MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Thanks for agreeing to interview. Ken, you have a new hiking guidebook coming out (at least the publisher keeps promising it is going to come out. . .) which you co-edited and contributed quite a bit of new content to. Can you say a little about the book and why you are excited about it?
KEN: My next book project is the 5th Edition of Appalachian Mountain Club's Southern New Hampshire Trail Guide. It was originally due to come out in spring of 2020 but circumstances around the pandemic delayed it for about a year. As of right now, it is scheduled to be released in spring of 2021. After starting the project in mid-2018, I will be happy to finally see it come to fruition. I'm excited about the book for several reasons. The main one is that I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work on such a prominent project for [the] AMC. I'm taking over from the legendary Steve Smith [ co-author of The 4,000-Footers of the White Mountains and editor of the AMC’s White Mountain Guide ] who authored the book for many years. He recommended me personally for the job and I couldn't be more honored. I am eager to expand upon Steve's work (and the authors before him) as well as include brand new material which will showcase what Southern New Hampshire has to offer. The White Mountains get a lot of the glory for good reasons, but the southern part of New Hampshire provides plenty of opportunities for folks to get outside, whether you're looking for a simple forest walk or a rugged hike to an open summit. One more thing . . . having the book delayed by the pandemic has also had an up-side. Since the publication date was pushed back so far, some of the initial field work was already out of date. Having this extra time allowed myself and the books staff at AMC to include updates and even some last-minute new information to ensure that the guide would be as up to date as possible.
MPPL: I’m really looking forward to the book. Your other project (which I understand you got started after the Southern NH Trail Guide, but which came to fruition sooner because of the publication delays) was New Hampshire’s 52 With A View: A Hiker’s Guide--a guide book to the peaks of the longstanding hiking list by the same name. That was an original--you weren't picking up as an editor of the next edition of an ongoing guidebook series, you were creating a new one. And the book has been very successful. Were you surprised by that?
KEN: The 52WAV book has been incredibly successful, and yes, it's been a bit surprising. I mean, I knew there was a demand for such a book but didn't realize it was this big. I initially wrote it because of my fondness for the hikes on the list, but also because folks were clamoring for such a resource. I kept reading comments like, "Hey, you know that 4,000-footer book (Steve Smith's book) that describes all the peaks and routes in one place? Why isn't there something like that for the 52WAV?" So I decided to create it. It was an idea that had been rolling around in my head for years, but the confidence gained by working on the Southern NH Trail Guide gave me the push to try and do this on my own. The very first print run in the summer of 2019 was a meager 125 copies. I was hesitant to invest a lot of money in it at the time, as I wasn't sure how it would go, and the fact that this a completely self-financed and self-published project. It just so happened that those 125 copies sold out in four hours! The success of the book is also due in large part to Mike Dickerman at Bondcliff Books in Littleton, NH. He has been essential for guidance and for distributing the book to local independent bookstores around the state to get it to a wider audience. The success of the first edition paved the way for the second edition in the summer of 2020, and the book has been rolling along ever since. As of the start of 2021, there have been about 5,100 copies sold, which is amazing to me. My main goal was to create something that hikers would find useful, and I am humbled and appreciative as to how well it's been received.
MPPL: The book is a great resource. Steve's book on the 4,000 Footers, and your book on the 52 With A View are what might be described as "hiker geek" books-- although they're incredibly useful for planning hikes, they also are packed with lots of trivia about the peaks they cover. Would you say that is a fair assessment, and do you consider yourself a "hiker-geek"?
KEN: I do think that's fair to say. I wanted the usual guidebook information in there about routes and such, but also wanted to include historical lore and other interesting information. It interests me to read about that sort of stuff in other guidebooks, so it felt natural to include it. I also hope it makes it more interesting for the reader than having just pages of stats. As to whether I am a “hiker geek?” Hard to say, I guess it would depend what the context of "geek" is. I would tend to think of that as someone really in tune with the latest gadgets and technology, etc. While I do love delving into the research end of things and I do enjoy my maps and books, I tend to stay pretty simple around hiking.
