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.

Secluded Hawthorne Falls

It has been a humid summer up here at Galehead, which makes cool clear days all the more coveted for hiking. On one such day a couple weeks ago, George Heinrichs, one of our first-year croo, and I took off for Hawthorne Falls, another beautiful destination in the Whites that is inaccessible by trail.

From Galehead, we hiked west along the Garfield Ridge Trail to its junction with the Franconia Brook Trail, which cuts south into the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Here, we took a right (north) into the underbrush. Skirting beneath Garfield’s summit cone, we entered a ravine which eventually drains into the Gale River.

What with a rainy week, the ferns and moss were exceptionally verdant. After a half-mile or so, we dropped into a small canyon fed by a cascade at one end. From here until the falls, we kept to the stream bed and its banks—the sides were steep, and indeed the vegetation, still mostly balsam fir at this elevation, was dense and prickly. The stream’s descent is quick and spectacular on a small-scale. Chains of cascades, even small waterfalls, are interspersed with clear and calm pools. Wide ledges, hinting at much greater flow in springtime, made for surprisingly easy walking, though the steepness of a few drops slowed our progress and made for a few scrapes.

The landscape reminded me of southwest New Zealand. While rain levels around here do not approach that of a true temperate rain forest, it is decidedly wet at higher elevations. As I tell guests who come on my Mountain Weather program, it isn’t simply bad luck that hikers so often find themselves in the clouds up here. As mountains push air masses up and over their flanks, the colder temperatures associated with higher elevations cause the moisture in the air to condense into clouds and, if the dew point is reached, rain.

The original Gale River Trail (it now runs to the hut) ran past Hawthorne Falls on its way to the trail junction below Garfield. At some point in the mid-twentieth century, however, it reverted to woods. The Hurricane of ’38 likely had something to with the AMC’s decision. What is now the Gale River Trail was originally the Galehead Trail, but for reasons which again elude me, it was renamed after the original Gale River Trail was discontinued. There were several other trails near Galehead (one ran up the west ridge of North Twin from the current Gale River Trail) which also reverted to woods. In many ways, the Galehead area is a good wilder than it was 75 years ago.

We found no trace of the old trail on that trip, though George, who has been back since, says he spotted some faint traces of it on his subsequent visit. We left plenty of tracks behind us, unfortunately. The luxuriant moss was impossible to avoid—a fragile reminder of how easily we disturb the wild solitude of a mountain landscape.

Hawthorne Falls itself was well worth the visit. While its volume of water is not great, the falls are taller than I expected, perhaps forty feet high. They are flanked by a series of steep granite ledges, making entrance to the amphitheatre at their foot difficult. But from the bottom, we could gaze up at the layers of flow and the play of the sunlight on the drifting mist.

The entire trip probably took only four or five hours. Shortly beyond the Falls, on our way to the intersection between our brook with the Gale River, we stopped for lunch on a wide, sunny ledge. We were stretched out to soak up the sun, having polished off some cheese, pepperoni, and crackers, when two middle-aged fellows wielding hiking poles slowly emerged from the woods downstream. After a quiet but friendly exchange, they passed on, seeking the falls. I had thought bushwhacking the most sure way of finding solitude, but I am finding that in the Whites, even the most remote features have their visitors.