A not-so-solitary trek to Lake Solitude

Hike: New Hampshire's Mount Sunapee is in the midst of an area of natural beauty.

Destination: New Hampshire

September 10, 2000|By Victoria Shearer | Victoria Shearer,Special to the Sun

A crowd dressed to the nines swarms the platform, vying one by one for a position on the chairlift. I feel ridiculous in hiking boots, shorts and T-shirt. Three beauties in long gowns approach, and then I see the bride.

This unusual entourage, of which I am now a part, jockeys for safe seating on the lift leading to the 2,743-foot summit of New Hampshire's Mount Sunapee. The day is sunny and fine, sparkling with the last rays of summer.

The group is headed to the top to witness vows leading to marital bliss. I am seeking the path to solitude -- Lake Solitude, that is.

Mount Sunapee looms above the Sunapee region of the state, an area on the western border richly blessed by natural beauty. At its base lies a massive lake, also called Sunapee, an Indian name loosely translated as Goose Lake (the lake used to be seasonally filled with wild geese). Together, the mountain, lake and other regional attractions have drawn visitors for generations.

From the summit of Mount Sunapee, which is a part of the 2,893-acre Mount Sunapee State Park, I begin a mile trek, which will culminate with a bird's-eye view of Lake Solitude, a jewel secreted 400 feet below in the depths of the forest.

Armed with water and lunch, I follow the trail until I emerge at White Ledges. Enormous slabs of pastel granite carpet the precipice. I spread my meal and drink in the view.

The vista of Lake Solitude from the edge is dizzyingly spectacular. A sprinkling of crimson and gold foliage peeks out from the green forest below, heralding the leafy autumn extravaganza to come.

Retracing my steps to the lift (run by the Mount Sunapee Resort ski area inside the state park), I watch the newlyweds picturesquely framed by Mount Kearsarge and Mount Cardigan in the distance and Lake Sunapee below.

From the base of the mountain, I get into my car and drive to the shores of Lake Sunapee and the Fells Historic Site at the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge in Newbury.

The Fells is the former summer retreat of John Hay, private secretary to President Abraham Lincoln, assistant secretary of state to President Rutherford B. Hayes and secretary of state to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Built in 1891 on the shores of Lake Sunapee among 1,000 acres of wilderness, the Fells is a turn- of-the-last-century Colonial that has been home to three generations of the Hay family.

The rooms are unfurnished but well maintained and provide a glimpse into the opulence enjoyed by this historic family over the century. The home is surrounded with fabulous gardens, the enduring passions of John Hay's son, Clarence, and his wife, Alice Appleton Hay.

A 100-foot-long perennial border -- 1930s-style in pink, blue and white -- sets the scene for the rose terrace, originally planted by Alice in 1924. It was her pride and joy. A brook trickles from the rose terrace to a Japanese water lily pool in the Alpine garden, where Clarence planted more than 500 rare plants between 1929 and 1935. (Only the hardy remain today.) A series of three garden rooms surrounded by high stone walls are planted with shrubs, vines and flowers and are furnished with benches, fountains, pots and statuary.

The centerpiece of the wildlife refuge is the John Hay II Forest Ecology Trail. This mile-long walk, over easy, flat terrain, leads to the shores of Lake Sunapee.

Two virgin hemlocks, each 300 to 400 years old, dominate the shoreline. Ferns, mosses and wildflowers blanket the forest floor. The crystalline waters lap against the rock-lined banks, tempting me to abandon my shoes and clothes for a dip, but I resist, emerge from the forest and head west to Cornish (where the longest covered bridge in the United States connects with the town with its Vermont sister across the river, Windsor) to visit the homestead of another famous New Hampshirite.

Sculptor's respite

Calling Cornish home for much of his lifetime, Augustus Saint-Gaudens lived and worked here from 1885 until his death at age 59 in 1907. Now preserved as the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, the home, gardens, studios, galleries and woodlands of the Irish-born sculptor illuminate his amazing talents.

Born to a French father and Irish mother in Dublin, Ireland, Saint-Gaudens emigrated to the United States at age 6 months. By age 13 he apprenticed as a cameo cutter, also taking art classes at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. At 19 he studied in Paris, then went to Rome as a student of classical art and architecture. Here he met and married American Augusta Homer in 1877.

Saint-Gaudens received his first major public commission in 1876, a monument to Civil War Admiral David Farragut, which was unveiled in New York's Madison Square Park in 1881. His talent and his fame grew. One of his most well-known works, the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston Commons, depicts Shaw and the 54th regiment, the famed black Civil War unit immortalized in the movie "Glory."

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