Tunnel Brook Ravine

For nearly thirty years I’ve wanted to climb Moosilauke via Tunnel Brook Ravine, a classic bushwhacking route through a deep ravine on the west side of the mountain. I have fond memories of a solo bushwhack up Gorge Brook, past Last Water and the Pleiades, following the brook until it petered out and I was crashing through krummholz. As I sat on the summit, surprisingly alone on a sunny summer weekend afternoon, I watched with curiosity as a single hiker strode up the west slope of the summit cone, crossing the fragile alpine vegetation as if he was unaware of any trail.  It turned out to be my Dartmouth classmate Alex, who had just bushwhacked up Tunnel Brook Ravine.

So last Sunday I set out with Lelia, another Dartmouth classmate, to try this legendary route.  As with any good legend, it is wise to talk first to chubbers who have gone before.  We are therefore grateful to the many tips we received from Bernie, Jack, and Eli, all with deep Moosilauke expertise.  It became quickly clear that we should go for Tunnel Brook Ravine, and not Little Tunnel Brook, considering how wet it has been recently.  Unfortunately, Tunnel Brook requires a longer approach, especially since 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene washed out Tunnel Brook Road; the road is now gated two miles short of the trailhead, adding a substantial roadwalk to our hike. (See this map of the area.)

Tunnel Brook Road washout
Tunnel Brook road is completely washed out, for several hundred meters.

Sure enough, shortly after we walked around the gate just before 9am Sunday morning, the road disappeared. Literally: the road is gone, completely washed away by Irene’s fury.  We walked several hundred meters alongside this new gully of boulders that was once Tunnel Brook Road, to the point where the brook had jumped its bank and taken over the road.  Certainly, this was not a good place to be during that storm.

The branch of Tunnel Brook exiting the ravine fans out into several boulder-filled streams, most of them dry.
The branch of Tunnel Brook exiting the ravine fans out into several boulder-filled streams, most of them dry.

Beyond this devastation, we strolled easily up the road, passing the Benton trailhead and arriving at the end of the road (such is the nature of a good friend and good conversation — the miles slip by quickly).  The Tunnel Trail begins here; time to study the map. It appeared that we would find the relevant branch of Tunnel Brook crossing the Tunnel Trail, soon, and Bernie assured us that we’d recognize Tunnel Brook Ravine simply by eyeing the topography.  Bernie must have visited in a different season! In summer we could not see beyond the trail itself, with all those pesky leaves on the hardwood trees.  Every little stream crossing became a potential candidate, involving further study of the map.  Finally, further than the map might imply, we encountered a set of large, dry, boulder fields that were clearly the outwash of a massive drainage. This branch of Tunnel Brook, it was clear, had indeed experienced a violent torrent of water in recent years, depositing boulders large and small.  It was time to leave the trail, and start rock-hopping our way up toward the ravine.

The largest waterfall on the brook, at least that we saw (we skipped the upper-most section of the brook). This picture is not crooked!

It has been wet this summer, so Tunnel Brook was healthy and strong, with many small waterfalls and pretty pools. I hopped up the streambed while Lelia sought a route through the trees alongside. With the sun peeking through on occasion, with the stream bubbling underfoot, and with an old friend in deep conversation, there was no better place to be on this summer morning.

Shortly after a tall, multi-level waterfall, we paused for a quiet lunch break at a sunny spot in the stream. The easy part was over, with a tough climb ahead.  Although we still could not see anything beyond our immediate surroundings, we could feel the ravine closing in around us.  As we progressed upward, we increasingly had to climb out of the streambed and navigate through the trees along the banks.

Collapsed cabin
We came across a collapsed cabin, with tin roof, and plank siding.

We were surprised, though, when we scrambled up the bank to find a faint trail heading parallel to the stream.  A deer path? Moose trail?  Herd path? Glancing upstream, I saw the remnants of a structure. Though now collapsed, it was clearly a cabin or shelter made of cedar planks and with a tarpaper and tin roof.  (Later, we were told this was likely a DOC cabin from the 1930s, and confirmed that possibility with a study of the maps in Hooke’s Book, although this cabin seems farther into the ravine that those maps imply.) Others had visited recently, we knew, because next to the cabin was the massive skull of a moose, tied with a shoestring!

Streambed, obliterated by slide
After scrambling over the mass of trees blocking the stream, we were awed to realize that we were at the base of a new slide, which was not even fully visible at this point.

Here began the most invigorating part of the climb.  Tunnel Brook soon split into streamlets, each draining a different corner of the ravine. At one point, we followed a southerly branch that was running bright orange, as if something upstream had disturbed the soil to enable the water to leach iron from the rock.  We hopped back north to the main branch and soon came to a point where the entire stream was blocked by a massive jumble of tree trunks.  I scrambled over these trees and gasped.  The entire streambed ahead of me had been obliterated.

Center section of slide
The brook heads up the bottom of the ravine to the left, and the main slide is on the steep slope of the south side of the ravine, at right. It’s still not all visible here.