MPPL: I guess there are different stripes of “hiker geek,” some being gear heads, others being hiking-lore wonks, etc. Obviously, you've been an active hiker for a while now. When did you start and what was your motivation? Has that remained steady or has it changed over the years?
KEN: I guess you could say I started "hiking" when I was a little kid, perhaps around 6 or 7 years old. We lived adjacent to a town forest (Needham, MA) and my dad would bring me and my sister out there all the time to walk the woods roads and explore. That was my first exposure to the woods, so I have him to thank for that. That forest is actually pretty small, but as a kid, it seemed like a vast wilderness to me. My first "summit" was High Rock (255ft) within that forest, which had a pretty decent view nearly 50 years ago. Fast forward to my late 20s and I had moved away from the Boston area to central MA, which opened up more opportunities to get outside. . . but I didn't get serious about it until 2012, when I started hiking the NH 4,000 Footers. I guess you could say from that point on I was obsessed. The [initial] motivation was peak-bagging fever, but as time went on I learned to slow down and appreciate the journey as well as the destination. My main motivation through everything has always been a passion for exploring. I'm always curious what's down that side path or around that corner. That's what was fostered in me by my dad and it stays with me today. The physical and mental health benefits are also huge factors; hiking has been the best thing I've ever done for myself.
MPPL: I'd be negligent in this interview if I didn't also mention that you are also an excellent photographer--you've won some awards for hiking and mountain photos. Does the photography inform your writing (and visa-versa), and how you approach hiking in general?
KEN: The interest in photography is just a hobby and creative outlet. I come from a creative family -- my grandparents were both painters and my dad was a woodworker -- so I guess the creative gene was passed down to me. I don't see too much of a connection between photography and writing or hiking, other than the images being an important document to remember each hike. But they are two things that go very well together.
MPPL: Well, it may be a hobby, but I was excited to see some of your photographs gracing the latest copy of 52 With A View.
KEN: I was thrilled to be able to get some of my photos into the 52WAV book. It's something I wanted to do for the first edition, but didn't have the budget. Fortunately, the initial success of the book made it possible to make some upgrades for the second edition, including the addition of photos, which I believe make it a much better product.
MPPL: Covid-19 made the last year a rough one for everyone, so I hope you'll forgive me if my closing question strays into the territory of "existential thinking”: If you had a short time to live (and assuming you still had relatively good health toward the end and could hike), which mountain would be your last?
KEN: I guess the first peak that comes to mind would be Mount Moosilauke. I can't really explain why fully, but that's a peak that really resonates with me, where I feel at home, and from which I derive energy. I've always found the mountain to be a fascinating place, from its rich history to its rugged terrain to its ever-changing character throughout each season that passes. I feel very comfortable there and it's a place that makes me happy.
MPPL: In what season?
KEN: Definitely winter. Moosilauke in winter is like being on another planet. It's amazingly beautiful and foreboding at the same time.
You can purchase Ken’s books in local New Hampshire bookstores, or online.
See also Ken's 52 WAV Facebook site.
Photo credits: Ken MacGray
Elephant, on the other hand, just lurks, wooly with fir trees, hunching over its smaller neighbors. On that account alone it could very well be called Wooly Mammoth or just Mammoth. The mountain’s only claim to notoriety is its height—just enough to qualify for inclusion in New England's 100 highest peaks portfolio (at #98). If not for the list, the only people who might visit it would be foresters, loggers, hunters (none likely going as far as the summit), and an occasional wildlife biologist conducting research on Canada lynx or pine marten.
Skid trails continue further up the mountain, and from there several herd paths choices continue the rest of the way (the herd paths are tricky to parse in deep snow). In summer, the round-trip hike is 6-ish miles; in winter between 7 and 9 miles depending on approach. The primary logging road is located off South Arm Road, (a good gravel public way) about 8 miles north of Andover.
