Thursday, December 20, 2007

Haze in the D.F.

My experience in Latin American cities is pretty limited, but on a superficial level, Mexico City, or the D.F. as the natives know it, fits the superficial stereotype. It is vibrant, crowded, seemingly unorganized but actually quite hierarchical, and highly polluted. At 7,000 feet, it lies in a mountain bowl, surrounded by some of the biggest peaks in North America.

I felt the altitude on my way up to the third floor of the Hotel Montecarlo, having carried with me a surplus of baggage for my return to the New England winter. On the streets, my breathing was fine, though Robert (a wonderful old college friend who visited me in Austin before I helped him kick off his month in Mexico) and I noticed a number of people wearing surgical masks over their mouths. Neither SARS nor bird flu was threatening Mexico City—these folks were simply worried about the particulates in the air.

On our first full day, we climbed the pyramids of Teotihuacán, enormous stone edifices built in the first century by the Olmecs. It was December 12, the anniversary of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance back in the 16th century, and the sound of firecrackers reverberated through the air. Though a sunny, relatively dry day, it was difficult to even see to the horizon. Indeed, I never really got a sense of the city’s massive scale because every vantage point, even from the plane, was compromised by smog.

When I checked my email and the headlines over the course of the week, there was plenty of news about the failure to agree on reducing CO2 emissions at the Bali conference. While C02 isn’t particularly responsible for impacting visibility, its source and the slow but sustained nature of its effects are quite similar to the compounds impacting visibility and health—nitrates, carbon monoxide, and ozone.

While the evidence of global warming and its causes are by now obvious, the lack of an immediate crisis such as panda bears dying or local, fatal cases of asthma makes policy solutions far more elusive. Congress just passed an energy bill raising car mileage standards significantly, but another mandate to produce 15% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 was stripped out because Republicans objected to raising taxes on energy companies to pay for the new investments. When, during a time of extraordinary profits for the oil and coal industries, Congress can’t muster the votes for what, in the grand scheme, is quite a small increase in renewable fuels, the situation appears hopeless.

Few people would be surprised by the amount of air pollution in Mexico City. But I’ve also seen disgusting levels in supposedly wild and pristine places this year. Up at Galehead, the smog floating in from the Ohio River Valley was so bad that we didn’t want to go outside sometimes for fear of the clear brown streaks in the sky. At Big Bend, as I’ve written about on this blog, despite being the most remote National Park in the lower 48, I could barely see the Rio Grande, only 15 miles away from the highest of the Chisos Mountains. The maquiladoras near Ciudad Juarez emit a stream of emissions that sails directly east into the park.

On my last full day in Mexico City, Robert and I took a bus up to the Paseo de Cortes, a mountain pass between two of the huge volcanoes east of the city. It is from this point, in 1519, that Cortes first beheld the city of Tenochtitlan, the marvelous Aztec capital. It was the Venice of the Americas, a series of islands grouped around a main temple complex, connected by canals and several long causeways to the mainland. Of course, less than fifty years after the Spanish conquest, the entire lake had been filled in to make room for the new Spanish city. Today, many of the older buildings tilt dangerously due to their shaky foundations on fill.

Needless to say, the city was invisible from our lofty vantage point, despite having gotten ourselves all the way up to 12,000 feet. On our way down, the sunset was magnificent—but such is the beauty of a hazy landscape at dusk.

PIctures: Robert and me on the Pyramid of the Sun, with the Pyramid of the Moon in the background, the view from the Pyramid of the Moon, a warning about volcanic eruptions, a tilting church in the Palacio Nacional, and sunset from the mountains to the east of the city.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

New grass fed rules

In mid October, the USDA released new rules for labeling grass-fed beef. The timing is indicative of the past decade’s remarkable surge of interest in healthy food. Fueled by increased access through stores such as Whole Foods and interest-generating books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dillemma, the organic business is now worth $17 billion and the Farm Bill is currently instigating, if not a raging debate, at least a buzz of interest. With its grass fed program, the USDA believes it is protecting consumers and aiding producers trying to distinguish themselves from the competition. But like the USDA’s rules on organic certification, the unveiling of the new guidelines was accompanied by a series of salvos from industry and advocacy groups. What exactly is grass fed beef, and what does the debate illuminate about the forces buffeting the industry?

