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  • by Chris Stewart

The Continuing Evolution of the Huts

Every summer for nearly 100 years the Appalachian Mountain Club's huts have sheltered and fed weary hikers who trek through New Hampshire's White Mountains, providing warm bunk beds and hot food for more than 40,000 people each season. Since 1889, the huts have worked to provide "Mountain Hospitality For All," the AMC's philosophy of public service and dedication to preserving the mountain environment.

Beginning with a single stone cabin built at the col between Mount Madison and Mount Adams, the hut system expanded into a string of nine, the latest addition having been constructed at Mizpah Spring on the side of Mount Clinton in 1964-65 at a cost of $100,000. Today the huts - spaced a day's hike apart - stretch from Lonesome Lake in Franconia Notch eastward along the Appalachian Trail to Carter Notch near the Maine border. What began as a way station for the Boston-based AMC's exploration of the Northern Presidentials has evolved into a chain of hostels where everyone has the opportunity to visit the mountains in safety and comfort.

If the Indians who sold Manhattan Island to the Dutch saw New York City in the 1980s, they would be no more surprised than the founding fathers of the AMC looking at the White Mountains today. The large numbers of people present the most striking change. The vibram-soled crowds clogging mountain paths today place added and intense demands on the men and women staffing the huts.

As in past times, hut crews still backpack supplies, cook breakfast and dinner, assist in rescue operations, and tend to hut maintenance--tasks requiring stamina and persistence. Skeptics might strap on a 90-pound pack and lug it four miles through the woods on a black-fly infested June day. The job's physical requirements alone challenge a person's endurance. Yet, today's crews must also be versed in mountain ecology, geology, plant and animal life, and must be able to cope with crowds that rival McDonald's on a Saturday night.

Dave Warren, manager of the AMC Huts, noted that the burgeoning public use of the White Mountain National Forest have caused an acute strain on the forest's resources. "This is the most heavily used forest in the nation," he said. "Data collected by the United States Forest Service and the AMC confirm this. Counts from tent grounds, shelters, wilderness areas, and the huts show a yearly increase. Looking at a map you'll notice that the Forest is within a day's drive of 65 million people. If you hike around Mount Washington on a weekend in August you may think all 65 million have flocked to the same spot."

Dave believes that the huts play a critical role in the future vitality of the Forest. In the coming years they will continue to feed, shelter, and assist hikers, but Dave foresees an even greater emphasis on the hut's participation in public education. "The huts offer an ideal learning opportunity," Dave said, "and we hope to use them to reach more people."

The inundation of hikers - many of whom are coming to the mountains for their first time - has continued unabated since the late 1960s. Responding to this surge in public use, the AMC and the Forest Service initiated a series of programs to teach people how to treat the Forest. The huts helped in the "Carry-In, Carry-Out" campaign designed to end littering, and the "Stay On The Trail" campaign to reduce hiker-caused erosion on mountain paths. In addition, the huts work to encourage public cooperation with camping regulations, fire prevention, and plant conservation. Amid this expanded attention placed on public education, the challenge remains for AMC crews to maintain the tradition of "Mountain Hospitality For All."

"An encounter with a hut crew member may be the only impression of the AMC that a new hiker takes home from his or her trip," Dave remarked. "If that meeting does not work, the chance to educate another individual has been lost."

Dave believes that the huts are "more than just a place to eat and sleep; they are the crews and the people who spend time there." This sharing among people gives the huts their special atmosphere and offers a unique opportunity for communication with the public. Because of this, Dave takes great pains in hiring the crew members. "When selecting hut staff, we look for young men and women who have the spark and energy to carry on through the summer, and who have the ability and desire to talk with their guests. Hut crews in the past have always had the talent for making their overnight guests feel at home; our goal takes this one step further. We want to talk with all the people who pass through the huts."

Because the White Mountain National Forest offers everyone the chance to participate in plans for Forest use, Dave seeks to include more non-hut users in decisions. "This is one Forest where individuals make a difference," he said. "The Forest Service welcomes and encourages criticism from all people who use the Forest. We hope to increase the public participation in this process in the huts by paying more attention to the 'day-users.' In the past a day visitor may or may not have found a warm welcome at the huts, this person may have found that hut crews were too busy packing, cooking, cleaning or otherwise occupied to be able to speak with him. When he leaves, he remains mystifies by the huts, the AMC, and the White Mountain National Forest. This must change."

The core of the hut's educational emphasis focuses on mountain ecology. A rising interest in hiking and camping in the past decade parallels the expanded concern for the harmful effects of man on the environment, a concern reflected in alterations in hut policies. Already basic changes have been instituted. Gone are the days when hutmen burned paper trash and moldy mattresses in kerosene soaked heaps, sending clouds of black smoke billowing over the Alpine Zone. Gone, too, are the expedient solutions of chucking tin cans into the bushes just hidden from passing view. The era of burying trash and wasting fuel has ended. Today's interest in the delicate mountain ecology touches all aspects of hut operations.

