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The Zealand Trail in Winter

Every year, along with my brother-in-law and good friend, Phillip Benincaso, I try to find the time to squeeze in one winter backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This year, we chose a trip to Zealand Notch, via Zealand Road (closed in winter) and Zealand Trail. Including hiking through the notch, the total mileage for the planned trip was approximately 15 miles spread over three days. I would like to note that if you are looking for complete solitude, this trip is not a particularly good choice, due to the fact that this route to Zealand Hut (maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club) is extremely popular among cross-country ski enthusiasts. The picture at the right was taken on the second day of our trip; it overlooks Zealand Notch, and was shot from the front porch of Zealand Hut. That's Phil on the left.

As a side bar, anyone considering a winter backpacking trip should carefully research the ins and outs of cold-weather backpacking. The AMC Guide to Winter Camping, by Stephen Gorman (published by the Appalachian Mountain Club) is a great place to start.

This year, we decided to try something a bit different. Instead of wearing our backpacks, we converted a pair of plastic sleds to use for carrying our equipment. We highly recommend sleds as an aid to backcountry travel; they make it a lot easier to bring along the extra things that make winter backcountry travel comfy. Here's a shot of Phil sporting a pair of Green Mountain Bearpaws (snowshoes) and standing next to our toy sleds.

The sleds were made by drilling holes around the rim and threading shock cord completely around the sled, drilling holes for the tow ropes, and running the tow ropes through half-inch PVC pipe (so the sled won't run over you while you walk down hill). The front of the tow ropes were attached to carabiniers, and they, in turn, were attached to a waist belt. Total time invested in converting the sleds was about an hour, and it was time well spent. The total cost per sled was about $20, not including the carabiniers, which we didn't have to purchase.

Saturday, January 13 (3.6 miles). Trip planning and preparation went well (for a change), and we were to leave from my work at 6:30 am on Saturday morning. Of course, nothing ever goes as planned, and a combination of Phil being a bit late and my car breaking down moved our actual trail head arrival time from an estimated 9:00 am to about 12:45 in the afternoon. By the time the sleds were loaded up and we'd worked out all the kinks, we weren't actually on the trail until a little after 1:00 pm, a pretty typical start time for any Benincaso/Lister adventure. You've got to learn to go with the flow, as they say.

The first three miles of the trip are on Zealand Road, which is closed during the winter months. Although the road itself is off limits to motorized vehicles in winter, established snowmobile trails do occasionally cross the road. All of the snowmobilers we ran into were relatively well behaved. After the first three-quarters of a mile, we left the snowmobile trails behind, and continued up Zealand road, which meanders alongside Zealand River. This section of the road is also paralleled by a cross-country ski trail, which one might consider as an optional route.

Phil and I were pleasantly surprised by the road portion of the hike. The late start meant that the only people we saw on the first day of hiking were cross-country skiers heading back down to civilization. Here I am holding (I think) a map in my hand; don't worry, we weren't lost, we're just both a bit anal about knowing where we are. Because of the recent snows, the tree limbs over the road were heavily laden with snow. When the wind kicked up, it was a little like being caught in the middle of an aerial bombardment. On the first day, the sky ranged from overcast to scattered clouds, the wind gusted occasionally to 25-30 mph, and the temperature was probably in the high teens. We couldn't have asked for better conditions. And we certainly weren't used to getting this kind of cooperation from Mother Nature.

Our intent was to make it to the general vicinity of Zealand Hut by nightfall, but we knew up front that our late start would make that goal impossible. We continued up Zealand Road until we arrived at the Zealand Trail trail head; once we were on Zealand Trail proper, we began looking for an appropriate campsite. Deep snow makes for easy choices--everything looks pretty much the same, and the creative camper can customize his campsite to suit his needs. Here I am in lantern light, wearing my headlamp, preparing dinner in the ultramodern snow kitchen. A quick word about that lantern: It's a Coleman Peak 1 Dual Fuel Backpacking Lantern, and in the winter, it is the most essential piece of nonessential equipment I own. The extremely short days make it very difficult to accomplish everything you'd like to get done while the sun is still shining, and this lantern does a nifty job of extending daylight.

Sunday, January 14 (7.0 miles). Sunday morning, after a comfortable night's sleep, we got a typically (for us) late start. We left our campsite intact, as we planned on returning to it in the evening. Our goal for the day was to lunch at Zealand Hut and then hike into Zealand Notch before returning to our campsite. We also had thought about the possibility of summiting Mt. Hale, one of New Hampshire's 4,000 footers.

