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A Yankee Notebook

September 1, 2014


MONTPELIER – One of the nicest things about my current part-time job is that it gets me outdoors, as well as all over the map, to particular places I’d probably otherwise never have visited: mountains, rivers and lakes, and what New Hampshire calls the Great North Woods, or on some of its signs, les Bois du Grand Nord.

But the greatest pleasure for me is the people I get to meet.  They’re mountaineers, canoeists, hikers, bird-watchers, naturalists, and program directors engaged in what Calvin Coolidge once called “service to others.”  They cheerfully put up with my doddering glacial pace on the trail, and sit still for my Ancient Mariner style of storytelling.  They’re happy, upbeat, and excited about what they’re doing.  What’s not to like about all that?

The weather gods do not always smile upon our scheduled appointments.  But I’ve heretofore consoled myself that conditions can’t possibly be too tough: that whatever the big video camera can withstand, I can, too.  But lately the video team is using, in difficult conditions, the new GoPro camera, a tiny (and waterproof) digital device that shoots amazingly good images.  So I’m having to rethink my own limits.  My mantra has had to change from “What the camera can stand, I can,” to “Well, I haven’t dissolved yet, and probably won’t.”

You will no doubt remember the fierce wind-and-rain storm that blew through Vermont and New Hampshire in the middle of the second week of August this year.  The crew and I had planned to spend a couple of days with a group of young people engaged in a program called On Belay.  The forecast for the first day looked fine – warm and sunny – but a huge, swirling storm would move in late that evening with gale-force winds and drenching rain.  We checked with the folks at On Belay; they’d be there, they said.  So we went, too.

We stayed overnight at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s newish Highlands Center Lodge, just north of Crawford Notch, where winds funneling through the Notch burst out into the open.  That first day, in warm sunshine, we and the kids hiked Mount Willard, an easy mountain with a great view, and scampered back down to the Notch well before supper.  They had more meetings afterward – it’s quite a job to whip a mixed bunch of high school-age kids into a safe, cooperative group – and we all went to bed just as the tempest broke over the valley.

On Belay was founded in 2004 by a New Hampshire mother of two girls who was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Concerned that during her aggressive therapy the girls’ needs would be shunted onto a side track, she put together the beginnings of an outdoor adventure program for her kids and others from families similarly afflicted.  The name is the phrase that roped-together climbers use when one’s about to climb, and the other is secure and ready to help or catch a fall.  The program isn’t therapy in the traditional sense; it’s simply a chance for kids with the same stressful experiences to share them, even if only tacitly, and have fun together outdoors.  It’s free of charge, thanks to generous donors, and the AMC provides the necessary equipment gratis, as well.

It was still pouring and blowing hard at breakfast time, but the gang packed up and with their leaders headed up the soggy Crawford Path toward Mizpah Hut.  We left them about halfway up, sloshed back down to our vehicles, and headed north to the second of our week’s adventures.

We spent the night in Happy Corner, New Hampshire, where we’ve been before.  I like it for its home-style café and the general store, where the guys getting early-morning coffee are very friendly.  But we were there to meet Buffalo and Tough Cookie.

This duo with the colorful nicknames are Dan Szczesny (pronouncing his name is like standing an egg on end: easy if you know how) and Janelle.  He’s the associate publisher of The Hippo, New Hampshire’s largest newspaper; she’s his 13-year old climbing partner.

About five years ago a pair of twins, Aaron and Janelle, moved in with their grandparents next door to Dan and his wife’s house.  They visited often; and when the grandfather died and Dan’s wife lost her job, the kids sort of adopted the Szczesnys.  What could they do, Dan wondered, to keep these kids occupied?  Dan’s default mode is hiking: He’s done the White Mountain 4000-footers and trekked to Base Camp on Everest.  So he took them hiking.

Aaron’s response was friendly, but tepid.  Janelle’s, however, was over the moon.  She wanted to go again.  Dan allowed they could if they could coordinate with the others from that first hike.  “That’s OK,” she said. “You can just take me.”

And so he did.  They’ve hiked the so-called “Fifty-Two with a View,” and Dan’s written a book about it, using their trail names: The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie.”  Together, we skipped up (well, she did; I plodded) Mount Magalloway, just short of the Canadian border. On the summit we shared a thermos of tea that Dan always carries.  Janelle was barely warmed up.  Having danced lightly up the mountainside, she ran back down.

Dan and Janelle both claimed to have enjoyed the experience a lot.  I don’t know how they could have enjoyed it more than I.  The mountains have started something in that young lady.  I hope I’m around to see where it leads.  Yep, I meet really interesting people.

Photo by Willem lange