Hike: Pleasant Mountain

North Ridge Trail sign

North Ridge Trail sign

Hiked: 20 April 2014

One of my favorite parts of hiking is planning for the hike itself. I love looking at topography maps, reading trail descriptions and condition reports. I love researching forums and blogs related to the hike I’m planning. I even love watching the weather report leading up to a hike (I use Weather Underground’s mobile app).

But, I never expect things to go as planned. In fact, I try to embrace things not going as planned for the adventure of it and for the lessons learned. If things always go as planned, or you restrict them from going awry, then you aren’t learning from your mistakes and growing as a wanderer. I basically only plan for the safety-sake of things, otherwise I try to leave room for improvisation.

Lately I’ve been working on a project at work and putting in a little extra effort in the evenings and weekends. The night before Easter my wife commented that I was being grouchy and that I should go for a hike the next day to clear my mind.

Best. Wife. Ever.

We had an Easter dinner to go to that afternoon so I dipped into my pool of potential short hikes to find one that would allow me to get back to the island not too late for dinner. I decided on Pleasant Mountain in Denmark, Maine, as it was only an hour and 15 minutes from Portland which should give me just enough time to bag the Cumberland county high point.

When I arrived at the head of Fire Tower Road, the road that leads to the Fire Warden’s Trail (my anticipated route of ascent), I discovered the road was closed. As it turned out, it was no longer a road, but the trail head of the Fire Warden’s trail. If I had spent my normal amount of time planning the hike I probably would have realized this prior to setting out. This setback added a mile each way to my hike, but I figured I could pick up the pace and still leave in time to make my boat.

I set off up the trail at a brisk pace but soon stopped to check out the stream running next to the trail. The day was warm and the stream was running hard and I’m a sucker for cascades. I snapped a couple of photos with my new camera. Pleasant Mountain was the first opportunity I had to bring it with me on hike.

I'm a sucker for cascades

I’m a sucker for cascades

I continued up the trail but the occasional patches of wet, granular, compacted snow quickly became continuous paths of blue ice. There were enough twigs and pine needles scattered on the ice that I didn’t bother to stop and put on my Sport STABILicers. I passed a couple with with a pair of dogs moving slowly on the ice. They asked how I had better traction than them and I told them the truth, “I just move fast and hope for the best.”

I was moving too fast and concentrating too much on the ice to really enjoy my surroundings. The day was clear blue and warm, so I quickly stripped off my fleece and sweatshirt. I got to the main peak in just over an hour. There was a large clearing at the top of Pleasant Mountain guarded by a small but tall fire tower. The view to the west and north were fitting for the mountain’s name. There were 8 to 10 people on the summit, some of who invited me to join them for breakfast which they were cooking over what sounded like a JetBoil. I declined and took out my Nikon to get some shots of the view.

Pleasant Mountain main summit

Pleasant Mountain main summit

The summit was quite enjoyable but a little crowded for my taste. It also wasn’t the goal of my hike, and it was already 11:45am. I was 15 minutes away from the mid-point of my hike (time-wise) and still well over a mile away from the North Peak. I had to decide whether to enjoy the view or book it to the North Peak. I figured the going would be quick to the North Peak since I had already completed most of the elevation. I packed up and head out.

I hustled back down Fire Warden’s Trail to where it joined Bald Peak Trail and started the trek along the ridge line toward Bald and North Peaks. There were still intermittent patches of ice, so I stopped to throw on my STABILicers. I needed traction if I was going to do this leg of the hike quickly. The ice disappeared after I got out of the shadow of the main peak but I kept the traction on just in case. The trail was dry and the air smelled of baking pine needles. With the hot sun on my face it almost felt like summer.

Bald Peak was a beautiful summit of smooth ledge and there was no crowd. There were hawks flying gliding about, occasionally one would fly low over my head as if to check me out. I found a clear shot of the Presidentials but had to continue on with my mission.

The snow is diminishing on the Presidentials

The snow was receding on the Presidentials

A short while after Bald peak I dropped my bag and headed along the trail with just some water and my camera. I made it to the official North Peak, but I could see the peak above Shawnee Peak across a col. I was beyond my turn around time and still short of my goal. North Peak stands in Oxford county, the Cumberland high point was the peak above Shawnee Peak. There was no way I was going to make it to the Cumberland high point and get back to my car in time.

I sent a message to my wife asking if she’d be terribly upset if I missed to boat and Easter dinner. Being the incredibly supportive wife that she is, she replied that she would not. Finally, I could really enjoy the hike and not worry about the time. I snapped a shot of route 302 crossing Moose Lake (one of my favorite portions of 302 because of the sudden view of Shawnee Peak) and made my way over to Cumberland county.