Lakes-of-the-Clouds Hutmaster Mike Torrey, a recent Dartmouth graduate, characterized the hut system's goal as "minimal impact." "In theory, we'd like to reduce the hut's negative effects to zero," he said. "For example, in the last 10 years the huts have packed out cans and paper trash to disposal sites in the valley; this year we've also initiated a program of carrying out all food waste as well. In the past we've dumped food waste into tar-coated "gaboons" (metal holding tanks) which theoretically should have heated to a point where the waste decomposed. It didn't turn out that way. Since cold temperatures prevented decomposition, we've decided that the best solution is to backpack waste down the mountain to a place where decomposition can occur."

Mike reported that the septic system presented a more formidable headache for the huts, particularly at Lakes-of-the-Clouds and Madison Springs where the thin ground cover provides no natural filter bed. "Helicopters fly in all the sand and gravel used in our leaching fields," he said. "The fields filter and purify liquid waste, but we rely on helicopters again to fly out the solid waste to sewage treatment facilities. Bob Holland of Conway Sand and Gravel has donated all of our fill for many years but with helicopter rental costing $300 an hour, we've got an expensive system on our hands. There must be a better way."

The obstacles to alternative waste treatment systems are cold temperatures and high use. As Mike remarked, "During the months of July and August, as many as 400 people a day use the hut facilities. We've found no non-conventional septic system which accommodates this volume of use, but we are treating and removing all the waste generated here. People may criticize the huts for creating a waster problem, yet if we weren't here you'd find waste all over the Tundra."

Hutmaster Don Hunger of Madison Hut echoed Mike's concerns for efficient waste disposal and protection of the environment. The problem's root, Don feels, is that many people wish to be in a small and delicate mountain environment, an area which lacks the reforestation capacity of lower elevations. Madison, like Lakes-of-the-Clouds hut, is located almost a mile above sea level where cold temperatures and fragile vegetation require that people take special care. Don pointed out that spruce at this elevation grows at a rate far slower than in the lowlands; if trampled on or cut, it requires many years to recover.

The greatest challenge for the huts, Don believes, centers around educating the public to a heightened awareness of the problems and possible solutions in an area drawing thousands of hikers every summer. He noted, "The huts offer people the chance to stay where they wouldn't normally be, to spend time in the center of the mountains where a new world opens to them." Don spoke of the need to talk with overnight guests and day visitors about the destructive effects of camping on the fragile Alpine soil, the need to stay on trails to prevent erosion and the total impact of the hut on the Madison Col area. "We need to find the point where energy used and waste generated are balanced; we're working to discover the carrying potential of the mountain," he stated. "This means that we are studying the area to find out if our 50-person a night capacity can be sustained by the environment. Perhaps it can't. We need to know."

For Don, as for Mike, the greatest rewards from working in the huts come from fellow crew members and hut visitors. "More than packing," Don reflected, "the constant exposure to new and interesting people is the most difficult and satisfying aspect of hut life. When you've answered the same question twenty-five times in one morning and someone new walks into the hut ready to ask that questions again, you need to remember that you are this person's contact with the huyts and the AMC. At times, it's a challenge."

Our future goals included energy self-sufficiency, proper waste management and effective education of the hiking public," Dave noted. "We'll work toward these ends while providing warm and friendly service foe the hut users. In the past, huts have come under attack from people who accuse the AMC of destroying the very areas which they professed to protect, but I am convinced the huts aid rather than harm the environment. The huts concentrate heavy public use in one small area, thus keeping damage at its lowest possible level. People will always hike in the mountains; if we didn't promote concentrated use, the locations where the huts are now would be severely harmed. Our plans for future changes will further reduce man's adverse effects on the land."

Alternative energy offers one attractive means for lessening man's impact on the environment, and the huts anticipate several innovations in this field. Today, the huts rely almost exclusively on bottled propane gas for their fuel needs. Helicopters airlift these 200 pound cylinders to each hut where the fuel supplies cooking, lighting and refrigeration demands. The introduction of gravity-fed water systems into most huts over the past 10 years cut down on propane-dependency, yet it remains the backbone of the hut's energy sources.

One solution to the hut's propane dependency has been experimental use of solar water heaters. "Roger French of Jackson designed the solar water heater we installed at Greenleaf hut," Dave reported. "It's a wonderful invention; the sun shines and it works. It reduced our heating costs by at least 20%, although exact figures are not yet tabulated." The AMC wants to build a similar system at Zealand Falls hut, but a lack of funds has temporarily halted this project. "This system needs no helicopters, gives off no pollution and serves as an important tool for education; people can observe first hand the enormous potential of alternative energy in this working model at Greenleaf," Dave elaborated.

