Written by Sally Manikian.
April 21-25, 2008
This is it.
The last few days, the arrival of warm weather had me returning to my summer caretaker habits. I filled my days with ambitious chores, with projects, rather than the quiet daily maintenance and gentle hikes of winter. I wore shorts all week, disassembled the woodstove, and finally managed to remove the downed tree (ugh, my least favorite sort-the top section of a birch tree lying lengthwise inside the trail with hedges of hobblebush alongside) that clogged Lowe's Path just after the Link junction.
My time has come to an end. I have been fortunate enough to call Gray Knob home for 8 of the past 13 months. It's time for someone else to have a turn.
Last spring, I decided to give nameless thanks to the RMC, with its throbbing heart of volunteerism. I, again, affirm that nameless thanks, for what volunteers really seek to be named? However, this time, this entry is devoted to the three generous people/ families who made my winter more than just 6 months in the woods.
To the wonderful folks of Lowe's, Alan and Lucille, Suzy, and Kevin. For being patient and helpful with my car problems, providing a friendly send-off into the woods and a warm welcome upon my return, and adopting me as one of your own, evident in your generosity and your stories (and the T-shirt from Disney World!).
To Camps Chair Al Sochard. For
welcoming me into your home, allowing me to hijack your internet,
and for generally being a super boss, but especially so for walking
with me into the woods on January 14th.
The list continues, with Jeff Smith and the Tuckers high on that list. But for the sake of potentially neglecting someone, I stop at these three above who had a strong impact on the dynamics of my time in the woods, indeed setting the field of experience.
On the last night at Gray Knob, I had the cabin to myself. I had the sunset to myself. And sitting by myself in the glow of the lantern, I waited for the buzz of the pager to disturb the stillness. Radio call in the evenings has always been something I've looked forward to, all last Spring, when I would compose rhymes while on rounds, and all this Winter, when I switched out rhymes for a choice selection of the winter landscape to share with Bill.
This final radio call was with Mike Pelchat, another common voice in the darkness. And after breathing that final '9-1 clear', my throat swelled and my eyes misted. I try not to dwell on loss and separation, but you gotta let it out sometimes.
When I left Gray Knob on the morning of the 25th, I was emotional. I even cried a little. The walk away from the alpine zone was slow, an elastic pull. I lingered on Lowe's Path, eye on the blue sky, the rocks of the alpine zone, the stunted gnarled forms of spruce knocked rough by the winter winds I (now) know so well. A landscape, winterscape, and weatherscape, and lifestyle, that I have grown accustomed to.
Wresting yourself from such beauty can be difficult, but it's not a permanent separation, as I murmured into the breeze:
'I'll be back, alpine zone, but in a different way.'
My relationship with the backcountry is changing, from full-time employee to a different kind of steward. Time as a caretaker alters every one, moderates our future choices to some extent. I'm ready.
April 7-14, 2008
Ok, so if I had left Gray Knob at the time that most caretakers tend to end their season these days (at the end of March), then I would have avoided some not so nice things about spring: endless water ice on Lowe's Path, big fat garbage flies inside the cabin, and a cold cold rain. The viewscape upon my departure would still be one of pure white snow, crystalline ice on the trees, and the deep still silence of winter.
But then I would also have missed the parts I love about spring: long days, a warm sun, the birds visiting the cabin (juncos, a yellow rumped warbler and even the chatter of a flock of crossbills), with our lows only in the 20s (although mostly above 32!) outside and highs nearing 50 inside, windows and doors open to the warm breezes. And, importantly, drinking morning coffee on the back porch in direct sunlight.
The caretaker room has recently become cluttered with my unnecessary layers. I exchanged my insulated bibs for my summer trail work pants and my down booties for (gasp!) sneakers. I never reached for my heavy wool socks this week, and it's been ages since I've worn my down coat. My pack down this week was one bulging with uncompressed down, and the impossibly large coat known as 'big red.' I also made an executive decision to bring down my snowshoes. Quid was the one lucky enough to carry down my heavy duty Sorels. At the sight of the two of us with such unwieldy packs, Alan Lowe ran out of the gas station to snap a photo. Next week is my last week, so I tried to lessen the load as much as I could.
As I recognized last April at Gray Knob things have become, well, easy. I no longer maniacally scramble to keep things from freezing, because they won't. I allow water to remain in the red jugs and the grey water to sit overnight before I empty it in the morning. Water is gushing out of the spring pipe, and the ice has receded from beneath. Among the foods I brought up for my week's rations were oranges, bananas, and yogurt. Next week I'll have fresh vegetables instead of the bags of frozen ones I've been using all winter. And to go from food consumed to where it ends up-the outhouse is thawing, the outhouse is thawing!
But let's turn from the minutiae of a caretaker's life to the somewhat more grand scale of seasonal change in the alpine zone. The snow, all that snow and ice that paved the summits since November, is fading fast. Green krummholtz everywhere. Bare rock, and dirt. Sedge grass. Pads of lichens bursting with color and alpine life. My first hikes above treeline were slow paced, as I paused to grapple with and comprehend the change, exclaiming out loud 'oh. my. god.'
Snow holds onto some trails in that 'hardpack hump', but has slipped away from many western facing slopes, exposing the RMC fall crew's work in the alpine zone for the first time this winter. By the end of the week, the Sam Adams snowfields facing north were the only significant areas of snow in the Adams neighborhood above treeline; the snowy beach known as the Gulfside Trail, on the other side of Sam, is tipping more towards a rocky beachwith patches of krummholtz that are Quid-sized (and I know this, as she plops down on them at every chance she gets). Glazed ice on snow softens over the day, rocks edge the icy water flow on the Israel Ridge. In general the trails have become waterfalls-leading to flood watches down in the valley, as our snow stake dropped almost a foot in 7 days.
Many mornings this week I went for a playful leisurely walk with Quid up to Adams 4, without crampons on my feet or a decent jacket on my back. Indeed, I spent most of the week carrying my crampons, but not wearing them. Except for the times I needed a decent grip on the ground/ ice skating rink around Gray Knob to cut ice stairs and free the door of the woodshed from the ice flow that held it shut.
And along with the seasonal change of spring, comes the quiet mid-week of the shoulder seasons. For most of the month of March, the camps were rarely empty. However, this week, from Monday to Saturday, I had Gray Knob to myself, and grew accustomed again to the solo rhythms of caretaking. Crag Camp heats in the sunshine, and I would set aside a block of time in my camp rounds for sitting in that day-baked warmth, evening shadows cast on King Ravine and Quid lazily (and impatiently) reclined at my feet, lingering until I could no longer resist the calls of dinnertime and the Quay's sunset.
This weather had me yearning to sleep outside. Perhaps because the sky was clear, perhaps because the snow was sturdy and flat in a special secret place, but mostly because I was reminded of and ached for the breeze of summer caretaking nights (not that far away). And, anyways, I was starting to get too hot sleeping in the now warm and slightly stuffy caretaker room. So Tuesday night I slept outside, watching the sun slowly fade and the stars slowly emerge. Quid spent most of the night chewing on snow, sighing as she curled in her dog ball, and then gradually nudged her way into my sleeping bag by the morning. So much for her reputation as a tough Alaskan dog.
I did enjoy some quality hikes, and managed to get some projects done, but a decent chunk of my week seems to be missing. What's missing is the two days that I made valley trips. I had already planned to head down on Sunday, for the Arnold's Spring Brunch (the Arnolds do throw a good fete, and I am more than willing to slide down ice to get to one). But I was annoyed that I had to make an unplanned trip to the valley, which was made because I lost a contact lens on Wednesday (man, what a dicey trip to make with one eye).
I generally avoid valley trips, preferring to stay in the woods to both do my job and also make the most of my time in these special places; to make two valley trips in one seven day stint was a strange occurrence for me. But caretakers must be able to see, and also be able to, once in awhile, hold a plate of waffles with homemade syrup in one hand and a mimosa in another.
A quiet mid-week does not mean a lack of day traffic. The warm weather and sunny skies attracted all sorts to my neighborhood. Hikers flocked to Adams, and more than a few groups of skiers teased the edges of their own mortality by heading up and then down Great Gully.
And this quiet mid-week led to a quiet week-end. No one on Friday, and then only 6 at Gray Knob, and 7 at Crag (including our favorite frequent flier, Bruce, who slept inside the cabins for the first time this winter, deciding 'not to 'cave' it.'). Of the small group on Saturday, three stuck around for Sunday night as well, Lisa, Barney, and Dan. They were all kind enough to share their appetizers of fancy cheeses and apples, their dinner of sausage and vegetables, and especially their desserts of Girl Scout cookies and homemade brownies; more importantly, they were fantastic company, company I hope to enjoy again sometime soon.
Although I opened this entry bemoaning the lack of wintry winter, I did get a little dose of it this week. By Sunday, just when I had finally wrapped my head around the arrival of spring, the possibility that the bared rocks and patches of ground were not part of a temporary thaw but indicative of the larger trend towards the terrain of summertime freezing fog returned to the summits, and we picked up a few inches of fresh new snow. Rime ice coated the trees again, and I was greeted by the familiar white coral reef of lacy spruce on the Quay when I returned from the valley on Sunday evening. The temperature didn't dip below 20, but the view of the white snow after such a long week of green spruce, bare rock, and even mud and puddles, was a reminder of the landscape that I had been fortunate enough to call my backyard for the past 5 months.
As I write this now, sunlight has since melted that layer of frost, once visible from the valley. Although that brief moment of winter cracked my 'no sentimentality' rule when heading into the end of a seasonal caretaker stay, the warm breeze has me looking forward to summertime.
And, importantly, to my last week up at Gray Knob. Here's hoping the sun shines. Because it sure does make the water ice on Lowe's look pretty.
March 23-31, 2008
I've always been suspicious of the cultural urge for self-evaluation on the New Year of the Western (Gregorian) calendar. Doesn't it seem a bit suspect that the New Year falls at the time of year when the sun is at the wrong angle for us to get adequate vitamin D? When the day is miserably short, the temperatures bone achingly low, and lately (well, save for this winter) there's not even much snow? While it might make sense in terms of seasonal growth, as the days extend in length and the mercury rises it seems that for self-evaluation at that time of the seasonal year, gloominess is bound to influence the evaluation of a life that might not be so gloomy.
