The Kinsmans: An Exciting Afternoon Featuring a Fearless Black Bear on the Trail
After hiking the Whites so frequently in the past few years, a lot of the hikes blend together in my mind and get lost in the shuffle. There are a few that stand out, and this hike up the Kinsmans will definitely be etched in my mind for years to come. There was really a little bit of everything from flat woodsy hiking to steep climbs, from panoramic mountain views to a sunset over the valley. We even found ourselves just a few feet from a full grown black bear on the trail, but I'll get into that a little later.
Usually a lot of thought and planning goes into a hike, but this one was a last minute decision. I reached out to my buddy Neal a few days before, and we decided on the Kinsmans because I had school in the morning and the Mt. Kinsman Trail parking lot is only about 10 minutes away. So after a full day of presentations, we set off on our hike around 2:30pm. When hiking 4,000 footers, I usually try to leave early in the morning to allow lots of time to get down before dark and have the rest of the day to relax afterwards. It's about 10 miles up and down Mt. Kinsman Tr, so I figured we'd be down way before dark with the sunset predicted around 8:00.
This was my first time hiking a 4K since the COVID quarantine started. My last 4Ks were actually North and South Kinsman via Mt. Kinsman Tr back in February! This was my third time summiting both mountains from Rt 116. It's been really difficult living Sugar Hill, NH with Franconia Ridge, Cannon, and the Kinsmans staring down at me from my backyard but not feeling like I'm able to hike them. With restrictions loosening and the AMC 4,000 footer committee recognizing peaks again, I felt that it was time to get back to playing in the big mountains.
Mt. Kinsman Trail started out relatively flat gradually climbing on an old logging road to Bald Peak before the real elevation gain started. It was just over two miles and we were greeted with some pretty nice views. From here we could see the summit of North Kinsman towering above us and the valley below. We continued on ascending the north side of North Kinsman. We had thought about hiking Fishin' Jimmy from the east through Lonesome Lake, but from what Neal said about that route Mt. Kinsman Tr seemed like a better option. I'm sure one day I'll go up that way, but starting so late in the afternoon it was nice to be on a familiar trail so close to home.
As we climbed it got steeper and steeper, but at no point was it super difficult. It was more like climbing an uneven staircase with a lot of calve raises added in for an extra burn. It wasn't long before we hit the intersection of Kinsman Ridge trail and were rewarded with our first peak at Cannon Mtn in the distance. Then the difficult part began, climbing the short but steep distance to North Kinsman. The slabby rocks were mostly dry and easy to maneuver but it seemed to take a long time to reach the summit! Every time we went around a corner we were so sure that we would see the large rock guarding the summit. Finally we made it and went to the rocky outcropping to take in the scenery.
This was my third time on top of North Kinsman, and although I had been staring at Mt. Lafayette every day for the past three months this was different. We could see the entirety of Franconia Ridge from Flume all the way over to Garfield Ridge. It was breathtaking, with the shades of green and gray from the granite summit stretching up above us. Even though we were already at almost 4,300 feet, Lafayette still towered above us. We could see Lonesome Lake down below as well, one of my favorite little hikes in the area.
After sitting up there taking it in for a few minutes, the swarms of black flies motivated us to keep moving over to South Kinsman. We dropped back down into the trees and made good time to our second summit of the day. I realized then that I had never had good views on the Kinsmans even though I had climbed them twice before. The first time was a foggy, rainy day in late August and last time we were socked in after a dusting of snow the night before.
When we reached the summit to my surprise it didn't feel all that familiar. I remembered an open ridge with tiny little trees instead of a wooded clearing. Neal had talked about a granite chair that was just a quarter mile further on Kinsman Ridge, and when we got there I had a feeling of deja vu. I could close my eyes and feel the blistering cold air rushing through my hair and the snow crunching beneath my feet. It looked so different in the humid, sunny breeze but it felt like yesterday that I was here with my big winter pack and snowshoes.
After taking some pictures on the rocky throne and swatting away the black flies while we had a snack we turned around and retreated the way we had come. The descent felt long as it started to get dark. We were equipped with gear to hike after nightfall, but I was hoping not to have to use it. As we got back to Bald Peak the sun was just about to set over the horizon. The black flies around us in the dusky air so I pranced around waving my arms to try to swat them away. I probably looked crazy dancing around in the rocks in front of the sunset.
I started to look forward to a nice meal when I got back as we descended. Neal and I chatted the whole way, which made time fly by. As we were about to come over a small hill a short distance from Bald Peak, I saw a large black figure emerge from in front of me. All of the sudden I was standing face to face with a full grown black bear approaching me. I backed up slowly as Neal started waving his poles and yelling. I started doing the same, my mind suddenly blank and my body shuttering with adrenaline.
"Go away bear, we don't want you here," we yelled hitting our trekking poles together above our heads. It kept approaching us, slower now, until it was just ten feet away. It was close enough for me to stare deep into its chocolate brown eyes. I could almost reach out to touch it. We made more and more of a ruckus but it wasn't phased just standing there in front of us on the trail. After a few seconds it started slowly making its way into the woods to our left, and we turned to start backing away down the trail. We thought it would just pass us by and it started to, but then it sniffed up into the air and I froze.
Peanut butter cups are some of my favorite snacks, but in that moment I was cursing them in the side of my pack. The bear again began to approach so we got louder and bigger to try to scare it off. Again it was unphased. Eventually it started to continue up the trail and away from us. My whole body was charged up from the adrenaline, but we took it slow. The worst thing you can do when you run into a bear is try to run away. It's like a dog chasing a squirrel and you seriously don't want to be the squirrel in that situation. I was going to try to take my phone out for a photo, but I was too occupied trying to scare the bear away to worry about that!
I always thought that bears weren't a concern in the Whites. We don't have big angry grizzlies, just cute blueberry loving black bears sauntering around the forest. I had always been told "they're more afraid of you than you are of them," but in this case I doubted it. Despite us making lots of noise and waving our trekking poles around the bear was not scared off. I assumed it would take off at first sight of us but instead it hung around much longer than I would have preferred. Luckily Neal was a very calming presence and knew just what to do. It's been years of hiking in the Whites and spending time in northern NH and that was my first true bear encounter. I've seen them in my backyard sitting on my screen porch or from the safety of my car, but never in such a vulnerable situation on the trail. We were in his back yard, and that was terrifying to me. Here are some tips from the AMC about what to do if you encounter a bear and how to prevent them when you're in the backcountry.
When we got back down to the parking lot I was both mentally and physically exhausted. It was a crazy day filled with gorgeous views, a sunset, a long tough hike, and an unexpected bear encounter. Neal taught me a lot on this hike, from how to take awesome hiking photos to how to handle myself when a bear pops up in front of me. He was a great companion and I don't know what I would have done without him for this one. I'd like to think I'm pretty good under pressure after working nights as an EMT in one of the most dangerous cities in Massachusetts, but as it turns out when it comes to wildlife I have lots of room for improvement. Looking back it was a really cool experience being able to get up close and personal with a black bear in the wild, but I have to say I don't really yearn for that opportunity to repeat itself anytime soon. Never a dull moment here in the mountains!
North Kinsman Mtn (4,293 ft) and South Kinsman Mtn (4,359 ft) via Mt. Kinsman Tr and Kinsman Ridge Tr [10.96 mi, 3953 ft, 6:02].
Photos courtesy of Neal Lyon @white_mountain_wanderers