stratton mountain

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On a brisk MLK Day morning, Yvonne, another friend, and I headed to the Stratton Pond area for some more time playing outdoors in the snow. This time, though, was something very different for Yvonne and me– Cross country skiing instead of snowshoeing. Yvonne had found a used pair earlier in the season, and I snagged my brother’s pair from my parents last week, so it seemed like a good time to test them out.

A clearing along the Grout Pond Road.

A clearing along the Grout Pond Road.

After several years of my only winter activity being on snowshoes, strapping a pair of long boards to my feet doesn’t feel the least bit natural, but I can see why people like them. Gliding over packed snow is effortless, once you learn how to balance without falling over. Of course, that takes plenty of time and practice in itself.

Yvonne practicing her moves on cross country skis.

Yvonne practicing her moves on cross country skis.

I’d never been to Grout Pond, mostly because Stratton Pond and Mountain are so close by and offer fine hiking opportunities. But this day it seemed like a good plan to head south from the Kelley Stand Road instead of north, going along a snowmobile/ski trail to the edge of the pond, then along the edge of the pond’s perimeter.

Skiing along the edge of Grout Pond was a lot harder than I'd anticipated. No grip on the ice with these things.

Skiing along the edge of Grout Pond was a lot harder than I’d anticipated. No grip on the ice with these things.

Cruising around the pond, we had some nice views up to Mount Snow and Stratton Mountain, despite the overcast. It’s funny to think about, but the area near Grout Pond is pretty similar to near Little Lyford Ponds, where I worked in northern Maine for a winter. There are a bunch of nice, tall mountains, remote ponds, and generally few visitors. Grout Pond certainly had more traffic on skis than northern Maine, and the sight of ski resort trails would have been out of place at Little Lyford, but there aren’t many places in Vermont with so many undeveloped bodies of water– Grout Pond, Stratton Pond, Bourn Pond, Branch Pond. You could have a hell of a time wandering around this remarkably flat area on skis for a few days.

Back into the woods for some more snow.

Back into the woods for some more snow.

The only gripe I had about the day was my new Panasonic Lumix TS4, a Christmas present that I just can’t get the hang of. The camera gets rave reviews all over the Internet, but most of my landscape shots have been turning out way too dark (see all pictures from this trip). Yvonne has the same problem with her Lumix DMC-ZS8 that she got last year. We both switched from using Canons for the past several years, so I wonder if it’s something that we got used to while using the Canon cameras and is fundamentally different in Panasonics. I know I always aim a little high with Canons to make sure the sky isn’t totally washed out. Any Panasonic users out there want to help me figure out what’s wrong with me?

Stratton Mountain about to get some more snow toward the end of the day.

Stratton Mountain about to get some more snow toward the end of the day. Looks a lot darker than last time I was there.

The day was relatively short– neither Yvonne nor I have totally developed the muscle sets for cross country skiing, so we started falling more and more as the day drew on. Looking at the map, though, I was super excited to come back for some more skiing. With the Catamount Trail running right by Grout Pond, and connecting it to Somerset Reservoir and Stratton Pond, along with plenty of snowmobile trails to make for easy skiing, I can imagine myself killing a whole lot of this winter getting used to the new mode of transportation.

A little over a week ago (January 5), I tramped up Stratton Mountain on a crystal-clear, chilly winter day, all excited to see my favorite southern Vermont peak in true winter conditions. I wasn’t going to write about it here, but I just realized it’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog (again– this is turning into the norm at this point). And with warmer temperatures bringing on the mid-January thaw this week, I need to look back at those snowy pictures to remind myself that it’s still a mighty fine winter this year.

I would guess two or three feet of snow, considering how easily I was brushing my head against the canopy.

I’ve been spending most of my time over the past few months diligently working away on my computer, getting ready to turn out next season’s version of my iPhone apps. Last year at this time, I was doing the same thing, but this year it’s more exciting than stressful. I feel more confident about what I’m doing, and the features I’m planning on adding should make the apps infinitely more useful and more fun to use. But there is still some stress involved. Quite a bit, in fact.