Interest in grass fed beef has intensified as some medical studies have shown omega 3 fatty acids, which occur abundantly in grass but not grain, to reduce risk of heart disease. Some prefer the taste of grass fed beef, while others find it too tangy, leading many producers to “finish” the cattle with grain. This is supposed to improve taste, but it diminishes omega 3 fatty acids. Personally, I am unable to detect the difference—give me a fresh steak, and I will happily polish it off, whether grass or grain fed.

The USDA’s definition of grass fed beef is surprisingly straightforward. To meet the minimum standard for grass fed labeling, a producer must feed his cattle grass or forage for their entire lives, except for milk they consume before weaning. Grain is not allowed as a substitute. Finally, the animal is required to have access to pasture during the growing season.

Simplicity is appealing, and unlike the organic standards, which it developed over twelve years in response to a Congressional directive, the USDA issued them on its own initiative. Unlike the USDA’s rules on organic certification, red tape is essentially non-existent. But therein lies the problem—like so many of the Bush administration’s environmental and health initiatives, grass fed labeling certification is voluntary. A producer who labels his grain fed cattle grass fed faces no penalty. The only way to punish the liars is through consumer activism. Essentially, by shifting responsibility to consumers, the grass fed guidelines take the opposite approach from the organic rules, requiring producers to pay for certification.

Were most cattle producers trustworthy, that should not be great cause for alarm, but a parallel case within the dairy industry shows that many are not. Since 2002, two companies have dominated the dairy sector—Horizon Organics of Boulder, Colorado and Organic Valley of La Farge, Wisconsin. As their headquarters suggest, Organic Valley is much more decentralized—it is a cooperative, in fact—than Horizon, which is corporate. While Organic Valley relies on hundreds of small dairy farms, fulfilling the spirit of organic dairy rules, Horizon confines its cows to enormous feedlots. Its cynical interpretation of the USDA rule obliging “access to pasture” ensures that the only interaction its cows have with the elements is through a small open door. Of course the cows are reluctant to explore beyond the known confines of their pens.

Luckily, through consumer boycotts and an excellent marketing strategy, Organic Valley has held its own against Horizon. Nonetheless, the implications for grass fed beef are serious. Lacking a definition of access in the voluntary guidelines, feed lots will be the prime source of grass fed beef because forage can be brought to confined cattle. No doubt some responsible producers will allow their cattle to roam during the summer, but the big-retailers will favor the cheapest beef. The new USDA label enables corporate agriculture to subvert the public’s obvious desire for cattle that graze freely.

aIn fact, the new label characterizes grass fed so narrowly that it permits giving cows growth hormones and antibiotics. Such flaw is clearly designed for exploitation by feedlots. Without ways to bring cattle to maturity quickly at a minimum risk of disease, they would quickly become obsolete.

The American Grassfed Association (AGA), which has spearheaded criticism of the new guidelines, has announced that it will set up an alternate certification program incorporating standards on growth hormones, antibiotics, and pasture access. Hopefully, as the USDA forfeits its oversight responsibility, consumers will continue to demonstrate commitment to truly healthy cattle and beef by recognizing the more meaningful AGA grass fed label.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Dancehalls and longhorns

This Gruene (pronounced 'green') dancehall, built in 1878 and about an hour east of Austin, is the oldest in Texas. I've made a deal with another geography Masters student who's writing her thesis on how European ethnicity affected dancehall structure - she drives me out to ranches, and I'm company at a dance hall on the way back. Hoo-rah for honkytonk!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mountain and desert in Big Bend

Texas, at least to a northerner, is a surprisingly diverse state, both in landscape and people. An eight hour drive through hill country, limestone mesas, and desert will drive this home. The last piece of road, south from I-10 to the park entrance, appears insignificant on the map, but it turns out to be over a hundred miles.

To migrate through such a landscape must be terrifying. As we descended into the slightest of valleys, I thought of how desperate some must be for water, only to arrive at the dusty etchings of stream channels which only see water in floods. Average rainfall doesn’t matter down here; it all comes at once.

The Chisos Mountains, our destination, are in the center of the park, surrounded by desert on all sides, with the Rio Grande about 10 miles to the south. Given that one almost never hears about Texan mountains, they are surprisingly high and rugged, at 7500 feet in their highest point. Cliffs are everywhere. On the second day, we hiked Emory Peak, the tallest point, and walked out to the South Rim, a dramatic cliff escarpment stretching for several miles and dropping several thousand feet. The Rio Grande is a silver thread in the distance, shimmering all the more for the dusky air.

