Basch: A fortuitous romp through Whitten Woods

  • South Peak yields views of Big Squam and Little Squam. The low-lying peak is contained at Whitten Woods in Ashland. MARTY BASCH / For the Monitor

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Happenstance happens while hiking. It can be quietly turning a corner and coming upon a feeding moose or deer. As Appalachian Trail thru-hikers know around northern New England and beyond, trail angels abound perhaps offering food, a ride or lodging.

Sometimes, though, the trails find you.

Such was the case on a mid-May day with temps just north of 60 when I had business in the Lakes Region town of Ashland. Afterwards, my wife Jan and I planned to do a 5.5-mile hike in the next town over – Holderness – that would have us using ladders and squeezing through caves.

But on the way over, we popped into the Squam Lakes Association just to see what there was and that’s when we were first introduced to Whitten Woods.

A trail walks brochure with clear directions and maps highlighted several properties including the nearly 500-acre hilly parcel owned by New England Forestry Foundation and Squam Lakes Conservation Society with the 2.2 mile network managed by the SLA.

The handout foretold of two small peaks that feature nice views of Little Squam, Big Squam and the Pemigewasset River Valley.

We left and continued to Ashland. My wife took the car when I was working and upon my return told me of a surprise.

It wasn’t the appreciated decaf waiting in the car. Instead she had passed the readily found Whitten Woods trailhead on Highland Street, a minute or so drive from where we were, and that’s where we went.

A hiker protected from tenacious black flies was wearing long pants, a long sleeve shirt and a head net was finishing his trek, having walked each of the color-coded trails – red, green (South Peak Trail) and blue (North Peak Trail). Familiar with the relatively easy trails, he said the views were better from 1,364-foot South Peak than 1,137-foot North Peak.

When he returned to the trail to reconnect with his wife who was behind him, we looked at the map at the kiosk and decide to hike to North then South, covering all the trails over 3-plus miles. The history of Whitten Woods was also there to read, the tale of local legend Reuben Whitten. The 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora had a severe global impact, resulting in the 1816 “Year with a Summer.” Snow or killer frost was recorded in town every month of that year with crop failures the norm. Whitten’s higher fields and south-facing slopes yielded wheat, potatoes, apples and other produce that the family provided to neighbors “throughout the difficult year thus saving many lives.”

We entered the hardwood domain that opened to foot-travel in 2016 on a wide one-time working woods road amidst the calls of song birds and occasional light breeze stalling the winged invasion. Soon enough a new noise emanated, zinging zaps. There came the hiker and his netted wife, both swinging those badminton-styled electronic insect zappers. We exchanged pleasantries as they returned to their vehicle and I then wondered if just witnessed the birth of a new sport – paddle hiking.

Bird box, wild violets and well-placed trail maps along the way were part of the landscape as we passed the turn-off for South Peak and continued to the North Peak loop (taking it counter clockwise), saving the best views for last.

Two outlooks served up first looks at the lovely lakes made famous in the 1981 summer classic movie “On Golden Pond” before we arrived at the viewless rocky summit with its blueberry patches. The Whitten way wiggled and narrowed there, edging down and up through an inviting birch canopy and widening out again as we retraced our steps to that South Peak junction.

Stone cairns stood guard on the upward march, an open pasture with rippling mountains on the horizon foreshadowed what lay ahead.

The South Peak vista, with its picnic table and visitors log kept in a plastic container, was a beautiful surprise, a delightful perch over a kingdom of forest, lakes and mountains. The network is also used by trail runners, snowshoers and cross-country skiers. In fall, without those black flies, it’s got to be even more amazing.

A South Peak only hike is about a mile out-and-back venture. No matter how many steps you take to get there, it’s definitely a wicked Whitten Woods wow.