The Bone Yard

By Vincent C. Spiotti


A large bird circled lazily over us as we lay back on our packs near the beaver pond and rested after our morning climb. It was hard to tell exactly what type of bird we were watching but we were quite sure it was after something. As the bird circled and looked down from the sky on the warm November day, we were resting, looking up not only at our unrecognizable aviary friend, but also looking forward to the last scout of the fall season here in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Earlier that morning, while unloading our gear in the local hiker parking lot, one of the Appalachian Mountain Club employees, a backcountry hut caretaker, who was packing gear and food of her own for her hike to her assigned hut some 6 miles out in the backcountry, took note of us all clad in mid 18th century attire with gear and firelocks. “Is there a reenactment somewhere today?” she asked inquisitively as she walked closer towards us. Working for the Appalachian Mountain Club myself, as the Director of the Highland Center at Crawford Notch, a rather large and new green outdoor center just down the road from where we were beginning our adventure, I told her that we were just heading off for an 18th century weekend on our own. I recognized her as Ana, short for Anastasia, a young blonde athletic woman who was currently the Zealand Hut caretaker. As caretaker, her job is to manage a 36-bed backcountry hut, one of eight that the AMC operates in the White Mountains.  Located in unique places throughout the White Mountains and without showers and electricity, these huts are equipped with beds, composting bathrooms, kitchens, and during most of the year running water. The huts are for hiker to visit and spend the night at with some of the comforts of home and plenty of beautiful views and mountain hospitality and atmosphere.

Dressed as I was in 18th century attire and with my cocked hat somewhat pulled down over my eyes, Ana looked at me as if she knew me but couldn’t quite place my face. “Sounds cool!! Hope you have fun this weekend” she told us as she walked back over to her own pack. I figured I would see her again some other day and could fill her in on the details of just what we were doing.

Working for the oldest conservation organization in the USA as I have for the past 11 years, the idea of reenacting has given me a unique perspective to our environment and enjoyment of the outdoor world. Over the years, I have done plenty in the modern outdoor world. Eagle Scout, BS degree in outdoors recreation from Penn State, 20 years an avid rock and ice climber as well as professional ski patroller, professional ski instructor and hiking guide are all credits to my name. I have done and seen plenty outdoors over the years primarily in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. However, with the discovery of reenacting over the past seven years, I have been able to combine my love of the outdoors with my appreciation and unabashed interest in history. It has made for a renewed interest in the outdoors as well as some interesting experiences. Since this discovery, I have enjoyed nearly every outdoor experience as outdoorsmen of the 18th century and I have rarely looked back.

The others in our group were getting anxious, my dog and trail companion Enfield, a thin and tall Dalmatian and Labrador retriever mix, was getting restless, and it was time to head up the trail and explore the Zealand Valley.

The first climb of the day is always the hardest with shifting loads, shaky legs, and heavy breathing always winning out over casual thoughts and conversation. Even Enfield, who is pushing ten years old, slowed a bit as we pressed on. After a steady climb, we stopped and rested, enjoying panoramic views of the White Mountains in the background that framed the beaver pond in the foreground.

Paul and I, who have been scouting together this area for the past 7 years, shared a snack as we chatted with the new members in our party as we rested near a beaver pond. While we spoke, some of us watched the large bird circling overhead, some messed with their equipment. Enfield chased something around the pond.

Joe, someone who met this past summer at reenacting events at Fort at #4, seemed quite an experienced woodsman and great company in the woods. An easy person to talk with, knowledgeable of local New England history and always full of stories of his recent hunting adventures, he seemed to fit right in to our small group.

Lou Demrow was no stranger to us. We met “Lou Demrow”, whose real name is Doug, back some years ago at several summer events. Back then Lou was a Navy medic just back from being stationed on aircraft carriers. A fun guy to be around, Lou would fill us with interesting stories about his adventures in the military over the past few decades as well as impress us with what one could make while off duty in the metal shop of an aircraft carrier. We always liked Lou and now being retired from the military and living in the region, we were excited to finally get him out on the trail with us.

We decided to make this our gathering point for the day. After stashing our packs in the tall blonde dry pond grass, gathered our shooting gear and food and headed off to further scout the Zealand Valley.

After a brief and somewhat wet bushwhack, we were on course up an old logging road. This entire area was crossed with logging road and railways back at the turn of the century I explained to Lou and Joe. We were moving through and area that had been last logged about 12 years ago. We have a book that we publish with the AMC that details the history of logging and railroads in this area I told them.

Imagine that, a conservation organization that publishes a book on logging and railways in backcountry locations. Well, one of the many things I enjoy about the AMC, is how they are very practical in their approach to resource management. This includes resources such as water, air, and timber. Preservation of every tree is not practical. Responsible timber management in order that the harvest process does not destroy the environment and that the selection process leaves enough forest for animal habitat as well as forest regeneration is important. 

