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The Hiking Experience: Then and Now Part 2 (10/00)


Daan Zwick concludes his observations about changes in hiking and hikers. Daan is a hiker, lifetime member of the GMC, teller of tales, and a benefactor to the GMC. He lives with his wife Janis in Rochester, NY.

How different were the shelters of my youth?

Wood-burning stoves, dumps full of tin cans and porcupines, and pit toilets come to mind. Taft Lodge was the only section cabin cared for by a resident caretaker and charging an overnight fee. For that, Taft Lodge furnished mattresses and blankets, which, when light sleeping bags were a novelty, was a definite plus.

The first mattresses were large and heavy, stuffed with a felt material just made for mouse nests. I know that they were heavy, because I had to transport them from their winter storage place in the Hotel at the other end of the mountain. By 1940 these were replaced by lighter pads made of Tulatex, a network of latex-covered cactus fiber. Invented in Burlington for use in making automobile seats, Tulatex had the great advantage of being unattractive to the mice that shared the cabins with hikers. Unlike the felt mattresses, they could be left in the cabin all winter.

Our present “carry out what you carry in” policy is a great improvement. Dumps were unsightly, unsanitary, and unsavory. The dump in front of Taft Lodge covered an area about fifteen feet wide by almost thirty feet long, well within sight, sound, and smell of the cabin.

I can still recall the evening sound of porcupines, a half dozen or more at a time, rummaging around in the mess of tin cans and garbage. It took a lot of labor on the part of a lot of volunteers to carry out what generations of hikers had carried in and dumped.

Designated washpits, composting toilets, and restricted access to sources of drinking water are all improvements over the lack of attention to sanitation that prevailed 60 years ago.

The loss of wood-burning stoves might be seen as a mixed blessing. They probably posed more of a fire hazard, although I have seen several close calls with inexpert operation of personal stoves. The search for fire wood certainly depleted the dead and sometimes live trees near shelters, and sometimes resulted in serious damage to the shelters themselves. On the positive side, communal cooking on a common stove developed more camaraderie and the warmth of a heated cabin is a bygone luxury.

Foods, of course, have changed greatly. A can of Dinty Moore beef stew or Campbell's baked beans would be the staple, with perhaps a can of fruit cocktail for dessert. A coffee pot or at least a pan for boiling coffee and a frying pan for pancakes took care of breakfast.

I learned to enjoy the Roy Buchanan Special — two-thirds of a cup of hot beef bouillon cooled off by the addition of one-third cup of evaporated milk — easy to prepare, nutritious, and delicious. Today's wide variety of light-weight, dried, freeze-dried, or otherwise packaged foods in easy to cook pouches has widened menu selection, reduced pack weight, and made it easier to carry our residual material — all pluses.

The trail population back then was a fraction of today's. I once went thirteen days as caretaker of Taylor Lodge without a single overnight guest, and virtually no passersby. Unless a large group from a summer camp popped in, or maybe on Labor Day weekend, there was almost never a capacity crowd there. Even at Taft, with its 34 person rated capacity (before someone chopped up the two bunks near the stove), a full house was a rarity. No one ever pitched a tent outside the cabin; there was always room inside.

Another major difference: by far the majority of 1930's Trail hikers were male. Even family groups often did not include the female members. End-to-enders of that gender would elicit a newspaper article.

Rules? There was no monitoring of traffic on the ridge of Mansfield or other fragile mountain tops. We caretakers often slept right on the top of the Chin, staying awake long enough to enjoy the displays of Northern Lights in August. An overhanging rock beside Lake of the Clouds made a good shelter for a rainy night's sleep. Unleashed dogs ranged the mountain trails, limited only by their ability to climb ladders.

Waste wash water was tossed out the cabin door. Pools in the streams near the shelters were acceptable as bath tubs. The guidebook of 1940 mentions at Sterling Pond Lodge (closed log cabin, metal roof, stove, and bunks for 12) “water a few rods away ... but the pond water will do for coffee”. We always laughed at that because the pond water looked just like weak coffee. We never got giardia, because we never heard of it.

I guess the only rules I remember were “Leave firewood for the person after you,” and “Close the cabin door when you leave so the porkies won't get in."