Something big had barreled through here, carrying boulders and trees and anything else unfortunate enough to be here on that fateful day, erasing the forest down to bedrock. A smattering of new vegetation was taking hold among the boulders, young enough to point the finger at Irene 2011.  Though eye-popping, this sight was just the tip of the iceberg.  Climbing further, over trees scattered like matchsticks and scrambling up ancient rock laid bare by a tremendous torrent, we slowly became aware of the magnitude of this slide, which encompasses a hundred meters of brook and more up the side of the ravine.

Top section of slide
Part way up the slide, looking up; we still can’t see the top of the slide.

We were at a decision point… we could now see the top of this massive slide up on the right (south) flank of the ravine, but we could also see the main branch of the stream continuing calmly up through the center of the ravine.  The slide stretched up at a scary angle, with bare bedrock and unconsolidated boulders for a couple hundred meters toward the ridgeline.   In contrast, the streambed was intact but overgrown with vegetation. We opted for the open route, and climbed the slide.  The exposure made me nervous… a slip on rock that was wet or sprinkled with gravel could lead to a nasty fall down the slide to the bottom of the ravine.  But we made our way up carefully and reached the top of the slide, with impressive views back over the whole of Tunnel Brook Ravine.

in the krummholz
After reaching the top of the slide, we enter the dense krummholz forest at the ridgeline.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, we left the exposure of the slide and dived into the krummholz. Although there are a surprising number of birch trees here, for the most part we were climbing over, or crawling under, a dense interlocking forest of balsam fir.  At times we were crawling on a carpet of moss, unable to see the sky. At other times, we had to scramble through the branches, unable to see the ground.  It felt very remote; there is a good chance that we were the first humans to pass this particular point, and if we had become incapacitated here, nobody would ever find us.

emerging from krummholz
David emerges from the krummholz.

An hour of scrambling through this jungle led us to suddenly burst out onto the grassy summit cone. Munching on wild blueberries, and gingerly stepping on the fragile alpine vegetation, we made our way upward, soon joining the cairn-studded trail that traverses the ridge from South Peak toward the main summit.

Mere steps from reaching our goal, a voice cried “David Kotz!”  I wondered how I could be so quickly recognized after returning from the trackless wilderness to “civilization”.  Of course, one of the wonderful things about Moosilauke is the small-world syndrome — I hardly ever visit this mountain without stumbling across somebody I know.   I turned toward the voice to find Put, an older Dartmouth alum, surrounded by family, nestled into the foundations of the old summit camp.

Put and his admirers
A group of campers on a 6-day hike pause to thank Put for building the Gorge Brook trail.

Put was there with a dozen family members to celebrate his 82nd birthday and his granddaughter’s 36th birthday.  What a helpful coincidence, as he was able to tell us about the old Tunnel Ravine trail and the cabin (or shelter) that used to be there.  We were interrupted, however, by a couple of wide-eyed summer-camp girls who broke away from their group to approach Put. “Are you Mr. Put?” one asked.  Carefully, Put acknowledged that he was, indeed, Mr. Put.  “Gosh! We heard you built the trail up this mountain!  we are so grateful for the stone steps you built!”  They were thrilled to pose for a photo with this trail-building legend.

David and Lelia on the summit.
David and Lelia on the summit.

Somehow hikes never seem to end at the summit of the mountain.  After pouring out that much energy to climb the mountain, it seems only fair for the hike to end there!  Ah well.  After a nice rest and a few minutes flying my traditional kite, we gathered ourselves together and headed down the Benton trail.   Craning our necks and peering through the trees, we finally caught a glimpse of the new slide off to the left.  It’s not possible, without a pretty good bushwhack, to get a full look at this slide. Indeed, I’m not sure there is any place on land where one can easily see this slide, though on later inspection it is possible to see it on Google Maps and Google Earth.  My colleague from Earth Sciences roughly measured the slide, online, and tells me that it probably included about 10,000 cubic meters of material.  Wow!

So, I finally had my chance to try this legendary route up Moosilauke, experienced the excitement of discovering an old cabin I never knew existed and a new slide that I expect few people have yet seen, and enjoyed a wonderful summer day with a dear old friend.  Many thanks to Lelia for joining me, to Put for helping us understand the history, to all our wise friends for their tips, and to Moosilauke for bringing us all together.

For a better view of the photos, and more photos, visit the gallery.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

6 thoughts on “Tunnel Brook Ravine”

  1. Fantastic hike and adventure. Exciting to hear about your discovery (and fine pictures) of a fresh debris avalanche caused by Hurricane Irene a couple years ago. Brings back memories of numerous slide track climbs – often rather slippery, but always exhilarating – over twenty years ago for my honours thesis (and for fun). Like banjoman, I dreamt of skiing them; it has been done before. At least this slide was quite remote, not like the one that killed the Willey family in Crawford Notch (see Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “Ambitious guest”).

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