Coös County Traverse
"The explorers" tackle a rough path across the top of the state
On a raw, briny October day, we were 16 miles into our two-day, 40-mile mountain bike ride across the northern part of the state. Stringing together fire roads, snowmobile trails and grassy deer paths, the six of us were negotiating the eastern portion of the Second College Grant, making our way from the Maine border to the Connecticut River and Vermont.
Despite some hilly terrain and the damp gray chill, our hearts were light as Chris Pierce, Joe Klementovich, Bridget Freudenberger, Mike Zizza, and his 22-year-old daughter, Anna, and I followed the contour of the Swift Diamond River.
After we crossed a bridge over the river, the map on Joe’s phone indicated that we should angle westward on what was marked as an old snowmobile trail. But soon our riding was hindered by piles of slash and bracken left behind by loggers, along with clusters of thigh-high weeds. Adding to our difficulties, the trail was made indistinct by overlapping corridors of open ground trailing into the woodland.
What had been a pleasant trek despite the weather turned into a slog. Not far along, we discovered that the path contained muddy sloughs marked with the imprint of fresh moose tracks. The mud sucked at my tires and fouled the gears, and the thorny piles of deadwood began appearing more frequently, blocking the trail.
Our progress slowed to approximately two miles an hour. With his fat tires and nearly a thousand miles of riding this year, Piercey was having pretty good luck, tricky-trotting along the edge of the swampy areas and rolling over the piles of deadwood.
But Mike and I were forced to dismount every few minutes, hauling our bikes over the obstacles and muddying our feet to the shins. It was like trying to water ski in the Okefenokee swamp, so we plodded along, wary of the fading daylight and glancing up at the dim gray sky.
Our trip had a promising start beneath a sign on Route 16 welcoming us to Maine. We biked past a tiny cemetery, along the dirt road and around the gate that marked the entrance to the 27,000-acre Second College Grant, ceded to Dartmouth College by the state Legislature in 1809. Piercey and I had biked the first miles of this same route two years earlier, fly fishing with his son, Will, and Joe Klementovich. Now Piercey and I rode ahead, turning onto a familiar single-track marked by a sign for “Sam’s Lookoff.” At the end of the trail was a picnic table on a patch of high ground overlooking the river. As Mike and Anna marveled at the view, Piercey sorted through a bag of trail mix on the pine needle-scattered table, separating out the almonds because of an allergy.
Recognizing that our adventures had crossed over one another, I said, “I never thought I’d get back here, and it’s (expletive) awesome.”
Piercey glanced up, nodding his head.
There were so many cool places to see, we rarely visited spots like this more than once. But this little glen perched above the Dead Diamond was somehow very dear to me, and I was grateful our wanderings had led us back here.
Five miles on, we stopped for lunch on a grassy embankment that bordered the road. Lounging among the ferns, my companions and I dug energy bars, fruit, and other snacks from our hydration packs.
Chomping on an apple, I reached into my backpack, pulling out my notebook and pencil.
“You want us to keep up the witty banter?” Joe asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “You might eventually say something funny.”
The embankment overlooked the road, and beyond, rising above the timbered valley was a long, steep ridge painted with roseate splotches and myriad shades of gold and yellow, interspersed with the dark spikes of up-jutting fir trees and occasional splashes of brilliant orange.
“Look, Mike,” I said, nudging him with my foot. “It’s foliage by Cezanne.”
Anna Zizza is an easygoing, athletic brunette, recently graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in Environmental Geography. Seated in the grass nearby, Anna noted that she’s a “weekday vegan,” in contrast to me, a year-round vegan.
When I asked why she’s partially vegan, Anna grinned. “If I come home drunk, I’m not making myself a salad,” she said.
Having traveled over a mile on that muddy snowmobile trail, Mike and I trudged along in silence. A rugged, solidly built fellow, Mike is in the gym every weekday morning by 4:45 a.m. But he’d fractured his right ankle playing rugby back in July, and was barely out of the walking boot.
At irregular intervals, we’d reach a stretch of ground solid enough to climb back into the saddle, churning the pedals for 40 yards or so before getting mired in the slop to our wheel hubs. Then we’d haul ourselves off the bikes and resume walking.
Shuffling along, it occurred to me that the bond Mike and Piercey and I had forged over years of playing rugby together — a particular sort of trust in each other’s skills and endurance — had taken the edge off what had turned into a real chore. A profound ache ran from my throat down to my stomach, as if my stored energy and resolve were being ground into sharp little bits by a lathe. This was also the only terrain we’d encountered that was ugly to look at — the heaps of old tree limbs piled up like dinosaur bones, the soupy bogs, and the churned-up mud.
Piercey was a hundred yards ahead, grinding along. But he’d stop every so often, waving his arms, and offering a loud “Zizzzzzaaaaa! You got it, buddy!” or “Way to go, Anna!”
I’ve been off the grid in poor conditions in the company of acquaintances and fair-weather friends. But with Mike and Piercey there was no snippiness, or indifference to the others in the party. We just forged ahead, making silent offers of water or snacks when we got bogged down.
