Eight miles into an epic day of towering waterfalls and National Parks quality wilderness ponds, we are mid-way through a sun-kissed stand of towering pines, mid-conversation, basking in the glories the deep Pemi Wilderness, when something off-trail goes “snarllff!”
The sound is a huff, a gurgling low resonance that makes us freeze. And listen. It’s one of those hiking moments when time stops and the world becomes sharp and focused. An animal sound like that means you’ve scared something off, or something is coming toward you.
Our journey on this day began many years early when I first noticed a tiny point on an AMC topo map of a place called Stillwater Junction; a slight, italicized, understated pin-prick on the map many miles from any road where three trails come together on the flats around three brooks.
There’s no easy way to get to Stillwater Junction, no short-cut that tourists can take. Though the history of the junction is one of railroad crossings and logging camps, the name remains romantic and mysterious.
Our hike to SJ began five hours earlier as we made our way up the Nancy Pond Trail, past the remains of Lucy Mill, across, then up, then over the top of Nancy Cascades and passed two of the White Mountains’ most beautiful wilderness ponds, Nancy and Norcross.
We’d never been to these parts before. But now, free of the constraints of peakbagging lists and eager to put some miles under our boots to train for an August trip to Mt. Katahdin, we selected Stillwater as the halfway point of a major trek through the Pemi. From Stillwater, we’d turn right and try out the Shoal Pond Trail, connect up with the Ethan Pond Trail, circle around Whitewall Mountain, then escape the Pemi via Zealand Trail.
The plan was ambitious for us, 17.6 miles. Meena and I began at 6:30 a.m. and we had no real plan for getting us back to our car. We knew friends were staying that night at Dry River Campground and we had their number, but no signal.
But the end of the trek seems far distant now, as we wait, stock still, for an animal to show itself. But there is only the sound of the trees, speaking through the wind and the distinct repetitive call of the chickadee. No more sounds, nothing else. Wilderness.
I shrug and figure whistling a nice tune will keep any hungry bear at bay. I select the theme from Bridge Over the River Kwai because no mammal dislikes Alec Guinness. Meena is content to bang her sticks together. And so it goes, whistling away the day, the great bulk of Mt. Carrigain over our left shoulders, cutting through a hedgerow-like trail and finally coming to Stillwater Junction.
We stop here for a long while, the North Brook at our feet, and rest. I dip my bandana into the cold brook and let the river drip down my neck and cheeks. And though this junction is not unlike many others in the Whites, as Meena rests against the thick tree that holds the new sign-post, admiral butterflies began to appear; one, then three, then four and five, fluttering around her, tiny royal blue and silver satellites attracted to her pink shirt perhaps.
And as we sit, alone by the water, our feet pleasantly sore, butterflies dipping and weaving among and between us, Stillwater Junction becomes the place it always has been in my mind; distant and serene, a melancholy outpost, once industrialized but now returning to the earth. After a while, we reluctantly move on.
Schoal Pond Trail challenges us. This little used connector between Carrigain and Whitewall twists and turns through bogs and marshes, and we spend a fair amount of time barely above the muck on rotting planks. Other times, spectacular groves of swamp iris overtake the trail and we must push through, careful to not disturb the bees clinging to the flowers.
The trail is tough going, four miles of heat and mud interspaced with lovely brooks, still marred with erosion from hurricane Irene. At some crossings, we stumble about for a while over scoured white rocks looking for the other side of the trail.
But just when the trail has beaten us, at the moment when we wonder why we’re here at all, Shoal Pond appears and it is like being handed a prize. We’ve never looked at Zealand Notch with water in the foreground. The deep cleft where we are heading is perfect, inviting and startling after so much work. As we stare, a huge beaver moved quietly through the water, only 15 feet from us, but not caring at all that we are there. The final leg of our journey calls us, so we move on.
We reach the Ethan Pond Trail and it’s like a highway, smooth and well-groomed. We see our first humans of the day, and as we hook around Whitewall and pop out into the open on the old railroad ledge, we stop one final time on table rock and eat ginger cookies and baby carrots and let a cool breeze dry our clothes and energize our spirit for the final leg.
And then, we get lucky once more. With only a mile or so to go before Zealand Road, with my knees feeling the impact of nearly every step, we come across a kind couple and their two amazing, small, dogs. They are returning from Zealand Mountain and heading back to Bartlett. They offer us a ride back to our car and our 11 hour day ends with the generosity of complete strangers.
Recap: Here’s our route for the day – Nancy Pond, Carrigain, Shoal Pond, Ethan Pond, Zealand trails. For a link to the complete album of our journey, click here: Lowland Pemi Traverse