Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Portrait of the Hutmaster as a Young Man

Our neighbors Jay and Dorothy came over for dinner last week, along with their son, George, who was home from college on spring break. We’ve known George almost his whole life: as a tow-headed kindergartner; as a middle-school student who insisted on wearing shorts in all four seasons; as a teenager taking driver’s ed, becoming an Eagle Scout, applying to college.

Now he’s a junior at Middlebury College. He’s turned into the kind of tall, strong young man for whom the word “strapping” was coined. What’s new? we asked him, and were treated to full-force enthusiasm about his upcoming fourth summer in the AMC huts. “My first year as hutmaster,” he said, grinning. “Greenleaf.”

Between high school and college, George got the night shift washing dishes in a smoothie bar. That left his days free. All that summer, he got up before dawn, blasted upstate, hiked hard for several hours, and worked his way through the New Hampshire 4,000-footers. He had ticked off all 48 by age 10 with his father, but didn’t remember much about them. As he hustled up and down the mountains to get back to his smoothie job in time, he kept seeing people his age working in the huts. He told us, “I thought, ‘They have the right idea.’”

One particular hike moved George from interest to action. He and his father traversed the Presidentials near the end of the summer. “It was a classic Lakes of the Clouds day,” George said — windy, spitting rain — when the door to the hut opened and in stepped a woman carrying a packboard loaded with supplies for the hut. “She was completely soaked,” George remembered. He also noticed that she handled the packboard with practiced ease, that she had strong, muscular legs (“thighs like this,” George told us, holding his hands a strong-thigh distance apart), and that she was smiling: “She just seemed really, really happy.” When they left the hut, George turned to his father and said, “Remind me to apply for a hut job.”

His first season, he joined the summer staff, known as “hut croo,” at Galehead. (“I loved Galehead.”) The second summer, he was assigned to Lakes of the Clouds. (“I loved Lakes.” He swam in a glacial tarn almost every morning, “which made me one of the first people in New Hampshire to see the sunrise.”) After a winter at Carter (“Wonderful!”) and a year off from college, he moved to Zealand last summer as assistant hutmaster.

Now he’ll oversee a croo of five. He has plans, ideas. He’s seen pictures and read journals from hut seasons 50 and 60 years ago, when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas stayed in the huts, and when guests and croo sang together in the evenings. He’d like to bring back the journals, add a weekly hut newsletter, encourage croo members to spend more time getting to know the guests. “Think of the amazing people who are visiting the huts right now,” he said to us.

Listening to George, I had the feeling I was watching a young man come into his own. He now shoulders heavy loads with the same ease he once admired on a wet day at Lakes of the Clouds, and strides across the White Mountains as if wearing seven-league boots. “I have a map of the White Mountains with all the trails marked on it.” With each hut season, he said, “I’m slowly coloring them in.” He’s developing a deep sense of place, and his place in it.

He’s found community, too, which was easy for us to hear in his roll-call of friends who’ll be returning this summer to alpine-zone jobs. A friend who lives two doors down the hall from him at Middlebury just received her first croo assignment. She’ll be the huts equivalent of two doors down this summer, at Lonesome Lake.

We saw, too, George’s pride in real work, well done. “At my age, to be able to say that I have actual experience doing anything at all is amazing,” he told us — and a welcome counterpoint to college, where, he said, “I know so little.”

Best of all, though, we could see that George is very, very happy. This summer, some young kid or some teenager is going to see George in his element and think, I want to be like him.

Learn more
- Learn more about staying and working in the huts
- Look for an article about the 2009 hut season and a sneak peek at the 2010 season in the May/June issue of AMC Outdoors.

Photo: George Heinrichs, hutmaster.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Pond hockey, shinny, and giving back

We’re getting to the end of the hockey season around here. Each year, if we’re lucky, we get a stretch of black ice on the pond. If we’re willing to shovel snow, and the ice is smooth underneath, we set out winter boots as goals and play pick-up games. Some years, the pond-hockey season lasts most of the winter.

