September 27, 2006

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I Have Been to the Mountain...

and it was a fabulous experience! I learned more broadly and more deeply about weather, photography, human nature and the critical value and balance in any environment of independence and interdependence .

What did I miss most while I was on Mount Washington for a week? Of course I missed the garden, the cat, the dog, the chickens... but the two things I really felt bereft of were turning the radio on to NPR first thing in the morning, and... Bert, especially the mid-morning coffee break we usually take together at the bagel shop. It's going to take some time to catch up on sleep, to read the mail and newspapers from the past week, to touch base with friends, to get back into the rhythm of everydayness.

And I'll miss much about being "on the top" ...watching the cog railway train huff and puff up the mountainside like something straight out of a children's book, the scudding cloud shadows over the hills and valleys, the glitter of ice feathers and mica flecks, the rime ice forming and then the crinkle and crunch of it falling, flying...

I have been to the mountain and found there great beauty and deep peace. I have come home to the same!


September 26, 2006

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Milky Way from the Mountain...

Perhaps it's the great prevalence of misty, moisty mornings here on top of Mt. Washington, but the breaks of sun are truly treasured when they come, and for however long they last. We've had several glimpses of sun today, and although the temperature has stayed right around freezing and the winds have varied greatly with gusts to 80 mph, it's been a nice day.

Breakfast was corned beef hash, applesauce and fresh-baked Danish pastry. It was hovering right around freezing all night with just enough icing on the auto road to make the arrival of Michelle's seminar group of teachers questionable. They did make it up by mid-morning and the day settled in somewhat. Tomorrow is shift-change day with everyone's gearing up to go down. Ken, Jim and Mike are leaving for their seven days off, Sunshine went home this afternoon and of course I'll go down tomorrow with the crew. I'm looking forward to being home...

Supper was American chop suey, coleslaw, cornbread and for dessert, peaches 'n' pudding, butterscotch this time. I've mostly cooked out of The Frugal Family Kitchen Book this past week and that's worked out well. This didn't seem like the time or the place to "experiment," and I suspect that the crew has been grateful for that, even if they have no idea just what fate they've been saved from!

Quiet here tonight, only four of us here at the Observatory. Mike came over from the State Park living area and shared a downright scary video of the vicious winds and mammoth storms that batter the Cape Breton area of Canada. After this week, I want to know much, much more about world-wide weather, not just the massively destructive typhoons and sunamis that get so much press, but the daily variations that shape an area's, a village's, a family's, a person's everyday existence. And it's weather not climate that seems especially interesting.

To wrap up an incredible experience, I headed up to the outside observation deck for my before-bed walk-about...and behold! the glorious night sky. I didn't have my sleeping bag with me, but I lay down on the concrete and...just... breathed. To see the Milky Way so close, so clear...

9:30 pm... temp 30F, wind 26.8, windchill 16F, visibility 80 miles.

And so to bed, and tomorrow... down the mountain.


September 25, 2006

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Glorious Sunset, But No Night Sky...

As I start my last few days atop Mt. Washington, I think back on what I had hoped to see while here... a sunrise, the night sky, birds, snow, horizontal rain... except for the night sky, I've seen everything on my list and far, far more!

9:30 am - I had a hard time getting to sleep last night as the wind just roared for hours. This morning is much calmer with no audible wind....temp 31, wind 27.4, wind chill 17. I've just come in from taking some pictures, and it certainly felt like 17 out there.

Visibility is as usual, very limited, maybe 100' at the utmost. I borrowed an old moose skull from one of the state park people (thanks, Mike!) and was out and about doing my Georgia O'Keefe imitation. I'll be very curious to see how any of the pix I've taken up here come out. I KNOW my next big photo purchase will be a tripod, as Jim is convinced and persuasive that using one will improve my/anyone's photo taking exponentially.

