A Smooth Trip Into the White Mountains
In 1995, a man by the name of Ray Saloomey had a revolutionary idea. Inspired by watching Biathlon athletes in the Winter Olympics, Ray wanted to make the sport accessible to New Englanders of all ages and provide people with a fun winter activity. He called it a Primitive Biathlon. Emphasis on the primitive. Instead of using cross-country skis and high-powered sniper riffles, Primitive Biathlon competitors would strap on wooden snowshoes and shoot muzzleloaders at nine targets along a course through the woods. Each hit target subtracts five minutes from your overall time. The original contest was held in 1995 in Jeffersonville Vermont at Smugglers Notch, put on entirely by Ray. Ever since, other primitive biathlons have popped up across New England and even as far West as Oregon, drawing people from all walks of life together to enjoy the sport and each others company.
Every year, regardless of the temperature, Ray stands at the finish line of his course and records times and scores, greeting everyone enthusiastically. As I heard him say to several competitors, “My only requirement is that you have fun.”
2015 Marks the twentieth annual Primitive Biathlon, which took place at Smugglers Notch on January 24th. Looking for an adventure, I signed up to participate in the event during the winter of my senior year at Middlebury. I had the good fortune to train for three weeks with a legend in the sport named Harley Grice, learning to shoot a muzzleloader in his backyard and hike around his property wearing gigantic wooden snowshoes. Harley is in his seventies, yet continues to pursue his outdoor passions with an unrelenting spirit. Harley’s dedication to his family runs deep- he has three daughters and two sons who all live nearby and who are all avid hunters and muzzleloader enthusiasts. He is gentle, thoughtful, and patient, and often talks about his late wife Marilyn: “She could always outshoot me. Me and her were best friends. She’s been gone for ten years now.”
After three weeks with Harley, I had learned all about the niche sport of Primitive Biathlons and the extraordinary people who participate. While shooting at his range, Harley pointed out all my mistakes, saying things like “you goofed it” and “this is winter, usually you close the door behind you.” Harley’s top priority is safety, and he would often remind me to keep the barrel of my gun pointed up, all the while chanting “muzzle-control” and “powder, patch, ball”, indicating the correct way to load a muzzle-loader. My lack of experience with guns and my tendency to get distracted was not a good combination, yet Harley helped me patiently both times I rammed a musket-ball down the barrel without first pouring in the powder. I was making slow but steady progress, and was beginning to hit targets more consistently, even when running through the woods with snowshoes strapped to my feet.
I enjoyed snowshoeing in the woods with Harley so much that I decided to go on a trip of my own. I told people the trip would help me prepare for the Biathlon, but secretly I just wanted to spend some time in nature all by myself, and experience the cold solitude of a winter hike. The White Mountains of New Hampshire sounded like the perfect place for such a journey. I had never been on a backpacking trip in the snow, and was unfamiliar with the terrain, so when I left Harley’s house two days prior to my trip, he warned me to stay safe and bring an extra fleece.
While I have backpacking experience in the Trinity Alps of Northern California, and a general passion for the outdoors, I am in no sense a seasoned veteran. I’ve gone on several trips to the Trinities; with friends, with family, and even all by my lonesome one time, spending three nights in my hammock. Yet each exciting and different adventure was full of fuck-ups: none of these trips went smoothly. I’ve found that part of the joy of backpacking comes with the inherent danger – I’ve had close calls on granite cliffs, I’ve dropped my backpack into a high alpine lake, I’ve stepped on a hornet’s nest, I’ve been miserably lost for hours, I’ve rolled ankles, I’ve been sick from dehydration, I’ve missed my ETA by several hours (twice, to my mother’s dismay) and I’ve fucked up cooking dinner again and again. Despite all the troubles, close calls, and physical discomfort, I have continued to go backpacking. In fact, because of the danger, the uncertainty, and all the shit that can go wrong- I continue to pack up and go.
One type of backpacking I’ve never experienced, until recently, was the winter snowshoe journey. Strap on a pair of snowshoes, grab a map and some warm clothes and head into unfamiliar snowy woods, Robert Frost style. Or Jack London, whichever you prefer. I want to experience backpacking in the snow, and in the process discover what types of people are passionate enough about the outdoors to explore them at their coldest.
