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PASSACONAWAY

IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS

Charles Edward Beals, Jr

 

CHAPTER V

PASSACONAWAY'S PYRAMID

    MISS LUCY LARCOM bestowed the name of the greatest Bashaba upon the loftiest, wildest, yet most symmetrical, most awe-inspiring mountain of the Sandwich Range. She also gave Indian names to other peaks of this southmost range of the Crystal Hills, namely, Paugus, Wonalancet, and the Wahwah Hills. But head and shoulders above these, old Passaconaway lifts its head, monarch of all.1 As in life he loomed in pre-eminence high above his tribesmen, so now, nearly two and a half centuries after his translation, his mountain lifts its head in solemn pride.


(Click to enlarge.)

    With its smoothly sloping and in places almost perpendicular sides, it tapers up to a lofty, often cloud-wreathed, dome,2 gracefully holding itself in proud aloofness from its inferior comrades. Chocorua is picturesque―many consider it the most picturesque mountain in New Hampshire―but Passaconaway is grand, awe-inspiring, a huge monarch and leader of this southern herd of blue elephants; the challenging trumpeter of the herd.3

     To this sovereign do the storm demons seem to look for orders, and to old Passaconaway's countenance do the natives of our valley turn for their weather forecasts. For, not until this huge sentinel, guarding us from the southern tempests, has covered his face, will he let the storm wreak its fury on our valley. No matter how dark and threatening the sky, the southern storms do not dare to touch us until Passaconaway veils his face in cloud. "Uncle Jim" Shackford, for years the proprietor of the Passaconaway House, used to say, when his opinion was asked on a threatening day: "Waal, I gorry, I dunno; it may rain and it may not, but when old Passaconaway puts on his night-cap it's time to run for shelter."

     This massive peak, with face far up among the clouds, is, from the southern side, almost a perfect cone with a somewhat blunted and rounded apex. Often have I wondered how vegetation and huge trees could cling to such precipitous sides. A thick, black, almost impenetrable growth of tall spruces and pines completely covers this gigantic pile of rock. Because of its great height and heavily wooded, well-rounded dome, it may easily be distinguished from distant points in all directions. The top of Passaconaway is 4,200 feet (according to A. M. C. Guide, p. 326, 84 feet less) above sea level. From summit to field Passaconaway is over three thousand feet in altitude;4 on its southern side it falls almost perpendicularly for seventeen hundred feet; while on the northwestern slope the steep drop is only about seven hundred.5

     As already said, the view of the mountain from its southern side presents only one rounded peak; while three distinct promontories are visible from our northeastern, or Swift River, side. The central of these, the true summit, is a lofty, wood-covered knob, only a few feet higher than the other two.

     Lying at the eastern base, the groveling Paugus reposes far below, and through the pass between the two runs the "Old Mast Road." A very unique spur of this monarch of the range is found here. From the Mast Road trail which leads from the town road in Albany Intervale through the valley to the hamlet of Wonalancet, a towering cliff, known as Square Ledge, may be seen. Square Ledge is a gigantic scarred face of perpendicular ledge. There is a long, low ridge, artistically dipping and gently rising at its eastern end, until, at this spur, it drops perpendicularly. Square Ledge appears to have been cleft off, sharply and squarely, as if some Indian Deity or some giant had sawn vertically downwards until the ridge had been sawed off, as if endeavoring to get a cross-section of this hill, and, being satisfied, had carried off the eastern half. Such a sight well repays one for the two-mile walk through the once beautiful woods. This great "jump-off" is clearly seen from the town road at Mrs. Colbath's, or, better still, from a point a few rods west, where the railroad crossed the town road.

