A Hike Up Rollstone Mountain

Editor’s Note: Rollstone Mountain was also the inspiration for a contra dance tune written by Ralph Page. It was recorded in 1975 by Rodney Miller (fiddle), Randy Miller (piano) and Peter O’Brien (harmonica), on one of the first local recordings of dance tunes: “Castles in the Air“. It was arranged for the Nelson Town Band to play in the town’s musical history, The Hotel Nelson, in 1997, and the band continues to include it in their repertoire. You can hear the original recording by clicking on the link below.

by Al Stoops

Three inches of fresh snow greeted us Nelsonites that morning, two days before Christmas. Our weekly Monday hike was on Friday this week, and we looked forward to exploring the extreme northeast corner of town. We hoped to check out some rumored trails around Rollstone Mountain, an intriguing area on USGS maps and Google-Earth satellite views. Rollstone Mountain and Holt Hill make up the uplands in the extreme northeast of Nelson. Strangely, the hill is higher than the mountain. Years ago Sue and I had followed a bobcat here, along logs and across walls, round feline tracks in powder.

Four of us carpooled from the village, skidding up slippery Old Stoddard Rd, barely squeezing by the Hayes wrecker parked mid-street on the straight uphill stretch of road past the town barns. The car on the flatbed was an indication of the driving conditions. So was the greasy road itself.

Two sections of Nelson’s town lines cross Rye Pond: a north-south section of the border abuts Antrim to the east. North of the east-west line sits Stoddard. It’s a wild area—most who drive NH 123 between Hancock village and South Stoddard spend less than a minute in Nelson, but a disproportionate percentage of the town’s moose collisions likely happen in those few rods. We parked on the shoulder and heading into the woods of Antrim.

Soon we were on the King’s Highway, here just a woodland trail between two parallel stone walls. In Nelson, this oldest of roads most likely is buried under 123. We could have followed it southeast into Hancock, where it becomes a town road, but instead we left it for another trail heading southwesterly. At a fork, we headed uphill to the right, thinking that was the main trail. We were wrong.

The trail disappeared on a slope of refrigerator-sized boulders. We clambered upslope, but soon decided to “follow the contour” south. We split up briefly when Kathy Schillemat and I headed uphill along a brook, while the other two, Niña Iselin and Kathy’s son-in-law Roland, chose the small ridge just past the brook. We soon rejoined on the ridge after the brook-walkers hit a tangle of downed trees, and we continued climbing.

This section was pure hardwood. Beech, maple, birch, but not a single conifer—pine, spruce, or fir— anywhere in sight. Soon we hit an actual trail—apparently an old logging road (and more currently a snowmobile trail, we soon discovered. It was also the left fork we should have followed, we later determined). This trail angled upslope to the right, northeasterly. Soon we saw conifers again—first spruce sprouts half buried in snow, then spruce saplings.

Up to now we had seen little fresh wildlife sign. Tracks of gray squirrels, mostly, and some snowed-over deer tracks. Now we found deer tracks among nibbled ends of evergreen wood ferns. Here the trail leveled—the main slope up west to our left, a rugged knoll rising on the right. It was an enchanting spot—Niña called it a fairyland. Between these slopes the trail passed through brushy pools and puddles, thinly frozen, around which we shunpiked.

A square of plywood nailed on a tree was a snowmobile trail sign. One arrow pointed down the trail we had just ascended. A side trail headed to “Mark’s Park”, whatever that might be. We went the other way, crossing a stone wall that likely is also the town line, thus returning to Nelson. The trail trended uphill. Soon we came upon fresh tracks of ruffed grouse stitching the snow and crossing the trail. We variously backtracked this “partridge” and followed the trail, until the trail headed steeply down where the bird tracks crossed again. The others returned to where we had first seen the tracks. I continued backtracking, and soon found where the tracks began. The bird had dragged its toes in the snow as it landed, then walked.

Meanwhile, the other hikers caught up with and spooked the grouse to flight. Fresh pile of droppings on a log, wingtips brushing the snow.

