By Kasandra “Bagels” Fleury
The alarm went off at 4:30am and at first I lay in bed and wondered why I was getting up at such an insanely early hour on a Thursday morning. Then I remembered. I was headed to the mountains with my dog, Radar, for the day. 2020 robbed us of many trips to the White Mountains when the border of Vermont was basically closed for all nonessential travel thanks to COVID. Now that life is feeling more normal again, it was time to return to the mountains that I love so much. Don’t get me wrong, Vermont has amazing hiking options. But there is just something about the rugged and unforgiving terrain of the New Hampshire White Mountains that keeps calling me back. I feel at home in these mountains. I feel my spirit soar when I stand above the trees. This year is different though. This is the first year that my senior dog, Maggie, is not able to join me on these mountain adventures. Maggie has been my constant hiking companion, my fearless leader, my ride or die for the past 13 years. She is the reason I ventured to the White Mountains. I never would have had the confidence to explore these trails without her at my side. Now at the age of almost 14, Maggie is showing her age and our long 20+ mile days have been replaced with shorter walks around home or on easier trails.
There is just something so special about seeing a dog enjoy the scenery from a summit. Radar and I are still learning how to be a great team together on the trails, but he is getting there and brings so much joy with him on every hike. So on this particular morning, it was Radar who was whining with anticipation as we pulled into the trailhead parking lot. Patience is something all hiking dogs need to learn as they wait for their humans to get all gear collected. Radar spent the time people watching as I laced up my AKU Women's Alterra Lite boots (my favorite pair of AKU boots that I’ve worn to date), double checked my backpack, and then got my canicross belt and line and Radar’s harness.
I chose Mount Pierce because this mountain holds a special place in my heart. It is the first big New Hampshire mountain that Maggie and I hiked when we began our quest for the NH48 several years ago. The NH48 are the 48 highest mountains in the NH White Mountains. Mount Washington is the highest on the list and I am proud to say that Maggie and I completed our NH48 list and earned our certificates and patches in 2018. Radar has now hiked 21 of the 48. Pierce is a great introduction to the White Mountains. It is over 4,000 feet in elevation but the trail is fairly gentle in comparison with many of the others on the list. The views from above the trees are spectacular. Looking toward Mount Eisenhower, Mount Monroe, Mount Washington and the Northern Presidentials is just amazing. On this first visit back to Pierce, I had to stop several times to just breathe and allow the tears to come. This was my first hike up Pierce without Maggie. Radar is so good because each time I had to stop he would come back to check on me. His tail wags and face licks kept me moving forward. As soon as we were above the trees life just felt almost normal again. When we had begun our hike, I had no set plan on which route we would go on the hike back to the car. I know these trails well and I always carry my paper maps, extra water and food, a headlamp and everything else I could possibly need should I find myself in the woods longer than expected. After enjoying the view from Pierce and visiting with some fellow hikers for a bit, I asked Radar which way he wanted to go. Yes I am one of those people. Radar took no time in letting me know he wanted to continue South toward Mount Jackson. We ended up hiking from Pierce to the Mizpah Spring Hut with a hiker we had met on Pierce. This is one of the reasons I love the White Mountains so much. You begin your hike solo but it’s not uncommon to find yourself hiking with other people at some point on your adventure. We chatted and shared hiking stories until we reached the hut and then parted ways. I should mention that the huts in the White Mountains are awesome. People can make reservations to stay at any of the huts and the Croo (the group of people staffing the huts during the season) prepares meals and also hikes supplies in when needed. I love being able to refill my water bottles and to hit a bathroom at the huts on my longer days. From the hut, Radar and I continued along the Appalachian Trail to our next destination, the summit of Mount Jackson. I always forget how rugged Jackson actually is for a smaller mountain. It’s on the NH48 list but it isn’t one of the biggest. The views are pretty awesome though. Usually the resident Gray Jays will make their appearance and land on hikers’ hands for snacks of trail mix and nuts. No Gray Jays today though. Radar and I enjoyed a snack and checked out the views toward Crawford Notch before beginning the descent. I was so thankful for my AKU Alterra Lite boots on the hike down. Even though this pair of boots has many miles on them already, they still kept me safe as I navigated the rocky and boulder-filled scrambles with Radar on the way down.
Once we reached Route 302 at the base of the Mount Jackson trail, it was a short walk along the road to find our connector path that would take us back to the car. This was the hardest part for Radar. He stopped to hunt tadpoles in the Saco Lake, but the fast-moving traffic on 302 was a bit stressful for both of us. We are not meant for city life, and we both are so much more comfortable in the woods. As soon as we reached the connector path, I didn’t have to tell Radar to turn. He saw the trail sign and he practically charged up the trail into the woods, dragging me behind him. We followed that trail and retraced our steps from earlier in the morning, arriving back to our car about 7 hours after we had started the adventure. What an amazing day with my favorite Coonhound pup in some of my most favorite mountains. The only thing missing was Maggie, but she is always going to be with me on every hike I take. I feel her judging me for moving too slowly every step I take, and I know she and I still have many fun hikes ahead. I always look in my rearview mirror as I drive away, trying to steal the last glance of the mountains, knowing we will be back again real soon.