     Passaconaway appears at its best from our little valley at the extreme west end of the "Great Intervale." The three peaks are set regularly apart, and the middle one rises just enough above the others to give the mountain the appearance of a darkly draped head and shoulders. Then, too, there is the long graceful slide, showing white and shiny from beneath the dark coat. This is the laundered shirt-bosom of the great Bashaba's dress suit. Especially is this noticeable when, on a moonlight evening, one sees the inky black form, with overcoat carelessly thrown over the shoulders, the clear-cut outlines of the monarch standing out against the star-studded sky, and the pale moon shining upon the now glistening white granite slide as upon a smooth and jeweled shirt-front. This is very striking in winter, too, when the slide is coated with spotless snow and edged with dark spruces. In the case of this mountain, instead of being a horrible, ugly scar, the great slide seems to add contrast, beauty and fineness of line to what otherwise might be a vast unbroken stretch of dark bluish green forest. Still gazing upon the mountain from the north, Passaconaway appears surrounded by a band of loyal retainers, Potash, Whiteface, and Hedgehog. These peaks give it a more haughty and grand appearance than perhaps from any other viewpoint. On the north-most promontory, and on the path up from our valley, several precipitous ledges are seen. These afford to climbers famous lookouts.

    There are three different ways of climbing Passaconaway; from Birch intervale or Wanalancet; from Whiteface, by the lofty ridge; and from our Passaconaway or Swift River Valley, by way of the slide. At best they are all "up-hill sidewalks." Hence none but the strong should attempt the climb.6 Let us ascend from Passaconaway. A cool and charming little walk of perhaps two miles up the musical Downes Brook will take us to the foot of the slide. On our way, about half a mile from the town road, is a deserted lumber camp. In the winter of 1914-1915 this camp was in full swing, but now it lies half tumbled down, for the lumber-jacks have gone.

    Here, only last summer (1915), while leisurely strolling down the lumber road, we made the acquaintance of a big Canadian lynx. First, his bewhiskered nose appeared on the left side of the path; next his long tasselled ears came into sight; and presently he was standing, face on, directly in the road ahead, in full view. Not wishing in any way to irritate his pussyship, and yet hoping that he would make his decision promptly―lest we should be forced to assume the responsibility of deciding―we slowed down our pace almost to a standstill. Much to our relief, after sizing us up as too sour, green, bony or tough to waste his time on, the great cat crossed the road and disappeared behind a log. The old rascal probably thought that, with the log between us, he would be hidden from our sight; but not so, for we could see his tasselled ears, his powerful tawny shoulders, and once in a while his back and bob-tail, as he leisurely climbed up the little embankment. A moment later our new acquaintance had vanished.

     We cross on our trail several old, beautiful, little corduroy bridges. Over one of these a thickly leaved tree hangs, artistically screening the opposite bank from our gaze. The winding path reveals innumerable spots of beauty to the sthetic climber. At length some broad white ledges, over which a tiny rill plays, are seen shining through the leafy partition. Looking up the mountainside through the trees, we see, in some places, the brook spreading out and, in a broad sheet of water, flowing over a ledge; in others, narrowing to a mere shining ribbon; and, at still others, tumbling over or eddying round boulders, here lying in a silent little pool, there rushing through a rocky channel. Pressing through the thin curtain of foliage, we look up over the foot of the slide, which came to a standstill in the bed of the Downes, and see a series of rocky ledges gradually rising one above another. While approaching the foot of the slide, we notice how rocky the brook-bed is. In some places large boulders have been rolled over and over, until finally brought to rest a half mile or more below the junction of the slide with the Downes Brook. It is very noticeable for quite a distance before the slide is reached. The natives say that for a mile the rocks and boulders rolled with thunderous booming down the tiny brook bed on that fateful November night in the early 1890's.

    Running parallel with the lower half of the slide, up as far as the turn in the slide, is a tote-road, only a few rods to the west. Even by this road the climb is arduous enough, but nothing as compared with what the trip used to be when the trail was the ledgy brook-bed. The road rises at an angle of from twenty to thirty-five degrees, and is gullied by scores of tiny brook-beds and washouts, making the walking difficult in same places. Still this way of walking half the distance from the hotel on a lumber road is far easier than the former way of leaping from stone to stone up a couple of miles of brook-bed. Well do I recall when, a four-year-old boy, I was taken on this trip by my parents. A strong, fatherly hand every now and then grasped the suspenders of my little overalls and I was swung across from rock to rock over rapids too wide for me to jump. How tickled I was if only, upon landing on a rock, my foot would slip off into the cool water!

