The Whole Picture is Nothing But a Compilation of Details.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Season Opening in the White Mountains 2012

North Conway is a quiet little town about three hours north of Boston. Each summer its 2,400 residents are driven mad or out of town by the droves of tourists who flock here to camp on the shores of the Saco River, drift lazily in a canoe, shop the many outlet stores and bring their children to the crazy attractions they are sadly brought up to crave: Santa's village, Storyland, indoor water parks, and some nutty monkey-banana themed zipline place.

The Other Season attracts winter hikers, alpinists, climbers, and skiers. People who prefer short days, freezing temperatures and clear, crisp air with endless visibility to ferocious bugs, crowds and hazy humidity which forces you to process the thick, heavy air for oxygen, like plankton whales sieve water for food.

After six months of saltwater and triathlons, I was totally stoked to return to the White Mountains, the most rugged mountain range in New England for the start of the winter hiking season. Using both carrots and sticks I coerced a few people to bag Monroe (5,371'), Franklin (5,003') and Eisenhower (4,780'), a hike of approximately eight miles and a total elevation gain close to 4,000 feet. Pretty ambitious for a warm-up but I was as excited as a child waiting for Christmas morning. We would take the short but very steep Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail up to Lakes of the Clouds Hut, gaining approximately 2,800 feet in elevation in the first 3.1 miles and pay our respects along the way to Herbert J. Young who died here of exposure in 1928, before heading south on the Crawford Path, the oldest, continuously maintained, hiking path in America, originally built during the 1800′s and used as a horse trail, across the open ridgeline up and over Mt. Monroe and Mt. Franklin, continue south to the saddle between Franklin and Eisenhower before heading over its summit. From Eisenhower we would descend Edmands Path which, according to one trail description is "fairly steep, but gets you down fast". How? I wonder.

A friend had offered us to stay at her house, a treat instead of driving six hours in one day to hike for six hours which I'd normally do, and treated us upon arrival to an evening of story telling (read: local gossip) around the fire pit. Dressed like Michelin men, in down jackets, hats and mittens, we sat with new friends and crazy canines (or perhaps it was the other way around?) under a sky the color of charcoal, the orange blaze of the dancing fire bringing us closer together.

The fire petered out and with the aid of headlamps, as much a part of your clothing up here as undies, we fumbled our way back into the house. Laden with an earthy scent of smokehouse, or as they say up in North Conway, "stinky like a local", I stuffed the next day's clothes in the sleeping bag and crawled in like a butterfly stuffing itself back in its cocoon, smiling from ear to ear, snug as a bug in a rug.

The forecast for the higher elevations, received live and direct from the roommate who works at the Mt. Washington weather observatory, was bleak even with optimistic standards: 40 mph winds with gusts of 50, heavy fog and mixed precipitation. When our hostess, spoiled and picky since she lives there and can be spoiled and picky, called us nuts and refused to go (partially because she knows everyone on the search and rescue team and it would be a huge embarrassment to get caught out in the elements) I reconsidered. I always listen to locals. "We should stay south of the Notch where the chance for good weather is best" she said. We settled for a south - north Moat Mountain Range traverse, a 9.7 mile moderate hike with sweeping views of the Mount Washington Valley, covering three peaks: South (2,270'), Middle (2,805) and North Moat (3,196). Despite a sting of disappointment about the re-routing, I realized this was probably a wiser choice for the start of the season. Besides, a traverse is always fun.

At last, we had ourselves organized, with one car parked at Diana's Baths and another at Dugway Road. Three women and a mutt who just met set out under cloudy skies at the crack of 10 am.

Trail conditions were great, a little slick in a few places, but overall, the trail was bare and dry. By south Moat, we'd covered all the peripheral conversations and realized we didn't only have in common a love for the mountains... but for spur of the moment adventures too, with comparable histories of related injuries and scars.

Between south and middle Moat Mountain, where the trail runs mainly on exposed granite, clouds gave way to sunny skies and  presented us with sweeping views of Mt. Chocorua, Mt. Washington and North Conway. From middle Moat, the trail is not very well marked, but well traveled, and meanders through thick forest, destroyed by hurricane Irene in 2011, downed logs everywhere around us, before spilling out into Diana's Bath, a waterfall with perfect pools carved out in the rock, perfect for cooling off in the summer. Not today. The water was ice cold. 

