Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Solitude and Red Mac

Thanks to Carrie, one of my guests this weekend, for taking this caretaking action photo. Reaming the sinks, without running water, is just one of the glamorous activities of the caretaking lifestyle.

In between two nearly-full houses on the last two Saturday nights, I spent a lot of quality time with nobody but me and the staticky voices of Terry Gross and other NPR personalities. By the time the weekend gives leave to the inmates of the global economy to keep me company in the mountains, my typically reserved personality becomes downright outgoing. It helped that my guests these past two weekends were funny, genial, and helpful as well.

This last Saturday was also a perfect winter day, sunny and mild, and the first day so far that I was able to recognize the daylight lingering after the 5 pm radio call. With the clear skies, I promised that night's guests a program on the winter constellations later on when everyone had finished dinner. But that took longer than expected, and by the time the kitchen was clean, Auriga, Orion and the rest were hidden behind clouds, the front lines of an approaching low-pressure system.

The approaching storm also brought winds that were gusting to 60 MPH that night, and so, while the wind generator howled periodically on the roof, I decided to substitute the star program with the tale of Red Mac McGregor.

Red Mac was one the first manager of the White Mountain huts system, probably best known as the man who hired Joe Dodge to work as the Pinkham Notch hutmaster in the 1920s. Red Mac started his AMC career as the hutmaster of Carter Notch Hut during some of the first summers of its existence. Carter Notch was his favorite hut, and he allegedly joked that when he died, his heaven would be on the shores of the Lakes of the Winds.

Years later, in the late 1970s, the AMC began to leave Carter Notch Hut open year-round. Whereas the winter season is currently split into two shifts (late fall caretakers work from October until Christmas, and winter caretakers work from Christmas until April), the first Carter winter caretakers worked, with biweekly days off, straight through from October until April. Furthermore, in those first few years, there were far fewer winter hikers, and caretakers could work for an entire ten-day stint without seeing anyone at the hut.

Joe Gill looked after Carter Notch during the third winter it was open, in 1978. On one evening late in March, near the end of his seasonal tenure, Joe woke up late in the night with a flashlight shining in his eyes. There had been no guests in the hut when he had gone to sleep, but late arrivals aren't uncommon, and someone had apparently wandered into the crew room to let him know that they had arrived.

"Can I help you?" said Joe as he squinted into the light. There was no answer, and the flashlight didn't move. He found another light that he kept near his bed and shone it across the room, and there he saw his own flashlight, switched on and pointed directly at him. He couldn't remember putting it there, and it would later strike him as strange that he would have been able to fall asleep in the first place with it shining in his face. But anxious to get back to sleep, and assuming that he had just forgotten to turn it off, Joe got up, crossed the room to turn off the light, and went back to sleep.

Later on in the same night, Joe woke up again, this time shivering and extremely cold. Anyone who has been camping in the winter will recognize the condition of being half asleep, too tired to get up and put more clothes on, but too cold to sleep soundly. Joe struggled with the problem for a while before the cold overpowered his torpor and he sat up to find an extra blanket. When he did, he noticed that the door to the crew room had blown open. When he got up to close it, he saw that the front door to the hut, which is directly opposite the crew room door, had also blown open, with the north winds blowing straight through both. He closed and latched them securely, found an extra blanket, and slept soundly until the morning.

Just as they do today, the front door and the crew room door open into the dining room of the hut. When he thought about his strange night, it occurred to Joe that it would be very difficult for the wind, from any direction, to blow open both doors in opposite directions at the same time.

A few days later, Joe hiked down to Pinkham Notch for his days off. In an offhand conversation with someone working at the visitors' center, he mentioned the unusual events that had kept him up a few nights before.

"What night did you say this all happened?" asked the visitors' center employee.

Joe told them the date.

"Well, that was the night that Red Mac McGregor died."