Sunday, January 18th, I wake up around 9, instantly upset with myself for planning so poorly but feeling excited nonetheless. I scramble downstairs and throw a bunch of random shit into my dad’s old backpack-, a bag of BBQ chips, a freeze-dried meal of teriyaki chicken, an orange, a headlamp, a plastic spork, a rogue snickers bar, an extra fleece (Harley would be proud), and my friend’s brand new GoPro. I jam my sleeping bag into the bottom section of the pack, not bothering with the tiny stuff-sack, and rush outside to hit the road.
What am I forgetting…. Where are my fucking boots. In the car? Cool.
I grab my rental snowshoes, sling my pack over my shoulder, pick up my usual breakfast sandwich and speed off toward Crawford Notch State Park, located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Wildly underprepared. I had joked about it excessively, hoping part of the adventure would be figuring out where exactly I was going, improvising, and going with the flow. Originally I had planned the trip for Friday night, but changed plans when I saw (-20, WINDY) on the NOAA website. Tonight the low is a comfortable 35 degrees with a chance of rain. Sunset 4:50. An easy 2.8-mile hike to Zealand Falls Hut. Two hours, fifty-seven minutes to Crawford Notch State Park. I’ll be at the hut before dark.
Three and a half hours later, at 1:45 pm, I pull up to the Appalachian Mountain Club welcome center in the pouring rain and ask the girl at the front desk what the best route is to Zealand Falls Hut.
“Well you have two options. You can head in that direction and hike up over Mt. Tom on the A-Z trail. It’s stepper and more dramatic. Or, you can go to Zealand Campground and hike up Zealand road, about seven miles. It’s closed for winter, but the road is an easier hike and will probably be faster.”
My eyes widened. Did she say seven?
“Ohhhh. Ok well I’m running out of daylight, so Zealand road sounds better. Do you have a map by chance?”
“Yep! It’s $7.50. Who are you going with?”
“Solo trip this time. I’m writing about it for a class. First time here, first time on snowshoes actually.”
She looked surprised but smiled nonetheless. “Oh cool. Well have fun and be safe.”
Nice girl. Pretty cute to. I pay and run out the door. Seven miles? Fuck. It’s already 2.
I speed back the way I came, passing the unmarked parking lot at 60 mph. I turn around frantically, park the car, lace up my boots, grab the snowshoes and cross the highway with the light pack dangling off one shoulder.
No one actually knows exactly where I’m going. And it’s going to get dark before I get there. No doubt about it.
I know from experience that it is stupid to go on a solo-trip of any sort and not tell anybody. I pull out my phone and text my roommates:
Guys, I’m going to Zealand Falls Hut. If you don’t hear from me by noon tomorrow, something is wrong. Much love.
It’s 2:20. I pull out my new map and search for Zealand Road.
“Excuse me? Is this Zealand road?” The group of hikers stop and turn, looking at me curiously.
“No. Its over there, beyond the gate.”
“Ok, thank you.”
I rush to the road and begin to hike as the rain pours. Several minutes go by and I have already whipped out my map twice more, checking to make sure I’m on the right track. Up ahead I see a sign with arrows pointing to the right: Zealand Falls Hut: 6.8 miles ->
I’m pretty sure the girl at the AMC told me to stay on the road. But why wouldn’t I trust the sign? I pull out my friends GoPro to document my journey, heading off the road and into the dense woods.
NO SV. What the fuck? NO SV: it flashes every time I hit record. My heart drops.
FUCK. I can’t record anything? Should I even keep going? Should I just get a motel room and chill? Should I drive back to school? No. I’m already here, aren’t I? I’ll feel worse about going back than continuing this bullshit hike.
Angry at the world, I choose to keep moving. The snow gets deeper and I throw down my snowshoes. They strap on quickly and I take off at a rapid pace, attempting to gain an advantage on the darkness I know will close in on me. What the hell am I doing? I am completely alone with the trees, the rain, and the crunching snow under my feet. As flustered as I am, there is no denying that it’s nice to be back on the trail with my dad’s old pack. As I get into a rhythm, my mind wanders to the first day I spent at Harley’s shooting range.
Harley looked at me seriously and repeated, “Always remember: powder, patch, ball.”
