Bristol Cliffs Wilderness
Cold. My dark green L.L. Bean mummy sleeping bag was approved for use in 0°F. Inside it I lay shivering in full body long underwear, snow pants, two north face fleeces, a heavy-duty winter jacket, two pairs of long ski socks, tight red balaclava, scarf, and hat. Outside, the wind shook the tent and the thin layer of ice that had built up on its inner walls broke loose. As small bits of ice melted on the small patch of exposed skin on my right cheek I chuckled dryly, realizing that the ice was a good 40° warmer than the outside air. Armored against the cold in all the right equipment, I knew I should survive the night, but no amount of equipment could stop the doubts from creeping their way into my mind. A fleeting thought of warmth brought my contemplations back to the seeds of this expedition.
It was early January in northern New England and I sat on the couch of my small three-bedroom home. Inside, the metal of the wood stove creaked with the intensity of the heat. I had just added another log. Warm and content I looked out of the window onto our three-acre field bordered by a pine forest that extended miles into the wilderness. Three white tailed deer picked their way out of the forest and nibbled on some dry brown grass that the cold winter had killed months ago. Picking their thin legs high and stepping with care, the frail deer made their way across the dead winter landscape. And yet, as frail as they looked, these deer were out in the frigid cold staying warm enough and finding enough food to survive the winter. I sat, wrapped in awe as the magnitude of their accomplishment swept over me.
These delicate beasts made me feel inadequate as I sat in the comfort of my home and the warmth of my wood stove. Stripped of everything but my body, as naked as the deer, could I survive just a few days and nights in those conditions? Certainly not. With the proper equipment maybe… “yeah, I could do it if I had the right equipment.” Hearing myself say it was reassuring. But could I? How hard would it be? How much equipment would it take? How much of that animalistic resolve and ability to stay alive was left in us, was left in me, after growing up with all the facets of civilization that dampen the cold, hard, unforgiving environment around us? From my vantage point nestled on my warm couch looking out at the world through a storm-proof glass window, even pondering questions such as these seemed fruitless. Answering them would require doing, discomfort, and daunting cold.
I had hiked the Presidential Traverse: eleven of New Hampshire’s highest peaks covering twenty-three miles of rugged trail and over ten thousand feet of elevation gain in a single day. I had hiked the tallest mountains in eighteen US states and survived a sixty-mile, three-day hiking expedition in southern New Hampshire. All in the warm summer months or the comfortably brisk air ushered in by autumn. I had never gone on an expedition into true wilderness with no trails and no guides on an overnight expedition in the unforgiving months of winter. The idea excited me.
I stretched my arms and yawned as I reached for the laptop on the table next to my couch. I began to search.
“Extreme cold clothing”
“Wilderness near Middlebury”
“Bristol Cliffs wilderness”
“Maps of Bristol Cliffs”
“Weather at Bristol Cliffs”
It was settled. I would set out with nothing but a compass and maps to guide me and the hope that through all our years of sitting in houses with wood stoves to warm us humans still possessed at least a small bit of the skill and toughness that allowed animals to survive in the harsh winters of New England.
A week before I left for my expedition I gave Elias a call. The phone rang twice before Elias answered with his usual.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Nothin, just wondering if you wanted to go on a hike with me this weekend.” As I spoke I shuffled the papers on my desk looking for the maps and further details about my expedition into the Bristol Cliffs Wilderness so I could fill Elias in on the details. Elias cut me off after my first sentence though, having heard enough.
“What time do we leave?”
One week later the two of us stood in a parking lot with our large framed hiking packs leaned against his dark green ‘96 Camry. The piercing cold slowed my lips and made talking a struggle. It was only going to get worse. The latest weather forecasts called for temperatures as low as negative ten once the sun set with the wind chill dropping to negative twenty-two.
“Map, compass, flashlights, change of clothes, extra socks, food, camping stove, pad, sleeping bag, hats, mittens, hand warmers, altimeter, and you’ve definitely got the tent right?”
“Yep. And the stakes, although I doubt we’ll be able to use them with the ground this frozen.” After double and triple checking that everything was there and in place, we tossed our packs in the trunk before hopping in the back seat. A friend of mine, Mike Joseph, sat in the driver seat looking over the MapQuest directions one more time.