The reason why I bring up this mini-rant on the irrelationship between calendar time, seasonal time, and cultural behavior is because I hit a New Year in caretaker time. It was this same time (give or take a few days) a year ago, that I first walked up Lowe's Path as a Spring caretaker. And along with that realization, came a fair bit of self-evaluation. Considering that this week was warm, sunny, and with some absolutely spectacular days not much gloominess entered in the evaluation of this caretaker's life. Rather, it was the exact opposite-this jaded toasty caretaker was in love.
You know that cliché about young men's thoughts turning to love in the spring? It applies to young women caretakers, albeit in a different way. I just plain loved everything this week. I loved the weather, the wildlife, the backcountry community, the visitors, and of course I realized that I had truly fallen in love with Quid.
Just like my last stint, things were warm. Our lowest (overnight) temperature was 3, and our highs were in the mid 20s. Of course, factor in the sunshine and the mid-20s begins to feel like the low 60s. The cabin was below freezing on only one morning (it dropped only to 22), and even hit 45 over the weekend with a full house! I was waaaaay too warm sleeping most nights, and I found myself shedding my insulated bibs, often removing my hat when I got overheated inside, and rarely wore my down coat. My plastic boots have been rendered unnecessary, so I carried them down this week along with my extra sweater and fleece layers.
My first week at Gray Knob last spring, I was cold. All the time. I was wearing tons and tons of clothing, once listing them all in my journal in a paragraph that took up half the page. And the temps, inside and out, weren't much different than they were this past week. How far I have come.
Although things did get slightly wintry on Saturday, as high winds blew across the summits and a nice dry cold settled around us. The snow stayed unmelted on Quid's coat, and bits of frost collected again on my loose strands of hair and on the inside of my jacket. But it was only for a day. Sunday the sun came out, the winds died down, and the new snow began to settle. I hiked to Adams in only my base layer, no hat, gloves, or wind jacket.
Another weather item of note is that I had to break out the yardstick for our snow stake. The stake only goes up to 60", and with a surprise snowstorm on Friday our stake went up to 63" from 55". Warm sun did dampen the height the next day, but the snow remains deep in the woods at the higher elevations; a trip down the Randolph Path from Edmand's Col on Sunday had me in drifts up to my waist (I was protesting snowshoes for that short section), with Quid bouncing out of sight ahead of me.
The pine marten has been hanging around a bit the past few stints, and on Thursday, he/ she was wandering around the cabin for most of the morning while I was doing my chores. Appearing on top of the woodshed, scurrying up the path from the outhouse, and sniffing around by the trail sign post outside the front door. I wished he/ she would curl up in my lap when I read, but it is a wild animal after all. Later in the week we were also graced with a sighting from the neighborhood red fox, whom I haven't seen since November.
The rhythm of what I can do in a day has shifted as well. One of the things about being a caretaker is the ability to set your own schedule, your own order of doing things (indeed, your own New Year, as I discussed above). Now that it's no longer prohibitively cold, inside or outside, and the day is much longer, the rigid schedule I held over the winter can slack a bit (except maybe in regards to the outhouse).
As a result, many of my days this week were jam-packed. My favorite 'long way to the Perch' hike, over Adams and down the Gulfside Trail and then cutting across to the Perch can be started at 3 PM, as I did on Sunday. I can decide at 2.30 PM to wee-bob down Hincks/ Spur to the Randolph Path and head off on rounds, which I did on Thursday after a morning that included a walk to Adams 4 with Quid, hanging around with the pine marten, finishing a book, cutting snow stairs down to the Gray Knob outhouse, and eating lunch with Abby and Mia (who came to visit, and inspired me and Quid to join them on their sled downhill).
With this warmer weather, I can now wield an axe without gloves. So I've been selectively chopping blowdowns. I say 'selectively', because there's still a lot of snow on the ground. Some trees that are about two inches above my head now won't be so low when the snow melts, and also there are many trees that are still partially buried underneath a layer of snow. Sometimes it's better to let nature take its course. But why did I even bother this early in the season? Mostly because I missed that lovely confident thunk of an axe, flaking out the chips and chunks of wood, and the crack of release when the tree has been cut through. And I wanted to see if my calluses from last season were still there (yup, and to prove it, they started peeling). So any skiers heading up the Randolph Path have me to thank for the few trees I took out from the Pentadoi to the Perch.
Hiking over to Mt. Wash is no longer that daunting a prospect, especially when there's no wind, it's sunny and clear, and the sun sets at 7. Perhaps the only challenge was trying to not die on the boilerplate ice that encases the summit cone; more afraid for Quid than me, I followed the Cog down to Westside Trail and cut over to the ridge, avoiding the slick ice around the Great Gulf. Quid is an incredible winter hiking dog, but I had visions of her sliding, unable to stop herself, and it's a long way down. She did have one spooky fall on the Randolph Path, on the way home, but recovered quickly. She slipped off an icy boulder and slid about 20 feet before she could recover. Her tail wasn't wagging so high after that.
I had hoped to meet backcountry rock star Chris Fithian on the summit, as we had been talking about all winter, but my schedule was thrown off by almost an hour when Quid decided to hike up to Adams 4 (I have farther to hike than he does, even if he does have to climb a big mountain). So I missed Chris (who paged me later that day), but I did get some high mountain hospitality from the obs guys, as always. After some truly fantastic turkey salad, and good company, I was sent home with two of the things I most desired as a winter caretaker: beer and chocolate. Thanks, guys.
As before, this walk to Mt Washington pooped out Quid, who was falling asleep standing up by the Perch, would sit down every time she stopped on the way to Gray Knob, and didn't shoot ahead as much as she usually does on the way to Crag. While over at Crag, chatting with the two guys who were there for a second night, she got bored and lay down on the floor, barely budging when the guys walked around, made loud noises, and even stepped OVER her. When we returned to Gray Knob, she promptly passed out on my bed.
This past week was another busy one in the woods, once again with people every night in at least one of the camps. There was only one night I had Gray Knob to myself! The majority of the crowds were packed into the weekend, but the midweek was peppered with pairs and singles, most of them staying for more than one night. One of the challenges that most caretakers will grapple with at some point in their careers is 'crowded isolation', the sense of being alone in the woods surrounded by people who you meet for only a conversation, or a night. It can produce the kind of ennui associated with city life.
One of my ways of counteracting this 'crowded isolation' is thoroughly enjoying folks who stay for more than one night, as well as welcoming frequent fliers. Monday and Tuesday there were a pair of Pennsylvania lads over at Crag (who I hopefully managed to convince to be caretakers!), and then Tuesday to Friday brought Bob and Dan, on their yearly trip to RMC country. Bob and Dan are long time visitors to the camps, starting in the late 1970s, something I only found out when I asked directly (both of them check the RMC site weekly looking at the weather conditions but also these posts, so hey there Bob and Dan, those cookies you left me lasted about a day!).
Something that I found unique about Bob and Dan was that they spent as much time outside as possible. They'd hike all day, come back for a bit of dinner, and then just go outside and sit by Gray's Knob or the Quay until 8 or 9 at night. Besides finding it admirable, this habit also works for me, because I got some solo time in the evenings, to write in my journal and drink my tea without feeling rude.
Saturday brought tons of folks, and some frequent fliers as well. There was a full house at Gray Knob, 14 over at Crag, two folks over at The Perch (!), and even good ol' Bruce in his snowcave. In addition to Bruce, this weekend was packed with frequent fliers: there was a repeater from last spring, there was Jay who made his third trip to the RMC camps (even if the second one was unplanned, as he bailed on a traverse), and thanks again to the repeat customer (one of a group of four from my previous stint) who remembered my love of Budweiser,. The infamous gourmet French Canadian group arrived as well, with fondue and fancy red meat. Things also didn't really quiet down much on Sunday, with a group of four (one of whom was at Imp last summer the day I was taking down my tent and, along with his wife, helped me move my furniture off the platform) at Gray Knob, and a pair over at Crag that managed to thoroughly woo Quid.
I had mentioned being in love. When I am in love, I stare. I watch. And I stare some more. Sometimes people can find this uncomfortable, (my sister saying 'What do you want?' as I stare at her googly eyed, and a good friend and old co-worker who could tell I was staring at him without turning around, and would sigh wearily with a 'Hello, Sally Ann'), but the birds, the snow, the lichens, and the icy flow along riverbeds don't complain much.
Someone who I couldn't stop staring at this week was Quid. So I made a big step. I told her I loved her. In response, she stared back, got bored, sniffed around on the ground for a bit, stared back, and then sat down, ears perked in the direction of the wind, waiting for us to continue on the walk back to Gray Knob. For those who have been following Quid stories this winter (some of whom, like the Langs, email me, and some of whom I meet at the camps), I hope you enjoy this exciting Quid-bit.
Juliane, the spring caretaker, came up and overlapped with me on Sunday. She was eager to get started, and I gave her some projects to help her settle in. We'll see how she measures up at the end of this week, when I go into the woods for my second to last stint.
So, how did this self-evaluation go at the turn of the Caretaker New Year? Not so bad, as evidenced in this super-long entry when I wanted to share every single exciting and fun and lovely thing, mo matter how minute, that happened in 8 days. Long warm days and feelings of love gave me a much more positive outlook than the one I had in January, when I evaluated my self on the Calendar New Year. I raise my glass (of Perch water, of course) in a toast to this New Year!
March 8-18, 2008
In addition to being a fashionista, as I mentioned in a post early in the winter, I am also obsessed with relational understanding and questions of definition, the way an individual describes the world. This somewhat heavy-handed theoretical penchant made me an excellent student of post-structuralist philosophy and theory, but explained in terms of caretaking gives me an overamplified concern with seasonal change.
In simple winter-to-spring terms, I revel in watching the mercury rise, the day lengthen, and the birds return. The days of deep cold are gone, as is the crisp clear perfection of a subzero day; lately, the hard white coral reef of krummholtz melts and softens in the sunlight. The sun steams the snow on Gray Knob's roof, and clumps up the snow that used to sing in a swish with my steps. As the mercury rises, the threats posed by the stupid cold can be crossed off the list of above treeline challenges (although a significant amount do remain, mind you; this week saw some high winds over the century mark-remember that 231 MPH was recorded in April, after all-visibility as low as 15 ft, the sharp pinch of blowing snow, and also the ever preset avalanche warnings).