Since then, Carter Notch caretakers have reported various "Red Mac" sightings, or soundings: footsteps on the roof of the hut, clanking pots and pans in the kitchen before any guests are up for the morning, flashing lights in the thick spruce forests around the hut, etc. When I worked here in the spring of 2004, my co-caretaker Tiana reported hearing footsteps in the dining room early one guestless morning, and she attributed the noises to Red Mac. For my part, I have had better luck sighting the marten. When I hear strange noises, I have learned that it is better for a solitary caretaker to ignore them than to speculate on what supernatural sources they may have. But I have two more months at Carter, and it may be that the approaching springtime will make our resident haunt restless for another summer in the Notch.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Even the Boy Scouts are better

Winter caretaking has the advantages of attracting more determined, self-sufficient and gutsy guests, as well as providing one with the time and inclination to get to know them. The trek to the hut is more challenging, and the guests are usually as easygoing as they are exhausted.

Even the Boy Scouts are better in winter. A Venture Crew from Cambridge was an unusual Boy Scout group. Beyond including girls, the leaders expected these middle schoolers to be responsible for themselves. Small squads of four or five kids organized their own food buying, meal planning, preparation and cleanup. The leaders gave the kids time and space to themselves, cooking and eating separately. While I heard a fair share of bickering, I saw a good deal more self-reliance and organization than I’ve observed on the part of many guests, child or adult. They were quick to distribute water-toting and dishwashing duties amongst themselves and I was envious of the opportunity for such an outing at such an age.

The evening of the Good Venture Crew was an evening of other unexpected encounters. They shared the hut with a men’s hiking group, half of whom were deaf. While the troop leaders worried that their kids were too rambunctious, it was the deaf guys who laughed loudest. One boy observed what he thought was a turning of the tables, saying that they’d be silent, signing, and then burst out with peals of raucous laughter leaving him curious as to what they were laughing at. At lights out, I had to quiet a rowdy game of cards commingling members of both parties. It seems that caretaking is as much about meeting people as hutcrewing was. It’s just that the people I’m meeting now are my guests, rather than my coworkers.

That writ, one can’t please, or be pleased with everybody. One guest complained of the hutcaretaker’s incompetence in fire-building and use of position to boss guests about. I take no offense at the slight against my firekeeping abilities. I’m sure the author would have bested me in a bonfire competition. Our fuel in the backcountry, however, is limited by the amount the forest service allows us to be cut. Which is good, because I’d be surprised at the visitor, who, in desiring wildness, requests the cutting of more trees. (For even those visitors who suppose the firewood flown in, I would hope they would recognize the parallels between firewood and helicopter fuel conservation.) Furthermore, I’d have been more inclined to toss in more wood if this guest had been more inclined to put on a hat.

What unnerved me was the suggestion that we boss guests about; I must have done something wrong to leave a guest feeling this way. Beyond normal cooking and cleaning, self-service in winter relies on guests collecting their own water, disposing of dishwater in the chutes outside and toting the caretaker around in a litter. I hope they see these responsibilities as part of using the hut facilities rather than as an imposition of a lazy caretaker. At the very least, I see these routines as a quicker and more effective warm up than huddling by the fire. The water pump, like a backyard bowflex, can triple as an abdominal, bicep and tricep machine. It seems that this guest missed out on character-building venture crew trips and continues to miss out on bodybuilding ones. The comment was effective in any case, since I now make mention of our fuel sources and make more visible my own caretaking responsibilities.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The week in weasels

I'm back down in the valley after my first full 10-day stint in Carter Notch. The stint started two weekends ago with nightly snow showers that piled up for some fine tracking and skiing conditions on the trails around the hut. Monday, in particular, was a dark day in the clouds with frequent snow squalls that put me in a mood to loaf around inside for most of the day. But I did get out for a couple of hours in the afternoon to ski down the first mile or so of the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail, where I found several trackways of red fox and pine marten.

The next morning, I found the marten's tracks all around the hut: going up the bunkhouse steps, around the propane tanks, and along most of the outside walls of the hut's main building. Besides having the typical pattern of a weasel's gait and the general shape of a marten's paw, several of the trackways terminated at the base of spruce trees. Unlike other weasels, martens are excellent tree-climbers, which makes them a more effective predator of birds and red squirrels. They are also on the state's threatened species list: the intense logging and associated forest fires of the early 20th century destroyed the marten's favored spruce-fir forests, and the critters also have a coat that even the most militant vegan would be tempted to wrap around their neck.

