Foot and Paddle: A fog-bound ski on New Year’s Day at Titcomb Mountain

17 mins read
High pines extend to fog and mist.

Take what you are given and make the most of it. Is an expression often tossed about among long distance hikers. I heard it from time to time when hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT), The John Muir Trail in the Sierras, and a time or two in Denali National Park in Alaska. When there is ground to be covered, and a limited amount of time to reach a destination, a hiker has to be prepared to make a way forward even in less-than-desirable weather.

I would not, of course, court injury by acting foolishly, such as hiking onto high ground with a lightning storm or an ice storm, approaching, and I will not hike in a winter whiteout when I cannot see the trail. But in itself, rain, snow, fog, and such, do not keep long-distance hikers in camp. In North Carolina, when moving through the Southern Appalachians, I hiked through seven straight days of rain. I could sit in an Appalachian Trail lean-to all day, or I could hike. When crossing the Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire on the same AT hike, I ran into driving rain, 100-foot visibility. I had rain gear, dry clothes deep inside my pack for when I would make camp that evening, was warm, and I could see the trail. No photos for that day, but I kept on hiking.

When New Year’s Day 2022 approached, I planned to spend a half-day cross-country skiing. The morning of New Year’s Day is usually fairly quiet for outdoor activity, as people who celebrated until the early morning hours of New Year’s Eve are still in bed. When I awake early to make some hearty oatmeal and prepare to head for the hills in my truck, my porch light shines on not much other than fog. When dawn arrives, such as this dawn is, the view is barely improved. Snow on the ground, fog in the air, heavy gray sky.

Titcomb Mountain

Not wanting to drive a considerable distance for my intended outing, I opt for Titcomb Mountain, where the cross-country ski (aka Nordic) ski trails are as well-maintained as I have found anywhere – yes, anywhere. If any Nordic area would have skiable conditions on such at wet day, it would be Titcomb. Off I go, arriving just as the area opened for the day. There are a few vehicles in the parking not – very few. Clouds hang low. Fog abounds. I strap on a water bottle holder, put two home-baked power cookies and an apple into the pocket of my rain jacket, step into my skis, and go.

I enter the woods via the Cedar Swamp Trail. Often, I warm up on the level and more wide open Airport Loop, but there is a damp chill in the air and I want to work in some elevation gain early in my outing to generate heat. There is good snow cover on the Swamp Trail. It is evident that a trail groomer has packed well the cumulative snowfall of recent days. Doing so helps to hold the snow, limiting erosion and run-off. I choose the classic, kick and glide, technique, for the wet snow, and make good headway.

The parking lot, the base lodge, and the muffled rumble of the one T-bar in operation, are soon well behind, out of sight – and sound. I am well into the woods – our classic Maine hardwood-softwood mix of high pines, spruce, fir, and cedar; rock and red maple; white birch, beech, ash. There is not another skier in sight, nor truly is there any sound beyond that of my own breathing. No snowmobiles have yet taken to the nearby Whistle Stop Trail, and I hear no road sounds from Route 2, a half-mile raven-fly to the south.

Peace, and Quiet

I turn onto Turnpike, ski the length of this extensive east-west trail, begin to ascend the long ridge of Titcomb Mountain itself. Supreme quiet persists. Where in this world may one go to find a place of utter quiet? Truly, peace and quiet. Anyone out there looking for that? Right here, in the woods of West Farmington, Maine, on a fog-bound morning, there is peace and quiet.

High on the ridge I explore trail after trail. I have skied and hiked them all over the years. In the half-light of the fog and clouds, I see them in new ways. When I look up, to where I often see bright winter sky, sharp as a blue flame, this morning the high reaches of great white pines fade from view into the fog. There is a beauty here all its own. Used to looking above the pines, I now look into their arms-stretched branches, notice the symmetry, ponder how it is that the limbs of trees reach toward the light, as they do, each in its own distinctive way. If I was in a hurry today, or if I was all-in on seeking a view of the morning sky alone, I might have missed this perspective on pine limbs and their outreach towards the life-giving light of the sun.

On I go. On a whim I decide to cover as many of the XC trails on Titcomb Mountain as I might, though in unhurried fashion. I ski some in reverse from the usual direction in which I head, making my way up, rather than down, Log Chute, for instance; or skiing down Roller Coaster, then turning around to climb back up. I am seeing this terrain in a new, unhurried way.

Discovering Gold – and Coyote Tracks

Beech tree shows color on a gray day.

