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Mt. Major? Thank you, Mr. Phippen & Mr. Roberts!

The Laker - September 26, 2017

By Barbara Neville Wilson

(photo right): Mr. Phippen’s Hut offered hikers protection from the weather and winds, complete with woodstove and built-in bench. (Courtesy of Belknap Range Conservation Commission)

 It’s a beautiful day in the Lakes Region. The sun is warm, the sky is blue, the leaves have started to glow. You’re finished work, the chores are done, you have a few hours before the sun sets. What to do? How about a quick hike up Mount Major, a peak that offers magnificent views of Lake Winnipesaukee and the White Mountains to the north?

You take scenic Route 11 south out of Alton or north from Gilford and after wending along a wooded two-lane secondary road, you’re rewarded with broad open road and awe-striking views of Lake Winnipesaukee to the west. Tiny islands and tinier boats float atop the deep blue expanse of our state’s largest lake. Take a deep breath and pause to take in the views. This is why you’ve chosen to live in the Lakes Region. Or maybe it chose you. It seems that was the case for Mr. George F. Phippen in 1914, and Mr. Tom Roberts nearly a century later.

About four miles from Alton Bay—twice that from Gilford—the Mount Major parking lot appears on the east side of the road. Don’t be deterred if it’s full of cars. It is busy practically any time, especially in fall. The mountain has been a popular destination since the mid-1800s, and even more when George F. Phippen bought 75 acres of it for $125 in 1914, apparently expressly for the purpose of encouraging hikers to enjoy the beauty of the lake.

Little is published about Mr. Phippen. He may have owned a cottage at the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center Campground, and he was a year-round resident of Florida. For the purposes of your hike, though, you can probably just be grateful he had the foresight to buy the land for hikers’ use.

Wander over to the kiosk where the map of trails is posted. Although there are numerous trails—and reports of a friendly bushwhacker regularly building more—this map shows well-marked routes up to the summit. The Main Trail is an easy, fairly short trail marked by blue blazes. It follows the wide old Clough Farm road for a mile before veering off on a trail through the woods. It’s moderate for the most part, though it does require a bit of a rock scramble as it approaches the summit. A Mount Major fan who hikes it a few times a year confides that he may be a middle-aged guy with a paunch, but he can usually plan to make it to the Mount Major peak in an hour and 45 minutes.

If you’re looking for a challenge more in the Moderate range, you can choose the Brook Trail or the Boulder Loop. Both are named aptly and are less than two miles long—if you are in average shape, plan a roundtrip outing of about four hours. The Brook Trail follows the Main Trail along the Farm Road for a mile before veering off. It crosses the Minge Brook twice, and even with recent rains, the brook crossings are easy if you first look at your planned path strategically. Ascents can be steep at times, and it’s important to keep an eye out for the yellow blazes as several other trails cross the Brook Trail path.

The Boulder Loop, blazed orange, ascends from the north side of the parking lot, and is named for the final 100-yard boulder scramble at the summit. Before you get there, you will cross some loose rock and gravel and early on the trail, two sturdy wooden bridges. As you cross them, say a silent “thanks” to the trail keepers who so generously give their time and energy to building and maintaining trails across the state, and to Mr. David Roberts who essentially saved Mount Major from potential development in the early years of this century.

Like Mr. Phippen, Mr. Roberts fell in love with the mountain from long summers spent in the area. Having summered in West Alton as a child, and after a long career as a science teacher in Farmington and thousands of happy hours summiting the White Mountains peaks, he chose Mount Major and the Belknap Range as his retirement project. Mapping routes across the ridge, studying its history of quarry, logging and settlement first, he shared his findings and grew a new fan club of people interested in the mountains and their conservation. He went so far in the early 2000s as to buy the tract of land at the Mount Major trailhead with his own funds to keep it from development; eventually it was joined with three other tracts to create the 1,000-acre Belknap Range Land. The area is preserved in perpetuity for hiking, skiing, snowmobiling and other suitable outdoor activity.

Calling Roberts a “True Conservation Hero” in a 2015 blog post from the Forest Society, Brenda Charpentier reported that starting in 2013, the Society “worked with the Lakes Region Conservation Trust and the Belknap Range Conservation Coalition to raise funds to buy four private properties in the Belknap Range in order to conserve them and keep them open to the public. While the partners raised the money, Dave Roberts of Farmington…bought…the trailhead off the Mt. Major parking lot…in order to keep it off the open market until the funds could be raised. Long after the first three properties were purchased, legal red tape held up the piece that Roberts held.”

No matter which trail you choose, your intended goal is the summit of the 1,786-foot Mount Major with unparalleled views of the “Lake of shining waters,” a view treasured by thousands for hundreds of years. In his blog, “Outdoor Adventurers”, Steve Priest described his experience this way: “The granite laden summit overlooks beautiful Lake Winnipeasaukee {sic}. The view below to our right is Alton Bay with an across the lake view of the town of Wolfboro {sic}. We take in the breath-takings sights of some of the 258 islands on the lake and its 182 mile shoreline…we just get enough taste of the beauty of this gem of New Hampshire.”

After your first “ahhh” intake of breath and awed scan of the panoramic view, you’ll notice a rock enclosure clutching the tiptop of the mount. Built of giant granite blocks, it resembles a structure for human habitation, yet it lacks roof and full walls. As you walk around it, you see blocks of granite strewn on the ground. This, Dave Roberts’ research tells us, is the remains of Mr. Phippen’s Hut.

“It was intended to be a place where hikers could seek shelter from harsh weather, or perhaps spend the night in anticipation of viewing a spectacular dawn on the morrow. It was provided with a stone bench, a window to the south, and a door facing eastward. It was roofed over and contained a small wood stove to provide for the relative comfort of any persons who might wish to use it, as the door was left unlocked. Sometime during its first winter, the fierce winter winds that blow across this completely exposed summit proved to be too much for the roof and it was blown off, ending up well down the mountainside,” Roberts’ wrote.

In 1926, Mr. Phippen had another roof built for the hut, engineering it carefully to withstand the mountain’s winds, but it, too, blew off only two years later. “The new roof lasted for two winters before it too was blown down the mountainside by the spring of 1928. That roof has lain on a very rocky slope several hundred yards from here since that day, and considering its flight from the hut to that site and the fact that it has experienced over 70 years of harsh mountain weather, it is still in fairly good shape.”

The roof was never replaced but the hut withstood weather and hikes for decades “until one summer in the mid 1990’s, when some thoughtless soul(s) decided to entertain themselves by tearing many of the stone blocks off the walls, leaving them strewn in hapless piles at the base of the structure. On occasion, some folks more interested in restoration than destruction have tried to replace some of the blocks, but it would take rather heroic efforts to restore the hut to anything like its earlier state. The hut still serves, in a modest way, the role Mr. Phippen had envisaged for it, as it is used during the colder months (even throughout the winter) by a few hardy folks who continue to climb the mountain even during its worst moods.”

After savoring the view and enjoying the trip back in history, choose another blaze as your torch on the way back down the mountain. Return to lake level and every day life refreshed and renewed. You know now why Mount Major beckons. 

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