On Taming the Backpack

At Rudy's in Clarksville, NH

At Rudy’s in Clarksville, NH

This is the first full day of moving under my own power for this trip. No cars, no one to bail me out. This is worth noting only because this is the beginning of my first hiking trip lasting more than two days. Thus I celebrate turning 50. Here’s where I find out if my months of preparation were at all helpful.

From Sportsman’s Lodge, I picked up the CT northbound and headed to Rudy’s Cabins & Campground in Clarksville. I called Kathleen Domanico, who runs Rudy’s, a couple of weeks ago to ask about a tent site. She confirmed that she had some, but she quickly added “the weather can be nasty, & there’s no bathhouse.” She told me a vacant camp (meaning cabin) was available for the night at a very reasonable rate. Sounded good to me. I’ll have other nights to use my tent.

The trip from the lodge to Rudy’s amounted to a 6 ½ hour walk, which included several short stops for snacks & water, 10 minutes of befuddlement at one intersection, & 3 very long minutes backtracking to find the map & databook which had fallen out of my pocket. I had sunshine for all of it. Most of the miles were on town roads & well-defined snowmobile trails.

Roger served me up a fine breakfast at the lodge.  I am REAL glad I started the day with that; turns out I needed it. I delayed my departure until 7:45, right after channel 9’s forecast for a sunny day. I shouldered my heavy pack (30 pounds, feels like 40, wish it were 20), fastened a small bag with camera & snacks around my waist, took up my trekking pole, and was off.

An inauspicious start: I barely made it up the driveway. That little uphill slope felt like a mountain to me with that pack. I stopped at the mailbox & tweaked the pack straps to try to get more comfortable. I did that three more times in the first quarter mile. Finally I decided to stop at Coleman & remove the pack for serious adjustments. I found that one side of the sternum strap was misthreaded, and that was a quick fix. It took me a bit longer to adjust the shoulder straps to put the padding where I needed it most. Five minutes later, with the pack sitting more comfortably, I continued on my way.

Any experienced backpacker could have seen that problem coming. I didn’t. For all the hiking I did in preparation for this trip, I didn’t do any of it with a serious amount of weight in my pack. Mistake. I’m very glad I’m not on the mountainous part of the CT. I wouldn’t have been able to manage this load on a serious hill. Today’s travel was mostly along easy town roads, with the last few miles on snowmobile trails.

Heath Road was signed & easy to find. It’s a two-lane-wide dirt road, narrowing after a little bridge to maybe a lane & a half, but definitely a maintained road (though a sign warned that the road was “class V”, maintained only between May & December). I kept the CT map handy, but I was sure I could count on road signs.

Well, for awhile, I couldn’t. I came to an intersection at a farm, with a little gated lane to the right. Map showed a turn at a gated lane by a farm. I turned up the lane, & found that the gate was festooned with no fewer than four No Trespassing signs. I looked carefully for a CT blaze & saw none. I was extremely reluctant to ignore the signs, for two reasons. First, I had no desire to spend any time being dragged down to the state police in Colebrook. (Stewartstown does not boast a police department, & according to Mrs. C, thereby hangs a tale – but I digress.) I’m sure I’m not carrying enough cash for bail or a fine or whatever else they extract from trespassers around here. Second, and decisively, I know that the CT Association has spent years working with landowners, trying to get easements & permissions. It’s a delicate business. One angry landowner could set trail development back five years.

Hooray for timidity & prudence. A few more minutes on Heath Road brought me to the intersection I sought, complete with – yes! — real town-maintained street signs. Bear Rock Road was much livelier than Heath, meaning about 7 cars passed me. Each driver gave me a cheerful wave. Bear Rock is a pleasant road, but not a shady one. I was glad to have sunscreen & a hat.

Flat town roads are all well & good, and certainly better suited to my experience & temperament than mountains, but I knew “flat” couldn’t last. The day’s aerobic workout began on Macallaster Road. That’s where I found the farm-and-gate referred to on the map. I stopped for a few minutes for a snack, and found to my amazement that my cell phone was picking up a faint signal. I texted an I’m-OK message to my daughter back home, and she texted me right back. That, I suspect, is the last communication I’ll be doing via cell this week. The phone’s main usefulness from here on out will be as an alarm clock & contact list.

