Few things compare to summer day in New Hampshire. Skies tend to be blue, clouds tend to be pleasant and puffy, and the list of possible activities goes on and on. While crazy weather is not the norm in New Hampshire, every now and then we experience a bit of weather that includes the unexpected. These events become storied and fascinating pieces of New Hampshire history that are quite interesting to learn about during your stay.
Within the past several years, New Hampshire has experienced both a hurricane and a tornado. On July 24th of 2008, an EF2 tornado that originated in the small town of Deerfield NH cut a 50 mile track all the way to nearby Freedom NH, killing one and damaging about 200 homes. An exhibit on display at the Weather Discovery Center in North Conway has some great information about this event. And about one year ago, New Hampshire was dealt another astonishing hand from Weather Gods in the form of Hurricane Irene (who thankfully weakened to a tropical storm before reaching us).
Now that those events are in our past there is much reflection to do both in the way of reminiscing and in consideration of our preparedness. To start off, there are several interesting facts about Tropical Storm Irene; the first is that in 1826 on the very same day as Irene (August 28), the famous Willey Slide occurred. The legendary Willey Slide was triggered by one of the most unbelievable rain events in White Mountain history. After a remarkably dry stretch of weather that caused several inches of dehydrated soil, a torrent of rain hit the area that caused the Saco River to rise some 15-20 feet. This storm was so fierce that Mr. Samuel Willey, whose house was situated at the bottom of some precarious ledges in Crawford Notch, decided to evacuate his family and hired hands for fear that his home would be crushed by falling rocks or swept away by rising waters. As he and his family left the home and headed for shelter (presumably toward a cave that Mr. Willey had outfitted as a crude emergency shelter) they were tragically killed by the very kind of landslide that Mr. Willey was trying to avoid. In a twist of tragic irony, the landslide missed the Willey house entirely; parting like a scattered heard just a few hundred feet from his home and flattening everything on either side of the house.
Some of lessons learned from tragedies like the Willey slide ended up giving way to some other interesting facts about Irene. As it just so happens, August 28th was the first time that many locals can recall the USFS shutting down New Hampshire’s system of trials in its entirety (they did so in anticipation of Irene’s arrival). Nearly all travelers heeded this warning, but a few were did not; and were not so lucky. There is one story in particular that circulates here about an Appalachian Trail Thru hiker whose camp, belongings, and nearly every stitch of clothing was taken away by the deluge. Nearly naked and quite disheveled, this man who was lucky to have survived his stay on the hills that day staggered out of the woods, surely in search of some “trail magic”.
Before Irene made landfall that August night Cloudland Falls and Stairs Falls in Franconia Notch State Park were looking rather normal; tranquil, pristine, and overall quite nice. There are no known videos or photos from the actual day of the storm, since most photographers and travelers heeded the USFS orders, battened down the hatches, lit some candles, and enjoyed some primitive time as the power quickly cut out and remained out for days. Once the trails were reopened a few days later, the damage was evident and the overwhelming flow of the falls was documented.
In the days that followed, locals would learn of the destruction in places like Conway and Bartlett. The Kancamagus Highway and Route 302 were partially washed out. Sawyer River Road, which leads to a popular trailhead up Mount Carrigan, was nothing but a novel memory having been completely dismantled in a matter of hours. Hillmans Highway, a popular backcountry ski run on the southern side of Tuckerman Ravine, was re-carved thanks to a new and massive rockslide. New realities were in place, yet a yeoman’s effort of extensive repairs was underway literally as soon as the last drops of rain had hit the ground. Within a few weeks and in time for the busy Autumn Foliage season, most major roads and thruways were repaired. Clearly, and in true New England fashion, New Hampshire’s residents, workers, and officials were up to the task.
Unless you are a weather enthusiast, the idea of a tornado or a hurricane most likely doesn’t excite you. Alas, these events were far from the norm and it’s safe to say that blue skies, relaxation, and recreation are in your future for your visit here to New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley.