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 http://gullivers-nest.blogspot.com/2007/03/wilderness-expands-in-new-england.html 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.