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.
The mountain forest changes with it. As the trail grows steeper, mixed hardwoods give way to yellow birch, which in turn bows to conifers. Between changes you start to hear the sound of your own breathing as you and your stout walking stick pull each other up to the summit.
It's well worth the effort. While there are no views on Bald Mountain which compare to those from Pisgah or Wheeler, an outcrop of granite at the summit supports an abandoned fire lookout. On a clear day the view from the top of the tower takes in the Presidential Range to the south, the northern White Mountains to the east, the Green Mountains to the west and the mountains of Quebec to the north. It also overlooks lakes Seymour, Memphremagog and, of course, Willoughby.
Haystack Mountain offers the shortest and prettiest climb among the Willoughby peaks. Ferns and mosses peek out from under massive boulders. Red-leaved hobblebush grows abundantly. The sunk winks down at you through birch and ash.
Near the top is South Lookout. It looks out on military history. Straight ahead, just beyond Newark Pond, sits East Mountain, the one with the tower on its summit.
In the late 1950s East Mountain was part of a radar network built to pick up Soviet jets as they flew by. On the shoulder of the mountain a town of modest size was established, and a first-class highway was built to the town and the radar station on its summit.
But no MiG-15's ever made it to Vermont, and the radar station was abandoned. Today, both radar and town are gone, and the highway is reverting to forest, slowly closing a little-known chapter in Vermont's largely unsuccessful history of defense installation. (The history got off on the wrong foot in the 18th century when Congress ordered the construction of the Bayley-Hazen Military Road. It was to be used to launch an attack on the British forces in Canada. Unfortunately, Congress forgot that roads run both ways. The British simply waited until the Bayley-Hazen was complete, then scurried down it and attacked the Yanks.)
Meanwhile, back on Haystack, the next fork in the trail leads to East Lookout, which looks up to Bald Mountain. The patches of dead trees on the west face of Bald are likely examples of the effect of acid rain on red spruce.
Continue along the trail and you'll reach North Lookout, one of the best water views in Vermont. Immediately below is Long Pond with its almost circular island close to the near shore.
The next body of water is Nigger Pond. We'd better talk about that.
The pond gets its name from the nigger, a hooked logging tool like a peavey. One of these tools was found on the shore, giving the pond its name.
But you wouldn't know that unless you lived nearby. And, not knowing, you might well be affronted by the name. I know the derivation, and I'm still affronted. So I cast one vote for changing the name of this nice little body of water to Peavey Pond. (The Board of Geographic Names, Vermont's official body for naming geographic landmarks, has tried to rename the pond, but the landowner has refused. The new U.S. Geologic Survey topographic maps, printed in the late '80s, have left it unnamed.)
Beyond the pond, the north end of Lake Willoughby sparkles in the sunshine. On the horizon sit Jay Peak and the range leading north to Owl's Head in Canada. On a clear day you can see them all.
If you go . . .
Willoughby Lake is on Route 5A in Westmore, in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. It's about 80 miles east-northeast of Burlington International Airport and less than a half-hour from Interstate 92 off exits 24-26.
JTC Most trails are maintained by the Trail Committee of the Westmore Association, c/o Mrs. A. Poisson, RFD 1, Barton, Vt. 05822. An exception is the trail from Wheeler Pond to Mount Hor, which is the responsibility of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Free trail maps usually are available in the Westmore General Store.
Temperatures run from mid-90s in summer to minus 35 in winter. Prepare for frequent changes in any season, and don't come at all between April and Memorial Day. Hiking on trails still muddy from melting snow causes too much environmental damage.
Trails range from gentle ascents to precipitous winter ice climbs. In summer, all can be handled by hikers over the age of 12 with no equipment other than a walking stick.
Camping is permitted on state land; regulations are posted at the South Beach parking lot. Two private campgrounds, Will-O-Wood and White Caps, offer hot showers. The Appalachian Mountain Club maintains two huts at the foot of Wheeler Mountain; write Ken Query, Finney Hill, Lyndonville, Vt. 05851. The area also has rental cottages and a newly rebuilt -- and exquisite -- inn, the Willough Vale, for the big splurge dinner and delightful rooms.
Wildlife is abundant and runs from chipmunks to moose, from squirrels to black bears. The lakes are home to smelt, yellow perch, rainbow and brown trout and landlocked salmon.
Three good books on the region are locally available: "A Willoughby Lake Guide," by Norman Atwood; "The Essential Day Hiker's Guide to Vermont," published by the Green Mountain Club; and the interesting "Willoughby Lake Legends and Legacies," by Harriet F. Fisher. "The Essential Day Hiker's Guide" costs $7.50 at bookstores throughout the state and from the club at P.O. Box 889, Montpelier, Vt. 05602. "A Willoughby Lake Guide" costs $12.50, plus $1.50 postage, and can be ordered from the Orleans County Historical Society, Brownington, Vt. 05860.