It is so good to be home, finally, after 8 days of adventure in the White Mountains. Where I’ve been over the last week can certainly be found on the map.. but where I’ve TRUELY been can only be found within what I’ve learned about my peers and myself. I signed up for Kn 551: Backcountry Experience; an 8 day backpacking course designed to introduce new comers to UNH;s Outdoor Education program and that also teaches you necessary skills in regards to wilderness ethics, leadership and skills. I had no idea what to expect going into this class… I had a general feeling of how it would all unfold… and what I discovered was what I anticipated. I had an amazing time… living simply with the earth carrying a 47 pound pack through, over and around the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Appalachian Trail.
Day 1: Saturday, August 19, 2008 – Durham
I arrived at UNH around 9am where I was dropped off behind New Hampshire Hall. A small crowd of obvious backpackers had gathered in the woods and introductions were well under way. We continued introductions with a short activity where we wrap a piece of twine around our finger and talk until we reach its end. The talking we did allowed us to tell just a small portion of our individual stories. As the week went on, we’d grow closer and get to know more about each other as each foot passed over another root.
From here we made our way to “The Gray Building” where the Outdoor Education department typically stores its gear. We were each issued a stove and found a partner. Spencer and I sat against a concrete holding pad and listened intently as we learned how to safely start and operate an MSR Whisperlight stove. While these stoves are pretty complicated in terms of their construction, they are easily repairable in the field. We then grabbed our stoves and a pile of miscellaneous field and headed for the Browne Center out on Durham Point.
At the Browne Center we got right into class, learning about group dynamics, proper nutrition for our trip, menu planning and finding our cook partner for the weekend. Since Spencer and I all ready knew each other from our stove instruction, we decided to be cook partners as well. Together we planned our menu for the week which I will key you in as the story unfolds. But to present you with a pre-cursor, I’ll just say that we ate very light and made a huge miscalculation. We then continued to learn about leadership and took a quiz on readings assigned to us before our trip. We then headed to Durham with our shopping list. We all ate lunch together at JP’s Eatery on Main Street and then headed to Durham Market Place to shop for our groceries. Spencer and I had a problem locating certain foods we had on our menu, which proposed a problem in our plan. We gathered our groceries and new friends and headed back to the Browne Center where we had the task of removing food items from their bulky packaging and placing it all in zip lock bags for easier packing in our packs.
After the short packing party, we all gathered in the Kitchen where we cooked a past dinner. Every cook group had to buy something different at the store to contribute to this meal. We sat without our instructors who were out locating god knows what. After our meal and dessert, we cleaned up the table and kitchen and returned for more learning. We learned of necessary gear to bring on our trip, how to maximize space and how to pack our bags to ensure they are not top heavy and streamlined. My pack weighed in at a hefty 47 pounds while I think the Max weight from our group topped out at 60. After we were done packing up our private essentials, we gathered in a circle to play the M&M game. Each of us had to pour a few M&M’s into our hand and each color represented a category. I poured two reds and a brown. Red was “An Embarassing Moment” and Brown was “A Poop Story.” Thankfully (I guess) my story covered both… which I will leave within the confines of the group and friends who know how I got the nickname “Pooh Bear.”
We then gathered round and put into our notebooks what our goals were for the trip. We had to write on our journas the three most important to us and then share these goals with the group. Mine were to 1.)Reflect on why I reflect on certain things so as to achieve a higher level of self awareness. 2.) Be more patient and 3.)Think more positively and only think about positive experiences. Not to dwell on the negative or take things said so personally. I unrolled my sleeping pad and bag and nestled in for the night in the hot and humid air. The Browne Center offered poor circulation as we all slept on the floor, mostly 80%+ out of our bags and dying for cooler air. Tomorrow would be our first big day. I inserted ear plugs and made my way to sleep. One day done, and I was all ready pretty exhausted.
