Hiking the high roads

New England Supplement Howling winds buffet the low-lying house, rattling the windows. Massive clouds skim over the roof as they blow eastward. In the distance, two hikers with bright red backpacks appear over the ridge of rocky Mt. Madison. Five-hundred feet above timberline, the hikers are almost thrown off balance by 50 mile-an-hour gusts. They spot the hut, and their figures grow larger as they draw near.

The two find shelter and warmth in the Appalachian Mountain Club's (AMC) Madison Hut, a sturdy house nestled in the valley between two peaks in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains.

''Welcome to Madison Hut,'' hutmaster Mark Dindorf beams, as the two hikers join a dozen weary trekkers and indulge in hot, home-cooked lasagne. ''We're glad to have you all up here!''

Mr. Dindorf is one of eight hutmasters in the White Mountains, each one presiding over an AMC hut. This season he's in charge of Madison, the first hut the AMC built back in 1888.

After supper, Dindorf leads the group outside for a view of the sunset. With brisk winds outside, the temperature drops to below freezing. Some hikers stay inside, but most follow the hutmaster toward a steep ridge to face the sinking orange Sun.

''Try to stay on the rocks,'' Dindorf shouts above the roaring wind. ''There are quite a few sensitive wildflowers here - and one wrong step will crush them.'' One hiker does not listen, and sits down on a mossy rock coated with small alpine wildfowers.

''Well, we can't get to all of them,'' the hutmaster sighs.

With its lichen-covered walls and weathered gray shingles, Madison Hut looks like a part of this rocky, wind-swept col. It is one of eight huts operated by the AMC - a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the nation's wilderness areas. The huts, which provide lodging and meals for hikers for a small fee, are interconnected by the Appalachian Trail and other trails here in New Hampshire.

Since 1876, AMC volunteers have helped to care for some trails in the White Mountains. Now, however, the AMC is concerned that the bulk of trail upkeep is falling on its shoulders because the United States Forest Service (USFS) is shifting its priorities.

The AMC's relations with the Forest Service, which have been close in the past, have become increasingly strained since 1980. Under the Reagan administration, the USFS is using a fifth of its budget in the White Mountain National Forest for timber use and management (more than $1 million of this year's $4.9 million budget), says Ned Therrien of the US Forest Service's office in Laconia, N.H. Only $75,000 has been allocated to trail maintenance, he says.

USFS staff trains AMC volunteers to tend the trails. Now that the budget is being cut, there isn't enough forest-service personnel to train the volunteers, say AMC coordinators.

''You can't orchestrate volunteers without paid staff,'' says Bonnie Christie , AMC conservation coordinator. ''They (the USFS) don't want to put any money into trail maintenance. They are robbing Peter to pay Paul.''

So far, the AMC workers are holding their own. But AMC officials are concerned that trails will erode and plant life will die if the mountain paths are not maintained.

The AMC is also alarmed over the USFS policy of expanding the number of logging contracts to cut down timber in some areas. While the AMC acknowledges the land can be used to turn a profit, officials say the USFS is leaning too much in that direction.

''The USFS is concerned with market resources,'' says Ms. Christie. ''We try to protect nonmarket resouces, such as the beauty of the land. You can't put a price on that.''

Each year more than 5 million people use the White Mountain National Forest. ''You can't take funds from recreation in an area like this,'' she says.

The Appalachian Mountain Club, organized in 1876, is the oldest and largest mountain club in the nation. The club has built and now maintains 20 shelters and 400 miles of trails in New Hampshire and Maine.

The AMC patterned its huts after those of the Alpsx in Europe. With the construction of the Madison Springs Hut, the AMC kicked off its program of building refuges for hikers in the highest mountains east of the Mississippi and north of the Carolinas.

But the AMC does more than provide huts. With about 30,000 members nationwide , the club began expanding its role during the environmental movement of the 1960s.

Currently the club is involved in many environmental projects. One is monitoring acid rain, an issue that has received much news media attention during the past two years. Acid rain - precipitation that sweeps into New England from industrial areas that produce large quantities of sulfur-dioxide pollutants - is a problem that is even more urgent in the White Mountains, AMC officials say.

