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It’s still a winter wonderland in the mountains

A Gray jay, or Whiskey jack, lands on Mel Graykin's outstretched hand near the summit of Mount Tom. The birds are common throughout the year at higher elevations around Crawford Notch. 

Photo by Mary Jolles

A Gray jay, or Whiskey jack, lands on Mel Graykin's outstretched hand near the summit of Mount Tom. The birds are common throughout the year at higher elevations around Crawford Notch. Photo by Mary Jolles

Winter hangs around a long time in the mountains, but that isn’t any reason to put off hiking. You just have to make allowances for it. Like every time you stop to rest, you start to get chilled, and if you have to take off your gloves to fiddle with your backpack or blow your nose, your fingers start to go numb.

Snow falls off the trees, you lose your balance and tip over into a snowdrift, wind blows powder at you, and your gear and clothes end up soaked. And there’s more to get wet, because you need to lug more clothes plus all the emergency stuff you might need to prevent hypothermia should the worst happen and you’re stuck out there having to wait for help. And I haven’t even mentioned how snow complicates getting up the trail in the first place.

So, why on earth would any sane person want to go hiking in the White Mountains in the winter? Well, let me tell you.

There is something indescribably ethereal in the stillness of a winter forest. Snow muffles what few sounds there are. You might hear the cheerful “Dee-dee” of the indomitable chickadee, or the rat-tat-tat of a woodpecker. But mostly when you stop, and the wheeze of your breath and thud of your heart settle down, there is an almost eerie silence. Even the laughter of the brooks is silenced, frozen over and buried.

On a cloudy day the world around you is a Japanese ink drawing of dark lines on white. The only color is the subdued green of the conifers. If it is a clear day, the brilliant blue of the sky arches overhead and the sunlight turns every melting drop and ice crystal into a prism.

If the trail has been broken and packed down, it’s actually easier than hiking it in the summer. All the rocks and rough spots have been filled in and smoothed out. If you’re a skier, doing something like the Zealand Trail, which is mostly level with gradual inclines, is a piece of cake.

I am not a skier, so my trek up to the Zealand Falls Hut was done on snowshoes. In the summer, the AMC huts offer well-nigh luxury accommodations by backpacking standards. Running water, a toilet, a padded bunk with a pillow and blanket, dinner and breakfast, not to mention entertainment provided by the “croo,” the AMC volunteers. They make it almost too easy. In the winter, some of the huts stay open, although there’s only a caretaker and you’re on your own for food and entertainment. The kitchen is available for use and the caretaker makes sure there’s fresh water and a fire in the woodstove. But it does get cold in those bunkhouses. And try going to the john at 2 in the blessed a.m. with the temp below zero and the wind blowing.

But with a good sleeping bag and a layer or two of warm woolies, you can be quite cozy. We got through the night just fine and headed out the next morning with hopes of crossing the A-Z Trail and summiting Mount Tom. We got down to where the A-Z diverges from the Zealand, and there was a layer of fresh snow over it. But it didn’t seem all that difficult, so we tackled it. Only 21∕2 miles. Doesn’t seem all that much, does it? Ha.

By the time we got to the spur for Mount Tom we were wet and exhausted from slogging through the powder, falling through brook crossings (okay, I’ll admit, that was mostly me) and struggling up steep slopes, which is a challenge in snowshoes. We decided that adding the extra mile to do Mount Tom was more than we should attempt. So we looked wistfully up the trail to the summit as we ate our lunch at the intersection.

We were joined by a couple of guests. Canada jays, or “whiskey jacks,” have learned that hikers are a soft touch. These wild birds fearlessly mooch with a boldness rivaled only by seagulls and the squirrels at the Washington Mall. Hold out your hand with a piece of bread on it, and they won’t hesitate to come down and perch on your fingers. Set down your sandwich and turn away for a moment, and you’ll look back to see your sandwich in flight, disappearing through the trees. The whiskey jack gets its name from the Cree, “Wesakachak,” a trickster character in their mythology. The jays work hard to live up to it.

I was sorry to have to leave without bagging the peak, but the key to hiking safely in the Whites any time of year, but especially in winter, is knowing your limits and not pushing them, no matter how heroic and temptingly macho it might seem. Never mind the summit; the hike was challenge enough, and the beauty of the winter trail reward enough in itself.

(Justine “Mel” Graykin
lives and writes in Deerfield
and practices freelance
philosophy on her website justinegraykin.com.)

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