Will & Tim Smith
So we are doing a short Hut hike. We are going to climb the Franconia ridge and spend a night at the AMC Greenleaf Hut.
I'm up at 6:30, I just can not stay in bed when anticipating a climb. Getting ready for a hut-hike is easy, and there is not really much to do except enjoy breakfast. Will is up at 8:00, which might be some type of record for the summer, and we are on the road headed north at 9:00. We stop to buy some food and a decongestant. Finally we arrive at the trail-head at about 11:00.
We are starting in the heart of the Franconia Notch, near Lafayette Place campsite. I think in most of the country this would be called a "pass", but notch is equally descriptive. Franconia is flanked with cliffs to the west and an impressive ridge to the east. Northwest of our starting point is Profile Mountain, former home of "Old Man of the Mountain", a rock formation which adores the back of the New Hampshire quarter and is often used as the logo for the state. The "Profile" was a natural confluence of ledge, overhangs and a pinnacle of stone which, when viewed from the right position, really did look like a "Great Stone Face". It fell off in May, 2003 - but still retains a strong hold on the collective consciousness of Granite Staters.
We checked our packs, shouldered up and headed up the trail with in a few minutes of arriving. Our packs are light and simple. A lunch for today, rain gear and a sleeping-bag for tonight. This is the simplicity of a hut hike. I'm also carrying a journal and a book, but the whole pack is less then ten pounds. I think Will's pack is half the weight of the books he daily shleps to school.
In about five minutes the trail forks and we turn onto the "Falling Water Trail", by crossing a footbridge over Walker Brook. I enjoy walking with Will, his pace and sense of how long a break should be and how frequent is similar to mine. Breaks should be brief and the pace steady. As we walk, we talk. Will is reading "The Metamorphosis" by Kafka and Charles Darwin's "On Natural Selection", to get ready for College. Bard College has a three week session called "Language and Thinking" (or L&T) for incoming new students starting August 8. A neighbor of ours has also lent Will a book on evolution, so we talk about that for awhile. Evolution is not just science, it has the potential to be misused in social policy.
Our trail now heads up "Dry Brook", which is anything but dry. We have had such a wet summer that nothing in the Granite State is dry. The trail's name is more apropos, for there is a great deal of falling water. We almost walk up the stream bed. It is a very pretty trail, but it is a challenge to our conversation for the cascading waters roar and nearly deafen us at times.
We continually cross paths with a couple and eventually they photograph us and we them by one of the many waterfalls. I think they are French-Canadian.
At about the hour mark we leave the stream behind and take a short break for water, but then press on. The map shows us climbing perpendicular to the contour lines, maximal gradient. The idea of a switch-back seems to be completely foreign to these trail designers. We pass through bands of birch and fir. The trail itself is but a tumble of rocks, a giant broken stone stair case, up and up. In the last mile we climb nearly 1900 feet. That means that the average grade is 20-degrees. What that really means is that there are sections which are flatter, and section much much steeper. The trees no longer tower over us. The firs are only 20-30 feet tall and finally we push into the "Krummholtz".
Krummholtz means "bent or twisted wood", and these dwarf trees have be tortured by the weather. They have grown thick to the ground. I have a hard time imagining the first ascent of these lofty lands, because you would need to hack your way through this spruce barrier. As we make our way up the stones of the last few hundred meters it is like wading on to the shore from the depths of the sea; slowly our heads, then shoulders and body emerge from the green thicket, and there we are emerging, able to see the world again.
The sky is spitting upon us, but the view is breathtaking and we can ignore the weather for awhile. Off to the west is Kinsman Ridge, its two peaks, the "Cannon Balls" and Mt. Cannon. Below our feet is the Franconia Notch, with Interstate I-93 reduced to two slow lanes so it can thread its way through the pass. To the east is the Pemigewasset Wilderness, Owls Head, the Bond Cliffs, and beyond. We can only catches glimpse in this direction as the clouds surges over the ridge line, sometimes engulfing us, sometimes being rent.