This stint had no stiffly frozen facemasks, or frosted sweat on the inner lining of my outer layer. Although we did have subzero nights this past week, the trend is leaning towards an average of teens and twenties. The cabin easily holds a temperature of 32F and above, the thumps and drips of thawing have replaced the cracks and creaks of freezing, and I'm already considering when to trade in my insulated bibs for a pair of 'normal' pants. Quid is changing clothes too, as she's been shedding her undercoat.
Birds have returned, and are regular visitors to 4,300 feet and above. This week a group of ravens frequented the skies above, one hovering and diving above Quid, teasing the little sled dog who wagged her tail and pointed desperately at the bird. The squeaks of a flock of boreal chickadees are everywhere around the camps. I used to hear them occasionally throughout the winter, on warm days in January, on the Perch Path, and sometimes by Crag; the past 10 days I heard them almost constantly. The purr and clicks of juncos will be close behind, followed then by the trills of the winter wren, the flutes of the warblers and thrushes, the see saw song of the kinglets, and of course the call of the ever popular white throated sparrow.
People have arrived as well, as this week there wasn't a single night without visitors at the camps, and only one night that Gray Knob was empty. The majority of these visitors were single hikers and pairs, occasionally overlapping to make a group of 5. Day traffic increased as well; a visit to Madison Col on one particularly sunny day revealed how popular Madison is as a destination as I counted 8 people passing through in the course of an hour. This week brought some guests from significant distances, Ohio, New Jersey, and two groups from Maryland, a reminder that the Whites are a big draw for many beyond New England.
A super long shout-out goes to this flow of visitors: a set of four guys that turned out to have been two pairs rather than a single group, contrary to the camaraderie that had developed among them; Mike who I had interviewed the week before to work for the AMC Shelters program this summer; a French Canadian father and son who managed to make a few jokes between the language barrier and always shared their extra water; another French Canadian couple who were terribly ill-prepared but were still smiling by the morning after I amped their (single!) sleeping bag with lots of extra coats and blankets; Jim and Jim who managed to convince me to try their Scotch (ick, sorry guys!) and then took the edge off with their 'Steak J&J' (steak flavored with jalapeno peppers, garlic, and portabella mushrooms); Fred from Errol, whom I found memorable for his stories about fossils but also his strong relationship with his daughter; Brian, a first-year law student who came bearing some major de ja vu when he started reading article submissions for one of the international law journals (one of my past lives was as a law student, with two years spent as the submissions editor at an international law journal as well); five guys from VT who made my eyes light up when they offered a can of Budweiser; a friendly family I had met in May of last year; a particularly debative and politically opinionated gathering of men on Saturday night; and a group of 8 college kids from Towson University out on a mountaineering course.
I also was thrilled to receive more visits from familiar faces in the past ten days than I have in almost the entire winter. Abby came up twice, having discovered the fun of the swiss bob and also that the trip up and down Lowe's manages to finally tire out their crazy hyperactive dog Mia. I was also graced with the presence of Mike Miccucci for all of 20 minutes before he headed down to pick up his kids. All-star Laura Conchelos braved the ice floes of Lowe's Path to bring me granola and a chance to play the catch-up game, trading tales of her winter at the South Pole for my tales on ice of a different kind. Laura and Abby both benefited from 'big red', a massive red coat on loan that takes up half of the spare bunk in the caretaker room. Those of you who promised to visit have only a few weeks left. (Catherine! That means you!).
Perhaps the one who had the most exciting week was Quid. Quid quickly graduated from off-leash hiking on the Perch route to being off-leash above treeline. She romped through the Sam Adams snowfields, happiest on the day when the winds were blowing strongest. I still clip her in when we meet other hikers, both because she won't walk past them and she has a tendency to retreat to a safe distance. That safe distance, however, can be up to half a mile away, as she displayed one day when she returned to Gray Knob from Crag on her own.
She got chased around Madison Col by a Great Pyrenees mountain dog. He came shooting around the corner, and before I got a chance to grab a hold of Quid, she tore off, the big dog lumbering in pursuit. Visions of the lost sled dog in the Great Gulf terrified me, as I called to her.
In an act I'm still trying to
interpret, she ran back to me. Whether it was accidental or purposeful,
I'm not sure. To show her she did the right thing in returning,
I argued with the Pyrenees for awhile and bonked him on the nose
a few times, while shielding her from his advances (Quid has
now showed me in a dramatic manner what I've already suspected-she's
not a huge fan of boisterous teenage boy dogs).
I would like to note Madison Col one more time in this entry, because it was the site of a major ice-storm. On Saturday March 8th it rained, about an inch (it was also the day I hiked in, and what misery that was). The next day the rain gave way to snow and frost on the trees, as the alpine zone wore its wintry colors of white krummholtz and grey ice among rocks. By the time I made it over to Madison on Tuesday, I was amazed at what had transpired there. Ice encased everything, thick glassy fingers weighing down the trees of birch, fir and spruce and dripping down from the solar panels of Madison Hut. Nowhere else in my northern presidential neighborhood had such a display of ice. More warm days followed by snow later in the week has moderated this ice scape, rendering it more in tune with the rest of the alpine zone.
In sweeping definitional gesture, I tried to show how the past 10 days was winter, but also not winter. I say 'not winter' because I, personally, can call to mind the darkness of December and the cold of January. After next week I will begin trading weeks with the RMC 'Spring' caretaker Juliane, becoming a spring caretaker myself once again. However, for many people (the 8 Baltimore college students, for example) the world of the past 10 days was very much winter-blowing snow, breath-snatching winds, limited visibility, and persistent subzero windchills. An individual's understanding of definitional signs and the signified is grasped through experience and memory, and as a good caretaker and post-structuralist, I refuse to force a hierarchy of standards into that shared realm of experience. For the sake of simplicity, it's still very much 'winter'. Late winter, sure, but winter nonetheless.
February 25-March 4, 2008
'I love it up here.'
So stated a friend of mine, visiting Gray Knob this November. After putting on a drier warmer layer, and thereby no longer distracted by cold, he looked around the snow-covered krummholtz and the view from the Quay. A cobalt blue sky, the white drama of Jefferson's Castellated Ridge, and cool clean air with a light wind. The stripe of the rail trail in the valley on the right, and the ridges of Franconia to the left. Like most visitors, he had a pair of fresh eyes to offer.
For the three people who read these posts on a regular basis (this is including Al, and also Mike Street's mother), you might have noticed that I was MIA for awhile. I was out of commission with a sprained knee.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or at least grants a seasoned caretaker the chance to view a loved place with new eyes upon her return. This was a good 8 days, marking solidly the arrival of late winter/ early spring, both in terms of a steady stream of visitors and lots of precipitation in the form of both snow (late winter) and rain (early spring).
And it all started off with a truly wonderful hike in. The phrase 'wonderful' is not often applied to Lowe's Path, but it does have its moments. February 25 was one of those moments, with mild temperatures, a clear warm sky, and a thoroughly packed down trail. I enjoyed my hike in (crazy, huh?). It was such a great day that I considered taking the Randolph Path over to the Perch. But a steady throb from the bum knee had me electing to minimize the distance walked with a heavy pack.
Every time I leave Gray Knob for my days off, and exit via the Quay, I say (to no one in particular) 'I'll be back, alpine zone.' This was a habit I developed last April when I was a spring caretaker. And on this hike in, when I rounded Dead Man's Turn on Lowe's Path, and then cleared the Escalator onto the Widow's Walk, that flattish stretch just after the FPA sign, I said (to no one in particular) 'I told you I'd be back, alpine zone, it just took a little longer.'
With this set of new eyes, everything was dramatic and exciting. I glanced to the hump of the first false summit of Adams from Widow's Walk, where rocks outnumbered the snow, the trees were clear of ice. On this landscape, alpenglow remained small-scale in the sunset. Which, by the way, has moved a significant distance north. At the darkest point of the winter, the sun set behind the Castellated Ridge. Now it has migrated far beyond the edge of Franconia. Soon it will be at Rte 2. The day is 11hr30min long and rising.
So, we've come to late winter, when precipitation falls in large amounts, whether it be snow or rain. We got both of those at Gray Knob this past week, coming first as snow, as our stake shot from 44" to 58". But I jinxed us by remarking to Bill that it was time to break out the add-on yardstick and it started warming up and raining, the stake dropped to 51", and the wonderful new snow turned to slush and hardpack. Although the longer days and warm sunlight harkens one aspect of late winter/ early spring, the rain and warm temps remind me of another-icky trails.
The pattern of guest visitation this week had a nice rhythm to it. One or two folks, followed by a night of quiet, followed by another one or two folks, followed by a night or so of quiet, and then a smaller group (5) for the two nights of the weekend.
And they all brought things for me. My Monday night guest, Chris, was kind enough to bring me a pound of bacon (which, by the way, had me swimming in breakfast meat-Mike had left me half a pound of bacon, and I had brought up sausage. Oh it was a good week to be a caretaker), and Tuesday's French Canadian couple (who were laughing so much that I didn't get their names), shared their chocolate, wine, and cookies. Wednesday brought an EMS guide and his guide-ee, who came bearing the Berlin Daily Sun, and the weekend guests (a group of four absolutely entertaining and fantastic college kids) brought TWO presents-a bottle of white gas for the lantern, and a bottle of dark rum for the caretaker.
The bum knee had me staying inside a fair bit, creeping along the route to the Perch and Crag through clouds and snowshowers. When the sky cleared on Thursday, and the temperature hovered just below zero, I said to heck with the bum knee, and I went above treeline. I stared dumbfounded at the deep blanket of snow, partly because of this whole 'new eyes' thing, but also because it was a really nice new blanket of snow.
The complete absence of any sort of wind during the week meant that what fell on the summits, stayed on the summits, turning the alpine zone into a giant snowfield. The afternoon's clouds settled around the summits, making for a dramatic shadowed sunset. In my opinion, sunsets are more interesting when clouds are involved. And so ended Thursday.
