A Family Adventure


Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

The Saga of Hancock Notch

January 31, 2010
Emilie Phillips

The short version, is thus:
AMC publishes a map of winter trails in the Whites that shows skiing and hiking trails. We decided to try one trail we hadn’t skied yet, and convinced a friend to join us. Unfortunately this trail was not maintained. It was a blazed bushwhack. Then the stream crossings were out, leading to more bushwhacking. And finally, the map doesn’t show snowmobile trails, leading to us doing more bushwhacking when we should have just continued to the snowmobile trail. The net sum of which is that we started on the trail at 9AM sunday, and finally arrived back at the car at 2AM monday.

The long version:
The Hancock Notch trail goes from the Kanc on one side of the Kancamagus pass to Sawyer River trail on the other side. With a car spot, the total mileage of the two trails is 9.4 miles and about 1200 ft elevation from top to bottom. The map rates the entire trip as a hiking trail suitable for skiing, rated at blue. Having skied a number of other trails on the map, we deemed that rating to be relatively easy, sufficiently so that I brought my longer touring cross country skis, and we left the skins in the car.

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We met up with Mike a bit early and were on the trail a bit before 9AM. The weather wasn’t that cold, especially compared to saturday, and the sun was out. So once I got my internal furnace warmed up, it was a lovely day. Tyson and I knew the first part of the trail from skiing Cedar Brook. The next bit headed up towards Hancock Notch, was a little steeper than we had expected from the map, so we did a bit of herring boning and side stepping. Mike ended up switching to his snow shoes that he had brought just in case. We got to the top around 11:30.

Mike had brought a copy of the AMC hiking guide description for the trail, and it said the trail was hard to follow at times. A little ways down from the top where the hill dropped off, the trail disappeared. We hunted around for a while, and eventually concluded that the map indicated the trail had to go down the drainage. The drainage was not that wide, so we should find it again shortly. We did find blazes again in short order. But from there on down, the trail was frequently clogged with spruce. There were times when Tyson had his pack saw out to cut a way through the trail. Somewhere, after the first couple of dense spots on the trail, both Mike and I pondered whether we should turn around. Neither of us spoke up though. At that point we had 3 more miles of the Hancock Notch trail before we hit Sawyer River trail, and then 2.6 miles on that trail. Comments from the peanut gallery on whether we should have considered turning around more seriously?

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There were times when the skiing was decent. And the trail was consistently blazed, if only in faded paint or axe blazes. But there were plenty of times when I was cursing my long skis. And plenty of times when Tyson, in the lead, was cursing the stream crossings. The trail seemed to delight in wandering back and forth over the streams with which it shared the ravine. And every one of these crossings required stopping to side step over it, or take the skis off and walk across, or as it got larger, hunt up and down the shore until we found a place where the ice was safe. There was at least one point where we decided to skip the stream crossing and hope the trail would just come back shortly. It didn’t so we ended up finding another crossing farther down, and then re-finding the trail.

At some point the batteries in the gps gave out, and Tyson had forgotten to fully charge the spares. This wasn’t a big deal because we had three maps between us and compasses. The trail mercifully departed from the stream for a while, only to cross a sizable tributary and rejoin the main stream, or rather river at this point. This was a distinctive enough feature that we knew exactly where we were on the map. Unfortunately, that point was still at least a mile from the Sawyer River trail. Also, unfortunately, it was dark, sufficiently dark that we had to get out our headlamps to peer out across the river that the trail was to cross. (For those of you who haven’t skied the woods at night, the snow reflects enough light that even well into dusk, you can still easily see without a headlamp. So this was really night time.) And next unfortunate observation was that the river ice did not look good. We put our skis in our packs, and cautiously, carefully re-crossed the tributary in the hopes that the river above the tributary would be better. But it wasn’t particularly, and the short brush was dense enough we could not follow it up. This left us stuck on the wrong side of the river with a steep hill and fairly dense trees to bushwhack through. In about a half mile, the map said the trail returned to our side of the river. So we figured heading for it was our best bet.

Higher up on the Sawyer River where it was still partly frozen

Higher up on the Sawyer River where it was still partly frozen

Mike left his skis in his pack, and donned his snow shoes. I don’t know how he managed to not get the skis totally tangled in the trees. I applied a sticky wax to my skis for better grip, and Tyson put a little on his too. Going uphill worked ok. But trying to maneuver 198 cm skis through dense woods where I was constantly having to pick up the ski, move it forward to free the tail, slide it back to free up the tip, and repeat with the other ski, was enough to sour even my sunniest of moods. Tyson, in the lead still, resorted to stashing his poles in his pack, and hacking us a path through the spruce with his pack saw. What with the hill on the one side and the river on the other, we were unlikely to miss the trail, but just in case, Tyson was also taking compass bearings occasionally. After and interminable, but not unreasonable trudge, we encountered the trail. Tyson warmed up some of his gps batteries with body heat enough that we were able to double check with the gps that this was plausibly the trail.

For the next while, the trail was quite broad and pleasant. After not too far, we even encountered some old snowmobile tracks. The one thing we didn’t see, though, was any more blazes. Mike stayed on his snow shoes, figuring he would be less likely to injure himself in the dark that way. Soon enough we came to a trail intersection. I think somewhere around that stop, Tyson and I drank the last of our liquid water, leaving us with a partial thermos of hot chocolate. It was 8pm at this point.