Below our feet is Little Haystack (4840 ft.) and it is time for lunch. We hunkered down behind a boulder near the peak. We were sweating due to our uphill march, but with this wind we would soon chill, so we don our raincoat, more for the wind then the wet. Lunch is cheese, rolls and a granola bar. Then we point ourselves north and start the traverse of the ridge-line.
The landscape is entrancing. It reminds Will and myself of Kungsleden. The Alpine Tundra. The stark rocks and the live green moss. Except there we were walking the valley floor and here it is invert and we walk the ridges back. We talked about how photographs are good, but they do not capture everything. They don't tell you how a sudden blast of wind can send you grabbing your hat, or how howling blast can leave you without words. Or how the world appears to be continuously in flux and the clouds slide across the mountainscape like curtains or are pulled back to reveal new crags and peaks.
The stewards of this ridge have set stones along the path to keep us from trampling the frail alpine vegetation, and we are guided, first down off Little Haystack, and then up Mt. Lincoln (5089 ft.). Here we again stop to the lee of a boulder and enjoy an apple as the clouds race by. But we have one more peak, so we continue another mile to Mt. Lafayette (5260 ft.).
This ridge-line is nicknames "Thunder Ridge" because of the number of lightning strikes. This spot is second only to Mt. Washington for lightning strikes in New England. So we keep out weather eyes open, but the misty rain we are experience is distinct for the intensity of a thunder storm.
I really enjoy being up here above the treeline and I wonder why I don't visit more often. The peaks on this ridge look like rocky spikes pushing up through the green mossy carpet, because the distance all seem closer then they really are. Those rocky spikes are mountains and the green carpet is really a dense forest.
When we were walking along the ridge I recounted to Will how I had hiked here six years ago with my father. At that time, after leaving Greenleaf and hiking north of Lafayette, we talked about fathers and sons. So here I quote from my journal of that hike
" Sept 11, 2003, Greenleaf to Galehead ... as we clambered down into the forest Dad and I talked. I told him that I do not remember him doing anything in particular with his father. He told me that they didn't do anything special, but when he visited he would always go out to the barn and help with the milking. Dad usually hooked up the milking machines. "Opps - forgot to mention, that ones a kicker", Dad would quote his father. ..."
Christian to Delmont to Timothy to William.
Finally we top Mt. Lafayette (5260 ft.). This is the highest point on our walk, but we don't tarry too long. We can see Greenleaf Hut a mile below us and the wind is biting. It is a 1200 ft drop to the hut. Most of that a handcrafted stone staircase. I am sure it took lots of young arms and backs, lots of crowbars and come-a-longs to drag these rocks into place. And then we find ourselves wading into the Krummholtz, and being submerged in a sea of green again. We pass the marsh lands at the base of Eagle Lakes and then up the last 50 meters to Greenleaf Hut.
It is 4:00 and the hut is packed! But a great many of these people are just passing through. They are on their way off the ridge-line and have stopped here to get out of the rain for a bit and maybe have a cup of tea of hot chocolate before continuing. We check-in and claim our bunks. It is going to be a full house tonight. There are four dozen bunks for guess - and four for staff - and they are all full tonight.
We have a cup of tea and hot chocolate and at 5:00 the crowd thins. Will and I play chess and I actually beat him in the first game, but was destroyed in the second. At 5:30 they clear us from the tables and announce that dinner will be at 6:00.
They are a number of distinct and curious groups. There is a Venture scout crew from Monroe Connecticut. There is a group of a dozen teenagers from a "Nature and Environment" camp. There are half a dozen women who are there to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of one of them. We all sing happy birthday and they offer bourbon from their camel's back flask.
At 6:00 we are called to supper. There are four tables with a dozen places each and large bowls of food brought out by the staff. Some times the people seated at the ends of the table dish up the food, and sometimes the bowls are passed around. We start with vegetable soup and fresh baked molasses bread. This is followed by a salad and then lasagna. Lasagna was also on the menu when Dad and I ate here six years ago. Finally there is a fresh baked peach pie for dessert.
