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Getting Lost With Waterfalls

The day started with heavy, gusty rain. The kind of rain that would be a nor’easter had it been snow. The kind of rain that makes you glad you’re indoors looking out a window at it. And paradoxically, the kind of rain I wanted to be outside fully alive in. There’s an edge to any storm, and this one was abating just enough to prompt me to pursue a micro adventure or two. I packed up my rain gear and a water bottle and headed out to visit waterfalls.

First stop was an hour from home, at Willard Brook State Park in Ashby, Massachusetts where the beautiful Trap Falls pour forever over granite ledge. This is a popular spot in the warmer months, but on a rainy Saturday in January I was the only one there. The falls were roaring from the rain, and easily heard from the small parking lot. A brief, shuffling walk on a few slippery spots and I was quickly at the falls, and thought it might be a trick. How could I have this all to myself on this day when the falls were screaming for attention? The answer lies in that moment when I looked out the window and decided I ought to go out in this weather, while the rest of the world thought that would be a crazy idea. Score one for the crazy folk.

Trap Falls

A few pictures and rock scrambles later, I headed back to the car and consulted the maps in Greg Parson’s excellent resource New England Waterfalls, which I’d picked up as a gift to myself while purchasing a gift for kindred spirits. Parson’s recommended a cluster of waterfalls just over the border in New Hampshire. I looked at two in particular as promising and plugged in their coordinates in my Waze app and headed off for more adventure.

Driving towards Milford, New Hampshire, I decided to focus on Lower Purgatory Falls as my first choice, and sought out the trailhead on Wilton Road. The trailhead displayed some icy conditions and I brought my micro spikes with me for this hike. I would soon be grateful for having them.

The walk from the road to the falls is roughly half a mile. Nothing too crazy, really, just an old logging road that carries you to a yellow-blazed trail. And like Trap Falls, you could hear Lower Purgatory Falls well before you got to them. The falls are named for Purgatory Brook, a beautiful stretch of water that was white water after all the rain. Cresting a small rise, I saw the falls ahead and worked my way down to see them.

And this is where the micro spikes were absolutely required. I was hiking solo in isolated conservation land on a day when nobody else thought it logical to be out there. A slip and fall would have been bad news. Micro spikes remain one of the best hiking investments I’ve ever made, and they offered a clear return on investment as I made my way down an ice covered hill with wet roots and rocks making up the better footing.

Lower Purgatory Falls is a triangle-shaped wonder set deep in the woods of the aptly named Purgatory Falls Conservation Area. After the heavy rains and melt-off the falls had a lot to say, and I lingered by them for a bit to tap into their energy. Again I wondered why I was the only fool out there on this day, but I’m grateful I never came to my senses and stayed home.

Lower Purgatory Falls

As I was leaving the car I took a picture of the trail map supplied in Parson’s book. It indicated I could hike upstream to see Middle and Upper Purgatory Falls. The trail seemed clearly blazed in yellow and tightly followed the brook. And so I made my way upstream seeking more adventure. I found it.

Hiking along the swollen brook, there were a couple of spots where it flooded over the trail, making for sketchy crossings. Not plummet into a frozen brook sketchy, for I’m not that crazy to attempt such things, more water deeper than your boot is tall sketchy. I made a few calculated crossings, trail blazed in a couple of spots, but always stayed safe and kept the yellow blazes in sight.

Mossy Erratics
Purgatory Brook, swollen with rainwater and melt-off

Eventually the trail dead-ended at a development with a port-o-potty announcing “progress”. I silently cursed the abrupt ending to the trail, looked around to see if I’d missed it diverting elsewhere, and doubled back towards Lower Purgatory Falls, crossing anew the sketchy water crossings I’d already attempted.

And here’s where it got interesting. I returned to the spot where I’d first seen the falls, looked left and right and saw yellow blazes going off in different directions. WTF.

“Make sure to return on the trail you came in on as there are several official and unofficial paths in the area. Look for the yellow blazes and the junctions you passed through on the way to the falls originally.” – Greg Parsons and Kate Watson, New England Waterfalls

Well, this is where I went wrong. I took the wrong yellow-blazed trail towards what I thought was a return to my car. After a few minutes of walking I was aware that I didn’t recognize any part of this trail. I doubled back and saw a logging road I’d ignored before and started following it until it dead-ended. Damn. And this is where you make choices deep in the woods. I could blaze my own trail through the woods with the compass on my cell phone, a picture from a book and Google maps as my guide, or I could double back once again and find the right trail. I’ve learned to trust my instincts in such situations, and not trust a phone battery. I doubled back.

Finding a junction in the trail, I saw the yellow blazes once again splitting off in two directions. Who the hell blazed this land?? I stuck with the more worn trail and followed it to a place where (surprise!) I’d been before. It seems I’d followed the yellow blazed loop back around onto itself. And this is why bringing a compass and a reliable waterproof map is essential. Having neither, I relied on my experience in similar situations and kept my head about me. Since I was back on a trail I recognized, I simply followed it back to the Lower Purgatory Falls. Once there I saw immediately where I’d gone wrong and followed the correct yellow-blazed trail back to the logging road and eventually to the trailhead. Phew!

This adventure started off as seeking a few waterfalls on a wet day. It became a small test in orienteering in unfamiliar woods on a wet, disorienting day without the proper equipment. And it ended with me deciding that two waterfalls were enough for one day. I thanked my wits and good fortune and headed home. The other waterfalls will have to wait… for now.

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