Caretaker Journal
Spring 2007

Written by Sally Manikian.


May 18-25, 2007

When you are used to a stay of 11 days and a season of 5 months, the speed of calendar time catches you unawares with a stay of 7 days at the end of two months. This is the effect of 'caretaker time.'

Of course, caretaker time is a bit different from calendar time. One of the indulgences of the caretaker is the power to establish your own routine and your own rules of time. I find myself approaching time in terms of 11 days and 3 days, weekends within those 11 days, and of course by Wednesdays when Bill Arnold requests trail conditions. These markings of time can get confusing, say when there are long weekends when guests show up midweek, when someone else does radio call, or when you only stay up there for 7 days. In those cases, a slight disconnect happens.

Perhaps this is me trying to come up with an excuse for when I forget calendar events that matter to good friends of mine, such as birthdays, bar exams, or departures for South Africa. I don't consider myself a particularly scatterbrained person, but I have some problems with conventional measurements of quantified time.

Long philosophical story short, the past 7 days went by quickly.

They went by quickly also because they were very different. Sure, the surroundings continue the progress of change-snow rests in dirty patches of ice (the snow stake abandoned in a puddle of water), green grass now sits beneath the porch of Crag, and lichens distracted the caretaker along the Perch Path-but the past 7 days were different in particular because 'people things' went on. A long weekend had guests around until Monday, and the RMC's prepwork for the summer began, which translated into a trip to the valley, a helicopter, a visit from the field supervisor, and lots of cleaning.

Unfortunately, the long weekend of Canada's Victoria Day (traditionally a busy weekend in the cabins) arrived with horrible weather, rain (3.2" on Sunday) and cold and even a dusting of snow and ice Monday morning. There were only 5 guests that weekend, and the exciting news was that, for the first time, THERE WERE MORE GIRLS THAN GUYS!

'Ooo, sounds like an exciting night up there!' Bill Arnold replied when I conveyed the news over the radio. And it was, I got to enjoy some quality girl-talk and girl-time, complete with tea, chocolate and talking about men.

These few guests were a good group, inviting me to share in their dinner (and their potent liquor made by French monks that I have never tried before and don't intend on doing so again), bringing me a water container that I had left behind, and also joining me on my walk to the Perch. Friday a solo hiker Matt and I enjoyed a fantastic undercast with those rolling and turning clouds coming up the valleys and patches of blue sky flying open up above. On Sunday two French Canadian ladies, Christine and Milan, braved the rain and waterfalls-formerly-known-as-trails with me.

Monday broke with snow and cold, the waterfalls slowed and iced over, moisture stiffened the trees. The incomplete cover of snow and ice could be poeticized to winter's dying gasps, or a perhaps a slightly less gothic picture of winter's passing, but I was just glad for the chance to play with frozen trees.

By mid-day, the sun came out, and the melting began. The French Canadians made it up to Adams in clearing skies, with 'the view' that they had been looking forward to patiently all weekend before heading down. I also enjoyed 'the view' as I took the long way to the Perch, over Adams and down to Edmands Col.

Oh, and yes, taking the long way is another aspect of caretaker time. On Tuesday I took the long way back to Gray Knob from Crag, going around the block via the Spur Trail and Lowe's Path over Adams 4. Spring, in particular, is a season that is also especially encouraging of languid caretaker time, as the (guest-less) days reach into 15 hours, enabling spontaneous 'long way' hiking decisions and slow moving mornings on the back stoop in the sun and a fierce sense of accomplishment when the cabin is swept and the poo is stirred by mid-morning.

On Tuesday I was given permission to abandon my post, which I did with a dollop of reluctance (Who would want to leave timberline on such a clear day? Who would watch the sun set in the evening and the birds in the morning? Who in their right mind would want to go up and down those icy trails for no pressing reason?). Word got out that I am good at cleaning with bleach and I was invited to help clean the Stearns Lodge to prepare it for the summer. Of course, this ulterior motive was cloaked with the notion of seeing RMC faces I've never seen before and also promises of being treated to food by Al. Thanks, Al.

I knew sometime this week that a helicopter would be flying to Crag to drop a load of heavy stuff. The RMC snuck a load of their own in with the AMC's fly schedule (for price of course, but a price much lower than if the RMC hired a bird by themselves). I thought it would be Tuesday. I found out Tuesday night at Stearns that it was going to be Wednesday.

