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Through the Past Darkly with Sven Saws and Candle Lanterns


Through the Past Darkly with Sven Saws and Candle Lanterns

I enjoyed many a strange adventure during the eighteen-year span when I hiked regularly in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. One night in particular, though, stands apart from all the others. Because this experience involved one of my oldest friends, Bob, I consider it all the more memorable. The story began one summer night in New Hampshire.
Divorce is a big change that affects many people and it usually strikes hard; so it was for Bob in the mid-1980s. Sitting one summer evening in the kitchen of the sprawling southern New Hampshire farmhouse that was soon not to be his home, we sat over a martini and ruminated on the vagaries of life and relationships. I could see that Bob had enjoyed a few drinks while waiting for me to arrive, but I did not begrudge him that pleasure. He let the sadness and hurt come out and I was the sounding board, the one who listened patiently and knowingly, the one who would say the right thing at the right time.
“So, your fourth marriage is in the toilet,” I said in a tone of deep consolation.
“Up yours,” came the reply, the martini glass rising to his mouth. I did not take his comment to heart; it was only his second marriage. We toasted again to the melancholy of all things completed.
After further commiseration and another martini I said, “Let’s stick to the plan and get the hell out of this depressing place. Leon and some friends will be at Franconia Brook Camp tomorrow. Why don’t we head up to the mountains tonight and hike in on the Wilderness Trail? We’ll get a good site and enjoy the river and our friends for a few days in the mountains.” Although tired and feeling depressed he agreed a change in venue was called for, and passing a hot and humid summer weekend by partying near a river in the mountains was indeed something worth striving for, even if that meant expending a lot of effort right now. He went to get his pack ready and I made a quick dinner for the two of us.
My pack sat in the back of my truck, ready to go, and was large and heavy. We had plenty of food; from instant oatmeal for breakfast to frozen steaks for dinner, potatoes and carrots, onions and peppers, a couple loaves of French bread. We had bagels and peanut butter for lunch, plenty of coffee and instant lemonade. Water would be nearby and plentiful. We poured a couple bottles of wine into plastic hiking containers, and filled two others with Scotch and vodka as well; these went into our packs. It was after 8:00 pm and getting dark when we finally started up the truck and, leaving the dark shadow of Monadnock behind us, headed up north to the mountains.  
This was to be no arduous backpacking adventure but rather a leisurely weekend outing with friends in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We had plenty of food and drink to share with others. An old saying in the mountains is, “A good guest always brings a cup.” This adage rings true as people want to share their bounty, but they are not backpacking extra glasses in for guests either. We knew we would welcome many to our area over the weekend, pour out a few glasses of our wine or hard lemonade; and knew we would receive much more than we gave in appreciation for our fire and our gregarious hospitality.

The weather forecast was for hot humid days with cool nights, and the probability of thunderstorms. Thunderstorms in the mountains are intense, but this was normal summer weather and did not deter us in the least, we had a lot of experience in the mountains and knew how to stay dry and warm when needed, and nothing was foreboding about this trail, not even at night.  