I chose to do Elephant in winter when the evidence of logging was buried in deep snow and the thinned, frost-capped saplings made for idyllic, postcard scenery. It took me two trips: the first, a late-start solo, breaking trail through knee-deep and deeper snow to 3,400 feet, and the second (with a few friends) going the rest of the way. For the second trip, I brought my skis and made good time both up and down the logging roads.
Scar Ridge, 3,774 feet, is probably the most notorious of the New England 100 Highest summits—by reputation a trailless, viewless, devil’s obstacle course of blowdown fir trees, cliffs, and doghair spruce thickets. The bad reputation harks back to the pre-social media/ smartphone GPS era, when people who hiked it relied primarily on map and compass and the war stories hikers told other hikers, word-of-mouth, about their attempts.
That reputation has stuck with the mountain over the years, persisting today despite blog posts rife with step-by-step photos, freely shared GPS tracks, a safety-orange PVC summit cannister, a somewhat beaten-out herd path, and (as we found during our recent ascent) plastic flagging tied to trees (more on that later). As is true for any bushwhack, ascent strategy, and the obstacles and opportunities that lie in wait along the chosen route, play a role in determining what species of “fun” one has. There are indeed truly hellish ways to ascend Scar.
During our recent trip in December of 2020, we intended to avoid as much hell as possible. But we wanted to hike it in winter which (as you’ll see) added some unusual twists to our strategy.
Scar Ridge presents a bold 2.5-mile long east-west skyline, a topographic extension of trail-tamed but higher Mount Osceola to the east from which it is separated by the deep-plunging notch of East Pond-Cheney Brook, a wooly rift scoured out by glacial ice sheets thousands of years ago. To the west of Scar, the ridge drops 1,000 feet then continues as the well-known but lesser summits of the Loon Mountain Ski Area. Another sub-peak, Black Mountain, extends northerly from Scar toward the Kancamagus Highway. Visible from said Highway, and in no small way adding to the scenery of that drive, are a series of precipitous slab-slides which glint icily in the sun—the “Scars” that give the ridge its name and lend it a forbidding aspect. The entire ridgeline is crowned with evergreen balsam fir, a common holiday Christmas tree variety, tame in the home covered with tinsel and ornaments, but when left alone on the mountaintops undergoes a malevolent transformation into tangled chaos. To be fair, tangled is a just complaint but chaos is not—there is a true natural pattern to it called a “fir wave”, and Scar Ridge is one of the finest places in the White Mountains to experience the beauty (and abuse) of such a phenomenon.
Fir waves. Close-up view (above) of fir wave on Scar Ridge and (below) on North Brother in Baxter State Park showing the characteristic wave pattern over a broader area. Images © Google Earth
What happens in a fir wave is this: as a group of fir trees mature and become higher and heavier, they also become more exposed to the fierce winds that sweep across the mountain tops. The wind desiccates and weakens the trees; eventually the strength of the roots to hold the weight of the trunks against the force of the wind fails, and the trees tumble down like jackstraw dominoes in huge, linear patches in the direction of the prevailing wind. This exposes the next patch of mature trees downwind, and it isn’t long before they start tumbling too. Meanwhile, fir saplings waiting patiently below the canopy, barely eking out inches of growth over decades, suddenly surge up like bean sprouts as the older trees collapse. Fir grows fast when it has sun, and the saplings all mature at nearly the same rate. When they reach too high the process starts all over again. If you were to look at the phenomenon under a time-lapse of centuries it would seem as graceful as a gust of wind blowing through a wheat-field, the wheat flattening, rising, then flattening again. And in aerial imagery of some of New England’s higher peaks, that wave-like pattern does indeed leap out to the naked eye in beautiful ruin.
