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Thread: Highwater Trail - A rescue waiting to happen

  1. #1
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    Highwater Trail - A rescue waiting to happen

    My redlining friend made a unusual suggestion for a hike on Friday, usually her list tends to be out on the fringes of the WMNF, obscure routes that are mostly trod by the feet of other folks chasing the last percentages of the redline spreadsheet or a strung together long route of multiple obscure trails that total up to a long day given the potential obscure/non maintained aspect. This time it was the Highwater Trail in the Wild River area, the new main trunk route for exiting the West side of the Wild River Wilderness since the Moriah Brook Bridge was removed. For those who want a “trail report” they may want to skip down several paragraphs as this definitely has a rant to begin with.

    One of the fundamental issues inherent with a trail report is there actually has to be a trail to begin with. In the case of the Highwater Trail there was a trail in the past, there is present signage indicating that it exists and maps and guidebooks used by the general public for planning indicate that is exists but the reality is there are many sections that are totally missing, washed down the river with numerous sections that are right on the edge of non-existence as there is serious undermining.

    The Maine side of the WMNF has had its share of now obscure/unmaintained routes. I expect usage is far lower as its long drive from the population center of Mass and southern NH. There just is no good way to get to this area that doesn’t involve rural roads and many folks regard it as too far for a day hike. The big bonus of the area is two Wilderness areas including the WMNF’s newest, the Wild River Wilderness area. The Wild River area is very much a younger sibling of the much older Great Gulf Wilderness to the west. Both areas had not been wilderness for a 150 years before designation and both had been logged with underlying road network and there was a well-developed trail network in place with lean-tos’ and tent sites and both were laid out to protect an entire drainage basin. The similarities do not end in that the trails line up with drainages and all lead to a main trunk routes that follow a river that eventually ends up at civilization. Both areas have potential for high spring snowpack and rapid response to high rain events. The actual rivers do differ in that the Peabody channel is quite a bit steeper than the Wild River channel which tends to be quite wide with a more meandering route that is subject to ice jams and debris dams. Crossing either river can be borderline impossible to very risky well into the summer and an unexpected rain event can very quickly cause them to be impassable even in late summer into the fall.

    One of the fundamental parts of the Wilderness act that tends to be forgotten by many is that a Wilderness area should be accessible to the public in order to be able to observe it. In the Wild River area given the likelihood of the river potentially dangerous to cross there has always been the Wild River trail on one side and the aptly named Highwater trail on the other side. At one point the two major trails on the west side of the area had bridges to access the Wild River trail, Spider Bridge that was removed 10 plus years ago prior to the wilderness designation and the Moriah Brook Suspension bridge (outside the new Wilderness boundary)that was removed two years ago. The rational regarding the Spider Bridge removal was that it was in a Wilderness area and not required for safety as there was the Moriah Brook Bridge just a few miles down the river. The Highwater trail was upgraded a bit down to Moriah Brook and this was the status quo until the Moriah Brook suspension bridge was deemed able to be removed due to the damage to the abutments after Hurricane Irene. Despite it being outside the wilderness boundary and reasonable accessible for construction equipment to access for repair and reconstruction the WMNF gave the excuse that the bridge was not needed as in high water the Highwater trail could be followed to a new conveniently located snow machine rated bridge 7 miles south along the river.

    Post Irene, the Dry River area and the main trail exiting it experienced severe damage and made it effectively impassable, in response the FS eventually made attempts to mark a bypass route to allow rough passage around the worst of the washouts despite it being totally in wilderness area under the guise of maintaining safe access. Unfortunately this has not been the case with what once was the Highwater Trail. Anyone expecting a trail for an escape route to get across the river is going to be seriously disappointed. Effectively the trail bed does not exist reliably from the former Moriah Brook Bridge crossing to approximately 2 miles past the Shelburne Trail intersection. Anyone attempting to follow it will quickly get dumped out over the undermined riverbank and stranded. There is zero attempt to mark bypasses around these spots and overflow from flooding events creates false trails that inevitably dead end. About the only option when heading out is go around the obstructed area and then bear right back to the river channel and hope the trail bed will be reencountered. The process will then be repeated numerous times where the trail bed drops over the edge into the river channel. In some areas the option is available to walk in down in the river bed as the bed is quite wide but inevitably river dynamics means the water “bankshots” from the other shore and the water comes right up against the eroding bank. Then it’s back in the woods to try to relocate the trail again.

