was clear of clouds.

The new plan was to hike a few miles on Little Moose and see what I could see in terms of clearing skies. If the clouds broke from Big Moose, which was visible from its lower brother, I’d hike back and climb to the tower. If it didn’t clear off, I’d still hike with some views of the pond near Little Moose. Plan B was in play.

I got on the trail and the half-mile hike from the truck to Big Moose Pond was easy over several wooden bog bridges. The trail descended over a set of slate stone stairs soon after I left the truck. I stopped at the campsite near the shore and walked down to the water. Little Moose Mountain still was visible above the pond. The water barely rippled. Big Moose Mountain blocked the north wind.

The trail crosses the remains of an old concrete dam and on the other side it heads into the trees for a short walk partway near the shore. The dark forest around the pond forced me to look at trees lining the trail. The beech trees had only those last clinging khaki-colored leaves left on them. Before leaving the pond I got another look at Big Moose Mountain, still in the clouds.

Soon, after more level walking, I came to a signed intersection with the Loop Trail that leads to Little Moose Pond. I headed for the trail up the mountain and the Notch Trail, which runs along its ridge. After a short side-hill hike gradually heading up, I arrived at another intersection with the Greenwood Trail leading left and the Notch Trail, which leads right to the western high point of the mountain.

Hiking gradually up along the ridge through the forest of white birch, beech and maple, the pond was visible through the naked trees. It reflected the dull gray of the clouds above. I came out on a rock outcrop with a nice view of the summit just ahead. A short descent into a sag and then back up again for another mile or so, through a great spruce-and-fir-lined section of trail.

I stopped for a short snack break after rounding the tree-covered top, turned around and hiked back. The clouds never broke from the top of Big Moose. I stopped at the shore of the pond again and thought, “It’s good to have a Plan B.” I remembered one of several hikes when I didn’t have an alternate plan on bigger mountains than these.

There was that time in October on Bigelow. It had poured for two days before I got there. I didn’t make any plan other than to hike to Bigelow Col at the base of the summit. I crossed a swollen stream, got hypothermia, and by the time I got to the col, I was wet and shivering. It was the middle of the afternoon by then, and I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep until it got dark. There was no Plan B.

It’s good to have a Plan B.

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