When on Wednesday? They had no idea. So I decided to camp out at Crag that afternoon and wait. I watched the helicopter fly into Madison Hut for a few hours. I flipped through my fashion magazine, called my mother, stared into space, tried halfheartedly to read Slaughterhouse Five, followed the sun across the sky, and then when I was sitting with my toes in the grass talking to a junco, I looked up and the helicopter was coming right at me from across King Ravine.

'Oh crap.'

I quickly got out of the way. In that net was everything a caretaker would not want to carry up the mountain. Propane tanks, batteries, 50 pound bags of wood chips, and a window for Crag.

Later that night, I was joined by Chris Fithian, summer Field Supervisor. He was kind enough to bring me two of the things I most desire as a caretaker: beer and oranges. In exchange, I made him chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast the next morning. We spent Thursday around the camps, Chris making a long list of things gone wrong and things needed in his milkman's notebook as we dealt with outhouses, grey water, and screens.

After Chris left, I got a little sentimental when I found myself alone on my last day. I felt the pressure of 'last times', as I headed off on the long way to The Perch. Thankfully by the time I reached T-storm junction, I had shaken those nagging thoughts. The pressure of 'last times' can become like that prison of 'shoulds'-they're not pleasant feelings and can interfere too much with the present and have no place in caretaker time.

The next day was hot and hazy, 62F by 7.30 AM. Mt. Wash gave visibility as 8 miles. I had to pack, to clean, to watch the birds, and to leave a long note for the summer caretaker.

It was time to go.

It was an angsty hike down. The trail was icy and posthole-y when it wasn't icy, my pack was heavy, and it was bloody hot. The beds of trillium along the Amphibrach lightened my moods, and so did a pint of ice cream down at the base.

So this is it. Thanks are due. Nameless thanks. To the RMC for making it so easy for me to do my job. My crush on the RMC has developed into full-blown love. Spend some time with this organization, in the camps on the trail or as one of their lucky employees, and you'll see why.

 


May 4-15, 2007

In considering the past 11 days, there was something about them that seemed…well…normal. When I refer to 'normal', I don't mean 'boring' but something else. Further considering that feeling of 'normal' brought me to the startling realization that the past 11 days felt normal because they were so much like summer. Since New Hampshire's summer is the season I have seen the most of in the past 7 years, the sights, sounds, symbols, and signs of summer are a familiar experience. The standards of normalcy are tempered and conditioned by the familiar, after all.

So, perhaps not so much 'normal' as 'familiar.'

The visual fields of terrain and topography are changing, most readily apparent in the snowmelt. The snow stake dropped from 46" on May 4 to 19" on May 14. Every day brought new patches of rock and ground, new pieces of trash, and even a few blades of green grass by the end of the week. A tree that I snapped off the Perch Path on Sunday because it was thwacking my knee was at chin level by Friday. Tiny Star Lake has melted free, and the tinier Storm Lake isn't far behind. The sheer drifts of snow that had previously hid the trail to The Perch have dropped away, breaking into wide crevasses on the slope down from Adams 4. On Tuesday when I hiked out, a cursory glance around the cabin proved to me that Ground was edging out Snow in the Field of Vision contest.

Water rushed everywhere, roaring down Castle Ravine in a waterfall and forming a puddle on the Gulfside Trail that I grew especially fond of. A few nights of below-freezing temps would turn this mountain-wide flow into ice, glazed melt on the snow but also frozen drips on the trail. I have a fascination with everything that flows, and freezes ('oh look, more photos of drippy ice', a good friend used to tease me).

Of course, this snowmelting fiasco was a result of temperatures that soared into the 60s for a few days, and refused to drop below 40 during the night. And, I might add, it was sunny for 11 straight days. On Saturday May 5, sitting on the back stoop drinking my coffee and greeting the day as I do every morning I thought to myself, for the first time this Spring, 'Sally Ann, you have too many clothes on.' These past 11 days I hiked in shorts, wore cotton t-shirts (cotton! cotton in the backcountry!), sunburned my shoulders, and slept in the 40 degree bag that I had been using as a liner bag earlier in April. Things became easy, as I flitted around barefoot outside and stopped reaching for my coat as I walked out the door. It was a warm and hazy week.

