From my little red house in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, I look out over five peaks surrounding what appears to be a deep, flat valley floor.
The peaks are Pisgah, Hor, Wheeler, Bald and Haystack mountains. The valley they surround is Willoughby Lake, the most beautiful and mysterious lake in Vermont.
Willoughby's depth provides the mystery. Officially, it goes down 308 feet, but most locals suspect it's got deep pockets -- deep enough to hide rarely seen and very large creatures.
The surrounding peaks give Willoughby its beauty. Guarding the lake like ancient sentinels, they make this bit of postglacial New England landscape look like a Swiss postcard. What's more, they can be climbed; each of the five mountains has at least two well-marked trials snaking up to its summit.
Willoughby's best-known climber was Robert Frost, who spent the summer of 1909 camping with his family in a field near the shore. Frost was drawn by the prospect of botanizing in an area where peak and lowland sweep dramatically into one another. He was propelled by the (mistaken) belief that the lake was far enough north to allow him to escape his annual torment by hay fever.
Frost wrote a poem during his Willoughby summer. It's a long, sad piece told through the voice of a work-worn farm woman. She takes some pleasure in the lake, which she describes as:
. . . a fair, pretty sheet of water,
. . . so long and narrow,
Like a deep piece of some old running river
Cut short off at both ends. It lies five miles
Straightaway through the mountain notch . . .
That's a pretty good description of Willoughby. Carved out of granite by southbound glaciers, it's a 1,653-acre oblong pool of cold, clear water bounded by steep mountain slopes and near-vertical cliffs. Deciduous and coniferous trees line the mountainsides, along with blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. As a double bonus, Mount Hor is endowed with a richly varied fern population, and the rocky cliffs of Mount Pisgah provide a home to Arctic flora.
Fauna abide there as well. Deer, moose, even bear roam these mountains; in early morning their tracks and scat are clearly visible to hikers. In the course of three morning walks, I flushed a covey of partridge, sighted fresh moose tracks and smelled the musky scent of bear.
And now the air space above the lake is the scene of grateful, circling flight. In the last few years, peregrine falcons have returned to Mount Pisgah after being all but wiped out by DDT. They nest at North Lookout, just off the main trail to the summit, and their coming and going, mating and parenting, are carefully monitored by local ornithologists.
You can hike within yards of the birds, but if the "Trail Closed" sign is up because of nesting, of course proceed no further -- the falcon remains an endangered species.
Pisgah is best suited to people over the age of 10. Under-10s do climb it with their parents, but they rarely look like they're enjoying themselves. Neither do their parents.
Parents and children both enjoy Wheeler Mountain -- if they can find it. The best way to get there is to fill up the tank, ask the locals, and pray. Sooner or later, you'll either stumble across the mountain or starve to death.
Once there, just 100 feet beyond the trailhead, you'll hear a gurgling stream. If you explore the rocks on either side of the trail, you'll find the gurgle but not the stream -- it's a subterranean waterway. A bit of poking in the nearby bushes will uncover the point at which it disappears into the earth.
Halfway up the red-marked trail, you come to a steep and massive granite slope. This is not a climb to be taken on a rainy day or with smooth-soled shoes; wet granite is only slightly less slippery than Teflon. But on dry days, the rock slope is a kid's delight; it's the one thing your youngsters are guaranteed to remember about their Vermont vacation.
The trail continues up the rock face to a stone pedestal overlooking Wheeler Pond. It also overlooks a stand of dead trees on the next hillside, a probable sign that acid rain has struck even this remote spot. From your vantage point on the pedestal, you can see another sign of the times -- the reforestation of Vermont. Where farms once stood, woods now grow. The squared-off outline of a field going back to nature is clearly discernible.
Small cherry trees line the trail up Bald Mountain, and in the right season, delicious raspberries and blackberries fairly beg to be picked. Your appetite sated, you'll find other plants of interest. Near the parking lot grows a white-berried member of the buttercup family, the white baneberry.
Bald Mountain is good mountain-bike terrain. If you're on a bike, a point will come when you decide to lay it beside the trail and proceed on foot. What determines this point will be your feelings about muddy streams, fallen logs and sizable boulders in the trail. These are harbingers of things to come, for with little warning the trail changes from a gentle climb to a steep and challenging one.