The sun rises on AMC Mizpah Spring Hut, and I’m splitting breakfast with a group of singing, ukulele-playing Montréalers. Longtime friends from their running and cycling group, they first went on a hut-to-hut trip in the White Mountains more than 25 years ago. Since then, they’ve been back every year.
Well, one of them notes, after a bite of bacon, almost every year.
In 2020 the AMC Mountain Huts, like so many things, went on hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A skeleton crew of caretakers remained, but overnight guests stayed home. It was the first time the entire hut system had closed for a season in its 135-year history. When they reopened in 2021, there were some new precautions. But one of the biggest changes wasn’t what was in the Huts. It was who was working there.
The “Croo,” the hut’s seasonal staff, has long been one of AMC’s calling cards. Croo cook all the meals their guests eat. Twice a week they hike out the hut’s trash on their backs using an old-school device called a packboard, then they hike up perishable food. They give hikers directions, educate the public on the unique landscape of the White Mountains, and welcome guests. They even handle compost.
But much of what defines Croo life isn’t in the job description. It’s the inside jokes created over months of communal living, the goofy skits members perform for guests each morning. This part of the job is built on tradition, passed down word-of-mouth from Hutmasters and returners to new hires. Each generation takes these traditions, scraps some, adapts others, and adds their own.
In 2020, that chain nearly broke. Because there was no Croo that year, most of the 2021 hut staff were spending their first summers in the mountains. Creating a new sense of community and “normalcy” wasn’t always easy. But for the last few seasons, staff have kept returning. According to AMC Huts Manager Bethany Taylor, almost a quarter of the current 2023 Croo, plus staff members Kyler Philips and Tom Sherwood, are returners from 2021. Those are strong numbers for a seasonal workforce.
In Taylor’s words, this is the core group responsible for bringing the Huts “back to life.”
What’s the bond like when people come together, and largely stay together, during a unique global event? What goes into creating the culture of hard work and fun needed to run an off-the-grid hut? Looking for answers, I loaded my pack and hiked the Crawford Path to Mizpah Spring.
Return to the Mountains
The eight High Mountain Huts feel timeless. Some were built by AMC before the White Mountain National Forest was established. Mizpah Spring Hut, however, is a relative newcomer. In 1961, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas went on a hut-to-hut trip and loved the experience so much that he wrote a story about it for National Geographic magazine. What had been a regional attraction suddenly went national, and the huts got very busy. To meet the increased demand, AMC worked with the National Forest Service to construct a new hut on the southern edge of the Presidential Range. Mizpah Spring opened its doors in 1965.
Want more evidence that the huts change with the times? Look at the peeling duct tape on the floor. Each strip is spaced six feet apart and kept guests socially distanced in the dinner line for part of the 2021 season.
“I always forget this is here. That’s kind of fun that they’re still there, but faded,” says Mizpah Spring Croo Member Max Schweik.
Schweik is one of the rare Croo members who worked in the huts before and after 2020. In 2019 he was on Fall seasonal Croo at Galehead Hut and loved the experience. But the pandemic kept him out of the huts for almost two years. When he returned in 2021, there were some changes. At Gala, AMC’s orientation for summer seasonal workers in the White Mountains, plastic dividers separated each hut’s Croo.
“You would tap on the glass to your friends and be like ‘Hey,’” remembers Mizpah Spring Assistant Hutmaster Lydia Burnet.
Masks were initially required, but regulations changed. Rules could even vary between huts, depending on what county staff were in. To keep everyone up to speed, changes were radioed to the huts with the morning weather forecast.
Despite these obstacles, Schweik and Burnett remember it as a hopeful time. Guests felt grateful to be back in the White Mountains. Many of the Croo joined after a year of isolation, living at home, and remote learning.
For Burnet, who went to a high school focused on outdoor education, the transition to online classes her senior year had been jarring. After graduating early and hearing about the White Mountain huts from two teachers, Burnet decided Croo could offer what she’d been missing. While she remembers having some initial nerves about interacting with a rotating group of guests each night, Burnet found the outdoor escape and community she was looking for.
“I actually applied before I was old enough, and then at eighteen got the job… It was so nice to not be cooped up in a house anymore and be in this beautiful remote hut with miles and miles of trails all around to explore.”