By the time we'd finished making breakfast our water supplies were low, so once underway to the hut we began to look for an available water source. Anything is preferable to melting snow, a time-consuming, fuel-consuming endeavor, at best. Before long, we found what we were looking for. Here's a shot of Phil filtering water from a nearby stream. I used to tease Phil about filtering water, and swore I'd never actually buy a water filter until drinking unfiltered water made me good and sick. I own a filter now, after having experienced backpacking while being good and sick: it is well worth carrying the extra weight (which is probably offset by the weight of the extra fuel one would have to carry in order to boil their drinking water). The cold, dry air of winter significantly increases the amount of water one must consume in order to stay hydrated. Caution should be taken to always make sure plenty of water is on hand. The risk of hypothermia increases dramatically if one is dehydrated.

Once we were restocked with water we continued on. Sunday's weather was absolutely wonderful, with plenty of sunshine and blue sky, and just the occasional puffy white cloud floating by to make things interesting. From the movement of the clouds, as well as the roar of the wind that reached our ears from the higher elevations, we erased all plans of trying to summit Mt. Hale, something we had considered as a possibility during the planning stages of our trip.

The first couple of miles of Zealand Trail rise gradually alongside a stream bed. For me, this was probably the most enjoyable part of the trip. I'm a sucker for trails that meander through wooded areas, and that describes the Zealand Trail perfectly. The trail occasionally crosses one of the many streams in the area. Phil snapped this shot while we were crossing one of these streams on a small wooden bridge. Although my scan doesn't really do it justice, this is a pretty nice shot for a point-and-shoot 35mm camera. A quick note about the photos: all of these pictures came from Phil's camera because I haven't gotten around to developing the film I shot during the trip. When I do, I'll add any pictures in that look good enough to include. If Phil isn't in the picture, he took it. Good job, Phil!

Soon, the trail levels out and skirts a large, marshy area. After crossing the marsh on a wooden bridge, the trail continues on, eventually terminating at an intersection with Ethan Pond Trail and The Twinway. The Twinway led us up an extremely steep, albeit short, ascent to Zealand Hut.

Zealand Hut is just too cool for words, one of only two AMC huts that stay open year around. We happened to arrive at the hut just as a massive cross-country ski party began to straggle in, and a woman we chatted with was kind enough to take this photo of Phil and I standing in front of the Hut's porch. We talked to some of skiers, and it turned out that this was their long-awaited winter get together, something that they have done each winter for a number of years. They were not hiking together as a group; rather, they came at different times and from different directions to all converge at Zealand Hut over the course of the afternoon. I lost track of their numbers, but I think it's a safe bet that there were at least twenty in their party, if not more. After a nice lunch of hot soup (thanks to steaming hot water provided courtesy of the Hut Croo), we reluctantly donned our jackets, hats, & gloves and headed back outside. It was mid afternoon, and the temperature was already beginning to drop. After body surfing down the steep bit (ouch), we decided to hike part of Zealand Notch via Ethan Pond Trail before heading back to our campsite. We knew this would mean we'd arrive at camp well after dark, but we had headlamps and flashlights, so what the hell ...

Due to the lateness of the hour, we didn't hike the entire length of Zealand notch; we only hiked about two-thirds of the way through, and then we made the decision to turn around and head back to our campsite. I liked the trail through the notch a lot, and plan on returning there in the summer in order to get a different perspective. By the time we were back to the marshy area below Zealand hut, it was time to don the headlights, and the three miles back to our campsite was traversed in the quiet solitude of darkness. It was Phil's turn to cook, and for the first time in my life (I'm such a traditionalist), I dined on freeze-dried backpacking meals. The food was acceptable, and since they were prepared with boiling water inside a plastic bag, cleanup was nonexistent. That fact alone has made a believer out of me.

Monday, January 15 (3.6 miles). It was considerably colder last night than it was the night before, but still not so cold as to be uncomfortable. Around 7:00 am, we got up and I began to prepare breakfast. After we ate and warmed ourselves with some nice hot tea, we took a short break before we began to break down our campsite. Here I am, sitting on my backpacking chair that my kids got me for Christmas. Thanks, Matt and Adam!

Phil and I made short work of breaking camp, and by 9:00 am, we were on our way back down the trail. The sun was out, but the air was bitter cold, so we maintained a vigorous pace in order to keep warm. By 11:00 am, we were loading up the car and deciding what restaurant to visit for lunch. In Conway New Hampshire, over heaping plates filled with Enchiladas, we both agreed that due to careful planning, this trip was among the best backpacking experiences we've shared, and well worth the bitter recriminations and epitaphs that our wives so gleefully hurl at us whenever we decide to go backpacking.

Total trip mileage, 14.2 miles.

Copyright © 1996, David Lister

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Document last modified on Friday, 19-Jan-2007 07:32:26 MST.