Breakfast was cereals, etc. while I have pizza dough rising now for lunchtime. Supper tonight is baked stuffed chicken breasts with honey-glazed, oven-roasted veggies and cranberry sauce. Raspberry pie for dessert.

Company arrived late afternoon as Michelle Cruz, who does Observatory educational programs for teachers/kids/classrooms, will be leading a seminar for a group of elementary teachers here tomorrow morning. Among other things, Michelle goes into classrooms all over New England doing any one of a dozen observatory programs, not all focused on weather either. It was fun to have her at the supper table...

As I was cooking supper, Ken came into the kitchen... "Turn off that burner and and come upstairs." I moved! The beauty of the sunset... you just can't describe these things... at one point the clouds were underlit and glowing, another minute the sun gilded the cog railway track weaving a golden ribbon up the mountainside, and as I stood nose pressed to the window, a raven swooped by inches away. So very special...

A little later Jim called and I went back up to find a crystal clear twilight, the most totally fog-free I've seen it here. Black and burnt orange defined the horizon, the muted curves of the Presidentials, a distant layer of dark-shadowed clouds, a slim crescent moon, and Venus twinkling brilliantly. So very beautiful...

Supper over and the kitchen picked up, I dragged my sleeping bag up to the outside observation deck planning to spread out in the lee of the small building up there and just drink in the night sky. The fog had rolled back in. RATS!

And so, at 10 pm, it's that time again... temp is 32, wind 49.7, wind chill 14, visibility zero.

Last day quickly this has come to feel like home, these folks like family... Mary

September 24, 2006

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Listen! The Wind...

I have always loved Anne Morrow Lindberg's book Listen! The Wind, and it especially comes to mind today. Although it's been strangely warm up here, at 9 pm the wind is rising, the temperature is dropping and rain's due overnight. The temp is 35, wind sustained at 80 (with gusts to far), and wind chill 17. The howl, whistle and whine of the wind never cease, and I am comforted by knowing that the walls of the Observatory are two feet thick reinforced concrete.

Visibility continues to be near nothing, but still... there was a lovely wedding up here this morning (inside), with all the attendant finery and pomp. I'm not sure how the bridal party and guests came up, perhaps the stage, but this setting will certainly make a most memorable day even more so!

Breakfast this am - since I am up here to cook - was bacon, eggs, hash browns and hot-out-of-the-oven cinnamon buns. It was wonderful to have Mike's mom Leah stay over last night, and everyone enjoyed her company. She was able to get headed down in one of the Stages just before noon. Lunch became a forage-among-the-leftovers, while supper was pasta with hot Thai peanut sauce, mixed veggies, and gingerbread with whipped cream. Eating is a major recreation up here, and all my good ideas of using this time to semi-fast are now downright... laughable!

Yesterday the summit was very busy with full trains, the auto road open and the stages running even with the limited visibility. Many people dropped in for a tour of the Observatory facility, and listening to tour guide Ken, I, too, learned a lot. The mountain will essentially close down for winter by the middle of October, the summit mostly accessible after that only by the Sno Cat.

The crew from the State Park, who live next door to our quarters, will leave and the person who mans the Observatory Museum and gift shop will work her last shift. The crew here will lay in $30,000 - $40,000 of winter food and supplies, and just storing those goods will tighten an already somewhat cramped space.

(I measured our living area this morning so that I can do a good drawing on the computer when I get down. As I've mentioned before, the kitchen and pantry areas here have no windows, are at the back of this space and are actually built into the side of the summit. The bunk rooms are each 7' by 12' with two stacked bunks, and the big bunk room housing six is just as narrow only of course much longer. This facility can bunk 15, but I can't imagine that many people here in very close winter conditions.)

The EduTrips account for most of these over-night visitors, especially in winter. If you aren't already familiar with exactly what the Mount Washington Observatory does, and how it runs, you've got to check out their website which also explains the EduTrips. These fully-led trips covering a variety of subjects (meteorology, geology, folklore of the area as well as flora, fauna, photography, and more) are a way to sample this extraordinary facility in its utterly unique and challenging environment. What a GREAT Christmas present!

