Finding the Heart of the White Mountains

by Chris Proulx

Saco River and Mount Willard

Saco River and Mount Willard

Explorers haven’t changed much over the years.  Most discoveries are incidental to the ultimate goal of finding the buried treasure under the ‘X’ on the map.  Juan Ponce de Leon was the first European to lay claim to Florida, but by some accounts he wasn’t as interested in finding land as he was in finding the Fountain of Youth, a rumored spring that wasn’t just New World, it was new life.

Many of today’s travelers to New Hampshire can relate.  They explore the state from river to lake, rocky summit to forested floor, but through it all seek something beyond these individual wonders.  Like Ponce de Leon in his quest, they chase a storied location that embodies it all, the origin of all experience, the wellspring of life to an entire region.  They seek “The Heart of the White Mountains.”

This treasure is very real.

Like most things worth finding, though, it’s not conspicuous. You have to hunt for it.  Many start their search by following brochures like a treasure map.  But with the number of resorts, inns and campgrounds all claiming to be in the “Heart of the White Mountains”, there are too many ‘X’s on this map to mark any one spot.  To find the real heart, go deeper.  Over one hundred years deeper.

Flash back to the early 20th Century.  The forests were privately owned and its owners were cutting them without regulation.  The dry leftovers littering the ground caught fire easily, spread to remaining forests and burned uncontrollably with no organized force to fight it.  The disease spread.  Symptoms emerged south of the mountains.  Streamflow in navigable rivers like the Connecticut, Merrimack, Saco and Androscoggin were erratic.  New England depended on industry and industry depended on these rivers.  Something needed to be done.

Enter Congressman John W. Weeks of Massachusetts, a native of the White Mountains.  The push by conservationists for government protection of the White Mountains had been regularly defeated by champions of free enterprise.  Weeks pointed to new scientific data linking the health of forests in the White Mountains to the health of streamflow.  Major interstate rivers upon which industry depended were being affected by the clearing of forests at their headwaters.  Weeks introduced legislation, known as the Weeks Act, that called for federal management of these forests. Rivers are like capillaries circulating the lifeblood of a region.  Their headwaters are a pump driving the circulation.  The whole of the White Mountains is, so-to-speak, a heart.

More than its scenery, wildlife or recreational opportunities, the part of the White Mountains most responsible for the way you find it today is its water.  To protect headwaters, the federal government manages the White Mountain National Forest for the perpetual health of the resources surrounding them.  Perhaps Ponce de Leon was looking in the wrong place for the Fountain of Youth.

To discover “The Heart of the White Mountains” explore White Mountain waterways.  Here are a few headwaters in particular that combine beauty with fascinating history.  As you explore, keep in mind that  fluctuating water levels and other hazards occur in all seasons and can be life threatening.   Prioritize safety first.

Lower Falls on the Ammonoosuc River

Lower Falls is an easily-accessed waterfall cascading 30 to 40 feet over granite steps naturally carved by the waters of the Ammonoosuc River.   At the bottom of the falls, the water forms a wide pool deep enough for swimming.  This is also a good spot for trout fishing when not crowded.

The story of Lower Falls follows the arc of many of the region’s rivers and streams.   In the late 1800s this waterfall powered a mill built by one of the area’s most prolific timber barons to process clear cut trees.  Photographs from this time show eroded hillsides and the pool at the bottom of the falls clogged with mill by product.  The Ammonoosuc River is a major tributary of the Connecticut River, New England’s longest and one of its most important for industry.  The effect of deforestation and pollution at this site is an example of why the forests needed federal management.  While artifacts of the mill can still be seen, the site today is again pristine,  a wonderful source of recreation and a healthy tributary to one of New England’s most important rivers.

To find Lower Falls, turn onto Old Cherry Mountain Road from Rte 302, approximately one mile west of the Mt Washington Hotel.  Take an immediate left onto Lower Falls Road, park at the gate and enjoy a 5-minute walk along the river to the falls. The trail is graded and suitable for all ages and abilities.  Be careful if doing an internet search or asking someone for information — there is also a popular “Lower Falls” on the Swift River along the Kancamagus Highway, not to be confused.

 

Franconia Notch State Park

Franconia Notch State Park shares a similar conservation history.  Echo Lake has been its centerpiece of tourism since the 1850s.   This was one of the first major tourist destinations in the White Mountains thanks to the  Profile House, a grand resort that once stood just south of the lake and operated a steam-powered paddle boat on its waters.   Today, people enjoy canoeing, kayaking, swimming and trout fishing on the 38 acre body of water.  From the The Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway you can look down on both Echo Lake and its neighbor, Profile Lake.  Profile Lake is the headwaters of the Pemigewasset River, a major tributary of the Merrimack.

Franconia Notch State Park is located off the Franconia Notch Parkway, a scenic stretch of road that is a part of Routes 3 and 93.  Just as there are two “Lower Falls”, there are also two popular “Echo Lakes” in NH.  The one referred to here is in Franconia Notch on the western side of the White Mountains, not to be confused with the one in North Conway on the eastern side.

 

Greeley Ponds Scenic Area

The Greeley Ponds are a pair of remote mountain ponds surrounded by old growth forest.  The onslaught of clear cutting in the early 1900s didn’t reach them, most likely because of their location nestled between the steep slopes of Mounts Kancamagus and Osceola. The ponds themselves are an easy, level hike from the Kancamagus Highway.   It traverses several split log bridges over small brooks and muddy sections before reaching Upper Greeley Pond at 1.6 miles and Lower Greeley Pond at 2.1 miles.  The trail is popular in winter with snowshoers and cross country skiers.

Lower Greeley Pond is the headwaters of the Mad River, a tributary of the Pemigewasset and part of the Merrimack Watershed.  This area was was protected in 1920 and designated a White Mountain National Forest Scenic Area in 1968 — camping and campfires are prohibited year round to maintain the unspoiled beauty.

The head of the Greeley Ponds Trail is at a small parking lot just west of a hairpin turn in the Kancamagus Highway, about 7 miles east of Loon Mountain Resort.

 

Livermore

Hard to believe, but at the turn of the 20th Century, this stretch of dense interior forest along an inconspicuous mountain stream was a fully functioning town with a schoolhouse, store, homes, a power plant and more.  Livermore grew up around the sawmill and logging railroad built here by the Saunders family in the late 1800s.  The town population swelled to a peak of 190 residents in support of the lumber operation, but fires, floods, timber-damaging storms and other hardships led to the decline and eventual dissolving of the town, a life cycle shared by many logging villages in the White Mountains. The land was sold to the federal government for inclusion in the White Mountain National Forest in 1937.

Today, a walk just off the Sawyer River road, parts of which were once railroad bed, reveals all that is left of the town.  Among the new forest, mosses and generations of fallen  leaves are the remains of the sawmill, powerhouse and other structures. The Sawyer River which runs parallel to the road flows into the Saco near the junction of Sawyer River Road and Route 302, about 4 miles west of Bartlett Village.

 

These sites are all part of the The Weeks Act Legacy Trail, a free, self-guided driving tour celebrating the story of the the White Mountain National Forest.  The tour features 40 sites of interest across 100 miles.  Themes include Conservation History, Ecology and Wildlife, Family Activities, History and Cultural Heritage, Recreation, Art and Literature and Water.  Download an audio tour, print maps, get GPS coordinates or take a virtual multimedia tour at weeksactlegacytrail.org.

 

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About the Author

Chris Proulx is the owner of Borealis Productions, an independent media production company based in Conway, NH.  He is the media producer of The Weeks Act Legacy Trail and the station manager of White Mountains TV.

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