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Phillips Brook Backcountry Recreation Area: Winter 2002

Text: Tony Pisarra

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Phillips Brook Backcountry Recreation Area



My regular partner in peril Chris and I spent four and half days skiing and Yurt camping in the Phillips Brook Backcountry Recreation Area in Stark New Hampshire, just over the border from Vermont and fifty odd miles south of Canada.

The 24,000-acre Phillips Brook tract, managed as sustainable forest by International Paper Co., offers more than 75 miles of backcountry trails, as well as the only hut-to-hut system for backcountry skiing east of the Mississippi.

Huts include 3 Gateway Yurts, 8 Trail Accessed Yurts and 1 Rustic Log Lodge.

Eight hours and one accidental theft of gasoline took us to the entrance to the Reservation off New Hampshire Route 110 at about 4 pm. It was unseasonably warm (about 45 F) and driving north we hadn't seen even patches of snow until well into Vermont.

There was, however, still a good two feet of snow on the ground as we started up the unimproved (and unsanded) road for our first night's accommodations at the Lodge about 12 miles into the Reservation.

Night 1: The Lodge

We arrived at the Lodge about a half hour past dark. With its pumped well water, forced air heat and generator, the Lodge is a modern, four bedroom paradise.

Three of the four bedrooms in the Lodge were occupied by a group mushers, three women up from Pennsylvania and Delaware, each with a sled and team of dogs.

This was a welcome fact as Chris's new 10 month old puppy Toast was along for the trip and judged by Chris to be a little less than predictable. People with 36 dogs were likely to be tolerant. Also they had baked an extra turkey pie.

Day 1 - Night 2: The Lodge -- Nelson Brook Yurt

We strapped on packs the next morning and set out from the Lodge at 11 a.m. for our second night's accommodations at the Nelson Brook Yurt a little over 3 miles from the lodge.

We picked up the trail about a quarter mile from the Lodge. The Nelson Brook trail (2.9 mi) begins with the gentle ascent of an old logging road for a mile and half and then splits off into a single track making a series of less gentle ascents to the Phillips Brook Yurt.

I had a fairly typical first day out. It was another warm one, and I was slightly overdressed for the trip. After a few initial stumbles, I relaxed a bit and never managed to actually fall on the intermittent descents. Still I was good and tired a couple of hours later as I slogged up the final ascent to the Yurt and found Chris lolling on a Thermarest chair by the porch.

The previous occupants were packing up as we arrived. We added wood to their coals and, after unpacking our own gear, climbed the hill above the Yurt for a short -- awkward run -- through a well tracked glade.

We then returned to begin melting the first of many pots of snow and setting up housekeeping for the night.

The Nelson Brook Yurt has a bit of a reputation. It is a bit dingy and the local privy was a source of unspeakable horror. However, the location has a nice, remote feel and we passed comfortably through a mild but intensely rainy night.

Day 2 - Night 3: Nelson Brook Yurt -- East Branch Yurt

The pounding rain that roused us at midnight turned to something like sleet by 3 am and then by morning something very much like snow.

This left a slick slope under a thin dusting of loose snow and we both started off trying ineffectually to snow plow the first descent. Quickly recognizing that literal control was impossible, we opened up and thereafter had a generally terrific snowy run back along the 2.9 miles we had climbed the day before.

The East Branch Yurt, our acommodations for nights 3 and 4 was a "drive-in" yurt about a mile up the (muddy) road from the Nelson Brook Trailhead. So we loaded our gear into the truck and drove-in to the site.

The East Branch Yurt was in fact much newer than the Nelson Brook Yurt (though the outhouse was only marginally less appalling). Also while slightly less scenic, it's proximity to the road allowed us to carry in a generous amount of food and water and thereafter enjoy some genuinely recreational backcountry skiing.

Day 3 - Night 4: East Branch Yurt

The previous day's light snow had turned serious by dusk and over the night had mounted to over six fresh inches, drifting in a Yurt shaking wind.

It was an impeccably cool, clear day and we set out at about noon into a wonderfully changed landscape. The East Branch Trail starts on a slope behind the Yurt and continues 1.6 miles up an initially steep but increasingly gentle ascent. The nights snow had left the trail pleasantly vague in places and it felt like we were laying fresh tracks in virgin forest at times.

About 3/4 of a mile in we met a couple we had encountered the day before and who were now on their way out. We all glowed as we jabbered about the beauty of the day and our mutual adventure. This was a pretty common effect. Everyone we met was just so happy to be out in the North Woods.

At the top of the trail, we turned an had a really fun run back to the Yurt (less so for Chris who's skis kept acquiring ice).

When we got back to the Yurt, I went back to the top of the initial ascent for a quick run which proved so much fun I immediately went back for another. By this time Chris had thawed his skis and joined me a third and then a fourth run.

That night the moon was just past full, and after dinner we took a moonlight ski back up the East Branch Trail.

It was pretty perfect. Particularly for a last night.

The Return Trip

The only thing I have to say about the return trip is that we arrived back in New York in a rented Dodge Neon only 4 hours behind schedule. Also, the people at Land Rover Burlington are very nice -- if somewhat clumsy.


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© 2002 Tony Pisarra


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