A few years ago, a friend of Jim’s invited him to join an indoor hockey league. That was Jim’s introduction to the world of hockey as a lifetime sport. He discovered that the local woodwork is crawling with former high school and college players, men and women — and that his skills needed a bit of work. He joined a learn-to-play group, then found a coed team, the Slapsticks, that plays late at night twice a week, which is as good as it gets for a working dad. The group draws players from seven or eight towns; Jim isn’t the only one willing to drive an hour each way for 90 minutes of ice time.

In the Upper Connecticut River Valley, March means “mud league,” when the indoor teams can sign up to play in a massive round-robin tournament. The Slapsticks don’t go that route. Instead, they continue to gather late at night, throw their sticks into the middle of the ice, pond-hockey style, and let a player separate them randomly into opposing teams.

Virgil has been asking all season if he can watch one of those games, and maybe even play in one. Finally, one night last week, even though it was pretty late for a second-grader, he rode in with his dad and another Slapsticks player, a duffle bag of hand-me-down skates and hockey gear at his feet. He skated with the team during warm-ups. Even better, at the end, just before their ice time was up, the players invited Virgil to join one of the sides. With everyone’s help, he scored a goal. On the way back, he fell asleep in the car, a happy boy.

I thought about all of this again recently, when Jim forwarded an email from Mariel Lacina, a goalie for the Dartmouth women’s hockey team. She graduates this year, but as she explained when I called her, she wants to extend her love of the sport by extending its reach into area schools. She’s not talking about rink time, though, or even organized teams. What she understands is that kids learn to love a sport — whether it’s hockey or baseball, soccer or skiing — when they get to play it for fun, and for free.

As a kid growing up in London, Ontario, Mariel learned to play hockey on makeshift rinks in friends’ yards, on shallow bogs around the neighborhood that froze solid in the winter, and on bigger ponds that the town maintained. Even after she started playing on teams, she continued to play what they called “shinny,” the same pick-up games that we play on our pond. “You grab your stick and your skates, and you’ve got your day planned,” she said.

Earlier this winter, the grandfather of a young Dartmouth fan invited Mariel and the rest of the women’s team to visit a local elementary school. The school has an outdoor rink, but when Mariel got onto the ice to skate with the kids, she saw that almost none were wearing skates. She asked around and learned that very few owned skates; she asked more questions and it became clear that, for many of the kids in that community, hockey was something rich kids did, not them.

“It’s true that gear is pretty expensive when you get to the college level,” Mariel told me. “But I grew up wearing other kids’ hand-me-downs.” To get started, she said, all she needed was "a pair of skates and a stick.” That’s all local kids need, too. So Mariel started collecting used hockey gear from her teammates and from teams like the Slapsticks. She’s created a website, and she’s talking to the principal at the school she visited about getting skates and sticks to those kids, so they can learn to play the way she did.

Chances are, some of them will get hooked — and hockey will become a lifetime sport for them, too.

Learn more
- Mariel Lacina's Green Gear website.
- An Internet search brought up an article about a similar program in New Jersey. I hope you'll add information about other such programs below.

Photos: pond hockey; Mariel Lucina with donated gear.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Signs of Spring

The vernal equinox occurred last weekend. That’s one of the two moments each year when the earth faces the sun head-on, as it were, and our day is the same length (twelve hours, give or take a few minutes) as for people living along the same latitude in the southern hemisphere — say, Christchurch, New Zealand, or the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina. We know it more informally, though, as the first day of spring.

Most years, to be honest, we barely note the day. It’s not unusual to have plenty of snow on the ground and ice on the pond, and for Ursula and Virgil to need their snowsuits and winter jackets when they go outside to play. Spring? I want to scoff at those times. This isn’t spring. Talk to me again in a month.

But this year. . . this year was different. Several days in a row brought blue skies and sun so warm that we started doing without coats, then without fleece. On Saturday morning, giving in to giddiness, I dug around in the kids’ drawers for T-shirts. Snow that had flanked the roadsides midweek retreated to the edges of the yard after a few days’ skirmish with the sun.