Back to today... Very exciting! Early afternoon, I had just walked back across the outside observation deck under overcast skies, mild temps and a 40+/- mph wind. There was a high school group visiting and the half dozen teens were out on the tower observation deck, way above me, having the time of their lives. I had just started making the gingerbread
when Mike called down from the weather room. I hurried the 3-5 minutes since I'd left the observation deck, and the kids had come in from the tower, a fierce thunderstorm had swept in. I got to see lightning, up close and personal...very spectacular and very scary!!

This was actually a double red-letter day... Later, while looking east from the inside observation deck at the clearing sky and sun-and-shadow landscape, I saw a rainbow. Short and thick with wide, distinct color bands, it was sort of wedged between two mountains, not arched up high at all. Wisps of clouds drifted past then closed in. What a gift to catch that first to seven minute window!

And so another day ends. There are not words big enough to even begin to share this experience... the place, the people, the ever-changing, always-glorious panoramas.
And now, Nin is feeling very snuggly and I, very sleepy. A quick trip up to the weather room - no outside stroll for me - and lights out. G'night!

September 23, 2006

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Wild Weather Coming...

This is the mid-day of my volunteer week cooking at the Mount Washington Observatory, 6288' up in the White Mountains of NH. Mount Washington is of course home to some of the world's worst weather. The outloook is for our current weather to deteriorate substantially over the next 24 hours, and that has already begun, much earlier than expected. Maybe I'll get to see lightning tomorrow!

Just before bed last night I went out to the observation deck where the downward visibility was stunning, although above us clouds obscured the night sky. Down in the Valley, the resort at Bretton Woods sparkled and twinkled looking...enchanted! Jim pointed out the glow of Portland on the eastern horizon, the Lewiston-Auburn area of Maine was also clearly light-visible, as were Sherbrooke and Quebec City to the north. The enormity was... awe-ing.

That sun dog... the one I mentioned seeing yesterday. I should have said that the light refraction is very different through a six-sided snowflake as opposed to light coming through a drop of rain. The sun dog is the light coming through and bouncing back from a snowflake... I think I said ice last night.

Breakfast this morning...French toast. At supper last night Jim was telling us about a time in college that he'd set out to make French toast. In the way of college students, the fridge was empty of milk, but there was plenty of alcohol around. Being resourceful, he used Bailey's Irish Cream for his French toast ever he says!

Quiet afternoon with rising temps, getting up to the low 70's down at the base. Just about zero visibility all day after that lovely sunrise. Now, at 10 pm, temp 47, wind 43, wind chill 36, unusually mild.

After a social hour with the guys from the state park staff (I made black-and-blue dip - black olives, blue cheese, sour cream, garlic, cayenne and S&P) with veggies, we had supper... savory herbed veggie pie and chunky applesauce. A fruit salad of oranges, pineapple and bananas, plus an assortment of cookies... I'm absolutely stuffed! Have started the sweet rolls for tomorrow's breakfast, but bed is calling... loudly! I'm not even going out for my evening walkabout.

Oh... someone asked what the Italian butter was that I referred to yesteday. It's just softened butter mixed with dry Italian salad dressing mix... absolutely delicious!


September 22, 2006

Friday, September 22, 2006

Cooking in the Clouds... Day 3

I was up a little after four this morning in the slight hope that the sunrise might be visible. Ken had said that the hour before the actual sunrise is lovely, and with a 60-40 chance it'd be clear this morning, I wanted to check it out. Nope. Temps have risen and the cloud cover is thick here on the summit while a few hundred feet below us, it's clear and seasonably warm.

Spent some time in the weather room with Jim. We looked at the big storm in the country's mid-section, zeroed in on an area of possible tornado development, actually spotting a tiny spot that looks ominous. Jim called up yesterday's national damage report (who knew!) which showed some tornadic activity in that very area, including some in Nebraska, Shaun.