The train part of the story is pure cultural history. Who doesn’t like to hear about the romantic legend and lore of the backcountry rail and timber camps as well as try to discover in their own citizen archeological way where tracks were once laid and towns once stood in and around the forests. I book from an organization that is dedicated to learning and education that details this story only feeds the desire to know and learn more.

Our group had become somewhat strung out as we walked. As we stopped at a height of land and slowly gathered, we noticed a drop off from the road where we stood. We peered down the drop for a bit and then Lou noticed something. “Check it out, a moose skull” he cried. Our eyes focused as we looked where Lou pointed. However, we all saw a skull but not where Lou pointed. “There’s a back bone over there” I noted. “Look at the leg bones” Paul shouted as we all started to leap and bound down the hill to take a closer look at our discovery.

When all was said and done, we counted up over 20 moose skulls, one bear skull, and piles and piles of animal bones, all obviously picked clean years ago. There were full sections of backbones, femurs, scapulas, and most any bone an animal pathologist could name. The hollow this was all in, though not quite eerie, did have a slight stench of death, perhaps physical, a bit mental, hanging over it as we picked our way around and over the carnage.

If you know anything about New Hampshire, you know that it is about as common to see a moose on the road, as it is a painted white line. However, this frequency often leads to tragedy in the form of road kills of moose as well as deer and bear. The best we could figure it, we had stumbled onto the graveyard of road kills from this area, most likely dumped here by the NH Fish and Game Department.

After a quick count and scattered examination of our discovery, it took all of about one second to decide what to do with our counted booty. “Anyone up for some target practice?’ Joe asked as he fidgeted with his rammer, knowing full well the answer. Within minutes, we had a full selection of skulls, bones, and various moose parts arranged in the graveyard into a shooting gallery. We started to open up with ball and shot into what turned out to be quite unique afternoon shooting session. Bits of bone and parts were flying as we all were hitting out marks. In some ways it was fun to take aim and fire on such targets. In other ways, it felt wrong in a peculiar sense, to be so disrespectful to the dead, albeit moose and bear that judging by the condition of the bones had been so for years.  However, for that afternoon, like a bunch of kids with a new bb gun and the contents of mom’s china closet as targets, we found a sense of fun and adventure in our moose graveyard blasting at targets that felt too good to shoot, the carnal remains of the large animals of the forest.

We eventually made our way back down from the hill, secured our packs and set up camp at a crossroads a few miles from where we were shooting. Joe, with grass and tinder collected with Lou, blew up a fire within seconds and we were well on our way to adding warmth, atmosphere and a much anticipated meal to our evening. As we fussed and fidgeted with our primal needs of wood, water, fire and shelters, we also did start to slowly relax as darkness silently fell on our camp.

Some say that the correct thing to do when in the backcountry is to use a stove powered with fossil fuels. Others say burning wood, a natural resource is the right thing to do. At the Highland Center, my green outdoor center, we actually heat our 50,000 square foot facility and generate domestic hot water with wood. We purchase over 70 cords per year of this local renewable resource and thus also support the local economy. Right or wrong, debate it as you will, nothing smells as good and feels as relaxing as a wood smoke and a nice fire.

Lou and Joe, being new to our group, make their own culinary treats. Paul and I, who have been doing this together for years, have an unwritten and  unspoken agreement. I bring and make the coffee and homemade French sourdough bread. Paul brings the lunch food and cooks the dinner. We build and share shelters when needed as well as share the warmth of Enfield between us on the cooler nights. Joe and Lou described us as an “old married couple” as they observed our dynamics throughout the weekend. I think our evening and early morning banter most amused them as they chose to generally just listen rather than participate, perhaps chuckling to them, as they lay warm and quiet in their blankets, during our seemingly inane conversations. After years of enjoying scouts and events together, some may find similarities to us as a long in the tooth married couple. However we prefer to term it simply “pards”.

The hike out that morning was fast and quiet. Of course, we saved enough time and thus couldn’t resist taking one more side trip to the moose graveyard for a few parting shots. After all, think what you may about our actions, this type of opportunity may never present itself again. Eventually, mostly out of ball and powder, we secured our firelock and made the decent back to the car.

Before we knew it, with the customary promises of doing it again soon and swapping pictures electronically soon, we were all saying good-bye and I was waiving to everyone as they left my house.  Enfield, not one for fanfare, was already asleep on his blanket. Thus ended the fall and our final scout of the year.

A few days later, at work in my normal outdoor center director attire of LL Bean uniform type clothing, I was having a discussion with a fellow employee in the dining room area. As my eyes wandered during the talk, I noticed coming towards me was Ana, the Zealand Hut caretaker, with her lunch neatly arranged on a green tray. I could see that same look of curiosity she gave me a few days earlier as she walked closer. As we made eye contact, she hesitated, stared for a second, and slowly and carefully said “You look familiar, didn’t I see you the other day?” with a smile that grew as she realized whom I was as she spoke, piecing together the two halves of me both in 18th century clothes and in present attire. “Yes you did” I answered “and have I got a story for you” I told her as we walked away to enjoy lunch and my story of our adventure to Moose Hollow.