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Bubbas and Backcountry: What Makes the East so Different

Trail Blazes on Black Cap Trail in New Hampshire, White Mountains
Trail blazes painted on the rocks & trees are common in New England hiking
The Northeast is different.

Here people have nicknames for everything and everyone, though the latter often falls back on the generic “Bubba” if you’re a guy. People use expletives where they don’t even make sense. And the accents: whoa.

The outdoor world is just as fascinating. Skiing in the east broke me in to its eccentricities and I learned to adapt quickly. As winter melted into spring, the Northeast’s rock climbing had me bushwacking into approaches and picking ticks off later.

And now it’s hiking season. The trails are rife with rivulets; where they don’t exist, large stones stack on top of one another, either naturally or by the hand of man. Throw in some tree roots and you’ll find that hiking in the Northeast is less a simple act of walking and more of scrambling and jumping.

Here your cardiovascular condition better be in tune; no sissy switchbacks exist to accommodate you. If you’re lucky, a ledge will crop up and provide you with a grand view of the surroundings—that is if you aren’t too busy trying to catch your breath while pretending to stop for the scenery.

But, as a Westerner, nothing stands out more to me than the shelters. They are everywhere—hike a trail that summits somewhere, and you will be greeted by one of these log structures.

View from inside Swan Lake Trail shelter onto the mountains
Shelter view; includes 3-seated log bench
They vary in luxury: some are fully-decked out cabins with bunks and woodstoves, such as the Starks Nest shelter along the Long Trail at Mad River Glen. Some are more primitive—nothing more than a three-sided structure with a roof overhead. This is what I found at the top of the Swan Lake Trail near the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire a couple of nights ago.

The trail itself was pretty low-key for the east, actually more akin to what you’d find out west: rocks thrown in here and there and some hard packed dirt. The grade was a piece of cake and had it not been for the mud and little streams periodically cutting the trail, I could have easily placed it in the intermountain region.

The trail cut through tall stands of birch and maple until the grand finale: a beautiful lake surrounded by rolling peaks and a spectacular sunset in the making.

Log bench at the Swan Lake Trail summit shelter
Get comfy
And a shelter. The log structure was accessorized by a rough-hewn three-seater bench and a metal firepit. Inside the shelter, visitors had carved their names into every space of wood available and a drab olive-colored fleece lay crumpled on the floor.

I turned my back on the shelter and claimed one of the spots on the bench. You’d be hard-pressed to find this much structure accompanying the backcountry trails of the west, or at least Utah.

I watched the colors of the sky turn from blue to gold and then pink. It was about that time when my hiking partner laughed behind me. I turned to see him crouched in the shadows of the shelter, a spot I had overlooked. He had donned the olive fleece and was lifting a bag filled with a dark liquid. I wrinkled my nose, thinking it was some putrid mix that had sat there for ages. Then he took a swig.

Mini bottle of UV Candy Bar vodka
Leftover libations
“Red wine!” he smiled.

Seriously? I walked over to the spot where he was crouched and saw corner stuffed full of wine, little bottles of flavored vodka, scraps of folded paper (no notes written on them), and a red-dyed feather sticking out from the logs. It was like folks left these things behind for future hikers to enjoy.

I’d never seen anything like it. I thought back to geocaching and how folks hike to spots where treasures lay hidden. This was like a giant geocache haul except without GPS coordinates. I am not a drinker, but I still found the remains incredible.

I sat on the edge of the shelter and swung my feet. Here in the east, I’d seen so much evidence of man’s interference with the wilderness—interference meant to make trails more hospitable for humans. There were shelters, rock-hewn stairs, colored blazes on rocks and trees instead of cairns like we have out west. These accommodations gave the outdoor experience a softness, a potentially false sense of “all-is-well” while navigating the backcountry.

It wasn’t that easterners were not hardcore. On the contrary, these were some of the hardiest people I’d met. What ultimately differed was the history of outdoorsmanship in this area. It was a land of our forefathers who explored their surroundings long before the west was “tamed.” It was a land of the Civilian Conservation Corpsan organization developed to employ men during the Great Depression. It is a region that the Appalachian Mountain Club, from 1876 to present, has worked to protect and maintain. It is part of historic trail systems that set the example for through-hikes around the nation.

I have heard that newer trails are less structured than their predecessors. For those who believe the outdoor experience should be as wild as possible, this might be welcome news. However, the hiking in the Northeast is all the more charming for those old shelters and its distinctive trail design. Its unique features separate it from other regions’ hikes, making it simultaneously a great place to experience something new and to hike back into history.

View from Swan Lake at sunset
View of Swan Lake and the beginning of a beautiful sunset

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