At the top of Mt. Washington sits an acid rain monitor, which last summer began monitoring the acidity in clouds over the mountains. Originally sponsored by the Weyerhaeuser Company, the station is run by the Worcester Polytechnical Institute and continues with funds from the Mellon Foundation, says Ms. Christie of the AMC.

In the Northeast, clouds that skim through the mountains are almost as acidic as the rain that drops out of them, preliminary findings show. Hence, some areas get a double-dose of acid rain, causing twice as much damage to forests and streams.

Some government studies indicate acid rain destroys aquatic ecosystems by polluting fresh-water resources and affects forests by reducing their productivity. The AMC, using findings from the station, has taken a leading role to provide the public with information about acid rain.

Through its 12 chapters, numerous camps, and trails program, the AMC today is responsible for maintaining almost 1,000 miles of trails nationwide, including a 250-mile stretch of the famed Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. The largest portion of trails are in the White Mountains, where AMC maintains more than 100 trails with an aggregate length of 350 miles.

AMC trails are tended by club members who volunteer their labor. Camp Dodge, located a few minutes' drive from AMC headquarters at Pinkham Notch, is where vacationers can come to donate their time for volunteer work. They are provided with warm meals and a place to stay. In exchange, they work on trails - clearing them or building culverts.

''It lets people give something back to the wilderness,'' says Chris Landry, camp coordinator and a former volunteer. ''Some people may not think spending their vacation working on trails is fun, but you'd be surprised at how many people love it.''

Although AMC headquarters is located in Boston, most of its volunteer coordination takes place at Pinkham Notch, in the heart of the White Mountains.

Pinkham Notch Camp, on Route 16 north of Conway, serves as a popular trailhead meeting place for hikers preparing for a trip into the mountains. The young men and women working the Notch are well versed in the trails and can help steer a hiker in the right direction.

''They can usually tell what type of hiker a person is when he or she walks in the door,'' Pinkham Notch manager Jon Martinson says of his staff. ''And that's important. We don't want someone to try a hike that's too challenging for them.''

Another facet of the AMC is its education program. Walter Graff, New York City-born, has been with the AMC for 10 years and is now educational programs director. This summer, the AMC will lead 15 different guided hikes into the White Mountains out of Pinkham Notch, the AMC base camp near Mt. Washington.

In addition, Mr. Graff and his crew offer more than 30 workshops and seminars , ranging from the art of storytelling to nature photography. They can tell you how an avalanche forms, or what insects live above timberline.

''I've seen what I was missing as a kid - so now I want to show city people what this is all about. The need is tremendous. It's best to promote the out-of-doors, and show people how to protect it,'' Graff says.

Yet when people hike the White Mountains, it's the huts that grab their attention. Each hut is a day's hike from the next, and the trails in between offer breathtaking vistas. Not surprisingly, thousands of hikers use the huts during the summer.

Each hut has a crew of young men and women - often college students working in the back country for the summer. Each week they pack in 120 pounds of food and supplies on their backs. Crew members at each hut take turns with tasks such as cooking and cleaning. And they must be prepared for other challenges.

All employees of the AMC in the White Mountains are trained to participate in search-and-rescue emergencies. ''With the weather conditions up here, we couldn't have it any other way,'' says Mr. Martinson.

But every 11 days, a crew member gets three days off. Do they travel into town?

''No,'' says Kathy Rankin, Madison Hut crew member. ''I sometimes go to the other huts, or go hiking.''

''It takes a special brand of person to work in a hut - an unselfish person with a real desire to work hard in a sometimes tough environment,'' says AMC hut director Barbara Wagner. ''And most of them wouldn't trade the experience for the world.''

Jennifer Botzow, an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, has worked in the huts for three summers. ''I just love it,'' she shouts, beginning the trek from the summit of Mt. Washington to her hut (Lakes of the Clouds) with 100 pounds of food strapped to her back. ''What a great way to spend the summer!''

The hikers who use the huts share the same sentiment. John Leppman, a physician from southern Vermont, hikes in the region once or twice a year because he does not need to carry a large backpack. ''The people working the huts are so interesting and full of energy,'' he says. Others find different reasons to visit.

''This summer there was one big reason,'' says Tom Dennis, a computer programmer from south of Boston, while relaxing in Madison Hut.

''I had to escape the Southeast Expressway in Boston!''

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