The snack was plenty. I found I didn’t want a huge lunch. It probably would have made me drowsy. Quick snacks and water stops got me through the day, although I got tired of swinging my pack off to refill my small water bottle. For tomorrow, I’ll rig an easy-to-reach strap for the quart-size Gatorade bottle that serves as my main reservoir.

My trekking pole earned its keep today. I’ve avoided it for most of my hikes in the past. One stiff knee and one persistent case of plantar fasciitis in recent months have persuaded me that I need one. It made my morning hike easier and my afternoon hike possible.

Three cars in caravan came down Macallaster at one point, one of them trailing the acrid odor of overworked brake pads. This drove home to me the fact that whoever put those contour lines on the map wasn’t kidding. I got smiles & waves from the drivers, with encouraging words thrown in. Pressing onward uphill, with breathing & pulse becoming more labored, I told myself that I used to pay Gold’s Gym to move me to workouts like this. I never had such pleasant views on a treadmill, though. There were green hills all ’round, near & far, sunshine pouring down on everything.

I was struck, as I was yesterday, by the variety & vigor of all the wildflowers on the roadside. This area can have very inhospitable weather & it certainly has a short growing season. No matter: the wildflowers, no doubt considered weeds, are running riot here. They’re no less beautiful for being common.

Eventually I passed Creampoke Road – I love that name – and saw quite a camp there. A hybrid mobile-home/permanent structure was occupied today by two or three generations of a family having a good visit. A little dog barked at me fiercely, bringing my presence to everyone’s attention. Who should be part of the gathering but one of the women who had driven past me an hour or so before! “You’re making good time,” she exclaimed, and asked me where I was headed. I told her I was going to Rudy’s for the night. Everyone around here knows about Rudy’s Cabins, apparently. The family wished me well.

I turned onto Haines, a rough “class VI” road that gets no town maintenance. Shortly, a bicyclist came into view. I called out to him that he was doing the real work, pedaling on gravel. He asked me if I was doing the CT & was pleased with my answer. He gave me an update on conditions up ahead. Within a couple of minutes, we both realized that we had met at last June’s gathering of CT supporters. I was glad to have his good cheer & encouragement as fatigue began to set in.

CT blazes were handy as the road petered out to a snowmobile trail. I made my left turn at Weirs Tree Farm, just as map & databook directed. There was a scene that stopped me in my tracks: a clear view to the north, hills & mountains a-plenty. The Connecticut Lakes were out there somewhere, concealed by ridges.

At this point, I had to lean heavily on my trekking pole with each step. Just two miles to go – and I’m glad it wasn’t three. I was tired, and I knew the signs: wobbly knees, near-inability to look up since I had to concentrate on where I was placing my feet, repeated sharp jolts to my knee as I stumbled. This is how a person gets hurt on a hike. So much for my “training”! Getting to Rudy’s put some heart back into me.

A re-route last May took the CT a mile or so away from Rudy’s. The short walk away from the trail was absolutely worth it. The camp that owner Kathleen had reserved for me looked ready to fall down, but then I went inside. It was just fine! Comfortable, snug, electricity & running water, and situated right on Clarksville Pond: an altogether acceptable alternative to a night in a tent. I went to the campground’s office to pay for my night’s stay and to thank Kathleen, but she wasn’t there. I tucked my payment & a note into the office.

First thing I did at the cabin was take my boots off. (Ahhhhhh.) Second thing was sit on the porch & relax. I heard a low thrum & quickly looked up – and there was a hummingbird, barely a foot & a half from my face. I barely had time to register the amazing sight before it flew away. Plenty of birds are here along the shore.

So it’s a happy end to my first long day. I am content. I had hoped to get some sunset photos, but it’s cloudy — all shades of gray. Pretty, in its way.