Route 302 and Moose Lake from North Peak

Route 302 and Moose Lake from North Peak

I followed North Ridge Trail down into the col and back up to the peak above Shawnee. The trail changed to Sue’s Way and began to descend to the chair lift at the peak of Shawnee. If I continued to follow it I would end up looping around back to Bald Peak trail. I would bypass the actual Cumberland high point and I would have to trek back to get my pack. I spent 20 minutes or so hiking back and forth on the trail looking for some sign of the peak. I bushwhacked to the edge of the slope so I could see down to the Shawnee chair lift and hiked up to what I perceived to be the high point. I was convinced that I found the high point, nearby in the direction of the trail was an old fire ring.

If anyone knows whether that was indeed the high point, please leave a message of confirmation.

Convince I finally made it to the high point of Cumberland county I made my way back across the ridge toward Fire Warden’s Trail. I dropped down into the col between Shawnee Peak and North Peak and back up the approach to the later. As I passed an overlook back into the col I heard a huge crash from the trees below, right where I had been a moment before. I stood completely still for a while trying to catch any movement through the leafless trees. It sounded loud enough to have been a bear or moose, but in hindsight I was convinced it must have been a deer leaping through the trees and brush.

I retrieved my pack and made it back to Bald Peak. I sat in the warm sun trying to take photos of the hawks flying overhead.

Rough-legged hawk, I believe

Rough-legged hawk, I believe

I took my time hiking out, enjoying the scenery and the warm weather (when I wasn’t looking at my feet because of the ice). I quickly realized that my model of STABILicers were not good for descending on blue ice. They stretched over the soul of my shoes, with no strap over the top of the foot or around the ankle. When the cleats took hold on steep descents, the material was overstretched and they slipped off my heal. Eventually I removed them off and took my chances with no traction.

Ice I nearly ate it on

Ice I nearly ate it on

I made it back to my car by 2:45pm, nearly an hour and 30 minutes later than I had planned, but it still gave me plenty of time to enjoy the ride back to Portland. I stopped at Moose Lake to take a photo of Shawnee Peak and North Peak from below and then enjoyed the sun and good tunes all the way back to the coast.

Shawnee Peak from 302

Shawnee Peak from Route 302

When I got back to Portland I stopped at one of my favorite places for a bite to eat and a beer, The Thirsty Pig. They have an amazing vegan sausage and always have Bissell Brothers The Substance on tap. That gave me time to re-energize (I did the entire hike without food and only had 32oz of juice for breakfast) and reflect on my hike.

Mistakes from which to learn:

  • Just because Google Maps says you can drive on it, doesn’t mean it’s drive-able (especially in winter/early spring)
  • Research your hike thoroughly if you’re short on time, you might find a quicker route (Bald Peak trail would have been a quicker ascent)
  • STABILicer Sports aren’t suitable traction for hiking on ice
  • Don’t be afraid to lengthen your hike so that you can enjoy it, that is the point after all

Mistakes are the portals of discovery.
—James Joyce

Map of Hike

Map of Hike

Elevation: 2008′
Elevation Gain: 1900′
Distance: 7.5 miles
Book Time: 4:40
Actual Time: 4:30
Temperature: 54° F
Wind: 2 mph N
Weather: clear

Beers—BISSEL BROTHERS.” bissellbrothers.com. Bissell Brothers. Web. 25 April 2014.
D3200 Nikon HDSLR Camera.” nikonusa.com. Nikon Inc. Web. 24 April 2014.
Pleasant Mountain.” loonecholandtrust.com. Loon Echo Land Trust. Web. 21 April 2014.
Stabilicers Sportrunners Ice Cleats.” 32north.com. 32north. Web. 23 April 2014.
the THiRSTY PIG.” thirstypigportland.com. The Thirsty Pig. Web. 25 April 2014.
Weather Underground.” itunes.apple.com. Apple Inc. Web. 22 April 2014.

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Backyard Adventure: First Adventure of 2014

Backyard Adventures are small adventures that I set upon to soothe my wanderlust when I cannot afford (with time or money) to take on larger adventures. Some will be done with my sons (under the guise of “just playing with the boys”), and some will just be flat out crazy to the normal (read sheltered) human and I’ll have no real excuse for my behavior except that I wanted to see what it was like. This was one of the latter. 

It’s the dead of winter and you don’t have the gear for camping overnight, what do you do? Me, I camp out overnight anyway.