After a 3-hour drive, we pulled in to the parking lot around 11:00 pm. We relaxed in the dark and with the aid of a flashlight, readied our packs and donned our boots. We evened out some of the heavy communal gear between the two of us. I slid my long steel collapsible Sven saw through the two bungee cords that held the sleeping bag on top of Bob’s pack. We also decided to make use of the ice in the cooler by having another drink before setting out on the trail. I lit a small candle lantern and set it on the open tailgate. Enjoying the night, we shared some cheese and crackers, made another cocktail, and lit a small cigar. It was natural that we would seize the moment and sit here in the dark, talking about the mountains and past adventures, of the eternal sadness in the ventures of men such as ourselves.  
Tonight, our hike into camp was on the Wilderness Trail, which started at a large parking lot just east of Lincoln on the Kancamaugus Highway. The trail was an old railroad bed that ran wide and straight and virtually flat for three miles along the western bank of the Pemigewasset River to Franconia Brook Camp, an area with tent platforms for backpackers. The campsite sat just before the trail crossed a wooden suspension bridge over Franconia Brook, a short distance west of where the brook flowed into the river.
Our trek in was only three miles, but our packs were large and heavy. Aside from provisions, we had clothes, camp shoes, a tent and tent poles, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, backpacking stoves and fuel, cooking and eating utensils, grill grate, wood saws, various wet weather gear, and other sundry items that one might require during a weekend campout with friends by a campfire in the mountains.
A candle lantern is an aluminum cylinder about 5 inches long when collapsed. You could pull one end out about 3 inches to reveal a glass lens surrounding a candlewick that poked through an aluminum hole. A candle lantern did not throw a lot of light, but any light seemed like a lot of light on a dark mountain trail at night, and one candle would burn for a long time. So armed with a new candle in the lantern, we locked up the truck, hoisted our packs on our backs, and we set off across the parking lot to where the trail entrance loomed like a black hole amidst the trees and foliage. It was 1:00 am.
Hiking at night with a candle lantern is a unique experience. Later, we would discover the ease and utility of headlamps, but for now we were content to make slow progress walking in a small goldfish bowl of light; the flat bed of the trail disappearing about 20 feet ahead into inky blackness. We had hiked up this trail at night before, Bob and I, using a single candle lantern. On that hike, we had gone in five miles to Camp 16. We crossed the bridge to the western bank of the river and started north through the forest. Soon we could hear and see the river off to our right in the moonless dark. We figured the hike would take a bit over 2 hours to walk in 3 miles. Even though the trail was flat, we were carrying large loads and the hour was late: we were also tired, more than tired. We were both soon pushing a real sweat and laboring ahead as our bodies struggled to adjust to the effort.
Straight ahead in the distance, a dim light seemed to hover in the air. As we grew closer, the light ceased its hovering and became stable on the ground. We reached the source of the light and found two hikers sitting on an enormous cooler with a flashlight shining on the ground. The cooler was about 4 feet long, and was deep and wide. This was a cooler a group of six might take along on a weekend fishing expedition. The two were sitting exhausted on the top; a long wooden pole with loops of rope lay on the ground beside them. Each had a can of beer clutched in a hand. We stopped, chatted, and then decided to seize the opportunity to drop our packs and take a break alongside these strange apparitions here in the middle of the trail in the dead of night.
Their destination was Franconia Brook Camp, where they also planned to meet friends for a weekend of campfires, partying and mountain relaxation. They thought it would be easy to carry the cooler suspended below a pole they carried on their shoulders. What looked easy and doable in those African safari movies proved difficult to accomplish in practice. They also carried packs laden with the required camping supplies. They soon discovered carrying the cooler was much more arduous than expected. They were taking a break to lighten the load by having a beer. They stood up and opened the top; they had filled the cooler to the brim with food, beverages and ice. I thought it must weigh close to 200 pounds. Bob and I each soon had a beer in hand.     
One of them pulled out a fat joint and lit it. He turned to us and asked, “You guys smoke Doob?” Now it was 2:00 in the morning and we were putting a serious buzz on. We shared a couple of tokes with them, standing in a bizarre scene holding a cold one on a dark trail in the White Mountains while the sweet smelling smoke curled up into the dark to meld with the aroma of foliage and river. We had another beer and shared a few more stories.
