The Secret Life of a Caretaker at an AMC Backcountry Campsite

July 21, 2020
Backcountry caretaker Shauna gazes out over the valley from Guyot Shelter’s roof.

 

I find a nice spot to sit, either on my porch or near the entrance of the campsite. High-use campsites are known for filling up quickly, so if people start arriving before 4 p.m., I know it’s going to be a busy night. I sit patiently and wait—just in case.

The click-clacking of poles against rock steadily increases in volume before anyone comes into view, but I have practiced my routine for months, and I know better than to move just yet. I wait to hear their footsteps and heaving breath before my eyes flicker away from my paperback book.

The bulky, distinctive silhouettes of my first guests appear up trail. I prompt myself to calibrate my mind: welcoming, but not overzealous; friendly, but firm. I have my radio clipped to my waistline in case I have to speak sternly to someone who believes recreation in the wilderness gives them to the right to disrespect the forest and its community. Although the only authority I have is that of the resource, according to Leave No Trace best practices, my radio creates a more intimidatingly official image.

“Hello!” I greet the hikers with a cheerful demeanor and welcome them to their home for the night with the eloquent spiel I have perfected through practice. Then, almost inevitably, I answer the slew of questions that race through their brains and off the tip of their tongues after seeing me and my humble canvas tent:

Wow! Do you live here?
Are you a volunteer?
How long do you stay?

 

Caretaker Olivia sits on her front porch.

I answer their questions with care, even though I’ve answered each of these questions one hundred times over. I don’t mind. I’m empathetic by nature, and I try my best to engage with each individual by adding a specific pizazz to my run-of-the-mill responses.

Yes! I live here. Right on the side of Mount Garfield. I’m not a volunteer, I am a paid seasonal employee, who manages this site—one of 14 backcountry campsites AMC operates in the White Mountains and Mahoosuc Range. I generally stay up on the mountain for 10 or 11 days at a time with 2 to 3 days off between stints from May to October.

Queue the Q&A!

Their questions are often spitfire, but hardly ever catch me off guard. I know the program and the place backward and forward, so I clarify, elaborate, and put their curious minds at ease until the next guest rolls in. Then the process repeats, sometimes consistently into “hiker midnight”—that time, around 9 p.m., when someone who’s hiked all day is ready to collapse in exhaustion.

Although I only speak from one caretaker’s point of view, I find the campers’ personalities intriguing. I see myself, past and present, in their tired eyes. Some are new to hiking, and some have been hiking longer than I’ve been alive. Some are sassy or “hangry,” and some are overwhelmingly kind. Then there are those hikers who have style: the colorful characters that play the role of keystone species to the White Mountain hiking community; as an AMC caretaker, I have learned that I am one of them.

 

Caretaker Emily says hello from Ethan Pond.

Caretakers: we’re a rare breed. We’re not the gleeful personalities on hut crew who cook, act, sing, and serve. Nor are we professional trail crew, revered for spiking out and setting hundreds of rocks in one season. Rather, we’re the mountain’s keepers; we’re the forest ghosts quietly wielding axes and individually rehabbing worn-over trail. We scoop up the trash, toilet paper, and Clif bar wrappers you never knew were there. We maintain signs that help you navigate the wilderness and upkeep blazes that act as reassurance on confusing trails. There are twelve of us during high season, and we live alone, miles apart, stretching from just before Franconia Notch north to Grafton Notch. Managing the campsite is only a whisper of the passion we pour into our work.

Once the camping crowd has settled for the night, we can sleep—though some of us may need to wind down from all the social stimulation before closing our eyes. This might take the form of a cup of cocoa, stretching out stress under a starry night sky, or reading by candlelight.

As long as we’re not woken up by helpless late-comers, curious bears we must chase away, or search and rescue scenarios, the next morning we rise (often with the sun) to bid campers farewell. But what happens when the guests hike away? Friends and family may think we just hike peak to peak or jump into rivers from sunrise to five, but quite the opposite is true. We work eight hours a day, distributed however the flow of guests and Mother Nature see fit.

Each morning, we don neoprene gloves to disconnect the human waste collector bin below the campsite’s privy, then tug with all our might to pull it out so we can homogenize bark and feces. High-use campsites in the east use the “Beyond the Bin” method for turning human waste into organic soil in merely six weeks’ time. It’s a process that’s intense and requires daily labor, but up to this point, no one’s invented a better system to process the poop.

 

Caretaker Adam homogenizes hardwood bark and human waste.

From there, we’re free to choose our own adventure: trail work, privy chores, sign inventories, patrols, and the like. We may choose to revegetate an impacted area, set water bars to evade erosion, challenge ourselves on a solo rock project, or clear hazard trees and widowmakers—a detached or broken tree top or limb. We maintain the campsite platforms, distribute humus (fully composted human feces and bark) in the forest, set steps to make hiking easier, or work on something even more unique like a ladder or a bog bridge.

Our freedom of choice is one of the most beautiful things about caretaking; we work a flexible schedule all with the perks of living simply, outdoors. We pick out projects we enjoy, and then we fulfill our mantra of leaving the woods better than we found it, empowering ourselves and others by making visible change.

What’s more, when we’ve fulfilled our eight hours for the day, we’re done with work and have so many options to “play.” That might look like peakbagging, watching a sunset, crafting caretaker furniture, experimenting with appetizers, or sketching a tree. Some caretakers may burn through books, learn a new skill, or dance to the FM radio on their front porch.

 

The entire 2018 AMC caretaking crew.

The life of caretakers is one of the best kept secrets in the White Mountains. Each caretaker has their own personal way to work, embrace, balance, and play throughout their days below mountain peaks. You, the hiker, feel our effects, though you may not realize the deeper impact we’ve had on your experience. We’re allies to your hero’s journey. We’re teachers, stewards, and friends who will hold you accountable, delight in your experience, and help you understand the ways of recreating responsibly. We are caretakers. Seen or not, we are here to take care, which is why at 3 p.m., I make my afternoon coffee to meet you when you arrive.


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Rachel Cheatham

Rachel “glacier-swiss” Cheatham is the Group Outreach Coordinator for AMC's Trails Department.