First Step on the ATSiler BaldSelf Portrait in WhitesWhite Mountains

Bird Man's AT Journal

Trail Updates and Photos from the 2002 AT "Flip-Flap" Hike
© Bruce Nichols - 2002

Working the Whites
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Dear Family and Friends,

Twenty-eight days after climbing Mt. Katahdin I walked across the bridge over the Connecticut River between
Hanover, NH and Norwich, VT on a damp foggy valley morning having traversed the most difficult 440 miles
of the Appalachian Trail. Once across the river with all of the AT in New Hampshire and Maine behind me, I
immediately turned around and walked back into town for a huge breakfast at Lou's Restaurant & Bakery on
South Main Street of this upscale town that is the home of Dartmouth College. I'd arrived in town the evening before and spent the night camped in the back yard of a student occupied house on the trail which runs through the center of town. The residents have allowed hikers the use of the yard and to shower and use one of the home's bathrooms, a welcome opportunity in this town that is short on low cost accommodations.

After breakfast, I collected my gear and walked over to the post office to pick up my mail drop and wait for my dad to drive up from Keene where I am now enjoying a day off the trail and an opportunity to soak in the wood fired hot tub. I'll be back on the trail Monday morning and expect to take 7 or 8 days to cross Vermont and about another week to walk through Massachusetts and Connecticut. I'll probably take another couple of days off when I get close to home to make sure that the details of my off trail life have not gotten out of hand in my absence.

The clouds and fog that have shrouded many of my mountaintops were thankfully absence during my transit
of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. These high alpine peaks and ridges present some of the most
beautiful and challenging terrain of the entire AT. Long stretches of rocky trail above tree line [image] offer spectacular views. Typical visibility during the four days I was crossing the Whites was 70 to 100 miles and the mountains of 4 or 5 states were often visible circling the horizon in all directions.

These mountains have offered challenges to hikers and climbers for generations and were one of the first
popular mountain recreation areas in the east. Close proximity to Boston and other large New England cities
made it easy to escape to the hills for a weekend of adventure. Organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club developed trails and promoted recreational use of these popular mountains. Places like Tuckerman's Ravine, Huntington Ravine, the Great Gulf, Garfield and Franconia Ridges, the Wild River, and the Pemmigewasset Wilderness are classic venues for hikers, climbers and skiers. A unique coal powered cog railway climbs the western slopes of Mt. Washington spewing great billows of dark smoke visible for scores of miles and an auto road twists up the eastern side of the mountain making it a popular stop for tourists. I doubt if there is anyone who has lived for any length of time east of the Hudson River who has not seen at least one of the infamous "This Car Climbed Mount Washington" bumper stickers.

One of the most unique features of the Whites is the mountain hut system [image] run by the AMC. Similar to the mountain huts found in the Alps, these rustic alpine refuges offer shelter, food and camaraderie to travelers in the hills. And to AT thru hikers whose timing is right they also offer the wonderful opportunity of "work for stay". And, for my transit of the Whites, the timing could not have been better.

My first day in the Whites took me from Pinkham Notch at just over 2000 feet elevation over Mt. Madison at
5300, down to Madison Hut where I enjoyed another of the unique hut benefits of all-you-can-eat pastries
and leftovers for $1. This is definitely one of a thru hikers dreams come true and I loaded up on cold scrambled eggs and assorted cakes and pastries all washed down with luke-warm coffee. Full and happy I
headed out passing Thunderstorm Junction [image] on the way up and over Mt. Washington the highest peak in the
Presidential Range at 6288 ft., and a place noted for having some of the worst weather in North America.

Shortly after leaving Pinkham, I met Buckshot, a fellow graduate (35 years later) of Hopkins School in
New Haven. We had met in Virginia in June and I had hoped our paths would cross again so I could get a
photo of the two of us together. We spoke briefly, took the photo and then headed off in our respective

I had what was probably a perfect hiking day to climb Washington. Overcast skies and cool temps with one or
two very brief spritzes of rain kept me cool on the long and difficult climbs up jumbles of rock much above tree line. The high wild clouds, if anything, added to the visual impact of the scenery and 70 mile visibility and clear air made the surrounding peaks a grand and impressive setting for my day of climbing.

