The Explorers’ Mount Wonalancet Winter Hike
My longtime rugby teammate, Randy “Slippery” Reis, and I were driving from our temporary lodgings in Madison to the trailhead at the foot of Mount Wonalancet. We hadn’t seen each other in months and were talking nineteen-to-the-dozen, like Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady digging the scene in a ’49 Hudson. Engrossed in conversation, we missed the turn and found ourselves winding through sparsely populated backroads.
Reaching the crest of a hill, we spotted a middle-aged couple walking their dogs and Randy pulled over. I said good morning, and asked for directions to Wonalancet.
Smiling at me, the woman said, “Go back the way you came, and take a right.”
“Or you can go straight and take a left, but that’s a little longer,” said her companion. We waved to them, and drove off.
So we proceeded along, chattering away, and Randy said, “Take a left here?”
“Nah. I think it’s a right.”
Randy and I were going to meet our friends for a winter hike up Mount Wonalancet. The original plan was to arrive a half hour early to scout the route.
After driving through a patchwork of tiny farms and snow-covered woodlands, we climbed a short, steep hill. The same couple was ambling along the road with their dogs.
Randy gestured at the windshield. “Let’s put on our ski masks and ask for directions again,” he said.
“Some explorers we are,” I said.
Most of New Hampshire’s picturesque, cherished, and remote places are named for its original inhabitants, and rightly so. Wonalancet was the son of the great Pennacook sachem, or chief, known as Passaconaway. Shortly before Passaconaway’s death, probably in 1669, Wonalancet became the leader of all the Pennacooks clustered along the lower Merrimack River.
In 1675, Metacom, known to the English as King Philip, and the son of the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, engineered a bloody campaign against the English settlers, drawing warriors from several tribes. However, King Philip’s entreaties to the Pennacooks were unsuccessful, and Wonalancet retreated northward with the remaining one hundred or so of his followers. Between 1675 and 1676, King Philip’s War leveled a dozen English towns and killed an estimated 2,500 settlers, roughly 5% of the local population.
Wonalancet’s decision to stay out of King Philip’s War was the right one for the Pennacooks. On the Native American side, approximately 5,000 lives were lost in the war, a staggering 40% of their population. The uprising ended in August 1676, when the English finally cornered King Philip and his warriors in a Rhode Island swamp. A Wampanoag acting as guide to the English shot Philip through the heart. The English soldiers drew and quartered Philip’s corpse, and his head was taken to Boston and put on display.
During the war, Wonalancet had kept peace with the English but refused to fight against the other tribes for reasons of loyalty. Caught between two worlds, Wonalancet and his family were in dire straits. With no real friends among the English, and the fierce Mohawks venturing into his territory, the sachem of the Pennacooks was reduced to living “under the supervision of Mr. Jonathan Ting” near the settlement of Dunstable.
In 1677, Wonalancet and his diminished band retreated to Canada, having received little support from the English. In his place, Wonalancet’s nephew, the fiery, unpredictable Kancamagus became the new sachem of the Pennacooks.
At 2,780 feet, Mount Wonalancet is a stubby, wooded knoll situated about a mile and a half southeast of Mount Passaconaway. Arriving early on the previous day, I’d scouted a few Madison ponds for skating possibilities and then drove over to Tamworth. There was a wooded field tracked for cross-country skiing and a small parking lot near the terminus of Ferncroft Road. I spoke to the lone skier, a middle-aged woman accompanied by a black Lab, and she advised an early start the next day since the trailhead was quite popular.
It’s always a good idea to talk to the locals and look over the ground, so I studied the map and took a short walk up Old Mast Road to where the trail diverged left onto Wonalancet Range Trail.
Estimating the loop at roughly 4 miles with an elevation gain of 1,650 feet, I figured the hike would be challenging enough for my rugby friends and manageable for our youngest participants, Kaya Pierce, 14, and her brother Will, age 10.
When Randy and I finally showed up at the trailhead, our friends greeted us with derision. Over in the field, photographer Joe Klementovich was flying his drone high above the cross-country course to the delight of the Pierce children.
“I was looking for you with the drone,” Joe said, laughing.
“Glad you could make it,” said Ken “Bubba” MacIntosh with his high-pitched giggle. Bubba had just been telling his friend Kara Gauvin, a new member of our group, how well organized we are.
Mike Zizza and his college-age daughter, Anna, walked over to get their wisecracks in. Then, donning our snowshoes or micro spikes and hefting our packs, 14 eager pilgrims filed down the trail. There was a high, thin cloud cover with a gauzy sun showing through the haze.
The Wonalancet Range Trail runs for a short distance along Spring Brook, and then breaks left, passing through a gently ascending forest. Soon the trail grew quite steep, crossing back and forth against the slope, and eventually climbed a ragged set of granite blocks slicked with ice. Patches of blue sky were now visible between the trees, and temperatures were in the low 20s.
