Wednesday, May 11, 2016

New England Trail and Robert Frost Trail - Part 1: Erving, MA to MA/CT Border

The New England National Scenic Trail is the country's newest, combining four longstanding trails across Massachusetts and Connecticut with a unofficial continuation Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.
Gateway to the Ridges.
Earlier in the year, over two weekend trips, I had walked the roughly 30 miles north of here on this trail to the summit of Monadnock. Now I would walk 180 miles south to Connecticut's Long Island Sound.
Greta dropped me off at the Erving trailhead around 8:30pm on Thursday. The sun was down but the air was warm. She followed me in the car to light up the road as I crossed Route 2. My pack was the heaviest it has been since I first started backpacking, with 9 days of food, three-season gear, and a newly aquired pool toy "packraft" for crossing the Connecticut and Westfield Rivers.
I climbed a mile long road to get out of this sleepy town without streetlights. Most of the homes already were dark. One pickup passed me and the driver asked if I was out running and needed a ride. Despite my short shorts, I told him I was just out for a long walk and didn't need one.
At the top of the hill, I entered the forest which would become my home for the next seven and a half days. I accidently scared a porcupine into a tree as I quickly hiked through five miles of rolling woodland to Wendell State forest shelter. Once I got there at 11pm, I found three folks already asleep and a spritely little guard dog. Not wanting to wake them further than the dog probably already had, I passed the shelter to sleep near the trailhead a few hundred feet ahead. I woke at dawn to begin my first day on the trail. Some beavers were already awake in the adjacent pond and they too seemed startled by my presence.

Here at the Wendell State Forest Headquarters there are three options for long distance hikers. The official NET route continues roughly 40 miles to the Mt Holyoke Range State Park near Amherst, MA. This option is a new reroute of the historic M+M trail which unfortunately seems to include a large amount of roadwalking. The historic M+M trail is another option but as it is no longer technically the M+M or NET it may be hard to follow. The third option, which is the one I followed is the Robert Frost Trail. This trail is also about 40 miles to the Holyoke Range and I had heard it's even nicer than the historic M+M.


Robert Frost Trail
I got on orange/red blazed the RFT to find a very pleasant trail. After 9 miles of diverse woodland to myself hiked a steep hike up to Mt. Toby summit fire tower whose spiral stairs gave me my first 360 degree view of the land around me. At the base, I met my first other folks on the trail, a couple day hiking who asked me where I was headed. They seemed very excited for me and a little jealous, and I hope they make time to get out soon too. They'd be the only people I'd see that day. Before leaving, I rehydrated some mashed potatoes and enjoyed the salty starches on this warm day.

At noon, I sat down for lunch. I was trying a new stoveless cooking system based on rehydrating cold meals in a jar. I washed my jar, put I away, and hiked on. A few hours later, I started thinking of food again and I then realized I had left my one eating utensil behind!
My plan was to camp near the summit of Mt. Orient, which was about 25 miles into the RFT. As I neared the summit I entered COWLS land. This is private timber land where the owners allow all sorts of outdoor recreation, including overnight camping, a rare thing here in the USA. I found a carved out campsite and had my tent pitched at 5:30. With 2 hours of daylight remaining, this is earlier than I usually like to camp, but the spot was right and I didn't want to push it too early on. I ate my ramen with my hands and a lot of shaking the pot, read for a while, and was in bed at 7:30 with the setting sun.

I slept in Saturday morning till 6:30. I know what sounds funny, but when it's light at 5am and there are many miles to go 6:30 feels kinda late. I only had about 20 miles to cover this day before I'd hit a roadblock: the quarter-mile wide Connecticut River.
Eastman Brook Conservation Land, Amherst, MA
The rest of the remaining 15 miles of the Robert Frost Trail were a mostly gentle ramble around the Amherst area near big swamps, resevoirs, and farms with the first half of the Holyoke Range in the final 5. I previously heard this was a dry trail so I was being precautionary by carrying 2 liters instead of my normal 1 of water. By the Holyoke Range, all I had was one bottle of yellow swamp runoff that I didn't really want to drink. Knowing there would be nothing to drink on these mountains, I looked forward to The Notch Visitors Center in the middle of the range. A few miles before the Notch I left the RFT (which takes a low route through the range) for the NET (which takes the high route). Being a nice weekend day, day hikers were out in throngs to visit the first peak from the Notch Parking Lot. For the first time since the start I was surrounded by fellow humans, though for the most part I wished to still be alone.
 
Done with RFT... and dehydrated!
When I got to the Notch, I found much to my dismay that despite the traffic jammed parking lot, the visitor center was still closed for the season. No running water available. Getting desperate at thus point for water, I finished the last of my swamp water (which actually tasted fine) and ran up the first hill, trying to distance myself from the day hikers behind me.
At the summit of the first mountain in these "Seven Sisters", I took a short break to assess my options. I was familiar with this range from a day hike I did with my friend Matt last November. Halfway through this five mile range and at the bottom left side there is a spring fed resevoir. The map I picked up at the Notch appeared to show a side trail down the ridge that would cross the spring's outlet allowing me to rehydrate myself, my lunch, and take some water for later. Then I could walk passed the scenic Lithia Springs Resevoir before climbing back to the NET via another side trail. I had a plan.



Refreshed from my water stop, I walked along the resevoir and met a family fishing on the waters edge. They asked me what I was doing and I asked if they lived nearby. The man said "yes" and that his aunt owned much of the land before selling it to the state who made this park. The woman asked me if I was scared to sleep out in the woods alone. I said "generally not." I thought about how unusual camping is in this society, even among those who own the forests we walk through.
I rejoined the ridge before the iconic Mt Holyoke House. It was still closed for the season, and was also closed the prior time I was here. It's some kind of mountain top hotel or restaurant or was and now it's a museum, I'm not really sure; but I'd like to come see it sometime when it's open.
I decended a mile or so beyond the mountain house to reach Mt Holyoke College's outdoor club cabin on the NET. This cabin can be reserved and stayed in. I didn't have a reservation so I couldn't go inside, but it was getting dark soon and the CT river was right ahead of me so I found a place to lie down and went to sleep.


"all aboard the blow up dinghy!"
I woke up before dawn Sunday morning. I didn't know how long the river crossing would take, I knew rain was coming, as was the Westfield River in about 17 miles, and I still wanted to hike about 25 that day. I walked to the quickly packed up my sleeping bag and pad and headed down to the river. There is a popular marina/boat launch on both sides. Crossing by water is the most direct way as the closet bridge requires a ten mile roadwalk or multiple hitches. Having read that others had packrafted across in the past, I bought a $20 inflatable boat online in the weeks prior for this occasion. At the waters shore, I pumped up the boat, put my pack in and pushed off. The water was calm like a pond. With its very minor current, I concentrated on just crossing bank to bank and let the gentle flow help me downstream. In the cloudy calm of 6am, this experience was very beautiful and strange. This bittersweet packraft was over all too soon as I easy reached the other side and hopped ashore. As I pulled in my boat a dry started deflating it to return it to my backpack, the first kyaker and motor boater of the day each pulled into the boat launch, presumably confused (or just didn't care) by my presence.

After a brief roadwalk I was back in the woods, this time to climb through the Mt. Tom state park range. Upon entering the woods I hear the harsh scolding of an American Crow. I think it is cawing at me, but then see its true target, a Great Horned Owl drops down from its 100ft perch and is chased off by the crow.

Atop one of the first mountains of the day in this range, I discover a popular hawk watching tower on Goat Peak. I take a photo of the info board and make a note to come back during hawk migration. I descend down to the visitor center where my guide says is a spring fed water fountain. I am once again low on water. The visitor center is closed but much to my surprise the outdoor fountain is working! This will become my first of several thankful encounters with water fountains along the trail.

View from Goat Peak Lookout Tower
Cliff walk towards Mt. Tom
I climb back up the next mountain where the trail becomes a breathtaking cliff's edge as it travels to the summit of Mt. Tom. Slight drizzle has begun but I am not dismayed as the forecast originally called for worse. I see two day hikers on the way down and proclaim, "it's awesome up there!"
Later that day I cross under I-90 through a train underpass covered in really good graffiti. I hike through a lovely, slightly overgrown and clearly underused "nowhere" section of the trail and reach the Westfield River.





I-90 Train Underpass / NET Trail Crossing.
I know there is a gas station at the road crossing before the river. I hope it will have snacks, a soda, and a fork for me and daydream about this for miles leading up to it. Unfortunately it appears to be a true gas station and only sell cigarettes and gum. There will be no treats for me, but it's okay, I still have tons of food in my pack and eating couscous with my hands is only a problem if other people can see me do it.