“So you’re sure you want me to just drop you off? You don’t want to leave the car there just in case?”
“Na it might get towed, we’ll be fine,” I assured him.
As Mike turned the key in the ignition the engine complained loudly of the cold before begrudgingly turning over with a muffled rumble.
As we drove along York Hill Road, Elias and I pored over the United States Geological Survey topo map of the Bristol Cliffs Wilderness area, going over our planned route one last time. Bristol Cliffs was a total of 3,750 acres, making it the smallest wilderness area in the state of Vermont. Established in 1975, the original Bristol Cliffs Wilderness was about 7,000 acres, which included nearly 2,500 acres of privately owned property seized by eminent domain when the wilderness was established. But Vermonters, like the land around them, were made of tougher stuff than Congress was used to. Through passion and persistence the Vermonters incited an Act of Congress that gave back the acreage that had been privately owned. This marked the only time in United States history that acreage was actually withdrawn from a wilderness area. Although what was left is a relatively small parcel of land, it contains some of the most rugged terrain in Vermont.
I traced my finger along the winding New Haven River that bordered the wilderness to the north and my eyes were drawn to two more splashes of blue on the map. North Pond and Gillmore Pond. Elias and I would start on the eastern side of the wilderness area and hike two miles to Gillmore Pond where we would spend the night. On day two we would continue our trek westward until we reached the quartzite cliffs. Here, we would turn northward and follow them to the New Haven River and then onto Bristol where our expedition would end. A tap of the breaks sent my head lurching forward and I lost my place on the map. We had arrived.
I stepped out of the car onto the muddied road, a slushy mixture of gravel, snow, and salt. The two feet of piled snow bordering the road had been splattered with this unappealing mix by passing cars. Beyond this, the fresh snowfall was left untouched, pristinely blanketing the landscape in softness. After retrieving our bags from the trunk we propped them against the snow bank on the side of the road and said goodbye to Mike.
“I’ll see you guys in two days in Bristol, good luck and don’t die out there.” Mike’s joke was lighthearted but our laughs were strained with the tingling of fear. As the sound of the car faded we stood in silence next to our packs looking at each other and slowly realizing that we were alone, and our trip had begun. There was an excitement in the brown eyes that looked back at me. Standing six feet tall Elias was a few inches shorter than myself. His unkempt brown hair was covered with a tan Russian fur cap. After enjoying the silence for a few more seconds I fumbled the map from my coat pocket and unfolded it onto my pack which was still propped up against the snow bank. Because Bristol Cliffs contained no marked trails we would be forced to rely on our map and compass to stay on track. Elias handed me the compass and we took our first bearing.
“Looks like it’s just a few degrees off of due west,” I said as I checked the dial of the compass one more time.
“You know what we should do, we should just follow that little brook that runs west for about a mile; that way we don’t have to worry about checking the compass,” suggested Elias as he traced the brook with his finger.
“I like it! We better get going though, it’s almost three o’clock,” I said as I folded up the map and hoisted my pack onto my shoulders.
Elias took lead to begin with and I trudged behind him in his footsteps. The hiking was rough, made harder by more than a foot of snow with drifts over two feet. The terrain of Bristol Cliffs was rugged and unforgiving, always either a steep climb more sudden drop off; never flat. The physical challenge of the hiking was lost in the beauty of our surroundings. The babble of the small brook we were following calmed our nerves and we set into a steady rhythm. After tumbling over the forest rocks the icy waters of this brook flowed into the New Haven River before they spilled into Otter Creek and eventually Lake Champlain. Around us, the snow covered the maples, beaches, chestnuts, and oaks in a magical blanket, with the spruces, hemlocks, and pines adding their dark green hue to the mix. This forest was the third growth of trees that had stood tall on this land, unwavered by the failures of its predecessors. The first growth forest in this area, made of species like oak, beech, and maple, had taken root after the Wisconsin Glacier scarred the land with its slow retreat. By the 1850s, settlers from Europe had cleared most of this forest for settlements. As going got tough and Vermonters began to move out west to the promise of land not plagued with rocks, a second forest began to rise, dominated by straight, towering pines. As the forest matured it brought about its own doom, drawing a new generation of Vermonters to log the forests, leaving the hills bare again. Protected by the Eastern Wild Areas Act of 1974, this third growth forest that now surrounded us held a future much brighter than its predecessors.