However, if I thought that Thursday was a nice day...Friday was even more beautiful. It was relatively cold by mercury standards (around 4-6F), but there was absolutely NO WIND AT ALL. Under a warm sun, I went out to celebrate the leap year (it was an extra day of winter, after all) by going on an 'Adams Family Tour,' over Adams 4 (anyone else interested in referring to that as 'Abigail?'), Sammy, JQ, and then big papa Adams himself.
I sat on the summit of Adams for almost an hour, just resting in the sun. Quid stretched out beneath the summit sign, while I chose the view of the Carters and the Great Gulf from the rocks on the edge. After we meandered back to Gray Knob, I sat outside in the front yard and read. The heating power of the sun had warmed the cabin from 13F to 20F, and melted snow off the roof. I knew a storm was moving in for the weekend, so I soaked up the sun while I could.
Oh my goodness, I almost forgot the biggest deal of the past week. I hiked with Quid off the leash.
It was on that leap year Friday, when there was no wind and lots of sunshine. We were headed towards Crag, on our evening rounds that we've been doing every day for the past three months. I paused at the halfway point of the spring, where I drop off my water jug to fill on the return trip. Quid had gotten the lead tangled around my legs, an occurrence I had grown accustomed to, but found tedious when wearing snowshoes. I sighed.
The temptation to unhook the lead had been so strong lately, but the memory of what happened the first week I had her (she got loose, ran away, and it took members of her pack of dogs to bring her back) was also just as strong.
But we had been bonding 24/7 for the past three months, and I had been working with her on both a retractable lead and a 20 ft one. She was listening, and had learned to wait for me before bolting forward again.
I looked at her and asked 'Are we ready for this? Can I trust you?'
Quid lept up and put her forepaws on my shoulders.
'This is too cheesy to be real. Ok, if you insist.'
So I unclipped her. I waved the clip in her face and asked 'Are you going to be good? Are you going to listen?'
I was still nervous and divided, I held on to her collar with second thoughts, and she looked back at me confused as we staggered a little bit up the hill towards Crag.
So I let go.
She stood still, waiting instructions. And when I murmured 'let's go', she started trotting up the hill, with a slight glance backward, and pausing at the top of the rise. When I reached her, I patted her and told her she was a good dog. After another murmured 'let's go', she tore off.
I tried not to panic, to quell the rising shaking feeling from my ribs and fingertips. So I called out to her, to wait.
And sure enough, she was there waiting for me around the corner.
We did this all week, on the mile round trip to Crag. I would clip her back in when we came close to the cabins, and when I would stop at the spring (Quid always wanted to go back to Gray Knob at that point. She never likes our trips to the spring). We even encountered another hiker (Mike, who stayed at Gray Knob for 2 nights), and Quid was relatively calm. Next step is The Perch, and then building up towards the biggest step of all-above treeline.
Take into consideration her age (9), her breed (Alaskan Husky), her temperament (timid and skittish), and her upbringing (working sled dog rather than pet), and you realize how slow of a process this is. Those who have met her, especially those who met her early on, have an idea of what a challenge and project she poses.
After this nice stretch of late winter, where we enjoy the deep snowpack under a warm sun, came early spring on Monday. High winds cleared away that lovely blanket of alpine snow, roaring down King Ravine in echoes, and misting the summits. Warm temperatures and rain came next, as the wind continued. Ice slushed on the Quay, and water ran along the edges of Lowe's Path on my way down on Tuesday. Even my pair of new eyes can only do so much for half-melted trails, water ice, and postholing. Here's hoping for more late winter in the next stint.
January 28-February 1, 2008
There was a time when I viewed heading into the woods for a caretaker stint as a big deal. Stressing over little things I did and didn't have in my pack, fretting about taking one last shower, and signing off my emails to friends as if I was departing for a wild expedition to the ends of the earth.
That view has changed. Over the past two years as a caretaker, I've begun to take a more relaxed approach to my time in the woods. I don't measure out my oatmeal packets and coffee filters neurotically, or refuse hardback books because of extra weight, nor do I panic about what time I have to leave for my hike in. This all is, most likely, due to the fact that caretaking seems terribly normal to me now; accompanying that normality are systems of motor memory and (unconscious) checklists. In other words, I've become comfortable.
But it's a fine line between mental comfort and mental slacking off. I crossed that line this past Monday. Perhaps because I was only going into the woods for 5 days, or perhaps for no real reason at all, the little things were off that day. I lost a glove on my hike in. I failed to charge my camera battery, so I was camera-less for the week. When I arrived at Gray Knob, I picked out my new bottle of contact lens solution from my pack and found that it had leaked everywhere since I neglected to screw the cap on properly. And later that evening, I woke up with a start at 10.30 and realized that I had forgotten to turn off the radio after 8 o'clock radio call.
Yet the theme for this week, running in my mind, wasn't the 'offness' of a short stint, or how things felt disjointed. Rather, I considered a lot how I've developed as a caretaker; importantly, how I've become comfortable, how my relationship to my environment and my view of my job have shifted from the grand themes of difference and the exotic to a more subtle appreciation of the small. A shift in self-perception as well, from the incredible caretaker to someone who is just doing their job. This is a shift that occurred when caretaking stopped being an experiential ephemerality for period of a few months, and became something substantive and practical.
I think this shift is important and humbling. And this sentiment, to put it in the words of a friend, can be understood as 'jaded in its best form.' I might be ambivalent towards the uniqueness of my position, but I still retain the sense of wonder I had at the start. Now that sense of wonder reaches into the realms of the ordinary, the more mundane aspects of my job but also in the comforting cycles of seasonal change. Sometimes the ordinary is the most powerful. I am extremely fortunate that I have been able to make an ordinary life out of living in the national forest.
The ordinary this week, for me, was found in long hikes, short hikes, the effects of the freeze/ thaw cycle of winter, and verbalized in a few long conversations held with a journalist, Steve, where we debated caretaking, travel writing, and that binary of ordinary/ extraordinary.
I had no real plans for January 29. At least until after I heard the weather report at 7 AM, and then I decided to walk to Mt Washington, for no particular reason other than it was a beautiful day. Clear skies. Little to no wind. Trails mostly free of snow, alternating between ice, hardpack, and occasional rocks. A wild inversion had it 36F at 4,370 ft, and 6F down in the valley. When I heard the weather report, I looked at the dog and said 'Let's go get lunch at the Obs.'
At the Perch Path junction, I shed my hat, my jacket, and my mittens. I couldn't wait to reach the glow of light over the ridge at Edmand's Col, where we paused for a sunlight break. Quid rolled in the grass, and even played puppy-like with an expression of pure happiness. I looked to the spine of the Carters, reminded of the summer past where I'd wave to the Gentlemen from North Carter. As always, it took awhile to get around Jefferson, mostly because of the snowfields that both freak me out and awe me with their beauty. After passing little Clay, the summit buildings loomed close, my pace picked up, occasionally I would glance up at the window I knew was the weather room. Clear water ice was thick on the path; Quid still wagged her tail as she walked behind me with a steady step.
There were many friendly and familiar faces at the Obs that day, both expected and unexpected. The summit crew was hosting the Mt Washington Commission, and I received a warm welcome from the observers, other MWO and state park staff, and also some of the guests there as part of the commission (many thanks to Edie Tucker, who took the photos that accompany this post and was kind enough to share). After raiding the leftovers from the fridge, (turkey! stuffing! chocolate cream pie!), and Quid receiving a sound smack on the nose from the new cat Marty, we headed back to our own neighborhood.
The clouds dropped shortly after we left the summit. Passing across Monticello Lawn the snow began to fall, pelting and pinching my face, and crusting Quid's coat white on the windward side. Yet even then, when we made it back to Edmand's Col, it was warm enough still for me to not need my hat. On the Randolph Path I could smell the cool melt in the air, damp clods of fog. Wisps of moisture, clouds of weather around the summits. Drops and drips of melt and slush from the trees. Fragrant aroma of spruce. Snow fleas flecked my foot prints on the Perch Path.
And for the first time, Quid was tired. As we paused by the spring at the Perch, she began to fall asleep standing up. It's rare that I manage to tire out this tough little sled dog.
On January 30, the mercury held high through to the morning, a damp and wet 40F at 7 AM. But by the end of the day, the thaw had frozen: it was 10F. When I think about the 'freeze/ thaw cycle' effects on the landscape (tumbling rocks of the Ramparts in Carter Notch, or even the shift of my own rockwork on the trail) in the summertime, I am under the impression that it was a single freeze (late fall) and single thaw (late spring). To grasp the long span of geological history, it is easier to think of the freeze/ thaw in those simple terms-a blanket concept addressing an accumulation of seasonal change from winter to summer.
But of course, the reality is different. Sure, as a longstanding New Hampshire-ite, I appreciate the existence of the January thaw, but even that is too simple. We have had many of those freeze/ thaw cycles so far this winter: Thanksgiving, the week and weekend before Christmas, the January thaw proper, and then the two days this past week. These are times when the hoarfrost fell in clumps off the windows, water flowing under the cabin. Lichens poke up alongside exposed rocks. Puddles on the Quay.
Then it freezes. The alpine zone is currently covered in the evidence of that cycle. The ice skating rink of Edmand's Col at the lip of Castle Ravine, and the glassy solid water flow that encases Mt Washington.
These are the events of the small, when one notices everything in a moment of time, courtesy of that overwhelming perceptiveness that Annie Dillard makes a living out of, but that we all feel to varying degrees when alone in the woods.
One can also consider the impact of the freeze-thaw cycle in another form of ordinary. And what's more ordinary than a driveway in a southern NH suburb? At my mother's house, slushed wet snow fell yesterday. Cooler temps loom on the horizon. Forward-thinking folks will scrape their driveway clear of slush to avoid later labor with salt and tools to remove the dams of ice. So goes the freeze-thaw cycle in the valley.
Late Wednesday brought Steve, a journalist from a paper in Connecticut, and he overlapped with me on Thursday. Steve has come to Gray Knob to experience caretaking, and then write about it. He has a column where he tries out different jobs; and as a person drawn to the mountains, it was only a matter of time before he decided to try a hand at caretaking. After overlapping with me for a day, he took over for the weekend, giving me (and Mike) something rare in this world of seasonal employment: a paid vacation.