After supper Will joins a card game with some of the teenagers and I write in my journal. Later one of the huts crew (they spell it "croo") reads Dr. Seuses' "The Lorax". I think she expected a younger crowd but all the teenagers from the venture crew and the nature camp joined the few elementary age hikers to hear her read.
One of the adult leaders of the venture crew is have his doubts about his physical ability to make it to Galeshead the next day. I pull out my trail profile and convince him that it is long and hard, but not impossible. The scouts in that crew also told me that they planned on emptying his backpack. I hope he made it.
Light out at 9:30. Most people had already gone to bed by then. I sat up with my head lamp and finished my notes for the day. It is 9:50 when I finish writing. The rain is coming down hard and the wind is howling like a wookie.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 Greenleaf Hut, Franconia Notch, Hanover
Hosting the Wisconsin Boy Scouts
It rained all night and I was happy to be under a substantial roof. But I was also in a room with two dozen other sleepers. A small boy in the third tier of a bunk whimpered until his father woke and helped him find the bathroom. There was always a gentle snore. Occasionally there is a distant whisper, and always the creak of a bunk as someone rolls over.
By 6:00 I was ready to be up and tip-toed into the common room. Out the east window the visibility is about 20 meters. The day is a still, peaceful misty grey soup.
Will is also up and at 6:30 one of the hut's croo appears with her flute. She plays us an air and announce that quite time is over and breakfast will be served at 7:00. We packed our packs - a simple task - and sat down to oatmeal with brown sugar, dried apples and raisins. This was followed by scrambled eggs and then fresh baked cinnamon rolls. Apple juice, coffee, tea and hot chocolate.
By eight we shouldered our packs and headed down the mountain. The day is still thick with mist. The rocks are wet and slick, and we pick our way cautiously down the trail. Will is leading the way, and since he is the first one on the trail this morning he is breaking cobwebs.
Occasionally there are breaks along the trail and we find ourselves looking down cliff faces to tree tops between our toes. But generally we make slow and steady progress down. We leave the Krummholtz behind and then the firs and enter maples, beech, ash, oaks and birches. The trail joins Walker Brook, and we meet the first group headed up. Soon we finish our loop - coming to where the Falling Waters Trail branches to the south. And then it is but a few minutes to the trail-head. We finished at 9:30.
But the day has just begun.
In the late winter I had received an email from a scoutmaster in Wisconsin enquiring about how to get from Franconia to Hanover. He had a group of scouts who planned to drive from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin to Hanover, leave their van there, then hike to Franconia and somehow retrieve their van. I offered to transport their driver back - if they let our troop host them for the day. So the plan was that they would meet us at the trail-head between 10:00 and 11:00 this morning.
We were early. Will and I noticed that there was a camp site across the highway, "Lafayette Place", and reasoned that they may have camped there. Upon entering the sight we spotted a group with the right number of backpacking tents - and no vehicle. It was them. We met with their adult leader, David Sobczak, and soon were on the road to Hanover.
We dropped David off at his van and mid afternoon he arrived with the whole crew. Six scouts and two adults. They had finished sixty rugged miles and enjoyed a shower at our house. Afterwards Connor took them for a walk around town. The adults and I met them on the Dartmouth Green, and I took them in Sandborn Library - a curious corner of campus of wood paneling, old fashion staircase, balconies, grandfather clocks, and one of my former students studying Shakespeare.
Since it is Wednesday we had our Troop meeting. We put on a picnic for the Wisconsin crew. They presented us with patches from there troop, and a dream catcher!
That night they pitched their tents in our back yard. Connor and Ari build a fire in our firepit and we all sat around it and talked until eleven. At that time the scouts headed to bed.
I heard them get up at 5:00 and drove off at 5:30. I know they have miles (and miles and miles) to go today. Happy trails to them.