Another post by Andy Knight, president of the Waterville Valley Foundation.
By Andy Knight
When the Waterville Valley Foundation last met in early September, we parted excited at the prospect of our biggest project ever. We each went back to our families and our weekend duties. Later in the day, though, WVF treasurer Mike Furgal and I found ourselves footloose and duty-free, and decided to go for a hike.
We started out with a simple mission in mind: tramp out the remnants of the Greeley Ponds Trail to survey the damage and take a few pictures. With Cliff the Wonder Dog in the lead, we hiked out through Depot Camp and turned onto Greeley Ponds Trail. For the first few hundred yards, very little had changed. The footway was flat and relatively smooth, and we made good time walking side by side along the old trail. Quickly, though, we ran into signs of storm damage from Irene. In places, the middle of trail was scoured out where the nearby Mad River had spilled its banks and run along the trail.
This is was just a movie trailer for the real destruction, though. Soon, we reached long stretches where all that remained of the trail were two foot-wide tracks of newly packed earth straddling chest-deep scars where the trail used to be, lined with boulders and uprooted trees. Even on foot, you had to pick your way along in places.
We clambered up the side of a huge water bar, and stopped to study scraps of what appeared to be a logging drag-sledge unearthed by the heavy machinery dispatched to turn the river back toward its original course. We were reminded that the modern Greeley Ponds Trail follows a much older path blazed by loggers and woodsmen a century ago. As we looked around, it wasn’t hard to imagine the land around us clear-cut and tangled with slash; we were glad we’d missed that scene.
By the time we reached the site of the former Knights Bridge, Mike and I were both feeling a bit depressed by the reality of the destruction that Irene left in her wake. Looking across the river, where my namesake bridge once stood, and seeing the rutted trail beyond, we realized how much it was going to take to bring back one of our favorite trails.
We turned back toward the Valley, but it was clear that Cliff wasn’t ready to go home, and instead of heading back, we turned right and headed up the Timber Camp Trail. In conversations with Dan Newton and Harry Notowitz of the Waterville Valley Athletic and Improvement Association, we’d learned that the most likely path for a reborn Greeley Ponds Trail was along the existing track for roughly the first mile, then turning up the bluff and away from the riverbed on the venerable Timber Camp Trail, then turning along an older, abandoned path, the Greeley Brook Trail. As usual, Dan had described the scene well, and we knew what to look for as we climbed away from the river and up a steady grade.
Unlike the old track of the Greeley Ponds Trail, which followed the course of the river and climbed gradually (though at times over rough and rooty patches), the Timber Camp Trail reminds you where your leg-muscles are as you climb away from the valley floor. Soon enough, we caught glimpses of the far wall of the Mad River Notch, a panorama of steep mountain shoulders relieved by a few open rock faces.
The cut-off to the Greeley Brook Trail isn’t particularly hard to find if you are looking, though I bet thousands of hikers and mountain bikers have gone by over the years without giving it a second thought. Mike and I saw it right away; it was evident by two essential features: first, the sharp drop-off on the right side of the trail finally transitioned to a flat, continuous ridge, and second, the hardwoods that made up the forest along the steep bluff suddenly changed to a line of dense young firs. We shimmied through the line of boughs and immediately found ourselves on a flat track following the contour of the ridge. Cliff the Wonder Dog took off ahead of us, threading his way through ferns and hobblebush just taking root on the old trail.
We plodded along steadily for a few hundred yards till we encountered a wall of young spruce reclaiming what was once an open meadow. We stopped and scanned for a path – even Cliff wasn’t sure which way to go – until we finally decided to plow straight through the trees to see what was on the other side. I took the first few tentative steps until the trees grew less dense and we were sure we were back on the old path, then let Cliff and Mike break trail through an astounding number of sticky, creepy cobwebs. Finally, the spruce grove was behind us and we were trucking along Greeley Brook Trail once again.
I had studied a map briefly before we left, so I knew – roughly – where we were and where we were headed. The old Greeley Brook Trail follows the contour of the ridge, slightly up and slightly down, until it meets a branch coming in hard from the right (the eventual continuation of the Greeley Ponds Trail, returning to the river bed on an old logging road). We continued on straight, though, as the trail angled up and through a wet section, where we took to the woods on the high side, hoping to keep our feet dry. A few hundred feet more, and we came to Greeley Brook, a pretty stream tumbling down the steep mountainside over a rocky, mossy bed. We studied the remnants of an old logging bridge – several thick, moss-covered peeled trunks, probably hemlock, spanning the brook and stripped of bridge decking by the ravages of time. We’d gone as far as we would go today. Even Cliff seemed ready to turn for home.
As we headed back the way we’d come, we were both glad we’d gone the extra mile. It had been a while since we’d had time to just hang out, but more to the point, in a little over an hour, Mike and I had managed to span more than a century of time. We’d seen evidence of the region’s history along the Greeley Ponds Trail and in an old, neglected path; we’d seen the ugly reality of the trail’s present, etched deeply by Irene’s flood waters. We had also glimpsed the trail’s future as we trudged up the Timber Camp Trail and out along the old Greeley Brook Trail. It wasn’t quite time travel, but for a cool, fall-like Sunday afternoon, it was plenty close enough.
To learn more about efforts to bring back the Greeley Ponds Trail, please visit restoregreeleypondstrail.org.