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White Mountain trips at Pemi

Upper 2 on the summit of South Twin. July, 2008.

A Pemi day has a great, busy rhythm to it. But one of the most rewarding parts of the camp season comes when that routine is replaced by a trip into the mountains, whether it be a quick scramble up to the bald, brisk summit of Pemi’s neighbor, Mt. Cube, or a four-day trip through the Franconia Range.

Pemi has a long tradition of taking trips into the woods—the Appalachian Trail even cuts through a corner of camp property—and it’s always been one of my favorite parts of the camp experience. I can still clearly picture sitting on the warm rocks of a White Mountain summit on a Pemi trip, taking a sip from a water bottle and refueling with cheese and crackers. As both a camper and later, a trip counselor, I hiked up countless White Mountain trails.

Mountains in the Whites offer striking environmental contrasts. At the lower altitudes, just a few minutes away from the trailhead, the forests are quiet and stream-filled, and clusters of Goose Foot Maples line the trail. From there the trail usually steepens, and the group might become quieter as the climbing begins up a packed-dirt and rocky trail. As you gain altitude, the trees generally transition from deciduous to coniferous, and just below the tree line, the trees are usually compact, sturdy little evergreens. Then there are the summits and ridgelines of the Whites: these are breezy places where on a sunny day in the summer everything is warm and wide open and expansive: if the visibility it good, you can see for miles, with rolling mountain ranges receding into the distance. And when it’s windy or stormy on these ridges, you feel grateful you packed a bomb-proof jacket.

Things change on trips. Far from the comforts of camp, Pemi boys are challenged on the trails, and are spurred out of their daily routines into a new world. Boys on trips find themselves tested, in a good way. You carry your own water, and learn to take care of the needs of your body. If it’s raining, you use your rain jacket, and cover your pack with a pack fly, or line it with trash bags, or both. You learn the importance of keeping your sleeping back dry. At night, the trip counselor and the assistant counselor cook food over a WhisperLite stove, which produces a comforting little roar and an efficient blue flame. Dinner might be macaroni and cheese with tuna, which I think is delicious (but hunger is the best sauce). At night, you sleep in a tent, just a sleeping bag and pad and tent floor between you and the earth. Breakfast might be instant oatmeal, eaten quickly before hitting the trail.

With all these changes in routine and environment, hiking trips can be some of the most memorable experiences a boy will have during a season at camp: while days at Pemi blur together happily, trips have a way of drawing out the day and becoming bigger, more luminous experiences. Conversations on the trail and jokes over supper become all the more memorable, because there are no other distractions. Even your thoughts might seem stronger, more focused, in the woods and on the trail.

I have plenty of vivid images in my head from Pemi trips: dipping a Nalgene bottle into a cold stream and then dropping an iodine tablet in it to purify the water; eating dinner out of a plastic cup and then later eating oatmeal out of the same cup the next morning. Or, as a counselor, waiting until all the campers are in their tents at bedtime, and then making the rounds once more, double-checking that the tents are pitched properly and will stay dry in a storm, tightening the stays and stakes, saying goodnight to each group of kids.

Then there’s perhaps the sweetest part of the trip: emerging out of the woods and then hopping in the van or bus to go back to Pemi, and stopping on the way back for rare treat: candy and a soda. Rolling back over that bridge, coming back into Pemi, even just from a day trip, might be the best feeling of all: it’s a feeling of coming home after an adventure.

My experiences on trips with Pemi were incredibly formative in producing who I am today. What memories do you have? If you went on trips as a camper at Pemi, or led them as a counselor, what was the experience like?

Rob Verger