On the winter solstice, people who live in North America, Canada, Europe and northern Asia see less daylight than at any other time of the year. The night lasts so long, and the sun looks so feeble, that it seems as if the darkness might win. The days might keep getting shorter and shorter! Spring and summer might never come again!
Starting thousands of years ago, people in northern areas realized they had to do something to encourage the sun and welcome it back. Many built elaborate structures oriented to greet the first rays of sun on the year’s shortest day. Others kept huge fires burning all night long to help the sun so it wouldn’t lose its yearly battle with darkness. And, every year, northerners were rewarded for their efforts: the days did start getting longer, the sun eventually returned in full force, and the earth was again rich with things to eat.
The rituals performed at the winter solstice not only strengthened the sun and encouraged it to return; they also strengthened the sense of community. Neighbors got together. They ate up the last of the summer’s bounty. They danced and played music and drowned their fears in vats of ceremonial brew.
The community of the Green Mountain Club’s Burlington Section has its own solstice celebration. Each year, on a cold December afternoon, a group of hardy souls gathers at the end of Stevensville Road in Underhill to hike or snowshoe up to Butler Lodge. Because they’re Vermonters, we know their packs are filled with extra fleece and polypro. But for this hike, the packs are also filled with yummy treats to share.
When the hikers reach the Lodge, they all crowd inside. The goodies come out of the packs. Some people bring Christmas cookies. Others bring rich cakes, Scottish shortbread, nut tarts or fruitcake. The solstice is toasted with hot chocolate, tea and spirits.
Then the crowd pulls on their winter garb again, and everyone goes outside and stands in a circle. A candle lantern is lit and passed around the circle. As each person holds the lantern, he or she shares thoughts about the waning year. There are usually a few poems, sometimes a song, and always several reflections on triumphs or tragedies. Some people just stand quietly, listening. After thoughtful moments on the mountain, the hikers get out headlamps or flashlights and start down the trail.
The idea for the annual solstice hike was born in 1996, when Len and Sally Carpenter took a moonlit hike to Round Top Shelter. On their way back down, they started talking about doing an annual solstice hike and inviting other GMC members to join them. The following year, Len led the first celebratory trip. He chose Butler Lodge for its west-facing views, into the sunset. Len expected that maybe as many as ten people would turn up for that first solstice hike but they had twenty-two. Since that first year, the number of solstice hikers has ranged from 15 to over two dozen.
Len recalls that one year it had been dark and dreary all day, with clouds hanging low over the mountain during the hike up. “Just at sunset, the sun broke through the clouds. The whole side of Mansfield, as much as we could see from Butler, was a bright pink and orange.” Len also can’t forget the sight of the long procession of lights going down the trail after dark. Or the year that the moon was so bright that lights weren’t even needed.
The Solstice Hike has never been canceled because of weather. Many people bring snowshoes along, but usually Butler Lodge Trail has been so packed down that it’s been safe walking in boots. However, there were some years that Stevensville Road wasn’t passable and it was necessary to shuttle hikers up to the trailhead in a four-wheel drive vehicle.
As often happens in Vermont, there have been some hikers who just weren’t prepared for being outdoors in the winter. Wearing jeans and cotton turtlenecks, they were fairly comfortable during the climb up but quickly became chilled the moment they stopped moving. Many times, other hikers were able to dig into their packs and provide extra layers. Sometimes, though, a poorly prepared hiker had to head down the mountain before the festivities concluded.
In 2002, Len pulled a tendon in his leg and was on crutches on solstice day. John Connell led the annual hike to Butler Lodge and has continued since then. “Over the years,” John said, “there’s a friendship that has formed that permeates the hike. Some people met each other for the first time on the solstice hike. Now they go year after year. The hike is a glue, a cement for their friendship.”
John describes the walk up to Butler Lodge on the winter solstice as almost magical, with the first hikers climbing through the silent woods on powdery snow and the last ones on the packed trail made by those ahead of them. The winter of 2003 was particularly magical. “We’d just had a heavy snowfall. All the trees held the snow, like huge puffs of cotton all around us. There was an amazing hush for the whole hike.”
The 2006 Winter Solstice Hike to Butler Lodge will have taken place between the writing of this article and the publication of this issue of Ridge Lines. Once again, Vermonters will have celebrated community and, together, will have assured each other that the sun will return, the dark will diminish and spring will eventually return.