A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Backpack around Owls Head

July 2, 2017
Emilie Phillips

At the Lincoln Woods trail head, the forest ranger stopped us on the boardwalk to the trails. “Where are you going?” he queried. “Up the west side of Owls Head to Thirteen Falls for three days of camping” Tyson described. The ranger frowned. “The rivers are running too high. The stream crossings aren’t passable. You won’t make it.” We thanked him for his time and continued on our way. We would adapt our plan based on what we found. The ranger sighed and attempted to convince the next party to turn back.

Pemigewasset river full of storm water

All the hike up the Lincoln Woods trail, the Pemigewasset river roared like a steam engine hauling timber down from the mountains. The foaming muddy spray filled the valley with fog.

View toward Bondcliff

We took the shortcut past Black Pond to Owls Head. The trail pokes out into a corner of Black Pond. There we found a shaded granite boulder for eating lunch or jumping into the pond. Off to the northeast Bondcliff rose above the trees. Isaac wanted to play in the water, so Tyson joined him. There were little fish and salamanders swimming in the water. “What do salamanders eat Dad?” Isaac asked. “Bugs, fish, anything smaller than them” Tyson explained as he tried to catch a salamander. I pointed from the top of the rock “Isaac, here’s one eating a fish right now”. Tyson exclaimed and dove for something. “I caught a leach!” It was 4 inches long and a centimeter wide. Cupped in Tyson’s hands in the water it probed all around looking for a way out or something to eat. I briefly touched it. It had an odd texture and consistency. We put the leach back in the water. Isaac continued his previous line of inquiry, “What do leaches eat?” “People” I replied. Isaac lept out of the water and stood on shore staring out at the undulating leach circling the shallows. “I’m done swimming now” he said simply.

Tyson searching for a way to cross Birch Island Brook

Isaac’s boots were damp from the mud puddles on the trail. I put blister pads on his heals and gave him new dry socks.

From Black Pond, we struck northward on a bushwhack. We had heard there was a well trodden bushwhack. We didn’t find it. Instead we followed our compass. Tyson navigated and I helped Isaac through the brush. Another hiker and her dog found us in the woods. “I’ve been hiking in circles. I heard your voices and hurried over. Do you know where the bushwhack is back to Black Pond?” she asked. Well, we didn’t know where the bushwhack was, but we knew where Black Pond was. We sent her off on her way. Apparently, on the way north to Owls Head she had been with someone else who knew the bushwhack and it seemed easy to follow. Wonder where we missed it. Later, closer to Owls Head, we would cross another group of hikers who had also missed the established bushwhack and followed their compass. I would suggest getting some beta from someone who knows the bushwhack before attempting to follow it.

We reached Lincoln Brook just south of where the Lincoln Brook Trail crossed to the west side. The stream was high and loud, but not nearly as brown and frothing as the Pemigewasset. We had avoided 5 stream crossings by bushwhacking from Black Pond. A few other groups passed us who had forded all the streams on the trail. The hillsides beside Lincoln Brook drained water from everywhere — a wet sponge emptying out. Isaac’s boots were sopping wet by the end of the day.

We crossed one major tributary and then camped at a ridge of land right before the next tributary. The ridge was drier than the hillsides or valleys. The best tent sites were on a bluff above the stream. We briefly considered camping farther into the bushes to avoid the roar of the stream.

Photos from the first day

GPS Track from the First Day

Day Two, North around Owls Head

Tyson and Isaac negotiating mud

The second day was proper Pemigewasset Wilderness backpacking. A trail that alternates between being a swamp and a river. Impassable stream crossings. Uneven foot bed made of glacial debris. And black flies breeding devilish plans. Somehow we got lucky and didn’t find blown downs blocking the trail.

The trails didn’t improve on the other side of the ridge

I remember my first backpacking trip in the Pemigewasset with my parents. I was 10 at the time. There were endless blow downs to climb over or duck under. There was plenty of wet and mud. Mom went flying on one particularly treacherous log and gashed her shin. But then we climbed up Thoreau falls and the sun on the plummeting water and the towering golden granite made it all worth it.

Arriving at Thirteen Falls

On this trip, we arrived at Thirteen Falls. Here the water flowed over wide ledges and the sky opened to a view of Owls Head. A light breeze blew all the black flies away. The flood from Saturday night had abated and the cascades made music instead of cacophony.

We had covered a scant 4 miles. Isaac was covered in mud and scrapes and his boots were a soggy mess. We debated trying to press on farther, but there was space at the Thirteen Falls tent site and we needed rest.

Photos From Day 2

GPS Track Day 2

July 4th Hike Out

The third day was what you imagine a hike in the Pemigewasset wilderness would be. Long gradual rail road grades with a few stream crossings. Occasional sweet smelling swamps and views up to the mountains. The breeze ruffling the birch leaves. And a soft blanket of spruce needles.

Isaac running ahead

Isaac ran and skipped ahead of us on the railroad grade. “I can hike faster than you!” he giggled and ran on. The streams were still high enough we had to change into our water shoes for each crossing. Tyson would cross first with his pack, then he would return with a pole for me and carry Isaac across piggyback. The streams would have been waist high on Isaac. Most of the streams were pleasantly cold, but two were absolutely frigid. Tyson couldn’t feel his feet after crossing back and forth. We never did figure out what made those two different.

Bondcliff and beyond

We hiked quickly down to the junction with the Lincoln Woods trail, Franconia Falls Trail, and the Wilderness Trail. Isaac reminded us that he’d skied there before. I have to say, the rest of the hike was too crowded for my tastes. Everyone backpacking the west side of the Pemigewasset funneled into the Lincoln Woods trail plus the mobs of day trippers out to Franconia Falls for the Fourth of July.

Emilie and Isaac back at the trailhead bridge

We made it out in time for an early dinner. A grand success. And now Isaac wants to hike all the mountains he saw in the distance: Bondcliff, Garfield, and Owls Head.

Photos From Day 2

GPS Track Day 3