    This approach of acquiring, losing and requiring what remains of the trail works until finally encountering a parallel side channel of the river. There was again no trace of the trail and the mouth of this side channel is littered with flood debris. There is a steady flow running down the side channel and traces of overflow channels alongside it so I convinced my somewhat skeptical companions that water does indeed flow downhill and it would at some time rejoin the main channel. Thus it was best to follow the shore of the side channel as otherwise we would effectively be on an island with an unknown crossing back to the main shore. The going was good with open woods with an occasion wet spot and entering brook to cross. We eventually rejoined the main channel and at that spot and my water flow assumption proved true the terrain rose up and we picked up the trail coming across from the island.

    Another area of particular confusion is the area near the intersection of the Shelburne Trail. The trail dumps out in wide stream channel and the point on the other side of the channel is not obvious. We spent a while looking and I eventually adopted the approach of if in doubt bear right. In a couple of minutes I picked up a long straight trail bed and my companions joined me. Since we were unsure if we were on the Wild River trail and should have encountered a trail junction we decided to head back until we hit the junction. It didn’t take long and we found the junction with a nice set of stone steps heading down to the channel. It is grown in quite bit and the crossing over to the other bank is not obvious. We soon were heading down the Wild River trail. No doubt someone could inadvertently pick up the Shelburne trail and go quite a distance before they realized they were on the wrong trail.

    Eventually a few miles before the Hasting Bridge, the trail transitions to an older logging road set back from the river a bit and the game of navigation ends with a pleasant woods walk. There are some very large whites pines interspersed in this area and I was surprised how they missed the loggers saw. I expect anyone heading into the Wild River area via this route would be lulled into complacency by this lower section but unfortunately I expect they are in for disappointment.
    My friends favorite saying is “everything is well and good until a bushwhack breaks out”, well a bushwhack broke out quickly on this hike. The FS does have a few cairns marking a ford across the river route at the old bridge site but it would be of little use at a significantly higher water level. There is large white pine crossing the channel downstream but I would not expect it to be there for long.

    IMHO the FS has really dropped the ball on this one and in the least has been negligent by not maintaining some semblance of a viable path through the wilderness section of the route as a means of high water escape. At a minimum there should be warning signs at both ends warning the hiking public that the trail is seriously compromised and that route finding skills and off trail travel is required.

    Despite the trail issues, this was a fun hike, all three of us don’t mind bushwhacking and with a bit of flexibility on route finding the woods are relatively open with not a lot of underbrush. There were occasional berry bushes and we were in no rush. The river bed is impressive and the damage along the river due to storm flows is impressive. Beyond the discussion on which way water flows we were in general agreement on a route and we made reasonable time. Of course it was a sunny day and we had the option of just fording the river and ending up on the Wild River road. I expect the experience would be different for a neophyte hiker in over their head with marginal to no land navigation skills on a rainy night in a thunderstorm/heavy rain event.
    Last edited by peakbagger; 08-10-2019 at 08:58 AM.

  2. #2
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    That's too bad that the river washed out the Highwater trail. My GF and I hiked it a couple years ago and was a favorite trail. We found where beavers were trying to dam up the river. We applauded their ambition but suggested to them to maybe start a bit farther upstream. I don't know if they took our advice or not.