When things get warm and sunny, Crag's porch is the place to be in the morning. Many people will attest to that, and I have become a recent convert to the magnetism of that space. A bit of time there will put anyone in a good mood.

On my first day back, I started hearing the rumble and roar of helicopters. The AMC has begun their season of supplying their backcountry facilities, a common sight of spring but also a poignant reminder of summer's approach. The wind turbine had returned to the roof of Madison Hut, sounds of the blades welcome the hiker down from Adams. Mt. Washington's summit buildings also opened up this week, the familiar plume of smoke and echoing whistle from the Cog a constant. This patch of wood and rock, mountainous, will be very busy soon. The quiet weeks wait until September.

This was also a busy week for guests; more accurately, this was a week where I wasn't alone much. In 11 days there were only three nights without someone at one of the camps. I even found people at The Perch (!!!!). One lady named Bonnie (oh, it's always great to have another girl around) gave me quite a laugh when she showed me the 'biohazard' bag she uses for her used TP. She and her companion Dan shared their Gouda with me on Crag's porch.

Notably we saw the arrival of Marcel, who comes to Crag every year to celebrate his birthday (May 12) with his favorite classic rock tapes, fizzy adult beverages, and lots of hanging around. He put up the screens in some of the windows at Crag, went for a few hikes, but mostly enjoyed the sunshine. Happy Birthday, Marcel.

In addition to Marcel, the week before saw the arrival of a group of guys who refer to their tradition as the 'Annual Crag Camp Beer Fest.' They should alter it to 'Beer and Peppermint Schnapps Fest' because one fella drank an entire bottle of the stuff.

And, most importantly, I had FRIENDS visit me. This is exciting because I don't have many friends who hike. On Cinco de Mayo I was joined by Catherine and Peter, and a lovely dog named Precious. They made a dinner appropriate for the occasion (faijitas and fresh salsa and guacamole and my goodness margaritas with fresh squeezed limes) and stayed around for a few runs of skiing the next day. Thank you for visiting guys, I will (someday this summer) visit ye both in Portsmouth.

Of course, a caretaker does still manage to spend time alone even when things get busier. Watching the birds in the morning became one of my favorite activities. This week saw the return of the flock of white-winged crossbills; they're here to stay for the summer, I saw a lady bird gathering lengths of moss and grass for a nest. Visitors to Gray Knob are in for a treat, as these are winter birds only occasional in summer. Well, maybe not a total treat, as they can make a really ugly raspy noise sometimes. All the birds enjoyed the puddles of snowmelt, leaping in for late-afternoon birdbaths.

I turn on NPR sometimes to see what the voices are talking about. If I find it interesting, I listen. Mostly I turn it off. On May 10 on The Exchange, I heard, as I was putting in my contacts, the words 'White Mountains.' It was about the AMC's White Mountain Guide, new edition.

I listened to the whole thing. It was mostly praising the new guide, mentioning the differences, etc. Standard stuff. The only remarkable part was when a caller, Bruce from North Conway, mentioned '[The Guide is] helpful when you're approaching dark, wondering if you'll reach your destination, whether you'll reach GRAY KNOB or THE PERCH in time.'

And, I'll admit it, I cheered. This was the only reference by name to a backcountry facility in the entire hour-long show. Three cheers for Bruce!

In other news, I've acquired a new hobby. I've decided to give this peakbagging thing a go. I decided, having heard about this newfangled '48 in 12' (hiking the 48 4,000 fters in every month of the year), that I would climb Mt Adams in every day of the week. Or, 5,774 in 7. Right now, I just need to get up there on a Thursday. I was considering bringing champagne to celebrate, but I feel perhaps Perch water would be more appropriate. Wish me luck!

Unlike my entries of weeks previous, this stint did not include any semi-traumatic events. This is another testament to the normalcy and familiarity that reigned over the past 11 days. The trails melted free, there was no fierce weather to break things, and water even started flowing out of the spring pipe.

Perhaps the most irritating is the ice flow that Lowe's Path has turned into, requiring sharp pointy things from just beyond the Forest Protection Area sign by Gray Knob all the way down to the switchback beneath the Log Cabin. Moreover, that which wasn't covered in ice was vulnerable exposed new ground, requiring a delicate tread. It was a slow hike down that day, laden with an empty propane tank and also the majority of my cold weather gear that I needed back in April that I deemed no longer necessary.