None of us could stay inside. I collected downed tree limbs from our recent wind storms, the chirps and tweets of birds I hadn’t heard for months greeting me from every branch and bush. Jim fixed the sauna stovepipe with my father, who had picked perfect weather for a visit. Virgil tore off down the road on a new bicycle, Ursula’s from last year. Ursula complained until Jim reminded her that a nearly new mountain bike handed down to her from neighbors up the road was ready and waiting in the barn.

We walked into the woods before lunch, noticing where wild turkeys had scraped around in the leaf litter. Ursula squatted at the mossy edge of one of the bigger freshets trickling down the hillside. She searched around in last year’s leaves, picking out delicate brown curls to launch as boats. I watched her reach across the narrow stream and gently nudge a small ledge of ice into the surging water, as if she’d heard its plea to join the urgent journey.

The rest of us kept exploring and eventually turned back to the house. Right before we left the woods, I turned and looked back down the hill, scanning for Ursula. I caught the royal blue of her T-shirt, bright against the forest’s browns and grayed whites. I stood for a moment, following the blue as it dipped and swayed. A dozen saplings and narrow birches stood between us, but I could just make out Ursula bending over the brook, dropping something in and sitting back on her heels to watch it go.

Some time later, I saw that she was back inside, one leg draped over her favorite chair, reading. Little bits of twig and leaf stuck to her pants, and the knee she was bouncing against the armrest sported a round wet patch. That’s as good a sign of spring as any.

Learn more
Information about equinoxes.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Major excursions, family-style

The story that Heather DePaola tells about how she and her husband, Steve, started organizing trips for the Appalachian Mountain Club is classic in its basic outline. It started with the couple’s shared desire to learn more about hiking. They had been married for one year when they signed up for an introductory class with AMC’s Boston Chapter to learn how to hike safely, using the proper gear.

That was 10 years ago. Since that first class, Heather and Steve have climbed all 48 New Hampshire 4,000-footers. They added 4,000-foot peaks in Vermont and Maine to train for their first AMC Major Excursion, to Tanzania, in 2005. Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro hooked the couple on major expeditions. They signed up for another in 2006, a backpacking trip to Alaska. Nine months later, their daughter, Mckinlee, was born.

The arrival of their daughter didn’t change the level of the DePaolas’ involvement in AMC activities, but it did change the focus. Last year, Heather and Steve organized a family-friendly major excursion for AMC to the Canadian Rockies. Their group of 25 adventurers, who ranged in age from 2 (Mckinlee) to 81, and included several other families, explored Banff National Park.

In Banff, they hiked to high alpine lakes, walked over the Continental Divide, and took a driving trip to the Columbia Icefield. They saw black bear and bighorn sheep and rode in a massive Ice Explorer onto the Athabasca Glacier.

They learned some useful lessons from the Banff trip, too. They learned, for example, that young children adjusted more slowly to time-zone differences than adults. Dinner at 6 pm by the schedule could mean bedtime by a child’s internal clock. Although they’d planned hikes of different lengths for each day, they heard from some families that the children (and some of the adults, too) wanted shorter days and more down-time. “Families all travel differently,” says Heather DePaola. “Flexibility is the key to success.”

Building on that success, Heather and Steve joined with long-time AMC member Sue Lach to plan another “family adventure vacation”— this time to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. They looked for a base-camp location that would give them more flexibility, and landed on the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, just outside Rocky Mountain National Park. The DePaolas and Lach arranged for buffet breakfasts and earlier dinners and opened up the excursion schedule to make more room for down-time or smaller family trips. And they made sure that climbing, horseback riding, and swimming, along with other, less physical pursuits, were available nearby. (As the parents of a toddler, the DePaolas understand the importance of minimizing the time that a child spends strapped into a car seat.)

AMC has been offering major excursions for many years. But Heather and Steve DePaola have a sense that their family focus is opening up new opportunities for families and children to participate in AMC’s tradition. “We truly believe it is a new breed” of trip, Heather says — and one with many possibilities. “We’d like to see all the National Parks,” she says, “maybe go back to Banff, take a family group to Kilimanjaro and safari, and even a trip to Denali and a river float in the Arctic Refuge.”