Pointing out the duties and chores of my job, the workings of our radios and the high/ low thermometer, I became aware of what forms of knowledge and experience I had begun to take for granted. For some time now, I've been contemplating my views of caretaking and life in the national forest, the work I do with my hands and a stout rock bar in the summer, and the more ascetic lifestyle of the winter. But it took a travel writer to bring that dichotomy between ordinary/ extraordinary again into focus, and it was from our conversations that I developed the long musing at the opening of this entry.
So perhaps, ironically, it was a dollop of hubris that had me composing such a lengthy entry about the shrinking of hubris as a caretaker, but those thoughts came from the events of the week nonetheless. Hopefully soon I'll be able to post the link to Steve's article, providing a different view on a job I've been happy to have for so long.
January 14-21, 2008
'I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.'-Willa Cather.
Because it's January, my least favorite month of the year, but also because it's a positive mental exercise that I do often, this week I worked on my list of things I love. Many of these things are part of my 'other' life (my friends and family and also the sled dogs), but many of them are around me at Gray Knob: the slow acquisition of ice on the trees; dandelion fluffy snow clinging to thin limbs of birch; the sight of 'Easter Island Rock' on the Gray Knob trail (caretakers tend to name sections of the trails they walk often); the satisfying click of the front door when closed properly; alpenglow on winter slopes; white stripes of rime collecting along the seams of my outer layers; wind whipping the Great Plains of Lowe's Path; lacy krummholtz above treeline; Quid shoving her nose deep in the snow, giving short blows to clear her nostrils, enthralled by the mystery of some scent. In general, winter seems a bit less depressing when living in the national forest.
My other way of dealing with the January blues is reading children's books; E.B White, Narnia, and Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. Next stint will be dedicated to Madeleine L'Engle. This passive therapy combined with the active recognition of love of my job and my environment is what brings me through.
There are signs that winter is starting to turn a corner, even though the low was -20 this week with the colder days of February still to come. Tuesday the sun baked warm, melting snow on the Perch Path even though the temp was in the teens; with the snow damp and clumpy under my feet, I was sweating in only my base layer. We sat outside and read in the sun on Thursday, me in the Davis Woodruff memorial rocking chair and Quid digging a snow nest under the trees, her black fur warm to the touch from baking in the sun. The days have grown longer (9hr 33min!), with ambient light until around 5; likewise, I feel the length of the day as I head to the Perch later and later. And I breathe a long sigh of relief.
It also helped that this week was a particularly busy one in the woods. Partially because it was a holiday weekend, but also because in winter proper, we get more hikers and guests. There were guests every night except Monday, and a full house on Saturday; among all the camps, we had 32 people that night! (to put this in perspective, that's more than my two November stints combined).
One pair of visitors that stands
out is a father and son who spent two nights earlier in the week.
They stand out because they were quiet, the kind of quiet that
comes from a friendly shyness, and I admired their comfortable
friendship with each other. They spent their evenings sitting
by the woodstove, reading, and sometimes exchanging comments
in low voices. After I thanked them profusely for sharing a few
chocolates one night, the next morning they left me a small pile
on the table by the door, without saying a word.
These guys were on a Presi traverse, heading North to South, and faster hiker knew something was up when he was waiting a bit too long in Edmand's Col. Turns out slower hiker, his head down and not consulting a map, got turned around at the junction of the Israel Ridge trail and the Gulfside trail, following my tracks down to the Perch (I had been up and over Adams earlier that day), and then all the way to Gray Knob. At sunset I met faster hiker when I was out at the Quay with Quid; luckily his hiking partner was spotted not long before, continuing down the Gray Knob trail towards Crag. Faster hiker found slower hiker by the spring, and both of them spent the night at Gray Knob.
(oh, and it's also handy to refer to them as 'faster hiker' and 'slower hiker' because these guys were both named Dan).
These guys were out to test their gear for a South American expedition, and I argue that they did not pass with flying colors. Take home lesson? The group hikes as fast as the slowest hiker. This story could have ended differently.
Friday brought Al, bearing a
pound of bacon for me and hot dogs for Quid. But Al's primary
purpose for coming to Gray Knob was to guide a family of a 7
year old boy, his especially generous father and his cousin.
They shared their beef brisket (oh my GOD red meat and/or bacon
is a way to this caretaker's heart) and I brought them a bottle
of water from the Perch spring. Also among the weekend crowds
was a pair of friendly French Canadians who I had met my first
weekend in April.
This kind of weather produces many different kinds of reactions. Some returned to the cabin with a gleam in their eyes, exhilarated by the wind and cold and rime-encrusted rocks on the summits. Phillip, one of the French Canadians, was one of these people--he went up to the summit early Sunday morning and came back positively glowing from his time in the wind and ice. Then there were others, who came into the cabin and sat down, wearied and quiet. Perhaps with disappointment from failing to bag all the peaks, because after a moment they would begin to argue how wild and inhospitable it is outside. One way to make yourself feel better about failure is to emphasize the challenges that were in your way, those things that you can not control.
I stayed below treeline, knowing what it would feel like up there, satisfied doing my Sunday chores around the camps. I was content watching the blowing snow on the Gulfside from Crag's porch, and the feathery tails pluming up from the Israel Ridge all firey yellow with alpenglow when on my way to the Perch.
As for myself, I wasn't overly
ambitious this week. Sure, I made it up to Adams twice, and to
the Perch 6 times, but this week was not a big one for hiking
for me. January blues and all, I spose. One thing I did do was
hang out a lot with the dog, and enjoy our developing relationship.
Although still skittish and timid, Quid has started to come out of her shell, wandering around the cabin during the evening and mornings, sniffing the visitors but mostly standing near me and keeping an eye on everything that's going on. She has begun to associate my cooking with her dinner, as I've been feeding her ground beef that I thaw out a bit first on my cast iron pan. She's started to beg from others as a result, poking her nose up to the table, intently seeking the food that is giving off such a tantalizing scent.
I opened this entry with a quote from Willa Cather. The sentiment in that quote was present very much in my mind this week, and was only given words yesterday when I received that quote in an email. For its appreciation of trees, but also for the reminder of the parts of life that we must face with resignation. One of those parts, for me, is the January blues. Thank goodness that this winter I have Quid, children's books, but most of all Gray Knob.
December 31, 2007-January 7, 2008
I'm trying to write this entry at my family's house in southern NH. My younger, developmentally disabled, brother is in the room with me watching 'I Love Lucy,' but the antics of Lucille Ball aren't half as distracting as David's occasional conversations.
One of David's conversational fixations is on snow. My brother does not like snow. Every day, whether it's February or July, he asks whether it's going to snow. Usually, with only a look from me, he will answer his own question ('oh, only up North!' or 'no, it's summertime!').
When I returned from Gray Knob this week, he was thrilled. To see me, of course, but also for another reason:
'Is it going to snow, Sally?'
'No, no snow.'
'Oh, that's because it's springtime!'
'David, it's not going to be springtime until the snow's gone.'
'But it's so warm!'
'David, it's still winter. Trust me.'
My brother was fooled by the January thaw, with temps in the 60s down south and in the 40s and 50s up north. Considering this thaw came after some serious cold, and will be followed by more serious cold next week, I tried to give him some perspective. Which is difficult to explain to someone with radically different perceptions of time, memory, and seasonal weather patterns.
But even I forget too. That it was really cold last week (a low of -19), with snowstorms and windchill warnings. On Monday, the day I hiked down, I was surrounded by trees melted green, pieces of damp rock exposed through slush, snow stake dropping below 30", water ice on the trail by the Log Cabin, temps in the 40s I found myself somewhat fooled into thinking it was spring.
So much for my increased capacity for reason and memory.
Anyways, this week (as is to be expected during this holiday) was a busy one at the camps. Life in the cabin was full of distractions, with over 40 people. Including two girls (in a larger group of Canadians who stayed two nights) who were goofy and animated and deaf, and a lot of fun to 'talk' to (or mime to, in my case, since I don't know sign language), as well as my first repeat visitor of the winter who I had first met in April. I enjoyed lots of chats with guests next to the woodstove, many delectable treats (yum yum fresh chicken tortillas, cranberry goat cheese, roasted red pepper wraps, and homemade brownies) and Quid poked her head out and wandered around the cabin sniffing people, allowing a select few to scratch her ears.
Most people apologized for disturbing my solitude, but, to be honest, it was nice to have the distraction. In my many seasons of caretaking, I have had much solitude, and certainly enjoyed it; but other people are just so much more interesting than myself alone. One of the things I find fascinating as a caretaker is what transpires in that nexus between people and wilderness, how individuals and groups behave in and interact with the mountains. People come with so many different characteristics and habits, and also (especially so at the RMC camps) from so many different backgrounds. Certainly one of the things one must accept about the Whites is the presence of people, and in my time here I have come to really enjoy the people who frequent these hills.
However, the one sort of characteristic I find slightly less than enjoyable are fee bums. Due to the softer weather and easier trails, crowds increase in July and August-high season for the fee bum, who complains not so much about the presence of shelters but about the dollars they pay to stay in them. The winter tends to attract a different crowd, one more aware of the utility and history of the mountain clubs.
So imagine my surprise when I got to the Perch on Wednesday (after a truly spectacular hike through rolling and turning midlevel clouds with bursts of sun, on 8" of newly fallen snow) to not only find people there (a surprise at any time in the off season) but find a group of three guys from North Carolina who starting taking potshots at the RMC and pay shelters.
So what did I do? I smiled, and said, 'I'd recommend that rather than head over the Gray Knob Trail to the Hincks Trail, you start heading down the Randolph Path. Within less than a mile you'll run into some flat patches of ground where you can stake your tent, much sooner than your original plan. Fill up with water here, it's the best water in the Whites.'
After they left, I shook their bad vibes from my head as I walked slowly back to Gray Knob, pillows of undercast and sunset off to my left in the west. By the time I reached the Gray Knob trail, I loved my job and respected myself again. And the large group of Canadians, joyous and happy to be at the cabin, restored my positive interest in the people who come to these mountains.
