Category Archives: Henry David Thoreau

Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains

By Richard Higgins

I was startled a few years ago when the man training me in CPR, a very safety-conscious person who had saved many lives, declared flatly that there were no accidents.

No accidents? What could be more preposterous, I thought. “What about car accidents,” I asked with moderated sarcasm, “don’t they fit the bill?

Car crashes are not accidents, he replied. “They always could’ve been prevented with adequate forethought or risk assessment. Yes, that could mean not passing, not taking a certain road or not driving at all, but if that’s the cost of your life, it’s worth it.” I grudgingly had to admit he was probably right.

Sandy Stott makes the case for prudence more firmly in his book Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, a compendium of heroism and hubris in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. The hubris comes from hikers who perished (or nearly did) near those peaks, and over the course of the book their tales tumble together into an avalanche of poor choices and missed cues. The heroism comes from the hundreds of dedicated volunteers and professionals who test their own limits as they yank injured, dazed or frozen people from the jaws of danger again and again.

In recent years, search and rescue has become more necessary and more challenging, writes Stott, himself a seasoned hiker and former editor of the Appalachian Mountain Club journal Appalachia. The promise of safety from cell phones, locator beacons and other high-tech devices has made recreational hikers, and sometimes even experienced ones, overconfident. And the hell-bent, triathlon-before-breakfast extreme fitness culture has turned to mountains paths for endurance training.

Critical Hours is partly a history of hiking, from the Romantic era forward, and of search and rescue efforts when the hiking goes awry, as well as the culture behind each, partly an inquiry into why we ascend summits and partly a biography of Mount Washington—all wrapped around a series of rescue stories Stott analyses for lessons.

The mistakes take many forms: not knowing the weather forecast, hearing but ignoring it, being fooled by mildness at the base, setting off too late, being experienced or poorly equipped and leaning over a waterfall. A missed trail sign, glove dropped or twisted ankle can snowball into full-blown crisis. While most of those who make such mistakes live to tell about it, the rescues are not always pretty or even truly necessary. My favorite numbskull is the large man who reported a badly sprained ankle, which required alternating teams of 12 men to carry him down in a litter—and then, in the parking lot, pronounced himself better and got up and walked away.

Trouble above the tree line is not confined to the clueless or naïve, Stott tells us, noting that even Henry David Thoreau nearly lost the trail in a fog on Mount Washington. Even legendary climbers of the Whites are not immune. One famous hiker, Bill Curtiss, was so strong and fit at age 67 that doctors could not believe the deep musculature of his chest. Unfortunately, their discovery came during an autopsy. Curtis was consumed by winter’s fury atop Washington.

Stott is well equipped to narrate the tragedies.. Born into a family of hikers—his father performed one of the rescues in the book — he is steeped in the history and culture of the White Mountains. And insightful about why some of us are driven to extreme challenges.

He is very good at describing the twilight dimming effect of hypothermia of the body, how it slowly robs first our physical, then our mental, faculties. Indeed, the weather is almost a character in this book, and its personality is fickle and sometimes cruel as it teases or deceives us about its true intentions.

Self-awareness, the ability to see and take in actual conditions, regardless of preconceived thoughts or expectations, and alertness to potential perils, Stott says, is the only the way to avoid becoming an anecdote in any sequel to this book. A little fear doesn’t hurt either. In Moby Dick, the second mate, Stubb, declares that he won’t allow a man in his whaleboat who doesn’t have a healthy fear of the whale.

Those who ignore the perils will likely be rescued by the large and increasingly professional network of private and government rescuers. But these teams have their work cut out for them. Prometheus was in bad enough shape when he had merely stolen fire from the gods. Now that we, his descendants, have GPS, emergency locator beacons and various other high-tech gizmos, it seems inevitable that the vultures will have a lot more picking to do.