Traveling down from treeline is always an exercise in difference and change, and this time I noticed the buds at 3,000 feet turn to nips of leaves at 2,500 feet and then even open flowers at the base of the trail. It's only a matter of time before the season of hiking in shorts and sneakers is upon us.


April 20-May 1, 2007

'For time past is not believed to have any bearing on time present or future, in that golden land where every day is born anew.'--Joan Didion.

Let's talk about the past 11 days at timberline on Mt Adams, where there were 7 days of golden sunshine followed by 5 days of 'White Mountain Spring'-- cold clammy hypothermic conditions over trails of old snow that lend to post holing.

After leaving the mountain in a snowstorm, in returning to the mountain in sunshine, warm breezes, and crystal clear blue skies, I was definitely returning to a different place. For the next 7 days, it was sunny and warm with a high of 58. One day it was a balmy 63 degrees inside the cabin! Spring had sprung. By the end of 11 days, after all the sun and the rain that followed, the snow had returned to a more manageable level of 4 1/2 feet.

I can not stress enough that week of straight sunshine, glorious high pressure, which allowed for me to spend a great deal of time outside on the summits, and also hike over to Mt Wash (where I was sorry to miss Mike Pelchat, but former RMC fall trail crew Mike Finnegan was kind enough to offer me lunch and allow me to hijack their internet, and they sent me home with oranges and homemade cookies). Walking back along the ridge, the snow was melting everywhere. Water rushing in torrents down through the sedge grass of the tundra, over rocks. A constant sound that had replaced the roar of winter's wind and the clatter of snow against the window. I took a picture.

On Sunday April 22 I witnessed a proposal on the summit of Adams. Ok, didn't 'witness', but I was the first person whom they told. They were guests from Crag the night before, members of the hiking community named Seema and Brian. I encouraged them to eat lunch with me on the roof of one of the Madison hut, where we were joined by three other hikers. Chance and connections appeared quickly among them, as two strangers recognized each other as former employees of Lucent and the social network of the AMC and the RMC was inevitably aroused, in that col beneath the summit in the sunshine and light winds. This is a small community.

And also a vibrant and friendly community, proven the night before at Crag Camp.

As I mentioned earlier, that last snowstorm that turned the mountains into piles of marshmallow fluff and gave me an insecurity complex when the window blew out at Crag also managed to totally bury the Crag outhouse. Saturday April 21 found Al and I staring at the drift like slack-jawed yokels. 'This is your project,' he said.

Little did we know, that I would not be the one digging out the outhouse, rather it was a young French Canadian named David Giguere.

David, his girlfriend, and their dog (a lovely thing named after some unpronounceable French Canadian cookie) had begun their journey on Friday evening. They expected to spend the night at Crag, but lost the trail and spent the night in the ravine. On Saturday morning they made it to Crag, collapsed on the porch in the clear sunlight and 50 degree temperatures and declared that they were NOT HIKING ANYMORE.

This was around the time that Al and I had finished staring at the drift, but still were standing around slack-jawed and dumbfounded. Al joked to them that that if they were up for doing some digging...it's a great way to work on a suntan!

As we headed back towards Gray Knob, Al assured me 'don't worry, it's the Tom Sawyer effect. People will want to paint the fence if it seems fun.'

I hoped he was right. Al went back down to the valley, and I went off to finish digging out the spring. One hour and 6 feet of removed snow later, we had water flowing.

When I returned that evening to Crag, to collect fees from the hikers, I found that the David had DUG OUT THE ENTIRE THING! He had approached the task with the kind of gusto found in young boys regarding snow forts. The door was open, there was a set of amphitheater-like stairs leading down to it, and the bio-sun's lovely solar panels were soaking up the late sunlight.

Making my first executive decision, David stayed for free at Crag that night. And to make matters even neater and warmer and fuzzier, Brian (that fella who was to propose to his love Seema the next day in the golden light on Adams) volunteered to pay for this young French Canadian's young French Canadian girlfriend.

It was a just a great night. Sunshine, a killer sunset, and just lots of warm fuzzies all around.

