We found a new place to explore — Bald Mountain in Oquossoc Maine. On Strava heat map, I noticed ski tracks from Mooselookmeguntic Lake up to Bald Mountain. We have flown to Mooselookmeguntic Lake before. Neither of us knew about the nearby skiing. Bald Mountain was a downhill ski area in the 1960s. (New England Lost Ski Areas, New England Ski History) Now there is a hiking trail to the fire tower on top. A snowmobile trail crosses a near where the base lodge used to be. The outer green run is still prominent in satellite view. Across the road from the trailhead is the Bald Mountain Camps lodge and cabins. They host an annual fly in on the frozen lake. A fly in plus backcountry skiing was too good a combo to pass up in my opinion.
Isaac had a different opinion. He decided to skip and spend the day with his grandparents and cousins. Tyson and I enjoyed the day as a couple.
A cold front swept across the east coast the day before the fly in. It dumped rain and sleet on southern NH, and 1-2 feet of fluffy powder on northern NH and Maine. Remnants of the storm were still hanging around Saturday morning. For flying, we had to watch out for the patchy clouds, snow flurries and a good deal of wind. There was also plenty of snow clearing left to be done. The frozen surface on the Brookline airport runway was firm enough that Tyson took off on wheels. As passenger, I got to look down at the landscape. Most everything was still white, but the fields had gullies where the rain water had drained through the snow. All the streams and wetlands were flooded with tan slush.
Our first destination was Jaffrey to drop Isaac off. The Jaffrey runway was all white, so Tyson landed in ski mode just in case. The surface turned out to be solid: a layer of ice, some slush in places, and then a layer of rough pellets bonded to the ice. After dropping Isaac off, the plane didn’t start. This is the third time recently that the Bearhawk has failed to start. Something seems to be wrong in the starter such that it won’t activate when still hot from the previous flight. Tyson ordered a new starter a while ago, but, well, supply chain. We dallied around until it cooled off. All told, we left Jaffrey an hour later than we hoped.
Tyson was the pilot on the flight north. I got to navigate, which was fun. We had to stay low and avoid the mountains to stay out of the remnants of the storm. Unfortunately there was a strong head wind down low. Normally we cruise at 100kts. That day we were making 70kts across the ground. Higher up it supposedly would have been a tail wind. And we could see patches of blue above us. We just weren’t certain there would be a hole to descend back through in Maine. The other problem with down low was the turbulence. My stomach informed me I had better minimize looking down at the scenery. I did note when the trees transitioned to all white from fresh snow.
The tightest spot was north of Bethel. A string of mountains separates Bethel from the Rangeley Lakes. The tops of the mountains were obscured in the clouds. We needed to stay down in a valley. One possible valley required a detour east, one looked high on the chart, and one was narrow. I picked the narrow one because it was lower and direct. The clouds were no problem, but the wind came howling through the notch. The Bearhawk was quite slow against the wind, but we made it through.
Once above the lakes, we pointed out places we have kayaked. Some of the lakes had giant ice ridges. Before landing, we flew a reconnaissance tour around Bald Mountain. The BMC host had plowed a runway and a taxiway. Tyson used neither. He though landed with skis on the snow. He could have landed on the runway. It would have been a little challenging with the cross wind and steep plow banks. Instead, Tyson landed on the snow for the pure fun of it. Other than the Bald Mountain Camps owner, we were the only plane there. I guess no one else thought it was worth dealing with the weather.
We had lunch and changed our boots in the lodge. The owner gave us some pointers on the snowmobile trail. While flying reconnaissance, I determined that the prominent green run is now the access road for a cell tower. I spotted one line cleared straight down the hill with some tracks. Otherwise, the evergreen trees hid any other glades. We started on the snowmobile trail to avoid a road walk. I was determined to get to the top of the mountain. Yet Tyson was requiring that we get back to the airplane well before sunset. A tight schedule given our late start and slow flight up. I set a quick pace. Not far into the woods, we were both so warm we stripped all our jackets off despite the single digit temperatures.
We turned right off the snowmobile trail onto the Alternate Bald Mountain hiking trail. This connected us to the main hiking trail. We found fresh ski tracks on the connector and the main hiking trail. That morning, someone had skinned up the snowmobile trail and then descended the hiking trail. They had done the hard work of breaking through the fresh snow. The snow was amazing – Rocky Mountain quality fluffy powder. The other advantage of following the ski tracks was that they looked like they knew the area. They might lead us someplace fun. The skier must have been a good skier because their tracks descended some tight steep drops on the hiking trail with nary a fall. Tyson didn’t think he would fare as well, so we were committed to skiing down an unknown route.