The scene on top of Washington was just a little too surreal for me to linger long. Tourists clambered over the summit rocks in various outlandish costumes. Cameras flashed, voices shrieked, large groups milled about and there was a general air of mayhem and confusion. I stopped briefly at the visitors center, bought a cup of hot chocolate, and addressed a postcard to myself which I mailed from the tiny post office that occupies a corner of the center then quickly set off for Lake of the Clouds hut about a mile and a half down the south west side of the mountain.

Lake of the Clouds, because of its proximity to the summit and its spectacular location in a high col at 5000 feet between Mt. Washington and Mt. Franklin is one of the most popular of the huts in the Whites. I arrived at about 4:30 in the afternoon having walked almost 15 miles in a bit under 10 hours. I enquired about the possibility of "work for stay" and found that indeed help was needed and I could assist with the evening meal in exchange for a place inside to sleep and all the leftovers from dinner that I could eat.

Summer crews had left a day or two prior to my entry into the Whites and most of the huts were now short
staffed so more opportunities for work were available. I helped set the tables for the 90 or so "guests"
that had paid about $60 each for a night at the hut. Then waited the hour or so that it took to serve and
consume the meal. Afterward, I helped clear the tables, clean the dining/common room, and wash dishes
and rearrange the kitchen. After most of the work was done, I sat down in the kitchen with the crew (croo in
hut terms) and a few other work for stay hikers and enjoyed the leftover tomato bulgur soup, fresh bread
and a few servings of a gooey chocolate cake. At 9:30 when the lights were turned out, the dining tables
became beds for the "work for stay" folks while the others retired to bunks in the dorms. Out the windows of the dining room under a bright moon, the flanks of Mt. Washington stretched steeply down into dark shadowed valleys. In the hours before sunrise, the lower elevations filled with thick clouds that would sometimes float up and engulf the hut in damp gray shrouds. I woke early, and in the still dark morning watched the ebb and flow of these transient mists.

In early morning light I shouldered my pack and started down toward Crawford Notch on an incredibly
beautiful morning [image]. The sun had not yet risen and the clouds had settled back into the valleys. The light was softly luminous and the distant hills rose dark and sharply etched above the ocean of billowing white that washed around their bases. As the sun poked up over the shoulder of Mt. Washington, the entire scene was bathed in a rich golden light that glowed magically before my eyes. I stopped every few minutes as new scenes opened and pulled out my camera to take pictures. Just when I thought things could not possibly become more beautiful the clouds that had hung in the valleys began to stream upslope on morning thermals and pour thorough the gaps in the mountains. The combination of soft morning light and the billowing mists created an other worldly landscape where ridges and mountains appeared and disappeared before my eyes and the surrounding rocks and knarled trees changed hues from moment to moment. As I descended further, the clouds thickened until I was entirely surrounded in fog that blocked out all but the few hundred feet immediately around me. By now I was back into thick low evergreen forest that dripped wet and silent as I continued on my way. An incredible morning walk.

A little later in the morning as I neared the valley bottom the clouds blew away and the sun reappeared. By late afternoon I had walked almost nineteen miles and arrived at Zeland Falls Hut where I had another opportunity to work for a table to sleep on and the stuffed shells left over from the evening meal. Zeland is a smaller facility accommodating about 30 guests with a "croo" of only three. I worked with another couple that I had first met on the trail in Maine, setting tables, washing dishes, and cleaning the kitchen after dinner. After clean up I sat out on the porch in the waning light and answered questions from some of the guests about my experiences on the trail from Katahdin as the soft hissing of the nearby falls whispered to the now appearing stars.

Another morning brought yet another alpine ridge walk over Mt. Garfield and the Franconia Ridge [image] overlooking Franconia Notch and the jagged granite sweeps of Cannon cliff with its New Hampshire landmark the Old Man of the Mountain. Franconia Ridge stretches for several miles over the summits of Mt. Layfette and Lincoln before descending into the forest again and finally down to the notch below. I think it is one of the most breathtaking trails in the Whites and I got to do it on another clear cool day that was ideal for walking.

