A back country ski adventure in the Phen Basin Wilderness.
Yesterday was another magical day in the Phen Basin Wilderness Area in the Green Mountains of Vermont. I booted up the Hemlock Hill Trail for about 1/4 mile to where the disappearing spring snow was continuous enough to ski. It was a cold morning just after dawn in early April. The snow was hard and not very good climbing with just the climbing scales on my back country skis, so I used my climbing skins. The last time I skied this trail, it was later in the day and the softer snow provided for better grip and I did not use my skins, even where that terrain steepens in a few places along the route. The officially recognized and well-maintain trail ascends into the heart of the wilderness area for one mile, crossing an unnamed stream a little more that halfway. At the trail’s official terminus is another unnamed stream. The bridge that once crossed this stream had been removed in year 2000 to restrict access to the newly formed ecological protection zone established as a result of a major conservation effort in 1995. These significant streams are part of the headwaters of the Mill Brook.
Following the old logging road that shadows the stream, I ascended further up into the basin toward a saddle at the ridge of the Green Mountain chain. The flat area at the summit of the saddle is between an unnamed peak to the east and Molly Stark Mountain on the west. Once I left the main trail, the only tracks in the snow were natives. The Phen Basin is alive with a diversity of wildlife. A wing-like pattern in the snow revealed an owl strike of a rodent. Martens, voles, chipmunks and weasels reside below in the subnivean zone, leaving traces as they scurry across the surface from hole to hole. Mini middens surrounding a hole is further evidence. Bobcat, fox, fisher, roam above. I skied alert for a bear siting as reports are they are coming out of their winter slumber. I hardly ever see a bear in my many hikes in Vermont’s wilderness, but I know they have seen me. Their sign is evident in the claw marks left on the beach trees as they climb to feed on the nuts, a prime source of food. I am concerned about the health of these trees and the future of the bears that are becoming more habituated to dumpster diving. I wondered where the moose are all hiding.
Today, I reached the saddle in a leisurely couple of hours, stopping to refresh at my favorite spots along the way – Lunch Rock, a broad flat rock along the trail, and Sanctuary, a well-hidden streamside nook in the ledges just off the trail. The saddle is at 2730’ in elevation and 2.5 miles from the trailhead on Mill Brook Road, an elevation gain of 1400’. It is a moderate pitch for most of the way. The old logging skid road disappears at around 2 miles, so the final push is a steeper bushwhack.
After a short rest, I skied down the open woods on the north side of the saddle that descends toward Huntington. I had crossed into Chittenden County. I explored the vast area of open glade dominated by huge old growth yellow birch, paper birch and maple trees – Hall of Giants. The base snow was firm with a soft powder surface that had not been affected by the sun. Wide open, pure white spaces lured me further down the rolling, goldilocks slope. Not too steep, not too flat. I stopped frequently to gawk at the large grandfather trees looming overhead. I felt that I was in a dream, skiing the old man’s powder blanketing the ground between.
For every five minutes skiing downhill (about ½ mile and minus 300 feet elevation) equals 30+ minutes hiking back up so I did not venture far. After two laps it was time to have my lunch. I used my shovel and dug a seat into the snow using my skies as a bench. There I sat in the heart of the Vermont wilderness and enjoyed a hot mushroom soup, a roast beef sandwich, and a bottle of beer that a friend left me. I began to ponder my plans for the upcoming summer, thinking of the Giants that I met last summer, the Boston Crusaders. You may have read about my adventure volunteering with them in 2017 in my series of daily posts – I Ran Away with the Drum Corps.
After a peaceful rest while listening to some solo piano, I was ready for some more blissful shushing. The third lap down into the Hall was the most enjoyable, as I felt more at ease with my new-found skier paradise. I skied some nice lines that I had observed on the way up from the previous laps. Oh, how I wished I had some friends with me and a car spotted at the Bean Trail parking so that I could continue down into this broad glen. Being alone and not wanting to push my luck any further, I decided it was time to head back home. I still had the 2 ½ mile ski down the south side into the Phen Basin back to the car.
The intermittent sun that was now high in the April sky had softened the formerly crusty snow on the south side. Mother Nature also provided a nice light snowfall during my stay that added another 1/4 inch of butter by the time I descended back down to the Hemlock Hill Trail. It was far better skiing than I thought it would be when I came up in the morning. Timing is everything. I took a few tangents from the logging road with long traverses to explore the open glades in the basin. The consistent snow pack provided unlimited avenues for exploration in the open woods. However, the spring rivulets made for a unique obstacle course, requiring careful skill not to get my skis wet by searching out snow bridges or stepping carefully across the open rocky courses.
Returning to the well-maintained Hemlock Hill Trail, I felt like I was coming back to reality with each glide downhill. By the time I reach the point were I could hear the cars on Mill Brook Road again, I had processed the experience and formulated my plan for the rest of the day, certainly not as interesting. Visions of skiing the dreamy cream lingered. What a wonderful day I had just had in the Phen Basin Wilderness and my journey to the Hall of Giants. I wondered when I would return to ski it again, knowing that the ski season was waning. Alas, probably not until next fall.