To call this an odd spring for hiking would be an understatement, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve heeded New Hampshire’s stay-at-home recommendation as much as I can bear, being old enough to be considered more at risk than younger neighbors. I have a homemade mask to wear on my few outings. I’ve Instagrammed and tweeted about #homehikechallenge. I’ve walked lap after lap on neighborhood streets. Boredom finally drove me out to Pawtuckaway State Park, where I hoped the extensive trail network would allow for the social distancing we’re all supposed to observe.
More than boredom got me out the door. I was afraid that state officials might suddenly close down trailheads on state property. The U.S. Forest Service recently did just that in the White Mountain National Forest, citing excessive crowding and a lack of social distancing at trailheads. The WMNF trails are open, but the trailheads and campgrounds are not. (I envision hikers being dropped in via helicopter, but that’s probably against the rules, too.)
For the moment, the state parks are open, with some new restrictions on parking in popular parks like Pawtuckaway. (See nhstateparks.com for details and current information.) On my midweek visit, the restrictions seemed to be effective, with only a couple of dozen cars parked in the lot at the main entrance. Signs were posted in the parking lot and at trail junctions advising visitors to observe good hygiene and stay at least 6 feet away from each other. No problem for me, traveling solo.
The fire tower on one of Pawtuckaway’s three little mountains usually attracts me, but it usually attracts lots of other people, too. Scratch that idea. The black flies were out, and even with DEET I didn’t relish the thought of swatting them away for a few hours in the still air of the woods. Nope. I decided on a breezy route that edged Pawtuckaway Lake: the access road from parking lot to campground to lake, then the Fundy trail northward to the boat launch and back. Jackpot.
However many cars were in the main lot, I saw only about 20 people during my walk, which covered about 7.5 miles if my trusty MapMyWalk app is to be believed. That’s nothing compared to Pawtuckaway’s usual crowds. The visitor center was closed, and so was the campground and the boat rental station. The lake is usually dotted with kayaks and canoes in the coves, with powerboats making a racket in the open water. Not this time. The peace and quiet, odd at first, won me over pretty quickly.
My friends and I have been joking about the “COVID 25,” meaning the weight we’re apt to gain with all the baking and cooking we’re doing during enforced time away from our usual activities. I hike for fun, but there’s an element of necessary exercise these days as well. My Pawtuckaway route was flat except for the slightest of inclines near the end, perhaps a couple of hundred feet in the last mile. I took that mile at the briskest pace I could manage without breaking into a jog. The COVID 25 was chasing me.
I was in a familiar park under very unfamiliar circumstances, feeling ease and unease all at once. It was downright weird to be on those paths with so few people. Inside me is a spoiled child impatiently stomping her foot and demanding that the world get normal again. Yet under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have had the lakeshore practically to myself.
I stopped at one point to watch three herons for awhile. No one else was in sight. The solitude suddenly felt right. It didn’t feel imposed on me.