Vose Spur

Submitted by Nancy

"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."-- Howard Thurman

Mountain: Vose Spur (4,235)
Date: June 9, 2012
Time: 11 hours
Weather: Humid and sunny, 70s
Miles: 14
Elevation Gain: 2,617
Trail: Sawyer River Road, Signal Ridge, Carrigain Notch Trail, Bushwhack

WARNING: If you are a diehard bushwhacker, don't even bother reading this. You'll end up shaking your head and muttering words like "wimp" under your breath as you scan the story. If you've tried bushwhacking once or twice and quickly given it up in favor of hiking on trails, read on. If you've done some bushwhacking and are still sporting the bruises, scratches and bug bites, and are wondering why you enjoy pushing your way into where you are not welcomed with only a compass to guide you...read on. If you have considered getting your Hundred Highest but have yet to attempt the bushwhacks - read at your own risk.

The goal is to climb the Hundred Highest mountains in New England. I am twelve shy. They are all bushwhacks. Three years ago Pat and I attempted Mendon and turned around almost immediately when we realized that the fresh coating of snow made finding the herd path impossible. A few weeks later with no more knowledge, we tried Vose Spur and failed miserably. If you want a good laugh - read the report. That was it for me. I knew I hated bushwhacking just from these two short forays into the unchartered territory of the dense, thick, unforgiving woods. I understood why so many people stop at the 48 4,000-footers in NH or the 67 4,000-footers in NE - getting the Hundred Highest puts you in a completely different category. INSANE!

But, in these two previous attempts, I didn't bushwhack long enough to experience the blessing. Now I have...


It's two years later and Pat, in the form of the GRACEWAVE, convinces me I ought to give it another go. I, with some reservations, agree. This time though, Pat and I have a better idea of what we are doing. Pat has taken a map and compass class and successfully completed two 4,000-footer bushwhacks. And she has done her best to teach me. We are hiking with three others, Bernie, who has already completed the Hundred Highest and is a saint to accompany us today, Eileen, who has taken a map and compass class and is working on her Hundred Highest, and Marilyn, who only has four mountains left to earn her Hundred Highest. Good company to be in, that is for sure.

This Vose Spur hike has its challenges. The first happens in the planning process. The Sawyer River Road is closed due to Hurricane Irene. Pat suggests we ride the two miles to the trailhead on bikes. Sounds like a great idea! Ah, not so fast. We check with the powers that be and are told that we have to walk if we want the mountain to count. As we are merrily walking the road, two guys zip by on bikes. We yell to them that it won't count, but they are out of sight in no time. We reach the trailhead after two miles of road walking and bushwhack around the first stream crossing then head out on the Signal Ridge Trail for 1.7 miles. The next water crossing requires us to change into water shoes before heading across. We hit the Carrigain Notch Trail and hike until we arrive at the rock and stepping stones - ahhh the beginning of the bushwhack. We take off our packs and have lunch while we are being eaten alive by black flies, a harbinger of things to come.

Lunch devoured, it is time to get our bearings. We are huddled in a circle. I am trying to learn as much as I can, so I am focused. Red is in the shed, as Pat and Eileen say, and we are all pointing up the mountain in approximately the same direction. We are in agreement and have our plan: head up to the ridge, hopefully find the herd path, turn right and climb the ridge to the talus field, then straight up to the summit. Got it. Here we go!

My compass is around my neck and I pause frequently to make sure red is in the shed and I am heading in the right direction. Herein lies another challenge. Every time I stop and look down at my compass, I drip sweat on its face. I try to wipe it off, but that smears the sweat along with a few spruce needles onto the surface. The black flies are swarming all around me, a couple having lunch on my arms. I wave my arms frantically to get rid of the black flies and smack my right arm into a hefty tree branch, ouch! I move on. The forest is thick with spruce. Hopes of a herd path and open woods fade as I struggle to push my way through the dense branches. It feels like a fight, forcing myself into a world where I am not meant to be. There are blow-downs everywhere and the decision to go over or under is not always clear. As it turns out, no matter which way I choose, it is not easy.

Every once in a while someone says they have found a herd path and we gravitate in that direction. I always thought of a herd path as a PATH. These are not paths! They are a couple of broken branches, that's it. You still have to squeeze yourself through the branches, over the blow-downs, around the tree trunks, under the logs, up and over the ledges, and through the hobblebushes.

