From her couch of snows
In the Acroceraunian Mountains
From cloud and crag
With many a jag
With her rainbow locks
Streaming across the streams.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
Janelle stops mid-stride, digs in her hiking poles and takes a long, deep breath. “Yeah, we are so out of shape!” But she’s grinning, so I laugh.
We are half way up the Arethusa Falls Trail and have to fight through a mix of earthy snow and mud on the way to New Hampshire’s highest waterfall. The spring run-off from the mountains around us pours down into the valley creating little inlets and tiny, rushing streams that empty into the trail. Spring is working hard to break winter’s hold.
It’s been a while since Janelle and I set foot back in the Whites, but after the Boston events of last week, we needed badly to feel the mountains under our feet. At this time of year, going up into 4,000-footer territory would be a daunting task full of rotting snow and dirty ice. So, Arethusa got the call.
The trail swings us south over two wooden bridges, then turns west up a ridge thick with hard-pack snow before reaching a set of erosion stairs that leads us down for a quarter-mile into the valley where the falls roars. Through the trees, we can seeing Arethusa’s rushing water, the giant silver cascade breaking down over the remaining ice into a deep pool below. Janelle quickens her pace and I struggle to keep up.
We break out into a clearing, maybe 50 feet from the falls, and she just stops, breathing heavy, her neck craning upward toward the sky. It would be easy enough at that moment to talk over the rushing water, to fill her head with tales of White Mountain waterfalls and the story of Shelley’s Greek nymph Arethusa who is transformed into a fountain. But I keep quiet, and let whatever may be in her own imagination fill in the spaces around this wondrous sight.
Janelle stands there a long time, saying nothing. I begin to wonder if she’s afraid, or tired? Finally, I say, “Do you want to go down there, closer to the water?”
She doesn’t even acknowledge me, just starts to move, picking her way carefully over the wet, icy rocks. I follow and hold her hand as she crosses onto a snowy island in the middle of the Bemis Brook. She finds a fine rock, dead center of the brook, and sits facing the falls. I pull out some snacks, crouch down next to her and we eat lunch, the occasional spray from the falls drifting over toward us.
Half of the falls’ rock face is still coated in ice, and it simmers like hot diamonds in the sun. Spring melt roars over the top, 176 feet above. She finally says, “This falls is the tallest in New Hampshire?”
She nods, and after a while more hikers show up, including a couple young kids, and whatever reverie Janelle is in is broken. We back away from our perch to let others explore and take pictures, but she’s not ready to leave yet. She finds another rock, flat and warm, facing away from the falls and we finish our lunch there.
It’s an odd day, calm and humbling there under the Arethusa. We speak of small things – homework, approaching summer, sibling rivalries. The epic questions of life and love are best saved for a breathtaking summit. Here in the wind of a waterfall, with the ice-encrusted snow still clinging to the underside of our rock, we whittle the afternoon away lost in the mundane, fearful perhaps of larger thoughts being washed away by the great water at our backs.
Photo album: For our complete photo album of our hike to Arethusa Falls (and some smaller hikes the day before) link here: Arethusa Falls
If you go: We took the standard route, the Arethusa Falls Trail from Route 302 in the southern part of Crawford Notch. Trailhead and parking are on the west side of the road. Drive up the parking road to the tracks. The trailhead is just to the left of the house. The trail is moderate and gains about 900 feet of total elevation. At this time of year, the trail is also wet, muddy and still laced with rotting snow and some monorails.
Miles: Round trip is about 3 miles. (Caution: the Bemis Brook is very high right now and care should be taken on the rocks and snow islands around the falls.)