Later, Bob and I hoisted our packs and shook their hands. “See you at Franconia Brook,” I said. Bob and I shared a knowing glance, and we left them standing at the cooler as we continued north into the darkness. Occasionally we would look back, even in the diminishing light we knew they hadn’t moved at all. Soon we were alone again in our little fish bowl of dim light. Off to the right I heard what sounded like an animal approaching through the foliage from behind. I turned around to see Bob stumbling off the trail, two red eyes like slits looking back at me, small trees caught in the Sven saw. “Hey, weed whacker, the trail’s over here,” I said. Bob came back with an expletive and a laugh and we continued down the trail. In a few minutes I heard an animal noise to my rear again, I turned once more to find Bob standing amid the growths; looking like a guilty child caught in the act of misbehaving.
“You asshole,” I said lovingly. Here we were at almost 3:00 in the morning on a flat wide trail, big enough for a locomotive and lumber laden railcars to travel down easily, and we could not keep to the path. At this pace, we might not make Franconia Brook in time for tomorrow’s supper. We reached the junction where the Osseo Trail to Mt Flume branched off into the darkness on our left. We were 1.4 miles in, not even half way.
“Here’s the plan,” I said as we huddled together at the trail junction. “We’ll take this side trail in about a quarter mile and I’ll put the tent up near the brook. We can camp and head into Franconia Brook early in the morning to get a site. That OK with you?”
Bob’s nod and assenting look told me he was definitely in agreement with this plan of action. We walked in a bit, just enough not to have our light visible from the well-traveled main trail. I wouldn’t think a ranger would be out at this time of night but I could not be sure. Soon we came to a flat grassy spot perched on a turn of the brook. The brook babbled along some two feet below the edge of the trail. We dropped our packs and breathed a sigh of relief. Bob rested against a tree.
“Here,” I said. “Hold the light and I’ll get the tent up and our bags out in a few minutes.” He grunted his assent; I gave the lantern to him and turned to my pack, loosing the straps and bungee cords. The next sound was the metallic and glass ‘clink’ of the candle lantern hitting the ground followed by total darkness, and then the sound of the lantern splashing into the brook below as it rolled off the edge of the embankment.
“You shithead,” I said a little less lovingly. Bob was chortling blithely away somewhere near me in the darkness. I fished a butane lighter out of a pocket on my pack and followed the sound of the water to the edge above the brook. The laughter continued behind me. The flame went out quickly in the breeze but after a few lights, I saw the metallic gleam of the lantern laying below with 4 inches of water running over it. I retrieved the lantern from the drink, shook the water out, and relit the wick. Tying the lantern to a branch, I quickly set the tent up, put our pads down, and laid our sleeping bags out on the pads. I untied the light from the tree and Bob and I crawled into the tent. I put the light out and we were instantly asleep.
I awoke at the first hint of light with a giant tongue covered with sawdust, and a pounding in my ears.
“Hey, lantern boy, let’s get cracking,” I said.
The inimitable chortle arose from the bundled figure next to me. We both laughed. I made a quart of lemonade that we downed with aspirin, and then made another. We packed quickly, no time for coffee: we needed to get a good site at the tent platforms, especially if the weather included rain. The rangers would definitely be out in force on this hot summer weekend and they allowed no unauthorized camping in the heavily traveled area we were heading for. When the campsite filled, you had to move on. We loaded the packs, hoisted them up, and headed out.
We arrived at the Franconia Brook Camp in time to secure a large tent platform with a wide stone fire-pit. We dropped our packs and set up camp, and quickly followed that with hot coffee and breakfast. Later we met up with Leon and his friends, and they erected their tent on the other half of our platform. We kept a large fire going throughout the weekend, even in the rain, and we frolicked in the river when it was hot. We cooked wonderful meals and traded stories and libations around the fire deep into the night. Most of all, we enjoyed everyone who stopped by our camp to meet and party with our group. We feasted on our bounty and shared with those who feasted and shared with us.
We never again saw the two fellows we met on the trail that first night with the giant cooler.
Bob and I both laugh when we talk about that night so long ago. He now lives in Colorado and I in California. For almost two decades, we shared adventures in and around the White Mountains of New Hampshire. If anything stands out when I look back on that crazy night of hiking on the Wilderness Trail, it is this: we made sure we took the time to share what we were feeling that day, and at that time, when we were with each other. The pain of divorce, dreams broken and promises unfilled, thoughts on an uncertain future, the joy of spontaneity and adventures undertaken together, our love of the mountains, this and more we shared. From Bob’s house, to the ride up from Monadnock to the Whites, and the two hours we spent drinking and talking in the parking lot, to everyone we met; that trip was all about seizing and enjoying the moments we spent with each other.
Looking back, it’s not a bad story at all.

Sven Saw and Candle Lantern

photo courtesy RC Herman


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