Over the first mile, young Will and I were out front. I’ve known the Pierce children a long while, and have spent time outdoors with them in all kinds of weather. We quickly fell into our natural rhythm, getting a feel for the terrain, not saying very much. An agile fellow who excels in soccer and baseball, Will followed in my track as we meandered among the trees, forever going upward.
Soon the Pierce’s dog, Lenny Kravitz, joined us, trotting out in front. Glancing at Will, I said, “You can go ahead.”
“I’m good,” he said, smiling at me. It was the same deadpan delivery his mother, Tanya, used when we were hiking the Imp Trail in subzero temperatures a while back. Both Tanya and her son are laconic characters, and I laughed at Will’s response.
Eventually, Bridget Freudenberger and her English Cream golden retriever, Mae, caught up to Will and me. With the dogs romping through the snow, Bridget and Will surged ahead, chatting quietly as they hiked.
Back at the trailhead, I’d opted to wear my snowshoes, leaving my micro spikes and trekking poles in Randy’s car. I should’ve known better to make hiking decisions on flat ground. As the trail narrowed, the snow turned to ice, and the ledges grew taller, I began to regret my choice.
But Jackson Spellman and his wife Kristi came breezing up alongside me. Jackson was using a set of poles, and handed me one. Directly ahead, there was a large boulder that angled to the right. It was 3 feet tall and encased in ice, which formed a hard, smooth shell over the rock. Wearing micro spikes, Jackson took a giant step with his right foot onto the boulder, and pushed off with his pole, bringing his feet together and landing softly on top.
Resetting his feet, Jackson extended the basket end of his pole toward me. I gripped the pole in my right hand and stepped up as Jackson heaved on his end of the pole. My snowshoes clattering on the icy rock, I got a shaky purchase, and clambered up. Wisely, Kristi departed the trail, circumvented the boulder, and joined us a moment later, never breaking a sweat.
“There,” she said, glancing around, hands on hips.
Within the larger narrative of our friends, Kristi Spellman and I have a spin-off series, a growing list of comic misadventures that I call “Kristi and Jay Get Lost.” A former competitive dancer and seasoned distance athlete, Kristi and I often meet for open-water swims in late fall. Sleek and fast, Kristi swims like a porpoise, and when I finally catch up to her, we’re usually far from shore.
When I poke my head up, Kristi always says, “Where are we?”
On a cross-country ski excursion at Loon Mountain, Kristi and I decided to break off from the switchback trail we were climbing, descending loop by loop on a straight line down through the trees. When we finally reached the bottom of the mountain and the trail began following the river, Kristi skied ahead, eager to get back to the parking lot. A brook had riven the hard-packed snow of the trail, creating a chasm that was nearly 4 feet across and just as deep.
When Kristi drew near to the brook, I shouted, “Ski right over it.”
But she turned slightly sideways, tumbling into the brook. For a second, Kristi looked up at me like I’d pushed her. Then I extended one of my ski poles toward her, and we had a good laugh.
During our trek up Mount Wonalancet, Joe Klementovich kept popping up — somehow ahead of us, then 40 yards off to our right, standing on a boulder to the left, halfway up a tree — always gazing at us through the lens of his camera. It’s like there’s a cyborg army of Joe Klementoviches, haunting every one of our adventures. The guy never gets tired.
After an hour of steady climbing, I met up with Joe and several others at the first look-off point, gazing across long white vistas toward Mount Chocorua. A few hundred yards onward, we stopped in a little clearing on top of Wonalancet, our view of the valley obscured by the surrounding trees.
Bubba and Kara and Mike and Anna kicked aside the snow to make a rudimentary fire pit, and the kids dispersed to scare up a pile of deadwood. While the others busied themselves with the fire, I realized I was shivering. I glanced up from unzipping my pack, and Piercey was staring at me.
“You didn’t thermoregulate,” he said, shaking his head in disgust.
Piercey was right, as he often is. During the hike, I should’ve vented my shell using the zippers running downward from my armpits. This allows more of the water vapor to disperse, keeping my base layer dry and my core temperature higher than it had ended up.
So far, I was 0-3 in my winter decision-making. Sometimes, when trekking with a group, you rely on the aggregated equipment and supplies to get you through. By deciding not to bring my own trekking poles and micro spikes, and failing to thermoregulate, I could end up putting a strain on the others who’d brought along what they deemed necessary.
To remedy my faux pas, I stripped off my base layer, replaced it with a Merino wool pullover, changed out my hat and glove liners, and put my shell back on.
“Gotta do it,” Piercey said.
By now, Joe and Mike had a small fire going and were feeding twigs and sticks into it. New to our collection of friends, Kara Gauvin, a high school science teacher, skier and experienced through-hiker, had dedicated herself to the group effort to stay warm.
Kara and Bubba were finding pieces of deadwood to feed into the fire. While Jackson and I looked on, Kara strode to a nearby tree and snapped off a dead branch that was as thick as a man’s leg. Jackson and I glanced at each other, raising our eyebrows and turning down our mouths in the “I’m impressed” gesture.