Amidst the prevailing gray of the day, there is not much color breaking through – except for that of my treasured tree of the Maine winter, the beech – more correctly, American beech. Throughout the cold and snowy months, this hardwood tree sports a proliferation of parchment-like leaves, tapered at the tip, that bear the color of tarnished gold. And here they are, in great numbers, on the forested slopes of Titcomb Mountain. As I reach for an analogy, I imagine kerosene lanterns burning through a foggy night, or the dim running lights of a ship on a foggy sea. I exaggerate a bit, but the brightness of the beech truly stands out. Again, on a brighter day, I might not have regarded the beech in quite the same way.

With my attention turned more to the short view, versus the long view, on this gray day, I notice an abundance of animal tracks. Some of these, which I see near snowshoe trails, surely are the work of a domestic dog accompanying a snowshoe hiker. But one set, canine-like with claw marks and the distinct “X” design of the paw prints, is distinctive in the route it follows. The tracks ascend a thickly wooded hillside nearly in a straight line, cross the ski trail, continue directly upslope. I spot other distinct tracks on this snow covered hillside, also heading uphill, those of snowshoe hare. Putting one and one together, I surmise that the first tracks are those of a coyote on the prowl, on the hunt. These are lively places, these woods, with rhythms of life in motion here, 24 hours a day, particularly so in the nighttime hours when creatures of the woods have this terrain to themselves.

Later, reaching a stand of high hemlock, I stop to scan the upper branches for porcupine. Porkies are active in winter, and hemlock tips are a favored food. In our woodlot I have seen a good-sized porcupine 50’ in the air, well out on a thin hemlock limb, feasting on those tender tips. But no porkies appear for me at Titcomb on this day. I suspect that these intriguing creatures prefer to do their foraging well away from what on many a winter’s day is a well-trafficked trail. Curiously, though I have skied past this stand countless times over many a decade, I never before had paid such notice to these high-rising hemlocks.

The Mountain to Oneself

On and on, up and down, I ski, across the mountain and back, on trail after trail. I break into a skate technique where the terrain welcomes it; then back to kick and glide of the classic technique; or make a herring bone style ascent on rising ground. At one point I hear voices! One skier calls to another, from a direction well below my elevation, and out of sight. But I see no one then, or later, on the trails. Those skiers, as do I, have the mountain and its peace and quiet, all to themselves.

The noon hour approaches, time to head for home. I descend towards the base lodge parking lot, double poling over the final stretch of trail, glide down past the start-finish area for Nordic ski races, reach my truck. Such a day! I could say that the day has been a fine one in spite of the fog and gray sky, but truly my enjoyment of this day arises not in spite of the weather, but because of what I have discovered in it.

Time to go.

Homemade root vegetable soup for lunch!


Tips: Preparing for a Cross-Country Ski Outing

If you are reading this in Franklin County, somewhere not far from where you live, there is a wood awaiting your cross-country ski or snowshoe exploration, and your discoveries. Peace and quiet is out there for the finding, regardless of the weather. Here are a few suggestions that apply whether you plan to ski at an established outdoor recreation area – or in woods and fields on your property or those of a neighbor.

•Hydrate by drinking water at regular intervals. I take a water break at least once every 60 minutes. Your body is working hard, and likely you are perspiring. The air on winter days may actually have little moisture content. But cold temperatures disincline people to drink. The result can be the onset of fatigue, or even the early stages of hypothermia – a dangerous condition.

I carry a 750 ml water bottle (about one quart) on outings of 2 hours or less; and a second water bottle if I will be out for longer than that.

•Wax your cross-country skis, even if they are the “waxless” type, such as those with a “fish-scale” strip on the bottom of the ski under your foot. I wax the tips and the tails before each outing (but not the fish-scale). Check with a knowledgeable staff person at a ski shop, or find a reliable source on-line for waxing instructions. Purchase wax suitable for the temperatures and snow conditions you are likely to encounter, and a waxing brush to clean the skis before and after applying the wax.

Wax makes a ski more responsive than otherwise, which is important when making turns, or when avoiding an obstacle such as a rock or root poking out of the snow. It promotes a smooth glide on level and downhill terrain. A responsive ski is important on the uphill as well, as the skier takes quick steps, or stamps the inverted “V” of the herringbone uphill technique.

Skis accept wax best when at a minimum temperature of 50 degrees. Instead of driving to a trailhead and waxing outdoors, keep the skis indoors overnight the evening before, apply the wax before going outside, and allow at least 30 minutes before exposing the skis to the cold. If you do not have a warm indoor space for waxing, set up two sawhorses close to an outside door of the house; one at a time bring out a ski, apply the wax, and bring the ski back indoors before waxing the next one. Brush the ski bottoms with a brush made specifically for ski waxing, before applying the wax, and following that 30-minute wait.

•Tell someone where you are going, what time you expect to return, and whom to contact if you do not return as planned. Do this even if your outing is close by, and you expect to return in a short while.

Enjoy the snow – and the peace and quiet.

Doug Dunlap

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