At the top we found a picnic table in a sunny spot, the fire tower with views of the lakes, and a snowmobiler. The view of the lakes was still partly obscured by clouds. For safety sake, we needed to get back to the airplane with plenty of daylight left. The snowmobiler said he had come up a tricky single track. He said it was the only route up. Unfortunately, many snowmobiles had driven over the ski tracks, so we didn’t have our ghost guide to follow. We pulled off our climbing skins and followed the snowmobile track down around the corner.
Of course the next thing the snowmobile trail did was go back up. We managed to skate the uphill and the following traverse. But for next time, I’ll remember to leave my skins on until the big clearing a bit lower down. There we met two more snowmobilers. They looked a little worried.
“Is this a snowmobile trail?” the front one asked, eying our skis maybe wondering if they had accidentally ridden up a ski trail. “That bit back there was really steep.” We told them that as far as we knew it was a shared use trail. When we told them the trail dead ended just ahead at the fire tower, they looked even more worried and began discussing how they would get back down the trail. We left them to their predicament.
From the clearing, one set of ski tracks led left. We couldn’t see anything it led to, so we decided to continue down the access road/snowmobile trail. Even if we got stuck on the snowmobile trail, the snowmobilers were making it sound like a fun run down. Just a little ways down the road, another set of ski tracks headed left into the woods. Here there were two crumbling buildings, one of which might have been the lift shack. The top of the run started with an intimidating plummet. This had probably been the lift line rather than a proper ski run. It looked fun enough, so we took it. The top of the run was narrow but filled with silky soft powder. Just where it widened out enough to start carving, a snowmobile had crushed all the powder. So the downside of Bald Mountain is that it is infested with snowmobiles. The edges of the trail still had powder. For the first time ever, Tyson wished for wider skis that could float across the powder. He had several face plants transitioning from the snowmobile track to the pristine snow.
The forest changed from dense spruce to open hardwoods at the same elevation as the hill leveled off. With all the fresh snow, we would have needed skins to push a path through that snow even going downhill. So we stuck to the snowmobile track which soon joined the official snowmobile trail. We zoomed back down that to the camps.
The only problem with departing in the plane was that both Tyson and I wanted to be the pilot. Sharing is hard. We decided I could fly since Tyson had flown up. The lake wasn’t powder. It was beat up and lumpy from all the snowmobile traffic. But it was fun all the same. Tyson got to navigate. Since we still had clouds, he aimed me towards the farthest east valley that was a bit of a detour, but low and wide. For a brief moment as I was headed southeast, our ground speed read 150kts, which is remarkable for the Bearhawk. We still had strong winds to deal with. And we felt them as we descended into Bethel. The wind rolled off the surrounding mountains and pushed us around. At one point, we plummeted for a good heartbeat. I did mess up one thing, though. I forgot to check the NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) at Bethel before planning to land there for fuel. The ground crew radioed us as we entered the pattern. They let us know they had just finished plowing the runway and cleared the NOTAM saying the airport was closed. Though they warned, quite apologetically, that the breaking action was marginal. Having just come from a lake where the breaking action was nil, I wasn’t worried. The wind played rough and tumble all the way down final to the ground. Tyson barely managed to sit on his hands. I could tell he wanted to challenge himself against the conditions. We fueled up and use the facilities. The ground crew again apologized for the state of the runway. I told them it was as good as any runway I had seen that day, which was true. They took that as me damning them with faint praise.
Tyson flew us the rest of the way home. The clouds lifted enough that we could fly higher, above the turbulence. However, when Tyson first tried to climb up to 6,500’ he couldn’t. Even at full power, the Bearhawk couldn’t out climb the down draft we were in. At this point both Tyson and I wished we had a glider license and experience in gliders. Then we might have known how to guess what feature on the ground was driving the waves in the air. And we might have known where the wind was going up. Without that training, all Tyson could do was detour well east of the mountains and then try again. This time we succeeded at getting up to smoother air. We still had a strong cross wind all the way home. By the time we flew over Concord, Tyson had to aim west for Vermont in order for the wind to blow us to Jaffrey.
We picked up Isaac, who had also had a fun day, and zipped home.
- Nearby Saddleback lake, which abuts Rangeley Lakes Trails Center, does not permit motor boats in the summer or snowmobiles in the winter.