About a half-mile into our hike our boots began to grow heavy and the six inches of snow began to feel more like a foot.
“Quick break?” I asked Elias as a comfortably flat looking rock came into view. Without interrupting the heavy plumes of moisture that came with each breath, Elias nodded and headed for the same rock that I had just noticed. Still catching our breath, we helped each other out of our large packs and started fiddling with the zippers that separated us from our granola bars, our hands made clumsy by the cold. Once we had the granola bars, we sat in silence and enjoyed the dark chocolate, peanuts, and almonds. They were frozen solid by the abrasive cold, and the sound of us eating them was more like heavy boots on ice than the crunching of a casual snack. As I sat eating, I watched Elias contentedly munching his much-needed snack. He looked at me and nodded as much to himself as to me as he took another bite of frozen bar. He chewed with his mouth open. Tears ran down his tan cheeks, not of sadness but forced on his eyes by the bitter cold. Mucus and dirt were smeared across the right side of his face and ice had begun to form on his healthy layer of scruff. After an hour of hiking in the woods we had more important things to worry about than our appearances. He nodded again, as if approving of his own thoughts.
“Ya know Karl, there’s something about it that’s just so much more satisfying.”
“About what?” I asked as I disappointedly inspected my bottle of water now frozen solid.
“About not using trails, about making your own path. I just like the feeling of knowing that no one else has made the hike before, ya know, we’re not just following a trail with our heads down.” I nodded in agreement and blew some more of my steaming breath into the cold air. Invigorated by the 170 calories of frozen granola bar and the five-minute rest, we pressed onward.
The pristine wilderness, rhythmic crunching of snow beneath our boots, and cold winter air brought forth a sense of meditation to my wandering thoughts. The silence was broken now and then when one of our minds stumbled across something worth discussing. Our conversation touched on everything from politics to the chemistry behind the yellow paint used to mark roads, to what types of cherry and oak look best together in coffee tables.
After a couple hours of conversation and rugged terrain we emerged from the thick forest to find ourselves standing on the edge of a beaver pond skirted by a swath of shrubs and grasses. A sturdy beaver dam made primarily of cherry and maple separated the pond from a small stream and marsh. On the far edge of the pond a large pile of logs and branches had been placed with care by the ponds inhabitants; a dwelling fit for the cold winters of Vermont. Our gore-tex and other synthetic fibers took much of the nip away from the cold. The beavers, frogs, and turtles of this small pond had no such luxury. With temperatures that can drop to well below zero regularly it seemed to me that all these animals should be dead. Luckily, wonders of evolution have given the wildlife of this area a fighting chance against the cold. Underneath that pile of oak, maple, and cherry lay anywhere from five to ten beavers, including the two parents and their young from the past two years. As we stood on the edge of the pond taking in the beautiful simplicity of their home, this beaver family was most likely asleep. In the cold winter months, beaver slow their metabolisms to conserve energy and can sleep for up to four days at a time. Their precious body heat is kept close by several thick layers of branches and mud, keeping their abode above freezing even when temperatures plummet to forty below zero. The turtles of this pond had buried themselves deep in its muddy bed and slowed their metabolisms so drastically that the oxygen in the mud was enough to keep them alive.
Past the beaver dam a small brook and marsh led into the much larger Gilmore Pond, which was frozen over weeks ago by the cold. The recent snowfall still lay untouched, covering the pond in a flat expanse of white. Beyond the trees, the sun had begun to set in the crepuscular rays cut through the clouds at low angles.
With a bit of urgency brought on by the waning sunlight, we skirted Gilmore Pond until we reached the far side. With a sigh of relief our packs dropped to the ground. After a minute or two of sitting on our packs while we caught our breath we stood and began to search for an open area to pitch the tent. We found an area of snow near the edge of the pond and began to kick the fluffy powder to the sides of the small clearing. Once we had exposed an area of frozen leaves and pine needles we began setting up the tent. In normal conditions this would have taken us only a few minutes, but our awkward mittens made handling the aluminum rods difficult at best. Removing our mittens did little to improve our task, as the cold made our hands clumsy and with temperatures hovering just above zero frostbite was a real danger. Just as the last rays of sun slid behind the trees, our frustrating task was finally completed and we stood back to inspect our small two-person tent.
