In N.H. mountains, a very different base camp

OUTDOORS

October 05, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

CRAWFORD NOTCH, N.H. - At one end of the building, a mass of rambunctious sixth-graders is learning about geology. At the other, a group from Elderhostel, which runs programs for people 55 and over, readies for its first overnight backpacking trip into the White Mountains.

And in between, a hand-lettered sign on the otherwise-bare bulletin board issues this disclaimer: "When it came down to the last minute, we could either make the beds or finish the signs ... "

All 122 beds at the Appalachian Mountain Club's new Highland Center are in proper order, I'm pleased to say.

The AMC is known for maintaining the hut system in the mountains and for its hiker-friendly Joe Dodge Lodge at the base of 6,288-foot Mount Washington. But last year the nonprofit organization kicked off an ambitious outreach program to attract folks who like the outdoors, but not sleeping on it.

At the heart of the effort is the Highland Center, a $9 million base camp with all the comforts of home tucked into the mountains four hours north of Boston. The center has 34 guestrooms (15 private rooms with private baths and 19 shared rooms with shared baths), two classrooms, several meeting rooms and a conference hall.

The thinking is that city people and suburbanites who learn outdoors skills from experts will become stewards to protect wide-open spaces from development and pollution.

Although it has been open only three weeks, and the grand opening celebration is a week away, it appears the AMC has struck a chord.

On a pitch-black night with the mercury toying with the freezing mark, the kiddos from nearby Whitefield Elementary School and the Elderhostel participants are bunked down, wrapped in flannel sheets and down comforters and dreaming of the next day's adventure. For the students, it will be a walk around a lake to look for signs of erosion. The seniors will hike three miles to the Zealand Falls Hut along the Appalachian Trail, stay overnight and hike out.

"I was having anxiety attacks about this," confesses Kathie Fredrick, a retiree from Charleston, S.C., just before turning in. "This will be my first big mountain. But I'm in good hands."

The AMC staff prepares Fredrick and her 12 companions with talks on what to expect along the trail and at the more primitive Zealand, with its co-ed bunkhouses and outdoors composting toilets.

The next morning, as the students roar out the front door for their hike, the seniors have a final pack fitting and picture-taking session.

"We need before and after pictures," insists Betty Mann, from the South Bend area of Indiana. "People were impressed when we just said we were doing this. Wait until we finish."

The AMC leadership believes the Highland Center allows them to blaze a different trail to potential members.

"This is a piece of the AMC that we always wanted but never had," says Vinnie Spiotti, the center director who used to work at the grand old Mount Washington Hotel just down the road. "People are coming here because it is comfortable. We have hot showers. We have good beds and good food. We have data ports."

The Highland Center occupies the same 26-acre site as the Crawford House, another of the grand hotels that served as a summer getaway from 1859 to 1977. Several of the outbuildings remain, including the renovated train station and Thayer Hall, the former carriage house, which is now used for conferences, photo exhibits and staff space.

Critics up here grumble that the AMC is veering from its 126-year-old heritage and squeezing the mom-and-pop hotels that have been part of the local scenery for as long as people have been leaf peeping and skiing. The Manchester Union-Leader, the state's dominant local newspaper, called the Highland Center "excessive."

But they are missing the point. Hotels don't offer courses on snowshoeing and wilderness survival. Nor do they have seminars on nature writing, animal tracking, winter photography and yoga.

"Not everyone wants to enjoy the outdoors by climbing Mount Jackson," says Aaron Gorban, director of the Adventure and Discovery Series. "So we offer programs beyond just coming and staying at the center."

There are four-day programs during school vacations for teens and a grandparent-grandchild offering with activities both can do plus "some afternoon down time where we take the kids for an hour so the grandparents can decompress and rest their feet," says Gorban.

Other things make the Highland Center different from most hotels in these parts. In the kitchen is Matthew Houghton, formerly of the Mount Washington Hotel, who was chosen Chef of the Year this year by the New Hampshire Chapter of the American Culinary Federation. Meals are served family style and include dishes for vegetarians.

The lodge is constructed of native materials, from the wood in the post-and-beam dining rooms to the hearthstones of the living room fireplace. Several of the bedrooms are "allergy-free," with wooden floors instead of carpets and water-based finishes on the furnishings.

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