Those warm fuzzies lasted for awhile, which was a good thing because I didn't see anyone for five days after Monday, not until Saturday when my Saturday night guests arrived. April is a quiet month for hikers, the winter peakbaggers are done ('winter' ends in March for them), and trails are still too sloppy for casual summer hikers, with all the snow and ice. Saturday night radio call was with that quintessential cantankerous solitary caretaker (and darn tootin' proud of it) Storm, and when I remarked on the quiet he said ,

'Ah, the beauty of Gray Knob caretaking.'

'Ah, yes, tis a beautiful life', I replied, 'but tis not for everyone.'

Around Thursday was when what I consider a White Mountain Spring began. Cold, clammy, hypothermic conditions. Wind and stuck in the clouds for five days. Temps above freezing (warm enough to be sweating) but only just (cold enough that when you stopped moving you goosebump and hence 'hypothermic conditions'). I also met a winter wren, harbinger of summer in the boreal forest.

During these rainy days, I read a lot in the mornings, started listening to NPR but could only take the voices for a half an hour at a time, it just started getting too loud and noisy for me, used to silence in the cabin rather than disembodied voices, completed 9 crossword puzzles, watched the white winged cross-bills give way to juncos and kept close attention to the developing patches of ground around the cabin. Afternoons I would devote to being outside, whether working slowly at the (blissfully and fragrantly thawing) composting toilet or clearing all those silly trees that fell down in the wind and rain and snow of spring storms (trees are brittle this time of year, they haven't had water for a long time).

Another item of note from the past 11 days was that I, uh, lost The Perch. Following that three day storm and due to the winds being from the west, the way to the Perch was a massive snowdrift, the trees and the trails they frame were completely covered. It made for an easy trip to Edmands Col and a beautiful landscape to reflect the sun(set), but it rendered me slightly wary of traversing the icy field over the lip of Cascade ravine. Attempting to follow the Randolph Path down from Edmands Col was also a bit tricky. Having only spent a short period of time in this neck of the Presidential woods, I was still mildly unsure of the relationships between topography, geography, and hidden shelters.

It took, eventually, a trip down to the Randolph Path, which I then rapidly followed straight to The Perch. I would like at this point to offer my profound gratitude and profess my eternal love to J. Rayner Edmands, with his trails that always rise (never steeply), and who carved order out of chaos for those ladies in their wide woolen skirts. Thank you for your work.

At The Perch, I stared amazed (my general state of being as a caretaker) at the buried shelter and then reached for the shovel underneath. I flagged the trail most of the way from The Perch to Gray Knob, and with each trip since I've removed a flag or two as the snow has melted and begun to reveal the trees that guide the trail.

There were a few brave souls who headed to the RMC camps on a hypothermic spring weekend, such as mountain goat Matt Schomburg of the RMC trails board, a final group of skiers who were kind enough to listen to me talk about composting toilets, and a group of 7 merry men and women among whom I found Gray Knob's previous spring caretaker Matt.

The rain persisted throughout the weekend, with a series of wild variances that included thunder, hail, sleet, high winds, foggy calm, occasional sunshine, and then turning to snow towards the end of Monday. With 1 ½ inches of fresh snow on the ground Tuesday morning, I headed to the valley, passing from snow to the beginnings of the usual ice flow around the Log Cabin and then down to a mud flat below The Link.

Trails may be warm and muddy at the bottom, but winter still blows cold at timberline. Spring is here, in all its wet and cold and sunshined glory. Bringing every day, anew.


April 6-17, 2007

Some might consider spending a week in California's arid and sunny Central Valley before moving into Gray Knob in April a bad idea. The morning I went to hike in, I was already cold before I left Southern New Hampshire, colder still when I pulled off 93 to get gas in Lincoln, and thoroughly chilled when I emerged above the Notch despite patches of sun and it being above freezing. Thank goodness for the delightful hike that is Lowe's Path. It warmed me right up.

From my experience in the Whites, I have come to expect the unexpected. Or at least expect things to be cold, stormy, and occasionally sunny. All this came to pass in my first 11 days, which included lows in the single digits, a single bluebird clear day, two snowstorms, and also a fair bit of intrepid hikers for company and general merriment.