“Bubba’s gonna have to raise his game,” said Jackson, and we stifled a laugh.
Standing by the fire, I fished in my pack for one of my better decisions — a Thermos of hot soup. During a previous trip to play pond hockey in subzero temperatures, Joe had produced a vacuum bottle of soup and extolled its virtues.
Now I understood why. Temperatures near the top of Wonalancet had dropped into the low teens and the wind had come up. But the vegetable broth warmed a channel that ran down the center of my torso.
I had a couple energy bars in my pack and broke them in half to share with Bubba. “I like the second one better,” he said.
“I’ll make a note of that,” I said.
I handed the Thermos to Kara. “Have some,” I said.
With steam rising from the soup, Kara took a drink, smiling over the lip of the bottle. “That’s good,” she said.
After we’d rehydrated, warmed ourselves, and ate some calorie dense food — Piercey had the good sense to haul up some burritos from Dos Amigos in Concord — Joe and Anna and Randy kicked snow over the fire. One by one, members of the group headed down the shortcut trail that circled the top of Wonalancet before descending to the Wonalancet Range Trail.
The extinguished fire sent up waves of steam and smoke from beneath the snow. One hand darting in front of her and the other behind, Kristi danced over the smoldering coals.
“Come firewalk with me,” she said.
Hands on hips, Jackson and I stood watching her. “That looks vaguely Egyptian,” I said.
After stowing my Thermos and extra clothing in my pack, I was ready to set off. I’d taken a second look at the map, realizing that the shortcut trail looped around the knoll to rejoin the main trail about 900 yards below where I was standing.
Randy noticed that I was gazing downslope, away from the trail. “What’s up?” he asked.
With Jackson’s trekking pole, I described the trail intersection by drawing a backwards P in the snow. “I’m going to bushwhack down to where I can pick up the trail again,” I said. “It’ll be shorter, softer, and a little riskier.”
“If you say so,” Randy said.
Randy Reis had played tailback at Fordham University, coming off the bench in his debut to score three touchdowns in one half, a school record that still stands. He and I met while playing rugby for the New England Select Side many years ago, and have been friends ever since.
Adjusting my pack straps, I said, “Trust me, Slippery.”
I departed from the trail and Randy followed, heading into a downward sloping glade. The trees were spaced well apart, and for the first time all day, I was making good use of my snowshoes. Soon I was bounding down the soft smooth pillow of snow, an arctic spacewalk that had me yelling and laughing. Randy was wearing micro spikes, but also moving swiftly and we grinned at each other from between the trees.
After floating downhill for several minutes, Randy and I heard the voices of our friends coming from the steep, narrow trail to our left. We ended up on the beaten track of the Wonalancet Range Trail, and Randy laughed.
“O, ye of little faith,” I said.
The uneven footing had done a number on my balky right ankle. By the time I reached the parking lot, most of our group had departed, heading back to Madison to change their clothes. Waiting in the parking lot with Randy, Piercey said that Tanya had gone back to Madison to change and would pick up some dry clothes for the both of us.
Off we went to Hobbs Tavern & Brewing Company on Route 16 in Ossipee. There was an abundance of dark wood beams, flights of their own beer, and a giant fieldstone fireplace. Our party was assigned a King Arthur-size table in the glassed-in section of the restaurant. But the north wind was rattling the window casings, and I felt cold again. Without a word to anyone, I slipped back to the main dining area and took a seat by the fire.
Just then, my rugby pal Jason Massa entered the tavern and began chatting with the hostess. He’d been hiking above the tree line in the Presidential Range, but was joining us for dinner.
I called out from the hearth and Jason came over and bear-hugged me. I was soaked to the skin and couldn’t stop shivering, edging as close to the fire as possible.
One by one, my friends drifted in from the other room like blues musicians taking up their instruments. Jackson came over and sat next to me, talking quietly about the hike. Then Piercey walked over, and Jason got up to fetch an employee to stoke the fire.
A few minutes later, Tanya arrived with Kaya and Will. Piercey took up the backpack full of dry clothes, and we retreated to the wood-paneled bathroom off the main hallway. There wasn’t much room in there, but we kicked off our boots and started to disrobe.
“Oh man, this is good for business,” I said, meaning the business of not getting pneumonia. Whether it was a win for the Hobbs Tavern & Brewing Company was hard to say.
A man wearing a ski parka and glasses entered the bathroom, and Piercey said, “Come in. We’re just changing in here.”
The man looked skeptical but entered the tiny space. I ducked behind the open door of the stall, trying to peel off my base layer. When I was dressed and emerged feeling warm and dry, three more patrons had crowded into the bathroom.
Piercey was seated on the counter that supported the two sinks, pants rolled up to his knees, dunking his bare feet into the double slot of the hand dryer.
A gray-haired man in a windbreaker came in, and Piercey grinned and said, “I’m just drying my toes.” The man turned on his heel, going out as quickly as he’d come in.
“That’s a story he’ll tell his grandchildren,” I said. “They’re right outside.”