A few more summits awaited over the next two days - Kinsman Ridge and Mt. Moosilauke with its steep rocky mile and a half climb up the Beaver Brook trail. And finally the Whites were behind me. I spent a night in
a friendly hostel in Glencliff, NH where I got a hot shower and shared the washing machine with a couple of
other hikers. The remaining 44 miles into Hanover seemed almost like visiting another planet. Gone were
the unending miles of rocks and roots and I found myself walking once again mostly on soft earth. There were still climbs and descents, but they were neither as high nor as steep and I covered the entire stretch in two days. Along the way I got to fulfill a long held desire. After a long gradual rain soaked climb to the 3500 foot summit of Smarts Mt., I decided not to stay in the warmer abandoned fire wardens hut nestled in the trees, but instead climbed to the top of the fire tower that topped the mountain and settled in for the night about 40 feet above the trees. The small 7x7 foot room was entered by a trap door in the floor after climbing 55 steps that rose through the exposed steel frame in 5 spiraling flights. Each wall had 15 panels of glass arranged in a 3 high by 5 wide grid that gave a 360-degree view of the surrounding hills and valleys. The wind whistled and wailed
through the steel supporting structure. Rain pelted the windows and occasionally dripped down into the sparse room. The floor was composed of 6 inch wide boards with 1/4 inch gaps between that let the wind lift the corners of my ground sheet that I spread along the drier western wall. A small bench sat near the north wall and filled the space below the wall and the door opening. There was just enough room to lie down with my feet against the south wall and my head up against the leg of the bench. I spread my damp gear out on the top of the bench and tucked some below it. I fired up my stove and cooked a hot meal and drank a little tea. By now darkness was wrapping itself around the hills and clouds were blowing around my aerie. Even the ground below was sometimes lost to view and I seemed suspended in space and time. The night air was cold and damp and I settled into my sleeping bag and listened to the wild wind and felt the subtle shuddering of my mountain perch as I drifted slowly off to sleep. Who could ask for anything more?

Late in the night the wind stilled and in the morning the fog dissipated and the sun broke through high gray
clouds over the eastern ridges. I climbed down from my high tower and began the long descent toward the
Connecticut River which, at 400 feet above sea level, was the lowest dip in the trail in the 440 miles since
departing Katahdin.

In the last week I've met a few of my companions from the earlier northbound segment of my walk. Sven, the
German "Tin Man" from my Damascus hitchhiking pizza adventure was encountered descending Kinsman Ridge. Clint, who started from Springer on the same day I did and who walked on the about the same north bound pace for some 500 miles from before the Smoky mountains all the way to Waynesboro, VA was met on the road to Glencliff as I entered town and he exited. And Tim, who also shared the same northbound trail for hundreds of miles, was in the Hanover back yard when I arrived there on Friday afternoon. But all these meetings were, of necessity, brief. My trail now leads south back toward West Virginia; theirs still stretches
north toward Katahdin. But it was good to see them all again and for a few moments to share the magic of
this AT adventure.

I expect to transit Vermont in a little over a week. My next mail drop will be in Cheshire, Mass 01225 sometime around Sept. 12. I should be passing through Connecticut during the week of Sept. 16 and will take
a couple of days off as mentioned earlier.

I was going to add a few short vignettes from earlier in the walk but have gone on quite beyond what I expected so will save all but one for later.

That one occurred on my first day going south from Katahdin. I was walking the short stretch of gravel
road between Albow Stream Campground and the turn into the forest at the start of the 100 mile wilderness
when a bald eagle soared into view overhead from behind the trees that bordered the river. It circled majestically several times and then drifted off to the east. The eagle never flapped its wings but rode the
wind in stately flight. I took it as a good omen for a journey just begun. And hold it now as a dear memory of a continuing journey.

Peace, Blessings and Love to All,

Bruce - Bird Man

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page created - 11/09/2002
updated - 11/22/2002
All text and photos © Bruce Nichols