Biking and Hiking on the Wild Side

12-01-2003 // Amy Leinbach

FROM MY VIEWPOINT 50 feet up in the trees, the ground looked frighteningly far away. With one foot in front of the other, I moved across the tightrope cable, desperate to reach the platform. I grasped for the vertical ropes above my head--certain I would go tumbling at any second. But I didn't. Instead, I found myself zipping to the ground on a tether, completing my first high-ropes course--a challenging mix of swaying ladders and rounded balance beams with only a harness and rope for protection. It turned out to be only the first of several exciting moments I experienced last summer at the National Wildlife Federation's Family Summit in Bethel, Maine.

Bethel is situated near the New Hampshire border in southwest Maine, roughly 90 minutes from Portland. With a population of only 2,400 people, this tucked-away town boasts a potpourri of crystal-clear lakes and streams, blooming meadows and alpine mountains--the perfect place for a nature summit.

Being an adrenaline junkie, I filled my schedule primarily with outdoor adventures, but the jam-packed week of activities catered to all ages and abilities. From nature quilting to birding, horseback riding to geology and photography lectures, any of the hundreds of adults, teenagers and children from all over the country could find something to pique their interest and reconnect them to the natural world.

For me, that meant that once I conquered the high-ropes, it was time for mountain biking. The area around Bethel offers some of the most difficult terrain on the East Coast with climbs that make hills at home in northern Virginia look like bumps.

The 10-mile expedition swooped around the town via steep, gravelly service roads and narrow, rock-studded trails. At nearly 1,000 vertical feet, my legs and lungs screamed for relief. The views made it worthwhile.

After picking our way over small boulders, roots and the occasional stream, my companions and I stopped at a watering hole to dangle our toes in a clear, ice-cold pond, the confluence of small streams and gentle waterfalls trickling down from the top of the mountain.

The following day, the weather--perfect until the day I planned to kayak the Androscoggin River--turned cold and drizzly. Slipping into rain gear, I joined a group of 15 and braved a cutting headwind that made my arms ache after several paddle strokes.

Within 10 minutes of leaving we spotted a soaring bald eagle that guided us through the first leg of our 12-mile journey. This would have been a rare sighting decades ago, when a dead and polluted Androscoggin emitted poisonous sulfur fumes--rumored to turn white houses brown--as a result of toxic runoff from local paper mills and farms. But after years of valiant cleanup efforts by the government and local conservation groups, the river has returned to its near-original state--a beautiful waterway teeming with salmon, trout, herons, loons, beavers and moose.

My week ended with a challenging scramble up nearly 6,000 vertical feet in New Hampshire's neighboring White Mountains. Pushing hard to reach the summit of Mount Jefferson, where, in certain sections, a mere slip of a foot would have sent me tumbling, my companions and I soon crossed above the tree line and into the clouds. They swirled around us with wind blasts so cold I wished I had brought gloves and a hat--even though it was the middle of July. Occasionally, the clouds would break, revealing a sapphire-blue sky and shedding sunlight on lichen-covered rocks like a scene straight out of Lord of the Rings.

When we hit the top, I settled into a nook between rocks that sheltered me from the wind. I massaged sore legs with one hand and pulled out a snack with the other. Scanning panoramic views of rugged mountains and green-blanketed valleys with a newfound appreciation for the natural world, I thought to myself: Next year's summit in the Colorado Rockies couldn't come fast enough.

Amy Leinbach is the editorial associate of this magazine.

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