With the sun down the temperature began to drop more rapidly, four, three, two… it was going to be a long night. Before we turned in for the night we took out our small propane camping stove and boiled some snow. The pot of boiling water sent a stream of steam spiraling into the cold night sky. The temperature continued to fall. One, zero, negative one. I added five generous scoops of hot chocolate mix to the boiling water. Never before has a drink been so delicious and satisfying than that Shaws brand hot chocolate. Not beer with friends, not cold lemonade on a hot summer day, not water after a half marathon. As the two of us stood facing each other sipping the deliciously warm liquid a contented smile spread across Elias’ face and his shoulders relaxed with a sigh of relief.
“That’s the stuff.”
After our last sips of warmth, we cleaned our bowls with snow and took a short walk to the edge of the lake. As we stood in silence there were no sounds of wildlife. The cold night air had scared away any chance of clouds, leaving a clear expanse above us. With no light from street lamps or nearby houses, the stars had no competition and were taking advantage. We stared rapt in awe at the night sky, the sheer number of stars left us aghast. There were so many points of light that they appeared to blanket the night sky in a dust of light. The temperature continued to drop. Negative two, negative three. I could have stood there lost in the stars for hours but the cold had already reached my fingers, toes, and cheeks and if we were going to survive the night we would have to take a hint from the animals and retreat to shelter.
Inside the tent Elias and I lay side by side fully clothed in our winter gear and inside our mummy sleeping bags. I had pulled the elastic bands in the hood of my bag tight so that only my nose and a small patch of cheek were exposed. The cold mass of my water bottle pressed against my leg. Our only hope of having liquid water to drink in the morning was to sleep with our water bottles. Although the sun had been down for over three hours it was only a little past seven thirty. We lay in our synthetic cocoons unable to move and unable to fall asleep so early and talked over our lives; laughing about the good times and discussing our problems for hours in order to distract ourselves from the cold. Negative four, negative five, negative six.
Even in my layers of synthetic fibers specifically designed for extreme cold I began to feel the warmth seeping from my body. I thought of the beavers, frogs, and turtles, the moose, deer, and coyote.
It must have been around two in the morning when I woke up, a familiar discomfort below my stomach. My heart sank and I breathed a sigh of frustration. Fuck. I had to pee. I knew that it was around ten below outside. I willed my bladder to grow. Prayed that the feeling would pass. It did not. Breaking the seal of my sleeping bag and letting the little warmth that I had accumulated escape was beyond an issue of discomfort, it was bordering on dangerous. I had no choice, and with that confusing feeling of this isn’t happening right now I unzipped my bag and the tent. I knelt in the opening of the tent and I gasped for air as the cold sucked the heat from my body. It was too cold. I couldn’t pee. With an amazing amount of effort I managed to persevere and I quickly closed the tent and retreated to my sleeping bag. I drifted in and out of sleep until the sun poked above the trees and promised to drive away the worst of the cold.
We boiled more snow and cooked some oatmeal for breakfast. We clumsily shoveled spoonfuls of steaming oatmeal into our mouths; our bulky mittens were not made for handling spoons. It was the best breakfast I had ever had. After taking a minute to watch the sunrise, we packed the tent and took our bearing. Five minutes of strenuous hiking made our bodies warm again and I began to forget that it was only a few degrees above zero. As we hiked through the maze of spruces and maples, a tan patch of trunk on a striped maple caught our eyes. Intrigued, Elias and I trudged over to the anomalous tree. The bark had been stripped off, leaving rows of white teeth marks on the trunk.
“Ah, definitely a bear,” I joked, giving Elias a good pat on the back.
“More like a big clumsy moose,” Elias replied as he fingered the grooves in the bark.
Striped maple’s other name, moose maple, is the real giveaway in this case. With shrubs long dead and covered with snow, and marshes frozen over, moose must turn to trees like the striped maple for more of their required 10,000 calories a day to maintain body weight. White birch and trembling aspen are also among their favorites, but as the Bristol Cliffs wilderness is dominated with striped maple, the moose in this area have to be satisfied with its bark.
