Wilderness is...

What is Wilderness? If you want a lively ideological debate amongst people who prefer to be outside rather than indoors it is a good question to ask the rancher, the hiker, the snowmobiler or the mountain biker. I won’t get into it here. But I will tell you what the Pemigewasset Wilderness was to me last week: mud, bugs, and slugs.

Ana Roy, the Field Naturalist, and I headed into Galehead via 13 Falls. The ghost of J.E. Henry is here also. We hiked his old logging railbeds 8 miles from Lincoln Woods into 13 Falls. In places the ties and the corridor vanish, swallowed by the hardwoods (photo). Hiking along in the rain through dense forest it felt like an expedition along the Amazon. Once you cross the Forest Boundary the trail closes in (photo). A beaver dam has flooded one section and you have to tightrope your way across (photo). We met a moose on the Franconia Brook Trail (photo).

We left the parking lot at 4 and didn’t reach the campsite until 7. In those hours of walking I found it incredible that so few men could have cut so many trees in such a short time. J.E. Henry’s lumberjacks cut the Owl’s Head and the surrounding slopes in only three winters, 1901, ’02 and ’03. They did it with single-bitted axes, cross-cut saws and teams of woods horses. The old-growth spruce (most were 250 years or older) have been replaced by hardwoods. Unlike the granite quarries of Barre, the old shoe factories of Lewiston, or even the stone walls across New England the signs of these men’s great labor are all but gone. There are rotting railroad ties, rusting rail spikes, yellowed news of the Depression on old papers in northcountry attics (the Henry’s built a paper mill to use the smaller timber) and the frames of old factory houses on the back streets of Lincoln.

If there is a modern equivalent to the lumberjack in spirit and strength I think it is the shelter caretaker and the trail crewman. At 13 Falls we visited with Emily Meacham. We arrived in a hard rain and set up our tent. Emily invited us to cook dinner under the tarp that serves as her kitchen. As we boiled water we decided how many boxes of Annie’s macaroni and cheese we needed. With four people I thought three boxes would be more than enough “Oh no,” Emily said, “I eat two boxes myself.” That day she had done eight miles of hiking (up to Garfield, over to Galehead and back home) and eight hours of trailwork. Her current trail project includes building a rock staircase on the Twin Brook trail. To build a staircase you need stairs, and Emily has been quarrying 100 to 300 pound rocks from the woods. After this work she comes back to the site to welcome campers, point out the water, ask them not to pee in the outhouse (she has to compost the waste and it makes that work harder), and to store their food in the bear boxes. Once you hear about her day her pasta requirements are less surprising.

More adventurous omnivores would find plenty of protein among the slugs of 13-Falls. I have never seen so many. Emily finds them on her plate and bowl every morning and night. They are on the trees and under your tent fly. It is the China of slugs.

It rained hard all night. The drops were heavy and sounded like golfballs on the tent fly. I didn’t sleep much. In the morning it slowly cleared and Emily forded the Twin Brook with us to give us a tour of the falls (photos). The falls were roaring after the rain, and pools were dark like tea. Ana felt the duty to jump in, as the pools of 13-Falls are not quickly accessible to those of us from the valley.

As the sun came out we headed up to Galehead and Emily headed to her trail project. That night at the hut it rained softly as the sun set (photo). One night in a wet tent put the luxury of the hut mattresses and bunkrooms into context. I had been taking them for granted.