Day 2: Sunday, August 20, 2008 – Rte 25 C to Hexacube Shelter
We woke at 6am to continue packing our gear. The miscellaneous items we acquired from The Gray Building were now being distributed amongst our packs. I choose to carry the Tent Stakes, 2 bottles of Deet, and the large Vinyl Yellow tarp we would call home each night on our journey. The weight of my pack slightly increased with these items but I figured it would be nothing I couldn’t handle. I had the smallest pack of everyone in the group with items hanging out all over the place, snapped and latched onto my bag were various items, certainly achieving the letter grade of “F” for streamlining my bag. However, I was comfortable and confident with it and would be so for the remainder of the trip.
Our driver drove our little fun bus down Route 4 where we stopped at an Irving Station. We all got out for last minute snacks. We enjoyed bagels at The Browne Center but seeing as we were going to be leaving the confines of the “everything world” I knew this would be my last taste at junk-ish food for a few days. I grabbed myself a Blueberry Muffin and a bottle of Chocolate Milk before piling back into the bus. Our driver then took us to Wentworth, NH were we were dropped off just off of Route 25C. Our location was on the access road to Tom Thomspon’s Farm. Tom is the son of former Governor Meldrim Thompson, who himself climbed all of NH’s 4,000 Foot peaks. The land Tom owns and operates is reserved largely as a conservation area whch is also home to a famous sugaring shack. There the Thompsons create Maple Gold, Maple Syrup, and serve it over snow in the mid to late fall; a great yankee tradition.
(Left to Right” Our TA Robby, Spencer, Chris, Greg, Our instructor Kel, Tori, Sherpa John and Martha )
As we gathered around we received more lessons pertaining to proper ways of relieving ones self, how to read a map and use a compass, and how to make daily weather observations in our notebooks. Each lesson was unique and somewhat new to me. There is always plenty of room to perfect skills we may all ready have a basic knowledge of. This was one of those times. After 2 more hours of lesson, we loaded our bags onto our backs and headed up the road to where the Appalachian Trail intersects it. White blazes would be our leader for a few days to come. I have always wanted to scout out the AT on this side of the state as it offers some of the trails I never thought I’d get to in my quest to Red Line the WMNF. However, here the landed is state and/or privately owned. The maps show that the land is state owned, yet the Dartmouth Outing Club has obviously, and at times obnoxiously, staked their claim.
We ambled further up the trail to our shetler for the night, the appropriately named Hexacube Shelter nestled on a hill side at the end of a short “Blue Blaze Path.” While the wooden structure looked inviting, the rest of the camp had its fair share of litter. Piles of cardboard and empty beer bottles left behind by irresponsible partied. A small fireplace which has also seen its use as an incinerator of trash. And a campsite up high which was used as a privy, even though there was a privy for public use less than 100 yards away. We ate lunch while leaning on our packs, trees or the earth. Spencer and I shared a small stick of pepperoni and about half a stick of Cabot Sharp Cheddar Cheese. Our first of many light lunches.. but one of the heartiest. Immediately after lunch we had a laugh out loud discussion on various ways to crap in the woods.. we’d ave the effect way to make a cat hole in the AM, but for now we had much work to do.
After lunch, student lessons began. Each student in the group had to prepare a lesson based on a topic given to the. Our first lesson was from Chris who spoke about proper camp selection and set up. Topics included where to set up our tarp, where to create things like our gray water sump hole and a place for our bear bag. There was a limited number of spaces available for us to camp, where as virtually none of the camping spots were big enough for our group of eight.. that is except for one. We set up our tarp on the lowest camp site, as we did this I prayed we weren’t victim to a large downpour over night. If this happened, we would assuredly get wet seeing as the water obviously ran down through here, and we’d be sleeping on the ground. As we set up the tarp, our instructors led us in more lessons.. this time.. Knots. We learned how to effectively set up our tarp for the night using knots such as a truckers hitch and a bowline. Along with the use of our hiking poles, we soon had a palace fit for rugged kings. An intricate design only accomplished through the various imaginations that now joined on this hillside in western New Hampshire.