Ever since I arrived at Carter, I have hoped to see the marten. Other caretakers before me have felt the same way: one baited it with Chanel No. 5 (one ingredient of which, allegedly the anal juice from civet cats, is like catnip for martens) and took amazing close-up photographs, and another wrote that his December 25th marten sighting was the "best Christmas present ever." The marten is rare, to be sure, but it is also a neighbor, an ally in the caretaker's vendetta against those other critters who sneak into the hut to eat our food and leave their turds, and, above all, it is a beautiful animal.

On the morning of Friday the 13th, I was walking outside to take the morning temperature readings. As I went through the first door into the cold mudroom, I looked out a frosted window and there it was, sauntering down a snowbank right in front of the hut. It went out of sight and when I returned with my glasses and my camera it was long gone, in the trees or among the boulders, hidden from me for the rest of the week at least.

It was the first time I had ever seen a marten, and the happy surprise of it, the feeling of such good luck (note the date), really did most closely compare to the feeling of receiving an excellent and unexpected gift. I hope that this martes americana and I will meet again, and that next time, I will be able to share some photos of this beauty.

Also, while we were dining yesterday morning at Pinkham, Tucks caretaker Seth spotted a short-tailed weasel, or ermine, in the trees behind the trading post. Thus concludes this week in weasels.

This week's reading:
  • More of Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
  • Last summer's issue of Appalachia (theme: "The State of Maine"), which I read almost cover-to-cover except for the article about yet another rich guy who's climbed Everest.

  • Monday, January 16, 2006

    Some photographs

    These photos are from the weekend of January 7th and 8th, when we had brilliant clear skies interspersed with a couple of overnight snow showers. These frosted the Notch brilliantly, and these photos can't do justice to the brilliance of the frozen forests.

    Sunday, January 8th was a particularly fine day, especially after a nearly-full house departed that morning. Here's that morning's sunrise, seen from the hut's rooftop solar panels:

    (click to enlarge)

    This was the view of the Notch and Carter Dome from the main summit of Wildcat (several miles northeast of the ski area, which is located on a lesser summit).

    (click to enlarge)

    And at the end of the day, the nearly-full moon rose over the crown of Carter Dome:

    (click to enlarge)

    Wednesday, January 04, 2006

    Well met, 2006.

    My first stint at Carter Notch was a good one, characterized by low-maintenance and friendly guests, my first ski tours since March, and the most fun New Year that I have ever experienced.

    Pete Mattox, who took care of the place during the late fall, left the hut in stunning condition for me before he left on Wednesday morning, after we overlapped for one night to pass the torch. But the notch is usually a fine place to arrive. There is no pack trail to the huts that end as invitingly as the hike to Carter: the top of the notch after the 3.5 mile climb, the frozen lake under the cliffs of the Dome and Wildcat, and Cozy Carter wrapped among the small spruces and boulders of the Ramparts. And unlike last year, there is already a good deal of snow on the ground in the Whites, enough to ski down part of the 19-Mile Brook and Aqueduct Trails on Wednesday when I went back to Pinkham for lunch and extra warm clothes. Rain followed for most of Thursday, but the mountains are still white, even if the skiing won't be any good until the next significant storm.

    New Year's Eve brought a nearly-full house, mostly of Bates College kids who took over an entire bunkhouse as well as three families who were good-natured about the rowdiness. One of these families hiked up live lobsters, in water, to boil them in the Carter kitchen, which may have been the first time that those crustaceans have lived, however briefly, in these mountains. I was also happy to host nine good friends, old and new, in a happily-crowded crew room. We had good food of our own and also helped the Bates kids work on their leftovers before we counted down to 2006 on the ice of the upper lake. As I wrote a year ago, the passage of time is usually something that I don't care to celebrate. But last week, the new year coincided with our being back in the north country and among old friends. These things deserve, and did receive, a lively celebration.

    Wildlife sightings this week:
    Lots of chickadees, black-capped and boreal, and a nesting pair of ravens in the cliffs of Wildcat above the upper Lake of the Winds. Some fox tracks on the Wildcat Ridge Trail just above Gunsight Gap. No signs yet of the notch's resident pine martens, but tracking conditions weren't ideal this past week.

    This week's reading:
  • Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
  • Various authors, The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms
  • The Next American City magazine, issues eight and nine.