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Unforgettable Trips — Franconia Notch, NH
Dateline October, 1979
One of our favorite destinations in New England is the Franconia Notch State Park area of New Hampshire; the White Mountains. There are lots everything we enjoy: mountains, deep dark woods, pure, ice cold streams racing over rock strewn, water-carved flumes and small New England villages. It was easy to visualize the ghosts of courageous 17th and 18th century fur trappers and Native American hunting parties prowling through the woods.
My children and I would create stories about “The Last of the Mohicans.” We imagined the last chief of the mighty Mohicans, Chingachgook, along with his BFF, Natty Bumppo, called “Hawkeye” by his native friends, creeping silently along the forest game trails on moccasined feet, tracking a regal 15-point elk with flintlock and bow, while their renegade Huron arch-enemy, “The Wily Fox,” Magua, creeps up behind them, ready to add their scalps to his already hirsute belt…
What? Yes, yes, I know that Fenimore’s “Leatherstocking Tales” took place in the woods of what was once the frontier ofUpstate New York. But they must have made their way to New Hampshire at least once. After all, 18th century New England was just one huge virgin forest, as was most of the east coast, where it was said that a squirrel could travel from treetop to treetop from Maine to Florida without having even once to put a foot on the ground.
It should be obvious that I am a history buff. The “Leatherstocking Tales” of James Fenimore Cooper, considered to be America’s first true novelist, was his own idealized view of the frontier period of American history. And yet his romanticized vision of the strong, fearless and ever-resourceful frontiersman and the stoic, wise and noble “red man” became the way readers around the world characterized this period of America’s history and its people.
And so, as I brave the primordial forest, protected only by my microfiber clothing, TEVA sandals and my trusty (no, not rusty) 50-tools-in-one Victorinox Swiss Army knife, spraying on another layer of mosquito repellant and SPF-60 skin protection, while valiantly struggling with my stainless steel, outdoor, propane barbeque, made in China, trying to get the heat just right to ensure that my Kansas City filet mignons, wrapped in bacon, will be cooked to mouth-watering juicy perfection, I imagine that I am a descendant of that mighty tribe of courageous red and white men. Hmm…
Ah well, where were we? Oh yes, the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We had driven 10 hours from Huntington, LongIsland to the Franconia Notch area to see the annual foliage change, hike the trail to Lonesome Lake, see the Bear show on I-93 and the famous “Old Man of the Mounains” and ride the tramway up to the near summit of 6,080 foot high Cannon Mountain.
(BTW, the “Old Man of the Mountain” finally gave in to gravity and collapsed during the night in 2003. It’s now known as the “Old Man on the Mountain Historic Site.” Visitors are now instructed to bend their necks to the side and squint their eyes and try to imagine a great big face… just kidding, but, even with signs that explain the situation, visitors and internet bloggers still complain that they just can’t see the face anymore. Hmm…)
Daniel Webster once said:
“Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoemakers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but in the mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.” Except the sign has fallen down…
After arriving at the Lafayette Campground, we rushed to set up camp before dinner and nightfall. We decided to get an early start the next morning because rain was forecasted for late in the day and we didn’t want the kids to miss the tramway up the mountain in case the area got socked in with rain for the weekend, as had happened in the past… There’s nothing like a weekend in a wet tent to bring a family closer together…
Cannon’s ski area is one of the oldest in North America. Trails had been cut on the mountain prior to 1933, but it gained widespread recognition that year when the famous Taft Slalom was cut as the first racing trail in North America. In 1967, Cannon hosted the first Alpine Skiing World Cup races ever held in North America.
In 1938, the mountain’s earliest lift service was added with the construction of the first aerial tramway in North America. That tramway remained in service until being replaced in 1980 by a new tram with a vertical ascent of over 2,000 feet and a capacity of 140 people in two 70-person cars, nearly 3 times larger than the original lift.
The old tram base and summit-stations remain intact, and one of the old cabins serves as the entranceway to the New England Ski Museum, opened in 1982 at the mountain’s base area. The museum houses what it calls “the most extensive collection of historical ski equipment, clothing, film, photographs, literature, and artwork in the East” and is one of four museums in the U.S. to be recognized by the United States Ski Association as a Regional Museum.
Our last visit was in 1979 before the original tramway was replaced and the old tram base was converted to a museum. You might be wondering why the original tramway was replaced the year after our visit? I think I have the answer:
When we arrived at the base of the tramway there were clouds moving in from the north, but the sky above us was still mostly clear, but breezy. We took the tramway to the very top. It took just 6 minutes to move 25 passengers up to the cafeteria, our first stop. After a hurried lunch (everything is rushed when you have kids with you), we avoided the gift shop and walked around on the still green ski runs and trails. We marveled at the view of the surrounding states in their fall foliage splendor.
After a few hours of enjoying the high-altitude view, there began a series of announcements telling when the next tram was due to leave. We waited for the announcement that the last tram of the day would be descending in 15 minutes. We made our way onto the summit-station with a handful of other late-leavers (I’m pretty sure that’s a word).
By then, big, black clouds had rolled in from the North and the wind had picked up. The ranger told us that he would have to hurry as a gale was moving our way. A GALE? It was a ride to remember. As we left the summit-station, the wind blew the car sideways and everyone had to grab onto something or risk falling. Traveling down the mountain, the ranger struggled to prevent the car from ramming the towers that supported the cable. What started as some nervous laughter at our situation led to a few screams, as the ranger braked each time we approached a tower and then, waiting until the wind was blowing us away from the tower, he raced past. He repeated this maneuver at each tower.
As the gale winds increased in strength, we were really swinging back and forth, like a huge pendulum. It made it a real challenge for the ranger to keep from hitting a tower as we swung back in the opposite direction. But, just when Maureen was reciting her 4th Hail Mary and 10th Our Father, we approached the base-station. She had also just finished telling me, and everyone else in the car, that she would never, ever ride a tramway again. To his credit, the ranger had gotten pretty good at timing his forward motion with the back and forth swinging of the car. But the base station provided an even greater challenge: the ranger had to time his descent just right and race forward so that the car would slip into it’s berth without crashing into either of the walls of the station. It was a wild ride, but he did it. And that’s why, I believe, after the beating and stress that it took, the tramway was replaced with a new one the following year.
We raced back to our campsite, hurrying to stow everything that could take flight in the developing storm. I tied the Eureka tent down with every piece of string, rope, and bungee cord that we had; fearing that the tent, with us inside it, would take flight in the middle of the storm. By the time we finished, the wind was roaring through the darkening campground. We had a cold dinner of pre-made sandwiches from the cooler while sitting in the tent that evening. That’s when the rain started to pelt the tent like someone was throwing stones at us. It grew pitch dark and the wind howled around us, coming through the forest like a runaway train.
The trees were groaning and we prayed that none would crack and fall on our tent, which was flapping and jumping around as if a giant dog had grabbed a hold of it and was trying to shake it to death. The rain was hitting the canvas so hard (no tent fly back then) that it pushed the water right through the canvas and misted into the tent. We sat and watched with our flashlight as the tiny raindrops exploded through the canvas and dampened us and everything inside. The kids picked up on our nervousness and began to whimper, but after what seemed like hours, but what was actually only minutes, the rain and wind finally let up and we collapsed into our damp sleeping bags and fell asleep.
The next morning, everything was soaking wet. It was muddy all around the campsite, so we sat in our car and ate our breakfast of cold Cheerios and milk, while sharing tales of our survival during what our family called the killer storm of the century!
Till Next Time,