Richard Higgins is the author of  Thoreau and the Language of Trees.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost

The Cabin Site: Walden Pond

By Tom O’Malley

Your house is finally open now

No walls to interfere

With the sweeping winds of change

And the storm of ideas you found

Here — so long ago.

Now

Your roof is the endless sky

Of succulent colors

Filtered through the breath

Of patient

Trees

And the hidden language of birds

Who love to gather by your open

Door

And sing you to wakefulness.

So fitting here

Where we stand silent

Receiving the welcome blessing

Of your words

And the life you still live

In us.

Tom O’Malley is an adjunct professor of English at Canisius College. 

 

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The New Henry in Town

By Corinne H. Smith

When Richard Smith moved to West Virginia at the end of 2017, he left behind nearly a two-decade legacy of portraying Henry David Thoreau in Concord, especially at Walden Pond, where he greeted visitors as Henry in the Thoreau house replica on a regular basis.

Last summer while Smith was contemplating his move, another Thoreauvian, Brent Ranalli, was exploring the idea of taking his efforts at historical interpretation to the next level. Ranalli did not know there would soon be an opening for some one to portray Henry David Thoreau in June 2018.

Brent Ranalli as Henry David Thoreau at Thoreau Farm.

Ranalli’s path first intersected with the Thoreau crowd when he participated in a panel presentation at The Thoreau Society Annual Gathering in 2009. The subject of the session was the publication of Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, a textbook which Brent helped to edit. He quickly felt a camaraderie with the people involved and attending the conference. He has been a regular presenter at each Gathering ever since.

Ranalli is interested in Thoreau’s fascination with Native Americans. He admires how Thoreau was able to take on a walking style that many of his friends equated with that of an American Indian. Ranalli has written and spoken about Thoreau’s gait, as reported by the people who were close to Henry. His research made him wonder: Why not study Thoreau’s gait by donning Henry’s style of clothing and portraying Thoreau himself? Ranalli began to gather parts of the wardrobe and the props he would need for this venture.

Meanwhile, Visitor Services Supervisor for Walden Pond State Reservation, Jennifer Ingram  was responsible for finding a new historic interpreter who could portray Henry and fill the void Smith had left. Over the winter, Ingram sent queries to members of the local historical collaborative in Concord. While she pursued some leads, none of the applicants seemed to fit the position.

Ranalli eventually heard about this new opening through The Thoreau Society, where he is a member, and contacted Ingram. She was immediately impressed. He certainly had the background and the interest; was in the right age range; and had the right build to portray Thoreau.

Ingram had a final test for Ranalli, however. The two met at the Pond office one day, and went to sit in the replica for an hour. Ingram felt that this experience would be critical for the prospective Thoreau. It would offer the reality of the interpretation. If the potential Henry didn’t feel comfortable being in this space, or if he felt he had to leave after a few minutes, then that would be that.

Instead, Ranalli stayed.

“It felt comfortable,” he said. “One could make a home there. With the replica furniture and the working wood stove, the house definitely feels authentic. It makes it easy to enter the world of the 1840s.”

He had not only passed Ingram’s test, but one of his own. And, he interacted well with the public who stopped by the house that day to meet Henry.

This month, Ranalli did his first Henry gig at an Acton elementary school. (He was careful not to talk to any classes that included his own sons as students.) He reports that the appearance went well. He was stymied only once. This was when someone asked what kind of car Thoreau would drive, if he were alive today.  (I suggested that Thoreau would be likely to take public transportation.) Yet, Ranalli feels as though he has already gained a deeper understanding of the author-naturalist by stepping into his shoes.

Brent Ranalli will portray Henry Thoreau at Walden Pond State Reservation on Sunday, May 27, 2018, beginning at 1 p.m. Be sure to stop by and chat with him as he “is” Henry at the house replica. Just don’t ask him about cars!

Corinne Smith is the author of Henry David Thoreau for Kids among other books; a frequent contributor to The Roost;  and is a tour guide at Thoreau Farm.

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