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Hiking The U.S.-Canada Coho Trail

In mountains most hikers don't even know exist, the 150-mile Cohos Trail just waiting to carry you far from the crowds and on to Canada.

The spur trail to the summit looks as though it rarely feels the scrape of lugged soles. A ladder of mossy boulders leads upward between walls of spruce pressed so tightly together that the forest seems poised to swallow the path and seal off the mountaintop. Moments later, as if opening a trapdoor to a roof, we pop out of the impenetrable forest onto the rocky parapet of 4,005-foot Mt. Isolation, one of the few peaks in New Hampshire’s busy White Mountains deserving of the name.

Before us, glacial landscape rolls to distant horizons in all directions save the northwest, where the Presidential Range crests 2,000 feet above the high point on which we stand. Below our feet, the deep, U-shaped trough of the Dry River Valley spills to the southwest in a fashion more suggestive of the Rockies than the “Prezzies.”

As friend Doug Thompson and I hurriedly slip into jackets to shield us from a gnawing wind, I note that we are alone—as we have been all day and will be the next. Given the idea behind the trail we’re on, this is of more than casual significance.

Isolation is exactly the effect trail builder Kim Nilsen had in mind when he routed the new, 150-mile Cohos Trail (CT) across this wind-swept summit. “We tried to get people away from popular hiking spots and create a wilderness trail,” says Nilsen. He succeeded in creating a trail that rates among the very wildest in New England, and perhaps the East.

Using a combination of new and existing pathways, the Cohos Trail (pronounced CO-oss and taken from the original spelling eighteenth-century surveyors used for the country north of present day Hanover) springs from US 302 near Crawford Notch and makes a run due north for the Canadian border through mountains few backpackers realize exist. After a brief, early flirtation with the Presidential Range—the prom queen of the White Mountains—the trail courts anonymous places like lonely Cherry Mountain, with its sterling view of the Presidentials, the lush, silent birch and conifer forests of the Pilot Range, and the wild, rugged peaks of Nash Stream State Forest. Roadless sections reach 20, 25, and 40 miles in length, and just three towns show up on the trail map.

This past summer, the Cohos Trail opened for business with its southernmost 110 miles—from US 302 to Coleman State Park, east of Colebrook, New Hampshire—marked and ready. By next year, Nilsen expects his volunteer trail crews to have finished the final 40 miles, which will skirt Lake Francis and the First, Second, and Third Connecticut Lakes before reaching Canada.

But Nilsen’s magnificent obsession doesn’t stop there. If he can eventually extend the Cohos another 20 miles north along the Canadian-U.S. border and link up with Quebec’s Sentiers Frontaliers (“Frontier Trail”)—and he has every intention of doing so—he’ll have gone a long way toward creating an international loop trail of sole-stirring proportions. When the builders of the work-in-progress Sentiers Frontaliers eventually connect with the Appalachian Trail outside Stratton, Maine, the Cohos will become part of a 365-mile North Woods loop that’s nearly 100 miles longer than Vermont’s venerable Long Trail and many times wilder.

I’ve walked much of the Cohos route, always finding my senses tuned to every sound, scent, and movement in an alertness born of refreshing loneliness.

I recall in particular stepping off the Cohos Trail onto Table Rock, a frightfully thin wafer of rock that juts out hundreds of feet above Dixville Notch. Adrenaline rushed through my veins as I took slow, deliberate steps forward. Where the rock terminates, I stopped, anxiously aware of the exposure and of being very much alone. Just then, a distinct sound drifted up on the wind-the urgent bellow of a bull moose.

At that moment, I was reminded of what Kim Nilsen had said of the Cohos experience: “Remote and wild.” Around these parts, that’s of more than casual significance.

Michael Lanza, a writer and photographer based in Boise, Idaho, is author of New England Hiking (1997; Foghorn Press).

Expedition Planner: Cohos Trail, NH

Where: The Cohos Trail (CT) begins at the Davis Path trailhead on US 302, 5 miles south of Crawford Notch, 4 miles north of Bartlett, New Hampshire, and 180 miles (3½hours) northwest of Boston.

Insider tip: The CT traverses numerous ridges and summits where water is scarce. Carry a filter, plenty of water bottles, and extra food for just-in-case scenarios.

Maps, guidebooks, and trail information: CTA, 252 Westmoreland Rd., Stafford, NH 03462; (603) 363-8902, wilshy@top.monad.net.

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