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Column: When the Urge to Hike Strikes, It’s Good to Head for the Hills

Montpelier

I spent a couple of weeks in Kansas once, on the way to the Rockies, and found the experience unsettling. Besides painting a barn and repairing a windmill for gas money, my buddy Sam and I ran daily to keep in shape for the climbing ahead of us. It was depressing to set out on a 10-mile out-and-back run and be able to see the turnaround point from the start. You can see why the state a few years ago voted to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution; out there, the Earth really does appear flat. I have determined never to wear ruby slippers or click them together, lest I be magically transported to the endless fields of corn.

I also spent a few years in central Ohio pursuing a bachelor’s degree. There were a few hills there. At least that’s what they called them. But because the area was what geologists call a “dissected peneplain,” all the hills went not up, but down, into valleys and depressions formed by streams cutting into the underlying sedimentary rocks.

Far better to live where the hills and mountains pull our eyes upward, and our feet itch to take an uphill trail; where the landscape, in the absence of real mountains, at least lies before our eyes like a blanket with several cats sleeping under it. New Hampshire and Vermont between the White and Green Mountains are perfect examples of that.

When our late and much-lamented dog Tucker was still with us, she and I climbed everything in the Connecticut Valley between Mount Moosilauke and Mount Ascutney. Moose Mountain in Etna was our running trail; the sight of that bushy waving tail ahead of me infuses many wonderful memories. Now that she’s gone, the impetus to get out and get going has gone with her. It takes longer to pack a lunch and mix up some electrolyte replacement without someone watching from the floor beside me or running between my knees whining, “Come on! Come on! Let’s go!” Still, I get out now and then, to the hills of Hubbard Park in Montpelier, Hunger Mountain, Mount Cube or even Moosilauke. But I go nowadays when I know I won’t be alone, just in case.

Which was the case with last week’s hike up Spruce Mountain, which I can see when turning east from my driveway in East Montpelier. It’s only just a bit over 3,000 feet high, a scoured, resistant survivor of the last glacial age, but its winter coat of snow was still obvious. I was sure a lot of it — especially underfoot on the trail — was hard ice. And as almost always when our TV crew plans an outing, a storm was predicted for the night before our planned ascent. Ever the gloomy Cassandra, I predicted disaster, and was as always ignored. A good thing, too: In spite of a few inches of snow and a cold, slippery early morning on the road, the day turned out sunny, almost still, and a little bit below freezing — ideal hiking weather. It turned out also that the storm had started out as rain, gluing the snow behind it to the base of ice, so that with micro-spikes and crampons we were in great shape.

We were hiking with Scott Ellis, a young Cardigan Mountain School teacher who’s become a maven of a new gadget called a GoPro. It’s an amazingly small video camera: not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes, light, waterproof and shockproof, and still shooting excellent detail. Scott had it fastened to the head of a walking staff he’d made from a wooden canoe paddle, which permits him to shoot from many angles all around him. He can hold it overhead to get a bird’s-eye view of himself hiking. On canoe trips he wears it on his head and shoots straight ahead in a rapid, or lashes the staff crosswise, so that he can get underwater shots by tipping the canoe while it’s moving.

Scott’s quite personable and bright; so between the distractions of breaking through the ice over the numerous watercourses and the game of verbal badminton we played as we hiked, it seemed like almost no time before we were climbing through the tunnel of spruces just before the false summit. Then there came a clearing I remembered, and the last ridge, where there’s open air on both sides, and before we knew it, the steel legs of a fire tower transplanted here during World War II loomed above the forest.

The foundation of a long-ago ranger’s cabin lies a few yards away from the tower. I’ve never been able to figure out how he got his water. The tower itself is described by some acrophobic hikers as “rickety,” “scary,” and “shaking in the wind.” It’s a big one, all right, but solid as a rock, and featuring the 360-degree view such towers are supposed to have. We sat on a log in the sun beneath it, ate our lunches, and chatted for a while with the cameras rolling. Then the three of them stayed behind to film some more while I started back down. Descending is much more perilous than climbing for old guys, especially on ice. I go very slowly, digging in the creepers solidly and not moving a foot in a bad spot without first planting both carbide-tipped poles. It worked; the only time I fell was when I sat on a rock to retie a shoe and toppled over sideways.

Willem Lange’s column appears here every Wednesday. He can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.