But the ski area has recently tightened its winter “uphill policy”—hiking up the ski slopes costs a thievish $30 dollars per head and you are only allowed to go as far as Loon’s west summit, not all the way to North Peak. You aren’t permitted to hike down either—you either have to ski (lugging your skis up first) or take the lift down (which disqualifies you from earning your New England 100 Highest creds). So we weren’t going via the ski area. The “other sane way” (according to social media this is what most hikers do in winter) is to bushwhack up from the Kancamagus to northeast via the east bowl of Black Mountain through mixed terrain, pick up a bootleg ski trail on the ridge, and then the herd path. The trouble with this route is it involves a major river crossing. The river was high at the time of our hike and not frozen over.
So we did something different, using aerial imagery to work it out. I enjoy looking at aerial imagery of trees and trying to read the story their crowns are telling me—a skill I picked up during my career in land conservation, one that, before airplanes and photography, only birds excelled at. Scrutinizing aerial imagery of Scar (courtesy of CalTopo) I could see that the fir waves at the ridgeline look like a box of toothpicks scattered by giants. Active waves were less pronounced on the north and west side of the Scar, and very pronounced on the south and east sides. I could also see that the tree canopy on the west side of Black Mountain (sub-peak of Scar) was mostly deciduous trees with moderate to large crowns—which probably meant open woods and easier walking. And I could see that one could bushwhack in behind the condominiums to the east of the ski area (gaining a little elevation boost at start), slab the bowl the west side of Black Mountain, push through some denser spruce trees at steep terrain just before the ridge, and then pick up the known herd path at the base of Scar.
What the aerial imagery didn’t show was the steep bootleg glade ski trail that descends from just south of the Black-Mountain-Scar Ridge col. We bumped into this trail and were able to use to get up a lot faster (I am curious about the history of this trail—if anyone knows, please share). Along the way we got to see an interesting balanced boulder, and we found a nice view of the Scar Ridge’s scars waiting for us at the top of the slope. A little past that is another view looking westerly toward the ski area. Since there was little snow on the ground at the time (most of it had melted off in a big rain storm the week before) we also took a detour at the start of the herd path to a narrow view ledge looking south (another aerial image discovery).
the first visitors to an alien planet. To me, the flagging was another theft of that primal hiking experience, a further taming of what was not meant to be tamed.
The last tenth of a mile of herd path meanders through the fir wave at the top of the mountain, a god-fist smashed place it seemed, primitive and ice-agey, inhuman except for the bright orange PVC summit register cannister piggybacking a forlorn tree. It was frozen shut and we could not open it to sign our names. And that didn’t seem wrong.
The Long Trail to Vermont’s Jay Peak (3,858 feet) slabs up the side of the ridge from the trailhead at Jay Pass. It doesn’t go right up the crest of the ridge (which would be the intuitive route), because the Jay Peak Resort ski area occupies the ridge. Some effort was involved in keeping clumsy hikers and graceful skiers apart—it’s harder to build a trail along a side hill slab than it is to build along a ridge; it requires some digging out to keep the footway even, else it would feel like walking in a carnival fun-house. But the vertical real estate slims the higher one goes; ski area and hiking trail begin to bump up against each other. The last stretch, along the exposed summit ridge, closely parallels the course of a wide ski trail blasted out of bedrock; a wooden staircase descends what is left of the natural crown of the mountain. A blocky, industrial-looking summit building squats in another blasted-out nook about 100 feet from the summit. It is only natural to avert one’s eyes and camera and focus on the faraway views instead.
As seen from the low rolling farmland to the east, the profile of Jay appears massive, Himalayan even (at least to those who have never seem the Himalaya) because there is simply nothing as big anywhere near it. The ski area on Jay Peak is the northernmost in Vermont, only four miles from the Canadian border. It has the deepest annual snowfall of any ski area in the northeast United States. The vertical plunge is formidable: the four “Face Chutes Route”, with an average slope of 56.5 percent and a maximum slope of 73.9 percent, are the steepest marked ski terrain in the northeast. One of the Chutes even includes a mandatory cliff jump. The hiking route to the summit is easy by contrast: only 1.7 moderately steep miles from the pass trailhead to the summit.
