|Getting ready to leave the cozy confines of Galehead Hut on a blustery morning.|
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.|
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|
|Dinner time at Madison Spring Hut|
|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!|
|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.|
Next time - Day Three, and Weather in the Whites