Published DateI like to get out bushwhacking in the mountains occasionally. There is a freedom to it, as you make your own way. Of course, returning to a trail after such a wild foray is comforting.
This Wednesday I found both of these aspects in a hike up Sleeper Brook to the Davis Path.
I had heard about this interesting bushwhack before. Two experienced resident hikers bushwhacked part way up the brook last April 15, on a half day foray with limited time. One of them had a special interest in the place, as his grandfather had climbed up the Sleeper Brook drainage in the early 1900's, then climbed Stairs Mountain on the Montalban Ridge above. This was an outstanding adventure, especially considering that it was before the widespread use of the automobile, and a long train ride was needed to just get to the area.
Today, access is so much easier in the mountains for hikers of many ability levels. But I have no qualms writing about a bushwhack, even in this summer of frequent mountain rescues. If someone has the will to attempt a bushwhack, they likely have quite a bit of on-trail experience already. Most accidents in the mountains happen on trails. Also, it is understood that certain things are needed for off-trail hiking, such as knowledge of map and compass, confidence in your own hiking ability, a good knowledge of the surrounding terrain, a reasonably good first aid kit and headlamp, extra food, and of course, leaving word of your plans with others. Hiking alone or not is a personal choice based on experience.
I filled my two spotters in on my tentative plans before I drove up Route 302 past Bartlett. Just west of the Crawford Notch Campground and General Store, I pulled into a turnoff where the Saco River came close to the highway. The river was wide there, split into a few channels and easy to scramble across.
Leaving my car I looked across the river and up at the deep ravine of Sleeper Brook, with the rocky summit of Giant Stairs beyond. My tentative plan was climb up the brook past where it disappeared into the mountain on the map, and continue a short way further to the Davis Path, which I would then descend for 3.7 miles back to Route 302, ending up about a mile and a quarter south of my car. I wasn't planning to climb Giant Stairs, or, for that matter, Mount Crawford, located next to the trail down.
The section of the Saco River above the campground is wide and quiet. I had never seen anyone out there before, and that held true this time. I easily crossed to the wooded bank on the other side, and headed upstream through the woods towards Sleeper Brook.
Soon, I reached its mouth. The effects of Hurricane Irene were immediately apparent. The flood had forced tons of boulders of all sizes down the brook. The mouth of the brook looked more like the terminus of a landslide. My definition of a brook was stretched, as there was no visible water, it being evidently under the debris. I headed upstream, hoping water would appear soon, and a more familiar world return.
In an eighth of a mile, a pool of clear water gave hope, and soon the sounds of running water grew. The brook regained its normal shape as I climbed. Still, the hurricane had mostly reamed out its entire length. On my way up, I would find this helpful, except where dead trees with roots were flung across the way.
An enjoyable aspect of stream walking is discovering new places at every turn. Sleeper Brook drains a steep and ample watershed, and the water had carved out attractive gorges with pools, with frequent smooth ledge to walk up formed during volcanic uplift.
Good boots are essential for hiking up a stream, where endless variations of friction and opposition are used in a dance. After a while, your boots get wet inside. That actually opens up more possibilities for movement up a stream. Yet, with the modest flow on Sleeper Brook, my boots got wet but not waterlogged.
On the day after my hike, I was told that few souls had done what I had done, going all the way up the brook to the Davis Path. I'm not sure if that is true or not. But, except for extreme care needed on wet ledge and loose boulders, I found this to be a hiker friendly bushwhack.
The brook curved to the north a little before turning east up towards the saddle between Giant Stairs and Mount Resolution. The slope got steeper, and an outward view opened up briefly behind me towards Crawford Notch. The volume of the brook had dissipated dramatically, and I knew I was getting to the point where it would just disappear into the mountain.
Closer to the saddle the slope eased up. The stream had shrunk to a line of sharp rocks up the slope through scratchy spruce.
Then suddenly, I reached the path. My body was glad, and I felt the softness and ease of walking along it. Finally I stopped and sat to finish my lunch, and change out of long pants, which I had put on for the last section of scratchy bushwhacking. I wrung out my sox and headed down the trail.
On the Davis Path, I came out on some flat ledges with great views. The nearby Mount Crawford was a modest spur on the ridge with ample summit ledges. To the west was a great gulf of space towards Crawford Notch. After the close confines of the brook, I breathed in the view.
Passing the spur trail to Mount Crawford, I descended the steep switchbacks towards Route 302. Near the bottom, I passed a couple who had climbed Mount Crawford, and then a dozen older girls from Camp Calumet who had done the same.
As I continued along the trail past the girls, they burst into a song. It was another welcome aspect of a day of contrasts.