snowshoe trek to zealand falls hut

On Saturday, February 15th, I had quite the adventure!

The plan was to hike up to Zealand Falls Hut in Crawford Notch, NH, spend the afternoon with my friend who’s the caretaker, and then head back to my car before nightfall. I also needed to stop at the Highland Center (a lodge maintained by the AMC, also in Crawford Notch) to pick up some gear I had ordered for my AT hike. Well, I’m sure you’ve guessed where this is going, but I’ll say it anyway: things didn’t go exactly according to plan.

I had an unexpected doctor’s appointment Saturday morning at 8:00, which prevented me from getting an early start, and by the time I got home from my appointment, packed, and ate breakfast, it was 10:00. I decided to continue with my original plans, though, because I knew the trail up to Zealand Hut is relatively easy and assumed I’d have plenty of time (heh heh).

It took me two hours to get to the Highland Center. My friend Jeremy (the caretaker of the hut) picked me up a couple of pieces of gear and told me that he had left them at the lodge for me, but when I stopped in to pick them up, the woman working the desk wasn’t able to find anything. Strange! I figured that Jeremy probably ended up bringing the items up to the hut with him, so back I went to my car. By the time I pulled into the parking lot for Zealand, got all geared up, and finally hit the trail, it was around 12:20.

I decided to take the Zealand Trail up to the hut, which is a relatively easy 2.8 mile hike. There’s a parking lot at the base of the trail that’s accessed by Zealand Road, but in the winter this road is closed and hikers need to park .3 miles away from the start of the road, which adds an additional 3.8 miles to the total trek. While I knew that the access road was closed, I never imagined it would take me two hours to hike – but it did! We’ve gotten hit with snow pretty hard this year in NH (it was actually snowing the entire time I was hiking), and the road was covered in about a foot of snow, making snowshoes or cross-country skis necessary. I used my snowshoes on the road and leapfrogged with a group of cross-country skiers the entire length of the road. They would stop to take a break, and I would continue past them, but when they started moving again, they overtook me pretty quickly. It’s about time I got myself a pair of cross-country skis!

By the time I got to the base of the Zealand Trail, it was 2:20, and I still had 2.8 miles to go! The group of cross-country skiers decided to stop for lunch, but I decided to keep going. I knew at this point that I was most likely (er, most definitely) going to be hiking back to my car in the dark and hoped to minimize the amount of night-time hiking as much as possible. I thought about turning back at this point, too, but was determined to make it to the hut to see my friend and I also still needed to pick up my gear! So I continued on.

Zealand Trail is a beautiful little trail that only gains 650 ft in elevation. For the most part, the trail is relatively flat with only a few ups and downs, until you get to the last .2 miles of the trail, which are pretty steep. (This last section of the trail also joins with the Appalachian Trail, so for about a half mile, I was on the AT!) As much as I wished I had cross-country skis on the access road, I was relieved to have my snowshoes on this last section of the trail! Once I got passed this steep part, I was awarded with a view of the hut. It was 3:50 when I finally arrived, and right on time – I was starting to get a bit cold.

Thankfully, Jeremy saved some freshly made, warm minestrone soup for me. I put a few more layers on, drank a cup of tea, and stuck some toe warmers that Jeremy gave me to my socks, and felt much better. I talked to Jeremy about my gear and learned that he had indeed left my things at the Highland Center, so the mystery of finding my gear continued. I visited with Jeremy for an hour before deciding it was time to head back to my car. At this point it was already 5:00 and the sun was beginning to set. Jeremy invited me to stay at the hut for the evening (it would have been quite the entertaining evening – a boy scout troop, group of cross-country skiers, and a scattering of snowshoers all called the hut home that night) and I did have my sleeping bag with me (I hiked with a full pack as a part of my AT training), but I decided it was time to try my hand at night hiking.

I was pretty nervous about hiking alone at night. I’ve only hiked at night once before with a group of friends to watch a meteor shower, so I was feeling a bit out of my element, but being slightly afraid and uncomfortable wasn’t a good enough reason to keep me at the hut. Instead, I looked at this section of my hike as a sort of personal challenge, and decided I needed to do it, if only to prove to myself that I was capable. So, off I went.

I decided to hike with only my yak-traks on my shoes for traction, hoping that the trail was packed down enough at this point to render my snowshoes unnecessary. For the most part, the snow was pretty solid, but I fell a couple times at the beginning of my descent when my foot sunk through a foot of snow and my heavy pack propelled my body forward or sideways. The third or so time this happened, I’ll admit, I was pretty peeved. I was anxious about getting back to my car and nervous about being by myself in the woods at night, and falling (though harmless and painless) definitely pushed my limits. Before rushing off again, I took a couple of deep breaths and told myself to just accept the situation I was in.

I repeated the facts to myself: I wasn’t in any immediate danger; my clothing was keeping me warm and the toe warmers Jeremy had given me were doing their job; I had an apple and baby carrots with me and wasn’t nervous about running out of food; I had my tent and sleeping bag in case I needed to set up camp for some reason; my headlamp illuminated the trail and I had no problem seeing where I was going; I actually love being outside at night; and (thank god!) I’m not afraid of the dark. After I accepted my situation and put everything into perspective, my fear just disappeared. My situation might not have changed, but my attitude towards it did, and it made all the difference.

As Robert Frost says,

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep”

And Frost was right. I had 6.6 miles to hike, so there was no spare time for freak-outs.

During the entire hike back to my car, I kept pointing familiar landmarks out to myself and setting goals. For instance, once I got to the bottom of the Zealand Trail, I told myself, “Okay, RayLynn, just another mile to go before you reach the trailhead for Mt. Hale. Then you can stop and pee.” I also stopped to howl at the moon a couple of times, I’ll admit! On the 14th there was a full moon, so the moon on the 15th was still pretty bright, and this song played on repeat in my head.

The only frustrating aspect of my hike back to my car was that my water froze. I kept trying to warm the water hose with my hands and warm breath, but to no avail, so I stopped every now and then and ate a handful of snow. Lesson learned: always hike with a Nalgene bottle when temperatures fall below freezing! When I finally reached my car, I went to work turning the passenger’s seat warmer on and waited for my water to defrost.

I got back to my car at 8:00, and as soon as I got all my wet gear off and cleaned my car, I was on the road heading to the Highland Center. It was time to solve the mystery of my missing gear once and for all. This time around I had more success. I described the size of the package to the person working the desk, and in less than a minute my gear was found. Now, the only challenge left was getting back home! The roads were pretty crappy due to the snow, but have no fear! Three hours later, at 11:00, I finally made it home.

There’s no feeling comparable to the feeling I experience when I pull into my driveway at the end of a very long (though rewarding) day. It’s a mixture of relief, belonging, familiarity, and happiness, and it’s probably my favorite feeling in the whole world.

Ta-ta for now 🙂

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