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I had forgotten about our nicknames. But there they were, scratched into the logbook as clear and black as when the ink was fresh. Flava Flav. Armando. Vadush.
We had inscribed these nicknames as part of Camp Agawam’s expedition to AMC’s Madison Spring Hut in July 2007. That summer, during a three-day journey across the Presidentials, our group of eight 13 and 14-year-olds endured driving wind and rain, blisters and exhausted muscles, and keyed-up counselors who refused to tell us how much farther we had to go. For me, the trip was a new kind of outdoor exploration—and a revelation.
Now I’m returning to Madison eight years later as an intern and a writer for AMC Outdoors. Over three days, I watch two new rounds of Agawam campers experience the White Mountains. AMC has renovated the hut since the last time I was here, completing a major upgrade in 2011, but the new interior is packed with the features and character of the old. The same stone wall still stands, a hundred years after it was raised. Dinner, packed in on the croo’s backs as it has been since the beginning, is still delicious—especially to a group of ravenous hikers. The logbooks still tell stories of decades past, new pages open and waiting to be filled with new entries. Everything is the same—or at least, that’s how it seems.
Camp Agawam is a traditional seven-week summer camp for boys. The 125-acre campus sits on the western shore of Crescent Lake, just a few miles from Sebago, in Raymond, Maine. Onsite activities abond, from windsurfing and riflery to tennis and woodworking.
Even so, the camp sees the benefit in getting kids offsite to explore. Each camper takes at least one trip during the course of the summer. Agawam sends groups out to Moosehead Lake, Katahdin, the Androscoggin River, and a host of other mountains and lakes in Maine and New Hampshire. One of the longest-standing expeditions, and certainly one of the most popular, is Mount Washington.
Agawam has been going to the White Mountains since the 1940s. “It’s remarkable to see how little has changed,” says the camp’s director, Erik Calhoun. He should know. Calhoun visited AMC’s high huts as an Agawam camper in 1984. His father led Agawam campers to Mount Washington in the 1950s. Soon his son, Everett, will make the same trip. Calhoun says there are reports in the camp office from expeditions to AMC huts in the Whites dating back more than 60 years.
“It’s really important,” Calhoun says of Agawam and AMC’s unofficial partnership. “You’d find at least 20 camps who’d say the same, I think.” And yet, Agawam’s history with AMC might be the most personal. Agawam’s previous director of 22 years, the late Garth Nelson, worked on hut croo as a young adult, decades ago.
Until my own introduction to the Presidentials with Agawam at age 14, I had never seen a gorge like Tuckerman Ravine or a summit like Washington. As a kid from the South, what captured my attention most immediately was the summer snow in Tuckerman—a reminder of the environment’s unpredictability. But that was just the beginning.
We traversed the ravine at a slow pace. I kept looking up at the sharp incline of broken rock ahead, where the trail disappeared into obscurity. As my breathing labored and the sweat poured, each step grew more difficult. But in the last half mile as we neared the peak, my outlook turned. I was having fun. When we huddled around the sign marking the summit, we did so on an elated high of mountain domination. To my young imagination, standing in the thick clouds and bludgeoning winds, we could have been atop Everest, halfway around the world.
Later, sitting inside Lakes of the Clouds Hut, dirty, smelly, and still wet, with sore feet and a full belly, I was entranced. The lake had emerged from the mist as we descended from the summit, leaving us wondering if this place was truly real. What is this refuge? I thought. All I had known on the trail was rock and wetness, and here was a sanctuary in the clouds. I was electrified by the hut’s remoteness and isolation, as well as its oxymoronic rustic luxury. The following day, as we summited Monroe, Jefferson, and Adams, I felt a growing sense of place. I belong here, I thought, my trepidation over Tuckerman the day before a dim memory. The second night, as I poured my third cup of hot chocolate in Madison’s dining room, I felt initiated into the backcountry.
Fast forward eight years, and the new groups of campers arriving at Madison—wet, cold, tired, and thrilled—remind me of then. The hot chocolate is still here, and the campers react the same way my friends and I did, relishing the reward. As the evening wears on, the campers, in their socks or sandals and hats over their ears, give off an air of exhausted satisfaction. Some boys play chess or cards, others read nature books or explore nearby Star Lake. The difficulty of the trail seems long distant in the rear view. I try to catch them during these moments of reflection to hear what they’re thinking.
Darasimi Lowe, 13, or “Simi” to his campmates and counselors, wants to hike Katahdin next year. Last summer he hiked Maine’s Royce Mountain (3,200 feet), his first true mountain hike, and he was hooked. That trip ignited a desire to tackle more peaks. This year, when the time came for the White Mountains expeditions to load up, Simi was first in line.
Harry Philbrick, 15, came on the Mount Washington trip last year. He’s a year or two older than the other boys, most of whom are seeing the Presidential Range for the first time, so he’s a relative veteran on these trails. Why did he come back? “For the sights,” he says, as he carefully aligns black pawns on a chessboard illuminated by the bright sunlight streaming in through the window. In keeping with his old-soul aura, Philbrick adds, “And my glutes.”
Patch Barnard, 13, doesn’t seem like the type to leave camp. Since his youngest years at Agawam, he’s been known as its biggest fan, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who loves the place more. True to form, Barnard didn’t want to come on the three-day hut trip. At first. “But now, now it’s unbelievable,” he says, before joining Philbrick on an afterdinner jaunt to Star Lake. Jumping from rock to rock, the pair show off their mineral knowledge: “That’s quartz!” “No, it’s not!” “Here’s some mica!” Soon, the light slips behind the cover of Mount Adams, and they return to the warmth of the hut.