As the sun set, we walked out the last mile as the best of friends.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

C.R.U.I.S.E. Part III: Cut and Run
Under skies the color of Guinness stout beer, the outgoing tide carries S/Y Balboa Clipper through the labyrinth of canals of Fort Lauderdale, a man-made engineering marvel that makes me question human intelligence. If Hurricane Katrina sank New Orleans, it's easy to imagine what a tsunami would do to Fort Lauderdale and Miami, not exactly towering above the ocean at eleven feet above sea level. Deduct a normal average wave height of five feet and very little margin is left to protect the multi-million-dollar homes with their curbside boat slips and drive-in boat houses. In what is supposed to be a tight housing market, a motivated seller lists his single family home at $6,999.000. Others are listed between $55,000.000 and $100,000.000.

She glides along towards open water, one bridge after another opening on command, like the door in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Her engine purrs like a content kitten in stark contrast to the gruff bridge operators, surprised and not particularly happy about having to actually work so early in the morning.

Traffic is sparse. It's 3:30 am.

As the sun rises out of the ocean in the east, S/Y Balboa Clipper dumps out in the Atlantic Ocean. We hang a right at the flashing green buoy marking the channel into Port Everglades, leaving a rapidly approaching container ship and her pilot (guide) boat to our aft. Container ships always move a lot quicker than they appear to. Our heading: 180. Dead south, which inherently gives you a strong feeling of good. We cruise along making decent speed on a perfect heading, until suddenly our speed over ground drops four knots. Feeling of good gone. On the wheel, I wonder what I'm doing wrong and ask for the sails to be eased, then trimmed, and when my efforts of gaining a knot or two only slow us down further, I ask for them to be eased out again, back to where they were. Sigh.

The Gulf Stream rushes east and north through a deep, narrow strait some 25 miles wide between Florida and the Bahamas.  Here, the current typically averages three knots, although it can reach speeds up to eight knots at times. This Gulf Stream is the fastest and largest current in the Atlantic; over a billion cubic feet of water rushes past Miami every second. Fascinating facts to read. Heartbreaking and very frustrating to experience. But change is constant and before long, the wonders of nature, a current running in the reverse direction (southbound) on the outer edge of the Gulf Stream, also called an eddy, picks us up. Soon, we see the sky-rises of Miami proper and South Beach sprouting out of the ocean, LEGO like. Eleven feet above sea level. Marvelous.

Sailing has been called "the art of going nowhere at great expense", and this trip is no exception. We are running behind schedule (this is a delivery, not a pleasure cruise) and the two extra days I had added into my already conservative timeline for "oh shits have already run out. Apparent final destination, assuming all goes relatively well from here on: Key West, maybe Isla Mujeres, Mexico. As we round the southeast tip of Florida we obtain reports of tropical disturbance number 19 brewing on our port and tropical storm Sandy, now hurricane Sandy, south of Cuba. Emails from friends read: "Some people's life is meant to be quiet and calm. NOT YOURS!!!!!!
Your is meant to be an adventure. I pray you are safe and well!!!" and "So, there's a hurricane where you are. Typical."

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, "A Few Figs from Thistles", 1920
US poet (1892 - 1950)

With bobbing sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins playing at our bow, we forge ahead, surfing down waves on the fringes of two big storms, licking us with their advantageous, brilliant steady winds. This is some of the best sailing I've ever experienced.

As dusk falls, our captain decides to teach the two first-time sailors how to anchor. In the dark, and in twelve feet of water. Aye, aye. I head into the wind, and hold her there. Suddenly the strong wind grabs her nose and pushes her to starboard. I turn the wheel hard to port to correct. She doesn't react but is pushed further downwind, the wind now starting to fill the sails. I at full tilt, and nothing happens. She is at the mercy of the howling wind. The steering is gone.

"DROP THE ANCHOR", I shout loudly into the wind as I throw my hands up in the air. I point to the wheel and motion with my hand across my throat to signal the loss of steering.