For the third year in a row, I spent the last week and change of February leading a group of high school students on an eight-day backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, right in the middle of the snowiest and coldest time of the year. Actually, make that “normally the snowiest and coldest time of year.” It’s been a weak winter here in the Northeast, but happily there are a few places that still have somewhat wintery conditions, including the White Mountains.
|Carter Dome and Mount Hight from the Perkin’s Notch Campsite|
Even in a mild winter, taking a group of kids who’ve never been backpacking into the mountains is a big undertaking. The equipment we take is much heavier than what I’d take on a personal trip, hiking days are wildly shorter, meals are more elaborate, and the itinerary isn’t really focused on the hiking at all. It’s more about putting the kids in an environment that is totally alien to them, and teaching them that they have the capabilities to live well in those harsh conditions. You can see them go from timid and fearful to confident and bold in no time, and it’s a great sight to see.
|Finally, a day with snow. Good practice for keeping warm and dry in the backcountry.|
There’s not too much to say about the actual hike. It was a very strong group of students, and a much more interesting bunch than I remember in years past (although this is probably partly due to the fact that it was a much smaller group, so I was able to get to know them all better). But the weather for the week didn’t cooperate with our planned route, so we ended up hiking a relatively short twenty miles in eight days, without any summits or major views.
|Holing up in my tarp in the dense woods of the Wild River Wilderness.|
For the first half of the trip, temperatures were high and skies were sunny, which would be great in the summer or fall, but in winter this means the snow is rotten. In fact, the snow conditions were similar to late April or early May, making setting up camp a difficult process. In normal years, with snow covering most of the underbrush, you can walk or set up camp just about anywhere, but with none of that covered this year we had a much harder time setting up camp and maneuvering in the forest.
|I got bored one day and decided to play with fire.|
Just before we were to begin our two-day bushwhack up to South Baldface, our weather radio warned us of incoming high winds and snow. We decided that camping at 2400 feet in a saddle between the Baldfaces wouldn’t be a great idea with 50+ mile per hour winds, so instead we turned back to where we’d come from, and hunkered down for the storm. We had two days of heavy winds, and received about eight inches of snow. The conditions were challenging enough for the kids, so bailing out on our summit didn’t leave them totally pampered. With shorter hiking days, however, I was able to catch up on sleep in a big way. Out of the seven nights that we spent in the field, I got about twelve hours of sleep on five of them.
|Fresh snow makes everything look prettier.|
The extra sleep was much appreciated, of course. I’ve been nervous as heck about the future, as I mentioned before. Partly because of my upcoming NOLS experience, partly because I was anxiously awaiting my new iPhone app’s release date, and partly because I was worried about being away from Yvonne for so long. The irony of the situation was not lost on me– as the kids worried about being eaten by coyotes or getting frostbite, my thoughts tended toward relationships, career, and more “real world” issues. Have I become so comfortable with living in the wilderness that I barely notice the hardships of winter camping (a mild winter, but still) and instead focus on what most people might see as the more normal aspects of life? I guess that’s why many people head into the wilderness in the first place, just to avoid that part of life.
Driving to my parents’ place after the trip, on a sunny day that made the new snow shine, my thoughts turned once more to paths in life. Here I was, driving back home, but now I don’t call it “home.” I call it “my parents’ place.” I never thought I’d say it, but maybe Keene has become home. Still, as I drove from Bethel to Augusta to Belfast, I had trouble keeping my eyes on the road with so much beauty around me. New Hampshire is nice, but I doubt there will ever be a place that I love as much as Maine. It is, after all, the way life should be.