I saw 35 people in 11 days, 28 of which were men. Now maybe I'm just preoccupied with gender, being a woman alone in the woods, but it sure seemed like a lot of dudes. As for more numbers, as a quantified measurement of the unquantifiable experience of being up Gray Knob, I read four books, ate a pound of bacon and half a pound of butter, made it over to the Perch 9 times, spent 3 hours one day chipping at the frozen cones of the outhouse, dug out the cabin from snowdrifts that covered the first floor windows 4 times, talked to one boreal chickadee and one bard owl, packed in a propane tank while breaking trail, met a set of peakbaggingwinterhiking twins who included me in their video narrative, fixed a broken radio by dropping it on the ground, and received two chocolate Easter eggs from guests.

'Eggs for breakfast', he said.

There was one crystal clear blue day, April 11, which I spent 8 hours above treeline, tooling around the Northern Peaks, heading over Jefferson and Adams, and considering Madison, but deciding to just hang out on the Sam Adams snowfields in the sunshine instead. It being the middle of the week, I was the only person up there. I didn't see a soul.

(I also sunburned the underside of my nose, the one spot that I missed with sunscreen. I came to regret this during later snowstorms that had me inside, reading, the moisture of my exhalations irritating the already irritated and chapped skin.)

Looking back from one summit to the next, I could see my footprint trail like you'd imagine the paths of pilgrims but also of resolute peakbaggers. Perhaps I'm a little of both.

When I returned below treeline that day, I was greeted by the aromatic scent of spruce trees freed from their cases of snow and ice. After 5 days in black and white (the snow renders EVERYTHING in black and white, from the sky to the trees to the ground and even parts of my own body that get snowed on and my hair that freezes), the deep rich green of the trees, the blue sky, the colors of the sunset that night, were startling, striking, leaving this (easily amazed) caretaker amazed. I just couldn't stop looking.

The end of my first 11 days was a 3 day snowstorm that started on Sunday and howled through until Wednesday. It left nearly 50" of new snow by the end of it. I woke up on Tuesday and found darkness in the caretaker room--the snow had completely covered the west-facing window. Things get dark when you don't have lights to turn on.

I spent the days reading, drinking tea, watching the wind scour the trees out the window. Went out into the storm to the top of Gray's Knob to feel it's strength, white. I was sorry that I was going to have to leave in the middle of the storm on Tuesday. Gray Knob was perhaps the best place to be in that storm, for not only is it a sturdy little cabin, there is no power to lose, pipes to freeze (well, except for that spring pipe), or roads to slide off of. I was reluctant to leave on Tuesday.

Crag Camp, on the other hand, was not as weathertight at the time. I was going out into the storm twice a day to shovel out the inside of Crag, because there was a patch job on a broken window that had been letting in tons of snow.

What I didn't know was that the patch job on the broken window would BLOW OUT leaving a huge open space where gusting winds rushed up through the ravine (156 was the highest reported by the Obs that day); those same gusting winds blew the snow against the west side of Gray Knob, created a massive drift in front of Crag's privy, and filled the entire inside of Crag with snow.

I discovered this on Monday night, about 7 PM. The sun would set in half an hour, the trail from Crag to Gray Knob was difficult to follow because of the snow and the storm, and there was little I could do from Crag to fix it. I had a tarp back at Gray Knob, but I knew I couldn't make it there and back before things got dark. I stood there with snow around my knees inside the cabin I was responsible for. Suddenly the wind, the snow, the trees became ominous, threatening.

A question I often receive as a caretaker is 'aren't you scared up here all alone?', and with confidence I answer 'no.' And usually that is the truth. But Monday night, that Monday night, I was scared (and angry) when I returned to Gray Knob; I cursed myself for not doing something about that window before the storm, cursed myself for feeling unable to do something about that window immediately, and resolved to do something about it in the morning. I cooked my dinner, talked to Bill on the radio, and then quickly shut my eyes after blowing out the candle, trying not to think about the snow that was filling Crag.

The next day, Tuesday, was the day I was to hike down and go home. The storm was still raging, Caretaker's resolve meant I had to do something about that window at Crag. I went over there, nailed up the tarp into those rushing winds (proving my Dad's theory that what duct tape can't do, a space blanket can), went back to Gray Knob, threw on my pack, and headed out into the storm feeling like a proper caretaker again. A mostly-buried Lowe's Path was there to (mis)guide me back to the valley, where it was raining, windy, and my car was buried in snow.

A very successful and gratifying first 11 days. Expect the unexpected, and maybe save the trips to California for summertime.