I took the heavy riffle from Harley and we walked out the door of his basement into the frigid morning gloom. Careful to keep the barrel of the muzzleloader pointed upward, as instructed, I climbed the stairs and looked straight out over the orange targets of his backyard shooting range. Yet Harley pointed left toward the paper target stapled to his woodpile, the same one I had peppered with shots from a .22 rifle minutes earlier.
“Stand up straight and press the butt into your shoulder.”
Apprehensively, I drew the riffle upward, took aim with my shaking hands, and waited for what felt for the right moment.
I pulled the trigger: a flash, a bang, and a new whole in the target appeared, larger than the others. As the smoke from the shot surrounded my face and vanished into the chilly morning, Harley gave me a small nod.
“Good. Now hit the center.”
Thirty minutes later I arrive at “Sugarloaf campground”. The trail forks apart again and again, and I have no fucking clue where I am. Stay cool. I pull out my map, and figure out I’m heading west when I should be going south. I realize I don’t have a compass. Harley would be appalled.
I notice a tiny blue diamond nailed to a tree with an arrow pointing right. Despite the trail headed in what I believe to be the wrong direction, I follow my instincts. When you’re alone in the woods, especially in the snow, everything seems to be a life or death matter. I’ve been hiking for under an hour, and I’m already scared, wet and cold. Getting lost is a reality for me. Yet out of options, I press on.
Up ahead, I see the trail spill out onto a road- I’ve arrived back on Zealand Road. What the fucking fuck. I felt as if I had just detoured for an hour into a maze of trees for no reason. But no time to sit and think- its already 3:30. Two men on snowshoes hike toward me.
“Excuse me? Do you guys know how to get to Zealand Falls Hut?”
The older man looks at me with a completely blank expression. The younger man says with a sympathetic tone, “Just follow the road all the way to the end.” I thank him, and the older man slightly rolls his eyes. I’m too desperate to really care.
I cross a bridge and the rain falls harder than ever. I am sweating and can feel the water soaking through my coat and snowboard pants. The road is straight and unrelenting, lined with ice-covered trees. What am I doing here? I push on all alone, seeing no one, hearing nothing but the patter of rain and the crunch of my snowshoes, the sky growing ever-darker overhead. My mind wanders back to the upcoming Primitive Biathlon, and the first day I met Harley.
“I met Marilyn when she was 15. I gave her a ring the next year, and we were married as soon as she graduated high school.”
The death of a loved one is painful topic, and unless you feel comfortable with someone it will inevitably be tense and awkward. Although I had just met Harley, I instantly registered his grandfatherly warmth and his instinctive kindness. I was hesitant to discuss Marilyn, who I had learned about before meeting him, but when he brought up the topic, I sensed his vulnerability and was flooded with sympathy. Sitting in his kitchen, I opened up to Harley about my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, past girlfriends, and my hopes for the future. I felt like I was talking to a long-lost flannel-wearing grandfather I had suddenly inherited.
Harley offered to take me on a tour of his property, which I happily agreed to. We got in his car and he began telling me about the different buildings belonging to his children; two of his daughters lived practically next door to him, and the rest of his kids still live in Vermont and visit him often. I could tell he took pride in that. We drove across a beautiful meadow of rolling hills and down to a bridge crossing a small creek. “Used to have giant brown trout in there. But that was thirty years ago.” I told Harley about my fly-fishing exploits.
We drove up an uneven road with trees on both sides. Harley told me he spent his childhood hunting turkeys in these woods. He now owned the whole section, having purchased the land ten years ago at the age of 68. The road opened up to an expansive field, and Harley pulled the car up to a building that roused my interest. Sitting fifteen feet off the ground, “The Roost” is a boyhood dream come true. It is a cross between a bunkhouse, a tree house, and a hermit’s den. Harley ran up the stairs with the agility of a teenager, and I followed with mingled surprise and excitement.
Surprised as I was to find myself in this cabin in the woods with my new mentor, I didn’t bat an eye when I discovered several guns leaned against the wall of the hideaway. Harley fixed us hot chocolate as I poked around. John Wayne was painted on the wall, his crooked smile and shining eyes poking out from under his ten-gallon hat. Furs were draped along the sofa. Windows in every direction exposed a pretty view of the surrounding mountains. A small staircase led up to a bunkroom with two twin beds.
