LIVERMORE, N.H. — Midway into the popular 1.5-mile trek to Arethusa Falls sits a flat, rocky patch where hikers can catch their breath without bottlenecking the trail. It was there one Thursday in early October that Dennis and Maria Doulos chuckled about their newfangled adventures into the wild. The couple lives a mere 10 feet above sea level in a neighborhood near Long Island’s Oyster Bay.
“And we typically enjoy going right down to sea level rather than farther away from it,” Dennis joked of their usual hike to the beach. But the pandemic forced the cancellation of a planned cruise in Europe this summer, so they rerouted to the New Hampshire wilderness. Today they were hiking — uphill this time — along the popular Bemis Brook Trail, which rises roughly 800 feet before spitting out at the base of New Hampshire’s tallest (or second-tallest, rainfall pending) waterfall.
License plates from Missouri to Massachusetts to Maine fill the trailhead along the stretch of Route 302 that parallels the Saco River. For city dwellers, the White Mountains offer a rare opportunity to explore, and even socialize, sans mask. Officials with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department say fishing and hunting license sales were up nearly 50 percent over the summer — and phones are ringing steadily through the night with calls for help.
“We have seen more people coming up to recreate than in any year past,” said New Hampshire Fish and Game Department Chief Colonel Kevin Jordan, who oversees the log of calls for search and rescue missions. “We credit that to the pandemic. We’re the only safe game in town.”
But with a rise in attendance has come a rise in accidents. Rescue missions involving Black Hawk helicopters and twilight search parties occurred throughout the summer and continued last weekend as teams scrambled to rescue three injured hikers. In recent weeks, the White Mountains made national headlines when three men died in six days on its trails. Jordan labeled a Sept. 20 incident a tragic fluke accident — a rock “the size of a refrigerator” dislodged above a 34-year-old climber from Somerville and severed his climbing rope. Four days later, a 68-year-old from Woburn fell to his death after his improvised harness — a combination of a leather belt and a kayak strap — snapped 55 feet from the base of the mountain.
In the third deadly accident, a hiker fell from atop the Arethusa Falls. The man ran ahead of his hiking group around sunset and was discovered at the base of the falls when the rest of the party arrived. Like most of the White Mountains, the falls lacks cell service, so the group ran to a nearby home to alert emergency crews.
Few of those basking in the October afternoon sun and the rumble of rolling water on the afternoon when the Oyster Bay couple was there were aware of the tragedy that unfolded there just five days earlier. Four hikers tackled the bootleg trail to the top of the falls and posed with only their silhouettes visible above the glistening riverbed. Other groups scrambled up slippery rocks toward the base of the falls, taking pictures in the mist.
Some were tentative newcomers to the great outdoors, wearing sandals and hoop earrings or clutching hiking sticks plucked from the side of the trail. A long-haul truck driver admitted to searching “easy pretty White Mountain hikes” on Google before settling on Arethusa. George Fisher, a chef and part-time drummer, opted for jeans and a tee on his first scramble to the falls. He drove his camper to the mountains for an impromptu foliage trip while on furlough from his gig at the Atlantic City Convention Center.
Others were longtime lovers of the outdoors prompted yet again to embrace its offerings during the shutdown. Kenneth Baldwin and his partner, Lorna Henley, of Lyman, Maine, wanted to take a cruise around Alaska but axed the plan amid the early coronavirus chaos. Instead, they purchased an RV — one of the last left in the dealer’s lot — which they aim to drive to Alaska next spring.
“Being outdoors is about the only thing we can do without a mask these days,” said Henley.
In the wake of the recent hiking tragedies, it’s hard not to envision the ways an idyllic expedition into nature can spiral into a nightmare, but Jordan of the fish and game department emphasized that a little preparation goes a long way.
“If we could get everybody to carry a flashlight, that’d be half the battle,” he said. “They’ll tell us, ‘I didn’t bring a light because I didn’t plan on being up there that late,’ and then they lose track of time or just want to watch the sunset.”
Lieutenant James Kneeland recalled being woken up at 2 a.m. to answer a call about hikers in need of a trail map, which he then provided by text message. The help lines “have never been so busy” as this past summer, he said. Search and rescue teams — typically made up of 15 to 20 people — have been deployed multiple times a week. They hike out to the injured in often dark conditions then carry them miles back on a stretcher via narrow trails. Last Saturday, teams rescued two unrelated men from Georgia and New Jersey who had injured themselves while traversing trails within the mountain range. The next day, another team rescued a woman from Rhode Island.
But Kneeland noted that many times the hikers who call have not been injured, but rather lack many of the essentials — warm layers, water, compass, map, and flashlight — needed to continue or descend safely in darker and colder conditions. Such miscalculations only worsen in the prime leaf-peeping months of October and November, when erratic weather and steep temperature drops often catch even highly experienced hikers off-guard, as evidenced by back-to-back deaths atop Mount Katahdin in Maine last week.
Just before noon in early October, the Douloses popped out of the forest trail, completing the trek they had abandoned two days earlier when the setting afternoon sun obscured trail markers and caused them to turn back. They settled into a spot within the riverbed rocks at the base of the falls and peeled open two yogurts.
Dennis, who underwent open-heart surgery a year ago, admits he wishes it didn’t take a near-death experience and a global pandemic to get him to enjoy the outdoors. Maria, meanwhile, still wishes she were on a river cruise down the Danube.
“But New Hampshire and this view will do for now,” the New Yorker said with a wry smile.