This is the BEST gig...all I have to do is cook! I've died and gone to heaven, or at least I'm a bit closer at 6288 feet! For lunch yesterday, I'd taken the last of the beef 'n' gravy from the night before and made a beef stew. Supper was thick ham slices with a honey mustard glaze, rice pilaf, broccoli spears and fresh out-of-the-oven bread with Italian butter. For dessert I'd made two pies. Some foks - if you can possibly imagine this - don't like chocolate! I made a vanilla cream and a chocolate fudge pie. With whipped cream of course. You wouldn't believe what just five people can do to two pies!

With the leftover ham I made a rich quiche for breakfast. Now, while I'm only actually responsible for putting supper on the table, that seems silly, AND this crew has been wonderfully appreciative of my offerings. (No great accolade for my cooking; they love to eat!) Supper tonight... simple stuff. Corn chowder thick with sausage, a spicy coffeecake, cole slaw and ice cream with mandarin oranges and kiwi pieces.

My friend Nancy asked if I'm cold up here... au contraire! In our living area I've been almost too toasty, most of the crew wearing short-sleeved t-shirts, etc. I can go through the weather room directly to the state park cafeteria and gift shop, inside viewing area, post office and observatory museum and gift shop, but I wouldn't think of stepping outside without my heavy wind-breaking jacket, hat, mittens...

We had a rescue incident here on the summit Wednesday night involving four Canadian hikers
one of whom remains in dangerous condition in a Manchester hospital. Ken's asked me to re-file the incident reports from previous...situations... and also to type up any handwritten reports.
The reports, going back years, are fascinating - hikers over-estimating their condition and abilities as often as they under-estimate the weather and hiking conditions. Makes for very sobering reading.

The afternoon weather was weird... sunshine above and below us, but only breaks in the blowing cloud cover right here at the summit. It's so strange to look down, over, and up at clouds! I did see a "snow dog," which Jim explained to me is where ice crystals (being prismatic) refract the sun's rays in rainbow-y ways. Very cool.

It's very easy to lose track of the days up here, but tomorrow Sharon will go down and Sunshine will come up to staff the Observatory museum and gift shop. Mike's mom is coming up for a visit, and we may well see others on a late September weekend...although the forecast up here is for deteriorating conditions from Saturday afternoon through Monday, with some serious wind and rain expected Sunday.

I'm not even going to think about looking for the sunrise tomorrow! Mary

September 21, 2006

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Winter Arrives at Mt. Washington

5 am. Temp 27, wind speed 55, wind chill 4. I stepped out onto the observation deck, admired the thin coating of crunchy snow, and was almost swept away as I moved away from the doorway. Not as much moisture in the air as last night but visibility measured in feet. Need a cup of coffee! Bee sure to check the MWO webiste as Jim has posted a couple of winter photos.

7 am. Temp 24, wind 56.6 (gusts to 67.8), wind chill 2. Guys coming down from the weather room for breakfast when they can. Egg and cheese sandwiches on the leftover biscuits or blueberry pancakes.

There are few windows in our living area, none in the kitchen, dining area, one in the livingroom, small ones high up in the bunkrooms, all iced over this morning of course. But in the kitchen, there are vents over the 6-burner gas stove, and although they're kept closed and not a hint of cold comes in around them, I can hear the wind, and it's wild.

Mid-morning...up with Ken to see the tower. This is up another flight of the circular metal stairs (like a lighthouse) where you come to a small area where air sampling is being done, and where windows can actually be opened to create a wind tunnel for other testing without having to go outside. From this level there's a straight up flight of metal steps leaading to a Hobbit-sized door and outside onto the highest accessible point on Mt. Washington. The wind was howling and I decided I could go up that last flight and look out, but just could not go out onto that open platform. Good decision. Ken brought in a piece of the rime ice that had accumulated in the hour since his previous trip up, and it was better than 3" thick!