Learn more
Find full trip details here.

Photos: The DePaolas at Mirror Lake, Canadian Rockies; AMC group picture at Lake Louise.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Six-and-a-quarter eighths of a Phoenix

I was talking to Virgil about our recent cross-country skiing adventure, and he reminded me of the medals he won as “Bode Miller.” Early on in those little races, Virgil announced that two bronze medals would be worth one silver, and that two silvers would be worth one gold. But he didn’t stop there. “Two golds are worth a diamond. Two diamonds are worth a platinum. Two platinums are worth a phoenix. And two phoenixes are worth a replica of the sorcerer’s stone.” (He’s been reading Harry Potter recently. He actually said “replica.”)

As the number of first- and second- and third-place finishes started to mount, Virgil soon reached diamond status and began calculating his medal tally in phoenix units. He paused after every finish and did the math — in eighths if he’d won gold, or sixteenths if he’d taken silver. At one point, clearly in the lead, he reached 25/32nds of a phoenix. “Isn’t that the same as twelve-and-a-half sixteenths?” he asked. “That’s right,” said Sarah, who'd been doing the math, too.

“Or six-and-a-quarter eighths?” asked Virgil, and we got the giggles after that.

I’m thinking not of second-graders and silly math right now, but of how important it was for Virgil to establish rules for his races. It reminds me of one of the concerns that has been raised recently by the “no child left inside” movement. Kids who spend all of their time under adult supervision, or in scheduled, structured activities, or being entertained in front of a screen, have lost one of the wonderful, crucial parts of growing up — the chance for imaginative play, to create silly games and the rules that go with them. Our cross-country ski “races” didn’t create an opportunity for the socialization that often accompanies imaginative games (interpreting gray areas in the rules — as a group — or adapting and accepting new rules and playing by them), but I think the process was the same. Virgil was creating a world out there on the cross-country trail, and his imagination was firing.

The same process can happen with indoor play, too, I know. But it seems to happen organically, somehow, when you’re seven years old and Bode Miller and you’re going for the sorcerer’s stone.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Thrill of Victory

As I’ve mentioned here before, we’re a TV-free family. A big part of the choice has to do with time — and the hope that Ursula and Virgil will spend more of it outdoors if there’s no TV around. There’s not much that we miss watching. Except when the Olympics roll around.

We were especially excited about the winter games this year: A surprising number of athletes grew up or trained here in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, including the daughter of family friends, Hannah Kearney, the mogul skier who won the United States’ first gold medal. As it happened, we were traveling during the first week of the Olympics, and eagerly watched the broadcast of a nordic combined race while waiting at a gate at Logan Airport. We cheered as American Johnny Spillane approached the finish line in the lead, then watched in disbelief as he looked over his left shoulder just as a French skier blew past him on the right to win. After that, we were hooked.

For the next two weeks, we were always on the lookout for a place to watch the Olympics. We cadged invitations to watch at friends’ houses, sought out restaurants with big-screen TVs — even the occasional bar. When we lost power at our house during a windstorm, we splurged on a hotel room, then watched the men’s figure-skating finals. We caught Lindsey Vonn’s gold-medal downhill run and saw Shaun White’s superhuman tricks in the halfpipe. Franconia, New Hampshire’s Bode Miller’s surprising victory electrified us — and we loved the new television feature of Miller’s run superimposed over that of the next-fastest racer, where Miller’s aggressive, go-for-it line inexorably put distance between them. We were thrilled and inspired.

I mention all this because we went skiing in Maine this past weekend — to Sugarloaf, as it happened, where Bode Miller and Olympic snowboarder Seth Westcott both trained at Carabassett Valley Academy. Friends invited us to join them and their two daughters, ages 11 and 13, one day on the downhill slopes and the next “uphill skiing” — cross-country.

I should also say that we’ve failed so far to interest Virgil in cross-country skiing. We put him on little plastic slip-on skis as a toddler, just as we’d done with Ursula (and my parents did with me, except my skis were wood). But he didn’t want to shuffle about, not then, and not when we tried in later seasons. The last time we took Virgil cross-country skiing, we were within shouting distance of the lodge when he flopped down in the ski tracks and would go no further.

