One by one each fall, the USFS seasonal forest roads close. One by one again in the spring, they’ll reemerge from under layers of ice, snow, and mud and open back up again. In between, they belong to skiers, snowmobiles, and hikers who — mostly — are resigned to the extra miles in pursuit of winter peaks.
And, on Sunday, to me and the dogs.
Zealand Mountain and its environs are very, very special to me. There’s a little bit of everything — beaver ponds, waterfalls, dramatic views from cliff and through notch, and interesting, ever-changing forest — in a relatively small area and somehow whenever I visit, it feels like exactly where I need to be. Lilo and I did a neighboring peak together and descended the long way, via a ridge walk and past Zealand Hut and then the road a ways back to our car during the height of foliage season. I remember thinking in astonishment and joy that even the road walk was beautiful.
Hiking North Sugarloaf in December (I never wrote it up, but that’s where the pictures in the New Year’s hopes post came from) required walking the first part of the road and demonstrated for me that it’s beautiful in winter, too. It has been on my mind for a while. It’s low-elevation, to minimize cold and wind and danger in the winter months. Gently rolling, to build Titus’s strength without overtaxing him. Also: wide enough to get comfortable distance from fellow travelers while my hooligan dogs relearn how to hike as a team.
Our recent warm weather (and heavy traffic) have made for horrific conditions on most of the well-traveled trails. Meanwhile, the rivers are running high and fast. I don’t have any desire to tackle a 4ker until things improve substantially; it just doesn’t seem like any fun right now. Low-elevation trails are not exempt. I’d tried on Saturday to visit some friends who were camping only half a mile from the road and ended up aborting the attempt thanks to a sketchy stream crossing that, I learned the next day, also turned back and/or caused trouble for almost everybody else in the would-have-been group.
But Zealand Road has just a relatively thin layer of relatively solid snow, thanks to weather-induced consolidation and being traveled primarily by folks who know their stuff and gear up appropriately for conditions. And it is, you know, a road with car travel three seasons of the year. So the river crossings are very thoroughly bridged!
And the views are pretty spectacular. Even on a day with moody, heavy clouds, I caught many glimpses of mountains and enjoyed the company of the rushing river…
…and the decoration afforded by interesting boulders with their icicle farms.
About a mile into the trek, warmed up and content in my choice of layers, swinging along with my snowshoes on for those moments when Titus needed to explore something off-trail (and happy to have upgraded last spring to a fancy lightweight set of mountaineering ‘shoes so that I never resent wearing them when it’s not strictly necessary), praising the dogs for what a good, good job their both were doing, I found myself feeling settled in a way that I haven’t for — a while now. Happy. Calm. At peace. Exactly where I needed to be. It’s often the way that I feel in this part of the Whites and a way that I haven’t been feeling, what with one thing or another, even though so much of my life is so, so good. I just breathed it in and let it be.
My first turnaround point for this hike was the Sugarloaf trail a mile up Zealand Road. We reached that point more quickly than I had expected, with both dogs moving happily and well. So we continued towards my hard stop turnaround: Hale Brook trailhead. That was 2.5 miles in (or 2.7ish with the road walk to get to…the road walk) and was the absolute upper limit of what I felt like I could ask of Titus today without feeling like an idiot if he was sore after. We’ve done a couple of successful 4 and 4.5 mile outings since his injury, but have struggled to successfully move beyond. Must admit that I’m a little gunshy at this point about the balance of strengthening and asking too much!
Just as I was starting to see a little fatigue in the dogs (we’re all badly out of shape, remember!) and to doubt my memory’s conviction that Hale Brook had to be just around the next corner, a trio of skiers appeared and assured me that indeed, we were almost there. Not two minutes later the trail sign came into view.
Both dogs were hungry (although Titus denied being at all ready for a break). I fed them, then myself, and we hung out for twenty minutes before packing up to head back out. The road ahead, as seen above, did look inviting! But the full 7 miles (plus snowmobile trail) was well outside my “not feeling like an idiot” range. Maybe next time!
Titus needed a little easing into the walk back out. He struggles a bit with turnarounds for some reason and we walked for a moment with him holding onto his tug leash as an alternative to dive-bombing Lilo’s head. I busted him back down to just the Kurgo Quantum leash hooked to a belt. He’d had that plus the tug leash to the belt on the way out, for 11′ of blissful freedom, but his brain works better with fewer space to make choices when he’s a little tired. With just 6′ of play (and plenty of encouragement), he settled back into walking nicely.
It is pretty wonderful to be able to let him have a little more space, though! I’m being very cautious due to his vulnerable leg and the amount of ice still present, but more and more I’m able to give him enough room to show off his floating trot and easy, ground-covering lope (we’re trying to avoid the sprint for now!) and it is so, so good for my heart. And probably for his, too!
I’m keeping a close eye on Lilo’s movement, too. I’ve been seeing a tiny, intermittent front-leg lameness as we’ve been ramping her exercise and dog-dog playtime back up over the last week or so. I don’t think it’s anything major. A day of rest and a dose of Rimadyl disappear it again. She presented with the same last year after hiking Moosilauke and went on to recover beautifully. Interestingly, I put her on Dasuquin with MSM after that hike up the Moose. We recently ran out of that stuff and I haven’t yet reordered it; I’ve been having her finish off some other joint supplements that Titus refuses to eat instead. They’re pretty similar on paper, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the tiny offness vanishes again once I get her back on the Dasuquin.
(I really wish I could convince Titus to eat that stuff, but he categorically rejects it. Maybe if I smashed the tablets up into powder and mixed it with his salmon oil? Act in your own best interests, dog!)
The walk back out is slightly downhill and was smooth sailing. We even ran a verrry slightly negative split, though that’s probably attributable to the dogs needing to sniff every twig on the way out but only every third twig on the way back. We returned to the Jeep a tired and very happy crew. And my fix for the backpack hip belt buckle that I had broken (Titus helped) the previous day worked beautifully!
I was a little afraid to take Titus out of his car crate upon arriving home. Happily, he looked great! I am trying to be proactive with the anti-inflammatories on days that he does more than his usual, but I’m confident that we’re not going to mask an acute setback — just hopefully minimize within-normal-limits soreness while we rebuild all that lost muscle. Now Lilo is snoring away on the floor to my right while Titus…gnaws happily on a knuckle bone to my left. Oh, my trail dog. Heal up so we can do more like this very soon!