  3. #3
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    It does appear that prior to Hurricane Irene and several other later weather events that it was pleasant walk along a well established banking with nice views out over the river. Sadly with a more energetic climate, I expect the best option is move the trail well inland from the shore as it exists today . Modern trail design generally advocates that trails be kept well away from water bodies as the trail and associated usage disturbs the wildlife. While sectioning the AT is was quite obvious that any newer relocations tend to follow this approach. Frequently the trail is far enough upslope that during the summer the water body can only be glimpsed occasionally through gaps in the canopy. Definitely disappointing on a hot day to be up in the woods instead of down near the shoreline. There are several areas in the eastern 100 mile wilderness that were built like this.

  4. #4
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    Does your friend consider the trail hiked for trail bagging purposes OR did you just leave a whole bunches of chads hanging out there?

  5. #5
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    Once upon a time, I found crossing the Cypress Brook on the Highwater Trail to be only slightly less scary than the trying to crossing the Wild River. So I wasn't a fan of the trail before it washed out.

  6. #6
    Senior Member DayTrip's Avatar
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    I finally got out there a couple of weeks ago for a day hike (Wild River, most of Moriah Brook and some sections of Highwater) and went back and camped a few days the following week with the wife at Wild River campground. Really enjoyed the area. I didn't do much of Highwater Trail but I definitely got a taste of the interruptions in the trail. Was following the trail West past Moriah Brook Trail junction when it abruptly ended at a few downed trees 20' above the river. I bushwhacked upstream a bit to a more manageable spot to get down on the river and retraced my steps, eventually finding the trail on the far bank. Certainly fun in low water but it would certainly be a nightmare in Spring or rainy weather.

    The massive size of the rivers definitely makes it harder than usual to regain the trail. I actually found it quite enjoyable with the low water levels to just follow the stream bed. The massive scale of the river was very cool. Was very comfortable walking and only had to make an occasional rock hop to cross to the proper side to continue. Reminded me of sections of the Rocky Branch Trail leaving from Jericho road, although on a smaller scale. The sections of Wild River trail and Highwater Trail that cruise high atop the banks right on the river are awesome. I could walk stuff like that for miles. I plan to go back and take Highwater Trail from Rte 113 one of these days. Nice, fun hike on a hot weekend.
    NH 48 4k: 48/48; NH W48k: 48/48; ME 4k: 2/14; VT 4k: 1/5; ADK 46: 6/46; Cat 3.5k 10/35

  7. #7
    Senior Member DayTrip's Avatar
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    I was able to get back out to this area this past SUN and do a loop up Wild River Trail to Black Angel, took the Highwater Trail down to the Shelburne junction, and cut over to the road to complete the loop. I had this post on my mind while walking on Highwater Trail. It appears there has been a lot of work done to reroute some areas, many blow downs had been freshly cut, etc.
    > The crossing of Moriah Brook had a reroute chopped out of the woods to a nice sandy bank with some pink flagging and a small cairn in the sand. It was immediately obvious from the West bank.
    > Past the old bridge crossing near the campground it looks like many reroutes happened but they were rather odd. They appeared to just brush through areas in straight lines that didn't necessarily "fit" the terrain and they really had no foot bed yet so if you didn't see the cut branches jutting out of the undergrowth it didn't look much different than the forest floor. A few of the odd steep areas had some switchbacks on fairly fresh looking soil but there was one really awkward section of up and down on really narrow side sloping terrain that was highly undesirable and sketchy. There was also a spot that had some pink flags which I followed which proved not to be the trail so I guess maybe it was a reroute for the future. After zig-zagging up and down the bank I picked up the foot bed on the other side of some washed up trees so I assume the trail was under them.
    > The junction of the Shelburne and Highwater Trails might be the most confusing section of trail I have ever seen that actually had signs. Approaching from the West there is a tree with a double yellow blaze vertically above each other, which based on my experience means an intersection is coming. Right past this tree though were numerous downed trees that appeared to be blocking the route. I noticed a set of rock steps going down to a rocky creek bed so I followed that out to the river where I found an arrow sign facing upstream. So I headed upstream a bit to a sandy bank that looked like trail but once I got in there it was open, sand covered woods and nothing I deemed to be trail. At that point I took my GPS out and it indicated I was North of the junction so I back tracked to the arrow sign and saw nothing so I went back to the double blazed tree. I could make out nothing so again returned to stream. Downstream I spotted some yellow and pink flagging on the other side of some washed down trees so I crossed and spotted a yellow arrow and more flagging which led me back upstream where eventually obvious trail emerged and I came to the junctions of the trails, at which point I realized I had to turn around and recross the rivers again to go in the opposite direction. After several more confusing arrows I was back on trail. What a confusing mess that area is indeed. My GPS track in that area was pretty amusing.

