A hiker approaches the Puzzle Mountain summit in blustery winds. Contributed photo

Being semi-retired has benefits. Old age is not one of them. Perhaps the most significant advantage is time flexibility, at least what little is left. I try to write and operate my tax consulting business on bad weather days and play on nice ones. In short, my goal is to work a little and play a lot.

I’m privileged to have numerous retired friends who enjoy outdoor adventures. Gary, Suzanne, and Brent are three of the closest. The late Skip Pendleton labeled our geriatric group AARPIES. Whatever the moniker, we’re constantly studying the weather in search of suitable circumstances for an excursion.

A recent stormy weather pattern comprising of rain, snow, sleet, and persistently gusty winds challenged our planning acumen. A pause in precipitation resulted in a flurry of emails with my three frequent companions. The conclusion was a favored endeavor, a climb of Puzzle Mountain in North Newry.

A relatively new trail network, the Grafton Notch Loop Trail, which opened in 2003, passes over Puzzle Mountain’s southwest peak. The 38.2-mile circuit through Mahoosuc Land Trust property traverses seven summits. The strenuous journey has become one of Maine’s premier backpack expeditions. Prior to my knee replacement, it would have been a goal for me. Alas, old age dictates foregoing the challenge. Carrying a full pack for that distance would risk the longevity of my prosthetic knee. I’m far too much of a sissy to endure the thoroughly unpleasant rehabilitation process a second time unless absolutely unavoidable. I admit pangs of envy whenever the usually young multiday trekkers are encountered.

My three friends were already assembling their gear when I arrived at the Route 26 trailhead. A recent rainstorm had washed away much of the snow, but beginning near Bethel there was a surviving accumulation. After greetings, my immediate concern was whether or not micro spikes were necessary. An inspection indicated the surface was marginal so two of us elected to wear them from the outset. Confronting periodic spans of ice at higher elevations, everyone was employing them before the outing was over.

The Puzzle mountain portion of the path is a 3.2 mile trek to the distinctive open 3,133 foot summit. While the weather was sunny and dry, conditions were imperfect as it was cold and breezy. A crusty layer of snow and patchy ice punctuated much of the trail. Initially crossing a dirt road and climbing a pitch, it then ascended gradually in an open hardwood forest. After about two miles, the path turned left and the gradient increased.

I consider myself as promising birder. Devoting years of diligent study, I’ve learned to quickly identify pigeons, sea gulls, and robins. Gary and Suzanne are more advanced. While climbing, Suzanne spotted a mysterious gray and white bird soaring above us. My visceral observation was a sea gull. Doubting the veracity of my pronouncement, she speculated we might have experienced the rare sighting of a Goshawk; confirming the same on her bird app. The outing had barely begun and my bird tally was expanding geometrically.

The prolonged steep section completed, the route narrowed wrapping westerly around an abrupt incline before ascending some short switchbacks in a dense stand of conifers. Emerging onto an expansive open ledge with spectacular views of Grafton Notch and the Mahoosuc Range, penetrating blustery winds dominated from the northwest.

Entering a sheltered wooded section, we navigated through immense boulders with lengthy stretches of hard ice. At 2.6 miles, a junction for Woodsum Spur was encountered on an elongated sloping ledge. Signage indicated the partially visible rugged summit was another six-tenths of a mile. After scrambling over several complex rocky inclines, we negotiated up a consequential icy slide.

Persisting through sparse stunted growth, we observed a bird fluttering beyond a nearby tree. When it landed on a limb, Gary astutely identified our feathered friend as a White-winged Crossbill. Having never heard of a cross billed whatchamacallit; my bird count had blossomed to an impressive five.

Winds were howling as we approached a precipitous ledge beneath the summit. Everyone huddled donning parkas prior to completing the final ascent. No photos from the top for me, my camera battery froze despite being enclosed in an insulated container.

Following a brief respite in a protected area on the east side of the summit cone, we began our descent. The views of Sunday River White Cap and the White Mountains beyond were breathtaking. Finishing the journey, I wallowed in satisfaction knowing I had migrated from promising to fledgling birder status. The sky is the limit!

Author of “The Greatest Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdooors.com or he can be reached at [email protected]

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