I was astounded by the park’s haze. Parts of West Texas are supposed to have the clearest air in the lower 48—UT has an enormous observatory by Fort Davis—but our views were just as polluted as those in the Whites. Big Bend is the most isolated National Park south of Alaska, but it might as well be in the megalopolis as far as I could see. Mexican factories are the culprits, but their goods are made for Americans.

Flora and fauna change as one ascends in the mountains, much to my relief. In fact, West Texas is known for its mountain “island ecosystems,” caused by the cold air and orographic precipitation. Several species of tree are peculiar to the Chisos, and the number and variety of birds of prey is astounding. Best of all, I got to wear pants in the evening.

We camped in the Chisos Basin, surrounded by the high peaks (the place names—Juniper Canyon, the Elephant Tusk, Laguna Meadow—are wonderfully evocative). There is only one outlet to this enormous bowl, which goes to show how dry it is. Water flows down through the Window, a dramatic gap in the basin walls, and spills over a 200-foot cliff to the desert below. I had to take the guidebook’s word for it, though, because the rock has been worn so smooth that it’s slick as marble.

Future trips will involve exploration of the broken desert country and canyons along the Rio Grande. I am also curious to read more about John Joel Glanton, the bloodthirsty soldier and outlaw of Cormac McCarthy’s book Blood Meridian, whose real-life savagery still appalls. The park’s human history is limited but fascinating—fertile ground for future posts.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Two days in the Chisos

The Sierra Quemada is an arid, tumbling range to the south of the high Chisos, where we were hiking. The Rio Grande and Mexico lie just beyond.

The Window is the only outlet from the Chisos Basin. A 200 foot waterfall lies past the edge, but I couldn't get close enough to see it because the rocks were too smooth.

My companions. Katie Sharar, on the left, and I traded our room at 1630 Dayton while abroad during junior year. Amber works at a homeless shelter in East Austin with Katie, while Yla is a PhD student in Psychology here at UT.

A rattler exploded a couple of feet ahead of Yla on the trail one day. Luckily it slithered off into the brush.

Sunset towards the Window. More on this trip when I've time.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The South needs cold air!

I'm now writing for a "green" travel site - is there such a thing? - called It's unpaid but hopefully something to pad my resume should I ever apply to Lonely Planet. My writing, I fear, will be rather trite. Here is the first example:

Shortly after President Bush took office, a small controversy erupted over his decision to water down Bill Clinton’s last minute executive order that new air conditioners would have to be 30% more efficient. Bush decided to decrease the rule to 20%.

At the time, I thought the news pretty ridiculous. What difference does 10% make?

That was before I moved to Texas. Down here, even though we’re more than a week into fall, temperatures get into the 90s daily. Breezes are minimal—and fans can only do so much to relieve the heat. Everywhere you go indoors, the air conditioners are blasting. Walking into buildings can be a bit disorienting, like getting a cold chill on a summer day. Sometimes I carry a long-sleeve shirt—to wear indoors.

In fact, traveling is when I find air conditioning to be most frustrating, because it is when I have the least control. The problem comes when I’m ready for bed. I like to feel the night air, but many hotels don’t have windows that open, since that would interfere with their air conditioning system.

All of which makes finding a green hotel the more important. A little attention to airflow reduces demand for electricity and makes sleep so much easier. I’d rather be camping—but if I’m in the city, I’ll take whatever feels most natural.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

What makes the huts huts

This post, part of an essay for my class Landscape, Meaning, and Society, concludes my series about the huts for the summer. I could go on easily, but now that I'm living in Austin, I'd prefer to focus on local issues.

Culturally, the huts are fascinating places. Despite only working together for several months during the summer or fall, the hut croos, individually and collectively, form as cohesive a group as I have ever been a part of. In addition to the shared experience of running a hut, croo come from remarkably similar backgrounds, assisting them in achieving a sense of place and community.

Applicants to the huts are largely self-selecting. Most hut croo are from rural New England, though there is a sizable contingent, including myself, which hails from the Boston area. In fact, this summer I knew of only one girl, from Kansas, who came from outside the northeast. This is unusual for an environmental job with free room and board—I have worked at several since graduating college and find that they often attract a remarkably dispersed group of workers. Many hut croo become acquainted with the huts during family summer vacations—families provide the bulk of our clientele, so prior exposure seems to be an important inducement for application.