    Still enjoy that area but a little TLC in some areas would definitely help out. Eventually I'll do that last section from Rte 113 to Shelburne...but maybe not for a bit.
    NH 48 4k: 48/48; NH W48k: 48/48; ME 4k: 2/14; VT 4k: 1/5; ADK 46: 6/46; Cat 3.5k 10/35

  8. #8
    Senior Member skiguy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DayTrip View Post
    I was able to get back out to this area this past SUN and do a loop up Wild River Trail to Black Angel, took the Highwater Trail down to the Shelburne junction, and cut over to the road to complete the loop. I had this post on my mind while walking on Highwater Trail. It appears there has been a lot of work done to reroute some areas, many blow downs had been freshly cut, etc.
    > The crossing of Moriah Brook had a reroute chopped out of the woods to a nice sandy bank with some pink flagging and a small cairn in the sand. It was immediately obvious from the West bank.
    > Past the old bridge crossing near the campground it looks like many reroutes happened but they were rather odd. They appeared to just brush through areas in straight lines that didn't necessarily "fit" the terrain and they really had no foot bed yet so if you didn't see the cut branches jutting out of the undergrowth it didn't look much different than the forest floor. A few of the odd steep areas had some switchbacks on fairly fresh looking soil but there was one really awkward section of up and down on really narrow side sloping terrain that was highly undesirable and sketchy. There was also a spot that had some pink flags which I followed which proved not to be the trail so I guess maybe it was a reroute for the future. After zig-zagging up and down the bank I picked up the foot bed on the other side of some washed up trees so I assume the trail was under them.
    > The junction of the Shelburne and Highwater Trails might be the most confusing section of trail I have ever seen that actually had signs. Approaching from the West there is a tree with a double yellow blaze vertically above each other, which based on my experience means an intersection is coming. Right past this tree though were numerous downed trees that appeared to be blocking the route. I noticed a set of rock steps going down to a rocky creek bed so I followed that out to the river where I found an arrow sign facing upstream. So I headed upstream a bit to a sandy bank that looked like trail but once I got in there it was open, sand covered woods and nothing I deemed to be trail. At that point I took my GPS out and it indicated I was North of the junction so I back tracked to the arrow sign and saw nothing so I went back to the double blazed tree. I could make out nothing so again returned to stream. Downstream I spotted some yellow and pink flagging on the other side of some washed down trees so I crossed and spotted a yellow arrow and more flagging which led me back upstream where eventually obvious trail emerged and I came to the junctions of the trails, at which point I realized I had to turn around and recross the rivers again to go in the opposite direction. After several more confusing arrows I was back on trail. What a confusing mess that area is indeed. My GPS track in that area was pretty amusing.

    Still enjoy that area but a little TLC in some areas would definitely help out. Eventually I'll do that last section from Rte 113 to Shelburne...but maybe not for a bit.
    Thankyou for the update. I'll have to get the Map out and reread this thread to understand it all. Sounds like quite the convolution of trail markings. Good for you keeping it safe and figuring it out. Keeping a kool head especially when Solo is not always easy.
    "I'm getting up and going to work everyday and I am stoked. That does not suck!"__Shane McConkey

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    Junior Member Alex_NH's Avatar
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    The Highwater trail really should get a different name. I've "done" it a couple of times now and it is definitely intermittent bushwhacking. But at least I found it easy bushwhacking. When I see a 'Highwater' trail I assume it's an alternate route in the case of high water, but I don't see some sections of this as being any safer than that on the other side of the river. Without Guthook I would not have known where the trail was even supposed to be in certain spots. Wild River is still my fave, though.
    AT '18, NH48, NE61/67, Redlining 44ish% complete