Nearly two hours after entering this grim section of the forest, we hit a dry stretch on a gravel road, allowing Mike and Anna and I to ride at a steady pace. Energized by this new country, and 20 miles into our trek, Mike and I began comparing past outings, trying to decide which one was the most difficult.
Mike offered up the sub-zero pond hockey game in North Conway. “Pretty tough day,” he said.
“What about the Imp Trail death march?” I asked.
We had a large group on that January day, heading up to the Imp Profile just north of Mt. Washington on Route 16. The minus 8-degree weather and rapid elevation gain led to a few tears being shed by some of the participants.
“Challenging,” said Mike, looking sideways at me. “But there’s no turning back today.”
Regrouping atop a hill decorated with flaming maple trees, Mike and Anna discovered they were out of water. I sidled over on my bike, extending the hose from my pack, and they each took a drink. I had a quart or so left but was out of food, with several miles still ahead of us.
Suddenly, Mike remembered he had some energy gel cubes zipped into a pocket on his sleeve. He and Piercey took out some blueberry gels and a pack of raspberry cubes. Mike tossed one to me and I popped it in my mouth.
“Amazing,” I said, shaking my head.
“This is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten,” said Piercey, and I laughed in recognition of that fact.
“Better than pate de fois gras at the Ritz with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald,” I said.
At the junction of two dirt roads, Joe’s digital map went flooey and we took a wrong turn, descended a hill, climbed back up, and returned to where we’d started 15 minutes earlier. Our first day would eventually result in a 2,669-foot elevation gain, and we weren’t done yet.
Joe’s map reappeared on his phone and we pedaled onward, mounting a hill on a narrow lane that knifed between two halves of a spruce forest. Straddling her bike, Bridget drew our attention to a Canada Jay perched on a branch about 40 feet off the ground.
The Canada Jay, or perisoereus canadensis, is a sleek, striking bird, grayish white with black head markings. Native to Canada and partial to coniferous forests, its nickname is the “camp robber,” since it often approaches humans to beg or steal food.
Bridget reached into her pocket for some trail mix, extending her hand skyward. Smiling serenely, the lanky triathlete coaxed the Canada Jay off its perch. It hovered in the air inches away from Bridget’s outstretched hand, pecking at the trail mix.
Mike shook his head. “The bird whisperer,” he said.
Having reached height of land after six hours of biking, our company enjoyed the dirt roads and light downhills that ensued. But soon we reached a trio of long, gradual hills that seesawed up the ridgeline toward our destination, Bear Rock Campground in Colebrook.
While Joe, Piercey and Bridget forged ahead, Mike and I dismounted partway up the final incline. Anna was so tired, Mike pushed her bike and his own, gripping one with each hand.
Mike tipped his head toward Anna, who was walking behind us with a glum look on her face.
I glanced back. “She’s tough.”
Bear Rock Campground occupies 100 acres perched on the ridge overlooking Dixville Notch. We were the only party booked for the weekend.
When I remounted my bike and rode across the sloping lawn that marked the center of the grounds, it was approaching dusk. At the edge of the clearing, the adjacent valley began as corrugated folds of dark firs, golden maples, and splotches of yellow and burnt orange, interspersed with patches of cultivated land. Across the valley, patches of fog hung down in ghostly beards, dropping in tendrils hundreds of yards long that nearly touched the ground and then were swept away by the wind.
A large, square, white tent straight out of Ernest Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa” sat on a wooden platform in the middle of the clearing. I could make out Piercey and
the others, moving in silhouette between the fire pit and the vehicles we’d left there earlier in the day.
Beside the tent was some kind of canvas phone booth, and I parted the flap as I went by. Inside was a large masonry bucket lined with a blue plastic bag and crowned with a toilet seat.
I exchanged brief greetings with the others, and disappeared into the tent. Later, I’d find out that we’d covered nearly 30 miles. Each of us was in motion for roughly four hours,
for a total time of just under seven hours.
Hemingway’s old tent contained a small woodstove and a legless double bed that filled two-thirds of the space. I spread my sleeping bag over half the bed and crawled beneath it, too tired get inside. My left quad and hamstring were cramping so badly it felt like they were trying to jump off the bone. Even though the temperature inside the tent was 40 degrees, I was sweating through my Merino pullover, my heart was banging against my ribs, and I was breathing through my mouth like I’d just completed an Olympic steeplechase.
Shortly thereafter, I got the chills and my teeth started chattering. The tent flap opened and Piercey stuck his head in.
“You all right, buddy?’ he asked.
“Man, I’m in a bad way.”
“OK,” Piercey said. “Get up.”
Throwing off the sleeping bag, I stood up and my left leg nearly gave out. Quickly, I changed into a set of dry clothes, zipped on a down vest, and pulled on a woolen ski hat.