It’s easy to put myself back in the campers’ hiking boots, but as an adult and an intern with AMC, I also see the hut from a new angle.
The majority of the hut croo’s work consists of cooking and cleaning. Wednesdays and Saturdays are pack days, when croo members hike food and supplies up the mountain on their backs. Then there are the small rituals, only visible to the croo or someone with special access, like me. As I stand in Madison’s kitchen in the late morning, after the guests have gone and the cleaning’s finished, the croo joke and laugh in a huddled group.
It’s time to read the comment cards, guests’ anonymous opportunity to provide feedback. When the last card is read, the croo is mostly pleased with themselves, as this batch yielded no negative comments—certainly not from the Agawam group. In my boyhood memories, the croo holds a prestigious, almost idolized role. Likewise, the croo is happy to host these kids. Whitney Brown, the assistant hutmaster at Madison, says the energy escalates with a camp group.
“A big benefit of the huts is it makes everything accessible for kids,” she says. “It teaches them to appreciate the outdoors. Backpacking can be not so fun for kids if it’s raining and cold, but the huts help with that.”
Ryan Koski-Vacirca, Madison’s hutmaster, calls the huts “the mediator between the backcountry and the front country—a way for people to be exposed to the mountains who have never been before.”
Agawam is far from the only group that takes kids into the backcountry. From summer camps to scout troops to intrepid families, there’s a long list of organized outings designed to introduce children to the outdoors. Midmorning, after the first group of Agawam campers has packed up and set out for the ridgeline, I sit outside with two croo members.
“They called it a ‘high adventure,’” says Alan Bebout, on croo at Greenleaf Hut and visiting Madison on his day off. Bebout first experienced the White Mountains around the same age I did, on a trip with his Boy Scout troop. When it comes to teenagers in the backcountry, Bebout says, the hut experience really makes a difference.
“That trip started a lot of interest in backpacking with friends,” Bebout says, remembering how “super proud” he was of the mountains he had summited. He traces a direct line between that trip and his current job, as a first-year croo member.
Alex Johnson, also visiting Madison on his time off, is on croo at Mizpah Spring Hut. He first came to these peaks with a summer camp after his freshman year of high school. The trails crawling throughout the White Mountains were unlike any others he’d seen. His group stopped at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, and Johnson knew immediately he wanted to work there. “It seemed unreal to me,” he says. “It was an impossibly cool opportunity and a great bonding experience with the outdoors.”
Before long, a second Agawam group arrives, having trudged 12 grueling miles from Mizpah Spring Hut. They shuck off their hiking boots and take some time to recoup. Later, once they’ve perked up, Madison’s croo naturalist, Nate Iannuccillo, gets them moving again. From his perch atop a dining-room bench, Iannuccillo is leading an activity on fog and water condensation, and he gives each guest two playing cards from the deck in his hand. “If your number is more than 18, you condense! Move to the other side!” he shouts, aiming to illustrate the idea that higher numbers represent more water molecules. The campers and other guests brush shoulders as they cross the room. To demonstrate the bouncy nature of gaseous water, Iannuccillo instructs the group—wiped out just an hour or two before—to dance. They comply, giddily.
Iannuccillo studied atmospheric science in college and at the Mount Washington Observatory. The campers, encouraged by his infectious delivery, listen attentively as he explains the science behind the weather. The program is timely: It’s dark and stormy outside, and the forecast doesn’t look good for tomorrow. The infamously volatile White Mountain weather provides an ideal meeting point for croo and camper interaction.
Another obvious point of connection? Food. While she chops lettuce for that evening’s salad, croo member Whitney Brown talks about her family.
“My grandfather worked at Lakes of the Clouds during the 1940s,” she says. “He packed in, the same as we do. He worked on search and rescues, like we do.” She says she loves how the hut experience endures, even in an environment where change happens on a geologic scale.
Croo members like Brown are the single biggest factor in determining how guests view the huts. Up in this remote location, far from AMC administration, the croo upholds the huts’ reputation of hospitality and comfort. Even the campers recognize this extraordinar responsibility. Despite the alluring aromas drifting out of the kitchen, “They aren’t just here to feed us,” says 14-year-old newcomer Michael Placenti. “[Their work] is greatly appreciated.”
At this point, I’m a veteran of the White Mountains. I’ve explored alone, for work, as a camper, as a counselor, and with a college buddy. Each time I return, I’m reminded of that first trip, in the summer of 2007.
Never more so than now, though, I think as I watch the second group of Agawam campers inspect a map in Madison’s dining room on the morning of their departure. Crowding around, the boys trace various routes with their fingers, pointing out where they came from yesterday and where they’re going today. They fill their camp-issued Nalgenes and pull on their backpacks. It’s time to head out.
I stand in the hut’s doorway with a cup of coffee, seeing off the campers and counselors as they ascend the Gulfside Trail, a single file line of vibrant colors poking through the windy, bitter mist. Hanging back in the warm hut seems like the right idea this morning. But as I watch the campers and counselors depart, déjà vu sets in, and I can’t help but reflect on my own transformative moments that happened here and around this hut. I remember being electrified by the outdoors. I remember overcoming a seemingly impossible hike to emerge a braver, more confident teenager. I remember blazing a new path for myself, with a deep appreciation and love for these mountains.
Most of all, I remember the uneasy feeling that flashed across my mind when I first stepped foot in Tuckerman Ravine eight years ago: What did I sign up for?
There’s no doubt now. I’m ready to hit the trail.