Jay has two summits; the second highest is called Big Jay. Like the character Little John in The Adventures of Robin Hood, “Big” is a misnomer; Big Jay is 72 feet shorter than the main summit, Jay Peak. It is broader though, and maybe that is what lends it bigness. Both peaks happen to be among the 100 highest summits in New England, for which there is an official list and a patch for your backpack or jacket if you’re the kind of person to get excited about such things. There is no official trail to Big Jay. Most visitors just stop and gawk from the abrupt rocky crown of Jay Peak without going further. But there is an informal trail-not-a-trail. The route was illegally cut in the late 1990s (allegedly by ski area employees) with no consequences for those involved, an act which may have encouraged a couple of miscreants, in 2007, to boldly chainsaw over 800 trees through pristine state forest land on Big Jay for a downhill ski route. They were found out, thoroughly shamed and punished. But these “trails,” such as they are, linger on. The cut route to the summit of Big Jay is unmarked, brushy, meandering, occluded here and there with rubbery, prickly spruce and fir blowdowns and leandowns—a real rabbit warren of a path, a path that the officials say doesn’t exist, the unofficials can’t maintain, and everyone else mistakenly refers to as a herd path, a term for a path created by repetitive trodding not premeditated hack-and-slash. Although the ridge from Jay Peak to Big Jay is quite narrow, a wooly-wooded knife edge, it is shockingly easy to get sidetracked and headed down the ravine as if there were a disorienting magical force working its will through roots of the mountain. When winter snows bury the evidence of foot traffic, this misdirection is even more pronounced.
Even the start of the route is confusing. Northbound off Jay Peak, the Long Trail slips into an unmarked two-foot wide cleft in a ten-foot high snow fence. Viewed from the side, the fence presents an illusion of unbroken continuity. It is not uncommon for hikers to just walk past this junction and continue down the ski trails, or to wander back and forth confusedly. Just beyond the break in the fence, the white rectangular blazes of the Long Trail burn off to the north and the feral path to Big Jay veers westerly along the descending ridgeline.
During my December hike the lower parts of the mountain were covered with only a dusting of snow. Heavy rains the week before had melted off the early December snowpack, a la human induced climate change. But the ridge between the summits was playing by different rules and was buried under six inches of snow with frequent two-foot drifts. Luckily, I brought my snowshoes along, always a wise course of action in the winter. This was my third visit to Jay, and my second to Big Jay. I’d forgotten how the ridge messes with your sense of direction, and about the various
At the summit is a small sign with the words Big Jay and an evergreen tree painted on it. Next to it is a glass jar tied to the tree with a piece of string--a recycled jar of marinated artichoke hearts. In the jar is a scrappy notepad and a stubby pencil with which to brag about one’s ascent. I find it fun to imagine a hiker eating a jar of artichoke hearts, rubbing the oil out of the jar with a handkerchief, and tying it to a string—clever improvisation; a touch of humor. Much more character than the PVC cannister registers that are popping up like ugly mushrooms on the most obscure of summits these days. Ritualistically, I always sign these registers where I find them even though I’m skeptical that they are collected and curated in any meaningful way. I suspect that as they become wrinkled, soggy, and mildewy most are simply tossed out and replaced, perhaps reincarnated in a raspberry jam jar next time around. I like them—finding one on a bushwhack summit adds a soft touch of humanity, taking away, if only for a moment, the mountain’s rough edges and pushback: the scratches, the bad humor of trees as they dump snow down the back of your jacket, the do I crawl-under-or-crawl-overs, the leg-sucking spruce traps, the mindgames of losing the route to a wandering moose track then finding the snapped-off branch that gets you found again.
The little register wasn’t as comforting to me as a snack bar would be for instance, or a campfire even, but it did make me feel less alone in the wilderness, subliminally: you’ve arrived, cheers, you’re one of us, you made it. I had a bite to eat, wishing I’d brought some artichoke hearts along. I signed the register, screwed the cap of the jar on tight. Then I turned around and contemplated the difficulty of going home.