  10. #10
    Senior Member DayTrip's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Alex_NH View Post
    The Highwater trail really should get a different name. I've "done" it a couple of times now and it is definitely intermittent bushwhacking. But at least I found it easy bushwhacking. When I see a 'Highwater' trail I assume it's an alternate route in the case of high water, but I don't see some sections of this as being any safer than that on the other side of the river. Without Guthook I would not have known where the trail was even supposed to be in certain spots. Wild River is still my fave, though.
    It is a pretty odd trail: nice flat stretches along the river, then irritating ups and downs clinging to the side of a hill, then more nice stretches along the river. You'd have to try pretty hard to get lost with the river right there but staying on the actual trail can be awkward in a few places. I found it generally improved over my last trip out there last year. Wild River is way better though. I need to do that middle section between the Rainbow Trail and the Black Angel Trail to say I've done the whole thing. Hoping to do that as an overnight though versus a day hike. That wilderness area is fantastic. I suspect you've probably already done it but if you haven't the Moriah Brook Trail is also pretty awesome. Lot of variety.
    NH 48 4k: 48/48; NH W48k: 48/48; ME 4k: 2/14; VT 4k: 1/5; ADK 46: 6/46; Cat 3.5k 10/35

  11. #11
    Senior Member DayTrip's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by skiguy View Post
    Thankyou for the update. I'll have to get the Map out and reread this thread to understand it all. Sounds like quite the convolution of trail markings. Good for you keeping it safe and figuring it out. Keeping a kool head especially when Solo is not always easy.
    It's a hard area to get lost in but finding the actual foot bed can be interesting. It reminded me of the lower section of the Mt Clinton trail before the big river crossing at the Dry River Trail. That last half mile or so, at least a few years back when I did it, was really hard to find descending from Mizpah Hut. Eventually I just got on the river bank and followed it because it was getting late/dark and I wanted to clear that crossing with some light left. One of these days I have to go back in there and redeem myself by finding it. To this day I think that was the most confused I've ever been trying to follow a trail.
    NH 48 4k: 48/48; NH W48k: 48/48; ME 4k: 2/14; VT 4k: 1/5; ADK 46: 6/46; Cat 3.5k 10/35

  12. #12
    Junior Member Alex_NH's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DayTrip View Post
    It is a pretty odd trail: nice flat stretches along the river, then irritating ups and downs clinging to the side of a hill, then more nice stretches along the river. You'd have to try pretty hard to get lost with the river right there but staying on the actual trail can be awkward in a few places. I found it generally improved over my last trip out there last year. Wild River is way better though. I need to do that middle section between the Rainbow Trail and the Black Angel Trail to say I've done the whole thing. Hoping to do that as an overnight though versus a day hike. That wilderness area is fantastic. I suspect you've probably already done it but if you haven't the Moriah Brook Trail is also pretty awesome. Lot of variety.
    Yes I have done Moriah Brook and it was great! Last season I did a short overnight up Stony Brook, C-M trail, Kenduskeag, Shelburne, Highwater, and Moriah Brook. It was my first time going over Shelburne-Moriah Mountain, by which I was pleasantly surprised by good views.

    That section of Wild River Trail between Black Angel and Rainbow wasn't too bad from what I remember. There were some of those ups and downs on the bank, but quite flat overall. I slept at Perkins Notch Tentsite, which I can definitely recommend. It's on top of a sort of rounded hill with plenty of room to camp and hang out. Lot's of evidence of moose on the tent pads. It was nice and quiet out there with my friend and I being the only ones there that night. There was some muddy sections of trail right around the tentsite and nearby pond. I need to get out there again and do Rainbow, Hall's Ledge, and Hutmen's Trails.
    AT '18, NH48, NE61/67, Redlining 44ish% complete

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