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Backpacker Magazine – August 2010

The Trail to Neverland: Hut Keepers of the White Mountains

No one stays young forever, of course. Just don't tell the hut keepers in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

by: By Bill Donahue Photography by Anne Skidmore

AMC hut caretakers (from left) Elizabeth Waste, david kaplan, Chelsea Alsofrom, and Luke Teschner.
AMC hut caretakers (from left) Elizabeth Waste, david kaplan, Chelsea Alsofrom, and Luke Teschner.
hut staffers often serve dinner to more than 30 hikers a night.
hut staffers often serve dinner to more than 30 hikers a night.
Galehead hut was rebuilt in 2000.
Galehead hut was rebuilt in 2000.
Cooking duty rotates between hut workers.
Cooking duty rotates between hut workers.
The kitchen crew bakes fresh bread daily, from scratch
The kitchen crew bakes fresh bread daily, from scratch
Boots dry outside the hut.
Boots dry outside the hut.
taffers Alsofrom, Siner, teschner, and waste sing a dixie chicks tune to let guests know it’s time for the communal meal.
taffers Alsofrom, Siner, teschner, and waste sing a dixie chicks tune to let guests know it’s time for the communal meal.

photo icon  PHOTO GALLERY: White Mountains Hut Keepers
 Head to the White Mountains and meet the hut keepers in this photo gallery


It's not easy getting a job on croo. This year, more than 130 people applied for 20 open positions. And the appeal of the work is not immediately obvious. There you are, up in the mountains, cut off from all frontcountry pleasures--Facebook, school buds, beach parties, whatever--and obliged (at least at Galehead) to live for 10 weeks in a cramped 10-foot-by-10-foot bunk room with four other staff, each of whom often goes more than a week without bathing. (Croo members work 11 days on, three days off.) The social scene can get confining and testy.

Still, life is delightfully slow-paced. Workers help out with breakfast and dinner, and typically have afternoons off. In their free time, they'll spend hours handwriting letters to friends, or updating journals, or enjoying picnics on mountaintops. They hike almost daily, and on my first stay at Galehead, Nick Anderson decides to bust out and climb a trail that scales 1,100 feet--ascending South Twin Mountain in less than a mile.

Anderson, 21, is Galehead's assistant hutmaster, and a rather serious youth who often wears a pin-striped, blue-and-white oxford shirt while interacting with guests. ("You look fantastic," Sanford tells him, "straight out of the summer Polo catalog.") Short and sturdy, with curly black hair and a frequent black stubble on his chin, he does look quite dashing. He's a fast hiker, too. Once, he made it to Greenleaf Hut--7.7 miles away, and over two mountains and through a trickling, sole-soaking cascade--in a blazing two hours and 45 minutes. Still, I invite myself along on his afternoon jaunt.

"OK," says Anderson.

I follow. He lollygags for the first 50 feet or so and then, with no preamble, he turns his stride into a leap and begins hurling himself up the mountain, knee to chest, knee to chest. I'm in decent shape; I keep up. But I move with a desperate and gasping intent, gritting my teeth against twinges of pain in my knees, and Anderson just flows up the hill, chitchatting, oblivious to how lucky he is to possess fresh, unblemished cartilage.

Anderson is light on his feet, at all times. One night, when 10 little girls come to the hut with their parents, he summons them all to a table after dinner, leans toward them, and, in hushed, spooky tones, tells them ghost stories. The girls all giggle and squeal--and then, afterward, they linger about him, burbling, as though he is the drummer for the Jonas Brothers.

Working in the huts, it strikes me, is kind of like being in Neverland: You can stay on only as long as you remain young, unburdened by the worry and self-consciousness that crust on over time. And as with any fairy-tale landscape, arcane mores apply. Every summer, for instance, hut workers seek to distinguish themselves by "packing a century"--that is, by lugging a full 100 pounds into a hut, usually with a plain wooden packboard. But the most critical ritual is the raid. Half seriously, half in jest, the croo of one hut will invade another hut, sometimes "stealth raiding" at night and sometimes executing daytime "power raids" replete with all the sinewy horseplay of professional wrestling: chokeholds, half-nelsons, full-body pins. The object, always, is to steal previously heisted detritus attached to the walls of the invaded dining room: old road signs, for instance, and antique skis.