I did get out onto to the observation deck this morning, had a hard time holding my own against the wind, but I did get some photos for you, Hannah, of the sideways ice. The auto road is closed and the Cog Railway may or may not run later today. Only one state park worker made it up this morning, in a state truck with chains. Now doesn't it feel warm where you are!

Afternoon saw clearing, with clouds scudding across the gorgeous blue sky. Wind still fierce but I walked down the service road a ways and back up the auto road, maybe 25-30 minute walk.
The Cog and the Stages were running and I got some photos of the Cog train that I really hope come out. Also took some of the incredibly delicate, feathery ice formations.

I had worried that cooking, especially baking, at this high altitude might be difficult, but there really doesn't seem to be much difference. I've made cookies, breads and pies so far and no problems. The baked goods do dry out quickly though. Actually, it's just plain dry up here, and in the depths of winter, the guys tell me that staying hydrated can be challenging.

As I write this, Ken, Mike and Sharon are watching Lord of the Rings a few feet away. Earlier we watched an old video... of all things, it was an episode of The Voyage of the Mimi which my kids saw in their science classes in elementary school. This episode, from 1984, was all about this facility, with Ken showing the boy around, getting him to help chip rime ice from some instruments, and talking about the weather extremes this mountain has seen:
the world's highest recorded wind (231 mph), the lowest temperature (-47), the confluence of three major weather and wind systems on this peak, and so much more. The neatest part... that 13-year-old kid star was Ben Affleck!

Time for bed... temp is 29, wind 50.6, chill 10. Highest gust in the past 24 hours was 81.1 mph!
Think I'll take a quick walk up to the weather room just in case the late-day cloud cover has cleared and the night sky is visible.

See you tomorrow!

September 20, 2006

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Cooking in the Clouds... Day 1

I'll just close my eyes. I'll just close my eyes tight! Really, really tight!

We were starting up the Mt. Washington auto road, and my last experience here... well... white-knuckeled, Bert and I turned back a quarter of the way up, while Heather and Tim whipped past us on their bikes. The following summer we'd gone up on the Cog Railway, my only visit to the summit. Until now. If I lived through the ride up.

Before leaving Yarmouth at six this morning, I emptied the rain gauge of the 2" of "showers" we got last night then set off with no great hopes for the weather here. I pulled into the base parking lot in warm sunshine, the summit clearly visible. I was about to begin my one week stint as the volunteer cook at the Mt. Washington Observatory. Only three of us coming up today in the van: Ken, who's driven up this mountain between 2,500 and 3,000 times in his 25 years of working here; Mike, a recent college graduate and intern doing his second week on the top; and, me.

Ken stopped a few times on the way up to point out especially spectacular views (which I did somehow manage to look at), places where the wind had dessicated, shaped, and bent the evergreens, spots where the glacial markings and debris were really unusual, and he pointed out the winter road used for access to the summit when snow depths and drifts have blocked the auto road. As we reached the top, the first few wisps of cloud wafted past, soon to close in completely, and I do mean completely!

The living quarters are comfortable and cozy, located in the tower section on the bottom level. The kitchen is about the size of ours in Yarmouth with a pantry about the size of the laundry room and half bath. There's a table seating 6-8 in the narrow area between the kitchen and a small corridor off of which open five doors to narrow bunkrooms. The bathroom backs up to the kitchen while the living room is opposite the bunkrooms, and is probably12' square. One wall is filled with bookshelves, several comfy couches and chairs set around, and a desk with computer, which is where I'm writing this.