At first, this weekend’s attempt promised to go no differently. Virgil, now 7 years old, flailed going up the first gentle incline, crossed his skis repeatedly, spent more time on the ground than standing. His shoulders were beginning the downward droop I know so well, and he’d just demanded to go back inside, when Jim suggested that we race the downhills. Virgil could be Bode Miller. He reminded Virgil, “Bode usually flames out or he wins.”

Virgil — who had followed the Olympic alpine events on TV — loved the idea. Thirteen-year-old Sarah, who had agreed to hang back with Virgil and Jim, immediately announced she was Lindsey Vonn. Jim chose bronze medalist Andrew Weibrecht (an Olympian with a Dartmouth connection). And suddenly Virgil couldn’t wait for the next little downhill, and the one after that, and the one after that. And, what do you know, he started getting the hang of it! By the time we had to call it quits and head back south, Virgil was complaining again — he wanted to keep skiing.

I doubt that Virgil would have hung in there for nearly so long if he hadn’t seen Bode Miller and the other ski racers in the Olympics. In this case, watching television didn’t keep a kid from going outdoors — it inspired him to get out there.

Photo credit: Miss Barabanov

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Junior naturalist: Maple-sugaring squirrels

Now that we’re in maple-sugaring season here in the Northeast, I’ve been thinking about its history. Maple sugaring has a distinctly North American, and Northeastern, history that goes back well before European explorers first recorded the practice among the Cree, Algonquin, and Iroquois tribes in the early 1600s. In the north, where winter lingered long enough for warm days to alternate with freezing nights, Native Americans sliced into the bark of the sugar maple tree and collected its sap in birch-bark or hollowed wood containers. They, and the colonists they taught, knew that if they could get rid of enough water in the sap, they’d be left with a hard, sweet solid — maple sugar, which was easy to carry and to store. Self-sufficient North American cooks sweetened with maple sugar right up until the Civil War.

But how did Native Americans know to tap trees for their sweetness? Just possibly they learned by watching another self-sufficient North American, the red squirrel. This small and feisty rodent found in northern forests across the continent makes most of its meals from coniferous trees, a preference that gives it one of its nicknames, the pine squirrel. Red squirrels pull apart the cones of evergreens (they especially like spruce) to eat the seeds, creating piles of pine scales, called middens. To make it through its first winter, a young red squirrel has to collect enough pine cones to fill four to seven bushel baskets.

Maybe by the time winter is drawing to a close, the red squirrel is ready for something new — or needs to find a new source of food. New England naturalist and writer Bernd Heinrich has observed red squirrels biting through the bark of maple sugar trees (also other maples, birches, even apple trees). The grooves made by the squirrel’s incisors act like tap holes. The squirrels that Heinrich observed didn’t try to drink the sap water. Instead, they waited for the sap to evaporate. Then the little maple-sugarers made the rounds of their sugarbush to lick off the maple sugar that had dribbled down the tree trunks.

Naturalist Heinrich came upon a Native American legend in which a young boy discovers maple syrup by watching a red squirrel, which may be as close as we’re going to get to knowing how humans learned to find sweetness in trees.

We do know that only about one of every five red squirrels survives its first winter. That hard season is almost over by the time sap starts to run, so any red squirrel that laps up maple sugar is tasting victory.

Learn more about red squirrels.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sap Season

Maple sugaring has started here in the north country. It’s an odd process, if you think about it. For a handful of weeks that usually starts in late February and ends before taxes are due, people collect water from trees and cook it. Drive any road, and you’re likely to see farmers walking their sap lines, trucks carrying tanks full of sap to be boiled down for syrup, and steam billowing from sugar shacks around the clock.

It all begins when the sap starts to run — that is, when the nutrient-rich liquid travels up from the roots of the maple sugar tree, following pathways behind the bark of the tree. This happens when the temperature rises above freezing. The best sugaring conditions, though, require a set of opposites: warm, sunny days, to make the sap run well; and nights below freezing, to keep it sweet.