     After reaching the "turn of the slide," we see the slippery ledges of its upper half waiting to be scaled. Half an hour later, having reached the inverted V-shaped top of the slide, where, on the wind-swept shoulder of Passaconaway, the angry tempest in the nineties tore up the trees which, crashing down, loosened dirt and stone until the whole mountainside seemed to be slipping down, we find a narrow little path leading to the summit. Above this there is a stretch of firs and spruces, through which we journey onward and upward. Presently we reach the ledges of a northerly lookout. Instead of the huge broad-shouldered monarch, the mountain now appears an almost perpendicular, tree-fringed shaft, rapidly tapering to this lofty eagle-nest of a cliff.

     The slide is lined with bushes and scrub-trees; in spots there are piles and lanes of "slide salad"―finely chipped rock, splintered and ground up timber, and sand all stirred in together. Gorgeous views may be had in retrospect all the way up the upper half of the 'slide, and, of course, the higher up we go the better and broader the view. Nearly all the Sandwich Range peaks, the blue northern mountains and our miniature valley are spread out before us.

    When the path reaches the crest of the ,northern spur it becomes dark, damp, and mossy. The real "Crag Barons," the deer and wild-cat and bear, reign supreme here, and here also the sun rarely penetrates the thickly branched and needled spruces. Occasionally beech trees also are found. So wet is the moss underfoot that from a handful considerable water may be wrung. As we pass through this damp wood, involuntarily we shiver from the chilliness of the atmosphere and the loneliness of the great mountain wilderness.

     All at once a welcome rift appears just ahead. We hurry on and are shortly rewarded by coming out upon a deliciously warm, sun-kissed ledge. This is the northwestern outlook. We rest here long enough to drink in the view of the Franconia system and the mountains lying between us and that region, for from the main outlook we shall not have a view of this section. Tripyramid bulks large from here. And just across a gently dipping valley to the west and southwest, seemingly only at arm's length, lies Mount Whiteface, to which a good trail leads from our very feet. We shall not need to look at the northern skyline from here, for we shall have even a better view from the top.

    Hastily we cover the easy quarter mile of comparatively level trail leading to the final goal. And now our feet rest on the ledge which constitutes the actual summit of Passaconaway. What a view is ours! To the northward the mountains of the Presidential Range lift their blue peaks into the clear sky. Eastward the sharp teeth of Moat and Chocorua chew jagged holes in the azure of the heavens. Far over into Maine can we see. Southeasterly lie Portland and the Atlantic Ocean. Over between Madison and Eaton a tiny thread of smoky steam catches our eye, and through our glasses we see a microscopic worm slowly crawling northward. This is the train from Boston, laden with its hundreds of passengers on their way to seek rest and health in the ozone of God's Mountain Country. To me the best of the view is the herd of blue elephants, humping and rolling to the northward―the Presidential Range, the handiwork of a Maker more powerful than the architects of locomotive-works or the tiny builders of human ant-hills―our modern cities. Your trains, your hotels, your automobiles no doubt "may be all right for some," as the old guide, "Jack" Allen, used to say, but give me a wild, craggy mountain, far away from the noise and dirt and confusion of towns. Here, for a time, at least, let me be a "refugee from civilization."7

    Here, on the very ridgepole of the Sandwich and Albany country, let us eat our luncheon, meanwhile drinking in the sky-line. And now, having satisfied the ravenous hunger of a mountaineer, we unscrew the cover of that metallic cylinder which the Appalachians have placed in a little cairn here on the summit. In it we find a long list of names of persons who have climbed the mountain before us. We add our names to the list.

    Although Passaconaway is nearly seven hundred feet higher than Chocorua, because of its rounded and wooded top, it does not afford a panoramic view of the entire sky-line. Now that we are rested, let us make our way a few rods to the southwest, through the woods, for we must not go down until we have had a glimpse of Winnepesaukee and the Lake Country. 'Twill cost but a few additional steps, for which we shall be repaid a thousandfold. No wonder the Indians loved the "Smiling Waters" (Winnepesaukee) and Squam Lake. Far off in the dim blue we can make out the Uncanoonucs, Monadnock and Wachusett.

    Would that we might "build tabernacles" here in which to stay forever. But the noon-day sun is now making its way westward and we must think of descending to that little white speck in the Albany Intervale which we call "Score-o'-Peaks" and "home."

