Friday, February 16, 2007

Winter Days at Lonesome Lake

Appearing in the March issue of the North Star Monthly...

It’s 7 AM at Lonesome Lake Hut, and the thermometer reads -16 degrees. Outside, the wind whips across the frozen pond, searing any exposed skin. Meg Norris, better known to her friends and co-workers as Bajo (an old nickname from Spanish class, pronounced Ba-Ho), is already up checking the snow stake, wind speed, and temperature measurements for her eight o’clock radio call with her headquarters at Pinkham Notch.

To outsiders, the cold is perhaps the most daunting aspect of caretaking. “I’ve had whole stints like this,” Bajo remarks, referring to the below-zero chill as she scuttles out with a blowtorch to unfreeze the well pump. Later, she only half-jokingly speaks of temperatures “warming up to 5 degrees.”

The Appalachian Mountain Club, which operates its huts with a permit from the Forest Service, keeps three open on a self-service basis in the winter. Two caretakers trade weeklong shifts at each hut. 1.7 miles from Lafayette Place Campground in Franconia Notch, Lonesome Lake is closest to the road, but nestled in a bowl amidst Cannon and Kinsman Mountains, it is detached from the everyday world.

Such a situation requires considerable reserves of personality in the caretaker. “I’m good with people, and I know how much Bajo they can take,” my host jokes. Unlike in the summer, when hut croos cook for their guests, the caretaker is not responsible for feeding hiking parties. Bajo does have a number of daily duties, however: keeping the hut’s wood stove going from 4:00 to 7:00 in the afternoon, assisting guests with washing dishes (they are allowed to use the stoves and kitchenware in the hut, which makes their packs lighter but can be a headache for the caretaker), and generally being friendly and helpful. The main challenge is “Can you be hospitable in a cold environment? It’s way more, can you deal with people or not…you survive the weekends and look forward to the zero counts.”

The previous Saturday, with a full house of more than forty people, both the hand and electric pumps to the well broke, meaning that all the water for drinking, cooking, and washing had to be collected from snow outside and melted. “People were cranky,” Bajo chortles.

This evening, however, there is only one party of five, and they are in an amicable mood. As soon as Bajo gets the fire going, they extend an invitation to a dinner of barbecue chicken, sautéed potatoes, and corn, promptly accepted. Cooking up here tends to take a long time; besides, nobody wants to pack out extra food. As the pinkish alpenglow infuses the Franconia Range across the lake and the two older guys tell embarrassing stories about each other—last time they stayed at Carter Notch, one of them took a wrong turn during a nocturnal visit to the outhouse and landed in snow up to his armpits—it becomes clear they are a mixed group of family and friends. Drawn by the challenge and camaraderie of a winter outing, they make an annual outing to the huts. The off-season price is affordable, too—at $28 for non-AMC members, an individual saves almost $60 on full-service prices.

“It’s definitely a different crowd from the summer,” says Bajo. “[It’s] a hardier stock with a great sense of humor about how crazy they are.” Groups are often boisterous and cook with gusto, often having packed up surprisingly elegant items such as steak and wine. When asked about the post-dinner atmosphere, Bajo erupts into snickers. “Let’s not talk about the booze,” she says, and leaves it at that.

Some make the hike for a more rejuvenating experience. “People come up here specifically for camaraderie—a couple of people have come up who have just gotten out of jobs or relationships. Basically, I’ve worked as a therapist…it is kind of a cleansing thing for people to come up and unwind.” Once in a while a visitor gripes about the hut’s intrusion into wilderness or argues that its presences encourages inexperienced hikers to put themselves in harm’s way. Bajo endures such comments with a mixture of public patience and private frustration, meanwhile noting that such passers-by never fail to come inside to investigate the woodstove or drink a cup of tea.

Occasionally someone does come through without proper equipment or in the early stages of hypothermia. Then it is the caretaker’s responsibility to educate them about the risk of continuing or to warm them back up. Winter accidents in the White Mountains happen frequently, and immobilization is particularly dangerous in cold weather. Indeed, in late January, just across from Lonesome Lake in the Franconia Range, a combination of high winds, ambitious planning, and human error forced a lost climber to spend two nights out in the bitterly cold weather. Only after an intense and sustained search involving 65 searchers and two helicopters was he plucked off the mountainside, having sustained severe frostbite.

The cold does not seem to bother Bajo much, however, and she has carried up a couple of down blankets and makes hot water bottles to stay warm at night. Nor does she go hungry—the pantry, or “poop” as it is known in AMC slang, is stocked with more than enough staples to last till spring. “Freshies” she carries up herself at the beginning of her stint: “You can get by [without them], but you’d get scurvy. You’re packing milk, vegetables, butter—things you couldn’t get during the Great Depression.” On her last shift she brought up a fifty-pound bag of flour. “I hadn’t packed anything in a while and it kicked my ass!”

Loneliness is not much of a problem. “I do a lot of reading, a lot of writing…there’s a lot of thinking time. It depends on your personality, because some people do get lonely” (a caretaker at nearby Carter Notch Hut recently quit because the job was so solitary). When the radio squawks—Joanne, the caretaker at Zealand Falls Hut, is calling the AMC’s Construction Crew, presumably because something at her hut isn’t working—Bajo jumps up and runs to the radio to listen. “My program’s on!” she yells, and then comes back disappointed when no one responds to the radio call. “There’s enough work up here to occupy your time…at night, I listen to NPR, so it’s not like I don’t hear people’s voices for a week.”

Self-motivation is the key to accomplishing the gritty tasks it takes to keep the hut in good shape. “No one’s going to pat you on the back for reaming (cleaning) the stove,” she says. Cleaning the bathrooms, scraping ice off of windows, and scrubbing graffiti off of birch trees are some of her glamorous tasks. In colder weather, she chooses more active chores to stay warm.

A year ago, Bajo was working at an upscale women’s boutique clothing store in Burlington, where the money was good but the work uninspiring. Having paid off most of her college loans and seen the huts in action through a roommate at UVM, she applied to work for the AMC last fall and got a position on the croo at Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Hearing the friend’s stories about surviving the bitter winters made her wary of caretaking, but her enthusiasm for the mountains and simple lifestyle convinced her to try it, thus escaping another boring retail job at home in Connecticut.

Halfway through her winter term of employment, Bajo is already signed up to work at Mizpah Hut this summer and is thinking about another two months of spring caretaking. By August, she will have spent an entire year working in the backcountry. Born a flatlander, she prefers the rugged terrain of New Hampshire and Vermont and has plans to stay. After caretaking, she can survive anything. “It’s an opportunity to live a sparser life than in the frontcountry,” she says, and settles down for a late morning nap, to be followed by a couple of laps around the lake in the afternoon.

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