View Full Version : Taken Before His Time....30 Years and Counting...

04-30-2012, 10:09 PM
It is no secret that northern NH, "above the Notches", is one of the best places to raise one's children. At once they have a sense of self and of community. It is with this ultimate background in life that one can teach their children about their own role in life in a precious environment, to see and comprehend the endless cycles of life and death, and help them gain the appreciation for the oft-sought connection of hard work and its rewards. Life here also provides certain watershed moments.

Thirty years is a long time, and much can be forgotten in that span. But something happened 30 plus years ago that should not be forgotten, nor its impact in our small community.

Though raised the "Coos Way", and holding true to it till the day I die - no matter where I live - I cannot claim to represent all, or even the smallest protion, of its inhabitants, my lifelong friends, or even my own family members. Therefore, foremost to be remembered of what is about to be written, is the fact that this essay is written from the perspective memories of an 11 year old, a restless young man seeking purpose, and a content, reflective individual, all at once, and rolled up in one.

It was one dry summer day that found me knees down in the dirt of the garden. Uncle Donald had put me to task weeding the zinnia patch. My proximity to the ground made the tall snapdragons seem to tower over me. As he was turning another row, a semi-official looking vehicle came slowly bouncing over the railroad tracks and up the gravel driveway. As it wheeled slowly and halted, Donald also brought his one-wheeled, two furrowed hand plough with its grey, weather beaten wooden handled frame to a stop.Out from the vehicle came H. Reed, the local F&G officer from the next town over. As Donald walked to meet him, he stooped down and grabbed a shovel, as if he needed to perch upon it in order to hold conversation. I was a distance away and could not hear the words spoken, but I could perceive the gist of the dialogue. I could detect by the gesturing that it was an inquisitive, engaging conversation. Donald made sweeping gestures to the south and east, the shoulders of both men shrugged several times, more directional pointing, and the conversation seemed to end. Donald was moving his heel to and from in the dry earth as mini duststorms kicked up. He then began speaking in humorous tones, made gestures of tumbling, and both men began to laugh. It ended with a handshake, and as Officer Reed crawled back into his seat, Donald shouted out "Call me if you need me." Turns out there was a hiker who was late in returning from his exertions, and since the itinerary where he was staying had nothing to do with where his vehicle was found, there was concern. Eventually he was found, unharmed, but quite shaken. I marvelled at how my uncle's mastery of the terrain could be counted on as a resource. I wanted to be like him.

Whenever there was a hiking accident, it did not have to be an injury or fatality, it merely had to be a mishap or even a close call, the dining room table was quickly cleared and it became the "Plotting Table". Maps were brought out, as well as various newspaper clippings regarding said incident, and anything else that related to what had happened, and we began breaking it down as a family. All the "why's" and "how's" were discussed, especially, how the situation could have been avoided. Dad saw to it that we gained knowledge from what had arisen, and that hopefully we would use that knowledge to help ourselves, but most importantly when the time would come for us to help others.

The winter of '82 was, by all counts, a typical northern NH winter. Lots of snow and cold. It was the time of year where the innocence of youth was exercised quite well amidst white jubilation. Everyday seemed pictorial, everyday enjoyable. For those of us living in the valley, we did not know right away that there were events unfolding in the peaks above us. Two climbers, climbing a challenging route on Mt Washington, were missing. The storm that had been brewing even before their departure was now hitting the upper slopes with ferocity, only adding to an already worsening situation. The lost hikers were from otu of state, and as knowledge of the plight grew, so did the conversation. It was the talk at Esty's, the Old Corner Store, heck even down at Rine's in the Meadows. Lots of speculations and theories, what was going to happen to "them". Funny thing, in Coos County, "them" can be an identification quite specific, but also quite broad. And in this case, "them", or interchangeably "they", were anyone south of the Notches, those who came north, got in trouble in the woods, drove too slow or too fast, and so on. It was not meant to be derogatory or of disdain, but more of a classification, a reference. (By the way, I am not saying I agree with this, I am just relating the impression given.) Whatever feelings one may have had in this case, any rescue would involve locals, cause someone was going to have to find "them". When a local went "missing" it was accounted that they were but temporarily lost, or were out and about on their own time and purpose, and would eventually return in a fine state, save for the extended time of their abscence. Concern would be heightened due to any extremes in age or prior health problems, but that was a given. This was different, the general concensus being that no one should have been out there anyway, and now with little info to go on, and worsening weather, rescuers would be at risk as well. One thing was sure, they needed more help, more rescuers, more volunteers, and more searching. The web of help, out of necessity, was widening.