Hut croo this summer, of whom there were about 50, were entirely white, and they tended to come from upper-middle class backgrounds. Pay is minimum wage or slightly higher. Outdoor sports, especially in the northeast, tend to attract mostly affluent whites from cities or rural whites. I can count the number of black and Hispanic adults I saw hiking this summer on one hand (though plenty of non-white children do arrive as part of the AMC’s outreach programs). Northern New England is ethnically homogenous—black and Hispanic minorities from coastal cities seem to favor (or are restricted financially to) urban pastimes. The one ethnic community that does take to the mountains is Asian, which has at times been reflected in the composition of the hut croos.

In sum, hut croo are often ethnically and socio-economically homogenous. This summer, they were all between the ages of 18 and 25, due to the demanding nature of the work (eleven days on, three days off, with intense activity around breakfast and dinner time, as well as two packdays a week, which involves carrying up to 70 pounds of “freshies”—fresh vegetables and “ham bombs”—frozen meat—up the trail). Hut croo are all either college graduates or in the midst of their studies, with typical colleges being small New England liberal arts schools such as Bates or Middlebury.

A peculiar phenomenon in the huts regards the shift in gender dominance. Until the late 60s, hut croo were all male. Women, it was thought, could not handle the physical aspects of the work. WWII and its shortage of male labor proved such attitudes wrong, however, and once women began to enter the huts, they thrived, despite the prevailing machismo of the day. Presently, there are more women than men working in the huts. I suspect this has to do with low pay—women are more willing to put up with it, as long as the intangible benefits of working in the huts are considerable.

Hut croo also share a strong environmental ethic. Since pay is so low, enthusiasm for mountains and hiking and a desire for simplicity are the strongest motivators. “Leave no trace” ethics; pack-in, pack-out, and composting are the rule (otherwise hut croo would have to carry refuse down the mountain). Electricity comes mostly from renewable sources, and meals are communal. One side effect of the anti-consumptive attitude is the attempt by many to conceal their affluent background—the more patches on one’s Carharts (a fashionable and durable type of pants), the better. In practice, hut croo often act as guardians of the fragile ecosystems they inhabit, particularly among the huts situated in alpine tundra. As dramatic landscapes surround them, croo do not need to rely on representations, but fervent debate about which hut possesses the best sunset occurs, in addition to distress over visible land degradation.

Thus in addition to extremely tight living quarters and the intensely cooperative tasks of caring for 40 to 100 guests every night, communal identity comes easily because hut croo rarely need to adjust their cultural expectations of their peers when they arrive at the job in late May. Similar interests and experiences growing up make them compatible. They can immediately begin assimilating into the highly practical, proud hut system, which is consciously distinct from northeastern hiking culture in general.

The huts have a vocabulary all their own, which can only be learned orally from veteran croo. “Moo” is dried milk, the “poop” the attic, and the “valley” anywhere accessible by road and thus in the lowlands (each hut also has a “ridge,” the crest of a nearby mountain range). Each morning, huts communicate on the radio during “social call,” a ten-minute segment when hut croo can make plans to meet on a mountaintop or for lunch in town. Guests are fascinated with “raiding,” a nocturnal game which involves hiking to another hut, confiscating old roadsigns hung on their dining room walls, and bringing them back by breakfast time (another reason why hut croo tend to be so young!). A ritual coming-of-age test involves a hut traverse: an extremely lengthy hike from one end of the hut system to the other, which must be completed within 24 hours. And once a summer, the hut croos convene for Madfest, the social high point of the summer season.

Hut croo remain fiercely separate from guests and even thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, of whom there are many. The term “goofer” is a pejorative they use to describe an ignorant or foolish guest, as in, “Some goofer left orange peels all over that rock.” It is often privately assumed that all hikers are goofers, thus allowing croo to maintain a distinct identity. Another tactic is to reserve certain prime sunset viewing areas for private croo use; these include the hut roof or “croo rocks”—a spot close to the hut but hidden from public view.

The huts became known for their service and spirit during the 20s, 30s, and 40s, when Joe Dodge was Huts Manager. A hard-driving, ebullient, and charismatic man who expanded the system from 4 to 7 huts, Dodge tolerated, even encouraged, pranks and jokes, but never at the expense of service. Hut croo, then as now, also tend to be first responders to accidents in the Whites, so a measure of sobriety is of the utmost importance. Dodge is known as “the father of the hut system,” and the gist of his personality and contributions is well-known to hut croo. Thus they possess a common history, supplemented by stories, real and embellished, which are passed orally and through croo logs, journals which never leave the hut.

