Old Speck Mountain — Photo courtesy of Mark PechenikSoon after the always busy winter holidays, outdoor cold weather enthusiasts frequently take to the trails throughout Maine to indulge in such favorite activities as snow shoeing, Nordic skiing, Skate Skiing, and ice climbing. But even when snow is scarce, winter hiking is possible. And one of the best places to take to the trails in winter is Maine's famous Grafton Notch State Park.
The early part of this winter season did not look promising for snow lovers. Sunday River's Outdoor Center in Bethel, one of the best cross country skiing operations in Maine, was closed due to lack of snow. Route 2, the main highway connecting the White Mountains National Forest regions of Maine and New Hampshire, looked oddly out of place with glaring bare patches of ground at a time of year when snow is usually starting to pile up. Even Mount Washington with its familiar dome of white sported a dull brown color.
Nevertheless, many cold weather fans made the best of their situation by engaging in winter hiking. Traveling into Newry, many hikers headed north to Grafton Notch State Park. This 3,000-acre gem in Maine’s state park system features distinctive geological landmarks with such lively names as Screw Auger Falls and Moose Cave. Their goal was the Old Speck Mountain Trail which, it was hoped, would allow for snowshoeing to Table Rock with its expansive views of Grafton Notch itself.Ice flows take on an abstract art quality at Grafton Notch State Park in winter. — Photo courtesy of Mark Pechenik
Instead of snow packed trails, however, this trail featured brown earth covered by a slippery layer of ice. Determined to press on, hikers gingerly made their way along the trail, many with sturdy hiking boots and hiking poles. It was an odd sensation, to say the least. This time of year, cold weather lovers are usually learning to re-navigate the fresh, new snow environment. But here they were, actually hiking in winter!
Soon, however, these hikers found themselves enjoying this novel experience. Scrambling up the trail as it gradually rose in elevation, they glanced back frequently at a valley landscape that displayed a singular beauty combining lightly dusted snow with the stark grayness of winter foliage. Looking ahead, they marveled at the sight of Old Speck Mountain which sported huge ice dams that seemed to hang in mid-air. They also stopped several times to take in the brilliant stillness of our surroundings, broken only by a gentle, subtle wind that fluttered the naked branches of the trees.
Lacking adequate equipment for winter trail hiking such as crampons, the hikers eventually decided to turn back. Climbing up icy trails is never a good idea if you’re not prepared for the experience. Along the way, the hikers reveled at the sight of bear tracks and ice build-up on brooks that had a distinct abstract art quality. Soon we were seated comfortably in my car. As they pulled out of the parking area, they felt a strong sense of gratitude for being able to adjust and make the best of yet another winter’s journey.