There are no views from the small windows at this level, but at the end of the hallway past the bunkrooms (exactly ten steps from my room's door) is an exit door that leads to... great wonders! Up the first flight of circular metal stairs is the weather room (more on this later), then up another flight to the tower door, our main in-and-out access. It is so totally cool as you step right out onto the sweeping observation deck. If you've ever been up here, then you know just where I mean... glorious views in all directions and by the time I first went out, it had cleared off again enough to see 50-60 miles. To see Tuckerman's Ravine. To see the hotel at Bretton Woods. To see what little foliage has turned color in this area. And to see the Cog Railway train chugging up the mountainside. And tooting.

Peggy, the volunteer who was going down, went over the kitchen, pantry, foods and chocked-full freezers, and the chores to be done, then showed me the other buildings and some wonderful outside sitting spots. I met the crew. Now this is going to be a pretty quiet week up here... just five of us including me. Ken, who's a weather observer... Jim, weather observer and phenomenal photographer (check out the website for an incredible number of gorgeous images by Jim and many others) , Mike the intern, and Sharon who runs the Observatory museum and gift shop. Jim and Mike are early to mid-20's, while Ken, Sharon and I are... not!

I'd been told that the crew is easy-going and grateful for any volunteer cook's efforts. But you know me! By the time they'd finished their lunch of soup and tuna sandwiches, I already had a lemon pudding cake in the oven for supper. The supper of beef 'n' gravy, carrots and peas, mounds of mashed potatoes, applesauce and a platter of angel biscuits seemed to be appreciated.

And now, although there's so much more to share, I've got to head to bed. We're on standard time up here, so while the clock reads 9:17, my body knows it's really 10:17, and it's been a long day. But before closing, I've just thrown on my hat and coat, climbed the two flights and slipped out onto the observation deck. Thick, wind-swirled fog... it felt as though I was on the deck of a ship, far, far out at sea. The current temperature is 35 (and expected to go well below freezing tonight), wind speed 42.7, wind chill 20.

See you tomorrow... Mary

September 14, 2006

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Coming Hard Winter...

Well, now, that's a cheery headline, isn't it? Here along the coast of Maine we've had chilly fallish weather for the past several weeks, with few reminders that these same days are only late August and early September, days when we usually still have plenty of summer warmth.

It's hard not to be put in mind of the coming Maine winter. Last year we were very lucky, with a soft, mild winter and an early (if very wet) spring. Last winter was easy on the heating bills and on the psyche. Can we possibly have two warmish winters in a row? The Old Farmer's Almanac says it's not likely, their predictions for cold, snowy months ahead..

What can you do now to get ready for the coming tough times? You know all the usual hints about checking the house for drafts and blocking them, making sure that you have storm windows or combinations and that they are a good tight fit, and considering window coverings for the inside if you don't already use them. There should be a solid windbreaker around any outside entries so you don't let tons of cold in every time you open the door. All common sense, all stuff you've been dong right along, and all just the beginning.

If you didn't do it in the spring, make absolutely sure your heating source, whether it's an oil burner, gas unit, woodstove, or fireplace, has been checked and cleaned for this next heating season. It is especially important that you have chimneys inspected and cleaned.
Is there anything worse than waking up in an icy house with no hot water, everyone needing to get off to work or school? Well, off course there is... it's waking up in the middle of the night, let's say on a long holiday weekend, to a frigid house AND realizing just how much that service call is going to cost! Do you have a service contract?

This is just the beginning of getting your house ready for the winter season, but what about getting YOU ready? We'll look at this the next time we get together, but in the meantime, I want you to think about your usual winter patterns: How does the lessening light affect you? Do you eat more, as most of us do, in the dark months? Are you likely to overspend at Christmas time only to be whacked with those bills plus the usual January-February-March demands? Do you get out much in the winter? What do you do to keep your spirits up if there are days and days when it's just too blustery to get out?

On another note - or maybe not as it'll certainly be wintery - I'll be heading up Mt Washington next Wednesday, the 20th, to be a volunteer cook at the Mt Washington Observatory for a week. I'll be sharing that incredible experience through daily blog entries and hope you'll join me as I take my passion for cooking to new heights!