If you drive 90 minutes north of Boston, you’ll reach an area that includes three traditional New England towns – Andover, Franklin and Northfield. In one day in this small area it’s easy to hike, mountain bike and raft – and then finish the day with a good meal.
The Northern Rail Trail
Between the towns of Boscawen and Lebanon on the railbed used by the Northern Railroad for over 100 years is 58 miles of multi-use trail that’s been in place since the rail line was abandoned in the 1990’s. Today it’s called the Northern Rail Trail and is used year-round by hikers, cyclists, snowshoers and cross-country skiers.
I got a taste of the trail beginning in the cute, historic village of Potter Place near Andover. It’s the site of the information kiosk and the main trailhead for Friends of the Northern Rail Trail. Right off the bat I was led by my host, Lindy Heim to the Secret Garden. Built with love and free labour all because of the vision of one man – Ken Reid, the garden sits in the cellar hole of a former farmhouse owned by Richard and Sally Potter. Back in the early 1800’s Richard was a ventriloquist and magician of some note. Their graves can be seen across from the train depot.
From the Secret Garden we wandered down the trail enjoying gorgeous stands of hardwood forest – with the occasional black fly to annoy us as the temperature climbed. Lindy pointed out a couple of things along the trail I would have seen but not understood their value.
Mountain Biking at Highland Mountain Bike Park
I’ve logged a lot of miles on a mountain bike BUT never a single mile on the type of mountain bike pictured below which are made for mountain bike parks. But I’m game for most everything and was happy to don a full helmet and knee pads to see what I could do.
First I had a chat with the founder of Highland Mountain Bike Park, Mark Hayes. After selling a high tech company before the stock meltdown, he had a vision to create the world’s only lift accessed mountain completely dedicated to mountain biking. Today the word is out and the park is a mecca for mountain bikers who come from all over New England and even further afield. Apart from an extensive trail network, the park boasts an indoor training facility and skill building areas. In summer Mark has expanded to include kid’s camps which he says “Have Become Very Popular.” His goal is to appeal to every type of mountain biker from newbie to elite. With the opportunity to take lessons and practice in a friendly environment, he has made the sport very approachable for all ages.
I started my adventure with a mountain biking lesson. On these bikes you rarely sit down – and it’s so hard to peddle in the sitting position you won’t want to, except when your legs are screaming at you. I had to practice keeping one finger over each brake all the time; and I was supposed to stay loose in the neutral position and keep my eyes focused ahead.
After it was decided that I wouldn’t be a liability to myself, we headed for the chairlifts. The views are fantastic especially as you climb about 700 vertical feet. At the top, large maps show all the trails ranging from beginner to double black. Needless to say I was on a beginner trail – the easiest one called Freedom Trail.
And guess what? Me – a middle-aged woman had a blast! I followed my guide down – and kept my eyes focused ahead which made a huge difference. It was about 3.5 miles long and by the end – actually well before the end, my legs were begging to have a break from their “neutral” position. But I did it and if I didn’t have to run off and raft I would have done another run or two.
The facility is truly fantastic. After biking you can sit back, take in the view of fellow bikers and enjoy beers, drinks and a meal. It’s a sweet place to visit.
Rafting the Winnipeasaukee River
If you’re looking for a supremely fun and thrilling rafting experience you can do in just 90 minutes, basically over a long lunch hour, the Winnipeausaukee River is it. I had the pleasure of rafting the river twice one afternoon with Outdoor New England.
After donning wetsuits in their store on the main street of Franklin, we had a five minute car ride to the launch site – the shortest ride ever to a put-in. Of course we were given the full safety spiel before getting into the raft and once in our guide made sure we understood his commands before heading out. Though this is the only urban rafting experience in all of New England it’s one that keeps you on your toes and delivers more thrills per mile than most.
The rafting starts off quietly enough with a few ripples but in short order our adrenaline surged as we hit Class II, III and IV rapids in quick succession. In fact over the approximate 1.5 miles we raft, there was hardly a moment of calm. We barely have time to notice the remains of mills and dams along the edge of the river before we’re commanded to paddle hard right or left or to back paddle NOW.
The last major rapid – Trestle Bridge (pictured below) is a tricky one because if you get knocked out of the raft – you need to get to shore quickly as the next obstacle downstream is a dam. Trust me that gets your attention.
One of the fellows in our boat was new to rafting and he couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. The same goes for me. I felt exhilarated and very much alive after both runs down the river. After the first run, when I emerged from the raft looking like a drowned rat, I had the pleasure of meeting Senator Jeanne Shaheen (previously Governor of New Hampshire). She was there along with Marty Parichand, the Founder of Outdoor New England to hear about a project “To Create A Sustainable Whitewater Park For Year Round Use On The River With The Goal Of Turning The Downtown Into A Vibrant Micro-Urban Centerpiece.” I wish Marty and the community lots of luck. Certainly my urban rafting experience – a first – was memorable.
Thank you to Visit New Hampshire for hosting my stay and to Lindy, Mark and Marty to taking the time to speak with me.
Telltales are structures with wires or rope hanging down (fourth photo down). Ed Hillier notes that “They Were Placed Some 100 Feet On Either Side Of An Overhead Bridge Or Other Low-Clearance Obstacle. They Warned Any Railroad Worker Who Was Standing On Top Of A Railroad Car That He Had Only A Few Seconds To Drop Down Or Be Swept Off The Car.”
The other interesting feature along this trail are the historic mileposts. Each of these granite posts are 8.5 feet long and weigh 1,400 pounds. Not only can you see the distance to Boston or White River Junction on each marker, but back in the day engineers could judge their train speed by the time it took to travel between mile markers. Today they serve as reference points just as they did when the railroad owned it and kept track of railroad properties like bridges, culverts and train stations.