We continued uphill through mixed woods, towards where the grouse had flown. Saw no more sign of it, but where the slope steepened we found deer beds—melted patches in the snow. The tracks leaving them seemed very fresh.

It is fun to search for hairs in spots where wildlife have bedded. Usually you can find a few if you search. Deer and moose have hollow hairs, which likely provide better insulation than would solid hairs. It also means they kink if you bend them, like hollow garden hoses. We found and kinked a few.

When bushwacking in a group, you could walk in single file. Or you can spread out, improving the chance of somebody finding something interesting. Uphill from grouselaunch log, we were more scattered. I found red squirrel middens—little piles of spruce-cone scales where the little rodent had sat and snacked on spruce seeds, tearing apart the cones to get to the morsels—but only Roland saw the deer.

It appeared we were topping out. This could be the top of Rollstone Mountain, Holt Hill, or some other bump on the map. We were more into conifers—one section of open woods appeared to be pure spruce, contrasting to the earlier pure hardwoods. And here was the top—two or three car-sized boulders topped with an artistic stone cairn. Later we decided this was Rollstone’s peak. Through the woods and the fickle mist we picked out Nubanusit to the southeast.

Time to head back—one member of the party had promises to keep. To the east, we reckoned we would hit the King’s Highway, or maybe our old tracks. Within a few hundred yards or less we hit a stonewall running north-south.

I suspect it was the same wall we had crossed earlier to the north—the town line wall—and that if we followed it south we would get to where Kathy, Rick Church, and I had started a transect of Nelson a few weeks back. That wall is visible on Google-Earth’s satellite view, and makes a right turn where we had started our transect, heading west into Nelson. That excursion, on December 5, took us from the east edge of Nelson to Holt Farm Rd. We had bushwacked west from the town line, up over the shoulder of Holt Hill, skirted just north of White Swamp (the wetland north of Spoonwood), up an incredible steep slope of boxcar-sized boulders to a lookout spot on the north shoulder of Osgood (City) Hill, and on. (On a previous expedition, Kathy and I had named that spot “October Snow Rock”, for the day we first came there from the north. We had discovered it last summer on a hike up from Brickyard Brook and Kulish Ledges). Descending Holt Hill on December 5th, we had startled a black bear from a split red oak. We hope to return to that oak—there seemed to be a bear-sized hollow at the split, maybe 15 feet off the ground. Hollow trees have been used for denning. In November Kathy and I had found bear tracks in snow on a north shoulder of Osgood Hill.

Rollstone Mountain as an eagle might see it.

East from that stone wall on the probable town line, we slipped and slid down, grabbing saplings, our group spreading out to variously explore or avoid boulders, rock overhangs, logs and log-tangles, and finally gathered on a trail at the bottom. It was the same trail we had hit twice already. Near where we were now, it switchbacked up towards our earlier fairyland, but we followed it back to that left fork (where we had gone right), and our old tracks in the snow. Back to the King’s Highway and thence to the car.

I would like to know more about how the King’s Highway was laid out and constructed. It was a rough road through the wilderness, but here at the base of Rollstone, it passes through some bony land. Some boulders would have been a challenge to move. All this with oxen, horse, manpower, and what tools were then available? But if the Easter Islanders, in the remote Pacific, could move those much bigger monoliths without any animal power, these would not be impossible.

I have long thought that rebels in the American Revolution had dragged cannon from the captured Fort Ticonderoga to Boston along this road, and thus were able to drive out the British. I had heard this about Vermont’s old highway, the Crown Point Road, and I assumed that once they had hit the Connecticut River near Fort Number Four, they would naturally have continued on the King’s Highway through New Hampshire. But a little online research proved me wrong. Colonel Henry Knox, Continental Army, took a smoother and more southerly route through New York and Massachusetts, bringing 60 tons of cannon and other equipment to Boston in the winter of 1775-1776, in what was called “The Noble Train of Artillery”. Our King’s Highway awaits other adventures.

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