The practice of raiding began soon after the first AMC hut opened in 1888. In the 1940s and '50s, the prize booty was a human skull, "Daid Haid," lifted from an abandoned logging camp. Later, in more politic times, an airplane propeller, recovered from a high-mountain crash, was coveted above all else. Today, the grail is a long wooden rowing oar that was used, allegedly, in the 1972 Olympic Games. As the summer begins, the oar is at Zealand Falls Hut. The croo at every other hut wants it. "Once you have the oar," Galehead staffer Chelsea Alsofrom, 22, tells me, "you don't really need anything else." Raid strategies and other clandestine plans are often hatched in the privacy of the kitchen, away from the guests. There, after dinner one night, Sanford unveils a plastic liter jug of Canadian Hunter whisky, along with a T-shirt that features his name (Gates "Rolling Thunder" Sanford) and the slogan "Get Hunted." In Sanford's day, Canadian Hunter was so celebrated among croos that one hut worker, a burly, mustachioed youth, was known simply as "The Canadian Hunter."

"This stuff is vile, by the way," Sanford says. "We did a taste test between it and Old Crow, and Old Crow won."

It's quite possible that Sanford could afford a tonier brand. He prepped at Milton Academy, and his grandmother owns a house in the Hamptons. Which shouldn't be surprising. The huts have always attracted well-to-do Easterners. The first staffs were heavily represented by Dartmouth and Harvard, and today the huts still offer up-and-comers a chance to fly free of expectations--to get muddy and loopy up in the mountains.

The bottle goes round. No one gets anywhere near wasted. But toward the end of the night, Teschner wears a warm grin. "I'm feeling," he says, "a little Canadian poached."




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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star

READERS COMMENTS

Star Star
tim
Mar 01, 2014

i was sooooo disappointed when i found out the price to stay at these huts. this one in the pic looks alot like the one i was at. dormitory style bunkbeds for over $100. i lost some respect for the trail association after that. this is more of a hostel and should be charging those kind of prices. $20-25 at most.

Star Star Star Star Star
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current croo
Oct 30, 2012

Thank you, Mike. Steve, as a current croo member, we do our best to personally interact with as many guests as possible not only because we enjoy it, but also because we want our guests to have the best possible experience. We love where we work, and want to share this passion with as many people as possible. You can imagine, though, that preparing meals, conducting search and rescues, packing food, and generally being "on duty" from 6 in the morning until 9:30 at night are collectively challenging for a croo of 4-5 college age students to perfectly execute. As hard as we do try to do the best job possible, and as much as we love doing so, we rely on the feedback of the guests to improve the hut experience. So, if you have feedback on the guest service, please please please leave comment cards or get in touch with the huts supervisor/manager! Many thanks to all who continue to support the mission of the AMC and huts.

Rika
Jan 06, 2011

I worked at the Joe Dodge Lodge, at the base of Mt. Washington a few years ago when I was 20, brings back some of the best memories! The hut folks are amazing...I wish I would have been chosen to be one of them!

Bill B.
Sep 14, 2010

I worked in the hut system in the 70's (Lakes of the Clouds, Greenleaf and Mizpah) and this article by Bill Donahue perfectly captures the feeling we had then. Great thoughtful piece of writing, especially the Peter Pan aspect which is exactly what it feels like.

Mike
Aug 22, 2010

Amazing place, amazing people. All croo members will risk their lives for you if you get in trouble. And what's wrong with tips. These kids work their butts off and basically make nothing...just see what happens if you don't tip your waiter or cab driver!

rcl
Aug 17, 2010

mek: go to www.outdoors.org
it's best to apply soon after nov. 1 because spots fill up quickly

Greg
Aug 05, 2010

It's a great system! I wish I'd have done something like this in my 20's

MEK
Aug 05, 2010

How would I go about applying for a job with these people? Any other jobs like this that anyone knows about? I am a 20 year old college kid and this sounds like heaven!

Steve
Aug 05, 2010

Some "croo" are good people.

Others just want you to make up your bunk, sweep out the place, and leave quickly -- after they've begged for a tip.

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