Camping in the old days (1)

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My dad was a serious hunter and camper. He was in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, he called them the “ski troops” but then they invaded Italy and fought all the way to Germany and war’s end without donning a ski once, and when my sister and I were little kids we were camping in the back yard all the time, using gear he had brought back from the war or a tent his father had used years earlier. When I grew older I had a best friend older than me, Doug Bysiewski, and we would go down back into the fields and forests behind our house and pitch a tent and stay over night, as often as we could, exploring, finding owl nests, poking snapping turtles, messing around the UMass dump, and of course smoking. Once when I was about 10 or 11 there was a huge rainstorm and the tiny creek beside our house which drained into a wide swamp past the corn field, where Doug and I trapped muskrats every winter, flooded, enormously, such that the swamp was flooded, too, reaching all the way to our back yard, so my dad took the little 13 foot cedar canoe his dad, the serious hunter in our family, had built in the 1920s, and Doug and I took the 12 foot Old Town we had, and we pushed off from our back yard and followed the flooded rivers all the way to the Connecticut River ten miles away, passing over fences and losing the channel, wandering through forests, beneath trees. It was a great adventure.

There was nothing to do in Amherst during the summer. Nothing. We kids got into trouble because what else was there to do? UMass was expanding with all these new buildings being built, a gold mine for mischief, rummaging through half built buildings, stealing smudge pots – remember them? – riding our bikes all over hell and gone, seeking excitement. We couldn’t go to work picking tobacco or cucumbers until we were 14, and when the colleges let out Amherst became a ghost town, so Doug and I camped out a lot. My dad taught us how to use an ax, build a fire, make a splint for broken bones, rig a temporary shelter, and the scoutmaster for North Amherst, a great guy, took us troops camping all the time too, on Mount Toby, where one night I woke up to find a porcupine inside the tent.

Back then, before Eastern Mountain Sports or REI, nobody did this, not really, except idiots or kids whose dads had been campers, too, and there didn’t seem to be many of them. I started using my dad’s Army mummy bag when I was 11 and used it through graduate school, it weighed a ton but was warmer than anything. He had these rubber boots, insulated, which I later used winter climbing in New Hampshire in 30 below weather and my feet stayed warm, also Army issue.

So when the summer I was 12 I was sent to this camp near Mount Monadnock to get me out of the house and home town trouble I carried with me all this old gear, because at this camp we ended the season with a two week long camping trip. It was the main and to me only attraction of the place, otherwise filled with pre-Ivy league boys from New Canaan and Shaker Heights and Greenwich, but it was actually an OK place. You could shoot a .22, which my dad had taught me well, chop wood, navigate with a map in the woods, which were all good, but every Friday we had greasy fish sticks and dead white mashed potatoes and stewed tomatoes for lunch and we had to eat it, meaning, every Friday afternoon I got sick.

Eventually the Great Day came when we embarked on our Long camping Trip, which involved an 11 hour drive from New Hampshire all the way to Baxter State Park in Maine, this in an era before the Interstate Highways had been built. We took a huge trailer with canoes and gear and packs and supplies, including the newly invented and marketed dehydrated foods by Bolton, in cardboard boxes. The latest thing, these foods. We split into two groups, and one group paddled about 40 miles of the Penobscot River near Mt. Kathadin and the other group climbed the mountain, and then we switched places. There was some kind of campsite by a bridge over the river we used as our base camp.

The first night out we didn’t make it to the site and had to camp off the road near Millinockett, Maine, hundreds of yards from a huge stinking pulp mill, this was early August, a heat wave, and all of us sweating in our bags breathing in the pulp stink while mosquitoes the size of humming birds devoured us. Remember I was in my dad’s war mummy bag, frying.

The trip was, in memory, great fun, and an adventure, but we had our issues. The river channel was blocked by log jams and we had to beat portages through thick brush for over a mile a few times to get downstream, and there were rapids a little too large for safety, and I don’t think any of the counselors, who were just college kids, knew what they were doing. On the mountain, it rained and blew, but the mountain is dramatic. One year, the second year I went to that camp before finally turning 14 and being able to work and make some money on the farms, we took a bush whack route up Kathadin, from a side with no trails, and that was something.

Back then, there were no 10 essentials, people made fires wherever, you’d find piles of tin cans everywhere you camped, few people were in the woods, and you’d see cigarette butts everywhere.

However, that first year, and the second, too, one thing nearly ruined the entire trip. It was this dehydrated food. The meat was horrible, and the noodles never got soft, everything tasted of plastic and glue, and there was never enough. The premier feature of this food was the Bolton Biscuits, which were these hard scone-shaped biscuits you’d break your teeth against. The second year I prepared for this experience. I packed a full can of Dirty Moore beef stew and I carried that, hidden, all through the trip, every day nursing along one Milky Way Bar for 10 days, and in the 10th and last day, the last night out, I broke out the can of stew and shared it with two other boys at a separate fire. The stew lasted all of four bites each. It was fantastic.

On the way back from those trips, all of us filthy, clothing horrible, we’d get outside the State Park on the way to Millinockett and the long way home and there was a Dairy Queen there and we’d stop and each of us get an enormous cone of smoothie ice cream, twirled into a peak. My God but that ice cream was good.


