Heather snapped upright in her bag when the first shot splintered the frozen night. CRA-A-A-CK! Moments later, another shot echoed through the trees, sending us scrambling to peer out the tent door. Our first winter outing was tough enough (a numbing -30ºF), and now it sounded like some idiot was shooting up the forest.
As dawn approached, New Hampshire's Dry River Valley sounded like a Civil War skirmish, with sporadic musket fire moving through the fluttering birches and snow-laden firs. A little investigation revealed a phenomenon peculiar to New England forests: Nuggets of sap freeze in the bitter cold and burst under the bark of trees. The resulting sound is staccato bursts reminiscent of gunshots.
To witness this exhilarating-if initially terrifying-deep-winter symphony, you need only visit a New England forest where it gets so cold that the mercury curls up in a tight little ball at the bottom of your thermometer. Hiking a few miles from the road on a February night will likely suffice. Look for
a deep hollow where frigid air sinks, and wait for the temperatures to fall into the negative double digits.
We return every few years to the Dry River Valley, a long, deep wilderness in the shadow of
Mt. Washington. The land
is wild, the snow deep, and snowshoe travel challenging. For aggressive snow travelers, views from the tops of Mts. Pierce, Eisenhower, Monroe, and Washington are within reach. Or you can spend days exploring the forest without seeing another soul, even if it sounds like you're being chased by a well-armed militia.
To access the 9.6-mile Dry River Trail, head north from Bartlett (about 4 hours north of Boston) on NH 302 and drive 9 miles. Experienced winter hikers might consider a rugged 16.6-mile trip that climbs to Lake of the Clouds via the sky-high Crawford Path and returns along the Dry River Trail.
January through February, during the wee hours of the night.
White Mountain Guide, 26th ed., by Gene Daniell and Jon Burroughs (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 800-262-4455; www.outdoors.org; $21.95).
Ammonoosuc Ranger District, White Mountain National Forest, (603) 869-2626.