August 20, 2012
A TRAIL TOO FAR, AND FAR TOO STEEP
LONESOME LAKE HUT, NH – Don Vandenburgh is a lively member of Tom Brokaw’s greatest generation. He recalls clearly the Battle of the Bulge, in which he used his earlier winter camping experience to survive frigid nights. While his buddies huddled in the backs of trucks and suffered frostbitten feet, Don dug holes in the snow, rolled out his insulating pad, passed the nights in his sleeping bag, and woke up in the morning ready to go.
After the war, Don and his late wife raised a passel of kids whom they took hiking as often as possible. An engineer by profession, Don was also a Scout leader and family trip organizer. His son Rich recalls early hikes: “[T]he knapsack I was given ended at about the back of my knees. I have little doubt, however that this caused me any concern and am sure that I was as excited as my siblings in preparing for the next of many trips back to the mountains. The sense of excitement in preparing for the next trip is still palpable.”
Don was here at the AMC hut this morning with two of his sons, Doug and Rich, for an on-camera interview. Don’s 89 now, and not as strong on the trail as he once was; but the three of them climbed the 950 feet and 1.4 miles from Lafayette Campground and got here by 8 o’clock. They carried Don’s huge old packbasket and his iconic sheath knife, made from a German bayonet, with circular bits of plastic from a German tank periscope threaded onto it for a handle. The “boys” (Doug just returned from a hike to Everest Base Camp; Rich is an attorney) seem as excited by these artifacts as the old man is proud of them. Don and I both got our starts in the Adirondacks. We shared stories of Mount Marcy in winter (The can of soup his mother packed for him froze solid; the frozen strawberries I packed never did thaw out.) and old-fashioned camping equipment – shelter-half pup tents, coated nylon ponchos, and blanket pins. It was great to talk with somebody who remembers all that antique equipment and hair-shirt hiking.
A couple of years ago, wanting to celebrate their father’s life in the mountains, the family offered to help underwrite the replacement of the dilapidated Kinsman Pond Shelter, a three-sided leanto two miles and 1200 feet above Lonesome Lake. Cooperative projects always take a bit of bureaucratic harrumphing, but eventually the idea was approved. The job was given to John Nininger, owner of The Vermont Wooden House Company, who’s built some pretty fantastic, beautifully fitted log homes. John was here today, too, to show off his handiwork. Doug and Rich both helped him with the actual construction, and remember warmly that at the end of almost every day’s work, the helicopter that brought up the logs also took them back to their cars.
How I wished for that helicopter today! After a filming session with Don down by the beach at Lonesome Lake, the rest of us hiked up to take a look at the shelter. As we hiked, I kept thinking I recognized the trail. Then I remembered I’d hiked it over 15 years ago, on the way up and down North Kinsman Mountain, and thinking at the time, “Wow! this is really steep and rocky!” Little did I know how time would further steepen this miserable trail and thicken the treacherous moss on its smooth slabs of rock. After a while I gave up looking over my shoulder to speculate how in the world I was going to get back down afterward.
Sally Manikian, the AMC’s director of backcountry sites and facilities, met us at the shelter, so we had a full house. We chatted for the cameras, dined variously on raw carrots, cucumber, Skor bars, and cashews. The shelter, with its generous ground clearance and wide eaves, should last at least three generations. We peered underneath the floor where we’d been told a board with old Don’s handprints was secreted. And finally it was time to retreat. Doug and Rich took off first, to pick up their father at Lonesome Lake, and escort him slowly back down the trail to Lafayette Place. I left next, because everybody else always catches up with me, and I hate to hold them up.
The Fishin’ Jimmy Trail, as it’s called, is definitely not an old person’s trail. Even the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers we met on it today were marveling at the change in their daily mileage since entering the White Mountains. “My usual days were 20 to 25 miles till I got here,” one complained. “Now I’m down to five.” I sympathized, and teetered downward – backwards in some places too steep to risk a stumble facing forward.
Steve, the videographer, passed me first, carrying his gear and headed for the parking lot three miles down, where he’d check his mail and set up his next day’s schedule. Then the beauteous Sally bounded past like an impala, with her dog right behind her. She made as if to linger for moral support, but I waved her regretfully on. Then Phil, the producer, went by, promising to wait for me at the hut. Finally I was alone, except for the occasional group headed up or down. I trudged on, wondering – as I’m sure hundreds of others have before me – whether this was the best place they could possibly have put this awful trail. Surely there must be a better way.
Around 3 o’clock I spotted the gleam of the hut’s roof through the trees. As I came into view of the back steps, I spotted a crowd of people gazing up the trail at me with rapt attention. I straightened up against the pain and strode toward them. Then I realized they were looking over my shoulder. I turned around, and saw behind me the biggest bull moose I’ve ever seen in New England. He was Alaskan! – at least five feet across the antlers – and quietly munching birch twigs.
It’s about 3:30 now, time to start down. A mile and a half to go, 950 feet down. Then home. A piece of cake, and the end of another romantic day on our rustic little Hollywood set.