The wind offers another attractive solution to the hut's energy needs. Burnham Martin, Research Coordinator at the AMC's Pinkham Notch Camp, described the current effort being made to exploit this energy source. "We've applied to the Federal Government for a $35,000 grant, part of which we hope to use for the construction of a windmill at the Lakes-of-the-Clouds Hut and part towards a possible hydro-electric project at Zealand Falls. Now we're just in the planning stage, yet we feel that wind-power, particularly at a location like Lakes-of-the-Clouds, has tremendous potential. The windmill we're investigating has already been successfully proven in the mountains of Colorado and Alaska. We know it works."

The proposed windmill stand in concrete footings 30 to 40 feet above the ground and generates 2,000 watts. Its 16-foot blades turn on a vertical axis, which allows the blades to be moved parallel to the ground for storage in the winter when no electricity is needed. "We trust this eliminates the problem of disassembling the windmill at the end of every summer; I understand it's very heavy," Burnham explained. If all goes well, the windmill will produce electricity to power lights, refrigerators and other needs with the exception of the stoves.

The hydro-electric project at Zealand is less fully researched than the windmill, but a preliminary study shows the possibility of a 1,000 watt power source near the hut. Burnham admitted that the team effort in writing the grant proposal was a "first try" and that no assurances of government approval had been given. "But if we are turned down, we'll just keep on trying," he added. "The potential of both projects appears sound, but each demands a large investment of time and money. Both would demonstrate effective use of alternative energy while serving as excellent testing mechanisms. I hope the government agrees."

Not all experiments with new solutions have functioned smoothly. "We used the Clivus Multrum composting toilet at Tuckerman Ravine and at Garfield shelter, but cold temperatures and heavy seasonal use thwarted the system. In warmer climates with less heavy use this toilet effectively used composting to kill harmful bacteria in human waste; oxygen mixes with solid waste, produces heat and destroys bacteria, "It didn't work here," Burnham reported.

"We're still very optimistic about composting," Dave said, "because we know the technology exists. It's simply a question of repeating our efforts." Another promising innovation recently installed at Mizpah Hut is the Soltra, or "The Solar Assisted Continuous Composting Toilet." Designed by ECOS, a firm in Cambridge, Mass., the Soltran advances the natural composting process with the aid of the sun. "Even this design can not yet handle the high volume use generated at the huts, although it has proven much more effective than any other we've tried to date," Dave reported. Since its installation at Mizpah Hut, the Soltran has attracted much interest not only because it harnesses solar energy, but because of its design which requires the user to climb a lofty flight of stairs in order to enter. "Hut crews refer to it as "The solar-one-holer" and "The most spectacular throne in the White Mountains," Dave explained, "and I must admit, the view is fantastic."

The process of composting holds the most potential for long term sewage disposal, a problem which Dave described as "the most pressing" for the huts. Two types of composting have been experimented with to date. The first, "continuous composting," functions poorly in low temperatures and high seasonal use situations faced in the mountains. Thus far, solar assisted continuous composting appears to have the most chance of success. A second type of composting, the "batch-bin" method, offers more flexibility, though it too has drawbacks.

"Batch-bin composting works much like its name. Food or human waste is mixed with hardwood bark chips inside 3'x3'x4' wooden boxes. The piles' outer layer insures adequate insulation for the moisture, speeding the natural chemical reaction between the wood and the waste. Over a period of weeks, enough heat has been generated to kill harmful bacteria. Like other methods, this system has a Catch-22; for the process to be effective, someone must periodically stir this mixture on a schedule determined by close monitoring of the temperature inside the bin. Zealand Falls Hutmaster Allen Doyle observed that the "batch-bin" composting worked well in tent sites and at shelters, but needed time to be proven in the huts.

"This summer at Galehead Hut the AMC has hired a full-time employee to watch over the 'batch-bin' process. We hope we'll be able to show how effective this system can be in the huts." As Burnham Martin said, "The AMC is developing sewage and food composting to a high level of the art; we keep close watch on all research being done in this field as well in hopes of finding even more efficient systems. The future looks bright." The progress already made shows that the huts are capable of reducing reliance on helicopters and propane.

Progress with other problems depends on the cooperation of the public. "Small changes show that people are willing to help," Dave said. "Forest Service and AMC efforts to educate the hiking public against littering and indiscriminate tramping through the Alpine Tundra have received great support. These are small steps, but they show that education does make a difference. People listen."

"We'll always have problems of one kind or another in the White Mountains because it's an area where many people congregate," he continued. "We need to accommodate backpackers who wish to spend time at hut areas. Because of this, we're researching the possible installation of facilities for campers at Madison and Lakes huts, similar to the tent sites built eight years ago near Mizpah hut. Yet, it's a poor solution to place a facility in an area that simply cannot support more use. We don't have all the solutions."

Dave believes serious questions must be considered. "We have to ask ourselves; are the huts best serving the needs of the people who use them? How can we best accommodate the needs of backpackers? Are some huts too large for their locations? We hope to answer these questions but that will take time and patience." As Lakes Hutmaster Mike Torrey said, "We're thinking in terms of the future."

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