The other day I had a conversation with a well-known hiker about making a living as an outdoor adventurer, and it somewhat reaffirmed what I’d found out over the past few years– seasonal employment in outdoorsy jobs is not generally a sustainable career path. Something else is usually necessary to live that dream. That’s where my programming comes in, but even that seems like a gamble. More on this in a bit.

The walk up Stratton Mountain was much like the previous week’s hike on Okemo– chilly, with lovely, fluffy powder. The area near Kelley Stand Road, where the Long Trail crosses, is plowed with space for several cars to park, but it seemed more popular for snowmobiles than as a hiking destination. I guess that’s a good thing, considering how poor the winter sports were last year in general. I was happy to see so many snowmobilers, even if they’re kind of noisy.

Fluff balls!

As we trudged up the mountain, the trees became more heavily laden with snow, and the wind took on an icy bite. There really is nothing more beautiful to me than a New England mountain forest covered in thick snow– although wait until springtime and I’m sure I’ll say the same thing about early springtime forests, and then summer mountains, and… you get the idea. We arrived at the summit clearing to find several feet of snow and a peaceful winter wonderland. Oh, what beauty!

You might be able to see from the picture that the fire tower was a bit encrusted in rime ice. Climbing the tower was a little dicey, so my companions and I only went high enough to see over the trees before carefully making our way down to the ground. I doubt we could have made it all the way to the top– I had to kick holes into the crust on the stairs in order to have something to stand on– but it was a lovely view even from halfway up.

When I started the app programming thing, I had a modest goal of making enough money by selling apps that I could combine their income with a few NOLS courses, and otherwise just hike a lot through the summer and fall. That’s not exactly how it worked out. Let’s just say the programming is a labor of love at this point. If I were to calculate out the hourly wage I’ve made, it might be more than a dollar or two. But I still envision the programming turning into a real source of income– it’s just going to take a little more time than I initially thought.

Sometimes I think all the hiking I’ve done since college has ruined me for normal employment. After the taste of adventure that the Appalachian Trail provided (and then the Pacific Crest, the New England Trail, the few NOLS courses, and on and on), no career path has quite lived up to what I’d convinced myself I’m capable of. The best jobs have been enjoyable and provided another taste of greatness. The worst have felt like total dead ends. The Guthook’s Guides business may be the one that meets almost all the criteria of a dream job for me. Produces something that helps others? Check. Makes people happy? Check. Keeps me connected directly with the hiking community? Check. Makes me feel important? Check. Makes me rich? Well, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

What AT or PCT hiker doesn’t dream of finding a way to turn hiking and the outdoors into a steady living? I learned through several years of leading trips, working on trails, and caretaking at backcountry lodges that those jobs’s rewards are almost entirely spiritual and mental. Once the job is done, the money doesn’t go far, but the experiences and the mind set have stayed with me in a big way. So here I am with the crazy idea that I can make a sustainable business. It’s not certain at all, but it’s kind of exciting.

The view about halfway up the tower.

Sometimes, like in the case of climbing an ice-crusted fire tower, hitting your original goal isn’t even necessary to have a great time and make the whole endeavor worthwhile. Heck, if I hadn’t even set foot on the fire tower the other day, it still would have been a great walk in the woods. I’ll still keep my hopes up for the business to do well, though.

Last weekend, I got together with my best friend, Aaron, and his brother, Ben, for a relaxed backpacking trip in Vermont. This wasn’t a trip for miles or gear-testing, or even one that I intended to write about. It was a trip to reconnect. Aaron just finished medical school, which has kept him excessively busy for the past several years, so it’s been a while since we’ve been able to hang out and ignore adult responsibilities. Of course things are quite different now than they were when Aaron and I were a pair of buffoons in college, but it’s always nice to get back to that feeling once in a while.

A welcome sight– the Stratton Mountain fire tower.

