Deep within New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, a rocky cascade of a spur path descends from the Bondcliff Trail to the Guyot Campsite. Hikers arrive here from all directions: Some trek along Garfield Ridge and the Twinway; others hike past iconic Zeacliff; still others climb up out of the Pemigewasset Wilderness and pass over Bondcliff and Mount Bond. Last summer Justin Martin got used to watching tired hikers trudge down that final stretch toward his perch on a tent platform at the base of the spur.
The genial Martin, Guyot’s 2014 caretaker, spent most afternoons in that spot. After a day of work around the campsite and along nearby trails, he would fold his 6-foot, 7-inch frame down into a chair in front of his canvas tent and wait for the evening’s arrivals. “Welcome to Guyot,” he’d say to each group that approached. Then he’d ask if they were staying the night and, if so, what kind of tent they had. If they were just passing through, he’d direct them to the spring water that runs through the southwest corner of Guyot.
On a quiet evening Martin might let the campers pick their own spot in the log shelter or on any of six tent platforms. But on this weekend he played a game of human Tetris, assigning each group a specific spot, carefully fitting all of the tents, hammocks, and sleeping pads together. More than 90 people sleep at Guyot on a busy summer night.
Martin walked each group to their camping spot, giving each a quick tour along the way—there’s a set of bear boxes for food storage, here’s where you can rinse dishes, and up that trail is the composting outhouse. The campsite’s layout is simple but informed, a careful arrangement of all the backcountry necessities in a way that minimizes human impact and maintains as remote an experience as possible for visitors—while also protecting the fragile surrounding environment from rogue campsites.
Martin was one of 12 AMC caretakers in 2014, the program’s 45th year. Collectively, this group, along with their manager, Sally Manikian, a field coordinator, a roving caretaker, and a group outreach coordinator, oversee a network of 18 tentsites and campsites situated near the Appalachian Trail through the White Mountains and Mahoosucs. They maintain trails as well as campsites, educate hikers in ways to minimize their impact, and assist in search and rescue operations. They also collect fees that cover a portion of the program.
This system emerged from the backpacking boom of the 1960s. Dozens of shelters used to be scattered throughout the White Mountains, but without a guiding presence, all those footsteps and tent footprints, fire rings, and waste led to a sprawling impact on the environment. AMC placed its first caretaker at Liberty Springs in 1970, with the assignment of being a hands-on steward and backcountry educator. From there the program blossomed. Sites were consolidated in key locations, where dozens of visitors could stay and a seasonal caretaker could monitor and manage the impact. Now nearly 15,000 visitors annually camp at these sites (and they, collectively, leave behind 2,500 gallons of human waste—a reality that the caretakers deal with by composting it daily).