Wet but across.
I had read reports that the Westfield River is the hardest challenge of the hike. The water level can be head height and the current is fast. Luckily today the water looked shallow. I removed my socks and insoles, slipped back on my shoes, and started to ford. The river started off shallow and slow but as I reached the half way point I realized it's true depth. As the freezing water started approaching the height of my waist and underside of my pack started hitting the flow, I looked for the easiest way to go the rest of the way. This far side of the river also was moving  super fast. It was a struggle to walk and I was thankful for my trekking poles. In an absent minded moment, I nearly lost balance but then realized the seriousness of the situation and with great focus finished the crossing to the other side.
I was relieved to be across. Having crossed both the Westfield and Connecticut River in one day felt good. The big, known challenges of this hike were behind me. I bathed in the calm water of this far side, towelled off, slipped on my soaked shoes and hiked on to relieve the shivers in the still drizzly afternoon. 

I checked my guide and saw an established campsite 10 more miles ahead across the CT Border. This would be a long day but there are few sanctioned campsites on the NET so this sounded appealing. I hiked on for a couple more hours to Rising Corner, a neighboorhood on the southern edge of Massachusetts, and the gateway to the NET in Connecticut. I was greated to Connecticut with a wooden sign and continued on passed it. A few miles in and on top of another ridge I found a nice carved out campsite with a firepit and tent site. Given the increasing rain and late hour of the day, I decided this would be my campsite for the night. I set up my tent, dried off, and went to bed once more with the fading light.



3rd time walking across MA completed!! - AT 2014, Midstate 2016, NET/RFT 2016


Stay tuned for "Part 2: MA/CT Border to Guildford, CT/Long Island Sound"


3 comments:

  1. Junco,

    My girlfriend and I are planning to hike the MA portion of the NET in a few weeks. Just wanted to let you know that your blog and Whiteblaze posts have been super helpful for my planning--thank you. Any general tips for the trail? Planning on 5 days for those ~100 miles. Could we talk about water availability sometime?

    Cheers,
    Nick

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Nick,

    Glad this post was helpful to you. This is a great, "off the radar" trail. I'm excited to hear you'll be out there hiking it.

    The main logistical challenge of this hike are camping locations, crossing the Connecticut River, and crossing the Westfield River.

    The northern end of the trail has many designated overnight sites (https://www.newenglandtrail.org/get-on-the-trail/overnight-sites), but the central/southern section of Massachusetts does not. COWLS Forestry Company allows camping on their land and I recall saying there one night, you may be able to find a map of their land online. There are plenty of quiet out of the way places where you could camp following LNT principals, including the occasional carved out camping area with a fire pit, although unfortunately the general rule seems to be camping is not permitted on most of the land the trail passes through. I took advantage of the sanctioned camp sites whenever possible, although to thru-hike this trail, some degree of "stealth" camping is more or less required.

    As described in this post, the CT river is very wide and slow moving with no bridge. I and others have rafted across it, or you can try to get a ride on a boat with a friendly boater if you go to the marina nearby, or you can do the long road walk around, or you could hitchhike/taxi.

    The Westfield River is perhaps the hardest ford I have ever done. It was waist deep for me and very fast. Water levels obviously vary, you can road walk around it if it seems too hard.. I believe its around 4 miles of roadwalking to get around it.

    20 miles a day for 5 days sounds doable. It may be more helpful on this trail than others to map out where you think you'll camp each night, keeping in mind when you'll cross the big rivers and possible delays those may cause.

    In regards to water, I believe I never carried more than 1.5 liters during my hike which was in early May 2016. I didn't have a list of water sources or topo maps showing water sources, and just kind of winged it. The one time I ran low on water was during the leadup to the Mt Holyoke range and the range itself. I had to drop off the seven sisters ridge there to get water from a spring I knew about from the map of the area. This trail often follows a pattern of: climbing a ridge from a road, walking along the ridge, and then descending to the next road, repeat. There is usually NOT water on the ridges themselves. Most of the water is down at lower elevations, so it's good to resupply on water before climbing up to the next one.

    In regards to navigation, the trail is very well marked. I didn't have a map or official guidebook and just followed the blazes. I made my self a "datasheet" of important mileage markers, etc using this great map here: https://www.newenglandtrail.org/get-on-the-trail/map

    Also unless things have changed, I would consider taking the Robert Frost Trail between Wendell State Forest and Holyoke Range. I believe the current routing of the NET through this area has a lot of road walks, whereas the Robert Frost Trail parallels the NET and is very nice trail for almost its entire length.

    Happy to address any other questions you may have. Have Fun!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Junco,

      Thanks for the reply! I've got a CalTopo route mapped out; got some friends/family to help me with the rivers, luckily. I've definitely planned on taking the RFT in lieu of the "official" NET. It's a beautiful detour, too.

      That's great to know re: water. Thank you for that! I thought it'd be less abundant than 1.5L at a time, so that's good to hear. That was my main concern.

      Can't wait! Cheers!

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