by Philip Werner
I think many regular hikers feel a sense of ambivalence in sharing hiking trails and the wilderness with other hikers or visitors who might not value them as much or use the resource with as much care as they do. The fear of these self-appointed stewards is that their place of refuge, which is how many of us view our wild lands, will be put at risk through recreational overuse, commercial interests, or quasi-non-profits that have every legal right to use the same resource. I see this play out vividly in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire where I do a lot of hiking, a "land of many uses," ranging from snowmobiling and downhill skiing to lumbering and lodging. It's something I know I fear and feel helpless to prevent.
This feeling of ambivalence is one of the underlying themes of The Country Northward, Dan Ford's journal of a 100 mile backpacking trip through the White Mountains. While there are many things to recommend in this fabulous book, that's one of the most striking aspects of this work that resonated with me. It's an inner conflict that I've struggled to come to terms with myself this past year.
Originally published in 1976 and reprinted in 2012 (including Kindle), I was surprised how timeless Dan Ford's account of his hike is. He encounters many hikers and backpackers who have no idea what they're doing in the mountains: they don't have maps, or proper clothing, not enough water or food. Ford helps set them straight, as we all do in the mountains, where it's still possible to exchange kindness between strangers.
Ford is less generous with the Forest Service and the policies of Wilderness-ification that were practiced in the mid-70's such as the destruction of wilderness lean-tos throughout the White Mountains, a practice which has probably done more harm than good by encouraging hikers to camp anywhere with abandon rather than concentrating their impact.
He is even more critical of the Appalachian Mountain Club huts and lodging organization which he repeatedly calls Wilderness, Inc. They were in Ford's view, gentrifying the wilderness and charging guests exorbitant lodging fees in 1975. Oh, how little the issues and characters have changed since then!
Wilderness politics aside, Ford's journal is a well-written account of his scenic journey through the mountains that moves along a nice clip. Throughout his account, Ford delves into the rich history of wilderness exploration, tourism, and lumber barons that helped open the White Mountains to settlement and eventually drove the public to reclaim the land after it had been ravaged by clear-cutting and fire. Hikers familiar with the White Mountains will enjoy Fords account of his backpacking trip, particularly his descriptions of the characters he meets on his journey and the wilderness lean-tos that were well-worn in 1975, but have been since been removed.
Full of wry observations and intimate introspection, The Country Northward is a backpacking book to be reread and shared with other hikers. This volume has found of place on my bookshelf, where it will remain.