“Wow. Can I move in or what?” I joked.
“You and the mice could have a nice time out here.”
I am from California, and my family is deeply rooted in Oregon and Washington state. Harley’s favorite place is Montana, and he has been on several hunting trips there throughout his life. For some reason, sitting in the roost made me feel like I was out West, somewhere in the Rockies. I’ve only been to Montana once, but I won’t soon forget the rugged landscape, the sound of a growling bear, or the deafening clap of a summer thunderstorm. We swapped stories and had some laughs.
I noticed a diary on the kitchen counter. “Do you keep a journal?” I asked as casually as possible, hoping not to pry.
“I take down a note every day. The weather mostly, but I also write about my family.” He then asked if I wanted to write in it. “Sure, I’d love to.”
I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, but it went something like this:
January 6th, 2015. Sitting in the Roost drinking hot chocolate with Harley. 12 degrees outside. Just shot my first muzzleloader- amazing feeling. Amazing place. Thank you for teaching me. Your friend, Logan.
I put the journal down and glanced at Harley, who was sitting contentedly with a mug clasped in his hands.
“Have you lived in Vermont your whole life?” I asked, curious about the bespectacled gray haired man who lived out his boyhood dreams. He looked up at me with a glint in his eye.
“Well I’m still alive, aren’t I?”
At 4:20, I reach the end of Zealand Road, the place where I thought I would begin my trek. “Zealand Falls Hut: 2.8 miles.” I stop to rest, drink some water, and devour my snickers bar. I haven’t eaten anything since my Middlebury Market egg sandwich, six hour earlier. The wind and rain sting my face, and I can feel the temperature dropping. Two minutes later I begin shivering, and decide I had better keep moving, knowing it will be pitch dark well before I reach the hut. It’s Sunday. I will be the only person at the hut tonight, along with an ancient caretaker with thick glasses and a long beard. He will be asleep when I get there. Maybe I can interview him for hours. I have my recorder, after all.
I hike for ten minutes through the heavy snow of the Zealand Trail, regaining my rhythm. Suddenly, an unbelievable sight meets my eyes: a fork. One trail leads up, the other stays flat. This can’t be happening. I whip out my map in desperation, and find that the Zealand trail as marked has no forks. FUCKKKKKK.
Instinctively, I follow the trail on the right, leading upward. I feel like I haven’t gained much elevation, which makes me nervous. After fifty yards, I change my mind on a whim, and return to the trail stretching along the river. I continue on, heart pumping and panic setting in. Can I survive the night if I don’t make it to this “hut”?
The raindrops fall harder, and my hands grow pruny. I’m exhausted, scared, and uncertain about where I am heading.
I convince myself I’ve made a wrong turn. I stop for ten minutes and think about just turning around. But I know it’s not time to retreat yet. I have an interior battle. I push ahead with a surge of energy. I stop suddenly, mind racing with growing desperation. I mistake a large boulder for a building, taking the time to leave the trail to investigate. The forest has tight trees, and the darkness creeps over me as I accept the fact that I am not certain I’m on the right trail. The rain hasn’t let up for a single moment. The trail winds over a frozen marsh, and the landscape is terrifying and barren of life or warmth. This Sunday night is cold, lonely and terrifying. Possibly even life threatening. I shiver as the wind picks up, blowing rain into my face. I enter a trance-like state.
At 5:30, I look ahead and see two people stopped on the trail.
“How are you guys? Are you guys going to Zealand falls?”
“We are good! And yeah we are, the sign says 0.2 miles in this direction.”
“Yes! Thanks! Well I will see you there, I need to take a break.”
The two women continue on ahead of me, and I pull out my water bottle and drink deeply. Shivering with cold and exhaustion, I almost collapse. I’m going to make it.
Stomach growling, I set off toward the hut. In my mind I picture the caretaker of the hut again. An old hermit type with white hair. He will laugh at me when I tell my story.
On both of my heels I can feel large blisters that burn with each step. It is fully dark now, and I pull out my headlamp half expecting it not to work. It does. I catch up to the woman and the three of us climb the steep stairs to Zealand Falls Hut. Although I saw the picture on the website when I booked a bunk for the night, I have completely forgotten what the hut will be like. All I know is that food will not be provided and the bunkroom is not heated.