As we continued westward we saw several more trees scarred by moose. Deer were also active in this area and we crisscrossed many of their trails. After following one of the trails for a few hundred feet we came to several large depressions in the snow. At the bottom of each depression the snow was packed and melted by the body of the deer that had spent the night lying there. Unlike beaver and turtles, deer do not have lodges or mud to buffer them from the cold. They have found other ways to survive the cold winters. Each autumn they shed their red-brown summer fur coat in preparation for winter. The single coat of long, solid strands of hair is replaced by two warmer coats. A dense undercoat topped by an overcoat comprised of hollow hair shafts create a winter coat ten times thicker than the summer coat and provide impressive insulation against the harsh elements. Deer also work hard each autumn to build up body fat for energy and to protect key organs. Three deer had slept here for the night before rising in the morning and nimbly picking their way through the snow in search of twigs, branches, and bark. Two of the deer had traveled westward and Elias and I followed this set of tracks until they veered south.
After an hour of steady hiking and talking Elias quickened his step in front of me and excitedly knelt beside a set of tracks as big as our own. He looked up at me with a childish grin proclaiming:
“Bear tracks, and fresh too.”
“What’s a bear doing out at this time of year?”
Normally in mid-January a bear would be curled up in a warm protected area sleeping. While bears are not deep hibernators, they do sleep away the winter months. Their heart rates drop from around fifty beats per minute to eight beats per minute. Bears do not urinate or defecate while they slumber, so nitrogen waste is directly recycled by a complex biochemical process to form proteins and maintain muscle mass. I imagined the large black bear lumbering through the forest as we followed his trail. Compared to animals that enter a true hibernation in winter, bears remain relatively alert while they sleep through the cold months and most likely this bear had been scared from his den by hunters or other wildlife. I chuckled.
“What?” Elias prodded me.
“Aw nothing, just that if I thought it was an inconvenience I had to pee last night, imagine how this bear felt when he got kicked out of his den a whole month early.” I laughed out loud this time, although I genuinely felt sorry for him.
“I have mixed feelings about catching up with him, it would be sick to see but you’re right, hes going to be in a pissy mood.”
We trudged on behind the tracks a little more hesitantly than before. Our westward bearing soon brought us to the expansive talus slopes of Bristol Cliffs. We emerged from the forest and stood looking westward over the far-reaching expanse of farms. The patchwork of roads, snow covered fields, and forest brought texture to the land below. The stunning vastness of the landscape before us, coupled with a healthy flow of endorphins from the miles of hiking, gave us the feeling of champions. We were on top of the world.
From here we turned north and followed the Cliffs toward the New Haven River. Our bear friend had a similar idea and we continue to follow his tracks, adding an air of excitement to the trek. Soon the Cliffs gave way to a steep descent. The noise of a brook joined the crunching of snow beneath our feet and the meandering conversation that kept our minds and tongues from freezing. As the rushing of water grew louder we reached a clearing. We stood for a few seconds in silence, impressed by the power that now flowed before us. The New Haven River was about twelve feet across and the icy waters rushed with an air of inevitability that seemed to defy even the harshest cold. A lone tree had fallen across the raging torrent and was now covered in four inches of powdery snow. Without hesitating, Elias stepped up to the base of the tree and dropped to his hands and knees.
“Elias, maybe we should skirt the river and find a better place to cross,” I suggested as I skeptically craned my head to see around the next bend in the river.
Elias turned and looked at me, his deep brown eyes giving away some of the boyish adventure that bubbled up from his heart. But they also portrayed the unwavering confidence that only comes with years of experience.
“Na, this’ll be fine!” He shouted over the raging water as he began to crawl over the snow-covered tree. I followed close behind.
After crossing the New Haven River it was only five minutes before we came across Route 116 and followed it west to Bristol. When we reached the small and partly forgotten town we removed our packs and slumped onto a wooden bench outside one of the closed shops. Here we contentedly munched our frozen pretzels while he waited for Mike to pick us up. We had survived. It hadn’t been comfortable, but it had been fun. I was astounded after experiencing the conditions that animals endure in the long winter nights. As we sat on the creaky, weathered bench, we did not interrupt the crunching of frozen pretzels with conversation. Words seemed almost out of place as we reflected on our hike. More than that, they were not necessary. After over two days in the wilderness with nothing but the animals, trees, and each other, a clarity of thought, and connection to our surroundings left us content to sit in silence.