Conway — July 25, 2011 — Hot, eh? Good weather for staying in the river or lingering in a cool office. Going for a hike can cool you off if you are lucky enough to catch a breeze on top. This Tuesday morning, I didn’t want to depend on luck. I left early for the 3.8 mile hike to the top of Mount Chocorua, via the Champney Falls Trail and Piper Trail.
I got to the top at 7 a.m., and lingered for a half hour in the fresh morning sunlight. Then I headed down, and started meeting uphill hikers about halfway down. I got back to my car at 9 a.m. just as the parking lot was beginning to fill with hikers — some only going to Champney Falls, but most headed for the summit. Perched on my driver’s seat while replacing my hiking boots with comfortable shoes, it was relaxing to nod to hikers just starting up. As I pulled out of the parking lot, a car from Ontario turned in. The mountain would see another busy summer day.
Mount Chocorua is an important New Hampshire resource. It is also an important national resource, and is owned by us all. One could take the last step and say it is an important world resource. Plenty of information on it is available on the world wide Web.
In the unfolding modern world, the social value of the White Mountains National Forest is incalculable. However, it’s important to remember that it is not separate from the land around it. To think that the quality of the forest can be sustained without buffers of wild land around it is a fatal mistake. Also, a big part of the attraction of northern New Hampshire is small quiet towns clothed in green. Yet there is constant pressure, always with money from elsewhere, to develop parts of the land surrounding the forest.
What does this have to do with a solitary early morning hike up Mount Chocorua? Everything. The landscape is connected, the social fabric of the area is connected.
If, in the future, Club Motorsports is allowed to complete and run a luxury race track on the northern slopes of the Ossipee Range, just to the south of Mount Chocorua, the hike up the mountain will be different.
If, in the future, a tall power line called the “Northern Pass” is built to transport electricity produced by Hydro-Quebec down though the state of New Hampshire, passing ten miles though the National Forest on an “existing” power line, and bulldozing further south though small towns to Franklin, then a hike up Mount Chocorua will be different.
The pursuit of an elusive “wilderness” will be harder. If in the future, if such development continues in the landscape surrounding the National Forest, cutting it off from the organic whole of the New England wilds (with its disappearing historical villages), then wilderness will become only hypothetical — and unattainable ideal that you have to go elsewhere to find. The mountains will become a well trodden backyard, with the sounds and smells of nearby development constantly invading them.
Thankfully, none of this was on my mind when I started up Mount Chocorua in the cool morning air and pleasant light found at 5 a.m. in July. The release of a mountain hike was all there was. The Champney Falls Trail whizzed by. I took the falls loop, where Champney Falls was at a midsummer low. Then I continued up the main trail.
On the switchbacks below the saddle between the Sisters and the main summit, noise of a heavy passage up ahead in the thick trees startled me. Then I realized that I was getting another treat from being early, when a moose would use the popular trail to get around before the two-leggeds showed up later.
Reaching the junction with the Piper Trail, golden sunlight lit the rocks in the post-dawn of a hazy morning. I looked forward to reaching tree line, and precious bare granite. Soon I was there, and enjoyed the flavor of the quiet summit in the maturing morning.
I scrambled up to the summit block, and took interest in a couple chiseled dates on the flat rock. One was 1906, and another more distinct one was 1950. I decided to treat myself to a scramble down to the base of Chocorua’s Rock, and to squeeze beneath it. Legend had it that Chief Chocorua would suddenly appear in the cave–tomahawk laden and bristling– if you squeezed into the cave to escape a thunder storm. Having climbed up the rock and cursed the white man while the settler Campbell fatally shot him, that was his prerogative.
But it was a fair morning and I was safe. However, back on the summit and looking to the south, I could see the Ossipee Range, and the exact spot where Club Motorsports had defied the town of Tamworth by beginning construction of their racetrack last year.
It was an old story. People from elsewhere drive through the area and see its potential for development. Then they go home, and, as in the case of the two car enthusiasts who drove through, find an investor.
It doesn’t matter that the Ossipee Range is a unique and precious resource for future generations. It doesn’t matter that water flows downward underground from the higher peaks there in all directions like an overflowing fountain. It would pick up petroleum byproducts from tar and any development there, like the wonderful natural scrubber that it is, and deposit it below in meadows, quiet neighborhoods, and in the clean Bearcamp River. That would go into the clean Ossipee Lake.
It doesn’t matter that the north slope of the Ossipee Range would effectively project noise from the racetrack out over the valley. One neighbor across Route 25 from the proposed racetrack is Saint Andrews Episcopal Church. Just recently, the bishop of the New Hampshire Episcopal Diocese announced his church’s stance against the racetrack, which would be open 7 days a week.
With 350 local people supporting Focus: Tamworth, the group fighting Club Motorsports, it will be interesting to see which side is left standing after this nearly decade long struggle, which began with a simple drive though by two car enthusiasts with no ties to the area.
Of interest, the Car Club of America has a similar racetrack under development in Palmer, Massachusetts. Evidently, that track is well away from any neighborhoods, and not on a flowing mountain watershed above a beautiful river valley, where neighbors value peace and quiet. I’m sure the town of Palmer would not tolerate that.
On top of Mount Chocorua, I turned my eyes west, past Red Hill in Moultonborough, over to the valleys of the Pemigewassett and Merrimack Rivers, where the proposed Northern Pass high tension line would head south after passing through the White Mountain National Forest.
Green energy is important for the future. But the dam building that Hydro Quebec has done is not exactly green. Vast amounts of greenhouse gasses have been emitted by both flooded soil and vegetation. The loss of beautiful rivers has long been a painful issue in Quebec.
The path of Northern Pass would require the clearing of 40 miles of new corridor though forest, and the widening of many miles of old transmission lines, which would have significant impact on wildlife habitat in places like the Pondicherry Wildlife Preserve. The power of eminent domain will also be used. With 135 foot towers placed fairly close together, the visual impact would be dramatic for its 180 mile course. In the mountains, coming from the north, the power line would go west behind Cannon Mountain, and then cross over Kinsman Notch and down to the valley of the Pemigewassett River, where it would head south.
It would be a permanent and dramatic visual display of a kind of power that is not really green, and would likely have an adverse effect on northern New England’s ability to develop local renewable energy, such as solar power.
There is also the question of whether it is really needed. The Conservation Law Foundation, which works to promote a sustainable energy future in New England, has filed a motion that a study be done to see if New England really needs Canadian power, before an environment review is begun.
If you want to express an opinion, whether for or against the project, go to northernpassis.us. Then go to Get Involved and Comment Form, and fill it out. This will be read by Brian Mills of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Retracing my steps down a quiet Mount Chocorua was a little like reversing the film. Until I bumped into a couple teenage boys heading up. They had no T-shirts on, and very little in their packs. They asked me how the wind was on top. I said that it has died down, for now.
Ed Parsons is the Hiking columnist for the Conway Daily Sun and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.