While a small-scale example, hut croo demonstrate how a shared affinity for the landscape, ethnic and socio-economic homogeneity, communal living, and boundary maintenance allow the evolution of a distinct identity and sense of belonging.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Upset at Outside

Here’s a letter I got into the July issue of Outside Magazine:

“It’s deeply hypocritical to preach environmentalism in one breath and then, a few pages later in your Dream Jobs story, glorify a real estate developer like Rob DesLauriers, who is busily carving up a beautiful landscape.”

I got a little too self-righteous on this one. But Outside does tend toward soft environmentalism—suggesting easy solutions such as buying carbon credits or buying organic clothing—rather than promoting the hard, unpopular changes that are ultimately far more effective. It’s a lifestyle magazine with a wealthy, consumptive audience, and the bottom line is what counts. At least they're open to criticism.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Wilderness and the New England mind

One of the pleasures of living at Galehead Hut is its access to the fabulous peaks and valleys within the Pemigewasset Wilderness. In June, I described bushwhacking to Red Rock Pond, possibly the most remote body of water in the Whites and, I thought, a prime destination for a true wilderness experience. But to my surprise, I found along the way the remains of an old logging railroad bed and a small cairn, and by the shore of the pond, charred wood. Obviously, I was only the latest of a great many people who have sought out Red Rock Pond, and though the hike was well worth the effort, I did not achieve the feeling of solitude I had sought.

Safely back at the hut, I began to examine how my visit may impact future bushwhackers. While I am a careful hiker and certainly did not light any fires, I left a trail of trampled moss and broken branches. It is quite possible that I left some remnants of trash from my lunch by the pond. Might I myself have degraded the wilderness? In fact, if we define wilderness as pristine or free of human influence, is it possible at all to enjoy wilderness without destroying it?

As Laura and Guy Waterman relate in their book Wilderness Ethics, Professor Charles Fay faced a similar quandary in the late 19th century when he built Dicey’s Mill Trail, which runs from the Ferncroft Parking Area in Wonalancet (then home to several hotels, though it could hardly be sleepier today) to the top of Mt. Passaconaway. Fay, an early AMC president as well as professor of romance languages at Tufts University, and his companions not only completed the trail but also built a log shelter below the summit and cleared a summit view. On the final night of their endeavor, however, Fay had a crisis of conscience. By encouraging travel to the peak—he suspected the trail might be expanded into a bridle path—he feared he was hastening the destruction of the forests and peaks he wanted to share.

Ultimately, Fay’s misgivings were never realized. Dicey’s Mill Trail is popular, but it remains a far cry from the yak routes of the Franconias and Presidentials. However, an activity of far greater impact than hiking began to dominate the Whites during that era: logging.

In the Pemigewasset, JE Henry’s East Branch and Lincoln Railroad reigned supreme. Henry’s rapacious drive to deforest his lands can perhaps be traced to his childhood—by 15, he was forced by his father’s death to provide for his family. Between 1892 and 1948, he and his successors systematically clear-cut nearly the entire Pemigewasset. The railroads beds over which locomotives hauled timber to Lincoln still line the valleys, only they now serve as excellent paths for foot traffic. The scars of old logging roads, along which horses drew sledges loaded with wood in the winter, are still visible remarkably high (up to about 4000 feet) on the mountainsides. The species composition on the old roads is different than on adjacent slopes—white birch is dominant due to the history of disturbance. Balsam fir and red spruce are more common in the older parts of the forest, providing a dark green contrast to the lighter green leaves of the birch.

With a little practice, one can find all sorts of remnants of the old logging operations. Clearings still exist where old logging camps once stood, surrounded by rusting bedsprings, pails, and other bits of junk that the loggers cast aside. The marks of old landslides, caused by the root decay following clearcutting, are still visible, and railroad ties, rails, and even one old trestle dot the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, Howard Zahniser, its author, defined wilderness as “untrammeled.” Synonyms for untrammeled include unbridled, untamed, or uncaught. Clearly, Congress endorsed the idea of wilderness as distinct from human landscapes.

