Hiking the Long Trail before the snow flies
All photos by Brian Mohr and Emily Johnson/Emberphoto.com.
“Canada to Hazen’s Notch? Sure, count us in!”
That’s the answer my wife, Emily Johnson, and I gave when her sister, Leah Johnson, and Leah’s beau, Richard Savory, asked us to join them for the first few days of their open-ended hiking journey south. We hadn’t seen Leah and Richard for months, and winter was fast approaching, making this trek on the Long Trail impossible to turn down.
We headed out on a calm, late-September morning. Arriving at Journey’s End — the northern terminus of the trail — we were quickly reminded of how fortunate Vermonters are to have one of the world’s greatest backcountry trail systems. Just 30 minutes into this adventure, we felt deeply immersed in the rugged wilds of the Green Mountains; our world was all towering trees, rocky ledges, moss-covered boulders and fern-filled grottoes.
At a scenic overlook along the U.S./Canada border, we sliced up smoked bluefish and rye bread — fuel for a big day ahead — and glanced at our trusty map. It was published by the Green Mountain Club, whose volunteers and staff have been the primary stewards of the 273-mile Long Trail since 1910. The corridor now boasts a great number of shelters, signs, bridges and side trails along the way.
Heading south that first day, we were distracted by numerous unique mountain vistas that we rarely get to see. Pushing on, we passed up several cozy shelters, opting for an overnight bivouac on the summit of Jay Peak. We reached our destination under the subtle glow of dusk.
Not long after a starlit dinner, the whisper of wind eased us into a pleasant night of sleep on the mountain. At sunrise, we awoke in a cloud bank and then drifted off again. A short while later we finally woke to rays of the rising sun streaking through the clouds. Big Jay, just south of Jay Peak, appeared to be floating in midair. We had a round of hot drinks, packed up and moved on.
South of Jay Peak and the comfortable Jay Camp shelter, where we stopped for water and breakfast, the Long Trail finds its groove in the upper-elevation hardwood forest that defines much of the corridor. Being among the aging trees, with a kaleidoscope of color overhead and the elaborate roots of the yellow birch underfoot, we felt as if we were traveling through the storybook fantasylands of our childhoods. Mushrooms clung to nearly anything rotting. Late-season flowers dotted the forest floor. Signs of deer and moose were abundant. Ravens and hawks soared overhead.
Buchanan Mountain was our last high point — and a great spot for lunch — before we wandered down the trail for several miles toward Hazen’s Notch Camp and a fine northern view. At the cabin, we met a friendly couple who were also heading south. They were taking the rare approach of hiking the entire length of the Long Trail in one straight push, and had on hand all their food for the trip. Their packs weighed twice as much as ours, but, they noted, got lighter with every meal.
Dinner, some good laughs and a few rounds of Boggle occupied our evening. We didn’t talk about the fact that, the following day, we would part company with Leah and Richard and end our time on the trail — for now. As there was limited space in the cabin, Emily and I left our fellow hikers to it, and we fell asleep under the protective covering of our trusty rainfly, within earshot of a mountain stream.
It was my birthday the next day, and waking to the sounds and smells of a light morning rain was a true gift. Within minutes the rain had passed, and we heard signs of life in the cabin. The forest was dripping, the foliage fluorescent. Someone passed me a hot café mocha.
It’s hard to beat life on the Long Trail.