We hiked into the Stratton Pond shelter late Friday evening, finding the temperatures already well below freezing. The forecast for the weekend called for frigid cold– strange after the already brutal heat of the past several weeks. But that didn’t dim our enthusiasm for being out at this gorgeous location. Having the palatial shelter to ourselves for the evening was a luxury that you don’t get very often, since it’s one of the most popular campsites on the Long Trail. We cooked up a massive dinner of sausage stew, guzzled hot chocolate, and then retired to the loft for the evening, hoping the upper platform would shelter us a little from the gusting wind.

Not so much. The three of us spent the night barely sleeping, despite our best efforts to stay warm. In the morning we weren’t in any hurry to move out of camp, so we cooked up more hot food and cocoa, and relaxed at the shelter until we figured we might as well take a walk up the mountain. The Green Mountain Club has issued their “stay off the high elevations” warning for mud season, but it was pretty safe to go up the mountain on Saturday with the ground solidly frozen. So we set off for the mountain.

Mount Snow is still holding on to the snow, but otherwise it looks like a normal spring day here.

I had hiked the Stratton Mountain loop with Yvonne in October, but otherwise hadn’t been to Stratton in years. And with the snow on the ground in October, I hadn’t seen my handiwork on the trail since I’d worked on the trail crew there in 2008, so I was overjoyed to walk on those rocks on our way up the mountain. When my crew had finished working on the trail so many years ago, the place had looked like a mud bomb had gone off– vegetation had been trampled and crushed for a hundred feet on either side of the trail, and the ground had been churned and muddy from booted feet walking all over, but the undergrowth was now recovered to the point where you could never tell anything had happened. The moss on the step stones we’d laid made it seem as if they’d always been in the ground. I pointed out each rock that we’d put in the ground over about a half-mile’s distance, feeling a surge of pride that the work I’d done was still solid. A flood of memories from that summer came back to me– there were several moments that summer that will remain some of the happiest in my life (as well as a few that were pretty low).

Looking over Stratton Pond to Mount Equinox.

After a long and pleasant walk into the higher elevation spruce forest, I finally saw that still-familiar sight of the fire tower on the summit. A pair of guys and a friendly dog arrived just as we did, and the whole crowd stayed in the top of the fire tower for several minutes, enjoying the distant, clear views (and shelter from the chilling winds). What a beautiful view from that tower on Stratton.

Aaron, Ben and I had a huge lunch on the summit, sitting in the sun and sheltered from the wind by the dense forest. Then we took a little walk across the summit ridge to the ski resort area, and then back down to watch the sunset over Stratton Pond. There was plenty of company at the shelter on Saturday evening, but a good crowd– everybody was in bed at a reasonable hour, and happy to share the evening with complete strangers. We cooked up another huge dinner, consumed yet more hot cocoa, and then got ready for another frigid night.

The shore of the pond held onto winter just a little longer.

Though the temperature was similarly low, there was less wind, so the night passed much more easily. We were up and on the go by about 6:30, walking in the chilly morning air to the parking lot in order to meet some friends elsewhere. Though we hadn’t hiked far during the weekend, we were thoroughly exhausted at the end of it, probably because we hadn’t slept much with the colder-than-expected conditions. Regardless, I felt a slight tinge of sadness as we left, much like going back to work after visiting the family on holiday. Even though I haven’t been to Stratton very often in the past few years, it still feels like a sort of home for me– other mountains and campsites might be more striking in their views, or more remote, but Stratton is the place where I feel like I know every nook and cranny, where I can laze around all day with nothing to do and somehow not wish to be elsewhere.

Sunset at Stratton Pond never fails.

In a few days I’ll start living on the road and on the trail again, in a way. This time, though, I’ll still have my home in Keene, and that makes me very happy going forward. That home, though, doesn’t give me quite the same sense of tranquility and peace as another sort of home I’m just as happy to have– a pond and a mountain in the forest of Vermont.