The act itself has been quite successful, at least in terms of the growth of wilderness areas. Since the Wilderness Act’s passage, Congress has created 702 new Wilderness Areas. Most recently, as I wrote earlier this year, Congress created and augmented several wilderness areas in New England. See to read about it.

Even with the wilderness regulations, which limit group size to ten and restrict machines and camping, pristine backcountry is hard to find. 100 million people live within a day’s drive of the White Mountains—it is perhaps inevitable that illegal, or bootleg campsites, as they are known, spring up. Come midsummer, hikers are everywhere. The Vermont National Air Guard finds the Whites to be particularly useful in preparing its pilots for service in Afghanistan, so it is common to hear jets overhead. Verdant and relaxing the Pemigewasset may be, but it is hardly untouched by man.

In his book Wilderness and the American Mind, published in 1967, Roderick Nash challenged the dominant view of wilderness. Might it instead be a human construct—a state of mind, rather than a condition of geography? As I found leading trips as a camp counselor, wilderness journeys are really about finding solitude and achieving self-reliance. Indeed, though we abhor bringing large groups into wilderness, a backpacking trip can teach an enormous amount about camaraderie and teamwork. Ultimately, most of our excursions into the wilderness are about the human skills or emotions we seek, which wilderness can enhance but not create from scratch.

My ignorance doomed my hike to Red Rock Pond. Wilderness, as Americans have traditionally defined it, simply does not exist in New England; perhaps not even in those vast western landscapes. 400 years of European settlement, not to mention the often overlooked native influence in prior millennia (though it should be pointed out that there were few natural resources in the White Mountains to draw native tribes, and the locals at the time of English settlement, the Abenaki, were loath to visit the summits and risk offending their spirits), has had its effects on the landscape. But what we seek in wilderness—fun, self-improvement, spiritual renewal—is certainly close at hand.

To me, the close proximity of consumptive landscapes, e.g. North Conway, to our wilderness areas, is much more alarming than the passing of pristine wilderness. It suggests a double-standard of land use, an inconsistency which makes sustainability far more elusive. Stewardship does not end at park boundaries, and the insatiability of advertising and consumption poses the true threat to healthy landscapes, whether physical or mental.

Pictures: Birches in the Wild River Wilderness, Professor Charles Fay, the hiking trail on Bondcliff, behind which the scars of old logging roads are visible on Mt. Hancock, Roderick Nash, and looking south into the Dry River Wilderness.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Time fades away

I've less than a week left at Galehead, making every last moment all the more poignant. We've been lucky with visits from friends and beautiful light out over the north country.

The Long Walk charges through

Last Friday, while I was in the midst of kneading bread dough for my cook day, several campers bearing the distinctive blue and gray of Camp Pasquaney burst into the Galehead. It was Long Walk, our annual six-day hiking expedition for the oldest boys, who seize the chance to prove their endurance and deepen their friendships.

I led the Long Walk for two years as a counselor at Pasquaney, and it has always been my favorite part of camp. The energy the group builds is palpable upon its return to camp, when the hikers sing about their adventures to the “stay-at-homes.” This year’s Long Walk seemed particularly cohesive from my outsider’s perspective. The boys were bursting to tell me about their itinerary (an ambitious and glorious walk, it covered over five days the Franconias, the Willey Range, Zealand and the Bonds, the entirety of the Presidential Range, and Galehead and Garfield) and, most remarkably in a group of 15 and 16 year olds, not one seemed isolated or hesitant to speak up.

I asked George, another croo member at Galehead, to finish kneading my bread while I accompanied a group to the summit of Galehead, where we cheered, or in camp lingo, railroaded, the peak. Upon our return, George and Hillary, the Assistant Hutmaster, emerged from the hut with a fresh batch of chococolate chip cookies. The boys fell upon them ravenously. For me, it was a poignant moment. Pasquaney and the huts, both of which I love, share a lot in common—the emphasis on respect and responsibility, sense of history, and appreciation for the outdoors—so to see people from both institutions mingling was wonderful.

The Long Walk is a curious event, unlike any other summer camp expedition that I have ever heard of in that it is devoted entirely to day hiking rather than backpacking. This is possible because Pasquaney owns a campsite along Nancy Brook, just south of Crawford Notch. The mileage, too, is unique: the Long Walk tends to cover 70-80 miles over its five day adventure. Twice its has exceeded 100 miles.