(Home Sweet Home – The Yellow Monster I carried)
After we set up camp, we all grabbed our notebooks and headed for the shelters water source; a small stream cascading joyfully down the hillside. Here, Greg taught us about water purification and various methods. I let him borrow my water filter for instructional purposes, and he showed us where to get the water in the stream and how to treat it with iodine. After the conclusion of his lesson, we all gathered round the stream bed to grab water for the night. We then crossed the stream and headed into the woods where Martha taught us about choosing a location for a bear bag. We each had a turn at throwing a full Nalgene towards the sky with the hopes of catching it on a suitable tree branch. Of course I had to get the Nalgene stuck which is not easy to do.. and as we learned not necessarily easy to fix either. But we managed and found an “OK” location for our bear bag before returning to camp to make dinner for the night.
Spencer and I got the Whisperlight rolling as we made two cans of chili and divvied it up evenly into our bowls. I had the crazy idea of using the Cheddar Cheese Goldfish I brought as some crackers to add that “cheese and crackers” aspect to the chili which ended up being pretty good. We sat down and enjoyed the show our camp-mates put on in their own adventures in camp cooking. Amazing what people can do while outside their comfort zones. We had a few good laughs watching Greg and Chris who would need a little work perfecting their skills… but would do great as the week pressed on. We also took our nightly weather observation, which would turn into a twice a day ritual.. once in the morning and once at night.
After dinner we cleaned our bowls and learned an effective way to dispose of our gray water. We dug a hole 6 inches deep for those who would be suing it… because the other option, though disgusting, was to drink the nights gray water. We poured ours into the hole. We all then gathered round once more for a group activity and a lesson. The lesson escapes my memory currently by the activity I will never forget. Kel, our instructor, took out a ziplock bag of markers and clothe and began to tell the meaning behind Tibetan Prayer flags. These flags have adorned my camp sites and at times, my crews location at races for the past 4 years. Kel spoke of what they signified, in that they were not only prayers, but as a tool to signify how as people we gather with one common goal in the wilderness… togetherness. As Kel continued to explain the activity, I couldn’t help but get emotional and a bit choked up as I thought of its sheer symbolism and opportunity for personal growth.
Our activity was to create our own prayer flag with three symbols on it. 1.) A totem animal… what IS our totem animal? Mine is a Raven.. not only a cool bird but often times where-ever I go, flying goofily in the wind and making a ridiculously funny call. Our next image was to be 2.) A symbol of how we view ourselves on this trip. I choose to create a dark man with green leaves growing from his arm, as he stood beside a river and rays of sun beamed down on him. My image signified the personal growth I hoped to achieve on this adventure and how the rivers in these hills tend to signify a re-birth, a baptism and the suns rays offer enlightenment. Lastly, we need to draw 3.) A symbol that signifies the group. I went at drawing a big bear sitting on a tree stump with 2 fish at his feet. Then two smaller bears sitting on stumps of their own, where beside them lay baskets filled with berries. The meaning behind this emblem is that while we are each our own “bear” we bring something to the table to share with one another.. something this educational experience it sure to bring. We all shared our flags and strung them up on a piece of twine. We’d hang our flags at each destination and haul it with us through out the trip. The meaning and symbolism is uncanny, and truly personal. This was my favorite activity all week.
(our “Sherpa”/Tibetan Prayer Flags – Mine is the second one in from the Left)
It was now time for bed. We all settled in under the tarp on what was turning out to be a rather cool evening. Before we all went to sleep, I offered up the Hallucination story of the night where I told my fellow students the story behind one of the images on my leg. I then lay down with my harmonica in hand and played a solemn song as we began to settle down and fall to sleep. I slid my ear plugs in, and dozed off.. tired.. and exhausted from another long day.