Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Hiking the Whites 2017 - Hut Life

So far you've heard me mention "huts" quite a bit, so lets take a little time and talk about the Appalachian Mountain Club hut system and what staying at a hut is like.
Getting ready to leave the cozy confines of Galehead Hut on a blustery morning.
The hut system in the Whites can trace its roots back to the 1880s, when a rude stone building sleeping 12 was erected in the shadow of Mount Madison, the site of the current Madison Springs Hut. Over the years huts have expanded and been remodeled or rebuilt as necessary to accommodate more travelers and account for the wear and tear of mountain conditions.

Not your typical AT shelter

If you're familiar with the iconic open-sided shelters of the Appalachian Trail, throw out those preconceptions - the White Mountain huts are nothing like those. Every hut has some common attributes: a dining area for eating or relaxing,  a small library, several bunkrooms accommodating a dozen or more hikers, and indoor bathrooms with composting toilets and cold running water. Each hut is staffed by a "croo" of college students, who prepare and serve dinner and breakfast, and your bunk is outfitted with three wool blankets and a pillow.
Bunks at the Madison Spring Hut

Off the grid

Even the easiest huts to reach are several miles from the nearest trailhead, so you're truly living off-grid. Cooking fuel is propane, airlifted by helicopter at the start of each season, and power is supplied by either solar, wind, or hydro power. With the lowering costs of solar and lithium batteries, solar is the most common power source. Electricity is rationed tightly. With only one exception that I saw, there were no power outlets for charging devices, and lighting was generally restricted to the common areas of the hut. Bring your headlamp - I found that I needed mine during the day in some of the bunkrooms! As for supply, many of the staples are also airlifted in, but croo members continue the tradition of hauling loads of perishables via packboard on an almost daily basis. It's an impressive site to see!
A croo member hefts in a load. She's completing a 4 mile trip with 3500' of elevation gain.

Carmel models the latest packboard style.
A day in the life

When you reach the destination of your hut for the night, you're greeted by a croo member at the desk/camp store, where they check you off the reservation list and tell you which bunk room you're in. Then it's a mad scurry to get the bunk you want. Some like the lower levels, but I didn't mind being on the second or third levels. You spread our your sheet or sleeping bag liner, arrange your blankets and pillows, and hang up your gear on whatever hooks you can find (some huts have plenty, some not nearly enough - a real challenge when it's been a wet day).

The common area at Madison Spring Hut
 After staking your claim, it's time to hang out, read, socialize, have a cup of tea, or explore the area around the hut until the highlight of the evening - dinner! Served promptly at 6 PM, dinner is simple fare, filling, and almost universally good. Everything is served family-style, so you quickly get to know your hut mates as you ask for more bread, salt and pepper, second helpings, and pass around the food. A sample menu might include: creamy tomato soup with cornbread, green salad, pulled pork with rolls, mashed potatoes, plus brownies and coffee for desert.
Dinner time at Madison Spring Hut
Dinner is also when the croo introduces themselves. All college students, with a northeastern emphasis, many are doing their second or third summers - it's a highly prized summer job. Post dinner time consists of naturalist programs, more socializing, games, or more. After a day of hiking and a big meal, most hut guests are ready to turn in by the time it's lights out at 9:30.
Breakfast time is croo skit time - an opportunity to tell us to fold our blankets, pack out our trash, and leave a tip for the croo!
Morning wakeup call comes at 6:30. Usually the croo sings a song, but at Greenleaf Hut one croo member recited poetry. My favorite wakeup was at Galehead Hut, where the croo did a fine rendition of Gillian Welch's "Miss Ohio." A hearty breakfast follows at 7 AM, followed by the croo skit and the weather report. As the hikers depart, the croo tidies up and awaits the next bunch to come down the trail.
The weather forecast is a highlight of the morning. 

The hut system makes the peaks of the Whites accessible to a wide range of people. We saw a blend of seasoned hikers, day hikers, families, school groups, and guided groups. Some were out for a night or two, others had more ambitious itineraries, like our 7-day tip. That creates a lot of demand for the space available. In our case, I made reservations in January and still had to scramble to put together an itinerary that fit our schedule. And huts aren't free. An average night at a hut will cost about $100-$115 per person. Worth it, in my estimation, but quite different from the freedom associated with hiking on the Appalachian Trail nearly everywhere else.

The thruhiker conundrum 

That brings me to the final issue of the hut system. The huts provide a great service to many, and help preserve the sub-alpine and alpine ecosystems of the mountains by concentrating activity into specific locations. But to Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, the huts are a mixed blessing. Free shelters and campsites are generally located well off the trail in the Whites, and many thruhikers can't afford the cost of the huts, let alone predict their schedule far enough in advance to reserve space. The solution is "work for stay."
Two of three thruhikers who shared Galehead Hut with us. In exchange for leftovers and a spot on the floor, they assisted the croo with morning cleanup after their stay. 
Work for stay for AT hikers is an old tradition at the huts. Thrus who request work for stay will be assigned some task to perform, and are fed leftovers from the meals. Then they'll get a spot on the dining room floor to spend the night. Not a bad deal really, compared to a typical AT shelter. But as the number of prospective thruhikers has increased, the system is undoubtedly being strained. I saw as many as a dozen thruhikers crashed on the floor on some mornings, with more being turned away, particularly if they arrived early in the day.

Next time - Day Three, and Weather in the Whites

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