Originally, the Long Walk was just that: a long walk from Pasquaney, on the east shore of Newfound Lake, to one mountain in the Whites (Washington, Lafayette, and Chocorua were popular destinations) and back again. When camp purchased the Nancy campsite, however, the expedition became a good deal more challenging than those early roadwalks, though it perhaps lost some of its bucolic charm.

Over the past few years, numbers have become a concern as Pasquanians have grown more aware of our impact on the mountains. The Long Walk has traditionally included twenty or so campers and four or five counselors. It is now illegal to hike in wilderness areas in groups greater than ten, however, and the practice is generally frowned upon in any context. In their book Wilderness Ethics, Laura and Guy Waterman point out that much of the point in hiking is to get away hubbub and noise; to some, hiking in large groups is disrespectful to those who seek solitude.

The Long Walk has adjusted its behavior in response to these issues. Now, instead of hiking in one long line, it splits into three or four smaller groups. The expedition rarely gathers together, and when it does, it is only at deserted summits or down the trail from peaks with other hikers. From my position at the back of pack, where I usually hiked on Long Walk, I had an interesting perspective on the reactions of passers-by (Will Kryder, this year’s leader, had a similar experience). Hikers generally made one of two comments to me: “What a well-behaved group!” or “Is that all of you?” The fine behavior of our campers does tend to win over all but the crustiest of the outdoors crowd.

The Long Walk toes a fine line between developing camaraderie among its members and treading softly for the sake of the fragile trails and fellow hikers. A smaller walk will never be popular among counselors and campers—it would mean less participation—but the idea should at least be revisited from time to time if Pasquaney is serious about its environmental values. As the Watermans conclude, “the caring steward of the backcounty will want to leave that mountain stillness, the serenity of the wild, undisturbed for the benefit of others…and also for the sake of the woods and hills themselves.”

Pictures: This year's Long Walk in front of Galehead Hut, the 2005 Long Walk Council atop Mt. Adams, dusk from the hut roof.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Galehead Hut: always was, always will be

The summer is racing by up at Galehead. Here are a few pictures of the characters, light, and escapades we've enjoyed up here...

Undercast in the Pemigewasset.

The summer takes its toll

As I packed down the Gale River Trail the other day, I turned my ankle not far below Jacob’s Ladder, the long rock staircase which is the trail’s most notorious ascent. At the time, the twist seemed painful but not particularly serious, but by the close of lunch, I couldn’t walk, and purple blotches were spreading along the outside of my heel and toes. Hiking back up to Galehead that night was out of the question.

That more hutmen, or hut kids as we call ourselves nowadays, don’t hurt themselves in their duties is astonishing. The Huts Department bosses are emphatic about not carrying more than 60-70 pounds of weight on our pack up to the hut, but between exuberant 19 year-olds such as my hutmate, George Heinrichs, who has twice carried up a “century”—a load over 100 pounds—and the occasional need for lots of fresh vegetables and frozen meat all at once, loads exceed these limits from time to time.

Before the huts began to use helicopters for the pre-season supply run of a summer’s worth of canned foods, hutmen carried much greater loads. One croo member would run to the base each day, toting back up flour, tins of soup, and the like. The record load for the Gale River Trail is just over 160 pounds, while at Lakes, one hutman carried 312 pounds down from the summit over two days. Needless to say, as one OH informed me at our 75th anniversary earlier this summer, most OH from that era now have terrible knees and backs.

At Galehead, three of us are currently nursing sore ankles. For those with chronic pain, the summer becomes much more about socializing and enjoying the hut than hiking, and pack days must be carefully managed so as to be bearable. Our Assistant Hutmaster at Galehead, Hillary Gerardi, broke her leg badly last summer while working at Lonesome Lake. Confined to her house in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the boredom eventually drove her back to the hut—but she ascended the Lonesome Lake Trail on crutches.

This year, hut kids have luckily avoided any serious breaks or burns (another serious danger, given the amount of time we spend in the kitchen). Our more rustic colleagues, the caretakers, have not been so lucky. Last week, Anthony, the Garfield caretaker, broke his leg and foot when a log supporting a rock slipped and slammed into him, throwing him quite a distance. He had been building a rock staircase on the Franconia Brook Trail with another caretaker, Aaron from 13 Falls, who promptly raced the three miles up to Galehead for help and the radio. The area of the accident is in a remote bowl in the Pemigewasset without radio contact.