The hut is larger than expected, and at least ten pairs of snowshoes line the porch railing. Soaking wet and shivering, I throw down my pack and enter the door with the two women following closely.
The inside of the hut resembles a ski lodge. At least fifteen people sit talking around various tables, laughing and drinking from mugs. Some look up at us with surprise. I stagger over to the young man sitting behind a desk. His name is Beowulf: “I also respond to Jeffery”. He signs me in, and tells me to find a bunk and get dry. Bewildered, I grab my pack and pick a bunk. I begin to dig through my backpack for something to eat, pulling out the bag of chips, orange, and freeze-dried meal, and morning glory muffin. I then pull out my sleeping bag from the bottom of the pack: its completely soaked. Shit. I bring my sleeping bag and all my snacks into the common room, feeling foolish and self-conscious about being alone.
I march over to the furnace to get warm, sitting down with the girls I hiked in with. We formally introduce ourselves, and I learn Kayla and Amanda are in their twenties and come from Portland, Maine. I explain to them just how desperate I was when I ran into them on the trail, inviting them to laugh at me. Both of them are backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts, and I can tell them think I’m a fool. I continue to crack self-deprecating jokes nonetheless. They offer me some salami, which I accept gratefully, and Kayla helps me hang my sleeping bag above the furnace to dry.
Amanda asks me why I’m alone, and I explain the Primitive Biathlon, my mentor Harley, and my desire to experience a solo- snowshoe trek. She seems interested, and the family at the nearby table eavesdrop. As I explain the Smugglers’ Notch Biathlon, people say things like “ That’s so cool!” and, ”You mean a old-fashioned musket?? HA!” and, “ You go to Middlebury! My cousin goes there!”
When I tell the girls I think I’m the least prepared person here, they agree quickly and laugh. Still in partial shock, I’m acting a little loopy by the furnace. I say something like “I’m so glad I’m here with you guys. New friends!!!!!”
They laugh a little uncomfortably, but continue to smile.
In the kitchen as I prepare my chicken dinner, I meet a young dude named Cameron. Me, Cameron, Kayla, Amanda and Beowulf gather around the counter and talk about hiking the Appalachian trail, something all of them have done and have in common. Beowulf tells a story about running out of food on the Pacific Crest Trail when he hiked with two other guys he calls “the bong bros”. “Because they were high the entire time!”
I enjoy talking to people who love to pack up and hit the trail. Few of my close friends enjoy backpacking like I do, and its fun to hear from people with a similar passion, who are funny and love the adventure.
Beowulf leaves to fill the water jugs, and Cameron, the girls and I sit at a table, each with a mug of green tea. Cameron forgets Amanda’s name, and I ask her if I can give him a hint.
“It rhymes with ‘Shma-shmanda’.” I get some solid laughs.
Cameron and I tease the girls about their gigantic sack of food- It weighs at least 15 pounds.
“Well we are staying for two nights!!” says Amanda.
“Yeah well I’m happy to take some off your hands,” says Cameron.
Kayla offers me some wine, which I gladly accept. I learn that she spends her summers as a park ranger in Alaska; I learn Cameron wants to travel the world and teach English. I learn Amanda loves YouTube cat videos more than anything in the world. I can’t believe the complete 180 the evening has taken- I am warm, stuffed with food, and am chatting with three awesome new friends. It was only a few hours ago that I almost decided to turn around, less than a half hour walk from the hut.
After wishing everyone goodnight and brushing my teeth with my finger, (obviously I didn’t bring a toothbrush) I curl up in my damp sleeping bag. I’m kept awake by the snores of the guy sleeping below me, but don’t really mind. I feel an odd sense of accomplishment about the day. I guess going with the flow is sometimes what its all about. Smoothly done.
On the morning of January 24th, I woke up at 5:30 and headed over to Harley’s. As we loaded up the car in preparation for Smugglers Notch, I attempted to help him remember everything we needed.
“Ball-starters, ramrods, balls, Pre-loads, snowshoes, guns, primers, caps, hand warmers.”
When we felt ready, I told Harley that everything today would go smoothly. Harley shook his head at me in his typical fashion.
“If everything went smoothly, they wouldn’t call it ‘Primitive’.”
I got in the car and off we went.