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Trails in the Olympics (1)

Trails in the Olympics

There are, roughly, 900 miles of trails in the million-acre Olympic Peninsula National Park and adjacent wilderness areas. Anyone who hikes there immediately sees the work it takes to keep the trails clear, at least in the forested valleys and slopes. The whole system – rivers, slopes, forests – is incredibly dynamic. There are floods, landslides, fires, avalanches, windstorms, and even occasional earthquakes. The huge trees – Douglas firs, cedars, spruces – have root systems that tend to spread out rather than dig deep into the earth, wide circular spreads of roots just a few feet beneath the soil (which is mostly dirt mixed in with rocks and the limbs of former trees) and after it rains for weeks during the rainy season the soil becomes sodden and slurry-like, and then when the wind blows the trees topple, pulling up a big root ball of roots, dirt and rocks, leaving a hole, and often occurring in groups of blown down trees, for when one goes, so do the others behind it.

All of which to say that every year, on nearly every trail, some trees fall across the trail, water gullies erode the trail, and sections of the trail disappear. This is even worse along the rivers, which themselves are dynamic, sweeping back and forth against steep banks, and then an entire quarter mile of trail can vanish into the river, requiring an entirely new trail to be built further away.

Trail maintenance is damn hard work. It requires engineering, the movement of heavy rocks, the cutting and moving of huge trees, constructing rock dams against which earth is then placed for a tread path, the use of plastic pipes to channel water beneath a trail section, placement of stone channels to guide the runoff, and a host of other efforts. I’ve gone out with work parties a few times myself, and it’s damn hard work, harder than backpacking, and most hikers aren’t even aware of the hours of painstaking work someone has done to leave a trail that is walkable. If you hike in these forests, you are likely to see a Park or more likely a volunteer trail maintenance crew, some times way deep into the back country, with hard hats, chain saws, axes, shovels, mallets, often horses to carry their gear, often camping out for several days, working on a section. This is in addition to the annual cruises somebody does every spring, everywhere, cutting free those trunks that have fallen across the trail. Lots of trees fall. The Park Service has a trail report system, and in the spring the first hikers who go in to the trails, especially on the western side of the park, where it is wetter, report 60, 80, 120 trees down across a trail which might be 10 or 20 miles in length.

Once you first notice the amount of work taken to keep a trail clear, you always see it – the butt ends of sawn through logs that fell across the trail, the sections tossed off into the understory beside the trail, the amount of rock and soil work to keep the trail path level and firm. Without all this work, there are trails in this system that would literally vanish within five to ten years, covered with fallen trees, washed away, grown over. Moving through the lowlands, beside the rivers, or along the slopes, at times can be relatively easy, because the understory can be rather open, especially higher, or down on the river bottoms where the trees are huge and don’t fall that often. But there are other areas, many, that are virtually impassable, either because they are so steep and rocky, or because they are so thick with growth.

The first time I ever walked into the Duckabush, back in 1991, I followed the trail over Little Hump to a lowland, which paralleled the river before climbing steeply to Big Hump, and in that area there was a huge blow down, probably from that ferocious windstorm from December 1990 that blew out the floating bridges, and it took me half an hour to find the trail on the other side. I bet there were 100 trees down. Now, almost 30 years later, I can still see evidence of that blow down, but not easily. A couple years ago I dragged my brother in law with me to the South Fork of the Hoh, having this bright idea we’d go on past the trail end and work up the river to the Valhallahs and the high country there. We got to the trail end fine, it was a lovely hike, but bush whacking beyond was impossible. Impossible, at least for the two of us, admittedly near geezers, because the growth was impassably thick. We were there in May, and the river was high with snowmelt, and we thought, maybe in August, when the water drops, people can work along the river bars far upstream, avoiding the brash and thickets on the shore.

It’s easy to see why the first pioneers who came out to this country thought that nobody ever went into the interior of the mountains. Trying to move through the blown down trees and thick brush with heavy gear and horses would be almost impossible. It took the Press Expedition nearly six months to traverse the Park north to south in 1893, a distance of less than 60 miles. About a decade ago I drove by Camp Parsons, the famous Boy Scout Camp on the Hood Canal which has been sending troops of boys into the Olympics since as early as the 1920s. Our across the street neighbor in Ballard, who died at 94 about five years ago, Frank, went to Camp Parsons in the 1930s, and he hiked all through the park on the trails then, many the same as we hike today, and he later climbed Mt. Rainier 40 times.  I wanted to see this camp, and there it was, and someone who worked there, as old as me, told me with authority that the Indians never went into the interior of the Park.  He was, and is, dead wrong, of course, native people have been going all through that country for thousands of years, but I think it might have been as hard for them to work through the lowlands as it was for the first pioneers a century and more ago, except for the simple fact that once the light bulb goes on and you start following elk tails, everything becomes easy. Elk know better than anyone how to find a way through the thickets, how to avoid the gullies that draw you in then drop you into steep dangerous falls, how to turn away from the cliff ahead.

I have another theory as to how the First Peoples traveled in the Park, and how old some of the trails really are, but that is another discussion.


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