(a few days later, I encountered a friendly hiker at Thunderstorm Junction, who had stayed at the Perch the night before, arriving late after dark, and was en route to Gray Knob to put $7 under the caretaker door. Three cheers for that unnamed hiker!)
Many a night the temperature has bottomed out below zero, but many a morning has brought the mercury back up to zero or more by midday. Thursday January 3rd was my first subzero DAY this winter, with a low of -19 and a high of -6, and like many really cold days, the sky was clear and the winds were high. Clouds of blowing snow misted the summits as both me (and Quid, rolling as always in the sedge grass in the 'great plains' of Lowe's Path) and the Canadians headed for Adams. Later that day, my walk back from the Perch was through landscape of alpenglow. It was one of those days when I think to myself how much I love what I'm doing and how much I will miss it when it's over.
The next day, 8 degrees never felt so warm.
But after that deep cold came the warming trend that has brought us to this deep warm January thaw. Into the teens on Friday, the 20s on Saturday and the 30s on Sunday. Saturday I spent most of the day above treeline, hiking a bit, wee-bobbing as well, but mostly just sitting with the dog and drinking hot cocoa. Saturday night it was over 40 inside without a fire. Nothing froze, most things melted. Sunday was de ja vu all over again, as I spent the day mopping up dripping melt from around the cabin, getting the puddles of water out of the windowsills as I did the last Sunday. I slogged around the camps without my hat or gloves, and would have left my raincoat were it not so damp outside.
All of the above, the snow pack, the massive amounts of foot traffic, and also the melt and thaw, made for ideal swiss-bobbing conditions down Lowe's Path. (for those of you not in the know, google Swiss-Bob, or refer to Chris Fithian's description in his entries here). I am a total conservative when it comes to risks (I injure myself when walking, so going faster than walking exponentially increases the likelihood of bodily harm, hence why I don't ski) so I did step gingerly down some of the steeper sections above the Log Cabin, but I could make it almost continually from the Log Cabin down to the powerlines. Gray Knob to Lowe's in about an hour. Not bad.
So as I wrap this up, my brother has moved on to PBS afternoon children's TV, and has dropped the subject of snow for the more pressing concern of what we're having for dinner. Tomorrow he will be back on the topic of snow, and much to his dismay, it will be snowing again soon enough. But for now, I'm going to sit outside and bask in the sun and heat. Happy January Thawing everyone!
December 17-24, 2007
It really truly snowed. I had been so obsessed with temperatures, highs and lows and subzeros, that I forgot about snow pack. Sunday December 16 was a snowstorm proper, bringing the snowstake to a respectable 36", evening out the snowpath and raising the hiker towards branches of spruce and fir. This storm also buried the Crag outhouse (although NOT as bad as it can be buried in those storms of April, as I learned this past Spring). The first official day of winter came on December 21, giving a calendar justification for referring to myself as a 'winter' caretaker. But more so than the calendar justification and the need for serious snow shoveling, I feel confident in referring to myself as a 'winter' caretaker because, for the first time, 'winter' impacted our shift change on Mondays.
At the beginning of every caretaker's shift is something that can't be changed or ignored: the hike into the camp. Since becoming a caretaker, I've had some truly spectacular hikes in, but it's the ones in less than favorable conditions that I bring up now: postholing and mud in the spring, pouring rain in the summer, sideways sleet in the fall, and water ice and snow in the winter.
For me, my worst hike in was this past summer. The weather was mild and sunny, my pack wasn't particularly heavy, but my forearms and much of my legs were swollen and burning with a violently nasty case of poison ivy. I often stopped to raise my arms above my head to slow the throbbing, waiting for the prescription medication to kick in, cursing in pain and discomfort. That case of ivy pushed the boundaries of what I can tolerate while doing my caretaker's commute.
I tried to keep that hike in mind when I hiked in this past Monday. The driveway to Stearns couldn't be plowed, the Amphibrach/ Spur/ Hincks was unbroken, and although Mike had left Gray Knob at 8.30, he wasn't down by noon (a later conversation revealed snow up to his waist in places, reaching his own boundaries of tolerance as he shouted and cursed into the silence of the Spur Brook). High winds whipped the summits, well over 100 MPH on Mt Washington and cold and gusty enough up at Tuckerman Ravine in the morning to make Doug concerned, deciding to call and warn me about conditions higher up.
Facing certain deep snow on the Amphibrach, and uncertain timing of meeting with Mike, I decided to head up Lowe's Path. Lowe's had been slightly broken out during Sunday's storm by a group of three guys, and was more exposed to the high winds that had started slabbing up the snow. It was slow going, but not as slow as it could have been. Quid walked behind me, waiting for me to get my footing on the steeper sections before she lept up with enviable ease. The temperature grew cold as the trees grew shorter, and although that steep section from the Log Cabin is enough to keep a body warm I still needed a sweater to insulate myself from the wind.
At Gray Knob already were a group of three architects (well, architect-related, as they all work for an architect's firm), one of the many groups who pass through Gray Knob as part of their own yearly tradition. These guys came with caviar, many kinds of fancy cheeses and thin sliced pepperoni, as well as clementines that they warmed over their stoves. High winds kept them off the summit that day, and the subzero morning on Tuesday had them lingering on the Quay only just long enough to enjoy the view and the clear skies.
Tuesday was a cold day inside the cabin. Writing in my journal, my hand grew cold as it rested against the chilled pages. I chipped a tooth on a piece of frozen chocolate, and added another layer under my down. Occasional cracks echoed in the main room, moisture giving way to ice as things freeze. I thought of one of Storm's favorite winter caretaking stories at Gray Knob, about the cork popping out of the bottle (much louder than those occasional cracks I hear!), but also of the way Hawk explained the challenge of living in the cold-the freezing of the water inside our own bodies. The crack of ice in my water pots is not too far off from the crack of ice of frostbite.
When I heard the voices and steps in the snow on Wednesday afternoon, sitting with my book closed about to put on my boots and head to The Perch, I was surprised. Quid had been pacing around the cabin, because of an airplane rumbling overhead just a moment before. But she stopped and looked right at the door, ears alert and directed towards the new noises.
'Let's see what's going on', I said to her, and opened the door to a group of 3 Dartmouth kids.
'There's another couple behind us, with two dogs', one of them said.
Quid was shaking and nervous in the doorway. The weird thing was, I started shaking a little bit too. I was thrown off my mid-week routine, finding myself all out of sorts, as I stacked some wood by the stove for later, and would stammer and repeat phrases to this group ('uh, water is a quarter of a mile down that trail, get yourselves set up and I'll be back in about an hour, and will get the stove going after I head over to Crag, and water is a quarter of a mile down that trail').
Shortly after the three Dartmouth kids, there arrived the couple, Chris and Angela, with the two dogs, intact male Labrador Retrievers, named Cain and Jaxon. Chris and Angela hail originally from the Northeast, and after nearly 10 years in North Carolina, they're relocating back up here; their visit to Gray Knob was preceded by looking at a few houses in Gorham.
Oh, and Angela, by the way, is 18 weeks pregnant. Although she referred to herself as wimpy in the cold and the terrain, I think otherwise. Chris was well impressed by Quid and she certainly didn't refuse his ear scratches or the many treats and bits of food he offered.
Thursday was warm and wet, mid 20s outside with snow, and inside stayed at 35. I mopped the slush off the west windows, my frozen pear went soft. It was quiet and still, as the Dartmouth kids headed for the summit, and Chris and Angela and the dogs headed down.
The snow passed on, and the next few nights were remarkably clear. The almost-full moon made for a series of wonderful walks to Crag and above treeline. Having become comfortable with daylight, the landscape in grey cloud but also brilliant white with clear blue, the moonlit mountains were an exciting change. Darkness is unavoidable this time of year, as the daylight hours have shrunk to 9 hours and 3 minutes; the least I can do is enjoy it. But even though I did enjoy the nighttime this past week, I was happy to see the arrival of December 21, my favorite day of the year. From that day on, the days will grow and lengthen, reaching towards the 15 hours of May and June.
On a side note, having delighted in my new hobby of peakbagging this Spring, I decided to challenge myself this winter and up the ante. After completing my '5,774 in 7' (hiking to the summit of Adams in every day of the week, my own version of '48 in 12'), I felt kinda empty and directionless, until I came up with a new idea: to try a winter '5,774 in 7'. This past week I managed to knock off Friday and Saturday; if it's going to be that easy, I might have to toss in some of the other Adamses, or Jefferson and Madison. A '7 days of the Gentlemen', if you will. I'll keep you posted with my progress!
Even though the weather this weekend was wonderful, the summits breaking free of clouds on Friday and above a thorough undercast on Saturday, the camps remained empty both nights. Potentially because of the dismal forecast for Sunday, and also the proximity of Christmas. (speaking of, the Randolph carolers are always kind enough to add Gray Knob to their rounds, and I was caroled to on December 21st)
Sunday morning it was warmer outside (32F) than in. I put out the rain collector for the precipitation that I knew was coming. Wind whirled around the cabin, knocking me against the wall when I went to dump the gray water (Mt Wash recorded a high of 103, and it was up to 50 down in the valley). By the end of the day, the outside temperature was a balmy 40F, and stuff started seriously melting: water running beneath the cabin, the back stairs wet and clear of ice, the thump of hoarfrost falling off the windows inside. I spent much of the day sweeping and mopping, evacuating as much of that moisture as I could before the inevitable freeze the next day. Ballpoint pens thawed out and wrote easily, Quid lay on her side stretched out in the warmth. I wiped the counters and tables clean with bleach, relieved and confident that it wouldn't ice up and slush with each stroke.
But this thaw was quick, by morning the temperature dropped to a more respectable 12F, the refrozen ground dusted with a new blanket of snow. The wind continued gusting around the cabin, and the one guest Sunday night, Gray Knob's first winter caretaker Jeff Bean, was uncertain about heading above treeline.
One thing I was certain about was that it was going to be a stiff hike down. I donned my crampons, walking on top of the snow that I had waded through only a week before. But although my hike down was much more pleasant than my hike up, the fierce winds in the valley had managed to blow one of my windows off my car and the sudden change in temperature had flattened my tires. At first I was annoyed at winter's further intrusion into my commute, but then I was relieved-because of the winter intrusion on the previous Monday, I parked at Lowe's store, a good place to be when faced with car problems. Sometimes things have a way of working out. Thus, the poison ivy hike still holds first place as my worst caretaker commute.