Finally a reprieve from the dark dense surroundings. We see sky! We find ourselves on the ridge and on a herd path -- yeah! We check our map, the altimeter, change our compass bearing, turn right and head up the mountain. It is not long before I see sky again and the person in front lets out a woooo hooooooo - she has found the talus field. It is so nice to see sky - oh look at that view, this is awesome! Ahhh, not so fast. Within seconds of emerging into the open air we are swarmed by thousands of black flies. Yes thousands. The air is a thick black swirling soup all around us. It is disconcerting. I realize I can't stop or I will be covered with man-eating bugs! I had a picture in my head of sitting on the rocks, enjoying the sun and the breeze, taking pictures of the gorgeous view. Not going to happen. Get me out of here before I am gnawed to death!

Although I want to run, I can't. The talus field requires some care negotiating through it. This open area is a collection of rocks varying in size from footballs to stools, all balanced precariously on one another until you place your weight on them and then they readjust their position moving down the steep pitch. So the rocks are rolling under my feet as I try to gain purchase, and the bugs are swarming and I am ready to scream! Get me out of here! We re-enter the woods and although we immediately feel the pitch steepen and the branches holding us back, we can't see as many black flies. Now they are there, it's just that we don't have the blue sky around us to make them stand out. But psychologically it is easier when you can't see the swarm.

Another personal challenge -- my pants are too big. They are falling off but I can't pull them up in back because my back pack is in the way and I can't stand still long enough to take my back pack off to pull up my pants because then the bugs will get me. I am walking on the legs and at this point I just don't care. My butt is black from sliding down muddy ledges, and my cuffs are now black from walking on them.

I keep looking at my compass to make sure we're going in the right direction. As we hike, the steepness gets steeper, the trees denser, the bugs happier, my sweat thicker. Every hundred feet or so I have to take a swig of water to wash down the bug that just flew in my mouth. I spit the pine needles out, but the bugs seem to get half way down my throat and I can't get them up. I have left half my hair on tree branches when I didn't duck quite low enough and a few pieces of flesh on sharp stumps when I didn't get my legs totally out of the way. Finally, when I am feeling pretty beat-up, the steepness falls off and we meander our way through open woods to the summit canister. Wooooo Hooooooo!

I want to eat, but we can't stand still or we will be in black fly hell. We open the canister and take out the pen and paper and read the previous entry by a guy who said something about lots of black flies. We sign the register, get a quick snack and head down. Straight down!

I have blood running down my shin, scratches on my arms and legs that make me look like I've been in a cat fight and lost, bruises on my arms and legs and bug bites everywhere, especially along my hairline. By this time I am just squeezing bug dope all over me every chance I get, in a panic to save myself. But, somehow, I still have my humor.

Our bushwhack brings us back down to the exact place we had our lunch hours ago - no surveyor's tape, no panic, great team effort. The hard work is done, now we have a few miles of trail, a nasty stream crossings and two miles of road walking and we will be back at the cars.

Eleven hours later, body beaten up and tired, we arrive back at our cars, victorious.

I hated it. Really. I hate bushwhacking. As I get in Pat's car for the drive home, I am sure that I have just completed my last bushwhack. I relax into the seat knowing that I won't ever have to do that again. About an hour of bliss goes by while I allow the memory of the bugs biting and the branches lashing to dissipate as I sink into the comfort of safety. Then I turn to Pat and say, "What's our next bushwhack?"

WHAT? Didn't I just say I hate bushwhacking? And now I am talking about the next one? WHAT IS THAT?

Maybe it is the lure of accomplishing a goal, or winning a hard fight, or proving to myself that I am made of more than I think I am. As I sit in the car scratching behind my ears, I realize that what I love about bushwhacking is that it is intense. It makes me feel something. I feel completely alive when I am pushing the spruce branches away from my face, forcing myself through the hobblebushes, ducking under the branches and climbing over the blow-downs. Bushwhacking is one of the hardest things I have ever done, putting my life on the line, hoping that a compass, the courage within and my friend can get me back to the car. It forces me way outside of my comfort zone to a place where I am on my edge, fully alive.

And I am addicted to being fully alive. When I am not challenged, not forced to feel or fend for myself, I get bored and too comfortable. But when I am fighting my way through the woods to the top of a trail-less peak, I am alive. I want to live a life of being intensely alive always.

You know, everyone is different. What is intense to me might be nothing to someone else and impossible to another. To me bushwhacking is intense, but to someone else rock climbing up sheer cliffs is intense and bushwhacking is nothing. But you know what? Comparisons aren't helpful. Our differences don't matter. It is our common ground that helps us make sense of our world.

We all want the experience of feeling intensely alive. It doesn't matter what gives us that feeling - it might be making cookies with your children, bonding with your pet, walking out in the beauty of nature, or participating in an Iron Man Triathlon. It doesn't matter what we do to get that feeling, it only matters that we experience the feeling of being so alive that each moment counts. That is the gift. And once we find an experience that makes us feel fully, intensely alive - we want to do it again and again and again.

89 out of 100 Highest