Imagine arriving at the packhouse in early June for your first trip up to the hut, and finding the fridge practically empty; one small box of personal dry food, and a few miscellaneous supplies like a pitchfork to be packed. Barely a load you say, and, in fact, it fits with your personals in a backpack instead of requiring a packboard at all. This was the scenario that greeted Maim Bengtsson and myself as we began the summer of 1996 at Carter.
If this sounds unlike your past hut experiences, you are not alone. The changes however, are not due to the hiring of professional porters, or even increased helicopter flights to save the knees and backs of the croos. The light loads are limited only to Carter, and are the result of the switch to summer caretaker service. Lighter pack trips are only one aspect of the changes at Carter, which include improvements to the hut itself, changes for the guests, and a very different summer for the croo.
The physical changes to Carter are not visually striking, but make the hut much more efficient and greatly reduce the environmental impact. The changes include new composting toilets, a drilled bedrock well and increased solar panels and a wind generator to power solar lights and refrigerators.
Located about one thousand feet up from the hut from Wildcat, the drilled well is a great asset except for the winter when water must still be hauled. When the lines are unfrozen, the well consistently delivers about a quart per minute without a pump or storage tanks. The water flows by gravity down to the hut giving clean, chlorine-free water, with no effort at all.
The composting toilets, somewhat experimental when installed this spring at 3200 hundred feet, have been a great success. The Clivus Multrum system uses natural microbes to break down the human waste in a large inclined bin. New waste falls in at the top of the incline pushing the older waste down the ramp. Wood chips are mixed in, the compost raked to aerate the mix, and allowed to decompose over time. Excess water drains out into a small leach field, and the volume of waste is incredibly reduced, leaving rich organic soil as the end product. Believe it or not, there is no odor problem due to solar fans that pull air up a vent pipe creating a negative pressure that sucks air in when the seat covers are lifted. The Clivus system has worked so well at Carter that many people do not realize that it is not a regular toilet (except there is no flush), and one Appalachian Trail Thruhiker gave us the honorary best AT privy award. Based on the success at Carter, Clivus composters are being installed behind the visitor center at Pinkham to help alleviate the summer bathroom rush.
Increased battery storage and larger roof panels allow the solar and wind electric system at Carter to power lights in the kitchen and refrigerators for both the croo and the guests. The solar lights are located in the kitchen, and help keep people from going blind while washing dishes or cutting off their fingers while cooking. At the same time, the solar lights reduce the amount of propane consumed, saving both direct emissions as well as the energy to transport the bombs to the hut. The two solar fringes, one in the croo room and one in the kitchen similarly reduce propane use and free up room in the old reefer shed for storage.
The impact on the guests is the most significant aspect of the switch to self-service. In addition to the greatly reduced cost ($12 for AMC members), guests are much more on their own schedule. People can arrive after dark, get up before dawn (or even worse, after nine or ten- ughh!), and do things at their own pace. Since guests have free reign over the kitchen, dinner at four in the afternoon or nine o’clock at night is possible. Being in charge of their own menu is also significant for some guests, especially those with dietary restrictions, or parents of children with particular tastes (i.e.. only yellow or orange food like one child this fall. Seriously, he ate exclusively macaroni and cheese from a box, carrots and mustard and American cheese sandwiches).
With all the changes, croo life is very different from a full service hut. As there are only two people working, the schedule of ten days on and four daze off is arranged so that both caretakers are together at the hut on weekends with one person off each Monday to Friday. This is a great schedule until you realize that it leaves only one person to run the hut for a week. This means all the daily cleaning, any projects, and checking in and conversing with every guest in addition to two busy weekends every week. While caretakers save on packing and cooking duties, other tasks make daze off just as welcome as for the regular hut croos.
Since the croo does not control the kitchen during mealtimes, this changes the guest/croo interactions. There is more time to talk with people, and more of a sense of sharing the space. It is very different, and I can guess that some OH will miss the way things were when they worked. In some ways it is a return to the very roots of the hut tradition when the original Madison was staffed by a caretaker. And while Carter is now different from the other huts it still fits under the concept of "mountain hospitality for all."
I can say that for myself Carter was a great summer, and like OH from any era, an experience that has changed me. I will look back over my memories someday, and in the face of more changes feel nostalgic for the time when I worked. While at Carter this fall, I found a quote by Edward Damp in Appalachia Volume XLIII Dec.15, 1980 #2 that addresses this idea:
"The people who are working in the huts now will have as much to talk about in twenty years as we do when we look back. Just different things. It doesn't particularly appeal to us at the moment because it's a different operation."
Damp was referring to changes in the huts in a more general sense, but I feel the sentiment applies as well to the changes at Carter. Even if the thought of Carter being a caretaker hut does not appeal to you at the moment, give it a chance. I encourage any one who is interested in the changes to visit. The caretakers next summer would welcome some OH guests. And the beauty and solitude of the notch hasn’ t changed a bit.
Brendan O'Reilly has worked for the AMC for seven seasons including two winters at Zealand.