December 3-10, 2007
Driving is always a bit stressful for me, but for driving in winter I reserve the kind of stress that gives me eye tics. Snowstorms slush the roads, obscure visibility, and slow those fast machines known as cars to a crawl. Afternoon sun can clear up the mess left by morning snow showers, but as temperatures hover around the freezing mark, the snow only melts so much. Bridges freeze first, the cooler surface of the left hand passing lane threatens black ice. But it is not only bad weather than makes driving a challenge in the winter months, as that afternoon sun slants perfectly into drivers' eyes, reflecting off the ever-present crust of sand and salt on windshields that (I swear!) were only just wiped clean.
For all of the above reasons, when the first significant snowstorm came to the North Country on December 3rd, I was relieved that the closest I came to driving was crossing Rt 2 on foot, as I walked straight from the door of Stearns Lodge to the door of Gray Knob.
This December 3rd snow brought our snow stake to a more reasonable 15", and with it came (what I hope is) the beginning of our winter snow pack. This starter layer fluxed throughout the week, as wind sculpted and whipped the loose flakes into shape. Initially, the light fluffy snow made for a winter wonderland, still and quiet on my walk to the Perch, trees white with that dusting, three inches delicately perched on the thin limbs of birch.
The next form of winter wonderland came midweek, wind stripping the trees of snow and upsetting the balancing act I had witnessed earlier. Blown free of snow, the green spruce gave the illusion of melt; a closer look showed the 'melted' fir and spruce covered in minute ice crystals, frosted with moisture wicked from the air. High winds and blowing snow shrouded the summits, and kept this winter caretaker below timberline.
Then came the third stage. Friday came with freezing fog, cutting a profile of white among the trees and steadying the snow beneath my feet as it thickened with increased moisture. The firs around the cabin turned white again, stiff with rime ice rather than soft cuddly snow. The dynamics of winter weather are one of flux and development, effecting their change on the Whites differentially, an expected kind of unexpected that turns one into a lover of winter wildness.
Moving on from this indulgent discourse on environment, let's say that I enjoyed this past week.
I enjoyed this past week for reasons beside the meteorological dynamics of the alpine zone. Friends came to visit me, Al made it up too, and there was a cozy Saturday night group of guests but perhaps the largest influence on the timbre of my week was a small sled dog named Quid.
My second job this winter is as a sled dog musher, with the Muddy Paws Sled Dog Kennel (shameless promotion, I know). Quid is one of our dogs up for adoption, a 9 year old Alaskan Husky who has run the Iditarod. Many dogs have weathered winter, but it is a select few that make it through the five months as a caretaker's companion at Gray Knob. I am confident that Quid has the qualities (and the ridiculously thick coat!) to do so.
Quid is a challenge. Her life has been limited to a sled dog's life, being staked out in a kennel with up to 70 other dogs, calling a wooden box her doghouse and running circles on the frozen ground her exercise. Although trained to pull while in a harness (and pull she did, all the way up to Gray Knob attached to my waist), she is not trained to be off-leash. She has no toys, she has no dog bed. Although different from most domesticated dog lives, Quid is happy in her sled dog life.
Needless to say, taking her out of that world has been a shock, with each new experience sending her into pacing circles and frantic panting. With some coaxing and attention (and many many ear scratches) she will calm down.
Given what she's been dealing with, Quid settled in well, spending much of her days sleeping in the caretaker room, and joining me on rounds. I would take her on walks to the Quay, and above treeline, where she happily rolled in the sedge grasses and frolicked in the snowdrifts on the Spur trail. Al brought her a hot dog, and I would share my bacon with her. I watched her tail closely, a measure of her mood; the sight of that high wagging husky tail when out in the snow or saying hello in the morning brought a smile to my face every time.
This week was a quiet one for guests and hikers on the weekend, but before I get to that, I am pleased to report that the normal midweek quiet was broken by visits from friends. Wednesday brought a visit from camps chair Al Sochard, who stubbornly braved the cold inside (maybe around 19F?) for a whole hour before leaving, using volunteer work for Obama as an excuse.
That same Wednesday, I also had friends visit me. As I've noted before in my Spring entries, I don't have many friends who hike, have the free time to spend a night in the woods, and are willing to brave cold and water ice to see me. Wednesday brought caretaker extraordinaire Joanne, a current Cardigan Lodge caretaker, past Zealand and Carter caretaker, and fellow AMC shelters comrade. She came with a friend Noah, both bearing dinner, fresh cider from the divine Cardigan Mtn Orchard and homemade fudge from Noah's family fudge shop (more shameless promotion, I know, but as a 'locavore', I support small family-owned businesses!). We enjoyed (my second) fire, hot apple cider with a dash of, erm, rum, caught up on the latest gossip and compared notes on both winter caretaking in the backcountry and at a frontcountry lodge (I was at Cardigan myself, last winter). Subzero weather the next morning had us electing to warm up the fruit smoothie Joanne had packed up, and doing the Eskimo Boot Dance to try to get her feet going.
My life this week inside the cabin became cold, reaching an internal low of 16F on Friday morning, Thursday was my first subzero morning (it warmed to zero by mid-day). I was slower leaving my sleeping bag, sighed with resignation when my water pots froze solid, and scraped ice off the window sills to keep myself moving.
But yet even with this cold, I didn't mind as much as one might think. Part the benefit of life in the thoroughly cold, I've begun to find, is that I don't have to submit my body to a major temperature shock when I go outside. The average house holds at about 60F in the winter, yes? That's a big difference between in and out, just like the air conditioning shock of summer. As a result, I find myself shivering cold more often when I'm down in the valley because I'm denied the chance to acclimate like I do up at Gray Knob. Of course, I may quickly be changing my tune when we hit the deep cold of deep winter, but for now it ain't so bad.
Friday night came and went with no visitors to the camps. Saturday was quiet as well, bringing only a handful of day traffic to the cabin, a group of 6 at the Perch, and only 5 at Gray Knob. 3 of those 5 were current AMC hut caretakers, 'roughing it' between hutchecks. The other 2 were kind enough to bring up a stick of wood, but like most folks, were disappointed that I didn't create a roaring warmth inside. And, like most folks, they were slightly envious of my dinner, as the smells of cooking sausage filled the cabin.
Sunday the weather report from the Observatory seemed forbidding-high winds, low temps, perhaps clouds and snow later. The three AMC hutcheckers headed down, still having to climb the Ammie to Lakes of the Clouds, and the other two guests were apprehensive about the forecast. After a photo op by the Quay, they also slid down the trail to Lowe's Store.
After my morning chores, I harnessed up the sled dog and poked my head above timberline. Light winds, mostly clear skies, iridescent snow. I sat up on Adams 4 with the dog, drinking hot cocoa as she fidgeted and insisted on trying to curl up on a slanted rock, despite the nice pillows of snow by my feet. It was a beautiful day to be a caretaker, and I slid down the Spur Trail to do my Sunday clean out of Crag in the afternoon.
I descended through morning snowshowers on Monday, Hincks broken out by guests but deeper light snow on the Amphibrach. Quid bounded through snow up to her chest, pulling me along so that I wasn't walking so much as moving my legs. After we crossed Rt 2, I exchanged my hiking boots for a pair of car keys, and hit the road to visit my mother, sun slanting in my eyes through a salt-encrusted windshield. Ah, the stresses of winter weather.
November 19-26, 2007
Being a creature of habit and routine, things always seem a little out of whack when I break up my stints as a caretaker. Thus it is only for compelling reasons that I abandon my post, reasons such as funerals, friends from far out of town (Northern Ireland out of town), but most importantly family-style holidays where I am required to carve the turkey. This week, I broke up a 7 day stint with Thanksgiving.
And in looking back at the past 7 days, it feels so inadequate as a stint. Two nights here, three nights there, spaced apart by a holiday make me feel like I wasn't really there at all. What is there to say about 5 days spent up at Gray Knob, when at least half of them were used in going to and from the cabin? Moreover, something feels missing, and that 'something' is those quiet midweek days that I so enjoy, with ample time to stare into space and into the trees, to be alone on the mountain. 7 days, in general, always goes by quickly, but even more so when it's chopped up into bits that even my strained verbosity and search for a common theme can't tie together.
Well, the one thing I do like about choppy stints is the light pack in, 2 days of food rather than 7 (or 11, which is what I'm accustomed to). I always feel every pound on my back once I start heading up the Spur Trail, and especially so in that last 1/3 mile of the Hincks Trail. Combined with the lovely weather (mid 20s, mostly clear, light wind), and fresh snow from over the weekend, I would say that I had an enjoyable, even satisfying, hike in on Monday.
At least until I got to the cabin. Mike had warned me about how a few visitors might have left the place in slightly-less-than-ship shape. And he was right. Between the ice dripped all around, the snow dusted on tables and benches as well as the floor, and the inevitable pieces of trash shoved in my trash can, I certainly had my work cut out for me the next day.
As caretakers, we do have our work cut out for us, especially so here at the RMC where we have four camps to manage. Certainly during the quieter mid-week, the maintenance is not a major demand on our time. But the recovery from a busy weekend is no small potatoes, especially in the winter when things in general take longer to do.
At 10:50 the next morning, I made this entry in my journal, copied verbatim here:
In choosing to draw attention to this two hour segment of my Tuesday, rather than the snowdrifted windiced and indeed rather glorious trip to the Perch or the truly spectacular sunrise, I'm not complaining. Rather I point this out to attempt to show how, in some ways, being a caretaker is very much a job, with its attendant tasks and tediums. That said I love my job.
After a Tuesday spent reviving the camps after the weekend, it was already Wednesday and time for me to leave for Thanksgiving, and return Friday. Wednesday was wet and warm, which meant sure death to the beginnings of our hopeful snowpack.
And sure enough, it was. Our snowstake melted away to zero, and all that melt was consequently refrozen a day later. Goodbye lightly trampable and even slightly Swiss-Bob-able snow. Hello endless water ice.
