South Carter, Middle Carter, Lethe
Hiked on October 9, 2022
Snow changes everything. Obviously there are actual physical changes. Climbing in the snow--even a little bit--can alter one's approach. The rocks get slippery, for instance. Footing gets weird. If it snows early in the season there can be personal thermostat challenges, with layers going on and off in rapid succession. However, there are also aesthetic and spiritual changes. The white flakes create sharp outlines where previously there were none. The fall of snow, itself, helps us remember previous snows for better or for worse. The sound is altered, too. Even a little snow has the ability to muffle the incidental noises of the forest. Also, many creatures--human and otherwise--become silent, hiding away until the squall passes on.
An early October snowfall starting somewhere above 3,000 feet changed this hike across South Carter, Middle Carter, and oft-forgotten Mount Lethe. We had climbed Carter Dome a couple weeks before. Two weeks--and the snow--made all the difference. When we were on the Carter-Moriah Trail (also part of the AT) in September the place was a seething mass of humanity. Thru-hikers were hustling along their way in hopes of making it to Baxter State Park before it closed for the season. Day hikers were everywhere. On the top of Carter Dome--as I mentioned before--a group had decided to have a picnic and blast their tunes for the rest of us to hear. On this trip it was all silence. It is too late for all that rushing about and too cold for picnics. From now until May there is a seriousness to this endeavor that doesn't empty the big mountains of people so much as put more space between them.
To get to the Carter-Moriah trail--the one that takes us over the peaks--we opted for a steep climb up 19 Mile Brook Trail. The pitch became steeper as went along. When we approached Carter Dome we were on the other side of the ridge. We stopped at Carter Notch and climbed to the peak from there. In this case--on the "front" side--the trail split, with 19-Mile Brook heading toward the hut. The other path--called the Carter Dome Trail though we departed it before the Dome--veers left and heads up toward South Carter. The plans of the few people we saw seemed to involve the hut. Once we turned we had the trail even more to ourselves.
Shortly after this was when the snow started. I am not fond of winter or winter hiking. Snow, however, I like if it is ridiculously early in the season. It reminds me of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Also, it doesn't get deep enough to be a problem--other than the slickness--for our footing. We had the micro spikes in our bag just in case, but we didn't need them. I stayed in a T-shirt for quite a while, waiting for the snow to pick up. I heat up quickly and was mindful of what the drop in temperature could do if I soaked through too many outer layers.
It was a strange feeling with the colored leaves still on the trees, but it wasn't an unpleasant one. The wind had died down, which helped a great deal as well. All the weather activity gave us something to think about as we moved higher and higher.
In a previous post I made reference to a phenomenon that occurs sometimes on mountain hikes where the trail begins to feel safe and secure, like a comfortable room in a house or a welcoming hallway connecting two points. At least that is how I experience it sometimes. This hike had a great deal of this sort of action, particularly after the climb up. When we emerged onto the relatively broad intersection of our trail with Carter-Moriah, the room effect was very much in force. Again, two weeks earlier this spot would have been insane with hikers. Now Al and I were alone in the quiet with the snow gently settling around us.
We may not have been in a true winter wonderland, but it was a wonderland nonetheless. That feeling stuck with us for the long walk along the ridge. We had selected this loop to get away from the crowds. Now on the main trail, we did see a few people enjoying the strangeness of the day. That said, the population was very manageable.
We weren't sure it would be that way. The weekend of Indigenous People's Day is one of the busiest in the Whites. The foliage is usually full throttle. You cannot find a place to stay. Many of the best-known trails and mountains are packed with muggles looking for a fabulous view. We were under the impression that there wasn't much in the view department on the Carters. This was why we picked it. We wanted to hike. The snow had made the forest even more beautiful so we didn't mind terribly anyway.
Funny thing, though. We were wrong about the views. After a long, long, time in the forest the snow started to abate. Through the trees and on various outlooks we were all able to cast our eyes on the fall landscape from our wintry perches. The juxtaposition of our landscape with the one far below was the sort of thing we hope for after putting in so much effort. It felt like a gift.
At this point the temperatures had dropped substantially. Bundled up in our winter jackets we took a moment for snacks and water before heading just below the peak of Mount Lethe. Then we turned on the North Carter Trail toward the Imp Trail for our descent.
The rest of the hike was less interesting. We had a few more brilliant views before dropping under the canopy of trees. We had been talking about heading over the Imp Face--one of the 52 WAV mountains--but we were really done. I was especially finished. I had decided to wear my "backup" hiking boots that I used on the Great Glen Way. This was a mistake. I was trying to save money by nursing along my favorite pair, saving them for other hikes. I paid for my cheapness with pain. I don't think I can do that much longer. It is worth it to use the right gear for the right job. The best boots one can get are the best boots to have, it turns out. Limping down to the bottom of the North Carter/Imp trails I welcomed the short road walk back to our car to complete the loop.
Sometimes there is no great theme to a walk. On days like this it is best not to look too hard for meaning. Instead we favor the day we have been given with our attention. The snow, the pretty trail, the surprise views, and even the sore feet contributed to the experience. We were open to the wonder and were rewarded for it.
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I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.