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WODC and Forest Service team up on an impressive relocation

A new look for the Lawrence Trail up Mt. Paugus

By Steve Smith for the Mountain Ear, September 2006

The Lawrence Trail on the west side of Mt. Paugus has long been noted as on of the most rugged routes in the Sandwich Range Wilderness.

As laid out in 1906 by Rosewell B. Lawrence, a prominent member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, this memorable trail plunges down the steep, gravelly west face of Paugus, then shoots back up and clings to ridiculously steep slopes as it worms through an area of cliffs known as The Overhang. Only after plummeting through chutes of broken ledge and treacherous gravel does it emerge back onto saner terrain.

J. Brooks Atkinson described it well in "Skyline Promenades," his 1926 travelogue of a backpacking trip through the White Mountains: "Down we went steeply and then along the side of high, wooded cliffs, taking each footstep cautiously lest the weight of our packs upset us and send us tumbling in the forest below."

In his "50 More Hikes in New Hampshire," Daniel Doan called The Overhang an "unsung delight." Devotees of Mt. Paugus treasure the wild and challenging route through those cliffs, spiced with unusual views over the Whitin Brook valley. Problem is, this section of trail, though not heavily used, has seen tremendous erosion due to unstable rocks and loose gravelly soil. Parts of it are essentially unmaintainable, and there are a couple of tricky spots where hiker safety is a real concern. At the top of one of the ledge chutes is a car-size rock that is coming loose. If it were to fall, a hiker could be left stranded with no safe way up or down. The dedicated trail tenders of the Wonalancet Out Door Club (WODC) have wrestled, figuratively and literally, with the Overhang problem for a long time. "I don't know how to build a trail on a moving mountain," mused Chris Conrod, volunteer adopter of the Lawrence Trail, in a WODC newsletter last year.

Over the last several years the WODC and Forest Service discussed options and conducted field surveys. Several alternatives were considered, but eventually it was decided that a major relocation of the trail was necessary for resource protection and hiker safety. The chosen route dips down into more moderate terrain under the Overhang cliffs, then climbs back to the old route in a hollow to the east. This year's WODC crew of four Student Conservation Association trail workers, under the supervision of a Forest Service leader, spent most of the summer constructing the relocation. Because of tree damage from the 1998 ice storm, they had to cut through a dense tangle of blowdown and vigorous new undergrowth.

"It was really thick in there when we started," said Jana Johnson, Dispersed Recreation Manager for the Saco Ranger District, in a recent phone conversation. "We weren't sure what we would find under all the fallen logs and dense vegetation. But the soil underneath turned out to be great for creating a new footway."

"The SCA crew members were fantastic," she added. "They were really into the quality and cared about every detail of the trail construction. It's a beautiful relocation." Johnson noted that because the trail is in a Wilderness area, all the work was performed with hand tools.

Last Thursday, Ken and Ann Stampfer of Belmont, Mass., and I checked out the new trail section as part of a loop over Mt. Paugus. After walking it we all agreed that this is an impressive piece of trail craftsmanship. We started our 8-1/2 mile hike from the trailhead at the end of Paugus Road, off Fowler's Mill Road near the Tamworth/ Albany town line. We followed the Bolles Trail across Paugus Brook at a crossing made easier by large step stones placed by the WODC trail crew in 2004. Soon we swung left onto the Old Paugus Trail and followed it and the Whitin Brook Trail up through the lovely, remote valley of Whitin Brook. As we climbed toward Whitin Ridge, leafy hardwoods gave way to dark spruce forest. At the ridge crest we turned right on the Cabin Trail, admired a dramatic view of the gravelly southwest cliffs of Paugus, and continued up a narrow side-hill path to the Lawrence Trail. Turning right here, we made a short descent to the start of the relocation. At this point the original route swung left to begin its precarious scramble through the Overhang. Instead, we followed the new route along what may be the smoothest half-mile of walking in the Sandwich Range.

The trail crew had painstakingly cut out a marvelous gravelly footway through the dense growth below the cliffs. Here and there the trail skirted a huge fallen boulder, and at one point there was a framed vista up to the Paugus crags. Farther along it climbed by meandering switchbacks and joined the old trail near the headwaters of Whitin Brook. We felt privileged to be among the first hikers to walk this new footway, though "large cloven tracks showed that a moose had gotten the jump on us. Next we tackled the steep, eroded climb up the western flank of Paugus, a trail section that is slated for future attention from the WODC. At the top of the pitch the trail abruptly eased and I wandered through untamed spruce forest to the bald ledge atop the south peak of Paugus. (There is no trail to the wooded true summit.)

We descended 50 yards southwest to the great sloping granite slabs that provide some of the best views in the Sandwich Range. For a long time we lounged on the sun-warmed rock; gazing west to the dark humps of Mts. Passaconaway and Whiteface and south to the distant shimmer of Squam and Winnipesauke.

We descended the upper Old Paugus Trail, where hands, feet and butts came into play on several down scrambles, then dropped into the valley of Paugus Brook on the aptly-named Bee Line Trail. A mellow stroll on the Bee Line Cutoff and the Bolles Trail completed our loop. The only hikers we saw all day were a school group camped near the crossing of Paugus Brook.

For more background on the Lawrence Trail and its relocation, see the interesting articles in the November 2005 (available at www. wodc.org) and May 2006 issues of the WODC Newsletter.

For additional information please see the 2006 Trail Tending page.


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