Outside, the campfire threw a ring of light over the surrounding terrain, and I saw Mike driving his SUV over the grass, right up to the edge of the tent platform. Anna was in the backseat, and Mike motioned for me to sit up front. I climbed into the warm, heated cab and he handed me four ibuprofen.
“C’mon,” Mike said. “We’re going into town.”
Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the Parson Street Restaurant in Colebrook. Originally the parsonage for an Episcopal church, the property was later converted into a private residence. Now it’s a cozy 40-seat restaurant situated on the main floor, featuring modern American cuisine with French and Italian influences. Joined by Bridget’s affable husband, Phil, our party occupied a long table adjacent to the bar in one of the main rooms.
Sitting amidst the warm, friendly clatter of the restaurant, I felt human again, downing glasses of water and objecting to several of Piercey’s questionable pronouncements. The chef prepared a vegan risotto for me, and there was a platter of roasted Brussels sprouts that disappeared after I ate a few and pronounced them delicious.
“I feel like you picked me up at assisted living for a quiet dinner out,” I said to Mike.
Piercey, Joe and I occupied the far end of the table, sitting in a golden oblong of light and acting like a trio of unruly schoolboys. A raucous family dinner unfolded, where Piercey and I took turns holding court to the delight of some diners and the consternation of the rest. But the food was top-notch, and there in the parson’s former living room the vibe was homey and familiar.
Back at the campground, a rising moon changed the passing clouds into an array of Spanish galleons, Jules Verne-era spaceships, and gigantic seabirds traveling across a black velvet sky. Hours after Mike and I had begun rating our most difficult adventures, Piercey joined the debate.
“That pond hockey game was brutal,” Piercey said. “If you stopped playing, you were suffering.”
Just before 10 o’clock I said goodnight, and sometime after that Piercey came in and tried to start a fire in the stove. He wasn’t having much luck and from inside my down bag, I made a suggestion and rolled over. Piercey went back out and returned with a flat piece of wood containing several burning coals from the fire pit.
Piercey shoveled the coals into the stove and soon had a blaze going that warmed the tent. Outside, a steady wind roiled the canvas and spatters of rain freckled the roof.
“Good call,” Piercey said.
Around 2 a.m., I woke up to an overheated, stuffy tent. Piercey was in his boxers, headed outside for some air. “It’s freakin’ hot in here,” he said.
The morning broke clear and cold. Bridget was heating up vegan chili on a little stove, and had brought along some large muffins from a local bakery called Mostly Muffins. I was headed around the side of the tent to get my bike helmet from Piercey’s truck. Just then, Piercey emerged from the canvas phone booth carrying a blue plastic bag knotted at the top.
“With this, I can really measure what I’ve done!” he said, handing me the bag.
I looked down at the weighty blue bag. “I doubt this is what Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary did after they summited Everest,” I said.
That morning, a bluebird sky arched over the variegated carpet of fantastic glowing trees that filled Dixville Notch. Setting out after breakfast, we cycled along the quiet lanes on the outskirts of Colebrook, going past family orchards hemmed in by tall white fences. At the intersection of three country roads with apple trees on all sides, Piercey reached up and picked one, rubbed it against his chest, and bit into it.
“Hmm. Good,” he said, picking another one and tossing it to me.
The fruit was small and hard and sweet. As I flipped the core into the tall grass and began pedaling, I realized that yesterday’s ride was a little iron for the soul, an investment of sorts, with today being the payoff. After passing an immaculate log home tucked into a grove of trees, we climbed a long hill, and at the top a high crowned dirt road went steeply down through a forest of blazing maples.
Piercey rode over the crest of the hill, rocketing downslope with a loud whoop. Angled forward, my head low and chest nearly touching the handlebars, I followed after him, rapidly picking up speed, the air whistling through the apertures in my helmet.
Later, Piercey would say that his watch recorded a top speed of 36 mph. He was about 200 yards ahead of me, buzzing downward like an arrow.
Light and relaxed, I stayed in the middle of the road, aware of the fact that if I ran over a stick or small rock, I’d soon be traveling by ambulance. Half a mile into my descent, the trees blurring on both sides, I hit a shallow dimple where the runoff had worn a groove across the road. My front fork twitched ever so slightly — I held my breath, pushing my weight back like a jockey, and the frame of the bike wobbled for an instant and then ran true.
“Yeeee-owww!” I yelled, and Piercey hollered back.
From there, Bridget led us onto a twisting double track that ran downhill through a dense forest like a bobsled run. The center of the trail contained a wash of good-size rocks, and as the course undulated, you had to stay on the high side of the embankment, occasionally risking a cut over the middle and up the opposite bank.
Mike was just ahead of me, riding the upper rim of the left embankment, then he shot to the right and the trail doglegged into the forest, his image flickering like an old newsreel as the light held him briefly between the trees.
A half hour later, we pedaled along a paved stretch and crossed a steel bridge over the Connecticut River. On the far side, Route 102 passed through the tiny village of Lemington, Vermont, pop. 104.
We stopped beneath a little green sign on the edge of the road. “Welcome to Vermont,” said Mike, winking at me.