    Passaconaway is an ideal haunt for bears. In the cylinder in which we registered are brief records of trampers seeing Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. What could be more fitting than that the little "Teddy Bears" of today, when chased by savage hunters, should be for refuge to the holes and caves on the shoulders of old Passaconaway, for was not Passaconaway, the chieftain, the "Son of the Bear"? Truly, one would naturally expect that Passaconaway's name-bearing mountain would offer shelter to the bear papooses in their fear and danger.

     Many summers ago, while we were peacefully sleeping early one night, a blood-curdling scream aroused us. Again and again it was repeated. It came from a bear in the Downes Brook valley, at the foot of Passaconaway, probably calling to his mate.

     One morning, about nine o'clock, a young lumberman came speeding down the road. When opposite our cottage he was asked by some one why he was hurrying so; whereupon, with pallid features, he replied that just inside the edge of the woods, on the Passaconaway road, a shaggy old bear had introduced himself, with evident intentions of becoming better acquainted. The Frenchman at once remembered an urgent engagement requiring his presence at the lumber-store. Therefore, the haste!

    A couple, planning to climb Passaconaway from the Wonalancet side, had notified the Shackfords of their intention of coming over the mountain, and had reserved a room for the night. Evening approached, and at length the stars appeared. Just as the proprietors were beginning to worry about the belated pedestrians, a message arrived from the other side of the range saying that, after almost gaining the summit, the people had decided to retrace their steps. Later, the reason for this change of plan was explained in detail. When they approached the summit, a huge bear stuck his muzzle out from behind a ledge at the side of the path and sniffed at the bold trespassers. After a short pause, in which the said trespassers perceived no sign of retreat on the part of Mr. Bear, and not wishing to disturb the tranquillity of the ursine mind, they unarmed―quietly and (need I add?) speedily retraced their steps.

     Returning from the ascent of Passaconaway one day, two of our intimate friends, just at dark, met a huge bear in the path.

    Years ago, in a pouring rain, a pair of wet, tired, and bedraggled trampers descended from the mountain. The man was leading his wife, who was blind. Eight years later my parents met the same couple in Switzerland. The gentleman was reading passages from guidebooks and telling his wife about the scenery. They had traveled for years in this way, having ridden up Pike's Peak, among other mountains. Amid the wonders and grandeur of the Alps these New Englanders chatted together once more, agreeing that the beauties of the Rhone Valley were strikingly similar to the glories of the Albany Intervale in the White Mountains.

    Concerning Passaconaway's great slide of "late November"―often have the old settlers described it to us―let me quote a stanza from Bolles's "Chocorua's Tenants":

"Night was resting on the heavens,
Not a star gleamed in the ether.
Only in the far-off Northland
Dimly glowed a lurid beacon,
Burning in the awful passes
Close by Carrigain the mighty.
Still the air, and soundless, heavy,
Phantom vapors mustered quickly,
Then a distant sound came booming
From the valley of the Saco,
Through the vale of singing waters,
Like a lake, ice-riven, moaning,
Like the sea in deep rock caverns,
Like an avalanche in winter,
Like the winds when ripe for rapine.
Louder, deeper, came the uproar,
Surging, leaping, came the cloud hosts;
Tremble now, presumptuous forests,
Winds and clouds combine against you,
Pitying stars have hid their faces,
Night with sinister intention
Ne'er was darker, never denser.
Woe, oh woe to you, proud forests,
Day shall dawn upon your ruin.
Ah, what sound is that of rending.
Crushing, crashing, splintering timber?
Hear the groans of breaking spruce trunks,
Hear the moans of straining fibres,
Hear the roar of falling boulders
Bounding down the endless ledges.
All of Passaconaway's bulwarks
Seem to break: before the storming."8

 

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1. Osgood: White Mountains, 337.
2. Same.
3. Compare Bolles: At the North of Bearcamp Water, 271.
4. See Bolles: At the North of Bearcamp Water, 155.
5. Chas. E. Fay in Appalachia, vol. VI.
6. See Osgood: White Mts., 337.
7. Paul Elmer More: Shelburne Essays, First Series, 24.
8. Bolles: Chocorua's Tenants, 42-3, published by Houghton, Mifflin &: Co.

 

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Tripyramid

 

Mt. Passaconaway

 

 

 

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