Three of us from Galehead and Aaron headed down after informing Pinkham Notch Front Desk of the accident’s details. We planned on walking Anthony out with crutches to Franconia Brook Campground, some 8 or 9 miles from the site of the accident; NH Fish and Game decided to bring in a helicopter, however, precipitating a mad dash to Anthony to move him to a clearing in time to get the chopper’s attention. Anthony was in remarkably good spirits—he’s a tough fellow—but the bone was clearly out of place beneath his skin, and the swelling was dramatic. We moved him as quickly as we could, but given the thickness of the forest, the National Guard Blackhawk was unable to see us waving our jackets when it passed directly overhead.

An hour and two more near misses later, the helicopter headed off to refuel. We were beginning to dread walking Anthony out, when Eric suggested via George, whom was manning the Galehead radio, that we climb a tree or light a fire or “do something McGyver like.” Better an illegal fire than a broken back from a weak limb. My old campcraft was actually put to use as we made a small teepee of twigs, supported by birch bark. Aaron luckily had a lighter, and we got a small blaze going as the helicopter returned. But how to make thick enough smoke to attract attention. I remember the incredible blaze some campers had made by putting a recently chopped balsam fir tree in our campfire on my Wild River Expedition in early July: we piled fresh fir boughs on the fire, and a dense column of smoke rose above the treetops at last. The helicopter saw it and finally swooped in.

Anthony will be out for the rest of the season, unfortunately. As for myself, I will be hobbling back in tomorrow, somewhat more cautiously than usual. My desire to pack a century has been extinguished; it will be enough to make it through the summer in good health, having seen every last sunset from the hut.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Social call

One of the great pleasures of working in one of a string of mountain huts is the chance to visit with friends. There about forty of us in all, spread out in a line over fifty-five or so miles, and we all get to know each other during Gala, the week of training at Mizpah that precedes opening the huts for full-service.

We work eleven days on before getting three days off. Some hut croo go home for days off, but many simply travel from hut to hut. It’s cheap, fun, and beautiful. Observing how another hut runs is instructive—new ideas, whether for morning BFDs (Blanket Folding Display skits) or cleaning counters, spread by word of mouth. Most of these visits are set up during social call—a fifteen minute stretch on the radio immediately following the the post-breakfast reservation call.

Earlier this season I spent a night at Lakes of the Clouds Hut. All huts have their distinctive qualities, and Lakes’ may be its numbers (others would say its superb alpine location), both in terms of its croo—with 10 members, it is the largest in the system—and its guest, of whom there may be as many as 98 in a night. Lakes of the Crowds, indeed!

Nonetheless, the Lakes croo was extremely hospitable. My overt reason for visiting was to take photos of the Dwarf Cinquefoil, but playing Twister in BFD clothes on the croo room floor after a few whiskey sours ended up being a bit more bracing. In the morning, the hutmaster Beth showed me the remains of a plane wreck in Oakes Gulf dating back toe the winter of 1969-70. Its propeller was confiscated by hut croo after the season began and, until its disappearance four years ago in mysterious circumstances, was the most sought after raid item.

This past week we at Galehead played host to my old Mizpah hutmate RD Jenkinson, over on a croo switch from Lonesome Lake, where he is Assistant Hutmaster. The weather during his stay was rather poor, so the four of us stayed inside most of the time, sharing cook days, having slumber parties in the poop (attic), and consuming a remarkable amount of beer. On the hottest day, when the sun managed to burn through the clouds for a while, Hilary, RD, and I descended to 13 Falls, where the caretaker is a friend of ours from last fall and the cascades have dug out several swimming holes.

A strong bond develops between those who start in the same season. RD was a great companion at Mizpah, a confidante and partner in idiocy, whether raiding, shooting the bb gun, or rolling around on the razor scooter during dinner talk. This week we managed to put Hilary in the sink (twice!), wash our hair together (both long), and write a farcical love letter to Galehead Mountain in the croo log.

In the end, the hut and the mountains are far less important than the people we work with up here. A kind word, ridiculous joke, or willingness to listen—this is what hut makes hut life so enjoyable and gives us our esprit de corps.
Pictures: Thad, Caroline, and Beth fixing salads; Ben Lewis filling water pitchers; Caroline, Thad, Beth, and Meredith playing homemade Twister; and RD, Hillary, and Erin on the Galehead roof.