A couple of years ago, we decided to join the fun. Our “sugarbush” is pretty small for a sugaring operation — just six trees along our road. We bought old-fashioned metal buckets with the peaked-roof lids and a dozen taps. Last weekend, Ursula and Virgil walked the trees with Jim. They stopped before each tree and took turns cranking a hand drill with a 5/16-inch drill bit through the warm bark. In went a metal tap, and within seconds, sap dripped out the end of the spout.

We don’t keep track of how much sap we collect. It might be as much as 40 gallons. If we boiled that amount down for syrup, we’d get about one gallon of syrup. But we don’t bother with a boiling operation. We’re happy to support our local maple syrup producers. What’s priceless is sap, which you can’t buy in any store.

So we drink sap water. We lift out frozen disks of skim ice when we check the buckets in the morning and drink the extra-sweet water straight from the buckets. We boil it for sweet tea. We send it in with the kids’ lunches. (A neighbor of ours boils hot dogs in sap and considers it one of life’s delicacies, but she’s from Ohio.) Sap keeps for only a day or two before it turns.

Maple-sugaring time is equally brief, a moment of balance between the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Sap, the clear ambrosia that arrives when everything else turns muddy, is a sweet distillation of a short, sweet season.

Learn more

"How Sweet It Is: Making Your Own Maple Syrup" (AMC Outdoors, January/February 2007)

Photo: Eva tasting the promise of spring. Photo by Tiffany Calcutt.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Teen Trail Crew: "brute strength is not a requirement"

Two years ago this month, Lori Sklar leafed through a magazine from her insurance company. She saw an article about AMC's trail crew programs for teenagers — and immediately thought of her son. Noah Kantro was a sophomore in their Long Island community’s high school, an enthusiastic Boy Scout drawn to camping and hiking. Would he like to sign up for a trail crew in the Berkshires? Would he ever!

This summer, teenagers with a similar desire to get their hands dirty can choose from 25 AMC trail crew opportunities. Projects range from clearing brush, blowdowns and drainage ditches to constructing rock cairns, building bridges, and cutting new trails. The programs run from one week to four weeks in the Berkshires or the White Mountains. Some crews work out of base camps; others set up in the backcountry. Trail crews are open to boys and girls between the ages of 15 and 19, though age ranges vary slightly, depending on the specific crew. Longer programs, such as the Berkshire Trails Leadership Crew, include training in wilderness first aid, Leave No Trace camping, and outdoor leadership.

"I had no idea what to expect," Kantro says of his first year on trail crew. Most first-year participants come to the program with similarly little trail-work experience, according to Regional Trails Coordinator Matt Moore, and may not have much backpacking experience, either. What participants tend to share is openness to new experience and willingness to work as a team. Groups are typically split about 60/40 between teenage boys and girls, although young women usually fill more than half the crew-leader roles. "Brute strength is not a requirement," Moore says. "Trail work is about using tools intelligently."

Trail crews use their tools on eight-hour days that frequently involve hiking several miles and carrying loads between 40-60 pounds. Some of the crews tent near their work areas, and all promise plenty of hard work, bugs, and blisters, rain or shine.

Kantro returned for a second tour in 2009, helping build a stone staircase on a steep, "nasty" section of the Haley Farm Trail on Mount Greylock, and a "crush pit" across a muddy stretch. Now a senior in high school and planning to study engineering, he wrote his college application essay about "an experience in which immense natural beauty and grueling physical work combined into one of my fondest memories."

Regional Coordinator Moore can tell by the crunch of tires in the gravel driveway of the Berkshire trail crew office when the nine-passenger van pulls in at the end of a program. And he can tell something else without looking. A group of teenagers goes into the woods at the start of each program, he says. But every time a van returns, it’s a trail crew that steps out.

Learn more
Trail crews fill up quickly. Register online.

Read blog posts from the 2009 trail crew season.

Images: AMC teen trail crews enjoying their work on the Appalachian Trail in western Massachusetts. Photos by Phil Kolling.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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