The intersection we were at had an old logging road going right, and something similar going left. The snowmobile tracks went left which was consistent with the fact that there was a closed road in that direction. I debated whether or not we should just go left towards the road even though it was a good deal longer and would put us on the wrong highway. But at least it was a road, which is easy to ski in the dark, whereas none of us knew what Sawyer River trail was like. We pulled out the gps again briefly, it said we were near the trail intersection, but not at it, but the trails on the gps map are known to be inaccurate. Well, we ended up taking the right hand turn.

For those of you in the peanut gallery, I’ll let you know now that we made the wrong choice. The biggest piece of information I wish I had was a map of the snowmobile trails. For some reason, the AMC winter trails map does not include that. Had it included that, we would have known that the trail we were looking for was a groomed snowmobile trail, and this was most definitely not a groomed snowmobile trail. The other thing we maybe should have done that we had not was read the description of the Sawyer River trail, but when I came home and read the description, it said it followed old logging roads, which was consistent with the right hand option. The last possible clue was that there was no trail sign, which most other intersections in the Whites have. Again, commentary from the peanut gallery appreciated.

So off we went following the old logging road. It soon opened into a clearing of the type that usually has many smaller logging roads coming off it. We took one that looked to be going in the right direction. By now the moon was rising, so we were not constantly having to reference the compass to keep track of direction. As we progressed along, the road became more overgrown until we fell off of it a few times. We knew we were generally going south, downhill, and through a swamp. So that’s what we did, including having to saw our way back out of some spruce thickets so thick Tyson could not see his skis. At one point we came out on an open swampy area. We stopped for a rest break. Mike and I finished the hot chocolate.

I remembered that Mike’s camera took AA batteries just like Tyson’s gps, and they were lithiums which might still be working in the cold. And, as luck would have it, they were. Unfortunately, now knowing where we were, did not really fix us not knowing where the trail was. So we headed across the open swamp area, and then back west to where we had last lost the road. We found anther logging road soon enough and followed it. It too was overgrown, and eventually started turning too far west to be plausible. At this point Tyson suggested that we try believing the gps’s trails and head east. It sounded like no worse of an idea than anything else as we stared into another thick wood, so we tried it. We did not take the most direct route because of terrain. At one point we ended up on another pond. Mike broke through getting the outsides of his boots wet, but no more.

At various points as we were bushwhacking, I was thinking that we were carrying enough in our packs to survive a night out. But even though I was dead tired, moving still keeps you warmer than stopping as long as no one is getting injured. The bushwhacking might be slightly easier in the daylight, but probably not much. And we still wouldn’t have more water.

At 12:30, we got to the freshly groomed snowmobile road right where the gps said the trail would be. In another half an hour, we had made it to the turn off where the Nanamacomuck and the Sawyer River trail diverged from the snowmobile road. We were now in territory familiar to Tyson and I. Along the way we did take a five minute break to sit on our packs and enjoy the lovely moonlight. I tried out my new down jacket, and it was nice and warm.

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The trail had not been broken out since Thursday’s snow, but that was only a couple inches. It’s 0.3 miles to where the Nanamacomuck ski trail diverges. And from there only a handful of paces to the Swift River crossing. When we had planned the trip, I knew there was some chance, that river crossing would not be passable, and we would have to ski the mile back up the Nanamacomuck to the highway, and hike or hitch hike back down to the car. A mile added to a 9.4 mile trip, did not seem like such a horrible possible outcome. Well, Tyson stared out over the river, and said no go. Mike said, there has to be a way, we’re almost back. But he too, grudgingly had to admit that it was not safe. At 1AM, going from .3 miles left to the car to probably 2 and no odds of hitch hiking, was a devastating moral blow.

So we went back to the Nanamacomuck. As it was starting to get steeper, I started slipping a lot. So I stopped to add more sticky wax to my skis, including on the glide regions. Tyson thought about it, and put kick wax all over his skis too even though they have scales. Mike shared the last of his hot water so we could defrost some of our ice crystals. And up the hill we went. Neither Tyson nor I could remember how the Nanamacomuck crossed the river other than that it was not a big deal last time. Apparently “not a big deal” meant “bridge.” The wax worked great. And with much slow plodding we made it to the road. There we dropped our packs, skis, poles, everything, and walked three abreast down the middle of a snowy Kancamagus to the car. We got to the car just shy of 2AM. 17 hours out in the woods.

Luckily, that was the end of our epic. Mike’s car started, we didn’t slide off the snowy road, and our car started. Mike went his own way. We needed food and water, but there was nothing open in Lincoln. We found a gas station and convenience store some exits farther south. We got back home and were headed to bed around 5:30AM I think. We had been up for 23 hours.

The next day was spent sleeping, rehydrating, and re-nourishing.

GPS Track

Here are the bits of the gps track. You can see where we were wondering on and off the logging roads in the satellite view.

All Photos

Edit: In 2016 the Saco Ranger District trail crew cleared much of the trail.

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Comments (1)

  • Random Comments

    First, glad that all you suffered was a late night.

    Second, reads like one of the safety articles in the sea kayaker magazine.

    Third, deciding to abandon a trip always seems hard to do.

    Last, have you ever practiced bivouacking with your ski gear, were you have a short easy out if you get too cold?