But again, I can hardly complain. The folks who were dealt the true tough hand of cards were a group of four who spent Thanksgiving up at Gray Knob. They walked in Thursday through slush up over their boots, meeting blasts of hot air courtesy of one wicked inversion along the way. But Friday, the high of 39 gave way to a low of 8 by mid afternoon. The waterflow halted and froze, upslope snowshowers drifted in, and their gear that had come through the warm slushy world the day before turned to ice. They were prepared, and expected this shift in conditions, and managed well for the most part.
Except for one poor fellow, whose sock froze solidly to the inside of his boot. While he was wearing it.
On Friday, November 23, we had our first subzero night. Ok, subzero by a margin (-1), but subzero nonetheless. While the mercury slipped downwards outside, inside Gray Knob I lit my first fire of the season. If you are reading this, chances are you are aware of how the RMC collects its firewood (with backbreaking work thanks to trail crew), and that we caretakers aren't anti-fire, but appreciate this labor-intensive process, at the same time keeping in mind the long cold winter we face. When people bring up wood, we happily light the stove!
So, when a group of fellas bring up 5 sticks of hardwood, to reward their work and reinforce this kind of behavior in the future, I cracked open the woodstove. Thanks to those 5 sticks, we enjoyed a temperature inside the cabin that was a good 45 degrees warmer than the chill outside.
The chill does still get inside, through cracks and vents, the entryways and paths of the cold air leaving its footprint traced in the frost collecting around the inside of the cabin. In waves along the edges of the doors, enameled white on the eye of the hook lock and on the round disk of the doorknob. Stiff upright flakes on the locks of the windows, feathers etching the glass planes, whose centers occasionally melted with the warming trend inside. Light glaze on the radio that I scratched off with my finger. Collecting (dangerously, I might add) on the drafty edge of a molded windowsill. Reclaiming a container of previously frozen juice concentrate left on a kitchen window. Perhaps this new fascination is a sign that I'd spent too much time inside this past week, but it's a process of frost that is difficult to ignore.
An old co-worker of mine, who is a proponent of both folky superstitions and objective science, believes firmly in the relationship between deep cold and clear skies. Whether he is right or not, after that deep dear cold of Friday night, Saturday broke clear, unbroken white of snow edging a solid blue of sky.
I signed up to be a winter caretaker for days like Saturday. Simplicity of color and terrain, between white and blue. Lacy branches of birch and balsam. Wind picked up for the summit of Adams, but only on the summit of Adams. The Sam Adams rockfield was a good place to pause for awhile and stare at the sky and wave to Mt Washington. I also ran into a familiar face while out and about in the Northern Presidential neighborhood: Ben Phinney.
Although my forgetting of the length of day (9hr29m) had me rushing through Edmands Col, I made it to The Perch (ah, that water) in time to walk through quietcalm alpenglow on the way back to Gray Knob. Bill Arnold picked up on the enjoyment in my voice, as he drew out the details of my day over radio call that night, creating a picture in his own head of a beautiful winter's day closed by a cozy evening in a backcountry cabin.
And it certainly was cozy, as we had a full house at Gray Knob. A raucously full house that was 93% French Canadian. And all 93% of them headed to the summit the next day, despite slightly less than favorable conditions (fog and wind that froze their unprotected eyelashes together) and returning to quaff many cups of 'chocolate chaud' before heading down.
I, meanwhile, puttered around the camps doing post-weekend cleanup. A do-gooder had 'rescued' the ice ax we use to chip away at the spring (asking every single hiker if they had lost an ice ax, but failed to mention anything to me during our extended conversation at Crag; he left it at Lowe's and after branding it with 'RMC', Mike carried it back up today), so part of the routine became remembering to bring the spare ice ax with me to the spring.
Later that day, the pony express (known also as Doug Mayer) stopped in with hot soup, cold clementines, and the Sports Section of the Sunday Times, which was brought along only to protect the all-important Style Section. In my last entry, I neglected to mention Doug's latest contribution to Gray Knob: an insulated coffee press. Thanks, Doug.
Clouds cleared Sunday evening, winds picked up, and another sunset led into the just-past-full moon. While admiring the moonrise and view from Crag's porch, Bill rang the pager for an earlier radio call. It seemed somewhat fitting that this out-of-routine radio call (5.30 PM rather than 8) came at the end of a thoroughly un-rountined and scattered week.
The weather these days is un-rountined too, bouncing between all-out snowshowers and then fronts that melted the trees back to green. Brooks and streams flowed steadily and icily, leaving me plenty of opportunities to stare at partially solid water (one of my favorite photo subjects). I hiked out in clumpy wet snow, warm damp fog hovering around the summits. But later this week it will freeze and snow again. Change and difference are always exciting, and indeed the essence of wildness and hope, but I really would prefer some consistency.
Let's all pray for snow.
November 5-12, 2007
I have a confession.
I consider myself a 'fashionista.' I read the Sunday Style section of the New York Times first, can identify Lanvin dresses and Prada gloves and differentiate between Gucci and Ghesquire, and own well let's not talk about how pairs of shoes I own because I'll feel guilty and embarrassed.
The reason I bring this up, is that as a fashionista I really should be paying more attention to my footwear, even in that decidedly unfashionable ('dowdy' or 'frumpy' are terms that come to mind) position of a Gray Knob winter caretaker. Seeing Mike (my co-caretaker) walk down in tennis shoes, I decided to leave both my mid weight winter boots and my double boots behind, and set off up the trail in my weathered leather summer boots.
Bad idea. Because although the day I hiked in the trail was clear, and the temps balmy enough that I wore shorts, the next day it snowed 9 inches and the ambient temperature hovered in the low twenties.
Winter had arrived, or at least shown it was on the way.
And I didn't have the right shoes.
But perhaps what makes me slightly un-fashionista like, and morecaretaker like, is that I made do with what I had-frozen stiff leather boots, but also a large clunky pair of (very warm) Sorels I had brought up the week before with the majority of my cold-weather gear. And with those clunky (and very warm) pair of boots in hand and on feet, I started my first week as a winter caretaker.
And what a week it was. Welcomed by that 9 inches of snow, I saw temps fall to the single digits, and the beginnings of winter above treeline in subzero windchills. Four days of fog, and three days of sunshine. Mittens rigid from moisture, boots chilled with ice, and I slept with everything I don't want to freeze (even slightly) in my sleeping bag, from my contact lens case, my socks, my hiking sweater, my camera and my phone, and also a hot water bottle. I wake up with sore spots on my side from all these objects.
But at least I wake up warm.
During the quiet mid-week time, I tried to settle into a routine. With each new season, and each new place, a new routine develops around light and night. Those long 15 hour days of sunlight of May call for a different rhythm of coffee, chores, and occasional meandering hikesthatleadintorounds than the dwindling daylight hours of November (9 hours 55 minutes and falling). As part of that new routine, I've come to accept that I will be walking to and from Crag in the dark, as the sun sets at 4.20 these days.
My favorite meal of the day is a cup of coffee enjoyed while reading in my sleeping bag before the weather. After an 8 oclock breakfast with Morning Edition, I would promptly turn off NHPR when The Exchange came on at 9. Then I would put on those clunky Sorels, and get to work.
Yes, work. There was still some winterizing to be done around the cabins. The spring still needed to be protected and insulated, the outhouse collectors needed some rearranging to create more space for that inevitable cone and that deep freeze, and there was still some wood that could be packed up from down on the Hincks trail.
Let's just say that winterizing the cabins is easier before winter starts, as my work gloves froze with water from building up the rock walls around the spring, some of the outhouse material was a bit unyielding and stiff with cold, and remember those clunky Sorels? Not so stellar for wearing when packing wood in fresh new snow.
I did make sure to take on a few meandering hikes, as I took the long way over to the Perch three days in a row. 'Meandering' meaning, on Friday, breaking trail over 6 miles in snow drifts above treeline that went up to my knees. I made sure to get a 'thank you' for that broken trail from every guest and visitor that passed through on their way up Lowe's to Adams, and I even thanked myself when I headed up to Adams on Saturday and Sunday. It's been awhile since I've walked in snow, and I've started to readjust my step, and my pace, and my measuring out of time-as-walking. Things are different when there's snow on the ground and a massive pair of boots on my feet.
Even when working, and especially when working, as a caretaker there is always time for noticing and watching, active contemplation. I grew especially fond of the blue of the solar panels against the white of the snow (symbolizing the presence of a caretaker, who worked hard to keep them clear), and I must admit that I have a favorite tree on the Quay (it just curves so nicely up from the rest and is extremely photogenic). Birds are few these days, but I met the occasional boreal chickadee along the Perch Path.
It wasn't until Thursday, two days after the snow, that I started seeing animal tracks. Bounders, walkers, and even a few hoppers. A fox passing through Thunderstorm Junction. Snowshoe hares on Lowe's Path. And countless weasels leaping around the cabin. Tracks and traces, a landscape in motion.
As always, I kept a close eye on the gender balance in the visitors and overnight guests to the camps. This weekend was probably the poorest turnout for women, with 26 guys and one woman (an adventurous lady and her son, who had picked Crag and Adams as her introduction to winter hiking and camping, a certain baptism by fire!).
Although I found myself alone in a sea of man-ness (madness?) over at Gray Knob, the dynamic was one that had me waxing emotional-bordering-on-sappy. For the weekend, Gray Knob was full of father-son bonding. A group of fathers and sons (who reluctantly admitted their Boy Scout affiliations) who stayed for two nights, as well as another father-son pair.
What had me waxing stupid for the whole weekend was how much they all seemed to be enjoying themselves, evident in racous games of Trivial Pursuit, shared pots of coffee with hot chocolate, and the ardor with which they all approached the windy summit the next day. No son rolled his eyes when his father talked, and the only orders I saw given was a modest chiding reminder to sweep up the snow they had tracked inside. Teasing jabs at each other's habits, the kind we give only to those we love. I think I even saw a few honest smiles.
Well, my smile was a bit grim around the edges when I put on my frozen leather boots on Monday to hike out. But with promises of lunch in town, and also a promise I had given out for pizza at Flatbread in North Conway, had me almost skipping down the trail. At least until I got to the beginnings of what will soon be a continuous flow of water ice on the Spur Trail. But next week I will have the right shoes.