I have a L.L. Bean Microlight FS tent, an EMS Mountain Light 20° sleeping bag and a Big Agnes Air Core sleeping pad. Great, 3-season, light gear. But, I have dreams of hiking my first winter 4000 footer. Unfortunately, since I live on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine, it requires an overnight camp to have enough daylight to hike a 4000 footer. My goal this winter is to find the perfect weekend where it’s not snowing on a Friday or Saturday night so I can drive up to the White Mountains, where the temperature doesn’t drop below 20°F at night (okay, I could take low teens) and the weather on the following day is below freezing but sunny and with as little wind as possible.

I know, impossible, right?

In order to prepare for the camping-overnight-bit of my dream weekend, I decided to try camping out overnight on the island in the middle of January.  I didn’t want to find myself out in the middle of the White Mountains in some of the “worst weather in the world” without knowing my gear’s capabilities. When a weekend came around where I wasn’t doing anything and the weather was looking optimal for my test scenario (low wind, temperature in the 20s) I decided to take my gear for a test run.

Yes, my wife told me I was nuts as well.


Settled down for a cozy night

I packed up my gear and headed out into the forest near my house. I brought my headlamp with me but found it wonderous to wander the forest by moonlight. It transformed the woods that I grew up exploring into an unknown landscape. I made my way generally toward the middle of the woods, hoping to find a location that was far enough from houses and streets as to not hear any cars or see any lights.

I found a spot sheltered by a small copse of pine trees but with a clear view of the stars overhead. I stamped out a flat area with my snowshoes and set up my tent. I realized I didn’t know how to stake out my tent in snow, which I needed to do in order to properly utilize the fly, so I hoped that the wind wouldn’t pick up overnight. I fired up my new Jetboil Flash, cooked some dinner and cracked open a Maine Beer Co. Lunch. I spent a little while enjoying some hot food, great beer and staring at the stars, but it was time to get to business. The reason I was here was to test out my gear, so I hit the sack.


I later discovered that the temperature dropped a lot lower than forecasted

I spent the night trying to keep warm. The weak point in my protection from the cold was my air pad. Any part of my body touching the pad slowly had the heat sapped out of it. After a while I would wake up and need to turn over to warm that side of my body. My feet were also cold, but not cold enough to interrupt my sleep. Several times I considered packing up and snowshoeing back home, but I did not relish crawling out of my warm(ish) sleeping bag into the frigid winter night.

After enough time had passed that I deemed it not insane to get up (4:30am), I quickly made my way out of my sleeping bag and into my clothes. My boots were ice-cold and my toes were soon numb. I fired up my Jetboil to make some coffee. I was lucky that I had the Jetboil running because my tent poles turned my fingers instantly into ice and I was able to warm them over the flame. I found that many of the tent pole sections were frozen together and I had hold them between my fingers until my body heat thawed them. Shortly I had my camp broken down and I enjoyed my coffee by the flame of the Jetboil.

I headed home in the early morning darkness, following the same meandering route I took into the forest. By the time I made it home the eastern sky had begun to lighten, so I dropped my pack and made my way to the south shore of the island. I ended my backyard adventure snapping some shots of ice and sunrise.


Sunrise and icicles

My takeaway from this experience was that I didn’t have the gear for single digit temperatures, but I think I could have made it through a night in the high teens and twenties. I’m pretty sure that wind would make even the twenties hard to bear as there was space between the ground and the bottom of the fly. Possibly I could have figured out how to stake out or tie down my fly and then pile up snow around it to prevent wind from entering the tent.

Sounds like something to test out on another cold and windy night this winter.

A few tips and realizations I’ve discovered since that night:

  • I have a fleece sleeping bag liner
  • I could try placing my old foam pad under my air pad for added insulation
  • I can heat water and put it in water bottles. Placing these bottles in the bottom of my sleeping bag and in my boots keep them from freezing over night and I would have water that wasn’t frozen in the morning as a bonus
  • I should have a towel ready for when I open my sleeping bag. Body heat escaping will thaw the frost built up on the inside of the tent, wiping it off will prevent the tent from getting wet

A career is wonderful, but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night.
—Marilyn Monroe

Big Agnes Air Core Sleeping Pad.” backcountry.com. Backcountry.com. Web. 23 February 2014.
White, Carol Stone. Peak Experiences: Danger, Death, and Daring in the Mountains of the Northeast. UPNE, 2012. Print.
EMS Mountain Light 15° Sleeping Bag, Long.” ems.com. Eastern Mountain Sports, inc. Web. 23 February 2014.
It’s Official—Australia has the Worst Weather in the World.” theaposition.com. The A Position. Web. 17 March 2014.
Jetboil Flash Cooking System.” rei.com. Recreational Equipment, Inc. Web. 16 March 2014.
Lunch.” mainebeercompany.com. Maine Beer Company. Web. 16 March 2014.
Microlight FS 1-Person Tent.” llbean.com. L.L. Bean, inc. Web. 23 February 2014.

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