Lydia and Max’s stories are only two of many from that first summer back. Each Croo member came to the White Mountains with a different experience. Each worked through scenarios their predecessors could only imagine, from rapidly changing reservations to awkward interactions with guests who refused to mask up. Each left learning something new. And many decided to return the following season.
The New Croo
Croos have been working in the White Mountains for more than a century. But it’s fair to say that Schweik and Burnet were part of a new chapter for the Huts.
“Everyone but leadership was completely new [in 2021]. So, it was just a complete reset,” says Schweik.
The logistics were, seemingly, baffling. But Croo camaraderie came quickly. In part, that’s a result of the bond that comes with a unique job in a unique place. It’s also from the experience of working through a challenging time. That same energy has continued into this season. One might expect coworkers who share a bunk room to split up during their time off. The Mizpah Spring Croo were fresh off a group trip to Vermont when I arrived.
As Covid cases dropped, it became easier for staff to make friends across the hut system. Asked by a guest how he typically spends his days off, Croo member Tom Oliver responded that it’s a lot of hiking to other huts and hanging out with friends. Aidan Connolly, Assistant Hutmaster at nearby Zealand Falls Hut, says he’s spent breaks delivering unexpected gifts to other Huts, including hiking a watermelon up a mountain.
Is this bond different from in the past? Croo has long been famously tight-knit, complete with its own alumni association. And it’s not the first time challenging global events and a Hut season have crossed paths. During World War II, Huts were short-staffed because so many men were drafted into the military. As a result, AMC hired women for Croo positions for the first time.
Schweik sees a generational shift since 2020 but believes the change is natural.
“I feel like every batch of Croo has a different energy to it. For every generation of Hut kids, there’s always a new thing.”
Day In the Life
One thing everyone I spoke to agreed had not changed? Croo is hard work.
Croo members share chores and switch off handling two of their largest responsibilities: Packing and cooking. On pack days, most of the Mizpah Spring Croo head down the Crawford Path with all the Hut’s trash strapped to a packboard. Each Croo member gets their own packboard for the season, and many are adorned with the names of past Croo who’ve used them. While most packs distribute weight with straps across the body, packboards utilize only two around the shoulders. This keeps Croo safer if they trip while packing (which everyone has a story about) but makes the hikes a uniquely challenging workout.
Although hiking a loaded pack up and down a mountain is physically demanding, cook days are longer. Mizpah Croo member Rose Cooper jokingly refers to these shifts as the “Reverse 9-to-5.”
“The cook will get up at like 5 in the morning… and then once we finish dinner service just the cook of the day is still on the clock.”
Another Croo member who’s working after dinner is Hut Naturalist Ruby Towne. Each Hut has a dedicated naturalist who performs typical Croo duties but is also the Hut’s primary educator. After dinner, while the rest of the Croo cleans up, Towne heads to the hut’s library to prepare for an hour-long talk about the birds of the White Mountains. It’s one of a rotating list of nightly programs for guests. Towne also aids AMC researchers with data collection on nearby Mt. Pierce.
Towne is on her second year of Croo and grew up in the area. Since 2020, she says she’s seen more hikers than ever in the White Mountains, many traveling from farther away. One of the silver linings from the pandemic has been record numbers of people discovering how outdoor recreation can improve their lives. That’s included increased recreation on public land.
“Now that social distancing is kind of turning down, the huts have been a place for that newfound curiosity with the woods and people getting back together in community,” says Towne.
With the influx of new faces who may be unfamiliar with the White Mountains’ unique and fragile environment, the role of naturalists and educators is more essential than ever.
New and Old Traditions
Once the dishes are clean, programs complete, and the guests are in their bunks, the Mizpah Spring Croo, plus Nauman Tentsite Caretaker Uli Schwendener, have a singalong in the kitchen. Burnet plays an acoustic guitar and Schwendener solos on a melodica. Cooper keeps rhythm with a pair of spoons. They start with a new song, “Dried Roses” by Big Thief, followed by the classic “Country Roads” by John Denver.
The songbook may get updated, but it’s a scene that could have happened any summer night since Mizpah Spring Hut first opened. Some things change; some stay the same.