Masting

It has been snowing up high in the Whites. As the snow comes the full-service huts shut down. This past Sunday the cooks at Greenleaf, Galehead and Lonesome flipped their last pancakes of the season. It was cold and spitting snow as I headed up to Galehead. I stopped to watch the flakes fall on a stand of mountain ash and down into the river. The ash is falsely named because it is actually a member of the rose family. It is a shrub, albeit a big one. Birds love its berries. They stay on the tree through the winter giving wintering birds an important food source. Almost as if they were waiting to make ice wine most bird species will wait until after the first frost to eat the berries. By then the starches will have turned to sugar.

The mountain ash are rioting this year. Or, as biologists call it, masting. In the photo you can see that the trees along the riverbanks are red with clusters of berries. In a normal year each tree would have less than half as many berries. Oaks do the same thing, periodically producing huge crops of acorns, and thus many fat squirrels, and thus many sleek and fat foxes.

Humans invented the computer, but we have not yet been able to understand how or why trees mast. We don’t know what triggers the ash by the front porch at Pinkham to sag with berries in the same year as these trees along the Gale River. Scientists have observed synchronous masting in individuals of identical species on different continents. An oak in southern Sweden will produce the same unusually large crop of acorns in the same year as one in New Jersey. How that can happen is as little understood as black holes in space. Humans are clever, but insight is a different quality.

Up the mountain past the ash the trail was covered with snow. The Garfield Ridge Trail runs along the northwest side of Galehead Mountain. Already the sun is low enough in the sky to keep things frozen.

At the hut, though, the crew was staying warm cleaning. As part of closing the hut all the walls and ceilings in the hut are wiped down with bleach diluted in water. Christina, Ben, Maia and Eliza were in the dining room with their rainshells on and a water balloon slingshot in their hands. The ceiling of the Galehead dining room is too high to reach by hand, so they were firing balloons of bleach solution.

Closing a hut is a bit like selling your house then needing to clean it and move out in two days time. After the last guests leave the crew ties the 200 wool blankets into bales of 5. They will airlift these out to be washed over the winter. They vacuum out each bunk and scrub the bunkboxes and mattresses. All the remaining food from the attic is moved downstairs to be handy for the airlift out. Every surface in the kitchen is scrubbed. This year’s crews were lucky with the weather. All the kitchen utensils need to be perfectly dry before they are bagged and stored in the attic. The warm afternoon sun made the work easier. Last fall we instead had sleet, freezing rain, and 70 mph winds during the days of closing. However, at night it got cold. Inside the hut it was in the 30's and the crew took turns sitting (or lying, like Maia Pinsky, photo) in front of the ovens after dinner.

For Maia the season was ending where it began. Almost six months earlier she was here cleaning Galehead for the opening of the season and hanging the “Welcome” sign. After the hut closed she had a ticket to Costa Rica and a month of traveling. After that, she didn’t know. Maybe ski out west, maybe find a “real” job.

Most of the fall crews are in the same situation. Just out of college they have a lot of uncertainty before them. Many are facing it for the first time in their life. The structure and schedule of school is gone. Figuring out why Mountain Ash mast can seem as likely as figuring out how and where to live their lives. Though not a “real” job by most mothers’ definitions, hut work requires skills that are in demand everywhere. Creativity, self-motivation, and a sense of humor can be applied with equal success to investment banking, evolutionary biology or ski bummery. I wish them all luck.