It was over the weekend that the phone rang. The conversation was brief, "Yes, a-ha....oh no, yup....OK...got it, yup yup...OK". The tone was enough to tell us something was bad, that's all we needed. Some parents swear when things are bad, but our father didn't. (OK, I take that back. One winter morning my brother and I were waiting for the bus. While doing so, since the snow on the road was shallow but pressed down so it was slick, like OREO filling polished to a sheen, we were taking turns shoving each other into the road, surfer style, to see who went farther. Our dad left the driveway on his way to work, drove not even 1/16 of a mile, when he circled the car back to us, rolled down his window and said "You two jack!#%$%$# better knock it off!". We were stunned, he drove off, and we looked at each other and said ""Dad swore!!". It was one of the great moments extended to a child among the corpulent amount of memories youth provides.) Regardless, the way "oh no" is said sometimes tells you all you need to know. But the time for words was over, for the volunteer rescue force, it was time for action.

We were at school, but at home our home CB station was cracking to life. Through the valley, word was travelling among other home stations and passing trucks with news hard to discern. Bits and pieces were being picked up from vehicles as they came within range, but then quickly passed out as they slipped out of range. It often sounded like one had a bottle of angry bees against their ear. However, as relays continued there were prevalent words, "avalanche", "multiple fatalities", "assistance", and the last, most chilling when all words were pieced together, "rescuers". Hearts began to sink in the Valley, something terrible had happened. For those who had loved ones in the field, the waiting game had begun.

It was disturbing to watch a mother make a cup of tea and stare at it catatonically, stirring and stirring endlessly, long after the steam had expired, a cup long grown cold and dark as winter's shadows. I remember running down the driveway to the clearing that looked out to the Presi's, looking out in their direction and thinking,....please don't let it be. Snow was falling big as corn flakes, like sugarin' flakes out of season. There was no way this was happening. Even floodlights were left off in the hope that the pitch darkness of night would signal, by but a few precious seconds, the return of loved ones as they turned their way up driveways that seemed to grow longer and longer by the hour. There was nothing that families of volunteer rescuers could do but wait.

(to be continued in Part 2)

04-30-2012, 10:11 PM
Part 2

In the end, most of the families of rescuers were fortunate. For many, friends and family members were strewn wide and far across the rescue net and were not in the area, save for one. There was one more fatality than there ever should have been, Albert Dow. People may believe in survival of the fittest, but in this case the survival of those lost depended on the mercy, compassion, and self-sacrifice of others. For many, there was hope, then disbelief, then a subsequent measure of anger at the loss.

His loss, his sacrifice, would motivate many.

Fast forward to many years down the road. A boy growing into a young man. He bites at the bit of adulthood and being accepted as a man. Tramping out the energies of his hiking soul, he yearns for more challenge. In his high school civics class he is given a list of local organizations to sign up for as a mandatory volunteer. It was a no-brainer, I signed up for trail work, and it proved to be a gateway. When I was older, secular work I did for the USFS brought me into a close friendship with the Head Ranger at the old Androscoggin Station. I asked about joining SAR. "Sure", he replied, "is your First Aid up to date?" I told him it would be. The he asked if I was a technical climber. I replied "Well, technically I'm a strong hiker". Fine he said, we will start you with litter carry and recovery. So for me, a new chapter was born.

I speak of these things because this week I attended my first WFA class in years. Though paying rapt attention, my mind rode from the present to the past as if it were but an unwieldy passenger upon a time travelling, mental boomerang. After WFA I thought a lot about Albert. I know that his death and the factors involved affected many others, and the aspects leading to it have been the source of countless discussions and high emotions. But that is not why I write these reflections. Indeed, there is danger in the Whites, there are times of drama. There is also adventure, fun, happiness, friendship, laughter, memories, joy and exhausted pain. But these mountains also remind us that we can suffer loss.

But that loss does not have to be complete. Show that same volunteer spirit. If you can, volunteer for trails. If you have, or can gain, the skills of WFA/WFR, do it, use it. You may never need them, but someone else may, and they in turn will need you. Make yourself an asset to others. You will want to learn and do more. And if you are already a Trail Adopter, you can even receive some of these programs at a nice reduction.

If you can do nothing of the sort, but your legs can still empower you into the hills, at least do what I will be doing this summer. Hike to the Albert Dow Memorial Cache and remember this man, or even if you are merely passing through, pause and reflect. The death of Albert was not an "accident", it was the ultimate sacrifice of the volunteer spirit. In that spot you may find nothing more than savage peace. This simple structure, which has spent the majority of its life encased by nothing more than earth's deafening silence, stands as witness to volunteerism, caring, and giving of oneself. It represents the endearing drive of selflessness and community, and this is perhaps the greatest testimony any one man can leave behind, especially one that was taken before his time.

I lingered for more than just a short time amidst the mountains today...probably longer than I should have........

but it was time well spent.

Happy & safe trails to all...from a quiet spot in my beloved home state...

A few pics from the weekend, including a quick trip to Mt Pemigewasset, where it was good to sit and think, and write.